quick review: my week with marilyn

Much ado is made of Sir Laurence Olivier’s surliness towards Marilyn in My Week With Marilyn, but the reading is unfair to Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and symptomatic of the obsessive worship ladled on the actress. As portrayed by Michelle Williams in a script based on memoirs by Collin Clark, Marilyn is a talented but undisciplined actress whose work ethic consists of arriving late, flubbing scenes, and perpetually deferring to the acting coach who clings to her like a security blanket.

 It’s arguable whether or not we’re expected to side with those characters in such awe of Marilyn they excuse her unprofessional behaviour, using those moments when her talent is constructively unleased as a glossy rationale. The film’s directorial leanings, tethered to its character’s reverence for Marilyn, certainly strives to include viewers in the genuflections. But for my part I’m with Olivier in putting Marilyn’s star power in a critical perspective. That perspective is further supported by Michelle Williams’ performance, which is certainly evocative and possessed of greater power than Meryl Streep’s impersonation of Margaret Thatcher. Credible as a source of fascination, the portrait of Monroe that emerges from Williams is of a damaged and damaging woman who lacked control over her sexual charisma, and the persona that emerges from it, unless focused through the lens of a camera. Although too innocent to be intentionally malicious, this version of Monroe acts as libido’s wrecking ball. That the film is willing to excuse the collateral damage, whether in the way she ultimately leaves the film’s protagonist or her lack of professionalism, is a symptom of the film’s inability to maintain a biographical detachment from its subject. The result is a superficial film, compelling for its performances but glib in its psychology and narrative.


the cultured and the free

David Brooks recently observed that:

Free market beliefs and socially conservative beliefs require each other, so long as those socially conservative beliefs are traditional, not theological. I’m for traditional values, with government playing a small role to support them. I get worried when some politician begins trying to legislate his faith’s version of Natural Law. 

To a qualified extent, I agree that it’s consistent to be economically libertarian and socially paternalistic, though I’d argue that it isn’t a necessary correlation. Dynamic capitalism requires a coherent social order to help guard against its savageries — tight families to educate children, anti-materialist values to police rampant consumerism, a spiritual public square to mitigate the corrosive culture of greedy self-interest. But I’d disagree with the desirability of social paternalism, and suggest that there alternatives to the chauvinism of a paternalistic model of social order and its attendant authoritarianism. Furthermore, spiritual public square need not be religious in nature, as amply demonstrate by, for example, Amercian (Secular) Buddhism.

I’d also go further and argue that capitalism requires a legal system backed by force – anarcho-capitalism, the great fetish of Randians, would be laughably faulty if so many politicians didn’t take it seriously – or else all those property rights, trademarks, and profit-generating schemes wouldn’t be possible. Thus, the desirability of capitalism as an economic system is questionable as well.
As a matter of general principles, however, Brooks looks in the right direction: culture must, indeed, take up the mantle of social order, especially in the absence of institutionalized economic or governmental directives, which is what free market idealism aspires to. The proviso is that cultural authority must be viewed with as much as suspicion as governmental or corporate authority, especially when it becomes rigidly traditional. This, of course, harkens back to the idea of societies’ instincts towards conservation and progression.

…and all this leads to the fundamental crucible I think of as the “Anarchist Problem:” how do you organize society without resorting to authoritarian models of governance?  The fake anarchists of the GOP and the Tea Party are quick to advocate small or no government when it comes to economics, but equally quick to rally behind government efforts to intervene in private lives (e.g. gay marriage, women’s reproductive health, end-of-life care and euthanasia). Hence the charge of fake anarchism: if you want to talk about society with minimal or no governmental structure, then you have to take on the entire scope of the problem, not just the self-serving and convenient bits. This means addressing the problem of corporate power over consumers and workers in a capitalism system as well as the function of social institutions like churches; government is only part of the problem.

If that isn’t enough, one should be wary of simply dismissing anything related to the government as being problematic solely because it is governmental in nature. After all, we receive tangible benefits from the public sector, such as roads and fire fighters. This highlights the importance of distinguishing the executive power of government from its administrative function.

In any case, I’m reading more from David Brooks than he puts in. And, as he certainly isn’t one of those conservative disciples of cognitive dissonance that seem to have infected the GOP en masse these days, I would not lump him into the category of plastic anarchist. Quite simply, his column highlights the direction in which the discussion needs to move into if we’re ever to resolve some our most pressing problems. It’s heartening to find a hint of a common ground across the ideological spectrum. If only more intellectuals and pundits were as amiable as Brooks.


review - Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Director Geoff Ritchie’s first attempt to set afoot the game of re-tuning Sherlock Holmes as the protagonist of an action-buddy movie proved entertaining but unworthy of the Great Detective, an impression unchanged after a second viewing and the benefit of time. The effort to draw on previously marginalized aspects of the character, though interesting, presented a confused vision that indulged the worst tendencies of Hollywood spectacles: much loudness, little substance. Despite the undeniable chemistry of the film’s leads, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, and an attractive production, the film delivered not a compelling revision but an exaggerated blockbuster confection filled with overtorqued action, overcooked humour, and a plot better suited to an episode of Scooby Doo. That it was nevertheless more entertaining than it deserved to be speaks to how well-made the film was; the problem rested in translating Ritchie’s vision of the character into a faithful script.

Picking up where the first film left off, with Moriarty coming out of the shadows to become Holmes’ direct antagonist, A Game of Shadows achieves the successful tuning Ritchie aims for.  In part, that success is due to Jared Harris’ marvelous interpretation of Moriarty, a seemingly innocuous college professor who conveys a malicious criminal intelligence not through bombast but through softly spoken words. But the bulk of the credit goes to the script by Kieran Mulroney and Michele Mulroney, which successfully achieves in tone and balance what the previous film, written by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg, could only hint at. Action supplements rather than overwhelms intellect in this film, and genuine drama underlines the comical elements, resulting in a Sherlock Holmes we can credibly accept as both master detective and action hero, along with a Watson who is both an eminently worthy comrade-in-arms and a good bloke in his own right. The thrilling, high-stakes cat-and-mouse plot delivers on the intense struggle between two equal but opposing minds, while delivering fun little moments highlighting the enduring, though somewhat chafing, friendship between Holmes and Watson. 

A genuine and all-to-rare pleasure is how women in the film aren’t relegated to the status of distressed damsels, but are courageous, clever, and valuable participants in the narrative. Noomi Rapace, who memorably played Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy, plays a gypsy who, despite being relegated to a supporting role, nonetheless commands attention and displays a fierce streak of womanly independence that demonstrates that “supporting” need not be “subordinate.” Also refreshing is Watson’ wife Mary, smartly played by Kelly Reilly and presented as a sharp who stands her own ground. A valuable player as Holmes works the game against Moriarty, she is not given the thankless task of fretting over her husband, but allowed to contribute in the intellectual effort to defeat the criminal mastermind. Where the trend in Hollywood is to demonstrate gender parity by presenting women capable of violence equal to that of men, Ritchie and his screenwriters here offer a more functional equivalence. 

All in all, a superior effort…and a far more convincing perspective on the Great Detective than even Steven Moffat could achieve in his ill-conceived 21st Century Sherlock Holmes series, Sherlock.


thoughts on the bank of Apple's money problem

Pity poor Apple; the company has a $100 billion stockpile of cash that it only now has figured out what to do with now that Tim Cook is CEO - pay out dividends and buy back stocks over a three-year period. From the LA Times:

The company said it will pay shareholders $2.65 per share each quarter beginning in Apple's fiscal fourth quarter, which starts July 1. The company said it hopes the dividend will make Apple stock a more attractive investment to wider base of investors, including those looking to make regular income from owning the stock.
In a conference call with investors this morning, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook and Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer said the company would spend $10 billion on a three-year stock repurchase program. Apple is buying back shares largely to be able to award more stock to its employees without diluting the value of existing shares, which happens when a company slices itself into a larger number of smaller shares.
The company said it would spend about $45 billion on the combined initiatives over the next three years.

Good news, then, for those people who want to make money without working for it - "those looking to make regular income from owning the stock." Apple's got your bank account covered. And what of the other $55 billion? No mention of that.

While the business news is abuzz with talk of dividends, the real issue goes unexamined; how did Apple amass such a large cash stockpile in the first place? Being stingy to investors is one answer. Apparently, Apple hasn't issued a dividend payment in more than a decade according to Yahoo!Finance. But let's consider alternative explanations, beginning with the following reminder:

profit = price - cost

Alternative 1: Apple's massive profits arise from a cost that is too low relative to what its products sell for, which means that the manufacturers are being short-changed ("exploited" in revolutionary-speak). Considering that Apple has succeeded in selling pricey products, it seems reasonable to conclude that customers at least tacitly accept that the high prices reflect the high value of the products. I'd argue that Apple depends, in part, on the high prices to drive the impression of a premium brand, raising the question of whether the market would rate Apple so highly if it offered dirt-cheap products.

Alternative 2: The manufacturers are reasonably paid, and it is the price that is too high relative to the cost. In this case, it means that Apple customers are being overcharged for the products they buy. Cue Steve Jobs real marketing genius; persuading people to dish out more money than they should for products they don't really need.

The overall conclusion is: whether Apple is scrooging investors, underpaying manufacturers, or overcharging customers, its $100 billion of stockpiled cash is the result of an exploitative business strategy, aided and abetted by an uncritical customer base susceptible to hype. Some would gush about how that makes Apple a capitalist success story. I'd argue that by extracting considerably more money from the economy than it puts in, it makes Apple the poster child of exactly what's wrong with our capitalist economy and consumerist culture.


The Lorax: Seuss, Speech, Marketing, and Orange as the New Green

The Lorax is not a great film, nor is it the best adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s book that one might envision. It is, however, as gently entertaining as it is unapologetic in its stance; a colourful, silly, melancholy, hopeful, stinging and, ultimately, accessible film.

Read my review of The Lorax at The Front Page Online.


dear dead person: you sucked and we’re better off without you

There’s an aphorism in Alice: Madness Returns that seems particularly apropos about this piece by Matt Taibi on the death of pop-conservative agent provocateur Andrew Breitbart: If we can speak ill of the living, why not the dead? It’s almost absurd to consider the taboo erected against a person once they’re dead, as if somehow being critical, if not celebratory, would do some incredible harm to the deceased. I’m not sure how, exactly; the dead are beyond the influence of the living, beyond offense, beyond hurt. Yet it is perfectly acceptable to be vile towards living beings, when the choice between civility and barbarity really does make all the difference. So when Matt Taibi dishes out scorn and grudging praise on the occasion of Andrew Breitbart's death, while calling out his vitriolic critics for conveniently neglecting Breitbart’s scatological treatment of Ted Kennedy’s death, he neatly illustrates how death is used as an inoculation against criticism.

Here’s the thing: all our funerary rituals, all our eulogies, all our obituaries – these are for our benefit. They are the means by which we grapple with the great inescapable, and they say more about us than they could about the dead.  Although I think it is distasteful to be rude and crass towards the death, it’s only because I think it’s distasteful to be rude and crass towards the living. Certainly, impolite displays to hostilities are not respectful gestures – towards those who mourn the deceased. But while civility should be maintained and compassion should be nurtured in all that we say and do, that doesn’t mean mollycoddling a person’s legacy once they have passed away, or expressing insincere grief over their death. In other words, feel free to say about the dead whatever you’d say about the living.


The Punisher in Film – Part 2

Continuing from Part 1...

By contrast, the 1989 film begins with Dolph Lundren, whose darkly imposing physical presence and laconic demeanour are ideally suited to the role of Frank Castle. Unlike Jane, we believe Lundgren has the consitution of a tank, capable of enduring great amounts of abuse while able to serve up abuse of his own. And the minimally expressive but not unemotional aloofness Lundgren delivers seems pitch-perfect for a man mired in such uncompromising morality that killing has become effortless and common. We see in Lundgren the weary compulsion of a man whose self-imposed mission to punish the guilty has stripped him of his social identity and the human bonds that come with it. Yet, for all the psychopathy implied in his murderous vigilantism, the film offers an occasional glimpse of humanity, of which there is enough left to keep Castle from becoming a truly amoral monster. A scene in which he holds a little girl’s hand, one of many children he rescues from the clutches of the Yakuza, and tells her not to be afraid is delivered with all the tenderness of a father who remembers both his own children and the value of innocence. Granted, in the 2004 film Frank’s neighbours are similarly intended to demonstrate that Castle hasn’t completely unmoored himself from the most basic requirement of moral action. But the 1989 film is less insistent in driving home the point, preferring a subtle moment to a brash subplot that strives to excuse the ugliness that otherwise pervades the film.

Some fans, of course, latched on to the absence of the iconic skull on Lundgren’s person, as if the all-black cross between a combat uniform and biker wear was not sufficiently representative of the character’s persona of death. But I happen to find it more plausible that the skull motif would appear in Lundgren’s signature daggers – the skull is at the hilt ¬– then on the chest where it would draw undue attention. Wikipedia’s entry on Punisher, amusingly, mentions that Castle uses the skull to draw enemy fire towards the most heavily armoured portion of his body. Given how graphic design is used in urinals to help men’s aim, there is perhaps some sense to that. Nevertheless, the utilitarian costume design in partnership with Lundgren’s physique is more than sufficient to convey a tough, fearsome impression.

What makes the 1989 version of Castle so much more interesting, beyond casting Lundgren in the role, comes from a script structured to prevent multiple perspectives on the character. Screenwriter Boaz Yakin wisely foregoes turning the film into an origin story, recognizing that the Punisher’s origin is not a story but, rather, a moment – the moment his wife and children die in a car bomb. This frees the film to manage the character both as an individual and as a concept. To the media, he is a mysterious vigilante called the Punisher. To the police, his high body county and defiance of the legal system inspires aggravation and embarrassment. Of course, to mobsters the Punisher evokes fear and dread. Finally, there are the personal perspectives of the character through Frank himself, delivered through voice-over monologues, and through his former partner in the police Jake Berkowitz, played by Louis Gossett Jr. The latter is arguably the film’s true heart, as Jake desperately searches for his former friend, believed dead by just about everyone else, and bring him to safety from the alienating bloody battlefront of his perpetual war against the mob. Altogether, the various perspectives add up to a surprisingly robust portrayal that elevates the film’s presentation of the character from mere exploitation to social commentary. It helps immeasurably that, unlike Hensleigh’s film, the plot is not driven by excessively dominant villains. Instead, the plot doesn’t overcook the film. We get a gritty, almost depersonalized war between a man and the mob, with the Punisher having to confront the consequences of what happens when the mob is so weakened that the Yakuza start to move into the power gap.

Of course, it cannot go unmentioned that the film suffers from its low budget and director Mark Goldblatt’s lack of cinematic vision. The obvious casualties are the cast, which range from cringe-inducing bit parts to awful child actors, and action scenes that occasionally forget about the laws of physics. Even that classic gaffe, where the hero emerges unharmed from a hail of apparently badly aimed bullets, makes an appearance.

For all that, however, Goldblatt mostly stages effective action scenes. A welcome lack of frills or stylistic flourishes gives the gunfights and fisticuffs a gritty, street-brawl character. In fact, it’s a bit of a morally wishy-washy misnomer to call them “action scenes;” its violence, straight without a chaser. Despite the necessary brutality of garroting, gunshots, and stabbings, the film restrains itself from giving in to the gory impulse that afflicted other “action” movies of the 80s and their successors. And why shouldn’t it? It’s a questionable cultural defect, illustrated vividly by Hensleigh’s version, that requires the use of highly graphic depictions of violence to elicit a moral and visceral response. Goldblatt doesn’t sanitize the film’s violence to make it palatable, but does keep it at a clinically detached level that makes the violence all the more unsettling without playing into the manipulative revenge horror formula. To this version of the Punisher, and the gangsters he combats, the violence is matter-of-fact; The Punisher, at one point, machine guns a roomful of kendo-practicing Yakuza without so much of a twitch. Goldblatt’s honest presentation leaves room for audience involvement. Where some might be thrilled by such mechanical slaughter, it seems more fitting to be horrified, a reaction more in line with the Punisher’s ultimate status as anti-hero.

In a similar mix of the workable and the problematic, the cast is not universally low-grade. The major roles, at least, benefit from good performances that give the story enough heft to overcome the film’s weaknesses. Louis Gossett Jr. in particular is an asset, proving to be the film’s heart as a man with a motivation, driven by an abiding sense of loyalty and friendship, to rescue Frank Castle from his outlaw existence. Also noteworthy is Barry Otto as a homeless alcoholic actor named Shakes, presumably short for Shakespeare, who provides the Punisher with information while also, at a key moment, serving as surrogate conscience. Rounding out the cast of capables are Kim Miyori as the icy cruel Yakuza leaders Ms. Tanaka, and Jeroene Krabbe as the pragmatic but proud Gianni Franco, surviving head of the Franco crime family. Miyori is suitably sinister, without being garish, as the film’s prime antagonist. But it falls to Krabbe to put a human face on the gangsters the Punisher fights. More level-headed than his mob associates, Franco also calls into question the Punisher’s decision to appoint himself a distributor of capital punishment. Not because Franco is lacking in ruthlessness, which he isn’t, but because even he operates under moral code. Although not explicitly clear, the impression from Krabbe is that Gianni Franco would not have ordered a hit in which a child would be killed. That impression underlies a key scene that offers as much insight into what Castle has become as it does the mobster, a role reversal of sorts in which, while waiting for the moment to launch an assault on the Yakuza, Franco says in response to Castle’s high body count, “There’s a limit to revenge, you know.” Castle’s wry, deadpan answer: “I guess I haven’t reached mine.” How about that? The mobster has limits, whereas Castle is intent on continuing his war no matter the limit.
Steven Grant, writer of Marvel’s 19855-1986 Punisher mini-series and many other comics, offered a definite statement of Frank Castle’s character, one continued by writers like Garth Ennis:
Kierkegaard, called the father of existentialism, played up the absurdity of human existence, stating the only way to combat this was the total commitment of the individual to a life of his choosing, and though Kierkegaard, still a child of his time, ultimately fell back on the abject acceptance of Christianity (which he also seemed to feel was incomprehensible) as the only valid course of action, the "life of total commitment" certainly fits The Punisher. Heidegger, who took Kierkegaard's philosophy further, comes even closer to describing The Punisher: since we can never hope to understand why we're here, if there's even anything to understand, the individual should choose a goal and pursue it wholeheartedly, despite the certainty of death and the meaninglessness of action. That's sure the Punisher as I conceived him: a man who knows he's going to die and who knows in the big picture his actions will count for nothing, but who pursues his course because this is what he has chosen to do.
The film’s closing shot is of Jake desperately calling out his friend’s name. He receives no answer, of course, Frank having disappeared after killing both Ms. Tanaka and Franco and, ominously, leaving the mobster’s son with a warning to become a good man or find The Punisher waiting. The war goes on. For all the film’s shortcoming, we’re left with a film that, unlike Hensleigh’s, comes closest to depicting that Kierkegaardian mode of existence. Saying everything that really needs to be said about the character, the 1989 film stands as a faithful, albeit technically flawed, translation of the Punisher to a live-action medium.

So where does the Punisher go from here?

To be continued...


The Punisher in Film – Part 1

Frank Castle, the Punisher

Essentially Don Pendleton’s Mack “The Executioner” Bolan dressed up as Nedor Comics Golden Age superhero The Black Terror, Marvel’s derivative vigilante the Punisher is mostly nothing more or less than a quasi-archetypal avenging character. Like many before and since, Frank Castle sets off a violent crusade against crime after loved ones – in this case his wife and children – are killed by the mafia. Although Marvel has allowed the Punisher to co-exist in the same universe as its superpowered characters, rather nonsensically neutering the character concept in much the same way DC has with Batman, he does achieve a compelling, if grim, power on his own urban turf, mostly because of the compelling theatricality of his iconic costume; black with a stylized white skull on the chest. Only the PunisherMAX series, innovated by noted writer Garth Ennis, kept it real at the price of amping up the gruesome scenarios, violence, torture, and characters so morally deformed they’d fit into a horror movie. At least, so I gather from Wikipedia and comic book review sites.

The Black Terror in his first appearance in 1941.

From the various interpretations available to filmmakers, there’s an entire range of Punisher styles to choose from. Of the three attempts to bring the Punisher to film, the most recent, Punisher: War Zone starring Ray Stevenson, is hardly worth considering. Setting aside the contemptuous critical consensus, the red-band trailer was so gory and ultra-violent that pushing the film off the must-see radar seems eminently sensible. I skipped that one. That leaves the 2004 film starring Thomas Jane, and the much-maligned 1989 film starring Dolph Lundgren.

Of the 2004 film, one can say this; it is slickly produced, well-acted, and cinematic. But the story is trash without the good manners, or good humour, to acknowledge itself as such. Instead, director and co-writer Jonathan Hensleigh yields to Shakespearean pretensions without the ability to manage the scale. Hence, a few amplifications. Not content with the death of Frank’s wife and children, Hensleigh arranges it so that his entire extended family, roughly thirty in all, are slaughtered on the orders of gangster Howard Saint or, to be accurate, Howard’s wife Livia. The rationale is straightforward, if off-target in the usual villain’s way – retaliation for a police sting involving illegal weapons that results in the death of the eldest Saint son. But the motivation is flimsy given Livia’s near absence of character other than that of gangster moll with a predilection for shopping and an arbitrary mean-streak more or less equal to her husband’s. Looking to Howard Saint, played with sneering gusto by John Travolta, won’t yield more character than that of the usual nasty deranged by jealously and cruel vindictiveness.

The whole ordeal of the massacre plays out interminably, with Hensleigh extracting as much discomfort as possible in presenting the victims chased and gunned down. Frank’s wife and son are particularly subjected to the indignity of a vicious, sadistic death by pickup truck, culminating in Frank himself being captured, beaten, shot, shot again in the chest at point-blank range, then left to sizzle on a burning dock. From here, it becomes an exercise in Frank evading death at the hands of two bizarre assassins sent by Saint – one a reject from Robert Rodriguez’s Mariachi films who croons his murderous intentions before acting on them, the other a massive boss-type opponent borrowed from a video game – while making half-hearted attempts to set up his own revenge against the Saints. He slums around a decrepit apartment building shared with the film’s only nod towards tenderness, comedy, and characters with actual personalities – a nod exploited, inevitably, to further demonstrate the Saints’ sadism – until, finally, he unleashes his revenge in a scheme inspired by Othello and spiked with an excess of lurid, cruel brutality. In all this, the film’s structure is faithful to the revenge horror formula in which atrocities committed against the innocent become license to cheerlead monstrous payback.

If Hensleigh’s manipulative approach to the material isn’t bad enough, the film’s failure is compounded by its function as an origin story. Other than a t-shirt bearing the famous skull that Thomas Jane sports around – ridiculously contrived as a gift from Castle’s son – there’s little of the Punisher persona to be found in the film, to the point where the whole affair could have been delivered under a different moniker and no one would be at a loss. The most notable approximation is Castle’s manifesto delivered via voice over, in which he confidently proclaims that “Revenge is not a valid motive, it's an emotional response. No, not vengeance. Punishment.” Really? The whole film reeks of revenge and the exploitation of suffering…and audience-insulting intellectual dishonesty. As for Thomas Jane, he’s a fine enough actor but never achieves the physical menace and intimidating presence the character demands. Hensleigh’s characterization further hinders Jane, in that his interpretation of Castle is devoid not only of threat, but also the tactical cunning that makes him a fearsome opponent. If Castle survives the vicious assaults on his body, including the wounds suffered in a brawl with a giant Russian (the aforementioned boss-type) so tough he shrugs off a knife stabbed in his shoulder, it is only through sheer willpower…Hensleigh’s will, that is. Certainly Castle himself rarely lives up to his background as a special ops commando, being easily outmatched on a home turf rigged with all manners of defensive and offensive measure to counter attackers.

To be continued...

Note: images used under fair use for illustrative purposes only. If the copyright holder asks for the images to be removed from the