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The Fringe Binge, Part II: Season 5

Fringe_season5poster_fullWhen Fringe was looking at cancellation late in season 4, a season that most people didn’t think they’d get, they presented a plan to their producers for a half season to finish the story. Then they teased that final arc during season 4 when they jumped forward to 2036, a time when the Observers have invaded and become fascist rulers. Two FBI agents are searching for the lost original Fringe team who have been discovered in amber.

This episode felt out of place in season 4, but it sets up the entire premise of season 5. The now reunited Fringe team, and the FBI agent who found them, are attempting to enact a plan to rid themselves of the Observers.

fringe_1I suspect this is a divisive season for fans of the show. I personally liked it, but the departure from previous seasons could alienate. The new style is different enough that the intro has changed entirely, keeping only the structure and the score. The show goes from being roughly a crime procedural to a hero’s journey adventure drama. There are no more “monster of the week” episodes–all the fat has been trimmed. Now there are only episodes that build to the execution of the plan. Episodes consist of a mini-mission to find a component along with character and relationship development.

The new setting is all concrete jungle or rural emptiness. There is a definite 1984 vibe with signs up that show an Observer and the phrase “The Future is Order”. Later on, counter signs showing the picture of a martyred rebel say, “Resist.” The future is a little bit retro–styles from the 1940’s seem to be in fashion, creating an allusion to WWII’s fascists as well as 1984. Furthermore, many of the Fringe team’s allies are still around, like Broyles and Nina Sharp, but they’ve aged 21 years while Olivia, Astrid, Peter, and Walter haven’t aged a day since 2015.

resist

Like with season 4, the threads of theme are strong and multilayered. At the forefront, the relationship between parents and children. Peter and Olivia become reunited with their daughter but then have to deal with losing her. Peter and Walter’s relationship continues to develop and open up. And there are new fathers and sons who continually expand the audience’s understanding of our core characters. But there are also themes of sacrifice and redemption.

The episodes of this season regularly reference back to previous Fringe cases, giving the final season a strong sense of closure through the circularity. While the team no longer investigates Fringe events, they are now forced to use evidence from those Fringe cases to move forward in their plan. They become the terrorists, now that they’re on the other side of the law.

Season 5 is definitely darker emotionally than the other seasons, but that enables an ending to the show that is deeply satisfying and bitter-sweet. Sure, the science of time travel gets all timey-wimey, but I’m not watching Fringe for the practical science.

 

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First Reactions: Netflix’s ‘Sense8’

sense8 logoWe have just finished the fifth episode of Netflix’s Sense8, a show created, written, and produced by the Wachowskis (Andy and Lana) and J. Michael Straczynski. It is a show that has two great qualities: beautiful, fascinating diversity and absolute ballsiness. Of course, there’s also a premise that provides mystery, sci-fi mind-explosions, and surprising twists.

Eight people suddenly start accessing each other’s sensory experiences. Of course, they have no idea what is happening or why and have to figure all of that out while also dealing with the conflicts of their non-Sensate lives.

 

The first aspect of greatness that struck me is Sense8’s diversity. In the mix: a Chicago cop, a Mexican film star, a Kenyan bus driver, a German safe-cracker, a Icelandic DJ, a Korean banker/kickboxer, an Indian woman about to get married, and a transgendered woman living in San Francisco.  The various locations alone add layers of interest–although Chicago tends to look pretty mundane, the cinematography of San Francisco, Nairobi, Mumbai, and Mexico City are simply gorgeous. Different languages, different accents, different cultural situations. On top of that are the characters. Obviously their racial and ethnic differences are clear and compelling, but there is also variety in the sexual and gender identities. And with the eight individual storylines going on simultaneously, the shifting narratives keep the audience fully engaged.

sense8 diversity

The second aspect of greatness is the likability of the characters. At the top of the charmer charts are two black characters: the Sensate Capheus who drives a bus in Nairobi named Van Damn and is clever and caring and positive in the face of terrible situations and Amanita the girlfriend of transgendered Sensate Nomi. Amanita is played by a former Dr. Who companion, Freema Agyeman, and has a sassy awesomeness to match her incredible hair. Lito, the Mexican film star, and his boyfriend are both absolute dolls. I can’t say enough about the fact that I just want to spend time with these people. Anti-heroes be damned–it’s a nice change to actually be charmed and care about protagonists.

