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Queer Classics: “Moonlight” (2016)

After waiting impatiently for several weeks for Moonlight to make its way to Syracuse, it finally arrived, and I have to say:  this is one hell of a film. Though it was not what I expected, that does not mean that I didn’t enjoy it. Indeed, it’s probably the best film that I’ve seen this year (as cliché as that sounds).

A meditative and aesthetically sophisticated film such as this one is notoriously difficult to summarize in terms of plot, but in broad strokes it is a coming-of-age story told in three parts. Each segment of the film opens with a simple word:  Little, Chiron, Black, each representing a stage in the main character’s evolution. Throughout, he has to contend with the broken relationships that characterize his life, from his drug-addled mother Paula to his love interest and childhood companion Kevin. Throughout, he seems to struggle with a profound sense of alienation and isolation from the world around him, though he does experience brief moments of genuine human warmth, particularly when he meets Teresa and Juan (Janelle Monáe and the inimitable Mahershala Ali, respectively), who provide him some measure of stability and genuine human caring.

This is a profoundly intimate film, both in terms of its narrative–which remains wedded to Chiron’s perspective throughout–but also in terms of its cinematography. The camera remains sometimes perilously close to its principals, wedding us to their perspective in a sometimes physically unsettling intimacy. It’s not so much that the spectator necessarily feels that they are necessarily there; instead, it’s a feeling of being physically connected to the characters.

Thus, it is precisely this visceral closeness that allows us as viewers to get a sense of how important touch is to Chiron’s sense of himself. It is through his body that Chiron manages to escape his profound sense of loneliness and alienation. The film also pays particular attention to fluid, and there are two scenes in which semen plays a prominent role, and each time the camera pays attention to the contact between the body and the fluid, a surprisingly sensuous (and not prurient) attention to the powerfully erotic pleasures of the flesh.

It is through his body that Chiron–chronically silent and taciturn–manages to express himself. Indeed, it is precisely touch that gives him his one truly meaningful and intense connection with another person, when he and Kevin share an erotic experience on the beach. Unfortunately, the flip side of that dynamic is that Kevin is later manipulated by schoolyard bullies into beating up his erstwhile friend, a bitter experience that deeply scars both young men. However, there is no question that it is Chiron who bears the deepest psychological wounds, scarred both by his friend’s betrayal and by his mother’s obvious homophobia.

As Black, he appears muscle-bound and gruff, and the film makes it clear that this emphasis on increasing his bodily mass and strength are his responses to his troubling youth and to the impotence he felt throughout those formative years. Tormented by those around him for his perceived queerness, he has turned to using his body as a shield against a world that seems determined to crush and beat the “softness” out of him. The camera lingers on his musculature and on his mannerisms, demonstrating again and again that the formerly shy and meek youth who finally broke when betrayed by his friend has transformed into a hardscrabble drug dealer on the streets of Atlanta. Beneath that, though, one can still see glimmers of Little and of Chiron, a yearning for the intimate human connection that he has all-too-infrequently found in his life.

Though the film is, for the most part, deliberately paced, it is punctuated by moments of emotional release and satisfaction, as when Chiron takes a chair and brutally attacks the bully who incited Kevin’s act of violence. It is an intensely satisfying moment (as evidenced by the woman beside me in the theater, who cheered quite loudly at that particular moment). These moments, like their more tender counterparts, enable a feeling of bodily empathy with Chiron, allowing us to experience a similar moment of embodied empowerment, a reclamation of agency that has been consistently denied him.

The performances, of course, are the emotional heart of the film. As any good student of film knows, casting can either make or break even the most well-written of films, and in this case the actors are uniformly excellent. Though it is easy to despise Chiron’s mother Paula for her by turns brutal and manipulative treatment of her only child, Naomie Harris brings a certain tragic pathos to the role, imbuing the character with alternately frantic energy and depthless despair. While she is not the main focus of the narrative, she does nevertheless show her own development as a character, moving from an absent-minded if loving mother to a gradually more abusive and manipulative drug addict. However, even she is not beyond redemption, and the scene in which Black finally has the chance to offer his mother forgiveness is one of the most wrenching in the film.

The three actors who portray Chiron each deserve accolades, for each brings something distinct to the table, allowing us to see the shifts in his perspective as he grows up. Alex Hibbert, who plays Little, is that oh-so-rare gem, a child actor who has genuine depth and complexity. For his part, Ashton Sanders (who plays Chiron’s teenaged self) brings a certain tortured reserve to a youth plagued by his own personal demons, his fledgling desires, and the aimlessly malevolent taunts of many of his classmates.

It is Trevante Rhodes, however, who really steals the show as Black, Chiron’s final iteration. This is, in many ways, the most inscrutable and mysterious of the character’s iterations and for that reason it is the most compelling. All of Chiron’s past traumas seem to roil beneath the surface of clenched exterior. As we learn during his reunion and rapprochement with Kevin (played as an adult by André Holland, who brings a certain frantic, almost desperate, energy to the character), no man (nor anyone else) has touched him since their erotic encounter on the beach. Black is a man who has struggled, and never quite succeeded, in finding a place in an unfeeling world. His eventual physical reunion with Kevin, in which he at last finds physical connection, is a powerful affirmation of his journey to fulfillment.

Moonlight remains a haunting film precisely because it is so piercing in its glimpse into Chiron’s psyche. Growing up a queer of color in America remains a struggle for many, and it is especially acute for men, for whom the burdens of traditional masculinity are sometimes almost too much to bear. Indeed, the screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney has spoken eloquently on those burdens, and his acute sensibilities for the particular struggles faced by black men have found their way into the script and the characters that inhabit this world.

What strikes me the most about the queerness of this film, however, is how unspoken it remains. It writhes beneath the surface of the narrative, a key component of Chiron’s identity, yet one which he rarely explicitly expresses. It emerges in some of the most unlikely moments, as when he has his erotic encounter with Kevin, and when he later dreams about him before their fateful reunion that concludes the film. It is a poignant reminder of how queerness–tender, beautiful, sensuous–can provide meaningful connection and intimacy in even the bleakest and most unfriendly of worlds.

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Film Review: “Captain Fantastic” (2016)

These days, it somtimes feels like it’s impossible to find a film that doesn’t try to drown you in special effects and just focuses on telling a genuinely good story. If you’re lucky enough to live in a city with a decent film scene, it is still possible to find that endangered species known as a semi-original film. Fortunately for me, the Syracuse International Film Festival was running this past weekend, and I had the pleasure of seeing Captain Fantastic.

Viggo Mortensen delivers a truly (wait for it) fantastic performance as Ben, a radical who has raised his children in the wild, teaching them how to be self-sufficient and politically radical. However, he soon learns that his wife, who has been suffering from bioplar disorder, has committed suicide and that his in-laws are refusing to honor her wish to be cremated. This precipitates a journey of father and family to civilization, where they have to decide whether to continue on with their way of life or make the switch back to the consumerist world they have left.

Certainly, the dominant strand of the film’s narrative asks us to sympathize with Ben, at least up to a point. All of the points that he makes about the essential corruption and emptiness of contemporary American culture are made manifest when father and company pay a visit to his thoroughly middle-class sister Harper (Kathryn Hahn) and her equally doofy husband Dave (Steve Zahn). They, and their incredibly ignorant and obnoxious sons, are the epitome of everything that the family has steadfastly rejected. Thoroughly immersed in their consumerist world, the sons know nothing of (to take just one example), the Bill of Rights, while Harper and Dave can’t even bring themselves to be honest with their teenage sons about the real cause of their aunt’s death. Their lives are as empty and fatuous as Ben claims, and it’s hard not to see the life he has created for his children as infinitely preferable.

However, Ben is no saint. He can be stubbornly unwilling to budge, and the film contains hints that it is this intrasigence, this inability to see beyond the limits of his own experience and beliefs that may have contributed (however indirectly) to his wife’s death. His father-in-law Jack represents the stolid, traditionally wealthy masculinity, a stifling and demanding atmosphere that, we are led to believe, may have contributed to his daughter’s flight from civilization, while Harper and Dave stand in for the bankrupt emptiness of modern parenting.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective on these things), the film ultimately seems to come down somewhere in the middle. The final sequence shows the family has finally settled down on a peaceful farm, where the children have both the stability they need yet also continue to practice the arts of self-reliance. The last frame may be held just a fraction of a second too long, but it is precisely this protracted stillness that gives it its resonance, allowing us to see that they have at last managed to attain a measure of balance between the competing impulses of their lives. To this viewer, it felt like something of an extended allegory of the abrupt uprising of the American Left during the 2016 election, which has ultimately had to settle for a thoroughly moderate candidate who, all things considered, probably preferable to the alternative(s).

While Mortensen deserves a great deal of the credit for the success of the film, no small amount is also due to the supporting cast, both the adults (Frank Langella is particularly unpleasant as Jack), as well as all of the children, each whom brings something unique to the mix. Their responses to their father’s way of life range from celebratory to condemnatory, and each of the young cast brings something unique to the mix. Captain Fantastic is one of those rare (VERY rare, IMO) films that actually manages to make the younger members of the cast as essential as the older ones.

All in all, Captain Fantastic is a true gem of a film, in large part because it doesn’t have grand aspirations. It wants to tell a strong, compelling story, and that’s what it does. In today’s blockbuster world, that is no small accomplishment.

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Screening History: “Ben-Hur” and the Tragedy of the Might-Have-Been

I went into Ben-Hur with the lowest possible expectations. Critics and audiences alike seemed to disdain the film, and its opening box office was truly abysmal. I was worried that somehow this box office and critical disaster would taint my love for the 1959 version.

As sometimes happens, however, the film actually exceeded all of my expectations. While it does not hit the same notes of operatic grandness achieved by its predecessors (including, it is worth noting, the 1925 version, which seems to have been largely forgotten in the discourse surrounding this one), it is nevertheless a competent and at times quite moving film.

The film basically follows the same trajectory as the previous versions, as Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and his boyhood friend and adopted brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) find themselves pulled apart by the historical times in which they live, in which the power of Rome continues to oppress the people of Judaea. Their own personal rivalry–which culminates in the famous chariot race–takes place at the same time as the ministry of Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) whose sacrifice and Crucifixion lead to the eventual reconciliation of Judah and Messala.

