ReelReviews #113: The Orville, Ep. 1: “Old Wounds”

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SEPTEMBER 10, 2017: The Orville (pilot episode)

 

“The wait is over”.   Those words, spoken by Eric Bana’s Nero character in the 2009 Star Trek reboot, seem to resonate far more eight years later.  At long last, Star Trek is returning to television after a twelve year hiatus.  But the kicker now is that another television show has already beaten them to the punch to win over Star Trek fans before the “official” Star Trek has released a single episode.  That unofficial rival is Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, which made its debut on Fox after Sunday night football.

 

I actually hesitated before blogging a full review, trying to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t seen the episode yet, and feeling that a review that appears on 9/11 might be a pretty bad time to talk about a comedy show. Still, a slew of negative reviews about Orville from ‘professional critics’ (e.g. people paid to write stuff like this) have convinced me that “the wait is over” and the time to discuss the show is now.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed the pilot episode of Orville.  Is it a bit crass at times? Yes. Do some of the jokes fall completely flat? Yes. Do I wish Seth MacFarlane had cast someone besides himself to play the lead? Yes.  Still, the bottom line is the show has tremendous potential and it successfully accomplished its goal of engaging me as a viewer and making me eager to tune in next week to see what they are planning for the future.

 

There weren’t any “laugh at loud” moments in the pilot, but I hardly expect a single television episode to create the definitive humorous event of our era during its first attempt.  There were plenty of scenes that make me chuckle and put a smile on my face, and – perhaps more important – the show piqued my interest and presented a fun and engaging sci-fi adventure, even though it was saddled with the problem bogging down most pilots – having to spend half of its one hour running time introducing us to the characters and the world they inhabit before the story can get rolling.

 

Overall, you could say that “Old Wounds”, the show’s first episode, was fun but uneven, and gives us a nice glimpse of what is to come even though the series hasn’t found its footing yet.  The same can be said of the two pilots of the best known Star Trek series:  “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (1966) from the original Star Trek, and “Encounter at Farpoint” from Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987). If “fun but uneven and yet to show full potential” is damning for Orville, then the show is in good company, seeing how it seeks to emulate Star Trek.

 

Talking to other Star Trek fans online, the vast majority of those who viewed the episode were glad they did so, and reported that they also thoroughly enjoyed it. I spotted only two “meh” responses from fellow Star Trek fans, and the reason both of them gave for not liking the episode was – and here is an exact quote: “it seemed they were making fun of Star Trek, so I stopped watching it”.  Gee, you think? To me, this is along the lines of tuning into Young Frankenstein and saying “Hmmm. It appeared to me they were poking fun at old 30s Universal horror movies. That irritated me. Turned it off.”

 

There was little doubt before I tuned into this show that Orville would attempt to emulate TNG era Star Trek in attempt to be a homage/parody of it. Indeed, they not only got the “look” of TNG down, but also many of the characters (Bortus, for example is a very “Worf” like character), but also the music and action beats and so on. Even some typical “Star Trek” style scenes played out, like the famous “beauty pass” where a shuttlecraft drives around the starship giving the audience an idea of its size and scope – a scene first made famous in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

 

Still, critics of Orville have repeatedly argued that people rooting for Orville on the internet are only doing so because they are blinded by nostalgia and looking for a duplicate of the old Star Trek they are “used to”. While Orville does capture a lot of that spirit (again, much of it as intentional parody, for example, there was a fun send-up of the “holodeck training programs” in TNG), it is more than just a trip down memory lane. “Old Wounds” had a nice original sci-fi story in its own right, and it certainly doesn’t try to capture late 80s/early 90s television effects or anything really cheesy like that.  It is a 2017 television show taking bits and pieces of what audiences liked best about 90s era Star Trek, and putting a clever new spin on them.

 

Orville will also be episodic TV with each episode being its own “stand alone” story.  That’s certainly good news for me, as it’s the format that TOS and TNG used, and it would work best for this show, as an episode that “picked up” right where this one left off and continued the storyline about the age acceleration device in the pilot would probably get old quickly.  It is clear the writers intend to carry on several character threads into future episodes – the main being the unique circumstance of a divorced husband and wife being forced to work together as the Captain and First Officer of the vessel.  Whether that will give the show additional gravitas and make it evolve over several years, or whether it will quickly become an irritating unfunny “comedy routine” in future episodes will depend entirely on the skill of the writers and actors as the show continues.  As it stands, this setup did have a really good payoff in the final scene of the pilot, and one that I will not reveal to readers since the episode is brand new.