The third aspect of greatness is the absolute fearlessness to depict awkward and/or explicit sexuality. The first episode practically opens with a lesbian sex scene depicting orgasm and a dildo hitting the ground with a splash of fluid. In the fifth episode, a female character is shown inserting a tampon to wordlessly explain why a male character, connected through their Sensate link, is experiencing the emotions and physical sensations of menstruation–and his experience of it is hilarious, reminding me of the classic feminist essay, “If Men Could Menstruate.” In the same episode, a male character swims naked in a pool in Berlin, mentally linking with a woman getting married in Mumbai. When he stands up out of the water, she finally sees him. When her eyes and the camera take in his penis, she falls to the ground in a faint.

sense8 ballsy

There are other lovely things about the show. Just one example: Lito is working on a movie that appears to be directed by the Mexican Michael Bay, and the violent, climatic scene at the end of the film is shot like a cross between the end of Desperado and the metal detector-foyer scene from The Matrix–slow motion, bullets shattering marble posts, impossible dodges of enemy fire, multiple gun exchanges, and a score that sounds very similar to that Matrix scene. It’s this kind of humor and action that leave me grinning during the shows more uplifting moments.

sense8 matrix

 


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Movie Review: Snowpiercer (Spoiler Free)

snowpiercerA post-apocalyptic ice age forces humanity’s last survivors aboard a globe-spanning super train. One man (Chris Evans) will risk everything to lead a revolt for control of the engine and the future of the world.

We had Snowpiercer on our Instant Queue “My List” for months before finally making the time to watch it last night. I ended up being decidedly impressed with it. Here’s my spoiler free review. Spoilerific analysis to come later this week.

At the heart of the film is a post-apocalyptic dystopia. A man-made ice-age, brought on by a last-ditch attempt to counter the effects of climate change, has made life on Earth all but extinct. What’s left are the few humans, animals, and plants that circle the globe on a train called Snowpiercer.

The designer of this “ark” is a man named Wilford, a mysterious man who occupies the front of the train, the engine room, and holds a status on the train just below God. But the film focuses on the lowest strata of the train–those who live in sub-human conditions in the tail of the car. These survivors live in overcrowding and filth, eat gelatinous protein bars for every meal, and are at the mercy of the whims of the front cars and the guards who keep the tail in line. Meanwhile the passengers in the front of the train enjoy steak dinners and other luxuries the tail-people can only imagine.

The injustices have caused a tipping point in the tail-enders–they are ready to follow the risky plan of Curtis (Chris Evans) forward to take the engine, and thus control of the train.

swintonsnowpiercerThe film begins as a fascinating dystopian vision. The soot-covered tail inhabitants, their grubby clothing, and their interactions paint a picture of oppressed community attempting to function underneath a fascist system they have no power to oppose. As the plot thickens, stirring the tail-people to revolt, director Bong Joon Ho is not afraid to show the audience the horror of a social system kept in place through violence and fear. And while there’s plenty of bleakness to the world of the tail-enders, there is also dark humor, often through the absurd costuming and mannerisms of Tilda Swinton’s character Mason. She gives a speech early on meant to bring the tail-enders back in line which centers on how you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head–stay in your place–while adjacent to her a man is being brutally punished for a recent offense against a front-dweller. The mix tonally echoed a film like Judge Dredd (2012), though the film-making overall was much stronger.

As Curtis’s plan gets underway, the film becomes a riveting action film, one built especially for those who might be sick of the action sequences of big blockbuster films whose directors have no sense of direction or the 180-degree rule. In Snowpiercer, location and direction are very much the point, and Bong Joon Ho uses these to heighten the tension and build the reveals until the ending.

So while the film is a fascinating sci-fi action spectacle, it is also a piercing social critique, skewing systems of class especially and how those systems are kept in place through cyclical routines. The structure of the train, the color and lighting choices, and the cinematography all echoed these themes. The film kept me thinking about its implications over night and into today–and I’m sure I’m not done yet.

Snowpiercer is a vision of society that infested my dreams and has begun resonating strongly, like, Apocalypse Now-level strongly. I intend to unpack some of that thinking in a later post. Until then, I can only recommend as highly as possible that you view this on Netflix Instant while you still have the chance.


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Review: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never_Let_Me_GoAbout every five years, I introduce a book to my AP Literature curriculum that I’ve heard great things about but haven’t had the chance to read. By doing so, I place myself in my student’s position and can model how I process a book the first time I read it. This was that year, and the book was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

I wasn’t really a stranger to the plot. I’d seen the movie, which is remarkably faithful. Unfortunately, my knowledge from the movie colored and diminished some of my enjoyment of the book. It is part mystery, after all, and knowing the reveals meant I couldn’t enjoy the guessing. However, seeing how flustered some of my students got when only a few of their questions were answered, I realized that I didn’t suffer that same disappointment. I knew which questions would be left hanging.

Never Let Me Go is told from the perspective of a 31-year-old “carer” named Kathy. Her voice is casual and conversational. She has verbal ticks, like anyone who tells you stories for long enough. The narrative is a series of flashbacks as she relates her memories of childhood and adolescence to an unknown audience. She reminisces about her mostly idyllic childhood at a boarding school called Halisham and her friendships with Ruth and Tommy. But it is clear to the reader that something is wrong at Halisham and maybe with the students. They are different, though they don’t know precisely why. The mystery of the book is figuring this out–how the students are different and why Halisham is run like it is.

Except, of course, Kathy has many of the answers as a 31-year-old, but she reveals the secrets in a controlled way, to continue the tension and propulsion of the mystery. The control over those mysteries is so deliberate, Ishiguro manages to evoke within the reader the same reactions the students have when they learn a new secret–exactly like they had already known the answer. It is a way of controlling the students of Halisham, and the control is over the reader as well.

The mystery is sci-fi in nature, posing an alternate Britain after World War II. The hints at the social program surrounding the students are creepy and deeply thought-provoking. But they are big questions–questions of humanity and ethics, the sacrifices of the few for the betterment of the many. The costs of science and the brave new worlds it creates. Its ancestors are Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

But to say this is a book about big questions is to lose track of the story at its heart: the relationship between Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. It is the realism of their interactions as children and young adults and the heartbreak of the mistakes they make with each other that pulls the reader deep inside Ishiguro’s narrative. I recognized myself and my friends in these three–a crucial attachment to make the themes of the book hit home.

I highly recommend this book to just about anyone, really.

 


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High Concept, Mixed Execution – Trillium by Jeff Lemire

TRILLIUM-PROMOb-600x911Trillium is a creator-owned comic published by Vertigo. For that alone, it gets my respect. Jeff Lemire also earns my respect for his high concept sci-fi, which mixes portals through time and space with a star-crossed (literally?) lovers story. Here’s how the publisher describes it:

It’s the year 3797, and botanist Nika Temsmith is researching a strange species on a remote science station near the outermost rim of colonized space.

It’s the year 1921, and renowned English explorer William Pike leads an expedition into the dense jungles of Peru in search of the fabled “Lost Temple of the Incas,” an elusive sanctuary said to have strange healing properties.

Two disparate souls separated by thousands of years and hundreds of millions of miles. Even though reality is unraveling all around them, nothing can pull them apart. This isn’t just a love story, it’s the LAST love story ever told.

There’s a lot going on in Trillium. There’s a riff on colonial fiction and attitudes of the turn of the 20th century, the “jungle” narratives and assumptions of savagery. There’s also an invasive, adaptable virus decimating humanity, creating levels of the colonization theme, but also supplying the motivation for characters to take risks and act impulsively, if not irrationally. There’s the back stories of trauma and loss that both Nika and William have – hers the loss of parents, his the experiences of World War I. Then there’s the portal through time and space that brings them together, the psychotropic flower that allows them to communicate and then bond, and the rewriting of time that they bring about. Finally, they have to find each other again and save the last of humanity from the virus.

trilliumThe execution of all of this is mixed. Nika and William are drawn so similarly, I predicted their relationship would be long-lost relatives or even dopplegangers rather than the lovers they are revealed to be late in the book. The artwork in general is sketchy, with visible jaggedness and an unfinished quality. I wasn’t a fan of it. But Lemire inventively uses symmetry and mirroring to show parallel aspects in the two timelines and re-orients the image in the boxes to suggest the flip-flop of narrative when the timelines get crossed.

Not until the end was I engaged with the two characters, but at least by that time, I was drawn in enough to appreciate the sweet, thematic conclusion. Recommended for high concept sci-fi fans who don’t mind a humorless story.


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A Few of My Favorite Things: Book Review – Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer

Shafer_Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2).JPGA book like David Shafer’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn’t for everyone, but damn if it doesn’t seem like this book was aimed directly at me.

Seriously, this book spoke to me:

Well, hi, there, Erin! Say, I know you like an accessible post-modern novel. I’m, like, one part Don DeLillo social satire and two parts Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. Except, you know, super contemporary. Plus I kick off with a bad-ass female protagonist and my shifting point of view really highlights the nuances of the three different main characters. Oh, and I have a major scene set in Dublin. Oh, and one of my characters is struggling with his sense of what’s real. And the whole thing is wrapped around this information conspiracy. (I even have a touching little love story!)

So, yeah, I adored this book.

paulbuckley_dondelillo_whitenoiseI don’t make comparisons to Pynchon and DeLillo lightly. I teach DeLillo’s White Noise in my AP Literature and Composition class. I ask my students to write a sequel of sorts after we discuss it – What would today’s version of White Noise look like? They’re meant to mimic DeLillo’s style and advance the themes of consumerism and technology, family and identity. This year I’ll be excerpting Whiskey Tango Foxtrot as a model for the assignment, because that is precisely what Shafer does. First, he shares DeLillo’s love-mock relationship with his characters. Clearly they are held up for ridicule, especially in their addictions to substances (including consumer goods), but paired with that is a strong affection. That affection grows as the novel goes on, and by the end, I was absolutely enamored with each of the main protagonists. Likewise, Shafer uses lists of stuff at various points in an echo of DeLillo. Atop all of this is a specificity of diction that borders on the poetic.

Lot49The driving conspiracy is pure Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon’s 1966 novel is about the uncovering of a conflict between two mail distribution companies which began before America became independent. Oedipa Maas, the protagonist, is our fish-out-of-water detective, a housewife cum executor of her ex’s estate, landing her in the midst of this mail conspiracy.

Perhaps no longer centered around mail delivery, today the bulk of our worries, when not about financial solvency, remain about the control of information. Our internet privacy settings, passwords, and levels of encryption mean the difference between social media and internet shopping savvy and identity theft. But then who owns the data that we stream through our cable company or cell phone carrier? Who owns the files I store in the Cloud? Does AT&T own the Skype conversation I had with my husband while out of town? They certainly control the actual data, but where’s the boundary between data transfer and personal conversation? What about backdoor access to my laptop webcam or the recording elements of my cell phone?

This is the line of questioning that allowed the book to sink its meat hooks into me. While I was midway through the novel, Facebook’s new Messenger app rolled out, garnering alarm over the many permissions it requires for use. Take a look-see:

  • Change the state of network connectivity
  • Call phone numbers and send SMS messages
  • Record audio, and take pictures and videos, at any time (emphasis mine)
  • Read your phone’s call log, including info about incoming and outgoing calls
  • Read your contact data, including who you call and email and how often
  • Read personal profile information stored on your device
  • Get a list of accounts known by the phone, or other apps you use

Now, many have argued that these are reasonable permissions for a messaging app, and it’s no different for WhatsApp or other alternatives to the on-board phone messenger. However, there is an implied trust by consumer of the app to Facebook to not misuse the access they have to the phone and the information therein. Should we trust Facebook? Well, I don’t mind getting my ads tailored to me, to be honest. It’s what led me to the book Girl With All the Gifts, which I totally enjoyed reading. However, Facebook was recently revealed to have experimented on their users’ emotions through control of their news feeds. I have no interest in being emotionally manipulated by my social media.

Capitalism does not have ethics other than the “rightness” of the dollar. This is the very notion that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot exploits for its paranoid conspiratorial drama. I was absolutely pulled in by it. I uninstalled that Facebook Messenger app and went back to the clunkier but less invasive messaging through the Facebook mobile site. Then I dove back into the novel.

What the novel offers as an alternative to corporate-controlled information is simply fascinating, and it gave an otherwise cold-conspiracy a warm, beating heart.

The end of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is also very much like The Crying of Lot 49, though I will leave that to the reader’s discovery. There’s even a direct homage to the mail systems of old in there.

I keep wishing I had more Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to read and finding that other books aren’t meeting the expectations it set. This is David Shafer’s debut novel – I can only hope his follow-up books are as brilliant.


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Book Review – The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

An ad on Facebook using Joss Whedon’s praise for The Girl with All the Gifts got me on board for this novel, not knowing much of anything about the type of book it was. Joss liked it. That was enough.

And he did not steer me wrong. Like much of Joss’s work, The Girl with All the Gifts plays with a familiar genre, twisting what we think we know of it. All those assumptions we make of the story’s and character’s forms are smudged and redrawn by Michael Carey.  But as with Cabin in the Woods, the Whedon co-written horror-comedy film, the less you know going in, the better. So I’ll try to keep only to the publisher’s book description and spoil no more.

girlwithallthegiftsMelanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her “our little genius.”

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh.

Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children’s cells. She tells her favorite teacher all the things she’ll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn’t know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.

The title comes from a repeated allusion to Pandora, a girl who was given all the gifts by the gods, but got with it the curiosity that pushed her to let loose all the evils of the world. Melanie is gifted in both mental and physical ways, but her gifts are pricey.

Girl is a sci-fi mystery/thriller, and does share some broad qualities with those genres, even as it bucks particular tropes. It has the science fiction tendencies of dystopian setting and philosophical themes grappling with the biggest of questions, in this case, what makes us human as opposed to monster. Like other mystery/thrillers, it has secrets to reveal as it goes and the teasing of those secrets creates tension and suspense. There are even a couple authentically white-knuckle moments.

Unfortunately, to talk about how Carey redraws the lines of the genre would be to delve deeply into spoiler territory. You’ll have to discover that for yourself.

Despite the innovations of genre, the characters remain somewhat shallow throughout, standing in as types or even carriers of a particular philosophy in the face of their particular situation, but despite that they are empathetic and engaging. Each thinks she is doing to right thing to help humanity; each thinks she is the hero.

I didn’t see the ending coming. It was the kind of ending that both surprised and made perfect sense. No easy task to pull off.

I would recommend The Girl with All the Gifts to fans of Neil Gaiman, Joss (of course), and John Lindqvist’s Let the Right One In.