Thursday, January 29, 2015

TV Review: Agent Carter

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars (after 4 episodes)

Bottom Line:  A fun show that delivers plenty of pulp action as well as a strong female lead character.

ABC is doing some schedule experimenting this season and bringing in the Captain America spin-off series Agent Carter to fill in the gap while Agents of SHIELD is on hiatus and it means less repeats during the regular season.  I like the idea and Agent Carter is the perfect series to timeshare with AoS because both exist in the same universe as the Marvel Avengers big screen entries.  This show takes place in 1946 as Agent Carter finds herself working for SSR (Strategic Scientific Reserve) on the home front after the war.  However, she is looked upon by the other male agents that she works with more as a secretary and is not appreciated for her true skills.  Howard Stark contacts her and asks her to help clear his name because he is on the run, accused of treason.  She then teams with his butler Jarvis and works on the sly to try and uncover who has framed Stark.  The series has a retro, pulp feel to it with a bit of noir thrown in for good measure.  And it has that same sense of fun that we have seen in most of the Avengers movies (something that Agents of SHIELD unfortunately has mostly dispensed with this season).  Hayley Atwell delivers a commanding performance as Carter with James D’Arcy proving himself quite capable as her partner/side-kick.  I would have preferred if they had avoided the angle of Carter having to skirt around (pun unintended but accepted) the chauvinistic attitudes of the day because it just acts as a plot anchor dragging down the stories from time to time.  It would have been much better it they just let her reputation from her war days carry over into her new assignment and have her step up as the kick-ass agent she really is.  Sure, the sexist attitudes might be a more realistic touch for the period, but then how much of this really depends on realism?  It’s not a deal-breaker, though, just a minor annoyance and does not keep me from enjoying the show.  But the show has definitely kept my attention across its first four episodes, and it has quickly found itself on my must-watch list.  And next week's episode brings in some of the Howling Commandoes, so hopefully they will set the record straight on what Agent Carter can do. Unfortunately, the ratings for the show have not been great thus far, though not terrible either.  But if ABC does not see fit to bring the show back for a second round next year, maybe Marvel will consider one or more direct-to-video films like the one that hit in 2013 to continue her story (or perhaps Netflix could pick the show up).  I, for one, am enjoying this entry and would definitely like to see more.

Monday, January 19, 2015

TV Review: The Man in the High Castle

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: The pilot can be muddled at times, but there is plenty of potential here if this one were to jump to an ongoing series.

Based on the Phillip K. Dick novel of the same name, The Man in the High Castle is one of the latest entries from Amazon's "Pilot Season" where viewers can watch it for free online (at this link) and vote whether they want it to continue as a series.  The story takes place in an alternate version of 1950's where the Axis powers won World War II and ended up dividing the United States between them with Germany getting the eastern states and Japan getting the western side with a "neutral zone" in between.  In the pilot, we learn that an aging Hitler is in failing health and a power struggle amongst the German leadership is expected to follow once he dies with the repercussions that will impact the political divisions in the United States.  San Francisco resident Juliana Crain is pulled into the resistance movement by her sister and she watches film footage that shows the Allies winning the war, cluing her in to an alternate reality.  In search of further answers, she heads to the neutral zone where she then encounters a member of the resistance from the west.

The pilot episode runs about an hour and does a good job of setting up the premise and establishing the look and feel of this alternate American past.  Ridley Scott executive produced The Man in the High Castle, so the strong visual appeal is to be expected and it adds much to the experience.  The story itself tends to be rather muddled and confusing at times, but that appears to be more about trying to cram as much as possible into the show's first hour to set up the story.  Surprisingly, though, despite delivering a packed episode, it can be slow at times.  Still, I never found it boring and it stays mostly on track as its sets up a concept with plenty of potential.  I have never read the book it was based on, so I can't speak to how faithful it is to the source material (I would expect that it takes many liberties as most Philip K. Dick adaptations do), but I would definitely like to see more from this one.  X-Files veteran Frank Spotnitz wrote the pilot and is onboard as showrunner, and I believe that he could do a good job with this as a series.  I will be giving this one a thumbs up in Amazon's Pilot Season ballot and I believe that it has a good chance of getting the greenlight if enough sci fi fans show their support.  So give it a look and cast your vote, as this time around it is us and not the network executives making the decisions on what sci fi we want to watch. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

TV Review: Galavant

Rating: 2 ½ out of 5 Stars (after 4 episodes)

Bottom Line:  It strives to be a Monty Python/Mel Brooks type spoof, but falls short because it plays its humor too safe.

When I first heard about ABC’s plans to do a musical fantasy comedy called Galavant, I have to confess that the idea did not excite me and I had pretty much decided that I would pass on that one.  But then I saw the previews and it looked like it would be much more Monty Python than Broadway, and I decided it was worth giving a look.  And after having watched four episodes of the show (they are thirty minutes each and air back-to-back in the Once Upon A Time timeslot while that one is on hiatus), I can see that this show really would like to be a Python-esque comedy (or Mel Brooks or The Princess Bride), but it appears that a heavy hand from the networks is keeping it from going too far in that direction.  Galavant has been enjoyable thus far and has delivered a few good lines and even a few catchy tunes.  It also has an impeccable (and quite attractive cast) who seem up to the task of delivering on expectations.  But the show seems to lack that anarchic spark or raucous inspiration that you used get from the Pythons or Mel Brooks (when he was hitting on all cylinders).  Galavant seems all too safe and inoffensive as opposed to the edgy, irreverent attitude that it promised.  Oh sure, it has its share of “adult” humor (almost ad nauseum at times), but too much of the innuendo comes off like something your crazy aunt might say or that young preacher in your church trying to fit in with the hip crowd.  Too often you think that the humor should be funny, but doesn’t quite hit the mark.  It doesn’t help that the directing seems rather bland as it misses many chances to drive home its punchlines.  It seems certain that ABC reigned in too much boisterousness because the show airs in the “family friendly” 8 PM EST hour, and that keeps it from rising to that next level.  Ultimately, Galavant is not a bad show, but it’s no standout either.  And with the ratings numbers it has delivered thus far, this “limited run” entry will almost certainly not be invited back for a second round of episodes.  And likely it will not be missed as it falls short of the comedy classic it could have been.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Sci Fi Genre Gems: Space Rangers


What Is It?  This short-lived 1993 television series followed the adventures of a misfit band of the Space Rangers Corps stationed on the edge of the explored galaxy at Fort Hope.   They must defend the colonists in their sector from menaces like inter-stellar bandits, an alien race known as the Banshees, and the most dangerous threat of all: budget cuts.

Why It Stands Out:  This blink-and-you-missed-it series was no ground-breaker and it definitely served a healthy serving of cheese with its sci fi.  But it was good, raucous fun that drew a bit on Aliens and also hinted at what would come later with Space: Above and Beyond, and it definitely deserved more than its truncated six episode run.

The Skinny: 1993 was an important year for sci fi television with The X-Files gaining a reputation in its first season and Babylon 5 and Star Trek: DS9 getting their launches.  And amidst that, Space Rangers briefly popped onto our screens before slipping  into cult infamy.  It was a cheesy bit of space opera that often over-stepped the reach of its budget limitations (which the rangers themselves had to deal with within the series), but it had an immediate charm with plenty of potential to develop into a sleeper genre series.  It gave us the well-tread trope of a group of intrepid misfits fighting against all odds to defend the colonists who depended on them from the many dangers of deep space.  And it practically stole the aliens from the Alien film franchise, though it gave them a bit of a twist.  And while none of the episodes delivered what could be called first-rate genre scripts, the collection of colorful characters all had their quirky charms that somehow seemed to elevate the stories to the next level.  Space Rangers delivered the usual suspects for a genre show--the grizzled captain, the vicious yet restrained alien, the kick-butt female, the cranky engineer, the green rookie--but the actors demonstrated an affecting chemistry that just made the series work.  And this set of actors also succeeded at getting the most from the limited scripts.  This wasn’t the more intelligent sci fi we were seeing with Babylon 5 and the Star Trek sequel shows, but it mixed humor with a dour grittiness and went down quite easily.  Unfortunately, the show was out of place on the broadcast networks (especially genre-averse CBS) and would have had a much better chance in the syndication market where sci fi TV was reinventing itself at that time.  It only lasted six episodes, but those delivered plenty of shoot-em-up, swashbuckling sci fi fun and are definitely worth seeking out.  And the series finally makes it to DVD just recently, so I highly recommend you give it a look.

Notable Stars: Marjorie Monaghan (Jojo Thorsen), Clint Howard (Dr. Mimmer)

Did You Know:  This series proved very popular abroad which prompted its full release on VHS the year after it came out, one of the first cancelled shows to have that honor.  It later received a DVD release for Region 2 as well.

Marjorie Monaghan (no relation to Dominic) later appeared in several episodes of Babylon 5 as “Number One”, the leader of the Mars resistance.  She also guest-starred on sci fi shows Quantum Leep, Star Trek: Voyager, The Sentinel, The Pretender, and Andromeda.  And she was considered for the part of T'Pol in Star Trek: Enterprise.  Clint Howard (Ron’s brother), appeared as a child in the infamous Star Trek episode “The Corbomite Maneuver” and has had many genre roles since then.

Buy Space Rangers and Other Cancelled Sci Fi on DVD from Amazon.com:

Saturday, January 3, 2015

What's Worth Watching Among This Season's Current and Upcoming Sci Fi / Fantasy TV Shows?

It's been a busy season for genre TV thus far with 20 plus shows debuting in Fall and more on the way now that mid-season is upon us.  So I thought is was worth taking time to do a quick rundown of the shows that I have been watching while also looking ahead to some that will be hitting the schedule in January (you can see the full mid-season schedule with premiere/return dates at his link).  I generally try to sample as many of the sci fi / fantasy entries airing as possible, but as that number continues to grow it gets more and more difficult to keep up with all of them.  Here are my thoughts on what I have been watching so far as well as early impressions on those that are on the way:

Fall / Winter Shows:

Must-Watch List:

The Walking Dead (AMC) - This zombie series continues to deliver a roller-coaster ride as it pushes all the boundaries of dramatic television while leaving the broadcast networks in the dust (along with other challenging cable entries like Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, etc.).  It's still at the top of my queue for shows to watch and I don't see that changing any time soon.

Gotham (FOX) - This almost-Batman series almost lost me early on, but I stuck it out and it really started to hit its stride by the end of its Fall run.  It's really just a crime drama that uses the Batman mythos as its backdrop, but it does that pretty well.  And it is interesting to see how they are developing the characters that we are already familiar with from the comics.  Plus, they have mostly avoided the teen-angst angle with young Bruce Wayne (who's actually somewhat of a creepy kid) and steered away from copy-and-paste dialogue and plots as much as possible.  It's not a great show yet, but it's heading in that direction.

The Originals (CW) - This show seems to be in a bit of a sophomore slump as it has failed to keep up that wicked humor and biting dialogue (pun unintended but accepted) we saw in its first season.  And this year's story arc is not quite as grabbing as that of last year.  But it still delivers its trademark near-Shakespearean level of drama with all of the family and power struggles while not wallowing too much in its soap opera elements.  I'd like it better if they brought Rebekah back into the fold full-time, but this one still remains pretty high on my list.

Keeping Up With Them:

Person of Interest (CBS) - I went into more detail on this one at this link, but it hasn't quite lived up to its promise yet this season and the team going rogue hasn't really added much to the series while they continue to pad the show out with filler episodes.  The developing story with Elias and the other crime lords is interesting as are the episodes that deal with the AI themes, but CBS keeps trying to force this one to fit into their procedural template and just won't give it the freedom to explore its true sci fi potential.  I've invested three and a half years into it, though, and it hasn't completely derailed, so I will stick with it for now.

Agents of SHIELD (ABC) - I almost gave up on this one early in its second season, but ended up catching  a few mid-Fall episodes and finding myself drawn back in.  I really wish they would bring back the humor and witty dialogue we saw early in its first season, but the current storyline has piqued my interest enough to convince me to stick around when it returns in March.

Supernatural (CW) - This show seemed to catch its second wind (or third or fourth?) around its eighth season thus finding it back on my guilty pleasure list these last two years.  For its tenth season, though, it is seeming long in the tooth again.  I'm sure they are targeting an eleventh season at this point, but do us a favor and make that its final year.

Z Nation (Syfy) - This show was high on my guilty pleasure list early in its first season as it succeeded in delivering good, cheesy, tongue-in-cheek zombie-pocalypse fun.  But by the end of its first season, its leaps of logic and plot holes were getting to be a bit much to swallow.  If they can course correct with its second year (which will likely hit in Fall of 2015), I will stick around.  But if they go full-on Sharknado (Z Nation comes from the same studio), I'm out.

Arrow and The Flash (CW) - I have enjoyed both of these shows and think that they do superhero schtick on television pretty good.  But both have too many soap opera asides and they have also started resorting far too much to copy-and-paste stories and dialogue.  I'm still keeping up with them, just not necessarily watching every episode.

Need to Catch Up:

Constantine (NBC) - I watched the first two episodes and enjoyed them for the most part, largely because of Matt Ryan's performance as the title character, but then fell behind.  Since the first season was capped at thirteen episodes, I may just wait and do a binge-watch of the show over the Summer.

Forever (ABC) - This Sherlcok Holmes meets Highlander series is fun enough (I go into more detail on it at this link), but I got behind on it.  It's an easy one to pick up on. though, since it doesn't have much of a story arc, so I will try and work in a few episodes here and there.

The 100 (CW) - I've caught a few eps of this post-apocalyptic series and have found them interesting if a bit derivative.  But it does seem like one that is worth investing some time into when time allows.

The Librarians (TNT) - A DVR mishap kept me from catching the series premiere, though I have tuned in for bits and pieces of episodes.  Looks like it could be a fun series if I can carve out some time to catch up with it.

Gave Up on Them:

American Horror Story: Freak Show (FX) - The "freak show" storyline for this show's fourth season seemed like a good hook, but after watching a few episodes I found that this was no Carnivale.  It's not that it's bad, just not my type of thing.  I'm sure horror fans have been loving it and that freaky clown will certainly become a genre icon, but it took its level of dementia a bit too far for my liking.  It will reset with its fifth season, though, so I will give it another look then.

Ascension (Syfy) - I can't believe that I wasted four plus hours watching this stinking turd and in the slight chance it does continue to an ongoing series there's no chance I will devote any more of my time to it.  You can read more of my full review at this link.

Upcoming New/Returning Shows (January 2015):

Agent Carter (ABC) - This Captain America spin-off series looks interesting enough and it will only run for eight episodes (which will air across seven weeks), so it won't require too much of a time commitment.  I'm hoping they bring some of the Howling Commandos into the stories and also make good use of its mid-1940's setting.  Definitely worth a look.

Galavant (ABC) - I originally had very little interest in this fantasy comedy musical until I saw the promos that made it look much more Monty Python than Broadway extravaganza,  It is comprised of only eight thirty minute episode which will air across four weeks, so it will be a quick watch.  If the first night looks good, then I will stick around for the rest.

12 Monkeys (Syfy) - After the Ascension debacle (see above), I definitely have reservations about this show.  And I don't really see how this one will work as an ongoing series, either.  I will tune in for the first couple of episodes, but if they don't grab me I may bail quickly.

Helix (Syfy) - I had high hopes for this pre-apocalypse series when it bowed last year, but ended up bowing out midway through its first season when it failed to live up to the potential of its premise and delivered derivative, copy-and-paste television instead.  I heard that it ended strong, though, so maybe I will tune in for the start of the second season.  But my expectations will be low.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Anti-Blockbusters: Grendel Grendel Grendel

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars


Depiction of Grendel from the film
This little-known Australian animated musical comedy based on John Gardner’s book Grendel came out in 1981 and was written, directed, and designed by Alexander Stitt.  The book and the movie give us a different perspective on the events of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, this time from the point of view of the monster that the warrior slays (a similar revisionist take on the poem can be found in the excellent 2005 film Beowulf & Grendel).  The book came out in 1971 and, as the introduction to the movie suggests, offered a counterculture look at a classic piece of literature.  Grendel is portrayed not as a mindless, homicidal monster, but as a creature who follows a very different path than the humans who have marked him as their enemy.  Grendel is seen as a loner, who even the beasts of the forest shun, with no one to talk to except his deranged mother and a dragon (ostensibly the one that Beowulf encounters later in his own tale), who offers some philosophical quandaries to Grendel, but not much in the way of useful advice.

I recall encountering Grendel Grendel Grendel (the repitition of the beast's name comes from the film's theme song) during the early days of VHS (link to Wikipedia provided for those unfamiliar with the term) as one of the few genre entries on the shelves in the rental stores.  I watched it then and it stuck with me for years, but I could never find it again because it disappeared from video shelves and didn’t receive the DVD treatment (until just recently). 

It's a very strange animated movie, and not one that audiences nurtured on the high-tech CGI of films like Toy Story, Shrek, and The Incredibles (or even the line drawings of the Disney films) will easily warm up to.  The drawings are done in a very simplistic, child-like manner, and the animation itself is quite choppy.  The whole thing, with its musical numbers included, appears to be targeted at very young viewers.  But the subject matter is far above the head of a pre-schooler audience and it has some rather graphic scenes such as Grendel biting the head off a warrior and Beowulf ripping the arm off the beast (it even has some brief nudity). 

In truth, the movie is definitely intended for an older audience, and genre fans should give this one a chance.  The crude graphics actually become quite endearing once you get used to them, and the childlike simplicity of it all actually provides a good contrast to some of the moral dilemmas raised in the story.  And the voice actors all do an excellent job with their characters, especially Peter Ustinov who lends his vocals to Grendel.  And it seems to follow the book pretty well, though it’s been years sense I read that, so it could diverge more than I remember.  Consider it a diamond in the rough, but still an excellent piece of fantasy story-telling with some existential, philosophical undertones to it (the same is true for Gardner’s novel).

The film has finally received a DVD release, though what you get is a DVD-ROM that by all appearances looks to be a transfer from VHS.  And it doesn’t come over too well, with the color contrast way too heavy and the picture blurry at times.  It’ll do for those of us who have been waiting eagerly for a chance to revisit this film, but may further frustrate modern-day viewers who are already put off by the rudimentary graphics of the film.   

A note of interest:  Grendel Grendel Grendel was only the second full length animated feature to come out of Australia.  The first was 1972’s Marco Polo Junior Versus the Red Dragon.


Buy Grendel Grendel Grendel and Other Anti-Blockbusters from Amazon.com:

Friday, December 19, 2014

TV Review: Ascension

Rating: 1 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line:  This mini-series fails almost completely at delivering good science fiction and proves that Syfy still doesn't get it.

So Syfy has claimed that they want to move toward heavier science fiction oriented programming and away from the "genre-lite" scripted shows they have been delivering the last few years (you can read the interview with network president Dave Howe at this link).  They have recognized that they are missing out on the audience tuning into shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead (which are currently stomping even the broadcast networks), and their much-hyped mini-series Ascension was supposed to be the launching point for the much-maligned cable channel's new direction.  But if that was intended to sway sci fi fans back to the network in large numbers, it misfired in a big way as far as ratings and it was a big, dull dud of an "event" series.

Normally, I'm careful about revealing spoilers in reviews, but this time around I could really care less because I would just as soon save five plus hours of your time watching from this poor excuse for engaging television.  But if you choose not to heed my warnings (PLEASE, heed my warnings), I will warn you once: MAJOR SPOILERS ahead.

Ascension follows the crew of a generation ship launched from Earth clandestinely in the 1960's during a time when it looked like nuclear war might lead to the extinction of the human race.  They are now in the 51st year of the their 100 year mission to travel to and colonize Alpha Centauri (which puts them in the present day by our perspective) and at the Rubicon or "point of no return" if they continue.  A murder on board (the first that has occurred during the journey) makes people question the mission, though, and prompts a ship-wide investigation.  And that ultimately leads to a surprise revelation to the viewers that the ship is not actually in space, but this whole thing is a social experiment being conducted on Earth, and the inhabitants of the spaceship are unaware of their true location.

Now, there are plenty of interesting concepts in all of this for the writers to work with.  On the ship, people are going through a crisis because their fate has been pre-determined and many of them will not be alive to see the mission fulfilled because of its length.  There's also the issue of the computer-controlled selection of mating on the ship which seeks the optimal pairing of couples, regardless of how they feel about each other.  And then that major twist that comes at the end of the first night opens many story opportunities with the Earth-side crew controlling and closely monitoring all the activities onboard the ship.  There are stories galore across these many threads, all with potentially strong sci fi elements.

But does Ascension stay on track with the science fiction heavy bent that Syfy claims it wants to follow?  NO!  Not at all!

The first two or three hours of the mini-series give us a crime drama in space (or sort of in space).  Because that's what science fiction fans are looking for on television!  And when it wasn't doing the crime drama thing, it was giving us soap opera side stories or a bunch of angsty people moping about.  The science fiction elements just acted as window dressing for mostly stock television stories.  They even failed to stick with the one interesting twist hinted at on the crime drama formula.  Nobody onboard was really trained for criminal investigations, so the ship's chief officer has to train himself from detective books and movies.  You could actually do something interesting with that, but this series didn't.  And that comes as no surprise as it shows a palpable lack of inspiration throughout its entire run.  There are definitely some good ideas floating around, but they were all squashed apparently by a budget-conscious network boardroom in favor of what looks like a hack-n-slash attempt to appeal to the "broad" audience.  

To Ascension's credit, the performances are competent or better and it doesn't have too much in the way of copy and paste dialogue (though it doesn't have too much in the way of engaging dialogue either).  But it falls short of making use of the interesting sci fi concepts that it introduces.  The stifling confinement and restrictions of the hundred year mission offers plenty of potential drama, but we get procedural and soap opera stories instead.  And the controlled, social experiment angle could deliver some intriguing Prisoner-esque plots.  But instead we get a tired conspiracy angle that could have been lifted from any of a number of better crafted shows.  And then the whole thing just spiraled into a big mess that ended with a huge wtf left turn that was probably supposed to leave viewers begging for more but likely had them throwing their remotes at the TV.

Syfy claims that they want to deliver the next Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, but unfortunately they are just watching the ratings results of those shows, not the actual episodes.  Those two shows (as well as top-flight non-genre entries like Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy) are drawing in large audiences by breaking away from the old television standards of playing it safe and trying to appeal to the "broader audience".  They are giving us challenging, engaging television and that's what's attracting viewers.  And when it comes to genre television, even The CW has been doing much better than Syfy the last few years (as they has essentially become the broadcast network sci fi channel).  What's more, Ascension does not even come close to the much-beloved previous output of the Sci Fi Channel that fans are really looking for like Battlestar: Galactica, Farscape, and Stargate.

To show how far out of touch Syfy is, they failed to even make good use of the stellar Tricia Helfer.  They obviously brought her onboard to give the show some BSG-cred, but all they asked her to do for the most part was vamp it up.  And while she can do that quite well, she has more of a range as an actress and we caught a brief glimpse of it when her character took charge at the end of the third installment.  That was a definite missed opportunity and clearly what they needed to do was jettison all the rest of the crap from this waisted mini-series and just put her in command of a starship with some decent supporting actors and good writers.  That's something that sci fi fans (and more) would tune in for, and that's the direction Syfy needs to go.  But if the mock space opera of Ascension is any indication, the network clearly does not understand that.