Saturday, August 29, 2015

TV series review: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
(USA, 2015)
created by Robert Carlock and Tina Fey
starring Carol Kane, Tituss Burgess, Ellie Kemper, Jane Krakowski, Ki Hong Lee



Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has a very odd premise for what is essentially supposed to be a sitcom--four women are finally rescued after being held hostage for 15 years by a mad doomsday prophet (Jon Hamm) in an underground bunker in Indiana. The prophet brainwashes them, tells them that the world ended on June 6, 2006, so there is no point leaving the bunker, and keeps them there for his own nefarious purposes. (These purposes are only vaguely hinted at and very rarely described--except for how they all had to take shifts turning a giant crank, which surprisingly is not a euphemism for something sexual.)

There are quite a few real-life situations this premise brings to mind: the women held as sex slaves in Cleveland; Jaycee Dugard; Elizabeth Smart. All these women were treated horrifically and their captivity and eventual release are really not something one should joke about. So it was with trepidation that I started watching UKS, mostly because I had read that it was actually a very well-done show that had some thoughtful things to say about about surviving trauma and reclaiming one's life in the aftermath.

Now that I have watched all 13 episodes (thank you Netflix auto-play--I watched the series in 3 days), I can see where this assessment of the show comes from. Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) is a wonderfully resilient character who never forgets that she has been through terrible trauma but spends every day enjoying her new lease on life and putting one foot in front of the other. Her response to her liberation is utter delight and a determination to spend her newfound freedom by living the life she has always wanted--as an independent woman in New York City. Her trauma in the bunker remains a very big part of the show, rather than a plot contrivance played merely for laughs. Kimmy is pretty close mouthed about exactly what happened in the bunker most of the time, but the show consistently sprinkles hints that it was pretty traumatizing a lot of the time. Kimmy has nightmares; she sleepwalks and attacks her roommate; she has very violent responses to certain everyday stimuli.

When Kimmy and her three fellow captives are rescued, they are insultingly dubbed "The Indiana Mole Women" by the media, and (of course) brought onto the talk show circuit. After their appearance on the Today Show in New York City, Kimmy makes the sudden decision she is not going to go back to Durnsville, Indiana, but she is going to stay in New York City and try to make it on her own there. She finds a roommate, a job, and begins to live as a free woman.

Part of the show's delight is Kemper's perfect portrayal as an innocent naif who is never played as an idiot. Yes, we definitely laugh when Kimmy uses slang that is 15 years out of date, or is baffled by the ubiquity of cell phones or doesn't know what a "selfie" is. But she is the show's centre, grounded and practical with a good moral compass. She doesn't like unkindness, or deceptive behaviour, or exploitation of the vulnerable, and she puts her money where her mouth is, jumping to action to defend people or do the right thing. She struggles with her experiences in the bunker and the fact that she lost 15 years of her life to the crazy reverend, but she is not afraid to stand up for herself; she copes as best she can and is kind enough to share her compassion and coping techniques with others who are having a hard time. One of my favourite moments in the show is her explanation that "you can stand anything for ten seconds." It's heartbreaking but it encapsulates Kimmy's determination, strength, and life philosophy in a six-word mantra. 

Kimmy's roommate, Titus (Tituss Burgess), is the other delight of the show. He is a gay black man who dreams of being on Broadway but so far has not managed to even get many auditions, never mind a part in a musical. He is introduced as a fairly self-centred person who really, really does not want Kimmy as a roommate but relents when he realizes that she is vulnerable (well, and she can also pay the back rent he owes to their wacky landlady, played by Carol Kane) and then morphs into her friend and confidante as she reveals her secret to him--that she is one of the "Indiana Mole Women."He is fascinated, horrified, and sympathetic all at once, and vows to get her up to speed on pop culture and current events, and help her act like the 30 year old she is instead of the teenager she's been for the last 15 years.

Jane Krakowski plays Kimmy's incredibly clueless, spoiled, and shallow boss, Jacqueline. Jacqueline married for money and is now paying the price with a distant husband who is rarely even physically present, a bratty son (Kimmy catches him shoplifting twice and the second time brings him home, which is how she lands her job as Jacqueline's assistant), and a scary teenaged stepdaughter. Krakowski is basically reprising the main parts of her role on 30 Rock, but she is still pretty funny as she teeters from crisis to crisis.

There are, however, a few things that made me cringe about UKS. I was not crazy about the way the show deals with issues of race. One of Kimmy's romantic prospects is her GED classmate (played by Ki Hong Lee), a young Vietnamese man named...Dong. Yes, his name is Dong. No, this is not 1955 or even 1985 but 2015, and we still have an Asian man named Dong. Now, upon Kimmy's exclamation upon meeting him that "Dong means penis in English!" Dong retorts, "Well, Kimmy means penis in Vietnamese!" which is at least an attempt at subverting the stereotype. There are a few other attempts at subverting the stereotypes through ironic racism, which...just don't work. Sorry, Tina Fey. You, a white woman, are just not going to be able to pull off ironic racism in the way you hope to. I can fully appreciate that Tina Fey and Robert Carlock are attempting to make social commentary with the stereotypes they feature in UKS. Sometimes I know exactly what they are going for, and sometimes the social commentary actually works very well! There is a terrific sequence where Titus gets a job playing a werewolf in a theme restaurant, and there is some pretty clever, sharp commentary on the prejudice black men are exposed to every day in the US. However, more often than not, the racial humour just falls on the "racist" side as opposed to the "clever commentary on racism" side.

There is a particularly egregious plotline involving a reveal that one of the characters (played by a white actor) is actually a person of colour "passing" as white. Done carefully, this could be pretty great. But it is not done well or carefully, and I was left cringing and shaking my head. There is only one way this can possibly be redeemed, and it would involve a reveal in the second season that the character only thinks they are a person of colour and that they were actually a white baby adopted by a family of colour. And even then, it would not make me forget the missteps of the first season.

However, that aside (and it is a pretty big "that"), I did really enjoy almost all of the show. It was very funny, easy to get drawn into, and featured witty writing and excellent acting. I fervently hope that the writers get some guidance on how to handle race issues so that when I inevitably watch the second season I can spend less time cringing and more just enjoying a good show.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

movie review: Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max
(USA, 2015)
directed by George Miller


We saw this with friends who had already seen it in the theatre but were willing--actually, eager!--to see it again. After the movie was over, I could understand why.

I can think of only one other movie experience that left me with such a feeling of exhilaration, and that was Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof. When I left the theatre after Death Proof, I felt like someone had pumped me full of adrenaline; I felt the exact same way after Mad Max: Fury Road. The two films actually have a fair amount in common: 1) they're both centred around fast, loud, powerful vehicles, and 2) the main characters are all smart, strong women trying to survive pursuit by a violent man.

In Fury Road, the leader of the group is Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who has facilitated the escape of a group of sex slaves, "The Wives," from their captor, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe is the violent, power-hungry ruler of the Citadel, a brutal, ghastly city-state in the film's post-apocalyptic society. The job of the sex slaves is to produce heirs for Joe, and future warrior-leaders for his army.

We are introduced to this world through the eyes of Mad Max (Tom Hardy), who is captured despite his most valiant efforts and held prisoner to do duty as a living blood bank for Joe's army of Warboys. The movie's visuals are mesmerizing throughout, but they are especially compelling in the beginning. The desert Max comes from is bleak, and the world he is taken to is violent and ugly. In the opening scenes, the camera often jolts and shudders; the film is frequently sped up and choppy. Despite how it sounds, this effect is never used gratuitously, but rather to highlight Max's panicked mental state.

Fortunately for Max, being a mobile blood bank is only the beginning of his journey. Essentially, Fury Road is a quest narrative. It has all the elements:

1. a protagonist
2. a journey
3. group of loyal helpers
4. desired object (in this case, a place)
5. obstacles along the way
6. final battle
7. achievement of goal

The interesting thing about Fury Road is that it starts out by making the audience think the protagonist is Max, but really, the protagonist is Furiosa. After he is rescued by Furiosa, Max transitions seamlessly from the focus of our attention to the periphery; he goes from protagonist to helper.

Fury Road passes the Bechdel Test beautifully and features multiple strong female characters who exhibit plenty of agency. It's well-filmed, well-paced, and over the top in a really enjoyable way. It is the most unabashedly feminist action movie I've seen for quite some time, and what I particularly liked about it was that the female representation was not just limited to ONE strong woman character. This is a problem with many, many movies that want to make the claim for being feminist. It's just not enough to have ONE woman in a film, no matter how strong she is, if she rarely or never interacts in a meaningful way with other women. In Fury Road, we not only have Theron's fantastic Furiosa; we have many, many strong and intelligent female characters determined to take back their destiny and create a better world for themselves and their progeny.

Both Max and Furiosa are perfectly cast. Hardy and Theron embody their characters with strength and determination; the characters clearly respect each other. Also, spoiler alert, I really appreciated there was no stupid romantic storyline between them. I imagine it'll be a long time before that happens in an action movie again. The supporting actors are also excellent: Nicholas Hoult is very good as Nux, a fearless Warboy who ends up being less brainless than it seems at first glance. The group of women escaping from Joe are also given agency, and despite the movie's generally limited dialogue, each is given an individual personality. The other characters met along the journey (I don't want to give too much away) are also strongly and memorably drawn in the movie's efficient shorthand.

I totally recommend Mad Max: Fury Road if you are looking for an action movie with some brain and a lot of brawn. Because fear not--even though there's some thinkiness and social commentary in here, there are also a lot of satisfying explosions and car crashes!

Saturday, May 09, 2015

movie review: Line in the Sand

Line in the Sand
(Canada, 2015)
directors: Tomas Borsa and Jean-Philippe Marquis

Line in the Sand is a feature-length documentary about the how communities in northern British Columbia and Alberta have responded to the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. The proposed pipeline would traverse the northern part of British Columbia and part of Alberta, carrying diluted bitumen (dilbit), a toxic, tarry substance, across pristine wilderness to tankers just off the coast of BC, near Prince Rupert.

The pipeline has been controversial for many reasons, including concern about its safety, its possible effect on the environment, and the way it would cross traditional First Nations territory. Borsa and Marquis interviewed ordinary people from communities along the proposed route to ask how they feel about it and why. (You can check out their "Line in the Sand" blog here.)

They start out in Alberta, where they talk to farmers who have entered into agreements to let pipelines cross their land. These farmers have discovered the hard way that the pipeline companies have a great deal of unexpected control over the land once they are on it: for example, they have sued farmers for "trespassing" on their own land. These are the same companies who pay a lump sum, trash the land and render it unusable, then leave a huge mess for the farmers to take care of. The toxicity of what the pipelines transport have left animals dead and with birth defects. However, the companies have no legal obligation to rehabilitate the land, find less toxic ways to do business, or compensate the farmers. Do they have an ethical obligation? The farmers think so.

Borsa and Marquis are personable (they were at the screening I attended in Prince George at the College of New Caledonia, and gave a Q and A for the audience afterwards) and it shows in the natural, expressive interviews they managed to get with regular folks along the proposed pipeline. In the film, one person after another speaks candidly and with passion about what their community and the landscape mean to them. We see beautiful shots of northern British Columbia that help someone who has never been here understand what is at stake. We hear from researchers and scientists who describe the potential risks of the pipeline and the repercussions if there is a spill. There are a few people who speak in favour of the pipeline, but they are outnumbered by those who are against it. (The filmmakers were asked at the screening I attended whether they had sought out people who were in support of the pipeline and they said they had, but the number of people who are in favour of the pipeline in the film is representative of the number of people they found who were willing to do so.)

There is much blunt talk about Enbridge's incredibly poor track record regarding pipeline integrity and spill response. Some of the most arresting footage is from a man who worked on the Kalamazoo spill cleanup--Enbridge fired him after they discovered he had secretly filmed cleanup workers being directed by Enbridge to simply cover up spilled oil with a layer of sand.

The filmmakers interview many First Nations people about land rights, self-governance, and the uncomfortable relationship between large and powerful companies and small, economically depressed First Nations communities.We see large protests against the Northern Gateway and smaller acts of defiance--one series of shots shows a number of colourful handpainted signs in one First Nations community on the pipeline's proposed path.

To me, the main theme of this film is larger than just the Enbridge Northern Gateway project. The filmmakers wisely show us not only the actions of Enbridge to coerce and bully communities into accepting the pipeline--they also dig deep into the federal government's attempts to paint any opposition to the pipeline and similar projects as anti-Canadian, anti-patriotic, and, most frighteningly, as "radical eco-terrorism."

Watching Joe Oliver denounce those who speak out against the pipeline--and watching the charade that was the Joint Review Panel "consultation" process--simply highlights the need for the Canadian public to educate themselves not only about the potential effects of the Northern Gateway project but also the effects of a federal government bent on stifling opposition with swift brutality and little regard for the democratic process.

Overall, this is an excellent documentary. The cinematography is gorgeous, the issues outlined clearly, and the filmmakers wisely let the residents of northern Alberta and northern BC speak for themselves about why they have chosen to draw this particular line in the sand.