Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

January 26, 2016

Review: Lucifer is devilishly entertaining

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:26 am

“Men never sell their souls, they give them away.”
Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword

A devilishly handsome man driving a snazzy convertible gets pulled over by a motorcycle policeman.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?” the cop asks.

“Obviously you felt the need to exercise your limited powers and punish me for ignoring the speed limit,” the driver replies.

The driver is Lucifer Morningstar (Tom Ellis), who has grown bored with reigning in hell and is now the owner of a piano bar in the City of Angels. In the first few minutes we see his power to tempt. Specifically by getting the cop to accept a large wad of cash after sharing his deepest naughty desire. In his case he sometimes turns on the siren and races down the road at great speed for no other reason than it’s a lot of fun.

Within the first 10 minutes Lucifer tells a young recording star (AnnaLynne McCord) that her troubles are all on her. Nobody made her do the drink, the drugs, and the topless selfies but herself.

And contrary to all expectations, Lucifer makes her promise to pull herself together.

Then she’s murdered in front of him, and Lucifer demonstrates a second power. He briefly revives the corpse of the murderer and wrings some information out of him. He was hired, by somebody.

Finding that somebody is what the pilot episode of Lucifer is all about.

Lucifer is a character created by Neil Gaiman, and originally appeared in DC’s The Sandman comics in 1989.

Personality-wise he owes something to Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost.

Milton’s most famous line, “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven,” has convinced generations of young rebels that Satan was the hero of Paradise Lost, which would have distressed Milton greatly.

He also has a bit of the 19th century anti-religious sentiment expressed by Edward FitzGerald in his thoroughly unreliable bowdlerization of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Oh Thou who Man from mortal clay didst make,
And even in Eden didst provide the snake,
For all the sin with which Man’s face is blackened,
Man’s forgiveness give – and take.

Because Lucifer complains a bit about the role his Father has consigned him to. In particular he complains to the Angel Amenadiel (D.B. Woodside), who shows up at the Lux piano bar to tell him his return to hell is requested.

“Let me check my calendar. The seventh of never to the fifteenth of ain’t gonna happen, how’s that work for you?”

One foresees conflict in their future.

In the immediate future Lucifer teams up with Los Angeles PD Detective Chloe Dancer, who seems immune to his charms – which he finds intriguing. Enough to join her in solving crimes. Which she’s going to have to put up with, because in spite of being irritated by him he gets results.

She’s a gal who made some mistakes once, then turned around and made something of herself, neither excusing nor wallowing in them.
Dancer has a seven-year-old daughter who’s intrigued by Lucifer, much to his discomfort.

“Like the Devil?” she asks awe-struck.

Supporting characters include Lucifer’s therapist (!!!) Linda (Rachel Harris) , who he’s going to have a more than professional relationship with, and Mazikeen (Lesley-Ann Brandt) a Lilin, descendant of Lilith, Adam’s first wife.

Mazikeen complains a bit herself.

“I didn’t leave hell to become a bar tender,” she gripes.

Already there have been complaints from the religious. Like they didn’t know that was going to happen.

I’m going to suggest they take another look. Behind the wisecracking banter and the “look how naughty we are” anti-clerical attitude (like so 19th century) there is some fairly serious personal responsibility stuff here.

Lucifer is downright irritated at the notion he “buys” souls. No he doesn’t. He doesn’t even offer you a choice. He makes it plain the choice is yours, the most he’ll do is tell you how much fun the wrong one is going to be – for a while.

As one character from the comic put it, “When the Devil wants you to do something, he doesn’t lie at all. He tells you the exact, literal truth. And he lets you find your own way to Hell.”

The fact is, the figure of Satan, the Devil, Lucifer (Latin, “light bearer”) Son of the Morning, owes far more to folklore than to scripture.

Satan means “enemy” or “adversary” in Hebrew, and in the earliest references in the Bible are often plural rather than a singular great enemy. It’s not even certain Satan is the same figure as that Hellel ben Shahar, “Daystar Son of the Morning” associated with the planet Venus as it appears in the morning.

There is a hint of an icky-sticky-gooey Bad Guy saved by the pure love of an innocent little girl storyline, which I hope they’ll do something with more original than seems likely. We’ll see.

Then again perhaps I’m a bit uncomfortable myself with the memory of how a certain drinking brawling hellraiser was turned into a staid stuffy hack writer by his love for two little children.

A legitimate complaint could be that Lucifer glamorizes evil. But isn’t that kind of the point?

“To the sinner, the sin appeareth beautiful.”

I’d say have a look. There are so many ways this could go wrong, but you could be in for a hell of a good time.

April 26, 2015

Go see Ex Machina

Filed under: Movies,Science — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:14 am

ex-machina-

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is one of those movies that’s very hard to review without spoilers. It’s got a conclusion I kind of didn’t see coming, though I did guess some of the twists and turns before the end.

