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Film Review: The Square

November 19, 2017 Leave a comment

The Square (2017; Directed by Ruben Östlund)

One bracing, galvanizing scene in Swedish arthouse director Ruben Östlund’s ambitious and over-indulgent The Square fulfills and exemplifies its arch, too-clever-by-half satire of the contemporary art world and, by extension, contemporary neoliberal capitalist social conventions and moral behaviour. During a swanky black-tie gala dinner for Stockholm’s X-Royal art museum in a grand ballroom filled with wealthy donors and dignitaries, performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary) provides the night’s cultural entertainment by approximating the movements, sounds, and predilections of an ape. What is initially greeted by the well-heeled attendees as an amusing if convincing trifle of an animal impersonation grows swiftly confrontational and uncompromising, a sharply uncomfortable demonstration of the aggressive trangression of social etiquette, personal space, and acceptable public conduct.

Skin-crawlingly gauche as the sequence becomes before its conclusion, it’s remarkable cinema from conception to execution. Based on similar, controversial dog-performance antics by Ukrainian/Russian artist Oleg Kulik (give his Wikipedia page a quick scan, it’s wild, unparodiable stuff), Östlund’s employment of Notary is inspired, as is the actor’s performance: a former Olympic gymnast and movement coach for The Hobbit Trilogy, Notary has become one of the most successful of Andy Serkis’s motion-capture acting disciples and has already played apes in two of this year’s most potent blockbusters, War of the Planet of the Apes and Kong: Skull Island. His performance as Oleg in this scene distills all of Östlund’s self-satisfied ideas about Western democratic society’s smug hypocrisy and renders it as brazen, all-up-in-your-business agit-prop. It is, without question, one of the scenes of the year.

Unfortunately, The Square contains two-and-a-quarter hours of more scenes saying essentially the same thing, sometimes well, often less well, frequently with a repetitive sneer. Using the Swedish museum’s Danish curator Christian (Claes Bang) as its center, the film follows three storylines exploring and challenging social conventions. In one thread, an edgy marketing campaign for a forthcoming contemporary conceptual exhibition at the museum goes controversially viral when a video ad is released featuring something bad happening to a cute homeless girl; in another, Christian’s wallet and mobile phone are stolen, and he and his assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø) become embroiled in a chaotic situation when they print and distribute accusing letters at an apartment building where the phone’s GPS tracking indicates the thieves are based; and finally, a one-night stand between Christian and American journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss, wonderful as always) leads to a few more squirming scenarios.

Where Östlund’s previous social satire Force Majeure masterfully examined a breakdown of family connections and social assumptions as a result of an avalanche at a ski resort with deadpan humour and sneaking empathy for human weakness, The Square is a meaner, colder film that refuses to build back up what it tears down. When that tearing down is directed at the hopelessly puffed-up realm of contemporary art, it’s generally a punching-up delight. Dominic West appears as an arch, insufferably casual Julian Schnabel clone whose showpiece exhibition is called “Mirrors and Piles of Gravel” and features, yes, actual piles of symmetrically-arranged gravel (a museum cleaner accidentally sweeps up a portion of one of the piles). His inflated image is punctured by the profane exclamations of a Tourette’s sufferer during a name-dropping Q&A appearance, then by Oleg, who satisfyingly chases this alpha-male rival from the ballroom (before things get really troubling). Anne asks Christian about a prior seminar about “the exhibitable and the non-exhibitable” with an online summary from the museum website that is indecipherable quasi-intellectual nonsense.

Less effective and more snide is Östlund’s commentary on bourgeois indifference to poverty and homelessness, which feeds into the faux-avant-garde controversy-baiting of the viral video ad. The Square doesn’t seriously examine the issue any more than the clip that it mocks does; for all of Östlund’s nicely-composed interspersed shots of beggars and street people, both the film and its diagetic YouTube video use their transient suffering as an arch cudgel to provoke a reaction from the bourgeois establishment. Perhaps this is intentional, and Östlund is aware that his beautifully-shot arty film, Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or firmly in hand, is as much a symptom of society’s painful lack of self-awareness and humaneness as it is an analgesic for it. The Square, to be fair to it, might be in on its own joke, especially given that the core titular art piece – a lighted square embedded in the pavement in front of the museum (in place of a bronze equestrian statue that is clumsily removed by shambolic workmen) that is a “sanctuary of trust and caring” where “we all share equal rights and obligations” – is based on an installation that Östlund himself collaborated on.

There is plenty to like about The Square. The performances, often semi-improvised at the director’s urging, are uniformly good. As a filmmaker, Östlund has a wit both verbally sharp and visually sly, and many of the film’s best gags are placed out of the centre of focus in the frame, to be discovered by the sharp-eyed. Some of these jokes are buried in the wardrobe: West’s Schnabel-esque artist wears what appears to be a pyjama onesie with a sport jacket over it, the nattily-attired Christian sports a knotted scarf like a culture-industry tie proxy, and Anne smooths down an admission sticker on her lapel while haltingly flirting with the curator. My favourites involve the judicious application of animals: the homeless girl in the viral video holds a button-nosed kitten, which merits a whole column of its own in the multi-page newspaper spread about the controversy; the museum director (Marina Schiptjenko) is followed everywhere by a perceptive Italian Greyhound, whose withering glances at the bloviating Christian in the wake of the video ad flap mirror her own; and Anne shares her apartment with an artistically-inclined chimpanzee whose presence she doesn’t acknowledge in the slightest.

