Tag Archives: Netflix

More Shows to Watch (May 2017)

The network television season has all but ended, and next week we’re going to be talking about the new shows coming in fall 2017, but before we reach that point, there are still a few interesting shows on right now (including a couple from Netflix, so they’re always “on”) that could tide you over until we all go outside for summer play (or movies). And since I’m the one writing this post, there is a definite genre slant to this quick list.

American Gods

This is a high-quality, nicely-visual TV adaptation of hit fantasy author Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel of the same name. While I was not a big fan of the (audio)book, I am really enjoying this show–definitely more than I thought I would. Essentially, the main character Shadow Moon is an ex-con whose life takes a few unfortunate turns, but then he gets mixed up with the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday, who is organizing a little war of old gods vs new. Gaiman’s premise is that the gods go where their worshippers go, and as a nation of immigrants, America has more than its fair share of old gods. However, as culture and society has changed, so too what we worship; new gods such as Media and Technology have manifested and are busily trying to supplant the influence of the old gods. Even in the book, I loved this concept and now seeing all these characters on screen is pure delight — especially for the mythology nerd in me. The visuals range from bizarre dreamscapes (think buffalos with flaming eyes) to stretches of American inter-city landscape, and all carry that stylish, cinematic flair which is a hallmark of most Bryan Fuller productions. Shadow is played by newcomer Ricky Whittle (who also played the strong, stoic type in The 100) opposite Ian McShane (total smooth-talking scene-stealer!) as Mr. Wednesday. Filling in an incredible cast is Gillian Anderson (one of my faves) as Media, Orlando Jones as Mr. Nancy (whose debut speech was an incredible scene), Kristin Chenowith as Easter, Peter Stormare as Czernobog, and Cloris Leachman as Zorya Vechernyaya. If you’re even mildly intrigued by this summary, you need to check out this unique show.

Doctor Who

Returning for his last season is Peter Capaldi as the 12th incarnation of our favourite Time Lord. This time he’s back with a new companion, having left Clara Oswald behind after her rather convoluted “death”. Now he is posing as a Scottish professor and his new companion is one of his students, Bill Potts, who brings a delightful energy and brash exuberance to the relationship. Everything is new to her (yes, Bill is a woman) and she loves to speak her mind (as most companions do) but she also says a lot of the things that we’re all thinking. There have been a few episodes this season, but they have followed a somewhat typical formula so far. There has been a future city where the robots have been overzealous about their creators’ intentions (much to the detriment of all people who visit); there’s been another visit to Victorian England where another creature is secretly killing people; and there’s been a haunted house where Bill and her new housemates are being disappeared by something creepy. Regardless of the surprisingly complex mythology (which I often can’t follow), this show is always a fun sci-fi adventure — one of the few still around. I’m looking forward to more interactions between Bill and the Doctor (especially since she’s a lesbian and so we should be refreshingly free of the romantic entanglements that the companions all get with the Doctor) and also the anticipation of his next regeneration (which is likely to be the season finale).

The Get Down

This sensational trip back to late 70s Brooklyn, in the waning days of Disco and the infancy of Hip-hop made a splash last summer for its first half-season. Now Netflix has the second half of the tales of Ezekiel Figuero, Mylene Cruz, Shaolin Fantastic, and the Get Down Brothers as they try to live their dreams of musical stardom. The young lovers Zeke and Mylene were both on the rise when we left off. Zeke had the patronage of movers and shakers in local politics, and potentially had a shot at an Ivy League future. Mylene was becoming a disco diva, but her self-serving father was eager to use her fame to promote his church and its own rise. This series has a very refreshing style with a lot of great music and powder-keg energy. So many characters are bursting with desperation to take control of their lives and change their futures, along with the darker undercurrent of the times, filled with drugs and violence, which was chasing them to pull them under. This show takes melodrama in a new direction, and while I really enjoyed the first half-season, the second was not nearly as fresh. The pressure for these characters to compromise their beliefs in pursuit of their dreams was kind of a cliche. The fact that everyone around them was using our heroes for their own ends was another cliche. For some reason (hopefully artistic rather than merely budgetary), the second half-season kept using a lot more animation (meant to represent the comic book artistry of Jaden Smith’s graffiti-artist character Dizzee) and it was both annoying and cheesy. While there was a kind of climax to the storyline, culminating in a war between musical forces old vs new, the second half-season was a let-down from the potential of the first.

