Category Archives: (3.5 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 2

I’m enjoying the new fall TV season so far. There’s nothing that I absolutely can’t miss, but a number of shows are still intriguing enough that I want to keep watching.

New Shows

westworldWestworld

At the top of the list of new shows worth sticking with is definitely Westworld. Hype has pegged this to be HBO’s successor to Game of Thrones, which kind of baffles me because the shows are nothing alike. From a business point of view, I guess this is another series that can cross over from the nerd population to be a general audience hit. The show is a bit cryptic with regard to what it’s really about. On the surface, we seem to be watching the operation of a Western-themed sci-fi pleasure-planet populated with artificial people (which are called “hosts”), who service the needs of the guests. There is some kind of glitching going on with some of the hosts, but it’s not totally clear what the problem is. Also, so far we’ve been introduced to several guests, including Ed Harris as a man who has been playing Westworld’s game so long that he’s now looking for “the next level” — and leaving a trail of bodies behind him. There are a lot of puzzling things going on, with a nicely gradual reveal. Apart from the amazing cinematography and scenery, there is also an excellent cast to keep us interested until we get our answers. Anthony Hopkins plays the world’s creator, Jeffrey Wright plays one of his top successors. Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton all play host characters. Not since Lost has a series like this held so many mysteries. (4 out of 5)

american-housewifeAmerican Housewife

I feel like we’ve got a bit of a formula going on, with a fancy neighbourhood where our quirky family doesn’t really fit (they’re on the poorer end of the earning spectrum) and they like to look down on the hoity-toity neighbours. Despite that, I was drawn to the show by Katy Mixon (who played Molly’s younger sister on Mike & Molly). While the first episode contained way too much voiceover narration, I like Mixon’s sassy persona. The rest of the family and other characters will need to develop. I don’t love that the youngest daughter has some kind of anxiety disorder (the trend to have a token mentally or physically-challenged kid on every family sitcom is a tricky one). However, the two other kids seem to be poached straight from 80s hit Family Ties, but rather than it being a reaction to the parents’ hippy philosophy, the son being a self-centred money-focused conservative, and the daughter being pretty yet potentially-shallow are all blamed on the family being in an affluent neighbourhood. This show has potential, but it’s got to find itself and its characters without simply being a battle of stereotypes. (3.5 out of 5)

timeless-1152x759_jpg_1003x0_crop_q85Timeless

This is the only one of the several time-travel themed shows of the season that I decided to give a chance, mainly because early reviews were quite positive. The premise is that a villain has stolen a time machine and is using it to go back to key moments in history to destabilize and destroy present-day America. The present-day US government recruits a historian (played by Abigail Spencer, from Suits), a soldier (played by Matt Lanter), and a scientist (played by Malcolm Barrett, who I remember from Better Off Ted) to go back (using a smaller, prototype time machine) to prevent the villain from wrecking the timeline and the country’s history. It’s an interesting premise that begs the question of whether history will be changed in this show (or if it will always be saved — boring!). They answered that in the very first episode when Spencer’s character Lucy Preston returned from their first mission to find that her mother was no longer ill, and her sister never existed. So kudos to the show for not taking the easy way out and making sure that everything stays the same despite messing with the past. However, after two episodes, the sci-fi geek in me feels that they are still dealing well enough with the kind of large-scale consequences that should occur from the actions that the team has taken in the past in an attempt to prevent changes. If there is truly a butterfly effect, then every time they come back to the present, the world should have changed substantially. Now, I acknowledge that taking such a serious approach doesn’t necessarily make for a fun show, but this show does take itself seriously (It’s not like we’re remaking Quantum Leap) and that’s part of the problem. (3 out of 5)

kims-convenience-5Kim’s Convenience

I am very excited to see another Asian-centred show on North American TV. This CBC sitcom, about a Korean family who runs a convenience store in urban Toronto, is actually based on a very successful play (which I did see) and stars an actor, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, that I actually went to university with (we shared a class, but I’m sure he’s forgotten me, so that’s enough of the name-dropping). Lee plays Appa, the patriarch and store owner. Even from the first episode, there is already some backstory to this family as Appa and his son Jung are not on speaking terms. Umma (the mother) and daughter Janet make various attempts to mend the rift, but Asian male pride is still a thing (and there is baggage between all members of the family). Despite dealing with some emotional issues that make this show more of a dramedy than a ha-ha comedy, there are still a number of funny aspects, most often stemming from the east-meets-west clash of the parents’ personalities with expected North American behaviour. As much as I enjoyed the first two episodes, a few things still kind of irked me — I’m probably harder on this show because I am also Asian and have given these kinds of issues more thought. First, I found it distracting to have immigrants speaking broken English when they are by themselves. Sure, no one wants to watch a show full of subtitles, but I am convinced that in real life Appa and Umma would be speaking Korean to each other, not English. Second, I found the title/theme of the first episode (“Gay Discount”) kind of surprising. I would have expected a new sitcom to keep things simple, and establish the main characters and their situation before jumping into socio-political topics like LGBT rights and community. Granted, Canadian shows like to quickly establish how progressive we believe we are in this country. Still, those are minor quibbles, and overall I quite enjoyed the show. (3.5 out of 5)

Returning Shows

the-flash-season-3-episode-2-jay-garrickThe Flash

We pick up this season from where we left off. Flash has altered history (There’s that theme again!) so that his mother was not killed by the Reverse-Flash. That made his family life a little more perfect, but then he starts to notice all kinds of other inconsistencies in the timeline resulting from his actions. Events hit a breaking point that leads him to make the tough decision to undo his own changes to the past, and allow his mother to be killed. Unfortunately things do not work out so cleanly, and are not restored to where they were exactly and Flash continues to deal with the consequences. Based on a storyline from the original comic book, these “Flashpoint” episodes don’t play out as successfully as they might on paper. For starters, the universe of the TV show is way smaller, so it’s almost like playing “spot the difference” to realize how the current timeline is “wrong”. To make things worse, it’s not always clear whether the change is a good or bad thing — at least until we are told that things are bad (maybe someone dies or gets hurt), which necessitates a change to the timeline. A new villain (Dr. Alchemy) has been introduced, who seems to have some mysterious abilities and a totally unknown agenda. It’s too early to know whether he will make a cool enemy or not. (3 out of 5)

supergirl-season-2-trailer-supermanSupergirl

The end of the first season seemed very open, without much of a suspenseful cliffhanger. Kara and James are now free to pursue a romantic relationship, and Kara has received a genie’s wish from Kat Grant to choose whatever job she wants. The storylines did not compellingly lead into this season, but what has been driving the season so far has been the presence of Supergirl’s cousin, Superman (played by Teen Wolf‘s Tyler Hoechlin). Having run into each other while preventing a space shuttle crash, Superman decides to hang out with his cousin and stop a new menace together. Hoechlin does a pretty good version of Superman as well as Clark Kent, and ends up inspiring Kara to become a journalist too (lame!). Sadly I’m struggling to find my interest in this show again now that most of the drama of her career and personal life, as well as the enemies that came from her own family history, have been kind of resolved. I hope they do something to rev this show up again, because I don’t think ol’ Supes can stay on indefinitely. (3 out of 5)

Fresh Off The Boat

This other sitcom I like with a mainly Asian cast (No, not you, Dr. Ken — it will never be you!), came back with a pretty fun episode: the Huangs go back to Taiwan. I loved how they played with the fish-out-of-water idea (since the kids have not ever been to Taiwan). Again, it bothered me that almost everyone was speaking English, even in Taiwan — come on! However, it was a pretty good storyline that put the focus back on their culture (rather than a generic, colour-blind, family sitcom scenario). I especially liked how they came to realize that their home is the US and not Taiwan (a classic tension for immigrant families). I hope they really get to explore the kids more this season and give them a chance to grow — especially the younger boys. Plus, it will give them more opportunities for nostalgic “growing up Asian in North America” kinds of storylines — which I relate to, and consider the best aspect of this show. (3.5 out of 5)