When its satirical volleys land on target, The Square can be scabrously funny and definitely thought-provoking. But it’s a bit bloated and messy and even misdirected, often as frequently as it’s on track. The storyline revolving around the theft accusation letters begins with some good stuff lampooning Christian and Michael’s giddy wine-fed bravado at the scheme that devolves into panicked haste to get the awkward thing over with, but beats a dead horse thereafter. It’s supposed to be the equal of Force Majeure‘s rich central relationship-destabilizing scenario, but while it drives Christian to distracted anxiety and guilt, it doesn’t shift his axis in any serious way. The art-world satire is so much stronger, it seems a significant miscalculation for Östlund to spend so much of his film’s running time focused on something else.

But then this, too, is part and parcel of Ruben Östlund larger thesis in The Square. The negative public reaction to the exploding-girl viral video shifts from outrage at the violent insensitivity of the imagery to an excoriation of Christian and the museum for disowning the ideas therein as disturbing self-censorship by an institution supposedly dedicated to artistic free speech. It’s unsubtly suggested in this thread, and much more spectacularly in Oleg’s disturbing performance, that the purported public demand for art that is challenging and that subverts our social, cultural, and political assumptions is insincere, hypocritical, or just plain bullshit. Art that gets up in our grill and upends our understanding of our place in the world is not welcome unless it renders that upending in acceptable form, in digestible morcels. The Square is often not acceptable or digestible, to its superficial credit. But it can be a bit too hard to choke down, too. Is that more of a censure on its creator, or on the movie audience whose prejudices and assumptions he conceives himself and his film as challenging?

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Categories: Art, Culture, Film, Reviews

Film Review – Thor: Ragnarok

November 14, 2017 Leave a comment

Thor: Ragnarok (2017; Directed by Taika Waititi)

Seventeen films into the sprawling, movie-marketplace-dominating Marvel Cinematic Universe comes a movie that finally, belatedly gets superhero comics. Thor: Ragnarok is not the best film to come out of the MCU, though despite the phalanxes of clickbait ranking lists rattling around online media, updated with each new installment’s release, there isn’t really a meaningful consensus on that question anyhow (most would say Iron Man or The Avengers, though I would stump for either of the last two Captain America movies). It is, however, the one most in tune with the silly grandeur, the chromatic crackle and pop, the cartoon punch-up violence, and the broad-to-specific-to-broad thematic see-saw that defines superhero comic books in general and Marvel Comics in particular. Thor: Ragnarok is fun and spectacular and overstuffed and expensive-looking and full of funny jokes and and busy action sequences and world-class thespians having the time of their damn lives or, because they’re world-class thespians, convincing you that they are, at the very least (Ms. Blanchett, I’m looking in your direction).

Directed by Taika Waititi with a deft professional hand but precious few hints of the brand of loopy semi-deadpan New Zealand comedy of the mundane that defined his past films like Eagle vs. Shark, What We Do in the Shadows, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok feels about as loose and semi-improvised as an impeccably planned and focus-grouped $180-million Hollywood superhero blockbuster can reasonably feel. As a simultaneously sequel to at least three previous MCU films (Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Doctor Strange, with the star of the latter, Benedict Cumberbatch, popping up to help the titular hero on his way) and setup to probably just as many future installments, Ragnarok is hassled with as much short- and long-term expository heavy lifting as any MCU episode. Still, the weight doesn’t sit deep on its shoulders. Waititi’s comedy background doesn’t just elevate the jokes here, it relieves some measure of the pressure inherent to any MCU movie (which is also quite detectable despite their usual light, jocular tone).

The effect of this release valve shows most clearly on the film’s star, Chris Hemsworth, as the titular Asgardian god of thunder and wielder of an indestructible flying hammer. Cast as the bluff, square-headed action hero not just in the role of Thor but practically everywhere he turns, Hemsworth has a nascent goofball comedian side, a keen willingness to upend his handsome hunkery with self-deprecation (as he did in last year’s Ghostbusters reboot). The first Thor movie accomplished that to some extent by pulling him out of his familiar space Viking milieu and stripping him of much of his prodigious power, and it’s a method that Ragnarok resurrects. After confidently escaping imprisonment at the hands of an apocalyptic fire demon known as Surtur (Clancy Brown) with apocalyptic designs on Asgard, Thor returns home to find his aged, increasingly unreliable father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) absent and being impersonated by the adopted brother he believed to be dead, the trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Fortunately, the sometimes-evil Loki has done nothing more malevolent than build a statue of himself and stage hagiographic theatricals to his self-sacrificing glory (I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the star cameos of the actors in this play-within-a-movie, each one an in-joke on some level). Still, Odin must be found to assure Asgard’s stability, and when he is located (with an assist from Doctor Strange) and disintegrates into the sea air off the Norwegian coast, his expiration leaves Asgard vulnerable to the return of a dire existential threat.

This would be Hela (Cate Blanchett in full, gleeful villainous vamp), the goddess of death and Thor’s long-exiled sister. The right-hand enforcer of Odin’s long-ago conquests of the Nine Realms, Hela desires to extend Asgard’s dominion and, drawing her dark power from their home realm itself, flicks aside her thunder-god brother and Loki as well. As Hela destroys Asgard’s defenders and takes the fill-in Bifrost transportation portal minder Skurge (Karl Urban) as her main lackey (usual Bifrost sentry Heimdall, played again by an underutilized Idris Elba, is in hiding leading a resistance movement), Thor and Loki are stranded on the junkyard planet Sakaar with other sentient detritus of the universe. Captured by a boozehound bounty hunter and former Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, summoning a tremendous, appealing swagger that you just want to see more of), Thor is compelled by Sakaar’s capricious pleasure-hound dictator Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, hedonistically louche as all get-out) to battle for his life in his galactic gladiator stadium against the grand champion.

