For All Mankind, A No Spoiler Review

Apple Plus released its third season of FOR ALL MANKIND this month. I have not viewed any of the 3rd season but I did watch all of 1 and 2 and loved them. What follows will be the short review and a longer review of season 1 and 2. If you’re convinced by the short review…start watching now. If you need a little more data, the longer review will give you a better idea of why this many hours of consumption might be worth your time.

The Short Review: 6 Reasons I Recommend FOR ALL MANKIND

  1. If you love alternative history narratives like The Man in the High Castle, you will appreciate this story
  2. If you love nostalgia settings and music, think Stranger Things, you will love being immersed in this story-world, which starts in the 1960s, but spans decades.
  3. Most of us appreciate great casting. FOR ALL MANKIND will not disappoint
  4. Top-notch production value, this includes the writing, the special effects and the acting
  5. Good pacing. A lot of action, drama and tension throughout
  6. A thoughtful story. A sprinkling of social commentary for our current time…some of that commentary I liked, some I felt was contrived, but the ideas are worthy of our attention

The Longer Review: (this review contains a couple of small spoilers)

The USSR and the US are in a space race in this alternative history, set during the cold war. The USSR has landed on the moon first, claimed it as territory, and has aims to build a military compound. This traumatizes the US as a nation. The first episode captures the feeling well as it feels like a gut-punch watching the Soviet flag raised on the moon and hearing the first words of the Russian Cosmonaut as he takes the first steps…The Walter Cronkite figure on the television news reports as follows:

The first man to set foot on the moon spoke just moments ago. “I take this step for my country, for my people, and for the Marxist-Leninist way of life. Knowing that today is but one small step on a journey that someday will take us all to the stars.”

FOR ALL MANKIND was created by Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek and Outlander), Matt Wolpert and Ben Nedivi. They take the “what if Russia had landed on the moon before we did” scenario and create a similar history to our own, but with differences that intrigue. The writers, I surmise, are progressive in their leanings because progressive values make their way into the script and into a historically white male dominated NASA long before reality. Sometimes, it feels heavy-handed, like the writers are checking the boxes of gender and racial diversity. However, the results do make for a delightfully diverse cast.

In episode 1, the audience meets Margo Madison (pictured above, played by Wrenn Schmidt) at the beginning point of her NASA career where she is the only woman in the male dominated control center. By season 2, she emerges as NASA’s head.

By the finale of season 2, women, a couple of non-binary individuals (though they keep their gender preferences a secret), African Americans and even a Mexican female immigrant who came over the border illegally as a child, are recruited by the NASA of FOR ALL MANKIND. And who can say it might not have been this way had the US felt the pressure of its failure to land first on the moon? Also, the Soviets promote the first female astronaut, shaming the US for its lack of representation.

Joel Kinnaman as Ed Baldwin

All the characters are well-drawn and most are courageous and longsuffering in various ways. Joel Kinnaman (The Killing, Hanna and Altered Carbon) plays Ed Baldwin, an astronaut with a big mouth who in a drunken state reveals to a reporter how NASA lost the space race because of an aversion to risk. He is punished for the reveal (taken off astronaut duty and given a desk job), but his words capture NASA’s very real dilemma. In order to stay equal to, or to get ahead of the USSR, risks will have to be taken. Many characters of significance will lose their lives to achieve the elusive prize of space dominance.

This is where the series gives commentary on current society as it poses the questions that plague our century…Who will dominate the future? US and free societies (in general) have dominated the global order since WWII, but that prize came at a great cost to many of our ancestors. We have inherited something hard fought, but that inheritance is being challenged and chipped away by those who see themselves as more deserving of dominance…and perhaps they are, but some moments in history, even national failures, have the capacity to motivate a new generation of warriors. That message shines through in FOR ALL MANKIND.

 

THE BATMAN, God and Justice. Warning: So Many Spoilers

Last night I had the privilege of watching Matt Reeve’s THE BATMAN. I enjoyed the film, though it was tough to watch, a tense experience. Graphic violence is implied more than shown, but evil and darkness are palpable in every scene. Not that the film isn’t a beautifully crafted story…it is, but the narrative, the special effects and dingy, but stylized setting of Gotham give evidence of evil in every frame. It’s pouring rain and night during most of THE BATMAN and of those scenes shot in the day, skies are gray.

Of course, this is a familiar setting for our comic book hero, the Dark Knight, but what is less familiar is the tone of utter hopelessness associated with that darkness. Violence plagues the city of Bruce Wayne. In the opening sequence, it is Halloween night and masked hoodlums run wild across Gotham causing mayhem, and at one point a gang of them threaten an Asian American man in a subway station, hitting too close to home for many of us. Halloween is also the night the Riddler commits his first murder.

