THE LAST OF US, A No-Spoiler Review of the First 3 Episodes

THE LAST OF US, an HBO Max series is streaming now, but the release of episodes is drip…drip…The third installment arrived on Sunday (1/29/23) and now, like old fashioned tv watching, the audience waits a week, and so on. It’s an interesting choice that some streaming services have made, to hook viewers over a long period and keep them paying the monthly streaming charge. Does it work? I’ll comment more on that in the longer review. 

If you’re a gamer, you probably know that the heart of this story is based on the video game, The Last of Us, an action-adventure survival horror game franchise created by Naughty Dog and Sony Interactive Entertainment. The series is set in a post-apocalyptic United States ravaged by cannibalistic creatures infected by a mutated fungus in the genus Cordyceps. The game is rated R for violence and some sexually explicit scenes. At this point, 3 episodes in, the series is probably between a PG-13 and R rating, for violence. 

For Educators: In biology class, give the gamers among you a treat by validating their hobby and teaching a lesson at the same time. Show the first 2 episodes (that’s all you’ll need) to discuss the nature of a fungus.

Is THE LAST OF US worth watching and perhaps more importantly, would you pay for an HBO subscription for this series alone? I recommend this series, with reservations. Short and long no-spoiler reviews will explain why. 

The Short Review…Yes, watch

  1. If you love end-of-the-world zombie stories, this one has a couple of new twists to love
  2. Cool monsters and fast unlike the mostly ambling creatures in The Walking Dead 
  3. Well casted (also, actors with talent that aren’t in every other show you’ve seen)
  4. If you play this game/love this game…it’s a new and perhaps fun way to interact with the world

The Short Review…Meh…don’t watch, or perhaps it’s too early to tell

  1. Overall and so far, this story feels less compelling than The Walking Dead or even Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, which I just finished reading. You’re better off spending your time reading or watching something else.
  2. Beware of attaching to key characters because the chances of them dying are really high (for many viewers, I realize this is a plus)
  3. In episode 3, spent a lot of time with a couple of characters who seemed peripheral to the heart of the story. If more episodes are like this one, not sure if I’ll want to keep watching
  4. Lastly, this series alone would not warrant paying for an HBO Max subscription. However, overall HBO content for science fiction, fantasy and dystopian viewing is decent. For example, you can stream DUNE Pt 1 and I loved Station Eleven, a mini-series based on the novel. Click to read my review of Station Eleven. Those are just a couple of examples of HBO’s excellent content. 

The Longer Review

The Last of Us game in numerous iterations, has received critical acclaim and has won awards, including several Game of the Year recognitions. As of January 2023, the franchise has sold over 37 million games worldwide. Strong sales and support of the series led to the franchise’s expansion into other media, including a comic book in 2013 and this television adaptation. So…there is a built-in audience for the series, THE LAST OF US.

That’s a good thing for HBO, but from game to screen…has it ever been done well? I’m not an expert on this one, but I can’t think of a really great film or series that emerged from a game. Pretty good or fun shows…like Tomb Raider…those I could cite, but great? I don’t think so. Does anyone want to counter me here? This series has potential to say something new about the post-virus world, or in this case, post-fungus world (not a spoiler by the way…scene 1 of the series shows a scientist surmising about what would happen if a certain type of fungus evolved and could take over the human brain/body.) 

In three episodes, the viewer gets a sense of one post-apocalyptic region in the US, an area around Boston. There is an allusion in episode 1 and 2 to world-wide catastrophe. There is a huge time jump between 1 and 2. The outbreak takes place in 2003 in episode 1. The rest of the series looks like it will take place 20 years later in 2023, with flashbacks to fill in the gaps here and there. The fungus shows up first in Jakarta, Indonesia…but we learn in episode 3 that the fungus probably went global simultaneously because it was in the food supply, in something like flour or sugar. That idea is unique, moveover, the zombies are weird and fast and hard to kill (bullet to the brain seems to do the job, similar to other zombie narratives). The fungus infested monsters are portrayed in a fuller way in episode 2. 

In the era of binge watching, it’s possible a series such as THE LAST OF US will draw in fresh consumers to HBO streaming, but my guess is it won’t. The buzz that drives everyone to want to watch Stranger Things, because of the “event” of binging the entire season and sharing that experience with millions of fans, that is absent from the HBO and other streaming services’ business model. FoMO associated with binge watching fuels the marketing machine for Netflix. Millions are driven to want a subscription. Some buy, maybe thinking they’ll pay for a short time, and wind up staying longer or forever. Others do pay for one month and then quit…which is better for Netflix than those who use or steal a password to get their fix. 

I am feeling a little frustrated by the drip…drip model. I don’t binge all in one day, but I like to watch the same show night after night. I hate waiting a week. It’s probable I will lose interest or get fixated on another show. I can’t be alone on that. So, if you’re a binge watcher and you think you might like this series, you might wanna wait for another couple of months so you’ll have more content. Subscribe to HBOMax in May, an you’ll have a whole lot of Game of Thrones: House of the Dragon and perhaps the first season of THE LAST OF US

Tales of the Walking Dead: EVIE/JOE, A No-Spoiler Review

4 Reasons I recommend EVIE/JOE, The Short Review

EVIE/JOE is first installment of The Walking Dead’s anthology series: Tales of the Walking Dead. Basically all of these tales will be in short-form, focusing on different characters each time, contained in one 45ish minute episode. EVIE/JOE is set in The Walking Dead universe which means there is a lot of gore, so consider this a PG-13 or R-rated flick. It’s not for everyone! You can watch this for free on Amazon Prime and possibly YouTube TV…still figuring that out.

I loved this short, but I love zombie films/stories and maintain a special fondness for The Walking Dead version of a post-zombie reality. Why might you want to watch?

  1. Believable and likeable characters (played by actors, Olivia Munn and Terry Crews)
  2. Well-done shorts like this must be targeted in its “one thing” it tries to do well and this short succeeded in doing that
  3. A familiar world, where context needs not be explained
  4. Decent tension and a surprising twist in the end

The Longer Review

First, I’ll say a little about the short form. There are a few reasons I appreciate shorts like EVIE/JOE. One is that I find it pleasurable to see a story, beginning, middle and end in one sitting. As a kid I loved The Twilight Zone for this reason. Second, the short form forces the story-teller to focus. My family members have heard me complain many times about a number of the more recent Marvel Universe films when there are way too many characters to properly give them all meaningful story arcs with the overall effect feeling flat and superficial (and for me, unsatisfying). There are three characters in this story. Four, if you count the dog. Third, the short form draws in amazing actors who want the chance to play a different/unique character but without the huge commitment of the series actor, who has to put the rest of his/her acting career on hold while the series is ongoing. This was an issue for Andrew Lincoln (Rick Grimes of The Walking Dead).

You could say the same about “guest” directors/writers. One short attracts very interesting directors and writers. I’m assuming some of these artists are fans of TWD universe but see room to add to that universe. Their vision can be surprising and wonderful.

EVIE/JOE begins with Joe, a survivalist living alone with his beloved Doberman. When the story opens, Joe is rewatching a football game. Civilization as we know it disappeared over a year before (see the carefully placed whiteboard in the first scene). Joe lives underground and seems to have enough electricity and food to stay happy and alive, but when his dog becomes lame, he must carry him up to the ground to go the bathroom and eventually, a group of zombies attack. The pup is bitten, dies and is buried by Joe. The subsequent flashes of Joe become increasingly depressing. A new level of suffering has entered into his life. Grief around his dog’s death and the reality that there is no one and nothing to really live for pushes him to venture out of his hole and seek another survivalist, someone he had contacted at a date when communication outside his hole was possible. That is when he meets Evie.

 

Their relationship becomes the focal point and draws out the true characters of them both. Both are lonely. Both are searching. There is a question about whether or not they will trust each other and whether or not they will succeed in finding what they most hope for. Evie is a hippy, who learned how to survive. Joe is a true survivalist. Their banter is funny and revealing.

It’s pleasurable to see a new setting here as well (in regards to The Walking Dead). This is the Upper Midwest, primarily Ohio and Michigan. There is evidence of survivors and evidence of death. The zombies aren’t the primary threat, but they’re around. As the audience learns pretty quickly in The Walking Dead universe, the zombies are way less scary than the hyper-terrified humans. This story is consistent on that front.

Eventually, there is an ultimate choice…choosing sides, choosing to trust or not trust and there is a moment of facing death. EVIE/JOE will not disappoint if this is the humanity you’re looking for.

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 show is rated R for a few racy sex scenes, but if your young person can handle that, the education piece is interesting. A bit of history can be etched out or explained as some of the “alternative” version comes across the screen. It’s portrayal of communist USSR rings true. It also captures something of the spirit of the age for each decade, especially the urgency around the space race of the 1960s.

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.

 

SEVERANCE, A No Spoiler Review

6 Reasons You Want to Watch Severance

Adam Scott as Mark

  1. Two unique settings within a contained, small-story universe. (I will write more about this in the longer review)
  2. Amazing cast. Adam Scott as the stoic lead, Mark, with a supporting cast that includes Patricia Arquette, John Turturro and Christopher Walken
  3. Superb characterization and story-telling. The main character and all of the secondaries are complex, layered and quirky, adding to the slow-building tension
  4. The underlying moral and symbolic truths within the story are not yet fully baked but seem promising.
  5. This show has a slow ramp-up to gripping tension at the climax of this first season
  6. More to watch in the future because this past month, Apple approved a second season.

The Longer Review

SEVERANCE is an Apple+ production, the first season is complete, streamable now and free for subscribers.

Created by Dan Erickson and directed by Ben Stiller, SEVERANCE is not a comedy. It falls into dystopian mystery with a scifi vibe. A futuristic technology at the center of the story, allows those who work at a company called Lumon Industries, to surgically divide their memories between their work and personal lives. Those individuals are called The Severed. Most of the other tech is familiar and not so modern, for example, people still drive cars around the town.

I give this series a PG rating…it’s possible it will warrant a different rating later on, but so far the mystery is more Hitchcock than Ridley Scott. My ratings usually reflect the graphic nature of the show and not the themes which in this case are harrowing for my adult brain. Would kids enjoy the show? Probably not. You won’t see explicit gore, but you will feel tortured for these characters at the center of the story, in part because of their vulnerability, which is childlike. The value in watching it with your teen would be to discuss the ethics that emerge around the tech that is at the heart of the story.

Britt Lower as Helly B

Regarding the setting. There are two primary “worlds” in SEVERANCE that exemplify the two worlds inhabited by the employees of Lumon.

One setting is work, the Lumon Industries office building. It feels familiar upon entering, but creepily weird the deeper in you go. The interior design is sterile, with strangely vacant work spaces and long labyrinth-like hallways. The four employees the audience follows most closely work in a large white room with no windows or access to the outside world. They are forbidden to interact with employees from other areas of the building and spend their days huddled around computers doing a job that the audience sees, but doesn’t really understand. In fact, even these employees don’t fully understand what they do, how they do it and why. It’s described as something they feel. Their work is just one of many aspects of this situation that give rise to a suspicion about Lumon. Most of the workers, including Mark (Adam Scott) submit to the rules of the company. There are a few exceptions and those exceptions give rise to Mark’s suspicion about Lumon.

The second world is Mark’s town. This is a cold, dreary place. It feels like it could be Alaska or Canada and is probably unfamiliar to most of the audience. The cold and the dark and size of the town adds to the feeling of claustrophobia, something that permeates this story. Darkness also dovetails with the theme of grief. In episode 1, the audience learns that Mark’s reason for severing came about because of the death of his wife. Mark lives in a housing complex owned by Lumon where it becomes clear, he is monitored unbeknownst to him.

Mark tries to reassure Helly B. who ain’t havn’t none of it

My recommendation to watch SEVERANCE comes with the caveat that I’m still not sure where the story is going. I have viewed the first season and loved every episode. Not everyone enjoys a slow build to a gripping climax, but I do when it’s done well and SEVERANCE does it well. So, if you’re tempted to stop after episode 1 or 2, don’t. The tension ratchets up and up and mysteries become creepier as the conspiracy is partially unveiled.

In my next post, I hope to discuss summer reading which will include:

Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD

 

 

 

 

 

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. Family-friendly if your teens are mature. It’s a fun, suspenseful ride.

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. It’s family-friendly with mature teens and if your kid is a drama-geek, they will LOVE this show. 

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. 

 

 

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.

Update: After watching all of it, this series receives an R rating for sure and I don’t think it appropriate for teens. I don’t think the educational value is worth forcing a group to watch this. Many would not be able to tolerate the violence.

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 the screen, television streaming for any who subscribe to Apple + TV. 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. A mature teen might appreciate the story. The main character, a mathematics genius, is a young woman (pictured here).

For educators, the idea of eternal rule (by cloning) raises interesting ethical questions, like: How will science and technology impact the governing of humanity?

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.