Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Adventureland (2009)

"You don't want 'virgin' to be your signifier."

"He takes one semiotics class..."

Ah, the nostalgia. Those halcyon days of uni, youth, much alcohol, the smoking of certain substances (not entirely off topic for this film!), terrible nightclubs (ditto) and Saussurean linguistics. It takes me back.

First things first, though: in spite of the fact that both films star Jesse Eisenberg, both were released in 2009 and both have similar titles, this film is not connected to Zombieland. Not, despite the uncanny similarities of Jesse Eisenberg's character getting dumped as he's introduced to us, is it connected to The Social Network.

It is, however, a brilliant and justly acclaimed film that deserves to be better known. Oh, structurally it may be a romantic comedy by numbers: boy meets girl; boy loses girl through series of complex event involving love triangles on both sides; boy really goes extra mile and gets girl back. The structure is nothing new. But within that structure it's funny: the dialogue is witty, intellectual and laugh out load hilarious. The characterisation is similarly superb. Basically, it rocks. And Joel is officially the coolest guy ever.

Even better than that, though, is the soundtrack. This film is set in an expertly realised 1987, and the tone is alternative '80s, meaning loads of my favourite bands. We open to "Bastards of Young" by the Replacements, no less, and the emotionally pivotal scene gets "Unsatisfied", a song which I love passionately and which, if you haven't yet heard, you must hear immediately. Seriously. The Velvet Underground are, quite rightly, everywhere and, incidentally, the subtitles tell me I've been getting the lyrics wrong for "Here She Comes Now" for years. Er, "She becomes my mouth", anyone?

Give this overlooked film a chance. It rocks in more ways than one.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Humans: Episode 7

"Oh, David. What did you do?"

Things get more and more intense this episode until the climax, which promises to lead to an emotionally draining finale. Humans, it's now clear, is one of the all time greats of British television.

The world has turned upside-down. Laura has to learn to make her own coffee again. But we begin ominously, with a flashback to Karen's creation and her traumatic rejection by Leo and her other siblings. In the present, protest rallies indicate an ominous was beyond the characters we know. 

The synths and the Hawkins'- including Joe- are altogether and seem to be getting on in a way which, despite some awkwardness, seems at first to hold out hope for peaceful co-existence. Even Joe seems to accept the nature of these sentient synth siblings. Best of all, it seems that Max could possibly be saved.

But in the background lurks Karen, whose story comes out both through Pete's investigations and in her conveniently expository chat with George. It seems Karen represents the overreaching of David Elster- a recreation of his dead beloved. His other creations reacted with hostility to her unveiling, and that night he killed himself. Karen has been left conversation need that she and her sentient synths are not meant to be, and must be destroyed. This is disturbing. Is she so very different, in extending her death wish to others, to those who kill their families before turning the gun on themselves? There is no excuse for her. She wants to murder sentient beings. And (I'm calling it) this makes her capable of killing humans. It must be her- not Niska, not Fred- who is the killer synth.

One thing is certain: she shoots George, and that's a shock. Is it an accident? Perhaps. Still, George's death is extremely moving, with the similarly dying Odi by his side, filling his last moments with memories of his late wife.

That's the most moving moment. The most disturbing is when Mia discusses with him how he had sex with Anita, telling him that "I was in there the whole time". Mia is clever, psychologically acute, nice and has a sense of humour. She may joke to Laura that "They think we plan to conquer the planet and make humanity our slaves", but the point is that synths have no united agenda of any kind. Why should they? They may not be human, but they're people, with all the messy diversity that implies.

And yet- can synths truly be happy in their skin? Karen isn't. And, as Leo tells Mattie. We are not emotionally designed for perfect recall. It is a curse to be denied the luxury of forgetting. That's the think about Humans: it's always throwing out cool ideas like this.

Our happy little family of Hawkinses and synths is upset by discord, firstly by the evaluation that Joe called the police on Leo and Max, and secondly by some TV footage of Niska at the synth Fight Club implying that she's a killer. (Is she? I think not, and the heartwarming scenes of her playing with Sophie are there to get us to earn to her.)

Max, it seems, cannot be salvaged, but the code in his head is still there, and could be used to bring sentience to all synths worldwide. But that's a whole different kettle of fish, and starts a debate for which there simply isn't time: Laura, putting her family first, asks them to leave. But, before they can do so, the trap springs. Karen betrays them, and riot police storm the house....

How can I be expected to wait until Sunday? How?

Monday, 27 July 2015

Freaky Friday (2003)

"I look like Stevie Nicks!"

"Who's he?"

Another remake by Disney, then, and yet again this is a rare case of a remake being superior to the original. It's much better paced, for a start- as firmly established by the opening montage- and a hell of a lot less sexist; this time the mother, Tess, is a psychiatrist rather than a housewife and the daughter, Anna, plays lead guitar in a band that sounds a bit like the Donnas or Verruca Salt. 

(While we're on the subject, incidentally, the film has an excellent soundtrack. And I'm reminded how good mainstream guitar music was back in 2003. Unlike Anna, I rather liked the White Stripes.)

This is a much faster-paced film than the original, thanks both to a much snappier s riot which cuts down on needless exposition and a much more creative directorial style; kids' films have changed a lot in twenty-seven years.

But the standout reason why the film is so watchable is, of course, Janie Lee Curtis, a superbly talented comic actress. As for Lindsay Lohan... well, personal life aside, she can certainly act.

Downsides? You could argue that there's a little light racism directed against the Chinese, perhaps, but while this isn't perfect I think that would be a more than harsh judgement. Could a band really win a competition in spite of its guitarist doing naff all for the first minutes of the song? I think yet. But I'm not going to labour the point. This isn't the greatest film ever made, being a bit of lightweight fluff designed for watchability rather than depth, yes. But there's nothing wrong with that. Well worth watching.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Humans: Episode 6

"If you power me down now, I will be unable to penetrate your wife."

It had to be that quote. There were plenty of potentials early on but when that one came along I knew it was The One.

Anyway, Humans. The revelations and the drama continue as per the last two episodes in what is turning out to be an interesting visually well-paced eight-parter, with no signs thus far of things dragging. Yes, there are times where the story has slowed down to explore theme and character, but there has been no padding. The writers deserve praise for that. 

They also deserve praise for this episode as a whole. The early scene with Fred, thus far a neglected character, both shows him to be a fascinating individual and raises the possibility that he, not Biska or Karen, may turn out to be the "killer synth". He's now on the loose. Max, too, gets a chance to shine, and die heroically to boot, as we examine his personality. He's a lovely bloke- loving, caring,  trusting, if not stupidly so, and with a faith in both humanity and, tentatively at least, God; the scene where he prays is quietly powerful. And yet he's the one who dies in an act of self sacrifice. What happens to Leo we will find out next week.

The repercussions of Joe's somewhat tapes act of infidelity are profound, yet they lead to a moving rapprochement of sorts between Laura and Mattie as we discover who the mysterious Tom was. It seems he was Laura's younger brother, who died as a child while his older sister was dying to look after him. Since then Laura has been dead to her awful mother, and Laura is terrified that the cycle is continuing with her and Mattie. I feel it won't, somehow.

The relationship between Biska and George continues to fascinate; Niska won't admit it, but heckles the old man. And we empathise with him, too, especially as we discover that George, after a stroke, has forgotten all about his late wife, relying on Odi to keep memories for him. It's clear he loves that poorly synth.

Niska, meanwhile, is five years younger than Mia and, it's implied, was used early on by David Elster as a concubine. Lovely. How very rapey. There's an obvious parallel here with Joe. 

Most dramatically, though, Mia makes a brief appearance to Laura and Mattie; the Anita personality keeps deleting her on the surface but she is always there in the nervous system, a metaphor for the subconscious. Interestingly, she says that she lost a son. This leads to Mattie and Laura making contact with a philosophical Max and a disconsolate and nearly dead Leo. At this point the revelations cone thick and fast, about David Elster's use of synth tech to resurrect his brain-dead son, of Nia being made as his surrogate mother, then Fred, Niska and Max, before his mysterious suicide. 

Mia agrees to stay with Laura and Mattie for the time being, but the increasingly creepy Hoe decides to snitch on Leo and Max, with the aforementioned tragic consequences. Is this the point where he stops being an empathetic character and just becomes pathetic?

Perhaps the most tragic character is Karen, though: after making love to her "favourite human", Pete, she all but declared her love for him and reveals her true nature, only to be horribly rejected by the appalled Pete, whose dislike of synths is well-established. This is yet another cliffhanger on an episode which is even more superb than usual. I can't wait until next time.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Humans: Episode 5

"She saved our son's life. And you're calling her a sex toy!"

Lots of revelations this week, some of them dramatic. It may be an episode of, essentially, exposition, but this is how you do it.

We begin with the meme of a "killer synth" having escaped into the public imagination, and we assume that it's Niska. Isn't that too obvious, though? Could it be Karen, for example? Interesting, if so: she and Pete are put on to the case.

We continue with a family debate about what to do with Anita. Joe, with a dirty secret to hide, wants rid of her, but no one else does, motivated by curiosity and not a little affection. Something is going to happen.

Leo sends Niska to George, where she'll be safe,which is awfully crazy newbie to because the two of them are both fascinating in their interaction and able to further the plot by exchanging information; for the first time it's confirmed that Niska was constructed by the mysterious David Elster.

Joe nearly succeeds in getting rid of Anita and his dirty secret, but she is rescued by the increasingly heroic Matilda and taken to Leo and Max, only for a devastated Leo to ultimately fail at restoring Mia from inside her. This is a crushing blow both to him and to us.

George experiences a fascinating, philosophical side to Niska, as he exposure that he was "lured over" from MIT, twenty-five years ago, to join David Elster in his work. But Elster, apparently, intended to pursue consciousness, hence his children. Even curiouser, Leo Elster was officially declared brain dead; this gives us a heavy hint as to how and why he now appears to be some sort of cyborg.

The big revelation finally arrives: Mattie notices that Anita's sex circuits have been activated. At first Leo is blamed, and is happy to take the rap for his dad, but Joe isn't quite as bad as all that and eventually confesses. This is very well written and played; Joe is arguably a rapist of sorts, but he is not played as a monster, just as a weak man. Tom Goodman-Hilll deserves a lot of praise here.

This leads, of course, to a lot of drama and to Laura throwing Joe out. Whatever the arguments about whether he's committed adultery or a type of masturbation with a sex toy, what really disgusts Laura is how rapey it all feels.

Pete, meanwhile, has his anti-synth feelings reinforced throughout the episode- he has, after all, been cuckolded by one. An interesting scene sees him attending an event on the streets, addressed by a fascinatingly persuasive anti-synth demagogue. All this is clearly leading up to something. As are many things. Humans still rocks.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Battleship Potemkin (1925)

"Down with tsarism!"

Obviously, this is a much-admired film, largely because of the inspiring and extraordinary effective use of montage in the "Odessa Steps" sequence to manipulate our emotions. Sergei Eisenstein, like a Bolshevik Steven Spielberg, uses masterful framing and editing techniques to maximise the pathos of the (entirely fictional) massacre of the universally revolutionary population of Odessa at the hands of some nasty Cossacks. It is indeed both effective and extraordinarily both technically as cinema and as propaganda; Goebbels admired The Battleship Potemkin. Not to the point of allowing it to be shown in Nazi Germany, of course, but he admired it as propaganda. But what is left for me to say about it?

Well, the Odessa Steps sequence is but six minutes out of seventy-three. The rY pRt of the film is set entirely within the cramped confines of the eponymous battleship, a considerable contrast with the later scenes. Tension is built up, with an officer attacking a recruit, unprovoked, and maggot-riven meat being the catalyst for an uprising. The moustaches and stiff collars of the officers- this is 1905 and the time of the Sevastopol uprising and the Japanese victory over Russia- alienate them from us as much as their evil, scowling faces. This being propaganda, characterisation is simple. Vakulinchuk, the leader of the revels, is martyred and fetishised much as was being done to the recently departed Lenin shortly before the film was made. And it's tempting to see Vakulinchuk, more directly than Marx, as the I spirTion for the character of Old Major in Heorge Orwell's Animal Farm.

The Russian navy of 1905 looks positively Nelsonisn in parts, with its hammocks and maggot-infested meat. But I suppose the impression of ancient regime archaism is the point. The film is based on an event, manipulated and used to stand for the Russian Revolution in microcosm. 

This is a genuine milepost in cinematic technique on the part of the Odessa Steps sequence. I wouldn't say it's quite as affecting as its reputation- I found the sailors less than hugely sympathetic- but it's a film every film buff should see. If nothing else, it's an early triumph of direction.

Penny Dreadful: Verbis Diablo

"Is this what it's like to go mad? Your darkest fears made manifest before your eyes?"

More of the same superbly stylish horror-tinged Victoriana, then, as the focus shifts away from Mrs Poole and her witch underlings' psychic war against Vanessa to the careful simmering of other incipient plotlines.

First we have Caliban and his bride, named Lily by Frankenstein, as her creator shows her how to use language. Yet there are hints that she is becoming much closer to her creator than to her "betrothed". A surprising emphasis is placed on Sir Malcolm introducing Vanessa to the experience of charity work he performs to soothe his soul, but the main function of this scene is probably to engineer a meeting, and an interesting philosophical chat, between Caliban and Vanessa. The two do not agree on religion, but they seem to find a mutual affection and understanding.

Dorian Gray still pines for Vanessa, but is accosted by a prostitute, Veronique, who is bold enough to tell him that she fancies the pants off him, or Victorian words to that effect. Upon visiting her at her brother (she needs a firm hand, apparently!), of course, he is both unsurprised and unbothered to see that she is transgender, as the Victorians would certainly not have said, and genitally male.

There is also an erotic frisson between Sir Malcolm and Mrs Poole, mich though he may insist that, although separated, he is married and thus unavailable: the principled Victorian gentleman.

Mrs Poole is, of course, extremely nasty, calling Vanessa the c word and blackmailing poor Mr Lyle, who has the misfortune of being born at a bad time to be gay. Mr Lyke is extremely likeable, both for his endearing mannerisms in flirting with Ethan  ("American! I am undone!") and for his knowledge of the eponymous Verbis Diablo, a demonic and little-known tongue which Vanessa has been speaking. But the history is ominous; the writer of the sole extant text was burned at the stake.

We end with some quite disturbing scenes as Mrs Poole, surrounded by some extremely freaky dolls, proceeds to vivisect a recently-kidnapped baby, which isn't very nice but is a triumph of direction on the part of James Hawes. This is a most effectively freaky scene.

And Mrs Poole has a freaky dummy of Vanessa...

Humans: Episode 4

"I'm an analogue man in a digital world..."

The usual excellence continues in terms of script, execution and performances, but this time the plot gathers pace. I haven't minded the slow pace of the plot so far- it's been fun exploring this fascinating world and characters- but now it's time for things to pick up pace. And that's what we get.

Our first bombshell is when Pete, our distinctly robophobic sacked detective, gets dumped, cuckolded (symbolically, at least) by a synth called Simon. But soon we turn back to our main family, as Anita seems to show affection towards Toby and Joe wrongly suspects Laura of having an affair. The point is, though, that their relationship is in such a state that he could think such a thing. Laura, meanwhile, gets ever more intrigued about Anita and her increasing signs of sentience ("Anita, do you ever get scared?" "I think everyone does").

A line gets crossed, though, when Joe activates Anita's sex drive and does the deed with her. I suppose there's a debate to be had about whether this was technically sex or masturbation, but there's no doubt that he's cheated on Laura. And it's implicit that he will eventually be found out, especially as Laura wants to take Anita for a diagnostic check and to delve into her past.

A linked ethical dilemma occurs at a party for the youngsters: Mattie behaves, quite rightly, as though having sex with an unconscious synth is rape. Because, if men behave like that to synths, even those without sentience, they will do the same to women. But, of course, the underlying thought (most blatantly shown by the case of the woman objecting to her synth being ejected from a theatrical performance on grounds of his "human" rights) is about the ethics of how we should behave to artificial intelligences. At what point does it stop being a household appliance and start being an enslaved person? The answer, I suppose, lies in the concept of the Singularity.

There's an intriguing meeting between Mattie and Leo, but it isn't long before she rather cleverly gives them the slip. Still, he and Max are clearly getting closer and closer to "Mia". Laura and Joe discover more about her at the diagnostic check, too: far from being new, she's at least fourteen years old. Still, at least Joe's infidelity remains a secret for now.

Things really hot up at the end with the respective plotlines of Leo and Niska. Firstly, Leo meets Geirge Mullican and reveals that he is Leo Elster, the apparently dead son of the mysterious David Elster, who apparently granted sentience to Mia, Max, Niska and Fred.  It seems, also, thT a mysterious program is written into all of them, with all needing to be together for the jigsaw to be complete.

Niska's storyline, though, gets disturbing. Discovering not only prejudice against synths but a secret club for humans to beat synths into a synthetic pulp, she responds by angrily beating up the humans, only to find that the synths she "rescued" are nothing but uncaring machines. Still, this means war between Niska and humanity; her storyline isn't going to end well. We end the episode with her capture by the police seemingly inevitable except that she receives an unexpected phone call. Leo drops his bombshell and, in rather thrilling scenes, she escapes. 

There's one final surprise, though; Katen has accepted Peter into her home for the time being and we're misdirected into thinking that there may be sexual tension between them until the final few seconds and the big reveal: Karen is a synth!!! This is all the more effective for the cleverness of the misdirection.

Humans, at this point, is by far the best thing that's been on telly this year. Utterly superb.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Humans: Episode 3

"Dr. Millican! This is highly unsafe!"

Humans just keeps getting better and better. And that Kraftwerk-inspired theme tune is really growing on me.

Last week's cliffhanger is resolved, perhaps, with a bit of a cheat; Anita gets a reprieve by saving Toby's life, and by that point it's clear that no one else in her family agrees with her about taking Anita back. Nothing is resolved, though. Not for Anita and not within the family.

Probably the standout performances of the episode (taking Rebecca Chan's awfulness for granted, that is) are Rebecca Front as the tyrannical synth nurse Vera and Emily Berrington as the increasingly disturbed and upset Niska, for whom the world grows ever more nightmarish. It is a world like ours, but with little tell-tale signs of synth charging points. Immutable human nature is present and correct, but the synths are having a malign effect, an effect largely foreshadowed in Isaac Asimov's tales of the Spacers. But I doubt we'll be getting an Elijah Baley here. Instead we have an awkward and vaguely transgressive sexual tension between Joe and Anita as she asks him to inspect her naked body for damage. Is it mutual? Worse, with the addition of young Toby could we have a budding love triangle here?

Meanwhile, Niska's murder of that paedophile last episode is being investigated by detectives Pete and Karen, setting off a chain of events leading to the distinctly synth-phobic Pete losing his job. The whole thing is covered up; the public must not be told that the synths on which they rely could sometimes be killers. Now, though, Niska is deciding that, not only is she going to go rogue from human society, she also wants to dissociate herself from the mysterious Leo and become the ultimate lone wolf. Do I suspect some sort of one woman crusade against humans may be in the offing? Interestingly, she is seen reading The Ghost in the Machine by Arthur Koestler. Mrs Llamastrangler is reminded of Alpha from Dollhouse.

Niska gets an interesting series of scenes in which she allows a man to pick her up and follows him home, expecting him to be violent, lecherous and nasty and intending to kill him. Instead, he turns out to be nice, interested in her as a person and a devoted father. Instead of killing him, she simply leaves.

The episode's most tragic scene sees George, seemingly, saying a final goodbye to the malfunctioning Odi, who runs into the woods to die. Or so it seems. But it seems George has a past; he was deeply involved with the development of synths. Anita's past as Mia is briefly revealed during an abortive hack by Matilda, but she posts the results online. It seems that buried secrets from the past will soon be uncovered. One of them seems likely to be the mysterious "Tom", whom Laura does not wish to discuss. A lover? A dead child? Something else?

Humans is so good I just don't know how to praise it. I'm salivating at the thought of the five episodes to come.