Moriarty and the Banality of Chaotic Evil

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Big spoilers for Sherlock series 2 & 3.

Sherlock‘s sophomore year introduced us to the show’s version of the great detective’s classic archnemesis, Dr. (now just Jim) Moriarty. The character has always served as a brilliantly criminal, mirror-version foil to the brilliantly investigative detective. Showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s contemporary spin on the character, however, is a borrowed page from Christopher Nolan: a chaotic evil genius (a la Heath Ledger’s Joker) for whom no criminal undertaking is too complicated, no moral boundary or motivation necessary. As Alfred somberly intoned in The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” Or, as Basil of Baker Street said before him, “There’s no evil scheme he wouldn’t concoct. No depravity he wouldn’t commit.”

The problem with this kind of character, in terms of establishing dramatic stakes, is that nihilistic genius psychos like Moriarty and the Joker have no limits to their morals and insanity (or intellects or resources)– and therefore no limit to what they might do. And because they might (and can) do anything, nothing they end up doing is a surprise. With the chaotic evil genius archetype we’re supposed to marvel at the audacity and intricacy of their plan(s), but the reveals tend to strike me as whatever incidental BS the writer/creator was able to come up with

At the end of this week’s Sherlock episode (the series 3 finale) the audience was left with a dangling fan-service-y teaser in which someone has pulled a nationwide, V for Vendetta-style broadcast with a digitally altered Moriarty chuckling “Miss me?” Sherlock is called back into action after his four-minute exile, and viewers are notified that maybe they should be excited for the eventual series 4. But it left me cold. After a villain has (apparently) blown his brains out as part of a season climax, what more shocking lengths could he go to? Resurrection? So he can… orchestrate another prolonged terror plot against England and Sherlock? Which he will prove his psychotic commitment to by killing himself again? Is there any absurd plan Moffat and Gatiss could possibly concoct at this point that would have real tension and mystery?

Is Moriarty alive or dead? It doesn’t matter. We’re guaranteed a convoluted and probably implausible scenario masterminded by him and intended by the writers to induce shock at his cruelty and reverence for his genius. And surely, Sherlock will be pressed to his limits, maybe even survive another Frodo-esque brush with death. But given the unexplained lengths he went to to survive Moriarty’s series 2 endgame, do even these necessary developments hold out the promise compelling investigative drama? Or should we just be content to revel in Cumberbatch and Freeman’s admittedly charming bro-mance, incidentally set within Moffat and Gatiss’s bait-and-switch house of mirrors? As film and TV critic Ted Pidgeon put it recently on Slant, “There’s an air of comfort between the actors that makes the show’s arguable indifference toward its foundation in procedural crime-solving a welcome change of direction.” So instead of a thematic deepening within genre constraints such as achieved by NBC’s brilliant Hannibal, we get chummy Brits palling around in a show that has all but forgotten its mystery-solving genre roots.

Having aired these grievances, it still must be noted that this past Sunday’s episode, “His Last Vow” was this series’ standout episode after the weird tonal shifts of and absurdities of “The Empty Hearse” and “The Sign of Three”. The villain, Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), was thrilling to watch–arrhythmic tics and bizarre power plays that kept the characters and this audience member on their toes. Sherlock can’t read his “shark-like” visage, and it bugs the hell out of him. Contra Moriarty, whose bug-eyed insanity is all on the surface, Magnussen has hidden depths (and, indeed, palaces) unanticipated by Sherlock or the viewer. He leaves us and the characters we’re there to sympathize with guessing. But the mysteries offered by his antagonism are swiftly ended when his head, like Moriarty’s, ends up Jackson Pollock’d all over the ground for the series finale. I suppose I shouldn’t be too upset–given Sherlock and Moriarty’s Reichenbach returns, even resurrection isn’t too absurd of a possibility for what might happen next in Sherlock.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (***)

(Quvenzhané Wallis), (Dwight Henry), (Gina Montana), (Levy Easterly)

Beasts of the Southern Wild takes place in what is either a somewhat removed from reality version of hardscrabble life on the Gulf Coast or a subjective version of that life as seen through the eyes of a child. The film and perspective belong to Hushpuppy (Oscar-nominated 9-year old Quvenzhane Wallis) who lives in a liminal wetland called “The Bathtub” with her frustrated and often-angry father. In the vein of classic Terrence Malick, the humans of the film are part and parcel of the ecosystem surrounding them and as put upon by nature as their animal counterparts. As one character says, “All animals are meat. And we’re meat too.” Hence “beasts”.

