Review: Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina Promo

While televised science fiction content withered in US, UK seems to have made a serious headway in tackling the short story format, providing us with some near-future insightful stories on the subject of humanity as impacted by changing technologies.

Black Mirror, for example, a two-year series with a few, well-chosen story lines, provided us with some wonderful, visually-stunning and mildly antiseptic view of the genius-bar futures. Our relationships, our humanity, the use and distribution of our memories, and of course, in an eternal Asimov tradition, the question of androids in our civilisation.

These smart questions, it seems, we lack in an era mired in real questions surrounding our behaviour and technology. For example, I keep on wondering why we don’t discuss personal privacy with more bold brushstrokes, yet the population is overwhelmed, hoping that all will turn out for the better, while media seems to lack any appetite for serious discussions of freedoms, human nature, and our social evolution as intersected with these relatively new, unregulated technologies…but I digress, yet again.

The enigmatic thing about Black Mirror series is its appearance and setting. Not unlike Never Let Me Go, the film that touched me to the core, Black Mirror sets its episodes in relatively near future, as if just around the corner, undefined by actual year and era. Unlike Never Let Me Go, it is not a future in which humanity chooses its preferred period, but instead have a direct connection to our contemporary society. The differences between us and them, it seems, are hardly noticeable, apart from a snazzy widget or two.

This is one of the captivating aspects of Alex Garland‘s stab at the genre, with a remarkably innovative, subtle and emotive Ex Machina.

Garland wrote and directed Ex Machina, a film about Domhnall Gleeson, whose familiar face (incidentally the very same featured prominently in Black Mirror) depicts Caleb, a talented software engineer/boy genius, who wins a prize.

The prize, reminiscent of the Apple cultishness, is winning a few days with the Steve Jobs of the company, Nathan. The CEO, masterfully played by Oscar Isaac, has a secret, an sophisticated AI that requires testing, and Caleb has been hand-picked for the monumental task of deciding on the level of sophistication for the AI.

The win leads Caleb to a remote location where he meets Nathan’s new project. A glass house set above a waterfall whose architecture fits snugly between a billionaire’s dream hiding place and a villain’s lair (Is there a difference between the two, I wonder?) is a security haven, in which Caleb encounters a perfect creation, Ava, depicted by wonderfully tender Alicia Vikander.

Before you know it, you’re entranced in a triangle of competing objectives, suspicions, and manipulative actions that lead all the residents, human and otherwise, toward a certain demise.

Amongst these machinations, the eternal question is examined: what makes for a human, and how do we define the rights of someone who has the capacity to feel, intelligence to understand, and has a semblance of self-awareness? Measuring and evaluating these becomes an impossibility for Caleb who eventually uncovers a horrific truth, but also confronts his mounting attraction and fondness for Ava. Amidst all that is Nathan who is brilliant, obnoxious, manipulative and cruel, and whose actions make you wonder whether the world should know what kind of activities the sociopaths amongst us, wealthy or otherwise, engage in on daily basis.

Garland’s Ex Machina is beautiful, exploring relatively big themes with an indie lens, paying attention to the emotional depth of its protagonists, carefully exploring their desires, motivations, what they’re able to sacrifice in order to win.

I must warn you, Ex Machina has a sad, melancholic notes, and a mildly horrific ending. There is no doubt that there is no justice dispensed to participants, and as such does not give us moral resolutions. Yet, it does represent a story of survival, even selfishness, and examinations of the relatively unexamined motives. In other words, don’t expect an episode of The Next Generation, with captain’s voice resolving the great, moral questions faced by the protagonists, steering you in the right direction, but rather a story of questionable motives, questionable actions, and ultimately a messy, human approach to a resolution, whether deliberated on by intelligent machines or people.

Killjoys Premiere Verdict: Unpalatable

killjoys promotional

SyFy is often known for bad choices: it’s rebranding efforts for one, but mostly for taking mediocre risks with unmemorable television concepts that never get to rise above the fold for variety of reasons. It is interesting how HBO has set an entirely new level for its productions, be it reliant on creativity or budget, and networks like Starz are following suit, yet SyFy refuses to expect, demand, provide the same, but I digress…

This particularly bad choice is created by Michelle Lovretta, known for her wonderful work on Lost Girl, and it stars Thom Allison, Tamsen McDonough, Aaron Ashmore in title roles.

Remember that show? The one set in dark corners of the future in which that guy does that thing?

Killjoys is just such a show. Set in a dark, corporate future, the protagonists are bounty hunters who only care about “the warrants” and have no allegiance but to their anonymous clients. “No one know who hires us,” but “the warrant is all,” reminds boss the waify, big-eyed female hunter, Dutch.

These interplanetary Reclamation agents patrol a quad experiencing some contemporary struggles between the haves and have-nots.

Dutch teams up with John and D’Avin, two brothers who make a deal with a bedeviled megacorp, creatively named The Company, freeing D’Avin from his indentured servitude as an arena fighter, in order to send them to pursue someone, or something called Rolly Desh.

There are daggers, mediocre parties with monks wearing orange, and all the other cheap, uninventive fodder of bad science fiction tropes on television.

My eyes were literally watering with boredom as I perused through the pilot episode of Killjoys. On the one hand, the screens are screaming for a bit of space adventure, while on the other hand, these flimsy, paper-thin plots leave us in agony. We simply deserve better, which is why my attention quicky turns to another episode of Game of Thrones. SyFy would be wise to remember what their audiences crave, or it will perish in the cord-cutting future unfolding as we speak.

Dark Matter Premiere: Chock-A-Block Cliches, But A Welcome Sci-Fi Romp

Dark Matter crew

Full disclosure: I am seriously head over the heels with Joseph Mallozzi. The man has chops. When Vancouver film production started to cough, stutter, falter and fold, Mallozzi, better known for his executive producer titles on Stargate SG-1, Universe, and Atlantis, looked to creating something new and exciting, and together with Paul Mullie, created a new comic book series, Dark Matter.

Soon after, SyFy channel picked up the show, and Dark Matter the television production was on its way.

Yes, it did require Mallozzi to pack up his life and move his countless dogs, a lovely girlfriend, and what I suspect is an impressive array of books and media, and move it all to Toronto, but hey! That’s Vancouver’s loss.

Dark Matter premiered this week, and it is both hellishly entertaining, and largely uninspiring at the very same time. How did we accomplish this? My guess is, through the magic of Canadian producing.

Dark Matter is set on a space ship traveling somewhere. Its crew awakens only to face numerous questions, rather than provide us with answers, as they quickly realize that they are suffering a complete memory loss.

As they seek answers to who they are and where they are going, the rag-tag team encounters the ship’s security mechanism, an android in the likeness of Zoie Palmer, better known for her portrayal of Lauren in Lost Girl.

The android assists as only androids do, and uncovers a portion of who and what they are, and to everyone’s surprise, they are possibly the bad guys.

The crew, it turns out, is made up of misfits and murderers, but then again, the universe which they occupy seems a cruel, manipulative, and punishing one, in which everyone is guilty of something while trying to survive.

Largely resembling the much-beloved Firefly, the crew of Dark Matter which may or may not become a cohesive team, faces many tough moral choices ahead.

Not a terribly original start for Dark Matter, but enough to entertain and amuse, and perhaps aid in healing some open wounds left behind after cancellations of many fantastic, beloved TV shows.

Dark Matter though does sport some flaws too. The writing is far from perfect, but unless you’re Game of Thrones, television shows often require some time to grow into their own.

Casting however, is terrifyingly dismal, and part of that is largely due to how Canadian shows generally choose their stars. For some reason, Canadian actors are chosen for their ability to blend, become invisible, one with the background if you may. Actors like Anthony Lemke, for example, could be literally anyone you don’t like and don’t care for, in the least. Canadians refuse to celebrate personalities, memorable faces, eccentricities, the weird and the odd. That actor who seems mediocre, familiar yet you can’t quite place or remember? That’s him. And there is literally an entire crew of them!

