The 13th— a documentary on Netflix

13thRecently, hubby and I watched the biopic Lincoln on Netflix, which is about the civil war president’s efforts to get the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed. That’s a fine film, indeed, but it isn’t nearly as good nor as timely as this documentary on the social problems associated with a phrase within the amendment which prohibits slavery: “except as a punishment for crime.” This documentary makes a well documented case for how America has used that phrase against various populations.

The film isn’t as hard to watch as it might be, but for anyone who loves America, it is sobering. Many nations have struggled to put the past behind them: Modern Germans certainly tend to not view the Holocaust as part of their heritage, but it is. Slavery is America’s historical black eye. However, from the Jim Crow era to the civil rights movement to modern times, The 13th shows how prison has become the new plantation.

Older Americans will remember the black and white images of protest marches in the 60s meeting with hostile police, but younger ones may be shocked. However, Americans of every age may be shocked by the private prison contracts that require that prisons remain filled to capacity. Can this actually be true in the “land of the free and the home of the brave”? Yes, it can, and it is true.

Years and years ago, I had a friend whose son committed a crime. He was certainly guilty and did deserve some punishment. For whatever reasons, the judge “threw the book” at this young man, and he spent many years in prison. His mother told me about the various ways that the state punishes the family. A simple phone call from prison must be made “collect” and the charges are exorbitant. She also told me how glad her son was when he was allowed to perform work details. Prisoners gladly work for pennies, just to alleviate boredom, and that’s where the phrase “except as punishment for a crime” comes in. Across this nation, prisoners work and their products are sold for a profit. I used to believe the phrase “made in U.S.A.” but I don’t anymore, because that nifty pair of jeans may have been sewn in a prison.

If you haven’t seen The 13th, you should. Yes, it is troubling, but it should be.

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Lost in Space— good at last?

LostPerhaps I am one of the few of my generation who have actually read that classic novel, The Swiss Family Robinson. For its time, it was a good book, with lots of details about how the intrepid family managed to survive on a deserted island after their ship broke apart. That story was a straight up man vs. nature conflict, and man won, big-time. Not only did they survive, but they thrived in their new home.

During the 1960s, with the United States government locked in a “space race” against their rivals, The Soviet Union, mankind began to look toward the rest of the universe as a new frontier. Network television carried each space launch, and before long, their entertainment divisions looked to capitalize on the trend. In 1966, NBC had a space based science fiction drama, Star Trek, which was not especially successful at the time, but during syndication and through successful spin off series and movies, it became a cultural icon. CBS chose Lost in Space, very loosely based on the classic novel. This set of Robinsons were also in a battle to survive, and this story which might have had a better premise than Trek, (as well as legitimate television star power in June Lockhart and Angela Cartwright) but its execution left a lot to be desired. For whatever reasons, Star Trek‘s writers and producers took their journey through space seriously, while Lost in Space became more and more comic.

During the 1990s, there was a big budget film version of Lost in Space, which, again, had the right story to be successful, but was, for the most part, not. When I heard that Netflix had decided to give the story a third outing, I was skeptical. The first version of this series was almost a joke, while the second just never held my interest.

My family is currently halfway through the first season of the Netflix version, and by and large, we are impressed. The special effects rival mid-level movie efforts. The cast is good, featuring Molly Parker (who has had recent work in House of Cards and Deadwood) as a much more empowered version of Maureen Robinson. Each iteration of Lost in Space has used a dual conflict, where the family must struggle to survive (man vs. nature) and deal with a deceptive fellow traveler  (Dr. Smith) thus adding man vs. man conflicts. Wow, Parker Posey’s female Dr. Smith is perhaps the most villainous villain yet.

For anyone who remembers the tacky Robby the Robot screeching, “Danger, Will Robinson,” and being totally unimpressed, I think the third try might be a charm. The robot is certainly not a joke, and the rest of the cast and writers are putting forth a rip roaring series. Give it a try.

Longmire— a satisfying drama with a Western setting

Longmire
Longmire on Netflix

One of my friends who recently “cut the cord” stated that her first binge-watch was the A&E turned Netflix original, Longmire. This show is a blend of modern western with the traditional detective yarn. While most episodes do stand alone, there are some story arcs that make more sense when the viewer starts at the beginning. The titular character, Walt Longmire is brought to life by Robert Taylor. His sidekick, Henry Standing Bear is portrayed by the multitalented Lou Diamond Phillips, and his chief deputy is ably played by Battlestar Galactica veteran Katee Sackoff. The rest of the cast is also quite good, but I especially enjoyed the villain, Jacob Nighthorse, played by former soap heartthrob, A Martinez.

As the series opens, Sheriff Longmire is struggling with the loss of his wife. His small group of deputies, including new hire Vic Morelli, need him to answer his phone and show up, which he has apparently only done sporadically for a while. A murder, combined with the competition from another candidate for sheriff gets Walt back on the job. Viewers are treated to the unfolding of Walt as a complex person as well as a talented lawman. The scenery and camera work are just as entertaining as the acting, and I agree with my friend. As long as Netflix offers entertainment of this quality, there is no real reason to sign up for cable tv.

Longmire the television series is based on the books Craig Johnson, and I’m going to have to check out one of those.

SlingTV—Not Quite Ready for Prime Time

SlingTV logoAs a “cord-cutter” and a football fan, finding a way to stream college games has been getting better, but after watching the buffering symbol instead of watching the Bulldogs and the Crimson Tide in the National Championship game, I cancelled my subscription to SlingTV. Oh, if you want to watch “Vintage Flip” on demand (which is one of my favorite HGTV shows, by the way) then all is well. But let lots of fellow fans try to see the national college championship, and there are many, many technical issues.

We tried everything— change computers, different web browsers, modem reset. In the end, we switched between listening to WSB radio, which worked great except for the visuals, of course, and trying to at least see some of the instant replays. Even if the interface had worked, the evening would have been disappointing, as hubby’s beloved Bulldogs lost, but we didn’t see much until the end of the game. Perhaps a few fans dropped off, because the stream got better during the forth quarter and overtime.

I think SlingTV is a good alternative for folks who might want to see some mainstream news or some obscure shows, but for sports, which was the only real reason I signed up, it is lacking. In September, I’ll be looking for a new way to stream college football, and YouTube TV may be my next attempt to feed my need for live sports.

The Orville— first impressions

Orville 2When it debuted, there was a good bit of publicity about the science fiction comedy, The Orville, starring (and produced by) Seth McFarlane. And there are not a lot of shows to compare it to, so I understand why writers had some problems describing it.

Visually, this television show looks much like a feature film, such as the rebooted Star Trek, although it relies on CGI a bit more than an upscale effort like The Force Awakens, and the special effects don’t take center stage in as many scenesThe score, in particular, reminds Trek savvy viewers of the first Star Trek feature film, and certain scenes in the pilot also pay homage to that film. Other Trek elements include the use of shuttle craft to get back and forth from ship to ship (no transporters, however) and FTL travel is accomplished via a “quantum” drive rather than Trek’s warp drive. The uniforms are almost cartoon versions of military uniforms, but the color codes for different divisions again looks a bit like Trek.

The first half of the pilot strives very hard to set the comedic tone of the series, and that almost kept me from finishing it. Such lines as “Can I have a soda on the bridge?” or “Can I wear shorts to work?” from bridge officers are supposed to be funny, but these arbitrary requests seem out of place. Once the crew encounters some baddies and come together to accomplice some goals, the drama and the comedy mesh a bit better. My favorite space faring comedy is still Galaxy Quest, but it never took itself seriously, which The Orville seems to want to do, at least occasionally.

I’ve not seen all of the available episodes, but I will probably take another look, as hubby and I have only one episode left of Dark Matter, which is the best television space opera we’ve seen in quite a while. As for quality, my initial impression is that The Orville has a bigger budget, but the recently cancelled Dark Matter has a far better premise and better acting. A quick check over at Rotten Tomatoes gives DM a 79% fresh rating, but TO only gets 19%. Ouch! There are more episodes of The Orville to come, so we’ll have to wait and see if it gets any better.

