Review: Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, Frankenstein

Imagine a piece of media exclusively premised on the conceit that people often mistakenly use "Frankenstein" to refer to the monster instead of the man who created him. Netflix's Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, Frankenstein takes this errant  tradition and turns it into a thirty minute meta-comedy sketch. It's like watching Tom Stoppard's Ed Wood.

David Harbour of Stranger Things notoriety plays a character named David Harbour III, using documentary to reckon with the acting legacy inherited from his megalomaniacal father David Harbour Jr. (also played by David Harbour) and the "real-life" drama played out in the latter's television play "Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, Frankenstein," in which he plays the titular character...whoever that is .   

The problem of naming Frankenstein's monster parallels the character's struggle with humanity and otherness. It's a dilemma as old as the first staged adaptation of the novel in 1823. Shelly herself attended the production and was pleased with the listing of the creature as "--" in the playbill, remarking, "This nameless mode of naming the unnameable is rather good." The act of referring to the creature by the name of his creator was not unheard of before the Universal film of 1931, which credited the role as "the monster," but nevertheless the Hollywood film adaptation is seen as having led to the identification in the popular imagination, so much so that it might now be considered acceptable usage. So while some distinction is obviously necessary to discussion of the text, anyone who "corrects" the misappelation in casual conversation could be seen as pedantic. 

By some baffling, middling, comedic conceit Frankenstein's Monster's Monster, Frankenstein lampoons this pretension by playing up the equivalence between man and monster. David Harbour III's documentary concludes that his father was indeed a monster that probably murdered his co-star, while the plot of David Harbour Jr.'s televised play hinges upon him impersonating the erstwhile monster too successfully. Harbour Jr. is so threatened by his younger co-star that he destroys his own work, at one point breaking character to (falsely) declaim how he got into Julliard. The pretentiousness is transferred from the title, to the plot, to Harbour, to the inherent pretension of theatre itself.  Chekhov's gun is referenced so many times you would think there would be more bodies in the end, but I'm pleased to say the inherent humor in the word "dramaturge" does not go unexploited.

As one of the most adapted things of all time, I guess Frankenstein could be an apt vehicle to compare the superficiality of popular culture with the pretentiousness of fine art. But this show's humor succeeds more from facile mockery of Masterpiece Theatre than any attempt to reclaim the monster from Hollywood. Hell, Nick Dear's play Frankenstein (2011) might be said to have resurrected the creature as philosopher, and this is hardly a parody of that. No, maybe the true target of this satire is its own existence.

Released on the coat-tails of Stranger Things 3, this piece of content is aware of itself as a production of streaming-era excess.  Our inevitable consumption of it mirrors David Harbour Jr.'s indulgence at "London USA," a restaurant franchise whose selling pitch is "the finer things don't need to be fancy." At such a short run-time I'd be hard-pressed not to recommend this piece of content based simply on the sheer ham of David Harbour's performance in his many intersecting roles. And yet simultaneously it is so mind-bendingly vacuous. To think about this thing is more absurd than the thing itself, which has pretensions to absurdity, but ultimately embraces the layered irony of many a mockumentary, with extra layers on the side. You might even say that it's like eating beef wellington without the beef.

Godzilla: King of Controversy

It's worth noting that critics aren't always right. Upon its initial Japanese release, Gojira (1954) sold over 9 million tickets but left critics cold. According to Director Ishiro Honda, it was considered exploitative and too fantastical to project all the suffering incurred by World War II and two nuclear bombs onto a mythological dinosaur. Fittingly enough, it was American critics that lauded the frankness of the allegory even in the heavily expurgated Godzilla: King of the Monsters! (1956), eventually legitimizing in Japan the very monster that the United States metaphorically created.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), overwhelms and awe with the reverent rendering of its cast of beloved creatures. Growing up with the old Toho VHSs, Mothra might have been my favorite friend/rival of Godzilla, but I don't think I ever got misty-eyed watching her swoop down in beautiful bioluminescence. Simultaneously, Ken Watanabe's character (Ishiro Serizawa) does much of the same obligatory moralizing he did in the previous installment, but this time includes cringe-worthy irony. After a particularly rambling monologue,  someone asks "Did you just make that up?" Serizawa jokes "I read it on the back of a fortune cookie...a really long fortune cookie." I sighed. I chuckled. I died a little inside.

Many critics are grappling with a crisis of conscience in rating a kaiju film that delivers majestic (if dark and stormy) monster battles but contains lines like these. As the latest property steeped in nerd-culture to receive a big release, King of the Monsters is beginning to represent the seeming disparity between critical opinion and fan appreciation. But while any critical take on this film necessarily involves lampooning the writing, many rightly acknowledge the human trappings are a needless folly, as the supposed monster should be the heart of the story. (Yes, in this film one human says to another: "You're a monster." The burn is radioactive.) Why then the dilemma? Perhaps because the story is that dumb and the spectacle is that good?

Ghidorah.  Godzilla: King of the Monsters  (2019)

Ghidorah. Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)

To frame the discussion of this film as story vs. spectacle does a disservice to the weight and ambition of its visual storytelling. The arresting tableaus of Ghidorah astride a volcanic crater dwarfing a foregrounded crucifix, or Godzilla recuperating atop a chthonian ziggurat, serve to infuse the final battle with the godly grandeur of a true clash of titans the likes of which I have never seen. But the story those images tell is not simply unsupported, it is tonally at odds with the prevailing aesthetic of the film. The critical concession that fans will love this movie seems to imply that the ideal Godzilla is the benevolent b-movie slugger with only pretensions to his horrific roots. As a critical fan, my affection for action hero struggles throughout with my love of the monster. I'm not sure if I believe that I have to choose one or the other, but in this movie they are at war.

