Sunday, August 28, 2016

TV Show Review: The Night Of

HBO's true crime tale of Nasir 'Naz' Khan (Riz Ahmed) and the murder of Andrea Cornish (Sofia Black-D'Elia) explored the criminal justice system and thoroughly depressed me every Sunday night through eight weeks this summer. The story took viewers from the night of the crime through the experience of the suspect, lawyers, and investigating officers. The show is one of the most shocking and difficult to watch this summer and will stick with me most likely until the end of the year when I'm picking my top ten. 

As Naz was thrown into the meat grinder of prison, Jack Stone (John Turturro) worked the case with the help of another attorney Chandra (Amara Karan) picking up on all the leads that Detective Box (Bill Camp) did not investigate during his time as an officer, though he does come through upon his retirement. The show was stacked with other great character actors including Michael K. Williams as Freddy an inmate that takes Naz under his wing. Naz suffers under this mentorship developing a drug addiction, assisting with drug deals, and distracting guards while murders take place. The prosecuting attorney Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) also delivers an impressive performance. 

Everyone suffers in this bleak depiction of New York City including Naz's parents Salim Khan (Peyman Moaadi) and Safar Khan (Pooran Jagannathan). The show explores discrimination against Muslims in New York post-9/11. There is also a gruesome look at healthcare through Jack Stone's efforts to cure his eczema on his feet. The show lagged a bit in the middle as it settled on a slow pace but came through with plenty of interesting developments in the last few episodes. With eight total episodes, it won't take long for busy viewers to take it all in. The show has also received criticism for being yet another television show that revolves around another dead woman that is pushed to the background. 

Riz Ahmed is a rising talent who recently graced a summer blockbuster in Jason Bourne and will appear in possibly the biggest movie of the year Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Turtorro took over from the recently passed James Gandolfini who had produced the show and Turtorro shines as the afflicted lawyer who follows the clues about his lifestyle. The unwinding of Andrea's life comes with plenty of twists and turns keeping viewers on the edge of their seats and dropping cliffhangers at the end of each episode. 

I think The Night Of comes as a great replacement to True Detective which failed in the second season. I like a show that begins and ends in one season giving a complete picture and I would be very interested if they put this show into an anthology type series. The Night Of is something unique with great writing and explorations of complex issues. I want more of shows like this one. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Book Review: The Fifith Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Hugo Award-winning novel delivers a tale that stuns and enchants readers with a unique voice and characters and abilities not commonly seen in the genre. The book is filled with twists and turns and while I will try my best not to write spoilers, I can't trust myself as I recall the complexity of the plot. I would highly recommend fantasy fans and readers who enjoy exhaustive world-building with characters that are easy to fall in love with but also break your heart. N. K. Jemisin does a brilliant job with The Fifth Season to start The Broken Earth Trilogy, and I am eagerly looking forward to picking up The Obelisk Gate. 

The setting is one of the crucial parts of the story. Ironically called the Stillness, the lands are corrupted by human mining, shifting tectonic plates, and powerful abilities of the people who inhabit it. Every few hundred years or so, the world experiences a devastating season that tears the ground apart and spills ash and acid rain into the air. People struggle to survive catastrophic occurrences, sometimes with not warning and very little means to protect themselves. The greatest hope for protection is a race of humans who can control the rock known as orogenes, or also referred to with the derogative term "roggas".

Three characters split up the chapters as the viewpoint switches from Essun at the end of the world, Syenite, a four-ringer orogene, and Damaya, a young girl recruited to attended a school that feels like a prison for children with special abilities. The story of Essun is narrated in the second person using this narrative form in the best way I can remember reading. She is racked with grief as she introduced over the body of her child and sets out on an unforgettable journey to find her older offspring kidnapped by her vicious husband. Syenite has earned her rings at the school and is now forced to become a breeder to a higher ranking orogene as she completes missions for the mysterious Fulcrum. Guardians are able to control the orogenes and prevent them from causing unwanted destruction. Damaya gives us the viewpoint of a child rising up from a young "grit" to her first ring test. Each one of these stories is captivating and moving along with captivating developments that will keep fantasy readers from turning pages.

Not only have the types of characters been seen before, and Jemisin is so excellent at giving these characters a vivid world to live in and identifiable feeling despite the extraordinary nature of the surroundings, but the earth-shaking power of the orogenes is something I've never encountered in fiction before. There are other mysterious inhabitants of the Stillness that are introduced including the Stone Eaters that can shift through stone and though may appear human are actually much more. I cannot wait to jump back into this world for the sequel. The history is seemingly fully fleshed out and I got easily lost in the background information, exemplified by the appendices at the back, as well as the current situation of each character.

This book is more than deserving of all the recognition it has received and I hope Jemisin continues to produce great fiction well into the future. I plan on picking up plenty more of her stories for my personally reading. The book delves into complicated social issues like prejudice and preservation while telling a compelling tale with memorable characters. The story includes action, romance, fantasy, and heartbreak, balancing them out with a compelling plot and wonderful prose. I look forward to more fantasy books like this one. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

TV Show Review: The Get Down (Part 1)

The frenetic new Netflix streaming choice this summer is Baz Luhrman's The Get Down, a tale of the rise of hip-hop in the late seventies amongst disco, soul, and punk amidst the streets of the Bronx. The story uses Luhrmann's penchant for a wild romance and musicals to bring alive the struggle and survival of adolescents while also capturing development, blackouts, and criminal behavior. The narrative is excellent, bouncing around from character to character from crumbling buildings to disco floors, hardly pausing to take a breath. I was hooked from the first episode as the introduced character and a compelling plot mixed in with the music and fast cuts, and this show may very well be one of my favorite shows of the year and will easily place in my top ten.

The main character is Ezekiel 'Books' Figuero (Justice Smith) who is hopelessly in love with his neighbor Mylene Cruz (Herizen F. Guardiola). Ezekiel is introduced as an older man rapping on a stage in a packed auditorium using the voice of Nas to rap reminiscently on his past. Mylene is gifted with a beautiful singing voice and has a great desire to escape the Bronx to a better life with her ability. Around them, the world is vivid as they sing and run through their hectic life. These young actors show such amazing potential and I feel so positive for their futures.

An actor that I've greatly enjoyed in the film Dope, Shameik Moore shines as Shaolin Fantastic, an up-and-coming DJ and trainee to Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie). Shaolin hopes to charm the gathering at the Get Down, an underground dance party, and has found his wordsmith in Ezekiel who can add the words to his sound. The story encounters historical moments like the campaign of Ed Koch to be Mayor of New York and the blackout of '77 in the city. The music is original but harkens back to the era as a new sound was born.

There are plenty of other great cast members in the mix. Skylan Brooks, Tremaine Brown Jr., and Jaden Smith play Ezekiel's friends who live to see the latest graffiti and listen to these changing sounds.  Mylene also has a group of friends including Stefanée Martin and Shyrley Rodriguez. The show is bursting with young talent. 

The story follows the adolescents but has great support from the adults including Jimmy Smits as Francisco 'Papa Fuerte' Cruz, Mylene's uncle and an ambitious developer who hopes to lift his family and the community, and Giancarlo Esposito as Mylene's controlling religious father Pastor Ramon Cruz. Kevin Corrigan shows up as the drug addict, music producer Jackie Moreno who sees something special in Mylene's voice. The show is also not without a great villain in Cadillac (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who encapsulates the crime and disco mix. 

The plot is addictive and with only six episodes in the first part, it is an easy binge. I don't think there has been a fun that is as much fun and captivating as this Netflix spectacular and though some parts slow down, it quickly picks back up and can't help but be charming and full of relentless tension. This is the kind of show that at the end of the first part, one has to catch their breath from the excitement and whirlwind love story. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

World Con 74, MidAmeriCon II, and the Hugo Awards

I attended my first ever WorldCon and MidAmeriCon and Kansas City this weekend, an experience I will remember for a very long time. I am relatively new to the convention circuit and science fiction fandom, but I've made an effort in the last year to read as much as possible and make myself as informed as I could be considering only about a year of effort. Still, I was overwhelmed with all of the activities, authors, panels, and art that was spread out through the Kansas City Convention Center. I tried my best to attend as much as one person could and I feel satisfied but also like I missed out on quite a bit as well.

I arrived on Wednesday in time to register and scan around the center, but we were exhausted from the ride so only took a quick walk around the Power & Light District before retiring to our hotel room. We stayed in the Hotel Phillips, which was under construction, but still provided a nice room and pleasant experience. The hotel bar and dining area was closed so I won't have any interesting author or fan drinking stories. 

I woke up with ambition on Thursday and tried to catch as much as I could plus make several walk-throughs around the expansive dealers' room. I try to hold off on buying anything until around the final day so that I can be sure to pick books or items that really call to me instead of just an impulsive buy, but sometimes I'll miss out on rare products or popular items. I wasn't sure how a lot of things worked so I probably walked right by interesting exhibits, publishers, and other things because I was moving pretty rapidly through the crowds. I caught several interesting panels including, a panel on reviews to help me improve my blog, a talk on Dystopias and Utopias featuring John Joseph Adams, editor of Lightspeed Magazine, and a panel on Binge Watching with Arthur Chu, the Jeopardy champion. I had to keep bouncing from one room to another to catch everything I wanted to see, not the best strategy in hindsight. I would've went to more readings if I'd been more prepared, missed out on a lot of authors.

I had to balance between experiencing a lot and fitting in time to relax so I took Thursday night off from the convention only to go back on Friday for even more education and entertainment. I actually slept in then hit the dealers' room early to gaze at all the magnificent collections and wish I had a lot more time and money to spend on all the great fiction out there. I did catch a Rising Stars in SF panel and learned about new writers and what it takes to make it in the industry. One interesting note was a mention that it takes ten years to be an overnight success. I sat through several other panels and even caught the infamous State of Short Fiction. I'd not come for the conversation that played out but this was the first sign of any disturbance. I could barely hear the complaints do to the moderator not using the microphone properly, and the whole ordeal was more annoying than some profound statement on the state of short fiction, I moved on pretty fast from that nonsense.

Saturday was probably my most productive day. I played a lot of Lord of the Rings Stratego in the game room, heard a panel on Writing for TV, got "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" signed by George R.R. Martin, listened to the Clarkesworld staff discuss short fiction and their process, attended a group reading of Apex Magazine, then took a break before the Hugo Awards. I was very pleased with all of the nominations and wish I had read more before I made my votes. I will be reviewing The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin soon but I'm almost done and fully support that win along with all the others. I mostly read around the nonsense so I read most of the winners. 

I had to jet out and head back home on my birthday but overall it was an enjoyable experience. I have spent several hours reading more involved recaps and followed nearly everyone I could find on Twitter at the convention. I am sorry to hear that some experiences were not as pleasant and wish that weren't the case. There seems to be a pervasive problem at sci-fi and fantasy conventions from the signs and from those who speak out, especially at this convention in particular. I'd like for that to change in the future. I hope to become more involved in SFF fandom and attend plenty more conventions.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

TV Show Review: Scream (Season 2)

The teenagers of Lakewood mostly survived another season of the slasher series with some heavy revelations coming in the final episode. The second season picked up a few months after the first season's finale with Emma Duval (Willa Fitzgerald) coming home from recovery to a party with her friend. Audrey Jensen (Bex Taylor-Klaus) has been caught in her previous involvment with last seasons killer and works definitely to cover her mistakes as the bodies begin to pile again.

Several other characters are going through their own method of recovery including Noah Foster (John Karna) who hosts a podcast and Brooke Maddox (Carlson Young) dates Jake Fitzgerald (Tom Maden). When Jake goes missing plenty of suspects and excuses arise but the gruesome murder sends the whole town into a frenzy as the new sheriff Miguel Acosta (Anthony Ruivivar) tries to hold it together while taking care of his teenage son Gustavo (Santiago Segura) who has a penchant for drawing creepy pictures.

Emma's boyfriend Kieran Wilcox (Amadeus Serafini) tries to help his girlfriend readjust but has his own difficulties when his cousin Eli (Sean Grandill) arrives in town. The mystery takes off as the killer challenges each character and secrets are slowly revealed throughout each episode. Many of these leads turnout to be false and misdirections for a final reveal that was quite shocking. The show has to fill several hours of television so it lacks the fast pace of the movies but it only paused momentarily.

Mixing the already dramatic nature of high school and the advancing of technology, Scream the TV series utilizes update smartphones and social media to stalk the teenagers and terrify viewers. The acting is hit-or-miss at points but it doesn't hold back on the gore despite being on television and the mystery is intriguing enough to power through two seasons so far and set up a possible third. 

The show pays homage to the movies with Noah spouting of metaphysical implications of each episode though it hasn't taken on the challenge of addressing clichés in horror tv show primarily, I believe, because horror in television is still rather unprecedented and only a recent growing phenomenon, a trend I can wholeheartedly get behind as an avid horror fan. Scream left just enought open that I am interested in what happens next and will tune in a year from now for season three. 

Movie Review: Scream 4

The horror franchise expands into the long-running tradition of moving a scary movie series past the status of trilogy. This movie delves into reboots, remakes, and the plethora of sequels that in the current cinema atmosphere. The new decade has not strayed away from reviving old properties and Scream 4 takes that head on with the meta Stab series pushing for a seventh installment with previous versions having increasingly outrageous plots like time-travel and sillier cliches and more gruesome deaths.

Sydney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returns as a successful author revisiting her hometown of Woodsboro on her book tour. Dewey Riley (David Arquette) is the sheriff of the small town now and his wife Gale Weather (Courtney Cox) is struggling to find anything interested to write about in this simple life. Wes Craven knows his formula so he starts with young women getting murdered by the ghost-faced killer that sparks a new mystery.

There are a new set of young characters that supply the suspects and victims. In relation to Sydney is her cousin Jill Roberts (Emma Roberts) who has a creepy boyfriend Trever (Nico Tortorella). Her friends Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and Olivia (Marielle Jaffe) are stuck in the middle with her. Two film geeks Robbie (Erik Knudsen) and Charlie (Rory Culkin) lay out the rules and host the movie marathon party at which the killer takes the chance to attack. There are also vulnerable police officers including Anthony Anderson. 

The movie doesn't go much further with the murders or gore, supplying many rehashes in the killing paying homage to the original film. The twist, while not predictable, feels forced to the point of creating a shock and not add anything new. Family is usually an easy way to follow motives and they don't stray away from reciting the plans to Sydney once the masks finally come off.

This film looks to end the Scream films as it has transcended this platform and switched formats to television. I'll be getting into the finale of the second season of the show on MTV tonight. It's a subtle testament to how fans have changed their viewing habits in the recent decade. The films were a good bit of fun for the slasher genre and still stand way above many imitators that popped up in the wake of the original's success. Modern horror has come a long way but still there are plenty of tropes that scream pulled out and ridiculed all while using them effectively. This is my fond farewell to Wes Craven and the series. 

Movie Review: Sausage Party

The raunchy comedy about grocery store products comes from the minds of Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen who also voices the main sausage, Frank. The story explores the belief in benevolent gods that are human shoppers. The food products believe that these gods take them to a great beyond where they can live out their greatest pleasures and be taken care of by these gods. The movie uses the metaphor of a sausage in buns as sex to the greatest extent possible. 

The animation boasts an impressive voice cast of all of Rogen's crew including co-creator Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Salma Hayek, Kristen Wiig,  Nick Kroll, Danny McBride, Edward Norton, Paul Rudd, James Franco, Craig Robinson, Bill Hader, and plenty more. The story follows the adventure of Rogen's Frank and Wiig's Brenda Bunson, hotdog buns, encounter an enlightened by a raving Honey Mustard (McBride) who was returned after seeing the true story of what really happens when the products are purchased and taken home.

The exploration of the grocery store relies heavily on racial stereotypes that are both amusing and insulting simultaneously. The gimmick of talking food is funny at first but runs dry as the movie progresses with an odd story about bath salts. There are plenty of laugh out loud jokes and silly humor, but the story about false beliefs and warring groups of religious zealots is the most interesting part of the comedy. 

Kroll's douche serves as the primary antagonist juicing up on juice and slamming tequila like a body-building, drunken misogynist who seeks revenge for being tossed from the cart. The plot is never that important in these types of comedy films. The animation isn't terrible but doesn't boast anything compared to a Pixar or Illumination film. The most amusing part is the cussing and horny foodstuffs but even that goes too far with a food orgy finale. 

Bath salts play a major role in an absurd over the top ending that doesn't explore any of the issues brought up in the early parts but does provide plenty of humor.  It feels as if there was a missed opportunity to explore over-consumption and American wastefulness but there isn't much room amid all the sex and drugs jokes. The movie is funny but not that memorable by the end. Any sort of boundary-pushing is lost amid the silliness.