Though he lacks the larger-than-life monumentality that Heston brought to his interpretation of the role, the young Jack Huston brings something else equally valuable. He manages to bring both a measure of vulnerability and sensitivity to the role, neither of which are traits that Heston could ever have claimed to embody. For that reason, I actually found Huston’s lack of star power refreshing, in that it allowed me to put aside my preconceptions of what Judah should look like and instead appreciate what this relatively unknown star (who nevertheless hails from an illustrious Hollywood lineage) was able to bring to the role.

Indeed, I thought there was a great deal of chemistry between him and his fellow lead Toby Kebell. The latter brings a powerful, brooding energy to the character of Messala, a young man overshadowed by a tainted family legacy and his own desire to prove himself worthy of being a Roman. It’s hard not to find him compelling, in much the same way as it was difficult to not find oneself attracted to Stephen Boyd (who played the role in the 1959 version). However, I do think that Kebbell brings a softer, more vulnerable–and thus, ultimately, more redeemable–characterization to the role.

Of course, Morgan Freeman also deserves credit for the gravitas that he brings to the role of Sheik Ilderim. Whereas his earlier counterpart had been a rather egregious example of blackface, Freeman imbues his character with a powerful, brooding solemnity. We learn, for example, that his son had also been a zealous enemy of Rome, a position that earned him an ignominious and horrific death at the hands of the Roman state. One cannot help but feel the resonance with the ways in which black bodies are still rendered subject (and abject) to the violence of the state.

Of course, the two of the most affective and intense scenes were the scene in the galley and the chariot race. Both allowed for a feeling immersion, of being there and inhabiting two very different moments. While the galley sequence (as such sequences frequently do) forces us to inhabit a claustrophobic world of the abject, the chariot race represents a reclamation of embodied agency. In fact, I actually think the scene in the galleys is more terrifying and visceral than the 1959 version, in no small part because so many of the shots are from Judah’s hampered point of view. The race, for its part, is quite as stirring as the original, and seeing it on the big screen was absolutely a part of the phenomenologically powerful experience.

It’s a tad unfortunate that the Crucifixion scene–which should, one would think, land with the greatest possible emotional impact–comes off as so stilted and emotionless. Santoro, bless him, just doesn’t bring a great deal to the role of Christ. Not that this is entirely his fault; the script doesn’t really allow him to do anything other than utter a few incredibly flat-footed platitudes. In this instance, it seems that the practice of the earlier films, which resolutely kept Christ out of the frame, proved to be the better move.

That aside, I do think that the latter half of the film holds together much more effectively than the first. Part of this, I think, has to do with the gratuitous number of cuts throughout the first half of the film. One would think that the opposite would be the case; after all, these early scenes are designed to establish the personal level of the drama. Unfortunately, however, Bekmambetov is a bit too fond of the cut, and it becomes distracting more than it should be.

Despite the choppy and often gratuitous editing of those early scenes, however, the film does succeed in showing how much Messala and Judah care for one another, a crucial bit of backstory that we don’t really see in the 1959 version (though Gore Vidal’s juicy gossip suggests that his script had a homoerotic undercurrent). As a result, we get to know and care about these characters and their relationship. And you know what? That final reconnection between Messala and Judah actually brought tears to my eyes. Because, despite everything else, it felt earned. These two actors bring enough emotional resonance to their roles that we actually care about what happens to them. At a broader level, it also provides hope that, even in this time of historical conflict, that somehow solidarity can and will win out of hatred.

Is Ben-Hur a perfect, or even a great film? Absolutely not, and there are a number of reasons for this. At the risk of continuing to compare the film to its predecessor, I do think it’s noteworthy that this reboot did not have a major directorial name attached to it. While Timur Bekmambetov is no stranger to Hollywood, he doesn’t have the same sort of resumé as or cultural capital as a director like William Wyler, who had already established himself as a formidable artist director of stature. Bekmambetov, for better and worse, does not have quite that amount of presence to help lift Ben-Hur to the heights of true greatness to which it might otherwise have aspired.

In the end, I strongly suspect that the 2016 iteration of Ben-Hur will go down in history as a well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful reimagining of a cinematic and literary classic. Still, I do hope that those who watch it take it on its own terms, for it really is quite a good film in its own way. And that, perhaps, is its greatest tragedy.

 

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Film Review: “Star Trek Beyond” (2016) and the Political Power of Compassion

I am not, as they say, a Trekkie. I have only passing familiarity with the original series, though I did enjoy The Next Generation in my youth. However, I’ve been keeping abreast of the most recent cinematic incarnation of the property and, I have to say, I was very impressed with the most recent installment, Star Trek Beyond.

The film follows the crew of the Enterprise as they enter an unmapped nebula in an attempt to rescue a group of stranded researchers. Unbeknownst to them, this is a ruse by the sinister alien warlord Krall, who is determined to unleash a terrible biological weapon on the Federation and bring about its destruction.

Part of what makes this such a compelling film is that it really showcases the acting talents of its cast in a way that the previous films did not. Chris Pine continues to grow into the role of Captain Kirk, and in this film he struggles with his own sense of self and identity. He wonders, as we all do, whether being the captain of the Enterprise is everything that he had wanted it to be.

The other characters face similar struggles, including Spock, who believes that he may be better suited continuing the work of Ambassador Spock on New Vulcan and has parted ways with Uhura. The emphasis on the personal and the bonds among the characters and their loved ones is, I think, one of the things that grants this film its sense of pleasantness. Extraordinary in this regard is the revelation that Sulu is married to a man, a move which I (unlike George Takei) found touching and a fulfillment of the inclusive, compassionate ethos that has long been a hallmark of the Star Trek brand.

For his part, Krall is a compelling villain, both because of the way in which Idris Elba (who is, in my opinion, one of the finest actors of his generation), portrays him but also because he is the distillation of the bellicose spirit that seems to animate so much of contemporary American political and social life. As reprehensible as his acts are, he is understandable precisely because he was a product of a worldview that seems eerily and uncomfortably close to our own. What can or does a person do when all they have been trained to do is kill? The Federation ethos (with which we are meant to identify) suggests that compassion and cooperation are the bulwarks against chaos and relentless aggression; Krall believes that the world should be returned to that Hobbesian state of primordial anarchy, so that only the strongest will prevail. Ultimately, of course, compassion wins out in terms of the narrative struggle, and that is an important facet of the film’s political project.

This compassionate ethic plays out at both the macro and micro levels of the film’s narrative. On the micro level, such compassion ranges from Bones’ caring for Spock’s injuries to Scotty’s willingness to help out a complete stranger. On the macro, of course, it is the entire Federation that stands opposed to Krall’s vengeful wish to bring about the dismantling of this era of peace and prosperity. The fact that the film satisfactorily resolves these narrative threads and reveals the newly-constructed Enterprise helps us, as viewers, feel similarly sanguine about the political future.

All in all, I found this the strongest of the rebooted Star Trek franchise, in no small part because it manages to deftly handle the various emotional registers that it puts into play. The spirits of both Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin seem to hover over this film, adding a wistful and rather sad note to the proceedings. Yet they also remind us of the power and the joy of life and of the promise that this particular universe continues to hold out to us.

While it would certainly be going too far to say that Star Trek is an allegory of our contemporary political moment (one can assume it was in production and the script written before it became clear Donald Trump, a real-world Krull if I’ve ever seen one, would become the GOP nominee for president), I do think it would be fair to say that the film can serve as a sort of collective conscience for all of us. At this point, we can either give in to our baser impulses and become the destructive, chaotic forces that Krull represents, or we can surrender to the better angels of our natures and work toward a brighter, more justice, more verdant future for all of us.

And I’ve got to say that I’m with the film on this one. A brighter future for everyone looks mighty fine to me.

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“Planet of the Apes” and the Phenomenology of the Theatrical Film Experience

As a film scholar whose work examines the importance of technology to the way in which spectators experience the cinema and the world around them, it’s always something of a pleasure to see something actually in a theater. Part of it is the sociality of the space, seeing a film (whether a classic or a new release) with others who have made the effort and spent the money to see the same film you are and (hopefully) have some measure of investment in it. But an equally important part is the experience of the big screen itself. We in the world of academia refer to this study of the sensory and bodily appeal of cinema as phenomenology, that is, how we experience, often at the level of our bodies, the world around us.

While it can sometimes be difficult to experience older films in their original theatrical format, there has been a recent spate of re-releases by theater chains, including an ongoing partnership between Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies. Fortunately or me, they recently had a showing of Planet of the Apes (the one and only original), and I was more than pleased to be able to attend.

Now, Planet of the Apes has long been one of my absolute favourite films. As chilling and mind-bending as ever, I truly enjoyed watching it on the big screen and this experience convinced me, once and for all, that sometimes yes, it is indeed better to see the film in an actual theater rather than relying on seeing it on TV (yes, even if you’re lucky enough to have an HDTV). There is just something about seeing it in a multiplex that forms a link between me, sitting in the theater in the present day, with those who would have seen it when it was originally produced and even, terrifyingly enough, with the hero Taylor as he struggles to make sense of this baffling world in which apes are the intelligent form of life while humans struggle at the bottom of the ecological hierarchy.

Industrially, it’s important to remember that these films of the pre-VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray era were especially designed to be seen on the big screen. (Geoff King has a fascinating discussion on this very issue, if you’re interested in reading about it further). Seeing things on a larger scale allows not only for a greater amount of scrutiny of the formal composition of the screen space, but also a greater sense of immersion in this profoundly unsettling and challenging world. And for a film like Apes, this immersion can prove to be profoundly unsettling at a deeply primal, psychological level.

Seeing it in a larger format also allows for a more nuanced appreciation of the formal complexity of this film. From the perpetually unsettling score (one of the finest ever produced for a feature film, IMO), to the way in which the onscreen space is often organized around blocks and and obstructions that separate Taylor from those who inhabit this world, the diegetic space mirrors his own fractured consciousness and invites us to inhabit it as well. Further, there are some particularly brilliant moments when we see Taylor/Heston’s countenance brought into close-up, even as he reflects on (and is forced to acknowledge) his own smallness in the vastness of space and in the world that no longer truly has a place for him. The human, in the film’s imagination, is both centered and decentered.

Furthermore, the film makes some truly (a mark, no doubt, of the films production after the advent of the New Hollywood, which posed significant challenges to the earlier conventions of Hollywood style). There is a lot of very jumpy camera movement, as well as a few key scenes (such as Taylor’s attempted escape from Ape City), where the camera actually turns the world upside down. It’s not necessarily a subtle bit of cinematography, but it is effective. Coupled with the disturbing film score–which often mimics the sounds of the apes–it really does serve to disorient us as viewers and make us reflect on how fragile and precarious our own superiority truly is.

All in all, this was truly a tremendous cinematic experience, and I’m glad I took the time to do it. The hilarious interview between TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz and “Dr. Zaius” was a fond, tongue-in-cheek send-up of the film’s most notorious, sanctimonious villain. It was certainly one of the most absurdly bizarre (in a good way) interview that I have seen on Turner Classic movies. While I enjoyed it, I do wonder what was in the minds of the producers when they decided on that particular avenue. Still, the definite queer edge made it a little extra special for me (as you know, I’m always on the lookout for the queer side of things).

So, if you have the chance to see a classic Hollywood film in theaters, do it. You won’t regret it.

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Review: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (2014) and the Disappointment of Nostalgia

Okay, I have a confession to make. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I had a small (which is to say, enormous) obsession with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I saw all of the films, and I even went to the third one in theaters and enjoyed it (and if you’ve ever seen that film, you know how big of a deal that is). I watched the cartoon series religiously on Saturday mornings, and I spent enormous amounts of my Parents’ money on collecting the plethora of action figures that glutted the market. Then, sometime around 1995, I sort of fell out of love with them. I didn’t move into hatred or active dislike; I just didn’t watch them anymore.

Since then, I’ve seen several iterations of everyone’s favourite mutants make the rounds of popular culture. Up until now, I’ve managed to not see any of them, but I finally gave in and decided to watch the first film of the newly-rebooted series. The series is basically an origin story and includes all of the requisite characters:  Splinter, the four turtles named after Renaissance, April, and of course the Shredder. I’ll spare you the plot, mostly because it falls pretty squarely into many of the other origin stories laid out in earlier iterations.

The first half of the film is, perhaps unsurprisingly, utterly ridiculous in both conception and execution. Somehow, April manages to forget that she was intimately involved in the creation of the turtles, as she was always at her father’s lab during their creation. And, of course, somehow Eric Sachs, one of the film’s two villains, has been corrupted and led astray by the Shredder. So many things happen in the first half, but so few of them make any sense, and while this can be overlooked in some films, here it is definitely a significant flaw (among many others).

Fortunately, the latter half of the film largely dispenses with the narrative and just gives in to the spectacle and the action. Now, I know that this is not every critic’s cup of tea, but if you accept that part of the purpose of the action cinema is to inspire in the spectator a feeling of bodily control and power (Richard Dyer has a fascinating essay on this subject), it becomes much easier to give in and have fun along with the characters. Whatever the film’s other significant flaws, its cinematography in the action sequences is fluid and delightful.

The greatest tragedy of the film, however, is that the characters that should be its center are annoying (Michelangelo) or largely forgettable (Leonardo and Donatello). The exception is Raphael, who actually gets a bit of character development; indeed, I think the film would have succeeded more had it focused on his own journey from disaffected and alienated brother to part of a team. The film gestures toward this, but it really doesn’t have the narrative complexity or skill to be able to pull off this particular storyline with any grace or thoroughness.

On a larger level, I’m not entirely sure that the spirit that originally motivated the films and TV series of an earlier decade can really be translated into the present. Given that one of the producers of this film was Michael Bay, it’s no surprise that subtlety went right out the window, but even I was a little blown away by the too-muchness of Shredder’s mechanized armour and the hulking muscularity of the superheroes (to say nothing of the truly bizarre and not-very-good CGIed Splinter). Of course, the Turtles were never known for their subtlety or their nuance, but at least there was something joyous about their antics and their humour. This film, however, gives in to all of the basest impulses of its presumed adolescent audiences (including the obligatory flatulence joke), though these always seem to fall flat.

My final evaluation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? A complete and thorough….eh. It’s okay, I guess. Or, as I would put it to my students, it’s thoroughly okay. I’m still up in the air about seeing the sequel, though luckily I believe it will be coming to the local dollar theater. I’ll also admit that the fact that Bebop and Rocksteady, along with Krang, will be putting in appearances makes it somewhat more appealing.

I guess the most frustrating thing about the film is that I really wanted to love it, and I just didn’t. Part of that, certainly, is my own nostalgia for the original. An equal part, however, is the failure of the film to succeed either on its own terms or as a throwback to an earlier time. Who knows, maybe the sequel is better.

But I’m not holding my breath.

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Film Review: “Captain America: Civil War”

Warning:  Spoilers for the film follow.

I’ve long thought that the Captain America parts of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) are the most artistically, narratively, and philosophically mature, and Captain America:  Civil War proves to be no exception. As is the case with the best superhero films, it asks the thorny questions, such as:  at what point does vengeance slip from justified into outright murder? What is the line between the individual conscience and the collective good?

The plot, in brief, is this. Tony Stark/Iron Man still feels conflicted over the events that happened in the previous film, in which the Avengers managed to foil Ultron (the AI system created by Stark that unfortunately went rogue), in his attempt to literally destroy the entire planet. While they saved the world, the Avengers also inadvertently killed several bystanders. Civil War opens with another unfortunate incident of collateral damage, which leads the UN to want to leash the Avengers through a set of legal injunctions. Cap and Tony find themselves divided on this issue, as with so much else, and the rift soon spreads to the others as well. Black Widow, Vision, War Machine, and the newly introduced Spider-Man and Black Panther align with Team Stark; Falcon, Ant-Man, Bucky, Hawkeye, and Scarlet Witch align with Team Cap.

This conflict intersects with the return of the Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes, who has at last begun to reclaim a measure of his own identity and sanity after the brutal events of the last Captain America film. Unfortunately, it is gradually revealed that is responsible for a number of important deaths, including that of Tony’s parents. The three men, and the rest of the Avengers, are actually being manipulated by Helmut Zemo, a survivor of Sokovia whose family was killed during their foiling of Ultron’s plan. While the three leads survive their titanic final clash, the rift remains largely unhealed as the credits roll.

I have heard this film referred to as a male weepie, and that is certainly an accurate description. Each of the three primary heroes has good reason(s) to feel as they do, even as we also recognize that it is their own stubborn belief in their rightness that is both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness. It is hard not to feel for each of them, as we know (even better than they do), all of the trials that have endured and how much baggage they continue to carry. It’s also hard not to feel a mingled sense of sadness and uncomfortable exhilaration as the three of them battle it out in the frozen wastes of Siberia.

The fraught relationship(s) among the three leads is troubling precisely because it intersects with the larger political and philosophical questions the film raises. And it is even more troubling because of how irresolvable they are. Should superheroes be subject to the stricter rules by the government, especially when their rise seems to cause that of the villains and threats they are then called on to confront? Is Tony justified in wanting to kill Bucky for the death of his parents, even though he was not in his right mind while he did it? These questions, like all of those asked in the Captain America films, resist the easy answers that the genre seemingly provides, precisely because the various opposing answers are equally valid. As always, the film ultimately denies us a satisfactory conclusion.

While the primary conflict is, of course, between Cap and Tony, and while the primary (b)romance is between Bucky and Cap, the supporting players are given plenty to do. Each of them must ultimately choose which side of this rift they are going to occupy, and Black Widow and Scarlet Witch are extraordinary in this regard. Both Scarlet Johansson and Elizabeth Olsen shine in their respective roles, though (as is unfortunately all too usual in the MCU), they are criminally underused in this film. It still confounds me that Black Widow has so far been denied her own stand-alone film, but hopefully that will change as the MCU makes a more concerted and genuine effort to diversify its offerings.

The two newcomers that enter the stage at this point deserve especial merit. Tom Holland as Spider-Man is truly one of the breakout stars in this film, as he manages to bring out just the right blend of nerdy and sassy. He is clearly star-struck by being in the presence of these magnificent superheroes who have been his own role models, but he doesn’t let that get in the way of his fighting ability. Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther likewise delivers a star-worthy performance, combining a resolute sort of honour with an ability to adapt. I know that I, for one, am really looking forward to the release of his own films (2018 can’t get here soon enough!)

The fight scenes are carried off with characteristic aplomb. I’m always struck by the strong bodily response these films elicit, as they encourage a feeling that through these antics the spectator can achieve a similar measure of bodily (super)agency. These superheroes are, in a way, our own bodily ideals sold to us

There are also a few moments of genuine sadness, as when we learn that Agent Peggy Carter has passed away in her sleep. While this is not shown on-screen, we are left in no doubt as to the effect this has on Cap, who clearly carried a torch for his former compatriot. Equally sad is Tony Stark’s regret over his adolescent petulance toward his parents on the night that they died, a traumatic memory that clearly casts a shadow even into the present. Both instances, different as they are, remain potent reminders of the central humanity of these superheroes, and a troubling reminder of how much gets left behind in their efforts to make the world a better place.

In the end, though, Captain America:  Civil War also leaves us with a troubling question. Are the Avengers really performing a service for the human race (as the surface narrative would suggest), or are they actually giving birth to the very forces that so frequently threaten the world and that they must then contend with? The question is actually posed by Vision who, as the sole nonhuman voice in the film, actually possesses a measure of intellectual and emotional distance from the events and their consequences. This is a question that the Avengers will continue to struggle with, and the fact that it is ultimately irresolvable may be the greatest hurdle they will have to collectively overcome.

It remains to be seen whether they will be able to do so.

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Film Review: “Trumbo” (2015)

As a fledgling scholar working in classical Hollywood, I was very excited when I heard about Trumbo, the biopic about the famed member of the Hollywood Ten.  This group of screenwriters and directed would go down in history as a mostly principled group of men who refused to cave in to the anti-Communist paranoia that swept the nation in the wake of World War II.

The film essentially charts the process by which the Hollywood Ten is blacklisted by the industry due to their refusal to name names before HUAC.  After languishing at King Brothers Productions (during which he is also compelled by economic necessity to take on more and more projects), Trumbo at last begins to claw his way back into respectability with The Wild One.  However, it is not until a young actor and producer named Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and a dour director named Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) intercede that he finally breaks the blacklist, and Trumbo’s name is openly acknowledged in the credits of both Spartacus and Exodus.  The film ends with a vindicated Trumbo delivering a heartfelt and deeply philosophical address to gathered Hollywood dignitaries.

Like many recent dramas, Trumbo strikes a delicate balance between portraying the 1950s in exacting and delicate detail, while also excoriating the period for its hypocrisy and repressiveness.  The film does not allow for a great deal of ambiguity, and rightly so, as the fanatical overreach of HUAC destroyed the lives and careers of not just the Hollywood Ten, but also numerous other Hollywood professionals who saw their livelihoods demolished on even the faintest suspicion of Communist sympathies.

There are, fortunately, a few moments that undercut (or at least dilute) the more straightforwardly hagiographic tendencies.  As the third act progresses, it becomes clear that Trumbo is not quite the loving and affectionate family man that everyone has believed.  While the father/daughter film trope is a teensy bit on the lazy side, Cranston does a grand job bringing out the prickly and sometimes sanctimonious traits for which Trumbo became somewhat infamous.

While Trumbo is the driving narrative center of the film, a few other characters gain nuanced treatment.  Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) emerges as a conflicted and somewhat tragic figure, an actor desperate to salvage his reputation and maintain his livelihood.  Though we are not invited to condone his betrayal of his friends (including Trumbo), the film clearly wants us to sympathize with him.  He makes the best decision in a terrible situation, and while the relationship between him and Trumbo never returns to its

While perhaps not nuanced, per se, Helen Mirren does an absolutely marvelous job bringing Hedda Hopper to life.  Mirren has always excelled at playing powerful women willing to do whatever it takes to defend their principles, and say what you will about Hopper’s red-baiting, she was a woman stalwart in her (misguided) principles.  While the film may give her too much credit for the imposition of the blacklist, she does have some memorable (and vicious) lines, as when she reveals her racism by reminding Louis B. Mayer of his scrupulously disguised Jewish identity, as a trait he shares with many of his fellow studio heads.

Several of the other players deserve accolades.  John Goodman is splendidly vulgar as Frank King, Trumbo’s employer (a role that Goodman has honed to perfection).  Diane Lane, while conveying the long-suffering yet fiercely independent Cleo Trumbo, is rather underused, while Elle Fanning hits an unfortunately strident note as Trumbo’s increasingly resentful daughter Nikola.  And poor Stephen Root is almost invisible as Frank’s brother Hymie, while Dean O’Gorman captures the look of Kirk Douglas, without quite mastering the older actor’s unique verbal mannerisms.

Trumbo is one of those films that the Hollywood film industry loves to periodically produce.  By granting Trumbo the last word, it allows the industry to atone for the sins of the past and to lionize those figures who it once did everything its power to destroy.  The film holds valuable lessons for us in the present, as we find ourselves as a nation confronted with a not-dissimilar atmosphere of paranoia.  Like Trumbo, we should all be very wary of those who would mobilize our fears and make us give up those things that we value most about America.

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Queer Classics: “Carol” (2015)

Warning:  Spoilers for the film follow.

Some might consider it a bit premature to declare Todd Haynes’ film Carol a queer classic, but if the reviews are anything to go by, this new film will surely earn a place alongside the director’s finest work as part of the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s.  And as I can personally attest, it fully deserves the lavish praise it has so far received.

Based on acclaimed novelist Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, the film tells the haunting and evocative story of the unexpected but passionate romance that develops between quiet store clerk Therese (Rooney Mara) and wealthy soon-to-be-divorcee Carol (Cate Blanchett).  While Therese struggles with her newly-awakened feelings of same-sex desire, Carol desperately attempts to maintain custody of her daughter Rindy during her bitter divorce from Harge (Kyle Chandler).  After Carol and Therese escape for a passionate weekend in Chicago, they must both decide whether their romance has the makings of something richer, deeper, and much more perilous.

As a number of other reviewers have noted, Haynes has a well-earned reputation for well-crafted films that tend to keep viewers at an intellectual distance.  Far From Heaven, for example, is an absolutely exquisite film, but its pastiche, like that of the 1950s Sirk melodramas upon which it is based, keeps us at arm’s length.  We are constantly invited to recall the repressive atmosphere of the 1950s, to contrast (and compare) that time to our own.

This film is also concerned with the repressive nature of 1950s American culture, as Carol’s liaisons with women endanger her custody of her daughter.  It is precisely because Carol has so much affective richness and resonance that it connects at a much deeper emotional level than the similarly themed Far From Heaven.  We understand that this is a world where the desire between women is strongly forbidden, and so there is always a faint feeling of anxiety underlying the romance.  This, in turns, makes the romance all the sweeter and more poignant, for we come to see the love as always existing in a state of precariousness, always subject to the possibility of discovery.

I have always been one of Cate Blanchett’s most ardent admirers, and this film has solidified my love.  Like the greatest actresses of classic Hollywood, Blanchett has the extraordinary ability to convey both strength and vulnerability, and these traits come to the fore as she portrays Carol.  Through Blanchett, Carol becomes both the object and the subject of desire, striving against the repressiveness of the society in which she lives to attain fulfillment in her life (the allusion to psychotherapy, while brief, is immensely troubling).  And Rooney Mara is simply delightful as the slightly elfin Therese, a young woman who chafes at the restrictions imposed upon her by both her gender and her class.

While Sarah Paulson for the most part hovers at the edges of the narrative as Carol’s best friend and former lover Abby, she turns in a wonderful performance as a woman who clearly loves Carol deeply.  The scene in which she confronts an angry Harge and denounces him for his failures as a husband is rousing, and her tenderness toward the bewildered Therese in the wake of Carol’s abrupt return to New York is touching.  Paulson, like her fellow actresses in this film, manages to imbue her character with charm, strength, and vulnerability.

At the formal level, the film showcases Haynes at the height of his powers, with a remarkable attention to lush and exquisite detail.  However, in this film the appearance is always at the service of the film’s emotional core, rather than the other way around.  The attention to detail, both in terms of the mise-en-scene and the cinematography, always acts as a slightly mannered surface to the fervent passions that always exist beneath the surface.  And the sex scene, which could have been salacious or trashy, is instead the culmination of the desire that has so long simmered beneath the surface, repressed by both the culture and the film itself.  It is truly one of the finest, and most erotic, depictions of same-sex desire I have seen in a film.

It’s been a long time since I have been touched so deeply by a queer film.  Actually, I would say that Brokeback Mountain was the last such film to do so (which says a great deal about the perils and unfulfilled promise of mainstream acceptance).  Now, I am glad to say that, 10 years later, I can now add another film to that list.  There is so much else I could say about this film, but I won’t spoil the ending for you, but if you don’t emerge with tears in your eyes (or just downright bawling) at the end of this film, then you should begin to doubt your humanity.

Score:  10/10

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Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946)

Today’s focus on “Screening Classic Hollywood” is the exemplary film The Best Years of Our Lives, one of the finest films to emerge from the 1940s and a searing and emotionally rich exploration of the plight of veterans returning home from war as they attempt to reintegrate into an American society that seems to have no room for them (and no desire to make it).  The film follows three friends:  Al (Frederic March), Homer (Harold Russell), and Fred (Dana Andrews), as they attempt to reintegrate into American society following WW II.

It is rather remarkable how many postwar anxieties this film manages to address.  The threat of atomic annihilation makes an appearance when Al’s son inquires about the possibility; the burgeoning of youth culture (and its terrifying and unruly physicality, particularly in the form of rock and roll) rears its head when Al and family go out for a night on the town; and of course the very real problem of the returning veteran and the stress of acclimating once again to the world.  This problem is particularly acute for both Fred and Homer, the former because as a “man” he must resign himself to working in a new bureaucratized economy, and the latter because he has lost both of his hands to an accident during the war.  Indeed, the film’s handling of Homer’s disability is remarkably sensitive, and he emerges from the film as one of the only characters to emerge from the film unambiguously happy and satisfied (the film ends with his marriage to his sweetheart).  Nor does the film shy away from showing us the trials he goes through on a daily basis, and in that sense it is a remarkably forthright film about both the challenges and the successes of those with disabilities.

Given that this film emerged immediately after the war ended, it should come as no surprise that it remains rather conservative in its gender politics.  The only woman who shows a true sense of agency and independence is Fred’s wife Marie (Virginia May0), who grows discontented with him and ultimately files for divorce.  The film clearly views her as the antithesis of good-girl Peggy (Teresa Wright), who comes to stand for the sort of doe-eyed loyalty very much in keeping with the emerging gender ideology of the postwar period (and of Wright’s star text in general; see:  The Little Foxes).  Myrna Loy does present some measure of female independence as Al’s wife Milly, though even she doesn’t really attempt to break out of the role of housewife, and instead must keep a relentless eye on Al and his always-imminent slide into alcoholism (hardly surprising, given March’s penchant for playing caddish yet dashing alcoholics).

The problem for these veterans, as the film sees it, is twofold.  On the one hand, there is the issue that these are men who are used to the stresses and strains of war, as well as the close bonds that develop between men.  More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the postwar world is a very different beast than the one that preceded it.  This is a world of heartless bureaucracy and toadyism, of corporatization and emasculation, where everything is reduced to the value of the commodity:  the customer is always right (as Dan is unfortunately reminded by his simpering, effete boss, who played a similar role as the sinister and cynical barkeep in High Noon), and even the planes that he once flew are being gradually recycled to make prefabricated homes.  The scene in which he wanders the graveyard of airplanes is one of the most evocative in the film, a chilling reminder of the transience of the modern commodity and how quickly Americans wanted to put the realities of war behind them and return to a life of normalcy (and to a life of luxuriant commercial luxury in suburbia).

Overall, the film offers a nuanced and deeply empathetic view of the problems faced by returning veterans, and in that sense it remains strikingly relevant today.  While American politicians remain as hawkish as ever, they also seem either reluctant to actually deal with the after-effects of war on the home front or unable to accept the fact that these wars have significant physical and emotional consequences on those who fight them (most likely it’s a mix of both).  The Best Years of Our Lives, like so many of the social problem films of the immediate post-war period, remain startlingly relevant to the pressing concerns of the present day, a potent reminder that film was, and remains, an art form capable of addressing and helping us work through pressing social issues.

Score:  9/10