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)

2016 Fall TV Preview

Well, now that the TV season has ended, it’s time to enjoy the summer. But before we all head outside into the sun (Yah, right!), we can take a quick glimpse at what’s coming in the fall (and winter) to network TV. Granted, the sands of television are definitely shifting away from the networks towards streaming and cable. Also, I was fiercely unimpressed by this past season’s new shows. Unfortunately, I can’t say that next fall seems to offer much hope of change. Like in the movie industry, we seem to be suffering from a lack of creativity and innovation. Remakes and reboots continue to grow like weeds. Plus, there are a surprising number of TV series built on premises that would only make sense for a feature-length movie rather than an entire season (it’s like they don’t expect the show to last!).

Here are some links for you to decide for yourself:
Fox | ABC | NBC | CBS | The CW

prisonbreakcdnsf-700x400So let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. There are action-show reboots coming, including an extension of Prison Break, with the return of many characters; a reboot of 24, with completely new characters — Jack Bauer is gone, but the terrorists just keep coming after CTU. MacGyver is back as a reboot, casting Lucas Till as a young Mac. However, the one reboot that I would trade for all the other new shows combined is the new Star Trek series — it better be good, CBS!

exorcistOn top of rebooting past shows, a number of movie reboots are coming to the small screen, but I don’t think that either The Exorcist (despite casting Geena Davis), nor Lethal Weapon (casting Damon Wayans as the straight-man, seriously?) really seem to have legs as TV series.

fox-star-season-one-posterAlong with movie remakes, we are also going to get a lot of shows that seem like they should have been movies. Perhaps they couldn’t get made as features, but on tv I fear they will run out their concepts very quickly. Pitch is about the fictional struggles of the first female pitcher in the Majors. Shots Fired is about the racially-charged fallout from when a black cop kills a white kid. Finally, Star features Queen Latifah as a kind of godmother to a couple of hard-luck girls who are determined to make it as pop stars.

Another surprising theme this year is time-travel. There were already a number of time-themed shows in past seasons (e.g. 12 Monkeys, Continuum, Minority Report etc.) but now it seems like the every network is jumping on board. Fox looks the most promising, with a midseason comedy Making History, which starts Adam Pally as a guy who uses a time-travelling duffel bag to go back to the 18th century. Time After Time has a young, good-looking Jack the Ripper chased into the present day by a young, good-looking HG Wells. The premise seems like a ridiculous excuse for another show featuring young, good-looking characters–ABC just wants to steal some of The CW’s audience. On NBC, Timeless is a bit less clear: a crew of three go back in time to stop another time-traveller from causing the Hindenberg disaster. Since that disaster did happen, I’m not sure why they are going back, but whatever. CBS doesn’t have a time-travel show, but its sister network The CW has one that checks off two boxes. Frequency, is not only a series about how a detective discovers the ability to talk to her father in the past using a ham radio (and thus creates all kinds of causality paradoxes), but it’s also a remake of the Dennis Quaid/Jim Caviezel movie of the same name and premise. Since time travel is another one of those science-fiction concepts that are cheap to film, studios are happy to make use of it. I guess this year will put to test just how much depth that concept really has.

Son-Of-ZornSo which shows actually caught my eye? I’m glad you asked. I am not a fan of the spy-spoof series Archer. However, on Fox’s Son of Zorn, the idea of a Conan/He-Man style animated warlord working and living in suburban US seems to be a great send-up of both the sitcom and epic-fantasy genres. ABC’s American Housewife looks pretty funny. The show’s a spiritual descendent of Roseanne, and a child of Mike & Molly — featuring Katy Mixon, who played Molly’s younger sister, in the lead. Rounding out a rather meager selection of shows that I’m excited for is APB, about a police precinct that jumps to the leading edge once a tech mogul decides to invest millions of dollars in new gadgetry to help them solve the murder of his friend (again, kind of a movie premise, but may have potential to last).

If the fall tv slate is really as mediocre as it seems from these previews, I guess I’ll have a lot more viewing hours to spend on other stuff. Maybe I could watch some new cable shows or catch up on the many Marvel TV shows coming to Netflix. Who knows? This might be the season that wakes up the major networks to how they can’t be lazy anymore. A network TV renaissance might be just around the corner. But until then, we’ve got another ho-hum season to sit through (Man, I miss my lawyer shows!).

Captain America: Civil War – Movie Review

cap3civilwar

So the summer blockbuster season has officially begun! Civil War really kicks the Marvel super-hero franchise up a notch by bringing together most of the characters introduced in previous movies, along with a few new ones. Enough kids have finally arrived at the playground for us to stop playing catch and start a decent baseball game. Doesn’t it seem like the only reason for introducing these characters on the big screen (characters that we have grown up imagining and reading in comics) was to show how well we can make them fight?

Knowing that “Civil War” meant head-to-head heroes, I went into this movie watching for that spark that would cause the good guys to split into teams. A savvy viewer would be looking for some kind of mind-control (that’s the typical route). With the Winter Soldier (Captain America’s former friend Bucky, thought dead during WW2, since reawakened as an assassin programmed by evil men) being introduced in the previous Captain America movie, he was definitely the best candidate to light the fire. However, I guess the writers thought they needed some more fuel and added the idea of the Sokovia Accords — laws which put the Avengers under the authority of a UN task force. Unfortunately, I think one of the big problems with super-hero movies is that they sometimes try to come at things from a realistic point of view and tackle the consequences of the events and actions taken. For the X-Men movies, that is almost always about bigotry and how the world hates them because they’re different. For the Avengers, it’s always about collateral damage.

It frustrates me because I think it takes away from the enjoyment of a super-hero story to begin with. We understand that there were probably innocent people in the buildings that were destroyed in their battles, but if we focused on that, we’d basically be watching disaster movies. We don’t need another US senator showing footage of the damage and making our heroes feel guilty. It’s such a downer. That’s clear from the scenes in this movie where the heroes debate whether or not to sign the Accords. The movie comes to a grinding halt. If we really wanted to go down that path, almost any of these heroes on their own could cause newsworthy damage, and powerful ones like the Hulk, Thor, or even Vision, would single-handedly be unstoppable to normal armed forces. That’s why it’s more fun to pit them against super-villains. It evens the playing field. If they wanted to deal with human-sized consequences, they should have reduced the power-level of the characters (Can everyone run as fast as a car or survive repeated gunshot wounds?). Then, maybe it would be more worthwhile to talk about consequences. (Anyway, enough of that rant.)

Though the Accords were meant to be the source of conflict, most of the movie was more about chasing after the Winter Soldier. In an interesting turn, what you think the heroes are trying to stop (the big evil plot) goes down a bit of a psychological path instead. It was a clever twist, but also seemed a bit contrived because I think that if the intent all along was to mess with the Avengers’ minds, this plan was highly inefficient and full of overkill. Nevertheless, it was great fun to watch hero battle hero (though unfortunately we are still mostly limited to titanic fisticuffs). Another part of the fun was just the introduction of so many new and returning characters, including Scott Lang’s Ant-Man, T’Challa the Black Panther, and (now that the studio licencing has been settled) Peter Parker, our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. Tom Holland is great as the new Parker. He’s got the hyperactive kid genius down pat. It’s also a riot how they made Parker’s Aunt May hot in this version. Played by Marisa Tomei, she even catches the flirtatious eye of Tony Stark (Take that, Oscar-winner Sally Field!). The new characters brought with them a lot of hilarous banter, which added even more energy and fun to this otherwise heavier movie.

