Monsters: Dark Continent

Monsters: Dark Continent: full of 'gunfire and macho posturing'.

A follow-up to Gareth Edwards hipster take on an alien invasion genre, this independently-standing sequel directed by Tom Green better known for his work on Misfits and Blackout, takes us to a more Joseph Conrad-inspired corner.

The film is set years from the original, in which we encounter two mopey and entirely unsympathetic examples of humanity. This time, our focus is on a group of soldiers who are fighting in the “infected zones.”

The first film left us viewing humanity with suspicion, but also established military actions as the failed attempt at pushing back the organic invasion of an alien origin that started to alter everything from plants to growing highly complex organisms. A more subtle take on the concept we previously encontered in Evolution, a film from a few years back (which I contended would have made for one of the most cracking television shows, ever) with David Duchovny and Orlando Jones, Monsters is using the alien elements in order to eviscerate the stories of humanity, or lack thereof.

The Dark Continent continues with this mode, offering us an insight into a fun group of young men who grew up together, pay for strippers together, enjoy a little bit of cocaine, and are unabashedly gross, but in a purely nihilistic form, preparing for a potential death that is to come. They do love each other, however, and are willing to die for one another.

Green’s lense captures a delightful portrait of humanity, one that is as dark, as it is imbued with potential for heroics, love, honor, and loyalty.

Amongst the young men is an old “lion,” an American spetsnaz, if you may, played by Johnny Harris.

The group is sent not only to battle the megalithic monsters, roaming the deserts, but the insurgent population, rising with anger at loss of lives and violence.

We meet Harris in the field, as a sniper who manages to shoot his target, whose background is unknown.

Harris is not only a commanding officer, a survivor, and a tough man to kill, but also one who can make the tough decisions: when to kill for mercy, what to do to survive, and what price he is willing to pay to live.

The rag-tag team is sent to bring back four men, but the insurgency quickly turns into a real threat, and most of the friends die in variety of agonizing deaths.

Sam, played by Michael Parkes, survives. Together with Noah, played by Johnny Harris, the two escape, with an eye to complete the mission.

Thirsty, tired, and injured, they traverse the dessert and find a bombed school bus, full of dead children but one. Noah’s instinct is to kill the boy and spare him an agonizing death, but Sam looks to another kind of mercy.

In a moment of despair, inching toward a loss of emotional and physical exhaustion, the two are rescued by bedouins, who take them in for their rescue of the boy from the bus.

Bedouin women are known for their beauty, we soon discover, as Sam’s becomes intrigued by the dark-haired woman in a blood-red shawl. They eat, they sing around the fire, and hydrate.

Sam’s intrigue leads him to a burial ground, where the bedouin princess weeps over numerous bodies of children, while Noah witnesses the death of the boy they rescued, and experiences his own emotional catharsys. Noah is a father, and the only thing that stands between him and his own family is completing the mission. For a second, Noah’s darkness emerges, in its raw, emotional power, as his love becomes an expression of hate, death, and rage.

In the midst of all this death, carnage, and sadness, the monsters emerge in the night, with their animalistic features, tentacles, grasping for one another, moaning sounds of giants, until they release electrifying spores floating through the air.

Morning arises, bringing small acts of kindness and glimpses of humanity, interrupted by Noah’s violent impression of the sense of urgency they face. Getting back to the mission leads them to a bedouin boy whose treasure lies in an old tea tin. Inside it is an alien version of a cuttlefish, but flying, wiggling through the air, until it dissolves into large tentacles absorbed by the fine sands beneath their feet.

Reaching the city, instead of finding the men they were to rescue, they find a pile of corpses. None are alive. Noah loses control, and shoots an innocent man as he looks for answers to meaningless deaths of humanity. Sam has no option but to shoot to stop him from further annihilation. Bullet through the kidney makes him stop, stumble out, only to witness something much larger in the foreground.

The landscape is in turmoil. Tentacles size of buildings arise, ushered by dust, and a scream of a much larger alien than even the megaliths witnessed earlier. Sam is a witness to this gargantuan living thing, but also a witness to continuous struggle of humanity, embroiled in death, love, fighting.

Green’s visceral take on Monsters is an transparent homage to true and tried giants of cinema such as Armageddon. This film is an direct interpretation of the Heart of Darkness, with a science fiction element that provides an powerful image of the other. As such, this film presents us with an examination of contemporary politics and mores, themes and realities of middle-eastern conflicts, still ongoing. It also provides us however, with an insightful if painful reminder of the inescapable loss justified through mechanisms of conflict.

The world in Monsters is changing, dying, as it is being transformed into an alien landscape that has no room for humanity. This end of world scenario is an exploration of an inner conflict between what we assume are qualities of humanity, and that of its loss in high-conflict, high-stress areas, and Green tackles this with gusto.

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.