Friday, February 16, 2018

Two new series come to Netflix streaming: ALTERED CARBON and BABYLON BERLIN

The future (a little-too Blade Runner-ish in style: see below) and the past (Germany shortly before its pre-WWII fascist takeover) are the subjects of two new continuing series via Netflix streaming. ALTERED CARBON imagines our world (along with some off-worlds) a very long time time from now, when the very wealthy -- gheesh, them again! -- can live forever, while the rest of us are mostly slave labor who work, work, work and then die. The big difference here is that everyone's "life force" is now embedded in a small item called a "stack,"  which gets implanted somewhere behind one's neck. So, no matter what happens to your body, if your stack remains OK, you simply change into a new "sleeve" -- the term for whatever body is currently available (at a price, of course) for use by someone whose old one is damaged beyond repair.

This odd new kind of body-hopping makes for some very amusing fun at times -- the best of all being a Thanksgiving dinner at the home of an Hispanic family whose grandmother has recently departed. But the family -- most of them, anyway -- want their abuela back for the holiday and so her stack is implanted into the only available sleeve, that of a recently departed criminal who is bald, portly and mustachioed. The ensuing conversation is one of the most amusing things I've seen all year, and when the subject turns to religion, faith, and this whole idea of "eternal life," the series suddenly also becomes quite intelligent and insightful.

The main plot has to do with a murder mystery involving one of those very rich (James Purefoy, above -- and, yes, he's full-frontal again and as big and beautiful as you'll have remembered from Rome) -- which needs to be solved by the series' hero (a very sexy and buffed Joel Kinnaman, below).

Unfortunately this main plot keeps getting derailed far too often and quite unnecessarily via violent action scenes that become tiresome almost immediately.  These, of course, are why most of our younger and increasingly stupid crowd tunes into a shows like this, but eventually the action/violence has more of a numbing effect than anything else because it keeps detracting from rather than adding to the interest of the plot.

One subsidiary character that proves his worth is the Edgar Allen Poe-like artificial intelligence creation (played by Chris Conner, shown below) who is both the hotelier and the hotel (called The Raven) which he manages. (AI, it seems, has come a very long way over the ensuing eons). Mr. Connor proves lots of witty fun, and the series perks a bit whenever he appears.

Altered Carbon is the creation of a writer/producer named Laeta Kalogridis, and she has hit a number of ever-current hot buttons with her new series -- mostly those that push the sex and violence envelopes. I've reached the middle of episode seven at this point (there are ten nearly hour-long ones in the first season), but I don't think I'll continue. Another two and a half hours is more than I want to spend in a supposedly brand new world that turns out to be too much of the same-old same-old, even as it keeps losing rather than gaining interest because of those endless action sequences, as well as from simply tossing too many characters at us, both from the past and the present (even if they turn out to be incarnations of the same people). Tighter would be better, Ms Kaolgridis. But then, of course, we might not have enough episodes to fill up an entire series.


BABYLON BERLIN proves that the past can be every bit as fascinating as some imagined future -- if you rely on interesting characters and depth of characterization rather than a bunch of tiresome action scenes. Created by a trio of smart German filmmakers -- Henk Handloegten, Achim von Borries and Tom Tykwer (that last name best-known over here for Run Lola Run, Perfume, Cloud Atlas, 3 as well as the late and somewhat lamented Netflix series Sense8) -- this German cable presentation was co-directed by all three men and co-adapted (from the novel by Volker Kutscher) by them, too.

Set in the late 1920s in Germany's new Weimar Republic, which was already in major trouble, what with severe inflation and unemployment adding to the post-WWI problems of the state. With the right wing already railing against the rise of Communism, and various divisions of it -- Stalinists, Trotskyites and Leninsts -- jockeying for power, the term "hot bed" doesn't begin to describe the Berlin of this time.

Into all this comes our maybe hero Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch, above), a police commissioner from Cologne, ostensibly to help with a local investigation but with an agenda of his own, of which we will eventually learn. Our heroine Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries, below) is doing all she can to keep her family out of complete poverty, which includes a new day job helping the police department and night work as a prostitute.

There's a high-jacked freight train, a printing press run by the Trotsky faction, a massacre by the Stalinists, an underground pornography ring, and a femme fatale blond who dons a number of disguises along the way. How these plots and characters broaden, deepen and coalesce provide Babylon Berlin's engine, which runs surprisingly smoothly and quickly towards its who-knows-what destination.

Performances are first-rate, from leads down to the very small roles, and the look of the series is simply terrific. Every scene proves an absolute pleasure to view and it all looks real, too -- alternately ritzy and outhouse-dirty. I've never been to Germany, let alone the Germany of the 1920s, but all this sure strikes me as real, enticing and revolting

Part noir, part would-be history, part adventure, love story, and lots more, the series is a surprise in so many ways. Tykwer and his cohorts should be very, very proud. As of now TrustMovies is only into part seven of the 13 episodes in season one. But unlike Altered Carbon, this is one series I plan to finish. Both are available now in the U.S. (and probably elsewhere, too) via Netflix streaming.

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