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Film Review – Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017; Directed by Jon Watts)

The solo launchpad film for the third franchise reboot of the friendly neighbourhood wisecracking, web-slinging arachnodude, Spider-Man: Homecoming is extremely fun, sometimes raucously funny, and reasonably well-balanced, considering how many magnetic pulls it must contend with. Director Jon Watts is faced with the task of establishing not only a fresh take on one of the most well-covered superheroes in the movies (through Sam Raimi’s trilogy of films starring Tobey Maguire, as well as Marc Webb’s more recent, lightly-regarded two movies with Andrew Garfield in the title role) but integrating the world of precocious high-schooler Peter Parker (played this time by Tom Holland) with the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, which Sony has agreed with Marvel Studios to allow Spider-Man to participate in.

Spider-Man: Homecoming can be a bit of a frenetic mess in light of its in-text mixture of plots, franchise obligations, and even genres. Watts (working from a script credited to six writers whose names I will not take the effort to type out here) works to keep proceedings alternatingly light and weighty, transitioning between and connecting disparate strands of young Spidey’s conflict with a winged tech-stealing villain, the boy’s struggle to learn his abilities and earn the respect and patronage of billionaire technology maven and Avengers linchpin Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), and his negotiation of high school life and crushes on the opposite sex as a teenaged boy from Queens. The latter element sets the tone for much of the film, with Watts acknowleding a debt of influence to John Hughes’ 1980s high-school comedies; Parker even recreates Matthew Broderick’s escape through suburban neighbours’ backyards from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off at one point, the original scene flashed on a television screen as he passes to cinch the homage.

This tone of youthful irreverence transfers to the film’s figuration of Spider-Man’s place in the MCU. Homecoming is extremely eager to remind you that it takes place in the same universe as the Avengers cycle; too eager, really, with a self-awareness that borders on the indulgent. Gags and references to other Marvel heroes come hot and heavy, from the first bank robbers that Spidey foils disguising themselves with Avengers masks to social studies class lectures on the superhero-limiting Sokovia Accords to a series of cameos from Captain America (Chris Evans), who has recorded several educational information videos. “I’m pretty sure this guy’s a war criminal now,” mutters Peter’s gym teacher (Hannibal Buress), but then the state mandates the videos be shown anyway (a stealthily razor-sharp commentary on American political and educational bureaucracy if there ever was one).

Holland’s Spider-Man was introduced memorably in the showpiece hero-on-hero battle in Captain America: Civil War (also the source of the Sokovia Accords and Captain America’s transgression of legal norms), and Watts recaps Peter Parker’s perspective via a witty introductory home-movie version of events, filmed by Peter’s cell phone. Energized by the experience and believing himself to be a junior member of the Avengers, Parker is frustrated by the subsequent radio silence from Tony Stark, who insistently recruited him for the dust-up at a German airport in the first place, as well as from his appointed minder, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Attending his science-centric high school for the gifted as a mild outcast with only a single, nerdy friend (Ned Leeds, played by Jacob Batalon), Peter ventures out after classes to foil criminals and serve justice around Queens. As he keeps his arachnid identity secret from his guardian Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and nurses a crush on senior academic decathlon captain Liz (Laura Harrier), Peter Parker is also frantic to unearth a web of crime and/or a dangerous threat which he can thwart in order to impress Tony Stark.

Soon enough, he finds such an opportunity. Perhaps the best thing about Spider-Man: Homecoming is the villain Parker fights against, Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes (known as Vulture in the comics). A recurring issue in superhero films lies with their antagonists, who frequently must assume deity-levels proportions in order to represent a credible threat to our superhuman protagonists. This has been less of an issue in the MCU than it has been in DC’s films (Wonder Woman, otherwise a triumphal delight, is hampered by a closing-act evil god battle), and recent highlight Civil War cleverly teased such a pitched super-tilt before turning to something more intimate and character-driven. But it has hardly been an absent element either, and the coming epic dust-up with galactic megalord Thanos in the two-part Infinity Wars film set demonstrates that it isn’t going away anytime soon.

But with an eager puppy of a neophyte suited hero at the heart of this movie, his nemesis ought to represent a similarly grounded threat. Keaton’s Toomes is exactly that, a reliable contractor and family provider (in the comics, he’s from Staten Island, New York City’s oft-forgotten proletarian borough) jerked around by bureaucratic oversight. Unceremoniously removed by a government agency from the Manhattan salvage operation that followed the destructive climax of The Avengers, Toomes and his crew secretly retain scraps of alien technology and use the devices and weapons they craft from these parts to steal more such artifacts. Toomes has made a good living from the sale of these enhanced creations, and rationalizes away Parker’s moral qualms about his illicit trade with a nakedly class-conscious argument: why should privileged elites such as the likes of Tony Stark control this technology, cutting out working people and leaving them to helplessly cope with the consequences? Toomes is a criminal and a killer, but in a Walter White kind of way, it’s completely understandable how he became one (if not quite justifiable, despite his underclass rebel pose). Keaton is very good in this role, and his character in general is a small miracle of scale in a genre prone to overwrought grandeur in its antagonists.

The high-school comedy and superhero vs. supervillain elements of the plot come together in a satisfying and clever dramatic-irony twist at the onset of the third act, as Toomes assumes an additional antagonistic facet in relation to Peter. Homecoming is an extremely Queens film; still a junior hero, Peter has yet to graduate to Manhattan and thus swings not from its towering buildings. Watts’ action sequences move away from those of the prior Spider-Man films in a similar manner, trading in the skyscrapers and traffic canyons of the city for transport vehicles/compartments: a truck, a helicopter and an elevator, a plane, the Staten Island ferry. It also distances itself from previous screen Spideys in eliding completely Peter Parker’s formative loss of a mentoring father figure. The name “Uncle Ben” is not uttered once in the film, his galvanizing death not run through in a third franchise reboot. Tony Stark is the only father figure on offer here, albeit in an ever-distant one. Tomei’s Aunt May, meanwhile, is plied with jokes about how attractive she is, following the approach of her brief appearance in Civil War. That said, she does get the movie’s final word, fantastically cut off though it is.

