Wednesday, 26 August 2015

On 26.8.15 by KieronMoore in , , , ,    No comments

[Some minor SPOILERS]

If there’s one thing I’ve heard screenwriting lecturers and ‘top tips’ articles bang on about, it’s the importance of a strong central protagonist. There’s definitely a lot to be learned from following this advice, but I’ve always enjoyed series with ensemble casts that zip from one character to the other – Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, and Parks and Recreation, for example. Sense8, the latest series from the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski, takes that idea one step further, featuring eight equally central protagonists who all live in different countries across the globe and, before the series begins, have never met each other.

How does that work, then? The concept is that the eight folks form a “sensate cluster” – they can psychically project themselves into each other’s minds in order to share knowledge and experience. For example, when the dude in Nairobi gets cornered by a gang, he can momentarily inherit the abilities of the expert kickboxer in Seoul, and she experiences the scene as if it’s her beating the crap out of the thugs. Then they can chat to each other about how awesome it all was.

Over the course of the twelve episodes, the eight come to terms with their burgeoning abilities and help each other out of a whole range of sticky situations. The intriguing concept is probed from a variety of angles, often with the particular blend of weirdness and innovation we’d expect from the Wachowskis at their best (and let's be clear, this is a big step up from Jupiter Ascending). Every episode seems to come with its own utterly brilliant, totally out-of-leftfield scene. The strangest sex scene you’ve ever seen! A musical number! Someone being knocked off a motorbike by a painting of the naked torso of Jean-Claude Van Damme! 

But what prevents all of this from getting overly weird is the strength of the characters. All eight of the cluster could easily hold their own film, and some of the most interesting stories to be found are those disconnected from the larger conspiracy arc – the woman in Mumbai who’s agreed to marry someone she doesn’t love, the guy in Nairobi struggling to make enough money to buy AIDS medicine for his mother, the gay actor in Mexico City hiding his boyfriend from the press in order to protect his career. You’ll come to love each character individually, and naturally these stories do get very sad at times  – bring a box of tissues to episode nine in particular.

The sci-fi elements are wisely allowed to sit in the background when stories are strong enough on their own, with the other sensates coming in when a character needs helping out or when their experiences can be paralleled. Relationships between the sensates develop, affecting things in everyone’s individual stories – for example, when that woman in Mumbai meets a guy from Berlin who she enjoys spending time with more than her fianc√©. Really, though, the sci-fi concept is a very clever device allowing the Wachowskis and Straczynski to tell a wide range of stories which would otherwise be difficult to get produced – how many big-budget American productions deal with the difficulty of finding AIDS medicine in Africa?

And, similarly, how many big-budget American productions have transgender lead characters? The incredible diversity is one of the great achievements of Sense8; as well as featuring the trans woman and the gay man, there’s a whole range of racial identities, all given equal coverage. Importantly, these characters’ minority identities are dealt with sensitively and dramatically, exposing real and serious issues, but are never all that define them – Nomi struggles with her transphobic mother but also has cool hacking skills which allow her to help solve the mystery (the depiction of hacking isn’t much more convincing than in The Matrix, but who cares about that?).

It is perhaps a shame that in the (very thrilling) finale, it’s the most conventional hero (the cis, straight, white, male, American cop) who takes a slightly more central role than others, but that’s a minor blip in what’s otherwise one of the most diverse character groups on TV.

If there’s anything else to criticise, it’s that sometimes, in some of the more sci-fi focused storylines, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. If anyone followed what happens to the Icelandic girl after she returns to her hometown, please explain it to me in the simplest terms possible. But maybe that’s part of the utterly unconventional fun of Sense8... 

Oh, and there are a few lines of awkwardly melodramatic dialogue here and there – Freema Agyeman shows up as Nomi’s girlfriend and has at least one line to rival her classic “Doctor, it’s Martha Jones, and I’m bringing you back to Earth!” for clunkiness.

Sense8 is a wonderful imbroglio of a show. It throws everything in – eight lead characters, action, tragedy, sci-fi, and that musical number – and somehow forms them all into a narrative that’s moving, very relevant, and thoroughly entertaining.

Monday, 24 August 2015

On 24.8.15 by KieronMoore in , , ,    No comments

For my full review of this new DVD release, visit Starburst.

For those unfamiliar with it, Modern Times may not be exactly how you imagine a Chaplin film. For starters, it’s not entirely silent. Made later in his career, and preceding his first proper ‘talkie’ The Great Dictator, this film blends silent and sound filmmaking, mostly focusing on Chaplin’s physical pratfalling but with some incursions of sound, most notably when he’s forced to improvise a song and dance number and spouts a masterwork of gibberish known as the “nonsense song”.

Secondly, the story’s no light-hearted romp. After losing his factory job, Chaplin’s ‘Little Tramp’ character goes through a series of jobs, desperately trying to hold onto work so that he can he can keep himself and his orphaned girlfriend off the streets. This may sound like a bit of a downer, and indeed Chaplin doesn’t pull his punches in his critique of the oppressive industrial society and the struggles of the unemployed.

But don’t think the film’s at all as downbeat as this theme – you come to Chaplin for the physical comedy, and Modern Times provides that in bucketloads. Every job the Tramp tries out is hampered by a mixture of incompetence and bad luck, providing a regular stream of moments that will make even the most skeptical of old cinema laugh out loud. From letting a massive ship float off to sea to getting his mechanic boss stuck between the cogs of an enormous machine, this guy can’t seem to get anything right.

Modern Times will surpass your expectations; blending unsparing social critique with the buffoonery of one of the twentieth century’s greatest comedians, it’s genuinely worthy of the term ‘masterpiece’.

Friday, 21 August 2015

On 21.8.15 by KieronMoore in , , ,    No comments

VWORP, and indeed VWORP.

Starburst Magazine issue 416 is out now, featuring my preview of Doctor Who series 9, plus another preview by me - zombie spin-off Fear the Walking Dead. Buy it before new information makes my pieces outdated!

Also included is my review of Channel 4 drama Humans, as well as a whole load of Who and assorted genre content.

Buy online or in WH Smiths.

Monday, 17 August 2015

On 17.8.15 by KieronMoore in , ,    No comments

If Heaven is, as the great poet Belinda Carlisle once said, a place on Earth, then is Hell one too (as Belinda didn’t go on to say)? That’s the question which inspired UnEarth, a new one-shot from writer John-Paul Bove and artist Conor Boyle.

The action begins in Sicily, 1895, where archaeologists excavating a long-dormant volcano find traces of a long-dead civilisation. They create plaster casts of the ancient inhabitants – √† la the ghostly statues of Pompeii – only to find they’re not exactly human-shaped.  What’s more, the demons who inhabited this hellscape aren’t exactly dead, either.

Inspired by the old religious concept of Hell being a physical place, there’s a rising feeling of biblical terror in Bove’s script, with an atmosphere somewhere in between Indiana Jones and Dante’s Inferno, while big themes such as the relationship between religion and science make sure you think as well as shudder. Conor Boyle’s art, and Bove’s own colouring, reinforce the terror very well, giving us a gruesome array of creatures, strikingly highlighted against the darkness – jet blacks and bloody reds are the key colours here.

As the comic book equivalent of a short horror story, UnEarth is a spine-chillingly good way to spend fifteen minutes.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

The topic of AI isn’t exactly new to science fiction (as a coffee break game, try to count how many times it’s appeared in recent films and TV). But Channel 4’s Humans has an intriguing approach to the subject – following various characters in a parallel 2015 in which household androids are commonplace – which works extremely well because, importantly, it feels not too distant from reality.

We’re introduced to Humans’ London through the Hawkins family, who purchase “synth” Anita (Chan) to help out around the house. But mum Laura (Parkinson) grows distrustful of Anita’s relationship with the kids, and the family’s lives begin to spiral further out of control due to the gradual dawning that Anita is no ordinary synth but is able to consciously think and feel.

Meanwhile, fugitive Leo (Morgan) and a gang of synths are searching for Anita, having known her in a past life, and are themselves hunted by government scientist Hobb (Webb). And this all somehow links to Dr. George Millican (Hurt), a retired scientist who clings on to his malfunctioning synth against the wishes of a stern NHS-provided synth nurse. It’s a lot to take in, and Humans does juggle a lot of characters, but on the whole, it does so effectively. 

If there’s one thing to criticise, it’s that certain strands of the domestic drama don’t work as well as others, particularly the withholding of information about Laura’s past – early on, we learn that she has a big secret, but the reveal is dragged out, and when it does come, feels largely irrelevant to the story Humans is trying to tell.

But despite occasional flagging, Humans manages to tap into current issues and extrapolate them into eerie, fascinating sci-fi, giving us compelling domestic drama and character-driven thrills. Its finale ties the story up satisfyingly while leaving threads hanging for the recently commissioned second series, which can’t come soon enough.