The revelation of this champion opponent would be a fantastically fun surprise had it not been spoiled in trailers and other ads. It is, of course, the Incredible Hulk, in whose form Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has been stuck for two long years since departing Earth after the Sokovia incident at the end of Age of Ultron. A thunderous (literally) dust-up between the two of them followed by a bit of buddy comedy, then a few getting-the-team-together scenes and a breakneck spaceship escape, and Thor, Hulk, Loki, Valkyrie, and some others besides are banding together to stop Hela leaping off from snatching up Asgard to malevolent galactic domination.

Thor: Ragnarok‘s plot is far more complicated than this, but Waititi is keen enough to recognize that it’s all so much nonsense between bursts of moving-comic-book delight. Ragnarok is full of such delight, and becomes a full-motion annal of absurd pleasures which can be effectively recorded in point form.

  • Thor’s opening fight with Surtur’s fiery legions is set giddily to Led Zeppelin’s Viking-invasions-themed “Immigrant Song”, a soundtracking choice repeated during the climactic battle with Hela’s army of the dead in Asgard which commences with a splash-page frame that is among the most memorable single comics-adapting images anywhere in the MCU (aurally otherwise, Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is a left-field marvel of big orchestral themes and pulsating stellar electronica).
  • The aforementioned spaceship chase, besides being a spectacular coming-out party for Thompson’s chip-on-her-shoulder badass Valkyrie, also features the loopy idea of our heroes’ escape craft being the Grandmaster’s orgy-party space-yacht (complete with orgasmic pyrotechnics), as well as frequent Waititi collaborator Rachel House as the Grandmaster’s bodyguard Topaz, pursuing them with silent determination. At one point, Waititi cuts to House in the cockpit of her spaceship, her steely gaze focused straight ahead, and she points a single, possessive finger at her quarry. It’s maybe the funniest moment in an often very funny movie.
  • Speaking of funny, Waititi himself plays a revolution-obsessed rock-being gladiator acquaintance of Thor’s named Korg, and gives him a mild, polite, and wildly, incongruously hilarious rural New Zealand accent.
  • Where Asgard was not always highly detailed in previous appearances, it’s given added dimension and design here. The digitally-extended sets are grand and semi-medieval (the production designer is Lord of the Rings alum Dan Hennah), and a ceiling fresco with echoes of medieval Christian art both Roman Catholic and Orthodox figures prominently in Hela’s account of Odin’s whitewashing of his brutal conquests. A burnished neoclassical history-painting look also pervades Valkyrie’s reminiscence of her last battle with Hela.

Taken in full, Thor: Ragnarok is most notable in both the MCU and in superhero movies in general for not only these delights but for how, contrary to most products of the medium-dominating genre, it leans into its comic-book silliness instead of disavowing it, embraces its pulpy material instead of rendering it in terms analagous to reality. All of this, the characters and the costumes and the settings and the fights and the narratives and the themes, is utter nonsense, ultimately. Taika Waititi recognizes this and draws out the inherent weird awkwardness of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe enterprise, making it fodder for cathartic comedy and celebratory abandon. This is what superhero comics fundamentally are, and despite the artistic ambitions of many writers and artists who seek to make them more than that, it’s still the form’s purest terms of expression and criteria for enjoyment, and it’s the purest appeal of Thor: Ragnarok as well.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Crimson Peak

November 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Crimson Peak (2015; Directed by Guillermo del Toro)

The initially seductive Crimson Peak ultimately fails to live up to the deep promise of its evocative design and syncretic root-network of influences. In doing so, it suggests with a troubling persistence that the rich litany of varied ingredients that inspire writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s visually dense, weirdly poetic, and symbolically detailed films (reflected in a touring exhibition of his personal collection currently at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario) can dispiritingly add up to less than the sum of their parts. Not a proper horror film so much as an atmospheric and significantly chromatic gothic romance with elements of the ghost story, Crimson Peak stumbles from a drawn-out establishing passage into a relatively and disappointingly conventional conclusion. It’s not a case study of del Toro’s acclaimed vision being constrained, however, but an uneasy suggestion that his alchemist’s vision has limits and blindspots that display a tendency to let it down, in the breach.

Del Toro sets the latter half of Crimson Peak in the titularly-nicknamed manorial pile in Cumberland, England (all of it, mind you, filmed in Southern Ontario, where most of his recent productions have been based). This closing setting, Allerdale Hall, is envisioned as a classic Victorian Gothic construction, a rambling haunted mansion of pointed arches, restless spirits, unfriendly corridors, and blood-hued red clay literally bubbling up from its foundations like an uncontainable violent buried history. It’s a symbol of the slow decay of aristocratic privilege, with Industrial Age accoutrements stitched Frankenstein-like onto its failing body. Del Toro’s reference points for this house of horrors are numerous and probably ultimately known only to himself, but the titular house in Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre‘s Thornfield Hall, Dracula’s castle, and even the Overlook Hotel of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining stand among them.

Before he takes his story there, however, del Toro provides as an introductory contrast the robust American capitalist respectability of fin-de-siècle Buffalo, New York. This is the hometown of his heroine Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a clever but romantically naïve aspiring novelist and daughter of wealthy industrialist Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). Haunted (quite literally) by the memory of her mother’s death, her romantic aspirations are appealed to by a visiting English aristocrat, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who with his just-a-bit sinister sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) is seeking the Cushing père‘s financial backing for a clay-mining contraption of the tinkering Thomas’s own invention. Carter doubts the viability of Sharpe’s scheme (especially given the discouraging discoveries of his private investigator Mr. Holly, played by del Toro semi-regular Burn Gorman) and sharply disapproves of his courtship of Edith, withholding his approval of Thomas’s marriage proposal. The elder Cushing’s objections will be, shall we say, firmly overcome, however, as will those of Edith’s childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), and newlywed Edith will be swept away to Allerdale Hall, where she will find herself in quite a horrible and not at all romantic situation indeed.