So, Dark Matter is definitely not perfect, and is off with an imperfect start, but I am thoroughly excited at the prospect of a good space romp, and especially a Mallozzi-fuelled one.

Dark Matter is essentially a classic approach to science fiction, sporting a tinge of a good adventure and a space opera, and such things are becoming rare these days. It’s practically a cliche, but a very welcome one.

Review: Sens8

Wachowskis

The Netflix-produced drama with an otherworldly edge is difficult to categorize, but represents a new tinge for US-based productions.

Created by the Wachowskis in tandem with Michael J. Straczynski, better known for his work on Babylon 5, is complex, dramatic, emotionally consuming, and rather awkwardly tackles some rather big themes and subjects. Oh, it is also very gay – as in LGBTQ-friendly – boldly featuring some very diverse cast of characters, which includes gay men, women, and transgendered roles.

Sense8 is primarily about loss, lust, love, sappy sentiments, belief, and friendship. The narrative weaves a connection between eight protagonists who are connected, Matrix-style. Their ordinary lives are interrupted by an image of Daryl Hannah angelically appearing, and then dramatically dying.

The eight soon realize that their butterfly stage of adulthood is only beginning, about to take a different shape as they awaken to a new reality, one in which they begin to communicate with one another, co-op each others talents and skills, and seek each others support when needed. In more than one case, they even fall in love with one another, console each other, and serve as a coping mechanism for difficulties they face.

Without going into the details surrounding each and every character, one could argue that Sens8 is superbly pedestrian, somewhat boring, about as elegant as Adam Sandler’s “The Cobbler” (and if you think about it, the two sport quite a bit of similarities) – I found it difficult to retain any sympathy for the characters until I reached episode 9, which amounts to saintly patience on my part.

However, Sens8 does represent an interesting breakthrough in TV production, one that I have been also quite patiently awaiting: the attempt to tackle grand ideas on paper-thin budgets.

Thus far, for Americans, this is an unusual approach, practically unheard of, while for UK productions, it’s almost a given.

Doctor Who production, for example, does an amazing job at creating grandiose, awe-inspiring themes, on what one might consider a very mediocre production budget. Largely fueled by rich, orchestral music, and partly by the carefully built up anticipation and emotional charge, UK shows somehow manage to successfully convey complex stories with often supernatural or otherworldly themes by simply relying on good acting and the ability of the audiences to suspend their disbelief.

American shows, on the other hand, especially those mediocre ones, often heavily rely on flimsy CG effects, linear narration, and blunt, flat actors who leave us uninspired while rummaging through incredibly simplistic stories.

Sens8 heavily borrows these techniques and creates a fairly exciting, yet mediocre show, with some elevated complexities. Why, there re even a science fiction elements! There are the bad guys, composed of Icelandic researchers. There are the good guys, whom I find difficult to empathise with, yet I find interesting and varied enough to observe, and finally, there is growth, narration that does develop and intersect lives of our protagonists. The protagonists are an evolutionary branch of humanity, the destruction of which is a priority for a shadowy organisation that hides amongst the dark corptocracy.

Sens8 is a sign of things to come – ambitious ideas partially curtailed by money – yet it is also a sign of promise that we may yet see more competent storytelling adapted on flimsy TV budgets, and for that, the Wachowskis should be commended.

TV Must Watch: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

norrell strange

The tome that is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has been weighing down my bookshelf a few years now, and let me tell you, it’s a hefty one. Counting at over 800 pages, the novel is charming us with its dedication to minutiae noted by ample footnotes and intimate descriptions of a Dickensian world that heaves under frilly dresses and Napoleonic wars. And then there is the issue of *magic*.

It asks questions – does magic exist and if so, what would it be used for? And more importantly, in which manner? – setting the tale of fantasy in an alternate 19th century, in which magic existed, and is about to be awakened by two prophesied magicians.

Initially, magic is only in the domain of scholars, historians if you may, who do not possess the ability to exercise any magical power. That is, until the bookish Norrell emerges, and he represents the opposite of what a magician should be: a dry, middle-aged man, obsessed with collecting and curating knowledge, and acquiring power.

At the same time, a young, gifted, vibrant Jonathan Strange comes onto the scene, and he derives his magic from a down-and-dirty source: the folklore of the Raven King, dipped in elven, forbidden allure of ungentlemanly magics.

The two not only revive magic, but team up in order to help England win the war, yet the methods of the two become so divergent, and as Norrell’s influence and desire for control grow, they increasingly clash with Strange’s natural ability and wondrous flair. The question of what makes a gentleman, and the vastly differing definitions of morality and Englishness, are thoroughly explored in this collage that relies on intricate knowledge of Jane Austen, Dickens, and Romantic authors.

Suzzanna Clarke’s novel entered a somewhat familiar space, one perfected by giants such as Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, yet Clarke adopted a slightly different approach to spinning her narrative.

Instead of immersing us simply in the adventures of our protagonists, she offers an in-depth scholarship of magic history, peppering the novel with footnotes and details that make the tome somehow more scholarly and realistic.

In 2004, Clarke won the Man Booker Prize and in 2005, she scooped up the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

No wonder that when hearing about the adaptation of the Susana Clarke’s award-winning novel into a small-screen wonder, I had my reservations, but as per usual, the British made the seemingly impossible into a highly entertaining, amazingly feasible, and magical, producing a wondrous and enchanting series.

Just as with successful adaptations of Pratchett’s books into miniseries, so is the BBC1 treatment of Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell successful at tackling this impossibly complex novel.

The seven-part miniseries premiered on May 17th, and stars Eddie Marsan as Norrell, Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange, and a whole slew of wonderful supporting cast members.

Director Toby Haynes, known for his work on Doctor Who, Five Days, and Being Human, does a masterful job at convivially depicting the lush 19th century period drama, with just a smidgeon of well-executed, yet simple effects that allow us to fully immerse in the story, and is a well-known fan of the book.

The miniseries is an absolute must-watch, offering that rare combination of romantic, gothic drama, with a smidgeon of the strange, the funny, the tyrannical, and the morose, all wrapped in a fine, silken robe.

Terry Pratchett RIP

Terry Pratchett Drawn by Jack Kirby
There are no words to express my sadness at the passing of Terry Pratchett. Today, Pratchett, who has been battling Alzheimer’s in only a way he can: publicly, with humility, humour, and honesty, passed away today at tender age of 66.

Discworld novels have filled many days and made them irreverent, funny, wonderous and imaginative.

My heart clenches at the thought of such an immense loss of a creative powerhouse that is Terry Pratchess. He would, you see, never call himself a creative powerhouse, yet his work was prolific as he authored over 70 novels, many of which were turned into memorable, wonderful, amazing television productions.

At last, Sir Terry, We Must Walk Together.

Read more here.

Update: The Obituary

Commentary: On the Jian Ghomeshi Debacle

by Irma Arkus

Jian Ghomeshi is a soft-spoken radio host who works for CBC. He recently launched a lawsuit against the CBC for a bagillion dollars, with which he intends to decorate his castle, I presume.

The whole maelstrom surrounding the injustice against Mr. Ghomeshi has taken the world by storm. Reddit is discussing it, The Guardian is covering it, The Tyee has written about the BDSM element that “just doesn’t add up” so I can throw my 5 cents into the eye of the storm, just for the record.

I find it absurd that “Canadian radio’s brightest star” would be shunned by the CBC over what he surmises are ugly rumours and unsubstantiated accusations.

After posting a letter on Facebook, in which he explains that his BDSM inclinations are being misconstrued by his employer, Ghomeshi filed a significant lawsuit against the CBC.

According to Ghomeshi, these allegations are an act of a vengeful, demonic presence that is his ex-girlfriend and one of those filthy journos who are taking advantage of the situation.

Admittedly, we all dated a demon or two, but most of us never found ourselves in a situation of our high-profile employment being endangered, or worse, resulting in a dismissal.

Unless I’m mistaken, Ghomeshi is not only a beloved star, who has been removing panties with a mere whiff of his pillowy cheeks and fine designer duds for years, but also a union employee. Judging by the barrage of the press coverage, I will also bargain that he has a great PR and legal team at his side.

Not only is he assured of certain protections, but considering his popularity and value to the CBC, whatever the case with the network may be these days, I find it dubious that some barely spun story by a vengeful ex would make for a just cause for his dismissal, no matter the “optics”.

Ghomeshi has select protections as an employee. As an asset of great value, I would assume that the network would go the extra mile to absolutely ensure that Ghomeshi is not faced with a PR disaster of unparalleled proportions based on mere vengeful rumours and fallacies. CBC would do its due dilligence, and prove without a doubt that there is a grievous cause for a dismissal of a major asset, such as Ghomeshi.

So what is the lawsuit really about? Ghomeshi is attempting to save his own skin, build up the presence that will make the audiences wonder “did he or didn’t he” to sow just enough confusion in public that would ensure he gets another gig somewhere. This lawsuit is not about justice, but about visibility, and the fact that you and me are writing and thinking about Ghomeshi, learning how to spell his name correctly, and not reading about Rob Ford.

To assume otherwise would be a grave mistake. So, without jumping to conclusions, I would sit back, watch whatever dirt comes out next, before I jump on the Ghomeshi defense train.

I am sure that the circus has only rolled into town and that there remains a lot more to be witnessed.

Dark Matter Picked Up by SyFy After All

dark_matter

In a strange twist of fate, SyFy picked up Dark Matter for a televised series, after all. The strange travails and trials of the concept that is Dark Matter makes it worth knowing for those itching for pitching.

Mallozzi and Pullie, two Stargate franchise veterans, attempted to bring Dark Matter to television. Their pitch died in executive halls, but after some creative thinking, turned into a comic book script that eventually got picked up by the Dark Horse Comics.

In a strange twist of fate, and this is for all those “try and try again” positivists, the Dark Horse Comics version of Dark Matter got picked up for a pilot by SyFy.

Malllozzi’s and Pullie’s hard work will be paying off in droves. The creative concept at the core of Dark Matter is described by Mallozzi as the story of a “crew of an independent ship who awaken from stasis with no memories of who they are or how they got on board. Their search for answers leads them on a journey that will put them in conflict with some dangerous galactic players,” set in a universe dominated by “multi-national corporations [that] have colonized worlds, exploiting planetary resources and building galaxy-wide empire enforced by ships, private armies, technology, and wealth.”

Executive producers are Jay Firestone, Joseph Mallozzi, Paul Mullie and Vanessa Piazza. The series will be distributed internationally by Endemol Worldwide Distribution.

Mallozzi promises us an adventure with a sense of mystery. We’re all dying in anticipation to see more.

i-Phone 6 is a cheap piece of bendy junk

Yesterday was #Bendgate bonanza. It’s as if consumers around the world woke up with the realization that the semi-disposable pieces of technology that they wait for in crazy line-ups and pay exorbitant amounts of money for are actually getting junkier.

Don’t worry. Apple has us covered. Their first line of consumers determined that the i-Phone series 6, a slightly oversized version of the smartphone that is picking its cues from Samsung, bends when placed in a pocket.

US is by no means a nation of murse-wearers. Dudes in North America apparently love to carry all their junk in their pant pockets, which also explains for scratched up and broken phones in general, as well as an enormous loss of wallets and other such personal items. But I guess if you carry around a small house (read: car) with you, having some puny briefcase or a murse seems redundant.

The thing is, the phone bends. It is bendy. Reports on the “bendiness” of the iPhone 6 come from consumers carrying the device in their front as well as back pockets.

It seems that the phone is simply built too cheaply to maintain its structural integrity, regardless of which pocket you choose.

The aluminum casing, optimized for cost of unit vs. materials expended, is superbly lightweight, but also structurally unsound, bending specifically around the cut-outs for buttons.

This is a typical failure of culturally-relevant product testing, and such things occur more commonly with companies entering new markets, in which as outsiders they have no ability to understand the nuances of the local cultural landscape.

This failure to connect implies that Apple no longer understands the culture of North American consumers. Apple doesn’t comprehend the very cultural norms of the people it hails from.

So the question is – how do Apple executives carry their phones? Do they put them in their pockets?

Watch the bend.

Films No One Should Watch: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

TMNT>

I remember being a kid under the spell of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons. We kicked ass and ate pizza, and dreamt of nothing but hanging out with wise rats while spelunking through sewers of major metropolitan cities.

It made no sense, the cartoon, combining random ass-kickery and enthusiasm dedicated to all things ninja and coolness of katanas with pizza flavor, and yet we loved it. We didn’t try to make sense of why the turtles have morphed into TNMT. Today, a cartoon such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wouldn’t be made. Then again, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shouldn’t have been remade either, and yet here we are.

The latest stab at the childhood hearts and all things awesome by the crippling, life-sucking hand of Michael Bay, took victim of this simple nostalgic concept, and turned it into another action zombie that no one should watch.

This while elephant of a production that cost over $125m to make, and is bound to triple its money in sales, does share one thing with its cartoon inspiration: it makes little sense, except in all the wrong places.

The beauty of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was that the turtles were small, and feisty, and existed outside our reality. They were outsiders who felt it, allowing all the little kids to learn an important lesson: the size doesn’t matter, it’s the attitude and potentially those mean martial art skills that do.

We learned that the inner turtle is a fighter, and I clearly remember being surrounded by all those little kids who for the first time learned about Da Vinci, and the power of jiujitsu, and how much we all agree on pizza being the best food in the world.

In this version of TMNT, we have a convoluted back story of turtles who were really April’s turtles, but not really. You see, she would visit her father’s lab, and was carrying a super sophisticated camcorder for a child, and considered the lab animals her pets, turtles and a rat, feeding them pizza and whatnot. After rescuing the animals during a fire/murder of her father in the lab, she places them on a sewer grate, which is how they end up in the sewers.

Not sure what kind of heartless psychopath April is, but if I rescued pets from my recently departed father’s lab, I’d be taking them home, instead of condemning them to die from drowning or starvation.

You know what happens after that? April forgets all about the pets. She in fact needs to remember them using her video evidence and notebooks.

She is also a reporter. And she is Megan Fox.

This, mind you, is the very same Megan Fox who was banished from Michael Bay’s kingdom, for speaking out against the monarch.

There is the bad guy, played by William Fichtner, and his plan is to extract all the blood from the captured TMNTs, and then synthesize some kind of curative against a toxin that he will himself release onto the population, resulting in both riches and glory.

How blood + toxin + the lab backstory make a congruent narrative is… they don’t.

For some reason, there is also Will Arnett, who is presumably her less attractive, fumbling camera operator/driver. I am quite positive that Arnett is supposed to be the man-candy for the female audiences who are guaranteed to be horrifically bored during the entire film.

Will Arnett is an interesting casting choice, but also represents a painfully wasted opportunity.

The action is glossy. The film is heartless. Lots of jumbly bits convoluting the screen. TMNT win at the end. There are a few mediocre jokes thrown about, here and there.

Also, the new TMNTs are huge. Think “giant turtles.” Their actual size is difficult to approximate, but well above the 6′ mark.

These giant turtles have nothing to do with children, and even less to do with those nostalgic moments filled with laughter, eating ice-pops and playing good-guy ninjas on the playground.

I would go as far as to say that they don’t even have anything to do with teens, except that the film is rated PG-13 for “scifi action violence,” so I guess they are the perfect audience for this incredibly mind-numbing film. Teens, with their limited options for entertainment, are literally forced to go to the local mall and waste their time watching this. That’s the only real teen portion of this film.