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.

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 a conspiracy the partially unveiled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 127 pages 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

DUNE Part 1, The film. A No-Spoiler Review

DUNE, the 2021 film is a true hit and a must-see large screen theater event. It drew millions across the globe to the theater. I was among those who saw it and loved it. I saw it a second time within a week and the film was still breathtaking, and I’ll see it again though probably via my television.

In a similar way that Peter Jackson pleased both the non-reading audience and the hyper fan of the books, LOTR, it’s looking like Villeneuve will do the same for the average viewer and fans of the novel. First installment of George Herbert’s universe, check. To read my review of the novel DUNE, click here. For my review of the film, please continue.

DUNE is the first of two films, and there could be more if Villeneuve decides to continue with the DUNE’s sequels. We’ll see how that goes. The later books are brilliant but probably more challenging for the average audience member to consume. Herbert’s world is a complex and mostly unhappy place on almost all counts.

First, The Short Review

5 Reasons You MUST See this Film if you are a Scifi Fan…

  1. Mostly pitch perfect and accurate (close to the novel) storytelling
  2. Herbert’s DUNE is a foundational work in the scifi genre and has a huge international following. AKA, without Dune, Star Wars might never have happened.
  3. A vision within the story that transcends culture and era
  4. Great casting
  5. An epic visual feast

Paul’s Mother Jessica, the Bene Gesserit concubine of Duke Leto

Now, for the Longer Review…

If you want to go deep, super deep on DUNE, there are papers written, blog posts and articles that speak to why the story DUNE is one that has reverberated in many cultures, especially subjugated cultures, since it was released in 1965. This article is a  good one, in case you want more breadth about the history. Click on the link for the Guardian’s penetrating reflection. DUNE article, Guardian.

As a viewer of the film, what I wanted was something of the depth of the novel, a compelling vision of the world of Arrakis, Caladan and the politics surrounding the story. I also wanted characters who made sense within that world. They had to feel real. DUNE delivered on all counts.

True, the viewer is only getting a third of the character depth in the film version and for that reason, I encourage all to read (or re-read) the novel. It ages well. But, even if you don’t read the novel, Paul, Leto, Jessica, Duncan, Kynes and the Fremen come across very close to the novelist’s vision. I had two observations of change that caught my attention: Villeneuve did not portray the Atreides, mostly male in-house staff accurately in terms of their suspicion of Jessica as the betrayer. Their suspicion of the one woman in the mix comes through in the novel, not in the film. Also, the gay Baron Harkonnen is a known child predator in the novel. I can guess there are many reasons Villeneuve decided to forgo this portrayal of the only gay character in the story world. Let him be obese and disgusting in the visuals, but diminish his child predator persona. That seems like a wise decision on many fronts.

The portrayals I loved:

Arakkis, the worms, the Fremen, the sitch, the general feeling of the Bene Gesserit, the Harkonnens, the Sardaukar, the ornithopters, Arrakeen, the costumes (including the stillsuit)…these are all perfect, as are the actors’ portrayals of their characters.

Overall, DUNE was worth the money. I highly recommend this film. Rated PG-13 for violence.

 

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, A No Spoiler Review

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, by Michael Crichton, was the first novel published by Crichton under his actual name. He had published previously under a variety of pen names. His reason for publishing under other names…he was a medical student at Harvard and was actually thinking he might practice medicine someday and didn’t want his patients to know that he was writing on the side. This must have been a “thing” in that era because it strikes me that wouldn’t phase anyone now.

However, Crichton soon after became a best-selling author and gave up the idea of practicing medicine.

I read this novel because of a recommendation by a friend during Covid19…

Do I recommend this novel? No, I don’t and here are 5 reasons why:

  1. The novel puts forward an interesting premise, but not fully baked (I am pretty sure this novel would never get published today)
  2. Bland main characters. It’s hard to keep them straight, they all seem like the same guy (except they attended different Ivy League schools and have slightly different occupations)
  3. So-so tension, but nothing like one of his better books, Jurassic Park, for example
  4. Characters are all white dudes in lab coats and even the non lab-coat characters are all white dudes. *note…when THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN was turned into a film in 1971, the screenwriter changed one of the dudes to a female…even in the 70s the character line-up was thought to be way too monochromatic.
  5. Too much data and exposition and not enough heart. I felt nothing for all the people (except for the infant…who seems to be completely neglected)

Longer Review…

Crichton, who passed in 2008

So…this novel became a best-seller and gave rise to a film that bears the same title. Both were hits/made a lot of money. In fact, this book catapulted Crichton’s career. I can only surmise that there was a great hunger for techno-thrillers at the time and that Crichton scratched an itch that had be itching for a long time.

The funny thing is, immediately following this read, I’m consuming Philip K. Dick’s, DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP and I am so wowed by the writing and how different it is from Crichton’s. Dick knew how to flesh out a character. Crichton did not, at least he didn’t yet. He got much better at it in subsequent novels, many of which I have enjoyed.

So, let me just nit-pick a little…

If I was ever to teach a writing class on the development of a writer…I might choose Crichton and force my class to read this book and then give them the pleasure of Jurassic Park as examples of how one gets better at the craft. THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN almost feels like a “freshman novel”, that novel written by an aspiring author who has one great idea, but can’t quite figure out how to tell the story.

In that class, I would also ask the students to read DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP, by Philip K. Dick, written in the same era.

There is a reason that BLADE RUNNER, a brilliant film and subsequent franchise, emerged out of Dick’s novel, published in 1968, one year before THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN.

The character of Rick Deckard is brilliantly written, fleshed out. The reader feels his pain, his angst, his story as he/she reads. Not only that, the secondary characters are complex, mysterious and full of emotion even when Dick writes about androids. His androids seem more human than Crichton’s actual human characters.

I do believe that Crichton saw his errors and improved immensely, but it will be a mystery to me for a long time that this book, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, was published and was sold and was read by so many, including me!

If for some reason you want to buy this book, click here.

To watch the film via Amazon Prime, click here.

 

 

 

 

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.

A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, by Walter M. Miller Jr., A No Spoiler Review

This morning, I finished reading the classic science fiction novel, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ. I rate this novel PG for violence.

First, the short review…

To purchase the novel, click A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ.

5 Reasons I Recommend A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ 

A Sci-Fi Classic

  1. If you are a science fiction fan and want to be fluent in the genre’s history, Leibowitz is on many lists of must read sci-fi.
  2. The novel’s world is depicted plainly and purposefully, capturing the tragedy of a post nuclear holocaust world without sentimentality. The prose is often lovely and the story becomes more and more gripping as it unfolds.
  3. Especially for the philosopher and the theologian, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ puts forward some of the most profound ideas around human evil and our propensity for self-destruction.
  4. Even if you’re not a philosopher, the characters and ideas come together in a way that  does not allow the reader to ignore our society’s seeming dance toward self-destruction.
  5. In a similar vein as On The Beach, by Nevil Shute, A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ is a story that has the capacity to change our minds about nuclear arms and warfare.

Longer Review

A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ was originally published in three parts.

Fiat Homo…Let there be man

Fiat Lux…Let there be light

Fiat Voluntas Tua…Let thy will be done

The first two section titles refer to the Biblical account of creation, when God spoke the earth and humankind into being. The third section’s title refers to the Christian New Testament. Not that the idea lacks foundation in the Hebrew Bible, but the phrase itself is taken from The Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane before his death. “And he went forward a little, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass away from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”

A fair amount of Latin is spoken in this novel and I did not understand all of it, but most phrases are translated within the story or the context makes the meaning clear. All of the main characters and narrators are associated with a religious order, the monks of The Leibowitzian Order, that was established following what the novel calls The Flame Deluge.

The monks, much like Irish monks during the Dark Ages, copy, preserve and make available ancient knowledge to those who will have it. For the most part, the barbarians who dwell around the monastic fortress, whose setting is the old American West, hate this knowledge and see it as the reason destruction came to the planet.

An excerpt from the novel:

“After the bombs and the Fallout came the plagues and the madness. Then, in the bloodletting known as the Age of Simplification, the people – those few who remained – rose up against their teachers, their scientists and their rulers, those they held responsible for turning the world into a barren desert…”

A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, published in 1959, channels the zeitgeist of an era when people were genuinely terrified of and preparing for nuclear war. For many readers, especially, younger readers, that period of history can feel like a long time ago in a galaxy far far away…but given Covid19, the economic shock that has hit the globe through the shutdown as well as the rise of a belligerent Communist China and a perpetually divided United States, war and/or chaotic one-upsmanship between two superpowers seems less far distant than it has since 1989, when the Soviet Empire collapsed. If World War III were to happen today, what would be the fallout?

Many of the questions posed by Miller in A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ are relevant today. There is wisdom and a degree of sobriety that can be gained by our society paying closer attention to stories like this one.

 

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.