Thursday, August 31, 2017

What Happens in a Future with Too Many People

A recent entry in the dystopian sci-fi thriller arena--with undertones of “Logan’s Run”, a bit of “Blade Runner”, and, borrowing most heavily from “Orphan Black”--Netflix’s “What Happened to Monday?” turns out to be a pleasant surprise.

The quandary for government and scientists: How to deal with an epic food shortage for a massive population explosion… just bio-engineer more food, right? Yeah, bad plan. Mucking around in Mother Nature’s genetic pool always seems to lead to unexpected hinky-ness in the consumers of all that not-so-natural food, and in this case, causes an epidemic of multiple births… basically the exact opposite of how to solve a burgeoning population. So, part two of the brilliant plan (with Glenn Close playing the role of mastermind at the sci-tech conglomerate responsible for solving the problem)? Cryogenically freeze any additional babies from multiple births, so every family has but one child. Problem solved!

Until, of course, some family decides to buck the system… as one grieving father (Willem Dafoe) does when he conspires with a sympathetic doctor to save the seven grandbabies left in his care when his daughter dies in childbirth.

What follows next is a little time capsule, showing how the ingenious grandpa modifies their home—and designs their very lives—so that the girls won’t be found out. Basically, he decides there’s one little girl for every day of the week… so each girl is named after a day, and is allowed to go outside and be “Karen Settman” on her day, while the rest stay indoors, hidden, until their days pop up each week. (It is a solution both clever and far-fetched, but of course the thought of freezing newborns is untenable, so we have little trouble putting ourselves in his shoes and buying into the scheme.)

Cut to the present, when the sisters (played by Noomi Rapace) are 30ish, and we see what it looks like for seven adult women to still be perpetuating the ruse. (Yeah, the lack of freedom and monotony six out of seven days is grating on them, to varying degrees, as you might expect.) At home, they can be themselves… but they’re trapped at home, unable to develop serious friendships or relationships with anyone outside the confines of their large loft apartment.

Then one day, something happens. The always-reliable Monday doesn’t return home from the bank where “Karen” has a job… throwing the other six sisters into a major tizzy. What to do? Two women can’t be out in the world being “Karen” at the same time—especially not since everyone is kept track of via wristbands that are scanned at various entry points—and yet at least one of them has to venture out, if they’re ever going to find out what, exactly, did happen to Monday.

Although parts of “Monday” are admittedly a bit thin—for instance, we’re only shown Close’s company, as though hers is the only one responsible for all the cryogenics—there is much to enjoy here… particularly Rapace’s skillful performance(s) as the seven adult sisters. There’s nowhere near the time for her to fully develop their personalities in a two-hour film—unlike that afforded the brilliant Tatiana Maslany in the five-season TV show “Orphan Black”—but she makes the most of it, leaving us with a sense of who each woman is, and how each one is (or isn’t) coping with the challenges inherent in being allowed to interact with the outside world only one-seventh of every week (month, year, decade).  

The premise of the movie is also a fascinating one—and timely, given how many of the poorest nations in the world have long faced the dual problems of overpopulation and food shortages/starvation. The solution in “Monday” is, undoubtedly, an extreme one, but discussions can certainly be had about how we as a world might deal with the same issues.

Overall, while I think “Monday” feels like a (very well-done) made-for-TV movie, it nonetheless has plenty of substance—as well as some twists I didn’t see coming—to please most sci-fi aficionados… myself included.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Battling Baddies in Bruges

A fascinating and beautiful medieval city. A young American woman on temporary foreign assignment, coping with the unknowns of working in a strange land and with the hassle of trying to avoid her misogynistic new supervisor. A host of vampires, witches, ghosts, and assorted other fae creatures. What could be more entertaining? 

Well, a lot of things, actually—although there are, fortunately, a few high points—in E.J. Stevens’ urban fantasy, Hunting in Bruges


Jenna Lehane is a young—check that, very young—member of the American order of a worldwide organization known as the Hunters’ Guild, whose mission it is to keep humans safe from all manner of dangers… especially those of the supernatural variety.

It seems nefarious paranormal activity has recently picked up in the ancient city of Bruges, and the Guild there—woefully understaffed—has put out a call for assistance. Fresh off a job that had kinda gone sideways, Jenna’s boss knows an opportunity when he sees it, and packs her off to Belgium to help out (and hopefully, to avoid any censure from the State-side higher-ups).

Turns out it’s a matter of walking from one hairy situation into another, though, when Jenna learns just how many people (several dozen) have died in the city recently… and when she meets the somewhat-sketchy skeleton crew left working in the Bruges branch of the Guild.

Her fellow Hunters consist of the aforementioned sexist (human) ape who turns out to be her supervisor; an addlepated witch (made so by her addiction to a witchy drug); the extremely-grouchy (and quite possibly, incompetent) coroner; a crazy Russian demolitions expert (who just wants to blow everything up, of course); the blind archivist who mans (surprisingly well) the Guild’s massive library; and the quirky ghost of a former Hunter (who, curiously, only manifests in mostly-corporeal form around Jenna). 

Set against the wonders and charms of beautiful Bruges, it’s up to Jenna and her motley crew to save the city’s innocent populace—as well as its most prized relic—by eradicating the violent (but well-organized) group of bloodsuckers, and assorted other supernatural baddies, that are up to no good. But, with both an eclipse and a massive city-wide celebration imminent, the clock is ticking down far too quickly for Jenna’s comfort… 

In truth, Hunting in Bruges isn’t a bad book; the problem is, it’s not really that good of a book, either.

The problems start with Jenna, and how Stevens depicts her. I can forgive the common urban fantasy trope of making her an orphan. I can grit my teeth—but go along with—her being ridiculously skilled at handling all weaponry. And she’s young, fine… although 20?? To have so many kills under her belt (or strung on her necklace, in the case of the vamp teeth she wears), when she’s only just entered her third decade on earth? That’s asking for the reader to swallow an awful lot.  

Jenna’s inner monologues may actually go along with her being so impossibly young—after all, who, just out of her/his teens, tends to have deeply-meaningful thoughts?—but that doesn’t change how monotonous and repetitious they quickly become. (It’s like being in the mind of a teenager. Ugh.)

Like I said, Hunting in Bruges isn’t entirely without redeeming qualities. A couple of the supporting characters—particularly the witch and the ghost—are given some substance, which raises the bar during their scenes. The historical tie-ins aren’t vast, but add a little interest to the proceedings. And the confrontations Jenna has with the vampires, as well as with a couple of water fae, are full of action (and free of any sparkly-pretty gussying-up of the baddies, thankfully).

By far the best part about Hunting in Bruges, though, is, well, Bruges. I may not remember the characters in this book past the end of the year (nor is it likely I’ll ever read more in the series), but I will certainly still very much want to visit this fascinating city… in which case Stevens has done me a small favor, by bringing it to the forefront of my mind once more.

Friday, August 18, 2017

A Study in Opposites: Bloodline Failed Abysmally, while Ozark is a Triumphant Joy

In general, I’ve never been a big advocate of making snap judgments; to my way of thinking, it behooves no one to be too hasty when deciding on something—or someone’s—merits.

That vegetable you think—for no good reason—you don’t like (because crazy Aunt Ida managed to massacre it into oblivion each Thanksgiving, and you vowed to never, ever let it pass your lips again)? It may be absolutely delicious prepared by more skillful hands. That book your workmates are raving about, which just isn’t "your genre"? Could prove to be as all-absorbing as the watercooler talk purports it to be. Or that guy/girl who, at first blush, isn’t really your “type”? Might turn out to be the one who values your worth and ends up stealing your heart.

The point is, you just never know… which is why I always try to give things that don’t immediately hook me a fair shake. I’ll read sixty pages into a book I’m not enjoying if I have reason (say, trusty recommendations) to think it might actually be good. I’ll give a food I’ve never tried—or never experienced made really well—a shot, if it sounds or looks appealing. I’ve gone on dates with men who didn’t tick off every box on some mental checklist of “must-haves”, because I saw potential there. And, I’ve given TV shows which were hard to stick with—but showed promise—ample time to hook, wow, and impress me.

Sometimes, though, the magic simply doesn’t happen, no matter how much effort you put into trying to like/understand/”get” something… as in the case for what should’ve been a much better show than it was, Netflix’s Bloodline. (Note that I’m using the past tense to talk about Bloodline, as it has--thankfully--concluded the third of its three seasons.)

The situation isn’t all grim, however, since I found Ozark--another Netflix entry, interestingly enough--to be the show that Bloodline could have been.

First, though, the mess which was Bloodline… With a great cast, including Kyle Chandler, Ben Mendelsohn, Linda Cardellini, Enrique Murciano, Chloe Sevigny, John Leguizamo, Beau Bridges, and—in a small role—the late Sam Shephard, the show boasted plenty of talent in front of the camera. The setting—a little family-run hotel in a hamlet in the Florida Keys—was promising, as well, particularly as it hasn’t been done-to-death. And, in the beginning, I held out plenty of hope; although it was an extremely languid show from the get-go, that felt true to the hot, sticky climate in which the action took place (plus, I assumed it had to pick up the pace, eventually).

A ne’er-do-well brother (Danny), returning home to the fold (with anything but familial open arms waiting to greet him). A mess of unspoken undercurrents, which clearly put both the straight-arrow policeman brother (John) and litigator sister (Meg) on edge. A baby brother (Kevin) who seemed to be a perpetual screw-up. The long-suffering parents (Robert and Sally), who were far more concerned with the running of the inn than with their adult children’s respective issues. And then, a sudden death… which highlighted the worst in everyone, and threatened to bring long-buried secrets out into the bright Florida sunlight for the world to see in this crime drama that also functions as family melodrama. 

With so much promise, then, how did it all go so very wrong (for me, at least)? In pretty much every other way possible, frankly. I have both read and sat through some incredibly-slow burns, but Bloodline took the (not-hotly-contested) cake, on that front. Egads, was this show’s pace slow! Some of the side plots were way too contrived, really pushing the envelope of un-believability, which didn't help. The most egregious wrong about Bloodline, though? The sheer unlikeable-ness of Every. Single. Character. (Okay, I actually didn't mind one character who got killed off in the first season… but, like I said, he died.) I have never before found myself watching a show in which I truly disliked everyone, but that was my experience with Bloodline… and that, it seems, is my personal full-stop limit of that which is tolerable/intolerable: I need to like/identify with/root for at least ONE character in a show (book, movie, etc.)--something which I just did not do with this hot mess.

Had it been enjoyable enough to be a so-called “guilty pleasure”, I wouldn’t quibble, but there was so little pleasure to be derived from sitting through Bloodline, it might as well have been non-existent.

(Sidebar: I stuck out two full, tedious seasons of Bloodline, but after forcing myself to watch the first episode of the third/final season… found I simply couldn’t stomach any more. How everything was resolved? Don’t know, and honestly don’t care.)

As alluded to earlier, though, my experience with Ozark (a new-in-the-2017-season show) was the exact opposite, despite there being some surface similarities between the two shows.

Like the previous example, Ozark can claim some impressive talent, including Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, and Esai Morales. There are dual settings for the action, here, with part occuring in Chicago, and the remainder happening in Missouri, in the eponymous Ozarks. (Again, places we don’t see portrayed every day—especially the latter, obviously—which is instantly attention-grabbing.)

And what about that action? Without saying too much, it revolves around one family, the Byrdes (financial advisor dad, Marty; part-time professional mom, Wendy; and their preteen and high-school-age son, Jonah, and daughter, Charlotte) who find themselves forced to vacate the Windy City for parts remote, humid, and lacking in any excitement whatsoever when Dad runs afoul of the drug cartel for which he’s been providing some shadier services over the past decade. (Of course, you know that means going from the frying pan and into the fire, right? Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much of a show…) 

What makes the two shows so very different, then, separating them by multiple country miles, as it were? Aside from the obvious situational similarities, the short answer to that question is, “pretty much everything else”.

Where Bloodline was a study in just how long the writers and directors could drag out any scene, every plot point, and yet another ridiculous scenario (making the whole a torturous slog), Ozark is all about the pay-off, with things happening right now, and everyone scurrying to keep up and figure out how to deal with it all (kinda like in real life), before the next blow happens (as it invariably will)… keeping things moving along briskly.

Equally notable are the characters in Ozark, which I find myself—if not precisely rooting for everyone (I’m not a monster, so of course I’m not sitting there hoping the bad guys come out on top)—nonetheless completely intrigued. As for the characters I do like—the Family Byrde, en masse, the thieving young woman and her equally-sketchy (but woefully-less adept) family, the bordering-on-sociopathic Feebie, the slow-to-trust bar owner, and the suave cartel hombre, to name a few—they are all deliciously compelling.

In short, while both shows have overlying story arcs involving basically “good” people being put in positions where doing bad things seems the only realistic option (and is, indeed, always the chosen one), it’s the combination of writing—the characters, the situations, and the motivations—the acting, and the directing which makes the earlier show (Bloodline) an abysmally-disappointing failure for me, and the new show, Ozark, an utter win.

Final Verdict:
Bloodline: crime drama/thriller/family melodrama; not recommended at all;
Ozark: crime drama/thriller/family melodrama; highly recommended