Film Review: Barton Fink

February 27, 2018 Leave a comment

Barton Fink (1991; Directed by Joel Coen)

Like their later (greater) film Inside Llewin Davis, the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink is a cinematic limerick about the failure of art, its dialogic rhyming and thematic repetitions containing dark ironies and unsettling truths. In 1941, the titular playwright-turned-frustrated-screenwriter, played by an intermittently dazed and frantic John Turturro and based on Depression-era Jewish-American dramatist Clifford Odets, pens an acclaimed New York City stage triumph of mid-century proletarian realism entitled Bare Ruined Choirs (it’s about fishmongers). Fink hopes fervently (but more than a little pompously) to express the struggle of the common man through his writing, but the high-art and upper-crust critical attention swirling around his play draws the attention of a Hollywood studio, which offers him a handsome salary to come to California and write for the movies.

Tasked to write the screenplay for a wrestling picture starring Wallace Beery by the brash, eccentric, but maddeningly vague big talkers at Capitol Pictures (Michael Lerner, Tony Shalhoub, and Coens favourite Jon Polito), Fink holes up in the ramshackle Hotel Earle (’90s Coens regular Steve Buscemi has a small role as the oddball bellman, Chet – or, more accurately, Chet!), hoping its run-down environs will inspire his latest paean to the struggles of the common people (the master cinematographer Roger Deakins, working on his first of 12 Coens films, shoots the empty film-noir-ish lobby and its vanishing-point repetitious hallway to maximally emphasize Fink’s lonely solitude). Unfortunately, he becomes mired in persistent writer’s block, made all the worse by his lack of knowledge of wrestling (a trip to a studio screening room to familiarize himself with the B-movie genre is likewise unsuccessful, as he stares with anxious bafflement at endless, absurdist dailies of large sweaty men slamming each other into the mat).

Unable to progress beyond self-plagiarizing establishing images of Lower East Side tenements and fishmongers, Fink is bedevilled by a buzzing mosquito and cheap wallpaper peeling from the walls in the heat. Even a fortuitous encounter with the great Southern novelist W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney, performing an eloquently prickly but tragically sad William Faulkner homage), also in Hollywood to write films, does little to get Fink’s artistic juices flowing. With Mayhew perpetually sunk in belligerent inebriation, Fink develops a romantic interest in the novelist’s “secretary” (actually his lover, caretaker, and secret ghostwriter) Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis) instead.

Barton Fink’s more important relationship, however, is the casual but warm friendship he strikes up with his neighbour at the hotel, a talkative travelling insurance salesman named Charlies Meadows (John Goodman). They meet after Fink complains to Chet that Meadows is making too much noise next door, but the initial hint of hostility (which Fink would have proven wise to heed) dissolves into joviality and friendly drinks. Meadows’ acquaintance is ever poised tantalizingly close to lighting a fire under Fink’s guttering script. Indeed, it seems purpose-built to do so: Fink tells the salesman that he sees him as the embodiment of the noble, hard-working common man that stands at the centre of his aesthetic paradigm. But the Coens, typically, frustrates this expectation and thus traverse into the realm of dramatic irony. Fink blusters past Meadows’ offer of rich stories of everyday experience and even his potentially useful expertise as a former highschool wrestler (although Meadows obligingly pins Fink on the hotel room floor to demonstrate his acumen). He’s more interested in laying out the pretentious terms of his lofty mission to record working-class experience than listening and learning from a living embodiment of that experience.

Fink’s connection to Charlie Meadows proves to be of great utility when he becomes enmeshed in a messy murder scene, at least until that connection turns out to be the cause of the murder in the first place. The trauma of the experience jump-starts Fink’s script work, but it also culminates in a hellish, violent climax amidst the burning hotel. That it all proves for naught when the finished screenplay is rejected by the studio, who keep Fink trapped in his contract and unable to pursue any other writing work as a punishment for his failure, is a stinging closing irony entirely typical of the Coens.

Also entirely typical of the Coens is Barton Fink‘s moral and existential universe. Fink, to an extent, is punished for the arrogance of his artistic ideals, suffering through a literal crucible of fire at the hands of the unpredictable Meadows precisely because he brushed off the insight into real lived experience offered to him. Indeed, Fink’s path through the final act of the film takes on the metaphysical dimensions redolent of Dante’s Divine Comedy: emerging from the flames of the Earle, Fink is incarcerated in the purgatory of fruitless contractual servitude to Hollywood, but ends in the tempered paradise of a beach on the ocean with a beautiful woman (an image that hung above his writing desk in the decrepit hotel, offering him some tantalizing vision of bliss and escape, to say nothing of incipient sexual aspiration).

But the Coens’ moral spectrum is never so neat and just, even in twisted inversion. What Barton Fink – wide-eyed, puzzled, deluded observer of a mad world – encounters is not hard cosmic fairness but the life-shattering hammerstrokes of a dangerous and random universe, the absurd devastation of unfeeling coincidence. In his writing, he envisions a shining ideal of artistic balancing, the grinding despair of the forgotten proles (be they fishmongers or wrestlers) redeemed and elevated by the golden touch of the muses. This ambition of Fink’s is not only an ideal but a projection, too: producing great art, he can only hope, will also redeem the mundanity and lonesomeness of his own life. In Barton Fink, the quest for such redemption is not only frustrated but smashed to bits: by clashing literature (Mayhew’s novels, which if anything like his model Faulkner’s are likely Southern Gothic tragedies of a past of horrors twisted by the passage of time into horrid perversions), by the formulaic corporatized story factories of Hollywood, and ultimately most strenuously by the destructive, predatory chaos represented by Charlie Meadows (a.k.a. Karl “Madman” Mundt). In Barton Fink, art not only fails, it is foolish to even try to envision a world of truth.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Black Panther

