Thursday, November 27, 2014

Film Review: Birdman (2014)

Birdman is a cheap box of chocolates; the kind that has too many pieces with squishy, oozy, fruity centres and no nutty ones and the chocolate tastes like it might have been recycled from last year's unsold Easter bunnies. But you eat the whole box because it's chocolate and it's sweet and it's right there in front of you on the coffee table. What makes Birdman more enjoyable than it has a right to be is that it absolutely stuffs you with the empty calories of stylish cinematography, panto levels of overacting, and some waspish comments about fame and celebrities.

Michael Keaton plays an actor, Riggan, who was once famous as Birdman, the star of a superhero franchise a la Batman. But that was a long time ago and now he wants to make his artistic mark by writing, directing and starring in a stage version of a Raymond Carver novel, and on Broadway, no less. His extremely Method-y co-star, Mike, is played by Edward Norton. Almost all the action takes place backstage and onstage as Riggan tries to keep his vanity production on the rails. He has money worries, the Norton character is temperamental, his personal relationships are rocky, and his biggest problem is that he's suffering from delusions. Riggan has come to believe (when he's alone) that he has superpowers. He also gets visits from his Birdman alter ego who badgers him to take up the role again.

There's always something compelling about tales of backstage life and conflict, and Birdman mines that vein quite effectively. This side of the story is helped even more by its visual style, which is made up of almost constant tracking shots that transition seamlessly from one location in the theatre to another, and even across time gaps of hours and days. The claustrophobic, rabbit warren character of a large theatre has probably never been captured so beautifully. There are also a lot of closeups, which is a bold move since the camera probably risked being damaged in the frenzy of scenery-chewing that goes on by Keaton and Norton. They don't give great performances, they give loud, busy, twitchy, theatrical performances that are demented but quite entertaining. As a bonus there are some sharp jabs at celebrities such as Meg Ryan and Ryan Gosling.

Where Birdman stumbles is when it's characters talk about Art, Life and Acting. The characters have nothing original or interesting to say on these subjects, although they do it with a lot of spittle-flecked energy. What's more annoying is that only Keaton and Norton are allowed these deep thoughts; the female characters are left to talk about their relationships with men. So that's a score of 0 on the Bechdel test. The one woman who's not confined to relationship chatter is a vicious drama critic, and it's clear she's only allowed this privilege because she's of a certain age. Naturally enough, Riggin and Mike loathe her.

Birdman is scatter-brained, clumsily sexist, and more than a bit pretentious, but the look of it, its frantic energy, and some very amusing bits (Riggin speed-walking through Times Square in his underwear) at least make it better than most actual superhero films.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Book Review: The Sun is God (2014) by Adrian McKinty

Brevity isn't a quality normally associated with historical fiction. Writers in this field usually measure out their prose in cubits and furlongs, with innumerable bits and bobs of historical detail clinging to their plots like burls on an oak tree. And then we have The Sun is God. Adrian McKinty is a crime/mystery novelist whose stories have always had contemporary settings. This novel (based closely on a true incident) has a crime and a mystery at its heart, and even a detective, but I'd come down on the side of it being historical fiction rather than a mystery novel. And it's quite short.

The setting is the colony of German New Guinea in 1906. A smallish group of Europeans, mostly German, calling themselves "Cocovores" are living on a small island, subsisting entirely on coconuts, bananas and a lot of sunbathing (they're also nudists). The Cocovores are a cult, in fact, and believe that their simple, pure lifestyle will make them immortal. One of their number dies under mysterious circumstances. The local German authorities (it's a very small colony) are forced to turn for investigative help to Will Prior, an ex-member of the British military police who's washed up in New Guinea after being kicked out of the army. Will goes to the Cocovores' island along with a German official and a Miss Pullen-Berry, an intrepid English traveler and journalist. The island reveals some dark secrets, Will faces death and danger, and the mystery is (mostly) solved.

Although the mystery plot gives the novel its backbone, the meat of the story is its look at one of the psychological and philosophical turning points of the modern age. McKinty has managed to pack into this one small, historical incident a lot of the themes that would define the 20th century. Let's begin with Will, who is psychologically damaged from taking part in a massacre of starving black South Africans being held in a British concentration camp. In one horrible moment Will has seen the pointy end of repressive colonialism and industrialized state terrorism, two isms that will metastasize in the decades to come. Will's flight from South Africa is an unspoken resistance to what the British government is doing. And the Cocovores are one of the earliest expressions of the individualism, narcissism, and utopianism that characterize the cults, counter culture, and alternative lifestyles that grew apace over the next several generations. In his descriptions of the Cocovores McKinty nimbly references aspects of future cults such as Jim Jones' Peoples Temple and the Heaven's Gate cult.

The Cocovores are the children of Darwin and Freud and Nietzsche, something that they're very aware of. They are among the first people of the 20th century to take the view that they can and should live outside the control of established states, religions and philosophies; they are the architects of their own universe, albeit one that's demented and reliant on cheap native labour. In the Cocovores we also witness the true believer fanaticism that leads to persecution and murder; on a small scale here, on an epic scale a few years down the road in Europe.

As mentioned earlier, McKinty keeps his story lean and doesn't overindulge in historical scene-setting. Instead, he lets his prose do some that work, as shown here:

Bethman swung a clumsy haymaker at Will's face, which he easily dodged before cleaning Bethman's clock with an upper cut to the point of his prominent chin. The German fell backward, poleaxed by the blow.

The use of semi-archaic words such as "haymaker", "clock" and "poleaxed", and the Boys Own Paper tone of that passage, take us back in time without the addition of distracting historical asides. The Sun is God isn't an exercise in nostalgia or a showy exercise in historical research, it's a sharp, piercing look at an unlikely group of people (for the time) who form a kind of template for the century to come. The only comparison that comes to mind are the Mamur Zapt novels by Michael Pearce (my review), which are marketed as mysteries but are more about colonialism. In any case, McKinty is working at a higher literary level than Pearce. And here's where I contradict myself; as much as I enjoyed the economy of McKinty's writing, in retrospect I wanted the novel to be a bit longer. The back stories of the Cocovores cried out for more detail; these are people who have stepped far, far outside the mainstream so the inner journeys that brought them to New Guinea almost demand a fuller description. That aside, The Sun is God is a refreshing example of historical fiction that achieves a lot without doubling as a cinder block.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Film Review: Nightcrawler (2014)

It was argued in the documentary The Corporation (2003) that corporations think and behave like psychopaths. Nightcrawler takes the view that inside every psychopath there's a raging capitalist struggling to get out. The title character is Louis Bloom, who when we first meet him is driving a crappy car (this already marks him out as odd in Los Angeles) and stealing metal for a living. In the few, short scenes that begin the film we learn all we need to know about Louis: his large, moist, unblinking eyes are always on the lookout for whatever can earn him a dime or a dollar. He's confronted by a security guard while stealing some chain link fencing and notices that the guard is wearing a large, shiny watch. Like some kind of crazed thieving magpie he wrestles the guard to the ground and in the next scene we see Bloom wearing the watch. Is the guard dead or injured? We don't know because the story is told from Bloom's POV, and he certainly doesn't care what happens to other people.

Bloom happens upon a freelance videographer filming a dramatic car crash and learns that these freelancers can make good money selling their footage to local news stations. Cue the demented Horatio Alger story as Louis rises to the top of the freelance news heap by being more aggressive, more cutthroat and cheaper than any of his competitors. He hires an assistant, Rick, who's living in a garage, and patiently explains that he's offering an unpaid internship because the experience he'll get is worth more than money. Bloom eventually, and grudgingly, gives Rick $30 for each all-night shift. The two of them listen to an emergency services scanner and race other videographers to car crashes, fires and crime scenes. Bloom's ruthlessness eventually leads to him manipulating the news instead of just recording it.

Bloom is an odd amalgam of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, a reptilian version of Phil Silver's Sgt. Bilko character, and Chance from Being There. He has no interior life (his stark, barely furnished apartment is a window to his soul), he's just a feral entrepeneur who's learned to mouth business platitudes gleaned from self-help books and seminars. He's matched by Nina (Rene Russo), the producer of a morning TV news show. She'll accept raw video material from Louis no matter how tainted, how immoral his methods are in getting great footage. Nina is in the minor leagues of the TV industry and is desperate to keep her job. Rick plays the role of the oppressed worker who is ruthlessly exploited and then cast aside.

A lot of Nightcrawler is a simplistic, connect-the-dots analogy about the way business works (something I'm in agreement with), but the film still works exceptionally well as an atmospheric thriller. The action takes place almost entirely at night, and Los Angeles has rarely looked so beautiful and yet menacing. The film also benefits from a constant and underlying tension thanks to Bloom's unpredictable ruthlessness, and the finale is a fine piece of action choreography.

On the debit side, the lampooning of local TV news is pretty stale. This subject has been done to death, and Nina is, unfortunately, one in a long line of dragon lady TV executives. The Bloom character is compelling to watch but he's never more than a polemical argument made flesh and blood. And I could have done without the police detective who is given dialogue recycled from every cop show ever. Finally, it's nice to see a nasty, dyspeptic, criminal view of life up on the big screen again. Those kinds of films were the heavy hitters of the 1970s and I'd like to think this marks a comeback for them.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Film Review: Fury (2014)

Much of Fury can be described as a ham-handed, badly acted and poorly-written rehash of Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers. The action sequences (with one notable exception) are impressively noisy and bloody, even gripping at times, but at it's heart this is a western, the kind in which our American heroes/gunslingers have to face off against hordes of Mexicans or Native Americans in a final climactic battle. Think of it as The Wild Bunch with tanks.

The tank commander, "Wardaddy", is played by Brad Pitt. It's a preening, scenery-chewing performance that shows what happens when a megastar isn't held in check by the director. Pitt doesn't create a character, he strikes a variety of poses and attitudes from every macho action film he's ever seen. The script does him no favours because he, along with the other four members of the tank crew, are products of a special key on the lazy scriptwriter's keyboard; it's a function key that automatically creates macho male characters who swear, argue, brawl, bicker, swear, spit, swear, kill, swear, weep copiously over the deaths of buddies (with extra swearing), drink hard, and finally die in a Twilight of the Gods firefight. It's homoerotic porn for gun nuts. David Ayer, the writer and director, goes the extra mile by making his main characters so frantically manly and tough they become loathsome. Aside from the wet behind the ears newbie, the rest of crew, including Pitt's character, are just cursing windbags of testosterone-addled idiocy. In a bit of clunky writing Ayer tries to explain their bestiality by saying that their long service at the front has brutalized them. OK, that was almost an original thought forty years ago. We get it, David, war is hell and you don't win battles with Boy Scouts. Moving on...

Fury would be just another slack-jawed action movie but for one notably offensive sequence that lumbers on stage at about the halfway point. Our "heroes" have taken a small German town, and Wardaddy and the newbie, called Norman, force their way into a home occupied by a woman and her teenaged female cousin. The threat or prospect of rape hangs heavy in the air. That's fine, because history tells us Allied troops did rape German women; not to the degree invading Russian troops did, but it certainly happened. The women are clearly terrified that one or both of them is going to be assaulted. Instead, Wardaddy, who speaks German, tells the older woman to cook for them. A short time later, however, Wardaddy tells Norman to take the young girl into the next room and screw her or he'll do it. A semi-reluctant Norman goes into a bedroom with the girl and does some kind of half-assed palm reading on her. She doesn't speak English and Norman doesn't have any German, but she's evidently so charmed, so smitten by these few seconds of interaction with her potential rapist she happily and enthusiastically has sex with him. WTF? What we have here is a rape fantasy, plain and simple. The female character is being coerced/forced into sex, but because her rapist shows a molecule of charm, she magically becomes eager for sex. And just to complete the fantasy aspect, the girl is gorgeous. The terrors and privations of Germany in 1945 haven't diminished her lingerie-model good looks one iota.

This sour, nasty scene is followed by a finale in which a couple of hundred SS troops launch an assault on Fury (the tank's name) and her crew. Wardaddy and Co. are all that stand between the Germans and an Allied supply depot. This action setpiece fits comfortably with your father's idea of what a World War Two movie should be like: the Germans lineup in an orderly fashion so that the good guys can mow them down in the most efficient manner possible. The Germans must have been scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel in 1945 because these guys have less tactical sense than the average paintball player. They stand in the open and fire rifles and machine guns at a tank. A tank! And then they look surprised when they're blown to smithereens. This last battle is doubly disappointing because some of the earlier tank fights are quite well done. Oh, well. At this point I was just grateful that I was seeing almost all the crew members meet a bloody end.