Friday, 5 August 2016

Billions (2016) Season 1 Review

This week, I put on my best power tie, bought low, sold high and invested an entire Sunday into watching the first season of Billions (2016) starring Damien Lewis (Homeland) and Paul Giamatti (American Splendor).

Robert "Bobby" Axelrod (Damien Lewis) is Wall Street's greatest hedge fund manager. Worth, well, billions, Bobby runs Axe Capital at such a high profit rate, you'd think there was some shady deals going on in the background to facilitate it.

You'd be right.

Enter U.S. Attorney Charles "Chuck" Rhoades (Paul Giamatti). Rhoades has made it his mission while in office to go after white collar criminals and prosecute them to the fullest letter of the law. He'll only take on cases he knows he can win, though. After an apparent slip up at Axe Capital, Rhoades finally begins to put together his case against Axelrod. Complicating matters, Rhoades' wife Wendy (Maggie Siff) works at Axe Capital as their head shrinker, creating an obvious conflict of interest. The show quickly becomes a massive game of chess with moves and counter-moves flying fast and furious back and forth.

I'll admit, this is one of the few times I've taken a blind chance with a show I knew nothing about based solely on the lead talent appearing. And, boy, am I glad I did.

Damien Lewis, usually cast as a straight-laced, military type, gets to stretch his legs here as the Wall Street icon Bobby Axelrod. Standing on desks shouting stirring speeches, punching out guys for driving his kids around drunk and buying $80 million beach houses against everyone's advice, Lewis plays Axelrod as a loose cannon who wants for nothing and answers to nobody. It's mesmerizing to watch.

Paul Giamatti, on the other hand, actually keeps himself fairly reserved for most of it. Don't get me wrong, one of the best "F" word users in show business still manages to get himself riled up on occasion, but we get to see a more subtle side to Giamatti and it's great. His cat and mouse game with Lewis is compelling, even if the two actors only share a few minutes of screen time together throughout the first season.

The nicest surprise for me after watching Billions was Maggie Siff. Caught in the middle between these two power hungry titans, Siff plays both ends of it brilliantly. It's a layered, fascinating portrayal of a character that should be hard to relate to, but somehow isn't. I'm looking forward to seeing more of Siff in season 2.

My one complaint with the show has to do with my own knowledge and experience more than anything else. I'm not a stock trader nor do I have many insights into the world of high finance. There are vast tracks of dialogue and a few plot points that sailed right over my head with all the jargon being thrown around. Occasionally, we'll have a third party character on hand representing the audience, asking what that thing is and a bit of exposition to follow, but these moments are few and far between. The over-arching plot is certainly manageable and easy to follow; Rhoades' relentless pursuit of Axelrod. But I found myself getting lost with some of the specifics. Okay, okay, with a lot of the specifics.

Still, don't let that deter you from watching this show. I went in blind, as I mentioned earlier. Had I known it was dealing with Wall Street and the U.S. legal system, I wouldn't have given this a look. I'm glad I gave it a shot as I'm eagerly awaiting season 2.

The look of the show is very well done. The opening is probably the shortest in TV history, yet it works. The snappy dialogue and subtle humour comes across like a Soderberg movie. The settings are spot on, from the shiny glass and metal edifice that is Axe Capital to the cramped and stuffy offices of the U.S. Attorney's office. The whole feel of the series will draw you in and keep you watching.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, 29 July 2016

Stranger Things (2016) Review

This week, I shut out all the lights, dragged out my blankie and favourite pillow and plopped myself on the couch to check out Stranger Things (2016), the latest (and possibly greatest) TV series from Netflix. 

Stranger Things tells the scary tale of young Will Byers' disappearance in the small town of Hawkins, Illinois, and one mother's insistence that he's still alive. To complicate matters, a young girl with the dubious name "Eleven" shows up out of the blue, barely able to speak but possessing some remarkable abilities. Throw in a trio of adventurous boys (who adopt Eleven) a shadowy government operation, a healthy dose of teen angst and set it all dancing to the tune of the supernatural, and you'll start to get an idea of what Stranger Things is all about. 

I should warn you, before you read any further, there will be spoilers. 

The performances on the show are, for the most part, superb. Millie Bobby Brown especially, who plays the enigmatic Eleven, is such a treat to watch you'll be inpatient for scenes she's not in to finish up quicker. 

The story moves along at a decent pace, giving bits and pieces of the mystery throughout and moving the main plot along while attempting to build some character development. 

In fact, some of the side plots used to fill time and flesh out the characters are my only real complaint with the show.  It's established pretty early that Will's absentee father is a douchebag. I don't think we need more scenes dedicated to this later on. Will's sister Nancy and all her teenage trials and tribulations seems to drag on forever before finally bringing her into the main story. Her interactions with the supernatural side of things are important to the story, the rest of it plays out like a series on the CW. A bad one. Her boyfriend Steve's redemption towards the end of the series doesn't work at all. They spent too much time wanting us to dislike him and gave little motivation for why he'd suddenly turn out to be a great guy after all. 

Still, the overall look, tone and feel works so well you'll assume you're watching a long movie and not a tv series. I've heard and read some people drawing comparisons to Spielberg. Other than the obvious parallels between Eleven and E.T., I don't get the feel of a Spielberg picture at all. For me, it's like John Carpenter worked closely with Stephen King and came up with a series centred on...wait for it...stranger things happening to characters we've come to know and love. Even the ending screams of King and Carpenter, with a little Twin Peaks thrown in for good measure. 

At only 8 episodes, this could be the best weekend binge watching series ever produced. I cannot recommend it highly enough. 

4.5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Why Luke Skywalker can't be a Sith Lord in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Unless you've been living in a cave on Mars with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears, you've probably seen the trailers for the upcoming (at the time of this writing) 7th film in the Star Wars saga, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

If you haven't, feast your eyes.

First teaser:

Second Teaser:

Official Trailer:

Rather conspicuous by his absence is Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill. While we get a voice over from him in the second teaser, we have yet to actually see him in any of the teasers or trailers released for the film. When co-writer and director J.J. Abrams was asked about said absence, he had this to say:

"The fact that Luke is being kept away from the promotional materials is no accident"

This has lead to rampant speculation among the fan base that Luke has, in fact, turned to the Dark Side of the Force and become a Sith Lord, like his father Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker before him.

But he can't. Or, at the very least, he shouldn't.

The problem with Luke succumbing to the Dark Side and becoming a "bad guy" is that it flies in the face of the trilogy of films that started with Star Wars (1977) and ended with Return of the Jedi (1983). The entirety of those original movies leads to the one moment in Jedi when Vader realizes his son's life is more important to him than his devotion to the Dark Side and redeems himself by ridding the galaxy of the Emperor's tyranny once and for all, saving his son's life in the process. The son that never turned to the Dark Side. The son that never gave up on his father. That last effort robs him of his own life, but finally, fully turns him away from the Dark Side at the same time, even telling Luke "You were right. Tell your sister, you were right"

Luke never gave up on the idea that his father could be brought back from the Dark Side. He felt the good in him and knew he could be redeemed. And you know what? He was right.

So now, after 30 years, Luke himself has turned to the Dark Side? That makes zero sense to me. Not from a fanboy perspective, though I'll admit to being one, but from a storytelling perspective. I want JJ and his team to come up with an original, standalone film while still continuing the story that we all know and love. I don't want him to try to rehash plot elements from the original trilogy by trapping Luke in some ridiculous cycle where the son becomes the father and must also be redeemed or some such nonsense. Luke is the plucky young hero who defied all the odds and brought his father back from the brink. If you turn him "evil" now, you undo all of that in one stroke.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Has 'Game of Thrones' Finally Jumped the Shark?

I'd like to preface this by saying I'm aware I'm going to come across as some raging-nerd-book-loving-fanboy. I only ask that you stick with me until the end.

Oh, and if you haven't watched Season 5, Episode 9 of Game of Thrones, here there be spoilers.

This week, Stannis Baratheon did the unthinkable. You all know Stannis. He's the guy that came to the aid of the Night's Watch at the Wall in defense against Mance Rayder and his massive army of Wildling warrios. He's the guy who is, by rights, the actual King of Westeros. He's the guy who, after a rocky start on the show, has come around in people's eyes and has a small legion of fans cheering for him.

Well, they were, anyway.

This week, Stannis killed his daughter. Not just his daughter, though; his only heir and the last, trueborn child of his house and bloodline. Essentially, Stannis killed his own future and any legacy he might have had. Why? Well, it was on the advice of a woman who's powers of precognition are shaky at best. She's awfully pretty, though, so maybe that's part of it. Who knows. Here's what I do know:

It never happened in the books.

I know that's getting old hat for people who only watch the show. I'm sure a lot of you are tired of hearing all the comparisons between the books and TV. Normally, I wouldn't mind changes or deviations from the source material, but this one is so far out in left field, I felt I had to say something.

Stannis, as he's been depicted on the show, is quite different from the character in the books. Creative license can do that and I've come to accept it. Until this past Sunday night, that is.

Now everyone who only watches the show hates Stannis. Me, I reserve my dislike for the writers and show runners for portraying him in this way.

