Wednesday, December 28, 2016

End of the Year Roundup 2016

Torin Thatcher as devious wizard Sokurah in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad

I spent the afternoon of New Year's Day 2016 at the Dryden Theater, seeing a 16mm Technicolor print of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958, dir. Nathan Juran), a great, Harryhausen-ish way to kick off my moviegoing year. I love the creatures in this film, especially the Cyclopes. and Sokurah (Torin Thatcher) is simply one of the finest villains ever cast in any action-adventure film. Don't believe me? Then watch this delightful fantasy romp -- if you can forgive its rampant sexism and Orientalism -- and you decide.

The most memorable and enjoyable new films I saw this year include Room, The Witch, Moonlight, Love & Friendship, Doctor Strange, DeadpoolBridget Jones's Baby, and The Handmaiden. The ones I've already reviewed (see links) I won't say too much more about, but here's my rundown of the others.

Love & Friendship is one of the best films I saw all year. This sensual costume comedy is the latest effort -- and most "period" effort -- by witty, offbeat filmmaker Whit Stillman. Those who haven't seen his earlier work are missing out on some of the most delightful, well-observed, warm-heartedly funny low-budget American cinema you can hope to see. Stillman's much-loved debut, Metropolitan (1990), is still the most essential of his films, and if you watch that plus the next two, the underrated Barcelona (1994) and the much-lauded The Last Days of Disco (1998), as an informal trilogy, then Disco really has a beautiful cumulative impact, particularly in its wonderful final scene.

Love & Friendship is Stillman's most accessible film due to its high production values, lush mise-en-scene, and crackling central performance by star Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon. Though each of his earlier films was set in an earlier time (the 1980s) than its moment of production, Love & Friendship is even more "period" than Stillman's previous work, being set in the 18th century. The film takes advantage of Stillman's well-known affinity for the works and style of Jane Austen: "I identify entirely with Jane Austen’s point of view, on everything" the filmmaker confesses in a recent interview. The film's screenplay is adapted by Stillman from Austen's Lady Susan (written 1790s, published 1871), and Stillman also wrote his own accompanying novel, Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen's Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated (2016). I love that the movie ends with an unethical and rakish character -- Lady Susan -- getting away with so much and going unpunished for her shady deeds. It's a delightfully wicked, dare I say feminist ending. What a treat! Most highly recommended.

Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is another of the flat-out best films I saw in 2016. It succeeds as gripping entertainment, as well-crafted cinematic art, and as an ideologically progressive and sensitive depiction of black masculine queer identity.

Like Richard Linklater's Boyhood (2014)Moonlight depicts the experiences of its protagonist as he moves through multiple phases of life. But unlike Boyhood, which waited several years between filming segments to allow its principal actor to age, Moonlight casts three different actors to portray Chiron over its three different periods: childhood, high school, and adulthood.

Moonlight is incredibly technically assured -- check out, for example, its virtuosic, handheld opening long take, which fully encircles two key characters two or three times. Yet that shot aside, the movie eschews flashy camera work and never allows its visuals to distract from the emotional story it tells -- though its Miami mise-en-scene is hauntingly lit and the shots are well-framed throughout. No, Moonlight's main virtue is that it is well-observed, humanistic, and incredibly moving. Its performances are uniformly superb. I like it so much -- I feel so deeply for the plight of its main character -- that I plan to see it again (and again). Perhaps repeat viewings will give me a chance to decode the deeper meaning of the film's memorable last shot.

As Entertainment Weekly's Leah Greenblatt accurately puts it,
The movie could easily be dismissed as a panopticon of hot-button intersectional issues -- addiction, poverty, single parenthood, black male sexuality. Instead, it’s something much richer: an achingly personal portrait of lives lived on the margins, and a filmmaking ­triumph of transcendent, heartbreaking beauty. 
Well said. Similarly, City Newspaper's Adam Lubitow calls Moonlight an "impressionistic" film, rightfully praising its "heightened, almost dreamlike aesthetic" and concluding that
Moonlight is exhilarating filmmaking. Immediate and achingly emotional, it offers what, at their very best, movies can provide better than any other art form: a deeply felt sense of empathy. We might not necessarily share Chiron's experiences, but we understand them. Above all, the film is a beautiful and heartfelt plea for compassion, and that feels exactly like what the world could use more of right now.
Hear, hear. I strongly urge all my readers to see Moonlight.

On a different note, despite my deep misgivings about its whitewashed casting and Orientalist ideologies, I find I really enjoyed Marvel Studios' Doctor Strange as a viewing experience. Much time as I spend on this blog slagging off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I'll single out some things I like about Doctor Strange.

For one, it adheres to a "classic Hollywood" aesthetic. No shaky-cam, no promiscuously fast editing, no Chaos cinema, etc. One always knows where one is in the cinematic space. I like that.

I also love the casting. Admittedly, I am really sick of Hollywood whitewashing -- see this case, this case, this case, and/or this visual overview -- and originally considered boycotting Doctor Strange due to Tilda Swinton's whitewashed casting as a character traditionally conceived as Tibetan. Yet while watching the actual movie, I enjoyed seeing Swinton, Ejiofor, McAdams, and Mikkelsen onscreen -- all are world-class talents. So this is one of those cases where my immediate viewing pleasure and my deeper ideological commitments are at odds yet again. It seems there are certain inherent contradictions built into being an American "popcorn cinema" moviegoer -- at least for me.

Real-life ex-CIA agent Tony Mendez sez: "Hey, Mr. Affleck, why did you whitewash my Mexican-American heritage out of your movie?"

As Owen Gleiberman writes in reference to Star Wars Rogue One,
The conventional wisdom has it that popcorn cinema has taken over the culture, and in one way it has. But in another way it’s never been held in less high regard. What kind of a movie culture do we have that reflexively turns its back on taking what could well be the most important popcorn movie of the year seriously? That treats its absence from the potential awards pool as an afterthought? We have a movie culture that’s become too complacent about its categories of achievement, and maybe too calculated about what it adores.
I take Gleiberman's point and own that I too can be a bit film-snobbish at times (or at least my rather eclectic tastes can make it seem that way). This in part stems from my inherent resistance to too-popular things -- I am inclined to value pop-cultural works more highly if they are offbeat, lesser-known, cultish, or underdoggish. Furthermore, my intense cinephilia -- I deeply love and care about movies -- combined with my critical film studies training means that I don't forgive or overlook cinematic mediocrity easily.

However, I am not prudish and, as you can see, I include mainstream popcorn movies and artier indie fare together in my roundups' "best and most memorable" category every year. I am simply reporting the stuff that sticks with me the most, and not making any stupid claims to objectivity.

I judge each Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movie as a stand-alone blockbuster action film and I would recommend only five of them to the general moviegoer: Iron Man (2008), The Avengers (2012), Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (both 2014), and Doctor Strange.

Ryan Reynolds' passion project Deadpool is aimed at the superhero movie fan and/or the filmgoer who, like me, is sick of too many superhero blockbusters and enjoys seeing them ridiculed. Deadpool is honest, trashy fun, if damned sexist and in the broad strokes quite predictable. It's not necessarily a movie I'd watch again, but Deadpool succeeds brilliantly at exactly what it aims to be: a genuinely funny, self-deprecating, gleefully raunchy, guyish fun. It feels like a project where everyone involved was having a lot of fun on set. But again, NOT a feminist movie, actually fairly degrading and two-dimensional in its depictions of women -- knowingly so, which might be the only thing that (barely) saves it. But its skewering of superhero tropes is almost as good as Wet Hot American Summer's satirizing of 1980s teen movies.

