Thursday, November 24, 2011

Red State

Red State is the latest film from Kevin Smith, the writer/director of 90's classics like ClerksChasing Amy, and Dogma. Set in an unnamed (but distinctly Texas-like) small town in the southern USA, Red State is about a familial religious cult known as the Five Points Church. The cult espouses some rather extreme interpretations of the Bible, particularly with regards to homosexuality, and has a distinctly holier-than-though type mindset. An incident early in the film results in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) being called in to raid the Church compound, and the ensuing conflict is the basis for most of the film.

As that brief plot summary indicates, Red State conflates elements from the real-life stories of the Waco siegethe Manson Family, and the Westboro Baptist Church. The film attempts to tell "both" sides of the story, intermittently showing the perspectives of the ATF force, the people of the cult, and the surrounding community. Given that kind of humanized engagement with highly controversial political topics, it seems natural to assume that Smith would use the opportunity to take a stance on the issues. At the very least you'd expect some sort of coherent message, something to give meaning to a story about belief-based hatred and killing. And I guess we sort of get that. Eventually.

In what is surely meant to be a P. T. Anderson-esque haunting monologue near the conclusion of the film, John Goodman as the head of the ATF force explains his prior actions to his superiors by stating that "People just do the strangest things when they believe they're entitled... But they do even stranger things when they just plain believe."

... Ok? 

This half-hearted attempt at depth fails to justify or add weight to the events of the film. It feels less like an explanation and more like an observation, and doesn't really do much to make sense of the proceedings. I'm not trying to suggest that movies have to be comprehensible as a rule. Rather it's clear that Smith is trying to take a political stance in this film, and unfortunately his writing fails to convey his position. The entire thing just feels unintentionally senseless and aimlessly political.

On that note, I can't help but feel that Red State would have been more topical around 2004 or so. "What's that you say Kevin Smith? The Patriot Act is bad? Oh, do tell me more!" Granted the topics covered in the movie are still alive in the American political landscape, but they're more like the basic context behind today's headlines. Given the fact that we're firmly entrenched in the post-Bush era, the conversation surrounding these types of issues has evolved in significant ways.

Maybe it's just that the politics don't fully resonate with me because I'm Canadian, maybe these issues really are the kinds of things keep Americans up at night. But I don't think so. I think that people have more or less gotten used to the fact that the Westboro Baptist Church is objectively evil, and that the political/corporate powers-that-be are maybe a little out of whack. With regards to that last one, I think people have not only gotten used to the fact but moreover have become fed up and started to do something about it, but I digress. That's a whole other discussion, and for now it's enough to say I don't think Red State says much that we don't already know, and says it poorly at that.

It's not that the movie is bad per se, on the contrary it's quite well made in many regards. The cinematography, lighting, special effects, and sound design are all incredible. Moreover the acting is perhaps the strongest ever featured in a Kevin Smith movie. John Goodman puts in a great performance, and Michael Parks is absolutely mesmerizing as the paternalistic cult leader. In a lot of ways Red State is the most mature thing Smith has ever produced, exhibiting real vision and control as a filmmaker.

Given all these positives it's especially tragic that the writing is so disappointing. That's usually Smith's one reliable strength, but here it's underwhelming and strictly functional. The minute-to-minute dialogue between the characters is natural and effective in driving the plot forward, but it never really adds up to anything. Nothing in the script establishes much of a perspective with the exception of the aforementioned monologue. Even there, where Smith speaks directly to the audience through Goodman's character, the closest thing we get to a message is a vague sentiment that extremism is bad in any form. Given that I suppose it's appropriate that Red State is moderate to the point of irrelevance, but that's way more cynical than I wanted to be about this movie.

(Originally published in The Weldon Times)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

R.I.P. Anne McCaffrey

I just learned from Topless Robot that Anne McCaffrey has passed away. The author of over a hundred books, McCaffrey will be sorely missed by fans of science-fiction and fantasy.

Anne McCaffrey, 1926-2011

McCaffrey leaves a wonderful legacy behind and hopefully her works will continue to be enjoyed for years to come. The Dragonriders of Pern series was particularly important to me when I was growing up and so I was sad to hear the news. If you're at all interest in sci-fi/fantasy then I strongly recommend picking up either Dragonflight or Dragonsong and letting yourself get lost in Pern.

PS: It might be wrong/insensitive to say this right now, but I don't see myself getting another opportunity: the photo of Anne McCaffrey on her Wikipedia page is the worst photo I have ever seen of a person, ever. Like, wow. So unfortunate.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Way the Occupy Cookie Crumbles

Occupy Sesame Street
A commenter over at The Onion's AV Club who writes from the perspective of Sesame Street's Cookie Monster has put together the most coherent and concise explanation of the Occupy Movement that I've seen. I'm reposting it here because it's both hilarious and so clear that it needs to get spread around as much as possible. Lately I've noticed too little understanding and too much misinformation about OWS going around for my liking. Especially with regards to the reasons behind the protests and the "lack of clear goals." This short piece doesn't pull any punches and gets right to the heart of the issue by responding to the far-too-typical "You're just complaining that you're poor" critique.

Anyway, enough talk, here's the post:
Yes, there always going to be rich and poor.  But we used to live in country where rich owned factory and make 30 times what factory worked make.  Now we live in country where rich make money by lying about value of derivative bonds and make 3000 times what factory worker would make if factories hadn't all moved to China.

Capitalism great system.  We won Cold War because people behind Iron Curtain look over wall, and see how much more plentiful and delicious cookies are in West, and how we have choice of different bakeries, not just state-owned one.  It great system.  It got us out of Depression, won WWII, built middle class, built country's infrastructure from highways to Hoover Dam to Oreo factory to electrifying rural South.  It system that reward hard work and fair play, and everyone do fair share and everyone benefit.  Rich get richer, poor get richer, everyone happy.  It great system.

Then after Reagan, Republicans decide to make number one priority destroying that system.  Now we have system where richest Americans ones who find ways to game system - your friends on Wall Street - and poorest Americans ones who thought working hard would get them American dream, when in fact it get them pink slip when job outsourced to 10-year-old in Mumbai slum.  And corporations have more influence over government than people (or monsters).

It not about rich people having more money.  It about how they got money.  It about how they take opportunity away from rest of us, for sake of having more money.  It how they willing to take risks that destroy economy - knowing full well that what could and would happen - putting millions out of work, while creating nothing of value, and all the while crowing that they John Galt, creating wealth for everyone.

That what the soul-searching about.  When Liberals run country for 30 years following New Deal, American economy double in size, and wages double along with it.  That fair.  When Conservatives run country for 30 years following Reagan, American economy double again, and wages stay flat.  What happen to our share of money?  All of it go to richest 1%.  That not "there always going to be rich people".  That unfair system.  That why we upset.  That what Occupy Sesame Street about.
(Via SF Weekly. Thanks Sarah!)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Internet Has Isolated The Essence of Sadness

Apologies in advance for the ridiculously emo title of this post. Also for the infinite sadness you might feel in a few moments.

About a month back I came across an interesting post on reddit by user KhaoticLegacy. Apparently Thai insurance commercials are generally short films unto themselves that depict tragic human stories meant to evoke compassion, heartbreak, and a very strong sense that you need life insurance. Like, yesterday. This Google search pulls up a whole bunch of them so you can see for yourself (thanks tiexano). Anyway, KhaoticLegacy noted that if you take any one of these ads and use YouTube Doubler to change the audio to the music from the (much adored) Dead Island trailer, what you end up with is the most sad thing ever. Every time. For real.

Check out this one example:

It's uncanny how well this works with every single Thai insurance ad. Seriously, here's another "favourite" of mine (make sure to mute the Thai ad). The first time I watched on of these videos I was instantly transformed from a grown, reasonably competent adult into an angsty, "misunderstood" teenager. Equally devastating is the mashup of the Dead Island trailer music with the already heartbreaking opening montage from Up! that you can find here if you're just feeling too chipper today.

This strange but mesmerizing phenomenon raises a number of important questions:
1) Why are these instantly depressing videos so strangely compelling? What does it say about the human condition that we can enjoy the experience of sadness?
2) Have the composers of the Dead Island trailer music found the perfect combination of notes to instantly evoke simultaneous feelings of compassion, futility, and despair? Can it make anything sad? Is that dog dead?
3) What is the deal with Thai insurance commercials?!

These questions and more plague me while I continue to find new, more poignant combinations of internet videos with the Dead Island trailer music...

Editor's note: I've been meaning to post about this one for a few weeks, sorry for the delay Chris!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Usage-Based Internet Billing Is a Good Thing

My dad wrote a great piece for the Toronto Star explaining why UBB is, contrary to popular opinion, a good thing. The article makes it pretty clear why UBB is not just fair for the average user but also necessary for businesses. A lot of the negative attention that UBB attracted earlier in the year was largely misinformed and came in response to Bell's bad plan for implementation. My dad's piece is a good explanation of a largely misunderstood issue and definitely worth a read if you're interested in Canadian broadcast issues. It'll be interesting to see what happens on Tuesday when the CRTC releases their revised decision about UBB.