Category Archives: Superheroes

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)

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?

Fall TV 2016 Wave 2

I’m enjoying the new fall TV season so far. There’s nothing that I absolutely can’t miss, but a number of shows are still intriguing enough that I want to keep watching.

New Shows

westworldWestworld

At the top of the list of new shows worth sticking with is definitely Westworld. Hype has pegged this to be HBO’s successor to Game of Thrones, which kind of baffles me because the shows are nothing alike. From a business point of view, I guess this is another series that can cross over from the nerd population to be a general audience hit. The show is a bit cryptic with regard to what it’s really about. On the surface, we seem to be watching the operation of a Western-themed sci-fi pleasure-planet populated with artificial people (which are called “hosts”), who service the needs of the guests. There is some kind of glitching going on with some of the hosts, but it’s not totally clear what the problem is. Also, so far we’ve been introduced to several guests, including Ed Harris as a man who has been playing Westworld’s game so long that he’s now looking for “the next level” — and leaving a trail of bodies behind him. There are a lot of puzzling things going on, with a nicely gradual reveal. Apart from the amazing cinematography and scenery, there is also an excellent cast to keep us interested until we get our answers. Anthony Hopkins plays the world’s creator, Jeffrey Wright plays one of his top successors. Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton all play host characters. Not since Lost has a series like this held so many mysteries. (4 out of 5)

american-housewifeAmerican Housewife

I feel like we’ve got a bit of a formula going on, with a fancy neighbourhood where our quirky family doesn’t really fit (they’re on the poorer end of the earning spectrum) and they like to look down on the hoity-toity neighbours. Despite that, I was drawn to the show by Katy Mixon (who played Molly’s younger sister on Mike & Molly). While the first episode contained way too much voiceover narration, I like Mixon’s sassy persona. The rest of the family and other characters will need to develop. I don’t love that the youngest daughter has some kind of anxiety disorder (the trend to have a token mentally or physically-challenged kid on every family sitcom is a tricky one). However, the two other kids seem to be poached straight from 80s hit Family Ties, but rather than it being a reaction to the parents’ hippy philosophy, the son being a self-centred money-focused conservative, and the daughter being pretty yet potentially-shallow are all blamed on the family being in an affluent neighbourhood. This show has potential, but it’s got to find itself and its characters without simply being a battle of stereotypes. (3.5 out of 5)

timeless-1152x759_jpg_1003x0_crop_q85Timeless

This is the only one of the several time-travel themed shows of the season that I decided to give a chance, mainly because early reviews were quite positive. The premise is that a villain has stolen a time machine and is using it to go back to key moments in history to destabilize and destroy present-day America. The present-day US government recruits a historian (played by Abigail Spencer, from Suits), a soldier (played by Matt Lanter), and a scientist (played by Malcolm Barrett, who I remember from Better Off Ted) to go back (using a smaller, prototype time machine) to prevent the villain from wrecking the timeline and the country’s history. It’s an interesting premise that begs the question of whether history will be changed in this show (or if it will always be saved — boring!). They answered that in the very first episode when Spencer’s character Lucy Preston returned from their first mission to find that her mother was no longer ill, and her sister never existed. So kudos to the show for not taking the easy way out and making sure that everything stays the same despite messing with the past. However, after two episodes, the sci-fi geek in me feels that they are still dealing well enough with the kind of large-scale consequences that should occur from the actions that the team has taken in the past in an attempt to prevent changes. If there is truly a butterfly effect, then every time they come back to the present, the world should have changed substantially. Now, I acknowledge that taking such a serious approach doesn’t necessarily make for a fun show, but this show does take itself seriously (It’s not like we’re remaking Quantum Leap) and that’s part of the problem. (3 out of 5)

