Friday, February 2, 2018

Cruel to be Kind: A Review of Amazon's "Britannia"

When I first heard about the new Amazon Prime original, Britannia, I was excited.  While dealing with a different historical event, Britannia reminded me of one of my favorite books of all time: Edward Morris's House of the Wolfings.  This book, one which would prove to be very influential with later authors such as the great J. R. R. Tolkien himself, told the story of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest from the point of view of the Germanic tribes who united to repulse Roman avarice.  Like Homer's The Illiad, Morris's House of the Wolfings was not a strict historical drama but a fantasy-laced tale where flesh and blood mortals strove against Roman might with the mystical aid of pagan goddesses and dwarven enchanted armor.  Trust me: it is a wonderful story of a people fighting for their freedom.

Sadly, it was clear that my (admittedly baseless) hopes were not to be fulfilled with Britannia as the opening title sequence, one that resembled an LSD trip set to 1960's Scottish troubadour Donovan's Hurdy Gurdy Man (a song I have since become fond of thanks to this show), made me suspect the show was going for something different, something more akin to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, or the classic Vietnam War cinematic adaption, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.   This hunch was supported by the early moments of the first episode where Britannia went to great lengths to show how Roman troops were terrified to the point of mutiny by the idea of setting foot on Celtic land rumored to be overrun with demons and magic.  While I would have preferred a show more like House of the Wolfings, a Britannia built around madness and paranoia in an ancient land of unfathomable people got me nearly as excited.  This looked to be good! But in practice, it wasn't. Well, that might be too strong as there is some pleasure to be had here, but the ultimate problem I had with Britannia was how the show was unable to decide just what it wanted to be.  While there is a bit of House of the Wolfings and a bit of Heart of Darkness, ultimately Britannia limps into the barn resembling little more than a Game of Thrones or Vikings copycat with odds bits of humor throne in for good measure.

Despite all the early handwringing about the madness that awaited the Roman troops, the truth turns out to be something much more mundane.  Instead of being greeted by slavering monsters that can swallow entire legions whole, what greets Rome is just a case of homespun politics involving one tribe of Celts attempting to overcome another tribe.  Oh sure, there is some Druid mysticism mumbo-jumbo adding spice to this formula, but it is not particularly well developed and seemed more tacked on than well thought out to me (but more on that later).  Instead, the bulk of Britannia subjects the audience to watching Roman general Plautius play the two Celt tribes - the Cantii and the Regni - against each other for convoluted reasons having to do with Plautius seeing himself as some sort of conquering demon.  It was here that it became apparent that Britannia was criminally under-developing its potentially strongest asset, one initially screamed at us in the opening moments of the series: the otherworldly nature of the Celt people and the challenges of domesticating this wild realm.  Rather than being presented as a mysterious and rebellious people with a strong cult of mysticism, both the Cantii and Regni are blandly presented as Romans of a different flavor.  Heck, the show doesn't even suggest any sort of communication difficulties between the two as Romans and Celts freely converse amongst themselves without any apparent difficulty.  While History Channel's Vikings has its fair share of problems, at least that show did an admirable job of bringing the distinctive Viking culture to life.  After watching the entire first season of Britannia, I could not tell you one distinctive thing about the Celts.  I couldn't even tell you one distinction between the Cantii or Regni  as both are presented as copy-and-paste tribes who are at war for reasons the never transcend a simplistic grudge match over marriage ties (I am simplifying a bit to avoid some spoilers, but just a bit).  This is, frankly, an unforgivable crime for a show supposedly based in history.  I am not asking for hardcore historical narrative - I have long given up hope that any mainstream bit of entertainment will ever care for historical accuracy - but merely a show that demonstrates a modicum of concern for its subject matter.  I hate to say it but I get the distinct impression Britannia was based on little more than a brief glance at a Wikipedia entry.

Now, Britannia does attempt to address the mysticism of the Celt people via the infamous Druids.  Sadly, though, even here the show drops the ball as the Druids are presented as an almost cartoonish faction - complete with a leader who is made to look like the embodiment of Skeletor - who engage in the standard talk-in-riddles-make prophesies-sacrifice people-and-be-the-power-behind-the-throne stuff that is de rigueur Hollywood treatment for any sort of religion.  It all comes across as rather silly and trite to be honest.  When compared to, say, the seriousness with which Game of Thrones portrayed the "Lord of Light" cult, Britannia's presentation of an actual ancient religion looks all the more farcical by comparison.  Frankly, instead of being presented with a haunted house, we instead get a fun-house mirror that distorts rather than terrifies.  Now, this not to say that the various prophesies concerning demons and demi-goddesses does not become intriguing over the course of the first season - it does have its moments - but just that it is largely weak sauce that is overpowered by the mundane politics that drives the bulk of the narrative.  What a missed opportunity to inject some true Heart of Darkness horror into the story!

Another strike against Britannia is that this is one of those all too common shows haunted by the spirit of Harvey Weinstein.  Be prepared to have to suffer through quite a few ham-handed sex scenes that neither develop character nor advance the plot (quite the opposite, actually).  It is really a shame that in the wake of the horror that the Weinsteins of the world have unleashed on actresses everywhere, we still have more than a few directors/producers who have no qualms about using their actresses as sexual playthings in their shows.  Frankly, shows like Britannia make me wonder if the hashtag #MeToo is being interpreted by some in the entertainment industry as a cry of solidarity with Weinstein.  Certainly shows like Britannia make me think so.  Well, either that or we seem to have raised a crop of directors who secretly want to produce porn but lack the guts to just go and do it, so they sneak their predilections into shows like Britannia.  Whatever the reason, add another strike against Britannia for its neanderthal ways.

The writing in Britannia - that is, the dialogue - was mediocre to poor.  While I was not expecting Shakespearean verse or even Paul Kingsnorth'a "Shadow Tongue" from The Wake (that would be too daring for a modern show, I guess), I was at least expecting a Game of Thrones minimalist attempt to avoid street English whenever possible, such as when nobles converse.  Nope.  I had to guffaw a few times as thoroughly modern expressions made their way into the mouths of characters supposedly living almost two millennia ago (my favorite was when Phelan said he had a "typhoon" raging in his stomach, a meteorological term first coined 1500 years after the events of this story).   I don't mean to be pedantic, but anybody with an ear for dialogue should have scratched such obvious anachronisms from the script.  Of course, while the writing lacked any effort to elevate the dialogue, it wasted no opportunity to scatter vulgarities whenever possible, whether or not it sounded right coming from the mouth of a particular character (e.g., having young Cait scream an obscenity that was completely out of character for her - again, the Weinstein School of Filmmaking at work).  Flat dialogue for flat characters.

One of the areas where I did think Britannia deserved a bit of praise was the cinematography.  The show commendably invested some effort to find some absolutely stunning scenery that is truly evocative of what it must have been like to live in a time where nature was so vibrant that it infused the people themselves.  Unfortunately, though, even here I have a bit of criticism as the land is never used as anything more than a pretty backdrop.  One of the things that I loved about House of the Wolfings and Tolkien's various masterpieces was how both authors brought the metaphysical realism that dominated both the ancient and medieval periods to life by demonstrating how the land was a deep part of the people who lived on it; how it shaped their beliefs and practices at a fundamental level (Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake is another good example from contemporary literature).  Even Peter Jackson's masterful cinematic adaption of Lord of the Rings managed to convey how important the land was beyond being mere property to fight over.  Sadly, that metaphysical realism is rarely on display in Britannia, and when it does appear, it is only in the most superficial way possible.

Lastly, the acting is also good for the most part, even if the characters are themselves unimaginative.  David Morrissey is entertaining as Roman general Aulus Plautius, but his performance as a scheming Roman with visions of glory dancing in his head has been done countless times before, from Laurence Olivier's excellent Crassus in Sparticus, to CiarĂ¡n Hinds' Julius Caesar in HBO's Rome.   Mackenzie Crook's Skeletor-inspired Veran can be suitably scary if comic bookish at times, and Liana Cornell's goddess-possessed Ania is more often comical than compelling. Julian Rhind-Tutt's Phelan is so bland he might as well not be there, and his wife Amena, played by Annabel Scholey, aspires to be maniacal in a Cersei fashion but just comes across as a bumbling lush.   Zoe Wanamaker's Queen Antedia is perhaps one of the most tired of all the cliched characters in Britannia as she plays the tough, old matriarch who swears like a sailor and deals death like an executioner.  Yawn.  (Attention Hollywood: this is a tired cliche that needs to be put to rest.  Sure, we all snickered a bit when Betty White started swearing up a storm to get some easy attention, and we all loved how crotchety Maggie Smith was in Downton Abbey, but I think it is time that we moved on already.)   Then we have Kelly Reilly's Kera, a role mostly notable for her abundant pulchritude.  Seriously, this girl is a stunning Irish lass!

She rode out of a fairy tale...
Perhaps the best performances are delivered by Nikolaj Lie Kaas as outcast and somewhat hilariously insane Druid mystic Divis, and Eleanor Worthington Cox as Cait, the girl prophesied to defeat the demon that inhabits General Plautius and throw the Romans back into the sea.  In this role Cox delivers what is perhaps the finest performance by a young actress since Dakota Fanning - give her an Emmy!  Of the entire cast, only these two possess any gravitas.  Even better, when placed together - as they are all too briefly in the earliest episodes and again in the last - their performances absolutely sizzle as they bounce off each other, unleashing comedic gold in process.  Do yourself a favor, Amazon, and spin them off into their own show as the rest of the cast just gets in their way. 

Final Thoughts

I honestly don't know why I took the time to write this lengthy review of what is, at best, a mediocre series.  Well, that is not entirely true.  I DO know why I did so: because Britannia is a tragically wasted opportunity that should have been far better than what it was.  A story about a legion of Roman troops sent to conquer a primeval land populated by magical Druids and wild Celts should pretty much write itself, be it by going down the historical fantasy path of House of the Wolfings or by the intriguing Heart of Darkness path of hell-spawned insanity.    Yet somehow the creative team behind Britannia managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by halfheartedly attempting both, ultimately achieving neither, and just delivering "play it safe" Game of Thrones/Vikings copycatting with some humorI am hoping that if this show gets a second season it will learn from its first season mistakes and kick off the next season with a hardcore focus on either the historical fantasy aspects or the Druid horror ones, and leave GoT's byzantine politics for others.  I do have a bit of hope that this is where the show might be going as the final episode of Season One seemed to suggest that the narrative was going to focus less on banal politics and more on the Druid's otherworldly battle with evil demons.  (There is even something that suggests it could all tie into the rise of Christianity in Rome itself, a very interesting twist to say the least!) Will I watch Season Two, assuming it is granted one?  Probably. But Britannia is going to need to really wow me to hold me for much longer.

Stop walking in the well-worn tracks of other shows.  That is not the way to rule, Britannia.

Score: C

[I have reduced the score from C+ to C because I have noticed that I am already forgetting about this show.  Not a good sign.]

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Halloween!

Tam o' Shanter (Translation) by Robert Burns
via Alexandria Burns Club

When the peddler people leave the streets,
And thirsty neighbours, neighbours meet; 
As market days are wearing late,
And folk begin to take the road home, 
While we sit boozing strong ale,
And getting drunk and very happy,
We don’t think of the long Scots miles, 
The marshes, waters, steps and stiles, 
That lie between us and our home,
Where sits our sulky, sullen dame (wife),
Gathering her brows like a gathering storm, 
Nursing her wrath, to keep it warm.

This truth finds honest Tam o' Shanter,
As he from Ayr one night did canter;
Old Ayr, which never a town surpasses,
For honest men and bonny lasses.

Oh Tam, had you but been so wise,
As to have taken your own wife Kate’s advice!
She told you well you were a waster,
A rambling, blustering, drunken boaster,
That from November until October,
Each market day you were not sober;
During each milling period with the miller,
You sat as long as you had money,
For every horse he put a shoe on,
The blacksmith and you got roaring drunk on;
That at the Lords House, even on Sunday,
You drank with Kirkton Jean till Monday.
She prophesied, that, late or soon,
You would be found deep drowned in Doon,
Or caught by warlocks in the murk,
By Alloway’s old haunted church.

Ah, gentle ladies, it makes me cry,
To think how many counsels sweet,
How much long and wise advice
The husband from the wife despises!

But to our tale :- One market night,
Tam was seated just right,
Next to a fireplace, blazing finely,
With creamy ales, that drank divinely;
And at his elbow, Cobbler Johnny,
His ancient, trusted, thirsty crony;
Tom loved him like a very brother,
They had been drunk for weeks together.
The night drove on with songs and clatter,
And every ale was tasting better;
The landlady and Tam grew gracious,
With secret favours, sweet and precious;
The cobbler told his queerest stories;
The landlord’s laugh was ready chorus:
Outside, the storm might roar and rustle,
Tam did not mind the storm a whistle.

Care, mad to see a man so happy,
Even drowned himself in ale.
As bees fly home with loads of treasure,
The minutes winged their way with pleasure:
Kings may be blessed, but Tam was glorious,
Over all the ills of life victorious.

But pleasures are like poppies spread:
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow fall on the river,
A moment white - then melts forever,
Or like the Aurora Borealis rays,
That move before you can point to their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form,
Vanishing amid the storm.
No man can tether time or tide,
The hour approaches Tom must ride:
That hour, of night’s black arch - the key-stone,
That dreary hour he mounts his beast in
And such a night he takes to the road in
As never a poor sinner had been out in.

The wind blew as if it had blown its last;
The rattling showers rose on the blast;
The speedy gleams the darkness swallowed,
Loud, deep and long the thunder bellowed:
That night, a child might understand,
The Devil had business on his hand.

Well mounted on his grey mare, Meg.
A better never lifted leg,
Tom, raced on through mud and mire,
Despising wind and rain and fire;
Whilst holding fast his good blue bonnet,
While crooning over some old Scots sonnet,
Whilst glowering round with prudent care,
Lest ghosts catch him unaware:
Alloway’s Church was drawing near,
Where ghosts and owls nightly cry.

By this time he was across the ford,
Where in the snow the pedlar got smothered;
And past the birch trees and the huge stone,
Where drunken Charlie broke his neck bone;
And through the thorns, and past the monument,
Where hunters found the murdered child;
And near the thorn, above the well,
Where Mungo’s mother hung herself.
Before him the river Doon pours all his floods;
The doubling storm roars throught the woods;
The lightnings flashes from pole to pole;
Nearer and more near the thunder rolls;
When, glimmering through the groaning trees,
Alloway’s Church seemed in a blaze,
Through every gap , light beams were glancing,
And loud resounded mirth and dancing.

Inspiring, bold John Barleycorn! (whisky)
What dangers you can make us scorn!
With ale, we fear no evil;
With whisky, we’ll face the Devil!
The ales so swam in Tam’s head,
Fair play, he didn’t care a farthing for devils.
But Maggie stood, right sore astonished,
Till, by the heel and hand admonished,
She ventured forward on the light;
And, vow! Tom saw an incredible sight!

Warlocks and witches in a dance:
No cotillion, brand new from France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.
In a window alcove in the east,
There sat Old Nick, in shape of beast;
A shaggy dog, black, grim, and large,
To give them music was his charge:
He screwed the pipes and made them squeal,
Till roof and rafters all did ring.
Coffins stood round, like open presses,
That showed the dead in their last dresses;
And, by some devilish magic sleight,
Each in its cold hand held a light:
By which heroic Tom was able
To note upon the holy table,
A murderer’s bones, in gibbet-irons;
Two span-long, small, unchristened babies;
A thief just cut from his hanging rope -
With his last gasp his mouth did gape;
Five tomahawks with blood red-rusted;
Five scimitars with murder crusted;
A garter with which a baby had strangled;
A knife a father’s throat had mangled -
Whom his own son of life bereft -
The grey-hairs yet stack to the shaft;
With more o' horrible and awful,
Which even to name would be unlawful.
Three Lawyers’ tongues, turned inside out,
Sown with lies like a beggar’s cloth -
Three Priests’ hearts, rotten, black as muck
Lay stinking, vile, in every nook.

As Thomas glowered, amazed, and curious,
The mirth and fun grew fast and furious;
The piper loud and louder blew,
The dancers quick and quicker flew,
They reeled, they set, they crossed, they linked,
Till every witch sweated and smelled,
And cast her ragged clothes to the floor,
And danced deftly at it in her underskirts!

Now Tam, O Tam! had these been young girls,
All plump and strapping in their teens!
Their underskirts, instead of greasy flannel,
Been snow-white seventeen hundred linen! -
The trousers of mine, my only pair,
That once were plush, of good blue hair,
I would have given them off my buttocks
For one blink of those pretty girls !

But withered hags, old and droll,
Ugly enough to suckle a foal,
Leaping and flinging on a stick,
Its a wonder it didn’t turn your stomach!

But Tam knew what was what well enough:
There was one winsome, jolly wench,
That night enlisted in the core,
Long after known on Carrick shore
(For many a beast to dead she shot,
And perished many a bonnie boat,
And shook both much corn and barley,
And kept the country-side in fear.)
Her short underskirt, o’ Paisley cloth,
That while a young lass she had worn,
In longitude though very limited,
It was her best, and she was proud. . .
Ah! little knew your reverend grandmother,
That underskirt she bought for her little grandaughter,
With two Scots pounds (it was all her riches),
Would ever graced a dance of witches!

But here my tale must stoop and bow,
Such words are far beyond her power;
To sing how Nannie leaped and kicked
(A supple youth she was, and strong);
And how Tom stood like one bewitched,
And thought his very eyes enriched;
Even Satan glowered, and fidgeted full of lust,
And jerked and blew with might and main;
Till first one caper, then another,
Tom lost his reason all together,
And roars out: ‘ Well done, short skirt! ’
And in an instant all was dark;
And scarcely had he Maggie rallied,
When out the hellish legion sallied.

As bees buzz out with angry wrath,
When plundering herds assail their hive;
As a wild hare’s mortal foes,
When, pop! she starts running before their nose;
As eager runs the market-crowd,
When ‘ Catch the thief! ’ resounds aloud:
So Maggie runs, the witches follow,
With many an unearthly scream and holler.

Ah, Tom! Ah, Tom! You will get what's coming!
In hell they will roast you like a herring!
In vain your Kate awaits your coming !
Kate soon will be a woeful woman!
Now, do your speedy utmost, Meg,
And beat them to the key-stone of the bridge;
There, you may toss your tale at them,
A running stream they dare not cross!
But before the key-stone she could make,
She had to shake a tail at the fiend;
For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie pressed,
And flew at Tam with furious aim;
But little knew she Maggie’s mettle!
One spring brought off her master whole,
But left behind her own grey tail:
The witch caught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.

Now, who this tale of truth shall read,
Each man, and mother’s son, take heed:
Whenever to drink you are inclined,
Or short skirts run in your mind,
Think! you may buy joys over dear:
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.

Saturday, October 28, 2017


I love the militant imagery in this hymn from today's Divine Office:

The eternal gifts of Christ the King,
The Apostles’ glory let us sing;
And all with hearts of gladness raise
Due hymns of thankful love and praise.
For they the Church’s princes are,
Triumphant leaders in the war,
In heavenly courts a warrior band,
True lights to lighten every land.
Theirs is the steadfast faith of saints,
And hope that never yields nor faints,
The love of Christ in perfect glow
That lays the prince of this world low.
In them the Father’s glory shone,
In them the will of God the Son,
In them exults the Holy Ghost,
Through them rejoice the heavenly host.

Alas, I have no further information concerning it. 

Friday, March 31, 2017

Too Little Too Late: A Review of "V for Vendetta"

[I am not going to waste a lot of time on this flick as it doesn't merit much time.  Just some thoughts I had after watching this misfire of a movie.]

After reading an article praising the "V for Vendetta" graphic novel, I decided to watch the movie treatment from a few years ago.  Truth is, I've been actively avoiding this movie because I recall that when the movie was originally released, the cast and crew went around pushing the film as some sort of cinematic denunciation of the Bush administration.  While I don't begrudge the Hollywood left their right to speak their mind on politics, I do find it insufferable silly at times, such as when they try to paint a mush Republican as a despot.  But more than that, I usually find such a tactic to be an indicator that the movie in question cannot stand on its own merits as a work of art, so it needs to be promoted on trendy political grounds to create some interest.  Sadly, I was correct here.

[Note: what follows is my critique of the movie.  I have never read the original graphic novel, so I am unable to know if the identified faults lie with the movie or the source material.  Furthermore, I cannot be bothered to go back and watch the movie again, so some of my recollections might be inaccurate.]

Initially, I found myself really enjoying the movie!  The character of V was precisely the type of protagonist I like to root for: he was flamboyant, cultured and most endearing of all, a tragic romantic.  In some ways, he reminded me of William F. Buckley if Buckley had a violent streak.  Of course, V isn't a mere analogue for some contemporary political pundit, but was an actual historical personality who ardently fought for Catholic political rights at a time when being Catholic meant real persecution in Protestant England, a fact carefully omitted from this movie and seemingly forgotten by contemporary revolutionaries who are quick to don Guy Fawkes masks.   Be that as it may, I found V's incarnation of this iconic rebel to be suitably larger than life - which is how it must be as very little is known about the actual Guy Fawkes (he wasn't even the mastermind of the Gunpowder Plot but just one of the lower level conspirators who was unlucky enough to get caught).  In fact, I came to like this character even more when we were invited into his batcave (can I mix graphic novel material here?).  Inside, we discover that he is a consummate traditionalist: classic books, especially Shakespeare, fill his den, a chess set sits on his desk, and timeless pieces of art, especially pastoral landscapes, adorn his walls.  Capping all this off is a jukebox filled with jazz records, the only fitting musical choice for nonconformists, of course.  Lastly, V is revealed to be a fan of classic B&W cinema, especially "The Count of Montecristo," a movie V endearingly reveals to be his favorite of all time.  Clearly, V isn't some trendy anarchist but a man grounded in the wisdom of the past. He is very much an antiquarian, one whom I suspect would feel quite out of place in contemporary campus politics where would-be revolutionaries are more likely to have their nose buried in a mass-produced smartphone than in a tome by Aristotle.  For that reason I suspect that V and I would have gotten along famously, doubly so after listening to his political views that were a mix of healthy political cynicism and upward looking idealism.  Honestly, I was surprised at how V's views mostly transcended the kitchy libertarian politics of Millennials.  Instead, the politics that were on display here seemed to gravitate towards a more thoughtful, politically savvy worldview, one similar to Jean Jacques Rousseau's observation that  "Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains."   I even found myself nodding in agreement when V made a point to highlight how mass media is deliberately used to frighten people into surrendering their liberties to confront the latest bogeyman du jour, only to later split them into artificially opposed groups - the old "divide and conquer" trick used countless time by despots as well as cable news hosts everywhere.  All surprisingly insightful observations for a contemporary flick.

I hated to admit it, but I found myself thoroughly enjoying the movie by the midpoint!  It was smart, exciting, and deliciously subversive in the timeless fashion of the best of conservative thought.  And like V's favorite movie, it had some great, swashbuckling action in its early parts.

But then it happened.  What had to happen, I guess.  The dirty fingers of contemporary Hollywood politics intruded into the narrative. The shift in tone was so striking that I got the distinct impression that some corporate suit from Warner Bros. picked up the phone and told the team, "Guys!  Knock it off!  We said you could make a politically subversive movie, but we didn't mean an authentically subversive movie!  You know, keep it politically correct subversive."  And that is what the second half of the film came to represent.

In an almost unaccountable decision, a large portion of the second half of the movie almost completely abandoned the fascinating and truly subversive character of V and instead shifted the narrative to the cardboard cutout character of Evey, V's romantic interest / groupie.  Compared to V, Natalie Portman's character is dreadfully boring with little to say or do of interest.  In a move as torturous for the audience as it was for Evey, we are forced to endure a lengthy, cliched sequence where Evey is imprisoned in a detention facility and is tortured daily.  I normally dislike such scenes because once you've seen one, frankly, you've seen them all.  That held true here as the viewer is subjected to boilerplate prison camp tropes such as tearful hair clippings, head dunking water torture, and bouts of incoherent whimpering by Evey in her drab, grey cell.   Guys: If you are going to do a detention center sequence, try to think outside of the box a bit as audiences the world over have long since become desensitized to such cliches.

But it gets worse.  Apparently, the powers that be didn't feel like this sequence was sufficiently boring, so they introduced a sub-narrative more stultifying than Evey's, one that deals with an ill-fated lesbian romance.  Yeah.  Thrilling, that.  Not surprising, really, as the bungling Wachowski brothers - well, now the Wachowski sisters (look it up) - have always been obsessed with homosexuality and homophilia in their films, whether or not it had a place, as it really didn't here.  In fact, this isn't even the first time the audience is awkwardly forced to endure such a pointless sexual digression as earlier in the film we are introduced to another subversive character, the urbane TV producer Dietrich, who inexplicably reveals his traditionalist batcave to Evey on a whim.  As with V, we see that he also collects banned literature, art and - wait for it - tasteless Robert Mapplethorpe homoerotica, an incongruous addition to such a noble collection, to say the least.  Strangely, Dietrich, who reveals himself to be gay to Evey, also cherishes a Koran, a curious decision seeing the muslim world's oft violent intolerance towards homosexuals.  I never read the graphic novel, but this has all the hallmarks of post 9-11 political posturing and little else as it makes no sense.  Welcome to the tiresome world of Hollywood politics!

Honestly, while I did think the shoehorned-in Mapplethorpe collection to be tasteless, especially when juxtaposed with timelessly beautiful artwork (the Wachowski brothers/sisters/ are artistic philistines apparently), I liked Dietrich as he was presented to be kindhearted man struggling to survive in a hostile world.  As a result,  the narrative didn't suffer much because Dietrich was as interesting as V in his own way despite his unaccountable taste in kitch S&M "art."  Unfortunately, though, Evey's imprisonment sequence was just a cliched, crashing bore because she is as gray and lifeless as her prison walls.   Add in the dull and ham-handed lesbian narrative, and all the accumulated energy of the first half of the film was utterly lost.

Frankly, the movie never recovered from this turn in the plot.  The tense pacing and interesting politically repartee of the first half was lost for good, with the remaining runtime of "V for Vendetta" being devoted to formulaic graphic novel movie treatment: contrived  action sequences, juvenile smash and burn mob politics (as seen in an ending right out of the horrors of the French Revolution), and a forced and nonsensical confrontation between V and his nemesis, the dreadfully banal Adam Suter (John Hurt) who was shamelessly ripped right out of "1984" (also starring John Hurt).  All the magic of the first half of the movie - the flamboyance, the socratic philosophizing, even some interesting sleuthing about V's origins by the noble Detective Finch - was lost in the second half's by-the-numbers, modern mass-produced movie mediocrity.  Again, one can't help but to suspect some corporate meddling here because the distinction between the two parts was so great.  Cries of "Dumb it down!  Dumb it down!" echo in my head from some imaginary Warner Bros. boardroom meeting.  This impression was made all the stronger when the ending credits didn't even have the logical courage to play the audience out to V's favorite jazz piece, Julie London's iconic "Cry Me a River," but instead played the non sequitur that is the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man."  That is unaccountably dumb.

Which is a good, final synopsis for "V for Vendetta."  It could have been much better - indeed, it was on track to being something much better!  But we just can't have nice things in this day and age of entertainment mega-conglomerates churning out the cinematic equivalent of spam for illiterate audiences.  I suspect that if V got wind that Warner Bros. was going to make his graphic novel into a movie, he might have started stacking gunpowder once again.  But this time under Hollywood, the ultimate Orwellian enclave.

Score: C-

Thursday, October 20, 2016

An Impromptu Review of Godard's "Made in U.S.A."

Jean-Luc Godard's "Made in USA" (1966) might be the movie for the 2016 electoral season. Here is why:
Godard was something of a visionary. He was a director who came to believe that narrative-driven movies were an unnecessary limitation on the medium, and sought to break free of that limitation by creating movies that had more in common with poetry or a dense philosophical tract that a traditional story. I consider "Alphaville" to be a good example of Godard's vision at its finest (it is considered a New Wave, sci-fi classic for good reason!). "Made in USA” is another good attempt at this vision, if not as enjoyable as Alphaville. Regardless, I ultimately found it to be a very timely movie because of its political content.
Ostensibly, "Made in USA" is a movie about a noirish secret agent/tabloid journalist (I like that combo!) "Paula," played by log-time Godard actress/wife Anna Karina, who sets out to discover the cause of death of her lover, Richard P*, a political operative (I write "Richard P*" because Godard consistently blots out Richard’s last name with background noise, a trick people might recognize from a movie that borrows more than a little from “Made in USA,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”). In keeping with Godard’s desire to make a narrative free movie, this thin story is little more than a pretext for Godard to do two things: first, ruminate on his failing marriage with Anna Karina, and secondly, to explore the world of revolutionary politics, something Godard was becoming fascinated with due to his growing disenchantment with France’s political scene of the 1960s, as well as America’s growing involvement in Vietnam.
As for the former, there is not much to be said as Godard only really explores his failed marriage by having overly long takes on Karina, takes that at times seemed to border on the obsessive. However, there is one scene near the film's end where Godard opens his heart a bit more artistically. Here, Paula begins to close out the scene by quoting some verse that is quintessentially femme fatale: “If I speak of time, it’s not yet come to pass. If I speak of place, it’s vanished into space. If I speak of time, it’s gone without a trace. If I speak of a man, he’s soon to breath his last.” Paula then tearfully but determinedly shoots her friend David Goodis. The dying Goodis' last words are, “Oh, Paula, you robbed me of my youth.” Godard's sense of betrayal was on full display with this scene.
I found his political ruminations more interesting. “Made in USA” takes place in Atlantic-Cite. As with the eponymous Alphaville (which, if I recall correctly, is variously described in the film as being a location on Earth, a planet of its own, and ultimately another galaxy!), Atlantic-Cite seems to be located in its own nebulous spot on Earth, somewhere between America’s decadent “Atlantic City” (hence, the thin “Made in USA” connection) and a French Atlantic-Cite, something that I understand can best be translated as “Atlantic-Housing Projects,” i.e., a small community of low rent apartment buildings. If you are going to watch a Godard flick, you can’t get caught up in such minor details as location! Be that as it may, Atlantic Cite will be where all the political skulduggery of the movie takes place. Early into the film, Godard kicks off the politics with what is perhaps the funniest and most prescient line of the film. As she mopes around her flat, Paula asks a maid about the latest election results for Atlantic-Cite. “Weren’t the Communists beaten here last year in the local elections?” The maid replies, “Yes, they wanted to requisition bathrooms if they won.” I laughed as I was reminded of the modern American Left's intrusion into American bathrooms as well. Some things never change.
And that is precisely one of Godard’s political messages. In some ways, “Made in USA” is a fascinating exercise because you can see Godard struggling with his disgust of the modern world (as also seen in “Alphaville”), as well as his disgust with the moral compromises one must make if he seeks to use politics as a vehicle of change. Indeed, Paula sums up the deplorable state of contemporary politics when she describes politics as “Walt Disney plus blood.” It is an accurate summation, especially in light of America’s 2016 election. Politics is a cartoonish farce, but one where people can get killed. Paula, in one of her more introspective moments as a political operative, confesses to the camera, “It’s always blood, fear, politics, money. How can I not feel like puking after being mixed up in that for so long?” Good question.

It is this political ambivalence that ultimately snakes its way through the movie. I think Godard’s political confusion is well expressed in the best scene of the movie where, in typical film noir fashion, we (inexplicably) find Paula killing time in a bar with an assortment of patrons, including a cameo by Marianne Faithfull who quietly sings a few lines from her hit, “As Tears Go By.” The most interesting conversation is between the barkeep and a guest at the bar where they explore the importance of perspective. The bartender asks, “What does one do with words?” The patron replies that he tries to make sentences but doesn’t like to because “sentences are useless or empty words.” The bartender chides him that if he doesn’t speak in sentences, how can he serve him? So, the patron agrees to try, resulting in a series of non sequiturs such as “The glass is not in my wine. The bartender is in the pocket of the pencil’s jacket. The bar gives the young lady a few kicks. The floor is stubbed out on the cigarette. The tables are on the glasses. The ceiling hangs from the lamp,” and so on. Godard’s point is clear: we use words to define reality, but words, being so fluid in their meaning and usages, don’t always describe the same reality from person to person. In light of that, how can we be sure of anything expressed by words? Especially political words?
Godard struggles with this confusion about politics right up to the last moments of the film.  While Godard at times uses his film to stridently advocate for far left politics (he would eventually adopt Maoism in the 1970s!), he ultimately remains very equivocal about it, something made clear when Paula rides out of Atlantic Cite by hitching a ride with an old journalist pal. Paula expresses her concern that she will not be able to keep up the revolutionary struggles begun by her lover, Richard. Her friend tries to get her to take a more practical view of the world’s political struggles. “There is no changing her,” he replies.  “Remember Elisabeth in Les Enfants Terribles? Left and Right are the same. There is no changing them. The Right, because it’s so cruel it’s brainless. The Left, because it is sentimental.” Godard’s summation might be a reversal of reality, but it is ultimately an inconsequential one because of the journalist's next observation. “Besides, Left or Right are completely obsolete notions. We shouldn’t phrase things in those terms.” Paula asks, “How then?” He has no answer.

So ends the film on a suitably insightful point for our politically chaotic times, one that seems on the cusp of birthing some new and terrible political alignment. Indeed, "Right" and "Left" is seeming more obsolete with each passing election.
Now, at the beginning of this impromptu review I said I didn’t enjoy this movie as I did “Alphaville.” The reason why is twofold. First, I felt this was a sloppily made production. I understand Godard was making “Made in USA” at the same time he was making another movie called,”1 or 2 Things I Know About Her.” I think Godard’s divided attention is evident as this movie just seems like a fast and dirty production with little care being taken to get things just right. For example, there are at least two occasions of some dreadful overacting, something Godard should have spotted from a mile away. Likewise, I found “Made in USA’s” cinematography to be flat and uninteresting, lacking all the noir-inspired style of "Alphaville." At times, “Made in USA” almost resembles the type of movie an amateur would make with a handheld camera. Overall, this production just seems overly casual from the get-go. The second thing I didn’t care for was Godard injecting contemporary French politics into the heart of the film. He does so via voice recordings of him ranting and raving about what he perceived as the injustices of the French government of the time. While the reel to reel recordings are very reminiscent of Kurtz’s political diatribes in Francis Ford Coppola’s ”Apocalypse Now” (I doubt that is a coincidence!), Godard chose to focus on real politics rather than vague political ideology, as Coppola smartly chose to do. As a result, these recordings just date the movie instead of bringing some desperately needed character development to Richard, a ghost the movie struggles with throughout its run time. Likewise, it misses an opportunity to better flesh out the semi-fictitious setting of Atlantic Cite as the disembodied voice of Alpha 60 does for “Alphaville.” So, not as good as “Alphaville.” But having said that, “Made in USA” is a movie art house cinephiles owe it to themselves to check out for no other reason than it is another uniquely artistic experience presented by a man who truly did try to reinvent cinema. While no means his best work, it is nonetheless a timely if confused tale about the Mickey Mouse politics of our age.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Where We Started: Brief Thoughts on Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Wow, I can't think of a more out of place posting for a Star Wars review than this blog I created for everything classical and NOT modern.  But, seeing how after my initial posting I allowed this blog to go fallow (sorry, I got caught up in the so-called "micro-blogging" idiocy of Facebook), I figured something is better than nothing.  So....Eh, maybe I will find a way to tie this review in a broader, anti-modernist topic.   Let's see what happens.

After putting it off for some time, I finally bit the bullet and watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Honestly, I have never been a huge SW fan.  While I did love the series as a kid, and while I do consider the first movie, A New Hope, to be an excellent bit of science fiction, and possibly cinematic "space opera" at its finest, overall I think the franchise is greatly overvalued by its fans as it is far from a perfectly executed sci-fi series, something the prequel movies amply demonstrated.  This is why some years ago I found myself nodding in agreement when a sci-fi author quipped (according to my dim memory) "Star Wars and Star Trek ruined sci-fi for the rest of us."  I agree.  Star Wars, along with the other "Star" experience, has definitely been punching above its weight.  With that in mind, I went into this movie with respect for the franchise but not high hopes for the type of breathtaking sci-fi experience that the more hardcore fans seem to get out of every episode.

Overall, I have to say that The Force Awakens was a decent entry to the franchise, but nothing more than that.  It was entertaining, if only initially.  What I mean by that is that I really enjoyed the first half of the movie.  Not knowing what to expect - I never pay attention to movie hype - I was pleasantly surprised to see that JJ Abrams eschewed any reference to the absolutely dreadful Episodes I-III and instead went back to the very first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, for his inspiration.  I loved this because Episode 4 was always my favorite because it was an expertly told space opera war story told in three tightly distinct acts.  Right from the opening moments of The Force Awakens, it was clear that Abrams was returning to the roots of the franchise, something made clear by all the self-referential material in the opening moments.  Abrams is on the right track here as the best way to wash the bad taste of Episodes I-III from our mouths is to ignore the mess created by Lucas and instead remind us of the glorious beginning of the franchise.  Abrams does just that by bringing in many familiar elements from Episode 4, including a new Darth Vader and starting planet suspiciously familiar to Tatooine, complete with another Luke Skywalker-esque underdog.  Indeed, I found the first half of the movie supremely enjoyable for the reason of childhood nostalgia alone.

Unfortunately, this nostalgia would also become a problem that would ruin the second half of the movie for me.  Well, maybe not ruin as much as deflate.

By the midpoint of the movie, I began to realize that Abrams wasn't making a tribute to the first and best Star Wars movie of all time as much as he was making an outright copycat of a film, down to the smallest plot detail.  Oh sure, he was sure to put his own twist on things (e.g., this time the family squabbles surrounded the Solos), but in the end The Force Awakens was less its own movie and more Star Wars: A New Hope 2.0 (Special Fan Service Edition by JJ Abrams). What Abrams ultimately did was not to create a fresh tale that nods in respect to A New Hope but just a complete remake ("reboot" in contemporary [idiotic] Hollywood speak) of that very film.  In short, what I believed began as a tribute to A New Hope soon degenerated into the very thing I hate about contemporary, Big Corporation-produced cinema:  a lazy cut and paste sequel whose only purpose is to get fans to purchase the same product more than once.  Or more precisely in the case of Star Wars, seven bloody times!  How many Death Stars are we going to blow up?  How many Darth Vaders are we going to duel?  How many "new hopes" are we going to discover?  How many times are we going to be introduced to the same characters and the same ships?  Well, if The Force Awakens is any indication, as long as we keep paying to see the same photostat over and over again.

And this is why I ultimately came to be very disappointed in the latest entry to the Star Wars franchise - a sadly reoccurring phenomenon with this series.   By the time the last act was gearing up, I found myself glancing at the clock, wishing the movie would hurry up and finish as I knew precisely how it was going to play out AS I ALREADY SAW THIS MOVIE BEFORE many years ago.  As a result, Star Wars: The Force Awakens ended not with a bang (even a super-duper, extra large Death Star bang, something indicative of another popular Hollywood cliche: bigger is always better), but with a whimper on the level of wannabe fan fiction.  The Force Awakens didn't give me what I have been desperately desiring from Star Wars over the years - a fresh start with all new characters and a new narrative - but instead just handed me reheated leftovers from the original franchise, courtesy of the fevered re-imagining of JJ Abrams.

Disappointing.  Not unexpected disappointment, mind you.  JJ Abrams pulled this same rubbish with his handling of the Star Trek franchise, specifically his ham-handed reproduction of the superlative Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, this time inelegantly titled, Star Trek: Into Darkness.  Yawn there.  Yawn here.  As with Star Wars and Star Trek, JJ Abrams is also punching above his weight.

I don't want to be too critical as the movie was entertaining, and certainly light years better than the dreadful Lucas prequels that fail as science fiction specifically, and cinema generally.  I particularly enjoyed Abrams excellent use of color and the judicious use of lens flares, two of his hallmarks.  It gave everything a fresh, almost documentarian look at times.  And I truly loved some of the wonderfully artistic shots in this film.  As Peter Jackson successfully mimicked some of the excellent Lord of the Rings artwork  by Alan Lee, Abrams managed to incorporate some wonderful artistry of his own, a grand vision that really brought the massive potential of the Star Wars universe to the fore (I loved that Star Destroyer buried in the sand!).  Sadly, that potential for massive scope has yet to be utilized outside of the original franchise.

And that is ultimately what disappoints me with Star Wars and much of contemporary science fiction:  it promises a galaxy-spanning adventure but quickly becomes claustrophobically narrowed down to a small cast of characters and a specific ship or two.  Be it Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica or Firefly, the Hollywood approach is always the same: take the galaxy and shrink it down to the size of a small town, and populate with a eight or so characters and a familiar ship that we will get to revisit over and over and over again.  What a waste.  The term "dumbing it down" comes to mind.  Sadly, true galaxy-spanning tales, such as, say, The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, will never get to see the light of day as they don't play by the contemporary rules of movie-making.  Unlike the claustrophobic mega-science fiction franchises, those are examples of science fiction that didn't artificially limit their potential, that introduced us to new characters and new experiences on a weekly basis.  Unlike contemporary sci-fi pablum,  The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits demanded that the viewer keep up with its unpredictable tales and its limitless supply of interesting characters.  Today, such an idea seems almost subversive in an era of indistinguishable copycats that dare not tread new ground.  But, frankly, why should they?   When you can profit millions by repackaging the same product over and over again with little to no effort and easily sell it to a gullible audience, why risk innovation?  As they say in the gaming world, iteration trumps innovation.  Making a sequel that duplicates the original is easier and far less financially risky than trying to be original and innovate.  When you are dealing with an audience that is increasingly illiterate, whose expectations have been so lowered that their enjoyment of a film descends to almost a Pavlovian level of simple stimulus response ("Ooh!  Han Solo is in this flick!  I love Han Solo, so I must also love this movie!"), why make science fiction tales as intellectually grandiose as the genre deserves?  Why not just phone it in, as JJ Abrams and the suits over at Disney did here?

Hence, the sorry state of increasingly unimaginative and mass produced contemporary cinematic science fiction.  Rather than being a triumph, Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrives as a tombstone that marks the grave of original science fiction.  It should have been a long overdue fresh start for a beloved franchise, but instead arrives as a tired re-do of well-worn territory.

My Score: 3 out of 5 stars

A competently made and entertaining film that should have been so much more than a mere copycat.  I guess we can expect Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back 2.0 next.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Origin of the Order of the Inn of Ye Bench & Bar

"'Tis a True, an Honorable and an Ancient Order, - The Order of the Inn, - immemorially cherished and nurtured in all the Ages of Mankind."

So goes the story:  many years ago, while my father worked at a brewery, he came across a peculiar copper shield, some three feet high by two feet across, accompanied by a booklet that had aged to a dark brown color, all set in a large display case.  Asking the brew-master from whence it had come, the only answer was a solemn "the Old World."  My father admired this item as long as he worked there.  As things go in this world, the brewery was purchased by a larger commercial brand that soon shut it down and moved the bulk of its brewing equipment out west.  The remainder of the brewery's content - including this peculiar copper shield - was designated for disposal in any way the management saw fit.  In an act of supreme charity, the brew-master, seeing my fathers perpetual interest in this artifact, gave it to him gratis along with some other breweriana (but that is a topic for another time)!

That copper shield can be seen as the header image for this article, as well as at the upper right of this blog.

As for the aged documentation that went along with it, you can see scans of them here (pdf file):   Order of the Inn

The documentation, dated "1659 (Middle Temple Gate, Fleet Street)" is a rule book of sorts for a gentlemen's club where four degrees of membership (gold, silver, bronze and copper) can come together to shut out the cruel, dark world by enjoying the company of others (with a helping of good food and drink, of course!).