Monthly Archives: August 2015

Humanity of ‘Humans’ is what makes series work

Anita is a Synth fresh out of the box ... or is she?

Anita is a Synth fresh out of the box … or is she?

I wanted to like Humans more.

At the family level, it works so well. When we’re with the Hawkins clan and their human-like robotic caretaker, Anita, Humans is in top form. The five Hawkins work well together and form a believable, likable and flawed family. Anita’s insertion into the tense marital relationship of Joe and Laura, new “mom” for little Sophie, ideal female form for horny teen Toby and constant reminder that humans are becoming obsolete to the oldest Hawkins kid, Mattie, all make for incredibly well-acted and crafted scenes and explore what the introduction of synthetic humans would mean at the personal level for real humans. You get more touches of that with William Hurt’s Dr. George Millican, a once leading scientist in the Synth field now losing his memories, relying on his Synth and de facto son Odi to remind him of events from his and his wife’s life together. Another ripple is added when we meet Pete Drummond, a detective whose ailing wife is cared for by a Synth that makes him feel worthless as he simultaneously draws the loving attention of his partner, Karen. These three storylines nail the impact of human simulations being released in the real world. It’s a unique mix of awkward, horrifying and touching drama.

Had the first season mostly focused on that, it might have become my favorite show on television. The problem is the dramatic sci-fi storyline, that a handful of synths were created to have consciousness. Humans who already fear the impact of synths on unemployment and the world in general would now have to be concerned that they could be replaced entirely. This part of the story doesn’t flow as well and feels uncomfortable next to the more personal side of the tale. The ending of the first season was clearly also planned to be the ending of the series, just in case. Things get wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly.

Following in the wake of Ex Machina probably doesn’t help me appreciate Humans as much, either. Ex Machina was a taut, quickly paced and intense drama that delved into the impact of AI on our world. Humans is broader, sometimes for the better, other times not so much. Its pace is slower and occasionally uneven, with tension lacking when the danger should be felt most. Where Ex Machina was lean and furious, Humans is too often top heavy and overly earnest.

Will I return for a second season of Humans? Humans hasn’t blown me away like the AMC dramas Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and Hell on Wheels did. I may do something I don’t usually do and read advance reviews of season two to get a sense of where Humans is going and then decide. Until then, I’m firmly in the maybe column.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Beware the Bloody Nine

Author Joe Abercrombie deserves credit for two great things when it comes to his fantasy First Law trilogy.

  1. The Bloody Nine. Logen Ninefingers, so known because one of his digits was excised during many one of his personal and/or tribal battles, is a simple dude. He really just wants to live in peace with his family. The problem is, his family is dead, and Logen is one of the most feared and hated warriors of the North, known as The Bloody Nine to both enemies and allies. There is no peace for Logen, who survives to trudge from fight to fight, questioning more and more his destructive path as the years and fighting drag on. But when the fighting is fiercest, when the heat is truly, Logen evolves from a relatively nice guy trying to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation into The Bloody Nine, a sociopathic and vile beast who relishes delivering pain and death to all around him, and not necessarily just his enemies. The Bloody Nine is an alternate personality, appearing only in the most dire of situations, and always to the dread of Logen. When The Bloody Nine first truly makes an appearance in The Blade Itself, that is when the tone starts to turn from that of a normal, adult, fantasy tale to truly dark, and a shadow is cast over the next two books that never disappears. For a simple dude, Logen turns out to be a singularly complex and compelling character in a book full of personalities with depth and interesting back stories.
  2. War is hell. Yes, a lot of the fantasy genre covers this, from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones. But in the second and third books of the First Law series – Before They Are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings – Abercrombie really sinks down into the morass. What is the point of all of this violence? What does it solve? The arguments of kings are born on the backs of soldiers and the people, not the men who start the fights. Limbs and lives are lost, cities and towns destroyed, and for what? Honor? Glory? Logen asks these questions, repeatedly – and isn’t the only one – but can never seem to break away from the cycle of death and war. Many of the characters – from career soldier and war hero Collem West to once-the-tortured-now-the-torturer Sand dan Glokta to Dogman, a Northman and running buddy of Logen – come back to this, over and over, never really able to answer their own questions to their satisfaction. Even as our heroes’ fortunes turn and they appear to be winning the fight, the cost is never ignored. Many fantasy books have no problem with the battles and blood, but gloss over the impact with tales of honor and bravery. In the First Law trilogy, the honor and bravery are there, but the end result of all of this warring is never buried. It makes for a grim tale, but one worth telling.
Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

‘Ant-Man’ feels like missed opportunity

One thumbs up for

One thumbs up for “Ant-Man,” maybe. Two thumbs up? Not quite.

If Marvel was going to try something outside-the-box with one of its properties, Ant-Man was the perfect opportunity.

Ant-Man is a weird premise, a cat-burglar-turned-Robin-Hood in a suit that shrinks and expands him at will and allows him to communicate with and control his fellow ants from the natural world. Marvel hired Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), a guy who knows a little something about making ensemble films with weird characters, to write and direct. Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) called Wright’s Ant-Man story “the best script Marvel ever had.” Star Paul Rudd knows comedy and is just as comfortable going broad as he is trying something a bit more out there. Plus, there was no pressure for Ant-Man to be a huge hit. It didn’t have the budget or the starpower of The Avengers and its related solo films, and the Ant-Man character wasn’t nearly as high profile when compared to Marvel players such as Captain America or the Hulk, meaning not only less pressure regarding box office, but also reduced concerns about viewers’ expectations for both the character and the film.

But given the opportunity to change it up a little bit, Marvel stuck to its well-worn script. Wright was fired/left/whatever, and the powers that be brought in Adam McKay, the man behind the camera for films such as Anchorman and Talladega Nights. And that’s kind of what you get with his Ant-Man. Rudd’s criminal sidekicks – played hilariously by Michael Pena, David Dasmalchian and, of all people, rapper T.I. – are the equivalent the of Ron Burgundy’s Channel 4 crew. Evangeline Lilly’s Hope is a reeled in Veronica Corningstone, Michael Douglas suffices in the role of the Channel 4 news producer played by Frank Willard and Corey Stole’s Yellowjacket baddie is significantly less scary than Vince Vaughn’s Wes Mantooth.

OK, I’m pushing it with those last few comparisons. You get my point. Ant-Man isn’t bad, and in some ways – a Marvel film where no big city was destroyed! – it can stand toe-to-toe with the rest of the Avengers’ universe. I just get the feeling it could have been much, much better.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

To hell and back for fame

Sarah finds out that stardom isn't all it's cracked up to be in 'Starry Eyes.'

Sarah finds out that stardom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in ‘Starry Eyes.’

I wonder if writers/directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer pitched Starry Eyes as Rosemary’s Baby meets Mean Girls?

Sarah (Alexandra Essoe) is a struggling actress and waitress – at the demeaning Hooters’ clone Big Taters – running from audition to audition between paying the bills, getting no love from the casting directors and producers she bears her soul for on a regular basis. One particularly demeaning audition – where she is asked to freak out in front of the casting people like she did somewhat privately in the bathroom minutes earlier – results in a call back and the possibility of a roll that will make her a name in Hollywood. But there are some serious strings attached, and meek, sweet Sarah doesn’t seem like she’d be willing to sell her soul for fame. Or would she?

Meanwhile, Sarah finds no peace at home, either. The young filmmakers and actresses she shares her time with mostly seem intent on showing up each other and mocking the failures of their friends. One gorgeous, engaging actress pal in particular, Erin, seems to be able to jab Sarah where it hurts the most, sharply stabbing her insecurities about her own abilities and natural beauty amid the surgically enhanced plastics of the L.A. scene. While Sarah leans on them for support, she sort of resides on the edges of the group and doesn’t quite fit in.

This mix all becomes volatile when Sarah finally surrenders to the fame machine, going down on a producer who she believes will make her a star for sexually servicing him. Sarah has sealed the deal, but it’s not quite the deal she thought it would be, which she finds out about the time she starts bleeding everywhere and vomiting up worms.

Essoe’s performance is make or break, and she kills it. She pulls off the insecurity of a young woman who was probably the shining star of her high school in Butte, Montana, who has come to L.A. only to find out there’s a million girls like her, and they all are vying for the same parts she is. And when the script flips and Sarah is no longer passively wandering the filmmaking landscape, taking her fate in her own hands, Essoe is convincing and disturbing.

Kolsch and Widmyer craft a film that is simultaneously surprising and not. Sarah doesn’t seem like her friends, young up-and-comers who seem like they’d all sell out in a heartbeat if the opportunity came. The duo set a deliberate pace and make the seduction of Sarah so subtle at times that you almost don’t believe it’s happening. The ending has an air of inevitability to it, but that’s because this isn’t The Sixth Sense, relying on a twist to sell the proceedings. Starry Eyes is more of a horror character study, watching the de-evolution of a young woman being pounded into sausage in the Hollywood grinder.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Is ‘Big Red One’ a lost classic?

Luke Skywalker, Lewis from 'Revenge of the Nerds' and American badass Lee Marvin kick the Germans of out of Northern Africa and follow them the whole way back to their homeland in 'The Big Red One.'

Luke Skywalker, Lewis from ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ and American silver screen badass Lee Marvin kick the Germans out of Northern Africa and follow them the whole way back to their homeland in ‘The Big Red One.’

The Big Red One is the longest continuously serving division in U.S. Army history, constituted in 1917. In World War II – the period covered by this particular film – the division saw action in Northern Africa, was part of the invasions of Sicily and Normandy, and clashed with the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge. Yeah, this film has an epic sprawl going on, and it serves the story well.

The Sergeant (Lee Marvin) is a WWI veteran tasked with leading his fresh-faced soldiers through some of the most dangerous theaters of WWII. Private Zab (Robert Carradine, Revenge of the Nerds), a budding author, is the narrator, a wise-ass who is usually the one doing things to lighten the mood. Mark Hamill (Star Wars) is Private Griff, who struggles periodically in combat to keep it together, freezing at inopportune moments. An assortment of other soldiers come and go over the course of their odyssey.

For comparison, I’d call The Big Red One a low-budget Saving Private Ryan. The story and the scenery have the broad scope that Spielberg put together in his film, even going further than Ryan in that “The Bloody First” cover a lot more territory in the Eastern hemisphere over the course of their adventures. The budget … well, let’s just say The Big Red One‘s landing in Normandy is significantly less impressive than Private Ryan‘s.

But, again, like Ryan, it’s the focus on the characters that makes the film, particularly the Sergeant and Private Griff. The Sergeant has seen war before and has clearly been hardened by it. But there are moments, between the bombs and bullets, where the Sergeant finds peace and displays great compassion. He understands the importance of small gestures in the midst of terrible violence, and he finds solace in that.

Griff is torn by fear and his desire to not let down his comrades. The first time he freezes, no one notices amid the smoke and explosions. But at Normandy, his deer-in-the-headlights moment is on display for everyone. He overcomes it, but it’s not exactly a kumbaya moment that snaps him out of it.

The only thing that holds back The Big Red One is Carradine’s narration. While it occasionally serves as a bridge between scenes, particularly when a change of territory or passage of time comes into play, it doesn’t add much and at points is a bit annoying. The film really didn’t need it.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

‘Wayward Pines’ aces the Season 1 test

Kate (Carla Gugino) gets more than she bargains for in her attempt to escape Wayward Pines.

Kate (Carla Gugino) gets more than she bargains for in her attempt to escape Wayward Pines.

I was wary of Wayward Pines.

It came down to two things. The first was the name “M. Night Shyamalan” propped up prominently in the advertising. Most of his work since The Village has been the film equivalent of a raging tire fire, and after what he did to Avatar: The Last Airbender, I wasn’t sure I’d ever watch anything he was involved in again. However, Shyamalan deserves some credit here for making Wayward Pines work. His tendencies to lean on moody atmosphere and a deliberative pace in the pilot set the tone for the rest of the first season. I wonder if working off another’s material – the series is based on the books by Blake Crouch – as well as working on a television series, which is more collaborative than the auteur role Shyamalan is used to as a film director, is part of what is responsible. If so, that mix has proven potent, and Wayward Pines can head in some interesting directions from what’s been established already.

The second thing that concerned me were the comparisons to Twin Peaks that were popping up in early reviews. I view Twin Peaks as one of the most uniquely twisted shows in the history of television, almost sacred because of the swirl of odd humor, kinky otherworldliness and dark underpinnings that are unmatched. Well, it turns out I didn’t have anything to worry about, because those reviews were dead wrong. Wayward Pines is distinctly lacking in sense of humor, which isn’t a put down. That’s just not what the show is, and it’s the easiest thing to point to as a difference when comparing it to Twin Peaks. Also, in Twin Peaks, the secrecy that drives the show is the hidden lies of the townspeople who are living the small-town, American dream. Wayward Pines‘ secrecy is more about the workings of the town itself, how it came to be, why it is so isolated, the planned machinations happening behind the scenes and what those machinations result in. Really, Wayward Pines feels much more like Lost than Twin Peaks.

FBI agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) won't follow the party line in Wayward Pines: Don't talk about the past, don't go past the wall.

FBI agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) won’t follow the party line in Wayward Pines: Don’t talk about the past, don’t go past the wall.

Hopefully, the Lost comparison won’t extend past the first season. The ending of season one changes the focus of Wayward Pines, spinning the plot in a different direction. The cast could potentially be radically different as well, even after the culling of familiar faces throughout the first season. The potential is there for long-term success, if the show and the folks running it can maintain the balance of plausibility of the action with the more far-out, fantastic elements that are part of this cloistered world.

If not, it could get … well, lost, for lack of a better way to put it. The ending of season one leaves the show dangling on a precipice, a radical change of course charted for the upcoming season. Abandoning the situation as it was, moving ahead a few years, could test the patience of fans if it is not handled delicately, possibly even alienate fans who would like more of what they saw and aren’t ready to push on.

I, for one, have hope. We’ll see if that hope is rewarded.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,