Obviously the spectacular stunts and well-choreographed action made for a thrilling movie, but I feel like the pace was a bit disjointed, with a number of stops and starts. Also, the tone really jumps from light-hearted to deadly-serious at the drop of a hat. Frankly, I don’t know how long Marvel Studios can keep telling these stories — many of us already feel the strain of thematic fatigue. If the collateral damage of fighting the good fight breeds so many victims needing vengeance, then I think there is fodder for a lot more of these stories. However, I hope that we’ll be able to move on next time. The featuring of Spider-Man in this film (and in the post-end-credit scene) bodes well for the future of super-hero movies. Maybe he can make saving the world fun again. (4 out of 5)

Seven Summer Movie Sequels 2016

Wow, it’s been a while since I made it out to the movie theatre! But now that we’re all gearing up for summer blockbuster season, I thought I’d pick out seven sequels that I’m looking forward to seeing. I know it’s a little sad that summer movie season is made up of so many sequels, but I guess that’s how Hollywood keeps itself in the billions — and it gives me some great alliteration for my title.

teamCapmovie-1024x576

Captain America: Civil War (6 May 2016)

Check the trailer

After the false start that was Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I guess this is the movie that is meant to kick off the summer blockbuster season. I confess that I am starting to lose track of what all these superhero movies are actually about, but they’re fun to look at. Of the recent bunch, I think I did enjoy Captain America: Winter Soldier quite a bit. It was more down-to-earth than the Avengers movies, and I’m finally getting used to Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson (both of whom I enjoy as actors, but I also feel were miscast into the roles of Captain America and the Black Widow). Apparently, in this movie some kind of political situation (the super-heroes are checking their consciences) causes the Avengers to split into sides (Captain America on one, Iron Man on the other). I never read the comic book storyline that this movie is based on, but I’m guessing it’s going to be another excuse to have hero fighting hero, to play out many “who would win” scenarios that are the stuff of childhood daydreams.

xmen apocalpyse-2

X-Men: Apocalypse (27 May 2016)

Check the trailer

The X-Men have always been my favourite comic-book super-team, but it was mostly because they had such a great variety of members with some of the coolest abilities and backstories. I can’t say I’m very happy about how the rebooted series (starting from X-Men: First Class) has put side-characters like Mystique and Magneto into the spotlight, while shoving most of the classic X-Men to the fringes, but I guess maybe they are a good way to make mass-appeal stories. Apocalypse will probably continue that revisionist approach (they’ve already apparently changed who the “four horsemen” are, and it looks like they’ve kind of ruined my favourite X-Man, Storm, but whatever) and I don’t think that the Apocalypse character will be much like the comic-book one either. The story here is that the X-Men must defeat the ancient mutant known as Apocalypse, who has some dire plans for the world, I’m sure. Purists have pretty much given up their beliefs by going to comic book movies. We probably just want to see how cool they can make characters look on screen. For once I’d love it if they’d make two versions of these movies: one which serves the general viewer, and one for the fans — I’d pay for that digital download!

 now-you-see-me-2-e1458141262573

Now You See Me 2 (10 June 2016)

Check the trailer

I know that people didn’t love the first one, but I really did enjoy Now You See Me. I thought it was slick, clever, and fun, and I liked the cast, the one-upmanship, and the cat-and-mouse game. From the trailer, I can see that they’ve tried to recapture some of that, as well as turn the tables on the main characters as they have lost the upper hand since the previous movie. I’m glad that Jesse Eisenberg is back in his wheelhouse as a cocky wise-cracker; and Dave Franco takes up any slack in that department as well. I am far less excited that they’ve replaced Isla Fisher with Lizzy Caplan. She is probably a better actress, but Fisher was a nicer fit for the team, I think. However, the cherry on top of the casting cake is that this movie about magicians has cast none other than Harry Potter (aka actor Daniel Radcliffe) as their patron. I hope there will be a few tongue-in-cheek Potter references thrown into the mix.

Finding-Dory-Poster

Finding Dory (17 June 2016)

Check the trailer

I’m really looking forward to this sequel, not only because Pixar has kind of misfired a bit lately, but also because Finding Nemo was definitely one of my favourites. It’s wonderful that Ellen Degeneres is back as the memory-challenged fish who (after helping reunite father and son clown-fish in the first movie) is now on a quest for her own family reunion. Like most sequels, I think they’re going to try to bring back as many characters from the original as they can reasonably do, plus introduce a few new ones (the camouflaging octopus looks like fun). While I don’t expect this to be as good as the first, I predict it will be really enjoyable and the family hit of the summer.

