Umbrella Academy: a review

I am the first to admit to superhero TV/movie burnout. And yet in a matter of days, my husband and I binged watched Umbrella Academy season 1, a Netflix original production (10, 1 hour episodes). I was curious about it because it stars a few actors, Ellen Page (Juno), Tom Hopper, (Black Sails), and Robert Sheehan (Misfits), whom I simply adore. When I found out that the Rosebud Motel from Schitt’s Creek made an appearance as well, I was sold!

Umbrella Academy is based on a superhero comic book and centres on the Hargreeves family. They are an estranged group of adult adopted siblings with powers who reunite for their father’s funeral and to avert an apocalypse.

 

 

Over the course of 10 episodes we jump between the past via flash back (maybe a bit of time-travel too) and the present. We learn the strange circumstances that brought these 7 people together as infants. We discover what drove them apart years later. All this happens while the mysteries surrounding their father’s death and the return of their long lost brother (Number 5) are resolved.

I thought the pacing was leisurely but the stylistic touches to the sound design, the seemingly random insertion of dance numbers, quirky sets and skillful action sequences (of which there are plenty) held my interest.  There is good character development, wry humour, gracefully choreographed fight scenes, a bit of romance and a brilliant soundtrack.

I think the performances are great. I didn’t realize how much I missed Robert Sheehan’s character Nathan from Misfits until I saw echoes in his portrayal of Klaus (Number 4). Special mention goes out to Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton as an odd-couple team of assassins, delightfully and respectively named Cha-Cha and Hazel, in relentless pursuit of Number 5.

I think super hero fantasy genre is a great way to frame what is essentially the story of a dysfunctional family. It was Tolstoy’s iconic opening of Anna Karenina (All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way) that put a spotlight to our societal fascination with this recurring theme. In Umbrella Academy, you get this and so much more.

This show is not particularly groundbreaking in its themes (X-men anyone?) or plots. Yet it combines so many familiar things into a great package. If you are looking for a show with a fun blend of characterization, stylistic action and plot threads with twists that are pretty easy to follow, then you might want to check this out sometime before Netflix releases season 2.

Schitt’s Creek: More Fun from CBC

 

I must be on a CBC comedy binge. This show has been on my radar for the last few years. I watched the first episode when it aired and was too busy at the time to follow up, despite enjoying it well enough. Being a huge fan of Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara kept this show at the back of my mind, so when I read Glen Weldon’s recent NPR review and realized that there were 4 seasons, available on Netflix, to catch up on, I figured it was now or never.

Am I ever glad I chose now. This show is a fun fish-out-of-water/dysfunctional family hybrid. The Rose family lands in the titular small town after their fortune is mishandled by their business manager. Father, Johnny (Eugene Levy), founder of Rose Video, a once leading video rental chain, tries to keep it together. He does his best to assure his family that a return to the life of luxury is still within their reach. His wife Moira (Catherine O’Hara), a faded soap opera star, is fueled by his assurance. Their adult son David (Dan Levy) and daughter Alexis (Annie Murphy) seemed resigned to their new circumstances and struggle to find a new purpose.

Watching the Rose family cling to their battered pride as they make 2 rooms at the local motel their new home is simply a delight. They are truly clueless to the extreme and yet the locals just take it in stride with minimal exasperation and loads of gentle patience tinged with compassion.

And before you know it, friendship and romance abounds with a comedic flair. This family has its problems but there are flashes of great love and understanding. Nowhere better is that seen than between David and Alexis. In a blink we see them pivot from pushing each other’s buttons to watching each other’s backs to guarding each other’s hearts. And we witness all this while they are sharing a room in a pretty bare bones motel.

The acting is outstanding. Eugene Levy’s Johnny is a slow simmer as he adapts to his new life, working in a motel. Dan Levy’s David is a basket of self aware insecurity struggling to find purpose in a world without a safety net. Annie Murphy’s Alexis is a party girl who always seems to land on her feet, despite a history of questionable choices. Catherine O’Hara’s not quite (but pretty darn close) over-the-top Moira is a walking affectation. It is her bizarre diction combined with her bold over-dressed fashion choices and multitude of wigs that shield her from the harsh new reality of life in Schitt’s Creek.

In addition to the family at the centre of this show, there is a strong supporting cast that includes my favourite, Stevie Budd ( Emily Hampshire), the perpetually amused and amusing motel clerk.  Her plaid shirts and faded jeans make her a kindred spirit to me but I truly love her hint of a smile as she kindly guides the Roses without indulging them.

Between Netflix and CBC Gem, It didn’t take long to binge 56 episodes (21 minutes each) and catch up with the current CBC broadcast of season 5. This show is a terrific example of how great Canadian TV can be. If you are looking for a fun wry comedy that offers quirky characters room to grow, I hope you give this a try.

 

Kim’s Convenience: a fond review

I am not sure why it has taken me so long to finally watch this wonderful, Canadian produced TV show. I think it was all the promo spots that I was seeing, in anticipation of the launch of Season 3, in addition to the endorsement of NPR’s Kat Chow (of my beloved Pop Culture Happy Hour and Code Switch podcasts) that finally got me to select this title on Netflix. In a matter of a week I watched all 26, 21 min-episodes of the first 2 seasons. In no time I was caught up to join the rest of Canada as CBC aired the Season 3 premiere.

Kim’s Convenience is equal parts work place and family comedy. Father “Appa” (Paul Hyung-Sun Lee) and Mother “Umma” (Jean Yoon) Kim are Korean Canadian’s who run a convenience store in a diverse Toronto neighbourhood. Their daughter, Janet (Andrea Bang) helps out when she isn’t too busy with school. She is a photography student at The Ontario College of Art and Design. And then there is her brother Jung (Simu Liu), who is estranged from his father. He seems to have outgrown his juvenile delinquency and works at a rental car agency with his best friend and roommate Kimchee (Andrew Phung).

This show rings true to the North American immigrant experience. It is based on a successful play of the same name, written by Ins Choi. Much of the humour in this series illuminates cultural in addition to generational divisions. As the Canadian born daughter of Eastern European immigrants, I can relate wholeheartedly.

Alongside the brilliant core of actors, who portray the Kim family, this show has a wonderful supporting cast of friends and community members/store regulars. In addition to Kimchee, I have particular fondness for Janet’s friend Gerald (Ben Beauchemin), Pastor Nina (Amanda Brugel), and Jung’s boss Shannon (Nicole Power).

If you are looking for a family friendly comedy that is gentle, kind, respectful, funny but by no means saccharine and gives space for character development, I would highly recommend Kim’s convenience.

Baroness Von Sketch Show: a Love Letter

It has been a while since I posted a blog. I guess I was waiting for something that I haven’t written about already to inspire me. Well, the launch of Baroness Von Sketch Show’s 3rd Season is reason enough.

Despite heavy promotion on CBC since its 2016 inaugural season, it took me a while to watch it. I finally gave it a try when the first 2 seasons were available on demand, just over a year ago. I binged all 13 episodes (22 minutes each) in a matter of days and wished there were more. Well now there are, hurray! I have been faithfully watching the current season and am still awestruck at the genius of this show.

This show is created by and features Carolyn Taylor, Meredith MacNeill, Aurora Browne, and Jennifer Whalen. These women are brilliant writers who speak to my soul. They take a commonplace situation (my favourite in S1E01 is the signing a sympathy card at the office, too bad that video clip is not readily available online), find the humour in it and push it to the limit. Their knack for timing ranks with some of the greatest sketch performances. They are brilliant actors. Their physicality ranges from nuanced facial expressions to pratfalls. Laughing out loud is a rare treat that is guaranteed with every episode I watch. And I am not the only one who thinks so. The Baronesses have been embraced by major media outlets such as The New York Times and The Walrus.

Words are insufficient, so I will let these brilliant women show you with some of my favourite sketches linked below. Or you can check them out on Netflix (at least in Canada) or CBC online or Youtube (A NSFW warning is required, some of the language and situations are crude).

 

 

Speechless: a review

It has been a very long time since I sat down and watched a family comedy with any regularity. Truth be told, I think that would have been Malcolm in the Middle’s inaugural season back at the turn of the century. In the current age of peak TV, with so little time, there is always something good that you are going to miss out on. My tastes generally lean towards dark comedy that is peppered throughout TV dramas such as Better Call Saul. So it may come as a surprise to see me gushing over Speechless.

Speechless is an ABC comedy that revolves around the working class DiMeo family. Maya (Minnie Driver) and Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) are parents to J.J. (Micah Fowler), Ray (Mason Cook) and Dylan (Kyla Kenedy). Eldest son, J.J. has cerebral palsy. He is non-verbal, wheelchair dependant and requires a personal aide worker, Kevin (Cedric Yarbrough), at school. Watching the every day struggles of this family with the added complications of advocating for people with disabilities in an atmosphere of love and humour is such a joyful experience. I wish I started watching this sooner, but better late than never.

I first heard of this TV show when the pilot episode was made available as a free download via iTunes. I downloaded it for a couple of reasons, it was free and I absolutely adore Minnie Driver (ever since my first big screen encounter, Circle of Friends) but I never got around to watching it. Then my beloved Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast featured it alongside This is Us. I liked what I heard about it; alas I had too much to watch at the time. Since everyone at work was talking about This is Us, I decided to jump on that band wagon (glad I did) first. Speechless remained at the back of my mind. Then came March Break and a long flight home. What should I find but the first 4 episodes of Speechless available as inflight entertainment. I binged it and was hooked. Since then I have caught up because 2 seasons worth of episodes (23+18) are replayed most evenings on Canada’s Family Channel.

Speechless has much of the quirky charm that made Malcolm in the Middle so endearing. I love that Speechless eschews a laugh track. The writing is super clever (as opposed to a string of cultural references that often passes as comedy) and it deftly manages to flesh out each member of this scrappy family beyond the usual TV sit-com formula. Sure Maya is a mama bear and Jimmy is pretty laid back but there is more to them than that. We see Maya bulldozing through as she advocates for her eldest son’s needs. She is often oblivious to the needs of her other children. Her forceful and flawed nature is tempered with humour and charm. Jimmy stands back and watches, most of the time. Yet in doing so, he sees all. His timely yet gentle interaction with each of his children, often 1-on-1, strikes a brilliant balance. Despite being non-verbal, J.J. is in no way non-communicative. With the use of a word board and laser pointer we hear him loud and clear. His personality is mischievous, sarcastic and the endless sibling rivalry is hilarious to watch. Youngest child Dylan seems to channel her anger and energy in athletics with a furious passion to win. Middle child Ray is such a nervous rule follower. He is constantly at odds with the rest of his family. We watch his pain as he gets roped into family schemes as they navigate a complicated bureaucracy of school administrators and insurance adjusters.

A part of me can relate to many of these characters. I have a soft spot for Maya, she’s an imperfect take charge kind of mom. I can also relate to Ray, as a young person striving for the things out of his reach due to stark financial hardship. The DiMeo’s make no secret of how expensive it is to have chronic health problems in the USA these days and yet this show never gets preachy about it. This show is often zinger after zinger, with some physical comedy thrown in that really cracks me up.

This show is the brainchild of Scott Silveri (best known as a writer on Friends) who modeled the DiMeo’s after his own family that included a brother with cerebral palsy. This show is nuanced in how it treats people with special needs. It deserves kudos in all its casting, bust special mention to Micah Fowler, who also has cerebral palsy, as J.J. If you are looking for a show that has depth in its characters and themes and will also make you chuckle, then this is definitely worth a try. I am eagerly anticipating its return this fall for a 3rdseason and will have my PVR set for it.

Game Night: a review

I watched Game Night again last night. The first time was at the theatre with my daughters and we enjoyed it so much that I was looking forward to watching it again with my husband and friends. So last night, despite knowing what was going on I was still laughing it up with friends and feeling the suspenseful tension of a superb film.

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are an ultra competitive married couple who host a monthly game night party for a group of friends. When Max’s brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) comes back to town, sibling rivalry rears its head. Brooks can’t help trying to hijack game night and putting his spin on it. No charades or board games, he hires a murder mystery company and chaos ensues. What is staged? What is real? And what is up with the creepy neighbour (Jesse Plemons)? I usually embed a trailer in my movie reviews but I just couldn’t this time. The trailer simply spoils many of the best gags and moments of suspense. I am afraid to say more about the plot because part of the fun is watching it unfold.

Game Night is a wonderfully crafted suspenseful comedy.  Rachel McAdams, Jason Bateman and Kyle Chandler are so charming and hilarious. Jason Bateman is doing what he does so well and has become his signature, the put upon every man surrounded by a bunch of wacky friends. Rachel McAdams needs to do more comedies, she is so fun to watch. This movie is packed with jokes (funny lines and visual gags) while it has you trying to figure out what the heck is going on. I am glad I watched it again, catching things I missed due to raucous laughter in the theatre the first time around.

So if you want to see a clever film that has you laughing out loud from start to finish while you try to follow all the twists then I highly recommend Game Night.

 

Love, Simon: a review

 

I still enjoy romantic films set in high school, especially when they have an air of authenticity. There are so many that I love that I cannot pick a favourite. I know that may seem pretty weird at my advanced middle age. But I admit, I will stop dead in my tracks if I stumble across any of the following films on TV: Pretty in Pink, Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, Sixteen Candles, Lucas, Some Kind of Wonderful, 13 Going on 30, Juno, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist….to name a few.

I had heard lots of good things about Love, Simon,  so I suggested to my daughters that we check it out at the theatre. My husband probably would have joined us if it hadn’t been a work day for him. What a sweet – yet at times sad – but over all fun –  film that left more than one of us battling a few tears (mostly of joy).

 

This film is about a gay romance, lending a refreshing change to the usual formula. Simon is a closet gay high school student. We spend the first half of the film getting to know him and his friends. Then Simon starts an online correspondence with another closeted gay teen from his school. Because they use aliases, their identities and relationship is a secret to everyone. That is until Simon forgets to log off a school computer. The aftermath of this unfortunate oversight propels the second half of the film to a very satisfying, well-earned conclusion.

This movie has witty yet realistic dialogue. There is great acting from its young cast. Nick Robinson is charmingly awkward as the titular character. His core friend group is made up of distinct personalities with Katherine Langford and Jorge Lendeborg JrKatherine Langford and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. as Leah and Nick, respectively, 3 pals since kindergarten. Abby, the new girl, played by Alexandra Shipp adds a wild streak to this otherwise low-key group. These young actors are convincing in their portrayal as a tight-knit group of friends. Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel do a genuinely heartfelt turn as Simon’s parents. Their struggle as parents is very relatable.

Despite a more progressive and supportive environment than I ever witnessed first hand in high school [cough, cough, 30-some years ago, cough] coming out, as portrayed in this film, is clearly a very stressful and deeply personal journey. This movie succeeds in taking you along for that ride. I am glad that this film got a wide, mainstream theatrical release. I am thrilled that my daughters were keen to see it. I am delighted that it is deservedly well-reviewed. I guess I can add Love, Simon to the titles listed above. I would watch it again, anytime.

UnREAL: a review

 

I recently binge-watched UnReal with my youngest daughter over a couple of weeks. I decided to take a chance when I saw season 1 on sale for $4.99 on iTunes. At 50 cents an episode, I could afford to take a chance. I was vaguely aware of it as a critically lauded series created by Marti Noxon (writer and executive producer of my beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (former producer on The Bachelor). When I heard from a friend (who knows someone in the business) that this show is a very realistic depiction of reality TV “sausage-making“, I was intrigued.

I should be clear that I really can’t stand watching reality TV, so a peek behind the curtain was sheer schadenfreude. I should be ashamed. Truly, but I am not, because this show is so well-written, brilliantly acted and thematically layered. UnReal is a show about a Bachelor-like dating competetion reality TV show called Everlasting.  The heart of this show is a complex relationship between 2 women, the show runner Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and her frontline producer and protege Rachel (Shirt Appleby). These women are exceedingly good at their jobs. However, their jobs require them to be horrible. And yet, the TV audience can’t get enough! Unfortunately, normalization of their horrible behaviour takes a toll on their lives.

UnREAL is a very nuanced example of competence porn TV with more than a hint of soapiness. It is funny, sad, shocking, vulgar, abrasive and thematically rich. Shiri Appleby shines as highly conflicted and psychologically damaged Rachel, Everlasting’s top producer. Constance Zimmer’s portrayal of tough-as-nails Quinn is in a category of her own (Emmy nomination 2016 well deserved). We glimpse rare moments of frailty when Quinn pushes Rachel away. Their frequent separations are thankfully (for us) short lived. Rachel’s personal life is so dysfunctional, her only constant is her work. The themes woven into this workplace dramedy include, friendship, ageism, racism, feminism, romance, all with tons of mind boggling physcological manipulation.

My daughter and I can’t get enough of UnREAL. Thankfully, while binge-watching earlier episodes, I remembered to set the PVR for its return. So now we have added UnREAL, season 3 to our weekly TV watch. Waiting a week between episodes after watching the first 20 in such a short time is a struggle but we are managing. If you like dark TV dramedies with women at the helm, this show is worth a look.

 

Black Panther: a review

I went to see Black Panther with my husband and teenage daughters last evening in a packed theatre. The patrons were of  all ages. My husband and I were eager to see this film more than our kids were, but no matter. We all had a good time. Even my youngest enjoyed it and she is the least enthusiastic about superhero films.

My knowledge of this Marvel Universe comic book hero was pretty limited to the overall positive buzz surrounding this films release.

This film is an origin story and succeeds beyond my expectations. The film opens with an GGI animated sequence and the voice of a father narrating a bedtime story which serves as exposition. We hear a brief history of (fictional) Wakanda, an isolationist African country that hides its technological sophistication from the world. The advancement of this society is possible due to a meteorite made of (fictional) vibranium, which is a powerful and desirable metal. The king of Wakanda is also a superhero, the titular Black Panther, aided by his suit made of this precious metal. Soon after the narration is over, we meet our hero, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as he is preparing to be declared king in the wake of his father’s death. He is challenged by others for the right to rule over a nation of 5 tribes. To complicate matters further, he has to deal with an attack from an outsider who risks exposing the truth about Wakanda’s technological advancement. To say more would risk spoiling the plot. Most of the film takes place in Wakanda. A country not only ruled by a superhero king, but also protected by an army of fierce warrior women, the Dora Milaje, lead by Okoye (Danai Gurari).

The acting is pretty outstanding and the cast is star studded (Chadwick Boseman, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, Martin Freeman, Sterling K. Brown, Andy Serkis, Forest Whitaker). The supporting characters are distinctly defined in their portrayals. I especially enjoyed that the women are fierce and strong, physically and mentally. There are no damsels in distress here.

There is a lot to like in this film. The plot is easy to follow, more so than the average superhero film. The narrative is well paced and  includes interesting action sequences (including vehicular chases that in lesser films bore me to tears) and well-choreographed fights that didn’t try my patience. Thankfully this film avoided scenes of endless urban infrastructure destruction that I find tedious. The CGI and cinematography are quite beautiful. There is clearly joy in the representation of different aspects of African culture that we see. The soundtrack by Kendrick Lamar is seamlessly integrated and catchy.

The many themes of this film include colonialism and systemic racism, protectionism, loyalty, revenge, complexity of family relationships and a there is even a hint of romance. The story is told in a relatively serious fashion with a bit of humour here and there. It is certainly not full of big laughs as one expects in other Marvel franchises (Guardians of the Galaxy).

I am glad this film is doing well at the box office and that my whole family was entertained by it. My only regret is that I waited this long to see it.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: a review

 

When I first learned that Martin McDonagh had made another movie and it was starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, as well as Sam Rockwell, I was pretty excited. I really love his previous film, In Bruges; however, I could take or leave his subsequent film, Seven Psychopaths. The overall buzz for Three Billboards was pretty positive. When it got nominated for multiple Oscars, including best picture; I knew I was going to see it. So I did, last weekend with a friend. We were one of the last to be seated in a packed art-house theatre filled with middle aged (or older) patrons. All I can say was this film was not for me. But the rest of the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves, as there was much communal laughter. I think I laughed out loud once. Sigh.

 

I really wanted to like this film (and not jut because Frances McDormand’s character has the same undercut hairstyle that I have been rocking for over 20 years). The fault is not in the performances. The 3 main characters were skillfully portrayed. Without getting too spoilery, I guess I had seen other movies (Manchester by the Sea and Wind River) with similar themes involving loss of a child that I thought were more engaging and moving. I guess timing is everything.

I found the use of certain themes problematic such as Peter Dinklage’s short stature as a punch line. What a waste of great talent and charisma! The casual references to racism and homophobia were also problematic when applied to officer Dixon (portrayed by Sam Rockwell) whom the writer/director thought was worthy of a degree of redemption. I don’t think Dixon earned it in the film I saw. I felt like I spent a lot of time with some pretty unpleasant characters, who were neither interesting nor entertaining.

This is a movie about rage and how irrational and destructive it can be. I just don’t see what Academy voters and most critics are seeing as so special about it. I really wasn’t surprised or wowed by the story and it was hard to care for most of the characters. (Currently hoping Get Out will win best picture)

I know some of my friends who have seen the movie have enjoyed it and that has lead to some interesting discussions. In goes to prove that not everything is for everyone.

I have included some links below to eloquent Twitter discussions that elaborate on some of the problematic elements I touched upon. Just be warned, they are full of spoilers.

 

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