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Film Review: Taxi Driver & Joker

October 20, 2019 Leave a comment

Taxi Driver (1976; Directed by Martin Scorsese)

Joker (2019; Directed by Todd Phillips)

The antihero is curious and fraught element of any narrative text that includes it. The antihero is not, properly speaking, the “hero” of his or her (but it’s mostly his, if we’re being honest) story, because the antihero’s moral arc bends too far from justice for any claim to the classic white-hat heroism that traditionally, virtuously opposed black-hat villainy. But they aren’t the villain either, as their protagonist status subjectively preconditions identification with and contextualized understanding of their choices and actions, the prerequisites to empathy and, it often follows, to symbolic heroism in the eyes of the audience. Indeed, the elements of an antihero character that sunder them from traditional heroic ideals are often constructed as being in some way necessary, as if they are compelled to bend moral codes and engage in questionable actions in order to best the real bad guys.

Even with antihero figures understood in context as purposeful critiques of (very predominantly masculine) tropes of heroism, we can find the “anti” prefix eroding away, sometimes gradually, sometimes almost instantaneously. “Antihero”, after all, contains the word “hero”, and the term itself makes it highly difficult to miss it, to emphasize the prefix as it should be. My younger self, marinating in the half-fetid juices of literary academia, might have inserted a dash or slash into the term, a hybrid literary theory invention like “anti/hero” intending to make the contradictions inherent in the trope clear and compelling, or, as is ever in vogue in lit theory, less clear and therefore more compelling.

The antihero cannot exist without social and political context, as Emily Todd VanDerWerff considered a year ago in her superb essay for Vox on the trope in television (where it was ascendant only a decade ago, and remains common today) in the age of #MeToo, with its promise of accountability and/or punishment for real-life male “antiheroes” whose immoral behaviour belies the abiding assumed rectitude of their positions of prominence. Context can place antiheroes in their appropriate compartment and thus preserve the intentions and thematic thrust of their creation, and it can free and engorge them as well, transforming them from textually-limited characters embodying certain themes, psychological implications, and political ideas into great and terrible symbols vibrating with larger import and dangerous meaning.

In the way that he somehow embodies both of these oft-contradicting conceptions, Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle, the angry, awkward, vengefully violent loner protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver, is surely one of the towering antihero figures in the Hollywood pantheon. The character and the film are impossible to separate from their historical and sociopolitical context: 1970s America, where accelerating social decay, energy crises, rising urban crime, post-Vietnam doubt in national greatness, and the rootless uncertainty of the economy, employment, and even interpersonal relations (across racial lines, of course, but also across gender lines, in the wake of second-wave feminism) leading to a profound sense of malaise that Jimmy Carter, elected President as a fresh, folksily frank outside voice in contrast to the post-Watergate den of festering corruption the same year Taxi Driver came out, dared to point out to his lasting detriment. Taxi Driver is the official movie of the mid-to-late-’70s crisis of confidence.

Travis Bickle feels a sort of formless dissatisfaction and inability to relate to the world he finds himself living in, or even to express it, as DeNiro demonstrates with eloquent non-eloquence when he struggles to explain to cabbie mentor Wizard (Peter Boyle) what exactly it is that is troubling him. Although he only briefly mentions having been a Marine in his first dialogue scene taking the taxi driver job, he is understood as a Vietnam veteran, and elements of the character’s appearance (the military-fatigue-style jacket he always wears, the mohawk hairdo he dons for the film’s climax) are derived from soldiers in that war. He never speaks of wartime trauma, but his disconnection can be read as a PTSD symptom. At the same time as he seems psychologically and emotionally caged, he moves freely through the dilapidated urban geography of New York and observes it with penetrating voyeuristic intensity, often from the driver’s seat of his taxi cab, a conveyence conferring both liberty and diminishing anonymity, a vehicle through which he seeks out social contact while also detaching himself from it to an extent.

Travis is not specifically political in his disenfranchisement, and his circling of presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), whose vague uplifting populism is redolent of politically non-specific neoliberal hopes from Carter to Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, does not reflect an ideological affinity (not that Palantine, not identified in partisan terms but surely a Democrat in the mode of fuzzily positive imagined politicians across decades of Hollywood product, has much of an ideology to speak of). His only firmly-held and expressed sociopolitical belief is an overwhelming, proto-fascist aversion to “scum”, criminal or immoral elements of New York City’s vast urban underworld that act as convenient targets for his confused, directionless resentment by virtue of their placement permanently beneath even him, an isolated white working man, in the hierarchy of social and economic value. When his resentments and isolation grow to a fever pitch, it’s hardly surprising that this “scum” is the target for his “righteous” outpouring of violence (Alan Moore drew from this element of Bickle for the truly psychopathic Rorschach in Watchmen, a work also highly influenced by the atmosphere of urban decay in the film).

Travis Bickle is a bundle of implications and resonant qualities, many of them personal and specific to the creative forces behind his genesis. Screenwriter Paul Schrader drew Bickle from Jean-Paul Sartre novels and John Ford’s The Searchers and the diaries of George Wallace’s putative assassin Arthur Bremer, but also liberally from his own experiences as a solitary, disconnected, underemployed insomniac in New York City who haunted porno theatres and became unhealthily obsessed with guns. Martin Scorsese, for his part, infused this character study with his observant perspective, his aesthetic fascination with the dark, macho realm of his proletarian corner of his home city but forever apart from it, the good, sickly boy who loved movies enough to choose them over the priesthood but drew deep inspiration from the earthy (and sometimes illegal) swirl of Italian-American life that he grew up observing.

The precipitous gun obsession that afflicted his main character and screenwriter also touched the director, if Hollywood urban legend is to be believed: facing pressure from the MPAA ratings board to re-edit Bickle’s climactic brothel massacre in order to avoid a X rating for his movie, Scorsese is reputed to have stayed up all night prior to the editing deadline brandishing a firearm, to shoot himself or the studio executive mandating the changes if things didn’t work out (it is not clear which, and probably was never going to be either). In comparison to Scorsese and Schrader, DeNiro’s immersion in Travis Bickle’s mindset was less psychologically scarring; production anecdotes emphasized the focused professionalism of his prep work, driving a NYC taxi around the city and studying the Midwest accents of American soldiers while filming a Bernardo Bertolucci film in Italy.

Travis Bickle’s general status as an awkward and peevish loner who wants what he cannot have and seeks to assert some measure of control over a world that ignores or rejects him is only sharpened to a fine and deadly point via the whetstone his fraught interactions with women. Bickle displays stalking behaviour with Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a pretty Palantine campaign worker, watching her from his cab both before and after he insistently bullies her (and partly intrigues her with his sense of mystery) into a date. On this date, he clumsily buys her a Kris Kristofferson record that she already owns because she talked about it, then even more clumsily takes her out to a Swedish pornographic movie. Mortified, she walks out, ends the date, and rebuffs him later on a phone call that Scorsese’s subjective camera finds too painful to linger on, panning to an empty corridor instead. Bickle bursts into the Palantine campaign headquarters later, confronting her in anger and insulting her. He is, in a word, a creep, a personification of toxic masculinity.

