Monday, January 28, 2013
So why did she distort the truth? One plausible explanation is that in cinematic terms showing scenes of torture is more dramatic, engaging and visually powerful than scene after scene of people reading transcripts and conducting briefings. The other possibility has a more political explanation and becomes apparent later in the film when two CIA agents are watching a TV interview with President Obama. In the interview, done shortly after his election, Obama announces that the U.S. will no longer use or condone torture. The agents don't react to this statement and barely pay attention to what Obama is saying. What this little scene suggests is that the CIA people in the field have no respect for Obama, and given that the early part of the film has argued that torture pays big intelligence dividends, the point of the scene becomes clearer: the film is arguing that Obama was, at best, out of touch with realities on the ground, and at worst was a hindrance in the hunt for bin Laden. But there's more. In the end phase of the hunt the decision to attack bin Laden's compound is portrayed as a decision made wholly the CIA. There's barely a hint of any presidential involvement. A quick check of the historical record shows that the pursuit of bin Laden was drastically scaled down by President Bush in 2005, who said "I don't know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don't care. It's not that important. It's not our priority." In 2008, President Obama prioritized finding and killing bin Laden, and in April 2011 it was he who gave the go-ahead for the raid on bin Laden's compound.
So it would seem that some degree of credit for the death of bin Laden should go to President Obama. Bigelow denies him this credit, and very clearly goes out of her way to make him seem like part of the problem, not part of the solution. In all the talk about the film's fallacious portrayal of torture as an effective means of intelligence gathering, little has been said about its anti-Obama political agenda. Now, I'm not American and I don't particularly like the president, so I don't, as they say, have a dog in this fight, but it seems obvious that Zero Dark Thirty attempts to downplay and disparage the Obama administration's part in the killing of bin Laden. But why should she do this? One intriguing explanation is that the high degree of official and unofficial help Bigelow got from the Pentagon and CIA came with a price: give us the glory and not that black guy none of us can stand. It's either that or Bigelow's a hardcore Republican.
Putting aside the film's function as a vehicle for disinformation, it's not as good as Bigelow's previous effort, The Hurt Locker. The chief problem is the main character, Maya, a young CIA case officer who makes it her single-minded goal in life to find bin Laden. The trouble with Maya is that she's nothing but a tightly wound ball of anger and determination. She's more of an investigation-bot than a human. Bigelow and her screenwriter are peddling the cliche that a successful woman can't express the normal range of human emotions. Maya's main co-worker, a man, is just as driven and ruthless but is given a more rounded personality. Jessica Chastain gives a good performance as Maya, but most of the time all that's required of her is that she look stern. And her abusiveness towards her superiors makes for some cheap dramatics, but in the real world it's the sort of behavior that gets people fired or reassigned.
Bigelow gets full marks for her recreation of the attack on bin Laden's compound. It generates a lot of tension, which is quite a feat since we know exactly how it's all going to play out. Bigelow shoots the action in a combination of night vision p.o.v. and near total darkness, and it's hard to imagine this sequence being done any better. As she showed in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow has filmmaking talent to burn, it's just unfortunate that it's been corrupted by a less than subtle propaganda message.
Saturday, January 26, 2013
|Donnie senses the presence of a tourist from Torquay & prepares to strike.|
Now, there's nothing new about Japanese villains in kung fu films. Historically speaking the Chinese have good reason to cast them in this role, and in a lot of cases they use the Japanese as default villains in the same way Hollywood uses Nazis or Germans, as in the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Die Hard franchises. What's new is that Westerners have joined the stable of villains in a big way. In the 1970s and '80s Westerners were, in my viewing experience, rarely cast as villains. The trend seems to have started with Jackie Chan's The Legend of Drunken Master (1994), in which nefarious Brits are smuggling Chinese artifacts out of the country. The difference between the kung fu films from the '70s and today's films is that there's a hysterical and fearful vibe to the anti-Japanese/Western theme. In sum, it feels like the Hong Kong film industry has become the unofficial propaganda wing of the Chinese government.
The IP Man films and Legend of the Fist (all starring Donnie Yen, as it happens) are good examples of this hysteria. The Japanese and Brits (and some other Westerners) are vilified and demonized with relentless enthusiasm, far exceeding what's necessary to establish them as conventional villains. After a certain point you begin to realize that what's going on here is an attempt to make Chinese audiences wary, if not actually intolerant, of the non-Chinese world.
What's curious is why the Chinese government feels it's necessary to mount this propaganda campaign. China's economy and political clout is growing every day, but the kind of propaganda on view in these kung fu films feels like it's being created to bolster a fragile sense of self-esteem. Another example of this comes from Skyfall, the latest Bond film. In one throwaway scene a European hitman kills a Chinese security guard. Chinese censors snipped this scene out, apparently because the idea of a Chinese citizen falling victim to a European is too harrowing for Chinese audiences.
I'm guessing that the real reason for this propaganda effort is that some people at the higher levels of the Chinese government are scared at the pace of change in China. Few nations in history have undergone such sweeping changes in the course of one generation, and it would appear that some Chinese politicians and bureaucrats feel that the increasing Westernization of China's culture must be combated. It's also possible that this propaganda effort is also designed to create domestic support for some of China's more belligerent diplomatic efforts; the quarrel with Japan over the Senkaku Islands immediately comes to mind. Whatever the reason, this shift in the tone of some modern kung fu films drains them of their charm and leaves a rather bitter taste.
Friday, January 25, 2013
Talk is way too cheap
Early in his career Tarantino was justifiably praised for his dialogue. If you can be damned with faint praise, it appears that in Quentin's case you can also be damned with too much. He's turned into a scriptwriting windbag. Scene after scene has characters talking at such length it would be more accurate to call this script a Hansard. Not only are most scenes grotesquely overlong, some are completely gratuitous.
It's a western?
Django is supposed to be some kind of tribute/homage to spaghetti westerns, but in truth the story turns out be more of a drawing room comedy of mayhem. The key visual element in any western is the great outdoors. The idea of vast, unpopulated spaces was one of the reasons for the popularity of westerns in small, overpopulated Europe, hence the rise of the spaghetti western. Tarantino has no eye or enthusiasm for shooting outdoors. Just to let us know we're watching a western he has Django and Schultz ride past a herd of buffalo. OK, fine, there's that box ticked. And then several scenes later we see them go past a herd of elk. Oh, right, I almost forgot I was watching a western. That's the extent of the director's enthusiasm for western landscapes. Most of the film takes place in smallish rooms and the tone in the latter half is more blacksploitation than western.
Foghorn Leghorn was a technical advisor on the film
Yes, most of the actors seem to have taken voice lessons from Foghorn Leghorn, especially Leonardo DiCaprio. And Don Johnson gets to play a plantation owner in full Colonel Sanders regalia. This is as subtle as things get in the film.
Guns don't kill people, massive, spectacular blood loss does
If I sit down to watch one of the Saw films or something by Dario Argento I expect and demand buckets of blood. But a western? For no clear reason Tarantino films his shootouts as though they were scenes in a horror movie. When bullets hit flesh in this universe they release a geyser of blood that travels yards. I know, I know, it's a homage to Peckinpah, but he didn't make blood a star in its own right.
Why are there so many empty beds in the Old Actors' Home?
I can answer that: it's because Tarantino dragooned Tom Wopat, Franco Nero, Russ Tamblyn, Lee Horsley, and Bruce Dern into making cameo appearances. Why? So film geeks can play Spot The Former Star. It's a lot like the Where's Waldo books but without the popcorn. These actors don't add anything to the film except a distraction.
A Peculiar Institution
Believe it or not, some critics and Tarantino apologists/fans have been furrowing their brows and saying that Django delivers a strong lesson about the evils of slavery. Well, if you've been living in a cave for the last 100 years or so it might be news that slavery was a bad thing, but for the rest of us it's a yawn-inducing revelation. And Tarantino isn't really interested in any kind of serious look at slavery; his interest in slavery only extends to referencing tawdry exploitation flicks on the subject like Mandingo and Drum.
For someone who worships at the temple of genre films, the nastier and cruder the better, Tarantino proves to be something of a prude. He's happy to show wholesale quantities of graphic violence, but sex and nudity is something he seems uncomfortable with. All of his films are G-rated when it comes to sex. T & A is a big part of all the genres referenced in Django, especially the slave-themed ones, but Tarantino skates right around some obvious opportunities for naked fun. How boring.
Hot Shots: Part Trois
Remember those parody film franchises like Scary Movie and Hot Shots? Tarantino must have decided to honour that genre as well because that's the only explanation for a farcical sequence with Don Johnson and Jonah Hill (yes, Jonah Hill) as members of a Klan-like posse that gets into an argument about headgear. The scene is supposed to be farcical and off-kilter, just like some of the conversations in Pulp Fiction, but it's written and filmed so badly you have to wonder if the Wayans brothers weren't in charge of this part of the film.
For a film that's supposed to have a strong black power vibe, at the end of the day it's mostly about the white characters. Jamie Foxx as Django gets to shoot a lot of white folks, but it's Christoph Waltz and DiCaprio who get almost all the dialogue, and Waltz's character is very clearly the brains of the outfit.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't western action sequences have their own particular grammar and tradition? Not in this one. The shootouts owe more to Scarface and John Woo than Sergio Leone. And they're dull. No style, no imagination; Django just draws his gun and mows down scores of
Does Tarantino have a Screen Actors Guild card?
If he does, someone please take it away from him. Quentin makes one of his unfortunate acting appearances towards the end (he gets blowed up real good) and this time he treats us to an Australian accent. Why an Australian accent? Don't ask, because you might also begin to ask what a German bounty hunter is doing in the Old West.
There's one good thing in Django and it's Samuel L. Jackson. He plays an elderly, evil house servant and what little wit and energy the film has is provided by him. But that's always the case with Jackson, isn't it?
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
The previous Grant mysteries, Rivers of London and Moon Over Soho, were smart, written with wit and imagination, but suffered from some plotting that went slightly off the rails. That's not a problem this time around. A man is found murdered in Baker Street tube station, stabbed with a pottery shard that carries with it a whiff of magic. Grant's investigations lead him to, among many places, the Tate Modern, a goblin market, and an underground community inhabited by...but that would be telling. Suffice to say that the action is brisk, exciting and full of invention.
There are two things that make these novels appealing; the first is that they are among the best police procedural mysteries currently on the market. Detective Grant doesn't spend all his time running around using magic spells and so on; in fact, the use of magic is fairly restrained. Grant utilizes all the resources of the Met, and does so in an enthusiastic and believable manner. Also, Grant really likes his job, and the pleasure he takes in his work is a refreshing and delightful change from the usual mob of morose coppers cluttering up crime fiction. The other aspect of the Grant stories that's praiseworthy is the way in which Aaronovitch brings London to life. The Big Smoke isn't just a backdrop to these mysteries, it's really a main character. Aaronovitch is more than a little bit in love with London and he brings that passion to every page of his novels. He also deserves credit for showing a London that's not a cliche mix of Victorian architecture and Dickensian characters, which is usually the result when you mix London with a hint of the supernatural. This London is vibrantly multicultural. Grant himself is mixed race, and is more comfortable in tower blocks and council houses than a drawing room or private club. Now if only Aaronovitch could churn these mysteries out faster.
Saturday, January 12, 2013
The historical fiction writers pick up lots of literary awards (take a bow, Hilary Mantel), and generally get far more respect than the guys and girls working the side of the street with the spaceports and multi-limbed aliens. I'd say the history crew has an easier time of it. Everyone can agree on known historical facts, but it's always easy to pick holes in the tiniest details of a fictional future. I haven't read any sci-fi for quite a while, mostly because every time I've picked one up the writing is usually pretty weak. Sci-fi seems to be one of those genres, like romance and westerns, that has an undemanding audience. Give them the genre "bling" of space travel, time warps, freaky aliens, and they're satisfied.
The Dervish House is definitely sci-fi, but it's a resounding success because Ian McDonald has built a strong foundation of plot and character, and wraps some really fine prose around the whole thing. Its strength as a novel can be judged by the fact that if you removed all its science fiction elements (and there are lots) it would still be a wonderful book. The story is set in Istanbul in 2027 and follows the lives of a half-dozen or so characters who live or work in the building of the title. The cast includes a retired economics professor; a commodities broker; a dealer in antiquities; a demented criminal; a marketing consultant; and a 9-year-old boy with a heart condition. There's a separate plot line for each character, and all the lines eventually come together in some unlikely ways. Some of the stories include the search for a corpse mummified in honey, a financial scam, a terrorist plot, and the launch of a world-changing technology.
McDonald's goal isn't to show off some gee-whizz ideas about the future; what he's trying to imagine is how an old, conservative culture rich in traditions and customs manages the transition to a more Western mode of life. In this regard Istanbul is the main character of the novel. McDonald absolutely immerses us in an Istanbul that's trying to hold onto the past while at the same time running headlong into the future. This Istanbul is now part of the EU and appears to be at the forefront of nanotechnology. The characters, like the city, are dealing on a personal level with the changes that are morphing Istanbul into one of the key cities of the world.
Where a lot of science fiction takes pains to map out and describe its new worlds before the action gets underway, McDonald simply throws us in the deep end. The reader has to adjust quickly to a novel about Istanbul and Turkey that feels like it was written by a Turkish writer for a Turkish audience. This isn't Istanbul and Turkey For Dummies. Like the characters, we're expected to adjust on the run to new ideas and new technologies crashing into our traditional world view. And the world McDonald creates has the detail and energy that Dickens gave to London, or Zola gave to Paris. And the sci-fi bits are masterfully integrated into the story; there are none of those moments common to the genre where the narrative comes to a screeching halt for a dissertation on futuristic science and technology.
As modern and sophisticated as The Dervish House is, McDonald can't resist having his various plots and characters come together at the end in a manner that feels very 19th century. It's all cleverly done, but it feels a bit forced and the happy endings provided for most of the main characters seem out of step with the rigorously realistic tone of the rest of the book. Aside from a slightly bumpy finale, I'm rating it as one of the best sci-fi novels I've ever read.
Monday, January 7, 2013
|The cast waited patiently while Martin checked his contract for an escape clause.|
The lengthy opening section at Bilbo Baggins' house in which the dwarves are introduced and their plan revealed is a warning of the bad filmmaking to come. The dialogue, as written, is often wooden, and the dashes of humor used to leaven the exposition feel like material from a 1960s Disney comedy. Even the acting is off-base, with Martin Freeman coming across as more contemporary English middle-class than a hobbit of Middle-earth, and Richard Armitage as Thorin emoting and frowning in a way not seen since the biblical epics of the '50s. Neither actor is helped by dialogue that ranges from flat to portentous, and I get the feeling that Jackson was always happy with the first take: several scenes feel more like rehearsals than proper performances. Even the camerawork is poor, with every non-CGI shot framed as though it was being done for the local news.
Once the action leaves the Shire things get worse. Jackson throws one action sequence after another at us and they're all terrifically bad. The main problem is overkill. When Bilbo and the dwarves are going through a mountain pass they almost end up being crushed by fighting giants. In the book this scene is a brief one, and the giants are simply a hazard the trekkers are anxious to get away from. In Jackson's hands it turns into a farcical, overblown brawl between giants the size of Godzilla. This is not what Tolkien had in mind. But this scene is only a warmup for the sheer idiocy of what's to follow. The group enters a cave for shelter and from that point on, apart from the riddle sequence between Bilbo and Gollum, Jackson appears to have taken complete leave of his senses. The action is non-stop and it all seems to have been designed and choreographed by CGI nerds whose imaginations have been formed exclusively by theme park rides and Mario Brothers video games. Yes, it's that bad. It's The Phantom Menace bad. The rule of thumb for the SFX people seems to have been that if the script describes something as "big" make it huge, and if something is called "enormous" make it so gargantuan it has its own gravitational field.
It's not like we shouldn't have seen this coming. Jackson's King Kong was equally fatuous and overblown, but, unfortunately, at this stage of his career there's no one who's going to tell him that he's going wildly off the mark. There clearly isn't enough material to spin this story out over three films so that means we're undoubtedly looking forward to two more equally dire films.
Saturday, January 5, 2013
|Bettmann and Fehr; not quite as exciting as Gretzky and Kurri|
Let's begin with the issue of "pride." Simply put, it makes no sense. No one takes pride in being a passive viewer of entertainment. Are there proud game show viewers? Proud listeners to golden oldies radio? Do fans of James Patterson swell with pride as they read his latest novel? Attaching the concept of pride to watching NHL hockey is just plain silly, but it's not unknown for commentators to try and put a moral or emotional spin on labour disputes, especially when the service being denied is deemed essential. If firemen or nurses or teachers are off the job they're commonly branded as heartless or uncaring or selfish. And even striking workers in fields that aren't seen as critical are sure to hear remarks of the those-ungrateful-bastards-should-just-be-happy-to-have-jobs variety.
What's amusing about sports fans and writers dragging emotion into this labour stoppage is that what they're really annoyed with, but probably wouldn't acknowledge, is that this is what the cold, hard face of capitalism looks like. Capitalists constantly strive to control and lower the cost of labour: it's basically the main pillar of capitalist ideology. It's ironic that the same sports media personalities who have been falling over themselves to congratulate the Toronto Blue Jays on spending tens of millions in the past few months to acquire better players and thereby make more money, then find it offensive that another group of capitalists want to lower costs to enhance profits or trim losses. The two actions represent opposite sides of the same coin: to make a profit you either lower costs or increase market share. To rail against NHL owners for acting in this manner is like complaining that night always follows day. And it's equally foolish to take issue with the trench warfare of a prolonged negotiation process. These are two competing teams of capitalists who, in our free market world, are bound by the profit principle to fight, scratch and claw for every tactical advantage at the bargaining table. To do less than that would be to announce yourself as an incompetent capitalist.
The Cox article, like scores of others written about the lockout, takes a plague-on-both-their-houses approach. Spice is added to this position by the fact that this is a contest between millionaires and billionaires. Yes, indeed, the workers in this dispute are often part of the 1%, but that doesn't take away from the fact that this lockout, like those in any other field, is all about workers trying to safeguard wages and benefits. The one certainty going into this lockout was that NHL players would be making less in the future for doing the same job. The NHLPA's job was, and is, to minimize the pain. Commentary that takes a neutral or hostile view of both parties is effectively taking a pro-management stance. For a very long time now unions of all kinds have been fighting a rearguard action to prevent the erosion of both jobs and earning power. Capitalists hold all the cards, and commentators who like to pretend that there is some kind of equivalency between unions and management are being wilfully ignorant.
Many sports people have also been saying things along the lines of, "What the players have to understand is that the economics of the league have changed." This line of reasoning argues that because some teams are suffering losses (allegedly), the players should share the pain. When teams or leagues are doing well one rarely hears an argument that players should get more. The NFL's recent labour dispute revolved around the league wanting a greater share of the profits. It wasn't because the teams are making less money, it was simply a question of the league wanting more money at the expense of the players. The same holds true in the wider economic world: corporations that report hefty profits typically don't at the same time raise worker's wages; they continue to outsource, "trim the fat", or ship production overseas, and whatever else it was that made them profitable. In a nutshell, when times are good capitalists reward themselves via stock options, dividends, performance bonuses, and so on; when times are bad it's workers who take the first hit. In the case of the NHL, the players are expected to pay for the foolishness of sticking franchises in places like Phoenix and Florida. Basically, workers in any industry, from cars to coal mines, are expected to pay for the mistakes and greed of management
One last point: There's little argument that the mainstream media has become more capitalist-friendly as it's become concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations. This phenomenon has been taken to the next level in Canada by the purchase of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (owners of the Leafs, Raptors, and Toronto FC) by the parent companies of TSN and Sportsnet. A host of print journalists, including Damien Cox, appear regularly on, and draw a paycheque from, the two sports media giants. What we have here is a conflict of interest. Cox and the others are commenting on a labour dispute while in the pay of ownership. Has this produced any obvious cases of bias? Not so far, but the bland neutrality of the both-sides-are-in-the-wrong stance is really just de facto support for the NHL. Cox's main employer is the Toronto Star. If one of that paper's full-time political commentators took a part-time job with the Liberal or Conservative Party they'd be shown the door pretty quickly. For whatever reason, the same standards don't seem to apply to the sports department.
Peanuts, Popcorn & Anti-Capitalism
Tuesday, January 1, 2013
What virtually all these towns and cities have in common is a relatively short lifespan that has the arc of a three act tragedy. They start life thanks to entrepreneurial zeal and inventiveness, and the market demands of a rapidly expanding economy. Next comes a middle-aged period of affluence that's usually marred by violent fury and sclerotic intolerance for any kind of union activity or worker militancy. Last comes decrepitude and death as changing market conditions or Wall Street raiders shut down or cannibalize the business that keeps the town alive. Gary, Indiana, is possibly the best example of this process. Gary was created in 1906 by U.S. Steel, which turned 4,000 acres beside Lake Michigan into one of the biggest steel-producing centres in the world. There were the usual vicious battles with unions along the way, and by the 1950s Gary was one of the epicentres of the post-war American economic boom with a population approaching 200,000. Today? Gary is now a virtual ghost town, widely regarded as one of the worst places to live in the US. Check out this article on Gary from the Daily Mail.
One facet of American history that gets little attention is the sheer ruthlessness with which business and governments at all levels tried to crush any kind of workers' organization in the first decades of the last century. How ruthless? In 1921 in Logan County, West Virgina, a pitched battle between protesting coal miners and a mixed force of police deputies and mine guards left 80 to 130 dead, most of whom were miners. There are a dozen similar stories in The Company Town, and it's amazing to think that these dramatic and bloody incidents aren't part of what could be called popular history. There have been countless films made about Dillinger and the like, but the depredations of bank robbers don't begin to match the violence of the contemporary fights between labour and capitalists. Prohibition, gangsters, flappers, the Jazz Age, the Depression, these are the big stories in American history from 1900 to 1940. The low grade civil war between business and government on one side, and organized labour on the other, rarely gets a mention, which speaks to how friendly historians and Hollywood mythmakers have been to corporate America.
Although some company towns benefited from a certain degree of paternalistic benevolence, The Company Town is mostly a sad, sometimes tragic, story of how capitalism has continually seen labour as just one more form of raw material in the industrial process.