kims-convenience-5Kim’s Convenience

I am very excited to see another Asian-centred show on North American TV. This CBC sitcom, about a Korean family who runs a convenience store in urban Toronto, is actually based on a very successful play (which I did see) and stars an actor, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, that I actually went to university with (we shared a class, but I’m sure he’s forgotten me, so that’s enough of the name-dropping). Lee plays Appa, the patriarch and store owner. Even from the first episode, there is already some backstory to this family as Appa and his son Jung are not on speaking terms. Umma (the mother) and daughter Janet make various attempts to mend the rift, but Asian male pride is still a thing (and there is baggage between all members of the family). Despite dealing with some emotional issues that make this show more of a dramedy than a ha-ha comedy, there are still a number of funny aspects, most often stemming from the east-meets-west clash of the parents’ personalities with expected North American behaviour. As much as I enjoyed the first two episodes, a few things still kind of irked me — I’m probably harder on this show because I am also Asian and have given these kinds of issues more thought. First, I found it distracting to have immigrants speaking broken English when they are by themselves. Sure, no one wants to watch a show full of subtitles, but I am convinced that in real life Appa and Umma would be speaking Korean to each other, not English. Second, I found the title/theme of the first episode (“Gay Discount”) kind of surprising. I would have expected a new sitcom to keep things simple, and establish the main characters and their situation before jumping into socio-political topics like LGBT rights and community. Granted, Canadian shows like to quickly establish how progressive we believe we are in this country. Still, those are minor quibbles, and overall I quite enjoyed the show. (3.5 out of 5)

Returning Shows

the-flash-season-3-episode-2-jay-garrickThe Flash

We pick up this season from where we left off. Flash has altered history (There’s that theme again!) so that his mother was not killed by the Reverse-Flash. That made his family life a little more perfect, but then he starts to notice all kinds of other inconsistencies in the timeline resulting from his actions. Events hit a breaking point that leads him to make the tough decision to undo his own changes to the past, and allow his mother to be killed. Unfortunately things do not work out so cleanly, and are not restored to where they were exactly and Flash continues to deal with the consequences. Based on a storyline from the original comic book, these “Flashpoint” episodes don’t play out as successfully as they might on paper. For starters, the universe of the TV show is way smaller, so it’s almost like playing “spot the difference” to realize how the current timeline is “wrong”. To make things worse, it’s not always clear whether the change is a good or bad thing — at least until we are told that things are bad (maybe someone dies or gets hurt), which necessitates a change to the timeline. A new villain (Dr. Alchemy) has been introduced, who seems to have some mysterious abilities and a totally unknown agenda. It’s too early to know whether he will make a cool enemy or not. (3 out of 5)

supergirl-season-2-trailer-supermanSupergirl

The end of the first season seemed very open, without much of a suspenseful cliffhanger. Kara and James are now free to pursue a romantic relationship, and Kara has received a genie’s wish from Kat Grant to choose whatever job she wants. The storylines did not compellingly lead into this season, but what has been driving the season so far has been the presence of Supergirl’s cousin, Superman (played by Teen Wolf‘s Tyler Hoechlin). Having run into each other while preventing a space shuttle crash, Superman decides to hang out with his cousin and stop a new menace together. Hoechlin does a pretty good version of Superman as well as Clark Kent, and ends up inspiring Kara to become a journalist too (lame!). Sadly I’m struggling to find my interest in this show again now that most of the drama of her career and personal life, as well as the enemies that came from her own family history, have been kind of resolved. I hope they do something to rev this show up again, because I don’t think ol’ Supes can stay on indefinitely. (3 out of 5)

Fresh Off The Boat

This other sitcom I like with a mainly Asian cast (No, not you, Dr. Ken — it will never be you!), came back with a pretty fun episode: the Huangs go back to Taiwan. I loved how they played with the fish-out-of-water idea (since the kids have not ever been to Taiwan). Again, it bothered me that almost everyone was speaking English, even in Taiwan — come on! However, it was a pretty good storyline that put the focus back on their culture (rather than a generic, colour-blind, family sitcom scenario). I especially liked how they came to realize that their home is the US and not Taiwan (a classic tension for immigrant families). I hope they really get to explore the kids more this season and give them a chance to grow — especially the younger boys. Plus, it will give them more opportunities for nostalgic “growing up Asian in North America” kinds of storylines — which I relate to, and consider the best aspect of this show. (3.5 out of 5)

That’s it for the start of the fall TV season. I realize there are still more shows coming and returning (I’m looking forward to Jane the Virgin), and Netflix has a number of shows waiting to be unleashed over the next months (I cannot wait for Black Mirror. I might do a special post just for those. We’ll see.) With a schedule full of new episodes, I guess it’s just time to keep watching and to decide which ones to stick with and which ones to let go.