In a turn that makes Taxi Driver and Travis Bickle a more fraught and problematic text in regards to these themes, this pattern is repeated in the movie’s final act when Travis comes across a pre-teen prostitute named Iris (a 12-year-old Jodie Foster, who starred in Disney’s Freaky Friday remake in the same year, which is quite the line on the old resume). Although there is no romantic or sexual angle to his interest (he in fact pays a fee to her handlers in order to speak with her, turning aside her insistence on providing her services to talk her out of continuing to whore herself out), their interactions follow the Betsy model: she turns aside his attempts to save her in a follow-up breakfast “date”, and he talks down her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) as a perceived male rival much as how he ran down Betsy’s fellow campaign worker Tom (Albert Brooks). Bickle’s response to Iris being unreceptive to his advances (protective and non-sexual though they are) runs towards a psychotic ultraviolent massacre this time around (ironically, Scorsese came to feel that the MPAA-mandated edits to the film’s colour grading made the shootout sequence more shocking).

Although Travis Bickle’s toxic behaviour in regards to women eventually turns to murder, to targetted extermination of some of the “scum” he complained about in his narrated journal entries and to Palantine, Taxi Driver controversially rewards him for his actions and considers worthy of admiration and praise in a denouement that concludes with even Betsy treating him civilly and even appreciatively during a cab ride. This 11th-hour rehabilitation of the violent loner antihero Bickle into a genuine hero (grateful letter from Iris’ parents and all) has to be considered problematic and even dangerous even without the intervention of history, which saw the Travis Bickle character in general and his actions towards Jodie Foster’s character in particular provide inspiration for the delusional fantasies that led to John Hinckley Jr.’s assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

With much of Bickle’s character originally drawn from the ravings of a would-be political assassin, this was a case of life imitating art imitating life. The pattern followed by men like Bremer and Bickle and Hinckley – two of them real, one of them more than real – would be followed by numerous future murderous examples of what Amy Nicholson, in a Rolling Stone interview with Schrader upon the release of his film First Reformed last year, refers to as “destructive young men” who “aren’t sure where to put their energies”. Martin Scorsese is not responsible for the choices and actions of destructive young men who saw in a cinematic moment like Travis Bickle’s firearm-toting “you talkin’ to me?” delusional role-playing not a warning about mental and social disequilibrium but instead an enticing power fantasy, but it’s hard to deny that Taxi Driver‘s legacy includes a roadmap to lasting infamy that represents an attractive alternative to heroism for too many troubled individuals.

Taxi Driver‘s fraught legacy brings us directly to Joker, a film that intends to revisit and recontextualize Scorsese’s ur-text of modern American dangerous loner cinema for a time whose seething resentments and socioeconomic inequality it understands as reflecting those of the 1970s. But Joker regurgitates more than recontextualizes Taxi Driver (as well as Scorsese’s 1983 dark satire The King of Comedy), intending to cast the DC Comics evil clown supervillain and nemesis of Batman as a Travis Bickle for our own troubled and superhero-obsessed times but instead recombining the ingredients of its influences and cultural contexts into an inedible stew.

Joker is the almost unremittingly sad and disturbing tale of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a skinny and socially-awkward clown-for-hire in a crumbling, tense Gotham City who lives with his mother (Frances Conroy) and struggles with poverty, isolation, dark thoughts, and an embarrassing psychosomatic nervous tic causing him to laugh uncontrollably at inappropriate times (dissolving into pained laughter, he hands strangers a card explaining this condition). An aspiring stand-up comedian who doesn’t grasp what is actually funny (even his mother recognizes this), Arthur idolizes late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (DeNiro channeling Jay Leno), but loses his position with the clown agency after dropping a gun during a performance at a children’s hospital. Riding despondently home on the graffiti-plastered subway, Arthur gets a taste of his true, antisocial calling when he kills three arrogant Wall Street bros who mock him by singing “Send in the Clowns” (like, literally half of it) and beat him up, unintentionally becoming the avatar of a clown-masked popular uprising against the city’s rich, represented by plutocrat Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who publically derides the city’s poor and may or may not secretly be Arthur’s father.

As Jeet Heer pointed out regarding the film in one of his trademarked Twitter essay threads, Joker is variously Oedipally focused, yearning to pay tribute to father figures (Scorsese, DeNiro, Thomas Wayne, and, more subtextually, prior Joker actors like Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger) while also seeking to kill and replace them. Joker casts a period-unspecific (but most likely early 1980s) Gotham City as a mirror image of Taxi Driver‘s decrepit, bankruptcy-approaching New York. It casts Arthur Fleck as a more unstable Travis Bickle in clown paint, roleplaying scenarios with his gun in his apartment and following a female neighbour with whom he has a brief elevator interaction to her downtown job (and proceeding to imagine an entire subsequent relationship with her that, in a fairly predictable late-film twist, is revealed never to have happened). This woman, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), even repeats DeNiro-as-Bickle’s iconic finger-gun miming of a gunshot to the head to Arthur in reference to the crappiness of their apartment building.

But Joker is a bit like the many destructive young men who see their own frustrated struggles in those of movie loners like Travis Bickle but are not spurred on to productive self-reflection and improvement on the basis of those big-screen cautionary examples. Joker, which Scorsese was set to produce at one point before backing away from the project, pays relentless tribute to the formalist elements of his work (this may be why he backed away): Phoenix’s performance owes plenty to DeNiro and other actors of that generation, and Lawrence Sher’s cinematography injects lurid bursts of colour into the social realist drabness of Gotham’s urban environments as Michael Chapman’s camera lens did in Taxi Driver. There’s even a memorable shot of half-cleverness that Scorsese may have appreciated: a furious, darkened, just-fired Arthur repeatedly kicking a dumpster in a refuse-choked alley with a ferris wheel looming in the deep-focus background like a symbolic anticipation of his circus-derived awakening into trangressive mean-clown ultraviolence.

That Joker constructs Arthur’s final transformation into the comic-book supervillain as a glorified awakening, a subversive species of empowerment after a life of diminishment and disempowerment, is its most brazen and oddly its most boring misinterpretation of Taxi Driver. There was much chatter throughout the discourse in advance of Joker‘s release that it was likely to be irresponsible or even reactionary incel propaganda that would wind up getting people killed; after all, the last movie featuring the Joker was rumoured (inaccurately) to have sparked a mass shooting, and it was overall nuanced and ambiguous in its treatment of this agent of chaos, which did not prevent the character from becoming a symbol of alt-right defiance to whatever established order is imagined to be worth resisting (usually one involving people who aren’t conservative white males, but I digress). Joker isn’t anything like that, making Arthur both more precipitously violent than Travis Bickle and denying him anything like the redemptive conclusion of Taxi Driver (like Taxi Driver, however, Joker‘s final scene has been interpreted as leaving the door open to some if not all of the film’s events having been paranoid delusions existing entirely in the disturbed, unreliable protagonist’s head; like Taxi Driver, that is probably not the filmmakers’ intent, although it is more uncertain in Joker‘s case due to the film’s relative artistic clumsiness).

In advance of the release of Joker, director and co-writer Todd Phillips stated in one interview after another that due to the limiting sensitivities of easily-offended, politically-correct “woke culture”, he has found it impossible to continue making comedies like his big hits The Hangover movies without being “cancelled” (ie. criticized sometimes on the internet). Because of this, he has found it necessary to make a serious movie like Joker instead. Phillips’ contextualizing of Joker in this way has only lead to more progressive criticism of him and his movie in the cultural discourse (even from his own cast members, namely Marc Maron, who is in a single scene as Murray Franklin’s producer), even before people started to see the movie and discovered that Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver place this complaint in the mouth of his lead character in the movie’s climactic thesis-statement speech during the scene of Arthur’s appearance in full Joker costume on Murray Franklin’s show after his atrocious open-mic stand-up set was shown on the program.

