Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Winter's Best New TV Bets: NBC & FOX

NBC Mid-Season:
Allegiance | The peacock’s answer to the FX series “The Americans” centers on a newly recruited CIA analyst (Gavin Stenhouse) who learns his parents (Hope Davis, Scott Cohen) and sister (Margarita Levieva) are part of a Russian sleeper cell of spies. Despite the storyline's complexity, it's difficult to imagine it having the legs to last in a long term capacity. Nonetheless, it is still a compelling premise and if handled with diligent pacing it could prove to be a taut mystery series similar to the network’s big hit “The Blacklist”. One of the stars of “Allegiance”, Margarita Levieva, already proved she could handle some hard core fight sequences when she guest starred on “The Blacklist” last year. It could be a positive sign of things to come from this freshman series. Premiere Date: Feb 5

Aquarius | David Duchovny stars in this mystery series set in 1967 Los Angeles. It like several others on this list is currently billed as a 13-episode mini-series event. Are you picking up on a theme here? Duchovny’s first TV project since the end of “Californication”; he plays a police sergeant investigating a series of missing persons case with the aid of an undercover officer (Grey Damon) posing as a hippie during the crest of Hait-Ashbury’s subculture wave. “The Originals” and “Vampire Diaries” fan favorite Claire Holt co-stars. Premiere Date: Summer

Mr. Robinson | After a few behind the scenes shakeups, NBC’s half-hour comedy is slated to debut sometime this year. A premiere date has yet to be announced, so stay tuned for an update when it is. Craig Robinson (“The Office”, “This Is the End”) stars as a musician turned middle school music teacher who trades in the bright lights of the stage for the florescent ambience of the classroom. After recasting the key role of the school’s principal (Jean Smart was replaced by “Frasier” star Peri Gilpin) and making the change from single to multi-camera, things are on track for an imminent premiere. NBC’s slate of high profile Fall comedies; “Bad Judge” and “A to Z” were quickly cancelled. With NBC taking their time to finesse “Mr. Robinson”; it seems poised to fare better. Premiere Date: TBA

FOX Mid-Season:
Backstrom | Rainn Wilson stars in his first television role since “The Office” wrapped in 2013. FOX’s crime procedural sounds like a cross between “Monk” and “House”. It could potentially get lost in the shuffle of similar procedurals that also star an eccentric detective solving crime (“Elementary”, “The Mentalist” etc). Its premiere wasn’t too shabby in the ratings department so if time is money and your currency is Schrute Bucks, this might be worth your investment. Premiere Date: Jan 22/Currently Airing

Wayward Pines | M. Night Shyamalan’s first foray into television is this 10-episode event series led by Matt Dillon. Set for a global launch on May 14, “Wayward Pines” is a mystery thriller in the vein of “Twin Peaks” and follows a Secret Service Agent’s (Dillon) investigation into the mysterious disappearance of two federal agents in small town Idaho. Shyamalan’s slow burn pacing should fit this story and television well. After a series of backlashes for his theatrical work, this could be the project that puts Shyamalan back on the map. That in mind, as the ill-fated ABC series “Happy Town” learned, it’s not easy to successfully reproduce the success of “Twin Peaks”. Premiere Date: May 14

Movie Review: Mortdecai (2015)

Crazy, kooky and ferociously goofy, Johnny Depp’s latest is a send-up to the 70’s caper movies and the genre that parodied them. Striking a similar if distant cord to “The Pink Panther”, “Mortdecai” features a bungling lead character whose charm lies in being larger than life. The situations are over the top, the characters zany to the hilt and the laughs more frequent than anticipated.

A titled art dealer living beyond his means, Lord Charlie Mortdecai (Depp) is recruited to track down a stolen painting for MI5. His money troubles at the forefront of his travails, he simultaneously juggles his disgruntled wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the Inspector in charge of the investigation who was Mortdecai’s college schoolmate and a romantic rival for Johanna’s affections.

The storyline feels a bit dated and for viewers who haven’t watched a steady diet of the aforementioned movies, the jokes can be too insular to achieve their desired effect. There are some running gags that flame out quickly (i.e. the mustache) and it misses several beats while attempting to stay swift in the pacing department. The key component it lacks is a foil for Mortdecai. As central as Peter Seller’s Inspector Clouseau was to “The Pink Panther” series, Herbert Lom’s Chief Inspector Dreyfus was an equally integral and unsung part in making them the lightning in the bottle film experience they were. “Mortdecai” would’ve greatly benefited from featuring a similar dynamic. Without an adversary for Mortdecai to perpetually go up against, there’s no friction to propel the movie forward.

The crucial element in the movie's arsenal is Depp, whose vivid expressions and swing for the fences vivacity are palatably infectious. He plays the movie for laughs with an abandon that is so assured, it possesses an undeniable finesse. It’s a preposterously silly character that requires Depp’s signature gift for bringing eccentric, off the wall characterizations to life. Far from the greatest script of his career, he makes the most of it nonetheless. Paul Bettany provides a lot of the film's laughs as Mortdecai's manservant and yes man, Jock; adding a satisfying crackle opposite Depp.

For those who enjoyed the trailer, liking the movie will be an easy leap as it never ventures off the advertised course. As a genre movie it’s not bold enough to be categorized as a full blown spoof. The strange way in which it strives for satire makes it hard to discern whether it’s actually trying to be one at times. Given so many of the characters and set design are retro based, it is all the more odd they chose to set in the present day. It exists in this strange dimension that mingles the past with the present, the same way the 2005 remake of “Bewitched” did. It struggles to find a distinctive direction and in its query to do so gets lost in route to being something more comically productive.

There’s no mistaking that “Mortdecai” is meant to be absurd. It doesn’t take itself seriously, allowing viewers to take an hour off from heavy thinking. It's mainly an opportunity to watch Depp do his thing and for those who delight at his louder creations, this won't be lost on them. Rating: 6/10

Monday, January 26, 2015

Winter's Best New TV Bets: ABC, CBS & The CW

ABC Mid-Season:
Fresh Off the Boat | Based on Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name, this sitcom is set in the 90’s and tells the story of an adolescent Eddie (Hudson Yang) as he and his family adjust to life in Orlando, Florida after moving from Washington, DC. Similar to ABC’s comedy “The Goldbergs” it's staying true to the narrator’s era and is a “period piece” of sorts. Trailers have been hard to come by and ABC hasn’t been publicizing this show as much as one would hope. The premise alone sounds incredibly exciting though. Fish out of water stories are always interesting, especially when told the through the eyes of a kid. Let’s hope “Fresh Off the Boat” gets a better shot than “Selfie” did. Premiere Date: Feb 4

CBS Mid-Season:
The Odd Couple | Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon star in this present day remake of the iconic 70’s sitcom about two polar opposite friends who are also roommates. Perry plays the schlep and Lennon the orderly side of the equation. Perry’s luck with TV series since “Friends” hasn’t been so providential and his character in “Odd Couple” is a far cry from the uptight Chandler Bing. If he’s able to generate the necessary buddy chemistry opposite Lennon, this could break his streak of short-lived series. Premiere Date: Feb 19

Zoo | As of now this project is in the very early stages of production and is currently slated as an “event” series, which is the new buzz word for a mini-series. It is also a code word used for a series the network believes has the potential to be extended, should it become a ratings bonanza. “Zoo” is based on James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge’s stand alone novel of the same name. James Wolk and “Dracula” star Nonso Anozie are set to star. This could be a defining moment for Wolk, whose previous roles include the fleeting FOX series “Lone Star” and CBS’ “The Crazy Ones”. He, like Perry, has a streak to break. Premiere Date: TBA

CW Mid-Season:
The Messengers | “One Tree Hill” actress Shantel VanSanten stars in The CW’s latest sci-fi effort as a scientist who becomes inadvertently connected to a group of strangers when a vessel crashes on earth sending out a shockwave that temporarily stops their hearts. Upon waking, they learn they’re the only thing standing in the way of the apocalypse. Translation, they’re about to get very busy. VanSanten really grew during her time on “One Tree Hill”. Going from the obnoxious sister of one of the series’ central heroines to one of the most lovable newcomers post-time leap. She’s worth giving the series a chance, even if it sounds incredibly depressing. Premiere Date: April 10

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Movie Review: White Bird in a Blizzard (2014)

In the 80's on an ordinary day in the life of a mouthy teenager (Shailene Woodley), Kat's mother (Eva Green) mysteriously vanishes off the face of the earth. Following her abrupt departure, Kat flashes back to the events leading to her mother’s absence, as she’s simultaneously haunted by disturbing visions. Her devastated father (Christopher Meloni) is beside himself with grief, a response that is not shared by his perpetually disgruntled daughter. Throughout Greg Araki’s trippy adaptation of Laura Kasischke’s novel, a backstory of vicious infighting between the mother and daughter unfolds, leading one to wonder what revelation this is all leading to. 

There’s a streak of competitiveness to their relationship, a tone that sets off physical altercations and bizarre outbursts from Kat’s unnerved mother, Eve. Kat spends most of the movie stating the peculiar timeline of events rather matter-of-factly, as if reciting a mundane grocery list. Her cold demeanor borders on cruel, callous and lacking in any compassion. Her father treats her exceedingly well and all she can do is snap back at him with degrading barbs that are unwarranted. It’s a pattern of behavior she shares with her mother, though she considers herself a superior person. 

