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Film Review: The Perfection

The Perfection (2019; Directed by Richard Shepard)

Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams) is haunted; by death, by missed opportunities, by traumas of the past. Once a talented wunderkind cellist at Bachoff, a prestigious but mysterious music conservatory in Boston run by the refined, strings-pulling mentoring mastermind Anton (Steven Weber), Charlotte dropped out of Bachoff and let her cello collect dust to care for her dying mother. Her mother now gone, Charlotte appears weary, hollowed-out, keeping the lid on frustrated rage (one shot cuts from her sitting silently, staring at her mother’s wide-eyed corpse, to a split-second rending scream).

The interpretation of her mindset, given the information provided in this opening scene of Richard Shepard’s The Perfection, is regret and self-loathing at the waste of her talent mingling with disavowed grief. No wonder, then, that we next see Charlotte rehearsing (out of nervousness, or to strike the correct performative tone?) and then finally leaving a message for Anton and his partner Paloma (Alaina Huffman) seeking to reconnect with them and their exclusive musical world. She meets them in Shanghai, where they are auditioning promising Chinese girls in competition for a coveted spot at Bachoff. There she also meets Lizzie (Logan Browning), a world-famous virtuoso cellist and Bachoff graduate. They express admiration for each other’s playing, flirt, gossip, perform a duet, flirt some more, drink, dance, and sleep together. Lizzie then impulsively invites Charlotte to join her on an off-the-beaten-path tour of the Chinese interior, and they leave together the next day.

It doesn’t take long for their journey to become distressing. Feeling unwell and made paranoid by whispers of an airborne contagion infecting an attendee of the competition the night before, Lizzie’s physical condition and mental state deteriorates quickly on a spartan bus taking them into the sparsely-populated Chinese hinterlands. Despite Charlotte’s assurances that everything will be fine, Lizzie’s ailment creates a scene on the bus, but takes on horror-movie dimensions and becomes catastrophic and life-changing once they are kicked off the vehicle by an irate driver.

But director Shepard (he’s also the co-writer, with Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder) has his editor David Dean quite literally rewind events, and not for the last time, to show what is really going on. Although this first of multiple, meaty twists in The Perfection isn’t what it may immediately seem either, as becomes clear once the film shifts to Bachoff for its troubling climax. Shepard immerses his audience so viscerally in the tensions that enmesh Charlotte and Lizzie first in China and then in Boston that the pivots, which may have been discernible in advance, arrive with full disorienting impact. That impact, too, sheds thematic and metaphorical light on the psychological costs of intense mentorship with an uncompromising drive for success, and of sexual abuse by men in positions of authority. Charlotte and Lizzie’s partnership/rivalry (the film always keeps you guessing which one will win out at any moment) takes on subtly complex facets of feminine solidarity in the age of #MeToo.

Williams is best-known for her bait-and-switch role in Get Out, and with that in mind her casting as Charlotte is quite nearly a spoiler for The Perfection‘s twists. But her range here is much greater and much more unsettling. Browning gives Lizzie an electric charge of passion that renders the character’s direction unpredictable, and Weber (most recognizable as a soft and avuncular sitcom player) plays marvelously against type as a villain of cultivated veneer and fanatical monstrousness.

The Perfection is nearer to great than a low-budget independent cerebral horror with whiplashing plot tendencies released by Netflix has any reasonable right to be. Sharp-witted and eagerly misdirecting even at its economical running time, this is an entertaining and surprising watch with intellectual and emotional substance, not to mention its fair share of queasy and unsettling moments. It’s a compact but dramatic cello solo with a compelling crescendo, and worth the seeking out.

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Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review – Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019; Directed by Michael Dougherty)

The big, dumb sequel to Legendary Entertainment’s successful MonsterVerse-launching Godzilla film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is very nearly pure spectacle. Where Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Hollywood franchise reboot of Japanese film studio Toho’s iconic gigantic lizard was a frequently stunning and often practically zen slowburn of an epic movie, King of the Monsters reduces the kaiju monster-battle genre to its most primal and elemental parts. If Edwards’ Godzilla was a surprisingly poised and nimble acrobatic act, Michael Dougherty’s follow-up is a rote performance of blunt, gawking, predictable adrenaline thrills, like a human being fired out of a cannon. To run the circus analogies well into the ground, there’s some considerable and frankly overstuffed predatory animal taming wrangling at work here too, as Gojira shares the screen with other city-smashing charismatic megafauna known as Titans who have awoken after long subterranean slumber to contend with the Big G for pack alpha dominion over our puny, groveling planet.

Like the movie it acts as a sequel to, Godzilla: King of the Monsters weaves a blandly conventional human family dramatic plot around and through the various conceits it deploys in order to put its Titans on mutual collision course. Unlike the previous Godzilla, which at least had an emotionally raw, honestly performed tragic parting of mature, believably human lovers (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) in its early scenes, King of the Monsters‘ human angle is mired in cliches and writing choices so insensible as to confound even the capable actors entrusted to bring it to life.

Doctors Emma and Mark Russell (Vera Farmiga and Kyle Chandler, respectively) were both scientists in the employ of Monarch, the global research and paramilitary conglomerate that concerns itself with finding, studying, and in some cases confining the Titans. They co-invented a device called the ORCA which reads and replicates the sonar-like bioacoustics of the Titans, enabling Monarch to communicate with the massive beasts but also potentially control and/or direct them. Mark (the animal behaviourist), however, has quit the organization and separated from Emma (the paleobiologist) and their teenaged daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). The Russells lost their son Andrew in Godzilla’s rampage through San Francisco at the climax of the last movie, which led Mark to retreat from civilization and from Monarch’s work and led Emma to redouble her efforts on the ORCA while secretly forming a more dangerous and apocalyptic plan.

