Interlude in a waiting room

I had to have one of my regular blood tests today. After checking in, I sat in the waiting room. Opposite me was a TV tuned to the Fox network. A talk show called Wendy was just starting.

Apparently a feature of the show was Wendy going over the recent news, with the studio audience applauding, cheering, or booing as prompted by Wendy. Her first news item was on Therese Patricia Okoumou, the woman who climbed to the foot of the Statue of Liberty yesterday to protest our nation’s immigration practices.

Wendy didn’t mention Okoumou’s name. What she focused on what that the tourists who’d come to visit the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July were blocked by the police response. Her chief criticism was for the guards who had let Okoumou through so she could stage her protest.

My first reaction was, “Wendy, you sold your soul to Fox.” Wendy, the bulk of her audience, and Okoumou are all People of Color. So are the children being held in cages, along with their parents who are trying to escape the violence of their home nations.

I feel empathy for those imprisoned people, not only for their own circumstances, but from memories of similar experiences of the Jews in the time of the Holocaust. I asked myself what happened to the empathy of Wendy and her audience.

My second reaction was born entirely from having watched the musical 1776 the previous night:

John Adams: This is a revolution, dammit! We’re going to have to offend SOMEbody!

It’s a darn shame that some tourists were inconvenienced by Okoumou’s protest. I think the families being torn apart are even more inconvenienced. And traumatized. And living in fear.

It is my hope that Therese Patricia Okoumou and her compatriots will still keep trying to climb that statue. They’ll reach the top of Liberty someday.

Blank Screen

I went to a screening of Incredibles 2 tonight. I walked into the theater about five minutes before the scheduled start. The screen was blank. That’s a bit unusual these days, but it was an IMAX screen; I figured that perhaps they didn’t have any commercial fluff that was in IMAX format.

The starting time of the movie came and went. People were still entering the theater. The screen stayed blank. People sat and watched the blank screen.

I began to entertain myself. “OK, this is a trailer for The Invisible Man Returns. Next, we have the trailer for Pitch Black. Now we have a trailer for a black-and-white movie, but because of a limited budget they couldn’t afford the white.”

I waited for twenty-two minutes after the scheduled start time, which is about how long trailers last these days. Finally, I asked the people sitting next to me to please watch my stuff as I went to the customer-service booth.

I asked the people there if anyone had reported that the screen in theater 10 was blank. No one had. A staff member said he’d check it out.

I went back to the theater and announced, “In case anyone’s interested, I just reported the problem.” A few minutes later the movie began.

The projectionist skipped the trailers and went straight to the movie… or what passes for “straight to the movie” these days. There was the warning about shutting off cell phones.

Then there was a special introduction from the voice actors and the director of Incredibles 2. More they once, they said that they’re sorry it took 14 years to make a sequel. But Samuel L. Jackson thanked us for our patience and assured all of us that it was worth the wait. Mr. Jackson, your words were truer than you know.

The chief antagonist of Incredibles 2 is the villain ScreenSlaver, who uses the power of hypnotic patterns on a screen to control people’s minds. During the film, the ScreenSlaver gives us the usual super-villain monologue about how everyone was mindlessly looking at screens.

Oh, poor ScreenSlaver. You worked so hard on your hypno-screens. Little did you realize that you can hypnotize a theater full of people with just a blank screen.

“The Last Jedi” – my experience

This is not a review. There will be no spoilers.

I had not intended to see The Last Jedi on its opening day. I anticipated the theaters would be jammed. Also, there were was a lot scheduled at work both today (Thursday) and tomorrow (Friday), including a #ScienceOnHudson talk and the lab’s holiday party.

Just as I was about to head home after the #ScienceOnHudson talk, I got a text message from a friend of mine. He couldn’t make it to the 10:30PM show, and wanted to know if anyone would like to have his ticket. My initial thought was that the film wouldn’t end until 1:30AM, which is a bit much for a work night. I drove home and got into my pajamas.

Then I saw a new text that said my friend and turned in his ticket for a refund. Several other friends said “We’re sorry we won’t see you tonight”. That was when I became aware it was a group trip to see the movie.

My geek cred returned with a vengeance. I went to the AMC web site to see if I could get a ticket for the newly-available seat. I had difficulties with the site (common for that site); while the seat was free the purchase didn’t go through due to a web error, yet the site reserved the seat and I couldn’t select it again.

As I struggled with the site, a new block of seats suddenly opened up. My guess is that a group of friends planned to go together, changed their minds, and refunded their tickets. I purchased one of those seats. I changed into my outdoor clothes and drove to the theater.

When I got there, no one had claimed those new seats, and the seat I had tried to reserve earlier remained empty. It wasn’t crowded after all!

I said I wouldn’t review the film, but I will comment on the performances of Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill. After being associated with their iconic roles for decades, they could have just phoned it in. They didn’t. They both brought a new energy to their performance.

I seriously believe that both Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill (the former in particular) should be considered for nominations for Best Supporting Actor. If Heath Ledger could win posthumously, I see no reason why Fisher couldn’t.

And now it’s after 2AM, I’m still a bit wired after the film, and I have a lot to do tomorrow. I shouldn’t be writing this blog post… but here we are!

Sense8

This is one of those “Oh! I just watched this incredible thing and I gotta tell you about it!” posts. If you’re feeling a bit media-saturated and would rather just wait until the female Doctor is unveiled in the next Christmas special, I’ll understand if you want to skip this post.

So:

Sense8 is the series that I just watched and I gotta tell you about, mainly because I don’t think it’s received the attention it deserves. I think the reason folks have not gotten into it is that, as reported by almost everyone who’s reviewed Sense8, the first three episodes are slow-moving. We know the premise already, let’s get into it! But by the fourth episode the potentials begin to gel, and it becomes a compelling story.

That central premise is an old one in SF, but has never been presented visually in this form before: A group of eight people (the sensates) become telepathically linked with each other. At first it’s a matter of them seeing and talking with one another, then they learn they can share each other’s skills.

The mythology surrounding this idea is also fairly conventional: They are not the only sensate cluster. There’s a shadowy organization bent on controlling or eradicating the sensates. Some clusters are in hiding, others are collaborating with the enemy.

If Sense8 can be described in such conventional terms within the genre, why is worth watching?

  • The series was created by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, the sibling team responsible for the film The Matrix, and J. Michael Straczynski, best known the TV series Babylon 5. They bring their full stylistic talents to this series. The action sequences sparkle in a way that I can’t bring myself to spoil, except to say that they adopt a visual language to show how the different sensates’ skills blend together.
  • I’ve watched enough media to know when I’m being emotionally manipulated. However, the Watchowskis and Straczynski know how to sell those moments. The first major sequence in the series is a group karaoke shared among the sensates in the fourth episode. They don’t entirely understand their connection yet, but you become immersed in their shared joy. If your heartstrings aren’t pulled by that when you watch it, then Sense8 is not for you.
  • Speaking of shared emotional sequences: The telepathically-linked group orgies. Nope, don’t watch the series for that if you can’t take the karaoke. Really. No orgy without karaoke.
  • Speaking of orgy sequences: The frank handling of gender and sexuality. One of the sensates is a trans woman; another is a closet gay actor. Their feelings and identities are treated just as seriously as any male-female relationships depicted in the show.
  • Did you get my reference to Doctor Who in the first paragraph of this post? Then you might like to know that Freema Agyeman, who played Martha Jones in the 10th Doctor era, plays the girlfriend of one of the sensates; Sylvester McCoy, the 7th Doctor, shows up the second season. The show definitely has Doctor Who street cred.
  • For even more genre cred, Jamie Clayton, who plays one of the sensates, supplies the voice of the character Jien Garson in Mass Effect: Andromeda. Bae Doona, another sensate, was in Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending. Let’s not forget Darryl Hannah, from the films Splash, Attack of the 50 ft. Woman, and My Favorite Martian. Now that I search through Wikipedia entries, I see that Tuppence Middleton was also in Jupiter Ascending. So let’s just say: plenty of cred!
  • There’s more: the quality of the cinematography, the use of world-wide locations, the acting talent.

Both seasons of Sense8 are available on Netflix. Unfortunately, Netflix cancelled the show after the second season, probably because the cost of the series (on the order of $9.5 million per episode for the second season) was too high given the viewership. However, due to fan demand, there will be a two-hour series wrap-up in 2018. And there’s still a possibility that, if viewership increases, Netflix will consider extending the series… hence this blog post.

There’s an interesting wrinkle to the renewal story: The porn site xHamster wrote to the Watchowskis suggesting that they’d be willing to continue Sense8. It’s probably just a publicity stunt. In general, though, it’s an intriguing idea. There are some SF stories, such as Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, that might be (ahem) too visually challenging outside of a porn site. But, as I understand it, xHamster would not be an appropriate venue given their pejorative stance towards transgendered people.

Bottom line: See Sense8. Even if it remains forever incomplete, it’s still compelling viewing.

Westworld

This past weekend I turned on my HBO subscription in order to watch Game of Thrones. It gave me the opportunity to binge-watch another HBO series, Westworld.

I have mixed feelings about the series. As I’d heard, the show has a narrative complexity and messes around with the viewers’ perceptions in an intriguing way. This sustained the show all the way until the ending of the final episode of the first (and so-far-only season), where it dropped the ball and became annoyingly conventional.

I’ll eventually watch another season of Westworld if they make another one, but I’m not going to activate an HBO subscription just to watch it.

The Hollow Crown

There’s a lot of good television becoming available right now (e.g., American Gods and Doctor Who). There’s one more show that’s a bit harder to find in the US that I’d like to bring to your attention.

The Hollow Crown is a British TV series that presents Shakespeare’s cycle of plays on the events that led to the War of the Roses:

Season One
Richard II
Henry IV, Part One
Henry IV, Part Two
Henry V

Season Two
Henry VI, Part One
Henry VI, Part Two
Richard III

What distinguishes this series is the quality of the production, bringing a Game of Thrones vibe to the battle sequences. Because the series was conceived as a whole, the same actors play the same characters throughout the plays, which helps the viewer understand the flow of events in a way that’s harder to appreciate when the plays are presented individually.

The level of acting talent is also impressive. There are two key roles played by actors familiar to genre fans: Tom Hiddleston as Prince Hal (later Henry V), and Benedict Cumberbatch as the Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III). I have to say: Cumberbatch is far better playing the villainous Richard III than he was at playing Khan Singh or Stephen Strange; there’s even a hint of Smaug in his approach.

My conscious compels me to make two disclaimers:

– Shakespeare’s historical accuracy was shaky at best, and this production makes no attempt to correct that. Don’t watch these as a history lesson.

The Hollow Crown reduces the plays somewhat, to fit a two-hour time limit for each play and to make the material more suitable for a screen presentation. In particular, Shakespeare wrote Henry VI in three parts, which The Hollow Crown reduces to two. This does not hurt the production, since you’re not likely to be bothered by the omissions (e.g., Shakespeare’s depiction of Joan La Pucelle as a witch who conversed with demons).

You can find many guides to Shakespeare and history to help you appreciate the series. As I watched, I followed along with Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. It explained the differences between Shakespeare and history (and the likely reasons for the differences), and provided background for the plays’ events that would not be evident to modern viewers.

I watched The Hollow Crown on discs rented from Netflix. It was broadcast in the US on PBS, and might still be available on the PBS streaming channel. Otherwise you can purchase it on Amazon and Vudu.