Friday, July 29, 2016

The Killing Joke Is Feminist Affirmative Action

In the days surrounding Batman: The Killing Joke’s one-night theatrical release (or two, depending on where you live), much hoopla has been raised by comic fans over certain alterations made to the characters of Barbara Gordon and Bruce Wayne, who apparently take their relationship to places never before suggested or seen in the series canon.  Having read Alan Moore’s Killing Joke (really old review here), played the first two Arkham games, and bypassed pretty much anything else in the way of Barbara-related comics lore, I’m in no position to comment on the credibility of this unanticipated development other than to say it’s disrespectful to the men who wrote the comics, the fans who read the comics, and the characters who carried the comics, which would be all around deplorable enough if the added subplot didn’t also reek of politically motivated, arrogantly Progressive revisionism.

The original Killing Joke obviously wasn’t centered on Barbara Gordon, a minor character and centerpiece of the Joker’s horrifying scheme, nor did Moore’s choice not to emphasize her impede the ability of any fair and reasonable reader to empathize with Commissioner Gordon or loathe the monster striving to break him. Barbara was, by any interpretation of the word, a plot device, but that wasn’t inherently a bad thing, as not every comic issue needs or ought to dedicate the same attention to every character all of the time.  This is a fault of Marvel’s cluttered Captain America and Avengers movies, which try in vain to equally apportion a shining moment or integral story function to a dozen different superheroes in order not to upset fans of War Machine, Scarlett Witch, Sharon Carter, and other lesser Marvel characters.  Nor does every story need to feature a resilient and self-sufficient female character for the sake of availing witless, backsliding readers that women can be resilient and self-sufficient.  This assumption is born out of a malicious, educationally-propagated fallacy that fiction, rather than being a coded line of communication between author and listener, should serve solely as a vehicle for promoting and engendering a warped leftist worldview, wherein women are never brutalized by more powerful men and both sexes have roughly equal agency in any given sequence of events.

Up until a couple years ago, or maybe even the release of this movie, The Killing Joke was unanimously considered a nearly perfect graphic novel, and it’s still a nearly perfect short story to this day.  The passage of time and the softening of people’s consciences have no bearing on the artistic worth or philosophic clarity of a piece of literature, so while Emma Watson-worshipping college lesbians may denounce the shooting and humiliation of Barbara Gordon as an attack upon their sexuality, this is exclusively their problem and not the novel’s.  Barbara’s limited role in the novel perfects suits the story Moore was trying to tell: it serves a purpose in a maniacal plan that couldn’t quite be replaced by anything else, it poignantly highlights the cruelty and perversity of the Joker while exposing Jim Gordon’s prevailing goodness, and it drives home the bleak, disturbing world of Gotham by utterly appalling the reader.  Detractors may dismiss this as Exploitation Fiction, but when has that stopped leftist culture critics from lionizing Tarantino, Argento, Miike, and other masters of exploitation sub-genres?  The otherwise mediocre rape drama Irreversible still attracts new viewers because its director pulled no stops in shooting the film’s most exploitative, sickening, and undoubtedly effective scene.  The point of moviemaking is not to utilize a female character in ways embiggening to disaffected females who like to claim make-believe women as representatives of their physical or psychological ability; it’s to utilize (or not utilize) a female character in ways that serve the nature of whatever story the author is telling.

Screen writer Brian Azzarello’s unnecessary expansion of Batgirl doesn’t just taint Alan Moore’s already cohesive and complete treatment of Batman and The Joker; by totally revamping the opening to the story and kowtowing to Feminazi ideologues who either don’t understand or don’t care about art, it retroactively accuses the original author of committing accidental misogyny and ruins the movie by attempting to atone for ‘mistakes’ which were a byproduct of a less sensitive, right-thinking era.  This Progressive pandering, more so than the spontaneous sex scene, voyeuristic night jog shots, or obligatory gay friend who does nothing, is the most offensive addition to a classic that needed no Obama-age updating, and will be remembered as one of the worst stabs at correcting a minor female character outside of Briseis in the catastrophic Troy, whose creators couldn’t stomach to depict a woman as a helpless war prize, and whatever that Leonidas wife subplot was in 300.

Story notwithstanding, the 30-minute Batgirl prologue is tonally incongruous with everything else inside The Killing Joke, which the humorless remainder of the microscopic film replicates almost panel for panel and line for line.  The introductory plotline is stuffed with awful one-liners and relatable character moments that had my sold-out theater howling with laughter, while the latter part features no relatable characters and only invokes humor in the most disquieting or horrifying of circumstances.

The voice acting by Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy is fine, except when it’s not due to bad direction or unconsidered loyalty to the comic book format.  All the Joker flashbacks until his transformation – the best part of the movie, bar none – are passed through stock, old-timey sepia filters that accentuate the theatricality of the voice acting and convinced me for about half a minute that the movie had switched to some TV show within the show.  When he receives the news that his pregnant wife has passed away, Joker puts on a sullen face but speaks with little audible emotion, and from that point on the audience are drifting in the same boat of apathy.  Dialogue is read at a breathless pace with no pauses for comedic or dramatic emphasis, as if the actors were having an after-school hang-out in the bookstore and trying to skim through the book as fast as possible to make it home in time for dinner.  As such, it comes across more like an accelerated episode of Scooby Doo than a recommended-for-mature-viewers character study. The last time I read The Killing Joke I took as a kind of horror story about a tragic man who’d forsaken all moral restraints and wanted to prove that any man subjected to similar trauma would also revert to an animalistic state.  The movie by comparison looks and sounds like a morning cartoon, and even with the heavily hyped R-rating, it still steers away from nudity, profanity, or atmospheres of terror and dread.

The consensus online seems to be that DC should have settled for making a 45-minute short instead of padding The Killing Joke out to justify a feature, but the movie’s ultimate failing is its indecision to distinguish itself from the core story in cinematic, thematically appropriate ways.  The one major change they made from the book should have been omitted entirely, and everything else is harvested straight from the panels with no thought to fleshing them out to be suspenseful, scary, or filmic.  Consider how tense and drawn-out the scene in Blade Runner is where Deckard hunts down Batty, how much mental unease Ridley Scott builds out of one compact environment.  In Batman: The Killing Joke: The Movie, Batman paces down a hallway of green and purple mirrors, lets the Joker beat him up in a boring, bright room, then tackles him out a window all in a span of two or three minutes, thus ending a chase that could have spread across a range of carnival attractions.

For those deniers still sitting on the fence, DC thankfully demystifies the longstanding question of whether Batman kills the Joker at the end, effectively quelling any more useless debate and signaling that comics, written as they are for teenage boys, have no artistic excuse for ambiguity and should not be left open to interpretation.

Here’s hoping Suicide Squad has lots of snappy dialogue, likeable and one-dimensional crazy people I can quote ad nauseum to my friends, themes of working together to defeat a bad guy, nobody dying or getting permanently injured, and zero depth of storytelling.  If DC would just take some lessons from Marvel, maybe they could start producing child-friendly entertainment like Avengers: Age of Ultron which all of us already know and love.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Dharma Relativity Theorem in the Ramayana

The following was written for a catch-all class on Asian great books, philosophy, and calligraphy which kicked off with a reading of the Good Parts Version of the Ramayana.  The paper won’t make much sense to the uninitiated, firstly because I wrote it for a professor reasonably familiar with the Ramayana, secondly because the Ramayana itself just doesn’t make much sense.  It’s still a pretty good entry point to Eastern literature, as it feels like the best Michael Bay movie Hollywood hasn’t yet had the good sense to green-light and offensively recast with non-blue people of European descent.  Where the Ramayana falls apart as religious epic – or stands tall depending on your spiritual persuasion – is in its confused, progressive, and relativistic presentation of the moral code of dharma.

The essay is way too long and rephrases the same idea over and over because I was being graded on a page count and because a pretty big chunk of it was written overnight.  Teachers in other fields may take this as a cautionary paper.

The concept of dharma in the Ramayana takes a multitude of forms, encompassing such meanings as natural calling, social obligation, and right behavior more broadly.  Pretty much every character in the epic lays claim to knowing and walking in the way of dharma, even those whose aims are diametrically opposed to one another’s.  As such it’s often hard to discern what the author of the Ramayana believes real dharma to be.  The contradictions within the moral order and its manifold interpretations are most easily reconciled when one sees dharma not as a concrete, immutable, absolute code but as a personal excuse pleaded by fallible, selfish characters in justification of their actions.  In the grand scheme of the epic, fate plays a much larger role in Rama finishing his exile and reclaiming Sita than does his inconsistent, continually revised commitment to dharma.

The author commonly refers to Rama as a perfect incarnation of dharma, Avatara of the deva Vishnu.  The introduction to Rama at the beginning of Book Two describes him as a human in whom “all the virtues that Brahma ever created were gathered as the galaxies are within the universe”.  When held up to scrutiny, though, Rama often falters from the very principles he describes as dharma, succumbing to fits of wrath and needless outbreaks of violence. In one chapter he lectures Lakshmana on the foolishness of violent resorts, saying, “Violence is never dharma and you must not give in to your anger.”  But throughout the Ramayana, Rama not only engages in violent acts but veritably relishes the opportunity for them.  When the “hideous” and pitiful rakshasa Surpanka enters their encampment, Rama recognizes her for what she is, but instead of attempting to defuse the situation quickly and peacefully, he entertains her seductive behavior and toys with her by recommending his brother in his stead.  Aiming to capitalize on the brothers’ pretense of flirting, Surpanka aggressively moves to devour Princess Sita, and Rama responds by brutally disfiguring the demon with the aid of his brother.  Rather than lamenting this unfortunate defensive act, necessary to protect the wife who gave up everything to enter the wilderness with him, Rama celebrates the maiming of Surpanka, for as the text reads, “The brothers dissolved in mirth.”

Was it dharma for the exile to break his former testimony against bloodshed, in such a sadistic and excessive manner none the less?  Did the dharma of defending his wife overrule the dharma of nonviolence he’d spoken of earlier?  The key implication of this scene is not that Rama has somehow violated dharma, considering that his personal “dharma” is ever changing to suit his current circumstances, but that fate or destiny is using him in unpredictable, seemingly ungodly ways to fulfill his ultimate purpose of toppling the tyranny of Ravana.  As the abducted Sita says in her encounter with Hanuman, “Ravana is part of our destiny and destiny must take its course.  Rama must come to Lanka and kill Ravana... Then dharma will be established on earth… Let there be a war, a dharma yuddha, as is honorable.”  The humiliation of Surpanka only leads to Rama’s decimation of Khara’s rakshasa – another sweeping reversal of his prior counsel –, which leads to her inflaming Ravana with jealousy over Sita, which leads to the beautiful woman’s separation from Rama and his ensuing, predetermined quest to regain her by any means.

Rama, Lakshmana, and Jatayu hunt rakshasas in a notoriously unsuccessful 2009 adaptation.
© 2007 Twentieth Century Fox

Rama again resorts to gratuitous, ill-informed brutality when he unhesitatingly offers to assassinate Sugriva’s brother, the monkey king Vali, for reasons not entirely clear on a very one-sided account.  “It is plain that only Vali’s death will bring you peace,” he tells his new ally, “And I swear to you, he will die.”  These don’t sound like the words of a man who “shuns violence wherever he can”, nor do they make much sense given his address to the dying Vali, whom he reasons he can justly kill within his dharma because the vanaras are wild animals that have been hunted through the ages by his ancestors.  Since Rama isn’t beholden to the same rules when dealing with the punishment of animals, one can only wonder why he treats so solemnly the suffering of one like Sugriva, who has simply fallen short in the natural world’s battle of the fittest.

In any case, the prince of Ayodhya breaks his initial tenets of dharma in several ways, by needlessly killing a creature instead of negotiating a peaceful resolution, by shooting him from hiding like a coward – an insult frequently levied at Ravana for stealing Sita in the night –, and by subjecting his reason and concern for justice to his emotion.  “You are the worst kind of sinner: the one who pretends to be dharma itself… You have not even heard both sides of our story,” accuses Vali in his dying throes, but even now Rama tries to rationalize his execution of the monkey as an act of dharma, saying he’s called to judge and punish the sinful.  Whatever choice he makes resolving any given conflict Rama passes off as dharma, whether or not it clashes with the precedents of dharma he’s set in the past.

Rama’s unwavering adherence to a rigid dharma, if it existed, would probably be an impediment to his destiny more than anything.  The more pragmatic, impulsive Lakshmana expresses as much after he’s been deceived into thinking that Sita’s died by the hand of Indrajit.  “My brother has been a savior to the munis of the forests… But his dharma has not saved him from evil.  Gentleness and dharma are of no use in this world.”  In fact, “real dharma”, or honorable action, often seems like it would counteract destiny, which depends on people acting in accordance with their baser natures and desires, i.e. with their personal, contextualized sense of dharma.  All the events that set in motion the eventual destruction of Ravana and his kingdom are motivated by transient adharma so that a different, generalized kind of dharma can prevail at the end of the ancient war.

Hanuman smashes Aksha while razing Lanka to the ground in Peter Jackson’s dumbed-down crowdpleaser.
© Universal Pictures

One example of this pattern is Ravana’s disagreement with Vibheeshana, who urges him to follow “the way of dharma” and return Sita to her husband, “the perfect man”, so as to avoid innumerable casualties in a catastrophic war with the vanaras.  Yet for Ravana to do this would not only contradict his own dharma as a demon, but further undermine the whole pretext for Rama dethroning Ravana in the first place.  Here the author introduces the theory of dharma as a natural, rather than a spiritual obligation, for Ravana repeatedly emphasizes the importance of what he’s doing to his role as a king and a rakshasa.  “You say it was dishonorable for me to abduct you, but you forget I am a rakshasa.  It is natural, and so entirely honorable, for me to take another man’s wife if I want her... That is a rakshasa’s nature, and his dharma.”  The dharma of a rakshasa, who’s given over to animalistic rage and orgies, differs starkly from the dharma of a human or a vanara, whom Rama judges must never take another man for his wife lest he be worthy of death. According to Ravana, who may be speaking falsely to get his way but nonetheless points out the relativity of dharma, even Sita violates her own calling as his prisoner by resisting his advances.  “You are denying your own nature, Sita.  Other woman have been brought here as spoils of war, as frightened as you… But when they knew me, none of them resisted me for more than a week.”

So too does the dharma of a king, who has to exercise aggressive, ruthless, often stubborn dominance to sustain his power, differ vastly from the dharma of everybody else, as both Vali and Ravana observe at various points.  “Let Rama come not with an army of monkeys but with the host of heaven, and I will not give Sita up to him,” objects Ravana to his wisest advisor Vibheeshana.  “Your counsel is the way of cowardice.  How can a king like me heed such advice?”  The disparity in dharma arises because each character, being in pursuit of different interests, reveres a different, private dharma that condones their actions specifically.  For Rama, that dharma is the divine authority of his judgment passed on other souls, and for Ravana it is the natural course of things when people follow their most essential, ravenous tendencies.

Where they overlap is in their confidence that everything they do is directly working out for fate.  “Sita, fate is all-powerful.  You and I were created for each other.  Why else would you have come to me at all, by the long and winding way that you did… Don’t resist the will of God.”  Ravana, for once, speaks truth without fully realizing it, because it is the will of Brahma that Sita and the Lord of Lanka be together for a while, just as it is Brahma’s will that Dasaratha banish Rama for 14 years and that Rama fulfill his inborn purpose of killing Ravana and inheriting the kingship.  Sita echoes this sentiment: when she defies her captor: “Now that I have seen how evil you are, I think fate conspired to make you abduct me.  So Rama would come to kill you.”  Whether or not the characters reach the final point by “dharma” is an insignificant detail, because destiny is the only constant in their lives and destiny dictates that dharma will ultimately triumph over adharma.  The path to this victory is paved with sin and violence, but sometimes it’s necessary for people to bend or pervert their sense of dharma in order to satisfy the will of the gods.

Another place one sees the relativity of dharma is in the prevalence of suicide threats from almost every grief-ridden character, including Rama and Sita themselves.  Hanuman briefly comments on the depravity of suicide in his scouting trip to Lanka: “But they say it is a grievous sin to kill oneself, worse than murder.”  This shows that most of Rama’s family are either ambivalent to their dharma concerning suicide, not understanding its consequences, or think that other forms of dharma – sharing the fate of one’s spouse, loyalty to one’s brother, motherly love – outweigh the bad karma they’d inherit by taking their own lives in violence.

If the subjectivity of dharma can be summarized in a single passage, it would be in Rama’s preparations to depart from Rama, when he tries to comfort his anguished mother and temper the furious Lakshmana.  “All this is fate working toward her own inscrutable ends.  Not even the rishis who are masters of their sense are beyond fate; even they fall prey to the passions of destiny… It is not that mother Kaikeyi is evil… only that destiny uses her, even against her own nature.”  Such is true of all the adversaries the hero faces on the path to Lanka, of Surpanka and Khara and Vali and Maricha and the dark lord Ravana himself.  Though Rama encounters much resistance and deception and constantly adapts or qualifies his dharma to meet the challenges he faces, fate in the Ramayana is always utilizing dharma and adharma, righteous deeds and sin alike to advance the final will of the Devas, and that which seems immoral or contrary to dharma in the present is just one of many instruments used by the divines in a greater plan.

On a side note, the Ramesh Menon adaptation/condensation of the colossal poem is hilarious and makes for a great read even if you have no interest in Hinduism or Indian folklore.  The Good Parts Version of his translation had me bursting into laughter almost as frequently as Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, and I would gladly have finished it if I wasn’t enrolled in 18 units and it wasn’t practically impossible.  Here are some of the more riotous or just plain interesting passages:

“One moment, the rakshasa rushed at Rama with his claws outstretched to seize his throat; the next, he screamed as the astra struck him and his flesh fell away from his skeleton in anxiety to escape the intolerable pain of that missile.  His heart exploded, then his giant head, and nothing was left of Khara but patches of blood, skin, and a heap of bones on the ground.”
“‘Have you seen her?” he cried to the kadamba and the tilaka, the asoka, the karnikar and the kritamala.  But they stood mute, on the eloquent verge of speech.”
“Playfully, he cut off her nose and her ears, so black blood spurted from her face.”  [One of at least two nose & ear removals in the Ramayana.]
“Hanuman thought, ‘By her beauty she must be Sita.  But how does she sleep so contentedly in Ravana’s bedchamber, with a smile curving her perfect lips?’  He slapped himself again, across his cheek this time, as monkeys do.”
“Rama seemed undecided what he wanted to do first: look for Sita or consume the world.”

And those are just the ones I feel secure in sharing on this blog.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

NWTE – Hunt For The Wilderpeople and The Invitation

Not Worth The Effort was conceived in early Fall of 2015 with the aim of succinctly documenting and summarizing movies (and possibly other media) that simply aren’t worth the effort of a full review.  This month’s issue is dedicated to Ghostbusters (2016), which is so far by far the most astonishing movie of the year and which proves to misogynist haters beyond a shadow of a doubt that women can be as witty and hilarious as Azis Ansari, Louis C.K., Adam Sandler, and Anderson Cooper.

Wishing For Wilder People

About ten minutes into Hunt For the Wilderpeople, I realized that I had stumbled into what could accurately be described as a grandma movie – that being a completely toothless, affable, and frivolous comedy with emphases on filial-paternal dynamics, enjoying the outdoors, and learning to live life to the fullest.  The only people who could stand to be mildly offended by a movie like this are governmental child care workers, and chances are that anyone who works in the government is already busy being offended by a litany of other travesties, like the heartbreaking new video of Alton Stirling dancing with Derek Hough.  The internet seems to tell me that the movie takes a lot of pot shots at Australian or New Zealand groups, but if it did, then these shots must have flown straight over my American head, and I’m not about to go read up on Australian demographics so I can understand the freaking Hunt for Wilderpeople.  Regardless, such desperate allegations, most likely formed by people scrounging for some way to rationalize the $10 they’d just spent, are simply obfuscating the reality that this is one of the least offensive films released since Deadpool – a fun and family-oriented film which almost nobody could dislike and which any seasoned movie viewer would struggle to truly love.

"A film which almost nobody could dislike..." ~ The Author before he saw the Tomatometer

It’s a film in which the main character is introduced wearing a 2Pac jacket and names his dog after the rapper but which features nary a reference or montage to any of his songs, maybe because they couldn’t get the money for one, maybe because the director correctly assumed the vast majority of 2Pac fans would have no interest in such a White People Movie, or maybe because he figured that playing a profanity-ridden 2Pac song would scare away the grandparents who thought they’d gone to see a cute, endearing movie about a nice boy and his uncle going camping in the woods.  Maybe there’s a deleted scene out there somewhere that’ll make its way, without the musical backing, onto the DVD, or maybe the fact that Ricky Baker looks up to 2Pac as a role model is kind of superfluous and adds nothing to the movie aside from reinforcing that he’s a petulant and destructive problem child, something we were already meant to gather from the montage of him breaking things, kicking things, and loitering.

And if you thought that Swiss Army Man had a lot of montages, then rest assured that Wilderpeople will not disappoint on that front.  Survival and newsreel montages are just one of many clich├ęs that Taika Waititi, who once made a decidedly non-cliched vampire documentary, whips out throughout this smaller-scale Lord of the Rings.  Others include:
* Like meter on a social media photo zipping up really fast to indicate significance to modern, tech-dependent viewer 
* A character talking nonchalantly about one thing in a vague enough manner that strangers think he’s talking about something completely inappropriate and sexual 
* Well-meaning but misguided government trying to take the kid away 
* Character at the beginning of the movie: “Don’t call me Uncle.”  Character at the end of the movie: “I guess you can call me Uncle.” 
* “What did you just call me? Call me that one more time!” 
* Terminator references 
* Hungry person imagining an animal is a giant hamburger  
* Character who thinks he’s taking a long and arduous journey is rudely awakened by someone to learn he hasn’t traveled more than 200 yards
* Practical trick exercised at beginning of movie (haiku) brought back at end for emotional impact and symmetry
* Beautiful, luminously backlit girl shakes hair in slow-motion as main character realizes he’s falling hopelessly in love. [OK, I admit I laughed at this part, and they did it twice in case you missed it the first time.]

Much though I would love to exhort these Files’ readers to go support indie cinema and “movies that are different”, to do so in regards to Wilderpeople would be completely disingenuous, as this is nothing more than another slant on the now formulated tale of a talkative kid warming the heart of a grumpy older guy and showing him he doesn’t have to be alone.  What’s more disappointing is that this variation on the tale adds the loss of an amiable wife and mother figure, but after Auntie passes away, we never really see the boy or Sam Neill grieving her absence.  Would dedicating more time to her and what she meant to both main characters have made this a more sentimental, manipulative movie?  Probably.  Would it have made the film more engaging and consequential?  Yes.

If not for its gleeful satirization of the broken foster care system, Hunt For The Wilderpeople would merely be a halfway amusing, not that funny, and always predictable walking movie with too many crossfades, a soundtrack that’s all over place, and some pretty New Zealand landscape shots that looked much better in The Fellowship of the Ring, which this film parodies in one of its finer moments.  Through the heightened dialogue and actions of the overly excitable social worker, Waititi seems to be insinuating that people in government suffer from a kind of small penis syndrome, by which they frequently need to justify their profession.  Usually that justification is based on stirring up problems in ordinary people’s lives where none exist so that “public servants” can “fix” those problems and pretend they’ve done a valuable favor for the citizens who pay them.  Ricky and Hec desire nothing but to be left alone and to roam as free and independent wilderpeople, but just as in the real world, the state’s self-conscious compulsion to be seen as action heroes supersedes the will of common folk and the bonds of family.  In fact, the movie slips in so many send-ups of action movie tropes that I can hardly doubt lampooning the government’s warped self-image was accidental on the creators’ part.  Paula the social worker braggingly compares herself to the Terminator, shrieks corny movie lines like, “I’ve secured the package!” and generally bears herself like she’s a much more masculine character defusing much more volatile situations.

But would I recommend you pay to see this movie?  Well, it isn’t animated, it doesn’t star Melissa McCarthy or Matt Damon, it doesn’t have a homosexual Sulu in it, and there’s not a colon in the title.  Is that sufficient grounds to recommend a movie this year?

If you drive 10 miles or more out from your house, you might find a smaller, less profitable theater that’s inexplicably still playing The Lobster to audiences of two or three people per screening.  You should watch The Lobster.

Inviting Violence

Little seen and screened in its limited April theatrical run, The Invitation swiftly passed into obscurity as people, including some Beatissima students, unfathomably went to watch Zootopia and Batman Vs. Superman for the second or third time in theaters.  Now that it’s on Netflix and the makers have absolutely nothing to gain from people watching it other than personal satisfaction at a job well done, maybe it’ll finally find the audience it deserves.  I hesitate to reveal too much about the plot, but at its core The Invitation is about the difference between dealing with and dispelling pain, between respecting and forgetting those whose lives were tragically cut short.  Dreamy flashbacks are intercut with the present timeline to great effect, and director Karyn Kusama wisely gives the audience just enough visual cues to infer the background of the characters without outright expositing.  Again, without spoiling anything beyond the 30-minute mark, the film directly concerns a religious cult originating in Mexico but deliberately leaves its structure and belief set nebulous and open to scrutiny, as cults tend to be in real life.  The movie definitely appears to have been inspired by real-life events, but I’ll leave it to the viewer to discover exactly how.

In brief, the first hour and 20 minutes were unadulterated, heart-clenching thriller greatness, the 15-minute climax was thoroughly deflating, and the final scene literally sent chills down my back.  If I had to form my year-end favorites list right now, it would be lagging behind The Lobster, Hardcore Henry, The Witch, and 10 Cloverfield Lane, but just outpacing Warcraft and The Neon Demon.

If it wasn’t already patently obvious, 2016 hasn’t been that great a year for films.

Post-script: There’s far too much attention being given on The Invitiation's IMDb forums and the internet in general to the “diverse” casting of the dinner guests.  This was an element that neither bothered nor pleased me, as the race and sexual orientation of the characters was wholly incidental to the story.  There’s one remark about an absent friend being one of the most careless Koreans in Hollywood Hills, and a couple throwaway shots where two gay guys are acting gay towards each other, but the fact that Kira was black or Miguel was Hispanic or Gina was Asian had no bearing on the events of the story, and the script never drew much attention to their ethnicity.  This is something I’d like to see more of in mainstream cinema, where minority characters are pervasively cast as victims having to surmount their crippling minority status.  The multi-nationality of the Starship Enterprise crew wasn’t a dominant interest of the original Star Trek TV series or movies; it was just an attribute of the Federation in Gene Roddenberry’s fictitious, optimistic future.  The Invitation follows much the same philosophy, but that’s the least notable of all its virtues.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Swiss AR-15 Man – Moving Radcliffe Biopic, Potty Humor, or Both?

When Warner Brothers announced that they’d be releasing another film set in the wizarding world of Harry Potter which incidentally wouldn’t feature any appearances by Harry Potter or Alan Rickman, many fans of J.K. Rowling’s devil-worshiping, irredeemable smut were left scratching their heads.  Fortunately, loyalists to the series can now get their Harry fix elsewhere, with a lovingly crafted biopic of the actor whose alter-ego captivated an entire generation of responsible, young communists.  Swiss Army Man spares no expense in honestly depicting Daniel Radcliffe’s life as a farting corpse, and is bound to satisfy 20-something girls who still dream of sending their babies off to Gryffindor.  Whether it completely lives up to its vast filmic potential is another question, one I’m inclined to answer in the negative for reasons I’ll kind of explain, maybe.

Swiss Army Man – The Good Parts Version

The frenetic, riotous trailer to Swiss Army Man makes it out to be an offbeat survival story riding on Radcliffe’s impressive versatility as one of #Brexit’s finest Navy corpsmen, but in the final product, the urgency of resurrecting Radcliffe from his mortal daze always trumps the urgency of Paul Dano’s character obtaining food or returning to civilization.  In this it reminds me of… Jonathan Levine’s excellent satire Warm Bodies, in which the lovely Teresa Palmer also has to bring a well-groomed, amiable zombie back to life by kissing him and teaching him how to love again and stuff.  Unlike Warm Bodies, but not really if you’ve seen Warm Bodies, Swiss Army Man has no sense of dramatic stakes or definite rules, as the Mur’can Hank is never seen consuming anything more filling than popcorn yet is able to build magnificent, makeshift vehicles out of sticks and random junk, to slaughter wildlife by using Daniel Radcliffe as an assault weapon, and, most spectacularly, to extend the battery life of an iPhone over three whole days, or however long this movie lasts.

Dano is indeed invincible for a coward whom we first see trying to hang himself out of despair of being stranded on a metaphorical island.  Though he’s undoubtedly the better-endowed, higher-billed, and more verbose of the two actors involved in the project, he exists mainly to prop up and gaily romance Radcliffe’s flatulent sidekick, and the Daniels (Scheinert and Kwan) who purportedly directed this thing don’t concern themselves much with the outcome of the troubled loner’s arc.  And that would be fine, if Swiss Army Man actually lived up to its full potential as a star-making documentary of the hitherto squandered character actor Daniel Radcliffe.  In the Harry Potter franchise, The Woman In Black, and whatever else that guy has been in, casting directors have erroneously hired the comedic natural to play grave and serious males, leaving his true ability unmined and unknown to all but a select few visionaries like the Daniels, who have made a kind of effort herein to channel his deadpan brilliance to the world.  For about the first 15 minutes they get it right, and Radcliffe blows and blusters and vomits with astonishing realism, but somewhere along the line the directors got it into their heads that the former boy wizard would need a speaking part to keep the audience’s interest, and this is where the movie takes a dismaying nosedive from illuminating biography into patronizing fiction.

Tragically, the ingenious stunt casting of Radcliffe as a literal tool who does whatever Labour his master requires of him crumbles beneath the filmmakers’ instinct to pander to a cruder segment of the population, one that probably has no interest whatsoever in watching a psychedelic, largely figurative story about a pervy, depressed stalker surviving in the wilderness by exploiting an imaginary friend imbued with miraculous anatomical “powers”.  I had a similar reaction to the ending song performed by Sia in Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film The Neon Demon, an afternoon showing of which drew not a single viewer besides the Author.  The target audience of a movie like The Neon Demon – which I would cautiously recommend, by the way – doesn’t give a flying flip about the neutered, radio-friendly electropop of Sia or Diplo, and closing out such a cerebral, twisted, and borderline satanic picture with a girly dance track by the both of them felt like an insult to the sophistication of the grown-ass males who’d paid to see the blood- and boobs-laced arthouse picture.

Likewise, the decision to have Radcliffe uttering words extensively in Swiss Army Man not only played out to the artistic detriment of the film, compromising the integrity of the actor’s life story as a corpsman who cannot speak intelligibly, but came across as condescending to the patience of indie fans who are probably capable of sitting through a slower, less talkative feature.  As the finished product stands, the best parts are those in which the Daniel is saying nothing and the Daniels let their visual absurdity do all the talking. To give you an idea of just how affecting and powerful Swiss Army Man can be, there’s a scene where Corpsman Manny uses explosive natural gas to hurtle himself towards an aggressive bear as a human fireball, and it is glorious.

I realize that there’s a sizeable number of people who’ve seen this movie – probably 40 or 50 at the greatest – who would justify Manny’s annoying dialogue as a figment of Hank’s imagination to help him cope with social and sexual frustration, and while there’s a lot of evidence to support this interpretation and the movie’s vague and open-to-interprety enough to mean a bunch of things, I still think the main character of Swiss Army Man is, in fact, the Swiss Army Man, and the core conflict his inability to let go of life, accept his failures, and pass into the afterlife.  This is why, when he and Hank stumble back into civilization, the little girl acts so appalled at the sight and smell of him, and this is why he proverbially craps his pants right before he jets off into the sunset, bringing the story full circle.  This is also why I don’t like the film as much as I would have if Paul Dano was the protagonist, because the creators neither utilize Radcliffe’s Big Bang-given stiffness that consistently nor commit themselves to a framework that explicitly rationalizes his behavior through the outcast’s loneliness.  Cast Away this is not, because when the hero is already dead or teetering on the cusp of imminent death, there’s no process of survival in which to get invested.  Even if one takes Dano to be the protagonist, the only way he’s dying is on the inside, starving from his incapacity to declare his feelings to an attractive bus passenger.

Apart from its daring but misguided performances and Dick Cheney-esque emotional gravitas, Swiss Army Man doesn’t offer too much as a film.  The cinematography and digital coloring is pretty standard, gritty Sundance fare, better than anything recent from Hollywood but nothing special like the 2015 Best Picture winner Spotlight, which took place mostly in unornamented office spaces and presented a stunningly cogent meditation on the significance of the color of semen.  The Daniels’ only directing background previous to this was in music videos, so it’s only natural that the mostly a cappella gibberish soundtrack complements the visuals really well.  Evoking a mashup of second-rate Fleet Foxes or Grimes and the Beach Boys demos on the overall better-edited Love and Mercy, also starring a singing Paul Dano, the music sounds resplendent in the theater but is the kind of thing you would never, ever listen to for pleasure. Trust me, I tried.

Swiss Army Man aims to tell a touching, semi-biographical love story about a socially repressed homosexual man cross-dressing as a woman he obsesses over in order to seduce a farting corpse who glimpsed said woman on the necrophile’s phone and mistook her for a lover from his past life, and in that sense it largely succeeds.  This is the most progressive film in terms of normalizing underrecognized gender identities since Being John Malkovich, but is it also the best film?

Of course not.  Everybody knows that film is Spotlight.

Swiss Army Man is probably not playing in a theater near you.  Check out the trailer below.