I agree with Kevin P. Sullivan that Bridget Jones's Baby is a excellent middle-aged romantic comedy, "both surprisingly sweet and sweetly surprising, especially coming from the moralistically narrow world of romantic comedies" as he puts it.  It's a rom-com with something more.

Baby's greatest strength is its willingness to depict fortysomethings acting more like real fortysomethings might act, getting angry and flustered and doing comedic things but ultimately working things out and refusing to descend into total anarchic zaniness (as the earlier Jones films do). Baby actually treats its (improbable) storyline and its characters in refreshingly age-appropriate ways, which lends their development some depth and meets its most likely audience demographic where we live. As Demetrios Matheou writes,
Fielding has finally allowed Bridget to act her age. The shift is subtly done: She dresses better, at times being positively elegant; her public speaking is still eccentric, but with more composure; the same chaos surrounds her, but this time it is as much to do with circumstance as her own dizziness – it’s a relief to be spared the earlier, forced idiocy. And while she still feels lonely, neurosis has been replaced by a certain grace and stoicism.
Yes indeed. While this film may not be for everyone, it is better than you might guess and will hold especial value and interest for the over-thirty crowd.

This year I also saw okay but less memorable films The Jungle Book, Finding Dory, Ghostbusters, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane's Finding Dory was delightful while I was watching it and I really loved Destiny the whale shark and Hank the octopus. But the movie didn't really stick with me afterward except in a mildly negative way. The whole third act (in which -- SPOILER -- an octopus drives a truck) seemed needlessly ridiculous. Furthermore, as an ecocritic it is hard for me to watch animals being so crudely anthropomorphized -- I can handle the Disneyfied version for awhile, but an octopus driving a truck? Come on.

Along similar lines, it isn't a good thing when well-intending movies like Dory cause potential real-world harm to threatened species. I have read that the regal blue tang (the type of fish that Dory is) may be so endangered. This sours the movie for me.

We humans, myself included, love non-human animals and find it easy to empathize with and feel for them. What this means is that we must responsible in how we deploy their images.*

I saw the rebooted Ghostbusters and basically enjoyed it, though I strongly agree with EW's Chris Nashawaty who argues that
with a cast as daring and quick as this one, Ghostbusters is too mild and plays it too safe. Somewhere, I bet, there’s an R-rated director’s cut of the movie where these women really let it rip. I want to see that movie.
Me too! That is my only real complaint. I wish Ghostbusters had been funnier.

Kate McKinnon, as tech nerd Holtzmann, is Ghostbusters' funniest character and a cast standout. As Manohla Dargis observes, "no one performance dominates the new Ghostbusters, which is for the most part democratically comic (a Paul Feig signature), although Kate McKinnon’s magnificent, eccentric turn comes close." Agreed! That said, there has been some rightful criticism of Holtzmann's vague sexuality. If she's gay, just let her be gay.

Anyway, in the funny department, I really enjoyed Chris Hemsworth as the Ghostbusters' dim-bulb receptionist Kevin, but I felt like comedy geniuses Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy were unduly reined in. The PG-13 rating may have been a major source of the problem here. Ghostbusters is an enjoyable movie with fun cameos but ultimately misses opportunities, comedy-wise, by playing it too safe.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a predictable and mostly forgettable film I cannot recommend to anyone except hardcore Harry Potter fans looking for an excuse to return to the Potterverse (i.e., practically everyone in the world but me). As film blogger (and Potterverse fan) David Palmer puts it, "it is a film with purpose outside of a payday; unfortunately there is lots of room for improvement." Its most noteworthy element is Eddie Redmayne's experimental mumblecore performance as protagonist Newt. Between his refusal to properly enunciate his lines and all the bizarre creature names that make up the bulk of what he talks about, I had no idea what was going on with him about 70 percent of the film's running time.

Luckily the movie in general is extremely easy to follow, mainly because it borrows most of its ideas and set pieces from other blockbusters. For example, it takes its point of view shots of flying invisible death creatures from the opening sequence of Harry Potter 7. A giant creature slides playfully on a central park ice pond, just like in Peter Jackson's 2005 King Kong remake. And Beasts' climactic battle with a huge, serpentine, flying thing is straight outta Joss Whedon's Avengers (and most other contemporary action blockbusters for that matter).

I did enjoy Dan Fogler's performance as Kowalski but I was sickened to once again see a schlubby, homely, overweight male "rewarded" with a classically beautiful love interest (Alison Sudol) who's vastly out of his league.

Also ideologically troubling was the film's message about our relationship to "fantastic beasts" -- like Finding Dory, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them implies that many animals need human "protection" and ultimately fare best in captivity. LIE!

Good stuff I saw on home video includes SpotlightThe Big Short (both 2015), Frozen (2013), The Bourne Identity (2002), F.W. Murnau's Faust (1926), Top Five, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Edge of Tomorrow (all three 2014), Christopher Guest's Mascots (2016), a bunch of horror movies, and a bunch of Kristen Wiig movies.

Chris Rock's Top Five is a kind of reimagining of the Cinderella story fused with a "night in the life" of fictional comedian and film star Andre Allen (Rock, who also writes and directs). Rock is funny as always and he shares great chemistry with co-lead Rosario Dawson, who plays a reporter assigned to interview Allen. Top Five is a really well-made movie, funny and ultimately quite heartwarming: Entertainment Weekly's Shirley Li recommends it as "an honest portrait of a man searching for meaning and for love." You should go watch it immediately.

Spotlight is a well-made movie, but I think it suffered for its excessive hype. Even before it won the Best Picture Oscar, some critics were comparing it to truly great journalistic thrillers like All the President's Men (1976). That is surely going too far. All Spotlight's performances are solid and the subject matter important, but there isn't much dramatic conflict in the movie. No one seems in any particular danger. So there's not much tension -- something President's Men is oozing with. So maybe you should see President's Men or any other Alan J. Pakula thriller instead -- I especially like The Parallax View (1974). Or, if you want to see a truly great movie on similar subject matter (i.e., the priesthood sex abuse scandal), see the suspenseful, superbly executed Doubt (2008).

I liked The Big Short better than Spotlight, though again, it did not really linger with me for long afterward. Possibly this is because several years ago I went through a phase of inhaling documentaries about the current economy and the 2007-08 financial meltdown. My binge included stuff like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Maxed Out (2006), Frontline: Inside the MeltdownFrontline: The Warning (both 2009), and the like. Therefore none of the information presented in The Big Short was new to me -- but it is entertainingly presented and the movie is well worth seeing. I would recommend that anyone interested in the causes of the meltdown -- and you should be -- ought to see either The Big Short or the less wacky but more informative Frontline double feature Inside the Meltdown and The Warning.

Can I simply say I loved Frozen and leave it at that? I am usually not big on musicals or animated movies, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. I am fond of Kristen Bell and enjoyed getting to hear her sing. I also like Frozen's focus on sisterhood, despite my agreement with certain critics' misgivings about the film's "feminism." And of course I liked the film's music, especially the catchy, rousing "Let it Go." What's not to like? (This too I suppose.)

I saw Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity (2002) as part of a Bourne double-feature including The Bourne Supremacy (2004) aired on AMC in the spring. While I generally agree with commentators like AV Club's Scott Tobias when he says that Identity "skillfully retreads better work such as The Day Of The Jackal and a host of John Frankenheimer thrillers," I still like it much better than its punched-up follow-up. In Supremacy, director Paul Greengrass uses too much promiscuous shaky-cam and overblown action -- I prefer the more subdued tone and grittier realism of the excellent original.

In fairness, I do enjoy The Bourne Supremacy's opening sequence and car chase very much. With that exception, though, I would go so far as to say that Tobias' comment about Identity -- that it "discards any shred of character detail in favor of martial arts, sharp-shooting, and cross-traffic car chases" -- actually applies more accurately to the glossier, less probable Supremacy.

More engaging than any Bourne film is Edge of Tomorrow (a.k.a. Live Die Repeat, 2014) also directed by Doug Liman. Edge of Tomorrow is absolutely essential viewing for anyone who likes action-oriented science-fiction films. It has a relatively simple yet catchy premise, and, unlike so many other time-loop type movies, it doesn't waste time getting too heady or trying to over-explain anything. It just rides its premise straight through until the end, buoyed by high-voltage performances by Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, possible quasi-feminist precursors to 2015's Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron pairing. Edge of Tomorrow is a great action film with a compelling hook and a surprising amount of heart. Though a couple years old, it is one of the best movies I saw this year.  

In contrast, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was okay but should have ended right when Cap comes ashore at the lakeside after the film's climactic battle. Everything else after that is franchise-connection filler and is superfluous to this movie. That said, I appreciate that at least there were a small enough quantity of characters in this Marvel movie (about five) so that I could track who everybody was. Indeed, like Owen Gleiberman, I would say Winter Soldier is one of the best Marvel movies. But that still places it in the middle of the pack as far as my tastes go.

F.W. Murnau's Faust is, like all Murnau's films, masterful and compelling. I saw it for the first time this spring and I might even rate it as my second-favorite Murnau, after Nosferatu (1922). Simply a must-see for anyone interested in great silent cinema, German Expressionism, and/or the origins of the modern horror film.

The Descent, an amazing, must-see horror movie.

Late summer, The Blob (1958) kicked off a mini-marathon of monster movies (most of them re-watches) for me including Cat People (1942), The Descent (2005), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Shark Lake (2015), and Sharktopus (2010). I discuss most of these on my Horror Film Syllabus Movie List post.

Sara Malakul Lane as Deputy Hernandez, the protagonist of Shark Lake. I'd show you a shot of the shark but it might deter you from wanting to see the film.

Shark Lake is a low-budget B-movie which features top-billed Dolph Lundgren in about four short scenes. The rest of the movie is carried by Sara Malakul Lane as sheriff's deputy Meredith Hernandez. She is compelling and some of the film's attack sequences -- especially an early one involving an old man -- are pretty amusing. But the special effects are pure shit, and therefore, despite its promising title, the shark is the least goddamned interesting thing in this shark movie. The best stuff is the pub scene when Hernandez tells her adoptive daughter Carly that one of her nine-year old schoolmates is sexist, and the witty banter that subsequently ensues between Hernandez and oceanography nerd Peter (Michael Aaron Milligan). It's also fun to watch Lundgren growl his way through a few incomprehensible scenes late in the movie.

Shark Lake is definitely one of those "so bad it's good" entries, though actually the acting is pretty good -- the badness mostly comes from the bargain-basement special effects and some very odd plot turns near the end. Nonetheless I would call Shark Lake a very enjoyable low-budget shark attack film. Bear in mind that I am both a low-budget shark movie junkie and an ardent fan of The Room.

You guessed it: Sharktopus. Yes, they're on dry land.

Sadly, Malakul Lane, who does such a noble job propping up Shark Lake, goes underused in the otherwise delightful Sharktopus. Eric Roberts basically steals the movie from its ostensible leads, and the sharktopus creature's visual appearance and attack scenes are much more satisfying than similar ones in the generally less overblown Shark Lake. Indeed, Sharktopus as a whole is great fun, but tragically, in this movie Lane is relegated to being an especially drab embodiment of the "babe scientist" stereotype I discuss in my review of Doctor Strange. This is disappointing given that she is given much more to do -- and therefore more character depth -- as the protagonist of Shark Lake.

Shark Lake vs. Sharktopus: despite plot confusion and rock-bottom shitty monster effects, Shark Lake has much better dramatic sequences than does Sharktopus. The strengths of Sharktopus are its awesome attack sequences, especially since the creature can climb up on land and remain there for several minutes at a time. And again, Eric Roberts.

Both films are exploitative and crass, but Sharktopus is more so. Take, for example, an early dark-comic scene in which Roger Corman himself cameos as an elderly beachcomber who watches a woman get brutally killed by the sharktopus. He looks on impassively, watches her die, shrugs, steals the now-dead woman's prized coin off the beach, and walks away. Despite some gratuitous ass shots in a couple beach party scenes, there is no comparable scene of death being treated so lightly in Shark Lake.

Laci and Cindi Babineaux (Susan Yeagley and Parker Posey) steal the show in Mascots. 

Mascots (2016) is Christopher Guest's latest wacky mockumentary, and nobody does this genre better than Guest and company. Longtime ensemble member Jim Piddock co-wrote the screenplay with Guest, which means that they outlined the scenes and situations in which themselves and their collaborators would improvise specific dialogue.

Stealing the show this time around are two groups of characters, The first is the family unit that gathers around Owen Golly Jr. (Tom Bennett) a.k.a. Sid the Hedgehog. Especially noteworthy is Piddock's portrayal of Owen's father Owen Sr.

Then there are inseparable sisters Laci and Cindi Babineaux (Susan Yeagley and Parker Posey), my favorite characters in Mascots. Posey really gets to shine here, in a zany yet relatable way we haven't seen this well realized in a Guest film since her brilliant turn as Waiting for Guffman's Libby Mae Brown. (In Best in Show she was hilarious but too weird to really empathize with and in A Mighty Wind her role was too small.) Additionally, Posey has found the perfect scene partner in Yeagley. Their chemistry is about the best I've seen in any of these largely improvised movies.   

Chris O'Dowd, Jane Lynch, Ed Begley Jr., and other returning players are great too, but their roles are small and to me the main through-line of the movie is carried by the two groups already discussed. 

The climactic mascot routines are hilarious and the film features the usual Christopher Guest mix of parodic nonsense, mild naughtiness, and wacky physical hijinks blended with well-observed character moments and a dose of human warmth. Mascots is a delightful, well-crafted, funny treat not to be missed. It may not hit the very high heights of Guest's earlier, more anarchic masterpieces Waiting For Guffman (1996) or Best In Show (2000), but it easily stands alongside the later-career films A Mighty Wind (2003) and For Your Consideration (2006), which have a lived-in feel and narrative cohesion that is rare to see in ensemble comedies of this kind.

This fall I re-watched Robert Altman's The Player (1992), which I probably haven't seen since the 1990s. It's no Short Cuts -- probably Altman's best film -- but it's pretty goddamned amazing. If you enjoy Hollywood film industry satires like State and Main, Living In Oblivion, For Your Consideration, and Bowfinger, you should like The Player.

I have written before about how much I love Altman's movies -- you should too. McCabe and Mrs. Miller, here I come!

Conversely, Freddy Vs. Jason (2003) is barely worth mentioning, though I did enjoy it more than I expected to (which was not much). Freddy Vs. Jason is not precisely a horror film nor a parody of one but is instead a heavily processed horror-film product. It's like an exceptionally well-produced fanfilm where the filmmakers -- whose only idea going in is fully described by the movie's title -- somehow talked Robert Englund into playing his signature role of Freddy Kreuger.

The film has one or two cool ideas (e.g., Freddy reviving Jason) and delightful scenes (e.g., Jason's attack on the cornfield party), but without Englund this movie wouldn't work at all. The presence of Englund-as-Kreuger saves Freddy Vs. Jason from becoming a boring total piece of shit.

Obviously, I am a Robert Englund loyalist -- I have not seen (nor do I plan to see) the 2010 Englund-free Elm Street remake, about which A. O. Scott writes:
This movie is an acceptable specimen of a currently popular genre, carefully trying to balance the sly humor and low-budget resourcefulness of earlier horror films with the bloodiness and digital showing-off currently in fashion. It’s moderately entertaining and instantly forgettable.
No thanks. For me, without Englund there is no Freddy.

In fact, I recently realized that the Nightmare on Elm Street series' Robert Englund is possibly the only modern horror film star to be as important to the character he plays as the character is to him. That is, he's one of the few star "monster" players of the current era whose name anybody but the most fanatical know. Most slasher killers (e.g., Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Leatherface) switch actors all the time, and because most are masked, we don't even really know who the star is unless we look into it. But Freddy is Englund, Englund is Freddy.

Anyway, I watched Freddy Vs. Jason mainly because this reviewer's take intrigued me. I generally agree with his conclusion:
Surprisingly, Freddy Vs. Jason brings the Nightmare On Elm Street series full circle, rehashing its major ideas and themes in genuinely fresh and clever ways that honor this imaginative horror franchise.
My take: Freddy Vs. Jason is for slasher loyalists only, but it's worth the ride, at least once. It's campily pleasurable schlock cinema.

Hateship Loveship (2013) reminds me of Terri or Chuck&Buck, only with a somewhat smoother ride and a (seemingly) happier ending. It portrays the rich as morally clean and the less privileged, i.e., Sabitha's friend Edith (Sami Gayle), as devious and evil -- still, it is deftly directed, filled with strong, memorable performances (particularly by Wiig and Pearce) there are some nice productive ambiguities by the end. That said, its offbeat tone and hard-to-like characters may place this film outside some viewers' tastes. In between her big projects, Wiig has certainly been exploring some strange territory in her smaller-budget film performances (see also her role in The Skeleton Twins).

One of the strangest yet most powerful shots in Hateship, Loveship

After Hateship Loveship I saw Wiig vehicle Welcome to Me (2014), which is way weirder than Hateship but I may enjoy it even more precisely because of its eccentricities. Welcome to Me unfolds from the point of view of a protagonist -- Wiig's Alice Klieg -- who has Borderline Personality Disorder.** The film's premise is that Alice wins the lottery then uses her winnings to finance a cable-access television show of her own creation.

As a fictional movie, Welcome to Me delivers on its whacko premise and deploys Wiig's particular comic talents to particularly good effect. It is hard to imagine anyone but Wiig playing Alice, and I love watching her bizarro, squirmily self-revealing show come to life.

Where Welcome to Me may commit a dangerous faux pas is in giving Alice too much of a Hollywood ending. A real BPD person would not likely learn her lesson so neatly nor make such a beautiful gesture of reconciliation as Alice does for her best friend Gina (Linda Cardellini) in the film's climax. Welcome opts for the generically appropriate comedy ending, in which the community is renewed, but in reality this is a pretty utopic denouement for someone with as severe BPD as Alice has. In this respect, the more ambiguously concluded Margot at the Wedding (2007) is more truthful about the challenges BPD's face in getting outside their own perspective.

Like Welcome to Me, Haifaa Al Mansour's Wadjda (2012), offers an ultimately optimistic outlook on a potentially grim subject: a rebellious young woman coming of age in rigidly patriarchal Saudi Arabian culture.  

As Wadjda's director has said,
Art is something you enjoy. It makes people happier. It has taste and music and all that is sensory about it, so it is cool. It is not like “a lecture.” It is provocative in a way that you feel it. It touches you, and you start talking about things from a new perspective. Not because you are angry. For me, it is a gentle way to catalyze a change.
This artistic approach surely explains Wadjda's generally upbeat tone. Truthfully, I originally resisted seeing the film despite its positive reviews because I feared it would be too "feel-goodish." Then I saw it and really enjoyed it a great deal. It is a well-observed movie, visually entrancing if for no other reason than, as Sophia Stein writes,
While most of us have heard about life in the Kingdom, Wadjda allows us a cinematic experience of the everyday realities of that world. Al Mansour grants us an insider’s perspective on an otherwise impenetrable society.
Then there are the performances of the two leads, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) and her mother (Reem Abdullah). Wadjda does a phenomenal job revealing the emotional nuances of its protagonist's struggles, aspirations, and frustrations -- which she shares with her mother. A couple of its scenes (I'm thinking the bit with the family tree) may feel heavy handed, but that is because we are in the realm of melodrama here.

Wadjda is a maternal melodrama -- a film focused on womens' lives and mother-daughter relations in the tradition of Stella Dallas (1937). While fundamentally about Wadjda's experiences growing up in Muslim Saudi Arabia, it's her mother who emotionally centers the film -- in many ways, it is she who suffers for Wadjda. It is the mother's noble sacrifice in the face of impossible odds that provides the film's resolution, enabling its triumphant last moment to take place. The film's final scene is both delightful to experience and chilling in its deeper implications -- is it a too-optimistic denial of the tightly circumscribed life that most likely lies ahead for its young heroine?

One of my favorite scenes from Halloween II (1981).

Halloween weekend I caught a few entries in AMC's "Fear Fest," i.e., a bunch of slasher movie franchises they ran constantly all weekend. I saw Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985), Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981), and John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) plus most of the Rick Rosenthal sequel Halloween II (1981). The two things that most struck me were:

(1) Even though I have occasionally gently slagged it off, the original Halloween is insanely good in terms of pacing, gauging moments, drawing out suspense, etc. It is a horror film masterpiece, and a pleasure to watch every time.

(2) Despite its low-rent look and relatively cookie-cutter approach, I continue to enjoy Steve Miner's Friday the 13th Part 2 quite a bit. There's just something about it -- it isn't a flat-out masterpiece like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or even an imperfect but fearsome wail of nihilistic rage like The Hills Have Eyes (1977) yet I get a kick out of its mood and tone. I like Jason's weird little hideout in the woods, and the puddle everyone runs through to get there. And the slow-motion ending when Jason comes through the window, maskless -- it's pitch-perfect.

Two intriguing cyborgs: Robocop's Murphy and Sleep Dealer's Memo.

Lastly, I saw two great movies about cyborgs: Paul Verhoeven's classic Robocop (1987) and Alex Rivera's low-budget Sleep Dealer (2008). Both are masterpieces.

Robocop is, as all Verhoeven's films are, "unique and peculiar" as Eric Walkuski puts it. Indeed, I find it difficult to precisely describe Verhoeven's work and style. Maybe "European, satirical, hypercharged genre filmmaker" comes close. Certainly there is a lot of energy, life, and (dark) comedy to be found in his work. But there is also an unflinching quality to his satire that may come off to some as cynical. As Verhoeven himself says, "I’ve always had it, that sense that a heavy and black [subject] needs to be balanced by humor."

Robocop perfectly embodies Verhoeven's humorously bleak sensibility. The movie is a seemingly lighthearted, one-liner-packed, sci-fi action romp . . .

. . . that nevertheless features brutal violence (Murphy's death scene is especially dark and graphic), a bleak moral outlook (the corporations win) and, as Leilani Nishime points out, almost no treacly sentimentality over Murphy's fate or his human past:
Once Murphy removes his helmet, he never dons it again, preventing the soothing illusion of wholeness. Murphy is barred from passing as human and refuses to pass as machine, and with that refusal he takes his first steps away from nostalgia and melancholy.†
In this way, Nishime argues, Robocop explores true human-machine hybridity in a way that more human-centered cyborg movies like Blade Runner, Terminator 2, and A.I. cannot. Hey, it's no secret that I love the first Terminator film and Blade Runner, but I cannot deny that Robocop brings something edgier and more provocative to the table than those movies do, thematically if not visually. The Terminator is essentially a bare-bones sci-fi thriller, with little on its mind besides keeping the viewer on the hook, which it does brilliantly. And Blade Runner is a nostalgic film noir centered on the idea that a replicant can be more human than a human. Its visual beauty is stunning and its hauntingly elegiac tone is perfect, but its values are a bit retrograde.  

The 1987 Robocop has aged well precisely due to its over-the-top violence, dated yet visceral stop-motion special effects, and hypercharged critique of 1980s corporatism, perhaps best embodied by the Bob Morton assassination scene, a big favorite of mine.

In any case, I strongly recommend you give the original Robocop a serious look -- perhaps as a double feature with Sleep Dealer, Alex Rivera's sharp-eyed sci-fi meditation on illegal labor, globalization, and drone warfare.  If Robocop is a testament to its times -- the go-go American 1980s -- then Sleep Dealer is equally a testament to the post-9/11 world. Set more or less entirely in Mexico, Sleep Dealer depicts the adventures of Memo (Luis Fernando Peña), a young man from rural Oaxaca who moves north to Tijuana after a violent incident forces him to leave home. He finds work as a cyborg in a sleep dealer, the film's word for the vast, technologically advanced maquiladoras of the future.

Memo, in between gruelling 23-hour shifts at the sleep dealer, quickly falls in with Luz (Leonor Varela), a self-proclaimed "writer" who sells her memories for profit on the web. I can't say much more without giving away spoilers, but my description so far should convince you to see this mind-blowing, up-to-the-minute think piece on a future that is basically already here. And like Robocop before it, Sleep Dealer dares to end bleakly and ambiguously (my favorite). As Christopher T. Gonzalez writes,
Rivera resists a neat ending. The nodal technology that enabled many of the problems introduced in the film still exists by its close, and there is no indication that Memo will do anything but continue his work as a sleep dealer. Rudy, traitor to the US fight against aqua-terrorism, must continue south, moving ever father away from the family he has left behind.††
Like Robocop's Murphy, Memo and Rudy must spend their remaining lives as outcast figures, unable to return "home" to anything connected to their pasts. These are uncompromising, complex cyborg movies.

Due to the age of Robocop's effects and the low-budgetness of Sleep Dealer's, these two films make an ideal double feature on the aesthetic level. And both films are fast-paced and great fun to watch yet have a little more on their minds than you might initially expect.

The best documentaries I saw this year include O.J.: Made in America, 13th (both 2016), The Central Park Five (2012), and The Hunting Ground (2015).

If you have the time to invest in it (7+ hours), the best documentary of the year is Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America. Made for ESPN films in the tradition of 30 for 30 -- the very best episode of which, "June 17th, 1994" offers another fascinating take on Simpson's case -- Made in America covers O.J.'s spectacular rise as a college and professional running back, celebrity pitch man, movie star, and ultimately, domestic abuser and murder suspect.

Made in America is totally riveting and the film's thesis -- that O.J. longed to be non-black and post-racial, and that that led to (or was the source of) all his troubles and rage against a white woman -- is quite compelling. His odd relationship to the white and black communities is also key to the film's exploration of O.J. as an icon and of his various tanglings with the U.S. legal system. Be sure to watch the film all the way though to the end -- there are surprising twists and insightful bits of cultural context to be found at every stage of this stranger-than-fiction story.

But don't just take my word for it: the most penetrating rundown of the importance of the O.J. Simpson trial and this superb documentary's take on it is Ta-Nehisi Coates' piece for The Atlantic.

13th is Ava DuVernay's scathing indictment of institutionalized racism in America. Its most impressive feat, beyond its high production value, is the way it synthesizes so many varying strands of U.S. institutionalized racism. It covers Jim Crow-era prison labor rental practices like PBS' Slavery By Another Name. It covers the Emmett Till case I previously learned about from the American Experience episode The Murder of Emmett Till. And it sheds new insight on the current New Jim Crow era documented in Michelle Alexander's book of that name.

The Central Park Five makes an appropriate companion piece to DuVernay's more historically comprehensive film. This one is produced and directed by a team of documentarians including Ken Burns' daughter Sarah Burns. Well-produced and emotionally touching, The Central Park Five goes into great detail about the incidents that took place (and didn't take place) the night of April 19, 1989, when five young men of color were arrested near Central Park for a rape and murder none of them had any hand in committing. It what happens to them at the hands of the police and courts is heartbreaking -- we hear most of the story directly from the wrongly accused participants. The film rightly concludes that this incident reveals pervasive structural racism in the U.S. legal system.

The Hunting Ground is a devastating portrait of the ways in which colleges and universities cover up sexual assault cases on campus.

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown, a thrilling political melodrama. 

TV shows I got into -- all Netflix-produced series -- include Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (technically a show, kind of a long-form movie), Stranger Things, The Fall series three, and The Crown. All are quite terrific.

As ars technica's Nathan Mattise writes of Netflix's superb 1980s-set horror series Stranger Things,
what makes Stranger Things stand out after its eight-episode first season is that the show only uses the familiar as a backdrop; it doesn't wallow in it or simply retread known stories. This isn't Ready Player One, a new Ghostbusters, or any of the upcoming Star Wars onslaught. Instead, Netflix's lovely homage to 1980s genre fiction deploys nostalgia only to speed up and deepen world-building. Its story, by contrast, feels fresh by including enough twists and turns to keep even the most capable pop-culture detectives guessing and entertained.
Indeed. I also agree with Mattise's conclusion that the Netflix mode of production and streaming distribution of original content seems to be a success:
Stranger Things is reassurance that the Netflix production model can lead to great, original stories. [Netflix] needs headline-grabbing originals to carry it forward as its other series experience growing pains or wrap up entirely. Hot and new is what will attract subscribers; prestigious (and the continued ability to offer money/creative freedom) is what will attract the next opportunity with a Fincher- or Wachowski-type.
I thoroughly enjoyed Stranger Things as a viewer, and look forward to its season two.

All that said, I acknowledge that Stranger Things centralizes nerds in potentially harmful ways that my colleague Kom and I have delineated in detail. Stranger Things contributes to the "myth of nerd oppression" that dangerously enables "every slightly socially awkward white boy who likes sci-fi [to] explain away his privilege and lay his ressentiment at the feet of the nearest women and people of color" as this author observes. Indeed, the show "looks back wistfully to the ’80s, re-enchanting the image of nerds as winning underdogs" rather than tyrannical, post-Gamergate bigots.

John Lithgow as Winston Churchill in the superb Netflix series The Crown

The Crown is one of the flat-out best shows  I watched all year, up there with The Fall and PBS Masterpiece's recent reboot of Poldark. Again, we are in melodrama territory here -- high emotions, dashed hopes, noble personal sacrifices, and the like. As star Claire Foy says of the series,
That would be the last thing I’d ever want, is for people to not understand the humanity of it. I just felt like if we did those scenes [of the tumultuous domestic life of Elizabeth and Philip] truthfully and honestly, then it would show the difficulty of the situation, and truthful situations are often about [being] uncomfortable.
Indeed. The Crown's juicy mix of interpersonal intrigue and big-time political stakes set in the first years of Elizabeth II's reign -- also the last years of Winston Churchill's political career -- is irresistible to me, this was a real inhale-watcher for me and my girlfriend. I even enjoyed John Lithgow's portrayal of Churchill much more than I expected to -- though the best onscreen Churchill is still Brendan Gleeson's in HBO's Into the Storm (2009).   

In late November I got to see Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice (1986) for the first time as part of the long-running Buffalo Film Seminars film series. The Buffalo Film Seminars are co-hosted by Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson, a delightful pair who riff in a a seemingly anecdotal and off-the-cuff (yet well-informed and interpretively vigorous) way to introduce the night's film and to lead group discussion afterward. The discussion element, and  Diane and Bruce's laid-back demeanor, give the event a more community based feel than the more formal presentations I typically see at the Dryden.

That said, some of my favorite viewing experiences all year took place at The Dryden Theater, pretty much my favorite theater in Rochester. The Dryden put on a Sean Connery and Roger Moore-era James Bond series in April and May. I am a self-confessed old Bond movie fanatic, and I saw Dr. No, From Russia With Love, The Man With the Golden GunMoonraker, and A View to a Kill during the series' two-month run. I had noble plans to see more Bonds, particularly Moore standouts The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only, and my all-time favorite Bond movie Thunderball, but life, in the form of a busy spring semester, intervened.

But I am totally pleased that the Dryden ran such an entertaining series. For me, Moonraker was an especially delightful standout -- silly though its premise may be, and however over-the-top its finale, it is a film that gains a lot of traction seen on the big screen. The g-force test machine sequence alone is much more harrowing in a dark theater on a big screen. And the opening parachute stunt and the Rio de Janiero cable-car gondola fight sequence are both simply breathtaking. I hope (and assume) I will be seeing more James Bond classics at the Eastman Museum in days to come.

Also at the Dryden: The Hunger (much better than I remembered it!), William Wyler's amazingly perfect 1949 melodrama The Heiress, Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight, Akira Kurosawa's King Lear-inspired Ran (one of the best films ever), John Carpenter's The Thing, and Neil Young's surprisingly resonant Greendale (2003).

On election night, I went to the Dryden to see Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) accompanied by pianist Phil Carli.

And to conclude, in mid-November I saw Metropolis accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra. This was an amazing treat on several levels. For one, while I have seen Fritz Lang's Expressionist masterpiece projected before, I have never before seen a version of the quality I saw exhibited at the Dryden. Then add to this intense visual experience the vibrancy of having the Alloy Orchestra in the room with you, and -- well, I am at loss for words. Their Metropolis score is just flat-out awesome. It must be heard to be believed. Seeing Metropolis on the big screen with that group of three stellar musicians playing live is one of the peak experiences of my moviegoing life.  

To wrap up: the recent-vintage films I most highly recommend are Love & Friendship, Moonlight, The Handmaiden, Top Five, Edge of Tomorrow, and The Witch, plus all Christopher Guest fans should see Mascots. The three TV series I most recommend are Stranger ThingsThe Crown, and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp.

If there's one essential documentary that every American should see this year, it's O.J.: Made in America, followed closely by Ava DuVernay's 13th.

And the films I haven't seen yet but most look forward to include The Lobster, Green Room (both 2015), 99 Homes (2014), The Founder (2017), The Birth of a Nation, Toho Studios' Shin Godzilla, Jim Jarmusch's Paterson, Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, the much-lauded Manchester by the Sea, and Star Wars Rogue One (all 2016).‡

Weird Al sez: "Have a great and mystical year!"

* In fairness, some commentators give Finding Dory high praise for its portrayal of (human) disability culture.
** For more information about BPD, I strongly recommend the following two books: I Hate You -- Don't Leave Me by Jerold J. Kreisman and Hal Straus (Perigee, 2010) and Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder by Paul Mason and Randi Kreger (New Harbinger Publications, 2010). If you want to see an even more spot-on depiction of a BPD character depicted on film, see Noah Baumbach's brilliant, harrowing Margot at the Wedding (2007).
† Nishime, "The Mulatto Cyborg" in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (eds.), Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings Eighth Edition (Oxford UP, 2016) p. 708.
†† Gonzalez, "Latino Sc-Fi: Cognition and Narrative Design in Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer" in Frederick Luis Adalma (ed.), Latinos and Narrative Media (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) p. 222
‡ Early reviews of Rogue One have been generally positive (well, except this one and this one and this old man's) and I am on record as a fan of director Gareth Edwards' work. I also look forward to checking out the film's rumored political undercurrents, discussed here and here. So all in all I am pretty excited about seeing the movie. Yet I was talking with a student a few weeks back and he wondered aloud if people wouldn't start getting tired of new Star Wars films now that they're being released at a rate of one per year. My student may be prescient -- after all, it only took me about three years to get sick of superhero movies.

Along related lines, I tried re-watching The Force Awakens recently and couldn't make it past the 50-minute mark, shortly after Han Solo enters the narrative. I really like the early bits of that film when it's setting up its new characters, but it stalls out for me once the legacy characters come in and the "plot" really gets going. Not much re-watch value for me there. I hope Rogue One fares better.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Review: The Handmaiden (2016)

The Handmaiden, the latest thriller from Korean director Park Chan-wook, is a remarkable film that may not be for everyone, but is well worth seeing if you can withstand some graphic sexuality.

For those unfamiliar with Park's earlier films like Oldboy (2003), the non-Park film The Handmaiden most closely resembles is Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak. Both are Gothic thrillers centered on an outsider entering the home of some perverted weirdos. However, whereas del Toro's film, though beautifully constructed and visually sumptuous, is relatively straightforward narrative-wise -- most viewers will see the ending coming a mile away -- The Handmaiden is full of delicious, shocking twists and turns. It's like Crimson Peak filtered through the multiple perspectives of Kurosawa's Rashomon and infused with the narrative urgency and edgy sexuality of the Wachowski's Bound.

Yet even these comparisons do not capture the exact tone and visual aesthetic of The Handmaiden. Park is a world-class auteur with a sensibility all his own. I admit that Oldboy is the only other Park film I've seen (sorry, Thirst and Stoker!) yet I can truly say it is unlike any other movie I know. Park's Handmaiden is similarly unique, a really terrific thriller, a visually brilliant cinematic adventure, and a searing love story all at once.

The story begins with Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri), the titular handmaiden, who arrives at the sprawling, picturesque, yet forebodingly creepy estate of Uncle Kouzuki (Jo Jin-woong). 

I really cannot say more without revealing spoilers, which I do not wish to do. Suffice to say that none of the principal characters is quite what they appear to be at first. The method by and pace at which Park gradually reveals layers of the truth is indeed Rashomon-like in its brilliance and elegance. Each new revelation changes not only what we know of the unfolding plot but also what we know -- and more importantly, how we feel -- about the characters and their relationships to each other.

The Handmaiden is propelled by the intensity of its eroticism as well as its brilliant reveals and plot twists. It is like a vastly more nuanced and interesting version of what Gone Girl more clunkily attempts. As The Atlantic's David Sims notes,
more than anything, The Handmaiden is just pure cinema, a dizzying, disturbing fable of love and betrayal that piles on luxurious imagery, while never losing track of its story’s human core.
Yes indeed. I was frankly amazed at The Handmaiden's ability to provide so many chills, thrills, and horrors while preserving the beautiful, touching romance that lies at its center. In this sense it is superior to the aesthetically masterful yet less emotionally gripping Crimson Peak, a film I champion and love a lot.

Like most thrillers, The Handmaiden is about surveillance -- about watching, spying, and (correctly and incorrectly) perceiving. This is a motif that Park and his cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon convey especially well. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Park is particularly adept at placing and moving the camera in such a way as to reveal just enough to keep the viewer on the hook. Like many of Hitchcock's works (e.g., Rear Window, Psycho), The Handmaiden is a "puzzle film" in which what we see is frequently misleading because it is only one character's subjective take on events.*

The Handmaiden's most wonderful scene, which really sums up everything I love about this movie, takes place under a certain tree that figures heavily in the plot. It is a darkly comic scene in which two characters reveal deep inner truths to one another while caught in a strangely precarious and life-threatening situation. I would almost recommend that folks see the film just for this remarkable, touching, hilarious sequence alone.

Again, The Handmaiden will not appeal to everyone, focused as it is on explicit sexuality, some of which leans toward the perverted and unusual. To take just one example, one early scene depicts the most erotic use of a thimble I have ever seen. And Uncle Kouzuki's interests -- and the various ordeals to which he subjects Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) -- are quite disturbing to say the least. There is also some third-act violence that, while restrained next to that seen in Oldboy, may be too explicit for some viewers.

Nevertheless, The Handmaiden is a fine Gothic thriller that Leah Greenblatt accurately describes as "a historical romance that is to Merchant Ivory what Molotov cocktails are to tea cozies." Well said. Despite its sexual edginess that may place it outside the tastes of some viewers, I agree with Greenblatt's conclusion that The Handmaiden constitutes "the most twisty, audacious, and wildly sexy 145 minutes of cinema this year." Highly recommended.

Kim Tae-ri as Sook-Hee in Park Chan-wook's gripping Gothic thriller The Handmaiden.

UPDATE 12/17/2016: Since posting this review earlier today some folks have correctly pointed out that it doesn't acknowledge The Handmaiden's status as an adaptation of Sarah Waters' Gothic novel Fingersmith (2002). This is true -- I didn't discuss it because I am unfamiliar with the book, but I agree that I should have at least mentioned its existence. Plus I have it from reliable authorities that the film is a fairly faithful adaptation of that source novel, with a few incidents condensed and fewer characters made the central focus. I am also told that that amazing, erotic thimble scene I mention comes from the original novel.

* The connection between Hitchcock and Park is made explicit in Stoker (2013), a thriller that borrows plot elements and character names from Hitch's Shadow of a Doubt (1943). A.O. Scott describes Stoker as depicting "a world of lurid, saturated colors; languorous camera movements; temporal displacements; and jagged shards of sound." This reminds me of The Handmaiden actually. And while Scott expresses mild disappointment with Stoker's third act, I still plan to see it due to its references to the Hitchcock film and on the basis of my friend AJ's positive recommendation. As Peter Travers puts it,
Some will find it too much. Screw them. Park's goal is to bust form, not conform to it. Take Stoker for what it is: a thriller of savage beauty.
Sounds good to me! I am also reminded of fellow Korean Bong Joon-ho's delightfully twisty Mother in this context.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

"The Dark Knight" as Neoconservative War Propaganda

What follows is a transcript of a talk I gave in March 2010. In it, I argue that Christopher Nolan's 2008 blockbuster The Dark Knight is a form of mass-media pro-"War on Terror" propaganda, particularly in how it uses the tropes of melodrama to move audiences to sympathize with its vigilante hero. Since this was a live talk, it is somewhat unpolished -- even a bit melodramatic -- but the ideas are accurate and I stand by them.*

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) as Neoconservative War Propaganda

Christopher Nolan’s hugely successful blockbuster The Dark Knight (2008) deploys the imagery and rhetoric of the War on Terror melodramatically in order to emotionally justify the actions and ideologies of the Bush Administration post-9/11.  As Linda Williams argues, melodrama is best understood as an American cinematic mode rather than a genre, since its conventions can be found in nearly every genre of American film and in American public discourse writ large: “[The] basic vernacular of American moving pictures [and culture] consists of a story that generates sympathy for a hero who is also a victim and that leads to a climax that permits the audience, and usually other characters, to recognize that character’s moral value.” The Dark Knight is a melodrama dressed up as a superhero action film, communicating the moral value of its titular hero through his prolonged status as a victim.**

Batman is well-suited to this task, since his back story is itself couched in family melodrama -- innocent parents killed by a cold-blooded criminal, traumatized orphan son left to fend for himself -- which, according to melodramatic logic, justifies his adult vigilantism: as Jonathan Lethem puts it, "Batman’s losing his parents to violent crime forever renews his revenger’s passport." Further, as Will Brooker has documented, Batman is a shifting cultural signifier that takes on different meanings at different historical moments: a fighter of Nazis during WWII, a pop art/camp icon in the 1960s, a dark vigilante since the late 1980s.† The Dark Knight obviously plays upon this latter iteration of the character, emphasizing Batman's angst-ridden suffering as Gotham's protector and thereby valorizing his existence and deeds, which include unethical anti-terrorist practices such as lack of public accountability, violent torture, and widespread surveillance of U.S. citizens.

As I will demonstrate, by concluding with and melodramatically emphasizing scenes of Batman’s unjust persecution as a criminal by an ignorant yet morally indignant public, The Dark Knight ultimately apologizes for the deeds of George W. Bush, downplaying the importance of public dissent and generating viewer sympathy for the pain and struggles of a right-wing vigilante who gets the job done at all costs. Despite a few key scenes in which Batman’s morality is briefly called into question, and its strong suggestion that Batman and the Joker are far more alike than they are different, the film ultimately undermines legitimate critiques of the War on Terror by foregrounding that, in the face of “agents of chaos” like the disturbingly apoliticized Joker and the easily corruptible Harvey Dent, we need “silent protectors” like Batman who will save us even when we may feel uneasy about their tactics. 

Many critics and academics agree that The Dark Knight has strong neoconservative themes, depicting torture, vigilantism, and violation of international law as the price Batman pays for bringing justice to Gotham city, but few commentators agree on the exact implications of how those timely themes play out in the film. Was the film a critique of those ideas, a neutral meditation on them, or, as I felt in my gut each time I walked out of the theater, an endorsement of them?

Of all the published responses to The Dark Knight I read, the most clarifying was a September 2008 Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by fiction writer Jonathan Lethem, who comments that "a morbid incoherence was the movie’s real takeaway, chaotic form its ultimate content." Lethem sees the film as having no particular argument or cohesive "endorsement" at all, but rather as a "cognitively dissonant milkshake of rage, fear and, finally, absolving confusion." The fact that Lethem uses terms like these -- rage, fear, absolving confusion -- to pinpoint the nature of the film's lasting impact reminds us that this film, like all mainstream blockbusters and the majority of American public discourse, is first and foremost a melodrama, intent upon activating viewer emotions regardless of the logic or illogic of its narrative claims.†† Lethem's "absolving confusion" refers to the excessive, victimized catharsis of melodrama. Reading Lethem's piece I became convinced that trying to make sense of Nolan's film made no sense -- unless I approached it from the point of view of analyzing its emotional impact on audiences, highlighting its use of melodramatic tropes to generate viewer sympathy for its suffering protagonists and their causes.

Film scholar Linda Williams’ explanation of the melodramatic mode is crucial to analyzing the cultural logic of melodrama and its ubiquity in American popular and public culture. As Williams argues in "Melodrama Revised," melodrama is best understood as a mode or loose collection of tropes rather than a specific literary or filmic genre, though it has strong historical ties to sentimental fiction like Uncle Tom's Cabin and women's films (or "weepies") like Stella Dallas (1925, 1937) and Terms of Endearment (1983). As Williams explains, “the mode of melodrama [. . .]  [moves] us to pathos for protagonists beset by forces more powerful than they and who are perceived as victims” (42). This set of structures -- heightened pathos, clear oppositions between good and evil by which we are made to identify and empathize with a suffering victim, and thus to yearn for narrative closure via the defeat of the victim's oppressor(s), is common to all genres of American film and, as Williams argues, to American popular narratives writ large. As she states, “melodrama has always mattered and continues to matter in American culture [. . .]  the sexual, racial, and gender problems of American history have found their most powerful expression in melodrama” (82).

One has only to give a cursory look at the post-9/11 rhetoric of the Bush Administration to see these principles at work. The televised footage of the attacks and their aftermath showed the American public images of suffering families of World Trade Center victims, aided by heroic (and also suffering) New York firemen, all beset by faceless, evil terrorists whose motives were seemingly incomprehensible to us. Melodrama activates the emotions as a means to arouse moral indignation over the plight of its suffering victims. In the case of 9/11, the heightened feelings of righteous victimhood generated by the melodramatic narratives peddled by mainstream news and the Bush Administration were used to foment acceptance of the Iraq War and to foreclose nuanced analysis of the root causes of the actions and political views of the real-life "terrorists."

We can see a similar deployment of melodramatic tropes in The Dark Knight, particularly in two key montage sequences that strive for maximum emotional impact via juxtaposition of music, image, and pathos-laden speeches delivered in voice-over. Note that the montage has long been used to express emotional states and arouse emotional responses: e.g., the "falling in love" montage or the "preparing for climactic battle or contest" montage. Music, usually present in montage sequences, is the melos of melodrama and plays a significant role in influencing viewer sympathies, as we shall see. Through close analysis of these short montage sequences, I will demonstrate how The Dark Knight uses melodramatic conventions to arouse viewer emotions at key moments in its story, which is ultimately structured as a domestic melodrama centered upon the suffering Gordon family and their need for protection against unquestionably evil "terrorists" like the Joker and Two-Face. I argue that the film's emotional focus and final sequence attempt to respond to the question: What kind of hero or protector does Jim Gordon's family need? The answer, of course, is Batman.

The first sequence I want to analyze, just to lay the groundwork for my melodramatic interpretation of the film's ending, is the one in which images of Batman mourning over the crater of a destroyed building (an obvious reference to Ground Zero) are accompanied by a "Dear John" letter to Bruce Wayne read in voice-over by the now-dead Rachel. Note that this sequence is preceded by a quintessentially melodramatic "nick of time" chase sequence, wherein the Joker places two victims in two separate locales with two separate ticking time bombs -- a variant on the classic damsel in distress setup germane to the earliest theatrical and cinematic melodramas.

CLIP: "BURNED DOWN" SEQUENCE (DVD Ch. 25, 1:36:48 - 1:37:54)

The death of Rachel and fall of Dent = unconsummated love, the "too little too late" of melodrama. The two bombs scene even includes a classically melodramatic last-minute confession of love from Rachel. This was the "proper" marriage that could have symbolically restored order to Gotham -- its "white knight" fulfilling his domestic / romantic goals. Of course, this same theme of suffering over lost opportunities applies to Bruce Wayne / Batman, and even more so, since he not only loved Rachel but could have done something to stop Rachel's death, but fails. In the "Burned Down" montage sequence, Batman's failure to stop the bombs in time is rendered in extremely personal terms -- he loved Rachel and is getting a classic "Dear Bruce" rejection letter, and also considered the now-disfigured Harvey his friend. Yet Bruce/Batman's personal suffering and grief are powerfully linked to the destruction of the building itself and the public efforts of the firefighters -- an obvious echo of post-9/11 images of the area around the WTC. Batman's grief is not just over his personal relations but his failure to protect Gotham City, and the deep bass drone of the music, suggestive of a dirge, accompanied by the late Rachel's voice reading the letter, connotes tragic loss, and heightens viewer sympathy for Batman, who suffers horribly (note his bowed posture in the montage) for his perceived failure to thwart the Joker's plans.

Now to move to the film's concluding montage, which unfolds to a voice over by Jim Gordon, recently returned from the "dead" after faking his death in order not to "risk my family's safety."  [Note that Gordon's wife has two lines in whole film but we see her weep plenty.] Indeed it is Gordon's family that takes center stage in the final act of The Dark Knight. The now homicidally insane Harvey Dent takes his revenge on Gordon's family, kidnapping and threatening to kill James Gordon Jr. (Nathan Gamble). Like Rachel, Gordon (and his family) directly suffers at the hands of a madman -- until luckily Batman shows up in time to save Gordon's son and defeat Dent. Immediately following this rescue, Gordon delivers the film's final soliloquy, which is framed as an explanation to his now-safe son about why Batman is necessary.

CLIP (start at 01:11): "DARK KNIGHT" SEQUENCE (DVD Ch. 38, 2:22:23 - 2:23:24)

Whatever questions the film may fleetingly raise about the morality of Batman's actions are swept away -- at least in the emotional register -- by the tenor of this closing sequence. Viewers like me, who are used to maintaining a certain critical distance even when we are to some extent being swept in by the film's emotional siren song, may still feel uneasiness at a moment like this. We may not respond in the exact way the film seems to want us to. Nevertheless, at the formal level, the last few minutes of The Dark Knight are a rousing battle cry to forgive and forget the specifics of what Batman has done, and to feel deep sympathy for this noble, suffering loner who agrees to be persecuted in order to maintain the facade that Harvey Dent was a good man. He and Gordon conspire to lie to the public to keep them safe, and this closing sequence diverts our attention from the political implications of these deeds and instead frames the issue in terms of lone white heroes doing what must be done to keep our children and families safe. That is melodrama: The Dark Knight’s conclusion celebrates Batman’s actions and melodramatically restores him to a place of heroism via his internal suffering and public victimhood.

It is on these grounds that I conclude that The Dark Knight is neoconservative war propaganda, for like all the most effective propaganda, its most potent sequences directly trigger the emotions without necessarily arousing too much critical thought -- perhaps even confounding some forms of critical analysis due to their seemingly deliberate obtuseness. As Lethem concludes, "In its narrative gaps, its false depths leading nowhere in particular, its bogus grief over stakeless destruction and faked death, “The Dark Knight” echoes a civil discourse strained to helplessness by panic, overreaction and cultivated grievance" (2). Like me, Lethem fears the power of melodramatic tropes to overwhelm viewer emotions at the expense of critical analysis and further discussion. He fears the "helplessness" of a public used to being swayed by gut feelings, used to knowing who the good guys and bad guys are, and used to accepting melodramatic self-sacrifice as a barometer of moral value. I fear these things and that is why I fear the overwhelming popularity of blockbusters like The Dark Knight, for it only affirms Slavoj Zizek's contention that "we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.  [. . .]  [All] the main terms we use to designate the present conflict -- 'war on terrorism', 'democracy and freedom', 'human rights', and so on -- are false terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it."‡ Think it, no. But feel it, yes.

* When I give live presentations I am a big improviser and digresser -- I feel that a certain amount of unplanned, spontaneous side talk helps me keep things lively and engaging for everyone. Therefore my written talks usually contain rough, bullet-pointy sections for which I "fill in the blanks" in the moment. This is especially true for clip analysis -- sometimes I will chat a little over the clip, etc.
** Linda Williams, “Melodrama Revised.” Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory.  Ed. Nick Browne. U California Press, 1998. p. 58.
† Will Brooker,  Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon.  London: Continuum, 2000.
†† If indeed the Gotham City of Nolan's Dark Knight is a version of the "closed world" of melodrama, then Batman's Batpod flight past the camera at the end of the film parallels Stella Dallas' purposeful stride away from the site of her daughter's wedding or Julie's march off to the yellow fever camp at the end of Jezebel. It is an act of self-sacrifice that is meant (in the film's melodramatic logic) to ennoble the victim-protagonist. See Thomas Elsaesser, "Tales of Sound and Fury" in Imitations of Life (Ed. Marcia Landy, Wayne State UP, 1995) pp. 78-9.
‡ Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real!  Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. Verso, 2002. p. 2.