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.”

halong 4.jpg

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.

halong 5.jpg


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!

Pokemon Uranium: Joyous Abomination

Pokémon Uranium, from Involuntary Twitch and JV, projects the very real dilemma of nuclear power into the fantastic Pokémon universe. This unlicensed fan-game is unique among many such offerings because nine years went into its development and it was released with a completed story. On August 13th, after a week of explosive website traffic and 1.5 million downloads, Nintendo issued a DMCA notice of copyright infringement, despite the creators' disclaimers that Uranium is a non-profit homage to the Pokémon franchise. Shortly thereafter the Pokémon Uranium Team shut down all official support of the game, only for an "Unofficial" server to continue support on Reddit. The takedown of Uranium is one of the latest in a trend regarding such fan-made works, but not all such projects have fared as well. Nintendo in particular has had a tenuous relationship with its fan-base as of late, often failing to satisfy demand for creative use of its adored intellectual properties while quashing the efforts of independent developers to do so. But Uranium is more than a good Pokémon game, it makes a political statement the likes of which Nintendo could never allow to sully its brand.

Like any great fan-project, Uranium needs to be understood in the context of the larger Pokémon universe. The catchy brand name is a portmanteau of the words "pocket monster" referring to a wide variety of creatures one can capture, collect, and train, mainly to use in battle against other trainers. It has become popular to suggest this premise amounts to glorified cock-fighting, and official games have made attempts to address this, but the ambiguous relationship between humans and Pokémon has always been the crux of the franchise. It is a metaphor for environmental balance. The weakness and resistance mechanic of the games associates Pokémon with natural forces and the villains of the franchise often seek to subdue "legendary" Pokémon akin to animistic deities that control climate, plate tectonics, or even space-time. Pokémon are one of Japan's many pop-culture products derived from the spirits of its ancient natural religion, the commoditization of which symbolizes the country's Western industrial transformation. But in the twenty years since Team Rocket vowed simply to harness the power of Pokémon to rule the world, no official version of the games has made use of this paradigm quite as incisively as Pokémon Uranium Version.

Spoilers Ahead!

The protagonist is the child of a family broken by nuclear disaster, a nuclear physicist mother lost in the unexplained explosion of a power plant, and a workaholic father distanced by his resulting grief. The antagonist of Uranium is actually a Pokémon, Urayne, and its mysterious masked partner known as Curie. As Curie and Urayne begin sabotaging nuclear plants throughout the region, the fallout from the meltdowns causes the evacuation of Vinoville, the most rural city of the region, and contaminates wild Pokémon, causing them to attack people in rabid hordes. The game's message is not so simplistic as to outright condemn nuclear energy as being too risky, (though a citizen or two of Vinoville says exactly that), but the need for caution and accountability is abundantly clear. It is revealed that Urayne was created as an organic reactor core, a laboratory-engineered Godzilla, threatened with extinction as soon as it achieved the undesirable outcome of consciousness. Urayne's rampage is merely the result of fearful self-preservation and its unsustainable subsistence on pure uranium fuel. Its tragic insatiable hunger is the embodiment of the arrogance that led to its creation.  

 It is historically ironic, or perhaps appropriate, that this is an unlicensed American-made game using Japanese intellectual property to make a statement about nuclear power. Japan is still the only nation to have experienced the horror of nuclear weapons with the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The fear of nuclear destruction still looms large in the nation's collective consciousness, but that hasn't stopped Japan from investing heavily in nuclear energy. In fact, Japan's nuclear industry was relatively un-phased by the implications of the Three Mile-Island crisis (1979) in the U.S. and the Chernobyl disaster (1986) in Soviet Ukraine. While there was no shortage of opposition from Japanese citizens similar to that of environmentalists in the U.S., a combination of economics and politics made their protest less effective on the continued government approval of proposals for new plants. It may seem hypocritical to suggest that Pokémon Uranium's message applies particularly well to Japan, considering that the U.S. is the world's largest supplier of commercial nuclear power and that U.S. companies sold Japan its first light water reactors. However, what makes nuclear power in Japan especially troubling is the questionable resilience of such volatile reactors on a seismically active island riddled with fault lines.