There’s plenty to enjoy in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Holland seems a strong match for the character over the long haul of an extended, path-crossing franchise web. It’s cleverly funny and sometimes even witty, leaving some room for some challenging ideas in its treatment of Toomes. If it’s often rough around the edges, it is perhaps forgivably and even appropriately so. Like Peter Parker’s enthusiastic but clumsy test-drive of his unlocked Spidersuit set to the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”, Homecoming sees the new Spider-Man franchise beginning to find its footing with brash, youthful energy and with no lack of promising skill and cocky confidence.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017; Directed by Matt Reeves)

The contemporary Planet of the Apes reboot series began dodgily but has grown in stature to become one of Hollywood’s most finely-crafted and emotionally-involving entertaining blockbuster narratives. It has also become perhaps the clearest clarion bell of bruised and battered American liberalism’s defeated cynicism when faced with their nation’s social and political future. Rise of the Planet of the Apes located the seeds of a catastrophic collapse of human civilization in well-meaning medical science research and the arrogant paternalism felt by a “superior” species for an “inferior” one (reflecting imperialist patterns of thought dating back to Ancient Rome). Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was a surprisingly sophisticated exploration of how conflict between communities, societies, and/or nations is made inevitable by geography, resource disparity, cultural difference, and past antagonisms, and those who seek power by capitalizing on these thornier ends of social and political relations have a natural edges over the voices of moderation and tolerance.

War for the Planet of the Apes concludes this increasingly resonant franchise trilogy by extending those previous themes and introducing new ones: the limits of mercy and forgiveness, persistent echoes of colonialism and slavery, and the potent appeal of charismatic hyper-masculinized authoritarianism in times of deprivation. Its release date, months into an American presidential administration rife with decadent, corrupt rot and unsettling intimations of fascistic discrimination against the vulnerable, might be a coincidence of timing. But War feels like a film of the now, a tapping of dark, doubtful anxieties about the positive potential of the American project from across the political spectrum.

This feeling is summarized in a single image during the action climax: conflicted, heroic ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) escaping an explosion by sliding down a burning American flag, which has been defaced with the classically-derived, religiously-inflected logo of a testosterone-dripping fascist military faction known as Alpha-Omega. This violent, take-no-prisoners battalion of soldiers is commanded by the bald-pated Colonel (Woody Harrelson), who targets Caesar for assassination and his ape community for enslavement and then extermination. The Colonel is also at odds with the remains of the U.S. Army of which he was a part, dissenting about the firmness of methods required to respond to the simian flu virus that wiped out most of the human race, with what he believes to be a mutated strain of which now threatening to further reduce the capacity of the survivors to endure.

Having defeated an internal insurgency spearheaded by radicalized ape Koba (Toby Kebbell) in Dawn, Caesar is still haunted by Koba’s bloody ghost like some simian Hamlet. Like both the Prince of Denmark and the hardline Koba, the latter whose choices are pointedly compared to his own by his wise orangutan consigliere Maurice (Karin Konoval), Caesar is also unable to surmount his personal thirst for revenge after the Colonel inflicts a heartbreaking loss on his family. Instead of leading his people on an exodus from their hidden home in the woods of Northern California to a fertile promised land, Caesar departs on a near-suicidal mission of reprisal against the Colonel and his soldiers (imagine if Moses, instead of leading the Israelites out of Egypt, took along a few thug stonecutters to curbstomp the Pharoah). Along the way, he encounters a mute angel-faced girl (Amiah Miller) whose condition hints at the fate of humans feared by the Colonel, as well as a slightly soft-headed eccentric hermit chimpanzee (Steve Zahn) who can help Caesar find his new sworn enemy at a former internment base at the northern border of the Golden State.

This material, silly as it could seem, is treated with intelligence and seriousness by director Matt Reeves, who also helmed Dawn, and star Andy Serkis, who has trained and shepherded along a cadre of actors in the motion-capture process that he developed with the special-effects wizards of Weta Digital while playing Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (the visual effects supervisor of those films, Joe Letteri, joins him again here, and Weta Digital handles the computer animation). The detail of performance discernible in the bodies and especially the faces of Caesar, Maurice, and the other apes is remarkable; Caesar features in several tense scenes of emotionally dynamic and subtextually dense material opposite Harrelson’s Colonel that play onscreen as seamlessly convincing exchanges between intelligent beings. Serkis has developed this process into an art form, no mere tech gimmick but an essential element of involving storytelling and emotional engagement. But it is not a merely technical but a performative achievement: Caesar is an ape imbued with the mental and emotional complexity and tragic dimensions of a full person. It’s a great performance by Serkis, not just an impressive CGI trick.

This effusion of praise aside, I’m not certain that War is particularly a better film than Dawn, though I’d be willing to tentatively judge that it equals its impact. Reeves and his cinematographer Michael Seresin craft impressive visuals, including trans-mountain ape migration helicopter shots, the snow-covered interior of an abandoned opulent alpine hotel, and a spectacular closing battle and cleansing natural disaster. But Caesar’s special revenge mission feels like an extended plot stalling tactic as well as an out-of-character abandonment of his responsibilities to his followers. Some aspects of the ape colony’s escape from the clutches of Alpha-Omega are also difficult to buy into, and one must reluctantly admit that the promised titular war is essential a single belated skirmish.

War‘s political themes are more robust than its plotting. Reeves, who co-wrote the script with Matt Bomback, builds in a subaltern element in the form of apes who desert Caesar’s faction to serve the human army as “donkeys” (a derivative term from the soldiers’ Vietnam-reminiscent slang for the apes: “kongs”). Branded and graffitied, the donkeys enforce the subjugation of the captured apes (Caesar works to convince one of them, a gorilla named Red played by Ty Olsson, to join him in ape solidarity), who are made to labour to build a wall to protect the mutinous Alpha-Omegas from the incoming onslaught of the main army. The slave labour of this arrangement leads to a Spartacus-like act of resistance from Caesar, which in turn inspires a Christ-like punishment of the ape leader. Furthermore, like Judeo-Christian patriarch Moses, Caesar glimpses the promised land of his apes, but does not enter it.

