Friday, February 2, 2018

Review of Altered Carbon on Netflix

I just finished the new series on Netflix, Altered Carbon. Let me say right up front that I loved it!

It is 10 episodes packed full of action, intrigue and awesomeness. Think Blade Runner meets Kill Bill meets Star Trek The Next Generation. But you would have to cross that with something graphic, for both violence and sexual content. It is very R rated, and filled with violence of every sort, including torture, as well as a fair amount of nudity. The series is based on the 2002 novel by Richard Morgan, and the main plot follows the original story relatively closely for those that have read it. The book is really in a genre all its own as an adult SF thriller.

This show looks incredible and really feels like a possible dystopian future. The sets are just amazing. The tech is cool in the extreme. It is set several hundred years in the future, where humans can store their personality in a cortical stack, which basically sits on top of your spinal chord at the base of the brain, and people can have their selves sent all over the colonized worlds at light speed, or have backup stacks and bodies (sleeves), if you can afford it. The good stuff is only available to the very rich, and society has evolved into a caricature of our own in the have and have-nots.

The plot is a noir mystery at its heart, with the main character being the last remaining bad-ass ninja special ops operative from a time in the past that was much more violent. He has been in virtual prison for 250 years for being a rebel terrorist to the Protectorate. He is the last of the legendary Envoys, which were an underground splinter group of operatives specially trained by Quellcrist Falconer. They are a cross between Navy Seals and ninja warriors, that were also hardened in the virtual world, with an unmatched skillset.

The actors picked to play the roles were perfect. The fight scenes are frickin epic in every way. The tech and special effects for the world are brilliant. The exchange between the cop Ortega and Kovacs evolves and the actors and writers do a great job with this complex relationship. Joel Kinnaman as Kovacs and Martha Higareda as Ortega are wonderful in their roles and are completely believable.

I have to say that one of my favorite characters was the AI Hotel, The Raven and its virtual human owner in the form of Edgar Allen Poe, played by Chris Connor. I liked it in the book and I liked it even more in the series.

Laeta Kalogridis did an amazing job melding the book with her vision of this world, and it deviates in very cool ways from the original, expanding on some themes and going in-depth into the history of the main character, Takeshi Kovacs, who was originally born on Harlan’s World, which was settled by Japanese and Slavic people, hence his name. They also explore the Envoy training and more about Quell and her code and her cause, and her relationship with Kovacs. She added a new character that has a major impact on the entire story arc in surprising ways.

Laeta Kalogridis does a marvelous job with clarity on a very complex story, interweaving multiple story arcs together in a way that was actually easier to follow that in the original story, at least it all came together in a way that I found easier to keep up with. She does this with flashbacks and narrative by the main character, and by showing his inner dialogue as the embodiment Quell or his sister. There is a funny twist that she added to the story that flesh out Ortega’s family.

I think Laeta does a great job answering the controversies that people were worried about, whitewashing the main character and violence against women, by giving Kovacs a deep back story and by making the women of this story as bad-ass as any man. They were all strong and compelling. The violence is full service, and not focused on shaming women. There is a backdrop of prostitution which is fundamental to the storyline, but it is not overdone. The showrunner also tuned down the graphic violence of the torture a notch from the book, and it was a smart choice. But, understand that It is still crazy violent.

I really liked the concept of the world when I read the book and Laeta made it really come to life. I wasn’t ready to leave this world in the follow-on stories, but Morgan leaves this setting in the next books. I am curious to see where Laeta will go next. If maybe she stays with the mystery concept or follows the books.

This will stand as one of my favorite shows of all-time, despite the violence. If you like action or science fiction it should be right up your alley. But be prepared for a violent and graphic ride. Overall, a huge thumbs-up from me.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review Blade Runner 2049

Many people were expecting an opening closer to $45 -$55 million domestically, and it fell far short of that at $36 million. Did the length scare people off? It has received overwhelmingly good reviews from critiques and movie reviewers and fans alike. I don’t get it.

Go see this movie before it leaves the theater! You will thank me later. It is maybe the best sequel ever made. The cinematography alone will make the visit worthwhile. Roger Deakins will finally win the Oscar for this film.

It is long, longer than most any movie made these days and the editing is a throwback to another era, when we could actual spend a little time with a scene or a character to absorb what is going on. And with this film I wanted to spend that time. It isn’t edited like a James Bond movie, and I appreciated that. The movie is not pure homage, either. It is subtle. There is complexity to the characters and Gosling’s low-key approach make his emotional outbursts all the more powerful. It didn’t feel too long when I was watching it and I could have gone another hour easily. Director Denis Villeneuve gave each scene room to breathe and there is so much obvious care to stay true to the original vision of Ridley Scott. He takes all the things that worked and made the original so iconic and improved upon them. The city scape is dark and eerie and amazing. Meticulous details, like PAN AM, RCA, Cuisinart, and ATARI still being viable companies in this fictional alternate universe, and references to the Soviet Union with product advertisements, like Soviet Happy, which seems like an oxymoron, but fits perfectly with the ambience of city life in San Angeles. The technology is cool and convincing, and just different enough, and yet real enough to be completely plausible.

The soundtrack by Hans Zimmer is almost another character. It plays around with Vangelis’ original score and it works perfectly.

And the story stays with the same themes of what it means to be human and to have empathy are examined from every side and often turned inside out. It is a noir detective story that doesn’t just dabble in psychology; it goes all in. The heartbreaking love story between K, the protagonist played by Ryan Gosling, and Joi, brilliantly played by Ana De Armas, is layered and smart and nuanced. There are some emotionally powerful scenes between them, and it adds juice to other themes of injustice and bigotry.

I love that they brought back Detective Gaff. I just wish he still spoke in the city dialect. While being interviewed by K, Gaff’s origami skills are on display, as he creates a small sheep, a not so subtle nod to the seed book by Phillip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Writing this sentence makes me wonder if the character’s name is not another nod to Dick.

Watch the three short films before you go see this if you can, and you can, they are all over YouTube. They will explain what happened in the interim, between the two movies. They are not required to enjoy the film, but they will enrich the experience. The story is better in this sequel and has an actual character arc for K, a replicant cop that struggles with his own humanity. Dave Bautista is brilliant in the third short film and the movie, and I would love to see more of his character in this film. I’ve read other reviews that say the characters are thin. Perhaps the subtlety is missed by some, but I thought most of the main characters had depth.

I missed having Sean Young attached to this movie. She was amazing in the original, haunting and beautiful and perfect for the role. The character she played is a centerpiece in the story and I wish they could have found a way to include Young in the PR campaign. 

To be completely honest I didn’t love the ending. I won’t spoil it for you, and it seems unfair to even say that, because it earns the ending and it really works.

I want Ryan Gosling’s coat. It will be on my Christmas list. Heh.

There are so many cool parts to this film, from the set pieces, to the new technology, to the fight scenes. I rarely want to see a film more than once. I can count on one hand movies that make this list. It joins Star Wars: A New Hope, Twister, and the original Blade Runner. I will definitely watch this more than twice. This film is a masterpiece in every way and deserves to clean up at the Academy Awards. I am dumfounded why more people haven’t seen it, yet, but I implore you not to let the length of the film keep you away.

I hope this movie has long legs and earns out the $150 million plus price tag, because there is talk now that more movies could be made in this universe, and that can only be a good thing.

 Go see it and let me know what you think.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Book Review - Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati

Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A brilliantly written masterpiece in every way! If you like historical fiction Into the Wilderness is a hallmark example of how to do it right. As a young man, the stories by James Fenimore Cooper captured my imagination, The Leatherstocking Tales: Deerslayer, Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder and more. They are set during the French and Indian War, in and around the New York frontier. The writing style can be a bit hard to get into since it is quite old, but the stories are excellent. Into the Wilderness starts a series of books by Sara Donati that follow the offspring of Hawkeye from the original stories and carries us through the decades following the war, through the War of 1812 up to the Battle of New Orleans. Donati has changed the surname of the family but the rest is true to the originals. However, the prose is light years beyond the originals.

This first installment sets the tone and introduces the characters. A well-educated young woman from England, Elizabeth Middleton, has been brought by her father to the small wilderness village on the western edge of the New York frontier, where Hawkeye lives with his extended family of Mohican Indians. His son, Nathanial Bonner is a prominent figure in the region, known for his hunting skill, and his wilderness prowess, which he inherited from his father. To call it a romance story would not be wrong, but it would short shrift the complexity and nuance of this story. It weaves unconventional love with the fate of the Mohawk. This book has everything you could ask for in a story: brilliant prose, colorful characters, exciting setting, intriguing plot, wild adventure, love, sex, betrayal and so much more. It touched me emotionally as I got invested in all the characters. All of them are complex and well-developed and each has their own voice and motives. It is a wonderful example of a character-driven story.

The person behind the pseudonym, Rosina Lippi, is a college professor in her other life and the historical aspects of this book are extraordinarily well-researched. I learned things about slavery and how women and people of color were treated in the era that were never covered in my history lessons.

I’m so glad my wife turned me on to Sara Donati. I’ve read and loved every book in the series and look forward to her next series. There is even a short crossover with Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon for fans of that series.

I listened to this on audiobook and the reading by Kate Reading (Jennifer Mendenhall) is amazing. This story and the ones that follow fell right into her wheelhouse, with many different accents and languages. Kate can do Scots, French and English with equal appeal. With this series, she has risen to be my favorite audiobook reader.

The stories that follow this are all fantastic, but this one is special and will remain one of my favorite novels of all-time.

View all my reviews

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Passengers. It didn’t suck!

Let me say up front that there will be spoilerish things in this post.

You were warned.

When I saw the initial ads for PASSENGERS I got really excited. Two of my favorite actors in a science fiction drama. What more could I ask for?

Well, I could ask for a lot of things, actually, like good special effects, a good script, and a good finish. Opinions on movies vary about as much as anything on Earth. And I rarely agree with the professional critics, and man oh man were they being tough on this movie.

David Edelstein, a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, is the only critic I found (in a very small sampling) that said he actually liked the movie. But even he didn't like the ending. Most of the negativity was relayed to me from my son or from a few articles online. But there seemed to be a general consensus that the movie sucked.

Given all of the naysaying and negativity, I had modest expectations. I went in with a half-open mind, expecting the ending to suck.

I enjoyed the opening. I really like Chris Pratt, and his mechanic alone on a huge ship and looking at spending the rest of his life in the midst of five thousand sleeping people worked for me. His character felt believable and then the moment comes when, on the verge of suicide, he sees the Jennifer Lawrence character, and the movie takes a darker turn.

I’ve heard about the discussion that the premise of waking her up was a plot contrivance. Those people completely missed the entire point of the story. It was about a guy who has a choice to make, live forever alone, or ruin someone else’s future so that he doesn’t have to be. That is the WHOLE PLOT! Then others said it was tantamount to rape. PLEASE. Are you effing kidding me? Did you even watch the movie? Was it extremely creepy that he knew about her and had read all her published work? Yes. Clearly. But it felt plausible the way it was played. He had agonized for months about doing it, then they became friends and then lovers over the course of time. It wasn’t rushed, played about as well as it could be to show time without being pedantic. And it was Pratt and Lawrence. They were right for their parts, or at least made them seem like people. People put in an impossible situation.

Was the screenplay perfect? No, but it was plausible and some of the plot issues people discussed were lamp-shaded right up front. It was enjoyable seeing the two of them together.

Then comes the moment of truth when she finds out that he woke her on purpose, which he did not flinch from, and her reaction felt realistic.

Things start progressing when one of the crew also wakes up, because the ship is dying.
All this time I’m waiting for the suck. Surely something blaringly bad was going to happen. A horrible line or something really cliché or just plain awful plot. I kept waiting, and expecting.

They deal with the ship starting to have problems individually, because she was trying to avoid him. But, it turns out if he hadn’t woken her up everyone on board would have died. In the process of saving the ship both of them have hair-raising experiences where I was sure they were going to die. That had to be the part that ruined the movie. This happened multiple times for both characters. No, they live through one heroic thing after another. Still not sucking. In fact, it is really working for me. I am feeling the characters. I care. Then as the climax comes, I was starting to think it was going to have one of those cliché Romeo and Juliet endings, and that really would have sucked, because I am still waiting for it to suck.

But no. It has, to me, a satisfying conclusion. A happy ending. I like happy endings!

The final scene can be taken many ways, but I will say it was the simplest choice of endings. The screenwriter or director could have gone a multitude of different directions at the end, but chose the easiest closing. It was fine with me.

I walked out of the movie happy. It didn’t suck. It actually exceeded my expectations! So, I guess I owe all of the naysayers a thank you.

I have no idea why so many people were so hard on this movie. Okay, it won’t win an Oscar, and there were no truly emotional moments for me, ones that make something memorable, but I did enjoy it. Is it really too much to ask for a movie with a nice happy ending to be released at Christmas time? I don’t think so. All the Grinches out there need to get some perspective.