Category Archives: Sci-fi

Thor: Raganarok – Movie Review

After Wonder Woman and Spider-man Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok seems to prove that we’ve hit a good patch of superhero movies at the moment. Starting out with a tongue-in-cheek, fourth-wall-breaking monologue fakeout, I was having a good time with the charming humour right from the start — which didn’t let up all the way to the (more somber) end. Chris Hemsworth is now one of my new favourite movie stars (an honour he didn’t achieve in either of the two other Thor or Avengers movies). He’s got that action-hero-charm that has made stars out of Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, and more recently Chris Pratt, and this movie lets him work it. As a prisoner of the fire demon Surtur, he never breaks a sweat as he cracks wise while defeating Asgard’s timeless enemy and returns to the cosmic home of his god-like people. Upon arriving, he finds things a bit out of whack (and his father Odin is missing) and we are treated to a humourous play within a film (featuring some great celebrity cameos). The light-hearted tone continues as Thor returns to Earth and meets up with Doctor Strange (another cool cameo with Benedict Cumberbatch reprising his MCU role). Within a short time, this movie has already featured appearances of some of my current favourite actors (Tom Hiddleston, Cumberbatch, etc.) and soon will feature cinema-queen herself, Cate Blanchett. She plays Hela, Norse goddess of death, and sister to Thor and Loki. When she’s unwittingly released from banishment, she quickly takes action to regain control over Asgard and begins by destroying Thor’s mighty hammer Mjolnir (simply by gripping it tightly).

Surprisingly, while the Hela storyline is the cause of the titular Ragnarok (the end of the world), it’s not the focus of a big part of the movie, putting it on the backburner for most of the middle half of the movie. Instead, in the course of trying to stop Hela, Thor and Loki get catapulted to some previously-unknown junk world called Sakaar. On Sakaar, Thor becomes a contestant in the gladiatorial games run by the Grandmaster (played by Jeff Goldblum in a trademark, weaselly peformance). Of course, by a huge galactic coincidence, anyone who’s seen the movie trailer knows who Thor faces in the arena as the Grandmaster’s current champion. Seeing the Hulk, Thor is surprisingly happy, stating that it’s OK because “He’s a friend from work”, right before getting slammed into the wall. As I mentioned, the humour is one of the best parts of this movie, and thankfully that is not the best joke in the film (far from it). The rest of the story has the characters working to escape from the planet in order to return to Asgard and end Hela’s reign of terror and possible destruction of everything. Sounds pretty packed, eh?

The other wonderful aspect about this movie was the fast-paced action. From scene to scene, it toggled between well-shot, space-action (similar to either of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies — in fact, this would have made a great Guardians 3); and some slower-paced funny dialogue and interaction between characters. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves making this movie and that enthusiasm comes through. New Zealander director Taika Waititi is a breath of fresh air for the Marvel cinematic universe, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

With a high degree of Australia/New Zealand content in the cast and production roster, it’s certainly the crown jewel to have Blanchett playing Hela. The role is a walk in the park for her, but it’s great how she revels in Hela’s superiority complex and bitter resentment of everyone who wronged her even a little bit. Frankly, I think Blanchett needs to play more of these deliciously villainous roles. I only wish that more of the plot had involved her. As a movie villain, she didn’t really get to stretch her wings much beyond snarling a lot and tossing her endlessly conjured blades everywhere, like magicians’ scarves.

After the disaster that was Thor: The Dark World, it’s nice to see that all it took for the franchise to hit its groove was to loosen things up a bit. Let’s hope that we’re on a roll. (4 out of 5)

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Fall TV 2017 – New Shows

After a pretty unexciting summer movie season, it would have been nice to come home to some exciting new shows this fall. Alas, so far some aren’t too promising despite a strong pedigree, and others are downright terrible. Good thing there are still a number of returning shows to keep us satisfied (I’ll get to those later.)

Young Sheldon

I don’t quite understand why this show got made. Compared to its parent-series, The Big Bang Theory, this prequel show about the childhood of its main character, Sheldon Cooper, is a lot more ordinary. From The Wonder Years, to Malcolm in the Middle, to Everybody Hates Chris, to Fresh Off the Boat, there are so many shows as flashbacks to the story of a boy growing up in a normal-yet-quirky family. The narration from older/future Sheldon (still voiced by Jim Parsons) reminds us that he’ll one day be a super-nerd, but for now, he’s just a regular dweeby kid who’s been bumped ahead a few grades. Sheldon doesn’t know how to behave around normal people even as an adult on Big Bang Theory, so obviously he’s hopeless as a child. Are we just going to see him get bullied and ostracized for the entire series of Young Sheldon? The first episode showed us Sheldon’s family, but the only one who seemed interesting was the younger version of Sheldon’s mom. There were some character moments between Sheldon and his father, but considering that we know he’s going to leave his family, every moment of connection between father and son is bittersweet. Even with that potential for drama, this show is not a dramedy. It’s pure sitcom, and (despite its already having received a full season order) so far it doesn’t seem like a very interesting one.

The Good Doctor

This show kind of echoes some of the themes of Young Sheldon, but it’s about Freddie Highmore (last seen playing pre-psycho Norman on Bates Motel) as a young surgeon who’s also an autistic savant. Like Sheldon, Shaun Murphy knows way too much stuff (plus he has a super-human ability to diagnose a suffering person’s medical ailments), and people just don’t understand him. In the first episode he tries to save a young boy in the airport, but gets tackled by security when he grabs a knife from the confiscated-articles box. No one (except the audience) sees his genius. As much as I enjoy Highmore in the role, and he makes a good addition to the long line of medical miracle-workers celebrated on-screen, I don’t really know how this show is going to go. His character seems a bit like an alien who floats through the hospital intervening with his super-human medical abilities. Hopefully he will develop genuine relationships with his colleagues and become a more organic part of the hospital, but that has not happened yet.

The Orville

The Seth MacFarlane sci-fi show came into the mix with a confusing premise. It is meant to be a space-ship series with a positive, upbeat outlook, similar to the many Star Trek shows that have come before (especially Star Trek: The Next Generation). What was not clear was whether this show would be a parody of Star Trek, or a copy. The show got an early start, so now that we’ve seen four episodes, we know it’s the latter. While the involvement of MacFarlane (creator of Family Guy) means that there is bound to be some humour, it is clear that the show is meant to be a replica of Star Trek — from the uniforms, to the ships, to the crew, even the music — all make you feel like you’re watching Trek. Unfortunately two things make The Orville a pale copy: the writing is incredibly weak; and the humour is limp. If the show intended to follow in Trek’s footsteps, its writers needed to develop a much better understanding of sci-fi and what has gone on before. Most of the episodes so far have been variations on Trek (and even Stargate) stories, but not taking itself seriously enough to fully develop the ideas and themes of each. The worst example is an episode where a crew member from a single-sex race faces a storm of controversy when he tries to follow his culture by reassigning his female child to conform with his race’s male gender. Many of the characters rant about how barbaric this surgery is on an infant, and how women are just as good as men (and one scene even uses the stupidity of the ship’s male pilot as proof that males are not superior). The arguments are weak and poorly thought-out both as political discourse and as science fictional allegory. Similarly, the jokes also show ridiculous lack of thought. Almost every joke shows that MacFarlane’s character (Captain Ed Mercer) is really just a displaced 21st century guy in a show set 400 years in the future. No one would laugh at those comments: not then, and not even now. It’s as if a character on Big Bang Theory was making jokes that a Shakespearean audience would find funny. The humour is so anachronistic that it seems pasted on. This show is clearly MacFarlane’s vanity project and I don’t see how it can possibly survive, especially when compared to…

Star Trek: Discovery

Finally, after over a decade, Star Trek returns to the small screen, and not a moment too soon. Despite the fact that this series is set in a time before the original series (and despite the fact that I am tired of Trek creators going back to that period), everything looks and feels very modern and futuristic. The production values of the two-part opening episode is movie-quality stuff (complete with a few unwanted Abrams-style lens flares). The story features Michael Burnham, a first officer rather than a captain, as she tries to save her crew and captain from an encounter with the Klingons (remember, in this time period Klingons are enemies to the Federation). Rather than the episodic exploratory encounters of Star Trek and The Next Generation, so far this new series leans more towards action and the power politics of space (similar to Deep Space Nine, or even The Expanse). The premiere episode is very much like a movie and sets up Burnham’s story, rather than how episodes of the show will go. It’s definitely less traditional than previous Trek, but it could be a really exciting new direction for the franchise. I’m a little disappointed in how they’ve set up the Klingons again as a kind of enemy-race (It always seems unrealistic that an entire space-faring species would have the same motives and agendas). I hope things will become more nuanced and complex as the series progresses. Nevertheless, even out the gate, Discovery flies rings around The Orville.

Marvel’s The Inhumans

Oh, the (in)humanity! This is perhaps one of the most hyped sci-fi shows of the fall. Many people are already familiar with the Inhumans from recent comic book events and series featuring these characters. As well, this show’s pilot episodes were shot in IMAX format so they could premiere on the big big screen before its tv debut. I’m not sure why it seemed that Marvel Entertainment spent so little effort (and obviously not enough money) on the show, but it definitely shows. From inferior scripts, to second-rate acting, to ridiculous costumes and terrible CGI effects, this show has so much going wrong with it that it’s doomed to failure. The story of a race of super-humans living on the moon who are given fabulous mutations as they reach adolescence has a lot of sci-fi potential. Unfortunately this show does not yet live up to any of it. Black Bolt and Medusa are the king and queen of the Inhumans and when Black Bolt’s brother Maximus stages a coup (with only about a dozen soldiers), the rest of the royal family escape to Hawaii, where they are scattered as fishes out of water and need to make their way to each other. Much has already been written about the poor CGI effects, most notable being Medusa’s prehensile hair, which in comic books is huge and strong like gigantic tentacles that she uses to grip and fight enemies, but on the show they’re poorly animated strands that she wraps around Maximus’s throat or pushes him up against the wall. What makes it look worse is that her hair is so short that it everything she does with her hair could just as easily be done with her hands. Then as part of the coup they even shave her hair off (thus saving the CGI dollars)! There’s also a giant bulldog named Lockjaw, which is the royal family pet, that can teleport anyone anywhere. When he does, the CGI looks like he’s being sucked off the edge of the screen, or like when I minimize the apps on my Mac. However, all the poor production values would be liveable if the script and acting were good. Unfortunately they are not.

Me, Myself and I

Finally, I had not originally planned to watch this show, but the premise caught my eye. The triple title describes the format where we get to watch the story of the main character, inventor Alex Riley, in three periods of life: childhood, middle age, and retirement. It’s a dramedy starring SNL comedian Bobby Moynihan as the middle-aged Riley, John Laroquette as the elderly version, and newcomer Jack Dylan Grazer as the kid version. The formula seems to bring the three story parts together along a loose thematic thread, but even without that connection, the stories are nice little vignettes. So far, I can see how the show will be charming and uplifting. It’s like a lighter version of This Is Us, without the big-three-fold drama and the looming death of the father. If they keep drawing connections between the three time periods, things may start to seem too unnaturally parallel, but this is still a potentially enjoyable show until then.

That’s all the new shows that I’ve seen this season so far, but sadly there are only a handful more to come. This year the networks have concentrated their premieres all within a short period (which is how I like it), but that means I don’t have time to cover them all at once. I’ll be back tomorrow with Returning Shows, and then come back again to close out the remaining premieres that follow. Later!

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)

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).