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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

VIXEN - THE MOVIE

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: 'Vixen - The Movie' on Blogcritics.

I’m sure most people interested in superheroes know of The CW’s excellent DC lineup, which includes Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. But did you know that The CW Seed, the online off-shoot of the network, also has a DC animated series called Vixen? Originally released as two seasons of a handful of short installments ranging from four to seven minutes in length, all of the run has now been combined into Vixen – The Movie, available now on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD.

Vixen - The Movie does sort of feel like a movie. It isn’t super obvious where one episode from the web series ends and another begins, other than if you assume it happens at scene changes. And while the overall run is kind of segmented into three parts – season one, a fifteen-minute interlude, and season two – the story of Mari McCabe (Megalyn Echikunwoke, The 4400, House of Lies) finding her identity and her powers, which involves controlling the spirits of animals, does help it gel together, albeit without a very definitive ending. Still, the whole thing, overall, comes across as more cohesive than I expected.

The weakest point actually is the new stuff, which is inserted into the middle. While it is relevant to Mari embracing the Vixen identity and learning how to control her powers, it also feels weird and out of place, with no virtually no continuity crossover into the two seasons. This is because Mari already seems to have a decent handle on things from instinct in the first thirty minutes, so it’s almost a step backwards to struggle with how to use them later, and we don’t see her continue the job she accepts into the latter section. I would rather the story had just skipped the year that follows to get to the last thirty minutes if they weren’t going to connect it better. Though, is a running time of less than sixty minutes long enough to be considered a movie?

Vixen isn’t as good as the other DC shows, mainly because the world it portrays is even simpler and more two-dimensional than the live-action incarnations. With most superhero series, there’s a certain amount of black and white in how characters view the world, and that’s an accepted part of the genre. But certain occurrences in Vixen – The Movie, such as Mari forgiving Macalester (Sean Patrick Thomas, The District) so easily, or the handling of what a small world Mari is from in Africa, seem cartoonish, rather than real.

But this is a cartoon, and the target audience is more than likely children. For this, it works. It is better than other children’s superhero cartoons I’ve seen, including the two episodes of the short-lived Justice League Unlimited included in this release’s extras. It’s entertaining, Mari’s powers are cool, and there are decent action scenes. The family drama is interesting, and the hero herself is at least lightly layered. I do wish the characters weren’t so still when they aren’t talking or fighting, but I did find Vixen – The Movie enjoyable.

If you’re a fan of the DC shows on The CW, Vixen – The Movie fits into that universe well. Among the characters crossing over into the animated world are Green Arrow (Stephen Amell), The Flash (Grant Gustin), Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards), Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes), Black Canary (Katie Cassidy), The Atom (Brandon Routh), and Firestorm (Franz Drameh and Victor Garber). These give the universe some cohesion, and make the new film feel a part of the cannon, which it is.

I also like the performers they’ve recruited just for this project, which include Echikunwoke, Neil Flynn (Scrubs, The Middle), Hakeem Kae-Kazim (Black Sails), and Anika Noni Rose (The Good Wife, Dreamgirls). So again, overall, pretty good cast.

Sadly, Vixen – The Movie is lacking in bonus features. There are the aforementioned episodes of Justice League Unlimited episodes from more than a decade ago, which feature Gina Torres (Suits, Firefly) as Vixen. I find both of them boring and not great examples of children’s entertainment. Then there’s a very brief documentary about how Vixen fits in the DC landscape, which is interesting, but at only about six minutes, far too short. So the extras are not going to sway a would-be-buyer to make the purchase.

Though, if you’re already a fan of The CW shows, or you have a child who needs a good female superhero role model, or even just a bit of light entertainment, I recommend checking out Vixen – The Movie, available now.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Return to TWIN PEAKS

Article first published as TV Review: TWIN PEAKS on Seat42F.


More than twenty-five years have passed since the cult favorite TWIN PEAKS left the airwaves after a mere thirty episodes. Last night, it returned to television with a brand-new season on Showtime. The two-hour premiere was met with much anticipation. Does it live up to the hype?

I recently binged the entire thirty-episode original run, plus the film Fire Walk With Me and the ninety minutes of deleted scenes known as The Missing Pieces, and I loved every minute of it. I don’t fully get why some people consider the second season and movie so inferior. Yes, it becomes less focused in year two, but I still enjoy it a lot. So I am going into the new stuff super pumped, definitely a fan.

But I have to say, I was left underwhelmed by the premiere episodes. This, despite all of the beloved returning characters and an immediately dive further into the mystery of the Black Lodge. Having slept on it to reflect, I think I can pinpoint why.

The lifeblood of TWIN PEAKS (film aside) is Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and, to a slightly lesser extent, his relationship with Sheriff Truman. I like the other characters, but the story flows best when we are watching these two investigate together. The utter joy Cooper exhibits at the simplest things, such as cherry pie, bring an innocent magic that is enhanced whenever he is hanging out with his best bud. These initial hours lack that entirely.

Yes, Cooper is still essentially the lead, but he spends the entire two hours in the Black Lodge, where he can’t be himself. It’s impossible, given the structure of that place, and while that can make for a cool sequence or two, Cooper needs to get out before things can really start. MacLachlan also plays the evil doppelganger of Cooper, but again, this version lacks the charisma and magnetic personality of the real Cooper, so it’s not the same at all. And since Truman isn’t returning for the new episodes, we definitely don’t get any of him.

We do see other familiar faces in hours one and two. The Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) and Hawk (Michael Horse) are the best of those because they actually have plot, reopening the case of the missing Dale Cooper. Sadly, Coulson passed away, so she’ll have to exit the story soon. Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) also furthers things a little, albeit confusingly (which I have no problem with, and seems consistent with the old). But most of the others don’t have any kind of story to speak of, basically just making cameos so we can see them again. They all need their separate subplots that eventually intermingle in order to make them interesting. Lacking that, most feel gratuitous.

There are a slew of new characters with story, and multiple new settings are introduced, which is cool. I like that TWIN PEAKS is no longer confined to the town. I’m especially interested in what’s happening in New York City, and I always enjoy actress Madeline Zima (Californication). Unfortunately, much more screen time is spent on Evil Cooper and Bill Hastings (Matthew Lillard, Scooby-Doo, The Bridge), who are far less compelling. I don’t blame either actor, their story just isn’t at the same level as classic TWIN PEAKS story so far.

I understand that the new TWIN PEAKS, in keeping with its earlier incarnation, is a marathon, not a sprint, and so may end up being worthwhile and engaging as it plays out. Still, I feel that it needed to start strong in the first two hours, and by withholding the best version of Cooper, focusing largely on uninteresting new roles, and doing little with most of the returning cast, it totally misses the mark. Things needed to happen a little quicker at the front, at least providing a hook for the fans, and these episodes didn’t really do that.

Thankfully, Showtime has already put out episodes 3 and 4 on their streaming service, so I’ll be checking those as soon as possible to see if it improves.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Worship These AMERICAN GODS

Article first published as TV Review: AMERICAN GODS on Seat42F.


Anticipation is high for Starz’s newest drama, AMERICAN GODS, premiering tonight. Based on the popular book by British geek-god Neil Gaiman, and developed by the great Bryan Fuller (along with Logan’s Michael Green), it tells the story of a mortal man caught in the middle of a war between gods, old and new, as things come to a head between the factions. It’s unknown if our hero is working for the right team or not, but the danger is real, and the urgency is immediate.

AMERICAN GODS has a lot going for it, both behind and in front of the camera. While it is not as highly stylized as other Fuller projects (Hannibal, Pushing Daisies), he is able to make the fantasy sequences amazing, vivid, and imaginative. Lead Ricky Whittle (The 100) and lesser known performers like Bruce Langley (Deadly Waters) and Yetide Badaki (Sequestered) quickly establish themselves as people to watch, terrific in their roles. The bench is deep with familiar faces, too, including the likes of Cloris Leachman (Young Frankenstein, Raising Hope), Peter Stormare (Fargo), Emily Browning (Sucker Punch), Crispin Glover (Back to the Future), Pablo Schreiber (Orange Is the New Black), Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), Kristin Chenoweth (Wicked), Orlando Jones (Sleep Hollow), Betty Gilpin (Nurse Jackie), Jeremy Davies (Lost), Jonathan Tucker (Kingdom), Joel Murray (Mad Men), Beth Grant (The Mindy Project), and, of course, Ian McShane (Deadwood).

If a long list of talented names doesn’t impress you, though it should in this case, I’d like to stress how well cast each of them are. Stormare brings a certain likability to his chillingly creepy Czernobog. Anderson IS Lucy Ricardo, talking out of the screen of the television. Schreiber will seriously make you think twice about teasing a leprechaun. Browning is haunting as the deceased wife who doesn’t seem deserving of our protagonist’s love, and yet has it deeply. McShane watches over it all with a bemused charm that doesn’t allow audiences to question for a moment why Shadow Moon (Whittle) does what Mr. Wednesday (McShane) tells him to.

It’s been a few years since I read the book, but the two hours of AMERICAN GODS I’ve seen feel very faithful to it. This show finds a way to be episodic while maintaining the important through-line of the novel. The format of a road trip is helpful, as there are built in stops and sequences along the way. But there are also the threats of Technical Boy (Langley) and the erotic side trips with Bilquis (Badaki) that prove there’s something more to look forward to than just the next god to encounter.

AMERICAN GODS is sure to work both because of its quality, and because it shares similarities with another network hit, Outlander. Outlander is also based on a novel, and strings along a narrative that stays tight on a couple of characters, with most of the cast only appearing in a small number of episodes. That can be frustrating for those who want more Mr. Nancy (Jones) immediately, and you will. But at the same time, it keeps the plot purer in that Shadow and Mr. Wednesday are the people that count most, and the rest of the cast is truly there to support them.

I knew I would be blown away going into AMERICAN GODS, and it did not disappoint my high expectations. It’s gripping, has terrific pacing, feels very authentic, even in the elements that completely lack realism, and has a strong point of view. Fantasy won’t be for everyone, and this is definitely fantasy, but it also contains social commentary that’s worth paying attention to, along with some stellar performances. I’ll be shocked if this doesn’t help Starz get on the Emmy stage.

AMERICAN GODS premieres tonight at 9/8c on Starz.

Friday, April 28, 2017

THE HANDMAID'S TALE Creepily Relevant

Article first published as TV Review: THE HANDMAID'S TALE on Seat42F.



Hulu has had a few good dramas over the past year or two, but I am hard pressed to think of one as well made and as engaging as THE HANDMAID’S TALE, which premieres this week exclusively on the streaming service. Based on the 1985 book of the same name by Margaret Atwood, and already adapted into a movie almost three decades ago, the story takes place in a dystopian future in which the rapidly decreasing number of fertile women are pressed into slavery to help those in power reproduce.

THE HANDMAID’S TALE feels especially prevalent right now. Despite all the strides made in gender equality since the novel was published, America recently elected a president who brags about sexual assault and at least partially ran on a sexist platform. We’ve also never been closer to a destabilizing war in most of our lifetimes, with an erratic, ignorant leader in the Oval Office. One can’t help but wonder if there’s some probability of the events of the series coming true as political situations unfold. Now, that may sound far-fetched to some, and I do not seek to turn off anyone by making this too political. But the possible parallels are too striking to ignore, and Trump’s election only makes this series more important.

Taking THE HANDMAID’S TALE at face value, it’s a chilling portrait of one woman who is old enough to remember a time before this system, having had a husband and child, and now has to put up with the subjugation, seeing no way out, even though her entire being screams that this is wrong. It’s a plight that viewers may not quite be able to relate to, at least not at the raw level depicted, but one we can comprehend and be freaked out by.

Elisabeth Moss, the excellent actress from such critically acclaimed hits as Mad Men, The West Wing, and Top of the Lake, once again chooses her projects wisely, taking the lead role of Offred, the Handmaid belonging to Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes, American Horror Story: Asylum, Flashforward). Desperate to escape to look for her daughter, mourning those she has lost, Offred isn’t even allowed to keep her name as she is trained under the strict rule of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd, The Leftovers) and raped while lying in the lap of Waterford’s jealous wife, Serena (Yvonne Strahovski, Chuck, 24: Live Another Day). She isn’t even allowed to leave the Waterford’s house without being accompanied by another Handmaid, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel, Gilmore Girls).

Offred’s predicament is absolutely heart breaking. As we see what she has gone through and what she has lost, we cannot help but feel for her. Moss makes us cry, and lets us experience the terror her character is living. When she gets angry and acts out violently, we understand why and instantly forgive her. Any tiny hint that things might change for her is cheered, but those are few and far between.

While Moss is the most obvious person to give credit to, I would be remiss if I didn’t praise the rest of the cast as well. Dowd, Fiennes, and Strahovski are creepy and complex, adding to the dreary atmosphere. Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black) is terrific as Offred’s friend from her past, and Bledel keeps us guessing as to whether we can trust Ofglen or not, a huge if in the current circumstances. There is no weak link in this cast, which is large enough to include several more regulars.

Everything from the production design to the score to the pacing to the direction reinforces the central warning message of THE HANDMAID’S TALE. There appears to be a singular vision, and each element contributes to a high-quality whole. Depressing and disturbing as the show can be, it’s also magnetic and engrossing. The pilot alone has stuck with me and occupied my thoughts for days, and I feel compelled to finish the other hours as they are released.

Several hours of THE HANDMAID’S TALE will be available to Hulu subscribers this Wednesday, April 26th, with the rest of the season doled out weekly thereafter.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Meet Your GIRLBOSS

Article first published as TV Review: GIRLBOSS on Seat42F.



Netflix’s latest series is GIRLBOSS. It’s the story of Sophia, a young woman who doesn’t yet know what she wants to do with her life, and so bounces between jobs and casually breaks the law while sleeping with drummers. You know, just a typical story. In the process, however, she sort of accidentally starts her own business and becomes a powerhouse entrepreneur worth millions. And it’s (very loosely) based on a true story.

Britt Robertson (Life Unexpected, Tomorrowland) stars as Sophia, and brings just the right mix of moxy and snark to the role. Sophia is not very likable when described outside of the story, and yet, there’s something magnetic about her. You may, as I did, find yourself rooting for her to succeed, even as she’s ripping people off and showing utter disrespect to those who don’t deserve it. She’s a rebel who refuses to play by established rules and cuts her own path, which is a much harder way to go through life and not always necessary (as it isn’t here), and yet could end up being more rewarding. I’ve long liked Robertson, but this may be my favorite role for her yet in its complexity, another well-deserved series lead.

Sadly, if you look into the person Sophia is supposed to be in real life, any success will be fleeting, as the company just getting started in this dramedy series, Nasty Girl, recently filed for bankruptcy.

Robertson is joined by an absolutely terrific cast that includes Dean Norris (Breaking Bad), Jim Rash (Community), RuPaul (RuPaul’s Drag Race), Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Alphonso McAuley (Breaking In), Johnny Simmons (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), and Ellie Reed. Not all of these are well known, but all are good, mixing younger, fresher faces with experienced, lauded performers. Robertson sort of spans the two groups, talented without a lot of high-profile parts to date, so it works out very well.

The plot itself is pretty good, though after two episodes, I’m not sure it’s completely good enough for the actors. The story itself is relatively predictable and familiar. Coming on the heels of Girls, GIRLBOSS might lack the attention it would otherwise receive. Arrested development has been done before, and somewhat more edgy or raw than it is here. This is like a slightly sanitized version of the too-soon-gone How to Make it in America.

I’m not completely sold on the idea of this being a period piece. 2006 isn’t long enough ago to feel all that different, and aside from the clunky cell phones and a well-placed The Devil Wears Prada billboard, I can’t say it feels all that different from today. The fact that the characters go out of their way to make pop culture references, which do feel shoe-horned in, makes me wish they’d just set it in the present. I don’t know that anything is really added to the story by going backward.

And yet, the truly excellent performances raise the overall profile enough to totally hook viewers in and make you want to watch more. In peak TV, the show might not be good enough to stand out, but I doubt audiences that give it a chance won’t want to see it through. I know I’m full invested already to watch the series until cancellation, whenever than may be.

In all, I do recommend GIRLBOSS, but not unequivocally. This isn’t a show I would tell people they have to watch, but I did enjoy it and do plan to binge it myself. Take that as you will.

GIRLBOSS’s thirteen episode first season is available on Netflix today.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

DOCTOR WHO Season 10 Premiere Event

Article first published as TV Review: 'Doctor Who' Season Ten Live Premiere Event on Blogcritics.



With assistance from Nick Arganbright

Doctor Who is back for the 10th (!) season premiere, and Fathom Events recently made sure it was done with style. Hosting screenings across the country, Fathom presented the Who franchise’s latest installment on the big screen, with some cool extras. I was lucky enough to attend one such gathering (thanks Fathom!) this week.

Things kicked off with some Doctor Who trivia, which is an enjoyable way to begin. The questions were light and fun, and called to mind fan-favorite Doctors and occurrences from the recent past.
After that, the pilot for Class, the new Doctor Who spin-off, was presented. Fans have been eager for an expansion of the world since the end of Torchwood, and anticipation was high for the new series. Unfortunately, while there are some interesting concepts, and I personally couldn’t get enough of Katherine Kelly’s Miss Quill, Class fails to ignite interest right from the start. It may grow into itself,  but episode one isn’t one that will instantly hook itself a new batch of viewers.

Class presents a diverse group of high school students who end up having to battle aliens and monsters from another realm while attending Coal Hill Academy. Coal Hill is an institution periodically seen in Doctor Who from the beginning, most recently as companion Clara’s place of employment. One of the students in the cast is even an alien himself, the last of his kind hiding on Earth, and I think the idea is a relatively solid one. But the presentation feels artificial, the characters gelling together in a way that doesn’t come across as natural. It’s like the formula for popular young adult shows has been co-opted in an effort to bring in ratings, but they’re trying too hard.

Still, that is only episode one. It may yet grow into itself.

After Class, we got a lovely short about Pearl Mackie “becoming the companion.” Pearl plays the Doctor’s newest traveling buddy, a young, gay, African-American woman named Bill. She (the actress) is charming, and the bonus segment flowed nicely, introducing us to her and getting us psyched up for the episode that followed. I never liked Clara all that much, so am very excited that the new cast member is as instantly likeable as she is.

The Doctor Who 10th season premiere itself does not disappoint in the slightest. It has the whimsical sense of adventure that the best Who episodes do, a genuinely scary villain, real mystery, and not only is new companion Bill magnetic and awesome, but the very amusing Nardole (Matt Lucas) returns as well, presumably to stay for awhile. Plus, a cameo by The Doctor’s most serious foe! What more could anyone want?

The first regular episode in more than fifteen months, we catch up with The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) working as a professor. He meets cafeteria worker Bill (Mackie) when she finds a sentient puddle, whom The Doctor assumes has come to take something from a vault he’s guarding. A girl is killed, and the TARDIS races through the universe and time stream to try to gauge the range of the creature and find a solution to the threat it poses. (The vault, presumably, is a teaser for a future hour.) The episode is called “The Pilot,” which seems tongue-in-cheek for what is essentially yet another reboot of the long-running franchise. I really have no complaints at all about the hour.

I am very grateful that Doctor Who was shown after Class, the opposite of broadcast order on BBC America, where they are currently paired up (though Class aired last year in the UK). Had the spin-off come second, it is quite possible people would be let down. Instead, it’s a light, not terrible, but somewhat flimsy opening act for a stellar main attraction. With Capaldi’s Doctor making a brief cameo in Class, anticipation builds appropriately, and I felt the whole night was very well organized.

In all, I enjoyed Fathom Events, well, event, and I hope they do it again soon. Doctor Who looks fantastic on the big screen, and with the way it all came together, the inclusions that were part of the night, I had a good time and I think others did, too. The only drawback was that attendance was sparse, perhaps because it came a couple of days after the television airing of the premiere, but I would recommend to lovers of the series to go out to the next one. You’ll probably be glad you did.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Not Much CLASS

Article first published as TV Review: CLASS on Seat42F.



BBC’s Doctor Who has had a couple of spin-offs, but none are currently running. Given how infrequent new installments of the parent show are, it’s almost always welcome when there’s some continuation or extension set in that world to fill in the gaps. The newest series, though, at least in America, doesn’t come in the off-season, but instead will air in parallel with new Doctor Who, beginning this weekend.

Called CLASS, the show tells the story of four students and a teacher at the infamous Coal Hill Academy. Renovated and fancied up since the last time we saw it, the school having been periodically featured in the series since the beginning, most recently as Clara’s workplace, this allows both a familiar and fresh setting for the new show.

The ensemble is as diverse as it can be in the British school-limited setting, with multiple races and sexual preferences represented in the five-member troupe. There’s: Ram (Fady Elsayed, My Brother the Devil), who dreams of being a football (soccer to us Americans) star; April (Sophie Hopkins, Brackenmore), the mild-mannered nerd who helps care for her mother; Tanya (Vivian Oparah), a Nigerian prodigy; and Charlie (Greg Austin, Mr. Selfridge), an alien price, the last of his race, who has a crush on a Polish boy, Matteusz (Jordan Renzo). They are watched over by Miss Quill (Katherine Kelly, Coronation Street, Mr. Selfridge), also alien, also last of her race, enslaved to protect Charlie.

So yes, the character descriptions give you a bit of the ongoing plot right away. With two extraterrestrials hiding out and trying to keep their races from going extinct, any number of baddies will come to the school looking for them. Then again, that institution has always attracted more than its fair share of trouble, with a body count well above average. So multiple elements converge on a place that is sure to see exciting things happen on a regular basis.

I do admit, I found CLASS a little hard to access at first. The core group seems so different from one another, and it feels weird to see them all drawn together artificially early, not by the monster, but prior to that. It was especially bizarre when they all sat next to one another in class. I think most shows would have circumstance bond them, or focus on an already solidified friend group, but CLASS tries something different, and I’m not sure it quite works. Or maybe I’m applying an American cultural filter to a British series; I’m just not sure.

The first episode itself is interesting, setting things up nicely, while still having an urgent plot driving it as well. There are some fun references, such as when the school is said to be essentially sitting on a Hellmouth. The problem with that is, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the best shows of all time, and inviting comparison is risky. The saving grace is that Buffy didn’t have a strong first season, so it also asks viewers to give CLASS a chance if it doesn’t immediately hook them.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) makes his inevitable cameo, as we know he must, but I found it a disappointing one. Not in of itself, as I loved seeing him, as it fits into the whole. CLASS is trying to set itself and its heroes up, and having The Doctor burst in at a key moment feels like cheating, robbing the protagonists of their chance to really stand up for themselves. We do get some other opportunities to see the cast in action, and The Doctor does provide some welcome wisdom. But it still didn’t feel quite right.

I like CLASS. It has a talented ensemble, and I cannot get enough of Kelly as Quill. But it doesn’t have the charm of Doctor Who (except when The Doctor is present), and it struggles to find its own identity in episode one. It isn’t as instantly gripping as Torchwood, a prior spin-off. With seven more episodes in this run, we’ll see if it develops into something worthwhile, or sputters out.