Friday, August 22, 2014

Catching Up: Netflix TV Show Roundup

Tron: Uprising - season 1
Doctor Who - The Tennent years (seasons 2 - 4)
Luther - seasons 1 - 3
Red Riding Trilogy: 1974, 1980 & 1983
Star Wars The Clone Wars - season 1
Happy Endings - seasons 1 & 2

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The "Catching Up" prefix on this site is reserved for those times where David or myself wind up so deep into our viewing lists but so far behind on our reviewing that we just have clear the docket.  Chances are most of these items we watched months (perhaps over a year, even) and now we're in the position of struggling to recall just what exactly we thought of the movie and/or show.  Presented in order of viewing.

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I love Tron.  Tron is great.  It's not for everyone, but I get mesmerised every time I watch it.  I shared it with my stepson a few years back, around when he was 8.  He didn't get it.  I can't say I got it at that age (which was the age I was when it came out) but I was still dazzled.  The effects aren't quite as impressive as CGI today, but at the same time, it's a film that was created using a tremendously unique and labor intensive process that was never replicated, so it dazzles on its own merits.  Tron: Legacy wasn't the film the old fuddy-duddy Tron fans wanted, but I have a hard time figuring out exactly what they wanted or hoped for.  I for one, was equally dazzled by the deep, deep blacks and vibrant neons.  The liquid-like digital world of Legacy was beautifully realized and if the story and/or characters fell flat the visual marvel held it aloft, like the globe on mighty Atlas' back.

Tron: Uprising was Disney XD's first original program (I think), a bold effort at extending it's cinematic properties for teen-aged boys into an appealing television format.  Unfortunately, it failed miserably, which probably isn't surprising, given that the general consensus on Legacy, even from Tron fans, was that it disappointed or sucked outright.  Uprising acts as a prequel to Legacy, which ultimately extends a story the masses didn't care about in the least.  If it hadn't have been deep into production by the time Legacy hit/bombed, it likely would have been pulled altogether.

Within the world of Tron, the digital civilization inside the nebulous computer dimension, computers have developed beyond their programming into a form of sentience, while a new species of self-aware, self-generating programming have begun to rise.  The totalitarian force in place, led by Flynn's doppleganger, Clu, are trying to keep these programs from further growing, both as viable programs and in numbers, and is oppressing all of this digital society in order to do so.

Uprising largely is enjoyable across its 19-episode run, with a talented regular voice cast in Elija Wood, Mandy Moore, Emmanuele Chriqui, Lance Henricksen, Bruce Boxleitner, Tricia Helfer, Paul Reubens, Reginal VelJohnson and Nate Coddry, and some good short players, like Paul Sheer, Lance Reddick, Aaron Paul, John Glover, Donald Faison, and David Arquette among others.  The animation is jarringly unique, and at first a little unpalatable, but as you immerse yourself in its world, it's quite mesmerising.  There's an unreal texture to it all, like watching through a filter, but the surreality of it inevitably works.   Disappointingly the show's creators were rather toothless in story writing, and there are no real analogies to digital culture represented, it's more a singular take on how its young characters navigate their world of oppression and learn to reject the status quo.  The story is largely that of Tron training Beck into a guerilla resistance fighter, but the main problem is the story constantly keeps hitting the notes of Beck's rejection of Tron's teaching, and the two break up and get together again practically every other episode.  It's frustrating the lack of progression the show makes, even more so when you realize at episode 19 that that is it.  It should have progressed much further in the story (and had they known it was a finite series I'm certain a better story would have been told).  It's strongest points are the character connections to one another, as well as some pretty enjoyable action sequences every episode, while the weakest are its repetitve elements.  It is rather forgettable, but I'm tempted to dip into it again just for its dose of visual pop.

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Entering Doctor Who is at once daunting and utterly easy.  On the one hand there's 50 years of history to the character, hundreds of adventures, over a dozen different doctors, and a relatively dense mythology.  On the other hand, most of the adventures are stand-alone or requiring only a base amount of back-story (usually delivered within the adventure) and one only need enter with a healthy suspension of disbelief and a tolerance to BBC's modest effects budget to have a good time.  I watched some Doctor Who repeats on TV Ontario (our provincial version of PBS) as a pre-teen, mostly Tom Baker and Peter Davidson, but in a slapdash fashion so that I rarely saw every part of a story arc.  I was perpetually lost, but still made the effort.