 

Orville is off to a decent start. Had Orville disappointed me and turned out to be another “A Million Ways to Die in the West” (Seth MacFarlane’s obnoxious, vulgar, and painfully unfunny “western” spoof that had only one good scene — and perhaps a catchy and mildly amusing theme song), I would be the first to express my disappointment, and pray the show gives me something better the next time around. I will simply say at this point that the critics mercilessly bashing Orville from day one are simply wrong.  Orville is worth a watch and hopefully the show will grow and last a while. The real test will come when we find out what the “official” Star Trek has to show us.  I have been saying for months that Orville looks like it will be much exciting and fun for Trek fans than Star Trek Discovery will be. Nothing I saw in Orville’s first episode has swayed me from that stance.

 

 

*** out of ****

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ReelReviews #112: Woo-oo! Ducktales (2017 reboot)

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MARCH 16, 2017 SCREENING: DuckTales (2017 pilot)

 

Woo-oo!  Having grown up on the original 80s Ducktales cartoon (which makes me feel freakin’ old, seeing as it was 30 years ago), I’m one of the many adults who couldn’t resist tuning into the August sneak-peek of the NEW Ducktales, thanks to the 24 hour marathon of “Woo-oo!”, (its appropriately named pilot episode) on the Disney XD channel.

 

Although the regular episodes of the series won’t start until September 23rd, the pilot premiered a month earlier and it’s only now that I’m blogging this much belated review. So what can be said about Ducktales that hasn’t been said already? Well, I’ll throw my 2 cents into Scrooge’s vault.

 

Most of the reviews I’ve seen online have nothing but glowing praise for the new Ducktales. I really liked it too, but I have to hesitate before lavishing unqualified accolades for the new incarnation of Ducktales. Compared to its iconic 1987 predecessor, Ducktales 2017 has yet to earn its place as a part of television history, nor has it stood the test of time like its previous version.  Ducktales 2017 had numerous examples of both positives and negatives, so on the whole I have to say it was a mixed bag.

 

For me, the weakest element of the new series is the completely new (aside from Donald Duck himself) voice cast.  It actually pains me to say that, since I fell in love with the new cast singing the “Ducktales” theme on YouTube and I thought it was really inspired casting to have people like David Tennant as the new Scrooge McDuck. Simply put, the new cast sounds almost nothing like the original cast, and often, they don’t even attempt to do so. It’s not just a matter of “getting used to” the new voices – in many cases, they seem wholly inappropriate for the characters, even if you welcome the idea of a new take on those characters.  Scoorge’s nephews, for example, now sound like middle-aged comedians, which is not surprising, since that’s who’s voicing them. And while I didn’t expect Tennant to try and slavishly mimic Alan Young’s Scrooge, I expected him to at least get the “crusty old miser with a heart of gold” essence of the character down.  The most I can say is that Scrooge still sounds Scottish, but that’s not surprising since David Tennant IS Scottish. Tennant’s enthusiasm for the role is clearly present, but I’m just not hearing Scrooge McDuck. Even Kate Micucci, who on paper seemed like she’d be the “most like” the original character, bears virtually no resemblance to the 1987 Webby. Strangely, the only voiceover actor who mildly invokes the style of his 1987 counterpart is Beck Bennett as Launchpad McQuack.

 

Another thing that irked me was I sincerely hoped the 2017 series would be a revival of the 1987 series – that is, even if it didn’t directly pick-up where the ’87 series left off, it would start off with Scrooge and his nephews relationship clearly established and presume that the adventures in the 80s show were canon and had already “happened”, so we’re seeing new adventures. Alas, this is a “reboot” in the true sense of the word, and that means the writers will be ignoring everything that happened in the classic 1987 series and starting over scratch. This was demonstrated from day one, as “Woo-oo!”, gives us another origin story where Donald’s nephews meet their great uncle scrooge for the “first time”, and the episode revolves around Scrooge learning to accept them. I strongly felt we didn’t need to see that.

 

Now, aside from the negatives, the rest of the pilot was superb television, IMO.  The simpler and sleeker animation style had me a little worried the new Ducktales might be aimed more for the kindergarten crowd than the original show. Nope. The new Ducktales pretty much remains an all encompassing family show like its predecessor, and shows the same mix of action, adventure, comedy, drama, fantasy, and sci-fi that made the original show so engaging. I think its rare to find that combo in kid’s shows these days.

 

 

I am reluctant to admit it, but some of the changes seem to give the show more gravitas than the original. For example, in the 1987 Ducktales, Scrooge’s archenemy Flintgold Glomheart might be mistaken for Scrooge’s brother – they look identical aside from Glomheart sporting a kilt and gray beard. Here, there is no question Glomheart looks and sounds completely different from Scrooge and they are totally different characters aside from both being Scottish billionaire Ducks.  Webby Vanderquack, pretty much a damsel-in-distress role in the original show, is much more proactive and has a lot more to do in the reboot.  Huey, Dewey, and Louis have distinctive personalities in the reboot, compared to pretty much being clones and interchangeable in the 1987 series. The revamping of these iconic characters make me look forward to what Ducktales will do with other classic characters like Magica de Spell, Duckworth, and Professor Ludwig Von Drake.

 

Aside from completely changing the voices, Ducktales 2017 has an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude and transplants much of the classic Ducktales universe over to the new show. The souped up version of theme song might be even better than the original, the humor is still sharp and will make adults as well as kids laugh, and Ducktales still has a tour-de-force, upbeat spirit of adventure and fun.

 

Finally, Ducktales 2017 ends its pilot episode with a surprise twist, and one that has yet to be explored in any previous incarnation of Ducktales, and will no doubt play an important role in the new show.

 

Overall, I’m upset that Ducktales 2017 has shown up to “override” the stories and beloved characters from its predecessor television show, but I’m excited what the future will hold for this new series once it establishes itself in its own right. Perhaps the only major problem is it seems the new Ducktales, while being wholly a “kids show” on paper, is generating far more excitement for 30 something adults these days.  Time will tell if the next generation of kids grow up loving Ducktales, too.

 

 

 

*** out of ****

ReelReviews #15: Grindhouse (2007)

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APRIL 7-11, 2013 SCREENING: “GRINDHOUSE” MOVIES (2007-Present)
I watched a series of five films over two weeks ago, and then spent another week mulling over how the heck I would review five different films that are meant to be seen as a package deal. I’ve put it off until I reached a solution: write one review that its own five segment mini-reviews, just the movies its analyzing. You see, the basic concept from directors Robert Rodriquez and Quintin Tarantino was that they would each do a cheesy, low-budget, trashy movie that resembled the type of schlock you’d get in the ’60s and ’70s, and package the movies together as a “double feature” to watch back-to-back in a theater, complete with fake trailers and commercials between movies, and intentionally grainy, scratchy film to replicate stuff that was thrown together. After the double feature came out, it inspired three movie silly “grindhouse” type movie spinoffs. Did they succeed in this strange little parody/homage? Well, yes and no.

 

PLANET TERROR (2007)
Planet Terror is basically a “zombie movie”. I use the term in quotes because its made to look like a movie from an era where they probably wouldn’t call it a zombie movie (as the George H. Romero variety hadn’t become the definitive image of a zombie yet) and what’s more, the movie is actually about some kind of extremely grotesque mutated humans, rather than undead corpses eating human flesh. They do eat people, though, and it’s a heck a lot of more fun than people find in a lot of “modern” zombie movies like World War Z. The poster image of the girl with a machine gun for a leg is certainly exploited for all its worth in this movie, and even though they use modern CGI, the concept and execution definitely mimics the feel of a old low-budget garbage movie. There’s lot of extreme over-the-top violence as well, and this film certainly brought a smile to my face because it made me think back to the stupidest set of 70s horror movies I watched, like Laserblast (1978), along with some terrible blaxplotation movies of the same era. Where I think the film fell short were two elements where it simply ignored its own premise: 1) The movie was too long for a “Grindhouse” movie, and certainly as one half of a double feature that you’re supposed to watch back-to-back in one sitting. It should have been between 75-85 mins., tops. Second, although intentionally made it to look like it was shot in the 70s, the movie takes place in “modern times” and uses modern technology and so forth. I found that distracting. They went through so much trouble to give us scratchy looking 16mm film, why the cell phones that reminded us that this movie was not made in the era it pretends to be?
**1/2 out of ****

 

DEATH PROOF (2007)
Death Proof is the second half of the original “Grindhouse” experience, and considered the much weaker film of the two. Some people have even gone as far as to say its Tarantino’s weakest movie. But in many ways, I actually enjoyed it more than the first film. Like Planet Terror, the grainy film and ridiculous opening credits immediately make it look like you’re watching some piece of crap made around 1972 or so, but instead of just being an over-the-top splatter film, this one has something completely lacking in the first: atmosphere Apparently the “in-joke” is that it’s supposed to look like two different movies spliced together (which they actually did for really bad MST3k fodder like “They Saved Hitler’s Brain”), but the fact its obviously Kurt Russell in both halves of the movie – playing the same role – ruins this effect. As for me, I loved the first half the movie (where had a very good, creepy “70s stalker movie” vibe like I was watching The Last House on the Left or something), and I was indifferent/bored by the second half, which had a “70s stunt race car movie” feel. To convey that its “Two different movies” the second half was almost grain-free, and that didn’t work for me at all because you could tell it was shot on modern film equipment. Again, the same flaws from the first film were present, and even more apparent: the running time was too long, and it was obvious taking place in 2007. Nevertheless, I consider this film to be its own little modern cult classic, and the lap-dance scene in the movie’s first half is unforgettable
*** out of ****

 
HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN (2011)
Machete is by far the better known and more popular of the Grindhouse spinoffs, but for me there was only one true heir to the original project, and that’s Hobo with a Shotgun. It was based off one of the “fake trailers” from the original 2007 double-feature, and expanded into its own feature length movie. Ironically, its got a completely different director (the little known Jason Eisener) and a different actor from the 2007 fake trailer (in this case, the far better known Rutgar Hauer), but I felt it was the most faithful to the whole grindhouse experience: It looks incredibly low-budget, trashy, over-the-top, gory, and tongue-in-cheek hilarious In many ways, this was actually more faithful to the concept, and really nailed the feel of a movie from another era. For example, the music soundtrack sounds exactly like some MIDI synthesizer score from the early 80s, making it seem like you’re watching a lost John Carpenter movie. I’d say the only jarring part of the this is because the earlier Grindhouse movies looked like they were attempting to copy films from the late 60s/early 70s, whereas Hobo definitely looks and feels like a mid 80s movie. Despite having no sci-fi elements and having a storyline more along the lines of Death Wish, Hobo With a Shotgun is pretty much the spiritual successor of 1987’s Robocop. If you liked Robocop, you’ll love with (complete with the excessive violence and biting satire). In fact, forget about watching the remake of Robocop and watch this instead, as its far more true to what the original Robocop was aiming for. This may be the best of the “Grindhouse” movies. Be prepared to be grossed out, offended, annoyed, and mesmerized by it all.
*** out of ****

 
MACHETE (2010)
I think Machete is probably the most financially successful of the five Grindhouse movies, but it was one of the least creative, in my opinion. I still liked it, but I had a blast with the first three movies and I felt that was missing here. Despite this being directed by Robert Rodriquez, it is not a Grindhouse movie. It based on one of the fake trailers from one of his Grindhouse movies, and the opening credits even continue the same style, but it quickly becomes a very modern Hollywood movie. The only difference between this and a typical action comedy is that the script here is still obviously a satire of the whole genre. The actors play it straight, but Lindsay Lohan is here for one reason and its not to display her acting talent (ironically, she finally gets naked in the movie but you can’t see anything). Robert de Niro even shows up here, playing a buffoonish right-wing politician. There has been much talk about the movie having a liberal agenda, and I would agree that political conservatives will probably not like the film’s storyline or message, but the film is just too silly and frivolous for me to take offense as any kind of preachy liberal sneer It has some genuinely funny laughs, and its quick paced and quick witted, but nowhere near on the level of the three real Grindhouse movies. The “fake” trailer for Machete is better than the real one, because the real one is just another typical Robert Rodriquez movie like Once Upon a Time in Mexico, or Spy Kids. The best scene may be Lindsay Lohan’s slutty character disguising herself as a nun. Oddly enough, it disgusted me, intrigued me, and had me cracking up at the same time.
** out of ****

 

MACHETE KILLS (2013)
The latest, last, and least of the films spawned by the whole Grindhouse concept. Naturally, it’s a sequel to Machete, but the best part of this movie was yet another “Fake trailer” for what eventually could become the real third movie: “Machete Kills Again… In Space” It cracked me up and every scene in the “trailer” was better than the real scenes in this movie, and made me wish that the still unconfirmed third film was the sequel instead of this movie. The actual film has plenty of action and a brisk pace, but goes nowhere and just isn’t very funny or interesting. Instead of de Niro like the first movie, this time we have Mel Gibson showing up in a “major role”, and it actually made me feel kind of sorry for him because his career has been reduced to doing this pathetic movie. Machete Kills is the opposite of the original intent of Grindhouse: rather than be made to intentionally parody the look of low-budget, crappy films, It’s a big budget, slick film that unintentionally looks very crappy. The best part of the movie may be former child actress Alexa Vega now appearing as a smoking hot, bikini-clad voluptuous adult character, but I got so bored with the movie I think I missed that part. I give it points for trying, but its just throwing a lot of crap at me, and thankfully, nothing is sticking.
* 1/2 out of ****

ReelReviews #9: Instructions Not Included (2013)

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MARCH 26, 2013 SCREENING: INSTRUCTIONS NOT INCLUDED (2013)

 

As of the time of this writing, Instructions Not Included (2013) is highest grossing Mexican film in the United States. It surpassed the previous record holder, Pan’s Labyrinth, earlier this year. While I personally prefer Pan’s Labyrinth because I like fantasy films, I had to check out Instructions Not Included for myself to see if it lived up to the hype. My conclusion? It does.
Eugenio Derbez has been a Mexican film actor for many years, but this is first effort as a director. Derbez said he was inspired to make this film after he saw the Academy Award winning Italian film Life Is Beautiful, and he wanted to make a similar type of zany comedy film that “had a heart” and could make you cry as well as laugh. He appears to have succeeded at that goal.

The basic structure of the film is pretty much Three Men & a Baby (plus its sequel, Three Men & a Little Lady, and minus the other two men) meets Kramer vs. Kramer. That is, the film is about a swinger from Acapulco named Valentin. His life is completely changed one day when a former fling leaves a baby on his doorstep, and tells him that he is going to have to be the one to take care of their child. The baby girl eventually ages into a charming seven year old, but Valentin’s journey to raise her takes him through many unpredictable paths and he eventually becomes a Hollywood stuntman. Both their lives are changed once again when the birth mother returns, and eventually decides she wants to reclaim the child.

The plot doesn’t sound all that interesting, and I was on the fence myself when I sat down to watch this movie. Its not really my kind of film, and plenty of movies have come up with similar premises (A Simple Twist of Fate with Steve Martin as a single dad, for example, or the better known Big Daddy with Adam Sandler). The result has usually been something too sappy and sweet (in the case of the first example), or too obnoxious and silly (in the case of the second example).

Here, Eugenio Derbez creates the perfect balance. There are some hilarious scenes, and some really heartwarming and beautiful moments as well. Having been driven insane by an earlier film that kept switching back and forth from French to English (see my review on The Science of Sleep), I wasn’t keen on “Hollywood” being depicted by Mexican actors in this one. However, Instructions Not Included has a razor sharp screenplay and knows how to create fun situations from the language barrier. Although Derbez can speak English fluently in real life, his character in the film barely knows a word, and the film itself is perhaps 70-80% in Spanish and 20-30% in English. The added twist is that the mother of his baby is an American, so the little girl speaks English fluently and translates for her dad. This not only mirrors many real life situations with modern immigration in the United States, but it provides some key moments in the film and its one example where this Mexican film wouldn’t be the same if it was remade as a straight all-American comedy.

The film weaves through many twists and turns before it finally concludes with a very dramatic tearjerker ending. The fact I felt so moved emotionally by a film that mostly a silly comedy shows just how effective the film is at bringing its audience along for the ride. This, along with Pan’s Labyrinth, is a truly great cinematic experience that is probably overlooked by critics in favor of more “serious” artsy foreign films. Not only does that rob audiences of inspired films like this, but it also robs Mexico of having more directors and writers that create edgy films instead of the standard telenovela stuff that is prevalent in Latin America. No matter what your background, see Instructions Not Included. I think you’ll fall in love with it.

 
***½ out of ****