Del Toro’s rich wellspring of sources and inspirations colours the establishment of this onscreen world, spanning haunted house movies of the Studio Era, English Gothic literature, and jump-scare modern horror flicks. Crimson Peak‘s ghosts, reflecting cultural sources as much as personal ones, are its creepiest and perhaps most resonant creations. “Ghosts are real. This much, I know,” intones Edith in narration at the beginning and end of the film, but she also tells a prospective publisher that the ghosts in her novel are metaphors. For del Toro, ghosts are both literal and metaphorical, horribly tangible revenants of past agony and regret and love and tenderness as well as spectral symbols of such fading sentiments galvanized by the mortal fear of death. Edith is warned by the ghost of her mother, clad in the black clothes of mourning (and based on the ghost of del Toro’s own grandmother, who evidently visited his mother after the older woman’s demise), about a dire “Crimson Peak” that she must avoid, and is further bedeviled by a blood-red ghoul at Allerdale Hall, which emerges from the floor like the consuming crimson clay.

Colour is vital to Crimson Peak‘s intended affect (the cinematography is by Dan Laustsen, whose most notable visual work was on the bonkers French genre mash-up Brotherhood of the Wolf and who is also lensing del Toro’s forthcoming The Shape of Water), but it works best in small, well-observed moments of character-arc foreshadowing more than in the grand, baroque, violent (and unfortunately tedious) climax. The best example is a quiet but key scene between Edith and Lucille in a Buffalo park. Observing delicate, beautiful butterflies dying from the approaching winter chill, Lucille tells Edith of the black moths back home, “formidable creatures” which “lack beauty” but “thrive on the dark and cold” and consume butterflies. Their wardrobe symbolically identifies them with these contrasting insects: Edith’s hat, parasol, blouse, and skirts visually echo the colour-markings of the butterflies, while Lucille’s black dress and deep-red rose carnation align her with the predatory moths she describes.

Intricate weavings of cinematography, editing, wardrobe, dialogue, performance, and subtextual ideas as displayed in this scene define del Toro’s work at its best (it must be said, however, that only Chastain, revelling in Lucille’s waxing villainy, stands out at all among the cast). Sadly, Crimson Peak, for all of the splendour and the near-novelistic density of its visual world, never quite comes together in the way his strongest films do (I’m thinking, of course, of Pan’s Labyrinth, above all). The tense horror-thriller sequences of Edith being stalked by the ghosts are impeccably paced and orchestrated, but are of secondary or even tangential significance compared to the pulpy central plot of the Sharpes. This is a trademark of del Toro’s treatment of fantastical or supernatural elements in his work, granted: the magic he conjures is grand and beautiful and dangerous and terrifying, and it certainly does not abide by concrete human-conceived rules of logic or causation.

But in Crimson Peak, these elements seem at once to be stitched onto a different body of a film and to act as a pestilent virus seeking to take over its host. There’s a better film buried inside the tangled intertextual vines of Crimson Peak, struggling to free itself. There is no doubting the breadth and depth of del Toro’s vision here as elsewhere, but whether for budgetary or generic or imaginative reasons, Crimson Peak doesn’t unfold the possibilities of that vision so much as narrow its focus as it proceeds. This is what it looks like when Guillermo del Toro gets lost in his own head and takes a wrong turn. Those of us who have admired the products of his mind and his imagination in the past do fervently hope that he rights his path again.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Film Review: Blade Runner 2049

October 29, 2017 Leave a comment

Blade Runner 2049 (2017; Directed by Denis Villeneuve)

The first thing worth knowing about Blade Runner 2049, and quite frankly the last thing as well, is that it is incredibly beautiful. Directed by Quebeςois prestige-film dynamo Denis Villeneuve and shot by the venerable English cinematographical master Roger Deakins, the 30-plus-years-hence sequel to Ridley Scott’s seminal, influential, and lingeringly divisive 1982 science-fiction opus replicates and indeed surpasses its feats of visual invention, forward-looking production design, and neo-noir neon-infused chiaroscuro mood lighting. As recent James Bond series highlight Skyfall demonstrated, when Roger Deakings is armed with a blockbuster budget, he delivers stunningly-lit images of striking, memorable magnificence. Indeed, Skyfall‘s knock-out sequence of Bond taking out a foe at night in a Shanghai skyscraper with a blue neon jellyfish reflecting off of its glass facades seems now like a dress rehearsal for Deakins’ similar work with the high contrasts of harsh artificial light and deep, encompassing darkness in this film.

I could expend hundreds, perhaps thousands of words describing Blade Runner 2049‘s most gorgeous moments: pinnacles must include a pursuit and fight in an abandoned casino ballroom while a projected hologram Elvis and a chorus of showgirls flicker in and out onstage, the wavy, dappling light filtering through an artificial lake into the Brutalist/pharaonic/neo-German Expressionist premises of a powerful corporation, and an emotionally-charged encounter with a towering, pink-hued advertisement of a naked woman. But the slowly-enfolding wonder of Villeneuve’s and Deakins’s alchemical imagery in Blade Runner 2049, which for my money surpasses Scott’s often turgid and borderline-pretentious original in nearly every vital way, is how it functions as a poetic encapsulation and artistic fulfilment of the film’s themes and ideas. One might rightly contend that this sequel’s philosophical depth doesn’t approach that of the 1982 film, which located a crisis of identity and human authenticity in a depersonalized dystopia of the near-future and grounded it in classical myth and Freudian psychology. But like Arrival, Villeneuve’s science-fiction triumph of last year, Blade Runner 2049 intelligently and sometimes movingly synthesizes intellectual concepts and emotional swells into a powerful work of cinema that understands and advances the notion that these seemingly opposing impulses are in truth two sides of the same cosmic coin.

