Film Review: The Lion King (2019)

The Lion King (2019; Directed by Jon Favreau)

Disney’s remake of The Lion King has a fundamental flaw at its core. In retooling and updating Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 1994 (mostly) hand-drawn animation classic – which, despite its flaws, was the closest thing to a bonafide masterpiece to come out of the 1990s Disney Renaissance – director Jon Favreau and his computer animation team choose, time and again, to hew firmly (even fanatically) to a visual aesthetic of photorealism. This approach has been supported by a soft-Orwellian twist in Disney’s imposing blanket marketing, which has insisted on labelling the remake as “live-action” to buttress its visual realism, an easily disproved claim considering that every character onscreen was crafted from computer pixels (perhaps some of the stunning landscape backgrounds were shot in Africa, but we’ll have to wait for behind-the-scenes material to confirm that).

On a surface level, this approach is a triumph; this version of The Lion King is so astoundingly true to life in its computer-generated rendering of a panoply of African wildlife and settings that it’s often like watching an especially handsomely shot nature documentary. But that’s also uncannily why it fails practically from the start. Because The Lion King presents impeccably-crafted, realistic-looking, reliably beautiful animal characters but then its narrative, themes, and emotional arcs require them to do and express things that they cannot physically do or visibly express. Not just talk or sing or dance in choreographed musical numbers or plot political coups or fall in love, but on a basic level communicate the believable human-like emotions that drive a story of legacy, self-doubt, tragic loss, redemption, and joy. This new Lion King simply does not work on this arguably most important level of filmmaking, making it a deeply strange and drained experience.

The Lion King was the Disney Renaissance’s vaunted “original” story, although it drew liberally from biblical narratives and Shakespearean plots. To recap, Simba (voiced by JD McCrary as a cub, Donald Glover as an adult lion) is the only son of King Mufasa (James Earl Jones, the only original cast member to reprise his voice role in this film), wise and benevolent leonine ruler of the plentiful Pridelands. Simba loves his father and learns lessons about the need for balance in the realm that he is told he will need when he is king. But his jealous and manipulative uncle Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wants the kingship for himself, and masterminds devious plots to endanger his naive, curious nephew Simba and bump off his elder brother Mufasa; during a spectacular wildebeest stampede caused by Scar’s hyena minions, he succeeds in killing the king and exiling the little lion prince, who is wracked with guilt at his father’s death and believed dead by his uncle, who rules over the kingdom and allows the hyenas to decimate its resources.

Falling in with a mismatched duo of animal misfits (warthog Pumbaa, voiced by Seth Rogen, and meerkat Timon, voiced by Billy Eichner) in an abundant edenic valley, Simba grows to adulthood while embracing a mantra of “hakuna matata”, blissfully unbothered by worries or responsibilities or burdens of the past. But a meeting with his childhood friend and once-betrothed lioness Nala (Shahadi Wright-Joseph as a cub, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter as an adult) as well as a magical-spiritual urging by the stormcloud-vision ghost of his dead father convinces Simba to return to Pride Rock to fulfill his birthright destiny, defeat his evil uncle, and regain the kingship, thus restoring that vaunted interconnected balance known as “the circle of life”.

There’s some Jesus and Moses here, of course, and obvious borrowings from Hamlet, with the evil usurping uncle and doubting prince urged to reclaim his birthright by the ghost of the dead king. Less appreciated is the echo of the Bard’s Henry IV history plays in Simba’s hakuna matata middle-act peaced-out exile: he’s more than a bit Prince Hal, fleeing his royal father’s gospel of the duty and responsibility of power to swill ale (or in this case, devour grubs) and cavort in the Cheapside pubs with Falstaff and his merry band of ne’er-do-wells. Although Simba is not required by the text to firmly repudiate Timon and Pumbaa and their hedonistic abandon as Hal had to disown Falstaff to embrace the duties of kingship (“I know thee not, flatulent warthog”), he is required to turn his back on the spirit of hakuna matata in favour of his father’s ponderous circle of life wisdom and legacy of benevolent philosopher-king uprightness (a more nuanced thematic trajectory might have sought a syncretic synthesis of these two philosophies, but then it is a children’s cartoon in its didactic soul). It’s Shakespeare on safari, with a robust admiration for the divine right of kings that was more at home in Tudor propaganda theatre than in blockbuster modern corporate feature animation.

Speaking of propaganda, The Lion King is not devoid of political dimension beyond its soft-focus invocation of beneficent monarchism. If anything, Favreau’s remake amplifies and fleshes out the core contrast between the models of power presented in this animal kingdom. Mufasa’s measured focus on balance and moderation and sustainability is redolent of a sort of leonine neoliberalism (or at least neoliberalism’s benevolent, congratulatory self-image of its own baseline capitalist imperatives), while Scar’s regime represents unchecked acquisitive consumption for the powerful, upheld by the force of fear and the threat of violence. Scar is here given an initial hint of populist concern, expressing a sly opinion that Mufasa’s circle of life ideology and policies inevitably leave certain animal citizens (like the voracious hyenas) behind, while Mufasa’s predictions of a ruined habitat equilibrium if the carnivores were to overhunt are proven correct by the wasteland that results when Scar Makes the Pridelands Great Again. Simba, interestingly, subscribes in his exile to a kinder version of self-centered individualism that hews closer to Scar’s take-what-you-want views, but of course becomes the heir to his father’s legacy, the circle of life ideological superstructure.

The Lion King opens in both its version with the powerfully scene-setting “Circle of Life” sequence, which is for my money one of the most iconic opening scenes in the movies. The vividly-coloured scenes of flora and fauna meeting the rising sun interwoven with South African composer Lebo M.’s Zulu phrases and group vocal rhythms lead on to the epic introduction of the lion royal family and their newborn cub Simba at Pride Rock. It brilliantly sets a mood, a visual tone, the setting and principals of the story, and the contours of its coming emotional journey in less than four masterful, sonically and visually memorable minutes. When the hard-stop drum beat cuts to the title card at the song’s end, the audience is not merely primed for what is to come, they are veritably pumped.

Although Favreau’s “live-action” remake recreates the original sequence practically shot-for-shot and the composition and aural/visual interplay remains strong enough for the scene to still achieve most of its affect, his “Circle of Life” sequence demonstrates the diminishing differences that the photorealistic imperative will wreak on The Lion King. The realistic lighting and colours pop less than the cartoon vividness of the original’s shots of the savannah (though the sense of depth is more pronounced this time), and the realistic appearance and facial animation of the animal characters flattens their emotional expressiveness, leaving the audience to fill in emotional import themselves. The ill effects of this mania for realism are microcosmically embodied in what ought to be the sequence’s pinnacle moment: ceremonial shaman baboon Rafiki (John Kani) striding to the edge of Pride Rock and thrusting the cub-prince Simba above his future capering animal subjects as the clouds break and a beam of sunlight shines upon the baby lion like a holy benediction. For Favreau’s version, it seems clear that some biologist advisor to the production insisted that baboons don’t actually stand that way, and so Rafiki sits down at the end of the rock and waves the cub, with its blank feline look that communicates no emotion, around a bit.

This is but a small moment, but it’s an early object lesson in how the realism-mania of the 2019 Lion King will turn it into a pretty but ultimately empty experience. Following “Circle of Life” with an interminable scene of the camera following a mouse along some rocks that leads to Scar’s introduction (the 2019 Lion King is 30 minutes longer than the 1994 Lion King, and it feels like all 30 of those minutes are in this scene), we quickly get the idea. Favreau is going to repeat the original film beat-for-beat, with so much focus on making it look as good as possible that the drama, fun, and feelings will always suffer.

The Lion King‘s musical sequences surely suffer most. The animation of the animal characters’ speech and singing is not nearly as odd and distracting as their dead-eyed facial paralysis, but there is of course nothing “natural” about detailed real-seeming African animals suddenly breaking into song, let alone complexly choreographed earworm showstoppers in vibrant, evocative technicolour incorporating Bubsy Berkeley homages and dark invocations of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films. But the catchy songs by Elton John and Tim Rice (I’m no Broadway devotee, and thus fancy that the multi-million-selling pop star composer injects the superior hooks) are not only favourites with fans but essential to the plot and themes of The Lion King. They kind of have to be there, and cannot either be highly minimized (as in Favreau’s dress-reheasal CG remake of The Jungle Book) or removed entirely (as has been promised for Disney’s coming Mulan remake, which from the looks of its first trailer might just end up being the only one of these live-action rehashes with a compelling artistic reason to exist).

