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Television Review: The English Game

April 13, 2020 Leave a comment

The English Game (Netflix; 2020 – Present)

On his YouTube channel Renegade Cut, video essayist Leon Thomas refers to English television writer and House of Lords peer Julian Fellowes’ hit historical drama Downton Abbey as “aristo-trash”, a dramatic subgenre that includes Netflix’s popular prestige series on the British Royal Family under the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, The Crown. Media products such as these series are critiqued by Thomas as providing rose-tinted, humanizing portraits of super-rich privileged elites such as the Windsors of The Crown and the Crawleys of Downton Abbey “for the purposes of capitalist apologetics and propaganda”. They also invariably include idealized friendly, respectful, and even loving relations between the rich and the poor, even while emphasizing the common humanity of members of the irreparably separated classes on either side of the still-widening divide of socioeconomic inequality by exploring their personal struggles in a tonal manner that suggest their broad similarity and shared humanity.

Furthermore, they present the radical politics of change and redistribution of wealth and privilege as an immature trifle of youth to be outgrown and left behind, when they aren’t depicting such politics and their frequent accompanying behaviours of protest and confrontation as outright violent and dangerous. The rare elements of progressive change that slip through this tight net are consistently attributed to the magnanimous generosity of enlightened philosopher-king individuals, exemplars of the elites at their best charitably giving to the less-fortunate of society. The sum affect of this presentation of class relations serves to re-entrench tradition power structures as positive and benevolent, their exploitations, oppressions, and inequalities elided or explained away or more often entirely absent. For an Old Tory like Lord Fellowes, a cultural text like Downton Abbey buttresses the wealthy upper-class elite to which he belongs and whose interests he seeks to shield and safeguard from progressive threats.

The English Game is a new series for Netflix co-created by Fellowes (with Tony Charles and Oliver Cotton), who also co-writes all six episodes. Set in Britain in 1879-1880, the series focuses on a key, semi-fictionalized turning point in the history of association football (a.k.a. soccer), when the sport that would one day become the world’s most popular pivoted from an amateur leisure pastime of overgrown boarding-school gentlemen to an athletic communal religion of the working class featuring paid professional players bought and sold by wealthy, ambitious, competitive club owners. The English Game (its title referring to the nationalistic nickname for football but also punning on the social and economic negotiations of the class structure) shares Downton Abbey‘s upstairs/downstairs dichotomy of rich and poor experience, and its dramatic and emotional stakes are not uninvolving or unpersuasive. But make no mistake, this is aristo-trash par excellence, full of soft-focus illuminations of upper-crust benevolence and upright, honourable working folks living vicariously through the glories of the local footie club.

In 1879, football had been an organized sport with rules of governance for just over 30 years, and somewhat wider-scale agreement on those rules was much more recent (the sport now widely known as rugby only split off into its own codes of play in 1871, for example). The Football League (the world’s first) would not be founded until 1888, and so the only real national footballing competition at the time was the FA (Football Association) Cup, which had been dominated since its beginnings in 1872 by the amateur private school teams whose players had agreed upon its rules and largely populated the positions of control in the FA. These figures kept the game strictly amateur, professionalism being seen as common and vulgar and grounds for expulsion from cup competition, as well as of course threatening their clubbish dominance of the fledgling sport. But a growing number of football clubs from the Midlands, the North, and Scotland were springing up and challenging the old boys of the game down south, these teams often run by mill owners or other businessmen who began to secretly pay the best players from other such clubs to join their own squads. From some of these clubs also emerged new tactics based on quick passing and speed, rather than the rugby-adjacent packed rushes and rough physicality of the well-fed and well-rested school alumni teams. The game was changing. Would its wealthy and privileged gatekeepers change with it, or be left behind?

At least this is how The English Game presents the conflict in the sport in this period; more knowledgable historians of the game may quibble with specifics, and it feels like the on-field tactical shift in particular is likely oversimplified (on more than one occasion, large-scale tactical innovations are made in quick conversations at halftime), but in broad strokes, it’s probably relatively accurate to what was happening in football at the time (also, the balls they use look really, really hard). At any rate, this is fertile ground for the kind of highly-skewed class relations drama that Fellowes favours, and he mostly doesn’t waste it. His central contrasting figures and dual protagonists come from each side of the class divide in Victorian society and in Victorian football. There’s Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft), aristocratic heir to a wealthy, lordly financier father (Anthony Andrews) who disapproves of his scion’s childish footballing obsession, husband to Alma (Charlotte Hope) and hopeful father-to-be, FA principal, captain of perennial FA Cup contenders Old Etonians, and perhaps the first nationally-known star player in the sport. Aligned against Kinnaird (but ultimately coming to a position of mutual respect and admiration with him) is Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie), a diminuitive but highly talented Scot who moves to Northern mill-town team Darwen FC from Partick Thistle in Glasgow along with his on-field running mate and best friend Jimmy Love (James Harkness); both are paid under the table to play while working a cover job at the textile mill (the real Suter was a stonemason) of Darwen FC owner James Walsh (Craig Parkinson). Suter struggles to balance his on-field ambitions with his quick-hardening fondness for and loyalty to the town, as well as his developing feelings for local woman Martha Almond (Niamh Walsh) and his concerns about the well-being of his family back in Glasgow, who fear the violent rages of his alcoholic father (Michael Nardone).

Although Fellowes works here with co-creators and co-writers (Thomas points out in his video essay that Fellowes has a solo writing credit on all but three Downton Abbey episodes, whose credits he shares, as well as the capstone movie, making the work a rare-enough example of a single authorial voice in filmed media), The English Game has all the hallmarks of the aristo-trash style. Everybody, rich and poor, has humanizing issues and personal struggles (at least partly for the purpose of equalization and erasure of socioeconomic difference), and these form the numerous subplots unwinding behind the core progression of the FA Cup tournament towards the inevitable meeting between Kinnaird’s and Suter’s clubs in the final. Arthur deals with his father’s disapproval of his sporting focus and tries to prove his mettle to the old man as a capitalist, all while tiptoeing his way to a stronger marriage with Alma (who suffers a traumatic miscarriage and transmutes her loss into meddling in the affairs of a lower-class mother who has to give up her child for adoption).

Kinnaird also serves as the focal point for Fellowes’ aristo-trash pro-elite propaganda, witnessing and sympathizing with the strike actions and protest marches of Darwen’s mill workers, which include Suter’s teammates. He thus becomes a benevolent champion for working-class rights in politics, society, economics, and football, a personification of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s idealized “Tory men with Whig measures”. This predilection sets him at odds with his more arrogant, power-playing Old Etonian teammates in the FA, namely the show’s chief villain Francis Marindin (Daniel Ings; no relation to the former Liverpool and current Southampton forward of the same name), who is eager to expel their competition from the North from the cup for hooliganism, professionalism, or whatever else suits his purposes.

The English Game includes a subplot about wage cuts for factory workers and labour unrest, and Fellowes approaches it exactly as his aristo-trash leanings would lead one to suspect he would. As Kinnaird watches and Suter resists an attempt by the ringleaders to leverage his on-field notoriety to the strike’s benefit with mild calls for unity and understanding, incendiary speeches about workers’ rights lead to a torch-wielding mob that marches threateningly on the house of the head of the cotton guild, Colonel Jackson (Richard McCabe). Vandalism and a perceived threat to the lives of Jackson and his family ensue, and after Darwen FC keeper and aspiring capitalist Ted Stokes (Joncie Elmore) slips into the house to warn the colonel and his family, police mistakenly arrest him and cruelly shoot his dog dead. Only Arthur Kinnaird’s compassionate interceding in the trial and accompanying pledge to finance Stokes’ proposed football-shirt manufacturing concern saves an innocent (indeed, heroic) man from unfair incarceration. Labour agitation, Fellowes is saying, is nothing but trouble, and only by protecting the owners of the means of production as Stokes does can any improvement in one’s standing be achieved, through the kind generosity of those owners.

The ultimate thesis of The English Game is even more grimly platitudinal in its cynical upholding of traditional, uneven class relations as transmuted through capitalism. Kinnaird and Suter combine forces in a pivotal meeting with Marindin and the FA leadership to get Blackburn (the club Suter has moved to from eliminated Darwen in order to have a shot at winning the FA Cup) reinstated to the competition following a hooliganish riot caused by an injury to Love in an exhibition match between the club and rival Darwen. This stated reason is only a sideline concern for Marindin, who is really seeking to root out illegal professionalism and expose Suter as a paid mercernary. As Kinnaird predicts the spread of football worldwide with ludicrous geographical accuracy (“Then we’ll grow corrupt and shiftless, and the Brazilians will eat us alive!”), Suter repeats a point that he has made locally in Darwen and Blackburn numerous times up to that point. The British working class needs football, and feeds ravenously off the weekly exploits of their heroes on the pitch to get them through the dull, dehumanizing drudgery of their grinding manual labour jobs and poverty-stricken existence. To deny them that in order to preserve the upper echelons of the competitive game as a private leisure retreat for the ultra-rich patriarchal class is not only churlish and snobbish and unfair, but even undemocratic and above all fruitless when arrayed against the inevitable advance of the sport’s progress.

This is presented as a proclamation of inspiring egalatarian hope, but it’s really dark as hell. The English Game understands football’s role in the United Kingdom as the ultimate opiate of the masses, the regular diversionary valve of emotional and aspirational investment that keeps the country’s poor docile and contented with their squalid lot and occupies the energies that might otherwise have been expended in the dogged pursuit of radical social, political and economic change. The proletariat doesn’t need reform, and certainly doesn’t need messy, costly revolution, to improve their conditions when they’ve got the Merseyside Derby. The English Game sets passionate commoners against arrogant rich men, with enlightened mediators in between, with the future of football and indeed of the nation at stake. But its insidious subtext is that in pivoting to professionalism and a related growth in popularity, the sport also became one of the most powerful mechanisms of social control for the British elite class. That this elite needed to be dragged kicking and screaming to the realization of not only the inevitability of this change but also of the benefits to their position, their power, and their profits that would come with it is as revealing a glimpse into their mindset as Lord Fellowes could have provided.

Television Review: His Dark Materials

April 10, 2020 Leave a comment

His Dark Materials: Series 1 (BBC/HBO; 2019 – Present)

For those not familiar with the best-selling fantasy novel trilogy by Philip Pullman upon which BBC/HBO’s His Dark Materials series is based, consider the following (mildly spoiler-y) summation. Imagine C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series of children’s fantasy books, but they’re only nominally written for children (or even young adults, necessarily). Instead of a mysterious and a little whimsical portal inside a wardrobe leading to a single medieval-ish fantasy world, imagine numerous portals leading to a literally infinite number of alternate universes conceived on the basis of multiverse theory, each one either slightly different or wildly divergent from the next. Instead of a clutch of virtuous English children meeting an umimpeachably heroic talking lion, imagine a resourceful and special young girl befriending a full-sized talking polar bear wearing metal armour. And instead of a barely-veiled Christian allegory, imagine a rich scientific/cosmological metaphor for a totalizing atheistic belief system. His Dark Materials is a reasonably involving narrative full of complex world-building, science-fiction touches, and resonant themes about morality, liberty, and theocratic oppression.

If that sounds to you like it’s pretty awesome, I’m here to tell you that… yeah, it’s all right. I read the book series something like a decade ago (it was published about a decade before that, from 1995 to 2000) and enjoyed it well enough at the time, but retained its forceful non-deistic anti-creation mythos much more than any of its character’s arcs and emotional journeys, let alone Pullman’s febrile but unremarkable prose. Pullman is a graduate of Exeter College, Oxford, among whose most august alumni is the legendary author of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. Pullman very clearly conceives of himself and his literary output, His Dark Materials in particular, as being a comprehensive agnostic rebuttal to the seminal and beloved mid-century fantasy works of fellow Oxford dons Tolkien and Lewis, their involving stories based in mythology with themes ultimately reinforcing their authors’ Christian worldviews.

Pullman has flat-out said in public that he is “trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief”, and was labelled “the most dangerous author in Britain” by conservative writer Peter Hitchens. His Dark Materials (its title is taken from Book 2 of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and in that context the phrase has clear creationist implications) is utterly and completely not subtle about this primary goal, sometimes to its larger storytelling detriment. The primary antagonistic power-structure aligned against Pullman’s protagonists Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry in the trilogy is the Magisterium, a nearly all-powerful theocratic world government with its own globally-reaching armed police force that imposes total orthodox of belief and practice. It’s essentially as if the medieval Catholic Church was never splintered by the Protestant Reformation (or even the Great Schism with Eastern Orthodox Christianity, for that matter) and retained complete moral and spiritual authority over the Christian faith while extending that authority over all secular institutions and the entirety of world society as well.

If turning the Catholic Church into the evil Empire from Star Wars wasn’t enough, the plot of the first book of Pullman’s trilogy, initially published as Northern Lights in the UK but released as The Golden Compass in America, revolves around the Magisterium secretly abducting children in order to literally take away their souls (manifested in Lyra’s world as constant animal-spirit companions called daemons) in a deluded attempt to squash out the imagined source of sin. Pullman’s metaphor for his perception of organized Christian religion’s quashing of individual freedom of expression and of scientific inquiry is crystal-clear, and this plot strand and its thematic underpinnings perhaps unintentionally evoke the Catholic Church’s child abuse scandal while it’s at it. Hell, by the third book, Pullman is literally unmasking “God” as a con artist and killing him off in diminished ignonimy. He’s not hiding what this stuff is about in any way, inside the text or out of it.

To put it mildly, His Dark Materials has proven a tiny bit controversial with religious conservatives. The Catholic Herald‘s Leonie Caldecott called it “a Luciferian enterprise”, a work of art “far more worthy of the bonfire than Harry (Potter)“, its far more popular modern fantasy contemporary that has attracted laughably old-fashioned religious objections for promoting witchcraft, as if we’re living in the 1660s (although we’ve got the plague for it, after all). Caldecott was perhaps inadvertently making Pullman’s point for him (he asked his publishers to include her quotes in his next book), but she recognized the core feature of His Dark Materials: it’s extremely potent propaganda against religion aimed squarely at impressionable young readers. No doubt she’s worried that her side is falling irrevocably behind in the war of ideas, if it hasn’t already done so. Catholicism, once the (often literal) gold standard in self-justifying artistic propaganda, can’t boast any works of equivalently effective polemic in the half-century since cantakerous old C.S. Lewis gave up the ghost. A generalized smothering disdain for contemporary culture as well as a dogmatic adherence to outdated modes of thought and expression will tend to have that effect, one might find.

At any rate, nervousness about the intellectual property’s anti-religious intent was one of the contributing factors to the failure of the only previous attempt to adapt His Dark Materials to a visual medium. New Line Cinema, swelling with profits and prestige and confidence following the world-beating success of The Lord of the Rings Film Trilogy, swooped down on the film rights to Pullman’s books and poured $180 million into The Golden Compass, the first of what it hoped would be a trilogy of films that might approximate that great prior genre success. Unfortunately, approximating Rings was too thoroughly the mantra for The Golden Compass for it to ever work on its own terms. New Line hired a director of decent, middling-cost movies who was unproven with a budget and thus a cinematic canvas of such magnitude, but unlike with Peter Jackson, the bet did not pay off so spectacularly well this time: Chris Weitz’s biggest prior success was American Pie (co-directed with his brother Paul), and in The Golden Compass he cannot make the epically-scoped visual storytelling (sweeping landscape shots galore!) feel anything but inert and lifeless (his next film was a Twilight sequel, so those qualities were right at home with that material). Weitz himself even agreed with this assessment before the fact, actually resigning as director during pre-production, citing the enormous technical challenges that he didn’t feel up to (he did come back on board to finish the film, of course; I wonder if he regretted it).

Also, New Line insisted on casting recognizable Rings wizard actors, against Weitz’s wishes: Ian McKellen voiced Lyra’s armored bear buddy Iorek Byrnison in post-production, and Christopher Lee was shoehorned into a cameo as a menacing Magisterium big-wig. To top it off and come back to the initial point, New Line was also in nervous sweats over the material’s core of atheism hamstringing its vital Stateside grossing potential in the face of anticipated well-organized and well-funded conservative Christian protests in God’s Country. Therefore, in The Golden Compass, the Magisterium is clearly an all-encompassing villainous institutional force dedicated to intellectual dogmatism and authoritarian abuse of power, but just isn’t very specifically church-y. This dilution troubled Pullman and annoyed fans of the book (it’s hard to fathom how the content of the later books would have been handled with such an approach), and did not placate right-wing church groups like the Catholic League, which boycotted the film anyway. Other similar changes watering down elements of the novel and making them more palatable to mass audiences added to the problems, and although the film earned $372 million worldwide in box office receipts, it was considered a disapointment and its two planned sequels were not made. Disney’s contemporaneous Rings-piggybacking Chronicles of Narnia film was also pretty flat, but at least it made boatloads (or evangelical church-funded busloads, anyway) of money at the box office. New Line Cinema, barely a decade after changing Hollywood with The Lord of the Rings movies, was done in by The Golden Compass and was folded into corporate overlord Warner Bros. Pictures.

Belatedly, this brings us to the television adaption of His Dark Materials, a co-production of BBC and HBO which aired its eight-episode first season over the last weeks of 2019. Like the failed film trilogy attempt that preceded it, His Dark Materials comes to screens bearing the baggage of the genre and medium success of an influential precursor, namely HBO’s dark-fantasy (“hot fantasy… that fucks”) cultural juggernaut Game of Thrones, which ended its massively popular eight-season run by smearing lukewarm feces all over its own legacy a few months before His Dark Materials debuted on the same network (as well as on the Beeb). Unlike The Golden Compass movie, however, His Dark Materials is accorded the running time, the storytelling space, and the general creative freedom to produce a relatively faithful and more importantly relatively good adaptation of the novels that it’s based on, while at the same time being allowed to be fundamentally itself without shoehorning in dragons or bare breasts or Kit Harrington’s slack lips just because the studio suits wanted themselves another We$tero$. If anything, the series’ arrival in what might prove to be the COVID-19-enforced tail end of the Peak TV Era works to its advantage in a way that New Line’s all-eggs-in-the-basket approach to investment worked to the movie’s detriment. There’s less pressure on His Dark Materials as one ambitious, handsomely-budgeted long-form television narrative among very many to be anything greater than it is.

His Dark Materials manages to be what it is but not really all that much more. It’s miles better than The Golden Compass movie, but still somewhat basic, finally. Written by UK television veteran Jack Thorne with episodes directed by the likes of Otto Bathurst (Criminal Justice, Peaky Blinders) and Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, the already-infamous Cats), the first season of the series adapts the entirety of the plot of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass encompassing the adventures through England and the polar regions of the North of its pre-teen heroine Lyra, played capably by Logan standout Daphne Keen. An apparent orphan raised at Oxford’s fictional Jordan College in a steampunk-ish world different than ours in many ways (airships are used for transport rather than airplanes, for example, the Hindenburg disaster never having happened, most likely), Lyra yearns to join her adventuring “uncle” Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), a polar explorer and scientific researcher with a heretical interest in a mysterious, elemental substance called Dust with connections to daemons, trans-dimensional portals, and, the Magisterium believes, to sin. Also interested in Dust and its significance from a rather different angle is Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson), a beautiful and elegant woman working for the Magisterium who whisks Lyra away from Oxford to be her “assistant” in her London penthouse.

At the same time, Lyra is deeply concerned about a rash of child disappearances linked to a shadowy cadre known only as the Gobblers. Many children of the Gyptians, a riverboat-bound culture of nomadic Roma-like travellers, have vanished, and Lyra’s fellow college orphan and best friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd) is snatched up as well, which Coulter does not seem nearly so concerned about as Lyra thinks she should be. Eventually, Lyra will accompany the Gyptians in the frozen North in search of their missing children and Roger, armed with a truth-telling alethiometer (the titular golden compass) that only she can preternaturally read, where she will encounter Iorek (Joe Tandberg) and his fellow panserbjørne, a rogueish balloon-piloting aeronaut named Lee Scoresby (an oddly-cast Lin-Manuel Miranda), and discover what Coulter and Asriel are up to near the top of the world.

The first book in the series is more episodic than the others (like a lot of child-aimed fantasy books, including Tolkien’s The Hobbit and initial Rings novel The Fellowship of the Ring), but that works better in a television series than a film, given the medium’s structural division into episodes. His Dark Materials also plans for the future of its own storytelling more effectively; while Lyra’s co-protagonist Will Parry (Amir Wilson) is not introduced until the trilogy’s second book The Subtle Knife, he begins appearing halfway through the show’s first season, pursued by the surveillance of trans-world-crossing Magisterium agent Carlo Boreal (Ariyon Bakare). Speaking of the Magisterium, they are much more clearly a monolithic Christian-esque religious institution here than in the compromised movie, and Pullman’s core themes about faith and science, belief and doubt, control and freedom, and innocence and experience (Pullman was profoundly inspired by the illustrations of William Blake, proving that he hardly seeks to discount all faith-inspired artistic influence) receive clear and solid treatment by Thorne’s scripts. The battles, namely Iorek’s bear-to-bear tilt with usurping king Iofur (Peter Serafinowicz) and the Gyptians’ assault on the remote facility where the missing children are held and experimented on, scale down their magnitude when compared with the more epic but more lifeless installments in the movie; mostly they are seen from Lyra’s child-level perspective, thus focusing on their narrative significance rather than on their spectacle.

As strong as Keen is as Lyra, Ruth Wilson’s more-than-a-little skewed performance as Coulter is the centerpiece of the show. Wilson, with her unique, richly-curved, leering and cruel mouth, first gained notice in the Idris Elba-headlined BBC detective series Luther as a twisted trickster-figure sociopathic murderer, and she brings that disturbed energy to Coulter. Anne-Marie Duff also stands out in a deeply-felt turn as Lyra’s Gyptian surrogate mother figure Ma Costa, and of course reliable players like an all-business McAvoy and HBO vet Clarke Peters as Master of Jordan College do solid work. Miranda as Scoresby is a choice, for sure, and one of the season’s lag points is the episode in a northern town featuring his largely pointless tavern fight and Iorek resolving the problem of his stolen armour a bit too perfunctorily. The series also spends the requisite amount of time depicting the relationship and connection between people and their animal daemons because it’s vital to the plot’s climax, but also uses Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon (Kit Connor) as a frequent expository substitute for an internal monologue, thus depriving him (and all the daemons, really) of a personality. Daemons are also almost always absent in crowd scenes, a likely compromise to the CG effects budget that nonetheless detracts from the established internal reality of the world.

There’s a general perfunctory character to the drama in His Dark Materials the television series that should be noted, but I’m not entirely sure that character isn’t one shared by the literary source material. As discussed, Pullman has a very specific set of ideas and goals that he means to share and accomplish with these works, and although the drama and the characters are not exactly secondary to those ideas and goals, they are very intentionally and obviously conduits for his themes and message, to the frequent detriment of their emotional impact. His Dark Materials is a good but not yet great television series, and even if the pieces are nicely in place for adaptations of the two subsequent books in Pullman’s trilogy, there isn’t a whole to suggest that the adaptation will go to any special places in the journey to come.

Film Review: Baby Driver

April 3, 2020 2 comments

Baby Driver (2017; Directed by Edgar Wright)

Perhaps it’s just in my case and I was generally going off of him for any number of other reasons, but it had seemed for a number of years that Edgar Wright was fading. The English writer/director made his name as one of the most talented and promising young filmmakers of the 21st Century with a trio of spirited, cleverly-crafted, anthology-style comedy/action films starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost known as the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy: zom-rom-com Shaun of the Dead, buddy-cop genre send-up Hot Fuzz, and pub-crawling alien-body-snatchers adventure The World’s End. Most film fans would rank those movies in that order when it comes to quality, which implies a decline; Hot Fuzz is my favourite, and even if The World’s End is my least favourite, there’s some complex stuff going on in that screenplay that has not entirely been appreciated.

In any case, Wright followed that likely career-defining trilogy with Toronto-set comic-book adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (or rather interrupted it, Pilgrim seeing release between Hot Fuzz and The World’s End). Given the biggest budget of Wright’s career and a minor-blockbuster summer release date, Scott Pilgrim was a commercial flop and has assumed the cult fave status that a pop-culture-referencing hipster comic movie should have always aimed for in the first place (it also closed the book on the brief and retrospectively obviously deluded Michael Cera-as-movie-star era). Some people love it, most people don’t like it or don’t get it or just didn’t bother. Then Wright left the helm of a Marvel Cinematic Universe film (Ant-Man, although he and collaborator Joe Cornish retained story and screenplay co-credits) over artistic differences, missing a golden opportunity to make the exciting, graceful, deeply witty mass-appeal popcorn movie that he’s always clearly had in him.

This brings us to Baby Driver, which is that exciting, graceful, deeply witty mass-appeal popcorn movie that Edgar Wright always clearly had in him. Like the Cornetto Trilogy films, Baby Driver is superficially a genre film (a car-chase crime heist actioner) but is transformed and elevated by Wright’s artistic vision, technical skill, omnivorous cultural savvy, and thematic intelligence into a lightning-quick stunner of a jukebox musical crime thriller quite unlike any movie ever made before. It’s a massively entertaining and rewarding return to form from a filmmaker who maybe never really left that form to begin with.

Baby Driver‘s protagonist is titular (and yes, the title is a reference to the Simon & Garfunkel song, which plays unironically over the end credits), or crimeworld codename titular, anyway: Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway car driver of shockingly prodigious ability whose genius-level artistry behind the wheel is linked to his idiosyncratic behaviour, keeping mostly silent with his fellow criminals on the job while constantly donning sunglasses and iPod earbuds to listen to whatever selection of his encyclopedic music collection fits his particular mood and/or mission. Baby’s driving skill and love of music both connect via flashbacks to the traumatic car-crash death of his parents and especially his mother, an amateur singer whom he worshipped. He is at the beck and call of well-connected crimeboss Doc (Kevin Spacey, who is well and truly cancelled but reminds us here that he knows what do to with a clever, wordy script as well as any actor of his generation), to whom he owes a debt and who defends him from the doubts and even harassment of the hired robbery crews that he drives from theft location to safety. The most aggressive, unpredictable and dangerous of these harrassing robbers is the antagonistic Bats (Jamie Foxx), who is sadistically quick to violence and murder while Baby prefers not to get his hands dirty, clinging to some rapidly-vanishing moral terra firma (represented by his deaf, wheelchair-bound foster-father, played by deaf actor CJ Jones) despite his underworld absorption. Modern-day Bonnie-and-Clyde criminal couple Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) and Buddy (Jon Hamm) are friendlier, and Buddy even bonds with Baby over their shared appreciation of Queen’s “Brighton Rock”, but even these two show their teeth when circumstances lead to the movie’s final heist going awry.

The opening chase sequence of Baby Driver is indelibly exhilarating and defines the look, feel, sound, and rhythm of the rest of the film. Set to the stop-start herky-jerky rocker “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (when did you last hear that band name?), the scene begins with Baby rhythmically lip-syncing to the song while alone in the car waiting for the robbers to emerge and get in and then kicks into some of the most astonishing stunt driving you’ll ever see onscreen in the subsequent pursuit by police (Jeremy Fry is the production’s chief stunt driver, and he does some amazing things behind the wheel). But Wright, his editors Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos (Oscar-nominated for their work), and sound editor/mixer Julian Slater (twice Oscar-nominated for his work on the film) cut the shots and audio and even the emotional frequency in this scene to the ebb and flow of the song. All of Baby Driver‘s action scenes are edited for image and sound in this flowing way; a shootout at the film’s climax even features gunshots going off on the beat. Even a single-shot sequence of Baby walking down the streets of downtown Atlanta (as Wright did with Scott Pilgrim with Toronto, a favoured city for standing in for other more famous cities in Hollywood movies gets to play itself at last) to fetch coffee for Doc’s crew over the opening credits becomes a delightfully clever image-sound call-and-response melding of Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” (whose memorable opening horn fanfare was sampled in House of Pain’s frat-party anthem “Jump Around”) and Baby dancing along the sidewalk, his movements reflecting the words, miming a horn solo next to a trumpet in a musical instrument shop window, and passing lyrics posted on cue in lampost signs and on wall graffiti.

Baby Driver is not just a theme-park ride, either. It’s a movie with soul (often soul music, too). There’s a full character and narrative arc here for its protagonist, with themes and symbolism layered smoothly by Wright through perfectly-executed set-ups and payoffs. Baby seeks idealized romance and companionship with pretty waitress Debora (Lily James) in a manner that is interestingly likened to his adoring devotion to his dead mother: they both waited tables at the same diner, he has tapes of both of them singing (Baby records every conversation and samples phrases into homemade electronic songs on tape, a hobby which understandably gets him in hot water with his criminal associates when they discover his tape collection), associates both with the freedom of driving for his own sake and not compelled by necessity and shot through with immorality, as he is made to do by Doc. Relatedly, Baby’s surrogate father-figure Doc is a fine mercurial portrait of an abusive patriarch, sticking up for him and peppering him with praise but also dropping menacing bare threats to get what he wants from his dependent. Little wonder that Spacey plays him so well given what we know about the man now, although the character gets a redemptive sacrifice moment that one feels the actor does not likewise deserve.

For this critic at least, Edgar Wright had become a lapsed friend who hadn’t been seen in a while, or maybe more like a familiar acquaintance with a habit for on-point witticisms who had moved away and thus was mildly missed at social functions. Wright has always been one of those younger filmmakers who can be a bit too clever for his own good, and between Scott Pilgrim and The World’s End and his exit from Ant-Man, he threatened to vanish into inward-gazing cleverness amidst the sort of production difficulties faced by nearly all Hollywood-adjacent filmmakers as much as due the fickle tastes of specific cinephiles. Baby Driver is a fairly triumphant comeback by Wright in an artistic, critical and especially commercial sense. Consider this review a sincere pledge to keep in touch with him.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review: Outbreak

March 30, 2020 Leave a comment

Outbreak (1995; Directed by Wolfgang Petersen)

If Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is a film that feels like an exaggerated encapsulation of the fear and anxiety of a viral pandemic like the COVID-19 one sending the globe into paroxysms at the moment, then Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak is… well… it’s a movie about a virus. That much is undeniable. But Outbreak is predictably sensationalist mid-’90s Hollywood shlock where the later Contagion is an exacting short-on-breath thriller. In amping up the drama in every moment to over-the-top extremes, Outbreak makes for an epidemiological thriller that is more laughable than frightening, more incredible than indelible.

Outbreak was helmed by German director Wolfgang Petersen, who made the tense and claustrophobic submarine thriller Das Boot in his home country, followed it with the beloved (or at least generally well-regarded) children’s yarn The Neverending Story in America, and parlayed their successes into multiple big-budget studio productions that just never came close to being any good again (with all due apologies to the legions of sincere dads out there who get alternately pumped and weepy at Air Force One or The Perfect Storm). Outbreak is situated smack dab in the middle of his Hollywood career and reflects the smothering militarism that marks many of his blockbuster productions (and many Hollywood blockbusters period, to be fair, with often unsettling implications). There’s a whole mess of army in this movie about a devastatingly deadly viral epidemic that bursts Ebola-like out of darkest central Africa (the Congo to be specific, then known as Zaire) and threatens America, namely a fictional town in California.

Dustin Hoffman is Sam Daniels (is this weird casting? I kept thinking so, but had trouble pinpointing a compelling argument as to why), an army doctor for USAMRIID, the US Army’s infectious disease research unit. He gets a glimpse of the Motaba virus’ terrible impact in a decimated Zairean village, and repeatedly disobeys orders from his superior officer Brigadier General Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman) not to intervene in the developing Stateside viral crisis, on the insistence of Major General McClintock (Donald Sutherland). McClintock is trying to suppress news of the epidemic because – twist! – the U.S. Army developed the virus 30 years before as a biological weapon and they don’t want the bad press of exposure. Rene Russo is Dr. Robby Keough, a CDC epidemiologist and Sam’s ex-wife and ex-coworker who is also on the scene of the outbreak, along with Sam’s USAMRIID colleagues played by Kevin Spacey (who gives a lamely quippy performance unworthy of the actor who also appeared so transcendently in Seven and The Usual Suspects in the same calendar year as this movie, and who we now know really sucks a lot) and Cuba Gooding, Jr. (a by-the-book rookie who barks out every line as if replying to a drill sergeant). In addition to studying and seeking to treat and cure the Motaba virus ahead of the imminent wipeout bombing of the whole infected town on McClintock’s orders, this team is also tracking the viral host, an adorable Capuchin monkey (probably the same one who played Ross Geller’s monkey on Friends, which is a Spacey-like concentration of big-time acting credits) illegally brought into the States and released into the woods by a leather-jacketed dirtbag named – no fooling – Jimbo Scott (a young and bizarrely-cast Patrick Dempsey).

You might be surprised to learn that Sam’s efforts to find the host and use it to whip up an antiserum to cure the virus (which he manages to accomplish in the space of an afternoon, by all appearances) involve him and Gooding, Jr.’s Major Salt stealing an army helicopter not once but twice, the first usage of the chopper developing into an elaborate helicopter chase (featuring some admittedly impressive stunt flying) with McClintock’s two birds. It also concludes with Sam starting a forest fire to distract their pursuers and get away, which seems somewhat irresponsible of him, but I digress. But Outbreak doesn’t stop to think about such things, nor does it get at all thoughtful about government abuses of power at the sequence of California townsfolk running the military quarantine line in pickup trucks, only to get totally lit up and brutally murdered by a helicopter gunship (the yokels did open fire first, but anti-government militias would see it as a prime call to arms nonetheless).

Outbreak doesn’t stop for anything. Petersen fills his movie with scenes of rumbling military vehicles, cacophonous hospital pandemonium, spurting blood, and violent fevered seizures in a theatre lobby on spilled popcorn. The big marching brass score from James Newton Howard bombasts away at every dramatic juncture, in collaboration with the unsubtle cymbal crashes of the sound design. Rita Kempley’s contemporary review of the film for The Washington Post called attention to Petersen’s “rabid pacing”, and her observation is aptly worded; Outbreak is a movie constantly breaking out in fever sweats, driven into a flopping frenzy by the earth-shaking dramatic momentum of its proceedings.

For a movie about a hyper-dramatic viral epidemic, Petersen’s drumbeat of portentous consequence may strike one as appropriate. But as our own current pandemic experience has shown us (and as Contagion, for all of its own dramatic developments, appreciated), it’s the dull ache of the anxious mundane and the irritating, psychologically wearing disruption of routine social operations that characterize life under viral quarantine as much as a momentous drama of life and death (though the latter is a certain reality for an unfortunate many as well). We ought not to necessarily expect a movie with a title of the furious erupting motion of Outbreak to be a sober reflection on the existential struggles of the viral apocalypse. Outbreak has neither the time nor the inclination to be that movie, and you can’t blame it. Look at that feature movie poster in its starkly serious unexpected hilarity, with the three stars staring down the monkey. How could the movie that follows that be anything but cornball in the extreme?

If anything, though, Outbreak diminishes the pandemic threat that it so breathlessly trumpets. Motaba spreads and mutates of its own accord as lethal viruses do, but at its core it’s a creation of the U.S. military-industrial complex as a weapon, and the shoot-first, ask-questions-later military in this movie is a far greater and more lethal force than any germ. Outbreak is militaristic as hell, but to Petersen’s mild credit that militarism is hardly a benevolent force for freedom, as the propaganda line goes. Indeed, the Army has got the blood of many American citizens on its hands (to say nothing of the Africans it kills as well, which the movie barely does), and through Sutherland’s no-prisoners McClintock is so stubborn in its dogged insistence on its own righteousness that it must be laboriously forced not to bomb a couple thousand Americans to kingdom come.

Outbreak is too foaming-at-the-mouth frantic to expand its need for a non-microscopic villain to any sort of actual critique of American imperialism, and McClintock’s comeuppance is filtered through a deep-subplot character arc of his relentlessly demeaned and cucked subordinate Briggs (Dale Dye) getting the momentary satisfaction of arresting his jerk of a boss. He’s a bad apple, not a representative of deeper and more insidious imperialistic sociopathy in the military establishment. Outbreak is thus a military movie about how the military is bad, and a viral disaster movie in which the virus is man-made. It’s more interested in its preposterous conceits than in sounding any sort of warning about the spread of disease. It’s doing its job and working furiously to pummel its audience with (frankly cheap) diversion, but beyond that? Don’t expect much.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Contagion

March 25, 2020 Leave a comment

Contagion (2011; Directed by Steven Soderbergh)

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic currently paralyzing much of the world and altering any social, economic, and political norms that we might collectively have taken for granted, millions of people have dealt with the anxiety and uncertainty of this transformative mass health emergency in the best way they’ve learned how: they have stayed in their homes and watched lots of stuff on Netflix. One of the pieces od media that quarantined viewers have understandably gravitated toward is Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 viral outbreak thriller Contagion, and honestly, they could do far worse.

Contagion is in many ways a highly representative Soderbergh work, a filmic story told through multiple disconnected but broadly related narrative threads and peppered with multimedia expository methods. The camera work is immediate and the cinematography unadorned, the acting naturalistic and marked by overlapping dialogue, the editing sharp, nimble, and vital. Alissa Quart coined the term “hyperlink cinema” to describe this style, and several Soderbergh movies (most notably Traffic, which won him his Best Director Academy Award) fit the guidelines. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (a frequent collaborator and director of last year’s excellently sober The Report) are also fond of using the hyperlink cinema approach to explore various facets of a complex social or political issue that the traditional protagonist-biography format of Hollywood message movies has proven too rigid and direct to handle effectively.

Contagion proves that a viral pandemic of global proportions (an imagined and far deadlier one than we currently face, if that’s any sort of balm for the sting of current circumstances) is precisely the kind of event that hyperlink cinema was developed in order to depict onscreen. A message movie with a singularly focused narrative strand would necessarily proscribe and thus misrepresent the rhizomatic enormity of a worldwide plague in a way that a multipronged hyperlinker like Contagion is not likewise constrained to do. A lesser single-narrative-thread film would probably would have focused on the experiences of Midwestern everyman Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon), whose world-travelling (and unfaithful) wife Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from a business trip to Hong Kong and quickly falls dangerously ill. It may have alternately focused on the journey through the pandemic of a quartet of prominent health professionals: CDC chief Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), one of his top on-the-ground Epidemic Intelligence Service officers, Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), CDC research scientist and eventual vaccine developer Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), or WHO epidemiologist Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), who investigates the virus’ origins in mainland China.

Contagion intercuts all of their perspectives on the pandemic together to craft a greater multivalent whole, and even finds time to include the subplot of conspiracy-minded blogger (How quaintly 2011! Who the hell blogs anymore?) Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who gains millions of devoted (and a litte desperate) followers flogging a homeopathic cure employing an existing pharmaceutical product and thus contributes to a dangerous contagion of panic and distrust that escalates into order-collapsing self-interested lawlessness. Krumwiede’s plot might seem like the least accurate and most paranoidly apocalyptic portion of Contagion‘s multifaceted portrait of a fictional model pandemic (his self-fashioned protective bubble-head suit has something of 12 Monkeys to its design), and it’s fair to say that the contemporary coronavirus situation proves this out. There’s no need for obscure anti-government bloggers to sow fear and discord with dangerous, unfounded promises of dubious miracle cures when you’ve got the President of the United States doing that on national television, after all.

Given the film’s fairly solid basis in disease response strategies and scientific knowledge, many details of Contagion will be alarmingly familiar to anyone living through the current pandemic. Ideas now common in the collective discourse like social distancing come up in dialogue, and Winslet’s Dr. Mears admonishes a colleague not to touch his face to prevent contracting the virus, as we have all been admonished many times by public health figures. The virus’ Chinese origins and its spread through the haphazard incautious contact of a globally-travelling, socially networked society that cannot easily or painlessly be limited, let alone locked down entirely, is likewise all too real today, although the film is not as good on the economic consequences as one might like. Probably the most unrealistic thing in the film, to be honest, is that two teenagers choose a U2 song for a proxy post-pandemic prom dance in Mitch’s living room (a wild flight of Gen-X fancy, if there ever was one).

Grounded as Contagion is in disease control modelling and rigorously studied scientific hypotheses and predictions, it should be so familiar. In so many ways, the coronavirus pandemic currently seizing up the world is seeing the global population react in all the ways that this film depicted, although thus far both the death toll and the complete breakdown of law and order shown in the film are not quite yet our reality (a line late in the film, as the world recovers, notes that the virus killed 26 million people; if COVID-19 claims that many victims, one doubts our social order would be able to endure it either). Is it comforting to have your contemporary reality largely mapped out in a fictional movie based on scientific modelling that is far more dire than an actual global pandemic? It’s hard to say, but Contagion‘s intention is like that of all of Soderbergh’s hyperlinked cinema verité socio-political message movies: not to comfort viewers but to shake them out of well-learned complacency concerning a problem by confronting them with fictional but documentary-immediate dramatic plottings of real issues and accurate information. Contagion is just a movie, but it has a well-researched and well-founded point and makes it skillfully, forcefully, and persuasively. It’s perhaps not entirely too late for this film to be of some benefit to our shared predicament of the moment, for whatever that benefit may be worth.

Film Review: The Two Popes

March 23, 2020 Leave a comment

The Two Popes (2019; Directed by Fernando Meirelles)

When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) first encounters Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) in The Two Popes, the Argentinian clergyman is humming Abba’s “Dancing Queen” in a Vatican City bathroom on the eve of the 2005 Conclave that would elect his German counterpart to St. Peter’s throne as Pope Benedict XVI, the head of the global Catholic Church. Overhearing the melody, Ratzinger (a capable musician who later tries to impress Bergoglio by noting that he recorded an album of devotional music at the Beatles’ storied London studio Abbey Road, although he mixes up its name with that of Westminster Abbey, which would not have been appropriate for the Bishop of Rome to step into) asks him which hymn it is. It’s an illustrative moment of the two subsequent pontiffs’ diverging approaches, a difference that Anthony McCarten’s screenplay is fond of grounding in recognizable touchstones of ordinary modern life.

Such touchstones are generally expected to be impossibly distant from the gilded marble confines of the pontificate, and for Benedict XVI, a dogmatic conservative immersed deeply in the inner affairs of the church and the faith as a respected theologian for a half-century before becoming pope, they genuinely are. Not so for Bergoglio, an Argentinian Jesuit whose career and life as a churchman was marked by the quotidian realities of the life, passions, and dangerous politics of the people of his country, and who would take as his pontifical name the moniker of Saint Francis of Assisi, champion of the downtrodden poor. Much of The Two Popes is set in opulent and historic papal palaces and grounded in the theological and philosophical sparring and tentative interpersonal rapprochement of the pontiffs present and future, played with such subtle yet comprehensive observance and wit by Pryce and Hopkins (McCarten based the screenplay on his own stage play, and it often shows). But director Fernando Meirelles – who co-directed City of God, the stunning operatic gutters tragedy of the Brazilian favelas is just as interested in using Bergoglio’s biography to tell a painful and troubled story about Latin American history and the Church’s ambivalent role in that history.

Meirelles cleverly employs bravura cinematic language to demonstrate the intricate, intimate integration of secular society and the structures of religion in Latin America at the film’s beginning. As the audio of a public sermon by Bergoglio from his time as a bishop touches on a metaphorical narrative of faith, Argentinian citizens flit and bustle through back lanes of Buenos Aires, cinematographer César Charlone’s camera lingering on biblically-themed wall murals that artfully reflect details in the parable. The scene closes with the wry and often impish Bergoglio mildly punning on San Lorenzo, his favourite Argentinian football club as well as, of course, a Christian martyr, well-known as the patron saint of chefs but also of comedians, which Bergoglio sometimes fancies himself.

His jokes and clever asides begin to frustrate Ratzinger when they meet several years after Benedict XVI’s election to the papacy, as Bergoglio seeks to offer his resignation from his archbishopric and Ratzinger begins to contemplate resigning from the Church’s top position himself. Much of the action (such as it is) of The Two Popes unfolds in the interactions of these two men, at the Pope’s summer residence Castel Gandolfo (where the earthy Bergoglio chats about oregano with the gardener), then in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican itself, where papal elections are held. Their conversations about their views of church dogma, personal interests, and life histories spin off into flashbacks, mainly to Bergoglio’s younger days (Juan Minujín plays this younger Bergoglio) in his home nation, when he chose the love of God over romantic love for a woman and then awkwardly navigated the fraught and often deadly political atmosphere of the 1976 junta coup in Argentina and the brutal repressions of the subsequent Dirty War in a manner that he has come to regret and that had terrible consequences for some of his fellow Jesuits, who were imprisoned and tortured by the military dictatorship.

Oddly, McCarten and Meirelles decide that Ratzinger’s younger experiences (which include being notoriously gangpressed into the Hitler Youth and then the German army during World War II, for pete’s sake) are not as worthy of dramatized inclusion, nor are his own regrets worth exploring in similar depth. In The Two Popes‘ most striking and contentious moment, Ratzinger gives confession to Bergoglio in the intimate Sistine Chapel sacristry (before sharing pizza and Fanta, which Bergoglio is amusingly eager to tuck into while Ratzinger laboriously says grace). The diegetic dialogue fades into silence as Ratzinger shares with his future successor his perceived sin of inaction as regards the prominent priest and notorious sexual abuser Marcial Maciel, who Benedict did remove after he was elected pope but far later than he felt that he should have.

The choice of literally going silent in this scene (and focusing on Pryce’s reaction shots to impart the impact of what his predecessor is saying) has the effect of turning away out of polite respect at this pivotal moment of regret and penitence. Confession in Catholic practice is a private act between believer and priest, the foundation of the implicit and unshakeable trust between shepherd and flock that is the rock of the Church. The deep moral horror of the decades-spanning sexual abuse scandal, however, is that it shattered that trust and thus damaged that vital relationship in quite likely an irrevocable fashion. According Ratzinger implied sympathy and even absolution in this moment compounds the violation, in its minor but potent way. McCarten and Meirelles look away, just as Church leaders did for too long.

Of course, The Two Popes was made with what appears to be some modicum of cooperation or at least semi-approving indifference from the Vatican (that’s not the real Sistine Chapel in the film, however, but a full-size replica set built at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios). Given this, it’s hardly likely that the film would openly or aggressively criticize the Church’s handling of the sexual abuse scandal (which still manages to be unsatisfying and insufficient, even under the generally popular and supposedly liberal and modern Francis I). What The Two Popes does do is venture perilously close to soft-focus hagiographic propaganda, especially in its portrayal of Bergoglio. Between conversations between the two old men and interstitial expository news reports, it is acknowledged that despite Bergoglio’s occasional statements treading ambiguously close to liberal positions on the Catholic Church’s most controversially reactionary policies regarding homosexuality, abortion, sacraments to divorced people, and woman priests, he represents more dogmatic continuity with the famously conservative Ratzinger’s papacy than is generally acknowledged. Alternatively, I defy anyone to watch The Two Popes and not come out of it with the firm impression that Bergoglio is a pretty cool dude, for a Pope (“and all the Catholics say he’s a pretty fly / for Il Papa“).

The breath of fresh air purportedly represented by the ascension of Pope Francis has always been more based in PR savvy and superficial gestures and public interactions by the sly Bergoglio than in a deeper shift in Church teaching or policy. Bergoglio is a man of the modern world far more than Ratzinger (who even as Pope Emeritus continues to issue missives blaming the Church’s endemic molestation problems on liberal leanings inside the institution and secular permissiveness outside it) ever was, but both men are the avatars of a faded order of moral instruction that cannot even cope effectively with its own hypocrisy and corruption, let alone pronounce spiritual cures for the larger ills of the world. Like media concerning old-world cocoons of privilege around the British royal family like The Crown or the papacy in Paolo Sorrentino’s HBO series The Young Pope, The Two Popes offers a (mildly fictionalized) glimpse behind the curtain of idiosyncratically anachronistic temporal power and humanizes the struggles of the people elevated beyond mere temporal concerns by that mantle of power falling upon them. But it does not challenge or interrogate the terms of that power nor the judiciousness or efficacy with which it is employed as it might more productively have done.

Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews

Film Review: Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems (2019; Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie)

Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is hopelessly addicted to the hustle. He owns and operates an exclusive jewelry shop in the Diamond District of New York City, and its profits allow Ratner to live in comfort and luxury with his wife and three kids outside the city. But Howard cannot enjoy his success for the overmastering desire to achieve more success, to hit it big and bigger, to win. This restless pursuit of more and more fractures his marriage to Dinah (Idina Menzel), who is planning to divorce him over his tumultuous affair with his shopgirl and mistress Julia (Julia Fox). It gets him in hot water with his loan shark brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian), whose enforcers (Keith William Richards and Tommy Kominik) pursue the forever dissembling Howard for an unpaid debt. And it drives him towards an elaborate transaction involving a rare black opal from an Ethiopian mine that he hopes to auction off for millions, if he can only get it back from the NBA megastar (Kevin Garnett, playing himself) whose eye it has irrevocably caught.

Uncut Gems is the sixth film from Josh and Benny Safdie, the other Jewish-American filmmaking brothers, who moved out of ear-to-the-ground independent film circles with Good Time in 2017, which, though I’ve yet to see it, is apparently one of the key cinematic texts in Robert Pattison’s transformation from much-mocked vampiric teen idol to serious art-film male lead (and thence to Batman). It features a thoroughly transformative, spectacular lead performance from Adam Sandler, former Saturday Night Live feature player turned money-printing comedic brand name known primarily for puerile antisocial regressive studio comedies that rake in the box office and are universally panned by critics. Sandler’s prior attempts to branch off from this sophomoric funnyman persona have traded on its entrenched notoreity: Judd Apatow’s Funny People cast Sandler as a famous comedian forced by illness to seek emotional reconciliation with the people around him, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punchdrunk Love cannily weaponized his hangdog awkward desperation to be liked alongside a frequent undercurrent of simmering violent rage. The Safdies flatter their fellow Jewish-American with a deeper well of confidence in his actorly ability to embody a complex, often irritating, but ultimately sympathetic character and play it to the hilt, and Sandler rewards them with a remarkable turn (that was sadly snubbed for a Best Actor Oscar nomination).

The Jewishness of Uncut Gems is among its notable qualities. It’s only one of the many dark ironies of anti-Semitic tropes that Hollywood, supposedly run by a shadowy, greedy, cultural Marxist Jewish cabal in so many conspiratorial Protocols of the Elders of Zion fever dreams, so constantly erases the particularities of Jewish experience in its cinematic product (Christopher Guest, although firmly a goyim, made this point with gentle humour in his prestige-film farce For Your Consideration). The Safdies and Sandler dive headlong into the culture they know well as Jewish New Yorkers, navigating the Jewish-dominated Diamond District, setting a key mid-film sequence at a family Passover dinner, and exploring many Jewish-Americans’ surprising but deep-seated love of basketball (perhaps in the New York Knicks, wandering for decades in the pro ball desert, they see kindred spirits). Although not specifically scriptual in narrative or thematic inspiration like the afore-allusioned Coen Brothers‘ most Jewish film, A Serious Man, Uncut Gems does manifest some essential truths about the Jewish experience in America and beyond, besetting Howard with tension and setbacks and suffering as he scrambles around on the margins of a respectable society that his money has earned him access to but which will always mark him as an outsider due to his ethnic identity (as well as due to him being a quarrelsome dick).

These obstacles related to identity interconnect with a critique of American capitalism and victor’s spoils socioeconomic ideology. A conservative or libertarian observer of Uncut Gems might comprehend Howard Ratner in terms of intrepid entrepreneurial individualism and understand his suffering and punishment as befitting his dangerous, extralegal hustling. Why can’t Howard just sell his jewelry and go home to his family, like a good profit-driven, family-values capitalist who quietly, serenely, deniably profits off of the misfortune of others? Why must he take unwise loans from violent people to pay off gambling debts racked up due to hugely risky sports bets, engage in swing-for-the-fences schemes to auction off African gems of uncertain value, and endanger his safety and stability to impress NBA superstars and tussle with pop singers (The Weeknd, in an amusing cameo)? Because of his own personal flaws, of course. There’s nothing systematically determined or socially reflective about who Howard Ratner is and how he behaves, from this perspective. He meets his fate because of his own choices, his pushy and annoying personality, and nothing else.

But a leftist critic of capitalism sees a rich tapestry of themes and meanings in Uncut Gems. Wealth aside, Howard is marginalized, excluded; chasing his prized opal with his client-recruiting agent Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), Howard is stopped by security at the threshold of a Boston Celtics practice facility and at the Weeknd gig, an unwelcome interloper among the exclusive. Perhaps this inherent social ceiling drives his constant, self-sabotaging striving, an insecurity that underlies his dangerous deals and marital infidelity. The Safdies (who co-wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein) do give Howard one scene of broken-down vulnerability with Julia in which he wallows self-pityingly in the ineffable failures of his life and wonders at their causes and provenance. They don’t connect Howard’s plight with any particular forces, but their construction and layering of ideas invites speculation and analysis.

The scene that follows Howard’s blubbering emotional collapse makes two of the most vital of these ideas as plain as this deceptively artfully-constructed film can be. Kevin Garnett, on the eve of a playoff Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers, returns to Howard’s shop to purchase the now-devalued opal (one might wonder at how, looked at from a certain angle, Uncut Gems might be no more than a movie by obsessive NBA fans writing speculative fan-fiction to explain Garnett’s fluctuating performances in the 2012 East Semis). The two men talk about the nature of winning as well as the economic exploitation of Africans and those of African descent in terms pregnant with deeper and knottier meaning. Emphasized by his punchy tagline, “This is how I win”, Howard connects the scarlet thread from (Jewish) Ethiopians risking their lives for pennies a day to dig an expensive gem out of the earth (the film begins with an indelible scene at the mine, a crowd of local workers remonstrating to their Asian foremen while carrying a miner with a shattered leg) that will inspire an African-American basketball star to lead his team to victory, all while he makes a million dollars betting on that result. If capitalism (heck, if being American at all) is all about winning, then it must by necessity have losers, be they impoverished Ethiopian labourers, millionaire professional athletes, or Jewish jewelry dealers. The trick is not to be among those losers, and for Howard Ratner in the Safdies’ superb, gritty, and ultimately painful film, that trick requires a constant, desperate, hustling effort that may finally not be enough. Uncut Gems is one heck of a wilderness survival film, where that wilderness is America’s messy urban monument to the rewards and the costs of unmitigated capitalism.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

February 15, 2020 Leave a comment

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017; Directed by Martin McDonagh)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri makes me wonder what has happened to its writer-director Martin McDonagh. This reaction might not have been the anticipated one, seeing as how the film won three Oscars and even more Golden Globes and BAFTAs, making it McDonagh’s big awards-circuit breakthrough after his first two unruly but frightfully clever genre films Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges (the latter being one of my favourite films of the 21st Century, an underrated classic). Three Billboards was greeted by not only awards voters but by critics and audiences as McDonagh’s finest and most appealing cinematic work yet, headlined by Oscar-winning performances from Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell and providing an acerbic and morally complex take on American social problems of policing, race, misogyny, and rural disintegration. What’s happened to Martin McDonagh, I ask? Why, he’s only gotten better, nearly everyone else answered!

Perhaps what Three Billboards makes most clear is not what has happened to Martin McDonagh, but what hasn’t happened to him. What hasn’t happened is him that he has moved forward as an artist or storyteller or polemicist. The London-born, Irish-descended McDonagh was an acclaimed playwright before moving into film with In Bruges, his biting black comedies about contemporary Irish life mixing nimble borderline-tiptoeing “edgy” humour with serious social examinations and even tragic themes. He’s still crafting those kinds of stories on the big screen, and he’s even making practically the same exact kind of “edgy” jokes that he always has, in a manner that is exposing their limitations as well as the plausible-deniability tactics that obscure their offensiveness. In my review of Seven Psychopaths (which I thought was okay, but at least saw McDonagh interested in the relatively fresh ground meta self-reflexive questions of representations in media, particularly of violence), I wrote that “the quintessential McDonagh joke offends on its face while acknowledging both the cause and the rightness of that offence; it will call out discriminatory assumptions while scoring a laugh off of them, and then inflate them to such outsized proportions so as to upend them again.”

Maybe because I loved In Bruges so much and held onto such goodwill for McDonagh as a writer, I wanted to believe that what he was doing by playing with offensive stereotypes like this was sophisticated and critical. I convinced myself and tried to convince anyone reading that he wasn’t just lampshading. Three Billboards makes it painfully clear to me that he is lampshading, and probably always was lampshading, in the terminological sense of distancing himself from the offensiveness of the stereotypes at the heart of his dark comedy by calling attention to that offensiveness and/or placing it in context while still using a shared knowledge (and generalized prejudiced acceptance) of those stereotypes to get a laugh. McDonagh certainly likes to pepper his writing with ableist and homophobic slurs, and even the N-word, but since his characters are either just prejudiced people or openly point out that it’s not PC to say those kinds of things, it’s fine and obviously only a dullard who didn’t get it would actually be offended. He also goes hard on “midget” jokes for the second of his three films (In Bruges‘ person of short stature was played by Jordan Prentice, but felt like a role that McDonagh wishes he could have gotten Peter Dinklage for; in Three Billboards, he gets his Dinklage), which makes him the most cutting-edge satirical humourist of 1954, I suppose.

The lampshade-hanging sharp-tongued comedy of Three Billboards is not really the primary problem with it, but it dovetails neatly with the unsubtle contrivance of the film’s dramatic developments. This is the kind of dramatic movie in which a hardened-in-grief mother (McDormand as Mildred Hayes) who has lost her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) to a brutal rape and murder flashes back to the last time she saw her child on the night that she died, and the last words Mildred says to the bitter Angela after denying her use of the car to go out for the night is to concur with the teen’s petty sarcastic parting epithet that she hopes that Angela is raped and murdered. Nearly every plot moment lands like this, with the subtlety of a hammerstroke and with an oppressive, smothering irony. Most of them derive from Mildred’s idiosyncratically confrontational response to her grief and to the local police’s lack of traction in investigating the crime: she rents the titular triptych of successive billboards on the side road that leads to her home and plasters an accusatory message aimed at the failures of local police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) to solve the case. Since Ebbing is a tight-knit community and it’s also shared-secret public knowledge that Willoughby is dying of cancer, Mildred’s J’Accuse…! style of advertising is not popular, to say the least, and leads to a local backlash (although it’s worth interrogating McDonagh’s text as to how much of that backlash is realistic or believable).

Almost nobody likes these billboards. Obviously Willoughby doesn’t much appreciate it, struggling as he is with the legacy of his failure to find’s Angela rapist and killer and the heartbreaking reality of his mortality and leaving behind his wife (Abbie Cornish, whose chosen accent is bizarre and unplaceable), his two young daughters, his officers, and his beloved horses. Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), who abused her and then left her prior to Angela’s death for a 19-year old (Samara Weaving, who manages a couple of decent comedic beats in a thoroughly thankless role), certainly doesn’t agree with it, nor does her high-school-age son Robbie (Lucas Hedges). The local police are predictably resentful too, especially bigoted, drunken shitheel Officer Jason Dixon (Rockwell), who is notorious for having tortured an African-American man in his custody. Dixon proceeds to cover himself in even greater vainglory, arresting Mildred’s black female gift shop co-worker (Amanda Warren) on trumped-up possession charges in retribution, and harrassing and eventually nearly killing Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones), the homosexual local advertising agent who rents the billboards to Mildred.

The escalation of Three Billboard‘s drama is, as implied, fairly overheated and contrived, driven by manipulative plot necessities more than character psychology or local social forces. The cast sells it as best they can, and McDormand, Harrelson, and Rockwell give as near to the best as can be given in service of the material (the flinty McDormand is the most clearly spectacular; she could win an Oscar for every role she ever played and you wouldn’t find many objectors). McDonagh aims for a portrait of ambiguity and messy human frality and imperfection quite purposely, though not as thoughtfully as he might think or intend. Three Billboards is not a film that judges any particular character in totalizing moral terms, not even Dixon, who is a horrid, racist, homophobic, dimwitted, pathetic prick until he suddenly, improbably rallies from a low ebb to become a dogged crusader for Angela’s killer in a whiplashing last-act redemption arc. Better critics than I have analyzed why McDonagh’s arc for Dixon is irresponsible and even offensive in terms of racial politics, so I leave that point to them. But it’s also emblematic of the deepest-seeded problem that Three Billboards has, the one that ultimately drags it down: Martin McDonagh doesn’t understand American society, culture, and politics as well as he thinks he does, and his supposedly searing cinematic critique of its core issues comes off as paternalistic tourism (there was an element of this to In Bruges, but tourism was part of the core joke there).

Such tone-deaf arrogance, you might scoff, a Canadian critic chiding a world-renowned British-Irish filmmaker and playwright for not “getting” America. But to anyone who has ever been to the States or even so much as consumed some of its media (and who hasn’t done that?), great swaths of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri come across as entirely wrong, unfair, or even offensive (and not in McDonagh’s usual winking “we both know this is offensive but let’s have a penetrating laugh at it” manner). The intense, supposedly-probing focus on the inhabitants of rural red state flyover-country (“The Heartland” of America, in that racially and partisanly coded nomenclature) so often either ignored or marginalized or stereotyped by Hollywood is, well, rife with stereotypes of people from that part of the world. The examination of the fraught and divided social views of the police is facile, the consideration of racial issues is hardly a consideration at all but the writing equivalent of dumping the loose contents of a packed purse on a table and inviting the audience to paw through the items for what they might be looking for, an approach without discernment or focus or sensitivity to traumas felt by some Americans but not felt or understood by others. There’s a staged quality to McDonagh’s vision of Ebbing, a theatrical quality that you might have expected from a playwright-turned-film director but which In Bruges and especially Seven Psychopaths did not display in the same way. Treading into more unfamiliar territory geographically and socio-politically, McDonagh retreats to framing that he knows better to anchor the work, it seems; this goes for the music as well, which bookends Irish folk poem “The Last Rose of Summer” as the film’s choice aural elegy for American life.

The very British-Isles understanding of discrimination and prejudice being grounded entirely in socioeconomic class pervades Three Billboards; working class suffering is the common denominator, the core assumption of social and emotional struggles. Martin McDonagh knows that race is vital to understanding American social, economic, and political power relations, but he can only invoke it as a push-button comedic/dramatic shock tactic, a literal trump card to be played (take every charged potential meaning of that wording to be entirely purposeful). There are superficially fascinating and potentially deep themes simmering tantalizingly in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, half-posed and entirely unanswered questions about the role of advertising in directing the mass psychology of capitalist societies (the opening glimpses of the derelict billboards are exquisitely, artfully photographed by cinematographer Ben Davis, summoning ghosts of The Great Gatsby‘s symbolically-charged fragmentary billboard of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg) and the position of the police as punitive agents of power maintenance more than as the endlessly culturally-celebrated ideal of crime-fighting arbiters of moral equilibrium. The concept of rural America in particular and of America in general as a culture and society in decline and decay is invoked as well; the town is called Ebbing after all, and the root verb comes up in dialogue as if to re-emphasize the point (very few of McDonagh’s points here are judged to be unworthy of exhaustive re-emphasis).

But none of this rises beyond quasi-literary colour, like Willoughby and his wife referencing Oscar Wilde and the former maybe even identifying Wilde’s life-ending plight with his own cancerous decline. Of course, Martin McDonagh would identify with an Irish playwright, but would a small-town Missouri police chief? Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is full of such details, large and small, that are raised and emphasized but never really seem to be the point. It grants the film the illusion of complexity and richness and depth without the bother of actually labouring to erect them. Three Billboards purports to be a film about grief and loss and prejudice and injustice and love and redemption and forgiveness and revenge and race and power and all of those other Big Ideas. But what it ends up being about is how Martin McDonagh can’t wrangle these Big Ideas into a thematically and emotionally coherent film, so he papers over the incoherence with surface-level cleverness and button-pushing provocations. Perhaps what happened to Martin McDonagh is that his ambitions outstripped his creative grounding, and his desire to be taken seriously by the segment of American mass culture represented by awards-bait movies led him astray from the knowledge-base that he drew from in his best work. Write what you know, right? Martin McDonagh doesn’t know America, unfortunately, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri makes that fact painfully clear.

Categories: Current Affairs, Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Post

February 2, 2020 Leave a comment

The Post (2017; Directed by Steven Spielberg)

Steven Spielberg’s dramatization of the behind-the-scenes newspaper work and decision-making dilemmas behind The Washington Post‘s publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 is a robust narrative about the patriotic duty of the free press to hold the powerful to account, despite social, political, and legal inconvenience and aggressive, cover-up-minded pushback from those powerful players. Its applicability to America’s contemporary situation is not lost on Spielberg and certainly is not lost on screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, but this contextual association is left to the audience to make for themselves.

Spielberg begins The Post by entering the tropical jungle meat-grinder of the Vietnam War in 1966, following State Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) as he embeds with a U.S. military unit hit hard by a nighttime Viet Cong ambush. This crucial scene-setting establishes the stakes for what Ellsberg will later decide to do: young Americans are dying in a war in Southeast Asia, but why? Ellsberg’s boss, then-Secretary of State Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood, a go-to choice for Presidents but an eerie match for JFK and LBJ’s key cabinet member), seeks his subordinate’s first-hand assessment as support for his own private view that America’s involvement in Vietnam is not likely to lead to success and that the situation is indeed deteriorating. But Ellsberg becomes disillusioned when McNamara publically emphasizes that the situation is improving, contrary not only to behind-closed-door discourse but also to an exhaustive report compiled at the behest of the data-minded McNamara that detailed the flawed decision-making that deepened American commitments in Indochina despite ample evidence that what they were doing was not working, even as successive administrations dishonestly told the American public that matters were getting better and victory was possible (McNamara felt rather guilty about this later in his life, as Errol Morris demonstrated). Ellsberg therefore sneaks out and copies the report from the offices of contractor Rand Corporation, his intentions initially unclear but easily graspable.

Flash ahead to 1971. It’s the eve of The Washington Post going public on the stock exchange in order to raise more funds to expand its journalistic work, an effort which consumes the attention of the paper’s publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), who is also a personal friend of McNamara’s. Editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks, a post-millenial Spielberg fave) is dealing with his reporter being shut out of covering the wedding of President Richard Nixon’s daughter, but suspects something much bigger is afoot at the New York Times, whose star Vietnam reporter Neil Sheehan hasn’t had anything published in months. It soon becomes clear that Sheehan and a Times team has had Ellsberg’s copy of the Pentagon Papers for some time and the paper of record soon begins publishing front-page stories about the government misleading the American public about the war. As the Nixon Administration gets a federal judge to order the Times to halt publishing stories based on these top-secret documents for national security reasons, Bradlee’s newsroom receives copies of the Papers as well, from a random hippie-looking walk-in and through a connection between reporter Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) and Ellsberg himself.

The core dramatic dilemma of The Post places the weight of great choice on the shoulders of a member of the elite, Graham herself. Pressed on one side by Bradlee’s lofty insistence on journalistic integrity and press freedom and on the other by more practical concerns of sinking the public offering (Tracy Letts and Bradley Whitford are two male executive advisors warning her on this front) and indeed possibly even going to prison, Graham must decide whether to publish the Papers or not. Hannah and Singer and Spielberg see in Graham a figure defined by her gender and the glass-ceiling expectations of her time. When her father, who owned the Post, died, he left it not to her but to her husband, and it only came to her upon his suicide; she is keenly aware that she is not seen as equal to the many men who run her realm, and Streep allows that knowledge to play across her surface layer of WASP-ish self-possession. Spielberg also blocks out a contrasting pair of scenes to emphasize her inadvertent role as a figure of sort-of-feminism in the midst of patriarchal power structures: at the stock exchange on the day she takes the Post public, Streep passes up a staircase through a crowd of female secretaries and then through a set of doors to a smoky room full of powerful men, and then when leaving the Supreme Court after the lawyers for the Post and the Times argued for their right to publish the Pentagon Papers, she passes through a crowd of female onlookers, this time down a staircase but with an added measure of self-possession and confidence.

There’s a lot to like about The Post, with its crackling, overlapping dialogue, steady and smooth direction from one of Hollywood’s supreme craftsmen (who has his usual cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, and composer John Williams on board to help), and superb cast of character actors. Spielberg applies his cast like a painter layers brushstrokes, with actors capable of lead-character depth appearing in a scene or two or three to nail down a certain character’s role in the proceedings. Jesse Plemons descends with withering practical realism as the paper’s lead legal counsel, Michael Stuhlbarg is the New York Times‘ brash publisher Abe Rosenthal, Alison Brie floats through as Graham’s daughter, Sarah Paulson as Bradlee’s wife manages the crowd of harried reporters that descend on her home with platters of sandwiches and her daughter’s lemonade, and those reporters are played by the capable likes of Carrie Coon, Odenkirk, and David Cross (Spielberg seems to purposely pose the latter two together in frame in the paper’s newsroom as a brief Mr. Show reunion). Rhys plays Ellsberg as a careful and principled whistleblower in a manner that should prove familiar to observers of contemporary examples like Daniel J. Jones of The Report or Chelsea Manning or especially Edward Snowden. The latter two whistleblowers’ respective fates of imprisonment and exile were avoided by Ellsberg only because of the Watergate scandal which truly made the Washington Post‘s name as a top-notch investigative newspaper, and the burglary which set it off is The Post‘s final scene, demonstrating the Nixon regime’s deepening illegality and paranoid distrust for political and legal norms as well as the vital importance of Graham and Bradlee shepherding their paper through the Pentagon Papers crisis so that it might soon bring down a criminal President.

Of course, at this moment the United States has an even more shamelessly criminal Republican President with an openly antagonistic relationship to the American press (the “fake news” as he likes to call it, when he isn’t calling reporters out-and-out traitors) that makes Nixon’s rhetoric about the media seem mild in comparison. It cannot be said that the U.S. media, the Washington Post (no longer owned by the Graham family since they sold it to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2013) very much included, has not covered the shady corruption and voluminous misbehaviour of Donald J. Trump, although its coverage was also complicit in his unfortunate rise: Fox News’ breathlessly hagiographic Dear Leader angle on him, obviously, but also NBC launching Trump to rehabilitory stardom with The Apprentice and softening his image during the campaign with Jimmy Fallon’s hair-ruffling on The Tonight Show and a retrospectively mortifying hosting gig on Saturday Night Live, CNN’s pillar-to-post live broadcast of his frothing-at-the-mouth campaign rallies and persistent employment of his dishonest surrogates as both-sides pundits, and print, television, and online media’s disastrous obsession with the gussied-up nothing story of Hillary Clinton’s private email server that is one of many factors that presaged Trump’s 2016 election victory.

As excellent as The Post is as a film celebrating the inspiring courage of American journalism (and since this is Spielberg, there is of course a scene of climactic positive triumph, complete with swelling John Williams score), a creeping knowledge of the future of the press relationship with disingenuous and criminal government actions lessens its current impact. While Hollywood made a movie like The Post glorifying the historical bravery of a paper whose chest-beating motto is “Democracy Dies in Darkness”, American democracy may very well be dying in the full light of day, and not without the collusion, alternately advertent and inadvertent, of the vaunted free press. Sure, it’s “just” a movie, but it has also proven to be not nearly enough.

It’s interesting, given the current American milieu with which it is extratextually contrasted, that The Post explores the tension between journalistic freedom and the free market imperatives of bottom-line capitalism (especially where those imperatives overlap with the backslapping chuminess of the self-preservationist elite) the way it does. In the Trump era, we see a democratic crisis that has advanced to a troubling place largely due to journalism’s weakness in holding the powerful to account in the face of the drive for profit in a shifting, unstable industry, just as the powerful decide not to check a dangerously reactionary but superficially business-friendly leader in order to keep the tap open and the wealth flowing into their tanks. Like Nixon, Trump fights with the press and tries to limit and discredit their exposure of his malfeasance, but he also knows how to manipulate it and exploit its weak points to get what he wants from it (having a readymade state media in Fox News doesn’t hurt; American history might have turned out very differently if Rupert Murdoch’s tacky cable-TV reincarnation of Der Stürmer was around in the 1970s to spread pro-Nixon propaganda 24-7). The Post is (highly adapted) history, but as a rallying cry for current power-challenging press integrity, it’s unfortunately a nostalgic fantasy.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: 1917

January 18, 2020 Leave a comment

1917 (2019; Directed by Sam Mendes)

World War I was wrong. It’s well understood (and generally acknowledged even by wet-eyeballed nostalgic imperialists) that the Great War of 1914-1918 was a totally horrifying meatgrinder of a conflict, decimating most of a generation of young men from across Europe and its imperial possessions in the muddy, bloody accelerated decay of the trenches and the battlefields. Millions of lives were meaninglessly thrown away in deluded offensives whose strategic premises were couched in military conceptual frameworks made frightfully and tragically obselete by technological innovations in that ever-cutting-edge field of killing humans. Millions more non-combatants were caught in the fighting’s crossfire or subject to genocidal cleansing, to say nothing of the global flu pandemic that swept across a weakened planet and claimed another 50-100 millions lives. And after all this mind-boggling death, the war to end all wars not only did nothing of the sort, it led in an absolutely direct line to an even more terrible and devastating war.

This much is known, but what is not as known is just how morally and politically inexcusable all of this wanton slaughter was. World War I’s preliminary causes and beginnings tend to be taught reductively: a set of interlocking balance-of-power alliances were activated by a political crisis tied to the assassination of an almost comically old-fashioned heir to the throne of a slowly-dissolving Old World empire. But World War I was the monumentally tragic and infuriating folly (George Kennan called it “the Seminal Catastrophe of the Century”) of a gilded global elite bent on clinging to and expanding on their power at absolutely any cost and utterly, sociopathically detached from the shocking human toll of their endless grasping and hoarding. Whether the war was driven by the Entente powers’ desire to contain German ambition on the Continent and in the colonial sphere or by the German Empire’s desire for conquest and expansion, the killing machine of the Western Front and the less-narrativized but just as deadly fighting on the Eastern Front was designed and maintained by governments and military command structures of Europe’s best and brightest and richest. These august men extinguished lives by the millions over detached squabbles for greedy acquisition and wounded pride, knowing full well what they were doing but deceiving themselves and the people they claimed to serve as to why, not only with public obfuscation during the conflict but with solemn, sober, and entirely nationalistic commemoration after it. That several of these governments were toppled by the war’s consuming reach (such as those of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire), this seems a small punishment for the suffering visited on millions in the 1910s and millions more in decades that followed. World War I was horrifying and the loss of life it caused sad and to be mourned, but it was also wrong, and that is what ought to be remembered.

I am telling you this at the outset of a review of Sam Mendes’ WWI epic 1917 because the movie does not. 1917 is an in medias res Great War story, a visually and temporally immediate and experiential “you are there” narrative of survival, loyalty, and comradeship in the crucible of a conflict bigger than any one life but enlivened and encapsulated in the perspective of one life, or in this case two. A pair of Lance Corporals in the British Expeditionary Force, Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Will Schofield (George MacKay), are chosen for a tremendously dangerous mission in the titular year. General Erinmore (Colin Firth, one of numerous prominent British thesps in cameo officer roles) orders Blake and Schofield to traverse miles of No Man’s Land and enemy positions recently vacated by a German withdrawal to deliver a message to a battalion ordered to attack the retreating foe: it’s a trap. The Germans have only fallen back to the newly-built Hindenburg Line fortifications, and intelligence has found this out too late to get the message to the attacking troops any other way. These two solitary men are entrusted with the task of saving the lives of 1,600 men who are heading straight for an enemy waiting to massacre them, Blake’s officer brother (Richard Madden) among them.

Mendes, working from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, dramatizes the journey of Blake and Schofield as a real-time experience filmed in a simulated single shot. Although it’s an enjoyable game to try and spot the hidden cuts that stitch together this single-take simulation (watch for objects being panned across in the extreme foreground), this technique previously employed in movies like Birdman and Russian Ark is wondrously executed on a grand and powerful scale in 1917. Mendes arranges sequences of unbearable tension (passage through abandoned German tunnels, an engagement with an enemy sniper) and balances them with sequences of respite (a friendly reminiscence in a white-blossoming orchard, a tender fireside scene with a French girl and a baby, soldiers seated in a forest listening to one of their number sing an aching, lilting tune), ending with a desperate, jawdropping sprint across British troops charging against enemy bombardment, Thomas Newman’s epic score swelling with massed strings. If Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk explored how war fragments and distorts the perception of time, Sam Mendes’ 1917 uses moment-by-moment inexorable ticking-clock immediacy to convey war’s vivid, surrealistic experiences on unforgiving timelines of pending mortality, an effort greatly served by the convincingly harried performances of Chapman and (especially) MacKay.

The technical achievement of 1917 in this vein is substantial and sometimes remarkable, and one must give full recognition and credit to Mendes’ ability as a filmmaker for its success, as well as to his cinematographer Roger Deakins, a grand old master of the art and craft of light and shadow of the moving image. Deakins follows Blake and Schofield’s odyssey with incredibly impressive camera motion and shoots the world through which they pass with evocatively grimy realism (decomposing horses, well-fed trench rats, blown-out artillery, bloated bodies in a river), but also unleashes an astonishing sequence in a bombed-out town at night, expressionistically lit with nightmarishly beautiful overhead flares and fiery background conflagrations. It’s a chiaroscuro vision of a hell clumsily crafted by the cruel hand of man into an infernal inverted mirror of heaven. At least once (sometimes more) in any film with him credited as a director of photography, there is a sequence which looks so stunningly arresting and gorgeous that I can but shake my fists to the impotent sky and cry out in primally effusive admiration: “DEAKINSSSS!” In Skyfall, it was Bond’s infiltration of a Shanghai skyscraper; in Blade Runner 2049, it was K coming face-to-face with the towering holographic advertisement of his departed Joi; in 1917, it is this indelible visual triumph of a sequence.

This is how 1917 has been greeted by critics and audiences, as a visually and technically superb spectacle of transporting proportions. A thrill ride, as they say. But how does this affect reflect on the moral-historical dimensions of the film’s depiction of World War I? Does 1917 criticize war or does it glorify it? It’s hard to claim that the latter does not pre-dominate. 1917 is a proudly British film from a filmmaker who has, in the past, leaned into the comforting glow of nationalism; Mendes’ James Bond film was the most overt flag-waving celebration of imperialism in the recent history of a franchise hardly light on such themes. The ever-celebrated stiff-upper-lip heroism of the British soldier is reified in 1917, not only in the resourcefulness and loyalty and resilience of its protagonist lance corporals, but even in its army officers. Oft-villified (and rightly so) for snobbish detachment from the mortal consequences of their command and blamed for some of the war’s most wasteful expenditures of manpower as cannon fodder, British officers in 1917 vaguely bemoan these qualities in others in the command structure but not a one displays them himself: a wearied lieutenant on the front line played by Andrew Scott is sardonically cynical after unmitigated losses but not unsympathetically so, Mark Strong’s Captain Smith offers Blake and Schofield transport and kind advice, and even Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), the commander of the attacking unit that must be warned to stand down or risk a slaughter, is only lacking in context and information, despite warnings of his inflexibility and lust for a fight.

More than anything, Mendes stacks the deck for the essential goodness of the top-level command by having the orders of Firth’s Erinmore be to save 1,600 lives from a pointlessly fatal assault, rather than throw those men away in such an advance, as generals so often did in this war. It’s a statement to how the film constructs a wartime realm where everyone’s actions and motivations are justifiable or at least understandable. Even the Germans, with their superficially treacherous retreat gambit, are simply trying to gain a strategic advantage, to win. Those Germans carry on their persons cherished photographs of loved ones left behind at home just as the British do, a conventional war movie shorthand used by Mendes without much reflection. There are horrors here, absolutely, and a sequence on an abandoned farm commencing with the crash of a German biplane treads close to treating with the deadly indifference to moral consequence that prevails in such armed conflicts. But an honest observer would be hard-pressed to call 1917 anti-war in any robust fashion.

What we’re asking for here is not a scene of Blake and Schofield pausing to repeat Howard Zinn’s historical interpretations or anything (who’s the WWI-era equivalent of Howard Zinn? Eugene Debs?). Perhaps Mendes and Wilson-Cairns could have formulated a scenario for the film that allowed for themes of moral ambiguity and injustice to find voice, although considering the title card beginning the credits saluting a veteran relative of Mendes whose Great War stories inspired him to make 1917, there may have been personal barriers to such an approach. 1917 is not an elegiac meditation on war’s inhumanity, it’s a spectacular roller-coasting ride of visceral tension and emotional turmoil. Its intent is representative realism, showing as best as movie magicians can a century removed from this terrible conflict what it was really like. But in Mendes’ hands, this intended realism is accompanied with a political neutrality that presents as centrist moral cowardice in the face of the war’s historical reprehensibility.

Categories: Film, History, Reviews