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Film Review: The Square

November 19, 2017 Leave a comment

The Square (2017; Directed by Ruben Östlund)

One bracing, galvanizing scene in Swedish arthouse director Ruben Östlund’s ambitious and over-indulgent The Square fulfills and exemplifies its arch, too-clever-by-half satire of the contemporary art world and, by extension, contemporary neoliberal capitalist social conventions and moral behaviour. During a swanky black-tie gala dinner for Stockholm’s X-Royal art museum in a grand ballroom filled with wealthy donors and dignitaries, performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary) provides the night’s cultural entertainment by approximating the movements, sounds, and predilections of an ape. What is initially greeted by the well-heeled attendees as an amusing if convincing trifle of an animal impersonation grows swiftly confrontational and uncompromising, a sharply uncomfortable demonstration of the aggressive trangression of social etiquette, personal space, and acceptable public conduct.

Skin-crawlingly gauche as the sequence becomes before its conclusion, it’s remarkable cinema from conception to execution. Based on similar, controversial dog-performance antics by Ukrainian/Russian artist Oleg Kulik (give his Wikipedia page a quick scan, it’s wild, unparodiable stuff), Östlund’s employment of Notary is inspired, as is the actor’s performance: a former Olympic gymnast and movement coach for The Hobbit Trilogy, Notary has become one of the most successful of Andy Serkis’s motion-capture acting disciples and has already played apes in two of this year’s most potent blockbusters, War of the Planet of the Apes and Kong: Skull Island. His performance as Oleg in this scene distills all of Östlund’s self-satisfied ideas about Western democratic society’s smug hypocrisy and renders it as brazen, all-up-in-your-business agit-prop. It is, without question, one of the scenes of the year.

Unfortunately, The Square contains two-and-a-quarter hours of more scenes saying essentially the same thing, sometimes well, often less well, frequently with a repetitive sneer. Using the Swedish museum’s Danish curator Christian (Claes Bang) as its center, the film follows three storylines exploring and challenging social conventions. In one thread, an edgy marketing campaign for a forthcoming contemporary conceptual exhibition at the museum goes controversially viral when a video ad is released featuring something bad happening to a cute homeless girl; in another, Christian’s wallet and mobile phone are stolen, and he and his assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø) become embroiled in a chaotic situation when they print and distribute accusing letters at an apartment building where the phone’s GPS tracking indicates the thieves are based; and finally, a one-night stand between Christian and American journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss, wonderful as always) leads to a few more squirming scenarios.

Where Östlund’s previous social satire Force Majeure masterfully examined a breakdown of family connections and social assumptions as a result of an avalanche at a ski resort with deadpan humour and sneaking empathy for human weakness, The Square is a meaner, colder film that refuses to build back up what it tears down. When that tearing down is directed at the hopelessly puffed-up realm of contemporary art, it’s generally a punching-up delight. Dominic West appears as an arch, insufferably casual Julian Schnabel clone whose showpiece exhibition is called “Mirrors and Piles of Gravel” and features, yes, actual piles of symmetrically-arranged gravel (a museum cleaner accidentally sweeps up a portion of one of the piles). His inflated image is punctured by the profane exclamations of a Tourette’s sufferer during a name-dropping Q&A appearance, then by Oleg, who satisfyingly chases this alpha-male rival from the ballroom (before things get really troubling). Anne asks Christian about a prior seminar about “the exhibitable and the non-exhibitable” with an online summary from the museum website that is indecipherable quasi-intellectual nonsense.

Less effective and more snide is Östlund’s commentary on bourgeois indifference to poverty and homelessness, which feeds into the faux-avant-garde controversy-baiting of the viral video ad. The Square doesn’t seriously examine the issue any more than the clip that it mocks does; for all of Östlund’s nicely-composed interspersed shots of beggars and street people, both the film and its diagetic YouTube video use their transient suffering as an arch cudgel to provoke a reaction from the bourgeois establishment. Perhaps this is intentional, and Östlund is aware that his beautifully-shot arty film, Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or firmly in hand, is as much a symptom of society’s painful lack of self-awareness and humaneness as it is an analgesic for it. The Square, to be fair to it, might be in on its own joke, especially given that the core titular art piece – a lighted square embedded in the pavement in front of the museum (in place of a bronze equestrian statue that is clumsily removed by shambolic workmen) that is a “sanctuary of trust and caring” where “we all share equal rights and obligations” – is based on an installation that Östlund himself collaborated on.

There is plenty to like about The Square. The performances, often semi-improvised at the director’s urging, are uniformly good. As a filmmaker, Östlund has a wit both verbally sharp and visually sly, and many of the film’s best gags are placed out of the centre of focus in the frame, to be discovered by the sharp-eyed. Some of these jokes are buried in the wardrobe: West’s Schnabel-esque artist wears what appears to be a pyjama onesie with a sport jacket over it, the nattily-attired Christian sports a knotted scarf like a culture-industry tie proxy, and Anne smooths down an admission sticker on her lapel while haltingly flirting with the curator. My favourites involve the judicious application of animals: the homeless girl in the viral video holds a button-nosed kitten, which merits a whole column of its own in the multi-page newspaper spread about the controversy; the museum director (Marina Schiptjenko) is followed everywhere by a perceptive Italian Greyhound, whose withering glances at the bloviating Christian in the wake of the video ad flap mirror her own; and Anne shares her apartment with an artistically-inclined chimpanzee whose presence she doesn’t acknowledge in the slightest.

When its satirical volleys land on target, The Square can be scabrously funny and definitely thought-provoking. But it’s a bit bloated and messy and even misdirected, often as frequently as it’s on track. The storyline revolving around the theft accusation letters begins with some good stuff lampooning Christian and Michael’s giddy wine-fed bravado at the scheme that devolves into panicked haste to get the awkward thing over with, but beats a dead horse thereafter. It’s supposed to be the equal of Force Majeure‘s rich central relationship-destabilizing scenario, but while it drives Christian to distracted anxiety and guilt, it doesn’t shift his axis in any serious way. The art-world satire is so much stronger, it seems a significant miscalculation for Östlund to spend so much of his film’s running time focused on something else.

But then this, too, is part and parcel of Ruben Östlund larger thesis in The Square. The negative public reaction to the exploding-girl viral video shifts from outrage at the violent insensitivity of the imagery to an excoriation of Christian and the museum for disowning the ideas therein as disturbing self-censorship by an institution supposedly dedicated to artistic free speech. It’s unsubtly suggested in this thread, and much more spectacularly in Oleg’s disturbing performance, that the purported public demand for art that is challenging and that subverts our social, cultural, and political assumptions is insincere, hypocritical, or just plain bullshit. Art that gets up in our grill and upends our understanding of our place in the world is not welcome unless it renders that upending in acceptable form, in digestible morcels. The Square is often not acceptable or digestible, to its superficial credit. But it can be a bit too hard to choke down, too. Is that more of a censure on its creator, or on the movie audience whose prejudices and assumptions he conceives himself and his film as challenging?

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Categories: Art, Culture, Film, Reviews

Film Review – Thor: Ragnarok

November 14, 2017 Leave a comment

Thor: Ragnarok (2017; Directed by Taika Waititi)

Seventeen films into the sprawling, movie-marketplace-dominating Marvel Cinematic Universe comes a movie that finally, belatedly gets superhero comics. Thor: Ragnarok is not the best film to come out of the MCU, though despite the phalanxes of clickbait ranking lists rattling around online media, updated with each new installment’s release, there isn’t really a meaningful consensus on that question anyhow (most would say Iron Man or The Avengers, though I would stump for either of the last two Captain America movies). It is, however, the one most in tune with the silly grandeur, the chromatic crackle and pop, the cartoon punch-up violence, and the broad-to-specific-to-broad thematic see-saw that defines superhero comic books in general and Marvel Comics in particular. Thor: Ragnarok is fun and spectacular and overstuffed and expensive-looking and full of funny jokes and and busy action sequences and world-class thespians having the time of their damn lives or, because they’re world-class thespians, convincing you that they are, at the very least (Ms. Blanchett, I’m looking in your direction).

Directed by Taika Waititi with a deft professional hand but precious few hints of the brand of loopy semi-deadpan New Zealand comedy of the mundane that defined his past films like Eagle vs. Shark, What We Do in the Shadows, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok feels about as loose and semi-improvised as an impeccably planned and focus-grouped $180-million Hollywood superhero blockbuster can reasonably feel. As a simultaneously sequel to at least three previous MCU films (Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Doctor Strange, with the star of the latter, Benedict Cumberbatch, popping up to help the titular hero on his way) and setup to probably just as many future installments, Ragnarok is hassled with as much short- and long-term expository heavy lifting as any MCU episode. Still, the weight doesn’t sit deep on its shoulders. Waititi’s comedy background doesn’t just elevate the jokes here, it relieves some measure of the pressure inherent to any MCU movie (which is also quite detectable despite their usual light, jocular tone).

The effect of this release valve shows most clearly on the film’s star, Chris Hemsworth, as the titular Asgardian god of thunder and wielder of an indestructible flying hammer. Cast as the bluff, square-headed action hero not just in the role of Thor but practically everywhere he turns, Hemsworth has a nascent goofball comedian side, a keen willingness to upend his handsome hunkery with self-deprecation (as he did in last year’s Ghostbusters reboot). The first Thor movie accomplished that to some extent by pulling him out of his familiar space Viking milieu and stripping him of much of his prodigious power, and it’s a method that Ragnarok resurrects. After confidently escaping imprisonment at the hands of an apocalyptic fire demon known as Surtur (Clancy Brown) with apocalyptic designs on Asgard, Thor returns home to find his aged, increasingly unreliable father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) absent and being impersonated by the adopted brother he believed to be dead, the trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Fortunately, the sometimes-evil Loki has done nothing more malevolent than build a statue of himself and stage hagiographic theatricals to his self-sacrificing glory (I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the star cameos of the actors in this play-within-a-movie, each one an in-joke on some level). Still, Odin must be found to assure Asgard’s stability, and when he is located (with an assist from Doctor Strange) and disintegrates into the sea air off the Norwegian coast, his expiration leaves Asgard vulnerable to the return of a dire existential threat.

This would be Hela (Cate Blanchett in full, gleeful villainous vamp), the goddess of death and Thor’s long-exiled sister. The right-hand enforcer of Odin’s long-ago conquests of the Nine Realms, Hela desires to extend Asgard’s dominion and, drawing her dark power from their home realm itself, flicks aside her thunder-god brother and Loki as well. As Hela destroys Asgard’s defenders and takes the fill-in Bifrost transportation portal minder Skurge (Karl Urban) as her main lackey (usual Bifrost sentry Heimdall, played again by an underutilized Idris Elba, is in hiding leading a resistance movement), Thor and Loki are stranded on the junkyard planet Sakaar with other sentient detritus of the universe. Captured by a boozehound bounty hunter and former Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, summoning a tremendous, appealing swagger that you just want to see more of), Thor is compelled by Sakaar’s capricious pleasure-hound dictator Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, hedonistically louche as all get-out) to battle for his life in his galactic gladiator stadium against the grand champion.

The revelation of this champion opponent would be a fantastically fun surprise had it not been spoiled in trailers and other ads. It is, of course, the Incredible Hulk, in whose form Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has been stuck for two long years since departing Earth after the Sokovia incident at the end of Age of Ultron. A thunderous (literally) dust-up between the two of them followed by a bit of buddy comedy, then a few getting-the-team-together scenes and a breakneck spaceship escape, and Thor, Hulk, Loki, Valkyrie, and some others besides are banding together to stop Hela leaping off from snatching up Asgard to malevolent galactic domination.

Thor: Ragnarok‘s plot is far more complicated than this, but Waititi is keen enough to recognize that it’s all so much nonsense between bursts of moving-comic-book delight. Ragnarok is full of such delight, and becomes a full-motion annal of absurd pleasures which can be effectively recorded in point form.

  • Thor’s opening fight with Surtur’s fiery legions is set giddily to Led Zeppelin’s Viking-invasions-themed “Immigrant Song”, a soundtracking choice repeated during the climactic battle with Hela’s army of the dead in Asgard which commences with a splash-page frame that is among the most memorable single comics-adapting images anywhere in the MCU (aurally otherwise, Mark Mothersbaugh’s score is a left-field marvel of big orchestral themes and pulsating stellar electronica).
  • The aforementioned spaceship chase, besides being a spectacular coming-out party for Thompson’s chip-on-her-shoulder badass Valkyrie, also features the loopy idea of our heroes’ escape craft being the Grandmaster’s orgy-party space-yacht (complete with orgasmic pyrotechnics), as well as frequent Waititi collaborator Rachel House as the Grandmaster’s bodyguard Topaz, pursuing them with silent determination. At one point, Waititi cuts to House in the cockpit of her spaceship, her steely gaze focused straight ahead, and she points a single, possessive finger at her quarry. It’s maybe the funniest moment in an often very funny movie.
  • Speaking of funny, Waititi himself plays a revolution-obsessed rock-being gladiator acquaintance of Thor’s named Korg, and gives him a mild, polite, and wildly, incongruously hilarious rural New Zealand accent.
  • Where Asgard was not always highly detailed in previous appearances, it’s given added dimension and design here. The digitally-extended sets are grand and semi-medieval (the production designer is Lord of the Rings alum Dan Hennah), and a ceiling fresco with echoes of medieval Christian art both Roman Catholic and Orthodox figures prominently in Hela’s account of Odin’s whitewashing of his brutal conquests. A burnished neoclassical history-painting look also pervades Valkyrie’s reminiscence of her last battle with Hela.