So the songs are here, but they are often truncated and always rendered dull and inert by the realism-mania. As Emily Todd VanDerWerff discusses in her superb Vox article on the film’s handcuffing obsession with realism and how that reflects on a wider, likely temporary movement in pop culture, Simba’s brassy and immature fantasy-projection number “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” from the 1994 film imparted with multichromatic overconfidence, clever editing, and film-history referentiality how the spoiled princeling Simba was brassy and immature, and how those qualities would soon lead him into imminent danger among the hyenas of the spooky elephant graveyard. In the 2019 film, Simba and Nala caper blankly around the drinking creatures at the watering hole to evade the fussy hornbill herald/advisor Zazu (John Oliver) assigned by Mufasa to mind them (there is a lot of Zazu in this movie, especially in the early stages, so you’d better hope that you like Oliver’s spluterring act). Scar’s diabolical musical exposition of his foreboding coup d’état plot, “Be Prepared”, is no longer an Expressionist vamping villain showpiece underscored by the imagery of fascism and corpse-light colours, because that wouldn’t “make sense”; instead, he climbs some rocks in the moonlight while Ejiofor recites some of the key expository lyrics slam-poetry-style.

Despite the viral tweet with a side-by-side comparison of the original and remake’s animations for trademark fun number “Hakuna Matata” that reflects poorly on the new version, this musical sequence works a little better in its early stages, where the bursting colour of Timon and Pumbaa’s lush valley home reflects the sunny, carefree positivity of the song. In fact, generally speaking, the comedy of the 2019 Lion King lands better than its drama (though it would still be a stretch to label the movie as a whole as “funny”). Jon Favreau came out of comedy filmmaking (think Swingers and the first Iron Man), of course, and is a bit more at home with its application here, while the timing and delivery of his voice-acting cast can sell jokes better than it can sell the weightier moments (although a bickering pair of hyenas voiced by big comedic talents Keegan-Michael Key and Eric André simply repeat the same lame joke about personal space). For all of the ways that this “live-action” Lion King updates its appearance and beats for the realism-mania (Rafiki no longer magically realizes that Simba is still alive, but catches a few wisps of his fur that travel, circle-of-life-style, back to the Pridelands), it chooses to preserve its ’90s-vintage New York archetype comic relief of a snarky gay musical-theatre-enthusiast meerkat and a jolly, fart-prone warthog (there’s a lot of fart jokes, but the original went in for those, too).

In keeping the songs, however, Favreau’s The Lion King also frequently matches strong singers with weak ones: Eichner is a fine vocalist, as demonstrated on “Hakuna Matata” and a brief snatch of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (which is only in the movie because people would certainly expect it to be; at least original composer Solomon Linda’s daughters might see some more residuals from it), but Seth Rogen isn’t a singer of any stripe (also, eerily, Pumbaa somehow simultaneously looks like a realistic warthog and like Seth Rogen). Glover, meanwhile, is quite musical, but obviously Queen B’s imposing voice flattens his in their duet moments in love ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”, while also headlining a big new song called “Spirit” to take a swing at the Best Original Song Oscar (I also admit to being a mild fan of her performance as Nala, her clipped Texan phrase endings giving Simba’s mating interest a whiff of feminist attitude). Although Aladdin, with its star turn from Robin Williams’ Genie, was the true turning point for big-name voice casting in feature animation, the original Lion King went down that road some distance too, with Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones, and Whoopi Goldberg among its vocal talents. But this remake intermittently demonstrates why more careful casting by ability can trump star-chasing.

So some of Favreau’s The Lion King lighter elements sort of succeed, and some of the voice actors do good work. The score, mostly rehashed from Hans Zimmer’s original work for the 1994 film, is solid (recognizable musical themes, how we missed you in the blockbuster realm), and yes, the visuals are often stunningly beautiful as well as technically impressive. But how much does any of this matter when the 2019 Lion King cannot involve us emotionally in its characters or their dramatic arcs? Time and again, Favreau cuts to his feline protagonist or supporting lions for reaction shots and the look on their faces is inscrutably feline.

More than once, in fact, the lions are so realistic that you can’t tell them apart, because real lions do look almost completely the same. A panning shot that passes by Simba’s mother Sarabi (Alfree Woodard) and the rest of lionesses makes them looks like a clutch of prefabricated robots (it doesn’t help that the film’s realism-mania does not, for likely reasons of children’s audience sensitivity, extend to showing the lionesses hunt as in the wild, visually implying that they merely laze about while the males patrol, even though dialogue states otherwise). When a lioness sneaks away from Pride Rock at night in defiance of Scar’s tyranny, it’s impossible to tell if it’s the headstrong Nala or the resisting Sarabi, both of whom were given reasons to do so in the previous scene (dialogue at the end of the scene reveals it to be Nala, but I defy a fresh viewer to figure it out before that point). Even during the climactic battle between Simba and Scar with the fate of the Pridelands at stake, the two antagonists are often indistinguishable one from the other as they fight to the death, as cardinal a sin of dramatic tension as it is possible to commit.

In expending so much time and effort and expense to make every animal in his film look completely believable and entirely realistic, Favreau cuts us out of the story’s swells of sentiment in a way that no determined expenditure of musical cues or visual language can quite overcome. Every time this film wants us to feel something, we are confronted with an impeccable fascimile of a living thing that does not feel or express that feeling in the way that we do, and the moment falls flat. This is especially noticeable in the horrid misfire of the wildebeest stampede sequence. A visual, technical, dramatic, and emotional showpiece scene in the 1994 animated film, the sequence in which Scar betrays and murders Mufasa during a thunderous stampede of panicked wildebeest in a canyon while Simba watches was the Disney Renaissance’s vaunted parental-death traumatic moment, the killing of Bambi’s mother for a different generation, and carrying an emotional vitality in-narrative that Bambi did not possess in the same way.

The cartoon exagerrations of traditional animation imbued this scene with much of its power in 1994: how Simba’s ears sink and his mouth falls open in the zoom-in shot as the wildebeest crest the canyon’s edge, the furrows of concern shown by Mufasa, Scar, and even Zazu as they rush to the cub’s aid, Mufasa’s widening eyes as Scar’s treachery becomes clear, and above all the visionary blocking and editing of the moment that Simba sees his father fall to his death: cutting from Mufasa’s plumetting form and zooming out rapidly from Simba’s eyes as he cries out in anguish at this life-altering event. These drawn facial reactions and camera moves don’t fit in with the realism-mania of Favreau’s The Lion King, so they are not included, and what should be the film’s most powerful scene is weirdly soulless and even faintly laughable.

Alongside The Lion King‘s realism-mania is the culture of weaponized nostalgia that undergirds all of Disney’s “live-action” remakes of its Renaissance classics. But in banking on audiences’ fond memories of previous versions of these movies, cultural creators like Disney also must contend with the possibility that those fond memories will be threatened by their attempts to recapture those nostalgic feelings for the original article, or alternately that those fond memories are not threatened at all, being based in elements of quality in the original article that the rehashed version does not re-create, or indeed is unable to re-create by dint of artistic and/or technical choices in how to adapt the property. Disney’s Star Wars films have certainly had to contend with the vocal opposition of (a noisy minority of) fans outright offended by narrative and thematic choices taken with regards to beloved characters.

But for me, the 2019 Lion King has a different and much more fundamental issue, especially because this new film (its screenplay is credited to Jeff Nathanson, but is heavily based on and indebted to the original film’s script by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, and Linda Woolverton) does not alter the major or even many of the minor elements if its narrative or character arcs in any way. My regard for the 1994 Lion King is based more in nostalgic sentiment than continued contemporary familiarity; it’s been decades since I’ve seen it, and even in watching clips for this review, its cartoonish qualities can be slightly grating. But with the same story and themes in place, is it simply nostalgic attachment and the subsequent disillusioning passage of time that makes this new Lion King seem so empty? Or is the chosen mode of visual representation draining that story and those themes of their impact, which they ought to be robust enough to retain regardless of the age or maturity of the audience?