On March 11th, 2011, the most powerful earthquake known to ever hit Japan caused a tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, disabling its cooling systems and resulting in meltdowns and explosions. The fallout caused over 100,000 people to be evacuated from their homes, most of whom still cannot return. The catastrophe re-ignited the anti-nuclear movement worldwide. In Japan the disaster confirmed the public's long-held skepticism of government safety standards. In 2012 The Chairman of the Japanese Nuclear Safety Commission admitted the organization had "…succumbed to a blind belief in the country’s technical prowess and failed to thoroughly assess the risks of building nuclear reactors in an earthquake-prone country". 

 Anti-Nuclear protests in Tokyo  April 16, 2011       

Anti-Nuclear protests in Tokyo  April 16, 2011       

Despite protests, in 2012 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began the process of restarting Japan's nuclear reactors shut down after the Fukushima incident. In 2015 the Abe administration pledged to the UN to reduce Japan's greenhouse gas emissions by bringing nuclear energy to account for 20% of its overall energy production (as compared with 30% pre-Fukushima) and bring renewable sources to account for 22% or more. Nuclear energy remains an arguable stop-gap measure to combat climate change until renewable energy can be fully implemented. To its credit Japan is one of the leaders of the world in solar energy production. Pokémon Uranium contains a definite promotion of solar power with the prominent feature of Gellin, a photosynthesizing single-celled Pokémon that resembles a walking solar panel.

Of course the nuclear issue of the game need not refer specifically to Japan, as the Tandor region encompasses a wide array of cultural allusions. The eclectic gym leaders have actual personalities and this combined with the compelling story makes for a great experience. The player's relationships with other characters feel slightly more nuanced than those of the typical Pokémon game if the same can't always be said of the characters themselves. The original designs of cleverly named Pokémon seem organic and inspired, though the dated battle animations leave more to the imagination. If Uranium version contains some of the flaws present in other Pokémon games, it makes up for it with the genuine affection it shows for those games and the impact they had on the developers' childhoods. In houses across the region you will encounter children spellbound by the original Red and Blue versions, as well as their suspicious parents. You will recognize familiar music expertly utilized. You will also meet a self-proclaimed "tinkerer" who speaks with contempt of the infamous Hidden Machine mechanic not altogether eliminated here. One welcome change is the raised difficulty throughout the game, along with designated spots to grind for experience. The scarcity of Pokémon that are not dual-type is strategically daunting but rewards the use of nuclear-type Pokémon that are both super effective against and vulnerable to most other types. Like nuclear energy itself, nuclear Pokémon are highly reactive, at once extremely problematic and immensely powerful. 

The appeal of Pokémon Uranium perfectly matches its subject matter. It is a welcome mutation in the Pokémon franchise, a freak of nature that could never be approved by the powers that be. For me it succeeds as an homage to the adventurous joy of Pokémon rpg's while adding a bit of real drama. It combines my fascination with Godzilla with my love of Pokémon, and continues a legacy of incredible cultural exchange between the U.S. and Japan.

Check out Save Point Episode 8: Fan Made Games and Pokemon Uranium for full discussion. 


East meets West in "Kubo of the Two Strings": Seeing is Remembering

(We may spoil anything and everything, so you've been warned.)

I was excited to see "Kubo" because it looked very Japanese, but I would never have guessed just how earnest its cultural appropriation would be. I expected a typical adventure story with some Eastern-inspired elements. What I saw was a beautifully realized myth about dealing with loss, seamlessly weaving together Western religious themes with probably the principal occupation of Japanese religion: the spirits of the dead.

Religion might seem like a controversial topic especially in a film targeted toward children, but Japanese religion itself is almost a misnomer, as its rituals today are more akin to traditions than affirmations of belief in the supernatural. The obon festival that frames Kubo's journey honors and celebrates deceased family members and ancestors by cleaning and placing offerings at gravesites, but it also includes trappings as secular as Christmas gifts; it is one of Japan's largest festivals, when transit is crowded with travelling relatives. Yet when Kubo, unsatisfied by his mother's failing memory of his deceased father, hopes to connect with him by joining in the ritual of the obon festival, he is disappointed when no spiritual sign of his father appears to him. Rather, Kubo's expectations of the ritual oddly align with our own. Why shouldn't Kubo have a vision as in "Lion King" where Simba speaks to his father's spirit in the heavens? Because in "Kubo" the real magic is the art of storytelling, and the heavens are home to beings who are ruthless and cold.

Kubo's story is a tragic one. He is the progeny of one of the Moon King's fiercely powerful daughters and the mighty warrior she was sent to kill. The Moon King destroyed Kubo's family as punishment for his mother's rebellion, and took one of his eyes. When Kubo's vengeful aunts come to take his remaining eye to blind him to humanity, his mother sends him on a quest to find his father's magical armor. Kubo then comes to see himself less as the village storyteller he is and more as a warrior driven by loss to seek revenge, much like his father before him, much like the heroes of many classical Japanese tales.

But the Moon King, so he claims, only wants to take Kubo's eyes so that he can take his rightful place among the omniscient stars, so that he can become cold, immortal, and perfect. Human eyes, it seems, are more preoccupied with beauty than with truth. Kubo's mother describes falling in love with his father as an act of "seeing" and her story of heavenly descent and its consequences calls to mind the Western fall of man more than any Eastern myth. In challenging the Moon King's order Kubo is a Miltonian hero akin to Mal in Joss Whedon's "Serenity" or Lyra in Phillip Pullman's "His Dark Materials." For there to be stories in the world, Kubo realizes, there must also be endings. There must also be death.  

At the critical moment, Kubo lays aside his father's armor for the ancient Japanese instrument of storytelling, his magic samisen, to save the day with the power of the memories it can summon. He asserts that humans can transcend death through the passing on of their stories into memory, and decides to end his story by simultaneously choosing death over immortality and forgiveness over revenge. Kubo transforms the Moon King into a human with no memories, so the inventive villagers bestow him with the notion that he is a good person, and he becomes one. The film's message is a profound one: It is our flawed nature, our ability to choose what we remember, that allows us to continually remake the truth and create beauty in the world; we are all storytellers. It is with this understanding that Kubo finally succeeds in literally animating the spirits of the dead.

For all the Japanese culture that this American production appropriates, it is incredibly competent in its usage and understanding of those elements, (except perhaps for one moment soup-slurping). For the best example, the Japanese word kami can refer to gods, paper, and hair, implying that the latter have some sacred attributes; the film uses this association to imply that memories and stories are sacred. Kubo's magic origami plays a vital role in his storytelling as well as his quest, and the titular two strings include a strand of his mother's hair Kubo strings onto his samisen to empower it with her memory. In addition to all it takes on, the film has the confidence to contribute Western elements and find where the two cultures meet. Laika has created something truly original, rendered in beautiful animation that affirms the film's message. Should you choose to see it, it is unlikely you will forget it.

For a full review of "Kubo" check out The Movie Gang Podcast from Tuscan Shed Media.


What the gang has been watching on Netflix

The Tuscan Shed gang spends a lot of time watching movies, playing video games and checking out the newest anime. But we also watch a lot of television. Have you ever wondered what the gang watches in their free time? Cast member Bobbye Pyke tells us what her top four shows are to check out on Netflix this fall.

Summer is most definitely coming to a close. The signs are everywhere. School is starting back up, my allergy to Ragweed has left me in a permanent scratchy-throat state and up in Wisconsin, the telltale signs of an impending winter are everywhere.

For me, this means an intense need for binge-able television since there is no way I will be leaving my comforts of my house during the coming winter months. So here is the list of shows that I am most excited about on Netflix right now.

4. BoJack Horseman

This dark, animated comedy is another fantastic addition to the Netflix original series powerhouse. It follows the story of a humanoid horse named BoJack who was once, long ago, the star of a daytime television series. The show follows BoJack’s struggle with his own relevance as well as who he is in the world. Is he the hero or the villain?

This show is witty and dark. It utilizes human and animal characters and certainly enjoys a good pun. The show is told through a rotating cast of characters who are all deeply flawed. The show seems to encourage each character to “do better.” Some succeed and others, well, you doubt they ever will.

Season Three released this summer and I personally think it is the best of the bunch. While Season One BoJack is just kind of a bumbling asshole, Season Three BoJack is vulnerable. The show shines a bright light on mental health issues while still maintaining its satirical edge. It explores, through a non-human character, what it means to be human.

This is not to say that the show is not laugh-out-loud funny, because it is. The switch between humor, absurdity and downright depression is subtle. The writers know how to take the audience on a rollercoaster of emotions and their commitment to continuity adds to the hidden humor of the show.

