Category Archives: (4 out of 5)

2017 Summer of Sitcom Binge-watching

From my lack of reviews over the summer, it may be obvious that I, like critics and audiences everywhere, think this was the worst summer movie season ever. I only got out to a couple of movies in the theatre, so what have I been doing to satisfy my pop-cultural cravings over the summer? I’ve been couch-potatoing: binge-watching a number of sitcoms (many on Netflix). Some of them I never thought I’d like, or gave up the first time around. Giving them a second chance, they aren’t half bad. So now I’m going to provide a quick recap of ten (count’em, 10) of these shows, so you can decide whether or not to give these shows a viewing.

1. Grace and Frankie

This is probably the biggest surprise on the list. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin play two women in their 70s who become unlikely best friends after their husbands come-out and become lovers. I could not relate too much with the situation behind this comedy, but an excellent cast, some pretty good writing, and a funny-yet-heartfelt tone really won me over. Fonda plays Grace, a serious, sophisticated business woman who ran a cosmetics company and needs her life to be perfect. On the other side, Tomlin plays Frankie, an unpredictable free spirit and hippie who teaches art classes to convicts and named her sons Coyote and Nwabudike. At first, they were mortal enemies, forced to live together in a shared beach house after their husbands moved in together, but they eventually learned to tolerate and even depend on each other. To me, the show’s focus on their offbeat-yet-solid friendship is what got me hooked in spite of all the stuff about seniors and their sex-lives (which definitely did not). (4 out of 5)

2. The Ranch

Just like Grace and Frankie, I’d seen promotions for The Ranch all around Netflix, as one of its originals, but I had no intention of giving it a shot. Ashton Kutcher does not really headline my kind of entertainment. I thought he was pretty funny on That 70s Show as Kelso, but his stupid goofballs are not the kind of characters that I like. When he was joined by fellow 70s alum Danny Masterson on The Ranch in a show about rancher brothers who struggle with their family, and with relationships (often due to their inability to express their feelings). These elements were all warning flags for me to stay away. However, once I tried on Kutcher, as a pro footballer who returns to his family’s cattle ranch after his career ends, I actually found myself interested in what happened to him and his family. Masterson plays his brother and in true Prodigal Son fashion, Kutcher’s character’s return stirs up a tornado of resentment from Masterson’s character who stayed behind. Topping off the triangle of stolid masculinity is their father, played really well by Sam Shepherd, who can definitely work a stone-faced glare. Again, the actors do a pretty good job (Kutcher inhabits his character well), and the show is surprisingly heartfelt about finding humour despite the financial hardships that the family faces. One weak point is Debra Winger as the mom: she’s kind of stiff and as a character, she doesn’t fit too well into the ensemble. (3.5 out of 5)

3. Life In Pieces

When it first premiered (it’s not a Netflix original), I dismissed Life In Pieces as a Modern Family knock-off. It kind of is, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable and diverting. Also about a family of adults (including grandparents, as well as grandchildren) who spend an unusually large amount of time together, there’s a very similar feel to this show. On Life In Pieces, there are three segments per episode (hence the title) and each segment brings together different members of this extended family in different situations. It’s taking the concept of “situation comedy” and putting an organized framework around it. The characters vary in likeability and quirkiness. I can’t say there are any that I am a total fan of (though maybe Colin Hanks as a hapless new dad comes close), which means I don’t have a character who anchors me to the show. It’s very take-or-leave for me, even after having watched the entire first season plus a bit of the second. (3 out of 5)

4. No Tomorrow

Another show that I gave up on originally, this one features Joshua Sasse as Xavier, an eccentric, free-spirited guy who is convinced that the world will end in eight months so he wants to live what remains of his life to the full. He meets up with Evie, who falls for Xavier’s good looks as well as his cavalier spirit. He ignites the risk-taker in her own relatively buttoned-up life (as a middle-manager for a Costco-style chain store). The situations for comedy are triggered by the two working through their doomsday bucket lists, as well as from the odd ensemble of friends and co-workers in Evie’s life. This show was alright, and it actually had a bit of an interesting background story arc around Xavier trying to get the message out about the imminent disaster. However, I did not really fall for the side characters, who are just oddly-mediocre. As for the main couple, I believe their story would have played out completely differently if they weren’t both so attractive, which just makes this show even more ridiculous. I enjoyed the episodes well enough, but if the show had not been cancelled already after its first season, I probably would have stopped watching. (3 out of 5)

5. About A Boy

Do you know of the Nick Hornby book of the same name, which spawned the original Hugh Grant movie; or that the movie also got turned into a TV series? Well, it lasted two seasons from 2014 to 2015, and presented the story of Will Freeman, a songwriter and bachelor, living off royalties from a megahit single and a roguish charm with women. However, when a quirky, hippie mother (played by Minnie Driver) and her young son move in next door, their lives start to intrude on each other and eventually bond and blend. I did watch the first episode of this show back when it aired, but immature man-child characters are one type that I really don’t like, so I stopped watching. However, as I stuck with the show this time around, I got to see a really crazy-yet-healthy relationship grow between Will and the neighbour kid (Marcus). As a bro/surrogate dad to Marcus, Will’s character really developed over two seasons. I enjoyed how they brought out the best in each other. It eventually became a plot point how close the two guys became, but I’m glad that the show leaned into that kind of unique relationship. It’s a bit too bad that the show ended, because I think I might have continued to watch it. (3.5 out of 5)

6. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I didn’t discover this series this summer. In fact, I had really enjoyed previous seasons when they first appeared on Netflix. Unfortunately, my interest and enjoyment of the series has decreased each season. The show about a young woman who had been rescued from a doomsday cult, trying to find a life for herself in New York, was an extreme and humourous fish-out-of-water story in season one, and I kind of enjoyed the over-the-top supporting characters, including her flamboyantly gay roommate, oddly crotchety landlady, and strangely clueless, rich boss. After two seasons, I now find Kimmy (played by Ellie Kemper) unbearably naive — though it was funny before. I’m finding it hard to stomach roommate Titus’s ridiculous melodrama, and the rest of the stories and characters are just getting broader and broader. As the situations get more soap-opera melodramatic (Can you believe there’s actually a “remove the bandages” reveal for one character, who ends up looking like a totally different person?) I don’t know what to laugh at anymore. (3 out of 5)

7. Master of None

As another acclaimed Netflix original sitcom, Azziz Ansari’s labour of love, has gone the opposite direction in my estimation from Kimmy Schmidt. I watched the first half of Master of None season one and gave up, feeling very little connection to Ansari’s character Dev (a struggling actor trying to find love and success in New York), and I didn’t like his friends much. (I did, however, love the acclaimed episode connecting a couple of the character to the stories of their immigrant parents.) Fortunately, good buzz caused me to retry the show, and I was really glad that I did. When Dev went to Italy to study pasta-making in season two, it transformed the show. The writing seemed to get a bump up in sophistication, while still remaining focused on Dev’s successes and failures in life. I enjoyed the characters much more in the second season, and the stories were richer and more satisfying (a high point was the Thanksgiving episode that not only traced Dev’s relationship with one of his best friends, Denise, since their childhood, it also showed Denise’s family come to terms with her being a lesbian). On top of all that, Alessandra Mastronardi is beautifully-flawed perfection as Dev’s friend/girlfriend Francesca; and the season ends with a subtle, nuanced, will-they-won’t-they cliffhanger. I can’t wait for the next season! (4.5 out of 5)

8. Friends From College

First off, this show looks like a comedy from the advertising, but it is not one. It’s a drama (with some humourous elements) about a group of friends and acquaintances from college whose group is potentially reforming when one couple moves back to New York. Keegan-Michael Key and Cobie Smulders play the pair in question, whose marriage is a bit shaky (wife does not know that husband has been having a long-distance affair with another one of their friends from college all these years, but now that they’re going to be co-located, it might just come up). I think the title of the series is meant to be ironic, or at least point a finger at the idea (which gets a lot of play on TV) that a group of friends from college will be friends forever. These characters act friendly and tease out the relationships that reach back into the past, but they are not very good to each other. The show reaches an extreme climax in the season finale as revelations lead to confrontations and a nice car is ruined. I didn’t find this show fun to watch, but I did want to see how these relationships all played out. Still haven’t decided on season 2 (3.5 out of 5)

9. Bajillion Dollar Propertie$

Coming from Seeso, a streaming channel that you’ve probably never heard of, this show lampoons the many real-estate based reality-TV shows. It focuses on a single top-end real estate firm in California, whose agents are all clawing their way to the top. While the characters are all pretty broad, they play pretty well (especially when paired with one of many comedic guest stars as clients, including Nick Kroll, Jack McBrayer, Patton Oswalt, Randall Park, Andy Richter, Casey Wilson, Weird Al Yankovic, Rhys Darby, Bret McKenzie, and Sarah Silverman). The scene that convinced me to give the whole series a shot was one where Dan Ahdoot (who plays Amir Yaghoob, a very driven agent) tried to wrangle The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun as a spoiled rich kid who has gotten high with his friends in a home that Amir is trying to sell. The writing and tone is uneven, but if you enjoy poking fun at the excess that this kind of tv normally promotes, then this is a fun cartoon of a show. (3.5 out of 5)

10. Rick and Morty

Last, but definitely not least, is an animated comedy that I should have discovered a long time ago. It is tailor-made for sci-fi geeks such as myself and, for my money, contains the highest concentration of sci-fi ideas of any series currently active. Think of it as a cross between Futurama and Doctor Who. The title characters are Rick Sanchez (a hard-drinking, hard-partying, vulgar super-genius who can invent virtually anything) and his grandson Morty Smith (a semi-naive 14 year old brought along as a companion for his grandpa’s crazy inter-dimensional adventures). Though it’s an animated show, it is not really for kids. There is a lot of profanity and some pretty perverse and deviant ideas are tossed around left and right (I confess, I would have enjoyed less of that element). Armed with a portal gun that takes them to other places in the universe as well as alternate versions of reality, this show has everything from robots, space creatures, shrinking down to microscopic, splintering of space-time, intergalactic talent competition, insectoid alien assassins, a planet of amazon women, and the list goes on ad infinitum. This show has so many details that fanboys (and fangirls) pore endlessly over them to form fan theories, etc. On top of all the science fictional goodness, there is also an intense family backdrop. The rest of the family consists of Rick’s daughter, who is Morty’s mother, Morty’s older sister Summer, and their father Jerry. The family is far from perfect and they struggle with lack of communication, lack of mutual respect, lack of affection, lack of acceptance, which may be typical in some family dramas that are trying to depict the challenges of actual family life, but on this show, it’s all part of a dark sense of humour that underlies the stories. I love that this show does not shy away from the tough stuff, and also that it does not hold back on the sci-fi. I’m currently rewatching the series (even as the third season has already begun) to try to catch as many of the details as I can. (4.5 out of 5)

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Wonder Woman – Movie Review


After the mess that was Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I was worried about this movie. Wonder Woman has never been one of my favourite super-heroes, though I did watch her 70s TV series (despite its cheesiness). Like most fans, I’m surprised it’s taken so long for her to get her own movie adaptation. In contrast to Spider-man — who’s going onto his 3rd cinematic reboot — the origin story of Diana, princess of the Amazons on the island of Themyscira, seems fresh by comparison. This version begins with her childhood living on “paradise island” surrounded by warrior women but isolated from the rest of the world. Flashing forward to an actual war story, the focus shifts to the WWI events which brought Diana to the outside world in order to fight evil. Wonder Woman’s basic backstory can seem a little old-fashioned but it’s counteracted by humour and a bunch of Pretty Woman-inspired scenes (or given the Greco-Roman context, maybe Pygmalion is a better reference). Captain Steve Trevor (played by Star Trek‘s Chris Pine) tries to help Diana the Amazon fit into Edwardian England, and ends up creating an interesting metaphor for this movie, which itself tries to help a god-like super-hero blend into a relatively earth-bound conflict between warring nations and war-time politics. It’s not only because Diana (played by Gal Gadot) is so gorgeous that she continues to stand out.

Starting out in Themyscira, the scenes are wonderfully enjoyable. The locations (shot along Italy’s Amalfi Coast) are breathtaking, and the magically beautiful weather doesn’t hurt. Early scenes of little girl Diana watching the other Amazon warriors training for battle are also great fun. The Amazon fight scenes are really good: a combination of slow motion camera work and graceful movements (spins and legwork) make the fighting feel like dancing. The scenes reminded me a lot of those from 300, and even though director Zack Snyder also worked on this movie, this time he was only a writer/story guy. Again, there’s a bit of disconnection between the Diana’s quasi-mythological backstory (looks like they’ve been using the same decorator in Themyscira’s throne room  as Thor‘s Asgard) and early 20th century London, but I was enjoying the story so much that I didn’t really mind.

When the WWI story kicks into gear, it’s largely Steve Trevor’s adventure (or at least him and his ragtag band, which easily adopts the beautiful Diana into its ranks). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his character. Chris Pine is really good at being the hero with a bashful sense of humour, but I was confused by the presence of an American in the WWI British air force (or intelligence corps). Anyway, the actual war story part of the story is not that well thought out or complex, but at least there’s a villain who is not only a German general (boo!) but a ruthless killer, working with a mad-scientist poison-maker. He might also be the current incarnation of the Amazons’ nemesis, the war god Ares. The setup is very simplistic (as comic book stories traditionally are) — I mean, the first bad general that she meets is the enemy that the Amazons were born to fight? Seems too easy.

I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, because I really enjoyed this movie, but it’s mostly because of the charm of the actors/characters, the nicely choreographed action scenes, the fun fish-out-of-water humour, and the adventuresome spirit of the film. I also liked how the movie dealt with a number of themes, including the strength and independence of women; and whether human nature or cosmic forces are truly accountable for the evil in the world. Any disjointed pieces of story came nicely glued together. Wonder Woman is a great palate-cleanser after the loud, over-the-top, confusing, and shallow super-hero movies that we’ve been seeing recently (4 out of 5).

Alien: Covenant – Movie Review

One thing that disappointed me about the prequel Prometheus was that it started to open up the Aliens mythology (with the Engineers, and a Lovecraftean backstory), but in the end the story was reduced to another space crew finding a primitive version of the Alien xenomorph, and being slaughtered. I was hoping that Alien: Covenant (the sequel to the prequel) would make more of that story, but sadly it didn’t really. Once again, a space crew ends up on a planet where the monster awaits them, and they fight for their lives. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that it’s not thrilling and well-made, or that I don’t enjoy another trip to space-horror town, but let’s make this story broader, no?

Covenant is definitely a follow-up to Prometheus as it opens on a flashback for the android David, from the first movie, talking to his creator, Weyland. That scene has a thematic connection to the rest of the movie, dealing with the idea of creation and creators. That theme was also a big part of Prometheus. In this movie, our intrepid space crew is awakened from cryo-sleep when a freak space storm-type event causes major damage to the ship, which is also carrying thousands of colonists to a new home. Their caretaker is another android, named Walter (also played by Michael Fassbender, but this time with an American accent — Hmmm.) When the crew stabilize things a bit and start making repairs, they also discover a nearly ideal planet that they didn’t notice before, one that is perfect for their colony and would save them another 7 years of their cryo-sleep journey — Hmmm. Too good to be true? Maybe in a horror movie, eh? So a predictably stupid decisions is made for the crew to go down to the planet and check it out. Unfortunately, they stupid decisions just keep coming when they decide that the primordial jungle is so balmy that they don’t need any helmets — even the Prometheus crew wore helmets, until they decided not to and let the alien spores get into their bodies. And so on.

Michael Fassbender really steals the show in the dual role of Walter and David. Not only does he have a great story-telling voice, he’s got that stolid calmness, that inscrutable creepiness, and that trusted strength, all of which he can subtly switch around. They’ve also come a long way with their showing dual roles side-by-side on screen. I’m not quite sure how they do it, but the scenes between the two androids are seamless. As enjoyable as Fassbender’s performance was, I don’t quite know why they chose to make David the centre of the story. Once the space crew meet up with him, he’s like some kind of creepy, Gothic host welcoming them to his Transylvanian castle (Mwa-ha-ha-ha!). Going back to my earlier comments about how the movie could have really expanded the world of these films, getting into world of the Engineers, or even find ways to expand on the xenomorphs and how they mutate, I think that’s where the interesting stuff is. Maybe someone can even come up with some real biological ground rules for these creatures rather than just having them change or become whatever is needed to cause more carnage for the crew. Instead the story all seems focused on a few human/android characters every time, and how they foolishly fall prey to these alien creatures.

If you’re a pop culture nerd like myself, you could argue the cautionary tale of a very similar movie franchise, Pitch Black and Chronicles of Riddick, which did try to parlay a story with killer alien monsters into an entire attempt at world-building and complex mythology. That attempt failed and led to Riddick, the last sequel, going back to the formula of a planet full of bloodthirsty creatures. However, I think that if we’re going to get a whole bunch more of these Alien sequels (or pre-sequels), we need to do more than just rehash the same formula over and over. Perhaps Ridley Scott just felt that the first Alien movie was so archetypal that he’s been continually trying to retell that story from different angles.

Anyway, Covenant was definitely well made for space-horror: the visuals and special effects are gory and great. We’ve gotten to the point where we don’t even question the CGI. In the back of our minds, these creatures basically exist. Again, the potential for a much more epic and interesting story universe is still out there, as they haven’t explored much more of it here. The movie plot itself held the possibility of many twists, but in the end fell back on a bit too many cliches to be surprising. If you’re new to the genre, you may prefer to watch the original Alien, but if you’re a fan of the series, you’ll certainly get more of what you’ve come to love (4 out of 5).

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 – Movie Review

C_MR_WhUIAApVo9The “Marvel Cinematic Universe” has become something of a beast, weighed down by continuity, history, and the expectations of big budgets and big fandom. However, a new Guardians of the Galaxy movie comes out to remind us that there are still fun adventures to be had in the MCU. One of the advantages that the Guardians have is that they were relative unknowns in the Marvel Comics world before they burst onto the big screen three summers ago. Even with the runaway success of their first movie, they are still not icons like Captain America, Spider-Man or the X-Men. They could have just as easily been a totally new sci-fi franchise featuring a rag-tag band of space adventurers. In fact, it’s probably no surprise that they remind me a lot of the original Star Wars crew. In this second movie (“volume”), we seem to be catching Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon, and (now baby) Groot in the middle of a job, hired to protect giant space batteries by a race of golden-gods known as The Sovereign. The opening sequence is full of action, but hilariously baby Groot (the cute little tree person) takes the spotlight as he dances to some grooves while all his fellows fight a giant tentacular, toothy-mouthed monster trying to steal those darn batteries in the background. It perfectly reflects the tone of this movie franchise and its tongue-in-cheek blend of spectacular space-action with mundane, shoulder-shrugging humour.

The other element that completes the Guardians formula (which also happens to be a Star Wars hallmark) is “family issues”. Their payment from The Sovereign for doing this job is to get custody of Gamora’s sister Nebula (in order to hand her over to the authorities) and so the two gals have ample opportunity to work out all their differences over some beat downs and attempts at mutual destruction. Meanwhile, when the crew ends up needing to flee The Sovereign (courtesy of Rocket’s sticky fingers around the priceless space batteries), they get a helping hand from a mysteriously powerful stranger, which leads to some family issues for Quill as well.

This ensemble is very nicely balanced and it’s great how each of the main characters is needed: not only as part of the team, but also to make the movie enjoyable. While Groot and Rocket typically steal the show, this time around Drax was the source of the most humour for me. Dave Bautista is wonderful as the faux straight-man. He’s big, strong and kind of serious, but he’s also full of jokes because he laughs at the “wrong” thing and just doesn’t feel the same sense of impropriety that we might. (This will make me sound like I have a 4-year-old’s sense of humour, but I was rolling with laughter from Drax’s line “I have famously huge turds.” Please don’t judge me.)

The story itself is not too big, even though it involves galaxy-ending possibilities, the focus is still pretty personal. Almost all the aliens we meet are slight variations on humans. When The Sovereign pursue our heroes their fighter ship swarms are remote-controlled, making all their pilots act like a bunch of gamers at an arcade. Similarly, the storyline where Quill’s foster father Yondu struggles with mutiny in the ranks of his own crew of Ravagers, it feels like something inspired by The Sons of Anarchy, or some other human biker gang. Yondu himself has a pretty big role in the resolution of this movie. I actually grew to like him a bit more — not just for his relationship to Quill, but also for his bad-assery and his cool mind-controlled arrow.

The Guardians are a lot of fun to hang out with over the course of a two-hour movie, but there is so much potential for more adventures that I really wish that they were a TV series (I’d probably enjoy it way more than Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD). There is also so much room for sci-fi goodness in their corner of the galaxy that I want to see more before the next sequel movie. I know, there is an animated series that I should probably check out, but from what I saw, it was not nearly the same thing. Anyway, I highly recommend Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 as a great kick off to a summer filled with blockbuster movie sequels and franchises. (4 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).

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!