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

 

 

 

 

FOUNDATION, A No Spoiler Reveiw of the first 2 Episodes

Science fiction fans were delivered a treat over the weekend. Asimov’s Foundation Series is finally consumable via screen, television streaming to be precise. Writers/Creators, David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, 2005) and Josh Friedman (Terminator: Dark Fate, 2019) have teamed up to attempt what many had believed unthinkable.

Why unthinkable? The Foundation Series, which began as a few short stories, but over the course of Asimov’s life, evolved into something much more vast, portraying the slow downward spiral of an empire in a sprawling universe over many centuries.

Apple, having bought the rights to the Foundation Series in 2019, invested a large sum to make this happen. The story is definitely being tweaked by Goyer and Friedman, but I am appreciating the adjustments because the Foundation Series novels did not appeal to me. Too many supposedly smart dudes sitting in rooms and talking at one another. Too many ideas delivered in a way that felt preachy to me, therefore dull. Characters that felt interchangeable and almost zero females.

But how about the series? So far I am loving what is evolving on screen. If you’re a scifi fan, here’s why I think it’s worth watching.

  1. The core of Asimov’s ideas are all there, the story well told so far
  2. The production design, the sets and costumes are fabulous
  3. The acting has been surprisingly good
  4. The screenwriters have changed some of the male characters to female, including Gaal Dornick, the lead character in these first 2 episodes. Dornick, pictured below, is played by Spanish actor, Lou Llobell.

If you’re one of those people who subscribed to Apple Plus because of Ted Lasso, FOUNDATION might just convince you to stay a little longer. I rate this production PG-13 for some violence and sexual content.

The third episode drops this Friday, October 1st.

 

 

KINGDOM, A Review of a Korean-Made Masterpiece

As I have said before and hope to repeat for many years to come, NETFLIX is taking the cake when it comes to combing through international productions and finding top-notch stories. 

KINGDOM is brilliant.

Rated R for violence. No sexually explicit content at all. Not even a kiss. And yes, this is a zombie story, but with a twist, which I’ll explain in my longer review. However, be prepared for gore. I watched 2 seasons, but apparently a 3rd is being made to be released in early 2021.

First, the short review…

6 Reasons I Recommend KINGDOM

  1. Game of Thrones meets the Walking Dead. If the two stories got together and had a child, KINGDOM would be that child.
  2. Gorgeous costumes, especially the hats
  3. Palace intrigue galore
  4. Amazing performances by talented actors many of us have never seen
  5. A refreshingly different setting and world
  6. Lots of “scare” moments where you jump out of your seat. These filmmakers know the tropes and use them well.

Now, for the longer review…

The story is based loosely on the Manga series, The Kingdom of the Gods by Kim Eun-hee and Yang Kyung-il. The story for television was written by Kim Eun-hee, directed by Kim Seong-hun.

Set in late 16th century Korea (The Joseon Period), Crown Prince Lee Chang, our protagonist, discovers a plot to unseat him. His father is ill and dying and the Queen Consort (not the Prince’s mother) is pregnant with a son…potentially. She and her father are angling for this newborn to take the throne. However, the King must not die from his illness before this child is born, so the the palace doctors are asked to keep him alive at all costs. There is an herb, called the resurrection plant, that must be administered to him in a particular way at death. From this herb, the brain comes back to life, but the creature that resides in the body now has an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Thus, the zombie angle.

The audience is introduced to this creature, the King in the first episode, so no spoilers here. The King is not only a zombie ready to devour any attendant who comes his way, he is being controlled, in chains, by the Queen’s family. She bans the Crowned Prince from seeing his father and although he suspects the King is dead, he cannot prove it. Knowing his life is in danger without his father’s protection, the Crowned Prince flees and while he goes into hiding, the zombie plague is carried to a small village through a body in a coffin, whose death was caused by the King creature.

The Queen Consort

As the Zombie plague spreads and begins to ravage the region, the Prince comes into his own, fighting to protect his people, but this is a complicated two-front war. The Prince is being chased by his step mother’s clan while fighting the zombie masses. While on the countryside, he slowly unravels the mystery surrounding the condition of his father and does eventually come back to the palace, face to face with the creature. I say no more, lest I spoil…

A few of the secondary characters that emerge are wonderful and as compelling as the Prince and the Queen, including the Prince’s bodyguard, a nurse who escapes the scene of the first zombie outbreak, a perfect villain in the Father of the Queen (although the Queen gives him a run for his money on that score), and a rogue hunter who eventually aligns himself with the Prince.

I loved the writing, all the dialogue is perfect and no scene is wasted. KINGDOM often reminded of Shakespeare, Hamlet in particular…That is how well put together these characters are and the stage is…well, many lovely locations in South Korea.

I cannot recommend this series highly enough. If you do watch it, drop me a line and let me know what you thought of it.

To watch the official trailer, click KINGDOM trailer

HANNA, A Review of Amazon Prime’s TV Series

The second season of HANNA was released July 3 of this year, the dreaded year of Covid, and since all of us are streaming our content each night/day/allday/allnight (until recently, there have been no sports to watch and no air-conditioned movie theaters in which to view the latest fun film)…However, most of us are still suckers for a well-crafted drama. The release of Hanna’s second season by Amazon Prime found me in just the right place for a conspiracy-laden story, inhabited by teens.

I rate this series R, mostly for its violence. HANNA, created and written by David Farr, also portrays a disturbing picture of childhood, so if you have young children/teens who want to watch, you may want to preview this before allowing them to enter into the violent world of Hanna. Other than that, I highly recommend this series. It skirts the line that is science fiction and dystopian.

Short Review of HANNA. 6 Reasons You Want to Watch…

  1. Well written story and well-crafted characters
  2. Outstanding performances by Joel Kinnaman, Mireille Enos (they’re reunited here…having starred together in the award-winning detective series, The Killing.) Hanna is played by Esme Creed-Miles. She’s a British actor, but pulled off the German accent. I don’t think she actually speaks German, but she did speak French fluently. Kinnaman is Swedish. He also carried the German accent and spoke a lot of German to make this role believable.
  3. Timely. A US intelligence service, broken into factions, clawing at more power? Perhaps too real…
  4. Truth and morality emerge in the most unlikely places and the story reminds us of that.
  5. I love the way the characters rarely shout. Erik (Kinneman) and Hanna (Creed-Mills) both have this quality. They speak with intensity, but always quiet and measured, understated. I found myself loving this vibe more than I thought I would, maybe my Scandinavian roots…
  6. A story set in Europe, especially Berlin, London and Paris. Hurray, given we cannot travel there right now.

Longer Review

One of the things I liked about this production was its willingness to go slow. That might sound weird because the story moves at a pretty fast clip, but there is also time in each episode to absorb what is taking place in the character’s lives, in their hearts. I attribute part of that pacing to the editing. THANK YOU DIRECTORS AND EDITORS! It surprised me sometimes what was not put on the screen/what was skipped, but it also revealed what was most essential for the story. I found my brain willing to allow the holes in the plot because the true drama was not withheld from my view.

In season 1, the audience is introduced to Hanna as a baby, also to her mother and to her mother’s savior, Erik (Kinneman) who ends up rescuing Hanna from destruction. Erik, though German, is an insider with the US intelligence agency that is accepting babies in order to turn them into super assassins. Erik becomes Hanna’s guardian and the audience believes he might actually be her father. He isn’t. When Hanna finds out he has lied to her about his biological relationship to her, she is enraged.

Telling the truth is VERY important to Hanna. This seems consistent throughout and is refreshing as a character trait. It grounds the viewer, even when Hanna’s allegiance to the “good” or the “evil” entities in the world seems confusing. Hanna punishes those who lie to her, even when those individuals are her allies.

That dynamic of telling truth versus lying, or shrouding the truth reminds me of how teens (I’ve raised a couple and counseled many) have a nose for truth or fiction. They sense when adults are lying to them. Just tell me the damn truth and don’t protect me from it because you think I can’t handle it said every teen ever.

And I love that about them. I loved that about Hanna. She is so pure in that sense, the audience is ready to root for her in just about any circumstance, even when it feels like she is about to give in to evil.

Hanna has been renewed for a third season. I look forward to seeing how the writers develop this story.

THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, A No Spoiler Review of the Amazon Prime TV Series

I recently finished viewing all 4 seasons of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE and loved it. Also…I know I’m a little late to the game, but it’s hard to keep up, especially if you’re trying to read and watch scifi! There’s a lot of good content out there in the multiverse. I give this story a PG 13 rating, so be warned, parents.

THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is not a new story, but it was imagined anew by creator Frank Spotnitz for our era. It is based on Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name (which I have not yet read, but will soon because I enjoyed the series so much). Dick’s daughter was involved in the production of the tv version, overseeing her father’s vision.

This story is less science fiction in the traditional sense and more alternative history. Dick wrote THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE after being inspired by the novel Bring the Jubilee, by Ward Moore, whose novel is an alternative history of the US where the Confederate States win the Civil War. In Dick’s novel, the Axis powers win World War II. First, the short review:

5 Reasons I Recommend THE MAN IN HIGH CASTLE

  1. Superb storytelling…I was surprised at how well the writer(s) kept me engaged, including the pacing over 4 seasons. Bravo!
  2. Spot-on performances. A brilliant portrayal of John Smith, an American/Nazi leader, by Rufus Sewell. Also, a powerful female hero in Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos)
  3. A satisfying enough ending (will say no more lest I spoil)
  4. Pushing characters to their limits and not turning away from human dilemmas like: How far would you go to protect your family? Would you kill a person in cold blood if you know they will be responsible for death and mayhem in the future?
  5. Finally, if you find history a bore, consider jump-starting your learning via consuming smart fiction, like THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. World War II was a fascinating and dark time in world history with reverberations reaching into our current era, more than we might think. THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE gives the audience an intimate view into the characters of the day, many of whom are real historical people, but if not real, the fictional characters help the audience understand the zeitgeist of the time.

Longer Review…

I appreciated and enjoyed all four seasons of THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, but my favorite seasons were 3 and 4. Seasons 3 and 4 put forward the more complex moral and philosophical questions around Nazism, occupation and the kind of determination that it takes to defeat evil. I still appreciated season 1 and 2. The moral framework was being laid, the true heroes were being defined, but by season 3, defeating evil in our midst becomes the clear goal. It will require dedication, resilience and the broader community…something I feel to be true throughout history. Unlikely allies come together to defeat evil.

In that sense, I found the series remarkably relevant. Dick is playing with alternative histories in this story and Spotnitz (credit for the screenplay/creator goes alone to Frank Spotnitz on the show’s Wikipedia page) was able to put forward a world that in many respects, felt as real as the news I see on my screen on any given day. Before Covid19 and George Floyd protests…in this series (in the book, I assume as well) memorials, monuments and statues are blown up, taken down, destroyed. That was interesting for me to ponder.

In THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, those taking down the monuments are Nazis, determined to wipe out American history and recreate their own version of history that will be imposed on Americans. One character spells out the reason, “Once we wipe out their narrative, it will help them accept our narrative, the Nazi narrative.” The Nazis empower the young people in the US to riot and do violence to any who try to protect the monuments.

I would hesitate to make a moral statement about those who have defaced monuments in our cities in these last months, but I did find it fascinating to see this portrayal, non political, I assume because the screenplay was written long before our recent protests. How would those scenes be written today? I wonder…

To counter that narrative that “good ‘ol America just needs to be reclaimed”, the Black Communist Rebellion becomes an important power in the final season. Those characters are drawn in a way that is multi-faceted and dignifying. The series touches on Civil Rights era injustices while highlighting the Nazi take on black skin, which is horrifying and includes the sterilization of young black women. The audience sees the “graded” evil of racism.

THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE does not justify white supremacy. It tries, I think, to highlight its evil and does not let white America off the hook. Like I said…this is a complex narrative and, to give Dick credit, it was written in the early 1960s.

In the series, the Axis powers have split the US into three zones. The Japanese rule that which is West of Rockies. The East is ruled by the Nazis and in an attempt to keep these powers from eating each other, the middle of the US is neutral. Juliana Crain is a San Francisco native, so plenty of Northern California sites on screen, including the supremely gorgeous Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.

I was gratified to get a view into the Japanese Imperial rulership over the Western US in a way that capitalized on few or no stereotypes. One sees and feels the brutal nature of the Japanese occupiers, but also the complex politics between Japan and Germany (both superpowers in this universe) and the grace and gentleness of some aspects of Japanese culture. There are Japanese who brutally murder and there are Japanese who feel deep compassion to the point of aiding the rebellion. That is a helpful juxtaposition and I believe a true one when it comes to human dynamics during a time of war. Building an empire leads to big messes and horrible violence. It also drives human beings to act with sacrifice and heroism. THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE does not shy away from the complexities of warfare and empire building and for that reason, it deepened my understanding of a complex historical time.

Grit, hope, despair and horrible evil are all captured in this story, but what emerges most prominently in narrative are deep truths about what is right, just and good. This story is one for our time. I encourage you to start watching today.

 

 

DARK/WEB, Chapter 8 A Final Review with a Few Minor Spoilers

Molly, in her hideout

My 8th post on this particular Amazon Prime series. I reviewed chapter by chapter (episodes are called chapters). For a review of the pilot, click Chapter 1.

Today I viewed the finale.

Question that arose…Will DARK/WEB will have a second season? Will there be enough interest? I have no way of knowing. What I can say is this…

There is a kind of resolution that takes place in this final chapter.

  1. Molly is found
  2. The mystery of what she was up to and why she was drawing her friends toward her hiding place is solved
  3. There are a couple of big reveals…one of which doesn’t pack the emotional punch that it should
  4. A perhaps too tidy wrap-up
  5. More horror story tropes…like a corpse, a cabin in the woods, a stormy night without power

The ending to this series felt overly ambitious and contrived…a lot of explaining right at the end to tie up all of the loose ends. Sometimes the characters acted in a way that didn’t make sense to me, didn’t see human, but served the overall plot. I always get frustrated when this is the case. There is a campy nature to the series, maybe this is part of the fun…perhaps another horror trope? However, it also takes itself VERY seriously at times, so I was trying to take it seriously too and sometimes the camp did not match the tone of true evil that was being portrayed.

However, I will give the series lots of chops for these elements:

  1. An ambitious vision in its attempt to unveil evil in our society
  2. A diverse cast of characters, (diverse in ethnicity and sexual orientation)
  3. A female POC director. I loved the direction overall…I wasn’t wild about the all the writing, but hey…I am a writer and am always more picky about the writing than the directing.

Overall, I recommend DARK/WEB if you have the stomach to watch horror/scifi.

DARK/WEB, Chapter 7 Minor Spoilers

7th and Penultimate Chapter. My 7th review in 7 days.

This review will contain spoilers for earlier episodes and minor spoilers for this episode (episodes are called Chapters), so be warned. Go back to menu or click PILOT if you want to read an introduction to the series.

Who is watching through the computer screen?

I’ll say a little about the structure of the series at this point.

  1. Short stories, written by Molly are clues that will help her friends find her. All of the stories are dramatized on screen. This image, for example, is from one of the Molly’s stories called Viral. Nearly every chapter features one of Molly’s stories. About 15 minutes of screentime in Chapter 7 puts the audience in the world of Viral.
  2. All of Molly’s stories are dark, some are pure horror and very gruesome. I almost stopped watching this series after Chapter 2 because of it. Kim Rider, who has read all or most of Molly’s stories as they were online dating, says that Molly uses stories to work out the darkness in her own life.
  3. There are a variety of interesting filming techniques in DARK/WEB. I’ll highlight one. Notice the image posted above with words across the character’s face. These are words of a screenplay being typed by this particular film student, as she sits at her computer. She is the main character in Viral. This view through the computer into the scene has been used throughout the series and gives that creepy feeling that someone is watching from inside or beyond our screens. The audience sees what is taking place, but the characters don’t and we don’t know who is watching…that is unnerving and puts the audience on edge, exactly what the story creators want.
  4. Viral is a story about cyberbullying. The audience understands that unfortunately, cyberbullying takes place in real life. This story may be fictional, but it hits close enough to home to bring about reflections of human cruelty and evil, evil that exists in seemingly normal, everyday people. Looking at cyberbullying headon is horrific and not everyone’s cup of tea. As I indicated above, I almost stopped watching after chapter 2. Viral was also hard to watch.

The story creators of DARK/WEB have given their series this title for a reason. It is documented that the secret and more anonymous world of the dark web exists and exhibits the worst side of humanity. If you are squeamish or needing something more uplifting as entertainment, please be warned. We all know that there are many good people in our world (and that even the “evil” people have potential for redemption…at least I believe that) and most of us hope that the good will ultimately triumph over evil by the tale’s end. We will see…

DARK/WEB Chapter 6, No Spoiler Review

6th post in 6 days…

Major backstory episode for the larger story arc, which I appreciated. It was the right time to give the audience more reveals. This review will have spoilers of the previous Chapters. For an introduction to the series and no spoilers, click the Pilot.

Pictured is Zach Sullivan before he has his mental break. In chapter 4, he is visited by Ethan in the mental hospital, so the audience meets him well after this scene with Molly. One suspects something bad went down at the job because in the hospital, he freaks out when a phone is brought near him. He and Molly were colleagues at Citadel, the computer/systems security company. Somehow, all roads are leading to Citadel…or are they?

Molly and Zach rely on one another for help with coding (actually…Molly may be the smarter of the two, though Zach has been at the company longer). As they lunch together at work, Zach and another coder tell Molly about Citadel’s secret project called MIHR. Zach is applying for a new job in the company and is hoping he will make the MIHR team.

Zach does get promoted and he does write code related to MIHR. He also stops having friendly lunches with Molly and appears exhausted and unkempt. Eventually, when Zach needs her help in solving another coding issue, she and we encounter MIHR.

This chapter is not gruesome and gives the audience a chance to know Molly better, the character at the center of the mystery.

DARK/WEB, Chapter 5 A No Spoiler Review

EAT. PREY. LOVE.

New interesting character introduced in this episode. Her name is Kim Rider, she is an online friend/love interest of Molly Solis’. (This involves the 8 chapter story arc, not the individual stories).

Kim Rider

My review is the 5th in 5 days, well, almost…I took Sunday off. If you have not read my introduction to this series, I highly recommend you read my first posts, all four, but especially read the 1st one. Click Pilot.

Rider is helpful in explaining the overall arc of the series. She is connected with Molly Solis, emotionally/relationally and also happens to be fluent in computer hacking and understands a little more of what Molly was dealing with right before she disappeared. Rider becomes a teaching character, someone who can explain a couple of mysteries and ask better questions. She’s also lovely, black and British.

The story that Molly’s group of friends encounter is itself another gruesome tale. You can judge by the title which is the first line of this post.

Now that Kim and Molly’s high school friends, Ethan, Sam and James are together on the scene of Molly’s home in Texas, there is finally a concerted effort to figure out how Molly is in trouble.  Sometimes this setup feels a little cheesy and contrived, but there are a few real and funny moments.

Also, I need to note:

This episode includes gore and even though it isn’t super explicit, the suggestion is true horror.

 

DARK/WEB No Spoiler Review of Chapter 4

8 posts of 8 episodes in 8 days.

DARK/WEB is an Amazon Prime series. Here is my overview of the pilot. To read, click Chapter 1.

I have watched half way through DARK/WEB. Chapter 4 furthers the overall narrative arc. Zach Sullivan is visited by Molly Solis’ friends. They also go to visit her house in TX. She had been living there until she disappeared.

This chapter also adds another hint, another one of Molly’s stories sent to her friends. The story is more mysterious, mystical and spiritual, involving an illegal, dark/web for profit organ transplant operation.

I won’t say too much about this chapter to avoid spoilers. It’s not nearly as disturbing as Chapter 2, but my sense is the creators of this series are wanting the audience to ponder what evil exists on the dark web…the actual dark web.

I confess…as much as I resist watching this series, I know that many aspects of it are true and because of that, the overall narrative is disturbing to me.

Hat tip to Roxy Shih, a female Asian American director who is brilliantly putting this important story before our eyes. This visual of the man sitting in the warehouse with the light coming through the high windows is particularly gorgeous. Notice the crucifixes in the shadows. Excellent symbolism.