Give this show a chance. The first season will introduce you to all the characters and give you a taste of what is to come. The second season helped the show gallop into one of my favorite shows of all time and the third season reminded me of why it belonged there. Seriously, check it out.

3. The Seven Deadly Sins

I’ll be honest, when this show popped up as one of the most highly rated Netflix shows available, I still didn’t want to watch it. I can admit that I have never really watched anime. But let me tell you, this show has opened up a whole new genre of television for me.

The Seven Deadly Sins was originally a Japanese manga, written and illustrated by Nakaba Suzuki. The manga began in 2012 and to date has sold more than 10 million copies. It was adapted into a 24-episode anime that aired from 2014-2015.

Netflix acquired the exclusive English streaming rights for the anime series and I am so glad they did because otherwise, I never would have found this show.

The show is set in the region of Britannia and focuses on a once active group of knights called the Seven Deadly Sins. Each member of the group is branded with a tattoo of the sin they represent.

The Seven Deadly Sins were disbanded after they allegedly attempted to overthrow the Kingdom of Liones, even going so far as to brutally murder the Holy Knight Grand Master, the leader of the Holy Knights, a group of soldiers with magical abilities, sworn to protect the Kingdom. The Seven Deadly Sins were supposedly defeated by the Holy Knights, but rumors of their survival were heard throughout the kingdom.

Years later, the Holy Knights have staged a coup d’état and captured the King of Liones, becoming the new, tyrannical rulers of the kingdom. The show opens with the third princess of the kingdom, Elizabeth, searching to find the Seven Deadly Sins so she can enlist their help in taking back the kingdom.

As a non-anime watcher, this show roped me in by about the fourth episode. I did want to know what was going to happen next. I wanted to find all of the Sins, learn who they were and see what abilities they possessed.

The story builds in a wonderful way. We learn more about each character’s back-story and with it, we learn of past betrayals, former partnerships and even previously undiscovered magical abilities.

Look, I can’t tell you whether or not this is one of the best anime out there, because I have only seen this one. I can say, however, that if you have never given this genre a try, this seems like a damn good place to start.

2. Stranger Things

If the Internet has not already convinced you to jump on the Stranger Things bandwagon, then there is not much else I can say to convince you. But I’ll try anyway. I will also attempt to write a totally spoiler-free review of this show so non-watchers, read on.

This show is a standout. It is special. And you should watch it. It is like a combination of E.T., The Goonies and the X-Files and is shot like a good quality 1980s Sci-Fi film.

The show steps back in time from the very onset. The intro music sounds vaguely like the old X-Files theme and the bright red lettering for the show title should give you an inclination from the beginning that the show will step back in time.

The show begins with a disappearance, a mystery that must be unraveled to save a life. Over eight episodes, the show strategically involves a number of characters who all know a piece of information key to solving the mystery, but these characters do not share information until the final episodes. It is suspenseful. It is masterfully crafted.

All of the acting in the show is phenomenal. The child actors are perfectly casted plus Winona Ryder is an absolute dream in this show.

The show has both humor and horror. It is perfectly binge-able and will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout. Let the story build and I promise, you will not be disappointed.

A second season has already been confirmed so jump on the bandwagon early. This show really is as good as the hype will lead you to believe.

1. Narcos

Season two of this amazing show will be released on Sept. 1. I have seriously high hopes for this second season after how impressed I was with the first.

Narcos covers a topic that made headlines for decades, the rise and fall of one of Columbia’s most notorious criminals, the kingpin of the Medellin cartel, Pablo Escobar.

The show is told from dual perspectives: both that of Escobar and from a DEA agent cultivating a case against him. The performance of the actors is outstanding with Wagner Moura playing Escobar and Boyd Holbrook playing DEA agent Steve Murphy.

This show falls in the middle of The Sopranos and The Wire. The Sopranos delves into individual relationships and explores their hidden psychological drives; The Wire focuses more broadly on characters as a part of a larger dysfunctional system.

Narcos falls in the middle. Over ten episodes we learn how Escobar came to power and how the DEA sought to bring him down. The show explores the history of drug laws, the sometimes questionable methods used by law enforcement, gang welfare, bloodbaths and unbelievable smuggling successes.

The show doesn’t dive into Escobar’s motives, making him a terrifying villain and one that you want to learn more about. It is incredibly entertaining and I can’t wait to see where the second season takes us.