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Film Review: The Hunt for Red October

The Hunt for Red October (1990; Directed by John McTiernan)

It’s an ironic historical oddity that Hollywood only began to adapt the neoconservative military/espionage novels of best-selling author Tom Clancy after the Cold War was over and the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. The first of the imperialist adventures of Clancy’s go-to hero – the intrepid CIA analyst, former Marine, and all-around instrument of covert American hegemony Jack Ryan – came out in print in 1984, at the mid-point of the Reagan Era of whose international political mentality and approach Clancy’s work was the purest popular-literary embodiment. Paramount Pictures only got around to making a film adaptation of the submarine-focused novel a few years later, releasing The Hunt for Red October in March 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the democratic revolutions of the Eastern Bloc, and the effective end of the U.S.S.R. with the Communist Party’s removal from power.

It’s somehow fitting that The Hunt for Red October arrived onscreen as an already-formed expression of the nostalgic fantasy view of the just-ended Cold War, a view that Clancy’s literary output is predicated on and that has pervaded American popular culture and even American global and domestic policy thinking down to today. In many ways, the Cold War mentality never really ended in the American psyche, because the Cold War was not where it started. This is the deep persistence of what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics”, pivoting after 1991 from the “Evil Empire” of the Soviets to alternately hyperbolized and wholly imagined existential antagonists to American power foreign and domestic: tinpot dictators like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Islamist terrorists after 9/11, and conspiratorial elite cabals deeply suspected on fringes of both the Right and the Left, before most recently circling back to the contemporary heirs of the U.S.’s literal Red Scare foils, Vladimir Putin’s election-disrupting Russia (whose association with President Donald Trump’s manifold corruption is a favoured Cold War callback attack vector of centrist neoliberals) and the ever-rising economic powerhouse of authoritarian Communist China (whose human rights violations and failures in pandemic containment Trump’s loyalist enablers on the Right have been eager to emphasize in order to deflect criticism of his own).

The Hunt for Red October‘s theatrical release timing is fitting because if Clancy’s earliest books were marinated in the historical context of the belligerent paranoia of Reaganite neoconservatism (his second, Red Storm Rising, was co-written with Larry Bond and fictionalizes a third world war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact), his very first novel (and first cinematic adaptation, which is extremely faithful to the book’s events) actually imagines a scenario of late Cold War rapprochement between the implacably opposed superpowers, or at least a couple of their national security representatives. This makes it part of a micro sub-genre of onscreen political thrillers made in a very narrow window of time that narrativized the Cold War’s imminent end with themes of peace agreements, burying hatchets, seeking reconciliation, and looking ahead to an uncertain but hopeful future. These are the kind of themes that liberal Hollywood could get behind as the Reagan Era transitioned into the First Bush Interregnum before the new false dawn of Clintonian neoliberalism. The sixth Star Trek movie, 1991’s The Undiscovered Country, is this film’s most notable sibling in this micro-genre, surpassing its thematic and symbolic eloquence as expressed via genre filmmaking more fully when viewed through the lens of the history of that science-fiction franchise, though not necessarily in more general terms.

The Hunt for Red October introduces a career-prime Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) as a voice of moderation, rational action, and cooperation amidst a shoot-first intelligence and military apparatus. Ironic again, perhaps, that this version of Ryan, conceived during the waning days of the Cold War, is an advocate of soft-power man-to-man diplomacy with the Soviet adversary, when later versions of the character – played in subsequent films by Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine – shifted more in the direction of buttressing American power in a dangerous and unpredictable world, culminating in the current super-imperialist Amazon Prime television series, a glorified CIA recruitment video starring the oft-risible John Krasinski. Baldwin’s Ryan leaves behind his family (Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Gates McFadden has a single scene as his wife, and there’s some humanizing business with his kid’s teddy bear) at the behest of CIA Deputy Director Admiral James Greer (James Earl Jones) to delve into some worrisome surveillance photos and maritime reports of a new Soviet super-submarine, the titular Red October, which has put to sea with what is suspected to be a state-of-the-art new jet-like “caterpillar” propulsion system that would empower it to run silent through the water and thus evade sonar detection, allowing it to conceivably sail right into U.S. waters with its nuclear payload before anyone in the Navy knew it was there.

This, of course, profoundly worries the military brass, intelligence bosses, and National Security Advisor (Richard Jordan), who seek Ryan’s expertise as a CIA analyst and naval historian. But by the time he briefs them, the situation has only grown in complexity and urgency. Red October‘s captain, highly-regarded Lithuanian submariner Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), has blown off a training rendezvous with another Soviet sub (its Captain Tupolev pursues him doggedly and thus becomes the closest thing the film has to a villain; this was one of the first attention-grabbing English-language roles for Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård), surreptitiously murdered his political officer (named Putin in a historical irony that now seems almost unbelievable in its rich serendipity), and used his caterpillar drive to slip off of sonar and head across to the Atlantic Ocean towards North America, just as a pre-posted letter from Ramius lands on the desk of a Party leader informing his superiors of his intention to defect to the U.S. with his crew and high-tech boat.

As it heads west Statesward, the Red October believes to have slipped by an American sub, the USS Dallas, captained by Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn), but the Dallas‘ brilliantly observant classical-music-loving sonar operator Jones (Courtney B. Vance) picks up a hint of their sonar signature and manages to track and/or anticipate their trajectory. Presenting all this information and acting on a firm hunch that Ramius, whose file he knows back to front and whose wife recently passed away, intends to defect (the Soviets, ever deceitful in American eyes, inform the U.S. that Ramius is a renegade madman and ask them to help sink his sub), Ryan convinces the authorities at one turn after another to allow him to risk an attempt to intercept Red October and contact Ramius to ascertain his intentions, rather than invite a potential nuclear incident by firing on him. Their rendezvous on Red October will require them to find a mutual understanding while holding the trigger-happy Americans at bay, defeating the implacable Tupolev (a former protégé of Ramius), thwarting a mysterious onboard saboteur, and deceiving the Red October‘s crew as well as the entire Soviet fleet if they’re to have any chance at a successful defection on the road to a more lasting peace.

The Hunt for Red October was directed by John McTiernan, following on the heels of his helming of Predator and Die Hard, a high-quality three-film run nearly unparalleled in Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking (he would make up for it with the legendary flop Last Action Hero a few years later, a movie perhaps unfairly maligned for its attempt to subvert action movie tropes). With that kind of resume, I don’t have to say that his direction of the underwater tension is deft and surehanded, if perhaps not quite up to the gold standard of the claustrophobic submarine thriller, Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot. But McTiernan is a thinking-man’s action genre artist, and employs subtle but definite techniques to impress the themes of Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart’s screenplay into the perception of his audience. One of these techniques is shown through the use of language in dialogue, with the transitions between spoken English, unsubtitled spoken Russian, subtitled spoken Russian, and finally into English again chosen very deliberately and intelligently to impart core ideas about Cold War worst-case-scenarios (Russian and English share the same word for “Armageddon”, aptly) and the common-humanity olive branches of mutual understanding (Patrick Willems details these techniques and what they communicate to the audience in a good video essay on the movie). The cinematography also works to this goal, bookending the film with complimentary scenes of Ramius’ sub leaving and entering secure inlets and generally serving McTiernan’s needs for clear, effective visual communication with occasional stylish flourishes (the DP was Jan de Bont, later a notable action and thriller director in his own right).

As is often the case when movies deal with social and political issues, The Hunt for Red October grounds the macro in the micro, rendering the slow crumbling of large-scale generational ideological conflict and global-power rivalry in illustrative gestures of relatable human connection. Ryan’s family life is imparted in broad strokes early on and paid off with a closing callback moment. Ryan speaks Russian to build a bridge with Ramius; the Lithuanian submariner’s father was a fisherman, and he and Ryan discuss angling in the coves of New England in the nocturnal denouement. Ramius chats with his right-hand man Borodin (Sam Neill, also in one of his early breakthrough American film roles) about their future lives in the States, and Borodin speaks with aspirational humility about a simple life in Montana, which grants pathos to his eventual fate.

We’re used to American characters, ever the protagonists in movies of this sort, being given human dimension, but vitally the crew of the Red October is afforded the same privilege of identifiable traits and earned empathy; even supporting figures like Tim Curry’s fastidious ship’s doctor (left out of the officers’ defection conspiracy and target of a ruse to remove the ordinary crew for the very reason of his rule-bound nature) and Ronald Guttman’s chief engineer (who nails a particularly Russian sense of sarcastically grim dedication to duty redolent of the character actors in Chernobyl) are given space to paint quick-stroke personalities among the larger plot intrigue. Films that render larger-scale politics in small-scale emotional intimacy can oversimplify and stereotype in the process, but the most remarkable thing about The Hunt for Red October is that it preserves the political sweep and the personal dimension. Especially given its genre, subject matter, and primary source material, all often subject to whittled-down archetypes and black-and-white moral dichotomies, this makes it a notable effort, regardless of the resonance-granting incidentality of its release timing in historical context.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: This Is the End

This Is the End (2013; Directed by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg)

This Is the End answers a question you’ve probably never thought it worthwhile to ask (and may not think it so even after watching the movie): If the apocalypse happened, a full-on fire-and-brimstone Book of Revelations Judgement Day event with demonic beasts and the Rapture and cataclysmic earthquakes, what would happen to all of the comedic actor bros from Judd Apatow’s movies and TV shows? You know, Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Jay Baruchel, favoured Apatow collaborators since his television days of Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared, and maybe Jonah Hill and Micheal Cera from Superbad, and also Danny McBride and Craig Robinson from Pineapple Express. Since it goes without saying that these guys hadn’t lived life blamelessly and righteously enough to be deserving of ascension straight to heaven (I mean, you’ve seen Your Highness, right? There’s no coming back from that), would they survive? If a pack of them were holed up together with dwindling supplies in, let’s say, James Franco’s pretentious contemporary-art-strewn mansion as Los Angeles burned outside, could they cooperate and coexist in order to stay alive, or would resentful bickering and masculine disagreements tear their de facto band apart amidst the unusual pressures of Armageddon?

This Is the End takes this bottle-episode scenario of homosocial bunker mentality to appropriate extremes. All of the aforementioned comedic actors play exagerrated versions of themselves, and come in for rough treatment in Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s script (the duo also direct and produce) as well as in the heavy improvisations (apparently only Franco, who presents as a pompous self-interested prick second only to the generally abrasive McBride, did not object to how he came across, suggesting a capacity for self-deprecation henceforth largely unglimpsed in the man). The premise is that they’re all attending a lavish Hollywood housewarming party at Franco’s new pad (not filmed in L.A. but in tax-break-offering New Orleans), along with cameoing celebs like Rihanna, Emma Watson, Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, Kevin Hart, Jason Segel, Paul Rudd, and more. Baruchel is visiting and staying with his old friend and Undeclared and Knocked Up co-star Rogen and had hoped to spend more time with him rather than being reluctantly dragged to a big Hollywood affair. The tension in their fading friendship is at the heart of the movie, and becomes all the more strained when Baruchel watches people being raptured out of a convenience store and he and Rogen barely escape crashing cars to get back to Franco’s place, where a deep sinkhole with a magma bottom opens up on the front lawn and starts swallowing B-level talent like a Netflix development contract (Got ‘Em).