Blade Runner 2049 is the latest in a recent spate of Hollywood franchise sequels/reboots to incorporate the elapsed decades between the previous and current installments into the textual narrative itself. Much of the expository work covering the 30 years between Scott’s Blade Runner (set in 2019) and Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is achieved by an opening title card: the rebellious replicants – bioengineered humanoids intended as slave and servant labour on Earth and in off-world colonies – encountered by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) in the original film were discontinued after persistent revolts and a catastrophic social, biological and technological infrastructure failure known as “the blackout” a year or two after Deckard escaped Los Angeles with Rachael (Sean Young), the replicant he had fallen in love with.

The bankrupted creators of the replicants, the Tyrell Corporation, was bought up by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his Wallace Corporation, whose wealth is based on world-saving mass agriculture technology. The Wallace Corporation has resumed production of a new series of replicants programmed strictly to obey their masters. Wallace himself has one such right-hand servant, a steely enforcer named Luv (Silvia Hoeks), and another Nexus-9 replicant, K (Ryan Gosling), toils at Deckard’s old “blade runner” job with the LAPD, tracking down and “retiring” the remaining rogue Nexus-8s at the behest of his human superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). During one such call at a California farming facility maintained alone by a Nexus-8 named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K discovers a series of clues leading to a replicant-related “miracle” connected to Deckard and Rachael – and, K begins to suspect, intimately connected to himself – that is of revolutionary import to ever-tense human-replicant relations.

This summary doesn’t come close to encapsulating the imaginative and symbolically-charged world-expansion that Villeneuve engages in here, working from a screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. From the opening wide-shot panorama of K’s squad car flying over seemingly endless solar power plants to the dark smoggy sprawl of future L.A. to the post-nuclear, radioactive-fallout-strewn ghost-town of Las Vegas to a gigantic post-industrial junkyard in the ruins of San Diego sifted through in a neo-Dickensian workhouse by thousands of orphaned children, this is a grand nightmarescape of structural decay and physical alienation evocative of social, political, and psychological dislocation.

The protagonist K, his replicant status certain in contrast to the continued ambiguity about Deckard’s true nature, embodies this dislocation. K was built to destroy his own kind and is reviled as a “skinjob” by the humans he is meant to be protecting; even his superior Joshi, although she values his ability and shows a modicum of personal interest, ultimately conceives of him as her servant or her trained pet (“Good boy,” she tells him at one point, like a dog who has fetched successfully). His only non-cop-shop personal relationship is with a Wallace-manufactured female holographic companion named Joi (Ana de Armas), whom he cares for dearly but whose reciprocation of those feelings resides ambivalently in between the programming of her corporate designers and tantalizing hints of sentience and self-determined love. This ambivalence is delicately poised in K’s pre-climactic meeting with the monumental ad for Joi, which might have served to dishearten him at a critical juncture in his quest with its suggestions that their connection was artificially constructed but instead seems to stiffen his spine with a fond reminder of the tenderness of that connection (Gosling plays exquisitely to the ambiguity in this moment, mind you).

K’s feelings for the simulation Joi echoes Deckard’s love for the replicant Rachael, which is at the core of the plot and is sorely tested by the blind, ambitious Machiavellian Wallace (this is too good a film to be derailed by any one performance, especially one consisting of a mere two scenes, and if the usually preening Leto isn’t great, he at least damps it down a bit). When the detective K begins to suspect that he himself might have been the product of this love, his existence gains a measure of significance; when this measure is wiped away, an underground revolutionary replicant movement restores it in altered form, with the politicized promise of sacrifice for the cause of liberation. But even these interlinks are suggested to be coincidences of programming, breadcrumbs implanted in his mind by a gifted designer of memories, Dr. Stelline (Carla Juri). Perhaps this was done intentionally as part of a wider plan, perhaps not.

Free will and determinism, being born and being built, a sentient being with a soul and a self-aware machine with a pre-set functional purpose. These are the dichotomous themes of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and of Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 as well. Their sharp opposing contrasts and their permeable bleeding edges are the subject of both films, a metaphorical focal point made aesthetically manifest in their visual design and in their intertextual referentiality. In the movie-long unfolding of Deakins’s stunning cinematic imagery, his starkly-delineated contrasts of light and dark lose this firm definition, and in the process gain something more indefinable and compellingly ambiguous. In the way that, according to screenwriter Fancher, K moves from being a sort of rule-bound instruction manual to an embodied poem through his experiences, the film itself undertakes a similar journey towards poetry.

This poetry is infused into Blade Runner 2049 with a literal (and literary) reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, including an excerpt of a poem discovered by the novel’s protagonist and repurposing it as part of K’s “baseline” debriefing programming process. A kind of post hoc version of the original Blade Runner‘s Voigt-Kampff test used to identify replicants, the baseline test isolates K and repeats back phrases from the Pale Fire poem (“a system of cells interlinked within / Cells interlinked within cells interlinked”) as well as confrontational, difficult elaborations on those phrases, expecting to compel and maintain emotionless replies and a lack of empathy and engagement on the part of the replicant. K fails at this ongoing technical indoctrination if even his microreactions are hesitant, if his experiences imprint themselves upon his perceptible self.

How can we not be changed, not merely in our perspective or reactions but in our fundamental state of being, by exposure to the world, to love and pain, joy and suffering? The human (or human-like replicant) self is produced and moulded by the stimuli it encounters, formed like rocks under erosion by emotional and intellectual forces beyond its control or resistance. The irony of employing Nabokov’s poem as a fixed-point calibration for replicants is that its conclusion offers a harbour-in-the-storm image of stalwart beauty standing athwart the depersonalized blackness: “Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.” Blade Runner 2049 crafts tall white fountains amidst its dystopian dark, and provides a heartening illustration of how deriving meaning from those comforting structures, which gain significance and dimension of feeling through our engagement with them and not through the separate intentions embedded in their design and manufacture, shapes our identity amidst the unceasing torrent of a hard world.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Colossal

October 25, 2017 Leave a comment

Colossal (2017; Directed by Nacho Vigalondo)

Is Colossal, Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo’s Frankenmovie hybrid of indie dramedies of youthful ennui and mass-destructive Asian kaiju monster films, a good movie or not? I confess that I’m not entirely certain of the answer after watching it. It’s certainly unique, or perhaps just uniquely derivative. It’s got ideas aplenty, but its gaps in internal logic gradually grow too wide to be effectively spanned, its characters barely hold together under even mild scrutiny, its jokes increasingly fail to land, and its more uneasy implications lack consistency.

In broad concept, Colossal follows a directionless 30-something unemployed web content writer Gloria (Anne Hathaway) who, having been dumped and asked to move out of of her New York City apartment by her patronizing professional boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) after one too many alcohol-fueled all-nighters, moves back to her sleepy New Hampshire hometown and takes up residence in her parents’ vacant home. Falling in swiftly with her old school friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who now owns and operates a local bar, Gloria’s aimless into-the-wee-hours unemployed drinking continues unabated until she wakes one day to the globally-reported news of a skyscraper-sized monster mysteriously appearing and then just as mysteriously disappearing in Seoul, South Korea.

Gloria quickly realizes that there is something very familiar about this monster that is captivating the world. Very, very familiar, in fact: the monster is Gloria herself, magically transposed into towering kaiju form halfway across the world. Although I shan’t spoil the expository details (which begin to be revealed as clever little delights and incorporate childhood psychological scars, but become ever more head-scratchingly incomprehensible), Gloria determines that her movements in the sandbox of a school playground at a precise time each morning are mirrored by the creature in Korea (one scene demonstrating this is visually framed as a bit of a technical in-joke on performance-capture CGI practices). And not only her sandbox movements, but Oscar’s as well, his building-sized avatar manifesting in Seoul as a giant robot.

From this fuzzily-defined but nonetheless compelling bedrock idea, Colossal moves in unpredictable and not entirely fruitful directions. Vigalondo (who wrote the script as well as directed it) turns the old friends into rivals and even enemies, their differences over their life’s ambitions and their clashing self-images transposed into Godzilla-sized city-levelling physical battles between their kaiju avatars. A big problem with the application of this metaphorical device is that Vigalondo and Sudeikis are sloppy and inconsistent with how exactly Oscar is meant to be feeling about and relating to Gloria.

Oscar is given big, broad, neon-lit creepy stalker warning signs through the first act or two, suggesting that he’s romantically/sexually interested in Gloria and attempting to curry her favour: he picks her up and takes her to his bar without even asking if she wants to go there, admits to keeping tabs on her online over the years, and makes daily gifts of furniture to fill her empty squat pad. He asks her to wait tables at his bar, and acts on her suggestion to open up an unused western-themed portion of the establishment that he had boarded up. His behaviour towards her – in real life and via their kaiju avatars – takes a negative turn after she hooks up with his handsome but dim buddy Joel (Austin Stowell), and descends into disturbing recklessness when Tim shows up in town to convince Gloria to come back to the city. But his actions in the last act, as well as Gloria openly (but only semi-convincingly) accusing him of being jealous of her for being bright and capable enough to escape their New Hampshire nowheresville while he remained stuck there, call this angle into question.

Sudeikis himself is a big part of Colossal‘s problem in this vein. A decent choice for the good-natured, uncomplicated drinking buddy role, he strains beyond his ability when asked to become a villainous asshole. Miscasting hints aside, however, it’s not entirely clear that Vigalondo doesn’t intend Oscar and Gloria’s conflict to be essentially comic and tongue-in-cheek. There are certainly purposely funny moments undercutting the epic quality of their head-to-head face-off (for a low-budget film, the CG monster effect are fairly good – the nocturnal setting in Seoul helps smooth over the fine details – but more noticeably low-quality when computer animation is used for flames in Oscar’s bar). Hyper-dramatic bursts of Bear McCreary’s score and Vigalondo’s use of slow-motion are sending up heavy-handed Hollywood blockbuster ponderousness, for sure, and the virtual-reality surface of a literal child’s sandbox is surely couched in similar terms.

There’s a growth in self-determination angle to Gloria’s arc in play as well, and an undercooked feminism to her relations to the men in the film. Tim claims to love Gloria but habitually condescends to her, shames her for her lack of drive and ambition, and pretends to protectiveness without properly recognizing her vulnerabilities; Oscar insinuates Gloria back into his life but is not thoughtful or empathetic enough to really understand why he wants her around or what light she throws on his bruised male ego, and becomes an implacable antagonist rather than letting her leave him again; and poor, pretty Joel goes to bed with Gloria at her instigation but hasn’t the steel to stand up to Oscar’s vindictive turn against her.

In the end, Gloria stands up to Oscar and wins the day, locating a power and control in the outlandish kaiju-related circumstances that he leveraged against her. This theme of a put-upon woman pushing back against the men who tossed her about between them must have been one of the elements that drew Hathaway (an executive producer on the film whose headlining star-wattage helped get the film financed and made) to Vigalondo’s screenplay in the first place. Like so many of the ideas in Colossal, however, this one never really manages to land a punch. Moreover, Vigalondo’s plotting often seems more driven by his willingness to move from one such half-cooked idea to another, rather than by comprehensible character psychology or coherent rules of his fantastical conceit.

Much more of Colossal is shambolic in this manner than is advisable. Vigalondo even brings in the great, underrated character actor Tim Blake Nelson (whose gloriously cartoonish bumpkin sidekick Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of my favourite comic performances in any movie ever) and renders him as a tweaking, rambling second-fiddle to Oscar without even a hint of a funny line. Nacho Vigalondo is revealed by Colossal as a filmmaker with a firm hand at times and a shaky grip at others, sometimes within the same scene or in treatment of the same theme. On which side of the line does Colossal as a whole fall? I confess to still not really being confident in my conclusion either way, but would ultimately recommend giving the film a shot to make up your own mind on the matter.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Force Majeure

October 7, 2017 Leave a comment

Force Majeure (2014; Directed by Ruben Östland)

Swedish director Ruben Östland’s Force Majeure is a subversively funny deadpan satire of brittle masculine pride and impotent self-regard hidden inside the shell of an oblique arthouse drama about the breakdown of a family’s confident pretenses during an Alpine holiday. Catalyzed by pater familias Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) ungalantly fleeing and abandoning his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and children (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) to their fates in the face of an (ultimately false-alarm) avalanche, Östland’s film perceptively observes and then pitilessly kneecaps the dissemblings and chest-puffing demonstrations of men whose biological imperatives are threatened and even fatally punctured.

Before a frightening (but finally harmless) wall of driving snow descends upon the restaurant patio of a pricey mountain resort and shakes the family’s opinion of Tomas, Östland and his cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel craft a series of memorable widescreen images of comical detachment and awkward faux-recreation to set the scene. Family members encased in ski jackets ride conveyor belts and cable cars and ski lifts, passively moved by machinery from place to place on the slopes: at one point, they are literally dragged along on their skis, tethered to one such sizable device as if to a towering metaphor for powerless ennui. Even when the controlled avalanche threatens to go uncontrolled on the restaurant deck, Östland films the entire scene in a single fixed-camera shot, showing cell-phone-cameras held aloft, Tomas and other vacationers scattering in momentary panic, and then filtering back to their drinks and snow-dusted lunch plates once the white fog dissipates (the Swedish title, Turist, emphasizes the commodified performativity of upper-middle-class travel as a symptom of the dishonest pretenses of the contemporary bourgeoisie that Tomas and his family represents, while the legal reference of the English-language title more succinctly summarizes the film’s core ideas).

The awkward tension of the scenes that follow, as Tomas denies cutting and running when Ebba confronts him one-on-one and in front of friends and his kids sullenly insist on being left alone in anxiety over a potential parental divorce, shows a momentary but revealing lapse of character becoming gradually exacerbated. Ebba definitively lays bare Tomas’ actions and dishonesty in the midst of an evening with their divorced Norwegian friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his college-age girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius), confronting him humiliatingly with his perceived cowardice.

But Östland is careful not to ascribe his movie’s bedrock premises about gender stereotypes and male patterns of self-worth too much self-importance and sincere significance. This insistence on popping these overinflated balloons saves Force Majeure from sharing and thus parroting the reactionary implications of its characters’ rote conservative assumptions about gender roles, and it results in several of the movie’s most unexpected explosions of dry but uncompromising Nordic humour. Quite perfectly, at the climactic moment during Ebba’s intervention in front of Fanni and Mats (who attempts ineffectually to rationalize Tomas’ choices in futile solidarity) at which Tomas’ tension and anguish bring him right up to the verge of a crisis point and perhaps even an admission of guilt, his son’s drone helicopter buzzes in and breaks up the scene by knocking over a wine glass (Östland, in a technical masterstroke, cuts suddenly to the drone’s own camera for the interruption).

The oddball left-field humour continues to recur in subsequent vignettes, at every point upending smug assumptions of masculine supremacy. Borne down by sadness over his damaged self-esteem, Tomas cuts short a male-bonding day on the slopes with Mats (after some impromptu primal scream therapy), but an après-ski sequence of the two friends drinking beers at a sunny resort spot offers both male egos a stinging blow: a young woman tells them that her friend thinks they’re the most handsome guys there, but then returns a moment later with the deflating news that her friend was talking about someone else. The testosterone injection provided by Hivju’s arrival in the film (he’s best known to English-speaking audiences as the lusty wildling warrior Tormund on Game of Thrones) promises to renew Tomas’ bruised ego until this moment, but Hivju’s hirsute manliness proves just as limp and laughable at this moment.

Later, either unwilling or unable to return to his hotel room and waiting family, Tomas’ nighttime wanderings lead to him being suddenly swept up by a stampede of the Euro equivalent of drunken, partying frat boys; the shirtless, strobe-lit dance club revels that they share manifest as some bizarre homosocial ritual of masculine release. When Tomas finally breaks down and admits his weakness and inadequacy to a stony Ebba, his rending sobs are not cathartic or moving but ridiculous, diminishing, and deeply hilarious (kudos to Bah Kuhnke for effectively playing off the difference). The mildly-amazed voyeurism of a resort custodian (who has to open the hotel suite door for the keyless Tomas and Ebba after his embarrassing meltdown in the hall) further chortles at the spectacle of the fallen man. Even when Östland restores the classic chivalric gender-role balance by allowing Tomas to rescue Ebba in white-out conditions on their last day of skiing, there’s a strong suggestive undertone that she offers him this face-saving instance of quasi-heroism as a purposeful peace offering, a balm for his injured ego.

Force Majeure critiques and dismantles the forces of the male ego. That ego’s manifestations in this film are gentler and more harmless than the species of toxic masculinity that seems so dismayingly ascendant in the Age of Trump, but they flow from the same poisoned spring. Lonely and dwarfed by the majestic Alps, the male ego appears petty and small in Östlund’s film, its impotent weakness as white and stark as newly-fallen snow.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Blade Runner

October 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Blade Runner (1982; Directed by Ridley Scott)

Blade Runner is a classifying kind of movie. Perhaps more drastically and uncompromisingly than most films, Ridley Scott’s insidiously influential but stubbornly unique hard science-fiction neo-noir cult classic ruthlessly sorts those who see it into acolytes and doubters, believers and infidels, devotees and heretics. Even in its original theatrically-released version, minus a thematically key (and highly suggestive) unicorn dream sequence (restored in a later, more critically definitive Director’s Cut) and plus an execrable and extraneous detective-movie voiceover from star Harrison Ford (whose disdain for its very existence drips from every line he reads), Blade Runner doesn’t pull its punches, reveling in its dystopian production design, its odd and disturbing details, its pregnant symbols, its philosophical quandaries, its sometimes glacial slow-burn pacing. It dares you to either love it immersively and totally or else to be left cold and unmoved by its particular aesthetic and intellectual vision. Ironic, in a way, that a film whose core mysteries revolve around its imagined highly permeable membrane between humankind and intricately designed human-like androids (and the moral and existential questions that this permeability summons) should catalyze such ironclad divisions of interpretation and quality assessment.

At least three determined viewings later (a couple of rounds with the obviously flawed original theatrical release and a whirl with the more venerable Director’s Cut), I can do little but declare myself for the camp of unmoved heresy. There’s much to like and even to adore about Blade Runner, without a doubt. Harrison Ford’s burnt-out replicant-hunting cop Deckard, dragged out of retirement for One Last Job, might be his best performance (and maybe the only example of REAL. ACTING. among his iconic genre blockbusters of this era), and although Rutger Hauer’s menacing Method replicant philosophe Roy Batty is not in anywhere near as much of the movie as you might remember, it’s also an impressive supporting turn: his closing “Tears in Rain” monologue (re-written by Hauer himself) powerfully crystallizes the unruly mass of Big Ideas that ricochet around the handsomely envisioned mise-en-scène. Vangelis’ eerie score, a naturalistic expression of techno-modernity, is subtly wondrous. Lawrence G. Paull’s production design is spectacular and thematically rich in its own right, a compelling amalgam of the vertically-stacked urban towers of Fritz Lang’s ur-sci-fi film Metropolis and, in Scott’s words, “Hong Kong on a bad day”. The cinematography (by Jordan Cronenweth) is all-world, among the finest of the era if not of all eras: Deckard’s killing of replicant Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) amidst neon tubes of light and reflective, break-away panes of glass is not only stunning but brutal, and shot through with any number of resonant visual metaphors (as with practically all the rest of the film).

With such deep reserves of richly-flavoured cineaste fodder (I’ve barely touched on its play with film noir conventions, although this video essay from Lessons from the Screenplay does a better job at that than I could) and its breadth of intellectual influences, references, and sources (biblical themes and religious symbolism, Gothic horror themes, Freudian psycho-theory, anti-colonialism, corporate hegemony, modern alienation, and the hubris of science, to list off only a few), you’d think Blade Runner would be right up my frequently-pretentiously-minded alley. But there’s something about it that I can’t help but feel holds the viewer at arm’s length. The invidious central puzzle – is Deckard, the great hunter and executioner of replicants, himself a replicant? – is played out in subtexts and suggestive details, only openly addressed when his sophisticated replicant love interest Rachael (Sean Young) asks him, point-blank, if he’s ever run the replicant-identifying Voight-Kampff test on himself (Deckard, perhaps tellingly, does not answer). But it takes over the already-daunting battle for empathy at Blade Runner‘s core, subtly short-circuiting Ford’s excellent and wounded performance and even some of its resonant central themes with mystery-box bait-and-switch tactics.

Because ultimately, it doesn’t really make a lick of difference to Blade Runner‘s thematic power if Deckard is a replicant or not. This is a film about perception and lived experience as an existential proof of sentience, and about humans without souls subjugating and even exterminating android with souls in a dying world that no one can wait to leave (the most suspicious thing about Batty and his band, in truth, is that they go to shitty, exhausted Earth rather than the heck away from it). Deckard has spent his days as a hit man for corporatist state authority, tasked to eliminate people deemed inferior slaves but designed to be veritably superhuman. He feels bad about it, and so we feel bad for him. His pain might gain some added pathos if he had been made to snuff out his own kind for so long, but it’s a relatively minor manner of degree, and in neither case does it render his legacy of acts morally correct.

Blade Runner is, in many ways, a fairly straight-ahead hard sci-fi take on the moral and existential implications of artificial intelligence, given particular form and aesthetic uniqueness through its design, imagery, and invoked symbolism. Like the replicants, it’s special but limited, by its very design. It’s seen things we people wouldn’t believe, but it shows us glimpses only, filtered through the uncannily familiar and through altered (sometimes even upended) conventions. It’s often been called visionary and it’s hard to say it isn’t, but it displays a sort of tunnel vision, in a sense (in much the same sense as all Ridley Scott movies, if I had to expand upon the observation further). Perhaps, as a non-believer, I am unequal to the task of thinking through its brilliance, but perhaps it’s Blade Runner that is unequal to that brilliance. I get it, but I’m not transformed by it. Maybe that’s all right, after all.

Categories: Film, Reviews