Category Archives: Fantasy

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).

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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.

More Midseason TV 2017

Didn’t I tell you that there’s a lot of TV to watch? It’s been a month since I last posted about the new shows in January and there have been a whole slew more. TV programmers seem to take more chances on the weird stuff (that’s the sci-fi/fantasy genre to us fans) in midseason, so that means there’s a lot that suits my taste. Let’s jump right in with the good and the bad.

legion-0017Legion

Starting off with a wild card, Legion is the black sheep of the superhero genre (even more than Deadpool). Based on a character from the X-Men family, it’s the story of David Haller, the illegitimate son of Professor X himself. David is heir to vast psychic abilities (way stronger than ol’ pops), but mental illness (aka schizophrenia) puts him a bit out of control. The series (featuring Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens in the title role) doesn’t connect directly to much of the comic book backstory. In the show, David is being treated for schizophrenia in order to control his vast mental powers, but there isn’t much of the rest of the Marvel Comics mutant storyline that remains. Still, it’s a very retro, trippy experience. The show plays around with non-linear storytelling in a way that it’s a challenge to follow what scenes are past, present, or imaginary/delusional. There is a very heavy psychological bent to the script and the audience is struggling along with David’s mental anguish. Nevertheless, it’s far from depressing (partially thanks to Parks and Recreation‘s Aubrey Plaza as David’s asylum-buddy). If this doesn’t sound appealing, and you’re more interested in super-powered action, I promise that by the end of the first episode, there’s a big payoff. Plus, by the second episode, we meet a bunch more characters with abilities that make you feel more like you’re hanging with the X-Men (though why the show does not use any Marvel brand-named characters is beyond me — perhaps it’s because the script-writers wanted to work with different abilities than what’s already on the Marvel roster). In any case, Legion is a very good, grown-up take on the super-powered TV series. I’m excited to follow where it leads.

powerless-dc-comicsPowerless

For an almost opposite experience of the super-hero world, I give you DC’s Powerless. Instead of adding to the variety by way of a head-trip, DC has decided to hit the funny-bone with this workplace comedy set in the DC super-hero universe. Vanessa Hudgens plays Emily, a young manager who moves to Charm City (I think they just made that one up) to take over as director of an R&D division at Wayne Security. The show reminds me a lot of a series called Better Off Ted, which also poked fun at corporate life in an R&D department, but at Wayne Security they invent products to help people cope in a world full of supers (like Joker anti-venom or a wrist device that lights up when it detects a super-villain nearby). Part of the humour of this show is targeted at nerds like me who appreciate the fun had at the expense of comic-book cliches, but the other part is classic workplace humour: fitting in with a new team, pleasing an unworthy boss, etc. This division of Wayne Industries is headed by Van Wayne (played by Firefly‘s nerd-pleasing Alan Tudyk) who is constantly trying to get the attention and kudos of his much more successful cousin, Bruce (who he likes to call “B-Dubs”), and get reassigned to the Gotham office. The cast includes another nerd-friendly name, Danny Pudi from Community, who is actually less weird than he was as Abed. The first couple of episodes were OK, but they had me wondering if they would get the balance right between super-parody and office-comedy. At first they were really leaning on the latter, but by episode 3, I think they really hit the sweet-spot when the team suspected a co-worker of secretly being a super-hero, and when Emily and Van worked on landing a contract with the Atlanteans (who think of Aquaman as a celebrity). This nerd-bait show has a lot of potential and I am laughing more each week. Now if only they’d bring more actual DC characters into the show (even if it’s just for cameos). I’m a little disappointed by all the name-drops when the onscreen supers we actually see in the background are mostly new, poorly-made-up characters. Give me the real DC Comics B-list! Surely they can’t all be reserved for the movies and The CW.

riverdale-header3Riverdale

Another comic book show, though one of a completely different stripe, Riverdale takes the classic Archie comic book series and reinvents it as a moody teen drama that is part Twin Peaks, part 90210 (or The OC or Gossip Girl, even Scream Queens, or plug in your own teen soap). The show playfully reimagines familiar characters such as Archie, the red-headed golden-boy athlete-musician; Betty and Veronica, the blonde-brunette archetype girlfriends; and Jughead, who’s gone from lovable, goofy friend to offbeat, surly hipster. I was not much of an Archie fan, so I don’t know how far afield the TV show has gone, but I suspect that there were no murders in the comics. Taking a cue for Twin Peaks, the show starts out with a murder mystery around who killed Jason Blossom, one half of the town’s spoiled, rich twin elite with his sister Cheryl. The mysteries deepen as secrets all around town start slipping out, most notably Archie’s jail-bait relationship with music teacher Ms. Grundy (who don’t look anything like the old white-haired dowager from the comics I’ve seen)! In typical teen soap style, the kids are all great looking, worldly, socially-savvy, and have the clever way-with-words that a teenager only gets from a staff of intentionally hip screenwriters. All the contrivances aside, I enjoy this kind of a show for all its scandalous twists and playful naughtiness. For those of you who remember its early days, enjoy Riverdale like you enjoyed Twin Peaks before all the bizarre, creepy insanity got the better of it.

apb-dix6jbe2yts-market_maxresAPB

This show had a potentially clever premise that made room for comment on the politics of law enforcement and tech-based business and industry, even while delivering some action-packed police drama. Unfortunately APB is really missing some well-thought-out writing to make that all come together. The show is about a tech billionaire who buys a police precinct in order to get justice after his friend is killed during a corner store robbery. Justin Kirk plays Gideon Reeves, the ego-driven mogul whose R&D division apparently invented all kinds of technology perfect for equipping a police force, including: fast armoured cars, remote-controlled drones, a tracking/mapping system that puts 24‘s CTU to shame, and a smartphone app to keep in touch with the locals. Part of me wishes that the creators of the show would have gone further with the technology, coming up with insanely advanced tech for these officers. As it is, what they’ve got seems only mildly interesting (despite the fact that this CEO seems to be spending all his time tinkering with the equipment himself each week to invent something new). It’s not very futuristic and it doesn’t seem like anyone’s given serious speculative thought to what kind of tech innovations would be useful for a real-world police force. Similarly, if a captain of the tech industry was throwing his corporate might behind a police precinct, there would be armies of staff and infrastructure deployed to make everything work. Instead Reeves himself and his capable data-scientist Ada seem to be the only ones available to help (though now they’ve brought a wrestler-turned-engineer/scientist into the mix). As a show, all success seems to be riding on the back of Justin Kirk, since his cocky maverick is the only interesting character on the show. There’s also Natalie Martinez as Murphy, a supposedly veteran beat cop who Reeves takes under his wing. Sadly she is already tiresome, the way she is always showing Reeves some kind of real-life truth that he can’t buy with all his tech-mogul success. Add to that, they’ve decided to make the mayor and his office into a kind of villain and nemesis to Reeves and his new project. Argh! I hate squandered potential and this show reeks of it. I wouldn’t give much for its chances.

drew-barrymore-timothy-olyphant-santa-clarita-dietThe Santa Clarita Diet

If you thought Netflix was slowing down, think again. In addition to carrying Riverdale (at least in Canada), it also recently debuted an odd little series featuring Drew Barrymore as a wife, mom, realtor, and kind of a zombie. I wasn’t going to watch it at first because I really hate zombies and most shows and movies about the walking dead, but when I heard that this was a more Desperate Housewives kind of take on the sub-genre, I was intrigued. When one day Sheila doesn’t feel quite well and ends up projectile-vomiting gallons (I mean, they really overdid this part) of disgusting stuff, she finds that she loses her pulse but gains a very positive outlook. You would not think that hilarity would ensue, but as a kind of dark satire of suburban life, the combination is actually pretty fun. I would still love to fast-forward those parts where Sheila chows down on bloody body parts — so much blood and gore — but otherwise I’m enjoying things. Barrymore is alright in a relatively manic role, but it’s really Timothy Olyphant who shines. Joel is taking it all in stride as a supportive husband on the outside, while underneath you know that he’s just holding on to his wits by his fingertips. One of my favourite lines comes from him when they have trouble trying to think of justifiably expendable candidates to kill to feed Shiela’s hunger: “Where are all the single, young Hitlers?” Joel wonders. Absurd, right? Also, their daughter Abby’s disturbing nonchalance about all this (including the apparent victims of her mother’s hunger), and the nerdy neighbour boy who exchanges sci-fi knowledge about the undead for a chance to spend time with Abby, are a hoot as well. I have no idea how far a show like this can go, but if anything is fodder for this kind of parody it’s suburbia. Am I right?

24legacy124 Legacy

I’m happy that there are new shows coming out that are truly new (i.e. not a reinvention or reboot) but do we have room in our hearts for one more attempt at making 24 work? The last time we had Jack Bauer running around, 24: Live Another Day took the franchise global but still lost my interest part way through the shortened series. I think I was just tired of seeing Kiefer Sutherland do the same things, the same plots, the same scenes again. It was starting to feel like self-parody. This new series seems to think that casting a new lead will solve things. Corey Hawkins plays Eric Carter, a former army-ranger who is targeted by a terrorist group after all his former army squad-mates are killed. Helping out Hawkins via his earpiece is Miranda Otto as Rebecca Ingram, the former head of CTU. Once again the clock is ticking, forcing everyone to take very desperate and drastic steps in order to save the day. Jack Bauer’s kind of “there’s no time” decision making is definitely at the heart of Carter’s choices as well. When he needs to come up with two million dollars to ransom a memory stick from his crazy former squad-mate, more logical courses of action give way to a plan to get arrested in order to steal the cash from a secure police evidence facility — Really? No better plans than that? — there’s no time! In the background, other plots are also in motion. CTU is once again a dimly-lit hotbed of potential moles and leaks. Plus, Ingram’s husband (played by Jimmy Smits) is running for office, so there’s that whole political angle coming out. I have to say that seeing the same kind of stories and plots through a new batch of characters does help blow out some of the cobwebs. Muslim terrorists again? Sleeper cells again? Maybe a new story would have helped even more — but there’s no time!

theexpanse_bobbie_draper_03b-0The Expanse

Coming back for its second season is a show that held the hopes of many a Battlestar Galactica fan, that complex, sophisticated sci-fi would actually entertain. I think this show’s still got a way to go to prove that, but after watching several season one episodes twice to get there, I think I am following the story to some degree. Last season saw former Star Helix detective Miller (played by Thomas Jane) and former ship captain Holden (played by Steven Strait) discovering that events in their crazy lives (including many people trying to kill and silence them and their allies) led to the body of Julie Mao, a former operative for the OPA rebel group, who was exposed to a deadly alien organism. In fact, the entire space station they were on was being used as an experiment by forces unknown to test out this “protomolecule” at the expense of thousands of lives. Luckily, Miller, Holden, and the remaining crew of “The Rocinante” spaceship were able to escape (as they had done all through the first season) and now they join forces with Fred Johnson — an OPA leader — to get more answers. Meanwhile, politics on Earth and Mars are starting to boil over as a new troupe of Martian marines are gearing up for conflict. The plot of the show is definitely confusing (I’ve probably made a few errors even in that brief summary) but I guess that’s the price we pay for realism in sci-fi. Obviously we don’t understand all the background and the motives for all the characters, but we want to avoid the contrivance of having it all explained to us in exposition (so we have to pick up the bits and pieces where we can) — and this is all from someone who’s already read the book! I am not the number one fan of space-wars (or any war stories), and frankly it was the Cylons that kept me enjoying BSG, but I think that The Expanse‘s blend of action scene with character-driven dialogue is well-done enough to keep me interested to see how this all plays out. I’m two episodes into the second season (so I’m not quite caught up) but things are really getting interesting.

magicians2The Magicians

The show quickly left behind its Harry Potter comparisons in season one, as its Hogwarts-for-grown-ups storyline gave way to the darker plot of defeating The Beast. Our snipey band of grad-school wizards found themselves shockingly betrayed by one of their own friends/allies as they were gearing up to defeat the “big bad”. Julia shook hands with The Beast in order to get his help to take revenge on an evil trickster god who had raped her and killed her friends. Now the rest of the gang is camped out in Fillory (the Narnia-esque magic realm of this series) preparing to once again face The Beast and Julia. I enjoy some of these Fillory story elements more than the Brakebills stuff. It’s fun to take a deeper look at this broad, magical world. Unsurprisingly, nothing is as innocent as you’d expect. The fictional Fillory books were supposed to be children’s books but the world is not a children’s world — this show is always quick to remind us of that. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the first book that this show is based upon, so I didn’t read any further. Now that we’re in season two I have no idea where the story is heading. Hopefully that will make it even more fun for me. I’ve only watched two episodes of this season so far, but I’m still enjoying it.

p04dgb66Planet Earth II

Finally, I wanted to make brief mention of the latest nature show which proves that even the BBC is not immune to sequel fever. Coming 10 years after its landmark series that brought us some incredible and unique images of nature (I’m still not over those unbelievable crystal caves!), Planet Earth II just started airing in North America (though it’s already long-finished in the UK). In the first episode, there was lots of amazing footage from various islands around the world, including a remote volcanic island near Antarctica where again we get to see the insane lengths to which penguins go to in order to feed their chicks. The visuals are, of course, breathtaking and I look forward to seeing what other wonders the rest of the series holds.

Even as I write this, new shows are popping up (including the HBO series Big Little Lies, created by David E. Kelly (of The Practice) and featuring amazing stars like Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Alexander Skarsgard; Also The Good Fight — the sequel series to The Good Wife) and I cannot keep up, but it’s never a dull moment on TV now, is it?

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?

sherlock-s4

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.

emerald-1482142290-screen-shot-2016-12-19-at-101127

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.

one-day-at-a-time

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!

Moana – Movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

Getting Creepy With Netflix 2016

This year, for my Halloween creepfest (that’s where I watch a bunch of movies that are scary, but more on the psychological side, without all the gratuitous gore and demonic horror that can be part of a scary movie these days), I once again decided to plumb Netflix’s movie collection for some creepy gems. Last year I enjoyed a few good ones, including the inspired, frightening, new classic, It Follows. Alas, this year I watched four movies but was not really scared at all. Consider these reviews more of a warning of what to avoid this All Hallow’s Eve. Note: I watch Canadian Netflix, so if you are in another region, you might not have these movies available — Consider yourself lucky!

emelie-02Emelie

I’m guessing that this movie about a psycho babysitter is meant to tap into every parent’s fear of leaving their kids with a stranger. That could have made for some tense and thrilling suspense, but alas this movie is ruined by all the psycho-character cliches that are thrown in for no logical reason. Emelie screams at the kids; she breaks all of the mom’s rules; she feeds the kids’ hamster to their snake and makes them watch; and she’s a total perv, making the kids watch a videotape of their dad having sex with another woman, and making the pre-teen boy watch her use a tampon in the bathroom, all just to prove that she is crazy. Message was received when we started the movie by watching the real babysitter get abducted. We know she’s a fake! Wouldn’t it have been so much more suspenseful if she had acted like a good babysitter, only to gradually slip up and leave clues that allowed us to realize that Emelie’s story was a lie? Anyway, even her motives are made so plain, as she tells the youngest child an allegorical bedtime story about how a mother lost her little cub and wants to replace it. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop the filmmakers from showing us the whole thing acted out in a flashback while she narrates. When the kids finally fought back, I was so happy, not so much because I wanted them to be safe, but I just wanted the story to end. (1.5 out of 5)

da_theinvitation_mesaThe Invitation

Another suspense, indie-film, classic theme is the dinner-party gone awry. We start out with a couple driving up to a big house in the Hollywood hills for a dinner party. Apparently, Will (played by Logan Marshall Green with Jesus-like long hair and beard) had previously been married to the hostess. When he and his new girlfriend arrive, most of the other guests are there and it’s sort of a reunion of the former couple’s old friends. Again, we’re treated to a few dinner-party-film cliches as someone proposes a truth-revealing game, and some sex and drugs get thrown around. As the truth-telling continues, we hear a bit more about a few of the guests who are new friends of Will’s ex and her new boyfriend (played by Game of Thrones‘s Michiel Huisman). They all spent some time together in a cult of sorts that seems pre-occupied with death– a red flag! As the dinner goes on, there’s a strange undercurrent to the evening that only Will seems to notice. I guess I wish this movie had been better written, and made up its mind what kind of movie it was going to be. If it was going to be more of a “dinner party conversation” kind of movie, then it needed some more thought-provoking dialogue that dealt more with some interesting new ideas and philosophies. If it was going to be a suspenseful, shocking, twisty film, then it should have built up the suspense gradually. It was tense, granted, but so implausible that everyone would just have a regular dinner with all the weirdness that happened — I think the actual dinner being delivered as a montage was a clever way to avoid dealing with that flaw. I won’t spoil the over-the-top climax, but it’s not as unexpected as you might think. There’s a bit of a twist at the end, but by then I didn’t really buy the story anyway, so I was far-from-chilled by its implications. (2.5 out of 5)

the-witch-02The Witch

I had heard that this movie was very scary — in a slow-burning, get-inside-your-head kind of way, but it was not for me. However, what I thought was really good was the performances of all the characters and how they pulled off the dialogue in Puritan-English. Kudos to the writers of this movie, set in 17th century New England, for actually using very authentic-sounding language of the time rather than just using modernish English. The main characters included a teen girl, a pre-teen boy, and two young twins, who all very naturally spoke the period dialogue. This movie seems all about the authenticity, and if it were just about the hardships of a pilgrim family banished from the settlement, struggling to survive in the bleak wilderness, it would have made a very good movie. While it’s still not a bad movie, deciding to mix in the idea of a witch tormenting these poor souls took this film down another path. It would have made for some scary suspense if they’d left the question open to the imagination, but perhaps the filmmakers were sticking with authenticity when they quickly revealed the actual witch (in all her grotesqueness) who stole the baby from this poor family. For the rest of the movie, this very religious family starts pointing fingers at each other and seeing witchcraft in their own household, but alas we already know who the real culprit is — suspense diminished. I don’t know how she would feel about this comment, but another prize should go to whoever cast Kate Dickie as the mother. If you watch Game of Thrones, you’ll know her as Lysa Arryn of the Vale. She’s got the face and demeanour to play any shrew or harridan character that writers can come up with. In this movie, when she believed her own daughter to be the witch, her over-reactions reminded me so much of when Lysa had persecuted poor Sansa Stark. Overall, this movie is pretty well-made. Unfortunately, I found myself distracted by wondering why any of this was happening. I didn’t understand why the witch would target this family (and what would have kept her busy in the middle of nowhere if this family had not come along). The ending could have been played for shock, but it isn’t really. I’m not sure I know what to make of that either. (3.5 out of 5)

iamtheprettything_still_01I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House

After this film, I might just give up on these non-scary horror movies. I think they try too hard to be high-concept, and the point is lost along the way — or maybe just lost on me. This film (with a great title, no?) was a hit at the Toronto International Film Festival, and picked up by Netflix, but I’m not really sure why. Netflix seems interested in more commercial stuff than this film, which you might think of as a “horror-film postcard”. It’s the story of a young woman who starts a job as a live-in care-giver to an old author on her deathbed. Each scene is nicely framed, with shots squarely aligned with doorways and dining tables, etc. The house they are in is old enough and quaint enough that even when the scenes flash back to pre-20th-century, no redressing of the set is needed. From the outset we know this is a ghost story because the main character narrates from beyond the grave, telling us that while we see her in her present day, she won’t live to see her next birthday.  There’s a bit too much narration, in my opinion, and while it’s nicely lyrical, the voiceover is distracting. The bulk of the movie, however, is very tranquil and very little actually happens beyond some unexplained thumping, some mysterious black mould on a part of the wall, and a whole lot of eerie, high-pitched notes on the soundtrack. This movie seems more interested in setting the mood to horror rather than actual frights. Even the whole ghost aspect is very mild. The main character, Lily, is self-admittedly prone to fear (which makes it surprising that she’d have taken this job) but it borders on annoyance to watch her get scared at such minor disturbances. Her over-reaction lessens our own fright as viewers. In the end, I don’t really get this movie. It’s pretty in its way, but more than anything, it’s dull. (3 out of 5)