In addition to these biblical echoes, a sharp distinction in the moral dimensions of mercy separates Caesar from the Colonel. Caesar, his moral compass formed in an initial familial unit in Rise and then in communal inter-reliance in his ape colony, understands mercy as both a basic display of kindness and empathy and a mechanism of signalling of good intentions; it is not only a fundamental good for Caesar, it’s sound strategy too. For the Colonel, the desperation of humanity’s plight refigures mercy as a pitiless purification of weakness; it’s a brutally practical act for him, absent of moral calculation, which he dismisses as clouded emotionality. The Colonel’s exhortation towards purity and calls for the elimination of weakness is fundamentally fascist in character. Defining his embattled faction as strong and pure in opposition to the sickness of other humans or the beastial nature of the apes unites his men in a shared identity. And like any imagined American strongman worth his salt, he reaches for the easy jingoism of patriotism and faith to shore up his power base, his iron-fisted dictatorial rule buttressed by the flag and the cross.

War for the Planet of the Apes takes its time to unveil these implications, and its relative paucity of unity and coherence between narrative, characters, and themes when compared to the preceding film in the series might account for the hesitation in pronouncing it a step up from Dawn. Nonetheless, it’s a powerful-enough closing chapter to a trilogy that imagines a besieged, discriminated underclass rising up against a small-minded, exploitative elite whose self-enriching arrogance presaged apocalyptic social and biological collapse. These Apes movies have always encouraged audience identification and sympathy with the apes rather than the humans, an alignment that reveals a deep-seated scepticism about the promise of neoliberal capitalist democracy. How fitting for this tripartite vision to close as our world begins to catch up with its critical perspective.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Great Beauty

La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) (2013; Directed by Paolo Sorrentino)

For the first quarter or so of its running time, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty richly earns the grandiose aesthetics of its title. From the opening montage of slice-of-life tableaux of modest modern activity amidst the aging monuments of the Eternal City of Rome, literally every shot for the film’s first half-hour or so is ravishingly beautiful, as well as the vast majority of the shots thereafter. You will delightedly wait in vain to witness a composition that it not impeccably lit, balanced in colour and shadow, flawlessly framed, and deeply evocative of any number of internal and extrapolated meanings (the glorious cinematography, it requires noting, is by Luca Bigazzi). Sorrentino’s visual virtuosity, always operating at the service of his exploration of those meanings, does eventually relent, as he will occasionally leave aside the Old Masters imagistic lustre and golden ratios to simply block out actors in a room talking to each other. But the wonders don’t stop for long; they are merely carefully apportioned for maximum affect.

There can be a critical tendency, when noting the pure aesthetic quality of a film’s images, to separate that value from the film’s other processes such as narrative structure, pacing, dialogue, and performance. Whatever beauty a film summons up, this line of thinking might go, it is not necessarily essential to the operation of these other functions, a sensually pleasing but still supplementary element in the total package of a film. It seems counterintuitive to say so; film, after all, is a predominantly visual medium. And perhaps this critical framing of visual splendour is driven by the films being examined themselves, whose makers don’t necessarily possess the totalizing talent, visionary intelligence, and prodigious technical prowess to craft a cinematic panorama as reliant on the eye as it is on the ears and the mind.

Sorrentino does possess those gifts and those abilities, and The Great Beauty is a stunning demonstration of his self-possession as a film artist. It is not only that, however. Sorrentino arrays the full sumptuous seductiveness of cinematic aesthetics to interrogate the utility of aesthetics to life in Rome, in Italy, in our schizophrenic modern world; to sketch and qualify the dimensions of that elusive titular beauty, in broad, bold strokes. His chosen vessel of observation and consideration of these dimensions is an aging, prominent, mildly dissolute bon vivant Roman socialite and man of letters named Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), known for a well-remembered novel decades before with the Umberto Eco-esque title The Human Apparatus that he has never had the requisite ambition to follow up on. Jep re-examines his life and his city and the implications of his persistent but ephemeral presence in both of these ungraspable entities on the dual occasions of his 65th birthday (which follows the sun-kissed vistas of historic, tourist-strewn Roman sites that open the film with an exuberant strobe-lit debauch of a rooftop dance party, a visual mixture of joy, grotesquerie, and the surreal) and the revelation of the death of the first woman he loved.

Jep’s movements in Rome don’t so much follow a narrative through-line, but are structured as an episodic series of encounters and witnessings, conversations and observations. His desperate, exasperated friend and literary agent Romano (Carlo Verdone) pushes Jep to publish a book of his celebrity interviews under the title Visions and Revisions, and this title could describe Sorrentino’s conception of his protagonist’s journey (which “is entirely imaginary, which is its strength”, per the commencing epigraphical quotation from Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night). The vision of The Great Beauty is, in its own way, a revision of Federico Fellini’s seminal La Dolce Vita, also about a gossip-magazine writer proceeding through a litany of desultory episodes in a sensual and tantalizing but forever unsatisfying Rome. It also, for that matter, echoes older Italian literary touchstones, from the descent through the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno and the satirical colloquial tales of Boccaccio’s Decameron to the writings of Gabriele D’Annunzio (Romano, literally man of Rome, plans to present D’Annunzio’s selected writings on the stage), a prominent fin de siècle poet, dramatist, and novelist whose ideas formed the backbone of Italian Fascism after World War I.

D’Annunzio’s earlier-career embrace of the intense pleasure of decadence certainly influences Jep’s (and Sorrentino’s) understanding of Roman life. The opulence of the high society and cultural events that Jep observes is matched only by their evaporating unimportance; even a funeral, that most solemn recognition of our own mortality when faced undeniably with that of another person, is largely a matter of custom-bound social performance. Jep and his circle of acquaintances bemoan Rome’s relative status as a cultural backwater in modern Europe, yet they subsist amidst smothering privilege and ostentation. Political conviction and the comfort of wealth are contrasted in Jep’s teardown of his friend Stefania (Galatea Ranzi) over friendly rooftop patio drinks, the professed proletarian ideals of the Italian Communist Party of which she is a leader rendered laughable by her decadent lifestyle. Rome is just such a foolish, tragic contradiction to Sorrentino, but no less achingly beautiful for it.

The Great Beauty is built of sequences revealing this inherent contradiction in terms at once satirical and elegiac. Sorrentino places Jep in one such scenario after another, sometimes cynically sniffing at their absurdity, sometimes marvelling at their poignancy. Jep watches a performance artist drape her naked body in a white sheet and run headlong into an ancient stone aqueduct; he observes a harrassed, exploited young daughter of wealthy art dealers theatrically hand-paint on a stretched canvas for a crowd of partygoers; he chats with a stage magician making a giraffe disappear amidst classical ruins; he sits in the opulent waiting room of a supercilious plastic surgeon who collects obscene sums to swiftly inject his clients with collagen; and he is strangely moved by a photographic installation by a man who has taken a picture of himself (or had a picture taken of him by his father, before he could do so himself) every day of his life. In between, he connects fitfully with his housekeeper, the widower of his youthful lover, a middle-aged exotic dancer (Sabrina Ferilli), and his circle of friends, his companions in daily delusion. He even stands, at one point, before the capsized hulk of the Costa Concordia, summoned by Sorrentino as a singular image of Italy’s latter-day tragic embarrassment and cowardly diminishment as a touristic simulacra of its long-faded glory as Europe’s once-indispensible civilization.

The Great Beauty looks these myriad beauties, as well as their attendant sorrows, square in the face, but it doesn’t attempt to make sense of them as anything more than an astonishing litany of feasts for the eye that, however we choose to philosophize on them or rationally quantify them, add up to life unto death. These images outlive us, however, be it on cinematic celluloid or on the semi-ruined face of the Eternal City. This strange permanence amidst impermanence, this sense of inherent ephemerality under the august aegis of immortality, pervades Sorrentino’s understanding of Rome, which is to say his understanding of life.

The monolithic institution that has persisted longer than any other in immortal Rome, the Catholic Church, has long intellectually justified itself as a collective framework for understanding “the great beauty”, for deciphering transitory temporal existence in terms of the promised permanent immortality that is said to follow it in the life beyond this inescapably fallen one. It has frequently done so in tangible terms through the visual arts, an indulgent tendency that was fuel for the Reformation but also the engine of the Baroque art of the Counter-Reformation that left such an indelible aesthetic mark upon the Rome we see today. Baroque art celebrated observable beauty in the world as proof positive of divine providence, glorying in the exquisite flesh disdained as sinful by prim, chastizing Protestants with their whitewashed houses of worship and fearful iconoclasm. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, reified material reality in its commissioned art with a fervour that might have been (and sometimes was) construed as shockingly erotic had it not been redeemed by a patina of piety.

Through Paolo Sorrentino’s eyes, Rome is the ideal holy fleshpot of lapsed-Catholic hedonism. The Great Beauty is flamboyantly neo-Baroque in its conception and execution, in its borderline-heretical refusal to separate the flesh from the spirit. This is not to say that Sorrentino sees the Church as not being prone to the same shrunken decadence as any other element of Roman culture and society: Jep meets a Cardinal whispered about as the heir apparent to the papacy who can offer him no spiritual advice, only detailed culinary recipes. But he also has a climactic meeting with a Mother Theresa-like living centenarian saint (Giusi Merli) who sits on his balcony facing the Colosseum, surrounded by a resting, magic-realist flock of migrating flamingoes (one of the most inspired images in a film swimming in them). She challenges Jep to face up to his life and his past and perhaps to write another novel, a task far more daunting for him than the 104-year-old woman’s planned ascent on her knees of the Scala Sancta as a testament of her devotion and faith.

Sorrentino’s critical side-eye at the impious, ladder-climbing high clergy and the poisoned institutions of the Church, convulsed as it has been by a scandal of faith-shaking proportions, is leavened by his generally sincere portrayal of Sister Maria’s selfless prostration to a governing humility (although he does give her a slimy sycophantic spokesman who elaborately sings her praises as well, hinting that her saintliness is a publicity creation). But he also shows Jep being beguiled by giggling young sisters at a city convent, running through manicured gardens at play with a local boy, a lovely and carefree melding of simple pleasures and deeper, thornier convenants of belief. The Great Beauty‘s aesthetic philosophy of life is simultaneously lighter and heavier than that of Roman Catholicism, which Paolo Sorrentino, announcing himself as a modern master filmmaker with this rich cinematic work of art, comprehends as a key tile in the cracked but beautiful mosaic of life in Rome.

Categories: Art, Film, Reviews

TV Quickshots #33

Bloodline (Netflix; 2015-2017)

A sweltering, slow-flickering burn of a family-secrets noir set evocatively in the Florida Keys, Bloodline has very much going for it. Anchored by fine performances, strongly directed, summoning emotionally honest moments and occasional political resonances, and above all a wonderfully atmospheric location, Bloodline has all the pieces in places for something special. Despite all of this, the series is marked above all by its consistently frustrating ability, over a foreshortened three-season run (its creators, Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelman, originally intended the series to run for around twice that number of seasons), to fail to bring its strongest elements together to make the great show that is clearly lurking somewhere in these storylines, locations, themes, and performances.

Bloodline focuses on the Rayburn family, prominent citizens of Islamorada, Florida in the tropical, sea-threatened Keys (there’s a political undercurrent of the threat posed to this place by climate change as a reflection of the Rayburns’ past trangressions coming home to roost, but it stays mostly an undercurrent). Esteemed patriarch Robert (Sam Shepard) and matriarch Sally (Sissy Spacek) run a popular vacationers’ inn, and their adult children have met with varied degrees of success in their professional and personal lives in the shadow of the family legacy. Favourite son John (Kyle Chandler) is a detective with the local sheriff’s department, happily married to Diana (Jacinda Barrett) with two high-school-age children. Intelligent daughter Meg (Linda Cardellini) is a lawyer in a committed relationship with John’s partner, Marco Diaz (Enrique Murciano). Youngest son Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) is a bit more impulsive and wayward, running a financially-troubled local marina and in an on-again, off-again relationship with Belle (Katie Finneran).

But the real wild card among the Rayburn children is eldest son Danny (Ben Mendelsohn). Behaviourally unpredictable and emotionally manipulative, black sheep Danny is perpetually in need of money, involved with a litany of troubled women and crime-connected men, and is a generally destabilizing force in the family dynamic. His return to the family orbit in the Keys at the series’ opening precipitates a spiraling crisis that brings past tragedies and lies to the surface and threatens to tear this prominent clan to shreds.

Mendelsohn’s mood-swinging Danny, wavering between chaotic menace and wounded empathy, is Bloodline‘s secret weapon to such a dizzying extent that the series’ writers seem to immediately regret writing him out of the narrative after a strong first campaign largely focused on him and his volatile relationship with his siblings, especially Chandler’s John. Danny quite literally haunts the show as a ghost in the second and third seasons, and an attempt to substitute in his cynical lost son (Owen Teague) after he departs the scene is only fitfully successful and eventually abandoned. John is the central figure thereafter, and his stubborn attempts to keep the Rayburns’ history of violence under wraps threaten his marriage, his family relationships, and his prospects of career advancement when he runs for sheriff in an election against his superior Aguirre (an underutilized David Zayas). As good as Chandler is at suggesting the weight of consequence and John’s struggles with his position and his choices, his role as the series’ lead actor begins to increasingly reflect his character’s archetypal role as the series wears on: the dutiful son left to carry the weight of not only his own mistakes and sins but of those around him as well.

Despite its dense incident and thematic doom-stalking feeling of approaching, dreadful judgement for all of the sins of the characters, Bloodline remains doggedly watchable but never quite absorbing or entirely impressive. Its third season in particular quite literally loses the plot, stabbing about in the aftermath of the second-season cliffhanger, diving into a mid-season courtroom drama arc, and even indulging a baffling alternate-realities episode when it should be tying up loose ends at the series conclusion. Bloodline is extremely far from a bad show, and always provides reasons to keep watching, but it never fulfills its early promise either.

Letterkenny: Seasons 2 & 3 (CraveTV; 2016-Present)

Speaking of early promise, Canadian media giant Bell Media’s CraveTV streaming-platform smash hit Letterkenny had oodles of it. Built on a near-sublime appreciation of the foul-mouthed but ever-inventive language of groups of buddies in a rural setting (be they hick farmers, underground-culture skids, or cocky hockey players), creator/writer/star Jared Keeso’s blisteringly funny comedy series made a considerable impression in its first six-episode run early in 2016.

It would not be precisely true to say that Letterkenny‘s subsequent second and third seasons (as well as a one-off St. Patrick’s Day special released in between them) failed to fulfill that promise. They continued and extended the show’s involved colloquial riffing while introducing sharply funny parodies of Canadian politics (an ad for the election of the president of the local Agricultural Society lampoons the Conservatives’ harshly dismissive “He’s Just Not Ready” attacks ads targetting Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau in the 2015 Canadian federal election, which look especially shoddy now that he’s a generally popular Prime Minister) and popular culture (funds inherited from a deceased uncle spark a Dragon’s Den-style presentation competition to determine how they are to be invested).

Letterkenny remains funny in the ways that it was always funny, but nearly too often in precisely those ways. Characters mostly reside in their comedy stock archetypes, without considerable variance. Those riffs of comic dialogue, brilliant as they can be, often carry such a consistent structure that they risk becoming stale: there’s a recurring pass-to-the-next-guy bit with the teammates of hockey players Reilly and Jonesy in Seasons Two and Three that does overstay its welcome, although it is varied a touch with a subtext of raw male insecurity made blatant text. Repeated phrases and bits that began onscreen life as amusingly original utterances become mere catchphrases. The frequent motifs of slow-motion fight scenes or sexy-lady struts scored by aggressive Canadian indie-rock pop up again and again. These tendencies become particularly egregious in the “St. Perfect’s Day” special, which reduces the Letterkenny formula to an uninspired cartoon.

But good luck pumping the brakes on Letterkenny. Even as its structuring and comic arcs become more familiar, the dialogue is still so unpredictable and inspired, the timing and delivery of the performers so exquisite, the sociological verve of its setting so self-renewing, that it’s always worth watching. Keeso and co-writer and series director Jacob Tierney are quite smart about how to tweak their self-established formulas, and the instances in which they do so (in dialogue, performance, and visuals) are among the funniest moments in the show’s last two seasons.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Film Review: Moonlight

Moonlight (2016; Directed by Barry Jenkins)

The idiomatic term “identity politics” is used so frequently and so all-encompassingly to describe, explain, and categorize the contours of American society and culture that the phrase has lost much of the essence of its meaning. It is called into service to make sense of political movements from the Obama coalition to the Tea Party, from Berners to Trumpites; social issues from same-sex marriage to police violence, abortion to health care coverage; and products of entertainment and culture across the ideological spectrum. The core insight of identity politics, one supposes, is that politics, society, and culture are naught but conduits to express who we are, in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, faith (or lack thereof), sexuality, education and income level, language, geography, and whatever other elements might make up a coherent expression of self. The upshot of the centrality of identity politics to American public life is that politics, society, and culture become battlegrounds for conflict between individuals and groups that define themselves (at least partly, in some cases primarily) in opposition to others.

Moonlight, a micro-budget independent film that won a surprise Best Picture Academy Award in February of this year, is a sensitive and perceptive identity politics picture. What makes it so sensitive and perceptive is not merely that it represents nuances and gradations of self-definition within the often monolithically-delineated identity tent of African-Americans, or of LGBT persons, for that matter. Moonlight is preternaturally wise about how socioeconomic context, racial history and stereotyping, and familial influence shape identity, indeed force it into well-worn grooves, which more often than not lead straight over the edge of sheer cliffs. And for a nation deeply entrenched in those grooves of doom, here can be found a note of hard-won hope that small but vital epiphanies of personal understanding can be achieved with concerted, not-unpainful effort and no small measure of courage.

Moonlight explores these issues and more with a quiet eloquence through a narrative split between three stages in the young life of Chiron, a sensitive, potentially homosexual teenaged boy and later young adult man in Miami. In the first section, entitled “i. Little” (after his diminishing then-nickname), Chiron (played in this youngest form by Alex Hibbert) withdraws quietly from the homophobic abuse of his classmates and the traumas of living with his drug-addicated single-mother Paula (a remarkably raw Naomie Harris), finding fleeting security, happiness, and surrogate-father mentorship with Cuban-born drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali, who spends perhaps 15-20 minutes onscreen and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar that it’s hard to say he didn’t deserve, which tells you how good he is).

In the second section (“ii. Chiron”, wearing his own name like an ill-fitting shirt he hopes to grow into), with Juan gone and his mother’s troubles intensifying, Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) finds rewarding friendship and sexual awakening with a classmate named Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) before peer pressures tear them violently apart. In the third section (“iii. Black”, a nickname from Kevin embraced as an armoured suit of toughness), adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) tries to pull himself away from a difficult path he always hoped to avoid, reconciling with his mother and with an older Kevin (André Holland) and reconnecting with a part of himself that he felt obliged to lock deep in the basement of his inner being.

There’s a simplicity and directness to Moonlight‘s coming-of-age themes that belies their complexity and the artistic skill at work in their propagation and exploration by director Barry Jenkins. The bare reality of the film’s settings is dappled with South Florida humidity (James Laxton is the cinematographer) that lends a heightened, lustrous power to the story being told (Jenkins wrote the screenplay too, based on an unpublished play by Tarell Alvin McCraney). Jenkins uses close-ups, long shots, cutaway inserts, rotating and following camera movements, symmetrical framings, and an idiosyncratic soundtrack of classical music and composed film score with snatches of classic R&B and aggressive hip-hop to express moments of realization and obscurity, understanding and misunderstanding, despair, anxiety, joy, and hope in Chiron’s experiences. The film’s closing shot is not only tremendously beautiful, but is also an all-time-great thematic and symbolic cinematic summation, paying off a poetic earlier utterance by Juan and suggesting that Chiron might just be okay with who he is, after everything he’s endured.

Jenkins further heightens the tone with resonant, referential religious imagery. Juan takes Little Chiron swimming and holds his small body up on the surface of the waves, an ocean baptism with a note of miraculous water-walking. In both of their intimate meetings, Kevin cradles Chiron’s head with exquisite tenderness, like a Renaissance sculpture of Madonna with the child Christ. Janelle Monáe plays Juan’s almost divinely gorgeous and entirely kind girlfriend, and she is named Teresa like the saint. And Chiron’s enduring image of his mother is a hellish nightmare tableau, Paula backlit with devilish crimson light as she screams soundlessly, imploring her son not to look at her like a guilty sinner under the harsh glare of the Judgement.

The range of cultural, religious, and aesthetic associations harnessed by Jenkins to probe the crystallizing shape of Chiron’s identity suggests the complexity, or at least the fluidity, the malleability, of that identity. Moonlight suggests that the identity of young gay black men is entirely too malleable. Gay black men are equally subject to the drastic erosive pressures of the demonstrative imperatives of strength and toughness that define straight (or “cis”, if we’re being properly terminology-sensitive) African-American masculinity, but are unequally re-formed by those pressures, their core gay identity effectively erased or at least suppressed by this hegemonic context.

That will to hardness is therefore understood to be threatened or even contradicted by perceived homosexual “weakness”. It can thus incorporate homophobia and misogyny, so lamented by white observers when it is descried in black masculinity’s dominant creative discourse of rap lyrics. That there are historically deep-seated and contemporaneously very active discriminatory racist imperatives shaping this masculine discourse is rarely acknowledged and often swiftly disavowed when it is. There is an understanding that African-American men (and women, too) have to be tough to survive in an American society still ruled by white supremacist assumptions and the myriad discriminations related to them. A more old-fashioned and conservative strain of this understanding rejects homosexual identity as an unacceptable compromise, a choice to be more vulnerable (not that it’s a choice, as we know better now) in the face of a racially-determined context of already-crippling vulnerability. It’s hard enough to be black in America, this line of thought may go, so why make it harder by being gay as well?

These attitudes and tendencies among African-American men, these undercurrents of identity politics, are incorporated into the textures of Moonlight, as are the forces of family and the dark allure of crime, and they fundamentally shape Chiron’s struggles with who he is and who he will become. What Moonlight recognizes, with a surge of inspiring wisdom and empathy embodied in the film’s final shot, is that for Chiron to embrace the full spectrum of his identity, for him to be black and to be gay, takes an impressive amount of strength. Anyone who knows a LGBT person cannot persist in any misapprehension about their weakness. Coming out requires a strength that many who never face up to such a daunting task cannot fathom, let alone hope to possess; perhaps operating in a white-dominated world as a black person demands a similar firmness of will. Moonlight takes the momentous personal struggle to build up to this strength and makes it resonantly beautiful. In that way, it represents something close to the pinnacle of what cinema, of what art, can hope to achieve.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Moana

Moana (2016; Directed by Ron Clements & John Musker)

Moana is an astonishingly gorgeous animated film that achieves a fine balance between the predominant themes and identity politics (and the related demographic marketing targets thereof) of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ recent feature releases and the mythology and cultural traditions of indigenous Polynesian peoples. It’s a more compelling text when leaning towards the latter, though in either case it’s frequently entertaining on all observable levels. Moana’s reliance on the conventions of its form, however, has a tendency to dampen down its magic and direct its grand voyage of adventure onto a path more proscribed and predictable.

But let’s talk about the beauty first. Set in and around a mythic pre-European-contact mid-Pacific Ocean archipelago, Moana’s visual tapestry will be familiar to any visitor to the Hawaiian islands: the rich colour palette of vibrant greens in foliage and the deep, varied blues of the endless Pacific, the vivacious rainbow of underwater coral ecosystems, the clean black of volcanic rock and the primal magma glow of eruptions, the rounded yet dramatic topographical slopes of the islands and their sheltering, fertile valleys. Moana bursts with these wonders for the eye and many more besides: wayfaring ocean-bound camakau boats cutting silkily through the waves, exquisite illustrations of mythical monsters and heroic exploits on tapa and tattooed skin, a towering volcanic fire-demon named Te Ka who figures prominently in the grand climax.

