22.12.14

combat fatigue: thoughts on the hobbit trilogy

The Hobbit Trilogy comes to an end with the Battle of the Five Armies, and the verdict on Peter Jackson’s effort is that, good and bad, he achieves parity with his Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s reasonable enough, in my view, to declare the whole six-film sage a triumph of epic filmmaking, but I’d hold back from declaring it the Film Cycle to Rule Them All. (My money still rests with the Harry Potter films for that singular honour, although I’m not overly keen of crowning kings of the mountain.)

Where the Hobbit truly shines is in its first two installments, An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug. Here are films whose devotion to world-building and characterization, delivered in the form of journeys and mythical quests, offer relief from the numbing effect of clanging swords and armour that has otherwise defined the Tolkien cinematic universe. The Hobbit’s richer fantasy narrative ends up more anthropological than ornamental, serving as more than background for an essentially mundane war story. At last, it’s entirely possible to simply savor Middle-Earth – its landscapes, history, and cultures – and appreciate the characters’ places within it without being drummed over the head with mythological warfare.

Battle of the Five Armies, then, disappoints precisely because it concludes the trilogy with the very tiresome qualities of Lord of the Rings, consisting mostly of a long protracted battle between humans, dwarves, elves, and orcs. The most fascinating scenes occur at the beginning, with an exciting resolution to Smaug’s fiery return to the world and Gandalf’s rescue from the Necromancer’s clutches by Radagast the Brown, Galadriel (the always-welcome Cate Blanchett), the elven-king Elrond, and Christopher Lee’s Saruman. Past that, the familiar theme of greed-induced madness resurfaces as the dwarf-king Thorin Oakenshield corrodes from his exposure to gold “beyond the dreams of avarice,” of avarice, which sets up the film’s only real wellspring of drama. The rest is fighting, fighting, and more fighting, with the only question being: when is Gandalf actually going to do something cool and magical? (Answer: don’t get your hopes up. Gandalf is no Dumbledore.) Tiresome, indeed, but not boring or entirely without merit in a trilogy that justifiably makes an effort to intertwine with the Lord of the Rings narrative. (I say justifiably because I am not vested in Tolkien’s work as an admirer, and I have long shed my reservations about the need for fidelity when translating books to film.) As usual, Jackson delivers engaging production design and suitably big direction, just as his cast offers engaging performances even when the characters are thinly dimensioned.

Curiously, the Battle of the Five Armies ends rather anti-climatically, as if Peter Jackson and his writing team were still reeling from criticism over their endless parade of endings in The Return of the King. Bilbo, of course, returns home, but the fate of other characters are more or less cast into the narrative ether for viewers to piece together on their own or with a bit of help from the Fellowship of the Ring. I presume this wouldn’t be so stinging a quibble when immediately followed by a viewing of the first Lord of the Rings film. Still, the loose ending coupled with excess action isn’t enough to condemn the film too strongly. Battle of the Five Armies is, in the balance, a middling but reasonably satisfying chapter in the Middle-Earth saga.

But one thing has to go: this obsession with the higher frame rate, which makes the film look like a behind-the-scenes documentary rather than a gorgeous cinematic tableau. Photographic realism has its place, no doubt, but arguably not in fantasy films where style enhances the substance.

18.12.14

(new) dr. who: little more than bad fan fiction

Dr. Who’s eighth series is like a pop song with inane lyrics but catchy hooks. It’s like a pastry that’s all sugar and no dough. As Texans might say, it’s all hat and no cattle. And yes, yes, while we’re piling on: that’s one heckuva naked emperor.

At this stage, that it compels watching at all is entirely due to Peter Capaldi. His fashion sense obviously suggests a return of Jon Pertwee, but his manner is a notable departure from the debonair third doctor’s gentlemen adventurer persona. (The eyebrows help a great deal, and I submit they’d be great representatives for Movember.) Some ado has been made about returning the Doctor to an older, more parental figure, but more interesting is his brooding and brusque antisocial persona. If Matt Smith’s doctor was a fizzy Alka-Seltzer masking the heartburn of morally-ambiguous anguish, Capaldi is the rending of the veil. Here’s a Doctor who more sharply expresses his isolation from fellow Time Lords and is acutely distressed by a preoccupation with his morality. The question he asks himself in the series opener, Deep Breath, is a worthwhile one: is he a good man? Considering the New Who Doctor has been responsible for large-scale destruction, it even rates as ironic. (And if you’re the type, like me, to point out that the Doctor is not a man from a human culture but, rather, an alien Time Lord, then join me in remembering that Dr. Who has never succeeded in presenting Time Lords as anything other than a haughty technocratic image of humanity.)
But asking serious questions is not New Who’s strength, so it’s no surprise that Clara is made to offer a reasonable noncommittal answer that sucks the air out of the question, leaving only a terrible gasping sound throughout the rest of the series. The lesson: never offer an answer to a brawny question without first roasting it in the crucible. Let it heat up. Let it blister. Just don’t serve it liked warmed-up leftover pudding before even offering the main course. The Doctor’s moral introspection falls apart by default, having never meaningfully coalesced. (At most, the Doctor’s so-called darker turn adds sizzle to the speculated return of the Valeyard, that distillation of the Doctor’s evil impulses supposed to manifest somewhere between the 12th and 13th regenerations. However, the only certainty is that if the Valeyard does make an appearance, it will be just as botched as everything else imported from Who’s classic era.)

The failure to extract any genuine drama from a provocative moral question is a predictable result from a show that consistently engages in the fiction writer’s version of yellow journalism – yellow storytelling, in which the sensational is achieved at the expense of integrity. Events, whether plot twists or character developments, are chosen for their energetic impact in a given moment, regardless of how they fit in the narrative whole. Other yellow elements in play: death that means nothing because it is frequently reversed, incoherent world-building, characters whose personalities change according to the momentary needs of the plot. This isn’t merely a judgment on my part. Showrunner Steve Moffat acknowledged it, having once said  "a television series which embraces both the ideas of parallel universes and the concept of changing time can't have a continuity error—it's impossible for Doctor Who to get it wrong, because we can just say 'he changed time—it's a time ripple from the Time War.'" In other words: they make shit up as they go along, continuity be flushed.

Despite being a clever writer, Steven Moffat is all ideas and no execution. How insulting is it, then, that even Series 8’s ideas feel warmed over? Amy’s shabby treatment of Rory (on account of her fascination with the Doctor)? It’s back as Clara’s awful treatment of Danny, a soldier-turned-math-teacher with saintly patience and a sensitivity delivered with grating mushiness. The notion of the Earth cocooning an alien spaceship (The Runaway Bride) is conceptually revisited in Kill the Moon, which presents our lunar companion as a giant alien egg. The Doctor criticized as a mirror-image of the Dalek? That’s in there too. The sense of familiarity compounds a catalog of howlers, from frankly stupid plot ideas (Forest of the Night, in which magic fireflies make a forest magically appear to stave off a solar flare, and the smug self-congratulatory Robots of Sherwood which pits Robin Hood against the Sheriff of Nottingham’s robot army) to jarring implausibilities that mock the willing suspension of disbelief. “If only he had a time machine to fix this or that plot twist” is a frequent thought.

Kill the Moon is an astonishing example of telling a story in bad faith, willfully breaking the pact between storyteller and audience that makes possible the willing suspension of disbelief. Here’s the climax: the alien baby breaks out of its moon shell and immediately lays a new egg, without disturbing even a single blade of grass on our dear old Earth. I mean, c’mon. Really, Moffat? Really? Failing to consider gravity seems entirely appropriate for a show that is determined to be as weightless as possible. Then there’s the moral dilemma, thinly veiled as an abortion allegory, which is as manipulative as it is false: the choice between destroying the alien baby and preserving the moon, or allowing the earth and its population to be devastated by the moon’s destruction (and subsequent absence). Of course, this is a show that presents mental illness in children, or the potential of it, as something charming and whimsical rather than worth of serious reflection, so in retrospect it seems pointless to get in a huff for something so dumbly pretentious as Kill the Moon.

Even the series-long mystery, little more than brief disconnected codas to some episodes culminating in a two-part finale, is inert. It’s like a murder-mystery in which the detectives don’t even know there’s been a murder until the very end, when the villain starts chasing them. Randomly throw in cybermen, forget characters emphasized in those little codas, and voila – a narrative arc utterly without suspense. As for the return of the Master: right twist, wrong character.

Only two and 4/5ths episodes stand out – the bank robbery-themed Time Heist and Flatline, about an invasion by two-dimensional beings that boasts some most startling fun seen in a Dr. Who story in some time. A third, Mummy on the Orient Express, is a vintage fun kind of story, the monster in an enclosed environment, but suffers when it attempts to “explore” the drama between Clara and the Doctor.

There is no redemption for the show to be found in the Doctor’s relationship with a character who was more interesting when abstractly conceived as the Impossible Girl. This time around, she’s given a dual identity of teacher and adventurer, but with a singular personality that becomes increasingly shrill and repellant. For example, when the boyfriend she’s been lying to all series long is killed in a car accident, she strives to get the Doctor to reverse it not by asking as any normal person might, but by heading straight for a rather vile attempt at blackmail. We’ve seen variations in the Doctor-Companion relationship, but with a finale that ends with everyone lying to each other, we may very have a new dynamic: the need for therapy. Worse of all, series 8 is oversaturated with Clara, sidelining the Doctor to the role of eccentric deus ex machina. Series 9, I believe, will be called Doctor Clara.

Bad writing, bad characterizations, arbitrary world-building, fantasy masquerading poorly as science-fiction (the TARDIS is not an incredible machine, but rather a “magic box”) - it’s enough to envision David Tennant’s Doctor cozying up to some BBC executive and asking, while pointing to Moffat, “Don’t you think he looks tired?”

But just as I recovered my appreciation for Star Trek by viewing everything post-Rodenberry as fan fiction, sometimes for the better but usually for the worse, I’m comfortable relegating the entirely disposable New Who to the same status.

Also, this and this.



5.12.14

what will happen to baby luna? (at TFPO)

Review of Luna Gale, on stage at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. 

Cynicism is an easy currency to trade in, especially when the subject is the government and its initiatives – and popular entertainment is a large marketplace. Consider child protective services and related efforts to help distressed children; how often is the social worker positioned relative to families as the internal affairs investigator is to the police? In Luna Gale, playwright Rebecca Gilman wisely resists the impulse to be cynical without resorting to romanticism. Her depiction of a social worker’s efforts on behalf of the titular baby is poignant, yes, but also ... READ THE REST AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

1.12.14

moderately suggestive: thoughts on slightly salacious at WLAC’s fine arts gallery (at TFPO)

Anyone hoping for nerve-tingling titillation or grand displays of erotic prowess from the West L.A. College Fine Arts Gallery’s latest show would do well to recall its title: Slightly Salacious. There are nudes, yes, as well as insinuations, but nothing outrageous enough to work up a good froth over. The exhibit offers no incentive to re-chart well-trod topographies in an attempt to delineate pornography from art, although I wonder to what extent the question even holds any interest in this worldly age. What Slightly Salacious does offer, however, is ... READ THE REST AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


Slightly Salacious, curated by Molly Barnes, is on display at the West Los Angeles College Fine Arts Gallery from November 17 to December 18,2014. For more information, including gallery hours and parking directions, visit wlacgallery.org.

13.11.14

not just another robo-remake; thoughts on Hollywood remakes and Robocop

It’s almost Pavlovian: Hollywood announces a remake (or reboot: the new lingo would have us think of film as technological products rather than artworks), and cultists sharpen their pitchforks, oil the torches, and storm Sunset Boulevard. But let’s be honest, shall we? Unbridled creativity, averse to anything but wholly original novelty, would quickly bankrupt the studios. Balancing the need to offer something new while drawing on proven successes to justify the economic investment makes it pointless to get upset when old favourites are remade. Instead, it might be less apoplectic to view remakes like musical compositions that offer variations on a theme. If you don’t like a variation, you can always go back to the original. Call me an optimist, but I’d argue that Hollywood remakes offer new generations of filmmakers the opportunity to revisit ideas from a new perspective. Some fail, but others, like Jose Padilha’s updated take on Robocop, succeed.

I’ll admit that I’m not particularly invested in Paul Verhoeven’s film, of which I’ve only retained one clear memory: a poor thug doused and melted by toxic waste, then decapitated and exploded by car collision. Reading reviews of the film, I’m reminded that the ultraviolence is supposed to play into a satire of some kind. But the scene’s unnecessary gruesomeness underlines the film’s cruelty rather than presents any sort of insightful black comedy. Good black comedy deflates the absurdity of our response to tragedy; only the trashy presents suffering in itself as entertainment value. (If only explicit sex was so gleefully cheered as gory violence; I’d rather watch people get blown than blown apart.)

Still, cheap and exploitative as it may be, exploding heads offer easier thrills than talking heads. Verhoeven’s film hews closer to the action movie formula, resulting in a film with undeniable momentum from beginning to end. By comparison, Padilha’s Robocop (scripted by Ed Neumeier , Michael Miner , Josh Zetumer, and Nick Schenk) is rather drowsy, livened up by a few action set pieces but mostly a cerebral affair. Far from being a critique of Padilha’s approach, however, the departure from action movie bombast requires a change in expectations. This new Robocop is not an 80s action film, or an attempt to approximate one, but rather a rare beast in the Hollywood menagerie: a thoughtful science-fiction film that is well-filmed, well-acted, and well-conceived, if a bit undercooked at times.

Rooted in the politics of drone warfare and the militarization of law enforcement, Padilha strives to offer a parable on the dehumanizing effects of wars waged by proxy, first by actual machines and, inevitably, via cyborg. An opening scene of pacified Tehran, in which citizens are subject to law enforcement by robots, sets the baseline. Puncturing American hypocrisy, the film deploys Samuel L. Jackson as a reactionary television personality to rail against the rejection of mega-corporation OCP’s law enforcement drones within the US while supporting their use abroad. Then OCP’s CEO Raymond Sellars, played with carefully calculated understatement by Michael Keaton, delivers the grand idea to exploit American fears for market share: restore the ghost in the machine, put a human spin on the robot.

Enter Alex Murphy, the victim of a bombing that leaves him little more than a head and lungs. Portrayed by Joel Kinneman, an up-and-coming actor whose superlative work on The Killing marks him as one to watch for, Murphy comes to embody the answer to the question of what happens when the distinction between human and machine, both physical and psychological, is blurred. In a bid to demonstrate the viability of a cyborg cop, Murphy has been transformed into a commodity. Although ostensibly intended to reassure a public wary of machines that lack consciences, the irony in Robocop is that Murphy can, for the most part, be programmed like a machine. (It’s worth noting that Robocop takes a more sophisticated view of cyborgs; the mere replacement of a limb isn’t enough to justify questioning a person’s human status. But what of the person whose entire personality and cognition is dependent on changeable machine hardware and software?)

The absence of graphic violence serves to highlight, not undermine, the overall commentary on sanitized violence. After all, what is drone warfare if not the cognitive dissonance of damaging an opponent without risking casualties of one’s own? An early training scene sees Robocop, complete with a sophisticated head’s-up display, gracefully dispatch robot drones in a sequence that recalls a video game. That scene is later repeated with the same clinical detachment, only with a warehouse full of live people. The parallel is striking; violence as video game, insulating the player/soldier from a visceral reality that might otherwise cause a crisis in conscience.

Particularly refreshing in the film’s speculative sci-fi is Gary Oldman’s as Dr. Norton, the scientist behind Murphy’s reconstruction. The trope would have presented him as an amoral eccentric, a willing puppet to anyone able to bankroll an obsession with going over the edge. Yet in Padilha’s vision, delivered with Oldman’s customary nuance, Dr. Norton is a conscientious man who carefully considers the implications of his work – and suffers a moral crisis as a result. This is just the sort of awareness that imbues Padilha’s revisioning of Robocop with intelligence and a sense of purpose. Where most reboots, notably film adaptation of vintage TV series, have failed on account of missing the essence of its inspiration, Padilha’s Robocop takes the core concept of Verhoeven’s film and offers enough new ideas to escape its shadow and validate the remake as a legitimate Hollywood effort.