Recently, I’ve Mostly Been Watching TV

It’s been a while, so I’m going to do a couple of quick posts that sum up some things I’ve seen – this is the first one and it’s about TV series.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency season 1

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The series is based on the novel of the same name by Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame. I’ve read the novel and its sequel some decades ago, but don’t remember much anything about them.

The plot of the series is delightfully Adamsian, that is, completely nonsensical. There is logic there and with great care one can pull together everything that is happening everywhere and figure out, if it forms a coherent whole. To quickly recap, it is about Dirk Gently getting involved in a time traveling, soul swapping romp, and being Dirk Gently, that is, completely nonsensical and utterly delightful, through all of it.

For the early part of the season, it is very much unclear, what is happening, but the weird humor and explosively surprising in gory violence keep things entertaining. Towards the end of the season the episodes tend to concentrate more on carefully pulling through the various twists of the plot. This and the occasional serious brooding leave less room for delightful humor, which in turn makes the series slightly tedious to watch at times.

Luckily the season is only 8 episodes, so the more free flowing early bits of the season weigh more heavily on the scale and the whole thing ends up being a positive experience. Haven’t seen the 2nd season yet, but I have a feeling it will not be as good, since with the now familiar characters, there’s less room for quirks and surprises and more need to get plot heavy things going early. Nevertheless, if the occasional bits of heavy gore don’t bother you and if you enjoy weird humor, this gets a recommendation.

  • Finished on: 15th Aug 2017
  • 3/5

The Expanse season 2

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This is another series based on novels of the same name, this time by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under the shared pen name of James S. A. Corey. My thoughts on the previous season are found here.

At the end of season 1, I was pretty apprehensive that the protomolecule was going to take center stage for season 2. Unfortunately, that is the case. We spend half the season chasing after clues with the crew of the Rocinante and the other half in a stand of between Mars and Earth, while only a few key players understand, that the tensions have been staged by a rogue group that has been developing the protomolecule.

The series keeps the ruthless power hungry politics in the picture and the sci-fi setting keeps me interested in general, but the protomolecule is just boring, the rogue crew perpetrating the quickly heating political conflict is much less interesting than two groups clashing naturally over self interests, and this single ship crew being in on all the key events and surviving time after time is… well, most series still don’t kill their darlings regardless of what George R. R. Martin has been doing…

Altogether, the 2nd season is much weaker, but still very much a good experience.

  • Finished on: 3rd Oct 2017
  • 3.5/5

Orphan Black season 1

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An original series for a change. Orphan Black is a story about Sarah Manning and her fellow clones. They are the result of illegal cloning experiments and mostly unaware of each other, when the series starts. The plot involves Neolution / Dyad Institute, who are technology believers and intentionally push the boundaries with their experiments regardless of the law, and Proletheans, who are religious activists, who think badly of many recent technological innovations including the clones.

Sarah and all the other clones are played by Tatiana Maslany. For the most part she does an excellent job jumping between roles and making each individual clone recognizable and interesting, but someone somewhere didn’t trust in her completely, so they’ve added irritating gimmicks to each character in order to make them even more individual. Nevertheless, kudos for Tatiana.

This series suffers from pretty much the same things as the ones reviewed above – the setup is interesting, the characters are interesting, getting to know all of it is interesting, but the moment the characters and the viewers know enough about what’s going on to actually be active with the situation, the thing falls slightly flat. The mystery isn’t good enough and can be revealed only once, and the endless chasing after clues and power reversals soon become tedious. Oh well, at least the first season was worth it.

  • Finished on: 28th Jan 2018
  • 3/5

Game of Thrones season 7

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Well, this series should require no introductions. By now the series is past the novel series. As far as I know, George R. R. Martin has been giving the script writers pointers as to how the novels are going to progress, and the plot attempts to follow the rough picture that the forthcoming novels are going to follow, but mostly the script writers are on their own… And it shows. While George R. R. Martin has never been a great novelist, he does have an idea or two about plotting and revealing said plots slowly and patiently. The season 7 lacks far behind on that regard – the previously convoluted plots are now downright hamfisted and easily guessed, and the series has to rely on cheating the viewers to get some surprises across.

