Monthly Archives: June 2014

‘Bees’ captures hive mentality

Flora is big, ugly, fearful ... and the savior of her hive.

Flora is big, ugly, fearful … and the savior of her hive.

“[A] gripping Cinderella/Arthurian tale with lush Keatsian adjectives.”
– Margaret Atwood, via Twitter

I thought a lot about Margaret Atwood while reading Laline Paull’s The Bees, and not just because Atwood’s quoted on the book cover.

Paull’s story of Flora, a freak who stands out in her hive both for her abilities to transcend the rigid hive caste system (sanitation, nurses, sages, queen, etc.) and her unique size and physical characteristics, has strong touches of The Handmaid’s Tale, at least thematically. The demands of rigid conformity don’t work for Flora, and the more hardships this bee and her hive face, the more willing she becomes to crash through boundaries. Much like Offred, Flora pays for her transgressions. Unlike Offred, Flora has a chance for a happy ending.

I also contemplated Toby’s and Pilar’s relationships with the bees in The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam. It seems like such a small part of the Oryx & Crake trilogy, yet it speaks again to man’s resistance against harmony with nature. Toby and Pilar are intimate with the bees, respectful, loving and even conversational, yet the rest of their world tends to view animals as easily ignored mutants (pigoons and the like) or laboratory-grown meat. Here, an unnamed man has a very direct relationship with the bees, but it seems very minor for the bulk of the novel. The negative impact of humans – when Flora’s kin encounter pesticides during their attempts to forage for pollen or the metallic “trees” that emit signals that confuse the bees natural radar – is a much greater part of the story. Man is destroyer at worst, an enormous obstacle to the natural order at best.

However, while Paull touches many of the same themes as Atwood – the treatment of women by men, conformity, religious fanaticism – the author has created a singularly unique work in The Bees. The Sages, the equivalent of the Queen’s presidential cabinet, rule through fear, doctrine and chemical manipulation. The drones are useless braggarts beyond their breeding potential, consuming the bulk of the resources and contributing little. The nurses are snobs, viewing all but the queen as inferior to them. Security bees enforce the strict demands of the caste system through fear and violence. The foragers are the adventurers, not happy unless they are on the wing in search of new food sources. Sanitation workers are slaves, their development process interfered with in an effort to make sure they can’t talk, only work.

Flora is born into this at a time of great upheaval in the hive. Urbanization, pesticides, non-native species, wasps, spiders and more keep the hive on the precarious edge between survival and desolation. Flora herself keeps finding that she, unlike most bees, has multiple talents, including the ability to reproduce. That singular ability is, by divine right, that only of the queen, and should the Sages unveil Flora’s egg-laying talents, she will be killed. However, in the end, Flora’s fertility may be the only thing that can save the hive, if it’s not too late.

I don’t, by any means, think my little screed here has done Paull’s work justice. I can’t recommend it enough, and judging from the buzz, I’m not the only one.

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5 most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen

I was recently inspired by a Pop Crunch top 15 most disturbing movies piece to take my own shot at what I consider to be some seriously freaky cinematic offerings. Enjoy.

Turns out, using heroin is a bad idea. Who knew?

Turns out, using heroin is a bad idea. Who knew?

5. Requiem for a Dream. For you fans of Black Swan, that’s director Darren Aronofsky’s third most disturbing film, behind his debut – Pi – and this adaption of Hubert Selby Jr.’s novel of the same name. There’s plenty of dark, graphic images in Requiem, but what is most disturbing is being forced to sit and watch helplessly the long, slow descent by the main characters as drugs overwhelm their lives. Aronofsky never flinches, as well as getting amazing performances by Ellen Burstyn (who was nominated for an Oscar), Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and – of all people – Marlon Wayans. The movie was released in theaters unrated as the MPAA wanted to slap an NC-17 on what might be one of the greatest “just say no” films of all times.

"In the Company of Men" returns to relevance with the recent attention shown the online misogny movement.

“In the Company of Men” returns to relevance with the recent attention shown the online pro-man/misogyny movement.

