Category Archives: (3 out of 5)

Oscar Schmoscar 2017

Each year, when I do these quickie reviews of Oscar nominees that I’ve seen, a few of them are marginal categories — like sound editing, or costume design — but this year I think I’ve got a better slice. I still may not necessarily love the winners, but I’m glad that doing my Oscar-viewing “homework” gets me to enjoy a few films that I would otherwise have overlooked.

arrivalArrival

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Adapted Screenplay

A film that I would definitely have watched (and not overlooked) regardless of if it had been nominated, Arrival falls into one of my favourite sub-genres: brainy sci-fi. The movie is about Amy Adams’s character, Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is employed by the US military to translate for an alien race whose 12 ships have appeared around the globe. Part of what raises this story to a higher level is how it imagines the challenges of a task like this more realistically than previous sci-fi. The movie shows us how it would understandably be much more difficult than learning another human language. Nevertheless, it’s not just a dry science-y stuff about a first encounter situation. It’s also interwoven by a story of Banks’s own life experiences, having a child who dies of a fatal disease. The movie presents the story in a non-linear fashion, jumping around in flashbacks to various memories and moments in her life. The look of the movie, with its giant monolithic spaceships, and smoky-foggy atmosphere only add to the moodiness and dreaminess of the film — which seems par for the course with brainy sci-fi. That tone also seems to be cinematic shorthand for emotional depth and profundity. As you may have realized from my vague comments, this is actually a tricky film to pin down since it is very non-traditional. Nevertheless, I found it moving, thought-provoking, and really enjoyable — and I hope it wins Best Picture (4.5 out of 5).

lalaland-featureLa La Land

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Original Song (x2), Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, and Original Screenplay

On to the front-runner… I have to say that I found this movie (which has won a lot of awards already) to be way over-hyped. The semi-musical about an aspiring actress (played by Emma Stone — who I love!) and a struggling jazz pianist (played by Ryan Gosling — who I think is pretty cool) does not have that magic that makes it a Best Picture in my book. The movie tries to capture some old Hollywood musical flair (like a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie, or Gene Kelly’s Singin’ In The Rain), which it actually does fairly well. The scenes flow smoothly into song-and-dance numbers that are well done and look very nice. However, I didn’t feel like the musical numbers had any point other than as bits of flash. I like it when musicals use songs to allow characters to express themselves directly to the audience in a way that they might not be able to through dialogue. This movie starts out with a traffic jam that breaks into song, and later there’s a Hollywood party where the extras sing and dance — it’s all fluff. Stone and Gosling are on their third cinematic pairing, but I didn’t feel the chemistry this time between them. Don’t get me wrong, their scenes together still aren’t bad (and they’re both so attractive that it’s easy to think of them as a couple) but maybe it’s because they didn’t have as many scenes of good interaction as they should. To top it off, I didn’t find their voices very compatible, so when they sang together I cringed a little. The music wasn’t bad (and the haunting “City of Stars” theme is still playing in my head) but in the end, the overall movie was not very satisfying. The theme of following one’s dreams (in Hollywood) and what that might cost has been done to death. There was a bit of play with the storyline and “what-ifs”, and to that bit of editing and storytelling I would give some credit, but it still left the ending kind of flat for me. (3.5 out of 5)

andrew-garfield-hacksaw-ridgeHacksaw Ridge

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing

This true-life story really caught my attention, despite the fact that I’m not a big fan of war stories. Andrew Garfield plays US Army Private Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who would not pick up a gun despite tremendous opposition and pressure from everyone around him, including his commanders. Becoming a medic, Doss’s heroics saved many of his fellow soldiers, and turned a very difficult and almost hopeless battle into a victory against the Japanese. Director Mel Gibson has a visceral and gory style when it comes to violence in film (which is evident in an early pre-war scene of a young man who gets injured in a car mishap and his leg wound is spurting blood). Nevertheless, the main battle scene is very well done and conveys the kind of anxiety and tension that the soldiers must have felt fighting in the trenches. Unfortunately, the script has an overly sentimental and simplistic style: early scenes are always paid off later in the movie, or characters (namely Doss) start to feel larger-than-life and unshakeably noble. I was also bothered by the demonization of the Japanese (the few scenes depicting Japanese soldiers showed them either committing ritual suicide after defeat, or deceptively surrendering to US troops only to throw grenades when they got close). Overall, there was just a lack of sophistication to the script. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy this movie, because I definitely did. It was thrilling, inspiring, heartfelt and moving in parts — and I guess that’s really what it was supposed to be. (4 out of 5)

