Avatar: The Last Airbender, Season 1 Review

Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Momo standing on a stone wall looking out to the audience.
Image Source: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/avatar_the_last_airbender/s01

I finished Season 1 of the Avatar: The Last Airbender a couple of days ago, so I thought I’d take a quick moment to talk about Season 1 of the show. I’ve seen the entire series, but this will be the first time that I will have seen every episode.

65% – 75% of Season 1

So, when the show originally aired, I felt like I’d seen most of Season 1, and now that I’ve seen the entire season, I feel like that is mostly accurate. There are episodes that I did not see (like the 2 part season finale) that were crucial to the plot and to the development of the characters, but on the whole, I do feel like I saw more than enough episodes originally to have a fairly good context who who the characters were along with their motivations.

Aang The Airbender

One of the things that I don’t think that I saw/understood was how much Aang would be affected by the decision of the Airbenders of his temple and how their decision caused his own actions which ultimately lead him to vanishing (I’m being intentionally oblique here to avoid spoilers), but I think this is what George Lucas was trying for (and, unfortunately, ultimately failing) when trying to show the trauma that a young person goes through when they are forced to “grow up” and “train” at the cost of their “family.” Basically, I feel Aang’s pain and anguish in this season where I never felt it in Anakin in Star Wars through any of the 3 prequel movies. I think this might be because Aang is an older character than the version played by Jake Lloyd and younger than the character played by Hayden Christensen. Based on what I’ve seen this season, Lucas seems to have gotten his own character’s age and temperament wrong in order to accomplish the pathos that he wanted to show. Here, however, I feel the pain and anguish of Aang’s character.

Water

While the name is in the episode titles, I don’t think that I really picked up the through line trajectory of the show. Obviously, I assume each season will show Aang learning more about the element that is featured in the title (including the culture associated with it), but it goes deeper than just the plot “through-line.” It also serves as a thematic tie into the show and we see how water and water bending is a preservation. There are a lot of stories dealing with water or have a water-related aspect to them. I really like the way it is integrated into storyline.

Doing it this way allows the show to use continuity at a time when most children’s shows were still episodic. In many ways, this show was ahead of its time by creating a longer narrative and trusting that its audience would follow even if they missed episodes. This is not the first children’s show to do this, but it one that mixes both a episodic and longer form narrative. There are many other shows that have tried this (children’s), but they rarely have been planned this way from the beginning. For instance, Pirates of Dark Water have a similar type of story (finding the 13 treasures), but the show didn’t last long enough for the crew to find all 13 treasures.

I really liked Season 1 and I feel like I have more context for the story now that I’ve seen all the episodes. Looking forward to season 2!

Sidney


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Mini-Movie Review: Greyhound (AppleTV+)

Tom Hanks as a Navy Captain with a captain's hat against a blue background with clouds, sea, world war 2 ships and a plane in the background with the words : Tom Hanks Greyhound in white.  A black and white logo is in the bottom right with the Apple symbol and TV beside it.
Image Source: https://9to5mac.com/2020/07/09/new-tom-hanks-movie-apple-tv/

Over the past weekend, I was looking for a movie to watch. I decided that I should probably just try to watch a movie each week from the different streaming services that I subscribe to in order to maximize their value–as you’ll see, there are services that I subscribe to that I rarely watch or use, even though they have excellent content. Most of the time, it is because I pretty much focus on the “Big 2″ (which, for me, are Netflix and Amazon Prime Video). Hulu and Tubi are distant (way distant) third and fourth places.

However, one service that I alsways forget that I have (thanks to a promotion for when I got my iPhone, is AppleTV+. They have a couple of shows that I’m interested in, but haven’t yet seen (For All Mankind and See). I thought I’d watch them during the pandemic after school was over, but then there were the high profile cases of police brutality and resulting protests in the US that captivated me and so, I still haven’t seen them yet. However, after visiting each service and not really finding anything that jumped out to me, I actually remembered AppleTV+, and when I went on, I remembered that they had a movie from Sony that I’d seen the previews on and thought might be pretty good so, I decided to give it a watch.

Greyhound Movie Trailer

Greyhound

The screenplay was written by Tom Hanks, who also stars as the captain of the destroyer tasked with protecting a convoy of merchant marine ships during WWII from the predations of German U-Boats in the Atlantic Sea. There are two other destroyers to help in the task, but the story focuses around his ship and his crew.

After a brief set-up, the story gets started in earnest, and we see his motivation for wanting to do everything he can to survive and come back home safely. The movie is short, a little over 90 minutes, but it is an intense 90 minutes. You feel for the safety of the crew, the ship, and the convoy. This movie did, in 90 minutes, what Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight wasn’t able to do, for me, in 2 hours and 32 minutes.

This shows that the power of traditional storytelling–exposition, complications leading to rising, action, a climax, a resolution, a denouement (falling action) along with a character epiphany. This movie has all of these traits, and while short, is still one of the most intense movies that I’ve seen this year. I have to say that I really enjoyed it. It is a war movie, so keep that in mind going in–if military stories bore you, then chances are good that you won’t like this unless you get swept up in the tension of what happens in the story.

Other Elements

This movie isn’t only a war story, however. It also makes a statement about faith and religion. Unlike many “faith-based” movies that have come out over the past few years, it doesn’t put faith over the story, nor does it set out to tell the audience how to think. It just allows its main character to show his expressions of faith in both the context of the story and his outlook on the events of the story and then leaves it up to the audience to judge. Some might argue that the inclusion of those elements are actually pushing it on the audience–and that’s their right to argue that point, but for me, I saw it as simply showing how one man’s faith was put into practice (and tested) over the course of the story in which he tries to keep himself, his crew, and the ships he’s charged to protect alive.

Another element that I noticed was role of African Americans. I think the African American actors did an excellent job portraying the characters in the movie, but they were the typical “subservient” cooks roles. Now, again that’s going to be because of the time-period, and the screenplay takes pains to show how integral one of the cooks was to the ship in a poignant and affecting scene, so I can’t fault the movie–even though I do fault the time-period. Still, the movie handled the race issue as sensitively as I felt it could–it was just disappointing not to see more of those actors in relation to the overall story as they were pretty good actors in their own sense of pathos and duty.

Overall Rating: A (95-98)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Is this a perfect movie. No, not by a long-shot. There are things that I wish were a little better. The ending felt a bit rushed, there was the limited on-screen time for the African American actors/characters, and there were a couple of smaller issues that could have been ironed out, but overall, I had a tense, but enjoyable time watching the movie.

I’ve not felt this excited about seeing naval battle sense Master and Commander: Far Side of the World. I really liked it and felt that both Sony and Apple scored a win with this one.

Sidney


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Rewatching: Avatar: The Last Airbender

Image of Sokka, Katara, Aang , and Momo.
Image Source: https://www.indiewire.com/2020/04/avatar-the-last-airbender-netflix-1202227257/

Netflix is currently showing Avatar: The Last Airbender (as of July 2020). I’ve seen many episodes of the show, but I’ve never seen all of the episodes that have aired, so I’m hoping to rewatch this series with an eye to seeing the complete series.

The Ending

So, there won’t be any spoilers here. I just want to talk this in general. I’m watching it again, and I’ve seen (at least part) of the ending episode. Crucially, I don’t remember the outcome of the episode (please, don’t tell me). I’m usually really good about retaining stories and I know that I’ve seen at least some of the episode, so I don’t really know why I can’t remember the ultimate resolution of the story. So, at this point, I think this is why I’m interested in it–not just for completion’s sake, but because I’d also like to know the ending.

Season 1

I’m currently on season 1, about half-way through (episode 15 or 16 or so). I will hopefully do a season review when I finish it. I really like the characters and the humor of this season. While I hate the couple of episodes which focused on “love” (you know the ones), I still think that the seasons has very good mix of humor and seriousness. One thing that I think I’m noticing this time around is how episodic the series is at this point. I guess because it is still introducing characters–I think where I am, Toph (a major character in the show, and one of my personal favorites)–hasn’t yet been introduced, making the team feel incomplete. Again, I’ve not seen every episode, so please don’t tell me if Toth goes away from the team before the ending episode.

Why Have You Not Seen These Episodes?

In a word: work. Yes, that most mundane of human activities. I’m older than I look and when this aired on Nickelodeon originally, I was already an adult and member of the workforce. As I recall, these came on originally at night and I was probably reading or playing video games after a hard day’s work (2005-2008). I worked at the Reference Desk from 1996-2013. Later, probably around 2010 or 2011, Nickelodeon started putting this show on in the afternoons–you know, long multi-episode blocks to fill time. My off days were normally Wednesdays, so if it happened to be on on Wednesdays, I generally watched TV in the afternoon, before dinner and then went off to play games and/or read.

I just remembered another reason for me not seeing these during the first run–school. Starting in 2005 or 2006,, I was working on my 2nd Master’s Degree (in Education) for teaching certification. So, both work and school kept me from getting a chance to see this show as I tended to take night courses on my off days whenever possible (Wednesdays, 5:30 – 8:30) and use 1 hour of vacation time during the semester per week to leave work early to be on time for class (I usually worked an 8:45am-5:45pm schedule)–and I would have taken just 30 mins of vacation time, but the rule was that you had to take them in 1 hour increments. So, all that to say, that both work and school kept me from seeing the entire run of this show, so I’m really glad to see that it is back on streaming, and maybe this time I can finish it before it leaves again!

Hope you have a good day!

Sidney


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Streaming Services that Work (for Me)

A rectangle listing some of the major streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, Sling, Showtime, CBS All Access, HBO Now, Acorn TV and Disney+
Image Source: https://www.seattletimes.com/explore/shop-northwest/how-many-streaming-services-are-too-many/

As a Science Fiction and Fantasy reader and writer (and a lover of most things of a speculative nature), I find myself (Pre-Corona virus) browsing bookshelves in libraries and bookstores for the Sci-Fi and Fantasy offerings. Not surprisingly (I guess), is that I end up doing the same things for various streaming services. The first thing that I do when I look at a service or assess as to whether I’m going to sign up, is to take a look at the offerings for Sci-Fi and Fantasy. While not the only criteria (price plays a role as well), I often decide on what streaming services to subscribe to, in large part, based on what offerings they have that appeal to my as a speculative fiction afficianado.

Netflix

I subscribe to Netflix because (initially) because, originally, it was an innovative way to rent movies affordably. While I didn’t always love the “DVD/Blu Ray” by mail system, even then I thought the movie companies should have had an online streaming licensing clause available to Netflix — similar to what Hoopla has for libraries now–even back then I found Netflix to have a strong back catalog in Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Even now, with their original programming, I find that, in many cases, Netflix has more Sci-Fi/Fantasy shows and movies than I can reliably watch. While I wish Netflix would work on beefing up their licensing deals with Hollywood content–there’s rarely a a movie in the speculative genre that I haven’t seen on their service, I still find they do a pretty good job with content for a reasonable price.

Amazon Prime Video

So, Amazon Prime Video is a mixed bag for me. They have some really good content and my current favorite spaceship show–after a rocky start as I didn’t like it at first, The Expanse–is exclusive to the service. However, while not as expensive as Netflix, it does come out of my out in a large one-time sum. Now, Amazon Prime Video has other services that make this a fairly compelling value (2 day shipping on orders, a watered down “free” music service–there’s a paid version of the service as well, and other benefits at the time of this writing), but their movie offerings leave much to be desired. Amazon Prime Video has a few big name Hollywood movies, but they’re ones that I’ve seen before–rarely do they have new ones that I want to see (they currently have Knives Out, which, while not speculative, still is a pretty high profile “get”) and one that I hope to see soon.

Disney + and AppleTV+

I almost forgot these two, and since I got them from the same source, I’ll talk about them together. These are two that I got as a part of my needing to get a new iPhone after the old one broke–with a free 1 year trial. While I use both services, I find that I use Disney+ the most as I’m catching up on the Star Wars animated shows that I wasn’t able to watch before they left Netflix. I’m also catching up on the Disney live action movies, such as Aladdin which I enjoy. I own pretty much all of the Marvel content, so while a big draw for some, it isn’t really as much a draw for me. Apple TV+ has been mostly a “wash” for me as I’ve not yet seen any of the shows. I keep marking shows to watch, but I never seem to get around to them–and because of the way the interface works, I only notice AppleTV+ when I actually go looking for it (I may need to move the icon around and put it next to Amazon Prime and Netflix on my screen to “remind” me that there are shows that I’d like to watch before the free trial period is over. While I’m not sure I’ll keep either after the 1 year trial–although Disney+ does have my attention, Foundation for AppleTV+ is looking awesome, but that doesn’t come until 2021 after my trial is over, so we’ll see.

Hulu

This is one that I get because I’m a student and I get it through the student offer for Spotify. Technically, I also get Showtime through this as well, but since I rarely log on to Hulu, I’ve not taken the time to really set up the Showtime account (yes, I know I’d find a lot more Hollywood movies there, but as a student, there’s already way too many distractions for my time–the last thing I need is another streaming service competing for it). Hulu is the service I use the least and currently has the least amount of speculative content (that I’ve not yet seen, especially for movies). For television shows, they do have a fair amount of speculative fiction (for me) that I’m interested in, but they don’t have an original series that has really set me on fire the way Netflix and Amazon Prime does. Once I’m no longer a student and have to pay full price for the service, I’m sure how long I’ll keep it as it is justified at the current price point along with (Spotify and Showtime), but not by itself.

Tubi

This one is free and I actually like it quite a bit. It is on par with Hulu for me, but instead of a subscription fee, it requires you to view ads during the movie. For that reason alone, it is my least watched service. But, I thought you said you liked it, I can hear you ask. I do, because it has a fair amount of Speculative fiction on it in terms of Hollywood movies that I’ve not yet seen. Appleseed Alpha and The Last Witch Hunter were both movies that seemed to be made for streaming, and yet, none of the other services picked them up–not even for a 6 month licensing deal. There are tons of Hollywood movies released every year (well, maybe not this year), that would do so well on a streaming service just to recoup some of their investment, yet they end up only releasing for sale or stuck on some cynical corporate streaming service (CBS All Access, anyone?) which makes no sense. Tubi has a surprising number of speculative works. Now, it doesn’t look like they refresh their content as often as the others, so once I go through that content, I may find it all a bit stale in 6 months to a year from now, but as of now, if not for the ads, this service would probably be used more than Hulu for movies (ad and all)–although Hulu would still win out for TV content.

Well, that’s all for now. These are just my experiences with the various services, looking in general at what they offer in terms of speculative content, for me personally. I’ll be sure to let you know of any major changes (like, if I get Showtime up and running–probably won’t happen, though) and I see they have a major speculative presence or the like. Anyway, have a great day!

Sidney


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Mini-Review: The Last Witch-Hunter

Vin Diesel walking at night in dark clothes and long black trench coat on a wet city street full of puddles with a car behind him that has its headlights on full beam.  He is walking in front of the car, towards the camera.
Image Source: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1618442/

Sorry this blog post is a little late, but I didn’t really have time yesterday to work on it. It will be a little shorter than normal today as I have a couple of deadlines that are today (6/30) and one tomorrow that I need to be sure and meet. However, I did see a movie over the weekend–The Last Witch-Hunter–that I’ve been wanting to see for a while. It is currently streaming on Tubi–a free streaming site supported by ads that play during the movie (more on that later).

Vin Diesel “Vehicle”

This movie is primarily geared around Vin Diesel as the star of the movie. It focuses and spends quite a bit of time with Vin’s character. In many ways this is a good thing, as Vin is always likable in this role. However, the focus on his character means that we see little-to no character development or motivation for the other characters. The “twist” is poorly set up, coming through expositional dialogue rather than being organically revealed via the plot and the villains have almost no motivation, especially the Witch Queen who serves as the movie’s “Big Bad.”

While there are other named actors in this movie, such as Michael Caine and Elijah Wood, they aren’t really used to great effect in the roles they play and their screen-time is greatly diminished do to the almost relentless focus on Kaulder, Vin Diesel’s character. For me, the highlight of the movie was actually the performance of the female lead, Rose Leslie, who played Chloe. I enjoyed the “pluckiness” of the character and thought that it turned something that was fairly familiar into something that was enjoyable.

Highlander By Way of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

When I say familiar, I mean it. Essentially, this movie is a compilation of many of the scenes/ideas from both Highlander and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. There are even flashback scenes evoking the lost “love” of Kaulder’s life during his “sword and sorcery” days just like in Highlander. The modern day elements play out more along the lines of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but there still shades of Highlander even there.

While I’m sure the movie nodes to other modern day “undying heroes” movies and tropes, these are the two in which I kept seeing the most references for as I watched the movie. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you happen to like those two movies. If you’re unsure at all, then watch how the history of the hero unfolds and keep track of how the character is introduced and interacts with the love interest, and in both instances, you’ll see similarities within what I’m going to refer to as the “Undying Hero” genre.

Commercial Breaks Really Hurt

This is the second movie that I’ve watched on Tubi, and I have to say that while they have movies that none of the other streaming services have (especially ones that I’m interested in watching for the most part), their model while free, really hurts them in terms of me watching them on a long-term basis. While I don’t agree that every network needs a streaming service–CBS AllAcess, why do you even exist, except for corporate greed as your star show, Star Trek Picard is available on Netflix everywhere else in the world–I would be willing to pay a small fee for Tubi (no more than $2 a month), or have them added on to Netflix, again for a nominal fee. I stopped watching movies on commercial TV a while back because commercial breaks began to become onerous and the networks would edit content. While not quite as egregious as normal network TV (and certainly no editing of content), the ad break would happen in places that broke the tension. I don’t recall an ad break happening in the last half hour of the movie, but I think there were a total of 7 or 8 breaks over the run-time of the movie.

Overall Rating (B- 80-82)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

So, “Your Mileage May Vary” definitely applies here. Your enjoyment of the movie will probably hinge on two very important factors: 1) do you like Vin Diesel and his acting style and 2) do you like the “Undying Hero” genre, or in other words, do you like Highlander and/or The Sorcerer’s Apprentice? If the answer is yes to both of those (like me), then this is going to be a fairly enjoyable watch, if your answer is yes to one of the two questions, then you’ll probably find it bog-standard average–nothing special, but totally watchable, but if your answer is no to both of these things, then you’ll probably want to watch something else as there’s no escaping either of these two factors.

Sidney


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Foundation: New Science Fiction Show in 2021

Book covers in 3 separate panes depicting people on various planets and science fiction landscapes.
Image Source: http://skydance.com/news/apple-lands-isaac-asimov-foundation-tv-series-from-david-goyer-josh-friedman/

WWDC happened this week and we learned about new Apple products and announcements. There are some things that I’m interested in from the event. While I will try to do a post on the event (or the things I’m interested in), my attention massively spiked during the Apple TV portion of the show because they premiered a trailer for their new TV show: Foundation.

Foundation: Old Sci-Fi Book, New Sci-Fi TV Show

Image Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgbPSA94Rqg

Foundation is an older sci-fi property written by Isaac Asimov (the writer of I, Robot and a whole host of other fiction and non-fiction works. For those who don’t know of his work, he was a prolific author, especially in his non-fiction. However, he was, at one time, the “Stephen King of Science Fiction” (along with another older sci-fi author Robert Heinlein, whom most know as the author of Starship Troopers).

Now, while I’ve read other works by Asimov, my local library didn’t have a copy of Foundation, nor was it still in print at the local bookstores, so it was somewhat legendary when I was a child. I would see it mentioned in magazines and best of books, but I could never find it (remember, as a kid, my resources were limited, if it wasn’t in the library or bookstore, then I probably didn’t have access to it–no such thing as the internet or Amazon to find things that you were interested in, but couldn’t get locally).

However, about a year and a half ago, I happened to find a copy of Foundation at my local used bookstore. Thanks to school and Covid-19, I’ve not had a chance to read it yet, but it is on my To Be Read (TBR) shelf. It is a trilogy of books that (in this volume) are all in one volume.

On Apple TV+ in 2021

While I’m super interested in the show, I’m in quandry about whether to read the book first or wait. In the case of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series which is scheduled to premiere on Amazon Prime, I’ve already read the books (in fact, I’m rereading them now–although that’s a blog post for another time). I already know the story. When I watch movies based on books, I try to watch the movie first to go in with no preconceived expectations (again, if I don’t already know the story) and then I read the book so as to get a sense of how cloesly the movie captured the essence of the book. Not sure which is going to be the best in this case.

Also, the actor on this played Anderson Dawes on The Expanse. While I liked The Expanse (eventually) and while I think the actor is a great actor (he made me dislike Dawes’s character), Dawes was my least favorite character on the show, so it will be interesting if the actor can make me forget Dawes through his portrayal of the character in Foundation that seems to be a “wise mentor” type of character.

While I have quite a bit to work on in the interim (dissertation, anyone?), I still could use a little more sci-fi in my life right now. 2021 seems along time away, but based on this trailer, the wait could be worth it!

Sidney


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Mini-Movie Review: The King’s Speech

A scene from the movie where the King, his wife, and Logue stand and yell out in a large brown room.
Image Source: https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Kings-Speech

A couple of weeks ago, I watched The King’s Speech before it left Netflix. Again, like The Dark Knight, this movie is considered an “essential” watch for those who are interested in film. As I’d not yet seen it, but heard that it was good enough that several schools have shown it, I thought that I should make sure to watch it before it left.

A Period Piece Par Excellence

While some may not like period pieces and dramas, as a History Minor, I don’t mind them. Like any work, I don’t think that the genre is inherently boring (as I heard it explained), but rather it is up to the skill of the individual creators as to how the work holds my interest. I have to say that the King’s Speech was masterful. I enjoyed all of the actors in it, especially the principals. I could easily understand the pain of the main character. As an introvert, public speaking is probably one of my least favorite activities (yes, I’m aware of the irony–a scholar who/teacher who doesn’t like public speaking). However, the protagonist’s condition goes far worse than mine and I could empathize. The acting was amazing, the sets and locations were effective, evoking Britain on the cusp of World War 2, and the story was very engaging.

This is How You Do a Modern “Classic”

Unlike The Dark Knight, I was engaged with the is story the entire way through–although the very first scene was very painful (but that’s the point–to show the character in crisis while we watch him solve his problem all through the movie). However, even though much of the solution to the problem comes from the character of Dr. Logue, the king has to take an active role in solving his own problem. There are places in the movie where part of the problem comes from the king’s refusal to engage with Logue’s methods–again, this is what I like in a movie rather than the “antagonist” being presented as the heroic figure — as in The Dark Knight or Pitch Black.

I can see why this is shown in schools–although I don’t know that I’d feel comfortable showing it at the Middle School level, but definitely at the High School level as it not just shows the time period, but also the concept of grit.

Overall Rating (A 95-100)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This is the type of movie that I like–a strong protagonist, with problems that they have to actively overcome. The time period was unique (as was the problem), and the acting and movie was stellar. At the time of its release, I wondered if it was really worth all the hype. I can say, without a doubt, it was, and is! I loved it!

Have a great day!

Sidney


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Currently Working On (6/2020):

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    Drafting: First Draft
  • Ship of Shadows Graphic Novel 
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Storytelling the Expanse Way

Cast of The Expanse in futuristic space suits against a dark futuristic interior
Image Source: https://www.space.com/the-expanse-season-4-and-5-on-amazon.html

I have to admit this upfront: I originally didn’t like The Expanse. There, I said it. This isn’t news to long-time blog readers as I made no secret about how much I disliked the first season of the show. I “peaced out” after the first episode of the 2nd season. However, last January, when my car died and I was stuck in the apartment for the whole weekend (heh, a pandemic and quarantine gives a whole new meaning to being “stuck”), I watched the entire series of the show in a weekend and I was amazed that I dismissed it so thoroughly as it was really good.

I’ve watched it quite often since, trying to figure out how I could have gotten it so wrong. I think I understand what The Expanse does that makes it so compelling, but why it initially turned me off.

History First

So, I believe that Tolkien would have loved this particular series as well. What the creators of the show (and I assume the book) do very well is focus on the history and then set the characters loose with events. History is paramount to the series and most of the first season sets up the interplay between Mars, Earth, and the Belt. Then (no spoilers), they throw a wrinkle in the midst and then go from there. Tolkien was a huge advocate for setting up the history of a place–that’s why Middle Earth feels like a lived in world. As I’m reading The Lord of the Rings again, I notice how Tolkien is discussing people, events, and places that aren’t really relevant to the story at hand, but give much more context for what is happening and why it is happening.

Mystery Second

The second thing that the creators do is that they present story arcs in the form of mini-mysteries. Yes, that’s right, much of the “binge-watchability” (like the new formation of the word I created there?) of the show comes from the fact that they show you (Colombo-style) what happens at the end of the arc in the very beginning of the arc and then slowly the narrative unfolds until you have all the pieces. Once you reach the end, you see how that piece that they gave you at the very beginning then fits into the larger story. Colombo did this very well, but it gave away the entire ending as you knew who the murderer was and then it was just watching Colombo put together the lies, half-truths, and mistakes of the criminal and watching their ever increasing desperation as the detective got ever closer to the truth. In The Expanse, it is more like a puzzle, in which they give you a “glimpse” of a puzzle filled in and then before you can make complete sense of what you’re seeing, they scatter ALL the pieces and begin reforming the puzzle again. You still have your “clue,” but it isn’t relevant for 4-5 episodes until you have enough of the overall puzzle filled in again to start making connections to what you saw at the beginning.

Warm Up/Cool Down Third

And finally, well not finally, but it is the last one I want to talk about today, they do this interesting technique that I’ve not seen in other long form narrative shows (shows whose episodes follow a story arc and aren’t “episodic” in nature) in that it follows (for the most part) this scenerio: Warm-up episode, 1-3 action focused episodes, Cool down episode. Now, there are exceptions to this, but having watched the series well over 10 times now (and individual episodes to coincide with various reactors–I’m following 5 Expanse reactors at the moment), there is a pattern that you can see developing in those episodes. The Warm-up episode usually establishes some strange situation or occurrence or sets up a problem that needs to be solved/resolved. The Action episodes are usually ones that are “cooking” episodes where the action is happening and everything comes to a “boiling point” (which is usually some unexpected revelation–either plot or character, rarely both at the same time, but it has happened). The Cool-down episode is usually character focused and spends time relating how the characters have been changed or how they are relating to the new status quo.

The cycle usually repeats (although in Seasons 1 & 4, this is elongated and it makes it seem slow at times.) Season 2 and 3 are so hyper-focused on this pattern that it makes the show so intense.

To Watch The Expanse You Have to Embrace the Mystery

Although The Expanse is a science fiction show that features combat, space ship scenes, and a realistic depiction of a science fiction world, one must embrace the mystery genre in order to truly appreciate it. It isn’t so much a “puzzlebox” that is the hot buzzword term in the film industry right now as it is a throwback to a genre that has fallen out of favor. This show leans heavily on the mystery of what has happened/is happening in order to drive its narrative. By showing you a piece of the “endgame” and then going back and filling in those pieces one plot point and character moment at a time, it is inviting you to help construct the narrative along with it and entices you to come along with it to “enjoy the ride.”

Sidney


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Mini-Movie Review: Extraction (Netflix)

A picture of a bearded Chris Hemsworth in military gear looking to the right off-screen against a yellowish background of an Indian cityscape with the words" Netflix Extraction Official Trailer"
Image Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6P3nI6VnlY

This past weekend I watched a movie produced by Netflix. While not my first Netflix movie, I generally pass them up in favor of seeing “studio” produced movies as I’m trying to catch up on movies that I’ve missed theatrically. As an individual, I’ve seen a lot of movies; however, as a film student, I feel that I don’t have the same repertoire as some of my colleagues (one of my friends at school who is also a film student and working on his dissertation watches a movie a day on his phone! I sometimes struggle to keep up with the movie a week paradigm that I’ve set for myself.) This movie was written by Joe Russo (Avengers Infinity War/Endgame) and stars Chris Hemsworth (Thor & Avengers movies). So, did I like it–yes, I did, for the most part.

“The Protector”

This story is very much in the style of films made famous by Keanu Reeves in the John Wick movies. However, there is a difference, story-wise. While those are about “revenge” in some way, this film owes much more to films like Liam Neesom’s Taken movies (which I’ve not seen) and the BMW short film The Escape (which I have seen) in that there is more an element of protection than revenge. While different in tone, the plot actually functions a lot like other movies in the action genre–I’m specifically thinking of 16 Blocks, Special Forces, and Mile 22 (all of which I’ve seen–see, I do have a pretty good film knowledge base to draw on 😉 for my analysis). Chris Hemsworth’s character is tasked with “extracting” a target from a rival faction. I won’t go into the specific plot elements–but suffice to say, if you’ve seen any of those movies, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of the story progression. While not always the most original of ideas or execution, it was still an enjoyable and had enough novel elements to set it above many others in its genre.

“Gun-Fu”

Your enjoyment of the movie will depend largely on your tolerance for “gun-fu,” which is the combination of gun-play, martial arts, and ultra close-in gun-play in which the shooting all happens at extremely close ranges–sometimes right up in a character’s face (literally). This type of fighting and choreagraphy was made famous by John Wick. If you hate that style of action/combat, then chances are good you’re going to hate this movie.

There are also other set pieces in here besides the Gun-Fu that are really well done. There is a car chase scene that is really complex and visually interesting (check out the camera placement during the chase). This scene is NOT shot like traditional Hollywood action set-pieces and (for me) that really made it come alive. Is it the BEST chase scene I’ve ever seen? No, some of the Bourne/Bond movies hold that distinction, but check out the way this movie is shot vs those and you’ll immediately see a difference. Also, the ending sequence has to be mentioned–tense and climatic, I really think it rivals some of the best moments of other “protector” like films referenced above.

What I Didn’t Like

Okay, this isn’t a perfect movie. The story, some are going to argue, is fairly predictable. While you can’t see all of the “turns” coming, you can probably spot most of them.

Going beyond the story though, the sound mixing on this one was rough. The dialogue, in some parts was mixed too low to hear without me having to turn up my system, but then when the action got going, I would have to turn down the system as the gunshots rang out to loud and I didn’t want to disturb the neighbors. I personally couldn’t find a perfect setting–the dialogue always seemed too low and the action always seemed too loud.

Lastly, there’s a lot of violence happening in this story. I know its “Gun-Fu,” but the amount of people being shot in the head, especially, is high. People lose digits, are stabbed in multiple places/ways, and in one case, I kid (ostensibly a drug runner) is thrown off a roof. If violence makes you squeamish at all, this movie may not be for you. Most of it is justified by the story, but you can tell there was a little one upmanship happening here with other films in the genre.

Overall Grade: B

While definitely not a novel story or characterization, there were enough new elements (stunts and set-pieces) and enough articulation of the overall theme, that I didn’t find it tedious or a retread of something I’d already seen. Also, while the violence was a bit over-the-top for me and took me out of the story sometimes, I thought that the actual “action” of the story delivered for me what I was looking for in an action movie. It was fun, but had a heart, and wasn’t a pessimistic, dark, gritty drama that so many films in the genre try to be.

Sidney


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Okay, so I was Wrong–The Expanse is a Really, Really Good Show!

Picture of the cast of the Expanse with a stylized logo of the show's title.
Image Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/robsalkowitz/2019/12/12/amazon-relaunches-tvs-best-sci-fi-show-the-expanse-for-season-4-friday/

So, sometime last year, I finished the first season of The Expanse, and to put it mildly, I was NOT impressed. I thought it was okay, but fell too far into the “Game of Thrones” arena where “bad things happen to good people.” It didn’t help that the show was marketed as “Game of Thrones” in space. I tried two separate times to get past the first episode of Season 2, but I couldn’t–I just thought that I didn’t like the show and that it was, while not bad, not something that I was ever going to like.

However, fair is fair. If I called it out on the blog and I change my mind later, then I’m going to let you know.

So I’m saying it now: I Was Wrong! The Expanse is a GOOD show!

Season 2 and Season 3

Part of the problem is that the show doesn’t really hit its stride until about Episode 2 or 3 of the 2nd season. Like Season 1, the first couple of episodes are more about “set-up” than they are about pure plot. Characterization is always present, but in Season 1, I wasn’t really invested in the characters. However, with Season 2 and especially Season 3, the characters are really tested by the plot and they interact to turn the show into something really special (& really good)!

Without spoilers, let’s just say that everything rises to a crescendo, ramps down after the resolution and then rises a second time to an even more insane and awesome resolution. I think the key is that 1) the characters are ALWAYS acting/reacting based on plot. This is the rare show where plot reveals characters and the characters’ actions drive the plot.

Season 4

So, I binged this show a couple weeks ago when my car was in the shop being repaired. I watched all of Season 2, 3, and 4 back-to-back. While I didn’t think Season 4 had the same insane level of wildness as 2 & 3, I did feel that it was still great and much better than Season 1. I hope that they do a Season 5 as I really want to see where they take the story (yes, I know they are based on books, and I may dip into them a little later, but right now the show has its “hooks” into me).

The characters are really well rounded (now that I’ve seen their arc over more episodes than what was presented in Season 1).

Overall Grade: A

Again, as this is a public forum, I feel compelled to let people know when I get it wrong (& this is one of those times). This is a strong show with compelling characters and an absolutely crazy storyline that really shines in Season 2 & 3. While it doesn’t beat The Mandolorian as my favorite sci-fi show, it has leap-frogged quite few series to become one for which I can’t wait to see the next season.

Sidney


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