Seeing Allred Review: A Fine Entry in the Superhero Genre

00-story-image-seeing-allredIt may not seem initially appealing to watch Seeing Allred (directed by Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain), which can’t help but come off as a self promoting commercial for its subject, crusading attorney Gloria Allred. This reaction is reasonable but also more than a little ironic, as a main theme of the film is pointing out how Allred is wrongfully scrutinized for being some hot shot, self promoting lawyer who has little empathy for the victims she represents. The Gloria Allred we spend time with in this movie is a legit feminist crusader who tangibly contributes to getting justice for victims of sexual assault and rape. Seeing Allred asks the audience why the kneejerk reaction to outspoken, powerful women is so often disdain. One might think, as the filmmakers clearly do, that this is a question that is especially pertinent in Donald Trump’s “United” States.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of legitimate criticisms of Hillary Clinton. It would be incredibly hard to deny that fact. By the same token, it would be equally difficult to deny that there was a misogynistic element to the discourse surrounding the 2016 Presidential debate and Clinton’s candidacy in particular. I mean, how could there not be when the main Republican candidate and eventual President-Elect is a multiply accused rapist/sexual assaulter who proudly brags that he grabs women “by the pussy”. In terms of public perception, Allred and Clinton are very much cut from the same cloth. Allred is clearly ambitious and has a distinctive personal brand, as we see when she grabs a pink pant suit from a closet full of them near the beginning of the movie. These traits are frustratingly thrown in her face again and again by critics to undermine the legitimately important work she does as an advocate for the victims of Bill Cosby, Donald Trump and others.

As with any good feminist text, Seeing Allred interweaves the personal with the political. Allred discusses her survival of rape with candor and the film is used as a platform for the survivors that Allred represents. A great part of the movie is getting a chance to know the women behind the famous accusations of people like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. It’s telling that, even in the most widely publicized sexual assault cases, the public is often content not to know anything about the women involved. Seeing Allred rectifies this and (like Allred herself) puts the women in these much talked about stories front and center. This material can’t help but be emotional important, as the movie focuses on the way women in general are often perceived as dishonest and manipulative when they are in the spotlight and talking about women’s issues. Allred and the women that she represents come up against substantial scrutiny and watching them overcome that scrutiny fills you with the classic feminist cocktail of cynicism and hope that should be familiar to anyone who pays attention to gender relations in North America.

Allred has been so prolific that Grossman and Sartain can essentially track the progress of the American women’s rights movement through her career. It is compelling stuff and it is consistently interesting to see how much the discourse has evolved but at the same time, how much it really hasn’t. When the film takes the viewer back to Trump’s election, it perfectly captures the sense of total disappointment and the feeling of sheer unbelievability that came with incredulously staring at the television. Fortunately, Seeing Allred also gets the audience fired up to continue the fight and, as far as I’m concerned, that makes the film vital and necessary viewing in 2018.

The Cloverfield Paradox Review: Can We Just Pretend This One Didn’t Happen?


20180205-the-cloverfield-paradox-trailer-620x919-1.jpgThe Cloverfield Paradox
(directed by Julius Onah) starts out strong. After an emotional conversation with her husband, protagonist Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) decides to go on a mission into space that might solve the world’s current energy crisis. The filmmakers effectively use the opening credits as an opportunity for a wordless montage that conveys the multi-year length of the mission and the frustration of the space station’s crew as they continue to fail to solve the problem. In a scene not long after the montage, Onah visually realizes Hamilton’s grief over the loss of her children in a clever way that had me thinking I was about to watch a solid sci-fi movie from a gifted visual storyteller. This initial assessment turned out to be very wrong. Julius Onah may have some directorial chops but The Cloverfield Paradox is far from a solid sci-fi movie. In fact, Paradox is the worst Cloverfield movie by a wide stretch and singlehandedly burns up a lot of the goodwill generated by the previous franchise entries.

The main gimmick of the film is that a particle accelerator used by the crew to solve the energy crisis ends up malfunctioning, resulting in multiple dimensions collapsing in on one another. This set up basically gives the filmmakers unlimited freedom to cook up whatever weird horrific imagery or tense action scene that they want (imagine what James Wan or any similarly imaginative horror directors would do with a premise like this one). The entire second act is basically comprised of the crew doing busy work and waiting to get affected by the interdimensional events. The first of these scenes is strong, with a crew member literally being stuck in the wall. It is effective body horror and I couldn’t help but squirm in my chair seeing the wires and pipes imbedded in her. The following sequences are mostly duds. There is some really goofy business with a severed arm and a couple beats that try to push similar body horror buttons to the first but they all fail. It is a really curious thing to watch the movie go this far off the rails so abruptly. Rarely has a movie shifted from making me squirm to making me unintentionally laugh with such seamlessness.

Strong characters could have saved this film but, except for Hamilton, the filmmakers have all but forgotten to flesh out the main cast. The theoretically interesting and diverse crew is full of good actors and I was eagerly waiting to get to know anything about them. Instead, we learn early on that the crew is comprised of a couple interchangeable astronauts, “the asshole” and “the funny one” and proceed to cease any further character development from there. Hamilton is a solid lead and I came away from the movie genuinely thinking that Mbatha-Raw could be a star if she gets better opportunities than this one in the future. She has an emotionally satisfying arc, which is almost frustrating. The filmmakers know how to do this stuff so why aren’t they doing it with anyone else? The sad fact is that even though Hamilton is a more three-dimensional character than any of her peers, she’s not compelling enough to salvage a whole movie filled with generic and forgettable fodder like the rest of the crew.

The film’s flaws are made more confounding by its profoundly poor use of time. There is a useless B-plot about Hamilton’s husband running around on Earth that takes up 15 minutes of screen time and contributes nothing at all to the plot. I’m serious, you could clip it all out and the movie would be the better for it. Of course, they can’t do that because this movie is supposed to be the secret origin of the extended Cloverfield cinematic universe (he said with a palpable exasperation in his voice) and the Earth stuff needs stay around to establish that the titular Cloverfield Paradox has indeed occurred and what its effects are. The movie ends up sacrificing the time that it should be spending on characterization to do a lot of stuff that ends up contributing exactly nothing to the narrative. It’s ironic because 10 Cloverfield Lane is a compelling example of how this model can work correctly. It is a perfectly functional movie that works just as well for Easter Egg hunting fans and newbies alike. By contrast, Paradox feels like the cinematic equivalent of the crew member in the wall, with the obvious reshoots and useless franchise connections incongruently and disturbingly jammed into it.

If the movie had leaned into some of the goofiness, it could have worked as low rent genre fair of the kind people used to stumble upon on Syfy while scrolling through cable channels. Unfortunately, it takes itself mostly seriously when the great Chris O’Dowd isn’t on screen and it doesn’t end up having the strength of character or craft to be worthwhile in any respect. When this movie was originally conceived, it was entitled The God Particle and had no relationship at all to Cloverfield. While it is unlikely that The God Particle would have been the next Alien before all the meddling, I can’t help but feel like it might have been a functional movie. I can’t say the same for The Cloverfield Paradox, I can just hope that the next installment in the franchise bears a stronger resemblance to the other two Cloverfield films.

 

 

Altered Carbon: “Out of the Past” Review

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As I finished the first episode of Altered Carbon–a new, gritty sci-fi noir series from Netflix–I was left feeling cold and unsatisfied. The production quality has rarely been higher in a Netflix show and there is a clear intention to push Altered Carbon as a potential flagship property for the company. However, underneath the big budget and the handsome cinematography is a show without a pulse. There is undeniably potential here, but I can only report on what I have seen so far. Coming away from the first episode, entitled “Out of the Past”, I can’t help but feel disappointed and underwhelmed.

The plot of the show thus far concerns Takeshi Kovacs, a former member of a radical political resistance called the Envoys, who fought in a conflict called The Uprising against The Protectorate (if you plan to check this show out then you best get ready for a lot of generic sci-fi names). Kovacs dies very early on in the show, which doesn’t mean the same thing in the world of Altered Carbon as it does in the real world. A central plot device in this story is that people’s minds are downloaded onto portable devices called stacks that are plugged into “sleeves” (i.e. bodies). After Kovacs dies, he wakes up 250 years later in the body of Joel Kinnaman. Unfortunately, this means Kovacs now has the charisma and screen presence of Joel Kinnaman. Kinnaman has never been a particularly impressive actor and he contributes to the aforementioned lifelessness of Altered Carbon in a big way. Kovacs is basically a gritty noir version of Firefly’s Malcom Reynolds, someone who is struggling to cope with the loss of a war and the displacement that is caused by no longer having anything to fight for. Those of us who have seen Firefly will know that Reynolds remains compelling despite many unsavory character traits. Kovacs, on the other hand, is a total bore who it is consistently difficult to spend time with. Kinnaman delivers every line with the same monotone affect and completely neglects to give the viewer a hint of anything under the surface of Kovacs’ misanthropy and unlikability.

The show does manage to play with some potentially interesting ideas over the course of its run time. Takeshi is tasked with solving the murder of an incredibly wealthy man named Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) and, because of the mind downloading technology, he is still alive for the investigation. It is interesting to see the different ways that Bancroft’s wealth manifests itself during the episode. He lives in a tower that literally separates him from the rest of society and, most pertinently, his money is the only thing that allows him to backup his consciousness remotely. Everyone else can be RD’d (RD stands for Real Death and is contrasted with just the destruction of a body) by having their stack destroyed. The stack is implanted in the body, so it is still easily accessible to any would-be murders. Bancroft’s wealth allowing him to have a better version of immortality than everyone else is just one of the ways that “Out of the Past” gestures towards large class disparities in the Protectorate ruled society. We also see poor people getting new bodies that are essentially “the leftovers”. Near the beginning of the episode, a 7 year old is tossed into a older woman’s body and sent on her way without any regard for how she might cope with her newfound situation. These elements of the show provoke the most interest and I am genuinely excited to see it explored more in future episodes.

I mentioned Altered Carbon’s gritty noir style, which is another weak area so far. The lack of any new spin on the “every sci fi future since Blade Runner” neon-soaked aesthetic makes the world of the show feel like an impression of other well-known properties rather than a living, breathing place. The show almost self consciously assures the audience of its seriousness and maturity by staging scenes in strip clubs for seemingly no reason and making sure that Takeshi is assailed by propositioning sex workers during his walk down the seedy city streets.  It is possibly unfair to suggest that the emphasis on commodified sexuality is extraneous. Altered Carbon clearly wants to be about the commodification and ownership of bodies under capitalism more generally, as illustrated not only by Bancroft but also by the sequence in which Takeshi first gets his Kinnaman-bod. The problem is that, as of now, the sex work stuff that we have seen is disconnected from everything else and one can’t help but think it was primarily included for the purposes of audience titillation than to explore capitalist exploitation of women’s bodies. This is just my initial reading and it is possible that future episodes will retroactively makes these scenes worthwhile.

I know that I am mostly complaining but I don’t mean to say that Altered Carbon is a total bust. As I already stated, it is an incredibly handsome production. The action is also very well choreographed, with Takeshi’s initial death sequence being one of the better TV action scenes that I have seen in recent memory. The filmmaking is generally strong all around, with the editing team doing particularly solid work in conveying the disorientation and hallucinations that come with being put in a new body. The show definitely has potential and I will keep watching but I can safely report that “Out of the Past” was not a strong first impression.