independence-day-film-header-v4-front-main-stage

Independence Day: Resurgence (3 July 2016)

Check the trailer

This movie is kind of the sequel that no one asked for. ID4 was one of the first big, summer tent-pole blockbusters 20 years ago, so I guess it’s appropriate that its scion be counted as one now. Just like Jurassic World did last year, this movie does its best to acknowledge and pay homage to the original, bringing back some of the actors/characters (including Bill Pulman and Jeff Goldblum), and making some of new characters sons of some of the characters from the first as well (including Will Smith’s). Apparently, humanity also got pretty good at reverse-engineering alien tech because what they’ve got in the movie trailer sure doesn’t look like what we’ve got today. Apparently, the aliens are back with even better stuff, so once again humanity is in dire straits. Hopefully this movie will find its place among the many recent revival movies/shows on the good side of the curve. I do enjoy a good alien invasion battle movie.

star-trek-beyond-hd

Star Trek Beyond (22 July 2016)

Check the trailer

While Star Trek is my favourite sci-fi franchise, I admit that the JJ Abrams reboot movies don’t really feel very Star-Trek-y to me. Now that the directing reins have been handed over to Justin Lin, let’s see if he hews more closely to the spirit of the series. From the trailer, I really have no idea what this movie is about, but it looks like it will sparkle as well as all the others do. I’m glad that all the new crew are back. I like Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and Karl Urban as a stolid-yet-humorous Bones. I also like that they appear to be featuring Scotty (played by the always funny Simon Pegg) a bit more. They’ve got Idris Alba playing some kind of alien villain. I’m not sure if it’s going to matter in the end. I have a feeling he won’t become of the classic Trek baddies — people will probably only dress as him at conventions to test everyone’s trivia knowledge. I don’t know if the movie franchise will continue (especially now that a new TV series is on the way). Though I always think there’s room for more sci-fi on the big screen, I don’t know that I’d be sad to see these movies fade out.

jason-bourne-2016-trailer-banner-matt-damon

Jason Bourne (29 July 2016)

Check the trailer

When I heard that they were going to make this sequel with Matt Damon (rather than continue the franchise with Jeremy Renner) I was so relieved. Even better that they’ve got director Paul Greengrass back, who made the franchise as amazing as it was. Now that Jason Bourne has got his memories back, I’m not quite sure what the story of this movie will be about (though, as Julia Stiles character points out in the trailer, remembering is not the same as understanding). Although I didn’t see it in the trailer, I’m also hoping that there will be some off-the-hook fight scenes where Bourne will again show his super-human assassin skills in some very inventive ways. I am excited for this one and I hope it does not disappoint.

While sequels have become a box-office staple, the blockbuster-revival is a bit of a new phenomenon. The fact that so few of these have plots that can be summarized or teased in trailers does not bode well. So far, I think the successes have been mixed, but I look forward to seeing how we do this summer. If they work, I guess we’ve got ourselves a few more fun movies, but if they don’t, I hope there will be some lessons-learned so they can get back to making cool original stuff that might even be revivals twenty years from now.

Oscar Schmoscar 2016

I’m really cutting it down to the wire this year (since the Oscars are tomorrow) to give my two little cents on some of the nominated movies. As usual, please don’t expect me to predict the winners or have some Oscar-calibre comments. I started this series of annual posts when I didn’t really care about the Oscar nominees and this year seems to be a mixed bag (in my opinion), and I still don’t care too much (definitely don’t have a lot of nominees that I’m rooting for, but I wanted to see a few so that I have some skin in the game, at least). Here’s what I think about the few that I’ve watched but not previously reviewed:

spotlight

Spotlight

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing

Though I hadn’t heard of this movie before its nomination, I am a huge fan of nominated director Tom McCarthy. This movie is a bit different from his usual focus on somewhat ordinary people and their relationships. However, this movie about the investigative reporting team at the Boston Globe who broke the story of Catholic priests molesting children and the coverup throughout the Catholic clergy still portrays the reporters as real-life, ordinary people. I appreciated the nominated performances of Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams (I always love watching Rachel McAdams). I liked how this movie steered away from the tendency of these kinds of movies to make everything seem so “insider” (like we shouldn’t understand the stakes or the emotions involved if we aren’t ourselves investigative journalists). I found this entire movie very relatable and down-to-earth, despite slightly extraordinary events.