Taken in full, Thor: Ragnarok is most notable in both the MCU and in superhero movies in general for not only these delights but for how, contrary to most products of the medium-dominating genre, it leans into its comic-book silliness instead of disavowing it, embraces its pulpy material instead of rendering it in terms analagous to reality. All of this, the characters and the costumes and the settings and the fights and the narratives and the themes, is utter nonsense, ultimately. Taika Waititi recognizes this and draws out the inherent weird awkwardness of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe enterprise, making it fodder for cathartic comedy and celebratory abandon. This is what superhero comics fundamentally are, and despite the artistic ambitions of many writers and artists who seek to make them more than that, it’s still the form’s purest terms of expression and criteria for enjoyment, and it’s the purest appeal of Thor: Ragnarok as well.

Categories: Comics, Film, Reviews

Film Review: Crimson Peak

November 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Crimson Peak (2015; Directed by Guillermo del Toro)

The initially seductive Crimson Peak ultimately fails to live up to the deep promise of its evocative design and syncretic root-network of influences. In doing so, it suggests with a troubling persistence that the rich litany of varied ingredients that inspire writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s visually dense, weirdly poetic, and symbolically detailed films (reflected in a touring exhibition of his personal collection currently at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario) can dispiritingly add up to less than the sum of their parts. Not a proper horror film so much as an atmospheric and significantly chromatic gothic romance with elements of the ghost story, Crimson Peak stumbles from a drawn-out establishing passage into a relatively and disappointingly conventional conclusion. It’s not a case study of del Toro’s acclaimed vision being constrained, however, but an uneasy suggestion that his alchemist’s vision has limits and blindspots that display a tendency to let it down, in the breach.

Del Toro sets the latter half of Crimson Peak in the titularly-nicknamed manorial pile in Cumberland, England (all of it, mind you, filmed in Southern Ontario, where most of his recent productions have been based). This closing setting, Allerdale Hall, is envisioned as a classic Victorian Gothic construction, a rambling haunted mansion of pointed arches, restless spirits, unfriendly corridors, and blood-hued red clay literally bubbling up from its foundations like an uncontainable violent buried history. It’s a symbol of the slow decay of aristocratic privilege, with Industrial Age accoutrements stitched Frankenstein-like onto its failing body. Del Toro’s reference points for this house of horrors are numerous and probably ultimately known only to himself, but the titular house in Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre‘s Thornfield Hall, Dracula’s castle, and even the Overlook Hotel of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining stand among them.

Before he takes his story there, however, del Toro provides as an introductory contrast the robust American capitalist respectability of fin-de-siècle Buffalo, New York. This is the hometown of his heroine Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), a clever but romantically naïve aspiring novelist and daughter of wealthy industrialist Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). Haunted (quite literally) by the memory of her mother’s death, her romantic aspirations are appealed to by a visiting English aristocrat, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who with his just-a-bit sinister sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) is seeking the Cushing père‘s financial backing for a clay-mining contraption of the tinkering Thomas’s own invention. Carter doubts the viability of Sharpe’s scheme (especially given the discouraging discoveries of his private investigator Mr. Holly, played by del Toro semi-regular Burn Gorman) and sharply disapproves of his courtship of Edith, withholding his approval of Thomas’s marriage proposal. The elder Cushing’s objections will be, shall we say, firmly overcome, however, as will those of Edith’s childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), and newlywed Edith will be swept away to Allerdale Hall, where she will find herself in quite a horrible and not at all romantic situation indeed.

Del Toro’s rich wellspring of sources and inspirations colours the establishment of this onscreen world, spanning haunted house movies of the Studio Era, English Gothic literature, and jump-scare modern horror flicks. Crimson Peak‘s ghosts, reflecting cultural sources as much as personal ones, are its creepiest and perhaps most resonant creations. “Ghosts are real. This much, I know,” intones Edith in narration at the beginning and end of the film, but she also tells a prospective publisher that the ghosts in her novel are metaphors. For del Toro, ghosts are both literal and metaphorical, horribly tangible revenants of past agony and regret and love and tenderness as well as spectral symbols of such fading sentiments galvanized by the mortal fear of death. Edith is warned by the ghost of her mother, clad in the black clothes of mourning (and based on the ghost of del Toro’s own grandmother, who evidently visited his mother after the older woman’s demise), about a dire “Crimson Peak” that she must avoid, and is further bedeviled by a blood-red ghoul at Allerdale Hall, which emerges from the floor like the consuming crimson clay.

Colour is vital to Crimson Peak‘s intended affect (the cinematography is by Dan Laustsen, whose most notable visual work was on the bonkers French genre mash-up Brotherhood of the Wolf and who is also lensing del Toro’s forthcoming The Shape of Water), but it works best in small, well-observed moments of character-arc foreshadowing more than in the grand, baroque, violent (and unfortunately tedious) climax. The best example is a quiet but key scene between Edith and Lucille in a Buffalo park. Observing delicate, beautiful butterflies dying from the approaching winter chill, Lucille tells Edith of the black moths back home, “formidable creatures” which “lack beauty” but “thrive on the dark and cold” and consume butterflies. Their wardrobe symbolically identifies them with these contrasting insects: Edith’s hat, parasol, blouse, and skirts visually echo the colour-markings of the butterflies, while Lucille’s black dress and deep-red rose carnation align her with the predatory moths she describes.

Intricate weavings of cinematography, editing, wardrobe, dialogue, performance, and subtextual ideas as displayed in this scene define del Toro’s work at its best (it must be said, however, that only Chastain, revelling in Lucille’s waxing villainy, stands out at all among the cast). Sadly, Crimson Peak, for all of the splendour and the near-novelistic density of its visual world, never quite comes together in the way his strongest films do (I’m thinking, of course, of Pan’s Labyrinth, above all). The tense horror-thriller sequences of Edith being stalked by the ghosts are impeccably paced and orchestrated, but are of secondary or even tangential significance compared to the pulpy central plot of the Sharpes. This is a trademark of del Toro’s treatment of fantastical or supernatural elements in his work, granted: the magic he conjures is grand and beautiful and dangerous and terrifying, and it certainly does not abide by concrete human-conceived rules of logic or causation.

But in Crimson Peak, these elements seem at once to be stitched onto a different body of a film and to act as a pestilent virus seeking to take over its host. There’s a better film buried inside the tangled intertextual vines of Crimson Peak, struggling to free itself. There is no doubting the breadth and depth of del Toro’s vision here as elsewhere, but whether for budgetary or generic or imaginative reasons, Crimson Peak doesn’t unfold the possibilities of that vision so much as narrow its focus as it proceeds. This is what it looks like when Guillermo del Toro gets lost in his own head and takes a wrong turn. Those of us who have admired the products of his mind and his imagination in the past do fervently hope that he rights his path again.

Categories: Film, Literature, Reviews

Film Review: Blade Runner 2049

October 29, 2017 Leave a comment

Blade Runner 2049 (2017; Directed by Denis Villeneuve)

The first thing worth knowing about Blade Runner 2049, and quite frankly the last thing as well, is that it is incredibly beautiful. Directed by Quebeςois prestige-film dynamo Denis Villeneuve and shot by the venerable English cinematographical master Roger Deakins, the 30-plus-years-hence sequel to Ridley Scott’s seminal, influential, and lingeringly divisive 1982 science-fiction opus replicates and indeed surpasses its feats of visual invention, forward-looking production design, and neo-noir neon-infused chiaroscuro mood lighting. As recent James Bond series highlight Skyfall demonstrated, when Roger Deakings is armed with a blockbuster budget, he delivers stunningly-lit images of striking, memorable magnificence. Indeed, Skyfall‘s knock-out sequence of Bond taking out a foe at night in a Shanghai skyscraper with a blue neon jellyfish reflecting off of its glass facades seems now like a dress rehearsal for Deakins’ similar work with the high contrasts of harsh artificial light and deep, encompassing darkness in this film.

I could expend hundreds, perhaps thousands of words describing Blade Runner 2049‘s most gorgeous moments: pinnacles must include a pursuit and fight in an abandoned casino ballroom while a projected hologram Elvis and a chorus of showgirls flicker in and out onstage, the wavy, dappling light filtering through an artificial lake into the Brutalist/pharaonic/neo-German Expressionist premises of a powerful corporation, and an emotionally-charged encounter with a towering, pink-hued advertisement of a naked woman. But the slowly-enfolding wonder of Villeneuve’s and Deakins’s alchemical imagery in Blade Runner 2049, which for my money surpasses Scott’s often turgid and borderline-pretentious original in nearly every vital way, is how it functions as a poetic encapsulation and artistic fulfilment of the film’s themes and ideas. One might rightly contend that this sequel’s philosophical depth doesn’t approach that of the 1982 film, which located a crisis of identity and human authenticity in a depersonalized dystopia of the near-future and grounded it in classical myth and Freudian psychology. But like Arrival, Villeneuve’s science-fiction triumph of last year, Blade Runner 2049 intelligently and sometimes movingly synthesizes intellectual concepts and emotional swells into a powerful work of cinema that understands and advances the notion that these seemingly opposing impulses are in truth two sides of the same cosmic coin.

Blade Runner 2049 is the latest in a recent spate of Hollywood franchise sequels/reboots to incorporate the elapsed decades between the previous and current installments into the textual narrative itself. Much of the expository work covering the 30 years between Scott’s Blade Runner (set in 2019) and Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is achieved by an opening title card: the rebellious replicants – bioengineered humanoids intended as slave and servant labour on Earth and in off-world colonies – encountered by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) in the original film were discontinued after persistent revolts and a catastrophic social, biological and technological infrastructure failure known as “the blackout” a year or two after Deckard escaped Los Angeles with Rachael (Sean Young), the replicant he had fallen in love with.

The bankrupted creators of the replicants, the Tyrell Corporation, was bought up by Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) and his Wallace Corporation, whose wealth is based on world-saving mass agriculture technology. The Wallace Corporation has resumed production of a new series of replicants programmed strictly to obey their masters. Wallace himself has one such right-hand servant, a steely enforcer named Luv (Silvia Hoeks), and another Nexus-9 replicant, K (Ryan Gosling), toils at Deckard’s old “blade runner” job with the LAPD, tracking down and “retiring” the remaining rogue Nexus-8s at the behest of his human superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). During one such call at a California farming facility maintained alone by a Nexus-8 named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K discovers a series of clues leading to a replicant-related “miracle” connected to Deckard and Rachael – and, K begins to suspect, intimately connected to himself – that is of revolutionary import to ever-tense human-replicant relations.

This summary doesn’t come close to encapsulating the imaginative and symbolically-charged world-expansion that Villeneuve engages in here, working from a screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green. From the opening wide-shot panorama of K’s squad car flying over seemingly endless solar power plants to the dark smoggy sprawl of future L.A. to the post-nuclear, radioactive-fallout-strewn ghost-town of Las Vegas to a gigantic post-industrial junkyard in the ruins of San Diego sifted through in a neo-Dickensian workhouse by thousands of orphaned children, this is a grand nightmarescape of structural decay and physical alienation evocative of social, political, and psychological dislocation.

The protagonist K, his replicant status certain in contrast to the continued ambiguity about Deckard’s true nature, embodies this dislocation. K was built to destroy his own kind and is reviled as a “skinjob” by the humans he is meant to be protecting; even his superior Joshi, although she values his ability and shows a modicum of personal interest, ultimately conceives of him as her servant or her trained pet (“Good boy,” she tells him at one point, like a dog who has fetched successfully). His only non-cop-shop personal relationship is with a Wallace-manufactured female holographic companion named Joi (Ana de Armas), whom he cares for dearly but whose reciprocation of those feelings resides ambivalently in between the programming of her corporate designers and tantalizing hints of sentience and self-determined love. This ambivalence is delicately poised in K’s pre-climactic meeting with the monumental ad for Joi, which might have served to dishearten him at a critical juncture in his quest with its suggestions that their connection was artificially constructed but instead seems to stiffen his spine with a fond reminder of the tenderness of that connection (Gosling plays exquisitely to the ambiguity in this moment, mind you).

K’s feelings for the simulation Joi echoes Deckard’s love for the replicant Rachael, which is at the core of the plot and is sorely tested by the blind, ambitious Machiavellian Wallace (this is too good a film to be derailed by any one performance, especially one consisting of a mere two scenes, and if the usually preening Leto isn’t great, he at least damps it down a bit). When the detective K begins to suspect that he himself might have been the product of this love, his existence gains a measure of significance; when this measure is wiped away, an underground revolutionary replicant movement restores it in altered form, with the politicized promise of sacrifice for the cause of liberation. But even these interlinks are suggested to be coincidences of programming, breadcrumbs implanted in his mind by a gifted designer of memories, Dr. Stelline (Carla Juri). Perhaps this was done intentionally as part of a wider plan, perhaps not.

Free will and determinism, being born and being built, a sentient being with a soul and a self-aware machine with a pre-set functional purpose. These are the dichotomous themes of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and of Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 as well. Their sharp opposing contrasts and their permeable bleeding edges are the subject of both films, a metaphorical focal point made aesthetically manifest in their visual design and in their intertextual referentiality. In the movie-long unfolding of Deakins’s stunning cinematic imagery, his starkly-delineated contrasts of light and dark lose this firm definition, and in the process gain something more indefinable and compellingly ambiguous. In the way that, according to screenwriter Fancher, K moves from being a sort of rule-bound instruction manual to an embodied poem through his experiences, the film itself undertakes a similar journey towards poetry.

This poetry is infused into Blade Runner 2049 with a literal (and literary) reference to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, including an excerpt of a poem discovered by the novel’s protagonist and repurposing it as part of K’s “baseline” debriefing programming process. A kind of post hoc version of the original Blade Runner‘s Voigt-Kampff test used to identify replicants, the baseline test isolates K and repeats back phrases from the Pale Fire poem (“a system of cells interlinked within / Cells interlinked within cells interlinked”) as well as confrontational, difficult elaborations on those phrases, expecting to compel and maintain emotionless replies and a lack of empathy and engagement on the part of the replicant. K fails at this ongoing technical indoctrination if even his microreactions are hesitant, if his experiences imprint themselves upon his perceptible self.

How can we not be changed, not merely in our perspective or reactions but in our fundamental state of being, by exposure to the world, to love and pain, joy and suffering? The human (or human-like replicant) self is produced and moulded by the stimuli it encounters, formed like rocks under erosion by emotional and intellectual forces beyond its control or resistance. The irony of employing Nabokov’s poem as a fixed-point calibration for replicants is that its conclusion offers a harbour-in-the-storm image of stalwart beauty standing athwart the depersonalized blackness: “Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.” Blade Runner 2049 crafts tall white fountains amidst its dystopian dark, and provides a heartening illustration of how deriving meaning from those comforting structures, which gain significance and dimension of feeling through our engagement with them and not through the separate intentions embedded in their design and manufacture, shapes our identity amidst the unceasing torrent of a hard world.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Colossal

October 25, 2017 Leave a comment

Colossal (2017; Directed by Nacho Vigalondo)

Is Colossal, Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo’s Frankenmovie hybrid of indie dramedies of youthful ennui and mass-destructive Asian kaiju monster films, a good movie or not? I confess that I’m not entirely certain of the answer after watching it. It’s certainly unique, or perhaps just uniquely derivative. It’s got ideas aplenty, but its gaps in internal logic gradually grow too wide to be effectively spanned, its characters barely hold together under even mild scrutiny, its jokes increasingly fail to land, and its more uneasy implications lack consistency.

In broad concept, Colossal follows a directionless 30-something unemployed web content writer Gloria (Anne Hathaway) who, having been dumped and asked to move out of of her New York City apartment by her patronizing professional boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) after one too many alcohol-fueled all-nighters, moves back to her sleepy New Hampshire hometown and takes up residence in her parents’ vacant home. Falling in swiftly with her old school friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who now owns and operates a local bar, Gloria’s aimless into-the-wee-hours unemployed drinking continues unabated until she wakes one day to the globally-reported news of a skyscraper-sized monster mysteriously appearing and then just as mysteriously disappearing in Seoul, South Korea.

Gloria quickly realizes that there is something very familiar about this monster that is captivating the world. Very, very familiar, in fact: the monster is Gloria herself, magically transposed into towering kaiju form halfway across the world. Although I shan’t spoil the expository details (which begin to be revealed as clever little delights and incorporate childhood psychological scars, but become ever more head-scratchingly incomprehensible), Gloria determines that her movements in the sandbox of a school playground at a precise time each morning are mirrored by the creature in Korea (one scene demonstrating this is visually framed as a bit of a technical in-joke on performance-capture CGI practices). And not only her sandbox movements, but Oscar’s as well, his building-sized avatar manifesting in Seoul as a giant robot.

From this fuzzily-defined but nonetheless compelling bedrock idea, Colossal moves in unpredictable and not entirely fruitful directions. Vigalondo (who wrote the script as well as directed it) turns the old friends into rivals and even enemies, their differences over their life’s ambitions and their clashing self-images transposed into Godzilla-sized city-levelling physical battles between their kaiju avatars. A big problem with the application of this metaphorical device is that Vigalondo and Sudeikis are sloppy and inconsistent with how exactly Oscar is meant to be feeling about and relating to Gloria.

Oscar is given big, broad, neon-lit creepy stalker warning signs through the first act or two, suggesting that he’s romantically/sexually interested in Gloria and attempting to curry her favour: he picks her up and takes her to his bar without even asking if she wants to go there, admits to keeping tabs on her online over the years, and makes daily gifts of furniture to fill her empty squat pad. He asks her to wait tables at his bar, and acts on her suggestion to open up an unused western-themed portion of the establishment that he had boarded up. His behaviour towards her – in real life and via their kaiju avatars – takes a negative turn after she hooks up with his handsome but dim buddy Joel (Austin Stowell), and descends into disturbing recklessness when Tim shows up in town to convince Gloria to come back to the city. But his actions in the last act, as well as Gloria openly (but only semi-convincingly) accusing him of being jealous of her for being bright and capable enough to escape their New Hampshire nowheresville while he remained stuck there, call this angle into question.

Sudeikis himself is a big part of Colossal‘s problem in this vein. A decent choice for the good-natured, uncomplicated drinking buddy role, he strains beyond his ability when asked to become a villainous asshole. Miscasting hints aside, however, it’s not entirely clear that Vigalondo doesn’t intend Oscar and Gloria’s conflict to be essentially comic and tongue-in-cheek. There are certainly purposely funny moments undercutting the epic quality of their head-to-head face-off (for a low-budget film, the CG monster effect are fairly good – the nocturnal setting in Seoul helps smooth over the fine details – but more noticeably low-quality when computer animation is used for flames in Oscar’s bar). Hyper-dramatic bursts of Bear McCreary’s score and Vigalondo’s use of slow-motion are sending up heavy-handed Hollywood blockbuster ponderousness, for sure, and the virtual-reality surface of a literal child’s sandbox is surely couched in similar terms.

There’s a growth in self-determination angle to Gloria’s arc in play as well, and an undercooked feminism to her relations to the men in the film. Tim claims to love Gloria but habitually condescends to her, shames her for her lack of drive and ambition, and pretends to protectiveness without properly recognizing her vulnerabilities; Oscar insinuates Gloria back into his life but is not thoughtful or empathetic enough to really understand why he wants her around or what light she throws on his bruised male ego, and becomes an implacable antagonist rather than letting her leave him again; and poor, pretty Joel goes to bed with Gloria at her instigation but hasn’t the steel to stand up to Oscar’s vindictive turn against her.

In the end, Gloria stands up to Oscar and wins the day, locating a power and control in the outlandish kaiju-related circumstances that he leveraged against her. This theme of a put-upon woman pushing back against the men who tossed her about between them must have been one of the elements that drew Hathaway (an executive producer on the film whose headlining star-wattage helped get the film financed and made) to Vigalondo’s screenplay in the first place. Like so many of the ideas in Colossal, however, this one never really manages to land a punch. Moreover, Vigalondo’s plotting often seems more driven by his willingness to move from one such half-cooked idea to another, rather than by comprehensible character psychology or coherent rules of his fantastical conceit.

Much more of Colossal is shambolic in this manner than is advisable. Vigalondo even brings in the great, underrated character actor Tim Blake Nelson (whose gloriously cartoonish bumpkin sidekick Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of my favourite comic performances in any movie ever) and renders him as a tweaking, rambling second-fiddle to Oscar without even a hint of a funny line. Nacho Vigalondo is revealed by Colossal as a filmmaker with a firm hand at times and a shaky grip at others, sometimes within the same scene or in treatment of the same theme. On which side of the line does Colossal as a whole fall? I confess to still not really being confident in my conclusion either way, but would ultimately recommend giving the film a shot to make up your own mind on the matter.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Television Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

October 21, 2017 Leave a comment

The Handmaid’s Tale – Season One (Hulu; 2017)

Recently awarded the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, The Handmaid’s Tale is a quality production marked by visual flourishes, powerful performances, and resonant themes amplified by contemporary political applicability in a revanchist era of resurgent authoritarian ideologies and empowered anti-woman figures. It’s also deliberately an extrapolation and an expansion of its seminal source material, Margaret Atwood’s 1986 dystopian novel of the same name. In opening up the imagined totalitarian American theocracy of Gilead and the key role that the red-robed Handmaids play in it, the show’s creator Bruce Miller and his collaborators re-direct and re-focus its implications and meanings.

Told entirely from the first-person narrative perspective of a young woman known only as Offred (a slave name linked to her controlling male authority figure), Atwood’s novel imagines an alarming but eerily familiar near-future in which the United States of America as we now know it is no more. Taking advantage of social and political crises related to plunging birth rates caused by pollution and STDs, Christian fundamentalists have launched a violent coup and gained power over an indeterminate portion of the country: the Eastern Seaboard for certain (geographical clues place the immediate setting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Atwood attended Harvard University), with the Midwest as an apartheid-type mass internment zone for African-Americans and unspecified “Colonies” spoken of as hellish penal settlements where the most undesirable are hidden away to expire. A perpetual territorial war is fought by young soldiers known as Angels, who battle Baptists in Appalachia and the South and serve as convenient vessels for unifying national propaganda efforts.

The Republic of Gilead organizes itself as a fascistic patriarchal theocracy. Democracy is abolished, religious freedom has been eliminated, and adherents of other faiths who do not convert are executed, their corpses exhibited publically as medievalesque warning about the costs of defying authority (along with homosexuals – called “gender traitors” – and anyone else resisting Gilead’s power). All political and social power is held by the Commanders of the Faithful, a rich white male cabal who decide policy on strict Old Testament grounds (though, typically, do not hold themselves to such pious standard of personal behaviour) and enforce it brutally with jackbooted armed men called Guardians and secret police known as Eyes. Women cannot work, hold money or property, read, or manifest any independence outside of subordinate roles to Gilead’s men; they are the either blue-dressed Wives of the ruling class, the lower-class Econowives who marry men of lower status, the household servant Marthas, or the red-clad Handmaids, who are trained and monitored by the strict nun-like subalterns of state power, the forbidding Aunts.

The Handmaids are women identified as fertile in an increasingly infertile society and therefore are treated as valuable if unfree human breeding stock. They are to live with Commanders for two year terms, where they are regularly forced to have sexual intercourse (in a twisted ritualistic “Ceremony” involving not only the Commander but his presiding Wife as well) in hopes of becoming pregnant and delivering the children of the ruling class. They are allowed out of home confinement only for brief walks to shop, as well as for ceremonial occasions such as rare births by their fellow Handmaids and propagandistic communal executions of enemies of the state called Salvations.

Atwood teases out these details entirely through Offred’s narration, interweaving them with memories of Handmaid training and of her life before the Gilead revolution (when she had a husband, Luke, and a young daughter, who was taken from her), as well as her heroine’s psychological reactions and observations on her plight and small notes of defiance. The television version of The Handmaid’s Tale accomplishes the same effect with a primary focus on Offred (played with steel and commitment by Best Drama Actress Emmy winner Elisabeth Moss, whose cloistered and intimate perspective is smartly imparted in cinematographic terms) but with tangents, backstories, and multiple perspectives filling out the picture of this world (not to mention some punchy, interesting musical choices, including an uncertainly-pitched but definitely memorable closing-scene use of the late Tom Petty’s “American Girl”).

We see things not only through the perspective of Offred but also of Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), who gets his own standalone episode detailing his escape north into Canada (the series was filmed in Southern Ontario, a Hamilton mansion serving as the Waterford house and Cambridge, Ontario’s riverfront standing in for that of Cambridge, Massachusetts); of Offred’s Commander, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his Wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), a power couple within the Gilead-establishing Sons of Jacob movement who tensely see the arrangement of influence shift considerably once the unforgiving gender hierarchy is in place; of Offred’s pre-Gilead-era best friend Moira (Samira Wiley), who escapes Handmaid school and is relegated to duty as a Jezebel, a caste of entertainers and prostitutes used for the amusement of the ruling men; of Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), Offred’s strolling partner, a resistance underground member, and a lesbian; of Ofwarren (Madeline Brewer), a fellow Handmaid whose successful pregnancy exacerbates her mental problems; and of Nick (Max Minghella), the Waterfords’ driver, Offred’s clandestine lover, and either an Eye or a member of the resistance group Mayday (or perhaps both; the second season may portend more revelations on this point).

The expansion of Atwood’s vision of Gilead and its translation into a visual storytelling medium involves not only this widening of perspectives, but also any number of other additions, some more successful than others, that alter the course of The Handmaid Tale‘s thematic streams and render the series as a deeply related but ultimately unique artistic statement. Gilead is simultaneously more open and more repressive on screen than on the page; Offred’s resistance to the order of the regime comes to be more open and undeniable, providing stronger impetus for her supposed arrest at the narrative’s end than merely her trysts with Nick or nocturnal Scrabble sessions and illicit gentleman’s club visits with the Commander. Luke and Moira’s scenes in Canada and a diplomatic visit by Mexican officials present opportunities to provide an outside view of the workings of Gilead’s society, as well as hints about how other nations are coping with declining birth rates.

Furthermore, the Waterfords are not only named and given a backstory and related believable tensions in their marriage, they are aged down from the older couple of the novel. This not only adds sexual tension to Offred’s interactions with the Commander (Fiennes is memorably reptilian here), but it erects a whole new dynamic between Offred and Serena Joy. In the novel, Serena is a former televangelist singer, now aged and cynical and implacably bitter towards this younger, more fecund woman entering her household. Strahovski’s younger Serena is a generational contemporary of Offred, thus emphasizing not only their rivalry for the Commander’s interest but also establishing a curious solidarity, a weirdly deferred sisterhood (even if Serena, as an architect of the Gileadean order, is one of the masterminds of both of their objectifications). An expanded role for Handmaid enforcer Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd, who won the Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Emmy for her performance) gives Offred a firmer antagonist than the good cop-bad cop Waterfords or “the system” itself, and allows a more nuanced and detailed exposition of the Handmaids’ symbolic role in Gilead beyond their practical reproductive function.

The biggest shift from novel to screen for The Handmaid’s Tale must surely be its ramping-up, in tonal terms as well as tangible visible subject matter, of the oppressive violence of the totalitarian state in Gilead. Rebellious Handmaids are physically punished, dissenters, enemies of the state, and gender traitors are put to death, street protestors are brutally smashed by military force (although the racial divisions of Atwood’s Gilead are left aside; there is no suggestion of specific state discrimination of African-Americans, and Moira – Wiley is African-American – is set on the path to Handmaid status). These violent fascistic eruptions and open crackdowns on dissent were alluded to by Atwood, hinted at, but only rarely integrated with Offred’s own experiences as fixed-perspective narrator. The novel took form as a memoir of a single individual in the midst of a totalitarian theocracy, her resistances minor and perhaps ineffectual, her own awareness of Gilead’s horrors too slow to arrive at first and too narrow to act meaningfully on in her current situation. It would seem that onscreen, this violent oppression is the ultimate trump card in the effort to establish Gilead’s dictatorial bonafides, while on the page the disturbing details of women’s lives under this order are more the point and the thrust of Atwood’s political satire. Those details are very much drawn out effectively in the series, too, don’t get me wrong, but Miller and his team feel the need to bold and underline This is Fascism for their audience.

Although it might have been assumed that Atwood’s impetus to write The Handmaid’s Tale (the title gestures to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) in the 1980s lay in the emergence into American public life and political influence of conservative Christian Evangelicals during the Reagan years, the ideas grew from other sources with more authentic dictatorial bonafides. Atwood’s readings on American Puritans while at Harvard revealed a people alighting on fresh land seeking not freedom of worship but a theocratic dictatorship where only their own beliefs were tolerated (Atwood’s own ancestor, Mary Webster, survived a hanging sentence for witchcraft in Puritan New England, and the novel is pointedly dedicated to her). Atwood observed the utopian extremism of social-engineering totalitarian regimes in Romania and Cambodia, whose restrictive laws often fell hardest on vulnerable women. And her feminism informed the misogynistic rhetoric underlying Gilead’s unforgiving reproductively-ordered gender hierarchy, taking discriminatory attitudes about women’s appearance, temperment, and sexual status in free, secular, tolerant North American to their logical and oppressive extreme.

But in a fruitful accident of timing, The Handmaid’s Tale series has seen its themes amplified by contemporary political conditions in the country where it is actually set. The election of Donald Trump as U.S. President, with Mike Pence as his Vice President, has made a dystopian vision of a religiously-mandated gender hierarchy in American society that has dire consequences for women seem troublingly current. Of Trump’s many defining character faults, his bluff chauvinism and privilege-fed objectified treatment of women is among the ugliest, if not the very pinnacle of his towering mountain of moral deformity. A twice-divorced serial adulterer with a history of nasty statements about women, Trump infamously bragged on tape about sexual assaulting numerous women and getting away with it, behaviour which has destroyed the careers of other powerful men but which barely touched Teflon Don on his road to the White House. Pence, meanwhile, is a near-exact match for a Commander of the Faithful, with his fundamentalist faith, legislative history of curbing abortion laws and women’s health policies, and unnerving insistence on never being alone in a room with a woman who is not his wife. If they have not instituted a full Gileadean order as of yet, there’s little doubt (especially in the case of the quiet fanatic Pence) that they wouldn’t much mind doing so, if for almost diametrically opposed (but equally misogynistic) reasons.

As compelling as it was in its first season, The Handmaid’s Tale promises to proceed into true uncharted territory in its second season. Though it takes a different path to get there, its finale episode ends just where Atwood’s novel does, with Offred leaving her forced home and entering a van into the unknown of either deeper suffering or desperate freedom. Miller and his writers will have naught but their own inventiveness to guide them, as well as Atwood’s curious academic conference presentation coda for her short novel, which suggests that whatever else happened to Offred, she did at least briefly get out of Gilead, as well as that the regime is now studied as a curious historical phase in America. We might hope that the current American phase will also be studied as a historical curiosity by more enlightened and secure future thinkers, and that the troubling views and wider policy intentions of current leaders do not portend a real Gilead in the States. Whether on the page or on the screen, The Handmaid’s Tale is the sort of art that warns of the darkest potentialities of politics and culture so as to argue for course corrections that allow us to evade those possibilities.

TV Quickshots #34

October 15, 2017 Leave a comment

Mindhunter (Netflix; 2017-Present)

Mindhunter, the new Netflix crime procedural drama created by Joe Penhall and produced and partly directed by David Fincher, is more of an inventive hybrid than it might appear at first glance. Set in the late 1970s (topical references to Operation Entebbe and revival screenings of Dog Day Afternoon place its start in 1977), Mindhunter follows FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) as they shepherd embryonic practices of criminal psychology and profiling into increasing usage in law enforcement as the now-famous and popularly glorified Behavioral Science Unit at the Agency, featured in cultural products such as the Hannibal Lecter franchise in books, movies, and television, as well as the long-running CBS drama Criminal Minds (which focused on the BSU’s successor department, the Behavioral Analysis Unit or BAU).

With Fincher directing the 10-episode initial season’s first two and last two hours, Mindhunter assumes the visual signatures and structural and tonal dimensions of the acclaimed auteur of handsome, tense, thoughtful mystery thrillers. Zodiac in particular, a labyrinthine and absorbing take on the Zodiac killings in and around San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is a key touchstone, but Fincher and the other creative minds also mine a fertile vein as regards the audience’s familiarity with the conventions and practices of the police profiling procedural drama. Mindhunter sees those conventions and practices being worked out and honed, often by trial and error. It’s an origin story for the prolific profiling genre.

Ford and Tench (respectively based on BSU pioneers John E. Douglas, whose co-written book on the unit is the primary source material for the series, and Robert K. Ressler) are versed in established psychological policing techniques, but the younger, more idealistic and adventurous Ford, who comes from hostage negotiation, which he is seen doing (unsuccessfully) in the series’ opening scene and later teaches to new Agency recruits at the academy in Quantico, feels that current psychological and sociological frameworks from the academic world can be of benefit in identifying and arresting a new breed of murderer that he awkwardly dubs “sequence killers” (the precursor term of the more familiar “serial killers”). He faces an uphill battle in convincing hardboiled cops of its potential efficacy, from the initially-sceptical Tench (a veteran of the FBI’s nationwide travelling seminar presentations on these methods to law enforcement) to his old-school unit chief Shepard (Cotter Smith) to local detectives and police.

Mindhunter is a bit slow-moving in its premiere episode, but once its premise is established, the show add layers and key players at a steady pace. These include academic and psychologist Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) who sees wide-reaching value in what Ford and Tench are proposing to do, Ford’s intellectually challenging sociology student girlfriend Debbie (Hannah Gross), and talkative, self-aware serial killer Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), whom they interview repeatedly in order to glean insight into the mind of a sociopathic murderer.

Mindhunter is most interesting in how it depicts Ford’s earnest boundary-pushing of the classic, ossified police conceptions of criminals as mere evil monsters and the introduction of psychological and sociology analysis of criminal behavior. Police dramas are frequently politically and socially conservative morality plays, good vs. evil fables that elide the web of psychological complexities, environmental triggers, and systemic oppression and inequality that feed into criminal activity. They can’t all be The Wire, and Mindhunter isn’t either. But it introduces a limited progressive viewpoint that, while it does not promise to destabilize the established institutional structure or thrust of American law enforcement, does introduce a tension between the old-fashioned conservatism and a fresher, more humane, more intelligent set of processes.

BoJack Horseman (Netflix; 2014-Present)

Speaking of refreshingly original extrapolations on existing generic television tropes, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s BoJack Horseman has built occasionally audacious new elements into the colourful comic misadventures common to the animated adult-oriented sitcom format for four seasons (the most recent 12 episodes were recently premiered for streaming on Netflix). Single episodes and larger arcs of the show alike tackle controversial and even taboo subjects with trenchant but never entirely cynical humour and often climax with surprising, sometimes deeply affecting moments of emotional honesty.

At its core, BoJack Horseman is a sharp satire of the madness of American society in general, and of Hollywood and the entertainment business in particular. Its titular protagonist (voiced by Will Arnett) is a washed-up former family sitcom star always searching for a career comeback angle while struggling with alcoholism, doubtful depression, and recurrent self-destructive behaviour. He’s also a talking bipedal horse, part of a richly and amusingly imagined world which human beings and anthropomorphic animals share. He lives in a modern star’s home in the Hollywood Hills with his couch-crashing live-in housemate/verbal punching-bag Todd (Aaron Paul). His Persian Cat agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) arranges for BoJack to work on a juicy tell-all memoir with a ghostwriter, Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), who is also dating his frienemy Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), a cheerful but dim dog who was his sitcom rival from the 1990s.

BoJack Horseman skewers easy targets of American satire like Hollywood’s insularity, greed, indulgence, and ostentation, consumer capitalism’s saturating inanity, and the corporate media’s decontextualized and dumbed-down controversy hunger. But it’s braver and more iconoclastic than that, too. When the lazy, unthinking glorification of the American military is openly questioned in only the second episode of the series (BoJack runs afoul of a Navy SEAL who is, of course, actually a seal), you know that BoJack Horseman is set to be more challenging vis-à-vis social norms and cultural assumptions than we are accustomed to from American animated comedy (outside of a show telegraphed to be political agita like The Boondocks).

Sure enough, later episodes tackle everything from factory farming (the harvest of animals as food being an issue given extra frisson in a universe in which animals are equal citizens to humans) to prominent men in showbiz leveraging their power to take advantage of women and quash any who would expose them (although likely targetted at serial sexual assaulter Bill Cosby, “Hank After Dark” has gained renewed relevance given the recent revelations around producer and sexual predator Harvey Weinstein) to a thinly-veiled multi-episode critique of Scientology (via Todd’s inculcation into a cult-like improv comedy company). Even more impressive is how BoJack Horseman pivots from standard sitcom gags about damaging misbehaviour, substance use, and emotional abuse to more nuanced and poignant explorations of the triggers for and consequences of these easily-lampooned but personally destructive forces.

The emotional scenes that typically close out episodes, a semi-meta reproduction of the easily-digestible “morals” at the end of family sitcoms, transcend the standard platitudes and reveal emotional scars inside of BoJack, Diane, Carolyn, and others that will not be healed before the credits roll, or else constitute choices and actions that will not be tidily forgiven and forgotten. The jokes are often laugh-out-loud funny, but the social and political critiques and emotionally raw admissions of sadness are given extra attention and weight. This has made BoJack Horseman an unlikely but appropriate standard-bearer of the animated sitcom legacy of The Simpsons. Indeed, BoJack Horseman takes The Simpsons‘ episodic model as a template and both amplifies and specifies its satire and its emotional core for a complex contemporary America more fractured and anxious that that encapsulated by the nation’s greater animated comedy program at its peak more than two decades previous. It’s a true heir.

Categories: Reviews, Television