Wednesday, March 20, 2019

LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS



Title: LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS
Created by: Tim Miller (Deadpool)
Network: Netflix

LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS is Netflix's newest adult-oriented animated anthology series, a kind of modern-day Animatrix or Halo Legends compilations, for those old enough to remember, or else Heavy Metal, for those even older.

Like all anthology series, LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS has its ups and downs, but overall most of the episodes are at least solid if not spectacular. At around 15 minutes a pop I found the length of episodes just right for visual snacking. 

Each episode has different writers, directors and animation studios, so thematically and tonally the series is all over the map. There's a hefty dose of military SF if that's your bag. I really like when they tried to be innovative either artistically or with the story, though sometimes it felt like nudity was shoehorned in for the sake of appearing more 'adult'. This is really apparent if you watch the series in order--I feel they front-loaded all the T&A (and PP) into the first few episodes, as the rest are actually a lot more mainstream in their appeal.

5-second episode reviews:

1. Sonnie's Edge: Cyberpunky. Human-controlled monsters fight in gladiatorial battles. Hoo boy, lots of weird rape imagery and Polar Express grade nudity in this one, which could put you off the series--but like I said, it's not really representative of the series as a whole. Felt a bit like when comic books try too hard, to be honest. Neato twist at the end.

2. Three Robots: Humorous post-apoc. A little cornball ("tell us what the humans were like") but the back and forth between the three robots of the title is pretty funny. Silly ending.

3. The Witness:Genre =??? Kinda cyberpunk I guess. Whoooooaaaah. This one is a trip and a half. More gratuitous nudity, but that ain't even the point. Very artsy, I really liked the way they played against it being CG, with "shaky" camera work, the "actors'" breath fogging the camera lens in closeups, visible sound effects, etc. etc. Easily the most visually innovative of the episodes.

4. Suits: MECHA! Yay! MECHA! A team of heavily-armed AgroMechs fight off an alien assault on their farms. In contrast to the first three eps, this one plays its story very, very, almost predictably straight. Like, almost cliche straight, which I think was the objective. You know exactly what's going to happen with these characters, and there's a kind of cozy comfortability with the way the story is handled.

5. Sucker of Souls: Horror. A team of mercenaries protect an archaeologist from the evil he has unleashed. Art style reminded me of the old Star Wars: Clone Wars animated shorts. Very simple premise and plot, but the banter among the characters elevates the experience and makes this a retro gem. Would shoot in the dick with a shotgun/10

6. When the Yogurt: Humor. Yogurt becomes intelligent. Eh, didn't think it was that funny to be honest. Just kind of goofy.

7. Beyond the Aquila Rift: Space Opera. This one was also very cool, with fantastic art direction/CG. Has a real Mass Effect/Alien/Serenity vibe to it, with space truckers stuck when something goes wrong with their ship. I thought the story (by Alastair Reynolds) was something we've seen before in SF (Star Trek sprang to mind), but the visuals make up for it. Zero Gravity banger/10

8. Good Hunting: Streampunk/Retro-future. The son of a spirit-hunter befriends a fox spirit in steampunk Hong Kong. Could have been a lot more fun but I felt the main story was a bit dull. Would not turn into a robotic sex doll/10

9. The Dump: Humor. Aside from "Three Robots", I thought the episodes that tried to be humorous were the weakest in the series. A lot of the jokes just don't land for me.

10. Shape-Shifters: Military SF. Werewolves in Afghanistan is an interesting idea. Pretty animation, but a bloody chewed-up mess thematically. Not really sure what it was trying to say.

11. Helping Hand: Hard SF. Kind of like a gross-out version of the movie Gravity. No, really. There's a sequence that can be a little stomach-churning even in CG. Still, once you get to this point in the series, something that moves slower, takes its time, builds the tension comes as a welcome relief.

12. Fish Night: Magic realism. A pair of traveling salesmen get stuck in the middle of the badlands and have to spend the night in their car. Loved the Through A Scanner Darkly style rotoscoping animation. Very pretty to look at. A bit "ah huh?" in terms of what actually happens, but it's more about the visuals than the story.

13. Lucky 13: Military SF. Again, great visuals save what is otherwise a fairly predictable story about a pilot and her notoriously "unlucky" gunship/dropship.

14. Zima Blue: Artsy. A far-future robot artist reveals the source of his inspiration. Color used to great effect.

15. Blindspot: Action. Vaguely Mad Max style road-warrior battle between a team of cyborgs trying to steal a microchip from a heavily defended transport truck. Okay I guess.

16. Ice Age: Humor. Couple discovers tiny, advanced civilization in their refrigerator ice box. Humor comes from their nonchalant attitude towards what's happening in their fridge. Charming, but not all that funny. But nice.

17. Alternate Histories: Humor. One of the better humor episodes, investigating possible histories based around increasingly improbably and unlikely scenarios of Hitler's death (e.g. killed by secret Russian gelatin gun, dies after marathon orgy with Viennese prostitutes etc.). The bizarro setups are pretty funny, but man o man, I can tell the two-second clip of Hitler's sex orgy is all anyone is going to remember about this one.

18. Secret War: Horror/Military SF.  WW2 Russian soldiers on a mission to hunt down a pack of ghouls. Isn't Overlord based on much the same premise? Anyway, great CG work again, riveting and visceral battles set to stirring music. Very fun!

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Cities Are Snares


Cities are snares for potential. It’s a wonder they don’t collapse under the weight of all that wasted energy, or snarl themselves into immobility.

Picture all those missed encounters, lost opportunities, wasted moments, bound around and tangled between the people like thick and heavy black strands, sticky spider webbing that grows denser and denser with each glance the wrong way, each misplaced word, each hesitation and retreat. 

That person, there, that best friend or partner who might have been, will walk on, never knowing you exist. Their vision slowly occluded by the mass of habit and anomie, until there is only tomorrow, which will be much like today.

And I.

I peer down at my phone, earphones in my ears. Happy little insect, tangled in the web.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Time Makes Everything Its Opposite

An archeologist, time’s tourist, stood in the excavation pit. A reverse grave, where people went to retrieve some living fragment of the dead; an inside-out box, where everything of value lay beyond the four walls. 

Potsherds and stone flakes rustled in their hand. Once a slave’s garbage, now incalculably valuable.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Smart Glasses

He put on the Smart Glasses, opened his eyes and for the first time, saw.

Images that skipped invisibly past unseeing eyes and pressed themselves directly on the optic nerve. Accurate in a way no lazy human eye could ever be, no guesswork or filling in what it expected to see, but the ocean of life in all its grainy, gritty glory.

He drowned himself in the depths of city streets, surfed the crashing waves on crowded commuter subways, watched waves lap at his feet along the beach, carrying their tides of plastic and paper.

A hand reached up, and took the glasses off.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Female Monarch Movie



Title: Bohemian Rhapsody
Director: Um … haha … yeah well
Screenplay: Anthony McCarten

Yes, it’s Female Monarch, the movie slash biopic slash Live Aid performance reenactment, starring Rami Malek and Rami Malek’s prosthetic teeth. It’s a karaoke music video montage, Queen’s Greatest Hits loosely strung together with a couple of talky bits sandwiched between the singles.

The feeling it evokes is not-quite-nostalgia, as I don’t really remember Live Aid all that well, nor was I especially interested in Queen, but it’s more nostalgia for nostalgia, a feeling I’ve missed out by not being there, in the moment. It also evokes a feeling of why-the-hell-did-I-just-watch-this, given the depth is about as deep as the melody for “We Will Rock You” and the only thing that really stuck out were Freddie’s incisors. 

It’s a fairly by-the-numbers rock bio, charting a familiar course of rise to fame, descent into debauchery, last-minute eucatastrophe standing-in-the-pouring-rain moment, redemption in front of a live global audience of nearly two billion. There isn’t much insight, and since most of the members of Queen save front man Freddie Mercury are still with us and probably need placating if the movie was to secure song rights, it definitely plays softball with the challenges the group faced. It’s just thing happens, song, a different thing happens, song, Freddie comes out as gay, song happens, another song happens, Live Aid happens, roll credits.

The movie plays fast and loose with historical accuracy in the name of creating this cookie-cutter drama, inventing a break-up that never happened and moving Freddie’s AIDS diagnosis several years forward so that his “I’ve got to go and leave you all behind” lines from the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” at Live Aid carry greater weight. 

I’m not joking about the Live Aid thing. The last 15 minutes of the movie is essentially a shot-for-shot reenactment of Queen’s 1985 Wembley performance. Which is available on YouTube for the princely sum of zero dollars, so frankly, why not just watch that?

It’s also a very narrowly-focused movie, with Queen apparently existing in a musical vacuum broken only in the last act by name-dropping everyone else who was at Live Aid (= everyone, basically). There is, for example, no mention of their collaboration with David Bowie on “Under Pressure”, whose first two bars give all 90s guys like me the shakes whenever we hear them on the radio—we know it could go one of two ways. You’re either in for a treat, or on a one-way elevator ride to audio hell. 

So, distressing lack of Bowie. I ask for your thoughts and prayers during this difficult and Bowie-less time. 

I believe that at times like these, it is traditional to leave a scathing Rotten Tomatoes review and then create a series of increasingly incoherent rants on YouTube, but I figured I’d put my thoughts out in the most impactful way possible. Cough.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

And now for something completely different: The Larch. And Terrace House



Title: Terrace House (S2: Boys & Girls in the City, S3: Aloha State)

Network: Fuji Television & Netflix

Way, way out of my usual range on this one. The wife has been binging this show for about the last six months, so I’ve been watching in an attempt to give us something in common to talk about. If I don’t write about his I’ll have nothing to write about, so here goes. 

Who’s up for a thousand words on a Japanese dating show? Nobody? Too bloody bad.
Here we go then.

The concept is simple: six 20-something people (three men, three women) share a house and go about their lives with work or studies, and frequently go out on dates with one another. (“It’s not a dating show!” I’m told, but come off it, it totally is—nearly everyone on the show is impossibly good-looking and single, and who-likes-who is a constant source of conversation and friction). And that’s pretty much it. They go to work, go out to eat (endless food porn on this show), go out on dates, fight over who is going out on dates with who, over who’s being a bum and lying about the house all day (hint: it’s Arman), or who ate the beef that was in the fridge. 

Participants can leave during the season, and are then replaced by a new member, leading to a gradual turnover in the six members over the course of a season, which helps keep things fresh by changing the interpersonal dynamics. 

The attraction of the show, I’m told, is that it is much less frenetic and artificial than similar US dating/reality TV shows, though I haven’t watched any of those so really can’t comment. 

The friction is almost comically petty at most times—boy A said he was uncomfortable on a date with girl B and then boy C blabbed about it to girl B and now she’s upset! Oh nooo!—but I guess that’s part of the innocent charm. It can be glacially slow at times though, especially if the current housemates are neither romantically interested in one another nor feuding—the third season, Aloha State, was especially guilty of this, as participants were often either locals with their own lives entirely outside of the show, or else Japanese on short-term holiday visas and thus not terribly invested in their relationships with the others.

For all its veneer of sincerity and earnestness to the proceedings, the show still puts people in a painfully artificial situation and then rolls the cameras, leading to many of the conversations feeling awkward and stilted (for example, every new arrival is immediately grilled about their age, occupation, whether or not they have a boy- or girlfriend and what their “type” is). It’s clear some of the people are on the show purely to raise their profile as entertainers—models, actors, real estate agents, bankers or whatever—again kind of putting a wall between those people and their more laid back housemates (hint: it’s Arman).

As a long-time resident of Japan (20 years and counting), there wasn’t any culture shock involved in watching this, though I still sometimes get stuck on how chauvinist some of the guys can be—on the first day in Tokyo, one guy immediately says to the three girls something along the lines of “You can cook? Great, so you can cook for all of us” while his hairdresser friend was a bit of a man-child, constantly asking his girlfriend to make him something to eat when not pouting in bed about other people eating the beef he’d left in the fridge. 

There’s also a bizarre kind of formality to the approach to dating—it feels odd to see adults get so hung up on whether a date is really a date, whether or not people are “going steady” or not, or if they are “officially” boyfriend and girlfriend or not. Though I should mention that, quite to the reverse, people on the show are sometimes completely blasé about the boning going on behind the scenes: “So are you guys fucking or what?” “Yup”. 

The other major difference from US style reality shows is the presence of a panel of play-by-play commentators, who watch a tape of the show and interrupt about three times per episode to talk about what happened in the previous 10 minutes. At first, this struck me as unnecessary (“I can figure out for myself what is going on,” was my attitude), but three commentators in particular—Yu (stage name of actress Yukiko Ehara) and comedians Yoshimi Tokui and Ryota Yamasato—are often screamingly funny in contrast to the placid, boring, beige back-and-forth among the housemates, so their shit-talking is now my favorite part of the show. 

Yamasato (Yama-chan) is a shit-stirrer and likes nothing better than conflict, and in contrast to the popular image of reserved and polite Japanese, this dude pulls no punches when gleefully pointing out people’s foibles (“Oh for fuck’s sake” he exclaims when one boy takes a girl on a date to an aquarium—which turns out to be closed when they arrive). Tokui and Yu have some serious sexual innuendo going in their back-and-forth, which again spices up what would otherwise often be quite mellow proceedings.

The first season doesn’t appear to be available with English subtitles, so I’ve only watched the following two. My Japanese is good enough to catch that the subtitles are making a conscious effort to sound hip and young and cool (Japanese ‘funiki’ is translated as ‘vibe’, ‘yabai’ is translated as ‘insane’ even though neither word is especially ‘youthful’ in Japanese). 

Of the two series that I watched, season two was far more entertaining, full of dumb-but-kinda funny moments like an oblivious guy asking out a girl who tries to put him off by repeatedly suggesting that they go shopping at Costco; a passive-aggressive bitch fight that erupts when one girl goes on an unannounced date with one of the guys and then another (with one of the same girls in the previous fight) tactlessly asks everyone what they think of nightwear, the hairdresser who cries himself to sleep when his housemates eat the beef he was saving, and so on and so forth. Season three, set in Hawaii, is far more dull, probably because a lot of the people were not that engaged with their housemates—though it is made mildly watchable by pro surfer space cadet Guy Sato who clearly cannot believe the dumb shit going on around him, and a blow up between several of the housemates and my-way-or-the-fuck-you-way real estate agent Cheri about, well, a whole bunch of things in the end. 

Just the fact that I watched this is probably the most damning criticism of all though—it’s the kind of dating/reality show a fortysomething dude can get into. How uncool is that?

FUNNIEST MOMENTS
The meat incident and “Costco” (S2)—see above

Runner up: Guy and Niki’s reunion in Japan (S3)—laid back surfer dude Guy shows up 40 minutes late, then proceeds to have his every lame conversation gambit tossed back at him. “Long time no see”—“I saw you two weeks ago”; “I was in a competition”—“Yeah, I know. I was there.” 

SADDEST MOMENTS
Guy and Niki (S3): Their relationship was so obviously superficial and hormonal—the buff surfer dude and the fashion model on a break in Hawaii—but it was oddly touching to see them snuggle together while watching a movie, so it was sad to see Guy admit that their lives were going in different directions and they didn’t have much in common. You know? They like each other, but they know they aren’t right for each other and sometimes life is just like that. The only failed romance in the show that even came close to choking me up.

Runner up: Me not meeting Mizuki Shida when I was 20 years younger, twice as attractive and athletic, spoke Japanese twice as better and etcetera etcetera. It makes an old man miss dating, is what I’m saying. 

BEST/WORST HOUSEMATES
Now, it’s monstrously unfair to rate people based on their highly edited appearances in a reality show in which they’ve been thrust into artificial situations, so you fucking bet your britches that’s what I’m gonna do.

The Best

Girls
Mizuki Shida (S2): The full package, baby. Beautiful, charming, and best of all, really seemed to put in an effort to build relationships—helped model Minori work on her catwalk style, took Arman out shopping, cooked dinner for everybody—just seemed like a genuinely good human being on top of everything else. On the one hand, I think it’s criminal the guys in the house never appreciated her, but on the other, I think she could do so much better than any of them. Is that a stereotypical Nice Guy thing to say? Well fuckit.

Runner up: Nobody even comes close.

Guys
Guy Sato (S3): Guy was the fucking man—completely living in his own little world of surfing and watering small, succulent plants, but all the dumb-ass drama just washed over him like a gentle wave. He’s also the king of left-field analogies which everyone complained didn’t make sense, but screw the stodgy bastards Guy. You do you. His head-deskingly bad date with Niki is hilarious to watch, as he spends hours constructing a tent out of sticks and a towel, then goes surfing by himself, offers to go spear-fishing with random strangers (leaving his date muttering “unbelievable” to herself) and ending the date with picking seashells and dinner by fireworks. Just living in his own, cool world that boy. 

Runner up: Arman, another laid-back surfer dude who just wants to have fun and be happy.

The Worst

Girls

Cheri (S3) strings former housemate Eric along then unceremoniously dumps him for some random Russian dude, then gets into a fight with everyone where she uses a bizarre volley of emotionally manipulative tactics to try to make them feel sorry for her, like saying she was “the sickest I’ve been in 10 years” when she had … like … a cold.

Runner up: Natsumi (S2) not because she’s necessarily a “bad” person, but she was a terrible housemate, a messy bitch who just loved stirring up drama and then reacted hurt and confused when she got called on it.

Guys

Uchi (S2): Mopy man-child who appeared incapable of doing anything domestic by himself. Bizarrely asked all three female housemates at once, as if they were cars on a lot for him take for a spin and to pick and choose among. Constantly asked his girlfriend to cook for him. Even bitched at my girl Mizuki to put sugar in his coffee. Man the fuck up and put your own damn sugar in. Gah. What a fuccboi. I was actually kind of happy when everyone ate his expensive beef and he cried about it. Predictably, it looked like he missed the chance for growth and went on being a fuccboi.

Runner up: Wez (S3) would-be rapper whose cringey song was called ‘In STAR gram’ and whose lyrics were just a step-by-step ‘how to’ guide to posting things online. Didn’t appear to want to be on the show especially, just wanted a free place to stay in Hawaii. Helps to instigate the blow-up with Cheri, then sits silently during the argument and says nothing.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Bridging the Genres: Walking on Glass / The Bridge

Titles: Walking on Glass & The Bridge
Author: Iain Banks-without-the-M
Publisher: Macmillan

I’m a ginormously huge, rabidly proselytizing advocate of the science fiction works of Iain M. Banks with an M (e.g. Use of Weapons, Excession, Look to Windward, etc.), but I’ve always held back from his mainstream fiction as, at first glance, it seemed very Scotto- or at least Brito-centric and thus less relatable.

As with most of the thoughts floating around this shaggy old head of mine, this one also turned out to be completely wrong.

While both Walking on Glass (1985) and The Bridge (1986)—Banks’s second and third mainstream fiction novels after Wasp Factory—are at least partially set in 1980s London and Scotland, respectively, they’re both far more concerned with the interior life of their protagonists than the superficial details of life in the UK.

The two novels share a lot of similarities both structurally and thematically.

Structurally, they both weave together three separate narratives which at first glance appear separate, but whose connections gradually become apparent as the story progresses. 

Walking on Glass is the more opaque of the two, the connections among its strands more tangled and harder to unravel. There’s Graham Park, a shy art student smitten with an elusive and mysterious woman named Sara ffitch (two F’s, lowercase); Steven Grout, a possibly delusional man convinced he is actually a noble warrior exiled from another time or place imprisoned on Earth; and in the most SFnal thread, a man named Quiss, a warrior who has been exiled to a crumbling castle made of books and illuminated by glowing fish, where the only way to escape is to win nonsensical games such as one-dimensional chess and blank dominos and answer a nonsense riddle: What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

The “point” (or maybe the “question” to put it better) is to what extent the people in the three stories are delusional or engaging with reality. Grout at first glance appears to be a lunatic, but the Quiss story suggests there are indeed warriors in another time/place, thus creating an element of doubt. The waters are further muddied when Grout discovers a discarded matchbook with the riddle “What happens when an unstoppable force meets and immovable object?” raising the possibility that it’s actually Quiss’s story which is delusional. If you extend that line of thought to the one that seems the most mundane—Graham’s hopeless pining for an unavailable woman—then we start to see how much of life is built on seeing what we want to see, believing what we want to believe. In a way, Graham’s behavior is as crazy and nonsensical as Grout’s or Quiss’s. 

The Bridge also follows three plot lines, this time involving Alex, a successful engineer who crashes his car near the Firth of Forth bridge in Scotland and slips into a coma, John Orr, his alter ego inside the coma, and the Barbarian, a violent Conan figure who exists within John Orr’s dreams—a dream within a coma. 

As Alex lies in a coma John awakes on The Bridge of the title, a kind of enormous version of the Firth of Forth bridge inhabited—like the London Bridge of long ago—by thousands of people in a kind of Terry Gilliam/Brazil-esque society of secretive agencies and societal rules. A psychiatrist tries to help John by analyzing his dreams, but John resists—for reasons that become clear as we learn more about Alex’s history—and invents dreams instead. One of his real dreams is of the Barbarian, a kind of uber-Conan killer assisted by a wisecracking familiar and a flying dagger called a “knife missile” (a term instantly recognizable to anyone who has read Banks’s Culture stories). 

Here, I think the idea is that all three—Alex, John and the Barbarian—are leading lives governed by what are, when you get right down to it, nonsensical rules and standards. The Barbarian inhabits the world of Fantasy and myth, with spells and curses made or broken acausally, while John’s Kafkaesque world is similarly arbitrary, with people marshalled and ordered about for reasons they cannot understand or articulate. As with Walking on Glass, this realization leads us to look at the mundane story line, in this case Alex, his professional frustrations and his tangled love affairs, and see how our world, too, is governed by pointless and meaningless rules.

Both novels overflow with Banks’s cheery wit and exuberant imagination, especially in their most fantastical modes—Quiss’s castle and the Barbarian’s adventures. 

Walking on Glass definitely feels the less polished of the two, with the twist/reveal in Graham’s story managing to be at once both entirely predictable and then from out of nowhere, over the space of a few paragraphs, just weirdly and unnecessarily convoluted and grotesque. There’s about three twists in a row and they’re all just dumped on you with no warning in one scene, which honestly just feels kind of cheap and detracts from the essential groundedness of Graham’s story line. 

In addition, the connections among the three story lines aren’t really clarified, but left fuzzy and open to interpretation, which could be frustrating for many readers. 

The Bridge, by contrast, is much more silky and smooth, and the humor more pervasive and deft, though my reaction to the ending was that Banks went too far in the other direction after Walking on Glass—instead of leaving things undefined, here he really just lays out the theme and message in 60-point Impact font, THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS. As a counter-reaction to people scratching their heads over Walking on Glass? Who knows. 

Appropriately though, both books taught me the folly of artificially limiting what you read to one genre, and to avoid being bound by senseless and meaningless categories.

Cities Are Not Lonely Places


Cities are not lonely places. They are full of friendship and love. Why, just the other night, on my walk towards the station, a discarded plastic bag kept me company for several meters, blown along by the thoughtful wind.

Friday, March 8, 2019

When You're My Age

We aren’t ever going to kiss or hold each other or make love again, just lie there side-by-side, swaddled in age like ancient pharaohs. 

I’ll cut out the part of me that still wants to and stick it in an emotional canopic jar, pump myself full of embalming Netflix shows and YouTube videos. An emperor of emotional isolation. 

You’re not supposed to want these things when you’re my age.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

1979


He was born in an in-between place, a valley with old and rounded hills behind, sharp and eager mountains before, a kind of negative space of not-geography. It was the kind of place life largely passed by, with wars that broke behind the weathered hills and storms that raged beyond the peaks. 

In the sheltered valley there was idyll and ease. Days, months and years slipped by his defenses, unchallenged. And crept up on him as he stood by the window, watching the distant lightning.