Monthly Archives: September 2014

‘Intruders’ example of how good sci-fi is done

This creepy little girl is being partially inhabited by an immortal serial killer.

This creepy little girl is being partially inhabited by an immortal serial killer. Welcome to “Intruders.”

Last fall, I complained about Fox’s Sleepy Hollow. My main issue was how much information the minds behind the show gave the viewers in the pilot, information that could have been subtly teased and slowly leaked out as the season went along. Instead, it was all vomited into the first episode with all the delicacy of hitting a watermelon with a sledgehammer.

This is why I am such a fan of the new BBC series Intruders right now. It’s five episodes into its first season, and only now are we starting to get a clear picture of what is happening with the secret society of immortals that appears to be manipulating events. Heck, only now are we getting a clear picture that there is a secret society of immortals. The soul transferring ceremony … mechanism … whatever, we have zero idea how that works. What makes the immortals special? Who knows? Why was Marcus (played to the dirty scumbag hilt by grade-schooler Millie Brown, pictured above) to have his immortal status revoked? Not a clue.

Being in the dark is no fun if there’s no point. Just ask all those pissed off people who watched Lost from start to finish. Fortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case here. Producer/creator Glen Morgan has done an amazing job of crafting episodes that are interesting without spilling too many beans, leading viewers to each insight slowly and with a build-up. The direction is moody and sparse, allowing the actors and the story to be front and center. Stars Brown, Mira Sorvino and James Frain take advantage of this approach, owning each scene and revealing layers to their characters that are peeled away at key moments.

It’s worth the ride if this is your type of thing. If not, I’m sure Sleepy Hollow will continue to blast cannonballs of plot and exposition in your face on a weekly basis.

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‘Maze Runner’ succeeds where ‘Divergent’ failed

That "runner" in the title was in no way misleading.

That “runner” in the title was in no way misleading.

I shouldn’t have to say spoilers ahead, but I am, so heed my warning.

Remember how dull Divergent was? A slow, overstuffed, slog of a movie that wasted the talent of far too many quality actors, ranged all over the place without committing to much of anything until crunch time and not once made any attempt to explain what the deal was with the big wall around the city? Yeah, that’s not Maze Runner at all.

Maze Runner gives a quick set up, explaining that once a month a service elevator rises from underground into a meadow in the middle of an enormous maze. The elevator carries supplies for the boys and young men living in “The Glade,” as well as one new occupant, who – like all of the other boys – remembers nothing about anything that happened before his arrival in this new, odd and terrifying place. All of the boys operate under a simple code of conduct, each contributing to the collective as they are assigned. Our newbie Thomas (played ably by Dylan O’Brien) wants in on action with the maze runners, a group of guys who leave each morning to run The Maze, mapping as they go, trying to beat it back to The Glade before the doors to The Maze close each evening. Because nobody survives night in The Maze. Nobody.

Once that set-up is established, all hell breaks loose. Kids that get stung by occupants of the maze – mechanical/biological hybrids known as Grievers – turn psychotic and slowly die. The schedule of The Maze changes. Grievers attack the glade. And so on. After the initial moments of the movie, there isn’t much time to catch your breath. The pacing is fantastic, the young cast likable and believable, the effects solid.

My only real problem with Maze Runner is the explanation the Gladers get about their lives and the world they live in when they finally find their way through The Maze. It seems pretty ridiculous. But (and that’s a big old but), there’s a chance what they’ve been told is a lie. If that’s the case, the ensuing Maze flicks should be interesting.

Unlike Divergent. The Maze Runner earns the YA sci-fi screen adaption crown of 2014 … at least until Katniss blows it all up in November.

 

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‘Heat’ has the laughs, but …

Melissa McCarthy is comedy gold, and Sandra Bullock plays the ultimate straight man in "The Heat."

Melissa McCarthy is comedy gold, and Sandra Bullock plays the ultimate straight man in “The Heat.”

… The movie isn’t that good.

Yes, I fully admit that laughed my way through most of The Heat. Melissa McCarthy’s turn as the unhinged and unsanitary Detective Mullins was a hoot. Her energy and that maniacal glint in her eye stole the show, as did her chemistry with Sandra Bullock as the straight shooting FBI Agent Ashburn. From questioning suspects to a night out drinking to confronting the bad guys, this duo was lights-out funny.

But is funny enough when the movie itself is pretty lame? The set-up is nothing special, the plot is serviceable, but everything other than the comedy is pretty much the standard buddy-cop formula. Good for Demian Bichir (who is awesome on the FX Mexico-U.S. border drama, The Bridge) for getting some screen time in a popular movie, but he’s really wasted here as the concerned supervisor of Bullock’s Ashburn. Marlon Wayans is fine, but again given little to do as the token love interest of Ashburn. Most of the characters around Bullock and McCartney come off as little more than extra set dressing.

Even the direction shows a less deft touch than expected from a veteran like Paul Feig. A scene where Wayan’s character runs a late-in-arriving file to Bullock’s character as she gets ready to head off on her investigation is clumsy, a poor transition that feels like it may have been tacked on later. Why is a mystery. The scene offers nothing new, more of Ashburn’s blunt and awkward behavior, more of Wayan’s character trying to catch her eye. In a movie that runs close to two hours, those two minutes could have been excised with a minimum of pain and helped streamline the final product.

None of this is to discourage anyone from watching The Heat. The humor is undeniable. I’m just disappointed that there is so little else from it worth mentioning.

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What to make of ‘WWW: Wake’

www-wake

The upside: The premise of WWW: Wake, the first of Robert Sawyer’s WWW trilogy, is ingenious. What happens when the Internet evolves and gains consciousness? This is about that inception, when that consciousness first emerges and how it comes to realize exactly what it is. This happens with the help of a blind teenager, Caitlin. Caitlin has a unique type of sightlessness, one that Dr. Kuroda, a Japanese researcher, believes he can cure. He does cure her (partially), although initially Caitlin can’t see the real world, just the virtual world. And this is how she discovers and nurtures the being that becomes known as Webmind.

It’s hard for me to explain the brilliance of what Sawyer does here. The evolution of the Webmind is subtle, realistic, creative. The teen Caitlin is one of those kids who comes off as mature for her age, a math geek with a quick wit, but someone who is also very much ruled by her hormones, pop music and the whims of her fellow teens. The relationship between Caitlin the mentor and Webmind the student never feels ridiculous or forced. This is probably the best virtual creation since Hal in 2001.

The downside: Let’s be clear: I haven’t read the entirety of the WWW trilogy, so my beefs here may be resolved over the course of the three books. But there are two other minor plot threads that dissolve as the book evolves. In one, a hacker tries to find his way out of a shutdown of any Internet connection between China and the outside world. In the other, an orangutan hybrid starts to show true artistic and creative ability never before seen in non-human primates.

Both play to the idea of the evolution of consciousness that is the main theme over the course of the story. But neither directly ties into the Caitlin-Webmind plot thread, and both just … end before the final third of the book, when everything is about our new friend in the Internet. Again, maybe these threads come together as the trilogy plays out, but it really cripples the first book, leaving me feeling as if I was cheated for paying attention to details that in no way matter to the story. Interesting side trips, but ultimately pointless.

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‘The World’s End’: It could have been worse, but it’s too bad it wasn’t better

Can this motley, drunken crew save the world from alien invasion? ... Sort of.

Can this motley, drunken crew save the world from alien invasion? … Sort of.

Is it possible to make a serious comedy?

It’s not unusual to find funny moments within serious movies: Oldboy, Pulp Fiction, The Matrix, Goodfellas. Plenty of great movies out there that can deliver the humor between the grimness, terror and violence. But the dark comedy of Dr. Strangelove, which simultaneous skewers the war pig mentality while delivering laugh after laugh, is the only truly great hilarious/serious flick that comes to my mind.

Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and The World’s End crew aren’t able to pull it off like Stanley Kubrick and Peter Sellers did with Strangelove. Thematically, the flick explores the problematic mix of dealing with an idealized adulthood that never comes together when it arrives, as well as leaving behind those missed opportunities that will never return. It’s rich territory to explore, and at moments, The World’s End has some interesting things to say.

