Category Archives: Reviews

Arrival

Arrival

Arrival (2016)

Paramount Pictures

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Main Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker


This sci-fi film has roughly the feel of Contact (1997), with a bit of The Tree of Life (2011) thrown in for good measure. Credit goes to the many members of the crew who make this a marvel of technical skill. But the script falls apart in confusion as the film goes on. The central story line involves the arrival of extra-terrestrials to Earth, and the attempts of humans to communicate with the aliens. The protagonist is Dr. Louise Banks (Adams), a linguist brought in by the U.S. military. A central plot point involves invocation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a real-life theory that is stretched to absurd lengths in the film. This is precisely where the film fails.  Rather than the grand tradition of using sci-fi scenarios to open space to discuss wholly realistic human social concerns otherwise barred from “respectable” discourse, Arrival reverts to empty deployment of “magical” actions. Actually, from the beginning to roughly the middle of the film, it seems almost that it will be about something that was in Stanisław Lem’s classic sci-fi novel Solaris that was excised from every film version — that humans are unable to comprehend “otherness” (explicitly that of aliens, but implicitly of other humans). But that would seem to be beyond what Hollywood permits, so by the end the plot gets dumbed down to pointless time-travel drivel.

I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Canal+

Director: Ken Loach

Main Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires


One of the best “straight narrative” films I’ve seen in a while — reminiscent in some ways of Mathieu Kassovitz‘s La Haine [Hate] (1995). Basically, the premise of the film comes from Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward‘s theory about social welfare programs being about politically “regulating the poor” rather than solving the problems that create poverty.  (It is a modern twist on something that people have written about for a long time). In that respect, the film is meant to convey how the politicians who intentionally — though never explicitly, that is, they never openly admit as much — seek to implement policies that are ultimately cruel to the poor and trap them in extreme poverty have “blood on their hands”. At the extreme end of that spectrum, historically, would be the imperialist British policies in India during the late Victorian era, in which British support for native Indians was at levels less than what the Nazis gave to concentration camp prisoners during WWII (!).  While the film’s narrative is pared back from all the complexities of the real world, notably racial animosities used to prevent the kinds of solidarity repeatedly shown in the film, there is nothing far-fetched in the story.  The concision is understandable for a film meant to be accessible.

The most blunt premise of the film is unabashedly political: “Does the masses’ struggle for emancipation pose a threat to civilization as such, since civilization can thrive only in a hierarchical social order? Or is it that the ruling class is a parasite threatening to drag society into self-destruction, so that the only alternative to socialism is barbarism?” Slavoj Žižek, Afterword to Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin From 1917 (p. 210). This film argues the latter. And the way it does so is to magnificently depict the so-called “banality of evil”, the way the Kafkaesque bureaucracy mostly turns a blind eye to the callousness of its action in exchange for a (semi) privileged position above those who bear the burdens.  It also bears mentioning that I, Daniel Blake makes very modest demands.  For instance, the film goes to great lengths to depict the protagonist as someone who has skills (he is a carpenter) who simply can’t work because of a health condition (he recently had a major heart attack), as opposed to defending, say, someone who has no skills but still deserves to be treated with dignity.  In other words, the film goes out of its way to make clear it is not endorsing the notion of “to each according to her needs, from each according to her abilities.”  It might well have.

A few words for non-British viewers are in order.  The plot involves the protagonist seeking social welfare benefits after his doctor says his recent heart attack means that he cannot safely work.  In England, there is a national health service (i.e., socialized medicine), meaning that the (unseen) doctor who gives that diagnosis is a government doctor.  The welfare officials who deny him benefits constitute a vying faction of the government.  What isn’t made explicit in the film is that the Tory (conservative) government of David Cameron had gone to great lengths to purposefully undermine social welfare benefits, for ideological reasons.  Those sorts of cruel efforts continued in various arenas under the Theresa May government.

Shin Godzilla

Shin Godzilla

シン・ゴジラ [Shin Godzilla] (2016)

Toho Pictures

Directors: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi

Main Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Satomi Ishihara, Yutaka Takenouchi


A reboot of the Gojira/Godzilla franchise, this is really an excellent monster film.  The best parts are about political symbolism. Having watched a number of dumb big-budget Hollywood superhero films recently, I was troubled by how many relied on a frame of a “post-political” society, where all important political decisions are just handed out (down) by unseen technocrats. I thought it would be more interesting to show the deliberations of politicians. Well, Shin Godzilla does exactly that!

The Gojira/Godzilla franchise has shown many different sides of the monster, from an uncontrollable force of destruction, to a helper of humanity, to an object of scientific study. Aspects of this film draw upon some of the ways scientific inquiry was vaunted in the 1990s films. But there is a much more political and serious tone to this film.  Here, the monster is finally defeated by a mostly self-organized team of nerds that works together in parallel with the military to defeat the monster, following much destruction.

The political commentary in the film ranges from traditional franchise concerns about nuclear energy and weapons (Gojira/Godzilla in this film is a sea creature that self-mutates after eating nuclear waste, and is powered by nuclear fission), including the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdown, to post WWII pacifism (including Shinzō Abe‘s plan to re-write the Japanese constitution to step away from pacifism), the (real or perceived) subordinate relationship of Japan to U.S. political interests, corporatization and putting profits over people, and more. While the film is sometimes a bit ridiculous — often in a good, campy way, like the wonderfully unrealistic depiction of the monster with bulging eyes and a bulk that still resembles an actor in a rubber monster suit — mostly, this film is expertly delivered. Central to the story is the way it presents existing political institutions as being unable or unwilling to confront current circumstances.  The monster is a symbol of the internal contradictions of Japanese society (and capitalism). It would not be too much to say that this is one of the most Leninist films of its day!

The Purge: Election Year

The Purge: Election Year

The Purge: Election Year (2016)

Universal Pictures

Director: James DeMonaco

Main Cast: Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, Betty Gabriel


The Purge series falls into the tradition of relatively low-budget horror films with dodgy technique that use the “lowbrow” appeal of the film as an opportunity to critique the upper classes.  The first film in the series is rather poor, caught up in empty suspense for its own sake (and presumably, due to budget constraints too).  But the second film, The Purge: Anarchy, is actually quite good — even going so far as to feature a Black Panther-like group presented sympathetically.  The third film, Election Year, is pretty raw and blunt with its message.  There is no nuance.  And yet, the bad guys are bad guys  and the good guys are worth rooting for.  The good guys are never saintly.  They all face moral challenges, and most are presented as having overcome mistakes of their past.  The bad guys are truly monstrous, employing self-serving religious dogmatism and the fascist concept of redemptive violence to further a thinly-veiled class war against the poor — notably along racist lines.  The script seems flawed, in that the characters are slow to pick up on plot points that are quickly apparent to the audience.  There is also a group of annoying teenager characters who all seem entirely superfluous to the main plotline.  So, while falling short of the previous film, this one is still better than the first Purge film.  It may be simplistic, but, unlike most commercial films, it actually has a moral center that isn’t stupid.

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange (2016)

Walt Disney Pictures

Director: Scott Derrickson

Main Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen


Another superhero film. Much of the plot is an ersatz version of anarchist writer Ursula K. Le Guin‘s fantasy classic A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). But there is plenty of good humor here. Tilda Swinton proves yet again that she is one of the best actors in mainstream cinema. While her character, and others, at first seem to be yet another example of the dubious practice of casting white people in “Asian” roles, the film actually addresses that concern in a satisfactory way. In the end, this film is quite average, maybe *slightly* above-average in a relative sense.  There are certainly worse big-budget superhero movies out there.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice  Captain America: Civil War

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Warner Bros.

Director: Zack Snyder

Main Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg


Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Walt Disney Studios

Director: Joe Russo

Main Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie


Here are two big superhero movies that offer two slightly different takes on very similar subject matter.  They both highlight the eerie similarities of the underlying political assumptions.

So, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (part of the DC Comics universe) turns out to be better than it seems like it would be, which maybe doesn’t say a whole lot. I very nearly stopped watching after a few minutes. It gets better though. Like a number of other big-budget superhero movies of the day, this film is long. Yet it also crams in so many characters (and a few useless Lois Lane and Jonathan Kent scenes scenes) that it still feels a bit rushed. The basic premise is vaguely in line with Alan Moore‘s famous Watchmen comic, asking Juvenal‘s immortal question (from Book II, Satire VI: The Decay of Feminine Virtue): who guards the guards themselves [Quis custodiet ipsos custodes]? The film is at its best when it convincingly puts forward that question. But then it hints at a sequel (deferring complete resolution) and, at most, answers the question in an unsatisfying way. Anyway, Ben Affleck is for the most part completely unlikeable as Batman/Bruce Wayne. That makes him the perfect choice for the role. He brings out the arrogant right-wing vigilante qualities of the character’s recent incarnations well. Henry Cavill is also good as Superman/Clark Kent. His character’s dim-witted engagement with Batman is surprisingly convincing.  Jaime Eisenberg is well-cast as the unlikeable Ayn Rand-worshiping villain Lex Luthor. This film was directed by Zack Snyder (slated to make a new version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead) and produced by Steve Mnuchin, now Secretary of the Treasury (!) in the Trump administration.

The essence of this Batman/Superman film’s morality is that it accepts Thomas Hobbes and perhaps also Machiavelli as providing the philosophical foundations for the ideal society.  All the usual critiques of those thinkers could be applied to the film.  Machiavelli, of course, is known for his argument in The Prince that in politics the ends justify the means.  Hobbes was a “social contract” theorist, famous for writing in Leviathan that life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.  G.D.H. Cole described Hobbes’ theories this way:

“Hobbes . . . regarded the people as agreeing, not simply to form a State, but in one and the same act to invest a certain person or certain persons with the government of it.  He agreed that the people was the final source of all authority, but regarded the people as alienating its Sovereignty by the contract itself and as delegating its powers, wholly and for ever, to the government which its members agreed to set up.  As soon, therefore, as the State is established, the government becomes for Hobbes the Sovereign; there is no further question of popular Sovereignty but only of passive obedience: the people is bound, by the contract, to obey its ruler, no matter whether he governs well or ill.  It has alienated its rights to the Sovereign, who is, therefore, absolute master.”

Hobbes argued that such a State must be formed in order to avoid a situation of civil war and bellum omnium contra omnes (“the war of all against all”).  The film flirts with these concepts, by asking whether Superman, or Batman, or some larger group of superheroes, should be invested with the authority to fight monsters and villains on behalf of society.  Batman is kind of like Hobbes, a defender of “liberal” aristocracy/monarchy against the divine right of kings-type theories.  Machiavelli lurks behind the story in that the superheroes (technocractically) decide amongst themselves what is best for the people.  What is sad about this Hobbesist argument is that it was a political argument made hundreds of years ago!  In other words, the political background for the film’s plot is reactionary by framing the “relevant” political question as being exactly the same as what was debated hundreds of years ago.  Critics of Hobbes (like Rousseau) who argued that democracy should prevail over aristocracy do not even enter the frame of the debate.  Put another way, the film places “relevant” contemporary American political debate in the pre-Revolutionary War era!

Captain America: Civil War (part of the Marvel Comics universe) is also overly long and filled with too many characters.  It does, curiously enough, probably set some kind of record for the action film with the most debates in conference rooms (I kid you not!).  Much like Batman v. Superman, the movie preoccupies itself with the concept of who guards the guards themselves, or, put more bluntly, who governs the superheros (in this case, many are ordinary mortals with access to special military weapons).  While there is a wide array of superheroes here, allocated proportionately along race and gender lines, the main rivalry is between Captain America/Steve Rogers (Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Downey, Jr.).  Stark wants to submit to a United Nations accord that will govern the superheroes’ “Avengers” group.  Captain America refuses.  The characters’ motivations are mostly absurd and implausible.  Iron Man/Stark in particular just comes across as stupid and arrogant.  The character The Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is obnoxious, a character designed merely to pander, and a wasted opportunity (to link the character to the real-life Black Panther Party for Self-Defense perhaps?).  Spider Man (Tom Holland) appears, as does Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), and they leaven the proceedings in a good way.  There are many fight scenes, some of them a bit formulaic, and the film struggles to plausibly present these when some of the characters have superpowers of a substantially greater magnitude than others. But some are engaging.

All those details aside, there is an important difference from the Batman v Superman film.  Captain America: Civil War is kind of post-political.  On the surface, it appears that the film is “left” of Batman v Superman because it explicitly depicts a role for the United Nations (UN) as a “democratic” body that overcomes the superhero “civil war” that is a “war of all against all” of sorts.  When the UN creates an accord (somehow in secret; that is, without the knowledge of the superheros), the film glosses over the imperialist corruption of the UN, merely referring to the nearly 200 countries that signed on — creating the false impression that all countries are equal in the organization.  The character of the really-existing UN aside, the details of the accord are never actually discussed.  When the Avengers debate it, the political character of the accord is subsumed in the silly, irrelevant interpersonal conflicts, mostly between Captain America and Iron Man.  While the UN accord is supposedly driven by a desire to curb the collateral damage to civilians caused by the Avengers (just as Batman/Bruce Wayne complains about with respect to Superman), who actually governs the Avengers under it (and how they do so) is never really mentioned.  An official simply throws a large stack of paper on a table — the content of the accord is simply some legalistic/technocratic thing that neither the Avengers nor the audience is supposed to be concerned about.  This leads to another important point.  There is curiously no depiction of ordinary civilians as anything more than background props in a few action scenes.  A largely faceless government of technocrats simply decides for the people what is best for them.  Comparisons to the European Union “Troika” institutions (which push “austerity” measures that favor bankers/finance over ordinary workers) might be apropos here.  So, while there are ample opportunities to critique the aristocratic-leaning political philosophy of Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War instead leaves no room for political debate.  To adopt Colin Crouch‘s term, the film depicts a “post-democratic” world (“A post-democratic society is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell”).  From another angle, it is also worth noting that the prior Avengers organization could be called a worker self-directed enterprise, and the UN accord an attempt to override worker self-management with a command-and-control top-down hierarchy (under the guise of the putatively “democratic” UN).

What these films (and Watchmen too) offer, just like similar print comics, is a pretty remedial set of political philosophies.  What each excludes from consideration is any sort of governance system in which ordinary people have equal votes and equal power.  All these films are wedded to the idea that some people are better than others, or at least more suited to rule, and therefore everyone has a “proper” place.  Perhaps there is a belief that such an approach goes hand-in-hand with the genre of superhero films, but it doesn’t have to (*ahem*, Trashman, V for Vendetta, and even the original Incal comics or The Dispossessed).  An interesting counterpoint to the sorts of worldviews in these films is Lars von Trier‘s Dogville.  There, a small town (on a stage set up like the popular Thornton Wilder play Our Town) takes in a woman (Nicole Kidman) on the run from gangsters, and the town votes (the woman excluded from voting) to turn her into a quasi-slave.  The film highlights the deficiencies of the brand of “democracy” employed by the town, with a tyranny of the majority abusing its power and the democratic “vote” doing nothing to prevent the majority’s exploitation.

On top of the structural/procedural political aspects of the DC/Marvel universes, and the usual superhero fantasies of overcoming social problems with the actions of no more than a handful of individual actions, there is also the nagging question of framing the sorts of problems that the superheroes address.  That is, the superheroes in these two films don’t fight poverty, environmental destruction (though occasionally superhero media does address this, usually only in passing), financial exploitation (though occasionally other superheroes do), or other “structural violence”.  Instead of addressing the “banality of evil”, superheroes fight discrete, monstrous villains.  But as often as not, the villains are seen as “evil” merely by stepping out of their “proper” place in globalist social hierarchy — thereby framing the very definition of “evil” in such a way as to exclude a conception of society in a universalist, egalitarian way.

Though it almost pains me to say it, the Snyder/Mnuchin film is considerably better than the Captain America one.  Its politics could be questioned, especially from the sort of Rousseauian perspective (that drives Dogville).  But at least it comes closer to making the politics explicit, and does align itself with some kind of political philosophy (mostly Hobbesist).  And, for that matter, the main characters of the Batman v Superman film behave in a more plausible way, on a strictly interpersonal level.  In spite of the film’s story and character bloat, there are also effective scenes, and the “redemption” of the right-wing vigilante Batman character, who actually comes to realize his mistakes and change his outlook on life (even if still imperfectly), is a rare feat on any level in a mainstream film.

X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

20th Century Fox

Director: Bryan Singer

Main Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac


Although perhaps not as clear-cut as the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises in terms of making the “superhero” the bad guy (a right-wing capitalist vigilante) and the “supervillian” the good guy (an enlightenment-era agent of revolution-from-below), X-Men: Apocalypse follows a similar trajectory.  Apocalypse AKA En Sabah Nur (Isaac) is a powerful ancient mutant who is unearthed in the 1980s and seeks to destroy (mostly capitalist) human civilization.  He starts by safely destroying all of the world’s nuclear weapons (just like star child).  The X-Men gather to defeat him.  The thing is, it is mostly just assumed that the audience should oppose Apocalypse.  This film does not explain why he is bad.  He claims to bring the world peace.  He takes steps in that direction, by getting rid of the nuclear weapons, promoting two women in his “administration,” etc.  Yes, he does destroy a lot of things and kill some people — some of them monstrous.  But should he just be seen as a metaphor for the ancient tradition of Jubilee, the “year of the lord,” in which a (usually new) ruler would annul all personal debts and declare a clean slate?  In that sense, can the X-Men be considered like Obama/Clintonite neoliberals, defending the financial sector from the villagers and their “pitchforks” and the possibility of “old testament justice” (as the disgraced Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner snidely opposed after the 2007 financial crash)?  True, in the film Professor X (McAvoy) pleads for the strong to protect the weak, rather than for the strong to join Apocalypse.  But, it is fair to ask whether the X-Men are really defending the weak, or merely pretending to do so while supporting present-day institutions by which the strong systematically oppress the weak (what is sometimes called “structural violence”).  On top of that, the overall story is a little disjointed in trying to introduce too many characters.  But on the plus side, this film has better dramatic acting than most superhero films, and it does convey emotion in an effective way at times.

The Pursuit of Happyness

Thr Pursuit of Happyness

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Columbia Pictures

Director: Gabriele Muccino

Main Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Smith


The Pursuit of Crappyness?

The Will Smith movie The Pursuit of Happyness, based on a memoir by Chris Gardner, is meant to be a heartwarming tale of overcoming adversity, and all that.  Of course, another way to view it is as a polemic of dubious realism and accuracy extolling the worldview of the wealthy (the book on which the film was based was written by someone who was a multimillionaire).  This is one long conservative trope, on film.

Will Smith plays a Navy veteran living with his wife (Thandie Newton) and son in San Francisco, trying to sell off an inventory of bone density scanners they purchased with their life savings while he pursues an unpaid internship at a securities and investment brokerage firm.  He struggles to sell his wares and to get a job interview.  His wife leaves (she is portrayed unsympathetically).  He demands that their son stay with him.  He does get the internship, after showing up to the interview in tattered closes covered in paint after being held in jail for an unpaid parking ticket.  But, as he undertakes the internship, he has little or no money.  He ends up homeless after the IRS attaches his bank account for failure to pay taxes.  He and his son live in a church-run homeless shelter.

The storyline is highly selective, implausible in places, and is mostly invested in isolated scenes of intensely emotional acting.  In other words, it is emotionally manipulative and counterfactual.  Numerous key scenes are deus ex machina — information available online suggests that the film modifies/distorts key real-life events.  Certainly, some scenes are simply implausible wholly apart from any origins in a memoir.  There is never any explanation given as to why the protagonist does not seek welfare or other public social services, or why he persists in pursuing an unpaid internship rather than another line of remunerative work (and, at least by today’s standards, the unpaid internship is illegal — the employer derives benefit form the interns cold-calling prospective clients, and the interns are judged by how many new clients they bring in).  Even the insistence that his son remain with him is not explained — could the mother provide for the son better?  But to the extent that some of this comes from a real memoir, it is worth bearing in mind here F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum from The Beautiful and Damned about how “the type of man who attains commercial success seldom knows how or why, and,…when he ascribes reasons, the reasons are generally inaccurate and absurd.”  In fact, Fitzgerald is a pretty good touchstone here, as few writers capture the banal depravity and moral shallowness of the strivers for material wealth so well.  The Beautiful and Damned, in particular, has only a slightly different story arc than The Pursuit of Happyness.  Yet they draw opposite conclusions.  In Fitzgerald’s tale the protagonists emerge scarred and damaged (“damned”).  In this film, the protagonist emerges triumphant.

Mostly, the film’s story is meant to emphasize the so-called “culture of poverty” theory/myth — that success or failure is determined primarily or exclusively by the degree an individual is committed to hard work and perseverance.  The film does not address racism in any way (despite how much that would affect the protagonist in real life).  It scrupulously avoids addressing any structural or institutional causes for the protagonist’s situation.  There is a single-minded focus on the success of the protagonist, with no concern whatsoever for the other homeless people shown in the film.  Audiences are expected to root for the protagonist to succeed, and are not supposed to analyze or question the other poverty around him, or why he is so devoted to a “winner take all” system.  When the IRS seizes the main character’s last bit of money in his bank account for failure to pay taxes (the film portrays it as a surprise to Smith’s character, which is utterly preposterous and misleading), there is a steadfast assumption that the government is unfairly taking his money — even as most of the film suggests his poverty would probably exempt him from income taxes (or is he really not as poor as the film lets on?).  Practically the entire discipline of sociology probably cringes at this film and the discredited ideology it flacks — Loïc Wacquant called this sort of thing “an old theoretical carcass periodically exhumed from the graveyard of stillborn concepts[.]”

One of the most groan-inducing moments is from the epilogue titles, in which it is conveyed that the real-life person on which the film is based later became rich.  This reveals the true heart of the film.  Everything before that was supposedly about the main character’s relationship with his son and being happy, but the ending titles suggest that it was really just about money all along.  After all, Thomas Jefferson adapted John Locke‘s crude protection of “life, liberty and estate” (Two Treatises of Government, Book II) into “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for the Declaration of Independence, a slogan the main character mentions thinking about a lot.  Jefferson supposedly changed the wording to make it seem less crass, without intending to really change the meaning.  So this film actually gets that part right, in a strange way, by repeating the deception.

A film like I, Daniel Blake from a decade later is kind of the polar opposite of The Pursuit of Happyness.  The Blake film is a critique of the system, which is to say social and government institutions, whereas Happyness is sub-Horatio Alger rags-to-riches claptrap pushing a myth of meritocracy.

Will Smith’s performance is actually quite good, as is that of his real-life son Jaden.  But it is ridiculous to focus on such performances when the film is as contrived as it is so as to provide disjointed individual scenes solely as vehicles for emoting by the lead actors.