Fall TV 2016 Wave 1 – Returning Shows

In this year’s batch of returning shows, we’ve got a few long-timers, some shows with a few seasons under their belts, but very few sophomores — mostly because last year’s new shows were so weak. Surprisingly and disappointingly, rather than getting a fresh start on the new season, the pattern or theme this year so far seems to be “self-parody”. It’s been a rocky start.

the-chanels-scream-queens-season-2-premiere-reviewScream Queens

The only second-season show in this list, I confess that I barely committed to watching it again. I genuinely enjoyed the cleverness and craziness of the first season, but I also wondered whether I’d had enough of Chanel and her biting bitchiness for a lifetime. Cut to me watching the first two episodes of a show that was unbelievably campy on a good day. Gone is the sorority house setting, now the Chanels are preposterously nurse-practitioner-med-students at the most bizarre hospital ever. Former Dean Cathy Munsch (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) somehow made it rich on a book tour and bought an old hospital with a very dark past, which now has a new mission to “cure the incurable”. John Stamos and Taylor Lautner serve as the only two doctors in the place. The former has a transplanted hand with a mind of its own, and the latter is sub-humanly cold (not sure how that’s going to play into the plot yet). Keke Palmer is back as well, playing Zayday Williams the sorority-prez-turned-med-student. So far each episode has featured patients with grotesque illnesses (woman covered with hair, man covered with tumours, man who can’t stop screaming), catering to dialogue and characters focused on superficiality — but frankly the patients are not really that important. In only one season, this show has become the definition of self-parody as fewer characters act normal, everyone’s got a crazy backstory, and every speech is an opportunity to ham it up. Oh, and there’s another killer on the loose — this time in a green demon costume rather than a red devil one. It’s like they don’t want the show to last — yet I can’t look away! (3 out of 5)

empire-season-3-scoopEmpire

Another show that was great while it lasted was the Dynasty-goes-Hip-Hop soap opera about the Lyons family — and it’s a crazy family. At the end of last season, token-white-character Rhonda was fighting with Anika and went over the balcony — that’ll teach her for figuring out that Anika pushed her down the stairs! Also, Anika got ex-husband Lucious to remarry her in order to avoid testifying against him in Federal Court, even though she was pregnant with the baby of Hakeem (Lucious’s youngest son). Cut to this season and Lucious is his same heartless self — he doesn’t care about Hakeem and his new fatherhood; or about his son Andre grieving he death of his wife Rhonda. He even gets angry about his middle son Jamal experiencing PTSD from a shot that he took to save Lucious’s life! Not that it wasn’t far from it before, but I think this show has truly gone over the top now. Sadly, it seems like more of the same replay of the past two seasons of Lucious acting selfishly, then seizing back everything and controlling everyone’s lives, and they all somehow come back to him. A lot of that was due to his ex-wife Cookie, but now she’s not going to fall for him anymore (so why do they keep flashing back to the beginning when she first met and fell for him?). And now they’re also introducing another young “star” character for everyone to compete over. In three seasons, there are already cycles that seem to be repeating again and again. Even if you were like me and enjoyed the hip-hop soap’s appeal, you’re probably tired of it by now. (2.5 out of 5)

modfame5c8a15886Modern Family

After six seasons, even one of my favourite sitcoms is repeating itself and slipping into self-parody. Claire and Phil claim to be on a road trip while secretly continuing their family vacation in New York. Meanwhile the kids are also staying on in NYC and mild humour ensues as both sides try to hide their plans from each other. Unlike the moony eyes he once had for Haley, Manny now falls for his mom’s sister after she kidnaps him (yes, that’s right) to get back at Gloria. And worst of all, once again Mitchell makes all the wrong moves as he gets blamed for causing Cam’s bigoted, comatose grandmother to die (if only he’d been wearing a Spider-man costume while doing it). I really hope they quickly get these characters out of the ruts that they’re in. Even sending Alex away to college made almost no dent in the show’s setting — and now she’s back home again. Have they run out of steam? (3.5 out of 5)

brooklyn-nine-nineBrooklyn Nine-Nine

Here’s how you shake things up in a three-year-old sitcom: send the main characters into witness protection. Opening with a three-part story of Jake and Captain Holt in Florida trying to live dull, trivial lives in hiding from mob boss Figgis is a lot of fun. First there’s the hilarity of the ever-serious Holt trying to work for some grown-up teenager at a family fun centre. Second, Jake has frosted tips! Anyway, it was really smart to spend one episode focused just on Jake and Holt before folding in the rest of the characters in the second episode. Their odd father-son chemistry is one of the strongest elements on this show — I loved Jake’s stunned reaction to hearing that Holt had a tattoo! Back in the precinct, things were a little repetitive as they once again had to deal with a new, incompetent captain, but I think it was all worth it to get those scenes of Gina’s assistant laying zingers on Amy! (4 out of 5)

bigbang2Big Bang Theory

On this show, they did the clever thing of cashing-in twice on Penny and Leonard’s wedding: first as a Vegas elopement, now they get to redo the ceremony with families in attendance. Seeing Penny’s family was a lot of fun. Jack McBrayer is not who I expected as Penny’s brother, but he’s a hilarious actor, so I enjoyed him in the role. Also, playing Penny’s mom seemed like a total cake walk for Katey Sagal (who looks just great for 62, eh?). I am really glad they took last season’s cliffhanger of Leonard’s dad and Sheldon’s mom getting together no further, though. I think that would have taken the show into unnecessarily soapy territory. After the wedding, we quickly got back into the other ongoing storylines of Howard and Bernadette’s pregnancy, and the military hiring the guys to build their quantum gyroscope. Dean Norris (from Breaking Bad) has so far been pretty good (though subdued) as their commanding employer. It was funny to see Sheldon hopped up on energy drink — silly Sheldon! (4 out of 5)

Black-ish

While I’m happy to welcome this family sitcom to my viewing roster, I was pretty disappointed by the gratuitous commercialism of the premiere episode, when Dre takes his whole family to Disney World on a VIP vacation. Since the show is from ABC, a network that is owned by the Disney company, it might as well have been a big promotional video for the theme park. However, the episode was not too bad if you strip all that advertising away. I think they waited until episode two to really throw in the towel. While the show has shown that it can take serious topics (like racism and violence) and really handle them well, I can’t believe that they had to trivialize one of the biggest topics in human history. In the episode actually entitled “God”, I was surprised yet intrigued when Zoey declared that she didn’t believe in God, but I was bothered by the way the episode dealt with it. Dre freaked out and cried that his daughter is broken! Then he turned around and made it a black thing to believe in God, citing the hardship of slavery and oppression as the reason why blacks are more prone to belief — really?! Even the counter-argument against belief in God is belittled by its representative: Bow’s pretentious hipster brother, who speaks to the pharmacy in French and tries to leave his Parisian phone number for a call back. In the end, we get an emotional moment at Bow’s sonogram that kind of brings Zoey back to belief, but overall I thought it was terrible, and bordering-offensive how the producers squandered and diminished what could have been a thought-provoking and even profound episode. I really hope the rest of the season steps it up.(3.5 out of 5)

shield-eMarvel’s Agents of SHIELD

Finally, what is going on with this show?! No, I’m serious. I cannot follow what is happening. Daisy is still rogue, and I don’t know why she is chasing the Ghost Rider (but she’s got a smokey eye, so she must be serious, right?). I’m hating all this talk of the politics behind an agency like SHIELD. Do I care that they have to pander to the appropriations committee to get funding now? What is this, House of Cards? Coulson is flying around non-stop in his plane with Mac; and May is disgruntled at Jemma, who is now kind of her superior; Fitz and Simmons are playing a cute couple, and no one is telling me why they are doing any of this. Plus, they are also going after Ghost Rider, and there are some creepy ghosty people who have somehow infected May with horror-movie madness? Sigh! I miss the good old days when the plots were normal and made more sense. I need them to get back to that quickly. Bring back Ward, bring back Hydra if you must, but please let me care about this show again! (3 out of 5)

So, the returning shows haven’t been too great so far. Good thing they still have the rest of the season to improve. Fingers crossed!

Captain America: Civil War – Movie Review

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So the summer blockbuster season has officially begun! Civil War really kicks the Marvel super-hero franchise up a notch by bringing together most of the characters introduced in previous movies, along with a few new ones. Enough kids have finally arrived at the playground for us to stop playing catch and start a decent baseball game. Doesn’t it seem like the only reason for introducing these characters on the big screen (characters that we have grown up imagining and reading in comics) was to show how well we can make them fight?

Knowing that “Civil War” meant head-to-head heroes, I went into this movie watching for that spark that would cause the good guys to split into teams. A savvy viewer would be looking for some kind of mind-control (that’s the typical route). With the Winter Soldier (Captain America’s former friend Bucky, thought dead during WW2, since reawakened as an assassin programmed by evil men) being introduced in the previous Captain America movie, he was definitely the best candidate to light the fire. However, I guess the writers thought they needed some more fuel and added the idea of the Sokovia Accords — laws which put the Avengers under the authority of a UN task force. Unfortunately, I think one of the big problems with super-hero movies is that they sometimes try to come at things from a realistic point of view and tackle the consequences of the events and actions taken. For the X-Men movies, that is almost always about bigotry and how the world hates them because they’re different. For the Avengers, it’s always about collateral damage.

It frustrates me because I think it takes away from the enjoyment of a super-hero story to begin with. We understand that there were probably innocent people in the buildings that were destroyed in their battles, but if we focused on that, we’d basically be watching disaster movies. We don’t need another US senator showing footage of the damage and making our heroes feel guilty. It’s such a downer. That’s clear from the scenes in this movie where the heroes debate whether or not to sign the Accords. The movie comes to a grinding halt. If we really wanted to go down that path, almost any of these heroes on their own could cause newsworthy damage, and powerful ones like the Hulk, Thor, or even Vision, would single-handedly be unstoppable to normal armed forces. That’s why it’s more fun to pit them against super-villains. It evens the playing field. If they wanted to deal with human-sized consequences, they should have reduced the power-level of the characters (Can everyone run as fast as a car or survive repeated gunshot wounds?). Then, maybe it would be more worthwhile to talk about consequences. (Anyway, enough of that rant.)

Though the Accords were meant to be the source of conflict, most of the movie was more about chasing after the Winter Soldier. In an interesting turn, what you think the heroes are trying to stop (the big evil plot) goes down a bit of a psychological path instead. It was a clever twist, but also seemed a bit contrived because I think that if the intent all along was to mess with the Avengers’ minds, this plan was highly inefficient and full of overkill. Nevertheless, it was great fun to watch hero battle hero (though unfortunately we are still mostly limited to titanic fisticuffs). Another part of the fun was just the introduction of so many new and returning characters, including Scott Lang’s Ant-Man, T’Challa the Black Panther, and (now that the studio licencing has been settled) Peter Parker, our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. Tom Holland is great as the new Parker. He’s got the hyperactive kid genius down pat. It’s also a riot how they made Parker’s Aunt May hot in this version. Played by Marisa Tomei, she even catches the flirtatious eye of Tony Stark (Take that, Oscar-winner Sally Field!). The new characters brought with them a lot of hilarous banter, which added even more energy and fun to this otherwise heavier movie.

Obviously the spectacular stunts and well-choreographed action made for a thrilling movie, but I feel like the pace was a bit disjointed, with a number of stops and starts. Also, the tone really jumps from light-hearted to deadly-serious at the drop of a hat. Frankly, I don’t know how long Marvel Studios can keep telling these stories — many of us already feel the strain of thematic fatigue. If the collateral damage of fighting the good fight breeds so many victims needing vengeance, then I think there is fodder for a lot more of these stories. However, I hope that we’ll be able to move on next time. The featuring of Spider-Man in this film (and in the post-end-credit scene) bodes well for the future of super-hero movies. Maybe he can make saving the world fun again. (4 out of 5)

Seven Summer Movie Sequels 2016

Wow, it’s been a while since I made it out to the movie theatre! But now that we’re all gearing up for summer blockbuster season, I thought I’d pick out seven sequels that I’m looking forward to seeing. I know it’s a little sad that summer movie season is made up of so many sequels, but I guess that’s how Hollywood keeps itself in the billions — and it gives me some great alliteration for my title.

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Captain America: Civil War (6 May 2016)

Check the trailer

After the false start that was Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I guess this is the movie that is meant to kick off the summer blockbuster season. I confess that I am starting to lose track of what all these superhero movies are actually about, but they’re fun to look at. Of the recent bunch, I think I did enjoy Captain America: Winter Soldier quite a bit. It was more down-to-earth than the Avengers movies, and I’m finally getting used to Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson (both of whom I enjoy as actors, but I also feel were miscast into the roles of Captain America and the Black Widow). Apparently, in this movie some kind of political situation (the super-heroes are checking their consciences) causes the Avengers to split into sides (Captain America on one, Iron Man on the other). I never read the comic book storyline that this movie is based on, but I’m guessing it’s going to be another excuse to have hero fighting hero, to play out many “who would win” scenarios that are the stuff of childhood daydreams.

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X-Men: Apocalypse (27 May 2016)

Check the trailer

The X-Men have always been my favourite comic-book super-team, but it was mostly because they had such a great variety of members with some of the coolest abilities and backstories. I can’t say I’m very happy about how the rebooted series (starting from X-Men: First Class) has put side-characters like Mystique and Magneto into the spotlight, while shoving most of the classic X-Men to the fringes, but I guess maybe they are a good way to make mass-appeal stories. Apocalypse will probably continue that revisionist approach (they’ve already apparently changed who the “four horsemen” are, and it looks like they’ve kind of ruined my favourite X-Man, Storm, but whatever) and I don’t think that the Apocalypse character will be much like the comic-book one either. The story here is that the X-Men must defeat the ancient mutant known as Apocalypse, who has some dire plans for the world, I’m sure. Purists have pretty much given up their beliefs by going to comic book movies. We probably just want to see how cool they can make characters look on screen. For once I’d love it if they’d make two versions of these movies: one which serves the general viewer, and one for the fans — I’d pay for that digital download!

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Now You See Me 2 (10 June 2016)

Check the trailer

I know that people didn’t love the first one, but I really did enjoy Now You See Me. I thought it was slick, clever, and fun, and I liked the cast, the one-upmanship, and the cat-and-mouse game. From the trailer, I can see that they’ve tried to recapture some of that, as well as turn the tables on the main characters as they have lost the upper hand since the previous movie. I’m glad that Jesse Eisenberg is back in his wheelhouse as a cocky wise-cracker; and Dave Franco takes up any slack in that department as well. I am far less excited that they’ve replaced Isla Fisher with Lizzy Caplan. She is probably a better actress, but Fisher was a nicer fit for the team, I think. However, the cherry on top of the casting cake is that this movie about magicians has cast none other than Harry Potter (aka actor Daniel Radcliffe) as their patron. I hope there will be a few tongue-in-cheek Potter references thrown into the mix.

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Finding Dory (17 June 2016)

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I’m really looking forward to this sequel, not only because Pixar has kind of misfired a bit lately, but also because Finding Nemo was definitely one of my favourites. It’s wonderful that Ellen Degeneres is back as the memory-challenged fish who (after helping reunite father and son clown-fish in the first movie) is now on a quest for her own family reunion. Like most sequels, I think they’re going to try to bring back as many characters from the original as they can reasonably do, plus introduce a few new ones (the camouflaging octopus looks like fun). While I don’t expect this to be as good as the first, I predict it will be really enjoyable and the family hit of the summer.

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Independence Day: Resurgence (3 July 2016)

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This movie is kind of the sequel that no one asked for. ID4 was one of the first big, summer tent-pole blockbusters 20 years ago, so I guess it’s appropriate that its scion be counted as one now. Just like Jurassic World did last year, this movie does its best to acknowledge and pay homage to the original, bringing back some of the actors/characters (including Bill Pulman and Jeff Goldblum), and making some of new characters sons of some of the characters from the first as well (including Will Smith’s). Apparently, humanity also got pretty good at reverse-engineering alien tech because what they’ve got in the movie trailer sure doesn’t look like what we’ve got today. Apparently, the aliens are back with even better stuff, so once again humanity is in dire straits. Hopefully this movie will find its place among the many recent revival movies/shows on the good side of the curve. I do enjoy a good alien invasion battle movie.

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Star Trek Beyond (22 July 2016)

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While Star Trek is my favourite sci-fi franchise, I admit that the JJ Abrams reboot movies don’t really feel very Star-Trek-y to me. Now that the directing reins have been handed over to Justin Lin, let’s see if he hews more closely to the spirit of the series. From the trailer, I really have no idea what this movie is about, but it looks like it will sparkle as well as all the others do. I’m glad that all the new crew are back. I like Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and Karl Urban as a stolid-yet-humorous Bones. I also like that they appear to be featuring Scotty (played by the always funny Simon Pegg) a bit more. They’ve got Idris Alba playing some kind of alien villain. I’m not sure if it’s going to matter in the end. I have a feeling he won’t become of the classic Trek baddies — people will probably only dress as him at conventions to test everyone’s trivia knowledge. I don’t know if the movie franchise will continue (especially now that a new TV series is on the way). Though I always think there’s room for more sci-fi on the big screen, I don’t know that I’d be sad to see these movies fade out.

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Jason Bourne (29 July 2016)

Check the trailer

When I heard that they were going to make this sequel with Matt Damon (rather than continue the franchise with Jeremy Renner) I was so relieved. Even better that they’ve got director Paul Greengrass back, who made the franchise as amazing as it was. Now that Jason Bourne has got his memories back, I’m not quite sure what the story of this movie will be about (though, as Julia Stiles character points out in the trailer, remembering is not the same as understanding). Although I didn’t see it in the trailer, I’m also hoping that there will be some off-the-hook fight scenes where Bourne will again show his super-human assassin skills in some very inventive ways. I am excited for this one and I hope it does not disappoint.

While sequels have become a box-office staple, the blockbuster-revival is a bit of a new phenomenon. The fact that so few of these have plots that can be summarized or teased in trailers does not bode well. So far, I think the successes have been mixed, but I look forward to seeing how we do this summer. If they work, I guess we’ve got ourselves a few more fun movies, but if they don’t, I hope there will be some lessons-learned so they can get back to making cool original stuff that might even be revivals twenty years from now.

Oscar Schmoscar 2016

I’m really cutting it down to the wire this year (since the Oscars are tomorrow) to give my two little cents on some of the nominated movies. As usual, please don’t expect me to predict the winners or have some Oscar-calibre comments. I started this series of annual posts when I didn’t really care about the Oscar nominees and this year seems to be a mixed bag (in my opinion), and I still don’t care too much (definitely don’t have a lot of nominees that I’m rooting for, but I wanted to see a few so that I have some skin in the game, at least). Here’s what I think about the few that I’ve watched but not previously reviewed:

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Spotlight

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing

Though I hadn’t heard of this movie before its nomination, I am a huge fan of nominated director Tom McCarthy. This movie is a bit different from his usual focus on somewhat ordinary people and their relationships. However, this movie about the investigative reporting team at the Boston Globe who broke the story of Catholic priests molesting children and the coverup throughout the Catholic clergy still portrays the reporters as real-life, ordinary people. I appreciated the nominated performances of Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams (I always love watching Rachel McAdams). I liked how this movie steered away from the tendency of these kinds of movies to make everything seem so “insider” (like we shouldn’t understand the stakes or the emotions involved if we aren’t ourselves investigative journalists). I found this entire movie very relatable and down-to-earth, despite slightly extraordinary events.

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Steve Jobs

Nominated for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress

While Michael Fassbender did pretty well in his nominated role as the late Apple CEO, I can see why the movie was not a best picture nominee. It’s basically a series of vignettes staged before each of several major product launch presentations given by Jobs. Backstage before these keynotes, we are given certain scenes of Jobs talking to his colleagues and underlings, as well as his daughter and her mother. I’d be surprised if these events truly played out in the way the movie shows. The scenes feel pretty stagey and contrived. I don’t think they were meant to give a very full picture of Jobs, but maybe only to capture certain aspects of him (and definitely not those aspects that make me actually like him). I kept waiting for some kind of plot arc, and when I realized that there wasn’t going to be any, I felt kind of let down — I guess the same lack of plot was there in director Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, but I didn’t really feel it that time. I think Fassbender did a pretty good job with the scenes and portraying Jobs with a kind of clever arrogance that we might expect, however, I never once felt that this was the same man that I kind of knew from the Apple keynotes. It felt very much like a character, rather than the real Steve Jobs.

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Shaun the Sheep: The Movie

Nominated for Best Animated Feature

Like Pixar, Aardman Studioes gets nominated for most of their animated features, however, I feel this one was quite inferior to previous nominees like Chicken Run or Wallace & Grommit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Animation was just as good, but lacked a few of the crazy spectacle scenes similar to those other movies. As for actual story, I felt that Shaun the Sheep was ridiculous (and not in a good way). I wish this story of sheepy misadventures could have stayed on the farm, where sheep act like sheep (although exceedingly clever ones able to dupe the farmers — I love it when they all line up to jump over fences as the farmer is counting them in order to make him fall asleep — so meta!) rather than going into the city and starting to act like people. I hated the fact that the humans were so unbelievably thick that once the sheep could walk upright and wear human clothes, they became indistinguishable from humans — not being detected as imposters even without the ability to show their faces or speak! Ridiculous! To me this movie was a waste of some pretty good stop-motion animation.

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Sanjay’s Super Team

Nominated for Best Animated Short

This short movie (which showed before airings of The Good Dinosaur) was not bad — excellent Pixar animation as expected — but it wasn’t anything super-imaginative or lyrical. Some of these Pixar shorts are wonderfully inventive stories of their own, but this one (about a child who imagines his Hindu deities as something akin to comic book characters) seemed like a brief scene from The Incredibles or any number of super-hero cartoons.It was wonderful that this movie represents some true cultural diversity, since it is firmly rooted in a kid’s Hindu-based daydreams. However, it’s simply over too quick, with very little to say for itself.

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The Martian

Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design

Though it was kind of like a cross between the movies Gravity and Castaway, this realistic movie about an astronaut left to fend for himself on the surface of Mars was quite enjoyable. Matt Damon made a believable astronaut-scientist and even though it might seem too hard to accept that he’d really have been able to pull it off, Damon’s character makes you want to root for him and overlook some of the incredible stuff. I’m not exactly sure what warranted a nomination for production design — usually that goes to period films with lots of sumptuous and elegant backdrops. In this case, would it be the uniforms and the design of the Martian base? Or maybe it was for some of the computer interfaces or the space vehicles. In any case, if it was about how convincing everything looked, then I think they should win. It felt very real — I even kind of forget once in a while that this is not depicting an actual story, but fiction. I could easily see this as something from the near future (or alternate present), and I think that can be a credit to the production design. As far as best picture goes, I thought that it was a well-paced story and didn’t go over-the-top in an attempt to be thrilling. Also, the script deserves to be nominated for a light touch both in terms of melodrama as well as staying focused on the storytelling rather than bashing us over the head with technical jargon.