Category Archives: (4.5 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).

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Movie Review

rogue6-xxlarge_transcwvra147zcynwgnsprk1xwk-qyyao4e-i8v8-xkbjn4Despite being a big fan of the Star Wars universe, I wasn’t really dying to see Rogue One as much as I should have been. Nevertheless, I’m glad that I watched this really fun movie this week. As others have said, it’s the prequel movie that we’ve been waiting for. For starters, this story is related much more directly to the events of the original Star Wars movie (aka Episode 4: A New Hope). We find out what went into getting those Death Star plans to the rebels that we see in that first movie. (Even more satisfyingly, we finally understand why it was so easy to blow up the Death Star with a single shot!) Even though we are mostly introduced to new characters that we have not seen in previous movies or stories, the context is very familiar. There are glossy-white storm troopers all around; you always need to get past an alien guy to see the human that you want to talk to; and everyone dresses in distressed leather with desert scarves like they just came off a dusty jeep ride. Even our heroes and their rag-tag band are echoes to previous movies: spunky female Jyn Erso (played by Felicity Jones) is clearly cut from the Leia/Amidala/Rey cloth; rebel captain Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna) has a definite Han/Poe vibe; and K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) fills our snarky C3-PO role with a better sense of humour (sorry, no cute wordless droid this time). Even though there are a lot of classic tropes in this movie, compared to The Force Awakens, Rogue One feels a lot more fresh and not like we’re watching another rehash of the seminal Star Wars story.

I really like the idea that not only does this movie fill in some back-story about how the rebels were able to get the plans to the Death Star, but also that it expands the world of the first movie in a very reasonable way. Despite the intimately connected cast of characters, as the title supposedly indicates, Star Wars is telling a war story. So, like in any war, there are many struggles and conflicts, with so much at stake, and so many lives affected, that there should be no end of perspectives to be shared and stories to be told. It’s great that they finally decided to tell one of the other ones. Jyn is the daughter of Galen Erso (played by Mads Mikkelson), a scientist/engineer who is forced at gunpoint to abandon his family to serve the evil empire and build the Death Star. On the eve of the empire’s launching of the Death Star super-weapon, Jyn is brought back into the picture when a runaway imperial pilot brings a secret message from Galen to Saw Gerrera (played maniacally by Forest Whitaker), a rebel extremist leader, which was meant for her. To prove her father is not evil, Jyn needs to rally some rebel aid (and along the way, gathers some rag-tag allies) to secure plans for the Death Star in order to help them destroy the weapon.

Considering so many things in this movie have been done before, it’s difficult to pinpoint what makes it so enjoyable. Obviously, the visuals are top-notch; from the opening scenes in the breath-taking mountainous landscapes where Jyn was born, to the eventual beaches on the planet Scarif where they fight the empire. Also, the many aliens and space-battles are always a CGI thrill. While on the topic of CGI, recreating the period of the first movie obviously provided a few challenges to the Rogue One team. It’s great that they kept a lot of the aesthetics of the Death Star interiors (with the displays and dials that seemed modern back in the 70s, but still look alright even today) from the first movie. However, what was more of an elaborate, nostalgic effort was the digital recreation of Grand Moff Tarkin (the imperial governor who commanded the Death Star). The actor, Peter Cushing, who played the character in the first movie passed away over 20 years ago. Lucasfilm used some of their latest effects from Industrial Light and Magic to recreate him and it’s actually pretty amazing. I mean, we still haven’t gotten to the point where we can’t tell the difference between actual actor and digital stand-in, but it’s pretty close. It was a little distracting because you can’t help looking closely for signs of artificiality (I’m still not quite sure what’s actually missing, but there’s definitely something), but they made a really good effort. Some viewers have complained a bit about how (like in every prequel) this movie suffers from the need to throw in cameos from the classic cast — while some make meaningful appearances, others do not.