February 18, 2018 Leave a comment

Black Panther (2018; Directed by Ryan Coogler)

In much the same way that Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman overcame its in-built generic conventional weaknesses by summoning a highly of-the-moment thematic thrust of feminine agency and muscular empathy, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther surmounts the in-born challenges facing a Marvel Cinematic Universe action-adventure blockbuster to become an absolutely vital representational and artistic assertion of pan-African pride and black power (to summon a term that gives online white conservatives, who were suspiciously eager to pre-empt the film’s nascent impact, the nervous shakes). The triumph of Black Panther is that it’s also an exciting action-adventure movie, a visually and politically detailed and compelling demonstration of onscreen world-building, and above all a nuanced and conflicted exploration of black experience, black unity, and the spirited debate about the best path of correction for the uniquely terrible legacy of colonialism, slavery, and oppression faced by people of African descent, from the centre of their (of all of our) continent of origin to the poverty-stricken housing projects of America.

This first Black Panther solo film follows the character’s MCU introduction in Captain America: Civil War, in which the young Wakandan prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, in a performance of laudable possession and nuanced interiority) was drawn into the larger conflict in and around the fracturing Avengers after the murder of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), by a terrorist bomb at the UN in Vienna. Black Panther picks up shortly after Civil War‘s events, as T’Challa returns to his home nation to assume the throne and the attendant role of Wakanda’s titular black-clad superheroic protector. After retrieving his former (and future?) flame and Wakandan secret agent Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) from an undercover mission in Nigeria, the prodigal T’Challa is greeted by his grieving mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett, regal and spectacular but given little of consequence to do) and his sister Shuri (the luminous, scene-stealing Letitia Wright), a brilliant scientist at the forefront of Wakanda’s highly-advanced technology.

Wakanda is a magnificently-realized vision of Afrofuturism, a fantastical critique of the effects of colonialism on African social development, and a utopian extrapolation of the richness of pan-African culture. Struck by a meteor long ago containing a huge supply of vibranium, an alien metal alloy that is the strongest substance on Earth (Captain America’s iconic shield is made out of it, as of course is the Black Panther suit), Wakanda emerged united following a period of inter-tribal warfare under the leadership of the first King and Black Panther, who gains superhuman physical abilities through the ingestion of the glowing purple heart-shaped herb. Choosing to remain hidden and isolated in the centre of Africa under a Third-World disguise, Wakanda developed a complex political, social and cultural profile outside of the malign influence of European colonialism that warped the rest of the continent. Developing the most advanced technology on the planet with the use of its vibranium, Wakanda becomes a fantasy fulfillment of African potential, like a Congo that safeguarded its lucrative resources (rubber and coltan, most notably) and utilized them for its own development and advancement, rather than being strip-mined for resource-exploitation purposes by Western state powers and capitalist conglomerates (to say nothing of the related genocidal deprivations, let alone centuries of the destructive slave trade on the continent).

The unique utopian vision of Wakanda’s capital city – spindly skyscrapers with thatched-hut verandahs, richly-patterned neo-modern adobe-type houses, bustling market streets, and the twin towers of the royal palace, with its baked-mud-coloured skin studded with toron-like protrusions in imitation of the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali – greets T’Challa as he returns (Hannah Beachler is the talented production designer), as does the cultural ritual that defines Wakandan royal succession. On a precipitous waterfall pool (inspired by the spectacular Victoria Falls) before the eyes and rhythmic chants of Wakanda’s monochromatically-dressed tribal leaders (if costume designer Ruth E. Carter doesn’t get an Oscar for her work here, the award has no meaning), T’Challa is stripped of his Black Panther powers and faces challenges to his presumed kingship. After triumphing over M’Baku (Winston Duke, hugely charismatic in a minor role), the head of the semi-exiled mountain tribe the Jabari, T’Challa becomes King and must begin grappling with Wakanda’s role in a changing world.

Initially, that grappling takes the form of some James Bond spy-movie sequences, first as T’Challa receives new gadgets from his Q-esque sister Shuri, then as he is joined by Nakia and Okoye (the wonderful Danai Gurira), the mega-badass general of the elite royal-guard the Dora Milaje and prolific bogarter of the film’s most kickass action beats, in a secret gambling club in South Korea to bust up a clandestine deal for a stolen vibranium artifact. The thief and seller is the despised miner, smuggler, and arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who stole a vibranium shipment at the Wakandan border years before and earned the emnity of Border Tribe leader W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), while the buyer is American CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), who is injured in the struggles with Klaue and his cronies and becomes an unlikely ally of T’Challa and those around him when he is brought back to Wakanda to be healed (it’s a testament to the film that its only significant white roles, both seeded in past MCU releases, are played by actors as fine as Serkis and Freeman, who get to resurrect their too-brief chemistry from the first Hobbit movie in this stretch of the movie).

A lesser film would have kept the more traditionally-nasty white criminal Klaue (played with gleeful abandon by Serkis and given subtle notes of African-American cultural appropriation by screenwriters Coogler and Joe Robert Cole) as its prime antagonist, but Black Panther has something more ambitious and difficult in mind as regards its villain. Klaue turns out to be little more than a mechanism for T’Challa’s true foil to get to him and to Wakanda. This is Erik Stevens, a.k.a. Killmonger (the impressive Michael B. Jordan, who starred in Coogler’s Rocky franchise redeemer, Creed), displaced and forgotten son of T’Chaka’s brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), who had the boy when he was undercover in Oakland, California, before betraying his country, king, and brother, who then killed him for the treason. Left rootless and angry like so many young African-American males, Killmonger gained the skills of a killer and infiltrator with U.S. military black ops, and seeks to reclaim his birthright and wrest Wakanda from its new king before turning the hidden nation’s weaponry against those who oppressed black people for centuries.

T’Challa must wrestle not only with the threat to his power and to Wakanda’s traditions that Killmonger represents, but also with the disillusionment and doubt that comes with the revelation of his beknighted father’s fratricide. T’Chaka fails to live up to the high ideals that he inculcated into his son, but his actions also break apart his own family in the way that the slave trade and colonial genocides did to innumerable African families, with similar generational blowback. More deeply, however, T’Challa and the movie around him wrestles impressively with the agonizing dichotomy represented by the not-completely-opposed views of T’Challa and Killmonger as regards Wakanda’s ideal role in the wider world and in correcting the injustices experienced over centuries by the African diaspora (which isolationist Wakanda has yet to attempt to ameliorate or reverse in any meaningful way).

Radicalized by his experiences in the American ghetto and as a clandestine agent of American empire around the world, Killmonger intends to foment revolution against the established, white-dominated capitalist order around the world, using the American model of military-technological hegemony to build a globe-spanning Wakandan empire that will redress the wrongs done to people of African descent by putting them in charge via forceful overthrow. The oppressed, in this vision, would become the oppressors, an inversion that Killmonger expresses in other terms in his first scene, confronting a British museum curator about the colonialist theft of African artifacts on display before stealing them back (a more comic inversion of this historical dynamic comes later, when Shuri chides Ross with the epithet “colonizer” when he startles her in her lab).

T’Challa, meanwhile, does not wholly disagree with Killmonger’s view of injustice, but balks at his cousin’s schemes of worldwide righteous revolution to solve it and eventually works with his cadre of allies to halt them (this leads to the moment, shockingly incongruous in this thoroughly progressive film when taken out of context, in which we are asked to root for a CIA agent trying to shoot down transports full of weapons destined for use in a global anti-capitalist revolution). The duality of perspective that divides these men is beautifully depicted in heart-shaped-herb-prompted ritual vision quests that they both undertake. T’Challa meets his father and other kingly ancestors in a gorgeous twilight savannah dreamscape with a ravishing violet-tinged sky to grapple with the difficulty of being both a good man and a just ruler, while Erik speaks with his dead father in the living room of their Oakland project, the same violet sky visible outside the window above the concrete-bound ghetto.

Both of these young men have lost their fathers, like too many African-Americans males, but this loss has galvanized them in different ways: T’Challa has allowed his father’s passing (not to mention the experience of internal outcasts the Jabari, who prove to be vital allies in the final conflict) to open him up to questioning Wakanda’s traditions and its role in the world, while Erik, denied genuine connection to not only his father but to his fatherland in a mirror of the post-slave-trade African-American experience, transmutes the pain into a resentful and extreme (but hardly unreasonable) projection of his hurt onto the global institutions that he sees oppressing him (and, to a less important extent, his people, but a smartly elided element to Killmonger’s character is how his own disavowed personal agony always comes well ahead of any wider political grievances).

These dualities reflect a panoply of black experience, of not only power-striving men but self-determining women (who surround T’Challa and often make more of an impression than he does), from the unbridgeable rift between America and Africa carved out by the horrors of the slave trade (which are referenced with stunning poetic power by Killmonger’s remarkable final line) to the ideological split as regards civil rights political action represented by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X (or, alternately, Nelson Mandela as a radical young activist and as a distinguished elder statesman). Film Crit Hulk addresses these dualities and how their implications are drawn out far better than I (or perhaps anyone else) could in his recent tremendous essay on Black Panther; be sure to check it out.

But Black Panther concludes with T’Challa internalizing the lessons of his defeated foe and choosing a path of active, productive, peaceful engagement with the rest of the world (and especially with the enclaves of the African diaspora, in Oakland and beyond) for Wakanda. This hard-won choice of employing Wakanda’s advantages to advocate humanitarianism and social progress is a corollary of neoliberal democratic capitalist ideology, of course, and Killmonger would no doubt find it an insufficient half-measure (as would Malcolm X, in all likelihood). But Black Panther is firmly doubtful that the sort of armed revolutionary seizure of power favoured by its nuanced villain (not to mention by the black nationalist organization that shares its name and which the superhero pre-dates) would represent any material improvement for people of African descent, or anyone else for that matter.

But Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther feels revolutionary in other ways, which are no less powerful for their aesthetic focus. This is a film overflowing with love and pride for African culture, with many distinct touchstones from across the continent distilled into a pan-cultural celebration of vibrancy and endurance of traditions and families in spite of a history of being severed from those vital roots. The connective threads of that culture may have been cut long ago, but this film represents a spectacular attempt to stitch them back together (an effort clearly audible in its hybridized score, with composer Ludwig Göransson mixing orchestral elements with indigenous African music and American hip-hop curations from rap star Kendrick Lamar). It represents black people, male but especially female, as active personalities and purposeful agents in their own struggles for advancement and self-definition, itself a rarity in Hollywood history only now being slowly addressed and corrected, and whose importance to the black public this white critic can merely conjecture at. But it recognizes also the cleavages in black experience and dramatizes them in a compelling and penetrating fashion by embedding them in the core narrative and thematic conflict of the film.

In a time of cultural reaction and political revanchism in which the government of the most powerful nation on earth has been co-opted by cynical, bigoted proponents of racial animus, Black Panther is a muscular and potent blockbuster that confidently and firmly claims a position of great strength for African-derived peoples without sacrificing a thoughtful, nuanced, and ultimately hopeful vision of the complexities of their society, culture, and civilization(s). Wakanda may be no more real than, say, Gotham City, but its cultural utility and impact, as expressed through this superb mass-market movie, could be very real indeed.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Marginalization, Abuse, and Female Agency in Alias Grace and Big Little Lies

February 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Although they are very different in tone, themes, and historical-geographical setting, Alias Grace and Big Little Lies both utilize the limited-series format of prestige television to explore women’s struggles in self-definition and establishing agency in contexts of subordination, marginalization, and abuse. Narratively constructed around murder mysteries in each case, both series employ shifting ambiguities of responsibility and motive not only to maintain suspense and audience involvement but also to suggest perilous truths about a woman’s position in demanding societies.

Although both shows are grounded in murder mysteries, neither is structured precisely as a classic whodunit. Alias Grace focuses on Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), an Irish immigrant to 19th-Century Canada who becomes a household servant and is implicated in and imprisoned for the murder of the well-off bachelor (Paul Gross) who employs her, as well as his housekeeper/paramour (Anna Paquin). The facts of the murder itself are not much in question, nor is Grace’s intimate involvement in it, at least in some form. But the narrative casts proto-psychologist doctor Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) as its detective figure, teasing out through memory-probing conversations with Grace how exactly she contributed to the killings and why they happened.

Big Little Lies, meanwhile, casts a semi-satirical eye on the well-to-do social circles of the contemporary enclave of the Bay Area elite in Monterey, California. A suspicious death has occurred at a lavish charity event, drawing in five disparate but connected women, but the series keeps the identity of not only the killer but also the victim secret until its closing stages. The hanging question of the murder – gestured to in brief expressionistic flashes and foreshadowed in intercut side-narration commentary clips of police interviews with witnesses – provides the constant tease and frisson, but Big Little Lies is not about the mystery so much it concerns as the lives, desires, and choices of these five women and those around them.

If Alias Grace cuts more deeply and subtly than its counterpart, that may be because its behind-the-camera creative core is made up of women. Based on the novel by Canadian literary giant (and suddenly-hot property, following the Emmy-winning success of another adaptation of her work, The Handmaid’s Tale) Margaret Atwood (who cameos in one scene as a disapproving churchgoer), Alias Grace was adapted for the screen by Sarah Polley with Mary Harron directing. Big Little Lies, on the other hand, though based on a novel by Liane Moriarty, has a screenplay by David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Public) and was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria, Dallas Buyers Club, Wild). Beyond the fundamental biases of the male gaze, Big Little Lies does not always benefit from the blatant hammerstrokes of Kelley’s grandstanding writing style, as Todd VanDerWerff details in his review of the series for Vox.

Big Little Lies benefits greatly from a dynamite all-star cast almost uniformly working at the top of their collective game to elevate the material that has a tendency to be too on-the-nose and leans towards the sordid and soapy. Reese Witherspoon (Vallée’s star in Wild) headlines as Madeline, a stay-at-home mom who rarely stays at home, volunteering at the local community theatre (which is putting on a controversial production of the profane puppet musical Avenue Q), popping out for coffee with friends, and far too frequently becoming embroiled in rivalries and dramas around town (the performance only improves if you imagine Madeline as a grown version of Tracy Flick from Election).

Divorced from but constantly griping about her ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper) who has remarried neo-hippie yoga instructor Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), the flinty Madeline creates tension with her decent-but-dull current husband Ed (Adam Scott) and her rebellious teenaged daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton). Her best friend is Celeste (Nicole Kidman), a retired lawyer married to a young, handsome jetsetting businessman, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård); Celeste and Perry have twin boys, but also a volatile, sexually passionate, and troublingly violent relationship. Madeline and Celeste befriend a new single mother in town, Jane (Shailene Woodley), who has a young son and a traumatic history with his father.

Madeline and Jane soon become caught in a loop of conflict with driven corporate executive and mother Renata (Laura Dern, in one of her three superb 2017 roles) when Jane’s son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) is acused of being rough with Renata’s daughter Amabella (Ivy George). Given further impetus by Madeline’s sense of self-righteousness (which is inflamed by the city’s attempt to censor Avenue Q), this conflict comes to a head alongside Celeste and Perry’s abusive situation at a school charity ball.

Big Little Lies remains compulsively watchable throughout, but soon enough it becomes clear that its most compelling and unsettling feature is its depiction of this abusive relationship. Vallée skillfully withholds and obscures the most damning evidence of Perry’s violent and angry nature in the early stages, peppering his harsher moments with passionate sex scenes, and emphasizing his attentive and playful fathering towards his boys (although his playtime alter-ego, “The Monster”, is a bit too on the nose, truthfully). There’s enough to give the audience even more pause than Celeste, but the effect in general is that her battered-woman denial about his abusiveness is nominally shared by us. A long, riveting, uncomfortable intervention by her marriage counsellor (HBO vet Robin Weigert) is necessary not only to dispel this denial and spark action on Celeste’s part, but to remove our doubts as to what this relationship really is as well.

