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Films
by Kathi Maio

YOU ARE ME AND WE ARE ALL TOGETHER


YOU DON'T have to be a beach bum to long for summer. Science fiction movie buffs—even those who avoid sunlight like the plague—dream about dog days, too. That's because the summer must-see film lists are always chockablock with fantasy and science fiction releases of the big and boisterous variety. There will always be franchise reboots like the chomping dinos of Jurassic World, yet another return of Ah-nold in Terminator Genisys, as well as the much fresher feminist myth-making of this year's very subversive Mad Max: Fury Road. For the kiddies, there are always animated wonders (like the brilliant Inside Out and the mildly amusing Minions). A regular box-office infusion of something Marvel-ous has also become de rigueur—if overly predictable. This year, the spring-summer hit Avengers: Age of Ultron gave way to the diminutive Ant-Man in July and on to a new reworking of the Fantastic Four in August. And, of course, there will always be a smattering (or spattering) of horror films throughout the summer (Poltergeist, Insidious: Chapter 3, It Follows, The Gallows, etc., etc.)

Except in the horror genre, there is little room at the summer box-office for smaller films to even play at major cineplexes, much less for one to become a "sleeper hit." It's all-blockbuster, all the time. Or, at least, that's the goal. Still, I do enjoy trying to find a movie or two, during the warmer months, that might provide an alternative to the thunderous 3-D extravaganzas that have become the norm. One I decided to check out this year was the identity transfer drama, Self/less.

I was drawn to the movie because its plot teasers reminded me of the excellent 1966 cult classic (and box-office flop), Seconds, directed by John Frankenheimer, and starring a typecast-busting Rock Hudson and the fine, once-blacklisted character actor John Randolph in the same role. The black and white masterpiece (featuring the writing of Lewis John Carlino and the camera work of James Wong Howe) was slow to be recognized as a masterwork, probably because it so uncomfortably captured the desperate emptiness of male bourgeois life in mid-twentieth century America. Married New York banker Arthur Hamilton (Randolph) has an exceedingly comfortable life. But it affords him no satisfaction. So, when an old friend he thought was dead convinces him that he can break with his dull existence and find a new exciting life by doing business with The Company, he is intrigued and then forced into a bizarre transformation and relocation process that leaves him looking like Rock Hudson and living a swinging new life as a bachelor artist in Malibu, California.

Unfortunately, calling yourself a painter doesn't make you an artist. And looking like a movie star can't completely mask the wellspring of discontent and loneliness in the eyes of the man now called Tony Wilson. Even a free-spirited blonde neighbor (Salome Jens) with a taste for bacchanalian revels can't keep this man, whoever he is, from the realization that the life "of quiet desperation" Thoreau wrote about more than a century earlier cannot be cured with a new look or a new lifestyle.

There is a lot to think about while watching Seconds, and that is the point. The acting, photography, and editing (by Ferris Webster and David Newhouse) all help make for a most unsettling film experience, but ultimately a very satisfying one. Seconds failed to catch fire at the box office, and has only gradually been lauded by most critics and cinephiles. But at least it was made! Would it be produced today? Perhaps…by an independent filmmaker. But you would likely never see it listed at the mall multiplex.

These days, producers feel the need to hedge their bets with certain concessions to the film aesthetic—if you can call it that—of the general public. Black and white photography is most certainly out. And as for an sf plot's more cerebral or philosophical content? That can stay only if you tone it down and reduce it to a couple of lines in a stray speech—usually by the bad guy. "Action" has become a requisite, even if it dissipates the impact of the basic story. You can do a science fiction movie, but car crashes, gun fights, and maybe a few strategic blasts of a flame-thrower are all but required elements to spice up the proceedings.

But not all movies are actually improved by adding a flame-thrower. And Self/less is one such film. The set-up of the movie is a good, if familiar, one. A Trump-like real estate mogul, Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley), is faced with his fast-approaching death to cancer. But someone has slipped him a card to a company called Phoenix Biogenic that also contains a note that they might help him. So, Hale consults a polite, well-groomed scientist named Albright (Matthew Goode) and is offered a process called "shedding" which would allow him to transfer his brain and personality into a much younger, lab-grown, and quite fit body. So, Mr. Hale's death is staged, and "Damian" is soon occupying the body of a person now identified as Edward, who looks a lot like Ryan Reynolds.

Casting, is, sad to say, one of the major problems with Self/less. For Mr. Reynolds's body is supposed to now contain the fierce and pugnacious personality that Mr. Kingsley has already established, complete with a vaguely Brooklynesque thug accent. Ryan Reynolds is a likeable actor, but he cannot produce the kind of intensity Ben Kingsley exudes as a matter of course. You never believe that Damian is now in this new body. And then the plot thickens even further. It seems that the new Damian/Edward, now living a studly new life in New Orleans, is having hallucinations—especially when he is off his meds—that show his young self in other situations involving war, and a rural farm life with a woman (Natalie Martinez) and a cute-as-a-button child (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen).

It turns out that Damian Hale was not given a fresh, tabula rasa of a body. No. He was given the body of a family man and former military warrior. And that gives poor Mr. Reynolds two kinds of machismo he needs to convey. He does his damnedest, but he is just not up to the task. Still, as if to prove the hero's high testosterone level, the plot now takes on a feverish and action-packed pace. Here's where the cars careen and crash and various firearms blaze, and the filmmakers hope to dazzle the viewer into forgetting that the plot has pretty much fallen apart.

Self/less isn't a terrible movie. It can entertain, as long as you never think about what you're watching. It turns out that the extravagantly visual director, Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall, Mirror Mirror), is capable of switching to action-mode. But I do wonder what Singh and writers Alex and David Pastor might have done if they had avoided the trite, explosive tropes of an action film for something that actually touched upon the many issues raised by their basic body swap plot. In the end, after the flame-thrower has been used for the last time, Damian does something noble. And yet I didn't believe for a minute that a megalomaniacal billionaire would have acted in this way. So, even the happy ending of Self/less seems utterly false, making the movie more than a little point/less.

You'd be better off watching (or rewatching) Seconds. Then, for something new and very worthwhile, seek out another recent film with a mind-transfer plot that never made it to most theaters, but did pop up on most streaming services this past summer. That movie is called Advantageous. It is directed by filmmaker Jennifer Phang (Half-Life) and co-written by Phang and her star, Jacqueline Kim.

In a future where economic inequality has become even more pronounced, single women are especially vulnerable to ending up homeless and hungry. Gwen Koh (Kim) is an exception. Although she lives modestly, she is able to support herself and her bright pubescent daughter, Jules (Samantha Kim), well on her salary as the spokeswoman for the Center for Advanced Health and Living. The center's newest service allows for the transfer of one's consciousness into a new (younger, healthier) body. Gwen has no interest in the process personally, until her bosses tell her that they are letting her go because they are looking for a younger woman with a more universal (ethnically indistinct) look to promote their product lines.

When Gwen is unable to get temporary financial help from her estranged family, and she is faced with the high tuition of a private prep school that is Jules's only chance at a bright future, she agrees to go through the transfer process. When her consciousness is conveyed into the body of a young woman with blandly multi-racial beauty, Gwen loses many of her memories and much of her emotional connection to others—even Jules. Still, she must find a way to navigate the challenging landscape of her personal relationships and professional life.

I wish that Gwen might have confronted (before or after her transformation) the morality of her profession. How can a well-intentioned and intelligent woman sell an expensive repudiation of self to other women? Gwen never comes face-to-face (as it were) with the ethics of her actions. Perhaps all-consuming maternal self-sacrifice is reason enough for just about anything. Or maybe female self-hatred has become such a norm in this future world that even good people like Gwen no longer question it.

Advantageous is a quiet and affecting film that contains a good bit of (not too pointed) social commentary. But it is primarily a meditation on human identity and the delicate nature of familial relationships. All in all, despite the similar subject matter, this movie is the antithesis of Self/less. Which is reason enough to check it out.

Another very promising aspect of summer entertainment can be found in the ever-increasing options for staying home and kicking back with episodic television. In the old days, network television went on vacay in the warmer months. Evening programming was wall-to-wall repeats. Take it or lump it. But as cable channels multiplied and streaming options came to the fore, major networks (along with their many competitors) stepped up their game with original summer series.

At first, reality TV ruled. But in the last few summers, science fiction programming has become the most popular genre for summer shows. This year, CBS broadcast returning shows Under the Dome and Extant, along with the new and entertaining Zoo. ABC premiered The Whispers, while ABC Family showed Stitchers. Fox broadcast Wayward Pines, TNT offered Proof, and so on. Then there's the notable new summer offering from Netflix, a trippy twelve-part season one series called Sense8.

On pedigree alone, Sense8 is worth streaming for at least a couple of episodes to see if it catches your interest. It was created by the Wachowskis (the sibling filmmakers best known for The Matrix trilogy) and J. Michael Straczynski (best known for the series Babylon 5), and calls on other talented filmmakers (like Tom Tykwer) to direct some of the episodes. The series opens with the suicide of a sick woman (Daryl Hannah). She blows her brains out. But not before giving psychic birth to a cluster of eight people around the world. These people gradually come to terms with their abilities to connect mentally, emotionally, and even physically with their seven brethren. But as psychic skills and interrelationships develop, it becomes apparent that all eight are in danger from a mysterious corporate/government organization that wants to hunt them down and destroy them.

You can't say this series isn't ambitious! Shot worldwide, the eight sensates heretofore lived their lives (as anything from a DJ to a scientist to a screen actor to a safe-cracking thief) in San Francisco, Seoul, Nairobi, Chicago, London, Reykjavik, Berlin, Mexico City, and Mumbai. The locations add much to the flavor of the series, if very little to the logic and continuity.

The cast are all youngish and very good-looking people. Different ethnicities and genders (including a trans woman named Nomi, played exceedingly well by Jamie Clayton) are represented. But the series explains away the lack of age diversity with the fact that a cluster is always made up of sensates born on the same day. So just enjoy watching all these handsome people in their prime facing some extraordinary challenges around the world, with a little help from their friends.

My advice is: Watch a few segments. (Since this is Netflix, you are welcome to binge-watch to your heart's content.) If you don't become too confused and disgusted by the sometimes incoherent travelogue that is Sense8, you might find yourself enjoying the ride, even if it never makes complete sense. But be warned, since this serial hopes to be season one of a multi-season series, don't even expect a real plot resolution at the end of the twelfth installment!

Although I generally enjoyed—excesses and all—Sense8, I must admit that I enjoyed another summer series even more. That AMC series, called Humans, was jointly produced by AMC and Britain's Channel 4, along with Kudos Film and Television (based on an earlier Swedish sf series called Real Humans). Set in a parallel present where robotic humanoids, called synths, do much of the work in society, flesh-and-blood humanity is still coming to terms with how to relate to synths—and to each other, in a world where a caregiver or co-worker might be an AI.

It's good, solid (even thought-provoking) sf entertainment; much better than most of the blockbuster fare you'll find at the movie theater. Look for it in the "On Demand" options from your television provider.

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