The narrative’s wacky take on the recollected happenings, treats all of this dysfunction as exceptionally normal. There’s no reason given as to why Eve, a once loving and compassionate mother; eventually turned on her daughter. It appears obvious that she’s suffering from a splintering mental state and yet no one takes a real interest in getting her help. After her mother’s disappearance, Kat has no trouble finding a therapist to work with and yet her mother isn’t afforded the same concern.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Movie Review: Taken 3 (2015) | "More Mystery than Actioner"

More mystery than actioner, Liam Neeson is back in this “Taken” three-quel. An appropriate subtitle to this surprisingly engaging bookend to the trilogy could’ve easily been “The Escape Artist” as Bryan Mills (Neeson) shows off a new skill; escaping the inescapable. Getting off to a slow start, “Taken 3” reintroduces us to the characters we’ve come to know and care about. Mills is still the doting dad trying to connect with his oft-bratty daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and his flirtatious ex-wife Lenny (Famke Janssen) is still trying to sort out her feelings for her kick-ass ex. 

In the opening, we learn that there are problems on the home front, as Kim faces a domestic crisis that leaves her shaken throughout the entire runtime. Things only get worse for her when Lenny is murdered and her dad, the man with those certain set of skills, is wrongly accused. It takes a while to get to this point, which is an aspect that’s a tad confusing given it was disclosed in the trailer. Where “Taken 3” could’ve turned into a ham-fisted version of “The Fugitive”, it manages to be original enough to differentiate itself. The main reason being Bryan Mills is a far more interesting character to watch. After two previous films, viewers are familiar with his plight and rooting for him comes easy. 

Despite the letdown that was “Taken 2”, the franchise rallies back with a fine (supposed) finish. Critics and fans alike seemed to lose sight of how incredible the first movie was and one less than stellar sequel wasn’t enough to shake the resolve of this fan. It has been perplexing to witness how readily some people had written off the franchise after one underwhelming sequel. The “Star Wars” franchise makes two terrible prequels and their fans are still jazzed to see another installment. There have only been three “Taken” movies, #1 outstanding, #2 average and #3 satisfying. Unlike the aforementioned, pop culture hasn’t exactly been inundated with these movies so what was with the hasty backlash over one not-so-great sequel? It’s very unclear.

By the time “3” has rolled around, expectations have been put in the proper perspective. After delivering a knockout the first time around, it was understandable the follow-up would falter in reaching the same standard and while “Taken 3” doesn’t equal the first, it comes much closer than its predecessor. There are some great twists and turns, father/daughter moments, car chases and a sufficient number of fight sequences sprinkled throughout to keep things interesting.

The key to the entire franchise has been Neeson, who in his 60’s has found his career calling as the silver screen heavyweight. He’s an actor’s actor and an action star rolled into one; a captivating screen persona who is simply fun to watch. In the current age of conflicted anti-heroes and rogue part-time villains, Neeson offers an old school tough guy who never loses sight of his priorities.

The biggest hurdle for the film rests in recasting a role that had previously been so peripheral; it immediately becomes circumspect when it’s not. Then again, it's almost too obvious. Along with stepdad Stuart’s Dougray Scott makeover, one other change is with the character of Kim. Maggie Grace’s role has long been the trickiest of the franchise. She went from being a whiny victim in the first to an over the top heroine in the second and now she’s closer to the original. By making her growth so vast in the middle film, taking a few steps back was necessary however, this felt almost too regressed.

Weaving in the first movie, Mills’ poker buddies are brought in to help their fugitive pal and their inclusion flows into the narrative naturally. Tying the three installments together is something “Taken 3” does very well and though it builds slowly, the payoff is worthwhile. The angle of bringing in Forest Whitaker’s hardnosed cop breathes new life into the story, offering a police dynamic that should’ve been introduced in the second movie.

“Taken 3” is fun, engrossing and chock full of Neeson doing Neeson. It’s a sequel that capitalizes on its established assets, closing the chapter on some stories and opening the door for new ones. Will audiences end up getting “Taken” again? After watching “3”, I wouldn’t mind it. Rating: 7.5/10

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Movie Review: Into the Woods (2014) | "Uneasy and Perpetually Mind Boggling"

Journeying to a dark place of magic, characters find something tragic. A Baker and his wife try to end their childless strife. Cinderella avoids her pompous fellow, as disastrous glitches plague a witch’s sinister wishes. Now that we have the rhyming portion of this review out of the way, it’s time to delve into Rob Marshall's film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Broadway musical. 

“Into the Woods” is a gloomy affair that fails to staggeringly enchant. From the opening scene we are introduced to the familiar fairytale regulars along with some newly invented characters, who join in on the action. It’s an idea that on paper sounds intriguing. A take off from the famous characters the Grimm Brothers made bedtime staples, “Into the Woods” presents them in a recognizable enough way to connect with them and a strange enough way to know this isn’t going to be your typical white knights and tiara tale. The dreary story it weaves finds few cinematic payoffs as characters wind through the same patch of woods, singing the same old repetitious tunes; the score lingering on without much variation.

Lackluster in its approach, it goes over the top in its tired musicality (singing even when speaking) and there is little in the way of visually stimulating imagery to hold one’s attention. The atmosphere is stark, grimy and the pace; tedious. There is a malevolence that pulses throughout the movie; making most of the characters come across as slightly maniacal. Others who seem a tad decent are made out to be utter dolts. There are a series of out-of-nowhere plot turns, wherein characters make jarring decisions that have no lead up, coming out of the bewildering blue. A beyond frustrating recurring sequence of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) flying down the stairs and fleeing the ball never offers any new beats, instead serving as an annoyingly pointless repeat.

Characters perish without any explanation and some big plotlines go unresolved, making one wonder why they were revealed in the first place. It all seems rushed towards the end, except there’s never any real progress and the transition to the second act is a real head scratcher. The first half having plodded along at such a tiresome pace, it’s easy to assume it’s all over, only to be surprised when another hour begins. While most fairytales have a core message, whatever the lesson is in this story, it was lost on this viewer. In an unsurprising if unfortunate reprise, the archetype of the overprotective parental unit is made out be the biggest villain of all.

The performances very, Anna Kendrick makes an excellent Cinderella, adeptly mixing the melancholy of a girl-next-door with that of a jaded heroine and her vocals are stunning. Emily Blunt plays the Baker’s wife with a lot of heart and ardent charm; while her vocal performance proves to be another feather in her career cap. Meryl Streep offers a tender turn that oscillates between various modes, coming off a few shades deeper than some of the other characterizations. Johnny Depp’s fleeting cameo brings a short-lived glimpse of the creepy Mr. Wolf.

As Prince Charming, Chris Pine’s approach to the material is the strangest of the entire film. In a disastrously campy sequence he and “The Other Prince” splash around in a stream, the purpose of this sequence apparently to demonstrate the shallow and vapid nature of fairytale damsels’ suitors. If the rest of the cast had shared in Pine’s hokey take, it might not have seemed so odd; only they didn’t and what viewers are left with is an off kilter performance that sits out all the more.

Uneasy and perpetually mind boggling, the movie packs zero laughs and its dull characters make investing in the ride to the finish line, incredibly difficult. Once “Into the Woods”, all that was left to do was watch the clock, hoping to get out. Rating: 5.4/10

TV Resolutions Part 2 | 'Reign', 'Vikings', 'Pretty Little Liars' and a Casting Brainstorm

With a lot of series returning from their midseason hiatuses (“Pretty Little Liars” is already back); Eclectic Pop has made some resolutions for several series’ respective seasons. The final installment continues with the CW's "Reign". If you missed Part 1 (click here)

Reign: With any luck Mary/Conde will remain a courtly love, at the most. It would be out of character for Mary to disrespect her marriage and Francis by carrying on with Conde, no matter how upset she is with her husband. The anvils have been dropping and hopefully they're red herrings and Castleroy will not to be killed off to make way for a Greer/Leith reunion. The unconventional Greer/Castleroy pairing works. In contrast, her connection with Leith is formulaic and expected.

After a string of dark storylines, it would be great if some of the series’ lightheartedness were able to peak back through, in the second half. Perhaps a little more Kenna and Bash as well? The “Catherine is Crazy” storyline needs to be wrapped up and her sanity restored. Watching a strong character like Catherine reduced to a delusional state isn't befitting of her. In the second season, "Reign" has found a true villain with Craig Parker's Narcisse. He needs to stir up trouble indefinitely.

Vikings: Less gratuitous violence, no torture, more Rollo. It’s really that simple.

Pretty Little Liars: Ezra has been acting very suspicious since the show returned. It would be great if PLL finally pulled the trigger on one of the Liars' sweethearts turning out to be evil. All of the fake outs in past seasons have only been frustrating teases that never turned out to be true. It's time for a tease to turn legitimate and Ezra has always been the likeliest baddie of them all.

Casting Brainstorm: One casting wish for the 2015 portion of the season would be for Luke Mitchell to be cast as a series regular on an already established show (preferably with 1 or half a season under its belt) or as the lead of a new series that will last longer than 1 season. Since the cancellation of "The Tomorrow People", Mitchell was cast on ABC's midseason replacement "Members Only". Unfortunately it wound up cancelled before it could even make it on the air. The good news is he is now available for another show. 

Ideally he'd be a perfect fit on "Reign", possibly as the not yet mentioned (or created); illegitimate son of Narcisse. Mitchell could sell the complex father/son dynamic and it could help round out the character of Narcisse.

Click here to read Part 1 of Eclectic Pop's resolutions for "The Vampire Diaries", "The Blacklist", "Revenge", "Arrow" and "The Flash