Emma and Madison are kidnapped (or are they?) along with the ORCA by ecoterrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). Jonah’s aims and motivations are highly ill-defined for a main villain, but you know he’s bad because Charles Dance plays him. Similar casting-over-character-development strokes characterize the Monarch team pursuing Jonah and Emma and the awakening Titans. Chandler summons his standard-issue sweaty, desperately concerned dad figure. Ken Watanabe is back as Dr. Serizawa, Godzilla’s firmest believer and defender, whose laissez-faire respect for the Titans’ role in the natural balance is summed up in the “Let Them Fight” meme drawn from the previous film. Sally Hawkins is back as his colleague, and she delivers some lines, one supposes. Zhang Ziyi plays mythological specialist Dr. Chen, and despite my really, genuinely having seen the film, I had absolutely no idea that Dr. Chen was actually a pair of twin sisters until reading the Wiki. Aisha Hinds stalks around the bridge of Monarch’s massive stealth bomber-shaped air flagship, wearing fatigues and barking orders. Bradley Whitford stares at screens and provides status updates on Godzilla’s vitals, the proximity of weapons of mass destruction, and whatever other expositional factoids the movie happens to require; he also tells numerous bad jokes, including one about radiation-related birth defects (seeing this movie immediately after HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries leaves this viewer very troubled by these characters’ prosaic attitudes around radiation; “You’ll all be dead of cancer within five years!”, I wanted to shout at the screen time and again).

Much of what the humans in this movie do makes no sense logically or especially emotionally. Emma’s grand plan to counteract the planet-poisoning plague of human civilization by unleashing city-leveling monsters is an absurd cartoon exagerration of radical environmentalism that the screenplay (by Dougherty and Zack Shields) couches in her grief over the loss of her son. But the ludicrousness of this latter emotional conceit is laid bare when Madison confronts her about it, asking if she thinks total Titan-ic armageddon would have been what Andrew would have wanted; of course it wouldn’t be, he was a kid, he would have probably wanted an ice cream sundae! Heroism, rescue missions, noble sacrifices, and so forth; all of this happens in King of the Monsters, none of it feels much like anything.

But the human stories of the 2014 Godzilla were also pretty weak, at least once Binoche and Cranston shuffled off the stage. This shit right here is about giant monsters beating the everloving crud out of each other while skyscrapers topple in their wake, and King of the Monsters throws around a whole lot of that. Godzilla’s key rival for alpha status (and yes, alpha wolf theory is outdated and badly misleading in the case of wild populations, but let’s not fight that battle right now) over the planet and the other Titans is the three-headed hydra/dragon Ghidorah, freed from Antarctic ice to do repeated battle with Godzilla across the globe, always at night or in storms or under dense sunlight-erasing cloud cover (it really would not kill this movie to show us its CG monsters in the light of day). There’s also the huge pterosaur Rodan, who emerges from an erupting Mexican volcano, and Mothra, a gorgeous, glowing Lepidoptera who is kinda, sorta Godzilla’s wife (?) (also:) (!) and also has magical healing powers.

But more is not always better. There are some devastatingly epic monster fights and some big, bold, brassy shots in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, prime among the latter being the spectacularly blunt visual metaphor to the right of Ghidorah perching on a fiery volcano with a stoically contrasting cross in the foreground. Mothra’s hatching in a waterfall is tremendously lovely, her bioluminescent wings spreading out wide under the glowing waters, but all the beauty and wonder around this moth Titan is lessened by having her fill a Virgin Sacrifice role to spur Big Chonk Lizard on to final victory. But generally speaking, both the moments of poetic awe and the showstopping epic moments of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla are aped in King of the Monsters as pale imitations. Here, what held mystery and strange romance is reduced to noisy, CG-heavy blockbuster fodder.

The fundamentally basic quality of Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a favouring of the spectacle, the action setpiece writ large. It has plenty of time for its rote plot of the fractured family in the midst of the spectacle, but little enough for the pregnant political and social allegories lurking in the shadows of the original 1954 Toho film, let alone the more amorphous echoes of contemporary politics and conservation issues in the 2014 film, or its connected release in Legendary’s MonsterVerse, Kong: Skull Island, with its critical view of American imperial power (it’s also difficult to imagine the great ape standing any chance at all against this mountain-scaled, nuclear-weaponized Godzilla in their coming dust-up in 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong).

Emma’s monologue about wasteful human populations denuding the fragile earth tries to shoehorn environmentalism and climate change into the thematic picture, but Dougherty’s movie neither prefaces that moment nor continues building on it with any conviction. Godzilla: King of the Monsters can only pretend to care about the world’s problems. It seeks only to reduce them, and the world with them, into smouldering rubble for our fleeting amusement and, perhaps, fantasy wish-fulfillment (the climax of urban destruction takes place in Boston, and anyone familiar with that city’s sports fan culture over the past couple of decades can’t help but take some pleasure in its annihilation). The 2014 Godzilla was a big, silly entertainment, but there was a patience and vision to its destructive artistry that could almost be called existential in scope. Godzilla: King of the Monsters just destroys to entertain, and as a result is less successful at doing so.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Chernobyl: A Miniseries About Radioactive Lies and the Meltdown of Truth

Chernobyl (HBO/Sky, 2019)

In the Soviet Union in 1986, a nuclear reactor blew up. A disaster of this type is rare enough (nuclear power is generally quite safe and harmless, until it really, really isn’t) that it would hold a unique sensationalist interest on its own merits, if adapted as a big-budget disaster screen narrative. The insidious dangers of violently dispersed radioactive materials take on a horror movie dimension, while the disaster’s historical setting in the waning years of the USSR could be seen to portend the political and societal fall of the Iron Curtain, a sort of karmic reckoning for the vaunted “evil empire” of anti-communist fever fantasies. The fine technical details and scientific minutiae of the accident could even be marshalled for a sort of adapted detective story, a complex whodunit with a nuclear reactor as the murder victim.

The five-part HBO/Sky miniseries Chernobyl is about the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat in the Soviet Union (now part of Ukraine). It could have been merely any of the generic exercises described above, and in its final broadcast form is a little bit of all of them. But it is so much more than any sum of its genre parts, and it becomes so by being less: although Chernobyl is a handsomely staged and meticulously detailed production whose scale runs to the epic, it is also understated and scrupulously realist, subtle and nuanced, and more profoundly a study of human behaviour, social institutions, and the ever-fraught tug of war between the two. Far more deeply and broadly than being a time-capsule historical drama bashing the mean, myopic Soviets for nearly making Europe uninhabitable with their dishonest hubristic mistakes, Chernobyl is concerned with the slowly accruing weight of lies that will unavoidably collapse catastrophically in the face of a truth so terrible as to be inevitable. It is an unsettling and fascinating work of art both movingly timeless and urgently timely.

Chernobyl was conceived and written by Craig Mazin, heretofore a successful but unremarkable screenwriter of American comedy films (such as the two Hangover sequels), but with Chernobyl behind him, now a definite giant of screen narrative. Mazin has smartly accompanied the dramatic series with thoughtful and open engagement with fans and critics alike on his Twitter, but more notably with the five-part Chernobyl Podcast co-hosted by NPR broadcaster Peter Sagal. Mazin talks with Sagal about the ways in which Chernobyl accords with real events and the ways in which it departs from them, a startlingly transparent look into not only his creative process but the nuclear reactor-like balance between the hard truths of history and the pretty lies of narrative (Mazin also co-hosts a screenwriting-centric podcast with John August called Scriptnotes, so he’s well-versed in such discussions). It’s a canny multi-pronged employment of our contemporary multimedia landscape to grant depth, shading, and perspective to storytelling that, as careful and accurate as it attempts to be, is in and of itself a grand lie.

But Chernobyl is a lie shot through with galvanized truth. The first and most impressive thing to be noted about Chernobyl is how much effort is made on the production design end of the show to immerse the viewer in the peculiar, shabbily dated world of the mid-1980s Soviet Union. Although production designer Luke Hull and costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux are from the West, their local crews in Lithuania (where much of the show was shot) largely grew up in the late stages of the USSR, and their firsthand knowledge of the fine details of Soviet life – from the fabric used in suits to ubiquitous sunflower seed snacks to household garbage buckets to firefighter gear – combines with meticulous research to create an eerie verisimilitude of a social order that now seems even more strange to outsiders than it did when it still existed. For viewers from the former Soviet Union – like hockey writer Slava Malamud, whose Twitter threads on each of the series’ five episodes are every bit as essential secondary commentary as the podcast – this attention to detail has been appreciated while also calling up memories of the former regime that are not always fond.

But as Malamud and other Russian observers have also noted with appreciation and not a little astonishment, Chernobyl also provides a surprisingly true perspective on “the beauty, the ugliness, the mystery” of the Russian soul, whatever that might be vaguely understood to be (two of the great Russian literary giants, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, would have disagreed fervently over what that “soul” happened to be). At the heart of the series’ understanding of how Soviets, from professional nuclear engineers and scientists to common firefighters, nurses, and miners to party bureaucrats and the powerful Central Committee, responded to the Chernobyl disaster and its horrible aftermath is on the one hand a mixture of wounded pride and cynical resignation to suffering in a harsh physical, economic, political, and social environment, while on the other a profound love for the country that pains and oppresses them, a sharp distrust and disrespect for authority (even if that authority is brutal and repressive in the face of defiance and dissent), and an incredible, heroic bravery that is matter-of-fact, self-effacing, and grimly accepting of ultimate sacrifice.

Russians sacrificed greatly in World War II, the blood of millions of its people soaking the frozen earth to defeat Hitler and Nazi Germany, only to see D-Day’s American GIs and a cigar-chomping British imperialist PM get the lion’s share of the credit in the post-war cultural debriefing. The Soviet Union’s sacrifice had little of the grandstanding of its Western democratic allies, but the WWII-era USSR’s solution of throwing overwhelming numbers of human bodies at its enemy was repeated, in many ways, at Chernobyl. The Soviet Union could ill afford the massive cost in manpower, materiel, and money that characterized the Chernobyl containment, clean-up, and “liquidation”, and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev claimed that Chernobyl more than anything else finally brought down the USSR (it was going down soon anyway, though Chernobyl may have accelerated the breakdown).

Chernobyl documents these sacrifices and costs again and again, and the number of (mostly) men willing to lay down their lives at various critical junctures in the cleanup efforts will strike the viewer in America or the UK or Canada as amazing and insensible. As Malamud points out (and it’s not an observation that I, as a non-Russian, would dare to make entirely on my own), Russian strength, resilience and willingness to sacrifice the individual need for the betterment of the collective is very Eastern in character, not just a corollary of communist ideology but reflective of a mindset moulded by the unique history and environment and social and political order of the broader Russian nation. Chernobyl provides a striking contrast for the Western viewer, used to the gospel of happiness and individual worth; Russia, as Malamud observes, is not a happy place, and it does not value the individual above the collective. But it is because of this that it was able to respond to the Chernobyl disaster in the manner that was required, a manner that frequently counted lives and sent smaller numbers of men to their likely deaths to save the larger population by dousing radioactive fires, draining cooling tanks to prevent an apocalyptic thermal explosion, digging tunnels underneath the reactor to prevent a meltdown, and removing radioactive graphite from the exploded core from roofs with simple shovels.

The human costs of Chernobyl are written on the faces of the series’ core (mostly British) cast. Jared Harris, who after last year’s outstanding The Terror has carved out a niche for himself as the rational voice of warning in richly textured, bleakly metaphorical historical dramas, is Valery Legasov, a nuclear scientist sent to assess and address the Chernobyl incident. Legasov’s suicide two years to the day after the disaster is Chernobyl‘s initiating incident, and the rest of the series follows his wearily practical assessments of the damage and increasingly strident and dangerous criticism of the state’s failures and corner-cutting measures that contributed greatly to the accident. Aiding him with gravel-voiced, steel-spined bureaucratic muscle is Stellan Skarsgård’s Boris Shcherbina, who like much of the Soviet power structure initially doubts Legasov’s alarums on the dire severity of the situation but soon enough gains appreciation and admiration for the scientist’s knowledge; after Legasov explains how a nuclear reactor works under Shcherbina’s threat of being thrown from a helicopter, there is a thawing of tensions that eventually grows to a sort of limited professional collaborative friendship.

As Shcherbina marshals overwhelming manpower, a fleet of helicopters to douse the burning reactor with sand and boron, lunar rovers and a West German police robot to clear the radioactive roofs, and any other resources Legasov deems necessary to lessen Chernobyl’s terrible post-explosion impact, Emily Watson’s Ulana Khomyuk plays detective, investigating the causes of the disaster. A composite character representing the legion of nuclear physicists and other scientific minds who aided Legasov in responding to the disaster in its aftermath, Khomyuk is even more willing to call out the incompetence of the Soviet power structure than Legasov (in real life a committed Communist Party ideologue who was slow to publically acknowledge where the ultimate fault for Chernobyl lay).

The heartbreaking human costs of the disaster are imparted through the subplot of Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Irish actress Jessie Buckley) and her firefighter husband Vasily (Adam Nagaitis, Harris’ co-star from The Terror); Vasily is among the first responders to the power plant fire on the night of the explosion and dies in agony from the radiation poisoning, but not without the loving Lyudmilla by his side to the end, even though her own exposure to the radiation devouring his body claims the life of their unborn child. In the series’ difficult fourth episode, Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk) is Pavel, a green recruit to the ranks of the clean-up crew of liquidators (many of them hardened veterans of the USSR’s war in Afghanistan) who is assigned to animal control, the wrenching elimination of the irradiated housepets left behind in the evacuation of the Exclusion Zone.

As tremendous as Chernobyl is, Mazin turns it towards a more conventional sense of narrative closure and blame of antagonists for the worst aspects of the disaster in the final episode. Intercutting the show trial of the promotion-minded engineers in charge of Chernobyl’s Reactor Four (Paul Ritter, Con O’Neill, Adrian Rawlins) on the night of the disaster with a belated re-creation of the fateful events of the night in that room, Mazin and director Johan Renck find a highly hateable (and surprisingly meme-able) villain in Ritter’s recklessly arrogant Anatoly Dyatlov, and allow Harris as Legasov (a figure not even present at the trial) to not only clearly and compellingly demonstrate what went wrong (good) but also launch into a dramatic courtroom thesis statement speech about bureaucratic lying and how the harsh truth always catches up to it, with often deadly consequences (less good). It’s a climactic moment of shameless dramatic license that may have been earned by a miniseries otherwise mostly characterized by heartening historical fidelity, but turning Legasov into a grandstanding, truth-defending Slavonic Atticus Finch in the closing episode is still an indulgence that Mazin ought to have resisted.

Chernobyl found fans and admirers not only among the standard prestige television cosmopolitan liberal audience, but among conservative commentators who characterisitically read it as a simple and blunt takedown of Soviet corruption and incompetence (and what, they bleat, do you think would happen if Bernie Sanders became President? Vote Trump! Who we deeply morally object to, we swear!). Although many former Soviet citizens, as noted, found the miniseries to be accurate and even affecting, Putinists and nationalists chafed at the critical tone and the revisiting of Chernobyl’s humiliation; a propagandistic Russian production based in anti-Western conspiracy theories is apparently planned in response.

Mazin himself has superficially resisted firm ideological readings, at least those from the right, preferring instead to emphasize the human fallibility at the core of the disaster. But he has also related the miniseries’ central metaphor about the radioactive nature of lies and the inevitable meltdown that is the truth to contemporary political discourse in its primary airing locations of the United States (where the dizzying layers of lies of the Trump Administration have already precipitated disasters such as the inadequate response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the migrant concentration camps along the southern border) and the United Kingdom (where the irresponsible dishonesty of the powerful that has underscored Brexit remains a sword of Damocles poised above Britain, Ireland, the rest of the EU, and the whole world). Chernobyl does not contain the root causes of its radioactive horrors in the past, but shows how human errors and compounding deceits threaten the stability and safety of the social order, even today.

Categories: History, Reviews, Television

Film Review: Blood Diamond

Blood Diamond (2006; Directed by Edward Zwick)

To pinpoint exactly what is wrong with Edward Zwick’s action epic about African civil war and resource exploitation, it makes most sense to begin at the end. With apologies to any readers concerned with my spoiling the closing moments of a 13-year-old film that’s been available on Netflix for years, Blood Diamond‘s final scene is intended to be inspiring. Humble fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) survived Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war, escaped to the West with his family, and made a fortune from a diamond he found, retrieved and sold at great personal risk, which was also used to expose the sale of conflict diamonds by the van de Kaap diamond cartel (based on De Beers, the real-world diamond trade kingpins who, until very recently, held a virtual monopoly on the global diamond market).

Solomon is called as a guest speaker at a South African conference at which an agreement was reached to limit the sale of “blood diamonds” (an agreement now frequently criticized as an ineffective measure against illegal diamond extraction, smuggling, and trade in Africa). The august white man introducing him notes with a rhetorical flourish that Third-World Africa has a voice on this issue as well, and Solomon Vandy’s story represents that voice. Vandy enters to standing applause, basking in it as he takes to the podium… and the movie fades to black before he can say a word.

The film that we’ve just seen, of course, is his story, and we hardly require it repeated in dialogue at the conclusion. But then, Blood Diamond is told more from the perspective of Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), the canny, slippery Rhodesian (a.k.a. Zimbabwean) smuggler, gunrunner, and soldier of fortune who starts off using Solomon to get to his diamond but winds up laying down his life to help Solomon and his son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers) to escape with the precious stone in a classically patronizing white saviour redemption arc. Given this fact, the seemingly minor contradiction that Zwick ends his film on – it’s voices like Solomon’s that matter, but we don’t need to hear them – gains added problematic dimension.

Blood Diamond features graphic depictions of African war atrocities alongside a repeated weary refrain, mostly uttered by intrepid but frustrated reporter Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), that no amount of atrocity will gain the fickle attention of the wealthy West, let alone spur so-called First World nations to decisive action against violent conflicts or endemic resource exploitation in Africa. Zwick’s film, written by Charles Leavitt, expresses this sentiment to no small extent to elevate itself above media that gives lip service to these problems but doesn’t care deeply enough about them to make a difference, to say nothing of the blithe American consumers so dazzled by the sparkle of an engagement ring that they can’t be troubled to do enough bare minimum research to ensure that hundreds or thousands of lives were not taken to bring it to their finger. Even Bowen’s personal-interest tearjerker article draft about Solomon’s fleeting reunion with his family at a refugee camp in Guinea is discussed in terms of its exploitative, heart-string-tugging nature, rather than as crusading, world-altering journalism.

Blood Diamond, then, is a film that is at pains to make it crystal-clear that its creators are acutely aware of white Western narratives that exploit African traumas for entertainment and edification. Which makes it all the worse when it proceeds to exploit African traumas for entertainment and edification. The aforementioned sequences of mass slaughter of civilians or executions and mutilations of captives or indoctrination and employment of child soldiers are just abominably harrowing, given Zwick’s non-stylized straight-ahead realist style. But they are also pulse-quickening action set-pieces, with Archer and Vandy and sometimes Bowen as well in great peril as they navigate African urban streets or jungle terrain under a torrent of bullets. Zwick, a seasoned hand at war epics with problematic racial politics (more on that in a moment), can’t help but render exciting what ought to be horrifying, and James Newton Howard’s pulsating action score in these sequences pushes them on to spectacle. In a film that, by its own implicit admission, is determined not to exploit its subject, Zwick expertly portrays these shootouts as exhilarating when he needed to favour a “war is hell” approach.

Running with DiCaprio’s Archer as its true protagonist is another of Blood Diamond‘s faults. It’s not that he gives a bad performance (got a Best Actor Oscar nom for it, didn’t he?), though his Rhodesian accent almost certainly slips now and again. Leavitt’s script probably spends too much time teasing a soft-romance connection between Archer and Maddy Bowen, as well, before realizing it has to make up for lost time and build up a respect and fondness between Archer and Solomon in the last 40 minutes if the climax is to work at all. No, the indulgence of an old-fashioned white saviour trope in the middle of a movie otherwise (superficially) intent on recognizing the weaknesses of media discourse concerning Africa and its continuing tragedies is fatally retrograde.

Archer is willing to exploit on a wider scale for his own selfish gain, until he is confronted in a sustained fashion with the personal costs of what he and others like him are doing, and sacrifices himself for the greater good. Blood Diamond also engages in some authenticity politics on behalf of Africa’s white colonial population, as Archer and his former commanding officer Colonel Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo) discuss how they both belong to the red earth of Africa, a moment which has a callback in Archer’s final scene but which also carries some associations with romantic white nationalist nostalgia for colonial rule and apartheid (which is nonetheless disavowed, of course).

Edward Zwick was the director of Glory and The Last Samurai, two Hollywood war epics that treated the tragic traumas of non-white warriors (African-Americans during the Civil War, Japanese samurai in the industrialized late 1800s) as elegiac and proud passings-away, shepherded by messianic white saviour figures. It’s a classic liberal-Hollywood formulation in many ways, and Zwick is a veteran captain at the ship’s helm, steering it into entirely the wrong troubled waters in the case of Blood Diamond. Africa has been a board where the best and (more frequently) the worst intentions of white colonial and post-colonial powers have been played out. The power of a mere movie to overcome that, of course, is highly questionable, or more likely not questionable at all: it cannot. But Blood Diamond includes gestures and even stronger elements that suggest its best intentions might have been smart and conscientious ones too. Instead, through its dominant thematic perspective and final heart-lifting paean to an ineffectual pact to end the bloody exploitations of the African conflict diamond trade, this film cannot help but seem like more of the same. And from simple Hollywood movies on up to the complexities of international aid, politics, and trade, Africa needs far more than more of the same.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The Favourite

The Favourite (2018; Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)

The Hollywood awards-season breakthrough from idiosyncratic Greek arthouse auteur Yorgos Lanthimos is a mordant dark comedy of society, manners, love, and politics. The Favourite features a central triangle of defining, superb performances from three very different actresses (and a fourth fine turn from a rising male actor) and displays technical virtuosity that doesn’t merely impress but deepens and defamiliarizes genre material that might have slipped to the predictable. Lanthimos and his team painstakingly re-create the royal court of early 18th-century Britain, but The Favourite possesses and transforms the period costume drama like a parasitic wasp, devouring it from the inside out and turning it into a work with a skewed and troublingly absurd view of privilege, power, and human nature.

In 1708, Great Britain’s final Stuart monarch Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance) is constantly unwell and adrift in her own court. Her country battles longtime enemy France in the War of Spanish Succession, and her friend, confidant, court favourite, sometimes lesbian lover, and defacto regent Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) argues for its continuation, with property taxes across the realm to be raised to fund the effort. Sarah’s motivation to keep the war going is threefold, though largely implied: it increases the prestige of her husband the 1st Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatiss), who commands British forces, allows the Churchills to skim money from the war purse to fund their extravagant lifestyle and building projects (including Blenheim Palace, the opulent near-royal-level palatial home in Oxfordshire begun in Sarah’s lifetime, later the birthplace of their descendant and historical biographer Winston Churchill), and sends her husband away from court so that she may tryst with and influence the Queen unimpeded by his presence.

She is opposed by parliamentarian (and later Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer) Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult, in that fourth and often overlooked excellent performance), who wants to end the war and avoid tax rises. At this time, Sarah’s penniless cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arrives at court and takes work as a scullery maid, but her intelligence and cunning sees her rise to a lady of the bedchamber to Queen Anne, which sees her enter into direct conflict with Sarah over closeness to and influence over the moody and ill queen. Their increasingly hostile rivalry over the queen’s affections is used by Harley to leverage his power in the government over the 1st Earl of Godolphin (James Smith), who sides with the Duchess while opposition leader Harley is fed information by Abigail, who also hooks a future husband in military officer Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn).

Working from a script by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, Lanthimos, who usually writes his own films with inimitable deadpan absurdism, emblazons his peculiar brand on The Favourite visually, tonally, and thematically. The production values re-creating the upper-crust world of the early 1700s are exquisite, although Lanthimos and his cinematographer Robbie Ryan rarely linger on sumptuous details of the set or costume design. Lighting is pale and natural, coming in the day from sunlight through windows and at night from flickering candlelight, like Stanley Kubrick’s period epic Barry Lyndon. The camera moves with disarming fluidity in the historic spaces that provide the film’s setting (Hatfield House and Hampton Court Palace, primarily) that is the result of neither Steadicam nor track dolly work. These tracking shots, panoramic pivots, and Lanthimos’ use of wide and fisheye lenses turn these elegant spaces into inhospitable and claustrophobic gilded cells, with metaphorical bars of ambition, jealousy, loneliness, and regret.

Lanthimos also pushed his actors to detach from the meaning of their lines, putting them through absurd, experimental-theatre rehearsals of bizarre physical contortion exercises to render their performing reactions ever more instinctual. The result is more strange, primal defamiliarization, encouraging random deadpan absurdities to burst through the rich psychological and interpersonal atmosphere being crafted. Weisz, who worked with Lanthimos on The Lobster, stays focused laser-like on the Duchess’ manipulative steeliness, while Stone and Colman, comic actresses at their core, employ the atonal liberty to explore unpredictable respective corners of Abigail’s faux-naive ingratiating instincts and Queen Anne’s fickle and emotionally needy grasping nature. Hoult leans into both Harley’s clever, ruthless string-pulling and his sartorial clowniness; he can give the appearance of being connivingly ahead of the game and humiliatingly baffled at the same time. The numerous pages and footmen are slow-witted, awkward, and terrified of the changeable queen. Most bizarrely, Alwyn and Weisz share a dance at a ball which departs wholly from historical accuracy and becomes a weird and hilarious semi-modern, semi-improvised vogue that drives a jealous and self-conscious Queen Anne to call an end to the whole affair.

Lanthimos also continues his career fixation on animals. One scene features ducks racing in slow motion in a drawing room to the delight of ludicrous aristocrats (Godolphin owns the duck racing champion and ridiculously walks it on a leash). The shifting power dynamic between Sarah and Abigail is imparted through a series conversations during live-bird shooting sessions, with the increasingly assured and Machiavellian Abigail moving from a place of sympathy for the creatures to efficiently blasting them from the sky, once so vindictively close to Sarah as to splashback bird blood on her face. Most charged with symbolism are Queen Anne’s 17 pet rabbits, one for each child she had borne and lost. Sarah considers them morbid and tells the queen so, but Abigail feigns affection for them to get into Anne’s good graces before becoming so confident in those graces as to casually threaten injury or death to one of them.

The rabbits also feature in Lanthimos’ arty closing superimposition shot, contrasting Colman’s Queen Anne grimly determined to assert her power over a prostrate Abigail while hopping bunnies fill the background. Lanthimos cultivates ambiguity in this moment, but it’s fairly unambiguous, honestly. The rabbits are Anne’s isolation and tragic regret, her diminishing health and mental acuity made manifest, hopping unrestrained through her prison-like palace rooms. Abigail lets them loose as she lets the Queen loose, leading her to assert greater control over official affairs such as the war and taxes than under the stewardship of Sarah Churchill. But the animals, like the queen, go out of Abigail’s control, and the final shot is a re-assertion of royal authority over the wheedling influence of court favourites. Power is still power, The Favourite reinforces, even if it lies in the unreliable hands of the capricious, the self-interested, and the barely-competent. As if, today, we needed this point to be made clear to us.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk (2008; Directed by Louis Leterrier)

Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk was the only remaining movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that yours truly had yet to see. Which is fitting, given its redheaded stepchild profile in the MCU. As the second MCU installment after the more consistently appreciated (and even beloved) hit Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk sees Marvel Studios still getting their footing, figuring out the casting, structure, themes, cinematography, tone, and action profile that would define their outrageously successful superhero blockbuster formula for the following decade. As a result, this is one of the MCU’s weakest films, and its aftermath represents one of the rare times that Marvel would decide to retool their movie universe on the fly.

The Incredible Hulk was not only one of Marvel Studios’ clumsy first steps towards the culture-spanning shared cinematic universe that they would eventually put together. It was also a re-orientation attempt following Ang Lee’s Hulk in 2006, which featured Eric Bana in the Bruce Banner/Hulk role and approached the material with a mix of comic-book goofiness and open-eyed poetic sincerity typical of its auteur. Critical, commercial, and fan reaction to Lee’s Hulk was mixed, hence Marvel and Universal (the latter studio owns the solo Hulk film rights still, hence the character’s supporting appearances only in Disney-produced MCU films) neither embracing its particular aesthetic and tone nor entirely disowning it with a hard reboot. This kid-gloves page-turning effort lead to The Incredible Hulk being billed as a “requel”, a nigh-on insufferable movie-biz buzzword portmanteau of “reboot” and “sequel” that feels like a bitter root on the tongue.

The half-empty/half-full nature of “requel” does actually typify the inconsistent tone and effect of The Incredible Hulk, a movie with one foot in confused standard-issue genre conformity and another (all too tentatively) in the confident scope of the later MCU. Much of this uncertain tone stems from the movie’s star, Edward Norton, taking Bana’s place as brilliant but isolated scientist Bruce Banner and (with ample CGI assist) as the hulking, destructive, impervious, gamma-irradiated green creature that he turns into when his heart rate becomes a bit too elevated. Norton is too good an actor not to be good in the role; his own sense of responsibility when it comes to the actor’s craft shows through in Banner’s sense of responsibility for managing the danger of the Hulk, and he treats Banner’s anxiety and determination regarding his predicament very seriously. But maybe too seriously; Norton strains to give such convincing interiority to Banner’s struggle with the forces that give rise to the Hulk that the exteriority can be lacking.

The big green monster is plenty exterior, of course; the Hulk is a comic-book Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde conceit, but it’s also a very blunt metaphor for internal psychological turmoil personified and made physically manifest in hypermuscular verdant form. Norton is a fine casting choice for a psychologically realist Banner/Hulk, but this is a film only intermittently interested in exploring that angle on the character, frequently choosing spectacle and humour instead, the latter which is patchy and awkward compared to later MCU films. Little wonder, given this angle of focus, that despite Norton’s interest in continuing in the role (and perhaps partly because of his creative seriousness and insistence on input into the future direction of the character on a screenplay level), Marvel re-cast Mark Ruffalo to give the role more rounded contours for the character’s next appearance in The Avengers.

The movie commences with a fleet, opening-credits background exposition montage of the laboratory accident that gifted/cursed Banner with his dangerous green co-pilot and alienated him from his significant other Dr. Elizabeth “Betty” Ross (Liv Tyler) and her military father General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt, whose character is one of the few elements here with any recurrence in the MCU after this film). The general and his hordes of soldierly minions are on the hunt for any sign of Banner, who has gone off the grid in Brazil’s favelas while working quietly at a guarana beverage plant (the drinks’ green hue suggesting the slumbering Hulk, no doubt soon to awaken). Banner also corresponds with a mysterious online colleague (eventually revealed to be Tim Blake Nelson as eccentric cellular biologist Samuel Sterns, whose last-act appearance injects some comedy, albeit a tad forced), who suggests treatments for his condition to try out and teases him with hints of a cure.

Random chance (and one of Marvel Comics maven Stan Lee’s more amusing cameos) reveals Banner’s incognito location, and General Ross descends on him with a strike team that includes Russian-born Royal Marine Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth). Blonsky is a grizzled black ops veteran and little fazes or even challenges him anymore, so when the strike team corners Banner in the beverage factory and the Hulk comes out to flatten them, the soldier is intrigued even more than terrified. As Banner moves up the spine of the Americas to his old lab, to Betty, and to Manhattan in search of a solution to the Hulk problem, Ross injects Blonsky with a super-soldier serum (similar to that used on a certain scrawny Brooklyn native during WWII) intended to make him a match for the green behemoth but which will instead make him into something more abominable.

The Incredible Hulk doesn’t know entirely what it wants to be. Letterier emphasizes the Hulk smashing more than Ang Lee did, but none of the big sequences carry the punch that Hulk‘s final action sequence did. The first act is essentially a big-budget remake of an episode of the late 1970s The Incredible Hulk TV show (that series’ Hulk, bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno, is given a fawning cameo, and also gets to vocalize the CG Hulk), with sadsack Banner wandering crowded streets and dusty roads, forever alone with his big green secret. Norton is often in a bracingly honest psychological drama in the middle of a relatively mediocre action movie, for which Roth is a sneering comic-book villain. Even the look of the CG Hulk, with its moppish hair and excessive vein-y-ness, was reworked before the character’s reappearance four years later.