I can tell you that 1) yes it’s entertaining, and 2) yes it’s thought-provoking, if you have steeped yourself in the literature of the Singularity and the possibility of what we call “strong AI.” That is to say artificial intelligence that can pass the Turing Test.

The Turing Test was proposed by mathematician and cybernetics pioneer Alan Turing, who is currently the subject of the movie “The Imitation Game.”

Turing suggested we’d know we’d created an intelligent being when a human could sit in a room with a teletype (this was a while ago) and exchange messages with a correspondent he couldn’t see. If at the end of a lengthy conversation he couldn’t tell if it was a human or a machine at the other end, we’d know.

At some indeterminate time in the near future Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is brought to the Alaskan hideaway of multi-billionaire genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who coded the world’s largest search engine when he was 13. It must have blown Google out of the water by then.

Nathan is experimenting with strong AI in the form of robots. Specifically one robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) who appears to be partly an attractive woman with body parts made of transparent plastic that reveal the inner machine.

These are only speaking parts in the movie. The only other character that interacts with the trio is Nathan’s beautiful mute servant/lover Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno).

Caleb has ostensibly been brought to conduct a Turing Test on Ava. In a series of seven sessions he simply has to engage in dialog with Ava and at the end give an opinion as to whether she passes.

Of course there’s more to it than that. All the characters are engaged in various kinds of manipulation – and that’s part of the test too.

Nathan is a seriously unlikable character, and he’s also consciously aware that he may be creating humanity’s replacement. Does that make him a god of sorts – or just yesterday’s news in an unimaginable future?

How will the AIs of the future feel about us, and how much does that depend on how we treat them? (Hint: reread Frankenstein, the original by Mary Shelley not the Hammer films.)

Would an intelligent entity without glands and hormones have any kind of motivations we’d understand at all? Would the concept of gender mean anything to them? How about self-preservation?

Sam Goldwyn famously said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union,” meaning message flicks are all too prone to become didactic, heavy-handed and boring.

Ex Machina does a pretty good job of letting the questions suggest themselves – if you’re the kind of person who thinks about that sort of thing. If not, the plot comlications might still entertain.

March 9, 2015

American Sniper highlights divisions in American society

Filed under: Movies,Terrorism,War — Stephen W. Browne @ 12:38 pm

Clint Eastwood’s epic biopic “American Sniper” is hitting the target with all the accuracy of the legendary sniper it portrays, becoming the highest grossing domestic release of 2014.

It has also generated a lot of vehement criticism along with the adulation, and both say a lot about where we are as a country today.

Kyle has been hailed as a patriot and a hero. He has also been condemned as a psycho racist murderer.

No he wasn’t according to the testimony of Iraqis who worked with him.

The claim that the movie character called Iraqis “savages” in the film is misrepresentation at best. The character as portrayed by Bradley Cooper called jihadists who put bombs into the hands of children savages, which is too kind. So-called savages often display admirable traits of courage and honor – these people are evil.

But Kyle himself bears some responsibility for the misconceptions. Critics have pointed out passages in his autobiography where he said he enjoyed the war and missed it when he was away.

I think he was talking about the comradeship of fighting men in battle that few experience outside of the military. But however it might have been taken out of context, it was poorly put.

He also told some lies, passed off as tall tales by admirers, about going to New Orleans with friends during hurricane Katrina and shooting looters.

Come on! You didn’t know that was going to raise some hackles?

Critics claim the film shows a simplistic black-and-white view of the Iraq war, us good, them bad.

No, a great many of those critics have the simplistic view that if the war is bad, our enemies must be the good guys.

Does, not, follow. The question of whether the invasion of Iraq was justified or prudent or strategically sound is an entirely separate issue from the fact that Islamic jihadism is a world-wide movement, a fantasy ideology which aims to drag the world into a particularly vile barbarism.

The jihadists preach, and practice, forcible religious conversion, murder of non-believers and apostates, chattel slavery, and the brutal suppression of women.

In short, they’re not the good guys.

Whether we should roam the world seeking out the bad guys is another matter. To begin with, it’s expensive. An American soldier may fire a missile that costs more than he makes in a year to kill a guy who couldn’t pay for it in a lifetime.

The questions that occur to any thoughtful person are: Is there a cheaper way to defeat the jihadists? Can we do so without making more enemies in the process? Is there a peaceful way to subvert their poisonous ideology? Can we isolate them long enough for their movement to collapse under the weight of its own stupidity as we did with communism?

And there is a question critics seem to have missed. Sniping is a highly selective method of warfare. Kyle identified individual threats to American troops, in the act. He killed only them, without “collateral damage” in that detestable military euphemism. When in doubt, he did not fire.

I think what many people are reacting to is how personal Kyle’s kills are. He sees them through his scope as if they are close enough to touch. He can see their faces, and see them as they die.

That is chilling in a way that knowing the President of the United States checks off names from a list, authorizing a remote-controlled drone to shoot a Hellfire missile which may or may not kill the target but most certainly kills and maims a great many bystanders is not.

This is what we’re having to deal with, soldiers and civilians alike.

A veteran of World War II might have survived without ever knowing if he’d killed anyone, and we once expected warfare would only get progressively more long-range and impersonal.

We were wrong. Much of modern warfare is fought at close range and is brought into our homes via television.

Eastwood has done a good job at showing the cost to our soldiers, and to us.

February 28, 2015

Beam him up, he’s leaving Earth

Filed under: Movies,News commentary — Stephen W. Browne @ 7:47 am

Spock

Well another piece of my childhood is gone. Leonard Nimoy died Friday at the age of 83. While not quite the age of a mature Vulcan, he did indeed live long and prosper.

Forever associated with the half-human Vulcan Science Officer of the Enterprise, Nimoy’s TV career began the year I was born with an appearance on “Queen for a Day.” A show I barely remember but which might be counted as a proto-reality show.

He played Indians, cowboys, soldiers, sailors and cops. Though he reprized his Spock role throughout the rest of his life in Star Trek movies, an animated TV show, and self-referenced it on many guest spots on other geek series such as the Big Bang Theory, it was never set in stone. He created any number of other roles such as Paris on “Mission Impossible,” and Theo Van Gogh in the one-man stage play and TV movie “Vincent.”

He created the Vulcan nerve pinch, the envy of generations of martial artists who secretly believe if we could just get it right…

The story has it that Nimoy loathed having to do fight scenes and one day on set said, “Couldn’t I just pinch him on the neck or something?”

He also created, or rather popularized the ‘V’ shaped Vulcan greeting that goes with “Live long, and prosper.”

Nimoy was the child of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants who grew up bi-lingual, speaking both English and Yiddish. The hand gesture is a rabbinical blessing he explained. The shape of the hand resembles the Hebrew letter ‘Shin’ which is the first letter of several sacred words: Shaddai (one of the names of God), Shalom (a greeting which means “peace”) and Shekhinah (the feminine aspect of God created to live among men).

In later years Nimoy was active in the movement to preserve and pass on the Yiddish language.

But of course, he will always be Spock to those of us who loved him.

This is what Spock means to me, and how he helped shape my image of the man I wanted to be growing up.

Spock of course was highly intelligent. What was revealed as the character developed over the course of the series was that he was also extremely passionate, as apparently were all Vulcans not just half-humans. Spock mentioned Vulcan once had “an aggressive colonizing period, brutal even by human standards.” One colony became the warrior culture of the Romulan Empire.

This and his half-human heritage created tensions that made Spock pretty miserable. After one adventure on a planet full of hallucinogenic spores inhabited by blissed-out colonists he commented, “For the first time in my life, I was happy.”

The way Spock dealt with it, was self-control, duty, a wry sense of humor, and philosophy.

The code for self-control in the series, was “logic.” Spock evaluated situations in terms of logical or illogical. But you never saw him construct a syllogism or draw a Venn diagram. Spock expected the default behavior of rational beings to be self-control. Not letting the passions get the upper hand when their self-interest was at stake. Spock got flummoxed when sentient beings acted irrationally when it would better serve them to exercise a little self-control.

Duty, Spock was Science Officer of the Starship Enterprise, a position corresponding to Executive Officer on a Navy ship. Along with the captain, and often as acting captain he was responsible for the lives of hundreds of people. To fail in his duty could mean their deaths, or the deaths of innocent sapients of other species – or war.

Spock’s sense of humor was wonderful and oddly, rarely noted. He was the master of the dry rejoinder and the uplifted eyebrow, an expression that spoke volumes.

Once when Leonard “Doc” McCoy was searching for a cure for a malady that struck some of the crew, including himself, he utters in frustration, “I’m just an old country doctor.”

Spock, raised eyebrow, “As I always suspected.”

Philosophy, never explicitly expressed but shown in action as the best of philosophy always is.

Spock was not exactly a pacifist but committed to exhausting all non-violent, or at least non-lethal alternatives first. But he could argue for warlike action as in the first encounter with the Romulans, his ethnic kin.

Spock displayed real objectivity, not the counterfeit of non-evaluation so popular in academia today.

On one planet where wars were waged with computers, the ruler explained that those declared casualties were expected to report to be killed for real, and rationalized that this was how they avoided a potentially world-destroying conflict. And oh by the way, the Enterprise had been declared a casualty so would the crew please report to the killing booths?

“I understand,” Spock said.

“Ah you approve Mr. Spock!” the ruler said.

“No,” Spock replied. “I understand. I do not approve.”

Spock’s humor, sense of duty, and philosophical objectivity might have been summed up in one scene in the first season.

When parting with a woman he loved but could not be with, he told her, “If we all have our private purgatories, surely mine can be no worse than anyone else’s.”

“Mr. Spock,” she said, “I never even knew your first name.”

Spock smiles, “You couldn’t pronounce it.”

Beam him up Scotty.

“May his memory be a blessing.”

March 10, 2014

Review: Star-Crossed

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:29 am

“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.”

– William Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet,” Prologue

“Star-Crossed” (a.k.a. “Romeo and Juliet meet Alien Nation”) is a science fiction romance created by Meredith Averill which premiered on The CW last month.

It’s a great pleasure to write this review, because after it’s filed I’ll never have to watch another episode of this dreck again.

In case you missed the “star-crossed lovers” reference, it’s yet another iteration of “Romeo and Juliet,” by… oh heck you know who it’s by.

It’s not that it’s unoriginal, Shakespeare wasn’t original. “Romeo and Juliet” was based on “The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet” (1562) by Arthur Brooke, and many earlier works.

“Romeo and Juliet has been done as a ballet by by Sergei Prokofiev (1935), no less than 27 operas, uncounted popular song references, and movies.
“West Side Story” (1961) made it into a musical with an ethnic gang theme. “China Girl” (1987) did the same but grittier with a mafia versus triads theme.

“Star-Crossed” is an attempt to do it as science fiction.

There are good reasons to try it as SF. Most Americans don’t believe in ghosts, destiny in the stars, or the fact that our families might detest each other as an insurmountable barrier to True Love.

When I was doing my anthropology masters fieldwork among immigrant Filipinos one of my informants told me how meaningful “Romeo and Juliet” is for them.

“In the Philippines if a couple’s families are against each other, they have no chance,” he said. “In America kids just say, ‘Oh they’ll come around when we have children.’”

Not even different races provide enough tension anymore.

But aliens… now that might present some problems.

The first “Alien Nation” film (1988) made alien refugees the ultimate immigrant story. The spin-off series added the subtext of an inter-species romance. “Star-Crossed” tries to take it from there.

In brief, later this year aliens called Atrians arrive on Earth and are immediately attacked, because they are different I guess. Six-year-old Emery Whitehill (Aimee Teegarden) finds an Atrian boy Roman (Matt Lanter) in a shed and protects him.

The Atrians are rounded up and kept in a detention camp for ten years until the government decides to integrate them into our society by sending a group including Roman and his sister to high school in a move reminiscent of Little Rock 1957.

There Roman and Emily reconnect but of course the path of true love never runs smooth, particularly after Emily’s father accidentally shoots Roman’s father dead.

It could have been good. It’s difficult to see why they didn’t choose to make it good, considering that Averill has some solid writing credits in SF (“Life on Mars”) and fantasy (“Happy Town”).

One, the Atrians look like Anglo-Saxons with some tattoos. Could they have considered making them look well, alien? Could they have spent as much as Star Trek used to on makeup, or been daring enough to find some exotic-looking mixed-race actors?

Two, there is nothing convincing about the Atrians’ culture presented so far. Just some tacked-together customs with nothing to indicate a coherent whole. And by the way do you think it likely technologically advanced aliens would have a basically tribal political structure?

Three, there isn’t even a hint of a backstory. How come these aliens from another world seem to be human enough to be sexually attractive – and can we interbreed. And if so why? Are we long-lost kin?

But what really grates is the offensive way we, as in 21st century Americans are portrayed. As if there has been no social progress since Little Rock. Except now the bigotry is a charmingly multi-racial us against the new minority.

Why does the series assume we’d immediately attack aliens who had not attacked first, rather than react with awe and wonder?

Why do they assume our alien classmates would be pariahs rather than rock stars?

Why would the government be so stupid as not to check the local community for organized and dangerous bigots? Even I don’t buy that.

Why do they dismiss legitimate fears we might have as racism?

Are the Atrians the vanguard of an invasion force? Might they carry alien pathogens like those European diseases that decimated native populations? Would contact with a superior civilization destroy or damage ours even without any ill will on their part?

And most offensive is the stereotypical pickup-driving, tobacco-chewing redneck using phrases like “race traitor.”

Go back and try again Averill.

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

January 27, 2014

Review: Lone Survivor

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 11:03 am

“Lone Survivor,” written and directed by Peter Berg, is based on the 2007 book, “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10,” Marcus Luttrell’s account of the doomed mission Operation Red Wings, as told to novelist Patrick Robinson.

In June, 2005, four Navy SEALs embarked on a mission to capture or kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah in a village deep within the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan. The mission went horribly wrong, Luttrell was the only survivor. Sixteen more Americans would die in the rescue attempt when the Chinook helicopter they were riding in was shot down.

The movie starts with archive footage of Navy SEAL training. Men are immersed in the cold sea shivering, exhausted beyond the limits of endurance while relief is just steps away. Ring a bell three times and put your helmet on the ground beneath it. The line of helmets grows longer, but a few endure to become SEALs.

Cut to Afghanistan and scenes of the daily life of elite troops in between missions. Men email home, joke, plan a wedding and haze newbies.

Then the briefing for the mission, identification of the target, and insertion into the mountains by helicopter.

The team: Lieutenant Michael P. “Murph” Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), team leader; Hospital Corpsman First Class Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), medic and sniper; Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), radio operator; Sonar Technician (Surface) 2nd Class Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster), sniper.

The team reach a point in the mountains above the village and find out there are more Taliban than expected. Then an old man and two teenage boys herding goats stumble upon them.

The team realize there are only three alternatives for them, and two of them amount to killing the three Afghans. They elect to release them and abort the mission. The movie doesn’t attempt to sugarcoat the decision. It’s not only humanity, but fear of the consequences of violating the military’s rules of engagement.

The team attempts to retreat to high ground and radio for extraction, but quickly find communications equipment unreliable in the mountains. Worse, they find a deep ravine between them and the peak. Worst, within an hour the Taliban is on them.

After action reports, citations for the Navy Crosses awarded, and investigation by skeptical journalists arrive at different figures for the number of Taliban. Suffice it to say, there were more Taliban than SEALs on the mountain, and they were more heavily armed.

The rest of the film is an agonizing portrayal of the team making a fighting retreat, falling down the mountain and being shot to pieces.

Luttrell arrives alone at a water hole where he is found by Afghan villagers who persuade him with some difficulty to trust them, take him in, shelter him and protect him from the Taliban until help arrives.

To this day Mohammad Gulab (Ali Suliman) the Afghan who found and sheltered him according to the tribal code of Pushtunwali and Luttrell are fast friends. Gulab was brought to America to see the premier of “Lone Survivor.”

Berg put in a lot of work to make this movie as real as possible, and it shows, both on the screen and the unusual silence of the audience.

Luttrell moved in with Berg for a while to work on the script. Berg himself became the first civilian to embed with a SEAL team in Iraq and interviewed families of the dead SEALs.

Berg took the minimum salary allowed under Directors Guild of America rules and convinced a lot of the cast to lower their asking price to keep production costs down. Making this film meant a lot to a lot of people.

It’s doing well at the box office and has generally been a critical success.

But it’s also been called violence porn and light on character development,

Kyle Smith of the New York Times called it “a movie about an irrelevant skirmish that ended in near-total catastrophe, during a war we are not winning.”

Amy Nicholson of LA Weekly, evidently didn’t bother to stay till the end and distilled the message to “Brown people bad, American people good.”

No it’s violence, portrayed accurately. “Violence porn” is Hollywood sanitized violence where people shot just drop and go to sleep.

No, it’s an action driven movie where character is shown by how men act under extreme stress.

Yes, it ended in near-total catastrophe and we are not winning the war. Does it follow we have nothing to learn from why military operations end catastrophically in the Hindu Kush, “the graveyard of empires”?

Whatever you think of the war, the Taliban murder women who dress “immodestly” and shoot little girls in the head who want to go to school. The SEALs are the good guys. Enjoy the movie.

Note: This was published in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

January 13, 2014

Review: The Tomorrow People

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 11:54 am

What if you could read minds, move objects with your mind, and move yourself anywhere you wanted to go in an instant?

These are the “three Ts”: telepathy, telekinesis and teleportation, of “The Tomorrow People,” a series which premiered last October on The CW Television Network.

Stephen Jameson (Robbie Amell) lives with his widowed mother (Sarah Clarke) and seems a normal enough teenager. Except he keeps waking up in places he didn’t go to sleep. Such as a neighbor’s bed in a locked apartment. The neighbors are perturbed.

A young woman Cara Coburn (Peyton List) contacts him telepathically and tells him he’s one of the Tomorrow People or Homo Superior, a genetically advanced human who is presumably the next step in evolution. To emphasize the point she and some friends teleport him to their secret HQ.

But all is not well for the new people. A secret organization Ultra wants to find them and neutralize their powers, or kill them if necessary. Stephen meets Jedikiah Price (Mark Pellegrino) who runs the organization who explains the people with the power are dangerous to humanity.

Oh yes, and Jedikiah is his uncle, the non-super powered brother of his father, who may be dead or may be in hiding. In spite of Jedikiah’s single-minded determination to find and neutralize all Homo Superior, Stephen agrees to work for Ultra in order to find his father.

The Tomorrow People would appear to have all the advantages except for one thing, they can’t kill. Well, except for some…

“The Tomorrow People” thus falls within the sub-genre of superman science fiction, and borrows liberally from its predecessors. It is a remake of a British series that ran from 1973 to 1979. The term homo superior was coined by Olaf Stapelton in “Odd John” (1935), one of the earliest superman novels.

A crucial plot element that showed up in episode 5, “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” that the founder of Ultra is himself a Tomorrow Person, is lifted right out of A.E. Van Vogt’s novel “Slan” (1940), considered the benchmark of the genre.

The social implications of teleportation as a psychic ability (rather than a technology) was first explored in Alfred Bester’s “The Stars My Destination” (1956). Teleporting humans hunted by an organization dedicated to their extermination was the theme of the movie “Jumper” (2008).

When Darwin published “The Origin of Species” in 1859, the question inevitably arose, “If we are the culmination of a long process of evolution, what might come after us? And if we gave rise to a new and superior species, would they dominate or destroy us?”

Consider that in the 19th century, many thought it was already happening. That the superior races of Europe were dominating the inferior races of the world, and that it was right a good this should be so.

Others took the history of colonialism as a cautionary tale and wondered if another race might do to Europeans what they were doing to others.

The culmination of this kind of thinking came during the 12-year reign of National Socialist Germany and their doctrine of the right of the master race to exterminate races of “untermenschen.”

However, novels such as “Slan” were parables of an advanced people persecuted for their superiority, a kind of uber-Jews.

There are a lot of really interesting and important questions here, but because of the history of eugenics ideologies such as Nazism, you can get called nasty names for bringing them up.

Today there are two broadly defined positions on the current state of human evolution. One holds that evolution basically stops with civilization. Because civilization makes life easy and eliminates selection pressure.

The other position holds that human evolution has continued and even accelerated. (See: “The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution” (2009) by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending.)

This makes people uneasy because it follows that evolution does not occur evenly across the human race because not everybody has been civilized for the same length of time. And because Europeans are not the oldest civilized people.

There is also a hot discussion on whether or not humans should take charge of their own evolution through selective breeding or genetic engineering.

These are hot button, career wrecking issues. The kind that can only be safely discussed in the context of science fiction.

The powers are silly. Telepathy is only barely possible, telekinesis and teleportation violate some pretty fundamental laws of physics.

The idea however is not.

So what if there were really superior humans? Would they be persecuted? Enslaved? Or would they dominate humanity?

It’s not that “The Tomorrow People” sets out to examine these issues, it’s not that high brow. It’s that it can’t help but make you think of them in the course of a reasonably entertaining action series.

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

January 6, 2014

Review: 47 Ronin

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 8:17 am

I did not want to like it, but I did.

On the night of the 14th day of the 12th month of the 15th year of the Genroku era (January 30, 1703), 47 ronin, disgraced and masterless samurai, attacked the castle of Lord Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka in Edo (modern Tokyo) intent on taking his head.

The 47 were former retainers of Lord Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori, daimyo (feudal lord) of Ako, a minor holding in the country.

The ronin held Kira, an important official of the shogunate, responsible for their lord’s death. While on the obligatory visit every daimyo was required to make to the shogun’s capitol, Kira was charged with tutoring Asano in court etiquette.

Because he had not been offered sufficient bribes, Kira behaved insultingly towards Asano until enraged, Asano attacked Kira with a dagger and cut him on the head before he was restrained.

For the offense of drawing a weapon at court, Asano was condemned to commit sepukku, ritual suicide, his holding forfeit, his retainers made ronin – masterless.

Asano’s chief councilor Oishi Kuranosuke Yoshio organized the 47 most loyal samurai. Watched closely by the shogun’s secret police they played the part of dissolutes and drunkards by day and secretly practiced martial arts and stragtegy by night.

One day while Oishi lay drunk in the street, a samurai kicked him in the face, spat on him and called him a disgrace.

When suspicion had been allayed the 47 struck. They found Asano hiding in a shed and offered him the chance to commit seppuku with Asano’s dagger. Trembling, Kira could not. They took his head, laid it on the grave of their lord, and surrendered to the shogun’s authority.

They had defied the shogun’s command, but obeyed the code of bushido, that no samurai may live under the same heaven as his lord’s murderer. The sentence was death, but death with honor. Forty-six commited seppuku and were buried with their lord. One was pardoned and buried with them after a long life.

There is a whole genre of plays, stories and movies about this one incident, called “chushingura” in Japan. Now “47 Ronin” has contributed to it with several new twists.

It’s a historical fantasy with magic, tengu (demons), monsters and a witch (Rinko Kikuchi) who can become a fox or a dragon.

There’s an entirely invented character, Kai (Keanu Reeves) a half-breed foundling. The relative ages of Asano (Min Tanaka) and Kira (Tadanobu Asano) are reversed. Asano is survived not by a wife but a beautiful daughter Mika (Kô Shibasaki), Kai’s forbidden love interest. Kira is not executed but killed after a slam-bang sword fight.

There is some serious messing around with history here. That’s why I didn’t want to like it.

However, there is also much they got right and great attention to detail.

When the samurai kneel before the shogun, they pull their swords out of their sashes and lay them either to their right side blade inward or in front of them handle facing leftward, a traditional manner that makes it difficult to draw quickly.

There are genuinely touching moments, as when Oichi (Hiroyuki Sanada) tells his wife he must divorce her for her own safety but assures her she is always the love of his life.

The fantasy elements, were-foxes and a warrior schooled by the tengu, are drawn from traditional Japanese mythology.

And in the end and in spite of the liberties it takes with history it is still the story of 47 men who embarked on a quest to set things right that they knew from the beginning would end in death for all of them.

I found it stirring, other critics have not. It has generally been panned and reportedly likely to be a huge financial loss.

In Japan the opening has been called “disappointing” in spite of a Japanese cast of popular actors.

If I had to guess I’d say it might be Japanese uneasiness with the love story of a Japanese noblewoman and a man described as the product of a one-night stand between an English sailor and a Japanese peasant girl. And I really wonder why they put that plot element in when anyone even superficially familiar with Japanese culture could have told them that would be shocking even today.

I still say go see it, and wait. This has the makings of a cult classic.

The last resting place of the loyal retainers and their lord is now the Sengaku Temple in Tokyo. Every December 14, many Japanese visit the temple to pay their respects at the graves of 47 ronin and one other who lies buried there. After their deaths the samurai who had spit on Oishi visited his grave, begged his forgiveness, and committed sepukku.

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

December 28, 2013

Review: Community

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 4:01 am

As a fan of surreal humor I can’t believe I missed this little gem for four seasons. Now I’m left in the uncomfortable position of recommending it as it goes into a fifth season with a major revamp.

I’ll have to plead that it is after all on network television, NBC to be exact, and who watches that anymore?

It has garnered much praise from film and TV critics but who reads them anyway?

I stumbled across it as NBC was running episodes back to back to get people up to speed for the fifth season, and was so intrigued I looked up the series website and caught a few more on streaming video.

However I had the time to do all this because I was home sick with one of those sinus infections that knocks reality slightly out of kilter and leaves you in the mood for surreal humor. So maybe it won’t be funny when I’m better.

Maybe it won’t even be there at all, maybe it exists only in the Darkest Timeline where the evil dopplegangers of the major characters live.

The major characters are:

Jeff Winger (Joel McHale), a lawyer who lost his job at his firm because he falsely claimed to have a BA from Columbia. In fact, he doesn’t have a BA at all and somehow got through law school anyway.

He enrolls in Greendale Community College, a two-year college where he’s going to complete his bachelor’s degree and go back to being a scumbag lawyer.

He attempts to seduce a beautiful co-ed in his Spanish class, Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs) by inviting her to a fictitious study group. She’s an anarchist activist and cause junkie.

Either through accident or design, she invites another student to study, Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), a Polish-Palestinian film student and all-around weirdo who sees life as a script.

Before you know it the group is real, the “Glendale Seven.”

Joining them are Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown) a divorced mother of three and typical church lady, except there’s nothing typical about her.

Troy Barnes (Donald Glover), a high school football star who was on his way to a pro career via college when he separated both shoulders doing a keg flip. He’s Abed’s only friend.

And there’s Annie Eddison (Alison Brie), major brain and overachiever who was on her way to the Ivy League but developed an addiction to Adderall during finals week, gaining her the nickname “Adderall Annie” and a stint in rehab.

Annie was so unpopular in high school crossing guards used to direct her into traffic. She’s such an overachiever she was voted president of the Campus Crusade for Christ- and she’s Jewish.

Hovering on the outside of the group is Senor Chang, an unfrocked Spanish teacher turned student. Chang does a wicked Gollum imitation on occasion and appears to be reporting on a regular basis to a super-villain headquarters.

Then there’s Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase) a millionaire who goes to community college because he’s bored.

Chevy Chase is leaving the series, but the fact is this crew of newbies has it covered.

“Community” is like “Scrubs” goes back to school. There’s a lot of riffing on pop culture references and it gets away with a lot of un-PC humor played with just the right light touch.

Barnes starts a blog called “Old White Guy” where he posts the most pompous statements Hawthorne makes on a regular basis. Then after he comes to see Hawthorne as a real human being he humbly apologizes and says he’ll take the blog down.

“What, 16,000 followers are you kidding? We can make money at this!” Hawthorne replies.

Dean Craig Pelton (Jim Rash) is an occasional cross-dresser and has the hots for Winger. He’s also obsessed with wanting Glendale to be more like a “real” school. The study group are nonetheless his favorite.

Of course this crew of misfits bonds over the course of the series, and gets a lot of the rough edges polished off their personalities. Winger for example, seems to have developed a conscience and actually cares for the group he’s become the de facto leader of.

Each character seems to have an evil counterpart in the Darkest Timeline, which Winger insists isn’t real. Or is it?

There’s lots of pop culture references and hilarious sendups of academia in general and certain majors (education, psychology) in particular.

What gives the humor a certain edge in this reviewers humble opinion, is that while community colleges are still considered low-rent education, the open secret these days is that you’re more likely to graduate with a job and without a crippling debt load than at the more prestigious “real schools.”

And maybe that is what’s behind the surreal world-turned-upside-down humor of “Community.”

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

December 13, 2013

Review: Dracula

Filed under: Movies — Stephen W. Browne @ 10:35 am

Drac is back. In a new series on NBC to be exact, staring Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Henry VIII “The Tudors”) as the ever-popular count.

The count is by official count the second most popular movie character ever. Dracula has the lead role in an estimated 217 films, only barely edged out by Sherlock Holmes (223).

This is oddly appropriate. After the publication of “Dracula”(1897) by Irishman Bram Stoker, Holmes’ creator Arthur Conan Doyle sent him a warmly appreciative fan letter. Subsequent generations of writers have paired the two in fights to the death, and in one case (Fred Saberhagen, “The Holmes-Dracula File”) made
Holmes some kind of nephew of Dracula.

So given the plethora of adaptations and what would today be called “fan fiction,” how does this joint British-American venture differ from Stoker’s original?

In almost every way except the names of several major characters. In fact they seem to have borrowed from almost everybody except Bram Stoker.

That doesn’t make it bad necessarily. In fact, I was reviewing a series of episodes on the series website preparing to drive a stake through its heart when I found myself being oddly drawn into it, hypnotized by those compelling eyes, drained of all will, fascinated…
NOW CUT THAT OUT!

OK, it’s kind of a guilty pleasure.

As in the original, Dracula comes to London in the late Victorian era. Only this time he comes in the guise of an American entrepreneur Alexander Grayson, complete with the American corn belt rasp!

HIs right hand man is R.M. Renfield Esq. (Nonso Anozie). Only this Renfield is a black man, and far from being mad and a slave, he’s a highly intelligent lawyer who is fiercely loyal because Dracula/Grayson saved his life from a bunch of bigots and treats him as a valued partner.

Once in London Grayson engaged the services of Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) a journalist, not a soliciter, and meets Harker’s fiancee Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw) who seems to be the reincarnation of his dead wife Ilona Szilágyi, who was killed by Dracula’s enemies in The Order of the Dragon.

That Mina plot wrinkle comes straight from Francis Ford Copolla’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1974). It kind of gets me because Ilona is my daughter’s middle name.

The Order among other things, keeps England vampire-free. The last time they had to deal with a vampire problem in London was eight years previously during the Whitechapel murders. Which they passed off as the work of a serial killer named Jack.

Abraham Van Helsing (Thomas Kretschmann) is not a vampire hunter, but an ally of Dracula helping him in his scheme to wreck vengeance on the Order of the Dragon. To this end he’s trying to create a treatment that will allow vampires to endure sunlight.

Lucy Westenra (Katie McGrath) is a closeted lesbian with the hots for Mina.

And there are several non-canonical characters such as Lady Jane Wetherby (Victoria Smurfit) a member of the Order who hunts vampires with her martial arts skills when she’s not popping out of her Victorian corset-bustier.

Lady Jane and Dracula are having a torrid affair. She doesn’t know he’s a vampire, he suspects she’s with the Order. And there are hints that Lady Jane realizes that though still beautiful and definitely in great shape, she’s seeing the signs that tell her that won’t last. Unless…

Add to this, Dracula/Grayson is bringing to England a new technology which appears to be based on Nikola Tesla’s dream of wireless electricity transmission.

The Order is heavily invested financially in oil and politically in imperialism to control the sources of oil. It is strongly hinted this conflict going to burst out in the First World War in another 20 years, so we know how that turns out.

It’s ironic that writers of subsequent incarnations of Dracula probably have more access to information then Stoker did about the historical Vlad III: Voivode (Prince) of Wallachia (1431–1476), House Draculesti, surnamed Dracula (“Son of the Dragon”), member of the Societas Draconistrarum (Order of the Dragon) founded in 1408 by King Sigismund of Hungary to fight the enemies of Chistendom.

What you can do with that it to make Dracula, not exactly evil, but a ruler and politician of his time: ruthless but capable, cruel but principled in his own way. And definitely an aristocrat. I can prey upon you because I’m a prince and that’s what we do.

“Dracula” has been categorized as horror, fantasy and in the genre of what’s called “invasion literature.” And in this case it’s not just an invasion of the supernatural into the mundane world, it’s an invasion from the horrifying past.

Vampires, martial arts, conspiracies, Victorian porn!

What’s not to like, as long as your friends don’t find out?

Note: This appeared in the print-only TV Guide of the Marshall Independent.

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