Season Two Of Westworld Journeys Beyond Its Borders

Westworld season 2 poster

The second season of the HBO sci-fi series, Westworld, will conclude this coming Sunday and what a ride it has been. Based on the old Michael Crichton film that starred Yul Brynner, Westworld was a thought-provoking surprise for viewers when it premiered in 2016. Fans had to wait over a year for its second season and frankly it was worth the wait.

Maeve and company

Westworld takes place in a futuristic theme resort where visitors can act out their violent and sexual fantasies within recreated historical places. Most of the series takes place in a land that is a perfect recreation of the Old West but other locales have been introduced this season, notably one based on feudal Japan complete with shogun warriors and ninjas. Guests interact with lifelike automatons called hosts that were once androids but are now printed biologically by the resort’s engineers and programmed to cater to the guests’ desires. What happened over the course of the story is that the hosts have gained sentience and no longer want to play along.

Dolores Abernathy

Season one of Westworld ended with a literal bloody bang as the hosts rose up in unison and started their violent revolution. Season two starts with the rebellion underway as the resort’s security tries to take back the property and there are many intertwining subplots featuring returning and new characters. These storylines jump back and forth in time and you have to pay attention to what is going on but you’ll be rewarded with captivating stories and character development. Many of them are well fleshed out and nuanced. We see the growth and descent of many like the host Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), who was once a sympathetic farm girl that is now the bloodthirsty head of the uprising. Her goal is to wipe out humanity for the continued pain humans have inflicted on her. It has gotten to the point that she is on the border of becoming the show’s villain thanks to her merciless demeanor. Meanwhile, Westworld’s main human villain, the Man in Black (Ed Harris), is seen in a not quite sympathetic light but his behavior is more understandable. We see that his obsession with Westworld and desire to revel in his violent fantasy has completely warped him and is shattering his grip on reality.

Two hosts who have risen above their programming and are the show’s hearts and souls are Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) and Maeve (Thandie Newton). The reveal that he was a host in the previous season was quite a shock and this season just went full out to explore the impact of that revelation as he struggles with his identity. He was always someone we could relate to and a very decent person. In this season we continue to root for him as he grapples with his memories and his choices. Meanwhile, Maeve has a compelling arc where she evolves to control other hosts mentally as she searches the vast landscape for her daughter. Along the way she inspires other hosts and humans with her humanity and intellect.

Thankfully this season took time to explore many concepts and dramas about the hosts and their inner struggle. Questions and explorations about the nature of reality, reincarnation and free choice are there for us to consider in between violent clashes between hosts and humans and even among hosts themselves. A couple of episodes were genuinely heart touching such as episode eight “Kiksuya” which is about a Ghost Nation warrior (Zahn MacClarnon) who becomes self aware and strives to spread the word about the truth of the hosts’ existence. Another one was “Akane no Mai” and “Phase Space”, which feature some terrific performances from Rinko Kikuchi and Hiroyuki Sanada as a geisha and ronin who love each other.

The second season of Westworld succeeds because of the other above reasons and the way it keeps you guessing. Plus, it lets you see both sides of the conflict and divides your loyalties. As we rejoice in all the bloody confrontations we can’t help wondering if we are cheering for the right side. Or if we should be pleading for both species to find a way to co-exist, if it is even possible. As the season concludes with “The Passenger” we’ll find out how these stories conclude and set up the third season.

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Just Like Its Title Hero, Solo: A Star Wars Story Scrapes By With Spunk, Heart & Luck

solo poster

The second Star Wars spinoff film, Solo: A Star Wars Story, has long been a troubled production, notably with the firing of the original directors. When Ron Howard took over the film, he wound up re-filming a majority of it to bring it more in line with what Lucasfilm expects for a Star Wars film. Some fans who are leery with Lucasfilm and its president Kathleen Kennedy eagerly hoped that this film would fail. if not in the box office, at least creatively. These haters will have to wait longer because Solo: A Star Wars Story manages to be an entertaining, fun romp of an adventure.

solo and qira

To start, let’s get this out of the way: Alden Ehrenreich does a fine job portraying a younger version of Han Solo, everyone’ favorite space pirate. Sure, he’s not Harrison Ford, who will always be the definitive Han Solo, but Ehrenreich does not try to imitate him. It’s a good thing because that would have been a mistake. Instead he captures the essence of Han Solo; he emulates the swagger, the cockiness and the spunk that we fans have loved about the smuggler.

The mannerisms are demonstrated in the opening moments of Solo: A Star Wars Story, which details how Han lived a desperate life in his homeworld Corellia. Han (and some will get annoyed by the origin of his last name, but so be it) always dreamed of a bigger life, which involved leaving the hellish Corellia. Circumstances and quick thinking on his part allow Han to escape the world and bounce around throughout many misadventures. These mishaps bring him to meeting his BFF Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and fellow rogue and friend Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover). Plus, we see how he came to own his famous ship, the Millennium Falcon, which is newer and cleaner looking.

Kessel Run

Solo: A Star Wars Story introduces many interesting characters that come and go at a rapid pace along with some head-turning cameos. The best of these are Qi’Ra (Emily Clarke), Han’s first love, and Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who introduces Han Solo to life as a space pirate. It also dwells on the seedier, more criminal side of the Star Wars universe. The Galactic Empire, Jedi, Sith and all the traditional Star Wars trappings are shoved to the background or unmentioned. This is great since it shows that there is more to the Star Wars universe and is similar to those episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars that were devoted to the criminal underworld. This Star Wars spinoff earns extra credit just for not delivering more of the same when it comes to a Star Wars film.

At its core, Solo: A Star Wars Story is an exciting caper/heist story with adventurous dashes of the Indiana Jones films. There isn’t anything particularly deep or heavy here, but the film gives time to explore the heart and emotions of its characters. We may never know how the original version of the film would have been like, but Ron Howard does a credible, workman-like job in directing the film. It always moves along at a crisp pace and hits all the right beats. There are many thrilling set pieces such as a futuristic train robbery, an intense gambling sequence and of course, the famed Kessel Run. That last sequence, which takes place onboard the Millennium Falcon, is arguably the most nail-biting part. Also, Alden Ehrenreich deserves a lot of credit for the film since he is the main actor and is able to exude the spirit of a younger, more unpolished Han Solo. In addition to Clarke and Harrelson, Donald Glover does a great job of portraying Lando Calrissian. He does the smooth, savvy routine that Billy Dee Williams originated decades ago.

solo and lando at falcon

Some narrow-minded fans who are stuck in the past are ready to proclaim this film to be the death of Star Wars and a call to arms to replace Kathleen Kennedy. They point to some reviews and its box office performance since it underperformed in its opening weekend. However, if you watch this film with an open mind, you will find that Solo: A Star Wars Story is a genuinely fun adventure worthy of the Star Wars name.

Lewis T. Grove

 

Avengers: Infinity War Is A Bold, Explosive Epic Event For The MCU (NO SPOILERS)

Avengers IW poster The latest entry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Avengers: Infinity War, is the culmination of ten years of this phenomenal film series. For that reason, so much is riding on the success of the third Avengers film. Fortunately, Avengers: Infinity War delivers an astounding blockbuster epic that recalls the old-time, star-studded movie events that made Hollywood famous. That is the kind that had posters featuring headshots of big stars and had sprawling storylines that spanned many different places with assorted characters. Avengers: Infinity War brings together most of the stars from the previous 18 MCU films such as Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Chadwick Boseman, Chris Hemsworth and so much more.

There won’t be any spoilers in this review because Avengers: Infinity War has so many game-changing developments that it is best to be vague for those who have not seen this spectacular film. On that note, run out at the first opportunity and be prepared to have a great time.

After Avengers: Age of Ultron failed to measure up to the first Avengers film, there were concerns about this third film. After all, both sequels boasted humongous casts of characters with their own stories and were loud and explosive. Avengers: Age of Ultron failed to deliver because it felt bloated and noisy, too much was going on that didn’t seem necessary. Anyone having concerns about this with Avengers: Infinity War can rest easy to know that it does not have those issues. Yes, the cast is large, the biggest yet in a superhero film and it is an action fest, but the directors Joe and Anthony Russo pulled off a seemingly impossible feat of crafting a well-paced, exciting, and cohesive narrative. The fight scenes have a desperate intensity that is typical of the Russo Brothers’ other MCU films. But more impressive are the film’s fascinating characters and its chilling sense of dread.

What is even more amazing is that though the characters have limited screen time, they have their moments to shine and the film is faithful to their core essences.  All of the actors in Avengers: Infinity War bring their A game to this film and each of them manage to stand out in the crowded field. The most is made out of their screen time and though there is a lot going on (and the film walks a tightrope over this challenge) there is payoff for all the character arcs. Credit to this goes to the Russo Brothers and the well-written script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.

The dialogue is crisp, it is funny, it is also tragic and heart stopping, and it is such a joy to see all the unique interactions and team ups as unlikely superheroes meet each other for the first time. Sometimes they clash like when the similar arrogant natures of Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr.) and Doctor Strange (Cumberbatch) collide with each other. Other times the meetings come off awkward for the characters but are fun to watch like when Strange meets Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) or when Stark and company meet the Guardians.

What is interesting about these interactions is that the tones of their perspective films so unique are repeated here. For instance, the wonderful chemistry and humor of the Guardians of the Galaxy films is cloned perfectly. When Thor (Hemsworth) is onscreen, the otherworldly and faux Shakespearean nature of the Thor films takes center stage. On top of that when the diverse characters and their worlds intermingle it creates joyful, dynamic interactions that stay with you long after the film is finished.

Despite the film’s epic nature, it has an unexpected emotional core with captivating, romantic moments that add heart and weight. This aspect adds more levity and raises the stakes for our heroes and the situation. A common complaint about MCU films is that they can feel lightweight without any consequences. Well, this film dispels that critique as each and every development builds and builds. There are dire consequences for actions and decisions, which prove that even our favorite characters are flawed and all too human.

Thanos and moon

One character in the film that deals with consequences is the main villain of Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos (Josh Brolin). He is a gargantuan, imposing presence who has a frightening, yet magnetic presence in the film. Unlike some MCU films, Avengers: Infinity War allows time to explore his dark character and we understand why he is on his mad quest. Every time he is onscreen, Thanos brings a sense of doom as he is an unrelenting and formidable force of nature. Through his dire actions and twisted philosophy, Thanos manages to become possibly the greatest villain in the MCU.

Easily, Avengers: Infinity War is a blockbuster triumph that celebrates ten years of the MCU. Hands down it is one of the greatest MCU and superhero films, even with its faults. Admittedly, it would be helpful that the average viewer has some knowledge of the previous films to better appreciate them here and revel in their developments and interactions. There are also a few moments when the film threatens to lose its cohesion as it jumps between different storylines. Yet, the Russo Brothers manage to keep everything coordinated. That in itself is a marvel (no pun intended) that has to be experienced. Like any great film, you are left satisfied and wanting more of the film experience. Thankfully, we will be satiated next summer with the next Avengers epic.

José Soto

Ready Player One Is A Breathtaking Ode to Gaming & Geek Culture

Ready Player One Poster

The latest Steven Spielberg sci-fi epic is Ready Player One, based on the novel by Ernest Cline, and this is Spielberg’s best film in years.

It takes place in Columbus, Ohio in 2045 and follows the saga of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a downtrodden teenager who escapes his drab existence by living in a hyper VR called the OASIS. This online universe is a place where you can be anyone through avatars and live any kind of existence.

iron giant ready player one

Many visitors are active gamers like Wade who goes by a customized avatar called Parzival. Others have imaginative avatars as well, some unique, some are replicas of popular fictional characters. Some of these include the Iron Giant, Freddy Krueger, Chucky, Batman, Lara Croft and others. They all sport assorted gear, drive various vehicles and mixed costumes from across popular games, films, TV shows, etc. A great example is the DeLorean vehicle from Back to the Future that Parzival drives or a Clark Kent disguise that is used at one point. Comparing Wade’s drab real world, which is literally crumbling apart, to the wondrous marvel of the OASIS, it is easy to see why most of the world’s populace chooses to spend most of their time in the OASIS.

In the film, the mysterious and super-rich creator of the OASIS, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) died a few years earlier. Before his death, Halliday set up an epic quest in the OASIS where gamers have to find three keys to gain control of the artificial realm and become insanely rich. Halliday had a deep love of pop culture, especially sci-fi, fantasy, anime, horror and comic books, and so sprinkled many Easter eggs throughout the OASIS as clues to finding the keys.

Wade lives in squalor and like most players sets out to find the keys to figuratively open the door to a better life. He also shares Halliday’s love of pop culture and thinks creatively, which gives him a distinct advantage in the quest. Joining him are a ragtag team of Gunters (Easter egg hunters), who include Samantha Cook/Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao). Standing in their way are not just billions of other online gamers and Gunters but the CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn). He commands a virtual army in the OASIS and desires to gain complete control of the online world. Needless to say, Sorrento will stop at nothing to win the ultimate prize, even if that means using the resources of IOI to endanger everyone, including Wade and his friends.

Ready Player One is a fresh, exciting and nostalgic ode to our ever-expanding pop culture, especially our favorite genres.  Nearly every moment in the film just stuns our eyes with all the references that are too many to list here or even see after a few viewings. There are millions of them and part of the fun watching the film is trying to spot as many of them as possible. For a lesser director it would be so easy to let them overwhelm the film, but since Spielberg is Spielberg, he keeps the focus on the story and the characters. Many of the references and eggs actually serve a purpose in Ready Player One, in fact one of them, a certain film, plays an important role during a sequence that leaves you marveling over how Spielberg and his team managed to pull it off.

As great as it is, Ready Player One may be too much for some, probably those that look down upon geek culture. Others who embrace the culture will love what this film offers. There are some drawbacks, however. A bit more time should have been spent in the real word just for comparison purposes. It is established that reality is undesirable, but it should have been shown more. We never learn why the world is decaying, is it solely because most people retreated to the OASIS? Wade’s real life was depressing but what about his friends’ lives? Aside from some screen time with Samantha, the others are ciphers. Also, a key message in the film about living your real life instead of retreating into fantasies is hit over our heads repeatedly to the point of overkill.

Thankfully, Steven Spielberg’s mastery behind the camera and some genuinely good performances by Sheridan, Cooke, Waithe and Mendelsohn elevate the film above its faults. Of this group, Cooke and Mendelsohn stand out. Cooke’s character expresses a quiet sensitivity while exhibiting great strength and ingenuity. Meanwhile, Mendelsohn does a terrific job portraying the villainous corporate head of IOI.

say Anything ready player one

Nonetheless, the film is a pure joy and captures the fun and wonderment of Steven Spielberg’s earlier works. It reminds us why he is still the master storyteller in cinema. It lets us revel in our love of nerd culture while reminding us that the simple things are the best.  Ready Player One is a heartfelt and visual spectacle that celebrates our love of geekdom. Go see it now and a few dozen times before buying the download or home release.

José Soto

 

 

Altered Carbon: TV’s Newest Hard-Edged Sci-Fi Tale

Altered Carbon is the latest example that we are living during the Golden Age of sci-fi television shows. It premiered last month on Netflix. but was mostly dismissed by mainstream critics who probably only sample one or two episodes before rendering their verdicts. However, Altered Carbon, much like its characters, is much more than it seems.

Both Kovacs Altered Carbon

Based on Richard K. Morgan’s novel, Altered Carbon takes place hundreds of years in the future where humanity has essentially become immortal. This was accomplished with the introduction of alien technology that allowed human consciousness to be downloaded into “stacks”, devices that are implanted on the base of one’s neck. Everytime a body is near death, the stack transfers the consciousness into another body, called sleeves, with its own stack. This has a profound effect on humanity as people live hundreds of years and casually transfer onto new bodies as swiftly as we change our clothing. But this has not created a paradise. Constantly switching to new sleeves has a profound affect on the mind, soul and even society itself. This process has created a class of super-rich hedonists called meths who consider themselves to be above humankind and its morals.

The show focuses on Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnamen and Will Yun Lee), a revolutionary soldier who was captured and placed into a new sleeve hundreds of years later. This new sleeve was activated by Lauren Bancroft (James Purefoy), one of the wealthiest men in the known universe, to solve his own murder. That is the recent murder of one of Bancroft’s previous sleeves. Kovacs was activated because of his reputation as an Envoy, a rebellious group that wanted to end the use of stacks. Envoys are renowned for their tough mental resilience and discipline. which is what Bancroft needs to solve his murder.

 Kovacs grudgingly accepts Bancroft’s offer of indentured servitude in exchange for his freedom. During his investigations, Kovacs travels the seedy underworld of Bay City and the decadent and hedonistic lifestyles of the mega rich, while meeting an interesting cast of characters. There is Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), a working-class police detective with an unusual interest in Kovacs, and Edgar Poe (Chris Conner), an AI manifested as a holographic hotel manager. The show also features extensive flashbacks of Takeshi Kovacs’ previous life with people important to him, such as his sister Reileen (Dichen Lachman) and Envoy leader Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry).

Due to the nature of his job, Kovacs runs into a lot of trouble, from criminal elements out to settle scores to sadistic hitmen to unsavory VR experiences. Luckily his honed skills as an Envoy allows Takeshi Kovacs to endure his ordeals. As he tries to solve the murder, Kovacs also has to grapple with his lost, previous life and finding his way in the new life.

altered carbon cityscape

Altered Carbon is entrancing, exciting and quite gripping at times thanks to its stylistic and noirish, cyberpunk elements that are similar to Blade Runner and intensely violent scenes that are reminiscent of John Wick or The Raid. Each shot is captivating with rich cinematography, not to mention special effects and production design that completely sell the notion this story takes place in the distant future.

Unlike other current TV shows, while Altered Carbon can be binged watched but is not dependent on this. Most episodes seem more self-contained while servicing the main plot of the Lauren Bancroft murder case. It is something of a relief since it allows the episodes to be enjoyed individually. However, its plots can be quite dense, though in a good way, with its usage of unusual words, exposition, and plot twists that may confuse casual viewers and calls for more focused viewing.

A word of caution is warranted, Altered Carbon is extremely violent and has graphic nudity. If this was a film it would be a hard R, so it is not for the more squeamish viewer.

Getting past its grimy nature and lurid violence, it is clear that the intense scenes underline the show’s theme: that humanity is not ready for immortality. By using stacks, most of humanity takes life and their bodies for granted as seen with the way many are too quick to jump into new sleeves after injuries or to take on new identities.  In essence, they have become desensitized to violence and by being so cavalier about the sanctity of the physical body these people are losing their humanity.

Altered Carbon is a stylistic, hard-edged sci-fi yarn that engrosses you with eye-popping visuals, intense fight scenes, and captivating and tortured characters. But more than that, Altered Carbon does what a a true sci-fi tale sets out to do: to extrapolate where humanity may go.

José Soto