Perhaps, all things considered, the Hulk works better in the supporting doses of Ruffalo’s later appearances as part of an ensemble, with superhero foils of the intellectual (Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark, Banner’s later brother-in-science, who appears in a not-very-good credits stinger scene before the credits roll; yeah, they were definitely still figuring things out in 2008), physical (Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Stark’s Hulk-busting armour), and emotional (Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, with whom Banner has a never-to-be relationship) variety. There’s no reason that should be the case, of course, and perhaps the character’s success in Ruffalo’s hands in the MCU will lead Universal to team with the home-run-hitting Marvel Studios creative squad for another swing at a successful Hulk headlining gig. But The Incredible Hulk wasn’t it, that much is certain enough.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Widows

Widows (2018; Directed by Steve McQueen)

Widows is a stylish and contemporarily resonant elevation of a genre film potboiler. Built up from the bones of a 1980s British television heist crime drama with the same name and concept, Widows is crafted by Steve McQueen (not the iconic – and quite dead – American actor but the Oscar-winning British director of 12 Years a Slave and Turner Award-winning film artist) and his co-screenwriter Gillian Flynn (author and scripter of Gone Girl) into an absorbing and exciting entertainment with searing undertones of gender, sexual, and racial politics.

Like its British TV model, Widows focuses on the wives, girlfriends, and significant others of a robbery crew (Coburn Goss, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Liam Neeson) whose last job goes disastrously, fatally wrong. Left to pick up the pieces, these shocked, grieving and increasingly desperate women do what they need to survive without their breadwinning men. While Amanda (Carrie Coon) cares for her infant and seems (suspiciously) stable, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) sees the clothing shop she runs (but which had her husband’s name on the ownership documents) threatened with repossession and sale, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) supports herself with a transactional relationship with a wealthy real estate developer (Lukas Haas). Veronica (Viola Davis), however, faces a much more difficult and dangerous path: threatened by underworld elements from whom her presumed-dead husband criminal mastermind Harry Rawlings (Neeson) stole $2 million, Veronica plans to follow the blueprint plan for a lucrative cash heist left behind in Harry’s notebook.

Veronica enlists the aid of fellow widows Linda and Alice, as well as Linda’s steely, fit, and capable babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) as a driver. Their planned theft draws the widows into the orbit of a bitterly contested South Side Chicago aldermanic election between dynastic scion Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and his African-American challenger Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who also happens to be the crime boss ripped off by Harry in the first place and whose brother and enforcer Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) is a frighteningly violent and uncompromising figure to contend with.

Widows is finely interwoven, with a twisting plot full of superb performances (Robert Duvall also shows up as the hard-as-nails Mulligan patriarch) whose overarching themes and highlight moments are deployed with painterly deliberation and artistry by McQueen. A productive tension between the material’s genre-film pedigree and McQueen’s arthouse sensibilities is maintained throughout. He’ll shoot a scene like an in-car dialogue exchange between a frustrated Jack and his young aide (Molly Kunz) in a single shot completely from outside the car with neither character visible, all to visually and geographically introduce the Mulligan headquarters and home which is the climactic robbery location. The scenes of Jatemme’s violence are artful and stylish but no less brutal for it; McQueen and Kaluuya seem keenly aware that such hitmen have a tendency to be glorified and their violence romanticized and rendered into celebrated badassery by insensitive audiences, and are careful to make Jatemme a nasty enough piece of work to head off such impressions.

McQueen peppers Widows with social and political subtexts as well, deepening an erstwhile diverting genre trifle. The Mulligan vs. Manning election subplot encompasses political and economic corruption in post-capitalist urban America, as well as maintaining nuanced sketches of race and authority: a charismatic but pragmatic preacher in the black church played by Jon Michael Hill demurs over whether to withdraw his longstanding support for the white Mulligans in favour of the black Manning, shared skin colour acting as no guarantor of allegiance. Jatemme’s no-quarter viciousness is tinged with political radicalism: as he tracks his quarry in one scene, he listens to a tape of a speech by Huey Newton, the revolutionary black activist and Black Panther Party co-founder.

Linda and Belle, the latter working as an aesthetician and babysitting on the side for extra income, demonstrate the slimmer economic margins for women of colour, while Alice sells herself in semi-respectable sex work to keep up her flashy lifestyle, a privilege of white womanhood that nonetheless extracts a toll in psychology and self-worth. Veronica mourns her biracial son with Harry, killed in a shocking, torn-from-the-headlines police shooting in his parents’ luxury car. Like a more masculinized film like Hell or High Water, Widows couches its cash heists in the social context of contemporary American decline and injustice, thus rendering them as subversive acts of edge-skirting justice in a corrupt and degenerated milieu in which such illegal thefts are miniscule drops in the bucket compared to the organized, legal mass plunder carried out by corporations and governments.

More than anything, Widows is an involving heist movie that explores and contextualizes in extremis the problematic nature of 21st-century feminism. The widows are forced into carrying out a high-risk robbery by dint of circumstances, not to stick it to the patriarchy, and McQueen and Flynn are surefooted in demonstrating the difficulty of their mission and the skin of the teeth by which they hope to pull it off. But the effort and trauma of the heist grants each widow, and especially the tremendous Davis as Veronica, a measure of independent self-determination that they could not have claimed as fundamentally kept women before the death of their male partners. It also erects a certain sense of feminine solidarity by carving out a sphere in control (or at least of acquisition) in the male sphere of the violent crime underworld. Artful, entertaining, and even affecting, Widows is about stealing not only money but also dignity in the process.

Categories: Film, Reviews