A Tuneful Tuesday

Becky Haltermon posted a list on her blog, Pump Up the Frump, to share the songs she fell in love with over the past year. It's a  great idea, so I'm stealing it. Here's a short and eclectic sampling of songs that enjoyed a good workout in my music rotation. Happy listening!

Trombone Shorty - Backatown (Live)
How to Destroy Angels - Big Black Boots
Mumford & Sons - Little Lion Man
The New Pornographers - Challengers
Lisa Gerrard - Come Tenderness
The Skatellites - Right Track
Goombay Dance Band - Seven Tears
Portishead - The Rip
Muse - Undisclosed Desires
YourLips YourLips - Dark Disco
Allen Toussaint - St James Infirmary


You Should Go See 'Hugo': THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

The big picture of it all is that Hugo is, in detail and scope, a beautiful piece of filmmaking that illustrates in craft what it can only hint at through dialogue. Scorsese delivers so many details to please the cinephile – from a small but benevolent role for the ever-charismatic Christopher Lee, to a humane and top-form performance from Ben Kingsley that reminds us why he’s such a pleasure to watch, to period costumes and locations that dare the audience to resist the urge to crawl into the picture frame – that the film itself becomes testament to why we love letting the movies, and rhetoric about the movies, carry us away.

Read the rest of the review at THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


quick review - Wild Target

If there’s any astonishment to be had from this little comedy, it lies in the way it manages to deliver some amusement despite employing all the clichés involved in the story of a hit man who falls for his intended target and subsequently turns on his client. Then again, when you have Bill Nighy as a well-mannered assassin in thrall to his mother and the family business, it’s not that surprising that Wild Target gets close to the bullseye every so often. Co-stars Rupert Gint, playing Ronald Weasly without the Potter character’s wit or pluck, and Emily Blunt as the erstwhile and rather obnoxious victim, are well-matched to Nighy in delivering the shenanigans, yet also unable to rescue the film from mediocrity. The trouble is that the film employs not only a lighter shade of black comedy but a morally superficial, even juvenile, sense of humour. At its best, black comedy highlights the absurdities in our human response to horror and tragedy. Wild Target relies on its cheapest manifestation, in which the tragic, horrific, or otherwise unpleasant is itself the punchline. Thus, the murder of an innocent woman mistaken for the intended victim is played as slapstick and then promptly forgotten. Only the film’s cheerfulness manages to compensate, in part, for these lapses although it might be more accurately described as glossing over. It’s enjoyable enough as a rental, but for a really funny and clever take on the hit man and his unwitting accomplice, The Matador starring Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear would be a better option.


The Muppets: A Fresh Serving of Muppetational Spectacle: THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

Just as hate might find the source of its progression in fear, despair might find its roots in nostalgia. No wonder, then, that Hollywood finds such a powerful figure in the aging star wilting without the sunlight of celebrity. The emotion is strong enough for any drama, but holds particular resonance for an industry in which fame is fleeting, prone to fickle public tastes and subjected to the never-ending parade of Next Big Things. Thus, films featuring characters reacting to the loss of a glorious present to the irrevocable past in ways ranging from the psychotic break of a Baby Jane Hudson (as memorably played by Bette Davis) and Gloria Swanson’s seminal Norma Desmond to the creeping melancholy of a waning magician in last year’s animated feature and reflective Jacques Tati tribute L’Illusioniste.

Find out what the above paragraph has to do with The Muppets in my film review at The Front Page Online.


who is yuyanapaq?

While waiting outside the International City Theatre in Long Beach earlier this year, I noticed a CD case resting innocuously on one of the concrete picnic tables. Curious, I picked it up and gleaned almost nothing from the abstracted, enigmatic covers other than “Yuyanapaq,” which I assumed was an artist’s name, and “Ccollanan Pachacamac”, which I assumed was the album name, and a track listing. The CD was numbered, indicating that it was a limited edition. Looking around, I didn’t see anyone rushing back to the table breathlessly claiming to have left it behind. So I took it in the belief that it had been deliberately left behind by the artist for a stranger to discover and, hopefully, enjoy.

But who is Yunapaq? What was on the CD he left behind? Find out in this two-part interview!


quick review - Captain America: The First Avenger

Insofar as Captain America is its own movie, we can enjoy a retrospective romp in the world of pulp adventures, one that harkens back to the days when heroes were noble defenders of virtue, villains were dastardly monomaniacs, and the line demarking the two was sharp and unambiguous. Chris Evans makes for an eminently likeable hero, idealistic but not cloying, a devoted servant to his country but not a jingoist. In a role that could easily tap into the stereotype of clean-cut heroes, Evans keeps a human sentiment in his turn as a sickly, skinny young Steve Rogers’s transformed into a superhuman. Similarly, fellow cast members like Stanley Tucci, as the sympathetic doctor responsible for the transformation, along with Tommy Lee Jones as a tough-but-fair Colonel and Haley Atwell as the requisite love interest, achieve via performance a depth that often eludes the script. Dominic Cooper also gets a laurel for his part as Tony Stark’s genius dad, Howard. As staged by Joe Johnston, who is no stranger to pulp adventures thanks to his work with the underappreciated The Rocketeer, the result is a mix of fun and genuine heart – one of the more unapologetically enjoyable comic book movies out there.

But the film’s subtitle, The First Avenger, hints at how Marvel’s marketing creep comes close to derailing the Captain’s integrity. It’s bad enough that a framing sequence, involving SHIELD and the omnipresent Samuel L. Jackson, steals the Captain’s spotlight at the story’s most arguably dramatic moment. Worse is how Captain America’s story gets short-changed by Marvel’s obsession with force-feeding audiences what they believe is necessary background information for the forthcoming Avengers film. Just as the film unleashes the superhero in his Nazi-busting efforts, the film’s thoughtfulness changes into a perfunctory summary of events, like an illustrated Wikipedia entry, leading to the moment Marvel can use to beat audiences over the head with yet another reference to The Avengers. In this case, Marvel acts very much like Delilah cutting off Samson’s hair. While the result of their interference isn’t embarrassingly bad like in Iron Man 2, an otherwise strong film is sapped of vitality. To wit: the great rivalry between Captain America and his Nazi nemesis, the Red Skull (an effective Hugo Weaving), along with their conflict throughout World War II feels cursory and rushed. Ditto for the relationship between Rogers and protector-turned-sidekick Bucky Barners (Sebastian Stan).

Another point of annoyance is the film’s insistence on treating objects with fantastical powers as the product of science and not magic, as if trying to persuade audiences – again in anticipation of The Avengers – that putting a Norse god alongside science-fiction heroes – an abuse of Clarke’s Law – isn’t as ridiculous as it is. I wonder, though, if Marvel isn’t trying to rationalize their own sacrifice of good storytelling in favour of extracting more money from audiences…much like their approach to comics.


news from around the world: november 14, 2011

I'm switching these posts to the beginning of the week instead of the end. Happy reading! I've got some quick film reviews coming up.

The kettle really hates the pot's hypocrisy.

David Brooks again, demonstrating why he's a conversative you could actually have a conversation with.

...and Matt Taibi, laying down the smack on Brooks and Romney.

"The ardor for Paterno was obvious, but you couldn’t help but wonder whether the students might be moved to one day show such united passion for those who suffered child sex abuse – the true victims here."

More news from the We're Doomed Dept. Conclusion: humans suck.


news from around the world: november 4, 2011

Lots o' links this week:

An astonishing transformation!

The Superintendent is inspiring. People commenting on the posts are, as is usual for any comment stream for news articles, a reminder of how depressing humanity is.

Strip away Brooks' ideological posturing and glib categorizationg of "Blue" and "Red" inequality, and you're left with the conclusion that inequality in America stems from a constellation of factors, both economic and social. But isn't that obvious?

Now that we've settled that, can we talk about solutions?

...proving yet again that the Israeli government led by Netanyahu is not even remotely serious about peace.

Remember, folks, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Let's see...Warren Buffett, Bill Gates...the very richest don't seem to mind paying more. Check out the funny video with Bill Nighy.

In other news, the world is stunned by the Vatican's continued failure to confront the child abuse within its organization.


quick review - Midsomer Murders

Note: The following review of this British murder mystery series is based on the first four series. I've just started with series 5.

Based on books by Caroline Graham, a typical episode of Midsomer Murders follows the beats of a slasher film, only one that is dressed up in the respectable Sunday clothes veneer of a British murder mystery. Stories almost invariably leave a body count by murderers with a particularly vicious streak. Yet, unlike slashers in the horror genre, episodes don’t dwell on the gruesome anatomy of the murders or on extended sequences of torture, but on the character dramas that underlie them. Coupled with the quintessential whodunit, through the affable Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby (John Nettles) and his uncouth partner Detective Sergeant Gavin Troy (Daniel Casey), the episodes offer compelling, often lurid, but always human mysteries as dissected by the series’ highly likable police protagonists. The David Lynch-like motif of dread underlying the seemingly idyllic, and occasionally comic, county of Midsomer (a piece of fictional geography) is arguably a distinct feature of the series, delivered straight-up without a hint of surrealistic shenanigans. Most of all, this masterful program, hampered only by a tendency for formula, is a contemporary continuation of Agatha Christie’s work.


The Malgrave Incident: A Video Game for People Who Don’t Play Video Games: THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

A first - reviewing a video game. While I'm not overly crazy with how this turned out, I expect my review of Alice: Madness Returns will be much more interesting even if you don't play video games.

Building on their expertise with casual games delivered through the internet, Big Fish Games’ first foray into development for the Nintendo Wii console is a successful example of video games not named Angry Birds attracting an audience beyond a niche demographic. Of course, to the hardcore button-mashing pixel slayer, a hidden object puzzler like Mystery Case Files: The Malgrave Incident might be as appealing as a bowl of oatmeal cooling on the kitchen counter; that’s certainly the sour view over at IGN Games. But for the rest of us casual gamers – or anyone looking for respite from pounding game controllers and thick instruction manuals – the leisurely gameplay offers the right balance of challenge, reward, and accessibility.


quick review - The Quiet Earth

This unassuming New Zealand gem from 1985, vaguely based on a book by Craig Harrison you’re not likely to find, fits neatly into the post-apocalyptic genre without being a shameless progenitor or carrier of infectious genre clichés. A scientist wakes up in bed after a suicide attempt and finds himself alone on a planet in which all human and animal life has disappeared. Has he died? Has everyone else died? And how does the suddenly silenced Earth relate to a government project called Operation Flashlight? As played by Bruno Lawrence and steadily directed by Geoff Murphy, we get a credible and poignant study of a man struggling to fend off mental deterioration while understanding his situation. Complications arise when he comes across two other survivors of “The Effect,” a young woman and a Maori man. Before you can ring the triangle, the drama tenses and the alienating eeriness of the film’s lifeless earth sharpens. And so: no zombies, no monsters, no mutants, no crazy cults or rogue militias. Just three people at the end of world. Best of all, The Quiet Earth can easily boast one of the best what-the-fuck!? endings in film, one that doesn’t leave us feeling violated. Why? Because the film’s protagonist is just as taken aback as we are. Our bafflement is part of the film, and while there’s little information on which to pin anything more than the flimsiest of interpretations, the strange ending feels more like a challenge rather than a cheat. It’s worth noting that the film’s plot differs considerably from the book, as Wikipedia will tell you. I prefer the film.


news from around the world: october 21, 2011

I assume you don't need links to articles announcing Gadhafi's death or President Obama's announcement that US troops will be pulling out of Iraq by the end of year. So, onwards with this week's hodgepodge...


Without Dennis Ritchie, there would be no Jobs

And so it should.

David Brooks is one of my favourite conservative commentators; wrong about many things, but likeable and rational in his delivery. Interestingly, the values he refers to are, for the most part, universal: not spending more than one's income, a just link between effort and reward. I think he doesn't quite understand the nature of working in America, however, when he writes that "now most people, even most young people, would rather work long-term for one company than move around in search of freedom and opportunity." No; what people want is stability and the freedom to control how they work, and not have corporations set the rules as to when and how people can work. Furthermore, he severely underestimates the Occupy Wall Street movement, but that's nothing new for him.

A fascinating and revealing look at the new social network taking aim at Facebook. Particularly interesting is an explanation into how it gets paid for. It's free for users, but they choose a brand to endorse their page - this means a single ad for a period of time. Or, you can pay a very small amount to forego the endorsement. Now that's what I call choice.

Video courtesy of the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC)
Superconductivity Group School of Physics and Astronomy, Tel-Aviv University

Science is awesome. Check this out! The effect is possible thanks to the interaction of magnetic feels and supercooled superconductors.


‘The Robber Bridegroom’: Amusing, but a Barn Short of a Hootennany: THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

The Long Beach International City Theatre's current production, The Robber Bridegroom.
Based on the 1942 novella by Eudora Welty, which itself is a relatively cheery adaptation of a gruesome tale from the Brothers Grimm, The Robber Bridegroom took on life as a musical in the 1970s with producer Stuart Ostrow’s Musical Theatre Lab. As an early product of a pioneering workshop development model, the first production starred Raul Julia in the role of Jaimie Lockhart and ran for 14 performances at New York’s Harness Theatre before travelling around the county and returning home for a second run of 145 performances at the Biltmore Theatre. A favourite among regional theatres, The Robber Bridegroom has been revived yet again from the archives of musical theatre to close out Long Beach’s International City Theatre 2011 season.
Read the full review at The Front Page Online.

The Robber Bridegroom. Book and lyrics by Alfred Uhry. Music by Robert Waldman. Directed and choreographed by Todd Nielsen. Musical direction by Gerald Sternbach. Starring Chad Doreck, Jamison Michael Stone Forrest, Sue Goodman, Tyler Ledon, Tatiana Mac, Teya Patt, Michael Uribes, and Adam Wylie. On stage at Long Beach’s International City Theatre, Thursday through Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 6. See www.internationalcitytheatre.org for tickets and information.


'Excuseman' Only Tortures Readers: THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

In an age saturated by scandals, what we apparently need is a superhero wielding a very large needle to pop the ballooning delusions of celebrity apologetics. Unfortunately, “Excuseman” (aka Chicago trial lawyer Jordan Margolis) is too busy indulging himself to stay focused on his mission to save the world from “insincere apologies for bad behavior from celebrities, politicians and general ne’er-do-wells.” And so, forget a satirical bite at Charlie Sheen’s spectacular spat with CBS and Chuck Lorre. Never mind puncturing John Edwards, although at this point any further skewering of the former presidential candidate amounts to
stealing candy from babies. Pay no mind, either, to any number of meltdowns and disasters on the part of our celebrities and politicians, any one of which exposes hypocritical excesses in need of popping.


news from around the world: week of october 14, 2011

A light reading list for this lovely Friday. Stay tuned for a book review and, next week, one or two quick film/TV reviews.


As a pithy slogan in Alice: Madness Returns points out, "If the living can be spoken ill of, why not the dead?" While I would prefer it to be otherwise, I remain convinced that, with a few exceptions, Apple has been a destructive influence on the world.

Maybe the Republican leadership could petition to leave the human race, since clearly doing something for the good of all goes against their principles?

It's a proven fact that if you deny facts hard enough, the very fabric of reality will warp into Care-a-lot, land of the Care Bears. Of course, it's really the goateed mirror-universe version in which the Don't Care Bears, led by Dollar Bear, attempt to sell their land of Pay-a-Lot to a villainous lot of impoverished peasants.


Steve Jobs, Visionary Merchant of Gadgets : THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

Never mind the smug self-satisfaction of evangelical Mac users, nor the homogenous, conformist character of Apple design, it's Steve Jobs, the man, who is at the center of attention. With some reports of how tyrannical he was in his quest for "perfection," as described by a self-described "irritating Apple fanatic," I have to wonder about a culture that rewards abusive behaviour, whether in business or elsewhere. But I don't wonder for too long. We live in a society that is more than willing to overlook bad behaviour if we approve of the results of that behaviour, and we see this everywhere:

  • People eating meat despite knowing of the meat industry's cruelty to animals and the fact that processed meat is far inferior to meat from pastured-raised, grass-fed cattle.
  • Buying shoes or clothes from companies whose foreign manufacturers subject workers to degrading, abusive, and unsafe conditions.

And so, reflections on Steve Jobs legacy from someone who isn't unreasonably besotted with Apple products.

...there’s no denying the genius and vision Jobs brought to an impressive array of endeavours, from popularizing the accessible personal computer through the Apple II – an admitted milestone that stands with the efforts of IBM and Microsoft in transforming information technology – to Pixar’s evolution into the animation powerhouse it is today. Nor can we underestimate his accomplishments in turning flabby, out-of-breath business ventures into roaring successes. Yet for all his genius and impact on the technology and entertainment industries, the value of his iconic legacy is questionable.


news from around the world: week of october 7, 2011

Links to a few interesting articles...

All those dystopian science-fiction movies warned us about this sort of thing...but who pays attention to science-fiction movies?

If taxes are high enough so only the wealthy can afford healthy foods, would Denmark return to the Middle Ages when the aristocrats were overweight and the peasants were healthier because they didn't each rich foods every day?


DC bizarrely chose to limit its digital distribution options by joining with Amazon and shutting out Barnes & Noble, effectively giving preferential treatment to Amazon's kindle at the expense of B&N's Nook. So why should B&N support a company that deliberately chose to enter into an exclusive contract with a competitor? I'm with B&N on this one.


farewell to facebook

What happens when technology ceases to be a tool and becomes, instead, a lifestyle? As Facebook continues to gain momentum and evolve through the deployment of new social networking concepts such as Timeline, the question becomes critical as we attempt to control our identities online and in the physical world. On a broad level, the issue is the degree to which our lives – our experience of living – has become defined by technology-mediated change. Without necessarily looking to the catastrophic – our vulnerability in the event of a technological failure or collapse – the rapid changes we experience in the name of so-called progress impacts our quality of life and the way in which we relate to each other.

Superficially, Facebook has certainly earned its reputation for innovating social networking, outperforming lesser attempts such as MySpace by delivering a seamless, streamlined, user-friendly platform with which to enable connections between friends. Although in large part a sinkhole of banality, like Twitter, it is possible to achieve meaningful communication. If there’s a reason not to feel unconditional revolutionary glee at deleting my account and unshackling myself from Facebook, it comes from the loss of those meaningful connections, however robust or ephemeral. Whether on the scale of an epic or a mere tidbit being able to share images or news, Facebook made it easier for people to keep each other in mind, at no monetary cost. That counts for a lot in a culture driven by constant attention shifts, increasingly high work demands, and a fast pace of living.

Yet at what point does the price of “free and always will be” become too high? As regrettable at it is to cut off a line of communication, many of the concerns raised over the years, from privacy to (lack of) anonymity, have only magnified as Facebook has grown to encompass over 800 million users and an internet presence capable of reaching into the political processes of countries around the world. That magnification has, at last, reached the critical threshold in which Facebook is too much of a juggernaut for users to be able to effectively manage or mitigate the very real threat it presents to us on a number of different fronts. The question is, as visionary as Mark Zuckerberg might be, has he perhaps so much vision that he can no longer see his blind spots? Assuming, of course, that the peculiar ethical quandaries created by Facebook are the result of blind spots and not calculation.

When considering privacy, the challenge of preventing status updates or other posts from reaching the wrong audience – coworkers, for example – is trivial in comparison to reports of, for example, Facebook’s use of facial-recognition technology to identify and tag users in photos uploaded to the site. Combined this with Facebook’s notorious changes to privacy settings with a tendency to require users to opt-out of new features rather than opt-in, this is the sort of practice that undermines the very possibility of privacy within the network. And what about the new granular privacy controls and friend lists that ostensibly allow users to control how their information is shared? While a step in the right direction, the clunky implementation highlights the way in which privacy controls are really an afterthought layered on a network model that is fundamentally based on the idea of sharing information. In other words, Facebook is trying to force its square privacy safeguards into the round hole of its dedication to public sharing. The resulting confusion has, on a user-experience level, finally taken away the zest that made Facebook such a compelling alternative to MySpace. Instead of being fun, Facebook has now become software requiring a great deal of time and attention to sort through the various account and privacy settings, manage friends, and otherwise administer our Facebook experience. Of course, Facebook can only share what users themselves put into the network. If users don’t fill out their profile with interests, or upload photos, or share every little trivial detail of their lives, Facebook has nothing to publicize. This partly defeats the purpose of being able to share freely with friends, in the sense that in order to maintain privacy it is necessary to entirely exclude Facebook, not just particular fellow Facebook users. Crucially, this ambiguity highlights the extent to which our ability to trust Facebook is compromised.

Furthermore, the illusory nature of privacy on Facebook is undermined by a system designed to make everything shareable across the web. With like buttons and more popping up everywhere, we have reached the point where Facebook aims to do nothing less than mediate our experience of the Internet. One result is, naturally, the aforementioned sinkhole of banality where users share every little link, every location, every bit of information about themselves. Again, users are under no obligation to do this, but Facebook encourages it through a platform specifically engineered to reinforce sharing behaviour as well as deploying themselves across the Internet and mobile devices. At this point, one could ask if Facebook really is an information sharing service or something worse: yet another manifestation of corrupted media. More and more, Facebook confirms that we have entered, as media theorist Jacques Baudrillard suggested, an age of the hyperreal where the simulation has overtaken and replaced that which it simulates, namely, the real. We can go beyond Wikipedia’s definition of information as an “ordered sequence of symbols that record or transmit a message” to view information as something that produces knowledge, perhaps even wisdom. Compare this to data, a mere qualitative or quantitative unit comprising information that may or may not be informative in itself. Saturated as we are by data to the point where it is impossible to credibly evaluate and consider what is meaningful information, we have become mired in trivialities, confirmation biases, and data that even functions as anti-information. Hyperdata, in other words, which is to information what hyperreality is to the real. As a medium for hyperdata increasingly integrated with websites across the Internet, Facebook is very much a simulation and not merely a representation of one form of social experience. And as Facebook infiltrates the physical world to the point where traditional methods of communication are rendered irrelevant or, at least, partially obsolescent – social media is now de rigueur for marketing businesses, for example – the simulation becomes everything.

As esoteric as this may seem, this huge amount of data underlies a fact we Facebook users often gloss over: we are not merely Facebook users but the ore in a vast commercial data mining operation. The overarching commercial use of our data means that privacy in any meaningful sense is absent, everything we post – obligatorily tied to our real name, although aggregate data for advertisers isn’t supposed to be personally identifiable – is subject to analysis, targeting, advertising, and marketing. That businesses and customers with shared interests are connected isn’t in itself a bad idea. It’s arguably better to receive advertisement for products and services that are relevant than otherwise. But the price of admission to Facebook is the complete erasure of distinctions between the individual as a private entity and the individual as consumer. The personal IS the commercial in Facebook. All our personal data becomes grist for a business simulation to identify and reach customers. Activities once the province of community with reasonably defined boundaries have blurred into standard methods for building brand loyalty and selling stuff. For example, it’s no longer enough for customers and companies to build a mutually beneficial economic relationship through superior products and professional service, that is, for economic transactions to create business accountability because a customer can take his or her money elsewhere if dissatisfied. To achieve “brand loyalty,” businesses must now build communities and offer social interaction – simulated friendships – to create a collateral value that will attract customers and convert to sales. In some quarters, this is a quality to be admired. In a blog post for ZDNET titled “Humans First, Technology Second. Why Facebook Will Win,” Rick Harris argues that Facebook will defeat Google because “After the launch of Timeline, it was made perfectly clear that Facebook knows that the golden nugget of marketing is an amazing story that resonates with other humans. Their biggest announcement at f8 demonstrates that they understand this better than most. Make the personal human experience amazing and the business opportunities will fall into place because you already have the people.” In my view, this is a mixed benefit.

The issue is not, as a matter of principle, that brands attempt to relate on a more personal level with customers – far from it. Business and customers should have good relationships that benefit both. But the lack of transparency, clarity, and genuine choice in regards to these relationships through Facebook is deceptive and damaging. Of course, by not paying for services, we have no leverage with which to pressure Facebook to implement honest privacy policies, opt-out of data mining, or give users a choice about using or foregoing creepy Truman Show-like features such as the upcoming Timeline. The only recourse is to quit altogether, delete the account, and nurture the unlikely hope that Facebook really does delete user information instead of merely making it inaccessible.

Although I am not opposed to technology or deny the progress that can result from it, the way in which we have allowed technological advances to change our lives strikes me as the product of an addiction to novelty rather than the end-result of careful deliberation that attempts, however fallibly, to map out consequences both good and bad. File me under better late than never, but the latest round of Facebook changes has finally prompted me to examine the social network with greater skepticism. That skepticism even prompted me to consider other aspects of my internet use, resulting in my ditching Google for DuckDuckGo.com on account of privacy and tracking issues. At least I can say I’ve always been cautious about what I post to the Internet, so I’m not worried about some embarrassing or otherwise dreadful piece of Internet stuff coming back to haunt me.

So what does the Internet look like for me post-Facebook? I still want to enjoy the benefits that comes from a social network. Would I be willing to pay? Sure, but in this era of “free” the question is whether a pay-to-use service would gain enough traction to support even a fraction of the kind of network size Facebook has. Another option is a social network that is everything that Facebook isn’t, but still free from a monetary standpoint: open about how it makes money and an honest broker of relationships between businesses and users. As it happens, two promising Facebook alternatives have come to my attention that are worth considering. The first, anybeat.com, is a response to Facebook’s “walled garden” approach of restricting user networks to known contacts. Recalling the glory days of BBSs and chat-room, AnyBeat aims to offer a safe, constructive platform that encourages people to interact with people they don’t know – anonymously, if so desired. Next is Unthink.com, which takes dead aim at Facebook's defects and espouses a socially-conscious philosophy based on giving users control over their network presence. Business has a place at Unthink.com, which is well and good, but even brands are encouraged to be agents of positive change in the world who don't simply see customers as an exploitable resource.

Until these services come online for me to evaluate as a viable alternative to Facebook, I plan on enjoying a break from the rumpus of social media. I'll post more at this blog, pay more attention to growing my fashion blog, and just go where the river runs.


quick film review - Legend of the Guardians: the Owls of Ga'hoole

Based on books by Kathryn Lasky, the story of this animated film is the usual fantasy fluff: a coming-of-age tale nested in the battle between the noble and the base, the wise and the fascist. The twist is that the characters are owls, who somehow manage to forge helmets and steel talons among other technological goodies. But forget the plot, which is serviceable despite feeling like the cliff notes presentation of a much more elaborate tale – this is film that invites immersion in its astonishing visuals. Proving that Zack Snyder does have the skill of a visionary, however stunted by the lack of a signature vision, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole features jaw-dropping attention to detail, the whole experience draped in a lush realism that employs motion so effectively it’s hard not to feel the wind in one’s hair. And that is just about all that needs to be said; a beautiful presentation of a lacklustre story.


Cowboys & Aliens: The Year's Most Underrated Blockbuster? : THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

This may the best script from Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman – the fellows who subjected us to insipid Mission Impossible, bad Star Trek, and worse Transformers – outside of television, where they usually fare better. Perhaps credit is due to co-writers Damon Lindelhof, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby. Regardless, this is a film that deserves a chance...provided, as my wife astute pointed out, that expectations are set to western and not influenced by the Hollywood fetish for blowing stuff up.

Read the review here...

Cowboys & Aliens: The Year's Most Underrated Blockbuster? : THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


quick review - The A-Team / The Losers

Yet another adaptation of a cult TV series, The A-Team surprises by what it gets right; the lively casting, the semi-serious tone, and the outlandish action. Faster than Liam Neeson can proclaim his love for a plan coming together, the movie launches a credible update that sees the A-Team as Iraq war veterans framed for a crime they didn’t commit and sent on the lam to clear their name. Missing, however, is a plot worthy of the characters and the spirit of an 80’s action movie. Sorry, folks, but the plight of missing US Treasury plates – what they use to print legal money – just doesn’t fit the, ahem, bill. In the end, The A-Team misses the opportunity to capture the essence of its originating TV series in much the same way JJ Abrams’ reinvention of Star Trek misses. Both films end with a recitation of their respective TV series’ opening narration, and both fail to justify them. In Star Trek, it was galling to be told about the final frontier and strange new worlds to explore after watching a film that consisted of exploding planets and conflict with a banal revenge-minded villain. In The A-Team, the premise of a team who can help you if you can find them is nowhere to be seen. The guys are too busy with treasury plates to find anybody in need of help. How much better would the film have been if the plot required them to choose between helping the oppressed and clearing their names...or finding a creative alternative? Much.

Although no one could accuse it of ambition, the similarly-themed The Losers, based on the Vertigo comic, manages to deliver an actual plot on top of interesting characters and high-energy action. A special ops team is framed for the deaths of innocent civilians during a raid on a drug lord. Naturally, they become fugitives as they track down the man responsible for both the slaughter and various other nefarious activities, their CIA handler code-named “Max”. It’s all old-school fun, not to be taken too seriously but not too cartoony either. Proving that a well-executed Bond-style villain is a vastly more engaging source of antagonism than missing treasury plates, The Losers win by having Jason Patrick deliver a singularly bizarre and memorable role. Yes, I love it when a plot comes together.


The Dark Knight Revisited

Of all the dissenting arguments made against The Dark Knight, the most interesting revolves around the notion that Batman is presented, even willingly upheld, as a kind of authoritarian, reactionary, (neo)conservative figure in a film that fails to address the inherent fascism of superheroism. Abigail Nussbaum’s review of the film, and particularly the comments from her readers, offers a good example of this criticism.

The general idea in itself isn’t new. Alan Moore leveled the charge against superheroes through Watchmen, although he nullified his philosophical ambitions through the mechanistic determinism of his universe. (Without “free will,” choices, even moral choices, become meaningless. ) In The Dark Knight, the objection centers on the dichotomy of white knight versus black knight, with the underlying, problematic assumption that Gotham needs a saviour-hero, a philosopher king, a father-protector – even if that hero’s position is rooted in deception. “The idea that these people now need Jim Gordon to promulgate the lie of Harvey Dent's perfection in order to achieve heroism--which is what Batman comes to believe, and which not only motivates his choice to assume the responsibility for Harvey's crimes but also helps to determine the kind of hero he chooses to be--is downright offensive,” writes Abigail.
Unquestionably, the paternalism of the superhero is a problem that Watchmen, for better or worse, ushered into consideration, thereby launching a postmodern age in comic books. The idea that people need a strongman protector because of their inherent weakness – their inferiority, whether physical or moral – is distasteful on a number of level. Arguably, Superman is the most visible representative of this spiritual fascism. Although caped in truth, justice, and the (ahem) American Way, there is a messianic and obliquely warped Nietzchean connotation to a superpowered being who stands above mortal humanity as protector and noble ideal. Given that Superman isn’t even human, allegorically feeding the American self-image that immigrants are welcomed and encouraged to succeed in the US, we are confronted with the idea that the very best in physical and moral humanity must be both beyond human and other than human. Whether applied to Superman or other superpowered characters, what Abigail finds so distasteful is the most critical stress fracture of the heroic myth; the idea that humanity can’t, and shouldn’t, achieve greatness on its own. It’s like saying that aliens built the pyramids instead industrious and smart Egyptians. Mitigating this reading of superheroes, to some extent (and the discussion could be taken further), is the tendency of pitting superheroes against supervillains – threats no ordinary human could realistically face. It takes a Superman to battle a Doomsday, in other words, and we find that the cynical reading of superheroes isn’t entirely, or even necessarily, grounded in fascism either. When confronted with a super-threat, isn’t it heroic for a superhero to use his abilities to defend the innocent and materially helpless? How, in this respect, is a superhero different from a policeman or soldier empowered by law , training, and technology to repel threats beyond the ability of ordinary citizens?

By contrast, Batman is not a superhero – he’s a peak human being. Bruce Wayne as Batman starts on an even footing with the rest of humanity, undercutting the notion of a superior being beyond humanity. With the character’s psychology sourced in personal trauma and manifested in the form of a vigilante character on the edge of the law, his motives are more complex than simply protecting society. That he is referred to as a superhero reflects the iconic status he’s achieved in both comic book and mainstream culture. Still, the question remains: to what extent does the Batman mythos crack under pressure?

When we consider the copycat Batmen in The Dark Knight, we have to acknowledge the pitfalls of vigilantism – what happens when you take Bruce Wayne out of the Batman. Symptomatic of Gotham’s confusion in its confrontation with systemic corruption, their actions embody the notion that people must fend for themselves in the absence of workable law and enforcement. Of course, this kind of vigilantism is reactionary and blunt, neglecting the systemic causes of crime in favour of short-term, small-scale action against individual criminal acts.

What makes Batman interesting as a character is that, unlike clear outlaw vigilantes like the copycat Batmen or – to use another comic book character – the Punisher, Batman doesn’t represent a rejection of law as a means of justice. Frank Castle is judge, jury, and executioner; Batman is more like a police auxiliary, working outside the bureaucracy of law but within the spirit and intent of the law. His method is to capture criminals and collect evidence that the police can then use for arrests and prosecution. Often referred to as a great detective, Batman is presented as the kind of specialist investigator who can handle crimes the police aren’t equipped or trained to handle.

In this regards, Batman functions from a privileged epistemic position generally denied to the police. Where the legal and law enforcement systems are geared towards ascertaining innocence or guilt often after the crime occurs, Batman can gain knowledge of guilt and immediately act on it. For example, he hears of a robbery, shows up as the crime occurs, and foils it, whereas the police might have to investigate the crime after the fact using forensics and other means to identify the thieves, arrest them, and submit them to the judicial system. Or, Batman can simply spy on a gangster, get the information he needs, and act on it, whereas the police have to first demonstrate just cause for spying on said gangster in the firm place.

What makes Batman work both as character and concept results in part from our own privileged position as readers/viewers. We have access to information that Batman’s co-characters do not, and the consequence is that we can trust Batman not to abuse the power he has taken on for himself. By understanding his motivations and witnessing his own private doubts, we trust that Bruce Wayne has the self-discipline needed to stay on the right side of the line – and away from the fascist, authoritarian tendencies fashionably ascribed to superheroic characters.

Also vital is the way in which Batman’s actions justify our trust. The best example from The Dark Knight comes when Batman creates a mass surveillance system – a key plot development fueling the notion that the film advocates police state solutions – but turns it over to someone who doesn’t want to use it and willingly (even gladly) destroys it after its intended use. It is our trust in Bruce Wayne and Batman, mostly from our privileged meta-fictional position, that allows us to distinguish Batman from mere vigilantes and fascists. But can characters within the stories can achieve a similar trust? Should they? Therein lies the rub.

Into the discussion comes the Joker, who is a very different kind of antagonist than we’ve previously seen in Batman movies. In Tim Burton’s Batman, thug Jack Napier falls into a vat of chemicals and becomes a Joker who is, essentially, nothing more than a theatrical thug with grander ambitions for murder and destructions. Nolan’s take presents the Joker as a force of nature. Despite the irritating tendency of wrongly equating the character with anarchy, this version of the Joker is a terrorist whose motive is chaos and whose method involves manipulating individuals into moral dilemmas rigged as catch-22s. He pushes buttons, in other words, and gleefully watches as ostensibly good people are corrupted. Crucially, conceiving of the Joker as a terrorist highlights the importance of symbolism in his actions within a film that attaches great importance to the power of symbols. The Joker aims to create fear by destroying not just stability and justice, but the hope for stability and justice. He acts on the assumption that without some sort of moral center, the glue that binds society into a relatively ordered state will disintegrate. Harvey Dent, as an effective instrument of justice in a corrupt city, is a prime symbol of hope and a potent moral center in a legal system otherwise gone awry. But the Joker aims even beyond that, to the very idea we have that people are fundamentally good or, at least, decent. The entire scenario of the ferries and the explosives is an attempt to demonstrate the Joker’s thesis that chaos ultimately reigns in the human heart. By exposing this chaos and forcing people to confront their own chaotic natures, the very possibility of a workable, cooperative social order would be destroyed. Without the ability to trust in human relationships there is no possibility of community and society.

In a film also concerned with the notion of escalation – bringing guns to knife fights – the Joker represents an escalation not simply in terms of force but also in terms of ideology. The film acknowledges that Batman’s devastating effectiveness against ordinary criminals makes it possible, in an evolutionary sense, for a breed of supercriminals to arise. Yet the Joker isn’t a greater force in a material sense. He doesn’t bring bigger guns or more destructive superweapons. Instead, he represents an ideological escalation that is as lateral as it is vertical. The film noir tragedy of The Dark Knight, then, arises from a mismatch between threat and weapons, new problems and old solutions. Whereas Commission Gordon and Batman aim to use the traditional methods, mostly rooted in brute force, to neutralize the Joker, these methods are precisely the fuel that propels the Joker forward. One gets the impression that the Joker doesn’t mind being beaten up or possibly killed because this is precisely the sort of interactions he wants in the world he envisions, where the stronger destroy the weak, the weak find ways to make themselves stronger, and raw power is the only possible mode of communication. Essentially, the Joker disrupts the relationship between ends and means; Batman and Gordon find themselves in a reactive position using an irrelevant model of threat and response. Forced to use increasingly extreme measures, they end the Joker’s reign of terror but ultimately become trapped in a web of symbolism. I suspect that had Batman been a Zen monk, he would have fared much better.

To return to Abigail’s criticism, the decision to take the blame for Two-Face’s murders doesn’t make sense when read as heroism achieved through deceit or, as Abigail later comments, as a decision to be a hero based on the premise of saving Gotham’s citizens from the truth instead of empowering them to “think and make informed decisions.” Is that really the key decision that Batman makes? The rationale that Dent’s reputation has to be preserved for the sake of preserving faith in the justice system’s ability to handle rampant crime isn’t illogical given the circumstances and the role of symbols in gluing society together. Why should Gotham’s citizens trust the social order if the very guardians of an already fragile order are corrupted? If, for example, you believed your local police to be corrupt and in league with criminals, would you dial 911 if you saw your house getting robbed? Would you trust the badge of your local police? Arguably not, because the police has lost its symbolic significance as a force for protecting the public. However, much like Alfred’s decision not to reveal to Bruce Rachel’s decision to marry Harvey, there is something unquestionably icky in the notion that the truth can sometimes do more damage than a lie, and the slippery slope from a lie protecting the greater good to a cover-up of serious abuse is very steep indeed. Ideally, the truth should be a force for good and justice. That Batman and Gordon can’t make the truth work represents the inadequacy of their philosophy and approach.

Before condemning them fully, however, some context is necessary. In The Dark Knight we see a Batman early in his career. Unlike the Batman portrayed in the animated series, the outstanding animated film Mask of the Phantasm, or even Burton’s films , Nolan’s Batman is not a calm, calculating, relatively unflappable character. Although he has come to terms with the grief over his parents’ death, he hasn’t shed his rage. This emotional volatility makes him vulnerable to the Joker’s manipulations. With this in mind, one can appreciate the significance of Batman ultimately not crossing the line to murder, even though he has the opportunity and the decision could be easily rationalized. Tellingly, the Joker himself recognizes Batman’s incorruptibility. It ‘s in that final confrontation between Batman and the Joker that we find the real crux of Batman’s arc throughout the film, a reinforcement of Batman as a character we can trust to hold true to the idea of morality even in an environment that demands uncomfortable compromise. The decision not to kill the Joker, not to give in to a thirst for revenge, is arguably the story’s key milestone. That his symbol is tarnished by accepting the blame for Two-Face’s murders is, of course, ironic.

Nevertheless, the film never treats the idea of a vigilante dressing up as a bat as anything other than a dysfunctional solution to the problem of Gotham’s corruption, as evidenced by the great hope Harvey Dent personally holds to Bruce Wayne for setting Batman aside. Even on a conceptual level, Batman can only be a tactical response, a finger in the dyke, a stopgap – his actions cannot work towards addressing the root causes of Gotham’s corruption and rampant crime, unlike a District Attorney who represents a social effort to deal with injustice. The whole effect of the film, then, is to repudiate the need for Batman, whose very existence is a compromise on the social order and the reliance on morally compromised solutions such as deceiving the public about the truth. If Batman’s capacity for heroism, although meaningfully heroic on one level, is fundamentally subject to doubt in terms of his role in society, then I have to question whether it makes sense to view the movie, as Abigail does, as an argument that “Gotham's need for a hero is spiritual rather than practical.”

It’s also worth noting that the decision to perpetuate the lie of “Harvey Dent, White Knight” is merely the resolution of the film’s plot, not the beginning of it. Setting aside the issue that, as viewers, we are under no obligation to agree with characters that we nonetheless find fascinating, the film ultimately takes no stance. The question is left open-ended as to whether the ploy works or not. In fact, as we speculate about the final part in Nolan’s trilogy, one has to suspect that if Batman is to gain the status of a legend with the capacity to inspire good, the truth about Harvey Dent will have to come out eventually. At the very least, it would be hard to imagine Batman going mano e mano with major villain Bane without the truth of his reputation coming into play as they battle it out in Gotham.

In the end, films like The Dark Knight are open to interpretation precisely because they don’t actually take a firm philosophical position on their own stories. This is where the risk of confusing the film’s artistic intent with what we, as viewers, bring to it increases. To wit: Just because a character states an opinion, doesn’t make it a true message the film is hoping to deliver to audiences. Nor does a character’s decision to act a certain way automatically carry a moral imprimatur because of that decision.

Of course, when it comes to what the characters actually think it helps to turn to the text, beginning with Commissioner Gordon closing out The Dark Knight with this melodramatic speech –
Because he's the hero Gotham deserves. But not the one it needs right now. And so we'll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he's not our hero. He's a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A dark knight.
Earlier on, he discusses with Batman the decision to take on the blame for Harvey’s murders. From a transcript at imdb.com:
Batman: You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. I can do those things because I'm not a hero, not like Dent. I killed those people. That's what I can be.
Lt. James Gordon: No you can't! You're not!
Batman: I'm whatever Gotham needs me to be.
[We cut to a funeral for Harvey Dent]
Lt. James Gordon: Not the hero we deserved but the hero we needed
[Gordon is shown on top of Gotham Central. An axe is in his hand. He is being watched by an assortment of reporters and police officers. The next lines are heard in voiceover]
Lt. James Gordon: They'll hunt you.
Batman: You'll hunt me. You'll condemn me. Set the dogs on me.
[Gordon takes the axe to the bat light]
Batman: Because that's what needs to happen.
Batman: [Alfred is shown holding the envelope from Rachel. He lights it on fire and watches it burn] Because sometimes the truth isn't good enough.
[We see Lucius Fox type his name into the sonar machine. The machinery around him sparks and the sonar screen fades out. Lucius smiles and walks away]
Batman: Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.
To say that Gordon believes Gotham needs a spiritual protector like Batman and not a practical protector like District Attorney Dent is one way of reading it. But another way is that Gordon is being cynical, however much his admiration for Batman glosses over it. After all, if Dent is the hero Gotham needs – someone who represents justice within a functional system of law & order – but Batman is the hero the city deserves, then we return to the implication that there is something very rotten indeed in the city of Gotham for it to deserve a vigilante dressed as a bat. The question is: shouldn’t Gotham deserve the hero it needs? And that, along with the decision Batman and Gordon make to conceal the truth, highlights the tragic, film-noir character of the film. Far from presenting us with an idealized portrait of heroism, whether that ideal is fascist or not, the film presents us with a moral no man’s land with characters struggling to do the best they can. The rest is interpretation, and the fact that so many perspectives can be extracted from The Dark Knight highlights its achievement as a film.


Harry Potter and the Triumphant Finale : THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – While the press salivates about the box office achievement of the last film in the Harry Potter series, it’s worth noting that, financial success aside, it also represents a victory for cinematic storytelling. We watched young actors Daniel Radcliff, Emma Watson and Rupert Gint grow into their roles and adulthood. We became mesmerized by a series that, with the exception of Michael Gambon taking over the role of Dumbledore after Richard Harris’s death, established a continuity of cast, production design and storytelling quality that equals, if not surpasses outright, Peter Jackson’s accomplishments with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The only notably galling hiccup, production-wise, occurred when Alfonso Cuaron took over from Christopher Columbus in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and took a few jarring liberties with the Hogswarts geography. At least that’s the sort of nuisance that can be overlooked in the context of a series that fashioned from J.K. Rowling’s words a magical and believable universe filled with charming characters and an imaginative, emotional take on the perpetual good versus evil narrative.

Read the rest: Harry Potter and the Triumphant Finale : THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


Tales from the Dharma Test Kitchen: Right Livelihood

Every Friday evening at their Santa Monica location, the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society offers the Dharma Test Kitchen – a meditation and discussion dedicated to exploring how we can apply the Dharma to our everyday lives. What works? What doesn’t? This is an informal chronicle of my ventures into Dharma practice.

In last week’s Test Kitchen, we discussed another element of the Eightfold Path to the cessation of sufering: Right, or Wise, Livelihood. Although pretty much what you think it is based on its name, there are nuances worth talking about that aren’t necessarily obvious given today’s economic, bottom-line oriented reality.

The teacher began with the explanation that Wise Livelihood is fundamentally about choosing a profession that doesn’t hurt other people. Referring to other Buddhist teachings, notably the five precepts (no killing, no stealing, no lying, no sexual misconduct, no intoxication), he noted that some professions were just no-gos from the get-go when it comes to practicing Wise Livelihood. These wrong livelihoods are :
  1. Weapons manufacturing and dealing
  2. Slave trading, human trafficking, prostitution
  3. The meat trade: butchering, raising cattle for slaughter
  4. Producing/selling alcohol and drugs
  5. Dealing in poison
Of the five, 1, 2, and 5 are relatively non-controversial. (The ethics of prostitution, I think, are still open to debate.) 3 and 4, however, require considerable nuance in today’s world and are certainly the stuff of extensive debate. What struck me about the teacher’s talk, however, was the distinction he made between intentions and actions, with the emphasis that how we do things is less important than the attitude in which we do them. But what if we were to consider different terms, ends (intentions) and means (actions)? The problem arises that distinguishing means from ends, and ultimately privileging ends, leads to the axiom that the ends justify the means and the problem that noble ends have often been used to justify evil means, which presents a huge moral problem. Here’s an example: a stable, reliable social fabric is necessary for a successful civilization. In order to support and sustain meaningful political, economic , and cultural connections, society has to be free from rampant crime, conflict, and the like. So, granting that, was it right for dictatorships like the USSR or Nazi Germany to slaughter their population to achieve their vision of social order and stability? Of course not, and we could also question their conception of social order and stability. Nevertheless, the point is this: a moral analysis ultimately has to account for both means and ends, actions and intentions, taken together. This is especially the case since “ends” / “intentions” are nebulous, metaphysical things, while actions are tangible. In other words, good intentions aren’t enough. We have to pair them with ethical actions and consider the combination of the two.

The teacher did use the word attitude, however, and in all fairness we should recognize a difference between attitude and intention, although they are conceptual kin. An example he used was of the knowledgeable teacher whose bad attitude towards teaching harms students by disengaging them from the educational process. The teacher’s bad attitude is certainly a problem, in the sense that it leads the teacher to using bad methods to teach. It also exemplifies the suffering we create for ourselves and highlights how Wise Livelihood shouldn’t be conceived solely in ethical terms. For one thing, bad teaching isn’t necessarily evil teaching, and the word “harm” might be misapplied. Missing from the discussion is a consideration of satisfaction, fulfillment, meaning. If the teacher doesn’t feel inspired to teach and is unhappy at his job, a bad attitude and suffering is sure to follow – with students suffering alongside by receiving poor instruction. So the question is this: if someone is unhappy at their jobs, even if it is a job that doesn’t cause harm in the ethical sense, can he or she be said to be practicing Wise Livelihood? I would argue that a job that doesn’t hold a positive meaning, doesn’t manifest one’s values, doesn’t integrate with one’s whole person, is not Wise Livelihood. Considering that most of us don’t have jobs that hurt people in clear-cut cases of Wrong Livelihood, it is the misalignment between our jobs and who we are that corrupts our (good) intentions, evokes a bad or indifferent attitude to how we perform our jobs, and in turn denies us of the kindness and compassion that our work, when done with the right intentions, can bring to ourselves and other people.

As I see it, then, Wise Livelihood means:
  1. Not working at job that causes physical or psychological injury.
  2. Doing work that manifests who we are and is thus a satisfying, integrated aspect of our lives that supports us in living well.
  3. Work that serves other people in a way that minimizes their suffering and maximizes kindness and compassion, something that benefits all of us.


quick review - Scott Pilgrim vs the World

Much surprise has been expressed at the box office failure of Scott Pilgrim vs the World, but the reason isn’t hard to grasp: Scott Pilgrim is a zip. Unambitious, inert, lacking in wit – there’s no one at home other than Michael Cena’s innate likeability that, so far, has led him down the typecasting path. Only readers of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novel know how faithful the film version of the character is to the print incarnation. For the rest of us, we are given an uninspired hero with growing pangs that translate into a character not worth caring about. His treatment of Knives (Ellen Wong), a high school senior in love with him, is shabby and self-centered. And his crush on delivery girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the literal and figurative girl of his dreams? Unconvincing and shallow.

What rescues the film from the limbo of indifference is Edgar Wright’s daft, high-energy surrealism. The idea that Scott encounters Ramona because a subspace portal she uses to near-instantly cross large distances passes through his brain is worthy of Charlie Kaufman’s better moments. Better still, however, is how the idea of a video game is made literal as Scott battles Ramona’s seven evil exes for the right to date her. From defeated enemies collapsing into piles of coins to a variety of zany superpowers and game artifacts like power-ups, Wright doesn’t hold back from delivering quirky, compelling action and imagery. However, when the surface is all there is, the film, like lesser games, has no replay value.


Richard III: Loud and Glib at the Theatricum : THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

Don’t let the program fool you; the casting of two actors in the role of Richard III isn’t a sign that the Theatricum has developed an appetite for the avant-garde or the experimental.
Firmly entrenched in tradition – an endearing quality of the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum’s productions – their staging of Richard III simply features Melora Marshall and Chad Jason Scheppner as the lead in alternating performances. And the creative potential that could emerge from two actors playing the same part within the same performance? That will have to remain the product of imagination.

For now, audiences will have to be satisfied with the 50/50 chance of not being saddled with Scheppner, who struts on the stage, mugs for the audience, and otherwise glibly impersonates one of Shakespeare’s great villains.

Read the rest...Richard III: Loud and Glib at the Theatricum : THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

Richard III. Written by Shakespeare. Directed by Ellen Geer. Starring Chad Jason Scheppner, Melora Marshall, William Dennis Hunt, Christopher W. Jones, Earnestine Phillips, Maurice Shaw, and Thad Geer. On stage at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum through October 2, 2011. For tickets and information call 310.455.3723 or visit online at www.theatricum.com.


Deconstruction for Beginners: A Cheeky, Clever Primer on Derrida’s Infamous Idea : THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

We hear the word just about everywhere - deconstruction - but what does it mean? Jim Powell's book, Deconstruction for Beginners, explains.

My review here: Deconstruction for Beginners: A Cheeky, Clever Primer on Derrida’s Infamous Idea : THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


quick review: Ultraviolet

Underappreciated and often unfairly maligned by critics, Equilibrium remains even today a b-movie in the best sense of the term; a compelling cult object. Writer/director Kurt Wimmer successfully brought together a solid cast (Christian Bale, Sean Bean, Emily Watson) in a dystopian sci-fi actioner notable for stylish set design and inventive fight scenes (including the nifty imaginary martial art of “gun kata”), enough to justify considering the word “visionary.” Some called the script a derivative cheat, but I see a skillful synthesis of various influences and ideas from classics including 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. Crucially, the film works because the narrative is clean and the characters are sufficiently developed to give us reason enough to care.

So what happened with Ultraviolet? Structured like a video game and stylized like a comic book, we get occasional flashes of the architectural vision Wimmer is capable of wielding so effectively on the screen. The sets and costumes offer compelling modern imagery boosted by genuinely nifty sci-fi ideas like dimensional collapsing technology that works like a TARDIS or a magic bag from Harry Potter. But the fight scenes are repetitive – the title character, Violet, too often begins circled by her faceless enemies – and often jarringly edited to confusing effect. Hopes of seeing more gun kata are dashed by the lack of cleanly defined action. Distressing, however, is the script, which fails to come together on account of an inarticulate and unimaginative plot, sparkless characters furthered hindered by uninspired performances, and a tendency towards explanation rather than demonstration. If Wikipedia is to be believed, the film suffered tremendously from studio interference, the scourge of writers and directors everywhere. Wherever the failure lies Ultraviolet is a barely watchable mess of film whose potential is largely unrealized.


Tales from the Dharma Test Kitchen: Right View

Every Friday evening at their Santa Monica location, the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society offers the Dharma Test Kitchen – a meditation and discussion dedicated to exploring how we can apply the Dharma to our everyday life. What works? What doesn’t? This is an informal chronicle of my ventures into Dharma practice.

In Buddhism, the 4th Noble Truth – or, as Stephen Batchelor would call it, the 4th ennobling Truth – is known as the Eight-Fold Path (to the cessation of suffering/stress/difficulty). Last Friday’s topic was the first element of the path: Right View, which could also be called “effective” view. In essence, this refers to seeing things as they are, unclouded by the delusions we cling to.
As an example of Right View, the teacher assigned us a meditative listening exercise in which the goal is to listen to someone speak without speaking in return, thinking about what you’re going to say next ,or engaging in the usual head-nodding and uh-huhs that come with conversation. The point is to listen with the utmost attention. We paired up to answer in turn the teacher’s question: what keeps up from seeing the truth/things as they are?

My partner’s answer was fear, both in the obvious sense that we tend to be afraid of seeing things as they are and in the unusual sense that fear can be a motivating factor towards becoming more mindful. Although I’m not sure I fully grasp how that works, it’s definitely an interesting idea worth refining.

My own answer was two-pronged. First was reactivity, our tendency to react to people and circumstances without awareness or thought. Someone says something and you instantly get angry or sarcastic because you perceive their words as insulting or demeaning. But is that response based on truly confronting the situation as it is or are you just lashing out reflexively based on your perception of the situation? This isn’t, incidentally, to create one of those philosophical conundrums that comes out the binary of opposition of reality versus perception. Rather, it’s simply to ask whether we react to a situation based on our assumptions, moods, past histories, relationships, and so on instead of the very thing we’re reacting against. And that’s assuming we even know what it is we’re reacting against and, crucially, whether we even know that we’re reacting at all.

The second prong I semi-coherently proposed (it’s hard to improvise without forethought) was the notion that it’s not just our own reactivity that keeps us from the truth, but our own socio-politico-cultural environment. We live in a society that is explicitly based on deception and illusion. Superficially, we could point to advertising and marketing that trade on selling products by associating them with lifestyle qualities – suddenly, penis enhancement doesn’t come from a link in an eMail but from the local car dealership. But the issue goes much further to the operations of media, politics, everything. We don’t trust politicians because electoral campaigns are more about telling people what they want to hear in order to get their votes. (As B.C. creator Johnny Hart once put it: Election Promises - n. If swallowed, induce vomiting.) Journalism has become corrupted by the profit-driven mandate to entertain consumers. The list goes on.

The common denominator, however, is the same: Wrong View, or a failure to see things as they are either because we don’t want to see them, we are afraid to see them, or we are dissociated from the world through the endless saturation of mediated symbolism (what Baudrillard refers to as simulation.) And the solution? Cultivating Right View to the practice of mindful awareness.


The Old Settler: Beautiful Theatre at the ICT Long Beach : THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

The Old Settler
by John Henry Redwood

Directed by caryn desai [sic]. Starring Veralyn Jones, Ryan Vincent Anderson, Tarina Pouncy and Karen Malina White. On stage June 3 through June 26 at International City Theatre in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center. For tickets and more information, call (562) 436-4610 or visit www.InternationalCityTheatre.org

"Offering a masterclass in how to stage the big issues of being human in a world that is often unfair — without resorting to mallets or rhetoric — The Old Settler is a richly written, character-driven piece from which audiences can infer a number of emotional insights. The glib might conclude that, as the old joke goes, youth is wasted on the young. "

Read the rest of my review here: The Old Settler: Beautiful Theatre at the ICT Long Beach : THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


quick review - Firefly and Serenity

Joss Whedon is one of those unfortunate talents who attracts sabotage, either in the form of studio interference or his own propensity to devolve a perfectly good concept into cheap comic book shenanigans. Witness the decline of Buffy and Angel into cartoonish nonsense in their later seasons. (For proof, consider this: invisible Buffy having sex with micro-chipped Spike.) And Dollhouse, his most recent attempt to launch a TV series, failed even before we point out the derivative stock Whedonesque characters and Eliza Dushku’s inability to perform her role’s personality-of-the-week gimmick. Give credit, or blame, to limp writing in the service of an unserviceable concept – programmable people for hire – as the deadly knock to the head.

Along with Fox’s unwise decision to start the series off with an episode other than the stage-setting pilot, it’s no surprise that Whedon’s other TV series, Firefly, ended up overlooked and relegated to the fringes. Even the movie continuation, Serenity, wasn’t enough to rescue Firefly from the abyss of cultdom. Yet – surprise, surprise – the series turns out to be superlative television and Whedon’s best and most mature work, despite a series concept that, however titillating as an artistic vision, is an oxymoron at best. Although presented as science-fiction in western garb, Firefly is, by Whedon’s own admission, bereft of the scientific and technological speculation that gives science-fiction its name and purpose. What we actually have is a western stylized with the trappings of futurism, which means that the series cuts itself off from the storytelling possibilities that come with asking, and answering, the great “What If.” The good news is that the characters and stories are Whedon’s most compelling, funny, and dramatic. Favouring the slower pace of the thoughtful Western, Firefly is comfortable with gradually deepening characters through moral quandaries and other challenges in a lawless “space” frontier. One has to wonder, though, if the series may not have benefitted from its short lifespan, thereby avoiding the fate that befalls overstayed welcomes. At least the strong film sequel Serenity provides a satisfying measure of closure for this noteworthy genre-bending effort, without shutting the door on future stories.


quick review - How to Train Your Dragon

Watching swooping dragons on the small screen made me me regret, inasmuch as I tend to regret such things, seeing the film on the big screen and in 3D. Still, How to Train Your Dragon looks magnificent on television and the story is ultimately too enchanting to be confined to single ideal mode of presentation. The film’s message of empathy yields a refreshing rebuttal to the usual xenophobia, and the awkward protagonist inhabits a persuasive coming-of-age tale wrapped in the universal theme of finding one’s place in the world. I’m not sure why the Vikings are made to sound like Scotsmen, but going with the principle that everyone loves a Scottish accent one can appreciate the gusto with which Gerard Butler and Craig Ferguson approached their roles as, respectively, the chief and the smithy. Our young hero is voiced by Jay Baruchel, who brings the same gawky charm to his role as Hiccup that he did to his role in The Sorceror’s Apprentice. Best of all is how the film gently subverts, without necessarily overthrowing, genre clichés to feel like honest storytelling instead of assembly line adventuring. How to Train Your Dragon is easily one of the most enjoyable animated features in recent years. And John Powell’s score is memorably beautiful too, enough to make the case for buying the soundtrack.