That climax is the culmination of the cross-ocean quest of the titular heroine (voiced with spunk and honesty by Hawaiian native Auli’i Cravalho), the daughter of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) of the fictional isle of Montunui. Forbidden by her father to venture beyond the island’s barrier reef due to the dangers of the open waters, Moana’s adventurous nature, abetted by her eccentric grandmother Tala (Rachel House) and supported by the discovery of her tribe’s ocean-going fleet hidden in a cave, encourages her to defy him. Tui’s strict boundary-setting and Moana’s strong-willed transgressions are, of course, clear metaphors for the restrictions of patriarchal fatherhood (which here are very much well-meaning and protective, if misguided, but can also represent a more troubling and even violent dominion in other cases) and for teenaged girls growing to womanhood and striking out independently into an unforgiving world. When a mysterious wasting sickness threatens Montunui’s crops and fishing stock, however, Moana’s defiance gains the urgency of necessity.

On the basis of Tala’s spun tales, Moana becomes convinced that the only way to cure the shadowy phage is to seek out the great mythic trickster demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and have him return the greenstone heart which he stole from the benevolent island goddess Te Fiti, which will end Te Ka’s fire-spewing darkness and restore Montunui to fertility. Although Moana has evidently been chosen by the ocean itself (anthropomorphized as gesturing water swells at once reminiscent of the ocean-floor being in The Abyss and Aladdin’s magic carpet) for this quest, she doesn’t really know how to sail or navigate on the ocean. Accompanied by only a decidedly developmentally-delayed rooster named Heihei (“voiced” by Disney Animation regular Alan Tudyk and basically the best part of the movie), Moana survives a storm at sea and is washed up on a small island where she finds Maui.

Of course, the mismatched duo become reluctant allies and eventually fond and respectful friends through their ocean adventures (though nothing romantic develops, hearteningly). Of course, the selfish, glory-hungry Maui learns the value of friendship and humility, while Moana is indoctrinated by the demigod into the wondrous wayfinding navigational methods that her stationary people had forgotten. Moana is a young woman with integrity and agency, and screenwriter Jared Bush (the sole credited writer out of many who worked on the script, beginning with half-Maori New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi) smartly resolves the film’s central conflict not through the application of force but via empathetic fellow-feeling between female characters (much like recent Disney megahit Frozen did). Moana firmly rejects the arrogantly hypermasculine Maui’s attempt to label her a princess, a pejorative often levelled at prior central female characters in Disney films: she’s about action, about seizing her destiny, not waiting in a tower for it to come for her.

In the course of their voyage, Moana and Maui face a pair of memorably bizarre episodic obstacles common to animated features that, when described with sober distance, would seem to resemble nothing more or less than Surrealist art. First comes a run-in with restless-native sentient coconut pirates called the Kakamora, whose splintery, Rube Goldberg device ships and marauding nature are intentional homages to Mad Max: Fury Road. After they escape the Kakamora, Maui convinces Moana to help him retrieve the magical fishhook which grants him his shapeshifting powers. This leads to a desultory sequence in Lalotai, the Realm of Monsters, wherein they confront the fishhook’s keeper, Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), a gigantic crab with a treasure-encrusted carapace, bioluminescent linings, British teeth, and a glam-ish singing style heavily reminiscent of David Bowie. The Kakamora sequence has little bearing on the story and the Lalotai scene only a bit, but these moments in Moana are precisely what continues to recommend big-budget animated features over their live-action counterparts, in most cases: they are crafted with much greater care and imagination, and are often full of totally weird shit.

Clement’s resurrection of his Bowie impersonation from Flight of the Conchords reminds me, belatedly, that Moana is a semi-musical as well. Perhaps there should be more said about that, but the English-language songs – by Hamilton composer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, the hottest item anywhere near the Broadway musical genre for a generation – don’t rise much beyond standard sub-Broadway fare. Apart from a mild hip-hop-esque verse in Maui’s brash chest-beating tune (“You’re Welcome”), Miranda’s work here is pretty paint-by-the-numbers stuff, melodically and lyrically; there’s even a shameless, big-ballad “Let It Go” retread, “How Far I’ll Go”. I liked Opetaia Foa’i’s Samoan-language songs and their indigenous rhythms a little more, but can admit that none of it is really within the sphere of my interests (or tolerance) and that I therefore can’t write authoritatively about it.

What is my style and what I do often try to write authoritatively about is the political subtext of purportedly child-targeted animated films. Moana, however, slips through my fingers like sand at the beach in this regard. This might strike my regular readers as surprising, considering my past exploits in this vein, finding echoes of Thomas Hobbes and the War on Terror in a video-game-focused feature, delving into the oppressor-oppressed dichotomy evident in a stop-motion horror homage, and considering the implications of racial profiling in a city of animals. I suppose one could locate in Montunui’s harvest-threatening blight faint echoes of the epochal, culture-shaking colonialism of European exploration and expansion into Polynesia and perhaps even the potentially catastrophic developments related to climate change. But that would be a stretch even for this critic, with his recurring tendency for interpretive stretches.

Moana is not an unpolitical film. Its heroine’s willful strength and trailblazing courage buttresses the contemporary pop-feminism of Disney’s alt-princess figures, often couched as a recent thematic/marketing phenomenon for the studio but really discernable as far back as Mulan at least. Its story and visual motifs are drawn from Polynesian mythological narrative traditions, and there’s a deep respect and even reverence displayed for the seafaring culture of these remarkable indigenous peoples that Disney, despite its best intentions, has not always been able to muster. Politically woke as it may be, however, Moana can tend to be telegraphed in storytelling and thematic terms. It’s enjoyable but rarely delightful or exciting. Beautiful in visual terms, Moana is generally just fine otherwise. Compared to the Polynesian wayfinders that it celebrates, it will only go so far.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Speed Racer

Speed Racer (2008; Directed by the Wachowski Brothers)

On its face, the Wachowskis’ furious, candy-coloured CG-powered film adaptation of the retro-hip 1960s Japanese manga/anime series about fantastical auto racing is entirely absurd. Since there doesn’t initially appear to be much to Speed Racer beyond this surface, it’s tempting to dismiss it purely on the basis of this absurdity. This would be unfortunate, however. Speed Racer is a shiny trifle rendered as a rainbow-spectrumed Pop Art motion masterpiece, crafted with care, imagination, and humour, written and acted with surprising eloquence and integrity. It’s far better than it strictly needs to be, which might explain its failure to catch fire with audiences or critics upon its release (though it has gained a cult following subsequently).

Another explanation for its cool initial reception might lie in its overly-complex plot, which carries some consistent themes along for the full ride but can stop and start less like a revving race car than a sputtering old jalopy. Titular racer (and Racer) Speed (Emile Hirsch) drives fast race cars as a hereditary inheritance, but also in pursuit of family redemption. His elder brother Rex (Scott Porter) was also a top racer in the World Racing League (WRL) and inculcates Speed into a love of cars and of the sport, somewhat against the protective instincts of their parents (John Goodman as Pops and Susan Sarandon as Mom). But Rex purportedly died in a fiery crash during a notoriously dangerous rally race while also trying to clean up the dirtier corners of the high-stakes sport. His loss is an unhealed wound in the Racer family, but it also drives Speed to match or even surpass Rex’s accomplishments, all while resisting and even defeating the forces of corruption that brought low the elder brother and are arrayed now against the younger.

The representatives of these forces are numerous: antagonistic drivers august and respected to sneering and underhanded, mobster-esque race-fixers and their armed goons, even black-clad ninja assassins. Paramount among them is the patrician E.P. Arnold Royalton (Roger Allam, an ascoted Christopher Hitchens lookalike), CEO of the massive corporate conglomerate Royalton Industries who courts Speed as a potential recruit for the well-funded Royalton racing team in the WRL. Speed’s decision about Royalton’s offer will have far-reaching consequences for himself and his family, and sets up Speed Racer‘s central thematic dichotomy between win-at-all-costs hegemonic corporatism and plucky family-driven small enterprise. The Wachowskis visually contrast this dichotomy during a montage of big-race preparations: servants place overflowing plates of decadent hors d’oeuvres on refreshment tables in the Royalton offices while Mom hands out homemade sandwiches to her hard-working mechanic clan in the family garage.

The corporate corruption angle gains a whole other subplot facet that swallows the whole second act, as well. White-collar crime investigator Inspector Detector (Benno Fürmann) convinces Speed to join forces with rookie Japanese racer Taejo Togokahn (Rain) and the mysterious masked Racer X (Matthew Fox) to win the Casa Cristo 5000, the notorious rally race that claimed Rex Racer’s life. A victory for Taejo will convince the golden boy, whose father is a corporate rival of Royalton’s, to hand over vital evidence of Royalton malfeasance to the Inspector that could result in an indictment and save the Racers from the racing business titan’s vengeful fury.

Amidst all of this narrative dumpery, I haven’t even found time to mention the other half of the Racer family unit: Speed’s live-in girlfriend and sometimes fellow driver Trixie (Christina Ricci), his friend and mechanic Sparky (Kick Gurry), and his junk-food-addicted younger brother Spritle (Paulie Litt). The puckish Spritle also has a pet chimpanzee named Chim Chim, and they do many very silly things.

This may seem like too much plot exposition, too many characters, too many substories, just too much. But you’ll honestly only barely notice how much information is attempting to weigh down Speed Racer. The Wachowskis bathe in the generalize excess: their bright, cartoonish colour palette, manga-influenced compositions, montages, and transitions, and the breathless anime homages of their fight and race sequences keep the movie humming at such a clip that expository sag never really sets in. If there is a complaint to be made about Speed Racer‘s structuring, it’s that the detour into the Taejo/Racer X mission turns the lengthy, multi-part Casa Cristo rally race sequence (which begins in a neon-hued Istanbul-like Eastern metropolis, moves through desert dunes, mountainous hairpins, and ice caves, and includes two separate hand-to-hand confrontations with ninjas and gangsters, respectively) into a more significant-seeming racing scene showcase than the much-teased climax in the more prestigious WRL Grand Prix. That Speed’s Rex-related baggage is a more active thematic element in Casa Cristo (the race which spelled the elder Racer brother’s end) lends it greater weight and importance as well.

The Grand Prix is still the movie’s rousing, thrilling climax, though, and features an explosive, triumphal, near-psychedelic finish-line moment that can only be described as quite literally orgasmic. The Wachowskis (writers as well as directors) seed the Grand Prix with personal meanings for Speed connected to his parents, rather than Casa Cristo’s fraternal associations. Speed watching a famously close Grand Prix finish with Pops after Rex’s passing mends their bond and retrenches their shared dedication to auto racing, while Mom expresses her awe, pride, and appreciation of Speed’s masterful artistry on the racetrack, of which his performance in the Prix is the defining display. No matter the goofy candy-striped kid-friendly blockbuster they find themselves in, Goodman and Sarandon bring as much of their thespianic abilities as are needed to sell these moments alongside Hirsch. They lend the closing race a tone of unanticipated heft, as a result.

This emotional integrity, this baseline thematic strength, is interesting in terms of Speed Racer‘s overt Pop Art stylistic choices. Pop Art borrowed (stole, frankly) and repurposed commercial imagery, the visual language of corporate production and advertising, as a self-aware, ironic artistic commentary on saturation-level American capitalist consumerism. There is nothing ironic about the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer. Its Pop Art visual trappings are deployed for their pure sugar-high pleasure rush, and function to give a sparkling gloss and sheen to a simple but surprisingly potent narrative of family love and the sheer joy of sport. Hegemonic corporatism takes its deserved lumps in Speed Racer, but never is it allowed to annex excitement, colour, or happiness for ulterior motives. Maybe, then, this movie isn’t quite so superficial or absurd after all.

Categories: Film, Reviews