Director/Writer Michael Dougherty (Krampus, Superman Returns) is an understandable choice to hype up the franchise after Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014) attempted the solemnity of the original and arguably achieved mostly tedium. Similarly, Dougherty's co-written script is reverent of its creatures in concept and attempts homage. The premise that Godzilla and his fellow Titans are antediluvian gods awakened to put humankind in its place delightfully captures the fanatic devotion in me that wants this franchise to shine. Bear McCreary's score is every bit as phenomenal an achievement as the deifying visuals, what Dougherty refers to as a "Monster Opera" giving distinct themes and voices to the central kaiju.

As much as I enjoyed these elements of what is clearly a labor of love, all that majesty and dread is spoiled by the incessant, mystifying decision to undercut it. Yes the plot does feel like family drama by way of monster chess, but if I squint I can see good intentions. It would be one thing if the human characters were as melodramatic as their predecessors, it is wholly another that they are practically self-aware. Amidst a set-piece, someone even stops in their tracks to mutter "Oh, shit" before being vaporized! As much as I support Dr. Rick Stanton’s (Bradley Whitford) prattling on about Edmond Halley's Hollow Earth theory to try and explain the film’s logic, he is the epitome of its ironic cynicism. The comic relief comes as much from Whitford's fine performance as from the sense the character knows he's in a bad movie. It is at once both refreshing and galling. Maybe my personal distaste for this comes down to my penchant for mysticism. In short, you can't invoke the sacred awe of animistic gods, regard them from post-modern distance, and expect me to remain enchanted. It amounts to sacrilege.

Which brings me to the treatment of our protagonist. If Godzilla is a character, (or if as Dr. Serizawa suggests, Godzilla is Jesus), his supposed death and subsequent resurrection should carry more weight. His fall results from an apologetic intrusion by the mostly absent government pragmatists. Admiral Stenz­­­—portrayed by the cinematic face of J. Robert Oppenheimer, David Strathairn—drops in to solemnly say "May God forgive us" before launching the oxygen destroyer that killed the seminal Godzilla. It's difficult to decide if it's a cool reference or a flimsy attempt at gravitas. The human-engineered revival of Godzilla through thermonuclear explosion is meant to be a poetic reversal, but as shown it ends up confusing the metaphor. It would be nice if Serizawa somehow conveyed contrition on behalf of humankind for crippling Godzilla in the first place before artificially rousing him from a natural recovery for human ends, somehow make good on saying "We would be his [pet]." But what he does, essentially, is boop the snoot. His deference is that of a child approaching a mascot, not that of a man approaching a god.

I'm aware that even among critics this was a favorite scene, to me it's as cool as it is inescapably problematic, so I guess Godzilla remains as divisive as ever. If only this installment committed purely to schlock and could function free of the ideological baggage carried by the world's largest victim of nuclear holocaust. To be fair I'm not sure I would like that film either, but I acknowledge it would have its place. The legacy of Godzilla is as much allegory as it is camp, but the former suffers in such proximity the latter. For all the talk of fealty, I say Godzilla deserves still more respect than he gets in King of the Monsters.

The Impossible Tom Cruise

There are some movie trailers that are just too good. There are some trailers that cause me to anticipate films with a mixed sense of excitement and dread, knowing the odds are high that they can live up to the density of adrenaline packed into the carefully edited advert. There are some trailers, I'd argue, that inevitably intertwine my reaction to a film with my expectations of it.

I remember watching, nonplussed, as Tom Cruise clung desperately to an ascending plane, the runway fading into the background behind him, and thinking, "This is just a typical Monday for him isn't it?" This was the gripping new stunt on display in the trailer for Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015), the fifth entry into the action-thriller franchise. I hadn't kept up with the films, had never been sufficiently drawn by the spectacle of the next big ridiculous stunt. When I found out Brad Bird had directed the fourth film, subtitled Ghost Protocol (2011), I decided to catch up. I subsequently became swept up in the phenomenon. I gained renewed appreciation for the sans-CG stunt-work, the perilous countdowns, the clever reversals, and of course, the "literal manifestation of destiny" Ethan Hunt. I had come around to understanding that the essence of the franchise is witnessing the prodigious extent of Cruise's willingness to simulate danger, and how well it translates to the increasingly manic intensity of his character.

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) leaps buildings in an urban chase sequence in  Mission: Impossible - Fallout . Cruise broke an ankle during the shoot,  delaying production by eight weeks.

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) leaps buildings in an urban chase sequence in Mission: Impossible - Fallout. Cruise broke an ankle during the shoot, delaying production by eight weeks.

My renewed interest in the franchise may have also coincided with the awe-inspiring trailer for this latest installment, Mission: Impossible - Fallout. To begin, the voice of one of Ethan's former nemeses Solomon Lane, (the delectable Sean Harris) returns with a prognostication of doom. There is a dark tone shift, a sense of setting this film apart from previous entries in the franchise. Indeed it is the only film to feature a returning villain, or a returning director (Christopher McQuarrie) for that matter. With Ethan's former wife also pulled back into the picture, the stakes have never been higher for him. Could it be that this time Ethan might lose something? Not necessarily the world, or the mission, but something?

No. Of course not. Well, yes, he does lose some hot plutonium when he decides to save one of his team; the subsequent action of the film is the titular fallout from this moral choice. And to its credit, this quandary persists in the film to a degree. Ethan's most important quality is, as stated by the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) secretary Hunley (Alec Baldwin), his valuing of an individual life. Some of the most compelling action in the film results from Ethan's improvisation to make sure no good guys have to die. In opposition, the CIA is characterized as having an at-all-costs ethos. The rival agency imposes a shoot-first ruthless operative onto Ethan's team, played by Henry Cavill and the twenty-five million dollar mustache.  The self-aware gadgetry and camp of the franchise is contrasted with modern grittier notions of American intelligence to the effect of political nostalgia. The audience's belief in Ethan Hunt's ̶ perhaps unrealistic ̶ methods is aligned with the absurdly fun belief that he alone can save the world. Indeed one could argue that Ethan succeeds in unmasking the mysterious John Lark because the latter fails to grasp to what marvelous extent and why Ethan's team trusts him as much as they do; as always their trust is well-placed in the end.  

On top of pulling off another truly thrilling entry, It may be asking too much for the franchise to reckon with Hunt's nigh invulnerable ridiculousness, but Fallout deliberately asks us to, or at least its villains do. By involving Ethan's former wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) in his evil scheme Solomon Lane threatens to make Ethan suffer the consequences of his moral superiority. "You should have killed me," he calls from Ethan's dreams, as Ethan watches Julia disintegrate in a mushroom cloud. Similarly, a manifesto authored by the antagonist thematically declares "There was never a great peace without a great suffering." This line serves as the villains' flimsy moral justification for committing mass genocide in order to vaguely disrupt the status quo of civilization. It's a perfectly serviceable nefarious ideology, but it also fittingly applies to the sacrifices Ethan makes in order to keep the world safe. We've already seen Ethan's marriage sacrificed in Ghost Protocol, here we get the benefit of seeing Julia herself affirm that sacrifice and give Ethan her blessing. But Ethan doesn't suffer any new devastating loss in this film, he proves that there ultimately is no fallout for his good intentions.

Fallout is truly the mission to end all missions. It's unique continuity with the rest of the franchise and direct connection to its predecessor set it up to pronounce a statement on the legacy of Ethan/Cruise. The fifty-six year-old action-star seems to be grasping at straws throughout the final act, and frantically repeats lines like "I'll make it work" or "I'll figure something out", testing his dear friends' trust and audiences' expectations further than ever before. "How could you ever have doubted him?" The film seems to shout in conclusion.  Ethan/Cruise is the definitive action hero ubermench. He makes superhuman feats look like a simple combination of willpower and gymnastics. He chugs jet fuel for breakfast. He runs like a spinning blade.

Check out The Movie Gang Podcast's full review of Fallout.

Invisible Scars: "The horror, horror!" of Kurtz’ Bipolar Nihilism in Apocalypse Now

In my previous piece, Kong in Halong, I guiltily admitted that Apocalypse Now (1979) drew me to Vietnam. It wasn't just the masterful reimagining of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or the astonishing ferocity with which the film tackles the starkly jaded Vietnam tour veterans and their do-or-die missions. No, during the height of my obsession with the film, I struggled with self-medication, drug use, and abject nihilism ̶ precisely what Vietnam veterans today struggle with in the aftermath of their experience in the shit. This film showed me that even the most damaged of people can accomplish terrible, yet astonishing things. During my times of crisis, the film became a troublingly stylized blueprint for accomplishing great things in the face of sheer misery. The trick, the film seems to imply, is to give into impulses of meaninglessness and create, from whole cloth, a new set of moral standards. And this is why the movie is both incredibly important and incredibly dangerous. Kurtz’ behavior is a reflection of his environment and mental state: he fashions himself as a god among men, one whom I was willing to worship wholeheartedly.

Before continuing, I want to acknowledge I draw many parallels between PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and bipolar disorder. I don’t mean to equate the experiences or downplay the immense suffering veterans of all wars may endure. I only mean to demonstrate how a great director, script, actors, and all those responsible for the film have created something deeply relatable in such wildly different contexts.

Even for a comparatively sheltered millennial like myself, the film resonates so deeply because of its incredible depiction of depressive alienation and manic destabilization, two hallmarks of the lifelong struggle with my own mental states, as well as real-world consequences for PTSD sufferers. However, I didn’t have to suffer through three years of duty tours to empathize with Ben Willard’s drunken breakdown in Saigon, nor did I have to endure enough martial savagery to feel like Kurtz' metaphorical snail, crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor and surviving. All I had to do was sit back and listen to my doctor utter my diagnosis ̶ bipolar disorder.

Coppola crafted a masterpiece of suffering based on his own struggle with bipolar disorder, one that deftly uses the wartime struggle to “express the various shades of manic and depressive behaviors he had personally known.”[1] This is, in large part, why this movie is so important, both to me and others like me. The misery of alienation permeates the action, perfectly exemplified by Kurtz’ quasi-religious seclusion. Living among ancient ruins, Kurtz’ self-imposed exile is deeply reminiscent of cenobitic religions, bringing others under his wing, like “children,”  as Dennis Hopper’s raving photojournalist so cryptically calls Kurtz’ Cambodian acolytes. Kurtz channels the Christian idea of self-imposed exile with a focus on communal living, much like Christian cenobitic hermits, who, incidentally, would renounce their hermitage out of loneliness and, for the “spiritually unprepared,” stave off “mental breakdowns.”[2]I know this feeling well. When you fall into a deep depression self-imposed social exile provides something akin to comfort. Kurtz' combination of exile and cynical apotheosis takes it further: even in a meaningless, chaotic world, you can go through hell and keep going, dragging others with you along your self-destructive path.

Colonel Kurtz illustrates a truly stunning mix of personal and political mania, spattered with jungle green and blood red, that made me feel like I could channel ̶ not overcome ̶ my demons into something noteworthy. These hallmarks of the sickness and their nightmarish consequences make Apocalypse Now more than just a war film. For a long time, it was, for me, true inspiration. Interspersed among the gunfire of hidden enemies is a story of a battle that people like me fight every day, facing the attendant nihilism and despair courtesy of our wild mood swings that make accomplishing anything feel impossible.

