snowpiercer: snow job cinema

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


crimson peak: spirited, but lacking soul (at TFPO)

Guillermo del Toro’s ode to Gothic literature begins with one of those typically useless warnings: “Beware Crimson Peak!” Not something actionable like, “Don’t trust Thomas Sharpe and his sister” or “Stay away from Allerdale Hall if you value your life.” No: “Beware Crimson Peak,” delivered to a terrified little girl by her dead mother’s frightful apparition. The warning isn’t without purpose. It’s a lazy trick to set an ominous mood for audiences – without ending the story before it begins. After all, a practical warning would mean that the film’s plucky heroine, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), never would marry Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and never go to Allerdale Hall to experience the horror, the horror!

If this sort of atmospheric but pointlessly cryptic warning were the film’s only instance of crystal ball-gazing, it would hardly be worth mentioning. But ... READ THE FULL REVIEW AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


forget buddhism. meet the Buddha. (at TFPO)

A review of Buddha for Beginners by Steven T. Asma.

Say “Buddhism,” and the free-association machine will gin up everything from the Dalai Lama, self-immolating monks, and robed meditators to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Kung Fu movies, and that chubby laugher with no hair. Or, perhaps, “Buddhism” will simply considered as yet another category among the world’s major religions, like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism.
But just as Christianity can’t be simply reduced to affectionate pastiche (hello, buddy Jesus!), and sweeping pop-culture generalizations – or treated as a categorical, conceptually-unified block – Buddhism is an umbrella spanning a rich diversity of ideas and practices flourishing in 2,500 years of history.

Buddha for Beginners, by Columbia College Professor of Philosophy and Distinguished Scholar Steven Asma, isn’t about “Buddhism” when by “Buddhism” we mean the ways in which the Buddha’s teachings have found expression in different and idiosyncratic cultural practices. In this sense, “Buddhism” is a manifestation of that most fundamental human instinct: The taxonomic impulse to label everything and, for better and worse, confine everything to their labels. Prof. Asma doesn’t condemn these many cultural Buddhisms and their corresponding Buddhists as rightly or wrongly labeled. But he is willing to do what few primers in the field of religious studies are willing to do, namely... READ THE FULL REVIEW AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


disjointed "breathing room" suffocates its good ideas

Review of Breathing Room, on stage at the Greenway Court Theatre

I can appreciate an avant-garde piece as much as the next open-minded traditionalist, except when it feels like a strained, even failing, rearguard action to unify fragmentary ideas into a cohesive whole. The point of Breathing Room is well-taken: A call for reconnecting with nature as an antidote to what creator/composer Mary Lou Newmark terms “modern technologic vertigo.” But the affair is curiously artless or, at least, undeveloped; barely molded clay, despite ... READ THE FULL REVIEW AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


throw tom cruise from the plane (@ TFPO)

Review of Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation

So the plot is screwier than a screw factory’s assembly line, the villain’s motives more nebulous than a studio executive’s cigar smoke, fidelity to Bruce Geller’s vision a product of wishful marketing, and Ethan Hunt miraculously harder to kill, let alone bruise, than Bruce Willis in the Die Hard series; this latest entry in the Mission: Impossible series is still the best next to Brian de Palma’s inaugural translation (De Palma’s insulting faux-pas notwithstanding).

Maybe someday we’ll get a Mission: Impossible written by someone with the original TV series in their video library and a bookshelf filled with Le Carré novels. Until then we can enjoy Rogue Nation on its own terms as...CONTINUE READING AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


the ICT raises excellent fences, breaks down barriers

A review of August Wilson’s Fences, on stage at the International City Theatre in Long Beach.

Although the timing is coincidental, it seems entirely appropriate that the ICT should stage August Wilson’s Fences while the Black Lives Matter movement coalesces and generates momentum. Where the political system, supported by a domesticated media, has failed to build a politics of inclusion, it falls to the arts to wage a campaign for hearts and minds, however arguably quixotic.

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, the sixth piece in Wilson’s ten-play cycle exploring black experiences in the 20th century gives voice to ... read the rest of my review at The Front Page Online


they don't make tomorrows like they used to: thoughts on tomorrowland

Strip away Tomorrowland’s thematic ambitions and you’re left with an entirely serviceable Disney product: entertaining, easy to consume, and the usual uneasy blend of the heartfelt and the glib. Directed by Brad Bird, who co-wrote the script with Damon Lindelhof and Jeff Jensen, the film is most charismatic in its depiction of the marvelous City of Tomorrow with its streamlined architecture, gleaming spires, levitating trains, daredevil jetpacks, shiny rocket ships, and helpful robots. The film’s retro-futuristic vision purposely draws on the past’s hopes for the future, asking why our present doesn’t live up to the utopian ideals dreamt by a world still reeling from the devastation of World War II and, crucially, its atomic horrors. What went wrong?

Insofar as Tomorrowland follows the beats of a conventional adventure movie – with teenaged Casey (Britt Robertson) caught up in a plot to prevent world destruction by solving the mystery of a city glimpsed virtually via a lapel pin – we get our fair share of excitement from the usual moments of peril (and hair-raising escapes), punctuated by the frequent, shamelessly fun indulgence of our fetish for cool gadgets. The most thrilling moment involves the Eiffel tower and a bit of revisionist history. But some of the quieter character moments are impactful too, whether it’s the loving father-daughter interaction between Casey and her NASA engineer dad (played by Tim McGraw) or the moment budding child inventor Frank (Thomas Robinson) presents his jetpack at the World’s Fair in the hopes of proving himself. Also: the never-dull Hugh Laurie as the film’s antagonist, David Nix.

Tomorrowland’s appeal is mostly eye candy, but we can at least sympathize with a teenager who resorts to sabotaging cranes in an effort to prevent the demolition of a NASA shuttle launching pad. The film is fundamentally rooted in the wonder of science – a sentiment that is all-too-lacking in an industry that has a greater affinity for magic and fantasy.

Yet the film doesn’t mean what it thinks it means. Although presenting itself as a critique of the apocalyptic mindset we’ve apparently adopted, reminding us of the hope and optimism the world once held in regards to the future, Tomorrowland offers instead an unworkable, self-defeating, and corruptible vision. The story’s premise of a secret city in which the world’s best and brightest dreamers can work unencumbered by politics and bureaucracy is troubling in itself. It’s an idea lifted from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, reinforced by notions of recruitment via special pins delivered to the worthy few as well as the repeated assertion that Casey, like Frank before her, is “special.” Not only does Tomorrowland set up a literal ivory tower whose relationship to the world is lofty and superior, the film populates said tower with insular elitists where the ordinary and common need not apply. How the work of these elites is supposed to benefit the common people is never explained, which leads to another risible aspect of the film’s vision: the utopia it presents is technological in nature, as if better and more wondrous technology is enough to fix everything. It would be laughable for its naivety if it weren’t an attitude adopted by many of the world’s technologists, like Bill Gates and Elon Musk. In positing a politics-free community, Tomorrowland misses the point: all human interactions are politics to some extent. The question isn’t one of eliminating politics, but of replacing bad politics with better ones. Alas, the social dimensions of the problems we face are swept aside by the awesome sight of technological innovation. Why grapple with the gray chaos of psychology when you can launch your jetpack with the 1 or 0 certainty of engineering?

Trying to pass an elitist techno-utopia as a vision to aspire for is enough to sink the film’s preachy claim to optimism. Seeing how Tomorrowland’s idealism lacks conviction exposes how superficial its vision is. The film’s cavalier treatment of violence is one example. As Casey, grouchy adult Frank (George Clooney), and the android child Athena (played with scene-stealing personality by Rafey Cassidy) try to find a way back to Tomorrowland, they are pursued by Stepford Men in Black who unhesitatingly vaporize humans who get in their way. No thought is spared for these victims … nor is any question raised about the violence directed towards the androids. The only difference between the beheadings, stabbings, and beatings in Tomorrowland and those we’d find in a horror movie is the sanitizing effect of mechanical destruction versus flesh-and-blood gore. On a broader level, this casual brutality serves to ironically betray the antagonist’s condemnation of the world’s savagery. If his Tomorrowland represents civilization, why is violence so thoughtlessly deployed? And why does David Nix style himself like a military dictator?

It’s disappointing to find a film proclaim imagination and hope as the antidote to apocalyptic despair only to ultimately settle differences of perspective by the brute force that enables apocalyptic movements. When Hugh Laurie’s dour character eloquently describes the motivational problem we have as a species confronting world-alternative challenges, his bleak and accurate outlook is not defeated or counteracted by imagination and superior reasoning, but by explosions and a crushing death. Forget the hopeful message, then: Tomorrowland reduces itself to capacity of the strong to impose their will on the weak, however indirectly, even as it hopes the victors are special, enlightened people.

That Tomorrowland is enjoyable at all stems from the strength of many of its parts; the production design, character-building moments, and that flicker of a genuine human hope for a better future. Yet as far as the search for a credible 21st Century update to Gene Rodenberry’s optimism is concerned, these aren’t the droids we’re looking for.

abigail/1702: not a crucible, but still fine theatre (at TFPO)

Review of Abigail/1702 at the Long Beach International City Theatre

What ever happened to teenaged Abigail Williams? Last we heard, she escaped Arthur Miller’s The Crucible – and the ruin she catalyzed in Salem – with money stolen from her Uncle Parris. Her fate was left to us to imagine for ourselves, based on our appraisal of her character. Was she a  sociopath or merely a troubled opportunist? Malicious or … READ THE REVIEW AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


I and You sings the body electric, but ends on a false note (at TFPO)

Review of I and You by X, on stage at the Fountain Theatre.

I and You begins with a scenario that is beautiful in its simplicity and both poignant and funny in its staging: A sick, shut-in teenager named Caroline receives a visit from classmate Anthony to complete a class assignment on Walt Whitman. Throughout their time together, they enact an antidote to the sort of insidious alienation Pink Floyd so vividly charted in The Wall, as both Caroline’s fortress and Anthony’s easy-going façade are dismantled brick-by-brick until they spark a relationship. English teachers everywhere would rejoice to learn that this bond is achieved via the teens’ growing appreciation, and eventual endorsement, of classic but still living poetry. No more banging heart’s against a mad bugger’s wall. Here comes Whitman, from 150 years ago, who triumphantly declared … READ MY REVIEW AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


quick review: frozen

Frozen opens with Frode Fjellheim’s beautiful blend of Saami yoiking and the Danish Christmas hymn “Dejlig er jorden” (”Fairest Lord Jesus”), eliciting the hope that the film, like the music, will be something other the porridge Disney tends to serve out. Alas, it’s not to be. The music quickly returns to that peculiarly unambitious Disney pop house style, punctuated by the catchy but cloying Let It Go, which seems entirely fitting for a film that is lukewarm at best.

The animation rates as nice in quotation marks, with the snowy special effects standing out. Overall, however, Frozen’s rendering exhibits the CGI gloss that makes the characters and the environment, designed in Disney’s safe house style, seem too much like extruded plastic. The story feels similarly extruded from the big Hollywood book of marketing-approved plots, with a narrative that rushes to introduce its premise before becoming curiously inert (e.g. nothing much happens, although foreseeable twist involving the prince is a nice touch). There are flashes of cleverness in supporting characters such as the amiable rock trolls and, in particular, an oddball snowman who consistently charms scenes away from the main cast. But the core story might as well be called a shell story; a simplistic affair that, unlike the similarly simplistic but charming Tale of Despereaux, doesn’t benefit from especially rich drawing. Elsa’s alienation, on account of ice-related magic she can’t control, is treated perfunctorily, and her devoted sister Anna is plunked into an entirely predictable love triangle. Though it’s a tale of sisterly bonding, the emotional stakes rarely arise from anything other than sitcom setups. As a story of female empowerment, it’s hard to see the mix of Disney’s usual Princess fetish with a message to embrace one’s unique qualities as anything more than a well-intentioned but ineffective gesture. The best that can be said is that, in the vein of films like Paranorman, Frozen foregoes the usual Manichean climax in favour of a lesson in forgiveness. Isn’t that nice?


odyssey theatre pops the corktown '57, with winning results (at TFPO)

Review of Corktown ’57 on stage at the Odyssey Theatre.

Science-fiction author Frank Herbert rightly observed that “Blood is thicker than water, but politics are thicker than blood.” Set in a Republican Irish neighbourhood in Philadelphia, Corktown ’57 deftly dramatizes the way in which familial bonds can be worn, frayed, and ultimately disintegrated by ideological conflict – in this case, the historical antagonism between the Irish and the British.

Loosely inspired by playwright John Fazakerley’s family memories, and embellished for dramatic effect, Corktown ’57 invites us into...READ THE REVIEW AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE

wonder woman: reviving William Moulton Marston's original feminist icon (At TFPO)

A review of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics – 1941 -1948 by Noah Berlatsky. 

When Warner Bros. and DC announced that Wonder Woman would make an appearance in Zack Snyder’s follow-up to Man of Steel (and precursor to a forthcoming Justice League movie), the obvious questions were: What took so long, and why is such an important and interesting character being tucked into a film about two men divided by the letter “v?”

Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948, by culture critic Noah Berlatsky, doesn’t propose to offer insight into DC’s movie universe, but it does explore the origins of an iconic character through her creator, William Moulton Marston (who wrote under the pen name Charles Moulton.)

Berlatsky is at his most persuasive when he...READ THE REVIEW AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


fashion design is boring - a small dose of pontification

I recently came across a feature on a new fashion label that unintentionally encapsulated precisely what is wrong with fashion design as a profession today. Without naming names, the revelation comes by way of one of the label’s founders: “With women we are exploring many more categories, more of an emphasis on style and being relevant to what’s happening in fashion, whereas with men it’s extremely timeless.” And this, after the article describes the men’s collection as “t-shirts, woven shirts, knits, jackets and chinos in muted, low-key colours” that, according to the same founder, men “won’t get called out on.”

Heavens to Betsy, we wouldn’t want men to get called out for what they’re wearing.

The problem is the concept of timelessness. In some contexts, the concept of timelessness represents a universal quality, a consistent solution to a persistent design problem, an aesthetic that transcends cultural identification, an idea whose relevance endures over long periods of time. Yet timelessness can also be a manifestation of the status quo, a conceptual frost that favours the static over the dynamic. “Timeless” becomes more excuse than rationale, an apology (without acknowledging it as such) for failing, not to innovate, but to even attempt innovation.

This isn’t to say that women’s fashion is the product of innovative design in and of itself while men’s fashion is fundamentally stagnant. Although there’s no question that the most fun in fashion design is to be found in products for women –see Mohop shoes, or early United Nude designs, for example – fashion designers, as the quote above reveals, nevertheless tend to deploy a conservative hybrid of recycled imagination and reactivity. The relevance to what’s happening in fashion, what’s trending for women, is essentially an example of cyclical cannibalism. Designers resurrect and reinvent past trends in women’s fashion over and over again, with variations marketed as more than they are. Once in a while, they fly their freak flag with wild and admittedly imaginative designs, but so what? They’re typically too impractical and artsy for daily wear. Men don’t get trends, but quality craftsmanship for “timeless” styles, aka lazy design.

For fashion design to be innovative, let alone revolutionary, it should purposefully upset the established order of gendered stereotypes, reject the homogenizing effects of mass production in favor of bespoke artisanship, and genuinely challenge the tension between individuality and social identity manifested in how we choose to appear. It’s not enough for fashion design to question design objects. It must also question the process and reasoning of design itself.

Anything else is just the same old pursuit of commoditized novelty, gendered to favour women with imagination and men with timelessness.


some music wanders on purpose: thoughts on pink floyd's endless river and division bell

When The Division Bell was released in 1994, roughly at the beginning of my musical adventuring, my exposure to Pink Floyd had been more or less limited to The Wall. In comparison to that seminal rock album, one I’d unhesitatingly place as a 20th century masterpiece, The Division Bell seemed rather lacklustre. Tracks like A Great Day for Freedom recalled the melodic riffs I latched onto in the band…but then there were tracks that came across merely as soft and meandering. Prog rock, I thought, shouldn’t come across like soft jazz.

Over 20 years later, with a more evolved appreciation for music and greater knowledge of Pink Floyd’s word, the release of Endless River prompted me to return to The Division Bell and give it another listen. Surprise, surprise, the album doesn’t sound the same. While certainly not a landmark like The Wall, nor seminal like earlier albums (Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and so on), The Division Bell is also far from “rubbish” as Roger Waters unkindly judges it. Liberated from the demands of aggressive ambition, the album’s relaxed demeanour feels today, quite simply, like having a seat in a studio filled with musicians at ease with each other.

As a parallel album in space if not entirely in time – the music was recorded during the Division Bell sessions but unreleased at the time – Endless River serves as epitaph in memory of Richard Wright, a coda to Division Bell, and a pensive epilogue, as it were, to a classic and essential band. Predictably, the critical consensus circles the verdict that this is the sort of music put out by rock ‘n rollers after their exile to the retirement home. Some reviewers tack away from this view, praising the album for what it is, while others reject it as a disappointing, sighing retread. In the “end,” only one’s own ears can tell which it is.

Arguing over the musicianship strikes me as a technical dead end. But artistically, it’s hard to refute the argument that the band has not been driven towards conceptual grandeur after The Wall, an impulse that exited stage left along with Roger Waters. Endless River, like The Division Bell, is hardly a tremor let alone an earthquake insofar as visionary music goes. But as a straight-up listening experience, music for the senses more so than the mind, Endless River benefits from a quality that Division Bell exhibits after one gets past its drive to be “about” something. By foregoing the conceptual burden of lyrics (except for the last track, Louder Than Words) in favour of riffs and jams, improvisations and musical quotations, the album is allowed to stand for itself. Like its title suggests, the music isn’t about a particular destination, or even a port of origin (unless you want to bring band politics and other contexts into play), but a quietly compelling journey by accomplished musicians limited only by one’s preconceptions and expectations. More ceremonious than a fade to black, Endless River is best enjoyed in a darkened room as a mind trip from the planetarium to outer space – just like The Division Bell, in the end.