Tuesday, June 30, 2015

REVIEW: Mr. Nobody

Jaco Van Dormael's Mr. Nobody plays with a brilliant idea that's been done to death. The garden of forking paths ... the road not taken. What if I'd gone to that meeting, slept with that girl, mailed that letter, taken that trip, invested in Apple stock in 1983? Sliding Doors ... Run Lola Run, etc. It's been done.

But it's not like those movies. So, what it's like? Well, I could say it's Slaughterhouse V + Little Big Man + Donny Darko = Mr Nobody. But I won't.

 is elegant, in the sense that a good scientific theory is elegant. It seems like a complicated mishmosh at first, but the director doesn't cheat you. In the end it all really comes together.

HEre's a bloody flow chart... Mr. Nobody Flow Chart.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Review: "sense8"

Woah. I have nice boobs.
Polymorphous perversity + the perennial philosophy. Add them up, and what you get is sense8, the new sci-fi series on Netflix. J. Michael Straczynski (aka JMS) and the Wachowski siblings are the brains behind this chimera. No rough rude beast slouching to Bethlehem. It's slick, stylish, and has very good posture.

The premise? Daryl Hannah's frazzled "Angel" character (not Blade Runner's Pris, she but might as well be) flees bad guys, kills herself in a ruined church in Chicago. Pop! Eight twenty-somethings around the planet experience instant psychic connection ...

Capheus van Damme: A black bus driver in Nairobi. (Male)
Riley Blue: A pale, Icelandic DJ in London. (Female)
Nomi Marks: A transsexual hacker in San Francisco. (Female)
Will Gorski: A cop in Chicago. (Male)
Wolfgang Bogdanow: A safe-cracker in Berlin. (Male)
Lito Rodriguez: A closeted, gay, action-flick actor in Mexico City. (Male)
Kala Dandekar: An upper-class woman about to marry the wrong guy in Mumbai. (Female)
Sun Back: A Korean executive who happens to be a world-class kickboxer. (Female)

These eight cats and kittens are the "senseates." ("sense8"... get it?) Eight of them, in eight cities around the world. They see with each other's eyes, feel with each other's nerve endings. Thoughts remain private, unless they don't want privacy. If you're a senseate, you can talk with your senseate pal across an ocean. (It looks like you're talking to an invisible friend to anyone else.) You can also get possessed. Yep. Any senseate can pinch-hit for any other senseate at any time. So, a Nairobi gang is smacking you down? You tap out, and the Korean kickboxer crawls into your skin and kicks their collective ass. Sweet. But such local jerks are the least of their problems.

The Big Bad shows its teeth in the first episode, then hides until the last few episodes. We ultimately discover that, like the X-Men, the senseates are mutations, and a consortium called the Biological Preservation Organization (BPO) doesn't like mutations. Led by a creepy white-haired dude named Whispers, they're out to lobotomize the senseates -- and using finks, facial recognition and genetic tests to get the job done. (To complicate matters, the show hints that senseates might be original-recipe humans. People who don't feel are the mutations -- with the biological advantage of being able to kill.) Interesting sci-fi stuff, eh? Hey, it interested me. But if you want your sci-fi TV, be warned ...

This show's going to make you wait. And wait some more.

Believe it. After the big, splashy sci-fi intro, sense8 pulls back -- and gets down to earth. For the next six episodes or so, the creators are mainly concerned with getting you into the lives of these eight characters. Do you care? Well, do you? That is the question, folks. It's like an extended Voight-Kampff empathy test. Could you care about a black bus driver in Kenya, a transsexual in SoCal, a gay Mexican actor, etc.? We're talking eight sliced-and-diced story threads -- the mundane hassles of eight, random people from around the planet. Aside from the gimmick of the psychic link, this doesn't feel like sci-fi. For a long dull stretch, it feels like soap opera. But bear with it; the stories get better and better. Then it all comes together and pays off big. Or starts to, before the season ends. Setting up the promise of a big pay-off in the second season  ...

What? That's it? Really?

Yeah. Really.

So, as the Red Queen recommended: Sentence first—verdict afterwards..

Sentence:  Sucker for big promises that I am, I'll be back for the big, damn second season.

Verdict: Hell, the show's too damn complicated. I'll break it down to lots of little verdicts ...

Action: The action sequences kick ass, as you might expect from a Wachowski project. The story's not built on action beats, however. If you need constant reward pellets, you'll be one frustrated pigeon.

Dialog: For the first few episodes, the dialog sucks, as you might expect from a Wachowski project. Every character sounds like every other damn character. Then, all of a sudden, they start to talk like people. I figure someone said, "Ah, get Joe in here. We gotta punch this stuff up."

Editing and Cinematography: An overdose of eye candy.

Style and Subject Matter: Obviously, the series owes a big debt to Cloud Atlas, a film adaption of David Mitchell's novel which the Wachowskis wrote and directed along with Tom Twyker (who also helms a few sense8 episodes). The biggest and most obvious debt is to JMS, who pioneered multiple storylines over a five-season arc on Babylon 5. (Long-form TV storytelling that paved the way for Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and pretty much everything else.)

Originality: The sci-fi premise is fairly original. And, no, that's not faint praise. ("There's nothing new under the sun, so you might as well steal," as Solomon or Picasso once said.) The show owes some DNA to Theodore Sturgeon's "More Than Human," maybe Arthur C. Clarke's "Childhood's End," to be sure. The bastards also ripped off my unpublished sci-fi sequel to Finnegans Wake. So what? For TV, it's still a radically original take. 

Message: Yeah, the show has a message. This almost sent me running for the remote at one point. Gahh, this is supposed to be sci-fi! You bastards! The sci-fi's a loss leader to get me watching a touchy-feely afterschool special about eight multicultural marvels in a rainbow swirl of races, religions, genders, origins and identities. You're trying to make me a better person, damnit! It's a trick! 

But, no, it's not. Sci-fi explores what's human, right? But humanity is a two-sided knife. And what makes us inhuman is the blade’s other side. Say nations, territories, creeds, gender labels … you get the idea. Why do bullies exist? Why are people such jerks? The Wachowski's have tackled this issue since Bound. It's at the heart of JMS' vision as well. If humanity's ever going to make it to the stars, we've got to stop being jerks. It's a legitimate sci-fi topic -- and I put the remote down.

Story: The stories get interesting. Where are they going to go with it? I have no idea.

But I'll be watching.