Moana – Movie review

moana57c47666d55dd1For a simple animated kids film about a Polynesian princess (technically, she’s only the daughter of a chief, but you know what Disney’s marketing department will say — there is even a line in the movie about the criteria for princess-hood) who seeks her own destiny to help save her people, there are a lot of expectations around this movie. For starters, this movie follows in the tradition of mega-hit Frozen, taking a legend/folktale and giving it new, animated, musical life. The animation has a similar style (most notably with those giant eyes!), and the story is once again full of female empowerment and animal sidekicks (a little pig and a ridiculously stupid rooster, along with “the ocean” as a kind of ally or pet — bet no one’s ever tried that before). Along for the ride is a demi-god named Maui: a thick-chested, tattoo-covered, shape-changing trickster, voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Together, they quest to restore a magical jewel to the heart of a dormant island goddess.

While there are many similarities between this movie and its other Disney predecessors, story-wise the most recent analogue is actually the marvellous Kubo and the Two Strings. Again, there’s a kind of folktale context in which a young person sets off on a quest with some magical allies. In fact, there’s even a very similar scene in both movies where a magic object is stuck in the back of a large monster and our heroes need to retrieve it. I love that Disney and other animation studios are still telling folktales to kids. Animation is one of the best media for capturing the magic and wonder of those kinds of stories. It’s also great that Disney continues to tour the world to bring different cultures to its young audiences. I know that it is often probably more trouble than it’s worth given that there’s always a controversy or two and there’s a lot of political correctness to be maintained, but I really hope that they don’t give up on this goal. The good definitely outweighs the bad, in my opinion.

What amazes me about each new feature from Disney and Pixar animators is how they just keep getting more skilled and masterful at the animation. In this movie, there are (as to be expected) many scenes of the beaches and oceans of the South Pacific. While I enjoyed all the fun, the songs, and the story, to me the most impressive feature of this movie was the incredible water animation (apparently they developed new technologies just for that aspect of this movie). The beaches, waves and water looked unbelievably realistic, and every time we looked out into the horizon over the endless ocean, I could not believe that none of it was real — it all existed only in the computer! If you’re waiting for home video, I would say that the ocean scenes alone are worth seeing on the big screen. Less worthy of bigness, but still pretty cool is how they have also seemed to master the computer generation of curly hair. I know it started in Pixar’s Brave, so maybe that tech is only being perfected in Moana and Maui’s hair, but I gotta say, they both have a lot of bouncy curly locks that any shampoo commercial would kill for.

So what about the story, you ask? It’s pretty good. As I mentioned, it’s an ocean-borne quest where Moana needs to set off to find Maui the demi-god and bring him to the island of Matanui to restore its jewelled heart (and thus restore the life power to the islands, which are dying). Of course, nothing goes without a hitch and a couple of side missions. There’s even a bit of a twist ending (which again reminded me of the twist ending in Kubo and the Two Strings).

The two main actors are pretty good. Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho is youthful and spunky as Moana. I think the casting was perfect. Johnson was also excellent as Maui. He definitely has a more modern, humourous personality which reminded me a little of Eddie Murphy’s dragon character in Mulan in that it seemed anachronistic but it still worked and was quite funny. There are a few other guest roles (including Alan Tudyk as Hei Hei the rooster, which still perplexes me because the rooster does not talk) with a pretty fun cast. If he sounds familiar, but you can’t put your finger on the voice of Tamatoa (the crab monster), it’s the distinctive voice of Flight of the Conchords‘s Jemaine Clement.

Last but not least, the music was  enjoyable as well. There are some rousing epic numbers as well as some funny ones. Moana has her own little anthem, which is not going to be “Let It Go” big (but how could any song hope to be that big?). Frankly, I can’t remember Moana’s song anymore, but during the movie it was nice. Lin-Manuel Miranda (the superstar creator of Broadway megahit Hamilton) also worked on some of the songs — I’m guessing it was Maui’s number, “You’re Welcome”.

Moana is a really fun movie and I am sure that it’s going to do really well at the box office and all the kids are going to want to get tattoos now (only to be disappointed when once they realize that tattoos don’t actually move animatedly). Despite all our expectations, I think Disney has lived up this time. (4.5 out of 5)

Fall TV 2016 Wave 1 – Returning Shows

In this year’s batch of returning shows, we’ve got a few long-timers, some shows with a few seasons under their belts, but very few sophomores — mostly because last year’s new shows were so weak. Surprisingly and disappointingly, rather than getting a fresh start on the new season, the pattern or theme this year so far seems to be “self-parody”. It’s been a rocky start.

the-chanels-scream-queens-season-2-premiere-reviewScream Queens

The only second-season show in this list, I confess that I barely committed to watching it again. I genuinely enjoyed the cleverness and craziness of the first season, but I also wondered whether I’d had enough of Chanel and her biting bitchiness for a lifetime. Cut to me watching the first two episodes of a show that was unbelievably campy on a good day. Gone is the sorority house setting, now the Chanels are preposterously nurse-practitioner-med-students at the most bizarre hospital ever. Former Dean Cathy Munsch (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) somehow made it rich on a book tour and bought an old hospital with a very dark past, which now has a new mission to “cure the incurable”. John Stamos and Taylor Lautner serve as the only two doctors in the place. The former has a transplanted hand with a mind of its own, and the latter is sub-humanly cold (not sure how that’s going to play into the plot yet). Keke Palmer is back as well, playing Zayday Williams the sorority-prez-turned-med-student. So far each episode has featured patients with grotesque illnesses (woman covered with hair, man covered with tumours, man who can’t stop screaming), catering to dialogue and characters focused on superficiality — but frankly the patients are not really that important. In only one season, this show has become the definition of self-parody as fewer characters act normal, everyone’s got a crazy backstory, and every speech is an opportunity to ham it up. Oh, and there’s another killer on the loose — this time in a green demon costume rather than a red devil one. It’s like they don’t want the show to last — yet I can’t look away! (3 out of 5)

empire-season-3-scoopEmpire

Another show that was great while it lasted was the Dynasty-goes-Hip-Hop soap opera about the Lyons family — and it’s a crazy family. At the end of last season, token-white-character Rhonda was fighting with Anika and went over the balcony — that’ll teach her for figuring out that Anika pushed her down the stairs! Also, Anika got ex-husband Lucious to remarry her in order to avoid testifying against him in Federal Court, even though she was pregnant with the baby of Hakeem (Lucious’s youngest son). Cut to this season and Lucious is his same heartless self — he doesn’t care about Hakeem and his new fatherhood; or about his son Andre grieving he death of his wife Rhonda. He even gets angry about his middle son Jamal experiencing PTSD from a shot that he took to save Lucious’s life! Not that it wasn’t far from it before, but I think this show has truly gone over the top now. Sadly, it seems like more of the same replay of the past two seasons of Lucious acting selfishly, then seizing back everything and controlling everyone’s lives, and they all somehow come back to him. A lot of that was due to his ex-wife Cookie, but now she’s not going to fall for him anymore (so why do they keep flashing back to the beginning when she first met and fell for him?). And now they’re also introducing another young “star” character for everyone to compete over. In three seasons, there are already cycles that seem to be repeating again and again. Even if you were like me and enjoyed the hip-hop soap’s appeal, you’re probably tired of it by now. (2.5 out of 5)

modfame5c8a15886Modern Family

After six seasons, even one of my favourite sitcoms is repeating itself and slipping into self-parody. Claire and Phil claim to be on a road trip while secretly continuing their family vacation in New York. Meanwhile the kids are also staying on in NYC and mild humour ensues as both sides try to hide their plans from each other. Unlike the moony eyes he once had for Haley, Manny now falls for his mom’s sister after she kidnaps him (yes, that’s right) to get back at Gloria. And worst of all, once again Mitchell makes all the wrong moves as he gets blamed for causing Cam’s bigoted, comatose grandmother to die (if only he’d been wearing a Spider-man costume while doing it). I really hope they quickly get these characters out of the ruts that they’re in. Even sending Alex away to college made almost no dent in the show’s setting — and now she’s back home again. Have they run out of steam? (3.5 out of 5)

brooklyn-nine-nineBrooklyn Nine-Nine

Here’s how you shake things up in a three-year-old sitcom: send the main characters into witness protection. Opening with a three-part story of Jake and Captain Holt in Florida trying to live dull, trivial lives in hiding from mob boss Figgis is a lot of fun. First there’s the hilarity of the ever-serious Holt trying to work for some grown-up teenager at a family fun centre. Second, Jake has frosted tips! Anyway, it was really smart to spend one episode focused just on Jake and Holt before folding in the rest of the characters in the second episode. Their odd father-son chemistry is one of the strongest elements on this show — I loved Jake’s stunned reaction to hearing that Holt had a tattoo! Back in the precinct, things were a little repetitive as they once again had to deal with a new, incompetent captain, but I think it was all worth it to get those scenes of Gina’s assistant laying zingers on Amy! (4 out of 5)

bigbang2Big Bang Theory

On this show, they did the clever thing of cashing-in twice on Penny and Leonard’s wedding: first as a Vegas elopement, now they get to redo the ceremony with families in attendance. Seeing Penny’s family was a lot of fun. Jack McBrayer is not who I expected as Penny’s brother, but he’s a hilarious actor, so I enjoyed him in the role. Also, playing Penny’s mom seemed like a total cake walk for Katey Sagal (who looks just great for 62, eh?). I am really glad they took last season’s cliffhanger of Leonard’s dad and Sheldon’s mom getting together no further, though. I think that would have taken the show into unnecessarily soapy territory. After the wedding, we quickly got back into the other ongoing storylines of Howard and Bernadette’s pregnancy, and the military hiring the guys to build their quantum gyroscope. Dean Norris (from Breaking Bad) has so far been pretty good (though subdued) as their commanding employer. It was funny to see Sheldon hopped up on energy drink — silly Sheldon! (4 out of 5)

Black-ish

While I’m happy to welcome this family sitcom to my viewing roster, I was pretty disappointed by the gratuitous commercialism of the premiere episode, when Dre takes his whole family to Disney World on a VIP vacation. Since the show is from ABC, a network that is owned by the Disney company, it might as well have been a big promotional video for the theme park. However, the episode was not too bad if you strip all that advertising away. I think they waited until episode two to really throw in the towel. While the show has shown that it can take serious topics (like racism and violence) and really handle them well, I can’t believe that they had to trivialize one of the biggest topics in human history. In the episode actually entitled “God”, I was surprised yet intrigued when Zoey declared that she didn’t believe in God, but I was bothered by the way the episode dealt with it. Dre freaked out and cried that his daughter is broken! Then he turned around and made it a black thing to believe in God, citing the hardship of slavery and oppression as the reason why blacks are more prone to belief — really?! Even the counter-argument against belief in God is belittled by its representative: Bow’s pretentious hipster brother, who speaks to the pharmacy in French and tries to leave his Parisian phone number for a call back. In the end, we get an emotional moment at Bow’s sonogram that kind of brings Zoey back to belief, but overall I thought it was terrible, and bordering-offensive how the producers squandered and diminished what could have been a thought-provoking and even profound episode. I really hope the rest of the season steps it up.(3.5 out of 5)

shield-eMarvel’s Agents of SHIELD

Finally, what is going on with this show?! No, I’m serious. I cannot follow what is happening. Daisy is still rogue, and I don’t know why she is chasing the Ghost Rider (but she’s got a smokey eye, so she must be serious, right?). I’m hating all this talk of the politics behind an agency like SHIELD. Do I care that they have to pander to the appropriations committee to get funding now? What is this, House of Cards? Coulson is flying around non-stop in his plane with Mac; and May is disgruntled at Jemma, who is now kind of her superior; Fitz and Simmons are playing a cute couple, and no one is telling me why they are doing any of this. Plus, they are also going after Ghost Rider, and there are some creepy ghosty people who have somehow infected May with horror-movie madness? Sigh! I miss the good old days when the plots were normal and made more sense. I need them to get back to that quickly. Bring back Ward, bring back Hydra if you must, but please let me care about this show again! (3 out of 5)

So, the returning shows haven’t been too great so far. Good thing they still have the rest of the season to improve. Fingers crossed!

Fall TV 2016 Wave 1 – New Shows

Every year the networks seem to try different scheduling patterns for releasing fall premieres. This year seems to be waves. Many shows have started up already, and we’ve actually got a couple of episodes under our belts before the next wave of premieres come out. With so many shows in this first wave, I’m going to do the new shows first. That way you can hop on the bandwagon for the good ones, and just not bother with the bad.

son-of-zorn-fall-tv-preview-05Son of Zorn

From my preview, I had expected to really enjoy this show about a cartoon animated “He-Man” moving from his savage island home to southern California to re-establish relationships with his teenage son and ex-wife. It looked like the extreme “fish out of water” concept would be good for a bunch of laughs (especially since I grew up watching those kinds of Saturday morning cartoons — Yes, I was a big Thundarr fan!). Zorn’s cluelessness was funny at first, but it’s starting to wear thin. I enjoy that he actually has real feelings and wants to be closer to his son. The key to making the concept work (though it might limit the audience to us nerds) lies in what they did in the second episode. Zorn found a magical artifact in the garage called the Stone of Sight, which allows the user to watch someone remotely (clearly based on the Thundercats‘ Eye of Thundara — Yes, yes. Nerd alert!). Apart from the stalker-ish aspects (which is the easy joke), the Stone was also a comment on the desire to want to know and understand the people you care about. I think they need to keep taking crazy stuff from Zorn’s world and giving them meaning in ours. (3.5 out of 5)

kevin-can-wait-trailer-w1200-h630Kevin Can Wait

You might be surprised that I watched this show. It’s not my typical, but iTunes suckered me in with a free pilot episode — damn you iTunes! Starring Kevin James as yet another chubby hubby, this show is pretty much what you’d expect — especially from James. He’s a retired cop — and that has no real bearing on the show except that it justifies the scenes where he’s hanging around with a bunch of male friends. The show also includes a college-age daughter and her sensitive, British, hipster fiancee in the mix, but they don’t really add much. Surprisingly there’s already too many characters on the show after only two episodes. The scripts are very formulaic and the laughter is extremely meager. I genuinely like Kevin James as an actor, but I wish that he’d challenge himself a bit. (2 out of 5)

designated-survivorDesignated Survivor

This seemed to be another one of those movie concepts trying to be a series, but I guess if it worked for Quantico, why not here? Kiefer Sutherland plays some low-level cabinet-minister who quickly became acting president of the USA once an explosion took out the Capitol building and all the important people within. This reminded me a lot of Battlestar Galactica‘s plot line where the minister of education became the acting president after the Cylons destroyed the colonies. On that show, we got to see how Laura Roslin struggled with the authority and the burden until she became an incredible leader, but the whole show was not focused only on her and she had very little politics to deal with. Now with Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman, all we seem to care about is how he’s going to handle the situation. I’m not interested in another terror-crisis-aftermath story. I’m especially not interested in ones that focus on the politics. By the second episode, one of the state governors decided to implement some racist policing policies in his state and when Kirkman ordered him to change, he basically said to Kirkman “You are not my president”. That’s when I turned off the TV. The premise situation was contrived enough, and I’m already not a fan of political drama. This show is just frustration waiting to happen. (3 out of 5)

the-good-placeThe Good Place

This sitcom, about a woman named Eleanor (played by a way under-utilized Kristen Bell) who’s only in Heaven due to mistaken identity, has had a bit of a slow build. Good thing they have already given us four episodes in two weeks to get into it. What originally seemed to be more of a mocking of goodness for laughs (Hey, look at all good people in Heaven who don’t know how to have fun!), now kind of reminds me of Lost in sitcom form. There are side characters showing up and we are learning their backstories (sometimes in flashback) and realizing that not everyone is who you first think. Not only are we gradually learning how this world works (people get lessons on how to fly, a gift between two people can change to reflect the quality of the relationship, and learning to be good may be the only way to stay if you’ve been let in under false pretenses), but there are also little mysteries at the end of each episode. It’s from the makers of Parks and Recreation, so I know they know how to build a good comedy ensemble around a central character. I am having a surprising degree of fun watching this show as it grows into that (4 out of 5).

this-is-us-28409This Is Us

My under-estimation of this season’s new shows is definitely a growing theme. At first, I thought it was just another one of those dramas where we get slices of lives who all share a common trait — in fact, I remember Milo Ventimiglia (who’s also starring in this show) was in a previous show about a random group of people who all won the same lottery. However, this show offers up a few pretty significant twists in the first two episodes. There are a few main characters who all have separate lives, but also intersect, and the show definitely plays with story structure between the past and the present. I don’t want to give away too much because that’s part of the fun. The writers are very conscious of what the audience knows and doesn’t know yet as they unveil the story of these characters in a gimmicky-but-genuinely-artful way. Mandy Moore plays wife to Ventimiglia’s character great as they are, they clearly have their ups and downs. Justin Hartley plays an actor trying to leave behind a shallow but successful sitcom to pursue a more meaningful life. Chrissy Metz plays an overweight woman trying to lose weight (which is a controversial topic for any show, but I think they’re handling it pretty well so far). Sterling K. Brown, plays a successful businessman reunited with his birth father who not only abandoned him, but is now dying of cancer. So they are all dealing with some heavy topics, but this show is well-written and full of surprises. (4 out of 5)

speechless10645Speechless

This family sitcom also takes a controversial bull by the horns in dealing with a special-needs child. Minnie Driver gives a great performance as the crazy, fierce mother, Maya DiMeo who everyone in the neighbourhood is already afraid of (in the pilot, she speeds to a donut shop before a coupon expires, and the experienced cop just tells the newbie to let her go because it’s not worth it to stop her). I think this show is really well written and the characters are all very likable (even Maya). Their portrayal of the son with cerebral palsy is very positive, and not in any way pitying. The only characters that still seem a little weak (though to be fair we’ve only had two episodes) are the younger kids — a middle son who has a strong will somewhere inside his mousey exterior, and a younger daughter who seems way too driven for this family (perhaps she takes after her mother). There are a lot of funny moments and also heartfelt ones. I didn’t think I’d like this show because its subject matter seemed too precious, but that’s not how it’s treated at all. (4 out of 5)

lethal-weaponLethal Weapon

Another show that I would not have watched if not for the beneficence of iTunes, I was never much of a fan of the original Lethal Weapon movies either. However, I think they leads do an excellent job of making this show enjoyable — so enjoyable that I don’t even care what each week’s case is about because that’s obviously not the point. Damon Wayans plays Murtaugh the ready-for-retirement veteran detective (the Danny Glover role — and yes, they have said his signature line already). He’s actually much funnier than Glover and that really adds to the show. Riggs is played by Clayne Crawford (who frankly, I didn’t know from any of the things he’d already done). He is pretty good with the crazy aspects of this character who lost his wife and in-utero child to a car accident and now feels like he has nothing left to lose. His Riggs seems perhaps a bit smarter than Mel Gibson’s version (though again I was not a big follower of the movies). On top of the buddy-cop banter, there are some pretty spectacular action and stunt sequences, as well as some good family scenes with Murtaugh’s clan. I really didn’t think I would like this show, but I am definitely going to give this more of a chance — it’s my only cop show (4 out of 5).

bull-michael-weathrlyBull

Another time where the free iTunes episode steered me wrong was Bull, which stars Michael Weatherly as a genius psychologist who provides jury analysis and selection services for high-end cases. So even from that description, you can see that it’s another one of those “ornery genius” shows in the same vein as House, Lie to Me, The Mentalist, and so many others that I don’t recall because I don’t watch. This show seemed extremely pointless to me because it doesn’t even win cases by legal arguments or investigating leads. In the end, it seems that Bull (yes, that’s the name of the character) intuits the answer from talking to the people in the case, reading some of the magical analysis that his firm does about the jurors, etc., and saves the day. I didn’t watch even the second episode. I predict that this show won’t last (2 out of 5).

So far, we’re off to a pretty good start. Some potentially good shows to watch. Stay tuned for the next installment when I review the returning shows in wave 1.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Movie Review

peregrins-gallery10It’s not because I loved the book (click here to read my short yet dissatisfied review) that I had high hopes for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. A movie version, directed by the very creative Tim Burton, and featuring a cast of excellent actors including one of my favourites, Eva Green, as the titular Miss Peregrine, could have overcome some of the deficiencies of the book. Unfortunately, while the concept of a secret home for a group of children with odd supernatural abilities still remains an imaginative and intriguing idea, the sensory thrill of the movie did not give the characters any more depth nor did the plot make any more sense than when they were merely on the page.

The story focuses primarily on Jake, a teenager who arrives too late to save his grandfather from being killed by an invisible monster that only he can see. Jake’s parents don’t believe the far-fetched story either, but to help him deal with his grief, Jake’s father agrees to take him to Wales to visit a special children’s home where his grandfather grew up and which featured prominently in the many stories that he told Jake as a child. Jake is disappointed when he arrives to find a bombed-out ruin. However, he’s later guided by a bizarre group of children to a magical place where the home is intact and hidden away in time.

As a director with a unique style, Burton used something of a light touch on this movie. The story itself seemed right up his alley and I expected an added dash of “peculiar” coming from him. Asa Butterfield plays Jake in what seems to be the continuation of a brief tour of misunderstood young heroes that he’s portrayed in movies such as Hugo, and Ender’s Game. The character of Jake is also part of a long line of dark-haired, gawky, young boys with a special destiny (see also Harry Potter, Charlie Bucket — of chocolate-factory fame, Ender Wiggin, and Percy Jackson, to name some of the more recently popular ones). The theme of whether he is truly “special” is one that is on Jake’s mind, but it’s not until the climactic showdown, when the children are being pursued by monsters and bad guys, that we find out that he is actually pretty special.

The rest of the story is a bit disjointed. In sunnier moments, we get to learn something about each of the charmingly “peculiar” children, whose abilities range from being lighter than air, to having a mouth in the back of your head, to having a swarm of bees living inside you, to projecting your dreams like a movie, to being able to animate the inanimate. Unfortunately, (except for a couple of teen romances) we never spend enough time with the children in order to know them beyond their peculiarities, so they stay quite flat as characters. Too much time is wasted on Jake and his family issues instead. Similarly, Eva Green gives great over-pronunciation as the serious yet loving Miss Peregrine, protector of the peculiar, but she doesn’t have much screen time and we don’t know much about her either. So the story leaves many questions not only unanswered, but unasked, and we’re just supposed to be swept along by a tale of children in peril from some monstrous creatures and people (also very poorly explained) who want to destroy them. In those less-sunny moments, Samuel L. Jackson (who also apparently hasn’t met a movie franchise that he didn’t love) hams it up as a monstrous, shape-changing villain with white eyes who commands a group of super-tall, eyeless, invisible monsters.

For some reason the original novel has been a worldwide bestseller, but I think it was pretty weak source material for a movie franchise. I’m sure it would have taken way too much effort for Burton and the others to fill in all the details needed to truly complete the story, all the while creating the kind of magical sensory experience of the movie as well. That’s too bad, because I think the extra work could have turned a 2.5-star book into a 5 star movie. Now we’re just splitting the difference (3.5 out of 5)

What I watched on TV this summer

Now that the summer is ending, and the fall tv season is around the corner, I wanted to look back at what I watched over the holidays. Though I technically watched all these shows on my TV, none of them were actually broadcast over the summer. The shows I enjoyed (The Night Manager, Black-ish, Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Get Down, and Stranger Things) were all either streamed on Netflix, or downloaded from iTunes. I almost feel bad for the broadcast networks–let’s hope they really step up their games this fall.

The Night Manager

At first I was not going to watch this BBC/AMC series, which is an adaptation of a John LeCarre novel (mainly because I had a terrible — painfully trying to stay awake for the whole thing — experience watching the Gary-Oldman-starring adaptation of LeCarre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). However, a friend told me that this series was good; and I am really starting to enjoy Tom Hiddleston (he’s replaced Daniel Craig as my new model of style and coolness — despite his tabloid-bait relationship with Taylor Swift). He plays the title character, a hotel night manager (and former soldier) who gets recruited by a government agency to infiltrate the organization of an international arms dealer (played by Hugh Laurie from House). Despite the potentially action-packed premise, the series is not full of explosions and gunplay but rather more about subtle interactions and dialogue between characters. Sometimes I really enjoy those kinds of shows, but they need to have the right blend of style and substance, which this show definitely does. The characters are nicely written and the dialogue often has a delicate cat-and-mouse feel to it, so you are never quite sure what each character knows or suspects. There are just a sprinkling of nail-biter scenes, but suspense is only one of the many things that the viewer experiences from this show. As far as style, the visuals are amazing: scenery is lovely, and the villas and hotels are a slick and luxuriant backdrop. If you ever found Hiddleston the least bit charming, this role will win you over without doubt. Even the Bond-esque opening credits where bombs and guns morph into pearls and champagne are totally winning (4.5 out of 5)

Black-ish

I know this sitcom is two years old, but I sadly never gave it much of a chance before. It first appeared the same year as Fresh Off the Boat, and while both were family comedies featuring a minority cast, I found the first episode of Black-ish a lot more difficult to relate to than FOB (since I’m of Chinese background). Fast-forward to this summer, when iTunes cleverly offered the entire second season of Black-ish as a FREE download! Since the price was right, I decided to give the show another try, and loved it. In many ways, it’s a lot like a new version of The Cosby Show — which it even acknowledges with a spot-on spoof of the Cosby opening credits. It’s also about a comfortable, middle-class black family and their day to day experiences. Anthony Anderson plays Dre Johnson, an advertising exec, and Tracee Ellis Ross plays his wife Bow, a surgeon. They have four kids, including a wonderfully precocious pair of twins. As the name of the show suggests, themes of black culture and identity play a significant part in the show, however, viewers of other ethnic backgrounds will enjoy the episodes. Considering they deal with potentially touchy topics, the scripts are really well written, smart, sensitive, and pretty funny. While the characters can be broad and cartoonish at times, they are also very well-rounded. My favourite character, hands-down, is the girl-twin Diane (played by Marsai Martin). She is smart and mature beyond her years, but also edgy and cynical (despite a cherubic cuteness) — when her mom asks her what she “loves”, her answer is “revenge” — Haha! Gotta love it. After watching season 2, I paid for season 1 and I’ve already watched both seasons twice through. It saddens me to admit that I actually like this show more than FOB, but let’s just say that now I have even more TV to enjoy — long live the family sitcom!
(4.5 out of 5)

Star Trek: The Next Generation

What would summer be without an “epic rewatch”, right? Well, this year I chose to binge through my second favourite show (I already did Friends last summer). A while back I had picked up the entire eight-season run of TNG from iTunes and I was happy to enjoy the adventures of the Enterprise crew in all its 80s glory. (For anyone who doesn’t know this show, it was the first revival of the Star Trek franchise that began in the 80s with a new crew, featuring Captain Jean-Luc Picard — played by Patrick Stewart, an android Lt. Commander Data — played by Brent Spiner, and a whole bunch of other characters as they visited many planets and had thought-provoking and exciting adventures. For many of us, it was a gateway into the universe of science fiction.) It was so much fun to revisit many of my favourite episodes. Besides that, by binge-watching, I managed to get a better feel of the continuity that ran through the series as well (even though this series came before the popularity of the continuing story arc). I was able to watch more closely as the various relationships between the characters developed, and even watched young ensign Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) grow up on board ship. One of the things that this rewatch showed me (that I hadn’t paid as much attention to before) was how great a leader Captain Picard really was. Episode after episode he had to make very challenging decisions, balancing the needs in front of him with his guiding principles and those of the Federation that he served. As portrayed by Stewart, he’s still one of the most admirable characters I have ever seen. Despite the occasional big hair or big gestures, the melodrama of planet after planet of humanoids, and characters falling in love in a matter of days, the show really does hold up. Any datedness of costume or corniness is easily overlooked (as it was when it first aired) in favour of enjoying some smart, memorable sci-fi. (5 out of 5)

Stranger Things

Speaking of 80s and sci-fi, a show that definitely snuck up on me this summer was Stranger Things. I knew little about this show before I started watching it, but by the first episode I was intrigued and totally hooked. This Netflix-original series was the talk of early-summer as everyone discovered and loved this show about a bunch of kids in the 80s (first a group of pre-teen boys; then also a group of older boys and girls). Once one of the young boys mysteriously disappears from their smallish town, things definitely start to get stranger. Other people disappear, and a mysterious young girl shows up, running away from some kind of lab facility where she’d been captive. Winona Ryder plays the mother of the missing boy who appears to be losing her mind from grief. While the story was very fresh and interesting on its own, the other amazing aspect to the show was how dead-on it reflected the 80s. From the style and the props (Was that a Trapper Keeper I saw?), all the way to the style of the narrative (I wonder if Steven Spielberg ever called up his lawyers about this show), I felt like I was actually transported back to the 80s as I watched it — and certainly in a good way. While Ryder did an admirable job losing her marbles, the revelation was definitely the kids — all previous unknowns — who stole the show. The three boys reminded me so much of my own group of D&D playing friends (or at least an idealized version of them). This show was not only a love letter to the supernatural family films of the 80s, but also a tribute to the glories of young nerd-dom — complete with two amazing bully-comeuppance scenes. This show rocks so hard and (no offense to House of Cards or Daredevil) it finally justified my Netflix subscription in my heart. (5 out of 5)

The Get Down

Lastly, Stranger Things must have given the keys to the Netflix company time machine to another totally different kind of show, The Get Down, which went back to the heyday of Disco, and the dawning of Hip-hop. When I heard that this show was going to be produced by Baz Luhrmann (of Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet fame), I knew that I wasn’t going to miss it. Now first off, let me say that I am not a huge fan of hip-hop. Nevertheless, I do acknowledge that there is a certain coolness about the culture that surrounds it. In trademark Luhrmann fashion, this story centres around a troubled pair of lovers: Zeke Figuero, an orphaned, brooding teen poet; and Mylene Cruz, a spunky minister’s daughter with an angel’s voice and dreams of a disco career. Set the pair against a tempestuous backdrop of the Bronx in the late 70s, where poverty, corruption, and ethnic tension are a social and political powder keg. However, this show is not a gritty, edgy drama, but more of a glitzy, flamboyant fable. On top of the classic story arc, I was happy to get a crash course in the fundamentals of hip-hop: from how to compose a crew, to how to mix and spin the records. Surprisingly it made me appreciate the music and subculture a whole lot more (amazing how so many world-changing art forms came from the ghettos!). Just like Stranger Things, Netflix takes a name from the 80s (in this case Jimmy Smits) and drops him into a cast of relative unknowns (I especially enjoyed Justice Smith as Zeke) and gets some really good performances from them. As usual with Luhrmann productions, they are just oozing with style, and The Get Down was no exception — especially the musical scenes, naturally. I thought the criminal scenes borrowed a bit too much from Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino (not that I don’t love both those directors, just that I wish Luhrmann created his own style of gangster), but gladly that was not the focus of the story. Nevertheless, this show is fresh and unique — I can’t think of anything else like it on TV — and very enjoyable to watch (Where else can you find a name as cool as Shaolin Fantastic?!). (4 out of 5)

Kubo and the Two Strings – Movie Review

Kubo-and-the-Two-Strings-2016

There aren’t many animation studios left, but I’m really glad that there’s Laika (who also brought us Coraline and The Boxtrolls), the kind of studio willing to put a lot of craft into their movies (they’re still committed to stop-motion animation!), and tell imaginative tales rooted in folklore and fantasy. Kubo and the Two Strings is an epic quest, framed in an Asian/Japanese tradition. Our young hero/narrator Kubo lives in a cave, where he tends to his ailing mother and where they hide from his grandfather and aunts, who stole one of Kubo’s eyes — classic folk-tale, right? During the day he is safe from his evil family, and heads into town to tell stories to earn money for food. Kubo weaves captivating tales of the samurai Hanso, his banjo playing and his magical origami bringing the story to life. Unfortunately, one evening he does not make it back to the cave before dark, and his wicked aunt appears, flying after him. Kubo only survives when his mother uses up all her magic to save him. To defeat his family, Kubo sets out on a quest to find three pieces of mystical armour, once also sought by the samurai Hanso. Along the way he meets a Monkey, and a Beetle who become his protectors.

I could go on telling the story (I don’t want to spoil too much), but it just has that kind of age-old feel to it that I love. Magic is everywhere, and they don’t need to explain why a monkey can talk, why a samurai warrior is transformed into a beetle, or why a giant skeleton comes alive to defend a magical sword, or why they can sail on a boat made of leaves. I thought it was great how the animation really brought the storytelling to life, especially all the origami bits. I was amazed that the movie was done with stop-motion animation (though I guess I wouldn’t know if there had been some CG snuck in), especially the amazing water effects, with a huge tidal wave in the opening sequence. Everything was not only spectacular, but also very carefully detailed (down to the waves softly lapping onto the beach, and the feathery fur of the Monkey).

The characters may have had folk origins, but they definitely also had a contemporary flavour, being voiced by movie stars such as Charlize Theron (as the Monkey), Ralph Fiennes (as the Moon King) and Matthew McConaughey (as the Beetle). Art Parkinson (who many may not recognize as Rickon Stark from Game of Thrones) was also really good as Kubo. I liked almost everything about this movie, except that it was too short. For such an epic quest, they really needed more time to give the adventure some scope. Kubo seemed to find the second and third pieces of armour much too easily, and everything seemed to rush towards the ending once they hit the second half. Also, with all its cultural and folkloric flavour, the actual resolution to the story seemed very “western” and a little too modern — it seemed like the kind of ending that Disney might have come up with — something that could fit on a Hallmark card. Nevertheless, it’s still something pretty fresh and a pleasure to watch, that I would recommend to young and not-as-young alike. (4 out of 5)

Jason Bourne – Movie Review

I realize that I wanted this new Bourne movie, but now I wish that they’d left the franchise alone. With Matt Damon back to reprise the role, and director Paul Greengrass returning too, I expected a wonderful return to form (helping us fans forget about the detour into Aaron Cross/Jeremy Renner territory). At first, things were looking pretty good. Nicky Parsons (played by Julia Stiles) was back, hacking her way into trouble. Poor Jason Bourne was just trying to stay off the grid, preferring a Batman Begins style foray into bare-knuckle fighting, but Nicky dragged him back into the CIA’s cross-hairs. What followed was classic Bourne: a scene set in a European crowd, with Bourne helping Nicky escape while being chased on a motorcycle. I was so pumped! But as the rest of the movie played out, the story-line, villains, and action all felt sub-par and “phoned-in”.

Apparently this all kicks off because Nicky hacks some files about all the CIA’s black-ops projects (Yes, those same darned projects with names like “Treadstone”, and “Blackbriar”). Since everything always points to Jason Bourne, the CIA come after him in order to make sure that he doesn’t leak all the classified info and ruin everything. Current It-Girl, Alicia Vikander (with an indeterminate, maybe Irish, accent) as Heather Lee, and Tommy Lee Jones as CIA director Dewey (whose character represents the mythical “old guard” who are so entrenched that they will do anything to maintain their own power) target all their efforts on Bourne. They also bring in “the asset” (played by Vincent Cassel), an assassin who blames Bourne for having previously exposed the black ops and gotten him held captive for years. To this already uninspired setup, the filmmakers add a tech billionaire (a la Mark Zuckerberg), who’s in cahoots with the CIA’s baddies–I guess it was meant to make the storyline relevant and current. Finally, the cherry on top is that somewhere in the hacked files, is information about Bourne’s father, and whether he was secretly complicit in recruiting and training his son to be a killer.

The rest of the movie unfolds pretty much as expected, as Bourne tries to find out the truth and the CIA try to capture him. It all seems not only repetitive, but like a faint echo of previous Bourne movies. What’s worse is that the bad-guys are so obviously evil. The Asset is supposed to be a former agent, but he kills other agents without a second glance and clearly no remorse, just to get at Bourne (Where’s Clive Owen when you need him?). At one point he accuses Bourne of being a traitor to his country, which was such an odd thing for me to hear. Given that he seems to be French, why is he so bothered by thinking that Bourne is un-American? Tommy Lee Jones’s Director Dewey is even worse. He is also willing to kill any number of his own agents to get what he wants (which is apparently some kind of end-all-privacy surveillance program). His evil is so blatant and his defeat so obviously-deserved that it’s cartoonish and tedious.

Now all this may have been redeemed if the action had been good. One of the things that have made Bourne an action star are his clever and innovative ways of dispatching the bad guys (my favourite is still the magazines and textbooks). The fight choreography is frenetic and flawless. Sadly, this time there were no magazines or anything special used to fight. When the film ended up in Las Vegas, and the showdown with the Asset took them both to a garbage-filled underpass, my heart sank. When two CIA black-ops trained killers are reduced to B-movie fist fighting I find myself wondering whether Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne was truly needed for this. Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross would have been fine (while we’re at it, I think even Jason Statham’s The Transporter could have done just as well (and even given you a lift to wherever you needed to go!)).

The Bourne series was such a polished and innovative take on the action hero genre that I really came to enjoy all the pieces that made it so special. It was like each film would take its standard elements, rejig, and improve upon them. I was really hoping that was going to happen this time too. I don’t know if it’s bad that I feel so invested in this franchise. In the end, I was so disappointed in this instalment that it felt somewhat gratifying when a new, rougher version of the Bourne theme music (Moby’s Extreme Ways) — one that I did not like as much — played over the credits. (3.5 out of 5)

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