As mentioned above, George has his deficiencies as a writer and the series is actually able to improve on a few of the flaws. Most notably, the series has dropped multiple plot threads and scenes, some of them even quite prominent in the novels, in order to fit things into the less expressive TV format. And this is what George mostly needs – an editor, who would say to him that you don’t actually have to follow every god damn side plot to its conclusion.

Oh well, this is still some of the best fantasy imagery ever seen in TV and rivals most things on the silver screen as well. Unfortunately that does speak more to the qualities of the genre in these media. Despite the many problems, the series has its merits as well. Most prominent obviously being that I still enjoy watching it.

  • Finished on: 10th Feb 2018
  • 3/5

Russian Doll

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The series follows Nadia Vulvokov, a New Yorker of Russian origin, who is celebrating her 36th birthday in a big party organized by her friends, she leaves with a man to have a fling with him and after the thing, accidentally gets hit by a car… and wakes up back at the party. The plot twist was made famous by Groundhog Day and has been rehashed multiple times since then.

Regardless of the obvious comparison, this bears few similarities with that film. Nadia is a nihilistic woman living with a devil may care attitude drinking too much and using anything and everything she comes across. The dark tones of the protagonist carry over to the series overall tone. The supporting cast is full of dark characters, the lighting is almost always dark and reddish, there’s homelessness and drug use prominently on display, etc.

I love this short series format. Longer than a movie, shorter than an endless progression of season. You can play wonders in this format. And this does. Each iteration through the party (and sometimes) the following days follows slightly different patterns with Nadia trying to get to grips with her situation. This is again the most interesting part – when the viewers and the protagonist are still figuring things out. As the series progresses, it slowly shifts gears from people to the mystery. Unfortunately, the mystery falls a bit short of the setup – that seems to be common pattern (as witnessed above). At least this one keeps the last twist to the very final scenes of the show, and that was actually slightly surprising.

By far the most refreshing new thing I’ve seen on the TV series front in years.

  • Finished on: 18th Feb 2019
  • 4.5/5

The Umbrella Academy season 1

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This time a series based on a comic book and it shows. The series follows a dysfunctional group of adopted sibling superheroes, who reunite, when their father is found dead. Soon after it’s revealed that the world is about to end, due to their long lost brother returning from the future, where he’s been stuck for 30 years in a world that stopped existing 8 days from now.

The plot follows the efforts of the family to stave off the end of the world. Nobody seems to much care about how it’s going to happen – they just attempt to prevent it from happening. Besides the apocalypse, the plot is burdened by the family grudges. Although the series features a multitude of family meetings, it never actually features a calm discussion, where things could actually be explained – pouting and storming away is the name of the game.

I can’t really explain, what kept me entertained. The characters are quite inane, they act like teenagers all the time, the plot hangs on people not talking to each other, the amount of pouting makes teenage Instagram accounts look like nobody ever purses their lips… But I sat through this with a smile on my face. The one hour episodes give room to build atmosphere and change it multiple times and occasionally the series hits spot on.

Borderline watchable, but I hope they won’t make a second season, so I don’t have to watch a few episodes and figure out that it’s going nowhere fast.

  • Finished on: 28th Feb 2019
  • 2.5/5
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Dungeon World

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Tabletop roleplaying games are one of my oldest hobbies, but at some point I realized that I’ve played in so few games over the years, that I don’t actually know what is happening in the world of RPGs. I embarked on yet another endless project to get up-to-date with what’s been happening in RPGs on two fronts. First is mechanics – what are the new novel ways of organizing the rules. Second is worlds – reading stories gives you those stories, but reading about an interesting world gets your mind racing and creating dozens of stories by itself. This is the first victim of that project.

As soon as I asked questions about interesting recent RPGs, Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) titles started to pop up. Consensus seemed to be that Dungeon World is the best, so off I went to pick up a copy.

The System

So, PbtA seems to be a system, that in itself kind of defines the genre, the common actions in the genre and thus the common actions in the game. That is, the system works as a sort of guideline to the style of games intended to play with it. It seems to me that the system works best, when the focus is quite narrow and well defined. As far as I’ve heard, the bad PbtA games tend to be the ones that don’t have a clear focus and try to do a bit of everything.

The beef of the system are the aforementioned actions. Those actions start with the fiction – when you are not involved with the rules, you are co-creating a story, and when that story hits a spot that sounds like a defined action, you jump into the rules of the action for a while. The actions contain some resolution mechanics, and finally they return to the fiction, that is, the resolution given by the action is usually defined in pretty general terms, and that resolution should be fleshed out to fit to the story being created. That is, although generally you are creating the story, when the story hits a conflict point, you give chance a role to find a resolution to the conflict, and then you fit the resolution into the story again.

The system is very lightweight. In a conflict, the traditional RPG systems usually involve a lot of dices being thrown and tables being consulted. Mostly you jump out of the fiction for a long time, or you even let the dice tell the fiction completely for the duration of the conflict. Here, the system gets in seamlessly triggered by the fiction, and when you are done with the system (which should happen quickly), you are right back in the fiction. It is a system that allows you to add excitement and chance into an experience of collective story telling, instead of being a system of combat simulation.

The World

Among RPG hobbyists, D&D is usually thought of as the most simple, most generic type of fantasy. It has orcs, who are green and usually angry, it has elves, who have pointy ears and are usually lofty. That literally is the entire depth that the D&D worlds have. Obviously the game is the oldest RPG around and has spent all of that time (I think) as the most popular RPG in the world, so the amount of stuff released for the game is mind blowing, and inevitably there’s mostly more depth than that, but it’s still simplistic. The world is literally an excuse for going to dungeons to bash in the heads of monsters in cool scenes and loot their stuff to be more powerful for the next dungeon.

Dungeon World is D&D done with the PbtA system. In order to keep the PbtA system running in a well focused manner, Dungeon World takes D&D and actually simplifies it a lot.

That’s ok though, since PbtA is not geared towards a complete world with a bazillion details – it’s geared towards starting somewhere and seeing where it goes. You are supposed to be creating most of the stuff on the fly anyway. This means that the depth of the world is entirely up to you. Obviously the system keeps things limited to the strengths of Dungeon World, and those are quite narrow and simple – kicking the asses of bad guys and taking their loot. Hopefully there’s a plot involved somewhere.

My Thoughts

D&D style power fantasy has its time and place. With D&D you get the benefit of endless amounts of material to run with. Ready made adventure and campaign modules are endless and thus it’s easy to jump in and play for a bit. I think I’d still go with Dungeon World next time I’m in the mood for something like this, since with it you can just create a few quick characters and start running and see, where it goes. The system is mostly out of the way and concentrates on making things interesting. It doesn’t get bogged down on endless details, but keeps things, where they are interesting – in the fiction. This was definitely an interesting acquaintance and now I’m the mood for one or two of the other more praised PbtA games.

Trigger Warning

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Neil Gaiman tells us about the things that lurk in the back of our minds. Those simple unseen things, often frightening, that are there, but mostly left undisturbed. Often those things are quite small – like modern day versions of the old folk tales about why the tip of the tail of the fox is white and stuff like that. That stuff tends to be quite small, so the short story format fits him well.

This is a collection of those mostly quite enchanting and mostly quite harmless stories. They are ideas and suggestions. Parts of some worlds unseen and only glimpsed by even Gaiman. They are usually very twisted in one way or another, but they also bear a sort of fairy tale quality that keeps the darkness at an arm’s length so as not to be too dangerous.

I gobbled down the small snacks offered by the book quite fast (by my current reading standards, which are very slow). I enjoyed all of the stories. Some more, some less. Not a single one was strictly a master piece, but neither was any of them bad. An endearing piece of writing despite containing basically horror stories.

  • Title: Trigger Warning
  • Author: Neil Gaiman 
  • Year: 2015
  • Finished in: 17th Jul 2017
  • 3.5/5

Badlands [1973]

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Terrence Malick is a director, who used to direct very rarely. The first film I saw by him was The Thin Red Line, which I liked immediately. I missed The New World and finally 13 years later, I saw The Tree of Life. That hooked me and it was a given that I’d go see To the Wonder, when it came out a year later. Even that one I liked, but I was starting to wonder, if Malick had lost his edge – The Tree of Life and To the Wonder seemed like they were directed by a man, who’d found formula and was furiously applying it left and right. A few years later Badlands was playing at the cinema of the local film archive and I went to see it – now I knew that his later films were but a pale shadow of  his first film. Now, a few years later, Riviera Kallio was screening Badlands again and I had time on my hands, so I went to see it again.

Badlands has strong vibes from Camus’ L’Étranger, but unlike that, there’s also a strong undercurrent of innocence. Finally, this has a weight of geography to it. The film is situated in South Dakota and the endless flat lands of the northern flyover states give the film a gravity it would not otherwise have.

Basically a boy meets a girl, girl’s father gets angry, because boy is of a bad sort, boy shoots father and runs away with girl to live under their own rules and conditions, until it all comes crashing down and they start running to get away and start again, but innocence is lost and reality must catch up.

The story is told in a toned down manner. There’s all kinds of explosive scenes, but they are depicted in a toned down manner. This plays nicely with the protagonists not quite registering reality to the extent they perhaps should. Their innocence is shielding them from the gravity of their actions. This could make the whole film seem like it is forgiving towards the protagonists, but it isn’t. Nobody in the film much judges anything that happens – sure, the cops apprehend them, but as mentioned, some hours later all of them are all smiles. The film could almost be seen as approving of the actions, but it isn’t.

One judgement is in the depiction of the killings. The first one seems almost like an accident. Band, and it’s done. The body is quickly hidden and the crime is wiped away by burning down the house. Little by little the killings are given more weigh though. The chip away at the shield of innocence and they are depicted in a more and more gruesome fashion. This is the girl seeing the killings – she doesn’t even realize what happened with the first one, but no armor is perfect and reality seeps in through the cracks little by little.

Another judgement is given by geography. While the protagonists are living in the forest away from everyone else in their innocent little bubble, the horizon is always close by. The forest envelops them in a protective shield like their innocence and nothing is far away. First shots with even a little room for anything to seep in already contain other people, who call in bounty hunters and the sanctuary is suddenly lost. It is replaced by the endless badlands of the mid-northern US, where there is no escape. The horizon is always impossibly far as is the salvation that waits behind it. There is no escape, only more badlands. The inevitability of the landscape reflects the inevitability of reality catching up, and finally also the police.

The weight of this film is enough to crush the world beneath it.

  • Director: Terrence Malick
  • Watched on: 14th Jul 2017
  • Watched at: Riviera Kallio
  • 6/5

He eivät tiedä mitä tekevät

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I wanted to like this a lot more than I did. This is an ambitious Finnish novel, with a semi-sci-fi twist. More than enough reasons to like it right there. There’s a lot of problems though…

The major problem is that Valtonen doesn’t like any of his characters. Do you remember the Oscar bait film Crash from 2004 by Paul Haggis? It was hailed as a masterpiece and major film about racism. The problem with that film was the same – Haggis despised his characters and most of the film was spent pointing out the various ways in which Haggis thought his characters should do differently. This reads like that film – Valtonen has written a bunch of characters and then spends hundreds of pages pointing out, how those characters are acting stupidly. He! Wrote! Them! It’s extremely hypocritical to then go about pointing out their stupidity.

Valtonen gets basic human behaviors wrong both on individual and demographic levels. This is accentuated by the first problem – pointing out, how his own characters are stupid, is even more awful, when his characters are psychologically unsound.

The only suspense in the book is held by telling things in a weird order. It kind of emulates the fragmentary way in which people remember things, but feels unnatural and is used way too much. When a character drops into a memory, there might be a few more further drops into further memories and we might resurface maybe 150 pages later to actually find out the meaning of these memories in this scene. Also, often there’s no meaning to be found for these specific memories in this specific scene, when we resurface – they are there apparently just because Valtonen likes the trick, and because he is seemingly incapable of revealing the mystery slowly any other way.

The problems are sad. The parts of the novel that work are so good, that this could’ve been a great novel. I wished it to get better all the way to the end, but the ending is just the last punch in Valtonen’s despise for his characters. Now it is an ambitious novel that has huge potential, most of which is wasted.

  • Title: He eivät tiedä mitä tekevät
  • Author: Jussi Valtonen 
  • Year: 2014
  • Finished in: 24th Jun 2017
  • 2/5

The Alien Prequels

So Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Both of them are part of the same prequel story for the older Alien films. Prometheus came out five years ago and is the butt of many jokes about bad films these days. It deserves every bit of bile directed at it. It is that bad. Everybody thought that that branch of the Alien universe was dead, but then came out Alien: Covenant.

The main events of Alien: Covenant happen after the events of Prometheus, but there’s a short opening sequence that happens before the events of Prometheus. That is, you need to see Prometheus in order to understand the events of Alien: Covenant, but then again, the opening sequence of Alien: Covenant makes Prometheus more understandable. The exchange is not equal though. Alien: Covenant is a film set in a universe and you have to be aware of other works in the same universe to understand it fully. Once you do, Alien: Covenant is a decent film. Prometheus is kind of the same, except for two things – a film that came out 5 years after Prometheus, is necessary watching to understand even a bit of Prometheus; and even if you watch every other film in the Alien franchise, Prometheus is still an utterly crappy film.

I went to see Alien: Covenant, because it was the only film I had not seen that was still playing in Kino Sheryl, when I heard Kino Sheryl was closing down. At that point my memory of Prometheus was fragmentary at best, but sufficient to place Alien: Covenant in its correct place. Nevertheless, I had to re-watch Prometheus in order to figure out the whole plot so far.

Anyway, now for the reviews…

Alien: Covenant [2017]

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This is traditional Alien film in that there’s a space ship flying through space, when it suddenly encounters an extraordinary situation and then the actual film is about resolving said situation. It is not traditional in that it doesn’t hold much suspense, and the iconic monster doesn’t really make an appearance – well, some proto-version does, so I guess it counts.

Here, the space ship is a colony ship built by a religious order to (I presume) escape persecution and find more peaceful life somewhere else. The extraordinary situation is a storm in space that damages their ship, and a distress signal from a nearby planet that doesn’t appear on any star maps, but seems to be perfectly habitable. The plot is simple, let’s investigate and then try to survive whatever alienesque horror is unleashed.

That’s the plot of the individual film. As a part of the Alien franchise, this tells of David, the first android, and of birth of the alien menace. I assume there’ll still be more films in this vein, since although this answers more questions than it asks (it covers a bit for Prometheus), it still leaves a bunch things open. But we finally get answers about David. He was the first android and he revealed flaws that caused design changes to later androids. He has more freedom of thought, although creation is still denied to him. His freedom of thought brings him to despise humanity, and the denial of creation brings him to hate humanity. David spends his time trying to circumvent the prohibition to create, and attempts to create the perfect predator to kill all of humanity – that is, it seems he created the eponymous aliens of the film franchise.

In Prometheus we had a David that was seemingly played like a traditional badly design bad guy – he does evil things, because he is inherently evil. Now we finally have background for David – why is he like he is. Too bad the reason came 5 years after Prometheus, as David in Prometheus is an entirely different beast as in Alien: Covenant. I bet Fassbender needed to know the origins of his character to play it believably. In Alien: Covenant Fassbender is chillingly excellent. Besides David, he plays Walter, that is a later model that has more restrictions. Usually CGI trickery to get two character played by one actor on screen at one time is an excellent way to ruin scenes and even whole films, but here the opposite is achieved – Fassbender is absolutely on fire playing against himself.

Anyways, after 5 years of waiting, we get a few answers to the questions posed by Prometheus, and we get an altogether decent film with a major performance by Michael Fassbender. More than enough reasons right there to go see this.

  • Director: Ridley Scott
  • Watched on: 9th Jun 2017
  • Watched at: Kino Sheryl
  • 3/5

Prometheus [2012]

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One of the more inscrutable bits of Prometheus for me originally was David – why was he played like that, why did he act like that, did someone actually program malice into him, or what’s going on? The problem with that version of David was that Fassbender clearly had no idea about any of the reasons either. The malice of David in Prometheus is flat and boring. It still is, although we finally have an explanation to where it comes from.

Unfortunately, that does little to save the rest of the film. This is still 2 hours of compressed stupidity. I usually try to avoid taking note of consistency errors in films, as that’s boring – it usually does not make or break a film, but here there’s errors that are so blatantly stupid, that they alone would be enough to break the film. Luckily, they are buried under a bunch of other impeccably awful stuff. Performances, the precursor aliens, dialogue, plot… It was difficult to even pick a screenshot from the film, as it does not contain a single memorable sequence.

Before Alien: Covenant, there was no reason whatsoever for anyone to see this film. Now, almost unfortunately, we have a decent film in the Alien prequel film sequence. This is necessary viewing, in order to get everything out of Alien: Covenant, and that’s the only reason for anyone to watch this ever. If you are not a fan of the franchise, avoid this at all cost.

  • Director: Ridley Scott
  • Watched on: 28th Jun 2017
  • Watched at: Riviera Kallio
  • 1/5

Your Name [2016]

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A wonderful little love story with a mystical time paradox and body swap twist. The story tells of Mitsuha and Taki meeting in very strange conditions. Mitsuha is a girl living in a small mountain town that still adheres to old traditions. She wants nothing more than to escape the quiet life, where nothing ever happens, and move to Tokyo, where she could be free and not care about things other people consider important. Taki on the other hand is a Tokyo boy, who wishes to be an architect, but is lost and nameless in the big city and can’t find a meaningful connection anywhere.

Suddenly they start to swap bodies. When Taki goes to sleep, he dreams of being a girl living in a small mountain town. Conversely, Mitsuha dreams of being a big city boy studying to be an architect. At some point they start to realize that these are more than dreams and start to leave messages to each other in their diaries and phones. Obviously the decisions they make, while in each other’s bodies, are not the ones the body’s original would make and much lighthearted hilarity ensues. They start to grow affected towards each other, and when the body swaps suddenly end, Taki decides to go look for the girl.

At this point the story takes a more serious turn, as what Taki finds, is a town destroyed by a meteor strike. Taki figures out that the body swapping ended, because Mitsuha was killed in the meteor strike some years ago. I don’t remember the details of the time paradox, but there was some internal logic to it, so Taki manages to find a point of confluence, where he can talk with Mitsuha before the meteor strike and warn her of the impending doom. There is a warp backwards and many events are lost from both of their memories, but Mitsuha has survived. She makes her way to Tokyo and finally they meet at the end of the film.

I’m usually not that into love stories, unless they are exceptionally good. This is not exceptional, but the twist makes it interesting, as I find it entertaining to try to figure out, what is happening. The film has a lot of love towards Mitsuha and Taki, which is a further element that elevates the film. The film is easy and light to watch despite the occasional darker tones, beautiful on the eyes, comfortable and interesting. That’s plenty enough.

  • Director: Makoto Shinkai
  • Original Title: Kimi no na wa.
  • Watched on: 2nd May 2017
  • Watched at: Riviera Kallio
  • 3.5/5