Monday, 17 October 2016

Review - Lost (SPOILERS)

I’ve been intrigued by Lost ever since I saw its pilot episode way back in 2004. I’m a sucker for magical realism and narrative ambiguity, both things which Lost possesses in spades. Yet for some reason I never did pursue it past that first episode, and the  flak it received from critics for its ever-increasing incoherence over the years left me reluctant to make the commitment to watch it retrospectively.

A few conversations with friends of good taste over the past year or so finally convinced me to take the plunge. Some suggested that its claimed incoherence was really a result of lazy viewing - that close watching and a willingness to use one’s imagination could fill in all the apparent plot holes, that the entire show and its mythos was actually meticulously planned from beginning to end and obviously so to any true fan. And I thought - hell, I’ve made similar arguments defending of some of my favourite shows (looking at you, Twin Peaks) against the same criticisms, so I might as well give it a shot and form my own opinion.

Several months and six seasons later, I can definitely say it was worth the commitment, although it frequently tested my patience along the way. On the one hand, it often felt that the writers were simply throwing shit at a wall to see what stuck; on the other hand, they’d throw in just enough clever callbacks to hints dropped in previous seasons to make it seem like maybe, just maybe, they’d planned it all this way from the beginning. Ultimately, I kept telling myself, it would either all be justified by its final act or the whole thing would come tumbling down like a house of cards.

Some like to say that the journey matters more than the destination, but that’s never been my philosophy when it comes to storytelling. A good ending gives meaning and context to what has come before; it provides thematic and narrative resolution and satisfies the core conflicts. I’m even more particular about endings to “mystery” stories like Lost. A good mystery ending doesn’t have to give us all the answers - personally, I like having a few loose ends to reflect on - but those loose ends should be resolvable in principle, that is, there should be a right answer (or several possible right answers) which can reasonably be inferred from the information we have been given, rather than just being left dangling because the writers couldn’t figure out what to do with them either. And where it does give answers, they should make sense, that is, be consistent with the clues we’ve been given previously and with established themes, and it should not rely on deus ex machinas arbitrarily introduced at the last minute such that even the most astute viewer could not possibly have figured things out for themselves. I like to call this “Horcrux Syndrome” - after the Harry Potter books’ all-important vessels for arch-villain Voldemort’s soul which must all be destroyed in order to defeat him, a plot device which is not introduced or even hinted at until the final book and which would have been so much more compelling had it been developed or at least foreshadowed sooner that the only plausible explanation is that Rowling was simply making it up as she went along. I digress, but my point is, Lost suffers from a SEVERE case of Horcrux Syndrome, particularly in its introduction of “The Heart of the Island” in its pen-penultimate episode, a device which is supposed to serve as the ultimate motivation for all that has hitherto transpired.

It’s not just the hackneyed nature of the Heart’s introduction (along with many of the other revelations in the show’s final season) that bothers me, it’s that the very existence of an Ultimate Answer, of an objective Good Guy (Jacob) and Bad Guy (The Man in Black) is just completely at odds with the thematic setup which occurs in the show’s first five seasons.

Okay, so there are a lot of themes in this show. Good vs Evil. Science vs Faith. Life, Death, Rebirth. Coincidence vs Fate. From the beginning of Season One the Island is set up as a “battleground of the soul” - a purgatorial, cathartic world in which its characters must overcome their egos, shed their baggage (as revealed through flashbacks), and do penitence for their sins. Its characters (particularly Jack and Locke, although the former more obliquely than the latter) are on a constant quest for meaning and purpose in the face of the chaotic and mysterious forces which reign on the Island, a quest which parallels the viewers’ attempts to piece together the disparate clues the showrunners have thrown at us. Again and again we hear them say “This is what I’m supposed to do”, “This is what the Island wants”, “This is my Destiny”, and again and again their zealous pursuit of their objective ends in disaster, futility, and/or disillusionment. There’s a brilliant and subtle existentialism in this, a commentary on the way we necessarily construct meaning in our quest for it, and a cautionary tale about the danger of conviction untempered by doubt and the blind seeking of validation from others. True purpose isn’t given to us from on high, it comes from within, a message which is reinforced as each successive “man behind the curtain” steps out and we discover them to be as clueless as anyone else to the true purpose of the Island and its goings-on, a pretender following orders which they themselves barely understand.

See, a satisfying resolution to all this would be one in which the characters develop a self-awareness about the inherently fickle and meaningless nature of existence and learn to find their inner purpose without the need for higher validation. Instead after blindly stumbling from one misguided venture to another it finally transpires that there was actually a Right Answer all along and that the man behind the man behind the man behind the curtain knows what’s up and is (along with his evil twin) responsible for everything. He’s the Good Guy - even though his followers served as antagonists for much of the show and inflicted untold cruelty on our heroes - and his brother is the Bad Guy. All the crazy things that happened over the past five seasons - the plane crash, the time travel, the leaving the island only to come back again, the dropping-a-nuke-down-a-well, etc. - were just part of an inordinately contrived and elaborate scheme to pick a replacement Good Guy and stop the Bad Guy from blowing up the universe.

And yet.. for all my frustration, I enjoyed the hell out of this show. The character development is absolutely brilliant, heightened by the non-linear storytelling with flashbacks and flashforwards (as well as flashsideways and actual time travel although these do get a bit tediously convoluted) constantly adding new layers of depth to their stories and unexpected twists and turns which give new context to events we’ve already seen. It’s in the carefully woven connections between their lives on-and-off Island that the show really shines, where their on-Island struggles against nature and supernature become an elaborate metaphor for their off-Island struggles against their inner nature. It is uneven, to say the least - Season 3 was probably my least favourite season overall, yet its last few episodes were among the show’s best. I disagree with critics who claim the show’s Pilot to be its highlight - sure, Lost started strong, but it was the slow-burning revelation of the hatch and the subsequent introduction of the Dharma Initiative during Season 2 which really hooked me on it. The freighter arc in Season 4 is also among the show’s strongest. And maaaan, Jacob's Cabin was so sinister and mysterious and awesome, it’s just a shame they dropped so much of that setup when Jacob was finally revealed.

Benjamin Linus has got to be one of my favourite villains of all time, even if his motivations (and the protaganists’ repeated willingness to overlook his past deceptions and betrayals only to be deceived and betrayed yet again) never entirely made sense. His gradual redemption over the course of Season 6 was one of the few resolutions to character storylines I found genuinely satisfying.

On the less satisfying side, some of the romantic pairings were extremely contrived. Jack/Kate, Sawyer/Juliet, and Sayid/Shannon all went totally against type and made no sense whatsoever. It clearly should’ve been Jack/Juliet, Kate/Sawyer, and Sayid/Nadia. Jack/Kate is kind of plausible, okay, but Juliet and Sawyer had literally zero setup or chemistry (it’s just “THREE YEARS LATER surprise they’re together now!”) and Sayid dedicated his entire adult life to finding Nadia and being worthy of her. He’s a hardened, cold-blooded killer and ex-torturer with an enormous weight on his conscience and his soulmate is the spoilt whiny brat who won’t lift a finger to help anyone? Yeah, not buying it.

Lost is a good show. Occasionally, it’s a great show. It’s hard not to grieve for what might have been had tighter plotting and narrative/thematic consistency prevailed. But it’s just as hard not to fall in love with the sheer audacity of it all, its reckless willingness to keep piling on weirdness after weirdness until the whole thing collapses under the weight of its own gratuitous ridiculousness. It’s the hottest, messiest mess out there. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But there’s nothing else quite like it.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Review - Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Ultimate Edition)

NOTE: This is a review of the Ultimate Edition of Batman v Superman, which contains about an extra 30 minutes footage. I haven't seen the theatrical release, so that may account for my difference of opinion with most critics of this film.

Finally got around to watching Dawn of Justice. Gotta say, after all the hate that's been levelled towards this movie I was.. kinda pleasantly surprised to not hate it? There's no question that it's massively flawed. It tackles way too many things, takes itself way too seriously, misreads the characters making Batman into a thug (he straight up wastes so many dudes without batting an eyelid - HAH batting) and Superman into Batman, and refuses to pause for breath or take moments of levity which would provide some much-needed contrast to the relentless wall-of-noise the film (along with Zimmer's hyperdramatic score) throws at its audience.

On the other hand, this is a beautifully shot movie which fully embraces the mythopoeic nature of its source material in a way which distinguishes it from Marvel's offerings, and its many iconic set-pieces are by and large extremely impressive, well-executed and impactful. The problem is with everything that happens to connect those set pieces. Rather than developing our characters, establishing pathos, and giving them plausible motivations for their actions, the film relies heavily on weighty "themes" to hold everything together - God vs Man, Power vs Responsibility, Angels and Demons, Falling Fallers Who Fall and are Fallen, etc. - which is fine when these themes actually dovetail with the story you're trying to tell, when the film actually has a perspective to offer on those themes, a "moral" if you like. Dawn of Justice doesn't, though - all of its lofty ruminations are ultimately in vain when the thing that finally unites God and Man is the fact that their mums both happen to have the same first name. One gets the feeling that if Snyder hadn't crammed so damn much into this movie, he might have been able to tie its parts together a little more convincingly. As it is, one feels that one could randomly reshuffle many of the film's scenes with little consequence for the storytelling.

Ben Affleck is a *superb* Batman, and his scenes were the highlight of the film for me, wanton slaughter notwithstanding. The same goes for Jeremy Irons as Alfred. Jesse Eisenberg unfortunately overacts the role of Lex Luthor something dreadful, apparently attempting to channel Heath Ledger's Joker via Mark Zuckerberg in a manner that is unlikely to win any Oscars but will surely guarantee his continued typecasting as "generic mad genius". Henry Cavill is, again, well cast as Superman, but again spends most of his time moping rather than actually being Super so it's a little hard to tell.

On the one hand.. this is a joyless movie. It's pretentious, incoherent and too-often collapses under the weight of its needlessly self-imposed literary burdens. If this were a solo Batman movie - and it's very clear that Snyder is attempting to emulate Nolan's style - that might work, and indeed the Batman-driven scenes are the best parts of the film. On paper though this is Superman's story, but he never really gets to offer the much needed counterpoint of hope and heroism to Batman's cynical grimdark; instead we get both characters presented through the same gloomy lens and that corrodes the core of Superman's character.

On the other hand, it's hard not to be swept away by the sheer mythic spectacle of it all and I can't help but have a begrudging appreciation for Snyder's boldness in deconstructing Superman before his fans - if he'd just taken a bit more time to build him up before tearing him down, or if he had some inclination to put him back together again afterwards (like "sure let's tackle the problematic aspects of this character, BUT in the end hope is a pretty important thing which is ultimately worth clinging to and sometimes we do need heroes to inspire us") it might have worked out a little better. Hell though, for all its nuttiness, I enjoyed it. 7/10.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Wherefore Rationalia?

New Scientist - A rational nation ruled by science would be a terrible idea

Inane though Tyson's suggestion is, I can't help but cringe when people like Jeffrey Guhin (see article above) invoke Godwin's Law to attack "scientism" - a label which is itself problematic because while yes, there are certainly overzealous science enthusiasts out there, the term is too often used to attack anything its user doesn't like which happens to come from the mouths of scientists or science communicators, which makes it a tool of unreason and anti-science as often as it's a tool for legitimate critique of the overzealous.

Anyway, while I think the goal of a rational society is laudable, the trouble is it's never entirely clear what is meant by that. If we mean rational in the narrow sense of "sensible, intelligent, shrewd, judicious" etc., then of course this isn't a very contentious suggestion. Is anyone going to argue that society should be run senselessly/foolishly/unintelligently? This doesn't actually get us anywhere though because as soon as we start asking which policies are most sensible/intelligent/shrewd/judicious we're right back to square one, and while it might be a good start if we could agree to ground that discussion on empirical evidence, politics simply doesn't lend itself towards the kind of reductionism that hard scientists are used to - it's almost impossible to control for external variables in studying any substantive policy question, and it is very easy to find studies which will support almost any policy position you can think of, including ones which contradict each other. Don't get me wrong, empirical data is the best tool we have for testing the viability of political hypotheses, but you don't often get unambiguous answers.

The backlash to Tyson's comments though comes I think from a not-unjustified suspicion that his "rationality" entails something else, either a) the dubious assumption that the correct methodological approach to policy making would resolve this ambiguity, and/or b) a world-view, that is, a pre-established set of doctrines about what is or is not true which the architects of Rationalia have deemed fit to smuggle in under the umbrella of "rationality", as every utopian architect has done since the dawn of modern science.

Maybe Tyson is - in his own way - simply calling for a greater respect for reason and evidence in public debate and policy making, which I can 100% get behind, but if you want to advocate for a new form of government you need to actually apply that reason in order to develop some idea of how you're going to get there and what its institutional arrangements are gonna look like. Just saying "we should use reason" isn't very insightful, and it's a shame so many of science's more vocal advocates seem to think otherwise.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Review - The Conjuring 2

The Conjuring 2 is a technically competent but otherwise underwhelming sequel. The first film was a brilliantly crafted love letter to 1970s horror which perfectly walked the line between homage and pastiche while adding a few cinematic innovations of its own. The second obviously has similar intent - even opening with an interior shot of the famously odd windows at 112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville - but while Wan still knows how to shoot a great horror movie, he's apparently forgotten how to write one. All innovation is gone, and the film's attempt at homage is undermined by the countless tropes borrowed from other recent horror films. The storyline is plodding and nonsensical - I'd anticipated a twist which I'm convinced would have made for a significantly more satisfying resolution, and the fact that it's heavily foreshadowed by earlier events in the film makes me suspect that the original ending was sabotaged by studio-driven last minute edits, because they instead go with a Diabolus Ex Machina which tries to raise the stakes by throwing dramatic CGI at the screen but otherwise fails to bear any relevant connection to the rest of the story, notwithstanding Lorraine's "visions" earlier in the film which equally feel like last-minute additions.

The film generally feels very half-hearted in everything it sets out to accomplish. It wants us to care about the Warrens, so it throws out some superficially mushy dialogue about how they got together and has Ed gaze into Lorraine's eyes while he sings Elvis to some children, while completely failing to allow them to behave in any way like real human beings. Neither of them seem to show any particularly extraordinary expertise when it comes to dealing with the supernatural, either - they spend a lot of time rattling futilely at locked doors and Lorraine has a remarkable tendency to break down into a screamy teary mess anytime she sees something scary, not a particularly desirable quality in a paranormal investigator. The film also makes numerous nods towards the angst and desperation of the Thatcher-era, but just doesn't really.. do anything with it. "Hey look, these characters' struggles exist within a broader social context" - is that going to be relevant to the story in any way, directly or indirectly, literally or metaphorically? Hell no! But gosh, isn't it scary when the ghost forces the little girl to watch Maggie's speech on TV.

It's frustrating, because somewhere during the process of writing and editing this thing I'm sure there was a really good film. That's not the film they released, though. As it is, it's entertaining, and succeeds at being scary, because Wan's well and truly mastered the stock tricks of the genre at this point. It's a shame it can't do more to justify its existence, though, because there are a lot of superficially entertaining scary movies out there, and we know Wan can do much better. I'll give this one a 6/10.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Place your bets

All politics nerds' eyes are fixed upon Iowa today as the first match in the Free World Cup kicks off.

In the blue corner we've got Hillary “What's the establishment?" Clinton vs. Bernie "Hope and change but for realsies this time" Sanders, with polls showing a narrow but dwindling lead for Clinton as the match approaches.

In the red corner we've got Donald "Nobody builds walls better than me" Trump vs. Ted "Green eggs and ham" Cruz, with Trump holding a fair but not insurmountable lead in the polls.

Although Trump's edge over his opponent trumps (heh) Clinton's, both races remain highly competitive. While Iowa is but one of many contests to come, these early races promise valuable media coverage for the victors as well as boosting their perceived electability among primary voters, increasing their chances for future victories.

The safe bet is on a Trump/Clinton victory, although Sanders' poll trends and demographic advantages (especially in a high-turnout scenario) could yet get him over the line. Results should be in by this evening.