The Expanse

TheExpanse gone too far

The second season of SyFy’s The Expanse (2015-) recently come to a disappointing concluded for me. Perhaps I’m overly critical, or I simply heard too much hype about how great it was, but I kept hoping for something more. As the ad says, it’s from the writers of Children of Men (2006) and Iron Man (2008), which suggests the show’s range; part thought-provoking, part conventional Hollywood. Perhaps there is more substance to the books.

Like Game of Thrones (2011-), The Expanse is based on a successful, incomplete book series, where a mysterious danger threatens the unsuspecting masses. Like the Alien films (1979-2017), unscrupulous people are looking to weaponize this danger for their own ends. Like Firefly (2002), the heart of the show centers around a ship of likable and lucky misfits who seem to have been mistaken for a boy band by the marketing department.

the_expanse_boy band shot

Okay, so if the show is that bad, why did I keep watching it? But that’s just it. It’s not really that bad. The premise is great: In the future, Earth and the Moon are governed by the U.N. and most of the people are unemployed, living off government assistance, because technological advances have made the manual labor pool obsolete. Meanwhile, Mars has been colonized by harty individuals striving for a collective goal; to create a new world free from the corrupt influence of the decadent Earthers. Caught in between are the Belters; those living on the asteroids and space stations outside Earth and Mars. It’s somewhat like the dynamics of the Cold War, with Earth being the First World, Mars the Second, and The Belt, the unaligned and frequently abused Third.

I wish the show would live in these spaces, rather than using them as a backdrop for another cowboys in space, action/horror series. One of the possible storylines that they only touch on are the Mormons, who are actively evangelizing throughout the solar system and building a massive ship to take some of them to a new home that will require multiple generations to get to. It’s potentially so interesting but it’s sadly reduced to a plot device for the momentary motives of the main characters.

Like I said, maybe the books have more substance, and it’s not like the show is horrible. As TV shows go, it’s pretty good, and if you like science fiction you’ll probably enjoy it. Just, don’t expect too much.

Homeland’s Alt-Right Season

SPOILER ALERT: If you plan on watching the latest season of Homeland (2011-) and don’t want to know anything about what happened, don’t read this.

homeland out is back in

Homeland just finished its sixth season and has already be renewed for a seventh and eighth, with a planned end to the storyline there. When the show began it was sold as the story of Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a U.S. Marine presumed to have been lost in action until he is found during a raid on a terrorist compound, after several years of brutal captivity. But the central character of the show has always been Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), a C.I.A. intelligence genius who suffers from psychotic episodes. Carrie is the only one who suspects that Brody may have been compromised by the enemy, which turns out to be true. This doesn’t stop her from falling in love (lust, then love) with him, breaking up his marriage, and ultimately getting him killed. There are plenty more dramatic twists and turns, along with emotionally satisfying moments in the first three seasons, both realistic and unrealistic, but the Carrie-Brody love affair is the main throughline.

Season four was set in Pakistan, where we learned that the Pakistanis aren’t really our friends, and five was primarily in Berlin, where we learn that the sneaky Russians are still our enemies. Now, in season six, Carrie has come home to New York. No longer with, “The Agency,” she is a secret advisor to President Elect Keane (Elizabeth Marvel), who is opposed by some key players in the National Security establishment and elsewhere, who are will to do anything, including murder, to stop her. There is also a blow-hard, conspiracy theorist, compulsive liar of a talk show host, Brett O’Keefe (Jake Weber), endlessly complaining on his, “Real Truth,” program about how America is lost and Keane will destroy the Republic.

homeland real truth

My first reaction to the O’Keefe character was to recall Glenn Beck at his chalkboard, when he was still ranting on Fox News. But Beck now claims to regret the divisions he helped create in the American Electorate and he did not support The Donald, so he has fallen out of favor with much of the reactionary crowd he helped cultivate.

glenn beck chalkboard

Most people seem to see O’Keefe as an Alex Jones parody, though he never gets as loud and childishly angry as Jones does – and Jones’s Disinformation War followers were offended by this perceived attack on their phony hero from the get go. They, specifically, Paul Joseph Watson, writing on Jones’s website, laments the “fact” that:

The plots of earlier Homeland seasons were usually focused around Islamic terrorism, but in later series the show has kowtowed to political correctness and allowed social justice narratives to ruin the dynamism of what was once an enjoyable watch.

In truth, Homeland has always raised questions about the justness of American actions and the handling of the War on Terror (or whatever you want to call it). If that is something you want to lump under the all-purpose, and often meaningless phrase, “politically correctness,” so be it, but it’s nothing new. I have no idea what Watson thinks a, “social justice narrative,” is, since he gives no examples and puts no thought into that charge either, but I don’t see it anywhere in the show.

Watson, and many of the fans commenting on his article, also believe that the choice of a female President Elect proves, “how out of touch the producers [of Homeland] are with reality” (as if Trump won the popular vote or was somehow inevitable).

I think their real problem with the O’Keefe character is that he is too close to the real thing; a man willing to say and do anything to whip up the mob and murder truth for his own ends and perverted sense of self-importance. [Note: You can see more about Jones in my documentary, Conspiracy Theorists Lie (2015).]

alex jones on air

What I find disheartening is how much Homeland feeds into Alt-Right, conspiracy theorist paranoia; this season more than ever. By the end of the finale it is unclear who was/is in league with whom and if anyone can be trusted, including the new President. What is the real plan and to what end? Like so many shows, which I generally like, as shows (House of Cards (2013-) and 24 (2001-2010) come readily to mind), Homeland paints a very unreal and frightening vision of our government officials at work that is closely akin to the, “Deep State,” rhetoric of conspiracy wingnuts. One in which large numbers of public servants are ruthless to a fault and disinterested in morality, the rule of law, or anything outside their personal ambitions and sinister plots. My tinfoil head wearing critics scoff at me when I point out facts like this and come back with retorts like, “You’re so naive (or stupid) to think that government officials are all good and honest.” But that not what I’m saying. Not at all. I’m simply trying to put the faults of our government officials into a reasonable perspective. If America were actually such a pathetic, backstabbing, literarily murderous, Banana Republic, where vast numbers of bureaucrats and officers are constantly scheming to commit horrendous crimes and trample our Constitutional structures to the ground, then we would not be making up wild TV fantasies to entertain ourselves because we would be too busy living miserable lives and dying horribly in the nightmare clutches of a Police State.

Homeland keeps bring two classic films to mind for me: The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964). The first is about a communist plot to take over America, in which a soldier is brainwashed into becoming an assassin and the biggest anti-communist Senator turns out to be the real embodiment of the danger he has long been warning the people about. The second centers around a military coup, orchestrated by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who believes the President is a “weak sister” and the nation needs to be saved from. If you haven’t see them, you should.

Homeland clearly borrows elements from these two films but it lacks the Kennedy Era sense of patriotism they champion. Homeland, like too many other shows and movies today, rarely seems to believe that America is an idea worth fighting for. Carrie is simply trying to stop terrorists from killing innocent people or trying to stop her friends from getting killed, and we’re just in it to see what Carrie will do next.

Episode 612

Where is my mind?

One perk of getting up in the middle of the night to feed a new baby is that you get the opportunity to catch up on some of the shows you’ve been meaning to make time for. I recently finished the two seasons of Mr. Robot (2015-) and the one season of Legion (2017-) currently available (both have been renewed for an additional season and will be back in October 2017 and February 2018, respectively).

What these shows have in common is a reputation for innovation, some great characters/acting, and untrustworthy narratives. There have been plenty of shows that have dream sequences, hallucinations, or virtual reality excursions (I’m think of you, Star Trek: Next Generation (1987-1994) and your over-reliance on the holodeck) but these things are typically acknowledged quickly and explained away. There are also shows that fans imagine to be fundamentally dishonest, like the people who are convinced that Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) did not wake up from a coma to find himself in the Zombie Apocalypse on The Walking Dead (2010-) and the final episode will return to the hospital where he is still recovering from his gunshot wound. But that’s pure conjecture and unrelated to anything the show has done or implied. What Legion, and Mr. Robot in particular, are doing, is to repeatedly direct you down misleading paths and then change the rules of the road on you; making you wonder if you are ever getting a real answer or just another mirage.

Mr._Robot

Just for knowing, there are no robots in Mr. Robot. I spent most of the first season disappointed by this fact and hate for you to suffer the same fate. Basically, it’s the story of a socially awkward I.T. guy and his oddball, nerdy friends, who are try to make a better world by destroying E Corp (the Evil Corporation) that stands for everything they believe is wrong with the world. As one of the show’s diatribes puts it:

“Is any of it real? I mean, look at this, look at it! A world built on fantasy! Synthetic emotions in the form of pills! Psychological warfare in the form of advertising! Mind altering chemicals in the form of food! Brainwashing seminars in the form of media! Controlled isolated bubbles in the form of social networks. Real? You want to talk about reality? We haven’t lived in anything remotely close to it since the turn of the century! We turned it off, took out the batteries, snacked on a bag of GMOs, while we tossed the remnants into the ever expanding dumpster of the human condition. We live in branded houses, trademarked by corporations, built on bipolar numbers, jumping up and down on digital displays, hypnotizing us into the biggest slumber mankind has ever seen. You’d have to dig pretty deep, kiddo, before you can find anything real.”

Of course these sentiments have been around long before the turn of the Twenty-First Century (Malvina Reynolds’ 1962 song about the dull conformity of suburban life, “Little Boxes” is but one example that comes readily to mind). Mr. Robot is very reminiscent of Fight Club (1999), including the fact that the self-proclaimed heroes don’t have anything of substance to offer the world, they just want to rip it down and hope something better comes along. Of course that assumes that we know what the actual motives and thinking is behind these characters, particularly the mentally confused protagonist, Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek).

As I said, the characters are great and one of the best parts is just how uncomfortable most of them seem to be in their own skin. The show isn’t afraid of awkward silences or holding on same one for what might seem “too long” by conventional standards. The stylized colors and framing also stand out. Where as a typical show might show you something like this:

mr robot screenshot prison2

Mr. Robot makes all the characters feel more isolated and unimportant. Lost in a world they don’t understand anymore than we do.

mr robot screenshot prison

Nearly everyone is dealing with issues that have left them severely damaged and trying their best to cope with reality by one dysfunctional means or another. Okay, so it’s not the happiest show (to say the least) but it does have moments of dark humor and a tense, anything could happen next, feeling that sucks you in. I just hope they know where they are headed. In the post-Breaking Bad (2008-2013) world it’s extremely difficult to be a truly great series – the kind that will end up in that Hall of Fame in the sky – without a strong endgame (nobody wants another Lost (2004-2010) situation).

Legion is more lighthearted than Mr. Robot. Sure, it deals with mental illness and it has a far greater death toll, but it’s a superhero show and the stakes just aren’t as high. It too leaves you guessing about how real each scene is (Are we in a character’s mind or the “astral plane” or something else?) but it gives you a fairly concrete explanation for everything by the end (in farfetched comic book speak).

legion

What I love about Legion is the way it handles life inside a person’s mind/dreams/subconscious (whatever it is). Particularly once you get into the later episodes and they return to the mental institution, “Clockworks” (Yes, there is a clear homage to Kubrick going on here). There are some well thought out details to the inner space of the mind that feel very fresh compared to hokier versions you’ve seen many times before. If you know the Legion character from X-Men comics you’ll find this version significantly different and perhaps a little less compelling. Even the “Legion” name doesn’t seem to make sense in this version. We’ll see where they go with that in season two.

The protagonist, David Haller (Dan Stevens) and his love interest, Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller) are fine but the most compelling character is Aubrey Plaza’s friend/enemy character, Lenny Busker. She’s funny, scary, crazy, sane, sexy, and repulsive – depending on the moment – and always spot on. It makes me wish it was Lenny’s show and not David’s. There is also a brilliant performance by Jemaine Clement, who plays Oliver Bird, a man dislocated from his body for twenty years. The quirky, inadvertent humor and touching moments his character brings to the production are unexpectedly charming. I look forward to seeing more of Oliver and Lenny on screen together next time around (hopefully).

I could go on but I don’t want to say anything that would spoil the twists, turns, or big reveals that these shows have to offer. I would, however, enjoy hearing what other people think of them, so leave a comment and let me know.

Portraits of Courage

portraits-of-courage-cover-george-w-bush

I mentioned the other week that I had pre-ordered President George W. Bush’s new book, Portraits of Courage, and now that I’ve finally devoted some time to it I can wholeheartedly endorse it. This compilation of more than ninety Wounded Warriors painted by their former Commander in Chief is very touching and well done. You will be inspired by their stories and you will gain a greater understanding of the painter/author through this work.

Most of the men and women in the book befriended Bush at one of the annual golf tournaments or mountain biking events he hosts for service personnel and it is clear that he is humbled and honored by their friendship. The more I look at the paintings he has done, the more I can see the time and effort Bush put into capturing each individual’s unique character, and the more I admire this greatly maligned and casually dismissed world leader.

The title, Portraits of Courage, is clearly a play on, or an homage to, Profiles in Courage, the 1957 Pulitzer Prize winning book by then Senator John Kennedy, which tells the stories of past senators who made unpopular decisions they believed to be right and suffered for it. I think it’s safe to suppose that Bush sees himself in the same vein as the politicians Kenney admired; as a man who will be vindicated by history. It is often said that history depends on who writes it but it is equally important who reads it and what they choose to focus on in the records.

For example, when assessing Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, will future generations recall comedian Bill Maher ridiculing the President for comparing Saddam to Hitler? “Saddam Hussein is Hitler like Oasis was The Beatles.” Or will they look to Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Elie Wiesel, who also compared Saddam’s brutality to the genocide of the Nazi’s and directly told Bush, “Mr. President, you have a moral obligation to act against evil.”

When parsing out blame for the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, will people fifty or a hundred years from now place more weight on the photo of Bush looking down on the disaster from Air Force One, allegedly detached and unsympathetic to the sorrow below:

Bush Katrina airforce one

Or will they find the sea of unused school buses to be more telling about the failure of local officials to act in the first place?

Katrina-school-buses

No one can be certain how these interpretations will play out but it does appear that Bush’s post-presidential years will play a large role in any final assessments. Only the most cynical and unrealistic critics can discount the level of commitment that Bush has demonstrated to the troops who sacrificed so much for his decisions. One does not spend hours, weeks, months, and years, getting to know people and painting their portraits as a PR stunt or a passing fancy. Clearly, Bush believes in the choices he made, yet he cares deeply about those who paid the price for them. And, unlike JFK, who merely supervised the writing of his book on courage – leaving the bulk of the text to be penned by his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen – W. has put his heart into every brush stroke and word of the courage he depicts.

Negative reviews of Bush’s book, or more so, complaints about his public, “rehabilitation,” thanks to the book and recent positive press, keep popping up in my Google newsfeed. For many left-leaning pundits the temptation to slip into the same old mantras (e.g. “Bush lied,” “Bush is stupid”) is simply too great. Thankfully, we need not follow their emotional lead.

president-bush-painting

Herzog on Netflix

Werner Herzog is a legendary, innovative, original, and many would say, “Crazy!” German filmmaker. He is without a doubt one of the most prolific artists in the medium, having made more than fifty fiction and nonfiction features (often blurring the line between these distinctions), along with a couple dozen shorts. Just for fun, or just to make extra money for his independent productions, he has also appeared in some mass market, mainstream works. You might have seen him without realizing it as the big bad guy in Jack Reacher (2012), or as a random oddball in Parks and Recreation (2009-2015) and The Simpsons (1989-).

JACK REACHER

werner-herzog parks and reck

werner-herzog simpsons

Last year Netflix produced a new doc by Herzon about volcanos, Into the Inferno (2016), and I recently noticed that they now have several of his films available for streaming. They don’t have anything too out there, like Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), but they do have his most theatrically successful production, Grizzly Man (2005), and one of my all time favorite films, Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997). You really should check them out!

I first came across Herzog in graduate school, when one of my professors showed us Little Dieter. Granted, not all of his films live up to the same level of genius but in the end I admire the fact that he just keeps going, learning, and trying new things. He defines and lives by his own code.

Years ago a colleague of mine said that he went to a lecture Herzog gave at a college and someone asked if he regretted the fact that so many of his works were nearly impossible to find. Hertzon brushed off the questions by saying, in his creepy German accent,  “Film is fleeting.” At first I thought the answer was silly. Film is one of the most permanent art forms around, right? It preserves moments, or the light reflected off moments, for all time. But that isn’t true because nothing last forever. Not film. Not even the Internet (sorry to break that to you). The more I have watched of Herzog’s catalog the more I have realized that his worldview is about the impermanence of things; all things. Embrace the moment, and enjoy it, because the moment is all you have. I don’t think he sees this as a particularly bad or sad view of reality. I think he finds sadness in the way most of us tend to view the world; trying to holding onto what is already gone.

Have you heard of the MasterClass website? They have several interesting, or what look to be interesting, courses from high-profile people that I’d like to take. It looks like the standard price for each is $90, which isn’t bad but it could quickly odd up. The one that keeps coming up in my Facebook newsfeed is Werner Herzog Teaches Filmmaking.

Along with Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting, I think I’m going to have to check out Herzog’s class in the near future. Damn you Netflix and social media advertising for rekindling my passion for filmmaking!