Cord Cutting is getting better— but more expensive

TVHubby and I haven’t had cable in more than a decade, and we’ve been with without DirecTV for a while now. Instead, we have watched Netflix streaming (including the DVD feature) and Hulu. Then, there’s YouTube, which gets better and better, but those ads are oh, so annoying. A service that we seldom used at first, Amazon Prime, is getting better, and they are offering something quite interesting: channels ala carte. You can take a look at that here:

Join Amazon Channels Free Trial

My favorite service, still, is Netflix, but as original programming supplants purchased programing, I’m liking it less. Since we are fans of college football, I have been buying a subscription to SlingTV each fall. While it too is getting better, Sling has ads and a plethora of “infomercials” that can be watched on demand. Yep, I paid $40 for the full package, and I get the opportunity to watch ads, short and long. And, this year I keep seeing “your event is blacked out.” The on demand offerings seem quite arbitrary, as sometimes there are multiple episodes available, but on other days there are fewer. Needless to say, if this continues, I won’t even give Sling its seasonal run in the future.

Netflix is about $29 per month (for a family plan + DVDs), Hulu is $9 per month, and Sling is $40. Amazon offers benefits beyond streaming, so let’s add another $5 to the total. That makes $83 per month for online entertainment; each service overlaps a bit, yet each offers something unique. YouTube, HBOgo, CBS all-access, and others would love to have some monthly moola, so clearly there needs to be one service that provides everything (cable + DVR?) Disney has been teasing two different services in the future, one for entertainment and one for sports. If they do, the fracturing of the entertainment empire will probably get worse.

Right now, cord cutting is more and more in vogue, but one of the big players needs to add live sports. Whichever one can manage that will win enough customers to have more buying clout with networks. I’m not a gambler by nature, but I’d pick Amazon to win, Netflix to place, and Hulu to show.

Dark Matter— review and commentary

Dark Matter from FBFor the most part, the SyFy channel has seemed more like the “Horror channel” to me. So many of their original works seemed to rely either on horror or even fantasy that I seldom watched it, back when we were cable subscribers. However, the series Dark Matter: Season 1 [Blu-ray] (which I’ve been binge watching lately) is certainly an exception to that. Here is a series which blends elements of hard and soft science fiction writing, plus some really good acting and nifty special effects, into an entertaining and occasionally thought provoking original science fiction series.

The initial premise is a fabulous launching point: Six people wake up from stasis pods on a ship, and none of them remembers their respective pasts. Action ensues almost immediately, as the ship’s android viciously attacks. Once the android is sorted out, then this motley crew sets about sorting out who they are and what the mission of this ship might be. All of the cast members do a good job with their parts, but Melissa O’Neil is particularly watchable as her “Two” character quickly becomes the center of this strong ensemble.

Each episode helps unravel the mysteries, while bringing in new characters and situations. As the series unfolds, most of the characters learn of unsavory bits in their past lives, which affects how they interact with each other and the characters they meet as they travel though space. Hard science fiction elements (the science part) include the technology of stasis, of artificial intelligence, faster than light space travel, and genetic engineering. Softer science fiction elements (the emotional and social aspects of technology) include how the characters react to their collective amnesia, how they interact with other cultures, the ethics of certain criminal activities, and how the politics of their time and space play out.

Among the players of this futuristic universe are large corporations, mostly depicted as being at war with each other. Government is largely a pawn of the corporations. Science fiction grand master Robert A. Heinlein played with similar themes in his novel, Friday, which also dealt with genetic engineering and the ethical dilemmas which accompany it. Science fiction requires good writing, as “fiction” is part of the term, and the writers of Dark Matter seldom disappoint. If there is a weakness, some of the space travel effects are a bit cheesy compared to modern movie making, but hey, it is a television show!

Science fiction is mythology for modern man. (I’d love to take credit for that, but I got the idea from reading about science fiction and mythology, including The Hero with a Thousand Faces (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell)  There is much to like in the series Dark Matter, which is on currently on the SyFy channel, as well as via streaming services and on DVD. I highly recommend it.