Sunday, May 10, 2020

Guns Akimbo (2019).

It all started with a meme.  It was a picture of Daniel Radcliffe, the actor forever to be associated with Harry Potter.  In the picture, Radcliffe is seen holding up a pair of guns, looking disheveled and dressed in a style best described as late-stage Arthur Dent.  Like all memes, this one originated online somewhere back in 2018, and it didn't take long for the photo to accumulate its own collection of varying levels of wit.  I'm told the first one out of the gate read something like: I'm telling you Ron, these things are better than magic wands!  Other examples of the kind of humor the image was able to attract were along the lines of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Bullets; Harry Potter and the End of a Vivid (yet prolonged) Hallucination; and, of course, Say hello to my little friends, avada, and kedavra!  It took the release of an actual 2019 trailer to go along the image and place it all in its semi-logical context.  It was a promotion for a movie called Guns Akimbo, and it featured Radcliffe as the star.  The upshot of that clip was that I ran across another meme in the YouTube comments section: Harry Potter and the Stoned Philosopher.

When I first saw the trailer my initial reaction was to be dismissive.  On first glimpse it looked like just another mindless action flick with the only novelty being that it featured the Boy Who Lived.  What else was there?  What was sort of able to draw me back was that I somehow managed to stop and give the setup of the trailer an actual moment's bit of thought.  I began to wonder about various elements of the what I was shown in the preview, and how they might relate to Radcliffe's most famous character.  I began to see how it was just possible there might be some interesting level of commentary attached to the whole schlocky premise.  Besides which, if there's one thing I've learned as a fan of the Horror genre, it's that Schlock can sometimes have it's place.  More than that, it is even possible for some items of Schlock to achieve their own crude yet genuine level of art.  The question is does the final product live up to all these critical musings?

The Story.

Mr. Miles Lee Harris, one of a block of anonymous apartment flats, is perfectly normal in his way, thank you very much.  He's the last sort of person you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious.  He doesn't appear to hold any sort of opinion on the matter, and in general is willing enough to be clueless on such topics.  Mr. Harris is a coder for a software company.  His job there is to help program those annoying little gaming apps that pop up on your cellphone with enough frequency to make you want hurl your only source of communication out a thirty story window.  Miles can't even get lucky enough to be working on Angry Birds, its just some cheap knockoff.  In addition, Miles has a girlfriend named Nova who has recently broken up with him.  Perhaps the clearest defining trait about Miles is that he is as unremarkable as it is possible to be.

The one place Miles believes he can be any kind of hero is behind his keyboard.  He moonlights with a sort of online hobby.  I suppose a good word for it is to call him a Troll Hunter.  No need to get your hopes up.  All it means is that Miles spends both days and nights logging on to various internet comment sections and then coming up with ways to troll all the other trolls.  It's a pretty thankless task, made worse by the fact that nobody is asking Miles to do this.  However, the problem with Troll Hunting is that sometimes the hunter can become the hunted.  This is what happens to Miles when he logs onto a death match site known as Skizm.  They specialize in taking the dangerous dregs of society and pitting them against each other in outlandish duels to the death out in the streets.  The current reigning champion is a psychopathic girl named Nix.  As Miles observed, "It was the worst side of humanity on display.  So, the internet...loved it".

When Miles logs onto Skizm's site, all he has in mind is a brief bit of bashing and online shaming, after which he probably planned to call it a night.  Things go off-script the moment the site moderators take an active notice of him, then somehow manage to acquire Miles's personal data info and display it right back at him.  He shuts the computer down, hopeful that they didn't have time to figure out anything about him.  That hope goes down the drain when Skizm's representatives first politely knock, then kick the door in.  A throat is throttled, threats are made, it all goes by in a blur.  All Miles knows is that when he wakes up the next day, his assailants are gone, his computer is wrecked, and a pair of big freakin' guns have been drilled into his hands.  To make things interesting, Skizm informs Miles that he's their latest contestant in the game.  The rules are simple.  Try to run to the cops, he (and they) die.  Try to skip town, he dies.  Play the game, and he dies, unless he doesn't.  If he wins, they "promise" to let him go.  His opponent is Nix.  It's all Miles can do now to stay one step ahead of the competition while keeping life, limb, and dignity intact.

Social Media and the Return of the Author.

This film was released under a bit of controversy.  There's an irony involved considering that the trouble centered around the ills of social media.  The punchline comes when you realize that this same digital space is one of the main targets of the film.  The story presents Miles as a modern archetype, the loser nerd who likes to troll other trolls.  The movie itself is anxious to highlight that there is nothing admirable about Miles when we first meet him.  He may be harmless enough when we first meet him, yet he's also a loser who can't be bothered to sort his life out.  He's passive aggressive by letting people walk all over him during the day and then taking it out anonymously online.  The main character is, in short, a coward.
The online cyberspace where Miles conducts the other half of his life is shown to be little better.  In order to do his job as troll hunter, Miles is willing to sit through what are implied to be the dregs of the online video culture.  The curious part is that Miles lacks any self-awareness of how his behavior is part of the problem, and doesn't really help anyone.  It's also an up in the air question for me of whether or not the character has made any progress by the time the closing curtain falls.  Perhaps this narrative ambivalence can tell us something about the nature of the film's director and what his goals for the film mean as a whole.  It might also explain his own real world antics.

The film's director is Jason Lei Howden, and the curious part is I'm not sure I've been able to find much out about him aside from his IMDB page.  His accomplishments include the dubious honor of being a special effects artist on Peter Jackson's abortive Hobbit prequel series, along with the forgettable Gods of Egypt, and a lackluster Nicholas Cage Ghost Rider sequel.  Beyond this there's very little I can say about him.  I'm sort of forced to make inferences based on his actions both as a storyteller, and what I'm able to glean from the controversy itself.  To that effect, he could be something of a metal head, if he's only previous feature length outing, Deathgasm, is anything to go by.  He likes quick cut action interspersed with attempts at witty one-liners for dialogue, and he has a liking for spectacle.  Put it all in a blender, and what you get is the picture of a guy with a lot of drive and a certain talent with the camera itself.  However, I also get the impression of someone who often leaps before they look, and rarely stopping to consider whether they should.  The implication is that there's a short-sighted quality to his character that can get him into trouble if he's not careful.  Perhaps this is the ultimate answer to why he could land himself in hot water so easily.

What all this has to do with the movie under discussion can be made clear when you realize that sometimes understanding the artist can be essential to gaining a helpful perspective on the art.  I've reached the point where I'm convinced you sort of have to keep the artist in mind when trying to get a read on their work.  Something that made me realize this importance wasn't just the controversy surrounding Howden all by itself.  Instead it was the words of the critic Sean Burke and his critical text, The Death and Return of the Author.  The study itself is a book-length deconstruction and  constructive critique of Deconstructionism, and a plea for the reinstatement of some kind of responsible basis for critical artistic judgment.

Burke does a very good job of laying out the stakes involved by taking the case of writer Paul De Man as his starting example.  De Man was one of the first writers to try and posit the theory that the artist should be separated from the final artistic product.  He seemed content to cheerfully extol this idea as a virtue for the remainder of his days.  It wasn't until De Man's passing in 1983 that scholars combing through his trunk writings were able to discover correspondence and documents that revealed him to be a Nazi sympathizer during World War II.  As these leftovers were studied, it became more clear that the motives behind De Man's critical push to distance the author from the text was all about the drive to avoid the guilt and consequences of his past actions and opinions.  The man was, in essence, a coward trying to hide from his crimes.  As one of the instigators of the Deconstructionist school, his motives also force many readers and critics to stop and think about the motives behind a lot of the critical schools of thought that they read.  The implication is that some sense of ethical responsibility has its natural place in both the way an author tells a story, and how the audience reacts to and criticizes it.

These were all ideas that Burke helped to solidify in my own thinking.  It's because of his book that I think it helps to know when to not let the artist off the hook if they screw up in either a personal or professional capacity.  In the case of Howden, we seem to be dealing not with a mixed, so much as a kind of dull brew.  He's not as big a fool as De Man, yet he also doesn't seem smart enough to know when to leave certain things alone.  It's this lack of foresight that made him trip his own self up.  It also may play a role in the shortcomings of his latest film.

An interesting idea lost in the shuffle.

Let's get the most obvious elements out of the way first.  Yes, this film stars the guy who played Harry Potter.  It's the albatross around Radcliffe's neck, and its up to him on how he plans to live it up or down.  I'm more fascinated by the fact that the movie itself almost reads like a reaction to the actor's childhood fame.  In many ways, I think Radcliffe's former series is something of a skeleton on which the plot is built around.  Everything about it just sounds like a riff on the Hogwarts series, with a few identities shuffled around here and there, while the basic idea is the same.  It also comes off as a bit stunted and cramped.  Every plot point has some components in it that somehow manage to point back to the role and story that put Radcliffe on the map.  Sometimes this becomes obvious enough where the film almost makes it too easy.  Miles is obviously Harry if he lived in a world of muggles with no magic in sight.  The bad guy behind Skizm even looks like a discount version of Ralph Fiennes if he had a nose and lived the Sid Vicious lifestyle.  There's even a love interest for Miles with an ironic Potter connection.

It took me a while or two for the idea to cement itself in my head, yet when it did, my thought process went something like: "...Cho Chan?  Is that you?  Um, hi, nice to meet again, long time no see.  Pardon a stupid question, yet, what exactly are you doing in this story"?  As it turns out, she is there for the sole purpose of motivating Miles to get off his keister and find ways of stopping the bad guys.  The curious part is that the script goes out of its way to give the audience an assurance.  "Look, don't worry, okay?  This not another story about a nerd trying to trying to get the girl like she's an Xbox achievement to be unlocked.  This is not a love story".  I suppose, in a technical sense, the film lives up to that promise.  I'm just wondering if anyone noticed the punchline that it sort of copies one of the outcomes from the 5th Potter book on that score?  You could also argue a hobo that Miles encounters is a sort of riff on Dumbledore, with some Jethro Tull thrown into the mix.  There is even a moment where it looks like the main protagonist has been killed off, only for him to snap right back into the action.  The face is familiar, yet the name escapes me, because: reasons.

If it's possible to go with the idea that Howden is riffing on Potter, then I guess the success of the film hinges on just two question.  (1) Why is he using the structure of the Hogwarts stories to tell his own?  (2) Is he able to do anything creative with it?  The closest I got to an answer for the first question is to suggest that maybe Radcliffe's signing onto the project made the director tailor a few things to the actor's liking.  It's not the best solution in the offing, yet it's the best I've got with so little information to go on.  The second question offers a bit more to explore in terms of ideas.  If Miles truly is a Potter analogue, then the way the journey plays out can tell us something about Howden's perception of the source material, and the way he tweak's it to fit his narrative.

The first re-shuffle is that Howden places a familiar character in a similar yet different context.  He allows the audience a view of what Harry would be like as a muggle growing up in normal circumstances, perhaps even under a similar roof like that of the Dursleys.  The key difference seems to come from the way the protagonist is hurled head (or hands) first into the adventure.  He's not quite given a choice in the matter once things really get going, however maybe that's not all true.  There were a few brief moments where Miles could have just walked away and not gotten involved.  All he had to do was clamp down on his trolling impulses and none of the rest of the film would have happened.  Instead, he let his passive-aggressive temper do the talking for him, and what a surprise that it gets him into more trouble than he bargained for.  Yeah, wow, sure didn't see that one coming, by like from a billion lights years away.  This isn't the Boy Who Lived.  Rather he's more like The Hapless Man-Child in over his Head.

At the same time, there is a certain amount of narrative overlap between Miles and the other guy.  Even before he can learn to talk, Rowling's character is caught up in a series of events in which he is given little or no choice in the matter.  There are always vested interests, both seen and unseen which are dogging every step Harry takes.  I think I recall Rowling talking about how if she were in her character's shoes, she would look for the safest rock to crawl under and hide until everything blew over, because she knew what was coming up.  It reminds me of another idea I'd heard that perfect paranoia is perfect awareness.  It could be that, or else it's just complete delusion.  Either way, the main point is that the setup of a character getting caught in a situation he doesn't understand is another surprising similarity between Rowling and Howden's narratives.

The difference is Howden seems to be playing up the unfairness of the situation.  Where Rowling's story has a purpose behind all the mayhem, Howden seems intent on driving home that such a setup is ultimately not a good thing.  It looks like he's trying to tackle the very nature of the kind of challenges that certain types of YA literature need to throw at their heroes in order to make things interesting.  Places like Hogwarts, Howden implies are not the kind of places you should put even a fictional character if all that's going to happen is that someone or something is going to try and rip the daylights out of you.  The director appears to view any scenario where this type of practice exists to be abusive at its core.

The curious part is that Howden might be trying to drive this point home by utilizing elements from another popular franchise.  There are ways in which the Skizm challenge can be said to mirror the concept behind Susan Collins's Mockingjay trilogy.  Think of it as a low-rent, street level version of the Hunger Games with a lot of modern punk culture thrown in and you more or less get Skizm.  They even threw in a character that amounts to a Katniss knock-off on literal steroids.  Nix is portrayed as the top competitor in the Skizm competition.  She's a ruthless executioner with a penchant for taking down down her targets in fast paced, over-the-top actions sequences.  At the same time, there's more going on with the character's back story that involves her origins with the villain in a very convoluted way the more I think about it.

The trick is that she is another negative inversion on a popular YA character.  Nix is more or less what you would get if Katniss was taken from her home and raised by the villains of the Hunger Games to be the ultimate broken, yet merciless killing machine.  Again, the point Howden seems to want to make is to highlight his sense of both the unfairness and shoddy ethical sensibilities behind the writing of a popular novel.  Howden's goal seems to be to arrive at a critique of two of the most notable and still somewhat popular franchises of the 20th and 21st centuries.  To be fair, the idea of issuing a critical/creative challenge to authors like Collins and Rowling has at least a kind of fascination attached to it.  The impartial bystander can at least be interested in seeing whether an effective critique can be pulled off not just in words, but also in an extended work of fiction.  For me, the novelty lies in the fact that I'm not sure I've seen anyone try this sort of thing before.  If Howden's goal is to highlight the flaws of Potter and The Hunger Games, then he faces a number of challenges.  In addition to arguing a counterpoint to the two authors he is set against, Howden must also find a way to couch his message within the confines of a story that must entertain enough to win his audience over. 

The fundamental problem of Guns Akimbo is that it is sabotaged by the very message it wants to convey.  If Howden is determined to critique the kind of story premise found in the works of authors like Rowling, then in order to prove his point, he must look for the most satisfying outcome for his character.  The best possible refute would have been to let the critique play out in such a way that Miles is able to emerge a better and wiser character precisely because he has had a realization of the futility of the path he's on.  That could have made for an interesting premise.  The trouble is there's no such payoff to be found anywhere in the film's running-time.  The story requires a certain type of course correction from the character that never quite arrives.  Instead, everything peters to a halt at the very end by Howden being unable to find that other course and letting the character trod the same path that audiences have either seen or read a thousand times before.  By doing so, Howden makes two mistakes.  The first is that his pessimism over the story structure leaves him committed to a creative course of action where there is no satisfying resolution for the main character, and we leave Miles exactly as we found him.  He's still the same old troll, yet now he's more high-priced and, it's implied, with a license to kill.  The protagonist has survived the story and we are left with no fundamental reason to care.
The same problem occurs in the character of Nix.  She is given a tragic backstory.  Her family was taken from her by the very man she now works for.  I can't say I know what I expected this revelation to lead to, or how the character could or should react to it.  I suppose I expected her to have a moment of breakdown, followed by a certain amount of clarity.  Perhaps it was the fact that this sequence of events is what occurs in the film that lured me into a sense of false expectation.  I was thinking that Nix would find a way to turn things around for herself after all that.  This might also be the fault of other reviews I'd read before watching the film which praised actress Samara Weaving through the roof, and urged her to scale greater heights.  I must have mistook all that for an inference that Howden had bigger plans in store for Nix's character.  Instead, the best he can come up with is to send her off in a blaze of glory.  The director might be staying true to his original concept for the story in these moments, yet I can't help wondering if it also showcases the poverty of his invention.  

The second mistake is a bit more complex, and perhaps for that reason all the more ironic.  By posing the Harry Potter structure as problem to be solved, and not something of value.  In not being able to provide a critique that is also an artistic antidote to the perceived imperfections in this type of setup, Howden makes the remarkable and self-defeating choice of caving to the very story structure he set out to lampoon and satire.  In doing so, the director is admitting a kind of defeat in his inability to complete any proper form of criticism of the very storytelling he claims to be against.  We're left with the sense that at some point Howden just threw up his hands and decided, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em".  The trouble is this leaves things in a derivative and unsatisfying state.  If Howden really couldn't come up with a good critique, it seems like a wiser course of action would be to try and find his own artistic voice and develop the original narratives that only he could tell.
I think Howden's problem is the lens through which he views a simple yet complex idea; namely the concept of the hero and heroism.  It can be difficult to talk about an idea whose very ubiquity makes it hard to define.  As far as I can tell, the best definition of heroism I have ever read came from the pages of The Hobbit.  What Tolkien does throughout the course of that story is to raise the issue of just what we talk about when we talk about being a hero.  What's curious is the entire modern and mature sensibility Tolkien was able to bring to the table.  Part of the satire of that book is the way he was able to poke holes in a lot of ancient concepts of heroism.  He was able to make his own critique because of the diligence with which he studied and read old world sources like Beowulf and the Ring of the Nibelung.  What this study taught was the combined virtues and flaws of classic epic heroism.  What he found was a noble idea clashing with cultural expectations that kept dragging it down and generally giving it a bad name.  This is something the Professor highlights in a blink and miss it comment about how King Thorin can find no heroes to aid in his quest because they are too busy fighting one another.  It's also a line which comes back to haunt the speaker later on during the book's final stage.

At the same time, Tolkien was smart enough to realize that heroism is something you just can't do without somehow.  Take that away and it is just possible you have removed a fundamental building block in the conditions of absolute sanity.  If losing heroism means losing one's mind, then it is better to make sure that the values underlying that idea aren't lost sight of, rather than tossing a child to the same wolves as the bathwater.  It's a very complex theme to understand, and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that that these ideas had to simmer in Tolkien's subconscious before they could appear in finished form on the page.  It is just possible the work could have suffered without it.  Instead, Tolkien is able to say with clarity that real heroism rests more in the concerns and cares that the individual has for friends, family, and what one radio interviewer described as the homely virtues.  Tolkien sensed there was a certain level of permanence about such things.  The fact that his books are still remembered at all has to be a kind of testament that he was at least onto something.

I think that's why when guys like Howden try to break the picture frame, all that winds up getting broken in the long run is just themselves.  It's a mistake to deny that sort of thing doesn't happen, when clearly it does.  Nor will it prevent other folks of a similar temper from trying to see if they can get away with it.  It's something internal that drives them onto the attempt, and I think both critics and audiences would be better served if more attention was focused on just what that mindset is and what it means for both art and artists.  To learn something about it might mean the ability to avoid mistakes, both artistic and personal, somewhere down the road.  It may even provide inspiration for future artists if they can learn how to handle the material.  In any case, Howden follows the logic of his thinking to what in retrospect is a forgone conclusion, and runs smack into a creative brick wall as a consequence.  The director could have had a unique opportunity to create a critical response to a pair of modern myths in the form of a parody that found a way not just to challenge, but offer a better alternative to what audiences had come to expect.  Instead, his story is barely able to accomplish anything by half.


During the big finale showdown, as Miles goes into his ultimate berserker mode, Howden makes the creative choice of inserting Stan Bush's Never Surrender on the soundtrack.  It's one of the cheesiest of 80s motivational songs, yet at least I can say its heart is in the right place.  The trouble is the song is headed in one direction while the action is going in another.  I think that sums up the nature of the final product.  There's a discord between intellect and sentiment going on that contributes to the way the whole thing washes out.  The result is a film with an intriguing premise that it's never really able to deliver on.  I suppose its possible to encourage giving the movie a view based solely as a means of gaining a critical perspective on how interesting ideas can fail, rather than on the merits of its story.
Other than that, I was surprised to discover just how tame the violence was in this joint.  A read through of reviews could make the average viewer wonder if their about to step into a grind-house knock-off, complete with wall-to-wall tasteless gore.  What I'm about to report will be good or bad, depending on whose reading this.  It's all very minor and nothing serious.  Yes, there's all the usual swear words, and the characters do use them in an attempt to insult one another.  And that's really it as far as blood and guts are concerned.  Even the scene where Miles earns his guns was no real trouble at all to sit thought.  Anyway, on the whole, I think the best words I can give to this film were said years ago by the walking, talking legend that is Bill Murray: "Better luck next time".


  1. (1) This kind of sounds like Daniel Radcliffe trying to be Nicolas Cage. Not a bad goal, I guess.

    (2) Those paperback editions of LOTR are righteous. I need to get copies of those!

    (3) This doesn't sound like much of a movie. Ah, well, they can't all be winners. I mean, I just finished watching "Sometimes They Come Back...Again," which is dreadful.

    1. (1) Formsome reason Cage never even entered my mind at any point during the whole thing. I think it's cause Radcliffe has such a defined style and legacy of his own that it's sort of easy to overlook these other connections. It's also possible he was trying to satirize the role that put him on the map.

      (2) I have been near at least one of those editions in used bookstores. Like a fool, I still have yet to pick up anyone of them. (Quietly dons toilet lid of shame).

      (3) True enou, I guess. That said, looking forward to when attention is turned toward the original King movie adaptation.