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Umimachi Diary (2015)
Light as a Cherry Blossom, Sour & Sweet
Feathery episodic nuggets float, fall, and accumulate to tell a gently emotional, meaningful story of four sisters. Beautifully photographed, edited, and directed, well-cast and performed, with lovely, understated music.
Turn off your phone, and if you have sisters, watch this movie with them.
Into the Badlands (2015)
When the Writers Have Five Great Episodes and the Network Orders Six, Ten, and Sixteen Episodes.
I enjoyed season one, and was willing to overlook the familiar, trope-heavy concept, the over-reliance on gratuitous bloody action scenes, lazy writing, and cheesy acting because the story moved along quickly and some of the martial arts scenes were nicely done.
Season two dragged and sagged, with even the comedy styling of Nick Frost wearing thin about midway through the padded, predictable ten episodes.
Season three is sixteen episodes, diluted even further, so I'm moving on from the eight episode season one of Stranger Things to the nine episode season two. Lots of great shows, so little time.
Now Exiting, Into The Badlands.
The Flash: Duet (2017)
It's Okay To Like This Series And Hate This Episode
Quite a few of the CW DC Comics series actors probably have amazing kitchen skills, but that doesn't mean an all-cooking episode of The Flash is a good idea. This musical episode was half-baked, stale, and indigestible.
The episode plays like an overlong, unfunny blooper reel with the pratfalls and curse words replaced by musical numbers. If you love this sort of thing, feel free to indulge. Regular viewers of the show, however, will miss nothing by skipping this episode.
In 2001 Joss Whedon wrote and directed a season three Buffy The Vampire Slayer musical episode (currently rated 9.8 on IMDb). It's not perfect, but with a cast of (mostly) non-singers, and original, plot-driven songs by Whedon, it's an important episode that should not be missed when you watch the series.
A great musical episode of a non-musical show? Perhaps there can be only one.
The Gifted (2017)
Fox has done the totally predictable with The Gifted, taken their preexisting X-Men movie brand and shoehorned it into a formulaic network TV show. Unfortunately for The Gifted, it follows another Fox X-Men TV series, Legion, that debuted on their FX cable network earlier this year. That adult-themed show is not without flaws, but it does have a unique vision, a challenging plot that pay off, with impressive special X-effects sequences that are as elaborate and long-lasting as the story requires.
After the Bryan Singer-directed pilot sets up the tired concept and already familiar characters, subsequent episodes of The Gifted devolve further into the Matt Nix weekly heist-style challenges that drove most of his Burn Notice episodes. You've got The Agency out to get our heroes, a break out, a break in, Sharon Gless, Coby Bell. Sadly, no Bruce Campbell (yet).
Stephen Moyer (Vampire Bill) and Amy Acker (Whedon's Buffyverse) have their most thankless TV roles here, demonstrating that a genre-show pedigree does not make up for dull, recycled characters and stories. The performance of recurring guest star Garret Dillahunt, television's instant read quality thermometer, seems to indicate that this show is most like the similar movie-based Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. If you really like it, enjoy it while it lasts.
The Gifted is watchable, mildly fun, but if you've seen ten hours of random scripted television, then you've already seen an hour of this show.
The Strain: The Fall (2016)
No ExCuse For A Season Finale This Disastrous
Apparently this was the directorial debut for writer/producer Carlton Cuse. Unfortunately, everything after his welcome, resonant "previously on The Strain" voice-over (and the recap clips) was sub-par for this TV series.
If the director gets most of the credit when things go well, shouldn't they bear the brunt of the blame when it all goes wrong? Why were the actors so much less effective than usual? Corey Stoll and Kevin Durand can handle antagonistic Brisco / Lord Bowler comic banter, but in this episode it's misplaced, uneven, and out of character. Dutch is a diminished version of herself, unprepared, discarding her previous development, and fumbling around as the unpolished writing dictates. Suddenly Filch, sorry, Setrakian doesn't recognize a Strigoi immediately when he sees and hears one? Zach (II) has been underwritten for a while, but here all hope for audience sympathy is eradicated with selectively lethal radiation. I'm guessing the writer (also Mr. Cuse) was not intending for this final sequence of the episode to be frustratingly comic.
Cut down to less than a minute running time, perhaps this episode will work as a "previously on" montage at the beginning of Season Four, Episode One? On second thought, no, it probably won't. But the voice-over will be great.
Royalle With Cheese, Watch Powers Season 1 on Amazon (or Free on Crackle) Before Season 2 Debuts on PSN Next Year
All ten season 1 episodes of Powers are now free to watch on Crackle (at the time of this writing), but the viewer should receive some sort of financial compensation for sitting through the pilot. I watched it in disbelief, then it took me a week to view the second episode. The pilot is a plodding, dull, dimwitted disaster of the sort that gets a show bumped from a dodgy cable channel like FX down even further to the Playstation Network. By the time a clueless Mario Lopez shows up early in the proceedings to explain what you've been watching, I would imagine that most name brand media critics had already put the finishing touches on their negative reviews. After FX rejected the show, the pilot was recast and shot again, so apparently the producers did not learn from their mistakes.
Law enforcement partners (yawn) Sharlto Copley (District 9) and Susan Heyward (The Following) are limited by the trope-filled, superhero comic book source material, which fortunately gets better as the season progresses. For much of his performance Copley seems like a younger Bruce Campbell on Prozac. Heyward is solid and should earn her way back onto a broadcast network show. In the series villain sandwich, Eddie Izzard as "Wolfe" is the ham and Noah Taylor as "Johnny Royalle" is the cheese--not scary, but they do seem to be having a good time. Third Olsen twin Olesya Rulin (High School Musical, High School Musical 2, High School Musical 3) as Calista does a nice job with a role that would probably have been totally annoying if an actual Olsen twin had been cast. Michelle Forbes as Retro Girl adds cement to her status as the Mariette Hartley of her generation, high praise indeed, and your hard copy photo will be ready in about 60 seconds.
The series is also a showcase for the best and worst aspects of the Sony CineAlta PMW-F55 digital video camera for narrative storytelling. Most scenes have an eerie TV news documentary look, with available light footage that would fit right into a tabloid news feature on one of the big three networks (because this is the camera used for some of those programs). In the early episodes, when the story doesn't quite hold your interest, you can look for areas of high contrast in the master shot, and then see how the camera operator frames subsequent tighter shots, specifically to avoid distracting glare or darkness. Unfortunately the quality of image and effects does not get better between episodes one and ten.
A word of warning to parents: The show is filled with violence, blood and profanity that are not appropriate for children.
Powers succeeds by bringing most of the story threads together by the time the first season ends. As it turns out, the Royalle with cheese is not bad.
Supergirl: Pilot (2015)
Four Ayes To An All Wet Pilot For A Supergirl Series That Could Go Either Way
Old school network CBS ordered an old school Supergirl pilot episode and that is precisely what producers Greg Berlanti & Andrew Kreisberg of the CW Network's Arrow and The Flash, plus "new girl" Ali Adler (Glee, Chuck) delivered to them. Clearly some sort of checklist was involved.
Unfortunately all of the DNA fragments used to create this version of DC Comics' Supergirl don't quite fit together. The origin story is not belabored, but is hindered by obvious contractually-mandated limitations on the use of the necessary but unavailable Superman. Too much show "mythology" is shoehorned into this 45-minute pilot episode to allow viewers time to warm up to any of the characters that have been introduced.
After four seasons, Arrow still includes its weakest element (flashbacks to an Oliver that we know will survive every season-long threat he faces.) Those flashbacks kill the momentum of the current timeline stories. Every. Single. Episode.
The Flash began with guest appearances on the established Arrow series. Early episodes of The Flash had many awkward moments, but the show came together and eventually began to tell some extremely entertaining stories.
Bad indicators for Supergirl include unflattering mom glasses, non-ginger non-freckled Jimmy Olsen, Kara & Cat scenes that drag on way too long, dull action and effects that fizzle.
The pilot is a yawn, but the producers involved know how to make this sort of show work. So keep watching for a few more episodes. It could go either way.
South Beach (2015)
This Was Just What I Expected
This is a low budget, direct to Hulu series, featuring no high profile actors, shot on a relatively inexpensive video camera (with pro quality lenses), and the result is worth watching. The title is "South Beach", so naturally the whole series takes place in downtown Miami. I don't recall any beach scenes. But it doesn't matter. The series is advertised as being centered around a rivalry between two record labels. Not really, at least in these first six brief "episodes". But that doesn't matter either.
You do have quite a few nods to Fox's Empire, like a big party to launch a music video release, family members plotting against each other, etc. But South Beach is more telenovela than big network nighttime soap opera, and that's a good thing. Ana Villafañe as an on-the-rise singer keeps the show centered with her appealing performance. The plotting is all over a well-worn map. But the combined two hour running time of "Season One" goes by quickly in a generally entertaining fashion. The season concludes in true telenovela style with a rushed, plot-thickening montage that ends in an unresolved cliffhanger, exactly what I expected.
Go in anticipating some rough edges, a few scenes here and there that could have used another take to get stronger line readings or emotion from the actors, story elements that don't quite fall into place, shots that don't cut together seamlessly within a scene. All are perfectly acceptable on a limited budget project like this, but as a viewer you may notice these things. Good for you. Look for them when you watch your favorite network shows and you will find them.
Again, this is a brief and entertaining Season One that makes a strong case for continuing the story with a Season Two.
To Binge Or Not To Binge
First a big thanks to NBC for making all of the episodes available online for free (with commercials) less than one day after the first two hours aired on broadcast television. My understanding is that they will remain on the NBC and Hulu sites for one month, after which viewers will have to watch the weekly broadcast episodes or wait until the full 13 "hour" season has concluded for the season-long streaming option to return. Midseason hit Empire grew its broadcast audience by offering episodes online without the Fox/ABC standard 8-day delay. Unfortunately, Aquarius (at least in this American television broadcast version) is not Empire, so local NBC affiliates are likely to view this experiment as a failure unless the improbable happens and broadcast viewership builds week-to-week. Viewers in Australia report that their R-rated broadcast versions contain approx. five minutes of additional "naughty bits" per "hour" episode.
Aquarius creator John McNamara is the co-creator of the short-lived Fox 1996 series Profit, the only television show that I have watched from beginning to end three times and will happily watch again when I get the chance. Season two twenty years later? Bring it on. Will I ever watch Aquarius again? No.
Patrick Swayze and Travis Fimmel are excellent as the old cop young cop team, sorry that's David Duchovny and Grey Damon. Lead and supporting roles are well-cast and just about everyone has at least one or two compelling scenes. All aspects of the production are first-rate. Executive producer and star David Duchovny manages to avoid most (but not all) of the potential "vanity project" pitfalls.
With a rewrite or recut, excising some of the less interesting sub-plots, and adding the R-rated material, this could have been a repeat viewing show. Most problematic is the excessive screen time given to the fact-based, but fictionalized Manson. As written, he's no Jim Profit or Norman Bates, though he does have mommy issues.
To Binge Or Not To Binge? Binge. This is one long movie that should have been scheduled as a miniseries for strongest impact.
Here's Hoping They Jump Forward Twenty Years For Season Two
Now that season one is over, I do not find myself clamoring for a season two. Unless the show jumps forward twenty years and adds the most glaring missing element (Batman), I expect future episodes will be about the same: a Harry Potter prequel focused on the Malfoy family where you never meet Lily, James, Severus or Albus and Hogwarts is off limits. The Gotham writers do not seem very excited about the stories that DC & Warner Bros. are allowing them to tell on the rival-owned Fox network. All tease with little payoff, just a slightly bigger tease.
The acting and production design are the show's strongest elements. Too bad the Fresh Princess has such a pointless character to play. And Life, Terriers, Vikings does not earn Donal Logue this flimsy cardboard second fiddle role in a fairer universe. And so forth; Southland, Firefly, etc. This cast should be in a great show.
If Batman is a contractual impossibility, perhaps jumping forty years ahead would be okay with the lawyers and accountants? A live action Batman Beyond might be fun. Who am I kidding? That show would be on the Warner Bros. owned CW network.
Lighten Up Everyone And Get Dark
Okay, yes this is a trashy show. Unredeemable junky tabloid gutter garbage and no one should watch this sort of thing. Which is to say: I like it and when I have burned through all of the superb quality stylish high moral value television shows and don't feel like re-watching a movie by Kubrick or Hitchcock for the twentieth time (apparently they have both stopped making movies)--that's when I find Stalker to be an enjoyable guilty displeasure.
Usually when the Metacritic aggregate published review score drops into the red I don't even bother giving a new TV show a first look. The current score is 17 or "overwhelming dislike" with many of the critics commenting that the show has a misogynistic tone, and 15 of the 24 sampled reviews were written by men. So why do the male reviewers hate Stalker just as much as the female reviewers? Perhaps because the show is also quite misandristic (or man-hating, and I had to search to find this unfamiliar word, add your own social commentary here). With all of the talent involved, could the show really be that bad? I had to find out (a month later when the first episode was about to become unavailable for free online). I just finished watching episode six and so far I would say that this show only portrays children, pets and California architecture in a positive manner. No further comment regarding pets, otherwise a spoiler warning would be required.
Stalker is in some ways a companion show to creator Kevin Williamson's other major network show* The Following, except that because it's on CBS, most of the Fox-worthy sex, violence and other depravity occurs off-camera or at a respectable distance from the viewer. Also, CBS seems to demand more episodic (and, sigh, procedural) storytelling than the other networks, giving us a new villain every week and more than a plot-required number of talky office scenes with at least one lame joke that would feel right at home on the original CSI circa 2000 (just like most other CBS shows, again sigh). Both shows share writers, directors, original music composer and production teams. That means that everyone involved can get a regular paycheck and churn out this high production value brain-destroying television. Enjoy. I know I do, thought I don't really feel good about it.
*Sorry The Vampire Diaries, you're on The CW, a minor network with all the awesome combined power of The WB and UPN.
Stale Pale Fail
Overnight ratings count one million of NBC lead-in show Grimm's 5.3 million viewers tuning out last night's debut episode of Constantine. And the envy I feel towards those one million non-viewers is stronger than any emotion that I experienced watching the Constantine pilot.
No supernatural curse was necessary to doom this show; the half-baked script got the job done beautifully with dull characters, languid storytelling and lots of humorless, uninteresting words.
The actors look good. The cinematography, music and special effects are nicely done. But the successful elements are not enough to overcome what's missing. An interesting story? Look elsewhere, perhaps on cable or online. Characters you identify with and care about? Check out the Hellblazer comic book that spawned the show. Or wait for Hannibal season three to return in this time slot on NBC in late spring 2015. That show occasionally makes me turn away from the screen and every once in a while scares the hell out of me.
Nice-Looking, Crisply-Directed, Not Fun To Watch
USA Network has taken a significant leap from their "Lite" entertainment formula genre shows this summer with the addition of new series Satisfaction and Rush. Apparently someone in the Fox cable division wants to vacate their seat at the kids' table and join the grown-ups who produce edgier, sexier programming. While neither show is all that fun to watch, something regular USA viewers have come to expect, both feature strong supporting casts surrounding a "fauxmerican"-accented male lead. This works beautifully for A&E's Longmire, with Australian actor Robert Taylor in the title role. Not so well for either of these shows, with Australian Matt Passmore repeating all of the same vocal beats from his The Glades performance and a hint of UK in the utterances of doctor Rush. I am still watching Satisfaction, but I am not hooked. I stopped watching Rush early in episode two when Tom Ellis began singing along to Michael Bolton's "How Am I Supposed To Live Without You" and now I am asking you to stop watching as well. If you do, perhaps USA will green-light a better show to replace this nice-looking, crisply-directed failure.
The Fugitive (1963)
Fifty Years Later, Still Compelling, Entertaining, With a Satisfying Conclusion
As I watched this classic series recently, I found myself visiting the Internet Movie Database site frequently. Bruce Dern plays five different roles over the course of the show's four year run. Louise Latham and Diane Baker, two of Dern's co-stars from Hitchcock's film Marnie show up in the series finale. Robert Duvall appears in three episodes playing two unique characters, elevating both otherwise formulaic stories. Dozens of performers return to play new characters throughout the series run (not that unusual for a TV series of this vintage). Watched over the course of four years, viewers might not have noticed the returning actors. Modern binge viewers can check on Internet Movie Database to see how many times Telly Savalas, Shirley Knight, Michael Constantine and Sue Randall will appear (three). Look for Kurt Russell (as Philip Gerard Jr!) early in Season Two, as well as fellow kid stars Bill Mumy and brothers Clint and Ron Howard. A random episode cast: Pat Hingle, Dabney Coleman, Mary Murphy, Tom Skerritt, Dabs Greer, Burt Mustin. In most cases, if they are still alive, they are still working. Each of the four seasons has thirty episodes, with David Janssen on screen as Dr. Richard Kimble (The Fugitive) for most of the hour, often looking appropriately stressed or exhausted, a believable performance perhaps made easier by a frantic work schedule. Barry Morse as Lt. Philip Gerard, Kimble's nemesis, does not appear in every episode. Instead he pops up just enough to keep the main storyline of pursuit going. Series villain Bill Raisch as Fred Johnson (The One-Armed Man) is featured in just ten episodes, and is still (deservedly) ranked as one of TVs all-time greatest villains. Yes, some of the episodes are exceptionally good, others not quite so much, but every episode is watchable, even if you are just admiring the quality of the acting, or simply anxious to get to the end of the series. And the series finale is what sets the entire show apart from so many genre TV shows. The basic premise of the series can be summed up in a few questions. Those questions are answered in the two hour series finale, after a few twists and surprises, with a very satisfying conclusion. What are the cliffhanger resolutions for Flash Forward, Carnivale, Twin Peaks (okay, a great final episode, but it ends with multiple cliffhangers), X-Files, Invasion, Lost In Space, Land of the Giants, Vanished, The Dead Zone, Deception, Kyle XY, Stargate Universe, Alcatraz, Sliders, Las Vegas, The Border, Endgame (and dozens of other past, present and future TV shows)? Fifty years after The Fugitive's first broadcast, the entire series is still worth watching from the intriguing beginning, through an occasionally suspenseful middle, to the rewarding payoff at the end.
Intolerable Cruelty (2003)
From Banal To Brilliant Every Few Minutes
George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones anchor a strong cast, but ultimately only elevate this film to B-grade. The tone of the storytelling jumps from real to screwball, as if a smart version and a stupid version of the story were filmed at the same time and then edited together at random. George Clooney in Las Vegas; what a novel concept. And Catherine Zeta-Jones married to someone a quarter-century older stretches credibility a bit (no, wait, perhaps that is plausible). For an optimal viewing experience, watch this movie somewhere in the middle of your Coen Brothers movie marathon. Also recommended: popcorn and a beverage, a mid-movie intermission, or some other mild distractions to break up the slightly bloated 100 minute running time.
Death Becomes Her (1992)
A Grade Talent Plus Half-Baked Script Equals Wasted Effort
Do yourself a favor and skip this film. Robert Zemeckis presides over nearly flawless technical work here, but the script is unfunny, misogynistic and ill-conceived. So, how does a film this bad get made? Internet Movie Database is the perfect tool to provide perspective on this stinker of a movie. Just look at the work that everyone involved was doing around the 1992 release date. Bruce Willis had fine-tuned his comedy skills in Moonlighting, exploded the box office in the action comedy Die Hard, and would follow a few more duds with Pulp Fiction in 1994. Meryl Streep was coming off a decade of strong dramatic performances and would succeed in the action film The River Wild in 1994. Goldie Hawn has a proved track record in comedies, just watch most of her work before this movie and enjoy. Isabella Rossellini is at a career peak here. Alan Silvestri provides a score that is worth seeking out and listening to as an audio-only experience. Zemeckis sandwiched this mess between the Back to the Future films and Forrest Gump. Again, do not spend 104 minutes of your time watching this movie. Everyone involved has done better work that you should seek out for many hours of enjoyment, all easy to find with the essential tool for any film fan, Internet Movie Database. Once more, do not waste your time on this film.
Great Work by the Casting Team.
The brilliant work of the casting team (Steve Brooksbank and Mary Jo Slater) deserves high praise here. The lead actors have proved themselves elsewhere and they almost make this work. Unfortunately, the poorly directed pilot episode probably means this new series is DOA. Poor choices were made: in the overall tone, pacing, camera angles, shot selection, action that violates screen direction repeatedly; and so much more. The chaotic work of the director takes the viewer out of the story, causes confusion about what is happening, sets up and then deflates the impact of comedic punchlines, etc. Editing and music cues improve upon but cannot cover up the badness of the raw footage. The director of this mess does not appear on camera, but he is the most important character in this pilot episode and, apparently, that was just what he was going for.
Fringe: Brown Betty (2010)
The Lost Fringe Episode (In A More Perfect Alternate Reality)
After demonstrating how to do just about everything right in the last four or five episodes, the Fringe team have given us this exercise in what can go wrong, horribly wrong, season two of Twin Peaks wrong.
Congratulations are in order for the highly watchable prequel episode Peter, with nuanced performances all around, especially from John Noble. Prequel pitfalls were masterfully avoided and the current storyline was enriched. Bravo.
A shower of industry awards are in order for the brilliant episode White Tulip which skillfully balances a difficult hard science fiction plot device with parallel tales of human tragedy, avoiding the obvious and delivering the unexpected. Wow. Very Nice.
The episode Brown Betty deserves a ruler slap across the fingers. Please do not do this again. Loyal viewers know that you are capable of much better.
The Prisoner (2009)
For No One
In attempting to remake a 60s Cult Classic TV series for everyone, the talent behind this new version have created a product that should have lasting appeal for no one. An excellent cast and crew are trapped in The Village of Bad Storytelling where plot holes manifest literally as potholes. Some individual scenes have power, with sharp dialogue and committed performances that hint at what could have been. As I viewed the series I was caught up in ancillary mysteries unrelated to the story. For instance: are film actors like Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel motivated to appear in a television production for financial or artistic reasons? If there is any justice in the world of corporate television, we will soon be reading about the imminent arrival of a brand new Number Two at the production company responsible for this folly.