The film hinges on the question of survival. When Hushpuppy’s daddy is gone, will she have what it takes to get by? He calls her “man” and conditions her to believe that she is strong and can take on the world. He teaches her to fish with just an arm and to break a crab without using tools. This process has the sentimentality sucked out of it by the dehumanizing reduction forced on them by their hardscrabble circumstances: “My job is to keep you alive”, he says. It’s not clear he understands being a father in any terms more complicated than that.

Like The Tree of Life, the “so what” of the film is somewhat obscured. The subjectivity of Hushpuppy’s perspective makes it unclear, for example, as to whether the demonization of the government’s intervention is meant to be taken at face value or merely as a threat to the characters’ highly guarded way of life. I liked it better than Tree, even with its lack of dinosaurs, but it still has the feel of a film reaching for some kind of higher or mythical truth yet lost in its stylistic affectations. If nothing else, the film is worth the price of admission for its curious flattening out of gender roles at the edge of survival. By the end of the film, Hushpuppy has become a “man”–not a role dictating proper behavior in society, but a survivor–a beast.

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The Best Movies of 2012

Now that the Oscars have come and gone I guess I have to get off my butt and write something about 2012 in review. There’s a few I haven’t seen that have been delaying a year in review piece, not to mention my general inertia. 2012 was a good year for movies. We had smart blockbusters, moving and intelligent dramas and creative genre flicks. It was not, disappointingly, a banner year for animation. Pixar’s Brave, despite its Oscar, was good not great; Wreck-It-Ralph was middling if above-average; the year’s stop-motion offerings never sold me on investing the time to watch them (we can’t all be Coraline, I guess). There are lot I would still really like to see, including the early-year Studio Ghibli offering from Disney The Secret World of Arrietty. If you’ve any desire to watch that, ArgoBeasts of the Southern WildSeven Psychopaths or something that I overlooked, call me up and let’s get together.

Here are my top 10:

10) The Cabin in the Woods

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If you’d like to see a Joss Whedon movie from the past year which holds up under multiple viewings and whose last act is not its weakest half hour, The Cabin in the Woods is your bloody alternative to The Avengers. Written by Whedon and directed by Drew Goddard (Cloverfield), Cabin is a riotous deconstruction of the horror genre with loads (buckets?) of third act payoffs.

9) Silver Linings Playbook

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Silver Linings somehow manages to feel sharp and loose at the same time. As evidenced by the all around nominations for its leads (Jennifer Lawrence, Jacki Weaver, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro), the story is lit up by vivid characters with believable personalities that aren’t romanticized. Director David O’Russell cooked up a spicy jumble with their various talents, but the different roles don’t quite coalesce into a cohesive dramatic texture. DeNiro is Acting and Cooper is Acting but often next to each other rather than in conversation. Still, the film is an interesting personal story involving mental illness, family and healing. Even if it doesn’t quite have the subtle charms of great drama, it’s involving nonetheless.

8) Flight

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Compared with its predecessor on this list, Flight is the better film about mental illness. It gets a lot about addiction right, even if Denzel’s DWI pilot skills strain credulity. His raw magnetism helps the film focus around the character and draw us into the question of what will become of his self-destructive behavior.

7) Moonrise Kingdom

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Wes Anderson’s latest changes gears by focusing his childish aesthetic on actual children rather than childish adults and/or adults with troubled childhoods. In a sense, the central question of the film is whether these kids will be allowed to thrive or whether they’ll one day wear that thousand yard stare Bill Murray always affects with such comic detachment. Its delightfully rewatchable, even if at times it feels like Anderson’s silliest effort.

6) Django Unchained

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Tarantino’s second revenge-themed historical fiction isn’t as narratively tight or philosophically intriguing as its predecessor Inglourious Basterds, but its hard to begrudge a film that wants to put slaveholders under the knife. Django may be the bloodiest, wildest and most uncomfortable of Tarantino’s myriad works. That said, the tone befits the subject material. There is no reverent historical detachment here: just queasy, loquacious cruelty.

5) Premium Rush

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Too few films have the single-mindedness of David Koepp’s Premium Rush, a film so committed to its namesake that it reminds you of how threadbare elements can be masterfully spun into tension and thrills. The bicycle chase premise sounds lame but the movie makes a breathless, nail-biting go of it. What would seem to be the throwaway picture in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s stellar year is actually the stand out winner.

4) Indie Game: The Movie

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Perhaps less deserving than all the acclaimed documentaries I didn’t see this year, Indie Game does for game developers what Exit Through the Gift Shop did for street art: reveal a little known and understood subculture as a lively home for the artistic soul. The film focuses on three very small development teams and illustrates how they put their hearts and bank accounts on the line in the process of trying to bring their games to market. If Roger Ebert still cares about whether video games can be art or not, Indie Game: The Movie should settle the question for him.

3) Les Miserables

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My friends (i.e. my readers) may be surprised to hear that Les Mis is one of the most critically contentious films of the year, seemingly drawing the intense ire of some voices due a perceived threat to what counts as “good art” in the film world. I have to say, there are a lot of creative choices in this film that don’t really work. But, like other adaptations of the same, Les Mis works nearly in spite of itself. It helps that the source material is so strong, the musical so well-written and deeply moving. But understand, those aren’t strengths of the movie–the critical question is how well this particular adaptation handles the various parts. But I’m willing to engage with it as a surface experience in toto, and in that regard it was one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen.

2) Zero Dark Thirty

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Otherwise known as the best Law & Order episode ever made, the ever-sharp Kathryn Bigelow has given us the War on Terror as the ultimate police procedural underscored by the heartfelt cost of human lives weighed against the ethical cost of “enhanced interrogation”. The film’s torture scenes read nothing like the grisly fare one might be expected to see at the movies, yet they’re deeply unsettling for their closeness to home and reflection of reality. Zero Dark Thirty sidesteps questions of rah-rah jingoism by recasting patriotism as hearts panged with the loss of innocents and faced with the dehumanized treatment of POWs. The film is tense, single-minded, emotionally arresting and by all accounts a masterwork of filmmaking.

1) Lincoln

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Finally, though Lincoln doesn’t have the austerely taut perfection of Zero Dark Thirty, I’m giving it extra points for moving dramatic sweep. Spielberg frames Daniel Day-Lewis’s superb turn as the sixteenth president with the political process of the constitutional amendment to end slavery, sublimely underscoring the connection between the personal and the political. Like Les MisLincoln celebrates the Christian-liberal virtues of human dignity and equality–it just makes a seriously fewer number of mistakes in being a movie that does that and is so much stronger for it.

While I am sure I am eventually going to get to the smaller films I didn’t see this year, I have to say this was a great year for studio movies. Even the year’s biggest film, The Avengers, had the wit and verve of Joss Whedon animating it. I am disappointed that the year’s animation offerings weren’t stronger, but what is most clearly an artist’s medium will surely yield great works again in the future. It would be great for there to be a 2D animation renaissance driven by a Miyazaki-like auteur, though it’s safe to assume the CGI films will continue to dominate the market.

I am happy that the some of the strongest films on offer this year were full of hope. I still love No Country for Old Men, but I think our culture doesn’t need any help in being amoral and nihilistic. Les Miserables has proven the deep and broad appeal of fundamental Christian proclamations, probably showing the church part of the direction it should take in order to intuitively appeal to our culture. Lincoln has this moral urgency as well; even its twisted counterpart Django Unchained has its own morality, however bloodthirsty. And Zero Dark Thirty stands at their intersection, squeamishly juxtaposing heartfelt humanism–and its enduring symbol, the immutable value of a single life–and bloodthirsty revenge.

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Lockout (***, 2012)

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The finally got around to making Escape from Outer Space, except that Kurt Russell is nowhere to be found and they decided to call it Lockout. Guy Pearce (Memento, L.A. Confidential) stars as the retro-styled wiseass action hero surnamed Snow, a tough guy with no easy respect for authority. It’s the future, and now Earth’s best maximum security prison is MS One, a high tech facility in orbit above the planet. The inmates are now loose and have taken the president’s daughter hostage. The government gives Snow an ultimatum: go up there and bring her back, or forfeit your freedom and your life. Of course, the tough guy takes the mission.

Lockout has every opportunity to be horrible, and it kind of is. Everything in the film is borrowed, from its absurd premise to its aggressively mundane cinematography (EVERYTHING is teal and orange). In spite of these drawbacks, however, it manages to be stupidly entertaining. The key is that none of the actors seem to know they’re in a bad movie. For a space prison rescue movie the performances are really strong and mostly believable. Pearce really seems to be enjoying himself in the lead, inflecting his voice with gravel and cracking wise, and Maggie Grace (the blonde from Lost’s early seasons) holds her own next to him.

The most surprising thing about this film is how it manages to capture, however imperfectly, the retro-action vibe it so clearly tries to borrow on. So many remakes and reboots and comebacks these days draw on their source material in name only, lacking whatever wit and verve energized the better action flicks of twenty years ago. I don’t want to overpraise Lockout, as though it’s a fantastic return to form that reinvigorates a tired genre, but it’s a lot better than anyone should expect it to be.

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Once Upon A Time In The West (****, 1968)

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Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is a masterful work of storytelling. First and foremost, it runs on patience. The plot does not unfurl with the directness of most films, but through a series of extended scenes which at first seem disconnected. Dark-purposed men waiting for a train. A homestead family murdered in cold blood. Two testy cowboys pushing each others’ buttons in a combination bar and general store. The film takes these sequences as an opportunity for mood-setting and the accumulation of details that give everything a lived-in quality. The set dressing in the bar, for example, is wonderfully ramshackle and cluttered to overflowing; the longer the film lingers there the more it seems like lived-in space rather than a movie set.

The best part about these scenes is the urgency they carry in spite of their languidness. At nearly three hours, the film had plenty of chances to drop its hold on my Twitter-addled attention span. I originally intended to watch it in parts, gradually taking it all in over several viewings. But Once kept making me wonder, “Well, now what is she going to do?” or “How is this going to fit in?” and so on. It patiently lays out a set of narrative stakes that incite these questions. We know Charles Bronson is going to be important, but just why is he hanging out here? What’s up with the criminal Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and why doesn’t he seem all that bad? And what kind of woman is this gorgeous widow (Claudia Cardinale)?

The sharp acting gives the urgency much of its punch. Even the most laconic characters have a sharp intensity imbuing their words and actions with palatable gravitas. The young widow, vulnerable and protected as she is, has clear agency and a kind of fiery self-reliance. The film wisely chooses to keep this under the surface in the early parts of the film rather than knowingly nudging us that she is no pushover right up front.

I am loathe to say too much about the plot, as one great pleasure of the film is how carefully it is told. There is money at stake and there is a rich man looking to protect his interests. Questionably lawful men end up protecting the woman caught in the crosshairs of the decidedly unlawful Frank (Henry Fonda), a hired gun looking to swing things in favor of the rich man. I am under-schooled in the Western genre, but as I understand it the “Spaghetti westerns”–made by Italians like Leone and Sergio Corbucci–marked not just a stylistic turn in the genre but also a philosophical one. Instead of America-minded romanticism of the frontier, the Europeans played up the nihilism and violence of a world at the edge of the rule of law. The film is not quite anti-romantic, yet none of its characters are heroes or virtuous exemplars–just hardscrabble people trying to get by on the frontier and do the right thing if they can manage. They’re distinguished from the villains less by their impeccable righteousness than by their lack of cruelty and exploitation, though the story does eventually extend a measure of nobility to each of the principal characters by the last act.

Genre-wise, I also have little to compare the cinematography to. I don’t know how it compares to, say, a John Ford staple–it’s sumptuous nonetheless. The vistas are wide and a vibrant clay red. The staging is clear and concise, action and acting alike never confusing in terms of spatial relations. Plenty of high and wide shots showcase the immense and detailed sets made for the film, most impressive of which is a train track site that is a work-in-progress and milled about by hundreds of extras. There are times I noticed that technically, with current effects, the director could show more and more of these things, but nothing replaces the tactile specificity of the real and Once has it on display everywhere.

I am always surprised when I stumble across an older movie that I love deep in my bones, as many of the ones I saw growing up were perfunctory and boring. That goes doubly so for Westerns. I started watching Once Upon a Time in the West on a whim and was drawn in by it for the next two and three quarter hours. It is epic and gripping yet full of small moments of and subtle performances. If only I could say that about more movies.

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