Category Archives: Books

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.

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New Year, New TV 2017

Streaming has really changed the way we watch TV, and what would have (over the last few years) been considered “midseason” — I.e. the time when networks bring out new/returning shows to replace the ones that have already been cancelled or taken an early break — is now a bit more free-flowing. Netflix (and other streaming sites) have no real concept of “seasons”, but perhaps for competitive reasons they are releasing a bunch of new series at midseason. While there was barely enough time to fit a bunch of new pilot episodes, now I can barely catch my breath when 13 or so episodes per show are being dropped in my lap at a time. All that is just to excuse myself for only having watched one or two episodes of many of these new shows even when they look promising and exciting. Too much of a good thing, y’know?

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Sherlock, season 4

This is the only returning show in this post (though given how infrequently the episodes come out, it might as well be new — Am I right?) Nevertheless, it is always great to get new episodes of this amazing detective show (for those of you who don’t know, this is a modern take on the original Arthur Conan Doyle literary creation, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes — now hurry up and watch all the back episodes!). I’ve only watched the first episode of this season (even though by now all 3 episodes will have aired). In this episode (“The Six Thatchers”) the case in question, which concerns a mysterious body found incinerated in a car fire, is only the stepping stone to another mystery around why someone is breaking into homes and stealing plaster busts of Margaret Thatcher. Cumberbatch shines as usual in the title role. There’s more exploration of the story behind John Watson’s wife, Mary, who had previously been revealed as a kind of super-agent. The episode was really good, and hit its usual marks with an unfortunate twist at the end that will affect the relationships on the show. Apparently they are also introducing a new villain to the series, even though Sherlock is constantly looking for clues that Moriarty is back somehow. I really can’t decide whether I wish there were more episodes of this show, or if I savour the few that we get even more because they are so rare. Well, it’s not as if I get a say either way. I’ll just have to really enjoy the remaining episodes.

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Emerald City

This show is based on the original novels by L. Frank Baum but puts an even more epic fantasy spin on the story than ever. Think of it as Wizard of Oz by way of Game of Thrones. Directed by Tarsem Singh (who also directed the feature films Immortals, The Cell, and Mirror Mirror, with a similar flamboyance and flair). The scenery is breathtaking, with amazing mountains and old castles. The interiors are decadent and luxurious, and the costumes are lavish and beautiful. The visuals give the fantastical world a much grander scope (and it doesn’t hurt to have colossal statutes guarding the city ports). Other reviews have commented on how this series is great to look at but the story is nothing special. I have to kind of agree so far — I’ve watched only the first two episodes. Dorothy (who is a strong-willed adult nurse) has landed in this enchanted land courtesy of a tornado, and she’s already been joined by a dog called Toto, and met a straw-covered man hanging by the roadside (who she’s calling Lucas, but we all know he’s the Scarecrow). She accidentally collided with the witch of the east when she arrived (the cop car that Dorothy hijacked plowed into her, but that’s not actually how she died). In reinventions like this series, we viewers like to keep an eye out for how classic characters and story elements have been modified, and we judge their cleverness. I’d say this version gets a high score for cleverness (the yellow brick road is a cobblestone path through the mountains whose colour is caused by the poppy pollen that falls on it), but I also don’t find that it really matters that this was based on The Wizard of Oz. Surprisingly I have often lost myself in the details and forgotten about that part. I’m just enjoying it as an epic fantasy tale that’s great to watch.

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One Day At A Time

With this show, Netflix is doing a reinvention of a 70s sitcom rather than a classic fantasy novel. It follows the original premise of a divorced mom trying to make a life for her family (I didn’t really watch the 70s version, so I don’t know how much has been carried over). In this version, the mom, Penelope, is a Cuban-American (played by Justina Machado) who had been an army nurse in Afghanistan. She works in a small clinic and lives in an apartment with her teenage daughter and son, along with her mother Lydia (played by Rita Moreno). I think the main characters are all well written and well acted, and Moreno as Lydia steals every scene — she’s just amazing. As far as clever reinventions go, the theme song is also great. It’s a reworking of the original “This Is It” infused with an energetic dose of salsa (courtesy of Gloria Estefan) — I’m humming it my head right now! Like the original show, the new version deals with some pretty serious socio-cultural issues in a heartfelt and humorous way. It’s got a bit of that old-school, optimistic, family sitcom flavour, but a fresh perspective as well (I even learned a bit about Cuban culture). Thanks to Netflix, I’ve binge-watched this whole series of 13 episodes already (and I’m going for round 2).

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A Series of Unfortunate Events

Another reinvention, this time a series of kids books (which had been made into a movie featuring Jim Carrey) is now a new Netflix show starring Neil Patrick Harris. The story is told of three orphan children whose parents are killed when their home burns down. Violet Beaudelaire, her brother Klaus, and infant sister Sunny are sent to live with their guardian, Count Olaf (played by Harris) who hatches villainous schemes to get his hands on the Beaudelaire family fortune. Just like in the books, the stories are far-fetched but enjoyable, with a definite tongue-in-cheek tone. The tone is one of the best things about the show. Similar to the short-lived TV series Pushing Daisies, and many a Wes Anderson film (like The Grand Budapest Hotel), there’s a kind of turn-of-the-century (20th century, that is), Victorian-dollhouse kind of aesthetic, along with a prim and wordy style of narration — sorry if this isn’t clear, but you’ll definitely know what I mean when you see or hear it. The series has a lot of fun, as these clever orphans try to get themselves out of all kinds of predicaments, mostly concocted by the villainous Count Olaf. Harris is dastardly delightful in the role, and he even sings a theme song with different lyrics each episode to recap the plot so far. I’m not sure which part I enjoy more: the clever tricks, the quirky characters, the look and feel of the visuals, or the mysterious conspiracy and subplots that are brewing beneath the main story. That’s not to mention a sardonically dry narration given on-screen by the resonant voice of David Puddy from Seinfeld, Patrick Warburton — who here plays Lemony Snicket, the ostensible yet mysterious author of these stories. I think this show is great, and another all-ages winner for Netflix.

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Troll Hunters

Netflix is on a roll in the kids department, also having debuted Troll Hunters in December. This animated series comes from nerd-visionary director Guillermo Del Toro (who also directed Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, and Pacific Rim). It’s set in what appears to be a modern suburb, where your average school kids attend classes complete with chubby best friends, tough guy bullies, dreamy potential girlfriends, plus school plays and gym locker rooms. However, previously unnoticed in the shadows, is a world of trolls (no, not the ugly dolls with the crazy hair) but gargoyle-like creatures with multiple eyes, arms, and fangs. They may all look scary, but some are actually good (while others definitely aren’t). One night when a heroic troll hunter battles an evil troll, he gets destroyed, leaving behind a magical amulet which seeks out a new troll hunter and instead finds a young human kid named Jim. Being the new chosen, Jim (voiced by Anton Yelchin, RIP) is now hunted himself by an evil troll named Bular (voiced by Ron Perlman). Jim doesn’t really know what’s going on, and he’s busy just trying to grow up and get on with his life, but he gets help from a couple of other friendly trolls, including Blinky (voiced by Kelsey Grammar). Two episodes in, I wouldn’t say that Troll Hunters is not ground-breaking kids fantasy, but it’s pretty well-animated, and the voice talent is top-notch. However, I suspect that the story is going to pick up; and kids can always use more fantastical shows.

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The OA

Speaking of fantastical shows, one new Netflix show that is not for kids (probably more because they wouldn’t understand what is going on than any other reason) is The OA. This series came out of nowhere to unexpectedly surprise Netflix subscribers. I’ve only watched the first episode but (even though I’ve read that there’s a disappointing ending) I am hooked. Partially it’s all the mysterious questions about this woman who is caught on video jumping off a bridge only to survive and be identified as Prairie, a woman from a small suburban town who went missing seven years prior. She also used to be blind, but somehow is able to see now. What’s more, she calls herself “the OA” (whatever that means). Her behaviour and the clues about her just keep getting stranger (She’s kind of like a grown up version of Eleven from Stranger Things) as she gets a bunch of local teens to help her perform some kind of ritual. That’s when things really change. While I love a good, quasi-sci-fi mystery, I also love the crazy way this show played with the story line in the first episode. We spend about 40 minutes in this kind of suburban wasteland where we think the story is going to be about Prairie trying to reintegrate and remember what happened to her, and where she starts to bond with a psychopathic delinquent named Steve, then “Wham!” we take a narrative left turn and the opening credits begin on a very different type of episode. I don’t want to spoil much for anyone who has not yet watched, but that switch really caught me off guard and made me want to watch all the more. The show has a strong indie-film vibe, and Britt Marling (who is one of the show’s creator and plays the OA) is also known for roles in those kinds of films. I’m hoping that the rest of the series won’t be too disappointing, but the opening is a lot to live up to.

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Beyond

This series is slightly not as weird as The OA, but it also features a main character trying to reintegrate with the community after a long mysterious absence. Holden Matthews wakes up from a 12 year com, returns to his family and tries to recover a normal life. Unfortunately, there are many things that are odd about his situation, not the least of which are the shadowy men who are after him, his very surreal dreams of people he may have known during his coma (yep, you read that right) and not to mention his thunderous super-powers. This show is released on Freeform in the US, so it’s meant for young adults or teens. That target demographic kind of shows in the way the episodes are written. Poor Holden is confused and lost in a crowd of adults and family who keep telling him what to think and do. The people who may have some answers may not be trustworthy (including his best friend Kevin) and people who have answers never find the time to explain things to him. Unfortunately, a lot of the dramatic tension and suspense would probably unravel if the characters actually reacted like normal people. One example that struck me as odd: when Holden’s brother takes him to a college party, he loses control of his powers while unconscious in the bathroom. He causes the place to burn down and they escape without anyone suspecting Holden’s involvement. However, the next morning, after she hears about the incident on the news, Holden’s mother asks him if any of his friends were involved with the incident. Besides the fact that he just woke from a long coma and has no friends, why would she ask him about this completely unrelated incident for no reason if it were not just some kind of plot device to try to build a little suspense (“Does Mom know it was me?” wonders Holden. Whatever.) To top it all off, the plot moves in fits and starts, with a lot of action, then tons of slow moving scenes of interaction where we don’t really learn anything about the characters or the plot. I thought this show had some promise, but after two episodes, I’m already getting tired of it.

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Taboo

Lastly, this is a show that I cannot really make sense of, but which has totally grabbed me by its style, its tone and its uniqueness (and which I will attempt to describe). Tom Hardy (movie actor from films such as Inception, and many others where he plays a brooding English bruiser) again plays to type as James Delaney, a man thought dead by his family and friends, who actually went to Africa during the turn of the 19th century. When his father dies, he returns to England to claim his inheritance — a small, worthless strip of land in on the west coast of North America called Nootka Sound. Apparently not every mystery is revealed because the East India Company is also very interested in this land and had made a deal with Delaney’s half-sister and her husband to acquire it before he returned from the dead. Oh, and by the way, he claims to be in love with her (I know! Lannister much?!), but thankfully the two of them did not do the deed next to their father’s casket like a couple of (yup) Lannisters. (One more little GOT connection is that Delaney’s sister is played by Oona Chaplin, last seen getting killed along with her unborn child, King-in-the-North husband, and mother-in-law at the famously ill-fated Red Wedding.) The visual style of Taboo is really interesting. It’s clearly not set in Jane Austen’s England, but rather one that is full of mud and dirt and where everyone wears black all the time (not to mention the many stove-pipe hats). The characters, especially Delaney, speak in a kind of epic melodrama kind of way. Also the characters are all very clever and scheming and baring their teeth behind their smiles (or frowns). I don’t know where this series will go (Are we headed to Nootka Sound?) but I’m keen to find out.

Streaming TV (especially Netflix) has dwarfed the networks at midseason in keeping TV fresh by bringing out a whole bunch of interesting series. There are a few more coming that I’m excited for, including APB, about a tech billionaire who uses his money to supe-up the local police with hi-tech gadgetry, and I might try The Young Pope, where Jude Law apparently plays a power-hungry and corrupt young pontiff.

So much to watch, so little time!

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Movie Review

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This is my most anticipated movie of 2016, and I have been looking forward to seeing it ever since they announced that we would be returning to JK Rowling’s wizarding world (without Harry). Just like they did with Tolkien’s The Hobbit, they took a thin book, with story set in the same universe, and made a whole bunch of quasi-prequel movies from it. In this case, the original was a little textbook about magical beasties that the Hogwart’s students supposedly read in school. To make a series of movies, Rowling herself got involved to write a script about the book’s fictional author, named Newt Scamander, and his adventures in jazz-age New York.

At first, I was a bit concerned about the movie because it seemed like it was just going to be about Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne), bungling things up in an attempt to recover his creatures once they escaped his magical suitcase. Don’t get me wrong, those are some fun scenes, including a gold-loving platypus-like critter loose in the bank, and doing a mating dance to attract a giant magical rhino at the zoo. However, I expected more from Rowling and friends, and they did not disappoint. The creatures are the hook, but it turns out that something much scarier and deadlier is hurting Muggles (which the Americans call “no-maj” on account of their being people with no magic). This crossing over of the magical world into the non-magical is a big problem, and it brings the magical government into the story, trying to maintain their secrecy — a cornerstone issue for wizarding politics. That’s what gets Scamander into trouble as he gets arrested by a local agent and needs to deal with their American ministry of magic.

The tone of this movie starts off light and whimsical, but as the story spreads, it becomes more serious and much darker. It’s exciting that Rowling expands her world even further than ever. We have seen wizarding banks and ministry offices already in the Harry Potter movies, but now we go to wizarding night clubs, meet wizarding gangsters, and even get to see the wizarding death penalty. It was also great to feel that this world was so broad. This movie opened the door to many other such stories waiting to be told; I imagined even the idea of a weekly procedural show based on cases from the office of the aurors (magical police). There is so much exciting potential.

Along with Redmayne (whose mumbly, accented voice takes some getting used to), the main cast is filled with relatively new faces. Katherine Waterston plays the arresting agent and reluctant ally, Porpentina Goldstein. Her sister Queenie (played by Alison Sudol), and Jacob Kowalski (a No-Maj who stumbles into the adventure when he runs into Scamander at the bank) bring their side-kick game (as well as some romance) to the story. Finally, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, and Colin Farrell all play dark characters who may be villains or victims (plus there’s a surprise cameo at the end). The cast is pretty good (especially Sudol, who I’d never heard of before), and really helped sell this universe.

If I had to provide a critique of this movie, I think it could have used a bit more colour and brightness. I get that they’re going for a film noir vibe, but have a few more scenes in the daylight rather than night-time (it didn’t help that I was watching through the murk of 3D glasses). Maybe not everyone should dress in darks and blacks, either. Other than that, it’s hard for me to speak badly about another visit to this magical world, even hearing people name the old spells brought a warm feeling of familiarity. Now I cannot wait until the next movie (there are more planned) or maybe I’ll crack open the books again — I haven’t yet read the new Harry Potter play, either. This movie really reminds me of what made that world so enchanting and well loved. (4.5 out of 5)

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

Midseason TV 2016 – Plenty of Sci-fi & Fantasy

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

LOT_Review_01DC’s Legends of Tomorrow

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

Shadowhunters

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

x-files2016The X-Files

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

colony-01Colony

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

shannara1453094557_2The Shannara Chronicles

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

luciferLucifer

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

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

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

magicialns-socialThe Magicians

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

Firefight by Brandon Sanderson – Book Review

Firefight-coverI’m enjoying all this super-powers/super-hero stuff on TV and in the movies, but I admit I’m also getting tired of how they are very similar and blending into each other. That’s one of the things I loved about Brandon Sanderson’s novel, Steelheart, and a big part of why I also loved the sequel, Firefight. In the first, we were introduced to this world where people gained super-human powers and then became super-villains, dominating the world without care for the lives of regular mortals. Mere mortal David Charleston had sought to kill Steelheart (a very powerful “epic” who ruled the city of Newcago and had murdered David’s father) with the help of the Reckoners (an underground group of anti-epic rebels). After they defeated Steelheart, this second novel continues the Reckoners’ mission to rid the world of epics by having David go to another city, Babelar (formerly New York), to defeat its ruler, Regalia (who actually drowned a large portion of the original city using her water powers). It may sound like a somewhat flimsy and repetitive plot, but one of Sanderson’s main strengths is his creativity in coming up with interesting ideas to build into the worlds he creates. As well, these books are written full of action and exciting description, with fun characters (we get new ones when David hooks up with the Reckoners stationed in Babelar). These books are like summer blockbusters, waiting to be filmed.

Along with a pretty interesting “power system”, where each epic has a number of super-human abilities (e.g. water manipulation, flight, creating illusions, invulnerability) as well as a very particular weakness which negates their abilities (e.g. being doused in Kool-aid, hearing some particular music, or being faced-down by someone who isn’t afraid). It’s fun to follow along with David as he and the other Reckoners try to understand how these strengths and weaknesses work, as they plot to bring the epics down.

David himself is a great protagonist. He believes in his mission to end the epics, yet he has a youthful enthusiasm for learning about them as well. A few other characters comment on how David has the ability to sway others to his way of thinking and to believe in him. Everything seems wondrous from his point of view, and he has a kind of self-deprecating humour and charm that make you really root for him. In the first book, he was driven very much by his desire for revenge, but with Steelheart defeated, David’s motivations have become more complicated, especially because of Megan (aka Firefight). She had been one of the Reckoners, but also a secret ally of Steelheart’s. David had fallen in love with her, and she had saved his life before escaping and disappearing herself. Now she shows up again in Babelar, apparently working with super-villain Regalia. So, David has a new, slightly-more-mature struggle with his beliefs that all epics are inherently evil. If that’s the case, how will he resolve his feelings for Megan?

Nevertheless, the first priority for this story is still fun. It’s well-written, with a number of good twists. It takes the super-hero genre and really plays with it in all kinds of interesting ways (and not just the ironic and cynical ways that others like The Watchmen or Birdman have been messing with the genre). For the audiobook, narrator Macleod Andrews does an amazing job with the voices of characters of all shapes and sizes. This series is a very enjoyable set of stories that would appeal to the super-hero fan who is looking for something a bit fresher than what Marvel and DC are putting out there.

If you’re interested in this series, don’t miss a novella called Mitosis that was also written by Sanderson in between the two novels. It tells the story of the Reckoners (including David) stopping another super-villain called Mitosis (whose ability was to make clones of himself), who tried to take over Newcago after Steelheart’s demise. It was also pretty fun and proves that this franchise has many potential stories to tell. (Firefight4.5 out of 5, Mitosis3.5 out of 5)

Fan art by Marina Vidal

Summer 2015 Sci-fi & Fantasy capsule book reviews

I’ve been reading a number of books over the summer: tales of magical lawyers, medieval samurai, peculiar children, interplanetary missionaries, and blade-carrying death-gods really run the gamut, but sadly most of them have been disappointments. (Given that they all had good reviews out there, maybe it’s just me.) Nevertheless, I think they’re all worth checking out if for no other reason than to inject a little variety in one’s reading list. I hope these capsule reviews will help you find something you might like. Enjoy!

Three Parts Dead (Unabridged)Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

For any new fantasy book, it’s always great to start out with a clever concept (especially when it comes to how magic works in this made-up reality). We start out this story with the fact that a god has died (I know, dead gods are not such a new concept). What’s interesting about this world is that the gods are kind of like the patrons of a city (similar to how they were treated back in ancient Greece). The cool flipside to that coin is that the gods of this world share their divine powers as agreed upon in contracts. In other words, the magical power that comes from these gods is also a traded commodity/currency. When Kos Everburning, a major fire god, ends up dead, a “craft” firm is hired to investigate. Tara Abernathy is the hero of this story, being a rule-breaking yet skilled craftswoman (aka sorceress) who finds that the more she digs into what happened to Kos, the more mysteries, plots and secrets are revealed. While I enjoyed the idea of the gods selling out their own power to fuel the cities of the world, the overall story was kind of all over the place. A lot of stories that involve investigations really become chaotic when the heroes start to chase after the bad guys and it feels like we’re all just running through a bunch of alleys and rooms without a clear sense of direction or a well-crafted plot. It’s a bit of a cliche storyline leading to the villain’s defeat after he is revealed. The world of this book also seems a bit random, with ghosts, vampires, artificial gods, etc. just showing up out of the blue. This book is part of a trilogy, so maybe these kinds of background details and connections will be put to better use in one of the other volumes. (3 out of 5)

Yamada Monogatari_ To Break the Demon Gate (Unabridged)Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate by Richard Parks

I was really looking forward to this as a fantasy novel set in medieval Japan (rather than your typical European simulacrum). I thought it would have been so much fun to see how magic works, what kinds of creatures exist in this fantasy Japan. Unfortunately, there was actually very little fantasy. Instead, it mostly turned out to be a story of court intrigue. There were a few demons, but they acted more like informants than spirits. There wasn’t much actual activity in the story either. Instead, there was a lot of talking and even some poetry (medieval Japanese nobles all communicated in haiku), but it was all very confusing as the names of characters sounded very similar, and often plot points were introduced without providing much understanding of the consequences. I ended up more baffled and confounded than intrigued. Half-way through the story (which is about a minor noble in the Japanese court assigned to look into the circumstances around a lady’s suicide.) I didn’t even care what the end-result would be once the villain was revealed, I just wanted to move on. I wish (like so many other reviews out there) I could recommend this book, but don’t let the title fool you, this story is more mundane than magical (2.5 out of 5)

The Fall of Hyperion (Unabridged)The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

As the sequel and conclusion to one of the best sci-fi books I’ve ever read, I was extremely excited to get to The Fall of Hyperion. In chronology, this book picks up immediately from the cliffhanger of the first where a group of future pilgrims are on a journey to meet a death-god known as The Shrike. While this book has each pilgrim confronting the Shrike in very different ways (based on their motives and their past relationship with the Shrike), the story becomes very complicated and convoluted for each of them. Unlike the first book, where each pilgrim recounts their own discreet stories, this time it is less clear where the stories end and begin. The stories sometimes became surreal and dream-like experiences which may or may not have answered the questions set up in the first book around the Shrike and why they are all seeking it. For those reasons I found the resolution of the Shrike storyline a bit challenging to understand. However, a cool surprise for me was that the entire interplanetary backdrop of the story: the many worlds, the politics and the conflict between humankind and the fringe-dwelling Ousters, all entered the foreground of the story. A lot of focus fell on Meina Gladstone — the CEO of Hegemony of Man who played only a small role in the first book. One of my favourite scenes of the book involved Gladstone touring the pilgrims’ home worlds on the eve of war. I was incredibly impressed by how Simmons could just as easily have satisfied the narrative needs by tying up the Shrike elements, but instead created a more expansive story about the human race scattered in space. As much as I enjoyed this book, I had to read the first book twice to really get it, and I think I will have to read this one again as well for it all to really sink in (4 out of 5).

missperegrine_334x518Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Here’s one more book that seemed (before reading it) to be fresh and inventive. Included with the book were a series of old black and white photos which seemed to show Victorian-era children doing supernatural things. The photos looked like they might have been faked (similar to the famous Cottingley fairy photos from the 1920s). The photos were actually an element from within the story about a young teenage boy who discovers his grandfather’s story about a mysterious home for “peculiar” children that he’d grown up in. When he seeks out more information about this piece of his grandfather’s past, it leads him to a magical place where he meets these children and gets involved in their world. So this story takes place in two worlds: the present-day of a small Welsh island, and the magical past version of the same place. Unfortunately, just like the inclusion of the photos, I found this book relied too much on those gimmicks and the actual story left a lot to be desired. I don’t think we really got to know the peculiar children very well and so I didn’t care enough about them when they were in jeopardy. Also, their situation was a bit too contrived, their enemies a bit cliche, and their situation too simple (Keep us safe from the mean bad-guys coming after us!). The entire set up of a group home for children with special, supernatural abilities really made little difference to this story. It could have been regular children for the most part. Also, the bad-guys were not very interesting and their motives seemed to be purely villainous (it’s their nature to want to harm these children) and two-dimensional. To top it all off, I found the audiobook narration to be terrible! The voices of all the Welsh children sounded like horrible imitations of cockney British accents that made me feel like I was hearing a school production of Oliver Twist or something. It was totally distracting. (2.5 out of 5)

The Book of Strange New Things (Unabridged)The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

I knew surprisingly little about this book when I bought it (an interesting title and cover is attractive even when I’m buying audiobooks). So I was pleasantly surprised to realize that the story was about a Christian missionary who is deployed to work among the local population of a newly colonized alien planet. There’s been so much “realistic” sci-fi lately (like the movie Gravity, or the novel The Martian) that I was excited for this new angle and interesting premise. Most of the story focuses tightly on the main character, missionary Peter Lee. He struggles to fit in with his crew-mates, and then builds up his outreach ministry with the local aliens. We get most of the story from his perspective. A lot of attention is given to relatively mundane events and details of life on an off-world base, and what it might be like to work in such a situation, but there is still relatively little action overall. As well, there are regular correspondences from his wife Bea as the situation back home becomes increasingly bad. In the end I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this story. I felt like there wasn’t a very good resolution to a lot of thematic questions, and the focus on escalating issues in Bea and Peter’s marriage also seemed beside-the-point for a sci-fi novel. As an audiobook, I found the voices of the native aliens were very hard to listen to. They sounded like someone whispering with a raspy throat full of phlegm. It probably made the rendition more realistic to have the aliens speak in a way that was difficult to understand, but it was a bit distracting from the novel. Nevertheless, for me the biggest difficulty was the unresolved feeling about it and I wondered in the end why I really cared about any of the characters or situations in the story. (3 out of 5)

So, unfortunately my summer reading met with more misses than hits, but I enjoyed getting into each book and the variety of stuff that is out there to enjoy. Hopefully I’ll read some more gems in the fall.