Friday, 15 June 2012

100 Greatest Fictional Villains: Mayor Richard Wilkins

  When you get down to it, for the show that coined the term “Big Bad”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer actually had a shortage of truly brilliant villains. There were certainly some respectable attempts, but for the most part the squelchy horrors that bedevilled the Sunnydale night tended to play second fiddle to the group dynamics of the heroic Scoobies. Buffy antagonists were mostly crude personifications of adolescent issues, rather than compelling characters, and were sometimes even more generic than that. Certainly they had a tendency to be neatly and perfunctorily killed off in the episodes they appeared in. Major threats often took a while to get going, or were all-purpose figures of doom lacking in truly shocking or fascinating character traits. Characters like the Master, Adam and Caleb weren’t exactly bad, they just failed leave a truly indelible stamp on the series.

  Of course, there were exceptions, and the Mayor was gloriously one of them. He was initially a vaguely-referenced background threat, only to become the main antagonist of Season Three and end up running away with the entire season. After watching Buffy scythe through scores of snarling thugs in heavy monster make-up, it was refreshing to see a cheerful, avuncular public servant become the chirpy, Reagan-like face of impending doom. He added a much-needed playfulness to Sunnydale’s largely po-faced and over-dramatic villain-sphere, as if he realised a long time how ludicrously immoral his very existence was and just started laughing at his outrageous chutzpah. A skilled sorcerer who founded Sunnydale generations ago, the Mayor’s mortal lifespan was unnaturally extended by diabolical pacts, as he performed various unspeakable deeds to placate his infernal allies (including attempted casual baby sacrifice in an early Season Three episode). His ultimate goal was to switch species and become a reptilian Uber-Demon; but that didn’t mean he had to shirk the responsibilities of office along the way, taking a genuine interest in the smooth administration of the quirky, creepy town of Sunnydale.

  The Mayor was always an enigma, because it was never clear where the friendly and seemingly unfeigned demeanour slipped and the ruthless power-hungry despot began, or whether there was ever a distinction between the attractive and sinister facets of his personality in the first place. The Mayor seemed to be psychologically well-rounded, with little in the way of doubts or regrets, and his relationship with the renegade Slayer Faith proved that he wasn’t a psychopath. He was just a talented politician with buckets of life experience, who apparently decided a long time ago that his existence would be dedicated to becoming a giant flesh-eating snake. Maybe, rather than some sort of megalomaniacal craving or inadequacy, he settled on this terrible task with single-minded focus because it was the hardest thing any sorcerer could set out to do, like people who want to climb Everest “because it’s there”?

  Whatever the answer, in a show full of mindless monsters and raving murderers, the Mayor stands out for his unassuming competence and brisk, no-nonsense approach to evil with a capital E, in a town where evil just made sense. And of course, he was the perfect smugly superior authority figure for Buffy’s graduating class to rebel against, liberating themselves from their home-town’s twisted, deadly system. He wasn’t the Mayor the tragedy-stricken youth of Sunnydale deserved, but perhaps he was the Mayor they needed.  

The Devil's Double Review

   The Devil’s Double is a feverishly grisly picture, which rightly refuses to flinch away from the nightmarish violence and cruelty of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Dominic Cooper plays the role of Uday Hussein, Saddam’s depraved hobgoblin of a son, as well as the former school-mate with a striking physical resemblance to Uday recruited as a body double. Cooper certainly can’t be accused of phoning in the demanding dual performance, but nevertheless the characterisation falls a little flat. He does a fine job as Uday, unleashing an extroverted monstrousness that evokes the necessary sense of grandiose, psychopathic, freakishly childlike menace (in a truly twisted irony, the occasional appearance by Saddam himself makes him seem almost reasonable in comparison to Uday). The problem is that beyond morbid fascination, the character of Uday is not especially interesting; a spoilt, spiteful, bloodthirsty grotesque. There is nothing wrong with this (the filmmakers are working with painfully recent reality after all), but it does make it important that the portrayal of the double, Latif Yahia, is compelling enough to act as the centre of the film. However, little sense of Yahia as a person emerges; he is less a fascinating enigma than a frustratingly opaque nobody, who does little apart from brood for most of the running time. He seems to seesaw between notably disgusted but passive in the face of Uday’s evil, and reckless, almost suicidal defiance, including an underwhelming and unconvincing love affair with one of Uday’s favourite courtesans. He never seems to show fear, despite having every reason to dread reprisals against his family if his Satanic employer ever tires of him. This strange dichotomy between helplessness and heroism is doubtless due to the film being based on the real Yahia’s own recollections.