stevejobs1c32a

Steve Jobs

Nominated for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress

While Michael Fassbender did pretty well in his nominated role as the late Apple CEO, I can see why the movie was not a best picture nominee. It’s basically a series of vignettes staged before each of several major product launch presentations given by Jobs. Backstage before these keynotes, we are given certain scenes of Jobs talking to his colleagues and underlings, as well as his daughter and her mother. I’d be surprised if these events truly played out in the way the movie shows. The scenes feel pretty stagey and contrived. I don’t think they were meant to give a very full picture of Jobs, but maybe only to capture certain aspects of him (and definitely not those aspects that make me actually like him). I kept waiting for some kind of plot arc, and when I realized that there wasn’t going to be any, I felt kind of let down — I guess the same lack of plot was there in director Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, but I didn’t really feel it that time. I think Fassbender did a pretty good job with the scenes and portraying Jobs with a kind of clever arrogance that we might expect, however, I never once felt that this was the same man that I kind of knew from the Apple keynotes. It felt very much like a character, rather than the real Steve Jobs.

shaunHIGH225700_883356

Shaun the Sheep: The Movie

Nominated for Best Animated Feature

Like Pixar, Aardman Studioes gets nominated for most of their animated features, however, I feel this one was quite inferior to previous nominees like Chicken Run or Wallace & Grommit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Animation was just as good, but lacked a few of the crazy spectacle scenes similar to those other movies. As for actual story, I felt that Shaun the Sheep was ridiculous (and not in a good way). I wish this story of sheepy misadventures could have stayed on the farm, where sheep act like sheep (although exceedingly clever ones able to dupe the farmers — I love it when they all line up to jump over fences as the farmer is counting them in order to make him fall asleep — so meta!) rather than going into the city and starting to act like people. I hated the fact that the humans were so unbelievably thick that once the sheep could walk upright and wear human clothes, they became indistinguishable from humans — not being detected as imposters even without the ability to show their faces or speak! Ridiculous! To me this movie was a waste of some pretty good stop-motion animation.

sanjay's super team

Sanjay’s Super Team

Nominated for Best Animated Short

This short movie (which showed before airings of The Good Dinosaur) was not bad — excellent Pixar animation as expected — but it wasn’t anything super-imaginative or lyrical. Some of these Pixar shorts are wonderfully inventive stories of their own, but this one (about a child who imagines his Hindu deities as something akin to comic book characters) seemed like a brief scene from The Incredibles or any number of super-hero cartoons.It was wonderful that this movie represents some true cultural diversity, since it is firmly rooted in a kid’s Hindu-based daydreams. However, it’s simply over too quick, with very little to say for itself.

martian113830146

The Martian

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design

Though it was kind of like a cross between the movies Gravity and Castaway, this realistic movie about an astronaut left to fend for himself on the surface of Mars was quite enjoyable. Matt Damon made a believable astronaut-scientist and even though it might seem too hard to accept that he’d really have been able to pull it off, Damon’s character makes you want to root for him and overlook some of the incredible stuff. I’m not exactly sure what warranted a nomination for production design — usually that goes to period films with lots of sumptuous and elegant backdrops. In this case, would it be the uniforms and the design of the Martian base? Or maybe it was for some of the computer interfaces or the space vehicles. In any case, if it was about how convincing everything looked, then I think they should win. It felt very real — I even kind of forget once in a while that this is not depicting an actual story, but fiction. I could easily see this as something from the near future (or alternate present), and I think that can be a credit to the production design. As far as best picture goes, I thought that it was a well-paced story and didn’t go over-the-top in an attempt to be thrilling. Also, the script deserves to be nominated for a light touch both in terms of melodrama as well as staying focused on the storytelling rather than bashing us over the head with technical jargon.

Midseason TV 2016 – Plenty of Sci-fi & Fantasy

This is a pretty big year for mid-season sci-fi/fantasy shows. We already had the debut of The Expanse, but there are a bunch more new genre shows that run the gamut from glossy comic-book super-heroes, to Anglo-Saxon legends. Many of them are adaptations of successful books. While I can’t say that any of them stand out to me already as huge hits, many of them deserve a chance to make their mark.

LOT_Review_01DC’s Legends of Tomorrow

This spin-off from hit super-hero shows The Flash, and Arrow is one that I’ve been looking forward to ever since it was announced. While we’ve got Netflix to provide me with the down-to-earth Marvel Comics super-hero dramas like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, the DC Comics shows seem to be getting brighter and more colourful with each spin-off. This show brings back a collection of guest-starring heroes and villains and puts them together on a super-team. Led by Rip Hunter, a rogue time-master played by Arthur Darvill of Doctor Who fame, their team travels in a time ship in an effort to defeat an immortal super-villain known as Vandal Savage. So far they’ve got that rag-tag requisite bickering and rocky-relationship banter down pretty well. Plus there’s the added joy of making fun of the past (in the second half of the pilot, Firestorm’s Professor Stein visits his younger self in the 70s when this uptight astro-physicist was a lot looser and groovier). I don’t anticipate too many heavy themes coming out of this show, but so far it’s a fun bit of escapism.

Shadowhunters

In contrast, this series is a redo of a movie, based on a successful book series, that I wasn’t so much anticipating (at least not until I found out that I knew someone with a guest role on the show). Clary Fray (now recast as someone whose hair seems way too red to be natural) is a teenage girl whose life turns upside-down when her mother is kidnapped. She is suddenly introduced to the hidden world-in-our-midst, full of demons, vampires, fairy, and shadowhunters (half-human, half-angel protectors of humanity). The shadowhunters she meets try to help her get her mother back as well as protect her from the baddies who want Clary because they believe she has a powerful artifact known as the Mortal Cup (I know, it sounds like a sports trophy!). While the movie wasn’t terrible, this show isn’t terrible either, but we aren’t really treading new ground that The Vampire Diaries hadn’t explored with a subtler touch. It’s definitely written for the teen set, but I’ll keep watching it until I see my friend’s episodes, or I get tired of listening to pretty kids speaking shallow dialogue.

x-files2016The X-Files

The new season of the 90s hit sci-fi/horror series about two FBI agents investigating the paranormal made a welcome return to TV for a show that I didn’t know that I’d missed. The first episode is almost like a concentrated retread of past “mythology” arcs where Agent Fox Mulder is led to believe that there is a human conspiracy behind a lot of the paranormal and extra-terrestrial events that they’ve been investigating. I have to say that as great as it was to see all this stuff again (especially Agent Scully, who has aged well), it felt a bit too familiar and seemed like the same old song and dance. The second episode was better, dealing with the mysterious deaths of people connected to some kind of medical experiments. I had always liked the standalone episodes of The X-Files more than the mythology ones because they were easier to understand. Hopefully we will be able to enjoy some fresh adventures with the two agents before being sucked back into the complicated conspiracies, etc.

colony-01Colony

For a show about life under the oppressive rule of an alien invasion, this show was actually pretty interesting and enjoyable. There’s not a lot of information given about the background as the story starts post-invasion within a contemporary LA, controlled by a human force on behalf of the extra-terrestrial overlords. Josh Holloway from Lost plays a father who got separated from one of his sons during the invasion, who now goes to work as a rebel-hunter for the occupational government in exchange for getting his son back. Since we haven’t seen or heard much of the aliens aside from seeing their robotic flying drones, it’s mostly the kind of story that could be told in any occupied military zone (such as the Warsaw Ghetto of 1940). There are a lot of tense dramatic scenes when people break curfew or try to steal supplies and resources. Of course the big source of drama comes from the fact that Holloway’s character doesn’t realize that his wife is one of the rebels that he’s hunting. As much as I don’t love feeling constantly tense while watching TV, this series does a pretty good job of keeping it from being too oppressive. Let’s hope it turns out better than the recent revival of the series V.

shannara1453094557_2The Shannara Chronicles

Another fantasy book adaptation aimed at the teen set, this series is produced for MTV and brings to screen the Terry Brooks Shannara series of novels. While these books have a huge fan base, I have never read them so I (thankfully) have not expectations to disappoint. Again we have some pretty, young characters, including a half-elf who has a magical lineage and destiny, an elf princess who has a mission to save all people by saving a magical tree, and a human thief who gets tangled up in their mission. This world is supposed to be our world but millennia in the future after our civilizations have long vanished. Now the elves rule, and at the heart of their civilization is a magical tree called the Ellcrys, which is dying because a demon army is returning to life. This show reminds me of a cancelled fantasy series called Legend of the Seeker, which was also an adaptation of a book series. Unlike Game of Thrones, which paved the way for TV adaptations of fantasy books, neither Seeker nor Shannara are heavy on the humanity and the depth of character. They are more interested in the adventure and melodrama (Shannara is clearly setting up a teen-baiting love triangle). The sets and scenery look pretty good, but it’s taking me some time to care anything about the fate of its main characters — perhaps because they seem so young and naive. I’m hoping that the larger story will soon take over so that I can place my interest there instead.

luciferLucifer

This is another comic book adaptation, but (though I have not read the comic) I don’t think the show stays very close to its source material. Essentially the premise is that Lucifer, the Devil, is tired of ruling Hell and decides to hang out on Earth with the Vegas party people up here. In the first episode, when a Hollywood starlet that he helped gets gunned down next to him, he puts his devilish powers to work with the police to solve her murder. He partners up with a loner detective who is still a bit suspicious of who this guy claims to be, but he has a way of charming his way in, so they have a tentative alliance. So far it seems that this show all hinges on how much viewers will enjoy the charms of Tom Ellis, the actor who plays Lucifer. The story so far was nothing special, so Ellis really did carry things on charisma alone, and it wasn’t bad. I don’t know whether I’d keep tuning in week after week if nothing more developed, but I guess we’ll see. Another element is the recurring appearance of DB Woodside as Lucifer’s angelic brother. His character is downright humourless (all the better to contrast Lucifer’s whimsy) and is repeatedly demanding that Lucifer restore balance by returning to Hell. I don’t know if this will grow into a bigger story arc, but right now it seems to just act as a little reminder to viewers that we are talking about angelic beings here. Whatever.

Beowulf-Return-To-The-ShieldlandsBeowulf: Return to the Shieldlands

This series could be considered an adaptation as well, based on the Anglo-Saxon epic poem of “Beowulf”, however, I think this one is also sticking pretty loosely to the source. Lead character Beowulf is an orphaned warrior, living in a land of warlords and monsters. I was surprised by the magnificent scenery in the pilot episode as well as the impressive buildings and costumes. Add to that some decent CGI monsters and you’ve almost got a good epic adventure show. The story line has become a bit more modern as the orphan Beowulf has some issues with his foster father Hrothgar and his foster brother Slean. Since anyone remotely familiar with the story of Beowulf would be expecting his nemesis, the monster Grendel, to appear, I think they’ve brought the creature into the story as a mysterious monster who kills one of Hrothgar’s men (and Beowulf gets the blame from Slean when he discovers the body). The show looks pretty good, but it could definitely use a better script. Also, the problem with these kinds of epics is that they are short on detail and context, so the writers have had to make up a lot of side-characters and filler stories. Those will have to work really hard to be as interesting as the central, classic tale.

magicialns-socialThe Magicians

Finally, this is one more book adaptation, created from the hit novel of the same name by author Lev Grossman (who is also involved in the TV adaptation). I’ve read the book (and did not love it), but the show seems to do a lot better job of bringing these characters and situations to life. The other thing that I like about the show is that the ennui of the main characters is not so excruciating as it is to read. Anyway, the story is often described as “Harry Potter goes to college” or in this case, grad school. It focuses on a group of students at the mysterious Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Though similarly set up around characters going to magic school, this story is a lot less fun and deals a lot more with the character interactions and how their exploration of magic affects their personalities. I think the show is very well done. There’s a critical scene in the first episode where the students are paralyzed and attacked by a magical being in their classroom and while I remember well this scene from the book, seeing it was a much more engaging experience. Bottom line is that I love it when they do magic on screen and I’m looking forward to some of the other parts of the book that I think will be very interesting to watch as well.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Movie Review

Star-Wars-Force-Awakens-Rey-Finn-BB8-runningFinally, I’ve gone to watch The Force Awakens. I know, judging by the nature of this blog, you’d have thought that I’d have been first in line, bright and early on opening day. What can I tell you? The Force Pushes “Snooze” and Rolls Over For a Bit, OK? Anyway, now that I’ve seen the most anticipated movie of the year, I have to say that it kind of lives up. It’s a lot of fun, non-stop action and it feels true to the spirit of the original trilogy — a plucky band of misfits save the galaxy from the evil empire.

star-wars-the-force-awakens-storm-troopersIn fact, there are clearly a lot of parallels between this movie and the original Star Wars. Kylo Ren (the black-clad force-baddie with the cool cross-shaped light-sabre) is the new Darth Vader (complete with new daddy-issues). The desert planet of Jakku is the new Tatooine, complete with new protagonist Rey (she’s like a cross between Luke Skywalker — with his jedi-potential and way with the droids — and Princess Leia — with her feminine spunk and greater destiny). Finn is the new Han Solo (he gets most of the funny lines, along with the real Han Solo, of course), and BB-8 is the new R2-D2 (who gets all the funny “beeps” and the good “boops”, just like R2 used to get). The First Order is the new Empire (complete with its new, much-bigger Death Star, a.k.a. Starkiller Base, better looking storm-troopers, and its new Emperor, a.k.a. Supreme Leader). Of course we have X-Wing vs. Tie dog-fights and canyon runs, as well as a brand new creature cantina (thankfully sans Hutt). Having all these reincarnated elements (and original-cast cameos) rather than a completely different angle, kind of makes The Force Awakens feel like the most amazing fan-film ever made. That’s a good thing. It’s like a reboot without starting over.

20141128-star-wars-force-awakens-screenshots-hr-009The new cast are good. I really enjoyed Jon Boyega as Finn. He’s so energetic and it’s clear that his character has a good heart. It was not difficult to want to root for his character at all. He was also very convincing as this kind of average guy who became extraordinary simply because of the choices he made. Plus, he was funny just by being frank and reacting like a regular guy. Daisy Ridley (who plays junk scavenger, Rey) looks like she could have been actress Keira Knightley’s younger, more-energetic sister (maybe Rey is the grand-daughter of Queen Amidala’s handmaid Sabe, who had a family and life of her own on Jakku. Fan-fic writers, go!). Rey is a character true to the Star Wars legacy of damsels-in-distress who rescue themselves. Finally, Kylo Ren is a much more flawed dark-side villain than the others. He actually has a temper (which they all should have had, because I thought that anger was the key to the dark side) and he has a lot of emotional struggles (though he still can force-throttle an underling like no one’s business but Darth’s). I think one of the things a bit lacking from this installment of the franchise is that the villain is not powerful enough. Despite the literally gigantic presence of the Supreme Leader (who is presumably the ultimate First Order villain), if Kylo Ren is one of the Order’s big bosses, it didn’t take much to take him down. So now I’m not sure what’s going to keep us going for the rest of the new trilogy. Ren also did not fulfill the coolness factor that both Boba Fett and Darth Maul did in the other two trilogies. We need a new bad-ass and he was not it.

forceawakens4-xlargeNevertheless, I thought that The Force Awakens was a really fun movie to watch. It gave so many familiar elements a new coat of paint, and it was great to see some of the original cast in some meaty cameos. I’m hoping that now that they’ve established a launching point to move on with the series, they can actually do something new next time, but in the mean time this movie deserves a 4.5 out of 5.

%d bloggers like this: