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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.

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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

Film Review: The Lion King (2019)

The Lion King (2019; Directed by Jon Favreau)

Disney’s remake of The Lion King has a fundamental flaw at its core. In retooling and updating Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 1994 (mostly) hand-drawn animation classic – which, despite its flaws, was the closest thing to a bonafide masterpiece to come out of the 1990s Disney Renaissance – director Jon Favreau and his computer animation team choose, time and again, to hew firmly (even fanatically) to a visual aesthetic of photorealism. This approach has been supported by a soft-Orwellian twist in Disney’s imposing blanket marketing, which has insisted on labelling the remake as “live-action” to buttress its visual realism, an easily disproved claim considering that every character onscreen was crafted from computer pixels (perhaps some of the stunning landscape backgrounds were shot in Africa, but we’ll have to wait for behind-the-scenes material to confirm that).

On a surface level, this approach is a triumph; this version of The Lion King is so astoundingly true to life in its computer-generated rendering of a panoply of African wildlife and settings that it’s often like watching an especially handsomely shot nature documentary. But that’s also uncannily why it fails practically from the start. Because The Lion King presents impeccably-crafted, realistic-looking, reliably beautiful animal characters but then its narrative, themes, and emotional arcs require them to do and express things that they cannot physically do or visibly express. Not just talk or sing or dance in choreographed musical numbers or plot political coups or fall in love, but on a basic level communicate the believable human-like emotions that drive a story of legacy, self-doubt, tragic loss, redemption, and joy. This new Lion King simply does not work on this arguably most important level of filmmaking, making it a deeply strange and drained experience.

The Lion King was the Disney Renaissance’s vaunted “original” story, although it drew liberally from biblical narratives and Shakespearean plots. To recap, Simba (voiced by JD McCrary as a cub, Donald Glover as an adult lion) is the only son of King Mufasa (James Earl Jones, the only original cast member to reprise his voice role in this film), wise and benevolent leonine ruler of the plentiful Pridelands. Simba loves his father and learns lessons about the need for balance in the realm that he is told he will need when he is king. But his jealous and manipulative uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wants the kingship for himself, and masterminds devious plots to endanger his naive, curious nephew Simba and bump off his elder brother Mufasa; during a spectacular wildebeest stampede caused by Scar’s hyena minions, he succeeds in killing the king and exiling the little lion prince, who is wracked with guilt at his father’s death and believed dead by his uncle, who rules over the kingdom and allows the hyenas to decimate its resources.

Falling in with a mismatched duo of animal misfits (warthog Pumbaa, voiced by Seth Rogen, and meerkat Timon, voiced by Billy Eichner) in an abundant edenic valley, Simba grows to adulthood while embracing a mantra of “hakuna matata”, blissfully unbothered by worries or responsibilities or burdens of the past. But a meeting with his childhood friend and once-betrothed lioness Nala (Shahadi Wright-Joseph as a cub, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as an adult) as well as a magical-spiritual urging by the stormcloud-vision ghost of his dead father convinces Simba to return to Pride Rock to fulfill his birthright destiny, defeat his evil uncle, and regain the kingship, thus restoring that vaunted interconnected balance known as “the circle of life”.

There’s some Jesus and Moses here, of course, and obvious borrowings from Hamlet, with the evil usurping uncle and doubting prince urged to reclaim his birthright by the ghost of the dead king. Less appreciated is the echo of the Bard’s Henry IV history plays in Simba’s hakuna matata middle-act peaced-out exile: he’s more than a bit Prince Hal, fleeing his royal father’s gospel of the duty and responsibility of power to swill ale (or in this case, devour grubs) and cavort in the Cheapside pubs with Falstaff and his merry band of ne’er-do-wells. Although Simba is not required by the text to firmly repudiate Timon and Pumbaa and their hedonistic abandon as Hal had to disown Falstaff to embrace the duties of kingship (“I know thee not, flatulent warthog”), he is required to turn his back on the spirit of hakuna matata in favour of his father’s ponderous circle of life wisdom and legacy of benevolent philosopher-king uprightness (a more nuanced thematic trajectory might have sought a syncretic synthesis of these two philosophies, but then it is a children’s cartoon in its didactic soul). It’s Shakespeare on safari, with a robust admiration for the divine right of kings that was more at home in Tudor propaganda theatre than in blockbuster modern corporate feature animation.

Speaking of propaganda, The Lion King is not devoid of political dimension beyond its soft-focus invocation of beneficent monarchism. If anything, Favreau’s remake amplifies and fleshes out the core contrast between the models of power presented in this animal kingdom. Mufasa’s measured focus on balance and moderation and sustainability is redolent of a sort of leonine neoliberalism (or at least neoliberalism’s benevolent, congratulatory self-image of its own baseline capitalist imperatives), while Scar’s regime represents unchecked acquisitive consumption for the powerful, upheld by the force of fear and the threat of violence. Scar is here given an initial hint of populist concern, expressing a sly opinion that Mufasa’s circle of life ideology and policies inevitably leave certain animal citizens (like the voracious hyenas) behind, while Mufasa’s predictions of a ruined habitat equilibrium if the carnivores were to overhunt are proven correct by the wasteland that results when Scar Makes the Pridelands Great Again. Simba, interestingly, subscribes in his exile to a kinder version of self-centered individualism that hews closer to Scar’s take-what-you-want views, but of course becomes the heir to his father’s legacy, the circle of life ideological superstructure.

The Lion King opens in both its version with the powerfully scene-setting “Circle of Life” sequence, which is for my money one of the most iconic opening scenes in the movies. The vividly-coloured scenes of flora and fauna meeting the rising sun interwoven with South African composer Lebo M.’s Zulu phrases and group vocal rhythms lead on to the epic introduction of the lion royal family and their newborn cub Simba at Pride Rock. It brilliantly sets a mood, a visual tone, the setting and principals of the story, and the contours of its coming emotional journey in less than four masterful, sonically and visually memorable minutes. When the hard-stop drum beat cuts to the title card at the song’s end, the audience is not merely primed for what is to come, they are veritably pumped.

Although Favreau’s “live-action” remake recreates the original sequence practically shot-for-shot and the composition and aural/visual interplay remains strong enough for the scene to still achieve most of its affect, his “Circle of Life” sequence demonstrates the diminishing differences that the photorealistic imperative will wreak on The Lion King. The realistic lighting and colours pop less than the cartoon vividness of the original’s shots of the savannah (though the sense of depth is more pronounced this time), and the realistic appearance and facial animation of the animal characters flattens their emotional expressiveness, leaving the audience to fill in emotional import themselves. The ill effects of this mania for realism are microcosmically embodied in what ought to be the sequence’s pinnacle moment: ceremonial shaman baboon Rafiki (John Kani) striding to the edge of Pride Rock and thrusting the cub-prince Simba above his future capering animal subjects as the clouds break and a beam of sunlight shines upon the baby lion like a holy benediction. For Favreau’s version, it seems clear that some biologist advisor to the production insisted that baboons don’t actually stand that way, and so Rafiki sits down at the end of the rock and waves the cub, with its blank feline look that communicates no emotion, around a bit.

This is but a small moment, but it’s an early object lesson in how the realism-mania of the 2019 Lion King will turn it into a pretty but ultimately empty experience. Following “Circle of Life” with an interminable scene of the camera following a mouse along some rocks that leads to Scar’s introduction (the 2019 Lion King is 30 minutes longer than the 1994 Lion King, and it feels like all 30 of those minutes are in this scene), we quickly get the idea. Favreau is going to repeat the original film beat-for-beat, with so much focus on making it look as good as possible that the drama, fun, and feelings will always suffer.

The Lion King‘s musical sequences surely suffer most. The animation of the animal characters’ speech and singing is not nearly as odd and distracting as their dead-eyed facial paralysis, but there is of course nothing “natural” about detailed real-seeming African animals suddenly breaking into song, let alone complexly choreographed earworm showstoppers in vibrant, evocative technicolour incorporating Bubsy Berkeley homages and dark invocations of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films. But the catchy songs by Elton John and Tim Rice (I’m no Broadway devotee, and thus fancy that the multi-million-selling pop star composer injects the superior hooks) are not only favourites with fans but essential to the plot and themes of The Lion King. They kind of have to be there, and cannot either be highly minimized (as in Favreau’s dress-reheasal CG remake of The Jungle Book) or removed entirely (as has been promised for Disney’s coming Mulan remake, which from the looks of its first trailer might just end up being the only one of these live-action rehashes with a compelling artistic reason to exist).

So the songs are here, but they are often truncated and always rendered dull and inert by the realism-mania. As Emily Todd VanDerWerff discusses in her superb Vox article on the film’s handcuffing obsession with realism and how that reflects on a wider, likely temporary movement in pop culture, Simba’s brassy and immature fantasy-projection number “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” from the 1994 film imparted with multichromatic overconfidence, clever editing, and film-history referentiality how the spoiled princeling Simba was brassy and immature, and how those qualities would soon lead him into imminent danger among the hyenas of the spooky elephant graveyard. In the 2019 film, Simba and Nala caper blankly around the drinking creatures at the watering hole to evade the fussy hornbill herald/advisor Zazu (John Oliver) assigned by Mufasa to mind them (there is a lot of Zazu in this movie, especially in the early stages, so you’d better hope that you like Oliver’s spluterring act). Scar’s diabolical musical exposition of his foreboding coup d’état plot, “Be Prepared”, is no longer an Expressionist vamping villain showpiece underscored by the imagery of fascism and corpse-light colours, because that wouldn’t “make sense”; instead, he climbs some rocks in the moonlight while Ejiofor recites some of the key expository lyrics slam-poetry-style.

Despite the viral tweet with a side-by-side comparison of the original and remake’s animations for trademark fun number “Hakuna Matata” that reflects poorly on the new version, this musical sequence works a little better in its early stages, where the bursting colour of Timon and Pumbaa’s lush valley home reflects the sunny, carefree positivity of the song. In fact, generally speaking, the comedy of the 2019 Lion King lands better than its drama (though it would still be a stretch to label the movie as a whole as “funny”). Jon Favreau came out of comedy filmmaking (think Swingers and the first Iron Man), of course, and is a bit more at home with its application here, while the timing and delivery of his voice-acting cast can sell jokes better than it can sell the weightier moments (although a bickering pair of hyenas voiced by big comedic talents Keegan-Michael Key and Eric André simply repeat the same lame joke about personal space). For all of the ways that this “live-action” Lion King updates its appearance and beats for the realism-mania (Rafiki no longer magically realizes that Simba is still alive, but catches a few wisps of his fur that travel, circle-of-life-style, back to the Pridelands), it chooses to preserve its ’90s-vintage New York archetype comic relief of a snarky gay musical-theatre-enthusiast meerkat and a jolly, fart-prone warthog (there’s a lot of fart jokes, but the original went in for those, too).

In keeping the songs, however, Favreau’s The Lion King also frequently matches strong singers with weak ones: Eichner is a fine vocalist, as demonstrated on “Hakuna Matata” and a brief snatch of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (which is only in the movie because people would certainly expect it to be; at least original composer Solomon Linda’s daughters might see some more residuals from it), but Seth Rogen isn’t a singer of any stripe (also, eerily, Pumbaa somehow simultaneously looks like a realistic warthog and like Seth Rogen). Glover, meanwhile, is quite musical, but obviously Queen B’s imposing voice flattens his in their duet moments in love ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”, while also headlining a big new song called “Spirit” to take a swing at the Best Original Song Oscar (I also admit to being a mild fan of her performance as Nala, her clipped Texan phrase endings giving Simba’s mating interest a whiff of feminist attitude). Although Aladdin, with its star turn from Robin Williams’ Genie, was the true turning point for big-name voice casting in feature animation, the original Lion King went down that road some distance too, with Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, and Whoopi Goldberg among its vocal talents. But this remake intermittently demonstrates why more careful casting by ability can trump star-chasing.

So some of Favreau’s The Lion King lighter elements sort of succeed, and some of the voice actors do good work. The score, mostly rehashed from Hans Zimmer’s original work for the 1994 film, is solid (recognizable musical themes, how we missed you in the blockbuster realm), and yes, the visuals are often stunningly beautiful as well as technically impressive. But how much does any of this matter when the 2019 Lion King cannot involve us emotionally in its characters or their dramatic arcs? Time and again, Favreau cuts to his feline protagonist or supporting lions for reaction shots and the look on their faces is inscrutably feline.

More than once, in fact, the lions are so realistic that you can’t tell them apart, because real lions do look almost completely the same. A panning shot that passes by Simba’s mother Sarabi (Alfree Woodard) and the rest of lionesses makes them looks like a clutch of prefabricated robots (it doesn’t help that the film’s realism-mania does not, for likely reasons of children’s audience sensitivity, extend to showing the lionesses hunt as in the wild, visually implying that they merely laze about while the males patrol, even though dialogue states otherwise). When a lioness sneaks away from Pride Rock at night in defiance of Scar’s tyranny, it’s impossible to tell if it’s the headstrong Nala or the resisting Sarabi, both of whom were given reasons to do so in the previous scene (dialogue at the end of the scene reveals it to be Nala, but I defy a fresh viewer to figure it out before that point). Even during the climactic battle between Simba and Scar with the fate of the Pridelands at stake, the two antagonists are often indistinguishable one from the other as they fight to the death, as cardinal a sin of dramatic tension as it is possible to commit.

In expending so much time and effort and expense to make every animal in his film look completely believable and entirely realistic, Favreau cuts us out of the story’s swells of sentiment in a way that no determined expenditure of musical cues or visual language can quite overcome. Every time this film wants us to feel something, we are confronted with an impeccable fascimile of a living thing that does not feel or express that feeling in the way that we do, and the moment falls flat. This is especially noticeable in the horrid misfire of the wildebeest stampede sequence. A visual, technical, dramatic, and emotional showpiece scene in the 1994 animated film, the sequence in which Scar betrays and murders Mufasa during a thunderous stampede of panicked wildebeest in a canyon while Simba watches was the Disney Renaissance’s vaunted parental-death traumatic moment, the killing of Bambi’s mother for a different generation, and carrying an emotional vitality in-narrative that Bambi did not possess in the same way.

The cartoon exagerrations of traditional animation imbued this scene with much of its power in 1994: how Simba’s ears sink and his mouth falls open in the zoom-in shot as the wildebeest crest the canyon’s edge, the furrows of concern shown by Mufasa, Scar, and even Zazu as they rush to the cub’s aid, Mufasa’s widening eyes as Scar’s treachery becomes clear, and above all the visionary blocking and editing of the moment that Simba sees his father fall to his death: cutting from Mufasa’s plumetting form and zooming out rapidly from Simba’s eyes as he cries out in anguish at this life-altering event. These drawn facial reactions and camera moves don’t fit in with the realism-mania of Favreau’s The Lion King, so they are not included, and what should be the film’s most powerful scene is weirdly soulless and even faintly laughable.

Alongside The Lion King‘s realism-mania is the culture of weaponized nostalgia that undergirds all of Disney’s “live-action” remakes of its Renaissance classics. But in banking on audiences’ fond memories of previous versions of these movies, cultural creators like Disney also must contend with the possibility that those fond memories will be threatened by their attempts to recapture those nostalgic feelings for the original article, or alternately that those fond memories are not threatened at all, being based in elements of quality in the original article that the rehashed version does not re-create, or indeed is unable to re-create by dint of artistic and/or technical choices in how to adapt the property. Disney’s Star Wars films have certainly had to contend with the vocal opposition of (a noisy minority of) fans outright offended by narrative and thematic choices taken with regards to beloved characters.

But for me, the 2019 Lion King has a different and much more fundamental issue, especially because this new film (its screenplay is credited to Jeff Nathanson, but is heavily based on and indebted to the original film’s script by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton) does not alter the major or even many of the minor elements if its narrative or character arcs in any way. My regard for the 1994 Lion King is based more in nostalgic sentiment than continued contemporary familiarity; it’s been decades since I’ve seen it, and even in watching clips for this review, its cartoonish qualities can be slightly grating. But with the same story and themes in place, is it simply nostalgic attachment and the subsequent disillusioning passage of time that makes this new Lion King seem so empty? Or is the chosen mode of visual representation draining that story and those themes of their impact, which they ought to be robust enough to retain regardless of the age or maturity of the audience?

It’s hard for me to deny that the latter is true, and therefore that marks the photorealistic imperative of Jon Favreau’s The Lion King as a failure. That this failure is entirely a matter of purposeful design is one of the most incredible and frustrating things about the film. It seems amazing that no one involved in the production who was able to influence its direction raised the alarm about the film’s dead-eye lions and the problems for emotional engagement that they inevitably portended; perhaps they did, and were ignored or outvoted. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of taste or perspective, and millions will be swept up in the undeniably gorgeous and impressive graphical achievements of the computer special effects team and identify with the struggles of Simba and the other characters despite the visual roadblocks erected in the way of such identification. Looking like a nature documentary need not preclude emotional involvement, and nature documentaries often jury-rig storylines to compel such involvement in the inherently non-narrative processes of the natural world (no chase scene in this film is anywhere near as white-knuckle exciting as the Planet Earth II clip of an iguana evading dozens of snakes, mind you). Despite my own inability to engage with it, I nonetheless expect this version of the The Lion King, live-action or computer-animated or whatever else you want to label it, to be a massive box-office success for a film studio already flush with such successes. In Hollywood in this era of Disney hegemony, that is the true circle of life.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review – Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019; Directed by Jon Watts)

The first post-Endgame film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (ie. That Massive-Budget Superhero TV Show That We All Watch Together In Movie Theatres), Far From Home takes the charming and even clever elements of Homecoming, Sony/Marvel Studios’ first tandem Spider-Man movie rebooted into the MCU, and self-consciously, self-reflexively Avenger-fies them to typically overblown proportions.

Homecoming saw a teenaged Peter Parker (the preternaturally boyish Tom Holland, who is actually 23 years old, of course) struggling in intermittently comedic and action-dramatic ways with the difficulty of balancing the typical and relatable problems of a regular teenaged boy (school, home life, girls; okay, it’s pretty much only girls) with the pressure, expectations, and perpetual life-threatening danger of the life of a superhero. It was more than a winking, intertextual homage to John Hughes movies, it was a John Hughes movie; the key distinction being that the intimidating father of the male lead’s putative girlfriend who might have served as a Hughesian antagonist is also a menacing proletarian arms dealer who is out to kill the protagonist (Michael Keaton is this dad-tagonist, and the scene between him and Holland in the car on the way to the homecoming dance is the best thing about that movie and among the best things in the whole MCU).

Homecoming was also concerned with Peter’s relationship to father-surrogates, namely with his self-appointed mentor, the late Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.). Orphaned and also without the sage advice of his father figure Uncle Ben (always a first-act casualty whose loss galvanized Peter’s quest in prior Spider-Man franchise streams, Ben was reduced to passing dialogue references in Homecoming and a subtle suitcase monogram in this one), Peter was built up as a surrogate son to Stark (whose own backstory is rife with daddy issues and self-doubt), who mostly chided him for being too young and unprepared for real superhero challenges while withholding and then gifting glittering tech toys as tokens of (and substitutes for) his disavowed and ill-apprehended love. Surrogate Father of the Year! This relationship evolved in the Infinity Gauntlet duology, especially in Endgame, wherein Tony’s loss of Peter Parker in Thanos’s Decimation haunts him and motivates him to risk everything (and ultimately lose his own life) to undo the Dusting and bring back Peter (and the rest of the lost too, why not?).

In addition to dealing parenthetically and often comedically with the weird social and personal consequences of the Decimation and its five-years-hence undoing (it’s called the Blip), Spider-Man: Far From Home ramps up the stakes by quadrupling Peter Parker’s father-surrogate count (his mother-surrogate, Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May, could have made it a quintupling but thematically she never quite counts, because she’s just a woman, one supposes). Tony Stark is gone, but Peter literally sees him everywhere; just as the society and pop culture of Peter’s world in Homecoming was saturated with the famous world-saving Avengers (one of its cannier features), in Far From Home tributes to Iron Man’s world-saving sacrifice are ubiquitous: advertisements, public tributes and memorials, posters, graffiti, biographical movies, even a hilariously low-budget school A/V club newscast tribute set to Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” (this homemade montage at the movie’s beginning also includes other deceased Avengers, although its image of Vision is amusingly pixelated). Peter is also burdened with the weight of Stark’s legacy and the expectations of following in Iron Man’s footsteps, especially after receiving Stark’s posthumous gift of access to E.D.I.T.H., the complete Stark Industries database and weapons arsenal.

Peter Parker is still a teenager, though, and Avengers proximity aside he seeks to keep Your Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man humble and limited in scope. In Far From Home, this proscribing of the lofty ambitions and level of duty conceived of for Spider-Man by others plays out in the midst of a school trip to the capitals of Europe during the summer. His other father-surrogates are all connected to Tony Stark, and therefore hold certain expectations for Spider-Man’s role as Iron Man’s unofficial heir: Stark Industries security chief Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, director of the first two Iron Man movies) remains in Peter’s life as a reminder of his former boss and friend’s annointing of the boy (and also because he’s romantically involved with May), while Avengers strings-puller Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) aggressively pursues Spider-Man’s cooperation in dealing with a new global threat: enormous Elementals, who arise out of earth, air, water, and fire to wreak destructive havok without warning. With the Avengers and their various allies scattered to the winds after Endgame, Peter’s only super-partner against the god-level threat of the Elementals is Quentin Beck/Mysterio, who claims to be a green-fog-wielding warrior from a parallel universe in which the Elementals destroyed Earth.

In contrast to the crushing weight of Stark’s posthumous expectations and Fury’s no-nonsense insistence that Spider-Man is an Avenger and therefore will do what he is asked to do, Beck takes a role less like a stern father and more like a cool, understanding older brother to Peter. He is impressed with what Spider-Man can do, but is also supportive of Peter Parker getting to have a life of his own, especially since he is mostly handling the Elementals fine himself. This supportive backup is music to Peter’s ears, as he tries to ghost on Fury and enjoy his class trip, during which he plans to tell his high-school crush MJ (teen star Zendaya) that he likes her, along with the gift of a Venetian glass pendant.

And so Far From Home is structured as a push-and-pull between Peter’s human wants and his super-duty. He clumsily balances battling the Elementals in large-scale CG action sequences (in the Grand Canal of Venice, during a Carnival of Lights in Prague) and tackling his feelings for MJ and the awkwardness of his failed attempts to spend time alone with her. The school trip scenes take on the likably light profile of comic misadventures: as Peter is a social klutz around MJ, his rival Brad (Remy Hii) moves in on her, while Peter’s friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) strikes up a vacation puppy-love romance with classmate Betty (Angourie Rice) and the hapless teacher chaperones (Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove) clown it up with their ineptitude. Because this is a Marvel Studios movie, the tension is not so much resolved and Peter never precisely has to choose between a normal life and a superhero life; the two poles are softly reconciled, as he succeeds by acting like he always has, only more so.

Far From Home‘s thematic focus on this tension in Peter Parker’s life and his struggles to figure out exactly how he should follow in Tony Stark’s footsteps (if at all) is oddly at cross-purposes with its antagonist twist (read no further if you don’t want to know what it is) and its contemporary political subtext. As should be no surprise to comics readers, Mysterio is not what he claims or appears to be. Behind the fishbowl helmet and the flight-empowered green fog suit, Quentin Beck is just a man. A clever, creative, angry man who is utilizing sophisticated hologram projection technology once rejected by Tony Stark along with swarms of Stark’s attack drones (particularly after Parker, impressed with Beck’s abilities and empathy and eager to shake off the burden of responsibility for E.D.I.T.H., hands over control of the system to his new Super Big Brother) to simulate the Elemental assaults. With the help of a coterie of disgruntled former Stark specialists (this is now the fourth MCU movie, and hopefully the last, to feature scorned Stark colleagues/rivals as antagonists, after all three Iron Man films went to that well), Beck seeks to turn Mysterio into a publically-loved superhero replacement for the Avengers, swindling Fury, his right-hand woman Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), and Spidey in the process (or eliminating them if that fails).

Peter Parker’s superhero challenge in Far From Home, therefore, pivots with this twist from a more standard strength test of destroying monstrous embodiments of the four elements to penetrating Beck’s layered defences of illusion. These confound and nearly kill Parker in Berlin, in a sequence of rapid-fire mirroring projections that will impress audiences who haven’t seen the similar but far trippier and better sequence in Doctor Strange. Utilizing Gyllenhaal’s favoured approach of wielding his considerable charisma to subvert and darken the margins of initially stock-esque characters (it may be this vector of his performances that has kept him from being a bigger star than he is), Far From Home (the screenplay is by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers) seeks to make a larger point through Mysterio’s deceptions about the current public discourse of deception infecting global politics and society. This is all well and good, and an interesting new angle for the MCU’s usual careful political critiques of American power (even if Iron Man 3 kind of did a version of it already). But it has absolutely nothing to do with Peter Parker wanting to be a regular kid while everyone seems to want him to be a world-saving hero, and its tangential (and even slightly contradictory) direction compared to its lead character’s emotional arc weakens Far From Home not inconsiderably.

The MCU Spider-Man movies are unique in the multi-film cycle in featuring a superhero protagonist with a secret identity that he seeks to protect. Ever since the Universe kicked off with Tony Stark publically coming out as Iron Man when the expectation (and the creative intention, if the legend of Downey, Jr. ad-libbing the now-iconic “I am Iron Man” line at the end of the eponymous franchise-starter has any truth to it) would have been that he would keep his identity under wraps, the MCU’s depiction of its heroes has not gone in for this obvious and fruitful device of dramatic tension. The application of that device has worked very well in the two Tom Holland-fronted Spider-Man movies thus far, but if the mid-credits sequel-teasing stinger scene is any indication (featuring J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson as a parodic take on far-right site InfoWars’ splenetic, conspiracy-spewing warthog Alex Jones), its time in this franchise is at an end. However, the biggest movies in Hollywood are preparing themselves for the difficult task of taking on fake news (or at least mildly satirizing it), and that is a fascinating development.

Another fascinating development that Spider-Man: Far From Home represents is the rare superhero genre sight of Marvel Studios playing catch-up after being surpassed by a rival production. This spectacle was visible to some extent in the belated and more than a little forced manner in which Marvel Studios found religion when it came to representations of feminist empowerment, after DC and Warner unexpectedly lapped them in this regard with Wonder Woman (although the objectification and stereotyping of Justice League undid a lot that movie’s fine work, Captain Marvel and the cynically unearned female team-up beat in Endgame‘s final battle had a whiff of desperation when it came to this issue).

But while the Jon Watts/Tom Holland Spider-Man movies have been well-received critically and commercially and can boast the prized imprimatur of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to ensure some reliable baseline level of quality and blockbuster prestige, film and comic book lovers alike cannot pretend that they can stack up in any way to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, last year’s innovative, incredible, and enervating animated feature take on the character. It seems likely that Sony, aware that they were giving up more than a little control over the character in inviting Marvel Studios to incorporate it into its successful but limiting continuity, decided to establish a radically new and different strand for Spider-Man at the same time. In the process, they strangely handicapped this live-action Spider-Man. When Peter Parker suits up and embraces his full web-swinging glory above and through the streets of Manhattan at the conclusion of Far From Home, he is only chasing the animated Miles Morales of Spider-Verse, whose own journey to that portrait of urban freedom is already (after but a single, wonderful movie) both more visually and emotionally rich than this Peter’s. It’s a curious position for Marvel Studios to find itself in as regards one of its most iconic characters and a vital component of the future of its Avengers brand. Let’s see where they go with it.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: High-Rise

High-Rise (2015; Directed by Ben Wheatley)

Neurological lecturer Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is highly neutral and self-contained. A fellow resident of the high-rise apartment tower into which Laing moves (following the barely-discussed death of his sister) dubs him “profesionally detached”, and therefore both perfectly adapted to the pressures of high-rise living and inherently, quietly dangerous. Laing demurs an initial objection to this characterization but ultimately cannot deny its accuracy. As life in the skycraping apartment building, with its comprehensive amenities and vertically-integrated class stratification, spirals into post-apocalyptic anarchy, Laing soldiers on with heroically blinkered conformist quotidian normality. While his increasingly desperate neighbours loot the in-building supermarket for remaining scraps of food, he fights one of them off to leave with a can of grey paint. It’s just the right shade for his walls, and also for his face.

British filmmaker Ben Wheatley, in his other notable films A Field in England and Free Fire, has demonstrated a penchant for claustrophobically brutal, violently disturbing bottle-episode movies (he’s remaking Rebecca next, with a country manor house as the bottle). High-Rise fits nicely into those artistic parametres, but is an altogether stranger, wilder, more ambitious, and more challenging piece of work. Adapted by Wheatley’s collaborating screenwriter Amy Jump from J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel of the same name aimed squarely at the dispiriting spread of grey Brutalist tower blocks across the urban sprawl of the Britain of the author’s era, High-Rise preserves the mid-’70s setting and aesthetic of the novel, seemingly for the director’s own reasons (he’s big on period pieces, and revisited the clothes and cars of the 1970s in Free Fire) than for any text-related necessity. The choice is just one of many that makes this an eerie, defamiliarizing, singular cinematic experience.

High-Rise is an entirely more mannered arrangement of Snowpiercer‘s linear socioeconomic divisions, with that film’s class-stratified train cars rendered inert and stacked high to colonize the sky. Resembling Ed Harris’ isolated, worshipped inventor/conductor in that film, the tower’s mastermind/stand-in for an absent God is white-clad savant architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), who dwells in the building’s penthouse (“hovers over the place like a fucking albatross”, one resident puts it), which is equipped with an edenic terrace garden to please his not-so-beloved wife Ann (Keeley Hawes). Dreaming of a complex of five towers surrounding a lake like an open palm, Royal can hardly conceive that this open palm of impeccably intellectualized urban planning might be clenched into a fist. Royal tells Laing that he conceives of the building sociologically as “a crucible for change”, but change from what and to what? The perceptive doctor notes that his architectural plans resemble “the unconscious diagram of some kind of psychic event”.

That psychic event, the amalgamated crushing pressures and alienated tensions of vertical urban living, is soon made manifest in a violent, survival-of-the-fittest upheaval, pitting the wealthy residents on the upper floors against the working-class dwellers of the high-rise’s lower reaches. But first, Laing must meet those residents. Soon after moving in, he becomes sexually involved with his upstairs neighbour Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), who has slept with most of the building, it seems; one such liaison has left her with a precocious son named Toby (Louis Suc), and Laing becomes a reluctant but firmly kind father figure to the boy. He makes the acquaintance of a married low-floor couple at one of the building’s numerous parties: restless and confrontational television documentarian Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss), who is often left alone by her wanderlusty husband, lonely and depressed with their brood of children. At an altogether grander party thrown by Ann Royal at which all of the attendees but him are decked out in powdered wigs and 18th-century dress clothes like ancien-régime aristocrats (a trifle on the nose, but a nice image), Laing is ridiculed for his sartorial faux-pas by the guests, which include an arrogant colleague from his school of physiology named Munrow (Augustus Prew); in retribution, Laing will trick Munrow into thinking he has a fatal brain tumour.

Laing tries to hold himself apart from the roiling tensions ripping the uncomfortable community of the building asunder, skipping over the growing fissures on his way to and from work but increasingly unable to remain above the furiously grasping fray. Hiddleston, dashingly handsome and coolly dapper but with that fiendish Loki twinkle everpresent, leans bravely into the disequilibrium inside and increasingly outside Laing. He’ll suggest hidden griefs and guilt – at the loss of his sister, at his spiteful role in Munrow’s dark fate – with a look and an inclination of his head. There’s a furtiveness and buried romanticism to his Laing, a willingness to connect across the chasms of dehumanizing alienation of his milieu. “Your tenancy application was very Byronic,” Helen tells him when they first meet, a nod to either hidden depths of sentiment or at least an ability to suggest them.

Evans is another standout as the marginalized bully Wilder, while Moss and particularly Miller impart a woman’s perspective on the rigid social order of the high-rise and the consequences of its breakdown. The production’s budgetary limitations don’t bring down the overall vision, the production design, or the VFX, but they do show a bit further down the cast list, where finer and stronger character actors might have filled in some of the more minor but nonetheless vital resident roles in a larger production. More supporting players like James Purifoy, who plays a rich asshole with such florid smirking superiority, would have been appreciated, and would have raised the quality of the proceedings. One might also wonder if a stronger cadre of actors could have smuggled in more empathy and emotional involvement in what narrative there is to be found in this pageant of cold, misanthropic cynicism about the predatory baseness of human nature and the empty callousness of social environments. I can’t speak to whether that was the thrust of Ballard’s text, but it is certainly how Wheatley’s film chooses to approach the author’s ideas.

As a pure cinematic conduit for those ideas, High-Rise works very well, as Wheatley and his cinematographer Laurie Rose craft a compelling visual context for Ballard’s themes as transmuted through Jump’s screenplay. The Brutalist concrete skin and bones of the high-rise’s corridors, apartment units, and exterior balconies takes on differing moods and tones in different parts of the building at different points in its community’s dissolution. The sprawling parking lot (in which Laing confesses to have thoroughly lost his car) transitions from uniform order to war-zone chaos, as Foteini Vlachou points out in her essay on the film in Blind Field. On the middle and higher floors like Laing’s and Charlotte’s, they have a chilled breezeway feel, like the pyramid-penetrating halls of Egyptian tombs. On the hardscrabble lower floors of Helen and Richard, they are dim warren-like tunnels, although the busy packrat detail of their apartment feels nearly homey. The Royals’ suite is of course all light and sumptuously appointed furnishings, not to mention the idyllic garden complete with goat and horse (not that things go well at all for animals in this building once things fall apart; as in many arthouse films, cruelty to animals is used as a commonplace thematic marker for the inhumanity of the people who have power over them).

But also hanging in the Royals’ suite is one of Francisco Goya’s immortally unsettling and mysterious Black Paintings, Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat). Superficially a marker of Royal’s wealth and importance (Laing glances at it and wonders aloud whether or not it hung in a museum; it is, in fact, at the Prado in Madrid), the painting is symbolically foreshadowing the selfish, stupid grasping of the building’s residents that shatters the fragile balance and consensus of its social equilibrium. It also tonally anticipates the affect of Wheatley’s film once that balance is shattered; the figures in Goya’s painting are dumb and credulous, peering in cretinous awe at the deep black ungulate lord, a mob of ugly misshapen sheeple craning their necks at the malevolent demagogue they follow and worship in their provincial superstition.

The residents of the building in High-Rise become a dumb, destructive mob, but of what He-Goat-like force of dark ego are they acolytes, if any? What drives them to anarchy, chaos, rape, and murder? For Goya in the milieu of traditionalist, hyper-Catholic Bourbon Spain with its witch-hunts and inquisitions, the He-Goat was always the Great Enemy, Satan, whispering poisonous temptation into the supple, gullible ears of God-fearing Castilian peasants, Andalusian farmers, Catalan labourers, and Basque and Galician fishermen. In Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, is the looming albatross-god, Royal, that dark force of influence and corruption? J.G. Ballard has a dark and critical view of technological progress and modern urbanism, but does he (or Wheatley and Jump on his behalf in this film) intend to equate urban planning and high-density residential zoning with the ubiquitously evil Devil? Is the He-Goat any of the archetypal characters in High-Rise? The unleashed id Richard Wilder, who is also perversely the lonely voice of righteous reason and the crusading journalist seeking to expose dark, uncomfortable truths? The purified ego Laing, crossing and transcending rigid class boundaries in his professional detachment while studying his neighbours like the subject brains of his métier? Is it the embodiments of the alternating ur-tropes of womanhood, the maternal (Helen) and the promiscuously sexual (Charlotte)?

The wellspring source of the ill humour and inhuman predation that characterizes human nature in High-Rise is not any being, mortal and sentient or divine and ineffable. It’s a psychological perversion at our core, that is at once an instinctual urge to survival and a self-sabotaging aggression and competitiveness, peevish and essential at the same time. Wheatley and Jump translate Ballard as suggesting that modern high-density urban life nurtures a seed of inhumanity until it grows into a flowering fern of atrocity. But they also reference a charged spectre in the history of British political and social life, from the period just following the publication of Ballard’s mid-’70s novel, that is representative of the inhumanity and atrocity that the author fretted about.

High-Rise closes with the audio of a Margaret Thatcher speech decrying state-run capitalism and lauding private ownership as the surest guarantor of political freedom. As the capstone of a highly thematicized narrative about the collapse of a microcosmic society (which, in Thatcher’s infamously soulless Toryist utterance, there is no such thing as) that is entirely the work of beknighted private enterprise and one of its glorified Olympian heroes of vision and genius, Thatcher’s words have an intentional dark irony. But in these final moments, Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump suggest that although Thatcher was just too late to play She-Goat to this particular grasping mob, her government’s domestic legacy of a hollowed-out, diminished social fabric in Britain (whose chaotic-evil inheritor is the hollow eagle of Brexit) was the inevitable successor of the unleashed forces, social and existential, that Ballard pinpointed in High-Rise. The freedom engendered by these capitalist forces can be a towering prison-like asylum for the gradually insane and it can be the rolling plunder of an unceasing class conflict that only the upper-class is equipped to fight and to win. In the gilded cage of High-Rise, there is nowhere to hide from all of that terrible freedom.

Categories: Art, Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The Perfection

The Perfection (2019; Directed by Richard Shepard)

Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams) is haunted; by death, by missed opportunities, by traumas of the past. Once a talented wunderkind cellist at Bachoff, a prestigious but mysterious music conservatory in Boston run by the refined, strings-pulling mentoring mastermind Anton (Steven Weber), Charlotte dropped out of Bachoff and let her cello collect dust to care for her dying mother. Her mother now gone, Charlotte appears weary, hollowed-out, keeping the lid on frustrated rage (one shot cuts from her sitting silently, staring at her mother’s wide-eyed corpse, to a split-second rending scream).

The interpretation of her mindset, given the information provided in this opening scene of Richard Shepard’s The Perfection, is regret and self-loathing at the waste of her talent mingling with disavowed grief. No wonder, then, that we next see Charlotte rehearsing (out of nervousness, or to strike the correct performative tone?) and then finally leaving a message for Anton and his partner Paloma (Alaina Huffman) seeking to reconnect with them and their exclusive musical world. She meets them in Shanghai, where they are auditioning promising Chinese girls in competition for a coveted spot at Bachoff. There she also meets Lizzie (Logan Browning), a world-famous virtuoso cellist and Bachoff graduate. They express admiration for each other’s playing, flirt, gossip, perform a duet, flirt some more, drink, dance, and sleep together. Lizzie then impulsively invites Charlotte to join her on an off-the-beaten-path tour of the Chinese interior, and they leave together the next day.

It doesn’t take long for their journey to become distressing. Feeling unwell and made paranoid by whispers of an airborne contagion infecting an attendee of the competition the night before, Lizzie’s physical condition and mental state deteriorates quickly on a spartan bus taking them into the sparsely-populated Chinese hinterlands. Despite Charlotte’s assurances that everything will be fine, Lizzie’s ailment creates a scene on the bus, but takes on horror-movie dimensions and becomes catastrophic and life-changing once they are kicked off the vehicle by an irate driver.

But director Shepard (he’s also the co-writer, with Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder) has his editor David Dean quite literally rewind events, and not for the last time, to show what is really going on. Although this first of multiple, meaty twists in The Perfection isn’t what it may immediately seem either, as becomes clear once the film shifts to Bachoff for its troubling climax. Shepard immerses his audience so viscerally in the tensions that enmesh Charlotte and Lizzie first in China and then in Boston that the pivots, which may have been discernible in advance, arrive with full disorienting impact. That impact, too, sheds thematic and metaphorical light on the psychological costs of intense mentorship with an uncompromising drive for success, and of sexual abuse by men in positions of authority. Charlotte and Lizzie’s partnership/rivalry (the film always keeps you guessing which one will win out at any moment) takes on subtly complex facets of feminine solidarity in the age of #MeToo.

Williams is best-known for her bait-and-switch role in Get Out, and with that in mind her casting as Charlotte is quite nearly a spoiler for The Perfection‘s twists. But her range here is much greater and much more unsettling. Browning gives Lizzie an electric charge of passion that renders the character’s direction unpredictable, and Weber (most recognizable as a soft and avuncular sitcom player) plays marvelously against type as a villain of cultivated veneer and fanatical monstrousness.

The Perfection is nearer to great than a low-budget independent cerebral horror with whiplashing plot tendencies released by Netflix has any reasonable right to be. Sharp-witted and eagerly misdirecting even at its economical running time, this is an entertaining and surprising watch with intellectual and emotional substance, not to mention its fair share of queasy and unsettling moments. It’s a compact but dramatic cello solo with a compelling crescendo, and worth the seeking out.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews