Category Archives: Sci-fi

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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2017 Fall TV Preview

Netflix and streaming keeps changing our idea of TV seasons, when they begin and end, still we recently concluded the 2016-17 network TV season. This is also the time when the networks give us a peek at their fall schedules. For myself, there weren’t any tough cancellations — even one show that I would have kind of missed, the time-travel drama Timeless, was miraculously saved for the fall. However, I will miss the Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing, which I got into by binge-watching on Netflix and has now been cancelled after six seasons. It’s the TV circle of life: cancelled shows make room for new shows. This coming fall season, I’m most excited for new shows on Fox and ABC, while NBC, CBS, and The CW are barely registering on my radar. Let’s get into the details:

Fox

I’m most excited about Fox because they are clearly having fun with genre shows. A new show that I don’t plan on checking out is The Resident: one more medical drama, this one features Matt Czuchry (from The Good Wife) as a hotshot resident who butts heads with Bruce Greenwood, the unethical “veteran” doctor. I don’t feel that Czuchry has much charisma, so I don’t know why they keep trying to make him into a young hotshot.

Another bad first impression is on LA to Vegas, a comedy about a plane cabin crew with Dylan McDermott as the captain (Why do they keep trying to make him funny? He isn’t.) The humour is the semi-lowbrow kind that I don’t like. Pass on both these shows.

The Gifted is a new series about some super-powered kids (don’t call them “X-Men” yet) who seem to be on the run. Amy Acker (yay!) and Stephen Moyer (meh!) star as the parents. This is supposedly set in the X-Universe, but I think none of the characters will be recognizable from the comics or films. In the trailer there’s a typically over-the-top bullying scene where a nerdy boy manifests his mutant powers, which makes me hope that this show will be a little more sophisticated. So far it looks like a cheap Heroes knock-off. Still, since it’s got that X pedigree, plus it’s produced by X-director Bryan Singer, I think there is some potential.

Most promising in my book are two genre-based comedies. The Orville is a terrible name, because it’s the name of a starship, for a show that is essentially Galaxy Quest: The Series. Seth MacFarlane gets in front of the camera to star as “The Orville”‘s hapless captain. Jon Favreau is one of the directors, along with other Star Trek notables like Brannon Braga, Robert D. MacNeill, and Jonathan Frakes. It looks pretty funny, and I’m a sucker for Trek humour, so I am looking forward to this one.

Ghosted is another sci-fi comedy, one that is more a send-up of The X-Files (which is itself returning for another season). Craig Robinson (from The Office) and Adam Scott (from Parks and Recreation) play an “odd couple” who get drafted by The Bureau Underground to investigate creepy supernatural phenomena. I am not sure what a weekly episode might look like (because like many trailers, this show plays a bit like a movie), nevertheless, they’ve got two great comedic leads, and Scott gets to be even more nerdy than usual. It’s going to be a riot.

ABC

So many new shows with potential on ABC this fall: The Crossing seems a few years too late to follow in Lost‘s footsteps, but it still tries to make a go at a high-concept premise with sci-fi overtones. The show seems to be about a group of about 50 people who wash ashore at a small coastal town. These people are not only from the future, but they have superhuman abilities as well. This show also reminds me of another series: The 4400. That series had a very challenging run. I hope this series ends up being something fresh and cool.

Deception takes a stage-magic-based storyline (like the movie Now You See Me) and combines it with the recent trend of “special guest” consultants for law enforcement (think Castle on the good end, or the more recent APB on the bad). A popular stage magician gets involved with the FBI to help them track down bad guys who are also using stage magic for heists and other crimes. I think this could be really fun, but unfortunately I don’t think the lead, played by Jack Cutmore-Scott (I don’t know him either), has even one-tenth of Nathan Fillion’s Castle charisma.

The Good Doctor is kind of a lame title (especially after The Good Wife was a much more meaningful title) for a series about a savant/brilliant young doctor (played by the wonderful Freddy Highmore) who also has some serious socio-psychological issues. I doubt I’ll watch this “House Jr.” series for long, but it could be good. I just hope the show doesn’t spend all its time justifying how a quirky genius is worth his weight in miracles, and that outsiders should be accepted.

The Gospel of Kevin is an odd show, starring Jason Ritter as a reformed screw-up who encounters a meteorite that allows him to see and talk to his guardian angel who helps him make his life meaningful (whew!). Ironically, Ritter got his start on the similarly themed series Joan of Arcadia a decade ago. I don’t think this show looks too interesting, but I might give it a chance.

Alex Inc. features Zach Braff (from Scrubs) as basically another version of all his characters: bungling-yet-lovable-and-well-meaning guy ends up starting a for-profit podcast about his own way to success in life (with his family). I’m a bit tired of Braff’s character, but I do like the inter-racial family (his wife is of East Indian descent).

For The People seems a bit cliche: another pretty young lawyer show, this time focusing on newbies to both the prosecution and the defense sides of the law. It doesn’t break new ground, but I’m a sucker for a good lawyer show.

Last but not least, the trend of reviving long-cancelled shows continues with Roseanne‘s return to the airwaves. All of these have potential, so we’ll see.

The CW

The network renewed almost all their shows, so there’s not much room on The CW’s schedule for new ones. Life Sentence, starring the always-cute Lucy Hale (from Pretty Little Liars) as a young woman reinventing her life after finding out she is no longer dying of cancer, is not startlingly original (I feel like it’s looking for some of that This Is Us drama-love), but it has potential. A lot depends on whether the other characters and storylines engage with the viewers.

There’s Valor, which involves a cover-up and pretty characters making melodrama decisions against a military backdrop — it seems inspired by Quantico. The whole story seems to be told in the trailer — not sure how this will become an actual series.

Another new DC superhero show (in addition to the other four) called Black Lightning. Seems pretty similar to the other shows, except it’s got a bit more of that local-neighbourhood vibe (similar to Marvel’s Daredevil). Unfortunately I’m a bit burnt out on superhero shows, so I don’t think I’ll watch it.

Finally, The CW seems to be heading for an epic fail with the reboot of seminal 80s soap Dynasty. I was a late-coming fan of the original, but this version seems ridiculous. Grant Show is super-miscast as patriarch Blake Carrington, not only lacking John Forsythe’s sense of masculine elegance but also lacking any believability as a powerful billionaire. This just seems like one of many CW soaps and squanders the Dynasty brand in a big way.

NBC

On one hand, NBC deserves kudos for resurrecting Will and Grace, one of my favourite sitcoms, with the original cast intact. On the other hand, there are virtually no new shows of note. The Brave is another of many military shows which follows Quantico so much that it actually cast one of the actors from that show. Whatever.

CBS

Last and least, CBS tries to catch ten-season-old lightning in a bottle by spinning off the character of Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper into his own show — but as a child living in Texas. The trailer has the feel of a Malcolm in the Middle, with all its white-trash caricatures. Unfortunately, the writing and acting both seem terrible and the characters seem incredibly flat. It’s a bad sign if the best part is the voiceover narration from Jim Parsons as adult Sheldon. Mark Feuerstein has a new sitcom called 9JKL about living next door to his parents and his brother. I don’t know if it looks any good, but the parents are played by Elliott Gould and Linda Lavin, so at least there’s that. Oh, and David Boreanaz stars in another military show called Seal Team. (I would say more about the CBS shows, but ridiculously they block the trailers from being viewed in other countries, such as Canada. Nice!)

Bonus: CBS All Access

I don’t want to jinx anything, since I previewed this series in last year’s post, but Star Trek: Discovery is coming some time within the next year — they’ve released a trailer and everything! Given the degree to which it’s already been delayed, I don’t doubt that it might be delayed further, but we Trekkers still hold out hope. Let’s also hope that the show is something special — can’t quite tell from the trailer.

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).

More Midseason TV 2017

Didn’t I tell you that there’s a lot of TV to watch? It’s been a month since I last posted about the new shows in January and there have been a whole slew more. TV programmers seem to take more chances on the weird stuff (that’s the sci-fi/fantasy genre to us fans) in midseason, so that means there’s a lot that suits my taste. Let’s jump right in with the good and the bad.

legion-0017Legion

Starting off with a wild card, Legion is the black sheep of the superhero genre (even more than Deadpool). Based on a character from the X-Men family, it’s the story of David Haller, the illegitimate son of Professor X himself. David is heir to vast psychic abilities (way stronger than ol’ pops), but mental illness (aka schizophrenia) puts him a bit out of control. The series (featuring Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens in the title role) doesn’t connect directly to much of the comic book backstory. In the show, David is being treated for schizophrenia in order to control his vast mental powers, but there isn’t much of the rest of the Marvel Comics mutant storyline that remains. Still, it’s a very retro, trippy experience. The show plays around with non-linear storytelling in a way that it’s a challenge to follow what scenes are past, present, or imaginary/delusional. There is a very heavy psychological bent to the script and the audience is struggling along with David’s mental anguish. Nevertheless, it’s far from depressing (partially thanks to Parks and Recreation‘s Aubrey Plaza as David’s asylum-buddy). If this doesn’t sound appealing, and you’re more interested in super-powered action, I promise that by the end of the first episode, there’s a big payoff. Plus, by the second episode, we meet a bunch more characters with abilities that make you feel more like you’re hanging with the X-Men (though why the show does not use any Marvel brand-named characters is beyond me — perhaps it’s because the script-writers wanted to work with different abilities than what’s already on the Marvel roster). In any case, Legion is a very good, grown-up take on the super-powered TV series. I’m excited to follow where it leads.

powerless-dc-comicsPowerless

For an almost opposite experience of the super-hero world, I give you DC’s Powerless. Instead of adding to the variety by way of a head-trip, DC has decided to hit the funny-bone with this workplace comedy set in the DC super-hero universe. Vanessa Hudgens plays Emily, a young manager who moves to Charm City (I think they just made that one up) to take over as director of an R&D division at Wayne Security. The show reminds me a lot of a series called Better Off Ted, which also poked fun at corporate life in an R&D department, but at Wayne Security they invent products to help people cope in a world full of supers (like Joker anti-venom or a wrist device that lights up when it detects a super-villain nearby). Part of the humour of this show is targeted at nerds like me who appreciate the fun had at the expense of comic-book cliches, but the other part is classic workplace humour: fitting in with a new team, pleasing an unworthy boss, etc. This division of Wayne Industries is headed by Van Wayne (played by Firefly‘s nerd-pleasing Alan Tudyk) who is constantly trying to get the attention and kudos of his much more successful cousin, Bruce (who he likes to call “B-Dubs”), and get reassigned to the Gotham office. The cast includes another nerd-friendly name, Danny Pudi from Community, who is actually less weird than he was as Abed. The first couple of episodes were OK, but they had me wondering if they would get the balance right between super-parody and office-comedy. At first they were really leaning on the latter, but by episode 3, I think they really hit the sweet-spot when the team suspected a co-worker of secretly being a super-hero, and when Emily and Van worked on landing a contract with the Atlanteans (who think of Aquaman as a celebrity). This nerd-bait show has a lot of potential and I am laughing more each week. Now if only they’d bring more actual DC characters into the show (even if it’s just for cameos). I’m a little disappointed by all the name-drops when the onscreen supers we actually see in the background are mostly new, poorly-made-up characters. Give me the real DC Comics B-list! Surely they can’t all be reserved for the movies and The CW.

riverdale-header3Riverdale

Another comic book show, though one of a completely different stripe, Riverdale takes the classic Archie comic book series and reinvents it as a moody teen drama that is part Twin Peaks, part 90210 (or The OC or Gossip Girl, even Scream Queens, or plug in your own teen soap). The show playfully reimagines familiar characters such as Archie, the red-headed golden-boy athlete-musician; Betty and Veronica, the blonde-brunette archetype girlfriends; and Jughead, who’s gone from lovable, goofy friend to offbeat, surly hipster. I was not much of an Archie fan, so I don’t know how far afield the TV show has gone, but I suspect that there were no murders in the comics. Taking a cue for Twin Peaks, the show starts out with a murder mystery around who killed Jason Blossom, one half of the town’s spoiled, rich twin elite with his sister Cheryl. The mysteries deepen as secrets all around town start slipping out, most notably Archie’s jail-bait relationship with music teacher Ms. Grundy (who don’t look anything like the old white-haired dowager from the comics I’ve seen)! In typical teen soap style, the kids are all great looking, worldly, socially-savvy, and have the clever way-with-words that a teenager only gets from a staff of intentionally hip screenwriters. All the contrivances aside, I enjoy this kind of a show for all its scandalous twists and playful naughtiness. For those of you who remember its early days, enjoy Riverdale like you enjoyed Twin Peaks before all the bizarre, creepy insanity got the better of it.

apb-dix6jbe2yts-market_maxresAPB

This show had a potentially clever premise that made room for comment on the politics of law enforcement and tech-based business and industry, even while delivering some action-packed police drama. Unfortunately APB is really missing some well-thought-out writing to make that all come together. The show is about a tech billionaire who buys a police precinct in order to get justice after his friend is killed during a corner store robbery. Justin Kirk plays Gideon Reeves, the ego-driven mogul whose R&D division apparently invented all kinds of technology perfect for equipping a police force, including: fast armoured cars, remote-controlled drones, a tracking/mapping system that puts 24‘s CTU to shame, and a smartphone app to keep in touch with the locals. Part of me wishes that the creators of the show would have gone further with the technology, coming up with insanely advanced tech for these officers. As it is, what they’ve got seems only mildly interesting (despite the fact that this CEO seems to be spending all his time tinkering with the equipment himself each week to invent something new). It’s not very futuristic and it doesn’t seem like anyone’s given serious speculative thought to what kind of tech innovations would be useful for a real-world police force. Similarly, if a captain of the tech industry was throwing his corporate might behind a police precinct, there would be armies of staff and infrastructure deployed to make everything work. Instead Reeves himself and his capable data-scientist Ada seem to be the only ones available to help (though now they’ve brought a wrestler-turned-engineer/scientist into the mix). As a show, all success seems to be riding on the back of Justin Kirk, since his cocky maverick is the only interesting character on the show. There’s also Natalie Martinez as Murphy, a supposedly veteran beat cop who Reeves takes under his wing. Sadly she is already tiresome, the way she is always showing Reeves some kind of real-life truth that he can’t buy with all his tech-mogul success. Add to that, they’ve decided to make the mayor and his office into a kind of villain and nemesis to Reeves and his new project. Argh! I hate squandered potential and this show reeks of it. I wouldn’t give much for its chances.

drew-barrymore-timothy-olyphant-santa-clarita-dietThe Santa Clarita Diet

If you thought Netflix was slowing down, think again. In addition to carrying Riverdale (at least in Canada), it also recently debuted an odd little series featuring Drew Barrymore as a wife, mom, realtor, and kind of a zombie. I wasn’t going to watch it at first because I really hate zombies and most shows and movies about the walking dead, but when I heard that this was a more Desperate Housewives kind of take on the sub-genre, I was intrigued. When one day Sheila doesn’t feel quite well and ends up projectile-vomiting gallons (I mean, they really overdid this part) of disgusting stuff, she finds that she loses her pulse but gains a very positive outlook. You would not think that hilarity would ensue, but as a kind of dark satire of suburban life, the combination is actually pretty fun. I would still love to fast-forward those parts where Sheila chows down on bloody body parts — so much blood and gore — but otherwise I’m enjoying things. Barrymore is alright in a relatively manic role, but it’s really Timothy Olyphant who shines. Joel is taking it all in stride as a supportive husband on the outside, while underneath you know that he’s just holding on to his wits by his fingertips. One of my favourite lines comes from him when they have trouble trying to think of justifiably expendable candidates to kill to feed Shiela’s hunger: “Where are all the single, young Hitlers?” Joel wonders. Absurd, right? Also, their daughter Abby’s disturbing nonchalance about all this (including the apparent victims of her mother’s hunger), and the nerdy neighbour boy who exchanges sci-fi knowledge about the undead for a chance to spend time with Abby, are a hoot as well. I have no idea how far a show like this can go, but if anything is fodder for this kind of parody it’s suburbia. Am I right?

24legacy124 Legacy

I’m happy that there are new shows coming out that are truly new (i.e. not a reinvention or reboot) but do we have room in our hearts for one more attempt at making 24 work? The last time we had Jack Bauer running around, 24: Live Another Day took the franchise global but still lost my interest part way through the shortened series. I think I was just tired of seeing Kiefer Sutherland do the same things, the same plots, the same scenes again. It was starting to feel like self-parody. This new series seems to think that casting a new lead will solve things. Corey Hawkins plays Eric Carter, a former army-ranger who is targeted by a terrorist group after all his former army squad-mates are killed. Helping out Hawkins via his earpiece is Miranda Otto as Rebecca Ingram, the former head of CTU. Once again the clock is ticking, forcing everyone to take very desperate and drastic steps in order to save the day. Jack Bauer’s kind of “there’s no time” decision making is definitely at the heart of Carter’s choices as well. When he needs to come up with two million dollars to ransom a memory stick from his crazy former squad-mate, more logical courses of action give way to a plan to get arrested in order to steal the cash from a secure police evidence facility — Really? No better plans than that? — there’s no time! In the background, other plots are also in motion. CTU is once again a dimly-lit hotbed of potential moles and leaks. Plus, Ingram’s husband (played by Jimmy Smits) is running for office, so there’s that whole political angle coming out. I have to say that seeing the same kind of stories and plots through a new batch of characters does help blow out some of the cobwebs. Muslim terrorists again? Sleeper cells again? Maybe a new story would have helped even more — but there’s no time!

theexpanse_bobbie_draper_03b-0The Expanse

Coming back for its second season is a show that held the hopes of many a Battlestar Galactica fan, that complex, sophisticated sci-fi would actually entertain. I think this show’s still got a way to go to prove that, but after watching several season one episodes twice to get there, I think I am following the story to some degree. Last season saw former Star Helix detective Miller (played by Thomas Jane) and former ship captain Holden (played by Steven Strait) discovering that events in their crazy lives (including many people trying to kill and silence them and their allies) led to the body of Julie Mao, a former operative for the OPA rebel group, who was exposed to a deadly alien organism. In fact, the entire space station they were on was being used as an experiment by forces unknown to test out this “protomolecule” at the expense of thousands of lives. Luckily, Miller, Holden, and the remaining crew of “The Rocinante” spaceship were able to escape (as they had done all through the first season) and now they join forces with Fred Johnson — an OPA leader — to get more answers. Meanwhile, politics on Earth and Mars are starting to boil over as a new troupe of Martian marines are gearing up for conflict. The plot of the show is definitely confusing (I’ve probably made a few errors even in that brief summary) but I guess that’s the price we pay for realism in sci-fi. Obviously we don’t understand all the background and the motives for all the characters, but we want to avoid the contrivance of having it all explained to us in exposition (so we have to pick up the bits and pieces where we can) — and this is all from someone who’s already read the book! I am not the number one fan of space-wars (or any war stories), and frankly it was the Cylons that kept me enjoying BSG, but I think that The Expanse‘s blend of action scene with character-driven dialogue is well-done enough to keep me interested to see how this all plays out. I’m two episodes into the second season (so I’m not quite caught up) but things are really getting interesting.

magicians2The Magicians

The show quickly left behind its Harry Potter comparisons in season one, as its Hogwarts-for-grown-ups storyline gave way to the darker plot of defeating The Beast. Our snipey band of grad-school wizards found themselves shockingly betrayed by one of their own friends/allies as they were gearing up to defeat the “big bad”. Julia shook hands with The Beast in order to get his help to take revenge on an evil trickster god who had raped her and killed her friends. Now the rest of the gang is camped out in Fillory (the Narnia-esque magic realm of this series) preparing to once again face The Beast and Julia. I enjoy some of these Fillory story elements more than the Brakebills stuff. It’s fun to take a deeper look at this broad, magical world. Unsurprisingly, nothing is as innocent as you’d expect. The fictional Fillory books were supposed to be children’s books but the world is not a children’s world — this show is always quick to remind us of that. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the first book that this show is based upon, so I didn’t read any further. Now that we’re in season two I have no idea where the story is heading. Hopefully that will make it even more fun for me. I’ve only watched two episodes of this season so far, but I’m still enjoying it.

p04dgb66Planet Earth II

Finally, I wanted to make brief mention of the latest nature show which proves that even the BBC is not immune to sequel fever. Coming 10 years after its landmark series that brought us some incredible and unique images of nature (I’m still not over those unbelievable crystal caves!), Planet Earth II just started airing in North America (though it’s already long-finished in the UK). In the first episode, there was lots of amazing footage from various islands around the world, including a remote volcanic island near Antarctica where again we get to see the insane lengths to which penguins go to in order to feed their chicks. The visuals are, of course, breathtaking and I look forward to seeing what other wonders the rest of the series holds.

Even as I write this, new shows are popping up (including the HBO series Big Little Lies, created by David E. Kelly (of The Practice) and featuring amazing stars like Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Alexander Skarsgard; Also The Good Fight — the sequel series to The Good Wife) and I cannot keep up, but it’s never a dull moment on TV now, is it?

New Year, New TV 2017

Streaming has really changed the way we watch TV, and what would have (over the last few years) been considered “midseason” — I.e. the time when networks bring out new/returning shows to replace the ones that have already been cancelled or taken an early break — is now a bit more free-flowing. Netflix (and other streaming sites) have no real concept of “seasons”, but perhaps for competitive reasons they are releasing a bunch of new series at midseason. While there was barely enough time to fit a bunch of new pilot episodes, now I can barely catch my breath when 13 or so episodes per show are being dropped in my lap at a time. All that is just to excuse myself for only having watched one or two episodes of many of these new shows even when they look promising and exciting. Too much of a good thing, y’know?

sherlock-s4

Sherlock, season 4

This is the only returning show in this post (though given how infrequently the episodes come out, it might as well be new — Am I right?) Nevertheless, it is always great to get new episodes of this amazing detective show (for those of you who don’t know, this is a modern take on the original Arthur Conan Doyle literary creation, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes — now hurry up and watch all the back episodes!). I’ve only watched the first episode of this season (even though by now all 3 episodes will have aired). In this episode (“The Six Thatchers”) the case in question, which concerns a mysterious body found incinerated in a car fire, is only the stepping stone to another mystery around why someone is breaking into homes and stealing plaster busts of Margaret Thatcher. Cumberbatch shines as usual in the title role. There’s more exploration of the story behind John Watson’s wife, Mary, who had previously been revealed as a kind of super-agent. The episode was really good, and hit its usual marks with an unfortunate twist at the end that will affect the relationships on the show. Apparently they are also introducing a new villain to the series, even though Sherlock is constantly looking for clues that Moriarty is back somehow. I really can’t decide whether I wish there were more episodes of this show, or if I savour the few that we get even more because they are so rare. Well, it’s not as if I get a say either way. I’ll just have to really enjoy the remaining episodes.

emerald-1482142290-screen-shot-2016-12-19-at-101127

Emerald City

This show is based on the original novels by L. Frank Baum but puts an even more epic fantasy spin on the story than ever. Think of it as Wizard of Oz by way of Game of Thrones. Directed by Tarsem Singh (who also directed the feature films Immortals, The Cell, and Mirror Mirror, with a similar flamboyance and flair). The scenery is breathtaking, with amazing mountains and old castles. The interiors are decadent and luxurious, and the costumes are lavish and beautiful. The visuals give the fantastical world a much grander scope (and it doesn’t hurt to have colossal statutes guarding the city ports). Other reviews have commented on how this series is great to look at but the story is nothing special. I have to kind of agree so far — I’ve watched only the first two episodes. Dorothy (who is a strong-willed adult nurse) has landed in this enchanted land courtesy of a tornado, and she’s already been joined by a dog called Toto, and met a straw-covered man hanging by the roadside (who she’s calling Lucas, but we all know he’s the Scarecrow). She accidentally collided with the witch of the east when she arrived (the cop car that Dorothy hijacked plowed into her, but that’s not actually how she died). In reinventions like this series, we viewers like to keep an eye out for how classic characters and story elements have been modified, and we judge their cleverness. I’d say this version gets a high score for cleverness (the yellow brick road is a cobblestone path through the mountains whose colour is caused by the poppy pollen that falls on it), but I also don’t find that it really matters that this was based on The Wizard of Oz. Surprisingly I have often lost myself in the details and forgotten about that part. I’m just enjoying it as an epic fantasy tale that’s great to watch.

one-day-at-a-time

One Day At A Time

With this show, Netflix is doing a reinvention of a 70s sitcom rather than a classic fantasy novel. It follows the original premise of a divorced mom trying to make a life for her family (I didn’t really watch the 70s version, so I don’t know how much has been carried over). In this version, the mom, Penelope, is a Cuban-American (played by Justina Machado) who had been an army nurse in Afghanistan. She works in a small clinic and lives in an apartment with her teenage daughter and son, along with her mother Lydia (played by Rita Moreno). I think the main characters are all well written and well acted, and Moreno as Lydia steals every scene — she’s just amazing. As far as clever reinventions go, the theme song is also great. It’s a reworking of the original “This Is It” infused with an energetic dose of salsa (courtesy of Gloria Estefan) — I’m humming it my head right now! Like the original show, the new version deals with some pretty serious socio-cultural issues in a heartfelt and humorous way. It’s got a bit of that old-school, optimistic, family sitcom flavour, but a fresh perspective as well (I even learned a bit about Cuban culture). Thanks to Netflix, I’ve binge-watched this whole series of 13 episodes already (and I’m going for round 2).

a-series-of-unfortunate-1766_xl

A Series of Unfortunate Events

Another reinvention, this time a series of kids books (which had been made into a movie featuring Jim Carrey) is now a new Netflix show starring Neil Patrick Harris. The story is told of three orphan children whose parents are killed when their home burns down. Violet Beaudelaire, her brother Klaus, and infant sister Sunny are sent to live with their guardian, Count Olaf (played by Harris) who hatches villainous schemes to get his hands on the Beaudelaire family fortune. Just like in the books, the stories are far-fetched but enjoyable, with a definite tongue-in-cheek tone. The tone is one of the best things about the show. Similar to the short-lived TV series Pushing Daisies, and many a Wes Anderson film (like The Grand Budapest Hotel), there’s a kind of turn-of-the-century (20th century, that is), Victorian-dollhouse kind of aesthetic, along with a prim and wordy style of narration — sorry if this isn’t clear, but you’ll definitely know what I mean when you see or hear it. The series has a lot of fun, as these clever orphans try to get themselves out of all kinds of predicaments, mostly concocted by the villainous Count Olaf. Harris is dastardly delightful in the role, and he even sings a theme song with different lyrics each episode to recap the plot so far. I’m not sure which part I enjoy more: the clever tricks, the quirky characters, the look and feel of the visuals, or the mysterious conspiracy and subplots that are brewing beneath the main story. That’s not to mention a sardonically dry narration given on-screen by the resonant voice of David Puddy from Seinfeld, Patrick Warburton — who here plays Lemony Snicket, the ostensible yet mysterious author of these stories. I think this show is great, and another all-ages winner for Netflix.

trollhunters-1x01-guillermo-del-toro-sbarca-netflix-first-look-v4-31948-1280x16

Troll Hunters

Netflix is on a roll in the kids department, also having debuted Troll Hunters in December. This animated series comes from nerd-visionary director Guillermo Del Toro (who also directed Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, and Pacific Rim). It’s set in what appears to be a modern suburb, where your average school kids attend classes complete with chubby best friends, tough guy bullies, dreamy potential girlfriends, plus school plays and gym locker rooms. However, previously unnoticed in the shadows, is a world of trolls (no, not the ugly dolls with the crazy hair) but gargoyle-like creatures with multiple eyes, arms, and fangs. They may all look scary, but some are actually good (while others definitely aren’t). One night when a heroic troll hunter battles an evil troll, he gets destroyed, leaving behind a magical amulet which seeks out a new troll hunter and instead finds a young human kid named Jim. Being the new chosen, Jim (voiced by Anton Yelchin, RIP) is now hunted himself by an evil troll named Bular (voiced by Ron Perlman). Jim doesn’t really know what’s going on, and he’s busy just trying to grow up and get on with his life, but he gets help from a couple of other friendly trolls, including Blinky (voiced by Kelsey Grammar). Two episodes in, I wouldn’t say that Troll Hunters is not ground-breaking kids fantasy, but it’s pretty well-animated, and the voice talent is top-notch. However, I suspect that the story is going to pick up; and kids can always use more fantastical shows.

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The OA

Speaking of fantastical shows, one new Netflix show that is not for kids (probably more because they wouldn’t understand what is going on than any other reason) is The OA. This series came out of nowhere to unexpectedly surprise Netflix subscribers. I’ve only watched the first episode but (even though I’ve read that there’s a disappointing ending) I am hooked. Partially it’s all the mysterious questions about this woman who is caught on video jumping off a bridge only to survive and be identified as Prairie, a woman from a small suburban town who went missing seven years prior. She also used to be blind, but somehow is able to see now. What’s more, she calls herself “the OA” (whatever that means). Her behaviour and the clues about her just keep getting stranger (She’s kind of like a grown up version of Eleven from Stranger Things) as she gets a bunch of local teens to help her perform some kind of ritual. That’s when things really change. While I love a good, quasi-sci-fi mystery, I also love the crazy way this show played with the story line in the first episode. We spend about 40 minutes in this kind of suburban wasteland where we think the story is going to be about Prairie trying to reintegrate and remember what happened to her, and where she starts to bond with a psychopathic delinquent named Steve, then “Wham!” we take a narrative left turn and the opening credits begin on a very different type of episode. I don’t want to spoil much for anyone who has not yet watched, but that switch really caught me off guard and made me want to watch all the more. The show has a strong indie-film vibe, and Britt Marling (who is one of the show’s creator and plays the OA) is also known for roles in those kinds of films. I’m hoping that the rest of the series won’t be too disappointing, but the opening is a lot to live up to.

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Beyond

This series is slightly not as weird as The OA, but it also features a main character trying to reintegrate with the community after a long mysterious absence. Holden Matthews wakes up from a 12 year com, returns to his family and tries to recover a normal life. Unfortunately, there are many things that are odd about his situation, not the least of which are the shadowy men who are after him, his very surreal dreams of people he may have known during his coma (yep, you read that right) and not to mention his thunderous super-powers. This show is released on Freeform in the US, so it’s meant for young adults or teens. That target demographic kind of shows in the way the episodes are written. Poor Holden is confused and lost in a crowd of adults and family who keep telling him what to think and do. The people who may have some answers may not be trustworthy (including his best friend Kevin) and people who have answers never find the time to explain things to him. Unfortunately, a lot of the dramatic tension and suspense would probably unravel if the characters actually reacted like normal people. One example that struck me as odd: when Holden’s brother takes him to a college party, he loses control of his powers while unconscious in the bathroom. He causes the place to burn down and they escape without anyone suspecting Holden’s involvement. However, the next morning, after she hears about the incident on the news, Holden’s mother asks him if any of his friends were involved with the incident. Besides the fact that he just woke from a long coma and has no friends, why would she ask him about this completely unrelated incident for no reason if it were not just some kind of plot device to try to build a little suspense (“Does Mom know it was me?” wonders Holden. Whatever.) To top it all off, the plot moves in fits and starts, with a lot of action, then tons of slow moving scenes of interaction where we don’t really learn anything about the characters or the plot. I thought this show had some promise, but after two episodes, I’m already getting tired of it.

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Taboo

Lastly, this is a show that I cannot really make sense of, but which has totally grabbed me by its style, its tone and its uniqueness (and which I will attempt to describe). Tom Hardy (movie actor from films such as Inception, and many others where he plays a brooding English bruiser) again plays to type as James Delaney, a man thought dead by his family and friends, who actually went to Africa during the turn of the 19th century. When his father dies, he returns to England to claim his inheritance — a small, worthless strip of land in on the west coast of North America called Nootka Sound. Apparently not every mystery is revealed because the East India Company is also very interested in this land and had made a deal with Delaney’s half-sister and her husband to acquire it before he returned from the dead. Oh, and by the way, he claims to be in love with her (I know! Lannister much?!), but thankfully the two of them did not do the deed next to their father’s casket like a couple of (yup) Lannisters. (One more little GOT connection is that Delaney’s sister is played by Oona Chaplin, last seen getting killed along with her unborn child, King-in-the-North husband, and mother-in-law at the famously ill-fated Red Wedding.) The visual style of Taboo is really interesting. It’s clearly not set in Jane Austen’s England, but rather one that is full of mud and dirt and where everyone wears black all the time (not to mention the many stove-pipe hats). The characters, especially Delaney, speak in a kind of epic melodrama kind of way. Also the characters are all very clever and scheming and baring their teeth behind their smiles (or frowns). I don’t know where this series will go (Are we headed to Nootka Sound?) but I’m keen to find out.

Streaming TV (especially Netflix) has dwarfed the networks at midseason in keeping TV fresh by bringing out a whole bunch of interesting series. There are a few more coming that I’m excited for, including APB, about a tech billionaire who uses his money to supe-up the local police with hi-tech gadgetry, and I might try The Young Pope, where Jude Law apparently plays a power-hungry and corrupt young pontiff.

So much to watch, so little time!