  The film’s weak centre is unfortunate, as its evocation of the gnawing pressure and institutional vileness of the Hussein years is savagely potent; Uday can be a cheerful hedonist in one scene, only to commit bloody murder in a fit of adolescent rage in another. Some of the grimmest moments of the film concern his sexual sadism, showing his relentless stalking of schoolgirls through the streets of Baghdad. But the awkward juxtaposition of real-life brutality and the odd action-movie implausibility (particularly in the final reel), deflates the film’s merit, leaving it’s frenzied efforts to shock and condemn lagging in the shadow of relatively more sober pieces like The Last King of Scotland.       

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

And for a follow-up, Apocalypto

  Very much a companion piece to “The Passion of the Christ” with its obsession with history’s greatest and most terrible themes, its skilled viciousness at depicting violated human flesh, and a sort of bloody grandeur that will either compel, offend, or both. Despite a laudable decision to cast actual Mayans, and a reported degree of conscientious research, historical accuracy is clearly not Gibson’s primary priority. The setting is supposedly Mayan civilization in its hour of crisis and decay, but the sacrificial rites that form the film’s most terrifying set-piece have more in common with Aztec religion, the gruesome details of which are burned more deeply into pop cultural consciousness. Doubtless there are other issues, but straightforward errors are forgivable in light of Gibson’s stated intentions; just as Apocalypse Now is a story of inner darkness played out against a Vietnamese backdrop, rather than a historical piece about the Second Indo-China War, so Apocalypto is less about the Mayans themselves than it is about the travails of dying civilization in general. Pre-Columbian South America is barely explored in cinema, so that it is depicted at all is a minor victory.

  Yet as a meditation on profound issues, there is little to recommend Apocalypto. It is less an epic story than another nightmarish historical simulation, the journey of the enslaved tribespeople whose number include the protagonist, Jaguar Paw, mirroring Jim Caveziel’s gruelling march towards Calvary in “Passion”. Yet instead of the ultimate symbol of the Christian faith, a pagan temple awaits. Horrible, meaningless death and tragedy abound for roughly the first two thirds of the picture; rape, murder, enslavement, families sundered and children abandoned in the jungle. There is a lazy division between “Good” Mayans, the peaceable forest-based hunters we meet first, and the “Bad” Mayans who come from the corrupt city, and who raze the “Good” Mayans village and haul the surviving men off to be sacrificed, which turns out to be a cynical gambit by the local royalty and priesthood to pacify the anxious masses with blood. In typical Gibson style, the “Bad” Mayans are ugly, brutally intimidating, or, in the case of the disease- and despair-racked populace off the doomed city, pathetic. There is a strong whiff of old-fashioned condescension about this approach; an un-nuanced portrayal that casually splits “natives” into hapless innocents and bloodthirsty heathens. The atmosphere of savagery and dread undeniably holds the attention, but any effort to make it seem somehow meaningful falls flat, leaving a vivid but depressing and nihilistic spectacle.