If this argument wasn’t bullshit enough entirely on its own, Joker itself renders it even more so. It’s entirely disingenuous for Phillips to claim that contemporary culture around comedy has forced him to make a serious movie instead, because Joker is not a serious movie (whatever the Venice International Film Festival may think). It’s not serious about the state of politics and society, it’s not serious about income inequality, it’s not serious about mental illness, it’s not serious about child abuse, it’s not serious about morality. It’s not serious about the titular focus of its character study, who, despite plenty of award-grasping Difficult and Serious Acting from its star Phoenix, it treats with clumsy, confusing, irresponsible inconsistency (Jenny Nicholson sharply breaks down why the film’s treatment of Arthur Fleck’s descent into the madness of Joker never makes internal sense in a recent vlog on the movie; she also points out superficial intertextual references to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, during a gala screening of which Arthur confronts Thomas Wayne in the film). It’s not even serious about the often very unserious comic-book superhero form/genre which it purportedly subverts and/or deconstructs.

As he slides into the Joker persona near the film’s end, Arthur Fleck says that while he once thought that his life was a tragedy, he has now realized it is a comedy (this line is visually anticipated in his first appearance in the film, painfully using his fingers to force his mouth into the respective rictus-mask frown and smile symbolizing theatrical drama and comedy). Todd Phillips ought to have heeded his own screenplay; his film is a comedy (though not a particularly funny one) that thinks itself a tragedy. Arthur Fleck is twice the antihero Travis Bickle was, but the movie focusing on him (indeed, told from his perspective, like Taxi Driver is told from Bickle’s) and intending to provide a compelling and even problematically empathetic portrait of his anguish and descent into violent madness is less than half the film Taxi Driver was, despite sharing so many (purposeful) similarities.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review – Kingsman: The Golden Circle

October 9, 2019 Leave a comment

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017; Directed by Matthew Vaughn)

There comes a particular moment in Matthew Vaughn’s deliriously left-field spy-action comic-book spectacular Kingsman: The Golden Circle in which Colin Firth (as dapper super-spy Harry Hart, codenamed Galahad) teams up with rock legend Sir Elton John (playing himself, because who else could?) in a retro-1950s bowling alley built by a drug cartel queenpin deep in Cambodian jungle. The two men – Firth in an impeccably tailored suit, Sir Elton in a typically flamboyant multichromatic feathered get-up – destroy a killer robot attack dog (Jet, who along with robo-sibling Bennie tips a hat to an Elton John hit song) by crushing its head between two bowling balls. To even begin to provide explanation and context for this beat scrambles one’s brain. How does it come to this? In what sort of movie does something like that happen?

The Golden Circle, the sequel to Vaughn’s non-trangressively transgressive 2015 action blockbuster Kingsman: The Secret Service, is the sort of movie where something like that happens. A ridiculous movie, that is to say. There is more wild and goofy shit in this movie than in a whole summer’s release slate of blockbusters. If big-budget Hollywood filmmaking is firmly set on its yellow brick road to total comic-book and geek culture immersion and the attendant total unmooring from the expression of lived experience that almost inevitably comes with that path, then it could certainly do worse than to lean into the aesthetic of cool-ass ludicrous frippery with even a fraction of the wacky, shiny, imaginative pop-surrealism that Vaughn sincerely chases in this movie.

The Golden Circle launches into this magnificent exhilarating nonsense literally in its opening moments. Walking out of the well-appointed Savile Row tailor’s shop that serves as a front for the exclusive and well-funded secret British private intelligence service that employs him as one of its best agents, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) comes face to face with Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft), a failed former Kingsman recruit who resents Eggsy’s success with the service as well as his working-class roots. Armed with a gun and a bionic robot arm, Hesketh battles the athletic and well-trained superspy Eggsy in the latter’s luxe custom London taxicab, pursued by a fleet of machine-gun-equipped vehicles. Vaughn’s camera pushes in, twists, rotates, follows the action choreography moves with keen clarity and twitchy interest, like a high-tech bird following a tantalizing morsel of food. Like showcase action sequences such as Firth’s establishing pub fight and wild shootout in a church in The Secret Service and this film’s closing single-shot fight in a diner, this scene strongly marks Vaughn as an action filmmaker of distinction, wit, and intelligence amidst a glut of samey action setpieces in the blockbuster milieu.

Defeating Hesketh for the moment and exploding his cronies, Eggsy pivots to balancing his home life with his girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alström), the Crown Princess of Sweden whom he saved from Samuel L. Jackson’s tech bro and criminal mastermind in the previous franchise installment, as well as socializing with his modest, normal council estate buddies (Tobias Bakare, Theo Barklem-Biggs, Thomas Turgoose, and Calvin Demba). But Hesketh, working for the aforementioned boss of the titular Golden Circle cartel, Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), conspires to deal Eggsy a grievous blow both personal and professional.

With the Kingsman organization reduced to only Eggsy and his technical expert Merlin (Mark Strong), the two men follow a bottle of Kentucky bourbon Stateside to a whiskey distillery run by Statesman, their richer and more cowboyesque American counterpart private intelligence firm. They meet a set of spirit-and-soda-codenamed agents: shotgun-wielding Tequila (Channing Tatum, prominent in the marketing but in little more than a cameo role here; Elton is in more scenes and serves a greater narrative purpose), bossman Champagne or “Champ” (Jeff Bridges, also only in a scene or three), electrified-whip-and-lasso-brandishing rustler Whiskey (Pedro Pascal, who has a larger and more vital role), and their version of deskbound techie Merlin, Ginger Ale (Halle Berry). Statesman also have in their care an amnesiac Harry Hart (Firth), believed dead by Eggsy after being headshot in the last movie. Harry is alive but not well, having forgotten his Kingsman training and experiences and reverted to the obsessive study of butterflies.

So Eggsy must bring Harry back to himself, navigate relations with Kingsman’s brash (and possibly secretly treacherous) Yankee mirror organization, avenge the lost, and balance the demands of his spy life with those of his Swedish royal girlfriend. The Golden Circle stretches some of its elements a bit too far, and all of them together certainly beyond wise limits; this movie is certainly too long. But the loopy ambition of its strangest and most extreme setpieces carries it through, and it’s hard to deny that Vaughn shows us things in The Golden Circle that we certainly haven’t seen before.

Lepidopterist Harry’s padded cell features half-sketched butterfly diagrams, and after his amnesia is cleared, butterflies still occasionally flutter through the vision of his Kingsman monitoring glasses. Eggsy has a crisis of romantic conscience (and indeed precipitates a second-act conflict with Tilde) when he must engineer an intimate encounter with Hesketh’s girlfriend Clara (Poppy Delevingne) in a VIP tent at the Glastonbury Festival; a tracking device must be inserted on a mucus membrane to enter her bloodstream, and Vaughn very unsubtly follows Eggsy’s hand as it locates such a membrane in a very private nether region. Strong leans with vocal aplomb into an orchestral-score accompanied version of John Denver’s “Country Roads” while standing on a landmine to distract Poppy’s thugs. Vaughn includes a hardy-har dissolve cut from a bag of leafy marijuana buds in Eggsy’s mates’ flat to the jungle canopy of Poppy’s Cambodian hideaway, a set of 1950s Americana revival structures that gleam with formica and neon. A later battle down its main boulevard set to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” includes a sight-gag of two antagonists being impaled by an oversized pair of scissors from the signfront of the salon. Compared to this wildly inventive visual mayhem, the movie’s showpiece action spectacle sequence – Eggsy and Whiskey trapped in a cable-car lift glass orb that is plunging down the snowy slopes of the Alps – seems almost quaint in its relatively standard-issue blockbuster profile.

The weirdest thing about Kingsman: The Golden Circle, however, has to be that among this wacky and entertaining nonsense, it features a forceful (indeed, downright heavy-handed) sociopolitical message (and plot spoilers are necessary in order to explore it). Poppy (Moore is a delight, her murderous tyranny barely lurking beneath her wide-smiling exterior) is unsatisfied with her status as a wealthy and powerful but also highly secretive drug lord. She yearns for fame and recognition as well (although usually if you’re a cartel boss whose name is widely known, you’re on your way to jail at the very least).

Poppy concocts a plan to publicly force the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood, who has played Presidents before but never one this cartoonishly reactionary) to end the war on drugs and grant her blanket immunity from prosecution by spiking her distributed drug product (it is not made explicit what it is, but it seems to be marijuana or other “soft” recreational drugs) with toxins that will painfully kill anyone who consumes them. If her demands are met, she will distribute the antidote by drone. If they are not, millions will die. Unfortunately the President has internalized decades of anti-drug propaganda and is prepared to wipe away “the drug problem” by letting millions of users and abusers die in agony. The disturbing fascist implications of his approach are made explicit in a manner that Vaughn likely considered ludicrously exaggerated in 2017: the state imprisons millions of infected citizens in cages stacked inside the massive AT&T Stadium in Texas, an over-the-top image that became less fanciful not too long after the movie’s release when the real-world President had migrants caged up in concentration camps not too far from that stadium, along the border with Mexico.

Kingsman: The Secret Service wanted you to think it was being transgressive by blowing up the heads of some plutocrat One-Percenters. But The Golden Circle places leftist-sounding anti-drug and anti-mass-incarceration rhetoric into the mouth of its ruthless supervillain while casting an American President as party to a hard-right law-and-order-driven genocide of drug users. If it isn’t transgressive, it’s certainly provocative. The screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman walks on eggshells with the implications of Poppy’s masterplan, with Eggsy and his allies attempting to foil it, and with how it judges or doesn’t judge the characters it marks as drug users (the toxin turns their veins bright blue, so it’s hard to miss it).

Poppy’s motives are selfish, of course; she doesn’t believe the drug war is any more morally objectionable than the drug trade, she just wants her cake and to eat it to. Eggsy has any number of motivations for stopping her, from saving living friends and loved ones to avenging dead ones, to say nothing of stopping the deaths of millions and taking out the Golden Circle; this movie is very careful to set the stakes in comic-book terms, and not to imply that an unintelligence agent is murdering his way to perpetuating the international drug trade. Even if the movie telegraphs how wrong the President is (his Chief of Staff is played by Emily Watson of all people, but her dramatic acting skills effectively convey the moral horror of his choice and the personal consequences of it as well), he also wants to stop the Golden Circle and thinks, with the logic of a fascist genocidaire, that eliminating its entire customer base in one fell swoop ought to do the trick. Particular caution is given to the victims, who are characterized above all as normal and essentially innocent; some mild opprobrium and comic scolding is reserved for users of drugs, but no one but the inflated hard-on-drugs President actually wants to see them die or even experience pain.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a wildly strange movie more than it’s a good one, despite the high competence of its action scenes, the winking commitment of its cast, and its mix of gleefully violent cynicism and vaulting visual and ideological ambition. This is blockbuster froth, ultimately, and doesn’t really have anything sustainedly serious to say about the drug war. But it’s hard to miss the big-tent fair-mindedness with which it treats drug users of nearly all stripes, not nearly lost amidst the overwhelming maelstrom of comic-book chaos. There are more Kingsman movies coming: a WWI-era prequel drops in February, and Vaughn and Egerton have promised a trilogy-capper for Eggsy, etc. as well. As a 20th Century Fox release, however, one has to wonder how much of the series’ frayed edges will be allowed to persist under the risk-flattening Disney aegis. Hopefully enough to surprise us just a little, which Kingsman: The Golden Circle manages to do, hardly a feat to be sniffed at in the world of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Cold War (Zimna wojna)

October 5, 2019 Leave a comment

Cold War (Zimna wojna) (2018; Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski)

Lovingly shot in sumptuous monochrome, Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-nominated international breakthrough Cold War is an often haunting portrait of a troubled and ultimately tragic romance set against the tumultuous backdrop of the first couple of decades of the Iron Curtain. A model of beautiful and affecting filmmaking in general, Cold War is a particular showcase for Polish actress Joanna Kulig, whose performance as confident singer Zula opposite her conflicted, internalized musical director/lover Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is the film’s open, wounded soul.

Zula and Wiktor meet in the ruinated aftermath of World War II, when the new post-war Communist regime of Poland seeks to establish its cultural legitimacy and shore up the battered national character with a state-funded stage extravaganza adapting traditional Polish folk music. Wiktor and his collaborators, including eager-to-rise bureaucrat Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), audition wide-eyed locals at a tumbled-down rural aristocratic mansion for spots in the show’s cast, and Zula wins not only a role but Wiktor’s heart.

Wiktor becomes disillusioned with the show when Kaczmarek, at the urging of state ideologues whom he is anxious to please, incorporates pro-Stalin propaganda into the performances. In East Berlin for a performance, Wiktor and Zula pledge to cross to the West together, but only Wiktor goes through with it. On his own as a fashionable but deracinated émigré performer and film composer in Paris, Wiktor riskily travels to the Communist-controlled Balkans to see Zula in the touring show. She eventually gets married to obtain a visa and then joins him in Paris, but their romance fails to sustain itself outside of their native land.

Years later, their passionate odyssey ends near where it began, amidst the ghostly bombed-out ruins of a country church. Pawlikowski, who co-wrote the screenplay with Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski, interweves personal appeals and conflicts with the obstacles of social restrictions and geopolitical realities in Zula and Wiktor’s relationship. The titular “cold” conflict in this film is not between political ideologies and hegemonic powers but between personal perspectives and emotional spheres of influence. There is complexity, ambiguity, and raw open wounds in how their love affair draws them together and tears them apart.

Kot is rogueish and uncommunicative, a neo-European New Wave leading man, but Kulig brazenly snatches the spotlight. Zula is bedevilled in her desires by not merely political restrictions and the vagaries of the patriarchy, but by the unpredictability of her own heart, the force of her passionate living. Kulig typifies her character’s frustrating, compelling allure in a memorable scene in a Paris club: pouting half-drunkenly against the bar after clashing with Wiktor over his past lovers and freely-embellished attempts to promote her solo singing career, Zula careens suddenly to delightful dancing abandon to the strains of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”.

Music in Cold War is also a compelling and unpredictable force. It expresses the deep longings and wants of the heart and soul, be it for poverty-stricken country peasants or ambitious, volatile singers. It is a tool of state-directed image-making, propagandistic acoustic nationalism that normalizes authoritarian regimes and cults of personality. It is a conduit for joy and hope and for loneliness and despair, bursting unbidden from deep and mysterious places. It is the scarlet thread that runs through the entwined fates of Wiktor and Zula, and through this measured and devastastingly lovely film exploring their minor-chord romance across a continent torn in two.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Film Review: You Were Never Really Here

September 3, 2019 Leave a comment

You Were Never Really Here (2018; Directed by Lynne Ramsay)

A distant, dead-eyed, and solitary man who lives with his aged, fragile mother, played by Joaquin Phoenix, becomes embroiled in a cycle of extreme violence that both stems from the psychological scars of a history of trauma and abuse and constitutes a twisted and more than a little unsettling quasi-heroic transcendence of the position of marginal male anonimity that he has every right to expect awaits him. From early trailers, reviews, and plot summaries of Todd Phillips’ forthcoming Joker movie, this is the general narrative and thematic arc of the Phoenix-fronted, Scorsese-aping “provocative” origin-story take on the notorious DC Comics villain. But it basically describes Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, while also not remotely pinpointing what is likely to set a film like Ramsay’s apart from something like Joker.

Phoenix is Joe, a haunted Iraq War vet who now takes high-risk jobs to find and rescue missing (and often sex-trafficked) young girls, with brutal, grisly punishment of their generally older male captors thrown in for good measure. He makes some money doing this through a plausible-deniability network of contacts that includes a convenience store owner (Frank Pando) and a businessman (John Doman), and he supports his mother (Judith Roberts) and has a sweet, slightly sad relationship with her in their New York City home. But he’s troubled and disconnected and not a little depressed, yearning for some sort of connection. It’s a by-the-numbers Joaquin Phoenix role on the surface, the sort of character that received its fullest study in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and that Phoenix could spend the rest of his career approximating without stretching himself too much or without much complaint from the critics who praise him whenever he takes on such a role. Only, you know, good.

Joe’s problems becomes less psychological and existential and much more viscerally personal when he frees Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of New York State Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), from an exclusive brothel with a powerful and influential clientele. Soon Joe and everyone he is connected to is under threat from merciless forces, and it will take all of his violent ingenuity to escape with his life while also freeing Nina, who becomes a talisman of bruised innocence worth protecting, a symbol of the shred of moral decency inside himself that he fighting to keep alive.

Even this fuller plot description could be from a dumb, hypermasculine, patronizing 1980s action movie. Certainly, You Were Never Really Here vibrates with push-button #MeToo-era themes and suggestions of secretive pedophile networks trafficking young women for rich and powerful men, and Nina is given a live-wire of violent agency all her own. But it isn’t hard to imagine, say, an ’80s-vintage Sylvester Stallone (or more likely a late-2000s-vintage Mel Gibson) featuring in such a movie, albeit with a very different tone and focus. Hell, one need not even reach back into the past or into the imagination for such an example: Liam Neeson’s Taken trilogy is built around a grimly violent man killing bad people who are out to exploit young girls.

But You Were Never Really Here is pure auteur stuff from Lynne Ramsay, a compelling and memorable arthouse take on this potboiler subgenre that rises to the level of minor masterpiece on the back of her vision and control almost entirely. Ramsay stylizes her ultraviolence and thus increases its vividness. But she doesn’t turn it into balletic grace like John Woo or ugly punctuation to verbal provocation like Quentin Tarantino. Ramsay’s gore is pure, still aftermath tableaux: a body slumped in a hallway, a slowly-spreading pool of blood, a straight razor on a table, eyeglasses stained red with a shattered hole through one lens. It’s a vision of violence focused on its terrible, silent consequences rather than on the adrenalized moments of its excited release.

When Joe invades the brothel holding Nina armed with a ball-peen hammer, Ramsay, cinematographer Thomas Townend, and editor Joe Bini erect a chilled distance by crafting the sequence through the grainy voyeurism of black-and-white security cameras. Joe’s blows are never seen fully landing, and we gaze like a peeping security man at the destruction in his wake. Ramsay approaches violence in other ways elsewhere in the film, but in each case she effectively drains it of its vicarious exhilaration. Nor does Phoenix ever allow Joe to creep into knight-in-shining-armour territory, even if Ramsay’s screenplay singles him out as an ultimately righteous crusader figure. He is only good compared to the rampant awfulness around him, but neither Joe nor the movie featuring him harbours any illusions about the awful things he does redeeming or overcoming that rampant awfulness pervading everything. You Were Never Really Here crafts a metaphor for a crumbling society out of the pain and strain of one broken man, and unlike the defining films of its aesthetic touchstone (and Joker‘s as well, for that matter) Martin Scorsese, finds a slim reason to hope for better in the fate of that man.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: A Knight’s Tale

August 11, 2019 Leave a comment

A Knight’s Tale (2001; Directed by Brian Helgeland)

Brian Helgeland’s cheeky and diverting genre mashup A Knight’s Tale wastes nearly no time in showcasing its purposely anachronistic take on the martial athletic culture of the Middle Ages run through modern Hollywood sports film convention. The movie’s title sequence takes place in a 14th-century jousting stadium and features the tournament spectators – peasants, nobles, squires, attendants, guards, and heralds – stomping and clapping out the instantly-recognizable three-beat pattern of Queen’s sports-arena staple anthem “We Will Rock You”. One of them even sings along to Freddie Mercury’s lyrics, the line of diagesis gleefully erased. The instant, in-your-face embrace of anachronism was divisive among critics and audiences upon the film’s release in 2001, but its point is obvious, if a mite facile: medieval tournaments were the big-game mass sporting spectacles of Middle-Ages Europe, with jousting knights as the well-paid superstars and hordes of adoring fans cheering them on to victory. Stomp stomp, clap.

Riding into this field of athletic heroes is William (Heath Ledger in his “The New Matt Damon” phase, well before sadly becoming a martyred artistic genius), the fearless, ambitious, social-climbing squire of a knight who expires of dysentry in the middle of a jousting competition in France. William and his fellow squires Roland (Mark Addy, by now a medieval film vet) and Wat (Alan Tudyk) can’t afford to lose their knightly meal tickets, so William poses as his dead master and manages to win (or at least not to lose) the joust. This is a big no-no in tournament circles, as the competitions are only open to knights of proven noble birth and not humble thatchers’ sons like William. But while Roland and Wat are all for turning their winnings into a decent meal and passage back to England, William senses an opportunity to “change his stars”, as his father told him he must try to do when sending him off into squiredom years before.

Purchasing cheap jousting equipment and spending a month training (you better believe there’s a montage sequence, set to War’s “Low Rider”, no less), William seeks to enter the tournament at Rouen. On the road to Rouen (Helgeland’s script makes that joke and har har, good sir), the trio meet a naked, penniless writer named Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany, thriving in his ideal role as the smartest guy in the room) who gives them bad news and good: only those who can prove four generations of noble lineage can enter the tournament at Rouen, but for some clothes and a bit of coin, he can provide William with a patent of nobility that will get him in. The offer is accepted, and Chaucer also acts as William’s herald at Rouen, giving him an extended, crowd-pleasing, greatly embellished introduction as Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein of Gelderland, like a prizefight announcer or pro wrestling hype-man.

During the Rouen tournament, William/Ulrich crosses paths with four important figures in his quest to be a tournament champion through the rest of the movie. There’s Kate (Laura Fraser), a widowed blacksmith who mends his dinged armour and makes him new, lightweight steel plates that give him a mobility advantage. He impresses tiltyard opponent Sir Thomas Colville (James Purefoy) with his audacity and his mercy, and gains a friend in a high place when Colville is revealed as Edward, the Black Prince. He contends with and is defeated by Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell), an arrogant, conniving aristocratic soldier who will become his primary antagonist. And his heart is captured by Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon, in the brief, blinding glow of The Shannyn Sossamon Moment), a noble lady who chafes at the expectations of piety and decorum for women of her position, but also likes to wear nice clothes.

The creative anachronism in A Knight’s Tale doesn’t stop at the opening Queen number. A semi-improvised dance at a banquet transitions from medieval music and moves to David Bowie’s “Golden Years” and more modern steps, and the dialogue (some of it likely improvised by the actors, especially the comedic material) is peppered with touchstones out of time, like Wat insulting a Frenchman in a pub by calling him “Quasimodo”. But it would be nitpicking to hold such slips, purposeful or otherwise, against the movie. The classic rock needle-drops in particular firmly drive home whatever feeling or theme needs driving home (William and his party return to London to the power chords of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are Back in Town”, for instance), and as Helgeland pointed out at the time, are no more clashing with the period than an orchestral score, given the Middle Ages’ lack of orchestras.

In fact, A Knight’s Tale displays solid medieval historical research in its fine details, if not always in its larger plot strokes. Bettany’s earthy, baudy Chaucer is shown encountering various inspirations for The Canterbury Tales, including a Pardoner and a Summoner that he would lampoon mercilessly in fiction; Chaucer’s entire presence in the story, roughly set in the 1370s (despite an anachronistic reference to the Battle of Poitiers of 1356), seeks to account in fiction for a six-month missing part of the records of his life movements. I can’t speak to the smaller points of accuracy as regards the jousts, but the details certainly look and sound specific enough to be probably correct, subsumed as they are in the exciting thunder of Richard Greatrex’s cinematography and Kevin Stitt’s editing of the jousting sequences. Sossamon’s hairstyles seem wildly out of place for the period, but again, that’s most likely (part of) the point; her seemingly bizarrely fickle demands to William to first lose a tournament to win her love and then to win the tournament for her instead, meanwhile, are drawn directly from 12th-century French romance poetry.

A Knight’s Tale‘s rendering of the social hierarchy of the Middle Ages, on the other hand, might be more rightly criticized, despite being broadly correct, if you don’t squint at it too much. Tournaments in general and jousting in particular were certainly mainly activities of the European aristocracy and their vassal knights, but though I can’t say for certain that there were not strong legal prohibitions against non-high-born persons entering them, it seems doubtful. At least in the earlier Middle Ages, before the cult of chivalry turned them towards pageantry, the tournaments were primarily extensions of the constant training and preparation for warfare that Europe’s aristocratic soldier class were expected to engage in when they weren’t out fighting wars (which was most of the time). Helgeland’s film only really gestures towards this connection between war games and real war in order to shore up Adhemar’s villainy, darkly referencing his private army (all medieval armies were “private”, to apply a modern distinction that doesn’t really apply in the same way in that era) and its raping and pillaging in the Black Prince’s Poitiers campaign.

Indeed, Helgeland forwards a conception of medieval social mobility that feels both too narrow and too broad. Much is made of William’s impersonation of a noble knight to participate in tournaments; in fact, it’s the central conflict of the plot, his courting of Jocelyn and rivalry with Adhemar branching-offs of this tension. William, by virtue of his birth alone, has no access to knighthood at all, let alone nobility, although of course his character is knightly and noble in a way that a true-born lord like Adhemar cannot claim to be. Practically speaking, the social hierarchy of feudal society was extremely rigid compared to that of the modern capitalist-democratic era, but it was not necessarily officially so. In fact, becoming a squire to a knight like William would have been one of the best channels up the social ladder in medieval Europe; a squire could reasonably expect to be made a knight himself once he reached the age of majority. The move from thatcher’s son to squire would have been the more difficult step, but William’s father arranges this without too much trouble, as shown in flashback.

What A Knight’s Tale does get right, if read more cynically, is the way in which social mobility in the Middle Ages (and maybe today, as well, if one wanted to stretch the comparison) is not a mechanism of social disequilibrium or inversion but firmly under the controlling patronage of the ruling class. William’s humiliating problems after his peasant background is exposed are wiped away by the favour of the Black Prince, who releases him from the pillory, invents for him not only noble but royal lineage, and knights him, before joining William’s cheering section in the climactic joust against Adhemar. Although William’s father tells him that, like all aspirational Hollywood protagonists, he can change his stars if he only believes that he can, truly rising above your position in his historical time and place, this fairly light and fun movie shows us, is only possible if a grand personage is around to give you at least a little boost.

Categories: Film, History, Literature, Reviews

TV Quickshots #38

August 1, 2019 Leave a comment

Good Omens (Amazon Prime Video; 2019-Present)

Adapted from the 1990 fantasy/comic novel by the late Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Amazon Prime Video’s Good Omens is a good-natured farce about Armageddon. The final battle between good and evil prophesized in Revelations is but a few days away, but neither prissy angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) or swaggering demon Crowley (David Tennant) is quite ready for the world to end just yet. Both of them have been on Earth for thousands of years; since the Garden of Eden, actually, when Crowley took on serpent form to tempt Adam and Eve with the apple of knowledge and Aziraphale took pity on them when they were banished for eating from the forbidden fruit, gifting them with his flaming sword to protect them in the wilderness (as the angel and demon watch from the garden’s ramparts, Adam uses it against a predatory lion, with a suggestive and darkly funny damp squelching sound on the soundtrack as Adam swings the weapon at the beast).

In all of that time, they’ve become fond not only of the place, its many pleasures, and its flawed inhabitants, but of each other as well (this surface-level buddy comedy element takes on same-sex romance undertones that are barely subtextual and were intentionally seeded by Sheen’s performance at the very least). Their preference to keep living there soon grows into an intentional plan to defy their bureaucratic overseers respectively in Heaven (a lighty and airy floor of a gleaming modern office building) and in Hell (a dank, claustrophobic basement warren, seemingly under the same building) and prevent the apocalypse by any means necessary.

The agent of this apocalypse is Adam (Sam Taylor Buck), the Antichrist. Intended to be placed by the dark powers with the power-adjacent family of the American ambassador to the UK (Nick Offerman) and groomed for eventual cosmic battle on the Fields of Meggido in the Holy Land, this Antichrist is mixed up as a newborn baby by a bumbling coven of satanic nuns (the Chattering Order of St. Beryl, who take no vows of silence). This comic mixup leads to the Spawn of Satan being unwittingly raised as an otherwise normal boy in rural England, so that when Armageddon looms and his world-changing powers begin to emerge, nobody in Heaven, Hell, or anywhere else knows who or where he is.

Other characters cluster towards the apocalypse like moths to a flame. Anathema Device (Adria Arjona) comes from a long line of witches, one of which wrote the only accurate book of prophecy ever published, which gives her descendant a clear, if sometimes confounding and unpredictable, roadmap of what is to come; the prophecies are always correct, but that’s often only evident after they have come to pass, as it happens. In Adam’s town, she meets Newton Pulsifer (Jack Whitehall), an unemployed computer engineer with terrible luck around computers who has taken a job as a witchfinder in desperation; his superior is the loopy and quackish Witchfinder Sergeant Shadwell (Michael McKean), who has never himself found a witch and mostly tosses ugly slut-shaming at his landlady and neighbour Madame Tracy (Miranda Richardson), who is also a medium and a part-time courtesan. And what would the apocalypse be without the Four Horsemen: Pollution (Lourdes Faberes; Pestilence retired a century back, muttering about penicillin), War (Mireille Enos), Famine (Yusuf Gatewood), and Death (Brian Cox).

Good Omens has been in production hell (har har) for something like 20 years, and finally landing as a streaming-service miniseries in the Peak TV era is likely a better fate for it than being produced as a truncated and compromised movie. If anything, Gaiman (who writes all six episodes) fleshes out and extends the story and the world of Good Omens, even if his tone and timing is a bit too deliberate for his late writing partner’s impeccable left-field comedic comets (though they shared the authorial credit, both agreed that Pratchett did most of the actual word-to-paper writing of Good Omens, and it shows; the book is a comic Pratchett novel with some Gaiman-esque mythology repurposings). Terry Gilliam was once attached to the property back when it was supposedly destined for the big screen (and back when anybody actually wanted to see a Terry Gilliam movie), and some elements of this final product carry a certain influence from his work (Hell, in particular, is a shabby bureaucratic dystopia reminiscent of Brazil).

