Film Review: Wind River

Wind River (2017; Directed by Taylor Sheridan)

Grim and stark like its snowy, spartan setting on a Wyoming Indian reservation, Wind River is the third and least of double-Oscar-nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s heavy, violent crime dramas set amidst the socioeconomic margins of America. This is a bit unfortunate, as the core political issue that it seeks to spotlight – missing and murdered Indigenous women, an epidemic made worse by the complete lack of statistics about its frequency Stateside – is given far less attention than the push button issues of previous Sheridan scripts Sicario (the Mexican cartel drug trade at the border with the U.S.) and Hell or High Water (the financial system capitalizing on the struggles of poor whites).

At the centre of Wind River is a hard man acclimatized to the remote wilderness. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a Fish & Wildlife hunter and tracker, separated from his wife (Julia Jones) and son (Teo Briones) by the solitary demands of his job but also by a painful family tragedy in his past. Called onto the Wind River Reservation (the deprivations of its inhabitants are seen in standard-issue drive-by panoramas, one of which includes a heavy-handed upside-down U.S. flag) by his former father-in-law (Apesanahkwat) to track down livestock possibly snatched by a mountain lion, Cory finds a young woman’s dead body frozen in the snow, miles away from any human habitation.

There is evidence of rape and murder, which would constitute a criminal investigation beyond the stretched resources of the Tribal Police (their chief is Ben, played by veteran Aboriginal-Canadian actor Graham Greene, and it is noted that he has only five further officers to keep the peace in an area the size of Rhode Island, a true fact). FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, Renner’s Avengers co-star) arrives to evaluate the case, but is disappointed to learn from the medical examiner that the woman – named Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), daughter of Cory’s good friend Martin (Gil Birmingham, who was in Hell or High Water) – died from the cold and that her death cannot be classed as a homicide. Procedurally, this means that no investigative team will be sent from the Agency to take over. If Jane wants to find the perpetrator of Natalie’s death, she’ll have to solve the case herself, with Ben’s team and Cory as her only collaborators.

Sheridan no doubt learned from the directors of his previously-penned pictures, probably Sicario‘s supremely skilled Denis Villeneuve in particular, how to stage a tense and visceral bloodbath of a shootout scene. Wind River includes two, first a nailbiting sequence of Jane creeping through a reservation junkie flophouse, then the centerpiece, a memorable massacre in the snow between law enforcement and the bad men behind not only the death of Natalie but of her boyfriend Matt (Jon Bernthal) as well. Unfortunately, Sheridan’s hand is not as steady with the use of flashback, utilizing one to reveal the circumstances of the murders at a juncture that he no doubt thinks is clever but comes off as clumsy and awkwardly placed.

Cory’s intervention in the big shootout with his high-powered hunting rifle is graphic but satisfying, if rather telegraphed. Indeed, Cory’s role in the proceedings is always realistically couched in terms of his hunting and tracking capabilities, and Renner gives a strong performance as a man used to a hard life of hard choices who has nonetheless not abandoned his sensitivity, empathy, or moral compass. But he’s a bit too much of the rugged plain-spoken hero with a heart of gold, a stock figure that Sheridan has thus far avoided deploying so uncritically in his work.

The events of Wind River are based on the foul-play deaths of three teenaged girls on the reservation about a decade ago. These deaths were similarly borderline murders, but with drug-use involvement, with both the victims and the responsible parties being Native American. Sheridan crafts Wind River‘s murder mystery as not an internal tribal matter but a case of outside forces (colonizers, if you will) both bringing predatory violence and redressing the wrong done in the name of justice. Government agents avenge the most obvious ills visited on the reservation residents by subalterns of acquisitive corporate capitalism, but as with many social problems in America, they can do little to alleviate base-level suffering and struggling to survive in parts of the country that make majority-Caucasian Appalachia – that locus of demonstrative political hand-wringing over endemic poverty in the States, the place where it counts to be poor, unlike reservations or majority-black or Hispanic urban communities – look like the Hamptons in comparison.

Wind River, its good intentions interwoven with unflinching but vaguely nihilistic hard-edged realism, can do little either. Canada’s First Nations reserves face similar problems as those of the U.S., but concerted efforts by Indigenous groups and political activist allies in this country have at least convinced the federal government to convene an official inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women (albeit an inquiry rife with problems already). The situation for American Indians seems that much more dire for the lack of government resources and concern, especially in a time of a federal administration actively engaged in worsening the conditions for anyone who isn’t identified as white (and plenty who are too, while they’re at it).

Still, Wind River might have at least lessened that burden with a story of Native American agency and self-reliance, with representational casting at its core. As good as Renner is in the role, did Cory need to be white? Could not a Native American actor (Zahn McClarnon, a mixed Lakota-Irish actor currently doing superb work in prestige television, would have been inspired casting) have played Cory, adding a further element of personal cultural conflict to the character by having him be caught between two worlds, on and off the reservation? Far be it for a mere internet critic to question the creative decisions of a twice-Oscar-nominated screenwriter, but such a choice might give an opportunity for meta-commentary about and deconstruction of the common Hollywood western stock character of the Native American tracker.

The possibilities are fascinating, but Wind River is a movie closed off from fascination. More than competent and often tense and evocative, with some lovely widescreen cinematography from DP Ben Richardson, Wind River comes across as too grim and paternalistic. Opening with a chest-puffing piece of grandiose poetic voiceover and closing with pulpit-ascending onscreen titles lecturing about the ignored issue of missing Native women, it’s a movie that can’t get out of its own way. Given the representational, thematic, and narrative good its messaging could have done if presented better, Wind River has to count as a disappointment.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys (2016; Directed by Shane Black)

The opening sequence of Shane Black’s rough and rowdy action/comedy/neo-noir is a sort of initial thesis statement for the project of subversion of genre violence and sly confrontation of audience perspective and expectations that The Nice Guys (like most of Black’s work) represents. On a clear night in Los Angeles in 1977, after ensuring that the dog is safely inside and the family is securely asleep, a boy named Bobby (Ty Simpkins) sneaks off excitedly to ogle a nudie magazine featuring popular adult-film star Misty Mountains (Murielle Tellio). The lurid pubescent rush of Bobby’s horny yet detached voyeurism becomes uncomfortably real and immediate, however, when a car carrying Misty herself crashes with sudden devastation through his house. In the aftermath, face to face with the idealized object of his youthful desire’s naked but torn and broken body, Bobby is overcome with sobering shame and covers her corpse with his nightshirt.

This scene is not the example from the film cited by the Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak, in his video-essay consideration of Black’s unique and defamiliarizing application of “awkward violence”, but it is a fuller summation of Black’s treatment of the elements of the film noir genre. Black delights in staging the dark, anti-social, vicarious thrills of hypermasculine action/detective movies with a sort of eruptive, direct realism that presents them as more painful and less safe than the generally empty spectacle of Hollywood blockbuster destruction. In this way, he challenges the audience to shake loose their assumptions about (and above all their numbness to) depictions of violence, to confront their voyeurism and realize its fundamentally problematic nature.

The Nice Guys overturns those assumptions and destabilizes Black’s favoured detective noir genre at every turn. The death of Misty Mountains (a perfect fake-pornstar name, complete with amusing cultural reference, from Black and his co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi) and the expanding conspiracy around it becomes the central mystery probed into by a mismatched duo of private dicks. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is an aging hard man who beats up and threatens people for money, and takes a commission from a young activist protestor named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) to dissuade a strange man from following her. This man is strange and is also Holland March (Ryan Gosling), an alcoholic ex-cop P.I. and single father to Holly (Angourie Rice), a teen girl who is probably more savvy than her father. Looking for Amelia in connection with Misty’s demise at the behest of the latter’s elderly half-blind aunt, who he is milking for as much money as he can while making a bare pretense of investigating, March is beaten and left with a broken arm by Healy.

Despite this inauspicious beginning to their acquaintance, the two men soon semi-reluctantly join forces to find Amelia and learn more about her connection to Misty via an porn flick with potentially inflammatory information about collusion between the government and the big Detroit automakers. From a indie filmmaker’s burnt-down home to a porn producer’s fanciful house party, from a Burbank Airport hotel to a final confrontation at the LA Auto Show, Healy and March, reluctantly with Holly’s aid, chase down Amelia and the film just ahead of a trio of criminal henchmen (Beau Knapp, Keith David, Matt Bomer) of increasing levels of competence and deadliness.

Black’s plot, like his application of violence, is surprising and even subversive, leaning into sharp turns and ironic reversals. As detailed by Puschak, March’s early genre-standard attempt to punch through a glass pane to open a bar’s back door in order to obtain Amelia-related information leads to a sliced wrist and a rollicking ambulance ride. Holly attempts to subdue an armed antagonist by throwing coffee on them; the coffee is unexpectedly cold, but her enemy slips on the spilled liquid and knocks herself out anyway. And a spectacular shootout with Bomer’s menacing hitman John Boy in defence of Amelia is made suddenly, stunningly moot after its conclusion.

The script’s jokes are fine-tuned, and its call-backs in particular are a joy, especially one involving Richard Nixon’s face being the last thing a man once saw before dying. References to gas shortages, the growth of the porn business, media-fed anxiety about killer bees (a man-sized version of which hilariously appears in the backseat of March’s car in a dream), and anti-smog die-in protests ground the film in its historical milieu while imparting a sense of instability and decay of morality and security that make the period and place an ideal setting for the stress-tests of noir. Crowe is solidly in his element as a gruff, violent man whose best years are behind him but who fleetingly wishes to be better. But Gosling’s unethical, grifting, mostly hapless and quietly guilt-ridden March, with his perpetual Chinatown-like injuries, lack of a sense of smell, and high-pitched, unmasculine shriek of alarm, steals the show, while also carrying Black’s reflections on the difficulty of moral conduct in a societal setting of dishonesty, exploitation, violence, looting, and subterfuge.

Shane Black understands well the appeal of violently transgressive content in such a genre setting, and could very well summon it in a manner commensurate with expected convention, pumped full of triumphant testosterone and audio-visual adrenaline. But from its opening scene, The Nice Guys dares its audience to interrogate their own complicity in the lies, danger, and violence of this cinematic milieu. It complicates the veneer of the ideal by making the violence on display and its clear costs undeniable and even difficult to digest.

This approach goes compellingly beyond mere screen violence into an open challenge to American idealized self-conception. The eventual object of the detective characters’ quarry is not Amelia but her film (How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy?), an exposé in more ways than one that outlives those who made it. Its sociopolitical challenge is explicitly targetted at the car culture of the auto-centric metropolis of Los Angeles and its notorious smog (killing birds and threatening public health), and by extension at the centrality of the automobile in narratives of American freedom, mobility, and gender hegemony. Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger), Amelia’s mother and the nexus of the corrupt government-automaker conspiracy, states that Detroit’s power and permanence cannot be challenged (a winking irony is obvious in this argument, given the city’s precipitous urban degradation and depopulation in our era), and that “what is good for Detroit is good for America” (a paraphrase of a former Secretary of Defense and major stakeholder in General Motors). Big gas-guzzling automobiles, like violent Hollywood action movies, are consistently sold by corporate interests as being good for you, but Shane Black’s The Nice Guys stops you in the midst of your consumption to suggest, without pedantry or tiresome lecturing but with crisp, funny subversion, that they’re as bad for you as you would imagine, and that you think twice about the choice to consume them.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review – Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018; Directed by J.A. Bayona)

For all that the movies of the franchise-rebooting Jurassic World trilogy are not turning out to be very good, they are offering ample opportunities to consider and discuss the ideas and themes at the centre of Michael Crichton’s surprisingly resilient concept of a theme park featuring genetically-recreated dinosaurs. These latest movies in Universal’s lucrative blockbuster series don’t always manage to explore these ideas in fresh or intriguing ways, and they increasingly take place in a comic-book version of our world where people continue to do the exact same things with regards to dinosaurs and invariably expect a non-catastrophic result (which is maybe not so unlike our textbook-definition-of-insanity world after all). But with the exception of some fleeting, film-homage-drenched moments of visceral thrills, Jurassic World and its new sequel Fallen Kingdom don’t have much else to offer the committed moviegoer. Certainly not developed characters with relationships that we can invest in (with one slightly odd exception) or snappy, amusing dialogue or plot turns that make sense and amplify the impact of character arcs and script themes.

Jurassic World made heaping piles of money at the box office, but it was hardly a great (or even consistently good) movie even as summer popcorn-movie fodder. What it was, however, was a suprisingly complex if often self-contradictory and messy recontextualization of the ideas at the core of Jurassic Park, combining the original Frankenstein-descended thought-seed of corporatized science bringing prehistoric monsters to life (with disastrous physical and moral consequences) with troublingly Hitchcockian gender politics. Where Steven Spielberg’s glorified (but only really just above-average) 1993 Jurassic Park did build a re-socialization of Sam Neill’s child-hating paleontologist Alan Grant into its conflict between idealistic capitalist vision and crusty rational cynicism, Colin Trevorrow’s 2015 Jurassic World re-situated that association to career-driven woman Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard). Claire’s professional authority and ambition is associated directly with the turbulent sublimated maternal/oedipal all-devouring violence of the Indominus Rex, a super-predator whose genetic creation she authorized as the new star attraction of the theme park she ran and whose escape precipitates that park’s disastrous destruction. Through the crucible of disaster, Trevorrow pushed Claire towards a more traditional path of a forged-in-crisis family unit with her ever-imperiled nephews and heroic man-of-action Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), a combat veteran and animal behaviourist who trained a pack of velociraptors from a young age to bond with him and respond to his commands.

As Fallen Kingdom opens, this promised family unit has dissolved. Having broken up, Claire and Owen are brought back together by a mission to return to the ruined park on remote Isla Nublar and rescue as many creatures as possible from a volcanic eruption that threatens to destroy the whole island and the entire population of genetically-crafted dinosaurs with it. This effort is funded by ailing old rich man Benjamin Lockwood (a wheelchair- and bed-bound James Cromwell affecting a baffling bad Mid-Atlantic accent), who collaborated with original Jurassic Park head honcho John Hammond on the initial genetic experiments that brought dinosaurs back to life. Claire, who heads a bustling animal-rights-oriented NGO that is campaigning for the preservation of the remaining dinos, meets Lockwood, his business aide Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), and his precocious young granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon) at his neo-gothic estate, museum, and laboratory in Northern California. They need Claire’s handprint authorizations to access the system in the old park that will allow their hard-as-nails big-game hunter Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) to track and capture the dinos, and she jumps at the chance to fulfill her organizational goals. Owen needs a little more convincing to go back, but is persuaded to do so with the promise of a reunion with the prized alpha female in the raptor pack he trained, the intelligent and imperious Blue.

This adventure (whose description after this point includes deeper spoilers, to give fair warning) involves plentiful dinosaurid peril and a spectacular, sustained, impossibly apocalyptic escape from a massive volcanic explosion. It also involves increasingly incredible situations, as when Owen and Claire are tasked by feistily pragmatic ex-Marine paleoveterinarian Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda, who would make a better human lead in these movies than either of the top-billing stars) with drawing blood from a half-sedated Tyrannosaurus Rex in order to save the injured Blue with a therapod-match blood transfusion. Fallen Kingdom gallops over the edge into truly goofy but viscerally exciting genre-movie homage territory as the mission is revealed as a recklessly duplicitous scheme by Mills to raise millions of dollars by auctioning off the rescued dinosaurs to wealthy private bidders and then use the resulting funds to develop genetic super-dinos as even more lucrative weapons of war. The auction is hijacked by Owen and Claire with the help of an ornery headbutt-happy Pachycephalosaurus (I spelled that right first time, I swear), but as a result the prototype dino-super-soldier Indoraptor gets loose and chases the screaming Maisie through her grand-dad’s rambling quasi-Victorian pile in an enervated gothic monster horror episode on steroids.

Fallen Kingdom‘s director is Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona, a Guillermo del Toro disciple with an applicable resume of fright-fests and disaster movies who orchestrates the requisite frightening dinosaur pursuits with verve, intensity, and baroque visual flourishes. One compelling pastiche image of the Indoraptor’s curved claws reaching menacingly for Maisie as she shivers in terror in her four-post bed is already a defining image (one aesthetically worthy of his Oscar-winning mentor, even) for an otherwise-disposal film, it seems.

But Bayona’s adeptness in these genre sequences is constantly let down by a horridly misbegotten script, from Trevorrow and Derek Connolly. Texturally, it’s powerfully lame, full of unrealistic character motivations, dialogue that vacillates between awkwardly expository and painfully leaden, and flat, telegraphed jokes galore. Owen Grady is the more serious-visaged prong of Pratt’s blockbuster leading-man fame and thus less-beloved than Guardians of the Galaxy‘s more sarcastic Peter Quill, but Pratt’s comedic gifts are not anathema to Grady’s thinly-drawn character but rather buried in piss-poor lines and dubiously-timed deliveries. Pratt does manage one funny scene of physical comedy, at least, as a semi-tranquilized Grady rolls gradually away from inexorably advancing lava. Howard’s Claire, meanwhile, is not saddled with a character arc that attempts to send her back into the kitchen as a 1950s housewife (or any arc at all, really), but she has little enough to do but run from danger here, which she does magnificently well (pounding out a full sprint in heels is Ron Howard’s daughter’s superpower).

More problematically, like Jurassic World, Fallen Kingdom shoehorns in a child in peril to satisfy certain Spielbergian tropes in reflection of the master’s original work (Bayona includes a few direct tribute shots to the franchise’s father, and I swear I even spotted a stealth reference to a memorable Jurassic Park lampoon from the short-lived animated comedy series The Critic). It should be said, however, that the trauma that Maisie is put through in a single night over and above being pursued through her home by a ravenously vicious carnivorous reptile is frankly a bit much, and would doubtlessly lead to psychological scars of a remarkable magnitude requiring years of therapy to even begin to mitigate. As if this wasn’t enough, the screenwriters also feel the need to drop a much-teased bombshell twist about Maisie prior to the climax. But it’s weirdly perfunctory (a dino attack tramples over any hope of a reaction to it) and furthermore essentially weightless in its implications, as if Trevorrow and Connolly didn’t so much study and dissect shocking plot twists in order to produce an effective one of their own as they were vaguely told about their general existence by an aunt on Facebook.

Fallen Kingdom has these problems and more on a moment-to-moment basis, but loses the plot that much more completely in macro thematic terms. Five films of diminishing quality into the franchise, there appears to be little left to say about humanity’s dinosaur-creating hubris and how it is fed by corporatized avarice and compromised science. So little, indeed, that Trevorrow and Connolly retreat to that eternal safe ground of Hollywood critiques of capitalist exploitation and deploy cartoonishly nasty arms dealers (one of them even has a broad Russian accent, Slavically calling out his multi-million dollar bids in lurid closeup inserts). This would be only half-effective even if The Last Jedi hadn’t gone to the same well much more prominently and forcefully, and with a touch more nuance, a mere half-year ago, and the subplot even wastes Toby Jones (the Wayne Gretzky of sad, smarmy little men) as the smirking rodent-like broker to the ultra-rich bidders.

The new idea that is introduced into the Jurassic Park cinematic realm in this movie is one that has subsisted on the margins of the films so far. Namely, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom goes all-in on an in-text debate about animal rights for the dinosaurs, and more subtly flirts with the idea of empathy for them and how they are deserving of a chance to survive, whatever cost that chance might have for human civilization. Claire’s organization is only the spear’s head of a wider political debate about saving the dinosaurs or letting them go extinct again.

The film grounds the intellectual and moral case for their survival in empathetic moments: Bayona recuscitates the wondrous appearance of the Brachiosaurus from the 1993 film and then bathes it in sad elegy, having the same majestic creature cry out to the last departing ship from the Isla Nublar dock as the island is consumed by volcanic activity; the film’s climactic dilemma concerns a direct choice between releasing the surviving dinosaurs or preserving civilizational order by letting them die, and is resolved with the simple loving quasi-wisdom (and perhaps buried genetic solidarity) of a child. More than anything else, though, Owen Grady’s bond with the velociraptor Blue, the only relationship in the film that carries any weight or emotional power (and even then proscribed to fleeting moments), makes the empathetic case for dinosaur rights. As deadly as she can be, Blue is basically treated like Owen’s imposing but touchingly loyal dog, an impression strengthened by keeping her injured and in risk of dying in the care of the vet for much of the film, as well as incorporating video of Owen forming a bond with her and other adorable little raptor puppies years before.

Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom firmly puts forth and supports this idea of dinosaur rights, and the appeals to empathy work fairly well, aided as they are by excellent CG character work on the creatures that demonstrates how far the fine details of the technology and craft have come since Jurassic Park acted as a watershed for CGI effects in 1993. But it’s hard not to go along with the characteristically dire warnings of Dr. Ian Malcolm, played again in cameo by the incomparable Jeff Goldblum, testifying before a Congressional committee considering funding the ill-fated dinosaur rescue mission that Owen and Claire perform on the Lockwood dime instead. Having ignored his prognostications of doom and persisted on the path of a post-modern Prometheus, Malcolm considers mankind’s only rational decision concerning this self-created dilemma to be the one of enlightened self-preservation: Let a volcanic act of God erase the error of a man-made act of God. Not to be heartless, but it’s hard to say, given what happens between humans and dinosaurs in this film as in all of the others, that he isn’t right.

Watching dinosaurs rampage and devour humans is the core thrill of the Jurassic Park franchise, but the explanatory reasons for those humans’ stubborn and unwise persistence in keeping these deadly beasts around are becoming spread ever-thinner. Again and again during Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, you’re left wondering why people who know as much as these characters do about the dangers posed by dinosaurs keep getting into the cage with them, figuratively but very often quite literally. You need not wonder that about the film’s audience, protected as they are from the violent ends of their violent delights by the semi-permeable membrane of the movie screen. We keep getting into the cage with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park because it’s undeniably appealing, even in the diminished doses offered in the Colin Trevorrow-headed Jurassic World trilogy (which will be concluded by a third film once again directed by Trevorrow). What the Jurassic World films should be working harder to achieve is to give us better reasons to want to get into the cage. They have one more shot at it. Make it count.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Spectre

Spectre (2015; Directed by Sam Mendes)

A strangely underwhelming payoff to the first real sustained multi-film narrative arc in the James Bond movie franchise, Spectre dramatically shows its hand after three films of hints and clues about a shadowy criminal organization headed by an ultimate antagonist to Brit superspy Bond (Daniel Craig) and reveals… well, not much at all. The Craig-led Bond Saga inaugurated by series reboot Casino Royale seemed to be building to a grand and maybe even compelling crescendo following Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace, with its revenge-driven muscular relentlessness and undercurrent of progressive political outrage, and Sam Mendes’s spectacularly gorgeous and surprisingly emotionally consistent Skyfall. But while Mendes – the first Bond director to helm two franchise entries in a row since John Glen completed a five-title run with Timothy Dalton’s last Bond entry, Licence to Kill, in 1989 – delivers some killer action sequences as well as one of the most extravagantly huge explosions ever committed to celluloid, his Spectre falls short of the comparatively lofty thematic and character arc targets set for Bond by recent installments.

This failure, perhaps, lies not at the directorial level but at the screenwriting one. Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, consistent scripters through the Craig-era Bond movies, are credited along with Skyfall co-writer John Logan, with polishes by Jez Butterworth. This team effectively advances the continuing plotline concerning the changing nature of intelligence and national security in Britain and the world and the hands-on (in more ways than one) 007’s initially creeping but increasingly headlong-rushing obsolescence in a milieu of international mass data collection and totalizing digital surveillance. The craggy Craig, his stony features at once betraying nothing and revealing everything, has proven a good match to a treatment of the character that is allowed to subtly betray formative past traumas, lasting emotional attachments, and persistent internal doubts about his physical, mental, and moral fitness to continue as an international assassin and espionage agent in an age of hackers, drones, and highly-motivated but motivation-less mass-murdering terrorists. This conflict over the future of the intelligence world is played out predominantly in subplot in Spectre as a mostly-bureaucratic political deathmatch between Bond’s boss M (Ralph Fiennes, fully succeeding Judi Dench’s version of the character, who met her end in Skyfall) and Max Denbigh or “C” (Andrew Scott, underused and too reined-in), who leverages government connections and private donor funds to erect a globe-spanning G9-type organization of intelligence data collection and analysis to replace tired old MI6.

What Spectre‘s script does not accomplish effectively is the combining of this incrementally-building (potential) critique of mass government surveillance and security-state overreach with the climactic unmasking of the titular shadow-conspiracy organization, headed by the mysterious Franz Oberhauser (if that is his real name, and it isn’t), who could only be played by the current master of old-fashioned, self-aware, menacingly elegant Eurovillainy, Christoph Waltz.  Where Quantum of Solace semi-audaciously suggested that intelligence agencies like Bond’s MI6 were complicit in the cycle of exploitation and deprivation maintained by brutal developing-world authoritarians and profit-hungry transnational corporations, Skyfall explicitly made the cynical neoconservative point that those agencies’ immoral and illegal actions in the shadows were really the bulwark of democratic freedoms. Spectre‘s only point is that mass surveillance and digital data collection is here to stay, cannot and ought not to be dislodged, and need only be kept out of the wrong hands.

Those wrong hands belong to Spectre, its insidious, tentacular reach into all facets of the world symbolized by its octopus logo. This organization and its megalomaniacal leader occupies a central place in Ian Fleming’s Bond mythos (and in successful spoofs of that mythos), and Spectre‘s creative team is so giddily eager to pull back the curtain on them with just the right clever flourish that their hands slip on the tug-rope. The reveal of Oberhauser’s true identity is meant to be a shock, but it carries no meaning to James Bond himself (who despite being tortured when it is dropped still manages a wry quip at its expense) and is little more than a nostalgic intertextual easter egg to the audience. Furthermore, Bond escapes Spectre’s clutches and lays waste to the master plans of his supposed arch-nemesis with such relative ease (and such a very big boom) that it renders the last act of the film, built up as the conclusion of a four-film mega-arc, oddly perfunctory, anticlimactic, and disappointing.

Much of Spectre‘s early stages are fortunately less deflating. It cold-opens with a bravura tracking, explosion, chase, and precarious helicopter fight sequence set in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead (Bond first appears disguised as a death’s-head skeleton figure, the most on-the-nose reference to his angel-of-death role yet in these movies). It’s impressively staged and shot by Mendes (the first sustained tracking shot is a stealth homage to the opening shot of Touch of Evil, one fancies) and his capable director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema (Christopher Nolan’s resident cinematographer, he crafts some lovely and epic images here but is simply not an artist of the calibre of Skyfall DoP Roger Deakins, not that many living or dead cinematographers are), and looks to have been dumbfoundingly expensive. Bond then tantalizingly romances the Italian widow (Monica Bellucci, who has always seemed purpose-built for a Bond woman role, in what is unfortunately no more than a cameo) of the man he tossed from the chopper to gain access to a secret Spectre meeting in Rome. He is exposed, and then pursued by the organization’s formidable hitman, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista, who can do much more than these imposing thug roles even if he does them this well).

A hybrid species of Bond’s two most memorable wordless assassin opponents, the impeccably dressed Oddjob from Goldfinger and the sizable Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, Mr. Hinx is 007’s foil in Spectre‘s three most rousing action sequences. First, a luxury sports car chase through the Roman streets and along the banks of the Tiber (they pull skidding donuts in St. Peter’s Square; I wished in vain for a cut to the disapproving reaction of the Pope in his palace window). Second, a spectacular plane-and-SUV chase through the snowy Austrian alps. Third and most visceral, a brutal hand-to-hand fight to the end in a train rumbling across the North African desert. More than Oberhauser, Mr. Hinx’s is Bond’s true equal as an adversary, and after his defeat, subsequent challenges simply seem less daunting.

Spectre demonstrates how far James Bond films have come in this relatively open and ambitious new cycle, but also how far they have yet to go. Its willingness to check off franchise requirements (there’s a primary Bond girl here, played by accomplished French actress Léa Seydoux, but she doesn’t make a strong impression and is reduced to damsel-in-distress stuff at key junctures) is often prioritized at the expense of pushings its themes, the meatiest in the long-running series, into brave new areas. That there is now an expectation of thematic resonance in a Bond movie is quite another thing. No longer is a franchise entry a mere competent frame for a clutch of chases and fights, explosions and smashed vehicles, pretty women and outlandish villains, dry quips and drier martinis. Damn it, James Bond now has to mean something.

Does he, though? Bond has always been a male power fantasy on overdrive, and the Daniel Craig films have complicated and politically situated his avatar status in that regard without meaningfully challenging it. The Bond mythos has, to as much an extent as it feels it can, gotten real over the past decade. Maybe taking steps to break down the core male power fantasy is the only place it has left to go that can really surprise and challenge its audience. Or maybe, as Spectre tends to suggest, it’s comfortable enough returning to the essentially familiar with only minor gestures towards challenge.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Television Review: Sense8

Sense8 (Netflix; 2015-2018)

Art creates a world. This world can be a reflection of our own, seen through a rose-coloured filter, through jaded and jaundiced eyes, or through a funhouse mirror. It can be an imaginative projection, into the future or the past or even sideways across the present. It can be a nightmare or a dream, a representation of humanity’s worst impulses or a hopeful constitution of its best. The creation of that world might tells its audience many things about themselves, but at the soul of the matter it tells us most about its creators, and what kind of world they see as ideal and preferable.

In Sense8, the Wachowskis (with an able creative assist from Babylon 5‘s J. Michael Straczynski) realize an act of vivid, emotive world-creation that they have fitfully whittled away at since at least their breakthrough as culturally significant filmmakers with The Matrix in 1999. It’s a world of interconnection, a sinuously-threaded global village of criss-crossing interdependent identities striving for unity against persistent and well-resourced forces of controlling disunion. It’s also, vitally, a world of imperious self-creation and epiphanous self-realization, where the best and truest way to survive and strive for collective improvement is not to sacrifice what others need at the altar of what you want. It’s a pulpy but weirdly moving ode to the inherent value of empathy in the face of a ceaseless torrent of selfishness. Cut short just as it seemed to be ramping up and expanding its scope, Sense8 nonetheless feels like as complete a statement of values and purpose as the Wachowskis have ever managed to produce, just surpassing the uneven and sometimes self-contradicting Matrix Trilogy and the sprawling, flawed, beautiful Cloud Atlas. The latter is an obvious pre-requisite for the series in thematic terms and in cross-edited, globe-spanning construction, and the author of the (far more brilliant) novel on which that film was based, David Mitchell, co-wrote the Sense8 finale episode, cinching the close connection of the material.

Over two seasons on Netflix and a recently-released 2.5-hour finale film wrapping up as many of its storylines and arcs as proved possible, Sense8 presented a compelling (if often silly and generically conventional) metaphorical narrativization of the essential forces of conflict and rapprochement in our globalized post-capitalist mega-society. Laying out its complex pseudo-scientific premise gradually over its rising action, the show introduces the concept of “sensates”, a separate, mostly-hidden species of human beings who are able to connect with each other in a psychic/empathic/telepathic manner that is made visually and emotionally clear while also being left a little functionally ambiguous. These sensates, known scientifically as homo sensorium, are “birthed” by previously established sensates in clusters of eight which are physically born (to ordinary homo sapiens parents, by all evidence) at precisely the same moment. Thereafter, at some point in their lives, they begin experiencing the lives and the inner thoughts and the feelings of their other seven clustermates, and are able to communicate with these faraway strangers and even temporarily take possession of their bodies, should the need or desire arise (which it often does, for dramatic, sensual, and action-related reasons).

Sense8‘s globally-strewn main cluster begins to explore and cope with their new collective reality while contending with their own personal relationships and problems:

  • Bay Area trans hacktivist and blogger Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) and her spunky girlfriend Amanita (Freema Agyeman) evade shadowy official forces that seek to imprison and disfigure Nomi, and deal with her disapproving parents who can’t accept her transition to a new identity.
  • Chicago cop Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith) struggles to reconcile his police responsibilities and outlook with his sensate revelations and related growing distrust of institutional authority, with the sometimes-ambiguous aid of wanted terrorist Jonas Maliki (Naveen Andrews).
  • Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) is a successful movie star in Mexico, who hides his passionate same-sex relationship with university art professor Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) in order to preserve his hyper-masculine action star career.
  • London-based Icelandic DJ Riley Blue (Tuppence Middleton) contends with dangerous characters in her present and unthinkable tragedy in her past.
  • Wolfgang Bogdanow (Max Riemelt) navigates the fraught and deadly criminal underworld of Berlin while carrying the psychological weight of a traumatic upbringing by his thuggish father.
  • Capheus Onyango (Aml Ameen in Season 1, Toby Onwumere in Season 2) drives a matatu (a sort of pay-as-you-ride shared bus) in Nairobi, Kenya and cares for his HIV/AIDS-infected mother (Chichi Seii), and becomes an unlikely folk hero when he stands up to the city’s endemic criminal gangs.
  • Mumbai pharmacologist Kala Dandekar (Tina Desai) is engaged to her boss’ son Rajan (Purab Kohli), but is entertaining doubts concerning her feelings for him that intensify when she catches sensate glimpses of sexy Teutonic bad-boy Wolfgang.
  • Sun Bak (Doona Bae), daughter and heir to a South Korean corporate titan as well as a badass kickboxing virtuoso, who must decide if she should take the legal fall for her father and brother in an embezzlement scandal.

Connecting with each other and teasing out the meaning of their condition, this sensate cluster discovers the history of their species, the fates of their fellow homo sensorium, and the evil, destructive intentions of a shadowy NGO known as the Biological Preservation Organization (a.k.a. BPO) and its sinister sensate hunter known only as Whispers (Terrence Mann). Indeed, as it proceeds and develops and expands, Sense8 becomes an increasingly bifurcated text, split between the action-thriller conflict between the cluster and Whispers’ BPO (heavy on fight scenes and shootouts spearheaded by Will, Sun, and Wolfgang and capers directed by the prodigious hacker and techie Nomi) and the various melodramatic personal subplots of the individual sensates (Kala’s plot in particular is quite nearly a homage to the romantic corniness of Bollywood). The Wachowkis (who often direct episodes themselves, with previous collaborators like Cloud Atlas co-director Tom Tykwer and V For Vendetta director James McTeigue taking the helm as well) are always keen to break up the drama and the tension and the action sequences with enervated intermittent collective celebrations in the vein of the infamous dance-party/sex/orgy sequence in Zion in The Matrix Reloaded.

Indeed, it is with such joyful, often erotic quick-cut montages (including one ending the finale, after the BPO thriller plot is closed off perfunctorily) that the Wachowskis make their deeper point about collective unity and action in Sense8. There is no lack of social and political commentary in the series, much of it fairly heavy-handed and self-consciously relevant to contemporary events. But the general through-line of the series emphasizes empathy as the cornerstone of positive progressivism; its characters quite literally see the world through the eyes of others from very different circumstances and grow to be better and more open people as a result. The pitiless Whispers is a picture of unfeeling institutional oppression and violence, while the cluster is a collaborative collective, a mutually respectful and caring group effort to defeat dead-end fascist discrimination and neutralization efforts and to ultimately craft a better world.

It is this collectivized vision of a better world that saves Sense8 from its own persistent pulp goofiness and numerous flaws (whimsical comic sidekicks abound, the recurrent – though masterful – violent action scenes clash with the hopeful tone of togetherness, and the series’ cancellation and rushed conclusion led to the jettisoning of certain of the more frivolous, but still absorbing, subplots). The Wachowskis, of course, began their filmmaking careers as brothers, but have emerged from Sense8 as sisters. Their gender transition (which kept Lilly away from the production in its second season, leaving the earlier-transitioned Lana to take the lead in writing and directing) is directly referenced in Nomi’s arc and less directly reflected in Lito’s struggles with the closet, certainly. But their difficult shift in identity is mirrored in the entire sensate experience, a shift that ends not in self-doubt or loathing but in festive unified love.

Sense8 employs a number of cultural touchstones to demonstrate its vision of collective power, from pop song singalongs and thumping party montages to references to films both classic (From Here to Eternity is a key film for Lito’s homosexual identity) and cheesily B-level (Conan the Barbarian and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies are keystones of Wolfgang’s and Capheus’s closest friendships, respectively). But the series provides defining thesis statements in front pair of more highbrow art history talismans. Lito galvanizes his deep intellectual and emotional connection to Hernando (with a hand-on-the-shoulder assist from Nomi) in Mexico City’s Diego Rivera Museum, with the artist’s paintings of idealized but socially realistic scenes of collective socialist action as a backdrop. Then, Will meets a potential ally from inside BPO in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum in front of Rembrandt’s iconic The Night Watch. They speak of the progressive evolution of ideas, of ways of seeing and of understanding. But the BPO exec also recognizes in Rembrandt’s painting a heroic act of world-creation, a reified envisioning of collective action for the common good. Sense8 may not be The Night Watch of its time, nor the Wachowskis the Rembrandt of theirs, but it is likewise a heroic creation in its own beautifully flawed way, concerned with the power of a unity of individuals integrating their own quests for identity with a larger collective quest for an improved reality.

Categories: Art, Reviews, Television

Film Review: The Disaster Artist

The Disaster Artist (2017; Directed by James Franco)

It would be best to open with an admission that I have not seen The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s curiously terrible, idiot-savant Badfilm cult classic, in its entirety. Youtube compilation videos of the 2003 catastrophically-failed melodrama highlighting the film’s awkwardly non-specific dialogue, whiplashing tonal shifts, unresolved plot twists, unexplained tuxedo-clad games of football catch, and meme-worthy overdramatic acting are about as deep as I can get into this inadvertent crap-terpiece, which has become a species of Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight-showing favourite for Very Online millennial ironists. Little I have seen makes me want to see more, to be frank, although it is entirely possible that the The Room might gain a certain oddball rhythm of brilliant awfulness when viewed complete.

Anyway, director/star James Franco’s The Disaster Artist tells you more than enough about Tommy Wiseau, The Room‘s eccentric director/producer/writer/star, and his misbegotten cultural-meme movie, while also telling you nothing much at all. It also tells you a lot about James Franco while also telling you nothing much at all; maybe, in the case of both artist and subject, there isn’t much worth telling. Franco is one of Hollywood’s most curious cases, forever a movie-star-in-embryo with matinee-idol looks and undeniable talent, but likewise possessed of a sense of above-it-all detachment that keeps him off the A-List. Franco also boasts open and earnest high-brow literary pretensions, publishing short fiction collections, teaching university courses about the poetry of film, and directing, producing, and starring in low-budget, barely-seen film adaptations of seminally serious Dead White Guy novels by William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Cormac McCarthy (who isn’t dead, yes, I know).

These latter passion projects, greeted at best with a dismissive shrugs by critics and seen by precisely no one, might serve to explain Franco’s interest in Tommy Wiseau and his peculiar form of cinematic infamy. In The Disaster Artist, Franco sees Wiseau as an unerringly hilarious character and at once a strange enigma and a psychological open-book. Spearheaded by Franco’s meticulous and eerie impersonation of Wiseau and contrasted with his younger brother Dave Franco’s straight-man Greg Sestero – Wiseau’s minor-actor friend and co-star who also co-wrote the memoir about the production of The Room on which The Disaster Artist is based – the film leans hard into the obvious humour of Wiseau’s quest to make this comically terrible movie, gently ribbing Hollywood inspirational-film themes and behind-the-scenes realities at the same time. But James Franco also quite clearly considers Tommy Wiseau a kindred spirit, and sees his journey as weirdly, genuinely inspiring as well as, it could be said, personally applicable to his own life and maybe to those of the audience, too.

In the film as in the book as in real life, Sestero meets Wiseau in an acting class in San Francisco. The handsome but nervous and self-conscious Sestero (an ex-model) is impressed by Wiseau’s total lack of vanity and by his performative abandon (he acts out the agonized Marlon Brando “Stella!” scene from A Streetcar Named Desire by one of his favourite authors, “The Tennessee Williams”). The two men become friends, roommates, and move to Los Angeles together to have a crack at Hollywood stardom. Sestero manages some minor roles (he was in Gattaca, Patch Adams, and the TV show Nash Bridges) but the peculiar Wiseau, with his long black hair and piratical sartorial sense, distracting and unplaceable accent (he claims to be from New Orleans, but no one believes him), and bizarre and awkwardly aggressive personality, gets nowhere.

Wiseau is independently wealthy (various explanations have been given for where his money came from, none of them ultimately satisfying) and hatches the idea of funding an independent movie that he will write, direct, and star in himself, with Sestero as his co-star. Although in real life Sestero’s role in The Room was intended to be behind-the-scenes only before he was convinced to replace the original actor playing the character of Mark after Wiseau fired him, in The Disaster Artist he is on board as a key collaborator from the start. The chaotic, contentious productions strains their relationship beyond the breaking point, however, as Wiseau frustrates and terrorizes the cast and crew (recognizable faces such as Seth Rogen, Josh Hutcherson, and Zac Efron are among them), demonstrates almost no useful or applicable working knowledge of filmmaking, and vindictively scuttles a potential big break of a role for Sestero by forcing him to shave his beard for a big climactic reveal in The Room that doesn’t make any sense.

In the end, of course, these sundered friends are brought together again by the unpredictable inverted success of The Room, which James Franco climactically shows confounding a premiere-night audience before winning them over as an audience-pleasing accidental comedy classic, its cult status clinched before the credits even roll. Franco, one fancies, sees in Wiseau and The Room a strange carnivalesque inversion of the kind of follow-your-dreams inspirational tropes that Hollywood has bandied about and persistently self-celebrated for decades. The Disaster Artist reproduces these conventions and thus lampoons them, always already with a coy meta self-awareness (the Oscar-nominated screenplay is by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber). For example, Wiseau’s lowest point in Tinseltown before launching into the making of The Room comes when he accosts a big-time producer in a restaurant who pitilessly shoots down his show-biz ambitions. The producer is played in cameo by Judd Apatow, the prominent producer-director of numerous Hollywood bro-comedies known for pushing the genre’s thematic boundaries and for nurturing emerging comedic talent, including both Franco brothers.

The more one delves into The Disaster Artist, the more meta-mirrors emerge. Greg Sestero’s girlfriend for a time is Amber, played by Dave Franco’s real-world wife Alison Brie. Wiseau openly resents her for coming between him and Sestero, and The Room‘s production increasingly becomes merely a mechanism for forcibly sustaining the two men’s friendship. Is this a reflection of envy on James Franco’s part for his younger brother’s relationship from a man with a checkered romantic and sexual history (including some sexual misconduct allegations that hypocritically clash with his public #MeToo solidarity)? It could be read as such, and is hinted at obliquely in dialogue that interprets The Room‘s focus on Wiseau’s alter-ego Johnny being betrayed by his fiancee Lisa (Ari Graynor plays Juliette Danielle, who played Lisa in The Room) as reflecting a past break-up in Wiseau’s life. The Wiseau/Sestero bromance also fits in cozily with past homosociality-centric Franco-headed comedies, particularly with Rogen (a producer on this film as well as an onscreen player), which suggests that the core theme of romantic betrayal in The Room actually reflects a growing distance between Wiseau and Sestero.

Beyond such nesting-doll tabloid-esque speculations, however, one can’t help but return to the interpretation that James Franco assumes the role of Tommy Wiseau because he feels in some way that, despite his general Hollywood success, he is Tommy Wiseau. Does Franco realize that his passionate toil on his literary adaptations just might outstrip his artistic capacity as a filmmaker, and that those more-than-a-little-pretentious works come across as unintentionally laughable as The Room? Does he even envy Wiseau, whose defining Z-grade work has achieved an enduring popularity (ironic or transgressive as its enthusiastic infamy may be) that eludes his own films? Or does he want to encourage thoughtful film consumers to think so, as another added layer of irony? If so, the fact that The Disaster Artist received more critical plaudits, awards, and popular success than anything else James Franco has directed adds another layer of irony to this particularly large onion. If The Room is a window into the supposedly mysterious life and identity of Tommy Wiseau, perhaps The Disaster Artist is equally a window into the self-constructed mystery around James Franco.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace (2008; Directed by Marc Forster)

Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace, despite its marbles-in-the-mouth title, is quite probably the leanest and meanest James Bond adventure. It’s also the most audacious attempt at repositioning the prevailing political subtext of the archetypal spy movie franchise to the left side of the political spectrum.

The Bond films are an action-movie property whose reification of its deep-state intelligence agent protagonist and his cloak-and-dagger espionage activities aligned with the consensus political ideology during the Cold War period from which they arose. But those assumptions became more strained after the fall of the Iron Curtain: the neoliberal-era Pierce Brosnan installments became increasingly paint-by-numbers action blockbusters while stretching credulity with its villains and their non-state-aligned diabolical plots, and the jocularly casual Britishness of Bond’s MI6 would come across all wrong in a time when the state’s vast intelligence apparatus seems ever poised to be turned on its own citizens as equally as on its enemies.

Quantum of Solace sees James Bond (Daniel Craig) seeking mostly-disavowed personal vengeance against the killers of his paramour from Casino Royale, Vesper Lynd, but in the process, he exposes and tears to shreds a black-money collusive feedback loop between resource-hoarding transnational corporations posing as environmental stewards, cruel Third-World military dictators, and a shamelessly self-serving CIA. Even speaking of such a shadow conspiracy of powerful forces trading the fates of millions for suitcases of cash smacks of shaggy-haired left-wing crusading and overheated, biased Oliver Stone projects. But in Quantum of Solace it pretty much lands, and might have stuck, too, had its follow-up Skyfall (while undeniably a beautiful film under the behind-the-camera supervision of director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins) backed up its ideological thrust and not reverted to a cynical Cheneyist 1% doctrine of national security absolutism in the face of (conveniently) ever-present threats.

Daniel Craig’s iteration of 007 debuted in Casino Royale as an efficient, almost heartless killing machine (often, it must be said, at the cost of his equally deadly charm), and that brutal efficiency, when taken quite near to its logical extreme as in Quantum of Solace, makes Bond a representative instrument of the national security superstructure. Quantum of Solace, with a screenplay by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade, openly acknowledges the historical role of intelligence agencies (specifically the CIA) in masterminding destabilizing political power plays around the world (but specifically in South America), and it also references British imperialism and its dire effects across the globe. In order to make James Bond a species of inadvertent social justice warrior in such a milieu, he must be disassociated from that superstructure and its mucky history as much as possible.

Hence, 007 goes rogue in his quest for Vesper Lynd’s killers, against the orders of his steely superior M (Judi Dench), who becomes progressively more frustrated with the growing body count produced by her star agent. Careening from a furiously visceral car chase in Italy to a white-knuckle pursuit over the rooftops of Siena during the Palio, from a Haitian harbour to a black-tie open air Austrian opera and finally to Bolivia to stop a coup and a sweeping corporate resource theft, Bond joins forces with a Bolivian agent with a grudge (Olga Kurylenko) to target a would-be dictator (Joaquín Cosío) and a flashy CEO and secret power-broker (Mathieu Amalric). The action sequences are pulse-pounding affairs (although those early in the film in Italy set too high a bar for sheer exhilaration to be matched later on), and Bond does get around to seducing one beauty who crosses his path (Gemma Arterton), although this is included perfunctorily, as a necessity for these kind of films to rush through, as in most of the Craig-era Bond movies.

Whatever ideological course-correction back towards orthodox national-security discourse norms its sequel performed, Quantum of Solace manages to be a robust progressive critique of plundering elites and power-brokers as well as a propulsively exciting action blockbuster. Its political themes coalesce in internally consistent ways and give James Bond, ruthless tool of faded British imperial muscle, a certain Robin Hood edge of righteous justice. It makes a strong case for an alternate potential path for the character, which is not something you could have said of, I don’t know, Moonraker or what have you. This, at least, makes it a unique and notable entry in the half-century annals of Bond films.

Categories: Film, Reviews