Nevertheless, with all the attention to detail, I think in the end I was most drawn to the new characters. I really liked Jyn and Cassian. I believed in their cause and with their crew they became the underdogs that really had very little chance against an overwhelming force — but they had (as the movie keeps reminding us) hope. Also, the side-characters were wonderful as well — including Asian characters in the Star Wars universe (though one of them is still kind of relegated to doing martial arts) — way to represent, guys! If you felt kind of meh about The Force Awakens, give Rogue One a try. It might revive some of the excitement you have felt in the past for the Star Wars franchise. Plus it’s an exciting sci-fi adventure in its own right. (4.5 out of 5).

Moana – Movie review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Movie Review

fantastic-beasts-easter-egg-frank-thunderbird

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

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

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

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

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

What I watched on TV this summer

Now that the summer is ending, and the fall tv season is around the corner, I wanted to look back at what I watched over the holidays. Though I technically watched all these shows on my TV, none of them were actually broadcast over the summer. The shows I enjoyed (The Night Manager, Black-ish, Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Get Down, and Stranger Things) were all either streamed on Netflix, or downloaded from iTunes. I almost feel bad for the broadcast networks–let’s hope they really step up their games this fall.

The Night Manager

At first I was not going to watch this BBC/AMC series, which is an adaptation of a John LeCarre novel (mainly because I had a terrible — painfully trying to stay awake for the whole thing — experience watching the Gary-Oldman-starring adaptation of LeCarre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). However, a friend told me that this series was good; and I am really starting to enjoy Tom Hiddleston (he’s replaced Daniel Craig as my new model of style and coolness — despite his tabloid-bait relationship with Taylor Swift). He plays the title character, a hotel night manager (and former soldier) who gets recruited by a government agency to infiltrate the organization of an international arms dealer (played by Hugh Laurie from House). Despite the potentially action-packed premise, the series is not full of explosions and gunplay but rather more about subtle interactions and dialogue between characters. Sometimes I really enjoy those kinds of shows, but they need to have the right blend of style and substance, which this show definitely does. The characters are nicely written and the dialogue often has a delicate cat-and-mouse feel to it, so you are never quite sure what each character knows or suspects. There are just a sprinkling of nail-biter scenes, but suspense is only one of the many things that the viewer experiences from this show. As far as style, the visuals are amazing: scenery is lovely, and the villas and hotels are a slick and luxuriant backdrop. If you ever found Hiddleston the least bit charming, this role will win you over without doubt. Even the Bond-esque opening credits where bombs and guns morph into pearls and champagne are totally winning (4.5 out of 5)

Black-ish

I know this sitcom is two years old, but I sadly never gave it much of a chance before. It first appeared the same year as Fresh Off the Boat, and while both were family comedies featuring a minority cast, I found the first episode of Black-ish a lot more difficult to relate to than FOB (since I’m of Chinese background). Fast-forward to this summer, when iTunes cleverly offered the entire second season of Black-ish as a FREE download! Since the price was right, I decided to give the show another try, and loved it. In many ways, it’s a lot like a new version of The Cosby Show — which it even acknowledges with a spot-on spoof of the Cosby opening credits. It’s also about a comfortable, middle-class black family and their day to day experiences. Anthony Anderson plays Dre Johnson, an advertising exec, and Tracee Ellis Ross plays his wife Bow, a surgeon. They have four kids, including a wonderfully precocious pair of twins. As the name of the show suggests, themes of black culture and identity play a significant part in the show, however, viewers of other ethnic backgrounds will enjoy the episodes. Considering they deal with potentially touchy topics, the scripts are really well written, smart, sensitive, and pretty funny. While the characters can be broad and cartoonish at times, they are also very well-rounded. My favourite character, hands-down, is the girl-twin Diane (played by Marsai Martin). She is smart and mature beyond her years, but also edgy and cynical (despite a cherubic cuteness) — when her mom asks her what she “loves”, her answer is “revenge” — Haha! Gotta love it. After watching season 2, I paid for season 1 and I’ve already watched both seasons twice through. It saddens me to admit that I actually like this show more than FOB, but let’s just say that now I have even more TV to enjoy — long live the family sitcom!
(4.5 out of 5)

Star Trek: The Next Generation

What would summer be without an “epic rewatch”, right? Well, this year I chose to binge through my second favourite show (I already did Friends last summer). A while back I had picked up the entire eight-season run of TNG from iTunes and I was happy to enjoy the adventures of the Enterprise crew in all its 80s glory. (For anyone who doesn’t know this show, it was the first revival of the Star Trek franchise that began in the 80s with a new crew, featuring Captain Jean-Luc Picard — played by Patrick Stewart, an android Lt. Commander Data — played by Brent Spiner, and a whole bunch of other characters as they visited many planets and had thought-provoking and exciting adventures. For many of us, it was a gateway into the universe of science fiction.) It was so much fun to revisit many of my favourite episodes. Besides that, by binge-watching, I managed to get a better feel of the continuity that ran through the series as well (even though this series came before the popularity of the continuing story arc). I was able to watch more closely as the various relationships between the characters developed, and even watched young ensign Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) grow up on board ship. One of the things that this rewatch showed me (that I hadn’t paid as much attention to before) was how great a leader Captain Picard really was. Episode after episode he had to make very challenging decisions, balancing the needs in front of him with his guiding principles and those of the Federation that he served. As portrayed by Stewart, he’s still one of the most admirable characters I have ever seen. Despite the occasional big hair or big gestures, the melodrama of planet after planet of humanoids, and characters falling in love in a matter of days, the show really does hold up. Any datedness of costume or corniness is easily overlooked (as it was when it first aired) in favour of enjoying some smart, memorable sci-fi. (5 out of 5)

Stranger Things

Speaking of 80s and sci-fi, a show that definitely snuck up on me this summer was Stranger Things. I knew little about this show before I started watching it, but by the first episode I was intrigued and totally hooked. This Netflix-original series was the talk of early-summer as everyone discovered and loved this show about a bunch of kids in the 80s (first a group of pre-teen boys; then also a group of older boys and girls). Once one of the young boys mysteriously disappears from their smallish town, things definitely start to get stranger. Other people disappear, and a mysterious young girl shows up, running away from some kind of lab facility where she’d been captive. Winona Ryder plays the mother of the missing boy who appears to be losing her mind from grief. While the story was very fresh and interesting on its own, the other amazing aspect to the show was how dead-on it reflected the 80s. From the style and the props (Was that a Trapper Keeper I saw?), all the way to the style of the narrative (I wonder if Steven Spielberg ever called up his lawyers about this show), I felt like I was actually transported back to the 80s as I watched it — and certainly in a good way. While Ryder did an admirable job losing her marbles, the revelation was definitely the kids — all previous unknowns — who stole the show. The three boys reminded me so much of my own group of D&D playing friends (or at least an idealized version of them). This show was not only a love letter to the supernatural family films of the 80s, but also a tribute to the glories of young nerd-dom — complete with two amazing bully-comeuppance scenes. This show rocks so hard and (no offense to House of Cards or Daredevil) it finally justified my Netflix subscription in my heart. (5 out of 5)

The Get Down

Lastly, Stranger Things must have given the keys to the Netflix company time machine to another totally different kind of show, The Get Down, which went back to the heyday of Disco, and the dawning of Hip-hop. When I heard that this show was going to be produced by Baz Luhrmann (of Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet fame), I knew that I wasn’t going to miss it. Now first off, let me say that I am not a huge fan of hip-hop. Nevertheless, I do acknowledge that there is a certain coolness about the culture that surrounds it. In trademark Luhrmann fashion, this story centres around a troubled pair of lovers: Zeke Figuero, an orphaned, brooding teen poet; and Mylene Cruz, a spunky minister’s daughter with an angel’s voice and dreams of a disco career. Set the pair against a tempestuous backdrop of the Bronx in the late 70s, where poverty, corruption, and ethnic tension are a social and political powder keg. However, this show is not a gritty, edgy drama, but more of a glitzy, flamboyant fable. On top of the classic story arc, I was happy to get a crash course in the fundamentals of hip-hop: from how to compose a crew, to how to mix and spin the records. Surprisingly it made me appreciate the music and subculture a whole lot more (amazing how so many world-changing art forms came from the ghettos!). Just like Stranger Things, Netflix takes a name from the 80s (in this case Jimmy Smits) and drops him into a cast of relative unknowns (I especially enjoyed Justice Smith as Zeke) and gets some really good performances from them. As usual with Luhrmann productions, they are just oozing with style, and The Get Down was no exception — especially the musical scenes, naturally. I thought the criminal scenes borrowed a bit too much from Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino (not that I don’t love both those directors, just that I wish Luhrmann created his own style of gangster), but gladly that was not the focus of the story. Nevertheless, this show is fresh and unique — I can’t think of anything else like it on TV — and very enjoyable to watch (Where else can you find a name as cool as Shaolin Fantastic?!). (4 out of 5)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Movie Review

Star-Wars-Force-Awakens-Rey-Finn-BB8-runningFinally, I’ve gone to watch The Force Awakens. I know, judging by the nature of this blog, you’d have thought that I’d have been first in line, bright and early on opening day. What can I tell you? The Force Pushes “Snooze” and Rolls Over For a Bit, OK? Anyway, now that I’ve seen the most anticipated movie of the year, I have to say that it kind of lives up. It’s a lot of fun, non-stop action and it feels true to the spirit of the original trilogy — a plucky band of misfits save the galaxy from the evil empire.

star-wars-the-force-awakens-storm-troopersIn fact, there are clearly a lot of parallels between this movie and the original Star Wars. Kylo Ren (the black-clad force-baddie with the cool cross-shaped light-sabre) is the new Darth Vader (complete with new daddy-issues). The desert planet of Jakku is the new Tatooine, complete with new protagonist Rey (she’s like a cross between Luke Skywalker — with his jedi-potential and way with the droids — and Princess Leia — with her feminine spunk and greater destiny). Finn is the new Han Solo (he gets most of the funny lines, along with the real Han Solo, of course), and BB-8 is the new R2-D2 (who gets all the funny “beeps” and the good “boops”, just like R2 used to get). The First Order is the new Empire (complete with its new, much-bigger Death Star, a.k.a. Starkiller Base, better looking storm-troopers, and its new Emperor, a.k.a. Supreme Leader). Of course we have X-Wing vs. Tie dog-fights and canyon runs, as well as a brand new creature cantina (thankfully sans Hutt). Having all these reincarnated elements (and original-cast cameos) rather than a completely different angle, kind of makes The Force Awakens feel like the most amazing fan-film ever made. That’s a good thing. It’s like a reboot without starting over.

20141128-star-wars-force-awakens-screenshots-hr-009The new cast are good. I really enjoyed Jon Boyega as Finn. He’s so energetic and it’s clear that his character has a good heart. It was not difficult to want to root for his character at all. He was also very convincing as this kind of average guy who became extraordinary simply because of the choices he made. Plus, he was funny just by being frank and reacting like a regular guy. Daisy Ridley (who plays junk scavenger, Rey) looks like she could have been actress Keira Knightley’s younger, more-energetic sister (maybe Rey is the grand-daughter of Queen Amidala’s handmaid Sabe, who had a family and life of her own on Jakku. Fan-fic writers, go!). Rey is a character true to the Star Wars legacy of damsels-in-distress who rescue themselves. Finally, Kylo Ren is a much more flawed dark-side villain than the others. He actually has a temper (which they all should have had, because I thought that anger was the key to the dark side) and he has a lot of emotional struggles (though he still can force-throttle an underling like no one’s business but Darth’s). I think one of the things a bit lacking from this installment of the franchise is that the villain is not powerful enough. Despite the literally gigantic presence of the Supreme Leader (who is presumably the ultimate First Order villain), if Kylo Ren is one of the Order’s big bosses, it didn’t take much to take him down. So now I’m not sure what’s going to keep us going for the rest of the new trilogy. Ren also did not fulfill the coolness factor that both Boba Fett and Darth Maul did in the other two trilogies. We need a new bad-ass and he was not it.

forceawakens4-xlargeNevertheless, I thought that The Force Awakens was a really fun movie to watch. It gave so many familiar elements a new coat of paint, and it was great to see some of the original cast in some meaty cameos. I’m hoping that now that they’ve established a launching point to move on with the series, they can actually do something new next time, but in the mean time this movie deserves a 4.5 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)