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Review: Dark Matter

“Dark Matter” (DM) is a new sci-fi show at the SyFy channel, produced in Canada. It tells the story of 7 crew members who wake up on their spaceship without any memories. Soon, they learn that they’re wanted mercenaries, and the story continues from there.

There’s not much to tell about the show really: it’s a run-o-the-mill Canadian production trying to pass as a modern sci-fi: dark cinematography, sterile characters and performances, crew-members who bicker at each other as main plots, no actual ethical lessons through the sci-fi lens as you would expect from good sci-fi etc.

Stylistically, the show resembles Stargate:Universe (SGU), and guess what: both its creators were writers/producers in the Stargate franchise. However, it is obvious that even if they ended up with a bad version of SGU, their original goals were instead to provide an alternative to the Firefly fans. I can literally see in my mind’s eye the SyFy business meeting among execs seriously discussing that a Firefly-wannabe show is needed, since it’s something that it’s been missing in the minds of sci-fi lovers.

So, they set out to do a Firefly-wannabe, trying not too hard to feel too much like Firelfy. The indications are there: the oddball little girl who feels like River but dresses like Kaylee, the crazy gun-lover mercenary, the “priest”, the strong female, the mercenary/wanted thing, the being hungry and not having any money, the handler guy. Even the episodes are the same: the western-like feel, the fact that there are no aliens in their universe, the boarding episode, the woman enemy episode (using an android instead of Saffron this time), the mining colony episode and their illness, the stealing job episode, etc etc. Only thing missing is Inara’s whore part (which is telling, meaning that they never pushed the envelope).

In conclusion, Dark Matter is simply a patchwork alternative for fans of Firefly. It’s not as good as Firefly in any sense, but it might be good enough if you’re hungry for some space-based sci-fi. I will not say that DM is a Firefly copycat. That would mean that it’s as good as Firefly, while it’s not. I’d say instead that it’s a poor cousin.


FlashForwarding with Sense8

Sense8 is a Netflix production, originally developed by the people behind “The Matrix” and “Babylon 5”. When I saw the trailer a few weeks ago, I was so stoked about it: DMT, oneness, spiritual and philosophical discussions… Are you kidding me? This would be so cool! But now that I’ve seen all 12 episodes, I’m not as stoked anymore. Here’s a list of what went wrong:

1. No mystery. While the show has 4 more seasons (if they don’t get cancelled) to explain more things, its mysteries aren’t holding together well. They could have gone instead for a full episode per sensate (8 + 4 more exhilarating episodes at the end glueing together the story). Let the sensates and the overall story unveil in a way that is more interesting (not slow, but in a more brainf*ck way), rather than laying out the stories block by block and only have a central mystery to solve at the end of the season (in this case, Whispers and the company behind him). LOST worked because it knew how to build anticipation and thrilling by twisting the way it informed the viewer about what is what. Sense8 doesn’t. Sense8 is very traditional in its story telling instead, no matter if it likes to think the opposite for itself.

2. Boring, cheesy drama. Especially the ones set in India & Mexico. Very little action (except in the last 1-2 episodes), which is not fit for sci-fi. There have been at least 5-7 extremely cheesy scenes in the season too. I cringed in a similar way I did for the Star Wars prequels for some reason.

3. Unneeded sex scenes. Even on Game on Thrones, sex usually acts as a plot threading or character development, rather than filling up time. On Sense8, it was just too much of it because we already seen the same lovers over and over again having sex (we get it, they have sex daily, good for them!). I loved the trans story, but the gay one had way too many cheesy scenes in it for me to take it seriously. It felt that the whole series were revolving around the trans & gay sex scenes, rather than these sex scenes being simply part of the story. For the record, I would complain just as much if it was as much hetero-sex from the same lovers over and over too. My complain is not the gay/trans sex, it’s just the fact that we see the SAME lovers doing the same thing all the time, which is something that doesn’t serve the story and the plot. The only time I felt that the sex scene was excellent AND very much needed by the plot (because it **explains** what sex can be for a sensate) was the sensate orgy scene (3 men + 1 trans woman). This scene needed to be there because it’s the only way we can understand the unlimitness of being a sensate. It was rightfully part of the plot! But seeing the other two same set of lovers making out on each and every episode, was unneeded, too much, and ended up being cheesy at the end.

4. Single-dimensional characters. This is mostly because of how the series was setup (everyone dividing their screen time with the others, not leaving much time for development).

5. The language. JMS explained on his Facebook page why they decided to use English as the language set in other countries (see: that’s how Hollywood does it traditionally), but this just doesn’t work today. If anything, it makes the series less interesting, less mysterious even. It levels the playing field in a way that takes realism away.

So my verdict is that this is another FlashForward (remember that show, from ABC?). Great ideas, bad implementation.

Extant: a review

Watched the first two episodes of “Extant”, the new Spielberg-produced sci-fi show, starring Halle Berry. There are several problems with the series. It’s really a surprise having a veteran like Spielberg allowing such easy mistakes from his writers.

The biggest mistake is that the series is a localized story. No sci-fi show or movie ever survived in the long run by only telling a localized story without providing a larger “universe” for the world that the story is taking place. We don’t know what the year is, we don’t know what kind of technology is available (from one side we have high AI and interstellar space travel, but then we have old fashioned cars and button-pushing washing machines? Really?), we know nothing of how the world is organized in that time, and we know nothing about how humans got so far in space, or how far. This is a grave mistake for any sci-fi story. It shows no vision. It just shows a guy with a script getting the go-ahead to shoot the series, but that’s not the type of vision that creates cult, or successful shows.

Cult shows are cult because they make their extended universe believable by providing a lot of information about it. It’s as simple as that. People get hooked with believable detail, even if the show might even mildly suck in other perspectives. For example. Babylon 5 was a tragedy in terms of filmmaking (camera, sound work, and even dialog was the worst), but the believable “large”, epic story it told, and the detail it provided for the world it operated on, it made it a cult show. Star Trek and Star Wars owe their success to this type of “complete universe” vision too. Extant is not such a show. It’s just an idea, set in a non-descript world.

And then there’s the AI. Halle Berry and her husband in the show have adopted a child android as their son, which behaves 99% like a human. This itself is unbelievable. Having worked in AI myself for years, such type of AI won’t be developed for many hundreds of years later, *if ever*. People have talked since the ’70s that “true AI is just 10 years away”, but of course this hasn’t happened. The kind of AI that we WILL get (most likely through Google) is going to be similar to the computer on Star Trek: TNG. Smart enough to carry away complex actions, but not even close to be “human”. This whole AI subplot weakens the series as a believable sci-fi show. Of course, Spielberg himself created an “AI” movie back in the ’90s, so he’s obviously a fan of the concept. I’m willing to forget about this, since he has personal ties to the subject matter, but not insisting on universe-building from the get-go, it shows that the series is amateur hour that has come across to lots of money.

My advice: watch it for fun, but don’t invest in it, because it will disappoint.

Streaming and the music market

David Byrne has started quite some chattering online after his recent article at The Guardian about how artists make no money anymore because of Spotify and other streaming services. While Spotify pays 70% out to music owners, most of that money are going to the labels that actually own the copyrights of most artists today. But that’s just scratching the surface of what really is happening today in the music industry.

Argument 1: Paying $10 per month for unlimited music is too little money to ask to be able to supports artists.

Answer: $10 is actually the right price. Twenty years ago, before the Internet, most people would put aside anywhere between $50 and $100 per year for music. This is about the same price Spotify/GooglePlay/RDIO are asking consumers today to pay for music too. Nothing has changed in terms of “how much a consumer is paying for music”. If anything, $10 is a well averaged amount that a middle-income Western family can afford. You must understand that “normal” people don’t spend money on individual records when they’re balancing their spreadsheet at the end of their year. They call that expense “music”, as if it’s a single product/purchase. As such, the music industry must price that product as if one unit.

Argument 2: Yeah, but back then you’d get only 5-10 albums for that amount of money.

Answer: Indeed. But consider why terrestrial radio was so popular before the Internet. And also consider why the consumer would get a 2nd, a 3rd, or a 10th album in the same year. The answer is: variety. People wanted variety, but they couldn’t afford it. Hence, they were listening to more radio, since there was no other way out to the situation for them. Today, we don’t have the limitation of having to pay for physical media. The internet has plenty of bandwidth and connectivity. If the labels were to push people to go back to physical media, that would be like putting artificial limits on the market (since technology has found a way around the limitations and added expense of physical media). Artificial limits and their market never survive.

Argument 3: Yeah, but profits out of Spotify are minuscule.

Answer: Indeed. This is because of #2 answer above: variety. Variety that’s now available! Since the explosion of the Indie music in the last 5 years, more and more people are listening to different artists than what the major labels want them to listen to. As such, the profits are spread thin towards the “long tail”. So back in the olden days, you’d get about 300-400 pop artists get all the money (along the major labels behind them), with the small indie musician community only making money out of gigs. Now that is so easy for indies to join the same services as the major artists, the listening habits of the consumers are all over the place. As such, everyone earns pennies at the end. As for the major pop artists, most of the Spotify money are going to their labels, not to them. It’s not Spotify’s fault for having these artists signed all their rights away for a record contract! Spotify actually pays out 70% to copyright holders as I mentioned, which is an industry standard.

Argument 4: Well, I make more money when I sell via iTunes.

Answer: Yes, because you sell individual tracks/albums. But people want variety, and they want it for that “magic” amount of money they spend on music every year. Which is about $100 per year, as explained. When people are going for the iTunes model, they only afford to listen to about 10-15 artists. But when they go with unlimited streaming, they open up to many more artists and music. Their horizons are expanded, and they have the true variety they always wanted. Basically, the iTunes model creates just 500 mega stars that take most of the money, while Spotify creates no stars, but every artist gets to be listened to eventually (even if no one makes any money anymore via it). Which one is better: the rich oligarchy of the 0.1%, or democratization of music where music is made purely out of love for it (since no money is being earned anymore)? Besides, if you don’t want to have your music streamed, you have every right to remove it from all these streaming services. Oh, you don’t have that right? Well, nobody forced you to sign evil contracts with labels that take away your rights!

Argument 5: How are artists are going to live then?

Answer: With a real job. Music will only be the labor of love, rather than the labor for bread. For the few that might be so good that people want to see live, they might be able to scrap by while still in their 20s, while they’re still cool. Then, reality will kick in for them too.

Argument 6: Spotify exists just so people don’t torrent as much.

Answer: It’s one of the reasons why the major labels allowed unlimited streaming. But it’s not the only reason. Unlimited streaming for a fee is a natural progression of the music industry. Labels are blaming torrents for their demise, but in reality, it’s the Indies who destroyed them.

Argument 7: The indies? Why?

Answer: In the olden days, to make an LP, CD or cassette pressing and recording was a very expensive deal. It pushed artists to sign some very unfavorable contracts. But since 2000, and especially after 2005, there’s no need for any of that anymore. Anyone with a $300 computer and $200 equipment can create, record, and distribute music. This is revolutionary. This has made the industry explode with CD releases. There were about 5000 yearly releases in the ’80s, and we’re at 150,000 per year today. And I can assure you, that’s not because of population explosion, but rather, artist explosion — artists who found cheap ways to produce and share their work. The fast computers, the cheap apps, and the Internet, made all this possible. Labels are blaming torrents, but in reality, they simply became irrelevant. Now, there’s true choice on music.

Argument 8: And is this a good thing?

Answer: It depends on your intention. If you only care about the music industry and making a buck, then it’s bad news. If you care about music itself, then it’s the best news since classical music sprang to existence. These bedroom musicians that are everywhere today are experimenting in ways never could before. As such, they’re creating brand new types of sounds and music almost every year. “Chillwave” was the first genre that had no physical birth place for example, it was a sound that was spread and evolved via the Internet.

Argument 9: Does this mean that the music industry is toast?

Answer: Yes. It means that music is now free to experience, and not bound to major labels who create banal music and promote it as if they’re brainwashing the masses. Spotify simply becomes a centralized music service in that case, and not a means to get rich. If someone wants to make some money out of their music, then gigs is the only way to do so. Labels must be left out, since they’re redundant right now. If artists want to go pro, they should create their own music videos, take care of their social presence online, hire a PR firm, and do lots of gigs.

Argument 10: But it’s so sad to see it go away.

Answer: Nostalgia and feeling bad for having bought all these records in the past won’t change the reality of things. See it the other way: in my town, in the building where Tower Records were housed (SELLING music), now a guitar shop has opened instead (CREATING music). It’s societal evolution, and only good things can come out of more creation! Humans are creator beings!

A review of “Revolution”, NBC’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi show

JJ Abrams is at it again, this time at NBC. His new show, “Revolution”, is set to premiere at Sept 17th, but it’s already available online for free viewing — if you live in the US.

The premise of the show is rather simple: all the world’s sources of power have gone dark, and after 15 years of living… in organic farms, local militias have risen.

The show feels like LOST having sex with FlashForward. Everyone’s actually kinda lost, there’s a plane, a text-mode computer, some mystery, and a universal blackout. There are a lot of scientific inaccuracies, while everyone’s hair and clothes are still banging after all this time.

The show was interesting, but it was super-flawed. Not in terms of the overall idea, but in terms of execution. It has the exact same problems as FlashForward had: poor execution. The plot showed us a small version of that world, it was not grand and emerging to the viewer. The stakes were not big. Except the main mystery (why did the lights went out), there’s nothing else to keep the show together.

The biggest problem for me was the cutting of the show. Either this show needed a different editor, or an additional 5-6 minutes, or a two-hour pilot instead of an one hour. Everything just felt rushed, Jon Favreau could only do so much with directing.

The only thing that worked in this show was the fight scene. Personally, I give the show no more than one full season to live. Just like with every other network show, it just can’t bloom the same way cable shows can. Not enough time in 43 minutes to tell a proper story, and not with the FCC checking every word and scene.

The music of Fiona Apple

I think that I have finally understood why I don’t like most of that highly-lyrical/vocal music (e.g. Fiona Apple, Bob Dylan, Florence etc).

So, I was listening to Fiona Apple’s new album, which has gotten great ratings, and the whole meat of her music is really the lyrics. There’s little music to speak about, and the one that exists, usually gets muffed by the voice. When listening to the admittedly well-crafted poetic lyrics, I realized that it’s all about the internal angst of these human beings. For Fiona for example, her life was changed when she was raped at the age of 12. From then on, all her songs are about dealing with it even if the songs are not all very clearly about it. Not to be insensitive about it, but that’s the impression I get from that type of music: “me, me, me, look at me, look how I feel now, me, me, me”.

Well that kind of music just doesn’t represent me. And it’s not just about music, but movies and visual art too. I can’t stand dramas, for example. I can’t stand visual art where the artist reflects his inner struggles of who he is in every single painting.

GET OVER YOURSELVES, God damn it. The world is not just about you and your silly existential bullshit. You’re just an ant in the cosmic sea of creatures. Alone, you don’t matter. I don’t matter either. Together, we could, at some point, but alone, we aren’t.

This is why I prefer art that is about grand things, that deals with a society that are over and above their little problems, where the people have accepted who they are in the cosmos, and they’re working towards a better common future, rather than crying all day long about some abstract thing that they themselves don’t know what exactly it is. I mean, they should definitely sing about REAL societal problems (e.g. being alone in a city full of people, how money changes people etc), but when there’s some abstract “oh, I’m so sad right now, but I don’t know exactly why” type of bullshit, well, I’m just not interested in hearing that.

I’m not saying that the human psyche doesn’t matter at all, or that we shouldn’t sing about it, it’s just that when 95% of the music out there is about silly bullshit about depressed people with psycho-complexes, it irks me the wrong way. We should be looking at the future through art as a complete species, as a multiplicity, not as an adult individual who hasn’t accepted his/her place in the world yet.

Oneohtrix Point Never, Health, and John Maus are just some of the few artists that make sense in my mind. They make music sounding like it’s from 200 years in the future: where the WE matters a lot, and the ME matters less. And their music features actual music, rather than over-mixed, over-powering vocals.

The trouble with super-heroes

I’ve been thinking today about super-hero movies, and what they represent in our situation today. Basically, these are modern fairy-tale stories. In reality they’re under the fantasy genre, rather than true sci-fi.

But that’s just a classification detail. What bothers me with these movies is that they’re too character-centered, individualism reels in them. And not the good kind either. I mean, you think Tony Stark or Batman have problems? They’re billionaires, living the life. Captain America has problems, for jumping into the future? Boo-hoo, sorry for being viewed as a hero. Heck, Loki has problems? It was his decision to not go back to his adopted family that still loves him. Their personal problems sound like they’re all fucking cry-babies.

I’m sure that the reason these movies are so successful today is exactly because they’re so character-centered. But their personal problems are stupid, they’re shallow. And this says something about the people today, and how small they think. I mean, how about making Batman a drug addict, how about making Peter Parker keeping some of the money he rescued from a bank robbery in order to pay his rent? Interestingly, such plots and twists have been explored from time to time in the comics, but in the movies, the heroes remain “clean” most of the time. In fact, Wolverine’s character was always one of the most popular in the super-hero universe, exactly because he’s not always the good guy. Also, The Punisher is one of the most interesting Marvel stories. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Frank Castle doesn’t have any super-powers, so the rules of the game are different?

As for the mortal threats that the heroes are facing from enemies are meant to sound grand (and in practice they are), but at the end these are all simple stories of good vs evil. It’s the known recipe of fairy-tales. Instead of having super-baddies who simply crave for power and glory, how about battling a race or person who MUST consume the Earth’s resources, or otherwise it will go extinct? At some point we should be asking questions that don’t have an obvious answer. It’s the way to move forward as a society.

This doesn’t mean that there’s no good or evil in the world and that everything is gray. If there’s gray, by definition, other… colors exist too. But my point is that we should raise our standards. We should make serious movies that explore more complex situations and characters. Characters that aren’t so sensational over nothing, and situations that are more believable, gray and grand.

Basically, I say, enough with fantasy, let’s go hyper-real. This is the 21st Century, we ought to do better than that, rather than rehashing traditional fairy-tale stories in new clothes.

John Maus – “The Crucifix”

My second unofficial music video for John Maus. This one is animation too, but abstract-geometric instead. Made me realize the many limitations of Sony Vegas Pro when it comes to animation (I’m moving to After Effects).

If the Vimeo 1080p version is too slow for you, you can try 720p on YouTube.

John Maus – “Quantum Leap”

I always loved John Maus’ song “Quantum Leap”, but I suddenly got inspiration to do a video for it early in February. After two months of work, my first animation is ready. This is by far the longest video work I ever done, so I put my best self in it. It’s not perfect (there’s pixelation in some scenes), but I think the overall lo-fi result is good, considering that I didn’t use animation-specific apps that automate things. I sketched on a Wacom tablet and Photoshop, editing was done on Sony Vegas Pro 11, while the lasers in the final battle scene were made in After Effects CS5.

Update April 15th: A digital painting of John Maus I did tonight over a few hours (painted over a still frame, and then posterized). Not a great piece of art obviously, but hey.

Update April 20th: Top-5 tips to animate your comics.

I emailed John Maus for permission to post the video btw, but never got a reply back. After lots of thinking about it, I decided to publish it. Find below credit links for the Creative Commons “Attribution” & NASA background images used in the video, in order of appearance. I hope I didn’t forget anyone.

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A review of Madonna’s “MDNA”

MDNA is Madonna’s first album on her new label, so she seems to be playing it safe. She serves us a canned formula that has worked for her in the past. Does it still work though?

Girl Gone Wild: 8/10
The best track on the album, it’s a good dance song. The editing of the official music video is even better though.

Gang Bang: 6/10
A nice semi-atmospheric dance track, but it doesn’t go far-enough. It needed to blossom, but it didn’t.

I’m Addicted: 2/10
Yuck. Boring, unimaginative, uncatchy, goes nowhere.

Turn Up the Radio: 2/10
Reminds me of her late ’80s period. Nothing new here. Playing it safe.

Give Me All Your Luvin’: 3/10
Oh, shut up. This is fucking annoying. What is she? 13 years old?

Some Girls: 6/10
Not a bad song, it’s got a nice melody and atmosphere (atmosphere is the No1 thing I always try to find on music btw). But it’s not really exceptional either. It’s just ok.

Superstar: 1/10
Someone pass Acid Pro. I could write such a song too in a single afternoon.

I Don’t Give A: 2/10
We heard this song a million times before in the last 15 years. The only good part in it is its last minute, where it becomes operatic and grand. It’s one of the best moments in the whole album. Too bad it’s attached to the rest of this song.

I’m a Sinner: 2/10
This track is a mess. It tries to channel her 1998 period, but it ends up being a hot mess. It could have worked back then, but it’s 2012 now.

Love Spent: 2/10
This feels like a song that is sang by Cartman trying to become a pop star (the way South Park would have done it).

Masterpiece: 8/10
A nice ballad, written by different song-writers than in the rest of the album, people who actually know how to write music, it seems.

Falling Free: 4/10
Good ideas (channeling Irish/Celtic music) but it ultimately goes nowhere. This song asks for a buildup that never arrives.

Beautiful Killer: 6/10
A good dance track, mostly salvaged by its strong refrain. It could be realized even better though.

I Fucked Up: 1/10
She seriously fucked it up on this track. Useless bullshit.

B-Day Song: 2/10
Not album quality. It feels like a B-side.

Best Friend: 3/10
Wow, it’s R&B from 1996 all over again. Harmless.

Overall rating: 4.2/10

Madonna needs to push herself to innovate. Religion and sex themes can only get her so far in today’s day and age.