FlixChatter Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)


Review by: Vitali Gueron

This year marks the 50th anniversary of what is arguably the most historic year in modern American history. 1968 was a year of social unrest, a turning point in the Vietnam War and the year both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated in the span of several months. It was also the year Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood made its US national debut on Public Television. The show was produced by Pittsburgh public broadcaster WQED and was created by and starred Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister and a lifelong Republican who possessed what’s sorely missed in present day — the compassion for others. Rogers was also fascinated by the emerging field of early childhood development, and when he became conscious of television’s potential, he reached out to the local Pittsburgh public broadcaster to create a television show that would focus on just that — early childhood development.

Directed by award winning director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? takes us on a very emotional ad heartfelt journey through the Fred Rogers’ life and a television career, which blossomed far beyond his expectations. Neville ‘s documentary traces how Rogers became a beloved national institution and how he remained resolute in his beliefs about how to reach and just plain communicate to children, despite changes in society, and with changes that happen in the world around them.

I personally did not grow up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or Sesame Street on PBS, mostly because I was already 8 years old when I immigrated to the United States from Bulgaria with my parents, but I was very aware of the amazing shows on public television. But it wasn’t until I saw Morgan Neville’s documentary that I realized what a true gem Fred Rogers was to us and how much I would have benefited from watching his show, as some of my friends had as kids.

In today’s world of partisan politics, vicious attacks on the news media and lack of civil discourse between individuals with differing opinions, the message of love, compassion and understanding that Fred Rogers highlighted in his shows is something we definitely could use more of in the present.

One of my favorite parts of the documentary happens towards the beginning, in early 1969 when Public Television it was still in its beginnings, Congress held hearings requested by then President Nixon. He sought to gut PBS’ small $20 million budget down in half or even less. In a remarkable turn of events, the historically accurate and stunning footage taken from 1960s news archives, Rogers testifies before then Senator John Pastore who was ready to decimate Public Broadcasting’s funding. In about six minutes of testimony, Rogers spoke of the need for social and emotional education that public television provided. Senator Pastore was visibly moved by Rogers’ eloquent appeal and surprised everyone watching in the room and across the country by declaring after Rogers’ testimony, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.” And it looks like Morgan Neville documentary just earned my praise.

Have you seen Won’t You Be My Neighbor?? Well, what did you think? 

Musings on Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)

The fifth installment of the Jurassic franchise already made nearly half a billion bucks before it even opened here in North America (it now stands at over $700mil). So yeah, its financial prowess still prove to be monstrous, even as the power of its monsters continue to reach diminishing returns.

If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t worry about spoilers as I marked them properly. But if you have seen it, you can highlight the hidden text to read ’em.

In reply to my meh comment about the movie, my co-worker said ‘it’s a movie about dinosaurs, you can’t expect it to win an Academy award.’ True. I never expected an Oscar-caliber movie, but still, it’d be nice for a blockbuster of this magnitude to at least aim for greatness. I recently rewatched Jurassic Park and still gasped when the dinos were first revealed. Alan Grant’s and Ellie Sattler’s reactions were so infectious that we’re vicariously living through their experience and seeing those dinos for the first time through their eyes. The moment Dr. John Hammond said ‘Welcome to Jurassic Park!’ still gave me goosebumps. Well, the genuine sense wonder of the Spielberg original is gone, and so are the characters worth rooting for. This article from Decider.com is absolutely correct that every Jurassic sequel forgot what made the Spielberg original so great.

The only genuine thrill for me in this movie is the opening sequence under water which felt JAWS-like (perhaps an input from Spielberg who still serves as executive producer?) But after that it’s more like Jaws 3-D. The movie overall is practically thrill-free as nearly every sequence is predictable. In the first Jurassic World, we saw the luxury theme park/resort destroyed to bits by the dinos. Well, as soon as the movie shows news footage of it with the remaining dinos now threatened by molten lava, we know they’ll be back on Isla Nubar in no time. So thanks to Dr. Hammond’s former partner Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), the film’s protagonist Claire is soon back to the island to save her precious dinosaurs.

Let’s try this new t-rex ride shall we?

Bryce Dallas Howard can’t seem to part w/ those darn heels, and the camera made sure (in a defiant way) that we noticed them. Never mind her choice of footwear, I just can’t fathom why Claire loves these dinos so much when she clearly didn’t mind working for a corporation which sole purpose is to profit from these creatures. But the writers didn’t bother to give any of the characters any background story or at least a semblance of real human beings. Heh, even in a fantastical universe like Star Wars and the Marvel superhero movies, you expect the characters’ drive/motivations to at least feel true. Here, the humans’ behavior are so ridiculous they should be the ones extinct!

Hello! I’m the Indoraptor, the new hybrid dino in town!

New dinos, but same old human greed. The theme of ‘greed breeds catastrophe’ is even more derivative when the novelty factor of genetically-bred dinosaurs has worn off since the last movie. As an Indonesian, I’m quite amused they keep naming the scariest dinos with ‘indo’ Indominus Rex in Jurassic World and the new one, IndoRaptor. Spoiler alert (highlight to read): the first bidder of the dino auction is from Indonesia, too, ahah.

Of course Claire’s not going back there alone without her beefcake ex boyfriend Owen. Seriously, the movie actually refers to Chris Pratt‘s character as that, complete with eye-rolling sarcasm. There is so little chemistry between Owen and Claire, but that’s not the actors’ fault as we’re given very little reason to care for either of them. Is it just me or Pratt looks bored the entire time here? And what’s with all the squinting?? Unlike his role in The Guardians of Galaxy (or even his brief appearance in Her), Owen is devoid of the wit and playful charm Pratt is known for, but then again ‘devoid’ is the perfect word to describe this movie.

Let’s heal him so he can get back to attacking all of us!

The supporting cast are basically stock characters. The wuss computer genius dude (Justice Smith) and bad ass paleo-veterinarian (Daniella Pineda), played by a black actor and a Latina actress to fulfill the diversity quota. But since the writers (Derek Connolly & Colin Trevorrow) don’t even bother to give any depth to the main characters, let alone these guys. Poor Rafe Spall and Toby Jones (more terrific Brits wasted in a giant Hollywood tentpole flick) are relegated to a vanilla run-of-the-mill corporate ‘monsters’ who merely view these dinos in terms of dollar signs.

Spoiler alert: I gotta give him points though that he somehow manage to hide some freakishly scary dino under his boss’ mansion’s basement. I mean come on! You’d think its yawning sound alone would wake up anyone within 10 mile radius?? That’s not the most absurd bit of all though, that ‘honor’ would have to go to the auction scene. I mean, a bunch of billionaires gather for dinosaur auction. We’re talking about ‘the most dangerous creature that ever walked the earth’ as the auctioneer described, on full display inside poorly-constructed cages! As if that wasn’t enough, they’re selling these for a mere $10 million dollars?? Sotheby’s auctioneers would laugh in their faces. That’s even less than a penthouse in Manhattan or the Bay Area. What is this? Dinos Rummage Sale??

“Just what the heck are we doing in this movie??”

Naturally plot holes abound in this movie, but I guess logic be damned when you go into a movie about dinosaurs roaming around on earth, facing yet another extinction no less. So the sheer lack of logic is not the movie’s biggest fault (after all my suspension-of-disbelief level is already in overdrive), it’s the fact that it’s a dull movie. Not only is the ‘dinos as war weapons’ plot is unimaginative (and incredibly stupid), many of the scenes are recycled material. There are countless moments that lazily mimic the original (i.e. ‘objects in mirror are closer than they appear’ in rearview mirror, the raptors in the kitchen, etc.) yet nary any of the suspense and terror of the original.

Here we go again, dinos in the kitchen!!

I still remember fondly, vividly, the water ripple (or even the green Jello shaking) scene because of that visceral sense of dread. Here all the dino violence and gore are on full display as they trample, maim, chomp the human victims to bits, but none of it create a genuine sense of thrilling terror. Not much of emotional resonance here either (there is one scene on Isla Nubar that tugged my heart strings a bit, but even that felt like orchestrated melodrama), as the relentless action and convoluted plot pile on. Spoiler alert: That bit about the snoopy little girl being a clone thanks to Dr. Hammond’s technology is intriguing but the movie didn’t really expand much on it at all. Instead, they borrowed a scene from Nightmare on Elm Street w/ the IndoRaptor’s trying to claw her on her bed.

Dino Nightmare on Elm Street??

I gotta mention about the music. Michael Giacchino is a great composer but the music here feels so busy. It made me miss John Williams’ spectacularly-iconic score that’s only used in bits and pieces, too brief to make any real impact.

Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona have proven his chops with his smaller-budget films The Orphanage and The Impossible. I think his directing is okay, I take more issue with the absurd, criminally-vapid script that no amount of flawless CGI or mechanical dinosaurs can cover up. So Claire later swapped her heels with the more sensible boots, but unfortunately the movie itself refuse to evolve from being a formulaic, engineered money-making machine for the studios. Honestly, it left a terrible aftertaste as soon as I left the theatre. It’s a franchise that’s way past its extinction date.

P.S. If you love Jeff Goldblum… spoiler alert: Yes, he’s back as Ian Malcolm but all his scenes are in the trailers and nope, he has zero interactions w/ any of the dinos. Another criminally-wasted talent, especially considering how fun he was in the recent Thor: Ragnarok. I mean why bother hiring Goldblum if you’re just gonna have him sit in a congressional hearing the entire time?? 

Well, what do YOU think of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom


FlixChatter Review: Incredibles 2 (2018)

The Incredibles was released 2004 when the super hero genre was starting to dominate the box office. It was one of the biggest hits of that year but somehow a sequel never got made. Now 14 years later, the Parr/Incredibles family is back to save the world from bad guys.

Set not long after the events of the first movie, The Incredibles family just saved a city from a massive disaster but were arrested right after because superheroes are still considered illegal. With the help of an old friend, they were released from the authority. But now they are broke and homeless, Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) needs to figure out how they can support their young children. The thought of going back to the workforce as regular human being doesn’t sit well with Bob but thankfully their friend Lucius/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) came to the rescue. He told both Bob and Helen that he’d met a very rich man named Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) who wants to make super heroes legal again and he wants to meet and offer them a new gig.

Winston runs a very successful communication firm and idolizes super heroes, he wants to convince powerful government officials to make super heroes legal and save the world from danger again. With the help of his tech expert sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener), Winston came up with a plan of having only Elastigirl go out and do all the heroics stuff first to prove to the government that super heroes are not dangerous to the public. Having always been the man of the house and the alpha male, Mr. Incredible was taken aback that Winston didn’t choose him for this gig. But since he loves his wife and kids and understands that the job will be their only option to make a living, he relented and encourage his wife to take the job.

As the story progresses, we see Elastigirl fights crime and save many lives while also trying to find the identity of the movie’s main villain who goes by the name Screensaver. Meanwhile, Bob is stuck at home playing Mr. Mom and not doing a very good job of it.

All of the actors who voiced each of the characters were great, Nelson, Hunter and Jackson slipped right back into their respective roles and we audience never get the sense that they’ve been gone for such a long time. Odenkirk’s Winston is a nice addition, he’s basically playing a rich and powerful version of Saul from Breaking Bad. Let’s hope they bring him back for the third sequel. But the character who steals the show is baby Jack Jack, he’s adorable baby with several super powers and got the most laugh from the audience. Pretty sure his toy will sell quite well during the holidays season.

This is a return to form for Brad Bird who wrote and directed the picture. I thought his last film Tomorrowland was one of the worst of 2015. He crafted a fun and exciting family superhero picture. There were some complaints from parents that the first movie was too violent, so he scaled back the action in this one. But that doesn’t mean the movie don’t have any good action scenes.

The highlight action scene for me was when Elastigirl was on her motorbike racing through the streets trying to stop an out of control train. Also, the big climatic finale where all of the super heroes used their power to save a city from destruction was well done and very exciting. The only complaint I have is that the main villain was pretty weak compare to Syndrome from the first movie.

Incredibles 2 may not be a good as the first one but it’s full laughs, exciting action sequences and some social commentary on our current pop culture. It’s still early in the summer movie season but it’s definitely my favorite so far.


So have you seen Incredibles 2? Well, what did you think?

Indie Film Spotlight: Smitten! & Q&A w/ writer/director Barry Morrow

Ahhh… romanza. One of the films I enjoyed most at Minneapolis-St. Paul Film Festival (MSPIFF) this year is this sweet, whimsical fantasy rom-com starring Darren Criss and Mãdãlina Ghenea set in the picturesque Italian Alps. Smitten! is a directorial debut from Minnesota’s own Barry Morrow, whom cinephiles might recognize as the Oscar-winning writer of Rain Man (1988). The film won four Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay for Barry Morrow.

A young New York fashion executive’s trip to Milan takes a bad turn when he is kidnapped and whisked off to an Alpine village to be held for ransom money. Little does he (or his three abductors) know that the small, rustic cottage they end up spending the night in is under a gypsy love spell. Or that when they awaken, they will be Smitten! by the first living soul that meets their eyes.


I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation at Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel aka The Depot. We were fortunate to find an empty meeting room so we could chat uninterrupted for more than a half hour! I could’ve easily chatted with Barry all day… he’s so personable, warm, funny, and simply a delight to chat with. In fact, our interview started with him asking about me and why I have a blog. Later on I told him I have a short film screening at MSPIFF and he was curious to find out more. In fact, when I found out my press pass fell off my lanyard, he was kind enough to help me look for it! I love that Barry has such a huge heart for people with disabilities. In a way, that experience helped him in his Hollywood journey, but he has been giving back to disabled people all his life.

No wonder his film Smitten! is so joyful! He seemed like he had a blast making it, so hopefully he’ll be directing more movies in the future. So check out my interview below on Barry’s journey to Hollywood (via a TV movie that’s based on his own story), winning an Oscar for Rain Man, and making a joyful movie about love.

Q. You’re originally from Minnesota (born in Austin, MN), then you moved to teach drama in Hawaii. Would you tell me a bit of your journey to Hollywood?

I only went to Hollywood when I already had a movie already in the works. I have a wife, two little kids, plus a dog and a cat. When I left Minnesota initially, it was to teach at University of Iowa and I was there for seven years. It’s there when I wrote this story about this gentleman that my wife and I rescued, and more or less adopted him, I became his legal guardian. His name is Bill Sackter and he was institutionalized for 44 years at Faribault State Mental Health Institute. I find that Bill was an intelligent man, but that his intelligence comes in many different ways. His intelligence was reading people, he instinctively know who would shun him and who would be warm and gracious to him. So he has a deep emotional intelligence.

Q2. So the TV movie Bill (released in 1981 starring Mickey Rooney as Bill – ed) basically brought you to Hollywood?

Yes, at the time I was living in Iowa. So I said to Bill, ‘Look, I help you get a coffee shop, and now I need a career.’ I’m going to try to go to Hollywood, see how this movie works and see if I could continue to be a writer. Well I asked if he wanted to come with us and he said ‘Buddy, I hate to disappoint you but I’m happy here and lots of people need my coffee. So you’re on your own now.” So my wife and I went to California and we ended up winning an Emmy for Bill, as well as a Golden Globe for Best Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television. (Mickey Rooney also won an Emmy and Golden Globe for playing Bill – ed).

Q. So did you already start writing Rain Man by then? 

No. Bill was still alive then. The movie became so successful we made a sequel in 1983 (Bill: On His Own) and he died just before it was released. I think what Bill would’ve said was, “Oh I don’t need to see the sequel, I lived it.” By the way, when Bill saw the movie for the first time with me, we had a private screening for him in New York at CBS, he said “You know what buddy, Mickey Rooney has a rough life too.” He couldn’t distinguish that Rooney was playing him.

So after Bill passed away, I started volunteering at various organizations dealing with disabilities. I was in Texas on a committee for the Association for Retarded Citizens (now called the ARC) and that’s when I met the real Rain Man, Kim Peek. His father was there and when I saw him he was reading some books. He was reading this book upside down and I heard him groaning while I was in the hallway. I said “Can I help you with anything?” and he said, “Don’t bother me, I’m reading.” Well I found out later from his father, that he could read books upside down. I was in the room at the NASA Medical Research Hospital in Monterey CA and the scientists said after reviewing Kim’s brain scan that they’d never seen anything like it. His brain is so unique so he’s considered to be the world’s greatest mega savant. He has the largest memory capacity of probably anyone who’s ever lived. That’s how Rain Man started.

Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in ‘Rain Man’

Q. I read on IMDb that during filming, both Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise doubted the movie’s potential. Of course little did they know it went on to win awards, and Hoffman winning an Oscar for Best Actor.

Well it’s because of the subject matter. I mean nobody’s ever done a TV or movie with a starring role about a mentally-retarded man until Bill happened. Eunice Shriver said to me, “You know what you’ve done don’t you, Barry? Bill is the most sympathetic portrayal of a mentally-retarded person in television history.” Then Rain Man came along and nobody thought it’d held up to its potential. It’s two guys driving in a car and one hardly talks and doesn’t have much emotion, how’s that gonna work?

In a way it’s the same about Smitten!, I’m doing an old fashioned love story in a time where nobody does this kind of story. I like to call it ‘an analog movie in the digital age.’

Darren Criss and Madalina Ghenea

Q. That’s a perfect segue to Smitten! Now 30 years later, after years of writing dramatic projects, you not only wrote but directed a rom-com. What inspires you to do that? 

The message. This is what I’ve learned in nearly 70 years living on this planet: Everybody needs love, every wants love, but love is hard. It’s full of disappointment. Your heart will be broken more times than it’s mended, but still we pursue it, we can’t help it. I think love is in all my movies. It’s in Bill, in Rain Man. Love is there, I just never took a comedic angle.

Q. What I find particularly interesting about Smitten! is its magical realism aspect. I’m curious if there’s a certain event that happened that inspired you?

There’s actually very specific thing that happened. I have a friend who speaks and writes fluent Italian. I said to him that I’m looking for something to do in Italy as I love that country. It wasn’t even to direct a movie, I just want a good story. Then one day he sent me an obituary column in Italian. It’s about a young lady, 16 years old, on the cusp of World War I. Her boyfriend was about to go to war the next day, so they spent one night together in an old abandoned cottage. The next morning she woke up and he’s gone and never returned. He was killed in the war presumably. But she never married, she never fell in love again. She was smitten from that moment and so when she died at the age of 90, she left a small fortune to the village where that cottage was, that every year they’d have a Festival of Love to honor love. But what happened was, as the mayor was getting ready for it, the lawyer ran off with the money, he stole the money and they never got him. So I said, ‘that’s terrible!’ If we were to make a movie of it, I’d grant this woman his dying wish. So we did it, Smitten!, at least in my heart is dedicated to her.

Barry on set in the stunning Italian Alps

Q. How did the casting of Mãdãlina Ghenea and Darren Criss came about? Did you do audition for the main roles?
We first learned about Madalina Ghenea, who moved to Italy from Romania as a teen, through Lilia Trapani, our amazing casting agent in Rome. Lilia, in fact, found all of our cast’s great Italian actors, too. She knew that the film’s role of “Rosalia” required someone of striking beauty, one of the film’s conceits, and Madalina, an international super model, was certainly that. So the bigger surprise upon our first lunch meeting was to discover her vulnerable side, but most of all her inner beauty. She is a spirited but decent soul, which I believe she inherited from her mother, who visited us on set. Her mom was, and still is, a veterinarian in the small Romanian village where Madalina was raised, so farm animals and small town life is something in their family DNA. All of this came together in a kismet sort of way, so there was no doubt in my mind that Madalina was our Rosalia, and she accepted the role on the spot.

My producing partner Jules Rask and I had a more strategic way of approaching Darren Criss. Darren wasn’t on our radar when we began our search, but the more we learned about this guy, the more we knew we had to have him. What we didn’t know, and had to laugh about later, was that Darren had spent time in Italy studying acting and spoke fluent Italian. We never found a way to use that in the film, but it sure helped with all the singing and dancing and carousing we did together after work or on weekends, and of course our cast parties.

To watch and hear Darren and our Italian cast members belt out songs together in Italian was just one of the many magical moments we shared during filming. Darren, of course, has gone on to make a big splash in the recent The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and has an excellent shot at a Emmy for his role as spree killer Andrew Cunanan.  On a more personal note, everyone fell in love with Darren’s beautiful girlfriend and now fiancé, Mia Swier, as well as Darren’s parents, Bill and Cerina.  You might say we were all smitten.

Q. Many of your supporting cast are Europeans. Was there ever a language barrier or culture clash during filming?
Our cast and crew were at least 90% Italian, so we did face the inevitable language and cultural barriers. But not many. When in Italy, you can almost bypass language altogether by using gestures, facial expressions, even pantomime, and when you’re working with the caliber of talent that I had, reading one other was not a problem.

Our main shooting location was in a tiny village in northern Italy, formerly a part of Austria, so German was the dominant language there. There are still a bit of strain between the two cultures due to this history, but we overcame that almost instantly. Some credit for that, perhaps, had to do with the film we were shooting, which was light-hearted and all about love. At least I’d like to think so. But mostly it was about the people we picked to work with, and those who picked us. Everything about the making of Smitten! seemed to be fated that way.

Barry with Angela Molina and Madalina Ghenea

Q. Lastly, what tips do you have for aspiring writer/filmmaker trying to break into the business?

You’d think that after nearly 40 years of working in film and television, I’d have some sage advice for young filmmakers looking for their big break. But I don’t.  Every road to success, or failure for that matter, is a personal one, often a painful and lonely one, but everyone must find his or her own way. I can only offer a few platitudes. Work hard. Be the best you can possibly be. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Never quit. If I can think of anything else I’ll let you know. I’m still learning.

Thanks so much Barry for taking the time to chat with me! 

FlixChatter Review – Hereditary (2018)


Directed By: Ari Aster
Written By: Ari Aster
Runtime: 127 minutes

Hereditary begins with Annie Graham (Toni Collette), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and her children Peter (Alex Wolf) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro) coping with the recent death of Annie’s mother. Strange and terrifying events quickly begin to occur following the family matriarch’s passing, hinting at a dark family secret that might not have died with her.

This is one of the most suspenseful and unsettling horror movies I’ve seen in a while, and that tone is maintained the whole way through. The pacing is excellent; it works so well in building the tension. The beginning takes plenty of time establishing the characters’ backgrounds, but it doesn’t feel like it drags, because the exposition all feels very natural, thanks to a combination of strong writing and and stellar acting, especially from Toni Collette. The real inciting incident of the film (which is horrifying) takes so long to build up and is so drawn out, but it’s so effective.

Visually, this film is very creative, and not necessarily due to over-the-top special effects. The majority of the effects are practical rather than CGI, and for the most part, they’re pretty understated. This, combined with a good use of lighting and clever camera work, makes for a terrifying viewing experience.

I only have a couple complaints about this movie. Firstly, there isn’t much to Gabriel Byrne‘s character. I’ve enjoyed him in other movies, and I know he can act well; he just isn’t given much to work with here. He doesn’t really interact much with the rest of the family, which makes his chemistry with them so awkward that I initially thought he was the stepfather and not the actual father. It’s not that he seems emotionally distant, which I could almost understand, because it would make the tone feel even more uncomfortable. He just feels unnecessary. I know Annie and the kids are the real focus of the movie, but his character could have been removed and the film wouldn’t have lost anything vital.

Secondly, the ending kind of gives me tonal whiplash. It’s not a bad ending- it’s foreshadowed well, and it has a Rosemary’s Baby vibe that I appreciate- but it also feels more bizarre than the rest of the movie does; still twisted, but in a different, kind of jarring way. It’s a weird note to go out on.

Overall though, this is a fantastic horror movie. It’s well-written, the acting is mostly excellent, the visuals are skillfully done, and it will stick with you long after you leave the theater. If you enjoy scary movies, definitely check out this one.


Have you seen ‘Hereditary’? Well, what did you think? 

TV Chatter – Musings about Netflix’s ALTERED CARBON

Hello everyone! It’s been ages since I actually blogged about a TV series, but recently my hubby and I just binged on this Netflix Original Series ALTERED CARBON. As we’re waiting for Westworld Season 2 to wrap (as we prefer to binge on a series than following it week by week), we’re in the mood for a mind-bending sci-fi.

Now, the first time we watched Altered Carbon, we weren’t wowed by it. In fact, we thought it was meh. Honestly, I’m not too keen on Joel Kinnaman as the lead. He seems like a generic tall, blond hunk that’s lacking any kind of charisma while the far-more-magnetic Will Yun Lee (who’s essentially playing the same character) is relegated to a small role in flashback scenes. So it’s not until about a week later that my hubby and I decided to give this show another shot (largely because I like James Purefoy!), and by the end of episode 2, we were hooked!

ALTERED CARBON is set in a future where consciousness is digitized and stored in cortical stacks implanted in the spine, allowing humans to survive physical death by having their memories and consciousness “re-sleeved” into new bodies. The story follows specially trained “Envoy” soldier Takeshi Kovacs, who is downloaded from an off-world prison and into a combat-ready sleeve at the behest of Laurens Bancroft, a highly influential aristocrat. Bancroft was killed, and the last automatic backup of his stack was made hours before his death, leaving him with no memory of who killed him and why. While police ruled it a suicide, Bancroft is convinced he was murdered and wants Kovacs to find out the truth.

If you’re a big sci-fi fan, this show is well worth a watch. The series is based on a novel by British science fiction and fantasy author Richard K. Morgan released in 2002. In 2003, the U.S. edition received the Philip K. Dick Award (so I wonder if ppl with a middle name starting w/ a ‘K’ might be good at writing sci-fi?). The film rights for the book sold for a reported figure of $1,000,000 to film producer Joel Silver (per Wikipedia). The Netflix series’ creator Laeta Kalogridis, is one of the executive producers of many sci-fi films Avatar and Terminator Genysis, as well as TV shows (Birds of Prey and Bionic Woman).

In Wiki, there’s a quote from Morgan that I found particularly interesting… “Society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an élite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a willful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the majority whom the system oppresses.”

That’s essentially is the world of Altered Carbon… set 300 years from now, in the 25th Century. It’s a rather bleak vision of our future, as well as our humanity. But my favorite sci-fi films are those that really made me think about what it really means to be human. Such as the sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner which I actually just re-watched 8 years ago and prompted me to write this post. Speaking of that film, when I first saw the pilot episode, I thought Altered Carbon is basically a rip-off of Blade Runner. But upon a second look, the story is actually very different, but just as thought provoking in that it also made you ponder what it truly means to be human.

I’m not going into details in this ‘review’ of sort, so I won’t be commenting on each episode but more about the series as a whole. Basically, I just want to talk about three aspects of the series… and what I think of the ending [obviously SPOILER territory).

The Premise 

I’m often intrigued to check out a brand new show because of the filmmaker or cast. But in the case of Altered Carbon, where there’s really no major stars in it, I was drawn by its premise. As I already mentioned above, I LOVE sci-fi films that analyze and explore our humanity in a creative way. I mentioned Blade Runner above which is about engineered droids that look and behave like humans that it’s tough to tell them apart. Altered Carbon deals with something just as eerie (if not more so), that is, digitizing the soul.

The show also has a procedural element that actually is a more typical whodunnit story, but it’s this mind-bending scifi concept that kept my interest. According to IMDb, this was originally going to be adapted as a film, but the original book’s 26th century universe was too dense to be contained into two hours. I think the story that’s wise as there are indeed SO many interesting to explore from the book that would get oversimplified (read: dumbed down) in a 2-hour film.

I find the very idea of storing one’s consciousness into a chip (stack) that can be placed into another body is extremely fascinating, unsettling and terrifying all at the same time. Does it mean one’s soul, one’s memories, basically everything about who we are as a human being, is no longer attached to our physical bodies? Many Christians have asked this question… when those who believe in Heaven die and enter God’s Kingdom, will they have a spirit body or a physical body? But in this futuristic world, there are two kinds of deaths… the sleeve death (when the fatal blow only affects the body but not the mind, so the stack still intact) and real death (when the body and stack is destroyed).

This is one of those shows where you need a cheat sheet to understand. I didn’t read it until after I finished season 1, but still helpful to read it after. Y’know the expression ‘walk a mile in her shoes’? Well, this goes many steps further that one can essentially live one’s life in an entirely different form. You could be an elderly white man in a body of a black female teen, or in the case of this show, a Hispanic grandma in a body of a big, bald, heavily-tattooed white man. It sounds cool of course, as how many of us haven’t dreamed of looking like someone else for a day? But on the show, if one is re-sleeved too many times, that person will go insane (the mind rebels, the personality gets fragmented). And that’s why the ultra rich (the Meths as they’re called on the show) would clone themselves many times so they can basically be immortal as their sleeve remains a certain age forever.

The Visuals

The reality in Altered Carbon universe is reminiscent of Blade Runner, even more so in the sequel, BR 2049. In the 25th century, supposedly there are pulsating 3D ads, prostitute holograms and super sleek flying cop cars. Heck even the police station looks state of the art, so obviously they get their funding from the Meths!

The visuals are quite stunning. Set in what’s formerly San Francisco, it’s all pops of neon lights and gritty streets, though they still look too ‘clean’ to me that it’s obviously a set. Shot in Vancouver, by cinematographer Neville Kidd, it looks properly futuristic noir.

It’s no surprise that Kidd was the cinematographer behind Benedict Cumberbatch’s gorgeous Sherlock as well as Outlander for Starz. I think he ups the ante in this scifi dystopia world and scifi geeks like me constantly gawk at the cool set pieces. I mean Bancroft’s mansion is magnificently opulent and the state-of-the-art Raven Hotel (with its hidden weaponry) is practically a character in itself.

In season 7 though, it’s nice to get a bit of respite from all that neon city to a lush forest where we get the backstory of Kovacs’ life with his Envoy group. There’s also a super cool looking interrogation room in that episode.

So yeah, this show is visually ambitious and one reviewer even said every shot seems to have been tailored for the One Perfect Shot Twitter account, ha!

The Characters

I LOVE reading articles about the show that breaks down the terminology in Altered Carbon universe. My hubby sent me this one from Thrillist explores some of the questions posed by the show. I found this interview with a neuroscientist about consciousness, memory, and what makes us who we are. This comprehensive article clearly spells out who’s who on the show. Really fascinating stuff!

I also like how diverse the show is. Though it’s improved over the years, it’s still quite rare to see Asian actors in US shows these days. So I’m thrilled to see Korean-American actors Will Yun Lee in a prominent role, as well as Hong Kong-American actor Byron Mann whom I’ve seen in a bunch of shows. Nice to see a Latina actress playing a prominent part as well which celebrates her heritage. Given the nature of the ‘sleeves’ the color of one’s skin doesn’t really matter in this universe, which gives an opportunity for diverse casting and interracial relationships.

I have to say that despite how I initially feel about Joel Kinnaman, his character Takeshi Kovacs is captivating. I was thinking perhaps if we have someone like say, Tom Hardy, the show be a heck of a lot more watchable. But hey, Joel kinda grew on me the more I watched it and the concept of the character itself was enough to hook me. Having seen Joel in RoboCop and Suicide Squad, the Swedish actor seems to have been typecast of sort in sci-fi projects. He looked ultra ripped on this show, he’s basically shirtless 80% of the time here even when he’s not doing the sex scenes! I wish he had more range though, he’s basically just all morose and sulky though I have to admit he can be pretty tender in the romantic scenes.

Speaking of ripped, I really wish they had given more screen time to Will Yun Lee who not only looked amazing physically, but he’s also got this quiet grace and soulful charisma. I’m glad he’s basically the lead in episode 7 as it plays out in flashbacks of his life as an elite soldier (called the Envoy). I like the relationship between Kovacs and the fierce Envoy leader Quell Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), which is supposed to be the heart and soul of the show but it left me wanting more. Also, it’d have been cool to see the two ‘lives’ of the protagonist and contrast the two. [SPOILER: highlight to read] Given its trippy nature, why not have the two Kovacs (the original AND the new sleeve) intersect more somehow or maybe have Joel and Will meet and even fight each other?? That’d have been so trippy cool!

James Purefoy is nicely cast as Laurens Bancroft, perhaps the wealthiest of the Meths, who are so powerful they can afford endless backups and self cloning to live forever. The character is a reference to Methuselah, a biblical patriarch and a figure in Judaism and Christianity who’ve lived the longest of everyone in the Hebrew Bible at the age of 969.

The whole Bancroft storyline and their relationship with Kovacs held some interest at first, but after a while it gets less and less intriguing. I didn’t care for the affair between Kovacs and Bancroft’s seductive wife (Kristin Lehman). Even the gratuitous sex scene was ho-hum, and the father/son bit in this dysfunctional ‘family’ (they had 21 children!!) is meh as well. Laurens is an intriguing character on paper, and there’s a particular scene with a big crowd that utilizes Purefoy’s acting talent, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near his best role. He’s much more captivating in HBO’s ROME and fans of Mr. Purefoy would be happy to see he sort of um, re-enacted his famous nude scene from that show 😉

I have to say that one of my favorite character is Poe! A centuries ­old, highly ­evolved AI who is currently inhabiting the psyche of Edgar Allan Poe and runs the luxury, well-equipped hotel The Raven (natch!) which Kovacs often hangs out at. I was certain the actor who played him is a Brit (I usually have a good hunch about this) but Chris Conner is actually from New Mexico! I enjoy all the scenes with Poe in it, he’s kind of like Q in Bond movies but with a more biting wit and distinguished sense of style.

Like Kinnaman, it took me a while to warm up to Martha Higareda who played Detective Kristin Ortega. She seems to overact a bit in the pilot in the way she abhorred Kovacs. But I love that the show explored her Mexican heritage in her character, there’s even an extensive scene of her celebrating Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) with her very-Catholic family. Her mother is especially devout and opposes the re-sleeving after the original sleeve/body dies. I thought that the whole discussion around the dinner table reveals the core message of the show’s concept and discusses what it means to ‘play God’ and messing with the nature of humanity. As the show progresses, Ortega’s character trajectory gets more interesting and we find out just why she despises Kovacs. It’s kind of predictable but there’s one particular scene between them that tugs my heart strings.

The last character that’s worth talking about is Reileen Kawahara (Dichen Lachman). I can’t talk about it without going into SPOILER territory however… so highlight to read: I was quite flabbergasted to learn Reileen is Kovacs’ sister but I guess the show has sort of hinted at it with the scenes of the two Asian siblings. At first I thought it was brilliant but it quickly descend into sentimental melodrama mixed with absolutely preposterous and hyper violent fight scenes! 

I had seen Dichen in the indie drama Too Late a few years ago and the Australian actress sure is talented. Hope she gets her own show one day, maybe together with Will Yun Lee? 😉

I have to mention briefly about Ortega’s mentor Samir Abboud (Waleed Zuaiter) who didn’t have much screen time but still memorable.

The rest of the characters aren’t all that memorable. I think my least favorite character is Lizzie Elliot, whose subplot is the most boring and has least consequence to the whole story. I was amused by her mom Ava, a Black woman sleeved in a pale, redhead white male.

How about that ending?

While the show already suffered too many plots in a single season, the finale is even more egregious in trying to solve too many puzzles in a single episode! I really think the formulaic whodunnit of ‘who killed Bancroft’ plot could’ve been resolved in the episode before that, so we could focus more on Kovacs’ story and his relationships. They’re treating it like the ‘who killed JR?’ in Dallas when in fact it’s lacking any emotional resonance. Honestly, I don’t really care who killed him as he’s not that sympathetic, nor interesting, character.  SPOILER – highlight to read: I honestly couldn’t care less about the father/daughter story of Vernon and Lizzie. It’s just boring and even silly at times, which makes Lizzie’s appearance as the ‘unlikely hero’ in the end even more pointless and irritating.

I don’t know what the budget of the show is but I bet a lot of it goes to the Head in the Cloud (aka flying brothel) set. But again, the ending veers into too much melodrama even with the intense fight scenes. SPOILER – highlight to read: The slo-mo of the entire floating house crashing down is so operatic but lacking any emotional gravitas. At this point I was also worn out by the brother & sister love/hate relationship. I feel like the show doesn’t know what to make of Reileen, the Puppet Master. Yes she seems to truly love her brother and she desperately wants to find him. But at what cost? One take away I get from Takeshi and Rei is that some people just don’t know how to love.

The parting of Kovacs and Ortega could’ve a more emotional depth, but it felt too abrupt to me. I do like the final shot of the original Kovacs with the love of his life Quell, which again, is the heart of the film for me.

A more focused plot with less balls in the air would’ve made a more arresting finale.

In Summary

It’s also one of the most violent and sexually explicit show I’ve seen. Yes granted I haven’t seen Game of Thrones yet, but a colleague who’s seen both actually said Altered Carbon is often more violent and sexually vulgar than that show! I mentioned how Joel Kinnaman is practically shirtless 80% of the time but the women had it worse. I also have issues with how much violence are directed at women here which is disappointing since it’s show-runner is a woman. In fact, this could’ve been the most expensive show done by a female creator, perhaps even more than Westworld which has a woman as its co-creator.

At times the nudity becomes almost cartoonish and all out ludicrous. From violent aerial fight-to-the-death, MMA style, Kung Fu, to nude sword fights, there’s every kind of intense fight scenes under the sun on this show. The fight scenes are well-choreographed but definitely isn’t for the faint of heart. I had to look away during most of the fight scenes, but especially the torture scenes in episode 4. It’s virtual torture but still tough to watch.

Overall though, I’m glad I gave this cyberpunk series another shot and it’s one I actually still think about, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered with this extensive post! But the series’ biggest weakness is the everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach, cramming way too many plots in a single season. After every episode, I feel dizzy with information overload as the plot gets more and more unnecessarily convoluted. Some of the subplots are less interesting than others, in fact, some are quite irritating as they don’t seem to tie in well with the storyline we actually care about.

Will there be Season 2? I haven’t heard news about that yet but I’m only tentatively interested. Maybe if Will Yun Lee is back then I’ll be more enthused. We shall see, but I’m not clamoring for it at this point.

Well, have you seen Altered Carbon? I’d love to hear what YOU think!