4. In the Company of Men. The debut of both writer/director Neil LaBute (Nurse Betty, The Wicker Man) and actor Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight, Erin Brockovich) was an indie film made just down the road from my hometown of Muncie in Fort Wayne, Ind. Two men – the lethario Chad (Eckhart) and his nerdy pal Howard (Matt Malloy) – decide to play a game with the new girl at work, the deaf Christine: They want to ruin the poor, innocent young woman’s life. She’s done nothing to them. They’ve just had it with women, and Christine is chosen to be the target of their wrath. It’s misogyny at it’s “finest.” This isn’t a bloody film. The damage is all psychological and absolutely disgusting. And you’ll never forget the ending.

There will be blood should you choose to watch "Ichi the Killer."

There will be blood should you choose to watch “Ichi the Killer.”

3. Ichi the Killer. I always laugh when the media, pundits and politicians attempt to draw direct correlations between violence in music, movies, video games, television, etc., and the acts of what are usually selfish, mentally unstable (at best) individuals. Ichi may be the one exception, where I sat there thinking “If some messed up individual watched this, the fallout could be awful.” The title character is a gangster with a pain fetish, in constant search of the sadomasochistic act that will bring the ultimate, exquisite joy. The first of Japanese horror maestro Takashi Miike’s films to make my list is painted richly with pain and blood. Ichi shows no mercy to himself or others and takes pleasure in all of it. Not a bad movie, but not easy to watch.

Does watching a three-care pileup turn you on?

Does watching a three-care pileup turn you on?

2. Crash. No, not that Crash. I’m writing about the 1996 film directed by David Cronenberg is based on the book by J.G. Ballard. It’s about a small subculture of people who gain sexual pleasure from watching and being involved in car crashes, even from pictures and films of accidents or the resulting scars, braces and other medical side effects. James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger play a couple with an open marriage who can’t seem to sexually excite each other unless they are talking about their various affairs. Spader gets in a car crash, meets fellow crash victim Helen Remington (the awesome Holly Hunter), and they venture further and further into this world of screaming steel and broken bones. Crash is voyeuristic, putting its audience in the position of feeling like it shouldn’t be watching these disturbing, intimate moments. Oddly, it’s also a story about a couple with a failing marriage who end up closer as a result of their acts. Yes, Crash kind of has a happy ending (no pun intended), in its own unique, disturbing way.

Not even close to the most #$%&ed up thing you'll see in Takashi Miike's "Imprint."

Not even close to the most #$%&ed up thing you’ll see in Takashi Miike’s “Imprint.”

1. Imprint. So in 2006, Showtime purchased this Masters of Horror anthology that included works from big names like John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper. The idea was to give the directors a budget and let them loose to make a one-hour film, no limits imposed beyond the funding. Takashi Miike created Imprint, gave it to Showtime, and Showtime said, “No way. Uh-huh. Not touching this.” My guess: Part of the background story involves showing what abortion would have been like in the late 1800s, when this story is set. Let’s just say pulling a fetus from the womb then wasn’t much different than pulling a calf. Miike shows the process, not allowing the viewer the opportunity to look away. I’m betting Showtime saw crowds holding signs with pictures of aborted fetuses outside their headquarters as a future implication of Imprint‘s release – along with the accompanying media attention – and decided it wasn’t worth it.

What’s interesting, really, is that the abortion ends up being the third or fourth most disturbing thing that happens in this movie. A familiar face of the horror genre, Billy Drago, plays a journalist, Christopher, who is in love with a Japanese prostitute, Komomo. He must return to America, but promises to come back and marry Komomo. But by the time Christopher returns, Komomo has been sold off and has disappeared. The viewer joins Christopher as he arrives at a distant, remote end-of-the-line island, a small world away from the prying eyes of the law or morality. Christopher is told Komomo is no longer there, and he must stay the night before he can move on. He takes shelter with another prostitute. As the night progresses, the girl tells Christopher Rashomon-like stories of what really happened to Komomo, each time telling more of the truth as Christopher tries to cut through the lies. By morning, when she has arrived at the truth, Christopher has gone mad and kills the prostitute.

Two things really are what drive the dread in Imprint. First, we don’t know if any of this has really happened. The ending makes it clear that Christopher could have been insane the entire time, consumed by guilt and driven to madness by other actions. Did he imagine it? Much like Miike’s absolutely stunning The Box, this haziness is a core part of the tale.

Second, what is horrifying isn’t the story of the second prostitute’s life, although it is awful. It isn’t even that Komomo is tortured to death by her fellow prostitutes when Komomo is accused of theft she didn’t commit and won’t admit to having committed. It’s that these prostitutes relish what they are doing to Komomo. They have no hope. They realize that this island is their last stopping place, and that their ends will come soon, probably brutally. That Komomo has hope, that she has someone who loves her and will follow her to the end of the earth, that they cannot abide. The torture is about making her lose that faith, crushing that belief that her life will have a happy ending, lowering her to their level. Imagine Eli Roth directing Mean Girls. It isn’t the blood and the blades and the deady baby. It’s the horrible capacity of humanity to demean and destroy others for what is really the best in humanity that will stick with you in the end.

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Superheroes, less-than-super teens and good deaths

the100_040214_1600

It ain’t easy being one of 100 teens raised in a space station, then dropped to post-nuclear apocalyptic Earth.

In the DVD commentary for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer pilot, Joss Whedon (known now for helming The Avengers as well as planning for the entire non-Sony Marvel-verse) talked about how much he wanted to kill a main character in the very early going. So much so, in fact, that he considered putting Eric Balfour – the actor playing Jesse, best friend of Xander – in the opening credits of the show despite the fact that he doesn’t make it past episode two of the series. Whedon’s point was that by killing a “main” character early, the creator was setting the stage for some serious uneasiness by fans concerning the fate of all of the characters. It’s a red, blinking sign that says “No one is safe.”

That’s part of the reason I admire The 100, a new series on the CW. The basic premise is that 100 kids who have grown up on a now-dying space station are launched to a post-nuclear war Earth in hopes of saving what’s left of humanity floating around the planet. Brilliantly, The 100 makes it seem as if they kill a main character off in the pilot, when Jasper, played by Devon Bostik (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), takes an enormous spear to the chest. It’s a red herring, as Jasper survives to fight another day.

However, in episode three, The 100 shows us what it’s made of. Wells Jaha (Eli Goree, pictured above) is the best pal of the main character Clarke. Wells is also the son of the political leader of the space station, Chancellor Jaha. He is earnest, interested in what’s best for Clarke, a bright mind who can help lead the rag-tag group. But, in an extremely gripping scene, Wells is murdered, tragically, quietly, away from prying eyes. Wells had all the traits of a main character expected to be there for the bulk of the show, if not the entire run. It’s a brilliant example of what Whedon talked about on the Buffy commentary: Don’t let the viewers feel safe, and put doubt in their minds about the safety of their favorite characters.

On the big screen, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 went where I wasn’t expecting, allowing Gwen Stacey to fall to her death before Spidey can save her. Spider-Man 2 is a long, slow movie, decent but bogged down in the middle by plot meant to explain much and set up more. But the payoff was brilliant. Peter Parker lives haunted by the fact that he didn’t act during a bodega robbery, followed by said robber killing his uncle. Here, Peter is marred by the fact that he did act, he did stop the bad guy, he did save hundreds and maybe thousands of lives by battling and defeating Electro. Yet he still failed, setting up Gwen to die a pre-mature death because he both failed in his promise to her father and because with great power comes great responsibility. Peter abdicated his responsibility to Gwen’s dad, and the predictable happened. Peter loved Gwen and would do anything to protect her except that one thing that really would protect her: Walking away.

It’s satisfying to see franchises with much to lose – Spider-Man, a global movie juggernaut, and The 100, trying to find its footing and an audience – willing to make such difficult choices. It might hurt them in the short run, but the payoff is a fan base prepared for anything and on edge about what that anything might mean for their favorite characters.

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