Things hum along nicely enough and with strongly good-natured humour, at least until the big special-effects climax at an English military base with the arrival of Satan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). It’s a bit of a flubbed finish (though the novel’s climax is too subversively anticlimactic to have done either), but it’s a nice ride up to that point, especially when the show is in the hands of Sheen and Tennant, both of whom are flawlessly cast and have a great and unique comic and emotional chemistry. One flashback to their common historical intrigues features the series’ funniest and most memorable moment, as Crowley hot-foots down the aisle of a church (consecreated ground, it burns) to aid Aziraphale during a book deal with Nazis gone awry.

The series’ flippant view of Christian eschatology angered some bible-thumping zealots (who petitioned the wrong streaming service to pull the show, with hilarious and fitting cluelessness), but really it’s a humane and humanistic vision that Good Omens embraces, supporting humans making decisions in their own flawed and shambolic free will by making the will of Heaven and of Hell even more foolish. Good Omens is not quite great, but it’s a lot of fun and gets its source material more right than a truncated cinematic take (whose ceiling would have been a box-office disappointment that became a cult favourite anyway) would have done.

 

What We Do in the Shadows (FX; 2019-Present)

Speaking of getting source material more right than otherwise: check out the What We Do in the Shadows TV series, would you? The series was produced and Americanized for FX by Jemaine Clement, who co-wrote, co-directed, and co-starred in the side-splitting 2014 vampire mockumentary of the same name with the ever-ascending king of New Zealand comedy, Taika Waititi (who directs three of the first season’s ten episodes, with Clement helming three more and their co-star in the film Jackie Van Beek directing two). This makes the show not a sequel or remake but a continuation, a doodle in the same font as the original film (whose characters, along with several surprise big names, cameo in a vampire council scene in the later stages of the season). It strikes the same tone as the film, straddling fantastical absurdism, dark humour, and observational realism and holding it all together with note-perfect deadpan hilarity.

What We Do in the Shadows the film focused on a quartet of vampire housemates in suburban Wellington, New Zealand, balancing mundane quotidian problems (doing the dishes, laying down newspaper to keep the rugs clean when sucking the blood of victims, etc.) with supernatural concerns about eternal life, burning up in sunlight, and beefing with werewolves and beastly arch-nemeses. What We Do in the Shadows the TV show assembles five housemates in a Neo-Gothic pile in Staten Island, New York: Nandor the Relentless (Kayvan Novak), a murderous former Central Asian warlord mostly clueless about the modern world; vampire couple Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) and Laszlo (Matt Berry), the former a bit bored in their centuries-old marriage and seeking the reincarnation of her oft-decapitated lover (now returned as a disappointingly milquetoast parking lot attendant named Jeff, played by Jake McDorman), the latter an arrogant sex freak who has made porno flicks for a century and trims explicit topiary sculptures in the yard; “energy vampire” Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), who feeds on the energy of others by being painfully, stultifyingly boring; and Guillermo (Harvey Guillen), Nandor’s devoted but guilt-ridden Hispanic-Catholic familiar, labouring in demeaning circumstances on the dim and unlikely promise of one day being turned into a vampire.

The hijinks of these vampires are spread over 10 episodes and thus allow for more variation and difference than in the movie: the vampires aim to conquer the continent by first infiltrating the Staten Island Council, they tussle with a pack of werewolves, and mortifyingly botch a vampire orgy. There is also a greater number of peripheral characters to visit and revisit: Colin has a rivalry and then partnership with an “emotional vampire” named Evie (Vanessa Bayer), Booksmart‘s Beanie Feldstein appears as a LARPer virgin whom Nadja turns into a vampire in pity, and lanky body-suit-acting specialist Doug Jones is The Baron, an ancient and powerful Nosferatu-esque vampire from the Old World who goes out on the town to party with his vampire hosts (all while wearing a New Jersey Devils hat to blend in, a diabolically on-point detail) in the season’s funniest and best episode.

Both the sitcom format and the more minimal creative involvement of Waititi means that the series is more pure comedy than the film, which in the auteur’s trademarked style incorporated irruptions of longing sadness, especially in Waititi’s own romantic dandy character, Viago. That said, the show is very funny; practically everything Novak (who shone as dim-witted jihadi Waj in the brilliant satire Four Lions) says is hilarious just by virtue of the slow, naifish way he delivers his lines (although Berry, combining the sex-crazed machismo of Clement and Jonathan Brugh’s vampires from the film, becomes tiresome), and its running jokes (like how the vampires turn into bats by saying “Bat!”) never stop being amusing. And if it lacks a bit of the film’s heart, a twist involving Guillermo at season’s end promises to give it an added bite of tension and intrigue in its expected second season.

Categories: Reviews, Television

Documentary Quickshots #8

Apollo 11 (2019; Directed by Todd Douglas Miller)

50 years ago (plus one week), the eleventh numbered mission of NASA’s Apollo spaceflight program succeeded in landing the first human beings on the moon. American astronauts Neil Armstrong and, shortly after, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first people to walk on the lunar surface. The moon landing was watched by millions of American as well as enraptured people all around the world, and remains one of the iconic events of the 20th Century and indeed of human history, albeit an oddly amorphous one, in terms of practical effects. What the Apollo 11 mission unquestionably remains for America is a remarkable achievement of engineering and science, a clearly victorious knock-out blow in the Cold War space race competition with the Soviet Union, and the defining positive collective experience of the turbulent 1960s, still clung to tightly by Baby Boomers as their generation’s ultimate trump card (“Sure, you millenials know how to download a movie to a cell phone, but we put a man on the moon!”).

And nobody ever realized that the whole thing was filmed on a soundstage by Stanley Kubrick, either!

In all seriousness, Apollo 11 was a pinnacle moment for the grandiose myth of American self-projection, massive financial and technological resources and manpower and brainpower marshalled for a cultural supernova of aspiration-as-inspiration-as-history. One wonders darkly if anyone will be in a position to remember anything at all after American hegemony is gone (it most certainly will not go out without a tremendous amount of kicking and screaming, hopefully little enough of it of the nucelar variety), but surviving human memory could do worse than to select the moon landing as the thing to remember the United States of America for.

Apollo 11 is made in all seriousness, a scrupulously sober and matter-of-fact stage-by-stage and, on occasion, moment-by-moment documentary narrative of the Apollo 11 mission constructed almost entirely from archival footage and audio. Only brief, interspersed simple diagrammatic animations detailing the spacecraft’s progress to the moon and back to Earth and the various maneuvres it must execute on its journey break into director/producer/editor Todd Douglas Miller’s re-creation of this historic mission from the constituent parts of its contemporary visual and aural documentation.

The resulting film, a surprise box-office success as a documentary on the arthouse circuit, can be a little staid and procedural, it’s true. Any fleeting humour is drawn more from the hopelessly square nature of the jokes exchanged by the astronauts and mission control in Houston than from their punchlines, and truly surprising details (like the moon-orbiting astronauts discussing how its surface looks brown to their eyes rather than the grey that the camera always picks up) are few and far between in this most well-covered of historical events.

But Apollo 11‘s tone of straight-faced, responsible historical witnessing is also a breath of fresh air in this fabulist age of carpet-bombing disingenuousness and bullshitting, of lies so big as to swallow the world. This age is also one of nostalgia, not so out of place for an empire in decay, and reminiscing on a time when America could accomplish wonders and not merely consolidate privilege at the cost of spreading nihilistic misery at home and abroad fills chests with a warm glow indeed. More than anything, Apollo 11 renders a technological project that still seems implausible and even impossible (hence the legacy of disbelieving conspiracy theories) incredible tangible and tactile (although the landing approach to the lunar surface here, though fully real, can only suffer in comparison to the white-knuckle tension of the you-are-there experience of Damien Chazelle’s First Man). Even at its half-century anniversary, the moon landing can hardly be real. But in Apollo 11, it is real, with the thoroughness of recorded truth and the organized structure of narrative.

Knock Down the House (2019; Directed by Rachel Lears)

Back in the current-day U.S., Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House tracks a more earthbound but no less ambitious and daring project to reimagine the developing history of the country. Lears’ Netflix-distributed documentary follows four female, broadly progressive, more-or-less working-class insurgent candidates for congressional nominations in the Democratic Party ahead of the 2018 elections. All four candidates were supported and shepherded in their primary challenges to established Democratic elected officials by grassroots left-wing activist groups Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, who see them (as the film does) as part of a progressive populist wave of electoral response to the complacent establishment wing of the Democratic Party, whose gullible centrism, reliance on consultants and focus groups, and back-scratching interconnections with lobbyists and monied interests made it vulnerable to defeat by a crooked, capricious, racist, democracy-threatening grifter who swindled the opposing political party and now sits in the White House like over-sated swine atop a pile of mud and manure.

Whether or not you think or feel that business-as-usual Democrats failed their country in the fall of 2016 (and surely the poor resistance of the entire Republican Party and its increasingly death-cult-like voting bloc to Trump’s clumsy machinations must take most of the blame), Knock Down the House is a fascinating look inside the American electoral system, a front-line institution of democracy that, to a Canadian used to the seemingly efficient nationwide impartiality of Elections Canada, comes across as astonishingly biased and slanted. All four of these women, along with their supporters and allies, know that the odds are stacked firmly against them in facing off with their own party, which has its hands on the levers in favour of their well-connected incumbent opponents.

Were it not for a remarkably unlikely history-making upset pulled off by the youngest and most charismatic of these women in the nation’s largest city and media power centre, Knock Down the House would be an above-average personal-profile documentary with some behind-the-curtain ambitions of exposure of the mechanisms of power sprinkled in. Three of the profiled candidates lose their primaries, but each provides an instructive case study into America’s problems. Cori Bush is an African-American woman running to represent the congressional district that includes Ferguson, Missouri, a recent flashpoint of the country’s eternally contentious race relations. Paula Jean Swearengin campaigns unsuccessfully (but with a strong-enough showing) against Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a state once reliably Democratic that broke hard for Trump’s rhetoric of white grievance (its population is 93% white) and empty promises of restoring the glory of coal mining, the low-income state’s largest industry but also one that Swearengin is at pains to point out devastates its environment and the health of its labourers. Amy Vilela, having been a corporate CFO before running for office in Nevada, is perhaps the least proletarian of Lears’ subjects, but she shares a compelling, wrenching personal trauma that drives her mission to be elected: her daughter died in her early 20s after going untreated due to a lack of health insurance, and Vilela harnessed her memory in fighting for health reform.

But the largest share of screen time and the clearest narrative arc in Knock Down the House belong to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the then-28-year-old waitress/bartender (and international relations/economics grad; and Ted Kennedy intern; and veteran of activist non-profits) of Puerto Rican descent who harnessed grassroots organizing, socialist rhetoric and imagery, savvy social media use, and natural assertiveness and likability to unseat Rep. Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent and then the fifth-ranking Democrat in Congress, in New York’s 14th congressional district in the Bronx and Queens, which, after defeating token Republican opposition in the staunchly Democratic district, she now represents in Congress. Lears surely cannot have believed her luck in having as one of her documentary subjects a burgeoning media star who has by now become the second most-famous politician in America, after only the lamentably attention-sucking Trump.

Knock Down the House is thus Ocasio-Cortez’s movie, and the tireless energy of her campaign (conducted in between lengthy bartending shifts at a taco-slinging bar in Manhattan’s Union Square, no less) transfers to the film itself. Whatever one thinks of her left-wing politics (one scene shows her discussing including the progressive rallying cry “Abolish ICE”, the authoritarian immigration-enforcement paramilitary unit that has become Trump’s private minority-brutalizing S.S., on her pamphlets), Knock Down the House leaves little doubt that AOC is a star, wielding the appeals of her youthful aura to draw in interest and then employing a sharp and nuanced intellect to turn that interest to desired issues, to say nothing of using that same intellect to dismantle anyone so taken in by her surface as to take her lightly (usually this is older white men, of course).

Knock Down the House becomes, through the as-it-happens development of AOC’s campaign and political stardom, a more rounded depiction of the challenges and issues facing the Democratic Party than it might otherwise have been. On the one hand, the well-considered, smartly organized grassroots efforts of Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress to recruit diverse congressional candidates unbeholden to corporate pressure interests is encouraging, demonstrating a concerted activist mission to remake America’s only remotely reasonable, reality-based, non-authoritarian political party into a force of equality, equitability, and progressive ideals. That’s only half the battle, of course; what the nation is to do with the fact that its other power-alternating party has become a glorified fascist gang of bible-thumping white supremacists who do the bidding of a cabal of reactionary billionaires is by far the more difficult and even intractable question.

But while Knock Down the House displays the pains and stretch-marks of building a new and better Democratic Party, it ought also to serve as a warning for the party and its faithful to be wary of the tendency towards cult-of-personality saviour-seeking that has often set back progressive politics in America. One of the best things about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a politician is that her charismatic appeal is merely the bait that leads voters to the hook of her progressive politics. The high personal popularity of Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, underscored by their thumping electoral victories, can now be seen as contributing factors to the damaging complacency of the Democratic Party that has seen them lose ground to the GOP, who are increasingly unbound by the rule of law in the pursuit of political power. Obama especially, not entirely through fault of his own, came to represent to the American left a figure of redemption in and of himself; who cares that he didn’t achieve the progressive domestic policy agenda he talked up in his campaigns, nor the people-empowering promise of Yes, We Can, he was good and therefore his presidency was good.

In the wake of Trump, whose dominant toxic personality rules over the snakepit of the GOP like a barbarian warlord who both embodies the pathologies of the party’s cultural adherents and presses its degeneration ever forward and downward in lockstep with his own, there is a clear constituency of Democrats with no interest in policy positions or getting the deforming power of money out of politics. No, they gaze longingly at the party’s deep bench of presidential candidates, looking for the next Great Leader to transcend policy wonkery and the dreaded S-word thrown around in reference to them by both fearmongering right-wing Fox News critics and conversation-changing millenials with roses in their Twitter avatars. The next Obama, Clinton, or JFK could be here among them, waiting to Camelot-ify America again and magically erase the dried-on layer of Trumpian slime! It could be Beto O’Rourke (though it almost certainly is not)! Pete Buttigieg (he can read Norwegian and he’s gay)! Even Barack’s best buddy from those internet memes, Joe Biden (no matter that he’s to the right of half of the Republican side of the Senate)!

Perhaps AOC is too belligerently progressive to enter this conversation. Certainly she’s too young, constitutionally barred from being President for a half-decade yet, which could be a blessing in disguise, allowing her to build her profile and legislative record in the House for some time yet. But the Great Person theory of American politics has hurt progressive efforts for too long, and if Ocasio-Cortez can help to move the party from it as well as towards her preferred progressive agenda, she’ll have done her party, her country, and maybe the world a pretty substantial favour.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews