Interview – Davis Guggenheim November 11, 2010

I had a real “down the rabbit-hole” moment walking out of the hotel I where I interviewed Davis Guggenheim. All I could think about was how sometimes he needs to go to the store to buy polish for his fucking Oscar.

Originally appeared in The Peak.

Ripped straight from a particu- lar George Clooney film, Davis Guggenheim became success- ful because he got fired. Or so he says.

“I never wanted to be a docu- mentary filmmaker.” The screen- writer and original director of the 2001 Denzel Washington vehicle was thrown off his own project by the marquee star. The bit- terness lead Guggenheim to his true calling. “It was so arbitrary and stupid, so I bought a camera and made a film about people I like”. In the precursor to Waiting for “Superman”, a landmark docu- mentary about the faltering Amer- ican education system, Guggen- heim followed a group of teachers for a year and chronicled their struggles. The 2001 documentary, Teach, was the result, and the first step in what Guggenheim figures will be a long career document- ing education. “I think I’ll be mak- ing movies about education for- ever. Until we fix it.” Guggenheim, whose work became a household name with An Inconvenient Truth, has moved on from the Acad- emy Award-winning business of chronicling the fate of the planet to merely the fate of the United States. “From an American pointof view, it seems like the roots of all our problems come out of edu- cation, the roots of all our great successes come out of education. We are so screwed right now.”


Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Guggenheim feels as if America has a lot to learn from its neighbors. “We read a lot about the system in Finland, Japan, and Korea. Finland is at the top of a lot of lists. What they do right and what we can learn from them is their emphasis on great teachers. It is very hard to get into a teaching program. When you finish, you get a spot. When you get a spot, you get developed and trained. When you’re done, you can get any job you want. In America, that’s the opposite of the case.”

It’s a labour of love for Guggenheim who sees the quest for better education in America as sacred duty. But it’s not without limitations. “Part of what drives me is emotion. When I feel pas- sionate about a movie is when I want to make a movie. You have to feel deeply about it and you have to care about the people in your movie. But you can’t cross certain lines.” Part of the film fo- cuses on a young girl attending a private charter school, but money for tuition runs out just in time

for her to be barred from attend- ing elementary graduation with her friends. Despite just wanting to pay the bill, Guggenheim exer- cises restraint. “It’s heartbreaking. You’re making the movie to help people but you’re not allowed, out of principle, to help. The hope is the movie will then encourage others to help.”

Despite the endless debate and hand-wringing over Ameri- can education reform, support behind Waiting for “Superman” is less than universal. “It’s very, very controversial. When I do this in Texas, there are a lot of peo- ple who are very upset because schools have to accept all these immigrants and illegal aliens. It gets more complicated. I hope it doesn’t. My great-grandparents are immigrants. They didn’t have any money and education was this great elevator, it lifted fami- lies up. I think America should commit to giving every kid a great education and not have a lottery to get on the elevator.” Major pro- ponents of the film include Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City (steward of the largest public school district in the country) and President Barack Obama, who levied criticism over intractable teacher tenure and the number of school days respectively in the wake of the “Superman” premiere.

Waiting for “Superman”, hav- ing dragged some taboo issues into the open, Guggenheim is quick to state the power of his medium. While others are sheep- ish and coy about pointing fingers at bad teachers and bad policies, Guggenheim is defiant. “If you can’t talk about them in a docu- mentary, where are you going to talk about them?”

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Review – The Suburbs by Arcade Fire August 4, 2010

Originally appeared in The Peak. I caused a bit of controversy among a couple of my smarter (music wise) friends by because I implied I was underwhelmed with this record. This is clearly not the case. It’s incredibly strong, but those strengths only serve to make it’s missteps more glaring. I didn’t extrapolate much on a few key tracks due to word count restrictions, but those thoughts boil down to this: Empty Room, Half Light II, Month of May and Sprawl II off this record will enter any greatest hits package this band puts out, along with Ocean of Noise, Intervention, Crown of Love and Power’s Out. Arcade Fire were probably the Meat Loaf of my high school career (both in terms of noisy, commercially successful releases and in terms of popularity and musical grandiosity) so it’s nice to see that they didn’t similarly put out only one classic. I had a tough time with this record and review, but I’m glad I stuck with it. 2010 has been strangely sparse in terms of records I’ve latched onto, so maybe it’s faint praise to say The Suburbs is a highlight. I don’t think so, but maybe.

he Suburbs is an agonizing record. It’s agony to listen to and agony to ignore. For every moment you feel drawn to it, you have two of rage at the change of a formula that worked so well and one wondering whether Arcade Fire have improved upon it. Sandwiched between classics are songs sounding like single fodder, throw-aways padding what should have been Preakness in their Triple Crown. These stumbles may not matter.


For the most part, Win, Regine, and company seem at odds with the sweeping elegiacs that have thus far made up their fingerprint. They’re done with mini-epics and have moved onto a collection of cogent moments, leaving the album to be the singular experience, not single tracks. There are no lineal connections with their previous work, and though stompers “Month of May” and “City With No Children” channel “Antichrist Television Blues,” these references are passing. As such, comparisons have already been drawn to OK Computer. More poignant is the disparity between the latter album and Kid A. Little remains of the past, but it is unquestionably the work of them same band.

Bookending title tracks “The Suburbs” and “The Suburbs (continued)” give the album some narrative anchors, and discography highs “Empty Room” (sounding like a neon Bible b-side layered over grinding shoegaze, which is to say outstanding), and “Half Light II (No Celebration)” moderate missed opportunities in “Ready To Start” and “Deep Blue.” Only briefly do they abandon loneliness to revisit the apocalypse they’re so fond of writing about in “Suburban War” (with, again, reference to career best “Ocean of Noise.”) Contained in it’s a final movement as good as they’ve ever done.

Like the exurbs they discuss, The Suburbs is only frustrating and distant on first glance. Peering under a layer of static and despondence is a challenge with enough reward to merit the undertaking. Butler croons “The music divides/us into tribes,” something doubtless to happen among their fanbase. Their loss, it would seem.

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Review – Inception July 27, 2010

Originally appeared in The Peak. I come down a little hard on Inception here, I think. There has been enough fawning praise elsewhere that I think I was subconsciously pushed to point out what I saw to be it’s flaws. I’ll restate because I’m not sure I was clear enough: Inception is the best movie to hit theaters this summer (wide, at least. I hear Winter’s Bone was awesome, and as I’ve said I Am Love was awesome) and one of the best this year. I’ve seen it twice and would see it a third time in a heartbeat.

Christopher Nolan might not be the best director of our time (he comes close), but he certainly is the loudest. Fashioning a strong relationship with Warner Bros. — owner of one of, if not the most effective marketing machines on the planet — Nolan is their newly-minted golden boy in a tenuous situation: we have been talking about Inception for what feels like forever. That amount of hype would bend and break most films, but Nolan, no doubt steeled by helming one of the largest film franchises ever in Batman, just internalized that pressure and made what might be his masterpiece.

Inception is about dreams — the creation of dreams, the manipulation of dreams, and how those dreams can shake and shape us. Leonardo DiCaprio is Dominic Cobb, an extractor of the highest order. He can walk into your brain, steal an idea, and leave without a trace, all while you sleep. When Mr. Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires them to leave a trace via a near impossible process called “inception,” the rewards outweigh the risk. “Don’t think about elephants. Now, what are you thinking about?” remarks Cobb’s partner Arthur, played to perfection by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Brick, 500 Days of Summer), explaining how true inspiration is impossible to fake. Christopher Nolan seems to agree.


What follows is a delirious trip into multiple planes of reality, a mind-melter that for better or worse will conjure memories of the recent Shutter Island. Cobb enlists the help of a new architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page of Juno, Hard Candy, and Trailer Park Boys fame) and a forger, Eames (Tom Hardy of Bronson, Layer Cake, and Scenes of a Sexual Nature) to break into Cillian Murphy’s (28 Days Later, Sunshine) dreams and convince him to break up an energy conglomerate founded by his dying father.

Inception is, unequivocally, this summer’s best movie (so far, that is — early reports call Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World a contender). It’s a dense, thrilling, highly creative film that gives the finger to “dumb fun” films in style. It’s the best money you can spend at a theater right now.

Comparisons to Fellini’s 8 1/2 will abound as it seems as likely an allegory for the filmmaking process as it is a straightforward action picture. Debate roars over the finer points of the film’s message, forcing attentive viewers to discuss the nature of reality, perception, and obsession at length. No matter the answers to the many questions it raises, that it elicits a response other than “that was crap,” makes it stand head and shoulders above this season’s crop.

While exceptional, Inception is not perfect. Complaints are similar to Nolan’s other offerings. The script is Christopher’s baby, with rewrites extending into the early part of the decade. The absence of writing partner and brother Jonathan Nolan is felt in the terse and at times oppressively serious tone of the film. There are a few moments of great levity, but they are few and far between. This becomes an issue during the trademark Nolan, needfully long exposition: gobs of information force-fed (albeit in an exciting manner) to an audience just to enable their enjoyment of the explosive third act. He makes films like a prog-rock song — bounding gallops out of the gate, settling into a lengthy digression on why he is more brilliant than you, frequent bursts of excitement through the fog and an end garnished with fireworks. The Mars Volta should be jealous.

That said, Inception so ably sucks you in you’ll barely notice the cold characterization and minor issues it has. From zero-gravity acrobatics to a homicidal Marion Cotillard flowing through Cobb’s dreams like an assassin, Inception lives up to every bit of hype.

At one point in the film, Ariadne remarks how building a dream is “less about the visual and more about the feel of the dream.” She wonders what happens when she alters the physics of the dream world. That world then literally flips upside down, a city folding onto itself, all spectacle and shock. Looking at what she has done, she says, “it sure is something, isn’t it?” to a similarly moved Cobb. “Yes it is,” he responds quietly. It sure is, Mr. Nolan.

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Review – I Am Love July 22, 2010

This flick was my first time at an honest to goodness press screening. Not going to lie, it was pretty great. I could do that often and have no complaints.

I Am Love will be one of the best films of the year that no one will watch. It has a lot going against it, Oscar-winning lead Tilda Swinton or no. It’s entirely in Italian (Swinton learned to speak the language with a character-specific Russian accent). It’s a two-hour hard drama, devoid of levity, and North American censors are notoriously squeamish when it comes to shots of female genitalia. Yes, shots — plural. It’s this abandon and seeming disregard for North American box office take that makes I Am Love not only a shocking achievement, but one of the most fearless dramatic films in years.

The film tells the story of Emma Recchi, an immigrant inductee into the powerful Recchi family of Italian aristocrats. Embarrassingly wealthy owing to a thriving textile concern, the film apes Tennessee Williams and joins them celebrating the birthday of the family patriarch who finds himself approaching death. While at this point it could easily devolve into a straightforward heir battle, the thread of the family’s future only serves as a frame to describe a situation where Swinton’s Emma will never belong. As her utility to her husband ends at her uterus, a chance encounter with her son’s chef friend draws her slowly into an affair. It’s a tale of life, death, renewal, and stumbling forward, clothed or not.

Director Luca Guadagnino has put together an impressive package with his biggest production to date. His direction of frequent collaborator Swinton is expertly done, an advantageous situation given that she forms the centre of gravity for the film. There is nearly nothing else in the film. I Am Love hangs its entire being onto her capable, angular shoulders and she responds to the weight expertly. His mastery of shot choice and his clear respect for cinematography makes I Am Love an absolute treat to look at, inspiring an instant desire to catch it again on Blu-ray (an odd trait for such a tense dramatic work). In another life, Guadagnino could direct food commercials: a good portion of this film imbues sensuality into food and cooking. This is a skill that most directors wish they could attach to their love scenes.

The script is incredibly strong, juxtaposing Emma’s lovers expertly. Her husband pointedly clothes her, zipping a dress, and clasping bracelets and other expensive armour, while her lover unwraps her like a present for the world and the audience to see and admire. In an effort to help along her journey into adultery, Emma stalks her prey like Gatsby (that is to say with class, not the creepy kind of stalking). Here, Swinton masterfully introducing a girlish fluster into her encounters. Sub-plots about another unwelcome inductee include her son’s fiancée, and the plans to sell the family business to foreign concerns at the cost of the company’s humanity weave into the narrative with ease. The affair unfolds with shades of Dawson’s Creek, the “will-they or won’t-they” factor becoming stifling right before its logical release (which sets up a hilarious visual gag that may be the film’s only funny moment). The unpredictable pacing of the film — plodding, with sudden octane infusions — suits the unpredictable nature sudden, traumatic family events, and sets up a climax that will knock you flat.

While it has flaws, they are nitpicks at best. A sub-plot regarding Emma’s daughter coming out as homosexual is tainted by the unintentionally hilarious choice she makes to cut her hair short, a cliché obviously meant to compare with her mother’s similar choice upon deciding to divorce her husband. Similarly, Guadagnino’s choice to make the face of the antagonist attempting to purchase and corrupt the family business an American Sikh is a blunt and artless comment on the changing economic and social face of the United Kingdom and the European Union. It’s a vaguely racist moment that comes from nearly nowhere. Combine those with what amounts to a huge amount of “Italy porn” — lavish shots boasting the natural beauty of the Italian landscape — and it results in comparatively minor gripes about a solid film.

I Am Love will have nearly no domestic impact commercially, but will continue the Oscar tradition of populating the “Best Foreign Film” category with some of the best work no one cares about until they get a statue. Swinton keeps marching quietly forward in her campaign to be regarded as one of the best actresses of her time with this challenging, awe-inspiring work she carries effortlessly. If she hasn’t already earned a star on the Walk of Fame, this will probably do it.

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Review – The Last Airbender July 15, 2010

This article originally appeared in The Peak. This was a major personal blow, really. People close to me know how serious I am about Avatar: The Last Airbender, and how often I call it one of the most enjoyable, well made pieces of fiction I have ever encountered. It’s funny, romantic, exciting and one of my favorite things ever. To see it so poorly interpreted was hard to watch.

M.Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender blows.

But seriously folks, to talk about this film is to talk exclusively about its utter failure. By now the entire planet has come down on Shyamalan and is loudly plotting his violent demise, both for committing a Hague convention-worthy crime against filmmaking and for the full-ceremony desecration of a franchise that many have strong feelings for. Those attached to both the series and to good filmmaking are going to be reaching for the nearest halberd and dialing for airline tickets post-haste.

Avatar: The Last Airbender was a series on Nickelodeon that ran for three seasons. While aimed at 10 to 14-year-olds, it is easiest to categorize the achievement of co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko (and head writer Aaron Ehasz) as a kind of small-screen Pixar. While aiming at a young demographic, they created a series that is not only completely entertaining, but empirically well made. Between its canny sense of humour, outstanding character work, and grand scale, it’s a fantasy series that not only deserves the title of Tolkien-esque, but demands it. Shyamalan managed to take something that would have been fine as a word for word reenactment with real people and sucked every ounce of life from it. It’s art murder and he is a criminal.

The Last Airbender tells the story of Aang (said like “hang,” which the director seemed to miss), a 12-year-old airbender monk born as the latest incarnation of a super-being that can manipulate, or “bend” all four elements — earth, fire, water, and air. Told far before his maturity level could have allowed him to understand his responsibility and rushed due to a worldwide military struggle, the plot finds its most ready analogs in stories of Superman and Jesus Christ: what did these messianic figures do before they became saviours? While that question is mostly understood with those two examples (according to Superman: Birthright, saved oppressed Africans to impress a girl and none of your God damned business, respectively), the original Nickelodeon series speaks to its audience by admitting the imperfections of his humanity. Aang ran away, and when he came back, he just wanted to have fun, be a kid, fall in love, and grow up. What follows is a painfully American tale, Aang bootstrapping himself to greatness with the help of his friend Sokka (said like the foot garment, which Shyamalan got wrong too) and primary love interest Kitara. While his birth had a factor in his greatness, it is a story of learning, failure, and a willingness to follow the structure of the original Star Wars trilogy almost exactly. It is also some of the best television of the last decade, and certainly a contender for best children’s show ever. I have to make all this painfully clear to explain the colossal failure Shyamalan’s adaptation is.

The film has no heart. The characters have no soul. There is not a single humorous moment in the live-action version of a show that is more than half comedy. The action is muddy and poorly shot. The romantic angle that dominates the story is castrated and non-existent. The script sounds like it was written by Dr. Nick Riviera, or maybe Michael Bay after a stroke. Any talent Shyamalan has as a visual artist (and he does, though that talent is buried time and time again under everything else being terrible) is buried by everything else being terrible. It’s an insulting, witless, and unacceptably bad interpretation of something great. While it could be argued that it’s difficult to condense eight hours of the first season into a feature film, there wasn’t even an obvious attempt. Shyamalan cut this one down to a mercifully short hour and a half, though I doubt it was his idea.

The Last Airbender possibly represents the end of big studio franchise starters, and not a moment too soon. Instead of deigning to the thoughts and experience of the creators and director (M.Night being an unabashed fanboy of the original series), the finished product seems like it took every note given by a suit with no experience with the material as gospel. If the original leads were mostly non-white, pretty much a Tibetan monk and some Inuit (they were), make them white. Villains are white? Make them brown. Heavy overtones of Eastern philosophy and religion? Soccer moms do tai chi, just make them do that. Then, because unrelenting grit is the current tone du jour, don’t include a single moment of levity. Instead of exploring the complexities of adolescence, just hire Industrial Light and Magic to make things look pretty (they don’t). Slap some of that terrible post-production 3-D on there to artificially inflate the opening weekend take. That’ll teach them to be optimistic.

The Last Airbender is the worst film to come out in a summer season full of total crap, and I doubt even Step Up 3-D could be worse. If it has a single success, perhaps it will become a silver bullet killing three awful things: adaptations without creator controls, cynical use of awful 3-D, and the career of M.Night Shyamalan. Like an abused spouse, this is it for me, M.Night. Cut all contact, delete from Facebook, hit the gym.

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Interview – Rob Lutener of Up North July 12, 2010

The following originally appeared in the The Peak. I got to talk to a buddy about a piece of documentary filmmaking he was involved with. Pretty neat stuff and a cool story.

t’s a cold, grey expanse. The sun rarely rises very far over the horizon and thick fog sometimes hangs like a veil over its entirety. You may go days without seeing a familiar face. The hard ground lets little grow, making the prospect of finding food a difficult notion at times. The people who love it stay and make it work, but time and change have driven as many away as it’s attracted. Man and beast alike struggle to adapt. Also, seemingly no one will let you use their phone. Stuck on SFU’s Burnaby campus with a dead mobile, student Robert Lutener plugs money into a payphone to answer a few questions about his award-winning documentary, Up North, a treatise on the effects of rapid change on one of the world’s most fragile social and environmental ecosystems.

“Up North is a film that documents the social, cultural, economic, and linguistic change in Canada’s Arctic,” says Lutener. He, along with collaborators Drew McIntosh and Aaron Bocanegra, packed a van and headed north from Edmonton, Alberta with a camera in tow to document a region he calls “a magnifying glass for how change affects human beings and the environment around them.” Through interviews with locals — community leaders, elders, artists — Lutener and company constructed an oral record of the Canadian North. “We wanted to let them tell the story of the North in their own words, as opposed to setting out with our own story. We wanted the people who populated [the North] to speak for themselves.” The result was a feature-length documentary that won an award for Best Art Documentary at the Mountain Film Festival in Colorado.

While taking the structure of an oral history, Lutener insists Up North is first and foremost a documentary. Exploring rapid and fundamental change in progress and being invited into their private lives, including the Council of the Yukon First Nations General Assembly and being allowed to document those proceedings were, for Lutener, “an incredibly humbling and powerful experience.” The lives of First Nations residents factors heavily into Up North’s observations, documenting “their reclaiming of their political and civil destiny.” From conversations with survivors of residential schools and Nation elders familiar with the Canadian government’s attitudes and policies governing the area, Up North paints a living portrait of the “past half century and beyond.”

“We knew there was a story up there, but we didn’t know what it would be,” he says, but describing how a lack of a political bent or message from the outset enabled the North to find them, not the other way around. “We discovered that much of the cultural impacts of development . . . has had a significant impact that was completely unexpected.” It was a life-altering experience for Lutener. “I cannot express the gratitude that I have for the people that invited us into their homes and their lives and their history.”

The enthusiasm to participate spanned their journey and came in the unlikeliest of places. “We were crossing the delta on a ferry and we met this woman, Kerry. She had her motor home with her husband and was selling snacks. She came out and asked us what we were doing and we told her and she said ‘Well I’ll talk, won’t I?’ looking at her husband. He says ‘oh yeah, you will!’. We were given the most amazing . . . to me one of the most important parts of the entire film.” Using the lens of her experience to describe what has happened to her homeland, her contribution is a microcosm for the film and an emotional peak in documentary with many such moments. The destruction of her way of life weighs heavily on Lutener, a personal anger that doesn’t detract from the objectivity of the film. “It’s a heinous injustice on a grand scale. It’s remarkably dreadful. The last residential school in this country closed in 1996. An apology and some cheques don’t necessarily equate justice. But a more determined and courageous group of people I have never met in my life.”

The film begins with a lengthy calculation of the carbon footprint inflicted by the production, and while mindful that a discussion of the Arctic usually finds its foundations in discourse on global warming, Lutener is emphatic about the lack of an environmental bias. “It’s up to the viewer, I think. We were asked the question on a continual basis, people asked us ‘What’s the bias?’, and the answer was always ‘Well, it’s your bias’.” Lutener hopes that the film can be used to make people better informed about change in the North and the world.

Armed with little but the money in their pockets and camping gear in a temperamental minivan, Up North succeeds in being a story of parallel journeys, the change evident in both those filmed and filming. It’s a compelling look at Canada’s uncertain northern land mass. Like Klondike forays into the Yukon, Lutener says the experience was well worth its trials. “We pretty much went out there blind, and we came out with gold.”

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Review – Star Wars: In Concert July 2, 2010

Did you guys know I like Star Wars? I do.


The problem with tributes and spinoffs is the added challenge of anyone organizing one to convince a person that their time and money is better spent on the derivative work than on the source. Star Wars in Concert tries to do that with an art form that has become as niche as it gets. Travelling with a full orchestra and outfitting GM Place with a set of giant screens to display appropriate montages from the films their music is taken from, the concert series is a compelling distraction but falls short of satisfying your Star Wars itch.

Star Wars is notable for many reasons, but the scores by John Williams are placed front and centre for this event. While some scores sit idle in the background of movies, it’s hard to imagine Star Wars being what it is today without the evocative sounds accompanying the action. Indeed, Williams’ contributions to the two trilogies are likely the most memorable suites in film history, and while others have gained similar notoriety (Vangelis for Blade Runner, Clint Mansell for Requiem for a Dream, John Murphy for Sunshine), none have the breadth to encourage a stadium event. From the “Imperial March” to the iconic Star Wars main theme, the songs he created have become shorthand for cinematic musical achievement.

Star Wars in Concert does its best to do justice to that legacy, and musically does so in spades. The orchestra travelling with the show put on pitch perfect renditions of every moment from the films. One wonders if any of the people (and children in incredible numbers) in attendance would ever experience a full symphony in their lives were it not for the films attached, so it’s a credit to the music’s popularity that it can pull in an unlikely crowd.

Stellar band aside, the production had its flaws. Ticket prices were on the high side ($41 for one adult) putting it fairly out of reach for students, and the exhibit of classic costumes and props were sparse, hardly justifying the premium. Anthony Daniels (the voice of C-3PO) acted as narrator and host for the evening, but his overenthusiasm bordered on mugging the entire night. Instead of providing any insight into the scores or the films, he opted instead for grandiose stroking of their brilliance, replete with sweeping physical gestures and out-of-place, “are you ready to rock?”-type pump ups for the audience. What’s worse is that the program ran canonically through the films, starting with The Phantom Menace. It broke off occasionally to play themes associated with various characters (Anakin and Padme, R2D2, and C-3PO, Luke on Dagobah), ignoring the obvious choice to put the brilliant Revenge of the Sith duel suite at any sort of climax and burying the series’ best musical moment. The montages played behind the orchestra simply made you want to go watch the movies, a problematic evocation as the music was already ripped from context. There was little to argue you should be there and not a home with a stack of DVDs.

Star Wars in Concert is a brilliant idea in theory, but the entire package cannot justify the ticket price. For half the price, it would have been incredible.

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Review – Year of the Carnivore June 28, 2010

I really meant the last paragraph of this. Hugely disappointing.


One of the best parts of Year of the Carnivore is the poster. A scene illustrated by accomplished Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown (Ed The Happy Clown, Louis Riel), it’s not only excellently realized, but philosophically appropriate. Where Brown took a comic strip biography about Louis Riel and made it into a subtle look into the nature of that figure’s neurosis and psychology, Vancouver filmmaker Sook-Yin Lee (Shortbus) makes similar observations about Sammy Smalls (Cristin Millioti). Like a twee and twenty-something answer to 2007’s Young People Fucking, Year of the Carnivore explores the nature of adversarial sexuality at an awkward stage of adulthood and at the same time makes a statement about the current state of Canadian film art. The result, however, is almost as confused as its main character.

Sammy Smalls lost partial use of her leg fighting cancer as a child. Her overbearing narcissist mother and weakling father want her to quit her job as a grocery store “detective,” thinking that running down shoplifters stealing flank steaks is too dangerous for someone of her stature. The film’s runtime is preoccupied with Sammy getting “experienced.” That is, she hops from one awkward sexual encounter to the next in the hopes of getting good enough to impress a boy, Eugene (Mark Rendall). While these encounters are filmed in an attempt at humour, they’re incredibly hard to watch and leave you wanting to give Sammy a shake and ask her what the hell she is thinking. While this could be leveraged as good drama, it’s instead an air ball lobbed and missing its target through an unfocused script. If the aim was to instill Sammy’s sense of frustration onto the audience, it’s mission accomplished.

To be blunt, Cristin Millioti deserves to be a star. The amount of humanity and depth she gives to an uneasily written character is admirable and to not walk out of the theater impressed with her performance would be impossible. Her supporting cast (including Will Sasso) are fairly strong, but Sammy Smalls is a star-making role. It is unfortunate then, that the script and film as a whole (as beautifully shot as it is) do not elevate a commendable performance.

Sook-Yin Lee made waves a while back for taking part in sexual acts on film in Shortbus, an act that royally irked her employers at the CBC and made her a news story for a couple of months. But while that film took all the eroticism out of sex as a stated goal to explore sex-as-mechanics, Year of the Carnivore does the same with a shudder-inducing lack of compassion, a detachment that edges on sociopathy. Each of the characters operates out of a strange, intense selfishness that totally breaks any connection with the audience and shatters the suspension of disbelief with uncomfortable scoffs. Its disconnect with actual sexual relations between young people is disturbing and its attempts to be iconoclastic take priority over being entertaining. Most egregious is a scene that is tantamount to depicted rape, but its implication is that if a female is the aggressor, the male will just enjoy it. Were this reversed, the backlash would be deafening. While the film makes a half-assed attempt to call this action immoral, it seems to do so with fingers crossed behind its back, some dialogue thick with shallow psychoanalysis a stopgap for actual emotion.

Did I say scene? I meant scenes. Plural. In an attempt to be unique and edgy, it comes off as creepy and objectionable. With each scene of torrid sexuality, a clear attempt is made for a condom to be applied. This restraint and modesty is horribly Canadian and turns the confusion of youth into the measured mistakes of an adult. It’s personally destructive performance art, the conscious martyrdom of Sammy Smalls. This is a Woody Allen film, courtesy of the new millennium. Be afraid.

It seems impossible for a film to fail with such an interesting leading lady, but Year of the Carnivore does. It tries to preach a muddled philosophy (I still can’t figure out what it was trying to tell me. Convenience conquers love? Change yourself to gain the love of others? I have no idea) and attempts to be an uplifting tale of a young woman exploring her sexuality, but instead rings out like an exploitative farce. I’ve never wanted to love a film more, and have never been so sad to see one fall short.

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Review – The A-Team June 24, 2010

The following originally appeared in The Peak. This movie was a quarter good. I really wanted to like it.


That this movie exists to be reviewed is a depressing fact, but that such a ridiculous premise could not be leveraged into a thoroughly ridiculous and entertaining package is even more so. The A-Team is an oddly appealing film, one that could easily be dismissed as yet another of this summer’s string of cinematic abortions, but defies becoming a total write-off. Unfortunately, being within arm’s reach of fun is just another one of its many crimes.

The A-Team follows the titular group — Hannibal, the idea man (Liam Neeson); Face, the charmer (Bradley Cooper); Murdock, the driver and pilot (Sharlto Copley of recent deserved District 9 fame); and B.A., the muscle (Quinton Jackson) — in what amounts to the exposition of how the group came to be the mercenary organization explored in the original television series. Their betrayal by the United States Army (represented by Jessica Biel, someone people keep confusing for an actress) and Central Intelligence Agency (moreover a rogue agent, played convincingly as always by a strong Patrick Wilson), force them to use their particular and varied skills to bust out of incarceration and clear their names, dismantling a shady conspiracy, and doing some spectacular property damage along the way. The central MacGuffin revolves around some thinly explained plates used to press greenbacks, but they serve only to facilitate a string of even thinner stunt set-pieces.

Perhaps even more perplexing than The A-Team’s existence is the way it entered kicking and screaming into the world. Helmed by the (previously?) promising Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces, Narc), the film clips along in a familiar way: its lack of interesting plot developments is masked expertly by sharp editing and an eye for bombast. Neeson remarks that overkill is underrated, a tagline that clearly influenced the production, but after over 10 years of development hell that saw half of Hollywood take a crack at writing a script, that excess reads like too many cooks spoiling the broth.

The A-Team defies almost every expectation it could muster. First, it is not completely terrible; its entertaining moments come from some fairly ridiculous action sequences that take the material just as seriously as possible. While trying to weave in some sobriety, the film forgets itself. It is at its best when spouting one-liners and putting the charm and insanity of Cooper and Copley centre stage. The comedy and action are almost enough to plough through painful attempts at drama and a patently horrible final climax, but it falls just short of being dismissible summer fun. Further, Carnahan is totally wasted on the film. After having made a name for himself on the spectacular Narc and the confused but wildly compelling Smokin’ Aces, he dumps his trademark analog brutality in for some half-baked CG. On its own, this wouldn’t sink him, but it is compounded by the fact that he fails to be himself. The A-Team is an almost perfect xerox of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films, but with enough Carnahan flair thrown in to defy the plagiarism charges. Right down to the excessive extended flashbacks to fill in twists, Carnahan phones in the direction and tries a bit too hard to be the arguably more appropriate director.

Neeson, Copley, and Cooper are all charming and suit their roles perfectly, but are failed by a production mired in its own excesses and greed. Part of that greed was to truncate a search for an actual actor to fill in Mr. T’s role as B.A. Baracus and instead try and tap into the UFC market with the casting of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. He is a dead physical ringer for the character, but his screen presence peaks at grating.

Like so much this summer, The A-Team reeks of a bunch of well-meaning people working on a project their studios could care less about. They see an established franchise and decide that any amount of meddling is unlikely to affect the box office take. If there is any bright side in the release of The A-Team, it is that this is likely a major nail in the coffin of these quick cash-in adaptations. Perhaps we are only a few more of these types of summer movie seasons away from some original creations, or, at the very least, adaptations made with a little more care. We can dream, can’t we?

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Sunrise, Fucking Sunset: The Rise and Endless Fall of Vancouver Punk May 31, 2010

This article originally appeared in The Peak. I originally wanted to do this big meshed narrative about the cyclic nature of how these scenes rise and fall, but I ended up just doing a mash-up interview and review of the two films. I’m not sure I did them justice, so let me reiterate: these are two as important films on the local culture of Vancouver as you will ever find, and you should seek them out.

Two punk documentaries premiered at the DOXA Documentary Festival this year. One speaks to the rise of the Vancouver punk machine, the other documents the remains of a scene with nowhere to call their own. Together, they paint a portrait of alternative music in Vancouver past and present, its enslavement to the government, and the seeming desire to see it stamped out altogether. Despite this, their existence signals the continuing resilience of the culture and are both fascinating looks at our shared history and future.


He’s 20 if he’s a day. An impossibly young looking Joe Shithead smokes a cigarette in Stanley Park, readying himself for the Anti-Canada Day show at Prospect Point. He’s speaking almost over the journalist’s microphone, regarding it like so many mosquitoes. He’s talking about the state of music in Vancouver at the start of Susanne Tabata’s punk documentary Bloodied But Unbowed, dismayed that it has become mostly about “Fleetwood Mac and disco.”

“We can’t play because we’re punks. Because this isn’t a free country,” he says. They’re waiting to see if the show will even happen, their permits having been denied, and are lobbying a Christian picnic group to lend them theirs. It’s a bizarre introduction to a document of an equally bizarre time for Lower Mainland music, a scene born in a regional backwater of an international backwater and fueled by politics, youth, and noise.

Tabata herself is tired. After the world premiere screening of Bloodied But Unbowed to a capacity crowd (and a long after-party) that was beset by technical issues, you can hear the fatigue in her voice. A veteran of CiTR and the alternative and no-holds barred Nite Dreems program, Tabata was wading in the thick of the Vancouver punk scene in its heyday. Her newest film pays homage to a place and time that was “honest and raw,” or as Tabata puts it, a time of “spontaneous creativity and camaraderie without bitter rivalry.”

Mary Jo Kopechne of The Modernettes stayed the night after reuniting with friends long gone. “It was overwhelming. I’m still taking it all in,” she says. The emotions brought by the film aside, Kopechne was one among an attendee list packed with many of the same stars interviewed in the film. Filled with long hair and leather jackets, the theatre was a coming together of the faithful and the participants of an era past.

Bloodied But Unbowed’s list of interviewees is an encyclopedic look at who was who in the late 1970s and early 1980s: Zippy Pinhead and D.O.A., Gerry Hannah and The Subhumans, Jade Blade and The Dishrags, Colin Griffiths and The Pointed Sticks, and Art Bergmann of Young Canadians feature prominently in a film that could have stood on the quality of these interviews alone. Instead, Tabata weaves them into a cohesive historical tome of this period of art and culture. It packs a staggering amount of information, music, and sentiment into its 74-minute run time, surveying the vast landscape of art, politics, and social structure that bygone punks created.

Narrated by Billy Hopeless and strung together under different topic headings, Bloodied charts the rise of forerunners D.O.A. and The Subhumans, from their shared elementary school origins to the creation of a friendly rivalry in the community. Their differing styles would lay the groundwork for a scene that was obsessed with “versus,” resentful of their outcast status and yearning for a community. The film delves into the unlikely alliance they had with the gay community (“when the punks were around, it would take the heat off us”), its association with yippie politics (“using the weapons of the enemy against them”), and the confused relationship the scene had with women. Kopechne embodied this conflict, getting ragged on for playing with persons of both genders. It raises many criticisms to go along with its praise of the community, and finds a balance in its moment of levity and moments of intense heartache. Interviews with Art Bergmann are particularly intense, the scene portrayed as a sun he flew a touch too close to.

Bloodied displays the natural trajectory of a narrative film, which is fitting for the scene it documents. Punk has been declared dead almost from the moment it began, and the documentary is specific in its fingering of heroin as one of the culprits in the death of Vancouver punk: in part, it acts as a eulogy to those that could not be added to the list of participants by virtue of their passing.

“It died a natural death,” admits Tabata, noting that scenes rise and fall with the passing of youth and the “packaging and selling back” of its auspices. “It’s a very dramatic end to a documentary, a very dramatic finish. People started becoming more aware of themselves.” Some say, “The ‘80s happened.” Some say the violence got excessive. Whatever it is, the mohawks and patches sported by today’s youth are empty reminders that the dregs still look for a place to call home. In a way, being unable to fashion something new seems more painful. The only thing worse would to be beaten, bloodied, and have no place to go to lick your wounds. Not like something like that would ever happen.


Vancouver punk died, but it didn’t die all the way. There was still some life in the bones of the scene, that energy and momentum shifting into the emerging hardcore and post-punk, metal and noise scenes that jockeyed for position in the aftermath of Smilin’ Bhudda punk rockers. Like all movements, this music and art needed a home, and up until recently found one in the form of the Cobalt Motor Hotel. No Fun City is in part a chronicle of the closing of that venue, and an exploration of what makes Vancouver “no fun,” with co-directors Kate Kroll and Melissa James putting their cameras right in the middle

Spoiler alert: the Cobalt as it was is no more. Despite the efforts of the community and proprietor Wendy 13, the Cobalt as it is now is a completely different animal. The documentary shows an obstinate Wendy 13 saying that everyone who wants her shut down “won’t win.” But they did. Kroll and James admit this fact. “I think they won this round. It’s a strong community. So, regardless, things kept on going,” says Kroll and James.

The emotional climax of the film comes with the closing of the venue, the final night a must attend event for any and all associated with the scene. The booze, tears, and breakables fly freely. Though questions to her efficacy in dealing with the city and the Cobalt landlords are often raised, No Fun City captures a very genial Wendy 13, and you can’t help but feel for her in the end. “She will rise again,” says James. “No one would go into that place. She took that and with her dedication and passion made it into a place people wanted to go.” Despite that, a chain of complaints, coming down from residents in the area through the city to her landlords resulted in the closing of the Cobalt.

No Fun City examines the efforts of other noted venue promoters, such as Malice Liveit and David Duprey. The former a long-time concert organizer and manager of the now defunct Sweatshop and the latter a prominent Vancouver area developer have differing views and tastes about how the business of the scene is conducted, but both agree that without a home, Vancouver music scenes are doomed to die. Duprey is a proponent of gentrification, but seems to preach a gospel of responsible development, one that doesn’t kill art and music, ultimately driving away the young to other cities. While Malice and Duprey ultimately could not find common ground in their venture at the Rickshaw Theatre, they both agree that city policy regarding “dancing permits” and million-dollar liquor licences they are reluctant to grant are bureaucratic insanity. The result is an influx of illegal venues and shows, the counter-point of which is Duprey operating the Rickshaw to this day on temporary liquor licences.

The juxtaposition of the scene versus condo dwelling enemies is one that runs through the film, pointing a finger at the “not in my backyard” attitude that is tossing the scene out into the street. It initially comes across as a conflict between the haves and the have-nots, but James is loathe to draw such a definite line. “I know some pretty well off people that listen to punk and metal. In general, yes, but mainly the cost of living in Vancouver is huge. There’s no space. The city wants to encourage urban living, and in so doing are killing the urban vibe.”

No Fun City is an excellent look at some of the reasons why the city is now trying to change policies to fight the moniker, but even more it is a look at a people and a scene looking for some kind of headbangers’ Israel. They seem like a group that might be at their most natural underfoot, and No Fun City is a rallying call those in a scene looking to be reborn in blood, beer, and sweat.

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Why Slasher Horror Can Never Die May 27, 2010

This article originally appeared in The Peak. It was written for my friend Brendan Levesque, who knows far more about these flicks than I do. Hope I did them justice.


I was always more of a Jason man myself. Call me crazy, but a machete-wielding madman using an occupied sleeping bag as some sort of Cabela’s catalog morning glory to attack a tree always tickled me in an immeasurable way (R.I.P Judy).

That kind of terror is minimalist and embodies a kind of punk, DIY spirit that I gravitate toward — grab your biggest knife and a hockey mask and you’re in business. That being said, I was always intrigued by the nuance of fellow triumvirate member Freddy Krueger. Nuance might sound funny to describe a man with a lethal manicure coming to kill you through your dreams, but this concept played with the idea of mental illness and the intractability of deemed insanity. Invariably, telling even your nearest and dearest that a man is trying to kill you behind your eyelids is a quick route to a tidy lobotomy, and the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise plays with the loneliness and eventual independence that came with triumph. It pulled the slasher film away from an explicit external force with a neat mask to an internal struggle, an invader incurring on the most personal of human experiences. Further, the overtone of fearing your dreams is delicious.

It’s due to this level of nerd affinity that I can’t get too cynical about the recent rash of horror remakes. The Hills Have Eyes, Friday the 13th, and now the resurgence of A Nightmare on Elm Street are only partly the fault of a Hollywood that is out of ideas and clamouring for the shrinking box office take. The fact is, there are a ton of profitable, remake-ready franchises out there that don’t carry with them the lexical baggage of the horror genre. This recent Elm Street is mindful of these tropes, ones that — if not present — would represent the failure of the movie in the eyes of the horror cognoscenti. Paradoxically, their inclusion makes sure the genre never moves forward, that stagnation being both its hallmark and kiss of death.

Before remakes became the norm, Neil Marshall’s The Descent made the horror fanbase step back and ask if these tropes could be dismissed in favour of layered, smart, and engaging horror. 2010’s Elm Street takes that idea, gives it the finger, and bastardizes it in an incredible way.

The movie itself is mediocre. The inclusion of Jackie Earl Haley (Shutter Island, Little Children, Watchmen) and Kyle Gallner (who stole scene after scene in Veronica Mars) inspired some early hope for the film, but it falls on its melted face pretty hard. The script has interesting ideas that are relegated to vestigial status one by one. From interesting subplots regarding academic reliance on alertness medication and the disadvantages of the buddy system (it’s hard to convince people you’re innocent when you are drenched in stage blood), this Elm Street abandons smart ideas methodically, peaking with a fantastic sequence involving a video blog. It even starts toward an incredible character rewrite of Krueger, casting him as a kindly janitor unfairly lynched for child abuse. Instead, they take the easy way out, throwing away a very modern story of a persecuted innocent man and turning it into the standard “Yes, all single men over 40 are pedophiles.” Stacked against blatant quotes from Psycho, Pulp Fiction, and the aforementioned The Descent, it all comes off as thoughtless cash, desperately trying to be cool, and collapsing under the weight of its could-have-been innovations.

However, despite its overall failure, A Nightmare on Elm Street demonstrates why the genre is endlessly perpetuated, and why it can never and will never die. Elm Street is perhaps one of the most astute mirrors held up to our generation, and by far the most tongue-in-cheek comparison of Millennials to baby boomers to hit film screens yet. That lexical precision of the genre prescribes a few things; among these, the philosophies represented by the harbingers of death in them. Some trends border on the silly: minorities die first, mirrors are untrustworthy, running is pointless, and the virginal type is likely to slay the antagonist with some sort of phallus. In fact, these are so well documented that a fantastic mockumentary was created around them in the form of Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Most pressing here, however, is the changing social landscape seen in these films.

In previous decades, boomers were being punished for their teenage decadence — drugs, alcohol, fornication, and the ingratitude toward the Greatest Generation were punished mercilessly by those film’s antagonists, a kind of reaper acting in the interest of ‘50s American values. Here, the violence lacks that kind of engine by virtue only of what we have become. The characters are depressing modern archetypes — sexless, tepid, wannabe artists without a hint of warmth or confidence, toiling away on homework in their rooms instead of the standard vacationing in abandoned cabins ripe for coitus interruptus. In context, you would expect this film to be a mirror bent to fun house specifications, but Elm Street opts for realism and just shows us ourselves. It’s terrifying.

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Let The Wookiee Win Week 7: Just A Flesh Wound April 15, 2010

The following originally appeared in The Peak. It is the final edition of a seven week column. It was a long strange trip, and I thank you for reading.

It’s some strange justice that the current pulse of Star Wars fandom is talk of the series’ complete demise. Strange — but not surprising — as there’s nothing quite as fascinating as spectacular failure. George Lucas knew this, which is why he made sure Empire was as depressing as possible.

Head on over to YouTube and search for “Star Wars” and you’ll be treated to some thoroughly entertaining journalism on the subject of spectacular failure, specifically the Star Wars prequels. This comes courtesy of RedLetterMedia and Mr.Plinkett, the sociopath star of the outfit’s hour-plus long reviews of the films.

In it, his sardonic analysis of the films is cut with a darkly funny portrayal of a man beset by psychosis and obsession, his basement (pointedly) the scene of purported grisly deeds. The realization of this character is incisive service for and against those who would cast anyone with interest in the subject matter as a parent’s basement dwelling, sycophantic dork with mommy issues. It’s done so well, in fact, that you might not even notice that the character is a perfect metaphor for the Trilogy That Couldn’t; a man with no redeeming qualities, no hope, and no future. Star Wars asks the same question with its plot and characters: is redemption available?

The Star Wars universe is set in orbit around Luke Skywalker, a young man from the interstellar Bread Basket (or Water Basket, as the case may be), gone off to the big city to make good and beat up his dad. His personal journey, however, is marked early with the obligation to redeem the Skywalker name, and to fulfill the destiny his father set back a great deal — to bring balance to the light and dark sides of the Force. The weight of this is comparable to Adolf Hitler Jr. job hunting in 1956. Significant is the operative word there.

At the end of Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader has his human cockles tickled by the torture of his son and decides to take a hot electricity injection for him, turning on his master and ending the Sith Empire he helped bring to pass. This is an odd storytelling choice, one that seems so perfect in hindsight but could have very easily been different. If Luke strikes his father down, good triumphs over evil, right?

The fly in the Vaseline is that this is a particularly Sith course of action. Murder is pretty uncool for a Jedi. Trapped between a homicide and a hard place, Lucas needed an asteroid or drunk TIE fighter pilot to crash into the throne room, eliminating the three biggest potential threats to the galaxy. But Star Wars aims higher than that. Han Solo is the test bed for George Lucas’ philosophy of redemption, but Darth Vader is his finished symphony.

Lucas is reaching out a hand to the droves of fans that have flocked to a shared fantasy, telling those who might sit a little too close to the screen that their time spent is not wasted. He is giving retroactive justification to those of us who lean just a little too hard on the lives and experiences of people who will never exist outside celluloid and CG.

Just like Vader turned it around for a quickie deathbed sacrament, just like a hand getting cut off didn’t stop Luke, and just like they all ignored C-3PO’s advice and went up against the Imperial “Wookiee” at the risk at having their arms torn off (see what I did there?), Lucas aims to prove that a third act in life is not only possible, but well within reach.

So for those who are looking for coping tools in the exploits of fake smugglers and warrior monks, for fanboys dealing with exaggerated reports of their failure and a filmmaker tasked with following his own greatness, Star Wars can teach us that redemption is only as remote as the effort we are willing to put in.

Maybe instead of a rise and fall, we should try for a fall and rise.

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Blogroll Spotlight April 10, 2010

Just thought I would bring people’s attention to the swelling blogroll on the left-hand side of your page. Some cool people around those parts.

Graham Templeton just set up a personal blog for himself. Peak Opinions editor (the guy who makes me not look grammatically stunted) and all around cool person, you should take a look if you want to immediately become part of the vast, confused Right Wing Conspiracy. Or something

Same goes for one Sam F. Reynolds. His blog is very blue and this is not a Coincidence.

Gary Lim is funnier than you. Don’t be upset, it’s just the truth.

Al…good Lord, I don’t even know her last name. Embarrassing. Anyway, my friend Al runs a blog with some other entertaining chaps. Their primary focus is food and anarchy. And Star Trek. Not being intrigued right now is akin to not liking music; it just doesn’t happen.

Alex Hudson is another person that makes sure my printed word type things don’t look stupid. He keeps a music blog over at Chipped Hip that is as well written as it is designed. Read his stuff and keep up with it on Twitter @ChippityHippity.

Filmmaker, Peak Production editor and all around classy bastard Bryn Hewko also just set up his interbutt. Looking forward to having one place to go to see his stuff, which is excellent.

Blogroll emeritus member the Midnight Social Club is still going strong, and is a great location to hear and read about rad stuff going on in the Southern Alberta DJ scene. Good guys over there, good writers and SleepyHead is one sexy piece of Greek.

Check them all out, they’re all good people.

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Let The Wookiee Win Week 6: Be Like Han March 31, 2010

The following is part six of a seven part column in The Peak. This is the one I wanted to write at the outset, the one that really got me excited about the project. I am as happy with it as I could expect to be. I tried my best to source the inspiration bit, thinking I had seen it on a blog somewhere. But alas. Sounds like a 4chan soundbite anyway, doesn’t it? If the originator is reading this, we should date. And sorry.


Surfing around the information superhighway, cyberspace, if you will, I came across perhaps the most important philosophical advance since Plato said some stuff about stuff. It described the scene in Empire Strikes Back where Han Solo is promised a delicious meal and instead is served a platter of “Darth Vader a la Badass”. With no hesitation, no looking around in surprise, no look of disbelief towards Lando, he just takes out his gun and starts blasting away at him, taking pot shots at a man that can castrate him a parsec away. His thought process begins and ends with “Evil. Shoot it.” The parable concludes: Be Like Han.

So struck was I by this nugget of science that the years of Catholic schooling just melted away, replaced by a sorbet of Harrison Ford-flavored enlightenment. How many years had I admired the roguish smuggler and not realized that he is the perfect role model for everybody? Let me explain with some key examples.

When there is somebody across the dinner table from you who has more or less decided to kidnap you and either kill you or sell you into the bondage of a giant slug gangster not named James Gandolfini, you should probably take the nessecary steps to prevent this action by shooting first.

Be Like Han.

When you’re trying to pull the wool over someone’s eyes, be polite about it. If you’re fine, ask them how they’re doing. If they’re on to you, put a bullet in the phone.

Be Like Han.

If a friend get’s killed in battle, the time for tears is after you escape the giant space station that can blow up planets with all the nonchalance of shopping for detergent.

Be Like Han.

When everyone has written you off and when you know you have made a mistake, redemption is as easy as admitting you were wrong and doing right. You can always swoop back in at the nick of time, blow that thing and go home.

Be Like Han.

Never leave a man out in the cold or a soldier behind. And if he is out in the cold, get him someplace warm.

Be Like Han.

Find your Kessel Run and be the best at it.

Be Like Han.

Technology is fallible and intelligence beats radar any day. If you find yourself in a place more dangerous than where you came from (say, inside a giant asteroid worm type thing), don’t fret, just calmly push the throttle as far as it will go.

Be Like Han.

If an authority figure tells you to do something heinous to an innocent, say no. The Nuremberg Defence is never moral and saving a life is worth your own.

Be Like Han.

Even if a friend has proven himself to be a touch greasy in the past, just remember that true friends are in short supply and grease is universal, especially on you.

Be Like Han.

Never, even under the pain of torture, talk to the “Empire” without a “Jedi” present. They are not your friends and you will go to jail.

Be Like Han.

If someone you love is watching you get turned into a Han-sicle, and they finally bust out the L-bomb, don’t waste time assuring them you love them too. You always did.

Be Like Han.

If you are going to be frozen solid for awhile, strike a memorable pose.

Be Like Han.

Despite what skills you may have, post-secondary education should be respected. Be nice to people with lightsabers.

Be Like Han.

Allies come in many shapes and sizes. Furry Marxists with spears can help you take down empires.

Be Like Han.

Lend your car to your friends when they need it, especially to fight wars. It will be fine.

Be Like Han.

When your best friend is about to be crushed by a celestial body of some sort, make god damn sure you have an outreached hand to grab them until someone has to drag you off the cargo ramp. If you can’t haul them in, it’s okay to cry.

Be Like Han.

Pride is not a sin. Confidence and willpower are virtues. Keep a blaster on your right hip and a good woman on your left. Punch people that deserve it. Know when you are wrong, and know that you can be sometimes right.

And when someone tells you that being like Han is a bad thing, have the wisdom and balls to do it anyway.

Be Like Han.

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Let The Wookiee Win Week 5: He Ain’t Heavy (He’s My Android) March 16, 2010

I can think of about six films off the top of my head where a robot taught me how to be a better human. My god I’m lonely. Star Wars in particular taught me that there’s nothing quite like having a best friend in in your corner to fight with you, support you, and do a bit of Taun Taun spooning.

Appropriately, I learned this from two robots, one a lovable mute, trundling through the movies like a wheel-bound Huck Finn, and the other ripped from the pages of steampunk homoerotica. There really is nothing quite like the friendship between C-3P0 and R2-D2.

See, it’s the other friendships in Star Wars that push me towards the mechanical Mork and Mindy. They all just fall a little short in the BFF Olympics. Take Han and Chewbacca for example. Their friendship would likely take homeboy gold, but their arrangement is really just a semi-legal situation that blossomed into a lifelong commitment. Han was just a really handsome imperial lieutenant ordered to kill Chewie. He refused, and Chewie ended up owing him a ritual life debt.

That it worked out so well and they became such good friends is nice, but its an affair born out of insubordination and obligation, two things that rarely form the foundation of a healthy friendship (but sometimes work pretty well for marriage, especially of the shotgun variety).

Han and Luke just weaken SoloBacca. I suppose it doesn’t matter where Han gets his appetite if he gets his meals at home, but there is a little bit of bro competition going on in this triangle. Han and Luke are another friendship that grows out of a sub-optimal arrangement and continues through convenience and warfare. Though there’s nothing as reliable as a war to bring on the bromance, it’s not near as organic as the one experienced by our non-organic duo.

This is compounded by the fact that Han and Luke are too absorbed in their own lives to really maintain the friendship. Han is too busy getting frozen in carbonite and trying to use the Force on Leia’s brass undergarments to support Luke through his trials at Uncle Yoda’s Jedi Community College, and Luke is too busy carrying senile old men on his back through swamps (my god, the innuendo) to care about anything Han is doing (other than Leia). Friendships can span distance and time, but the amount of effort needed is just not there between the two.

Leia and Luke are even worse. Harry and Sally knew the sex thing would always get in the way, and I can only imagine accidental incest to be a dealbreaker in that respect.

This is all why R2-D2 and C-3PO have such an exceptional relationship. They met by chance and had chemistry right away, if not affection. Forced apart early by fate, they lived their lives autonomously, their meetings sporadic and unmemorable. When they finally are together, that obvious compatibility starts turning into something deep and defined. They escape crashing ships, wander the desert, get kidnapped, and go on missions to save the universe together.

Their wit and banter is a pillar of the Star Wars experience, this made more incredible by the fact that one of them is incomprehensible to an English-speaking crowd. Like any good friends, the armour comes off when needed, sarcasm falling to emotion when danger and mortality are involved.

C-3PO insists that his injured friend take any of his own parts if needed, and when R2-D2 is going off to fight, C-3PO tells him to make sure and come back alive. Knowing his friend is unable to have his back and feels guilty about it, R2 makes sure to make a good-natured wisecrack to assuage this feeling in his friend despite the looming personal danger. He takes one for the team, a selfless act for their friendship. Thick, thin, and Three Laws Safe.

Rather than just comic relief and foils for the mostly dire attitude of the human leads, George Lucas imbues these characters with an added depth; he gives something created by humans the ability show compassion perhaps (in the given context) even beyond that of their creators. Their dedication to each other is unsettling, and forces you to wonder if you have anyone that would donate their parts to aid in your recovery, someone to follow you through whatever desert you find yourself in.

And let me tell you, if you can say “Yes, by god, I do,” Star Wars is going to put a sizable lump in your throat.

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Let The Wookiee Win Week 4: I Am Your Father…Issues (Or: That’s No Moon) March 2, 2010

The following is the fourth part in a seven part column appearing in The Peak. I talk about Star Wars a bunch in it. This one is all about daddy issues, because George Lucas was pretty blunt about things of that sort. Check it out.

Pour out a bottle of Algarine for the ladies in the audience, because if the startling innocence rate of its fans didn’t tip you off, Star Wars is about as male centred as flicks come. Both trilogies give us dashing young protagonists with some pretty heady paternal issues right when most their age are just, you know, totally getting into Led Zeppelin.

But by representing one of the worst possible such scenarios, fathers in absentia, Star Wars encapsulates a paternal tension as old as time. Show me a man without unresolved issues with his father and I’ll show you a liar, and George Lucas seizes on that. And as I would rather loofah my balls with steel wool, I’m not going to use the word “heteronormative” even once in talking about it.

George Lucas’s evocation of Jesus Christ with Anakin Skywalker is about as subtle as Greedo shooting first. His mother was immaculately impregnated by the Force, and in so doing gave her son some built in neurosis to go with his raw talents. I’m not stating that not having a dad around will screw you up, but having your mom say you were willed into being and then having a shadowy league of battle monks insist you are their messiah might inflate your ego a tad. I can’t help but think the scene at the Mount of Olives might have played out differently with lightsabers.

Anakin cum Vader has a lot in common with notable movie badass Bill from Kill Bill. Both spent their time collecting father figures, and both ended up with a fairly nifty villain resumé. Anakin drifted from his slave master Watto to The Worst Jedi Ever, Qui-Gon Jinn, where Bill went from pimps to samurai sword makers. Anakin was a little more attached, however. The trauma of having his saviour and preferred figure cut down by a bad L.A. Ink experiment stayed with him to the end, whereas Bill just went along shooting people in the face.

Anakin’s revolving door stopped the longest on Obi-Wan Kenobi, but it was a role that was constantly denied by his Jedi master. His constant quest for approval was met with more pedagogy and fraternity than his desired paternity. The Jedi council just served as an institutional body for condemning his adolescence, and the moderating effects of indoctrination from birth was lost on him as he joined the order at such an old age. Anakin wore this failure to find a male role model like a Tauntaun sleeping bag, and damn if it doesn’t smell worse on the inside.

The loss of his mother and his orphaning is just enough to send him to an exploitable edge that Darth Sidious seizes upon. Sidious as Palpatine gives him everything he wants from a father, and just enough validation and cajoling to convince him that the Jedi council deserves to be rebelled against. Naturally, with a new father promising him the moon, he has to annihilate any other fatherly pretenders. Like any confrontation with one’s father, this ends with him losing three-quarters of his limbs.

Lucas’ allegory is brilliant. The tension between any two fully realized adult males in the same family is palpable. While I don’t envy the mother/daughter dynamic, the father/son dynamic is fraught with testosterone and performative masculine crap, a dangerous cocktail of pride and competition. And blaster rifles, as the case may be.

Lucas describes the two ways the story can end. With Anakin, it ends terribly, through violence and loss. Even as he lays dying, Obi-Wan denies his paternal role, screaming at Vader, his “brother.” His failure to recognize the needs of his Padawan in this way is his greatest failing as a master, something that The Worst Jedi Ever Qui-Gon Jinn saw Anakin needed right away and satisfied as best he could. Rebuilt with a sexy new helmet, the death of Obi-Wan becomes the singular reason for Vader’s existence. The death of his “father” pulls him farther away from his duties as a father to his own child. The cycle begins anew.

Luke’s father figures meet with Vader’s at Obi-Wan, so his “death” is doubly significant. Han Solo and Yoda fill in for Luke’s paternal figures, but the entirety of Luke’s life becomes the defeat and violent death of his father, Vader. So when Vader sacrifices himself for his son and Luke lifts away his father’s armor to be met with a frail, dying old man, it represents the other end of the story: noble death, and the absolving of sin. The story that goes back to cavemen is unchanged by parsecs and protocol droids. Just conflict, love, and family insanity ending in death.

Confused? You should be. It reads like some Freudian psychoanalysis with a heavy dose of Orson Scott card sci-fi and Christian values. Lucas stops short of shaking you by the shoulders and screaming “the nuclear family unit is the salvation of the universe” like some sort of interstellar Tipper Gore, but just short. That the man without a father would go on to become a tyrannical psychopath is just horribly steeped in heteronormativity oh God dammit.

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Mad Men: Beating Off A Dry Spell

Some writer who is likely both handsome and charming wrote this under the Mad Men banner for Humour over at The Peak.

The dry spell: an unfortunate state for any virile young Mad Man to live in. Maybe serial macking has fished your local pond to nookie extinction, or perhaps you’re momentarily sidelined by a bowl-cut or problems of a crustacean sort.

Mad Men is here for you.

Together, we are going to beat this curse of forced celibacy with candor, compassion, and copious self-love. We’re all in this together, just as long as we don’t have to, you know . . . talk about it. Don’t be weird, bro. Just follow this easy four-step program to and we’ll have you eating like a king again in no time.

Step One: Assess the situation

Loneliness status: “I like me”

This isn’t so bad, is it? A little introspection and self-analysis never hurt anyone. You’ll likely be strapped with a woman for most of your adult life, so maybe a little alone time is valuable. You could start your novel, read War & Peace, even take up hot yoga. Without clam, the world is your oyster. You’ll likely have more money, too. Spend it on yourself! Buy a nice shirt, perhaps something Ed Hardy or Members Only. Take care of you. Just don’t Nair anything below your belly button.

Step Two: Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it

Loneliness status: “I should call an ex and have sexual intercourse today”

That was a harrowing half-hour, now wasn’t it? Now that you are good and in tune with your inner man, it’s time to bust out your giant black book and awaken some latent feelings! Call up a few ex-girlfriends. Start with “I’ve been thinking a lot lately,” and improvise from there. It’s not lying if you performed Step One. If this works out for you, good job, you’re done. Pass Go and collect $200. Hopefully you don’t have to spend it on the morning-after pill.

Step Three: Know your surroundings

Loneliness status: “I wonder if they still make those Tamagotchi things”

If you didn’t sow the seeds for a regretful little tryst in the past, it just takes a little MacGyver-inspired ingenuity to grant sexual independence. Have a few bananas? Enjoy the fruit, and then enjoy the skin. Evolution (or other, perhaps?) successfully made nature’s Fleshlight. Try using the microwave to improve the sensation, but have the burn unit on standby. A little moisturizer and a Ziploc freezer bag with your living-room couch can make a handy companion as well, and you’ll never look at a chesterfield the same way again. That little micro-suede minx.

Step Four: Go get laid

Loneliness status: “I wish my dog would stop giving me those bedroom eyes”

Like any affliction, the easiest way out is a cure. The desert-like dry spell has only one cure: a little moisture! This provides the perfect environment to try out some new approaches. Use less starch in your collar. Head-butt fewer boyfriends. Shower a few times a week. Take steps to make yourself irresistible, like becoming a T.A. or head of state. An old standby is to hang out around art schools with law textbooks open in front of you. The pond becomes a barrel, and it will be brimming with copic markers, Warhol prints, and the finest salmon. Time to take out your Deagle, you animal.

With these easy steps, you can be sure that your love muscle never atrophies. Be sure to archive them in case you end up married.

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Woohoo/Boohoo: Popery vs. Potpourri

The Peak does a section on page 3 that pits two often similar sounding things against each other. I did this one. It’s fairly self explanatory.

Woohoo: Potpourri

Want to know the secret of success? Smell goddamn delicious. I have it on good authority that JFK smelled of fresh lavender at all times, and everybody loves that dude. Potpourri is that dried leaf type stuff you find in the bathrooms of suburban 40-somethings, and it’s one of only two things that particular demographic gets right (along with listening to Fleetwood Mac). Potpourri is like Armani for your WC. It adds instant class and respectability to a place that at times sorely lacks either. Great for hobbyists and professionals alike, potpourri is the original populist accoutrement with most of it’s ingredients cribbed from around the house. Listen to The Cure? Throw some cloves in there. Alcoholic? Lemon peel! Japanese? Toss in some jasmine. The choices are as endless as the addiction you’ll quickly acquire. Hitting the vein has never been this fragrant.

Boohoo: Popery

The best advice my father ever told me was to never trust men in large hats. It seems like every good religion has it’s own fashion agenda. What is he hiding? Popery is like having a dictatorship on top of your dictatorship, with it’s own cardio-based rituals, taxes and social guilt. That collection plate doesn’t take PayPal either. Now, I will grant that the Pope is by far the most entertaining part of Catholicism; Did you know that one Pope dug his predecessor up from the grave and put him on trial? An actual trial, with the skeleton on the witness stand and everything. Forget The Tudors, I want to see The Pontiffs. And what’s all this about infallibility? He’s just some dude like me! I’m infallible hundreds of times a day, and more on weekends and religious holidays. It’s got me thinking about giving up the Pope for Lent. I like my religions how I like my women: decentralized and sporting modest headgear.

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Let The Wookiee Win Week 3: Full Carbonite Jacket February 1, 2010

The following is the third part of a seven part column I am doing for The Peak at SFU. You can read the other ones by clicking the title tag at the left of this post. It’s about Star Wars and how important it is to the world. Why yes I am in university, thank you for asking. Yes, I have kissed a girl before, too.

I feel a little like Milton, trying to justify the ways of Lucas and instead portraying some sort of bumbling God in denim button-ups. Which is to say in trying to portray sombody I like quite a bit, it comes off like he has wronged me in some way. This is not totally the case. While Lucas may have found himself at odds with the standards of his audience and good filmmaking, his mastery of contradictory human nature is, at it’s worst, better than most. This is excellently illustrated with his attitudes towards war and conflict, and is brilliant in the near omission of it’s significance.

In the history of film and television, the most memorable depictions of war are often the ones that run counter to traditional perceptions of military conflict as a glorious and honorable act. Post-Vietnam, these diminutive portrayals became the norm, with Stanley Kubrick nearly creating a career out of taking the piss out of hawks. Now, in an age of guerilla warfare and military excursions with all the popular support of tuberculosis, war has an all too uncomfortable way of getting put to the back burner, forgotten until it boils over. Star Wars raises stakes by not being contrary at all, and instead slapping us with the wet noodle of reality.

Released just eight months later, The Deer Hunter brought the terror of Vietnam to the home front while Star Wars gave the casualties of war all the gravity of a trip to Wal-Mart in heavy traffic. That is to say distressing, but in no way impossible to ignore. Star Wars is almost prophetic in how it’s characters react to prolonged military struggles with marked indifference, ahead of it’s time in describing the numbing of society to matters of foreign war that would define the rest of the Cold War and beyond.

Luke Skywalker’s Aunt and Uncle get killed? He shrugs it off and gets to work bringing down the Empire. Darth Vader blows Alderaan into a million pieces? Ben Kenobi puts his fingers to his temple and Leia is a little upset. She gets over it. Millions killed when the Death Star is blown up not once but twice? No tears for dead Imperials. The death of serial Force-choker Darth Vader is met with the most emotion (and little at that) in a prosaic relationship climax that evokes one of the most horrifying hypocrisies within human capacity; war becomes statistical and distant one moment, tragic and personal when convenient. We could write this off as bad acting, but the consistency of the chilled reaction to mortality forces us to consider it a directorial mandate.

In this the canon is not nearly reconciled. The Star Wars universe waxes between having the foot soldiers of the Empire nee Republic and Rebellion act as foreign policy meatsacks just a little more often than it creates fictions around distinguished veterans. The Jedi are exceptional, the ruling class, so we care about them. The average soldier is less than a volunteer, a clone built for the express purpose of being an expendable unit of a shrewd Machiavel who can shoot lightning out of his fingers. Making the average Stormtrooper a clone of Jango Fett and not a draftee of unjust regime was an embarrassingly fit metaphor for our attitudes towards military personnel.

The primary films disregard Stormtroopers, Republic troops and Ewoks as little more than bullet sponges. Genndy Tartakovsky’s outstanding Clone Wars vignettes straddle the line between the extremes, the clones taking on varying degrees of expertise, but ultimately being the silent, soulless vessels the series more than demands. Recently, as the series takes pains to gain the Sesame Street crowd, they’ve softened this stance to include fairly generous concern for the lives of the average trooper from the Jedi leadership, but at this point it seems token.

Star Wars puts a mirror up to our collective unconscious considering matters military, and the reflection is less than favorable. The nameless, faceless Ewoks and Stormtroopers fight battles a long long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, far away enough that to ignore it is a matter of turning off the (space) television. When it does view war through a compassionate lens, the moments are sparse enough to be arresting, and rarely involve central characters.

Consider this: the single most evocative explication of military loss in the entire series is seven seconds long. Through the frenetic cuts of the final battle on Endor, between Han Solo being suave and R2-D2 being mutely hilarious, Lucas cuts to a lone Ewok running to the front. In the grass is the body of a fallen comrade, a motionless ball of fur on the ground. He stops in his tracks and falls to his knees, cradling his head in his hand with grief. The war is screaming in his brain and there isn’t a title actor around to hear it.

Sometimes Star Wars hits a little close to home. Sometimes we need it to.

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Rebuttal to “TV Is Turning Us Into Idiots” January 23, 2010

The following appeared in The Peak on January 11, 2010 and is a response to a piece by Jonathon Van Maren, also in The Peak on January 4, 2010. It is only being posted now because, you know, I had things to do. Get off my back, you’re not my mom (unless you are, in which case, hello mom).


We should feel grateful, I think, that Jonathon Van Maren stopped short of waving his cane at us, telling us to get off his lawn and read a book, in his editorial about the evils of television [TV is turning us into idiots, January 4].

From the beginning, Mr. Van Maren co-opts the rhetoric levied against every new medium of storytelling since (presumably) shadow puppets on cave walls. Film, comic books, radio, television and video games have all been targets of similar complaints in turn, but Van Maren chose to focus on the perennial favorite: TV.

Van Maren’s insulting tone aside, he places television at the forefront of social decline. But, like any medium that has received this treatment, this is scapegoating at it’s finest. If anything, social decline is at the forefront of the decline of television (which Battlestar Galactica and The Sopranos may even refute).

But let’s assume his is talking about content versus a waning medium, and, as the Spice Girls have taught us, that popularity does not always equal value. He goes on to state explicitly that “television shows seem incapable of discussing anything but sex and violence”, and in the same breath points to the virtues of literature as a more worthy sink for our time.

I feel the need to point out that, as some of the defining issues of the human condition, these and other themes heavily featured in television are just as prevalent in literature. To ignore them is juvenile and to say that all television is singularly fixated on bayoneting opposing armies and then raping their widows is disingenuous at best. Sesame Street has hardly any intercourse at all, especially since Bert and Ernie broke up. I also feel the need to point out that for every terrible reality TV show, there is a literary equivalent spilling from the pen of Dan Brown, and the like.

Van Maren throws the word “Yale” around like a nightstick, in an attempt to lend his article a little pop-psych credence. He invokes a Jerome Singer (the Yalie in question) that was published over 25 years ago to illustrate how kids will emulate television characters. Ignoring the tempering effect of decent parenting, a kid stabbing a classmate because he watched NYPD Blue is clearly displaying symptoms of some larger problem. In an attempt to bring in readers other than the Helen Lovejoys of the world, Van Maren then brings the falling global fitness level into his argument; he attempts to portray TV as the cause of obesity, as opposed to just eating too goddamned much. This offends me as a fat person.

My complaint, however, is not confied to quibbles with his evidence. There are much larger problems in the broad strokes he uses to paint the medium. He admits that cinematography and literature are two separate mediums, but then proceeds to evaluate them with the same metric. In an article about the degenerative effects of television, he fails to mention a single television show by name, let alone their deficiencies. In fact, he spends more time talking about television journalism than anything, which I would argue is another medium altogether.

Van Maren wrote the article like he had only read about television on the internet. He writes like he had never seen classics like M*A*S*H and St. Elsewhere, nor the modern masterpieces like The Wire and Six Feet Under. He wrote like he’s never seen the work of the master writers like Sorkin or Mamet. He wrote like he never cared whether Joey and Pacey were dating, let alone like he knows who the hell Dawson is and why he owns a creek. The value is there, if you seek it, just as it is in books.

Television is the logical progression of theater media, and we can learn just as much about ourselves from Twin Peaks as we can from Beckett. To pin it as the source of modern human idiocy is as narrow as it is ridiculous.

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