Review: 3%

Note: this is a spoiler-free review of the show.

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In the future, year 104, the world is divided into to two classes: the poor in the slums, and the rich who live in the Offshore. Every year, all 20-year-old citizens from the slums compete to live in the Offshore. “In The Offshore, all are given equal opportunity to advance.” Proclaims the charismatic leader, Ezequiel. Only 3% of the contestants, candidates, will get to live in Utopia. However, The System is threatened by The Cause. Maybe there was something lost in translation (show is shot in Brazilian Portuguese), but those are the most unoriginal names. Anyway, 3% follows five candidates (Michele, Fernando, Joana, Marco, Rafael) in their quest to become the lucky 3%, and Ezequiel (João Miguel). He’s the almighty Supervisor, who might be working with The Cause.

As an ensemble show, 3% follows a Lost format. Each episode focuses on one character of the ensemble, with flashbacks, and their journey through The Process. Michele (Bianca Comparato), is the secret resistance fighter. Marco (Rafael Lozano) is the vain and relatively well-off candidate. He considers it his birthright to make it to The Offshore, the rest of his family has. Rafael (Rodolfo Valente) is the trickster-type. Fernando (Michel Gomes) is the sweet, paraplegic, who befriends Michele. Joana (Vaneza Oliveira) is the lone wolf.

You also see elements of the Hunger Games, Elysium, Survivor. Candidates must outwit, outlast, and outplay each other to prove themselves worthy to the Administrators. They are given “tests”, like assembling blocks quickly to show high IQ; and successfully making across a tunnel while being dosed with hallucinogens, to prove perseverance, maybe?

From the beginning, the show presents The Process as an invasive and dehumanizing ordeal that only proves the candidates’ willingness to submit to the system. In the pilot, they are put through a questionnaire that is invasive and harsh. It is like a job interview, psychological evaluation, and lie-detector test. They ask a black woman how often she washes her hair. Fernando’s disability is mocked. Michele is hit on by the interviewer and mocked for her attachment to a sentimental object. “Are you worth being saved?” They ask. They are really asking what are the candidates willing to give up. The ones who pass the first stage, must disavow all ties to their former lives.

Despite rigged nature of The Process, some characters are willing to defend this system, like Fernando, the paraplegic who has near-religious faith in the system. The most optimistic character of the show. He firmly believes in the system, and believes in its mission for good, even when confronted of the reality of its unfairness. He believes in self-reliance, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. It is admirable, but also frustrating to Michele, who tries to get him to see the injustice. The candidates know they are being watched, yet this doesn’t prevent anyone, Rafael mostly, from cheating. No one is eliminated for cheating. They are eliminated for giving the wrong answers or not completing the test on time.

This is not light escapism. In fact, you may be wishing for escapism from this show. Given the current political climate, this is a show that plays to the worst fears of a totalitarian government, built on ideals of equality and self-reliance. This show might be better if watched once a day, like a miniseries event. One problem is that the 3% is depressing. The demoralizing tests are, well, demoralizing after a while. The subplot of Ezequiel being watched by his superiors is the least interesting part of the show. The Cause is barely mentioned after the pilot. Michele is pushed to the back burner soon. It’s not that all shows have to be upbeat and positive. But for a show that presents a resistance and a revenge story within the pilot, it doesn’t show much interest in either of those.  All of 3% eight episodes are streaming on Netflix.

Recap: The Santa Clarita Diet

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Available on Netflix February 3

Spoilers on the first half

Meet Joel (Timothy Olyphant) and Sheila Hammond (Drew Barrymore). They sort of like their bland, upper-middle class, Southern California life. Shelia and Joel are real estate agents. They have a surly teenage daughter Abby (Liv Hewson). Their home is between two rival, alpha-male cops Dan and Rick. Dan (Ricardo Chavira) also acts as a one-man homeowner’s association. His wife (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) is phony and bored. His stepson, Eric (Skylar Gisondo) is a nerd and has a crush on Abby. Abby is indifferent.

Their suburban dream is interrupted one morning, when Sheila feels a pain in her lower abdomen. Later while showing a house, she projectile vomits in front of the buyers. It’s worse than The Exorcist. Total faux pas, and everyone pretends they can’t hear her vomiting her insides out in the bathroom for the next ten minutes. Joel finds her in a bathroom that looks like the lobby from The Shining, but with a kale smoothie. She’s also thrown up an organ apparently.

They can’t worry about that too much though, because the new guy, Gary (Nathan Fillion) might steal their big sale. He also shamelessly hits on Sheila in front of Joel. But Sheila kind of likes it. She’s feeling different, a little frisky. She buys a new Range Rover and starts clubbing. Oh, and she can’t feel her heartbeat and craves raw meat.

After consulting Eric, the family concludes that Shelia is “undead.” They’re not using the zed word. They’re not entirely sure what she is; but, just in case, they figure it’s a good idea to keep her fed. They wouldn’t want to see her when she’s hungry.

Speaking of cravings, Gary is thirsting for Sheila. He sneaks up on her in her backward one morning. In a predatory Gaston-y way, tries to get Shelia to have sex with him. It almost works, until Shelia gets hungry. Nathan Fillion has been Marion Craned.

This is a triple-D cocktail: equal parts Desperate Housewives, Dexter, and Death Becomes Her. The first five episodes are binge-worthy. Each episode is about 25 minutes, and while the tonal shifts are awkward, the chemistry between the leads is charming. It’s fun watching Joel and Sheila figuring out how to be serial killers while maintaining their perfect façade.

One criticism is that Sheila isn’t fully set up as a meek suburbanite. Her transformation into a cussing, impulsive realtor doesn’t stick. They rely a little too much on Barrymore’s natural sweetness. It’s a safe tactic, because Drew Barrymore is just adorable, especially when she’s cheerfully making a brain smoothie.

As the uptight and cowardly Joel, Timothy Olyphant veers into manic desperation.  His pasted smile is borderline psychotic. His only outlet is weed, which annoys Sheila. One day, in his impotent rage, he destroys the toaster oven. I wish there was a little more to his character than failed musician. Oh well.

The first half of The Santa Clarita Diet deals with Joel and Sheila trying to find appropriate victims. Joel is trying to figure out what happened to Sheila. Sheila is “following her passion” and “living her best life.” She’s become the neighborhood Oprah. Abby starts having trouble in school. She and Eric become friends. Meanwhile, Dan is snooping around their yard. He thinks there’s something up with the Hammonds.

 

Movie Review: Predestination

Predestination (2014)

photo: imdb.com

photo: imdb.com

dir. The Spierig Brothers

starring: Ethan Hawke, Sarah Snook, and Noah Taylor

Poignant and intelligent science fiction drama.  Despite its trite premise, Predestination is a treat that places the focus on strong characters.

Predestination begins with a man in a trenchcoat racing against the clock to diffuse a bomb.  The diffusion is successful, but the man’s face is burned beyond recognition.  Cut to the hospital, where that man wakes up and is revealed as Ethan Hawke.  In Predestination, Ethan Hawke plays a time travel agent hunting down the man responsible for massive bombing in New York, 1975.  He poses as a bartender in 1970’s New York, presumably to find the killer.  Then, a man walks into the bar, and then the real story begins.

The bartender, Ethan Hawke, places a bet: a good story for a bottle of scotch.  The man tells the bartender that he was born a girl, Jane.  Jane (Sarah Snook) was an orphan who was always out of place.  She got pregnant and, during the delivery, the doctors discovered she had two sets of reproductive organs, male and female.  The doctors removed her female organs, and Jane was forced to become John.  Soon after that discovery, her baby was kidnapped from the hospital.  Sarah Snook has the meatier role, and tougher job as the emotional anchor.  This could have easily been given the Lifetime movie treatment or been hastily shoe-horned into the bomb plot.  Thankfully, the filmmakers place the emphasis on character development, so we identify with Jane/John.  After hearing his story, Ethan Hawke gives John another proposal: go back in time and kill the man who ruined him.

Predestination is based on the short story “All You Zombies” by sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein.  After reading a synopsis of the story, it’s surprising that the piece the filmmakers added was the terrorist bomb plot, which is the weakest piece of the film.  Predestination is a paradox wrapped in an enigma inside of a puzzle.  The paradox, enigma, and puzzle add up to the belief that free-will is non-existent.  As the film becomes more deterministic, it also becomes more stifling.  The past determines the future which determines the past.  Ugh.  It’s hopeless.  Also, the weight of history gives the film a feeling of claustrophobia.  That doesn’t detract from the experience of watching the film.  That frustration prompts repeat viewings and discussions.

On a side note: for those that found the film silly, imagine the movie being remade as the Mirrors: the Kanye West Story.

Recommend: Yes.  Although the plot isn’t the most surprising, Predestination’s emphasis on character gives the plot twists a greater emotional impact.

Availability: DVD and Blu-ray, Redbox, Amazon Instant Video

Two’s Days: First Blood & Rambo

A shell shocked Vietnam War vet is harassed by local law enforcement.  That’s the whole plot of First Blood.  Overall, a serviceable action film.  First Blood is metaphor, perhaps cautionary tale, for the maladjustment to civilian life that the Vietnam vets experience.  Thirty years later, this film feels relevant.  Like the Vietnam War, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been extremely unpopular in the U.S. Will the films based on their readjustment be about men figuratively trapped in the jungle?  Will they be as simplistic as this film?  I hope not.

The final scene of the First Blood gets to the substance of Rambo’s lament.  He handled million dollar machinery, but now can’t be trusted to park cars.  Compounded on to that is the treatment he receives.  The cops are pathologically bent on antagonizing him.  They are so simply evil, they come across as straw men.  A clear stand-in for public opinion of the Vietnam War.  His transformation into one man army is a defensive strategy.  A complex situation is dealt with brute force.  The DVD contains an alternate ending where John Rambo commits suicide.  Other than eliminating the mindless sequels that came afterward, that ending would be too pessimistic.

Twenty years later, and many sequels later, Rambo is back.  He lives in Thailand, somewhat at home in the jungle, but still humorless.  He is a thousand yard stare and a man with a dark past, who is reluctantly roped into a rescue mission.  A missionary group has been kidnapped by a Burmese military group.  Only John Rambo, and a team of mercenaries under AARP eligibility age, can save them.

The bad guys are clearly bad guys.  They gun down innocent villagers indiscriminately.  They rape and pillage.  It’s unsettling and over the top, and so is the retaliation.  The violence carries an odd emotional weight.  At the beginning of Rambo news footage of the civil war in Burma is shown.  The events in Rambo feel like a footnote to a violent and incomplete chapter in global politics.  Don’t misunderstand, the setting is of minor consequence.  It’s an invitation to be detached from the carnage on screen.  Again, a serviceable action film.  This is, presumably, the last outing of the character.  At the end of the film, John Rambo goes home.  It’s open-ended because the violence isn’t cathartic.

Surrealist Sundays: Diary of a Chambermaid

photo credit: imdb

photo credit: imdb

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

dir. Luis Bunuel

starring: Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Georges Geret

People are not as they appear to Celestine (Jeanne Moreau), the new chambermaid of a wealthy household.  Bunuel’s film balances satire, comedy, and drama with skill.  The film warns to be skeptical of institutions.  After all, they are run by humans.

The film begins with Celestine arriving at her new job.  She’s from the city, Paris, and now working out in the country.  Her fur trimmed coat and tattered stockings mark her as an outsider within the household.  The servants’ clothes are ill-fitting and layered, whereas the family wears tailored, rich fabrics.  As a chambermaid, Celestine is able to move within the upper and lower classes with ease.  Her outsider status makes her unpredictable.  Celestine’s origins cause the household to question her morals.  The lady of the house, Mme. Monteil, warns Celestine to stay away from her husband.  That is easy for Celestine because M. Monteil is a coward.

The first illusion that is shattered for Celestine, is that the man runs the house.  Mme Monteil is feared by her servants, she bullies her husband, she controls the finances, and is rumored to be frigid.  She’s just following her priest’s advice to have sex less than once a week and to not enjoy it.   M. Monteil blows off steam by hunting and watching, staring at, Celestine as she works.  He feebly attempts to hit on her, but she brushes him off.  It’s hard to believe that he initiated any of the affairs, when he hides in his room whenever he’s in the house.

The second illusion shattered is that of the kindly, old man.  Mme Monteil’s father is sweet to Celestine.  He shows her his scrapbook and he asks her to read to him.  He also asks to stroke her legs while she reads, and for her to model his wide selection of women’s shoes.  Celestine obliges and because the dirty old man trope is played for comedy, it’s funny.  While, the upper class exploit the lower class and blame them for the consequences, the lower class imitates but wraps it in the flag of justice.

Joseph (Georges Geret) represents the politically minded lower class.  He is a man of the people, who excludes immigrants, women, and other races from his perfect society.  He publishes a reactionary newspaper, but because he is the house snitch, it’s okay.  In other words, he is a hypocrite.  Joseph’s patriotism works effectively as a mask for his dark nature.

foot stompAt first it’s cruel and small, he chokes the geese before killing them; then he choking Claire, a daughter of another maid, and forces her to stare into his eyes.  However, it plays as a strange, symbolic action, and not as threatening as it sounds.  Celestine sees through his talk.  Unfortunately, she isn’t able to stop him from molesting and killing Claire.  Joseph’s patriotism makes him an unlikely killer to the police.  Celestine’s mission of revenge is thwarted because no one believes her.

The film ends on a downbeat.  Celestine is married to a rich man, but still wishing for revenge. Joseph runs a bistro and is seen as a good citizen.  Image is everything.

Surrealist Sundays: Belle de Jour

lace detail picture

Belle de Jour  (1967) is a Bunuel film about a woman coming of age.  The young female protagonist enters into a degrading relationship that she finds sexually liberating.

The film stars Catherine Deneuve as Severine, a comfortably middle-class, frigid wife.  Belle de Jour doesn’t look too closely at the motivations of Severine.  Granted, her life is dull.  She’s a housewife with no children and a boring social life.  She and her husband sleep in twin beds and are polite to each other.  But in her dreams, she is being ravaged by her husband.  He flings mud on her and ties her up.

Through the grapevine, she learns that one of her neighbors moonlights as a prostitute.  Severine is fascinated at the thought.  She then seeks out that brothel, but not without trepidation.  The madam accepts her flimsy cover story and gives her a stage name: “Belle de Jour”.  She then begins an affair with a possessive, younger man.  He threatens to kill her husband to be with her.  On top of that, her husband’s lascivious friend discovers her secret and threatens to tell her husband.

By leading this double life, she becomes a more affectionate and well-rounded person.  However, she feels guilty.  After her first day on the job, she burns the underwear she wore.  The dream world and the real world collide uncomfortably.  Her lover, Marcel, is the exact opposite of her husband.  The new person she is becoming clashes with her comfortable bourgeois life.  Her husband can’t or won’t reciprocate affection.

jewelry box close-up She chooses to work only during the day, between the hours of 2pm and 5pm.  These hours become the “witching hour”.  A funny episode in the middle of the film, is when Severine is propostioned by a man with a monocle.  He asks her to be in nothing but a black veil, while lying in a coffin.  It is the only time a dream world scenario plays out in the waking world, and it comes with shame.

We are ashamed to live our dreams and fantasies, women more so.  When her husband’s friend discovers her, he says he has lost all interest in her.  Before, he would leer at her and come on to her, but now that he knows she enjoys sex, he thinks she’s dirty.  He can’t wait to ruin her reputation.  The real world is harsh and full of hypocrites and shame.

Despite the dream sequences and ambiguously happy ending, the film’s politics feel dated.