Micheal Cera goes first of many, which is honestly surprisingly disappointing seeing as wild degenerate coke fiend Micheal Cera is a great improvement over halting awkward Micheal Cera (he was grateful to Rogen and Goldberg for helping him to try to escape his typecasting with this role). This movie is hardly gentle, and carries a serious body count; as in The Interview, Rogen and Goldberg’s comedy sensibility is not unafraid to get blood on its hands. Quickly enough, the cast is whittled down to the volatile sextet of Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Hill, McBride, and Robinson, with a brief re-appearance by a bat-swinging Watson, who they quickly alienate and drive off (with a clutch of their precious supplies, to boot) with an overheard conversation about making her feel at ease among so many men that swiftly degenerates into misapprehended (and actually carefully contextualized so as not to offend) rape concern commentary (Mila Kunis was originally supposed to fill this role, but then one of the film’s best jokes would have been lost, McBride’s crestfallen post-mortem summary: “Hermione just stole all of our shit”). This conflict-heavy fratty atmosphere (Franco and McBride clash over many things, although none at quite the absurd length of an interminable argument about ejaculation) persists as their situation becomes more desperate and the demonic beings unleashing the apocalypse threaten them from outside the house and eventually from within.

This Is the End is based on Jay & Seth Vs. The Apocalypse, a short film Baruchel and Rogen made in 2007 to stir up industry interest in the final feature film’s core concept of a pair of bickering buddies navigating both the existential threats of Armageddon and the prideful microaggressions of male companionship. Like most of the comedy movies from this stable of creatives, This Is the End is a predominant (and only fleetingly ironic or self-examining) sausagefest lorded over by a smothering dude-ish sensibility, with all the women’s roles either sexualized (Kaling, Rihanna, and Watson are all basically reduced to sex jokes, although the latter two are allowed to clap back at least) or very much not (a mean woman at the convenience store gets a violent comeuppance). There’s also some percolating, troubling homophobic anxiety at play in the comedy, with Hill being sexually violated by a possessive demon and his 21 Jump Street co-star Channing Tatum showing up in a cameo as a submissive sex slave to Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic raiders.

The humour runs towards the usual dude-comedy fodder of food, sex, bodily functions, pop culture references, recreational drug use, and prolific cussing (though not prolific enough to crack this most definitive of masterlists) as befits a largely improvised movie from a bunch of guys well-versed in such (not necessarily) sophomoric material throughout their careers. Your mileage may vary with this stuff, but Rogen and Goldberg are capable enough filmmakers to keep happenings fresh and unpredictable, particularly in late-film action and effects sequences and horror homages to The Omen and The Exorcist (the demon-possessed Hill is quite funny in the latter, with his unimpressed and casual asides during the believer Baruchel’s attempt to get the power of Christ to compel him: “Guess what? It’s not that compelling.”) There’s surprisingly nice cinematographical work as well from DP Brandon Trost, including the very memorable image introducing McBride below.

Given that we’re living through an era of viral pandemics, mass unrest, rising authoritarianism, and imminent socioeconomic and climatological collapse in which the apocalyptic is not merely in vogue but presenting as a terrifyingly urgent possibility, This Is the End could be approached today as either a trifling trivialization or a cathartic invocation of those fears. As befits its comedic genre, this is not a disaster movie circling and underlining the supposed realism of its depicted end of the world as we know it, grounding this apocalypse very much in Christian eschatology and its fantastical supernatural elements (see the final face-off with a hundreds-of-feet-tall Satan, who you’d better believe is on the receiving end of a penis joke). This choice becomes funnier when you consider how much of the core onscreen and offscreen creative talent is Jewish (and thus presumably do not subscribe to Christian millenarianism), but it does not transfer to grounding the events in the moral and ethical questions of these beliefs; one conversation comes close to addresses these conundrums, and there is a generalized suggestion that being a good person and sacrificing for the benefit of others is the path to paradise, but it’s not really interested in such matters and clumsily mangles them in the service of humour. The Good Place, this ain’t.

This Is the End is a shock-humour stoner comedy about the end of world with a frat-boy-meta take on self-regarding celebrity culture (Rogen cited Charlie Kaufman’s films as an influence, which is quite the thing) in which a major plot point is Jonah Hill being raped by a demon and which ends with a Backstreet Boys cameo in heaven (a semi-ironic “Christmas in Heaven” for the millenial generation). It’s more ambitious than your usual bro-heavy knee-slapper, but it still hardly reinvents the wheel and doesn’t have anything much to offer in the way of social commentary, as the apocalyptic genre frequently does. It was an understandable impulse in 2013 to want to laugh at the end of the world, but in 2020, the joke is not nearly as funny.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods (2020; Directed by Spike Lee)

Probably the main factor that make the movies of Spike Lee so exciting (even when they aren’t very good or are full of questionable ideas) is how they meld American history, social issues, and racial politics with film history and masterful technique. Lee’s movies are not always resonant and engaging narratives featuring memorable characters and involving themes, but they tap into cultural and political zeitgeists like an alchemist dowser armed with a mystically true divining rod. They are effective visual polemic; you could call them propaganda and be definitionally on the mark. Watch a stunning, shocking scene like the assassination sequence in Malcolm X and marvel not only at the dramatic push-ins and kinetic but never chaotic motion and quick-cutting edits, but the tussling street tension between black witnesses and white police outside the hall, and before that a sequence on a staircase that could be a stealthy Battleship Potemkin homage. Or consider the wells of implication and meaning created through juxtapositional montage during the Birth of a Nation scene in Lee’s recent return to form, BlacKkKlansman: as Harry Belafonte, a living giant of the 1960s civil rights movement, tells gathered black activists a tale of a brutal, horrifying lynching of a black man inspired by the notorious but technically revolutionary D.W. Griffith historical epic film about the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, a crowd of Klansmen screen the film after an initiation ceremony, hooting and hollering and throwing popcorn in a whipped-up racist froth. Do the Right Thing has myriad scenes that contain multitudes like this as well.

Because cinephiles know this, they also know that if Spike Lee is making a movie about the Vietnam War, it’s going to be just as much about how American movies have created an idea of the Vietnam War in the (inter)national imaginary. You would likewise expect, or at least be unsurprised to learn, that Spike Lee’s Vietnam movie examines and likens the white supremacist oppression of African-Americans and the imperialist oppression of the Vietnamese by the Americans, and by the French before them, in a manner that is provocative, problematic, not entirely connected or effective, and neither intellectually nor emotionally sensible. Da 5 Bloods, a film about a quartet of black Vietnam War veterans who return to the jungles of Indochina where they once fought for two intertwined but vastly morally different quests half a century later, is in frequent open conversation with past Vietnam films, especially the colossus of this notable war-movie subgenre, Francis Ford Coppola’s bloated, visionary descent into cinematic and psychological madness, Apocalypse Now (which, in its Heart of Darkness in Southeast Asia high-concept conceit, elides vital elements of and perspectives on the war just as surely as it focuses on its symbolic meaning in the collective American unconscious, but that’s a whole other discussion).

That iconic film’s distinctive, blood-ink title logo appears directly on screen in an early scene of Da 5 Bloods, but Lee undercuts its weighty portent immediately: the Apocalypse Now title image forms a splashy backdrop at a tourist-geared nightclub in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon, the capital of the Americans’ South Vietnamese allies until it fell to the Communist North Vietnamese at the end of the war in 1975), and Lee pulls back from it past a DJ booth emblazoned with a Budweiser logo banner of a similar shade of red and carrying equal representational space in the frame. Even in the foreign urban setting of America’s soul-shaking defeat to an implacable ideological adversary in a conflict (that, lest we forget, was really a civil war over another country’s soul) that irrevocably divided the homefront, global capitalism is ascendant, and more than holds its own against the ultimate idiosyncratically critical work of art about that defeat, which has been commodified to a similar extent as a globally-imported brand of weak beer. Another later Apocalypse Now homage sets a montage of picturesque and light-hearted video-shot clips of the still-friendly party travelling downriver into the jungle to Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, iconic soundtrack to a sequence featuring a fleet of avenging attack helicopters in Coppola’s film.

As the featured movie poster to the right suggests, the colour red is something of a visual motif in Da 5 Bloods. It’s in those suggestively paired movie and beer logos, and of course in the titular bodily fluid, a not-inconsiderable amount of which is spilled before the credits roll and which is the fraternal self-title for the unit of black veterans who reunite in Vietnam. It’s also the prime colour of the Donald Trump presidential campaign’s infamous “Make America Great Again” hats, which have become a visually symbolic shorthand for hard-right white supremacist political positioning in the American culture war, in historical lineage with white hoods, burning crosses, and Confederate battle flags but, for the moment at least, acceptable at the country club. One such MAGA hat features as a central symbol in Da 5 Bloods, worn with seeming incongruity by a black man (who do form the largest block of voting support for Trump among the African-American population). This is Paul (Delroy Lindo), the most haunted and unstable and paranoid and bigoted and confrontational of the four reunited Bloods, all of whom claim to suffer from gradations of PTSD from their war experiences. The others are trip organizer and former field medic Otis (Clarke Peters), who retains a contact with a former Vietnamese courtesan (Lê Y Lan) whom he learns had a daughter by him in the ’60s; trip funder Eddie (Norm Lewis), a well-off used car salesman fallen on hard times; and Melvin, who doesn’t really get much distinctive character development (he knows how to use a metal detector, I suppose), but is played by Peters’ The Wire co-star Isiah Whitlock Jr. so the seasoned viewer is ever on notice for his distinctive delivery of the word “Shiiiiiiiit!” Don’t you worry, he obliges.

These four Bloods, joined semi-reluctantly by Paul’s concerned, college-educated teacher son David (Jonathan Majors), are venturing back into the Vietnamese jungle where they fought and were irrevocably changed on an ostensible mission to find and repatriate the remains of their deceased squad leader, “Stormin'” Norman (Chadwick Boseman). As shown in flashbacks and spirit-visions, Norman is a sort of idealized paragon of enlightened black masculinity, a brave and capable leader and comrade but also a socially-conscious amateur preacher of civil rights justice and liberation theology. He’s a sort of revolutionary warrior monk (and is shot as such by Lee and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, heavenly crepuscular rays slicing through the trees behind him at one point as if a benediction from on high), a Fred Hampton of the Viet jungle, and he suffers a similarly violent final fate. He is venerated as a martyr by the surviving Bloods, especially Paul, who claims to be visited by his ghost. But it’s not only peace for this beloved ghost that the Bloods seek. They also hope to find millions of dollars in gold bars from the American government intended as payment for their tribal Vietnamese allies, which the squad was sent to retrieve in the mission that claimed Norman’s life in the late ’60s and was buried with him for safe-keeping. Norman’s plan was to liberate the gold as reparations to fund civil rights causes and uplift their people; the surviving Bloods want to uplift themselves and fund their own comfort in their waning years, which they feel their service and sacrifice for a nation that continues to treat them as second-class citizens has earned them. It’s a Vietnam-era Three Kings plot concept, with plenty more racial politics thrown in.

