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Television Review: Sense8

Sense8 (Netflix; 2015-2018)

Art creates a world. This world can be a reflection of our own, seen through a rose-coloured filter, through jaded and jaundiced eyes, or through a funhouse mirror. It can be an imaginative projection, into the future or the past or even sideways across the present. It can be a nightmare or a dream, a representation of humanity’s worst impulses or a hopeful constitution of its best. The creation of that world might tells its audience many things about themselves, but at the soul of the matter it tells us most about its creators, and what kind of world they see as ideal and preferable.

In Sense8, the Wachowskis (with an able creative assist from Babylon 5‘s J. Michael Straczynski) realize an act of vivid, emotive world-creation that they have fitfully whittled away at since at least their breakthrough as culturally significant filmmakers with The Matrix in 1999. It’s a world of interconnection, a sinuously-threaded global village of criss-crossing interdependent identities striving for unity against persistent and well-resourced forces of controlling disunion. It’s also, vitally, a world of imperious self-creation and epiphanous self-realization, where the best and truest way to survive and strive for collective improvement is not to sacrifice what others need at the altar of what you want. It’s a pulpy but weirdly moving ode to the inherent value of empathy in the face of a ceaseless torrent of selfishness. Cut short just as it seemed to be ramping up and expanding its scope, Sense8 nonetheless feels like as complete a statement of values and purpose as the Wachowskis have ever managed to produce, just surpassing the uneven and sometimes self-contradicting Matrix Trilogy and the sprawling, flawed, beautiful Cloud Atlas. The latter is an obvious pre-requisite for the series in thematic terms and in cross-edited, globe-spanning construction, and the author of the (far more brilliant) novel on which that film was based, David Mitchell, co-wrote the Sense8 finale episode, cinching the close connection of the material.

Over two seasons on Netflix and a recently-released 2.5-hour finale film wrapping up as many of its storylines and arcs as proved possible, Sense8 presented a compelling (if often silly and generically conventional) metaphorical narrativization of the essential forces of conflict and rapprochement in our globalized post-capitalist mega-society. Laying out its complex pseudo-scientific premise gradually over its rising action, the show introduces the concept of “sensates”, a separate, mostly-hidden species of human beings who are able to connect with each other in a psychic/empathic/telepathic manner that is made visually and emotionally clear while also being left a little functionally ambiguous. These sensates, known scientifically as homo sensorium, are “birthed” by previously established sensates in clusters of eight which are physically born (to ordinary homo sapiens parents, by all evidence) at precisely the same moment. Thereafter, at some point in their lives, they begin experiencing the lives and the inner thoughts and the feelings of their other seven clustermates, and are able to communicate with these faraway strangers and even temporarily take possession of their bodies, should the need or desire arise (which it often does, for dramatic, sensual, and action-related reasons).

Sense8‘s globally-strewn main cluster begins to explore and cope with their new collective reality while contending with their own personal relationships and problems:

  • Bay Area trans hacktivist and blogger Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) and her spunky girlfriend Amanita (Freema Agyeman) evade shadowy official forces that seek to imprison and disfigure Nomi, and deal with her disapproving parents who can’t accept her transition to a new identity.
  • Chicago cop Will Gorski (Brian J. Smith) struggles to reconcile his police responsibilities and outlook with his sensate revelations and related growing distrust of institutional authority, with the sometimes-ambiguous aid of wanted terrorist Jonas Maliki (Naveen Andrews).
  • Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) is a successful movie star in Mexico, who hides his passionate same-sex relationship with university art professor Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) in order to preserve his hyper-masculine action star career.
  • London-based Icelandic DJ Riley Blue (Tuppence Middleton) contends with dangerous characters in her present and unthinkable tragedy in her past.
  • Wolfgang Bogdanow (Max Riemelt) navigates the fraught and deadly criminal underworld of Berlin while carrying the psychological weight of a traumatic upbringing by his thuggish father.
  • Capheus Onyango (Aml Ameen in Season 1, Toby Onwumere in Season 2) drives a matatu (a sort of pay-as-you-ride shared bus) in Nairobi, Kenya and cares for his HIV/AIDS-infected mother (Chichi Seii), and becomes an unlikely folk hero when he stands up to the city’s endemic criminal gangs.
  • Mumbai pharmacologist Kala Dandekar (Tina Desai) is engaged to her boss’ son Rajan (Purab Kohli), but is entertaining doubts concerning her feelings for him that intensify when she catches sensate glimpses of sexy Teutonic bad-boy Wolfgang.
  • Sun Bak (Doona Bae), daughter and heir to a South Korean corporate titan as well as a badass kickboxing virtuoso, who must decide if she should take the legal fall for her father and brother in an embezzlement scandal.

Connecting with each other and teasing out the meaning of their condition, this sensate cluster discovers the history of their species, the fates of their fellow homo sensorium, and the evil, destructive intentions of a shadowy NGO known as the Biological Preservation Organization (a.k.a. BPO) and its sinister sensate hunter known only as Whispers (Terrence Mann). Indeed, as it proceeds and develops and expands, Sense8 becomes an increasingly bifurcated text, split between the action-thriller conflict between the cluster and Whispers’ BPO (heavy on fight scenes and shootouts spearheaded by Will, Sun, and Wolfgang and capers directed by the prodigious hacker and techie Nomi) and the various melodramatic personal subplots of the individual sensates (Kala’s plot in particular is quite nearly a homage to the romantic corniness of Bollywood). The Wachowkis (who often direct episodes themselves, with previous collaborators like Cloud Atlas co-director Tom Tykwer and V For Vendetta director James McTeigue taking the helm as well) are always keen to break up the drama and the tension and the action sequences with enervated intermittent collective celebrations in the vein of the infamous dance-party/sex/orgy sequence in Zion in The Matrix Reloaded.

Indeed, it is with such joyful, often erotic quick-cut montages (including one ending the finale, after the BPO thriller plot is closed off perfunctorily) that the Wachowskis make their deeper point about collective unity and action in Sense8. There is no lack of social and political commentary in the series, much of it fairly heavy-handed and self-consciously relevant to contemporary events. But the general through-line of the series emphasizes empathy as the cornerstone of positive progressivism; its characters quite literally see the world through the eyes of others from very different circumstances and grow to be better and more open people as a result. The pitiless Whispers is a picture of unfeeling institutional oppression and violence, while the cluster is a collaborative collective, a mutually respectful and caring group effort to defeat dead-end fascist discrimination and neutralization efforts and to ultimately craft a better world.

It is this collectivized vision of a better world that saves Sense8 from its own persistent pulp goofiness and numerous flaws (whimsical comic sidekicks abound, the recurrent – though masterful – violent action scenes clash with the hopeful tone of togetherness, and the series’ cancellation and rushed conclusion led to the jettisoning of certain of the more frivolous, but still absorbing, subplots). The Wachowskis, of course, began their filmmaking careers as brothers, but have emerged from Sense8 as sisters. Their gender transition (which kept Lilly away from the production in its second season, leaving the earlier-transitioned Lana to take the lead in writing and directing) is directly referenced in Nomi’s arc and less directly reflected in Lito’s struggles with the closet, certainly. But their difficult shift in identity is mirrored in the entire sensate experience, a shift that ends not in self-doubt or loathing but in festive unified love.

Sense8 employs a number of cultural touchstones to demonstrate its vision of collective power, from pop song singalongs and thumping party montages to references to films both classic (From Here to Eternity is a key film for Lito’s homosexual identity) and cheesily B-level (Conan the Barbarian and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies are keystones of Wolfgang’s and Capheus’s closest friendships, respectively). But the series provides defining thesis statements in front pair of more highbrow art history talismans. Lito galvanizes his deep intellectual and emotional connection to Hernando (with a hand-on-the-shoulder assist from Nomi) in Mexico City’s Diego Rivera Museum, with the artist’s paintings of idealized but socially realistic scenes of collective socialist action as a backdrop. Then, Will meets a potential ally from inside BPO in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum in front of Rembrandt’s iconic The Night Watch. They speak of the progressive evolution of ideas, of ways of seeing and of understanding. But the BPO exec also recognizes in Rembrandt’s painting a heroic act of world-creation, a reified envisioning of collective action for the common good. Sense8 may not be The Night Watch of its time, nor the Wachowskis the Rembrandt of theirs, but it is likewise a heroic creation in its own beautifully flawed way, concerned with the power of a unity of individuals integrating their own quests for identity with a larger collective quest for an improved reality.

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Categories: Art, Reviews, Television

Film Review: The Disaster Artist

The Disaster Artist (2017; Directed by James Franco)

It would be best to open with an admission that I have not seen The Room, Tommy Wiseau’s curiously terrible, idiot-savant Badfilm cult classic, in its entirety. Youtube compilation videos of the 2003 catastrophically-failed melodrama highlighting the film’s awkwardly non-specific dialogue, whiplashing tonal shifts, unresolved plot twists, unexplained tuxedo-clad games of football catch, and meme-worthy overdramatic acting are about as deep as I can get into this inadvertent crap-terpiece, which has become a species of Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight-showing favourite for Very Online millennial ironists. Little I have seen makes me want to see more, to be frank, although it is entirely possible that the The Room might gain a certain oddball rhythm of brilliant awfulness when viewed complete.

Anyway, director/star James Franco’s The Disaster Artist tells you more than enough about Tommy Wiseau, The Room‘s eccentric director/producer/writer/star, and his misbegotten cultural-meme movie, while also telling you nothing much at all. It also tells you a lot about James Franco while also telling you nothing much at all; maybe, in the case of both artist and subject, there isn’t much worth telling. Franco is one of Hollywood’s most curious cases, forever a movie-star-in-embryo with matinee-idol looks and undeniable talent, but likewise possessed of a sense of above-it-all detachment that keeps him off the A-List. Franco also boasts open and earnest high-brow literary pretensions, publishing short fiction collections, teaching university courses about the poetry of film, and directing, producing, and starring in low-budget, barely-seen film adaptations of seminally serious Dead White Guy novels by William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Cormac McCarthy (who isn’t dead, yes, I know).

These latter passion projects, greeted at best with a dismissive shrugs by critics and seen by precisely no one, might serve to explain Franco’s interest in Tommy Wiseau and his peculiar form of cinematic infamy. In The Disaster Artist, Franco sees Wiseau as an unerringly hilarious character and at once a strange enigma and a psychological open-book. Spearheaded by Franco’s meticulous and eerie impersonation of Wiseau and contrasted with his younger brother Dave Franco’s straight-man Greg Sestero – Wiseau’s minor-actor friend and co-star who also co-wrote the memoir about the production of The Room on which The Disaster Artist is based – the film leans hard into the obvious humour of Wiseau’s quest to make this comically terrible movie, gently ribbing Hollywood inspirational-film themes and behind-the-scenes realities at the same time. But James Franco also quite clearly considers Tommy Wiseau a kindred spirit, and sees his journey as weirdly, genuinely inspiring as well as, it could be said, personally applicable to his own life and maybe to those of the audience, too.

In the film as in the book as in real life, Sestero meets Wiseau in an acting class in San Francisco. The handsome but nervous and self-conscious Sestero (an ex-model) is impressed by Wiseau’s total lack of vanity and by his performative abandon (he acts out the agonized Marlon Brando “Stella!” scene from A Streetcar Named Desire by one of his favourite authors, “The Tennessee Williams”). The two men become friends, roommates, and move to Los Angeles together to have a crack at Hollywood stardom. Sestero manages some minor roles (he was in Gattaca, Patch Adams, and the TV show Nash Bridges) but the peculiar Wiseau, with his long black hair and piratical sartorial sense, distracting and unplaceable accent (he claims to be from New Orleans, but no one believes him), and bizarre and awkwardly aggressive personality, gets nowhere.

Wiseau is independently wealthy (various explanations have been given for where his money came from, none of them ultimately satisfying) and hatches the idea of funding an independent movie that he will write, direct, and star in himself, with Sestero as his co-star. Although in real life Sestero’s role in The Room was intended to be behind-the-scenes only before he was convinced to replace the original actor playing the character of Mark after Wiseau fired him, in The Disaster Artist he is on board as a key collaborator from the start. The chaotic, contentious productions strains their relationship beyond the breaking point, however, as Wiseau frustrates and terrorizes the cast and crew (recognizable faces such as Seth Rogen, Josh Hutcherson, and Zac Efron are among them), demonstrates almost no useful or applicable working knowledge of filmmaking, and vindictively scuttles a potential big break of a role for Sestero by forcing him to shave his beard for a big climactic reveal in The Room that doesn’t make any sense.

In the end, of course, these sundered friends are brought together again by the unpredictable inverted success of The Room, which James Franco climactically shows confounding a premiere-night audience before winning them over as an audience-pleasing accidental comedy classic, its cult status clinched before the credits even roll. Franco, one fancies, sees in Wiseau and The Room a strange carnivalesque inversion of the kind of follow-your-dreams inspirational tropes that Hollywood has bandied about and persistently self-celebrated for decades. The Disaster Artist reproduces these conventions and thus lampoons them, always already with a coy meta self-awareness (the Oscar-nominated screenplay is by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber). For example, Wiseau’s lowest point in Tinseltown before launching into the making of The Room comes when he accosts a big-time producer in a restaurant who pitilessly shoots down his show-biz ambitions. The producer is played in cameo by Judd Apatow, the prominent producer-director of numerous Hollywood bro-comedies known for pushing the genre’s thematic boundaries and for nurturing emerging comedic talent, including both Franco brothers.

The more one delves into The Disaster Artist, the more meta-mirrors emerge. Greg Sestero’s girlfriend for a time is Amber, played by Dave Franco’s real-world wife Alison Brie. Wiseau openly resents her for coming between him and Sestero, and The Room‘s production increasingly becomes merely a mechanism for forcibly sustaining the two men’s friendship. Is this a reflection of envy on James Franco’s part for his younger brother’s relationship from a man with a checkered romantic and sexual history (including some sexual misconduct allegations that hypocritically clash with his public #MeToo solidarity)? It could be read as such, and is hinted at obliquely in dialogue that interprets The Room‘s focus on Wiseau’s alter-ego Johnny being betrayed by his fiancee Lisa (Ari Graynor plays Juliette Danielle, who played Lisa in The Room) as reflecting a past break-up in Wiseau’s life. The Wiseau/Sestero bromance also fits in cozily with past homosociality-centric Franco-headed comedies, particularly with Rogen (a producer on this film as well as an onscreen player), which suggests that the core theme of romantic betrayal in The Room actually reflects a growing distance between Wiseau and Sestero.

Beyond such nesting-doll tabloid-esque speculations, however, one can’t help but return to the interpretation that James Franco assumes the role of Tommy Wiseau because he feels in some way that, despite his general Hollywood success, he is Tommy Wiseau. Does Franco realize that his passionate toil on his literary adaptations just might outstrip his artistic capacity as a filmmaker, and that those more-than-a-little-pretentious works come across as unintentionally laughable as The Room? Does he even envy Wiseau, whose defining Z-grade work has achieved an enduring popularity (ironic or transgressive as its enthusiastic infamy may be) that eludes his own films? Or does he want to encourage thoughtful film consumers to think so, as another added layer of irony? If so, the fact that The Disaster Artist received more critical plaudits, awards, and popular success than anything else James Franco has directed adds another layer of irony to this particularly large onion. If The Room is a window into the supposedly mysterious life and identity of Tommy Wiseau, perhaps The Disaster Artist is equally a window into the self-constructed mystery around James Franco.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace (2008; Directed by Marc Forster)

Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace, despite its marbles-in-the-mouth title, is quite probably the leanest and meanest James Bond adventure. It’s also the most audacious attempt at repositioning the prevailing political subtext of the archetypal spy movie franchise to the left side of the political spectrum.

The Bond films are an action-movie property whose reification of its deep-state intelligence agent protagonist and his cloak-and-dagger espionage activities aligned with the consensus political ideology during the Cold War period from which they arose. But those assumptions became more strained after the fall of the Iron Curtain: the neoliberal-era Pierce Brosnan installments became increasingly paint-by-numbers action blockbusters while stretching credulity with its villains and their non-state-aligned diabolical plots, and the jocularly casual Britishness of Bond’s MI6 would come across all wrong in a time when the state’s vast intelligence apparatus seems ever poised to be turned on its own citizens as equally as on its enemies.

Quantum of Solace sees James Bond (Daniel Craig) seeking mostly-disavowed personal vengeance against the killers of his paramour from Casino Royale, Vesper Lynd, but in the process, he exposes and tears to shreds a black-money collusive feedback loop between resource-hoarding transnational corporations posing as environmental stewards, cruel Third-World military dictators, and a shamelessly self-serving CIA. Even speaking of such a shadow conspiracy of powerful forces trading the fates of millions for suitcases of cash smacks of shaggy-haired left-wing crusading and overheated, biased Oliver Stone projects. But in Quantum of Solace it pretty much lands, and might have stuck, too, had its follow-up Skyfall (while undeniably a beautiful film under the behind-the-camera supervision of director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins) backed up its ideological thrust and not reverted to a cynical Cheneyist 1% doctrine of national security absolutism in the face of (conveniently) ever-present threats.

Daniel Craig’s iteration of 007 debuted in Casino Royale as an efficient, almost heartless killing machine (often, it must be said, at the cost of his equally deadly charm), and that brutal efficiency, when taken quite near to its logical extreme as in Quantum of Solace, makes Bond a representative instrument of the national security superstructure. Quantum of Solace, with a screenplay by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade, openly acknowledges the historical role of intelligence agencies (specifically the CIA) in masterminding destabilizing political power plays around the world (but specifically in South America), and it also references British imperialism and its dire effects across the globe. In order to make James Bond a species of inadvertent social justice warrior in such a milieu, he must be disassociated from that superstructure and its mucky history as much as possible.

Hence, 007 goes rogue in his quest for Vesper Lynd’s killers, against the orders of his steely superior M (Judi Dench), who becomes progressively more frustrated with the growing body count produced by her star agent. Careening from a furiously visceral car chase in Italy to a white-knuckle pursuit over the rooftops of Siena during the Palio, from a Haitian harbour to a black-tie open air Austrian opera and finally to Bolivia to stop a coup and a sweeping corporate resource theft, Bond joins forces with a Bolivian agent with a grudge (Olga Kurylenko) to target a would-be dictator (Joaquín Cosío) and a flashy CEO and secret power-broker (Mathieu Amalric). The action sequences are pulse-pounding affairs (although those early in the film in Italy set too high a bar for sheer exhilaration to be matched later on), and Bond does get around to seducing one beauty who crosses his path (Gemma Arterton), although this is included perfunctorily, as a necessity for these kind of films to rush through, as in most of the Craig-era Bond movies.

Whatever ideological course-correction back towards orthodox national-security discourse norms its sequel performed, Quantum of Solace manages to be a robust progressive critique of plundering elites and power-brokers as well as a propulsively exciting action blockbuster. Its political themes coalesce in internally consistent ways and give James Bond, ruthless tool of faded British imperial muscle, a certain Robin Hood edge of righteous justice. It makes a strong case for an alternate potential path for the character, which is not something you could have said of, I don’t know, Moonraker or what have you. This, at least, makes it a unique and notable entry in the half-century annals of Bond films.

Categories: Film, Reviews