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.


(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.


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


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.


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.


book review: racing to the future while chained to the past (at TFPO)

A review of Fanon for Beginners, by Deborah Wyrick Ph.D. 

If we are to believe the commentariat, the best experts on race in America are white men – the same folks who, coincidentally, are also experts on women. The good news expounded by these experts, whose expertise rests in being experts more so than anything resembling social science, is ably summed up by Bill O’Reilly on the Daily Show: “…there is no more slavery, no more Jim Crow. The most powerful man in the world is a black American and the most powerful woman in the world, Oprah Winfrey, is black.” Thus we are presented with the climax of the American project, the realization of a color-blind society in which all it takes for success is the union of good values and hard work.

Among partisans of a certain political persuasion, this rosy dogma admits no dissension, no heretical acknowledgment of white privilege. Yet social science research tells us that ... READ THE REST AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


good things come in cardboard packages (at TFPO)

A review of The Boxtrolls

Who would guess that, in today’s reactionary America, an animated family-friendly (ish) film could be imbued with such a blatant, albeit non-specific and apolitical, social critique? It’s not the French Revolution, but where most films add silly but subtle adult innuendo over children’s fare, The Boxtrolls also hints at the instinct of an Occupy Wall Street protest. Richly animated with delightfully exaggerated character designs, details galore to feast on, and unimpeachable voice acting, the film is ... READ THE FULL REVIEW AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


is there really any "good" in the good book? (at TFPO)

A review of The Ethics of the Faith: Right, Wrong, and the God of Abraham. 

Ean Burchell is not the first to offer remedial Bible studies to people who might not have paid enough attention to the so-called “Good Book” the first time around. Ben Akerley provided a look the Bible’s sordid sexuality in The X-Rated Bible, while Edward Falzon satirically paraphrased the Pentateuch in his provocative broadside, Being Gay Is Disgusting, Or God Loves the Smell of Burning Fat. The difference between this latest addition to an already crowded library shelf and those previous volumes, other than a distinct lack of humour, is a specific project for evaluating the ethical merits of the God (arguably) common to the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Setting aside empirical and ontological considerations, Burchell asks, “…does faith in Yahweh really offer us the only road to ethical relationships with our families, friends and neighbors?”

Read the rest at THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE.


social media update


I'm shaking things up.

Join me at...

...Instagram for a self-free, inedible photo gallery of this and that from here and there.

...Twitter for art-related news, events, articles from top-notch publications, featured artists, and more

And finally...

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Comments and questions are always appreciated.

Thanks for reading!

: f :


tripping the mind fantastic with the congress

Living and animated worlds have collided before, in encounters typically presented either as a matter of co-existence (Mary Poppins, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) or of travel between universes (Cool World). In The Congress, writer/director Ari Folman deploys neither approach. Instead, he uses animation as a singular representation of a subjective shared reality whose nature could keep philosophy students properly occupied.

Before the film turns into a surreal concoction of visuals, however, its narrative begins in the live-action realm, with a meta-fictional twist whose class and humanity starkly contrasts with another notable meta-fictional fantasia, namely Charlie Kaufman’s crass and heartless Being John Malkovich. In this case, the twist comes from Robin Wright playing an analogue of herself also named Robin Wright  and also a charismatic Hollywood figure on account of a breakout role in The Princess Bride. Years have passed since that milestone film. Robin’s career has been sidelined in favour of caring for her children, particularly a son whose life is increasingly affected by visual and auditory impairments. Meanwhile, she exasperates her agent, played with sensitive heft by Harvey Keitel, who has played tolerant witness to damaging career choices borne from fear and insecurity.

There is much poignancy to be extracted by what might otherwise be a clichéd scenario, particularly in a scene where Keitel’s agent, in a bid to extract emotion from Robin, delivers a confession that is simultaneously monstrous and heartrending. Yet the narrative takes on greater significance with the layering of an additional dimension to the surface story. On the surface, we are presented with an aging performer confronted with the brute fact of failing to fulfill the shining potential promised by youth. Then entertainment as enacted by technology emerges as a critical theme, embodied by a harsh studio executive who proffers the “last contract” Robin will ever sign. The contract: a one-shot deal that has be taken or abandoned, with the consequences of either choice ineffably etched in ink, regret, or both. Robin’s dilemma: agree to be scanned – body, emotions, mannerism – for the creation of a digital avatar to be used by the studio’s digital puppeteers in the service of future movies. In return for being paid for this technological duplication, Robin is made to agree never to perform again, not even in the local school play.

Thus we have the studio’s vision laid out; a stable of infinitely pliable digital actors, without the drama of a real person to interfere with the machinations of the entertainment studios. But that’s only the set up. If Forman had stopped there, he would already have presented a touching character study with a wistfulness not unlike that The Illusionist, animator Sylvain Chomet’s meditation on age and fading professions. He moves on, however, with a narrative inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s The Futorological Concress. Set 20 years into the future, after Robin has signed her acting persona to Miramount Studios, the film turns to animation. A little ampule, recalling Morpheus’ red pill, bonds Robin to the animated Futurist’s Congress, an exhilarating and chaotic gathering of characters whose styles vary from Robert Crumb to Looney Tunes and others still. The significance of the switch from live-action to animation is simple enough to decipher; it depicts alternate perceptions of reality. (That reference to The Matrix wasn’t accidental, although The Congress has its ontology rooted in something more humane than the Waschowski’s pulp-philosophical pretensions.) In that sense, Folman could have chosen any number of means to achieve his end, animation only being one of several options. Yet animation’s ability to indulge imagination without the technical limits of live filming – practical special effects, costuming, set construction, and so on – proves to be an inspired choice. We are dazzled with characters, creatures, and environments that interact as only they can in a world free of chemical laws, where dream-logic is as much in force as formal logic.

It’s a mind trip, in which we are challenged to go beyond a critique of Hollywood with questions about technological progress and the societal function of entertainment. As the studios’ obsessions with ever more immersive and direct forms of escapism is taken to a logical extreme, a film that began with one particular actor’s ordeal takes on startlingly universal significance. The resulting speculative fiction, whose interpretation has to be pieced together from the few clues that are offered, is ceaselessly fascinating, even spellbinding. It is also surprisingly bleak, although coming to that realization is moderately cushioned by the warmth of human relationships, however ultimately transitory. Curiously, the film is not oppressively downbeat for all that it stares into the deep, dark abyss of technological dystopia. Rather, it leaves us with a pensive melancholy and the lingering drive to interpret and re-interpret the film’s many facets. For all that the consensus at Rotten Tomatoes dings The Congress for a messy structure, I view the convolutions as essential to a film that is, at its core, about subjectivity. Lapses in linearity are not a shortcoming but assets in an intelligent and demanding science-fiction film that rewards our engagement, mind and spirit.


the parabolic trajectory of a dynamic new author (at TFPO)

I've been horrendously negligent in keeping my blog updated with new material - usual excuses, blahbbity blah. But there's still time to catch an exhibit of art from Eddie Han's book, Parabolis. It's on display until August 23rd. For an interview with Eddie and some info about his book, mouse on over The Front Page Online.

The best thing about attending a convention like L.A.’s Comikaze or San Diego Comic-Con isn’t the big-ticket events and vendors, as exciting as they are, but the opportunity to meet dazzlingly creative independent artists. I never fail to be impressed by the diverse, idiosyncratic visions of talented individuals having a go at sharing their work with the public. One example comes from last year’s Comikaze, where I came across ...


a tale of two flops: the lone ranger and john carter (part 2)

Like The Lone Ranger, John Carter is a long-running narrative bookended by a framing story. In this case, the frame involves weary Confederate officer John Carter who apparently dies, leaving behind a journal for his nephew and heir (named Edgar Rice Burroughs, in a metafictional twist) to read. Along with the journal come instructions to keep watch over a tomb that can only be unlocked from the inside. From this, the film launches into its main tale of a man thrust onto the alien world of Mars where he finds himself embroiled with the Tharks, the planet’s four-armed native Martians and, later, in the middle of a civil war between two rival city-states. His Earth physiology gives him an advantaged of strength and speed in the Martian environment, making him a coveted player in the war’s machinations.

Directed by Andrew Stanton, the film is beautiful designed and presented, with all the majesty of an epic story. The good news is that unlike many other films that feature white protagonists wading into “alien” environments (such as Avatar), John Carter successfully avoids the trap of colonialist condescension. The hero might be pivotal in the plot’s balance of power, even idolized in some cases, but he is never deifiedThe Lone Ranger, the stand-ins for aboriginal cultures in John Carter (the aforementioned Tharks) are presented with a complexity that evokes admiration and bafflement in various degrees, both of which play into a nuanced and ultimately respectful cultural portrait. All in all, John Carter comes across like fantasy role-playing.
into a Messianic character. And unlike Native Americans in

So it’s not subtext or conceptualization that weighs John Carter down on Earth, but rather a struggle with the elements of craft. The film runs long at 132 minutes, which gives us enough time to appreciate the gorgeous production design but nevertheless can’t accommodate all the plot stuffed into the narrative by an overly ambitious script. Where John Carter should feel like a brisk pulp adventure, it feels instead like a languid travelogue from a guide who keeps on schedule by giving only the most rudimentary lessons on culture and history. The lead, Taylor Kitsch, isn’t a particular asset either. His generic appeal is just good enough for the material, not rousingly charismatic as one would hope from a heroic pulp adventurer. Less  to no framing story, and more (but zippier) time spent with the core narrative would have elevated the film to the exhilarating altitude this sort of epic calls for.

In the balance, John Carter’s shortcomings are the sort to differentiate a good film from a great one. It’s a good-enough film to tease the imagination, with enough fun in it to wish for the series to continue with a few relatively minor course-corrections. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen for reasons having to do with Hollywood economics. Nevertheless, unlike The Lone Ranger which is a fundamentally flawed film from conception to execution, John Carter has enough charm and substance to make it worth keeping in mind.


a tale of two flops: the lone ranger and john carter (part 1)

Disney’s aspiring blockbuster franchises John Carter and The Lone Ranger are generally dismissed as flops on account of failing to satisfy critics and, most importantly, the all-powerful Box Office. Finding only some sort of lingering life in rentals since their theatrical release, they failed to ignite fandom in spite of each proto-franchise having significant cultural cachet. So what happened? Were the films essential flops or merely victims of marketing hype? The answer, of course, is both…but not to the same degree in each film.

Let’s start with the Wild West. It’s not until the intricately choreographed climactic confrontation on fast-moving trains that The Lone Ranger achieves the buoyant irony-free mood of a heroic adventure. Of all the film’s action set pieces, Verbinsky’s directorial wit shines best in this sequence, naturally set to the tune of the William Tell Overture. Everything that precedes and follows it, however, is a tonally inconsistent narrative that understandably alienates the generations who grew up with the legendary character and fails to impress a new generation of potential fans.

Some of the film’s sour atmosphere emerges from elements like a needlessly gruesome villain, Cavendish, whose cannibalism feels like a cheap shortcut to establish the character’s malevolence. Granted, audiences seem to prefer the directness of horror to the subtlety of terror, but can’t it be enough for a character to be a murderer and thief? Are we so jaded that storytellers have to resort to lurid gimmicks? Forget the expression “jumping the shark” as a shorthand for derailing into nonsense. I propose “eating the heart” instead.

Supernatural overtones, even as the product of an unreliable narrator’s interpretation of events, are similarly contrived. Layering the supernatural onto Cavendish whom Tonto perceives as a Wendigo and John Reid, whose path to becoming the Lone Ranger is associated with a mystical white horse, comes across as a stunt to add sparkle to a mundane plot. At least with Pirates of the Caribbean, the fantasy elements played into a deliberate embrace of exuberant excess.

This is by no means the worse of the script’s tendency to overcomplicate its narrative to the point of unraveling the film. Not content with a simple origin story, a comic element is added by conceiving John Reid as a bumbling city slicker who has to grow, with Tonto’s aid, into the role of heroic masked ranger.  A story rooted in the blurring line between personal revenge and genuine justice, as John is prompted to avenge his brother’s grisly death at Cavendish’s hands, is magnified by a larger plot involving that perennial Wild West villain, the megalomaniacal railroad company executive. And all of that is presented through a framing story in which an aged Tonto tells the story to an enthralled but skeptical young boy, a device that injects uncertainty into the narrative on account of Tonto’s  questionable reliability. It’s all too much, and the film groans with the juxtaposition of narrative themes, storytelling gimmicks, and ideas of all kinds.

