TV Review: A Series of Unfortunate Events (2017)


TitleA Series of Unfortunate Events
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

The adaptation of the Lemony Snicket (a.k.a. Daniel Handler) novels is a great success, capturing the humor, tragedy, and pedagogy of the Baudelaire orphans sad tale.  It’s been over a decade since I read the books, but the tv show appears to be largely to the books with the exception of the introduction of some characters and the themes of the VFD that actually play a bigger role later in the series (not a bad idea for the tv show).  Neil Patrick Harris gets a lot of attention for his performance as the evil Count Olaf, and he chews the scenery in a way that will delight most viewers (although I can also see how he could irritate some).  The thing is, NPH isn’t even the best thing about this show.  The main cast of young actors includes Malina Weissman as Violet, Louis Hynes as Klaus, and the greatest baby actor ever in Presley Smith as Sunny.  Patrick Warburton offers a dry delivery of the narration as Lemony Snicket and K. Todd Freeman is the forever clueless, and coughing, Mr. Poe.  The guest cast includes spectacular performances by Joan Cusack, Aasif Mandvi, Alfre Woodard, Don Johnson, Catherine O’Hara, and Rhys Darby. And kudos for the diversity in the casting decisions not necessarily indicated in the source material. The surreal sets and the brightly-colored costumes lend an unworldly effect to the Snicketverse.  This is a brilliant show, and despite the warning from the opening title song to “Look Away,” this is definitely a show to watch and enjoy.

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TV Review: Stranger Things (2016)


TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

The hit of the summer is an homage to horror and thrillers of the 1980s, mixing the film aesthetic of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter with Stephen King’s “kids and monsters in Maine” formula transferred to Indiana.  There are also elements of later works like Twin Peaks, Donnie Darko (itself a 1980s pastiche), and Broadchurch among others.  Despite the effort to emulate the eighties ethos, Stranger Things is not a remake or a ripoff but a highly original work of its own.  I don’t think a show this sophisticated would be made in the 1980s and the movies of that time would not have the time to develop the characters and the relationships so well.  Movies in the 1980s would also rely on wowing the audience with special effects, but Stranger Things creates suspense by keeping most of the supernatural elements offscreen and in the imagination.

What’s great about Stranger Things is that it has three concurrent plots with different themes.  A 12-year-old, Will Byers, goes missing and his best friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas go looking for him to be joined by the mysterious Eleven who has telekinetic powers, learning about friendship and forgiveness.   A teenage story features Will’s brother Jonathon forming an unlikely alliance with Mike’s sister Nancy to hunt down the monster with Nancy’s boyfriend Steve acting as antagonist and sometimes ally.  Finally, the adult story focuses on Will’s mother Joyce and police chief Hopper realizing that  Will’s disappearance is not a typical runaway or abduction case and involves malicious behavior at the government’s Hawkins Lab.

The whole series is 8 episodes of brilliance – great acting, plotting, pacing, and dialogue –  with a few scares thrown in.  It’s worthy of the accolades it’s receiving and I recommend watching it if you haven’t checked it out yet.

TV Review: BoJack Horseman (2016)


TitleBoJack Horseman
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 12
Summary/Review:  This is the third series of the animated Netflix show that is laugh out loud funny, acerbically satirical, emotionally raw, and thoroughly depressing.  Two plots are intertwined through the series: BoJack making the circuit of appearances in hopes of getting an Oscar nomination for the biopic of Secretariat and flashbacks to 2007 when BoJack helped create a tv show that flopped (kind of eerie how the show makes 2007 feel like a long time ago!).  Both plots deal with BoJack’s inability to feel happiness, his capacity for self-sabotage, and his unreliability to friends and colleagues.  Looking back on the season it seems so glum, it’s hard to remember that there was a lot to laugh about, but BoJack Horseman is all about using humor to peel back the most painful wounds.  The highpoint of the season is episode 4, “Fish Out of Water,” where BoJack goes to a film festival in a community under the sea and thus there’s almost no dialogue in the entire episode as the undersea world is brought to life with fantastic visuals, sound effects, and music.  It’s a tour-de-force in what is a really well-done season of television.

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TV Review: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2016)


TitleUnbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is  the type of tv comedy that if you explain the premise it sounds like it would be absolutely awful, but somehow it works. In the first season Ellie Kemper’s titular character is rescued from an underground bunker where she’s been held for 15 years after being abducted as a child by a doomsday cult leader.  With the naivete of a child from the 90s in a woman’s body, she decides to move to New York where she successfully finds a place to live, a job, studies for a GED, and even finds love (although most of this falls apart by the end of the season).

In season 2, Kimmy’s characteristic cheerfulness and optimism begin to break as she’s unable to suppress the trauma of her childhood and the stress of trying to hold her new life together.  And yes, as I said above this is a comedy, but one that deals with deep and dark issues hilariously, in a manner that is just dense with jokes. Part of the success of the show is the ensemble cast of Kimmy’s friends and colleagues.

There are three standout characters.  Jane Krakowski plays the Manhattan socialite Jacqueline Voorhees having divorced on Kimmy’s advice is now trying to work her way back into wealth and power but with a nagging sense of conscience thanks to Kimmy.  Krakowski has always played funny characters in the past but she brings a lot of depth to Jacqueline who could otherwise easily be a vapid caricature.  Kimmy’s landlady Lillian Kaushtupper is played by Carol Kane who has a much bigger role in this season and just may be favorite character.  Throughout the season Lillian tries to stop gentrification in her neighborhood but only ends up making matters worse as incoming hipsters consider her charming local color.  Finally, a new character Andrea portrayed by show creator and writer Tina Fey is a straightlaced therapist by day and an obnoxious drunk.  Again, it’s a premise that sounds ridiculous, but Fey provides a realistic portrayal of addiction while keeping it funny, and provides a foil to Kimmy dealing with her own inner demons.

Not everything works. The episode “Kimmy Goes to a Play!” is a mean-spirited response to critics of the show who objected to casting a white actor as a Native American in the first season.  Kimmy finally consummates her relationship with on-again/off-again boyfriend Dong in episode 8, and then his character is deported and never mentioned again.  But overall this a sharp and unique comedy that will have you laughing but also keep you thinking.

Rating: ****

TV Review: BoJack Horseman (2014)


TitleBoJack Horseman
Release Dates: August 2014
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 12
Summary/Review:

This is a show with a big premise, a world in which anthropomorphic animals live and work among humans.   One of them,  BoJack Horseman, was the star of a popular 1990s sitcom in which a horseman adopts human children.  In the current day, BoJack is a washed-up drunk, living in a Hollywood mansion and trying to regain his relevancy by writing his autobiography.  In the first episode Diane Nyugen is introduced as his ghostwriter, and their relationship is the core of the season.

The show is deeply satirical and is reminiscent of The Simpsons, 30 Rock, and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show! for it’s combination of satire, spoof, sight gags, and sensitivity.  There are a lot of gags and it’s funny when a anthropomorphic animal character acts on their animal instinct.  But there’s a lot of serious undertones to this show as well, and it’s often just as heartbreaking as it is funny.
Rating: ***1/2

TV Review: Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (2015)


TitleWet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp
Release Dates: July 2015
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

Gonna try something new here.  Since I’ve been binge-watching tv shows on Netflix and elsewhere, I may as well post a few thoughts here.  Thus this is my first TV Review!

This tv series is a prequel to the 2001 movie, with the same actors returning to play teenagers even though everyone is 15 years older and looks it (especially the men).  This is played for a good gag at the end of the series. Like the movie, the show is a loving spoof of 1980s movie tropes, not just camp movies but across genres.  And like the movie, a lot more happens than could possibly happen in a single day.  Surprisingly, I think the tv series is actually funnier than the movie, perhaps because over several episodes they’re able to build up the characters and scenarios to make the gags pay off.

It’s not perfect, but if you’re looking for some dumb fun, here it is.
Rating:***

Movie Review: Keith Richards: Under the Influence


Title: Keith Richards: Under the Influence
Release Date: 2015
Director: Morgan Neville
Summary/Review:

This Netflix documentary follows Keith Richards as he works in the studio on new songs and travels through America to sites connected with American music. Theses scenes are intercut with archival footage of Richards and the Stones. The influences in this movie are musical – Blues, Country, & Reggae – and Richards talks about his love for music and how he creates his own. Musicians talking about music is the best kind of music documentary. It has all the joy and none of the bitterness of Richard’s autobiography.  As an added bonus, Tom Waits appears for a few scene-stealing interviews.
Rating: ****