You see, not only is Shireen alive and well in the books, but she didn't even join him on his march to Winterfell from Castle Black. Neither did his wife, Selyse. Nor did Melisandre, the Red Woman who goaded him into this and carried out the act herself on the show. No, all three of these characters stayed at Castle Black as Stannis deemed it too dangerous for them to march with him to war.

So why deviate so far from the books like this? I have a theory.

Every season there's been a big shocker near the season's end. Usually in episode 9, but not always. Season 1 was the death of Eddard Stark. Season 2 was the Battle of the Blackwater. Not exactly shocking, but huge. Season 3 saw the now infamous "Red Wedding" and the deaths of Robb Stark, his wife, his unborn child and his mother in extremely gruesome detail. Season 4 was Tyrion killing his father and The Hound meeting his demise at the hands of Brienne.

Now, I haven't seen the last episode of Season 5 yet, but I'm betting it's going to have a tough time topping the human sacrifice of an innocent little girl.

The reason this article mentions 'jumping the shark' is the lack of precedent for this season's shocker. In the books, each of the shocking moments that happened in those previous seasons I mentioned also happened. Some in different ways (it wasn't Brienne who did for the Hound, Robb's wife wasn't even at the wedding, etc) but each with some roots in the source material. This week? Nada.

Well, there was that one plot line in the books....

In A Storm of Swords, the third book in the series, before Stannis marched north to save the realm, he first marched on the Baratheon ancestral home of Storm's End. Once taken, Stannis came home with a ward to foster; one of his brother King Robert's few acknowledged bastards, a young man named Edric Storm. It was Edric that Melisandre wanted to sacrifce to her god because of his "king's blood". Stannis balked at first, but Davos was afraid that he might be persuaded by the Red Woman's charms. So Davos and some men loyal to Stannis smuggled Edric off Dragonstone and shipped him off to another continent to protect him. When all is said and done, Stannis didn't end up punishing Davos for defying him, but named him Hand of the King and heeded Davos' advice more clearly moving forward from that point. Even going so far as to say "He reminded me of my duty, when all I could think of were my rights".

I'm convinced the burning alive of Shireen this season was done purely for shock value. To up the ante, as it were, on a show known for it's deaths and twists. I could be wrong, of course. The guys producing the show know the broad strokes of how the story is supposed to end from the author himself. Maybe Stannis is supposed to commit some damning act later in the novels from which he can never recover. I don't know. But I do know that this particular damning act didn't happen in the books. That, more than anything, makes me think Game of Thrones has, officially, jumped the shark.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) Movie Review

This week, I strapped on my dirtiest leathers and headed out into the desert to check out Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) starring Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. It's directed by George Miller, who directed the three previous films in this franchise.

The new Mad Max: Fury Road is a pretty simple tale. Imperator Furiosa (Theron) hijacks the "War Rig" to smuggle out a bevy of beauties that are being used as broodmares for the leader of the War Boys faction, one Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne who also played the lead villain in the original Mad Max (1979)). She intends to take them to the "green land" that she remembers from her youth. Joe, not wanting to be without his harem, gives chase. Max (Tom Hardy taking over for Mel Gibson) finds himself caught in the middle of the conflict and eventually having to choose a side. I'm sure you can guess which one.

And that, friends and neighbours, is it. If you're looking for a movie with deep, layered plot points, fully fleshed-out characters with complete backstories or even a bit of dialogue and exposition, you've come to the wrong place.

If you're looking for a 2 hour car chase movie with some of the most spectacular action sequences ever put on film, grab some popcorn, sit back and enjoy the ride.

This film will set a new benchmark on the use of practical effects to tell a story. The rig and stunt work on this movie is second to none. Things actually move and explode. Lots and lots of things and, boy, do they ever explode. The look and feel of the movie with the bright saturation of colours and the amazing conglomeration of vehicles put together will have you smirking with delight throughout. It's an assualt on the senses in the truest sense of that phrase. I spent the majority of the two hours not knowing what anyone was really saying as they seemed to have a language all their own, spoke very fast and had pretty thick accents. And do you know what? I just didn't care. Because even though I paid for the whole seat I was in, I only used the edge of it...

Not all is well, though. I couldn't call myself The Bitter Critic if I didn't find something to nitpick about. Tom Hardy isn't given much to work with here as far as character development is concerend. He does the best he can with what he has, but he's the least engaging of the three major stars. Charlize Theron and even Nicholas Hoult are for more intriguing and even seem to get more screen time (and definitely get more dialogue). I didn't hate Hardy in this role, I just didn't love him in it. Since it's called Mad Max, I expected Max to take a more central role. He doesn't. This movie could've been called Imperator Furiosa: Fury Road, but that likely wouldn't have sold as many tickets.

Still, these pickings are small. I highly recommend you go to the biggest and loudest movie theatre you can find to watch this movie. I even enjoyed the 3D aspect of it, which is something I didn't think I would ever say.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Marvel's Daredevil Episode 4 Review

This week I managed to squeeze in another episode of Marvel's Daredevil on Netflix. 

We're up to episode 4 now and things are starting to get interesting.

First off, it can't be understated how violent this show is. Not only is there relentless beating of various thugs and baddies, but decapitations, suicides and even some good ol' fashioned corpse defiling. This show isn't for the faint of heart. It's dark, gritty and unrelenting. During this episode's viewing, I turned to my buddy who was watching it with me and said "Marvel finally gets a TV show right, and all they had to do was pretend they were DC". That's not to start a flame war or anything. It just details how completely different the look and feel of Daredevil is compared to everything else from Disney/Marvel.

Anyway, on to the episode. Some key elements started falling into place that will clearly build to a bigger payoff later on. Primarily, Wilson Fisk (Vince D'onofrio) was heavily featured. I have to admit, I'm not keen on his portrayal of the character thus far. The feel I get from him as he awkwardly stumbles around a social engagement before literally smashing a thug's head off with a car door is one of someone not all there mentally. I don't mean unhinged, though he's clearly that. I mean slow. This isn't the criminal underworld mastermind I was expecting to see. It's still early for He-Who's-Name-We-Do-Not-Say, so I'll give the show runners the benefit of the doubt. I'm hoping they turn it around.

Overall, the criminal element in Hell's Kitchen is starting to take notice of our intrepid hero. They've even slapped a nickname on him, calling him "the devil" which I can only assume will lead to his eventual moniker of Daredevil.

This has it's drawbacks for Matt (Charlie Cox) though as it's putting those that are helping him in the line of fire as well. Namely, our friendly neighbourhood nurse Claire (Rosario Dawson). She's kidnapped and beaten for information she doesn't have and has to be rescued a la damsel in distress by Matt, who tells her his real first name after this shared traumatic experience. The chemistry between these two is undeniable. I'm genuinely curious where it's going to go.

Even the Karen Page/Ben Urich story line following Karen's former employer and all the corruption surrounding it is keeping my interest. I had a nasty feeling it was going to start to feel like filler, but it's actually quite engaging. My guess is it will likely lead to Fisk, bringing all our introduced characters into the same arc by season's end. Time will tell, I suppose. I'm still determined to watch this show weekly and not binge it like so many others.

Until next week, friends!

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Jupiter Ascending (2015) Movie Review

This week, I decided to shift gears a little and get back to watching some movies. Since sci-fi is a particular love of mine, I thought I'd check out Jupiter Ascending  (2015) starring Channing Tatum and Mila Kunis. It's written, produced and directed by the Wachowski siblings.

To explain the plot of the film in a single paragraph would be problematic at best. This is actually one of the downfalls of Jupiter Ascending (2015).

At it's heart, it's a love story between Jupiter Jones (Kunis) and Caine Wise (Tatum). I won't spoil anything for you, but I'm sure you can guess where a love story between these two ends up. There are barely explained reincarnation issues, family squabbling and backstabbing on a truly epic scale, entire planets owned and willed as part of an inheritance for farming purposes, former soldiers stripped of rank for biting, a boyfriend trying to sell his girlfriend's unfertilized eggs and the scrubbing of many, many toilets. If none of that seems to lineup for you, you've got a pretty good idea why this movie has a hard time finding it's place and defies explanation.

The visuals in the film are amazing. The release was delayed 9 months to give the post-production team more time to put finishing touches on the VFX required. You can see exactly where this 9 months was spent. Much of the movie takes place either on huge spaceships or in grandiose palaces on foreign worlds. It's all rendered beautifully. The sound effects are expertly done as well. From a technical standpoint, this movie is great.

From a story standpoint, however, this movie is just a mess. Too many ideas shoved into too small of a space, giving short shrift to all. 

Still, the visuals and action sequences are enough to keep you in your seat until the end. Sure, some of the acting is clumsy. Eddie Redmayne is ridiculously over-the-top and Channing Tatum only has the one facial expression, apparently. Mila Kunis is good but not great and her character seems to be in constant need of rescuing at the very last minute. Whether that's from certain death or just her own very bad decisions. None of the characters are given near enough time for any true development and end up coming across as cardboard cutouts with only the most basic of motivations.

If you're bored on a Sunday afternoon and you want to watch a movie that looks and sounds incredible and no sense at all, give this one a try.

2.5 out of 5 stars.
Jupiter Ascending (2015) Movie Review
Reviewed by The Bitter Critic on April 21 2015
Rating: 2.5