The Expanse season 1

The Expanse - Season 1

I was sick for the week, so had some extra time and very little energy on my hands (as can be seen from the number of updates into this blog this week). Some of it was spent watching the full season 1 of The Expanse. It’s a Syfy production, but for some reason is marked as a Netflix original series in at least the Finnish market. I wondered about this, since production quality and cost is obviously above the Netflix standards. Biggest ever Syfy production explains it.

The series is a space opera situated in the 23rd century. Humanity has colonized the inner planets (well Earth and Mars) and there’s a multitude of space stations in various asteroids, moons and orbits. Earth is governed by a single UN government. It is in a bad shape, but still the best place to live in the system. Mars is controlled by a military regime. It has advanced beyond Earth in military technology, but is still a dead planet and everyone lives under a dome. The government and populace are single minded in their focus on terraforming Mars. The asteroid belt is a UN protectorate mining water, minerals and gases mostly for Earth, but also for Mars. There’s a peace that has been stretching very thin. Earth fears that Mars is making a move to claim Ceres, which is the trade hub for everything mined in the asteroid belt and the most important space station there. OPA, a terrorist organization based in the asteroid belt, is working to free the belters from their de facto slavery to claim the riches of the belt for the belters. A rich kid goes missing, a weird ship with contraband technology destroys a water mining ship, conspiracies are suspected left and right and pieces are set into motion.

The series reminds me of the unfortunately short lived Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome series. It had a similar setup of politics, intrigue, class based society, scarce resources, terrorism, gritty realism. They differ in that there’s no kind of leap of faith technologies present here. Technology hasn’t evolved into anything mystical, there’s nothing post human anywhere and everything happens in our own solar system – no warp drives or the like. I like it. The way Battlestar Galactica presented the Cylons and their more advanced technological feats was quite far fetched. On those parts the series jumped strictly on the side of science fantasy. Then again, all science fiction is science fantasy, but there’s always grades.

I like the setup, I like the focus areas (some adventure, some weird things in space, some intrigue, some detective work, some politics…) and I like the way the pieces are set in motion during this first season, but the few final episodes take the plot into a weird direction. There seems to be a big leap into science fantasy side of things. The fuse of the powder keg in the setting could easily be lit without any leaps into fantasy. I don’t like. The whole first season aims towards the big move in the final episodes, so it’s in a big role now. I hope the show runner will turn around on the topic and swipe it under the rug in season 2.

Despite the misgivings about the direction of the show, this is some of the best TV series scifi that I’ve seen. Very much recommended.

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Coraline

coraline

I noticed the book, while at the library with my family and added it to the stack of books we were picking up for our kid.

This is a novella about Coraline, whose parents don’t really pay too much attention to her until finally one day they disappear. Coraline suspects the weird door at the end of the unused room in their apartment. She enters the door to find a weird and twisted version of her own world with an other mother that tries to lure Coraline into staying in the other world.

The translation unfortunately sucks monkey balls. There’s several phrases that are lazily translated into language that just doesn’t fit into Finnish. Although the story pulled me in quickly, the translation kicked my out a few dozen times during the novella. This is a reason I prefer original language versions of books, if I just am fluent in the original language.

As mentioned, the story did pull me in, but due to the format and the target audience, it is quite simple. A fun and light read, but nothing too special.

  • Title: Coraline
  • Author: Neil Gaiman
  • Year: 2002
  • Finnish title: Coraline varjojen talossa
  • Translation by: Mika Kivimäki
  • Finished in: Feb 2017
  • 3/5

To Kill a Mockingbird

to_kill_a_mockingbird

I’m not going to be writing at pretty much any length on novels that I read, since I don’t feel like I have anything of importance to say most of the time. Just some notes to remember that I’ve read them.

To Kill a Mockingbird has been getting my attention for a while now and I finally picked up the Finnish translation – Kuin surmaisi satakielen – and read it.

It’s a coming-of-age story telling about Scout (Jean Louise Finch) living with his attorney father and big brother in a small town somewhere in Alabama. The town is quiet and days repeat without much variation, until a black man is accused of raping a white woman. Scout’s father is the attorney for the black man, who is seems to be innocent. – although he knows the result beforehand, he refuses to do anything but his best in defense of the man. This is the setting, where the 6-year-old Scout tries to make sense of the world.

The story is filled with affection and warmth and the language just sucks you into the novel’s world from the first page. I loved it from start to finish.

  • Title: To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Author: Harper Lee
  • Year: 1960
  • Finnish title: Kuin surmaisi satakielen
  • Translation by: Maija Westerlund
  • Finished in: Jan 2017
  • 5/5

La La Land [2016]

la_la_land

I had a date night with T and we went to see a film. This and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story [2016] were on the table and we chose this based on it being a rare musical (musicals being the secret pleasure of T) that interested me too. I was interested for the noise it was generating in the press and also for having seen Whiplash [2014] by Chazelle earlier.

Whiplash was a problematic film. On the one hand it is an extremely good film with a tight beyond measure structure and intensity. On the other hand it tells us that it is completely okay and sometimes even necessary to be an absolute asshole, and in the highest levels of competition, if you fail by just a hair, you are nothing. Obviously this is true on those levels, but still not a message I like seeing repeated.

After that I’m sure I’m not the only one surprised that Chazelle has managed an absolutely human story of love, dreams and their conflict. Where to begin…

Pretty much everything in this film is loaned from somewhere else, but the loaned pieces are chosen with taste. Also, everything has been at least slightly tuned for the film and the changes are improvements in the context of the film. This stealing extends through everything. Shots, angles, scenes, dance pieces, songs, plot twists, dialogue, clothing, settings… All of it is composed into a seamless film that manages to be something original and most of the times, if you catch the reference, it adds to the depth of the scene. That is, stealing is okay, if you steal from the best and know what you are doing.

In addition to the stolen bits, the film has its share of name dropping for film (and jazz too, but I’m not too familiar with that scene) aficionados. The whole referential layer is big enough to be appreciated on its own.

Then you have the camera work. This is just the opening scene – it’s not the first time single shot techniques have been used to capture complex choreographed scenes, but this is the first time it’s been done like this. The camera moves effortlessly among the cars and dancers hugging them closely, it twists on a dime to frame the next dancer chosen to be in the spotlight, it takes you inside the dance and moves around with ease that was surprising and effective.

That was just one case of inspired use of the camera in the film. Throughout the film, everything done with the camera supports the story. Sometimes it picks a framing to refer a similar framing in another film to add depth to this one. At other times the camera picks angles or uses frames within the frame to enhance emotions. Mostly this is basic stuff, but it is done very well and consistently here.

Although the script is nothing special, it is still very solid. Characters have motivations and the story has a flow and a rhythm. The camerawork, the references, all of that add depth to what is in the script. This is in essence yet another love story. Those tend to rise or fall based on the charisma of and chemistry between the leads. Here I bought into everything that Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling) and Mia (played by Emma Stone) went through together.

The story is about two aspiring artists. Mia works in a studio back lot cafe and dreams of acting herself, while Sebastian hopes to buy a piece of real estate that used to hold the most legendary jazz club in LA to revive the jazz club. They have a few chance meetings and end up being together, while chasing their dreams. One of them sells out to be successful, while the other keeps struggling. There’s bitterness over selling out and some misunderstandings and all the usual things. Then there’s an opportunity for the other that will separate them for a long time. Obviously the opportunity is taken and the parting is bittersweet, but that is just warming up for the finale. The final act is stolen straight out of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg [1964] – it is one of the most devastating film endings I’ve seen and I haven’t seen it copied elsewhere, so this is yet another stolen scene picked with taste and used to great effect in this context.

Besides being structurally and technically very very sound and interesting, the script gives the love story the framing it needs and Gosling and Stone take it the rest of the way. I was just blown away on so many levels. This is one of the rare cases, when a film is worthy of the Oscars it will be receiving in just a few weeks.

The grade is intentionally above the supposed maximum. It is reserved for films that have no flaws and are more than the sum of their parts. That is, for masterpieces, where everything adds up to more than it should. This is one of those.

  • Director: Damien Chazelle
  • Watched on: 21st Jan 2017
  • Watched at: Kinopalatsi
  • 6/5

A Few Films on the Road

I spent a few days at my to be in-laws in Imatra between Christmas and New Year. They have some paid film channels and I watched one film on both evenings there. The first one just caught my attention, when we started watching and the second one was familiar to me due to Oscar fame and Stephen Hawking.

Words and Pictures [2013]

words_and_pictures

Some people feel the need to make films in defense of lofty ideals. Mostly those films fall short, since their message turns naive in the pathos of the creators. This is no exception.

The ideal is worthy – art. This film picks literature and paintings to focus on and places the events in a private school under budget pressures to cut down on the art education. A formerly great writer, Jack Marcus (played by Clive Owen) , who has been unable to write anything after his critically acclaimed debut novel, is now a drunken English teacher trying to spark his students and annoy his fellow teachers. A formerly great painter, Dina Delsanto (played by Juliette Binoche), who is crippled by a disease, comes in and provides a formidable sparring mate for the English teacher. There’s a formal contest between the literature and arts classes to determine, which art form is more worthy. Obviously students are inspired and the teachers have a romance that complicates the competition and is bungled up by the drunkard and finally everyone and both arts are redeemed through a remorseful drunk’s noble actions.

Yeah, it is that bad. The film is filled with great quotes, but those are all quotes from great writers. The parts of the script not quoted from great writers are as painful as an overly self-confident high school student’s first novel.

Direction isn’t much better. At least the portions that are about art are watchable, but when it comes to the romance between Jack and Dina, the film absolutely falls apart. Binoche is one of the great actors of our time and Owen has been good in some pieces, but here they don’t seem to be doing their best to get through the awkward dialogue. The witty sparring is not witty. The slow realization of a spark between them comes out of nowhere, since at no time, is there a spark anywhere. And when the alcoholic finally hits the proverbial rock bottom, he just flips the switch and is sober and remorseful.

Despite all the failings, the film presents everything with no self-critique or shame. The writers are clearly capable of picking great quotes from great writers, but are completely blind to their own writing. Also the supporting work for the film is bland. Camera work is by a professional, but he clearly came in to do his day job, not to create something inspirational. The same goes for pretty much everything else.

The stars go for the inspirational quotes and great paintings. Nothing else is worth the time.

  • Director: Fred Schepisi
  • Watched on: 27th Dec 2016
  • Watched at: TV broadcast (C More First HD)
  • 2/5

The Theory of Everything [2014]

the_theory_of_everything

I usually have a picture of the film I’m writing about just to give an idea about the visual nature of the film. I always try to pick some screenshot instead of using the poster. Usually the marketing people creating posters are trying to sell the film, so they present a really twisted view of the film. Here the poster is appropriate though – the film is as bland as the poster. The film is based on Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, a book by Stephen Hawking’s ex-wife Jane Hawking, and the film is a story about… well, I still don’t really know. Jane (played by Felicity Jones) and Stephen (played by Eddie Redmayne) are certainly in it.

So yeah, I went in with bad expectations. I thought that this was going to be the story of the life work of Stephen with some added relationship drama to get in some viewers, but instead we get the story of Stephen and Jane’s marriage with some added drama about Stephen’s disease. Here we have one of the greatest scientific minds of our time, one that is capable of popularizing science as well, so the scriptwriters could’ve just loaned Stephen for a bit to write the difficult parts for them, and what do we get? A love story.

The thing is, it’s not a good love story. If you take away the science and the disease, you are left with two people, who fall in love, live an ordinary life with ordinary struggles and in the end grow tired of each other and fall apart. The disease is there as occasional near deaths or intended-as-dramatic-but-failing shots of Stephen not being able to hold a pencil anymore, and as gadgets that improve over time. The science is there as a few glimpses of important positions gained or lectures held and as a guy utterly devoted to his work and not giving much time or thought to his long suffering wife. So is this then a story about Jane? Not really no. She is almost never in the spotlight. We mostly get short shots of a tired wife looking frustrated when the husband is not looking, and feeling trapped, because of the disability of his husband, or of her rushing in to save Stephen’s life. She really does not get more than one or two scenes with meaningful lines.

So yeah, the film ends up being pretty much about nothing. The wife spends her time on the sideline despite the film being based on a book written by her. The husband’s career is ignored and the disease is just shown as the everyday struggles this couple has to overcome. Mostly he is just an annoying presence for the wife.

I just don’t know… It has tiny bits and pieces from here and there and completely fails to concentrate on anything. This is partly due to falling into the most common novel adaptation trap there is – it tries to fit in everything from the novel, so it ends up racing through scenes without giving the film time to breath and live a life of its own.

The film is just riddled with deficiencies. The characters are boring due to editing out the interesting bits (I’m sure there’d be some interesting bits to the love story, but they are not in the film due to the film trying to fit in everything). The structure fails at having no main character. The pacing is non-existent, since the film just offers very quick glimpses here and there. The script is flawed, since it has managed to edit out everything that could be of interest, while trying to fit in everything. Camera work is analytical to the tee, which makes it just boring.

The Academy Awards are a suckers for mechanical performances, where the actor spends his time emulating some disabled person (Forrest Gump, The King’s Speech…), so it’s no surprise Redmayne won a trophy for this. The performance is impressive, but it is just that – Redmayne just repeats the shakes, awkward hand positions and drooling, nothing more.

This just feels like a missed opportunity.

  • Director: James Marsh
  • Watched on: 28th Dec 2016
  • Watched at: TV broadcast (C More First HD)
  • 1.5/5

A Day at the Cinema

Recently, I had some troubles and needed to gain some distance and clear my head in order to take a fresh look at that stuff. With that in mind, I headed to the movies. The picks are slightly weird, but I just went to see what was starting next, so this is what you get…

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them [2016]

fantastic_beasts

So there was never any possibility for the Hollywood to let go of such a profitable franchise as Harry Potter. First they’ll mine through all the stuff produced by Rowling and unless Rowling can stop them, they’ll plow ahead to milk the cow until it is dead. This is the first of the Rowling produced texts outside the main Potter stories to be turned into a feature film.

And not surprisingly, Hollywood has no idea what to do with the film. There’s a bungling idiot, who by accident releases a bunch of creatures in NYC, gets into to trouble with local wizard community while trying to catch them back, happens to be there, when a proto-Voldemort thingie reveals itself and then saves the day. There’s obviously a girl involved and blaa blaa.

I just wonder, how a guy like David Yates went from directing mini series and short films to directing the Harry Potter franchise. He has now 5 major films under his belt – the four last Potter films and now this. Checking IMDb, I noticed to my horror, that there’s already been 4 sequels announced to this and Yates has been attached to all of them. Well, I’d be smiling in his shoes with the paychecks he’s raising without really even trying.

There is no main character in the film. Nothing happens to anyone, nobody changes, they just stumble through the events and by chance happen to be there, when something important happens. There’s some beautiful shots of weirdly Victorian British looking NYC. There’s a few entertaining moments mostly powered by the bungling idiot’s, that is, Newt’s (played by Eddie Redmayne), smiles or the few funny slapstick episodes involving some of the escaped creatures. Obviously the production values are through the roof.

That is, the production does everything right to make the film a smooth and enjoyable ride. That it is, but they forgot to add in the sights. You can easily pass the time with this, but you’ll come out as bored as you went in.

  • Director: David Yates
  • Watched on: November or December 2016
  • Watched at: Kinopalatsi
  • 2/5

The Girl with All the Gifts [2016]

the_girl_with_all_the_gifts

Every now and then, there’s a film that starts at the festival tour and ends up being a surprise hit with the main stream audiences too. Usually they ride on a plot twist gimmick of one sort or another. This is no exception to that.

Colm McCarthy, a first time feature film director, has shot yet another Sixth Sense or the like. The film is completely average, if you know what it’s about, but if they get to spring the surprise on you, you’ll be in awe for a few days – long enough to recommend it to your friends and the film becomes a hit. So stop reading, if you intend to watch it.

Yeah, it’s yet another zombie film. Here we start in some sort of a military facility, where a bunch of kids go through varied classes during the day, but are chained to their wheel chairs and sleep in locked and guarded solitary cells. After a while they drop the first hint and then a few more and finally the zombies break through to the compound. A few soldiers and teachers, and one of the kids flee together. Cue in a bunch of narrow escapes with the one red shirt dropping along the way, a few difficult decisions and some power struggles between the soldiers and teachers on what is important now. Obviously the ending is the second surprise, although you see it coming a mile away – the human race is ended and the second generation zombies will take over.

So, why the 3.5 stars then? The first segment of the film is really effective. It keeps raising tension slowly and you really don’t know, what is going on, before the curtain finally falls. That bit would’ve been a masterpiece short film. After that there is absolutely nothing special about the film, but it isn’t bad either. It remains a tightly structured and nicely paced film to the end.

  • Director: Colm McCarthy
  • Watched on: November or December 2016
  • Watched at: Kinopalatsi
  • 3.5/5

The Wolfpack [2015]

the_wolfpack.jpg

Now here’s a film I don’t really know what to think about…

Six boys, and a girl, kept behind locked doors in lower east side Manhattan for 14 years. Home schooled by their mother and seemingly mostly abandoned by their bitter at life alcoholic father. Raised watching films and reenacting them as their pastime.

It’s an interesting human experiment, something all of us have thought about at some point in time – what would happen, if someone would be raised in isolation and then presented to the modern society…? Here we have a documentary about a family of 9 in exactly that situation and in the middle of one of the most densely packed cities of the world. So is it a worthy documentary or is it intruding very publicly into the lives of a family that is seemingly very incapable of handling any sort of publicity or even life in general? And how’d things turn out?

Well, the boys turn out to be adolescent Tarantinos, who worship film and without any sort of education to hone their eye, they just have kept at watching films for so long and with such intensity that they have developed some sharp eyes towards it in any case. They turn out to finally rebel against the father, who keeps them locked away and start to explore the world, or NYC at least. Apparently after the film, they’ve found spots in the crews of various independent film productions and some have even something that resembles the start of a career within the film industry.

The daughter isn’t much shown – I think probably out of protection. The mother is presented as trapped by the situation. Would’ve left the abusive patriarch of the family, if not for wanting to offer at least some protection to the kids. The father is mostly shown drunk or angry. There are hints of physical violence in addition to the overwhelming mental violence he employs to control the whole family. Seemingly, as his alcoholism progressed, he slowly lost control and interest in the family to the point, where rebellion was actually possible. The father has some realization over what he has done, as he offers some weak excuses on wanting to protect the kids from the depraved ways of the big city people. Still, he raised his kids with violent films mostly situated in big cities and offered very little context for them, so the kids grew up idolizing urban life and violence as presented in films. We are not told, if the door was locked or not.

In the end, no matter how worthy the subject might be, the film is a jackpot of yellow paper journalism – they found an untouched weirdo family and had the exclusive rights at presenting all of that to the world. I’m having a hard time finding something to like within that premise.

But as mentioned, the film has propelled some of the kids towards careers in their dream business and the film at least attempts to be gentle with the family. Backstory tells us that the director befriended the family and only with the express permission of the family, shot the film. So maybe there’s something of worth here in the end.

  • Director: Crystal Moselle
  • Watched on: October or November 2016
  • Watched at: TV broadcast on Yle Teema
  • 3/5