13 Reasons Why

This controversial teen drama actually debuted on Netflix at the end of March, so there’s been a bit more time for people to have seen it by now (I know I binge-watched it over most of a weekend). It stars familiar young actor Dylan Minette as Clay Jensen — a high school kid who is trying to cope with the suicide of Hannah Baker, a girl who he was friends with (and possibly loved), when he is given a mysterious set of cassette tapes. On these tapes, Hannah has recounted the backstory of a number of individuals in the school, who she claims as having contributed to her suicide. Based on a popular book, 13 Reasons Why actually adds a lot of dramatic scaffolding around the narration of the tapes along with a lot of depth to Clay’s story. If you are interested in this kind of show, I’m betting that you’ll come for the mystery (Who contributed to Hannah’s suicide and how?) and stay for the characters. Part of the controversy around this show (and book) is about how it really gets into the mind and experience of teenagers. Detractors warn that teenagers are already prone (as depicted in this show) to expand every event so that its significance is too major to avoid or control, and makes it seem that the only way out is suicide. Minette does a great job as Clay. He’s a decent guy, with his awkward moments as well as his confident ones. He seems entirely relatable, even when he becomes frustrated and angry to the extreme. As a middle-age guy with no teenage kids, I can easily just enjoy the drama and well-told story of this show without being overly concerned with its social impact. If I were to take a small step in that direction, I’d say that it encourages a dialogue between teens and their parents by being extremely frank and dramatic. I don’t think any parent should let their kids watch this show without having a good discussion with them about their response and reactions. Nevertheless, I think this kind of provocative television is really good and just the kind of thing that the medium is designed for. Anyway, enough soap-boxing. It’s definitely worth checking out this show, and I challenge you not to be hooked after the first couple of episodes.

Also returning to Netflix are Aziz Ansari’s acclaimed sitcom Master of None (which I loved in parts, but did not watch all the way through to season-end) for a second season; and season 3 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt starring Ellie Kemper. I loved season 1, cooled down to lukewarm about season 2, and only slightly-anticipate season 3. We’ll see.

New Year, New TV 2017

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

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Sherlock, season 4

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

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Emerald City

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

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One Day At A Time

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

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A Series of Unfortunate Events

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

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Troll Hunters

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

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The OA

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

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Beyond

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

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Taboo

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

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

So much to watch, so little time!

Getting Creepy With Netflix 2016

This year, for my Halloween creepfest (that’s where I watch a bunch of movies that are scary, but more on the psychological side, without all the gratuitous gore and demonic horror that can be part of a scary movie these days), I once again decided to plumb Netflix’s movie collection for some creepy gems. Last year I enjoyed a few good ones, including the inspired, frightening, new classic, It Follows. Alas, this year I watched four movies but was not really scared at all. Consider these reviews more of a warning of what to avoid this All Hallow’s Eve. Note: I watch Canadian Netflix, so if you are in another region, you might not have these movies available — Consider yourself lucky!

emelie-02Emelie

I’m guessing that this movie about a psycho babysitter is meant to tap into every parent’s fear of leaving their kids with a stranger. That could have made for some tense and thrilling suspense, but alas this movie is ruined by all the psycho-character cliches that are thrown in for no logical reason. Emelie screams at the kids; she breaks all of the mom’s rules; she feeds the kids’ hamster to their snake and makes them watch; and she’s a total perv, making the kids watch a videotape of their dad having sex with another woman, and making the pre-teen boy watch her use a tampon in the bathroom, all just to prove that she is crazy. Message was received when we started the movie by watching the real babysitter get abducted. We know she’s a fake! Wouldn’t it have been so much more suspenseful if she had acted like a good babysitter, only to gradually slip up and leave clues that allowed us to realize that Emelie’s story was a lie? Anyway, even her motives are made so plain, as she tells the youngest child an allegorical bedtime story about how a mother lost her little cub and wants to replace it. Nevertheless, that doesn’t stop the filmmakers from showing us the whole thing acted out in a flashback while she narrates. When the kids finally fought back, I was so happy, not so much because I wanted them to be safe, but I just wanted the story to end. (1.5 out of 5)

da_theinvitation_mesaThe Invitation

Another suspense, indie-film, classic theme is the dinner-party gone awry. We start out with a couple driving up to a big house in the Hollywood hills for a dinner party. Apparently, Will (played by Logan Marshall Green with Jesus-like long hair and beard) had previously been married to the hostess. When he and his new girlfriend arrive, most of the other guests are there and it’s sort of a reunion of the former couple’s old friends. Again, we’re treated to a few dinner-party-film cliches as someone proposes a truth-revealing game, and some sex and drugs get thrown around. As the truth-telling continues, we hear a bit more about a few of the guests who are new friends of Will’s ex and her new boyfriend (played by Game of Thrones‘s Michiel Huisman). They all spent some time together in a cult of sorts that seems pre-occupied with death– a red flag! As the dinner goes on, there’s a strange undercurrent to the evening that only Will seems to notice. I guess I wish this movie had been better written, and made up its mind what kind of movie it was going to be. If it was going to be more of a “dinner party conversation” kind of movie, then it needed some more thought-provoking dialogue that dealt more with some interesting new ideas and philosophies. If it was going to be a suspenseful, shocking, twisty film, then it should have built up the suspense gradually. It was tense, granted, but so implausible that everyone would just have a regular dinner with all the weirdness that happened — I think the actual dinner being delivered as a montage was a clever way to avoid dealing with that flaw. I won’t spoil the over-the-top climax, but it’s not as unexpected as you might think. There’s a bit of a twist at the end, but by then I didn’t really buy the story anyway, so I was far-from-chilled by its implications. (2.5 out of 5)

the-witch-02The Witch

I had heard that this movie was very scary — in a slow-burning, get-inside-your-head kind of way, but it was not for me. However, what I thought was really good was the performances of all the characters and how they pulled off the dialogue in Puritan-English. Kudos to the writers of this movie, set in 17th century New England, for actually using very authentic-sounding language of the time rather than just using modernish English. The main characters included a teen girl, a pre-teen boy, and two young twins, who all very naturally spoke the period dialogue. This movie seems all about the authenticity, and if it were just about the hardships of a pilgrim family banished from the settlement, struggling to survive in the bleak wilderness, it would have made a very good movie. While it’s still not a bad movie, deciding to mix in the idea of a witch tormenting these poor souls took this film down another path. It would have made for some scary suspense if they’d left the question open to the imagination, but perhaps the filmmakers were sticking with authenticity when they quickly revealed the actual witch (in all her grotesqueness) who stole the baby from this poor family. For the rest of the movie, this very religious family starts pointing fingers at each other and seeing witchcraft in their own household, but alas we already know who the real culprit is — suspense diminished. I don’t know how she would feel about this comment, but another prize should go to whoever cast Kate Dickie as the mother. If you watch Game of Thrones, you’ll know her as Lysa Arryn of the Vale. She’s got the face and demeanour to play any shrew or harridan character that writers can come up with. In this movie, when she believed her own daughter to be the witch, her over-reactions reminded me so much of when Lysa had persecuted poor Sansa Stark. Overall, this movie is pretty well-made. Unfortunately, I found myself distracted by wondering why any of this was happening. I didn’t understand why the witch would target this family (and what would have kept her busy in the middle of nowhere if this family had not come along). The ending could have been played for shock, but it isn’t really. I’m not sure I know what to make of that either. (3.5 out of 5)

iamtheprettything_still_01I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House

After this film, I might just give up on these non-scary horror movies. I think they try too hard to be high-concept, and the point is lost along the way — or maybe just lost on me. This film (with a great title, no?) was a hit at the Toronto International Film Festival, and picked up by Netflix, but I’m not really sure why. Netflix seems interested in more commercial stuff than this film, which you might think of as a “horror-film postcard”. It’s the story of a young woman who starts a job as a live-in care-giver to an old author on her deathbed. Each scene is nicely framed, with shots squarely aligned with doorways and dining tables, etc. The house they are in is old enough and quaint enough that even when the scenes flash back to pre-20th-century, no redressing of the set is needed. From the outset we know this is a ghost story because the main character narrates from beyond the grave, telling us that while we see her in her present day, she won’t live to see her next birthday.  There’s a bit too much narration, in my opinion, and while it’s nicely lyrical, the voiceover is distracting. The bulk of the movie, however, is very tranquil and very little actually happens beyond some unexplained thumping, some mysterious black mould on a part of the wall, and a whole lot of eerie, high-pitched notes on the soundtrack. This movie seems more interested in setting the mood to horror rather than actual frights. Even the whole ghost aspect is very mild. The main character, Lily, is self-admittedly prone to fear (which makes it surprising that she’d have taken this job) but it borders on annoyance to watch her get scared at such minor disturbances. Her over-reaction lessens our own fright as viewers. In the end, I don’t really get this movie. It’s pretty in its way, but more than anything, it’s dull. (3 out of 5)

What I watched on TV this summer

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

The Night Manager

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

Black-ish

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

Star Trek: The Next Generation

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

Stranger Things

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

The Get Down

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

Getting Creepy with Netflix

I’m not one for horror movies (kinda chicken that way), but around Halloween I think it might be fun to scare myself a little (in the safety of my living room) and Netflix helps by providing all kinds of movies to choose from. I don’t think I will ever really enjoy those gross-out-gory kinds of movies. I tend to pick scary movies that are more psychological in nature and play with the characters’ and viewers’ minds. So, if you’re ready, on to the creeps!

babadookThe Babadook

I had heard that this Australian movie was very scary (and more psychological than actual) — just what I was looking for. The story centres around a widowed mother of a young boy trying to cope with her son’s precociousness while struggling to make ends meet. She’s also dealing with a lot of unresolved feelings about the loss of her husband (who died in a car accident on the way to the hospital driving her to give birth to their son). Her son turned into quite a handful, always getting into things, ready to fight the monsters under his bed, and needing a lot of her attention. One night he asked her to read him to sleep from a mysterious book called “The Babadook”. The story and illustrations were incredibly disturbing, depicting a dark bogeyman with long, sharp fingers that you cannot get rid of until he kills you — she quickly threw the book away without finishing. Unfortunately, after that night, her son is convinced that the Babadook is real and coming after them, and as he starts to unravel, she tries to help him cope without going crazy herself.

Throughout the movie, it’s a mystery (even for the audience) is whether the Babadook is real, but most of the terror and suspense comes from the mother’s loosening grip on her sanity, and on reality. I think both the child actor who played the son and the actress who played the mom did excellent jobs going from normal to a near-demonic craziness. Throughout, there was the looming fear of whether they would survive the Babadook curse which made the movie tense and frightening, but I wish that it had been clearer what the creature was supposed to represent (because it really seemed like it was supposed to symbolize something: maybe the mother’s grief, or the frustrations of single-parenthood, or some other psychological theme). Unfortunately, that lack of explanation made the ending feel very unsatisfying as well. Nevertheless, it’s quite an achievement in horror when a mother reading a pop-up book to her son can be the cause of my white-knuckled grip on the sofa arm. (3.5 out of 5)

Circle_Still10Circle

After The Babadook, I took a little break from the frights with a movie that wasn’t really meant to be scary at all, but more of a sci-fi psychological film (if that genre really exists). Circle is almost like a play in that it’s all set in a room with a dark background, and there’s no real action that goes on besides a lot of dialogue and character interaction. The movie begins with a woman waking up in what seems like some kind of chamber, one of about 30 people of all shapes and sizes, standing on red circles of light, arranged in a circular configuration around some kind of device in the centre. The woman finds out quickly from another man in the circle that she cannot move outside of her own red circle. She starts to ask questions about what’s going on, why she’s there, who the others are, and as the others all wake up, they try to figure out the answers. To up the ante, every few minutes one of their number is randomly zapped by some kind of pulse and dies. What’s interesting about this movie is that the core of it is not in the alienness of the situation, but once the people start to realize that they are somehow choosing who is the next person to get killed, the movie becomes more about people. They begin to debate who deserves to live and who doesn’t. It’s a bit of a desert-island situation. Even in a relatively short span (I think the film plays out almost in real time) we viewers will pick sides, follow arguments, dislikes some of the characters, and it’s inevitable that one would imagine what one would do if placed in that situation. I found the movie very interesting. It’s definitely artificial and contrived, but that’s the point. We’re literally watching a (fictional) psychological experiment, but it has a couple of dramatic twists. Who can resist that kind of voyeurism? (4 out of 5)

3It Follows

After that little breather, I went back to something genuinely frightening. I confess I had first heard of this movie on an episode of The Good Wife, of all places. It has a nice simple title to reflect its relatively simple premise: a girl is cursed after having sex with some guy, there is a creature that is constantly following her and if it catches up to her, it will kill her. Doesn’t sound like it would make much of a movie, but the simplicity was really the beauty of this movie. After she’s cursed, our heroine Jay goes back to school, not really believing it. As she’s looking out the classroom window she sees people outside doing their own thing, but suddenly she realizes that one of them is not doing its own thing but rather walking straight towards her. That’s when the creeps really begins (for myself as the viewer and for Jay). She freaks out and runs out of the classroom only to see this old lady in a night gown slowly following her through the school hallway. The rest of the movie follows Jay (no pun intended) as she keeps trying to get away from the creature (which can take the form of anyone, by the way). I have to say that I really enjoyed this movie. It was so basic (a lot of times it seems like nothing is really happening) and yet it was still very scary (I was quite tense in my living room). There were so many times where the camera shows a street scene or some kind of long shot where people are moving in all directions and I was just there looking for the one person who was coming towards us (like some horrific Where’s Waldo? puzzle). If you like scary movies that are more mind-game, I think you should definitely check this one out. Just don’t be surprised if you can’t stop looking over your shoulder afterward. (4.5 out of 5)

CUBAN FURYWhat We Do In The Shadows

This last movie was not scary, but funny (and not in an ironic way), but it had Halloween themes. It’s a mockumentary film about a bunch of flatmates who are all vampires. One of the stars was Flight of the Conchords‘s Jemaine Clement, as Vladislav, a vampire in the Bram Stoker style: gothic, Slavic, decadent and Bohemian. The movie is laugh-out-loud funny even from the get-go, poking fun at many of the vampire-story conventions. One of the first scenes had a vampire smoothly raise himself up out of his casket from a sleeping position to standing position, but funnily he gets stuck at a 45 degree angle. These vampires live in modern-day Wellington, New Zealand, and try to blend in, but thankfully this movie is not about vampires acting like normal people (i.e. joining the PTA or shopping at Wal-Mart). They are still vampires who can’t go out into sunlight, need to drink human blood to survive, etc., but are also learning about Google and dealing with noise-complaints from the neighbours. One of the things that happen is that they make a new vampire from one of their victims, which adds a new dynamic to their centuries-old group. Each of the vampires has their own personality quirks. When the new vampire brings his human friend along to hang out, they find that they are capable of making friends with humans as well. The tone of this movie is indie-film ironic but it has a bit of heart as well (but doesn’t get too sappy either) and is good at laughing at itself. The humour is broad and over-the-top, but also subtle at the same time. It’s a nicely written movie and the actors are clearly having fun playing these quirky but lovable characters (even the monstrous-looking Nosferatu-style vampire Petyr is endearingly creepy). I think anyone who is remotely a fan of vampire stories will enjoy and appreciate the satirical aspects (The newbie vampire goes around claiming to be “Twilight”, just to get a little recognition, haha!) but it is a well made comedy overall. For me it made a great palate-cleanser and dessert to wrap up a Halloween movie set (4.5 out of 5)