That’s it for the start of the fall TV season. I realize there are still more shows coming and returning (I’m looking forward to Jane the Virgin), and Netflix has a number of shows waiting to be unleashed over the next months (I cannot wait for Black Mirror. I might do a special post just for those. We’ll see.) With a schedule full of new episodes, I guess it’s just time to keep watching and to decide which ones to stick with and which ones to let go.

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!

Fall TV 2016 Wave 1 – New Shows

Every year the networks seem to try different scheduling patterns for releasing fall premieres. This year seems to be waves. Many shows have started up already, and we’ve actually got a couple of episodes under our belts before the next wave of premieres come out. With so many shows in this first wave, I’m going to do the new shows first. That way you can hop on the bandwagon for the good ones, and just not bother with the bad.

son-of-zorn-fall-tv-preview-05Son of Zorn

From my preview, I had expected to really enjoy this show about a cartoon animated “He-Man” moving from his savage island home to southern California to re-establish relationships with his teenage son and ex-wife. It looked like the extreme “fish out of water” concept would be good for a bunch of laughs (especially since I grew up watching those kinds of Saturday morning cartoons — Yes, I was a big Thundarr fan!). Zorn’s cluelessness was funny at first, but it’s starting to wear thin. I enjoy that he actually has real feelings and wants to be closer to his son. The key to making the concept work (though it might limit the audience to us nerds) lies in what they did in the second episode. Zorn found a magical artifact in the garage called the Stone of Sight, which allows the user to watch someone remotely (clearly based on the Thundercats‘ Eye of Thundara — Yes, yes. Nerd alert!). Apart from the stalker-ish aspects (which is the easy joke), the Stone was also a comment on the desire to want to know and understand the people you care about. I think they need to keep taking crazy stuff from Zorn’s world and giving them meaning in ours. (3.5 out of 5)

kevin-can-wait-trailer-w1200-h630Kevin Can Wait

You might be surprised that I watched this show. It’s not my typical, but iTunes suckered me in with a free pilot episode — damn you iTunes! Starring Kevin James as yet another chubby hubby, this show is pretty much what you’d expect — especially from James. He’s a retired cop — and that has no real bearing on the show except that it justifies the scenes where he’s hanging around with a bunch of male friends. The show also includes a college-age daughter and her sensitive, British, hipster fiancee in the mix, but they don’t really add much. Surprisingly there’s already too many characters on the show after only two episodes. The scripts are very formulaic and the laughter is extremely meager. I genuinely like Kevin James as an actor, but I wish that he’d challenge himself a bit. (2 out of 5)

designated-survivorDesignated Survivor

This seemed to be another one of those movie concepts trying to be a series, but I guess if it worked for Quantico, why not here? Kiefer Sutherland plays some low-level cabinet-minister who quickly became acting president of the USA once an explosion took out the Capitol building and all the important people within. This reminded me a lot of Battlestar Galactica‘s plot line where the minister of education became the acting president after the Cylons destroyed the colonies. On that show, we got to see how Laura Roslin struggled with the authority and the burden until she became an incredible leader, but the whole show was not focused only on her and she had very little politics to deal with. Now with Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman, all we seem to care about is how he’s going to handle the situation. I’m not interested in another terror-crisis-aftermath story. I’m especially not interested in ones that focus on the politics. By the second episode, one of the state governors decided to implement some racist policing policies in his state and when Kirkman ordered him to change, he basically said to Kirkman “You are not my president”. That’s when I turned off the TV. The premise situation was contrived enough, and I’m already not a fan of political drama. This show is just frustration waiting to happen. (3 out of 5)

the-good-placeThe Good Place

This sitcom, about a woman named Eleanor (played by a way under-utilized Kristen Bell) who’s only in Heaven due to mistaken identity, has had a bit of a slow build. Good thing they have already given us four episodes in two weeks to get into it. What originally seemed to be more of a mocking of goodness for laughs (Hey, look at all good people in Heaven who don’t know how to have fun!), now kind of reminds me of Lost in sitcom form. There are side characters showing up and we are learning their backstories (sometimes in flashback) and realizing that not everyone is who you first think. Not only are we gradually learning how this world works (people get lessons on how to fly, a gift between two people can change to reflect the quality of the relationship, and learning to be good may be the only way to stay if you’ve been let in under false pretenses), but there are also little mysteries at the end of each episode. It’s from the makers of Parks and Recreation, so I know they know how to build a good comedy ensemble around a central character. I am having a surprising degree of fun watching this show as it grows into that (4 out of 5).

this-is-us-28409This Is Us

My under-estimation of this season’s new shows is definitely a growing theme. At first, I thought it was just another one of those dramas where we get slices of lives who all share a common trait — in fact, I remember Milo Ventimiglia (who’s also starring in this show) was in a previous show about a random group of people who all won the same lottery. However, this show offers up a few pretty significant twists in the first two episodes. There are a few main characters who all have separate lives, but also intersect, and the show definitely plays with story structure between the past and the present. I don’t want to give away too much because that’s part of the fun. The writers are very conscious of what the audience knows and doesn’t know yet as they unveil the story of these characters in a gimmicky-but-genuinely-artful way. Mandy Moore plays wife to Ventimiglia’s character great as they are, they clearly have their ups and downs. Justin Hartley plays an actor trying to leave behind a shallow but successful sitcom to pursue a more meaningful life. Chrissy Metz plays an overweight woman trying to lose weight (which is a controversial topic for any show, but I think they’re handling it pretty well so far). Sterling K. Brown, plays a successful businessman reunited with his birth father who not only abandoned him, but is now dying of cancer. So they are all dealing with some heavy topics, but this show is well-written and full of surprises. (4 out of 5)

speechless10645Speechless

This family sitcom also takes a controversial bull by the horns in dealing with a special-needs child. Minnie Driver gives a great performance as the crazy, fierce mother, Maya DiMeo who everyone in the neighbourhood is already afraid of (in the pilot, she speeds to a donut shop before a coupon expires, and the experienced cop just tells the newbie to let her go because it’s not worth it to stop her). I think this show is really well written and the characters are all very likable (even Maya). Their portrayal of the son with cerebral palsy is very positive, and not in any way pitying. The only characters that still seem a little weak (though to be fair we’ve only had two episodes) are the younger kids — a middle son who has a strong will somewhere inside his mousey exterior, and a younger daughter who seems way too driven for this family (perhaps she takes after her mother). There are a lot of funny moments and also heartfelt ones. I didn’t think I’d like this show because its subject matter seemed too precious, but that’s not how it’s treated at all. (4 out of 5)

lethal-weaponLethal Weapon

Another show that I would not have watched if not for the beneficence of iTunes, I was never much of a fan of the original Lethal Weapon movies either. However, I think they leads do an excellent job of making this show enjoyable — so enjoyable that I don’t even care what each week’s case is about because that’s obviously not the point. Damon Wayans plays Murtaugh the ready-for-retirement veteran detective (the Danny Glover role — and yes, they have said his signature line already). He’s actually much funnier than Glover and that really adds to the show. Riggs is played by Clayne Crawford (who frankly, I didn’t know from any of the things he’d already done). He is pretty good with the crazy aspects of this character who lost his wife and in-utero child to a car accident and now feels like he has nothing left to lose. His Riggs seems perhaps a bit smarter than Mel Gibson’s version (though again I was not a big follower of the movies). On top of the buddy-cop banter, there are some pretty spectacular action and stunt sequences, as well as some good family scenes with Murtaugh’s clan. I really didn’t think I would like this show, but I am definitely going to give this more of a chance — it’s my only cop show (4 out of 5).

bull-michael-weathrlyBull

Another time where the free iTunes episode steered me wrong was Bull, which stars Michael Weatherly as a genius psychologist who provides jury analysis and selection services for high-end cases. So even from that description, you can see that it’s another one of those “ornery genius” shows in the same vein as House, Lie to Me, The Mentalist, and so many others that I don’t recall because I don’t watch. This show seemed extremely pointless to me because it doesn’t even win cases by legal arguments or investigating leads. In the end, it seems that Bull (yes, that’s the name of the character) intuits the answer from talking to the people in the case, reading some of the magical analysis that his firm does about the jurors, etc., and saves the day. I didn’t watch even the second episode. I predict that this show won’t last (2 out of 5).

So far, we’re off to a pretty good start. Some potentially good shows to watch. Stay tuned for the next installment when I review the returning shows in wave 1.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

Jason Bourne – Movie Review

I realize that I wanted this new Bourne movie, but now I wish that they’d left the franchise alone. With Matt Damon back to reprise the role, and director Paul Greengrass returning too, I expected a wonderful return to form (helping us fans forget about the detour into Aaron Cross/Jeremy Renner territory). At first, things were looking pretty good. Nicky Parsons (played by Julia Stiles) was back, hacking her way into trouble. Poor Jason Bourne was just trying to stay off the grid, preferring a Batman Begins style foray into bare-knuckle fighting, but Nicky dragged him back into the CIA’s cross-hairs. What followed was classic Bourne: a scene set in a European crowd, with Bourne helping Nicky escape while being chased on a motorcycle. I was so pumped! But as the rest of the movie played out, the story-line, villains, and action all felt sub-par and “phoned-in”.

Apparently this all kicks off because Nicky hacks some files about all the CIA’s black-ops projects (Yes, those same darned projects with names like “Treadstone”, and “Blackbriar”). Since everything always points to Jason Bourne, the CIA come after him in order to make sure that he doesn’t leak all the classified info and ruin everything. Current It-Girl, Alicia Vikander (with an indeterminate, maybe Irish, accent) as Heather Lee, and Tommy Lee Jones as CIA director Dewey (whose character represents the mythical “old guard” who are so entrenched that they will do anything to maintain their own power) target all their efforts on Bourne. They also bring in “the asset” (played by Vincent Cassel), an assassin who blames Bourne for having previously exposed the black ops and gotten him held captive for years. To this already uninspired setup, the filmmakers add a tech billionaire (a la Mark Zuckerberg), who’s in cahoots with the CIA’s baddies–I guess it was meant to make the storyline relevant and current. Finally, the cherry on top is that somewhere in the hacked files, is information about Bourne’s father, and whether he was secretly complicit in recruiting and training his son to be a killer.

The rest of the movie unfolds pretty much as expected, as Bourne tries to find out the truth and the CIA try to capture him. It all seems not only repetitive, but like a faint echo of previous Bourne movies. What’s worse is that the bad-guys are so obviously evil. The Asset is supposed to be a former agent, but he kills other agents without a second glance and clearly no remorse, just to get at Bourne (Where’s Clive Owen when you need him?). At one point he accuses Bourne of being a traitor to his country, which was such an odd thing for me to hear. Given that he seems to be French, why is he so bothered by thinking that Bourne is un-American? Tommy Lee Jones’s Director Dewey is even worse. He is also willing to kill any number of his own agents to get what he wants (which is apparently some kind of end-all-privacy surveillance program). His evil is so blatant and his defeat so obviously-deserved that it’s cartoonish and tedious.

Now all this may have been redeemed if the action had been good. One of the things that have made Bourne an action star are his clever and innovative ways of dispatching the bad guys (my favourite is still the magazines and textbooks). The fight choreography is frenetic and flawless. Sadly, this time there were no magazines or anything special used to fight. When the film ended up in Las Vegas, and the showdown with the Asset took them both to a garbage-filled underpass, my heart sank. When two CIA black-ops trained killers are reduced to B-movie fist fighting I find myself wondering whether Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne was truly needed for this. Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross would have been fine (while we’re at it, I think even Jason Statham’s The Transporter could have done just as well (and even given you a lift to wherever you needed to go!)).

The Bourne series was such a polished and innovative take on the action hero genre that I really came to enjoy all the pieces that made it so special. It was like each film would take its standard elements, rejig, and improve upon them. I was really hoping that was going to happen this time too. I don’t know if it’s bad that I feel so invested in this franchise. In the end, I was so disappointed in this instalment that it felt somewhat gratifying when a new, rougher version of the Bourne theme music (Moby’s Extreme Ways) — one that I did not like as much — played over the credits. (3.5 out of 5)

Getting Creepy with Netflix

I’m not one for horror movies (kinda chicken that way), but around Halloween I think it might be fun to scare myself a little (in the safety of my living room) and Netflix helps by providing all kinds of movies to choose from. I don’t think I will ever really enjoy those gross-out-gory kinds of movies. I tend to pick scary movies that are more psychological in nature and play with the characters’ and viewers’ minds. So, if you’re ready, on to the creeps!

babadookThe Babadook

I had heard that this Australian movie was very scary (and more psychological than actual) — just what I was looking for. The story centres around a widowed mother of a young boy trying to cope with her son’s precociousness while struggling to make ends meet. She’s also dealing with a lot of unresolved feelings about the loss of her husband (who died in a car accident on the way to the hospital driving her to give birth to their son). Her son turned into quite a handful, always getting into things, ready to fight the monsters under his bed, and needing a lot of her attention. One night he asked her to read him to sleep from a mysterious book called “The Babadook”. The story and illustrations were incredibly disturbing, depicting a dark bogeyman with long, sharp fingers that you cannot get rid of until he kills you — she quickly threw the book away without finishing. Unfortunately, after that night, her son is convinced that the Babadook is real and coming after them, and as he starts to unravel, she tries to help him cope without going crazy herself.

Throughout the movie, it’s a mystery (even for the audience) is whether the Babadook is real, but most of the terror and suspense comes from the mother’s loosening grip on her sanity, and on reality. I think both the child actor who played the son and the actress who played the mom did excellent jobs going from normal to a near-demonic craziness. Throughout, there was the looming fear of whether they would survive the Babadook curse which made the movie tense and frightening, but I wish that it had been clearer what the creature was supposed to represent (because it really seemed like it was supposed to symbolize something: maybe the mother’s grief, or the frustrations of single-parenthood, or some other psychological theme). Unfortunately, that lack of explanation made the ending feel very unsatisfying as well. Nevertheless, it’s quite an achievement in horror when a mother reading a pop-up book to her son can be the cause of my white-knuckled grip on the sofa arm. (3.5 out of 5)

Circle_Still10Circle

After The Babadook, I took a little break from the frights with a movie that wasn’t really meant to be scary at all, but more of a sci-fi psychological film (if that genre really exists). Circle is almost like a play in that it’s all set in a room with a dark background, and there’s no real action that goes on besides a lot of dialogue and character interaction. The movie begins with a woman waking up in what seems like some kind of chamber, one of about 30 people of all shapes and sizes, standing on red circles of light, arranged in a circular configuration around some kind of device in the centre. The woman finds out quickly from another man in the circle that she cannot move outside of her own red circle. She starts to ask questions about what’s going on, why she’s there, who the others are, and as the others all wake up, they try to figure out the answers. To up the ante, every few minutes one of their number is randomly zapped by some kind of pulse and dies. What’s interesting about this movie is that the core of it is not in the alienness of the situation, but once the people start to realize that they are somehow choosing who is the next person to get killed, the movie becomes more about people. They begin to debate who deserves to live and who doesn’t. It’s a bit of a desert-island situation. Even in a relatively short span (I think the film plays out almost in real time) we viewers will pick sides, follow arguments, dislikes some of the characters, and it’s inevitable that one would imagine what one would do if placed in that situation. I found the movie very interesting. It’s definitely artificial and contrived, but that’s the point. We’re literally watching a (fictional) psychological experiment, but it has a couple of dramatic twists. Who can resist that kind of voyeurism? (4 out of 5)

3It Follows

After that little breather, I went back to something genuinely frightening. I confess I had first heard of this movie on an episode of The Good Wife, of all places. It has a nice simple title to reflect its relatively simple premise: a girl is cursed after having sex with some guy, there is a creature that is constantly following her and if it catches up to her, it will kill her. Doesn’t sound like it would make much of a movie, but the simplicity was really the beauty of this movie. After she’s cursed, our heroine Jay goes back to school, not really believing it. As she’s looking out the classroom window she sees people outside doing their own thing, but suddenly she realizes that one of them is not doing its own thing but rather walking straight towards her. That’s when the creeps really begins (for myself as the viewer and for Jay). She freaks out and runs out of the classroom only to see this old lady in a night gown slowly following her through the school hallway. The rest of the movie follows Jay (no pun intended) as she keeps trying to get away from the creature (which can take the form of anyone, by the way). I have to say that I really enjoyed this movie. It was so basic (a lot of times it seems like nothing is really happening) and yet it was still very scary (I was quite tense in my living room). There were so many times where the camera shows a street scene or some kind of long shot where people are moving in all directions and I was just there looking for the one person who was coming towards us (like some horrific Where’s Waldo? puzzle). If you like scary movies that are more mind-game, I think you should definitely check this one out. Just don’t be surprised if you can’t stop looking over your shoulder afterward. (4.5 out of 5)

CUBAN FURYWhat We Do In The Shadows

This last movie was not scary, but funny (and not in an ironic way), but it had Halloween themes. It’s a mockumentary film about a bunch of flatmates who are all vampires. One of the stars was Flight of the Conchords‘s Jemaine Clement, as Vladislav, a vampire in the Bram Stoker style: gothic, Slavic, decadent and Bohemian. The movie is laugh-out-loud funny even from the get-go, poking fun at many of the vampire-story conventions. One of the first scenes had a vampire smoothly raise himself up out of his casket from a sleeping position to standing position, but funnily he gets stuck at a 45 degree angle. These vampires live in modern-day Wellington, New Zealand, and try to blend in, but thankfully this movie is not about vampires acting like normal people (i.e. joining the PTA or shopping at Wal-Mart). They are still vampires who can’t go out into sunlight, need to drink human blood to survive, etc., but are also learning about Google and dealing with noise-complaints from the neighbours. One of the things that happen is that they make a new vampire from one of their victims, which adds a new dynamic to their centuries-old group. Each of the vampires has their own personality quirks. When the new vampire brings his human friend along to hang out, they find that they are capable of making friends with humans as well. The tone of this movie is indie-film ironic but it has a bit of heart as well (but doesn’t get too sappy either) and is good at laughing at itself. The humour is broad and over-the-top, but also subtle at the same time. It’s a nicely written movie and the actors are clearly having fun playing these quirky but lovable characters (even the monstrous-looking Nosferatu-style vampire Petyr is endearingly creepy). I think anyone who is remotely a fan of vampire stories will enjoy and appreciate the satirical aspects (The newbie vampire goes around claiming to be “Twilight”, just to get a little recognition, haha!) but it is a well made comedy overall. For me it made a great palate-cleanser and dessert to wrap up a Halloween movie set (4.5 out of 5)