December 31, 2013

Queer Review: Rare Exports: A Christmas Story (2010)

Rare Exports: A Christmas Story
Director: Jalmari Helander
Writers: Jalmari Helander, Juuso Helander, Petri Jokiranta, and Sami Parkkinen.
Cast: Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila, Tommi Korpela, Rauno Juvonen, Per Christian Ellefsen, Ilmari Järvenpää, Peeter Jakobi

Rarely has there existed a greater gap between a film's concept/premise and it's execution, than the one that exists in Rare Exports: A Christmas Story. For here in this film we have an absolutely brilliant idea that sours during a turgid middle and then just when things look like they're about to kick into high gear, the blink and you'll miss it climax flashes by quicker than the speed Santa needs to deliver presents to every good little boy, girl, and non-binary gender kid.

When Pietari (Onni Tommila) and his friend Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää) overhear the plans of an eccentric billionaire Riley (Per Christian Ellefsen) to dig up the grave of the "real" Santa Claus, Pietari hits the books to dig up the story behind the legend. What he finds is that the original Santa Clause was a frightening creature, and the modern holly, jolly version is an invention of retail outlets and soft drink makers. (Sidenote: with regards to Finnish mythology, this actually has a historical basis.) Soon afterwards, the family Reindeer herd is found dead and eaten, while Pietari spots mysterious footprints on the rooftop of their home. When the locals wake up on Christmas day, they find their homes burglarized and their children missing. Even more worrisome, Pietari's father finds a naked man dead in an illegal wolf trap he had set. However, when it is discovered that the stranger is still alive, the possibility is raised that this could be the real Santa Clause of ancient legend.

The Queering
Suspense is a delicate balancing act. It requires that the filmmakers show somethings and hide others. I am not the worlds biggest fan of Jaws but the tactic of showing as little of the big bad as possible on screen is a popular and effective for a reason. Generating really gut wrenching suspense also requires some degree of attachment with the characters. Nothing too deep, but there needs to be something. With regards to Rare Exports, the filmmakers took the lesson of Jaws a little too much to heart, showing us too little, too late. There's also the issue of once the captured "Santa" shows up, he spends too much time lying around lethargically to feel like much of a threat.

Furthermore, none of the characters are terribly well developed. Outside of Pietari and his father, I'm not sure it's fair to say that any of the characters even rise to the level of caricature, as that would require them to have personalities. What we have here are more like stick figures that are primarily on hand to do whatever it is the script requires.

Even more problematic is the way the bizare way the characters react to the weirdness of Christmas Day. And by bizarre, I mean in the way in which the adults (at least the ones we are shown) show far more concern over some missing burlap bags and a hair dryer, than they do over their missing children. I am not joking, there is literally a scene that plays out approximately as follows:

Adult Character: "Oh noes, all our radiators have been stolen! We're all going to DIE!"

Other Adult: "And they took every burlap bag! Now all our potatoes are naked and cold! WAH!"

Another Adult: "They took my hairdryer! That's premo tech in Russia! LETS INVADE!"

Pietari: "Uh where's Juuso? I just found this weird creepy doll in his bed."

Adult: "He's probably out chasing girls. Don't bother us with trivialities!"

I am not a parent, but if I woke up to find my house broken into, my stuff taken, and my kids bed containing only a creepy doll, I doubt my reaction would be "oh no! Who stole my burlap bags!" Do Finnish facebook pages feature numerous pictures of hairdryers with captions like "Missing since April. Last seen in Bathroom. Large reward for information leading to return of, + bonus if power cord is still intact."? If the characters cannot care about their missing kids, why should I?

Getting back to the line about Juuso "being out chasing girls", the context troubles me for several reasons. One, because the actor who plays Juuso does not appear to be much older than 10 years of age.. Two, outside of that reference (and another to the owner of the hairdryer) it appears as if no females exist in the films universe. That's right folks, apparently universal heterosexuality can still exist and be applied to pre-teens in a man only world. Do NOT ask me to come up with an explanation for this.

When the Bechdel test was first developed, it was to illustrate how female characters exist in fictional narratives only in relation to male characters. In Rare Exports they simply appear not to exist, and given the two lines referenced, they're still reduced to sex objects or as seen solely through their relationships to freaking hairdryers. I don't think this is a case of all of the filmmakers being raging misogynists or even particularly sexist, I think it's more of a glaring oversight, like so many other glaring oversights that exist in the film.

One glaring oversight would be the fact that Pietari's mom is never referenced, ever. Did she die? Leave the country? Have an affair? Get gender reassignment surgery and is now one of the indistinguishable male characters that his dad hangs out with? The fact that there are only male character makes it feel like the whole film should be ripe for queering, but it isn't. It's just another situation which the filmmakers failed to develop properly.

Overall, it is difficult to describe just how frustrating it is to watch a movie like Rare Exports, which starts out strong with a highly promising premise, only to quickly devolve into tedium. This is not a bad movie, nor is it trying to be a "so-bad-it's good" type of projects, as one might think given the premise. There is some gorgeous cinematography of frozen mountain landscapes and there are times when the project manages to develop a subtle, yet powerful, hypnotic quality. But a series of poor choices, such as an almost complete lack of explanation for certain characters motives, causes the film to stall and freeze more thoroughly then the frozen tundra that the story is set in. Why is the industrialist/scientist/entrepreneur trying to dig up Santa Claus anyways? How did he come by the knowledge of where the "real" Santa Claus was buried and why is he so convinced that the legend is true to begin with? What is his backstory?

For those who like off beat pictures with dark humor, there are worse options out there. Otherwise, this is one sleeping Santa that should rarely be exported.

The Rating
2 and 1/2 stars out of 4.


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

December 27, 2013

Review: The Hobbit - The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The Hobbit - The Desolation of Smaug
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro. Allegedly based on The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mikael Persbrandt, Sylvester McCoy, Luke Evans, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage

Padding The Hobbit out to 3 movies causes this middle entry to feel bloated and unfocused, with more than a few absurd sequences managing to jack up the running time to almost unbearable lengths.

In his continued attempt to take back the dwarven homeland, the exhiled King Thorin (Richard Armitage) finds himself and his gang of dwarves pursued by Orcs, spiders, and other dangers. After they enter Mirkwood and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) leaves to do battle with Sauron, the group is captured by the dangerous Wood Elves who are led by King Thranduil (Lee Pace) and his henchmen Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). The group manages to escape and make their way to Laketown with the aid of the Bard (Luke Evans) whose ancestor once fought the dragon Smaug, but not without one of their own being gravely injured. After resting in Lake Town, they continue on to the Misty Mountain and the final battle with the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Throughout it all, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) manages to make a few cameo appearances here and there.

The Queering
The Hobbit who? One of the consequences of expanding Tolkien's novel to three films is that an abundance of additional material has managed to find itself onto the big screen. While some of it is effective, a great deal more of it feels like it would have been questionable to be shown even in an uncut/extended edition on home video. Worse, the result of so much additional material causes Bilbo to come across as a supporting character in a film where title supposedly refers to him. Without an effective character arc, he frequently feels like a hairy footed deus ex machina who shows up to help the rest of the group out of whatever jam they happen to be in.

When the filmmakers pull from Tolkien's work to create additional material, they are on somewhat solid ground. It's when they stray from what Tolkien created that everything comes apart. I did not mind the addition of Tauriel, who is effectively played by Evangeline Lily channeling Liv Tyler, but the love triangle feels forced and the possibility of a relationship between her and one of Thorin's dwarves strains the films' already shaky credibility.

Then there is the more buffoonish elements, such as the barrel chase sequence following the groups escape from the Wood Elves that simply don't work. The heavier reliance here on CGI (compared to the Lord of the Rings films) is a mistake, transferring many of the battles into what feel like extended demos for a video game. I get that the films are aiming for a lighter tone then Lord of the Rings but I do not recall as many extended fight sequences with orcs in the novel as there are in the film.

I would never suggest that anything with Stephen Fry is completely useless, but the sub-plot with the Lake Town Master and his henchmen nipping at the heels of the Bard and the main protagonists could have been cut without too much being lost. Even more problematic, these two characters feel like their aping the relationship between Sauromon and Wormtongue from the original films. Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens far too often. Not only does most of the material feel overstretched, but stale to boot.

The climactic battle between Smaug and Bilbo starts out effectively before descending into the over top shenanigans that plague the rest of film. When it's just Bilbo and Smaug, the film manages to capture that ethereal sense of danger and wonder so desperately missing from everything that came before. The thing is, once the dwarves show up, it becomes a ridiculous special effects extravaganza that serves little purpose besides lowering the unemployment rate for computer animators.

The parallels between the dwarven culture and the history of the Hebrew peoplem - being exhiled from their homeland and other cultural motifs - are still present in the story but not a lot of attention is paid to it. Unlike all of the previous Lord of the Rings films by Peter Jackson, there are no real queer subtexts to speak of. I'm reviewing this pretty much because I'm a completest. However, on a more interesting note, the first person of color shows her face in Lake Town. Brief, but it's there and it now feels much less likely that Middle Earth will have the KKK show up and declare that their quest for racial purity has been successful.

At the end of the day, this is not the worst possible adaptation of The Hobbit but there is a sense that not only have the filmmakers sprained themselves trying to stretch the material out to the lengths that they did here. The material setting up the main Lord of the Rings Films, such as showing Bilbo starting to be corrupted by the one ring, is mostly effective. It's just that too often that The Hobbit films feel like their mimicking them, rather than standing on the two large hairy feet of Bilbo Baggins.

Not worth enduring the entirely desolate running length if one is merely a casual fan of the series, although the climactic scenes with Smaug might make it worthwhile for the die hards.

The Rating
2 and 1/2 stars out of 4


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

December 22, 2013

Queer Issue: They Said *What*! A Guide on How To Exploit Minority Outrage For Profit

There has been a bit of an uproar, if you want to call it that, over certain comments Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson made in an interview with the publication GQ. That these remarks were both homophobic and racist goes without saying at this point, so I'm not going to belabor any points here.

The response has been varied and telling. People in my twitter feed appear to be rushing to condemn Robertson for being homophobic bigots (with less attention being paid to the racist comments about blacks being happier under Jim Crow, which is a problem in of itself). Meanwhile, the right is going to great lengths to defend Robertson. He's even getting compared to Rosa Parks because people who state that African Americans were happier under Jim Crow are oh so clearly in the same catagory of people who fought against systemic racism in America.

What nobody is talking about is the possibility that this entire incident was staged at the outset, possibly with the blessing of producers from Duck Dynasty. While the Duck Commander clan has all the appearance of typical "redneck hicks" what with their long beards and business based on hunting products, the success of their business and TV show implies at least some media/marketing savvy. Of course the term redneck is a classist term and from what I'm reading, liberal perceptions of the Duck Dynasty clan is based on a whole set of classist assumptions that I don't have time to deconstruct for one article.

In any case, here is what I expect will happen. At some point in the next week or so, Phil Robertson will issue a carefully worded apology to the LGBTQ community. Afterwards, he'll get to go on some kind of GLAAD sponsored apology/publicity tour and maybe even through a respectable amount of cash at a LGBTQ charity. Afterwards, Duck Dynasty will return in time for the January/February sweeps with a significant ratings boost while Duck Commander merchandise goes flying off the shelf.

I own no crystal ball, so I could be oh-so-very wrong about all of this. But it's not like it hasn't been done before. When I was a teenager, musical artists like Marilyn Manson and Eminim sold records primarily by being as outrageos as possible. Furthermore, The Westboro Baptist Church has gained attention through outrageous picketing tactics. Yet, one wonders if they really believe in what they're saying or are simply in it for the money. After all, as reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center:
the church makes money by winning or settling civil lawsuits involving the church. During the 1990s, the group sued Topeka multiple times for failing to provide sufficient protection during its protests. Although they lost most of their cases, WBC did win $43,000 in legal fees in 1993. According to Shirley Phelps-Roper, they also won more than $100,000 in 1995 in a lawsuit against Kansas' Funeral Picketing Act, which they claimed violated their First Amendment rights.

I can recall back when I took Philosophy of Religion, someone mentioned "it seems like only a matter of time until someone just end up driving a car into the Westboro Baptist Church picketers". Driving a car into them is not exactly what they want, but it's not all that far removed either. What they really want is someone to attack them, or try and prevent them from protesting altogether. Something to bear in mind when one might be considering directly confronting a Westboro Baptist Church groupies.

Following in the Westboro Baptist Church's footsteps, other groups have taken up the challenge of "who can be the most offensive to everyone". My senior year at SUNY Oneonta, we were visited by the Defarios, a father/daughter team that preached hatred of the homos the first time they came. The next year they showed up, it was all about teh ebils of abortion. Both of their visits, caused heavy counter protests from the student body. I don't recall it ever being brought up directly, but I recall hearing rumors that the Defarios also were interesting in exploiting the legal system then promoting any particular message.

The point is, The Westboro Baptist Church, are ultimately no different from Marilyn Manson in principle, the dividing line revolves solely around which political group or identity they are attempting to offend.

However, larger questions still remain. Namely, how do we respond to such spectacles of bigotry? I have nothing against calling out right wing lies and bigotry when it occurs, but there is a certain tendency for reporters to just go "Oh look at what outrageous thing (so and so) said this time!" and then leave it at that. There are times when I cannot help but wonder if groups like Right Wing Watch function as little more than subliminal publicists for whichever members of the right wing that they decide to draw attention to.

Of course not only do anti-gay bigots pull this trick. As some of you might recall, the story of the waitress who claimed she was stiffed out of a tip by a bigot turned out to be completely false.

One cannot help but wonder, is this sort of thing even avoidable? Is there a way to create a better structure for both getting the word out on the discrimination we face, while responding to the lies told about us, without turning everything into the mere mechanics of an outrage bigot fund generating machine? Or perhaps human nature is against us here. Who knows. As annoying as clickbait culture is, it works because it just so happens to be really effective at selling superficial crap. Yet there is this lingering sense I have that all this outrage does nothing more than feed the hand that slaps us.

Now if you'll excuse me, I just came across a facebook link on my feed that says "You won't *BELIEVE* what this well known conservative said about teh gays THIS time [video]!" that I plan on checking out.

December 8, 2013

Queer Review: Eating Raoul (1982)

Eating Raoul
Director: Paul Bartel
Writers: Paul Bartel and Richard Blackburn
Cast: Mary Woronov, Robert Beltran, Paul Bartel, Susan Saiger, Richard Paul, Darcy Pulliam, John Shearin

A cult classic from early 80's, Eating Raoul offers up an interesting menu of the blackest bits of comedy one can imagine. A clever, albeit weakly acted effort, Paul Bartel manages to offer an offbeat perspective on human sexuality and deviance.

A prudish couple, Paul and Mary Bland (Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov) want little more than to open a restaurant and live happily ever after. However, financial difficulties relating to their inability to get a loan (amongst other issues) make it seem like this dream is unlikely to ever come true. But when a drunken man attempts to rape Mary, Paul kills him with a frying pan in self defense. Rather than go to the police, the two take his money and decide to raise money for their restaurant by killing other "perverts". Things start to get out of hand though when Raoul (Robert Beltran) finds out about the scheme and forces the Blands to cut him in.

The Queering
Hollywood (and society in general) is so enamored in the sexy sexiness of sex, that it can sometimes be easy to forget that not everyone collapses into lustful convulsions of lusty lustiness at the mere sight of a bit of exposed flesh. The human sex drive is a well honed engine for many people, but it is by no means a universal characteristic. There do exist such people who experience no sexual desire towards any other person, in spite of the fact that society attempts us to bludgeon everyone into thinking otherwise.

Admittedly the way society promotes compulsory sexuality flies in the face of the way more conservative elements treat sex as something dirty and shameful. But those same prudes who scream the hardest about the ebilness of sexy sex, are also the ones most likely to be downloading porn and such.

Enter Paul and Mary Bland, a couple who genuinely shuns sex both in words and deed. Like Adam and Eve cast from the garden of Eden, the two find themselves in the cruel wild where they are constantly beset upon on all sides by display of raw sensuality. They speak of engaging in cuddling and a little kissing, but nothing more. When they go to bed, they sleep in separate beds. Paul can be easily read as asexual and not in a subtext kind of way. His attitude and behaviour is consistent with that of asexual desire.

As presented in the film, Mary is a little bit more complicated. She expresses similar antipathy as Paul to naked pretzel type activities, but after Raoul gets her to smoke a Thai stick, she has sex with him. And then goes on to have sex with him several more times. She eventually ends up rejecting Raoul but the affair makes it difficult to read her strictly as an asexual.

Then there is Raoul, who is undoubtedly the most problematic character. Not only is Raoul both Hispanic and a thief, which represents a racist stereotype in of itself, but his ethnic identity is used to further exoticize him.

Of course, even further problems are represented by the fact that the Blands are technically speaking, serial killers. Given their sophistication and lack of sexuality, the Blands eventual descent into cannibalism makes them clear cinematic forerunners to Hannibal the Cannibal from The Silence of the Lambs. Which of course means that they evoke the trope that sexual deviance = bloody violent psychopaths. The wrinkle here is that these sexual deviants are sexual deviants precisely because they engage in the most conservative, 1950s-esque, Hays Code approved lifestyle possible. Talk about subversive...

The humor in Eating Raoul can charitably be labeled as subdued. There is wit and sophistication here, but one has to be paying close attention to get it. It doesn't help much that the acting, while not too terrible, is often bordering on amateurish. It also says something about my particular sense of humor that the moment that made me laugh the hardest involved killing a large number of people via the oh-so-subtle method of chucking an electric lantern into a crowded hot tub. Now let the recommendations that I need professional help commence in 3... 2... 1...

Worth eating any slimy bit of human flesh (from Raoul or not) in order to see.

The Rating
3.5 out of 4 stars


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.

December 6, 2013

Queer Review: Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983)

Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi
Director: Richard Marquand
Writers: Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Ian McDiarmid, Sebastian Shaw, Frank Oz, James Earl Jones, David Prowse, Alec Guinness, Kenny Baker

The weakest of the Star Wars movies, Return of the Jedi sends the saga on a note as as fuzzy and awkward as an Ewoks' pelt.

After rescuing Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from the clutches of the evil Jabba the Hutt, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and the rest of the gang head back to Rebel Alliance's fleet to discover that the evil Emperor had secretly begun construction on a new Death Star. This time around, the Death Star is being protected by an impenetrable shield that must be destroyed. Luke is selected to lead a strike team to destroy the shield, but after arriving on Endor, he abandons them to pursue a more dangerous mission: to convert Darth Vader back to the light side of the force.

The Queering
I would like to open up this review by asking the same questions every one else always asks about Return of the Jedi. Why do the stormtroopers wear armor that fails to provide any kind of obvious protection from blasters, arrows, or even bloody rocks? Given their inability to hit any of the heroes, it presumably is doing nothing to improve their aim... Also, why are there Ewoks? I said WHY?!

I mean, I sometimes find myself surprised at people who claim that the original trilogy is unquestionably better than the prequels. What I want to know is how exactly such people managed to block Return of the Jedi from their minds. Does the Ewok line "yub, yub" contain subliminal messaging for such a purpose? You will forget this scene! You will scrub our misbegotten existence from every corner of your mind!. The Star Wars films have never shied away from commercial appeal, but the Ewoks unfortunately function as little more than walking merchandise opportunities.

Now old movie serials are an obvious inspiration for the Star Wars saga and recently, my partner and I watched The Phantom serials but had to stop after only a few episodes. I would like to pretend to be all noble and say it was because of the really, really racist manner in which the Native allies of the Phantom were presented, but the real reason was because of the awful overall quality of that series. In any event, I bring this up due to the fact that the manor in which the "Native/Indigenous" characters were presented there, is exactly the same way the Ewoks are developed in Return of the Jedi.

Allow me to explain. In The Phantom serials, the Native characters are what could probably be categorized as "generic Hollywood primitives". The story is set in Asia, but their visual elements (clothing, homes, weaponry) are drawn from a much wider variety of sources, primarily African and Native American, with a few Amazonian elements thrown in for good measure. None of the characters look Asian themselves, nor does anything they wear, live in, or use. Of particular interest is the fact that the Phantom uses the Natives characters superstitions as a means of controlling them.

I bring this up, only because it's a recent example that's stuck in my mind but really, probably the presentation of any indigenous group from any serial would work just as well. This is after all, how the concept of genericness works. In any event, it's just a really obvious example for the template that the Ewoks were clearly based on. The use of superstition being a means to control the Natives being a particular important element. In any case, the point I want to make is that I don't think that using racist tropes to develop an alien culture makes those tropes any less racist.

Okay, onto the queer subtexts. They really are thin this time around, if they can be said to exist at all. We learn for example this time around that Han Solo can only say "I love you" to Princess Leia if she's holding a phallic-esque blaster near her crotch. I know, I know, I'm stretching things out here. Sorry.

Overall, Return of the Jedi manages to do some things right. The opening sequences where the gang rescues Han from Jabba the Hut are well executed, with the creepiness of Jabba's fortress oozing from every frame. Also, the three way climax between Darth Vader, Luke, and the Emperor are as intense and dramatic as one could hope. Now if only those scenes hadn't constantly been interrupted by Ewok action porn....

This Jedi film thingie is worth returning to the Star Wars saga in order to see, but only kind of.

The Rating
3 out of 4 stars


Want to find a review of a particular work? Check out the Title Index, the archive of all reviews posted listed alphabetically.