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Twin Peaks, The Original and The Return: An Ambiguous American Dreamscape

September 24, 2017 Leave a comment

David Lynch and Mark Frost’s cult television classic Twin Peaks was ended abruptly in 1991 after 48 episodes on ABC and a truncated, troubling cliffhanger. 26 years later in the real world and 25 years later in its own peculiar narrative world, Twin Peaks: The Return unspooled 18 more episodes on cable network Showtime (as well as on Showtime’s streaming service and on Bravo and CraveTV in Canada), ending in early September of this year with a finale of disequilibrium and non-finality. A quasi-nostalgic reboot series with many key differences, The Return found Twin Peaks operating outside of the notorious network television conventions and channeling artistic restrictions that weakened Lynch and Frost’s vision through its protracted second season after its briefer, cultural-phenom first season.

The Return is Twin Peaks for television’s new impossibly crowded, creatively robust, artistically prestigious Golden Age. This is a zeitgeist for the form that the first two seasons of Twin Peaks at the start of the 1990s (or the first more than the second) seemed to portend, or more accurately to reach for, hopefully and aspirationally but impossibly and fruitlessly. It cannot be said that Twin Peaks singularly created our current pervasive TV trend of intelligent, morally and symbolically ambiguous, serialized long-form storytelling, though it played a key embryonic role (along with HBO dramas like Oz and The Sopranos, and even the later-season extended arcs of the syndicated Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). It may have aimed for that kind of art, but never really got there. But The Return shows Lynch and Frost’s woolly, unwieldy serial entirely at home with the contemporary TV milieu while also productively pushing its boundaries and unsettling its assumptions, as the earlier version managed to do at its best.

Before digging into the rich, distinct, surreal, and often entirely ambiguous American dreamscape of The Return, it’s important to understand what Twin Peaks was before this summer, in its venerable original broadcast run. At once an extended murder mystery, a melodramatic soap opera, a drybones comedy, and a supernatural conflict between forces of good and evil, Twin Peaks was set entirely in and around the fictional titular town in northern Washington State. Organized originally around the unsolved murder of local high school student Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) and the efforts of the idiosyncratic FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Lynch favourite Kyle MacLachlan in his signature role) and the local sheriff’s department to delve into the mysteries around the crime, Twin Peaks got away from its creators, encompassing any number of sideline subplots of varying degrees of silliness, especially after the circumstances of the Palmer murder were revealed part-way through the second season (quite against Lynch and Frost’s artistic intent, apparently). Those circumstances were further elaborated on by Lynch’s divisive feature film, Fire Walk With Me, which provides important context for The Return (and which, to provide full critical disclosure, I have not seen).

It mattered less, perhaps, what Twin Peaks did with its plot from episode to episode (after Laura’s murder was “solved”, the malevolent entities behind it were transferred to a conflict between Cooper and his former FBI partner, an unstable genius named Windom Earle, played by Kenneth Walsh) than how it felt as it did so. Many of Twin Peaks’ characters, flawed or mean or selfish or dim-witted but ultimately human and sympathetic, became enduring fan favourites: Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), respected stand-up cop and devoted lover to Josie Packard (Joan Chen), the inheritor of the local sawmill with a troubled Hong Kong past; Audrey Horne (Sherilynn Fenn), the savvy, sexy daughter of hotel owner Benjamin Horne (Richard Beymer); sheriff’s deputies Andy Brennan (Harry Goaz) and Hawk (Michael Horse), the former a mentally-slow but surprisingly heroic sort with a longstanding on-again-off-again romance with the sheriff’s office receptionist Lucy (Kimmy Robertson); longtime screen acting veterans Piper Laurie and Jack Nance as a mismatched couple frequently involved in various Twin Peaks happenings; and many more, from the loopy, lumber-carrying prophetess the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) to the eccentric local psychiatrist Dr. Jacoby (Russ Tamblyn) to Cooper’s FBI colleagues Gordon Cole (Lynch himself, with an eye for younger women and a comic-relief hearing aid device) and Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer, with a dry sarcastic wit and withering disdain for the parochial townsfolk) to decorously-speaking, secret-government-project-linked Air Force Major Garland Briggs (Don Davis) to supernatural figures like The Man from Another Place (Michael J. Anderson), MIKE the One-Armed Man (Al Strobel), and the prime antagonist Killer BOB (Frank Silva).

At the centre of everything, though, was Dale Cooper, Coop to his friends. A bit of an eccentric who breaks leads with the help of Tibetan mysticism and can be disconnected from others through his weirdness, Cooper ultimately is the core of Twin Peaks‘ warmth and decency. He deeply appreciates the good-natured, all-American simplicity of the town’s rhythms, greets the coffee and pies of the local Double R Diner with effusive praise, and holds numerous townspeople in warm regard. Protecting this decency from the forces that would destroy it drives his sense of justice but does not dent his kindness or his moral standards. Especially considering the flawed anti-heroes of television’s current age, Dale Cooper is a breath of fresh air, albeit one tinge with odd flavours; to use a phrase in dire danger of becoming stale self-parody, he made it okay to be weird.

Twin Peaks was cancelled after its second season in 1991, forcing Lynch and Frost (who word has it had retreated from the day-to-day creative process anyway, disillusioned with the demands of meddling ABC executives) into an abrupt conclusion steeped in the show’s self-constructed mythology (malevolent spirits, dancing dwarves in the red-curtained Black Lodge, that backwards-talking dream with the flaming cards, etc.) that nonetheless felt naggingly open-ended to fans. Enter Twin Peaks: The Return a quarter-century later, which simultaneously expands, extends, and further explicates the vision of this peculiar, symbolically-charged world while radically transmogrifying its metaphorical implications.

The Return greatly diminishes the melodramatic elements that ran rampant in the second season of the show but which were, and remain, a vital aspect of David Lynch’s style and emotional appeals (it also, perhaps as a related consequence, marginalizes composer Angelo Badalamenti’s heart-string-plucking, recurring synth themes). At the same time, it expands the scope and settings of the show as well as its particular surrealistic visual mythology, which takes up a much greater share of the running time, often taking over episodes entirely, to indelible but often head-scratching effect. Furthermore, it is a show obsessively occupied with time and death, acknowledging and textualizes the aging of its characters and, in very many cases, their passage into death. Silva, Davis, and Nance all died years before development of the revival began, yet all appear in it, in some form. Ferrer, Warren Frost (who played local physician Dr. Hayward), and Coulson all died after filming their scenes but prior to the season’s airing; in Coulson’s case, she passed a mere four days after completing her onscreen work, and her character’s death is incorporated into the text itself. Crusty veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton, who plays a supporting role, died most recently, shortly after the finale aired.

Summarizing generally, The Return revivifies the original run’s recurring motif of the doppelgänger (think of Lee’s dual role as Laura Palmer and her identical cousin Maddy, who suffers the same fate as Laura) and applies it to Dale Cooper in triplicate. Last seen in the second-season finale being possessed by evil BOB as the price to defeat Windom Earle, Cooper himself remains imprisoned in the Black Lodge 25 years hence, while his malevolent doppelgänger (The Return offers the term tulpa for the entity) runs rampant in the criminal underworld and a second double, a good-natured but imprudent insurance agent named Dougie Jones, dwells with his wife Janey-E (Naomi Watts) and their son in the suburbs of Las Vegas. Meanwhile, a mysterious but brutal murder draws the attention of the FBI, namely Cole, Rosenfield, and newly-elevated agent Tammy Preston (Chrysta Bell), to Buckhorn, South Dakota. And in Twin Peaks, events continue as they always have, with small dramas and larger mythological connections dripped out in equal measure: Harry Truman is direly ill (Ontkean has retired from acting and could not be persuaded to return for the new season) and has been replaced as Sheriff by his brother Frank (Robert Forster, who was cast as Sheriff Truman in the 1990 pilot but was replaced due to scheduling conflicts), waitress Shelly (Mädchen Amick) was married to now-sheriff’s deputy Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) and had a daughter (Amanda Seyfried) but they appear to be on the rocks, the Double R has franchised to half-a-dozen locations and caused owner Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) greater stress, the popular Roadhouse bar has top-notch musical performers every night (Nine Inch Nails, Eddie Vedder, and numerous indie-rock acts, often with a shoegaze or dream-pop bent, guest on the show, often playing episodes into the credits), and Audrey Horne appears very late in the process, arguing incessantly and hysterically with her nebbish husband Charlie (Clark Middleton).

If this set-up sounds like The Return is set to be more of the same for this property, then be prepared for the numerous, gleefully obtuse left-turns, u-turns, and rabbit-hole descents engineered by Lynch and Frost. A protracted sequence (nearly all of them are in these 18 episodes; Lynch delights in dragging visuals out with hypnotic absorption, and his brief scenes are interludes of near-abstraction) early on establishes an unexplained monitoring experiment in a New York skyscraper, which becomes one piece of Cooper’s hyper-surrealist sort-of escape from the Black Lodge. Cooper is plunked into Dougie Jones’ body as a quasi-lobotomized figure, barely capable of the basic necessities of living but gradually, almost magically succeeding and triumphing in every sphere of Dougie’s life despite his prodigious slowness. Laura Dern shows up as a highlight supporting performer, embodying the unseen Diane figure to whom Coop frequently addressed his tape-recorded observations of the Palmer case and life in Twin Peaks in general. And certain Twin Peaks returnees appear in greatly modified and bizarre form: Dr. Jacoby is now Dr. Amp, a species of online and radio anti-government, anti-elites invective-spewing ranter and huckster (InfoWars’ Alex Jones is a clear satirical target here) who sells gold-painted shovels for listeners to use to dig themselves out of “the shit” of modern neoliberal capitalist America; FBI agent Phillip Jeffries, played by David Bowie in Fire Walk With Me, has left the human realm entirely (fitting, considering the life and death of the man who played him), now manifested as a kind of man-sized steampunk teapot; Benjamin Horne’s worldwide-schmoozing brother and business partner Jerry (David Patrick Kelly) has become a bearded hippie social drop-out who spends most of the season lost in the woods, his own foot at one point telling him that it isn’t his foot; and although Andy and Lucy are happily married, they also have a Marlon-Brando-esque biker-seeker-poet son, played in a single desultory scene by Michael Cera.

Many scenes in The Return are desultory when taken in isolation, and even recurring sequences and visual elements hardly add up in the conventional sense of narrative or character arcs. But when The Return, and Twin Peaks as well in a retroactive sense, is understood more as a surrealistic dream-logic tone poem on American decline and dislocation – indeed, on all decline and dislocation, on precarious human mortality itself – it begins to adhere in a greater sense. In the original two seasons, Twin Peaks could be understood, for all of its Lynchian abstractions and melodramatic tangents, as a moral metaphor for America’s loss of innocence (or for the terrifying lack of an innocence that was never really there in the first place). The killing of Laura Palmer was both the consequence of and the catalyst for divisive and malevolent forces being unleashed upon the town and its people, but it portended wider forces of this sort in America at large. Echoes of the forceful dispossession of Native American peoples came through Hawk and in cryptic elements of the mythology (the symbolist map during Season Two, for example). Ben Horne’s mania for Civil War re-creation was not simply an amusing conceit to display his mental disquiet, but a personal crucible to allow for him to atone for his past mistakes and misdeeds, much as the historical war itself was a delayed judgement in blood for centuries of brutal, exploitative slavery in America.

The Return makes these associations between Laura Palmer’s murder and larger historical crimes both more explicit and more abstract. In the season’s most surreal, visually arresting and interpretively baffling hour, “Part 8”, the atomic age is blamed for birthing the evil spirits that haunt Twin Peaks. The first atomic bomb test in the New Mexico desert is depicted by Lynch with slow-paced, aesthetically stunning detail, in the midst of which a translucent orb containing the iconic, terrifying face of BOB floats into existence. The splitting of the atom, in Lynch and Frost’s understanding, cleaved a permanent evil apart from a vulnerable good; the same dark forces can likewise split human identity, morality, consciousness, even corporeality, as Cooper’s trippelgängers demonstrate. Laura Palmer herself is portended as a balancing force to BOB in the same episode (created by the Fireman, “the giant” from the original series, in the black-and-white-and-sepia edifice above a purple sea), as are the ominous Woodsmen. Glistening black and clad in plaid, they emerge from the radioactive smoke and crackling static (electricity is an important marker of the mysterious shadowy powers here) to occupy an abandoned roadside convenience store. Then, in New Mexico a decade after the first atomic test, one woodsman passes motorists on a nighttime highway before lethally invading a remote radio station. He intones “Got a light?” menacingly, bloodily cracks open skulls of his victims, and hauntingly repeats the following cryptic phrase over the broadcast airwaves:

This is the water and this is the well. Drink full and descend. The horse is the white of the eyes and dark within.

Radio listeners pass out in their homes, and a young teenaged girl lies on her bed while an insectoid creature that hatched at the bomb site crawls into her mouth.

These images are never “explained”, in the conventional sense (and whatever else they were, they remain phenomenal, purely surreal television), but they gain dimension through interconnections within the text. A huge print image of an atomic explosion hangs behind Gordon Cole’s desk in his FBI office, and the secretive “Blue Rose” task force he leads delves into the various supernatural mysteries at the core of the show’s mythology. Such a character as conduit for exposition being played by the director and co-creator himself is a meta feint typical of David Lynch: “Here I am to tell you what the deal is,” he seems to imply, but really he isn’t going to do that at all. The art itself, as Lynch stated recently, is the explanation.

A real clue to Lynch’s method, and his self-awareness of the audience’s impressions of that method, with Twin Peaks: The Return comes earlier in the season, however. In Twin Peaks, Hawk is spurred to reopen the evidence files of the Laura Palmer case by cryptic prophecies from the Log Lady. Sitting in the sheriff’s office conference room with old evidence covering the table, he speaks vaguely to Andy and Lucy about what he’s looking for. A mortified Lucy sees an empty chocolate bunny box and admits to eating the candy rabbit, then wonders aloud if the consumed bunny might be the missing clue that Hawk is looking for. Hawk confidently dismisses the notion, but then vacillates between that dismissal and the nagging possibility that it just might be, after all.

David Lynch and Mark Frost are tipping their hats here to the obsessive fanbase, now bolstered by the internet, searching for clues in every symbolically charged moment of the show. They are also implying that the interpretive labour is not exactly all for naught, but may very well be misplaced or misdirected. The experience of Twin Peaks itself is what matters, and carries its own essential meaning. Hours, days, weeks, maybe even 25 years (maybe even 2740 words of a blog essay), could be spent attempting to tease out its meanings. These attempts are spin-offs from its rich and surreal visual and informational tapestry, but that tapestry itself communicates more in amorphous, difficult-to-quantify terms than any number of pop-culture thinkpieces or explanatory-theory video essays could ever manage to do.

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Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Assassin’s Creed

September 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Assassin’s Creed (2016; Directed by Justin Kurzel)

One year prior to the release of 20th Century Fox’s distinct but patchy big-screen adaptation of the popular action-adventure video game series Assassin’s Creed, its director Justin Kurzel, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, and stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard collaborated on a dynamite cinematic take on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was one of 2015’s finest films. The clear next step for this core of creatives after an invigorating version of one of the pinnacles of the English literary canon was, quite obviously, a sci-fi/historical-fiction blockbuster potboiler with undertones of eternal Manichean dichotomies, pulpy hidden-past conspiracism, and creepy pure-blood genetic determinism. Assassin’s Creed is absurd both on its surface and in its depths, but Kurzel and his team treat it with the same serious-minded sincerity they accorded the great Shakespearean tragedy a year prior.

I can’t claim to possess any helpful familiarity with the Ubisoft game series on which Assassin’s Creed is based, though its acrobatics-and-combat gameplay and time-bending concepts do resemble the Montreal-based game studio’s previous platform hit, Prince of Persia (also adapted into a much worse film several years back). The film introduces and re-affirms its core concept several times, though, so it’s hard to miss: two secretive orders – the shadowy, cult-like Assassins and the patrician, theocratic, elite-entrenched Knights Templar – battle throughout history over the preservation of human free will, which the Templars seek to eliminate through the use of the Assassin-protected Apple of Eden, an ancient artifact of dangerous power and biblical symbolism.

In the modern day, the power and influence of the Templars has eclipsed the Assassins, a cadre of outcasts and criminals whose cultish killer’s “creed” (working in the darkness to serve the light, etc.) is a matter of genetic heredity. The Templar-affiliated Abstergo Foundation, headed by Dr. Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons) and his brilliant scientist daughter Sofia (Cotillard), have collected as many descendants of Assassins as they can and imprisoned them in a facility in Madrid. There, the Rikkins and their minions hook these men and women into a sophisticated machine called the Animus and run them through a draining mental and physical process of reliving the genetic memories of their Assassin ancestors. Their goal is to use these subjects to locate the missing Apple in the mists of the past and apply its power to end violence, conflict, and strife in the world by choking off human freedom and self-determination forever.

Their most recent and important subject is a convicted and ostensibly executed murderer named Callum “Cal” Lynch (Fassbender), whose Assassin forebearer Aguilar de Nerha (also Fassbender) was the last known possessor of the Apple before it was lost to history. Flashing back to Aguilar’s experiences in Spain in the tumultuous year of 1492 via the Animus, Cal’s wounded identity (his Assassin father killed his mother and was captured by the Templar, leaving him alone) begins to meld with his Assassin legacy and physical prowess, and exposure to the other Assassin descendants and creeping doubt about the Rikkins’ stated peaceful intentions presses him onto a path of destiny.

