Ice Cold War: Red Army (B+)

Possibly the most telling revelation in the hockey (and so much more than hockey) documentary Red Army?

If it seemed like the almost-but-never-quite-a-war between the Soviet Union and the United States was actually being fought on the ice, with stick-wielding skaters as soldiers, it’s because – at least for the Soviets – it essentially was, and the skaters essentially were.

Director Gabe Polsky – in a fun, graphically arresting documentary – recounts the saga of the Центральный Спортивный Клуб Армии, known colloquially as the Red Army Club. This examination of the Soviet sporting mindset is filtered mostly through the recollections of Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, a soldier (and yes, he was a drafted soldier, as were all the members of his team) who was the undisputed hockey star of the Soviet Union from five years before the Miracle on Ice until five years after it, and struggled mightily with higher ups in the Soviet military (including his coach, installed by the KGB) before being allowed to play in the NHL without any of his contract being sent back to the USSR.

This is the story, then, of the all-too-familiar (Miracle, Rocky IV, etc) American underdog complex of 1980s sports, but told told from the perspective of Ivan Drago.

It’s a fun twist, and revealing in its own disarming way.

The main point is this: to demythologize our deeply-embedded notion of Soviet athletes as monosyllabic steroidal hunks of learned doctrine. This mission is helped along immensely by Fetisov, one of the more vivid interview subjects a “talking heads” style film like this could hope for. Slava is charming, well-spoken, and far enough removed from both his highs and lows to add a wry, ironic perspective to most of the proceedings (though notably, watching the Miracle on Ice game still dims the twinkle in his eye). He’s also ornery and stubborn – Polsky goes out of his way to show us that his subject is not a trained monkey reciting the filmmaker’s hoped-for script. As soon as a distracted Slava raises a middle finger to an inquiring Polsky within the film’s opening sequence, we are reassured in knowing that what we’re getting isn’t Polsky speaking through Slava – Polsky would have an easier time blowing out a forest fire – but Slava unfiltered.

It’s a neat trick – it lends an air of authenticity, important when dealing with a subject like the Cold War, which still has people who were on the “front line” tight-lipped to this day – but it is a bit cute. Polsky uses a similar device to defang the KGB. The seasoned KGB spook he’s interviewing – the guy who went along with the team to places like Canada to ensure none of them would defect – is occasionally interrupted by what appears to be his adorable Russian granddaughter, who will hop in the frame and remind the audience of a few things: that modern little girls in Russia don’t know what the KGB is, that many years have passed since the fall of the Soviet Union, and that even KGB agents grow into adorable old men who eat ice cream with their granddaughters. That KGB agent isn’t just there to recite his interpretation of facts; he lends atmosphere, context, and more than a little bit of metatextual hindsight.

So yes, Polsky’s documentary may be presented in the fairly straight-forward talking heads format, with no narration or personal editorializing, but the director’s guiding hand is obvious in these peaks behind the curtain. He has an innate narrative sense. Look at how he contrasts the Red Army coaches: he presents the jolly, red-nosed eccentric Anatoli Tarasov as a mix between a Soviet Santa Claus and Yoda, and really does a number on his KGB-installed replacement Viktor Tikhonov, who may as well be hockey’s Gran Moff Tarkin.

I’m sure there’s evidence out there that would complicate both of these readings, but Polsky keeps it simple so that – when Slava, feeling exploited and missused by Tikhonov, takes a stand and leaves the Red Army and is unofficially banned from pretty much every hockey institution – a narrative circle is closed and an immense feeling of catharsis is triggered when the padowan returns to his disgraced, hobbled master, Tarasov, for the training that will keep him in shape for his imminent victory lap in America. It’s poetic. It’s perfect.

It would be too perfect if the story ended here, with Fetisov freed to earn the big capitalist dollars in the good ol’ USA and the Soviet Union whimpering red-faced and defeated. Instead, the documentary truly takes off in its third act as it faces the complicated reality for Russian superstars in an America that still resented them. In many ways, American teammates, coaches, and fans were as cruel as the Soviets had been to the Fetisovs and their ilk; they had no way of knowing what a ballsy move Fetisov had made in essentially telling Soviet higher-ups to shove it and using his immense celebrity to make an unprecedented move. He was just Ivan Drago in ice skates, the face of the red Army hockey team in a New Jersey Devils jersey. The situation uses the sports underdog complex we so love to further humanize the Russians while also speaking, as so much of this doc does, to the sociopolitical.

Vindication for Slava and many of his teammates, now cast-offs, came when they were assembled by Scotty Bowman on the Detroit Wed Wings and allowed to replicate thier nearly telepathic ice ballet by a coach who appreciated rather than resented the Russian system of play. The documentary doesn’t dote on it, but many of the hockey star’s late-career and post-career achievements color our ultimate understanding of a figure like Fetisov. He could have been an exile from his homeland, but when he won the Stanley Cup, he fought to bring it to Russia. This tugs at the heartstrings. But… During many of his interviews, he wears a Sochi Olympics shirt, and we come to find out that, during filming, he is actually working under Putin to help plan the now divisive 22nd Winter Games. He and many of his teammates, after fighting with resolve to part ways with the Red Army, have returned to offer a helping hand. Having told us this, Polsky leaves us without commenting too much on the current regime. Are we proud of these Red Army stars for returning to their homeland to act as benevolent Tarasovs for a new generation of Russian sports fans? Or are we dissapointed that they have become a new generation of Tikhonovs, enforcing the doctrine of an increasingly dark regime. For once, Polsky keeps out of the way and lets us demythologize this conundrum on our own.

Spinning Its Wheels: Furious 7 (C+)

As big a game as we, as a culture, talk when it comes to the ubiquity of sequels, franchises, and the attendant fatigue that comes with them, we’ve rarely had occasion to tackle something like the Fast and Furious franchise. Something this massive, lumbering, unwieldy, convoluted, and – on the flip side – brilliant, awe-inspiring, and utterly cinematic is almost entirely unique. Perhaps only the James Bond films, the Harry Potter franchise, and the current Marvel Cinematic Universe have built to a place quite like this one, a place where their seventh film (or beyond) wasn’t some tired retread or affront to the memory of fans, but instead established the series as a continuing and well-regarded institution of the cinematic arts. Of those, only the Fast & Furious series couldn’t get the principles of its cast to return for its second and/or third installments, seemingly relegating the franchise to forgotten speed-freak curio status.

These films are 21st Century Cinema’s Strange Symphony. Where most contemporary tentpoles are at least adapted from other works, it is entirely original, based on no existing property (unless you count car makes and models). It is unabashedly goofy (in an adorably tone-deaf way initially, though now, endearingly and artfully). Its melodies combine elements – revving cars, roaring explosions – that everyone finds cacophonous in just about every other composition (especially when the composer is Michael Bay). It is also burdened with the unique distinction of nearly forcing everyone in its audience outside of true diehards to nod off or duck out of the concert hall during its third movement.

Everyone has some snippet of the symphony they don’t love; for most it’s that sojourn to Tokyo. (For me it’s Letty’s amnesia.) Many would argue that more than half the movements in the symphony are nothing more than mediocre. And yet – and YET – if film historians aren’t using this series 100 years hence as a case study for the ways it typifies the blockbuster culture of the early 2000s… and for the ways it defies and confounds just about everything we’d expect from said culture, then film historians 100 years in the future probably aren’t doing their jobs very well.

Fast Five is, for many, the peak of not just this still-in-progress symphony but of action cinema of a recent vintage, period. A heist movie set in Rio, it may as well have been a standalone movie for as little as it had to do with the street-racing drama that had come before it. It also could not have existed, or assembled the group of actors and themes it did, without the first four films (whatever their merits) having already done most of the heavy lifting. It felt simultaneously weighty – in the way it assembled the previously segregated gangs of racers, and an already insane amount of continuity, under one Robin Hood-steal-from-the-rich umbrella, giving us a franchise that felt as diverse and representational as its audience, which is still novel four years later – and light as air. None of this continuity seemed to weigh Fast Five down at all. If you hated Tokyo Drift, that was okay; Fast Five was going to make sure you loved Fast Five.

Furious 7 feels heavier. Part of this is out of necessity: Paul Walker’s death came abruptly, halfway through what should have been a long life and long career, and halfway through production on this film. This necessitated rewrites and ensured a sense of finality would color this movie even if there are countless more Fast films yet to come.

If we were grading on a curve, then Furious 7 would get a massive boost for managing to pull together a full, fleshed out, and fitting farewell storyline for a character who had been the lynchpin of the franchise from the word “go” (or in the parlance of the films’, from the moment a scantily clad woman dropped both her hands and ducked between two oncoming cars) in spite of the fact that the actor who played him could no longer perform (a fact which, as is well-known publicly, left the rest of the case in legitimate and ongoing mourning).

Paul Walker’s Brian is a major part of Furious 7. He is always present, in on the action, playing off the other characters. There’s never any plot device that sidelines him in an overly obvious way; by that metric, an uninformed viewer might accidentally assume that it was the actor who plays Hobbes, rehabbing in the hospital for most of the film’s runtime, who had met an untimely end and not the guy who is in nearly every scene. At a certain point, I stopped trying to gauge which scenes had been played out by real Walker and which had been fudged using body doubles, CGI, and archival audio. Taking stock at the end of the film, I had simply assumed that only some action work and an obvious climactic car scene had been manipulated. Let it be a testament to movie magic, then, that in truth it was actually much (MUCH) more all-encompassing than that and I was blissfully none the wiser.

Still, even if nothing about Brian seems that off, something about the film does.

Reversing Out of the Driveway

Furious 7 begins in media res – we don’t find out until after an imposing speech from Declan Shaw (Jason-mutha-f’in-Statham) to his comatose brother that an entire throwdown has already occurred. We have to play catch up as we follow Declan out of the hospital and see the aftermath of what he has already done. This subterfuge right out the gate is a brilliant move on the part of new director James Wan. It shows confidence. Confidence that we’ll play along, that we’ll follow him wherever he’ll take us. Confidence that he can live up to the promise previous director Justin Lin made when he brought Statham into the picture for a continuity-solidifying seconds-long cameo.

It’s also just about the last time for almost an hour that Furious 7 stays out ahead of the curve and actually leads its audience somewhere it doesn’t expect to go. Because now the film proceeds to pretend that the previous film’s post-credit tag doesn’t exist. Maybe, for some, it doesn’t (there are still actually people who, at a film like Fast Five or Iron Man 3, get up as soon as the credits role as if they have some important appointment they might miss; with how bad post-credit teases of recent vintage have been, they may be the lucky ones), but for someone who saw Declan blow up Han and finally close the circle on Tokyo Drift’s time displacement, for someone hoping for forward moment, this is downright painful.

We now spend an almost unfathomable amount of time learning three things we already know – Declan Shaw kills Han, Dom Toretto goes to Tokyo after Han’s death, and Letty has amnesia. Until Kurt Russell shows up and blessedly gets the plot moving after Han’s funeral, this is really all Furious 7 is; an in-depth flashback examining events that were pretty nicely summed up in much shorter, much better scenes in previous films. The swerving and speeding will still come, but first Furious 7 has to reverse slowly out of the driveway. In the course of doing so it even brings back Lucas Black as Shane, pretending to talk to Dom mere seconds after they last interacted on film nine years ago. We can now do wonders with movie magic. We can make it seem like Paul Walker was present for scenes in which he could not have been present. But we cannot ensure that Lucas Black (who was already an unconvincing high schooler in 2003) does not wear every one of those nine intervening years on his face.

The only new material in the film’s opening act deals with Letty’s amnesia. Now maybe this is a personal bias, but amnesia is a pretty silly plot device by any metric. I understand that, scientifically, it is an all-too-real affliction, but it still seems like something a bad screenwriter came up with to make sure something that needed to be conveniently forgotten was. Such is the case with Letty in the previous Fast and Furious film. Her amnesia dragged down that sixth installment even when it was a necessary evil (how else to explain Letty’s extended absence?) but, once that plot necessity was fulfilled, I fully expected it to be swept under the rug. Instead, it is used in Furious 7 not for any discernable plot reason, but as an “important emotional struggle.” Translation: a crutch.

Letty is having trouble adjusting to what she is being told is her “real” life. This is a life she doesn’t remember. It seems like a nice life, and the lumbering fellow who gazes at her with googoo eyes seems decent, but all she knows of her life to this point is a terrorist cell and a grave with her name on it. To some extent, this is just filler to pad a runtime – something for non-Brian characters to deal with that has absolutely no consequence on the story. Still, it could be a pretty okay hook. But it necessitates an unfortunate nostalgic detour even further back into franchise mythology (further even than Lucas Black drifting in Tokyo), all the way back to film number one and its NOS-fueled street races. It’s a neat idea: Dom and Letty have built a street race utopia where no innocent bystanders can get hurt and no one has to listen to police scanners or block roads. There is racial harmony, none of the segregated posturing of that first Fast film. Still, it feels extremely retrograde in one aspect – the way it ogles women. It helps little that a woman wins the race when every other woman in the scene (hi there Iggy Azalea?) is fetishized. As the camera crawls up and down the body of the “starter girl,” making sure to catch her from behind as her skirt flaps up revealing her thong, it feels less like an acknowledgment of where this series started (pretty much every film has featured a street race scene like this) or celebration of a cultural milieu, and more like a palate cleanser for the male gaze. “Hey male gaze, there’ll probably be tears coming from your gazing eyes later because of the whole Paul Walker thing, but before we get there, how about… this!”

Bro-oap Opera

It’s important to remember – and easy to forget – that as sensitive and progressive as these films have become in most respects, they are still catering to the “bro” element – that element of energy-drink-hoarding, GTA players to whom it is easiest to attribute the franchise’s success. (Which is utter nonsense at this point; Furious 7, the fastest film to reach 1 billion dollars worldwide, is being watched by everyone, everywhere. Especially women, including women who hoard energy drinks and play GTA!)

Take our only new gang member as an example: Ramsey is a brilliant computer-programmer, but, to Roman’s surprise, she is also a beautiful black woman. She defies stereotypes on all counts, which is a really, really nice thought. She is also comically beautiful, ogled in a slow motion bikini shot, a la Ursula Andress/Halle Berry (let us never forget that Daniel Craig got equal treatment). It straddles a line this franchise has never been great at straddling, between including competent women in the action at critical junctures and condescending to them because they are, above all, pleasant to look at. Gal Gadot was a particular victim of this before she joined the Justice League as Wonder Woman. But it’s also hit Mia Toretto hard too. She is the mother of Brian’s child and, if she’s put in danger, a really good way to get the gang riled up. Because of Walker’s limited availability, she is kept far from the action this time.

Perhaps because of the way women were written into corners, the Fast films prioritized male relationships, sometimes to an almost comical level. Sure, Brian and Mia are in love, and so are Dom and Letty, but anyone who got more out of their relationships then they got from the extremely close bond between Brian and Dom was reading against the grain of what the film’s explicitly spelled out.

Michelle Rodriguez does an incredible job of carrying the climactic scene where she coaxes Dom back to life by telling him that the real Letty is back, but something feels off, because, in our hearts, this is where Paul Walker’s absence is truly felt. If Walker were really there, he would be the one propping Dom up, asking him to come back. Because Dom and Brian aren’t just friends or associates. They are family. They are brothers. Bros in the noblest sense of that term. And the Fast and the Furious series is the greatest example we are ever likely to see of the Bro-oap Opera.

No saga this endearingly silly has ever been more serious about eliciting real feelings out of close male relationships. The bromance has been taken next level under the stewardship of the men behind the Fast franchise. It was right there at the beginning, with the way Brian and Dom fell for eachother even though theirs was forbidden love, one a cop, the other a robber. Lin refined that into a magnificent cocktail of bro-nificence, his true masterstroke being the addition of Dwayne Johnson to the fold. When the series needed an infusion of conflict, Johnson was brought in to reenact Brian’s arc, from pursuer to ally to family member, all over again. But next to Walker, Johnson looked like a caricature of masculinity, and spoke and acted like one too. By acting first in defiance of this muscled-up Uncle Sam, and then acting under his orders, the once criminal gang was given a sheen of lawfulness and innate goodness, especially as they’ve stood in opposition of foreign threats.

There are a lot of absurd and wonderful things that happen in Furious 7. Cars reverse out of a plane and parachute to the earth. Brian runs up a vehicle as it falls from a cliff. An expensive supercar jumps from one skyscraper to another, and then does it again. Dom jumps a car towards a helicopter and neatly places a bag of grenades on it… just… so. But nothing trumps what Johnson is asked to do. He is thrown from a building after a scuffle with Statham, and comes out of it alive. He then drives an ambulence off an overpass into a drone, which explodes. At this point I assumed we had to have seen the last of his Hobbes, but no, Johnson kicks out the front window of the ambulence and quips. He is indestrucible. He, like Diesel, is a God.

Brian, amongst these effortlessly cool, multicultural badasses, was our way in. Not because he was white (okay initially that was definitely part of the impetus behind Walker’s casting, let’s not lie) but because, as a cop, he came at situations with what we consider a traditional dichotomy of right and wrong and, as a normally proportioned human being, he looked like he could actually be hurt. Had Brian been in that ambulance, his heroism would have been a deadly sacrifice; for Hobbes it is another trump card in an ever-escalating game of chicken. As incredible as it is to see Johnson engage in fisticuffs with Statham, and then to see Diesel do likewise with Statham (and as fun as it is to remember when Diesel and Johnson duked it out in Rio); and as much these dream battles of today render the creaky dream battles of yesteryear in the Expendables series irrelevant and sad… this series needs the human element that Brian brought out in Dom. The sense that everytime he brought his team out in the field, Dom might be endangering the lives of someone important. Certainly not himself, because Dom is a freak of nature. But someone in his family. Someone like Brian.

This is why, in strict story terms, the film’s coda makes absolutely no sense, but it still, without any doubt, works. By the logic of this world, Dom’s departure from the happy beach hangout is a jerk move – what, is he never going to see his sister again? Will he not be at his new niece/nephew’s birth? Is that supposed to be the takeaway?

But as soon as Roman tells Tej to shut up and take a look at the beautiful moment before them – of Brian’s family happy, at peace – Furious 7, with its story about the team putting the Shaw saga behind them, is officially over, and a short film about finality and moving on takes its place. In this short film, the lines between characters and actors is blurred. For Tyrese, Ludacris, and Michelle Rodriguez, this was a fourth outing with Walker. For Diesel, this was film number five. That’s no small potatoes. The filmmakers were faced with a fork in the road, similar to the one we see in the film’s last scene. They could have serviced the continuing story, as they’ve tended to do since Lin took over. Or they could say goodbye. They chose to say goodbye. It was the right choice.

While the filmmakers truly worked magic keeping Brian in the film, Walker’s death and the rewrites hobbled the narrative momentum of Furious 7. It’s not a black mark upon the series or any of those involved – here’s to hoping that no other film will ever have to go though what those involved in this film did. I fully expect the next few films to be great, especially if Tyrese and Ludacris (especially Ludacris, who is really quite phenomenal) continue to do good work as the team’s new default everymen.

With all that said, with all those missed opportunities in the flabby middle, Furious 7 closes as well as it opens. Actually, it closes better. Statham’s hospital escape is a great opening statement to this movement of the Fast & Furious Symphony, but it could have come from any composition, really. Only the Fast and Furious symphony has earned the earnest emotion that’s on display as Charlie Puth and Wiz Khalifa send Vin Diesel one way and send Paul Walker – surrounded by the sort of uncanny halo you might expect to see around someone who’s been poorly greenscreened onto a background, which would normally seem to indicate poor craftsmanship, but seems downright intentional here, seems legitimately poetic – the other.

But Who Will Vet our Vendetta? Part 3


The rest of us here at Culture Conquistadors have been talking about Jupiter Ascending and the Wachowskis. It’s about time I get there, too, isn’t it?

Any time a novel, graphic or otherwise, is adapted to the Big Screen, the received wisdom is that the movie is going to be shallower and in some way a disappointment to the novel’s die-hard fans. I’m not going to pretend that this received wisdom is entirely false. On the most basic level: the novel took me about seven hours to read cover-to-cover, and the movie runs a bit north of two hours. This sort of time disparity is common for adaptations, and unless there is a lot of bloat on the page or a truly unrealistic density of ideas on the screen, it’s safe to bet that the movie is shallower or is at least missing some of the threads that the original author saw fit to include.

But that doesn’t need to mean that the movie is bad or even that it’s any worse.

Accusations on that level, I believe, are often (usually?) motivated by a particular mix of childish signaling games. “Criticizing this thing shows that it is beneath my tastes and therefore that I am to be respected” is a painfully common conversational trope. In college dorm rooms, over dinner, at the water cooler, at the barber shop, on internet message boards, everywhere… you see empty criticisms offered by people consciously or subconsciously hoping it’ll make them look better. The other element here is this: since books occupy a higher spot on the intelligentsia’s “culture totem pole” than movies, criticizing the movie in favor of the book also offers a convenient way to signal that one is sophisticated, a world apart from the hoi polloi at the cinema.

In case it isn’t yet clear: I find these kinds of empty criticisms detestable. If you want to engage with our twenty-first century culture/art/entertainment/pop-art by making claims about the relative merits of a novel and its movie adaptation, you’d best be able to explain how you came to that opinion or else face the towering menace that is my literary nerd rage.

So, with all that said? Yeah, the movie isn’t quite as good as the book. But! The Wachowskis went into it with their eyes wide open, and I want to argue that the decisions they made in the adaptation reveal a deep love for the original text, great care taken to preserve (some of) its messages, and great intelligence applied to the enterprise of including as much of the novel’s themes as possible.

Some quick notes on things I liked:

  • I was afraid that, despite the movie being rated R, it would soften the corners and round the edges of Norsefire’s nasty authoritarian England. By and large, it did not. It dotingly preserved the pulpy crassness of the novel, even inventing a few of its own brutalities to keep pace (“Percy gives his Beretta a blowjob, Keyes dies in a fire…”). There was only one bit that I can think of that clearly got cut because it was too extreme for movie audiences (the “virginity examination”), and I don’t think it’s hard to see why.
  • Superhero comic movie adaptations feature a lot of action porn. V for Vendetta, as a pulp comic serial, includes a bit of action porn already. I’m pleased to say that the movie absolutely did not go overboard with it. Suspense and audience interest were sustained by much the same methods as were employed in the comic without resorting to overblown and overextended action sequences.
  • On the other hand, the movie did spend a great deal more time on the fireworks that V produced. Where the comic included only a few frames of towering flames for each of V’s demolitions, the movie extended those into longer sequences, notably the destruction of Parliament set to the 1812 Overture. And that, in my opinion, was a wonderful idea, fitting perfectly with V’s character and the story’s texture. It seemed to me like Moore and Lloyd would have done the same thing if comics allowed them to do it.
  • V’s masked face is used often to build tension in the novel: sometimes we can’t tell what he thinks of what he’s seeing until later in the novel when we understand more about him. This mystery is played up by frames drawn tight around his mask, much the same way the frame might show only a character’s eyes. The movie makes great use of this device, too.

And some quick notes on things I didn’t like:

  • The movie dwells on Guy Fawkes much, much longer than the novel does. It does this, presumably, for the benefit of American audiences who aren’t used to the symbol of his mask. The problem is that Guy Fawkes himself isn’t terribly useful to the story. Sure, one of the ideas is that he should be celebrated as an anti-establishment figure, but Guy Fawkes was caught up in the confusing Protestant-Catholic conflicts of his time, pursuing an agenda that’s mostly alien to modern audiences. So the more we focus on him, the more time we spend tempted to try to read into issues that aren’t relevant to the story. Really, this comes down to the fact that the comic co-opted a symbol that had somewhat taken on a life of its own, beyond Guy Fawkes himself, in Britain, and it would be best if American audiences could somehow be helped to appreciate that without having to get a history lesson on Fawkes himself. Not that I have any good ideas.
  • The language of the movie is updated to contain vocabulary more recognizable to the audiences of 2006. Or, put more cynically, the Wachowskis wanted to take potshots at the Bush administration. For example, much of the state propaganda in the movie took on anti-Muslim aspects. Some of the fleeting visuals of the concentration camps showed Abu Ghraib-esque scenes. Evey’s parents were silenced environmental activists rather than closet socialists. It’s a fair thing to do, to update political satire for new times during the process of adapting an old work. The problem is that the movie tries to maintain the symbols and imagery of fascism as well as these modern insertions, and it woefully confuses and dilutes the strength of those themes. The movie could have been stronger by being more faithful to the fascist elements—maybe with some updated visuals, because something tells me riot-police-as-fascists could be done well—but never losing sight that it’s fascism that the story is about. The movie would stay relevant just fine as a story about people and about the nasty things people can do to each other under the thin guise of keeping order.
  • Pursuant to the modernization of the story, the movie’s plot is given a standard-issue revelation where Finch and Dominic discover at the end that all of V’s individual targets profited greatly off of some medical science conspiracy concocted at the Larkhill concentration camp. This supplants the movie’s explanation for V’s targets, who all became Important People in Positions of Power by participating directly in the military arm of Norsefire and carrying out its atrocities during the British holocaust. This falls pretty squarely under the heading above of “it conceptually works, but you’re diluting your story,” but I’m singling it out for special attention. I think the theme of people achieving power through a sort of vile, militaristic old-boys’ network is much stronger (and less trite, to someone living in the year 2015) than this new one that’s about money being powerful.

But, as I said before, the body of the novel is contained in its characters’ relationships. So the surest way to see how seven hours becomes two hours is to follow the characters and see how they change.

Let’s start with Evey. Evey is played by Natalie Portman, who gives, I think, a pretty great performance (and delivers a serviceable English accent in its pursuit, but what do I know; I’m hardly a movie critic or a Brit). But Evey is markedly different from the word go. Evey is no sixteen-year-old would-be prostitute with little worldly experience; instead, she is a capable young woman with a job in the media office, who is “out to visit her uncle” (later, we learn it was to pay a visit to Gordon, who, we also learn, is in need of a beard. But I’m getting ahead of myself!) when she is caught past curfew by the fingermen. She is, same as before, rescued by V, but the dynamic between them is radically altered: she is not content to merely learn from him. She stands up to him more strongly than book!Evey1, abandoning V of her own volition after V murders the bishop rather than returning with him to the Shadow Gallery and being dropped off in London later. Movie!Evey is has a much more solid cultural footing than her comic counterpart, being able to engage and recognize V’s classic quotations rather than having to ask where each one originated.

But why is Evey so different? This kind of thing doesn’t happen on a whim. Millions of dollars and tens of thousands of man-hours went into turning that screenplay into a film; it’s unlikely that such a drastic and consistent change in characterization happened by accident. I can think of two main reasons: first of all, there is less time to make Evey’s transformation happen. In the novel, it takes Evey a full year and lots of “screen time” to transform from a scared teenager to an anarchist symbol and creative force for the world. The movie simply did not have time to do the same thing while making it a convincing transformation. It’s not as simple as sticking in a montage halfway through and calling it a metamorphosis; establishing elapsed time and experience like that requires tens of minutes of screen time to work. That’s a lot of minutes.

There’s a second important reason, I suspect, for Evey’s altered character: Rose and Helen. Rose Almond, unfortunately, is completely missing from the movie, as is Helen Heyer. Their absences do have the effect of changing how Adam Susan must die and how we experience the plight of the oppressed, but they also remove the only other sympathetic, living woman from the story as well as the only powerful woman. Yeah… Without Rose’s voice, the story is being told entirely by men, at least until Evey matures. Without Helen, no women in the story have any control over their own destiny, save possibly Evey. The question is, even if the movie were able to capably convey Evey’s journey as it was present in the novel, would her resolve at the end of the story make up for the first hour and a half of the movie where all of the women are either bit characters, dead, or dying? I suspect the Wachowskis chose to empower Evey early on specifically to ensure that women were not depicted merely as helpless creatures for most of the movie, and in that light, it sure looks like a good idea.

Moving on: I don’t have a ton to say about it, but I want to note that the fake concentration camp scene is lovingly preserved from the moment Evey is thrown into the cell to the moment she embraces the rain on the rooftops. It is terrible and powerful on film, and that is a great victory for the movie.

But if the earliest parts of Evey’s arc are clipped, so too is the end. In the movie, Evey never dons V’s mask. In fact, the entire end of the movie is quite a bit different. Whereas in the novel, V destroys the state’s surveillance apparatus, in the movie, V mails Guy Fawkes masks and cloaks to tens of thousands of Londoners, thereby allowing them to escape the Eye a different way. The primary motivation for that change seems to have been to allow for the visuals in the movie’s climax, where the people march on Parliament as a horde of black-cloaked Fawkeses and, as it explodes, remove their masks to reveal people of all walks of life, including a great diversity of characters who died at the hands of the regime. It’s a striking sequence, but it means that Evey herself doesn’t fully inherit V. Movie!Evey speaks to Finch at the end to convey the idea that V is more than a man, he is a symbol, and he stands for everyone who has felt the weight of oppression and the call of freedom. Book!Evey understands it differently: V stands for anarchy and his work isn’t over. The people still need a V to make something of the chaos. This statement is a bit lost in the movie, where it seems more like V’s ultimate victory is sealed as Parliament comes crashing down and the people of London commemorate his brave fight by honoring the symbol of his mask.

The entire arc of the movie is foreshortened in this respect. The novel actually dabbles in a bit of revolutionary philosophy, including a frame where a woman is shown holding a copy of The Confessions of a Revolutionary, and more on the next page where V discusses the unfolding events with Evey:

Page 195

This subtlety is missing in the movie, and that is its greatest weakness. The movie retains its anti-fascist message, but it loses completely its anarchic message. All that remains is the Guy Fawkes mask, a celebration of a man who dared to blow up the government. And while that’s a fine thing to retain, it’s a damn shame that the rest is lost.

Finch’s role is largely the same in the novel and the movie, so I’ll pass on over him for now, except to note that Stephen Rea portrays a powerfully sour man. It’s a different look than in the novel, where Finch is more reminiscent of the hardboiled pulp detective, but it’s certainly not a bad one.

Gordon, however, got quite the makeover. In the novel he was an underground booze dealer that Evey fell in with, and in love with, with nowhere in particular to go. In the movie, Gordon is a comedian who runs a slapstick act for the state-run broadcasting company, acquainted with Evey through their mutual place of employment. Book!Evey accidentally finds Gordon after V drops her off on the streets of London, whereas Movie!Evey actively seeks him out after abandoning V with the bishop (neatly fitting in with her adjusted character). After a brief stay with Gordon, Evey learns that: 1) he is an art collector and possesses a Quran that would be his death if it were discovered, 2) he is gay, which would be his death if it was discovered, and 3) he has just produced a bitingly sarcastic act portraying Sutler (the Movie!Leader) as being cartoonishly unable to apprehend V. This goes on to get him thrown in prison, and as it turns out, the discovery of his Quran does get him executed. It seems that Gordon’s character was transformed thusly to better highlight the regime’s oppression and to account for Alistair’s absence2. Since this is a movie, after all, characterizing the regime needs to be done expediently and with a minimum of awkward exposition, as compared to the comic, which has the time to weave in flashbacks and recollections that won’t seem contrived. I really dig that Gordon was made into a performer for these purposes; he fits right in with the rest of our cast of performers, it was a perfectly natural role for Stephen Fry, and the Charlie Chaplin-esque satire was spot-on. On the other hand, this means that the movie completely excises the criminal element of the novel, and dadgummit, that criminal element was an important part of the greater whole! Ah, but it was less important than much of the other stuff that was going on, and so it was, sensibly, cut.

Aside from the missing themes of anarchy, V is mostly unchanged (“besides the fact that it’s about a hundredth of the weight of a lion and hunts mice and lizards instead of wildebeest, yeah, a housecat is mostly the same thing”). Hugo Weaving is given the most technically difficult role in the movie: he must depict a flesh-and-blood man whose face cannot be seen for the duration of the story. He’s convincing, for sure, and his body language, stage presence, and dreamy baritone carry the role perfectly. However: the Wachowskis made some further tweaks to the character. In the novel, V is relentless, even mystical, and he hardly seems human. So far as I can remember, he shows no regret nor any signs of stopping. But in the movie, V has some moments of doubt. Evey leaves, and V angrily tosses his mask against a mirror. Evey emerges from her fake prison, and a slight yet emotive tilt of the head shows that V knows that he has done something vile. Why choose to humanize V in this way? This is the one decision in the entire adaptation that just doesn’t make sense to me. It could be as simple as this: he was the male lead and the Wachowskis thought he needed a nudge in the “more likeable” direction for the mass market. Or maybe, with fewer characters and a shorter timeframe to work with, they thought that an easy way to draw attention to the fact that V is “most unlovely and most unforgiveable” is for him to express a little bit of doubt himself. In either case, I don’t think it was necessary. The entire point of V’s character is that he’s hardly a man, he’s an idea. And they already went in full-bore on that concept with the scene where V kills Sutler and Creedy (a beautiful bit of pulp, by the way. “Beneath this mask, there is an idea, Mr. Creedy. And ideas are bulletproof!”) Why back off of it, even a little bit? We have Evey to sympathize with, especially now that she has some verve from the beginning. The audiences themselves can decide what to think of V.

In the end, what the Wachowskis accomplished capably what they set out to give us. Well, better than capably. The movie has flair. It’s arresting and inspiring, and it was executed with great technical skill and a clear reverence for the source material. I do wish they would’ve more fully explored V’s anarchist side, but maybe it wouldn’t have worked in a two hour movie, or even a two-and-a-half hour movie. I don’t really know; I’m just a nerd on the internet.

V for Vendetta, in summary: Pulp genius, translated by people with a gift for it into a new medium in a way that, unfortunately, shows some of its shortcomings.

England Prevails.

  1. My usage of Exclamation Mark Notation may or may not be primarily tongue-in-cheek. I’ll never tell! 
  2. ALISTAIR IS MISSING. UGH. Possible motives for the Wachowskis writing him out include: they didn’t have enough time to address his criminal themes (which is probably more true than I’m willing to admit); they wanted to avoid the only Scottish guy in the whole story being a murderous crook (the kind of thing that gets heavily scrutinized in big-budget movies; I don’t know whether to give the comic a pass on it or not); they didn’t have enough things for him to do in the story since he mostly interacts with other supporting characters that got cut. Ugh. Ugh! It was almost definitely the right decision, but he was such a great character. Ugh. 

Artificially Intelligent: Chappie (D+)

Hugh Jackman has made a career – quite a great one at this juncture – out of stretching. Considering the bodybuilding regimen he goes through every time he is fitted with his X-Men claws, he may well be the most apt thespian when it comes to the art of stretching: stretching his body to the very outskirts of believability when he beefs up and veins out to play tough-guy Wolverine; stretching his vocal range to the stratosphere in an attempt to keep up with the angelic high notes that reverberate to this day from Colm Wilkinson’s take on Jean Valjean belting “Bring Him Home.” Only Jackman could have taken on both those roles in the same year, and worn a ballsack prosthetic on his chin, and still made it out with a viable film career.

How odd it is then that Jackman has never seemed more lost than in Chappie– the third feature film, most definitely not the charm, from South African director Neill Blomkamp – playing a non-singing human with no claws and no testicles covering his neck. As a rather ordinary engineer with a silly haircut and an unfortunate predilection for short shorts, Jackman has a simple emotion to convey – jealousy – but comes off such a grotesque for Chappie’s entire runtime that he doesn’t seem so much driven to madness by envy as possessed by an ancient Lovecraftian totem of envy that boils his blood and turns him unwittingly into a sociopathic, imperialist asshole. Jackman’s Vincent Moore is everything that makes his prized robot MOOSE such an unwieldy sell to the Johannesburg police department – big, clunking, a blunt force instrument when something with finesse is required.

This falls completely on Blomkamp since Jackman has already given cinema one of its more iconic portrayals of jealousy gone off the rails in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.

Blomkamp was, after the phenomenal success of District 9, hailed as a potential blockbuster auteur, in the vein of mentor Peter Jackson and of Nolan, but Elysium dampened the enthusiasm of most (though I found it emotionally effecting) and Chappie has euthanized that enthusiasm in all but a hearty few. It is a film full of miscalculations – not just Jackman’s lunkheaded antagonist, but rappers Yolandi and Ninja from Die Antwoord as gangsters whom Chappie comes to see as his adopted parents (and who eventually reciprocate that feeling), and Dev Patel, who is initially quite able in his role as a passionate scientist who unlocks artificial intelligence, but who, in lockstep with Jackman’s rival engineer, loses his ever-loving mind.

Pretty much the only significant player who comes out of this looking alright (and no Sigourney Weaver is not significant enough in Chappie’s world to merit that distinction) is the only other human on the planet whose stock has dropped more precipitously since District 9 – that film’s star and Blomkamp’s muse/friend Sharlto Colpey. Since playing Wikus van der Merwe, Copley has been wonderful in a film no one saw, Europa Report, and has been awful in everything else – Elysium, A-Team, the new show Powers, and especially Maleficent. He is an overactor and scenery chewer par excellence.

Looking for Copley shouting manically in Chappie but can’t find him anywhere? It’s because he IS Chappie. Chappie was performed by Copley on set and voiced by Copley. It’s not quite a motion capture performance, as it didn’t involve those funny little ping pong balls capturing movement – instead Copley was erased by animators and completely replaced with the Chappie design – but its a similar idea. It lacks the facial nuance of a Serkis performance, since Chappie’s expressiveness is limited to pixel eyes, but on the whole, the character of Chappie, essentially an advanced baby born into the worst circumstances and learning the ropes, comes off pretty well.

It’s the maelstrom that Chappie sets in motion by gaining sentience that makes little sense. Essentially we find ourselves in a South Africa policed by Robocops – a South Africa so comfortable with robot officers, in fact, that a cyborg isn’t even needed to convince people of these machine’s human touch. They’re totally fine. They do exactly what they say they’re going to do; they reduce crime. The only people who don’t like them are criminals like Ninja and Yolandi. (And Vincent Moore, because he’s an asshole.) Patel’s Deon Wilson, their designer, is an undisputed hero/savior/all-around-good-guy.

Deon and Vincent work under Michelle Bradley (Weaver) at Tetravaal, the company that manufactures the robots. Chappie is just one of many robots; he (or, really, “it,” at that point) just happens to be out of commission on the day Deon Frankenstein needs a corpse to bring TO LIFE! This is the first of many irresponsible things Deon does in response to what seem like perfectly rational concerns from his CEO, who is essentially ruined by two rogue employees who don’t listen to her reasonable edicts and, in blindly striving for their opposite goals, bring down a life-saving infrastructure and throw a metropolis into chaos. If this is supposed to be an anti-corporate movie, it’s a failure.

It is the story of two petulant geniuses ruining something good for everyone around them, and it helps little that one of the geniuses (the more sympathetic party) made that environment possible in the first place. He is throwing away a corps of soulless but utterly competent robots for the dream of a machine with a soul. A machine that can learn, form its own opinions, and appreciate and create art. We’re supposed to see Bradley as out of touch because she fails to see the romance (or the profits) in this concept, which means that this may very well be the very first movie that not only isn’t at least somewhat worried about what might happen if we created AI – it unabashedly thinks that even an AI that’s been cast out in a desolate ghetto, firebombed, and relieved of an arm would still be a benevolent if slightly foul-mouthed friend – but doesn’t even realize that some people, for good reason, might have reservations.

The only true anti-AI voice is that of Vincent, and his hatred of Artificial Intelligence is not given even a lick of credence. As we come to find out, it’s really just that he doesn’t want a robot out there that he can’t control, making him the last man you want controlling a massive robot. Once he is let loose and put in control of the MOOSE, he shows it wasn’t Deon’s fame or respect he was after, though surely there is some part of him that was upset that his job was “outsourced to an Indian.” Vincent just wanted to the ability to sit comfortably in chair while blowing away people he doesn’t deem human – gangsters, minorities, rival engineers. He is giddy with power. If this prick having the keys to a killing machine is the alternative, AI seems just peachy.

So peachy that, by the end of the film, it is proposed as not just a beautiful thing in and of itself but (major spoiler ahead) as an alternative to death! Vincent happened to invent a neural scanner which Chappie, after a few minutes of learning how computers work, retrofits into a consciousness transfer machine. It is meant only for him, but when Deon is fatally wounded in the film’s climactic battle and Yolandi is killed, Chappie manages to find them robot bodies (this film suggests that a helmet, simply by sitting atop their heads, could scan brainwaves from Yolandi and Chappie, in spite of the fact that their heads are frightfully dissimilar, noth inside and out, so, GREAT HELMET). To be clear: the souls of humans were captured by a helmet and turned into computer code, and now that code resides in the body of a robot, evolving of its own volition. Is this new code-soul really Deon? Is Code-Soul-Deon existentially terrified to be a machine? Chappie doesn’t care: not dying is not dying, and we are ordered to be happy that some piece of Deon and Yolandi remain.

Chappie, a quite realistic looking robot, may not visually trigger our Uncanny Valley sensors (those alarms that tell us the dead-eyed kids in Polar Express are creepy), but here, existentially, it sets off an Uncanny Valley fire. Chappie takes the mad scientist crown from Deon because he is so afraid of the concept of death that he now gives life. Or “life,” it’s tough to tell.

Chappie is terrified of death for two reasons: everyone is always lying to him and manipulating him and he is the most poorly constructed corporate machine ever.

The entire film relies on two completely idiotic conceits. The first is the rivalry between Ninja and Deon. Ninja has himself a police robot he can control and wants to raise his baby robot to be a carjacking thug. Deon believes that Chappie was created for a higher purpose than this, pretty much on the basis that Deon created him and doesn’t like carjacking. Chappie is caught between his Maker, who makes him promise not to commit crimes, and his Daddy (Ninja), who lies and tells him the things he’s doing aren’t crimes… They’re fun games! The people are just sleeping when you throw ninja stars at their throat lil Chap! Literally every interaction sees the same sequence of events play out: Chappie is reluctant to get involved because his Maker made him promise not to eat the apple in the garden of Eden, and the snake convinces him its not really an apple, its a persimmon.

Eventually Chappie is won over to the dark side (turning into an impetuous teenage robot who won’t to talk to Maker or Daddy) when he begins wrestling with Idiotic Conceit #2: Chappie’s battery will die in 5 days…

But wait, can’t the battery be replaced?

No, it is melded to the carapace or something. Chappie’s battery will die in 5 days…

But can’t the battery be recharged at some recharging statio…


So either Tetravaal is making disposable robots that they scrap once the battery runs out (in which case, I take it back. Michelle Bradley is a horrible CEO), or no one thinks to tell Chappie that batteries can be recharged. Either way, it puts a ticking clock on the movie that feels urgent but fake. It forces Chappie to wrestle with big ideas, but in a way that feels contrived.

He is just coming to terms with his crisis when a big robot drops out of the sky and forces his hand anyway; he has to use his consciousness transfer machine on everyone. Dramatically, its inert. Literally every roadblock that’s set up is overcome only a moment later. What’s that, there’s only one robot body to use between Deon and Chappie, forcing Chappie to save his Maker rather than himself?! No prob, Chappie remote connects to a body not even a minute later. Even Yolandi’s death is so short-lived that her resurrection seems abrupt. (Sorry third gangster that’s not in the rap group Die Antwoord, you weren’t important enough for Chappie to lovingly capture your brainwaves on a flash drive, so you’ll just have to stay brutally murdered.)

There are occasional moments of subdued thoughtfulness in Chappie, though they rarely have much to do with the overarching narrative. One scene in particular sticks out: a police captain thoughtfully rejects Vincent’s MOOSE, which the police force simply does not need or want, while stuffing his face with the food that Tetravaal is providing him. There’s implied corruption, or at least gluttony, involved here, but, looking at the bigger picture, the Johannesberg police department and Michelle Bradley have entered into a mutually beneficial relationship that seems to harm nobody until two cowboy engineers get into a pissing match. So what is exactly is Blomkamp trying to say about the police? Maybe he’s trying to comment on the JoBerg of today (and in the Die Antwoord sections, he most certainly is as he readily embraces their “zef” aesthetic) but as a sci-fi director, he has to play be the rules of the world he set up. The police may be lazy bums, but by backing up a force of incorruptible robots, they are lazy bums that are saving city.

A similar thing happens in the storybook scene (lifted pretty heinously from the AI Pinnochio scene, but hey who’s complaining), where Yolandi reads a bedtime story about a black sheep and explains to Chappie what it means to be a black sheep. Okay, so Chappie’s a black sheep… in comparison to whom exactly? Outside of Vincent, and some street kids who throw Molotov cocktails at him (after Ninja abandons him in a ploy to toughen him up, which is JUST the worst idea ever), Chappie is never in contact with anyone who misunderstands him or casts him out for being different. Maybe if he’d tried to fir in with his other robots and realized how different they were, or if he’d tried more readily to assimilate into human society, this might apply. But as it is, it seems to apply more to Yolandi than Chappie. There’s a romance surrounding the ghoetto-chic “zef” lifestyle Yolandi and Ninja are living in their grafitti-covered abandoned warehouse that I think we’re supposed to see as misunderstood. I think to the majority of American audiences, though, it will remain just that: misunderstood.

It’s tough to tell exactly what Blomkamp was thinking casting the rappers as themselves (literally, they appear to actually be playing Yolandi and Ninja of the hip-hop collective Die Antwoord who just happen to need to steal cars for money; they even wear their own merchandise and Ninja mourns Yolandi by wearing a Yolandi shirt), but whatever that thought was, it doesn’t translate well. With District 9, whatever may have been lost in translation was forgiven, because an apartheid allegory is one we will all work to meet halfway. Here, some of the allegory seems hyperspecific to some things going on JoBerg that the decidedly odd (and that’s not an insult, Ninja and Yolandi know they look odd and they love it) features of the rappers-turned-actors fails to convey.

But who am I to complain? Overall, they accord themselves well, and, strange haircuts and face tattoos and all, they far outclass one of 21st century cinema’s most stable presences (and one of the sexiest men alive), Hugh Jackman, who makes Jodie Foster in Elysium look thoroughly understated and ordinary by comparison. Blomkamp has a heavy hand when it comes to antagonists and his direction of action is often too slick; thankfully, on his next film, Alien 5, his antagonist can be as bigoted, mean, and jerkish as he wants. It’ll help that the Alien won’t talk, of course.

Where the Heart is: Home (B)

So, there was a time on this Spaceship Earth of ours when aminuscule fraction of society – one ethnicity largely confined to one continent really – amassed enough influence to parcel off most of the rest of the world,along with its people. Which might seem drastic, let alone impossible, but this tiny coalition had magic: they told themselves they were superior and they somehow possessed the conviction to believe it. They turned conquering and enslaving the majority of the inhabited world into a charity drive – “We’re helping them, poor souls.”

This was Colonialism. It made today’s innocuous other-countries of Europe – your Belgiums and Portugals – into megalomaniacs of the first order, and it really only stopped being accepted doctrine – scientifically even (eugenics shudder) – well less than a century ago.

It was a magic spell so powerful – telling yourself you’re better and then making it so by force – that we’re still shaking it off today. Who am I kidding? We may never shake it off completely.

Just look at movies – the vast majority of them still portray and, through their power over us all, enforce a world in which all the important things happen to white people and their white friends and white associates and, usually through mandate, they might tangentially affect one non-white person. We have to make ourselves make sure they have non-white people in them. Because, you know, we might forget.

If this seems like a heavy way to introduce an animated film from the studio that brought you Madagascars 1-3, it sort of is. I doubt even one child – and make no mistake, children are the audience for whom Home is primarily made – will state in appreciation, “Mummy, I think it’s quite novel that this film has – for no other reason than the fact that the vast majority of the world is non-white and more than half the world is female, so why shouldn’t she be? – a non-white, female lead.” No child will have much to say about a heartfelt scene in which Oh (Jim Parsons) apologizes to Tip (Rihanna!) for buying into his culture’s doctrine that the humans of Earth, about which he knew nothing beyond what was presented on a tiny pamphlet, are simple, pathetic creatures in need of help and change. Little about the look on the faces of families relocated to what is essentially a Human Reservation on Australia – a look of powerlessness and devastation – will register for them. And surely, as the film climaxes, their focus will be on Oh and Tip as they reunite and save the planet; it will not be on the vast sea of people behind them, which could be deemed shockingly diverse if it didn’t appear that their proportions are derived directly from the diversity of real life – on a real world where, when walking down the street, you are likely to see not just one black face or one turban, but many.

Bless these children, because for many, it won’t even occur to them to point such things out as out of the ordinary. If there are more movies made with the sensitivity of Home, they may never have the need to do so. But since I am not them, and I am 25 and cognizant of some of the attendant issues here, I am going to take a moment to highlight how casually revolutionary Home is.

It has not been that long since Disney made an appropriately big fuss about its first black princess, Tiana (and fumbled the hand-off a bit when it courted controversy by having her initially written as a maid). It has been even less time since an appropriately big fuss was made about how much Merida looked like a real, possible teenage girl (and since Disney also fumbled that hand-off by subsequently marketing glammed-up Merida dolls). We are not even a month away from an Oscars in which Every. Nominated. Actor. Was. White…

At DragonCon this past year, I had the privilege of attending a panel led by the enchanting Kelly Sue DeConnick, who described some of her troubles writing a then-unreleased comic (“Bitch Planet,” now in publication and wonderful) that shunted what we think of as the “default human,” and featured as its core cast an eclectic group of badass non-white females. The trap of the “default human” is apparent whenever a creator has to give a reason why they might include or feature a character who happens to be – instead of a heterosexual white male – gay, or Asian, or female. If no reasonable answer can be given (the reason usually being “This figure was not white in real life,” which is why so many films with black protagonists are based on history) than it is assumed that character will default to “the norm.” This is often subconscious. It is also dangerous.

So even if Home were a failure as a movie (which it is so not), it would be a major victory in this: look at Tip. If we were actually to push our way to something approaching the average teenager of Earth, we might see Tip: dark-skinned, probably mixed-race, with the body of a typical seventh-grade girl and not that of a gym-happy co-ed. Even more delightful: Tip’s natural hair, which is wonderful to behold, and which will hopefully be an inspiration to many whose hair naturally looks like Tip’s. With the imminent box office success of this film, creators will have one less reason not to write a non-white protagonist if that’s what they want to do.

That’s what Adam Rex wanted to do when he wrote a YA book, The True Meaning of Smekday. While much has changed from his original conception of Tip’s adventures with a kind member of the invading Boov race, two very important things carried over to the film: Tip’s race and the science-fiction colonialism allegory.

Without that second piece, the first might just be happy coincidence. But with its thoughtful deconstruction of a supposedly benevolent society that pushes aside whatever civilization is in its way, justifying its actions by denigrating the displaced, Home becomes something much greater. It is downright thoughtful.

It is also a lot of fun. Parsons is perfect, and eminently quotable, as a lonely clutz with a limited grasp of parts of speech such as pronouns. Rihanna is a pretty big surprise as Tip. Occasionally, a line filled with emotion comes across as slightly wooden, but the singer brings a surprising heft to her role as an abandoned teenager searching for her mother. Who knows what brought Rihanna to this project (maybe the chance to do a compilation album?), but whatever the case, the character obtains her Barbadan heritage and a some of her warrior power.

The only drawback in the film’s small voice cast is its most venerated personage, Steve Martin. Martin is hamming it up pretty hard as Captain Smek, a buffoon who unwittingly made off with the entire next generation of a rival civilization. Almost every one of his lines is a riff on “Man, do I love this human object I’m using in a weird way,” and it’s a shtick that wears out quick.

All is well though, because Smek is merely a figurehead, and it would be too easy if the ouster of one ignorant Boov immediately fixed the ills of Home’s colonialism. Instead, Home focuses wisely, as it speeds towards its conclusion, on the reconciliation of Tip and Oh and on the reparations Oh mus make now that he is in charge. The film ties together many thematic threads – humanity’s tendency to hope in spite of hopeless odds, feeling cast out by society, the ties that bind us to family – and every one of these is actually enhanced by the film’s sly insights on colonialism and by pairing a lonely purple alien with a Barbadan girl.

If the film is over-reliant on slapstick, physical comedy setpieces, and Smek’s shtick, it is thankfully free from excessive pop culture homage, Dreamworks’ bread, butter, and jam. It is also resoundingly colorful; actually, visually and aurally, it paints with colors we may not be used to in animated fare. During on alien fight sequence, there is an actual Drrrrooooppp!

It’s interesting to see and hear a film aimed at a young audience play with new flavors, pulling freely from the world Rihanna rules as Princess Regent. (Because Beyonce is Queen, obvi.) The film glows a dancefloor green and purple, a palate borrowed from the Slushies that power Tip’s hover car. It may not seem that novel, but in fact, this is the film’s own quiet revolution. Digital coloring has pushed film comically in the direction of an orange and teal tint: many films look like a broadcast of a Miami Dolphins’ game.

The basis is, like the “default human,” subconscious but dangerous: the majority of film scenes feature actors with orange-ish skin in front of blue skies. This has formed an accepted color template that affects much of the rest of a shot. Sets are dressed and images are digitally sweetened to match this color dichotomy. It takes something as simple as featuring a girl who doesn’t conform to this “default” or “norm” to subtly reconfigure everything we’ve come to know about film doctrine.

Home is a gorgeous film to behold because of this. Kids will think its pretty. They’ll probably never know what a game-changer it truly is.

So This is Love: Cinderella (B)

Romeo and Juliet. That is the project our new Cinderella Lily James, her Prince Richard Madden, and their director Kenneth Branagh have decided to tackle now that their live-action Disney film has been deemed a rousing success.

With their interpretation of a fairy tale which everyone has heard (filtered through the lens of an animated classic which, judging by dusty shelves of VHS tapes worldwide, everyone has seen) already in the books, what we can deduce from their next collaboration is this: this is a repertory company that does not mind treading upon well-trod ground. All the power to them. If their sumptuous adaptation of Cinderella is any indication, they are quite skilled at it.

This is no real surprise in Branagh’s case. This is a return to a sort of classical form for a director who spent the first decade of his career seemingly (and blessedly) ignorant that there had been stories written after the Industrial Revolution but who last year directed a failed reboot of a spy franchise. At his best, he takes material that has been done to death and he does it again, stripping away the muck of decade’s of cultural detritus and trusting, above all, the material.

The material might be a bit untrustworthy in this particular case. For some, seeing an utterly sincere version of the Cinderella tale in 2015 (and seeing it become a box office smash) has become cause for alarm. Because its 20-freakin-15 and Cinderella isn’t exactly a feminist parable. Her passively dreaming and wishing for a prince to sweep her away was pretty passe in 1950, and there’s been a whole feminist revolution since then. Bras were burned, so I absolutely get why hearing that Lily James had to go on a liquid diet to fit into an insane corset that makes her look like something only an animator could draw would raise some hackles.

Can I say this though? The corset was overkill for sure, but I never fully noticed the freakishly compressed-quality of James’s waist in the dress because, I mean, have you seen the dress?! There it is swishing and swaying, sparkling but also remaining this utterly calming, placid blue, the platonic ideal of blue, the uberblue.

A gif can not do justice to the way that dress looks on the big screen. Or to the way Branagh’s Cinderella looks on the big screen, how it moves and lives and breathes. Normally you reserve that sort of praise for an action spectacle like Avengers or a CGI accomplishment like Gravity (and Cinderella has one portion, as Cinderella makes her midnight dash, that suddenly becomes a CGI action spectacle and it is hideous and garish and really harshes one’s mellow), but here the wonder is all in how lush and well-designed the movie is.

In many ways Branagh and his collaborators behind the camera – production designer Dante Feretti, costume designer Sandy Powell, composer Patrick Doyle, and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos – are the real stars of this Cinderella. On YouTube, Tony Zhou produces a series of video essays called “Every Frame a Painting,” a phrase I whispered to myself on many occasions as a particular composition brought new life and understanding to a story that has been so done by this point that the movie opens awkwardly with the Disney logo, which just so happens to spoil the story we are preparing to watch. We know that castle is, iconically, Cinderella’s Castle. She is going to end up there. All you can do as a filmmaker is pick up nuggets of the profound on the carriage ride there.

In this adaptation, the profundity is in the art direction. It is in the carriage itself, which is mindbogglingly ornate. It’s there in shots that capture a young woman’s grief – they keep their distance, one jumping into an adjacent room as Ella and her father spend their last moments with her dear mother, and one tracking away from a crumpled Ella as she holds the branch her father sent before dying. And it’s there in the way Zambarloukos films the ball in sweeping, off-kilter shots that are fast and snappy. It’s nearly stupefying in the scene where Ella’s fairy godmother whips her ball gown together out of blue sparkles – the world fades away and Ella and her blue sparkles are embossed on a black background, butterflies flitting about.

In many cases, like in those mentioned above, the actors need do nothing more than sit still and wear the costume correctly (no small feat considering the horrid-sounding liquid diet), let the camera track away from them, allow the music to swell. Notably, in the fabulous shot that monitors the grieving family from rooms away, the most striking thing is a swan chandelier Feretti may have labored over for longer than Chris Weitz molded the film’s script. Those swans are a piece of art within a shot that is itself a piece of art. The script is somewhat less artful, though it’s carried off with aplomb and, of course, visual flair.

It would be unfair to call James and Madden props in these stunning designs – they both do absolutely delightful work and share a spark that will undoubtedly burn even brighter in their Romeo & Juliet – but in many shots, Branagh’s team has done so much work establishing atmosphere through sound and architecture and costume and camera placement, that all James has to do is look stunning. Which she undoubtedly is. Still, when she walks in late to the ball and everyone stops in their tracks, one wonders: is it because of James’s graceful beauty, or the way that dress enhances it?

James is a virtual unknown on loan from that sputtering British juggernaut, Downton Abbey. There, she was a blatant replacement when one was needed – a spot opened up for a gorgeous, husky voiced, boundary-pushing iconoclast when the previous one perished. Here she has an unenviable job all its own – she has to play someone who is unfalteringly decent. Look no further than paragons of virtue like modern-age Mickey Mouse and Michael Bay’s Optimus Prime; unflagging decency can be a major chore, if not an utter vacuum. James has to sell good ol’ vanilla Cinderella to an audience that has grown accustomed to the notion that Snow White should wear a breastplate.

The feminist princess revolution that has sprouted from Belle and Tiana and Elsa and Anna and Merida has been one of the most heartening pop culture trends of an entire film epoch, but the insistence the Mouse House has been displaying in adapting and modernizing its back catalog (countdown to Emma Watson singing “Belle” begins now) seemed to promise a lot of theoretically interesting but poorly executed spins like 2014′s Maleficent. Grime. Violence. Spectacle (see how much we spent!). Unnecessary revisionism (the secret history of Aurora’s father!). Maleficent had a lot of fascinating moments, but not a one had to do with it being an adaptation of a treasured Disney property.

There are a lot of live-action versions of Disney classics on the release schedule, but no one was getting too excited about them. Branagh and James got people taking this trend seriously by playing things straight and staying immensely faithful to a film that, lest you need reminding, is mostly about the feud between a malevolent cat and a tribe of carefree mice.

But it’s such an elemental story, so baldly emotional. Done right, one, of course, can’t help but see why it’s one of history’s most enduring fables. Even today, we think of teams like UAB and Georgia State that surprise with their inspiring goodness as Cinderella teams. Lily James is a Cinderella team all her own, and a reminder that a Cinderella that casts a spell over you early can work wonders. Yes, she passively accepts abuse from her stepmother and stepsisters, but at this point, dinging a Cinderella adaptation for doing that is like complaining that Romeo and Juliet ends with a despondent Juliet taking her own life because she can’t live without her man. No it’s not progressive, but it always has the potential to be emotionally devastating.

The movie wisely keeps James front and center even though she is a virtual unknown. The stars, Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter, stay in their lanes while wearing delicious ensembles, providing seasoning on what proves to be a heaping helping of James heroically carrying the film on her back. A subplot dedicated to Richard Madden’s Prince Kit disobeying his father’s wishes adds a nice change of pace occasionally and ties in nicely thematically – the film’s hook is about being “kind,” and both its leads are that first and foremost, but nothing about the the script seems to be celebrating that Cinderella kept her mouth shut. If anything, we wish she’d spoken up sooner, for her own sake. Speaking up got her noticed by the prince, after all.

This film makes certain we’re aware this Cinderella isn’t looking for a prince to carry her away. She doesn’t know Kit is a prince (she thinks he’s an apprentice at the castle) and seems earnestly to want to see him again if only to have someone she enjoyed talking with back in her life again. In this, the film pretty blatantly swipes a beat from Ever After by having its lovebirds meet before the ball and by making sure we know the prince is impressed by our heroine’s pluck before he picks her out of the crowd.

In Ever After, Drew Barrymore’s Danielle was all the magic that film needed – she didn’t need a fairy godmother because she was firmly her own champion, and a champion of the people. Branagh strips away a good deal of that agency so he can bring the actual magic back – the kind with Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo and fairy dust – but he leaves a resilient girl in tact. His Cinderella will never be quite the feat that Ever After, a truly moralistic and magic-free parable for our day and age, was; but I am not immune to growing weak in the knees at the sight of real magic, and it must be said: if there is ever an inquisition into whether Sandy Powell is possessed of actual spellcasting abilities, I submit into evidence the dress so brilliant, it rivals Gravity for big-screen spectacle.

The Tie That Binds: Fifty Shades of Grey Review (C)

Mr. ______ was keeping his current wife locked in an attic while he wooed ______, a courtship which included Mr. _______ conning ______ into confessing her love while Mr. ______ was posing as a female gypsy…

This is the plot of Jane Eyre, which was published in 1847. Can we just start there?

Literature has been idealizing less than ideal relationships with “bad boys” for longer than there’s been a New York Times to publish a best-sellers list to capture the phenomenon that ensues when the right good girl/bad boy pairing captures the lurid side of the public imagination. Anastasia Steele is an English major; she knows this. In her head when her Mister – Mr. Grey, not Rochester – opens the door to his Red Room of Pain, she’s probably thinking “At least he’s being forthcoming. Jane Eyre’s beau was blinded by his secretly imprisoned crazy wife. I can handle a little spanking.”

With this historical perspective in mind: over what, exactly, are we all getting so worked up? Has the Motion Picture Association of America’s draconian rating system (blowing off a human head: ideal for 13 year olds; blowjob/giving head: smut) made the idea of sex – as people perform it in the real world, with fewer sensual gazes and face nuzzles and more, y’know, thrusting – so taboo? I’m not arguing that films that show quite this much of the human anatomy should be rated more leniently (though the way the MPAA practically rewards violence, winks at female nudity while making it all but impossible for anything with an erect penis to be seen as anything but porn, and stigmatizes anything LGBTQ beyond all reason is a convo we can all have another day), but after watching Fifty Shades Grey – actually seeing the damn thing – I can’t help but wonder whether the PG-13-ization of our mass entertainment has blinded us to the attendant principals of adulthood when that concept is divorced from fighting off attacking forces of robots/aliens/kaiju.

Adults have sex. Why, when we’re confronted by a naked lady consenting to having her hands bound by a silk tie, are we reduced to a blushing mass of tittering children?

This isn’t scorn. I’m genuinely curious. Faced with the plot summary of E.L. James’s best-selling work (unprecedentedly best-selling, a genuine paradigm-shifting phenomena that validated e-readers), I was just as guilty of discomfort. I readily admit that the ticket stub in my hand, as I showed it to the usher, might as well have been a picture of myself naked considering how little I wanted it seen by another human being.

Fifty Shades of Grey was long ago labeled as “Mommy Porn.” It is easy and societally acceptable for me to say, as a heterosexual male, that I am not the intended target audience for 50 Shades and leave it at that. If I said anything more than that, you’d probably question some things about me. (I’m about to say a lot more). I will say this: I think that 50 Shades being targeted mostly at a female audience is an important facet of its overwhelming success. It is catering to an underserved audience which has been told that the male gaze is privileged and that ogling the female body is normal and pretty much required, while ogling the male body, especially when it is aroused, is gross.

Can I challenge this automatic “target audience” reflex for a second though? What about this book having a female character as its narrator, or this film starring a female, makes it not intended for male consumption or makes it ideal only for sexually repressed mothers? I’ve seen the film; it has both a male and female on screen. Boys, news flash: the female is more frequently nude than the male, who wears his pants even at times when that seems antithetical to his goals! The female is a more vivid character, but if a woman told a man she didn’t like Guardians of the Galaxy because Starlord was a more vivid character than Gamora, that male would label her impolitely as a feminist scold. And when did men become incapable of empathizing with a female protagonist? This is tiring rhetoric, and has led to years of Hollywood refusing to make female-led movies. Hunger Games and Frozen have recently proven definitively that heroines can target every audience.

50 Shades may be naughty or even taboo, but it should be equally so for both males and females. Christian and Anastasia walk into that Pain Room together. Why can’t we walk into the theater together?

My line of thinking was not anywhere near this nuanced when I walked into the theater, I’ll admit. Once again, I’m a hypocrite who needs days to fortify these sorts of positions. On that day, my desires to see and review all important films won a slim victory over my desires to not be the guy sitting alone at an afternoon showing of Mommy Porn: The Movie. I was alone because no one wanted to see Fifty Shades with me, and, to be fair, I wasn’t particularly eager to bond with anyone over it. Because this was supposed to be the MOST. UNCOMFORTABLE. VIEWING. EXPERIENCE. OF. ALL. TIME.

It you’re wondering if Fifty Shades of Grey is all hype and all letdown, I can tell you in this regard that it is. It’s really just a movie. It’s not great. It’s not abominable. It has nudity, and that nudity probably leans too much towards the male gaze because male nudity is still taboo, even here. It is not the greatest scandal ever to stain our times. It will not melt the eyes of your grandmother, nor will it turn your girlfriend into a crazed sex beast. It has better acting than Twilight, but on the whole is a less interesting movie. I ain’t mad at it.

First let me mount a case in its defense, because it needs to be talked about as just a story, divorced from its moorings as a looked-down upon pop-lit craze. Anastasia Steele is a fascinating cinematic character. She doesn’t start that way, and the script doesn’t help her much. But Dakota Johnson imbues her with a life that must not have been present on the page, because Holy Crap (her preferred epithet) do people not seem to like book Ana. It’s interesting that for the mousy librarian (who happens to work in a hardware store) role of Ana, they chose to go with an actress who had mainly had occasion in her short career to show off a deft and understated comedic touch (especially on the too delightful for this world network sitcom Ben & Kate, in which Johnson carved out a wonderful niche as the straight-laced but goofy Kate in only one season). Initially, Johnson falls victim to the story’s insistence that a 21-year old woman untouched by a man must be in some sort of embryonic state socially. She is everything we imagine a lost little girl waiting for a man might be – an English major with no defined life goals, completely virginal, hiding behind her wall of bangs, oblivious to the feelings of her close friend Julio.

And then suddenly, something interesting happens. Ana gets drunk and Johnson comes alive, and she stays vivacious and interesting pretty much any time she has her clothes on. In the bedroom, Ana consents to play the submissive role, and while in it, she’s pretty much relegated to cooing orgasmically while Christian does things too her. (We still don’t know how to film interesting sex scenes.) But the whole movie’s conceit is that, while she flirts with submissiveness for the whole runtime, she is actually just trying it on to see whether she would be willing to sign a contract making this submissiveness official. In essence, deciding whether she would like to sign away her dominance. I know, this sounds absurd, but it actually leads to some of the movie’s best scenes and ideas, including a business meeting where Ana and Christian meet in a conference room to discuss the particulars of the contract. Sometimes a movie puts forward a sequence so competent, so stunningly inventive, that you wonder whether the filmmakers were sleeping at the control panel the rest of the runtime. Lit in red, with Johnson and Jamie Dornan staring each other down from opposite sides of the room, and with the advantage flipping so much between the two that you might as well be watching Federer and Nadal try and win a close set, the scene is a stunner, and it’s all the more powerful because Ana (and Johnson) wins. Game, set, and match.

The irony seems intentional: Ana is contemplating signing away any semblance of dominance, but as her love for Christian grows, she becomes more and more dominant. When Christian insists she does something, Ana always puts forth some little rebellion that makes it clear how present she still is, and how important her enjoyment is. She’ll giggle at the absurdity or scoff at the condescension or fight back. If Ana was meant to be some wilting wallflower, than Johnson commits grand larceny: she steals 50 Shades of Grey right out from under its own antiquatedness. The film forgets to imbue Ana’s life away from Christian with anything resembling depth (what exactly is she doing after college other than contemplating becoming Christian’s live in concubine?), but Johnson lends it depth whenever she can. Her character is savvy enough to see the warning signs surrounding Christian, and, as she walks out the door (or, uh, into the elevator) after calling him out on his bullshit, you get the exact impression from Johnson’s performance you’d want in this instance: it’s not BDSM that’s the problem, it’s Christian. If she’d fallen into this sort of relationship with a more open and less traumatized man, she might very well have signed that contract. It’s not the whips that scare her. It’s the way Christian wields them.

Which brings us to the main issue 50 Shades of Grey is carrying around, a weight it surely has been shouldering since its embryonic fan fiction days. Christian – modeled after the “You can’t get too close to me Bella” moper Edward Cullen, who was an actual vampire – has a dark secret. It’s a secret so dark that it’s not even fully explored in this first movie. All we know is that Christian first entered into the BDSM world as a submissive… to a much older woman… when he was 15 years old; it was only years later that he developed the need to be dominant. He treats this need as a crippling addiction (symptoms include mopey piano playing). It prevents him from being a functioning social creature.

Dornan does a fine job as Christian when he’s allowed to be playful and zing Ana occasionally, but when that more playful side shines through, it almost feels like Dornan the performer subsuming Christian the character. There’s a running gag that Christian is utterly incapable of smiling in pictures, which makes little sense because, with Johnson, Dornan seems perfectly affable, breaking out in an apple-cheeked grin that is heart-meltingly adorable. Yes, in spite of himself, Christian is falling in love with Ana, and maybe this love is beating back his overriding cold, mopey, BDSM instincts, and hmmm… maybe you’re starting to see how this could be a problem?

Christian is a practitioner of BDSM because he was abused as a child. There’s no way around this. He was a minor, and a woman he and Ana call “Mrs. Robinson” forced him into a submissive relationship. Christian is even still in contact with Mrs. Robinson, calling her a friend, which should have been a more immediate dealbreaker for Ana than the pictures she sees of bondage while searching Google. The movie heavily insinuates that this isn’t even the full extent of the story behind Christian Grey and his scars (I fully suspect Christian’s adoptive mother, played by Marcia Gay Harden, is a more prominent figure in this abuse narrative than initially stated, and good god do I hope I’m wrong). Christian is possessive, showing all of Edward Cullen’s stalker tendencies, and he fully associates BDSM with an inability to care for people in a full and loving manner. He isn’t doing it because he enjoys it or because it brings him closer to people. He does it because he needs it and it keeps him far, far away.

And so the only group of people truly harmed by this film are not guardians of decency or, god forbid, the CHILDREN; it’s people who engage in sex in anything but the most conventional, heteronormative, tool-free manner. Because Christian and his potentially very strange family are the only people standing in for an entire reality of sexuality. They are based off a family of secret vampires, but there are no real vampires in the world (probably) to be harmed by Twilight’s conception of vampires as mopey and sparkly; there are real people in the world who wield BDSM responsibly, and they have thus far been seen in cinema as kooks, weirdos, degenerates, and, in their biggest platform to date, abused children who grow up trying to pass that abuse on. The film offers no positive counterpoint.

What initially seems like a story about finding joy and love and actually growing as a person because of experimentation outside the norm becomes a titillating sexual adventure in which a waifish innocent almost loses her decency to those who give in to their baser instincts. It’s just a modern spin on the fainting white woman nearly corrupted by savage Native Americans/Africans/Asians/whichever-non-whites-are-savages-this-time. It’s Alice’s Adventures in Painland. That’s the sinister subtext: see what she avoided, we almost lost our heroine to the sad flogging man.

That all comes down to James and her construction of the story. The screenwriter and director do an enviable job in this adaptation of tamping down a good deal of what made 50 Shades unpalatable to its detractors (it’s important to note for those who hate the amatuerish writing style of James that James didn’t write this movie), but this overarching thread still juts out unbecomingly. The scene in which Christian admits his BDSM origin story still shows its lineage – as Ana and Christian walk through the redwoods of the Pacific Northwest, youcan squint and see Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson doing the “I know what you are/Say it/Out loud/SAYYYY IT/vampire…” scene from Twilight. That is problematic because while Twilight smartly (well, stupidly, but craftily) couched its abstinence message in a fantasy film about vampires and werewolves, 50 Shades is placing its own sexual panic squarely on the shoulders of bondage. Blood-sucking does not happen. Bondage does.

Christian tries to stifle the darker side of himself and make BDSM fun and presentable, and his glibness combined with his ability to fly Ana anywhere he wants in the vehicle of his choosing helps elide over his issues; but in the end, after a bad day, he slips, and he shows Ana his true colors.

To this point, Dornan has looked hesitant holding any implement. He’s never looked like he’s flogging or whipping Ana. More like he’s tickling her. In his fury and disappointment, though, Dornan commits, and the scene is as traumatic as it’s supposed to be. Ana sobs herself to sleep and, putting her foot down, she walks away. It’s actually the perfect ending to this story. It’s one of the more thematically appropriate and symbolically rich last scenes I’ve seen in a film.

Unfortunately, it’s not the end. We know this because we live in a world where two sequels exist. Ana and Christian will reunite and Ana’s triumphant decision to abstain from Christian and his 50 shades of “fucked up,” as he so ineloquently puts it, will be washed away. Secrets will come to light, and I imagine none of them will do the BDSM community any favors. But I can’t criticize films that don’t exist yet. If the 50 Shades of Grey saga ended with the elevator doors closing on Ana and Christian’s dalliance – and as of today, that’s where it does end, cinematically – than it would have to get props from me. It’s a great ending to an occasionally engrossing story. It feels so final in the moment that you can almost pretend for a moment that there isn’t more material out there. When you do, it almost seems like it one-ups even the great Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre washed her man right out of her hair, but in the end, the wash didn’t take; she always goes back to her erstwhile wife-hider Mr. Rochester. As Anastasia storms out and the credits roll, it’s sneakily reassuring to think that, if I so choose, I can just leave Ana right there forever: dominant like a steamroller, making good choices.

But Who Will Vet our Vendetta? Part 2

V for Vendetta can be thought of as a superhero comic, but I have a feeling that Moore and Lloyd would chuckle a very British chuckle at the suggestion. It’s more a politically grounded character drama whose dramatis personae and their relationships are the core of the story.

V, of course, is the masked-and-cloaked avenger whose character arc is the main plot of the novel. We learn a few things early on about him: he is a performer with a flair for the dramatic; he has a deep love for the arts, quoting Macbeth and Faust and even the Rolling Stones as he pursues his foes; and he is hypersensitive to Evey’s thoughts and feelings. There’s something nurturing about him, even despite his abiding mystique. Frankly. the more I write, the more I’m convinced that V is simply the art of performance made flesh. Or, for as much as we see flesh, made fabric and porcelain.

V rescues Evey from the fingermen—the cops—on the night he blows up parliament1, taking her into sanctuary at his home, the Shadow Gallery. Throughout Book One (Europe After the Reign), V abducts and assassinates several members of the ruling fascist party, carrying out his titular vendetta. In my favorite moment he stands with Lady Justice atop the Old Bailey. He strikes up a conversation with her in the dead of night—himself playing both ends—and admits to her that he has been seeing another woman. That woman: anarchy.

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This scene is the decoder ring for V as a character. It’s easy to underappreciate, since it is a monologue with little importance to the plot. But it tells us everything about V, it does so in two and a half pages, and that is so cool.

First, the obvious: where once he flirted with justice, now he is wholeheartedly devoted to anarchy. Secondly: V flexes his vocabulary, turning what otherwise might be a silent, contemplative moment into a full blown soliloquy, a performance for no one in particular: V would not be V without the drama. Thirdly, the frames in the comic focus tightly on V’s mask and Lady Justice’s stone visage, as if to equate the two. The hint is that V is a symbol just as much as Lady Justice—a connection made more explicit throughout books two and three. Fourthly: V is talking to himself. Let’s not forget that. He is possessed of a certain weirdness, a madness—the madness of Hamlet and Lady Macbeth, a madness with charisma, a madness that captivates.

Now that we know a little more about V, we can begin to understand his relationship with Evey. He rescues her from the night and hides her in the Shadow Gallery, where she gratefully accepts his shelter and comfort. He also takes her under his wing as a student, teaching her about the art lost to the censorious Norsefire regime. She is innocence rescued from the brink—the fact that V rescued her before she was able to successfully prostitute herself is not a narrative accident—and taught to live again. Importantly, despite her closeness with V, she maintains her innocence throughout the novel, notably in three important scene.

In the first, she is made accomplice to a murder and expresses her horror at the events (she had offered to help V unaware that murder was his purpose, his only warning being a reference to Faust when she made the deal). Afterward, V lets her go back out into the streets of London, where she falls in with Gordon. Gordon is a good man at heart, but a criminal, and he meets his end at the hands of a worse criminal: Alistair.

Which leads to the second important scene: Evey takes Gordon’s gun and is about to make an attempt on Alistair’s life when she is snatched from the streets again (by V, although we don’t know this at the time). Her innocence, again, is rescued from oblivion. Her last test comes after her ensuing, ahem, reeducation, where V offers to finish what he had interrupted:

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What a line, by the way. “It is as easy as it is irrevocable.”

She declines. Why is this all so important? It’s important because despite the fact that V is looking for a protégé, someone to emulate him, he is also looking for an opposite and a complement. V needs someone to create a new society in the wake of his purposeful destruction, and talks about this more and more as the end of his mission approaches and he prepares to pass on his mantle. (Another favorite line: “But let us raise a toast to all our bombers, all our bastards, most unlovely and most unforgiveable. Let’s drink their health… then meet them no more.”). He hopes Evey will be this person—and these scenes show that V’s hit the mark. There are some other visual-and-text-level struts that serve as a foundation for this complementary relaitonship, the biggest one being that scene of revelation on the rooftop, post-reeducation, where Evey, having been reborn into the rain, echoes the frequently repeated frame where V escapes from his prison into roaring flames. Fire. V. Water putting out the fire. Evey.

As all this is going on, with V becoming more and more sure of Evey, his efforts to educate her intensify. He begins simply, by drawing her story from her and assuring her that the fascist thugs of the world are unable to harm her. He offers her his library, an endless stream of quotes from the timeless classics, and even bedtime stories about the Land of Do-As-You-Please. He teaches her about drama and magic. And then, he does one of the most famously anti-heroic deeds in all of fiction: he imprisons Evey in a fake concentration camp. You see, V himself was forged in the crucible of atrocities that was a concentration camp, and he believes that the only way for Evey to truly learn what it means to be free is to experience what he experienced. He tortures her, starves her, locks her in a rat-infested cell, and fully convinces her that she has been captured by the fingermen and is going to be executed unless she divulges information about V2. He introduces to her, through a rathole in her cell wall, a letter from a lesbian actress, Valerie, imploring her to hold on to her principles—the same letter V himself received through a rathole in a cell wall all of those years ago.

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At the end of this ordeal, Evey is faced with a test not of her innocence, but of her resolve. She is given a damning confession to sign that will end the torture and may result in her finding work with the fingermen. If she refuses she will be taken out back and shot. Her response? “Thank you… but I’d rather die behind the chemical sheds.”

The most horrifying part is that this ploy works, and after Evey recovers, she thanks V for putting her through the harrowing ordeal. The ethical argument here—whether or not deceiving and subjecting a human being against their will to intense pain and psychological horror in order to better them as a person could be the right thing to do—is fairly well-traveled, and until we can all agree on the matters of ethical philosophy, it’s fundamentally unanswerable. But as Evey furiously struggles to understand what’s been done to her before her moment of revelation, she does have another criticism to offer on V’s approach: “You’re wrong! It’s just life, that’s all! It’s how life is. It’s what we’ve got to put up with. It’s all we’ve got. What gives you the right to decide it’s not good enough?”

Now, given the context of the rest of the book, I’d conclude that Moore and Lloyd deeply believe that even the most painful, ugly steps toward freedom are better than meekly accepting the comfortable evils of a fascist society. But this line is an acknowledgement that the epistemological foundation of that belief is fraught, at the least. Who are we to decide, really? V does anticipate that question, in a way—he’s bringing Evey face-to-face with the other side of the comfortable evils, so she herself can decide. But that doesn’t make what he does before she decides any less horrible3.

In the end, the man who goes by V dies, and Evey takes up the mantle. She dons the cloak and the mask, and she begins the great enterprise of sculpting the chaos of post-Norsefire England into the anarchy V hoped for. And in that way, V will never truly die.

To Think the Way He Thinks, and That Scares Me

There’s one other relationship in the novel I’d like to briefly explore: the relationship between V and Eric Finch. Where sixteen-year-old Evey possesses goodness and strength of spirit, Finch is much older and much more pragmatic. He’s a good man, but he’s been molded by the fascist society to accept the idea that order is preferable to chaos. However, we are introduced very early on to the idea that Finch doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the ruling order. His first real conversation with Adam Susan, the Leader, in the novel goes like this:

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Finch is the investigator (“The Nose”) who is tasked with bringing V to justice after he bombs Parliament. He is, narratively, in the best position (besides Evey) to learn about what V really stands for, indirectly admitting as much: “Because if I’m going to crack this case… and I am… I’m going to have to get right inside his head. To think the way he thinks. And that scares me.”

As befitting a person tasked to highly cerebral work, Finch is a learned man. In investigating the bishop’s murder, he demonstrates a remarkably full understanding of V’s dramatic devices. He notes that V employs a famous quote related to Charles Manson (“I am the devil, and I come to do the devil’s work”), he recognizes his reading of the twenty-third Psalm, he sees how V makes a mockery of the old doctrine of Transubstantiation, and he identifies Beethoven’s Fifth being played over the recording.

So if Evey is V’s counterpart, Finch is, in a way, Evey’s counterpart. Finch represents experience, ot the opposite of youthfulness. He represents understanding of the arts and of society, the opposite of receptiveness to utterly new encounters. And while Evey’s transformation is at the forefront of the novel’s conclusion, Finch is more the model of what it would take and what it would mean for a person who lives under fascism to turn on it and pursue freedom. So how does it happen for Finch? Slowly.

Finch’s development is set in motion late in book one when we learn that he had a romantic relationship with Delia, the medical scientist who experimented on V in the camps and who became the last victim of his vendetta. In taking the first murderous steps toward freedom, V hurt someone close to Finch and enraged him. And yet when Finch discovers and reads her journal of the ghastly things she was involved with in Britain’s holocaust, he is possessed by it. He acknowledges that it could well be a forgery, but he cannot shake the ring of truth.

Months later, being removed from the case thanks to his inability to get along with the new, thuggish head of the state’s law enforcement (Peter Creedy), Finch procures some LSD and sets out to see the remains of the Larkhill concentration camp, seeking answers. I’ll admit, my first impression of the LSD sequence was that it was a tropey self-insertion common to people who have taken hallucinogens and feel the need to evangelize their perspective-altering properties, but I now think that’s an overly cynical reading. The LSD didn’t give Finch any information he didn’t already know—this scene isn’t totally a plot convenience—but it did allow him to absorb and experience the camp, his mind already soaking with the awful knowledge contained in the journal. It also functions as a bit of a symbol for our model citizen-turned-away-from-fascism: in order to understand V and to understand the prison he lives in, he needs to partake in forbidden experiences.

Finally, now that he can think like V does, he is able to follow in V’s footsteps to Victory Station.

By the time he finds Victory Station, V has already set his dominoes in motion. The final nudge was to bomb and destroy the tower that contained the state’s surveillance machinery, giving the people of London just enough wiggle room to get outside and meet each other, to begin little acts of rebellion, to come into contact with the forces of order… and for that contact to plunge London into riotous chaos. So by the time Finch arrives at Victory Station, V’s mission is nearly complete, and that is why V allows Finch to shoot him before he limps back to the Shadow Gallery to speak one last time to Evey.

What follows is one of the most ambiguous events of the whole novel. Finch genuinely celebrates that he was able to bring down V and returns to the offices of the ruling party, proclaiming his victory. He didn’t stick around to watch V die, but judging by the amount of blood left by the retreating masked man, Finch figured he wouldn’t have long to live (and he would be right). But when his assistant, Dominic, presses for details, Finch declines. Where did this happen? “I don’t remember. Must be the drugs, eh?” A frame of the Victory Station sign suggests that Finch remembers perfectly well where it happened; why doesn’t he speak? Does he not know that V has more planned, more going on beneath the station? He saw the subway car, but did he not see the explosives beneath the flowers? Does he believe in V’s purpose? If so, why did he shoot V? Maybe he simply doesn’t appreciate that the location is important?

I think the most likely reading is that Finch sought to punish V for his spree of murders (and conversely, V knew that he deserved it) but, beyond that, did not believe that the Norsefire regime should know more about V’s plans. Now, why Finch doesn’t believe the regime should discover the station is perfectly inscrutable, and given that I’ve been reading Finch as “the model for a citizen who turns against fascism” it might suggest that there might not be a single, easily identified motivation at play. It might be a gut distrust of authority, it might be a decision arrived at after painstaking consideration, or it might be somewhere in between. Whatever the case: Finch, knowingly or unknowingly, allows Evey to finish V’s work pushing England over the brink and into a new era.

By Any Other Name

There are two other threads I want to touch on. The first is the story of Rose Almond, Derek Almond’s wife who becomes a widow halfway through Book One. Her story is a window into the lives of the disempowered: she endures a crumbling relationship with the abusive Derek until he is cut down by V, after which she is courted by the media mogul Roger Dascombe. She finds him revolting and his advances skeezy, but in the end, she is faced with the question: what other choice does she have? She, like much of London, is dependent on the oppressive, abusive regime to survive.

Unfortunately for her, Dascombe is V’s very next victim, and soon we find out that her only recourse is to become a burlesque showgirl at the Kitty Kat Keller club, demeaning work that she hates. Again, we catch a glimpse of the novel’s thematic fabric: she’s an honest woman whose work is a performance. It’s a lurid, sullying sort of performance, but it is a performance nonetheless, and as we’ve seen, the performers and the “liars” of the novel are the ones with the purest of intentions.

Rose’s story comes to a close after her desperation pushes her over the brink and, as part of the mounting turmoil in London, she pulls a gun on Adam Susan’s motorcade and kills him.

The other thread is that of Alistair “Ally” Harper, a Scottish gangster attempting to expand operations in England. Alistair is the worst sort of criminal: brutal and impeccably mercenary. He provides an important counterpoint to the novel’s anti-establishment protagonists we aspire to, as he is the kind of anti-establishment that you hope to never meet. Ally’s thugs are roped in by Peter Creedy to help law enforcement keep its head above the rising tide of chaos in the city, making him a sort of stand-in for the idea that an authoritarian government whose only goal is power is absolutely not above associating itself with the worst in society. But he’s willing to betray Creedy for a raise, and he is hired by Helen Heyer (wealthy socialite and wife of the state’s chief of surveillance) to aid her bid to usurp power from Susan. When Helen’s husband, Conrad, finds out, he and Ally kill each other, completing the parable.

One scene in particular stands out as representative of Ally’s ethic: following his betrayal of Peter Creedy, Creedy begs Ally to shoot him and put a quick end to it. Ally refuses: why waste the ammunition when his razor will do?

(Next time: the Ally-less film adaptation of V for Vendetta.)

  1. In case you’ve seen the movie and not the novel: yes, you heard that right; Parliament blows up first. 
  2. One of the most disgusting details of this sequence is that, as part of her “in-processing,” Evey is subjected to what is implied to be a virginity examination. This comic does not flinch or shirk. 
  3. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four also approaches this question. In the end of the book, Winston is reeducated, and he is happy, and it is horrible. Like Moore and Lloyd, Orwell despised fascism. But I believe they all admit that, if one’s foundation for morality is basic “happiness” (as might be suggested, for example, by certain constructions of the ethical philosophy of utilitarianism), these appalling authoritarian governments might satisfy that. I think that idea repulses them, and they would contend that there is—there has to be—a meaning to life that runs much deeper than just “happiness.” In my opinion, they’d be right, and that pushes me toward the conclusion that what V did was justifiable. It’s a truly uncomfortable conclusion to reach. But that is the beauty of literature, that we engage these ugly questions and admit difficult things about ourselves. 

X-Men: High Class: Kingsman Review

“Why… so… serious?”

In the role that, in case you’ve forgotten, won Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar just as the two defining film genres of our age – the superhero film and the gritty action reboot – were peaking in popularity, Ledger menacingly snarled out the question that may as well be an inquisition into our entire cinematic disposition circa 2015. We are just now waking up from the collective psychosis that led to a Spider-Man reboot so dark and gritty that the Spidey suit, in hopes of being more realistic, looked like a regulation basketball. The Oscars expanded the nominee pool partly in hopes of including a well-made blockbuster like The Dark Knight; did we really think the only reason Nolan’s film got that honor was because of its straight-facedness? Something about the complete and total embrace of The Dark Knight’s ambiguous and nihilistic virtues mixed with our morbid fascination surrounding the details of the death of its breakout star led us down this road of brooding – even each Iron Man film has gotten progressively darker, drowning out the winking charm of Robert Downey Jr.

Also: Superman snapped a dude’s neck! Then fell to his knees sobbing… It’s been a strange few years.

Along the way, one director was off to the side, giggling at the grandstanding. In 2010, he adapted Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass, in which a little girl – essentially Batman’s daughter – is a cussin’-and-killin’ machine. It could have been a meditation on society, but it was really just supposed to be a rollicking good time at the expense of superhero overseriousness. In 2011, he revitalized the flagging X-Men franchise after Brett Ratner had killed off half its characters and a spinoff film had introduced a mute Deadpool (of all things). How did he do it? By reintroducing bright colors, kicky montages, and campy villains. He had Kevin Bacon monologue in German to open his movie! He pulled unexpected pathos out of a globetrotting vigilante Magneto, but he also appreciated that he had locked up-and-comer Michael Fassbender into a role where his character could pull a man’s gold tooth out with his mind! In doing this, he might have saved more than the X-Men; he might have saved us.

That Magneto-as-Bond section was a pretty neat warmup for director Matthew Vaughn’s next trick – a movie that blends the best parts of his emerging superhero aesthetic with the iconography of the spy film. Kingsman: The Secret Service is a serious film about the difference between the rigid class system and the actuality of “having class.” It is also, while not undermining that nuanced rumination, occasionally klassy with a K – it is unabashedly laddish, ending with a scene in which an older man catches the beginning of a younger man’s adventures in anal sex, thanks to spy glasses. (Okay that particular shot of a Swedish princess’s derriere as it prepares for entry might actually undermine some of the film’s classiness.)

What it is most of all, though, is kinetic with a K. It is a perpetual motion machine of nifty ideas stuffed into a colorful package. It is unafraid to be garish, camp, or silly. It wants to make you laugh and think and gasp and shudder, and, just about every step of the way, you follow its orders. Why not give into it? It feels like one of the first live action movies in a long time that just wants you, its viewer, to have fun.

It helps that Vaughn is a visual stylist par excellence, with a particular eye for the beauty of violence. He had to tamp that side of his filmmaking down for the all-ages X-Men: First Class, but he gets to unleash that id all over again in Kingsman, particularly in one church brawl that filmmakers will be swiping ideas from for years to come. His bursts of action aren’t choppily edited brawls. They don’t suddenly revert to slow motion (Snyder…) to let you consider the consequence of every punch for seconds on end. They are ballets – both literally in the case of an exploding head symphony, and figuratively, as in the film’s bravura centerpiece, where Colin Firth and his stunt-doubles move gracefully from bigot to bigot as a mass murder in a Westboro Baptist Church analog unfolds to the rousing breakdown of “Free Bird.” Their timing is everything. It’s musical.

The next scene is an even better encapsulation of Vaughn’s aesthetic. It is cheeky, referential to the very Bond films it apes, even satirical; but in doing this it never abandons the consequences one would expect from a real plot featuring real characters. Kingsman may be a pastiche, but it’s no Scary Movie. This is a satire with heart and gravitas. Sometimes it evokes less the granular ribbing of a parody film that aims its sight at recent film trends; Kingsman is smacking massive human foibles with a sledgehammer, Dr. Strangelove-style.

So critical to the film’s success is the wicked topicality of its villain’s evil scheme. If trailers led you to believe that Samuel L. Jackson’s heel turn was all lisping and no substance, the scenes in which he and Firth verbally spar will be a quick corrective. Jackson is actually in fine form, and he knows precisely what he’s doing palling around with a sword-legged henchwoman named Gazelle (how long has it been since we got fun henchmen?). He plays his tech billionaire gone bad as affable and completely convinced of his own righteousness. His plan is to lock away the one percent in a safe location while he forces the rabble outside to bludgeon each other to death until the 99% becomes a figure that is drastically lower. It’s insane, but also a bit beguiling; he sees, not incorrectly, stasis and he has the means to move the needle. He sees it in the government and he sees it in the people fighting back. He has found a way to do something about it, and to the people he promises to spare, he can be very persuasive. As he prepares to kick his plan into high gear, he tells the people at his one percenter sioree to buck up and start having some fun, they’re not the villains here. When Noah spared a chosen few from the onslaught, he wasn’t the villain after all, right?

The only group willing to stop him are the extraordinary secret spy agency, the Kingsmen, who happen to be going through a recruiting process. As the class issues are writ large in Jackson’s genocidal scheme, they are intimately explored through Taron Egerton’s aspiring Kingsman Eggsy, who is attempting to overcome preconceived notions his fellow recruits have about him based on his station. Egerton’s is a star-making turn, with warmth and charm and just enough of an upturned eyebrow to guide us through the delightful world of the Kingsmen. The world he is attempting to enter is wonderfully realized, and this is where it would be prudent to mention that Kingsman, like Kick-Ass, is adapted from a Matthew Vaughn comic, The Secret Service. Much has been changed from the comic, and the film imagines most of what makes the world of the Kingsmen feel so delightfully lived-in and imaginative. The Kingsman were the world’s finest tailors who banded together their immense wealth to start saving the world, forming an independent spy agency modeled after King Arthur’s Round Table. Their Lancelot has just passed away, and a group of young faces are brought in to try out for the role. Only one can be fitted for the bulletproof bespoke suit and thick glasses with computer chips inside that serve as the Kingsman’s armor.

Eggsy (who is a superhero level parkour master apparently because he was an Olympic level gymnast in his youth) is Hart’s choice, and the bond they form once Eggsy realizes that this posh, older man can see beyond his circumstances, his clothes, his accent, all the markers of class, is a touching one. While Hart works to soften a class-conscious Arthur (Michael Caine, who totally would have played Eggsy fifty years ago), Eggsy is bullied bellicosely by the tight-knit group of Oxford and Cambridge men for not belonging. Eggsy finds acceptance from the recruits’ taskmaster Merlin (one strong scene sees Merlin prove Eggsy’s assumptions about his prejudices wrong) and a Hermione Granger-like striver named Roxy. Hearteningly, Roxy is presented as equal to Eggsy in every way, and as far superior to all the boys that look the part of suave British spy, like the entitled Charlie. In the end, Roxy even wins the role of Lancelot, though she is at that point shoved off to the B-Plot while Merlin and Eggsy do the heavy-lifting. I’d hoped that Eggsy and Roxy would fall in love so that Roxy could stick around and show some close-combat bona fides, and I was extremely disheartened when a captive Swedish princess promised Eggsy they could “do it in the asshole” if he saves the world. It seemed like he was spurning a woman presented as his equal for a quick roll in the hay with a woman who is there to serve solely as his sexual object. The friend with whom I watched Kingsman offered a counterargument: that the film didn’t go the obvious route and make Eggsy’s romantic feelings Roxy’s ultimate validation, instead letting her competence stand on its own. I’ll buy that half-heartedly, but still wonder if indulging the worst parts of the Bond mythos (okay, the race stuff is the worst part, but the womanizing runs a close second) as the closing notes to Vaughn’s symphony struck some sudden discord that might just set Kingsman back.

Still, I struggle to fault Vaughn for indulging one last time in what makes most of Kingsman such a delight: its audacity and verve. It is bright, kooky, and a little kinky, a campy superhero film in everything but costume, It elects to clothe its Avengers in the finer wear rather than tights. In its quest for populism, it makes an Iggy Azalea reference that will do it no favors fifty years from now, but I hope it will be fondly remembered by then as an all-around fun movie that tackled some legitimately serious things like class and global warming, a turning point when “Why so serious?” turned from a desperate inquisition to the filmmaker about why they elected for that all-grey color palate again into a good-old fashioned jibe at the expense of over-brooding.

Nautical Nonsense: SpongeBob Review (C)

You can’t say SpongeBob SquarePants doesn’t keep promises.

The square sponge himself has always been honest to a fault –he’s like a helium voiced George Washington, incapable in Sponge Out Of Water of telling a lie, even if that lie could finally bury his arch-nemesis, the dastardly Plankton. His creators are just as honest. For sixteen years (as long as Jon Stewart has hosted the Daily Show), their theme song has promised children, stoners, nostalgists, and admirers of absurdist non-sequiters alike that “nautical nonsense” is on the horizon.

For the majority of SpongeBob’s eleven minute adventures, that nonsense has been confined to the undersea hamlet of Bikini Bottom, but – as a title like Sponge Out Of Water would seem to promise – that nonsense washes up on land in this second feature length interpretation of a Nickelodeon show that, yes, is still on. A seaside beach town and the entirety of acclaimed actor Antonio Banderas are completely overtaken by a nonsense tidal wave.

The inanity is nowhere near as palatable as it has been in the past. I am from a generation for whom the question “Is mayonnaise an instrument?” is a profound inquiry; I can handle my fair share of Bikini Bottom inanity. Here, in bits and pieces, it is inspired. One pun about condiments utilized as weapons really lands (“With relish!”). A trip into SpongeBob’s brain is a joyous nightmare. The transformation of hyper-intelligent squirrel Sandy Cheeks into a tattered conspiracy theorist is resoundingly enjoyable. Individual zingers do reliably hit their mark. But can a SpongeBob story hold together as a film experience? Two overstretched boondoggles that try to raise the usually impossibly low stakes of SpongeBob’s world – a world where, if the Krusty Krab wall is blown to smithereens one minute, it can be standing again the next – say no.

It was once thought that Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – the first film ever to try stretching a character’s animated adventures from a tolerable ten minutes to a near-insane eighty minutes – would be the mighty Walt Disney’s great folly. This thought was obviously, in an ironic twist, quite a bit of folly all on its own, but it stemmed from an honest concern. The characters that ruled the roost when that waifish fairy tale princess changed the game forever never really HAVE had a feature length display worthy of their legendary shorts, have they? The Looney Tunes? Mickey Mouse and his ToonTown compatriots? Popeye, Felix the Cat, Betty Boop? These characters that seem so vital in short bursts come across disjointed when confronted by the bloat of a full run time. You need to staple them to a preexisting skeleton like “A Christmas Carol.” You need to prop them up with live action celebrities like Michael Jordan and Brendan Fraser. These characters live and die by their brevity, and, exposed to sunlight for more than a short cartoon at a time, they just die. If Mickey Mouse (the dashing Mickey of the 30s) and Bugs Bunny – gods of animation anarchy – have never been able to find a vessel that could carry them to the surface, why would SpongeBob?

That’s not a shot at SpongeBob’s inferiority. That’s a proud equivalency. In a way, he and they are one in the same. We were not so far from our animation roots in long ago 1999, when SpongeBob was created; in many ways, a show like SpongeBob is not so different from the Merry Melodies and Looney Tunes of days long gone. They belong to a family tree distinct from the majestic oak that sprung from Snow White, with its gimlet eyed princesses, wounded orphans, and strivers pushing back against menacing villains forming the branches that have supported the animated feature for nearly eighty years. It’s always a bit of a shock when an animated film like The Emperor’s New Groove or An American Tail seems to be plucking fruit from the Looney Tree instead. Television – Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel – became the home for the eleven minute burst of comic energy.

Steven Hillenberg and team have created some absolutely transcendent explosions of antic energy. Just about half the segments in their first season went a long way toward defining the comic sensibility of a generation (notably, “Band Geeks” didn’t even come around until Season 2). While the humor can occasionally verge on sophomoric or gross, it is always tinged with sweetness and optimism, thanks, of course, to the lead character. Has there ever been a character more optimistic than SpongeBob SquarePants? SpongeBob is a chortling innocent, free from malice, wanting always to do a good job, but tugged down by forces that go against everything he believes – forces like greed and sloth and joylessness. Except for the malice, which young Mickey had in spades, he’s a lot like the Mouse if he’d never grown up to become the Disney company’s beguiling father figure.

The rub: SpongeBob never changes – he’s always fighting that fight for a promotion at the Krusty Krab. Bugs Bunny also never changes. Mickey did change, and it robbed him of his urgency. Look around the cast of characters in Bikini Bottom. They are as they were in 1999 – Plankton as malicious, Krabs as greedy, Patrick as stoopid, Squidward as annoyed – and, y’know, as we plunge in for a short visit on Nickelodeon, that is exactly how we expect it to be. But when we go to the theater for 92 minutes…

Look I don’t want to be that guy who says uniformly that movies SHOULD have anything in order to be good, even if it’s something so elemental as character growth. Plenty of movies circumvent this desire we have when we see a film: the desire to see relationships transform over the duration of the runtime, to end up somewhere other than the place where we started. But surpassing that desire takes a level of artifice that this series of gags lacks. SpongeBob SquarePants: Sponge Out Of Water just doesn’t hold together as a viewing experience.

It begins and ends with Burger-Beard the Pirate and the seagulls that follow him around. Antonio Banderas is giving his live-action role here all he’s got in his own gonzo way, but looking at him buried behind a scraggly beard, I think of the sharpness in his eyes as he played Galgo, the best character in the arthritic Expendables 3. It pales in comparison. There’s no vitality in his work as he threatens awful-looking CGI birds who never once do anything funny enough to earn them all the screentime they get.

What is Burger-Beard doing anyway? He’s going to an island to retrieve a magic storybook? Where did this book about Bikini Bottom come from? Why is it guarded by a cursed skeleton? And from where did Burger Beard even hear about the famed Krabby Patty? This isn’t the kind of movie that cares, but because of that, all of this is is one long lead up to a “food truck” joke. Are food trucks really that funny?

Burger-Beard has used a magic book to rewrite the story of Bikini Bottom and steal the secret recipe to the beloved Krabby Patty, much to the chagrin of his avian audience. In Bikini Bottom, the denizens spend 2/3 of the movie completely unaware of his involvement, blaming the natural suspect, Plankton, for their sudden post-apocalyptic leather fetish instead. SpongeBob, the only man brave enough to stand up for the accused, is thrown in as a co-conspirator, and the main chunk of the movie is spent following this odd couple as they try to avoid capture and prove their innocence. This involves a good deal of time travel, and if this segment were an episode of the show, it would be perfectly serviceable. Some hits, some misses, not close to on par with most of Season 1’s segments. Plankton learns the meaning of teamwork (it takes him the whole movie to learn how to pronounce the word, which is the closest thing to character growth we see), but he abandons SpongeBob just as Mr. Krabs is about to sacrifice his fry cook to satisfy the burger gods.

The SpongeBob universe now has a time machine and a squid dinosaur, but the writers can’t find any utility for these devices in their quest to somehow tie Burger-Beard in with the larger narrative, so you know what they do? They have the characters smell the Krabby Patty. They pick up the scent… At the most convenient moment…

This would qualify as the biggest dues ex machina in the story if the film didn’t posit that the characters can breathe on land because Uatu the Dolphin was so grateful that SpongeBob got him out of a bad job by destroying Saturn and Jupiter that he cast a magic spell right when the characters needed him.

What is the point of any of this? Well, once we get to land, that seems obvious. The point was to contrive some sort of live-action/CGI scenario that would allow the producers to blow money on the 3-D build treatment that has beensooooooo popular in films such as The Smurfs and Yogi Bear. This is the Out Of Water portion of the film that made up ALL of the marketing, and it would be alarming how little of the film it actually took up if it weren’t actually a relief – thank goodness most of the film sticks to the classic animation style of the TV series.

It is at this point that SpongeBob’s two most reliably funny sidekicks, his neighbors Patrick and Squidward, finally get something mildly substantial to do joke-wise, but it’s all drowned out by a superhero film climax that is actually too scattered to even be any sort of satire of how scattered superhero film climaxes are. The whole enterprise wraps up with a heartfelt moment for Plankton who, with his long-coveted recipe in hand, fully embraces teamwork (even saying it correctly) and hands the recipe over to Mr. Krabs.

That sounds like character growth right? So why do I have such a big thorn in my toe with this movie? Because, the next minute, Plankton is up to his old tricks again in Bikini Bottom. “Why?” he is asked (both by the characters in the film, and by me, aloud, in the theater). His answer boils down to, well, because it’s what the audience expects. This is the perfect “Ain’t I a stinker?” capper to an eleven minute cartoon, and an absolute vacuum of an ending for a feature film. Essentially, it’s an admission that none of this matters; Planton can’t be good because the still-thriving television series needs Plankton to be bad. The whole film ends where the next episode would begin – with the opening theme. It’s fitting for a film this pointlessly circuitous. That the theme is introduced by a movie star and has an interlude featuring a space dolphin and talking seagulls performing a rap battle written by the Epic Rap Battles of History guys speaks to this film’s lack of confidence in its own inspired and durable creations. These rando charactes’ interpretation of the cheery sea shanty promises “nautical nonsense” and that’s exactly what we’ve gotten: a 92 minute string of gags that, put together, make… no… sense…

I know, it’s a picky gripe if you are a large enough fan of SpongeBob’s humor to want to see it puffed out to extremes like… well… like Mrs. Puff. This film has really found the film critic community in a generous mood, and I think if I’d found new creations like Bubbles the Dolphin and Burger-Beard as inspired as they do, I might have enjoyed it too. But, keep this in mind – there was never any rule written that decreed: Shorts and television cartoons are the little leagues; Feature length films are the big leagues.

SpongeBob does not need to be called up to the bigs every ten years to be validated. Nickelodeon segments are his big leagues. If the feature-length format doesn’t suit him, we do not need to keep forcing the issue. We can, in fact, keep the Sponge in the Water.