17.3.16

Can two "For Beginners" Books Fight Racism? (at TFPO)

Although my review of Black Panthers for Beginners and Civil Rights for Beginners, within a discussion of race in America, is focused on "right-wing" racism, it would be worthwhile to examine how "left-wing" identity politics pose their own set of challenges in terms of achieving social justice. In brief, it seems to me that where right-wing identity politics are tribal, manichean, and absolutist, left-wing identity politics are more discursive and relative. The problem with this sort of postmodernist form of identity-conception is the tendency to favour the theoretical and symbolic over the empirical and practical -hence, the internecine struggle that tends to hinder unity among various identity groups.

Anyway, that's a big discussion in and of itself. The point still remains that the Republican party and its parade of grotesques remains the single biggest obstacle to having a rational discussion on the topic let alone implementing solutions that will genuinely help non-white ethnicities achieve social parity.

As always, these For Beginners books provide a valuable starting point, in this case by offering an accessible entry point to the history of the Civil Rights movement in general and the Black Panthers in particular.

My review at THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE.

26.2.16

on netflix: dimension-hopping with "parallels"

I came out of watching Parallels feeling the rush that comes with being exposed to high-concept science-fiction. A mysterious building that serves as a focal point for travelling between parallel universes? Yes, please! Years after Sliders went off the air – and failed to catch on with me given storytelling marred by behind-the-scenes production shenanigans, character switch-ups, and a series cliffhanger – now seems like a ripe time to revisit the concept with a grittier, hard-science approach.

There was every reason to be optimistic, as the show is the creation of Christopher Leone and Laura Harkcom, the pair who delivered the underrated but fiendishly clever miniseries The Lost Room. Having already demonstrated a thrilling flair for handling space/time anomalies with a sci-fi perspective, I was curious to see how they would freshen up a familiar concept.

The good news is that Parallels is, overall, rather gripping. Unfortunately, it suffers from its ambiguous status as a movie slash series pilot slash digital product. With too many ideas crammed into 83 minutes, it doesn’t offer enough of a self-contained narrative arc for it to stand reasonably on its own, even as it sets pieces on the chessboard for the long game. Its last 10 minutes alone raises more questions and introduces more plot points than a cliffhanger, however intriguing and appetite-whetting, should be asked to handle without being frustrating and anti-climatic.

Disappointing to various degrees are the characters, which consist of a taciturn brawler, a dork, a blank, and a streetwise traveler who tutors the other three on the finer points of universe-hopping. Of the four, only Mark Hapka’s Ronan, a troubled lad who left his family out of guilt to get himself beaten up in underground fighting contests, can be measured out in more than two dimensions.  The savvy traveler, named Polly, stands out for her portrayal by the film’s strongest cast member, Constance Wu: pay attention to her as the gang travels from one Earth to another. As for the remaining members of the Scooby gang: the dork, played by Eric Jungmann, is a public defender named Harold who is positioned as a geek with occasional insight but is really there to shriek, panic, and irritate. The blank is Ronan’s sister Beatrix, an unremarkable character supposedly smart enough to be admitted to Princeton but who displays a shocking lack of thought or curiosity…but shrieks and panics almost as well as Harold. Thankfully, Jessica Rothe is less irritating than Jungmann.

And what can I say about the decision, yet again, to feature yet more white protagonists (all but one)? To the film’s producers: I sigh and shake my head in your general direction.

You would think that, in an age of comic books and sci-fi blockbusters galore, characters confronted with the weird would do more than stand around screaming about what happened. But no: the characters, except for Ronan, indulge a meltdown. And the lack of method and consideration? Sure, the characters will speculate and ask some of the obvious questions. Beyond that, however, they act like the protagonists of a horror movie: rushing into things without much forethought. Granted, they aren’t trained scientists…but shouldn’t they at least be somewhat intelligent and methodical in their approach to the unknown? Shouldn’t we expect more from a lawyer and a Princeton candidate? The weak characterization is a letdown given how Leone and Harkcom have shown themselves capable of delivering believably clever characters in unusual situations, such as Peter Krause’s cop protagonist in The Lost Room.

Still, in that rush to the end, the needs of the plot outweigh the integrity of the characters. There’s the inexplicable ability for a stowaway named Tinker to hook up a device to controls the Building…about which he knew nothing about until the Scooby gang stumbled into his world. Also: a surprising familial development should cause the characters to raise a serious existential question, but is simply cast aside in favour of getting to the next parallel earth.

The good news is that none of these shortcomings are insurmountable if Parallels does, indeed, become a bonafide series as its creators hope. Characters can be refined and deepened – their initial ineptitude waved off as shock and inexperience – while big, and not so big, questions can be allowed to breathe with the more relaxed pace of a series. In the proverbial big picture, none of the pilot’s limitations derail the effort to present a rich, intriguing, and intelligent variation on the many-worlds story. Although I’m wary when Leone states that the story that could be completed in 5 seasons, in part because of past history: The Lost Room, though self-contained insofar as its protagonist is concerned, didn’t come close to resolving its narrative and, years later, shows no sign of resuscitation – I do hope is given a chance. My optimism may be cautious, but optimism it is given the really fascinating premise and compelling world-building.

19.2.16

undead and (mostly) loving it


Pride, prejudice, and zombies...oh my!

It's interesting to visit Rotten Tomatoes and see the review spread for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The divergence in reactions, the mixed consensus, strikes me as typical of B-movies, which don't work by reasonable standards, but are fun to watch anyways with the right frame of mind.

So here we have mashup of Jane Austen and the zombie genre, and the result is like a well-seasoned dish; some will think its too spicy, others not enough, and yet others will take after Goldilocks. Where do I stand?

Find out by reading my review at The Front Page Online.

20.1.16

star wars: the fandom menace (at TFPO)

Review/discussion of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Let’s at least be honest and recognize Star Wars: The Force Awakens for what it is: Fan fiction. After the prequel trilogy failed to ignite the shining renaissance fandom apparently was expecting, the House of Mouse bought out the beleaguered Lucas and appeased the angry mob with the sophisticated pandering they’ve profitably cultivated over the years. And so, we are given a continuation that reveres the idea of Star Wars without Lucas’s supposedly pesky vision to derail it. Past films remain “canonical,” even the maligned prequel trilogy, but mostly as something to be seen through the rear-view mirror of a franchise accelerating forwards to a Lucas-free future. Like the now-discarded Extended Universe of books and comics, which operated with Lucas’s hands-off approval, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is Star Wars filtered through other people’s perceptions. READ THE FULL REVIEW AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

6.11.15

snowpiercer: snow job cinema

Some bad films, like J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, are so well made that they receive mystifying acclaim from critics who should, at the least, be discerning enough to recognize the triumph of style over substance. There’s nothing wrong with savouring said triumph; but at least the movie’s advocates should acknowledge it as such. Snowpiercer, a film that comes heralded as that rare beast, the intelligent action movie, is yet another phrasing of the question, did we watch the same movie?

Directed and co-written by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, and loosely inspired by a French comic, the film is a beautiful piece of cinema with a rich sci-fi aesthetic. Set on a train carrying the remnants of humanity on an endless tour of a post-apocalyptic frozen globe, Bong delivers a relentless, claustrophobic thriller as characters are propelled from the squalid back of the train to its ultra-luxe front. He offers an outstanding example of how to depict on-screen brutality and horror without resorting to an exploitative pornography of violence. Less enthralling are occurrences ripped from horror movie tropes, like the killer who is stabbed and strangled to death, but conveniently revived in time to walk a long distance and still have enough stamina for a climatic fight. Also convenient, but random: the spontaneous transformation, also in time for the film’s denouement, of idle drug-addicted youth into an escaped gang from A Clockwork Orange.

Much ado has been made of the cast’s excellence, ably centered on Chris Evans who gets to be pleasingly grubby in contrast to his squeaking Captain America, along with Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung  in the film’s most interesting roles of a seemingly drug-addicted security specialist and his inexplicably clairvoyant daughter. But it would take a singularly incompetent director, which Bong most certainly isn’t, to extract a bad performance from a cast that includes titans Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Ed Harris. The trouble is that they aren’t given characters to inhabit; only cartoons or, more accurately, stereotypes: Swinton as the evil bureaucrat, Hurt as the wise old man, and Harris as the amoral visionary entrepreneur.

Whatever its technical merits, the film is ridiculous the moment it articulates its premise: after the world unleashes a chemical in the atmosphere to counteract global warming and accidentally freezes life to extinction, a small sample of humanity survives in a train intended to work as a perpetual motion machine. The logistics of keeping a train in running condition in the absence of raw materials and sustainable manufacturing facilities are dubious at best, a thorny problem compounded by the logistics of keeping the tracks, bridges, and tunnels in serviceable condition when it’s too cold to venture outside. But really: what kind of solution is a train to the problem of a deep freeze? This isn’t science-fiction: it’s whimsy, and it isn’t helped by a poorly thought-out extrapolation. Also lacking is a credible presentation of how the train functions. As we follow Chris Evan’s rebel leader from the back of the train to the engine, where the Snowpiercer’s creator and supreme leader resides, Bong gives us a sequence of set pieces in service of video game leveling-up, some of which are dazzling indeed.  We have to assume that there are cars we don’t see serving necessary functions, but the film’s illusion is on shaky grounds when we have to stop and wonder about pedestrian details like where the food cattle is kept, where crops would be grown to feed the cattle, and so on.

Bad science-fiction could be convincingly passed off as charming fantasy if it served a greater purpose, such as Snowpiercer’s political allegory of class warfare. Unfortunately, the allegory is not only a heavy blunt instrument; it fails to grasp even the basics except for a palpable anger directed towards elites. Classically, the scenario would be that the rich exploit the poor’s labour to support their own political power and luxury lifestyle. In Snowpiercer, the tail section’s violently oppressed peasantry don’t even serve as labour, merely as breeding stock. Children are occasionally taken from their parents; figuring out their fates isn’t difficult when we reach the end of train without having seen any sign of them.

Even naïve allegory layered on a silly, implausible premise could be overlooked if the film positioned itself as an air-popped blockbuster that gleefully marches to the predictable beats of the action movie rhythm. It might make for dumb fun, but at least it would be fun. The film’s ending, however, derails even that simple pleasure. The first problem involves Song Kang-ho’ security specialist who, after years of watching an outside plane’s wreckage become increasingly exposed, believes it’s safe for humanity to venture outside the train and begin living in the world again. But either he is an idiot, or the filmmakers have yet again failed to think their ideas through, as the obvious plan – stopping the train in a safe place, and then opening a door – is replaced by the decision to blow a hole in the side of the train. The next problem involves Chris Evan’s character, a rebel leader with an outrageously po-faced tragic backstory, whose biggest contribution to the climax is being subjected to a monologue by Ed Harris’ villain that would make The Incredibles’ Syndrome proud. Spouting nonsense about the order of things and eternal engines, Harris’ Wilford makes a compelling case that the train’s elites are just as insane in their power as the tail enders are mad with inhuman poverty. Wilford retroactive explanation for the film’s events, echoing the Architect’s speech from The Matrix Reloaded, could certainly support this perspective. His view of the film’s events, lacking corroborating evidence, inspires just the sort of true-or-false ambiguity a thoughtful rather than arbitrary script would have exploited to present a serious, universal case of cabin fever.

This all culminates in a train wreck that essentially kills everyone aboard, except for two survivors, whom Bong films venturing out of the wreckage into an idyllic snowy scene punctuated by the appearing of a polar bear. That’s right: the deep freeze didn’t kill all planetary life. What the survivors can do, however, without resources and without any hope for the future is left unexplained, marking the ending as deceitful storytelling. Had the film any semblance of courage in its convictions, the cynical ending could have capped off a moral that even after a global disaster, humanity would still be too selfish and stupid to pull itself together for a progressive purpose. But the sunshine and faux-hopefulness is dishonest and deflating, begging the question as to why it was necessary to watch the film in the place.

Cabin in the Woods, by comparison, ends the world honestly. Unlike the usual horror movie trope that simply denies heroes their triumphs, Whedon and Goddard’s ending is the result of a deliberate choice by traumatized characters that have lost faith in humanity. There’s an emotional resonance to the character’s choice. Snowpiercer is ultimately too glib, saying one thing while doing another, a disconnect between script and direction.