Linh Dinh, in “Apocalypse lies,” rightly acknowledges what many wrongly assume about Apocalypse Now, namely, that it’s a movie about the Vietnam War: “It is certainly not about Vietnam. I'm not even sure it's a Vietnam war movie.” However, she misses the meaning in the absence of pathos on Kurtz’ part, dismisses the “nutcases” who dominate the film (Colonels Kilgore and Kurtz), and even goes so far as to characterize Willard’s Saigon breakdown as “someone trashing his dorm room after a frat party.” As Dinh posits, this isn’t a movie about Vietnam. I’d like to add to this, though, and posit that the film shows us our own hearts of darkness and how we cope with them. Dinh misses the moments of uncharacteristic empathy, like Kilgore’s offering of water to the wounded enemy soldier, that give these exquisitely damaged characters relatable depth. Even in our darkest hours, we can find a moment, a reason to give a shit about someone we wanted to kill moments before.

Dinh’s observations about the characters’ lack of angst or remorse reflect a very real and horrific reality not only regarding victims of PTSD, but of the alienation and destabilization that plagues those with bipolar disorder. These experiences translate to maddening and contradictory misery, summed up grimly by Kurtz himself:

“We went back there and they [the Viet Cong] had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile: a pile of little arms. And I remember I...I...I cried....And then I realized, like I was shot...The genius! The will to do that: perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand it. These were not monsters. These were men, trained cadres — these men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who have children, who are filled with love — but they had the strength — the strength! — to do that.”

This is what the disease can do, and what Coppola understood very well, it can seamlessly blend a deceptively positive appreciation with even the most disgusting displays of inhumanity. As I stated above, in these times of horrific personal (or social) crisis, we draw on our environments, our support groups, to guide us. Kurtz’ idea of support is illustrated grimly in the above quote; he states that if he had a contingent of warriors with that level of dedication, he could win the war. When everything in your world is turned upside down, you grasp for something ̶ people, meaning, purpose ̶ and if I can be so bold, Kurtz had the worst support system imaginable.

Now, with some perspective (and heavy doses of therapy and medication), I no longer see a demigod role-model in Kurtz, but rather a man suffering and grasping for meaning in terrible violence, just as I had for many years. Kurtz rejects a sense of self, his “former” self, and descends deeper into the void of moral nihilism that affects me when I find myself unable to cope with depression. Kurtz gives in: he channels his demons, just as I once wanted to, and plans to lead an army of darkness straight out of his own blackened heart.

The question the movie ultimately presents to someone like me, and perhaps even to you, suffering from severe bipolar disorder, is: Do you slowly let your slimy belly slit open as you crawl along the razor’s edge, simply “surviving”? Or can we make peace with cutting down people only to slap a bandaid over the wound, as Willard (rather pessimistically) suggests? Stay tuned: I plan to explore this question further by hacking Willard’s character apart, perhaps just as viscerally as that water buffalo gets chopped at the end of the film.

[1] Coleman, David. The Bipolar Express: Manic Depression and the Movies. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014; 200-201.

[2] C.H. Lawrence, “Chapter 1: The Call of the Desert” in Medieval Monasticism, 3rd edition, (Toronto: Pearson Education Limited, 2001), 7.

The Good Place is a Masterpiece Because It Throws Out All the Rules

This article will contain spoilers for the entire run of The Good Place. I wish I could write this article without spoilers but without them it’s practically impossible to explain why season 2 of the show was so incredible. I would highly recommend binging the show. It’s light, extremely funny, and only 26 episodes so far.

After finishing the fabulous season 2 finale of The Good Place I was on Reddit when a comment struck me. It was akin to “Can you believe this season started with Eleanor writing a note to Chidi?”. I was struck because, well, I couldn’t believe it either. So much had happened since then, how could it still be the same season? A thirteen-episode season to boot?

Season 2 of The Good Place was one of the most astounding seasons in sitcom history. It threw out every single rule and trope and safety net that sitcoms use to coast for hundreds of episodes. The show’s creator, Michael Schur, is no stranger to such guidelines. As showrunner/creator of The Office (US), Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn 99, Schur has become a master of the single camera sitcom with infinite watchability. Usually his shows are career-based, focusing on a small tight-knit community of working friends, with immense heart at the core of every character. Upon first impression, The Good Place felt exactly like a Schur guaranteed hit, the story of Eleanor (Kristen Bell) who was wrongly placed in the titular “good place” (heaven, Nirvana, Zion, take your pick) who hopes to one day be worthy of her mistaken placement by learning ethics from her nervous, commitment-phobic “soul mate” Chidi, (William Jackson Harper) a moral philosophy professor in life. It was a perfect Schur vehicle, but by the end of season 1 Schur decided to light his world on fire; watching him reconstruct the vision from the ashes has been incredible.

Left: Chidi (William Jackson Harper) Right: Eleanor (Kristen Bell)

Left: Chidi (William Jackson Harper) Right: Eleanor (Kristen Bell)


This isn’t to say season 1 is bad, quite the opposite. It is a wonderfully smart show, one that actually deals with a real moral dilemma and lesson each episode. What other show name-drops Immanuel Kant on such a regular basis? The show isn’t just revolutionary in its open intellectual debates but also in Eleanor, a wonderfully sleazy person who is still capable of change. Not to mention, what other show has its white female protagonist romance a dark-skinned man or open flirt with an Indian woman? Additionally, the show has a perfect set of characters like Chidi, Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto), with whom we discover how odd this supposed paradise really is, and how supposedly inept Michael (Ted Danson), the sweet-hearted designer of their "good place", really is. By the end of season 1 the show succeeds largely as a big parody of bureaucracy, how it continues to fail us even after we’re dead and should be rid of it. But then the hammer drops.

In the last episode of season 1 entitled “Michael’s Gambit” the truth is revealed. Why would there be so much fighting and sadness in "the good place" if it was paradise? Eleanor correctly realizes they are in fact in "the bad place" (hell, Hades, underworld, take your pick) where the main 4 are meant to torture each other through their bickering and failure forever in an experimental new form of eternal damnation. Michael answers her accusation with one of the most devious evil laughs in television history and plans to erase their minds and start again. Eleanor slips a note to the hilarious, omniscient, computational creature Janet (D'Arcy Carden) to “find Chidi” and then it’s over. Erased, negated, reset. Audiences lose their minds.

Left: Michael (Ted Danson) Right: Janet (D'Arcy Carden)

Left: Michael (Ted Danson) Right: Janet (D'Arcy Carden)


It’s a brilliant ending to a season, one that forces you to immediately reconsider the very fabric of the show you’re now invested in. But if the season 1 finale was Mookie throwing the garbage can into Sal’s, then season 2 was the riot that burned the entire store down. As you might expect Eleanor does find the note and discovers Michael’s real intentions despite changes he made to separate the four doomed souls. But most shocking is that she discovers this in the first two episodes of the season, which feel like the trajectory of an entire year. Almost as though it’s already over and the good guys have lost again, another erase and reset.

Episode 3 entitled “Dance Dance Resolution” takes the speed of episodes 1 and 2 and ramps it into overdrive. In one of the most spellbinding episodes in any sitcom, Michael goes through 800 more resets. The result is an insane mix of Edge of Tomorrow (2014) meets No Exit, as time and time again Michael fails because someone (once even Jason) eventually figures it out. The episode is one of the most tightly packed and deeply funny episodes of any show I’ve ever seen, moving at a breakneck pace through literal hundreds of years of attempts and failures. This entire episode feels like the show’s 7 year traditional run packed down into a single 22 minute chunk, dealing with everything from teasing a much loved ship (Tahani x Eleanor) to jokes about cowboy worlds, an amazing myriad of food pun restaurants, and even a butt reset. The episode then ends with a crazy reveal that Eleanor and Chidi, who have been slowly evolving into a flirtation, have not only slept together in multiple resets but actually pronounced their love for each other in one. Imagine if in one episode of the The Office, season 2 Jim and Pam jumped to season 4 Jim and Pam and you get the madness. We now know Chidi and Eleanor have the capacity to love each other, the question is will they ever find it again? Schur is a master of the long-drawn-out, deeply sweet, romantic coupling; here in a single episode he upends his best game while basically throwing every idea card on his writer’s room white board in your face.

After Michael’s successive failures, his crew of demon helpers turns on him and he is forced to side with the humans. That’s when Schur reveals his real intentions for season 2, that it isn’t about the humans rehabilitating themselves but them rehabilitating Michael and Janet. Can people so flawed they failed to enter paradise help an eternal demon and a godlike being with seemingly infinite knowledge and power? It’s a bold choice and one that pays off immensely. Like a magic trick, Michael begins to change throughout the season to the point that when he seems to sacrifice himself for the greater good it doesn’t feel hackneyed, but a lifetime of improvement condensed into a handful of episodes.

Once again Schur sets fire to his world, this time literally, destroying the very "good place" town I expected the entire show to subside in for years. The fact a sitcom got rid of a permanent main set in less than two seasons is itself insane, but to lose that sense of place is a big deal. In a way, The Good Place can never go home again. The gang eventually meet The Judge, an all-powerful entity who weighs in on complicated moral dilemmas.

All the gang but Eleanor fail The Judge’s tests (Eleanor lies), but Michael and Janet arrive and present the clever solution of reincarnating everyone. Eleanor now avoids her death by shopping cart/truck displaying an erectile dysfunction ad (god I love this show) and has a new lease on life. At first, she improves, but after receiving no reward she relapses. Thankfully Michael breaks the rules and intervenes by nudging her towards Chidi and season 2 ends with her meeting the reincarnated Chidi in his university office and asking to talk.

Think about that for a moment. Season 2 began with hopes that Eleanor would discover the truth of her eternal damnation and ends with her former torturer helping her lead a better life. Thus a show supposedly about the afterlife ends with the main character alive again! I don’t know where The Good Place will go from here. Maybe it will be a full season on Earth or just one episode. Maybe we’ll go back to spend some extended time in one of the hundreds of resets or maybe we’ll be done with Earth in the first ten minutes of episode 1 of season 3. Maybe this whole thing was a type of purgatory and Michael is God. Maybe it’s all a secret Black Mirror episode. I have no idea but I’m so happy to be on the ride.

(From Left to Right)Back: Tahani (Jameela Jamil), Michael (Ted Danson), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Janet (D'Arcy Carden). Front: Jason (Manny Jacinto), Eleanor (Kristen Bell).

(From Left to Right)Back: Tahani (Jameela Jamil), Michael (Ted Danson), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Janet (D'Arcy Carden). Front: Jason (Manny Jacinto), Eleanor (Kristen Bell).

The success of The Good Place surely lies in one of two places. Firstly it’s so deeply inventive. Schur could have easily made the show less complicated and more auto-piloted. Just pick a moral philosophy concept, explore that in a funny sitcom premise, and ever so slightly move Chidi and Eleanor (and maybe Tahani too) closer together. But instead the show is always striving for a better version of itself. Schur seems to issue a challenge to the television medium: "If a premise can be condensed into one episode instead of 3 Seasons, do it."

Secondly,  this isn’t a show about mocking moral certainties, applying irreverence to bureaucracy or the afterlife, or the relative value of our past deeds versus that of our resolutions for the future...okay it is totally about those things, but at its core the basic theme of The Good Place is this: other people make us better. Eleanor is at her best when Chidi’s around, as are Tahani & Jason, Eleanor & Michael, and Janet & Jason. Whereas Jean-Paul Sartre thought if you put three people who hated each other in a room with no escape (No Exit) they’d create the worst version of hell, Schur believes the opposite. The Good Place effectively argues humans are always striving to better themselves and have immense capacity for change, or more still, that our capacity for change is among our greatest qualities. The personalities of the condemned mortal characters not only influence each other for the better, but corrupt the pristine immortal characters with the virtue of their human mutability. By illuminating and embracing their flaws, this cast of characters makes Michael's experiment an arguable success, if not Schur's experiment as well.

I don’t want to end this article with you thinking I think shows like Parks and Recreation are lazy or inherently inferior because they apply a more traditional sitcom pace. Far from it. Creating a show with incredibly likeable characters is hard and it’s even harder to keep those characters interesting and enjoyable for years. Nor do I think Schur deserves all the credit for the shows he’s worked on, including The Good Place (though I am an auterist, sorry). But I think he deserves a ton of credit for pushing for a show that is extremely inventive. Season 2 of The Good Place is a testament to television's ability to be radical without losing its soul. It’s inventive and charming and still whip-smart at every turn. I hope more shows try what The Good Place seems to have effortlessly done. If this show has taught me anything it’s that it’s okay to admit you are flawed, as long as you accept the capacity for change. I hope modern television takes the same lesson.

Kong in Halong

“More beautiful than a hot dog and a beer at Wrigley Field on opening day.”

                                                               -Hank Marlow, Kong: Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island (2017), one of the latest installments in Warner Bros.’ attempt at yet another cinematic universe, appears to be another popcorn-romp through the mysterious (and aptly-shaped) land where evolution took a turn for the grandiose. However, as the self-appointed foreign correspondent in Vietnam for Tuscan Shed Media, I find there’s more at stake in this film than its half-baked Vietnam War metaphors would suggest. It makes me question whether the filmmakers and actors involved used their star-power responsibly. And in my humble opinion, the responsibility of powerful people advocating tourism in countries like Vietnam should include a sensitivity about the cultures and locales their privileged positions allow them to experience.


As a decidedly privileged traveler myself, my first journey into the heart of Cat Ba and Halong Bay (where the most spectacular shots of the movie took place) felt like I was motorbiking directly into the mouth of a primordial beast. The dizzying limestone spires yawned above me, and as my trusty Honda Win bravely took the switchback turns through the valleys, the chaos of Hanoi’s streets faded into awed silence, broken only by my horribly loud exhaust pipe. Although these locations are well-traveled and protected heritage sites, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was a brave explorer, a stranger in a strange land that was slowly swallowing me whole.

Perhaps this is what Kong  Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts had in mind when he decided to film in Vietnam as opposed to one of the more popular filming locations in Thailand. Vogt-Roberts, in an interview with Viet Vision Travel, said he hoped that filming a large portion of the film in Vietnam would encourage tourism to a country still harshly represented in Western media: “It’s such a beautiful part of the world. I find that people on that side of the world have that general graciousness that we lack here (in the US). And so I sincerely believe that our film will have a positive impact on tourism, filming, and a general understanding of how stunning and beautiful the country is.”

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Had I not already settled in Hanoi, Vogt-Roberts' words might have tempted me to make the overseas journey to the Quang Ninh province (where Halong Bay is located). I would have certainly pursued that beauty and grace Western media tends to use only as a backdrop for the brutality and injustice of war. Admittedly, I was drawn to Vietnam through my Kurtzian obsession with two such films, Apocalypse Now (1979) and  Full Metal Jacket (1987). I was (and still am) endlessly curious about the Vietnam War, but once I began to work closely with my Vietnamese colleagues, I guiltily admitted to myself that I was curious for the wrong reasons. Vietnam’s history and development is far more complex than what is conveyed in the Western post-war films that led me there, vital artifacts of social criticism though they remain. I simply saw a raw and unbridled country ripe for exploration, and that is now precisely what I fear when I consider how others view and interpret those films. Vietnam fights different battles now. It took me far too long to begin to understand those battles, and my place as a foreigner in this country.

Kong could have delivered a more complex picture of unfamiliar cultures and their own concerns, were the film not bogged down by ham-fisted attempts to once again portray the futility of war. Nowhere is this more glibly exemplified than in an exchange between the stranded WWII veteran Marlow (“Hey, what happened with the war? Did we win?”) and Conrad (“Which one?”). Indeed the wartime “metaphor,” (in my book, a team of active duty soldiers taking on an unknown and powerful force, in the jungle, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, barely makes the cut as a metaphor), falls completely flat and, considering the horrific toll the war took on all countries involved, is paramount to outright disrespect; or, as Collider’s Matt Goldberg put it, “The cinematic equivalent of doing skateboard tricks on the Vietnam memorial.” If Vogt-Roberts truly wanted to discover something, he should have delved deeper into his ultimately meaningless allusions to Heart of Darkness, the 1899 novella famous for deconstructing colonial ideology. The references to the text's author Joseph Conrad and to its protagonist Charles Marlow are so wasted here as to exemplify the very travesty Conrad meant to decry, the “great lost opportunity to depict dialogue” between cultures, to paraphrase the Botswanan scholar Peter Mwikisa. Kong’s feeble attempt to unite the soldiers and the natives against the sinister forces of nature (the Skullcrawlers) is yet another lost opportunity.

John C. Riley’s character, Marlow, is particularly problematic. He seems to walk as tall as the god-like Kong among Skull Island’s native inhabitants, and, mostly because of Riley's star-power, overshadows a potentially fascinating story about cultural integration. While Marlow seems to have a mutually respectful relationship with the Iwi tribe, (exemplified by his ability to communicate in a rudimentary way with them), the fact remains that the white Westerner seems to hold a position of privilege in an intensely communal society. Marlow ultimately comes across as the stereotypical “white colonial settler” whose flippant rundown of the Iwi tribe’s history trivializes and undermines any potential intercultural discourse. Marlow’s adoption of his Japanese comrade’s sword and terribly stereotypical ideology also comes across as crass cultural appropriation. Perhaps Eric Eisenberg’s suggestion for a spinoff film featuring the relationship that developed between Marlow and Gunpei Ikari (played by singer/song-writer Takamasa Ishihara AKA Miyavi) would reveal a more complex and respectful relationship between Marlow and both the Japanese soldier as well as the Iwi tribe. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though. With such tone-deaf depictions in mind, Kong's relationship to all its historical baggage is perhaps best summed up by Preston Packard’s (Samuel L. Jackson’s) description of the beast himself, “We are dealing with a monster from a bygone era.” The film ultimately falls to the insulting, overused, and stale dynamic between “natives” and “colonists;” certainly a ‘monster’ from a bygone era.

Much as with the tempest that kept Skull Island hidden from the prying eyes of Western civilization, there is a silver lining to this stormy cloud of shortcomings. Less than graceful attempts to revive classic films may be propagating in Hollywood at an alarming rate to generate revenue, but if there is any sincerity in Vogt-Roberts’ reverence or Brie Larson’s effusive praise of Vietnam, I can doubtlessly confirm their enthusiasm. However, if you will excuse the Spiderman reference, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Testimonials from A-list celebrities of the untouched splendor and unspoiled beauty of a shooting location can certainly help boost tourism and even draw attention to critical issues facing such locales. But, as I learned the hard way, appreciation of Vietnam’s natural and cultural riches must transcend the fantasy of cinema and acknowledge the country's modern realities: pollution due to rapid development, social inequality, and the environmental concerns that come with increased tourism. Endorsements such as these must include considerations like sustainable tourism and a respect for local culture, which, in my opinion, work hand-in-hand, but are far from simple to grasp and take part in.

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Overall, the film is no masterpiece; thinly veiled references to Heart of Darkness, on which Apocalypse Now (and to a certain extent, Kong: Skull Island itself) is based, along with a very cut-and-dry hero-villain standoff between Preston Packard and Kong leave the viewer with some entertaining action sequences and anticipation for the coming standoff between Godzilla and Kong. However, there is more at stake here than box-office earnings; if we are to accept the invitations of the director and cast, we should explore Vietnam with respect. We may not need to elude towering monsters waiting for us in the beautiful waters of Halong Bay, but we should avoid the perils of damagingly persistent colonial narratives and the privileged lens of fictional indulgence that can blind us from making true discoveries. We can still marvel, but we must also learn, most of all, from the people we meet on our journeys.

Bestial Nostalgia: How Disney cannibalizes "Beauty and the Beast"

Since the first movie I saw was Disney's 1991 Beauty and the Beast, I knew it would be unfair to expect much from the 2017 live-action remake. When the new opening sequence wasn't as stirring for me as the stained glass images in the original animated film, I was patient. I still had hope for the misbegotten chimera when I heard the first of two new Alan Menken songs, a somber melody Belle hears emanating from her father's workshop. She enters the cottage to find him softly singing "How Does a Moment Last Forever" (the answer, of course, is love), and tinkering with a beautiful music box. It is a moving miniature model of the tiny windmill attic the family once occupied in Paris, depicting a scene of her father painting his wife and newborn child. I saw this and thought maybe the workings of the narrative could yet be as meticulous as the motif cradled so delicately in Kevin Kline's hands. Unfortunately no movie, no matter how efficient, has time to be two movies at once.

Of Disney's new live-action remakes I've seen, I was most invested in this one, but it's barely coherent. It suffers from the increasingly familiar tension between capitalizing on nostalgia and finding a legitimate reason to exist; it hits all the essential old beats and adds just enough twist to appear inspired. There are awkward appendages of new vision here. I did appreciate that Belle and the Beast find they have a mutual love of literature, and it was particularly gratifying to see Emma Watson squeal over the castle library. More notably, Gaston's close-admirer LeFou (Josh Gad) is infinitely more entertaining in this version than in the original, but his new subplot steals focus in an already unfocused film. There's a feeble attempt to add familial trauma to motivate the Prince's curse rather than simple selfishness, poured into a single line of exposition by Mrs. Potts. There's potential for Belle and the Beast to bond over the early loss of their mothers, but the two never share their feelings on the subject so it seems like an insignificant coincidence. The Beast does randomly take Belle through a magical plot device that happens to help her learn the truth about how her mother died, so she can finally reconcile with her father who never told her...not that the mystery seemed to strain their relationship at all. What was the point of showing Belle's mom dying of plague?

It would be one thing if this film adequately re-captured the magic of the original, but it's too busy showing off how hard it is to make computers do exclusively what mostly hand-drawn animation did satisfactorily 26 years ago. Of course the Gothic opulence of the castle is fully realized by the elaborate detail the new effects can accomplish, the impact of the curse on the wacky servants made more grim by their increasingly objectified bodies. But the film easily sacrifices storytelling for CGI splendor. The camera lingers on set-pieces rather than characters. We are repeatedly asked to be impressed by the sweeping scale of a crumbling castle we can often barely see. The editing is so restless that it cuts away from the climax, the Beast's transformation into the Prince, to an exterior shot looking in through a window. I would rather see Belle's reaction to what's happening than squint like a random voyeur just dropping in on the story, but I guess Disney desires that my vision be as insular as theirs is here.    

Despite all the talent involved, the passion of actors, designers and imagineers, this is not a re-telling. This is an update, one that breaks more than it fixes. To her credit Emma Watson's Belle seems less captive and more proactive than her animated predecessor, it's just a shame the film itself is slavishly procedural. The closing credits clearly state this film is based on Disney's 1991 animated film as opposed to the original source material, then have the gall to include a subtitle in the original French. The storytelling suffers because there is no new take on the story to breathe life into it, just an obligation to reproduce past success. And no, adding a happy ending for a gay side-character isn't a good enough reason for this to exist. You're not earning those kudos until Elsa comes all the way out of the closet, Disney.

Trevor Flynn is a contributing member to The Movie Gang Podcast and Animania. To hear more from Trevor about Beauty and the Beast Check out the Movie Gang Podcast for our full review. 

A Lesbian's Lament for Lexa

All 173 Dead Lesbian and Bisexual Characters On TV, And How They Died”, and “All 29 Lesbian and Bisexual TV Characters Who Got Happy Endings”.  These are the titles of two Autostraddle articles (not written by me) which are pretty indicative of how women who love women (or “wlw’s") are represented in television media. Both of these articles were posted in March of 2016 in response to a particular television event – the death of the character Lexa on the CW series The 100.  

The relationship between Lexa and Clarke, the show’s protagonist, was praised by fans not only for allowing a series on a major television network to represent the LGBT community, but also for presenting that relationship as believable and emotionally meaningful.  That is, until in Episode 7 of Season 3 (“Thirteen”), when Lexa is shot and killed by a stray bullet meant for Clarke.  For many LGBT viewers, insult was added to injury by the fact that her death occurred in the same episode in which she and Clarke consummate their relationship for the first and only time.  Let me break it down for you:  from the moment the scene fades from in their bed to Clarke going into the next room, one minute and five seconds pass before Lexa is shot.  She is dead just under five minutes later.  That’s roughly six minutes between bed and death.

This upset me on a personal level because the character Lexa was a 5’7”-tall lesbian with brown hair and green eyes, and as a 5’7”-tall lesbian with brown hair and green eyes it felt like I was watching myself die on television.  And since I live in an open-carry state, you bet your ass I still get really nervous the moment I see anybody with a gun.  But of course, Lexa’s death mattered to many more people than just myself, and had implications for the LGBT community at large. 

Charles W. Socarides, an American psychiatrist known for his research regarding and attempts to revert homosexuality, is recorded saying the following in Mike Wallace’s 1967 CBS Report titled The Homosexuals:  “The fact that somebody’s homosexual – a true, obligatory homosexual – automatically rules out the possibility that he will remain happy for long…The whole idea of saying ‘the happy homosexual’ is to create a mythology about the nature of homosexuality.” While it is true that the position of the LGBT community has improved dramatically in the last fifty years, television of the last decade continues to reinforce the idea that homosexuals can’t, or even shouldn’t, be happy.  To repeatedly couple an expression of love with a character death is to remind us of our history, that to show our feelings and to be queer is a death sentence. 

We want more representation of ourselves on the screens where we have watched straight couples achieve happy endings throughout the history of cinema, but some of us grow apprehensive as we see a greater percentage of our characters killed off than we see make it to riding off into the rainbow.  When straight people see straight characters die on television or in film, they have a plethora of other shows they can jump to for representation.  We don’t; we have a small selection of niche shows that don’t always appeal to everyone, and so we have to take what we can get. 

Mercifully, our people know how to fight and some good has come from this unfortunate writing choice.  Over $120,000 was raised in Lexa’s name for The Trevor Project, an organization which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBT youth.  The “Bury Your Gays” media trope, which has been in film and television for decades and despite changing moral attitudes seems to be in full force, was brought to light in earnest (prompting the first article I mentioned above).  In response to this, some television showrunners signed what is being called “The Lexa Pledge” in which they promise to not kill off LGBT characters simply to further the plot of a show, that if they die it is for a significant and meaningful purpose to the story, and that fans of the show will not be misled about its course through social media (something of which several The 100 writers are INCREDIBLY guilty, but I don’t have room for that in this blog post). 

While many would probably correctly say this pledge goes too far, that writers should have the creative freedom to take storylines and character arcs where they feel they need to go, I can see the sense in such a document until the climate of LGBT representation changes.  Maybe when writers show that they care about and listen to their audiences, we can start to relinquish that canary-like narrative death sense some of us wlw’s are starting to develop. 

Sarah Becker is a contributing member to The Movie Gang PodcastAnimania, ang Geek Space 9 to hear more from her head to Itunes/ Stitcher/ or Google Play and download the Tuscan Shed Media network Catalog

Geek Space 9 Season 3 Launch!

I’m extremely excited we get to post the first episode of Season 3 for Geek Space Nine. Watching this show with Sarah and Peter has been a delight and I’m so happy we decided to record our discussions for posterity. I’ve been deeply impressed by the level of depth and intelligence that Deep Space Nine has brought to a franchise I already treasure. Season 3 is where Deep Space Nine really came into its own and I think the same can be said for our show. Now is the perfect time to check out Geek Space Nine, whether you are new to the show or seen it dozens of times!