  Right up to the point where Jaguar Paw manages to escape, killing exactly the right person to provoke a reckless and implacable pursuit that turns Apocalypto’s final third into one of the most adrenaline-charged, inventively savage and compelling action movies ever. Racing through the jungle to rescue his family from a soon-to-be-flooded hiding place, Jaguar Paw finds himself back in his element and able to turn the tables on the slavers chasing him in a variety of unpleasant ways. There’s an element of morbid wish-fulfilment in the retributive violence he metes out (hiding behind the most respectable of motives), but for all the Robert E. Howard-esque crudity of the set-up, Gibson’s predilection for bloody thrills and spills is at least honestly entertaining, which makes it arguably less perverse than the worthy masochism of Passion of the Christ. And the ending is actually the most effective one that could have been written, wrapping up on an ominously ambiguous note, which gives a measure of triumph to the plucky hero without selling out the nightmarish atmosphere of the cruel, grim story.   

An Extremely Topical Review of "The Passion of the Christ"

  Mel Gibson’s filmmaking provokes endless, slightly perverse fascination. On the one hand he is a skilled director, who knows how to target an audience and play to their emotions and expectations. On the other, it has been repeatedly pointed out that aspects of the worldview his films express can border on the poisonous, arguably crossing the line into seriously dubious territory. The Passion of the Christ, a vivid and unabashedly Catholic depiction of the climax of the New Testament, is noteworthy for its place in the cultural history of the early 21st century as much as in Gibson’s strange and savage oeuvre; but the frenzy of publicity and controversy that swirled around the film at time of release came close to obscuring sober critical judgements of its worth as piece of visual art and storytelling.

 The most vital detail to establish about Passion is that the viewer’s emotional response is inevitably going to be tied very closely to their background and their feelings (with a stress on feelings, rather than thoughts; this is a work that attempts to provoke raw emotion, not reasoned reflection) about Jesus and Christianity. I find it very difficult to imagine Passion inspiring many non-believers to join the Elect, and those with pre-existing indifference or hostility towards Catholic beliefs are likely to find themselves at best non-plussed, and at worst repelled by the camera’s grisly obsession with human suffering. This is a film made by a staunch Catholic, which draws upon Catholic doctrine (debatably) and tradition in a manner guaranteed to resonate with Catholics.

  As a work of devotion, a modern day Passion Play with special effects and swarms of extras, I can see how it might inspire, shock and rivet a believing audience, at least on first viewing. However, it is glaringly obvious that this is only one, albeit critical, chapter of a much longer story, the story of Jesus’ life. It feels oddly like Jim Caviezel (who gives an excellent, if necessarily uncomplicated performance as Christ) is reprising the role after earlier instalments covering Jesus’ ministry that don’t actually exist, and that the film’s ending shows him striding in the direction of sequels that will never be made. Without a proper dramatic arc (flashbacks to Jesus’ pre-mauling life are awkwardly crow-barred in to break up the scenes of bloodshed), all the viewer is left with is a lengthy torture and execution simulation. It might work as a sort of time-travelling glimpse into the first century, but any sense of gazing down the millennia at profound and holy events is undermined by how glossily cinematic everything is, not to mention crudely-handled and unnecessary demonic manifestations. The evident and admirable insistence that the horrors of Jesus’ passing be un-sanitised (which curiously never extends to showing him crucified naked) is taken too far, as is depiction of Jesus’ tormentors, with a suspiciously stereotypical-looking Sanhedrin, a Herod who is shown as effeminate as a convenient shorthand for moral degeneracy, and a Barabbas who looks like a fairy-tale ogre. Gibson symbolically used his own hands in the close-up shot of the fateful nails being driven in; a theological statement rendered pointless by making the persecutors so impossible to relate to.

  The infamous scourging scene is the worst offender; it hardly strains credulity that Roman guards might go about their duties with a degree of sadism, but rather than the bored and banal cruelty you might expect, they are cackling devils who bear little resemblance to convincing human beings. The grisly flogging is taken to pointless lengths; after having his skin shredded and being forced to drag his own cross under the shower of blows for ages, Jesus’ actual crucifixion runs the risk of being bizarrely anti-climactic. The rational response to this would be to go back and edit out the worst moments of the flogging, but instead Gibson decides to have Jesus’ shoulder dislocated just to make the audience cringe.   

  The film’s saving grace is it’s convincing evocations of the relationship between Jesus and his loved ones, particularly Mary (Maia Morgenstern communicates immense sorrow and anguish despite rarely speaking), through tiny vignettes and meaningful glances.  However alienated some viewers might be by the extended gore and the shabby characterisation of the “villains”, the film is visually impressive in its staging and the less caricatured performances are full of understated power. The potential for this material, with the directorial talent behind it, to have been something more than the sum of its parts is obvious, but with Gibson’s career implosion this is territory he is unlikely to re-visit, leaving us with a glossy, eccentric, lurid slice of Biblical cinema.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Starship Troopers: "I'm from Buenos Aires, and I say kill 'em all!"

  I know this one has been picked clean in terms of analysis, but I watched it recently and churned out a longish-review (in obedience to my "review every non-documentary film you watch without fail" rule), so I might as well go ahead and share it with the Interwebs anyway...

  Paul Verhoeven is not, perhaps, as clever as he thinks he is. The satire so blatantly on display in this sci-fi extravaganza is not especially complex, subtle, cutting or nuanced. Yet of course the sheer brazen, clumsy directness of it is doubtless part of the point; to highlight the ruthless absurdity of authoritarian ideology and militaristic propaganda via a fictional portrayal that takes the logic of the warmonger to cartoonish, blackly comic extremes.

  The film’s satire is brash and broad, taking a cudgel rather than a scalpel to its intended target. As a result, the aspects of American culture that Verhoeven found so distasteful are left bruised rather than eviscerated. Implausibly glossy lead characters with fatuous motives and shallow, unreflective personalities, scenes of blatant stupidity and viciousness portrayed as uncomplicated heroism, the most tyrannical and bloodthirsty values ironically celebrated with no coherent alternative in sight…it’s hard not to instantly recognise the future galaxy of the Federation-Bug war as a slickly-presented dystopia. Moments that genuinely get under the skin are scarce.

  However, that is not to say that the film lacks more unsettling beats. Scenes of indoctrinated schoolchildren tussling over free bullets while a couple of soldiers look indulgently on may prompt more cynical amusement than horror, but the Federation’s utterly wrong-headed attitude to censorship (blacking out animal mutilations but showing  a sea of butchered human corpses a heartbeat later) speaks volumes about how chillingly warped the standards of this fascistic future have become. After all, the Nazis were famously offended by animal cruelty, while placing no value upon the lives of certain categories of human being. Even gloomier is the nihilistic question mark of the film’s ending; the capture of a Brain Bug is portrayed as some great triumph, but there is no obvious evidence that this is anything other than one early chapter in a seemingly endless, incredibly violent conflict. The dissonance between the patriotic bombast of score, style, and performance, and what a sober appraisal of the revealed facts about the movie’s universe reveals, is stunningly dark. This is only emphasised by Verhoeven’s refusal to drop the mask of trigger-happy Boy’s Own enthusiasm at any point. A particular fan theory, namely that the entire story is supposed to be actual Federation propaganda, with distorted retellings of real events filtered through the Federal News Networks goofy style to impressionable masses, is probably the best way to appreciate the movie.

  It is of course, also possible to be purely entertained by the impressively dramatic visuals and the ludicrous grinning bravado of the entire affair. While it’s a matter of course to have a laugh at the expense of a supposedly clueless Casper Van Dien, he certainly carries out the task of portraying an energetic, earnest yet clueless lead with admirable verve and commitment, literally soldiering on with the role through objectively ridiculous surroundings. Not to mention that Denise Richard’s ability to portray one of the most irritatingly vacuous characters ever, whose perpetual vacant beaming resembles a Barbie doll more than any human woman, probably required some sort of talent. Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside are also ideally cast as archetypal grizzled authority figures, giving the Federation a sort of stern, macho legitimacy that the extreme stupidity of its actual policy doesn’t deserve.

  Troopers may be a blunt instrument, but it has enough memorable touches to ensure its longevity in the annals of popular culture.