Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


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A Bloodless Origin

It’s the Christmas weekend, the countryside is silent and dreary under a blanket of cold mist, and there is very little to do but eat (in moderation), read (an old Warhammer Fantasy novel) and wait for New Year’s Eve.
In the general desert of the media landscape, I chanced upon the announcement of a new Netflix series, The Witcher: Blood Origin, and I thought… why not?

Now, I know very little about The Witcher franchise – I never played the video games, the stories always seemed to me to be extremely derivative of Michael Moorcock’s Elric, and I was not able to go past the first episode of the TV series – with all the sympathy for Henry Cavill, but no, sorry, I can’t stand the bard guy, and the series is clearly not for me.
So this new miniseries came as a complete surprise, and really, going blind into it?
Four episodes featuring Michelle Yeoh and Minnie Driver?
Why not?
I will probably miss all the connections and deep lore, but at least I’ll be able to enjoy the series on its own merits.

Right?

Now, The Witcher: Blood Origin is just what it says on the tin – an origin story, telling us how the world in which the main series takes place came to be. It features political intrigue, world-shattering magic and seven warriors that plan to take their revenge on the bad guys that have usurped the throne.

So, yes, it’s basically The Seven Samurai crossed with Chushingura, with added elves and magic.
And here’s where the problems begin.

Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 The Seven Samurai is a master class in writing economy and storytelling.
At 207 minutes, it clocks almost exactly the same as The Witcher: Blood Origin if we take away opening and end titles.
It takes about one hour to Kurosawa to set up the premise of the story, and introduce the main characters – and he does so in a masterful way (hey, it’s Akira Kurosawa!), handing us each character, their psychology and their style, their function in the band of warriors.
Once this is done, in an interesting and exciting way, we plunge into the action, and for the remaining two hours the action won’t let up, while still taking time to develop the characters in surprising ways.
The Witcher miniseries takes almost three episodes – that’s two hours and a half – to set up the story and bring the seven characters together. Which leaves about fifty minutes for the expected big action payoff.

That so much time is spent in introducing and bringing together such bloodless, flat characters, is the main let down, for me.
The actors are good, but they are given very little to work with. A lot of the development seems rushed, and a fair chunk of dialogue is below par. There’s a lot of walking around – with or without horses, animals that seem to have the uncanny ability to appear and disappear at will.
The seven heroes are your standard band of seven, with a characterization that does not seem to go deeper than your standard D&D character sheet.

The politics of the series is interesting, but underdeveloped – and while Mirren Mack in the role of the delusional Princess Merwyn is interesting (and often visually striking), once again she does not have much to do. We get there are social class issues at work, undermining the elven civilization, but it’s pretty sketchy.

And that much of the weight of the story ends up being carried by Minnie Driver’s voice-over is a sign of how underwritten and rushed the whole thing is.
We are supposedly looking at the end of a world and the beginning of a new one, but nothing feels as thrilling as it is supposed to be.
We follow characters we do not care about as they set in motion events we do not care about, in a world we do not care about.

Then there are some very minor pet peeves of mine, writing-wise – such as the fact that we get people that say “send them to the clay” instead of “bury them”/”kill them” (which is a fine if heavy-handed bit of worldbuilding), but then will answer “okay!” to some questions, the anachronism grating like fingernails on a chalkboard.
But that’s only me – it’s a silly detail, like the horses coming and going, or characters popping in and out of the story.

So, what about the good stuff?
Well, as I said, the actors are good (Sophia Brown, Francesca Mills and the already-mentioned Mirren Mack in particular), and do their best with the poor writing.
The action scenes are few and far between, but they are not bad.
The locations are beautiful, and the costumes are fine (Princess Merwyn’s outfits and make-up are great, and more than compensate her Ikea-furnished apartments).
And talking about Ikea, I particularly liked the design of the elven civilization’s brutalist architecture. And the alien design of the monsters is excellent, if not over-the-top original.
And of course, I’d pay a first-class ticket to watch Michelle Yeoh breath, so I’m on board on this.

Sadly, the good bits sprinkled in the mix are not enough to grant this story the minimum of interest and excitement that would make spending almost four hours watching it.
But hey, it’s the Christmas weekend, and I had nothing better to do.
A missed opportunity.


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Dark Schneider is back: Netflix’s Bastard!!

I admit I was worried.
Bastard!! was one of the anime/manga series that I remembered from the ’90s – over the top, seriously silly, filled with bouncing breasts and juvenile humor, together with a setting straight out of AD&D and a plot that was basically an excuse to show more violence and, yes, more toned thighs and bouncy breasts. The brainchild of a guy that was a self-admitted fan of heavy metal music and roleplaying games, it was the quintessential late ’80s/early ’90s … thing.
And it was all right.

But now?
We are in 2022, and Bastard!! is back, and on Netflix.
And I heard a few people worrying about the dread effects of political correctness and “wokeness” (I heard grown men cry because in one snippet of preview they caught sight of two women kissing), but I was much more worried about the fad for “grimdark” – after all, with a main character that’s called Dark Schneider, and a tagline that reads “Heavy Metal Dark Fantasy”, Bastard!! is the sort of anime that could easily get the grimdark treatment, for the viewing pleasure of all the sociopaths out there.

So yes, I was worried.
And I was not happy at all with the Italian dubbing, so I dropped the series after about 5 minutes.

But I was able to finally get an English dub (not my first choice, I prefer subs myself), and while Dark Schneider still sounds too damn youthful for my tastes – and the dub fails to capture the surprisingly and hilarious vulgar Japanese of the original – I finally sat down and watched the series.

For the uninitiated, Bastard!! (the two exclamation points are required) is a sword & sorcery series set in a post-apocalyptic world that’s regressed to medieval level. The four kingdoms are being menaced by a dark army hell bent on resurrecting an ancient goddess, and the only hope for humanity is Dark Schneider, a centuries old evil wizard that was once the leader of the dark army – but has been trapped inside a kid’s body these last 15 years.

The series follows Dark Schneider’s exploits after he’s been brought back – and he has to face his former allies to protect the few people he’s come to care for.

And I am happy to report that the new incarnation of Bastard!! is still a lot of fun, it is still incredibly silly, and nicely padded with bouncy breasts and juvenile humor. It is violent, stupid and inappropriate, but it is happily free of angsty grimdark trappings. Bastard!! winks and laughs out loud too much to be grimdark. It does indeed look like something that reached us from, say 1991 via some rip in space-time.
It is also pretty close to the original comics as I remember them from thirty years ago.
The character design is very ’90s, but the animation’s better – and we get new music on the soundtrack.

All in all, silly entertainment – not the sort that shakes the pillars of civilization or changes the life of the viewer, but in this time, in which TV is trying to feed us fake memories of how it was to play AD&D in the ’80s, it is good to find a show that actually captures with surprising accuracy the mix of cliché, silliness, wanton destruction, inappropriate jokes and loud music that characterized those saturday afternoons, so many years ago.


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Steampunk shenanigans: Arcane (2021)

I have never played League of Legends, and I have no idea what it’s all about. I have seen a lot of game artwork around, and I have been duly impressed by the look of the thing, but I am not that much of a gamer anymore – if I ever was. On the other hand, I am a sucker for good animation, and for steampunk, so when the trailer of Arcane, the new Netflix series, was posted, it got my attention.

Now the first three episodes are here – and clocking at 40 minutes each, they are just what the doctor ordered for a break and a cup of tea between writing sessions.
And I am duly impressed.

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Weird in Manila: Trese (2021)

I went into Trese, the new animated series from Nettflix, practically blind. OK, a paranormal detective story set in contemporary Manila and based on the folklore of the Philippines. But that was all.
I had seen the trailer, and I was intrigued.

I was a bit dubious because it is presented as an “anime”, but it is not a Japanese product, it was made in the Philippines. You don’t call it New Orleans Jazz if they make in in Sweden, don’t you?
Wikipedia adjusts this by describing the series as “anime-inspired”. OK.
But apart from that, I was curious.

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Us and time: The Dig (2021)

Based on a novel published in 2007 inspired by real events, The Dig, that is currently streaming on Netflix, is a straightforward historical drama, built on the 1939 excavation of the Sutton Hoo mound. Ralph Fiennes is Basil Brown, a self-taught archaeologist that is hired by upper-class lady Edith Pretty (as portrayed by carey Mulligan) to excavate in her land in search of hidden archaeological remains.

The movie is beautiful to look at, and takes its time to linger lovingly on the British landscapes in which much of the action takes place. A number of plots intersect in the story, that refreshingly gives us the relationship of two individuals that have no sentimental or sexual involvement whatsoever, but just a shared love and awe for history and the passing of time.

Along the way, the film finds the time to portray the effects of class on academical endeavours and research – Brown’s a lower class farmer, considered little more than a digger by the archaeologists that try to step in once the treasure’s unearthed, and the archaeologists are still just middle class when confronted with the rich upper class miss Pretty. The way in which the social class dance is carried on is part of the fun of the movie.

And we also get a romantic story, involving two side characters – quite superfluous, but at least played with elegance. Indeed, the movie (and the novel) play fast and loose with some historical elements to add flavor and romanticism – as I mentioned, somewhat superfluously.

At the core of the story, there remains the relationship between people and history, and the very intimate relationship each one of us has, one way or another, with time itself, and what we make of it.
An excellent movie, filled with great actors and beautifully shot, it’s highly recommended.


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In the shadow of Arséne

And so finally the new Lupin TV series hit the screens, as a Netflix Original, and I spent a day watching it while my computer system was slowly grinding back to normal. Together with the fifth season of The Expanse, this was for me the highest expected show in the late2020/early 2021 season.
So, is it any good?

Short review: it is very good.

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Thrills and chills from Egypt

Paranormal is an Egyptian web series that’s currently being distributed as a Netflix Original, and it’s available both in subbed and dubbed version via streaming. The first season includes six episodes, and I really hope we will get a second season, because this is the most fun I had in a long time with a supernatural themed series.

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