Unfortunately (or not), The World’s End is also a comedy about an alien invasion discovered by five guys on a pub crawl as well as the final part of Wright’s and Pegg’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, which includes Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. The plot leads to assorted moments of true hilarity – the two main fights, first in a bathroom, then in the pub proper, come to mind – which are the equivalent of Sammo Hung kung fu flick if the warriors going head-to-head were drunken Englishmen and awkward alien robots. The little back biting that starts among the friends eventually involves out-of-control, raging arguments that lead to plenty of laughs.

But reconciling the serious thematic aspects with the goofy plot, it never really happens. You end up with two shorts films that feel incomplete, or one big film that just doesn’t ever quite hit the mark. The balance is rarely found, and never extended beyond brief moments.

In the end, I guess what I’m saying is, if you’re thinking of watching The World’s End, it might be better to just to pop in Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz and enjoy what was, instead of being disappointed by what never quite came together.

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Knowing when to say when

Why did anyone keep watching "The Office" after Andy Bernard was put in charge of Dunder-Mifflin's Scranton Office? Hmmm, confusing ...

Why did anyone keep watching “The Office” after Andy Bernard was put in charge of Dunder-Mifflin’s Scranton Office? Hmmm, confusing …

I’m so glad NBC canceled Revolution.

Seems like an odd thing to say, since, particularly after the first season of the science-fiction-dystopian-future show, I was pretty high on it. I liked the cast (particularly Elizabeth Mitchell and Billy Burke), I thought the post-electrical future resulting in a fractured United States was a great idea, and I thought it skewed it a bit darker than most network fare.

In season two, however, Revolution started to get all mystical. The re-assembling of the United States, the attempt to procure electrical power hence guaranteeing political and military power, the hard relationships and uneasy alliances that came with all of this, that wasn’t enough. No, we needed nano-bots with a God complex.

Then, as the old spiritual says, the walls came a-tumbling down. Revolution got dumber and dumber, the cast kept expanding and splitting off from each other, and it got to the point where it was hard to remember who was fighting who or who was friends with who, and precisely why.

Would I have given it up heading into season three? Who knows …

Some shows go years before this sort of disintegration begins. Take The Office. The wheels started to come off in season six, season eight was absolutely awful, and the final season made me want to punch someone in the face. Were we really supposed to believe, after eight seasons spent getting them together, that Jim and Pam were going to break up? Really? Do we look that stupid? It was a horrible plot line, it was a predictable plot line and it was an unbelievably annoying plot line. And it was poorly executed, as if the people who made the show didn’t even believe in it. My wife and I certainly didn’t because, after having watched the entire series, we chose to forgo watching the final two episodes. I don’t know how it ends, nor do I care. The money train has to stop at some point, and with The Office, it should have been shut down at least two seasons earlier.

Sometimes, a show can turn it around. True Blood is one example. It’s a show with a high camp factor, as well as a terrific group of core characters led by Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin). And in the early seasons, when everything really revolved around Sookie Stackhouse and her close group of pals, True Blood worked. But particularly in season five (although it crept in even earlier), True Blood started making the mistake too many shows make. It got away from Sookie and started creating story lines for more and more secondary characters. Why? I don’t know, probably to keep the actors happy by featuring them more, as it certainly didn’t help the quality of the show. I don’t care what hot piece of tail Sam Merlotte or Jason Stackhouse is banging this week if it’s just to give those characters something to do. I don’t care about Eric Northman’s relationship with his “sister,” because the more he’s interacting with her, the less he’s interacting with Sookie. The Northman-Sookie back-and-forth is one aspect True Blood had going for it, which it pretty much abandoned. I don’t care about Lafayette’s shaman boyfriend, the marriage of Arlene and Terry or anything Alcide has going on with the werewolves. It’s all just a distraction, something that sucked time away from the story of Sookie Stackhouse, which is what drew me to the show in the first place.

In season six, though, it seemed as if the minds behind True Blood started to realize this. The vampires were slowly drawn back together. The werewolf and shifter plot lines were snuffed out. Terry’s dead. The core group was re-assembled. Sookie again became the center of the True Blood universe.

And that gives me hope for the final season, which I have yet to see. Hopefully, True Blood didn’t blow it. But I won’t believe it until I see it with my own eyes.

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