florence_bFlorence Foster Jenkins

Nominated for Best Actress, and Costume Design

I watched this movie mainly because I am in awe of Meryl Streep, who inhabits her characters and never gives a bad performance. As good as she was playing the title character — a wealthy New York socialite and arts patroness during the 40s — I don’t really see why this movie was made, and why this true-life story was interesting to tell. Jenkins was a huge devotee of music and loved to put on concerts to an audience that gave her praise despite the fact that she was a technically terrible singer (and Streep is a good singer, so it’s even part of her good performance to be shrill and out of tune). The story was arguably sadder because Jenkins didn’t realize that the kudos and adoration often weren’t genuine, but means of getting her patronage. Even her husband (played by Hugh Grant) was living with another woman on the side. After Hacksaw Ridge, which is set in the same time period, it seems even more trivial that this rich woman was putting on concerts out of vanity while the war was going on. Coincidentally there was a scene(actually a pretty good one) that made this incongruity even more pronounced where Jenkins had given free tickets to some of the military troop for her performance at Carnegie Hall. The soldiers all came across as boorish and uncouth as they were laughing and booing Jenkins’s terrible singing. So much of this movie is about how everyone around her tries to protect Jenkins from learning the disappointing truth for fear it will break her heart. In fact, there’s even an almost so-bad-it’s-good admiration that many felt for Jenkins, along with a genuine appreciation of her magnanimous spirit. Interestingly, in a parallel way, it feels uncouth for me to dislike this movie. On the surface it seems trivial and vain, but to paraphrase one of the movie lines “it’s singing its heart out”. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m not appreciating the spirit of this film. Nevertheless, I still think it only merits at 3 out of 5.

amancalledove_trailer1A Man Called Ove

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, and Best Makeup & Hair

Going out to left field a bit, I also wanted to review a foreign film nominee. I have a sweet spot for Scandinavian cinema, so A Man Called Ove sounded like a good choice. A relatively subtle film about an old curmudgeon who lives in a suburban housing complex, Ove is very set in his ways. When he loses his job, it’s finally time to join his deceased wife and he decides to commit suicide. Unfortunately (or fortunately) every time he makes an attempt, he is interrupted by his disturbing neighbours and he starts to find reasons to stick around a little longer. Eventually he befriends (or he is befriended-by) a new neighbour — a pregnant Persian woman — who helps Ove’s life get brighter and brighter. I say this film is subtle because it’s not a single heartfelt incident, or an important and touching conversation that melts Ove’s heart. Instead, it’s a series of mundane events that bit by bit nudge his life and his character in a different direction. Interspersed through the film, Ove has flashbacks to events earlier in his life, especially with his beloved wife Sonja. It’s wonderful to see the triumphs and tragedies that led him to become the man we see. The Oscar nomination for hair and makeup is probably for the ageing of the main actor, who apparently looks nothing like the balding Ove. I’m not sure if this award is deserved (especially over movies like Star Trek Beyond or Suicide Squad) but even the physical transformation was very subtle to me. This kind of film is far from unique, but when done well it can be both touching and inspiring. I haven’t seen any of the other Foreign Film nominees, but I wouldn’t mind if this one won. (4 out of 5)

zootopiaZootopia

Nominated for Best Animated Feature

I really love Zootopia and think it deserves to win. It’s not as artsy as some of the other nominees, but this movie about a small town bunny who starts her career as a cop, is so enjoyable. On top of the cuteness and the fun, it’s also a great hybrid of an animated animals story with an actual buddy cop storyline. The characters are wonderfully (and hilariously) conceived, and their expressions and looks are memorably great. As a fan of animated movies, I also found this movie carefully-able to tread that fine line between animals that represent people (which is good) and animals that parody people (which is bad). Zootopia doesn’t just have animals acting like humans  — which always leads to terrible puns — but it’s more like the animals are their own society based on humans. [I know I’m doing a terrible job of explaining this distinction — and you probably don’t care — but to me this makes all the difference between a Shark Tale and a Finding Nemo.] On top of the great characters, hilarious scenes, and fun adventure, this movie also throws in some bigger themes like racism, stereotypes, political corruption, etc. Whether or not this movie wins the Oscar (which I hope it does), I really want Disney to make a sequel as well (4.5 out of 5).

Getting Creepy With Netflix 2016

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

emelie-02Emelie

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

da_theinvitation_mesaThe Invitation

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

the-witch-02The Witch

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

iamtheprettything_still_01I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House

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

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.

Summer Movies in the Fall

I know that everyone’s probably seen these movies already (They were, after all, some of the biggest hits of the summer.), but now that some of these blockbusters are coming to iTunes, I have been able to catch up a bit (if you follow my blog, you should know that I’m always catching up with movies). Of course, I like to give my opinion on all things pop culture, so here’s my quick rundown on what I thought of them.

insideoutInside Out

I don’t think I’ll ever not be a fan of Pixar. Everything they create has an extra dab of imagination and polish. However, while this movie was fresh and fun — with its quasi-allegorical take on emotions — it lacked a little something in the overall story department. It was cool to see the characters who represent the five emotions (and the voice actors were well chosen): Joy (Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). I know, it’s simplistic to have only five, but it makes for a more straightforward movie. What made less sense to me was that these emotions were able to feel things on their own. What does it mean when Sadness feels joy? or Joy feels sad? Still, I can forgive logical flaws in the interest of a good story. Unfortunately, majority of the screen time is spent with Joy and her misadventures once she gets taken away from the central hub, where the emotions are running the show. I think that the movie should have spent more time in the real world (with Riley’s story). Now, basically all we have is the story of one character making her way back to a central location, with a few obstacles along the way. I concede that’s the premise of a lot of movies (including Pixar’s very-successful Finding Nemo) but it still seems kind of weak here. (4 out of 5)

avengers2Avengers: Age of Ultron

I love the Avengers and director Joss Whedon, plus the movie looks awesome, but I think everything/everyone is wasted on a movie that is kind of a repeat of the first one. Essentially, the Avengers keep squabbling while we wait for a villain to manifest. The action set pieces are so elaborate that it seems like we’re just killing time between them. I liked the introduction of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch (though they seemed to really alter her powers in this movie) — I’m not sure they would have kicked so much butt in the comic books as the did here. Beyond that, the idea of computer-AI-turned-super-robot Ultron trying to conquer everything and then release an onslaught of robots is so much like Loki trying to conquer everything by calling up the aliens. It’s like they just want a bunch of bloodless, disposable enemies for the Avengers to toss around. Despite having a lot of dialogue (for an action movie), I don’t think we really know the characters very well — at least not well enough that we should care about the romances between them (Widow and Banner/Hulk? Really?) or about their secret home lives (Why did we spend that time at Hawkeye’s farm?). This movie totally seemed extraneous to me, however, I’m alway a sucker for fun super-action, and bringing super-teams to the big screen. (3.5 out of 5)

pitchperfect2Pitch Perfect 2

I really enjoyed the first movie, and like Avengers, this movie seems like it took the best parts of the first and tried to find a way to do it all again without being too obvious. Anyway, this sequel has the acappella champions, the Barden Bellas, come crashing down at the height of their success, courtesy of a wardrobe malfunction. To keep their sorority/club alive, they need to win the World Championships. My favourite new element is the introduction of their nemesis, the German acappella super-group Das Sound Machine. The actual dramatic story seems incidental, but: there’s a newbie named Emily who joins their group (despite auditions being closed) and Becca (Anna Kendrick) is trying to break into the recording industry as an intern to an egomaniacal music producer. One of the good parts of the movie is the showdown scene (similar to the “riff-off” scene in the empty pool from the first movie, but this time they are at an invitation-only gathering aka the First National A Cappella Laser Ninja Dragon League, at an eccentric billionaire’s place — I know. Plausible, right? Whatever.) They face Das Sound Machine (DSM) there, and it’s pretty funny how they trash-talk each other constantly. The two leads from DSM replace Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) as my favourite characters — their eurotrash-talk is a riot! Finally, of course the world competition is fun, but mostly for the showy numbers. So, if you left the first movie thinking, “I could watch this movie again”, well then you’re kind of in luck. (4 out of 5)

mad_max_fury_road_charlize_theron_as_furiosa_and_tom_hardy_as_mad_maxMad Max: Fury Road

If we’re talking about summer-movie plots, this one has got to be the simplest one: good guys drive away to escape bad guys through a desert wasteland. However, this was probably my favourite summer blockbuster, regardless. It’s not about the plot, but about the gorgeous visuals and cinematography, along with amazingly choreographed action sequences (so you gotta see them. I can’t describe them). I had not watched any of the other Mad Max movies, so I didn’t know anyone’s backstory and it didn’t seem to matter. Max himself (played by Tom Hardy rather than Mel Gibson this time) had a helpful, but secondary role. This movie seemed to be more about Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron) and her quest to free the slaves/wives/harem of desert warlord Immortan Joe and bring them to a paradise that she remembered from her childhood. She takes them all in a big, armoured truck called a War Rig, and Joe’s forces, primarily the War Boys, chase them. There is an overlay of sci-fi, but that’s pretty incidental. The meat of the movie is about survival, escape and freedom from oppression — not to mention stunts. I was more than surprised that I enjoyed the film as much as I did. (5 out of 5)

exmachinaEx Machina

This was probably less of a blockbuster, and I remember it coming out in the spring, but I’m tossing it into this mix as well. However, maybe I shouldn’t, because it’s more of a thinker than an all-out action flic. There are only three main characters: Caleb, an unassuming but very smart programmer (played by Domhnall Gleeson) who works for Nathan, the CEO of a Google-like search engine mega-company (played by Oscar Isaac) and Ava (played by Alicia Vikander), an android built by Nathan. The film feels very much like a play since it’s mostly a series of one-on-one dialogues. When Caleb is invited to Nathan’s isolated mountain home, he soon learns that he’s there to interact with and test Ava for how alive she really is. It may seem cliche that Caleb falls for Ava, but it’s also a bit simplistic. For one thing, Nathan is constantly playing mind games with Caleb (at one point he even questions whether he himself might be an android and not realize it). Similar to the movie Her, where Joaquin Phoenix fell in love with the AI in his operating system, this movie struggles with the definition of humanity. I really found this movie well-made and thought-provoking, however I think that it really took a downturn at the end when things get predictably out of control. Nevertheless, Ex Machina is the kind of intelligent sci-fi that I enjoy and want to see more of. (4 out of 5)

insurgentInsurgent

In contrast, (if it were possible) this movie is even more simplistic and ridiculous than the first Divergent film. Janine (played by Kate Winslet) is continuing her evil schemes, but this time she’s after some mysterious message hidden in an old box/device that can only be unlocked by a divergent (that means someone who doesn’t fit into one of the five factions of this dystopian society because they have qualities of all five). Again (see also Inside Out), we’re simplifying humanity down to five elements. In case you’ve forgotten, they are Erudite, Candor, Dauntless, Abnegation, and Amity. Tris and Four (the rebel heroes from our first movie) have escaped the city and are hiding with the Amity folk in their hippie commune. What doesn’t really make sense is that Janine sends troops out to capture Tris and the others, but Tris ends up wanting to get back to the box herself so she can try to pass the tests and open it. Essentially the hero and villain of the story have the same goal — which would kind of take the thrill out of the conflict. Sophisticated and thought-provoking this movie is not, but its production values are good and it’s not completely un-fun. (3 out of 5)

jurassicworld_14Jurassic World

Chris Pratt really does make an excellent lead actor. He’s charismatic and capable. He’s like Harrison Ford with a bit less snark and a bit more strength (too bad Pratt didn’t pick up the Indiana Jones franchise instead of Shia Leboeuf). In this movie he plays Owen, an ex-navy, dino handler who has a special bond with the four Velociraptors at this Jurassic World theme park. Even though it’s acknowledged right in the movie itself, I can’t believe it’s been 20 years since the Jurassic Park phenomenon began on screen. In this movie, 20 years has allowed them to properly set up a theme park using cloned, live dinosaurs as exhibits. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Claire, who runs the park. Her two teenage nephews arrive at the park for a mini-vacation. The plot is not anything spectacularly different from previous films. A new man-made breed of dinosaur (called Indominus Rex) is being put through its last paces weeks before being shown to the public. This new dino is stronger and larger than any other, and made from a mix of all kinds of DNA (whatever the plot seems to require). So, any movie-goer worth his salt knows what happens when humans create such a dangerous monster. When it escapes, Claire and Owen try to rescue Claire’s nephews while saving all the park visitors from the Indominus, along with any other prehistoric menaces. There are plot holes big enough to fit a T.Rex through, but still I had a lot of fun watching this movie. It was interesting that they gave the Velociraptors even more personality than before (including pet names). Even those of us who had felt some dino-fatigue from how much dino content there was out there would enjoy some of the fresher scenes (including the one where Pratt rides along on a velociraptor hunt on his motorcycle). I loved the first film, and I’m amazed that they kept the franchise going through so many sequels. I think they have found success with this new reboot. (4 out of 5)

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.