Saturday, June 27, 2015

French Delights: Late August, Early September, The Lady and the Duke, 5 X 2, and The Taste of Others

While checking out some foreign films I needed for a course I was teaching, I realized once again how many movies that may have come and gone too quickly in the cinemas or did not play commercially there at all – can find a second life streaming, or on DVD. Despite downloading and streaming, however, I still prefer to find my movies the old fashioned way, on screen, or in the video store’s stacks. Here are four French films you ought to check out.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Tabula Rasa: SyFy's Dark Matter

Melissa O'Neil and Marc Bendavid in Dark Matter, on SyFy and Space.

Over the past two weeks, the SyFy channel has premiered two new original scripted shows, Dark Matter (on June 12) and Killjoys (on June 19). Both series are also Canadian in origin, screening simultaneously on Canada's Space Channel. Dark Matter and Killjoys join a growing roster of homegrown Canadian SF television, a list which includes two of the strongest SF shows currently running: SyFy's Continuum (which will air its 6-episode fourth and final season this fall) and BBC America's Orphan Black (which aired its third season this winter). Also, like those two shows, both Dark Matter and Killjoys come with strong female lead characters. All of this speaks well for the current state of genre television. But as strong as it is, among all the time travel, werewolves, zombies, and super-evil biotech operatives, there has been something missing in recent TV: where have all the space operas gone? I like a dark global pharma-conspiracy story as much as the next geek, but sometimes I want a few spaceships with my science fiction. And so when Dark Matter opened to a sweeping starscape and slowly honed in a derelict-looking vessel hanging in space, I have to confess that something long slumbering awakened inside me. To paraphrase Captain Kirk (paraphrasing poet John Masefield), sometimes all I want from my science fiction television is a few ragtag crewmembers, a spaceship, and "a star to steer her by."

The recipe is simple: a small crew of charismatic characters, ideally fugitives from "justice" (or whatever passes for it in the deep, far future), working through their personal issues, making new friends and enemies, and kicking a little space-ass along the way. It's a format that has generated some of my favourite shows, each of varying tone and depth: from the surreal, over-the-top absurdity of Rockne O'Bannon's Farscape, to the nuanced allegorism of Joss Whedon's Firefly, to the unapologetic serialized fun of Andromeda. Ask me again come August, but by the time its first season closes, I am hoping to add Dark Matter to that list.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Pixar’s Inside Out: Freud Would Have Loved This!

Joy, Sadness, and Bing Bong in Pixar's latest animated feature, Inside Out.

Pixar, all is forgiven. The last time I reviewed a Pixar film for Critics at Large, Toy Story 3 (2010), I speculated, that after Up (2009), which I found too mechanical and programmed and the unnecessary, disappointing third in the Toy Story series (a fourth, alas, is on the way), as to whether Pixar Animation Studios, after the near consistent high quality of their movies – Toy Story (1995), A Bug’s Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Finding Nemo (2003), Ratatouille (2007) and Wall*E (2008) – had lost its mojo. I did not get to Brave (2012), which I heard good things about and did not feel much need to go see, Cars 2 (2011) – Cars (2006) was bad enough – nor Monsters University (2013), the sequel to Monsters, Inc. (2001), one of Pixar’s lesser (but still good) films. In any case, Pixar’s latest movie, Inside Out (2015) is one of the studio’s very best animated concoctions, a psychologically astute and highly inventive movie that Sigmund Freud himself would have loved.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Sibling Rivalry - Ray Davies: A Complicated Life by Johnny Rogan

Johnny Rogan has written about Ray Davies before. He did a biography of The Kinks back in 1984 (The Kinks: the Sound and the Fury), and then in 1998 one of those CD sized anthologies of record reviews, The Complete Guide to the Music of The Kinks. Rogan is nothing if not thorough. His biography of Van Morrison (No Surrender) is the most in-depth study of the Irish songster available. So much so that it was criticized by Kevin Courtney in The Irish Times, who observed: "For fans of Van Morrison's music, No Surrender might seem somewhat blasphemous, focusing not so much on Van the artist, but on Van the not-very-nice man.” One might say that Rogan has taken the same approach in this vast study of Ray Davies.

He calls it “a complicated life” but in fact it’s two complicated lives Rogan is laying bare here. Ray Davies, rhythm guitarist, songwriter, lead singer of The Kinks and his younger brother Dave, lead guitarist, songwriter, back-up singer of The Kinks. You can’t tell one story without the other. Ray, famously tells a story of his life growing up as the only boy in a family of six sisters. On his solo album The Storyteller he recounts how happy he was, until his mother gave birth to a younger child, another boy, and Ray had to share affections with someone else. “When Dave was born, I felt like a little child of two whose parents suddenly go out and buy a dog,” Ray Davies explains, “Of course a kid gets jealous.” Usually a kid grows out of it but this sibling rivalry grew and grew until today the brothers can barely stand to be in the same city. When asked if there will ever be a Kinks reunion they reply, “It could happen, if people behave,” and “It’s time reality took over!” The first response is Ray, the second Dave. It’s unlikely to happen. Long-time drummer Mick Avory wants it to happen, but he definitely wants to be included, and brother Dave stated recently “I don’t want to see the legacy of The Kinks soured by two miserable old men doing it for the money.” No-one does.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Changing the World: The Unique Phenomenon of Game Modding

Only mods can make a fearsome foe look as dapper as this monocle-sporting mud crab from Skyrim.

Mods, or modifications, are one of the many ways that gaming, as a hobby and as an art form, is unique. There’s no convenient parallel to draw from film, or literature, or traditional art – they’re a phenomenon that’s utterly exclusive to their medium, and that makes them a fascinating anomaly.

Anybody can make a mod, be they an official developer or armchair enthusiast. Modding ranges from making small changes to a game’s functionality, appearance, or sound, to creating entirely new games in themselves. They can include new items or weapons, characters or enemies, models, textures, levels, story lines – you name it. Sometimes a modded version of a game will have changed so drastically from its original version as to be almost unrecognizable, whether by increasing the quality of the game’s visuals or radically altering them, sometimes in ways that increase a player’s immersion and sometimes in ways that purposely shatter it (such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s famous – or, perhaps infamous – mod that places top hats and monocles on wild mud crabs). Mods can devolve a modern game into a classic, and make a decades-old game feel fresh.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Strange Journeys: Kafka on the Shore and Shining City

Kafka on the Shore is an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s 2002 novel. (Photo: Takahiro Watanabe)

Yukio Ninagawa’s Kafka on the Shore, which I caught during its brief stop in London at the Barbican (it will perform at the Lincoln Center Festival in July), is an unconventional example of East-West translation. Frank Galati adapted Haruki Murakami’s 2002 magic-realist novel for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company seven years ago; the Ninagawa Company has returned it to the Japanese (Shunsuke Hiratsuka did the translation). If this cultural back-and-forth is a little disorienting, that effect seems perfectly appropriate to a stage version of Murakami’s haunting, dreamlike work. Fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura (played in the Ninagawa production by Nino Furuhata), who is under an Oedipal curse, runs away from his father, a famous artist, and winds up working at a small private library in Takamatsu. The head librarian, a reclusive figure named Miss Saeki (Rie Miyazawa) still lost in mourning over the long-ago death of her lover, may or may not be Kafka’s long-absent mother. (Since Murakami is working on an ambiguous, oneiric level, the question of Miss Saeki’s relationship to Kafka doesn’t have a realist answer.)

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Moral Quandaries in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer

The American Embassy in Saigon, on April 29, 1975. (Photo by Neal Ulevich)

“This fantasy of Americans as rescuers has re-emerged in Rory Kennedy’s documentary Last Days in Vietnam … telling a story that is good for the American soul. The movie depicts how, in the final hours of American involvement in Vietnam, a handful of courageous Americans initiated the rescue of 130,000 South Vietnamese allies from the clutches of evil communists…It was exactly what I thought it was going to be, American good intentions get reaffirmed. Although Vietnamese faces end the film, they are just victims who are grateful to Americans.”
Viet Thanh Nguyen on the Last Days in Vietnam (2014) 

When I first saw Rory Kennedy’s must-heralded documentary, Last Days in Vietnam, I was moved by the humanitarian and heroic impulses of Americans, notably the former US Army officer, Stuart Herrington, to rescue as many as possible South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians on planes, ships and helicopters. These efforts are presented as saving them from an impending bloodbath perpetrated by barbaric hordes from the North. But as I watched the film more carefully and read reviews by Vietnamese who in 1975 were young children, I began to harbour misgivings about the film. There is little in the way of context. Although the film rightly mentions the Communist massacres at Hue, it says nothing about the successive corrupt South Vietnamese regimes that enjoyed no public support, that foisted on its people, for example, the vastly unpopular Strategic Hamlet program that relocated peasants to areas where they would be isolated from the Viet Cong, supposedly protected by militias and barbed wire. Nor does the film allude to the American carpet bombing or the effects of Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide that continues to afflict Vietnamese (and some Americans) suffering from mangled limbs, physical and psychological disorders. We sometimes forget that four million people died, half of them civilian. It does not help that the film frequently shows a map with a spreading, blood-red stain to indicate communist advances, akin to the creeping communism commonly depicted in Cold War-era graphics. And if the Vietnamese are not invisible, they only appear as uniformly grateful.

A much more complex and nuanced perspective about Vietnam and American culture can be found in the dazzling debut novel, The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015) by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. When the author was four years old, he escaped from Vietnam with his parents and brother in 1975 and has written movingly about that time and growing up in California.