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Monday, August 29, 2016

Review: The Lobster

The Lobster (2016): Written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.  Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman, Ashley Jensen, Ariane Labed, Angeliki Papoulia, John C. Reilly, Lea Seydoux, Michael Smiley, and Ben Whishaw.  Running Time: 118 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            The Lobster might be one of the coldest, hardest films of 2016, and although we may still have a few months to go, I highly doubt anything will top it (knock on wood).  It is a dark, dark, DARK satire of dating and romance in the 21st-century, so on-point at its best that it will be far too uncomfortable viewing for most.  Yet that, perhaps, makes it all the more necessary. 

            Colin Farrell stars as David, living in a world where constantly being in a relationship isn’t just socially desired, it’s legally mandated.  Those unfortunate enough to find themselves on the receiving end of a breakup (or even the opposite end of a spousal death!) must immediately check themselves into a hotel that specializes in coupling people back up as soon as possible.  There is a 45-day time limit to your efforts, and if, by the end of that time, you have failed to find your soulmate, you are literally turned into an animal (but to be fair, they DO let you choose which one) and let loose in a nearby forest. 

            We don’t know how we got here, how long things have been like this, or even how the technology to turn people into other animals exists.  It simply is, and the audience has to quickly play catchup to figure out what the characters already know, because there are a lot of rules that have to be followed, and the punishments the hotel metes out for those who don’t play along can be truly brutal.  One of the rules, perhaps the most galling (and ultimately destructive), is that in order to become a couple, two people must have at least one identifiable skill, or interest, or physical/emotional trait.  If not, it won’t be accepted, because clearly there can’t be love if there are no surface similarities between two people, right? 

            The ultimate cost of all this quickly becomes apparent- in a world where love is commodified and packaged down to people hooking up over having just a single thing in common, there can be no passion.  No real joy or sadness.  Just endless calculation over what the right move is that will save you from “The Transformation Room.”  There is no subtlety or understanding of symbolism in speech- no one in the hotel can afford it.  Conversations are just repeated litanies of trivia tidbits, and everyone speaks in a monotone, tilted, highly formal manner, with just a hint of desperation around the edges for those whose time is running out. 

            We get a small idea of what sort of larger world might exist outside the hotel in the second act- when David finally loses his cool and flees the hotel (after a plot twist that is genuinely bone-chilling), he encounters a group of rebels living in the woods called the Loners, led by a terrifying Lea Seydoux.  At first, you might be inclined to assume that safety and acceptance have been found, and David can take a deep breath and relax.  But you would be wrong, as the Loners turn out to be just as demanding and strict in keeping people alone and separated from each other as “regular society” is in forcing people together.  It’s a powerful and apt reminder that rejection of one extreme doesn’t automatically lead to moderation- it can just as easily lead one to embrace another, equally destructive, extreme. 

            The film’s greatest strength is that it unflinchingly commits to these extremist principles it sets up in the beginning, drawing them to the farthest conclusion possible.  This may very well kill for the film for many viewers.  There is no emotional shift, no deviation from the lifeless tone of every bit of dialogue; it fits with the environment the movie seeks to create, but if you find yourself tiring of it early on it may prove impossible to appreciate anything else as a result.  Like many needed and remarkable works of art, the film raises a host of prickly, uncomfortable questions and leaves little suggestion that a reassuring answer can be found.  I wonder if the film doesn’t tip its hand too much at times, leaning wholly into existential despair and thus becoming lost in its own bleakness, but I can’t deny that much of it has stayed with me, for better or worse, and I can certainly never fault a film for that. 

-Noah Franc  

Monday, August 22, 2016

Reflections: The End of Bleach (God Help Us)

            Oh, Lord. 

            So.  Bleach ended.  About 3 years (3 endless years) after telegraphing that this final arc would be the last of Kubo’s massive, sprawling action series, Bleach has achieved the strange and dubious distinction of having an ending both interminably long and shockingly brief, and I’m honestly not sure which is worse.    

            I confess that I know very little about why it was decided to end Bleach so suddenly this year, but what I think is clear is that the choice was not entirely Kubo’s (if he even had a choice at all).  The clearest victim of this choice ended up being the simple fact that what Kubo clearly intended to be a sprawling epic of a last story, involving returns of nearly every major character from the course of the entire series, was chopped down to a rapid and hazy resolution of only the most pressing issues of the story. 

            Retracing and recreating the vast, endless maze of plot threads, character arcs, and battles that, despite Kubo’s earlier hinting, never actually happened or were clearly abridged is something I will not even begin to attempt here, because it would be a guaranteed, one-way ticket to a fate worse that Jack’s in The Shining.  Suffice it to say that the way the finale of the series actually went down is mind-boggling.  These last few chapters were easily the worst of the entire series, a statement that I do not make lightly. 

            I mean, Naruto had issues.  It had some REALLY big issues.  But at least it stuck to enough of its core storylines, adequately fulfilling and resolving them in the final chapter, to make it worth seeing through to the end, and to give its last moments a fitting sense of finality and emotional weight.  For a series so big and long-running, it’s stupendously hard, and I once would have said near-impossible, to create an ending with absolutely no sense of importance to it, or at least a bit of nostalgic sadness. 

            Yet, somehow, Bleach pulled it off.  There’s just no way to put it nicely- this ending was an absolute dumpster-fire, in every sense of the word.  Of all the long-running issues with the franchise I flagged earlier, none of them changed or were improved upon down the stretch in the slightest.  This is a series that decided to end with the literal death of God and the possible annihilation of all matter and being in the universe, which even Naruto didn’t try to do.  And yet, we somehow managed to reach the absolute nadir of the series by resolving this stupendously ambitious plot concept with a “fight” that barely qualified as such, with everything boiling down to a handful of hastily-explained plot twists with no buildup or forshadowing.  Every bit of it felt perfunctory, as if Kubo simply decided to passively dot the I’s and cross the T’s he had to, but had resolved to do no more than that, so that he could just get this mess over with.  And nothing is more devastating to the resolution of a story than when it’s pervaded by the sense that even the story’s creator doesn’t give a damn. 

            Perhaps this ending could have been salvaged if Ichigo had at least gotten some strong moments as a character, to reflect on where he was at the beginning of the series and how much he’d gone through and changed over the years.  But nope. 

            Perhaps if Chad and Orihime had gotten some form of redemption for being shat on in earlier arcs by being part of the fight to defeat Juha Bach, with maybe Rukia and Renji thrown in, Bleach could have recaptured some of the team camaraderie that made the early chapters such a joy.  But nope. 

            Perhaps if (and I know this one is a shocker) Uryu had actually had something to do in a years-long arc about effing QUINCIES, and the apparent subplot about his playing the part of a double-agent had actually gone anywhere, the story would have not felt like a massive bubble of empty air meant merely to justify Kubo drawing out his penchant for ethnically stereotypical battle fetishes.  But nope. 

            But if I’m honest, even if any of the above had happened, I doubt it would have been enough.  This series was already way too far gone by the end.  Long before this arc was even announced, the rift between the first 170-180 chapters of the series and what it later became had widened into a chasm that no amount of decent writing could bridge.  I tried to think of ways I could sum up just how much about this series has changed (beyond what I’ve written already), and just couldn’t come up with anything, because it really is beyond words at this point.  I don’t know if I can say that Bleach necessarily betrayed its origins (I think there’s a better argument to made that Naruto did that), but it certainly became much more unrecognizable, and the writing substantially more lazy, especially where the fights were concerned. 

            It didn’t help that none of the conclusions or fates given to the remaining characters felt in any way important or fitting.  Really, none of them.  Chad didn’t even get facetime outside of a shot of a TV, for Christ’s sake.  The possible exception was Rukia achieving the rank of Captain, which was definitely a good ending as far as she was concerned, but even that was robbed of a sense of triumph because everything around it felt so empty, like the dead vacuum of outer space. 

            Ugh.  This is all just really, really depressing.  I stand by my past assertion that, in the early days, Bleach was solid enough and had enough potential to surpass both Naruto and One Piece and have the grandest, most interesting story out of all the Shonen Big 3.  And here it is, ending suddenly, in dishonor, at a level of quality lower than anything I had imagined possible.  Like with all cases of a good or even great story idea going sour, the most fitting word I can find is sad, because if there’s one thing we can never have enough of in the world, it’s good stories. 

            So ends the tale of Ichigo and co., I suppose.  But thankfully, hope in the world of manga is not gone.  After this ending I need to detox for a bit, and once that’s over with I will have the time expound on one of my favorite topics- why One Piece has not only avoided the decline suffered by Naruto and Bleach, but has even managed to get better over the past decade.  Stay tuned. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Review: How To Let Go Of The World (and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change)

How To Let Go Of The World: Written and directed by Josh Fox.  Starring: Josh Fox.  Running Time: 125 minutes. 

Rating:  4/4

            Almost as soon as I saw the How To Let Go trailer, I realized I’d been desperately wishing for a movie like this.  For all the positive news in the fight against climate change, there is still such a long way to go and so many ways things can go wrong that it is impossible to completely avoid moments of despair.  I am certainly no stranger to feeling despair over the future of our world, and I know many others are as well. 

            Josh Fox begins his latest work by describing the moment when he fell into this seemingly intractable despair- after celebrating the triumph of his hometown over efforts by the fracking industry to develop nearby forests (which inspired his Oscar-nominated work Gasland, he was shaken out of his reverie when he found out a tree he’d planted years before as a child was now dying, victim of a particular type of woody adelgid, whose destructive range has been spreading North thanks to the effects of climate change. 

            Rattled by the implications of this, he begins a series of interviews with climate experts of various stripes and backgrounds, and the overlaying descriptions they provide of the many thousand small ways that alterations in the climate are rapidly building into a truly global catastrophe for both the natural world and human society leaves him feeling, in his own repeated word, “overwhelmed,” completely at a loss as to how to grasp the scope of the disasters unfolding.  If it’s already too late to avoid losing much of what we love in the world, how can we even begin to grieve? 

            Upon hitting this rock-bottom, Fox’s first instinct was to stay home and just shut it all away.  His second ran directly counter to the first- if he’d hit such a miserable low contemplating the coming tidal wave of climate change, there must be others who’d reached the same point.  And he resolved to go out into the world, find them, and find out if and how they were able to pick themselves back up and keep going, in spite of all they stood to lose. 

            His journey eventually encompassed over 12 countries and led to his meeting an astounding and inspiring variety of people from every background imaginable; independent locals in the Amazon who work to track down the latest oil leaks, boatsmen from various Pacific Islands who banded together to literally stop an Australian coal tanker in its tracks (while shouting “We aren’t drowning, we are fighting!”), community organizers who stuck around after Hurricane Sandy to provide for New York and New Jersey locals abandoned by the authorities, a mother working to raise awareness of smog pollution in Beijing, a local African chief using small solar panels to light up village schools after dark, and many others. 

            Much of this film’s power is its acknowledgement of the fact that these are all small people, taking small steps.  And it might be too late, and even if more people did stuff like this it could still end up being not enough.  But there is something powerful in the effort.  For Fox, it’s a reminder of the parts of us and our societies that can never change, no matter what happens with the climate.  Familial love, the power of community bonds, and the importance of helping each other out when in need, are the sort of things that we are always capable of, and there is an importance in that. 

            As the title suggests, this is a film that’s partially about go of all that’s beyond our grasp.  Not that it sugarcoats it, or makes it out to seem easy; it’s hard to let go, especially of something as wonderfully diverse and majestic as the Earth.  Seeing a recent study estimating that up to half of all bird species in North America would become either extinct or endangered as a result of severe warning produced something akin to tearing sensation inside of me.  How could I possibly accept raising my children in a world where they can only experience half the forest sounds I did growing up? 

            There is, perhaps, one possible path to salvation.  One Chinese activist, speaking with Fox atop the Great Wall, speaks of the “moral imagination-“ the times in history when human thought has taken a leap beyond its time and produced ideas about what the world should be like, providing a beacon for people to work towards.  The moral imagination is perhaps the key to realizing our potential to take advantage of these times and change for the better. 

            It’s often been the actions of individuals or small groups that have gotten the ball rolling, and with modern technology, the individual and the small can be amplified like never before.  The capacity of the governments and the large to silence dissent weakens with each passing day.  Is the power of the moral imagination where hope for Earth and civilization is to be found?  It HAS happened before, despite all the odds, and maybe it takes all of us doing very small things for it to happen again. 

            This is a powerful piece of documentary filmmaking, and an absolutely necessary part of the conversation taking place about how to salvage what we can from the wreckage of human shortsightedness.  Positivity and optimism are key, but we equally need the capacity to feel, experience, and acknowledge our fears despairs, and worries if we are to be clear-eyed enough for the challenges facing us. 

-Noah Franc