It’s hard for me to deny that the latter is true, and therefore that marks the photorealistic imperative of Jon Favreau’s The Lion King as a failure. That this failure is entirely a matter of purposeful design is one of the most incredible and frustrating things about the film. It seems amazing that no one involved in the production who was able to influence its direction raised the alarm about the film’s dead-eye lions and the problems for emotional engagement that they inevitably portended; perhaps they did, and were ignored or outvoted. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of taste or perspective, and millions will be swept up in the undeniably gorgeous and impressive graphical achievements of the computer special effects team and identify with the struggles of Simba and the other characters despite the visual roadblocks erected in the way of such identification. Looking like a nature documentary need not preclude emotional involvement, and nature documentaries often jury-rig storylines to compel such involvement in the inherently non-narrative processes of the natural world (no chase scene in this film is anywhere near as white-knuckle exciting as the Planet Earth II clip of an iguana evading dozens of snakes, mind you). Despite my own inability to engage with it, I nonetheless expect this version of the The Lion King, live-action or computer-animated or whatever else you want to label it, to be a massive box-office success for a film studio already flush with such successes. In Hollywood in this era of Disney hegemony, that is the true circle of life.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review – Spider-Man: Far From Home

Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019; Directed by Jon Watts)

The first post-Endgame film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (ie. That Massive-Budget Superhero TV Show That We All Watch Together In Movie Theatres), Far From Home takes the charming and even clever elements of Homecoming, Sony/Marvel Studios’ first tandem Spider-Man movie rebooted into the MCU, and self-consciously, self-reflexively Avenger-fies them to typically overblown proportions.

Homecoming saw a teenaged Peter Parker (the preternaturally boyish Tom Holland, who is actually 23 years old, of course) struggling in intermittently comedic and action-dramatic ways with the difficulty of balancing the typical and relatable problems of a regular teenaged boy (school, home life, girls; okay, it’s pretty much only girls) with the pressure, expectations, and perpetual life-threatening danger of the life of a superhero. It was more than a winking, intertextual homage to John Hughes movies, it was a John Hughes movie; the key distinction being that the intimidating father of the male lead’s putative girlfriend who might have served as a Hughesian antagonist is also a menacing proletarian arms dealer who is out to kill the protagonist (Michael Keaton is this dad-tagonist, and the scene between him and Holland in the car on the way to the homecoming dance is the best thing about that movie and among the best things in the whole MCU).

Homecoming was also concerned with Peter’s relationship to father-surrogates, namely with his self-appointed mentor, the late Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.). Orphaned and also without the sage advice of his father figure Uncle Ben (always a first-act casualty whose loss galvanized Peter’s quest in prior Spider-Man franchise streams, Ben was reduced to passing dialogue references in Homecoming and a subtle suitcase monogram in this one), Peter was built up as a surrogate son to Stark (whose own backstory is rife with daddy issues and self-doubt), who mostly chided him for being too young and unprepared for real superhero challenges while withholding and then gifting glittering tech toys as tokens of (and substitutes for) his disavowed and ill-apprehended love. Surrogate Father of the Year! This relationship evolved in the Infinity Gauntlet duology, especially in Endgame, wherein Tony’s loss of Peter Parker in Thanos’s Decimation haunts him and motivates him to risk everything (and ultimately lose his own life) to undo the Dusting and bring back Peter (and the rest of the lost too, why not?).

In addition to dealing parenthetically and often comedically with the weird social and personal consequences of the Decimation and its five-years-hence undoing (it’s called the Blip), Spider-Man: Far From Home ramps up the stakes by quadrupling Peter Parker’s father-surrogate count (his mother-surrogate, Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May, could have made it a quintupling but thematically she never quite counts, because she’s just a woman, one supposes). Tony Stark is gone, but Peter literally sees him everywhere; just as the society and pop culture of Peter’s world in Homecoming was saturated with the famous world-saving Avengers (one of its cannier features), in Far From Home tributes to Iron Man’s world-saving sacrifice are ubiquitous: advertisements, public tributes and memorials, posters, graffiti, biographical movies, even a hilariously low-budget school A/V club newscast tribute set to Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” (this homemade montage at the movie’s beginning also includes other deceased Avengers, although its image of Vision is amusingly pixelated). Peter is also burdened with the weight of Stark’s legacy and the expectations of following in Iron Man’s footsteps, especially after receiving Stark’s posthumous gift of access to E.D.I.T.H., the complete Stark Industries database and weapons arsenal.

Peter Parker is still a teenager, though, and Avengers proximity aside he seeks to keep Your Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man humble and limited in scope. In Far From Home, this proscribing of the lofty ambitions and level of duty conceived of for Spider-Man by others plays out in the midst of a school trip to the capitals of Europe during the summer. His other father-surrogates are all connected to Tony Stark, and therefore hold certain expectations for Spider-Man’s role as Iron Man’s unofficial heir: Stark Industries security chief Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, director of the first two Iron Man movies) remains in Peter’s life as a reminder of his former boss and friend’s annointing of the boy (and also because he’s romantically involved with May), while Avengers strings-puller Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) aggressively pursues Spider-Man’s cooperation in dealing with a new global threat: enormous Elementals, who arise out of earth, air, water, and fire to wreak destructive havok without warning. With the Avengers and their various allies scattered to the winds after Endgame, Peter’s only super-partner against the god-level threat of the Elementals is Quentin Beck/Mysterio, who claims to be a green-fog-wielding warrior from a parallel universe in which the Elementals destroyed Earth.

In contrast to the crushing weight of Stark’s posthumous expectations and Fury’s no-nonsense insistence that Spider-Man is an Avenger and therefore will do what he is asked to do, Beck takes a role less like a stern father and more like a cool, understanding older brother to Peter. He is impressed with what Spider-Man can do, but is also supportive of Peter Parker getting to have a life of his own, especially since he is mostly handling the Elementals fine himself. This supportive backup is music to Peter’s ears, as he tries to ghost on Fury and enjoy his class trip, during which he plans to tell his high-school crush MJ (teen star Zendaya) that he likes her, along with the gift of a Venetian glass pendant.

And so Far From Home is structured as a push-and-pull between Peter’s human wants and his super-duty. He clumsily balances battling the Elementals in large-scale CG action sequences (in the Grand Canal of Venice, during a Carnival of Lights in Prague) and tackling his feelings for MJ and the awkwardness of his failed attempts to spend time alone with her. The school trip scenes take on the likably light profile of comic misadventures: as Peter is a social klutz around MJ, his rival Brad (Remy Hii) moves in on her, while Peter’s friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) strikes up a vacation puppy-love romance with classmate Betty (Angourie Rice) and the hapless teacher chaperones (Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove) clown it up with their ineptitude. Because this is a Marvel Studios movie, the tension is not so much resolved and Peter never precisely has to choose between a normal life and a superhero life; the two poles are softly reconciled, as he succeeds by acting like he always has, only more so.

Far From Home‘s thematic focus on this tension in Peter Parker’s life and his struggles to figure out exactly how he should follow in Tony Stark’s footsteps (if at all) is oddly at cross-purposes with its antagonist twist (read no further if you don’t want to know what it is) and its contemporary political subtext. As should be no surprise to comics readers, Mysterio is not what he claims or appears to be. Behind the fishbowl helmet and the flight-empowered green fog suit, Quentin Beck is just a man. A clever, creative, angry man who is utilizing sophisticated hologram projection technology once rejected by Tony Stark along with swarms of Stark’s attack drones (particularly after Parker, impressed with Beck’s abilities and empathy and eager to shake off the burden of responsibility for E.D.I.T.H., hands over control of the system to his new Super Big Brother) to simulate the Elemental assaults. With the help of a coterie of disgruntled former Stark specialists (this is now the fourth MCU movie, and hopefully the last, to feature scorned Stark colleagues/rivals as antagonists, after all three Iron Man films went to that well), Beck seeks to turn Mysterio into a publically-loved superhero replacement for the Avengers, swindling Fury, his right-hand woman Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), and Spidey in the process (or eliminating them if that fails).

