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Thursday, August 28, 2014

OUTLANDER Seeks an "Out"

Article first published as OUTLANDER Review Season 1 Episode 3 The Way Out on Seat42F.

Outlander 1x03 Starz 05

This week’s installment of Starz’s OUTLANDER is called “The Way Out.” Claire (Caitriona Balfe) is starting to adjust to her new life, but still yearns to go home. She figures the best way to do so is to first earn favor with Colum (Gary Lewis), which she slowly but surely works on doing. However, her acceptance of the strange customs of the time is tested when she is prevented from helping a sick boy due to others’ superstitious beliefs.

Most of “The Way Out” is Claire trying to be a good medic to earn Colum’s favor. We get a little humor as she examines the old remedies, some of which are definitely no good, but mainly, it’s a question of keeping her head down, which Claire struggles to do. She is a strong-minded, independent woman who has her own ideas about things. When she knows better than the people around her, being from a more advanced time, she finds it hard not to speak up and challenge the status quo.

I think anyone in her situation would have the same issue. It makes sense for Claire to grapple with this because her natural instinct is to help. Keeping quiet means allowing suffering to go on that she can stop, and in one instance, possibly allow a boy to unnecessarily die. How many could stand by when they have the tools to offer assistance? Claire, like I believe most people to be, isn’t nearly selfish enough to mind her own business.

I believe the opening of “The Way Out,” in which we see Frank (Tobias Menzies) saying goodbye to Claire by her train, is meant to reinforce the type of “modern” woman Claire is, their roles reversed as she goes off to war. But I also feel the sequence is highly unnecessary. Its two main purposes, establishing Claire’s personality and reminding us of Frank and Claire’s love, have already been plenty illustrated in the first two episodes, meaning week three doesn’t have to show us such a repetitive scene.

The question is, how much will Claire’s butting-in cost her? She has allies like Jamie (Sam Heughan) and Mrs. Fitz (Annette Badland) to help cover her back for now, but someday soon her luck will run out. Her best chance at making it through this is to win Colum’s favor first, as he is a much more powerful friend to have on her side than either of the other two, kind as they may be.

She also may need to trust someone, as Claire is definitely have a hard time keeping her secret. She considers confessing to Mrs. Fitz, but the fantasy sequence shows us how wrong that could go, and in retrospect, would have prevented Claire from saving the woman’s nephew, so it’s good she doesn’t do so. The only character in this world that might understand Claire’s story is Geillis (Lotte Verbeek), but the opportunity to tell her hasn’t presented itself, not from lack of trying on Geillis’ part.

It seems certain that Geillis already knows at least part of the tale. She is acting very sketchy in “The Way Out,” pushing Claire for answers and making several comments that could be construed as knowing more than she lets on. Given Geillis’ connection to the supernatural world, she may either be involved in bringing Claire to the past, or, at the very least, know something how it happened. She’s not likely to be trustworthy, but she may be able to provide knowledge, whatever her motivations.

The other movement on this long-range plot is when Claire hears a storyteller speak of a woman who traveled to another place after touching a stone, then got home again the same way. It’s preposterous that Claire didn’t think of trying to return to her time by performing the same action that swept her here, so this isn’t needed, but because it gives Jamie and Claire more time to bond, it works within the episode. Of course, surely simply touching the stone won’t work because OUTLANDER would end pretty quickly if that’s all it took for Claire to get home.

A couple of missteps in “The Way Out” slow down the pacing, but overall, it’s another enjoyable episode. Maybe asking Claire to confront the ‘magic’ of the past is predictable, but it’s also necessary and well done, these people living in barbaric ways compared to what Claire is used to. I still like the characters and that’s why I’m not rooting for Claire to make it back to Frank too quickly, but eventually, that has to be the ending.

OUTLANDER airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET on Starz.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Going Deeper Into "Deep Breath"

Article first published as 'Doctor Who' Review - Season Premiere: 'Deep Breath' on Blogcritics.



Finally! The long-anticipated eighth season of Doctor Who is upon us with “Deep Breath.”  Ever since watching the 11th Doctor’s (Matt Smith) touching goodbye in last year’s Christmas special, fans eagerly (and somewhat impatiently) have awaited the arrival of the 12th Doctor (Peter Capaldi, The Thick Of It, World War Z). Up till now, we’ve 0nly glimpsed him in the holiday special, and, even more briefly, last fall’s 50th anniversary tribute. Now, we get to meet him in all his glory as he takes over the legendary role.

The opening of “Deep Breath,” is terrific. Whether it makes sense or not, a dinosaur walking about Victorian London makes for a cool visual, and so much more. The beast and its relationship with The Doctor, and its eventual tragic death (which tugs at the heartstrings) plays well, and in unexpected ways. We can always count on Doctor Who to deliver both wonderment and pathos, and this opening does that. But, I would like to know how the TARDIS ended up inside the dinosaur’s throat!

In his first appearance as The Doctor, Capaldi gets an A. We still don’t know exactly what kind of Doctor he will make, acting crazy for most of the installment, but he plays the eccentricities so well, it’s clear his more settled version will be good, too. Capaldi’s antics in “Deep Breath” echo past Doctors, in particular Matt Smith and Tom Baker, letting us know the character audiences have been watching for half a century is still in there. His comments about needing more “round things” in his TARDIS will surely please those who are fans of the original series runs. Capaldi is a fan himself from way back, and apparently has internalized those past Doctors, which resonates in his performance.

There are hints of what we might expect of this new Doctor, especially when he is calm enough to stand still for a second. This new version intrigues me, but also makes me wish for Smith’s return. Every time there is a new Doctor, there’s a certain adjustment period for fans, and it’s not easy to jump right back in with someone else. That’s why the first episode of the new series frequently takes time for the character to ‘adjust,’ and “Deep Breath” does that even more so than past versions. It’s very transitional, and that can be unsettling, but as I trust Steven Moffat, the show runner, because of his past track record with Doctor Who, I’m confident in saying this one will likely be good, too.

Because The Doctor is crazy, “Deep Breath” has to rely more on his companion, Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman), to drive the episode. Other companions, even brand new ones, have done a good job of this (Rose Tyler, Amy Pond), but Clara, who had already appeared in several episodes with the previous Doctor, doesn’t. I find her annoying and grating, assuming many of the worst things about her that Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh) does this week. Unlike the lizard lady, though, I am not sold by the end. I’m not sure what it is about Clara that bugs me, but there’s something there that doesn’t feel as nice and sweet as the other main characters of the past, and I look forward to her departure.

That being said, The Doctor clearly does value her. The surprise scene near the end of “Deep Breath,” in which The Doctor (Smith’s version) calls her as he is dying to ask her to help out with the new guy is touching. We see the bond between Clara and the 11th Doctor, what they mean to each other. Only the 11th could convince her to stay with the 12th. The way the 12th Doctor plays this scene, also helps carry that relationship into the new series, as we see Smith and Capaldi as the same person here. In an hour-plus where The Doctor is so unrecognizable, it’s good Moffat chose to ultimately smooth the transition.

Despite my objections to Clara, I don’t accuse her of everything Vastra does, specifically that she is upset by the new Doctor’s appearance because he’s older and less attractive to her. I believe Clara when she is genuinely worried the grey hair is a sign of something deeper being wrong inside, and I think she’s onto something. The Doctor also asks why this face has been chosen, and it remains a mystery. I hope it’s tied into one of Capaldi’s past Who-verse characters, perhaps his part in the Torchwood: Children of Earth, since it was such a notable role. Even if it doesn’t, I do think we’ll find out in time why The Doctor looks old now. There is definitely something to this.

I mentioned Vastra before, and she isn’t the only returning favorite to Doctor Who. Often, when a new Doctor begins his tenure,  past connections and relationships are forgotten. None of the 10th’s old companions play into the 11th Docotor’s run (except in the 50th anniversary special). However, Vastra, Jenny (Catrin Stewart), and Strax (Dan Starkey), like UNIT before them, don’t really ‘belong’ to one Doctor. They are their own group, The Paternoster Gang, one that deserves a spin-off, or, at the very least, repeat appearances for years to come, no matter who is in the title role.

Strax is my favorite of this trio, hilarious as ever. Whether hitting Clara in the face or trying to take her clothes (since she’s not wearing a coat), his naivety is a major selling point. When he slips and says something about pouring acid on The Doctor, it isn’t malicious. And when he fails to enter a room as gracefully as his companions, well, at least he tries. He’s a cartoonish personality, but one with a sweetness and authenticity to him that just makes him grab attention every time he’s on screen.

Vastra and Jenny are good, too, though, and “Deep Breath” takes their development a step further. Their relationship has been firmly established in the past, but every time we spend some time with them, we see another facet. The scene in which Vastra is working and Jenny is posing, wrongly thinking Vastra is painting her, is excellent. Even better, when it seems Vastra and Clara are flirting and Clara gets in a good dig, Jenny whoops triumphantly. Their partnership does not always seem to be one of equals, Jenny posing as Vastra’s maid in private as well as public, and when Jenny gets a leg up and feels superior for even a second, it makes them seem more realistic as a couple. The dynamic works for them, and it’s one rich enough to play around with.

Now, Doctor Who is sort of a procedural, even though it has strong serial elements, and “Deep Breath” is no exception to that. There is a case-of-the-week in the clockwork robots, similar enough that they are probably the same breed as the ones in the fan-favorite episode “The Girl in the Fireplace,” which are harvesting people’s organs. I don’t particularly care for these guys because they’re not malicious and they have nothing against The Doctor personally. Even if they discovered he knew of their schemes, I’m not sure they’d go after him. Instead, they are machines doing what they are programmed to do, which to me is less scary than other foes.

There is one frightening moment in “Deep Breath.” The Doctor and Clara are down in their lair, and The Doctor abandons Clara, saying there’s no sense in both of them dying. As much as I want to be rid of Clara, having The Doctor complicit in her death wouldn’t work because of the effect it would have on him when he comes to his senses. I didn’t really think The Doctor would abandon her, but since he isn’t himself here, one never quite knows. The terror comes in the potential cost for The Doctor, not in any death itself.

Much better than this one-shot is the mystery at the end of “Deep Breath.” We are introduced to Missy (Michelle Gomez, Bad Education), who claims to run the promised land, as she escorts the main clockwork guy (Peter Ferdinando, Snow White and the Hunstman), last seen impaled and dead, into her garden. She’s creepy, refers to The Doctor as her ‘boyfriend,’ and is definitely demented. Why does she want Clara and The Doctor together if she loves The Doctor? Why does she send them both into danger? Who is she and what does she mean for this eighth season?

Popular theories popping up online have her as the TARDIS, which has called The Doctor its boyfriend in the past, or a regeneration of River Song or The Master, both of whom have been crazy and bent on killing The Doctor at one time or another. I love River Song dearly, though, and Alex Kingston, who plays her. I can’t imagine the show would ruin her, and besides, her quest of murder has already been done. The Master seems the most likely of these three theories based on the personality Missy exhibits alone, but I predict she’s something else entirely, quite likely someone we’ve never seen before.

There are a couple of clues that could point to an answer, or may just be red herrings. There is character named Missy in the Cybermen-fueled episode of season seven, “Nightmare in Silver,” who is seemingly killed by them. Moffat has started the season eight is building to a huge two-part Cybermen showdown. Coincidence? Missy also calls her home ‘heaven’ and The Doctor has just died. Might she be trying to escort him into the ‘afterlife’?

Overall, “Deep Breath,” while somewhat dragged down by being too Clara-heavy and containing a mediocre monster, has enough gems hidden within to entice one to tune in for the rest of the series. I doubt it will rank among my favorite episodes, which is a shame, but it doesn’t totally fail, either. I’m almost as anxious as I was a week ago to find out what kind of Doctor Capaldi will be, and I guess that compulsion to watch again is the goal of any television series.

Doctor Who airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET on BBC America.

First Impression: DOCTOR WHO - "Deep Breath"

Article first published as DOCTOR WHO Review Season 8 Episode 1 Deep Breath Review on Seat42F.

Doctor Who 8x01 1

Last night saw the return of the BBC’s DOCTOR WHO in spectacular fashion. Beginning with a dinosaur in Victorian London, the beast spits up a blue box that contains Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) and The Doctor (Peter Capaldi, The Thick of It, World War Z), the latter bearing a new face. As the mad doctor runs off into the night, Clara relies on some old friends to not only help her figure out how to handle the Time Lord, but also investigate the murders plaguing the city.

This episode, entitled “Deep Breath,” feels a little off to me as compared to other installments. I suspect the main issue is the increased role of Clara, a character I find annoying and will be happy when she departs. With The Doctor dealing with swirling memories while trying to settle into his new form, Clara has the monumental task of driving events, meaning much of the running time is spent focused on her with less of the maniacal energy of The Doctor, which usually distracts from her. I hope future episodes get better.

That being said, there is a lot to get excited about in “Deep Breath.” I always love The Paternoster Gang, and am pleased to see them carry over to a new doctor’s tenure. Strax (Dan Starkey), frequently hilarious, is in rare form in the season premiere. He gets in some terrific one-liners in his seemingly-naïve way. Jenny (Catrin Stewart) and Madame Vastra’s (Neve McIntosh) romance continues to develop, showing us both their strengths and their weaknesses. When Vastra and Clara’s interactions begin to be charged, Jenny gets a rare moment of rising above Vastra, triumphant and fun. When will the trio get their own spin-off already?

I also really like Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, even though we haven’t really seen who he is yet except in brief glimpses. These moments of clarity, a peek at what’s going on inside the man, are among the best moments of the episode. But the rest of it, where he is off his rocker, is equally well-played. Capaldi manages to capture not only the spirit of the long-lived character, but tie it into the past, providing references to many former versions to the very alert viewer. Shades of Baker and Smith, chiefly, pass through at certain parts of the episode, and this provides cohesion to the series.

Which brings us to the surprise appearance of Smith in his final moments, calling Clara to ask her to help out the new guy. This is sweet because it connects the dots more firmly, showing the bond between the Eleventh Doctor and Clara and the Eleventh Doctor and the Twelfth Doctor. In an hour (plus) where The Doctor doesn’t really feel like The Doctor because of what he’s going through, it’s nice that this is included to help ground things and remind us of what is really happening.

The case of the week was ‘eh’ for me. A lot of people liked it because it ties back into a previous fan-favorite, early Tenth Doctor episode, “The Girl in the Fireplace,” with the return of the clockwork aliens. Personally, I didn’t get into it that much the first time around, and so am equally disappointed at their return. It’s not that they are poorly executed or anything; it’s just that they are so simple-minded, and aren’t even plotting specifically against The Doctor, whereas other foes who do generate a higher level of intensity and danger. The clockwork robots seem much easier to avoid than other bad guys; just stay away from their lair. But that’s just my opinion.

At the end of “Deep Breath,” DOCTOR WHO reveals its next big arc, introducing us to the character of Missy (Michelle Gomez, Bad Education). Is she the TARDIS? A regeneration of River Song, demented again? A regeneration of The Master? Or something else entirely? You’ll have to wait to find out.

DOCTOR WHO airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET on BBC America.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

INTRUDERS Intrudes Onto My TV

Intruders-Cast-BBC-America

Article first published as INTRUDERS Review on Seat42F.

BBC America’s latest original series (see my past reviews for gripes on the fact that this network even has original shows, albeit often-good ones, while hardly airing anything British) is INTRUDERS. A dark, dreary, plodding sci-fi / horror drama, the series is about a secret society that cheats death by intruding into other people’s bodies and taking control. With weird, uneven pacing, the show seeks to set a scary tone, but perhaps hits it a little too much on the head. It might pair well with Doctor Who, its partner on Saturday nights, but Who audiences might very well decide it’s not smart enough to be worth their time.

The pilot of INTRUDERS is not at all a good pilot. I know what the premise is because I’ve read media materials, but the plot is not evident from the start. One could conceivably watch the whole first hour and still be confused at the point of the show. All we see are people running around, being shot, and acting in unexplained manners, never really showing us what they are up to.

After awhile, you’ll realize that the main protagonist seems to be Jack Whelan (John Simm, Life on Mars, Doctor Who), a former cop whose wife, Amy (Mira Sorvino, Psych, Falling Skies), suddenly goes missing midway through episode one. He soon becomes obsessed with finding her, as one does, but avoids the traditional routes one might take to locate a missing person. His story thickens more when an old friend, Gary Fischer (Tory Kittles, True Detective, Sons of Anarchy), shows up to seek his help with a murder investigation. Intelligent viewers will assume there is connection between the case and Amy, though the series doesn’t seek to draw a thread between them yet.

In the second major subplot, a vicious assassin named Richard Shepherd (James Frain, Grimm, The Tudors) slays his way around, searching for a nine-year-old girl named Madison (Millie Bobby Brown, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland). It is likely safe to assume that Madison is the current host of a malevolent being who hurts poor, defenseless animals. This begs the question, is Richard, despite his brutality, a good guy out to save the world? And if not, should we care about Madison?

The thing is, I don’t care. The installment jumps around aimlessly, leaping between characters without direction and rarely giving us anything cohesive to work with. It actually feels like there are more players and elements than there are because of the disorganization. Rather than set up a structure for what should be a long-running mystery adventure show, we get a jumble of unrelated scenes with people that are not memorable. It’s really hard to follow INTRUDERS.

That’s a shame because the cast, well-seasoned, is good, if badly used. Frain plays bad beautifully, as we’ve seen from him before, and Simm has what it takes to be a leading man, if the writers would deign to give him the material. I like Sorvino, even though her smaller part is mostly confined to acting unattractively crazy, and Kittles seems a fine enough side kick.

Brown, though young, is distracting. It’s not that she doesn’t play creepy well, it’s just too much, her supposedly deceptive character hitting all the stereotypical notes. In this, she matches the tone that the score and lighting seek to set, which is overtly creepy so that no one can mistake it for anything else. Sadly, this is not a sign of a high-quality program.

I’m told other episodes of INTRUDERS get better and the story really takes off by week three. The problem is, a lot of viewers won’t stick around that long. I haven’t decided if I will. Delivering a pilot that is poor on so many counts makes it hard to get excited about the series, and thus fails in its mission. INTRUDERS is a false start for the up-and-coming network.

INTRUDERS airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. ET on BBC America.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

When Fans Do It Better

Article first published as When Fans Do It Better on Blogcritics.

We are in an era of constant remakes and sequels. Everything old is new again, and aging properties, from the popular to the obscure, keep getting new life. Sometimes, this is good, such as in the case of Star Trek‘s film reboot and the revival of British TV favorite Doctor Who. But for every win, there are plenty of losers, such as Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties, and, perhaps most egregious, the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, currently in theaters.

I grew up a TMNT fan. Not the original comics by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, which the purist worships, but the hokey cartoon and live-action films with guys in costumes. Perhaps these properties don’t hold up today, but they were beloved to me. As one of four brothers, at one point we boys all had pajamas in the design of each of the turtles as befitting our personalities, more or less (I was Donatello, the geeky, peace-maker, brain). We enjoyed their sarcastic humor and not-so-realistic fighting skills, playing with their action figures, and endlessly copying them for hours. And I got dragged to the 2007 animated movie, which is actually pretty cool.

TMNT 2014I understand that the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles may not be for me. After all, if the previous efforts, beloved by young me, aren’t any good on a re-watch from an older perspective, they could very well be in the same vein as what Nickelodeon is doing with the property today, now with Michael Bay-explosions, giant plot holes, inconsistent characters, and Megan Fox trying to act, the latter not as bad as expected, but still far from good. It’s painful to watch something from my childhood destroyed by such an awful film, which I groaned and suffered through recently. The fact that the movie is making loads of money at the box office only rubs salt in the wound.

The thing is, while I only enjoyed the for-kids version of the story, one of my oldest and best pals, podcaster and webcomic author Nick Arganbright, is and long has been pretty obsessed with the comics, so I did eventually read them. They are sharply written with a distinctive, unique style. They may not be my cup of tea, but I respect them from the quality they clearly exhibit, and it’s a shame they’ve been bastardized so badly.

Now, while Hollywood may not always be faithful to the source material, the Internet has provided a place for fans to go and remake the series in their own way, distributing it to others who share their interest. Fan-faction has been around for a very long time, but seems to be much more prevalent today, and easier to get a hold of. Some of it is great, much of it is crap, and almost none of it is blessed by the original creator, which makes the ethics of it questionable and a genre I typically stay away from it.

However, every once in awhile, some fan boy gets it right more so than the official entity in charge of the franchise. Nick, whom I mentioned above who loves TMNT, has an effort called Ultimate Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and it’s good! It fits the spirit and personalities of the old comics extremely well, capturing the essence that the producers in charge now get so wrong. Speaking with those who care more for the original stuff than I do, I’m not the only one who thinks so. Nick writes the script and pays artist Eryck Webb to draw the pages, and he gets to see what he dreams of for his favorite series, regardless of whether or not a studio or publisher will ever make it good again.

Ultimate Teenage Mutant Ninja TurtlesThe question is, should he be allowed to do this? And should more take up the cause for their own favorites? That’s hard to say. I have no problem with people wanting to let their imaginations run free, and even using already established characters and universes. This helps the mind develop story-telling skills, and can be a step to making up your own works as you analyze the positives and negatives, learning from what the ‘real’ version gets right and wrong.

But, in this particular case, which is a rarity, what this author is doing seems so much better and more true than other fan-fiction. Nickelodeon dropped the ball, and he picked it up and hit a grand slam with it. Obviously, he cannot profit from someone else’s ideas, and he’s not trying to, mindful of the law. But when some guy in a basement can write it better, shouldn’t he be permitted to do so?

The main problem here is not that UTMNT exists; any fan of the Teenage Mutant Turtles should be glad to find it. The problem is sorting through all the junk out there to find the gem. And the other problem is that our current system doesn’t always mean that best minds get to make the decision, which results in the obscenity that is currently in theaters. I don’t know how to solve such issues, but when there’s an example this glaring, it certainly highlights what’s broken. I guess it’s up to you to decide for yourself if Nick and others like him are a possible solution and should be promoted as such.

Friday, August 22, 2014

‘My Boy Jack’ – DVD Review

Article first published as ‘My Boy Jack’ – DVD Review on Blogcritics.

My Boy JackMy Boy Jack is a BBC production of a family caught up in the Great War. Based on real events, the movie stars Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter, A Young Doctor’s Notebook) as John “Jack” Kipling, son of author, poet, and outspoken hawk Rudyard Kipling (David Haig, Yes, Prime Minister).

When Jack tries to join Britain’s armed forces, he is denied because of his need for spectacles. Unfortunately, his father is out telling every able-bodied young lad that they must join up or be shunned by their countrymen. In the position to do so, Rudyard can pull strings to help Jack enlist, but should he? And how will Rudyard feel if Jack marches out and doesn’t make it home? Although My Boy Jack was made in 2007, it only recently made its U.S. debut, on cable network Ovation. It has now been released on DVD as well.

I can see why My Boy Jack might have had a hard time finding its audience. The first half of the series is a slow-moving, seemingly typical British drama. It then morphs into a war story, complete with death and explosions, before focusing on the family struggling emotionally back home. These pivots provide an uneven tone, even while maintaining the quality, so its sometimes hard knowing what to expect from moment to moment.

At a 94-minute running time, it hardly seems long enough for a biopic, but in this one, it’s plenty for the movie’s very narrow focus. Jack’s involvement in the war, and that is told from beginning to end, leaves no hanging threads.

The world referenced by My Boy Jack was a defining time for the British Empire, and it’s easy to see why a boy, who might not quite be physically fit by the war department’s standards, struggles against the odds to serve King and Country. England was at the height of its power at the time, and the British way of life seemed threatened. Combine that with the father-son relationship and Rudyard’s stance on defending the homeland, Jack will feel ashamed if he can’t participate, disappointing his father and his peers. He must enlist, and we feel his struggle.

The film’s family drama is very strongly portrayed. Rudyard is presented as a man confident in his beliefs, but not immune to being shaken by circumstance. His wife, Caroline (Kim Cattrall, Sex and the City), is supportive, but torn, proud, and not wanting her boy in danger. She knows Jack is heading to a place where many of the nation’s young men are dying every day. Jack’s sister, Elsie (Carey Mulligan, The Great Gatsby), is more straightforward with her disapproval, sharing a close bond with Jack, and scared about what might happen.

While the events portrayed in My Boy Jack happened a century ago and are easily spoiled with an online research, I’ll refrain from revealing if Jack makes it home. I will say that the story is moving and the performances are very good, even if the overall result isn’t anything particularly special.

The DVD release of My Boy Jack comes with several bonus features. We’re given six minutes of deleted scenes that are actually pretty insightful, unlike many other titles. There are twenty-four minutes of interviews with various cast members and almost a full hour discussing the war itself. This unexpected wealth of useful extras is most welcome, making the DVD feel like it’s for a theatrical film, rather than a TV movie.

My Boy Jack is available now.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

OUTLANDER Review Season 1 Episode 2 Castle Leoch

Article first published as OUTLANDER Review Season 1 Episode 2 Castle Leoch on Seat42F.

Graham McTavish, Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan | OUTLANDER
Graham McTavish, Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan | OUTLANDER

Episode two of Starz’s original series OUTLANDER is likely a truer indicator of what this show will be than the first hour, which was mainly set in the 1940s. Claire (Caitriona Balfe) is slowly adjusting to Scotland in the 1740s, but wants to escape the clan that has her so she can look for a way home. Arriving at “Castle Leoch,” the seat of the clan the show present, as well as this installment’s title, Claire finds new friends, foes, and a realization that getting home may be even harder than she expects.

OUTLANDER does a good job setting up the principal cast in “Castle Leoch.” Most importantly, we’re introduced to Jamie’s (Sam Heughan) uncles, Colum MacKenzie (Gary Lewis, Gangs of New York) and Dougal MacKenzie (Graham McTavish, The Hobbit movies). Colum is the leader of the castle, but his younger brother, Dougal, is the muscle. It’s not an unfamiliar arrangement, but it does leave the show unpredictable. Would Dougal ever go around his sibling? Will Colum die from the debilitating condition from which he suffers, leaving Dougal in charge? Can Claire count on either one for assistance?

It’s clear in “Castle Leoch” that while Colum is not cruel, he is fiercely protective of those under his charge. He seems a friend to Claire at first, but surreptitiously interrogates her, even after she thinks the questioning is done. Claire isn’t dumb, but she also isn’t used to not being able to take people at face value, still adjusting to these more dangerous times, and slips up, making her untrustworthy. The result is that she is kept at “Castle Leoch” against her will until such time that she can earn Colum’s faith in her. Though, as mentioned above, that might not even be enough, should Dougal rise to power.

This complex dynamic is one in which neither Claire nor Colum is a villain. The viewer may side with Claire, of course, as she is our protagonist we’ve been instructed to root for. Yet, Colum seems fair, and though his suspicions will surely ultimately prove to be unfounded, they are understandable at the present, especially given Claire’s English accent, a people the Scots are not in league with exactly. It’s an uneasy truce between the two, with Colum not quite imprisoning her, but neither is Claire free to leave.

Others in the clan are much easier to win over. Jamie, of course, is for Claire, and as she tends his wounds, they bond even more as he shares his tragic, noble history. Claire finds the closest thing there is to a peer here in Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek, The Borgias), whose knowledge of plants and herbs have some viewing her as a witch, though Claire is scientific-minded enough to know better. And there’s goodly, motherly Mrs. Fitzgibbons (Annette Badland, The Sparticle Mystery), whose disapproval over Claire’s risqué (for the time) clothing is soon replaced by affection.

More a mystery is the only main character I haven’t yet mentioned in OUTLANDER, Murtagh Fitzgibbons (Duncan Lacroix, Wikings). Murtagh is seemingly pleasant and married to Mrs. Fitz, which earns him some respect. But he serves as the eyes of Dougal, too, which seems a dubious task. It’s not clear yet if Murtagh is in this position willingly or out of a sense of duty. Can Claire trust him?

The other thing “Castle Leoch” has me wondering is how Claire’s glimpse of Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) is affecting her impression of her husband, Frank (also Menzies). Hearing from Jamie about Black Jack’s brutality, it has to be shocking for Claire to think that this is her love’s forbearer, and that these deeds are in his blood. She has to wonder if Frank acted anything like Black Jack when thrust into war himself. The physical similarity, which I am not in favor of as an element of the show, also has to make it even easier for her to draw a parallel. Might this be why she starts to tell people Frank is dead, acting more like a widow than a married women?

I like this episode of OUTLANDER a lot. It provides much insight into the chemistry between the various characters and paints a very authentic-seeming portrait of a clan in Scotland at the time. It provides historical context while staying engaging with interesting, complex characters. The Gaelic language comes in bursts, and while at first I didn’t like the fact that it isn’t subtitled, I can see how that helps the viewer put themselves in Claire’s situation even more, as she must rely on a kindly interpreter. Flashes of the twentieth century and Jamie’s past are used sparingly and effectively, thankfully, as some shows overuse this device. And, as I mentioned in my pilot review, OUTLANDER is in a simply gorgeous setting that only enhances the style and tone.

My only real complaint about “Castle Leoch” is that Claire seems to be getting over Frank much too fast. She does want to go home, that is true, and she has to adjust somehow in order to cope with her current existence. But her draw to Jamie is strong, and while she is fighting it, it’s a battle she’s losing far too quickly. Is Frank not the man she thought he was, given what she now knows about his lineage, and is Jamie her true man? Only time will tell.

OUTLANDER airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET on Starz.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

‘A Young Doctor’s Notebook’ – Previewing Season Two


‘A Young Doctor’s Notebook’ – Previewing Season Two

Article originally published as ‘A Young Doctor’s Notebook’ – Previewing Season Two on Blogcritics.


A Young Doctor’s Notebook, now subtitled & other stories, returns this week for a second four-episode season on Ovation. Picking up this year with 1918 and 1935 timelines (about a year after the first season left off for both versions of the protagonist), this is both a continuation of the plot, and an entirely new tale. Based, in part, on the short story “Morphine” by Mikhail Bulgakov, the writers are tying that text back into the setting and characters introduced in season one.

When last we’d seen him, the older doctor (Jon Hamm) had been caught prescribing himself morphine. Now, released from a mental institution, he travels back to the office where he spends the Russian Revolution, determined to confront his past — while sober. Whether he can face up to the man he’d at one time been, and the things he’s done, is a central question to this second season, especially where a certain woman is concerned.

As the second season narrative begins, the younger doctor (Daniel Radcliffe) is in the throes of addiction. In an unhealthy sexual relationship of convenience with Pelageya (Rosie Cavaliero), he is much more concerned about his next fix, and not getting caught skimming drugs than he is about romance. Yet, there is some sort of affection between them, if only because she enables the Younger Doctor in his habits.

During season one, the under-the-influence older doctor had been spinning out of control as he relives the beginning of his tumultuous journey, while the younger doctor is a naive, optimistic lad; season two turns the tables. Now the younger doctor is the reckless one, out of control, while the older doctor sits in judgement, knowing full well that he is fact sitting judgment on his younger self. This created a complex dynamic, allowing both actors to explore the psyche of their damaged parts in different, unique ways.

This is a very poignant time for A Young Doctor’s Notebook to air in the United States, given the recent death of Robin Williams. Mental health and addiction are at the forefront of the public consciousness, and the series delves into the subject in an interesting, entertaining, enlightening way.

Students of history may find in A Young Doctor’s Notebook several tidbits of interest. Season two takes place during the Russian Revolution, bringing the war to the very doorstep of the hospital for most of the four installments. Natasha (Margaret Clunie), a member of the ruling elite, and The Colonel (Charles Edwards, Downton Abbey), her protector, stop over in the chaos and each catch the eye of one of our central cast. I’m not sure how much actual, factual past is included in this story, but the pair of new characters do help it feel like the office is set in the real world, rather than existing apart, on its own, as it sort of did in season one.

A Young Doctor’s Notebook is funny, but through an extremely dark brand of comedy. Whether joking about a dead horse or trying to get laid, there’s a pathetic sadness to the characters who exist within the series narrative. Tears may not make it to the audience’s eyes, but they do emanate from the characters on multiple occasions, and with good reason. This is a dangerous, tragic world, and the misfortunes, while amusing because of the cartoonish, over-the-top manner through which they occur, are genuine.

I don’t know if A Young Doctor’s Notebook return for a third season, given the lack of more source material. It’s a unique series I have very much enjoyed, thoroughly impressed by the talent behind it. I watched all four episodes of the second season in one sitting and craved more, a testament to its quality.

A Young Doctor’s Notebook airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on Ovation.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

TV Review: ‘Franklin & Bash’ – “The Curse of Hor-Aha”


TV Review: ‘Franklin & Bash’ – “The Curse of Hor-Aha”

Article first published as TV Review: ‘Franklin & Bash’ – “The Curse of Hor-Aha” on Blogcritics.


As much as TNT’s Franklin & Bash changes, it also stays the same. It has undergone cast shifts before, but in the fourth season, which returned last night, we may see the most dramatic rotation yet. Which is why it’s extra remarkable that the premiere, “The Curse of Hor-Aha,” seems pretty much the same as any other episode of the series.

Time Jump

Right off the bat, we get a four month time jump where our titular characters are now running the law firm (although they remain living in Infeld’s beach house). Infeld (Malcolm McDowell) himself is working as an auto mechanic, having taken a blow for the Rachel King (Heather Locklear) fiasco. Rachel is locked up, so we don’t see her, and likely won’t again, at least not for a long while. Other employees are jumping ship, unhappy with the new management style, and that includes F&B’s loyal compatriots, Carmen (Dana Davis) and Pindar (Kumail Nanjiani).

What this means for Franklin & Bash is that Franklin (Breckin Meyer) and Bash (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) either need to grow up or get Infeld back. They prefer the latter, of course. In their current case, which involves “The Case of Hor-Aha,” they are as goofy as ever. In the office, they can’t stay out of trouble, which is probably why they haven’t managed to garner any respect. The new investigator they’ve hired, Dan Mundy (Anthony Ordonez, Job for Gino), is an enabler and a weirdo. Needless to say, they’re not doing well, and the firm is losing money and personnel rapidly.

Departures

It’s disappointing that Carmen and Pindar have left. We get brief explanations for both absences, and it doesn’t seem like they fled for the same reasons the others did. But they are valuable characters for the show, even if they’ve been marginalized for most of it, who will be missed. Let’s hope they at least pop back up as guest stars sometime this year.

Since it seems like getting Infeld back into his office will be an arc, rather than a quick fix, there has to be some balancing force on the show to keep the guys in line in the meantime. In the past, this has mostly fallen to Damien Karp (Reed Diamond) and a couple of different women, who are no longer around. Damien has also quit (and it’s worth noting that he is no longer listed on the cast page of the official website) and is purposely seeking cases where he can fight the guys in the courtroom, petty as ever. So obviously, the show needs a permanent presence at Infeld Daniels (now renamed Infeld, Daniels, Franklin, & Bash) to stabilize things.

Anita Joins Franklin & Bash

Enter Anita Haskins (Toni Trucks, Hostages), a well-educated, no-nonsense woman who is willing to work for them if they actually let her go to court, which they are desperate enough to do, and other reputable law firms won’t. She seems, at first glance, to be a pretty standard straight (wo-)man, there to hamper them, but not too harshly, like her predecessors. But it’s hard to tell for sure because she doesn’t show up until near the close of the hour.

Before Anita is introduced to Franklin & Bash, we see Ellen Swatello (Rhea Seehorn), previously an assistant district attorney, is now on staff at the firm. Ellen is a recurring part, and unfortunately, her new position has not come with a corresponding upgrade for the delightful Seehorn. One assumes the office isn’t going to keep both Anita and Ellen around, but how cool would it be if they did? After all, two tough females teaming up on Franklin & Bash might finally be able to rein them in.

The case-of-the-week is standard and takes up most of the running time, as usual. I like Franklin & Bash because it isn’t just a procedural, but unfortunately, it is mainly that. If you were entertained the first three years, though, you’ll probably like this one, too, because even though there has been some musical chairs among the players and a new challenge introduced, it’s still very much the show you’ve become accustomed to.

Franklin & Bash airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on TNT.

Friday, August 15, 2014

LEGENDS Anything But Legendary

Article first published as LEGENDS Review on Seat42F.

Legends Cast TNT Morris Chesnut Sean Bean Ali Larter
Morris Chesnut, Sean Bean and Ali Larter | LEGENDS

TNT’s newest drama is LEGENDS, premiering this week. Rather than some epic tale rooted in mythology, as one might guess from the title, LEGENDS refers to the secret identities that deep cover spies have. It is based on a book by Robert Littell. A premise like this should still lend itself well to a large, serial story, in my opinion, but LEGENDS goes in the opposite direction, basically making a case-of-the-week show, or so it seems from the pilot, squandering both an interesting setup and an excellent cast.

At the forefront of LEGENDS is Sean Bean (Game of Thrones) as Martin Odum. Martin is one of those people who gets super intense about his mission, supremely focused on his goals, ignoring rules that might get in his way and a family, including a son (Mason Cook, The Lone Ranger), that could humanize him. This is a very familiar type of protagonist to TV viewers, as it seems that any character that carries a show cannot be average in any way.

In the pilot, Martin is approached by a mysterious man who tells him that the Martin persona is yet another Legend, and the real man is buried deep within by a shady part of the government. This is intriguing, of course, making viewers question both the truth in what we’re seeing and Martin’s mental stability. I could easily see a show or season-long story being focused on this, but the pilot barely glances across it, seemingly destined to be developed in tiny pieces, rather than played up as it should be.

Besides Bean, many other talented people are wasted on this project. Martin’s co-workers are played by the likes of Tina Majorino (Grey’s Anatomy, Veronica Mars), Steve Harris (The Practice, Justified), Morris Chestnut (Nurse Jackie, V), and Ali Larter (Heroes, Resident Evil). None of the characters they play really stand out in episode one. They’re mostly there to alternately back Martin up and get in his way, making up a very standard ensemble for such a show.

What is really troubling is that Bean’s characters inevitably die in just about every project he’s involved in. Because the rest of the characters are so under-developed, LEGENDS as it currently is would not work without its star,

There really isn’t much about LEGENDS that is original or impressive. The acting is top notch, to be sure, but the writing is not. There are hokey situations such as when Larter’s character has to pose as a stripper at the last minute, ostensibly to slyly get to Martin past the bad guys, but in reality, probably just to show off some of Larter’s skin to the viewers, who tend to like a little sex with their action. But it seems designed to be the equivalent of a popcorn flick, sort of like a crime-genre Falling Skies, rather than make an impact on the television landscape or win any awards.

In comparison to other procedurals, LEGENDS holds up well enough. The production looks good and there are no obvious problems. As I said, it copies the structure of other projects quite copiously, but so does everyone else, which is how we end up with so many versions of what is basically the same show all on the air at the same time. It’s not that there’s anything glaringly wrong with LEGENDS or the peers it borrows from. They just aren’t anything special either.

One wonders if we’ve reached a tipping point for this kind of show. Many of the procedurals currently running have either started to skew more serial or incorporate serial elements into their format. However, as long as Bones, NCIS, and others like them rule the airwaves and get the biggest ratings, I don’t see simple escapism entertainment going anywhere any time soon. That is disappointing to the critics, who watch a lot of TV and quickly tire of this junk food-like product, but maybe not to the casual viewer, relaxing with a favorite they stumbled upon and like to check back in with.

LEGENDS premieres this Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on TNT.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

WILFRED Ends With "Happiness"

Article first published as ‘Wilfred’ Review: Series Finale – ‘Happiness’ on Blogcritics.

WilfredFX’s Wilfred came to an end tonight after four seasons on the air. The strange TV series about a man, Ryan (Elijah Wood), who sees his neighbor’s dog, Wilfred (Jason Gann), as a guy in a dog suit finally explains itself, while giving viewers emotional closure. Not every mystery or secret may have been addressed, as some fans of the mythology would have liked, but overall, the conclusion, “Happiness,” is satisfying enough, and there aren’t any nagging threads hanging around.

Funny Vs. Mythology

I like to sort fans of Wilfred into two camps: those who want to know why Ryan sees Wilfred the way he is, and those who just enjoy the comedy of the two pals hanging out. The series finale serves both of those groups by making their friendship and antics the reason behind the Big Question. Ryan is mentally unstable and lonely, and he’s imagined Wilfred to provide himself a chum. When the real Wilfred dies, Ryan has to bring back his imaginary friend, even if there is no longer the hook into reality to ground Wilfred, in order to find his happiness.

Happiness

Can Ryan be considered happy as Wilfred comes to a close? I think so. He’s crazy, to be sure, but at least he comes by the craziness honestly, as both his mother (Mimi Rogers) and his biological father (whom he finally meets in “Happiness”) share similar traits. They have found a way to live their lives, dealing with the eccentricities and not worrying about what other people think. So, too, has Ryan, now that he has Wilfred back, despite the dog’s death.

In a way, this version of Ryan is almost more stable. At least now he knows what’s going on his head. He also has greater emotional maturity, accepting himself and not needing to be in a romantic relationship to be happy. Rather than obsessing over what he cannot change, Ryan lets go of those things and embraces who he is. While some viewers may still think Ryan should seek help from a medical professional, if it works for him, who are we to judge? As long as he doesn’t hurt anyone, including himself, whom he almost offs prior to his revelations, why stand in his way? And with this kinder, gentler Wilfred, everything looks to be OK.

In fact, everyone on Wilfred gets a happy ending. Ryan’s mother, Catherine, is out of the mental institution and in love with a caring man (John Michael Higgins). His sister Kristen (Dorian Brown)  finds that helping the needy actually brings her pleasure. Ryan’s crush, Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), decides to make her marriage to Drew (Chris Klein) work; after all, he’d made her very happy once upon a time. As down on life and himself as Ryan could be, there has always been a major pulse of optimism running through the show, and this is echoed perfectly in the series finale.

Mystery Solved

The way Ryan’s imaginings come to life totally makes sense because of what he finds out over this final season. Born into a cult-like group, Ryan is exposed to people and ideas that eventually become his fantasy. Even one so young, who doesn’t have clear memories, can form impressions. That’s why, even if Wilfred doesn’t lay everything out on the table, the ending makes sense, the explanations rooted in solid back story. I also like the way we see past scenes re-shot with an actual mutt.

The only complaint I have about the final season is the recasting of Catherine and Bruce. Both are major recurring players, and to see someone else take over in the final days of the show is beyond disappointing. Even if scheduling caused this issue, it’s still highly regrettable and casts a tinge on Wilfred. Since there is already an established issue with reality on the show, why couldn’t they at least explain the different appearances, rather than laughing them off?

Verdict on Wilfred

Overall, though, Wilfred sparks the imagination, maintains an entertaining consistency, and allows real emotional growth and development, building to a conclusion that feels earned, rather than tacked on. “Happiness” is nearly unimpeachable, and it leaves me wishing I could see more of Ryan and Wilfred’s adventures, which is exactly how I wanted to feel. Excellent work.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

‘The Other Woman’ – Blu-ray Review

Article first published as ‘The Other Woman’ – Blu-ray Review on Blogcritics.

The Other WomanMovies make it to disc so much more quickly these days than they used to! Barely three months after its theatrical release, The Other Woman gets the Blu-ray and DVD treatment on a single disc. The story of a wife, her husband’s mistress, and his other mistress, it’s a comedy of female bonding and revenge, with a dash of 9 to 5 vibe, as the trio of women make the sleazy man who has wronged them all pay. Too bad it’s not that funny.

At the center of The Other Woman are two figures. Cameron Diaz (Bad Teacher) plays Carly Whitten, a tough lawyer who thinks she has finally succeeded in the dating world, a struggle that has made it hard for her to care about others as a coping mechanism. Leslie Mann (This is 40) is Kate King, the spouse without a job or kids to occupy her, and who desperately needs something in her life besides giving her husband ideas to use at work. They form an unlikely bond of friendship as they decide how to handle their common scourge, Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones). They later find him sleeping with Amber (model Kate Upton), too, which prompts them to take their schemes to the next level, determining that Mark must be stopped once and for all and punished severely.

Diaz and Mann are two film veterans, so one would think that their casting in The Other Woman would be a no-brainer. But they aren’t well used and the film suffers from a mediocre script. It’s nice to see Diaz playing the rock at the center of the crazies, and Mann does annoying well. But Kate is too annoying, to the point where it’s hard to feel any sympathy for her, even as one realizes that Mark’s behavior may be a driving factor in her current personality. The two also go from detesting one another to being bosom buddies without enough explanation in between, during their second night of getting plastered. A smidgen more connection between point A and point B would be welcome.

The Other Woman doesn’t get any better when Upton shows up. Upton and singer Nicki Minaj, who plays Carly’s entitled assistant, are not actors and it shows. Thankfully, Don Johnson (Nash Bridges, Miami Vice), who plays Carly’s dad, and Taylor Kinney (Chicago Fire), who is Kate’s brother and Carly’s love interest, are good. However, this makes for a very uneven ensemble, keeping the film rough around the edges.

Coster-Waldau is deliciously charming and sociopathic, but we don’t get to see that enough. For most of the running time of The Other Woman, he’s getting away with things, not suffering at all for his sins. In fact, at least one of the females who has the most justifiable anger towards him still is tempted to sleep with him even after the truth about him is exposed. By the time he gets his comeuppance, which, of course, must happen, it’s satisfying, but doesn’t give the actor enough of a chance to shine in that more interesting situation.

The story stumbles along for quite awhile, taking a bit of time before it goes anywhere. Then, once it does, it goes a little too fast, jumping from tiny pranks to the big finale quite quickly. Some of the emotional hurdles between the three women and their feelings for the man are leapt over with barely a mention, making the girl power angle fall short, too. The ending is very neatly tied up, which makes sense for a film like this, but it also robs the proceedings of authenticity and honesty. This could be forgivable if there were more jokes, but since the tone is more focused on pathos than laughs, it doesn’t quite land. There are worse ways to spend two hours, but neither can I really recommend this movie.

The extras for The Other Woman are light. We get eight deleted scenes, including an epilogue tag for Mark, a gag reel, gallery, trailer, and “giggle fit,” nothing that really gives insight into the production or story. The picture and audio quality are excellent, as most current films tend to be on blu-ray, but other than a couple of beach shots, there’s not really anytime this is taken advantage of, so blu-ray is preferred only in that DVD starts to look bad after watching most video in high definition.

In all, The Other Woman is forgettable and this release doesn’t show much effort to try to make up for that. If you’re so inclined, it is available now.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Blu-ray Review: ‘Bitten – The Complete First Season’

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: ‘Bitten – The Complete First Season’ on Blogcritics.

Bitten, a Canadian-made supernatural drama that recently aired its first season on the SyFy channel in the United States, comes to Blu-ray and DVD this week in a four-disc set. Based on the best-selling books by Kelley Armstrong, Bitten is an action-packed, sexy drama centered on Elena Michaels (Laura Vandervoort, V, Smallville), the only female werewolf in existence. She is drawn back to the pack she abandoned when rogue mutts begin killing innocent people.

The Characters

The series is a character-driven drama, despite the other elements. Elena is caught between two worlds, a normal, wonderful boyfriend, Philip McAdams (Paul Greene, Wicked Wicked Games), who offers her the chance at an average existence, which she is trying to convince herself she wants, and hot, uncontrollable passion for Clayton Danvers (Greyston Holt, Alcatraz), whom she loves but doesn’t trust since he accidentally turned her into the same creature she didn’t know he was. It’s more than a simple love triangle because it’s the type of life Elena would have with each, more than her feelings for the men themselves, that drive her decisions.

The show is also bolstered by the pack ensemble, which are secondary to Elena, but still important to the success of the series. Their leader is Jeremy Danvers (Greg Bryk, XIII: The Series), a calm, logical man, who makes the tough decisions while guiding the others on a more peaceful path than past Alphas. His best friend, Antonio Sorrentino (Paulino Nunes, The Firm), could have been Alpha, but chose to step aside. There is also Antonio’s playboy son, Nick (Steve Lund, Haven), and Logan (Michael Xavier, The Best Years), who wants to have a family with Rachel (Genelle Williams, Warehouse 13), something against pack law.

The Premise

The mythology in Bitten is well-developed. Both the arcs for the central cast and the villains brought in fit into a large picture, a world developed long before the show starts, and one that will continue after we stop watching. The season is both a complete story, and a piece of something much bigger. The pacing is good, and the acting is serviceable. While not the number one show on television, it is better than most of its peers because of the depth and cohesion it exhibits.

Those familiar with the source material should be both satisfied and surprised. Having read books one and two so far myself, with plans to continue with the set, I can say that Bitten hews fairly close to the first book in Armstrong’s Otherworld series in a lot of ways, but in others, including a major character death or two, it departs. I like that the show’s writers know what works for TV and what doesn’t, keeping to the spirit of the piece, but not being a slave to it. I do wonder how future seasons will unfold, as Elena only serves as the protagonist for the first two novels in the series, the second book expanding the structure greatly and moving in other directions. I suspect the show may end up telling us a lot of stories involving these players that isn’t on the page, rather than move away from its core.
Features

There are a handful of bonus features included on this set. Audio commentary is provided for the premiere, finale, and pivotal fifth episode, which gives Elena’s back story, certainly the three installments fans would be most interested in hearing commentary for. An eight-minute “Behind the Scenes” spends most of its time telling us who the characters are, rather than really going into how the show is made, a totally unnecessary inclusion to those who have already watched the episodes (or read this review). Similarly, “VFX – Behind the Wolf” talks about how the characters relate to their animal versions much more than the special effects wizardry that goes into creating the effects. The one semi-valuable feature is for those interested in stunt work, as the disc spends more than eight minutes breaking down a few scenes from episodes 11 and 13, mainly by showing picture-in-picture of the finished product versus rehearsal. There are also about 15 minutes of deleted and extended scenes. It’s an acceptable amount of extras, even if the content is a bit weak.

As far as the high definition presented on the Blu-ray, it’s as good as what aired on television, but not a particularly impressive release. The audio is well- mixed, as most shows are these days, but it does not boast surround sound or anything special. The picture is clear enough, but lacking the super crisp detail some series have. My guess is that, because this is a Canadian production, the budget is likely lower than many American series, and the money is mainly spent on special effects, rather than enhancing the video and audio.

Verdict

Still, even with disappointing extras and an acceptable, but not stunning, presentation, Bitten is a solid series that is both enjoyable and engaging. Maybe there are a few too many shirtless men for a straight male like me, but it’s not sappy like Twilight, and it actually takes time to make a gripping tale. I would recommend watching this for anyone who enjoys the genre.

Bitten – The Complete First Season will be available this coming Tuesday.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Take a Trip With OUTLANDER

Article originally published as OUTLANDER Review on Seat42F.

Caitriona Balfe & Sam Heughan | Outlander
Caitriona Balfe & Sam Heughan | Outlander

The latest drama from Starz is OUTLANDER, premiering this weekend, although the first episode has already been released publicly online. The series revolves around a British nurse named Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe, Now You See Me), who, while traveling the Scotish highlands with her just-returned-from-World-War-II-husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies, Game of Thrones), is tossed back in time two hundred years. Lost and out of her depth, she is quickly taken under the wing of Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan, Doctors).

While there are elements of time travel in the story, obviously, OUTLANDER is much more a romance than science fiction program. The primary dramatic thrust involves Claire’s heart, which fully belongs to her husband, Frank. But now she is far away from Frank with no way back in sight, so her affections might be tested, especially when a charming man looks out for her. It’s essentially the familiar love triangle, but with one party, who starts with the upper hand, sitting on the bench for most of the game.

The love story between husband and wife is well woven in the first episode, “Sassenach,” which spends much of its running time in 1945, before moving back to the 1740s. As such, it’s hard to get a feel for what exactly the show will be. That seems OK because Claire is definitely the center of the tale and her character is well-served in the pilot. Any other feelings that might bubble up are sure to be gradual, and thus, audiences won’t have to worry about getting whiplash from a fickle player.

In fact, all of OUTLANDER moves very slowly. The first hour-plus is simply concerned with Frank getting home, the couple reconnecting, and then Claire being separated again from her love. While some series could have shown that in an opening scene or act, OUTLANDER takes a full installment to do so. That will likely give us some idea of the type of pacing to expect from the show, going forward, which is glacial.

Yet, OUTLANDER somehow avoids being boring. There is an ineffable, magnetic quality about Claire that makes her easy to watch. Her happiness is the viewer’s happiness, and her troubles concern us. Claire is easy to care about, and sucks us into the story thoroughly. While this is not the type of genre of television I’d normally be attracted to, a period romance, I found myself engrossed in Claire’s journey, both emotional and physical, and I definitely want to find out what happens to her next.

What I like most is that there are many little, unexpected, charming bits. One such instance involves the lady that runs a bed and breakfast that Claire and Frank stay at. She frowns upon hearing their energetic use of the bed, making us think she’s a prude. But when Claire and Frank stop goofing around and the creaking switches to something more realistic, she smiles, dashing assumptions. There’s also an amusing scene in which Claire is, more or less, labeled a nymphomaniac, spun in a positive light. These sorts of things provide the light touch that keeps the show from getting too melodramatic.

The setting is also beautiful. Who doesn’t want to spend time in the Highlands of Scotland? It’s a lush, green place that feels magical and old at its core. It’s the perfect setting for a time-bending adventure, especially one with such romantic notions.

The one complaint I have about OUTLANDER so far is that Menzies has been tasked with a dual role, also playing Frank’s ancestor, Black Jack Randall, in the 1740s. While some people do resemble their forefathers to some extent, being identical to someone many generations removed is exceedingly rare. I feel like TV shows make the mistake of allowing one actor to stand in for multiple family members too often, and it comes across as unrealistic and hokey. In a show that takes such care with authenticity otherwise, this is a disappointment.

Still, that’s a minor complaint about a series I really enjoy. OUTLANDER premieres Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on Starz.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Check In to THE KNICK

Article first published as THE KNICK Review on Seat42F.

The Knick Cinemax - Clive Owen
The Knick | Andre Holland, Michael Angarano, Clive Owen, Eve Hewson, Eric Johnson | Credit Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

Cinemax finally has a series worth watching! Well, at least in this reviewer’s opinion. In the past, episodes I’ve screened of their shows were always heavy on action and violence and gore, but light on character development and story. This week, though, sees the premiere of THE KNICK, a period medical drama set in New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital at the turn of the previous century.

The lead character in THE KNICK is Dr. John W. Thackery (Clive Owen, Hemingway & Gellhorn). He’s very House M.D.-like in that he’s abrasive, brilliant, and has a serious drug addiction. Thackery learned to lean on the illegal substances from his mentor, Dr. Christenson (Matt Frewer, Orphan Black), and now realizes that it might not be a good idea to continue this habit as he takes over as head of surgery. Thankfully, his skills in treating patients haven’t suffered, but the self-medicating could be affecting his attitude.

The main difference between THE KNICK and House is that THE KNICK is not concerned with a mystery-of-the-week. It seems poised for a highly serialized plot, thankfully, that will deal with some depth among the players, as well as some of the issues of the age. Greed and bribery are running rampant, and race is a major factor in how the dynamic of the cast shapes up. These may be the go-to elements for that era, but they work well when told in an interesting, entertaining way, which THE KNICK does, surely thanks in no small part to its Oscar-winning director, Steven Soderbergh (Traffic).

THE KNICK is not boring, as some period dramas are wont to be. It does seem relatively authentic, for the most part. The costumes and set design are cool. There are some scenes that are more bloody than I’d prefer, a nod to the network it airs on, and the score is distracting at the start of the pilot, not quite in sync with what’s happening. However, these are minor gripes in the overall production, which I greatly enjoy.

Besides Owen and Frewer, both terrific performers, THE KNICK includes Andre Holland (1600 Penn) as Thackery’s new, forced-upon-him, African American deputy, Dr. Algernon Edwards, Eric Johnson (Flash Gordon) as the passed-over Dr. Gallinger, Michael Angarano (Will & Grace) as chipper Bertie, Juliet Rylance (Sinister) as overbearing benefactor Cornelia Robertson, Eve Erson (This Must Be the Place) as naïve nurse Lucy, Jeremy Bobb (The Wolf of Wall Street) as the beleaguered administrator, Chris Sullivan (The Normal Heart) as a jerk ambulance driver, Cara Seymour (An Education) as a closed-off nun, and David Fierro (Birman) as a sleazy health inspector. It’s a full, wide-ranging cast of characters, one sure to keep the story moving forward aplenty.

The writing is smart. Yes, some of the situations are fairly standard, but they’re handled in a rather clever way. For instance, the role Christenson plays in the series is interesting. Also, near the end of the pilot, there comes the moment when viewers know that Algernon must end up fully employed at The Knick, despite the obstacles that have plagued him so far. I thought I figured out what would happen, but the show dodges down a different path, showing its unpredictability.

1900 is an exciting year, with technological and medical revolutions galore. It’s the perfect place for a series like THE KNICK to unfold, adding something new to the television landscape, despite its similarities to a few different genres. Kudos to those who have crafted this beautiful show, and I look forward very much to seeing how it plays out.

Perhaps I’m not quite inspired enough to order Cinemax, which offers very few decent programs and pretty much the same slate of movies as HBO, but definitely enough to seek out all of the installments of THE KNICK wherever I can legitimately find them.

THE KNICK premieres this Friday at 10 p.m. ET on Cinemax.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

‘Louie – The Complete Season 3′ DVD Review

Article first published as ‘Louie – The Complete Season 3′ DVD Review on Blogcritics.

FX’s Louie is a very odd show. Written, directed by, and starring Louis C.K., it’s semi-autobiographical, semi-comedic, and semi-dramatic. There is nothing ‘semi-’ about its quality, though.  Perhaps best described as an extended vignettes (occasionally running into multiple episodes), interspersed with Louie C.K. stand-up bits, the show defies easy definition, but it’s always compelling, insightful, and authentic in ways no other TV show comes close.

Louie C.K. stars in Louie on FX
The third season of Louie was recently released as a three-disc DVD set. The 13 episodes run a gamut in terms of story, but the usually somber, and frequently pathetic, tone is consistent. Louie is a divorced father of two young girls who tries to date and interact with the world while maintaining a career as a stand-up comedian. A few events in this season give him hope that he can finally improve his standing, but as one expects, that never quite happens.

Louie and the Ladies

A major theme in of season three involves Louie’s interactions with females. His daughters, Lilly (Hadley Delany) and Jane (Ursula Parker) are a big part of that, of course, but he also goes on dates with various women, including Liz (Parker Posey), Maria (Maria Bamford), and Laurie (Melissa Leo, who won an Emmy for the role). Louie doesn’t understand the opposite sex, this much is clear, but he really tries. He does understand that women are all different, though, and he tries to give his daughters the freedom to be who they want to be, as long as they also end up as good people. Finding a steady girlfriend could help him provide the girls with a role model, but the task proves difficult. This is dealt with quite heavily in the two-parter, “Daddy’s Girlfriend.”

The Life of a Standup

Another thing Louie ponders is getting his own talk show. In the three-part “Late Show,” Louie interviews to be David Letterman’s possible replacement (this was before Letterman announced he was stepping down and Stephen Colbert was replacing him in real life). Finding out he may just be being used as leverage against the network’s first choice, Jerry Seinfeld (himself), Louie begins to wonder how much he really even wants the job. Should he fight for it, or is he better off staying out of the late night game, as Jay Leno (himself) advises? Louie seeks the counsel of many of his peers, but is still torn.

Does this mean Louie is afraid of success? I don’t think the real Louie is, or he wouldn’t be working so hard to make Louie. He gets complete creative control of the process, and even takes a year off or shortens a season as he sees fit, and the viewers and critics still flock back. But you have to wonder what success means to Louie the character.

Other episodes are stand-alone. Louie has a horrible day in “Something Is Wrong.” He develops an awkward friendship with a lifeguard in “Miami.” He is one of only two people to attend a funeral for a terrible guy in “Barney/Never.” He makes up (again) with Marc Maron (himself) in “Ikea/Piano Lesson.” He freaks out about seeing his estranged father in “Dad.” He confronts the death of a sister (Amy Poehler, Parks and Recreation) and travels to China in “New Year’s Eve.” All of these and more are really interesting, thought-provoking installments, and while continuity between them may not always be present, they are great in their own right.

The only complaint I have about Louie – The Complete Season 3 is the same one I’ve had about Fox’s other recent releases: no bonus features. I’m sure Louie could give us some really neat insight into his process if the studio had let him. And also, this season only gets the DVD treatment nearly two years after it finished airing, rather than a timely Blu-ray release, as past seasons have seen. Louie and Louie deserve better.

Louie – The Complete Season 3 is available now.

Friday, August 8, 2014

DVD Review: ‘American Dad! – Vol. 9’

Article first published as DVD Review: ‘American Dad! – Volume Nine’ on Blogcritics.

American Dad Season Nine episodesAmerican Dad! is Seth MacFarlane’s funniest show, at least nowadays. Perhaps that’s because Dad, Stan (voiced by MacFarlane), has grown over the years, doesn’t always have to play the moron. Or it could be that the show’s CIA work setting allows the writers to stretch their political satire muscles. Maybe it’s the presence of the space alien, Roger (also MacFarlane), who gets to observe us humans from the (literal) beyond.  The list goes on, from sarcastic goldfish Klaus (Dee Bradley Baker) to Patrick Stewart voicing Stan’s wild boss. Whatever the reason, American Dad! is pretty consistently funny. And now season nine is available on DVD from Fox Home Video as American Dad! Volume 9. Why it’s taken so long for the 2012-2013 season to be released, I’m not sure, but at least it’s here now!

The Episodes

The best of season nine can be found in the classic episodes like “Love, American Dad Style,” finds Roger crushing on Hayley (Rachael MacFarlane), something quite unexpected. And in “American Stepdad,” Roger falls for, and marries, Stan’s mother, therefore becoming his landlord’s new daddy. Also in that installment, Steve (Scott Grimes) finds a Fast and the Furious sequel script that blows the lid off the film series.

“Blood Crieth Unto Heaven” is a parody of August: Osage County, and “For Black Eyes Only” is a James Bond knock off, an appropriate movie series for this show to tackle. “Naked to the Limit, One More Time” has Jeff (Jeff Fischer) blabbing about the alien living with the Smiths, forcing Roger to consider killing him, and actually kicks off an arc only recently completed (maybe?) in season ten.
“Lost in Space” is part of that arc, taking place entirely with Jeff on a space station. Unfortunately Jeff’s journey into space is a little disappointing because it means we see the character a lot less. But thankfully American Dad! keeps to continuity, and does check in on him from time to time, as it also deals with Hayley’s separation from her husband. Part of me wishes Jeff would come back and rejoin the ensemble, but a bigger part is just happy to see such a drawn-out story on what is ostensibly a simple cartoon series.

There are also some pretty familiar plots. In “Can I Be Frank With You,” Stan and Francine’s (Wendy Scaal) relationship is tested when he spends too much time hanging out with his work buddies. “Adventures in Hayleysitting” finds Hayley babysitting her brother, Steve, and of course she’s irresponsible and things go wrong. “Finger Lenting Good” has the family trying to give up their vices and gives Roger a Cinderella story. “Spelling Bee Baby” has Francine pushing Steve into a spelling bee. In “The Boring Identity,” Francine takes advantage of Stan’s lost memories. In “Da Flippity Flop,” Stan and Klaus switch bodies. But even these tired premises are still amusing episodes, as they maintain the style and tone that works so well on a weekly basis.

In my opinion, the weakest stuff is usually when Steve is hanging out with his friends. I just don’t like those characters, and while occasionally they may get into 80s movie-inspired stories, which is the best use of them, most of the time they are just gross and sad. Ditching them would improve the overall production greatly.

The Verdict

As with the other Fox releases I’ve covered this week, American Dad! – Volume 9 has no special features. This is frustrating and feels a bit like a rip off. But the choice is either deal with it or skip the set, and being a long-time fan of the show, the former is the slightly more appealing choice.

American Dad! – Volume 9 is available now.