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Film Review: The Disaster Artist

The Disaster Artist (2017; Directed by James Franco)

It would be best to open with an admission that I have not seen The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s curiously terrible, idiot-savant Badfilm cult classic, in its entirety. Youtube compilation videos of the 2003 catastrophically-failed melodrama highlighting the film’s awkwardly non-specific dialogue, whiplashing tonal shifts, unresolved plot twists, unexplained tuxedo-clad games of football catch, and meme-worthy overdramatic acting are about as deep as I can get into this inadvertent crap-terpiece, which has become a species of Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight-showing favourite for Very Online millennial ironists. Little I have seen makes me want to see more, to be frank, although it is entirely possible that the The Room might gain a certain oddball rhythm of brilliant awfulness when viewed complete.

Anyway, director/star James Franco’s The Disaster Artist tells you more than enough about Tommy Wiseau, The Room‘s eccentric director/producer/writer/star, and his misbegotten cultural-meme movie, while also telling you nothing much at all. It also tells you a lot about James Franco while also telling you nothing much at all; maybe, in the case of both artist and subject, there isn’t much worth telling. Franco is one of Hollywood’s most curious cases, forever a movie-star-in-embryo with matinee-idol looks and undeniable talent, but likewise possessed of a sense of above-it-all detachment that keeps him off the A-List. Franco also boasts open and earnest high-brow literary pretensions, publishing short fiction collections, teaching university courses about the poetry of film, and directing, producing, and starring in low-budget, barely-seen film adaptations of seminally serious Dead White Guy novels by William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Cormac McCarthy (who isn’t dead, yes, I know).

These latter passion projects, greeted at best with a dismissive shrugs by critics and seen by precisely no one, might serve to explain Franco’s interest in Tommy Wiseau and his peculiar form of cinematic infamy. In The Disaster Artist, Franco sees Wiseau as an unerringly hilarious character and at once a strange enigma and a psychological open-book. Spearheaded by Franco’s meticulous and eerie impersonation of Wiseau and contrasted with his younger brother Dave Franco’s straight-man Greg Sestero – Wiseau’s minor-actor friend and co-star who also co-wrote the memoir about the production of The Room on which The Disaster Artist is based – the film leans hard into the obvious humour of Wiseau’s quest to make this comically terrible movie, gently ribbing Hollywood inspirational-film themes and behind-the-scenes realities at the same time. But James Franco also quite clearly considers Tommy Wiseau a kindred spirit, and sees his journey as weirdly, genuinely inspiring as well as, it could be said, personally applicable to his own life and maybe to those of the audience, too.

In the film as in the book as in real life, Sestero meets Wiseau in an acting class in San Francisco. The handsome but nervous and self-conscious Sestero (an ex-model) is impressed by Wiseau’s total lack of vanity and by his performative abandon (he acts out the agonized Marlon Brando “Stella!” scene from A Streetcar Named Desire by one of his favourite authors, “The Tennessee Williams”). The two men become friends, roommates, and move to Los Angeles together to have a crack at Hollywood stardom. Sestero manages some minor roles (he was in Gattaca, Patch Adams, and the TV show Nash Bridges) but the peculiar Wiseau, with his long black hair and piratical sartorial sense, distracting and unplaceable accent (he claims to be from New Orleans, but no one believes him), and bizarre and awkwardly aggressive personality, gets nowhere.

Wiseau is independently wealthy (various explanations have been given for where his money came from, none of them ultimately satisfying) and hatches the idea of funding an independent movie that he will write, direct, and star in himself, with Sestero as his co-star. Although in real life Sestero’s role in The Room was intended to be behind-the-scenes only before he was convinced to replace the original actor playing the character of Mark after Wiseau fired him, in The Disaster Artist he is on board as a key collaborator from the start. The chaotic, contentious productions strains their relationship beyond the breaking point, however, as Wiseau frustrates and terrorizes the cast and crew (recognizable faces such as Seth Rogen, Josh Hutcherson, and Zac Efron are among them), demonstrates almost no useful or applicable working knowledge of filmmaking, and vindictively scuttles a potential big break of a role for Sestero by forcing him to shave his beard for a big climactic reveal in The Room that doesn’t make any sense.

In the end, of course, these sundered friends are brought together again by the unpredictable inverted success of The Room, which James Franco climactically shows confounding a premiere-night audience before winning them over as an audience-pleasing accidental comedy classic, its cult status clinched before the credits even roll. Franco, one fancies, sees in Wiseau and The Room a strange carnivalesque inversion of the kind of follow-your-dreams inspirational tropes that Hollywood has bandied about and persistently self-celebrated for decades. The Disaster Artist reproduces these conventions and thus lampoons them, always already with a coy meta self-awareness (the Oscar-nominated screenplay is by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber). For example, Wiseau’s lowest point in Tinseltown before launching into the making of The Room comes when he accosts a big-time producer in a restaurant who pitilessly shoots down his show-biz ambitions. The producer is played in cameo by Judd Apatow, the prominent producer-director of numerous Hollywood bro-comedies known for pushing the genre’s thematic boundaries and for nurturing emerging comedic talent, including both Franco brothers.

The more one delves into The Disaster Artist, the more meta-mirrors emerge. Greg Sestero’s girlfriend for a time is Amber, played by Dave Franco’s real-world wife Alison Brie. Wiseau openly resents her for coming between him and Sestero, and The Room‘s production increasingly becomes merely a mechanism for forcibly sustaining the two men’s friendship. Is this a reflection of envy on James Franco’s part for his younger brother’s relationship from a man with a checkered romantic and sexual history (including some sexual misconduct allegations that hypocritically clash with his public #MeToo solidarity)? It could be read as such, and is hinted at obliquely in dialogue that interprets The Room‘s focus on Wiseau’s alter-ego Johnny being betrayed by his fiancee Lisa (Ari Graynor plays Juliette Danielle, who played Lisa in The Room) as reflecting a past break-up in Wiseau’s life. The Wiseau/Sestero bromance also fits in cozily with past homosociality-centric Franco-headed comedies, particularly with Rogen (a producer on this film as well as an onscreen player), which suggests that the core theme of romantic betrayal in The Room actually reflects a growing distance between Wiseau and Sestero.

Beyond such nesting-doll tabloid-esque speculations, however, one can’t help but return to the interpretation that James Franco assumes the role of Tommy Wiseau because he feels in some way that, despite his general Hollywood success, he is Tommy Wiseau. Does Franco realize that his passionate toil on his literary adaptations just might outstrip his artistic capacity as a filmmaker, and that those more-than-a-little-pretentious works come across as unintentionally laughable as The Room? Does he even envy Wiseau, whose defining Z-grade work has achieved an enduring popularity (ironic or transgressive as its enthusiastic infamy may be) that eludes his own films? Or does he want to encourage thoughtful film consumers to think so, as another added layer of irony? If so, the fact that The Disaster Artist received more critical plaudits, awards, and popular success than anything else James Franco has directed adds another layer of irony to this particularly large onion. If The Room is a window into the supposedly mysterious life and identity of Tommy Wiseau, perhaps The Disaster Artist is equally a window into the self-constructed mystery around James Franco.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace (2008; Directed by Marc Forster)

Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace, despite its marbles-in-the-mouth title, is quite probably the leanest and meanest James Bond adventure. It’s also the most audacious attempt at repositioning the prevailing political subtext of the archetypal spy movie franchise to the left side of the political spectrum.

The Bond films are an action-movie property whose reification of its deep-state intelligence agent protagonist and his cloak-and-dagger espionage activities aligned with the consensus political ideology during the Cold War period from which they arose. But those assumptions became more strained after the fall of the Iron Curtain: the neoliberal-era Pierce Brosnan installments became increasingly paint-by-numbers action blockbusters while stretching credulity with its villains and their non-state-aligned diabolical plots, and the jocularly casual Britishness of Bond’s MI6 would come across all wrong in a time when the state’s vast intelligence apparatus seems ever poised to be turned on its own citizens as equally as on its enemies.

Quantum of Solace sees James Bond (Daniel Craig) seeking mostly-disavowed personal vengeance against the killers of his paramour from Casino Royale, Vesper Lynd, but in the process, he exposes and tears to shreds a black-money collusive feedback loop between resource-hoarding transnational corporations posing as environmental stewards, cruel Third-World military dictators, and a shamelessly self-serving CIA. Even speaking of such a shadow conspiracy of powerful forces trading the fates of millions for suitcases of cash smacks of shaggy-haired left-wing crusading and overheated, biased Oliver Stone projects. But in Quantum of Solace it pretty much lands, and might have stuck, too, had its follow-up Skyfall (while undeniably a beautiful film under the behind-the-camera supervision of director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins) backed up its ideological thrust and not reverted to a cynical Cheneyist 1% doctrine of national security absolutism in the face of (conveniently) ever-present threats.

Daniel Craig’s iteration of 007 debuted in Casino Royale as an efficient, almost heartless killing machine (often, it must be said, at the cost of his equally deadly charm), and that brutal efficiency, when taken quite near to its logical extreme as in Quantum of Solace, makes Bond a representative instrument of the national security superstructure. Quantum of Solace, with a screenplay by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade, openly acknowledges the historical role of intelligence agencies (specifically the CIA) in masterminding destabilizing political power plays around the world (but specifically in South America), and it also references British imperialism and its dire effects across the globe. In order to make James Bond a species of inadvertent social justice warrior in such a milieu, he must be disassociated from that superstructure and its mucky history as much as possible.

Hence, 007 goes rogue in his quest for Vesper Lynd’s killers, against the orders of his steely superior M (Judi Dench), who becomes progressively more frustrated with the growing body count produced by her star agent. Careening from a furiously visceral car chase in Italy to a white-knuckle pursuit over the rooftops of Siena during the Palio, from a Haitian harbour to a black-tie open air Austrian opera and finally to Bolivia to stop a coup and a sweeping corporate resource theft, Bond joins forces with a Bolivian agent with a grudge (Olga Kurylenko) to target a would-be dictator (Joaquín Cosío) and a flashy CEO and secret power-broker (Mathieu Amalric). The action sequences are pulse-pounding affairs (although those early in the film in Italy set too high a bar for sheer exhilaration to be matched later on), and Bond does get around to seducing one beauty who crosses his path (Gemma Arterton), although this is included perfunctorily, as a necessity for these kind of films to rush through, as in most of the Craig-era Bond movies.

Whatever ideological course-correction back towards orthodox national-security discourse norms its sequel performed, Quantum of Solace manages to be a robust progressive critique of plundering elites and power-brokers as well as a propulsively exciting action blockbuster. Its political themes coalesce in internally consistent ways and give James Bond, ruthless tool of faded British imperial muscle, a certain Robin Hood edge of righteous justice. It makes a strong case for an alternate potential path for the character, which is not something you could have said of, I don’t know, Moonraker or what have you. This, at least, makes it a unique and notable entry in the half-century annals of Bond films.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review – Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018; Directed by Ron Howard)

By all rights, Solo: A Star Wars Story should not have stood a chance. The second of Disney’s stand-alone “anthology” Star Wars films, Solo had a notoriously troubled production, the juicy details of which were splashed across Hollywood trade media. Original directing duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired from the project when their organized-anarchy comedic filmmaking methods turned off producers and execs and especially Lawrence Kasdan, writer of The Empire Strikes Back, co-scribe of the Solo screenplay (with his son Jonathan), and keeper of the flame of all things Starwarsian. Lord & Miller’s replacement was workmanlike Hollywood stalwart (and close friend of Star Wars creator George Lucas) Ron Howard, whose reliably pedestrian directorial style is quite nearly the polar opposite of their trademarked headlong, freewheeling, two-laughs-a-minute kinetic abandon.

Additionally, lead actor Alden Ehrenreich, taking up the mantle of a younger version of the rogue-ish smuggler/space pilot with a heart of gold made legendary in the Original Trilogy and The Force Awakens by Harrison Ford, was said to have required an acting coach to figure out the role to the satisfaction of the higher-ups (the final result is a bit more than passable but generally too careful, which might have been predicted). One might as well add to all of this a certain sense of unrest and fatigue in the ever-fickle Star Wars fandom following the surprisingly divisive The Last Jedi, which came out only five months ago, and a sneaking sense in corners of the online fan community that Han Solo’s character arc was as complete as it needed to be and required no further filling in, in this film or any other.

Given this leaden weight, it’s quite nearly a wonder that the the final form of Solo, with Howard holding sole directorial credit due to guild regulations, gets off the ground at all. But it does, you know. If it never reaches the galvanizing action heights and dramatic stakes of the last act of Rogue One (which was, again, largely overseen by a substitute director), let alone the raw emotional inculcation and thematic power of any of the main trilogy films, Solo is a perfectly serviceable genre-mashup potboiler, a space-western/heist flick without particular visual distinction that nonetheless constitutes, broadly speaking, a good time in the cinema.

This is the sort of highly-qualified barely-praise that Ron Howard has built a long and surprisingly successful career garnering, and how he works diligently to garner it safely and effectively here. Some credit should be given to Opie for varying his style just enough to allow for some quick-cutting excitement (he did make the auto-racing movie Rush recently, so he must have learned something about the depiction of speed onscreen), but the comic timing is completely off the mark, with joke after joke falling badly flat. Despite a clutch of good elements, the knowledge that a Solo made by Lord & Miller – the Van Goghs of contemporary film comedy, lathering on gags and punchlines like thick globs of colour– would have been hilarious renders the Solo released with Ron Howard’s name on it an inescapable disappointment.

