Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

Film Review: Black Panther

February 18, 2018 Leave a comment

Black Panther (2018; Directed by Ryan Coogler)

In much the same way that Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman overcame its in-built generic conventional weaknesses by summoning a highly of-the-moment thematic thrust of feminine agency and muscular empathy, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther surmounts the in-born challenges facing a Marvel Cinematic Universe action-adventure blockbuster to become an absolutely vital representational and artistic assertion of pan-African pride and black power (to summon a term that gives online white conservatives, who were suspiciously eager to pre-empt the film’s nascent impact, the nervous shakes). The triumph of Black Panther is that it’s also an exciting action-adventure movie, a visually and politically detailed and compelling demonstration of onscreen world-building, and above all a nuanced and conflicted exploration of black experience, black unity, and the spirited debate about the best path of correction for the uniquely terrible legacy of colonialism, slavery, and oppression faced by people of African descent, from the centre of their (of all of our) continent of origin to the poverty-stricken housing projects of America.

This first Black Panther solo film follows the character’s MCU introduction in Captain America: Civil War, in which the young Wakandan prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, in a performance of laudable possession and nuanced interiority) was drawn into the larger conflict in and around the fracturing Avengers after the murder of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), by a terrorist bomb at the UN in Vienna. Black Panther picks up shortly after Civil War‘s events, as T’Challa returns to his home nation to assume the throne and the attendant role of Wakanda’s titular black-clad superheroic protector. After retrieving his former (and future?) flame and Wakandan secret agent Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) from an undercover mission in Nigeria, the prodigal T’Challa is greeted by his grieving mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett, regal and spectacular but given little of consequence to do) and his sister Shuri (the luminous, scene-stealing Letitia Wright), a brilliant scientist at the forefront of Wakanda’s highly-advanced technology.

Wakanda is a magnificently-realized vision of Afrofuturism, a fantastical critique of the effects of colonialism on African social development, and a utopian extrapolation of the richness of pan-African culture. Struck by a meteor long ago containing a huge supply of vibranium, an alien metal alloy that is the strongest substance on Earth (Captain America’s iconic shield is made out of it, as of course is the Black Panther suit), Wakanda emerged united following a period of inter-tribal warfare under the leadership of the first King and Black Panther, who gains superhuman physical abilities through the ingestion of the glowing purple heart-shaped herb. Choosing to remain hidden and isolated in the centre of Africa under a Third-World disguise, Wakanda developed a complex political, social and cultural profile outside of the malign influence of European colonialism that warped the rest of the continent. Developing the most advanced technology on the planet with the use of its vibranium, Wakanda becomes a fantasy fulfillment of African potential, like a Congo that safeguarded its lucrative resources (rubber and coltan, most notably) and utilized them for its own development and advancement, rather than being strip-mined for resource-exploitation purposes by Western state powers and capitalist conglomerates (to say nothing of the related genocidal deprivations, let alone centuries of the destructive slave trade on the continent).

The unique utopian vision of Wakanda’s capital city – spindly skyscrapers with thatched-hut verandahs, richly-patterned neo-modern adobe-type houses, bustling market streets, and the twin towers of the royal palace, with its baked-mud-coloured skin studded with toron-like protrusions in imitation of the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali – greets T’Challa as he returns (Hannah Beachler is the talented production designer), as does the cultural ritual that defines Wakandan royal succession. On a precipitous waterfall pool (inspired by the spectacular Victoria Falls) before the eyes and rhythmic chants of Wakanda’s monochromatically-dressed tribal leaders (if costume designer Ruth E. Carter doesn’t get an Oscar for her work here, the award has no meaning), T’Challa is stripped of his Black Panther powers and faces challenges to his presumed kingship. After triumphing over M’Baku (Winston Duke, hugely charismatic in a minor role), the head of the semi-exiled mountain tribe the Jabari, T’Challa becomes King and must begin grappling with Wakanda’s role in a changing world.

Initially, that grappling takes the form of some James Bond spy-movie sequences, first as T’Challa receives new gadgets from his Q-esque sister Shuri, then as he is joined by Nakia and Okoye (the wonderful Danai Gurira), the mega-badass general of the elite royal-guard the Dora Milaje and prolific bogarter of the film’s most kickass action beats, in a secret gambling club in South Korea to bust up a clandestine deal for a stolen vibranium artifact. The thief and seller is the despised miner, smuggler, and arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who stole a vibranium shipment at the Wakandan border years before and earned the emnity of Border Tribe leader W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), while the buyer is American CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), who is injured in the struggles with Klaue and his cronies and becomes an unlikely ally of T’Challa and those around him when he is brought back to Wakanda to be healed (it’s a testament to the film that its only significant white roles, both seeded in past MCU releases, are played by actors as fine as Serkis and Freeman, who get to resurrect their too-brief chemistry from the first Hobbit movie in this stretch of the movie).

A lesser film would have kept the more traditionally-nasty white criminal Klaue (played with gleeful abandon by Serkis and given subtle notes of African-American cultural appropriation by screenwriters Coogler and Joe Robert Cole) as its prime antagonist, but Black Panther has something more ambitious and difficult in mind as regards its villain. Klaue turns out to be little more than a mechanism for T’Challa’s true foil to get to him and to Wakanda. This is Erik Stevens, a.k.a. Killmonger (the impressive Michael B. Jordan, who starred in Coogler’s Rocky franchise redeemer, Creed), displaced and forgotten son of T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), who had the boy when he was undercover in Oakland, California, before betraying his country, king, and brother, who then killed him for the treason. Left rootless and angry like so many young African-American males, Killmonger gained the skills of a killer and infiltrator with U.S. military black ops, and seeks to reclaim his birthright and wrest Wakanda from its new king before turning the hidden nation’s weaponry against those who oppressed black people for centuries.