Peter Parker’s superhero challenge in Far From Home, therefore, pivots with this twist from a more standard strength test of destroying monstrous embodiments of the four elements to penetrating Beck’s layered defences of illusion. These confound and nearly kill Parker in Berlin, in a sequence of rapid-fire mirroring projections that will impress audiences who haven’t seen the similar but far trippier and better sequence in Doctor Strange. Utilizing Gyllenhaal’s favoured approach of wielding his considerable charisma to subvert and darken the margins of initially stock-esque characters (it may be this vector of his performances that has kept him from being a bigger star than he is), Far From Home (the screenplay is by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers) seeks to make a larger point through Mysterio’s deceptions about the current public discourse of deception infecting global politics and society. This is all well and good, and an interesting new angle for the MCU’s usual careful political critiques of American power (even if Iron Man 3 kind of did a version of it already). But it has absolutely nothing to do with Peter Parker wanting to be a regular kid while everyone seems to want him to be a world-saving hero, and its tangential (and even slightly contradictory) direction compared to its lead character’s emotional arc weakens Far From Home not inconsiderably.

The MCU Spider-Man movies are unique in the multi-film cycle in featuring a superhero protagonist with a secret identity that he seeks to protect. Ever since the Universe kicked off with Tony Stark publically coming out as Iron Man when the expectation (and the creative intention, if the legend of Downey, Jr. ad-libbing the now-iconic “I am Iron Man” line at the end of the eponymous franchise-starter has any truth to it) would have been that he would keep his identity under wraps, the MCU’s depiction of its heroes has not gone in for this obvious and fruitful device of dramatic tension. The application of that device has worked very well in the two Tom Holland-fronted Spider-Man movies thus far, but if the mid-credits sequel-teasing stinger scene is any indication (featuring J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson as a parodic take on far-right site InfoWars’ splenetic, conspiracy-spewing warthog Alex Jones), its time in this franchise is at an end. However, the biggest movies in Hollywood are preparing themselves for the difficult task of taking on fake news (or at least mildly satirizing it), and that is a fascinating development.

Another fascinating development that Spider-Man: Far From Home represents is the rare superhero genre sight of Marvel Studios playing catch-up after being surpassed by a rival production. This spectacle was visible to some extent in the belated and more than a little forced manner in which Marvel Studios found religion when it came to representations of feminist empowerment, after DC and Warner unexpectedly lapped them in this regard with Wonder Woman (although the objectification and stereotyping of Justice League undid a lot that movie’s fine work, Captain Marvel and the cynically unearned female team-up beat in Endgame‘s final battle had a whiff of desperation when it came to this issue).

But while the Jon Watts/Tom Holland Spider-Man movies have been well-received critically and commercially and can boast the prized imprimatur of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to ensure some reliable baseline level of quality and blockbuster prestige, film and comic book lovers alike cannot pretend that they can stack up in any way to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, last year’s innovative, incredible, and enervating animated feature take on the character. It seems likely that Sony, aware that they were giving up more than a little control over the character in inviting Marvel Studios to incorporate it into its successful but limiting continuity, decided to establish a radically new and different strand for Spider-Man at the same time. In the process, they strangely handicapped this live-action Spider-Man. When Peter Parker suits up and embraces his full web-swinging glory above and through the streets of Manhattan at the conclusion of Far From Home, he is only chasing the animated Miles Morales of Spider-Verse, whose own journey to that portrait of urban freedom is already (after but a single, wonderful movie) both more visually and emotionally rich than this Peter’s. It’s a curious position for Marvel Studios to find itself in as regards one of its most iconic characters and a vital component of the future of its Avengers brand. Let’s see where they go with it.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: High-Rise

High-Rise (2015; Directed by Ben Wheatley)

Neurological lecturer Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is highly neutral and self-contained. A fellow resident of the high-rise apartment tower into which Laing moves (following the barely-discussed death of his sister) dubs him “profesionally detached”, and therefore both perfectly adapted to the pressures of high-rise living and inherently, quietly dangerous. Laing demurs an initial objection to this characterization but ultimately cannot deny its accuracy. As life in the skycraping apartment building, with its comprehensive amenities and vertically-integrated class stratification, spirals into post-apocalyptic anarchy, Laing soldiers on with heroically blinkered conformist quotidian normality. While his increasingly desperate neighbours loot the in-building supermarket for remaining scraps of food, he fights one of them off to leave with a can of grey paint. It’s just the right shade for his walls, and also for his face.

British filmmaker Ben Wheatley, in his other notable films A Field in England and Free Fire, has demonstrated a penchant for claustrophobically brutal, violently disturbing bottle-episode movies (he’s remaking Rebecca next, with a country manor house as the bottle). High-Rise fits nicely into those artistic parametres, but is an altogether stranger, wilder, more ambitious, and more challenging piece of work. Adapted by Wheatley’s collaborating screenwriter Amy Jump from J.G. Ballard’s 1975 dystopian novel of the same name aimed squarely at the dispiriting spread of grey Brutalist tower blocks across the urban sprawl of the Britain of the author’s era, High-Rise preserves the mid-’70s setting and aesthetic of the novel, seemingly for the director’s own reasons (he’s big on period pieces, and revisited the clothes and cars of the 1970s in Free Fire) than for any text-related necessity. The choice is just one of many that makes this an eerie, defamiliarizing, singular cinematic experience.

High-Rise is an entirely more mannered arrangement of Snowpiercer‘s linear socioeconomic divisions, with that film’s class-stratified train cars rendered inert and stacked high to colonize the sky. Resembling Ed Harris’ isolated, worshipped inventor/conductor in that film, the tower’s mastermind/stand-in for an absent God is white-clad savant architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), who dwells in the building’s penthouse (“hovers over the place like a fucking albatross”, one resident puts it), which is equipped with an edenic terrace garden to please his not-so-beloved wife Ann (Keeley Hawes). Dreaming of a complex of five towers surrounding a lake like an open palm, Royal can hardly conceive that this open palm of impeccably intellectualized urban planning might be clenched into a fist. Royal tells Laing that he conceives of the building sociologically as “a crucible for change”, but change from what and to what? The perceptive doctor notes that his architectural plans resemble “the unconscious diagram of some kind of psychic event”.

That psychic event, the amalgamated crushing pressures and alienated tensions of vertical urban living, is soon made manifest in a violent, survival-of-the-fittest upheaval, pitting the wealthy residents on the upper floors against the working-class dwellers of the high-rise’s lower reaches. But first, Laing must meet those residents. Soon after moving in, he becomes sexually involved with his upstairs neighbour Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), who has slept with most of the building, it seems; one such liaison has left her with a precocious son named Toby (Louis Suc), and Laing becomes a reluctant but firmly kind father figure to the boy. He makes the acquaintance of a married low-floor couple at one of the building’s numerous parties: restless and confrontational television documentarian Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss), who is often left alone by her wanderlusty husband, lonely and depressed with their brood of children. At an altogether grander party thrown by Ann Royal at which all of the attendees but him are decked out in powdered wigs and 18th-century dress clothes like ancien-régime aristocrats (a trifle on the nose, but a nice image), Laing is ridiculed for his sartorial faux-pas by the guests, which include an arrogant colleague from his school of physiology named Munrow (Augustus Prew); in retribution, Laing will trick Munrow into thinking he has a fatal brain tumour.

Laing tries to hold himself apart from the roiling tensions ripping the uncomfortable community of the building asunder, skipping over the growing fissures on his way to and from work but increasingly unable to remain above the furiously grasping fray. Hiddleston, dashingly handsome and coolly dapper but with that fiendish Loki twinkle everpresent, leans bravely into the disequilibrium inside and increasingly outside Laing. He’ll suggest hidden griefs and guilt – at the loss of his sister, at his spiteful role in Munrow’s dark fate – with a look and an inclination of his head. There’s a furtiveness and buried romanticism to his Laing, a willingness to connect across the chasms of dehumanizing alienation of his milieu. “Your tenancy application was very Byronic,” Helen tells him when they first meet, a nod to either hidden depths of sentiment or at least an ability to suggest them.

Evans is another standout as the marginalized bully Wilder, while Moss and particularly Miller impart a woman’s perspective on the rigid social order of the high-rise and the consequences of its breakdown. The production’s budgetary limitations don’t bring down the overall vision, the production design, or the VFX, but they do show a bit further down the cast list, where finer and stronger character actors might have filled in some of the more minor but nonetheless vital resident roles in a larger production. More supporting players like James Purifoy, who plays a rich asshole with such florid smirking superiority, would have been appreciated, and would have raised the quality of the proceedings. One might also wonder if a stronger cadre of actors could have smuggled in more empathy and emotional involvement in what narrative there is to be found in this pageant of cold, misanthropic cynicism about the predatory baseness of human nature and the empty callousness of social environments. I can’t speak to whether that was the thrust of Ballard’s text, but it is certainly how Wheatley’s film chooses to approach the author’s ideas.

As a pure cinematic conduit for those ideas, High-Rise works very well, as Wheatley and his cinematographer Laurie Rose craft a compelling visual context for Ballard’s themes as transmuted through Jump’s screenplay. The Brutalist concrete skin and bones of the high-rise’s corridors, apartment units, and exterior balconies takes on differing moods and tones in different parts of the building at different points in its community’s dissolution. The sprawling parking lot (in which Laing confesses to have thoroughly lost his car) transitions from uniform order to war-zone chaos, as Foteini Vlachou points out in her essay on the film in Blind Field. On the middle and higher floors like Laing’s and Charlotte’s, they have a chilled breezeway feel, like the pyramid-penetrating halls of Egyptian tombs. On the hardscrabble lower floors of Helen and Richard, they are dim warren-like tunnels, although the busy packrat detail of their apartment feels nearly homey. The Royals’ suite is of course all light and sumptuously appointed furnishings, not to mention the idyllic garden complete with goat and horse (not that things go well at all for animals in this building once things fall apart; as in many arthouse films, cruelty to animals is used as a commonplace thematic marker for the inhumanity of the people who have power over them).

But also hanging in the Royals’ suite is one of Francisco Goya’s immortally unsettling and mysterious Black Paintings, Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat). Superficially a marker of Royal’s wealth and importance (Laing glances at it and wonders aloud whether or not it hung in a museum; it is, in fact, at the Prado in Madrid), the painting is symbolically foreshadowing the selfish, stupid grasping of the building’s residents that shatters the fragile balance and consensus of its social equilibrium. It also tonally anticipates the affect of Wheatley’s film once that balance is shattered; the figures in Goya’s painting are dumb and credulous, peering in cretinous awe at the deep black ungulate lord, a mob of ugly misshapen sheeple craning their necks at the malevolent demagogue they follow and worship in their provincial superstition.

The residents of the building in High-Rise become a dumb, destructive mob, but of what He-Goat-like force of dark ego are they acolytes, if any? What drives them to anarchy, chaos, rape, and murder? For Goya in the milieu of traditionalist, hyper-Catholic Bourbon Spain with its witch-hunts and inquisitions, the He-Goat was always the Great Enemy, Satan, whispering poisonous temptation into the supple, gullible ears of God-fearing Castilian peasants, Andalusian farmers, Catalan labourers, and Basque and Galician fishermen. In Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, is the looming albatross-god, Royal, that dark force of influence and corruption? J.G. Ballard has a dark and critical view of technological progress and modern urbanism, but does he (or Wheatley and Jump on his behalf in this film) intend to equate urban planning and high-density residential zoning with the ubiquitously evil Devil? Is the He-Goat any of the archetypal characters in High-Rise? The unleashed id Richard Wilder, who is also perversely the lonely voice of righteous reason and the crusading journalist seeking to expose dark, uncomfortable truths? The purified ego Laing, crossing and transcending rigid class boundaries in his professional detachment while studying his neighbours like the subject brains of his métier? Is it the embodiments of the alternating ur-tropes of womanhood, the maternal (Helen) and the promiscuously sexual (Charlotte)?

The wellspring source of the ill humour and inhuman predation that characterizes human nature in High-Rise is not any being, mortal and sentient or divine and ineffable. It’s a psychological perversion at our core, that is at once an instinctual urge to survival and a self-sabotaging aggression and competitiveness, peevish and essential at the same time. Wheatley and Jump translate Ballard as suggesting that modern high-density urban life nurtures a seed of inhumanity until it grows into a flowering fern of atrocity. But they also reference a charged spectre in the history of British political and social life, from the period just following the publication of Ballard’s mid-’70s novel, that is representative of the inhumanity and atrocity that the author fretted about.

High-Rise closes with the audio of a Margaret Thatcher speech decrying state-run capitalism and lauding private ownership as the surest guarantor of political freedom. As the capstone of a highly thematicized narrative about the collapse of a microcosmic society (which, in Thatcher’s infamously soulless Toryist utterance, there is no such thing as) that is entirely the work of beknighted private enterprise and one of its glorified Olympian heroes of vision and genius, Thatcher’s words have an intentional dark irony. But in these final moments, Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump suggest that although Thatcher was just too late to play She-Goat to this particular grasping mob, her government’s domestic legacy of a hollowed-out, diminished social fabric in Britain (whose chaotic-evil inheritor is the hollow eagle of Brexit) was the inevitable successor of the unleashed forces, social and existential, that Ballard pinpointed in High-Rise. The freedom engendered by these capitalist forces can be a towering prison-like asylum for the gradually insane and it can be the rolling plunder of an unceasing class conflict that only the upper-class is equipped to fight and to win. In the gilded cage of High-Rise, there is nowhere to hide from all of that terrible freedom.

Categories: Art, Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: The Perfection

The Perfection (2019; Directed by Richard Shepard)

Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams) is haunted; by death, by missed opportunities, by traumas of the past. Once a talented wunderkind cellist at Bachoff, a prestigious but mysterious music conservatory in Boston run by the refined, strings-pulling mentoring mastermind Anton (Steven Weber), Charlotte dropped out of Bachoff and let her cello collect dust to care for her dying mother. Her mother now gone, Charlotte appears weary, hollowed-out, keeping the lid on frustrated rage (one shot cuts from her sitting silently, staring at her mother’s wide-eyed corpse, to a split-second rending scream).

The interpretation of her mindset, given the information provided in this opening scene of Richard Shepard’s The Perfection, is regret and self-loathing at the waste of her talent mingling with disavowed grief. No wonder, then, that we next see Charlotte rehearsing (out of nervousness, or to strike the correct performative tone?) and then finally leaving a message for Anton and his partner Paloma (Alaina Huffman) seeking to reconnect with them and their exclusive musical world. She meets them in Shanghai, where they are auditioning promising Chinese girls in competition for a coveted spot at Bachoff. There she also meets Lizzie (Logan Browning), a world-famous virtuoso cellist and Bachoff graduate. They express admiration for each other’s playing, flirt, gossip, perform a duet, flirt some more, drink, dance, and sleep together. Lizzie then impulsively invites Charlotte to join her on an off-the-beaten-path tour of the Chinese interior, and they leave together the next day.

It doesn’t take long for their journey to become distressing. Feeling unwell and made paranoid by whispers of an airborne contagion infecting an attendee of the competition the night before, Lizzie’s physical condition and mental state deteriorates quickly on a spartan bus taking them into the sparsely-populated Chinese hinterlands. Despite Charlotte’s assurances that everything will be fine, Lizzie’s ailment creates a scene on the bus, but takes on horror-movie dimensions and becomes catastrophic and life-changing once they are kicked off the vehicle by an irate driver.

But director Shepard (he’s also the co-writer, with Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder) has his editor David Dean quite literally rewind events, and not for the last time, to show what is really going on. Although this first of multiple, meaty twists in The Perfection isn’t what it may immediately seem either, as becomes clear once the film shifts to Bachoff for its troubling climax. Shepard immerses his audience so viscerally in the tensions that enmesh Charlotte and Lizzie first in China and then in Boston that the pivots, which may have been discernible in advance, arrive with full disorienting impact. That impact, too, sheds thematic and metaphorical light on the psychological costs of intense mentorship with an uncompromising drive for success, and of sexual abuse by men in positions of authority. Charlotte and Lizzie’s partnership/rivalry (the film always keeps you guessing which one will win out at any moment) takes on subtly complex facets of feminine solidarity in the age of #MeToo.

Williams is best-known for her bait-and-switch role in Get Out, and with that in mind her casting as Charlotte is quite nearly a spoiler for The Perfection‘s twists. But her range here is much greater and much more unsettling. Browning gives Lizzie an electric charge of passion that renders the character’s direction unpredictable, and Weber (most recognizable as a soft and avuncular sitcom player) plays marvelously against type as a villain of cultivated veneer and fanatical monstrousness.

The Perfection is nearer to great than a low-budget independent cerebral horror with whiplashing plot tendencies released by Netflix has any reasonable right to be. Sharp-witted and eagerly misdirecting even at its economical running time, this is an entertaining and surprising watch with intellectual and emotional substance, not to mention its fair share of queasy and unsettling moments. It’s a compact but dramatic cello solo with a compelling crescendo, and worth the seeking out.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review – Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019; Directed by Michael Dougherty)

The big, dumb sequel to Legendary Entertainment’s successful MonsterVerse-launching Godzilla film, Godzilla: King of the Monsters is very nearly pure spectacle. Where Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Hollywood franchise reboot of Japanese film studio Toho’s iconic gigantic lizard was a frequently stunning and often practically zen slowburn of an epic movie, King of the Monsters reduces the kaiju monster-battle genre to its most primal and elemental parts. If Edwards’ Godzilla was a surprisingly poised and nimble acrobatic act, Michael Dougherty’s follow-up is a rote performance of blunt, gawking, predictable adrenaline thrills, like a human being fired out of a cannon. To run the circus analogies well into the ground, there’s some considerable and frankly overstuffed predatory animal taming wrangling at work here too, as Gojira shares the screen with other city-smashing charismatic megafauna known as Titans who have awoken after long subterranean slumber to contend with the Big G for pack alpha dominion over our puny, groveling planet.

Like the movie it acts as a sequel to, Godzilla: King of the Monsters weaves a blandly conventional human family dramatic plot around and through the various conceits it deploys in order to put its Titans on mutual collision course. Unlike the previous Godzilla, which at least had an emotionally raw, honestly performed tragic parting of mature, believably human lovers (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) in its early scenes, King of the Monsters‘ human angle is mired in cliches and writing choices so insensible as to confound even the capable actors entrusted to bring it to life.

Doctors Emma and Mark Russell (Vera Farmiga and Kyle Chandler, respectively) were both scientists in the employ of Monarch, the global research and paramilitary conglomerate that concerns itself with finding, studying, and in some cases confining the Titans. They co-invented a device called the ORCA which reads and replicates the sonar-like bioacoustics of the Titans, enabling Monarch to communicate with the massive beasts but also potentially control and/or direct them. Mark (the animal behaviourist), however, has quit the organization and separated from Emma (the paleobiologist) and their teenaged daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). The Russells lost their son Andrew in Godzilla’s rampage through San Francisco at the climax of the last movie, which led Mark to retreat from civilization and from Monarch’s work and led Emma to redouble her efforts on the ORCA while secretly forming a more dangerous and apocalyptic plan.

Emma and Madison are kidnapped (or are they?) along with the ORCA by ecoterrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). Jonah’s aims and motivations are highly ill-defined for a main villain, but you know he’s bad because Charles Dance plays him. Similar casting-over-character-development strokes characterize the Monarch team pursuing Jonah and Emma and the awakening Titans. Chandler summons his standard-issue sweaty, desperately concerned dad figure. Ken Watanabe is back as Dr. Serizawa, Godzilla’s firmest believer and defender, whose laissez-faire respect for the Titans’ role in the natural balance is summed up in the “Let Them Fight” meme drawn from the previous film. Sally Hawkins is back as his colleague, and she delivers some lines, one supposes. Zhang Ziyi plays mythological specialist Dr. Chen, and despite my really, genuinely having seen the film, I had absolutely no idea that Dr. Chen was actually a pair of twin sisters until reading the Wiki. Aisha Hinds stalks around the bridge of Monarch’s massive stealth bomber-shaped air flagship, wearing fatigues and barking orders. Bradley Whitford stares at screens and provides status updates on Godzilla’s vitals, the proximity of weapons of mass destruction, and whatever other expositional factoids the movie happens to require; he also tells numerous bad jokes, including one about radiation-related birth defects (seeing this movie immediately after HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries leaves this viewer very troubled by these characters’ prosaic attitudes around radiation; “You’ll all be dead of cancer within five years!”, I wanted to shout at the screen time and again).

Much of what the humans in this movie do makes no sense logically or especially emotionally. Emma’s grand plan to counteract the planet-poisoning plague of human civilization by unleashing city-leveling monsters is an absurd cartoon exagerration of radical environmentalism that the screenplay (by Dougherty and Zack Shields) couches in her grief over the loss of her son. But the ludicrousness of this latter emotional conceit is laid bare when Madison confronts her about it, asking if she thinks total Titan-ic armageddon would have been what Andrew would have wanted; of course it wouldn’t be, he was a kid, he would have probably wanted an ice cream sundae! Heroism, rescue missions, noble sacrifices, and so forth; all of this happens in King of the Monsters, none of it feels much like anything.

But the human stories of the 2014 Godzilla were also pretty weak, at least once Binoche and Cranston shuffled off the stage. This shit right here is about giant monsters beating the everloving crud out of each other while skyscrapers topple in their wake, and King of the Monsters throws around a whole lot of that. Godzilla’s key rival for alpha status (and yes, alpha wolf theory is outdated and badly misleading in the case of wild populations, but let’s not fight that battle right now) over the planet and the other Titans is the three-headed hydra/dragon Ghidorah, freed from Antarctic ice to do repeated battle with Godzilla across the globe, always at night or in storms or under dense sunlight-erasing cloud cover (it really would not kill this movie to show us its CG monsters in the light of day). There’s also the huge pterosaur Rodan, who emerges from an erupting Mexican volcano, and Mothra, a gorgeous, glowing Lepidoptera who is kinda, sorta Godzilla’s wife (?) (also:) (!) and also has magical healing powers.

But more is not always better. There are some devastatingly epic monster fights and some big, bold, brassy shots in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, prime among the latter being the spectacularly blunt visual metaphor to the right of Ghidorah perching on a fiery volcano with a stoically contrasting cross in the foreground. Mothra’s hatching in a waterfall is tremendously lovely, her bioluminescent wings spreading out wide under the glowing waters, but all the beauty and wonder around this moth Titan is lessened by having her fill a Virgin Sacrifice role to spur Big Chonk Lizard on to final victory. But generally speaking, both the moments of poetic awe and the showstopping epic moments of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla are aped in King of the Monsters as pale imitations. Here, what held mystery and strange romance is reduced to noisy, CG-heavy blockbuster fodder.

The fundamentally basic quality of Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a favouring of the spectacle, the action setpiece writ large. It has plenty of time for its rote plot of the fractured family in the midst of the spectacle, but little enough for the pregnant political and social allegories lurking in the shadows of the original 1954 Toho film, let alone the more amorphous echoes of contemporary politics and conservation issues in the 2014 film, or its connected release in Legendary’s MonsterVerse, Kong: Skull Island, with its critical view of American imperial power (it’s also difficult to imagine the great ape standing any chance at all against this mountain-scaled, nuclear-weaponized Godzilla in their coming dust-up in 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong).

Emma’s monologue about wasteful human populations denuding the fragile earth tries to shoehorn environmentalism and climate change into the thematic picture, but Dougherty’s movie neither prefaces that moment nor continues building on it with any conviction. Godzilla: King of the Monsters can only pretend to care about the world’s problems. It seeks only to reduce them, and the world with them, into smouldering rubble for our fleeting amusement and, perhaps, fantasy wish-fulfillment (the climax of urban destruction takes place in Boston, and anyone familiar with that city’s sports fan culture over the past couple of decades can’t help but take some pleasure in its annihilation). The 2014 Godzilla was a big, silly entertainment, but there was a patience and vision to its destructive artistry that could almost be called existential in scope. Godzilla: King of the Monsters just destroys to entertain, and as a result is less successful at doing so.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Chernobyl: A Miniseries About Radioactive Lies and the Meltdown of Truth

Chernobyl (HBO/Sky, 2019)

In the Soviet Union in 1986, a nuclear reactor blew up. A disaster of this type is rare enough (nuclear power is generally quite safe and harmless, until it really, really isn’t) that it would hold a unique sensationalist interest on its own merits, if adapted as a big-budget disaster screen narrative. The insidious dangers of violently dispersed radioactive materials take on a horror movie dimension, while the disaster’s historical setting in the waning years of the USSR could be seen to portend the political and societal fall of the Iron Curtain, a sort of karmic reckoning for the vaunted “evil empire” of anti-communist fever fantasies. The fine technical details and scientific minutiae of the accident could even be marshalled for a sort of adapted detective story, a complex whodunit with a nuclear reactor as the murder victim.

The five-part HBO/Sky miniseries Chernobyl is about the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat in the Soviet Union (now part of Ukraine). It could have been merely any of the generic exercises described above, and in its final broadcast form is a little bit of all of them. But it is so much more than any sum of its genre parts, and it becomes so by being less: although Chernobyl is a handsomely staged and meticulously detailed production whose scale runs to the epic, it is also understated and scrupulously realist, subtle and nuanced, and more profoundly a study of human behaviour, social institutions, and the ever-fraught tug of war between the two. Far more deeply and broadly than being a time-capsule historical drama bashing the mean, myopic Soviets for nearly making Europe uninhabitable with their dishonest hubristic mistakes, Chernobyl is concerned with the slowly accruing weight of lies that will unavoidably collapse catastrophically in the face of a truth so terrible as to be inevitable. It is an unsettling and fascinating work of art both movingly timeless and urgently timely.

Chernobyl was conceived and written by Craig Mazin, heretofore a successful but unremarkable screenwriter of American comedy films (such as the two Hangover sequels), but with Chernobyl behind him, now a definite giant of screen narrative. Mazin has smartly accompanied the dramatic series with thoughtful and open engagement with fans and critics alike on his Twitter, but more notably with the five-part Chernobyl Podcast co-hosted by NPR broadcaster Peter Sagal. Mazin talks with Sagal about the ways in which Chernobyl accords with real events and the ways in which it departs from them, a startlingly transparent look into not only his creative process but the nuclear reactor-like balance between the hard truths of history and the pretty lies of narrative (Mazin also co-hosts a screenwriting-centric podcast with John August called Scriptnotes, so he’s well-versed in such discussions). It’s a canny multi-pronged employment of our contemporary multimedia landscape to grant depth, shading, and perspective to storytelling that, as careful and accurate as it attempts to be, is in and of itself a grand lie.

But Chernobyl is a lie shot through with galvanized truth. The first and most impressive thing to be noted about Chernobyl is how much effort is made on the production design end of the show to immerse the viewer in the peculiar, shabbily dated world of the mid-1980s Soviet Union. Although production designer Luke Hull and costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux are from the West, their local crews in Lithuania (where much of the show was shot) largely grew up in the late stages of the USSR, and their firsthand knowledge of the fine details of Soviet life – from the fabric used in suits to ubiquitous sunflower seed snacks to household garbage buckets to firefighter gear – combines with meticulous research to create an eerie verisimilitude of a social order that now seems even more strange to outsiders than it did when it still existed. For viewers from the former Soviet Union – like hockey writer Slava Malamud, whose Twitter threads on each of the series’ five episodes are every bit as essential secondary commentary as the podcast – this attention to detail has been appreciated while also calling up memories of the former regime that are not always fond.

But as Malamud and other Russian observers have also noted with appreciation and not a little astonishment, Chernobyl also provides a surprisingly true perspective on “the beauty, the ugliness, the mystery” of the Russian soul, whatever that might be vaguely understood to be (two of the great Russian literary giants, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, would have disagreed fervently over what that “soul” happened to be). At the heart of the series’ understanding of how Soviets, from professional nuclear engineers and scientists to common firefighters, nurses, and miners to party bureaucrats and the powerful Central Committee, responded to the Chernobyl disaster and its horrible aftermath is on the one hand a mixture of wounded pride and cynical resignation to suffering in a harsh physical, economic, political, and social environment, while on the other a profound love for the country that pains and oppresses them, a sharp distrust and disrespect for authority (even if that authority is brutal and repressive in the face of defiance and dissent), and an incredible, heroic bravery that is matter-of-fact, self-effacing, and grimly accepting of ultimate sacrifice.

Russians sacrificed greatly in World War II, the blood of millions of its people soaking the frozen earth to defeat Hitler and Nazi Germany, only to see D-Day’s American GIs and a cigar-chomping British imperialist PM get the lion’s share of the credit in the post-war cultural debriefing. The Soviet Union’s sacrifice had little of the grandstanding of its Western democratic allies, but the WWII-era USSR’s solution of throwing overwhelming numbers of human bodies at its enemy was repeated, in many ways, at Chernobyl. The Soviet Union could ill afford the massive cost in manpower, materiel, and money that characterized the Chernobyl containment, clean-up, and “liquidation”, and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev claimed that Chernobyl more than anything else finally brought down the USSR (it was going down soon anyway, though Chernobyl may have accelerated the breakdown).

Chernobyl documents these sacrifices and costs again and again, and the number of (mostly) men willing to lay down their lives at various critical junctures in the cleanup efforts will strike the viewer in America or the UK or Canada as amazing and insensible. As Malamud points out (and it’s not an observation that I, as a non-Russian, would dare to make entirely on my own), Russian strength, resilience and willingness to sacrifice the individual need for the betterment of the collective is very Eastern in character, not just a corollary of communist ideology but reflective of a mindset moulded by the unique history and environment and social and political order of the broader Russian nation. Chernobyl provides a striking contrast for the Western viewer, used to the gospel of happiness and individual worth; Russia, as Malamud observes, is not a happy place, and it does not value the individual above the collective. But it is because of this that it was able to respond to the Chernobyl disaster in the manner that was required, a manner that frequently counted lives and sent smaller numbers of men to their likely deaths to save the larger population by dousing radioactive fires, draining cooling tanks to prevent an apocalyptic thermal explosion, digging tunnels underneath the reactor to prevent a meltdown, and removing radioactive graphite from the exploded core from roofs with simple shovels.

The human costs of Chernobyl are written on the faces of the series’ core (mostly British) cast. Jared Harris, who after last year’s outstanding The Terror has carved out a niche for himself as the rational voice of warning in richly textured, bleakly metaphorical historical dramas, is Valery Legasov, a nuclear scientist sent to assess and address the Chernobyl incident. Legasov’s suicide two years to the day after the disaster is Chernobyl‘s initiating incident, and the rest of the series follows his wearily practical assessments of the damage and increasingly strident and dangerous criticism of the state’s failures and corner-cutting measures that contributed greatly to the accident. Aiding him with gravel-voiced, steel-spined bureaucratic muscle is Stellan Skarsgård’s Boris Shcherbina, who like much of the Soviet power structure initially doubts Legasov’s alarums on the dire severity of the situation but soon enough gains appreciation and admiration for the scientist’s knowledge; after Legasov explains how a nuclear reactor works under Shcherbina’s threat of being thrown from a helicopter, there is a thawing of tensions that eventually grows to a sort of limited professional collaborative friendship.

As Shcherbina marshals overwhelming manpower, a fleet of helicopters to douse the burning reactor with sand and boron, lunar rovers and a West German police robot to clear the radioactive roofs, and any other resources Legasov deems necessary to lessen Chernobyl’s terrible post-explosion impact, Emily Watson’s Ulana Khomyuk plays detective, investigating the causes of the disaster. A composite character representing the legion of nuclear physicists and other scientific minds who aided Legasov in responding to the disaster in its aftermath, Khomyuk is even more willing to call out the incompetence of the Soviet power structure than Legasov (in real life a committed Communist Party ideologue who was slow to publically acknowledge where the ultimate fault for Chernobyl lay).

The heartbreaking human costs of the disaster are imparted through the subplot of Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Irish actress Jessie Buckley) and her firefighter husband Vasily (Adam Nagaitis, Harris’ co-star from The Terror); Vasily is among the first responders to the power plant fire on the night of the explosion and dies in agony from the radiation poisoning, but not without the loving Lyudmilla by his side to the end, even though her own exposure to the radiation devouring his body claims the life of their unborn child. In the series’ difficult fourth episode, Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk) is Pavel, a green recruit to the ranks of the clean-up crew of liquidators (many of them hardened veterans of the USSR’s war in Afghanistan) who is assigned to animal control, the wrenching elimination of the irradiated housepets left behind in the evacuation of the Exclusion Zone.

As tremendous as Chernobyl is, Mazin turns it towards a more conventional sense of narrative closure and blame of antagonists for the worst aspects of the disaster in the final episode. Intercutting the show trial of the promotion-minded engineers in charge of Chernobyl’s Reactor Four (Paul Ritter, Con O’Neill, Adrian Rawlins) on the night of the disaster with a belated re-creation of the fateful events of the night in that room, Mazin and director Johan Renck find a highly hateable (and surprisingly meme-able) villain in Ritter’s recklessly arrogant Anatoly Dyatlov, and allow Harris as Legasov (a figure not even present at the trial) to not only clearly and compellingly demonstrate what went wrong (good) but also launch into a dramatic courtroom thesis statement speech about bureaucratic lying and how the harsh truth always catches up to it, with often deadly consequences (less good). It’s a climactic moment of shameless dramatic license that may have been earned by a miniseries otherwise mostly characterized by heartening historical fidelity, but turning Legasov into a grandstanding, truth-defending Slavonic Atticus Finch in the closing episode is still an indulgence that Mazin ought to have resisted.

Chernobyl found fans and admirers not only among the standard prestige television cosmopolitan liberal audience, but among conservative commentators who characterisitically read it as a simple and blunt takedown of Soviet corruption and incompetence (and what, they bleat, do you think would happen if Bernie Sanders became President? Vote Trump! Who we deeply morally object to, we swear!). Although many former Soviet citizens, as noted, found the miniseries to be accurate and even affecting, Putinists and nationalists chafed at the critical tone and the revisiting of Chernobyl’s humiliation; a propagandistic Russian production based in anti-Western conspiracy theories is apparently planned in response.

Mazin himself has superficially resisted firm ideological readings, at least those from the right, preferring instead to emphasize the human fallibility at the core of the disaster. But he has also related the miniseries’ central metaphor about the radioactive nature of lies and the inevitable meltdown that is the truth to contemporary political discourse in its primary airing locations of the United States (where the dizzying layers of lies of the Trump Administration have already precipitated disasters such as the inadequate response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the migrant concentration camps along the southern border) and the United Kingdom (where the irresponsible dishonesty of the powerful that has underscored Brexit remains a sword of Damocles poised above Britain, Ireland, the rest of the EU, and the whole world). Chernobyl does not contain the root causes of its radioactive horrors in the past, but shows how human errors and compounding deceits threaten the stability and safety of the social order, even today.

Categories: History, Reviews, Television

Film Review: Blood Diamond

Blood Diamond (2006; Directed by Edward Zwick)

To pinpoint exactly what is wrong with Edward Zwick’s action epic about African civil war and resource exploitation, it makes most sense to begin at the end. With apologies to any readers concerned with my spoiling the closing moments of a 13-year-old film that’s been available on Netflix for years, Blood Diamond‘s final scene is intended to be inspiring. Humble fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) survived Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war, escaped to the West with his family, and made a fortune from a diamond he found, retrieved and sold at great personal risk, which was also used to expose the sale of conflict diamonds by the van de Kaap diamond cartel (based on De Beers, the real-world diamond trade kingpins who, until very recently, held a virtual monopoly on the global diamond market).

Solomon is called as a guest speaker at a South African conference at which an agreement was reached to limit the sale of “blood diamonds” (an agreement now frequently criticized as an ineffective measure against illegal diamond extraction, smuggling, and trade in Africa). The august white man introducing him notes with a rhetorical flourish that Third-World Africa has a voice on this issue as well, and Solomon Vandy’s story represents that voice. Vandy enters to standing applause, basking in it as he takes to the podium… and the movie fades to black before he can say a word.

The film that we’ve just seen, of course, is his story, and we hardly require it repeated in dialogue at the conclusion. But then, Blood Diamond is told more from the perspective of Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), the canny, slippery Rhodesian (a.k.a. Zimbabwean) smuggler, gunrunner, and soldier of fortune who starts off using Solomon to get to his diamond but winds up laying down his life to help Solomon and his son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers) to escape with the precious stone in a classically patronizing white saviour redemption arc. Given this fact, the seemingly minor contradiction that Zwick ends his film on – it’s voices like Solomon’s that matter, but we don’t need to hear them – gains added problematic dimension.

Blood Diamond features graphic depictions of African war atrocities alongside a repeated weary refrain, mostly uttered by intrepid but frustrated reporter Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), that no amount of atrocity will gain the fickle attention of the wealthy West, let alone spur so-called First World nations to decisive action against violent conflicts or endemic resource exploitation in Africa. Zwick’s film, written by Charles Leavitt, expresses this sentiment to no small extent to elevate itself above media that gives lip service to these problems but doesn’t care deeply enough about them to make a difference, to say nothing of the blithe American consumers so dazzled by the sparkle of an engagement ring that they can’t be troubled to do enough bare minimum research to ensure that hundreds or thousands of lives were not taken to bring it to their finger. Even Bowen’s personal-interest tearjerker article draft about Solomon’s fleeting reunion with his family at a refugee camp in Guinea is discussed in terms of its exploitative, heart-string-tugging nature, rather than as crusading, world-altering journalism.

Blood Diamond, then, is a film that is at pains to make it crystal-clear that its creators are acutely aware of white Western narratives that exploit African traumas for entertainment and edification. Which makes it all the worse when it proceeds to exploit African traumas for entertainment and edification. The aforementioned sequences of mass slaughter of civilians or executions and mutilations of captives or indoctrination and employment of child soldiers are just abominably harrowing, given Zwick’s non-stylized straight-ahead realist style. But they are also pulse-quickening action set-pieces, with Archer and Vandy and sometimes Bowen as well in great peril as they navigate African urban streets or jungle terrain under a torrent of bullets. Zwick, a seasoned hand at war epics with problematic racial politics (more on that in a moment), can’t help but render exciting what ought to be horrifying, and James Newton Howard’s pulsating action score in these sequences pushes them on to spectacle. In a film that, by its own implicit admission, is determined not to exploit its subject, Zwick expertly portrays these shootouts as exhilarating when he needed to favour a “war is hell” approach.

Running with DiCaprio’s Archer as its true protagonist is another of Blood Diamond‘s faults. It’s not that he gives a bad performance (got a Best Actor Oscar nom for it, didn’t he?), though his Rhodesian accent almost certainly slips now and again. Leavitt’s script probably spends too much time teasing a soft-romance connection between Archer and Maddy Bowen, as well, before realizing it has to make up for lost time and build up a respect and fondness between Archer and Solomon in the last 40 minutes if the climax is to work at all. No, the indulgence of an old-fashioned white saviour trope in the middle of a movie otherwise (superficially) intent on recognizing the weaknesses of media discourse concerning Africa and its continuing tragedies is fatally retrograde.

Archer is willing to exploit on a wider scale for his own selfish gain, until he is confronted in a sustained fashion with the personal costs of what he and others like him are doing, and sacrifices himself for the greater good. Blood Diamond also engages in some authenticity politics on behalf of Africa’s white colonial population, as Archer and his former commanding officer Colonel Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo) discuss how they both belong to the red earth of Africa, a moment which has a callback in Archer’s final scene but which also carries some associations with romantic white nationalist nostalgia for colonial rule and apartheid (which is nonetheless disavowed, of course).

Edward Zwick was the director of Glory and The Last Samurai, two Hollywood war epics that treated the tragic traumas of non-white warriors (African-Americans during the Civil War, Japanese samurai in the industrialized late 1800s) as elegiac and proud passings-away, shepherded by messianic white saviour figures. It’s a classic liberal-Hollywood formulation in many ways, and Zwick is a veteran captain at the ship’s helm, steering it into entirely the wrong troubled waters in the case of Blood Diamond. Africa has been a board where the best and (more frequently) the worst intentions of white colonial and post-colonial powers have been played out. The power of a mere movie to overcome that, of course, is highly questionable, or more likely not questionable at all: it cannot. But Blood Diamond includes gestures and even stronger elements that suggest its best intentions might have been smart and conscientious ones too. Instead, through its dominant thematic perspective and final heart-lifting paean to an ineffectual pact to end the bloody exploitations of the African conflict diamond trade, this film cannot help but seem like more of the same. And from simple Hollywood movies on up to the complexities of international aid, politics, and trade, Africa needs far more than more of the same.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews