Thursday, September 25, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Adaptation: A Film Review of 2011's "The Rum Diary"

       Last month, the tabloid that is the Edmonton Sun newspaper ran an article by local radio morning show personality Yukon Jack, denouncing Leonardo DiCaprio’s visit to the Alberta’s oil sands which was for, like a number of celebrities before him, environmental awareness:

       “James Cameron needs to stick to making movies about sinking ships and liquid metal cyborgs and leave the tailings ponds to us. Hey hey, my my...maybe Neil Young should shut his stupid face. . . . It would be easy to dismiss celebrities and their harsh criticisms of our bread and butter as most of Hollywood does indeed have their heads up their asses . . . [but] it hurts when someone you like takes a shot at you or your home. T2 and Aliens were awesome. Neil Young has written some of the most hauntingly beautiful songs in the history of rock. And Leo DiCaprio was so good in the Wolf of Wall Street he made me want to start doing hard drugs"(i).

       I’ve written before about how a film’s message can be easily misinterpreted, using The Wolf of Wall Street as an example of a film that inspired a generation of frat boys to dream of Quaalude highs rather than contemplate the merits of personal gain at the loss of others’. But what do you expect? If, by the end of the film, you’re too busy trying to remember Jonah Hill quotes that lose their luster out of context (“If anyone’s gonna fuck my cousin it’s gonna be me, out of respect”) or Googling the chick who played Leo's supermodel wife (Margot Robbie), you probably won’t be viewing the film’s last scene as an intentional mirroring of you, the viewer – sitting in a theatre, more focused on Leo’s pen and the lifestyle it represents than any deeper theme.

       I can think of no other artist whose legacy has been warped by interpretations that place too much emphasis on drugs, than Hunter S. Thompson’s. But for a number of reasons, I'm hesitant to write about him. First, since his character is defined by the lack of objectivity, it invites neither criticism nor adoration: “Even when we have ostensibly outside sources, the truth around Thompson seems to warp like light distorted in space around an object with immense gravitational pull”(ii). Secondly, because his writing style reads powerfully and uniquely enough even today, there is an innate temptation that needs to be suppressed, for fear of the sheer tackiness that defines those film reviews of 2011’s The Rum Diary that are written as a first hand accounts of a mickey-and-a-movie night with one’s attorney and the wild and crazy shenanigans that ensued. Some try so hard to imitate his Gonzo prose that they’re blatantly insulting: “Now, six years after he sucked the metallic popsicle at his Colorado ranch, that ‘very strange movie’ has been filmed . . ."(iii).

       Actually it wasn’t until three years after it’s initial release that the film adaptation of The Rum Diary spurred my interest in the famed counter-culture writer of the 20th century and whatever he is remembered as today. When I first saw the film in theatres three years ago, like most others, I disliked it. The marketing campaign had created expectations of a spiritual prequel to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and so burnouts and whoo-boys alike lined up for a nonsensical, drug-induced

 romp – what we got was an aimlessly drawn out story with one hallucinogenic drug scene, seemingly shoed in to satisfy the targeted demographic who by then had all walked out, turned off by the lack of narcotics and the kind of overtly strong political themes that leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. For us, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas remained the definitive Hunter S. Thompson film.
        But therein lies the problem: those were our expectations, and they ran very counter to what the film is about, and what Hunter S. Thompson himself was about. Providing sick and twisted stories for people to love because of their ambiguity was never Thompson’s intention: “I want to be careful of this. In the past two weeks I’ve received two different books that used ‘selections’ from ‘Hell’s Angels,’ and in both cases I was shocked at what happens to my stuff when its printed out of context. All it takes is a few cuts on the Humor to make the rest seem like the ravings of a dangerous lunatic “(iv).
Facetious though he may have been, Thompson’s larger-than-life tales of drug trips are meant to get his readers hooked so that he can start talking about politics, which was arguably the sole purpose for his persona to even exist. Richard Nixon was the Joker to his Batman. Take that purpose out of the picture and all you have is comedy about a grown man running around in his underwear. Even in Bat Country that's just plain stupid.

        But that’s the process of adaptation for you. In the past I’ve written about literary scholar Linda Hutcheon’s theories of adaptation and her term “interpretive doubling” as the flipping back and forth between an adaptation we are experiencing and the original that we are familiar with. However, “the process of ‘interpretive doubling’ only includes that which has occupied a pivotal place in the cultural imaginary” (v). Today, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas without a doubt occupies that place for Thompson, and as such, we compare all adaptations of Thompson’s work to this “original.” Although Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas does contain aspects of politics and the social themes prevalent in Thompson’s work, they are few and far between, and certainly not what the cult classic, and consequently Hunter S. Thompson, is remembered for today.

       The Rum Diary 2011 then, is best viewed as an attempt to correct this course, steering the Thompson persona back to something of more substance than just substance abuse. Re-watching the film with a clean pallet of expectations, even tossing one’s perception of Hunter S. Thompson right out the window, makes the film far more enjoyable. Where three years ago I found the scenes that accentuate San Juan’s economic disparity as either unmemorable or annoying in their disturbing of the flow, I now applaud as jarring reminders that the film is more than just a comedic

booze cruise. Also noteworthy is Depp’s performance as Kemp, whose character arc can be seen in his introduction as an aimless and unfocused writer out to make a few quick bucks in paradise. In the first two-thirds of the film Depp portrays him as unsure of himself, rarely removing his sunglasses long enough to make eye contact, that is until he identifies his anti-thesis in the greed personified by investor Sanderson and company. By the end the timid, unsure boy becomes a General, eyes focused and intense as he barks orders at his troop of journalists: “We gotta strike back. We'll nail this bastard to the front printing a paper.” The changes made from the source material (which include major character cuts and a climax overhaul) nearly all drive home the political points and build a better origin story for the legend who ostensibly sails off into the sunset to become the Thompson that we have since forgotten.

       Thompson told the truth, but told it slant – so slant that it would appear upside down, reversed, and all too often unrecognizable. “The problems of such a literary smokescreen stem from the fact that the authors can only be taken as seriously as their least serious moment. Gonzo writing is like crying wolf at eardrum-splitting level”(vi). It lays to us then, the consumers of pop-culture, to decide what to take from an artist’s piece of work. And if all you feel after watching The Wolf of Wall Street is compelled to make jokes about doing drugs, I don’t think it’s the people of Hollywood who have their heads up their asses.

(v) Bortolotti, Gary R, and Linda Hutcheon. "On The Origin Of Adaptations: Rethinking Fidelity Discourse And 'Success'—Biologically." New Literary History 3 (2007): 443-458. Web. 2014.

(i) Jack, Yukon. “Yukon Jack: Hollywood should stay out of our oilsands.” Edmonton Sun. 29 August, 2014. Web. 2014.

(iii) McKeen, William. “Inside The Rum Diary.” The Daily Beast. November 11, 2011. Web. 2014.

The Rum Diary. By Bruce Robinson. Dir. Bruce Robinson. Perf. Johnny Depp, Aaron Eckhart et al. Prods. Johnny Depp, Graham King et al. Film District. 2011. Neflix. Web. 2014.

(iv) Thompson, Hunter S., and Jann Wenner. Fear And Loathing At Rolling Stone : The Essential Writing Of Hunter S. Thompson / Edited And With A Foreword By Jann S. Wenner ; And With An Introduction By Paul Scanlon. n.p.: New York : Simon & Schuster, 2011.

Thompson, Hunter S. The Rum Diary. n.p.: New York: Simon and Schuster. 1998.

(ii), (vi) Wright, Greg. “The Literary, Political, and Legal Strategies of Oscar Zeta Acosta and Hunter S. Thompson: Intertextuality, Ambiguity, and (Naturally) Fear and Loathing.” Journal Of Popular Culture 43.4 (2010): 622-643. Web. 2014.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

“Is This Concrete All Around Or Is It Just In My Head?” The Point of Diminishing Returns For Paranoia-inducing Fiction

Most of the patrons I bar tend for in Edmonton, Alberta are laborers returning from long shifts in Fort McMurray. My bar banter revolves more around movies and television rather than sports (shocker), and one night, after a commercial played for Guardians of the Galaxy on the televisions, I mentioned that I couldn’t care less if Disney is raking it in with their Marvel franchise because I’m enjoying the seemingly endless wave of mindlessly fun action films they’re dishing out. One guy at the bar, a welder’s apprentice back from a month long stint up north, pricked up his ears, looked at me in the eyes, and said, “You know they’re gonna kill us all, right?”

I looked back at him.

“Uh. What?” I replied, although, in the recess of my mind, I already knew where this conversation was going. I’ve had it before.

“The goddamn Illuminati. Fucking Disney. We’re all dead within ten years, man. The bastards.”

In my life I’ve come across, and had close relationships with, my fair share of conspiracy theorists. As ridiculous as they may seem, I find it depressing to see someone, who under different circumstances could have been a great critical thinker, wallow in endless self-pity, convinced that any and all tragedies and injustices in their life is the product of hostile forces operating beyond their control – thriving only in a state of self-perpetuating hopelessness.

“I know things I’m not supposed to know, man. I’m telling you, they have it all planned – the world’s biggest secret. There’s no way out. We’re all dead.”

Without contributing positive, progressive responses to the negative observations they perpetuate, interacting with such an individual is exhausting and emotionally draining. Unfortunately, this is exactly the same feeling I get after reading too much of my favorite sci-fi author, Philip K. Dick.

Dick is one of the most prominent sci-fi authors of all time, widely known for his extensive catalogue of novels and short stories, a number of which major Hollywood blockbusters are adaptations thereof, including Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990 and 2012), Minority Report (2002) and The Adjustment Bureau (2011). More than just mindless action set in space, his stories revolve around two principle questions: what is real? and what is human?; they are his philosophical, political and religious skepticisms and fears set in speculative futures and realities, where cybernetic individuals may be completely indistinguishable from us; where reality itself may be a memory-implant controlled by a malevolent, totalitarian government.

But as intriguing as is to question notions of reality, free-will, humanity, etc. through fiction, I have a personal limit, a point of diminishing returns, for stories that are doomed to end with bleak, pessimistic, no-win-scenarios – the norm in Philip K. Dick’s worlds. I didn’t think this is the effect Dick wanted to have on his readers, but hey, I read somewhere that Martin Scorsese didn’t intend to make dropping quaaludes, having endless amounts money and unlimited sex look like a good time, either. The point is, sometimes an artist’s intent isn’t the one the audience takes home with them.

Adaptation, however, offers an opportunity to emphasize and develop certain of a story’s themes while deemphasizing others, and it wasn’t until I read about Dick’s response to Blade Runner in Jason P. Vest’s Future Imperfect: Philip K. Dick At the Movies that I knew, despite his all his pessimistic fiction, Philip K. Dick did not intend to elicit only hopelessness and despair.

Vest contrasts the relationship between Deckard and Rachael in Blade Runner and it’s source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – the former’s success contributing to Deckard’s salvation, while the latter’s failure providing his motivation to retire the remaining androids. “[Dick’s] pessimistic appraisal of Deckard and Rachael’s intercourse is a fascinating literary analysis of Electric Sheep’s sexuality that underscores significant differences between the novel and Blade Runner” (22). Instead of

condemning the alterations made to his source novel, Dick showed enthusiasm for the film’s retention and arguable advancement his philosophical and spiritual theme of what it means to be human. Indeed, perhaps the most drastic of changes made to the replicant’s humanization in Blade Runner, and Deckard’s behavior towards them, is manifested in the film’s rooftop climax. Wherein Electric Sheep, Deckard retires the Batty-android, Blade Runner’s memorable ending sees the replicant save the Blade Runner from death. “This sequence, despite its differences from the novel, also pleased Philip K. Dick. Although the

author considered the androids of his novel to be ‘deplorable,’ ‘cruel,’ ‘cold,’ ‘heartless,’ and ‘essentially less-than-human entities,’ he also thought, after reading a late version of Blade Runner’s screenplay, that: ‘the final Batty/Deckard confrontation [is] a moving sequence.’ (25) Vest quotes Dick again later as feeling that “ ‘the book and the movie do not fight each other. They reinforce each other’ ”(27). Dick not only asserts that his thematic intentions are to inspire more than depression and paranoia, but by applauding an adaptation that differs so much from his original vision, he displays progressive attributes of adaptation theory – those of judging an adaptation not by the degree to which it differs from the original, but by the story’s success or failure as a vehicle to convey a theme.

Although I will argue that Dick’s catalogue fails as a motivator and for social change because it comes off as a broken record of social critiques and fears without suggesting ways to solve the problems he brings attention to, I am not demanding that adaptations of his work be forced to have Disney-story endings. 2010’s The Adjustment Bureau, the film adaptation of Dick’s short story, The Adjustment Team, serves as such as example. Where Dick’s ending is, as usual, unsettlingly depressing (the protagonist simply accepts the fact that his fate, and everyone else’s, is controlled by The Adjustment Team), the film’s nice, neat, happy wrap-up that sees the Adjustment Team restore humanity’s freewill after making its viewers aware of the concept of a perfect, but fabricated reality, seems counter-intuitive. Blade Runner’s ending is ambiguous – hardly fairy-tale quality. If all of Dick’s works were adapted like Bureau, complete with spliced-in happy endings, my critique would be the same.

Smart science fiction, smart fiction in general, should capture an audience’s imagination and intrigue them, but not dwell on eliciting just emotion. Giving rise to feelings of paranoia and depression do not solve the issues from which they generate. Commanders of mediums that can capture the attention of people who would not otherwise question social, political or economic issues have an obligation to educate and motivate these audiences.

Then there’s times when I just wanna watch a CGI raccoon blow shit up. You can’t take yourself too seriously all the time – that would be inhuman.

Blade Runner. Screenplay by Hampton Francher and David Peoples. Dir. Ridley Scott. Prod. Michael Deeley. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young. 1982. Warner Bros. DVD. 2007.

Dick, Philip K. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Doubleday, 1968. Print.

Vest, Jason P. “Future Imperfect: Philip K. Dick At the Movies.” Westport CT, Praeger Publishers, 2007. Print.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Taster's Choice or I Read Comic Books (And So Can You)!

Comics have a bad reputation in the academic world--if you want a professor to take them seriously, you first have to pretentiously re-label them graphic novels. But the truth is that while comics appear effortlessly digestible, they're often intellectually rich and challenging. So, instead of cracking open the "classics" this summer, why not read a comic book that promises both stunning visuals and a satisfying story? Here's my list of must read comics:

1. Chew
Written by John Layman, Drawn by Rob Guillory


I'm personally not a big fan of superhero comics--Chew is as about as close as it gets to a superhero comic without actually being a superhero comic. It tells the story of cibopath detective, Tony Chu, as he solves various crimes/mysteries in a time where much of the population has succumbed to a deadly mutation of the bird flu (as such, chicken is illegal to cook, sell, and eat). If you don't know what a cibopath is, you're not alone--I think it's Layman's own invention. Basically, a cibopath receives psychic impressions from any food s/he puts in his/her mouth, except for canned beets for some bizarre reason . As a cibopathic cop, Tony is forced to do much of his investigative work through the tasting of various pieces of evidence (edible or not). As you can imagine, Tony's unique ability makes for some interesting and cannibalistic situations that are both disturbing and entertaining. Honestly, that's half the fun of this series!

Chew is an important and relevant read in our Western culture now. It reflects many of the apprehensions we have about the processing and origins of our food. Tony struggles with eating any meat, because when he does eat meat, he receives a graphic vision of the animal's slaughter. He struggles with eating food handled at restaurants after he receives a vision of a cook spitting into his soup. These are some of the struggles we all face in a culture where eating meat is no longer ethically or environmentally viable, especially with the emergence of giant, corporate owned farms. But the ethical treatment of our food isn't our only concern. We can't take a bite of anything without worrying about genetic modification, pesticides, local farming, ethical farming, sustainable farming, obesity, organic vs. inorganic, germs and disease. It is quite literally a lot to take-in. Chew plays on these anxieties quite well and gives you a lot to chew on without shoving any one particular stand point down your throat.

Besides the fantastic story line and hilarious food puns, Chew's art is refreshing and quirky. It has a distinct style without falling into the trap of too-similar-looking characters (*Cough* Walking Dead *Cough*). Each character is unique in his/her own way. I also enjoyed the fact that Tony Chu is a minority character (Asian)--you don't see that very often and I'm happy to see representation of people of colour.


2. Afterlife with Archie
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, drawn by Francesco Francavilla

I grew up reading Archie comics and, full disclosure, sometimes I still read them. Yes, they're often corny and formulaic, but they can be surprisingly sophisticated. Afterlife with Archie, while perhaps not canonical, is certainly sophisticated, if not downright disturbing. The story begins in Riverdale with all the classic Archie characters we have come to know and love: Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, Jughead, and even Sabrina. My heart swelled with nostalgia...and then the bloodbath began. Afterlife with Archie isn't your typical Archie story. In this comic, now available as a trade, Archie and his gang face a fast-moving zombie outbreak and all of the mayhem that comes with it. Ok, so zombies have been done-to-death, but this is a fresh parody that Archie, zombie, and comic book fans can get behind. I especially love the zombie outbreak origin story which is revealed in the first comic. It's original and fits well with Archie canon.

My only disappointment is the art--and let me qualify that statement. Francavilla went with an original and fairly dark art style. I'm not sure if this was a creative choice or if it had something to do with disassociating the adult content of Afterlife with Archie from the Archie comics that are typically targeted at a pre-teen and teen audience. Although the characters are recognizable, I think the original Archie style would have made the comic more uncomfortably remarkable and, therefore, more disquieting, especially for Archie fans. Regardless, Francavilla's technique and style are mostly well received on my end and fit nicely with the plot.


3. Battle Angel Alita
Written and drawn by Yukito Kishiro

Although Battle Angel Alita had its original run in the 90s, it has recently been re-released as an ominbus. It has also re-entered the spotlight of late since James Cameron reportedly plans on making the series into a live action film (fingers crossed this happens).

Battle Angel Alita is a dystopic Manga series (Japanese graphic novel) that takes place in the distant future, as dystopias often do. The majority of humanity lives in squalor on polluted Earth. Earth people are the slave class who supply food, power, and waste disposal to a minority of privileged people who live in a safe sky city called Tiphares. In order to survive on Earth, humans enhance their bodies with cyborg modifications, nanotechnology, and drugs. The cyborg technology is so advanced, in fact, that the entire human body (except for the brain, of course) can be replaced with metal. It's all very cyberpunk. The protagonist of this cyberpunk narrative is the mysterious and sexy, Alita. Ido, an ex-Tipharean doctor, discovers Alita's unconscious and badly damaged mechanical body in a scrap yard. Ido has an intense fatherly instinct (it's almost patronizing, actually) and so, he takes Alita home, repairs and adopts her. When she wakes up, she has no memory of her past, though it is quickly revealed that she has the strength, instincts, and training of a warrior. While some of the novel is dedicated to unveiling Alita's mysterious identity, much of the story concerns her misadventures in the scrap yard as she defends organic (unmodified) and weak humans.

Unfortunately, much of the "soul" of Battle Angel Alita all but disappears after the first four volumes (and there are nine volumes altogether). However, it is worth at least one read-through for its themes about family, the soul, identity and embodiment, religion, and class. I was particularly intrigued by the idea that embodiment can shape our personalities, realities, and identities. Alita seems to change bodies once per volume (sometimes twice) and her personality is often effected as well. For example, in the first volume, Ido gifts Alita with a feminine cyborg body--the body came from a gynoid prostitute, the arms are intricately designed, and the shape of the body is distinctly female. As a result, Alita becomes innocent and childish. She clearly takes on the role of young daughter and she is infantilized by those around her despite her impressive abilities. Later, Ido surgically connects Alita to a weaponized berserker body which was once used by Tipharean soldiers. When Alita sheds her gynoid body, she sheds her stereotypically feminine personality in favour of a more masculine one. The idea that our biological bodies (or technological ones, in this case) shape our reality really makes you think about how we form identity even in our culture now.

Battle Angel Alita's dystopic landscapes are captivating, if not depressing in kind with Blade Runner's landscapes. Being that this is a cyberpunk narrative, there is plenty of body-horror, including outright gore and murder. Brains, limbs, and organs are strewn about the city disembodied, glistening with sticky fluids, and available for a price. Alita lives in a world where human beings mutilate their organic bodies, kill for spinal columns, and beg for drugs on the street. It isn't a happy story, but it's a good one.


4. "His Face All Red"
Written and drawn by Emily Carroll


Emily Carroll's comics are web based and free to anyone with an internet connection, which is very in-line with the "of-the-people" nature of comics, I think. Not only are they available for free, they're also skillfully executed. Emily Carroll creates mostly one-shot horror comics that leave the reader silently petrified. "His Face All Red" is a one-shot that is particularly unsettling in its vagueness and subtly. The horror is never stated outright in its entirety and so readers must actively think on it. Carroll's story-telling is frustrating--because I just want the story to keep going--but effective.

To avoid revealing the whole plot (and the twist ending), I'll keep my description short and general. Basically, two brothers, one brave and one cowardly, and much like biblical brothers Cain and Abel (hint, hint), head into the woods to hunt a beast that has been killing the village's livestock. Once deep in the woods, the brothers come upon an inexplicable and perplexingly deep hole in the ground. That's when things get weird. And by weird, I mean terrifying.

Because Carroll is presenting her comic on a website, she is able to format the comic in a minimalist way (there's no clutter, no links, etc., just a black page with strips of the comic). Each "page" of the comic is presented on a black screen. When you click on the page, the next strip appears. This format suits the story well in that you feel that you are yourself sinking down into an infinite, dark hole as you scroll down the page. Overall, this comic is incredibly well-thought out.


Honourable Mentions:


Skydoll: Skydoll's story sucks (God, it sucks so bad), but the art is beyond words. Buy this series just to stare open-mouthed at the breathtaking colours and line work. Or just take a look at the art available online.

Sailor Moon manga series: Sailor moon is making a comeback in a big way this summer (redesigned and everything). And, really, who doesn't love a magical girl who eats and sleeps as excessively as a regular girl (or was that just me eating and sleeping excessively...)?

Uzumaki: Are you in the mood for terror? Are you tired of sleeping peacefully each and every night? Read this deliciously strange manga and say goodbye to your peace of mind!


That's my list for now. Do you have any comic book suggestions? Please feel free to add them in the comment section below. I'm always looking for a good read.

Image from Uzumaki

Thursday, June 5, 2014

What...Did I Just Watch: Review of Randy Moore's Escape from Tomorrow (2013)

WARNING: This review will contain spoilers. It’s hard not to talk about what I think happened.

Last January (2013), Escape from Tomorrow was one of the films featured at the Sundance Film Festival. I remember hearing about this film last year, but I didn’t fully understand why it was getting all kinds of buzz (aside from the fact that it was FILMED in Disney World/Land WITHOUT their permission). For those who have not seen the film, or heard of it, here is a short synopsis (taken from and the trailer.

            An epic battle begins when a middle-aged husband and father of two learns that he has lost his job. Keeping the news from his nagging wife and wound-up children, he packs up the family and embarks on a full day of enchanted castles and fairytale princesses. Soon, the manufactured mirth of the fantasy land around him unravels into a surrealist nightmare of paranoid visions, bizarre encounters, and an obsessive pursuit of a pair of sexy teenage girls. Chillingly shot in black & white, "Escape From Tomorrow" dissects the mythology of artificial perfection while subversively attacking our culture's obsession with mass entertainment.

I want to note that I personally would have reworded this summary, and would have ended it with a suggestion for viewers: Watch twice, because if you think you know what’s happening, you’re lying to yourself. I would also add that the ending of the summary is perfect in PART, yes, “Chillingly shot in black & white,” but “dissect[ing] the mythology of artificial perfection while subversively attacking our culture's obsession with mass entertainment,” is far from what this film achieves. But hell, it really is worth watching, especially to see how expertly they shot the film without getting caught!

The Review:

 It’s extremely difficult to put into words what this psychological-horror is pursuing. While watching the film for the first time, I experienced a traumatic flash-back to my second year of post- secondary, where I had to watch David Lynch’s Lost Highway and “explain” what happened with literary theory.  Like Lynch’s film, Escape from Tomorrow forces the viewer to identify or understand the subtext on top of stacking the plot with other mini-plots and twists (creating genre confusion). I think I know what was going on in terms of the main idea of the film (a man coming to terms with his life and the irony of being in the happiest place on earth while “dark events” occur), but the inclusion of the enticing Parisian teenage girls, the menacing demon faces seen by the main character in easy-targeted “evil rides” as “It’s a Small World” and “Snow White,” it’s hard to discern if the film is commenting on the Disney company or being weird for the sake of being weird (or topical). In the initial scene when we learn that the main character Jim loses his job, we connect with him because he becomes relatable; however, when he begins to stalk the young girls that appear throughout the film, all sympathy is replaced by awkwardness, second-hand embarrassment, and being creeped-out. Not only does he stare at them, but he actively adjusts his plans for the day to be around them—tugging his son along for the adventure. Viewers may get lost in this side-plot and find the film heading into the “What am I watching” phase of the film, but then will be redirected to another genre or mini-plot involving a seductive “single-mom” who likes to play dress up (I will let viewers experience this part all on their own because it enters levels of extreme-weirdness), and then, adding a bit of sci-fi for the hell of it with a conspiracy theory about the Epcot Spaceship Earth ride—the big white ball (or known as the testicle, according to Jim). It’s fun to see all the rides that I was familiar with because I’ve been to Disney a few times, but in terms of the film and Disney’s involvement in the plot, the film could have easily been based in any kind of theme park. The focus on Disney itself fades as the film progresses. I think if the film focused on one aspect (or genre) such as the demon faces, the suspicious teenage girls, the GRAPHIC cat flu, or the robots and the company Siemens, the film would have been much more enjoyable and cohesive (each element would have worked well on its own).

Now that I’ve mentioned a few of the misconnections with the film, there are at least 2 strong aspects of this film that make it work (or watchable)—the lead actor Roy Abramsohn (Jim) and the cinematography (how brilliantly the film was shot). As mentioned, viewers will probably lose all hope they had for Jim becoming some form of an anti-hero in the film, but what keeps the story moving is how convincing Abramsohn is as a jackass middle-aged dad on vacation in a depressing situation. Granted some of the script is cheesey (juvenile sexual jokes), but Abramsohn’s delivery is solid throughout the film (especially in the scenes where you are most likely to roll your eyes or cringe). It would be safe to say that he carries most of the film. Along with the lead role’s strong performance, the film relied on how scenes were shot to create the surreal mood for the film. Shot by the director Randy Moore and a few extra skeleton crew (with hand-held digital cameras) guerrilla-style, the director only relied on natural lighting and tourists to create the shots. Considering films are shot with cameras about the size of a medium dog, the plan was pretty ingenious because who would suspect a tourist with a camera following around a happy family? In a recent interview, Moore mentioned one moment where park security suspected that the family were a famous couple (they were pulled aside and questioned), but the cast escaped out of pure luck (watch here for a brief interview - . You can appreciate the film for its venture into psycho-horror-fantasy, or for its simplistic shots that propel the film. Either way, the film is worth seeing (regardless of the confusion and weird moments).

Most importantly, Disney has YET to sue the filmmaker for shooting in the parks and using the company’s iconography without permission. On the movie’s website, they have a countdown as to how long it has been without Disney notifying them of any legal action. I’d say that it’s impressive, but Disney is known for maintaining their “clean” image, and will most likely not take action.

Though I spent most of the review critiquing the film, I would highly recommend finding it to watch. Though it’s not for the traditional Disney or horror fan, it is rewarding for both as it pays homage to classic elements of mystery-horror films.

For more on the film, here is a behind-the-scenes featurette (to convince you to watch it)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It: Review of Showtime's Penny Dreadful

pen·ny dread·ful
a cheap, sensational comic or storybook.

Showtime's new vehicle, Penny Dreadful, premiered on May 11 with the episode "Night Work" and I decided to watch it on a whim. I was tired of marking ninth grade English essays and I needed something to take the edge off the multitude of missed vocabulary usage opportunities. I had fun playing "spot the literary reference," as the cast is rounded out by a plethora of public domain Victorian Gothic characters. The pilot episode does not disappoint -- by the end of the first hour we have met our Allan Quartermain type (from King Solomon's Mines, a Sir Malcolm Murray, father of Mina Murray who most Dracula afficionados know as Mina Harker), Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and Vanessa Ives, a spiritualist. Our "in," so to speak, is Ethan Chandler -- our brooding protagonist with a murky back story.

Perusing the show's website already gives away more than is needed: "Some of literature's most terrifying characters, including Dr. Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and iconic figures from the novel Dracula are lurking in the darkest corners of Victorian London. PENNY DREADFUL is a frightening psychological thriller that weaves together these classic horror origin stories into a new adult drama."

We have already seen these characters on the small and silver screen -- collectively, probably the most recent manifestation would be the deliciously cheesy The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. We have also already seen the plot before - duo needs a third to make their trio complete. Cue the search for missing girl. Cue more questions than answers. I found myself feeling like I had seen this show before.

What was pleasantly surprising was the fact that my expectations were played up -- if I thought I was in for a "penny dreadful" I was going to get the Penny Dreadful. There was gore, dialogue that screamed exposition, and enough camera cue tip offs that I was constantly looking over character's shoulders.

As far as performances go, Eva Green is mesmerizing (as always) as Vanessa Ives. Timothy Dalton turns in a performance that could go either way -- he does a fine job of walking the line between campy and compelling. Harry Treadaway as Dr. Victor Frankenstein is riveting in a scene wherein his monster is revealed. I could not take my eyes off him and the tension between Frankenstein and the "monster" was palpable. Josh Hartnett was my only caveat as his performance as the audience insert seemed a bit off kilter. However, this may be a quirk of the character himself, as by the end of episode two "Seance," more back story is revealed.

"Seance" included just that -- a nod to the Victorian fin de siècle fascination with the supernatural and the occult with Ives and Murray getting more than they bargained for. Green uses her striking features to full advantage and I admit even I was unsettled watching the seance scene. We learn more about the mysterious origins of the creature that has brought Ives, Murray, Frankenstein, and Chandler together. Just when we are thinking there's almost too many characters, they toss more in. Reeve Carney's Dorian Gray (yes, he of the failed Spiderman musical) puts in an appearance at the seance, held at the Egyptologist's manor. Whovians will recognize Companion Billie Piper as Brona Croft, a New Woman with a -- get ready for it -- mysterious past and consumption.  We also get to see the maturation of Frankenstein's monster and by the end of the episode I was agape. Completely flabbergasted. However, it was in the most positive way possible. Having some background knowledge of Gothic and Victorian fiction, I felt like there wasn't much more they could throw at me which would seem "new." By the end of "Seance," I had completely changed my opinion.

My Verdict:  In an exchange of banter, Chandler asks Ives if she has issued him a warning -- Ives replies, "It's an invitation." I also issue you an invitation to give Penny Dreadful a try. I give it a solid B+ with enormous potential.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Compensating for Size: The "Inadequate Response" of Giant Monster films

A few years ago, shortly after my wife and I purchased an Apple TV as a solution to the death of video rental outlets like Blockbuster, I had the exceedingly rare pleasure, in a home shared with two small children, of having the TV to myself. For those who do not own an Apple TV, or have any idea what it does, understand that is like having a Blockbuster Video in your home, without the frustration of standing in a lineup waiting to check out, and the accompanying temptation to purchase special deals on junk-food while waiting in that same line. While this might sound like a recipe for indecision, it was relatively simple for me to make my choice, given a simple set of criteria:
  1. It would be a film I could not watch with my children, and 
  2. It would be a film my wife would have absolutely no interest in ever seeing. 
So on this rare occasion, I quickly reduced my viewing choices to two films: Zach Snyder’s 2004 remake of zombie classic Dawn of the Dead, and Norwegian director André Øvredal’s dark fantasy mockumentary, Trollhunter. Over the past year, I’ve reflected on my privileging of giant trolls over zombies, wondering if giant monsters will soon crush the zombie hordes which have dominated cinematic horror for a decade beneath their enormous feet.

It might be ridiculous to suggest that movie audiences might trade the grit and gore of zombies for the absurdity of giant monsters, WWE in rubber-suits, since SF films depicting large scale, spectacular destruction are largely read as B-movie garbage, and in many cases, deservedly so. In 1965, Susan Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster” pronounced such films “inadequate responses” to the “most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation,” potentially normalizing the “psychologically unbearable” nightmares of natural disasters, nuclear holocaust, and we might add, carrying Sontag’s torch into the twenty-first century, pandemics, fuel shortages, and eco-disasters. Susan Napier built upon Sontag’s ideas in “Panic Sites: The Japanese Imagination of Disaster,” declaring the somber ending of Gojira a moment of secure horror. Secure horror meaning that, despite hinting at the potential of another atomic monster rising from the ocean depths, the film ends on a positive note: the threat neutralized, the monster defeated, security restored. To better understand the difference between secure and insecure horror, consider Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s introduction to Monster Theory, where he states that “Jurassic Park would have been a far superior piece of cinema if its computer-animated velociraptors had in fact ingested the kids they merely threaten,” suggesting that “these monsters arrive at a time when traditional nuclear families perhaps need to be troubled” (vii). That was in 1996, indicating that perhaps Sontag's message still held true.

Since then, giant monster movies such as Gamera 3: Awakening of Irys (1999), J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield (2008), Gareth Edwards’ independent film Monsters (2010), and the aforementioned and critically acclaimed Trollhunter all featured ambiguous endings. Gamera 3’s credits roll with its climactic, but ultimately doomed, battle yet to occur, while Cloverfield, Monsters, and Trollhunter kill off their main characters, leaving the monster(s) still at large. In addition to unresolved endings, these films all share a greater sophistication of special effects with the goal of a greater sense of verisimilitude. Abrams’ Cloverfield in particularly demonstrates what the Japanese have known since the release of Gojira/Godzilla in 1954: if you conflate your impossible beast with real-world images of modern day atrocity, a giant monster movie can be at the very least, if not necessarily horror, unsettling commentary on real-world atrocity.

Of all these examples, Gareth Edwards’ independent breakthrough Monsters best illustrates how the so-called "inadequate response" of the giant monster movie enables viewers to engage with Sontag’s psychologically unbearable nightmares of the modern world. The movie relates the journey of two Americans, photojournalist Andrew Calder (Calder) and his employer’s daughter, Samantha Wynden (Sam), through the Infected Zone, an area where colossal squid-like aliens have been nesting and breeding since their arrival on earth six years earlier. 
That period of six years is crucial to the film's technique: Edwards relates how the producers of the film were worried about how the locals wouldn’t be reacting properly to the monsters, but simply going about their business. This was precisely Edwards’ hope: while we might initially react to a giant monster as the Japanese extras do in Godzilla films, evacuating in terrified hordes, sooner or later people would do what people always do when they live in the shadow of a volcano, along Tornado Alley, in war zones, or in the frozen north of Canada where exposure to the elements can kill you: they get on with their lives. They work around living in the Infected Zone. “Do you feel safe living here?” Sam asks her taxi driver. “Where would go?” he replies. “My work, my family is all here. This happens every year. We just take our chances.” The genesis of Monsters occurred when Edwards watched fishermen pulling a net out of the water, speculating how that scene would play out if it were a giant monster the workers were fishing from the water, all the while maintaining their dispassion. He realized such a reaction wouldn’t be terribly different from Western reactions to atrocity on television. When the War on Terror began, it was front page news. Within weeks or even months, we became bored with it. We regularly catch monsters in our metaphoric nets, or perhaps literal Internets, and think nothing of it.
We don’t think much about populations in the path of seasonal tempests until a hurricane rolls up onto shore and, like Godzilla, who often arrives shrouded in such storms, causes massive damage. Once the Awful Event has occurred, the people who live in the shadow of monsters become front page news, as with the War on Terror. Within days, we have forgotten them. Edwards’ stated thematic intent with Monsters was to parallel how North America viewed the War on Terror. Calder and Sam have a conversation that underscores our propensity for Entertainment News: “Do you know how much money your Father’s company pays for a picture of a child killed by a Creature? $50,000. You know how much money I get paid for a picture of a happy child? Nothing. You know where that puts me? Photographing tragedy.” 
While this was Edwards’ stated thematic intent with Monsters, critics identified another--perhaps more obvious--theme concerning the controversial relationship between the United States and Mexico in film about two Americans trying to return home through a Creature-infested “Infected Zone,” taking the same path many illegal immigrants do in hopes of crossing the border. A number of film critics read the movie in this manner: Lisa Kennedy of the Denver Post called it “part immigration parable, part war allegory,” while Ted Fry of the Seattle Times derisively stated that “‘Illegal Aliens’ might be a more fitting title in disabusing anyone of the notion that this is a monster movie — and in revealing the central irony of a great wall's failure to prevent the northward contamination of undesirable invaders.” The late Roger Ebert stated that “There's an obvious parallel with our current border situation and the controversy over undocumented aliens. And another one with our recent wars, where expensive and advanced aircraft are used to fire missiles at enemies who are mostly invisible.” The 2013 Eaton Science Fiction conference opened with a panel on the apocalyptic, in which Simon Lee encouraged academic scrutiny of films like Monsters because of how the film was marginalized for this message of marginalization. In short, whether they panned or praised it, film critics saw both the Edwards’ intended message, as well as his ostensibly unintentional one. When Calder and Sam attempt to purchase Ferry Tickets from Mexico, “the Infected Zone,” to America, they must pay a high premium of $5,000. The next day, the price is escalated by a corrupt official to $10,000. When Sam’s ticket is stolen, they are forced to take an overland journey through the infected zone: “You have the money, you go by ferry. You don’t have the money, you take the risk.” When Calder protests, “But we’re Americans!” the critical viewer cannot help but assume the rest of their journey into and through the Creature-Infected-Zone is some allegory of illegal immigration.

Edwards has denied that there was any conscious effort on the film crew’s part to generate this reading of the film. Arguably, such a reading might be incidental, the latent byproduct of filming in Central America. Nevertheless, I find Edwards’ protests dubious in light of a scene where Calder and Sam gaze from atop Mayan ruins at a massive concrete containment wall separating the Infected Zone—Mexico—from the United States. When Sam first discovers the ruins, Calder asks, “What’d you find, Cortez?” Postcolonial readings loom as large as the containment wall or the Creatures it is built to keep out, a Containment Wall Edwards had to insert digitally, looked at from ruins that exist nowhere near the real Mexican American border. Monsters’ map is certainly not the territory. This reading is made all the stronger by the moment when Sam and Calder cross over from the Infected Zone into the United States: no one stops them. After all, they are Americans. They are not Creatures, illegal “aliens.” They are true residents.

Postcolonial and political readings aside, the film contains a third layer of meaning which I derived from Edwards’ guerilla-approach to filmmaking. This reading, unlike the obvious contrivance of the containment wall, may well be pure accident. By intentionally shooting the film in Central America, Edwards subtly weaves real-world atrocity with the giant Creatures: in Monsters, the real horror is not in the special effects, but the absence thereof. The aftermath of the Creatures, or engagement with the Creatures by the military, is not entirely a special effect. In the scene when Calder and Sam cross into the Infected Zone, the soldiers with guns are not actors, nor are their weapons plastic props. They were part of a small security force assigned to keep the film crew safe while they traveled on location. When Calder and Sam knock on the door of a ramshackle home in the middle of the night, the woman who greets them is not a professional actor: she is the owner of that home. The tortillas she cooks for Sam and Calder was a moment of very real hospitality, made all the more valuable for the contrast of her impoverished habitation. Admittedly, the gas-masks her children play with the next morning are props, but the barb-wire clothesline they swing upon is not. The images of children next to digital tanks, real guns, and other emblems of war are familiar to us, and the fantasy blurs into reality. We have seen them many times in pleas from aid societies. As with the night-vision television reports of the War on Terror, we became bored and changed our channel. 
Closer to home, the ruined town Calder and Sam walk through after crossing the Mexican/American border is not a set: it is Galveston, Texas after Hurricane Katrina devastated it. Whether the damage is explained by the Creatures or by the attacks upon them by the military, the idea of the giant monster as symbol for Sontag’s psychologically unbearable nightmares of the modern world becomes far more troubling when we understand that the damage we are seeing is real. In this case, the giant monsters, the Creatures, become a device whereby we face real world atrocity, not by gazing directly into the abyss, but by peering at it out of the corner of our eye. Through the device of giant monsters, real world horror can be held at a distance far enough for viewers to deal with, especially in instances where the direct gaze is too intense. As Keith Ferrell, editor of Omni said, “As thought experiment, SF gives readers an opportunity to step outside their own world, to see it reflected through a literary lens that is perhaps distorting but whose distortions are the deliberate work of serious artists and thinkers” (6). Furthermore, the distortions of reality Monsters deals with are the kind giant monsters are best equipped to represent: the real-world apocalyptic forces of so-called “Acts of God” such as flood or hurricane, Central American drug wars, and perhaps most poignantly, poverty. These problems are not solved with tank battalions, fighter jets, or fantastic technologies like the Maser of the Toho Godzilla films. They are perennial problems, ones that never go away, like Godzilla returning to Tokyo again and again. Sontag called the imagination of disaster an emblem of an inadequate response, but what would be an adequate artistic response to problems like these? Is any artistic response to the leviathan and behemoth sized problems our planet faces adequate?
One of the inadequacies Sontag identified about these spectacles of disaster was their focus on extensive views of destruction, not intensive. That is to say, the focus is on the building crumbling, not the people trapped inside. Edwards’ Monsters arguably used an intensive view and ended with a moment of insecure horror, forming an arguably adequate cinematic response to the issues it raises. I had higher hopes for Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, last summer's daikaiju blockbuster, but had to enjoy it simply as a bombastic popcorn movie -- a grown up Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. Consequently, I’m cautiously optimistic about the Godzilla reboot being released next week, given that Gareth Edwards is the man in the director’s chair and the trailers have seemed sufficiently connected to real-world concerns. While blockbuster films demand extensive pyrotechnics and secure horror’s happy ending, we can hope, based on Monsters, that we will be treated to a few intensive moments of insecure horror that cause us to see the real-world daikaiju, those psychologically unbearable nightmares, beyond the apocalyptic fantasy of skyscraper-tall robots and monsters.

CONTEST! Want to win 2 advance passes to see GODZILLA, Wednesday, May 14 at the Scotiabank Theatre Chinook in CALGARY? Then just enter a comment below with the name of your favorite giant monster movie, why you love it, and I will announce the winner (drawn out of a hat!) on Sunday, May 11! Then you can email me for the passes at mikeperschon AT shaw DOT com.