As silly as its core ideas may be, Assassin’s Creed has a tremendous amount going for it as a film. Kurzel directs confidently, and there are some memorable visual moments involving a symbolic soaring bird of prey in particular: introduced alongside a song by the Black Angels on the soundtrack as it glides through time between late-medieval Spain and modern Mexico, the flying bird later appears multiplied on a magical, haunting animated ceiling at the Abstergo facility during a tense meeting between Cal and his father, played with great gravity by Brendan Gleeson. Arkapaw’s cinematography is again tremendously beautiful, though it is often saturated by Andalusian sunbeams and digitally colour-graded into moody, dim foncity.

Performance-wise, Fassbender brings intense commitment and ferocity to a blockbuster anti-hero role that most serious actors would imbue with arms-length irony, and memorably sings Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” in an aggressively unstable timbre as he is dragged into another Animus session. Cotillard’s character is buffeted about by the script (credited to Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, it smacks of repeated rewrites) and I can’t for the life of me begin to explain any of her words or actions in the closing sequence based on what came before it, but, like Fassbender, she really means it, anyway. An international cadre of supporting actors from Gleeson to Michael K. Williams to Essie Davis as Cal’s mother to Ariane Labed as Aguilar’s right-hand Assassin to a fiery, scenery-chewing Javier Gutiérrez as infamous Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada lend potency further down the cast credits, too.

But for a movie based on a consistent, even relentless action game, Assassin’s Creed disappointingly holds back on its action sequences. Cal’s first Animus session drops him into an uninspired Hollywood Western/Indiana Jones-style horse-and-cart chase through the parched landscape of Southern Spain, and the movie’s rote faux-climax features a rebellious Cal and his Assassin brothers and sisters fighting off Abstergo’s security thugs as the Rikkins helicopter away to fetch the Apple. Only a rambling, enervating mid-film escape from Torquemada’s theatrical, Goya-esque auto-da-fé that transitions into a white-knuckle foot-chase and running battle through Seville’s medieval streets, rooftops, and bazaars manages to simultaneously demonstrate the mastery of artful action filmmaking that Kurzel demonstrated in Macbeth and live up to the balletic, wall-climbing, Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckling derring-do that makes Ubisoft’s games such a thrill to play. Scored with subtle but driving Spanish-Arabic rhythms by Kurzel’s composer brother Jed, it’s Assassin’s Creed‘s highlight sequence, bar none.

Assassin’s Creed doesn’t spend enough of its running time being fun, therefore. How does it spend its time? On repetitive and sometimes poorly-emphasized world-building exposition, much of which collapses upon even cursory examination. More than that, though, its themes of hereditary legacy and free will vs. determinism play out questionably not only through its fictional characters but through its wider historically-fictive backdrop. Cal’s anticipated turn to defence of his Assassin heritage as redemption for his family trauma doesn’t land quite right, despite being the central thematic fulcrum of the movie; the sense of ambiguity in Sofia’s attitude towards her father’s goals and towards Templar dogma, and its frequent opposition to her dedication to bettering the world through science, is never resolved, and she simply pivots into a sequel-teasing promise of villainy in the film’s abrupt denouement.

But this ambivalence is nothing compared to how Assassin’s Creed utilizes its historical setting in the Spain of 1492. A momentous hinge in Spanish history and indeed for the world at large, 1492 was the year that the Reconquista was completed, with Ferdinand and Isabella’s forces conquering the last Muslim stronghold of Granada and fully re-Christianizing the Iberian peninsula for the first time in centuries; it was the year that Spain’s Jews, who played a disproportionately important role in the cultural and intellectual vibrancy of Muslim al-Andalus, were expelled from the country in one of European history’s numerous anti-Semitic irruptions; and it was the year that Christopher Columbus sailed west from a Spanish port to “discover” America, with all that this would mean for Spanish wealth and imperial prestige and for world history.

Assassin’s Creed draws from the first and last of these vital events (self-serious as it may be, tackling anti-Semitic discrimination through time is a bridge too far for a video-game movie like this, at least for the moment). A key scene involving Aguilar and the Apple takes place in Granada’s Alhambra palace, and Aguilar then travels to Cadiz to give the artifact to the departing Columbus for safe keeping. The Rikkins soon enough deduce that this means that the Apple is hidden in Columbus’ tomb and saunter over to Seville Cathedral to fetch it with ease from the local bishop.

This plot point asks for a logical leap of faith similar to the literal Leap required of Cal in his Assassin training. We are already asked to leave aside the historical fact that the Knights Templar, a religious-military order of great power and wealth in medieval Europe, were dismantled by inquisitional forces in the Catholic Church in collaboration with its closest secular ruler, the King of France. We are informed instead that the Templars and the Church are intertwined, even united, sharing the same leadership, ideology, and short- and long-term goals. But, despite this established collaboration since at least the 15th Century, the Church seemingly knew that the Apple of Eden, the ultimate item of desire for their Templar allies for centuries, was sitting in a key spot in one of its largest catherdrals and didn’t bother to let them know? Add to this the clear missed opportunity for some clever last-act plot misdirection as concerns the Seville vs. Santo Domingo Columbus’ tomb controversy, and it’s a plot element that lands with a splat.

The Inquisition setting is thematically apt, certainly, emphasizing the Templars’ single-minded mission to crush all dissenting viewpoints and freedom of thought (Irons monologues about religion, politics, and consumerism as past grand schemes in this regard) and thus suggesting the Catholic Church’s infamously brutal crackdown on heretics of all sorts as a mere corollary of this more entrenched will. Combining it with the final defeat of rival Islam, understood here as another contending heresy, in Western Europe at the end of the Reconquista, these forces of control come to be refocused with renewed vigour on an entire new hemisphere and its unsuspecting peoples in the era of colonialism that Columbus kicked off with his Atlantic crossing. Assassin’s Creed comes shockingly close to distilling the disparate historical turning points of the momentous Spanish year of 1492 into a coherent and even powerful hybridized statement about human civilization, power and psychology, then and especially now.

There’s a hefty suggestion in Assassin’s Creed, in this over-ponderous, heavy-handed, only rarely purely entertaining movie adaptation of an action-packed video game, that the Templars’ long-running mission to choke off human freedom has already all but succeeded, Apple or no Apple. “The modern world has outgrown notions like freedom,” a senior Templar (Charlotte Rampling) tells the elder Dr. Rikkin. “They’re content to follow.” But what is the freedom represented by the Assassins but a genetically predetermined legacy of violence? In this theme concerning the human tendency to allow our past heritage to become our future legacy, or to poison and undermine that legacy, perhaps there is not such a wide gulf between Assassin’s Creed and Macbeth after all. That this suggestion can even be tentatively made is a testament to the kind of film that Justin Kurzel manages to make Assassin’s Creed into. Maybe he ought to have been making a popcorn movie, yes, but recognized for what it is, this is a film with something to say in between badass assassin killing, even if what it has to say is frequently self-contradictory.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: Icarus

September 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Icarus (2017; Directed by Bryan Fogel)

Icarus begins as one kind of documentary film and ends up as quite another. Its director, Bryan Fogel, is also a high-level amateur cyclist, and early in the film humblebraggily notes that he finished 14th in the Haute Route, considered to be the premier amateur cycling race in the world. Despite the strong finish, Fogel found that the discrepancy between himself and the top racers was so wide that he suspected that the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) was as rampant in top-tier amateur cycling as it infamously has been in professional cycling. With this in mind, he decides to put himself on PEDs for a year leading up to the next edition of the Haute Route, tracking and documenting his progress and improvement on camera (call it Super Dope Me, if you like).

To ensure his own health and safety as well as to optimize his results and chances of passing anti-doping tests, Fogel decides to work with experienced and accredited scientists. His first choice for consultation, the founder and head of UCLA’s doping laboratory, backs out, concerned about his reputation when it becomes clear that Fogel wants to show how to dope and get away with it. He recommends instead a Russian scientist and the head of Russia’s ant-doping program, Grigory Rodchenkov. With loose morals, voluble good humour, and a suspicious amount of experience in evading doping controls, Rodchenkov puts Fogel on a sophisticated and mildly alarming PED regimen.

Due to non-physically-related setbacks, Fogel finished lower in the Haute Route standings than he did the previous year, despite his program of doping. But along the way he gains a good friend in Rodchenkov and stumbles upon an inside view of one of the biggest and most explosive stories in the long but mostly-shadowy history of sports doping. It becomes clear fairly quickly to Fogel that Rodchenkov knows so much about cheating sports doping controls because it was precisely his job in Russia to help athletes to do so, not to catch them at it.

Rodchenkov soon confides in Fogel and his camera, and later in the New York Times and the U.S. Department of Justice, that every Russian Olympic athlete at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics was using PEDs and that he and his lab worked to ensure that they were not caught. Not only that, but at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia (which were even more awash in steroid use for domestic propaganda purposes after Russia’s weaker showing in 2010 in Vancouver, where drug tests were more difficult to get around), Rodchenkov and his staff worked with state secret police to swap Russian athletes’ PED-laced urine samples for clean ones in the IOC-sanctioned anti-doping lab itself. All of this was done with the clear knowledge and even expressed direction of the Russian Minister of Sport, who answers directly to President Vladimir Putin himself.

Struck by guilt after his team’s work turned Sochi into a podium-finish and propaganda success that Putin parlayed into a power-move into Ukraine, Rodchenkov’s revelations went public as Fogel filmed him in 2015 and 2016, leading to the entire Russian track and field team (and quite nearly all Russian Olympic athletes period) being banned from competition at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Fleeing Russia and fearing for his life, Rodchenkov is finally put into protective custody and witness relocation by the Department of Justice.

This is a heck of a story and Fogel knows it, but the more thematic framing of Rodchenkov’s perspective on his actions can feel a bit off, even heavy-handed. Rodchenkov is a devotee of George Orwell’s 1984, and the seminal book is quoted liberally in Icarus; the Greek mythology title isn’t nearly as justified as the Orwell connection, which can be patchy of its own accord. He feels that he was like Winston Smith, sunk in the constant pretentious lie of doublethink as he ran a purportedly anti-doping operation while actually running a prolific doping operation.

Icarus makes a belated point, though not a particularly forceful one, that the Orwellian doublethink at the core of Russia’s sports doping system reflects more generally on Putin’s discourse of propaganda and power in his modern Russia. Perhaps Fogel could have made this point sharper without his early focus on his own PED regimen, or his detailing of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s efforts, or his decision to humanize and thus build empathy for Rodchenkov (some left-field animation sequences don’t help, including the surrealist image of a crumpled, seated Rodchenkov with a stag’s antlers growing out of skull). Icarus is a fascinating and strong documentary, but the unanticipated sharp turn that makes its narrative so striking might also weaken its impact.

Film Review: Miller’s Crossing

September 5, 2017 Leave a comment

 Miller’s Crossing (1990; Directed by Joel Coen)

The Coen Brothers’ films are nearly always concerned with crime, but Miller’s Crossing is their only straight gangster movie to date (the application of the term “straight” to any of their work being inherently extremely loose). As such, it dusts off any number of genre references and homages (The Godfather, of course, but the Coens’ steeping in film history goes deeper than that), but very skillfully crafts several of its own: its opening image of a fedora drifting with dead leaves on the breeze; John Turturro desperately, moistly begging for his life on his knees in the woods; and Albert Finney’s venerable but still steely Irish mob boss (“an artist with a Thompson”, he is dubbed) deftly laying waste to his intended assassins in and around his grand home to the grammaphone-filtered strains of “Danny Boy” (for me, still one of the finest sequences in the Coens’ distinguished filmography; watch it below, you’ll be richer for it).

Miller’s Crossing‘s shrewd anti-hero protagonist, Tom Reagan (an excellent Gabriel Byrne), serves as right-hand man to Finney’s Leo O’Bannon. Tom becomes embroiled in a garden of forked paths of gangland rivalries, blackmailings, ordered hits, and double crosses, involving O’Bannon’s rival Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito), Caspar’s ambitious muscle The Dane (J.E. Freeman), O’Bannon’s (and Reagan’s) lover Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), and her brother Bernie Bernbaum (Turturro), a perfidious bookie who has angered Caspar and strains Reagan’s intent to protect him.

As with all of the Coens’ work, Miller’s Crossing functions on one level as sophisticated but fundamentally potboiling pulp genre entertainment, classic Hollywood form touched by their idiosyncratic indie aesthetic, ear for repetitive language, and fondness for human eccentricity. On a whole other level, however, Miller’s Crossing is about the deepest themes of human morality: resentment, empathy, forgiveness, redemption, self-preservation, loyalty, independence, love. The titular location, the isolated forest in which Tom must demonstrate his dedication to his new boss Caspar by eliminating Bernie, is a crossroads of judgement, a venue of moral quandary. Tom’s pity and mercy for Bernie’s basic pathetic human weakness leads him to his least pragmatic decision of the film, one that he must remedy if he is to be free of the consequences of fellow-feeling.

Miller’s Crossing might not quite be comfortably placed in the upper echelon of the Coens’ work, but it’s smart and involving and resonant and practically faultless. Johnny Caspar (a hyperactive talker likely based partly on Chicago gangster legend Al Capone, just as Leo O’Bannon probably takes Capone’s Irish mob rival Dean O’Banion as a model) repeats several times that being well-regarded in this world is a matter of “ethics”. There is a buffoonish irony implied in the use of this term in this context: what “ethics” can one descry in the organized crime underworld with its betrayals, power plays, and shared dialect of violence and murder? But the Coens, too, are talking about ethics in the gangster portrait of Miller’s Crossing. There is famously honour among these thieves, far more than any of them can quite handle. So much that it drives them to act dishonourably to preserve that honour. Such inherent contradiction is a vein of rich mineral for the Coens Brothers, and they mine it lucratively here.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Snowden

August 30, 2017 Leave a comment

Snowden (2016; Directed by Oliver Stone)

If you want to know more about Edward Snowden, the computer whiz and intelligence agency contractor who exposed damning evidence of the United States government’s secret, sophisticated, and privacy-violating data-collection system of mass electronic surveillance of its citizens and of people worldwide in 2013, Oliver Stone’s dramatized narrative of the events of the principled analyst’s life ought to be close to a last resort. Far better to trust Citizenfour, the superb documentary filmed by Laura Poitras as Snowden hunkered down in a Hong Kong luxury hotel to release the revelatory NSA material to her and Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill, to get the details correct, compellingly featuring as it does the whistleblower himself in the very act of blowing his whistle.

It’s not that Snowden, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt in an eerily-accurate impersonation of the controversial figure, is especially non-good. Stone’s film treats its subject broadly, and presents Ed Snowden’s final truth-to-power choice to reveal what he feels to be inexcusable government overreach regardless of his personal safety and the potential legal consequences with the stirring triumphalism of a melodramatic victory in an against-the-odds underdog sports movies. The director of the magnificent JFK, the tour-de-force dramatization of the paranoid style in American politics, is no longer possessed of such tremendous conjuring powers.  But his depiction of Snowden’s disillusioning movement through the American intelligence deep state makes complex technical terms and systems intelligible without distorting their implications or consequences. He also makes it a dramatically and even emotionally involving odyssey (Stone co-wrote the screenplay with Kieran Fitzgerald) while avoiding particularly inaccurate flights of creative license. Perhaps Stone had little other choice, as Snowden obtained the participation of and even a closing cameo by the famously exacting Edward Snowden himself, residing in peaceful (if precarious) exile in Russia since his revelations went public in 2013.

Snowden is structured to intercut between the progress of the Hong Kong hotel sessions in 2013 between Snowden and Poitras (played here by Melissa Leo), Greenwald (Zachary Quinto), and MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) and the experiences in the intelligence world that shake his faith in fundamental American righteousness. A third plot thread details the costs on his long-term relationship with girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) of his frequent cross-global relocations, the strains of classified non-disclosure of his work, an epileptic condition, and his mounting moral doubts about what his government employers are up to. Yet another thread involves his CIA training mentor Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), who recognizes Snowden’s abilities and facilitates his rise through the intelligence world but also begins to suspect a wavering in his loyalties.

All of this presents vaguely as a political thriller, although any pursuits down dark alleys by shadowy, menacing figures are manifested primarily as sequences of furtive digital downloads (Stone can’t resist indulging in some danger-of-exposure tension in a climactic instance of this scene near the end of the film) or quiet displays of Snowden’s (justified) paranoia. Some ambitious and metaphorically-illustrative effects-driven sequences attempt to visually represent the mass aggregation of private digital information that Snowden discovers, including one in which countless linear streams of data flow to a circular central dome that pulls back to become a human eye. Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is varied but excellent, and he facilitates some of Stone’s most striking visual approaches, most notably a final video-link conversation between Snowden and O’Brian in which the teacher looms with intimidating, dominating accusation over his soon-to-be extremely rebellious student on a large screen.

Snowden is most an Oliver Stone film in his incremental dripping reveal of illegal government overreach and its disillusioning, curtain-pulling effect on Ed Snowden’s beliefs and understanding of patriotism. Snowden begins as a smart conservative with libertarian leanings (he earns O’Brian’s particular approbation in an entry interview with approving comments about Ayn Rand), though Mills’ liberalism works its way into his thinking over time and even convinces him that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama might abide by his promises to do things differently, better. Coming from a military family with intelligence and defense department ties, his earnest hopes to serve his country are redirected into intelligence analysis after a fractured tibia gets him discharged from the Army Special Forces. In his work, he learns of the secret FISA courts allowing the U.S. government to run electronic wiretaps without a warrant, a suite of technology and programs designed to search through reams of personal data of private citizens worldwide, CIA field operations that unethically destroy lives for miniscule advantages, and remotely-ordered drone bombings of children, families, and innocent people across the Middle East. In short, Snowden gets a closer and more detailed view of the processes and practices that prop up American global hegemony, and he doesn’t like it at all and decides to do something about it.

It goes without saying that Oliver Stone sees his own political beliefs reflected by Snowden’s evolution. He fundamentally understands the exposure and criticism of the clandestine operations of the U.S. deep state that support American interests worldwide to be the most patriotic and nation-loving act possible. What Stone thinks that he’s doing in films like Snowden (or more comprehensively in his revisionist history documentary series The Untold History of the United States), he sees Edward Snowden doing in his planned public leak of NSA data and processes. That Stone was unable to obtain Stateside funding for Snowden or to film it in the U.S. due to official government and Hollywood studio disapproval and even interference speaks to the controversial nature of Snowden’s story even today, as some political leaders acknowledge the positive conversation-starting contributions of the Snowden leaks and as some of the worst abuses of mass surveillance are preliminarily rolled back.

Snowden’s arc from the patriotism of following orders to the patriotism of disobeying them is a bit pat, however, and sees Stone falling into a classic trap of liberal thinking about political persuasion. Snowden’s is an exceptional case, an example of a citizen both tremendously intelligent and inherently principled with special access to classified information most Americans will never have, and with a willingness to ingest and be redirected to different ideological paths by the implications of that information that most Americans do not have either. The vast majority of American political alignment is a matter of inherited and socially-conditioned tribal loyalty, on both left and right. Most American voters do not change their minds or their allegiances even once during the course of their lives, even if the leader of their faction trangresses any and every boundary of civil and constitutional behaviour or proves quietly divergent from his pledged policy positions (like Barack Obama, who ultimately disappointed Snowden’s hopes for him).

If Edward Snowden is more exceptional than representative, Oliver Stone mostly treats him as such: a conflicted and flawed but ultimately true hero, the exemplar of a new sort of hard-won patriotism. It’s hardly as clear as Stone’s film makes it seem where America goes after Snowden’s revelations, and his story tells us much but offers little in the way of a roadmap forward on privacy issues or any other policies related to the nearly all-powerful national security apparatus. Stone, forever sceptical of government power and the influence of the intelligence sector no matter what party is in charge, firmly believes in speaking truth to power. He sees Edward Snowden through this prism. Snowden’s message has slightly more nuance to it, but Snowden gets as much of it as might have reasonably been expected. Just don’t expect too much of it, and give Citizenfour a glance to fill in its gaps.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The BFG

August 26, 2017 Leave a comment

The BFG (2016; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

Steven Spielberg could comfortably churn out reasonably enchanting, amusingly diverting all-ages entertainment like The BFG until the day he dies. Although he challenges himself as a filmmaker with more adult-oriented films and while they have proven more divisive but also ultimately more rewarding, it’s with the inner-child sparkling-wonder stuff that he’s particularly in his element.

Adapting Roald Dahl’s 1982 book of the same name, The BFG (which stands for “Big Friendly Giant”, not “Big Fucking Gun”, as first-person-shooter gamers might automatically assume) is a slight, vaguely Disneyfied concoction but a heartfelt, impeccably-crafted, and often visually ravishing one. It follows Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), a bookish, imaginative girl who is whisked away from a London orphanage after she catches a furtive glimpse of the titular elderly giant (Mark Rylance, recognizable in the giant’s kindly glances and tweedy whistle of a country-farmer voice) on his nocturnal rounds. He returns to his home in Giant Country with Sophie in tow, and the girl is soon charmed by the mild-mannered BFG and his malaprop-esque mis-speakings. She learns of his magical work of catching dreams and blowing them into the heads of sleeping humans, his whimsical fondness for green-tined, reverse-carbonated fart juice, and his subordinate relationship to the rest of the (much larger) giants, bulky brutes who bully him mercilessly and embark on human-eating expeditions. With Sophie’s aid and fond encouragement, the BFG will push back against these nasty giants and their leader Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement).

Melissa Mathison’s script crams in as much of Dahl’s verbal playfulness as it can manage, as well as plenty of kid-squealing gross-outs (Sophie escapes the determined hunting of Fleshlumpeater inside a moist, squishy vegetable called a snozzcumber, for example) and overt appeals to childish interests. Spielberg, for his part, densely packs in clever visual gags and winking movement beats. All of these elements come together along with a grinning nose-thumbing at upper-crust snootery as Sophie and the BFG dine improbably at Buckingham Palace with the Queen herself (Penelope Wilton). The palace staff engages in absurd contrivances to serve the giant, overflowing platters of delicious-looking food fill the tables, and the Queen’s corgis skid along the carpets on the wings of flatulence. Everyone is having mild, goofy fun, Spielberg chiefly, and it’s a low-key delight.

It feels churlish to object to such a well-polished trifle as The BFG, though a harsh eye might be cast at Barnhill’s slightly-excessive mugging, the stock-idea conception of captured dreams as standard-issue coloured glowing CG teardrops, or the plot-convenience implication that the Queen of England is the commander-in-chief of British armed forces. The BFG doesn’t blaze any new trails but it’s an above-average family fantasy film (albeit without the winks and nods at savvy adults that characterize much feature animation now) that is consistently pretty to look at and not only respects but, more vitally, is in love with its source material. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for in bursting, enthusiastic cleverness and fundamental, gentle good humour. At his core, Steven Spielberg doesn’t need much more than this to be happy in the movies. It’s difficult to watch The BFG and not find yourself agreeing with him.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Dunkirk

August 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Dunkirk (2017; Directed by Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan’s first shot of the infamous beach of Dunkirk, France is fastidiously regimented and technically ordered, as is his habit and his wont. When a British Army private named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the last survivor of his retreating squad, stumbles onto the beach from which more than 330,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated to save them from the advancing German forces in late May and early June of 1940, he finds not chaotic terror and demoralized disarray, but orderly, geometrically-arranged columns of soldiers and materiel. Framed between rod-straight vertical flagpoles and the natural horizontal progression of beach, waterline, surf, sea, and sky, Nolan composes the notoriously desperate, frantic, and hellish Operation Dynamo as history’s grandest queueing exercise. This 70mm panorama view (like much of Nolan’s blockbuster work, the film was also shot and exhibited in IMAX, but never in dreaded, gimmicky 3D) of a pivotal event in human history’s deadliest war is carefully composed and impeccably clean. Even the sand on the beach appears to have been painstakingly raked; perhaps the BEF evacuees decided to do some calming zen gardening while they waited for rescue?

In case the observation being made is unclear, Nolan’s Dunkirk is predicated on a certain visual and functional incongruity from the hard-edged realities of the Second World War even while it strives to replicate the unbearable sensory tension of the war-zone experience. Jonathan Raban, in a perceptive piece on the film for The Stranger, notes that incongruity on the basis of the remembered experiences of his father, a survivor of Dunkirk. Raban recalls the memorable, five-minute tracking one-shot of the Dunkirk beach from Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement as a truer re-creation of the surreal horror and bedraggled absurdity of the evacuation, and indeed of the whole terrible, pitiful war. No less technically impressive than Nolan’s Dunkirk and a fraction of the length, the sequence in Atonement is infinitely psychologically (and, perhaps, artistically) deeper and richer.

This is not to say that Dunkirk is not excellent, potent, inherently impressive filmmaking. Or that its metronome-ticking rhythmic shifts between uneasy anticipation and smothering intensity are not, in their way, accurate representations of the lived experience of war. If Nolan’s controlled direction and fine shot-making, assisted by the cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema, can trespass into the too-perfect, the nigh-on precious, then other technical elements bring the full weight of craftsmanship and vision to bear with powerful affect. The sound design, in particular, is spectacular and extremely effective; when Luftwaffe planes make their first bombing and strafing pass over the sitting-duck soldiers on the beach, the roar of their engines is that of a swooping, avenging valkyrie, bent on soul-reaving. Shrill and penetrating, the sound evokes the terrifying sensation of an air assault better than any other film I can recall.

Since this is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, the story of the British soldiers’ peril and the efforts to evacuate them is told non-linearly. Cutting between events on the beach, on the sea, and in the air and covering the respective time of a week, a day, and an hour for each location, Dunkirk is arranged not by direct chronology but more in the interest of maximizing tension and impact. Characters’ dire predicaments – white-knuckle dogfights between RAF and Luftwaffe, escapes from sinking boats and planes, contentious bottle-episode dramas on board watercraft – are arranged to crescendo in concert with each other rather than for strict temporal or even thematic reasons. Hans Zimmer’s unsettled score of rising anticipation of disaster (while no match for his remarkable work for Nolan’s last film, Interstellar) contributes greatly to this overwhelming feeling of dread anticipation.

The tone and feel of Dunkirk is delineated so strong primarily because it must be, as its characters are purposely not. Plenty of capable and recognizable actors show up in the almost exclusively-male ensemble cast (a female nurse literally has a single line, and that’s it for women here). Frequent Nolan collaborator Tom Hardy is one of the RAF pilots (along with Jack Lowden), his face once again hidden behind a mask (a flight one, this time); Oscar-winner Mark Rylance is a weekend sailor who answers the Britain-wide call for small craft to ferry men from the beach at Dunkirk to the deeper-draught Royal Navy ships further offshore, and another Nolan fave, Cillian Murphy, is a traumatized officer he saves from the water; Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy are the commanding officers of the evacuation from the beach, while Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles (of One Direction fame) provide a grunt’s level view of the operation. Although all of Nolan’s actors inhabit their men-at-war archetypes convincingly and a couple of them even have something resembling an arc, the general intent is to depict men caught up in the larger sweep of the grinding war.

Dunkirk became a propaganda cause célèbre for Britain in the dark, dispiriting early days of WWII, a military debacle turned into a tempered victory and patriotic fodder for Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s legendary “we will fight on the beaches” speech to the House of Commons that steeled the nation for the forthcoming hunkering-down of the Battle of Britain. Although Nolan thrills and unnerves his audience by putting his characters in deadly peril, he does not telegraph their emotional responses with anything resembling the manipulative hand of, say, Steven Spielberg; the peril is impressionist, experiential, not necessarily empathetic in intent or effect.

The heroism celebrated in Dunkirk is of a stereotypically British stiff-upper-lip sort, driven by grim survivalism and undergirded always with firm, understated duty-bound commitment. Nolan does allow himself a moment or two of inspirational uplift: Hardy’s Spitfire heroics earn some throaty climactic cheers, as does the arrival of the greatly mythologized “little ships” at a moment of great despair for the evacuees. The latter scene is quite nearly indulgent and mawkish, with Branagh heralding the boats’ appearance with the word “Hope!” and Zimmer allowing his score to swell the heart just a bit. But the stoic eyes-forward poses of the flotilla crews save the moment from sentimentality; it’s on to the task, old chap, no need for fussing.

This focus on the task, on the ineffable realness of every moment onscreen, defines Dunkirk. It’s undeniably intense and immediate, resisting rote mythologizing almost (but not quite) to the last. Nolan’s approach and visual style can be a bit too clean and regimented to handle the full, ragged spectrum of the horrors of war, it’s true. But then human emotional trauma being smoothed over (erased, even) by sophisticated technical organization is also a vital part of the story of war, particularly of World War II, in which that organization, when combined with technological developments and mass mobilization of people, products, and ideas, produced great horrors on the battlefield and greater ones off of it. Dunkirk may not be especially good at representing the breadth and complexity of human history’s most cataclysmic conflict, but it is highly superior at drilling deep into the experience of a single, defining episode of that conflict and rendering it for a modern audience with powerful, intelligible clarity.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews