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Film Review: The Death of Stalin

December 5, 2018 Leave a comment

The Death of Stalin (2017; Directed by Armando Iannucci)

In her 1963 book on the trial of the Nazi German SS commander and Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann, political thinker Hannah Arendt coined the term “banality of evil” to describe the species of dumb quotidian striving and uncritical order-following that characterized Eichmann’s participation in the Final Solution. The idea of the banality of evil is sometimes misquoted and very frequently misapplied, and was and is quite controversial in philosophical circles. However, it usefully pinpointed in Arendt’s subject Eichmann a sort of unremarkable normality, a featureless bureaucratic ordinariness that, through a thoughtless disengagement from the harsh realities that lay behind his career-driven pencil-pushing actions, was complicit in terrible, terrible things. Arendt’s conclusion was that Eichmann did evil, but was not evil. Whatever problems this concept presents, the banality of evil focuses on an important contradiction that animates modern political action: what can appear professional, customary, and everyday can in truth be working towards the very worst, the most evil, of outcomes.

Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a raucously funny but quietly vicious extrapolation on the banality of evil with a far keener eye for the ridiculous, but no less ghastly, fundaments of oppressive totalitarianism. Call it a comic treatise on the absurdity of evil, if you will, a farcical satire about the frantic power struggle for primacy at the top of government of the Soviet Union after the demise of the iron-willed tyrant Joseph Stalin. Despite the sharp-tongued banter, selfish scheming, and copious bumbling on the part of the succeeding members of the Central Committee, however, horrors take place, crimes against humanity are committed, lives are altered, destroyed, or brutally ended, even within the rarified heights of the Politburo. We laugh while the blood flows, and perhaps the oxygen from the laughter makes its sick colour all the more vivid.

The Scottish-Italian Iannucci has ramped up to The Death of Stalin by establishing himself as one of the sharpest satirists of back-room political operations in the English-speaking world. At the BBC, he co-created Steve Coogan’s iconically mediocre television presenter caricature Alan Partridge (along with Coogan and future Four Lions director Chris Morris), then on the sitcom The Thick of It (and its accompanying movie In the Loop) unleashed the verbal-bomb-throwing of Peter Capaldi’s aggro political operative Malcolm Tucker on unsuspecting audiences. He crossed the Atlantic to conquer American comedy, too, creating and showrunning the early seasons of HBO’s White House satire Veep and winning a pair of Emmys for his trouble.

In Iannucci’s closed backrooms of power, whipsmart tongue-lashings greet scandals and missteps and PR disasters and not-infrequent bad intentions. It can be tempting to read Iannucci’s satires, with the potent rudeness of their most cynical and inhuman characters, through the lens of laments for political incivility. There is, after all, an entire legacy-media constituency dedicated to the persistent idea that the nasty, destructive partisanship of American politics in particular could be convincingly defused (ideological differences be damned) if everyone could just be nicer to each other. Lucrative punditry sinecures await any and all willing to parrot such a line of thought, and there are not a few such voices in the American media still labouring under the assumption that this symptomatic lack of politeness is the real problem with Donald Trump (and not his stupid, mean, greedy, prejudiced awfulness as a person).

But Armando Iannucci will wring out laughs at the bickering and sideswiping of the powerful before turning our attention to the terrible meat-hook realities that lie at behind the rude spewing. In The Death of Stalin, this approach constitutes the blackest of dark comedies about the shabby cheapness of human mortality: whether of a towering political leader like the eponymous expiring Man of Steel or of the millions of people, specific and generalized, whose lives he claimed in the Soviet Union and beyond. When Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suffers a stroke after a night of carousing with his Central Committee cronies, he is found with his bowels voided on the carpet, and is hauled to what will be his deathbed by those same cronies, who bumble and fumble the organization of even this simple task, leading to some satisfying slapstick as the corpus of the dictator is dragged over one of their own bodies to rest on the sheets.

Iannucci revels in both the absurdity and the bruality of Stalinist Russia, and finds those characteristics inextricably entwined. He includes (and compresses and dramatizes, yes) comically absurd and sharply ironic real-life anecdotes that demonstrate the ludicrous whims of Stalin and how it affects those around them, who are in terror for their lives should they offend the leader. The film opens with a classical concerto performance broadcast on state radio that Stalin decides that he wants a recording of. The harrassed program director (Paddy Considine) finds that the performance was not recorded, and hastily, desperately reconvenes the musicians and the resistant pianist (Olga Kurylenko) to play the concerto again, this time to record. After Stalin’s non-fatal stroke, his flunkies must scramble around Moscow to collect even retired, inexperienced, or incompetent doctors to treat him, as the paranoid General Secretary had the city’s best doctors (mostly Jews, natch) put to death for supposedly plotting against him.

More darkly, a few scenes take place in a secret interrogation and execution facility of the Stalinist secret police, the NKVD, where detained persons are rushed about to torture or imprisonment, and the gunshots of death sentences ring out as a constant background score. Stalin’s right-hand man in these manners, the enforcer of his enemies lists and the primary bureaucrat responsible for the ongoing reign of terror, is his fellow Georgian Lavrentiy Beria (the great Simon Russell Beale), who is also at the heart of the jockeying intrigues that follow the General Secretary’s death (Beria was also a serial sexual predator, using his position at the head of the NKVD to commit numerous rapes, which this film makes very clear).

Although Stalin’s official successor to the Secretariat is the dim, vain, and malleable Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Beria and Nikita Khruschev, played by Steve Buscemi (who seems born to spew Iannucci’s inspired invective) in a counter-intuitive masterstroke of casting, are the real contenders for the throne. The veteran diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin, who is in a supporting role but is granted a clutch of moments to demonstrate his absolute expertise of comic timing and performance) plays a key role as an elder statesman kingmaker (though he was just spared the wrath of the enemies list by his old boss croaking), as does the spiky, bloody-minded WWII hero and head of the Red Army, General Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). Stalin’s children are kicking around, too, but neither the paralyzed-by-woe Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) or the foolish, preening, conspiracy-minded Vasily (Rupert Friend) are real factors in the power transfer.

The collision of these outsized, overtly hostile personalities makes for frequent great comedy. The Death of Stalin is pitilessly hilarious, and Iannucci facilitates and maximizes this hilarity in numerous masterful ways, from the writing (of course) to the you-are-there mockumentary cinematography to the irony-laced editing to the inspired decision to allow his actors to speak in their native accents, rather than some forced Russian-accented English, to allow a full range for their natural timing and expression (Buscemi’s clipped Italian-American force and Isaacs’ Liverpudlian flintiness define their characters essentially as well as deliver their lines to best effect).

But it is worth asking if The Death of Stalin hits the ideal notes in relation to the murderous (indeed, nigh-on genocidal) authoritarianism of its setting and subject. Though Iannucci’s favoured blood-drawing political satire frequently focuses on the underlying corruption and immorality beneath the vile language and bantering insults, one might say that Stalin’s Soviet Union is kind of low-hanging fruit in that regard. There are few places and times in human history in which it was worse to be alive than the Russia of Joseph Stalin, particular because for myriad reasons it was exceedingly unlikely that you were to be alive for long. Is this a fit setting for comedy, no matter how pitch-dark?

I admitted to being slightly disappointed with the relative superficiality of how In the Loop tackled the deceit and ill intent of the American venture in the Iraq War. The Death of Stalin is better in this regard, though it emphasizes the role of cruel random chance even more than bureaucratized detachment in the commission of atrocities in the Stalinist Soviet state: a prisoner about to be killed exclaims “Long live Stalin!” in a last-ditch effort to save himself, only to be informed by his executioner that Stalin is dead; a second after he is shot and before the next man in line can meet his fate, Beria’s order halting the executions arrives. This randomness that governs life and death defines not only Stalinist oppression for Iannucci, but also the rule of the state in our vaunted democracies as well. But it’s a very different, and perhaps ultimately weaker and less human, force than the systematized and obscured evil that Stalinist Russia is also a defining example of.

The Death of Stalin takes no prisoners, does not soften its harsh blows, offers no really sympathetic port-in-the-storm characters to grasp on to, and concludes not with a note of hope or change but with a postscript on the continuity of backstabbing intrigue at the top of the USSR. In the moment and even for some time afterwards, this is a patently hilarious and deep-cutting satire that doesn’t pull its punches. But in rendering evil in the only way that he really can do it, as absurd rather than as banal, as foolish and random rather than as professionalized and disavowed, I fear that Armando Iannucci waters down Hannah Arendt’s potent critique, both in the historical context of his film and in the contemporary context of our battered and bruised political and social firmament.

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Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Sorry to Bother You

December 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Sorry to Bother You (2018; Directed by Boots Riley)

Sorry to Bother You is an incredible film. This is meant in more than one sense of the word: the writing/directing debut from rapper/political activist Boots Riley is a work of dazzling quality and of originality and imagination, a film that announces itself confidently as one of the best of its year before it’s even done being viewed. But it’s also incredible, an audacious fever-dream of contemporary American capitalist culture, society, race relations, and labour economy that must be seen to be believed. I can try, and will try, to describe it and its delirious appeal, but I have no confidence that it won’t intractably frustrate this effort, or indeed that I wouldn’t want it to. No one can be told what Sorry to Bother You is; like The Matrix, you have to see it for yourself.

If you know little else about Sorry to Bother You beyond the boldly-coloured posters used to advertise it or promotional images of star Lakeith Stanfield’s deflated, head-bandaged visage, I might suggest that you keep it that way until you can see the film and see what this forthcoming fuss is about. For those for whom a bit more (but not too much more) information is required before committing to a film, I offer the subsequent description and thoughts.

Stanfield is Cassius Green (“cash is green”, get it? I admit that I didn’t until the movie explained the pun). He lives in a converted garage (complete with inconveniently-opening overhead door) in the Oakland home of his uncle Sergio (Terry Crews), to whom he owes several months of rent. He hopes his money woes will be at an end soon, however: he interviews for a telemarketing job at a company called Regalview, whose lower management is beset by such a mixture of both boundless cynicism and aspirational buy-ins to business-buzzword narratives that they are impressed by the hustle displayed amidst his shoddy dishonesty about his work history (his fabrications include both a plaque and a trophy from previous invented positions) and hire him on.

Cassius initially struggles with the awkward, dehumanizing intrusiveness of his cold-call work (Riley visualizes Cassius and his entire desk being dropped into the homes of the people he speaks to on the phone), although he forms an in-the-trenches bond with fellow cubicle-bound phone warriors, including his friend Salvador (Jermaine Fowler), whose hiring at Regalview pre-dates his own, and Squeeze (Steve Yuen), a labour activist intending to organize the telemarketers into a union. Cassius’ girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) even joins up, as a supplement to her work as a contemporary artist of wearing spectacular message earrings, preparing for a splashy installation-and-performance show, and spinning one-word slogan signs on street corners.

But his professional fortunes begin to improve dramatically when an older colleague (Danny Glover) introduces him to the confident, sale-making wonders of the White Voice (David Cross provides the White Voice for Cassius, with Patton Oswalt and Lily James featured as the White Voices for other African-American characters projecting this sound of carefree success and privilege). Cassius is soon promoted to the lucrative upper-floor position of Power Caller, using his White Voice to sell products and opportunities to the ultra-rich for RegalView’s society-dominating client corporation WorryFree, a massive multinational with sunny advertising who give their workers free room, board, food, and clothing in exchange for a contract of lifelong servitude. Cassius’ Power Calling puts him at odds with his coworkers’ strike spearheaded by Squeeze, as he is escorted past their picket line by brutal riot-gear-equipped security contractors to ride a golden elevator up to the Power Caller digs.

This tension between his striking proletarian friends on one hand and the luxurious and seductive world of handsome salaries, tailored suits, fast cars, and indulgent parties (as well as the exploitative exchanges that pay for those things) on the other tugs at Cassius’ conscience and threatens his relationship with Detroit, who sympathizes with the organizing effort and whose art critiques the corporate economy and its deleterious effects. It is, of course, the central dilemma that American capitalism presents to every labourer: commit to the difficult collective campaign for labour rights despite the costs and the deprivations embraced by hostile bosses and authorities alike, or take a more selfish path to a solo rise, turning onto the gilded self-enriching highway of the sell-out with the full knowledge of being complicit in the processes of an iniquitous system. It’s a dilemma all the more fraught for African-Americans, who face White-Voice-like compromises to their identity and community in exchange for a share of majoritarian prosperity. But Cassius will be compelled to choose by a vision of future horror glimpsed during a party at the home of WorryFree’s inscrutable golden-bro CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).

This synopsis is a hopelessly inadequate soft-sell of Sorry to Bother You, which is far wilder and stranger and greater a movie than is really possible to summarize as done above. To simply call it a satire of American capitalism, labour, and race, of media and art and activism, is likewise inadequate. It absolutely is that, and is frequently uproariously hilarious in that role. But Riley cultivates and grows a world altogether bizarre and fantastical, a portrait of lively, humane urban depression which might be labelled magic realism if not for the hard edge of perfunctory absurdism and vicious political commentary that comes with it. This absurdity is complete and all-encompassing, Riley suggests, and the society that embraces it and ensures its continuity with the cowboy gusto of the American public is profoundly, troublingly masochistic. The most popular television show in this funhouse version of the United States, after all, is called “I Got The S#*@ Kicked Out of Me!”, and asks its enraptured audience to watch as a willing participant is beaten up for its entertainment.

Riley’s film goes whole-hog on lampooning this delirious absurdism, and several scenes and moments are astoundingly funny: the subtext-becomes-text nature of the automated motivational pronouncements in the golden Power Caller elevator, Squeeze’s uncomfortably personal revelations shouted through a protest bullhorn, everything involving White Voices and the Equisapiens (just wait and see). Detroit’s performance art sequence breathes comic life into the low-hanging fruit of making a farce of the already-farcical realm of contemporary art and its political pretensions. And if the code-switching commentary of the White Voice wasn’t enough, Riley mocks the racist assumption on the part of Lift’s affluent Caucasian partygoers that Cassius can rap just because he’s African-American in a moment worthy of Spike Lee’s uncompromising sensibilities.

Spike Lee is a key talisman of influence for Boots Riley, just as Lee’s early ’90s creative peak of iconoclastic and confrontational films of the African-American experience is being recaptured and, in commercial and perhaps artistic ways, surpassed by films in the same vein in the recent African-American film renaissance (albeit served with far more crowd-capturing sugar than Lee’s signature works). 12 Years A SlaveSelma, Get Out, Moonlight, Black Panther, and even Lee’s own BlacKkKlansman have collectively given firm and bold voice on screen to perspectives on the continuing struggles and joys of America’s most historically oppressed minority (who, of course, have also been its pop-cultural vanguard, particularly in the musical realm).

Sorry to Bother You fits into this encouraging wave of memorable African-American films, but also stands off entirely on its own. Boots Riley’s tumult of ideas in this film crashes down on the racial assumptions and white supremacy of the American labour economy, and the discomfiting subtext to all of WorryFree’s practices and initiatives is that American capitalists are incrementally reconstituting the broader terms of chattel slavery, still the most profitable and advantageous labour system in the country’s history from their point of view. But his spectacularly kooky Boccaccian vision of capitalist socioeconomics crosses and re-crosses the colour line, finding class and income oppression intermingling and cooperating with racial discrimination. Sorry to Bother You is a film of black experience, but more broadly and comprehensively it is a film of American experience, and thus a film whose anxieties and satirical targets are intelligible and even personally applicable to people across the globe within the seemingly-infinite reach of American capitalism. And it is an incredible film that must be seen to be believed.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review – Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

November 27, 2018 Leave a comment

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018; Directed by David Yates)

J.K. Rowling loves plot. Give her all the plot. The more the better. Big, heaping, fattening piles of plot, like the platters of toppling victuals and treats that entrance her iconic orphan boy wizard Harry Potter in the dining hall of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry back in the first film of what is now the ten-film Wizarding World movie franchise, 17 years ago(!). Rowling never met a convoluted narrative thread or six that she didn’t adore and cherish like a precious child, even if they inevitably must end in lengthy, talky expository infodumps that explain the complications in great detail. When she read The Lord of the Rings, as her Potter saga demonstrates that she assuredly did, she must have stopped at the Council of Elrond and made an Unbreakable Vow to spend the rest of her writing life trying to equal or surpass it.

Rowling has other persistent foibles as a writer as well: an old-guard British obsession with heredity and bloodlines, a recourse to prophecies as foreshadowing, an expressed political worldview that tilts towards the progressive anti-authoritarian but leans to the Eurocentric and consistently excludes and erases minority identity groups (especially on the LGBT spectrum), a Dickensian fondness for whimsical names and side characters. All of these weaknesses are on display in the second film of the Fantastic Beasts prequel series, The Crimes of Grindelwald, and some of them certainly hamper this overstuffed, self-involved, generally unexciting wand-magic-fest of a movie. Her better qualities come through as well in the film as well, mind you: this movie, like all of her wizarding stories, is funny, humane, ingenious, and fundamentally infused with serious dedication to the principles of liberalism and staunch opposition to hard-right authoritarian demagoguery and its deadly consequences. But where her overwrought plotting habits were checked ably by screenwriter Steve Kloves in the Harry Potter movies and by her own relative hesitance with the screenplay format in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (maybe not as good as I found it at the time of its release, but miles better than this attempt), they are here unrestrained and rampant. I shared the theatre for Crimes of Grindelwald‘s second-weekend screening with a birthday party of a dozen children. While the Potter books and films grew and matured in the writing along with their protagonist (one of the strongest and most engaging things about them), their events (or certainly their basic stakes, moment-to-moment and in the larger sweep) remained intelligible to children down to their conclusion. I simply cannot fathom that these kids had any idea at all what was happening in The Crimes of Grindelwald.

I suppose I did know what was happening in this movie, but only with seven books and nine films of prior knowledge, some assiduous digging into memories of past events in the Potterverse, and concerted mental effort in the cinema itself. Spoilers may follow, but Rowling has spoiled this material enough with her busy excess that mine hardly matter in comparison. The Crimes of Grindelwald opens in 1927 with the titular white-haired seductively fascistic dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp, who despite the controversy over his casting in light of domestic abuse allegations is rather good; well, his performance is good, he is just bad) escaping an airborne Thestral carriage transporting him from imprisonment in New York to prosecution for his crimes in Europe. It’s an enervating if sometimes visually confusing pulse-pounder of an opening in the tradition of James Bond films and referencing John Ford’s Stagecoach (I must give Rowling some praise for her thunderous action scenes, for which she has long been underrated). The movie is never as exciting again, and there’s plenty of it left to go.

Grindelwald retreats to Paris to gather followers and pursue Creedence Barebone (Ezra Miller), a powerful Obscurial whose release of his repressed magical powers flattened a good chunk of New York during the climax of the first Fantastic Beasts. Grindelwald is desirous of Creedence’s allegiance for his considerable powers as well as for more secretive reasons which relate to the boy’s family lineage. Creedence is also seeking his rumoured-to-be-august magical family history (he was revealed to have been adopted by an austere bible-thumping anti-magic crusader in the last film, if you care to recall). This lost young man has fallen into a touring magical freak-show carnival along with his sole kindred-spirit friend, a Maledictus named Nagini (Claudia Kim) who is blood-cursed to one day become a snake, and sometime after that becomes the familiar companion and Horcrux of Harry Potter’s nemesis Lord Voldemort, only to be decapitated with a sword by Neville Longbottom at the end of The Deathly Hallows Part 2, a fist-pump hero moment that feels a little different now that we’ve met this wounded and doubting young woman in her pre-serpentine form, to say the least.

*deep breath*

Arrayed against Grindelwald’s plans for a new order of wizard supremacy over subjugated non-magical people are the government Aurors of Britain (they’re kind of the wizard FBI, magical g-men), which include Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner), elder brother of Fantastic Beasts protagonist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). Newt meets up with his brother amidst the monumental black stone of the British Ministry of Magic, a committee of which considers lifting the travel ban against the magical-creature-loving Newt imposed following the chaos his treasured beings unleashed in New York. They rule against lifting the ban when Newt refuses their quid-pro-quo offer of killing Creedence for them, and they send a notorious Auror assassin named Grimmson (Ingvar Eggert Siggurðsson) in his place. Newt also encounters Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), his former Hogwarts classmate and past (maybe also present) flame, who is engaged to marry Theseus, which complicates the already-divergent brothers’ relationship just a touch.

*deep breath*

Newt returns to his London rowhouse, beneath which is a cavernous magically-extended habitat for the various magical creatures he safeguards and cares for, complete with M.C. Escher stairways and a plain English caretaking assistant (Victoria Yeates). Rowling and director David Yates pause for an interlude of fleeting wonder in this larger-scale version of Newt’s weathered magical-being-holding suitcase, as Newt rides a marine creature made out of kelp, but soon enough trample back into narrative momentum. Newt has an unannounced visit from his friends from New York, Muggle baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler, one of the comic highlights of the first film in this new series but a mere one-note passenger here) and his lover Queenie (Alison Sudol and her breathy flapper intonations), a mind-reading Legilimens and the sister of American Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who had a mutually-felt affection for Newt in the last movie. Tina is not with them, however, as she is on the trail of Creedence in Paris and has gone off Newt besides, following his ill-advised criticisms of Aurors in a letter to her and her own impression from a wizards’ gossip magazine article that he and not his brother is engaged to Leta Lestrange. Also, although Jacob loves Queenie, he doesn’t think their relationship across the magic line can survive the laws against it in America, and she quarrels with him for his cowardice and bolts. Got all that? No? Good.

*deep breath*

All of these characters and more end up in Paris, wrapped up in the supremely tangled pursuit of Creedence, of Grindelwald, and of each other. There’s also French-Senegalese wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam) who has vowed to kill Creedence (or at least whom he believes Creedence to be), and even the immortal alchemist and Philosopher’s Stone footnote Nicolas Flamel shows up (he has next to nothing to do, at least in this movie, but he is played by Brontis Jodorowsky, thus connecting the Wizarding World directly to the actor’s father, the enigmatic surrealistic filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, by a single additional step).

Both Kama and Leta Lestrange have complicated (and interrelated) family-history backstories which Rowling chooses to unpack laboriously just prior to the final-act climax at Paris’ legendary Père Lachaise Cemetery (although much of the exterior location shooting was at London’s Highgate Cemetery and its iconic Egyptian Avenue), which is problematic in pacing terms as well as due to the troublingly old-fashioned melodramatic details of those backstories. It’s debatable whether these talky reveals work on the page, but they do not work on the big screen and no one in a position to do so has summoned the gumption to inform Rowling of it. Is there an audience out there for bewildering digressions on the Lestrange family history? I’m sure there is, but Rowling can’t argue convincingly for why the rest of us should care.

Complete borderline-incoherent mess that The Crimes of Grindelwald is, it doesn’t feel right to brush it aside without noting some finer points. The film is a technical marvel as all of the Wizarding World films have been (at least post-Prisoner of Azkaban), with wonderful production, costume, sound, and computer effects design on display from moment to moment. There’s an effects-heavy sequence in the storage-shelf-shuffling archive of the French Ministry of Magic (a magnificent set, like if Art Nouveau grandee Alphonse Mucha had designed an airport terminal) featuring a fearsome, gloriously-realized Chinese lion-demon creature (that is, nonetheless, a kitty at heart) that Newt rescued from the Circus Arcanus cat-fighting with the archive’s black feline guardians.

Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander remains a very particular reluctant hero, and as well as he’s played by Redmayne is still most laudable as a lead character whose greatest strength is his capacity for empathy and understanding. Though you have to feel like there’s a great performance from Ezra Miller as Creedence lurking two or three movies hence, the cast of the Fantastic Beasts films cannot help but pale in comparison to the bloom of a golden generation of English thesps that dotted the Potter series. There are some engaging and even transcendent performers in this cast, but no one that can come within miles of measuring up to a rotating stable of actors like Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Robbie Coltrane, David Thewlis, Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes, Imelda Staunton, Kenneth Branagh, Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Griffiths, and more.

Much of the discussion inside and outside of the fan community as regards The Crimes of Grindelwald, however, will focus on Rowling’s entwined treatment of one of the Wizarding World’s most tantalizing mysteries and the related political resonance it strikes. Gellert Grindelwald’s rhetoric and methods of persuasion, demonstrated in a climactic theatrical event clearly meant to evoke Adolf Hitler’s Nazi rallies, strongly echoes fascist authoritarians of past and present, real and imagined. Grindelwald’s argument, that inherently superior wizards and witches cannot live separately but equally with inferior but useful Muggles and retain their freedom and self-determination (magical lebensraum, essentially), is also basically Magneto’s ideological bedrock for the Brotherhood of Mutants in X-Men, and like in those comics and movies, it holds an appeal to different characters for diverse reasons (including at least one that you might not expect, though this character’s conversion to the cause seems to be missing a key step or two). And Grindelwald actually sets himself and his new order up as a pre-emptive movement against the catastrophic destruction and oppression wrought by fascism, seeking to persuade the gathered attendees to join him with predictive glimpses of World War II’s atrocities and provoking Theseus’ rally-busting Aurors to violence as a demonstration of the intolerant restrictions of the wizarding establishment.

But Crimes of Grindelwald‘s politics are tied up in the dark wizard’s shadowy past connection to the original Potter series’ figure of wisdom and authority, Professor Albus Dumbledore. Played here as a younger man (and Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, a mid-film visit to which feels like coming up for air) by a dashing, waistcoated Jude Law, Dumbledore prods Newt towards confrontation with Grindelwald as his proxy since he himself cannot fight the dark wizard. As revealed in Deathly Hallows, this is because Dumbledore and Grindelwald had some sort of relationship years before as younger men (the implications of this on Dumbledore’s status as a heroic character and how it ripples down to this movie are unpacked well by John DiLillo at Film School Rejects). Crimes of Grindelwald fleshes this out just a little: the two young men made some sort of binding vow (or Vow, though maybe not Unbreakable) not to harm each other.

The exact nature of Dumbledore/Grindelwald has remained obscure, a continuing mystery by design, but even before Rowling’s problematic supratextual public declaration that Dumbledore was gay, the alluded-to liaison was marked by speculation of homosexual desire. It certainly always presented that way to my thinking, from the time of the final book’s publication; J.K. Rowling is a lot of things as a writer, but subtle is not one of them. Crimes of Grindelwald, despite pre-release speculation, doesn’t go there, continuing Rowling’s reticence towards firmly canonizing Dumbledore’s sexuality. But the truth is, it doesn’t go anywhere, really, at least nowhere new as concerns these characters and their link to each other.There is a pretty clear nod in that direction, with Dumbledore gazing into the Mirror of Erised (the first in a series of Rowling’s magical expository devices) and seeing his youthful self with the a manboy Grindelwald, but the backstory remains veiled. Maybe a future movie will detail matters further (there’s three more to go in this series, we are promised), but this one maintains a Wizarding World without acknowledged same-sex relationships.

This failure may be more on Rowling’s hyper-plotting maniam and may not be one of nerve or courage of convictions or sufficient liberality on her part, and even aligns with recent wink-and-nudge Hollywood blockbuster hints of meaningful LGBT representation (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast rehash comes particularly to mind). From the very start of her Wizarding World, when she swapped a Philosopher’s Stone for a Sorceror’s Stone (at her publisher’s suggestion, yes, but still), she’s kept a weather eye on the lucrative American market and its stereotypical concerns, and maybe her reticence to push minority representation too far is coloured by those concerns. Anxiety about causing offence to American audiences might also serve explain one of the strangest omissions in her suite of worldbuilding choices: the dearth of religion in the Wizarding World.

It’s a tangential point perhaps deserving its own essay (and likely there are some out there on the subject already), but besides the severe, abusive, intolerant fundamentalist Christianity of Creedence’s adoptive mother in the first Fantastic Beasts (which is located firmly in the NoMaj world), there is no religion in wizarding societies. Perhaps Rowling sought out well-scrubbed secularity, or decided that any religion connected to witchcraft and wizardry might veer close to the sort of out-and-out Satanism featured in something like Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. But the existence of a global community of magical practitioners whose special powers are confered at birth and cannot be said to be strictly due to genetic heredity (search up “Squib” and “Muggle-born” in a Potterverse wiki for support for this) that does not include at least factions that are convinced of the unseen hand of a higher power in such gifts seems, well, a little unbelievable.

I suppose it must be time to return to the main road of this rambling, bramble-encrusted critical consideration and sum up. Although I must admit that Iam a believer in films receiving written criticism worthy of their particular nature, and with this in mind, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald has earned such a litany of barely-focused overwrought thoughts. This is not a completely awful movie, by any means; too much money and fine craftsmanship is in play behind and in front of the camera for that. The Wizard World could perhaps use a fresh director to shake it up; Yates is hyper-competent and quite comfortable with the material, but has now helmed half of the ten films in this franchise (perhaps Brontis Jodorowsky can put in a word for his old man? That, I would pay to see). But whoever directs it, this is a movie defined above all by the myriad, baked-in faults of its creator.

J.K. Rowling is not about to change who she is as a writer at this point, and so those of us who still set some stock in the Wizarding World’s narrative continuation, untangleable plots and all, must reconcile ourselves to not expecting her to evolve to any real extent. Rowling’s work has nagging problems that have grown from specks to logs in this new prequel series and in The Crimes of Grindelwald in particular. Perhaps we should have collectively thought about that before we anointed her the wealthiest writer in the world and the most important author in a generation. Cringe from that characterization if you will, but then try to pinpoint an alternative to the title and find acceptance in the failure. That this most consequential of contemporary popular writers penned a film as shambolic and troubled as The Crimes of Grindelwald is not a positive statement for either that writer or our times.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

November 23, 2018 Leave a comment

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018; Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen)

The Coen Brothers’ Netflix streaming-series-turned-anthology-film is at once a deconstruction of the Hollywood western and a sincere homage to the genre, all while remaining indelibly and profoundly Coens. This would mean that it involves peculiar characters, eccentric language, assured storytelling, deep film-history literacy, sudden violence both comic and shocking, woolly philosophical musings on existential questions and human nature, and a keen sense of the fickle, unpredictable, badly-bent arc of the moral universe. This latter element winds like a scarlet thread woven with dark humour and unruly melancholy through the six stories of The Ballad of Ballad Scruggs, which otherwise lack any sort of narrative unity or coherence (as would befit the anthological episodes the film was conceived as and edited down to feature-length form). These vignettes range from wacky send-ups of generic tropes to exquisitely-wrought parables of human want and drive to wordy chamber pieces to cause-and-effect escalations with tragic dimensions. But they always retain an internal logic of momentum and direction, a force and counter-force progression of choices and events unmoored from moral consequences and judgements of cosmic justice; indeed, they often brazenly thumb their collective noses at the sense of a moral order.

Like crime films, the western, whose physical and social setting is on the frontier of human order and American law, has long fascinated the Coens as an ideal cinematic playground for the lawless disorder that characterizes their perspective on the moral universe as an arbitrary, unfeeling, and above all dangerous and destructive place, for anyone foolish enough to cling to notions of human decency and goodness as well as for those who would discard those things with selfish callousness. The argument could be made that some of the Coens’ best films were westerns, or perhaps westerns in disguise: of course True Grit and No Country For Old Men qualify on a base level, but Raising ArizonaO Brother, Where Art Thou? and even Fargo encompass major elements of tales of black-hat frontier lawlessness coming up against white-hat individualist rectitude. Unlike classic John Ford westerns, which tended to valourize American mythic values in an idealized wilderness, Coens westerns are ambiguous and iconoclastic, destabilizing conceptions of reliable Middle-American civilized decency and moral codes in the milieu of the winner-take-all Wild West.

From the opening (and titular) segment of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coens summon up all of the stereoscopic grandeur of the big-screen American western and proceed to deftly and humiliatingly pants it in front of the world. In a comic inflation of the genre’s dominant tropes, the titular outlaw Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson, whose Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother remains one of the most perfect comic characters in the brothers’ oeuvre) rides through picturesque Monument Valley on his favourite horse in white cowboy suit and hat, strumming a guitar and singing a cowpoke ballad. He comes across as a less acrobatic iteration of Alden Ehrenreich’s crooning cowboy screen figure from the Coens’ last send-up of Hollywood convention, Hail, Caesar! But there’s a meaner streak lurking in this crooning cowboy dubbed a misanthrope on his wanted poster, a characterization with which Scruggs quibbles before proving it to be disturbingly correct.

When he speaks, it’s in a jocular, verbose dialect of old-fashioned American colloquial, peppering good-natured politeness with smiling insults for the hard cases in a pair of saloons who blithely threaten and fatally underestimate him. As adept with a shooting iron as with a tune, Scruggs dispatches his antagonists with wide-grinning casualness and graphic violence at once cartoonish and visceral that, one could argue, exposes the dark, violent, even genocidal underpinnings of the manifest destiny of westward expansion and the subsequent scrubbed-clean romanticizing of that movement of conquest and plunder. As it stands, this segment carries a cloaked harsh message about the survivalist continuity of killing in this realm of frontier law behind some of the most gloriously funny sight gags ever crafted by the Coens, or by anyone else, for that matter (including one involving Clancy Brown and a table that is a five-alarm hoot-and-holler classic and I would not dream of spoiling for anyone).

The five vignettes that follow rise and dip in tone and subject matter (though never in quality) like the peaks and valleys of the western landscape, but deepen the engagement with generic tropes and broaden the scope of the Coens’ chosen themes, which for all of the quixotic specificity of their characters operate on the level of the universal.

  • “Near Algodones” casts James Franco as a would-be bank robber who whiplashes from luckless to highly fortunate at breakneck speed. His heist location proves poorly chosen when the talkative bank teller – played with loopy inspiration by another O Brother cast member, the American treasure of a character actor Stephen Root – displays fiendish defensive ingenuity, and the robber is then embroiled in consecutive hanging scenes that emphasize the role of chance in a random universe.
  • “Meal Ticket” is the first of two consecutive stories featuring scant dialogue and masterful visual storytelling. It casts Liam Neeson as a grizzled travelling impresario who tours frontier towns presenting the oratorical recitations of a disabled English thespian (Harry Melling) to gauping locals, part highbrow theatre and part carnival freak show. The crowds begin to dwindle, and the Coens present the shifting emotions and foreshadowed end between the two men (who never speak a word to each other) through varying excerpts of the actor’s recitations, namely Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”, the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel, Shakespearean plays, and the Gettysburg Address. They also have Neeson, a Catholic Northern Irishman who played Michael freakin’ Collins for Pete’s sake, drunkenly belt out a ribald Unionist tune. Their sense of humour always comes with teeth.
  • In “All Gold Canyon”, Tom Waits is a grizzled solitary old prospector (a stretch for him, I know, but he’s actually quite excellent) digging for gold in an idyllic green valley. He mutters to himself and talks endearing to the golden vein he’s looking for, calling it Mr. Pocket and promising to find it. This deceptively simple yarn turns into a biting commentary on the nature of American capitalism before its end, however.
  • “The Gal Who Got Rattled” follows a match of convenience that moves towards budding romance before terminating in tragedy on an Oregon-bound wagon train. Zoe Kazan is Alice Longabaugh, heading west with her would-be entrepreneur brother (Jefferson Mays) and his yappy dog President Pierce. She chats tentatively and gains the aid and eventual admiration of the train’s driver Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), but a Native American raid throws all into doubt.
  • The enigmatic closing section, “The Mortal Remains”, is a mini-play set on a stagecoach. Five mismatched passengers – bounty hunters Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson, pearl-clutching bible-thumper Tyne Daly, flippant bon vivant Frenchman Saul Rubinek, and tediously talky breaded trapper Chelcie Ross – exchange their life stories along with increasingly philosophical views on love, knowledge, human nature, and mortality. They end their journey struck dumb by Gleeson warbling a mournful Irish ballad before dragging the body of their bounty into their shared hotel with his boss O’Neill.

Given all of this, what is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, after all? As an episodic series boiled down to a feature film, it ought to be a mess, and it certainly does not cohere like a normal film might be expected to do. But the Coens time and again return to the same thematic obsessions, the same moral and philosophical questions, so the six sections present as jazzy variations on a single theme. They are all entertaining, involving, amusing, or moving in some way or other; we as viewers are always engaged and trusted, never condescended to but forever respected and given space to consider, to interpret, maybe to understand.

More than anything, the use of songs, curated as ever by longtime Coens musical collaborator Carter Burwell, binds these segments to each other as well via notes of wistful longing. The movie itself, as the title indicates, is a ballad, and so one might productively think of its six parts as verses in a single story-song, with lines emphasizing common feelings and ideas but lacking a shared chorus to return to. Another recent Coens highlight, Inside Llewyn Davis, was structured narratively and thematically with the circularity of a folk song, after all. This, perhaps, is the best way to make final sense of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which is in any case yet another rich and rewarding gift to movie lovers from two of the pre-eminent working artists of the modern American cinema.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: 22 July

November 18, 2018 Leave a comment

22 July (2018; Directed by Paul Greengrass)

The latest tense, clear-eyed, cinema verité-style current-affairs drama from English filmmaker Paul Greengrass treads with a mixture of technical confidence and intellectual hesitance onto the sensitive ground of one of the most shocking and heinous acts of violent political terrorism of our age. The director of painfully direct dramatizations of massacres from the Irish Troubles and the hijackings of cargo ships off the Horn of Africa and U.S. airliners on 9/11 (to say nothing of the two finest of the comparatively light and frothy Jason Bourne films), Greengrass now takes on the 2011 Norway attacks orchestrated by far-right fanatic Anders Behring Breivik, which resulted in 77 deaths and exposed a dark, extremist underbelly in one of the world’s most prosperous and peaceful nations.

Shooting in Norway with a Norwegian cast and crew (but completely in English), Greengrass draws out the narratives of two main natives of the Scandinavian nation embroiled in the events as foils to the chillingly methodical mass murderer Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie). Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli) is the popular, politically idealistic son of a local politician from the northern archipelago of Svalbard. Viljar was in attendance at the summer camp retreat for members of the Workers’ Youth League (a sort of leadership club affiliated to Norway’s Labour Party, then in governmental power) on Utøya Island when it was attacked by Breivik, who targetted the children attendees as future leading lights of what considered the country’s “Marxist elite”. Viljar saw some of his best friends die and was himself badly wounded by multiple gunshots. 22 July follows the physical and psychological agony of his recovery and his preparation for an eventual in-court victim statement against Breivik and his beliefs, delivered before the killer’s watchful gaze. An inside view of Breivik’s legal defence is provided through his lawyer, Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), who does his civic duty as a solicitor in defending a man that he soon comes to view with contempt at some personal cost to him and his family.

22 July (the title is the date of the attacks, and would be recognized by any contemporary Norwegian as a 9/11-type shorthand for the traumatic event) therefore is more of a genre-crossing affair than is usual for Greengrass. The pained personal drama of Viljar’s struggles is set against the courtroom drama of Breivik’s trial and the plot twists of his defence: never denying that he carried out both the Utøya massacre and the bombing of a government building in Oslo that provided a distraction for his island assault, Breivik is declared mentally unfit to be tried by one examination and then mentally fit for another, deciding that escaping life imprisonment is better but then shifting gears and deciding that being declared insane would invalidate his political mission. The last two acts of 22 July build dramatically to Viljar’s testimony in a way that lends the impression that only he can effectively repudiate Breivik’s hate. But ultimately both his and Lippestad’s arcs are better understood as case studies in civic engagement and moral principle, as statements of democratic strength and solidity in the face of a terrible eruption of viciously fascistic weakness that seeks to destabilize that strength and solidity.

These stories spiral out of the riveting, unsettling opening-act depiction of the attacks themselves, and, truth be told, stand in uncomfortable disequilibrium with it. This first section of 22 July unfolds with masterfully crafted tension as an extended sequence of crescendoing dread and horror, as Breivik’s execution of his heinous plan is intercut with the reactions of government authorities and Viljar’s parents in Oslo and the children at Utøya, their joy at each other’s company at their safe and happy camp transitioning to shocking shaky-cam violence and death. This is Greengrass working at the peak of his powers with all the tools in his filmmaking kit, and it’s a stunning, galvanizing experience. But, as in Captain Phillips and United 93, it comes with a sense of disquiet and hesitation for a thoughtful viewer. How do we feel at being so effectively moved (manipulated, even) by the cinematic language of the Hollywood thriller, language that serves to enthrall and frighten us, in the context of a real-life act of deadly terrorism that still is of such horrible proximity?

Greengrass appends Viljar’s hopeful story (as well as that of a friend of his from an immigrant family, whose positions in Norway are particular targetted by far-right campaigns of terror) as an antidote to Breivik’s hate. But his film sweats and strains through genres at which he is less prodigiously skilled to catch up to the powerful vision of contemporary terror constructed in the first act. A film ostensibly about an act of violent hate and oppression being defeated by hope and love and freedom gives the former too much potency early on for the latter to overcome when it gets its chance to counterattack.

One wonders if more could have been done by Anders Danielsen Lie, who gives the film’s sole fine performance as Breivik. Lie gives this extremist a mask of self-possession and confidence in his righteousness that shifts almost imperceptively into brittle, pompous isolation as an entire nation summons the fortitude to prove him wrong. But could not Breivik’s insufferable faux-medieval cosplaying as a proud paladin of the European master race, his pretentious manifesto, his clueless Nazi salutes in the courtroom have been further defused by rendering them as ridiculous as they truly are (the latest season of ITV’s detective drama Shetland achieved this in blunt but effective terms, with Douglas Henshall’s steely-eyed DI Jimmy Perez tearing down a Norwegian far-right agent’s suggestion that Breivik was a hero by exclaiming, “He lived with his mum!”)? The President of Norway’s and law enforcement’s deft disarming of his ludicrous demand to suspend all immigration to Norway lest his brothers in the Knights Templar unleash a second attack (of course, Breivik was always very alone) comes close to achieving this, and both Viljar’s testimonial diminishment of Breivik’s convictions and Lippestad’s unambiguous blowing off of further contact with his client after his conviction are mildly satisfying. But Greengrass is no satirist; indeed, it’s hard to think of a more self-serious working filmmaker than him, and the sharp, subtle knife of anti-fascist humour is not to be found in his toolkit.

As with all of Greengrass’ pictures, the highly-specified realism of 22 July does not preclude consideration of contemporary sociopolitical concerns but does tend to render them ancillary to the action. There is a strong case to be made, possibly one carrying the risk of folk-anti-hero valourization, that Anders Behring Breivik is one of the most evil people alive today; 22 July generally makes it. This is because of his mass-murderous choice of actions, of course, but is he not also evil because of his ideological beliefs and convictions? After all, men who believe essentially what Breivik believe, who share his broader anxieties and sociopolitical goals, have served (and still serve) in the White House of Donald J. Trump. That they haven’t adopted his methods, haven’t built bombs or fixed teenagers in the sight of a semi-automatic assault rifle and pulled the trigger, to get what they want is a matter of a confluence of factors to tangled and interdependent to easily unravel (22 July, like many considerations of violent terrorism, does not consider with any depth the self-amplifying feedback loop of sociology, ideology and psychology that warps dissatisfied men into sociopathic monsters). It does not absolve them of the consequences of the policies they pursue, which may, in the longer run, damage and extinguish the lives of many more people than Breivik personally slaughtered or traumatized.

22 July offers a glow of neoliberal hope to counter the authoritarian bigotry of Breivik and his hard-right fellow travellers. But as is so often the case right now, it leaves us wondering if this glow is quite enough. Norway’s is a social democracy with more emphasis on the social than Canada and certainly than the U.S., which has embraced its allied Prime Minister’s infamous pronouncement that there is no such thing as a society. The social safety net and general stability of the Scandinavian social democracies in general but Norway in particular (the offshore oil money certainly helps) serves as a frequent model for American and Canadian liberals arguing for similar policies in their own capital-captured countries. Anders Behring Breivik’s horrid act of terrorism suggested that whatever advantages this model carries, it is subject to the save cleavages of white supremacist prejudice that have afflicted the North American democracies through their history down to today. Paul Greengrass suggests in 22 July that to defeat such raging but marginal forces, a re-assertion of the principles of democratic principles (Norwegian or otherwise) in a new multicultural age are required. One hopes that he is correct at the same time as one doubts the depth of his consideration of these problems in this uneven but potent film, whose strengths lie in the visceral but rarely in the higher faculties.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Dune

November 4, 2018 Leave a comment

Dune (1984; Directed by David Lynch)

Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 science fiction novel Dune is one of the most influential works of the genre, and indeed of American popular culture, of the century past. But it only barely feels like it. Herbert’s involved world-creation, synthesis of older global mythologies and narrative tropes, and invocation of political currents and ideas contemporary and historical in Dune not only set the standard for popular literary sci-fi but was a major formative influence (or a source of shamelessly pillaged material for it, depending on your point of view) on George Lucas’ Star Wars, the true colossus of American pop culture of the past half-century.

Dune, in comparison to its marketplace-astriding genre progeny at least, has come to feel like a boutique piece of niche interest and dated importance. This is almost certainly because it has proven stubbornly difficult to bring to the screen and has therefore not stepped far beyond its page-bound generic detention cell. A pair of high-rated and award-winning Syfy television miniseries around the turn of the millennium are generally agreed to be the best filmed adaptations of Herbet’s Dune series, but they remain in this genre jail by their very nature (perhaps today, in a cultural landscape where serialized television is challenging film’s cultural primacy, they might have slipped through the bars).

Until we see what Quebeçois impresario Denis Villeneuve has in mind for the material in his forthcoming (likely two-film) version of the initial Dune novel, the best that the big screen can do for Herbert’s classic is David Lynch’s notoriously compromised 1984 release. This film rose from the ashes of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s astoundingly ambitious mad-scientist vision for Dune, which collapsed without funding in the mid-1970s but directly transformed into Ridley Scott’s Alien shortly thereafter. Emblazoned with the imposing imprimatur of Hollywood mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis and the sharply contrasting directorial credit of the extremely idiosyncratic David Lynch, this Dune was not necessarily doomed from conception, but a mélange of creative choices, production and editorial interference, and technological limitations does it in fatally.

Set some eighty centuries in the future, Dune tells the epic tale of a galactic rivalry of powerful aristocratic houses over the most valuable commodity in the universe, a mysterious resource known as spice. Spice can be refined into a powerful narcotic-like substance which extends life, expands consciousness, and allows interplanetary travel, but it can only be mined on the desert planet of Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune). Long the domain of the sinister House Harkonnen and its corpulent, depraved, sore-encrusted Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan), Arrakis is handed over to the honourable, martially-minded House Atreides and its leader Duke Leto (Jürgen Prochnow) as part of a complex double-cross by the universe’s Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer), who seeks to eliminate the Atreides generally by allowing the Harkonnens to arrange a devastating ambush but whose true target is the Duke’s son and heir, Paul (Kyle MacLachlan). The Emperor has been warned by a spice-imbibing Spacing Guild Navigator (deformed by years of spice exposure, this one is visualized as a floating brain-slug with a mouth disturbingly like a vaginal opening) that Paul Atreides might have messianic powers and could prove a greater threat to the old man’s rule than even his popular father the Duke.

The dominoes begin to fall even before House Atreides is established on Arrakis, and soon (but maybe not soon enough, given the film’s top-heavy pacing) Paul is on the run from the Harkonnens on the sand dunes, which are infested with enormous worms the size of ocean liners and inhabited by obscure spice-connected people known as the Fremen with their own plans for Dune and for the future of spice extraction. Considering the obvious truncation in editing boiling down to two hours a film that would be far better at nearer to three, Lynch (working from his own script) does an admirable job in the info-heavy expository first act. It can be a bit stiff as info-dumps in this genre have a habit of being, but the world-building effort is aided immensely by the fanciful production design and detailed costumes (the film was shot in Mexico City of all places, using 80 sets, and the expense and effort shows). The key matter is that the players, stakes, and forces at play are well-established when the Harkonnen net falls on the Atreides.

Unfortunately, it’s in the last hour or so that Dune runs off the rails. This is partly due to the action-heavy later acts falling victim to greater editing compression and partly due to its reliance on special effects that, despite being the absolute state of the art in the early 1980s, fall woefully short of convincingly depicting the epic scale of the narrative events. Observers objecting to the age of CGI ought to be asked to account for why they feel dodgy combos of optical and practical effects like this are better. Lynch’s odd choice to make characters’ inner thoughts audible hardly helps; a common narrative practice in genre fiction, it is employed on film with little thought to how jarring it can be (especially when applied across the board, in major and minor characters alike, to emphasize key points but also tangential and quickly-forgotten observations and emotions).

Lynch makes some such errors, certainly, and he doesn’t get the support he needs from the effects or the requirements of the editorial overseers or indeed from his cast (MacLachlan became a legendary Lynch favourite but he’s adrift here, while recognizable faces from Ferrer and Prochnow to Max von Sydow, Patrick Stewart, Brad Dourif, Sean Young, and even Sting drop in and out as needed). But it has to be said that Herbert’s themes, some of them feeling rather dated, do him no favours either. Neither the spice-related elements of drug addiction nor environmental and societal implications of imperialist resource-exploitation get much play from Lynch’s plot-focused script, and the rampant white-saviour tropes of Paul Atreides becoming a messianic leader to the indigenous insurrectionary Fremen are taken at absolute face value (and largely neutralized by the Fremen being cast entirely as white folks as well).

Of course, even Herbert could not have anticipated that some of the then-obscure Persian, Arabic, Islamic, and Kabbalistic Jewish terms that he pillages for his Dune world (namely the Fremen’s belief in a holy war, or jihad) would take on wider cultural prominence and newer and more sinister meanings decades later. Lynch, never an artist with a particularly keen focus on the nuances and contradictions of politics and history, does not strain to process the implications of Herbert’s ideas. Lynch is a visualist who encodes his meanings in images and prefers his words to be gnomically poetic or defamiliarizingly comedic (which is why Twin Peaks remains his defining work, being grounded in both of these poles). Dune is source material that greatly rewards the former but requires greater skills of writing synthesis than the latter displays. It is also, it must be said, not ambiguous in terms of intellectual intention or moral justice. Lynch is less interested in Dune‘s mythologically-derived moral playgrounds, and immerses himself instead in its imaginative realms. Dune, it seems, requires more than David Lynch can bring to it, or could bring to under constrained circumstances in the early 1980s at least, to be successful. Perhaps this is more of a statement to its core potency than box-office returns or large-scale cultural penetration can provide.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Annihilation

October 20, 2018 Leave a comment

Annihilation (2018; Directed by Alex Garland)

Writer/director Alex Garland’s Annihilation, based on the first book of a trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, picks up the great science fiction tradition of utilizing a fantasy encounter with an utterly alien form of life to shed harsh and revealing light on flaws in the human condition. Like his criticially praised debut Ex Machina, one of 2015’s best films, Garland doesn’t seek to illuminate the hurtful pathologies of modern politics or current affairs but the deeper drives and urges of the human race. Annihilation is ambiguous about the errors of human natures, however, presenting their self-sabotaging stasis as both a danger to people and a resistant, protective armour, especially in contrast to the unpredictable and threatening constancy of change represented by the film’s mysterious alien presence.

Annihilation presents a varied yet all-female expedition-team quintet of damaged individuals probing into the pervasive cellular-resequencing properties of a region known as Area X while also probing at their unseen internal wounds, often of their own making. Created by a meteorite strike on a lighthouse deep in a coastal American state park, Area X is surrounded entirely by a undulating rainbow-prism curtain known as the Shimmer. The Shimmer’s border is advancing gradually but inexorably, and unless halted will eventually consume the entirety of the surface of the planet. Given that everyone who has penetrated the Shimmer has failed to cross back out, figuring out Area X’s secrets and rigging a fix for its all-consuming threat takes on existential proportions.

Our protagonist, Lena (Natalie Portman) is a university biologist and former soldier mourning the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of her Marine husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) as well as dealing with the guilt of an affair with a colleague that may have speeded his mission departure. When Kane returns home unexpectedly (in what presents in initial exposure as a grief-led dream sequence before becoming more tangible) as Lena symbolically repaints their bedroom to the tune of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping” (which becomes Garland’s metaphoric anthem for the elusive longing of human desire and connection), Lena’s joy at reunion with Kane is quickly turned to sour confusion at his monosyllabic obtuseness and then sudden, blood-coughing violent illness.

Whisked out of an ambulance by armed troops, Lena and Kane are brought to a facility at Area X where he is treated and she is filled in on the Shimmer by a cryptic and slightly hostile psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Kane, it turns out, had disappeared on a mission into the Shimmer and is the first person to ever emerge from it alive, albeit possibly mortally worse for wear. Driven by both a scientific curiosity about what happened to Kane inside as well as her own continuing guilt at poisoning their relationship with adultery, Lena joins Ventress and three other women – scrappy paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), fellow scientist Cassie (Tuva Novotny), and the fresh-out-of-post-grad Josie (Tessa Thompson) – on a mission into the Shimmer with the lighthouse, and a final discovery of what is happening inside the curtain, as their goal.

What they find is strange and disorienting, sometimes gorgeous but often extremely perilous. They lose days of time as soon as they enter the woods with no memory of what has happened, find strange rhizomatic vine growths with numerous species of flower and plant growing from them, and encounter aggressive Lovecraftian predators like an enormous crocodile and a disturbing, deadly bear (their confrontation with the latter in an abandoned house at night is the film’s highlight sequence of tension, dread, and dark invention). They also learn by degrees that whatever alien life force is directing the Shimmer and its effects is re-sequencing and even duplicating DNA and cells like a spreading cancer, a process Josie calls refraction (as of light through a prism). Locating the eerie, womb-like source of this cancer at the lighthouse, Lena will also uncover a troubling truth about the escaped Kane and pass along an essential self-destructive element of human nature to the extraterrestrial beings that will prove an unlikely salvation for life on Earth.

Annihilation is a tremendous visual experience from Garland, a confident expansion of effects-aided imagination from the excellently-conceived but above all limited chamber-piece vision of Ex Machina. Wonder and terror and the uncanny intermingle inside the Shimmer, as when the team comes across eerie funereal humanlike forms of plant growths created by the refraction process, standing frozen in pastures like the petrified remains of the victims of Pompeii or the nuclear wall-shadows of Hiroshima. The Bechdel Test-exploding squad of warrior scientist women are uniformly superb, with Leigh’s febrile flintiness and Thompson’s mix of keen intelligence and neophyte’s shock standing out particularly. Portman’s brittle strength marks the actress, famous for playing ballerinas and First Ladies and spritely girlfriends, as an unlikely action hero, but she makes the leap ably while also nailing down Lena’s halcyon days of happiness with Kane and her traumatized, haunted interrogation by Area X officials (mainly one called Lomax played by Benedict Wong) after her escape that forms the film’s narrative frame.

What makes Annihilation special beyond its expert refraction of genre tropes and visual imaginings, however, is also what made Garland’s previous film special: it renders complex and difficult moral and existential questions about human choice and intent in simple, resonant terms without surrending their inherent complexity and difficulty. Annihilation also concludes its narrative with powerful finality and thematic closure as Ex Machina did, while further injecting a note of ambiguity and mystery-box uncertainty in its final moments, although the oft-misread doppelgänger suggestion of its stinging last shot is probably more accurately interpreted as a suggestion of Lena’s hard-won acceptance of the necessity of change through her experience in the Shimmer, as an Alt Shift X explainer video suggests. However one interprets Annihilation‘s ideas, it’s an involving, intelligent and compelling visceral sci-fi cinematic experience, a further triumph from the talented Garland and an expansion of his abilities as a film storyteller.

Categories: Film, Reviews