Beyond these auteur-theory-centric textural complaints, Solo very much shares most of the common qualities – good and bad – of Disney-era Star Wars releases. Namely, a winking, self-aware willingness to prostrate itself before perceived fan expectations while slyly upending those expectations defines these proceedings, along with a persistent low-boil of progressive (indeed, bordering on openly socialist) politics. Certainly, Solo‘s convoluted story following young Han from the industrial canyons of his native Corellia through muddy Imperial battlefields and into an escalating series of heists featuring shady criminal syndicates and numerous switchbacks, double-crosses, and conflicting loyalties exists largely to exhaustively depict the incremental clustering of the various qualities, accessories, and associates that defined the galaxy’s favourite cynical badass rogue when he first appeared in the Mos Eisley cantina in an odd little space movie 40 years ago. His contentious, retroactively altered introductory shootout in A New Hope gets a final, definitive bookend at the conclusion of this narrative, and we are shown how Han Solo acquires his blaster, his iconic ship the Millennium Falcon, his Wookkie sidekick Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), his dandified high-stakes gambler acquaintance Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), his signature boastful accomplishment (making the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs, some of the most famous nonsense technobabble in the movies), even his on-the-nose surname.

While it’s busy ticking off these boxes, Solo complicates its anti-hero’s arc some as well. He’s given a first girlfriend, a Bonnie to his Clyde, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), a fellow survivor in a harsh environment who becomes inculcated in the criminal syndicate of interstellar gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). He’s given an underworld mentor, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), whose deep-crusted cynicism makes Han look like a rosy-cheeked optimist in comparison and who teaches him some valuable lessons in outlaw endurance.

More than that, however, Han’s experiences in Solo seed the slumbering sense of justice that keeps bringing him back to the Rebel fold in the Original Trilogy despite his insistence on believing in nothing but his own wily instincts of self-preservation. His youthful subsistence on Corellia, a sort of decaying outer-space Rust Belt manufacturing centre where his proletarian father was laid off from building freighters, takes place among exploited refugees and endemic human trafficking. He insubordinately dismisses the pointless brutality of the Imperial war effort when serving in the Empire’s armed forces, pointing out to a superior officer that they, and not the fighters defending the planet the Imperial forces have invaded, are the “hostiles”. His allies later liberate a mining colony’s slave labour, droid and organic being alike, and his choice of sides in the final act conflict presages the Rebel Alliance and indeed gifts the resources to make its inception possible.

These political themes are among Solo‘s better features. Others include Glover’s resplendent, cape-clad Lando (can the character support his own spinoff movie? Glover makes you wish fervently to find out), the ever-compelling Harrelson, and Jon Favreau and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in under-utilized CG-character roles. Thandie Newton is also sadly underserved as Beckett’s lover and heist-squad compatriot, although the spectacular sequence in which she figures, a theft from a train on a precipitous snowy-mountain track, is Solo‘s unquestionable highlight action setpiece. A scene like this, so centrally conceived and plotted out by and for visual effects experts, demonstrates how, in the case of Star Wars films just as most other CG-enabled Hollywood blockbusters, a certain inertia of technical accomplishment and imagination has a way of sweeping up movies and dragging them along for a ride, regardless of the artistic peculiarities of the form’s old-school creative centres such as screenwriters, directors, and actors.

If the efforts of director Ron Howard are as competent but largely unremarkable as usual (considering the knockout work of the cinematographers of The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi, there is little that is visually memorable from the very talented Bradford Young here), the screenwriting Kasdans do attempt to assert themselves, especially in the latter stages of Solo. One big particular late shock appearance of an iconic franchise villain (which is only a shock to those who aren’t familiar with the Clone Wars and Rebels cartoon shows, which admittedly is basically everyone) seems calculated to generate fan chatter and sequel buzz in the way that much more audacious twists provided by J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson in the main trilogy installments did. The moment is far too much of an inside-baseball reference to carry much real impact, however, and fits in with the almost-oppressive sequel-teasing closing throes of Solo.

Early reception of Solo, which is being greeted as a critical and commercial disappointment compared to the thunderous successes of the last three Disney Star Wars releases, is already being understood as prefiguring franchise fatigue on the part of a movie audience that has had to contend with an embarrassment of cinematic riches (four Star Wars films in three and a half years, more than half of them rather good) from a franchise previously known for its lenghty tantric absences from the marketplace. Solo is hardly an unmitigated failure and can be more than a bit fun when you give it a chance, but its general unremarkable (and occasionally even frustrating) quality is suggestive of corporate production imperatives and canonical gatekeepers that cannot get out of their own way and let a Star Wars movie simply take wing. Lord & Miller loyalist I certainly am, and maybe their approach and style wasn’t ever going to work for Star Wars. But the final product of Solo makes a compelling case that more should have been done at every level to make it work, because what we ended up with, while hardly a debacle, represents a definite missed opportunity for a franchise that, no matter its massive popularity, cannot afford many such misses.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Documentary Quickshots #7

Elvis Presley: The Searcher (HBO, 2018; Directed by Thom Zinny)

Over two feature-length parts, Elvis Presley: The Searcher seeks out the man behind the world-famous image of gyrating hips, drawling tremolo vocals, and sequined jumpsuits. If it doesn’t quite find the real Elvis, Thom Zinny’s documentary suggests that he was really there all along, in his music, his performances, and his human struggles.

Tracing the life and career of Elvis Aaron Presley from humble beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee to his sad spent bloated end in 1977 (although it does not dwell on the details of the waning days of the King of Rock and Roll), Elvis Presley: The Searcher employs archival footage and photographs of and interviews with Presley himself, as well as with key figures in his inner circle (his wife Priscilla, his controversial manager Colonel Tom Parker, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips) and subsequent musical icons influenced by him (including Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and Emmylou Harris).

Arranged roughly chronologically, the film returns regularly to his legendary 1968 NBC comeback special as a summary statement of his cultural impact, a thesis of what Elvis meant to American popular culture. Indeed, the clips from the broadcast reveal an impressive performer, synthesizing a panoply of formative musical influences (rhythm & blues, gospel, country, mainstream pop) with a renewed passion and vigour into mesmerizing artistic displays. The special is a pivot point between two media eras of Elvis, from the handsome crooning lead in a glut of mediocre 1960s movies to the sweating, sideburned touring rock-star colossus that Presley embodied for the last decade of his life (and that launched the notorious impersonator cottage industry that has diminished the legend that it claims to celebrate). It is also a tantalizing suggestion of the provocatively sexy and dynamic but sadly largely-unfilmed youthful late-1950s Elvis, when he burst electrically onto the music scene at the height of the rock n’ roll wave before frittering away two vital years in the U.S. Army.

The Searcher fêtes Presley’s electrifying dynamism and much of his deep musical output. It also aims to suggest hidden depths and thoughtfulness to a man often conceived of as absurdly talented but, especially in his post-draft return to music and film, poorly advised and too fundamentally simple in his outlook and thinking to prevent himself from being used as a cash cow while the rapid currents of American popular culture flowed by him as past a stationary stone. Despite sympathetic second-hand quotes about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and the climactic suggestion that the Comeback Special’s closer “If I Can Dream” was some species of inspiring social commentary and/or healing hymn for the troubled American year of 1968, The Searcher does not make a convincing case for those hidden depths.

None of the speakers providing the film with its narrative and themes challenge the view that Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker (actually a Dutch citizen in the U.S. illegally) exploited him financially and overworked him for years. The Colonel drew on his experience as a literal carnival barker in signing excessive studio contracts to make increasingly poor movies, before touring Elvis extensively at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s when the movie bucks dried up. The Colonel always had his eye on the next dollar, and as a result drowned his star in bad movies, mediocre music, and exhaustive live shows while his peers used their creative primes to transform the musical forms he had helped to innovate into a potent artistic as well as commercial force. Elvis did not help matters by his apathy towards songwriting and publishing (the latter rights, so lucrative in the future, were often sold off by Parker for quick profit), thus diminishing his control over his artistic direction and his heirs’ grip on his legacy.

The Searcher does compellingly argue for Elvis Presley’s value as a interpretive vocalist and more than anything as an iconic performer, a vibrating, undeniable presence in whatever medium he appeared. As tangible as this accomplishment is, it is drained of some impact by Zinny’s dismissive treatment of one of the core cultural issue around Elvis in particular and American rock n’ roll in general: the oft-disavowed truth that this defining, massively profitable musical genre was largely the domain of white performers appropriating the creative innovations of African-Americans. The Searcher tells us that this is not a problem, because Elvis Presley respected black people and their culture, did not respect the South’s system of segregation and even contributed in his way to its breakdown, and acknowledged his debt to the African-American pioneers of the music. Even further to that, it suggests that because Elvis felt the music, his passion and conviction overcame any objection over appropriation. This may be a case where actions in the micro were not objectionable but reflected and even fed into results in the macro that were. Given the personal focus of Elvis Presley: The Searcher, it is understandable that the treatment of this problem does not extend itself to those larger implications, but it creates a bit of a blind spot in an otherwise fairly comprehensive portrait of one of America’s greatest (if not always its own profound) cultural producers.

The Rachel Divide (Netflix, 2018; Directed by Laura Brownson)

While Elvis Presley became a pre-eminent icon and profited handsomely from his questionable appropriation of African-American culture, Rachel Dolezal’s appropriations have cost her and those close to her dearly. Dolezal became notorious in 2015 when, at the height of the activist Black Lives Matter protests, she was removed as president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP after it was revealed that she was born of Caucasian-American parents and had been passing as African-American for years. Demonized as a disrespectful poseur and characterized as mentally unsound by critics from across the American political and racial spectrum, Dolezal was certainly controversial but almost uniquely unifying in a highly divisive and partisan cultural discourse. White and black, left, right and centre, politically engaged or casual follower of current events: everybody in America came together to hate Rachel Dolezal for pretending to be something she is not.

Laura Brownson’s The Rachel Divide doesn’t seek to shift that hate, and even Brownson’s fair-minded documentarian objectivity is sorely tested by Dolezal’s stubborn refusal to own up to her falsehoods about her racial identity, the filmmaker finally falling to confronting her subject and demanding some sort of reckoning with the truth. But at the same time, the film provides history and context to Dolezal’s life decisions, suggesting that she is as much of a victim of American social currents as an exploiter of them, as well as confirming a dark and traumatic past of abuse that might be a precursor of whatever mental delusions she now labours under. To complicate matters further, The Rachel Divide shows her dogged dedication to those delusions about her identity having sad consequences on her sons, both of whom are African-American and face ostracizing and obstacles beyond the usual racial bounds due to their mother’s notoreity.

In The Rachel Divide as in her memoir In Full Color (which she is shown writing and promoting in the film prior to its spectacular flop of a book release), Dolezal details the physical and psychological abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her fundamentalist Christian parents and elder brother in Montana. Her adoptive siblings, who were African-American, suffered even more greatly in the household, and as she grew up, Dolezal began to identify with them and their struggles more intensely, to the point of finally rejecting the white Christian identity of her biological family and choosing instead the denied and discriminated African-American identity of her brothers and sisters (one of whom, Izaiah, she later gained custody of and treats as her own son).

A talented artist and Africana studies instructor, Dolezal became actively involved in the NAACP as well as in legal proceedings against her abusive white family. The Rachel Divide suggests that local political opponents in strongly-majority-white Spokane as well as her accused brother (who hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on her to discredit her as a witness, leading to her exposure) stood to gain from her fall from grace. But it also cannot help but hold Dolezal equally responsible for her problems, even if her stubborn lies have hurt far fewer people than those of much more powerful people in America.

The Rachel Divide toes a fine line. It expresses empathy for Dolezal’s all-too-human struggles to find work (she is apparently now on food stamps) and to find reconciliation to a view of herself that the rest of her society firmly rejects. It explores the almost open sorrow of her sons Izaiah and Franklin, whose lives and futures are continually hurt by who their mother is. But it gives more than equal time to the numerous full-throated objections, criticisms, and forceful excoriations from people across the country who are offended, baffled, and pained by her appropriation of a culture not her own. Dolezal deepens her difficulties in attempting to defend them time and again, making public appearances that inevitably place in her an unfavourable light, and offending further by claiming spiritual kinship with African-American slaves and transsexuals like Caitlyn Jenner.

There are broad and deep questions about the construction of racial identity that are raised by the Rachel Dolezal controversy, and often these questions are raised by Dolezal herself in self-interested defence of her position. She tells one skeptical radio interviewer that race is a social construct, a common progressive academic talking point that is nonetheless rarely understood to presage the sort of identity construction practiced by Dolezal. There is, perhaps, a superficial philosophical argument to be made that if gender is an identity construct that subjects can assert their will over and change if their wish, why can’t race be as well?

But stating that race is a social construct does not mean that, as the radio host heatedly retorts, it is not “real”. Race as it is now conceived may have been a discursive creation of slave-trading European colonialists half a millennia ago to justify the lucrative but cruelly dehumanizing exploitation of African populations, a creation that undergirds the social hierarchical order of the United States as well as of the other wealthy Western capitalist democracies. Changing one’s race as one might change one’s gender (transracialism, as Dolezal calls it) might seem an attractive option for those troubled and pained by the identity they were born with, at least when considered in utopian isolation.

But Dolezal’s transracial shift is predicated on a privilege of passing available to her as a white person but not to her African-American peers, whose racial identity is irrevocably written on their skin, seemingly forever (though hopefully not) a marker of their perceived underclass status in America. Racial identity is not merely formed in response of rejection to the traumas of history, but is tightly and inextricably entwined with those traumas, feeding on their dark energies and seeking to transform them into something more positive and freeing. Rachel Dolezal can discard her past identity and take possession of another for whatever reasons she may choose, but for African-Americans, the past cannot be discarded because it isn’t even past. Racial discrimination and hierarchy endures, strengthening and waning with the tides of history, and it can no more be disposed of by those subject to it than it can be seized on as a psychological balm to those never subject to it, like our Ms. Dolezal.

The Rachel Divide concludes with a tease of Rachel Dolezal’s potential epiphanous reversal of her identity delusion. She appears at a government office to change her name, hinting that she may be leaving her notoreity behind for a fresh start in life. The sinking feeling when her Africanized new name – Nkechi Amare Diallo – is revealed wrings out a frustrated sigh that is nonetheless not an expression of surprise. A psychologist might suggest that Dolezal/Diallo’s traumatic experience of abuse in childhood has manifested as a fixed delusion in adulthood, a self-identification that is aspirational but tragically never grounded in prevalent social reality. The Rachel Divide makes it clear that Rachel Dolezal is not merely clinging to an appropriated and inaccurate racial identity, but doing so to prevent herself from plunging into much darker shadows. This does not make her dishonesty excusable, but it does make it more conceivable.

Film Review – Avengers: Infinity War

April 28, 2018 Leave a comment

Avengers: Infinity War (2018; Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo)

In the build-up to the release of Avengers: Infinity War, we have been told that the film represents the beginning of the end of an era, the first of the final narrative throes of an innovative, marketplace-dominating cinematic universe (that would be the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU) that has spread out over 18 prior films. Of course, Marvel Studios and its corporate overlords at Disney are hardly stopping the money train with Infinity War and the untitled companion sequel, due out at this time next year, which will preusmably resolve its superficially-audacious cliffhanger. Indeed, further MCU titles are already mapped out for years to come. But the MCU will likely be transitioning to a new stable of marquee superheroes introduced in their more recent hits, with the original Avengers of the earlier Phases expected to hang up their suits. The retirements are almost certain to include Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), whose contracts are lapsing, with Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and any number of secondary figures also representing possible candidates for departure from the cycle.

The semi-insider knowledge of these future production details are a reality of our current movie moment, driven by the amplifying feedback loop of online film fandom, clickbait digital media, and corporate Hollywood marketing. Such known tidbits about the MCU’s future play into expectations of Infinity War and wind up affecting its storytelling choices in a manner not entirely expected but maybe not entirely advantageous. Just as Infinity War‘s penultimate position in a multiple-film branching franchise increases the emotional impact of its narrative and character arcs, the intended destabilizing shock of its heavy-body-count conclusion is inherently undermined by Marvel Studios’ already-divulged upcoming release schedule. Infinity War means to stun us with what it does to the established universe, but that undeniable stunned feeling that lingers in the theatre as the credits roll is diminished by a descending certainty that whatever has been done is more than likely to be undone in a year’s time. And, morever, that this inevitable undoing may well strain acceptance of the MCU’s internal reality, even if it is more true to the narrative conventions of the comic-book roots of the films.

To whatever extent a summary of the events of Infinity War is in danger of degenerating into a litany of characters whose in-text profusion would shame even Leo Tolstoy and planet names that you are unlikely to remember, some efforts in that vein are necessary. Its central animating villain is the Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin), previously teased in The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy but potently re-introduced in this film’s first scene presiding over the slaughter of the Asgardian refugees led into space by Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) at the conclusion of Thor: Ragnarok. Thanos seeks the Infinity Stones, six magical gems spread across the galaxy that grant him tremendous power in isolation but, when combined and mounted on a specially-made gauntlet that he wears, will allow him dominion over all life in the universe. He seeks this dominion not in order to impose personal despotic rule over the cosmos, but to correct what he sees as an endemic and existential overpopulation and resource-depletion problem across those cosmos by wiping out half of all life in a random, indiscriminate genocide. He considers this mass snuffing-out of life to be morally enlightened and even merciful, which is an extreme contrarian hot take worthy of a column in the legacy media opinion pages.

The quest of this Troll to End All Trolls for the MacGuffins to End All MacGuffins is apt for a movie franchise that has frequently grounded its plots in megalomaniacal baddies with semi-convincing motivations in search of powerful objects of desire. Thanos’ pursuit of this apocalyptic destiny is granted surprising sympathy and emotional nuance by Brolin’s motion-capture performance and by the screenplay from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, but the latter also lays down swaths of playful comic banter of the usual MCU type to keep Infinity War from becoming a self-serious or leaden experience (there’s a great Groot/Cap joke that you’ll be delighted not to see coming, for example). The titular gang of heroes, though fractured by past experiences, nominally reunite and join with cadres of unlikely new allies to combat Thanos and his henchman (mo-capped by Terry Notary, Carrie Coon, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, and Michael James Shaw). The film, ably helmed by prior Captain America franchise directors the Russo brothers, mostly splits the numerous superheroes into mission-pursuing sub-groups to give them space to interact in more manageable and character-arc-advancing combinations.

Therefore, Thor is found drifting amidst the wreckage of his people’s destroyed ship by the Guardians of the Galaxy, whose ranks include Thanos’ adopted daughter Gamora (a deeply-felt turn by Zoe Saldana). Thor, grieving for his mounting losses and hungry for revenge, seeks out a galactic forge that could craft a weapon to kill Thanos, with the aid of sardonic gun-enthusiast raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and teenaged tree-creature Groot (Vin Diesel), Meanwhile, Gamora and Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) lead the remaining Guardians – Drax (Dave Bautista), whose family was killed by Thanos, and the empathic Mantis (Pom Klementieff) – to head off the Titan on Knowhere, a planet where they know the red Reality Stone to be kept.

Meanwhile on Earth, Tony Stark is warned of Thanos’ imminent coming by a returned Bruce Banner, and Iron Man joins with the time-wizard Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, who engages in light-hostile exchanges with his fellow Sherlock Holmes actor) and Peter Parker/Spider-man (Tom Holland) on board a donut-shaped spacecraft hurtling towards a confrontation with Thanos on his ruined home planet, alongside Quill’s cohort of Guardians.

Also meanwhile on Earth, Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and her lover Vision (Paul Bettany), an android created by AI and the power of the Mind Stone which is embedded in his forehead, are torn from relatively blissful hiding in Scotland by the Stone-seeking Children of Thanos. Following a spectacular fight through Edinburgh’s Old Town, they are saved in Waverley Station by Rogers, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and brought back to Avengers HQ to meet up with James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) and Banner, before retreating to the hidden kingdom of Wakanda to stand with King T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the deprogrammed ex-Winter Soldier Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) against the Titan’s invading army.

This is undoubtedly a lot, and arguably too much. The Russos do a good job rendering the screenplay they have into an entertaining blockbuster, giving even supporting characters showpiece moments while pushing the arcs of key figures into new ground, balancing furious, large-scale action scenes (though none quite as hard-hitting and vividly exciting as Rogers and Bucky’s battle in The Winter Soldier) with humour and pathos. They even deploy several theatrewide-cheer-winning iconic hero shots worthy of the bravura visual impact of the superhero-comic splash-page, among them Cap’s first appearance in the railway station, the initial cut to Wakanda with the rolling Black Panther theme music, and Thor’s (literally) electrifying arrival on the scene of the climactic battle. There is a great deal of narrative deferment going on, though, with characters appearing at just the right (or wrong) time for just the right (or wrong) plot development to take place. It’s hard to begrudge such storytelling shortcuts in such an overstuffed 2.75-hour movie, but some of these shortcuts involve hurried oversights that strain credulity.

The strains to credulity, mind you, are nothing compared to what is to come. Without spoiling anything in specific about Infinity War‘s ending, the coming story is going to require major timeline-altering shenanigans (some to include a yet-to-be-introduced Marvel superhero whose solo movie will arrive next year, if the post-credits stinger scene is any indication) to both bring narrative strands towards fulfillment and ensure the continued existence of the MCU. It’s perhaps unfair to hold a single film’s cliffhanger conclusion to account for movies that have yet to be made, or to the hinting effects of online casting rumours and corporate production slates. But the Marvel Cinematic Universe has not only changed how blockbuster franchises are made, but also how they are watched, thought about, and critiqued. What Marvel Studios and Disney have reaped will also be what they sow. While Avengers: Infinity War gains much in impact from paying off 18 past movies, it likewise handcuffs itself by being known to be the pivot point into potentially just as many future movies.

In writing about the first mega-combination MCU tentpole Avengers movie, I recognized an in-text/out-of-text frequency alignment between the film’s commercial hegemony, aesthetic grandiosity, and thematic treatment of absolute dominance that felt uneasy and unresolved. This species of anxiety becomes manifest in the closing throes of Infinity War, but it also feels constructed and calculated while also seeming generalized and without solidified form. My personal preference among MCU installments has been for peculiarized stories within the larger framework which leave room for personal vision and voices, for quirks of humour and perspective and politics. Infinity War leeches specific beats from these types of films but has too much that it needs to be doing to build any kind of tone or feel or artistry particular to itself. The MCU crossover-event films (even Captain America: Civil War, which I rather liked) often have such an issue, and despite their many fine qualities and dramatic, goalpost-moving developments, it makes them harder to love. Infinity War tries to be a difficult narrative and emotional experience, tries to push the MCU tentpole movie into more challenging territory. But it has neither enough of a vision of its own nor enough freedom from the corporate imperatives of its franchise’s continuity to pull off such an ambitious ascent. And so the Marvel Cinematic Universe goes on, perhaps to infinity.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Florida Project

April 18, 2018 Leave a comment

The Florida Project (2017; Directed by Sean Baker)

A joyously tragic child’s-eye view of the precarity of American poverty, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project dances with giddy sadness back and forth across the line between peculiar indie movie and contemporary film classic. Following playful, innocent children, their thinly-stretched underemployed mothers, and a harried but fundamentally decent manager subsisting together on a rainbow-hued motel and retail strip on the poor margins of Orlando’s Walt Disney World, Baker’s emotionally-expansive film is fundamentally about the broken promises of the American pursuit of happiness, a happiness made expensively manifest in the constructed simulacra of arrested childhood known as the Magic Kingdom. But The Florida Project is fantastically and sincerely attuned to a childlike sense of wonder at the possibilities of the exciting playground of the world at the same time as it notes and quietly laments the shabby dishonesty with which the purportedly more serious and mature adult world fails to deliver on those promises of happiness.

Central to Baker’s generous vision is Moonee (the remarkable, naturalistically mercurial Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old girl who lives with her tattooed, hair-dyed, rebellious mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a pink-painted pay-by-the-week motel called the Magic Castle in Kissimmee, Florida. Free all day due to summer break from school, Moonee goes on wild excursions of play on the strip and its abandoned environs with her best friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and later their new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto). It’s mostly joyful and innocent fun but sometimes tips over the edge into real trouble (Jancey is befriended when the other two are caught spitting on her guardian’s car and enlist her cooperation in cleaning it) and even danger, but it’s shot by Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe as a kaleidoscopic and glorious adventure (they pass a gift shop whose front facade is a huge bearded wizard, for example), and always from the perspective of the children themselves. The Nerdwriter Evan Puschak, in a video essay arguing for the film’s importance in light of its Academy Award snubbing for a Best Picture nomination, likens its kid-level viewpoint (which often persists in low angles even when the kids are not onscreen) to the old Little Rascals short films.

But Baker, who co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, introduces the dire consequences of poverty into this innocent wonderland with a faucet-drip of seriouness. Halley brings Moonee along with her as she discusses her recent dismissal from an exotic dancing job and hawks wholesale perfume at knockdown prices to tourists in a tonier resort’s parking lot. Moonee collects bread and other nourishment from a local church’s travelling food bank, and she and Scooty make daily stops at the back door of the diner at which the latter’s mother Ashley (Mela Murder) works to receive free servings of waffles. As these workarounds evaporate (Halley is chased from the resort by security, Ashley cuts out Halley and forbids contact between Moonee and Scooty after the kids set a fire in an abandoned housing lot), Halley turns to prostitution to make ends meet, thus threatening her custody of her daughter.

Baker (also serving as his own editor) depicts Halley’s downward descent without judgement or dramatic acknowledgement of how momentous it is in her life or in Moonee’s; it just happens, like life itself. The little girl is simply shown in a series of shots spending more and more time playing alone in the bath, until a strange, unseen man bursts into the bathroom and is shocked that a child is present (the camera never leaves Prince’s face, as she is alarmed and surprised). This sense of fairness and understanding towards poverty and its effects pervades The Florida Project, almost as a rebuke to a society (and to a public and entertainment discourse) that painfully does not share such a sense, and engages in broad, condescending caricatures and moral opprobrium of the poor on the occasions when it pretends to. This marginal, precarious America is not merely ignored and disavowed by the more respectable and comfortable classes, it is actively shamed and punished for its own marginalization by public discourse and political policymaking. The poor are even blamed for the foolish sins of the better-off: it is this disadvantaged class that was fingered for making Donald Trump president, while the comfortable, prejudiced white middle class of the suburbs and exurbs really turned out to put him in the White House.

Baker does not romanticize poverty, either. The Florida Project operates on a moment-by-moment realism, pregnant with weight and consequence and the ever-present possibility of collapse. It does not elide the truth that Halley’s problems are greatly exacerbated by her own decisions and personality, and are not simply pre-determined by political, social, and economic superstructures beyond her control or understanding. This is made awkwardly clear when she shows up at Ashley’s diner after the opening of the rift between them and torments her ex-friend as a belligerent customer, treatment which Ashley endures with an on-the-edge customer-service-professional stoicness that the more brazen Halley cannot so much as fake for a minute. Maintaining a paycheque and supporting her son is more important to Ashley than defending her own dignity in the face of abuse, while Halley will stand up for herself, right or (more likely) wrong, regardless of the cost. The scene demonstrates the difference between these two woman as well as part of the reason why the system will sooner catch up to Halley, but it’s also a dramatization of the agonizing, debasing choices necessary to survival at the bottom of the pyramid of late capitalism.

The miracle of The Florida Project is that it imparts the crushing devastation of this situation of poverty without ever sacrificing beauty and joy at the altar of realism. Zabe’s camera finds aesthetic poetry and leaping gorgeousness in this depressed strip of Florida, bursts of the visual sublime contrasting with hints of socioeconomic hopelessness like a magic-realist work that nonetheless never skimps on the reality. It finds determined goodness as well, in the quasi-reluctant efforts of the Magic Castle manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) to offer Halley and his other tenants some measure of protection from the harsh world that seeks to make them account for their unforgivable lack of wealth: he chases away a likely pedophile as well as a disgruntled john of Halley’s, and looks the other way on any number of violations of rules, policies, and laws by longer-term hotel guests despite the insistence on enforcement expressed by the stingy motel owner (Karren Karagulian).

The magic realism becomes quite nearly explicit in The Florida Project‘s final scene, as Moonee and Jancey flee the agents of the state Department of Children and Families about to remove the former from Halley’s care all the way into Disney World itself. It’s a fulfillment of the desire for escape into a realm of wondrous, untouched innocence that they approximate with creative imagination (ie. when the girls “go on safari” earlier in the film, they look at a herd of cows) because the more elaborate capitalized simulacra is not affordable to them: although there’s no way that two children without a cent in their pockets could make it through the theme park gates with its USD$200-ish admission fees, we do not quibble for the sake of the metaphor.

The brief closing moment was clandestinely filmed on an iPhone without the resort’s knowledge or permission, much like the notorious indie psychological horror flick Escape from Tomorrow was. Like that unquestionably lesser film, The Florida Project conceives of the hermetic Disneyfied commodification of childhood happiness as a particularly American process, and one revealing of the damaged core of fractured promise at the heart of the nation. But where the clumsier Escape from Tomorrow, with its moody film-noir black-and-white cinematography and disturbing but half-baked surrealist weirdness, reflected personal and collective psychic wounds, The Florida Project emerges from its pastel-emblazoned vision of a forgotten America with its hope and goodness intact. There can be a tendency for art that interrogates the essential hypocrisy of corporate capitalism’s mantra of individual happiness to cede too much ground to the exploiters of joy, but Sean Baker hearteningly avoids surrendering that sunny glow to those who would bottle it, water it down, and sell it for profit. They do not own innocent happiness, The Florida Project says emphatically; children like Moonee do. How magnificent that possession is, and how terribly sad it is that we’ve collectively built a world that is too quick and eager to take it away.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

April 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Beauty and the Beast (2017; Directed by Bill Condon)

I feel like it’s safe now to admit to a certain childhood fondness for Beauty and the Beast, one of the critical and commercial pinnacles of the 1990s Disney Renaissance and the first animated feature film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (and the only one prior to the post-2009 expansion of the annual list of nominees to more than five films). The 1991 film now seems a naively romantic film with broadly old-fashioned (and even a little troubling) gender roles, and the technical and creative leaps in animation over the past quarter-century have largely left it in the dust. But in its time, it was a grand and sweeping entertainment, with imagination and vision, resonant if simple symbolism, and a fine musical score, for those to whom the showtune style appeals (you might have guessed that I am no Broadway showstopper devotee, but the Oscar-winning title song provided me with an enduring mnemonic device for recalling the direction of the sunrise, so it must be worth something). It even provided one of the signature shots in the movies, and an early harbinger of the computer animation that would soon render the film’s sumptuously old-fashioned drawn style obsolete: that famous CG-assisted dolly shot of Belle and the Beast dancing in the ballroom, a moment of pure, unalloyed wonder.

In a pop culture age of heavily-leveraged, almost weaponized nostalgia, and in the wake of the crushingly successful (if only average) “live action” remake of The Jungle Book, Disney’s decision to remake its Renaissance era colossus should not have been surprising. But the big issue here is that it isn’t surprising: indeed, the 2017 Beauty and the Beast is practically a beat-for-beat retread of the 1991 movie, extrapolating a bit in backstory, design, and supporting characters (along with some deeply forgettable new songs) but otherwise quite nearly replicating the beloved original. Remakes, even slavishly faithful ones, need not be short on inspiration or even originality, but despite its massive success, this Beauty and the Beast comes across as a pale imitation of its now-classic model, and as a superficial and inconsistent movie to boot.

For those unfamiliar with the story (which, again, is almost exactly the same as that of the movie it’s remaking, itself based on a mid-1700s fairy tale mostly read in abridged versions), a plot synopsis would not go amiss. In a fairy-tale version of ancien régime France, a vain, haughty prince is cursed by an enchantress to whom he callously refuses hospitality. Transformed into a hirsute, horned, bipedal creature, the prince is confined to his fantastical château along with his many servants, who are likewise transformed, with a touch both sinister and whimsical, into moving, talking household objects of varying levels of anthropomorphization. If the curse is not lifted in time, the beast and his servants will be trapped in their bewitched forms forever, their core spark of humanity lost. Represented with a basic poetic elegance by a red rose under a glass case slowly losing its enchanted petals, the curse can only be lifted by mutual love between the Beast and another.

So much for the Beast (played through CG motion-capture by Dan Stevens); enter the Beauty. Belle (Emma Watson) is a lovely, bookish young woman who lives in a  provincial French village with her artist and tinker father Maurice (Kevin Kline), who fled to the country after an initially unspecified calamity took his wife and Belle’s mother. Both are thought eccentric outcasts by the conservative-minded villagers, although they are hardly odder than any other sensitive, inventive creatives. Belle does have one fervent, troublingly-determined admirer, however: Gaston (Luke Evans), a hunter and former soldier with an absurdly puffed-up ego who steadfastly refuses to take Belle’s persistent and increasingly direct refusals to his marriage proposals as anything resembling a “no”.

Belle and the Beast are drawn together when Maurice becomes lost in an enchanted wintry forest and wanders into the Beast’s castle, where he is taken prisoner. Belle searches him out and selflessly takes his place as the Beast’s captive, which sets into motion the inevitable, predictable clockwork of the Hollywood romance plot: he is rude and dismissive of her, she resents and dislikes him, but they draw gradually together, bonding over his magnificently large library and a tentative, sweet attachment to the finer things. The fussy, comedic efforts of the servants to push them into each other’s arms don’t hurt either. When the mean-spirited Gaston and the parochial townsfolk learn of the Beast’s existence, however, their budding love will face a dire mortal threat.

Beauty in the Beast, in both its animated and CG-enhanced live-action form, owes much to influences beyond its specific French literary source. The Beast is characterized as a full-on brooding Byronic hero requiring an education of experience to render him an acceptable match for the Beauty (Stevens leans capably into this obvious-enough character arc), the softening of his brusque animal nature presaging his climactic return to handsome-prince status (if this is a spoiler to you, you must be new to this “narrative” thing). The romance between him and Belle owes as much to Jane Austen plots (and thus to the modern Hollywood romantic comedies so superficially influenced by them) as to fairy-tale conventions, turning on small domestic mannerisms and interpersonal interactions as much as on grand heroic gestures (he saves her from a vicious pack of wolves, suffering painful injuries in the process). In terms of visual design, the Beast’s castle is leaping fantasy-Gothic on the outside and pure fanciful Rococo on the inside, with Art Nouveau touches in its rambling, darkened neo-classical garden grounds, while the village (cheekily named Villeneuve after the female French novelist who originally set down the tale) is altogether more medieval in character, to emphasize its comparative backwardness. There are some largely-unacknowledged politics of class simmering in these thematic contrasts, not to mention in the literally-objectified servants remaining loyal to their self-involved aristocratic master, but Beauty and the Beast pays them no heed.

Beauty and the Beast doesn’t dispense with the problematic captor-captive aspect of its leads’ romantic attachment. But given its casting of the famously socially-conscious feminist Watson (who “studied” the contours of Stockholm Syndrome abusive situations and concluded that Belle’s did not qualify before accepting the role), the film does at least attempt to enhance Belle’s intelligence, independence, and agency, qualities that the 1991 animated version made a big show of in her introduction in a bustling village-life musical number bearing her name but failed to seriously follow through on, consigning her to damsel status in the eventual testosteronic standoff between the hulking Beast and the villainous Gaston. Watson (by all accounts a genuinely remarkable person, but unfortunately not yet a thespian of any particular distinction) gives Belle a radiant, acute dignity but can only do so much about what the still-traditional contours of the story require of her .

In Gaston, the 1991 film achieved a subtly subversive reversal that this 2017 remake retains: the handsome, dashing man of action might have been the heroine’s object of affection in a more traditional fairy tale, but Disney pushed those heroic qualities into preening, egotistical ridiculousness and an aggressive, cruel disregard for others. Furthermore, Gaston is so used to being admired and fluffed by his crowd of hangers-on (the primary example being his mooning right-hand man LeFou, played here by Josh Gad, whose role ginned up no small amount of controversy upon the film’s release for being either too gay or not gay enough) that Belle’s rejection of him in favour of a reclusive beast-man smashes his inflated-yet-brittle veneer of masculine self-confidence, revealing the violent sociopath lurking underneath. The casting of Evans should have proven a masterstroke for this character, but the final result is hardly as thunderously successful as it ought to have been. The comedic focus of Gaston in the first two acts (which Evans handles with grinning aplomb) doesn’t pivot believably to mob-leading, pistol-clutching villainy in the last act.

For a two-plus-hour feature, Beauty and the Beast often feels rushed, pushing through key plot and character junctures to furiously unspool household-servant whimsy and spectacular musical sequences. The latter are better when replicating, with occasional embellishments, the original numbers (the new songs, as mentioned, are all rather bad): “Belle” and “Gaston” are lusty, rural-folk-inflected romps; “Be Our Guest”, headlined by Ewan McGregor (who simply has not been allowed to sing enough since Moulin Rouge) as the flamboyant candelabra/butler Lumière, takes the original scene’s elaborate Busby Berkeley rotating visual geometric arrangements into the CGI age with a dizzying (if drained and abstracted) affect (it’s not certain that it quite overcomes its now-equally-legendary Simpsons parody, however). Only the title song suffers particularly in comparison: Emma Thompson as the maternal teapot/housekeeper Mrs. Potts cannot hope to match the grandmotherly warmth of Angela Lansbury’s vocal performance, and the visual accompaniment – Belle and the Beast dance in a ballroom veritably choked with chandeliers, whose candles transition into sparkling coloured pinlights on a night sky background at the high moment – cannot hope to approach the suddenly-soaring technical/artistic virtuosity of that glorious crane dolly shot in the original.

But it’s the former element – the castle servants in their household item form – that proves the trickiest element for director Bill Condon to get right. There’s a previously-unconceived-of uncanny valley problem in rendering such inherently cartoonish characters in the more photorealistic CG style, and it’s never solved. The object/servants just look and feel off, all of the time. The concerted work of the CG artists manages to evade the dark promise of early promotional images, which suggested that the visualization of the clock/steward Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) at least might be trespassing into the territory of the nightmarishly grotesque. But neither their appearance nor role in the film ever quite coalesces, even in the goofy climactic battle between them and the castle-invading village mob. When the actual actors behind the technology appear in the coda, it’s a palpable reminder of the presence that is missing. The brief shots of Stanley Tucci as a kooky-coiffed music maestro, who spends the film trapped in a harpsichord and whose opera-diva wife, played by Audra McDonald, has been turned into a wardrobe, are the most tantalizing: even in these throwaway glimpses, the ever-underrated Tucci is floridly wild-eyed and totally switched-on.

If only this Beauty and the Beast, so handsomely staged, nicely cast, and opulently expensive-looking, could flip that same switch. Audiences responded enthusiastically to its re-envisioning of the beloved animated original, and Disney now has similar live-action/CG remakes of Renaissance-era favourites The Lion King, Aladdin, and Mulan in the works as a result. But outside of the commercial impetus (which is always already there with Hollywood blockbusters, and therefore hardly bears examination or holding up as a hammer of criticism), what’s the point of this retread? Creatively and artistically, despite the talent and effort and technical alchemy poured into it, there isn’t much. The 2017 film does next to nothing that the 1991 film did not do, and some of those things are not done as well here. In this tale as old as time, the hold of tradition and textual expectation is just too strong, and any nascent sense of magic suffers as a result.

Categories: Film, Reviews