Alias Grace, meanwhile, bombards its titular female protagonist with misfortunes and mistreatment of a greater magnitude. Grace’s mother dies on board ship during the passage to Canada from Ireland; her father abuses her verbally, physically, and sexually. Her first and best friend during her initial servant posting, Mary Whitney (Rebecca Liddiard), is impregnated by the eldest son of her employer and dies after obtaining a secret abortion, a passing that haunts Grace far more literally than might have been guessed. She suffers the tongue-lashings of Paquin’s Nancy at her last serving position, and the weakness of her situation is exploited by the violent and lascivious James McDermott (Kerr Logan), her partner in the murders. She is then mistreated, abused, and raped in the women’s prison in Kingston after her conviction. Even the interviews with Dr. Jordan which serve as the narrative flashback device, ostensibly intended to aid her in obtaining a pardon, are construed as a violation of her memory akin to rape, a dimension given contour by Jordan’s frequent sexual fantasies involving her, which he transmutes into a sexual liaison with his landlady (Sarah Manninen).

Alias Grace is a nuanced, often poetic portrait of the thousand pinpricks of women’s marginalization. Deprived of power over her own fate and choices, Grace makes a series of limited decisions – predominantly small but then suddenly momentous – to diminish her sufferings, to channel herself towards survival and endurance. The women of Big Little Lies have inordinately greater liberty, wealth, and privilege, but are likewise cosseted by insecurity, social expectations, past trauma, and above all by the power of men, sometimes benevolent but more often not. Like Grace, they find a certain agency and satisfaction in hard-won female solidarity and in the extremes of reactive assertion. Unlike Grace, their story will continue, with a second season (not an uncontroversial one, either, especially to their competitors in the Emmy’s Limited Series category) to draw out the implications of that assertion and probe the boundaries of their claim to a greater agency.

Categories: Politics, Reviews, Television

Film Review: Love & Mercy

February 4, 2018 Leave a comment

Love & Mercy (2014; Directed by Bill Pohlad)

A diptych-style two-eras biopic of the Beach Boys’ troubled genius Brian Wilson, Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy has some fine ideas, memorable images, a strong performance or two, and a clear concept of the points it wishes to make about Wilson’s life and work, or more accurately about the forces that stood in the way of him maximizing his outsized artistic potential and exacerbated his pre-existing and often-debilitating mental illness. But the film suffers debilitatingly from the relative weakness of the later and more dramatic of its twinned storylines, and doesn’t possess enough strength in the other narrative to compensate.

Love & Mercy casts two actors as Brian Wilson at two important junctures and crisis points in his life. Paul Dano plays Wilson at the peak of his creative powers in the mid-1960s, crafting the Beach Boys’ now-acclaimed classic album Pet Sounds and its contemporary hit single “Good Vibrations”, despite mounting, LSD-intensified mental problems as well as the criticism and doubts expressed concerning his artistic direction by his collaborators: his limited-vision ex-svengali father Murry (Bill Camp), and even many of his own bandmates, most infamously “one of the biggest assholes in the history of rock & roll”, Mike Love (Jake Abel), whose disdain for Pet Sounds‘ ambitious intended abstract-pop follow-up was purportedly a key factor in Wilson shelving the album indefinitely (he finally finished and released a latter-day recording of Smile in 2004, to great acclaim).

Intercut with the ’60s plotline is a thematically mirroring narrative of Wilson’s life in the 1980s, as a fragile, perma-dazed, but deeply sweet middle-aged Brian (John Cusack) meets car saleswoman and future wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who intervenes to extricate him from the destructive, over-medicating, dictatorial controlling influence of his physician and legal guardian Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). The ’80s storyline clearly reflects the ’60s one in its focus on the antagonistic male personalities holding Wilson back from getting what he wants: in the ’60s, they keep him from making the music he wants to make and from properly enjoying and profiting from his artistic creations, while in the ’80s, Dr. Landy keeps him from living a happy and free life.

Unfortunately, half of Love & Mercy is a drag on the other. The film is never better than when it has us watch and listen to enervating re-created snatches of the Pet Sounds recording sessions, as Wilson interacts with and conducts musicians while crafting one of the rock era’s pinnacle achievements. Even the interpersonal friction scenes work very well – Abel’s Mike Love makes a nicely dislikable Doubting Thomas, and when Brian tenderly plays a solo demo version of the overwhelmingly gorgeous “God Only Knows” for his father, Murry can only negatively observe that another act released a song by the same name years before – and the whole ’60s storyline is crafted with an inviting Hippie-era California rainbow lustre (Wes Anderson’s cinematographer Robert Yeoman handles the lens) that makes it a far more appealing setting to spend time in.

Meanwhile, the 1980s storyline appears more dried-out, sun-baked, tired, which certainly reflects the state of the older Wilson’s life but fills these scenes with a certain hazy discomfort that even Banks’ indomitable coastal-blonde sunshine cannot penetrate. Giamatti, who specializes in frumpy, hateable scumbags these days after a brief career interregnum of being allowed to convey some measure of empathy as well, contributes to this discomfort; to be fair, he should, given the role he is cast for, but watching him berate the near-helpless Wilson for the unspeakable crime of having a bite of a hamburger trespasses from artistic expressions of discomfort and abuse to pure audience alienation. Most vitally, while a filled-out Dano is a physical dead-ringer for the young Brian Wilson and nails his gradually-dawning mental disquiet and crippling anxiety, Cusack plays him as, well, a confused and brittle but sneakily endearing version of himself, which is far less interesting.

Pohlad (working from a script by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman) attempts to draw his parallel stories together in a bravado dream-montage sequence late in the film. Reflecting Brian Wilson’s fractured psyche and legendary habit of staying in bed all day during his most troubled personal episodes (which inspired a Canadian rock classic), Cusack, Dano, and the director’s son Oliver as Brian in boyhood are intercut lying in an ornate four-poster bed, with Murry, Dr. Landy, Melinda, and others standing at the foot of the bed and speaking to the prone figure. Interspersed, interrupted dialogue drones on the soundtrack alongside warping snatches of Beach Boys songs “In My Room” and “‘Til I Die”, as images of Brian’s childhood and band performances flash in and out. The scene is intended to weave together Love & Mercy‘s bifurcated narratives via the shared threads of their themes, but it’s a burst of technique from a different profile of film and it overloads this one. It does define Love & Mercy aptly as a bundle of strong ideas and well-built and -chosen elements that somehow unravels in final execution.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review: The Babadook

January 28, 2018 Leave a comment

The Babadook (2014; Directed by Jennifer Kent)

Australian cult psychological horror film The Babadook is a powerful extended metaphor for the disquieting influence of trauma and grief, a poisonous force that disfigures a mother’s relationship to her son and hijacks their domestic existence. Its titular horror-movie monster also, bizarrely, became a LGBT symbol, a cultural meme that began with the head-scratching classification vagaries of the Netflix algorithm and the obvious clash between the movie’s ominous blackened darkness and the multichromatic celebratory flagrancy of Gay Pride, but has since traversed into semi-sincerity. Not singularly a manifestation of the agony of a buried personal trauma that threatens Amelia (a magnificently fried and frazzled Essie Davis), the Babadook could also be understood to represent the disavowed pain of the closet and the dangerous mental drag of repressed identity (though these themes have no particular purchase in the cinematic text itself, it should be admitted). Like much recent psychological horror of note (It Follows, The Witch), The Babadook constructs the fearful extremes of experience catalyzed by a malevolent supernatural force as a potent symbol for deeper, more amorphous forces of society and memory.

If we can acknowledge that these are the things that The Babadook is, then perhaps we can approach an assessment of what The Babadook, with slowly-dawning frustration, is not: namely, an involving, entertainingly scary horror film. It’s difficult to quantify exactly why writer/director Jennifer Kent’s clever, intellectually-rich creation doesn’t ultimately land as a compelling factory of fear. Everything is in its right place, nothing presses against the limits of its internally-consistent terms of suspension-of-belief, and the design of the titular monster – a leering-visaged, elongated black shadow with talon-fingered Nosferatu hands and an eerie old-fashioned top hat – is simply and often crudely realized in a way that makes it even more instantly iconic and disturbingly creepy, like a stalking Gilded-Age-era cousin of Slenderman. The Babadook should be great. The very fact that it found its way from marginal Down Under independent cinema circles to the wider world implies that it must be. But it isn’t. Why not?

Most naggingly, this fairly efficiently-lengthed film (94 minutes of runtime) feels almost interminably long. Most likely, Amelia’s suffering is a touch too relentless. The slow unravelling of her life and her relationship with her imaginative, precocious, semi-neglected handful of a son Samuel (Noah Wiseman, balancing grating irritation with believable sweetness and desperate-to-please vulnerability) in the wake of the death of her husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear) in a car crash as he drove her to the hospital to give birth to their son is central to the film (it is the film). But Kent pushes the same buttons repeatedly, re-emphasizing what has already been well and truly established. The Babadook should crescendo with Amelia and Samuel facing down the beast of grief in its full might, but this cup of misery merely overflows once filled (and that happens earlier than it ought to, perhaps a sign of freshman director Kent’s inexperience).

It’s really too bad that this movie doesn’t ultimately put it all together, because that all is often superbly imagined and richly fascinating. The Babadook itself, first manifested in the alarming imagery and words of an exquisitely-designed children’s pop-up book, is a tremendous imagistic metaphor. The being is increasingly identified directly with the forever-absent paternal figure of Oskar, the lost patriarchal stability implied by the dead father turning unsettlingly menacing and dangerous as it demands familial blood-sacrifices of Amelia (she has a little dog named Bugsy, and things never go well for dogs in movies like this). The Babadook is an inherently masculine-marked figure (that banker’s top hat, for starters) whose haunting prevalence in the psyches of Amelia and Samuel prevent them from relating to each other healthily and sanely. The resolution of the problem it represents, like that of pained grief and past trauma, does not lie in killing the monster but in taming it, feeding it as little as possible while learning to live with the dark turn of thoughts and feelings it symbolizes.

One could conceivably push readings of the Babadook even further to historical and sociopolitical territory. Kent’s film is clearly set in Australia but avoids obvious, stereotyped Australian-ness (what that would be, outside of the Babadook manifesting as a kangaroo who is killed by Crocodile Dundee with a hunting knife, is not entirely clear). Australia, like many settler societies, has a dark, semi-genocidal element embedded in its foundations that might be said to be a Babadook-esque force in the life of the nation, to say nothing of its complicated and troubled history as a British penal colony, a history frequently disavowed and treated with shame when it is acknowledged. Kent’s next film, The Nightingale, is set in Tasmania in 1825 and seems poised to look this hidden Australian darkness straight in the face, so it’s hardly far-fetched to suggest that her artistic intentions might have run in such a direction in the film in question, albeit in highly disguised form.

The Babadook is fertile ground for such interpretations, which makes it that much more disappointing that the baseline-level effect of the film itself is so mixed. This is a film that knows, with depth and breadth and pregnant meaning, what it’s about. That it can’t quite translate that meaningful core into a necessarily involving and affecting genre film, that it just falls short of doing what it ultimately aims to do, makes it frustrating but no less compelling. What is does do is announce an exciting new filmmaking talent from the Antipodes. Jennifer Kent has the tools and the vision, and if they aren’t all on full and effective display in The Babadook, this movie strongly suggests that we’ll see her get there sooner than one might expect.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

January 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017; Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg)

The fifth movie in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise raised a question about its own future when it landed in the summer of 2017, a year whose box office was thoroughly dominated by Disney releases: Does Disney really need Pirates of the Caribbean movies anymore? Other franchises/series currently in their stable – Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Pixar’s films, CG-assisted live-action remakes of their Renaissance-era classics, even the work of the reinvented Animation Studios – are proving more profitable, more creatively fruitful, more critically lauded, and more culturally relevant. From this question, related questions about the Pirates franchise spiral off into the ether: Do moviegoers need them? Does their defining figure, Johnny Depp as the perpetually tipsy trickster pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, need them? Does anybody need them (besides one-time über-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who needs whatever he can get post-Lone Ranger)?

Undeniably, as is the case with most capitalist enterprises, there’s a certain irresistible inertia to blockbuster franchise filmmaking. Profits stand to be made from recognizable properties headed by bankable stars playing iconic characters, and Hollywood is never not there when easy money seems to be in play. Pirates of the Caribbean seemed like a silly idea as the jumping-off point for a movie series when The Curse of the Black Pearl arrived in 2003, and as big as it’s gotten and as involved as its goofball internal mythology has grown, these movies based on a theme park ride have never not been inherently silly. These consistent tides of silliness have eroded the movies’ foundations over the subsequent decade and a half, though it perhaps has worn down Pirates‘ profile less than the bare consensus view that each movie has been of lower quality than the last. I enjoyed the second and third editions more than most, largely on the strength of director Gore Verbinski’s peculiar, loopily inspired visual sense (Jack Sparrow’s sojourn into the bizarre realm of Davy Jones’ Locker in At World’s End is one of the purest extended demonstrations of Surrealism in Hollywood history). But I couldn’t have told you the title of the second movie without the aid of the internet (Dead Man’s Chest, thank you very much), and could tell you even less about the fourth film, the Rob Marshall-helmed On Stranger Tides (though I have a review on this blog to link to for that purpose, so there you go).

And yet I came back for Dead Men Tell No Tales anyway. Many others did, too. In point of fact, it did fairly well (though international grosses propped up an under-performance domestically, never a good sign financially), albeit far worse than prior editions in the series, but few loved it outside of Disney’s accountants. It’s not hard to see why. Despite a stated intention on the part of directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (whose Norwegian film Kon-Tiki proved them dab hands at epic seabourne adventure) to circle back to the elements that made the unquestioned franchise pinnacle Black Pearl feel undeniably fresh and delightul, Dead Men Tell No Tales settles indistinguishably into the swirling bilge of overwrought CG effects, over-convoluted plotting, and relentless bad jokes that defined the diminishing returns of the Pirates sequels. There’s some fun to be had now and again, and some clever and imaginative touches break through the busy interference. But it’s not clear that the franchise’s downward trajectory is effectively reversed.

Like all Pirates movies, a detailed plot synopsis of Dead Men Tell No Tales is an exercise in futility. A series of pursuits at sea, on tropical islands, and in colonial outposts are marked by sudden reversals, double- and triple-crosses, and fleeting alliances between foes and mismatched partners. Magical, sea-controlling mythical relics are quested for. Flesh-and-blood buccaneers are pitted against supernatural ghost-pirates (this time led by Javier Bardem’s implacable Spanish pirate-hunter Captain Salazar) as well as law-and-order British imperial pirate-tracking subalterns in command of the considerable resources of the Royal Navy and Army (David Wenham represents the latter group on this occasion, but it’s pretty thankless and non-notable stuff for good old Daisy).

Reintegrated into this formula after the unwisely Jack Sparrow-centric On Stranger Tides are the heroic romantic squares, whose dull pretentions to bourgeois respectability and honourable conduct clash with the slippery disingenuousness and dizzying betrayals of piratedom. Just as Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner and Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swann (both of whom have cameo appearances in this film after being absent in the last installment) provided Depp’s Sparrow with useful straight-person foils for his sashaying unreliability in the first trilogy, young rising actors Brenton Thwaites (as Will and Elizabeth’s son Henry) and Kaya Scodelario (as Carina Smyth, a determined astronomer with a hidden family connection among the film’s returning characters) act as pale reflections to those roles here.

Henry Turner has immersed himself in sailors’ myths and gone to sea in search of a powerful artifact called the Trident of Poseidon that could free his father, who is cursed to escort souls to the ghostly deep as captain of the Flying Dutchman. Carina, apparently due to be executed as a witch by superstitious provincial authorities who distrust her scientific practices (history lesson, this film ain’t), pledges to aid him with her knowledge of the stars and a cryptic diary left to her by her absent, unknown father. They fall in with Jack and his on-again, off-again crew (chief among them Kevin McNally as Joshamee Gibbs, but the always-delightful Stephen Graham shows up as well) and set about tracking down the Trident. They get an assist in this mission from Jack’s longtime frienemy Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, as always the movie’s secret weapon), who has become an ostentatious pirate-fleet CEO, flaunting the spectacular wealth of his ill-gotten booty.

The production design of Barbossa’s opulent gilded ship is a hoot, and only the most literal of the many imaginative displays of Dead Men Tell No Tales‘ handsome budget splashed across the screen. Jack’s reintroduction kickstarts the movie’s earliest and most spectacular action setpiece: an audacious robbery of a supposedly impenetrable bank safe that involves his crew driving a team of horses dragging not just the safe but the entire bank through the streets of the colonial island town of St. Martin (physics lesson, this film ain’t). A later Buster Keaton-influenced execution escape scene features some inventive gags but is likewise physically unlikely. Salazar and his ghost-crew are visually stuck in time, differing from the first Pirates movie’s horror-flick skeletonizing swashbucklers in that their forms are gradually vanishing rather than decaying. Their ship is reduced to its wooden ribs, which fold back and open like the jaws of a voracious predator to consume other vessels. At one point, they release putrifying zombie sharks to hunt down and devour Jack, Henry, and Carina. When our heroes finally locate the Trident’s home island, it’s a captivating post-volcanic precious-stone-spangled reflection of the starry night sky.

There are plenty of fine ideas in this film, but each one is force-fed money until it’s ready to burst. Dead Men Tell No Tales achieves nothing more notable than a solid mid-level simmer of fun, never coming together as a whole as enjoyably semi-trangressive as The Curse of the Black Pearl or as magnificently strange and vaguely tragic as its ambitious sequels. Its narrative barely holds together, despite the surplus of exposition, and fails to cohere or build impact in thematic or emotional terms, despite a climactic heroic sacrifice. It’s often desperate to please, but far too often comes across as tired and uninspired, checking off less-than-necessary boxes (how distracting is Paul McCartney’s self-referential cameo as Jack Sparrow’s uncle?) rather than building and dramatically opening novel and exciting boxes.

It’s difficult not to key in on the big name on the movie’s marquee as Exhibit A of its problems. Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, perhaps the most iconic original blockbuster film character of the new millennium, might have portended a career renaissance for this purveyor of elaborately, eccentrically detailed misfits. Instead, it’s trapped Depp in stagnating creative patterns which have exposed his limitations as an actor. That this career rut has coincided with troubling revelations of domestic violence has proven a threat to his Hollywood prominence, especially in the current moment of #MeToo and the shame-faced fall of other chronic sexual abusers in the movie industry. Harry Potter fans have called for his removal from the role of the villainous Grindlewald in the current Fantastic Beasts franchise, and maybe Jack Sparrow is trying audiences’ patience, too; his highly-evident alcoholism, consistently played for laughs here, is an old-fashioned joke whose retirement should perhaps be nigh (sensitivity lesson, this movie ain’t). Maybe, given his recent career and public-image struggles, Johnny Depp still needs Jack Sparrow and Pirates of the Caribbean. But maybe, given how Hollywood and the cultural landscape have changed since 2003, the rest of us no longer do.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: A Ghost Story

January 20, 2018 Leave a comment

A Ghost Story (2017; Directed by David Lowery)

David Lowery’s spectral and tender supernatural art-film tragedy A Ghost Story is painfully, realistically tangible and grandly, metaphorically imaginative in alternating doses. In broad strokes, the film may strike the uninitiated as silly in its premise: a man (Casey Affleck) dies in a car crash and becomes a standard-issue Halloween-costume-style, white-sheet-with-eyeholes-cut-out-of-it ghost, haunting the home he shared with his wife (Rooney Mara). Unseen and unable to interact with her or with anyone else living, the ghost watches – silently, impassively, featureless – her raw, paralyzing grief give way to a return to routine and eventually to a life away from him and his fading memory.

The early passages of A Ghost Story detail their domestic life, with Affleck and Mara (who co-starred in Lowery’s festival-circuit indie breakthrough, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) settling into a realistic, charismatic ease in each other’s presence. She’s ready to move to another, better house, but he’s a musician and likes the old piano that came with the house, and perhaps its acoustics and comforting countours as well; when he agrees to move at last, they caress tenderly in bed, but he dies before they can complete the move together.

When she does move away and the ghost is not able to follow, A Ghost Story transcends the moving intimacy of its initial act and becomes something something more eerily cosmic and symbolically metaphysical. A Spanish-speaking family takes residence, until the ghost petulantly poltergeists them into vacating in fear. As the ghost scrapes at a crack in a wall, trying to retrieve a note his wife left there, a subsequent owner holds a lively party. There, at the kitchen table over drinks, a man (credited as Prognosticator and played by indie-folk prophet Will Oldham) expounds cleverly but self-negatingly about the pitiless ravages of time, how even the greatest legacy of human cultural patrimony (his example is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which distinctly interrupts Daniel Hart’s moody, affecting score as he speaks) will be wiped away by the (very) long-term advance of cosmic spacetime.

The house is demolished soon after this contextualizing monologue (easily the most sustained dialogue in Lowery’s beautifully spare film), to be replaced by a cityscape of gleaming skyscrapers. But then, in a temporal twist, the ghost returns to the past, witnessing a family of white pioneers begin to put down stakes on the site of his future home, only to be massacred by Native Americans. The ghost then waits until his living-man form returns to the home with the woman he loves, and plays a role (purposeful? inadvertent?) in the tragic path of their lives.

A Ghost Story is a lovely, symbolically rich meditation on the dull ache of passing time, on draining memory and fleeting remembrance. One fancies it even contains a sketched critique of America in that temporal jump in the pre-chorus prior to its final circle-closing coda, suggesting a scarlet thread between contemporary impersonal techno-capitalism and the precarious annexation project of colonization. But at a bedrock level, it’s a film of astute mournful poetry and elegiac sadness and loss. Like a ghost, it haunts and lingers.

Categories: Film, Reviews