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Film Review: John Wick

John Wick (2014; Directed by Chad Stahelski & David Leitch)

In pure action movie terms, John Wick is an artful, stylish masterwork. Starring Keanu Reeves (an underrated but long-tenured movieland action hero) as a former skilled hitman pushed out of retirement by a painful personal loss, its copious shootouts, fights, and slayings are choereographed and shot with balletic grace and visceral impact by directorial neophytes Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, whom Reeves worked with as stuntmen and action coordinators on The Matrix and brought into the project. Stahelski and Leitch (the latter co-directed but went uncredited) utilize spaghetti western tropes of the solitary, plain-spoken gunslinger (fine fodder for the famously po-faced monotonic delivery of Reeves) while blending in the dancer’s grace of John Woo’s Hong Kong action flicks and the stylistic lighting and cinematography of modern South Korean noirs. The result is a memorable, slick potboiler with practical artistic chops.

But John Wick is also a curious case study in the cinematic valences of compelling audience empathy. Before we ever learn that John Wick is a (retired) badass master assassin who can wipe out an entire room of baddies with elegant confidence, we are primed with the revenge-driven action-movie equivalent of the affecting opening sequence of Pixar’s Up! John Wick is shown loving, burying, and wordlessly grieving his wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan), who expired after a protracted illness. Wick’s mournful solitude is touchingly solaced by a posthumously delivered gift to him from Helen: a mega-adorable puppy named Daisy.

Unfortunately, his fast bonding process with his new companion is brutally snapped by a trio of Russian gangland thugs, led by the callous young Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen). Covetous of his vintage car, they invade his home, beat him up, take his car keys, and kill his dog. The silent scenes of Reeves cradling the tiny creature’s body and burying it in a box are heartbreaking, for animal-lovers and general emotional beings alike.

With this comforting animal outlet for his grief cruelly torn from him, John Wick replies quite reasonably, under the circumstances: he proceeds to kill dozens upon dozens of people, with Iosef and eventually the youth’s crimelord father, Wick’s admiring former contract employer Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), the central focal points of his vengeful wrath. Along the way, Wick must contend with not only wave after wave of Viggo’s thugs, but also fellow professional underworld assassins (Adrianne Palicki and Willem Dafoe play two such figures) who are after the Russian gangster’s $2 million bounty on his head.

John Wick deftly uses the manipulative language of cinema to make this response seem proportionate, but even someone who loves dogs and deplores wanton cruelty to animals has to admit that the suggestion of just equivalence is absurd. One hesitates to dwell on the ridiculous relativism of the movie’s conceit, seeing as comedy team Key & Peele have already made an entire film semi-parodying it (2016’s Keanu). But it remains more than a little troubling, in general decontextualized moral terms, that we as viewers are asked (and mostly oblige) to feel more deeply for the lost life of a puppy than for the lost lives of 84 people (an exhaustive kill count posted to YouTube tallied up 76 victims, but Stahelski points out 8 more were snuffed out in destroyed SUVs, so that settles that debate).

There isn’t much beneath the surface of John Wick beyond this odd question of empathetic persuasion. It’s a masterfully-crafted slice of frothy Hollywood action cinema, composed and choreographed with enough precision, rough beauty, and bravado to qualify as a borderline work of art (if it were directed by a Frenchman rather than Yank stuntmen, it might get a Cannes screening). There’s a hefty hint of world-building ambition here, in the form of a secret hotel for a gold-coin-earning secret society of contract killers of which Wick was once a part (Ian McShane and Lance Reddick both show up as minders of this assassins’ safe space, known as the Continental). Perhaps that underworld will be delved into more deeply in John Wick‘s two sequels, one of which was released this year and the other now in production.

Or perhaps Keanu Reeves’ Wick will simply kill many, many more people (fictional people pre-constructed as essentially bad, but still), awesomely. There’s some entertainment value to both options, but whether either movie leads us to fundamentally question the inherent moral and emotional assumptions of blockbuster cinema as John Wick (inadvertently) does remains to be seen.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z (2017; Directed by James Gray)

An example of resolutely old-fashioned cinematic storytelling with clearly-drawn characters and straightforward themes, The Lost City of Z may not be interested enough in anything other than its absorbing story to accurately be described as “important” or “compelling” or “powerful”. But James Gray’s handsome, thoughtful, expertly-crafted screen adaptation of David Grann’s acclaimed and popular non-fiction book about an English explorer determined to locate the remains of a lost civilization in the Amazonian jungle draws you in with sturdy seductiveness. Gray pinpoints an unlikely and previously-ungrasped artistic kinship between the measured historical epics of David Lean and Werner Herzog’s wild and woolly arthouse meditations on obsessive colonialist madness in the lethal subtropical wilderness. His movie settles into this particular space with slow confidence and narrative ease, rarely summoning either overt imperial critiques or metaphorical political conclusions. Despite that (because of it?), The Lost City of Z tells us more about what white European explorers were really looking for in what were, for them, the remote corners of the known world.

This particular explorer is Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam). An Edwardian-era British Army officer on the make, Fawcett hopes to parlay dedicated military service across the Empire into career and status advancement. The film opens with his (and director Gray’s) bravura display in a baronial elk hunt in Ireland, a success that he hopes will translate into the name-making notice of honoured dignitaries but is stymied by a family name tainted by his India-born cricketer father’s undetailed public shames. It’s a case study in Fawcett’s frustration, and it motivates him to accept a commission from the Royal Geographical Society (of which his father was a member) to survey the jungle river boundary between Bolivia and Brazil, the potential flashpoint of a border war between the South American nations.

Leaving behind his intelligent and progressive-minded wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and their young son Jack in England, Fawcett is joined by right-hand man Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, hiding his faded matinee-idol light in a bushel of a beard) and a small crew, who brave the dangers and hardships of the Amazonian rainforest to find the river-border’s source and settle the percolating boundary dispute. They are guided by the inscrutable Amazonian Indian guide Tadjui (Pedro Coello), who along the way tells a rapt Fawcett about a populous city of gold hidden in the unforgiving jungle, a tale backed up by ancient pottery fragments and carven symbols that he finds deep in the jungle.

The tantalizing promise of this El Dorado-like discovery, dubbed Z by Fawcett upon his successful return to England, drives forward an obsessive quest to return to the region and obtain proof of its existence. In addition to the fame, glory, and distinction that such a discovery would grant him, the liberal Fawcett seeks to dispel the arrogant racism of British Imperium by showing the Amazonian “primitives” to have been more advanced than Europeans at some point in the documentable past. Although Fawcett’s second expedition wins RGS support and patronage, both its progress and its aftermath are seriously hampered by the involvement of the prominent biologist and polar explorer James Murray (Angus Macfayden), and a rematch with the jungle is prevented by the outbreak of the First World War (in which Fawcett and his exploring team serve together) and only becomes possible when his eldest son Jack (Tom Holland) displays a passion for Amazonian exploration that rekindles his own.

Shot in Northern Ireland and Colombia, The Lost City of Z is a frequently gorgeous film. Gray cribs from the David Lean playbook of visual majesty, and captures many shots of magnificently beautiful skies against which his characters are semi-symbolically silhouetted. Such imagery aside, The Lost City of Z is notable for its conspicuous, classic-film-type lack of subtext. Gray establishes the shifting motivations for Fawcett’s expeditions very clearly, often through direct dialogue: initially interested in mapping Amazonia only as a way of climbing the social ladder in Britain, Fawcett then becomes convinced of Z’s existence and achieving the shift in domestic perception that existence would entail, before simultaneously being enervated by his son’s energy for the quest and his own quiet hopes of building a lasting legacy and thus launching his precarious third expedition. There’s never much doubt as to what Fawcett is thinking at any given moment, because he’ll usually tell anyone within earshot, or else someone who knows him well (generally Nina, but sometimes Costin or even Jack) will read him exactly right. The casting of Hunnam, who specializes as a sort-of film lead in men of robust physical exertion with quasi-soulful inner lives lurking barely beneath the surface (and absolutely no deeper), is highly appropriate and communicative of these tendencies to directness.

Gray is able to more subtly complicate Fawcett’s personal views and the political dimension of his search for Z. Fawcett and Nina talk about how they consider each other equals in a society that firmly does not, and she offers him such vital aid him in researching for supporting evidence of a lost Amazonian settlement that she feels she should be next to him as he delivers his triumphal RGS speech (women, of course, are not allowed anywhere but in the gallery). But when Nina expresses a wish to join him on his second expedition, Fawcett rejects the idea absolutely and retreats to the patriarchal conceptions of the division of the sexes, contrary to his support of her feminism. Likewise, Fawcett poses as an enlightened figure as concerns the South American native peoples, decrying their practical slavery on European-run rubber plantations as well as smug dismissals of their savagery among his learned RGS fellows. But his views of the Indians run towards noble savage archetypes, and his vaunted friendly, cooperative approach to them on his second expedition doesn’t work so well on his third, with dire consequences.

Gray, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed, also seeds his predominantly classical cinematic canvas with what might be called Herzogian touches, doodles of surrealism, instability, and modern disquiet. When Fawcett and Costin come upon one of the rubber plantations, they wander into an incongruous opera “theatre”, a semi-grotesque Gilded Age vanity carved out of the hostile jungle. A crew member who goes overboard of their river-raft during a native attack is rapidly reduced to a crimson mist by ravenous piranhas. A reading of Fawcett’s future destiny given by a Russian fortune teller in the WWI trenches magic-realistically transports the explorer and the fortune teller into the Amazonian boughs, a juxtaposition semi-repeated at the film’s end, as Nina walks out of the ornate Victorian RGS HQ into the verdant rainforest that consumed her husband and son.

That consumption by the jungle and its native cultures is visualized in the Fawcett men’s final scene, a milder callback to Apocalypse Now, a jungle-bound anti-imperialist commentary of another age and a more extreme bent: they are carried by torchlight in an Indian ritual into the maw of the deep dark that they sought to penetrate with the enlightened beams of Empire. Does Percy Fawcett understand more about the people of this world and their harsh but rich environment for having “explored” (and mapped, an act redolent of possession via regulated documentation) that environment? His fate suggests otherwise, but like all romantic adventurers, what he sought in the far reaches of the known globe was, above all, greater knowledge of his own uncharted depths.

A confidence spilling into arrogance is a necessary prerequisite of the imperial explorer, for how else could unveiling the basic reality of people of an unfamiliar culture be construed as a path to self-realization for a single man?  That Percy Fawcett’s perspective represents the progressive bleeding edge of the imperial project, the kind outstretched palm of its invasive tendrils, does not reduce its colonial scope and intent. Critics of Fawcett’s Z-related fancies contemporary and modern found his quest to be ridiculous and self-serving, his mysterious disappearance an apt fate, regardless of the subsequent limited vindication provided to his theorizing by the unearthing of the archaeological site of Kuhikugu. But all men search for themselves, one supposes. Some just have to go much further to find what they seek.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Children of Men

Children of Men (2006; Directed by Alfonso Cuarón)

Woe betide the work of art that is referred to as “prophetic”. The application of the term may be intended as an indicator of praise, an appreciation of a creator’s imaginative prescience in galvanizing in an aesthetic text certain social, political, or technological conditions that were either not present or present in less-developed or even embryonic form when the text was created. But there’s also a taint to prophecy, a Nostradamusian sense of interpretive vagueness and conspiratorial fervour that swamps rational evaluation. The term is also inherently theistic, a sop to faith and fate yoked to the runaway cart of predestination. To label art “prophetic” is to cage its meaning and implications in the merely predictive, in ephemeral daydreams (or daynightmares). Great art is not a crystal ball but a mirror; perhaps a murky one presenting the convincing illusion of half-glimpsed, magical depths, but always ultimately reflective. Art does not predict the future, it imagines it by extrapolating the present. Sometimes, it even creates it.

This is all being laid down as a preface to the unnerving, discomfiting realization that, a decade after its release, Alfonso Cuarón’s bleak, draining masterpiece Children of Men more closely resembles our current sociopolitical reality than even the film itself imagined. Chronologically halfway to its envisioned situation in 2027, our world’s apparent sliding conditions seem more than halfway to the ones Cuarón indelibly depicts in his film about a dystopian near-future of a sterile human race unable to produce offspring. This biological and psychological death sentence results in mass anxiety and despair, and leads to social and governmental collapse, destructive conflict, desperate rebellion, knee-jerk authoritarianism, and rampantly cruel xenophobic oppression.

Amidst the worldwide chaos, a greyscale Fortress Britain alone retains a functioning government, but only by becoming a police state that has banned all immigration and detains thousands of foreign refugees in nightmarish ghetto-camps marked by brutal reprisals and extreme deprivation. One can well imagine the onerous former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, a far-right bootlick of Donald Trump whose scrubbed-up anti-immigrant sentiment was the petrol for the rusty runaway jalopy that is Brexit, taking in a late showing of the film and masturbating furiously to these scenes, perspiration and semen and a spilt Diet Coke pooling together around his feet. He would likely imagine himself to be one of the privileged wealthy few dwelling in London’s royal West End, which fences off the desperate rabble and allows the rich to maintain their charmed lifestyles while preserving exotic wildlife in Hyde Park and the world’s surviving cultural patrimony in Battersea Power Station, dubbed the Ark of the Arts.

Children of Men clings to a kernel of hope among the grimness and extreme inequality, a kernel that also drives its nearly relentless escape plot. Scruffy, cynical civil servant Theo Faron (Clive Owen at the fleeting peak of his brief leading-man window) is snatched up by the Fishes, the radical pro-immigrant activist cronies of his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), who task him with obtaining transit papers for a young refugee woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey). They intend to use these papers to smuggle her out of the country to a half-mythical international research group called the Human Project, because, miraculously, Kee is pregnant. Such a momentous development in a world where no child has been born for nearly two decades (the youngest human living, a media celebrity called Baby Diego, is reported dead in the film’s opening scenes, sparking mass mourning) becomes the target for competing agendas, and Theo must evade the fascistic authorities, the menacing terrorist Fishes (Chiwetel Ejiofor and a dreadlocked Charlie Hunnam play the primary figures in this group), and all manner of collateral dangers to safeguard this fragile ray of hope for humanity.

Owen, Moore, and the others give earnest and committed performances, with occasional tension-releasing humour provided by Michael Caine as a long-haired, pot-smoking, flatulent former political cartoonist with whom Theo and Kee hide out, as well as Scottish actor Peter Mullan as a sarcastic, self-serving refugee camp guard who aids them until he discovers Kee’s explosive secret. But Children of Men is auteur cinema par excellence, with Cuarón’s masterly control of the images before his camera directing a compelling motion tapestry of mood, emotion, and meaning. The astounding production design, by Jim Clay, Geoffrey Kirkland, and Jennifer Williams, is the fabric of this tapestry and takes much of the weight of imparting key information and feelings, but Cuarón’s use of his camera dominates the picture.

Analyses of Cuarón’s technical prowess often note how its display heightens and deepens the hermeneutics of the film. Its absorbing long takes, from the stunning, axis-shifting car attack sequence to Theo’s harrowing movements through the refugee prison camp at Bexhill, are not simple showboating but essential to the construction of Children of Men‘s hybrid tone of dystopian summonings and photojournalistic invocations of current-affairs traumas, with resonant reference points in art and cultural history (Picasso’s Guernica, Michelangelo’s La Pieta, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Banksy, George Orwell, and Pink Floyd are all visually referenced, overtly or otherwise). Meanwhile, the contrast of foreground and background images, animated by Cuarón’s roving, curious camera pulling away from the central protagonist-focused action to register side tableaux of indelible suffering, distills some fundamental truth about our tenuous post-capitalist social order, poised between self-involved consumerism and the tragic widespread oppression and engineered deprivation that puts the lie to that order’s airbrushed dreams (and, viewed from a more radical political point of view, provides the raw fuel for them).

Children of Men‘s sophisticated and memorable dialogue with this mixed inheritance of images and their ambivalent associations has only gained relevance and shades of meaning in our contemporary reality. Indeed, the scenes of turmoil from across a Europe whose economically-driven open-border policies have been challenged by the surging influx of refugees from the Syrian civil war can sometimes seem patterned after the immigrant concentration cages and ghettos in Children of Men. Xenophobic angst against the perceived foreign invader motivated the victorious Leave faction of the momentous Brexit referendum, inching the UK worryingly closer to the state of Cuarón dystopian imagination.

This is not to say, however, that Alfonso Cuarón “predicted” elements of our current sociopolitical reality in Children of Men. In 2006, this was a film documenting current conditions as much as it was a warning about potential future problems stemming from them, and it remains so in 2016. In this, Children of Men conforms to the tradition of dystopian science fiction, like Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World before it. But where those seminal examples of the genre located the genesis of the dystopian condition in the imposition of oppressive top-down controls by a powerful elite, in Children of Men such authoritarian strokes are reactions to a momentous shift in human reality that reorders the psychological basis of the existing sociopolitical order.

The mass impotence and infertility of the human race in Children of Men is a literal condition that allows access to any numbers of powerful metaphorical conclusions about the world that we have built for ourselves. But that mass impotence and infertility is also a metaphor for the impotence that normal citizens, especially the most deprived among them, feel in the face of post-capitalism’s dread inevitability and tantalizing built-in scarcity. The core anxiety in the future summoned by Cuarón in Children of Men is no less than the end of the future; its formless fear is not directed at the expected end of the human race and its rich civilizations, but at the dispelling of the comforting myth of progress, the extinguishing of that warm glow that rises inside of us when we tell ourselves that no matter the hardships before us, things will be better, one day. Like many of its images, burned into the viewer’s memory like rich graffiti on a bare wall, it is this resonant feeling that lingers on after Children of Men is over. But is a memorable film like this ever over? Or is it instead carried with us at all times, in any age, a mirror on ourselves that reminds us of the dangers of despair as well as the ambivalent value of the heady elixir of hope? Don’t call Children of Men prophetic. It’s far too great for that.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Documentary Quickshots #5

Blood on the Mountain (2016; Directed by Mari-Lynn Evans & Jordan Freeman)

In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Republican candidate Donald Trump (now the 45th President of the United States, which will never feel right to say, write, or read) won West Virginia by the largest margin in the state’s history. There could arguably be any number of reasons for this lopsided result, beginning (and, if we’re being frank, likely ending) with the fact that the state’s population is 93% white and Trump’s campaign modulated its harsh, cynical messaging firmly in the direction of what is referred to with euphemistic generalization as “white nationalism” (which means that whites get a nation and non-whites do not). Perhaps even more regionally vital, however, was Trump’s frequent (and disingenuous) promises to reverse the slow death spiral of West Virginia’s coal mining industry. Coal is the defining factor of life in much of West Virginia, and for its people, “Make American Great Again” translated as “Make Coal Mining Great Again”.

Blood on the Mountain documents the history of coal mining in West Virginia, and stops just chronologically short of Trump’s huckster pitch to undo an inevitable decline (coal is a highly finite resource, after all). Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman’s dark record strongly asserts that despite the pride it inspires and the decent living it granted to many working-class West Virginians, coal mining has always been a grim, destructively exploitative business that pitilessly shreds both human labourers and the environment on its way to profit. It’s also been central to West Virginia’s economy, politics, society, and history. But “bringing it back” would carry as many negative consequences as positive outcomes.

Blood on the Mountain begins its chronicle with the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, the largest labor uprising in American history and one that has been mostly scrubbed from West Virginian history (including its Wikipedia page). From there, the film takes in the full terrible scope of coal mining in the state, from environmental degradation to malignant corporate control, taking in large-scale mining disasters and health epidemics (black lung and silicosis being the most common). Crooked on-the-take politicians, belligerent labor leaders, and self-dealing capitalists alike have either been unable to break the meat-grinder cycle of coal extraction, or have elected not to in order to personally profit from it.

As coal reserves have been depleted, large mining companies have largely cut out unionized miners and taken to simply levelling the tops of mountains and scooping out all the coal, leaving blasted landscapes behind them. But Blood on the Mountain demonstrates that West Virginia’s social and human landscape is left no less blasted by the coal industry that promotes itself as the state’s guardian and provider of economic succour (like many such documentaries, Big Coal’s vagaries are microcosms of the larger vagaries of American capitalism).

Moreover, it considers the ongoing plight of the state’s coal miners and their dependents to be an invisible tragedy that has attracted little attention from media or policymakers beyond Appalachia, a tendency that the film looks to remedy. Little wonder that a racial demagogue’s cynical recognition of their struggles and dishonest pledges to address them resonated so clearly with West Virginians. Finally, someone in a position of power spoke to their concerns. Unfortunately, that someone is Donald Trump, who cannot want anything more from West Virginians than the renewed exploitation of their prime mineral resource, and their nearly-spent human resources as well.

Casting JonBenet (2017; Directed by Kitty Green)

If the coal industry’s denuding of West Virginia is a story that has received too little attention from the American media, then the sordid, tabloid-ready, persistently unsolved 1996 murder of 6-year-old child-beauty-pageant contestant JonBenet Ramsey in her family home in Boulder, Colorado received far too much. This was the convoluted, troubling case that launched a thousand hours of speculative exposés, “exclusive” interviews with anyone even tenuously connected to the Ramseys, and prepared the cable news ground for the predatory tread of frothing sensationalist judgemental ghouls like Nancy Grace.

It may not have been more important or had an impact more lasting than any other such true-crime mass obsession driven by similar broadcasting forces, but the death of JonBenet Ramsey was weirdly compelling and unsettling in ways that rival tabloid crime stories were not. It suggested darkness and twisted madness in the cocoon of privilege: JonBenet’s father was a successful CEO, her (now deceased) mother a former beauty queen who was, from all appearances, maniacally seeking to vicarious fulfill her pageant ambitions by exhibiting her very young daughter in a manner that many observers found disturbing or even abusive. Wild home intruder theories of her death imagined child rapists, a former housekeeper, and even a local Santa Claus invading the family home to take the girl’s life. JonBenet’s brother Burke has been suspected of accidentally killing his sister, although police investigations have dismissed that possibility. A thoroughly bizarre, likely fake ransom note has sparked extensive theorizing and analysis from armchair detective and purported experts alike. Above all, the lack of closure, the absence of a solution to this enigma even two decades later, has left the public fascinated, like an unfinished mystery novel whose author expired before naming the murderer. A permanent whodunit.

Kitty Green’s innovative and frequently striking meta-documentary Casting JonBenet takes the JonBenet Ramsey case as a Rorschach test for its multiple subjects’ perspectives on her death, but also on their lives and on the wider world. Ostensibly interviewing and screen-testing local Boulder-area actors for filmed re-enactments of the events surrounding the girl’s mysterious death, Green’s film takes on the absorbing weirdness of a Werner Herzog documentary as the idiosyncratic details of the actors’ lives trespass on and meld with their connections to and conceptions about the Ramsey saga. The actors can be hilariously eccentric (like a bondsman who moonlights as a sex educator with a S&M speciality, or various local Santas, who share snatches of detail of their singular profession that tease a potential documentary on the subject), but they can also be weirdly moving, opening up about their own struggles and traumas as windows to their understanding of the Ramsey saga.

Green concludes her film with a flourish of near-avant-garde artistry. Ostensibly, the screen tests and chats with the actors are supposed to fill roles in filmed re-enactments of the events are JonBenet Ramsey’s death. Some of these are peppered through the film (the erotic-educating bond officer gets his coveted role as Boulder’s police chief), true. But by the end of the film, in place of conventional true-crime documentary re-enactment sequences Green combines all of the actors in a rambling series of room sets, re-creating every theory of JonBenet’s end from the plausible to the outlandish, all at once. These fantasy vignettes bleed into each other, just as the actors’ lived experience bleeds into their performances, just as their perspectives based on that experience bleed into their view of the Ramsey saga. It’s an excellent symbolic summation of the popular discourse around JonBenet Ramsey and all media crime sagas of its type, and how what observers bring to that discourse inescapably shapes it.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Fifth Element

April 30, 2017 Leave a comment

The Fifth Element (1997; Directed by Luc Besson)

The Fifth Element is primarily a vehicle for madly creative visual design, secondarily a Bruce Willis shoot-up-’em fest, and tertiarily a male-gaze ogle-orgy of the then-fresh-faced Milla Jovovich (who hooked up with and briefly married director Luc Besson during and after the film’s production). The operatically bugnuts French-financed science fiction action-comedy has accrued the status of something close to a genre classic, obvious flaws, general goofiness, and questionable performances aside (Jovovich and Chris Tucker both fully earned their Razzie acting nominations, and Gary Oldman wuz robbed). The Fifth Element might be too silly to be a great film, but it’s fun and imaginative and certainly not unmemorable.

Co-written by Besson with Robert Mark Kamen, The Fifth Element is pure pulpy sci-fi on the narrative level, although perhaps space opera is the truer generic classification (and is made quite literal in one showcase sequence). It pits absolute, merciless, all-devouring evil in the form of a gigantic, expanding, fiery black space singularity which threatens 23rd-century Earth against plucky, naifish, prophesized good in the form of Leeloo (Jovovich), a perfect distillation of titular elemental power in a red-haired female-fashion-model package. Leeloo’s importance is presaged in a (too-lengthy) prologue set in Egypt in 1914, wherein an absent-minded Italian archaeologist (John Bluthal), his louche artist/assistant (Luke Perry), and a mysterious hereditary priest (John Bennett) encounter lumbering, mechanized, Gilliamesque extraterrestrials called Mondoshawans. They warn the priest of the greater coming evil 300 years hence and entrust him with a magical key, which in combination with their treasured elemental stones will muster divine light to defeat the shadowy evil.

The Mondoshawans’ heroic appearance to fulfill their destiny in 2263 is thwarted by porcine mercenary warriors known as Mangalores, who turn out to have been hired to steal the prized stones by the eccentric Southern-accented industrialist Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman). The only surviving tissue remnant recovered from the wreck of the Mondoshawans’ spaceship by Earth forces is grown in a lab to become Leeloo, who chatters in an ancient language while being leered at by scientists and generals. She escapes and drops into the flying taxi of one Korben Dallas (Willis), a former special forces soldier who is failing his way out of cab driving and elects to help her to escape the authorities. She directs him to bring her to the current priest, Vito Cornelius (Ian Holm), who seeks to bring her together with the stones, apparently held for safe-keeping by a blue-skinned opera diva who will rendezvous with them aboard a massive interstellar cruise ship. With the reluctant aid of effeminate chatterbox radio personality Ruby Rhod (Tucker), Korben, Leeloo, and the priest will attempt to beat Zorg and the Mangalores to the stones and then save the universe from oblivion.

If this written synopsis makes The Fifth Element sounds like a deluging cascade of exhausting, fanciful, whimsical nonsense, imagine what it’s like to actually watch the damned thing. It’s an avalanche of gallic excess, from Dan Weil’s production design (based on concept art by French comics artists Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Jean-Claude Mézières) to Jean Paul Gaultier’s magnificently odd gender-bending costumes to Thierry Arbogast’s saturated cinematography. Besson and his team create a spectacular and deeply weird cinematic world, defined as much by its tiny details and wacky sight-gags as its wider vistas. Its humour can manifest broad slapstick one moment and slyly satirical the next. Besson can veer from the artful avant-garde to the explosive action blockbuster in a quick flash, and frequently does in the film’s final hour: the alien opera singer performs while intercut with Leeloo kung-fu-ing a squad of Mangalores to save the stones, followed by a manic-destructive shootout between Korben and the rest of the piggish thugs.

These broad brushstrokes continue into the supporting performances by Oldman, so insane and over-the-top he’s almost back under again, and Tucker, whose grating high-pitch motormouthed riffs contrast with Willis’ usual stoic directness and self-deprecating irony. Tucker really is a bit too much, but at least Besson doesn’t give in to the temptation to throw him together with the more amusingly wild Oldman for an overacting-off (Tucker and Holm share a brief comic scene over a bomb timer that surely must constitute one of the most incongrous mis-pairings in film history).

Besson’s tone is so consistently frenetic and wacky that when he belatedly attempts to make a weightier point about the immorality of human conflict, it ought to, by all rights, fall flat. But just as freakish visual eccentricity manages to coexist with action blockbuster conventions elsewhere in The Fifth Element, pausing amidst the fabricated madness to contemplate the true madness of war. This is hardly the only French film to slam seemingly incompatible elements together until they vaguely fit with one another, nor the only one to bring Gallic flourishes of lush artistry to the action-adventure genre. But The Fifth Element, for all of its silliness, is perhaps the purest and most entertaining distillation of that embrace of hybridity run rampant. Besides, of course, France itself.

Categories: Film, Reviews

The Insidious Perspective of Fiction: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

April 22, 2017 Leave a comment

Were Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita not centrally concerned with one of western society’s most controversial taboos, it would remain one of the 20th Century’s paragons of literary fiction. Nabokov was a prodigious prose stylist, and his 1955 novel is magnificently written, a giddy rush of wit, innuendo, puns, sly allusions, vivid descriptions, and hilarious, wicked observations of and judgements on human foibles and American culture alike. His infamous unreliable narrator protagonist Humbert Humbert, the learned, urbane European “gentleman” nursing an illicit fascination for prepubescent girls and the titular American nymphet (to use his coinage referring to female minors with a certain inestimable sexual spark) in particular, is surely one of the great characters in the modern novel.

To call him “great” does not imply that he is good. Humbert is pathetic and sympathetic, confident and simpering, delightful and repulsive, a cultured monster like Hannibal Lecter, a more elusive Humbertesque character who would come to define the type. He coolly assesses and dismisses most of the people he encounters through the novel as inherent beneath him, but his snobbish judgement of their inferiority is only rarely applied to his own reprehensible conduct. The reprehensibility of that conduct – he abducts and repeatedly rapes an underaged girl, to state matters in strict legally-defined terms – must be constantly kept fixed in the foreground while reading Lolita, because Humbert’s (and Nabokov’s) intoxicating aesthetic reveries and elaborate web of deceptive justifications insidiously obfuscate the moral dimensions of his actions.

Lolita has been tarred since its publication as button-pushing tittilation and even brushed aside as mere pornography, while Nabokov has been pilloried as a dirty old man for writing it. Dismissing the book as smut is a simple and surely comforting response to its unsettling effect on the reader: its seductive inculcation of its audience into the crimes of its protagonist and the troubling implications for fictional perspective. The unreliable narrator element that Humbert typifies is generally understood in a rather literal manner: although the reader views a text’s events through the imagined gaze (usually male, and Humbert’s is just that, with a twisted intensity) of the narrating character and thus comes to at least identify and perhaps even like this narrator-character, the character’s version of events cannot be trusted, cannot be believed, may be an embellishment, a lie, a perversion. In the most common cases that this narrator-character’s perspective is the only one provided, this trust gap between reader and narrator destabilizes the consistency and internal truth-claims of the fictional work.

There is an easily-detected irony in that last phrase, and it’s one that Nabokov delights in throughout Lolita. Fiction is not truth. Indeed, it is its precise opposite: a lie. At its best, an artful lie, even a profound one, that in its culturally-heightened ideal reveals greater fundamental truths than could an accurate recitation of verifiable facts about the world (which is also far from how the coyly-named “non-fiction” functions, though that is a discussion for another time). Nabokov openly derides that ideal of fiction as “topical trash”, and considers it “childish” to read a work of fiction in order to strive to understand something important about an author’s place and times. His 1956 afterword to Lolita, from which these observations are torn, also focuses on the passages (“favorite hollows”, he calls them) in which his words convey pure sensation, as in Humbert’s obsessively involved description of the bodily movements and contortions made by his preteen paramour Dolores Haze (whom he fondly nicknames Lolita) while playing tennis.

It’s instructive to consider the corollary of this passage, however: namely, that Dolores’ exquisite corporeal aesthetics do not lead to success on the court. Indeed, her impeccable form, romanticized to sublime heights by Nabokov through Humbert’s desirous aestheticized gaze but also through her own internalization of the effects of that gaze (she reads movie magazines constantly, absorbing the cinematic star’s ideal of feminine beauty), detracts from her chances of winning. This reflects quintessential facets of Dolores’ character, of how Humbert’s fascination with and possession of her body is not paired with intellectual fascination (she’s moody and a bit shallow, her interests those of a standard girl her age, in many ways). She is always a bit of a mystery to Humbert even while she is held as his sexual captive, so seemingly simple and yet so inherent inscrutable even to his learned and nimble mind.

But just as Dolores’ visually-evident physical prowess does not make her a tennis champion, Nabokov’s evident prowess with prose quite purposely does not reveal truths. Instead, it shows how truths are constructed, Frankenstein-like, from lies, which is then labelled fiction and sold at a bookstore (though not at so many, any longer). Humbert lived a lie with his Lolita for a lengthy period of time, posing as her father while acting as her lover. His narrative account of that time is another lie, making excuses for his immoral behaviour, his shocking acts, and displaying just enough humour and self-deprecation and well-placed pathos to wheedle the reader’s tentative, fleeting forgiveness. And Nabokov, in constructing this nesting-doll of self-reflexive literary dishonesty, displays fiction’s insidious power to deceive, to pervert the certainty of meaning and of moral conclusions. If words can create such impressions and conceal the inherent nature of things in a novel about a grown man who loves a young girl below the age of consent, what even more troubling perversions can they exemplify and coax into being?

Categories: Literature, Reviews

Film Review: Tower

April 13, 2017 Leave a comment

Tower (2016; Directed by Keith Maitland)

On a hot, sunny morning in August 1966 in Austin, Texas, a young man climbed to the outdoor observation deck of the iconic tower of the Main Building on the campus of the University of Texas and began shooting at random people below with a sniper rifle. Charles Whitman, a highly intelligent former Marine sharpshooter with violent tendencies and a brain tumour that may have exacerbated such issues, killed 14 people (not including his mother and his wife, whom he had murdered the night before) and wounded 31 more before he was shot dead by police.

Were it to happen tomorrow, Whitman’s killing spree would shock but not surprise America and the world, occupy a news cycle or two and inflame long-simmering political and social debates (gun control, militarism, treatment of mental health, any number of potential identity-politics flashpoints). The trauma might overwhelm those closest to its epicentre, gutting the lives of victims and their loved ones and shaking the communities where they occur. But then, all too quickly, it would slide into the annals of the collective memory, its dead decorously mourned, its heroes propagandistically lionized, its applicable lessons summarily suffocated under memorializing stone. American public discourse has thoroughly ritualized mass shootings, conditioned reaction and response to them, and rendered them as a common feature of the social landscape. Mass shootings have become as American as Chevrolets, Coca-Cola, the crack of a baseball bat on a summer afternoon, and highways stretching to the horizon. They might not evoke a sense of pride (even the self-styled “patriots” of the pro-gun right have not such atrophied souls as that), but they have certainly achieved a perverse but stable level of tolerance and acceptance, with the social errors they point back to removed from cleansing reform at a protective distance.

But in August 1966, a troubled loner slaughtering his fellow citizens still held a seismic charge of disorienting unfamiliarity. Keith Maitland’s truly remarkable re-created document of the terrible events of a half-century before, Tower, brilliantly and artistically captures the hyper-real unreality of bearing witness in the eye of a shooting-spree storm by depicting that perspective in a form of hyper-real unreality: rotoscopic animation. Animating over filmed actors playing principal victims and players in the saga on the re-created stage of the mid-’60s University of Texas campus, Maitland’s striking method of telling the story of the shootings was partially driven by necessity. His indie documentary was made on a small budget raised through online crowdfunding and matching grants from UT alumni, and he would not be able to film extended re-enactment scenes on the campus itself, which could be reconstituted instead through animation. But necessity can still be the mother of invention, and Tower is nothing if not inventive.

Maitland mixes the re-enactments with re-enacted testimonial interviews, all animated in a warm, colourful, but unsettlingly jumpy visual style, vaguely reminiscent of fellow Austin filmmaking impresario Richard Linklater’s 2001 film Waking Life, albeit less surreal in its intentional effect. Indeed, the animation greatly heightens the powerful affect of Maitland’s film, emphasizing the sturdy, understated Texan lyricism of the interview accounts, which convey the flow of events, emotions, and impressions in a unified tapestry of mood and tone and feeling. Aesthetically, tonally, and symbolically, Tower renders the tragic dimensions of the event – its uncertain, sweaty panic, the horror of its silences, the strange guilt it engenders in even the most selfless of participants – as a work of art. Maitland even allows himself flights of artistic fancy, as when a movingly-timed flashback account of the dayglow romance of wounded pregnant student Claire Wilson and her boyfriend Tom Eckman (both Tom and Claire’s unborn child were killed by the tower-top sniper, losses of a weight that is almost unfathomable) is portrayed amidst delicate Art Nouveau lattice frames.

As Tower approaches its conclusion, Maitland transitions from his animated “period” actors playing witnesses and participants to current and archived interview footage of the real people themselves. It’s a surprisingly moving choice, this belated alignment of Tower with more established documentary conventions. It reflects the director’s decision to make his film predominantly about those in the crosshairs of the sniper rather than about the sniper himself. Indeed, Whitman is only named in the denouement in an archival news report, and his troubles and motivations are not explored in any detail (much of the info given above is from other sources). Those wishing to learn more about the shooter may be disappointed, but Tower is a film about survival and endurance and spirit in the face of indiscriminate violence, and it denies its perpetrator the primary product of that violence: power over others.

Maitland overtly connects the 1966 UT shootings with subsequent massacres like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and more, in what might be construed as an overreaching late thesis-statement lunge at topicality and relevance for a film immersed in the minutiae of a vanished era. But in its striking visual style, poised balance between animation and documentary footage, and ultimate embrace of human struggle in the midst of senseless terror (for what are mass shooters but terrorists, their empathy lost in a demented swirl of foggy causes and exploded grievances?), Tower is a measured, memorable antidote to the common results of mass shootings. To state it plainly, where contemporaneous media makes the killers into mythic figures, this film gives his victims and those who stood to defy and defeat him the mythic treatment. It comes by its topical relevance honestly, with hard, smart, well-felt effort and skill. It’s riveting and reflective, realist and poetic. Tower is a great film, not only a great documentary.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews