Sunday, February 26, 2017

Westworld

Review : Westworld
Aired On : HBO (2016-)
My Rating : 7 out of 10

Just like it happened with Boardwalk Empire, the promos of Westworld ensured that I was going to watch the series. The reason in both cases being the association of big names. When you see Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris in the promo, it’s bound to generate interest.

Westworld is based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 Sci-Fi movie of the same name which I have not watched. This is a very hi-tech theme park of sorts. There are no rides, there are stories. Stories in which lifelike robots with very advanced AI play the same role, every day. The visitors (or guests) in the park play the role of super humans - as in - they can do whatever they want with these robots. Whatever, as you can expect, happens to be nothing but mayhem, sex, and some darker fantasies they may have. The robots are programmed to be unable to hurt. Their weapons have no effect on humans, but humans can kill them at ease. The premise being, these are robots without feelings, emotions or even life. After every “death”, they are repaired in the night, to be put in the same cruel loop all over again.

At least that’s how it was set up, till the creator, founder and the almost-God of the park, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) decides to tweak the algorithm to make the robots even more human like. The results are less deterministic, and the robots (or hosts, as they are called in the series) start acting differently than what was planned. Some of them start to retain memories, and things get interesting.

In the first half of the season, the series focuses almost exclusively on the mayhem part. We get to see how the park works to some extent, some corporate politics, some operational aspects. It is slow, a bit confusing and definitely repetitive. What held my interest to keep me going was the visual aspect. It’s stunningly beautiful - both the world inhabited by robots, as well as the inside where humans recide. We don’t get to see anything beyond these boundaries. It’s set in some future, but no hint is given as to how far. And yes, there is standard hollywood tech mumbo jumbo that shouldn’t be paid much attention to.

Fortunately, the series takes interesting turns in the later half. Then it starts to become a puzzle that seems worth solving. Actually, a multi-layered, multi-dimensional puzzle. It can get even more confusing, but it’s also gripping. You keep wanting to know more. Eventually by the end you will know more. And I think you will be surprised. And satisfied. That’s the important part. The answers to the puzzles are surprising and satisfying. 

In addition to being a Sci-Fi mystery, the series also tries to set up some deeper philosophical questions. I wouldn’t take them too seriously. Most Sci-Fi requires some leaps of faith to believe that the technology shown can actually come to exist. That’s fine. But here, since there are robots, and they are human like and they are developing memory - the question of consciousness and how it begins, serves as the device that the series uses to stand out. It works to keep things interesting, but I doubt if this season would ever spawn the pseudo- philosophical discussion like The Matrix trilogy did. That’s OK. 

As you can imagine, this is not a character driven drama. You will know precious little about the human characters. The robots are more interesting, but they are also stuck in a loop. HBO is not expecting us to watch it for intricate relationships. It’s a Sci-Fi mystery, no other pretensions. The stellar cast helps tremendously. Apart from their acting, there is nothing to firmly root the characters. Every one is brilliant. Not a surprise considering who they are.

It’s a great combination. Perfect acting, unusual concept, interesting plot surprises, stunning visuals, capable direction and dash of philosophy. The script was a bit confusing to me, but most of the confusion was cleared up by the end.

This is not a great series, but a very good series. It’s also different and gripping in the second half, hence totally watchable. I definitely recommend it. It’a correctly rated TV-MA and is not for kids.


Saturday, February 4, 2017

Big Little Lies



Book Review : Big Little Lies
Author : Liane Moriarty
My Rating : 4 out of 5 stars

I will be honest about this. This is not a book that I would have read at all. I didn’t even expect to like it. This book is simply not my type. HBO has been advertising about a series based on this book that stars Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley. With that kind of cast, I know I am going to watch it. In my opinion a book should be read before watching the screen adaptation. So I read it, and I was surprised to find myself liking it.

The story has three main characters, all women, living in a beach town in Australia and who have kids going to the same kindergarten class. In the very beginning of the book, the reader is told that a death happened during a function organized by the school, and most likely it was a murder. Who died and how is not told till the very end. The story starts a few months before the event. Jane, a single mother movies to the small beach town. On the very first day, she meets Madeline, who also was a single mother once. Madeline, and her friend Celeste, become Jane’s support system. She needs one, as the Kindergarten Mom Politics is quite strong in that town. As the story progresses, we learn a lot of details about these three characters and a bit about men in their lives. Eventually, the fateful night arrives and all the threads and sub-plots converge.

The double mystery, who dies and who did it, is smartly handled. We don’t even know who dies till the very end. That keeps the reader guessing, at least till the half-point. It’s a bit easy to narrow-down the options of who might die, but how remains a nice mystery. But this is not just a mystery book. The characters are developed nicely, and they are not single dimensional. The dialogues are smart, and the pacing is smooth.

The book also touches on many other aspects - domestic abuse, self-esteem, petty politics. It is also a satire on current parenting style. The school politics is completely far-fetched. I just don’t buy it. That’s one big negative. There are other small defects, like one character using Google to discover a simple fact, while the character which is most affected doesn’t. Not very believable. But if that character had used Google, the whole story wouldn’t have been possible. At the end of each chapter, there are dialogues from secondary characters about the investigation, that are cliched to the extreme. Finally, the male characters are only mentioned in passing, most of the time, and strictly from a woman’s point of view.

Leaving the defects aside, the book does a fantastic job of achieving the right balance between all the elements it uses. The character portrayal, shining light on domestic abuse, satire on modern parenting and of course the mystery. This is really the strength of the book. This balance is what keeps the book interesting, and makes us invest our time in it.

It’s a good read, not literary, but nice for relaxing lazy times. I am giving my recommendation, but I will admit again. It’s not a book that I would have read, even after reading a review like this, my own review. Because, I rarely feel satisfied after reading fiction, and on top of that, this is absolutely female centric. It still kept me glued and made me turn pages. Now, I look forward to the HBO series. 

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