Saturday, August 8, 2015

To Be or...: AMC's Humans


The AMC/Channel Four summer SF series, Humans, which just finished its first season last Sunday, focuses on the familiar theme of what it means to be human in a world being run largely by synthetic life. Loosely based on the 2012 Scandinavian show, Äkta människor (Real Humans), Humans (which is set in a future Britain that doesn't look dramatically different from the present) is a densely plotted, yet engaging, serial drama that sets itself up as a thriller, but resists the kind of melodramatic mechanics that give most popular television programs their push. Although that approach is certainly laudable, and it never becomes languid (especially given that other successful thrillers like True Detective manufacture suspense by mainlining dread), there is a pronounced lack of suspense despite the very nature of the story. Since Humans wants to be on the human side of every issue there seems to be little of consequence despite the consequences that unfold. Even so, the cast – whether they are playing real people or synths – have dimensions built into their roles which gives the plot some pep and purpose.

Friday, August 7, 2015

While We’re Young: Do Not Go Gentle into Middle Age

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts in While We're Young

Noah Baumbach’s early comedies, Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy, were so fresh in the writing that the deficiencies in the filmmaking didn’t seem important (Baumbach both wrote and directed); they were like minimalist movie versions of terrific little plays, performed with brio by casts of talented young actors. Kicking and Screaming reworked territory – the reluctance of young men to grow up and enter the world – that had been famously inhabited by earlier directors, notably Fellini in I Vitelloni and Barry Levinson in Diner (which was his own version of I Vitelloni), but Baumbach’s loose, gabby approach made it feel like a series of explosively funny bull sessions. And I’d never seen anything precisely like Mr. Jealousy, where Eric Stoltz becomes so obsessed with his girl friend’s past relationship with a hip novelist that he joins the novelist’s therapy group. Almost two decades after seeing Mr. Jealousy, I can still run scenes through my mind and chuckle over them.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Incoherent Film: Woody Allen’s Irrational Man

Emma Stone and Jaoquin Phoenix in Woody Allen's Irrational Man.

What to make of Woody Allen’s latest movie Irrational Man? Not much, actually. The drama about jaded, lacklustre university professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) who only comes to emotional life when he plots to kill a stranger mines much of the same territory, concerning morality and the meaning of justice versus injustice, that Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) did. It also delves into the same mystery tropes, such as how to best commit the perfect murder that was the subject of Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) and Match Point (2005). Not much new here, then, other than the film’s Newport, Rhode Island setting and, believe it or not, a somewhat more modern soundtrack. (The Ramsey Lewis Trio’s 60s tracks used in the movie, "Wade in the Water" and "The In Crowd” are poppier than Allen’s usual classical/jazz standards, but also overused here.) There’s also the welcome presence of Emma Stone, who also starred in Allen’s last movie, Magic in the Moonlight (2014). As Jill Pollard, Lucas’s student who falls hard for him and becomes reluctantly involved in his immoral machinations, she pretty much steals the movie, except there’s so little to Irrational Man that hers is really not much of an accomplishment.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

CD Projekt Red and The DLC Renaissance

Internet users put their Photoshop skills to use in expressing their frustration with the way DLC has changed over the years.

Media products have interesting lifespans. Like us, they are born, they live, and they fade away – but unlike us, their lives can be artificially extended. An artist will expand upon an existing work, investing it with new perspective, or maybe the benefit of sales revenue will prompt a re-release of a much-loved classic. We see it across all media: albums get reissues and special editions, movies get bonus features and director’s cuts, and games get something called downloadable content.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Evidence and Memory: Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee in 1961. (Photo: Donald Uhrbrock/Time & Life Pictures)

The New York Times announced on February 3 the imminent publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman—an early manuscript, the rejected draft of which inspired a rewrite resulting in To Kill a Mockingbird, winner of a 1960 Pulitzer Prize and still among the most beloved of American novels. The manuscript, thought to be lost or destroyed, had lately been discovered by Tonja Carter, Lee’s lawyer, but doubts were immediately raised about the legitimacy of its publication. The 88-year-old Lee, it was pointed out, had suffered a stroke in 2007, and might be insufficiently compos mentis to authorize (or even understand) the release of a moldering, long since rejected work—one which, in any case, she herself had not seen fit to publish in all the intervening years, despite every opportunity and incentive to do so. Added to this was the fact that Lee’s sister and protector, Alice, had died in the fall of 2014: some claimed that Alice, at Harper’s behest, had purposely blocked publication of Watchman, and that its appearance so soon after her death smelled of exploitative cause and effect. Yet statements endorsing the publication and attributed to Lee were released through her publisher and lawyer, and her agent—while noting his client’s puzzlement about why people were interested in the book now—indicated no veto action on her part. That publisher, lawyer, and agent all stand to benefit nicely from the publication is duly noted, but others visiting Lee at her assisted-living facility in Alabama have likewise claimed that she is well aware of, and quite happy about, the book’s appearance.

Monday, August 3, 2015

War as Hell: What Price Glory? and The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel

Americans haven’t written many war plays, but I would say there are two great ones: What Price Glory? by Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings, from 1924, set in France during the First World War, and David Rabe’s The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, about Vietnam, which was first produced while the war was still going on, in 1971. Both take an anti-war stance, but in almost every other way they are strikingly different; even as anti-war plays they’re distinct from each other. Still I don’t think it’s possible to think about what Rabe accomplishes in the angry, poetic Expressionist fable Pavlo Hummel without considering the groundwork Anderson and Stallings laid for the war play in What Price Glory?, which was tremendously successful on Broadway and spawned two movie versions as well as three sequels to the first (silent) one.

The fact that there were sequels to a film adaptation of a war play points to the unusual quality of What Price Glory?, which belongs to another genre as well, the hard-boiled comedy. Hard-boiled comedies were almost entirely creations of the theatre of the 1920s: The Front Page, Once in a Lifetime and the original (non-musical) Chicago are the best-known ones, though Robert Altman’s 1970 movie M*A*S*H is an example from a much later era. In fact, What Price Glory? clearly paved the way for M*A*S*H, which has a wartime setting (Korea). Hard-boiled comedies are cynical, satirical and anti-authoritarian, and their heroes are shrewd, quick-witted professionals who excel at their jobs and have a highly developed nose for bullshit, not to mention an instinctual intolerance for it. The heroes of Anderson and Stallings’s play are Captain Flagg and First Sergeant Quirt, career soldiers with a checkered history: they’re buddies and rivals who have fought over one woman or another in a series of military outposts, and in more than one war. Their present military ranks are as temporary as everything else about them: Quirt was once a captain, but Flagg reduced his pal's rank at some point over a woman.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The New Cold War in Jason Matthews' Palace of Treason

Novelist Jason Matthews. (Photo: Nicole Bengiveno / The New York Times)

“[Putin] was a natural conspirator who was concerned about one thing – sila – power, strength, force. It was having and keeping sila that everything else derived: personal wealth, Russian resurgence, territory, oil, global respect, fear, women.”
–  Jason Matthews, Palace of Treason (Scribner, 2015)
In his debut thriller Red Sparrow, Jason Matthews introduced Dominika Egorova of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), one of the most intriguing heroines to grace the espionage genre. Courageous, a stunningly attractive former ballerina and capable of unleashing lethal force on anyone who presents a threat, Dominika is a synesthete endowed with the gift of seeing emotions as colours above the heads of those around her. (When I reviewed Sparrow two years ago, I mistakenly suggested that her synesthesia was a metaphor for heightened intuition. I have since learned that synesthesia is a neurological condition that may affect four percent of the population. Those who experience this phenomenon usually see colours in letters and numbers or associate sounds with colours, but in some rarer cases a synesthete can associate particular colours with specific people. The latter application is the most relevant to Dominika.) She is also a graduate of the Sparrow School, where male and female agents are taught advanced sexual techniques as an aid to seduction and recruitment. Dominika is recruited by Nate Nash, an internal-ops officers, also tasked with handling CIA assets. His aura is deep purple, one that is “warm, honest and safe.” But the increasingly reckless Nate breaks every rule of security by becoming involved with Dominika. In the sequel, Palace of Treason, Mathews provides sufficient back story so that anyone can enjoy this novel without having read its predecessor.