T’Challa must wrestle not only with the threat to his power and to Wakanda’s traditions that Killmonger represents, but also with the disillusionment and doubt that comes with the revelation of his beknighted father’s fratricide. T’Chaka fails to live up to the high ideals that he inculcated into his son, but his actions also break apart his own family in the way that the slave trade and colonial genocides did to innumerable African families, with similar generational blowback. More deeply, however, T’Challa and the movie around him wrestles impressively with the agonizing dichotomy represented by the not-completely-opposed views of T’Challa and Killmonger as regards Wakanda’s ideal role in the wider world and in correcting the injustices experienced over centuries by the African diaspora (which isolationist Wakanda has yet to attempt to ameliorate or reverse in any meaningful way).

Radicalized by his experiences in the American ghetto and as a clandestine agent of American empire around the world, Killmonger intends to foment revolution against the established, white-dominated capitalist order around the world, using the American model of military-technological hegemony to build a globe-spanning Wakandan empire that will redress the wrongs done to people of African descent by putting them in charge via forceful overthrow. The oppressed, in this vision, would become the oppressors, an inversion that Killmonger expresses in other terms in his first scene, confronting a British museum curator about the colonialist theft of African artifacts on display before stealing them back (a more comic inversion of this historical dynamic comes later, when Shuri chides Ross with the epithet “colonizer” when he startles her in her lab).

T’Challa, meanwhile, does not wholly disagree with Killmonger’s view of injustice, but balks at his cousin’s schemes of worldwide righteous revolution to solve it and eventually works with his cadre of allies to halt them (this leads to the moment, shockingly incongruous in this thoroughly progressive film when taken out of context, in which we are asked to root for a CIA agent trying to shoot down transports full of weapons destined for use in a global anti-capitalist revolution). The duality of perspective that divides these men is beautifully depicted in heart-shaped-herb-prompted ritual vision quests that they both undertake. T’Challa meets his father and other kingly ancestors in a gorgeous twilight savannah dreamscape with a ravishing violet-tinged sky to grapple with the difficulty of being both a good man and a just ruler, while Erik speaks with his dead father in the living room of their Oakland project, the same violet sky visible outside the window above the concrete-bound ghetto.

Both of these young men have lost their fathers, like too many African-Americans males, but this loss has galvanized them in different ways: T’Challa has allowed his father’s passing (not to mention the experience of internal outcasts the Jabari, who prove to be vital allies in the final conflict) to open him up to questioning Wakanda’s traditions and its role in the world, while Erik, denied genuine connection to not only his father but to his fatherland in a mirror of the post-slave-trade African-American experience, transmutes the pain into a resentful and extreme (but hardly unreasonable) projection of his hurt onto the global institutions that he sees oppressing him (and, to a less important extent, his people, but a smartly elided element to Killmonger’s character is how his own disavowed personal agony always comes well ahead of any wider political grievances).

These dualities reflect a panoply of black experience, of not only power-striving men but self-determining women (who surround T’Challa and often make more of an impression than he does), from the unbridgeable rift between America and Africa carved out by the horrors of the slave trade (which are referenced with stunning poetic power by Killmonger’s remarkable final line) to the ideological split as regards civil rights political action represented by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X (or, alternately, Nelson Mandela as a radical young activist and as a distinguished elder statesman). Film Crit Hulk addresses these dualities and how their implications are drawn out far better than I (or perhaps anyone else) could in his recent tremendous essay on Black Panther; be sure to check it out.

But Black Panther concludes with T’Challa internalizing the lessons of his defeated foe and choosing a path of active, productive, peaceful engagement with the rest of the world (and especially with the enclaves of the African diaspora, in Oakland and beyond) for Wakanda. This hard-won choice of employing Wakanda’s advantages to advocate humanitarianism and social progress is a corollary of neoliberal democratic capitalist ideology, of course, and Killmonger would no doubt find it an insufficient half-measure (as would Malcolm X, in all likelihood). But Black Panther is firmly doubtful that the sort of armed revolutionary seizure of power favoured by its nuanced villain (not to mention by the black nationalist organization that shares its name and which the superhero pre-dates) would represent any material improvement for people of African descent, or anyone else for that matter.

But Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther feels revolutionary in other ways, which are no less powerful for their aesthetic focus. This is a film overflowing with love and pride for African culture, with many distinct touchstones from across the continent distilled into a pan-cultural celebration of vibrancy and endurance of traditions and families in spite of a history of being severed from those vital roots. The connective threads of that culture may have been cut long ago, but this film represents a spectacular attempt to stitch them back together (an effort clearly audible in its hybridized score, with composer Ludwig Göransson mixing orchestral elements with indigenous African music and American hip-hop curations from rap star Kendrick Lamar). It represents black people, male but especially female, as active personalities and purposeful agents in their own struggles for advancement and self-definition, itself a rarity in Hollywood history only now being slowly addressed and corrected, and whose importance to the black public this white critic can merely conjecture at. But it recognizes also the cleavages in black experience and dramatizes them in a compelling and penetrating fashion by embedding them in the core narrative and thematic conflict of the film.

In a time of cultural reaction and political revanchism in which the government of the most powerful nation on earth has been co-opted by cynical, bigoted proponents of racial animus, Black Panther is a muscular and potent blockbuster that confidently and firmly claims a position of great strength for African-derived peoples without sacrificing a thoughtful, nuanced, and ultimately hopeful vision of the complexities of their society, culture, and civilization(s). Wakanda may be no more real than, say, Gotham City, but its cultural utility and impact, as expressed through this superb mass-market movie, could be very real indeed.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Love & Mercy

February 4, 2018 Leave a comment

Love & Mercy (2014; Directed by Bill Pohlad)

A diptych-style two-eras biopic of the Beach Boys’ troubled genius Brian Wilson, Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy has some fine ideas, memorable images, a strong performance or two, and a clear concept of the points it wishes to make about Wilson’s life and work, or more accurately about the forces that stood in the way of him maximizing his outsized artistic potential and exacerbated his pre-existing and often-debilitating mental illness. But the film suffers debilitatingly from the relative weakness of the later and more dramatic of its twinned storylines, and doesn’t possess enough strength in the other narrative to compensate.

Love & Mercy casts two actors as Brian Wilson at two important junctures and crisis points in his life. Paul Dano plays Wilson at the peak of his creative powers in the mid-1960s, crafting the Beach Boys’ now-acclaimed classic album Pet Sounds and its contemporary hit single “Good Vibrations”, despite mounting, LSD-intensified mental problems as well as the criticism and doubts expressed concerning his artistic direction by his collaborators: his limited-vision ex-svengali father Murry (Bill Camp), and even many of his own bandmates, most infamously “one of the biggest assholes in the history of rock & roll”, Mike Love (Jake Abel), whose disdain for Pet Sounds‘ ambitious intended abstract-pop follow-up was purportedly a key factor in Wilson shelving the album indefinitely (he finally finished and released a latter-day recording of Smile in 2004, to great acclaim).

Intercut with the ’60s plotline is a thematically mirroring narrative of Wilson’s life in the 1980s, as a fragile, perma-dazed, but deeply sweet middle-aged Brian (John Cusack) meets car saleswoman and future wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who intervenes to extricate him from the destructive, over-medicating, dictatorial controlling influence of his physician and legal guardian Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). The ’80s storyline clearly reflects the ’60s one in its focus on the antagonistic male personalities holding Wilson back from getting what he wants: in the ’60s, they keep him from making the music he wants to make and from properly enjoying and profiting from his artistic creations, while in the ’80s, Dr. Landy keeps him from living a happy and free life.

Unfortunately, half of Love & Mercy is a drag on the other. The film is never better than when it has us watch and listen to enervating re-created snatches of the Pet Sounds recording sessions, as Wilson interacts with and conducts musicians while crafting one of the rock era’s pinnacle achievements. Even the interpersonal friction scenes work very well – Abel’s Mike Love makes a nicely dislikable Doubting Thomas, and when Brian tenderly plays a solo demo version of the overwhelmingly gorgeous “God Only Knows” for his father, Murry can only negatively observe that another act released a song by the same name years before – and the whole ’60s storyline is crafted with an inviting Hippie-era California rainbow lustre (Wes Anderson’s cinematographer Robert Yeoman handles the lens) that makes it a far more appealing setting to spend time in.

Meanwhile, the 1980s storyline appears more dried-out, sun-baked, tired, which certainly reflects the state of the older Wilson’s life but fills these scenes with a certain hazy discomfort that even Banks’ indomitable coastal-blonde sunshine cannot penetrate. Giamatti, who specializes in frumpy, hateable scumbags these days after a brief career interregnum of being allowed to convey some measure of empathy as well, contributes to this discomfort; to be fair, he should, given the role he is cast for, but watching him berate the near-helpless Wilson for the unspeakable crime of having a bite of a hamburger trespasses from artistic expressions of discomfort and abuse to pure audience alienation. Most vitally, while a filled-out Dano is a physical dead-ringer for the young Brian Wilson and nails his gradually-dawning mental disquiet and crippling anxiety, Cusack plays him as, well, a confused and brittle but sneakily endearing version of himself, which is far less interesting.

Pohlad (working from a script by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman) attempts to draw his parallel stories together in a bravado dream-montage sequence late in the film. Reflecting Brian Wilson’s fractured psyche and legendary habit of staying in bed all day during his most troubled personal episodes (which inspired a Canadian rock classic), Cusack, Dano, and the director’s son Oliver as Brian in boyhood are intercut lying in an ornate four-poster bed, with Murry, Dr. Landy, Melinda, and others standing at the foot of the bed and speaking to the prone figure. Interspersed, interrupted dialogue drones on the soundtrack alongside warping snatches of Beach Boys songs “In My Room” and “‘Til I Die”, as images of Brian’s childhood and band performances flash in and out. The scene is intended to weave together Love & Mercy‘s bifurcated narratives via the shared threads of their themes, but it’s a burst of technique from a different profile of film and it overloads this one. It does define Love & Mercy aptly as a bundle of strong ideas and well-built and -chosen elements that somehow unravels in final execution.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review: The Babadook

January 28, 2018 Leave a comment

The Babadook (2014; Directed by Jennifer Kent)

Australian cult psychological horror film The Babadook is a powerful extended metaphor for the disquieting influence of trauma and grief, a poisonous force that disfigures a mother’s relationship to her son and hijacks their domestic existence. Its titular horror-movie monster also, bizarrely, became a LGBT symbol, a cultural meme that began with the head-scratching classification vagaries of the Netflix algorithm and the obvious clash between the movie’s ominous blackened darkness and the multichromatic celebratory flagrancy of Gay Pride, but has since traversed into semi-sincerity. Not singularly a manifestation of the agony of a buried personal trauma that threatens Amelia (a magnificently fried and frazzled Essie Davis), the Babadook could also be understood to represent the disavowed pain of the closet and the dangerous mental drag of repressed identity (though these themes have no particular purchase in the cinematic text itself, it should be admitted). Like much recent psychological horror of note (It Follows, The Witch), The Babadook constructs the fearful extremes of experience catalyzed by a malevolent supernatural force as a potent symbol for deeper, more amorphous forces of society and memory.

If we can acknowledge that these are the things that The Babadook is, then perhaps we can approach an assessment of what The Babadook, with slowly-dawning frustration, is not: namely, an involving, entertainingly scary horror film. It’s difficult to quantify exactly why writer/director Jennifer Kent’s clever, intellectually-rich creation doesn’t ultimately land as a compelling factory of fear. Everything is in its right place, nothing presses against the limits of its internally-consistent terms of suspension-of-belief, and the design of the titular monster – a leering-visaged, elongated black shadow with talon-fingered Nosferatu hands and an eerie old-fashioned top hat – is simply and often crudely realized in a way that makes it even more instantly iconic and disturbingly creepy, like a stalking Gilded-Age-era cousin of Slenderman. The Babadook should be great. The very fact that it found its way from marginal Down Under independent cinema circles to the wider world implies that it must be. But it isn’t. Why not?

Most naggingly, this fairly efficiently-lengthed film (94 minutes of runtime) feels almost interminably long. Most likely, Amelia’s suffering is a touch too relentless. The slow unravelling of her life and her relationship with her imaginative, precocious, semi-neglected handful of a son Samuel (Noah Wiseman, balancing grating irritation with believable sweetness and desperate-to-please vulnerability) in the wake of the death of her husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear) in a car crash as he drove her to the hospital to give birth to their son is central to the film (it is the film). But Kent pushes the same buttons repeatedly, re-emphasizing what has already been well and truly established. The Babadook should crescendo with Amelia and Samuel facing down the beast of grief in its full might, but this cup of misery merely overflows once filled (and that happens earlier than it ought to, perhaps a sign of freshman director Kent’s inexperience).

It’s really too bad that this movie doesn’t ultimately put it all together, because that all is often superbly imagined and richly fascinating. The Babadook itself, first manifested in the alarming imagery and words of an exquisitely-designed children’s pop-up book, is a tremendous imagistic metaphor. The being is increasingly identified directly with the forever-absent paternal figure of Oskar, the lost patriarchal stability implied by the dead father turning unsettlingly menacing and dangerous as it demands familial blood-sacrifices of Amelia (she has a little dog named Bugsy, and things never go well for dogs in movies like this). The Babadook is an inherently masculine-marked figure (that banker’s top hat, for starters) whose haunting prevalence in the psyches of Amelia and Samuel prevent them from relating to each other healthily and sanely. The resolution of the problem it represents, like that of pained grief and past trauma, does not lie in killing the monster but in taming it, feeding it as little as possible while learning to live with the dark turn of thoughts and feelings it symbolizes.

One could conceivably push readings of the Babadook even further to historical and sociopolitical territory. Kent’s film is clearly set in Australia but avoids obvious, stereotyped Australian-ness (what that would be, outside of the Babadook manifesting as a kangaroo who is killed by Crocodile Dundee with a hunting knife, is not entirely clear). Australia, like many settler societies, has a dark, semi-genocidal element embedded in its foundations that might be said to be a Babadook-esque force in the life of the nation, to say nothing of its complicated and troubled history as a British penal colony, a history frequently disavowed and treated with shame when it is acknowledged. Kent’s next film, The Nightingale, is set in Tasmania in 1825 and seems poised to look this hidden Australian darkness straight in the face, so it’s hardly far-fetched to suggest that her artistic intentions might have run in such a direction in the film in question, albeit in highly disguised form.

The Babadook is fertile ground for such interpretations, which makes it that much more disappointing that the baseline-level effect of the film itself is so mixed. This is a film that knows, with depth and breadth and pregnant meaning, what it’s about. That it can’t quite translate that meaningful core into a necessarily involving and affecting genre film, that it just falls short of doing what it ultimately aims to do, makes it frustrating but no less compelling. What is does do is announce an exciting new filmmaking talent from the Antipodes. Jennifer Kent has the tools and the vision, and if they aren’t all on full and effective display in The Babadook, this movie strongly suggests that we’ll see her get there sooner than one might expect.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

January 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017; Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg)

The fifth movie in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise raised a question about its own future when it landed in the summer of 2017, a year whose box office was thoroughly dominated by Disney releases: Does Disney really need Pirates of the Caribbean movies anymore? Other franchises/series currently in their stable – Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Pixar’s films, CG-assisted live-action remakes of their Renaissance-era classics, even the work of the reinvented Animation Studios – are proving more profitable, more creatively fruitful, more critically lauded, and more culturally relevant. From this question, related questions about the Pirates franchise spiral off into the ether: Do moviegoers need them? Does their defining figure, Johnny Depp as the perpetually tipsy trickster pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, need them? Does anybody need them (besides one-time über-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who needs whatever he can get post-Lone Ranger)?

Undeniably, as is the case with most capitalist enterprises, there’s a certain irresistible inertia to blockbuster franchise filmmaking. Profits stand to be made from recognizable properties headed by bankable stars playing iconic characters, and Hollywood is never not there when easy money seems to be in play. Pirates of the Caribbean seemed like a silly idea as the jumping-off point for a movie series when The Curse of the Black Pearl arrived in 2003, and as big as it’s gotten and as involved as its goofball internal mythology has grown, these movies based on a theme park ride have never not been inherently silly. These consistent tides of silliness have eroded the movies’ foundations over the subsequent decade and a half, though it perhaps has worn down Pirates‘ profile less than the bare consensus view that each movie has been of lower quality than the last. I enjoyed the second and third editions more than most, largely on the strength of director Gore Verbinski’s peculiar, loopily inspired visual sense (Jack Sparrow’s sojourn into the bizarre realm of Davy Jones’ Locker in At World’s End is one of the purest extended demonstrations of Surrealism in Hollywood history). But I couldn’t have told you the title of the second movie without the aid of the internet (Dead Man’s Chest, thank you very much), and could tell you even less about the fourth film, the Rob Marshall-helmed On Stranger Tides (though I have a review on this blog to link to for that purpose, so there you go).

And yet I came back for Dead Men Tell No Tales anyway. Many others did, too. In point of fact, it did fairly well (though international grosses propped up an under-performance domestically, never a good sign financially), albeit far worse than prior editions in the series, but few loved it outside of Disney’s accountants. It’s not hard to see why. Despite a stated intention on the part of directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (whose Norwegian film Kon-Tiki proved them dab hands at epic seabourne adventure) to circle back to the elements that made the unquestioned franchise pinnacle Black Pearl feel undeniably fresh and delightul, Dead Men Tell No Tales settles indistinguishably into the swirling bilge of overwrought CG effects, over-convoluted plotting, and relentless bad jokes that defined the diminishing returns of the Pirates sequels. There’s some fun to be had now and again, and some clever and imaginative touches break through the busy interference. But it’s not clear that the franchise’s downward trajectory is effectively reversed.

Like all Pirates movies, a detailed plot synopsis of Dead Men Tell No Tales is an exercise in futility. A series of pursuits at sea, on tropical islands, and in colonial outposts are marked by sudden reversals, double- and triple-crosses, and fleeting alliances between foes and mismatched partners. Magical, sea-controlling mythical relics are quested for. Flesh-and-blood buccaneers are pitted against supernatural ghost-pirates (this time led by Javier Bardem’s implacable Spanish pirate-hunter Captain Salazar) as well as law-and-order British imperial pirate-tracking subalterns in command of the considerable resources of the Royal Navy and Army (David Wenham represents the latter group on this occasion, but it’s pretty thankless and non-notable stuff for good old Daisy).

Reintegrated into this formula after the unwisely Jack Sparrow-centric On Stranger Tides are the heroic romantic squares, whose dull pretentions to bourgeois respectability and honourable conduct clash with the slippery disingenuousness and dizzying betrayals of piratedom. Just as Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner and Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann (both of whom have cameo appearances in this film after being absent in the last installment) provided Depp’s Sparrow with useful straight-person foils for his sashaying unreliability in the first trilogy, young rising actors Brenton Thwaites (as Will and Elizabeth’s son Henry) and Kaya Scodelario (as Carina Smyth, a determined astronomer with a hidden family connection among the film’s returning characters) act as pale reflections to those roles here.

Henry Turner has immersed himself in sailors’ myths and gone to sea in search of a powerful artifact called the Trident of Poseidon that could free his father, who is cursed to escort souls to the ghostly deep as captain of the Flying Dutchman. Carina, apparently due to be executed as a witch by superstitious provincial authorities who distrust her scientific practices (history lesson, this film ain’t), pledges to aid him with her knowledge of the stars and a cryptic diary left to her by her absent, unknown father. They fall in with Jack and his on-again, off-again crew (chief among them Kevin McNally as Joshamee Gibbs, but the always-delightful Stephen Graham shows up as well) and set about tracking down the Trident. They get an assist in this mission from Jack’s longtime frienemy Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, as always the movie’s secret weapon), who has become an ostentatious pirate-fleet CEO, flaunting the spectacular wealth of his ill-gotten booty.

The production design of Barbossa’s opulent gilded ship is a hoot, and only the most literal of the many imaginative displays of Dead Men Tell No Tales‘ handsome budget splashed across the screen. Jack’s reintroduction kickstarts the movie’s earliest and most spectacular action setpiece: an audacious robbery of a supposedly impenetrable bank safe that involves his crew driving a team of horses dragging not just the safe but the entire bank through the streets of the colonial island town of St. Martin (physics lesson, this film ain’t). A later Buster Keaton-influenced execution escape scene features some inventive gags but is likewise physically unlikely. Salazar and his ghost-crew are visually stuck in time, differing from the first Pirates movie’s horror-flick skeletonizing swashbucklers in that their forms are gradually vanishing rather than decaying. Their ship is reduced to its wooden ribs, which fold back and open like the jaws of a voracious predator to consume other vessels. At one point, they release putrifying zombie sharks to hunt down and devour Jack, Henry, and Carina. When our heroes finally locate the Trident’s home island, it’s a captivating post-volcanic precious-stone-spangled reflection of the starry night sky.

There are plenty of fine ideas in this film, but each one is force-fed money until it’s ready to burst. Dead Men Tell No Tales achieves nothing more notable than a solid mid-level simmer of fun, never coming together as a whole as enjoyably semi-trangressive as The Curse of the Black Pearl or as magnificently strange and vaguely tragic as its ambitious sequels. Its narrative barely holds together, despite the surplus of exposition, and fails to cohere or build impact in thematic or emotional terms, despite a climactic heroic sacrifice. It’s often desperate to please, but far too often comes across as tired and uninspired, checking off less-than-necessary boxes (how distracting is Paul McCartney’s self-referential cameo as Jack Sparrow’s uncle?) rather than building and dramatically opening novel and exciting boxes.

It’s difficult not to key in on the big name on the movie’s marquee as Exhibit A of its problems. Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, perhaps the most iconic original blockbuster film character of the new millennium, might have portended a career renaissance for this purveyor of elaborately, eccentrically detailed misfits. Instead, it’s trapped Depp in stagnating creative patterns which have exposed his limitations as an actor. That this career rut has coincided with troubling revelations of domestic violence has proven a threat to his Hollywood prominence, especially in the current moment of #MeToo and the shame-faced fall of other chronic sexual abusers in the movie industry. Harry Potter fans have called for his removal from the role of the villainous Grindlewald in the current Fantastic Beasts franchise, and maybe Jack Sparrow is trying audiences’ patience, too; his highly-evident alcoholism, consistently played for laughs here, is an old-fashioned joke whose retirement should perhaps be nigh (sensitivity lesson, this movie ain’t). Maybe, given his recent career and public-image struggles, Johnny Depp still needs Jack Sparrow and Pirates of the Caribbean. But maybe, given how Hollywood and the cultural landscape have changed since 2003, the rest of us no longer do.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: A Ghost Story

January 20, 2018 Leave a comment

A Ghost Story (2017; Directed by David Lowery)

David Lowery’s spectral and tender supernatural art-film tragedy A Ghost Story is painfully, realistically tangible and grandly, metaphorically imaginative in alternating doses. In broad strokes, the film may strike the uninitiated as silly in its premise: a man (Casey Affleck) dies in a car crash and becomes a standard-issue Halloween-costume-style, white-sheet-with-eyeholes-cut-out-of-it ghost, haunting the home he shared with his wife (Rooney Mara). Unseen and unable to interact with her or with anyone else living, the ghost watches – silently, impassively, featureless – her raw, paralyzing grief give way to a return to routine and eventually to a life away from him and his fading memory.

The early passages of A Ghost Story detail their domestic life, with Affleck and Mara (who co-starred in Lowery’s festival-circuit indie breakthrough, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) settling into a realistic, charismatic ease in each other’s presence. She’s ready to move to another, better house, but he’s a musician and likes the old piano that came with the house, and perhaps its acoustics and comforting countours as well; when he agrees to move at last, they caress tenderly in bed, but he dies before they can complete the move together.

When she does move away and the ghost is not able to follow, A Ghost Story transcends the moving intimacy of its initial act and becomes something something more eerily cosmic and symbolically metaphysical. A Spanish-speaking family takes residence, until the ghost petulantly poltergeists them into vacating in fear. As the ghost scrapes at a crack in a wall, trying to retrieve a note his wife left there, a subsequent owner holds a lively party. There, at the kitchen table over drinks, a man (credited as Prognosticator and played by indie-folk prophet Will Oldham) expounds cleverly but self-negatingly about the pitiless ravages of time, how even the greatest legacy of human cultural patrimony (his example is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which distinctly interrupts Daniel Hart’s moody, affecting score as he speaks) will be wiped away by the (very) long-term advance of cosmic spacetime.

The house is demolished soon after this contextualizing monologue (easily the most sustained dialogue in Lowery’s beautifully spare film), to be replaced by a cityscape of gleaming skyscrapers. But then, in a temporal twist, the ghost returns to the past, witnessing a family of white pioneers begin to put down stakes on the site of his future home, only to be massacred by Native Americans. The ghost then waits until his living-man form returns to the home with the woman he loves, and plays a role (purposeful? inadvertent?) in the tragic path of their lives.

A Ghost Story is a lovely, symbolically rich meditation on the dull ache of passing time, on draining memory and fleeting remembrance. One fancies it even contains a sketched critique of America in that temporal jump in the pre-chorus prior to its final circle-closing coda, suggesting a scarlet thread between contemporary impersonal techno-capitalism and the precarious annexation project of colonization. But at a bedrock level, it’s a film of astute mournful poetry and elegiac sadness and loss. Like a ghost, it haunts and lingers.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Sicario

January 15, 2018 Leave a comment

Sicario (2015; Directed by Denis Villeneuve)

Before it climactically but quietly unveils its limited core critique of the drug war like a slow-handed, old-fashioned magician who’s still got the touch, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario sears its morally-ambiguous portrait of American government agents targetting the brutal Mexican drug-dealing cartels for incisive (and not entirely legal) reprisals into viewers’ visual cortex with a litany of indelible images. Villeneuve and his master cinematographer Roger Deakins (the duo collaborated on last year’s Blade Runner 2049, one of the most consistently beautiful films of the 21st Century) show us an armored police vehicle on a raid backing through the living room wall of a dealer’s house while a cartel henchman watches TV, then the same house’s walls opened up to reveal dozens of plastic-wrapped corpses. Crowds of migrants are seated on the pavement under the fluorescent glare of a bus station; U.S. law enforcement agents stand on a rooftop near the Mexican border as the sun sets ravishingly, watching the nightly inter-cartel “fireworks” of gunfire and explosions burst out on the southern side; the black silhouettes of an armed and armored Special Forces strike team stalks in front of a painted dusk-hour horizon.

There are deeper and harder questions lying behind this aestheticization of the front lines on the war on drugs, as there are in Sicario‘s ripely imagined premise in general. But we ought to reserve some initial praise for those very fine aesthetics before pulling down this silky curtain to consider what harsh things we find there. Villeneuve’s prodigious skill at orchestrating extended, absorbing sequences and Deakins’ next-level camera work come together in a scene of crescendoing tension, as our core trio of characters – FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), information-withholding Department of Justice task force leader Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), and the mysterious, sinister Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) – ride with a highly-armed joint U.S. government/Mexican Federal Police convoy moving a high-value cartel-connected asset across the border from Ciudad Juarez to Texas. Vehicles screech through Juarez’s winding streets, past the hanging, mutilated corpses of the hot war between Mexican police and the cartels, before a traffic jam just past the border crossing erupts into a shocking bloodbath of a shootout. It’s bravado stuff, and Sicario is never better, which is not entirely a good thing as there remains a good hour in the movie once the dust settles from this incident.

Kate is offered a spot on Graver’s task force, and accepts it out of duty-bound righteousness, as well as a desire to accomplish more than the usual low-level busts of her unit’s purview, despite misgivings from her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out) about the shady extra-legal deep-state vibe of the enterprise (which turn out to be rather prescient). Without getting too deeply into the plot weeds of the mission, Graver – and especially the increasingly ruthless Alejandro, who has a personal score to settle – are pulling at cartel-woven threads and hoping one leads them to a major honcho named Fausto Alarcón (Julio Cesar Cedillo). There are more firefights with cartel triggermen along the way, along with kidnappings at gunpoint and a largely-implied prisoner interrogation utilizing torture.

In other words, in most ways, Sicario is pretty standard, vaguely-politically-charged, drug-war action-thriller genre material, despite its occasional elevation by Villeneuve and Deakins and their evolved visual sense. What this largely means is that it depicts, and at least partially valourizes, agents of American power utilizing pitilessly violent zero-tolerance tactics against squads of tattooed, menacing Mexican vatos, regardless of the rule of law or the integrity of international borders or any species of moral code. Sicario is Zero Dark Thirty for the border narcotics conflict, complete with nighttime military-equipped assassination missions and dangerous intimations of the strategic value of intelligence gained through the torture of enemy combatants. Like that similar film, the impressive hypercompetence of the filmmaking serves to obscure the cynical, fearful authoritarianism at the film’s heart, lurking in masquerade as a bloody-minded tone of clear-cut pragmatic realism. A hard approach to deal with hard men, democracy and law be damned.

The opening sequence, with Kate’s team uncovering a house literally insulated by the bodies of cartel victims that is fruther guarded with deadly, cop-slaying booby traps, stacks the deck irrevocably. When wrestling with monsters, one must needs be monstrous. Even Kate, principles aside, recognizes the limits of her by-the-book approach and finds herself going along with the extralegal operation, seemingly to see how far it can go, how much burning the rule book can ultimately accomplish. But Sicario possesses the tunnel vision of the trenches, and cannot see far beyond the barrel of a gun to the wider causes and consequences of the drug war.

The script is by Taylor Sheridan, who also penned the far-superior Hell or High Water, which invokes genre conventions and a far cleverer premise to deliver a deeper and more potent critique of the widespread damages touched off by American capitalism. Sicario does hold a deep-cut twist at its core: Alejandro, who in del Toro’s seasoned and forever-unpredictable hands emerges as the film’s defining problematic badass antihero, is not only settling a grudge but acting as the agent of a rival criminal empire’s power grab. A sequel, out this summer from a script by Sheridan but without the direct involvement of Villeneuve or Deakins, will focus on Alejandro, exactly the sort of figure of gangland funhouse-mirror romance whose acts of cool-headed vengeful violence excite throngs of aggro young men to wish-fulfillment adulation (and holy hell, does its premise sound deeply politically problematic, if not outright terrible).

To given Sheridan a bit of credit, he does intend to question the premises of the drug war more than glorify the deadly ballet of amoral shadow men, and it’s hard to say that Villeneuve and Deakins, for all of their technical prowess and superb aesthetic summoning, glorify it either. Sicario does have a certain point to make about the capitalist superstructure standing behind (and choosing sides in) the drug war, but it tends to lose that point in the masculinized reification of tactical aggression that is (usually) sadly unavoidable in its genre of choice. Sheridan and Villeneuve alike (the former with Hell or High Water, the latter with Arrival) moved on from Sicario to more deconstructive takes on the masculine imperatives of law enforcement and the military. Let’s take Sicario‘s stronger elements as stepping stones to better visions, and hope to leave its more reactionary features out in the inhospitable desert to waste away.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Concussion

January 10, 2018 Leave a comment

Concussion (2015; Directed by Peter Landesman)

Football is America’s most popular and grandest sport, and, in many ways, its best ideological, cultural, and psychological allegory. Especially in its professional form as packaged and presented by the National Football League (NFL), American football is a living metaphor for the dominant themes of American life: the rampant aspirational consumerism and capitalist expansion and exploitation of its economy, the racial hierarchy of its society, the belligerent parochial conservatism of its politics, the aggressive militarism of its foreign policy, and the cross-cultural tension between the ruling national mythos of heroic, trailblazing individualism (see the hagiographic glorification of the quarterback position, especially if filled by a white man) and the more pragmatic reality of a collective, diverse effort at progress (it is a team game, after all).

Concussion suggests that the cultural and economic juggernaut of pro football closely reflects another feature of American life: namely, the redirecting and compromising of medical practice, treatment, and research by big-money corporate interests. The film is based on the troubling medical science revelations around chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in former NFL players and the league’s attempts to suppress and discredit the findings that the sport can cause serious brain damage and corresponding, catastrophic psychological effects in those players. It renders the issue in biopic form with Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) as its focal point. As a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh, the highly-educated, Nigerian-born Dr. Omalu performs autopsies with a touch both highly personal (he respectfully addresses cadavers by name and asks politely for their aid in uncovering their cause of death before cutting them open) and highly exacting.

Defended and semi-mentored by Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), Omalu claims a central role in the debate about brain injury in pro football after he performs an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers all-star offensive lineman “Iron” Mike Webster (David Morse). A civic sports hero, Webster found his mental faculties and life fortunes deteriorating rapidly post-retirement, suffering through homelessness, substance abuse, and self-mutilation before dying in 2002 of a heart attack, aged 50. Over the objections of his Steelers-fan colleagues (Omalu himself, no football watcher, doesn’t even know who Webster is before he was laid on a slab in the morgue in front of him), Omalu delves deep into Webster’s body and especially his brain, which is atrophied on a microscopic but vital level undetectable on CT scans.

Shocked at the level of brain degeneration in a man of only 50, Omalu concludes that repeated blows to the head, a cascading series of “micro-concussions”, during Webster’s football career were ultimately responsible for the destruction of his brain and thus his premature death. Omalu convinces eminent local colleagues and publishes his findings, but finds the NFL’s response distinctly muted. Omalu’s conclusions about CTE become more widely known as several more prominent former players died while displaying similar symptoms of the condition, and the NFL and the football-loving public alike begin to strike back at his disturbing and sport-threatening science with a definite mob mentality. Targetted as much as a foreign outsider threatening America’s game as a doomsaying scientific Cassandra, Omalu is supported in his crusade for truth by former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), and together they raise awareness of the risks of CTE in football while never quite denting the gleaming chrome facade of the NFL’s blithe corporate edifice of profit-driven unconcern.

Concussion, written and directed by Peter Landesman, does not honestly strengthen this public affairs story by running it through the Hollywood biopic alteration gauntlet. Far better for you, if interested, to seek out either of the far superior documentary films on the subject: Michael Kirk’s League of Denial for PBS’ Frontline series, or Steve James’ Head Games. Concussion dedicates more subplot time to Omalu’s personal life (especially his courtship with and marriage to Kenyan immigrant and registered nurse Prema Mutiso, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), but somehow leaves the viewer with a less-formed idea of the man’s peculiar personality, mind, and singular determination than do intermittent talking-head interview appearances in the aforementioned documentaries.

Smith approximates his subject’s African English accent and indeed seems initially to be on the same wavelength to the real Omalu’s slightly eccentric and flinty volubility; his introductory appearance, good-naturedly interrupting prosecutors to list off his numerous, diverse degrees while offering expert testimony in court, makes keen use of Smith’s boundless natural charisma to sketch Omalu’s own particular charm. But as is too often the case with Will Smith movies, the needs of the drama damp down his light, and his talents are hidden in a bushel of the serious and the grave. Other performances seek not to upstage the star (though who doesn’t love even a middling Albert Brooks turn, truly?), with the exception of Morse as the wildly troubled Webster, but even his steely commitment to portraying the man’s psychological and behavioural nadir without a hint of artifice or vanity unfortunately smacks of hammy scenery-chewing.

Landesman’s film in general hits the key points of the CTE public exposure narrative without any special power or productive artistic risk-taking. It displays a tendency towards compromised safety that might lengthen some ex-players’ lives, if emulated by the NFL, but does it no favours as a public-issue film. Its depiction of the stealthily-beautiful city of Pittsburgh as a depressed post-industrial Rust Belt centre enervated only by its winning football team (Pittsburgh Penguin fans must feel like chopped liver, although to be fair, most of the film’s events take place in the Pens’ pre-Sidney Crosby fallow period), driven home by numerous shots of steel skies and ore-like river waters by cinematographer Salvatore Totino, seems like a dull oversimplification, too. Yet one recurring visual motif does land with impact. Recurrent shots of the Steelers’ enormous home stadium, Heinz Field, squatting on the banks of the Ohio River like a recumbent titan, haunt the film’s canvas. During Omalu’s vital meeting with the prominent local neurologist (Eddie Marsan) with whom he will publish his explosive findings, the yellow-emblazoned stadium is loomingly ever-present in the window of the doctor’s office, as if observing and pre-emptorily judging their insights and finding them wanting when compared to its spatial and popular dominance.

A huge shrine to a beloved sport built with public funds, the stadium is a dismissive spectre that hangs over Omalu’s conclusions, no matter how scientifically provable they may be. It is a concrete embodiment of the NFL’s considerable, unchallengeable economic and cultural capital, which likewise dominates American sports and society, replacing God as holder of dominion over an entire day of the week during its season. Omalu, an immigrant and outsider, comes to conceive of his quest for truth about CTE as a righteous effort to hold his adopted country to the high standards to which it claims to hold itself, standards which drew he and his wife to its teeming shores in the first place. But the NFL’s corporate whitewash of his explosive findings, the leveraging of its power in denial of their factual and scientific basis as a matter of cynical, greedy survivalism, demonstrates different and less-lofty standards for the capitalist exploitation of America’s underclass as quickly-discarded gridiron gladiators. Concussion decides to lean into the inspiration implications of Omalu’s story rather than the hot sociopolitical outrage at the heart of the NFL’s actions. This is a mistake, and it means that the film misses out on a shot at a stronger critique of America’s core metaphorical sport.

Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports