August: Osage County wants to have its casserole and smash it too.

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August: Osage County dir. John Wells

Anyone with a mildly dysfunctional family knows this well.  A Christmas, new year, birth or otherwise rolls around; the relatives swoop in from interstate.  No matter how petty or monumental the schism of the last meet, you can still hear its echo.  Mild insults are deployed.  Those who brought the largest vehicles are urged to carry heirlooms and disused furniture home.  Sooner or later the venom overflows, and vitriol is spat.  Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Who can tell what the Weston family get up to each Christmas.  It’s summery August when Beverly (Sam Shepherd), a writer, disappears from his anachronistic homestead in that Midwest locale where the plains sear and the orchestral strings section hums with faux pensiveness. His wife, the cancer-stricken, apoplectically pill-happy Violet (Queen Streep) invokes her three daughters and their three sort-of partners to abate her loneliness.  One by one they descend upon the house and receive their venom; rebut and/or rebuke.  Eventually the table is set, and then the real histrionics begin.

“Life is very long,” Beverly quotes T S Eliot in the film’s opening moments.  You could swap out ‘Life’ for ‘The path to the Oscars’, and both lines of verse would have August to a tee.  There’s no storyline so much as a handful of characters whose contrivances are hardwired to polarise and ricochet off one another.  Divorce – check.  “Back in my day…” – check.  The cousin who misses the interstate bus to Sam’s funeral, but is still organised enough to turn up to Violet’s doorstep with a casserole dish in hand.  You can bet that’ll turn up later.  Check, and – smash – check.  For a film set in the American South, homosexuality is beguilingly absent, but the film finds plenty of topicality in Barbara’s (Julia Roberts) random alluding to Native Americans.

I suppose this kind of excess-on-anomic-excess is typical for a stage play whose every minutiae strives towards the histrionic (and I can’t speak for the cohesion of the source text).  In August, which is adapted from Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning play, the same histrionics are barely reworked, even if the medium is altogether different.  Where an Asghar Farhadian domestic melodrama would tune the same overbearing script down, let the conflict slowly build and the characters’ flaws and forgivings unravel, August dives so eagerly into its en-masse airing of dirtied laundries that it forgets to give us all that much reason to care for its sardine tinned characters in the first place. When each one eventually takes their leave from the Weston estate, most character progression is buried amid a cacophony of shouting.

Which inevitably leads to the awkward haphazardness of a film that takes itself more seriously than its audience ever will (See: Lee Daniels’ The Butler).  Add to this the sense that August is trying to inherit the sardonicism of its stage version, and the whole thing turns into a claustrophobic mess.  There are too many actors, too many half-aired home truths and too many windows left too damn closed.  It’s so bloated a mix of strained seriousness and over-acting that all you can do is laugh along in anaerobic delirium at its contrived, campy excess.  Then, when you’re sure it’s settled on comedy, the piano clunks into gear and somebody tears off into the sunset or paddock in a blaze of dust and Bon Iver.  And that’s what I think is most preposterous about August: Osage County: for a film that finds most of its pleasure in voyeuristically watching its characters squirm beneath Violet’s insults sans redemption, it still has the gall to vie for empathetic repeal.

Among the movie’s highlights are Julianne Nicholson’s comparatively quiet if under-written Ivy, and the Native American Johnna (Misty Upham).  In all respects Johnna’s a wallflower, designed to give cardboard support to Barbara’s brief mentions of Native Americans, as well as step in, just once, at a crucial moment. At the very least, then, like the recurrent candid shots of plains on the ol’ prairie, her character lets some oxygen into the homestead – even if it’s a homestead whose very design is to stamp out subtler performances.

Oh, the performances are great though. Weren’t they something? Storyline drags a little, but the performances were something else. And the catfish!  August has the acting hallmark its star-fangled cast-list should necessarily pertain to, yes, but it also has a script manufactured with the sole intent of eliciting them.  It’s not necessarily that the characters aren’t believable so much as their actions to one another are preposterous.  Who on Earth – family, county sheriff, or otherwise – would watch their cancerous and over-medicated septuagenarian mother wobble deliriously to her vinyl player without interjecting? August is so disinterested its characters’ catharses that it can’t even muster a decent conclusion for most of them; after all, why have nuance or compromise when you can hot-wire your Oscar candidacy via shouting.

But for a film that, from one perspective, sees its characters answer the lonely adjuration of their drug-addled mother, vaguely invoke suing the medical board before flushing her over-stocked medicine cabinet and vanishing, August’s ending is self-righteous as hell.

“I thought we were having a funeral dinner, not a cockfight,” Violet says.  In August, she gets both, then ends up with nothing at all.

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BIFF Wrap: Week One

My ridiculous work ethic is collaborating with my poor caffeine consumption patterns, and as a result I thought I’d happily write about some of the film viewing I’ve been doing during this year’s Brisbane International Film Festival.

During the university semester I usually only manage to catch two or three new release films a week, which is to not only say that most of the viewing I do is (sadly) reasonably facile (albeit littered with gems), but that the onslaught of weird, wonderful, dry, and/or null films I’ve been watching during the festival has been nothing short of an endurance test.

Which leads me to the awkward admission that I’ve never been to a film festival per se.  The travelling iteration of Sydney’s Film Festival that visited my hometown each year only screened a small spate of films over two or three days, and I can recall reasonably accessible titles like Sylvian Chomet’s charming The Illusionist and the not-so-charming Beautiful Lies being among the rarest imports upon my last visit.  Just look at how deflated this year’s line-up looks to anyone living in the same city as a Palace Cinema.

At any rate, here are some brief thoughts on what I was able to catch throughout the first week of BIFF.

The Past

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It’s been more than 18 months since I first watched Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, and I still find myself thinking about its brilliance on at least a fortnightly basis.  Although I try to approach each film objectively, then, I don’t think I ever quite managed to negate superlative expectations towards his follow-up.

Given the genre’s reputation as a total emotion-wringer, I’d be hesitant to authoritatively label the carefully nuanced A Separation an all-out melodrama, rather than a movie with some strong melodramatic overtones.  I can’t quite say the same for The Past, which shares the other film’s concern with disruptive permutations of history and heritage within a tense domicile.  In its first act at least, and thanks partly to their being little action outside the home, the characters’ actions have a high school play overemphasis and mopey causality about them, and if the melodrama cedes to some powerful soliloquy and rumination in the welcomely more individual-centric second act, then its crowd-pleasing finale not only, I think, unnecessarily decentralises the locus of a great deal of the drama for the sake of ambiguity, but lacks Farhadi’s faith in the audience by reverting to the schmaltzy.

At the risk of echoing any film critic who misguidedly and unrepentantly ties negative connotations to the word melodrama, there are several other trite moments that demerit Farhadi’s latest work.  When the typically gruff Ahmed (Ali Mosaffa) travels to Paris to finalise a divorce with Marie (Berenice Bejo, proving she her worth as a Cannes prize recipient), he’s wary of Marie’s would-be fiancé, an outwardly immature and comparatively metrosexual dry cleaner named Samir (Tahar Rahim).  The next morning, before the two have met, Ahmed is fixing the clogged kitchen sink while Samir watches on in silence, and it comes across as ham-fisted characterisation.  Also, unlike Samir and Marie, Ahmed isn’t a parent nor has any too-strong emotional or historical ties with Marie’s children, and this almost chalks up to a heroic Iranian prototype that swoops in and, while instigating many conflicts, often mediates them.

That said, The Past is still worthwhile viewing, and Farhadi’s technical astuteness as a director is upheld, even if his signature dexterity isn’t.

The Missing Picture 

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In the haunting memoir The Missing Picture, myriad reels of dilapidating, archival film omit footage of dissidents’ executions under Khmer Rouge Cambodia.  Apart from excerpts where the available footage mostly shows slaves walking and harvesting in syncopation, The Missing Picture is told almost exclusively with imperfect clay dolls (whom we also have the pleasure of seeing crafted).  Although Rithy Panh’s figures never move, his camera is so damn deft at making use of angles, insidious movement and manipulative focus so that his scenes never drawl despite their stillness, and it’s to Panh’s merit that he can re-imagine the very shocking scenes – slaves drinking from muddy water, a mother ratted out by her child and later executed for picking three mangoes – that Pol Pot’s propaganda sought to mask.

Panh is also deeply in love with cinema, and he shows both its power and escapism here through scenes where one of Pot’s filmmakers is executed for averting attention towards torturous living conditions, and Panh’s film viewing as a young child respectively (the latter makes for some wonderful reverie-like superimposition, as do the images of executed clay figures soaring through clouds).  His language is deeply personal, but it’s also deeply poetic, and this becomes taxing over the film’s extensive run time.  Although a beautiful film, The Missing Picture glides past four or five opportunities to end as it delves deeper into its own trauma, and the disorienting nature of the director’s poetic idiosyncrasies, like the omission of a significant time frame of events, adds to this sense of repetition.

Antarctica: a Year on the Ice

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Year on the Ice wins ticket sales by virtue of its title, and wins its audience in the opening minutes as we watch a New Zealand photo-documentarian show both his self-made, moving camera dollies and the awe-inspiring time lapse photography they’re used to collect.  You can tell that Antarctica: a Year on the Ice, for all its musings on human nature and the environment, is both about and the product of a man and his art by the Antarctica cabin-mates he interviews, few of whom make for good talent int he typical industry sense.

In its first half at least, which charts the long and idyllic Antarctica summer, I bucked against just about every post-production creative decision, among which are the irritating Nat Geo fonts and 90s Disney fervour soundtrack.  In winter, though, the six month interim of the cargo plane’s return not only reduces the continent from its upwards of 10,000 head population to below 700, but endures four months of consecutive darkness.  Accordingly, Antarctica: a Year on the Ice diverges into an earnest study of human nature.  Between this, showcasing the indelible solitude and perfect silence of Earth’s most Martian terrains, and capturing the continent with a Ron Fricke eye for natural beauty, Year on the Ice is nothing short of sublime.

The Congress

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The Congress suffers The Past‘s curse – I far too readily draped my high expectations over Ari Folman’s follow-up to the unforgettable Waltz With Bashir.  Not long into The Congress, though, you realise Folman’s skills really are in the pictorial rather than in storytelling.  A live-action (yet tangy and artificial) first half that too readily spoon-feeds its audience awkwardly meshes with a cartoon second half where psychedelic, Cool World visuals abound but cohesion most certainly doesn’t.  The Congress tries to be too many things, but is too scared to abandon its original Hollywood polemic and delve into its batshit crazy cartoon premise.  Full review forthcoming.

Child’s Pose

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I think a film will always have a hard time finding a solid audience when all of its characters are so hard to like.  But Child’s Pose is an intelligent, candid, upstanding gem, and the believability of its flawed characters are a great part of the reason for it.  The perpetually fur-coated Luminita (a terrific Cornelia Keneres) bends law and morality to fend for her son when reckless driving lands him a manslaughter charge.  Their relationship is love-hate, though the car accident, which saw the death of a proletarian adolescent and violent response from his provincial Romanian family, allows Luminita to pry open a window to her son’s affections, even if he repentantly forces it closed.

Her son is an introverted man-child who avoids skin-on-skin contact at all costs and is desperate to cut ties with Luminita once her manipulation is made clear.  Those same qualities, though, effectively stall any momentum – moral, legal or otherwise – in the pending court case.  We’ve only briefly seen the victim’s family, but Child’s Pose saves its best until last.  It takes a tremendously talented and unflinching director to use those visiting scenes to further its home truths renegade rather than watermark their problems against the grieving, comparatively destitute Romanian family.

Venus in Fur

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In Roman Polanski’s defence, Child’s Pose was a taxing film, and I was fairly exhausted by this point.  Against him, though, Venus in Fur never felt like it wanted to be anything more than an exercise in minimalist storytelling.  I can’t comment on its fidelity to the source text, but it felt more like a play about a play about a play than a film, although, to its merit, I never got particularly lost amidst its layers of metatextually.  Like the play, the film has only two actors – Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Almirac – both of whom are outstanding here.  Seigner’s breadth of adaptability as she transitions from a pneumatic, higher-pitch-at-the-end-of-each-sentence type to a conniving, literary femme fatale, is particularly excellent.  That said, I often couldn’t be bothered playing along with the self-congratulatory smugness of its witticisms, much less Thomas (Almirac) never deigning to question why the erstwhile leather-clad Valda can suddenly recite Venus in Fur word for word.

The Act of Killing

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I was so dizzied and sickened after The Act of Killing that I couldn’t decide if it was a one star film or a five star one.  Now my stomach’s settled, I’m convinced it’s neither, though it does, surely, gain points for the gravity and vitality of its premise.  Joshua Oppenheimer tasked former leaders of a Sumatran communist-erradicating death squad to recreate their experiences using whatever genre they felt necessary.  Accordingly, some of the sequences are campishly gaudy, others blithely pigheaded, and all, I think, sickening.  Oppenheimer flails a little structurally when superfluous personality-building sequences give the film its grueling run time; sequences like the one where one of the erstwhile killers launches a twisted campaign for parliament reiterates rather than complement’s the documentary’s take-home message about the existence of evil.  There are also a trove of ethical issues in actively tasking the killers to produce this film, which I have no particular desire to ponder.  I chuckled at the killers’ blatant hypocrisy at the outset, then quickly moved to shock at their actions.  Act of Killing has all the candour of a documentary produced by heavyweights Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, but I can’t ever watch it again.

The Dance of Reality

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In that respect, at least, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dance of Reality is a terrificly enjoyable antidote.  I’d been told of the zany, surrealist style of Jodorowsky’s previous films El Topo and Holy Mountain before, and his colour palettes and props here – a motley crew of disfigured landmine victims, a cavalcade of seagulls descending on the good tidings of dead fish washed ashore, characters painting themselves black to dissolve into night, etc. – all wonderfully align to what I’d been led to expect.

Jodorowsky’s latest is a childhood memoir as an outsider Jew fused with a playful rumination of his father’s tyranny in the turbulent Chile of the 19th century’s earlier half.  Historically, I really can’t be more specific than that.  My knowledge of Chilean history and Stalinism/Leninism curtails at No and Animal Farm respectively.  Happily, that didn’t stop me from enjoying the hilarious, if slightly overlong, Dance of Reality, which careens ambitiously from the scatological (there’s an exuberant scene where the young Jodorowsky’s mother urinates on her father to cure his plague), the blasphemous, and the melodramatic.  Jodorowsky has a wry sort of cynicism towards most of his subjects (in terms of Christianity, for instance, it translates to the extendable handle attached to the church donations hat), and if his overlord father’s turn to the marginalised for comfort in a time of their prosecution is anything to go by, it also thrives with dramatic irony.

No Country Syndrome: Why The Counselor’s Detractors Are Saying More About Themselves Than The Counselor

Still from The Counsellor, the new film from director Ridley Scott

From the bloated and steroid-pumping (Pain and Gain) to the impotently philosophising (Only God Forgives) and the torturously long infomercials about, like, just five ordinary boys from Worcestershire just makin music and doin wot they love, like, (One Direction: We Are Code), 2013 has disgorged all shades of bad cinema. With these rates, you don’t have to burrow as far back as Pledge This in the 100-odd year history of cinema to learn that for every Holy Motors, there’s a Plan 9-level abomination so bent on pain infliction and how-did-this-get-made confusion that nobody is secretly enjoying it. In short, when you’re stepping up to the soapbox to denounce The Counselor as the worst film ever made, you would want to have a steadfast, objectively sound reason to back your claim.

Salon’s head critic, Andrew O’Hehir, is among detractors inadvertently complimenting all the Plan 9s From Outer Space with that very precarious branding.  Although his attack is more caustic than most, skeletally, it’s more or less parallel to the mainstay of hatred The Counselor has accrued.  The argument runs something like: the collaboration between Ridley Scott, Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy and five actors so distinguished they’re recognisable on a last name basis (emphasis added but I’m still a few hundred adjectives short of the hallmark hysteria) should, by the power vested in filmography, Pitt and Pulitzer, necessarily churn out some No Country-calibre masterpiece.

Well The Counselor is no No Country, but the resounding criticism is a textbook case of disappointed cinemagoers seeing what they want to see: a directionless, abhorrent mess in lieu of a Coen-esque would-be Oscar nominee.  O’Hehir analogises the whole film to a McBurger served by two Michelin-hatted chefs, but in doing so he opens the gateway to a perfectly obvious rebuttal: an ingredients list doesn’t dictate the recipe.  In The Counselor’s case, it’s overwhelmingly the critics, not the movie itself, who assume the film wants to be a polished Oscar frontrunner of a masterpiece.  And when those critics aren’t getting the film they promised themselves, they seem so bent on criticising The Counselor’s every abstraction from their own barometer of expectations that they forget to see it for the dark and subversive and at-times funny piece of work it truly is.

Well call to question McCarthy’s prestige all you want, or accuse the actors of pompous gaucherie as they wander through his screenplay, but at least be aware that The Counselor isn’t trying to be anything other than a movie with metaphors so trite that is basically opens as the lavish and icy Malkina (Diaz), with a leopard print tattoo covering back and shoulder, sips a cocktail while watching a house cheetah chase down a hare in the Ciudad Juarez prairie. There’s an excess of self-righteous philosophising ejaculant, sure (and we’ll get to that). But there’s also a scene where a mother sits bolt upright in her prison cell bed just after her son is killed. In fewer words: don’t take this too seriously, and don’t go labelling it a tacky and deflated iteration of Body Heat when it so obviously wants to defy that expectation.  Or, as Pitt’s shady cowboy middleman, Westwray, advises Fassbender’s Counselor: “Maybe I should tell you what Mickey Rourke told what’s-his-face.”

Another hallmark symptom of No Country syndrome sees critics running to the hills with denouncements of the The Counselor as illogical, intangible and untraceable. Again, this argument shows a stubbornness to give The Counselor a pass on the same kind of abstraction-rife storytelling techniques you might find in wayfaring world cinema.  (Although, apparently those arthouse afficionados won’t extend their flexibility to Hollywood’s studio output, no matter how subtly intelligent and un-Hollywoodish it is).  The Counselor is less bent on a single, palpable plot than illustrating a cruel, incensive and noirish world where, if a character mentions a death trap that’s essentially a tightening, razor wire noose, you can bet it will turn up later. When a $20 million drug deal with the Cartel goes wrong, there’s no point in fearing death: it’s a given.  It’s who you take with you that matters now, as several characters reiterate in scenes that have collected labels like preachy and philosophising.  While these complaints run rampant, finer details, like a body being welcomed to America in a sewage tank where it will inevitably be relayed around the waste depot circuit for an indeterminate time, or a drug mule calling a family Mexican border-runners ‘illegals’, fly overhead, unnoticed.

But even if there is a septic truckload of pontificating, the film still represents a shift for Ridley Scott from Prometheus and Black Hawk Down to what is arguably a more sophisticated filmmaking style – one where every behind-your-back plot point isn’t served on a silver platter of explicitness. It’s intelligent and it demands intelligence, and, hey, here’s a scary thought: maybe The Counselor belongs on the screens of Palace and Dendy because of it.  At any rate, Scott, ever the master of setting, injects The Counselor with campy moments, less straight-facedness and vivid palettes previously unseen throughout his filmography, and so surely its flamboyancy is something to be celebrated.

To illustrate this point, let me quote Tom Waits at a watershed moment in his career, where he swapped the sombre bluesiness of Blue Valentine and Heartattack and Vine for the sincere and quirky rhythmic ardour of Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. “Your hands are like dogs, going to the same places they’ve been. You have to be careful when playing is no longer in the mind but in the fingers, going to happy places. You have to break them of their habits or you don’t explore; you only play what is confident and pleasing. I’m learning to break those habits by playing instruments I know absolutely nothing about, like a bassoon or a waterphone.”  The doggish stagnation that’s preventing critical circles from appreciating the newfound envelope-pushing of one of what is surely one of Hollywood’s most diverse and trustworthy working directors is, therefore, counter-productive to say the least.  For if trumpeted artists never ditched their known trades and pioneered into the very kind of stylish atmospheres and storytelling techniques that The Counselor forecasts, they would never have moved beyond Dubliners and onto Ulysses, or beyond The Shining and onto Eyes Wide Shut.

Finally, there’s a widespread wont to label The Counselor reprehensibly sexist because, obviously, the misogyny of a director’s male characters are precisely at one with the director’s worldview, right? And that’s why films like Kill Bill are abhorrent. That’s it, right? Well, via Malkina, who’s probably instigating Reiner and company’s backstabbing as he and the Counselor chat about how much women need fixing, feminine empowerment is as engineered into the film as Alien or Thelma and Louise.  Between taunting priests for fun, Malkina demonstrates that Reiner, Westwray, et al can pontificate vice and virtue, fate and the gynaecological all they want, but it all falls flaccid when they’re so unsuspecting of the very person backstabbing them.  In that same prairie-side opening scene she gives Reiner the golden shred of pomposity: “I don’t miss things.  To miss it is to hope it’s coming back.”  In the very last scene, she talks to another male counterpart about how much she misses her wayward pet cheetah.  So either she’s had a slapdash about face, or she was spoon-feeding Reiner every last minutiae of the illusory, needs-fixing accessory he wanted her to be.

What is surely, then, the most pointed reminder of Malkina’s sabre-toothed ferocity is inevitably The Counselor‘s most gawked at and misunderstood sequence.  The Counselor plays by the rule that the key to Reiner’s heart are expensive loafers, kimonos and his gaudy, phallocentric automobile.  Instead the most explicit expropriation of the crown of Reiner’s machismo, all audiences see is Malkina having sex with the windshield of his Ferrari California.

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How I Learned to Stop Gawking and Laugh Along, or: is White House Down the Dr Strangelove of 2013?

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Warning: Spoilers.

The White House’s foyer has been obliterated by a team of military insiders-cum-terrorists bitter with their nation’s past, and Tatum, an erstwhile tourist, has Tatum barrel-rolled his Tatum way to Tatum President Jamie Foxx who had to be wrested from a deranged, AK47-wielding James Woods.  After a hallway shootout whose main victim is the Presidential chinaware, the pair’s only escape route is, naturally, to shimmy through the ceiling of the guest elevator and clamber their ways out of the shaft.  If your Die Hard copyright alarm bells are going off, then good.  They should be.

“Make sure you have one hand over before you let go of the other one,” says Tatum as John Cale, a security guard about to become embroiled in the world’s longest unpaid job trial, imparting his pole-climbing sageness.

“Whatever you do, I do,” President Tom Sawyer replies.  Tatum wall-jumps to the other side of the shaft.

“I ain’t doin’ that shit.”

White House Down is, in this rough order, one-fifth Disney telemovie, three-fifths wonderful and unabashed blitheness, one-fifth overlong finale.  Holistically, it’s more enjoyable if preceded by at least a fifth of vodka (not the only trait White House Down shares with Kubrick’s brilliant holocaustal satire Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb).  With a running time of 137 minutes, either of the outlying acts could’ve done with some cropping.  And yet the movie teems with a hilarious and self-aware preposterouness that runs most rampant in the middle thirds, and recasts the rest of the film in its wake.

By the time the elevator scene rolls around, the movie hasn’t hit its hallmark of absurdity.  Nonetheless, there’s been foregrounding that director Roland Emmerich might pack it all in and let his film avalanche into satire – like the staid bureaucrat whose raison d’être is to step in amidst a flurry of suits and morbidly submit: “Sir, the stock market is crashing”.  You see, global trade crumbles away in simultaneity with the White House’s domed roof.

This throwaway line, much as the one in the elevator shaft, clues us in: White House Down isn’t typical Emmerich fodder.  Beneath a flimsily self-serious affront is an ulterior film as desperate to not be taken seriously as futile it is to do so.  Maybe after 2012, The Day After Tomorrow and 10,000 BC (just the tip of the filmographic iceberg), Emmerich had completely emptied his grab bag of disaster porn tropes, so sought instead to level a self-reflexive satire at himself as much as the genre.  I don’t know.  But in short, here, his latest work begs that you join in on a wonderful and hilarious self-aware laugh of itself: preposterous disaster porn, as hyper-inflated with American patriotism as it is risible plot points, all underwritten by a usual sky-scraping budget ($150mil).  Here, Emmerich is poking dumb fun at himself, his genre, and, in deploying the same marketing pulls – the poster features a suited Foxx and progressively de-flowered Tatum traipsing away from some carnage – to draw his mainstay crowd, his audience too.

Take even the the ten minutes following that elevator scene alone.  The erstwhile Die Hard hostage film quickly dissolves into a Tatum/Foxx buddy adventure flick as the man famously labelled the world’s most powerful  arms himself with a pair of Nike Airs and a rifle before disarming an assailant, shouting with stilted enunciation: “Get.  Your.  Hands.  Off.  My.  Jordans.” It’s this tongue-in-cheek readiness to recast the President, who probably bandies the adage “the pen is mightier than the sword” about so much that he might as well get it tattoed in cursive, as a  figure of violently-won nationalistic heroism that elevates White House Down into it’s comfortably wry level of jest.  Much as their adventure is a pastichey remix of sub-genres, it’s also shot through with a post-modern wont to cram in as many rote tropes as possible.  There’s a bookcase that gives way to a top-secret lab once the spine of the right book is tipped, and a Presidential escape vehicle blasted with at least two missiles, but whose inhabitants are still in one piece.  It inevitably ends up barrel rolling through the air, so luckily there’s a pool to break its fall.

With a few exceptions, I haven’t seen this kind of toying with American hyper-patriotism since Kubrick’s chemical warfare satire Dr Strangelove.  (Notable exceptions would include 2004’s puppetry blow-out Team America: World Police, but that was, obviously, bereft of White House Down‘s subtlety and perfect set-up).  Of course, I don’t want to argue that White House Down strikes anywhere near the same level of satirical grandeur first laid by Dr Strangelove back in 1964.  It is not among the best releases of the year.  Although much more intertextual than Dr Strangelove, it’s also long, and at times more than necessarily flawed.  But, given its sly subversiveness and context of production, White House Down deserves a lot more due as antidote to the American blockbuster than it’s been getting in critical circles.

For instance, if not crippled by some mandate to delineate the already obvious similarities between this and Another Capitol Hill Takedown movie released earlier in 2013, many critics are blinded no less by a view of White House Down as the stillborn zenith of Emmerichian risibility.  Writing for London’s Financial Times, Nigel Andrews opines “Roland Emmerich (Independence DayThe Day After Tomorrow) can do these films in his sleep; which may be why they sometimes emerge as nightmares of crazed, florid hokum.”  Those in praise of the film’s absurdity tend also to imply that Emmerich doesn’t know the comedy of his latest work.  One Crikey film critic, in an otherwise appreciable review, writes of White House Down‘s “cycle of (presumably unintended) hilarity.”  Even the Village Voice’s chief film editor Alan Scherstuhl, in his almost pitch-perfect review of the film, betrays himself in the latter half of the line “White House Down stands as a singular achievement in parody, its auteur’s intentions be damned”.

And yet the movie is smattered with scenes like the one where the President, armed with the ready-to-use rocket launcher tucked away in the compartment of the Presidential limousine, mistakenly bashes Cale, his chauffeur, across the head with it.  In a sound effect that speaks to the caliber of Tatum’s cranium, the missile makes a buoyant, metallic clang that’s closer to two deadweights colliding that someone being struck with a weapon of mass destruction.  If things get too serious, Emmerich is always on hand to alleviate with over-the-top comedy.  And yet, these pneumatic moments aside, White House Down’s strength is its subtlety.  And while it takes a daft viewer to misinterpret Dr Strangelove‘s intentions as a satire (“You can’t fight in here!  This is the war room!”), White House Down demands a keener observer to spot the dramatic irony.  Nonetheless, I’m going to argue that both films are linked in inextricable ways.

Compare the way that both films show an American defence system so wrought with protocol that bureaucracy proves to be its own undoing.  Dr Strangelove opens as an artillery-heavy air fleet receive a nuclear attack alert, prompting their subsequent re-route to Russia where they’ll dump their 40 mega tonnes of nuclear cargo.  Oh, and cleverly, the alert protocol means the fleet must also boycott all external communications.  That way, when the alarm inevitably turns out to be a dupe, sent out by the crazed and Communist-fearing General Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden), there’s no way of calling off the attack.  President Merkin Muffley’s (brilliant Peter Sellers) henchmen get to deciperphing the three-letter code that will cancel the the attack and thereby prevent Russia’s retaliation with some doomsday device they’ve been baking in an underground meth oven.  Only, finding the right combination of 17,000 possible permutations will take about two and a half days. Meanwhile, the fleet are en-route to cross the Russian border in 18 minutes.  What it boils down to is a horde of bureaucrats scrambling to divert a process which their own tangle of rules has inflected.

If White House Down is to be believed, on the other hand, then blowing up Capitol Hill’s foyer is as easy as as scrawling the right cleaning room co-ordinate on your wrist, donning the janitor uniform therein and wheeling your cleaning cart to the delivery of domestic cleaner waiting in the carpark.  Unpack the right box and you’ll find a bomb ticking quietly away beneath, which you then place on your cleaning cart, abandon in the foyer, and a few minutes later rejoin your janitor buddies in the presidential theatre.  When an alarm sounds, some of the assailants trap a group of tourists (among whom is Cale’s White House encycoplaediac offspring, Emily [Joey King]), while others shoot their ways through layers upon layers of security with ridiculous ease (another instance where White House Down gladly forgoes narrative credibility to further its ridiculous premise).

President Sawyer is soon assumed dead, and protocol means that another president is enlisted; when he dies, another still. When hacker Skip Tyler (Jimmi Simpson) navigates his way through the sub-White House catacombs that Marilyn Monroe allegedly used to traverse in the JFK-era, he hacks into the military defence system and gains access to umpteen internationally-aimed missiles – even those controlled by computers in whatever holocaustal refuge the surviving heads of American defence forces have scrambled to.  No prizes for guessing the code he uses to pull off “the greatest hack the world has ever seen.”  It’s “as easy as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.”

It’s also markedly easy to trace the lineage between the two films.  Through Dr Strangelove’s conspiracy theory spouting, ultimately destructive Jack D Ripper, Kubrick not only satirised then-rampant American fears of Communist Russia, but made a neat, double-edged quip that those most bent on patriotism might be its own enemy.  Similarly, the cacophony of doomsday devices can’t be seen as anything other than hyperbolic iterations of concurrent nuclear-era fears.  Ripper, of course, believes that Communists are in the midst of a mass American conversion by attacking the precious bodily fluids of Americans through water fluoridation.  His exhortation rings with heavy irony over a PA speaker: “The enemy may come individually or in strength.  He may even come in the uniform of our own troops”.

As if Ripper’s prophecy was beheld, the terrorists in White House Down are none other than a group of white, middle-aged American citizens joined by Head of Secret Services.  As if this weren’t already a sardonic enough jab at post-9/11 American xenophobia, Emmerich creates a hoard of media outlets who assume the perpetrators of the White House attack are Arabic, thereby drawing direct attention to the conservatism he’s satirising. Further to the point, when the deranged James Woods character eventually comes forth about his motives, his prospective attempt at a nuclear attack on Iran was only in the hope of stopping American from losing face internationally in the midst of a peace-loving President.

Dr Strangelove ends in the only way it really can; by having an akubra-waving American militant saddle himself to a strikingly phallic nuclear missile and drive it straight into Russian soil.  The only way a movie so loaded with American iconography as White House Down can end, on the other hand, is to have a patriotic and tear-streaked 11-year-old democrat wave the American flag in slow-motion on the White House’s terrace, a final plee to the incoming military bomb-drop to abort their mission.

In the fifty-odd years bridging Dr Strangelove and White House Down, American national security has (not undeservedly) expanded and sensitised to the extent that the device Woods’ character attempts to use to launch a missile attack on Iran not only exists, but has its own Wikipedia page.  And finally, as I mentioned earlier, White House Down was rolled out in Australian cinemas just months after Olympus Has Fallen, another shambolic deluge of crumbling White House.

The point is that we’re in the midst of a Hollywood so saturated with readiness to capitalise on the same national fears that the same director might not only blow up the White House at least twice in the career, but release their latest Capitol Hill disaster pic within six months of the one before it.  Whether he’s aware of the genius of his comedy or not, and I’m adamant that he is, it’s hard to deny that Emmerich’s change of approach is underpinned with vitality.

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Only God Forgives (but Refn has to apologise first).

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Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives is a hyper-stylised picture book gleaming with a self-assured sense of grandeur.

To give you an idea of how seriously the film takes itself, its opening credits appear in a sprawling, golden Thai typeface.  A good deal of the camera movement is an insufferably slow, low-angle crawl towards characters perpetually posed like celebrity tabloid magazine covers in centre frame.

One of the characters gets around in a priestly white-collar (which, only people who can read the credits would know, is the uniform of retired Thai police lieutenant) and, shot from a low angle, towers deistically as he unsheathes his sword with a metallic chink.  After severing the hands of whichever assailant (because that’s how law enforcement works in Thailand), he usually offers his singing voice to a bunch of whiskey-drinking, leather-clad bar dwellers – precisely as vocal as he gets in the film.  The idea, I think, is that he’s some God-like vanguard of biblical ethicality.  According to Not Wikipedia, his street name is Angel of Death.  I would suggest Stalwart of Sword, Silence, and Karaoke.

But he’s not the only one riding some glossy facade of mock-biblical self-importance.  The characters, acting and cinematography all have this timbre – but any mirage of depth quickly deteriorates into a bunch of images that are alluringly pretty, yes, but childishly vapid.  For all its ominously-rising scoring, exotic Microsoft Word fonts and beautiful, lurid settings, Only God Forgives grates along on naught but rote and empty thematics like ‘machoism’ and ’emasculation’, and ‘vendetta’, or ‘Oedipal’.

In Bangkok, brothers Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Ryan Gosling – with a make-up job so good all that the only blemish from when Refn and Derek Cianfrance tug-of-warred him in half is a missing line of hair in the right eyebrow) own a deadbeat boxing club as a front for their (presumably) international but little-shown drug peddling business. Billy is one of those smirking, maniacal types whose maliciousness is written all over his face.  We come as he rapes and kills a young sex worker, perhaps for no reason other than falling two years shy of his bloodlust for a 14-year-old one.  Our aforementioned Angel of Death allows the girl’s father, a yammering businessman selling his umpteen daughters to make ends meet, to slay Billy, but he pays the price of his hands (chink) for allowing his immoral prostitution ring.

In flies mamma vulture Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), catty as hell about her son’s death, but ready to use it to fast-track her hotel check-in.  High-heeled and clinging to her evaporating youth, she looks something like a coke-addled Kim Craig crossed with an opulent Hamptons mom, with the viper tongue of a drug empire overseer.  She gives Julian a waist-height hug just a little too close to fellatio, then slanders his masculinity for not having avenged Billy’s death.  “Billy raped and killed a 16-year-old girl,” he protests.  “I’m sure he had his reasons,” says coke mom.  Julian refuses to seek vengeance, but Crystal (Meth Incarnate) sets the hit via a member of Julian’s posse anyway.  Inevitably, Julian becomes implicated in a domino cascade of avenger and avenged throughout the slummy back corners of Bangkok.

Much like Nicolas Winding Refn’s last film, the polished DriveOnly God Forgives is all show, and not much tell.  I enjoyed Drive on the first viewing, but on the second, its illusively-thick coating of neon fonts and an 80s electro-pop soundtrack melted away to reveal a movie with grand ambition, but few grand ideas to support it (albeit excellently-directed – it was so cathartic to see a car chase scene WITHOUT the steadfast accompaniment of a pulsing Lorne Balfe score).  In Drive, at least, the last tatters of enigma were pent up behind those helplessly dopey-looking Gosling eyes of the reticent Driver character and his elusive motives.

In Only God Forgives, Julian isn’t taciturn, or even the least bit enigmatic.  He’s mute: less character than caricature of Goslingian action hero physical flawlessness.  There are a few outbursts, yes, but it’s mostly stoic, plasticine Gosling traipsing around the Thai underworld in a skin-tight white T-shirt.  In fact, he only has 22 lines in the film.  But the illusion of depth is smattered between them.  The character gazes meditatively at his unfurling fist as he leans against a wall, with beams of light spread across his face.  In one scene, he provokes a fistfight wearing a vest, tie and dress shoes.  Now that’s logic.  Only God Forgives is from the outset more style than substance, with Gosling as the crowd-pulling jewel glowing silently on Refn’s tawdry diamond ring.

Even the other actors tangled in Refn’s exhibition seem too brittle and constrained to enjoy themselves.  Poised eternally in lurid heels, with hawkishly-long glitzy fingernails and a blonde wig, the usually-terrific Kristin Scott Thomas is poised also for the mother of all camp performances (Emma Thompson’s cynical mother witch in Beautiful Creatures comes to mind).  She ashes a cigarette in her son’s manhood, denigrating the size of his penis and accusing his dinner date of cum dumpstery.  But her performance inevitably comes across as cold, restrained and even, like all of the characters, inaccessible.

Incidentally, Refn’s interview with VICE Media (whose website, I might add, was plastered with OFG banners in the weeks preceding its release) from a few weeks ago bade more for bad news for the director’s motives.  Interviewed by a sheepish Joel Madden soundalike, Refn’s musings had the same level of fridge magnet-worthy grandeur but childish emptiness (“science limits you”) that drives Only God Forgives.  One quote in particular glued.

“I approach my films as a pin-up.  It’s about what arouses me, and not so much about… I’m not a social, I’m not a political filmmaker.  I don’t touch upon social issues.” (From about 7:30 in the podcast, which you’ll find here.)

Aside from the fact that Gosling looks like a pin-up, this might explain why Refn’s Bangkok, which is all regal reds and autumn yellows, or neon blues if you’re in a seedy enough place, is just a shimmering backdrop to the action, and never agenda.  (There’s due credit to director of photography Larry Smith, who worked for Kubrick on The Shining – and some of the imagery here certainly evokes those haunting hotel corridors).  Refn’s nonchalance towards social issues is contextualised in the cinematography which, much like the film, relegates all of these issues to scenery around which the plot is mobilised.

Various characters  stroll along the proscenium of the shot as the camera frames them sideways, matching their stroll.  Rarely does the camera dare venture into these settings, which teem with child sex trade, drug peddling, pad thai, murder, etc.  The Angel of Death’s mutilations – and there are many – are perhaps the only part of the film where the camera deigns to a close-up.  They’re meant to be a gasp-worthy and artful incarnation of emasculation, I’m sure.  But ultimately, they’re unaffecting: just as much an ornamental part of the setting as the mannequin victims.

According to the interview, Refn’s garish arthouse imagery stands up not only on a strident message about the inherently cyclical and inexhaustible human desire for revenge – which itself is a precarious stand anyway.  He believes that the (I’m going to say male) physicality is borne into inescapable violence and subdued into fantasy by law, with all human action conveniently reducible to the dual poles of violence and sexuality.  The violence part is why there are so many clenched fists in Only God Forgives, you see.  And that sexuality part might as well be why it’s also rife with lacklustre Oedipal motifs.  We see Julian emotionally hurt by his mother’s barraging, yet driven by a desire to protect her.  And just a short while later, in a last-ditch pledge to draw gasps, the apparent Freudian desire to re-enter the womb is actualised.

As you can see, Freudian tropes abound.  But I doubt Refn has ever read a Freud book.

If Only God Forgives is anything to go by, he’s probably only touched the cover.

Now, where was that picture book?