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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.