Lee and his editor Adam Gough intercut between the Bloods’ modern-day journey and their original 1960s mission with Norman, with occasional supporting archival footage added for emphasis as well (Lee, a sometimes-documentarian, has long preferred this technique as well). This time-period dichotomy further demonstrates Lee’s technical skill and cinematic know-how, as the transition back and forth over the half-century gap is indicated by a shift in historically-accurate aspect ratio and film grain (the older actors playing the older Bloods also play their younger selves in the flashbacks alongside the much younger Boseman; one accepts the choice readily enough, but an aged-down photo near the movie’s end puts one in mind of ILM’s digital de-aging effects work on The Irishman, although such a technique might have as much as doubled Lee’s budget, which although large by his standards is still fairly modest). Lee and Sigel craft classically-pitched war sequences of cinematic sweep during the Vietnam War sequences, firefights with the Viet Cong scored with heroic orchestral swells by Terence Blanchard. They also put together several white-knuckle tension-and-release scenes later in the film involving land mines (so forcefully foreshadowed are the mines, one expects characters to step on them at nearly every point so that it is no shock or surprise when it finally happens) as well as explosive shootouts with Vietnamese tribal gangsters who are after the gold at the instruction of shady-dealing Desroches (Jean Reno), a Frenchman who the Bloods (especially Paul) do not trust one whit but who they must rely on to help them smuggle the gold out of the country.

Impressive craftmanship aside, however, the ideas and themes that underscore these elements are messy, contradictory, and often highly questionable in their reproduction of discriminatory Hollywood war movie tropes and in interrogating the African-American experience to the war and to American imperialist projection. As Viet Thanh Nguyen observes in a critical review of the film in the New York Times, Da 5 Bloods reproduces many of the problematic tropes of prior American films about what the Vietnamese refer to as “the American War” (a phrase used in the early scenes of this film, it should be acknowledged), namely the casting of the Vietnamese as faceless enemies to be snuffed out in rousing battle scenes, a framing that Lee, eager to nod to the genre’s history, is absolutely guilty of here. The war is wrong, Hollywood’s framing has long assumed, but killing othered enemies in that war is not only not necessarily wrong, it can even be exhilarating. Whatever Coppola’s critical intent with his Wagnerian evocation in the chopper assault scene may have been, the aesthetic power of the scene has been embraced by some as a glorification of war, as a scene referencing Apocalypse Now in Jarhead demonstrates. Lee does not shift this perspective one inch here, it must be said.

Nguyen also highlights a discomfiting scene of Paul tossing a racial slur at an insistent Vietnamese vendor at a floating market, although Jeet Heer responded to this criticism on Twitter by noting the context is important (Paul is couched as highly troubled, his friends call him out immediately for what he says, and Lee has long made a point of using offensive racial language openly in dialogue in order to make purposeful points about how racism operates). Another thoughtful perspective on this element of the film is provided by Hoai-Tran Bui at Slashfilm, who says almost entirely what I would say about how Da 5 Bloods considers black trauma and the larger imperialistic implications of “the American War” and again finds that the film frames the Vietnamese people above all as victims (millions of them died, but one faction did defeat a world superpower and unite the country, after all), although the Bloods’ local guide Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen) is characterized a bit more and becomes a comrade-in-arms before the bloody end.

Vinh is one of the focal points of the way that Lee, who did a re-write of the original script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo with previous collaborator Kevin Willmott (director of the laughably blunt agitprop mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America), uses conventional themes of fatherhood to deal obliquely with the complex and guilt-ridden legacy of American involvement in Vietnam as well as its history of black oppression. Vinh’s father was in the ARVN, the South Vietnamese army that fought alongside American troops against the V.C. and the Communist army of the North, and was sent to a re-education camp after the South’s defeat (a better fate than many of American’s allies in the country met, as he notes); like his father, he fights alongside Americans, even embraced by Paul at one point as an honorary Blood, a “yellow n***a”. Paul himself has a strained relationship with his educated, bourgeois son, resenting David for his wife’s death in childbirth and symbolically and emotionally associating this resentment with his guilt over the death of Norman, and the laboured double-reconciliation with both his living son and his dead idealized mentor is a key part of Paul’s complex arc (Lindo gives a spectacular, intense performance with this meaty material, devolving in the end to mad biblically-inflected ranting alone in the jungle; no one has any idea what the Academy Awards will look like next spring with the pandemic-effected dearth of theatrical movie releases, but if they happen, the long-undervalued Lindo should be remembered for this performance). And Otis finds a fatherly sense of fulfillment in the denouement, meeting and embracing his half-African-American, half-Vietnamese daughter Michon (Sandy Huong Pham) before the two of them are given the honourific treatment of Lee’s signature double-dolly shot.

While this thematic focus on fatherhood is an approach that renders knottier ideas about difficult legacies in an emotional form that is relevant and identifiable to audiences, it has a way of eliding more penetrating questions about the war and the role of African-Americans in it that Lee merely gestures at (for example, the My Lai Massacre, the most notorious American war crime of the conflict, is used as a pre-shootout taunt by the lead Vietnamese gunman, played by Nguyen Ngoc Lam). Lee’s touchstones of political philosophy, moral instruction, and cultural commentary are firmly planted in the Vietnam War era: he opens his film with Muhammad Ali’s famous quote that “no Vietnamese ever called me a n****r” and closes it with an excerpt of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech (given exactly a year before his assassination), includes a scene of the Bloods learning with rage of King’s death while in Vietnam, and peppers the movie with Marvin Gaye songs both diegetic and non-diegetic, especially from his seminal album of socially-conscious R&B, What’s Going On. There’s also the liberation theology rhetoric underpinning Norman’s beliefs and Paul’s ravings.

Lee is grounding the ideas of Da 5 Bloods in the activism of the era that the Bloods recall with a mix of nostalgia and traumatic horror, and that’s valid enough, I suppose. But it’s another instance that seems to lay bare that Lee, an activist artist of a previous generation, is out of step with the social justice movements of the present, which view the Vietnam War with a much more witheringly anti-imperialist eye and are less seduced than he is by romantic fantasies of soldierly fraternity or martial heroism that might buttress black experience and fights for equality. As Bui notes, for all that Lee invokes pregnant associations between American imperialism, systems of anti-black racism, and the threads connecting the two in Da 5 Bloods through dialogue, spliced-in archival clips, and visual technique, the film doesn’t finally manage to say anything definitive about their symbiotic linkages, coming just to the cusp of doing so before reaching for Hollywood convention and a satisfactory narrative and emotional conclusion. The closest he comes is in having Desroche don the vanquished Paul’s red MAGA hat at the conclusion of the climactic shootout, this central symbol connecting American white supremacy and European colonialism, acting as a literal scarlet thread between the two. But even this isn’t without a neoliberal counterpoint of an anti-landmine advocacy organization called LAMB run by a French woman named Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), who become enmeshed in the conflict over the gold between the Bloods and Desroche’s goon squad. Hedy’s family became wealthy from plantations in Indochina under the French colonial regime, but she is redirecting that wealth with all the white guilt she can muster towards charity non-profit do-gooding. Imperialist wealth can be bad or it can be good, says Spike Lee. Both sides!

In the denouement of the Da 5 Bloods, Lee includes a scene in which the once-wealthy Eddie’s portion of the gold spoils is donated to Black Lives Matter, an in-text statement of solidarity with their cause from Brother Spike. Much of the rest of Da 5 Bloods, however, like BlacKkKlansman before it, betrays Lee’s generational, socioeconomic and ideological distance and divergence from the less-compromised and more militantly impatient BLM and their allies. His previous film closed with his trademark double dolly shot being utilized to suggest the future of black liberation lay in an alliance between activists and law enforcement. If that symbolic thesis statement seemed more than a little out of step in 2018, it is even more so in 2020, amidst massive popular protests demanding more significant advances in racial justice and defunding or even abolishment of the police, especially coming from a filmmaker who was literally paid by the NYPD to help improve their public image. The problem of unified purpose is a consistent problem of political activism on the Left and in the African-American community, and Spike Lee’s latest film embodies that lack of unified purpose in its invocation without reconciliation of American global imperialism and white supremacist racial hierarchy.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player One (2018; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

Ready Player One is about a dystopian socioeconomic reality existing alongside a utopian technological fantasy. Notorious as a desperately obsessive compendium of 1980s popular culture featuring namedropped references to almost countless movies, television shows, video games, comics, and other media products (key moments include the protagonist winning a game of the ’80s arcade staple Joust and re-enacting an entire scene from the Matthew Broderick movie WarGames word-for-word), Ernest Cline’s 2011 science fiction novel is quite divisive among pop culture geek fandom for these “remember this?” nostlagia bombs as well as for the mid-level stalker-ish behaviour and toxic masculinity of its main character, arrogant teenaged super-gamer Wade Watts. I haven’t read it, but film adaptation nut and YouTuber Dominic Noble has, so check out his (spoiler-ful) video on it if you want to know more (he also reviewed the film and how it differs from the book, which you can watch here; I may borrow from his expertise here and there in my write-up, especially as regards book content).

What emerges from the 2018 movie adaptation of Ready Player One co-written by Cline and veteran screenwriter Zak Penn and directed by Steven Spielberg (whose work is treated reverently in the book, as a giant of 1980s American cinema, flattery that no doubt interested him in helming the film) is that Cline’s world-building details and his narratives themes contain, or possibly unwittingly conceal, a noticeable if tonally neutered critique of contemporary American post-capitalism and its subordinate culture industry dominated by intellectual property juggernauts slugging it out for overwhelming box office grosses and fleeting attention primacy in the cultural discourse. Jenny Nicholson’s video critique of the movie finds Cline’s breathless invocation of pop culture touchstones superficial and meaningless; I’m not sure I disagree, but in the margins beyond authorial intent, there’s some grim critical considerations going on as concerns the implications of the dystopia/utopia dichotomy of the text.

Ready Player One is set in 2045, where a series of social and economic calamities (brought about by an energy crisis in the novel, the Corn Syrup Droughts and Bandwidth Riots are mentioned as catalysts for collapse in Watts’ voiceover narration, which sound buzzy and punchy until you think about them for a second and they cease to make much sense) have reduced the world to widespread poverty, starvation, and general deprivation. Our Marvel Comics name-alike hero Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in a vertical trailer park slum in Columbus, Ohio known as the Stacks, a low-income neighbourhood of mobile homes rising in stacked towers of precarious-looking scaffolding. Having lost his parents in the aforementioned catastrophic unrest, Watts lives with his aunt (Susan Lynch) and her latest ne’er-do-well boyfriend (Ralph Ineson). But where he really lives, where everyone in the world spends their most important time, is in the Oasis, a virtual-reality massively multiplayer online role playing game that constitutes an entire alternative universe as well as the sole remaining driver of the global economic system (in the book, it’s where education happens as well; Wade attends high school in the Oasis).

A vastly expanded and monopolistic hybrid of a MMORPG like World of Warcraft and something like alternate-reality social digital network Second Life, the Oasis features avatars of players vying for rewards and coins that carry real-world value. In addition to its economics being based on in-game micro-transactions, the Oasis is a single-life game for players; if your avatar dies in the Oasis, it is rebooted from the beginning, depriving players of all the leveling-up, improvements, items, and rewards that they have earned and, in many cases, spent real money on. Noble, a seasoned gamer, sharply criticized both the micro-transaction aspect of the Oasis, a charging method from video game developers that is extremely unpopular in gaming circles, and the single-life conceit, feeling that losing everything you’ve built up for your avatar at one stroke would be such a harsh result as to prevent the Oasis from achieving such widespread popularity. What this system does accomplish, however, is create a large class of players buried in crushing in-game and out-of-game debt, which they must then work off in corporate workhouse debtors’ prisons called Loyalty Centers, toiling virtually in the Oasis until their debt is paid off (which for many is never).

The Loyalty Centers are run by a massive tech corporation known as Innovative Online Industries (IOI), who under the leadership of scheming CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn, who is far better than such thankless bad guy roles but carves out some decent moments) seek to control and further monetize the Oasis with intrusive, blanketing advertising. Control is competitively up for grabs because a key design element of the Oasis, and the main video game-style quest in the story, is a challenge open to all users to gain sole dominion over the Oasis for themselves by solving three puzzles planted as “easter eggs” (a term for hidden secrets for fans to seek out in games or even other visual media) by its late mad-genius creator, a widely-revered Steve Jobs-like tech savant named James Halliday (Mark Rylance, who only turns out for Spielberg now, it seems), before his death. Players known as “gunters” (shortened from “egg hunters”) make finding Halliday’s concealed clues and keys their main goal in the Oasis, studying his memories for hints in a library/museum archive and memorizing his pop-culture obsessions, certain that the answers to the puzzles lie there. Halliday’s obsession with 1980s pop culture serves to explain the avalanche of said references in the book, if less so in the movie (which I will not entirely spoil but tend to run more towards the IP owned by the film’s production studio, Warner Brothers; no Star Wars stuff, for example, as that IP is owned by rival Disney). The movie’s challenges in this Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-derived contest for heirdom are not not based in pop cultural references, but they link more closely with Halliday’s personal social interactions, especially those involving his fallen-out business partner and Oasis co-creator Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg).

Wade’s Oasis avatar is called Parzival; the name is a reference to the Grail myth, though possibly more via John Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur film than original Arthurian stories, knowing the source; the Holy Hand Grenade from Monty Python’s The Holy Grail also makes an appearance. Parzival is a dedicated gunter, alongside his hulking virtual best friend Aech (Lena Waithe, whose real-life identity as an African-American woman is supposed to be a twist but is ill-concealed) and his sometimes allies the samurai-esque Japanese brothers Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao). Early in the film, Watts/Parzival encounters another legendary gunter, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), during a run at the first quest challenge, a car race through a virtual Manhattan involving exploding obstacles, a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and King Kong vaulting off the Empire State Building to smash any racer who lasts to the cusp of the finish line.

Although Parzival and Art3mis are rivals for the keys and the final egg, they begin a flirtation/romance that proceeds quite precipitously (the book takes place over a less compressed time period than the movie, and Watts goes full stalker after Art3mis breaks it off with him, which the movie at least avoids). They are aligned against Sorrento and his army of corporate-owned gunter avatars known as Sixers (so called because they have numbers and not names as Oasis callsigns; both Nicholson and Noble note that they are dubbed “Suxxors” by Wade and his friends in the book, a dumb online-gamer detail that feels true and is therefore missed in the movie), as well as a pair of shadow-agents: a champion-level online operator known as i-R0k (T.J. Miller) who Sorrento sends after Parzival after the latter solves the first egg challenge, and a real world super-investigator named F’Nale (Hannah John-Kamen) who tracks down Art3mis’ real-world alter ego, Samantha, who is active in a resistance movement against IOI’s socioeconomic tyranny.

Ready Player One proceeds as a video-game-style sci-fi adventure, but for once the saturating CGI effects of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster actually have a realistic and believable context: the Oasis is an entirely digital world, after all, therefore everything looks like a computer game because it is one. Spielberg doesn’t let the computer-generated artifice get in his way, though; he delivers a fairly cracking entertainment that mostly holds together at the seams, and his technical mastercraft is impeccable as always, aided by his usual cinematographer Janusz Kamiński (yes, the same man who shot Schindler’s List also shot a movie in which Mechagodzilla fights a Gundam). Pay attention to the circular movement of the camera as Parzival approaches his vehicle (the DeLorean from Back to the Future, natch) before the first race scene; Spielberg and Kamiński can impart fluidity and drama to even a small connective moment like this. Their craft, elegance, and cinematic savvy are evident in the final battle between IOI and the unified independent gunters (which controversially includes the Iron Giant blowing shit up despite being an animated metaphor for non-violence) and especially in the memorable second key challenge set-piece, set inside an impeccable, callback-heavy re-creation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining that is a clear film-geek highlight (and more fodder for thinkpieces about Spielberg’s fraught relationship with Kubrick’s legacy, whom he met and befriended on the Overlook Hotel set; as if more such fodder was needed after A.I.).

Ready Player One is not without its problems. Wade and Samantha’s relationship in the real and virtual worlds is a little dull and stilted and lacking in real building emotion from the young actors, and indeed everything happening in the Oasis is far more interesting and engaging than any of the real-world conflicts. Spielberg is a master film craftsman, but he has his favoured conventions and slots them in dutifully, especially at the film’s climax: he cannot help but drop a blatant audience-signalling shot of cheering observers to underline the final moment of triumph, and police arrive to collect the villain at the end for purely formulaic reasons. This latter throaway moment raises any number of questions about the nature and power of actual government authorities in this world that are not remotely addressed in the rest of the movie, which casts the corporate giant IOI as the main antagonistic and coercive locus of power.

Indeed, the Oasis and IOI are the vehicles for post-capitalist critique in Ready Player One, which again may not be entirely intentional and indeed may cut against the grain of Cline’s purpose. It isn’t hard to read Cline’s 2045 context as a sci-fi commentary on contemporary modern America, with its crumbling social and physical infrastructure, massive socioeconomic inequality, smothering corporate dominion, debtors’ servitude, and all-consuming media monoculture focused increasingly on technologically-enabled escapist fantasies (Noble mentions that all of this, in addition to the book’s background of most political leaders being shallow, spotlight-seeking television personalities, struck him as far more real and applicable in the context of the 2018 film release than that of the 2011 book release). The Oasis is great, immersive fun in the in-film diegetics and for audiences to observe, but it’s an opiate of the people writ extremely large (its name gestures to this: a literal wellspring haven of refreshment and pleasure in an arid and unforgiving desert environment). Spielberg, Cline, and Penn seem to acknowledge this to some extent, dropping a unplugging-time note in the denouement about the future of the Oasis under its new management (as Noble observes, however, shutting down the world’s main animating economic, social, entertainment, and educational engine for two weekdays each week would have major consequences).

This older-generation moral to the young to shut off the video games and spend some time outside dammit occupies space in Ready Player One alongside a core theme about how authority, authenticity, and belonging are understood by online gaming communities and even weaponized as self-justifying mechanisms and against inclusionary efforts in such communities. Halliday’s easter egg challenge, at least in theory, is a Willy Wonka-esque test of worthiness in an heir to control of the Oasis; the victor will, by completing Halliday’s byzantine esoteric challenges like a tough game on a high-difficulty setting, prove themselves to be a better and more authentic avatar gamer than anyone else. There’s a self-righteous gatekeeping habit to online gamer communities noted by video essayist Harris Brewis (a.k.a Hbomberguy) in his superb video on gamer-centred webcomic Ctrl+Alt-Del that is encoded in Ready Player One‘s larger conflict between scrappy, talented independent gunters and the deep-pocketed infinite resources of the underhanded corporate giant IOI, a conflict literally embodied in the conflict between Wade and Sorrento. The former logs onto the Oasis in a makeshift repurposed abandoned van, the latter has a futuristic top-of-the-line gaming rig in his office but has to jot down his password on a sticky note because he can’t remember it. Watts has studied and memorized every detail of Halliday’s life and compendious pop culture obsessions and honed his skills in hours of gaming labour, while Sorrento can only trade John Hughes movie references with Watts if he has a team of dozens of lab-coated IOI-employed researchers feeding him the info via earpiece. Watts calls out Sorrento as a fake corporate vulture, unconcerned with anything but growing profits and not sufficiently appreciative of the animating truths and fulfilling experiences of the Oasis and Halliday’s pop-cultural overlay in the way that Watts is, as a true gamer.

Hbomberguy highlights a didactic Ctrl+Alt+Del comic ranting angrily about this precise tense dichotomy between the consumers who self-identify as superior scholars of games and guardians of their ultimate cultural capital and see the corporate monoliths expending real capital and the labour of its employees into making those games for them as greedy, bottom-line-focused capitalists ready to deform the treasured experiences and betray the dollar-loyalty of these “real” gamers for profit. This gatekeeping impulse is not necessarily anti-capitalist in nature, and can easily be marshalled against perceived interlopers and unwanted intruders to the gaming world, especially women, minorities, and anyone who dares to challenge and shift the often toxic male power fantasies of the video game realm. These community practices and poses have led to far more problematic and antagonistic political views about diversity and progressivism in video games (ie. Gamergate and its spinoff ideological communities and pernicious effects) that has minted much of what is now known as the alt-right, one of the most disturbing and damaging political movements in the history of the internet. Ready Player One reproduces this dichotomy in its central narrative and thematic conflict uncritically, erecting a shorthand framework of intertwined morality and cultural savvy to establish IOI and Sorrento as the antagonistic force against authentic gamer Wade Watts and his friends. As with many corporate capitalist villains in blockbuster movies, there is little substantive in the ideological dimension of Sorrento and IOI that leaves space for their capitalist assumptions to be critiqued via an oppositional pedagogy, even if they do maintain their equity base via a sizable system of debt-burdened indentured servitude.

The centrality of this dialectic between consumer and producer amidst the gamer and geek culture context favoured by Ernest Cline in Ready Player One, book and film, reveals the inadequacy of any critical commentary in either text as well as the complicity of both texts in capitalist media processes. Cline, like his insert protagonist Wade Watts, doesn’t want to abolish or even reform the capitalist monoculture represented by the Oasis. He only wants to conquer it and thus prove his superiority in the enjoyment of it and in his comprehension of its cultural value. If dystopian narratives imagine exagerrated nightmare scenarios to highlight real social ills and utopian narratives imagine idealized scenarios to suggest how those ills might be ameliorated, Ready Player One, for all its screencraft and pure entertainment, is an oddly dissatisfying hybrid of the two. A utopian dystopia where endemic social problems don’t matter as much as beating a video game or quoting a line from a 1980s movie. Perhaps inadvertently, Ready Player One is a more biting critique of our culture than its creator could have ever intended or fathomed.

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Austenland

Austenland (2013; Directed by Jerusha Hess)

Everybody knows by now that Jane Austen’s novels are the Book of Genesis of the romantic comedy movie genre. There’s a whole lot more to her work, of course. I could ask you to step into a third-year English Lit lecture room to hear all about how the Regency-era novelist wrote masterfully witty prose full of acerbic commentary on social habits and mores and penetrating observations on human nature. I could go on about how Jane Austen is a satirist, and one of most important novelists in the English language. An artist of the highest order! She’s not just an early 1800s spinster Nora Ephron, people! Please stop looking at Colin Firth’s smoulder and listen to what I’m saying!

Many Austen fans know all of this, but many more seem to skew towards the “perfect romance” side of her appeal (even if her romances are anything but perfect, and often run towards the pragmatic). I bristle at the phrase “chick flick”, and not just as a cisgendered male; plenty of women find the conventional romantic comedy construction to be hokey and predictable, if not outright retrograde in its gender role assumptions and insidiously toxic in its psychological implications. Modern screen adaptations of Jane Austen novels often focus on historical details and don’t necessarily lean into the nostalgic meaning of “romance”, although the standard approach of removing Austen’s cutting narration in a visual medium cannot help but privilege the stories’ matchmaking sincerity over the author’s contextual ironism (although the better ones manage to preserve it, with visual wit or with imaginative time-period recontextualization).

But there has always been and always will be a portion of their female audiences who yearn for the polite, complexly mannered, prudishly rule-bound, and anachronistic portrait of courtship in Austen’s era as a “simpler” past ideal, a fantasy world of chivalrous, moral gentlemen and clever, sensible ladies from a rosier time before the fraught relationship politics of our age. To be entirely fair, contemporary women who must constantly tiptoe around anxieties of rape and violence and online dating and the multilayered pathological traps of toxic masculinity in their personal lives can’t really be blamed for fantasy-lusting after a figure like Pride & Prejudice‘s Mr. Darcy in their free time, even if this particular misapprehended prelapsarian male ideal is a rude and privileged snob who consistently negs the object of his eventual affection, who is of course the proxy figure for the reader/audience. The essential narrative structure of the Hollywood romantic comedy – woman and man meet cute, they get off on the wrong foot because she’s insecure and he’s a dickhole, but with further acquaintance their good qualities come to the fore and they fall in love and marry and live happily ever after – is after all also the narrative structure of Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, when reduced to the absolute, nuance-stripped barebones of the Elizabeth Bennett/Darcy plot and without the contrasting context of the novel’s other characters and relationships.

This is probably far too much over-intellectualized preamble for the relatively light and insubstantial movie that is ultimately under discussion, but all of it is important background context for Austenland. Based on Shannon Hale’s 2007 novel of the same name and co-written by Hale and director Jerusha Hess, Austenland is about a 30-something modern woman named Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) who got into Jane Austen’s writing (and of course the 1995 BBC Pride & Prejudice miniseries featuring the aforementioned Firth as Mr. Darcy, the focal point for many a similar fangirl mania) as an awkward teen and never really outgrew her obsession into adulthood, to the detriment of the health of her love life. Jane learns about an immersive Austen-themed resort at a country manor house in England, and pours her life savings into a dream trip to attend it, albeit at the lowest budget price point known as the “copper” package.

At the airport, Jane meets and quickly befriends a fellow American attendee, a wealthy, horny, bubbleheaded, big-talking blonde on the full-price “platinum” experience known only by her resort-only character name, Elizabeth Charming (if this character description does not immediately suggest the inimitable comic actress who plays her, Jennifer Coolidge, I have not done my job right). The two ladies are picked up by Kiwi chauffeur Martin (Bret McKenzie), and he and Jane hit it off with ironic batter before they even arrive at Austenland. Whisked brusquely through orientation by the snobbish resort operator Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour, whose real-life sister plays the maid who shadows her constantly), Jane proceeds to spend the week at a sumptuous historic house (actually West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire) in period garb and without modern amenities, alongside Miss Charming and another female guest (Georgia King), where they are pretend-romanced (with no touching, per strict Regency mores) during a series of aristocratic Regency activities by a trio of male actors playing upper-crust gentlemen: foppish Colonel Andrews (James Callis), West Indian beefcake (and former soap star) Captain George East (Ricky Whittle), and the sour, Darcy-esque Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild, acting as Jude Law’s Non-Union Mid-Atlantic Equivalent but also making a surprisingly good Darcy proxy). Made somewhat uncomfortable by the whole charade in a way she didn’t anticipate, Jane becomes close with the seemingly down-to-earth Martin, another actor playing a servant, although Mr. Nobley begins to warm to her as well, setting up the inevitable last-act rom-com choice of lover (not a convention that we can lay entirely at the feet of Jane Austen, mind you).

There’s actually some wry cleverness to Hale’s construction of Austenland that serves as layered meta-commentary on Austen’s work (especially the hegemonic Pride & Prejudice), on Austenite pop culture and fandom, and on the counterproductive pretenses of courtship and relationships both in 1813 and in 2013. As mentioned, Jane’s romantic throughline with Nobley mirrors that of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, and, when contrasted with what appear to be more natural and off-book interactions with Martin, provide a fairly superficial but entirely consistent thematic exploration of the romantic minefield of fantasy vs. reality. Jane has been living an adolescent romantic fantasy, Austenland is at pains to make clear, and ironically her trip to the immersive Regency romance resort grounded in that fantasy is just what she needed to disillusion her and come to live in the real world. Perhaps there’s a buried implication in this dichotomy about the nature of the popular fantasy-romance profile of Austen adaptations and the more rounded and realistic social portraits of the original novels, but it’s left mostly buried. Hale and Hess are, however, skilled at maintaining relevant pretenses and then pulling them back in consequential succession in a manner that registers strongly as key steps in Jane’s character arc.

Russell is vital to making this progression work. Austenland premiered at Sundance a mere twelve days before The Americans aired its pilot episode in January 2013, and this movie is redolent of Russell’s Felicity-hangover career period of girl-next-door roles, before her lead role in the ambiguous and often harrowing FX spy drama shifted perceptions of her as an actress. She’s imperceptibly good at making Jane likable and relatable but never annoying or precious, but it’s clear that she’s straining at the bit for something more worthy of her talents as well. Perhaps her director can relate: Jerusha Hess was, with her co-directing husband Jared, once a hot commodity in semi-indie American comedy, after their quirky micro-budget deadpan comedy Napoleon Dynamite became a sleeper hit in 2004 and its modestly-budgeted Jack Black-fronted luchadore follow-up Nacho Libre just missed out on $100 million in box office grosses. But then came the deeply weird and audience-befuddling Gentlemen Broncos and the Hesses became direct-to-video mainstays, which was possibly always a predictable result for squeaky-clean Mormon filmmakers working in a genre usually pitched at sarcastic and ribald young-adult male stoners.

Hess is absolutely a talented filmmaker (I will defend Napoleon Dynamite‘s hilarity to anyone, anywhere, anytime), and the gentler content and conservative sexuality of period-piece costume romances (which Austenland technically isn’t, although it has the production values of one) is a decent conduit for those talents, channeled as they are by her religious ethics (her husband worked on a modern-day Mormonist version of Pride & Prejudice, which is wild to imagine but probably actually pretty dull in reality). Austenland is well-made, even if it failed to make back even its tiny $7.6 million budget at the box office (it was produced by Twilight author and fellow Latter-day Saint Stephenie Meyer, who can well afford to light a lot more money than that on fire). Jerusha Hess, as she did in her films with her husband, is fond of and very good at communicating comedic and character detail through cluttered, sight-gag-filled production design; although her production designer James Merifield has a specialty in British period dramas that serves Austenland well in parodically approximating the look of the BBC literary miniseries, Hess squeezes in her preferred aesthetic in the fanciful re-created drawing-room froofery of Jane’s apartment design (shelves with row-upon-row of decorative plates), the flimsy surface-level rusticness of Martin’s faux groundskeeper’s shack (he’s got a modern stereo system in the corner, covered with hay and playing sad-bastard indie rock), and the “backstage” shared relaxation poolside space of the resort’s off-duty actors, a mix of chintzy tropical and English tourist leftover decor, fake-tanned footmen, and a flat-screen TV airing Captain East’s ever-shirtless soaps episodes.

Austenland is often pretty funny, to a large extent because Coolidge’s natural improvisational tendencies (honed in Christopher Guest’s ensemble improv comedies like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind) are unleashed to frequently hilarious effect (complimented on her “beauteous skin”, Charming blurts out that it must be because “late at night when I’m all alone, I put my face in the fire!”). Hess apparently had no choice in the matter, as Coolidge was unable to learn the script and thus had to be set loose. McKenzie drops some deadpan jokes with skill (his Flight of the Conchords co-star Jemaine Clement was in Gentlemen Broncos and even more obscure later Hesses movies), King (a veteran of period dramas) has a couple of inspired kooky moments, and I chuckled at the broad stylings of Callis and Whittle once or twice, too.

Indeed, the comedic loopiness often overwhelms the story and character beats, as during late scenes of a theatrical and a grand ball. Indeed, the screenplay by Hale and Hess is maybe a bit too intricate a foundation in its layering of detail and thematic ideas to support the weight of the comic abandon that ensues. Austenland rushes into the freewheeling wackiness of many semi-improv, throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks American comedies, right down to its silly cast-singalong vignette over the end credits to Nelly’s goofy-sexy club jam “Hot in Herre”, which Jane played with comic anachronism at the resort’s piano in an earlier scene, as it was the only song she knows how to play (honestly, this semi-music-video is one of the best moments in the movie even if it’s not “in” the movie proper, especially with a clearly hungry-to-impress Russell vamping with her best Lip Sync Battle micro-performance).

But Austenland is constructed like a screenplay-first romantic comedy, albeit a modestly meta one, with a carefully laid-down structure. The incongruity between this nature and its improv-vintage comedic wildness is never quite resolved, and it leads to an uneven final product. This unevenness and insubstantiality extends to Austenland‘s subversion of romantic comedy tropes, which play out rather like slightly clever reproductions of them instead, as the movie fails to choose one path and walk it with confidence. It’s stuck between the more biting literary profile of Jane Austen’s work and the popular romantic-comedy legacy of it, and this little movie, silly and smart in phases but never entwining the two into a stronger fabric, isn’t about to tackle the resolution of that dichotomy and wouldn’t have much success if it dared to try. Austenland is a copper package visit, and it feels at times like it could have been platinum.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Film Review: Hustlers

Hustlers (2019; Directed by Lorene Scafaria)

“Doesn’t money make you horny?” seasoned veteran exotic dancer Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) purrs to tentative new girl Destiny (Constance Wu) upon their first meeting on the floor of a Manhattan strip club. Destiny (and the audience) has just watched Ramona make a stunning entrance, bringing the house down with a pole-dance routine to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” (foreshadowing!) in front of a light-wall of violet bulbs that leaves the strip-club stage strewn with paper cash. It’s an indelible introduction to the core themes and ideas of Hustlers. Writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s swaggeringly entertaining and doggedly substantial crime dramedy about a cadre of strippers who drug and swindle a succession of Wall Street bankers and traders to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars is a movie about the fundamental intersection of capital and sex, the tessellating forces of greed and lust, and the purely amoral transactional nature of American capitalism. It’s about a society and economy where money makes people horny, and the consequences of a cutthroat competition for the seemingly arbitrary expanding and contracting pool of that money – the eternally necessary hustle – being driven on a primal level by those animal urges.

And here you thought from the trailers that it was a just cock-tease heist movie full of sexy strippers! It’s not not that, but it’s also something even sexier: a trenchant social critique. Pull out your cash clips and get ready to toss those bills, gentlemen, because we’re going to talk about exchange value!

Destiny is not entirely fresh to the exotic dancing realm when she meets Ramona in 2007, but she is a newcomer at the club in question, New York City’s Moves, and isn’t sure how to fit in with the girls and pitch her wares to its high-powered Wall Street clientele. Ramona becomes her mentor and best friend, a pragmatic fount of penetrating advice and insightful street-level philosophy on how to maximize her earning potential in this snakepit of desire and wealth (“Are you an investor in this place?” she chides Destiny when she buys a drink at the club’s bar. “Let the guys get fucked up.”). Destiny is soon raking in the cash with Ramona’s guidance (despite the cuts of her profits owed to various male figures in the club hierarchy), spending lavishly and bonding with the sorority of dancers at Moves, including Annabelle (Lili Reinhart), Mercedes (Keke Palmer), and more minor characters like Liz and Diamond (cameos from pop stars Lizzo and Cardi B, respectively, the latter having actually worked as a stripper in her pre-fame days). Destiny (her real name is Dorothy, like The Wizard of Oz heroine adventuring in a strange world of fantasy and artifice) very much needs the money, as she lives with and supports her grandmother (Wai Ching Ho), having been abandoned as a child by her immigrant mother (leading to a central sense of emotional insecurity), and soon enough has a daughter of her own (Ramona is also a single mother, a deciding factor in their bond), although the ne’er-do-well father is soon out of their lives.

The apex of the times of plenty at Moves is a sequence featuring another pop star cameo, R&B star (and Lopez’s fellow one-time network-TV talent show judge) Usher, whose appearance sparks a joyful explosion of spontaneous release, all of the club’s women dancing for him on the stage in indulgent slow-motion. The good times do not last, however, as the 2007-2008 financial crisis hits and greatly reduces the gusher of easy money spurting from the once-deep pockets of Wall Street’s investment vultures (interstitial news reports from the time bemoan the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, a bit too real to watch now that we’re facing an even worse one barely more than a decade later). Destiny and Ramona each leave off stripping and fall out of touch as they struggle to support themselves in more straight-edged and respectable sectors of the contracted economy: Destiny ineffectually pretends that her dancing was actually bartending in an interview for a high-end retail job, while Ramona is frustrated by a clueless male manager who won’t let her off earlier to pick up her daughter from school.

Returning very reluctantly to a greatly changed Moves full of Russian immigrants willing to race each other to the bottom for paid sexual favours to customers, a discouraged Destiny crosses paths with Ramona again and becomes inculcated in the aforementioned drug-and-swindle scheme alongside Annabelle and Mercedes, slipping a mix of ketamine and MDMA (one of the movie’s funniest scenes shows them tweaking the formula and waking up on the kitchen floor after a taste-test) into the drinks of unsuspecting and horny businessmen and traders and then surreptitiously running up the men’s credit cards while partying at the club. Expanding their hustle and their network of collaborators along with their profits, Destiny and Ramona become the matriarchs of a loose family of women bonded by the exploitation of their exploiters (more on that in a moment), at least until their criminality inevitably brings the unavoidable personal and legal consequences.

Scafaria frames Destiny’s narrative through intercut scenes of her retrospective interview in 2014 with reporter Elizabeth (Julia Stiles), ostensibly for a fictional version of the 2015 New York magazine article by Jessica Pressler upon which the movie is based and which gets at the ambiguous and hypocritical meanings of the story with more thoughtfulness than Hustlers affords. This movie is a lean and cleverly ferocious animal, predating with relish on slow and fat themes concerning wealth, sex, gender power inequalities, and criminal enterprise as capitalist acquisition simply by other means, no more or less moral despite being very much less legal. Without question, it is deeply indebted to the style and thematic content of the Mafia films of Martin Scorsese; his fellow Italian-American Scafaria pays homage with the first shot of the film, an immersive one-shot long take following Destiny and the rest of the dancers from their dressing room down service hallways and across the neon-lit floor of the club that echoes numerous Scorsese oners, most notably and immediately obvious the Copacabana long take from Goodfellas.

Hustlers also references and recontextualizes the construction of Scorsese’s mob movies via gender inversion. The film depicts female-dominated spaces in which men serve either as sources of capital or leeches of their own hard-won capital, the reverse of the smotheringly homosocial world of Scorsese’s male criminals, with their patriarchal pursuit of capital and status interrupted by occasional demanding female anchors in the form of wives and daughters and mistresses. It’s not feminist, exactly, as all of the stripper characters are too hopelessly immersed in the tumult of mutual capitalist exploitation to care a whit for liberation, solidarity, or gender equality. Scafaria revels in scenes of female togetherness and bonding like a joyful Christmas sequence at the height of success of their drug-and-pump scheme, but this is not an entirely unified realm of uplifting sisterhood; Ramona and Destiny fall out a few times, and furthermore the interactions between Destiny and Elizabeth display cleavages of class and education that drive distrust and conflict, as does the late-film split over Dawn (Madeline Brewer), a reckless junkie recruited to join their schemes by a protective Ramona but perceptively viewed as a liability by Destiny (leading to one of the script’s bluntest but funniest zingers: “We’re breaking the law here. We don’t wanna work with criminals.”)

But Scafaria also finds it inherently romantic that sexualized female labourers subject to the most blatant male gaze brazenly swindled the swindlers, and Hustlers echoes some of the criticism of the avaricious perfidy of financial elites delved into more deeply and procedurally by a film like The Big Short (also produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay), albeit in a limited and targeted fashion reflective of media traditions of neutralization of radical political ideas, known as recuperation. Lopez (as much a creature of capitalist processes as any other enormously famous person, tonally spurrious claims to working-class authenticity notwithstanding) megaphones a few lines as Ramona criticizing Wall Street’s exploitation of Main Street and the lack of consequences for this exploitation, although Lopez’s performance (which is very good in a pure-movie-star way and, although hardly great, no less Oscar-worthy than, say, Brad Pitt operating in the same mode in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) is nuanced and perceptive enough to register that this is less principled political grandstanding than self-serving moral justification for her actions. Scafaria is careful to include one male client who is milked for thousands and confronts Destiny with the real pain and difficulties for himself and those close to him caused by being robbed. This is not a victimless crime, whatever Ramona tells herself and her compatriots.

One of Ramona’s macro-truisms resonates much more deeply, and serves as the thesis statement of Hustlers. “This city, this whole country, is a strip club,” she opines. “You’ve got people tossing the money, and people doing the dance.” These words cut deep down to the transactional performativity of capitalist exchange value in America, and the seedy symbiosis of greed and lust that underlies it. Hustlers is doubtful about the purity of feminist solidarity and recognizes the superficial influences of socialist and anti-capitalist ideation in the national polity, but it’s one of the most perceptive and viscerally effective recent films in terms of the depiction of the wages of capitalist competition, especially when contrasting boom times and recessions. When the economy contracts, the ability of strippers like Destiny and Ramona to earn a robust income through skilled exhibition of their sexualized bodies while maintaining some measure of bodily autonomy contracts with it. Throttled flow of wealth sparks increases labour competition from abroad (ie. the Russian women at Moves), whose entrance into the labour pool drives down wages (by capitalist design, of course) while escalating the compromises required of labour to earn a living income (ie. $300 blowjobs).

The dancers’ fraud and theft is driven by these straitened circumstances; crime stems from economic desperation. But like the wider crime film genre and the mobster movies defined by Martin Scorsese’s work above all, Hustlers argues, or at least posits aloud, that there isn’t a meaningful moral distinction between the theft and fraud that Destiny, Ramona, and their collaborators engage in and the theft and fraud perpetrated on millions of Americans by Wall Street investment banks, nor is there a difference between the hedonistic spending habits on both sides of this particular coin either. There is a distinction of degree and amount, certainly, to the great advantage of the elite. Capitalism is the common denominator, and in the contemporary American economy, everyone has a hand in each other’s pockets (or under each other’s g-strings, as the case may be). It’s a competition at all times, and the winner is the one whose hand emerges from the other’s pocket with a greater share of the booty (pun very much intended). In the world of Hustlers, money is the ultimate turn-on, whether you’re tossing it or dancing for it.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Ocean’s 8

April 20, 2020 Leave a comment

Ocean’s 8 (2018; Directed by Gary Ross)

Steven Soderbergh’s 2001-2007 Ocean’s Trilogy doesn’t get the movie geek attention and passion that so many other franchises (which are more speculative/escapist and less basically realist than Ocean’s is) receive, but I’ll be damned if his three entertaining, charming heist films headlined by George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon aren’t one of the most consistently strong (if basically shallow) blockbuster trilogies in modern Hollywood. It’s hard to point to considerable flaws or lag-points in any of the movies (Don Cheadle’s ludicrously bad Cockney accent notwithstanding), and of course all three were commercially successful, with Soderbergh’s well-known on-budget production practices and the all-star cast not taking their usual large fees helping the case.

If there aren’t legions of highly engaged fans still furiously debating the relative quality of specific Ocean’s movies and even specific characters or scenes or moments as is the case with the legendarily (infamously?) engaged fanbase of Star Wars, maybe that’s not such a failing or disadvantage of the intellectual property. No doubt films this enjoyable and well-made have their dedicated fans, but if there are fanatical partisans out there declaiming to the internet that a character choice in Ocean’s Thirteen ruined their childhood, we’re not really hearing from them (such a fan would have to be far too old for that specific complaint or even for the internet, mind you, considering that the Soderbergh trilogy rebooted a casual 1960 Rat Pack heist movie in the first place).

If that was ever going to happen, it would have with Ocean’s 8, a franchise reboot released eleven years after Soderbergh put a bow on his trilogy with Ocean’s Thirteen. Directed by Hollywood veteran Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games) and co-written by Ross and Olivia Milch, Ocean’s 8 takes an increasingly favoured approach vector to rebooting a Hollywood franchise whose core conceit comes across as both proscribedly progressive and cynically courting “controversy”: the all-female remake of a property previously defined by its dominance by male characters. After the trumped-up and frequently misogynist online mouth-frothing over the all-female-headlined (and fairly innocuous and middling) 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, not to mention similarly toxic discourse surrounding the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy with its female lead or the first female Doctor Who or the barest rumoured possibility of James Bond no longer being played by a white man, Ocean’s 8 might have become another unlikely culture-war battleground by dint of the gender of its core octet of heist-spinning characters. Outside of sparking some mild (and maybe ultimately productive) discussion about how the film’s so-so critical reception revealed a lack of diversity in major-publication film criticism, that didn’t happen. There’s certainly nothing remotely radical or even really progressive about Ocean’s 8‘s watered-down, barely-there pop-feminism (where “feminism” consists merely of a bare passing grade in the Bechdel Test), and maybe that’s a factor. But more likely even the most rabid reactionary anti-feminists online couldn’t be arsed to get their danders up over a female take-over of a franchise known for deploying expertly cool and witty but essentially disposable and forgettable genre entertainment.

That exact species of entertainment is deployed with professional aplomb in Ocean’s 8. Its titular protagonist is Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), long-incarcerated sister of George Clooney’s initial-trilogy lead Danny Ocean, who is established as being (quite probably but maybe not definitely) dead. Released from prison after giving an emotionally convincing but entirely insincere performance of contrition for her past crimes, Debbie immediately begins prepping for an audacious heist that she used her copious free time while locked up to plan in intricate detail. Debbie intends to steal a valuable and highly-protected $150 million diamond necklace by contriving a rare public appearance for it at New York City’s glitterati social event of the year, the Met Gala at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition to the usual heist motivations of winning uncommon wealth and feeling the sheer thrill of pulling it off, Debbie has a further impetus: revenge on her ex-lover and ex-criminal conspirator Claude Becker (Richard Armitage), an arrogantly assured art dealer whose betrayal of her in a past plot landed her in the clink.

Debbie’s primary heist-team ally Lou Miller (Cate Blanchett, in the equivalent of the Brad Pitt role from the prior movies) is not too thrilled with her partner’s perceived emotional involvement in the job in anticipation of it leading to complications, and not just because of the low-key subtextual same-sex frisson between the two of them (Blanchett, with that glint in her eye that she always seems to get in silly big-budget studio films, leans into it more perceptibly than Bullock does). The rest of the team, assembled one at a time in classic heist-movie style (although not entirely predictably), is made up entirely of women, mostly but not uniformly motivated by money. There’s an expert jewel assessor (Mindy Kaling), a street-hustling pickpocket (a mouthy Awkwafina), a prodigious computer hacker (Rihanna, decked out in dreadlocks and rastafarian hat in nearly-full racial stereotype mode), and an expert conwoman and fence (procurer and seller of stolen goods) who is also a suburban mom (Sarah Paulson, who is almost always better than she is here). The one possible exception to the score-driven majority is fashion designer Rose Weil (Helena Bonham-Carter gamely fighting an Irish accent to a draw), who is looking to burnish her diminshed reputation by dressing a Met Gala superstar attendee while simultaneously staving off the revenue authorities probing her tax evasion with the proceeds of the theft.

The eighth woman is an intended unwitting mule for the jewels who doesn’t entirely play along as hoped: superstar actress Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway), guest of honour at the Met Gala and one-night wearer of the valuable Cartier necklace Ocean’s team intends to pilfer. The whole cast is having a grand time acting in this movie, one of the most discernable and heartening holdovers from the light and fun Ocean’s Eleven to Thirteen, which felt above all like glamourous, exclusive parties that we were fortunate enough to get a glimpse of. But Hathaway lets rip with a breathily overblown comic sendup of her movie-star public image that is clearly the source of great glee to her, and therefore can’t help but be so for the audience as well. I’ve long enjoyed Hathaway and found her to be an especially adept comic actress as she is here, but she also gets no shortage of grief for being a perceived try-hard achiever who can never quite connect on a deeper level, which is one of several pervasive reductive tropes imposed upon female actors (even those who have won Oscars for their acting). Ask on-again, off-again America’s Sweetheart Sandra Bullock about that, although co-stars Blanchett, Bonham-Carter, and Paulson have all managed to carve out accomplished and varied careers outside of the classic sexist screen archetypes, to an extent.

Ocean’s 8 has several built-in, barely-more-than-superficial subtexts about the nature of female experiences that are discernable if never substantial enough to detract from or to deepen the slick blockbuster entertainment package of the movie. Unlike Steve McQueen’s Widows, which smartly, artistically utilized heist-movie genre conventions to explore not only women’s complex and fraught positions of autonomy from and subjugation to patriarchal power but the interconnected nature of American politics and social inequality as well, Ocean’s 8 is focused on flashy high fashion and the convention of the vengeful woman scorned as more than a little cynical sops to narrative themes that Hollywood has long used to sell its products to female audiences.

Supporting team members do represent a superficially diverse set of racial identities (South Asian, East Asian, Afro-Carribean, Fake Irish) as well as of oft-elided socioeconomic roles for women (the invisible professional, the socially marginal and legally precarious, the tech wizard, the aging creative in a youth-focused industry, the frustrated and underestimated homemaker). But just being representatives of these identities or roles, while far from amounting to nothing, doesn’t rise to the level of using those base roles and identities to dissect and interrogate the implied meanings and interpolations of occupying such positions in society and culture. Representation alone is not political or social critique. You can say that mainstream genre entertainment like Ocean’s 8 isn’t the place to do that, but Widows, working in the same precise genre although with a weightier tone, certainly was, and even otherwise flawed superhero workouts like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel managed to do some of that as well, to say nothing of Mad Max: Fury Road, both a white-knuckle action thrill ride and a muscular feminist teardown of patriarchy.

Ocean’s 8 director/co-writer Gary Ross is a stalwart Hollywood vet of mostly straight-ahead uncomplicated craft-artistry, like a slightly more poetic and comedically-inclined Ron Howard (which is not an insult but also isn’t not an insult). He helmed the initial installment of one of the highest-grossing female-fronted franchises in movie history, after all. At the risk of being reductive, though, he’s still a dude. One wonders if a female director might have been able to be more nimble in seeding the film’s themes with women’s issues while preserving the slick and clever Ocean’s package audiences have come to expect and which Ross otherwise delivers, albeit with less of the flair and none of the left-field surprises Soderbergh did. Maybe a female director did that, in fact: specifically Lorene Scafaria with Hustlers, a grittier, Scorsese-influenced take on the woman-perpetrated criminal heist formula that Ocean’s 8 relied upon but that outstripped it in critical notice while approaching its profitability.

Ocean’s 8 isn’t invested in depicting women’s struggles or wider considerations of politics, though, outside of the reliable heist-movie trope of the identifiable protagonists stealing from the impossibly cossetted and out-of-touch wealthy elite (which is well-worn enough at this point to be rendered mostly harmless and without redistributionist political portent). Perhaps this is why its gender-flipping reboot of a popular franchise didn’t raise as many hackles as Ghostbusters‘ did. At the end of the day, the Ocean’s movies are a lark and don’t mean anything, so does it matter what gender the fiendish robber heroes are? Not much, and certainly not enough to have any sort of wider-reaching implications worth discussing, let alone contentiously arguing about.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Baby Driver

April 3, 2020 2 comments

Baby Driver (2017; Directed by Edgar Wright)

Perhaps it’s just in my case and I was generally going off of him for any number of other reasons, but it had seemed for a number of years that Edgar Wright was fading. The English writer/director made his name as one of the most talented and promising young filmmakers of the 21st Century with a trio of spirited, cleverly-crafted, anthology-style comedy/action films starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost known as the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy: zom-rom-com Shaun of the Dead, buddy-cop genre send-up Hot Fuzz, and pub-crawling alien-body-snatchers adventure The World’s End. Most film fans would rank those movies in that order when it comes to quality, which implies a decline; Hot Fuzz is my favourite, and even if The World’s End is my least favourite, there’s some complex stuff going on in that screenplay that has not entirely been appreciated.

In any case, Wright followed that likely career-defining trilogy with Toronto-set comic-book adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (or rather interrupted it, Pilgrim seeing release between Hot Fuzz and The World’s End). Given the biggest budget of Wright’s career and a minor-blockbuster summer release date, Scott Pilgrim was a commercial flop and has assumed the cult fave status that a pop-culture-referencing hipster comic movie should have always aimed for in the first place (it also closed the book on the brief and retrospectively obviously deluded Michael Cera-as-movie-star era). Some people love it, most people don’t like it or don’t get it or just didn’t bother. Then Wright left the helm of a Marvel Cinematic Universe film (Ant-Man, although he and collaborator Joe Cornish retained story and screenplay co-credits) over artistic differences, missing a golden opportunity to make the exciting, graceful, deeply witty mass-appeal popcorn movie that he’s always clearly had in him.

This brings us to Baby Driver, which is that exciting, graceful, deeply witty mass-appeal popcorn movie that Edgar Wright always clearly had in him. Like the Cornetto Trilogy films, Baby Driver is superficially a genre film (a car-chase crime heist actioner) but is transformed and elevated by Wright’s artistic vision, technical skill, omnivorous cultural savvy, and thematic intelligence into a lightning-quick stunner of a jukebox musical crime thriller quite unlike any movie ever made before. It’s a massively entertaining and rewarding return to form from a filmmaker who maybe never really left that form to begin with.

Baby Driver‘s protagonist is titular (and yes, the title is a reference to the Simon & Garfunkel song, which plays unironically over the end credits), or crimeworld codename titular, anyway: Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway car driver of shockingly prodigious ability whose genius-level artistry behind the wheel is linked to his idiosyncratic behaviour, keeping mostly silent with his fellow criminals on the job while constantly donning sunglasses and iPod earbuds to listen to whatever selection of his encyclopedic music collection fits his particular mood and/or mission. Baby’s driving skill and love of music both connect via flashbacks to the traumatic car-crash death of his parents and especially his mother, an amateur singer whom he worshipped. He is at the beck and call of well-connected crimeboss Doc (Kevin Spacey, who is well and truly cancelled but reminds us here that he knows what do to with a clever, wordy script as well as any actor of his generation), to whom he owes a debt and who defends him from the doubts and even harassment of the hired robbery crews that he drives from theft location to safety. The most aggressive, unpredictable and dangerous of these harrassing robbers is the antagonistic Bats (Jamie Foxx), who is sadistically quick to violence and murder while Baby prefers not to get his hands dirty, clinging to some rapidly-vanishing moral terra firma (represented by his deaf, wheelchair-bound foster-father, played by deaf actor CJ Jones) despite his underworld absorption. Modern-day Bonnie-and-Clyde criminal couple Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) and Buddy (Jon Hamm) are friendlier, and Buddy even bonds with Baby over their shared appreciation of Queen’s “Brighton Rock”, but even these two show their teeth when circumstances lead to the movie’s final heist going awry.

The opening chase sequence of Baby Driver is indelibly exhilarating and defines the look, feel, sound, and rhythm of the rest of the film. Set to the stop-start herky-jerky rocker “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (when did you last hear that band name?), the scene begins with Baby rhythmically lip-syncing to the song while alone in the car waiting for the robbers to emerge and get in and then kicks into some of the most astonishing stunt driving you’ll ever see onscreen in the subsequent pursuit by police (Jeremy Fry is the production’s chief stunt driver, and he does some amazing things behind the wheel). But Wright, his editors Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos (Oscar-nominated for their work), and sound editor/mixer Julian Slater (twice Oscar-nominated for his work on the film) cut the shots and audio and even the emotional frequency in this scene to the ebb and flow of the song. All of Baby Driver‘s action scenes are edited for image and sound in this flowing way; a shootout at the film’s climax even features gunshots going off on the beat. Even a single-shot sequence of Baby walking down the streets of downtown Atlanta (as Wright did with Scott Pilgrim with Toronto, a favoured city for standing in for other more famous cities in Hollywood movies gets to play itself at last) to fetch coffee for Doc’s crew over the opening credits becomes a delightfully clever image-sound call-and-response melding of Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” (whose memorable opening horn fanfare was sampled in House of Pain’s frat-party anthem “Jump Around”) and Baby dancing along the sidewalk, his movements reflecting the words, miming a horn solo next to a trumpet in a musical instrument shop window, and passing lyrics posted on cue in lampost signs and on wall graffiti.

Baby Driver is not just a theme-park ride, either. It’s a movie with soul (often soul music, too). There’s a full character and narrative arc here for its protagonist, with themes and symbolism layered smoothly by Wright through perfectly-executed set-ups and payoffs. Baby seeks idealized romance and companionship with pretty waitress Debora (Lily James) in a manner that is interestingly likened to his adoring devotion to his dead mother: they both waited tables at the same diner, he has tapes of both of them singing (Baby records every conversation and samples phrases into homemade electronic songs on tape, a hobby which understandably gets him in hot water with his criminal associates when they discover his tape collection), associates both with the freedom of driving for his own sake and not compelled by necessity and shot through with immorality, as he is made to do by Doc. Relatedly, Baby’s surrogate father-figure Doc is a fine mercurial portrait of an abusive patriarch, sticking up for him and peppering him with praise but also dropping menacing bare threats to get what he wants from his dependent. Little wonder that Spacey plays him so well given what we know about the man now, although the character gets a redemptive sacrifice moment that one feels the actor does not likewise deserve.

For this critic at least, Edgar Wright had become a lapsed friend who hadn’t been seen in a while, or maybe more like a familiar acquaintance with a habit for on-point witticisms who had moved away and thus was mildly missed at social functions. Wright has always been one of those younger filmmakers who can be a bit too clever for his own good, and between Scott Pilgrim and The World’s End and his exit from Ant-Man, he threatened to vanish into inward-gazing cleverness amidst the sort of production difficulties faced by nearly all Hollywood-adjacent filmmakers as much as due the fickle tastes of specific cinephiles. Baby Driver is a fairly triumphant comeback by Wright in an artistic, critical and especially commercial sense. Consider this review a sincere pledge to keep in touch with him.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review: Outbreak

March 30, 2020 Leave a comment

Outbreak (1995; Directed by Wolfgang Petersen)

If Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is a film that feels like an exaggerated encapsulation of the fear and anxiety of a viral pandemic like the COVID-19 one sending the globe into paroxysms at the moment, then Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak is… well… it’s a movie about a virus. That much is undeniable. But Outbreak is predictably sensationalist mid-’90s Hollywood shlock where the later Contagion is an exacting short-on-breath thriller. In amping up the drama in every moment to over-the-top extremes, Outbreak makes for an epidemiological thriller that is more laughable than frightening, more incredible than indelible.

Outbreak was helmed by German director Wolfgang Petersen, who made the tense and claustrophobic submarine thriller Das Boot in his home country, followed it with the beloved (or at least generally well-regarded) children’s yarn The Neverending Story in America, and parlayed their successes into multiple big-budget studio productions that just never came close to being any good again (with all due apologies to the legions of sincere dads out there who get alternately pumped and weepy at Air Force One or The Perfect Storm). Outbreak is situated smack dab in the middle of his Hollywood career and reflects the smothering militarism that marks many of his blockbuster productions (and many Hollywood blockbusters period, to be fair, with often unsettling implications). There’s a whole mess of army in this movie about a devastatingly deadly viral epidemic that bursts Ebola-like out of darkest central Africa (the Congo to be specific, then known as Zaire) and threatens America, namely a fictional town in California.

Dustin Hoffman is Sam Daniels (is this weird casting? I kept thinking so, but had trouble pinpointing a compelling argument as to why), an army doctor for USAMRIID, the US Army’s infectious disease research unit. He gets a glimpse of the Motaba virus’ terrible impact in a decimated Zairean village, and repeatedly disobeys orders from his superior officer Brigadier General Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman) not to intervene in the developing Stateside viral crisis, on the insistence of Major General McClintock (Donald Sutherland). McClintock is trying to suppress news of the epidemic because – twist! – the U.S. Army developed the virus 30 years before as a biological weapon and they don’t want the bad press of exposure. Rene Russo is Dr. Robby Keough, a CDC epidemiologist and Sam’s ex-wife and ex-coworker who is also on the scene of the outbreak, along with Sam’s USAMRIID colleagues played by Kevin Spacey (who gives a lamely quippy performance unworthy of the actor who also appeared so transcendently in Seven and The Usual Suspects in the same calendar year as this movie, and who we now know really sucks a lot) and Cuba Gooding, Jr. (a by-the-book rookie who barks out every line as if replying to a drill sergeant). In addition to studying and seeking to treat and cure the Motaba virus ahead of the imminent wipeout bombing of the whole infected town on McClintock’s orders, this team is also tracking the viral host, an adorable Capuchin monkey (probably the same one who played Ross Geller’s monkey on Friends, which is a Spacey-like concentration of big-time acting credits) illegally brought into the States and released into the woods by a leather-jacketed dirtbag named – no fooling – Jimbo Scott (a young and bizarrely-cast Patrick Dempsey).

You might be surprised to learn that Sam’s efforts to find the host and use it to whip up an antiserum to cure the virus (which he manages to accomplish in the space of an afternoon, by all appearances) involve him and Gooding, Jr.’s Major Salt stealing an army helicopter not once but twice, the first usage of the chopper developing into an elaborate helicopter chase (featuring some admittedly impressive stunt flying) with McClintock’s two birds. It also concludes with Sam starting a forest fire to distract their pursuers and get away, which seems somewhat irresponsible of him, but I digress. But Outbreak doesn’t stop to think about such things, nor does it get at all thoughtful about government abuses of power at the sequence of California townsfolk running the military quarantine line in pickup trucks, only to get totally lit up and brutally murdered by a helicopter gunship (the yokels did open fire first, but anti-government militias would see it as a prime call to arms nonetheless).

Outbreak doesn’t stop for anything. Petersen fills his movie with scenes of rumbling military vehicles, cacophonous hospital pandemonium, spurting blood, and violent fevered seizures in a theatre lobby on spilled popcorn. The big marching brass score from James Newton Howard bombasts away at every dramatic juncture, in collaboration with the unsubtle cymbal crashes of the sound design. Rita Kempley’s contemporary review of the film for The Washington Post called attention to Petersen’s “rabid pacing”, and her observation is aptly worded; Outbreak is a movie constantly breaking out in fever sweats, driven into a flopping frenzy by the earth-shaking dramatic momentum of its proceedings.

For a movie about a hyper-dramatic viral epidemic, Petersen’s drumbeat of portentous consequence may strike one as appropriate. But as our own current pandemic experience has shown us (and as Contagion, for all of its own dramatic developments, appreciated), it’s the dull ache of the anxious mundane and the irritating, psychologically wearing disruption of routine social operations that characterize life under viral quarantine as much as a momentous drama of life and death (though the latter is a certain reality for an unfortunate many as well). We ought not to necessarily expect a movie with a title of the furious erupting motion of Outbreak to be a sober reflection on the existential struggles of the viral apocalypse. Outbreak has neither the time nor the inclination to be that movie, and you can’t blame it. Look at that feature movie poster in its starkly serious unexpected hilarity, with the three stars staring down the monkey. How could the movie that follows that be anything but cornball in the extreme?

If anything, though, Outbreak diminishes the pandemic threat that it so breathlessly trumpets. Motaba spreads and mutates of its own accord as lethal viruses do, but at its core it’s a creation of the U.S. military-industrial complex as a weapon, and the shoot-first, ask-questions-later military in this movie is a far greater and more lethal force than any germ. Outbreak is militaristic as hell, but to Petersen’s mild credit that militarism is hardly a benevolent force for freedom, as the propaganda line goes. Indeed, the Army has got the blood of many American citizens on its hands (to say nothing of the Africans it kills as well, which the movie barely does), and through Sutherland’s no-prisoners McClintock is so stubborn in its dogged insistence on its own righteousness that it must be laboriously forced not to bomb a couple thousand Americans to kingdom come.

Outbreak is too foaming-at-the-mouth frantic to expand its need for a non-microscopic villain to any sort of actual critique of American imperialism, and McClintock’s comeuppance is filtered through a deep-subplot character arc of his relentlessly demeaned and cucked subordinate Briggs (Dale Dye) getting the momentary satisfaction of arresting his jerk of a boss. He’s a bad apple, not a representative of deeper and more insidious imperialistic sociopathy in the military establishment. Outbreak is thus a military movie about how the military is bad, and a viral disaster movie in which the virus is man-made. It’s more interested in its preposterous conceits than in sounding any sort of warning about the spread of disease. It’s doing its job and working furiously to pummel its audience with (frankly cheap) diversion, but beyond that? Don’t expect much.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Contagion

March 25, 2020 Leave a comment

Contagion (2011; Directed by Steven Soderbergh)

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic currently paralyzing much of the world and altering any social, economic, and political norms that we might collectively have taken for granted, millions of people have dealt with the anxiety and uncertainty of this transformative mass health emergency in the best way they’ve learned how: they have stayed in their homes and watched lots of stuff on Netflix. One of the pieces od media that quarantined viewers have understandably gravitated toward is Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 viral outbreak thriller Contagion, and honestly, they could do far worse.

Contagion is in many ways a highly representative Soderbergh work, a filmic story told through multiple disconnected but broadly related narrative threads and peppered with multimedia expository methods. The camera work is immediate and the cinematography unadorned, the acting naturalistic and marked by overlapping dialogue, the editing sharp, nimble, and vital. Alissa Quart coined the term “hyperlink cinema” to describe this style, and several Soderbergh movies (most notably Traffic, which won him his Best Director Academy Award) fit the guidelines. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (a frequent collaborator and director of last year’s excellently sober The Report) are also fond of using the hyperlink cinema approach to explore various facets of a complex social or political issue that the traditional protagonist-biography format of Hollywood message movies has proven too rigid and direct to handle effectively.

Contagion proves that a viral pandemic of global proportions (an imagined and far deadlier one than we currently face, if that’s any sort of balm for the sting of current circumstances) is precisely the kind of event that hyperlink cinema was developed in order to depict onscreen. A message movie with a singularly focused narrative strand would necessarily proscribe and thus misrepresent the rhizomatic enormity of a worldwide plague in a way that a multipronged hyperlinker like Contagion is not likewise constrained to do. A lesser single-narrative-thread film would probably would have focused on the experiences of Midwestern everyman Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), whose world-travelling (and unfaithful) wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from a business trip to Hong Kong and quickly falls dangerously ill. It may have alternately focused on the journey through the pandemic of a quartet of prominent health professionals: CDC chief Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), one of his top on-the-ground Epidemic Intelligence Service officers, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), CDC research scientist and eventual vaccine developer Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), or WHO epidemiologist Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), who investigates the virus’ origins in mainland China.

Contagion intercuts all of their perspectives on the pandemic together to craft a greater multivalent whole, and even finds time to include the subplot of conspiracy-minded blogger (How quaintly 2011! Who the hell blogs anymore?) Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who gains millions of devoted (and a litte desperate) followers flogging a homeopathic cure employing an existing pharmaceutical product and thus contributes to a dangerous contagion of panic and distrust that escalates into order-collapsing self-interested lawlessness. Krumwiede’s plot might seem like the least accurate and most paranoidly apocalyptic portion of Contagion‘s multifaceted portrait of a fictional model pandemic (his self-fashioned protective bubble-head suit has something of 12 Monkeys to its design), and it’s fair to say that the contemporary coronavirus situation proves this out. There’s no need for obscure anti-government bloggers to sow fear and discord with dangerous, unfounded promises of dubious miracle cures when you’ve got the President of the United States doing that on national television, after all.

Given the film’s fairly solid basis in disease response strategies and scientific knowledge, many details of Contagion will be alarmingly familiar to anyone living through the current pandemic. Ideas now common in the collective discourse like social distancing come up in dialogue, and Winslet’s Dr. Mears admonishes a colleague not to touch his face to prevent contracting the virus, as we have all been admonished many times by public health figures. The virus’ Chinese origins and its spread through the haphazard incautious contact of a globally-travelling, socially networked society that cannot easily or painlessly be limited, let alone locked down entirely, is likewise all too real today, although the film is not as good on the economic consequences as one might like. Probably the most unrealistic thing in the film, to be honest, is that two teenagers choose a U2 song for a proxy post-pandemic prom dance in Mitch’s living room (a wild flight of Gen-X fancy, if there ever was one).

Grounded as Contagion is in disease control modelling and rigorously studied scientific hypotheses and predictions, it should be so familiar. In so many ways, the coronavirus pandemic currently seizing up the world is seeing the global population react in all the ways that this film depicted, although thus far both the death toll and the complete breakdown of law and order shown in the film are not quite yet our reality (a line late in the film, as the world recovers, notes that the virus killed 26 million people; if COVID-19 claims that many victims, one doubts our social order would be able to endure it either). Is it comforting to have your contemporary reality largely mapped out in a fictional movie based on scientific modelling that is far more dire than an actual global pandemic? It’s hard to say, but Contagion‘s intention is like that of all of Soderbergh’s hyperlinked cinema verité socio-political message movies: not to comfort viewers but to shake them out of well-learned complacency concerning a problem by confronting them with fictional but documentary-immediate dramatic plottings of real issues and accurate information. Contagion is just a movie, but it has a well-researched and well-founded point and makes it skillfully, forcefully, and persuasively. It’s perhaps not entirely too late for this film to be of some benefit to our shared predicament of the moment, for whatever that benefit may be worth.