Avengers: Infinity War – Movie Review

Now that I’ve finally seen it, I am happy to say that Avengers: Infinity War pays off as the climax to a decade of movies that have built up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s been jokes made (by the actors themselves) about how bringing together so many stars and characters should render them each with trivial parts, but on the contrary, the movie actually gives most characters significant screen time and meaningful scenes (though some, like Black Widow and Winter Soldier, only show up for the action scenes). As well, there’s lots of good dialogue (especially lots of great one-liners — not just from Rocket Raccoon or Drax, either). So, to close off 10 years of stories, Marvel brings together the Avengers with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and recent additions like Dr. Strange, Spider-man, and Black Panther, all to stop the mad Titan Thanos (who has already appeared in several post-credit scenes) from bringing together six all-powerful cosmic artifacts known as the “Infinity Stones” and becoming a death-dealing god. It’s a relatively straightforward plot line, so there’s room for a lot of fun and action.

One of the best parts of a super-hero cross-over story is when characters who don’t normally interact, end up forming some interesting temporary teams. This device always brings out some fun, new dynamics. It was delightful to see Starlord Peter Quill get all insecure when everyone else in the crew could barely contain their admiration for Thor. As you might expect, sparks fly when two egotistical alpha males like Tony Stark and Stephen Strange begrudgingly team up. There’s even a kind of warrior sisterhood forged between Wakanda’s Okoye, Black Widow, and Scarlet Witch when they face armies of baddies together. Only after investing in all the precursor movies could these new combinations have even been possible — score one for Marvel Studios.

The other major aspect to super-hero cross-overs (or even any super-team stories) in the comic books is the coordinated attack. I don’t know if it’s because of the constraints of the visual effects budgets, the lack of variety of super-powers, or simply deficiency of imagination, but so far the top super-team battles (Captain America: Civil War was probably the best so far) have been only mediocre from this perspective. They mostly find new ways to punch and kick each other, in teams. This time, when they face a big bad behemoth like Thanos (the guy’s like 10 feet tall!) or even his pretty bad minions (who aren’t really named in the movie but are known as The Black Order), the supers have to cooperate and use their powers in new and interesting ways. (As a Dr. Strange fan, I was gleeful to see a classic spell known as the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak used to bind Thanos while Spidey blocked his eyes with webbing and allowed the others to gang up on him.)

MCU has already made a reputation for doing some pretty good action sequences and this movie has these scenes in spades. From New York City, to Edinburgh, to Wakanda, to alien planets, battle after battle was awesome to watch. I know a lot of it was CGI, but it didn’t really feel like it. Even Thanos, who was all CGI over motion-capture, was really lifelike — especially his face and his expressions, which were actually more soulful than what I’ve seen from the real face of actor Josh Brolin, who plays him.

I don’t want to spoil, so I’ve been careful to avoid any real plot points here, but there’s a lot of big things happening in this movie. I even impressed myself by staying in my seat for the entire 160 minute run — there’s not a good time to leave. I think this is a landmark movie simply because Marvel Studios was able to bring together ten years of almost 20 movies into a thrilling quasi-finale, and that’s never been done before. For fans like me, it’s a huge reward for all the time and emotion spent with these characters on screen (and I even just rewatched the whole series prior to seeing this movie). To top it all off, they were able to conclude the story but not close off the future — in fact there’s many aspects for which I am dying to see what’s next. (4.5 out of 5)

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Coco – Movie Review

I know that there have been a lot of animated films lately, and anyone with kids has already gone to see Coco and moved on, but I just saw it and still want to say how great I thought the movie was. Pixar’s track record has slipped a bit from the flawless hit-factory that it had been (no thanks to The Good Dinosaur or mediocre Cars sequels), but Coco reminds me that they are still top-notch when it comes to animated storytelling. This story of a young Mexican boy whose soul longs to be a musician, despite his family’s legacy of shunning music as a curse (ever since great-grandma Coco’s father left his family to pursue a musical career) is a fun, touching, adventurous spectacle.

Even before the first scene, I was reminded of Pixar’s technical mastery (there was a pre-movie clip with some of the creators which showed-off some of film’s wonderful visuals), but it was in the opening few sequences that their progress really became obvious. It wasn’t in the big, jaw-dropping scenes full of millions of lights and moving bits (though those are always awesome) but in the regular motion of the characters, such as main boy Miguel and his dog Dante. Human animation has always been a struggle between making the characters look and move too artificially puppet-like or too creepily realistic. In this movie, the characters all still look cartoonish (with their disproportionately large heads and hands, etc.) but their movements are amazingly life-like and the entire world they are in feels real. I was especially fascinated by a motion that occurred often in this movie: the strumming of a guitar. It is probably something that is so easily filmed using a camera in the real world, but to simulate those strumming motions and the vibration of strings in time to the music must have taken ages to get right. I know I’m geeking out a bit, but I can’t say enough about how transporting and engaging the animation really made this movie for me.

Beyond the impressive visuals, this movie also harkened back to some of the more heart-touching works in the Pixar canon, like Up or Toy Story. (Be warned that there’s a surprisingly simple yet moving scene at the end of the movie. It’s right where you expect it to be, but it’ll still getcha! Tissue, please.) Miguel (played by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez) is an exuberant, happy kid, who balances a love and respect for his family with a secret love of music, especially the music of his idol: Ernesto de la Cruz (played by Benjamin Bratt). When some magical coincidences end up sending him to the land of the dead on the Mexican Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead), he meets up with the spirits of his past relatives and the conflict between love of family and music sets up a difficult choice for Miguel again.

As usual, in these kinds of movies, a bunch of ground rules are set for the Land of the Dead, establishing that Miguel needs to be blessed by his family before sunrise in order to return to the living (subject to terms and conditions). Along the way to solving those challenges, Miguel runs into a vagabond spirit, Hector (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) who is trying to get back to the living world before he is forgotten, and fades away, forever. The ground rules are a great way to lay out the dramatic stakes (especially for kids), and it’s so much easier to understand what things mean in the language of the movie. That being said, there are a few delightful plot twists in this movie (not entirely unpredictable, but enjoyable nonetheless) which also keep things interesting. The best part of this story is that these concepts are all cast within the context of the Mexican culture and its folklore and traditions. From ofrendas (i.e. altars) where families display photos and other items to honour the dead; to alebrijes (i.e. spirit animals) which are colourful fantasy creatures carved out of wood or paper mache for the celebration of Dia de Muertos, it really brings this celebration of Mexican culture to vivid life, and ties it all back to music (which is apparently a big part of Mexican culture as well, at least according to this movie).

All in all, it’s great to see another new creation from Pixar (especially one that does not involve humanizing generally cold things like toys or bugs or fish). I look forward to them continuing on this path (even though I’m also looking forward to more sequels such as Incredibles II coming), because while they are definitely leading the way in terms of animation technology, they have also led the way in terms of creative family-friendly visual storytelling; and we need as much of both as we can get. (4.5 out of 5)

The Shape of Water – Movie Review

Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is known for his creepy creativity and imaginatively dark and gothic style, which I recently got to peek into at the “At Home With Monsters” exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. His movies have ranged from character tales about individuals who are haunted (both emotionally by past tragedies, and actually by ghosts) to high-octane action adventures involving bizarre, monstrous creatures. Similar to the movie that put him on the map, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water falls somewhere in the middle. It’s a character-driven romance, but it’s got clearly fantastical elements to it. Essentially it’s a cross between The Beauty and the Beast and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, with a dash of E.T. thrown into the mix. I enjoyed the character drama, but I really wish there had been a few more imaginary beasties.

The one beastie at the heart of this film is an amphibious man-creature (very similar to Black Lagoon‘s gill-man, or Abe Sapien from Hellboy — fun facts: del Toro also wrote and directed the Hellboy movies, and actor Doug Jones played both Abe and the creature in this film. This movie’s story (set in the 1950s) takes place after the creature is captured and taken to a government facility for study (aka every otherworldy creature’s worst nightmare). Eliza is a mute woman who works at the facility as a cleaning lady and she quickly connects with the creature’s pain and loneliness and starts to form a relationship with it. Other characters include Eliza’s co-worker and friend, Zelda (played by Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer); Eliza’s neighbour Giles (played by Richard Jenkins), an aging commercial artist and closeted homosexual, Strickland, the facility’s militant security chief and captor of the creature (played superbly by Michael Shannon); and Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, the scientist studying the creature. Because this is more of a character film, we get a pretty good look at each of these characters and really start to understand them and know them. That’s really the strength of this movie (more than the fantastical elements). The characters are quirky and unique and everyone gives a very good performance that drew me into their lives.

Once Eliza finds out the nasty fate in store for the creature, she sets out to liberate him and that’s when the movie kicks into high gear. As much as this is a story about how love can transcend outward differences, it’s also the classic theme of who the true monster really is. As Strickland feels driven to prevent his own failure in handling the creature, his obsession becomes maniacal as he tries to stop Eliza at all costs. These traditional fairy tale themes are given a more mature treatment in this movie, which has a grown-up sense of both sexuality and aggression/violence. Admittedly, by the end I was more sold on the good-guys vs. bad-guy theme than the romance and love theme of this movie. Eliza does mention how the creature was able to communicate with her, and she clearly felt a strong connection to his loneliness, but it just was not enough to convince me of a transcendent bond that they supposedly had. That’s why in the end, though I really liked this movie, I didn’t love it. All the style and imaginative flair that comes with del Toro’s creative touch goes a long way to making the movie special, but in the end it oversold and could not deliver on how magical it was supposed to be. (4 out of 5)

Thor: Raganarok – Movie Review

After Wonder Woman and Spider-man Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok seems to prove that we’ve hit a good patch of superhero movies at the moment. Starting out with a tongue-in-cheek, fourth-wall-breaking monologue fakeout, I was having a good time with the charming humour right from the start — which didn’t let up all the way to the (more somber) end. Chris Hemsworth is now one of my new favourite movie stars (an honour he didn’t achieve in either of the two other Thor or Avengers movies). He’s got that action-hero-charm that has made stars out of Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, and more recently Chris Pratt, and this movie lets him work it. As a prisoner of the fire demon Surtur, he never breaks a sweat as he cracks wise while defeating Asgard’s timeless enemy and returns to the cosmic home of his god-like people. Upon arriving, he finds things a bit out of whack (and his father Odin is missing) and we are treated to a humourous play within a film (featuring some great celebrity cameos). The light-hearted tone continues as Thor returns to Earth and meets up with Doctor Strange (another cool cameo with Benedict Cumberbatch reprising his MCU role). Within a short time, this movie has already featured appearances of some of my current favourite actors (Tom Hiddleston, Cumberbatch, etc.) and soon will feature cinema-queen herself, Cate Blanchett. She plays Hela, Norse goddess of death, and sister to Thor and Loki. When she’s unwittingly released from banishment, she quickly takes action to regain control over Asgard and begins by destroying Thor’s mighty hammer Mjolnir (simply by gripping it tightly).

Surprisingly, while the Hela storyline is the cause of the titular Ragnarok (the end of the world), it’s not the focus of a big part of the movie, putting it on the backburner for most of the middle half of the movie. Instead, in the course of trying to stop Hela, Thor and Loki get catapulted to some previously-unknown junk world called Sakaar. On Sakaar, Thor becomes a contestant in the gladiatorial games run by the Grandmaster (played by Jeff Goldblum in a trademark, weaselly peformance). Of course, by a huge galactic coincidence, anyone who’s seen the movie trailer knows who Thor faces in the arena as the Grandmaster’s current champion. Seeing the Hulk, Thor is surprisingly happy, stating that it’s OK because “He’s a friend from work”, right before getting slammed into the wall. As I mentioned, the humour is one of the best parts of this movie, and thankfully that is not the best joke in the film (far from it). The rest of the story has the characters working to escape from the planet in order to return to Asgard and end Hela’s reign of terror and possible destruction of everything. Sounds pretty packed, eh?

The other wonderful aspect about this movie was the fast-paced action. From scene to scene, it toggled between well-shot, space-action (similar to either of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies — in fact, this would have made a great Guardians 3); and some slower-paced funny dialogue and interaction between characters. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves making this movie and that enthusiasm comes through. New Zealander director Taika Waititi is a breath of fresh air for the Marvel cinematic universe, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

With a high degree of Australia/New Zealand content in the cast and production roster, it’s certainly the crown jewel to have Blanchett playing Hela. The role is a walk in the park for her, but it’s great how she revels in Hela’s superiority complex and bitter resentment of everyone who wronged her even a little bit. Frankly, I think Blanchett needs to play more of these deliciously villainous roles. I only wish that more of the plot had involved her. As a movie villain, she didn’t really get to stretch her wings much beyond snarling a lot and tossing her endlessly conjured blades everywhere, like magicians’ scarves.

After the disaster that was Thor: The Dark World, it’s nice to see that all it took for the franchise to hit its groove was to loosen things up a bit. Let’s hope that we’re on a roll. (4 out of 5)

Fall TV 2017 – Returning Shows

If you’ve read any of my recent posts, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of TV comedy. So, it also won’t be a surprise that most of the shows that I watch regularly are sitcoms as well. With that in mind, I’m going to talk about the dramas first, to get it out of the way.

This Is Us

The only returning drama that I’ve seen this season has been last year’s big success story. In its second season, This Is Us continues to tell the story of three adult triplets, the loved ones in their lives, as well as flashing back to the story of their parents and the ups and downs of experiences that brought them all to their present lives. In particular, the past poses a big mystery around Jack (the father), who died some time between now and then. Most episodes tease us with hints about what happened, and the season 2 premiere is no exception. Meanwhile, we continue to learn about Jack and Rebecca’s big fight from season 1 and a few more surprises come out of that. Picking up some of the story twists at the end of last season, Kate pursues her singing career, but fights hard against her insecurities each step of the way. Randall pursues his wish to adopt a child, but learns that his wife Beth has a lot of misgivings. This show hits the ground running by pulling our heart strings and promises many more tear-jerking moments to come.

The Good Place

This fresh new sitcom ended last season with a doozy of a revelation that turned the entire series premise on its head. This season picks up almost immediately after, but then proceeds to keep going with change-ups to hilarious effect. This is the last time I’m going to protect last season’s spoilerific twist, so I’m just going to say that the original story about a selfish woman who mistakenly ends up in heaven has taken on a whole new set of issues. The four main resident characters are still fun to watch, especially Manny Jacinto as Jason Mendoza (a dim-witted former DJ from Florida), playing it as thick as ever. This is probably one of the most unique and fresh sitcoms around (except for perhaps Rick and Morty) and I enjoy not knowing where the story is going any more. I have faith that it will be surprising and fun.

Will & Grace

In contrast to the innovativeness of The Good Place, a couple of sitcoms are returning from the cancellation graveyard this year, and the first to show up is Will & Grace. As much as I enjoyed this show (it was one of my faves in its prime), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when it came back 11 years after it left. The creators have tried to gloss over all the epilogue-ish stories that were tacked on in the series finale and return the main characters to the same apartment with the same interactions and clever banter. Unfortunately they still have a bit of work to do to get back there. The first episode seemed a bit preoccupied with proving that they are in 2017, tossing in gratuitous references to things like Grindr, and being “woke”. (And what is with Grace’s new employee? He does not fit in at all!) Since it was the 10-minute election-themed short episode that got the wheels turning on this revival, they naturally had to include a storyline about politics. However, it still ended in the kind of silly place (pillow fight in the Oval Office — intrigued?) that I did not love in many of the later episodes of the first run. Don’t get me wrong, I still love that the show is back, but I think they’ll need to step things up a bit, comedy-wise, if they want to hold our attention as the nostalgia fades.

The Mindy Project

I can’t decide whether I love or hate the quirky supporting characters, but I feel that they have been getting closer to the front of the stage with each year. Now they have played so much of a role that they’ve been pulling focus from Mindy’s (completely mis-matched) marriage to nurse Ben. Perhaps the writers just didn’t have many ideas to go with Mindy’s marriage, so they have now quickly tanked it and Mindy’s on her way to being divorced again. Either that or (since this is the last season of the show) they want to make room for Mindy’s first husband, Danny, to come back into the picture. Either way, I hope they get back to focusing on Mindy and her life rather than all the nutsos at the clinic. I think it will be a nice way to wrap up the series.

Speechless

The second season of this brash family comedy about JJ DiMeo, a teenager with cerebral palsy, and his no-nonsense family, already established its characters really well in the first season. Now it’s fun to see them deconstruct themselves while JJ’s away at camp and they evolve into different people in his absence. I’m hoping that this season will start to move on from setting up all the characters and start to focus on some interesting situations for the DiMeo family. One of my favourite episodes last season had the whole family stuck in a grocery store for the entire episode. I think the worst thing they can do now is to keep resetting the characters back to their same selves. At least middle-child Ray has got a sweet girlfriend now, and I hope there are more changes to come.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

This cop sitcom does a great job of ending the season with some big situations. This season starts with Detectives Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) and Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) in prison after they were framed for a crime by a corrupt lieutenant at the end of last season. It usually takes a few episodes for things to go back to normal, so the first episode still has Jake in jail. His cellmate is a cannibal murderer who eats children, so that’s a bit of a comedic misfire, but the characters on this show still make a wonderful ensemble and I’m looking forward to things moving back to the precinct when they figure out how to get Jake and Rosa back. At least they need to do that before this year’s Halloween heist competition episode rolls around again.

Modern Family

As they have done in seasons-past, Modern Family picks up with the Dunphy-Pritchett family during their summer vacation, this year in a house-boat on the lake. For laughs they also throw in the recent solar eclipse as a plot point, but it’s just a way for the story to put the family in a confined space and close together before the kids have to go back to school. I’m hoping they continue to evolve this show after its many seasons, as most of the kids have moved into college-age and adulthood. The show is evolving into a grown-up sitcom and I’m not quite sure it knows how to be that. Either that or they have to start shining the spotlight on the clan’s youngest members: Lily (they have yet to give her any significant screen time) and Joe (I still don’t enjoy his scenes, especially not his deliberate and contrived “cuteness”). I love this series, but as many have said, it’s outlived its freshness and needs a bit of a reboot itself.

The Big Bang Theory

While being just as long in the tooth as Modern Family, I think Big Bang has been able to evolve itself a bit more over the years. Last season ended with a surprising marriage proposal from Sheldon to Amy, and even though I think there’s little doubt about the answer, it’s a little exciting to see where this change will take the show. Despite Penny and Leonard’s marriage being less of a shake-up than it might have been, I have high hopes for what Shamy-engaged will do. Along with the proposal hubbub, another big surprise came as Bernadette found herself pregnant again. With all the growing up and changes coming to this group of friends, I really hope that means that Leonard, Penny, and Raj will also get some meaty life/character events as well. I’m a bit tired of the joke of Penny divorcing Leonard and poor Raj’s continued failure in love (even though he’s had some pretty nice girlfriends so far).

American Housewife

Another family sitcom that I picked up last season: I enjoy the no-nonsense mom that Katie Otto is (played by Katy Mixon). I also like the son, Oliver, who’s basically a pre-pubescent Alex Keaton (from Family Ties). A lot of the emphasis on the show has been about how Katie doesn’t fit in with the rich moms of Westport, Connecticut with their fitness and pretension. However, in the premiere, Katie has a realization that she’s being too judgmental and has a mea culpa moment with the PTA, landing her the dreaded job of organizing the school’s spring gala. I think this is a great way to keep her looped in with the school, but I hope the other moms don’t remain so stereotypical this season. I loved it when Katie developed a couple of nemesis moms last season. Let’s bring them back!

Kim’s Convenience

I have a warm feeling for this series about a Toronto convenience store owner and his family, and I’m glad that it’s back again for more episodes in the life of the Kims. The first season started with a bit too much of that Canadian politically-correct humour and faux-progressiveness. I think the show really shone when it focused on the family and their interactions and their story. The second season began with daughter Janet’s attempt to move out, but it was not as easy as it initially seemed. I hope this change will bring a nice new element to the family dynamic. Similarly, I hope there is more opportunity for Mr. Kim and his son Jung to encounter each other and make some progress towards reconciliation. Their estrangement has made for an interesting thread throughout episodes so far, but it’s nice that there have been a few brief moments that show that hope is far from lost between father and son. There is potential for Kim’s Convenience to grow beyond its sitcom start and rediscover some of the dramatic depth of its origins on the stage.

Fuller House

Now that I’ve picked up so many sitcoms to watch, I’m not really sure why I still keep watching this show. I was not a fan of the first series, so it’s not for the many call-backs to the original family classic. This latest season (which I essentially binge-watched over a single weekend — Curse you, Netflix!) continues with the same antics and cutesy family plots of the first two seasons. The characters are generally likeable enough, but the silliness has been amped up as they prepare for the wedding of Steve and CJ. The midseason finale had a big predictable cliffhanger as DJ inadvertently admitted that she had chosen Steve as her boyfriend when she had a sleep mask on, meanwhile, her actual boyfriend Matt was getting ready to propose to her on the other side of the plane. Oh Mylanta!

So, thanks for sticking with me through all those sitcoms. As you can tell, the season is off to a roaring start with the comedies. Hopefully there will be a few new ones that prove themselves worthy of returning and being picked up as classics as well. Who knows, they might even go long enough to be cancelled and revived a decade later! Anyway, stay tuned for more Fall TV summaries.

Fall TV 2017 – New Shows

After a pretty unexciting summer movie season, it would have been nice to come home to some exciting new shows this fall. Alas, so far some aren’t too promising despite a strong pedigree, and others are downright terrible. Good thing there are still a number of returning shows to keep us satisfied (I’ll get to those later.)

Young Sheldon

I don’t quite understand why this show got made. Compared to its parent-series, The Big Bang Theory, this prequel show about the childhood of its main character, Sheldon Cooper, is a lot more ordinary. From The Wonder Years, to Malcolm in the Middle, to Everybody Hates Chris, to Fresh Off the Boat, there are so many shows as flashbacks to the story of a boy growing up in a normal-yet-quirky family. The narration from older/future Sheldon (still voiced by Jim Parsons) reminds us that he’ll one day be a super-nerd, but for now, he’s just a regular dweeby kid who’s been bumped ahead a few grades. Sheldon doesn’t know how to behave around normal people even as an adult on Big Bang Theory, so obviously he’s hopeless as a child. Are we just going to see him get bullied and ostracized for the entire series of Young Sheldon? The first episode showed us Sheldon’s family, but the only one who seemed interesting was the younger version of Sheldon’s mom. There were some character moments between Sheldon and his father, but considering that we know he’s going to leave his family, every moment of connection between father and son is bittersweet. Even with that potential for drama, this show is not a dramedy. It’s pure sitcom, and (despite its already having received a full season order) so far it doesn’t seem like a very interesting one.

The Good Doctor

This show kind of echoes some of the themes of Young Sheldon, but it’s about Freddie Highmore (last seen playing pre-psycho Norman on Bates Motel) as a young surgeon who’s also an autistic savant. Like Sheldon, Shaun Murphy knows way too much stuff (plus he has a super-human ability to diagnose a suffering person’s medical ailments), and people just don’t understand him. In the first episode he tries to save a young boy in the airport, but gets tackled by security when he grabs a knife from the confiscated-articles box. No one (except the audience) sees his genius. As much as I enjoy Highmore in the role, and he makes a good addition to the long line of medical miracle-workers celebrated on-screen, I don’t really know how this show is going to go. His character seems a bit like an alien who floats through the hospital intervening with his super-human medical abilities. Hopefully he will develop genuine relationships with his colleagues and become a more organic part of the hospital, but that has not happened yet.

The Orville

The Seth MacFarlane sci-fi show came into the mix with a confusing premise. It is meant to be a space-ship series with a positive, upbeat outlook, similar to the many Star Trek shows that have come before (especially Star Trek: The Next Generation). What was not clear was whether this show would be a parody of Star Trek, or a copy. The show got an early start, so now that we’ve seen four episodes, we know it’s the latter. While the involvement of MacFarlane (creator of Family Guy) means that there is bound to be some humour, it is clear that the show is meant to be a replica of Star Trek — from the uniforms, to the ships, to the crew, even the music — all make you feel like you’re watching Trek. Unfortunately two things make The Orville a pale copy: the writing is incredibly weak; and the humour is limp. If the show intended to follow in Trek’s footsteps, its writers needed to develop a much better understanding of sci-fi and what has gone on before. Most of the episodes so far have been variations on Trek (and even Stargate) stories, but not taking itself seriously enough to fully develop the ideas and themes of each. The worst example is an episode where a crew member from a single-sex race faces a storm of controversy when he tries to follow his culture by reassigning his female child to conform with his race’s male gender. Many of the characters rant about how barbaric this surgery is on an infant, and how women are just as good as men (and one scene even uses the stupidity of the ship’s male pilot as proof that males are not superior). The arguments are weak and poorly thought-out both as political discourse and as science fictional allegory. Similarly, the jokes also show ridiculous lack of thought. Almost every joke shows that MacFarlane’s character (Captain Ed Mercer) is really just a displaced 21st century guy in a show set 400 years in the future. No one would laugh at those comments: not then, and not even now. It’s as if a character on Big Bang Theory was making jokes that a Shakespearean audience would find funny. The humour is so anachronistic that it seems pasted on. This show is clearly MacFarlane’s vanity project and I don’t see how it can possibly survive, especially when compared to…

Star Trek: Discovery

Finally, after over a decade, Star Trek returns to the small screen, and not a moment too soon. Despite the fact that this series is set in a time before the original series (and despite the fact that I am tired of Trek creators going back to that period), everything looks and feels very modern and futuristic. The production values of the two-part opening episode is movie-quality stuff (complete with a few unwanted Abrams-style lens flares). The story features Michael Burnham, a first officer rather than a captain, as she tries to save her crew and captain from an encounter with the Klingons (remember, in this time period Klingons are enemies to the Federation). Rather than the episodic exploratory encounters of Star Trek and The Next Generation, so far this new series leans more towards action and the power politics of space (similar to Deep Space Nine, or even The Expanse). The premiere episode is very much like a movie and sets up Burnham’s story, rather than how episodes of the show will go. It’s definitely less traditional than previous Trek, but it could be a really exciting new direction for the franchise. I’m a little disappointed in how they’ve set up the Klingons again as a kind of enemy-race (It always seems unrealistic that an entire space-faring species would have the same motives and agendas). I hope things will become more nuanced and complex as the series progresses. Nevertheless, even out the gate, Discovery flies rings around The Orville.

Marvel’s The Inhumans

Oh, the (in)humanity! This is perhaps one of the most hyped sci-fi shows of the fall. Many people are already familiar with the Inhumans from recent comic book events and series featuring these characters. As well, this show’s pilot episodes were shot in IMAX format so they could premiere on the big big screen before its tv debut. I’m not sure why it seemed that Marvel Entertainment spent so little effort (and obviously not enough money) on the show, but it definitely shows. From inferior scripts, to second-rate acting, to ridiculous costumes and terrible CGI effects, this show has so much going wrong with it that it’s doomed to failure. The story of a race of super-humans living on the moon who are given fabulous mutations as they reach adolescence has a lot of sci-fi potential. Unfortunately this show does not yet live up to any of it. Black Bolt and Medusa are the king and queen of the Inhumans and when Black Bolt’s brother Maximus stages a coup (with only about a dozen soldiers), the rest of the royal family escape to Hawaii, where they are scattered as fishes out of water and need to make their way to each other. Much has already been written about the poor CGI effects, most notable being Medusa’s prehensile hair, which in comic books is huge and strong like gigantic tentacles that she uses to grip and fight enemies, but on the show they’re poorly animated strands that she wraps around Maximus’s throat or pushes him up against the wall. What makes it look worse is that her hair is so short that it everything she does with her hair could just as easily be done with her hands. Then as part of the coup they even shave her hair off (thus saving the CGI dollars)! There’s also a giant bulldog named Lockjaw, which is the royal family pet, that can teleport anyone anywhere. When he does, the CGI looks like he’s being sucked off the edge of the screen, or like when I minimize the apps on my Mac. However, all the poor production values would be liveable if the script and acting were good. Unfortunately they are not.

Me, Myself and I

Finally, I had not originally planned to watch this show, but the premise caught my eye. The triple title describes the format where we get to watch the story of the main character, inventor Alex Riley, in three periods of life: childhood, middle age, and retirement. It’s a dramedy starring SNL comedian Bobby Moynihan as the middle-aged Riley, John Laroquette as the elderly version, and newcomer Jack Dylan Grazer as the kid version. The formula seems to bring the three story parts together along a loose thematic thread, but even without that connection, the stories are nice little vignettes. So far, I can see how the show will be charming and uplifting. It’s like a lighter version of This Is Us, without the big-three-fold drama and the looming death of the father. If they keep drawing connections between the three time periods, things may start to seem too unnaturally parallel, but this is still a potentially enjoyable show until then.

That’s all the new shows that I’ve seen this season so far, but sadly there are only a handful more to come. This year the networks have concentrated their premieres all within a short period (which is how I like it), but that means I don’t have time to cover them all at once. I’ll be back tomorrow with Returning Shows, and then come back again to close out the remaining premieres that follow. Later!

2017 Summer of Sitcom Binge-watching

From my lack of reviews over the summer, it may be obvious that I, like critics and audiences everywhere, think this was the worst summer movie season ever. I only got out to a couple of movies in the theatre, so what have I been doing to satisfy my pop-cultural cravings over the summer? I’ve been couch-potatoing: binge-watching a number of sitcoms (many on Netflix). Some of them I never thought I’d like, or gave up the first time around. Giving them a second chance, they aren’t half bad. So now I’m going to provide a quick recap of ten (count’em, 10) of these shows, so you can decide whether or not to give these shows a viewing.

1. Grace and Frankie

This is probably the biggest surprise on the list. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin play two women in their 70s who become unlikely best friends after their husbands come-out and become lovers. I could not relate too much with the situation behind this comedy, but an excellent cast, some pretty good writing, and a funny-yet-heartfelt tone really won me over. Fonda plays Grace, a serious, sophisticated business woman who ran a cosmetics company and needs her life to be perfect. On the other side, Tomlin plays Frankie, an unpredictable free spirit and hippie who teaches art classes to convicts and named her sons Coyote and Nwabudike. At first, they were mortal enemies, forced to live together in a shared beach house after their husbands moved in together, but they eventually learned to tolerate and even depend on each other. To me, the show’s focus on their offbeat-yet-solid friendship is what got me hooked in spite of all the stuff about seniors and their sex-lives (which definitely did not). (4 out of 5)

2. The Ranch

Just like Grace and Frankie, I’d seen promotions for The Ranch all around Netflix, as one of its originals, but I had no intention of giving it a shot. Ashton Kutcher does not really headline my kind of entertainment. I thought he was pretty funny on That 70s Show as Kelso, but his stupid goofballs are not the kind of characters that I like. When he was joined by fellow 70s alum Danny Masterson on The Ranch in a show about rancher brothers who struggle with their family, and with relationships (often due to their inability to express their feelings). These elements were all warning flags for me to stay away. However, once I tried on Kutcher, as a pro footballer who returns to his family’s cattle ranch after his career ends, I actually found myself interested in what happened to him and his family. Masterson plays his brother and in true Prodigal Son fashion, Kutcher’s character’s return stirs up a tornado of resentment from Masterson’s character who stayed behind. Topping off the triangle of stolid masculinity is their father, played really well by Sam Shepherd, who can definitely work a stone-faced glare. Again, the actors do a pretty good job (Kutcher inhabits his character well), and the show is surprisingly heartfelt about finding humour despite the financial hardships that the family faces. One weak point is Debra Winger as the mom: she’s kind of stiff and as a character, she doesn’t fit too well into the ensemble. (3.5 out of 5)

3. Life In Pieces

When it first premiered (it’s not a Netflix original), I dismissed Life In Pieces as a Modern Family knock-off. It kind of is, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable and diverting. Also about a family of adults (including grandparents, as well as grandchildren) who spend an unusually large amount of time together, there’s a very similar feel to this show. On Life In Pieces, there are three segments per episode (hence the title) and each segment brings together different members of this extended family in different situations. It’s taking the concept of “situation comedy” and putting an organized framework around it. The characters vary in likeability and quirkiness. I can’t say there are any that I am a total fan of (though maybe Colin Hanks as a hapless new dad comes close), which means I don’t have a character who anchors me to the show. It’s very take-or-leave for me, even after having watched the entire first season plus a bit of the second. (3 out of 5)

4. No Tomorrow

Another show that I gave up on originally, this one features Joshua Sasse as Xavier, an eccentric, free-spirited guy who is convinced that the world will end in eight months so he wants to live what remains of his life to the full. He meets up with Evie, who falls for Xavier’s good looks as well as his cavalier spirit. He ignites the risk-taker in her own relatively buttoned-up life (as a middle-manager for a Costco-style chain store). The situations for comedy are triggered by the two working through their doomsday bucket lists, as well as from the odd ensemble of friends and co-workers in Evie’s life. This show was alright, and it actually had a bit of an interesting background story arc around Xavier trying to get the message out about the imminent disaster. However, I did not really fall for the side characters, who are just oddly-mediocre. As for the main couple, I believe their story would have played out completely differently if they weren’t both so attractive, which just makes this show even more ridiculous. I enjoyed the episodes well enough, but if the show had not been cancelled already after its first season, I probably would have stopped watching. (3 out of 5)

5. About A Boy

Do you know of the Nick Hornby book of the same name, which spawned the original Hugh Grant movie; or that the movie also got turned into a TV series? Well, it lasted two seasons from 2014 to 2015, and presented the story of Will Freeman, a songwriter and bachelor, living off royalties from a megahit single and a roguish charm with women. However, when a quirky, hippie mother (played by Minnie Driver) and her young son move in next door, their lives start to intrude on each other and eventually bond and blend. I did watch the first episode of this show back when it aired, but immature man-child characters are one type that I really don’t like, so I stopped watching. However, as I stuck with the show this time around, I got to see a really crazy-yet-healthy relationship grow between Will and the neighbour kid (Marcus). As a bro/surrogate dad to Marcus, Will’s character really developed over two seasons. I enjoyed how they brought out the best in each other. It eventually became a plot point how close the two guys became, but I’m glad that the show leaned into that kind of unique relationship. It’s a bit too bad that the show ended, because I think I might have continued to watch it. (3.5 out of 5)

6. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I didn’t discover this series this summer. In fact, I had really enjoyed previous seasons when they first appeared on Netflix. Unfortunately, my interest and enjoyment of the series has decreased each season. The show about a young woman who had been rescued from a doomsday cult, trying to find a life for herself in New York, was an extreme and humourous fish-out-of-water story in season one, and I kind of enjoyed the over-the-top supporting characters, including her flamboyantly gay roommate, oddly crotchety landlady, and strangely clueless, rich boss. After two seasons, I now find Kimmy (played by Ellie Kemper) unbearably naive — though it was funny before. I’m finding it hard to stomach roommate Titus’s ridiculous melodrama, and the rest of the stories and characters are just getting broader and broader. As the situations get more soap-opera melodramatic (Can you believe there’s actually a “remove the bandages” reveal for one character, who ends up looking like a totally different person?) I don’t know what to laugh at anymore. (3 out of 5)

7. Master of None

As another acclaimed Netflix original sitcom, Azziz Ansari’s labour of love, has gone the opposite direction in my estimation from Kimmy Schmidt. I watched the first half of Master of None season one and gave up, feeling very little connection to Ansari’s character Dev (a struggling actor trying to find love and success in New York), and I didn’t like his friends much. (I did, however, love the acclaimed episode connecting a couple of the character to the stories of their immigrant parents.) Fortunately, good buzz caused me to retry the show, and I was really glad that I did. When Dev went to Italy to study pasta-making in season two, it transformed the show. The writing seemed to get a bump up in sophistication, while still remaining focused on Dev’s successes and failures in life. I enjoyed the characters much more in the second season, and the stories were richer and more satisfying (a high point was the Thanksgiving episode that not only traced Dev’s relationship with one of his best friends, Denise, since their childhood, it also showed Denise’s family come to terms with her being a lesbian). On top of all that, Alessandra Mastronardi is beautifully-flawed perfection as Dev’s friend/girlfriend Francesca; and the season ends with a subtle, nuanced, will-they-won’t-they cliffhanger. I can’t wait for the next season! (4.5 out of 5)

8. Friends From College

First off, this show looks like a comedy from the advertising, but it is not one. It’s a drama (with some humourous elements) about a group of friends and acquaintances from college whose group is potentially reforming when one couple moves back to New York. Keegan-Michael Key and Cobie Smulders play the pair in question, whose marriage is a bit shaky (wife does not know that husband has been having a long-distance affair with another one of their friends from college all these years, but now that they’re going to be co-located, it might just come up). I think the title of the series is meant to be ironic, or at least point a finger at the idea (which gets a lot of play on TV) that a group of friends from college will be friends forever. These characters act friendly and tease out the relationships that reach back into the past, but they are not very good to each other. The show reaches an extreme climax in the season finale as revelations lead to confrontations and a nice car is ruined. I didn’t find this show fun to watch, but I did want to see how these relationships all played out. Still haven’t decided on season 2 (3.5 out of 5)

9. Bajillion Dollar Propertie$

Coming from Seeso, a streaming channel that you’ve probably never heard of, this show lampoons the many real-estate based reality-TV shows. It focuses on a single top-end real estate firm in California, whose agents are all clawing their way to the top. While the characters are all pretty broad, they play pretty well (especially when paired with one of many comedic guest stars as clients, including Nick Kroll, Jack McBrayer, Patton Oswalt, Randall Park, Andy Richter, Casey Wilson, Weird Al Yankovic, Rhys Darby, Bret McKenzie, and Sarah Silverman). The scene that convinced me to give the whole series a shot was one where Dan Ahdoot (who plays Amir Yaghoob, a very driven agent) tried to wrangle The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun as a spoiled rich kid who has gotten high with his friends in a home that Amir is trying to sell. The writing and tone is uneven, but if you enjoy poking fun at the excess that this kind of tv normally promotes, then this is a fun cartoon of a show. (3.5 out of 5)

10. Rick and Morty

Last, but definitely not least, is an animated comedy that I should have discovered a long time ago. It is tailor-made for sci-fi geeks such as myself and, for my money, contains the highest concentration of sci-fi ideas of any series currently active. Think of it as a cross between Futurama and Doctor Who. The title characters are Rick Sanchez (a hard-drinking, hard-partying, vulgar super-genius who can invent virtually anything) and his grandson Morty Smith (a semi-naive 14 year old brought along as a companion for his grandpa’s crazy inter-dimensional adventures). Though it’s an animated show, it is not really for kids. There is a lot of profanity and some pretty perverse and deviant ideas are tossed around left and right (I confess, I would have enjoyed less of that element). Armed with a portal gun that takes them to other places in the universe as well as alternate versions of reality, this show has everything from robots, space creatures, shrinking down to microscopic, splintering of space-time, intergalactic talent competition, insectoid alien assassins, a planet of amazon women, and the list goes on ad infinitum. This show has so many details that fanboys (and fangirls) pore endlessly over them to form fan theories, etc. On top of all the science fictional goodness, there is also an intense family backdrop. The rest of the family consists of Rick’s daughter, who is Morty’s mother, Morty’s older sister Summer, and their father Jerry. The family is far from perfect and they struggle with lack of communication, lack of mutual respect, lack of affection, lack of acceptance, which may be typical in some family dramas that are trying to depict the challenges of actual family life, but on this show, it’s all part of a dark sense of humour that underlies the stories. I love that this show does not shy away from the tough stuff, and also that it does not hold back on the sci-fi. I’m currently rewatching the series (even as the third season has already begun) to try to catch as many of the details as I can. (4.5 out of 5)

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