Reviews

WESTEROS IN MILAN…

As the start of season 7 for Game of Thrones, the TV series based on George R.R. Martin’s saga A Song of Ice and Fire, approaches – with the premiere slated for the evening of July 16th – so does the fans’ excitement to see how the story will move forward, now that the all-out war between the various warring factions is about to begin (although I will admit that I will take it all under advisement, while I wait for the next books to come out, since I’m pretty certain that GRR Martin has some surprises in store for us readers and has kept a few cards close to his chest, without revealing them to the show’s creators…)

Nonetheless, the hype is at its highest levels, and many events are being staged to keep it that way: I recently discovered that one of them has been set up here in Milan in the inner courtyard of the Sforza Castle, a 15th Century fortress located in what is now the heart of the city. Here is a brief video that will give you an idea of the location:

 

A few days ago I learned that a presentation of the world depicted in Martin’s saga and the HBO series would be held on this weekend, culminating in a public showing of the first episode of season 7 at 3 a.m. on Monday, July 17th, at the same time as the USA airing. Thankfully I will not have to observe such an ungodly hour to see the episode, since Sky Italy will be airing it and, as a subscriber, I will be able to record it and watch it at a more humanly convenient time 🙂

I was however curious about the presentation, my curiosity increased by the huge billboards covering the walls of the Duomo subway station I have been seeing all week long on my way to and from work, and announcing that “Winter has come”, or asking if we were “ready for it”, the more impressive one being a scene of the sword duel between Jon Snow and the King of the Others – a very impressive scene, indeed. So this morning, since I was in the area, I decided to see for myself: in truth, it looked more like a display aimed at younger audiences, especially with the big, bronze-like dragon everyone wanted to be photographed with, and the copy of the Iron Throne with a long queue of people waiting for their picture to be taken while sitting on it – and my heart went to the poor guy dressed like a Wildling standing beside the throne and looking fierce: with a 32 C temperature (that makes it close to 90F) and a 35-40% humidity, it must have been hell to stand there in such heavy clothing!

 

 

The best feature was indeed the fountain in front of the main entrance: it has been dressed to look as if part of it is frozen (after all “Winter has come”!) and despite the July mid-morning brightness it looks good.

The light of day might not be the best to observe the presentation, though, and I believe that at night, with some strategically placed illumination to enhance the location and the displays (and to keep away the darkness and the terrors Melisandre is so fond of mentioning) the castle’s courtyard will take on the properly magical atmosphere required by the event. For those fortunate – or bold – enough to brave the wait until 3 a.m. on Monday morning it will certainly be an amazing experience to see the brand new episode surrounded by the ancient walls of the castle.

For the rest of us, especially those waiting with impatience to know the date of issue for The Winds of Winter, the trailer for the new season will have to be enough.

Are you ready? 😀

Reviews

TV Review: STRANGER THINGS (Season 1)

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I encountered a great deal of online praise for this series, so that when I had the opportunity to watch it I jumped in eagerly, and with no expectations of any kind, since I knew very little about it. What I found is a small jewel of a story, one that ensnared me completely and led to a quick, compulsive watch.

The story and background have something of a nostalgic feel, thanks to the opening titles that are a clear call-back to the ‘80s – the time period in which the events are set – and to the soundtrack through which we revisit a few hits from those years. Moreover, there is a definite Stephen King vibe to the plot itself, a faint reminiscence of “IT” and “Firestarter”, with some “Carrie” overtones thrown in: which does not mean that the story is derivative, not at all, but rather that it wants to pay homage to the undiscussed master of the genre. And this is just one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much.

In the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, young Will Byers disappears without a trace while returning home after a day spent with his friends Mike, Dustin and Lucas. Local police start the search for the boy, but it’s clear that they are not putting all their hearts and energies into it, so that his three friends decide to start looking on their own.  Meanwhile, a  frightened girl with weird powers manages to escape from a nearby secret government installation and connects with the three friends, who believe she might be able to help them find Will.   Something else escaped from the secret facility, however, some formless creature from an alternate dimension, and the missing people’s count starts to go up…

The undeniable truth that characters are everything comes to the fore here in Stranger Things, because each and every one of them gets the chance to shine and to add his or her own contribution to a very satisfying whole: to my surprise, the young kids were the ones who worked best in the economy of the story.  From my point of view, television rarely fares well with younger characters, either making them too “old” and adult for their age, or excessively playing on the cuteness factor; here, though, kids are kids, and in a delightful, naïve way that portrays them with accuracy, showing at the same time a richness of imagination that’s typical of that age and that is able to navigate the thin border between reality and fantasy with ease and profound belief.

When we first see them, before Will’s disappearance, they are playing at some board game, dealing with dangerous traps and terrifying fictional monsters with gleeful abandon. Once their friend vanishes and the mysterious Eleven literally lands on their doorstep, they are ready to acknowledge her weird powers with the same easy acceptance of gamers who are being offered a special card to play. This does not mean they walk into danger blindfolded, on the contrary their game-playing seems to have prepared them, both mentally and on a practical level, to face the hazards from unbelievable monsters, and uncomprehending adults, with enviable clarity.

Among the adults, the best performance comes from Joyce, Will’s mother, portrayed by Winona Ryder: the distraught desperation of a mother, ready to believe the unbelievable for the sake of her son, is depicted with amazing craft, never going over the top despite the truly crazy paths she chooses to travel. Close second comes Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour), a man marked by a tragic past and walking the very thin line between duty and the need to do the right thing.

Stranger Things, before the tale of weird horror it is on the surface, is above all a tale about marginalized people having to face extraordinary events: Will and his friends are smaller kids, not exactly geared for physicality, and therefore the butt of cruel jokes and constant hazing from the school bullies; Joyce is a single mother, struggling to make ends meet and therefore looked on with suspicion by the closed society of a small town; Sheriff Hopper has a history of drinking as a coping mechanism against his loss, and does not enjoy the full respect of his deputies – the two best (or rather worst) examples of small-minded members of an inward-facing community. And finally Eleven, a child who was taken from her mother at birth because of her peculiar powers, raised and trained by Doctor Brenner (a very disturbing Matthew Modine) with a cold, practical efficiency that to me represents the true horror of the story, even beyond that of the blood-thirsty monster from the parallel reality.

The eight episodes of the first season of Stranger Things manage to concentrate a great deal of story and character development in such a small time frame, and to make the most of that time with a judicious use of pacing and the levels of tension. While the main events do reach a sort of conclusion, the door is left open for further developments – either in the same setting or a different one – and not all mysteries are solved: a choice I greatly appreciated and one that will keep me on the alert for the arrival of Season Two.

My Rating:


Reviews

Waiting for The Expanse…

Season 2 of the SyFy show inspired by the amazing space opera series by James S.A. Corey is about to begin, and as I was looking for some news and trailers (by the way, the few snippets we were afforded about Martian marine Bobbie Draper are more than promising…) I found this quite funny Season 1 recap – or rather, re-cat, since it’s all done with cats in the roles of the main characters.

It’s too delightful not to be shared 🙂

WARNING

If you have not seen Season 1 of The Expanse, or read the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes, the video will be full of spoilers: watch at your own risk!

 

Reviews

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAY #12

This GoodReads group proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related.

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This week’s theme: SERIES THAT GOT WORSE WITH EACH BOOK/SEASON

This week’s topic is an interesting one, since it allows us to mix book and Tv series: we all had one or more experiences of quite promising series that started with the proverbial bang and then tapered out with the equally proverbial whimper. There is no malicious glee in pointing them out, because disappointments burn both ways…

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I will start with Peter Brett’s Demon Cycle: the first book, The Warded Man, was an amazing, exciting discovery – imagine a world where the fall of darkness means that demonic creatures emerge from the very ground, bent on destroying the hapless humans they find on their way, unless people shelter behind wards, powerful symbols capable of keeping these hellish creatures at bay. I literally consumed the book, and went looking for more, although the second volume, The Desert Spear, suffered from a little repetition and a few instances of… characterization hiccups, for want of a better word. Still, the story managed to make me forget these small disturbances and move on to book 3 – and that’s where the trouble started in earnest: The Daylight War not only managed to retread old narrative paths (in some cases for the third time) but degraded toward a soap-opera-like style of storytelling that completely alienated me from what had started as a very promising tale. Not the kind of journey I had hoped to make…

I know that my next choice will prove highly unpopular, but I have to mention Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time: I received the first volume of this saga, The Eye of the World, as a birthday gift a couple of years after its initial publication and I remember enjoying this epic tale of the struggle between Good and Evil and its vast cast of characters.  Yes, there were a few similarities with Tolkien I had perceived, namely those creatures (I can’t remember their name, it’s been a few years…) whose mere presence caused paralyzing fear in their victims, and that strongly reminded me of the Ringwraiths; or the journey through The Ways, that seemed like a combination between Moria and the Paths of the Dead.    Sadly, with the following books, the narrative appeared more and more bloated with long, excruciating descriptions that left little room for plot advancement; there were constant repetitions of annoying characters’ behavior (after a few hundred braid-chewings by a particular character I was ready to scream in frustration), and what’s worse, those annoying similarities kept cropping up and waving at me: just as an example, I will mention the Aes Sedai, a women-only powerful order bent on shaping humanity through age-long intervention; and the Aiel, a desert-dwelling people whose combat skills are known and feared, waiting for the proverbial Chosen One to lead them to victory.  Dune fans, do they both remind you of something?
If the novels had been leaner, the pace swifter, I might have overlooked it all, but the combination of what I perceived like derivative elements with the glacial progression of the story made me abandon the saga midway through book 4.

Some time ago I read, and enjoyed, Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax SF series, so when I learned she had started a new one, Razorland, I wasted no time in acquiring book 1, Enclave.  It possessed many of the elements I appreciate in a post-apocalyptic tale: humanity has been decimated by a plague whose surviving victims turn into feral creatures called Freaks.  What remains of humankind had to take shelter into underground tunnels, where life is short and brutal, and where most knowledge of the outside world has been lost or transformed into a myth. Young Deuce, a huntress for her clan, will have to face a dangerous journey on the surface in search of the hope for a better life.  So far, so good, despite the clear YA bent of this story: the first volume being more focused on the changed world outside of the tunnels, it made for a fascinating reading, and equally interesting were the changes in society and mentality brought on by the need to live in darkness.  But unfortunately with book 2, Outpost, the unavoidable (?) YA tropes kept cropping up at an alarming rate: love triangles, pouting teenagers who know better than more experienced adults, and so on.  Book 2 ended in the DNF pile, with my deep regrets for the many lost opportunities.

Moving from books to TV I’m going to express another unpopular opinion by mentioning the show Battlestar Galactica, the reboot that aired between 2004 and 2009 after a successful return with a short miniseries in 2003.

The miniseries was nothing short of amazing: after being almost wiped out by the Cylons, the cybernetic constructs they created, the survivors of the Twelve Colonies regroup aboard a handful of vessels, led by the capital ship Galactica, running away in search of a new home and relentlessly pursued by the murdering Cylons.  There was much to enjoy in this revival of an older, cheesy show of the ’80s: the Cylons were both robot-like creations and human-looking creatures, giving them the possibility of infiltrating the human survivor groups and therefore creating a constant atmosphere of suspicion on the vessels where the remnants of civilization tried to hold on day by day, with constant threat of annihilation and of the mechanical failures of old, overtaxed ships.  Older, less advanced technology had to be abandoned in favor of more primitive versions that could not be hacked or infiltrated by the Cylons, leading to a mix of space-age and WWII submarine warfare quality to the story being presented on screen, one of the most fascinating aspects of the reboot.
The first two seasons aired after the miniseries were on the same level of narrative quality and managed to keep the story flowing and the tension high, but with season 3 the first cracks started to appear: unlike the Cylons, who we were constantly told had a plan, the series’ creators seemed to meander as aimlessly as the hapless survivors (or maybe more…), and the moral and existential dilemmas that had made the beginning of this revisitation so appealing, were shifted to the side in favor of entanglements with quasi-religious myths and subplots that ended up twisting on themselves and ultimately ending nowhere.  Even though I struggled on to the very end, I had lost interest in the plight of the survivors, and kept watching only to see what it was all about: in this, as well, I was disappointed, because the ending made as little sense as what had preceded it; worse still, the sort of epilogue that rolled on the screen in the last few minutes managed to completely overshadow what I think would have been a fitting finale – that image of Admiral Adama sitting on a hill beside a grave (I’m not going to spoil whose, just in case…) and looking over the horizon of the new world, a poetic, poignant image that would at least have counterbalanced the nonsense before it.  Missed opportunities, indeed.

Vampires are one of the staunchest pillars of the horror genre, especially when they are bloody and mean – no sparklers needing to apply, thank you very much – so when I learned that Guillermo del Toro had contributed to the creation of this show, taken from a book trilogy penned by del Toro himself with Chuck Hogan, I was quite excited.  The Strain tells the tale of a vampire infestation starting in New York with the arrival of a plane with everyone on board dead; a mysterious casket from the plane’s hold is brought into the city and the horror begins, in an atmosphere and with a premise that both nod at and honor Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  At first the victims are believed to be prey to a mysterious illness, but soon it appears that something far more terrible than a mere virus is at work.
So far, so good, indeed: the vampires depicted here are quite scary, and the tension builds up to breathless levels, and if sometimes the scenes veer toward excessive levels of grossness, one could take it all in stride – after all we’re talking about blood-sucking creatures!  Where the show completely fails, though, is in characterization, especially with the protagonist Dr. Ephraim Goodweather: I can’t remember a less sympathetic, less endearing main character, one I constantly felt in need of slapping hard to try and put some sense and empathy into, or to move him to act with some sense instead of blundering around like a headless chicken.  His lines seem to be taken out of a bad B-movie and his actions make even less sense than his behavior: when I realized that I kept hoping that the “big bad guys” would remove him from the scene in a bloody, painful way, I understood there was something very wrong with the story, the writing, or both and therefore I did not go past the first season.

Reviews

SciFi Month 2016: Babylon 5 Quotes Season #5

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Science Fiction on the small screen offers a wide variety of interesting shows, but still it seems to lack the depth and complexity we can find in books – and it stands to reason, since the TV format must adhere to rules that don’t apply to the written word. Yet there is a show that transcends these rules because it was conceived as a five-part novel in the mind of its creator, and like a novel it doesn’t only deliver action and adventure, but also great characterization with visible growth, and a gripping narrative arc.

The show I’m talking about is Babylon 5: despite its “age” (it ran from 1994 to 1998) it still feels fresh and actual because it’s not about impressive CGI or technological marvels, but it deals instead with people, with their reactions to extraordinary circumstances, with the choices that those circumstances force on them and the consequences of their actions.  I’ve often thought that it could work just as well as a theatrical production, because its strength is in the story, the thought-provoking issues it deals with and the intense dialogues spoken by the characters.

Here are some of my favorite quotes – divided by season: I hope that they will rekindle fond memories in those who watched and loved this show, and inspire the curiosity of those who have missed this complex, thoughtful and very passionate story until now.

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The universe speaks in many languages, but only one voice. The language is not Narn or Human or Centauri or Gaim or Minbari. It speaks in the language of hope. It speaks in the language of trust. It speaks in the language of strength and the language of compassion. It is the language of the heart and the language of the soul. But always it is the same voice. It is the voice of our ancestors speaking through us and the voice of our inheritors waiting to be born. The small, still voice that says: ‘We are one. No matter the blood, no matter the skin, no matter the world, no matter the star. We are one. No matter the pain, no matter the darkness, no matter the loss, no matter the fear. We are one.’ Here, gathered together in common cause, we begin to realize this singular truth and this singular rule that we must be kind to one another. Because each voice enriches us and ennobles us and each voice lost diminishes us. We are the voice of the universe, the soul of creation, the fire that will light our way to a better future. We are one.

(G’Kar / Declaration of Principles – The Paragon of Animals)

I spent my years in one shelter after another. But sooner or later, I was able to leave the shelter and walk out into the daylight. You do not have that luxury. You carry your shelter with you, every day. You didn’t grow up. You grew old.

(G’Kar – A View from the Gallery)

In the past we had little to do with other races. Evolution teaches us that we must fight that which is different in order secure land, food, and mates for ourselves, but we must reach a point when the nobility of intellect asserts itself and says: No. We need not be afraid of those who are different, we can embrace that difference and learn from it.

(G’Kar – The Ragged Edge)

We are all the sum of our tears. Too little and the ground is not fertile, and nothing can grow there. Too much, the best of us is washed away.

(G’Kar – Objects in Motion)

I believe that when we leave a place, part of it goes with us and part of us remains. Go anywhere in the station, when it is quiet, and just listen. After a while, you will hear the echoes of all our conversations, every thought and word we’ve exchanged. Long after we are gone, our voices will linger in these walls for as long as this place remains. But I will admit that the part of me that is going will very much miss the part of you that is staying.

(G’Kar – Objects in Motion)

Reviews

SciFi Month 2016: Babylon 5 Quotes Season #4

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Science Fiction on the small screen offers a wide variety of interesting shows, but still it seems to lack the depth and complexity we can find in books – and it stands to reason, since the TV format must adhere to rules that don’t apply to the written word. Yet there is a show that transcends these rules because it was conceived as a five-part novel in the mind of its creator, and like a novel it doesn’t only deliver action and adventure, but also great characterization with visible growth, and a gripping narrative arc.

The show I’m talking about is Babylon 5: despite its “age” (it ran from 1994 to 1998) it still feels fresh and actual because it’s not about impressive CGI or technological marvels, but it deals instead with people, with their reactions to extraordinary circumstances, with the choices that those circumstances force on them and the consequences of their actions.  I’ve often thought that it could work just as well as a theatrical production, because its strength is in the story, the thought-provoking issues it deals with and the intense dialogues spoken by the characters.

Here are some of my favorite quotes – divided by season: I hope that they will rekindle fond memories in those who watched and loved this show, and inspire the curiosity of those who have missed this complex, thoughtful and very passionate story until now.

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Have you ever heard of the hour of the wolf? My father told me about it. It’s the time between three and four in the morning. You can’t sleep, and all you can see is the troubles and the problems and the ways that your life should’ve gone but didn’t. All you can hear is the sound of your own heart.  […]  In times like this, my father used to take one large glass of vodka before bed. To keep the wolf away, he said. And then he would take three very small drinks of vodka, just in case she had cubs while she was waiting outside.

(Ivanova – The Hour of the Wolf)

Fighting a war is easy. Destroying is easy. Building a new world out of what’s left of the old, that is what’s hard.

(Delenn – Lines of Communication)

The truth is fluid. The truth is subjective. Out there it doesn’t matter what time it is. In here it is lunch time, if you and I decide that it is. The truth is sometimes what you believe it to be, and other times what you decide it to be.

(The Interrogator – Intersections in Real Time)

Who am I? I’m Susan Ivanova, Commander, daughter of Andrei and Sofie Ivanov. I am the right hand of vengeance, and the boot that is gonna kick your sorry ass all the way back to Earth, sweetheart. I’m death incarnate and the last living thing that you’re ever going to see. God sent me.

(Ivanova – Between the Darkness and the Light)

Reviews

SciFi Month 2016: Babylon 5 Quotes Season #3

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Science Fiction on the small screen offers a wide variety of interesting shows, but still it seems to lack the depth and complexity we can find in books – and it stands to reason, since the TV format must adhere to rules that don’t apply to the written word. Yet there is a show that transcends these rules because it was conceived as a five-part novel in the mind of its creator, and like a novel it doesn’t only deliver action and adventure, but also great characterization with visible growth, and a gripping narrative arc.

The show I’m talking about is Babylon 5: despite its “age” (it ran from 1994 to 1998) it still feels fresh and actual because it’s not about impressive CGI or technological marvels, but it deals instead with people, with their reactions to extraordinary circumstances, with the choices that those circumstances force on them and the consequences of their actions.  I’ve often thought that it could work just as well as a theatrical production, because its strength is in the story, the thought-provoking issues it deals with and the intense dialogues spoken by the characters.

Here are some of my favorite quotes – divided by season: I hope that they will rekindle fond memories in those who watched and loved this show, and inspire the curiosity of those who have missed this complex, thoughtful and very passionate story until now.

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I’ve taken the opportunity provided by my incarceration to meditate, to think. […] In here, Mr Garibaldi, you can not hide from yourself. Everything out there has only one purpose, to distract us from ourselves, from what is truly important. There are no distractions in here. We can learn much from silence.

(G’Kar – Messages from Earth)

“I believe that I have been touched. That I am meant for something greater. A greater darkness or a greater good, I can no longer say. All I have ever wanted is to serve our people. I need to see what is before me. If I should escape it, or embrace it. If there is any longer a choice.”

“There is always choice. We say there is no choice only to comfort ourselves with the decision we have already made. If you understand that, there’s hope. If not ..”

(Londo and Lady Morella – Point of No Return)

Three years. For three years I warned you this day was coming. But you would not listen. Pride, you said, presumption. And now the Shadows are on the move. The Centauri and the younger worlds are at war, the Narns have fallen. Even the Humans are fighting one another. The pride was yours, the presumption was yours. For a thousand years we have been awaiting for fulfillment of prophecy, and when it finally happens, you scorn it, you reject it. Because you no longer believe it yourselves. ‘We stand between the candle and the star, between the darkness and the light.‘ You say the words, but your hearts are empty, your ears closed to the truth. You stand for nothing but your own petty interests. ‘The problems of others are not our concern.‘ I do not blame you for standing silent in your shame. You, who knew what was coming, but refused to take up the burden of this war. If the warrior caste will not fight, then the rest of us will.

(Delenn – Severed Dreams)

Every day, here and at home, we are warned about the enemy. But who is the enemy? Is it the alien? Well, we are all alien to one another. Is it the one who believes differently than we do? No, not at all, my friends. The enemy is fear. The enemy is ignorance. The enemy is the one who tells you that you must hate that which is different. Because, in the end, that hate will turn on you. And that same hate will destroy you.

(Reverend Dexter – And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place)

All around us, it was as if the universe were holding its breath, waiting. All of life can be broken down into moments of transition or moments… of revelation. This had the feeling of both. G’Quan wrote: ‘There is a greater darkness than the one we fight. It is the darkness of the soul that has lost its way. The war we fight is not against powers and principalities, it is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender. The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain’.

(G’Kar – Z’ha’dum)