Astonishingly, narrative bloat isn’t the film’s greatest shortcoming. As Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End proved, a film can be marvelously entertaining even as it falls apart from the attempt to cram too much into it. Rather, it is the film’s treatment of Native Americans in general and Tonto in particular that makes it a source of queasiness. The good news is that Native Americans aren’t presented as savages in need of civilization, or with the condescending reverence typically deployed in an attempt to counteract negative stereotypes. Yet their role in the film is arguably just as problematic: they serve as victims for the slaughter and, by extension, objects of pity. While the genocidal campaign against Native Americans is a decisive facet of early American life, surely this isn’t the only defining aspect of a people.

Similarly, while I have no objection to the use of tragedy to propel a character forward, as the film does with Tonto, I do question the filmmakers’ conception of the character. In the main narrative, he is portrayed as eccentric and unhinged, but is simultaneously too tragic to be comic relief and too quirky to be dramatically authentic. In other words, this is character that lacks dignity, being alternative a source of amusement and a source of pity. The framing story is even less charitable, presenting us with an old man displaced from this culture and reduced to a prop in a travelling exhibit. Despondent and doddering, with an uncertain relationship to reality, this Tonto merely evokes sadness. What the heck kind of movie is The Lone Ranger, then, that leaves audiences with a downer?

Next up: John Carter


identity, equality, humanity; how social roles restrict us (at TFPO)

Review of Gender & Sexuality for Beginners ... written by Jaimee Garbacik and illustrated by Jeffrey Lewis, examines arguably the most fundamental manifestation of identity politics. Much like Greek Mythology for Beginners, the book is formatted less like a comic book and more like an illustrated text – and a fairly dense one at that. The graphic design would have better benefited readers with a cleaner, more spacious layout. Nevertheless, the book’s well-researched and documented examination of gender construction and sexual orientation is first-rate.



beau & aero hits the target and lifts audiences with laughter (at TFPO)

Review of Beau & Aero, on stage at the Complex (Dorie Theatre) as part of the 2014 Hollywood Fringe Festival. Hurry! Only 3 performances left...

Do you want to know the secret of flight? Here: If you want to fly, you don’t need to close your eyes, madly flap your arms, and wish really hard only to inevitably be disappointed that your feet remained firmly grounded. Instead, go see Beau & Aero, a flight of fancy whose inspired silliness will lift you up with laughter. 


Beau & Aero at the 2014 Hollywood Fringe Festival, by A Little Bit Off. Starring Amica Hunter and David Cantor. On stage at the Complex (Dorie Theatre) located at 6476 Santa Monica Boulevard (at Wilcox). Performances on: Friday, June 20th at 9pm; Saturday, June 21st at 11pm; and Sunday, June 22nd at 3pm. For tickets and information,visit the offical Beau & Aero page at the Hollywood Fringe Festival website.


the hot and cold of long beach ICT’s other desert cities (at TFPO)

A review of Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz, on stage at the Long Beach International City Theatre.

While the political tangles with the personal in the family dysfunction of the Long Beach ICT’s production of Other Desert Cities, the blurring of abstract ideology with human drama is ultimately tangential. The point is not that the Wyeth family parents Lyman Nicholas Horman) and Polly (Suzanne Ford), modeled after Ronald and Nancy Reagan, clash with liberal daughter Brooke (Ann Noble) about politics to the exasperation of the apolitical Hollywood son, Trip (Blake Anthony Edwards). Rather, the point is ... READ THE REST AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

Other Desert Cities. Written by Jon Robin Baitz. Directed by caryn desai. On stage at the Long Beach International City Theatre from June 4 to June 29, 2014. For tickets and information, call 562.436.4610 or visit www.internationalcitytheatre.org.


the wrong analogy: thoughts on the x-men franchise

It’s largely held that the X-Men franchise is narratively rooted in identity politics and civil rights, with mutants serving as analogues to ethnicities, sexual orientation, and other minorities relative to white heterosexual Christian males. Throw in some Nazis, Jews, and the Holocaust and the X-Men’s structural analogy is firmly set in place. That is, a specific interpretation of the X-Men stories – what they signify – is accepted as the “correct” reading.

Yet despite decades of comics and a growing catalogue of variable-quality movies, all charting the conflict between intolerant humans and people who are “different,” the xenophobia analogy continues to ring false. And for a simple reason: unlike homosexuality or the colour of one’s skin, which are not morally harmful despite what bigots believe, mutant superpowers can, and often are, extremely dangerous both to the mutants themselves and everyone around them. Why is it, then, that the franchise views with exaggerated suspicion human attempts to implement some sort of control schema? Why is it so surprising that ordinary humans would be wary, if not outright afraid, of people who wield incredibly destructive powers without, in some cases, suffering from ordinary human vulnerabilities? Consider that in the generally entertaining and well-produced film, X-Men: First Class, Sebastian Shaw and his hellfire club unilaterally conspire to destroy humanity, and rule over the surviving remnants, before the world can even acknowledge the existence of mutants let alone articulate a response to that knowledge. This worldview is uncritically shared, and later perpetuated, by Magneto, who has more reason to be cynical about human tolerance than the megalomaniacal Shaw. (Somehow, it never occurs to anybody, let alone Lensherr, that people also fought against the Nazis and their genocidal ideology.)

While the science-fantasy of the franchise, along with its misunderstanding of evolution, can be overlooked, it is harder to dismiss the X-Men’s equivocation of dangerous mutations with homosexuality or ethnicity. It’s an analogy that strikes me as objectionable and exploitative in-and-of-itself, let alone philosophically suspect. I’m not alone in finding a reason to balk at the interpretation common applied to X-Men’s premise: the always-thoughtful Abigail Nussbaum critiques First Class for explicitly drawing a comparison between Jews and mutants and, in her essay, deftly demonstrates why the xenophobia analogy leads to problematic interpretations. However, she stops short of questioning why we accept the analogy at all; a film’s characters and events are not necessarily symbolic of anything. (Erik Lensherr, for example, isn’t a stand-in for all Jews just because he is Jewish.)

So I ask: why accept the xenophobia analogy when it so clearly doesn’t work as a unifying concept for stories and characters? With the very premise and characters forced to fit into an unworkable analogy, events are scripted to bear a meaning they can’t ultimately support. Even dialogue can often emotionally dishonest in the film’s drama – is it really so bad to want to be a normal human if you’re mutation is dangerous? – because the characters are not really talking about what’s going on, only what the writers thing is going on. It’s rather like a bad subtitle job in which the text doesn’t match what the actors are actually saying.

What if, instead, the X-Men franchise in general, and First Class in particular, was reconsidered in terms of gun control politics?

On one side are the 2nd Amendment literalists, who believe in the unregulated use of power – represented in First Class first by Sebastian Shaw, and later by Magneto, and their mutant allies. On another are the gun control advocates, who vary in degree between absolutists who would ban all guns (and overreact in the pursuit of their goal), typically represented in the films by the US Government, and moderates represented by Professor X and his team who argue in favour of balance between two extremes. Under this analogy, the X-Men operate as a kind of police force, equipped with the right tools and skills to face-off against a criminal element, or least individuals acting outside the law, with superpowers. Simultaneously, they try to restrain government and societal forces who, out of fear/hate (whether justified and irrationally extreme), make no distinction between responsible and irresponsible mutants – that is, mutants who use their gifts for the benefit of others, or not at all, rather than to cause harm. The actual philosophical disagreement between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, then, is over when and how to use force, with the Professor favouring a law & order approach, Magneto preferring unchecked vigilantism, and everyone else falling at different points within the political spectrum.


doodling by any other name (at TFPO)

Review of the “Joy of Zentangle,” featuring contributing artists Suzanne McNeill, CZT, Sandy Steen Bartholomew, CZT, and Marie Browning, CZT. 

Is there any artistic hope for people like me, who can’t draw to save their lives and, more importantly, don’t have the time to take drawing classes? It’s somewhat of a trick question. Obviously, without devoting the time to learning drawing skills most of us don’t have the innate talent to create beautiful images. Yet that creative impulse still can be satisfied by the art of doodling or, as this book by Design Originals calls it, the “Joy of Zentangle." READ THE FULL REVIEW AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


one thing to do to help yourself, animals, and the planet (at TFPO)

What if you could do one thing that is good for animals, the environment, your health, and your pocketbook?

What if I were to ask you to try it for just one week and see how it goes?

Would you do it?

Find out what at TFPO...


"white marriage" calls for a divorce (at TFPO)

A review of "White Marriage" on stage at the Odyssey Theatre.

The French call it a mariage blanc, which translates to “white marriage,” although “blank marriage” would be equally appropriate. It’s an expression that refers to unconsummated nuptials. As the title of a play by noted Polish playwright and poet Tadeusz Różewicz, however, it takes on the unintended meaning of a play with unconsummated drama.

Ostensibly the story of a naïve girl, Bianca, growing into womanhood while confronted by her impending marriage to an equally naïve boy named Benjamin, Różewicz’s fantasia concerns sex. At the cusp of puberty, young Bianca is not so much innocent, but beholden to a slanted, idiosyncratic perspective of sex that Sigmund Freud, whose name should have been spelled with an “a” instead of an “e,” would have approved. Suspicion and terror – both influenced by an excess of imagination that is inflamed through a volatile relationship with her precocious best friend Pauline. 

It might be easy to imagine a structured narrative from these preceding sentences, a slender path that navigates the play’s theatrical woods to deliver an insightful account of blossoming womanhood (in all the meanings implied by the botanical metaphor). Yet ... READ THE REST AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

White Marriage. Written by Tadeusz Różewicz. Directed by Ron Sossi. On stage at the Odyssey Theatre until May 25, 2014. For information and tickets, call (310) 477-2055 ext. 2 or visit www.OdysseyTheatre.com.


coffee's cloud nine at the bar nine collective (at TFPO)

An introduction to Culver City's awesome new coffee wonderland, Bar Nine Collective... 

Here’s a riddle for you: When is coffee like wine? Before I offer you the answer, take a moment to consider what kind of coffee drinker you are. Are you: READ THE REST AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


i saw design: thoughts on the meaning of good design

Several years ago, Metropolis Magazine asked a good and timely question: what is good design? The question is personally interesting not only because it indulges my propensity to pontificate, but also because it relates to the work I do and the industry I work in. And so, Peter Hall’s view that design is an argument. To quote:

Many objects are designed not to be useful but to make an argument. And my contention is that every object is an argument of some sort, and its strength or weakness as an argument is a good guide to its value. The theorist Richard Buchanan once identified three rhetorical characteristics of a product’s design: Its logos, or technological reasoning, is the clarity of its ­function—the way in which, say, a spoon is an argument for getting food from the plate to the mouth, or a clamshell shape suggests that the cell phone needs to be opened to be used. Its ethos, or character, is how it reflects its maker; a Dieter Rams–designed Braun product conveys an unobtrusive, efficient quality. Its pathos, or emotion, is how it persuades its potential users that it is desirable and useful to them—its sexiness, if you like.
But the most valuable effect of considering an object as an argument is that it allows us to look under the rhetorical hood and consider it not as an inevitable or neutral invention but as something that embodies a point of view.

Hall then goes on to offer examples, such as the iPod as an argument for how we should consume music instead of merely a music-playing device and the Model-T as argument for fossil-fueled transportation.
It’s an interesting perspective. Yet it strikes me as overly rhetorical, even problematic as it uses one vague concept (“argument”) to define another. And when Hall suggests that the implied timelessness of the traditional notion of “good design” glosses over the fact that problems are “too big and slippery to stamp or fix,” his argument in favour of design-as-an-argument risk even more puffery, since it is by no means philosophically necessary that any act of design can, or should be, divorced from its (historical) context.

The biggest shortcoming of defining design as an argument is that it ultimately fails to distinguish the activity of design from other activities. Hall writes:

Viewing designs as arguments frees us from the art world’s tendency to evaluate on aesthetic criteria alone. It insists on contextual evaluation: design is not just about how a thing looks or how it works; it is also about the assumptions on which it rests.

But can’t we say that art is an argument in favour of a particular insight into the human condition, that in art, aesthetics is the medium of communication? If we grant that art is also an argument, that, in fact, any action is an argument promoting a certain set of assumptions, then we are left with the question as to how to distinguish design from any other activity (such as art).

Suppose that, instead, we create a model based on the elements of form, function (how something works), and purpose (i.e. the goal). A dialectic of these elements leads to a clear and distinct definition:

Design is the purposeful synthesis of form and function. 

Purposeful, because design is an intentional act, which distinguishes it from the non-conscious, non-volitional occurrence of creation in nature. It a human act.

A synthesis, because it is a dialectic of function (thesis) and form (anti-thesis).

(By implication…

Form without function or purpose is ornament. One could argue that the aesthetic is its own purpose, which would be fine, but not really saying much at all.

Form without function but with purpose is art.

Function with purpose but without form is engineering, although it’s more accurate to say that the form arises directly out of the function. You can make a tool that solves a problem, but unless its form is accounted for it might unusable in other important ways.

But I digress.)

The next question it the question raised by Hall, namely, what is good design? Hall offers a list:

  • Good Is Sustainable
  • Good Is Accessible
  • Good Is Functional
  • Good Is Well Made 
  • Good Is Emotionally Resonant
  • Good Is Enduring
  • Good Is Socially Beneficial
  • Good Is Beautiful
  • Good Is Ergonomic
  • Good Is Affordable

And it’s a good list, although relative. A space shuttle is beautiful, well made, socially beneficial, emotionally resonant, and so on…but affordable it is not. (Or, rather, affordable is relative; the government can afford it, but you and I can’t.) Hall acknowledges the problem …

No argument could meet all these criteria, but it might satisfy a few. More to the point, a loose framework gets us beyond the problem of labeling design as good or bad, or seeing problems as solvable. There are no solutions to design problems. There are only responses in the form of arguments.

… and takes us right back to the shortcomings of viewing design as an argument.

I think the answer to what constitutes good design can be simple and straightforward: good design is design that solves problems while eliminating, or minimizing, new problems that arise out from the solution. Because of course there are solutions to design problems. Scissors are the solution to the design problem of cutting paper. Cars are the design solution to the problem of high-speed mobility. But the extent to which a solution is a good design depends on how few problems are created as a result of the design. The combustion engine, for example, is a good engineering design to propel cars, yet it creates the problems of fossil-fuel dependency and pollution. An electric motor solves this problem while accomplishing the same goal, yet there is the problem of battery charging and disposal. This means that the good design isn’t necessarily the result of an absolute measure, but a relative measure. And it takes into account all the good things Hall enumerates, and perhaps more. An ergonomic chair is a better design than a simple chair that consists of a flat seat and flat backrest. A biodegradable fork made from natural, non-toxic materials is a better design than a plastic fork.

Putting it all together:

Design is the purposeful synthesis of form and function in a way that solves a problem while minimizing the creation of new problems.

What do you think?


flyin' west, soarin' low (at TFPO)

A review of Flyin' West, on stage at the International City Theatre in Long Beach until April 6, 2014.

On the heels of the toe-tapping Cole Porter musical Let’s Misbehave, the International City Theatre’s season of “uniquely American stories” continues with the way-back machine set to the unsteady period after the Civil War in Pearl Cleage’s Flyin’ West. As the Author’s Notes helpfully inform us, tens of thousands of African-Americans left the South to escape racist violence and establish all-black settlements where they could live and work towards achieving their own dreams. It’s not a well-known chapter of American history, which makes it all the more important a story to tell ... READ THE REST AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

Flyin' West. Written by Pearl Cleage. Directed by Saundra McClain. On stage at the International City Theatre in Long Beach until April 6. For ticket information and showtimes, visit www.internationalcitytheatre.org or call 562.536.4610.


walk me home, run to the theatre (at TFPO)

Although no longer on stage - what is it with 2-week runs? - the follow review should be a call to keep an eye for future Theatre by the Blind productions.

In anticipation of Theatre by the Blind’s Walk Me Home, I was cautioned (twice!) to be gentle and keep in mind that this is not a professional acting troupe. Setting aside the implication, intentional or otherwise, that I might be an unusually tough critic, the warnings were unnecessary. Professionalism isn’t an indispensable hallmark of good theatre, rendering moot the arguably condescending prerequisite to lower expectations or relax the critical standards against which all theatrical productions are measured. Read the rest of my review at  THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE.


put your best (bare)foot forward (at TFPO)

An interview with Steven Sashen of Xero Shoes.

What’s the worst thing you could do to your feet?

Could it be…wearing shoes?

Walk into almost any practical shoe store, or pick up a catalog like Footsmart, and the number of shoes that purport to align, realign, support, strengthen, and otherwise correct will knock you off your feet. (Note: All puns intended, without apologies.) What if instead of helping our feet they are actually ... Read the rest at THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

Discuss below...


playing catch-up: pacific rim and elysium

So here I am, playing catch up with movies I watched last year but didn't have the time to write about.

Pacific Rim

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Pacific Rim is a rhythmically adept film, hitting every beat of the Hollywood action genre on time and in sequence. Hence, the square-jawed hero with a personal tragedy to overcome, a traumatized novice in need of confidence, the nerdy scientist who turns out to have been right all along, the inspirational speeches, the inevitable pummeling that precedes the resounding victory, and so on. Given the expense of making these visually-intensive films, it comes as no surprise that Hollywood prefers to play it safe for the sake of recouping their costs however much one would wish for narratives as dazzling as their presentation.

Nevertheless, the difference between this spectacle and the usual thumping is that Guillermo Del Toro is the one with the drum, and this is a director whose imagination and attention to detail in films like Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth earn him the cinematic rank of visionary. His love of fantasy and the unique niche inhabited by giant robots and monsters infuses every frame of this epic tale of humanity under siege, in which giant robots are created to combat an extra-dimensional monster menace. There’s a nostalgic element at play. Many scenes bring back beloved moments from childhood cartoons like Tranzor-Z, bringing forth gushing enthusiasm for every identifiable homage. And the film benefits immensely from Del Toro’s resistance to fetishistic militarism, as he discusses with the Toronto Star’s Peter Howell. His careful consideration about how to stage mass destruction – making sure to have people evacuate areas under attack by the monsters called Kaiju – distinguishes him from blunt directors like Zack Snyder and Michael. Where they display no awareness of their combatants’ collateral damage, Del Toro provides morally-aware spectacle. So go ahead and appreciate the large-scale property damage; there aren’t any people in those buildings.

It all comes to this: The production design, the kinetic direction, the cinematography – and it bears repeating, the love –all adds up to pure, unabashed fan-boy-and-girl, bounce-off-the-walls, rock-em sock-em giddiness that puts most other blockbusters to shame. Come on. Giant! Fucking! Robots! (And really monstrous monsters!) Also: Ron Perlman as a fashionably bad-ass black marketeer with the glorious name of Hannibal Chau.



Along with its predecessor, District 9, Neil Blomkamp’s sophomore film Elysium proves that it is possible to deliver intelligent yet accessible science fiction to audiences who generally reject anything other than a light sprinkling of speculative science in their adventures. And like District 9, Elysium is layered with topical politics in its story of a ravaged future Earth lorded over by isolationist elites who live aboard an orbiting space station.

But the film ultimately disappoints, however riveting it is to watch the ever-likeable Matt Damon portray a convict who, faced with a sealed fate after exposure to lethal radiation, accepts a job to infiltrate the wealthy elites’ space fortress. What begins as a thoughtful presentation on social and political inequality, amplified by technology to its logical extreme, eventually settles into a dodgy action movie that brings to mind, of all things, Iron Man. When faced with the choice of two villains for the film’s climax, Blomkamp chooses the lesser of the two to deliver a physical rather than polemical confrontation. A safe and entertaining choice, perhaps, but also timid and artless, as if afraid of making a statement with any more controversy than a bowl of porridge. Elysium is by no means disposable, but it is also not especially memorable.


The ICT Ain’t Got No Behavior – And That’s How We Like It (at TFPO)

Review of Let's Misbehave at Long Beach's International City Theatre:

The ICT launches its 2014 season with a treat: A Cole Porter soufflé. You can hardly go wrong with a production founded on music by a hall of famer in the Great American Songbook. Just put a CD player (or MP3 player, if that’s your thing) on an empty stage, press play, and Porter’s music is enough by itself to keep an audience entertained. In Let’s Misbehave, the ICT thankfully goes beyond a recording with a spirited production that ... Read the rest at The Front Page Online

Let’s Misbehave. Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter. Book by Karin Bowersock. Musical Arrangements by Patrick Young. Directed and Choreographed by Todd Nielsen. On stage at the International City Theatre in Long Beach until Feb 16. For ticket information and showtimes, visit www.internationalcitytheatre.org or call 562.536.4610.