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More Watching: Oct 2020

I thoroughly enjoyed 2018's The Haunting of Hill House. This October, just in time for Halloween, the same director, Mike Flanagan, returns with a new, loosely connected mini-series, The Haunting of Bly Manor.


Viewers will notice about half a dozen of the actors from Hill House have returned for Bly Manor, but all in different roles, in no way connected between storylines, much like the shuffling of talent and characters American Horror Story does. Besides a few of the same faces, Bly Manor delivers the same slow building of suspense as Hill House did and offers a similar dive deep into many characters' internal conflicts. 


In Hill House, everything came to a head as a web of details across the series becomes apparent in the finale. I haven't quite reached the end of the show, but feel like I'm walking the threads of a similar web, just not yet sure what lies in the middle. However, I'm eager to find out.

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What I've Been Watching: Oct 2020

Lovecraft Country is one of few series I can think of, which I've followed through weekly releases in the last five or six years. Usually, in this on-demand age, I tend to dig in when a series is available to plow through a few episodes at a time. With Lovecraft Country, I'd been anticipating the series for a while, and with it slated to wrap up so close to Halloween, I didn't want to wait and end up finishing the series with my Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. I'd almost forgotten what it was like to sit on the edge of your seat through an episode, only to have it end, and realize you'll have to wait a whole week to find out what happens next. It's excruciating and wonderful, and Lovecraft Country masterfully carried suspense through every installment.

The show sits squarely at the crossroads of fantastic, supernatural horror, and grounded realistic human horror by blending the Lovecraftian paranormal with US 1960's racial terror. In one scene, we find black characters being chased from a rural town by a mob of armed white supremacists, including the local authorities. In another scene, we get characters being chased by 100-eyed devil dog monsters. We see character flashbacks to the Tulsa Massacre, intertwined with future human time travel and braided with secret-society witchcraft. Without watching, one might think the series draws from far too much, yet it all weaves together seamlessly.

Not to mention, the series has a fantastic cast, captivating character development, and incredible production value through all the monsters, period settings, and fantasy. I don't think I can say much more than; I loved this series.

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More What I've Been Watching: Sept 2020

I didn't know what to expect from the new Perry Mason series, only that it would involve some sort of mystery, investigation, and trial, and that with HBO producing, it wasn't likely to be as clean as the old black and white network show. I thought I'd give it a shot.

I'm not a huge fan of reboots and remakes. I'd rather see something original that stands on its own. However, when one ventures down that road, I think you'd better at least have something new to say with it. Thankfully, that's precisely that the new Perry Mason delivered.

Unlike the old episodic show, this series takes one case and delves deep into it, stretching across the whole season. This lets the show dig into the characters. They give Mason, and other familiar names,  complex backstories. And introduce a handful of new, engaging characters. Meanwhile, the show touches on themes of sexism and gender roles, specifically professional limitations for women, PTSD, discrimination against LGBT, and racism. All this, plus rich period details from being set at the same time as the blossoming Golden Age of Hollywood, between the world wars, and during prohibition, which comes with its organized crime and police corruption, to name a few.

Altogether, I found it enthralling, and I won't miss it if it goes into another season.

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What I've Been Watching: Sept 2020

I've followed the Westworld series with interest through its first two seasons. The themes of AI, how it might become sentient, how people might control it and potentially abuse and subjugate it, and how it might react or fight back, are all fascinating, along with some excellent storytelling.  I eagerly awaited season three, in which the AI were set up to leave their captive world and start bringing the fight into human society.

(Spoilers Ahead) One thing I liked right off the bat is the new focus on corporations collecting vast data on every citizen and, in turn, using that information to control, limit, and generally manipulate people. This is a very topical notion, albeit taken to an extreme in Westworld, it has a very 1984 "big brother" sort of vibe, and it works. Season three also ups the stakes exploring the practical possibilities, with the nature of the AI beings, of copying one personality, something humans can't do and putting one AI's core "AI brain" into another AI's body. Where the earlier seasons played with telling the story out of continuity to keep us guessing, season 3 uses this cup-and-ball game of identities to deceive viewers. This increases the challenge of keeping everything straight beautifully. Altogether, I liked this season.

One gripe I have is that while Westworld has always blended the abstract and intellectual with high action, Season 3 gets a bit out of balance in the very last episode. Basically, all the cerebral, thought-provoking elements are strung-out through the first seven episodes, along with some decent action. However, episode 8 becomes just an action-packed, violent, grueling slugfest, with every reference to anything intellectual a mere rehash of what we've already discovered, and thus almost nothing to mull over. I don't think any of the action doesn't make sense for the story, but the tone shift makes it seem like a different show entirely. I feel like some of the action climaxes could have been spread over the last two episodes in order to keep reserve some challenging ideas for the finale.

Overall, I give the season fair marks, but if you're going to drop the ball on one episode, it stinks for it to be the end. All that said, I'll still be tuning in for a season 4.

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What I've Been Watching: July 2020

Unbreakable Series (or the Eastrail 177 Trilogy)

I saw Unbreakable, the first movie in what turned out to be a trilogy from M. Night Shyamalan back when it came out in 2000. I was still in high school, and I remember thinking the movie was cool, but that I wasn't particularly wowed. Shyamalan was riding high in popularity after The Sixth Sense 1999, but I don't think Unbreakable captured the magic he'd found in The Sixth Sense. Sixteen years later, Shyamalan released Split 2016 with James McAvoy. I have a lot of respect for McAvoy and was interested in the movie as a thriller, only to later learn it tied into Unbreakable. Perhaps it was that tie-in that kept me from seeing it right away. Then, of course, Glass came out last year (2019), which unmistakably referred to Samuel L. Jackson's character from Unbreakable. I'm a fan of Jackson and remember thinking his role was the most interesting of the first film. At that point, I was pretty sure I'd watch the series, it just took me a while to get to it.

Now 20 years out from seeing Unbreakable, I thought it was best to go back to the beginning. I'm glad I did, but it meant finding 6-7 hours to dedicate to the series. Altogether, I think the trilogy works very well, and I really enjoyed it. Unbreakable holds up. McAvoy was great in Split. Anya Taylor-Joy, who some might know from The Witch, was an unforeseen delight in Split.  Bringing all the fascinating characters crafted through the first two movies, including Taylor-Joy's, to a collective head in Glass was fantastic.  On top of that, without giving any spoilers, it's worth discussing the series connection to comic books and, in turn, comic book movies. Obviously, comic book movies have dominated the box office over the last ten years, with Marvel's colossal franchise.

The Unbreakable trilogy is meta, unlike the blockbusters. They're internally aware of comic books and of comic book culture. Marvel and DC movies aren't. Once more, similar to Watchmen (Both the movie and series), Unbreakable takes a dark but realistic look at how regular people react to superpowers or superheroes when they encounter them. In Marvel's movies, the government wants to control the Avengers so that there are some restrictions and accountability for the team's actions. That's a fair notion. In some Batman and Spiderman movies, the police or governments all the heroes vigilantes.  However, the people, and secretly some of the authorities all root for them.

In the Unbreakable series, people are not so welcoming. They're more likely to be scared and label "super" differences as marks of insanity.  This fear-driven reaction to something different comes off as far more realistic, sadly, in our worlds, making this series of films feel quite a bit more mature than other big-name franchise installments. The X-Men series also shines a light on how people treat those with differences poorly, and people who are radically different terribly, which is why I've enjoyed some of that franchise. It just feels a bit more grown-up. James McAvoy appears in that one too...coincidence?

My enjoyment of the series also forces me to look back at why I wasn't so impressed with Unbreakable back in '99, and I think there are a lot of problems. First, the movie revolves around David Dunn (Bruce Willis) realizing his unusual strength and health, being told by Jackson's character, Mr. Glass that he is a superhero like in a comic book, and then wrestling with whether or not to believe it. It seems like Dunn is in limbo and wrestling with many things in his life, including his marriage. If that is the story, seeing him either reject the idea and willfully go back to a mediocre existence, or seeing him accept it, and become the hero seems to be the endings the movie is building toward, but that is not where the movie ends.

Dunn does go out and do one heroic act, using his powers to save a pair of endangered teens and catch a killer, but we get no indication that is what he plans to keep doing. The movie ends (spoilers) with Dunn telling Glass, and then a big Shymalan, quintessential twist, where Glass reveals he committed mass murders in order to find Dunn, and that Glass is essentially a comic book mastermind type villain. The movie, for me, just ends but does not finish. And that is not better illustration than that the last minute is literally, paragraphs on the screen telling us that Dunn had Glass arrested and sent to jail. Dunn can become a hero, Glass believes himself a supervillain, and all we get is a few paragraphs telling us Dunn reported Glass. It was just a big let down. I think, just five more minutes showing Dunn deciding to become a hero, and acting like one; or, showing Glass and Dunn in conflict, and then GLass flee, so we know the story will continue, would have been far better.

Now, once the other films are taken into account, this ending isn't such a big problem. We know the story is just getting started. The end of Unbreakable just signals the intermission, so to speak, before act two. In this way, it now serves as a setup to a larger story, and it works far better.

In short, Unbreakable was so-so as a stand-alone in 2000, but it turns out it was a compelling start to an exciting and deep trilogy.

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What I've Been Watching: June 2020

I recently binged an unconventional series from amazon prime video called Hunters, and it was an odd delight. On the one hand, with a talent like Al Pacino, the series has respectability. But on the other, the series does bizarre things like breaking the narrative, and even the fourth wall to throw in a two-minute mock, antisemitic gameshow clip.

The premise: a teen, working in a comic book store, gets pulled into a dark, secretive world of vigilante Nazi-hunting after the untimely death of his grandmother. While that is fantastic, Hunters pits the Nazi-hunting team, not only against German Nazi defectors, living in hiding in the US, but a sophisticated, clandestine organization of Nazis trying to reestablish their former power.

Sometimes the show is over-the-top. Many of the characters are exaggerated stereotypes, and it has an air of catharsis to it as the Nazis are slain, and viewers get an "oh wouldn't it be nice" sort of feeling of justice. But for all its quirks, it does weave a tangled web of suspense as the Hunters uncover more villains, the Nazi organization uncover the Hunters, and an FBI agent uncovers both. Whether it's the fantastic suspense or the fantasy aspect of the storytelling, it's hard to take your eyes away.
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What I've Been Watching: May 2020

I started watching the Star Trek Picard series pretty much right when it came out and was keeping up week to week. I am a long time Star Trek fan. Sadly, I got sidetracked before watching the last couple of episodes, thanks to COVID and kids. But, I recently set out to remedy the situation.

I have mixed feelings about this series. There are lots of things I like, and some not so much. However, in the end, I think I'd rather have it than have nothing.

For me, the genius in Start Trek is that besides being cool sci-fi with good storytelling, it has tried to cast a critical eye on social problems. Some obvious and contemporary, such as racism. Other cases have been more abstract such as what rights an artificial intelligence might be entitled too.  Then, such real-world importance has been paired with exhibiting forefront scientific and engineering thinking. Sure, there is artistic license, and sure, some things are wrong in retrospect. But, it is easy to see how Star Trek has tried to come up with as realistic of scientific ground for the sci-fi fantasy as possible. From warp drive to replicators, and sometimes Trek has been remarkably prophetic, such as computer voice interaction and tablet computers. Heck, in my experience, few sci-fi properties have even tried to explain how they achieve faster than light speeds. And of the few that do, none have been more realistic than Trek's warp drive.

Now, much of that went out the window in the JJ Abrams Trek movies. They were first and foremost action movies. While much of the cast was great, I wasn't especially thrilled with rehashing old characters or throwing out the Trek fidelity to science. Still, after years without a new Star Trek, I could at least take some satisfaction in the property being revitalized. And to give credit where it is due, I don't imagine it would have been as easy, perhaps not even possible to have the Discover series or the new Picard series without the Abram's Trek movies. So at least there's that.

With that in mind, where does Picard fall? For me, the series is all about character. The Picard character is beloved, and now we get to bring him back and double down on his screen time. With that, we get to revisit a few other beloved characters along his journey and meet a few new ones. This is different from previous movies and series, which have been rather ensemble-driven, maybe more like many of the Star Trek books over the years. And I can buy into it. I, too, love Captain Picard.

It's the rest where I have some trouble. Rather than weight what remains aside from Picard's life in realistic science, we get a lot more action. In fact, what technology can do or cannot do seems entirely dependent on what is easiest for the story. (Spoiler Ahead) If the science and tech exist to recreate Data's consciousness form one positronic neuron and taking for granted all the miracle medical advancements we've seen in Trek, how the heck can Picard be so fragile to a brain abnormality? It's just total disregard for any realism and, in many places, a move backward in technology. Another example, now the ships are controlled through holographic interphase. Is there some reason to think this is an advancement? They've had holograms since TNG began. I guess it looks more futuristic, but that's not the Star Trek way to me.

Next, there's the social conscious. The entire season arc is based on the rights and treatment of synthetic life. Now, this on its own is a Trek worthy idea. So much so, that we've seen it explored more than once on TNG through Data-centric and Borg-centric episodes and even movies. Revisiting it alone doesn't bother me, but the notion that somehow Starfleet has taken huge steps backward in this area is hard to swallow, and the explanations seem more convenient then well thought out and intelligently explored.

I wanted to love this series, but instead, I just like it.

That's right, I still really like it. I am a fanboy in some regards here, so see Picard in any way is delightful. Getting throwbacks to Riker and Troy, 7 of 9, and Hugh, that's right the borg Hugh. These are all wonderful. And a season 2 promises more. I also very much liked most of the new characters.  I'd like to have seen better fidelity to the Trek of old in spirit, but Picard is superior to the recent movies, and I'll take it. See you for season 2.
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What I've Been Watching: February 2020

I read Stephen King's The Outsider about a year ago, which HBO adapted into a miniseries. The show began in January and recently aired its 10th and final episode (I'm assuming). Thus, I gave it a watch.

Let me start with a look back on the book. I enjoyed quite a bit about it. The story had a lot of cool and fascinating, dark ideas. But there was something I didn't at the time quite put my finger on that I think detracted from it. Ultimately, I have the book four stars. Now that I've seen the TV adaptation, I think I've sorted it out.

But let me mention some high lights. First, the mood in the series was spot on. I was attracted to the talent involved. I like Jason Bateman, who played a key role and directed a couple of episodes. The rest of the cast is excellent, particularly Cynthia Erivo. I also found the adaptation to have a lot of fidelity to the book. There were some superficial changes. The adaptation took place in Georgia while the book was set in Oklahoma. (I'm sure production incentives are responsible for that,) There were also a few secondary characters altered. One secondary character had a mother in the book with a tiny part, which they shifted to a brother in the adaptation. I don't consider fidelity necessarily a defining point of quality in an adaptation, mostly I feel that the changes are valid so long as they bring something new. Still, in this case, where the changes are small and mostly insignificant, it can be a positive. At least they didn't change something radically and not deliver added value with the change. Altogether, I'd say its a good adaptation and an entertaining watch.

But here's the trouble, I think this story, both book, and adaptation, fail in two key points—first, the suspension of disbelief. When you tell a story, if you are going to have magic or creatures, or anything supernatural, you have to control the suspension of disbelief for the audience. If you don't, you can give them a shock that kills that story, a surprise that is too out of left-field to swallow. If magic is going to play a part in your story, you can't introduce it in the last act; it's off-putting. You have to suggest that possibility at least early in the story. Imagine reading a mystery, something like a police procedural, trying to figure out who killed so and so, only to have a new character show up in the last 20 pages, who ends up being guilty. You'd be angry that you never heard of the character. It's the same with the supernatural. In The Outsider, there is a supernatural element in the story, but it starts as a murder mystery from the POV of the detective trying to close the case. It doesn't really give us a peek at the supernatural element for a while. It's not so bad as to not appear until the last act, but probably not until a quarter of the way into the story, and I think it still manages to be problematic.


Second, one of the book's strengths is in character development. We get to know the lives of something in the range of a dozen characters who are either the people hunting the bad guy or a few who are his victims. But this proves to be a weakness as well, because the antagonist, the bad guy, who is essentially a boogie man, is almost completely undeveloped. By contrast, this, too, is awkward. He's not a creature who we might think of as animalistic. He posses as and acts like a regular person, and thus we can presume he has human intellect at the least. Yet, about the only motive we're given for his terrible acts is that he's hungry. We know he's capable of really horrific acts, but have no real understanding of why he's ok with doing them. Thus the character falls flat, and it's hard to endure through a long book or 10 hours of a tv series.

In short, the adaptation captures the novel well, but in turn shares the books weaknesses.
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What I've Been Watching: Jan. 2020

I haven't read Joe Hill's NOS4A2, but I'd heard of it and saw AMC adapted it for a series, so I gave it a whirl. It stars Ashleigh Cummings as Vic McQueen, a troubled teenager just discovering she has extraordinary powers. The series also features Zachary Quinto, of Heros and Star Trek 2009 fame, as Charlie Manx, the antagonist in the story. He is not a vampire as we usually see one, but the NOS4A2 moniker seems to label him. I didn't know what to expect going in, except for something vampire-related, which I feared might be unoriginal and tiresome. I was pleased with what I found.

Let's start with the vampire aspect. While the story alludes to a creature that lives off of others, the similarity of that with the larger canon of vampires are fairly few. Hill takes the core nature of vampire mythology, then re-imagines it in a different sort of character, with a quite different way of behaving. And none of the typical rules we are used to. Then, to go a step further, Hill makes his Nosforatu one of many extraordinary people, each with different powers, limitations, and goals. I found that fascinating, as it made the vampire-like qualities of Charlie Manx, more a result of his power and his personality, rather than just the rules he was forced into when turned into a vamp. Other people have different powers and different personalities, and thus end up vastly different characters.

I found the show to be well-acted. Cummings is convincing as Vic McQueen, and both actors portraying the parents in her dysfunctional family are fantastic. The family troubles at the root of Vic's character are palpable and honest. My one criticism here is that the story seems to remind us of Vic's problems over and over again. Sort of like a soap opera, where they won't let you forget the root drama, even if you miss an episode or two. I wonder if this is a result of coming from one book, into a multipart story, and not having quite enough plot points in Vic's personal troubles, to hit a new one in each episode, thus they have to resort to kind of replaying a few. Anyway, its a weakness, but a surmountable one, and certainly not a fault big enough to keep me from returning to the series when it comes back for season 2.
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What I've Been Watching: Dec 2019

I started watching the new Watchmen series on HBO when it debut, however the Netflix age of binging may have gotten to me because I found waiting a week for a new episode lent to distractions. Thus, after a couple of episodes, I slipped away and came back when the season finished. Then I watched it in a couple of evenings.

If you're at all familiar, you'll know that the series ties into the Watchmen movie from 2009, which in turn was based on a comic book series of the same name from 1986-87. Though the new series is a sequel, largely set several decades after the movie's time period, the series also frequently jumps into the past, to the very start of masked vigilantes and even before that. The new series also introduces mostly new characters, and while their lives and the world acknowledge the characters from the movie, they are distinct, and the flashbacks serve more to develop the current characters than anything else.

I found the original movie, which was my first experience with the Watchmen universe, to be a compelling look at a more human and faulted version of superheroes. Not your Superman, or Batman, but truly multifaceted people. I love that. The villains aren't evil strawmen. The heroes aren't angelic. They're all just people, flawed, sometimes selfish, sometimes generous, and often egotistical as would be natural from having exceptional powers... people.

The series does an excellent job of keeping that theme alive while introducing and developing new, distinct, fascinating characters, taking them and us viewers on exciting and action-filled stories, and still ties it all into the source material. The story draws from the original, feeds into the original through flashbacks, and adds layers to it as well.

This is way more than just a sequel series. It doesn't just continue the story; it builds to new heights on it's back.  I imagine that was the goal going in, and I say they nailed it, plus the acting is fantastic.

Do yourself a favor, go back and watch the 2009 movie, then dig in on the 2019 series. Otherwise, who's watching the Watchmen?
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What I've Been Watching: Nov. 2019

I've recently started watching the sci-fi series, Another Life, on Netflix. I'm about halfway through the season. So far, I have mixed feelings on this one.

The show features Katee Sackhoff, who you may remember her from Battlestar Galactica, or even from Longmire, which I rather enjoyed. We'll now she's Niko Breckenridge, a captain in some space-exploring government agency. Presumably of the US, but not stated outright. The series begins with an alien ship or probe from an unknown corner of the galaxy arriving on Earth, landing, and erecting a crystal-like structure that starts sending a signal. It appears to be un-manned. Soon after, a ship is launched on a mission to travel to where they believe the probe originated. There Niko and her crew are to investigate and/or make contact with whoever sent it.

Some things I like:

· Sackhoff's character is complex. She's outwardly confident, but also carries a lot of guilt for leaving her family and because of troubles in a previous command. Thus, she grapples with a lot of self-doubts. On top of this, she is a bad-ass who can fight and doesn't back down when challenged. Early, she is tested by an egotistical man who thinks he should be the one in command, and without spoiling anything, let just say, it doesn't go well for that guy.

· The story alternates between events on the ship and events back on Earth, both involving the crystal probe, and the captain's husband and daughter. It adds layers of drama and tension.

· The ship has an A.I., which presents itself as a human via holographic projection. It has flirted with issues of ethics and sentient A.I. though it hasn't gotten into this deeply...yet.

· Dabbles in reflecting modern social issues with one crew member being transgender, though little focus is placed on this. It's treated more like a regular aspect of life in this near future, which is pretty cool.

· Everything is built around the underlying tension of humans having a first contact with an alien species. Will they be hostile? Benevolent? Will we be hostile and undermind any chances of a fruitful relationship?


Some things I question:

· Disiplin is extremely poor on the ship and creates a great deal of the problems. We're not led to believe that the space organization is a military one, but they assign a captain and a second in command, so one would think that the ship is not a free for all where every member of the crew does what they please. Most merchant vessels and science vessels alike still tend to have a captain-down hierarchy, which, if not followed, yields some negative consequence. Not so for this ship, and if they did, so far, it would have headed off most of their troubles. I'm not saying insubordination has no place in a story, but then the disobedience should be the conflict, not the routine genesis of other trouble. In a way, it feels like lazy writing. If anyone is familiar with Star Gate Universe (2009-2010), you'll get a similar feeling among the crew on Another Life. They're always at odds with a failing ship, and always at odds with one another in a power struggle. However, in SGU, they were a bunch of random people who ended up the crew of an ancient Alien ship by happenstance, so they didn't know how to operate the ship and weren't ever intended to be a crew. The same just doesn't seem to fit the narrative for Another Life.

· The technology doesn't seem to match society. The ship is traveling to another star in the span of months. For this to be practical, they must have faster than light capability. They even talk in one episode about making a detour, which is only four light-years, as if it is an inconvenient distance but not a debilitating one. Yet, as of halfway thought the season, there has been no talk of other ships currently out traveling space. The mission that haunts the captain happened near Saturn, so still in our solar system. There is no mention of space stations or other vessels that have been out anywhere near them. At the same time, they don't talk like this is some substantial new accomplishment, as if no other human has been out this far before. Likewise, the alien probe got to Earth's atmosphere apparently without detection. One would think that a society capable of traveling at the minimum to nearby stars would have means to detect an approaching ship, and with a space fleet, potential meet it prior to its landing on our home planet. It's all just a little odd and feels like it wasn't thought out. When you've got FTL, cryo-sleep, synthesized gravity, and the ability to stock a ship with food and water for a large crew and for months of travel, it just seems like certain little things that seem to come up as trouble, should be accounted for already.

· More trope than originality. As an author myself, I've read a lot of genre writing advice that suggests writers know their genre's tropes well. The general idea being, that while certain things might seem cliche, if you ignore them all, you're not likely to satisfy the audience. This could be good advice. If you made a sci-fi story set in a future where humans were able to travel deep into space, but you didn't have advanced computer systems, or alien contact, or ship malfunctions, which can all be sci-fi tropes, then you likely wouldn't have a very well-liked product. But at the same time, you can't have a story that is all trope. Even if you hit all the routine points viewers and readers tend to like; it can still fall flat without at least one new-ish underlying premise. For Another Life, I can't quite put my finger on what that extra something was intended to be.


Altogether I'd call Another Life and pretty middle of the road sci-fi series. It's got a Ripley from Alien sort of leading lady, a Star Gate Universe kind of hodge-podge crew, and an Arrival type of first contact puzzle. But it's a lot like listening to your favorite band's greatest hits album. It's all familiar, there's a lot you like, but you're not going to find anything you haven't heard before, and the elements don't all quite fit together the way they would on a regular album.


The characters have been compelling enough that I'll likely stay tuned to finish the rest of the season, but I won't be surprised if Another Life never gets a second.
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What I've Been Watching: Oct. 2019

Penny Dreadful, a Showtime series from a few years ago, featured Dr. Frankenstien, his monster(s), Werewolves, Dracula, Dorean Gray, and much more. What could be better for Halloween?

I started this series, available on Netflix, around 2016. But I was late to it. I think I started about the time the news broke that Season 3 was to be it's last. I gobbled up the first two seasons, then my enthusiasm faded. I don't know if it was just burnout from binging the first two seasons, or if knowing that series was all but over made me not want to jump into the final season. It can't end if I don't keep watching?

Whatever the case, I shelved the series, moved on to something else, and then two years slipped by. With my yearning for the eerie as October sets in, I finally returned to finish the series.

Altogether, I enjoyed Penny Dreadful. I am a bit hesitant when it comes to new spins on old material. I generally like to see something new, so the reimagining of Frankenstein, Dracula, and so on, into one intermingled web of a story is something on the surface I might turn my nose at, but this series does pull it off well and delves into new depths of character development for these familiar stories. It also creates a wonderfully dark atmosphere and a compelling mystery. Penny Dreadful structures all the intersecting story arcs around a character new character, at least to me, named Vanessa Ives, played by the always compelling Eva Green. I think this was a good move, as not to rely on the old monsters, but rather to flirt them in and out of Ms. Ives' story.

As for season three, it wrapped things up well enough and left viewers with a few things to think about later. But I felt it was a bit rushed and pushed a lot of plot points and fewer character scenes, which was a contrast to the first two seasons. I assume that the showrunners had planned another season or two in which to complete everyone's storylines. In fact, they introduced Dr. Jekyll in season three but never got around to a Mr. Hide. I suspect they made quite a few developmental sacrifices in order to seem to have a planned wrap up to end the season. At no surprise, that leaves viewers feeling a bit slighted and wishing for more.

Thus, I recommend this series for classic horror enthusiast but consider season three the necessary cap to a series, and while falling a bit short, is far better than no series finally at all.
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What I've been Watching: September 2019

Two noteworthy picks for this month:

First, I went and saw the new It: Chapter Two, and really enjoyed it. The movie was creepy, of course, had plenty of scary scenes, and was psychological with many of them, which is a plus. It's natural to compare the movie to the 1990 adaptation. As an author and a screenwriter, I have a nuanced opinion on remakes and adaptations. One of my chief rules for remakes is that the film has to deliver something new, not just something different. It has to say, "I'm taking this idea you already know and putting a slant on it that might surprise you, or at least has something new to say." A few months ago, I wrote about how another King based remake, Pet Sematary, failed at that. I don't think the new It adaptation, both parts of it, fell into the same trouble.

One way this film differs is simply in how epic movies can go these days with effects. The CGI, makeup, and just the sets themselves were all bigger and better. That isn't always a plus. Certainly, Hollywood is guilty of putting too much into CGI and effects and letting us down in plot and character development. But for a horror that wants to show you something terrifying, the effects capabilities of today, are a plus. I also think this is why they chose to put It out in two movies. King's book was quite long and in turn full of plot and character development.  Had this movie been made into one, even if it were a three-hour installment, and still had all the new visuals, the plot and characters would have suffered. Instead, they drew it out to preserve some of the depth, even when making way for the new spiffy effects.

That said, I found the best part of the film was the stellar cast. Sure, we don't have the unrivaled Tim Curry in the role of Pennywise, but aside from that, the talent is Allstar, and well worth a look.

Second, Stranger Things, Season 3.
Let me start by saying I felt like this season had a lot more action, but in turn, less to dwell on psychologically. I enjoyed it, but I would say it is was not as good as Season 1, but as good or better than Season 2. Some of the drawbacks: we didn't see anything too knew about this mega creature from the upsidedown. We already knew it was scary, now the fight with it was less mental and more physical. We've got some silly Russian stereotypes. (Spoiler) There are Russians involved now. They work as an added layer of trouble, but they are not 80's Russians, they're 80's movies stereotypical Russians. Nostalgia has always been a part of the series, but when we see cool 80's toys, shows, music, and clothes referred to in the story, it is not the same as the characters being 80's tropes. 80's cliches are around the characters but distanced from the story. However, with the Russian's in this season the cliches are intermixed in the story and it was distracting.

Some pluses, the characters, and several of their relationships advance. This season sees adult and youth relationships challenged. It also explores a bit about kids growing apart as friends as their interests change, and how they overcome that to help each other when lives are threatened. There were also some good old fashioned chase scenes and monster battles, unlike what we've seen so far.

This season also felt more contained than the two previous. The story was limited mostly to our world, and mainly to the small town. However, I had a feeling this season was a bit of a transition year too, setting up a more epic season 4 and as I was writing my critique, I saw a trailer for season 4 implying that it will spend significant time, if not primarily be set in the upside-down. Thus, I reserve listing that minus.

Altogether, it was a pretty good season, and if it does, in fact, bridge us into a thrilling season 4, and dare I say even a climactic season five. (Where I personally think the show should end.) I don't believe I'll look back on it as a letdown. Give it a watch.
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What I've been Watching: Aug 2019

I saw the movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas back when it was in theaters. I found parts interesting but wasn't totally impressed. After reading the book recently, I decided to give the movie another look. It was worth it.

I'm not sure if I simply missed a few important details which undermined my first viewing. I consider myself an attentive viewer, but I actually watched Cloud Atlas the first time at the wonderful Bear Tooth Theaterpub in Anchorage, Alaska. At the Bear Tooth, you get to enjoy gourmet pizza, local brews, and other fare while watching your movie. I loved the food there, but I have some qualms with movie theaters that serve restraunt-like food. I find the food service is often a distraction. It's not bad for a high octane action movie, but for any sort of thinking piece, I find it a huge pitfall. Thus, perhaps my lackluster feelings for Cloud Atlas the first time were rooted in the venue.

Alternatively, it is also possible that the layers of Cloud Atlas, of which there are many, only become apparent upon repeat viewings. It's a complicated movie which jumps from storyline to storyline every few minutes.

Whichever the case, on my recent second viewing, I found the movie far better, more engaging, and profound. I recently read the novel, which I praised in my book review for its overall themes criticizing human exploitation, and praising human connections. The first time I watched the film, I definitely missed these elements. The film inevitably had to compact the stories of the book, but it retains the consequences and more importantly, the point of the story. Plus what the film loses in quantity, it makes up for in the power of cinema. Unlike the book, the film can overlap stories. Rather than just jump between them, we can hear a character speaking from one timeline, while we start to see the action of another, further cementing the connection across time.

The movie also cuts between the storyline more frequently and freely, thus bringing parallel crescendos to a climax simultaniously. The Wachowski siblings, directors on this film, are masters of their medium and they use what is unique to the cinema to accentuate rather than simply to bring a book to the screen. If one wants to make a case for movie adaptations or to see a good example of how to do it, look no further than Cloud Atlas.

If you've never seen it, I recommend giving a watch. If you have, I recommend giving it a watch again.
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What I've Been Watching: July 2019

You may have heard of Rip Torn's recent passing. I've long been a fan of his work. If you've never seen it, go check out Forty Shades of Blue (2005). Many of the mentions of his death referenced his performance in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), alongside the late David Bowie, but I'd never seen the film. I've also been making an effort in my reading to pick up a few classic, pentacle sci-fi titles, trying to better familiarize myself with the foundations of the genre. Thus, tracking down this movie seemed destined.

I want to say I loved it. However, I think this is one of those movies which is too layered and cryptic to merely react to. I think it's going to take some mental digesting to truly form a take on it. I know it is based on a novel by the same name, which I have not read. The story, if I try to outline it, is a relatively simple one, of an alien visitor (Bowie) trying to find a way home, but then the 2hr 19min film piles on layer after layer of the visitor observing, learning, and engaging human. I suspect there is some criticism of our society wound in there, but I have to admit it isn't jumping out at me a profound insight into our contrary nature.

The story reminds me of the novel Stranger in a Strange Land, which I read earlier this year. I'm sure I'm not the first to make such a link, and that book definitely tried to take humanity, our society, our religions, American capitalism all to task, but the film version of The Man Who Fell to Earth, didn't seem to do so, so handily.

The performances were great, especially for me, Candy Clark's, and indeed Rip Torn's. So I'm at a point where I need this movie to settle in a bit. Maybe I'll dig more. Maybe I'll go look into the novel. Maybe more depth will come to me. We'll see...
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What I've Been Watching: June 2019


By total coincidence, I think, my pick for what I've been watching lately also deals with race issues in the USA. The Netflix miniseries, When They See Us, premiered about a month ago, and I heard good things immediately. The series is a dramatization of the real-life incident which became known as the Central Park Jogger Case and the alleged attackers being known as the Central Park Five. I was only about 6 years old when the real incident occurred, and if it was making the news in rural Iowa, I wasn't aware of it. I only really learned of the topic when Ken Burns and Sarah Burns made a documentary in 2012. If you're not familiar, long story short, several teenagers' rights were trampled and were falsely convicted of the crimes, only to be exonerated and released years later, and racism was the primary factor in why there were targeted, mistreated by police, and ultimately falsely convicted.

In this series, Ava DuVernay delves deeper into the lives and relationships destroyed by the case. Not just the lives of promising young men, but their families and friends, and how the convictions haunted them inside and outside of prison. The story is compelling, but all the facets DuVernay shows are profound and gripping.
Subject aside, I was incredibly impressed with the acting talent on display in this work. With this being an ensemble piece, with each of the five boys' lives on display, it is inherent that the spotlight will be shared, but through the episodes, we see all five boys as teens, then as adults. One actor, who portrayed the oldest of the teens, played his adult counterpart as well. All the others were portrayed by two actors, one a teen, the other an adult. On top of this, we get to know a dozen or more family members, a half dozen characters in the police and prosecution, plus fellow inmates, prison workers, defense lawyers, and people the five encounter after release. Through all these characters, in my opinion, you won't find a weak link in acting talent. That's not astonishing from such longtime veteran names like John Leguizamo, Michael Kenneth Williams, Joshua Jackson, Niecy Nash, Felicity Huffman, and William Sadler, just to name a handful, but through all the other roles, which vary from unknown character actors to the youth talent, the performance never lapses for a moment. And remember, this is a straight to Netflix piece, not a Marvel blockbuster, or a network product.

The themes are important, the subject touching and thought-provoking, the direction stellar, but the acting talent was flooring. No wonder it boasts an average of 9.1 out of 10 with over 27,000 viewers via IMDB. Go watch it!
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What I've Been Watching: May 2019

I found the first season of True Detective compelling, surprising, well cast, and deliciously gritty, but like many, when the second season came out a year later, it failed to capture my interest or live up to its predecessor, in spite of boasting an intriguing and veteran cast itself. For those who aren't familiar, each season of the show functions as a mystery mini-series with a new case and independent characters. Then, after over three years, the third season premiered in January of this year and starred the ever-engaging Mahershala Ali. It piqued my interest, but with the dig of season two, I didn't race to my TV to get started…I should have.

Season three begins with the disappearance of two children in a small Louisiana town, and we're quickly introduced to Detective Wayne Haze (Ali) and his partner Roland West portrayed by Stephen Dorff, who I'd always considered more of a B actor and wasn't even aware was cast in the series until I started watching. Ali is excellent from the start as a solemn, tortured soul, but a dedicated detective who puts his whole self into his work, particularly this case. What surprised me early, however, is that Dorff matches Ali's chops beat for beat even though he plays more of a supporting role and we don't follow him nearly as much off the job as we do Ali's character. Whenever Dorff is on screen, the two detectives' chemistry and partner loyalty are evident along with palpable strife that feels akin to the bickering if a married couple which comes off as wholly believable.

Dorff wasn't the only surprising stand out of that cast. Carmen Ejogo, who plays Detective Haze's wife, Amelia Reardon provides a counterpart with whom Haze brings his work emotions home to, causing inevitable relationship pressures. But Ejogo and her character go a step further, as she is an author, who is separately endeavoring to write a book about the same missing children case. The character proves to be a shrewd investigator herself, and thus not only do Haze and Reardon butt heads in their home life, but they also step on one another's toes in their respective investigations as well.

Finally, and perhaps the most fascinating layer of complexity which season three brings to the table is jumping in time through the life of Detective Haze at three points in his life, all tied to the same investigation. We see him as a young detective when he first caught the case, about ten years later when the case resurfaces and he gets involved again, though he is a family man by then, and finally, another twenty-five years later, when he is retired, and the case rears its ugly head once more. I don't want to spoil a great deal. The show creates moments of mystery in Haze's life by showing how one timeline leads to what we see in another. One aspect worth sharing is that the oldest version of Haze, in his seventies, is suffering from significant memory issues, as many aging people do but more severely than average, and thus his best chance for finally laying all the aspects of the case to rest, comes to him only when his mind is at its weakest.

Suffice it to say, I loved this season of the show. It's compelling, at times gut-wrenching, and totally worth the watch.

Furthermore, I said that I started and never finished the second season of the series, however as I looked up some actor names and such on IMDB, I noticed that the episodes of season one of True Detective all carry around a 9.0-star rating out of 10, which is fantastic. The season three episodes carry about an 8.5, which is still great and comes as no surprise, but season two actually has a better than 8.0 rating across all the episodes, which is surprising.  Thus,  I tempted to give it another chance. Maybe it picked up interest a few episodes in, and perhaps I let some early negative reviews in the press affect my opinion a bit too much. Who knows? Maybe I'll write about it in

Final thought: Besides murder, there's another element that appears in all three seasons, ethyl alcohol. If you didn't already suspect as much, all the seasons of True Detective drive home one consistent notion, murder detectives are booze hounds, big time. Now, don't you forget it.
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What I've Been Watching: March 2019

I'm a devout Star Trek fan, so in the last week or so I've been catching up on Star Trek Discovery, season 2. Though I have a few qualms, on the whole, I've enjoyed this newest entry into the Star Trek canon, and I was anxious to dig into the new season.

Broadly, I think the characters from the start of this series were interesting, the re-imagining of Klingons was compelling, and the anti-hero at the center of the show Michael Burnham was deep, conflicted, and engaging. Thorugh season 1, Discovery abandoned the episodic format of previous Trek series, in favor of a more 15-part-movie structure, which I think worked just fine. I can see where another voyage of discovery as past series have been built around, might be the most exciting reboot, so instead, Discovery cuts right to the action and drama with a war beginning in season one, episode one. It also seems to build more around a primary character, with several fascinating support characters around her, rather than the ensemble cast of Star Treks of old. This too, was alright with me, as we got to know many Burnham, her past, her troubles, and internal conflicts very quickly. The previous series might have taken five seasons to dole out what we learned of Burnham in one, though of course, they were showing us just as much about other characters as well, where Discovery cut back.

All that said, Discovery season 2 seems to be pulling back from both of these aspects, at least a little. The season still appears to be following one central story arch; however, it has been compartmentalized as the crew of discovery comes upon seven unprecedented signals and begins investigating each. As they travel to one signal's point of origin, they become involved in a subplot with its own conflict, climax, and resolution, and then move to the next. Thus the episodic format returns, at least in part. I'd call this format a hybrid.

Likewise, we pull back from Burnham and have episodes which strive to bring some of the supporting characters to the front and develop them further. We get one episode which goes deep on Saru, the only member of his race to leave his planet. Another focuses on Tilly and her battle with an alien entity which has infected her and thus shown itself to her in the form of a person from her memory. There are a few more examples.

One aspect I find new, or at least far more prevalent in season 2, is a tendency to throw back to other parts of the Star Trek franchize. We begin the season with Captain Pike taking command of Discovery. Trek fans, of course, know that Pike commanded the Enterprise before Captain Kirk. He wasn't a significant character, so bringing him back as a link between old and new, and getting more depth and personality from him works well. But we also have Spock return, a character who was prevalent in the original series, all its subsequent movies, all the recent JJ Abrams reboot movies, as well as bridging into TNG.

Don't get me wrong, I love the character, and as Vulcans live longer lives than humans the Star Trek Universe allows for the widespread reach of this character. However, I feel like it lessens the originality of the new series to fall back on such a primary pillar of the other series and movies by giving him such a pivotal part. So far it has been a new use of the character and a conflicted and interesting one at that. But I think I'd rather see more new ground broken. I might even say it pulls the series backward towards the likes of fan fiction, rather than a next step in the evolution of Star Trek.

My other complaint about Discovery is it pulls away from science. Something I felt was of utmost importance to earlier series, which it seems to take lightly. In season 2, Discovery only continues to stretch away from science grounding.

All that said, I've found the series entertaining and compelling. I find it far more true to the spirit of Star Trek then the JJ Abrams movies. I'll be watching for the rest of the season's episodes to see how it turns out, and I'll tune in for season 3 if there is one. Plus, for my money, any Star Trek is better than no Star Trek.
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What I've Been Watching: February 2019

I've wanted to catch Hulu's Castle Rock for a while now. I'm a casual fan of King, not devoted, but I certainly have a handful of his works which I love.

I thought the series delivered a very eerie feel which I associate with King, that small town which should be a family driven haven from big city hustle and bustle but turns out to be a pertri dish for evil or at least the very weird.

I thought the characters were interesting, some of the faces where throwbacks to older King motion picture adaptations, some of the stories points were throwbacks to King books. All this was what the show promised in concept, and I think it came through nicely, but it was far more than a nostalgia piece.

The drama built well, the underlying unknown creepy factor was nicely built, executed, and revealed to surprise the audience. We even get presented with a sort of villain, who (mild spoiler) then get given a pretty freaky but believable alibi to make us think he is more victim than villain, only to be thrown a curveball in the last episode of the season to make us rethink our newly discovered sympathy for him. Meanwhile, the reluctant good guy turns out to make some decisions at the end which are not too kind. Maybe he is really the villain... It's all definitely worth a watch whether your a King fan or not, and I'll be looking forward to a season two.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening to: Jan. 2019

Reading:

Earlier this month I sat down and read Lovecraft's Herbert West - Reanimator stories. I'm working on a new story which has some similar themes, and I wanted to be sure I wasn't inadvertently overlapping with characters or plot. I'd seen the movie years ago but never read the original literature.

In short, I loved it. It was dark, mysterious and thought-provoking. I enjoyed the almost Dracula-esque point of view in the how Lovecraft told the story, which offers more of a second-hand accounting of the plot by the Herbert West's (the main character's) associate and frequent assistant in his work. The style made West's motives as mysterious as his actions. While that might have proven a shortfall for a full novel, in the short format, it added a compelling layer.

I also rather liked the cliffhangers and omitted plot points that came inherently through the short series format of the pros. Rather than one novella, the story was originally published as six novelettes. Between each, there is a lapse of time, sometimes it's short, other times its years. Again,  I don't think this would have worked well in a novel, or a more directly narrated story, but coming from West's peer, it is believable that he might only address the story when something new and noteworthy has arisen.

Finally, I found the literature much more serious than the movie. Now, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie way back when. I loved Jeffrey Combs' performance and the interpretation of the re-animated creations, which were a little off-the-wall. However, in Lovecraft's original, the character is presented more seriously, and we see very little to nothing of the creatures he created. Instead, we see mostly the damage they have done and hearsay of the horrors. Altogether it is much more mysterious and again makes me think of Dracula. This is a wonderful difference between the movie and literature, as it gives both pretty unique reasons to be liked.

I have to admit that this was my first Lovecraft read (don't tell the Horror Writers Association), but I am likely to return to his ample body of eerie works.

Watching:

After over a year of trying to catch it, I finally watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. I was not disappointed.

While it was a great, gut-wrenching movie, I think what I liked best about it was how many totally unforeseen elements and dynamics there was to the film. In fact, the movie probably spent as much time examining them as it did advancing any sort of plot. One example, which is a bit of a spoiler but one revealed in the first 10 to 20 minutes, is that while the main character (Frances McDormand) is putting heat on the town Sheriff (Woody Harrelson) to solve her daughter's murder, we find the Sheriff is dying from cancer.

Another is just the presence of Peter Dinklage's character as the town midget (the movie's words) who interacts with the main character, with her ex-husband, with the Barney-Fife-esque deputy (Sam Rockwell) all with profound character implications on both sides of the dynamics, and all without any particular consequence on where the story advances too.

This movie was almost a clinic on character development and diversity, and delightful refreshing as such.

Listening to:

When I'm really hitting my stride on the first draft of a new story, I have a few go-to artists or playlists which I believe to be perfect, creativity-propelling background music, and that is what I've found myself listening to this month, mostly to Frank Zappa.

Now let me explain a bit. The ideal music for jamming to while writing, for me, should move a bit but not too fast, get your head bobbing when you pay attention to it, but not demand attention. It has to be somewhat genre fitting, so eerie when one is writing horror, etc. However, most of all it has to be un-intrusive. One time I tried getting some writing done while listening to Rage Against the Machine and found my heart and body getting so pumped I was hitting the keys on my keyboard like I was going to poke them through the plastic if I could even keep my attention on what I was doing at all. On the other end of the spectrum, I wouldn't want something so chill, it might put me to sleep.

So now you might be thinking, Zappa?  Not exactly synonymous with "un-intrusive." That's true, and while I like to give an occasional listen to Zappa's definitive tracks, the album I have on standby for writing sessions is Shut Up and Play Your Guitar. It moves, but not with hard rock. It doesn't have any complex or outrageous Zappa lyrics to unpack and pull your attention, and yet, if you come to the end of a though and your attention does drift to the music, there will undoubtedly be an impressive guitar riff, showing off a superior artist's proficiency, basically every moment of each song. Give it a try.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching and Listening To: Nov. 2018

Reading:
After watching the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, and thoroughly enjoying it (see last month's Watching) I decided to delve into Shirley Jackson's original book. Though I haven't quite hit the final page, I can comment on many sparks of delight, though overall I've not been as wowed as I was with the series.

Part of the difference, through no fault of the book, is that some of the shocking reveals of the book were telegraphed, or portrayed directly in the adaptation. Thus, I give the book a lot of credit for execution though my experience has been a bit flat. The other significant difference I've experienced is in the book's limiting the perception to mostly one character where the adaptation took time specifically to show each character's point of view. All the pieces of the puzzle only came together once we'd seen how each of the seven characters remembered the house. I have to say I found that variety more satisfying.

Perhaps the reason I haven't raced to the end is due to this lesser interest in the book than the series drew from me. In any case, it is a well written and eerie story, which if nothing else provided a superior foundation for the adapted story I enjoyed so much. I'll likely be giving it a 4 of 5 stars on my Goodreads.


Watching:

Turnabout is fair play. Last month I wrote about reading American Gods and watching The Haunting of Hill House, this month my reading is The Haunting of Hill House and my watching is... Season one of the Starz adapted series of American Gods.

I was excited to see this series. I've been aware of it for some time. After reading the first quarter or so of the book, indulging in all the unique and fantastic characters, and having some notion of the superior cast involved in the series — such as the always compelling and mysterious Gillian Anderson, the exuberant and undeniably talented Kristen Chenoweth, the scene-stealing Ian McShane, the eye-grabbing oddball Chrispin Glover,  and the iconic (and pride of my home state of Iowa) Cloris Leachman — I was eager to see this adaptation. I behaved myself and saw to finish the novel before queuing up episode one. However, I found the series fell short for me.

I can't say any character in-particular let me down, in fact, I felt like Pablo Schreiber, an actor I wasn't familiar with as the character Mad Sweeney, who only commanded a few scenes in the book, really stood out as intriguing in the series, but still, I've been left wanting. Maybe one issue is the scene sharing of all the cast. In the book, the characters are self-contained and only as deep or important as the author makes them. In the series, actors come loaded with expectations, and if they are only cast in a sparse roll, we viewers might feel slighted, when we readers did not. But, I think there is more trouble than that. I think the directing comes up short as well.

The series feels like it's reaching for the edginess of an HBO knockout but never quite gets there. Forcing grittiness that doesn't land.  For instance, the story begins with Shadow, the main character, in jail, and of course, the prison will be dirty, cold in color and motif, and tinny in sound design, but it seems that look and feel extend to every other location and scene. I didn't get that impression from the book.

I pictured Wednesday with more polish, he wants to trade out a crappy car for one more suited to his liking, hustles to get bumped up to first class, for me that means a cleaner, snazzier feel, not one just as gritty as the prison, at least not all the time. The story takes place moving across the country, so the locations vary greatly as well. I think this lack of cinematic variety robbed the character and location variety of individual uniqueness, producing a one-dimensional presentation when the book was thoroughly multi-faceted.

It seems a second season is due in order to complete the book's narrative, and I am interested in the series enough to give the next installment a chance, especially since we can assume the story will wrap up on one more season. I'm also interested to see some of the characters yet to be introduced, and who'll portray them. Still, I think with the resources at hand, the series could have been significantly better.

More Watching:
I've also just finished Westworld, Season Two (HBO). I really liked the first season and was excited for this one to arrive. However, while the first season was a bit confusing in jumping time and place, it had nothing on season two. That's the reason it took me half a year before I finished the season. Now that may sound like disparaging criticism. However, I really did enjoy this season as well, it just made it harder to watch, or to find the time to watch. One couldn't just throw it on after getting the kids to bed, and the dishes washed, hoping to get a full episode in before falling asleep. It wasn't a show one could pause halfway through an episode and pick up tomorrow. It needed a degree of focus to follow which I don't always have the time and energy to give.

Not to spoil but here's a tidbit of how confusing it could be.
1. We're following at least five characters' season-long storylines.
2. We have at least a half dozen secondary character's story arcs bridging the main ones.
3. We're jumping at least four story time periods, often without knowing which one we're in and whether it comes before or after what we recently saw of a character.
4. Did I forget to mention there are dozens of flashbacks? So that makes the story time periods more like 20.
5. We jump between reality, and at least two digital false realities, sometimes without knowing which, or that we've jumped.
And then, of course, there is...
6. We have characters who we aren't sure if they're human or android.

Now, all of this is done with good reason to create mystery and intrigue. In fact, if I try to imagine sorting it out into a more linear flow, it becomes clear rather quickly that many of the delightful revelations at the end of episodes or the end of the season would be tipped too early, so I think all this jumping and confusion was necessary. Plus, once I reached the end of the season everything (well mostly everything) fell into place for a complete picture, a better understanding of the whole, with many satisfying reveals. I loved it. What few questions remained unanswered seemed intentional to usher our attention to the third season.

Furthermore, this season explores themes of understanding one's self, of what truly constitutes reality, what free will means in theory and in practice, what darkness humans are capable of, and likely a dozen more existential questions, picking right up where season one left off and pushing these quagmires even further. This I also loved.

Thus, all totaled I give Westworld Season 2 a glowingly positive review, though you can see how it is far from casual viewing.


Listening to:
If you happen to have been following my listening section the past few months, you might want to brace for a hard turn. I've had Cardi B (hip-hop), Pillowfight (cinematic/dance/hip-hop), and Logic (hip-hop), but with the creeping of Christmas, and two small children nearly always with me in the car, my listening for November has grown dominated by Burl Ives Christmas tunes. 

That's right, a corny singer (and actor) who's popularity probably peeked more than 50 years ago, and long before I was born. I have to wonder if Cardi B would even know who Burl Ives was. But for her, and for those reading this who aren't familiar, you probably know his voice from the beloved stop-motion, animated classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) in which he not only voiced the snowman narrator, Sam but also sang the title song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," as well as the songs "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Silver and Gold."

Old Burl, of course, recorded several other Christmas carols in his many decades of recording, with about 30 singles and appearing on over 50 albums according to his Wikipedia discography. Now I'm not about to claim I'm a fan of his work in general, there's little edgy or challenging to be found there. But, at Christmas, when the mind turns to warmer thoughts, family memories, and nostalgia, I'm alright with Burl's Christmas collection on repeat.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening To: October 2018

Reading:

I've just finished Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I know I'm late to the party on this one, but I hear his name thrown around a lot in fantasy circles and as it just so happens I put out a fantasy novelette this very month. 

I didn't initially set out to write a fantasy piece, but when you work in horror and sci-fi, the other two branches of spec fiction, I guess you can find yourself slipping down that road. It was only once I was collaborating with an editor when I thought the horror I'd written was nearly finished that I realized I had a dark fantasy work on my hands, and I decided to finally delve into that literary world with one of the heavy hitters. I am also looking forward to giving the adapted tv series a shot now that I've finished the book.

Now for my thoughts on the book. First, I found the ending, the main conclusion of the gods' war to be both unforeseen and satisfying. Sometimes those are hard to accomplish together, to give readers something they didn't flush out already, but have all the pieces laid along the story for it to make perfect sense. Gaiman did that very well.

Second, as I started the book I was finding the main character, Shadow, a bit dull, an empty body to which bad things were happening, but that turned out to be intentional and a necessity for the character to grow beyond. So in the end, that turned around, and I found the character more interesting. Well done.

But finally, I have to say I don't think I liked this book as much as I thought I would. The original premise was exciting and had my mind running with all the possibilities, but I guess I found the story hefty on research (and I felt it came off as exceptionally well researched) but ultimately lacking on drawing me into exciting happenings. Even the god war near the end was all but glossed over with little intimate detail what-so-ever.

 I think what I found most compelling were the little tangential stories of characters who brought certain gods to America. Maybe my trouble is that building a character on known mythology risks seeming unoriginal. Then if you don't take that character into new and exciting places, you wind up dull. The characters were no doubt twists on established mythologies, and the new gods were original ideas, but it just never reached the level of excitement for which I hungered. I still found it a good book, and will likely give it four stars on my book rating accounts, but with all the hype I thought it would be a five star read for sure.

Watching:

As of this post, I'm three episodes into the new Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, and I love every minute of it. Full disclosure, I haven't read the original Shirley Jackson novel, though I think I'm likely to do so in the near future. I was familiar with the story by word of mouth and previous adaptations, but the new spin of a family reflecting on the event of the house, after the fact, and the very contemporary personal problems each character is already dealing with at this point in the series has me enthralled. I think I'm fast becoming an S. Jackson fan as well as a fan of the series director, Mike Flanagan. Horror buffs should not miss this one.

Listing to:

Is there something to listen to in October besides the soundtrack for The Nightmare Before Christmas? Not if my kids are around, but I caught someone posting Logic's "Wu Tang Forever" on facebook. I wasn't familiar with Logic, but I was hip to the Wu Tang which is indeed forever, so I gave it a listen.

To say I was impressed would be an understatement. Logic slides right into the classic through-back to Wu Tang heyday. Excited, I gave some of the other works of this new (to me) hip-hop artist and was thoroughly confused. Confused that I'd somehow never come across him before. So now, I guess I'm a fan of Logic's too.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening To. September 2018

Reading:

This month, I've started a couple of books but haven't finished any, not that they aren't good, so I'm sure I'll be talking about them soon. However, I've also been reading quite a bit with my son who just started Kindergarten, and he has been interested in the A Series of Unfortunate Events books, so I've read five installments in as many weeks. Therefore, this month my recent reads section will have to fall to Lemony Snicket.

This is not a consolation, I think these books are delightful, but I usually strive to talk about books which are intended for an audience as mature as that which I imagine for the books I write. That said, though these books fall under children's literature, anyone who has read one can tell you they lean mature in theme and content for the children's genre.

On a personal note, shortly after finishing college I spent about two years working in production in local news at a network affiliate in Cedar Rapids, IA. I don't recall what year it was, but at some point during my tenure, our morning anchor did a series of short live interviews with Lemony Snicket (the author in his character) via satellite. I wasn't familiar with the books, at 22-23 y/o I didn't have my thumb on the pulse of children's literature, so I don't even recall what in particular the author was promoting. By looking at the years of publication, I can suppose it was the release of one of the last two books in the series.

What I do recall is that the author was rude, evasive, argumentative, acted superior, and was even a bit cruel to our anchor. I imagined he was behaving in character, as I knew the author wasn't really Lemony Snicket, that it was a pen name packed with its own personality, and found it a bit funny. Our anchor tired to be a good sport, but even when the camera wasn't on, and the author was getting technical cues from our producer before, and after each interview segment, the author was rude, evasive, argumentative, and acted superior to our staff as well. It left a bad impression for me, but one I didn't give tremendous thought to as I wasn't that interested in the first place.

Fast forward ten years and Netflix adapts the books for a series starring the one and only NPH. Given my respect for the actor, and with the series continuing into a second season, I had to reconsider my casual stance against the author (his persona) and the books. Thus, I started one with my son. We are both glad I did. The books are a little difficult at times for a kindergartener but touch on subjects worth discussing. They promote children building advanced vocabulary, building strong character, and building new inventions, plus the stores are just plain entertaining. I'm thoroughly enjoying these books, and even if my son decided he wanted to stop the series, I think I'd finish it.

One confusing thing, however, is that I was expecting the narrator (Lemony Snicket) to be a terrible, insulting, and judgmental voice, just like the man we interviewed. True, the narrator, talks about dark themes and doesn't baby the reader through it, but he is empathetic towards the hardship of the characters, is matter-of-fact about their troubles, explores a bit of dry humor, but ultimately seems caring about both the characters and us the reader. In fact, the persona I saw interviewed seemed much more like the villain, Count Olaf than the narrator.

Who knows? Maybe after a long day with dozens of interviews, someone challenged Daniel Handler to do one set with the bumkins in Iowa as Olaf instead of Snicket, but no one let us in on the joke. Now my feelings are mixed, but I'm glad I'm enjoying the books. Maybe one should never judge a book by the insults it's author slings at you. (Or rather, those around you.)

Watching:

I rarely ever truly binge-watch anything. With a five-year-old and a one-year-old the opportunity to let Netflix just cruise on into another episode is pretty rare, especially in a month where MLB races come to a head and College Football Kicks off, but the closest I've come to a binge as of late was taking in the full season of Altered Carbon in under two weeks.

First of all, I love the sci-fi basis for this show. For those who haven't dabbled, Altered Carbon's narrative hinges on the existence of technology that lets people hold their consciousness in quasi-bio storage disks which can be downloaded or physically transferred into new bodies. It's like one's mind held in a thumb-drive with a seemingly endless ability to hot-swap. The idea was entirely original to me and set my imagination running in a thousand directions.

The characters are interesting, engaging, and diverse; the storyline is exciting, high-concept, and yet believable; but what the show does best is transcribe recognizable social problems (from economic inequality to gender-targeted violence to religious fanaticism) into engaging story arcs— as most good science-fiction seems to do.

I'm very excited to see this show go into another season, which leads me to my final point of praise, the show's concept of body-hopping sets the stage for an endless freshening of the cast and plot. Characters can be killed off, then return in new bodies without significant plot-holes, the cast can be swapped out seamlessly without compromising continuity. In fact, major characters could be moved into children, elderly, or opposite-gender bodies to create drama, humor, relationship issues and much more. For that matter, characters could swap each other's bodies to create compelling mystery or unsettling hilarity. Heck, the same protagonist could be moved to a different body (different lead actor) only to meet his former self (original lead actor) as an antagonist. The possibilities seem limitless.

I'm anxious to see what the future holds for Altered Carbon.

Listening to:

Just like many people do when Christmas nears, in expectation of Halloween about a month away, I lean toward mood-setting tunes. Unlike the Yuletide season, Halloween music is a bit harder to cultivate, especially if one wants to look beyond Danny Elfman scores and different versions of "The Monster Mash." I'm glaring at you Pandora. Thus, I currently find myself queuing up the 2013 Dan the Automator and Emily Wells collaborative album, Pillowfight.

The music features eerie instrumentals, dark themes, and ghostly vocals to create a scary atmosphere, not for a horror blood-letting, but more of a solo walk through the graveyard at night. Let me also add; its unobtrusiveness works wonderfully for having in the background while I'm cranking away writing a new spooky story.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listing. August 2018

Reading:

I'm just finishing Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man's Fundamentals of Delicious Living by Nick Offerman. Usually, my reading tends toward fiction, and when it doesn't, it usually involves non-fiction that related to a fiction story I'm writing. Or in other words, research. However, I'd had this book way back in my "to read" pile for years. I think the world of Nick Offerman's acting, and find him to be an exceptional humorist when out-of-character as well. I caught a part of Offerman's new reality series about crafting and was drawn back to check out this book.

Let me tell you. It has been a delight. Offerman addresses his youth and his journey to acting success, with many tidbits of blue-collar philosophy to boot, and every bit of it hit home with me. His growing up in rural Illinois, though a decade or two before my own formative years, does not seem to have differed much from my own rural Iowa youth. This built an immediate connection for me.

Offerman follows that with an insistence that hard work, not pan-handling to entertainment trends, and keeping his life rich with non-acting endeavors were all keys to his career success. This spoke comfortingly to my own striving toward a writing and screenwriting career on a ladder to success which I'm personally still trying climb.  Best of all, every statement of wisdom is accompanied by at least two instances of deadpan hilarity. This book was good for my spirit and for my heart.

Watching:

I finally carved out the time to watch the 2017 revival of Twin Peaks. I'm careful not to call it a "reboot," because most of the time I'm not in favor of rehashing old entertainment properties when there are plenty of original ideas waiting to see the light of day. In this case, however, the new season picks up where the original left off, addresses some of the unresolved issues left dangling (though not particularly resolving them) and features many of the original characters, with as far as I can tell, all the original actors and actress reprising their roles. Not everyone from the original Twin Peaks returns but my compliments to Lynch and Frost for writing around those characters, rather than re-casting any. It also brings an entirely new set of characters into the story, many of which are fielded by actors with whom David Lynch fans are familiar.

Perhaps a more significant distinction in my mind, between a reboot and a revival, is that I don't consider Twin Peaks to have been a major commercial property, in the first place. It had its cult following and continued to gain fans over the years out of cinephiles and film students, but altogether it's not a blockbuster property. So to me, the fresh season didn't seem to be cashing in on the fanbase but instead feeding them what they've been hungry for low these many years.

Outright, I must say, I loved this new season. Through my eyes, it was prime David Lynch. One could label what sets Lynch apart, as weirdness, abstractness, deep symbolism, what-have-you, but to me, I equate it metaphorically to salt. Just as a little salt can make manilla food a little better, a little weirdness can make an average story a little better. A bit more salt can make your average snake a delicious treat, though you might want to watch how much you eat. Likewise, a lot of weirdness can make a story a unique and enthralling treat, but it probably loses it appeal if everything you watch is that way. And to follow the metaphor to an end, salt alone does not make a supremely delectable dish, and in turn, a story which is all weirdness and abstraction without at least the vestige of a followable plot which seems to be heading somewhere coherent makes for dismal viewing. In Lynch's canon, I believe you can find all three. A few projects which flirt with weird, a few which go way too far, with more weird than plot, and many which fit deliciously in the middle. And I found the New Twin Peaks to hit that sweet spot dead center.

I'll even go farther to say, there were moments of what I'm going to call "meta-Lynch" at play. Where I felt Lynch, and let us not forget his partner Frost, gave a little more than usual in order to show the foundation that led up to some of the particular abstraction. For example, in the new season, we see a character come running down the road with a gold-painted shovel to pronounce she's "shoveling her way out of the shit." Another point, we see a woman and her young son, worried, sitting by the side of their comatose husband/father in a hospital only to have a dazed woman in a poofy cocktail dress bring in a tray of sandwiches as if they were at a party. Both of these moments sound very Lynch-esque, but where the new Twin Peaks departed is that each of these moments had a half dozen scenes laying the groundwork for why this ends up occurring, as odd as it is. It's important because it changes the effect. Where once the shoveler or the waitress may have simply appeared and the viewer would be left to ponder, "what was that? Why did that happen? Was I supposed to get that?" Instead, we received a stream of scenes where first we say "that's odd," then we build to "this is getting weird" then "is this going somewhere," only to have it reach a quintessential Lynch scene of intersection only instead of saying "that's weird" we say "ah ha, so that is where that was going." And then proceed to giggle with delight. That's why I call it "meta-Lynch" as if Lynch were poking just a bit of fun at the weird, pop-up abstractions that have been hallmarks of his career.

I stayed away from the new Twin Peaks for a while because I was worried I would be disappointed, but it was magic. If they go on to do any more, as has been rumored, I'll be eager to indulge.

Listening:

Let's just call my music taste eclectic. Some years ago reggae crept up on this small town mid-westerner as my favorite genre, Steely Dan is my all-time favorite group, and I'm just as likely to groove to the Mamas and Papas as Childish Gambino (even though This is America was both catchy and profound). My taste encompasses just about anything except electronic and country, but what's playing on my iTunes as a craft this post is Cardi B's "Invasion of Privacy."

A few things I like about it. First, it is catchy. Several tracks have different toe-tapping beats, Ms. B's vocals are pleasing and pretty tight. I don't listen to rap all the time, but some, and there is a list of rappers I love to which I'm not necessarily adding Cardy B.

One weakness for me is the all-to-common boastful self-aggrandizing present in the lyrics, but once you look past that, Cardi B has a compelling story spanning the tracks of the album. Her personal story as a stripper turned successful rapper, doesn't necessarily deviate far from all the drug-dealer turned rapper stories we've seen before, but it definitely has a new flavor and one unique to the female perspective in her work.

What I like most, is the presence of a consistent and interlocking theme to the album as a whole. Every track ties into the others and weaves a story across songs. It seems rare to see that sort of cohesion in the age of surfing the latest hit singles on shuffle mode, so it is pleasing to stumble onto it once in a while.

Good. Now anyone googling "David Lynch and Cardi B" finally has a result to pull up. You're Welcome, internet.
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