TV Review: “Another Life”

Katee Sackoff — who played Starbuck in the reboot of Battlestar Galactica — returns to space in the Netflix series, Another Life. The premise is fairly simple:  an alien probe arrives on Earth and crashes into a field somewhere in North America. Immediately, the probe starts to grow into roughly a five-story shape that looks like a bunch of rock candy piled on top of one another. Trying to determine the origins of the probe falls to Sackoff’s character, Niko Breckinridge. Niko leads a mission to the planet where the probe came from to figure out what the aliens want. On Earth, Niko’s husband Erik is a scientist who is trying to communicate with the probe to see if he can crack the communication code and determine if the aliens are friendly or hostile. Because plots are often driven by conflict, we get plenty of it in Another Life. The crew Niko commands is a group of young folks in their mid-20s who don’t know each other all that well, nor do they seem to like one another. Mostly, though, they don’t seem to like Niko — and the feeling is mutual. Niko is basically the “old person” among the crew, and the young folks tend to come off as sneering, dismissive, and sometimes kind of lazy. On Earth, it seems the problem of social media stars hasn’t ebbed one bit in this future. Selma Blair plays the influencer/journalist Harper Glass who has (as she is fond of repeating) 250 million followers. That makes her a formidable media presence during a time when the government is trying to keep information about the alien probe as quiet as possible (yeah, good luck with that). 

So, you have Niko hurtling through space with her crew in the Salvare, Niko’s husband Erik trying to communicate with the probe while Harper Glass is trying to get him to spill it regarding the information the government has. Along the way, the crew has to stop on various moons and planets to get water, food, and oxygen — which is right about the point when the show goes off the rails. For those who suffered through two Alien prequels, you know that for some reason when smart people go into space, the get dumber by the minute. And so it goes with Another Life.  The first interstellar body the ship lands on is a moon to locate oxygen after the ship suffered a lot of damage and started to lose all-important air. And while the crew has to wear space suits on the moon, we get the microbiologist, Bernie, wanting to collect soil samples. Uh-oh. Nothing good can come of that when someone wants to start digging up dirt and other goo and bring it on board the ship. Other characters take off their space helmets when a cave where they are gathering material to make oxygen is found to have a breathable atmosphere. So, them being young and dumb (and getting dumber), breath in the air without thinking “Hey, what if in that sweet, sweet air we’re inhaling, there are some unknown space viruses that are being breathed in as well?” Guess what? They do bring a virus into the ship, and it resulted in temporary blindness for Niko, rage issues for another crew member, and an Alien-inspired neck burst moment for another crew member. Do you think they learned from that incident? Nope. Off they go to another planet where another alien probe is detected. When they arrive, Bernie wears a “space condom” (his words, not mine), only to shed it moments after getting to the planet. They are assured the ship’s AI interface “William” (played by Samuel Anderson) has checked out the planet and it’s totally safe. Right. That seal of approval from their AI turns out to be unreliable as the planet proves to be just as dangerous as the previous moon. 

The moral of the story thus far seems to be:  people don’t learn.

Part of the problem with Another Life is that it’s not sure if it’s a science fiction show about space travel and first contact, or if it’s a CW soap opera. Too often there are moments where the adventure of the show gives way to who is hooking up with who, who feels jealous, spurned, in love, etc. Such whip-saw moments happen in each episode that one wonders if the blooper reel for Another Life is full of actors asking:  “Who wrote this shit?” It’s not that Another Life is completely horrible. Rather, any potential it has to add to the genre is squandered with a lack of focus, recycling scenarios from other, better science fiction films and TV shows, and a cliffhanger ending that makes one wonder if it’s even worth a second season. 

Another Life is streaming on Netflix 

 

    

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode One Hundred Seventeen

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode One Hundred Seventeen

You just never know what the week holds in store for our intrepid heroes/reporters and this installment of Radio City… is no exception.

On the musicals sides, one of Rob’s favorites (his 2014 “Band Of The Year”), Little Chief are BACK!  A new release as of July 15th, after 4 years apart; how does Madonna land the #1 album spot on Billboard?; Facebook reverses “Houses Of The Holy” ban; the embarrassing dog & pony show of the Democratic debate with especially disgraceful optics by deBlasio; New York Mets manager Mickey Callaway has a meltdown after a loss and goes off on a Newsday reporter, prompting pitcher Jason Vargas to turn into a street thug, of course another stellar “In Our Heads” and (naturally) even more…!

So dig in, settle back, have a coffee or drink and let the guys at the mics do their thing while trying to help you ease your minds…

Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross:  Episode One Hundred Seventeen

The podcast will be on the site as well as for subscription via iTunes and other podcast aggregators. Subscribe and let people know about Radio City, as well as Popdose’s other great podcasts David Medsker’s Dizzy Heights and In:Sound with Michael Parr and Zack Stiegler.

TV Review: “Years and Years”

In the song “The Future,” Prince sang about the systematic overthrow of the underclass and, at one point, wearily crooned, “I’ve seen the future…and boy it’s rough.” While that song was written for the 1989 Batman movie directed by Tim Burton, it could be used in the BBC TV show Years and Years that recently concluded on HBO in the U.S. The story starts in 2019 and follows the Lyons family as they live through 15 years of technological, political, environmental, and familial change. The show has been compared to Black Mirror for its dystopian view of technology, but those comparisons only go so far. Really, this is a story that projects current trends in the present and games them out to see how this family (who represent the UK) reacts to those changes. 

The future is pretty bleak for the UK (and the world) in Years and Years. The starting point is Brexit, the reelection of Donald Trump, and the rise of a Nigel Farage/Trumpian character named  Vivienne Rook. She’s a TV personality who has her own network, knows how to play to the camera, says shocking things, and commands the spotlight with ease. Her solutions to problems plaguing the UK and the world is to say things like “I don’t give a fu*k” on national TV. This endears her to those who want to chuck a middle finger at the establishment, and creates all sorts of anxieties among those who disagree with her. We see this play out on a family level in the first episode when Rook utters her (in)famous line, and various members of the Lyons family either love it or hate it. Technology also looms large, but it’s treated more like a utility than a shiny new thing — except when it comes to Stephen and Celeste’s daughter, Bethany.

Bethany has difficulty relating to the world as a teenager, and in the first episode can only respond to her parents through holographic emoji facemasks. Her parents are trying to be understanding, but private annoyance papers over what they know is a symptom that something more troubling is going on with her. When they check her web search history, they find that she’s interested in being “trans.” They assume that it means she’s transexual, but no. Bethany is enamoured with technology to the point that she wants to transcend the limitations of her body and become pure data. This desire leads Bethany down some dangerous roads at times during the series. As you may have guessed, most members of the Lyons family get the privilege of experiencing and adapting to these changes in the landscape, but the narrative device doesn’t always work so well. However, when it does, the show can really hit home.   

As it is in the present, it seems the pace of change becomes more rapid every year. Things we used to think were marginal, become mainstream. Political trends that look radical and antithetical to liberal democracy become normalized through showmanship and appeals to whims of populism. Bank failures, climate crisis, a nuclear missile, banning of a free press, and other horrors happen in Years and Years don’t seem out of step with the way the winds are blowing these days. And that’s the point show creator Russell T. Davies is trying to make. Just as there were social and political dislocations at the beginning of the 20th century led to the rise of fascism and authoritarian communist regimes, Davies is making a similar (but not the same) argument for the 21st century. Impersonal forces that seems out of our control aren’t as unstoppable as we like to think. Indeed, it’s the family matriarch/grandmother Muriel who make that point in the last episode with a long winded and preachy speech. It’s not the most logically elegant speech, but it does highlight how ordinary people have the power to shape the world in which they live. So, in a way, there is an undercurrent of optimism in Years and Years, but it’s tempered with a sense of responsibility and civic engagement — lest we be tricked into voting for people and parities that want to destroy what was fought for by those who came before us. Or as Edith Lyons (one of the four main siblings) says toward the end of the series:  “Get rid of one monster, means the next one is waking up inside its cave.” But these monsters aren’t always the goose stepping “off to the Gulag” variety. Rather, it’s more like clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. People are attracted to charisma, and charismatic personalities have the potential to wield that power in dangerous and deadly ways. You don’t have to read the sociological writings of Max Weber to understand the power of the charismatic personality. Just turn on your television, look at influencers on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter trolls, and Facebook stars. They capture attention through their minor and major celebrity status; a status we reinforce every time we like, share, view, or comment on what they do. Followers = power. The more followers, viewers, readers, and friends one has, the more powerful a charismatic leader becomes — or so they think. Populism, the mob, democracy, or followers are a tricky thing. Their loyalties can sometimes shift on a dime, and to hold on to that power, a charismatic leader has to keep playing to their desires. Aspirations are one thing, but hate is more powerful. In Years and Years, Davies does hold up a black mirror of sorts to show us how easily we can get sucked into the vortex of celebrity and then grant enormous powers to those charismatic individuals who sometimes have a nefarious agenda. 

Years and Years is best watched in the early afternoon (i.e., well before bedtime). The reason is that each episode has many nail biting moments that sometimes feel authentic, and sometimes feel manipulative with a blaring soundtrack in the background. Davies is not being subtle about what he sees as disturbing trends in society, and he makes his point with a hammer more often than not. Some coincidences in the story seem far fetched at times, but it all serves his bigger purpose:  slapping us out of whatever trance we’re in to understand the social and political values we say we hold dear are close their own extinction event.  

Years and Years is available to stream on HBO.  

 

Book Review: “Reporter’s Note Book: A San Francisco Chronicle Journalist’s Diary of the Shocking Seventies”

Duffy Jennings – Reporter’s Note Book:  A San Francisco Chronicle Journalist’s Diary of the Shocking Seventies  (2019, Grizzly Peak Press, $17.95 U.S.) Purchase this book (Amazon)

There’s an old derogatory phrase about California which states that it’s a land of fruits and nuts. Throughout its history, The Golden State often drew social outliers to the West Coast. These folks would come from cultures and communities where their behavior and ways of being in the world could be considered deviant by those they lived with. Not always deviant in the pejorative sense, but rather in the sociological sense where some people deviate or depart from what’s considered the norm or normal in that community. San Francisco in particular has been a place where many social outliers tend to congregate. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, The City went through a period when the best and the worst of nonconformist expressions and actions seemed to flourish. One person who covered some of the biggest news stories about some of these outliers was Duffy Jennings, a reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle. From the Zodiac killings, to Patty Hearst, to the murders of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, to dance fads and new dating rituals, Jennings had a fairly substantial career as a reporter in San Francisco. However, in his book, he also weaves in a number of tales about another turbulent time:  growing up with alcoholic family members while sometimes struggling with his own substance abuse issues and multiple marriages.  

While memoirs by journalists are not uncommon, Jennings’s story is interesting in that he’s focusing on a newspaper career characterized by an upward trajectory that takes him from being a copyboy to a reporter in a short period of time. Indeed, if it weren’t for the fact that both his parents worked for the Chronicle as writers (his mother was more like an assistant editor to his father’s work), he might not have had the opportunity to go from such an entry-level position to being a full-time reporter. The old adage of who you know certainly applies to Jennings’s journalism career, and his post-newspaper career as a publicist with The San Francisco Giants. Nowadays, such a career track seems highly improbable for most folks. But back in the late ‘60s, even a middling-level slice of nepotism could open doors to opportunities that others struggle for years and even decades to achieve. To put a fine point on it,  Jennings even has a picture of himself with the other copyboys in The Chronicle’s newsroom from 1968. In the caption it reads, “Duffy (standing, left) with the other copyboys who were sons of Chronicle employees.” Who placed that call to get him an interview at the paper? Well, it certainly wasn’t his father Dean, whose career as a writer was very successful, but whose role as a father wasn’t. Rather it was his mother, Dori. Dori worked as Dean’s assistant when they were married. However, by the time Duffy Jennings started at The Chronicle in 1968, Dean and Dori had been divorced for years –and both had left the paper to work elsewhere. Indeed, it is Dori’s life that could easily be the subject of a film since she was the owner of the first gay bar in San Francisco, suffered from alcoholism, failed relationships, suicide attempts, and was absent most of the time during his childhood and teen years. She’s a very tragic figure, and a source of great frustration for Jennings. In recounting his mother’s life, he’s certainly impressed by Dori’s intellect, her education, her business acumen, and even the way she insisted he and his brother learn proper grammar and spelling (which helped them a lot during their early adult years). However, like his relationship with his father, the emotional walls built up by years of neglect separated them in ways that paved the way for many personal issues that would manifest themselves later in Jennings’s life. As it should be abundantly clear by now, Reporter’s Note Book is a professional and personal recollection that examines the tumult of the 1970s through both lenses. 

We currently live in a time where it seems there’s a crisis every day. However, when looking at the chaos and crises that befell San Francisco in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it makes some of what passes for Breaking News today look kind of small. Take the terror that the Zodiac killer inflicted on the Bay Area between 1968 and the 1970s. Brutal slayings in Vallejo, Lake Berryessa, and in San Francisco came with taunting and threatening letters sent to The Chronicle — which they published to inform the public, but had the consequence of inflating the ego of the killer and frightening the crap out of many people as well. Then, there was the kidnapping of Patty Hearst from Berkeley by the so-called Symbionese Liberation Army — which was shocking enough. But when you add that she was brainwashed into working with them to rob a bank in San Francisco in 1974, I’m sure more than a few Bay Area folks were asking, “What the hell is going on with this world?” Fold in the panic generated from multiple random shootings in The City known as the Zebra murders, and then add the proverbial cherry on top:  San Francisco Supervisor Dan White shooting and killing the Mayor of the city and the first openly gay Supervisor at City Hall in 1978. Imagine how all this would play on Twitter and cable news if this were happening now? Using the superlative that the 1970s were “shocking” was not overstating what was happening the Bay Area during that decade. However, it wasn’t all doom, gloom, and death. Jennings does spotlight the heroism and the all-too-humanism of firefighters in San Francisco, listening to Smokey Robinson sing in a hotel room shower before an interview with the singer, highlighting cultural fads like disco dancing and singles bars, and even penning a “What Ever Happened To…” of his graduating high school class from 1965.  In short, Jennings was doing what other newspaper writers do: giving us the first draft of history from that era. It’s not exactly a pretty picture of the ‘70s — but sometimes life isn’t pretty.

Reporter’s Note Book is written in a compact and direct manner — which is befitting a journalist from that era. He gets to the point in chapter after chapter, with prose that’s lean, unadorned, but often packing a wallop. Indeed, one of the things I both appreciated and found a bit frustrating was how short the chapters were. However, given the fact that Jennings cut his teeth in a newsroom, writing relatively short, digestible pieces is in his DNA. The chapters on his family history have an honesty that pull very few (if any) punches when it comes to his mother and father, but he’s more vague when writing about his marriages, his children, brother, and his own struggles with alcohol. Perhaps going into detail on those things was too much of an emotional minefield, but this book isn’t about self-therapy or examining an unexamined soul. Rather, Reporter’s Note Book is Jennings’s first draft of Bay Area history where the personal, the political, and the social aspects of that era often intersected in powerful and dramatic ways. 

(Not So) Famous Firsts – Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13

The most influential figure on the new Hollywood era was Roger Corman. He’s the one who gave Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Monte Hellman, Johnathan Demme, Robert Towne, Nicolas Roeg, and Ron Howard their starts as filmmakers. I’ve discussed him before in examining Johnathan Demme’s prison exploitation debut Caged Heat, but somehow even that feels like a minor achievement in Corman’s film school.

One of the most unexpected Corman alumni is Francis Ford Coppola. The two could not be more dissimilar. While Corman was infamously thrifty, Coppola gained the same amount of infamy for burning his way through massive budgets. Corman demanded all films be shot quickly. Coppola was known for not sticking to a schedule and taking years to even edit a film. Corman’s films tended to be short genre pictures that would fit on a double feature. Coppola made epics that feel like Wagner operas. And finally, Corman is still working as a producer today and had a film he produced released only about two months ago. Coppola hasn’t directed a major film since 1997’s The Rainmaker and these days doesn’t seem to care if his more experimental films ever make it to theaters. (He does produce his daughter’s films and has produced some other people, but even then, his most recent credit was six years ago.)

So what did Coppola learn from Corman? At first glance, the answer appears to be nothing. After The Godfather, Coppola seemingly found out what movies he wanted to make. And even the disastrous shoot of Apocalypse Now didn’t dissuade him from his grandiose style after an incomplete version of the film shared the Palme D’or and the theatrical version was nominated for eight Oscars. Even the dramas he made before The Godfather don’t resemble the genre films Corman specialized in.

But there was a reason Coppola made the proto-slasher film Dementia 13 under Corman’s gaze. Partly it was because this was the easiest way to “go legit.” (Coppola has a few “nudie cuties” listed on IMBD that he directed before this, but this was the first movie he directed that he was credited for.) But the script has many subtle references to what Coppola was truly interested in. The film is all about old world families, backstabbing, and has a focus on blood and violence. It’s the same themes Coppola explored in The Godfather.

The film opens on a couple in a rowboat. (Water as a symbol of mystery and danger is an ongoing theme in Dementia 13, much like oranges in The Godfather.) The story follows a woman named Louise who married into a wealthy family. She’s trying to scam her way into an inheritance after her husband has a heart attack and dies. Things don’t quite go the way she planned after she meets the family’s domineering matriarch Lady Haloran and her husband’s two brothers, Billy and Richard, both of whom act strangely when discussing their family.  

(The film’s in the public domain and only 75 minutes, so you may as well watch the whole thing.)

Sound familiar? Thematic elements aren’t the only thing Coppola borrowed from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. We also have a mysterious murderer that kills the protagonist halfway through the movie, a doctor who solves the mystery for the audience, and shots and imagery that would be considered downright shocking in the early 1960s. It makes sense. Psycho was an enormous hit that spawned not just imitators, but an entire subgenre of horror. Roger Corman would have been foolish to NOT try to produce his own version of it, especially considering he could do so for an insanely low budget.

Yet despite the Pyscho similarities, Dementia 13 was an entirely original script. Virtually all of Coppola’s biggest hits in his later career were based on popular novels. Granted, Psycho was also based on a novel but Coppola deviates heavily from the story.

Why? The deviations allowed him to explore what he was truly interested in – how America seemingly waxes nostalgic for the European upper-class ideas of honor and family devotion. Of course, those ideas were never sincere, but everyone in this film acts like they follow them. It’s identical to The Godfather – everything is soaked in violence, but the supposedly honorable Corleone family ignores the double standard. And Coppola is still determined to punish the characters that go against the family. Louise at first laughs at the ritual they perform to commemorate their dead sister Kathleen. Then she tries to play the tragedy against Lady Haloran only to realize she’s the one who doesn’t know everything about Kathleen’s death.

The film is never particularly scary or thrilling. All its set pieces are far too derivative. But it is interesting to examine what ideas Coppola found scary in the material. Filmmakers today still don’t show children’s corpses and most “weird upper-class family” movies like this now take place in the past rather than the present. Coppola believed that these family traditions, no matter how strange they are, never went away. Neither did the upper class’s obsession with hiding its flaws, no matter how dangerous it gets. Dementia 13 ends abruptly once the killer is discovered. But it’s easy to imagine how the Haloran clan must deal with the new revelations. Can they be the same people? What do they do now that the incident that defined them for twenty years has been proven a lie? Coppola didn’t have the opportunity to answer those questions in this film. That’s likely why he turned around and made epics when he got the money. Coppola wanted to create worlds where he’d have enough time to explore consequences.

Coppola is a filmmaker who’s been out of style lately. He’s content to revisit his glory days and remind everyone that he reinvented blockbuster filmmaking almost five decades ago. He’s once again re-edited Apocalypse Now and there seemingly ISN’T a Coppola film that hasn’t been recut in some way in the last 20 years. But Dementia 13 has never been given any attention. It’s so ignored the producers let the film fall into the public domain. It’s likely Coppola doesn’t want to remind people he started his career by remaking Psycho with vague hints of The Quiet Man. But that sort of technique is what spawned the era that made Coppola famous. Besides, even if he was working under Corman’s parameters, Coppola established exactly what he wanted to discuss throughout the rest of his filmography in Dementia 13. His focus on family connections, an obsession with Europe and the migration to America, criminal plots, and shocking violence are all present. Finally, Coppola’s The Godfather has also turned into a battle between whether he’s responsible for it or if producer Robert Evans deserves all the credit. Even that was foreshadowed by working on a tight leash being held by Roger Corman.