Category Archives: (2.5 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)

Fall TV 2016 Wave 1 – Returning Shows

In this year’s batch of returning shows, we’ve got a few long-timers, some shows with a few seasons under their belts, but very few sophomores — mostly because last year’s new shows were so weak. Surprisingly and disappointingly, rather than getting a fresh start on the new season, the pattern or theme this year so far seems to be “self-parody”. It’s been a rocky start.

the-chanels-scream-queens-season-2-premiere-reviewScream Queens

The only second-season show in this list, I confess that I barely committed to watching it again. I genuinely enjoyed the cleverness and craziness of the first season, but I also wondered whether I’d had enough of Chanel and her biting bitchiness for a lifetime. Cut to me watching the first two episodes of a show that was unbelievably campy on a good day. Gone is the sorority house setting, now the Chanels are preposterously nurse-practitioner-med-students at the most bizarre hospital ever. Former Dean Cathy Munsch (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) somehow made it rich on a book tour and bought an old hospital with a very dark past, which now has a new mission to “cure the incurable”. John Stamos and Taylor Lautner serve as the only two doctors in the place. The former has a transplanted hand with a mind of its own, and the latter is sub-humanly cold (not sure how that’s going to play into the plot yet). Keke Palmer is back as well, playing Zayday Williams the sorority-prez-turned-med-student. So far each episode has featured patients with grotesque illnesses (woman covered with hair, man covered with tumours, man who can’t stop screaming), catering to dialogue and characters focused on superficiality — but frankly the patients are not really that important. In only one season, this show has become the definition of self-parody as fewer characters act normal, everyone’s got a crazy backstory, and every speech is an opportunity to ham it up. Oh, and there’s another killer on the loose — this time in a green demon costume rather than a red devil one. It’s like they don’t want the show to last — yet I can’t look away! (3 out of 5)

empire-season-3-scoopEmpire

Another show that was great while it lasted was the Dynasty-goes-Hip-Hop soap opera about the Lyons family — and it’s a crazy family. At the end of last season, token-white-character Rhonda was fighting with Anika and went over the balcony — that’ll teach her for figuring out that Anika pushed her down the stairs! Also, Anika got ex-husband Lucious to remarry her in order to avoid testifying against him in Federal Court, even though she was pregnant with the baby of Hakeem (Lucious’s youngest son). Cut to this season and Lucious is his same heartless self — he doesn’t care about Hakeem and his new fatherhood; or about his son Andre grieving he death of his wife Rhonda. He even gets angry about his middle son Jamal experiencing PTSD from a shot that he took to save Lucious’s life! Not that it wasn’t far from it before, but I think this show has truly gone over the top now. Sadly, it seems like more of the same replay of the past two seasons of Lucious acting selfishly, then seizing back everything and controlling everyone’s lives, and they all somehow come back to him. A lot of that was due to his ex-wife Cookie, but now she’s not going to fall for him anymore (so why do they keep flashing back to the beginning when she first met and fell for him?). And now they’re also introducing another young “star” character for everyone to compete over. In three seasons, there are already cycles that seem to be repeating again and again. Even if you were like me and enjoyed the hip-hop soap’s appeal, you’re probably tired of it by now. (2.5 out of 5)

modfame5c8a15886Modern Family

After six seasons, even one of my favourite sitcoms is repeating itself and slipping into self-parody. Claire and Phil claim to be on a road trip while secretly continuing their family vacation in New York. Meanwhile the kids are also staying on in NYC and mild humour ensues as both sides try to hide their plans from each other. Unlike the moony eyes he once had for Haley, Manny now falls for his mom’s sister after she kidnaps him (yes, that’s right) to get back at Gloria. And worst of all, once again Mitchell makes all the wrong moves as he gets blamed for causing Cam’s bigoted, comatose grandmother to die (if only he’d been wearing a Spider-man costume while doing it). I really hope they quickly get these characters out of the ruts that they’re in. Even sending Alex away to college made almost no dent in the show’s setting — and now she’s back home again. Have they run out of steam? (3.5 out of 5)

brooklyn-nine-nineBrooklyn Nine-Nine

Here’s how you shake things up in a three-year-old sitcom: send the main characters into witness protection. Opening with a three-part story of Jake and Captain Holt in Florida trying to live dull, trivial lives in hiding from mob boss Figgis is a lot of fun. First there’s the hilarity of the ever-serious Holt trying to work for some grown-up teenager at a family fun centre. Second, Jake has frosted tips! Anyway, it was really smart to spend one episode focused just on Jake and Holt before folding in the rest of the characters in the second episode. Their odd father-son chemistry is one of the strongest elements on this show — I loved Jake’s stunned reaction to hearing that Holt had a tattoo! Back in the precinct, things were a little repetitive as they once again had to deal with a new, incompetent captain, but I think it was all worth it to get those scenes of Gina’s assistant laying zingers on Amy! (4 out of 5)

bigbang2Big Bang Theory

On this show, they did the clever thing of cashing-in twice on Penny and Leonard’s wedding: first as a Vegas elopement, now they get to redo the ceremony with families in attendance. Seeing Penny’s family was a lot of fun. Jack McBrayer is not who I expected as Penny’s brother, but he’s a hilarious actor, so I enjoyed him in the role. Also, playing Penny’s mom seemed like a total cake walk for Katey Sagal (who looks just great for 62, eh?). I am really glad they took last season’s cliffhanger of Leonard’s dad and Sheldon’s mom getting together no further, though. I think that would have taken the show into unnecessarily soapy territory. After the wedding, we quickly got back into the other ongoing storylines of Howard and Bernadette’s pregnancy, and the military hiring the guys to build their quantum gyroscope. Dean Norris (from Breaking Bad) has so far been pretty good (though subdued) as their commanding employer. It was funny to see Sheldon hopped up on energy drink — silly Sheldon! (4 out of 5)

Black-ish

While I’m happy to welcome this family sitcom to my viewing roster, I was pretty disappointed by the gratuitous commercialism of the premiere episode, when Dre takes his whole family to Disney World on a VIP vacation. Since the show is from ABC, a network that is owned by the Disney company, it might as well have been a big promotional video for the theme park. However, the episode was not too bad if you strip all that advertising away. I think they waited until episode two to really throw in the towel. While the show has shown that it can take serious topics (like racism and violence) and really handle them well, I can’t believe that they had to trivialize one of the biggest topics in human history. In the episode actually entitled “God”, I was surprised yet intrigued when Zoey declared that she didn’t believe in God, but I was bothered by the way the episode dealt with it. Dre freaked out and cried that his daughter is broken! Then he turned around and made it a black thing to believe in God, citing the hardship of slavery and oppression as the reason why blacks are more prone to belief — really?! Even the counter-argument against belief in God is belittled by its representative: Bow’s pretentious hipster brother, who speaks to the pharmacy in French and tries to leave his Parisian phone number for a call back. In the end, we get an emotional moment at Bow’s sonogram that kind of brings Zoey back to belief, but overall I thought it was terrible, and bordering-offensive how the producers squandered and diminished what could have been a thought-provoking and even profound episode. I really hope the rest of the season steps it up.(3.5 out of 5)

shield-eMarvel’s Agents of SHIELD

Finally, what is going on with this show?! No, I’m serious. I cannot follow what is happening. Daisy is still rogue, and I don’t know why she is chasing the Ghost Rider (but she’s got a smokey eye, so she must be serious, right?). I’m hating all this talk of the politics behind an agency like SHIELD. Do I care that they have to pander to the appropriations committee to get funding now? What is this, House of Cards? Coulson is flying around non-stop in his plane with Mac; and May is disgruntled at Jemma, who is now kind of her superior; Fitz and Simmons are playing a cute couple, and no one is telling me why they are doing any of this. Plus, they are also going after Ghost Rider, and there are some creepy ghosty people who have somehow infected May with horror-movie madness? Sigh! I miss the good old days when the plots were normal and made more sense. I need them to get back to that quickly. Bring back Ward, bring back Hydra if you must, but please let me care about this show again! (3 out of 5)

So, the returning shows haven’t been too great so far. Good thing they still have the rest of the season to improve. Fingers crossed!

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.

Midseason TV 2013

For a couple of years, I thought that the networks were taking a genius new direction in developing a year-long TV schedule, where ultimately there would be great new shows premiering throughout the year. Instead, midseason seems to have reverted to its old ways of being a dumping ground for shows that were not good enough for fall. New shows such as the presidential sitcom 1600 Penn and one-percenter murder mystery Deception and returning musical genre-blender Smash all seemed like they had potential until they couldn’t hold my interest beyond the first episode. I didn’t even try to watch creepy psycho-killer drama The Following.

community s4

Community

Much has been written about the unceremonious way show-runner and writer-creator Dan Harmon was ousted from the show, but I still am not clear on why. Unfortunately, against all hopes, the show’s fourth season is just not the same without him. Maybe I’m only remembering the good stuff, but nothing is nearly as clever or funny as it was in the previous seasons. Instead, everything seems a bit like a pale imitation. Starting out of the gate with a Hunger Games spoof that was more bizarre than humourous, it seems like the new producers think that the series is more about quirky oddness than it is about laughs. Also, even when they have a good opportunity to expand the show’s mythology in the episode where the gang goes to an Inspector Spacetime fan convention, it feels a lot like they’re trying to milk what’s left of Harmon’s legacy for everything it’s worth. For example, they tried to bring back the foosball playing Germans (sadly without Nick Kroll as lead Deutsch-bag) to challenge the group for the study room (really, why?); Pearce keeps retaliating for being left out and Jeff keeps making speeches about how the study group is a family; and Chang is back in the dean’s custody, possibly faking his “Changnesia”. None of it comes across as all that clever. I’m still hoping things can pick up if they leave Harmon’s legacy alone and create new interesting things with the show, but I don’t think it’s going to make it to that point. Sad, because I’d really grown to love the show in its first three seasons. (3 out of 5)

cult

Cult

This new series about a show-within-a-show (and the conspiracy of deadly-strange that surrounds it) is trying very hard to pick up some of the fragments of that flood of “mysterious” shows that came in the wake of Lost. Sadly, this series is no Lost. Its biggest problem is that it’s way too confusing and convoluted. It’s about an on-the-edge journalist (played by Matt Davis, who bit the supernatural dust as Alaric on The Vampire Diaries) whose brother mysteriously disappears after seeking his help to escape from unknown people who are after him. His brother seemed convinced that it was all connect to a cult television show that he had been a fan of (also called “Cult”, where the subject matter is a dangerous cult. The show has a reclusive writer-producer who seems to be pulling the strings on the show and in the scripted world of the show-within-show — “Lost” yet?). Suspicious characters, mysterious red cars, and next-gen computer viruses abound (which I normally love) but I can’t figure out why I care about any of it now that I’m so confused. Davis has never been very charismatic, so it’s a challenge following him as a lead character into this murky world. As the characters in the show-within-show are also trying to figure out details about mysterious disappearances and crimes, it’s a very thin line that separates the show from that show-within-show. I think they should have established more about what’s going on within the show before trying to mess with viewers’ heads in this “meta” fashion. Nobody wants a big headache (especially not when watching the CW). (3 out of 5)

zero hour 627

Zero Hour

This show could have been amazingly cool (but now the show is already off the schedule — not a good sign). When the wife of a publisher of a magazine about paranormal stuff (As if, right?) is kidnapped, he discovers a bizarre and ancient conspiracy that leads him to clues about a potential cataclysm that he (and his team) try to prevent. The big flaw in this Da Vinci Code style story is the lead, played by Anthony Edwards. He’s more of a soft-spoken guy who cannot carry the show in the role of a smart, action-hero lead. There are FBI agents, research assistants, and even a mysterious villain (who kidnapped the wife) named White Vincent, but none of these side characters compensate for Edwards either. This could have been a globe spanning mystery action series with all kinds of bizarre and crazy stuff, but now it’s a jumbled-up mess full of questions that will probably never be answered. (2.5 out of 5)

So I gave some midseason shows a bit of a chance, but this is one bleak midwinter — Game of Thrones season 3 just cannot come soon enough!

Movie #24: Conan the Barbarian

In light of all the “reboot” controversies over the last couple of years, it’s interesting that no one seems to care about Conan the Barbarian coming back to theatres. This time, the title character is played by Jason Momoa. It’s kind of odd casting, since he was quite memorable in a very similar role as horse-lord Khal Drogo in HBO’s Game of Thrones. I was surprised to find that Conan is  a tiny bit more capricious and whimsical than the Dothraki warrior. Momoa actually gets to flash his playful grin a few times. I think the reason why no one cares about the Conan reboot is that these movies never really amount to much more than Saturday matinee fare. The plots are ridiculously shallow, full of sword-and-sorcery stereotypes. Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones have set a high bar for modern epic fantasy, but sadly not many producers are interested in taking that challenge. In this movie, Conan is a Robin-Hood-style raider, helping to free slaves while seeking out the identity of the man who destroyed his village and murdered his father when he was a young man. This villain, named Khalar Zym (and played by Avatar and Terra Nova‘s Stephen Lang) is trying to put together an ancient mask which will give him the power to rule all (and also bring his wife back from the dead). Aiding Zym is his daughter Marique (played by a creepy Rose McGowan who clearly picked up some style tips from her ex, Marilyn Manson), a sorceress who is hunting down a “pure blood” female to use in the ritual to activate the mask. All this backstory is fine and good, but mostly meaningless since the details don’t really matter. The plot is pretty rudimentary: villains kill their way to their objective, and our hero Conan tries to stop them while protecting (and of course, falling for) the pure-blood girl, Tamara (played by Rachel Nichols). Another reason why the details don’t matter is because most of the time it’s very hard to follow them. If it’s not the over-loud score, it’s the cacophony of crashing, clashing, yelling, or screaming that drown out most of what’s being said. Nevertheless, I like that there is a little magic in this movie. In fact, there’s a pretty cool scene where Marique summons some warriors made of sand to take out Conan. Otherwise the fight scenes are too often full of jump-cuts and close-ups that make them difficult to take in. Add to that a very dim and muted colour palette for most of the film, and you can see how it would be pretty hard to enjoy the visuals (despite some impressive scenery — whether they’re real or matte paintings). Since I love the genre, I really wish that someone would take the fantasy-adventure film and make it a bit more intelligent, better acted, and enjoyable. Alas, I may need to hold my breath until the next reboot of Conan (2.5 out of 5)

24 down, 26 to go!

Movie #23: The Expendables

I’m not quite sure why I watched this movie. Even though I was not really a fan of those old testosterone-fueled movies from the 80s and 90s, I guess there’s something intriguing about gathering together Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Steve Austin into a single movie. Add to that minor roles for Bruce Willis, Eric Roberts, Mickey Rourke, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger the Terminator, and this is going to be a rockin’ movie, right? Hmmm… can you overdose on testosterone? Or maybe these action stars were all just too far past their prime. Whatever the reason, this movie limped along much lamer than it should have. Co-written and directed by Stallone himself, the plot focused on a mercenary band led by Stallone’s character Barney Ross (even the name sounds lame). This is one of those band of buddies type of groups who come together to do missions, drink beer and throw knives at a dartboard. They were hired by a mysterious man (Willis’s character) to take out a South American dictator. As Stallone and Statham went ahead for some reconnaissance, they got on the bad guys’ radar but also met a spirited local rebel (who unfortunately got captured). After the other two barely escaped, Stallone went back in, determined to rescue her with his whole crew in tow. I guess the story was no more ludicrous than any of those classic action films, but still the movie was quite a mess. The fight scenes were often at night and all the mercenaries wore black, so it was difficult to distinguish one from the other. It didn’t help that there were so many quick camera cuts throughout. Amazingly, even when they were not fighting, just sitting around the circle in a planning session or talking, director Stallone continued to use quick cuts to jump from one guy’s face to another, showing multiple reactions to every comment. It’s almost as if they had to all get equal screen time in every scene. It was very distracting. I also couldn’t believe the pacing of the movie, which went from dragged-out heart-to-heart (really??) conversations between characters that we barely know (which only highlighted these guys’ poor acting skills), to frenetic action and big explosions. There was very little in between. If I were to pick the performances which I thought were the best of the lot, I think I’d go with Statham and Willis. There was definitely none of the sophistication here that we’d expect in a modern action movie. They didn’t even do much with the title concept of “The Expendables“. To whom are they expendable? Why did they choose to call themselves that? Even if this was a self-parody, it might have been alright, but I think everything was meant to be taken seriously — except the jokes, I guess. When did Dolph Lundgren become the cut-up of the group? He was whipping out as many zingers as Statham was knives! In any case, this movie was kind of a jumbled wreck, and I’m extremely surprised that a second film was green-lit. Who knows, maybe the sequel will prove that this “Retired Action Hero Collective” gimmick is worth pulling off. (2.5 out of 5)

23 down, 27 to go!

Movie #15: Anonymous

This movie starts out with an interesting premise (and a prologue by Shakespearean heavyweight, Derek Jacobi). He describes, with poetic and dramatic flair, some of the facts we know about William Shakespeare the playwright and leads to how little we know about Shakespeare the man. According to this story, Shakespeare was a hammy, buffoonish actor who got the credit for the works of the Earl of Oxford (played by Rhys Ifans). If this movie (fictional or true) began seeking to fill in the blanks about Shakespeare, it definitely got distracted by focusing on the life of the Earl of Oxford (who it posits was the “actual” Shakespeare). Relatively little time is spent in the theatre and with characters there, rather much of the attention is given to the court of Queen Elizabeth I and the manipulations going on there. There is a lot of confusing time-jumping between the earlier days when Elizabeth was younger (played by Joely Richardson) and later when she was much older (played by Richardson’s real-life mother, Vanessa Redgrave). It was kind of cool to have mother and daughter play the Queen at different ages. If only the depiction of her was a bit better and more interesting. As a younger woman, she’s a bit of a cougar, lusting after the young Earl of Oxford (played by Jamie Campbell Bower, who I am not a fan of, but apparently gets repeatedly cast as every young, beautiful, male character with a British accent). He writes his plays and stages them for her at court. Skipping forward, she’s kind of a bordering-senile old woman and when she hears about plays being performed which sound familiar, she doesn’t quite connect the dots (at least it doesn’t seem like she does). Oxford has been having his plays performed in town, handing them to Ben Johnson (who eventually becomes one of the most famous English writers in his own right) to pass on to Shakespeare. Oxford’s got the soul of a poet (and apparently mad skills as a playwright) and despite the political situation he finds himself in (which prevents him from openly working as a writer), he cannot resist discretely watching his plays performed. What follows is a convoluted and dull story about intrigue over Elizabeth’s succession and her illegitimate sons. The tone of this movie is all mixed up, going from courtly drama to theatrical farce to historical romance. All the while, none of the characters seem very likeable or interesting. The scenes are dingy, dark, and drear (the flashbacks are a bit more colourful, but not much) and the story unfolds in bits and pieces. The script is also a bit murky about what plots and schemes are going on. (The more I describe it, the more I can see how this could have been a very intriguing film if it had followed more of a straightforward arc, kept the Shakespeare stuff to a minimum, and given the actors meatier scenes and a better-written script.) Instead, all these soapy, larger-than-life pieces of the story just don’t come together to form a compelling movie. A highlight for me were those play-within-a-play scenes where the performers were doing actual lines from Shakespeare’s plays. Hearing timeless, incredibly-well-written lines performed served only to diminish this movie’s script by comparison. (2.5 out of 5)

15 down, 35 to go!