I watched the Fox/BBC TV movie/pilot co-production back in the late 90's with a group of Whovians but still felt like an outsider, and when the Doctor made his triumphant return in the form of Christopher Eccleston, I actually invested myself in the whole season (airing on CBC made it readily accessible).  But I lost track of the Doctor immediately after the Christmas special, when David Tennant made his debut and I didn't return until the hype machine of his departure hit.  I watched the three specials that ended his run (feeling lost once again) and climbed back on board the Tardis with Matt Smith (at least for a year or so).  In other words, I skipped the Tennant years almost in their entirety.  Eccleston brought me back in and I wound up loving Smith's Doctor rather quickly so I didn't feel much a need to backtrack... particularly with the switch of showrunners between the 10th and 11th Doctors.

But with Matt Smith's announced departure last year, and the grand "Day of the Doctor" celebrations, I felt that I should give the Tennant years a chance.  He's considered the people's Doctor, universally loved, even if he wasn't everyone's favourite.  I went into the Tennant years with a sour attitude and an almost determined focus not to like him, but I did.  I liked him quite a bit.  Rose Tyler, though, I don't care much for.  Same with Rickey (though Mickey is okay).  Rose's mom was fun though, but I didn't like the concept that Rose wasn't just the Doctor's companion but the love of his life (at least the love of that life).  Donna was quite a surprise as a companion, someone ill-equipped for interplanetary travel and diplomacy, but with a grander purpose in the scheme of things.  Martha got majorly screwed over by the Doctor in the wake of it all, but becomes one fierce character.

While I still prefer Smith's Doctor most, the Tennant years are far more consistent creatively.  Some of finest episodes in Doctor Who's entirety happen during Tennant's run, with "Blink" being incredible mini-movie that just so happens to feature the Doctor. Any episode that features former companion Sarah Jane Smith (and K-9) are amazing (I love how happy Tennant gets when he's with her, and the moments Sarah Jane shares with other companions) and the Face of Boe has a thoroughly satisfying arc through this run.  Tennant deals well with the anxiousness he feels towards his evil alternate, the Master, and being the last two time lords alive, Tennant's Doctor is desperate for brotherhood, while the Master only seeks his demise.  Perhaps, my favourite Doctor Who episode that explores the character's mythos is "The Next Doctor", in which a seemingly moribund Tennant meets an amnesiac calling himself The Doctor (played brilliantly by David Morrissey) in the late 1800s (he's a nifty, lo-fi analog, complete with his own companion, a "sonic" screwdriver which is just a screwdriver, and a TARDIS which is a hot air balloon) and wonders if he's looking at his own future self.  By the end of the journey, Tennant earns his finest moment, at the brink of regeneration, with tears of equal joy and sorrow, uttering "I don't want to go".  Matt Smith's long face, pronounced jawline, and pronounced pep are all shocking in the transition, but Tennant's vibrant smile coming out of Eccleston's grim visage was an equally bracing adjustment.  It just goes with the territory.
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Luther was a show David told me to watch years ago, but there's no shortage of shows on my "to watch" backlog.  It took its time.  Three seasons combining for a total of 14 episodes, it wasn't intensive watching but it is, at times, and intense watch.

Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) John Luther of the Serious Crimes Unit is not a straight shooter.  He's got his own sense of morals and a penchant for bending the law.  He's not a corrupt cop, per se, but he's not a by-the-book one either, and it's this behavior that's always in danger of catching up to him.  John thinks he can bend the law to catch his perp, serial killers or perpetrators of major violent crimes, but as clever as he is, he's never thinking far enough ahead.

The first episode finds him investigating the murder of two rural Londoners, piecing all the clues together, and finding Alice Morgan guilty, but with only the barest of tangible evidence to back it all up.  Alice is a full bore sociopathic genius, and she winds up taking a shining to Luther as their cat and mouse game winds up in a draw.  She becomes equal parts guardian angel and devil in disguise for Luther, an ally and nemesis in the same package.  Their relationship is awkward and difficult, but matures and solidifies with every episode.  I disapprove of their relationship wholeheartedly which I think is what makes it so fun.  The first season is disheartening, the randomness and severity of the violence overwhelming, and the second season ratchets it up to an even higher degree, with two 2-episode arcs and a Luther embattled from all sides.

John is never for shortage of enemies, and allies are rarely good for John (or John isn't good for them) and there's a sense that John is constantly working at a deficit, but that's what makes it so compelling to watch.  Idris Elba plays Luther as cocky and cunning, tough and intimidating, but sometimes just not very smart, nor always a master tactician when working against his enemies.  Elba adopts a strut for Luthor that just seethes confidence, a man with no problem in the world, but his terminally pained face reveals otherwise. The formula of the show is pretty great, finding Luther and company always at a reaction point to whatever violence is being perpetrated that week.  As the audience we're always privy to what is happening but it takes a while, and some investigation (and occasional seedy dealing), for the police to catch up.  But once the perpetrator becomes known, the speed with which they are caught  definitely accelerates, it feels far more natural than the show's American cousins.

Luthor lives and breathes the London air.  You often hear about New York being a character rather than a setting, London is very much this in this show.  It's beautiful and menacing, forgiving and merciless, refined and run down, it promises everything and threatens to swallow them all whole.  It's definitely a UK show in flavour, but the byproduct of intensive irradiation of American police procedurals.  I love that the bad guys have guns and other weapons, but London police still do not carry firearms.  It makes for some heady confrontation and arrest sequences.  Worth re-watching, and begging for the promised film.  A prequel novel is also available.

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The Red Riding Trilogy is comprised of three movies that in a way stand on their own but together form a whole, centred around a series of kidnappings, murders and police corruption in Yorkshire county in England.  The events of the series. while fiction, occur simultaneously with the real events of the Yorkshire Ripper (also referenced in the show), and the story pulls inspiration from notable events and figures of the times in construction of its story, lending it an eerie realism amid some of the more dramatically embellished parts of its story.

Based of the novels comprising the Red Riding Quartet by David Peace, the Trilogy starts with 1974, another little girl is kidnapped and the community is in an uproar.  Andrew Garfield stars as a up-and-coming reporter sent in to investigate.  As he digs deeper, he begins to see ties to past child kidnappings, and, face-to-fist, learns of the area's police corruption.  The more he digs, the more dangerous things become, as the local unscrupulous land developer seems to be connected to it all.  This first film is dreadfully intense, overwhelmingly so, and is produced very much in the style of 70's small-town cult/conspiracy films like The Wicker Man, complete with the total bummer of an ending.   It's incredibly well-made, the best looking of the trilogy, with director Julian Jarrold providing a very grimy, grey tone overall to the region, with spatters of vibrant colours or light poking through all the gloom and grey.  He also heavily uses darkness and shadows to great effect, and shooting on 16mm film only helped to sell the 70's aesthetic.

1980 picks up with the events of the first film a fading memory, focusing less on continuing the investigation started by Andrew Garfield's reporter, and instead looking back on the Yorkshire Ripper investigation when it appears he's struck again.  A London Assistant Chief Constible (Paddy Considine) is charged with forming a task force stationed in the region.  He had been there before, investigating events depicted in the previous film, an investigation he had to leave after his wife had a miscarriage.  So amid his delving into old Ripper case files, he can't help but dredge up his past investigation, learning that there may be a connection.  He's all too aware of the corruption among the region's police force, but underestimates just how far they will go to cover their tracks.  There's a sense of optimism to 1980 that 1974 didn't have, I think mostly because Considine's character is senior in the police hierarchy that he should be more effective at cutting through a lot of the corruption or working around it.  But the fact is he gets just as mired in it as Garfield's reporter character, inescapably so.  The use of peripheral and connective characters here is brilliant.  It is a disconnected story in procedural sense, of what is being investigated, but it starts to build the series' Yorkshire landscap in ways that don't just repeat what happened before.  If there's any let down in the plot, it's that Considine's character, set up to be "squeaky clean", has a vulnerable point in the form of an affair with a coworker which gives the forces of corruption leverage on him.  It's an unnecessary element, a little too cliche, and I think had he been utterly squeaky clean the oppressiveness of the corruption around him would feel even greater.


The Trilogy comes to a close with 1983, told from the perspective of David Morrissey's character, a Detective Inspector with a small part in 1974, and was part of the task force in 1980.  What makes this unique is he's a fully entrenched part of the corruption, but when children once again start to go missing his conscience starts to weigh down on him.  His investigation into the disappearances mirrors that of Mark Addy's schlubby solicitor, who reluctantly starts investigating after a casual meeting with a neighbour from his childhood home yields some curious coincidences to another case file of his.  Addy's father was a West Yorkshire policeman, and he'd long heard the rumours of his father's own corruption.  Just like Morrissey's DI, his conscience won't let him drop the case.  This third film switches between these two characters, with interludes featuring BJ, a male prostitute seen briefly in the shadows of the previous two movies offering insight into the darkest regions of Yorkshire.  This film deals head on with the child kidnappings, which sort of got scuttled to the side in the first film, and having little exposure within the second film.  Child abuse and its impact lead to the somewhat cathartic resolution of the Trilogy, but there's still no real happy ending.  The police corruption is never fully dismantled on screen (though you can see from the pieces placed how it might all crumble), which is dissatisfying and leads me to believe that there's still perhaps another film or trilogy waiting in the wings (or perhaps it's just the truth that the power corrupts, and that it's impossible to fully weed out).

Overall, the Red Riding Trilogy is fascinating, if somewhat dark and disheartening viewing.  I have to wonder if the creators of the recent HBO show True Detective were inspired by this, as there are a lot of similarities (though I would indeed say that I though Red Riding Trilogy was better, if only by a slight margin).  The performances are all quite amazing (particularly Garfield and Morrissey), and the weave of the overall Trilogy is something to take in, certainly unlike any other crime drama that I've seen.  I liked it even though it bummed me the fuck out.

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Like many a fan of old, I too became quite disillusioned with Star Wars as a property.  Where once I was a purchaser of every new toy on the shelf, of every comic book, novel, magazine, soundtrack, and fast-food tie-in knick-knack,  it wasn't that the Prequel Trilogy failed to live up to expectations (which they did) that killed it for me, but the overwhelming glut of peripheral material the meant being a Star Wars fan should an all encompassing experience.  I soured on Star Wars in the build up to Episode II, and suffered through the remaining two movies (though, I did feel that Episode III somewhat redeemed the endeavour, but I'm not getting into that now) still desperately wanting to be a fan.

The brightest spot in Star Wars during the first decade of this millennium was the Cartoon Network Clone Wars shorts from Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky.  They featured all of Tartakovsky's great Samurai Jack-isms, and were excellent bite-sized nuggets of mood and action.  Basically it was the best parts of the Prequels without all that poorly-acted  melodrama, dry political manoeuvring, and silly Jar-Jar/C-3PO kid-bait.  I loved it.  So it was disappointing to me to see them trot out a new Clone Wars movie in the theatres as prelude to a new TV series that was a) digitally animated in a chunky, unappealing style, b) not directed or involving Tartakovsky in any way, and c) featured a new, young, brash (and, at least from previews, highly annoying) protege for Anakin in the form of Ahsoka.Tano.  Basically I thought they were even further gearing Star Wars towards a children's audience.

This is me eating crow.  Over the past few years, I have caught a random episode or five of The Clone Wars and found them to be not only tolerable but mildly enjoyable and surprisingly not patronizing.  I wasn't ready to give in to regular viewings though.  It was actually upon the recommendation of a coworker (a non-Star Wars nerd) that I decided to give it at shot, and what's more, make it family viewing with my 12- and 5-year-old.

I recall the reviews of the pilot/movie were underwhelming, and it's true, Ahsoka is crammed into being part of series and kind of grates from the get go (the sheer fact is she's Anakin's padawan and it's not even brought up in Episode III that he had one).  The plot of the film is thin, with the young Jedi's on a mission to rescue Jabba the Hutt's kidnapped son, but it features some absolutely cracking action sequences, including a wall climbing fire fight that's as stunning as anything seen in the live action films.  That sequence alone was enough for me to buy into the rest of the series.

The first season of The Clone Wars gets off to a slow start, in that there's plenty of action throughout each of the early episodes, but they feel like one-offs, and there's no cohesive glue.  Midway through the season the show starts exploring multi-part episodes, and gains more confidence in developing the characters beyond what we know of them from the Lucas films.  Ahsoka comes into her own as a realized character, Anakin is portrayed as conflicted in a much less ham-fisted way than the Prequels, and the first season gives many of the background Jedi and other characters more prominent roles.  The show even develops unique identities for the clone troopers like Rex and Cody, giving them each distinguishing colour markers on their uniforms.  As the first season goes on, it becomes less reliant on connecting itself to the original trilogy, and less concerned with bridging the gap between Episodes II and III, instead feeling more at ease to weave its own story, and make the characters and their relationships work (the Anakin/Padme thing still doesn't quite have much chemistry to it, so it largely avoids their dynamic in the first season.  Were I to bet at a secret affair without foreknowledge, it would've been Anakin and Ahsoka for sure).

There are some great episodes in the first season, all in the back half (like the episode where Rex and Cody root out the traitor in their midst, or the Ryloth Trilogy which tells a large story through three compartmentalized episodes), and by the end it's found its groove.  The Clone Wars fans out there have long said it's worth investing in, even for the lapsed and jaded Star Wars fan, and I'm inclined to agree.  The Prequels didn't destroy Star Wars, not irreparably anyway.  The concepts in Episodes I through III are all quite sound (as this io9 editorial observes), but Lucas' execution of the central story, Anakin's journey, is where it failed and fell apart through bad acting, poor direction, and unfortunate choices made.  Clone Wars the cartoon isn't focussed solely on Anakin, it's telling the story of the Clone Wars in which he is a character, and by making him a part of the ensemble, rather than building the whole series around him, it serves the franchise well, and actually gives the appropriate sense of scope to the fabled battles mentioned in the original films.

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For a few years I was an avid daily reader of the Onion AV Club website, which was easily the best online source for cinematic and television criticism and pop-culture commentary.  It's still a pretty good site with great writers, but ever since the entire movie staff got poached by Pitchfork to form The Dissolve, it just hasn't been the same essential go-to source.  I'm more of a casual observer these days than a devotee.  That said, their television writing staff is tops online, if only because their opinions conform so often with my own it's kind of scary.  I barely have any quibbles with what they say (certain episodes of Community Season 5 notwithstanding).

For any reader of the site, you know AV Club champions certain shows, many of which align with my own viewing interests.  But one show they were constantly trumpeting, and then actively bemoaning the loss of, was Happy Endings.  Despite my trust in them as writers, I for some reason had an absolute mental block when it came to that show... I just couldn't see past it being a latter-day Friends knock-off and wouldn't give it's cast of attractive 20-somethings any leniency, despite having a mild crush on Casey Wilson from her short stint on SNL and enjoying Adam Pally's "Bro" appearances on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast.  I just had this stick in my craw about Elisha Cuthbert and another Wayans kid for some reason which I can't even justify now.

Suffice it to say, like the Clone Wars above, I was wrong.  Even more wrong I would say than I was about the Clone Wars, I would say.  Happy Endings comes out the gate strong (it's pilot is directed by producers Joe and Anthony Russo, who also did Community's pilot and paintball episodes went on to much acclaim with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, if you didn't know).  Live every network comedy, it's formed around the premise that Dave (Zachary Knighton) is left at the altar by Alex (Cuthbert) and resolving that the group of friends won't be damaged by it.  By episode 2, the gang is hanging out together with only a slight amount of tension residing between Dave and Alex (but this is because the more awkward moments are in episodes buried in the middle of the season as they were weaker and thus aired out of order as networks are wont to do... I wonder if they're in order on the DVD releases?).

The Dave-and-Alex thing crops up frequently through the first two seasons, not so much a "will-they-or-won't-they" but rather a "should-they?".  But even when those moments do come up it's never the center of an episode.  The episodes are almost always formed around things that have minor to no real consequences for the characters, which makes for a rather light and fun atmosphere to visit within.  I respect a show that actively diffuses any potential awkward situation and refuses to play the awkward-as-comedy game (though I certainly appreciate that kind of humour as well).  A favourite early episode deals with the artist illegally living in the crawlspace above Dave and Max's apartment (it's just a shame he wasn't a re-ocurring character) and a season 2 episodepresents one of the absolute best Halloween costume-as-comedy gags ever which interferes with both Max and Penny's abilities to pick up at a party (I won't spoil it because it's hilarious).

What works best for Happy Endings is how well-realized its characters are, and how well defined they are almost from start.  Alex owns her own store and is always up for a challenge, but she's also a variation on the dumb blonde.  She's not full-stop Phoebe airhead dumb or "white out on the computer monitor" stupid, just often slow to catch on or oblivious to deeper meanings and contexts. Unlike all the other actors, it takes a while for Cuthbert to ease into what her role is exactly.  Eliza Coupe plays Jane, Alex's sister, and she's my favourite character on the series.  Jane is a focussed, anal-retentive taskmaster, and is successful because of it.  But she's also got a party-girl history and a mean competitive streak, all of which the other characters toy with constantly.  Jane is married to Damon Wayans Jr.'s Brad, and their dynamic is incredible.  They have a playfulness that rings true to real couples, and they continually manage to avoid the stereotype of married couples whose spouse constantly irritates them. These two love each other and love everything about each other, especially the quirks that tend to annoy everyone else (it makes sense why they're married), and their sex-in-public troubles are a great running gag.  Brad is a goof, but with utter confidence in his goofing around.  He's not easily embarassed because he has utter belief in how cool he is, without being a dink about it.  Brad also has a tendency to drop his pants (sometimes in order to entice Jane, but just as often for fun or comfort).  Brad being black and in a mixed race couple comes up perhaps more than it would normally in real life, but the little struggles that Brad has with race are the only flaws in his armor.  Brad is best friends with Max (Pally), a gay man the show is determined to bust every gay stereotype with.  If the show falters at all early on it's with the constant repetition that Max is gay, but eventually they just settle into him being a gay character.  Max is a loafer, has no job (he eventually starts a limo company with an old '80's limo he buys), eats insane amounts of food, and is generally quite juvenile (he's generally the instigator for the really off-beat and goofy things that happen in the show).  The short romances they give Max all generally are pretty great, and speak to the character as a person seeking love and not hammering home gay cliches.  Penny (Wilson) is Max's BFF. They dated in high school.  Penny is a successful career woman, but terminally single because she constantly tries to change herself for her boyfriends.  Though the show never gets too deep into the characters' psyches, Penny is unhappy with herself so she compensates with a desperate need for attention.

The relationships these characters share with each other, and how they develop further throughout the series are all great, and it's a thoroughly good time.  It never gets to heavy even when it starts to focus in on the real problems these characters face.  There's always an aside or quip to undercut the drama.  That's kind of what you want out of a comedy show, quite frankly.  The first few episodes of the second season seem to hold back on the goofier elements of the characters and their collective quirkiness, as if they were trying to reshape the show for a new audience.  But by the Hallowe'en episode it returns fully to form and launches into great stories like Penny's jealousy when Max's other ex-girlfriend visits, Penny's efforts to change a guy instead of herself, everyone preparing for Brad and Jane's "Spring Smackdown", or Dave and Max dealing with the bully at the gay gym.

It's not a perfect comedy, and not as clever or outre as some, but the characters are great, it's warm, welcoming, and non-threatening.  I understand why its loss was so bemoaned.  It had life. But there's still season 3 for me to watch, so I'm not ready to bemoan it yet.