All posts by alving4

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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Spider-man: Homecoming – Movie Review

After so many incarnations, it’s hard to believe that another reboot of the Spider-man story could be fun and fresh, but I really enjoyed Homecoming, and a lot of the credit goes to this younger version of the web-slinging hero, and the exuberant performance by rising star Tom Holland. While I had already raved about the previous Spider-man, played by Andrew Garfield, having a more character-driven story — dealing with his relationship with girlfriend Gwen (played by Emma Stone), this time around the character is portrayed even younger (he’s only 15) and there is a lot of teenage energy and fun to it. It’s great to see Spider-man’s alter-ego Peter Parker going through challenges of high school (though he’s super-smart, so the academics are no struggle) and teen melodrama (at one point, his hi-tech talking suit tries to give him advice on girls). This movie has a non-stop sense of humour throughout the movie that is driven mostly by Holland’s aw-shucks kind of innocence (along with his hilarious nerd side-kick Ned). (They are such classic movie teens that I almost felt like I was watching an 80s movie!).

However, one of the things that reminded me that we are very much in the twenty-teens, was how Robert Downey Jr. made a few guest appearances as Tony Stark/Iron Man from the Avengers. If you didn’t realize, the “homecoming” is bringing Spider-man back into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after many years of being isolated from the other characters by virtue of intellectual property rights. Downey’s presence reminded that even though this is a Spider-man movie, it’s part of that other pop-culture juggernaut. Interestingly enough, while the character needs a place among all the various cinematic super-heroes, Peter Parker is also trying to find his place as a hero. Having come off the thrill of teaming up with the Avengers in the events of the Captain America: Civil War movie, now he wants to prove himself worthy to be a grown-up super-hero: one of the big boys.

One of the best decisions made for this movie was that they didn’t go back and replay Spider-man’s origin story again (there’s a bit of mention that he was bit by a spider, but that’s it). This allowed a bit more time to spend with Peter Parker’s life — we even get to know his friends and classmates (he’s part of the academic decathlon team, which actually plays a meaningful role in this movie) and there was time to develop the villain’s story as well. This made the pieces fit together really well, and I felt like we got a good understanding of the characters — which is something lacking from the movies where producers want to cram a lot of characters onto the screen and give us a lot of explosions and crashes. This movie was even able to make an interesting bad guy out of the Vulture, a staple of Spider-man’s rogues gallery, but not generally very cool. With Michael Keaton in the role, he’s got a few really good speeches and does some moustache twirling, gradually becoming a true nemesis to the young Spider-man.

So is it all just characters talking, or high-school drama? Of course not. There is plenty of action (at some of America’s very well-known tourist attractions, no less) and as I mentioned, the humour is non-stop. I think this is the funniest super-hero movie ever — even more than Deadpool (which had a much darker undertone). There’s a moment of decision at the end of the movie that sets the direction for any sequels. Though it goes exactly as I expected, it also made me wonder what could possibly be in store for subsequent films. I guess I’ve been so programmed by the other blockbuster super-hero movie events that I almost can’t imagine what a down-to-earth, friendly, neighbourhood hero movie might be like — so I’m really looking forward to finding out. Much to my surprise, this third version of cinematic Spider-man seems to be the perfect one (as long as they keep Tom Holland) to take the character forward. 4.5 out of 5

Wonder Woman – Movie Review


After the mess that was Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I was worried about this movie. Wonder Woman has never been one of my favourite super-heroes, though I did watch her 70s TV series (despite its cheesiness). Like most fans, I’m surprised it’s taken so long for her to get her own movie adaptation. In contrast to Spider-man — who’s going onto his 3rd cinematic reboot — the origin story of Diana, princess of the Amazons on the island of Themyscira, seems fresh by comparison. This version begins with her childhood living on “paradise island” surrounded by warrior women but isolated from the rest of the world. Flashing forward to an actual war story, the focus shifts to the WWI events which brought Diana to the outside world in order to fight evil. Wonder Woman’s basic backstory can seem a little old-fashioned but it’s counteracted by humour and a bunch of Pretty Woman-inspired scenes (or given the Greco-Roman context, maybe Pygmalion is a better reference). Captain Steve Trevor (played by Star Trek‘s Chris Pine) tries to help Diana the Amazon fit into Edwardian England, and ends up creating an interesting metaphor for this movie, which itself tries to help a god-like super-hero blend into a relatively earth-bound conflict between warring nations and war-time politics. It’s not only because Diana (played by Gal Gadot) is so gorgeous that she continues to stand out.

Starting out in Themyscira, the scenes are wonderfully enjoyable. The locations (shot along Italy’s Amalfi Coast) are breathtaking, and the magically beautiful weather doesn’t hurt. Early scenes of little girl Diana watching the other Amazon warriors training for battle are also great fun. The Amazon fight scenes are really good: a combination of slow motion camera work and graceful movements (spins and legwork) make the fighting feel like dancing. The scenes reminded me a lot of those from 300, and even though director Zack Snyder also worked on this movie, this time he was only a writer/story guy. Again, there’s a bit of disconnection between the Diana’s quasi-mythological backstory (looks like they’ve been using the same decorator in Themyscira’s throne room  as Thor‘s Asgard) and early 20th century London, but I was enjoying the story so much that I didn’t really mind.

When the WWI story kicks into gear, it’s largely Steve Trevor’s adventure (or at least him and his ragtag band, which easily adopts the beautiful Diana into its ranks). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his character. Chris Pine is really good at being the hero with a bashful sense of humour, but I was confused by the presence of an American in the WWI British air force (or intelligence corps). Anyway, the actual war story part of the story is not that well thought out or complex, but at least there’s a villain who is not only a German general (boo!) but a ruthless killer, working with a mad-scientist poison-maker. He might also be the current incarnation of the Amazons’ nemesis, the war god Ares. The setup is very simplistic (as comic book stories traditionally are) — I mean, the first bad general that she meets is the enemy that the Amazons were born to fight? Seems too easy.

I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, because I really enjoyed this movie, but it’s mostly because of the charm of the actors/characters, the nicely choreographed action scenes, the fun fish-out-of-water humour, and the adventuresome spirit of the film. I also liked how the movie dealt with a number of themes, including the strength and independence of women; and whether human nature or cosmic forces are truly accountable for the evil in the world. Any disjointed pieces of story came nicely glued together. Wonder Woman is a great palate-cleanser after the loud, over-the-top, confusing, and shallow super-hero movies that we’ve been seeing recently (4 out of 5).

2017 Fall TV Preview

Netflix and streaming keeps changing our idea of TV seasons, when they begin and end, still we recently concluded the 2016-17 network TV season. This is also the time when the networks give us a peek at their fall schedules. For myself, there weren’t any tough cancellations — even one show that I would have kind of missed, the time-travel drama Timeless, was miraculously saved for the fall. However, I will miss the Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing, which I got into by binge-watching on Netflix and has now been cancelled after six seasons. It’s the TV circle of life: cancelled shows make room for new shows. This coming fall season, I’m most excited for new shows on Fox and ABC, while NBC, CBS, and The CW are barely registering on my radar. Let’s get into the details:

Fox

I’m most excited about Fox because they are clearly having fun with genre shows. A new show that I don’t plan on checking out is The Resident: one more medical drama, this one features Matt Czuchry (from The Good Wife) as a hotshot resident who butts heads with Bruce Greenwood, the unethical “veteran” doctor. I don’t feel that Czuchry has much charisma, so I don’t know why they keep trying to make him into a young hotshot.

Another bad first impression is on LA to Vegas, a comedy about a plane cabin crew with Dylan McDermott as the captain (Why do they keep trying to make him funny? He isn’t.) The humour is the semi-lowbrow kind that I don’t like. Pass on both these shows.

The Gifted is a new series about some super-powered kids (don’t call them “X-Men” yet) who seem to be on the run. Amy Acker (yay!) and Stephen Moyer (meh!) star as the parents. This is supposedly set in the X-Universe, but I think none of the characters will be recognizable from the comics or films. In the trailer there’s a typically over-the-top bullying scene where a nerdy boy manifests his mutant powers, which makes me hope that this show will be a little more sophisticated. So far it looks like a cheap Heroes knock-off. Still, since it’s got that X pedigree, plus it’s produced by X-director Bryan Singer, I think there is some potential.

Most promising in my book are two genre-based comedies. The Orville is a terrible name, because it’s the name of a starship, for a show that is essentially Galaxy Quest: The Series. Seth MacFarlane gets in front of the camera to star as “The Orville”‘s hapless captain. Jon Favreau is one of the directors, along with other Star Trek notables like Brannon Braga, Robert D. MacNeill, and Jonathan Frakes. It looks pretty funny, and I’m a sucker for Trek humour, so I am looking forward to this one.

Ghosted is another sci-fi comedy, one that is more a send-up of The X-Files (which is itself returning for another season). Craig Robinson (from The Office) and Adam Scott (from Parks and Recreation) play an “odd couple” who get drafted by The Bureau Underground to investigate creepy supernatural phenomena. I am not sure what a weekly episode might look like (because like many trailers, this show plays a bit like a movie), nevertheless, they’ve got two great comedic leads, and Scott gets to be even more nerdy than usual. It’s going to be a riot.

ABC

So many new shows with potential on ABC this fall: The Crossing seems a few years too late to follow in Lost‘s footsteps, but it still tries to make a go at a high-concept premise with sci-fi overtones. The show seems to be about a group of about 50 people who wash ashore at a small coastal town. These people are not only from the future, but they have superhuman abilities as well. This show also reminds me of another series: The 4400. That series had a very challenging run. I hope this series ends up being something fresh and cool.

Deception takes a stage-magic-based storyline (like the movie Now You See Me) and combines it with the recent trend of “special guest” consultants for law enforcement (think Castle on the good end, or the more recent APB on the bad). A popular stage magician gets involved with the FBI to help them track down bad guys who are also using stage magic for heists and other crimes. I think this could be really fun, but unfortunately I don’t think the lead, played by Jack Cutmore-Scott (I don’t know him either), has even one-tenth of Nathan Fillion’s Castle charisma.

The Good Doctor is kind of a lame title (especially after The Good Wife was a much more meaningful title) for a series about a savant/brilliant young doctor (played by the wonderful Freddy Highmore) who also has some serious socio-psychological issues. I doubt I’ll watch this “House Jr.” series for long, but it could be good. I just hope the show doesn’t spend all its time justifying how a quirky genius is worth his weight in miracles, and that outsiders should be accepted.

The Gospel of Kevin is an odd show, starring Jason Ritter as a reformed screw-up who encounters a meteorite that allows him to see and talk to his guardian angel who helps him make his life meaningful (whew!). Ironically, Ritter got his start on the similarly themed series Joan of Arcadia a decade ago. I don’t think this show looks too interesting, but I might give it a chance.

Alex Inc. features Zach Braff (from Scrubs) as basically another version of all his characters: bungling-yet-lovable-and-well-meaning guy ends up starting a for-profit podcast about his own way to success in life (with his family). I’m a bit tired of Braff’s character, but I do like the inter-racial family (his wife is of East Indian descent).

For The People seems a bit cliche: another pretty young lawyer show, this time focusing on newbies to both the prosecution and the defense sides of the law. It doesn’t break new ground, but I’m a sucker for a good lawyer show.

Last but not least, the trend of reviving long-cancelled shows continues with Roseanne‘s return to the airwaves. All of these have potential, so we’ll see.

The CW

The network renewed almost all their shows, so there’s not much room on The CW’s schedule for new ones. Life Sentence, starring the always-cute Lucy Hale (from Pretty Little Liars) as a young woman reinventing her life after finding out she is no longer dying of cancer, is not startlingly original (I feel like it’s looking for some of that This Is Us drama-love), but it has potential. A lot depends on whether the other characters and storylines engage with the viewers.

There’s Valor, which involves a cover-up and pretty characters making melodrama decisions against a military backdrop — it seems inspired by Quantico. The whole story seems to be told in the trailer — not sure how this will become an actual series.

Another new DC superhero show (in addition to the other four) called Black Lightning. Seems pretty similar to the other shows, except it’s got a bit more of that local-neighbourhood vibe (similar to Marvel’s Daredevil). Unfortunately I’m a bit burnt out on superhero shows, so I don’t think I’ll watch it.

Finally, The CW seems to be heading for an epic fail with the reboot of seminal 80s soap Dynasty. I was a late-coming fan of the original, but this version seems ridiculous. Grant Show is super-miscast as patriarch Blake Carrington, not only lacking John Forsythe’s sense of masculine elegance but also lacking any believability as a powerful billionaire. This just seems like one of many CW soaps and squanders the Dynasty brand in a big way.

NBC

On one hand, NBC deserves kudos for resurrecting Will and Grace, one of my favourite sitcoms, with the original cast intact. On the other hand, there are virtually no new shows of note. The Brave is another of many military shows which follows Quantico so much that it actually cast one of the actors from that show. Whatever.

CBS

Last and least, CBS tries to catch ten-season-old lightning in a bottle by spinning off the character of Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper into his own show — but as a child living in Texas. The trailer has the feel of a Malcolm in the Middle, with all its white-trash caricatures. Unfortunately, the writing and acting both seem terrible and the characters seem incredibly flat. It’s a bad sign if the best part is the voiceover narration from Jim Parsons as adult Sheldon. Mark Feuerstein has a new sitcom called 9JKL about living next door to his parents and his brother. I don’t know if it looks any good, but the parents are played by Elliott Gould and Linda Lavin, so at least there’s that. Oh, and David Boreanaz stars in another military show called Seal Team. (I would say more about the CBS shows, but ridiculously they block the trailers from being viewed in other countries, such as Canada. Nice!)

Bonus: CBS All Access

I don’t want to jinx anything, since I previewed this series in last year’s post, but Star Trek: Discovery is coming some time within the next year — they’ve released a trailer and everything! Given the degree to which it’s already been delayed, I don’t doubt that it might be delayed further, but we Trekkers still hold out hope. Let’s also hope that the show is something special — can’t quite tell from the trailer.

Alien: Covenant – Movie Review

One thing that disappointed me about the prequel Prometheus was that it started to open up the Aliens mythology (with the Engineers, and a Lovecraftean backstory), but in the end the story was reduced to another space crew finding a primitive version of the Alien xenomorph, and being slaughtered. I was hoping that Alien: Covenant (the sequel to the prequel) would make more of that story, but sadly it didn’t really. Once again, a space crew ends up on a planet where the monster awaits them, and they fight for their lives. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that it’s not thrilling and well-made, or that I don’t enjoy another trip to space-horror town, but let’s make this story broader, no?

Covenant is definitely a follow-up to Prometheus as it opens on a flashback for the android David, from the first movie, talking to his creator, Weyland. That scene has a thematic connection to the rest of the movie, dealing with the idea of creation and creators. That theme was also a big part of Prometheus. In this movie, our intrepid space crew is awakened from cryo-sleep when a freak space storm-type event causes major damage to the ship, which is also carrying thousands of colonists to a new home. Their caretaker is another android, named Walter (also played by Michael Fassbender, but this time with an American accent — Hmmm.) When the crew stabilize things a bit and start making repairs, they also discover a nearly ideal planet that they didn’t notice before, one that is perfect for their colony and would save them another 7 years of their cryo-sleep journey — Hmmm. Too good to be true? Maybe in a horror movie, eh? So a predictably stupid decisions is made for the crew to go down to the planet and check it out. Unfortunately, they stupid decisions just keep coming when they decide that the primordial jungle is so balmy that they don’t need any helmets — even the Prometheus crew wore helmets, until they decided not to and let the alien spores get into their bodies. And so on.

Michael Fassbender really steals the show in the dual role of Walter and David. Not only does he have a great story-telling voice, he’s got that stolid calmness, that inscrutable creepiness, and that trusted strength, all of which he can subtly switch around. They’ve also come a long way with their showing dual roles side-by-side on screen. I’m not quite sure how they do it, but the scenes between the two androids are seamless. As enjoyable as Fassbender’s performance was, I don’t quite know why they chose to make David the centre of the story. Once the space crew meet up with him, he’s like some kind of creepy, Gothic host welcoming them to his Transylvanian castle (Mwa-ha-ha-ha!). Going back to my earlier comments about how the movie could have really expanded the world of these films, getting into world of the Engineers, or even find ways to expand on the xenomorphs and how they mutate, I think that’s where the interesting stuff is. Maybe someone can even come up with some real biological ground rules for these creatures rather than just having them change or become whatever is needed to cause more carnage for the crew. Instead the story all seems focused on a few human/android characters every time, and how they foolishly fall prey to these alien creatures.

If you’re a pop culture nerd like myself, you could argue the cautionary tale of a very similar movie franchise, Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick, which did try to parlay a story with killer alien monsters into an entire attempt at world-building and complex mythology. That attempt failed and led to Riddick, the last sequel, going back to the formula of a planet full of bloodthirsty creatures. However, I think that if we’re going to get a whole bunch more of these Alien sequels (or pre-sequels), we need to do more than just rehash the same formula over and over. Perhaps Ridley Scott just felt that the first Alien movie was so archetypal that he’s been continually trying to retell that story from different angles.

Anyway, Covenant was definitely well made for space-horror: the visuals and special effects are gory and great. We’ve gotten to the point where we don’t even question the CGI. In the back of our minds, these creatures basically exist. Again, the potential for a much more epic and interesting story universe is still out there, as they haven’t explored much more of it here. The movie plot itself held the possibility of many twists, but in the end fell back on a bit too many cliches to be surprising. If you’re new to the genre, you may prefer to watch the original Alien, but if you’re a fan of the series, you’ll certainly get more of what you’ve come to love (4 out of 5).

More Shows to Watch (May 2017)

The network television season has all but ended, and next week we’re going to be talking about the new shows coming in fall 2017, but before we reach that point, there are still a few interesting shows on right now (including a couple from Netflix, so they’re always “on”) that could tide you over until we all go outside for summer play (or movies). And since I’m the one writing this post, there is a definite genre slant to this quick list.

American Gods

This is a high-quality, nicely-visual TV adaptation of hit fantasy author Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel of the same name. While I was not a big fan of the (audio)book, I am really enjoying this show–definitely more than I thought I would. Essentially, the main character Shadow Moon is an ex-con whose life takes a few unfortunate turns, but then he gets mixed up with the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday, who is organizing a little war of old gods vs new. Gaiman’s premise is that the gods go where their worshippers go, and as a nation of immigrants, America has more than its fair share of old gods. However, as culture and society has changed, so too what we worship; new gods such as Media and Technology have manifested and are busily trying to supplant the influence of the old gods. Even in the book, I loved this concept and now seeing all these characters on screen is pure delight — especially for the mythology nerd in me. The visuals range from bizarre dreamscapes (think buffalos with flaming eyes) to stretches of American inter-city landscape, and all carry that stylish, cinematic flair which is a hallmark of most Bryan Fuller productions. Shadow is played by newcomer Ricky Whittle (who also played the strong, stoic type in The 100) opposite Ian McShane (total smooth-talking scene-stealer!) as Mr. Wednesday. Filling in an incredible cast is Gillian Anderson (one of my faves) as Media, Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy (whose debut speech was an incredible scene), Kristin Chenowith as Easter, Peter Stormare as Czernobog, and Cloris Leachman as Zorya Vechernyaya. If you’re even mildly intrigued by this summary, you need to check out this unique show.

Doctor Who

Returning for his last season is Peter Capaldi as the 12th incarnation of our favourite Time Lord. This time he’s back with a new companion, having left Clara Oswald behind after her rather convoluted “death”. Now he is posing as a Scottish professor and his new companion is one of his students, Bill Potts, who brings a delightful energy and brash exuberance to the relationship. Everything is new to her (yes, Bill is a woman) and she loves to speak her mind (as most companions do) but she also says a lot of the things that we’re all thinking. There have been a few episodes this season, but they have followed a somewhat typical formula so far. There has been a future city where the robots have been overzealous about their creators’ intentions (much to the detriment of all people who visit); there’s been another visit to Victorian England where another creature is secretly killing people; and there’s been a haunted house where Bill and her new housemates are being disappeared by something creepy. Regardless of the surprisingly complex mythology (which I often can’t follow), this show is always a fun sci-fi adventure — one of the few still around. I’m looking forward to more interactions between Bill and the Doctor (especially since she’s a lesbian and so we should be refreshingly free of the romantic entanglements that the companions all get with the Doctor) and also the anticipation of his next regeneration (which is likely to be the season finale).

The Get Down

This sensational trip back to late 70s Brooklyn, in the waning days of Disco and the infancy of Hip-hop made a splash last summer for its first half-season. Now Netflix has the second half of the tales of Ezekiel Figuero, Mylene Cruz, Shaolin Fantastic, and the Get Down Brothers as they try to live their dreams of musical stardom. The young lovers Zeke and Mylene were both on the rise when we left off. Zeke had the patronage of movers and shakers in local politics, and potentially had a shot at an Ivy League future. Mylene was becoming a disco diva, but her self-serving father was eager to use her fame to promote his church and its own rise. This series has a very refreshing style with a lot of great music and powder-keg energy. So many characters are bursting with desperation to take control of their lives and change their futures, along with the darker undercurrent of the times, filled with drugs and violence, which was chasing them to pull them under. This show takes melodrama in a new direction, and while I really enjoyed the first half-season, the second was not nearly as fresh. The pressure for these characters to compromise their beliefs in pursuit of their dreams was kind of a cliche. The fact that everyone around them was using our heroes for their own ends was another cliche. For some reason (hopefully artistic rather than merely budgetary), the second half-season kept using a lot more animation (meant to represent the comic book artistry of Jaden Smith’s graffiti-artist character Dizzee) and it was both annoying and cheesy. While there was a kind of climax to the storyline, culminating in a war between musical forces old vs new, the second half-season was a let-down from the potential of the first.

13 Reasons Why

This controversial teen drama actually debuted on Netflix at the end of March, so there’s been a bit more time for people to have seen it by now (I know I binge-watched it over most of a weekend). It stars familiar young actor Dylan Minette as Clay Jensen — a high school kid who is trying to cope with the suicide of Hannah Baker, a girl who he was friends with (and possibly loved), when he is given a mysterious set of cassette tapes. On these tapes, Hannah has recounted the backstory of a number of individuals in the school, who she claims as having contributed to her suicide. Based on a popular book, 13 Reasons Why actually adds a lot of dramatic scaffolding around the narration of the tapes along with a lot of depth to Clay’s story. If you are interested in this kind of show, I’m betting that you’ll come for the mystery (Who contributed to Hannah’s suicide and how?) and stay for the characters. Part of the controversy around this show (and book) is about how it really gets into the mind and experience of teenagers. Detractors warn that teenagers are already prone (as depicted in this show) to expand every event so that its significance is too major to avoid or control, and makes it seem that the only way out is suicide. Minette does a great job as Clay. He’s a decent guy, with his awkward moments as well as his confident ones. He seems entirely relatable, even when he becomes frustrated and angry to the extreme. As a middle-age guy with no teenage kids, I can easily just enjoy the drama and well-told story of this show without being overly concerned with its social impact. If I were to take a small step in that direction, I’d say that it encourages a dialogue between teens and their parents by being extremely frank and dramatic. I don’t think any parent should let their kids watch this show without having a good discussion with them about their response and reactions. Nevertheless, I think this kind of provocative television is really good and just the kind of thing that the medium is designed for. Anyway, enough soap-boxing. It’s definitely worth checking out this show, and I challenge you not to be hooked after the first couple of episodes.

Also returning to Netflix are Aziz Ansari’s acclaimed sitcom Master of None (which I loved in parts, but did not watch all the way through to season-end) for a second season; and season 3 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt starring Ellie Kemper. I loved season 1, cooled down to lukewarm about season 2, and only slightly-anticipate season 3. We’ll see.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 – Movie Review

C_MR_WhUIAApVo9The “Marvel Cinematic Universe” has become something of a beast, weighed down by continuity, history, and the expectations of big budgets and big fandom. However, a new Guardians of the Galaxy movie comes out to remind us that there are still fun adventures to be had in the MCU. One of the advantages that the Guardians have is that they were relative unknowns in the Marvel Comics world before they burst onto the big screen three summers ago. Even with the runaway success of their first movie, they are still not icons like Captain America, Spider-Man or the X-Men. They could have just as easily been a totally new sci-fi franchise featuring a rag-tag band of space adventurers. In fact, it’s probably no surprise that they remind me a lot of the original Star Wars crew. In this second movie (“volume”), we seem to be catching Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon, and (now baby) Groot in the middle of a job, hired to protect giant space batteries by a race of golden-gods known as The Sovereign. The opening sequence is full of action, but hilariously baby Groot (the cute little tree person) takes the spotlight as he dances to some grooves while all his fellows fight a giant tentacular, toothy-mouthed monster trying to steal those darn batteries in the background. It perfectly reflects the tone of this movie franchise and its tongue-in-cheek blend of spectacular space-action with mundane, shoulder-shrugging humour.

The other element that completes the Guardians formula (which also happens to be a Star Wars hallmark) is “family issues”. Their payment from The Sovereign for doing this job is to get custody of Gamora’s sister Nebula (in order to hand her over to the authorities) and so the two gals have ample opportunity to work out all their differences over some beat downs and attempts at mutual destruction. Meanwhile, when the crew ends up needing to flee The Sovereign (courtesy of Rocket’s sticky fingers around the priceless space batteries), they get a helping hand from a mysteriously powerful stranger, which leads to some family issues for Quill as well.

This ensemble is very nicely balanced and it’s great how each of the main characters is needed: not only as part of the team, but also to make the movie enjoyable. While Groot and Rocket typically steal the show, this time around Drax was the source of the most humour for me. Dave Bautista is wonderful as the faux straight-man. He’s big, strong and kind of serious, but he’s also full of jokes because he laughs at the “wrong” thing and just doesn’t feel the same sense of impropriety that we might. (This will make me sound like I have a 4-year-old’s sense of humour, but I was rolling with laughter from Drax’s line “I have famously huge turds.” Please don’t judge me.)

The story itself is not too big, even though it involves galaxy-ending possibilities, the focus is still pretty personal. Almost all the aliens we meet are slight variations on humans. When The Sovereign pursue our heroes their fighter ship swarms are remote-controlled, making all their pilots act like a bunch of gamers at an arcade. Similarly, the storyline where Quill’s foster father Yondu struggles with mutiny in the ranks of his own crew of Ravagers, it feels like something inspired by The Sons of Anarchy, or some other human biker gang. Yondu himself has a pretty big role in the resolution of this movie. I actually grew to like him a bit more — not just for his relationship to Quill, but also for his bad-assery and his cool mind-controlled arrow.

The Guardians are a lot of fun to hang out with over the course of a two-hour movie, but there is so much potential for more adventures that I really wish that they were a TV series (I’d probably enjoy it way more than Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD). There is also so much room for sci-fi goodness in their corner of the galaxy that I want to see more before the next sequel movie. I know, there is an animated series that I should probably check out, but from what I saw, it was not nearly the same thing. Anyway, I highly recommend Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 as a great kick off to a summer filled with blockbuster movie sequels and franchises. (4 out of 5)