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Film Review: The Florida Project

April 18, 2018 Leave a comment

The Florida Project (2017; Directed by Sean Baker)

A joyously tragic child’s-eye view of the precarity of American poverty, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project dances with giddy sadness back and forth across the line between peculiar indie movie and contemporary film classic. Following playful, innocent children, their thinly-stretched underemployed mothers, and a harried but fundamentally decent manager subsisting together on a rainbow-hued motel and retail strip on the poor margins of Orlando’s Walt Disney World, Baker’s emotionally-expansive film is fundamentally about the broken promises of the American pursuit of happiness, a happiness made expensively manifest in the constructed simulacra of arrested childhood known as the Magic Kingdom. But The Florida Project is fantastically and sincerely attuned to a childlike sense of wonder at the possibilities of the exciting playground of the world at the same time as it notes and quietly laments the shabby dishonesty with which the purportedly more serious and mature adult world fails to deliver on those promises of happiness.

Central to Baker’s generous vision is Moonee (the remarkable, naturalistically mercurial Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old girl who lives with her tattooed, hair-dyed, rebellious mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a pink-painted pay-by-the-week motel called the Magic Castle in Kissimmee, Florida. Free all day due to summer break from school, Moonee goes on wild excursions of play on the strip and its abandoned environs with her best friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and later their new friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto). It’s mostly joyful and innocent fun but sometimes tips over the edge into real trouble (Jancey is befriended when the other two are caught spitting on her guardian’s car and enlist her cooperation in cleaning it) and even danger, but it’s shot by Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe as a kaleidoscopic and glorious adventure (they pass a gift shop whose front facade is a huge bearded wizard, for example), and always from the perspective of the children themselves. The Nerdwriter Evan Puschak, in a video essay arguing for the film’s importance in light of its Academy Award snubbing for a Best Picture nomination, likens its kid-level viewpoint (which often persists in low angles even when the kids are not onscreen) to the old Little Rascals short films.

But Baker, who co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, introduces the dire consequences of poverty into this innocent wonderland with a faucet-drip of seriouness. Halley brings Moonee along with her as she discusses her recent dismissal from an exotic dancing job and hawks wholesale perfume at knockdown prices to tourists in a tonier resort’s parking lot. Moonee collects bread and other nourishment from a local church’s travelling food bank, and she and Scooty make daily stops at the back door of the diner at which the latter’s mother Ashley (Mela Murder) works to receive free servings of waffles. As these workarounds evaporate (Halley is chased from the resort by security, Ashley cuts out Halley and forbids contact between Moonee and Scooty after the kids set a fire in an abandoned housing lot), Halley turns to prostitution to make ends meet, thus threatening her custody of her daughter.

Baker (also serving as his own editor) depicts Halley’s downward descent without judgement or dramatic acknowledgement of how momentous it is in her life or in Moonee’s; it just happens, like life itself. The little girl is simply shown in a series of shots spending more and more time playing alone in the bath, until a strange, unseen man bursts into the bathroom and is shocked that a child is present (the camera never leaves Prince’s face, as she is alarmed and surprised). This sense of fairness and understanding towards poverty and its effects pervades The Florida Project, almost as a rebuke to a society (and to a public and entertainment discourse) that painfully does not share such a sense, and engages in broad, condescending caricatures and moral opprobrium of the poor on the occasions when it pretends to. This marginal, precarious America is not merely ignored and disavowed by the more respectable and comfortable classes, it is actively shamed and punished for its own marginalization by public discourse and political policymaking. The poor are even blamed for the foolish sins of the better-off: it is this disadvantaged class that was fingered for making Donald Trump president, while the comfortable, prejudiced white middle class of the suburbs and exurbs really turned out to put him in the White House.

Baker does not romanticize poverty, either. The Florida Project operates on a moment-by-moment realism, pregnant with weight and consequence and the ever-present possibility of collapse. It does not elide the truth that Halley’s problems are greatly exacerbated by her own decisions and personality, and are not simply pre-determined by political, social, and economic superstructures beyond her control or understanding. This is made awkwardly clear when she shows up at Ashley’s diner after the opening of the rift between them and torments her ex-friend as a belligerent customer, treatment which Ashley endures with an on-the-edge customer-service-professional stoicness that the more brazen Halley cannot so much as fake for a minute. Maintaining a paycheque and supporting her son is more important to Ashley than defending her own dignity in the face of abuse, while Halley will stand up for herself, right or (more likely) wrong, regardless of the cost. The scene demonstrates the difference between these two woman as well as part of the reason why the system will sooner catch up to Halley, but it’s also a dramatization of the agonizing, debasing choices necessary to survival at the bottom of the pyramid of late capitalism.

The miracle of The Florida Project is that it imparts the crushing devastation of this situation of poverty without ever sacrificing beauty and joy at the altar of realism. Zabe’s camera finds aesthetic poetry and leaping gorgeousness in this depressed strip of Florida, bursts of the visual sublime contrasting with hints of socioeconomic hopelessness like a magic-realist work that nonetheless never skimps on the reality. It finds determined goodness as well, in the quasi-reluctant efforts of the Magic Castle manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) to offer Halley and his other tenants some measure of protection from the harsh world that seeks to make them account for their unforgivable lack of wealth: he chases away a likely pedophile as well as a disgruntled john of Halley’s, and looks the other way on any number of violations of rules, policies, and laws by longer-term hotel guests despite the insistence on enforcement expressed by the stingy motel owner (Karren Karagulian).

The magic realism becomes quite nearly explicit in The Florida Project‘s final scene, as Moonee and Jancey flee the agents of the state Department of Children and Families about to remove the former from Halley’s care all the way into Disney World itself. It’s a fulfillment of the desire for escape into a realm of wondrous, untouched innocence that they approximate with creative imagination (ie. when the girls “go on safari” earlier in the film, they look at a herd of cows) because the more elaborate capitalized simulacra is not affordable to them: although there’s no way that two children without a cent in their pockets could make it through the theme park gates with its USD$200-ish admission fees, we do not quibble for the sake of the metaphor.

The brief closing moment was clandestinely filmed on an iPhone without the resort’s knowledge or permission, much like the notorious indie psychological horror flick Escape from Tomorrow was. Like that unquestionably lesser film, The Florida Project conceives of the hermetic Disneyfied commodification of childhood happiness as a particularly American process, and one revealing of the damaged core of fractured promise at the heart of the nation. But where the clumsier Escape from Tomorrow, with its moody film-noir black-and-white cinematography and disturbing but half-baked surrealist weirdness, reflected personal and collective psychic wounds, The Florida Project emerges from its pastel-emblazoned vision of a forgotten America with its hope and goodness intact. There can be a tendency for art that interrogates the essential hypocrisy of corporate capitalism’s mantra of individual happiness to cede too much ground to the exploiters of joy, but Sean Baker hearteningly avoids surrendering that sunny glow to those who would bottle it, water it down, and sell it for profit. They do not own innocent happiness, The Florida Project says emphatically; children like Moonee do. How magnificent that possession is, and how terribly sad it is that we’ve collectively built a world that is too quick and eager to take it away.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

April 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Beauty and the Beast (2017; Directed by Bill Condon)

I feel like it’s safe now to admit to a certain childhood fondness for Beauty and the Beast, one of the critical and commercial pinnacles of the 1990s Disney Renaissance and the first animated feature film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture (and the only one prior to the post-2009 expansion of the annual list of nominees to more than five films). The 1991 film now seems a naively romantic film with broadly old-fashioned (and even a little troubling) gender roles, and the technical and creative leaps in animation over the past quarter-century have largely left it in the dust. But in its time, it was a grand and sweeping entertainment, with imagination and vision, resonant if simple symbolism, and a fine musical score, for those to whom the showtune style appeals (you might have guessed that I am no Broadway showstopper devotee, but the Oscar-winning title song provided me with an enduring mnemonic device for recalling the direction of the sunrise, so it must be worth something). It even provided one of the signature shots in the movies, and an early harbinger of the computer animation that would soon render the film’s sumptuously old-fashioned drawn style obsolete: that famous CG-assisted dolly shot of Belle and the Beast dancing in the ballroom, a moment of pure, unalloyed wonder.

In a pop culture age of heavily-leveraged, almost weaponized nostalgia, and in the wake of the crushingly successful (if only average) “live action” remake of The Jungle Book, Disney’s decision to remake its Renaissance era colossus should not have been surprising. But the big issue here is that it isn’t surprising: indeed, the 2017 Beauty and the Beast is practically a beat-for-beat retread of the 1991 movie, extrapolating a bit in backstory, design, and supporting characters (along with some deeply forgettable new songs) but otherwise quite nearly replicating the beloved original. Remakes, even slavishly faithful ones, need not be short on inspiration or even originality, but despite its massive success, this Beauty and the Beast comes across as a pale imitation of its now-classic model, and as a superficial and inconsistent movie to boot.

For those unfamiliar with the story (which, again, is almost exactly the same as that of the movie it’s remaking, itself based on a mid-1700s fairy tale mostly read in abridged versions), a plot synopsis would not go amiss. In a fairy-tale version of ancien régime France, a vain, haughty prince is cursed by an enchantress to whom he callously refuses hospitality. Transformed into a hirsute, horned, bipedal creature, the prince is confined to his fantastical château along with his many servants, who are likewise transformed, with a touch both sinister and whimsical, into moving, talking household objects of varying levels of anthropomorphization. If the curse is not lifted in time, the beast and his servants will be trapped in their bewitched forms forever, their core spark of humanity lost. Represented with a basic poetic elegance by a red rose under a glass case slowly losing its enchanted petals, the curse can only be lifted by mutual love between the Beast and another.

So much for the Beast (played through CG motion-capture by Dan Stevens); enter the Beauty. Belle (Emma Watson) is a lovely, bookish young woman who lives in a  provincial French village with her artist and tinker father Maurice (Kevin Kline), who fled to the country after an initially unspecified calamity took his wife and Belle’s mother. Both are thought eccentric outcasts by the conservative-minded villagers, although they are hardly odder than any other sensitive, inventive creatives. Belle does have one fervent, troublingly-determined admirer, however: Gaston (Luke Evans), a hunter and former soldier with an absurdly puffed-up ego who steadfastly refuses to take Belle’s persistent and increasingly direct refusals to his marriage proposals as anything resembling a “no”.

Belle and the Beast are drawn together when Maurice becomes lost in an enchanted wintry forest and wanders into the Beast’s castle, where he is taken prisoner. Belle searches him out and selflessly takes his place as the Beast’s captive, which sets into motion the inevitable, predictable clockwork of the Hollywood romance plot: he is rude and dismissive of her, she resents and dislikes him, but they draw gradually together, bonding over his magnificently large library and a tentative, sweet attachment to the finer things. The fussy, comedic efforts of the servants to push them into each other’s arms don’t hurt either. When the mean-spirited Gaston and the parochial townsfolk learn of the Beast’s existence, however, their budding love will face a dire mortal threat.

Beauty in the Beast, in both its animated and CG-enhanced live-action form, owes much to influences beyond its specific French literary source. The Beast is characterized as a full-on brooding Byronic hero requiring an education of experience to render him an acceptable match for the Beauty (Stevens leans capably into this obvious-enough character arc), the softening of his brusque animal nature presaging his climactic return to handsome-prince status (if this is a spoiler to you, you must be new to this “narrative” thing). The romance between him and Belle owes as much to Jane Austen plots (and thus to the modern Hollywood romantic comedies so superficially influenced by them) as to fairy-tale conventions, turning on small domestic mannerisms and interpersonal interactions as much as on grand heroic gestures (he saves her from a vicious pack of wolves, suffering painful injuries in the process). In terms of visual design, the Beast’s castle is leaping fantasy-Gothic on the outside and pure fanciful Rococo on the inside, with Art Nouveau touches in its rambling, darkened neo-classical garden grounds, while the village (cheekily named Villeneuve after the female French novelist who originally set down the tale) is altogether more medieval in character, to emphasize its comparative backwardness. There are some largely-unacknowledged politics of class simmering in these thematic contrasts, not to mention in the literally-objectified servants remaining loyal to their self-involved aristocratic master, but Beauty and the Beast pays them no heed.

Beauty and the Beast doesn’t dispense with the problematic captor-captive aspect of its leads’ romantic attachment. But given its casting of the famously socially-conscious feminist Watson (who “studied” the contours of Stockholm Syndrome abusive situations and concluded that Belle’s did not qualify before accepting the role), the film does at least attempt to enhance Belle’s intelligence, independence, and agency, qualities that the 1991 animated version made a big show of in her introduction in a bustling village-life musical number bearing her name but failed to seriously follow through on, consigning her to damsel status in the eventual testosteronic standoff between the hulking Beast and the villainous Gaston. Watson (by all accounts a genuinely remarkable person, but unfortunately not yet a thespian of any particular distinction) gives Belle a radiant, acute dignity but can only do so much about what the still-traditional contours of the story require of her .

In Gaston, the 1991 film achieved a subtly subversive reversal that this 2017 remake retains: the handsome, dashing man of action might have been the heroine’s object of affection in a more traditional fairy tale, but Disney pushed those heroic qualities into preening, egotistical ridiculousness and an aggressive, cruel disregard for others. Furthermore, Gaston is so used to being admired and fluffed by his crowd of hangers-on (the primary example being his mooning right-hand man LeFou, played here by Josh Gad, whose role ginned up no small amount of controversy upon the film’s release for being either too gay or not gay enough) that Belle’s rejection of him in favour of a reclusive beast-man smashes his inflated-yet-brittle veneer of masculine self-confidence, revealing the violent sociopath lurking underneath. The casting of Evans should have proven a masterstroke for this character, but the final result is hardly as thunderously successful as it ought to have been. The comedic focus of Gaston in the first two acts (which Evans handles with grinning aplomb) doesn’t pivot believably to mob-leading, pistol-clutching villainy in the last act.

For a two-plus-hour feature, Beauty and the Beast often feels rushed, pushing through key plot and character junctures to furiously unspool household-servant whimsy and spectacular musical sequences. The latter are better when replicating, with occasional embellishments, the original numbers (the new songs, as mentioned, are all rather bad): “Belle” and “Gaston” are lusty, rural-folk-inflected romps; “Be Our Guest”, headlined by Ewan McGregor (who simply has not been allowed to sing enough since Moulin Rouge) as the flamboyant candelabra/butler Lumière, takes the original scene’s elaborate Busby Berkeley rotating visual geometric arrangements into the CGI age with a dizzying (if drained and abstracted) affect (it’s not certain that it quite overcomes its now-equally-legendary Simpsons parody, however). Only the title song suffers particularly in comparison: Emma Thompson as the maternal teapot/housekeeper Mrs. Potts cannot hope to match the grandmotherly warmth of Angela Lansbury’s vocal performance, and the visual accompaniment – Belle and the Beast dance in a ballroom veritably choked with chandeliers, whose candles transition into sparkling coloured pinlights on a night sky background at the high moment – cannot hope to approach the suddenly-soaring technical/artistic virtuosity of that glorious crane dolly shot in the original.

But it’s the former element – the castle servants in their household item form – that proves the trickiest element for director Bill Condon to get right. There’s a previously-unconceived-of uncanny valley problem in rendering such inherently cartoonish characters in the more photorealistic CG style, and it’s never solved. The object/servants just look and feel off, all of the time. The concerted work of the CG artists manages to evade the dark promise of early promotional images, which suggested that the visualization of the clock/steward Cogsworth (Ian McKellen) at least might be trespassing into the territory of the nightmarishly grotesque. But neither their appearance nor role in the film ever quite coalesces, even in the goofy climactic battle between them and the castle-invading village mob. When the actual actors behind the technology appear in the coda, it’s a palpable reminder of the presence that is missing. The brief shots of Stanley Tucci as a kooky-coiffed music maestro, who spends the film trapped in a harpsichord and whose opera-diva wife, played by Audra McDonald, has been turned into a wardrobe, are the most tantalizing: even in these throwaway glimpses, the ever-underrated Tucci is floridly wild-eyed and totally switched-on.

If only this Beauty and the Beast, so handsomely staged, nicely cast, and opulently expensive-looking, could flip that same switch. Audiences responded enthusiastically to its re-envisioning of the beloved animated original, and Disney now has similar live-action/CG remakes of Renaissance-era favourites The Lion King, Aladdin, and Mulan in the works as a result. But outside of the commercial impetus (which is always already there with Hollywood blockbusters, and therefore hardly bears examination or holding up as a hammer of criticism), what’s the point of this retread? Creatively and artistically, despite the talent and effort and technical alchemy poured into it, there isn’t much. The 2017 film does next to nothing that the 1991 film did not do, and some of those things are not done as well here. In this tale as old as time, the hold of tradition and textual expectation is just too strong, and any nascent sense of magic suffers as a result.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Mudbound

April 12, 2018 Leave a comment

Mudbound (2017; Directed by Dee Rees)

The opening scene of Mudbound features two white brothers digging a grave in the sodden earth of their farmyard in 1940s Mississippi. It is revealed that the hole is for their father when elder brother Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) unearths human remains and realizes that a slave’s grave is located on the spot. There’s nothing that the bigoted old man (played in life by the current master of deep-grained crusty menace, Jonathan Banks) would have despised more than being buried alongside a black person, but with a saturating rain coming on, younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) notes that they have little choice but to finish the trench, and thus lay their racist pater eternally beneath the ground with the people he considers his inveterate inferiors. As the deluge begins, Jamie is consumed with anxious fear that Henry will leave him in the grave, stranding him fatally in this drowned, unwelcome delving into the painful past.

This sequence foreshadows events and themes of Dee Rees’ shaded and powerful adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel, but it also sets down Mudbound‘s significant method of weaving its characters’ dominant qualities and psychological cores into the larger social forces of racial and gender hierarchy in the segregation-era American South. Given its early-’40s setting, the film also productively introduces the perspective-widening exposure of American GIs to World War II-era Europe’s differing (though hardly non-discriminatory) cultural norms as well as to the mentally-disfiguring horrors of combat carnage. These unfamiliar elements, when gradually introduced into the hardened psycho-sexual gauntlet that was the rigid order of the Deep South, have brutal and tragic consequences for the men and women of different races brought tentatively together in the crucible of a hard country life.

After Henry McAllan asks for the aid of his African-American tenant farmer and amateur preacher Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his family in burying the deceased old man, Mudbound flashes back a few years to before America’s entry into the war. Henry meets and proposes to his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), who finds the dashing, handsome, liberal-arts-educated Jamie a bit more attractive but is glad to be plucked from nascent spinsterdom by his duller, seemingly more dependable brother. The initial happiness of their growing family in Memphis is cut off when Henry makes a unilateral decision to move them back to small-town Mississippi to start a farm and care for his aging father. Henry is constantly thinking he has told Laura of his often-poor decisions and middling ambitions before he acts upon them, which he never has, perhaps because he does not value her opinion or consider it worth his consideration, perhaps because, despite his bluff matter-of-fact entitled manner, he does not value his own judgement. He also seems always to be away when crises descend and he is needed most by his family. As an upholder of a tradition ideal of Southern masculinity, Henry is an inept and foolishly diminished embodiment of white patriarchal privilege, and emotionally and morally insufficient to every challenge he faces.

The more sensitive and romantic Jamie goes off to war, traumatized in a flying metal coffin as a bomber pilot but also shaken from his culture’s racial assumptions by the experience of fighting alongside African-Americans. Upon his return, he connects with Hap’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), a tank sergeant under Patton who also saw death in mechanized boxes but found love overseas too, with a white German woman with whom he fathered a child. Building a friendship over pulls of a whiskey bottle (alcohol dulls Jamie’s shell-shocked unease) and combat veterans’ reminiscences, their hopes and frustrations forge a common bond that, much like Ronsel’s unwisely open disdain for the South’s racial segregation when compared to the relative openness of Europe, will prove extremely dangerous to both men when it collides with those dedicated to violently upholding these hierarchical norms.

Mudbound can be a little on-the-nose when dealing with the racial violence that sustained an unequal social order in the South (not that lynching was ever especially subtle as a tool of influence on social behaviours). Banks’ villain Pappy McAllan is a sneering old backwoods racist with a posse of Klansmen backing him up, while the film takes pains to note early on that the most sympathetic and least bigoted whites, Jamie and Laura, are also the most educated and well-read (Laura insists on keeping a piano in their rural shack, as a single token of civilization in this near-wilderness). In Laura, the patriarchy is shown to cruelly oppress women in a manner similar to but different than the white supremacist order cruelly oppresses blacks. Literally stuck in the mud of the farm, she is inculcated in the violent dramas of others and in family disasters of her own: whooping cough afflicting her daughters, an agonizing miscarriage.

With Henry increasing emotionally unavailable, Laura can only find (fleeting, forbidden) comfort in the largely-broken Jamie, but more so in Hap’s wife Florence (Mary J. Blige), who nurses her children back to health and tends to her in her abortive pregnancy. Even this tentative female compact across colour lines, however, is compromised by systemic mechanisms of racism. Florence is hired as domestic help by the McAllans, her paid service to them, like a mule rented almost forcibly by Henry to an injured Hap so that he can complete his harvest on time, constituting a web of pecuniary obligation between white landlords and their black tenants that serves to perpetuate a deep-rooted system of economic subservience undergirding the brutally-enforced social hierarchy.

Mudbound is part and parcel of a recent renaissance of ambitious and eloquent African-American films that are addressing historical and contemporary injustice in bold new ways. Despite its four Oscar nominations (two of them came from Blige, for Supporting Actress and Best Original Song, along with Best Adapted Screenplay for Rees and Virgil Williams and Best Cinematography for DP Rachel Morrison, astonishingly the first woman ever nominated in the category), Mudbound found itself lost a bit among some of these other, more forceful pictures, like Get Out, Black Panther (which Morrison also shot), and even last year’s Best Picture winner Moonlight. As the grave, handsome, and serious realist historical drama out of this list (one might include Ava DuVernay’s Selma and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave to these recent annals as alike films of that type), it might be surprising that Mudbound did not leapfrog some of its thematic brothers and sisters, but then genre films are breaking down old prestige-film distinctions more each year (or perhaps more film observers are belatedly recognizing the oft-glorified realist drama as simply another genre among many).

Still, Mudbound is a fine and significant work, intelligently and movingly communicating the injustices of racial discrimination and hierarchical society as enacting upon the lives (and bodies) of sympathetically-drawn and beautifully acted individuals. There is no Best Ensemble Oscar, but Mudbound ‘s uniformly excellent cast snatched up awards and accolades from various critical bodies that do hand out such honours. Watching them work small wonders in Dee Rees’ exquisitely-crafted examination of inequitable social and economic forces working on mid-century Southerners grants Mudbound a particular appeal of its own, regardless of its relative position in any conceived wave of social justice films.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews

Documentary Quickshots #6

Civilisation (BBC; 1969)

Civilisations (BBC; 2018)

Kenneth Clark’s 1969 BBC art history and high culture documentary series Civilisation is perhaps the seminal work of the genre that has become one of the British public broadcaster’s signatures. All of those handsomely photographed programmes crowding the primetime hours on BBCs 2 to 4, featuring erudite university professors expounding on beautiful paintings or grand architecture or important literature or great movements of history as they walk through historic sites or museum galleries, can trace their lineage back to Clark and his defining 13-part innovation of the form. The knighted art historian, who passed away in 1983, exerted a great deal of influence on the British cultural establishment during his career, but Civilisation reached beyond the cloisters of the upper crust to inculcate a wider general audience with an appreciation for the high water marks of European culture.

Civilisation, despite its grandiose title, was not be taken, in any way, as some sort of definitive survey of human civilization, and yet its success and surprising staying-power has given it such scope and stature despite itself. Very deliberately subtitled A Personal View, Civilisation was predicated on a focused perspective, its 13 hour-long episodes remaining fixed on Europe between the early Middle Ages and the start of the 20th Century and relying on Clark’s thoughtful, subtle, often idiosyncratic observations. This narrowed focus, excluding the Classical world and the great civilizations of Asia, Africa, and the Americas, has brought the series in for a healthy measure of retrospective criticism, as has Clark’s lionizing of “great spirits” of cultural history, basically all of whom happen to be white men. There is certainly something about the series that might well present to the contemporary eye – especially one clouded by the arrogant, half-informed intellectual pretentions of the chauvinist alt-right online trolls who swarm annoyingly in the comments of YouTube videos of the series – as a spirited defense of Eurocentric white supremacy, although it is much too thoughtful and subtle in its considerations to be pigeonholed and marginalized in that way.

In these ways and more, Civilisation is a product of its times. Certainly, Clark’s Received Pronunciation accent can be jarring now to the modern viewer used to the more “authentic” dialects of diverse television presenters (they all sounded like Clark at the Beeb in the late ’60s, though), just as the casual attire favoured by current culture documentary stars contrasts with Clark’s consistent brown suit jacket and thin tie, which seem out of place as he ascends romantic peaks and expounds in sun-soaked Italian piazzas (whither the jeans and leather jacket? asks the modern viewer conditioned by photogenic and youthful historian-presenters with glamour-shot galleries on their self-promotional websites). One wants to dab his sweat-beaded forehead at least once an episode. Also, when other talents are called upon, there are happy stabs of period-specific recognition: a young Patrick Stewart shows up as Horatio in a staging of a scene from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ poet father Cecil reads Wordsworth poems in voiceover.

In the more important realm of ideas, however, Civilisation is perhaps less a creature of the canonical cultural patriarchy than its reputation suggests. One of the consistent points maintained by Clark in the early medieval and Renaissance programmes and made explicit in his consideration of the post-Reformation era is the vital role of the Catholic Church in shepherding forward the cultural patrimony (I know at least one person who was converted to Catholicism by the series). It is especially noted that Catholics come across as far more important stewards of civilization than rival Protestants in terms of enduring visual arts, although the latter do better in literature and particularly music. Although Clark closes on the subject with an elliptical acknowledgement of the tendency towards authoritarian obedience in the Catholic Church (which has at least contributed to the Church’s foundation-shaking sexual abuse scandals of recent decades), his comprehensive defense of Catholic art and architecture must have presented as surprisingly contrary to WASP Britain at the end of the 1960s, a place and time where anti-Catholic sentiment (certainly in Northern Ireland, but hardly only there) was hardly a relic of the past. Late in the series, Clark even notes (though belatedly and almost as a footnote) that many of the spectacular wealth-driven displays of refinement that he has pored over in recent programmes were supported, directly or indirectly, by the socioeconomic horror machines of the modern era (which he, unfortunately, characterizes as a bit too equivalent): the Transatlantic slave trade and the labour exploitation of the Industrial Age.

But what is great about Clark and his documentaries is how he talks the viewer through what a painting or a building or a poem means, not only its in immediate artistic interpretation but in its larger social, cultural, and historical hermeneutics. It’s a simple, straightforward, but surprisingly powerful method: well-shot visuals of a great work, intercut with audio of a well-rounded analysis of its significance. Art history books are fine things, and Clark wrote his share, but his work in Civilisation refines and very nearly perfects a most immediate and persuasive form of art criticism that can only be accomplished with such a potent effect on television and influences subsequent generations of his peers.

Given this mixed legacy both great and problematic, BBC’s sequel Civilisations set itself up with a monumental task this year of following up on Clark’s series four decades later while expanding the original’s scope and correcting for its omissions and occasional flaws of perspective. While this nine-episode series may not, strictly speaking, match the quality of Clark’s original, it is a gorgeous, diverse, spirited, and deep and questioning consideration of what “civilisation” really means. This uncertainty about the very idea of “civilisation” is a by-product of the fragmented cultural consciousness of our era, certainly, of post-modernism and post-structuralism and post-anything-ism. But it’s also a pointed reaction to the sort of horrors that the progressive idea of “civilisation” is supposed, in an idealized vacuum, to save us from: war, genocide, poverty, brutality, racial discrimination, capitalist exploitation, imperial domination, deprivation and humiliation and misery.

Civilisations locates in art and culture laudable bastions of resistance against these dark forces, which are the products of human creativity and ingenuity just the same. Historian and BBC culture standby Simon Schama, whose A History of Britain series in 2000 is one of the few documentary series that can stand with Clark’s Civilisation at the pinnacle of the form, presents five of the episodes, and opens two of them with purposeful parables of civilized people standing against forces of unspeakable evil: a professor of antiquities executed by ISIS, a Jewish art teacher who instructed children in a Nazi concentration camp. His colleagues, who present two episodes each, likewise note this tension in human civilization: classicist Mary Beard considers the problematics of the human gaze and the mixed cultural legacies of religious faith, and Nigerian-British historian David Olusoga explores how the cultural accomplishments of Africa were looted and diminished by European colonial powers, as well as looks at the 19th Century’s imperialism and industrialism with a withering critical eye.

Expanding the series’ perspective to that of a triumvirate of bespoken diversity – a Jewish Brit, a feminist woman, a Black Briton – continues into their subject matter, which encompasses not merely European art and culture but also that of Africa, China, India, Japan, the Muslim World, and the civilizations of the Americas, not to mention classical and pre-classical examples of artistic representation. Furthermore, where Clark provided only a bare coda about his contemporary world without a statement on the past half-century of modern art, Schama dedicates the series’ final episode to contemporary art from Mondrian to the Abstract Expressionists and Pop Art to highlights of contemporary art, which include his favourites like Anselm Kiefer, Kara Walker, Ai Weiwei, and Cai Guo-Qiang.

Featuring living contemporary artists risks setting a too-short expiry date on Civilisations (and I couldn’t fathom a meaningful justification of Schama’s championing of the aesthetically pathetic Matisse in his otherwise wondrous episode “Radiance”), but it’s a reminder that this, too, is a view of cultural history more personal than comprehensive. It’s also a reminder, and one of several throughout this excellent series, that civilization is a constant creation, a matter of ongoing redefinition. Kenneth Clark understood it this way, too, even if the canonical boundaries of his 1969 series did not always allow him to express it quite as firmly as those of its 2018 sequel manage to do.

Film Review: Free Fire

March 30, 2018 Leave a comment

Free Fire (2016; Directed by Ben Wheatley)

After an early-career period of gritty but underseen Britside crime films, bewhiskered English director Ben Wheatley has assumed a decent critically-noticed profile as crafted of tense and graphic bottle-episode movies. This phase began with the black-and-white A Field in England, about 17th-century Civil War soldiers bickering and slaughtering each other in a pasture, and followed it with the J.G. Ballard adaptation High-Rise, about a luxe apartment building whose privileged residents descend into chaos.

Given this genre-film niche Wheatley has carved out of depicting strong personalities clashing with verbal heat and violent physicality in confined spaces, Free Fire seems an almost-too-obvious next step. Portraying the sharp banter and deadly gunplay that ensues when a 1970s-vintage arms deal in a Boston-area abandoned factory goes disastrously south, Free Fire is a dead-simple movie in concept and only slightly more complex in execution.

The buyers in this deal are led by IRA-connected Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), and supported by bumbling local Irish-American relations Stevo (Sam Riley), an imprudent chatterbox, and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti), a good-natured simpleton. They are buying semi-automatic arms for the Republican cause from a smarmy South African dandy named Vernon (Sharlto Copley, because who else could match that description?) and his ex-Black Panther partner Martin (Babou Ceesay). The go-betweens are smooth criminal-world operator Ord (Armie Hammer) and the inscrutable Justine (Brie Larson). Initial personal friction (the boastful Vernon is a bit much to take, even for his partners) worsens when the wrong merchandise is proffered, and then a slow-burning fuse is lit and eventually explodes when Stevo and Vernon’s henchman Harry (Jack Reynor) turn out to have had a violent altercation over the former’s abuse of the latter’s cousin in a neighbourhood bar the night before.

Triggers begin to be pulled and bullets begin to fly, and bare survival for all involved becomes the modus operandi, with the added bonus of a suitcase full of cash to any who manage to endure the fusillade. Wheatley and his co-screenwriter Amy Jump come up with a series of exchanges and scenarios to keep the most-of-the-movie-length shootout fresh and engaging (ie. Martin brings along a couple of snipers as secret back-up, one of which Ord recognizes; a phone starts ringing in the building, with the promise of calling for aid, etc.). That said, exciting as it generally remains, Free Fire never wins back the enervated momentum it whips up at the commencement of the shooutout, especially as the participants are hobbled by an increasing number of wounds and are reduced to crawling along the dirty floors and attempting to dispatch their similarly-crippled foes.

This sort of potboiler is hardly prime material for political applicability (and outside of some Troubles-related insults being thrown around, Free Fire offers none) or for fine performances, but some of the actors manage some decent-to-strong work, with Hammer especially all movie-star confidence and swagger as the cool, collected, witty Ord. There’s also two memorably transgressive applications of John Denver’s “Annie Song”, both as left-field footsteps-of-doom anticipation of calamity and as post-calamity ironic summation. It’s an enjoyable trifle that is soon forgotten, however, and Wheatley seemed to be moving in quite an opposite direction as a filmmaker with his recent work. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of violent, clever fun like Free Fire, but for a director beginning to indicate that he is capable of a great deal more, it feels like a bit of a step back.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: A Cure for Wellness

March 22, 2018 Leave a comment

A Cure for Wellness (2016; Directed by Gore Verbinski)

What a tantalizing clutch of opportunities A Cure for Wellness decides to waste. This is a one-sentence summary verdict that could be applied to almost every movie Gore Verbinski has directed since he burst to prominence with the first (and still best) Pirates of the Caribbean film, The Curse of the Black Pearl (that “almost” qualifier is set aside for the consistently brilliant and subversive animated western Rango). What’s notable about A Cure for Wellness is how Verbinski – working from a story he co-wrote with Justin Haythe, who alone is credited for the screenplay – manages to squander his creation’s potential in entirely novel ways. After spending an act or two building up a creepy, unsettling gothic-horror atmosphere with intelligent care (he did direct The Ring, after all) and seeding a fast-flowering hybridized critique of capitalism and health and wellness culture, Verbinski closes his film with a lurid “twist” of rape-incest sensationalism and an operatic inferno-lit climactic battle between his protagonist and his hideous-visaged villain like something out of a second-rate Frankenstein flick.

What leads to that deflating compromise of a climax, though, is generally absorbing, often crisply and beautifully shot, and sometimes even inspired. Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is a rising young sales exec at a massive Wall Street finance firm whose board has eyes for a power-move merger/expansion but requires its missing CEO, Roland Pembroke (Harry Groener), to both sign off on the deal and take the legal fall for certain accounting irregularities which Lockhart himself had a hand in. To stave off jail for himself, Lockhart is compelled to retrieve Pembroke from a remote mountaintop castle spa and “wellness center” high in the Swiss Alps (specifically inspired by the setting and thematic milieu of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a reference point that is typical of Verbinski’s highbrow artistic and intellectual influences).

Stymied in his haste to fetch Pembroke back to New York by the bureaucratic diffidence of the spa’s staff and then laid up in a patient room after breaking his leg in a spectacularly visceral car crash, Lockhart begins to learn more about the operation and its dark history. A medieval baronial castle, the whole structure was burned down two centuries prior by locals angered by the Baron, a pure-blood fanatic who renounced God, sought to marry his own sister (who was killed in the fire), and may have been performing gruesome experiments on the peasants for his own nefarious ends. One of the almost-uniformly elderly patients is an amateur historian (Celia Imrie) who suggests to Lockhart that these past horrors have a connection to the superficially-pleasant curative-waters institution run in the castle by Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs). Lockhart meets and befriends the only other young patient, a budding teenage girl named Hannah (Mia Goth) who is called a “special case” by her guardian Volmer, but he also begins to experience strange and disturbing visions of eels swarming in the aquifer waters, and encounters ever more nightmarish things as he ventures ever deeper into Volmer’s health centre.

I’m usually loath to specifically spoil any such thriller’s big plot twist, although A Cure for Wellness seems particularly keen to spoil itself by utterly telegraph its hardly-shocking turn. Verbinski leaves a trail of breadcrumb clues the size of wholes bread-loaves, and embeds persistent Freudian oedipal symbols and suggestions throughout his movie. Lockhart’s high-powered trader father committed suicide in front of him, while his mother crafts fragile feminine music-box ballerina figures in her retirement home, waiting to die; she does so, apparently simultaneously with Lockhart’s car crash (caused by a galloping stag, masculine-coded iconography which recurs in Volmer’s office and around the castle premises), and he dispassionately attends her cremation, although he is evidently unconscious for days after the crash (perhaps this is a flashback, but the editing is a bit vague on this point).

Elsewhere, in Hannah’s first two scenes with Lockhart, she is shot consistently mirrored in reflective pools, anticipating her mirroring relations to the Baroness’ horrible historical fate. A similar, even trippier doubled image immediately follows the title card, as Lockhart’s bridge-traversing train and its dualized reflection snap to unity as it careens into the black maw of a mountain tunnel (a callback to Alfred Hitchcock’s notorious sexual innuendo image at the close of North by Northwest, with similar penetrative implications in mind, doubtlessly). Most suggestive of all is a sequence of Lockhart’s post-crash hydration therapy at the spa, which sees him submerged in a metal tank as if a fetus in a womb, sperm-like eels swarming around him while his distracted minder self-pleasures to the sight of a nurse’s bare chest (in a later horror-movie moment, these sperm-eels gain ingress to Lockhart’s body via a tube thrust into his mouth, a disturbing quasi-fertilization).

One supposes, indeed one can be very nearly certain, that all of this Freudian imagery and psychological disquiet is intricately linked to Verbinski’s conception of ambitious capitalist striving as a virulent sickness that must be therapeutically purged. This is purportedly the purpose of Volmer’s alpine retreat and its hydrological treatments, to “cure” wealthy aged global plutocrats of the constricting stress and anxiety of grinding overwork that goes hand-in-hand with vaulting success in neoliberal capitalism (and that, in the film’s otherwise-uncontextualized opening scene, claims the life of the analyst whom Lockhart replaces at Pembroke’s firm, and whom the latter expected to be sent to retrieve him).

But the truth of Volmer’s centre is that it is the nexus of a final, self-serving system of corporeal consumption, literally processing patients into an elixir of life that fuels a multi-generational continuity of arcane incestual perversion. The ceaseless, frantic locomotion of the new world is thus chemically transmuted into the vital sustaining nutrients for the twisted, atrophying fantasies of the old world. The machine that carries out this process is, of course, a faded old-world relic, the alpine spa retreat where the unwell “take the waters”; an American member of the board of Lockhart’s employer scoffs at the continued existence of such facilities as inherently vestigial in its old-fashioned-ness. Volmer claims to “cure” the damaging assumptions of the hegemonic socioeconomic order at his time-capsule enclave, but he only leeches off of it to feed an undead evil that sleeps in its chest cavity and beats on like a tired old heart, pumping poisoned blood out to its twitching, reliant extremities.

A Cure for Wellness, sadly, never really rounds out this potentially deep and broad critique of capitalist elites and wellness culture (the latter is used very much as a mechanism for probing the former). In much the same way that the comprehensive critique of the colonialism of the Old West in The Lone Ranger (the huge-budget failure of which sent Verbinski scurrying off to Europe for backers of this production, which also flopped badly) became swallowed, partly digested, and ultimately neutralized by the Hollywood action-blockbuster monster and the historical assumptions of the Western genre, A Cure for Wellness loses its intellectual criticisms in grotesque horror-movie shocks (what function, really, is the dental-torture Marathon Man homage serving, for example?) and the generic trappings of the gothic thriller. It also drags on too long, and its frothy ending is particularly bad, a definite deflation that undoes nearly all of the exquisite arrangement of symbols and ideas that precedes it. I stated at the outset that Gore Verbinski manages to squander the potential of A Cure for Wellness in fresh ways, but perhaps its failure is unfortunately archetypal of the director’s work, of the particular manner in which his vision and ambition lead to a certain unwellness when manifested in genre-movie form.

Categories: Film, Reviews

TV Quickshots #37

March 18, 2018 Leave a comment

The Young Pope (HBO; 2017)

From Italian writer/director Paolo Sorrentino, the crafter of the rapturously gorgeous The Great Beauty, The Young Pope is a visually beautiful series headlined by a career-pinnacle performance from its star Jude Law, who plays an under-50 American pontiff with arrogantly old-fashioned autocratic and revanchist ideas concerning the Vatican’s management of the contemporary Catholic Church. Still, it’s narratively and thematically uneven and inconsistent, even as it productively challenges Catholicism’s current trajectory.

Blowing into the august halls of the Vatican like a scalding wind, this new Pope – Lenny Belardo is his birth name, and he assumes the papal name of Pius XIII – presents as a youthful iconoclast. If he never quite reaches the rebellious absurdities of the internet’s roiling, riotous Young Pope memes, in-text Pius comes much closer than one might have believed when, in the early stages of the limited series, he lights up a cigarette in the Papal Palace in contravention of John Paul II’s prior non-smoking edicts, saying, “There’s a new pope now.” The opening titles distill this essence into even more ludicrous form; you almost don’t have to watch the show if you watch them.

His refusal to appear in public, autocratic pronouncements, and desire to root out all homosexuality in the Church clergy frustrates and confounds the Cardinals, particularly his one-time mentor Michael Spencer (James Cromwell) and the Cardinal Secretary of State, the sly, subtle, self-promoting Napoli football fan Angelo Voiello (a superb Silvio Orlando). Even close allies – such as Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who raised him in an orphanage after he was abandoned by his hippie parents, the core psychological trauma that Sorrentino returns to time and again to explain Lenny’s perspective – doubt his direction, and he himself even doubts his belief in God.

Sorrentino and his cinematographer Luca Bigazzi shoot their re-created Vatican City with sun-drenched magnificence and rich baroque lustre, incorporating earthy continental sexuality and magic-realist touches (such as the kangaroo that Pius receives as a gift and lets loose in the gardens, a symbol of some element of his psyche or faith or doubt that is difficult to firmly pin down). The dominant issues facing the modern Catholic Church – homosexual clergy, the celibacy oath, priest child abuse, secular unbelief, charismatic salt-of-the-earth miracle-workers, worldly capitalism and politics, the increasing importance of the developing world among its global flock – are addressed and sometimes even prodded out of complacent positions. Belardo and Spencer even hold a straight one-on-one debate on the Church’s position on abortion in the Sistine Chapel, which while a touch direct, does at least lay out the germane internal thinking on the issue among the theological elite.

Whatever points (be they so pedantic or more elegant and subtle) Sorrentino is seeking to make about Catholicism of the moment, they dissolve into Jude Law’s commanding central performance. Belardo’s psychology and beliefs are not always crystal-clear, and personal losses through the series shift the brazen dictatorial caprice of his initial days towards a more publically-acceptable light-poetic inspirational persona. But Law keeps us always focused on the man he is at his core: a seeking orphan, a figure of solitude, and perhaps a leader touched by special divine favour. Even a Pope, perhaps especially a Pope, can be a lonely man.

Altered Carbon (Netflix; 2018)

A handsomely-budgeted serialized adaptation of the first of Richard K. Morgan’s science-fiction novel series, Altered Carbon presents like Blade Runner with the fuzzier margins of design and world-building busily filled in. It has very different ideas in mind, however.

Altered Carbon is set in the late 24th Century, and finds humanity dwelling in a fascinating new multiple-lifetime reality: for centuries, individual human consciousness has been contained in talisman-like data packets known as stacks, allowing a single person’s mind and memories to outlive the lifespan of their physical body (the relative disposability of which has led them to become known as sleeves). This has almost countless implications on human relationships, philosophy and religious belief, laws and politics, government and socioeconomic differences, many of which Altered Carbon draws out in good time.

Following a former supersoldier turned defacto detective named Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) who is “spun back up” from decades of disembodied imprisonment in order to solve the murder of a super-rich man (James Purefoy), Altered Carbon is far more interesting and thought-provoking in its early world-establishing episodes, before its genre-fiction plotting and graphic violence grasp the controls. Exploring the myriad implications of stacks and sleeves proves a richer experience than the adolescent melodrama of the narrative, and if Netflix continues to adapt Morgan’s books, such world expansion can be expected to be its primary allure.

Categories: Reviews, Television