 

The brutality of humanity is on display in THE BATMAN, begging the question: When is a society so corrupt, so evil, so far gone, there is no hope of renewal and it must be destroyed?

Batman versus the Riddler draw out this theme because in certain respects, both men are the same. Both are trying to root out corruption, Both are straining toward a just society. Batman roots out injustice by defending the good guys and working within the system. Though outside the formal police force, his link to Lt. Gordon cannot be denied, nor can anyone doubt his insider status as Bruce Wayne, the orphaned son of a beloved city father. The Riddler however, also an orphan, stands on the outside. He roots out evil by exposing it, by punishing via execution and making a public example of those who have betrayed justice. The Riddler’s first murder is the mayor of the city and subsequently other politicians and law enforcement, those caretakers of Gotham who have made their beds with the mob. Because of these assassinations and the attention he draws to corruption, Batman along with the audience are forced to focus on what is a massively broken system at the highest levels of the city.

The audience wonders whether ANY politicians or police are clean in Gotham, and can such evil be undone when the gatekeepers of justice have become those who perpetrate injustice? The Riddler sees no way out but total destruction.

On the narrative journey, Batman faces truths about his own father. The idealism with which he has viewed his parentage is shattered, evoking for me the psalmist’s words from Psalm 14, text lifted by the Apostle Paul and placed in his letter to the Romans.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
    They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
    there is none who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
    to see if there are any who understand,
    who seek after God.

They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
    there is none who does good,
    not even one.

Why do I include this? I think Reeves is trying to make a theological point. I bend toward theological rather than philosophical because the powerful reality (loaded imagery) at the end of the film is a flood…as in Noah and the Biblical account of the destruction of evil.

In THE BATMAN, the Riddler has set up bombs that line the seawall on Gotham’s perimeter. The Riddler has determined that Gotham is irredeemable. Gotham must die, drown or be cleansed of its evil if the water imagery is to be understood. Only then will it be reborn. A flood to destroy evil? This is as old a tale as humanity, understood within Judaism, Islam and Christianity as that time in the past when society was so broken, nearly every living thing had to be destroyed in order for evil to be rooted out. The Riddler sets himself up as God and judge. He determines that Gotham is a total loss. Total destruction is the ONLY remedy.

Batman represents another side of this argument. Don’t miss the fact that Selina (the Catwoman character wonderfully portrayed by Zöe Kravitz), tries to coax Batman to remove himself permanently from Gotham. I can’t recall her final words to Batman precisely, but they were something like…staying here and trying to save Gotham will kill you.

That comment is an homage to a redemptive sacrifice and Batman as Christ figure…sort of…The audience already knows how much life has been sapped out of the young Bruce Wayne because of his mission to avenge his father but also to help Gotham. Batman’s motives are often mixed here. Interestingly, this Batman, the Reeves’ Batman grows. He realizes that vengeance is not the full story of how he must respond to evil. To truly honor his dead father and mother, he must do more. He must minister good to the people of Gotham. Two images of Batman in the final scenes make my point. One is him diving into the abyss, lighting his flare and leading innocent people by hand, out of the flood, out of judgment. The other is him helping a wounded girl on a stretcher and holding her hand as she seeks his assurance and is flown away to safety, to healing. Why the hand? There is something about connection to humanity with the touch, a touch that is gentle, not violent.

 

 

The Russia Ukrainian War is raging as I write. Yesterday, Russian planes targeted a bomb shelter in Mariupol, a place holding hundreds of children and women. On the ground on either side of this structure, the Ukrainians had written in Russian the words “children” in very large script, large enough to see from the air. How do we as a society grapple with such evil and the destruction of so many innocents? (The number of dead is still undetermined…I will correct this when the fog of war has dissipated.)

So, I end with this image, Jesus of Sinai, Pantocrator, an icon from the the 6th century. For Christians of the 6th century, most of whom were illiterate, icons like this were essential to their faith because embedded within each icon are theological truths. For them, looking at an icon was like reading a holy text. With Jesus of Sinai, notice the weird lighting on his face, one darker side and one side lighter. That is intentional. Why? The post-modern viewer might not discern what his face represents but to early Christians, they represent two sides of the creator as God looks out over humanity. If you put up your hand and cover one side of the Messiah’s face, you see a bright and compassionate mouth and eye. When you cover the other side, you see a darker eye, an angry glare. The iconographer and the theologians of that time understood that both are legitimate sides of God and both are legitimate responses to a broken humanity. The story of God as laid out in the Bible is of God grappling daily with a society gone wrong. On one hand, he is merciful and forgiving, on the other, he is vengeful and ready to punish. Both are legitimate responses to the problem of evil. Current people of faith struggle with that darker view of God but might do well to ponder it. Noah and the flood tell its story as do Jesus and the cross. And here we see the author of the new Batman series exploring both reactions to evil, but favoring mercy in the end.

We live in a complicated world, but some truths/questions find their way into our art, even if that art is embodied by a comic book character.

Kudos to Reeves for attempting something really big in his portrayal of THE BATMAN.

THE SILENT SEA, More Brilliance From the Korean Film Industry, A No-Spoiler Review of the Netflix Miniseries

First, the Short Review

6 Reasons I Recommend THE SILENT SEA

  1. Beautiful production overall, including visuals that underlie the creepy vibe 
  2. Featured a number of my favorite Korean actors, a few you might recognize if Squid Game was on your watch list this past year
  3. Plenty tension and surprises/frights
  4. A number of science fiction and haunted house tropes embedded in the story and various characters (see more in longer review)
  5. The relationships and particularly, the relationship to authority feel authentically Korean. (also, see longer review)
  6. You know I love the miniseries genre, 1-hour installments of great storytelling that comes to a conclusion without an agonizing cliffhanger

 

Bae Doona as Dr. Song

Longer Review

SILENT SEA is the story about a mission to the moon to find water. I rate this series PG-13. No sexual content in this production, but there are dead bodies, and some gore. 

The first episode quickly gives the viewer the high stakes for this mission. Drought has plagued the Earth. Water is the resource most valuable and due to its scarcity, the planet has become a wasteland. Water is rationed to such a degree, many have suffered physically, billions have died. The wealthy nations have gone into space to find a water source. Most abandoned the idea of finding water on the moon after searching, but the South Korean government kept snooping. There has been a top-secret program at a large moon station that was believed to have borne fruit, but suddenly…the experiment falters. Everyone dies all at once on the moon station. The earthbound directors, including Heo Sung-tae (pictured near end of review) initiate another mission to go to the station and investigate the truth, but secrets pulse underneath the surface of this mission and become one aspect of tension in the story. The authorities hold their cards close and the military and science leaders do not push back, though they suspect something fishy. This may or may not be an aspect of Korean-specific deference to authority, but the screenwriter exploits what I understand as deference in a way that serves the story. Also, this is where the nuanced acting plays such a powerful role in the unfolding of the narrative. The audience can see in the face of Bae Doona, the slight suggestion of twitch, a blink, a stern jaw…we see it, but barely and it helps us know that she understands that she is being deceived. Yet, in most of the outward behavior, she acts the true soldier. Doona is great at this nuanced acting, but she’s just one, among a number of these performers, who pull off such nuance.  In my mind, THE SILENT SEA showcases superb writing and better acting than Squid Game. Click for a review of Squid Game

 

Gong Yoo as Captain Han

Once the mission lands on the moon, what unfolds reminded me of Ridley Scott’s Alien, in all the best ways. Yes, there will be corpses, tunnels, darkness, betrayals, a terrible and contagious sickness, but there will be one character who keeps her eyes on the prize. Dr. Song (Bae Doona) is intent on discovering the truth. In part, she seeks the truth because her sister is one of the corpses and the holder of many of the secrets. Doona as Dr. Song, pictured above, is a female lead in the Korean zombie series, Kingdom. To see my review of Kingdom, click here

The somber team after crash landing on the moon

I beat this drum a lot but I do feel that Netflix streaming continues to find the best international productions and when it comes to science fiction, the Korean film/media community is putting out a lot of great product. Produced by Jung Woo-sung, directed by Choi Hang-Yong, who deftly handles the brilliant storytelling of screenwriter, Eun-Kyoi Park. Honestly, I think I could teach a five-hour course on writing with this series, moving scene by scene through the screenplay, in terms of a classic sci-fi thriller. Fun fact, this story (as did Scott’s Alien), closely follows the haunted house template. That means there are a few predictable tropes. The audience knows that the mission is doomed (at least the mission as it was originally conceived) as one by one, the team gets whittled down. Who will remain in the end…that is what the audience wonders. Regarding the various characters, the majority of them hold their own, each having his/her own arc, including the wise-cracking military scrub who just wants to go home…a longing the audience suspects will not be realized.

Heo Sung-tae as Kim Jae-sun

I highly recommend. THE SILENT SEA, and suspect that Netflix now has me pegged in its algorithm as a person who loves Korean-produced thrillers/sci-fi. I might need to give the Koreans their own category on my site. The product is so good, I can’t stop watching and when I watch, I always review. 

STATION ELEVEN, A No-Spoiler Review

Himesh Patel as Jeeven

Last week, a few members of my family watched all ten episodes of STATION ELEVEN. This HBO Max miniseries is based on a novel by Canadian author, Emily St. John Mandel. 

As a dystopian story, this series pleased all of us, different generations and genders. I rate it PG or PG13. The topic is challenging, but the people in STATION ELEVEN are not vile or overly violent…not much gore or explicit sexual content to worry parents…however, the subject matter is sophisticated, a web of relationships.

First, My Short Review: 6 Reasons I recommend STATION ELEVEN

  1. The storyteller uses a familiar trope, a world destroyed by a deadly and contagious flu, but delivers an unexpected cast of characters, as well as a post apocalyptic vision of hope
  2. The angle on “life-after-the-fall-of-civilization” captures something both historic and literary in how human beings find meaning in the broken world they inhabit
  3. The characters shine and fail, change and surprise
  4. A fun cast as ethnically diverse as it comes, and without stereotyping
  5. The city of Chicago or the wilds around Lake Michigan are featured in just about every episode…and that felt refreshing. Granted, I now live in the Upper Midwest, but new settings other than NY and LA are a welcome television treat
  6. STATION ELEVEN is self contained as a miniseries. Watch all 10 episodes and you have a complete experience…I like that.

Mackenzie Davis as Adult Kirsten

The Longer Review

STATION ELEVEN, the miniseries, is based on a novel I have not read. One scifi-reader friend told me he found that novel difficult to “get into” as a book. He felt impatient with it, complaining how it took too long to get to the dystopian world scenario. He was bored by all of the setup and character development that took place before the prime action. That feedback makes me curious to read the novel and then analyze how Peter Sommerville’s screenplay adaptation made adjustments because I did not feel this while watching STATION ELEVEN. The first episode features the unraveling of the world and the tensions inherent in societal breakdown. It focuses on two main characters: Kirsten and Jeeven, a young actress and the man who winds up becoming her caretaker. The subsequent episodes put forward backstory that help build the world and the complex web of relationships. But…I cannot say that the initial story in episode 1 bored me in any way. 

Following a traumatic event at a Chicago theater performance of King Lear, Jeeven (an audience member at the theater) is warned by his sister, a doctor on the front lines of the flu pandemic, to get to a market, buy food and make his way to their brother’s high rise apartment. Kirsten, who is a young actress in the play, tags along with him. Jeeven tries to take her home but is unable to locate her parents, so he takes her with him to a market and buys six grocery carts full of food. Together, they push those carts to Frank’s apartment complex, load them on the utility elevator and end up safe with Frank (for a while) as the rest of society crumbles around them. Technology fails, little by little, including their electricity. There is little contact with the outside world. Kirsten entertains herself by disappearing into the world of a graphic novel called Station Eleven. She begins to write a play based on the novel…a book written by Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler) the ex-wife of Kirsten’s acting mentor, Arthur Leander (played by Gael García Bernal). Leander is a key character in the threads of this story, despite the fact that he is one who collapses and dies on stage while playing Lear in the first minutes of the series.

Jeeven, Frank and Kirsten do not fall to the flu. They stay safe and relatively well-fed in the apartment despite freezing temperatures. However, their haven doesn’t last forever and eventually, the author exploits this trope; the survivors must leave their haven and brave the outside world.

Matilda Lawler plays the Young Kirsten

In this next section of the story, Kirsten finds her way to a shakespearean acting troupe. They become her new family. The drama troupe travels around Lake Michigan in the warmer months, performing among other plays, Hamlet. This is one of the surprising twists in the post-pandemic dystopia, to put forward the idea that the arts will continue and be celebrated by many despite how raw life has become for survivors. You will have to watch to find out what happens to Jeeven and Frank. The two brothers are wonderful characters…memorable and complicated.

There is another storyline that enters the series at this point, still somewhat connected relationally and geographically. It’s a surprise, but not an unwelcome one and adds to much of the backstory. Still, the audience does not know how this new storyline will connect to Kirsten’s. It does and it did not disappoint me.

What is woven through STATION ELEVEN is how the connective tissue of our friendships and relationships emerge even in a time of trauma and loss. The storyteller takes us to a place that might seem contrived, yet captures a potential truth, reminding the audience that connections matter and that the truths underlying relationships, like those put on the stage by William Shakespeare, are universal and relevant (especially relevant) to the human experience post pandemic. 

 

 

ALL SYSTEMS RED, by Martha Wells, A No-Spoiler Review of the first novella in the Murderbot Diaries Series

A novella. Hey, what’s that? Well…it’s shorter than a novel. And…as with all printed matter, it’s a pleasure to read when it’s entertaining and well written.

ALL SYSTEMS RED is a story, entertaining and well-written, that one can read in about 4 hours. Rated PG-13 for adult themes. I read this novella on a flight from Minneapolis to Seattle. I flew on Delta and none of the airline’s tv/film options seemed very thrilling to me. I often try to see HBO or Showtime options when on a flight because I don’t subscribe to either of those services in real life. Thank goodness I had taken this book with me, hardback, but thin, lightweight and easy to pack because it’s only 127 pages.

And now, for my Short, No-Spoiler Review

I highly recommend ALL SYSTEMS RED for these 5 reasons.

  1. Original voice…the narrator has the appeal of an innocent, he/she is like a child, yet holds the capacity to narrate a futuristic society inhabited by humans and AI living and working together
  2. Genre bending…science fiction merged with mystery…in other words, a page-turner
  3. Thought-provoking ideas about AI and how future humans might understand morality/humanity in regards to AI
  4. Interesting world-building and a great set-up for subsequent stories
  5. ALL SYSTEMS RED would make a great audiobook. See the longer review for more

Longer Review:

Martha Wells has created a fascinating universe of humanity working and living off Earth, in space, in places that can only be reached via light-speed travel. She doesn’t fixate on the physics of the issue (regarding traveling across vast distances) but focuses on the gritty work life of humans and their bots. In the author’s futuristic world, full AI exist as sex workers and security units (SecUnits) and other helps in life. Also, some humans adopt robotic parts (augmented humans). So, there is a mix of how humans have integrated with tech and within the story world, there is little “judgment” about these realities.

While this is all true, the AI mind that narrates this story has a judgment about itself and humans. The view is not completely skewed toward disgust for humans, though there is some leaning in this regard. Granted, I’ve only read the first 1.5 novellas. But what works in the narrative is that Wells has put forward a more dispassionate, yet charming view of the world the way it is. I highly recommend these novellas as entertainment and am slowly discovering how they speak into deeper moral questions around humanity’s race toward the future, a future in which robots and artificial intelligence will be embedded.

Regarding the narrator. The voice is absolutely charming. I did not listen to the book, but can imagine the voice. This book would be a pleasure to listen to.

To buy the first book, click on All Systems Red

Four of the series in hardback can be bought together. Click on Murderbot Diaries

For the least expensive version to try out novella #1, click on Kindle version: All Systems Red

For the audio version of novella #1, click on Audio of All Systems Red

Space Sweepers, A No Spoiler Review

What to expect when watching SPACE SWEEPERS…Great storytelling, compelling characters and a science fiction setting that evokes the best of a well-produced space opera. This film is free on Netflix. I rate it PG-13 for some violence, but it’s a bit like Star Wars type violence. Not a lot of blood, but definitely carnage.

5 Reason to Watch Space Sweepers, The Short Review

  1. characters, they’re funny, quirky and smart…They reminded me of many beloved STAR WARS characters
  2. Special effects, on par with cinematic space opera’s like Star Wars
  3. Family friendly, nothing offensive for parents trying to figure out what to show their kids
  4. Excellent space battles
  5. An ultimate choice for the main character(s) that packs an emotional punch

The Longer Review

This film assumes a space opera vibe and so reminded me of Star Wars, yet felt original. The pacing of this screenplay gave exactly the right amount of info while embedding a few nuggets that made me go back a rewatch portions. That was rewarding and I loved the heartbeat of the story’s core…the transformation of a rogue…think of Han Solo and his journey.

Not that this story only bleeds a happy ending. There is a tragic trade that takes place, a brutal choice for the main character. However, the overall adventure ranked above my expectations. When I’m streaming something online like this, I’m not expecting brilliance, but when it’s Korean made, I am coming to expect top-notch production. The Korean film industry is doing something right by focusing on great storytelling and upping the game at every turn when it comes to investing in the visual feast. SPACE SWEEPERS is no exception.

To note: The villain in SPACE SWEEPERS reminded me (visually) of Jack Dorsey, former Twitter CEO, former CEO as of today, November 30, 2021. I wonder if the film maker has/had a bone to pick with Twitter.

I will continue to seek out, watch and review Korean-produced scifi/horror/speculative fiction because in the last 2 years or more, the flow of great content is undeniable. For more Korean-productions that I’ve reviewed, see:

KINGDOM, A Review of a Korean-Made Masterpiece

SQUID GAME, A Review without Spoilers

TRAIN TO BUSAN, A No Spoiler Review

 

ONE SECOND AFTER, A No-Spoiler Review of the Novel, by William R. Forstchen

My son handed me this paperback during the pandemic. Here, Mom. I think you’d like this book. I read at night before bed. This book gave me nightmares.

And…I did like this novel, mostly. Here are 5 Reason I recommend ONE SECOND AFTER

  1. Decent story-telling and an interesting unique setting
  2. A thoughtful and action-oriented main character, mostly well-written, though the story is so male-centric, I cringed here and there
  3. A frightening premise that a few “experts” have warned is a real-world possibility
  4. Page-turning tension
  5. This book caused me to reflect on how our quality of life/health depends on meds

To buy this novel, click on One Second After

And now for my longer review…

ONE SECOND AFTER, rated PG for some violence, is the story of a mountain community outside of Asheville, North Carolina post EMP attack. In this story, multiple electromagnetic pulse weapons are discharged in the atmosphere above the US, frying all electronics/microchips, etc. Thousands of planes crash, including Air Force 1, killing the president and his entourage…cars stop working (except for the older ones that have no electronic parts) and all modern forms of communication break down, including radio. Add to that no computers, no cell coverage, no refrigeration, no transportation, no heat or cooling, and you put most of the population on a quick path to discomfort, starvation, disease and lawlessness. This story is The Walking Dead, but without the zombies (unless you put desperate people willing to eat human flesh to survive in the same category as zombies).

I did watch most of the The Walking Dead and it became clear after a few seasons that the zombies were not the ones keeping humanity from becoming civilized again, it was regular “alive” people with education and supposed morality who were often the worst perpetrators of horrors. This novel follows the same vein.

The characters I found most interesting were those who tried to lead the group with some semblance of morality and decency. Sometimes, those characters felt a little contrived, but most of the time, I believed they could exist in the real world and appreciated how they were tempted regularly to abandon the Constitution, rights, and a sense of justice. Running a mini-dictatorship made more sense than all the work involved in self-governing, yet they persisted.

One poignant reality in the novel world is that because all trade has come to a standstill, there are no new meds to “take care of” human problems. Everything from a small cut, to heart disease, rotting teeth and diabetes have the potential to be a death sentence. Eventually, mental health is also a part of the discussion when the town elders realize that they might have to imprison or restrain those who might endure psychotic breaks from reality. So many people die in this story, but most die from either starvation or from lack of medicine and that was an interesting reality to ponder.

SQUID GAME, A Review without Spoilers

Netflix has done it again. It has found another international gem, this one created by South Korean writer/director, Hwang Dong-hyuk.

I had barely heard of SQUID GAME until about a week ago, but now the buzz is everywhere. If you’re like me, you’re wondering…Why all the hype about this Korean dystopian series?

So, last night, I watched the 1st of the 9 episodes and love what is being set up. This episode features a giant robotic girl that rules over a game of Red Light Green Light, also the episode’s title.

Here’s what I can say about the opening.

  1. An introduction to a variety of well-drawn characters
  2. Especially, the main character, Seong Gi-hun played by Lee Jung-Jae, is a sympathetic hero, a financially desperate divorcee with a gambling problem living with his mother
  3. The story draws together hundreds of below average types or “losers” to compete with one another for an extraordinary financial prize. (Losers is the word used by the creator and he makes great pains to show the audience his characters’ failings).
  4. A creepy robot child with roving eyes that shoot bullets. Tis the stuff of nightmares.

Seong as a child

SQUID GAMES would probably receive a PG-13 or maybe even an R rating for violence. I am watching the dubbed version. The dubbing hasn’t bothered me.

There is a dystopian flavor to the story and the world, but its reality is not so hard to believe. What I mean by that is that the game world is not fantastical, nor is it futuristic. This game could be happening today on an island somewhere. The audience does get a shot of the island in episode 1, as well as the back of the billionaire maniacal overlord, who watches via screen as the contestants compete and try to stay alive.

Seong, living with Mom

Creator, Hwang, worked for ten years to get SQUID GAME made. The traditional studios wouldn’t touch it, but alternative streaming is proving again, that fresh stories are out there, often outside the Hollywood bubble. Cheers to Netflix in particular for curating and promoting dramas and comedies we would never otherwise see.

Click on the links below for more of my reviews of “outside the Hollywood bubble” stories that deliver. The first two are also Korean-made

 

 

KINGDOM, A Review of a Korean-Made Masterpiece

TRAIN TO BUSAN, A No Spoiler Review

Review of THE RAIN, Season 1

Don’t Miss the German-made Television Series, DARK. My No Spoiler Review

 

 

 

 

WIDOWLAND A No Spoiler Review of the Novel

Five Reasons I recommend  WIDOWLAND, by C.J. Carey

  1. Excellent pacing and page-turning tension
  2. A female hero who comes into her agency in a believable way
  3. Legit world-building of a bleak UK governed by Nazis
  4. The writing around the sexual relationships feels vital and true (more on this in the longer review)
  5. Given the consistent point of view and straightforward timeline, I’m guessing this would make a great audiobook

To purchase WIDOWLAND, click here

The Longer Review…

To control the past, they edited history. To control the future, they edited literature. 

WIDOWLAND is an alternative history novel, set in London, 1953. This story would probably carry a PG-13 rating because of the sexual relationships although none of the sex scenes were explicit. For this reason, I wavered on the rating. Overall, the main sex scene was tastefully, even beautifully handled in terms of the emotional weight it carries within the story.

In this alternative history, Germany has invaded the UK and Hitler rules over it as a protectorate. The coronation of Edward the VIII (Queen Elizabeth’s uncle) and the American divorcee, Queen Wallis, is taking place soon. Significant because The Leader, Hitler himself will descend on London for the celebration. The soon-to-be King and Queen of England are collaborators with the Nazis, based on an actual historical and private meeting that took place between the Edward and Hitler at the Berghof in 1937.  (No record of the meeting has survived).

The story, told in close third person by the main character, Rose Ransom, opens with a description of London preparing for the coronation. Through Rose’s eyes, the world unfolds. The reader quickly understands, that although Rose holds little power in the system, she sits at the top of the subjugated population as a Geli. She is young and her view of reality is sometimes naive and not always reliable, but the discoveries she makes along the way are a part of how Carey maintains tension in the story. The reader senses the danger she does not.

This is a story about a woman and about women living under Nazi occupation. Carey could have gone overboard painting the world, but deftly focuses the reader’s attention on the kind of oppression that exists in England for the vulnerable. The elderly, women and widows in particular, suffer under the yoke of the Nazis. She highlights the caste system which categorizes the “utility” of women. In this early excerpt, the reader begins to understand Carey’s 1953 London.

Members of the first and elite caste were popularly called Gelis after the woman most loved by the Leader, his niece Geli. Klaras–after the Leader’s mother–were fertile women who had produced, ideally, four or more children. Lenis were professional women, such as office workers and actresses, after Leni Riefenstahl, the regime’s chief film director. Paulas, names after the Leader’s sister, were in the caring professions, teachers and nurses, whereas Magdas were lowly shop and factory employees and Gretls did the grunt work as kitchen and domestic staff. There was a range of other designations–for nuns, disabled mothers and midwives–but right at the bottom of the hierarchy came the category called Friedas. It was a diminutive of the nickname Friedhöfefrauen–cemetary women. These were the widows and spinsters of over fifty who had no children, no reproductive purpose, and who did not serve a man. 

There was nothing lower than that. 

Rose first runs into trouble when the Cultural Commissioner of the UK Protectorate asks that she help him solve a mystery. She is to venture into Widowland and spy on a group of Friedas. An uprising is bubbling to the surface in London right as Hitler is set to arrive. These disempowered women are the suspected Nazi resisters. The clock is ticking and Rose’s big boss makes known to her that more than just her job is on the line if she fails.

What unfolds is a story of discovery for Rose and choices that will impact many.

One comment about the sexual relationships in this novel. The sex is not explicit. There is an implied disorder to the relationship between Rose and her lover, who is twenty-five years her senior. The power dynamics and how German men use power to procure beautiful young women is a part of the world these characters inhabit and is taken for granted in the novel world. However, the author adds a scene that is emblematic of sex within a loving relationship. The revelation that comes to Rose and the writing around this encounter are so poignant and beautiful, I will remember this passage of writing for a long time.

THE HOBBIT, Chapter 1…A Study on Craft

The following is a post about the craft of storytelling. Posts like this are somewhat unusual for me on my author website. Most of time I am reviewing science fiction for the average consumer, not just for the writer. In this post, I am poking my nose into craft. I don’t want to just taste the stew…I want to know how it is made. This post is for the writer and beware…contains spoilers.

This is my second installment on first chapters. A few days ago, I analyzed chapter 1 of DUNE. To read that post, click here. Today, I analyze chapter 1 of THE HOBBIT.

This first chapter

–introduces the reader to the world and the main characters

–evokes reader empathy for Bilbo by showing Bilbo’s inner conflict

–presents the choice that will change Bilbo’s life forever

–introduces the reader to the fantastical possibilities that lie ahead, but also the dangers

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

Thus begins THE HOBBIT, by J.R.R. Tolkien, but really this sentence begins the longer saga that so many have come to know and love, THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Notice what it accomplishes.

  1. Sentence #1 introduces a new creature, the hobbit. This creature will inhabit the long saga. He will be the unlikely hero (later his nephew, Frodo will be our hero). The audience will come to admire, adore and identify with Bilbo and Frodo.
  2. This sentence begins to describe the culture of hobbits. They are earthy, living in holes, but absolutely committed to cleanliness and comfort. These creatures are civilized…they just happen to like holes as their place of abode.
  3. In this first sentence, Tolkien begins to evoke our empathy for Bilbo, who will soon trade in his life of comfort for a wild and magical adventure.

Paragraph #2 of THE HOBBIT describes Bilbo’s home in detail, which will be the place where all the action takes place in the remainder of the chapter, including the entertaining of a wizard and a large group of dwarves, but even more than that, this home represents the comfortable life of a gentleman. Later in the story, Bilbo often thinks of home (as does Frodo in the LOtR saga) as a place of rest, comfort and peace. It is a place to return to.

Paragraph #3 and #4 describe Bilbo’s ancestry, posing the curious conflict he bears within himself. There is a debate between the Baggins and the Took within Bilbo. The Took side of his family (Bilbo’s mother’s side) is prone to adventure and risk-taking. The Baggins side of the family (Bilbo’s father’s side) is conservative and would reject adventure and any controversy at all. The reader doesn’t have to wonder for very long which side will win out. Without that Tookish spirit, Bilbo might never have walked away from his comfortable hobbit hole.

Both impulses inhabit Bilbo and most readers can relate. It might be said that opposing impulses, such as what Bilbo experiences, are a part of every person. Thus, Tolkien evokes our empathy for Bilbo in chapter 1. Much as Bilbo leaves the comfort of his hobbit hole to journey with the dwarves, the reader leaves his/her comfort to embark with them in the story world.

Now for the rest of chapter 1: Bilbo, because of his value of hospitality, entertains Gandalf (a wizard who believes Bilbo will be a key member of the adventure) and a group of dwarves who demand food, drink, then compel him to travel with them to a place where a dragon guards a great treasure. The adventure, as it is presented, is magnificent, romantic and promises great wealth. Bilbo is taken in, though it is touch and go for a while. Despite his willingness to leave his home, it could be said the hobbit is in a way bewitched by the romantic notion of a grand adventure.

As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.

Yet, Thorin, the lead dwarf, does not mince words about the dangers they might face.

We shall soon before the break of day start on our long journey, a journey from which some of us, or perhaps all of us (except our friend and counsellor, the ingenious wizard Gandalf) may never return. It is a solemn moment.

What is Bilbo’s reaction to this sobering news?

Poor Bilbo couldn’t bear it any longer. At may never return he began to feel a shriek coming up inside, and very soon it burst out like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel. All the dwarves sprang up, knocking over the table. 

The stage has been set. The semi-cowardly and ill-prepared Bilbo Baggins will reluctantly leave his comfortable hobbit hole and venture with these new friends, the dwarves and Gandalf. When he finally returns, he will be completely changed and so will Middle Earth.

For over the misty mountains cold

To dungeons deep and caverns old

We must away ere break of day

To find our long-forgotten gold.

Bilbo went to sleep with that in his ears, and it gave him very uncomfortable dreams. It was long after the break of day when he woke up.

This stanza, when one reflects on THE HOBBIT and THE LORD of the RINGS speaks of long-forgotten gold. The dwarves believe this to be part of their hoard, that which is guarded by the dragon, Smaug. The reader understands a deeper meaning. Long-forgotten gold is the one ring to rule them all, found by Bilbo…later passed on to Frodo, becoming the impetus for the Lord of the Rings Saga.

The reader doesn’t understand at this point the profundity of the dwarves’ song, but it is there, imbedded in that first chapter of the very first book.