Tuesday, December 12, 2017

TV Review: Godless

Netflix recently released a seven episode limited series titled Godless. The mini-series is set in the 1880s in the New Mexico Territory. The desert southwest provides a bleak, stark backdrop for the characters and drama that unfolds. The show is an ensemble cast with powerful performances being put in by many.

The show concerns several different characters as their stories dive and intertwine with another. Primarily the story is about Roy Goode (Jack O'Connell) and Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels). Griffin is a brutal outlaw, beautifully and complexly portrayed by Daniels as a
disturbing religious figure. He masks his villain in false piety and presents himself as a preacher to gain the trust and acceptance of the people he encounters. Goode was his protégé, companion and a member of his gang until the two had a falling out. Now Griffin hunts for Goode across the Territory leaving bloodshed and terror wherever he goes.

The other major component of the story is the village of La Belle. This tiny community is centred around a silver mine. Two years before the start of the series a massive mining accident killed 83 men leaving the overwhelming majority of the women widows and the community nearly devoid of men. This premise alone presents something interesting. The trailers would make it seem as though the series is going directly for a confrontation between these two forces but there is a great deal that unfolds between that is both gripping and entertaining.

Godless is firmly rooted in the Western genre's traditions. Even my limited exposure to the genre I could feel very clear homage to other films and entries into the genre. The series is both a romanticized and deeply ugly look at the time period. Disease, death, injury, violence and general unpleasantness pervade the show. It oscillates between perhaps going too far and grounded. Given my general ignorance of the West it is difficult to say. Life generally feels quite precarious in the show and that death stalks the land with a greedy hand. The beautiful side of the Western is all present as well from incredible sharpshooting, to incredible vistas and romance.

In this review I do not wish to spoil specific details or elements of the story. What I will say is that Frank Griffin is a truly terrifying villain. He and his gang appear suddenly and without warning and wreck havoc wherever they go. The different characters and communities that we meet are interesting and play at the diversity of the West that has often been overlooked.

I would be remiss if I didn't comment upon the gender aspects of the show. The idea of a town of only women is clearly one of the selling points of the series. Not a great deal comes of that. The story focuses much more on Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), Roy Goode and Frank Griffin. Fletcher lives on a ranch outside of La Belle and her fate is tied to the town's, but in many way the town becomes secondary. That said, the lack of men plays out in interesting ways. The West is notorious for women forging their own paths. So is the same here. The town hardly seems to struggle with the absence of the men, just the fact that the mine has ceased operation. Some women are eager to see a return of men and normalcy while others seem to dread their return. Sexual violence and exploitation of women factor into the story as well, and I cannot claim that the handling of it was particularly satisfying.

I may dedicate more thinking on this at a later date, but it is my opinion that we are primed for a resurgence of the Western genre. Godless, among other programs and films, can demonstrate the way to make relevant commentary on the present with these projects. Godless is a gorgeous piece of television with exceptional performances. While the opening episodes may be slow to develop I urge interested parties to push to the conclusion, for the thing ends in a powerful fashion.  

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Worth Reading - December 7, 2017

Short list this week as I didn't spent a lot of time reading any fresh news. Apologies.

My local newspaper visited my barber to talk politics. I am sad my dad and I didn't go in for a trim that day. 

I spoke about this in my Tuesday post. Chantal Hebert writes that the Conservatives risk turning their attack into Finance Minister Morneau into character assassination

This is from a couple of months ago, but Strong Towns brought it into circulation again. The difficulty in labour mobility is hampering the economy

Andray Domise writes that the middle in politics is collapsing

There have been rumours and whispers that President Trump might be unwell. I think that's unlikely to be the case except for his clear narcissism.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Liberal Tax Reform Mire

The Liberal tax reform introduced months ago has been a communications disaster for the government. Closing certain tax provisions will increase the amount paid by high income Canadians. The Trudeau Liberals seem to have stumbled blindly into this issue. They seemed entirely unprepared for the resistance to these changes.

The Prime Minister and his team seemed to believe that relying on their tired rhetoric of "strengthening the middle class and those working to join them" would be enough. When you repeat the same thing over and over again to justify everything from tax cuts to road construction to opening a hockey arena don't be surprised if its effectiveness dulls.

There are strong, well-financed forces to push to keep the status quo. Doctors and small business owners will be limited in their tools to save on taxes. A number of wealthy individuals use the existing law to avoid taxes. While perfectly legal there are questions whether it was the intent of the government, or ethical for some parties to pay less in a progressive tax system.

While progressives are generally in favour of changing the tax code the failure of the Liberals to articulate these reforms successfully is putting them at risk. Opponents in advocacy groups and the Conservative Party have painted this as a massive tax increase on small business and an attack on doctor. The attacks have been, to this point, successful on raising doubts about the wisdom of the changes. In reality, it seems offering some sort of transition period would have done a great deal to dissuade modest critics, but the Liberals did not see reason to see that far ahead.

In politics communications often matters more than the policy itself, to my eternal grief. In some parallel universe the Liberals sold these policies to enough Canadians to ensure their passage, now it will cost Trudeau significant political capital. Part of the explanation is who the messengers are.

Justin Trudeau was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and his finance minister, Bill Morneau is a very wealthy man. Men who have taken advantage of the same system the seek to right. Morneau has been dogged by questions about his finances and personal business dealings and whether or not the meet the rigour of disclosure and freedom of conflict of interest. Chantal Hebert warns that the Conservatives, by pursuing Morneau will lose sight on the defeating these reforms.

It would be fitting for the Liberals to stumble forward into success. It would join a questionable list of policy accomplishments for the Trudeau government. It leads me to wonder how many more lucky breaks they may have in them.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Worth Reading - November 30, 2017

I love podcasts. I've appeared in podcasts. I've considered starting podcasts. This College Humor video was made for me.

Police authorities are now investigating the Progressive Conservative nomination in Hamilton

In policy news, the Progressive Conservatives announced their plans for transit in the Toronto and other policy proposals

John Michael McGrath writes that the Progressive Conservative platform hones closely to the Liberals' policies

From Vox and 99% Invisible, road signs suck, so let's get rid of them

I still haven't finished going through this report, but here is the Brampton report on the economic impact of the proposed university

The inter-city bus network is failing Ontarians

As I wrote about on Tuesday, Postmedia and Torstar shuttered 38 newspapers across the province this week 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Democracy Dies in Darkness

Nothing has worried me more about the future of Ontario democracy lately than the news that dozens of papers in the province will be shuttered. A deal between Postmedia and Torstar will result in the closing of 38 community newspapers in Ontario. News media has been in crisis over the last couple of decades. Newsrooms and coverage has been contracting, investigations and critical reporting shrinking. Newspapers are hollow shells of what they once were.

The journalism in most smaller and medium-sized cities and towns has been severely lacking in the twenty-first century. The fourth estate is fighting a rearguard action against irrelevancy and insolvency.

The simple truth is that journalism, especially mass reporting, has been critical to the healthy function of our democracy. We are less than a year away from municipal elections, and only a few months from a provincial election. The next elections will be much the poorer without their commentary and coverage.

As I write this I can hear the criticism clear as day. The newspapers had a narrow viewpoint, a small ownership base, they were/are a dying medium that failed financially and failed to adapt to new circumstances and alternatives exist to take their place. These, for the most part, are valid critiques. However, we have not seen a website, Twitter account, etc. replace a newspaper and truly fill its function. The journalism could be relied upon to be factual, even with editorial bias.

Let's consider some of what we have lost in these communities and others. Newspapers during an election can be counted upon to at least profile all the candidates for office for their audience. Newspapers often organize debates and moderate them. Perhaps most importantly they provide a platform for candidates to communicate to the public en masse without expending great amounts of money. I've worked on campaigns and the hardest thing is getting the public's attention. Newspapers and local media catch a distinct audience in a geographic audience and can serve them meaningfully and deeply.

Then there is the usual coverage of day-to-day politics and government. How are public institutions faring? What issues confront the community? How do changes in laws and policies or events impact local people and organizations? Newspapers have been failing in some of these respects, but nothing has offered their reach, capability, or public service.

As we move forward we risk depriving the public of objective sources of local information. Our civic life will only be poorer in their absence until alternative models can be arrived at.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Worth Reading - November 23, 2017

This was a strong episode of Canadaland Commons on the Sixties Scoop

Strong Towns shares a story on how parking regulations nearly destroyed a town in Idaho. 

From the Atlantic, the nationalist's delusion

Martin Regg Cohn takes a look at the college strike in Ontario and its mismanagement. 

Steve Paikin looks at the fortunes of Ontario's NDP

The #MeToo campaign began a conversation about harassment that has had far reaching implications. However, Lauren McKeon writes we shouldn't be surprised

Premier Kathleen Wynne faced strong criticism at a public town hall recently. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Book Reviews: Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

This series of books offers a grim glance into our futures from the mind of Paolo Bacigalupi. Bacigalupi depicts a world that is an environmental dystopia, deeply impoverished and unequal. In both novels our protagonists are children. We witness this dark future through their eyes.

In Ship Breaker we meet a group of children who work on a "light crew," stripping dead ships for valuable materials. Their little bodies are perfect for scouring the tiny crevices for copper wire. They live, I estimate, on the drowned coast of Texas in the oppressive shadow of the scrap dealers in their shacks.

In the follow-up book, Bacigalupi trades economic marginalization for civil war. The Drowned Cities is set in the tropical swamps and jungles in the Potomac River area. Our heroes are caught in the brutal, bloody conflict between warlords around the former capital of the vanished United States.

The plots of both stories, broadly, are similar. An incident and encounter with someone new forces our protagonists to try to flee for their safety and an opportunity for a better life. Their escapes lead them deeper into danger and shows the reader more of their ruined world. Only rare glimpses of wealth and comfort are given. Mostly, we see an America in decay where everyone makes their living by picking the bones of the dead.

The science and speculative fiction elements are bold. Genetic engineering, climate change, and technological adaptation paint a gritty, alien world. Non-human species are now a part of everyday life, but also act as a constant source of unease and horror.

Despite these elements the stories feel grounded. This is likely because endless civil wars in poverty stricken countries are a real thing in this world. That child labour in dangerous ship-breaking is a real thing in this world. The setting and circumstances are changed, but it remains a human, contemporary story in significant ways. I would highly recommend these novels to fans of science fiction. While both of these books are great reads, I still think The Wind-Up Girl is Paolo Bacigalupi's best work.