Category Archives: Watch for the story

Moviegoers Assemble – Avengers: Age of Ultron is Worth Seeing

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May 1 marks the release of the much-anticipated second movie in the Avengers franchise. Comic book fans and non-fans alike should take the time to see this movie; it has action, it has humor, it has character development, it has an astounding plot with copious twists and turns, and it sets up for future Marvel movies, including Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity Wars. Without further ado, the good, the less good and the slightly ugly of Avengers: Age of Ultron

 

Avengers Age of Ultron

 

Starting with the negatives, few that they were, the movie starts out a little shaky, graphically. The first scene has a lot of movement and action, but it looks very fake, as if they did not spend as much time focusing on it as they did the rest of the movie. When opening a big movie that has a lot of computerized graphics, it is probably not the best idea to start sloppy. However, by the end of the fight, it comes together much more fully, and the rest of the movie is graphically gorgeous.

That was the strongest negative that could be found in this movie. This was an amazing film, far and away the best in the Marvel lineup, which is saying something, given the strong films they have been producing. The only other disappointment was the lack of an after-credits scene; there is still a mid-credits scene, but nothing at the end of the long lists of names and people thanked.

 

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Turning to the good points of the movie, the humor by far stole the show. Every character had one-liners galore, and there were few scenes that did not at some point elicit chuckles in the audience. Even Ultron himself, the villain of the movie, had some light-hearted moments, mostly thanks to the incredible voice acting done by James Spader.

If there is one reason to go and see this movie, it is absolutely James Spader’s performance as Ultron. Spader has a way of bringing even the darkest and most malevolent characters into the light and giving them a unique sort of twisted humor. Ultron is no different. He finds just the proper balance between homicidal lunatic and smiling savior that makes him a joy to watch.

 

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That’s not to say that the rest of the characters are not given their due time. Hawkeye, who got somewhat shafted for screen time and development in the first movie, became one of the most important parts of the sequel. He got significant plot points, the audience learned more about his background, and there were a number of surprise moments that he brought to the film. The other characters who haven’t gotten their own movies yet, Black Widow and Hulk, both got significant development themselves, making the team feel more whole.

 

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It’s good to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe expanding, and the addition of the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and the Vision to the Avengers team certainly fleshes out the world significantly. Even though Marvel doesn’t own the rights to call the Maximoff twins “mutants” like they are in the comics, they did a good job of portraying them as superpowered individuals, and they got a backstory that matched well the actions they were taking.

 

Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch

 

Marvel is particularly good about peppering their movies with Easter eggs, and this film is no different. The film makes reference to Wakanda, the African country that is ruled by the Black Panther, and the Avengers go to speak to a black market trader off the coast of the nation, Ulysses Klaue. Klaue is better known in the comics as Klaw, an enemy of the Black Panther who can manipulate sound and who is constantly after the vibranium that is protected by the tribes of Wakanda.

 

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Dr. Helen Cho, a friend of Tony Stark’s, is the mother of a hero in the comics named Amadeus Cho, who is an ally to the Avengers; though Amadeus does not show up in this movie, it does leave open the possibility for him to appear in the future. Thor discovers the purpose of the Infinity Gems, the major magical items that have been appearing in each of the phase 2 films, and warns the Avengers of Thanos’ coming war, which is a set up directly for the next Avengers films, Infinity War (which will be released in two parts in 2018 and 2019).

 

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One other discovered secret has to do with some computer chips that Iron Man messes with late in the movie. Though the scene moves quickly, one of the chips is labeled “Jocasta.” In the comics, Jocasta is the name of a robot bride that Ultron makes for himself. This could hint at a return of Ultron in later movies – Ultron never stays dead for very long – with his wife at his side.

 

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As mentioned earlier, aside from the first scene, the graphics of this movie are fantastic. The fight scenes have a lot of action, and they look realistic and massive. The battle between Hulk and Iron Man in the Hulkbuster armor is particularly wonderful, as they are destroying a massive city between the two of them. Iron Man manages to continue saving people while he battles, a protective side to Tony Stark that isn’t often seen.

 

Hulkbuster Armor Age of Ultron

 

I recommend this movie without hesitation to anyone and everyone. Whether in 3D, IMAX or on a regular screen, go see this in theatres. One of the great parts of this movie is hearing the reactions of others to events as they happen. Age of Ultron is one of the best movies of recent years, another big success for Marvel Studios.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is in theatres now. It was directed and written by Joss Whedon and produced by Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios. It stars James Spader, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Taylor‑Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany.

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A Sadly Broken Show

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Netflix’s latest original series, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, began streaming this weekend, a new comedy produced by Tina Fey. Given Tina Fey’s normal comedy genius, this show is a huge disappointment. In the entire 13-episode first season, there were no laugh out loud moments that stick in the mind. The premise of the show is original, the main character – played by Ellie Kemper – is well-written, bright and strong, and some (but distinctly not all) of the supporting roles are entertaining. But, despite that, this remains a comedy that fails to bring the funny. Let’s take a closer look.

 

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Logo

 

The premise of the show is a novel one that lends itself to a great story: four women are rescued from an underground bunker where they spent the last 15 years believing that they were the only survivors of the Apocalypse, saved by a doomsday preacher/cult leader. Kimmy Schmidt, the main and titular character, is one of those four women, dubbed the “Mole Women of Indiana.” She was the youngest of the group, kidnapped by the cult leader when she was only in the eighth grade. While the other three women choose to go back to their lives and homes in Indiana, Kimmy decides that she does not want to go back to Indiana, where she’ll only be seen as one of the Mole Women, but wants to make a new start for herself somewhere that she won’t be known. She moves to New York City, unaware of any of the major technological, linguistic, historical and cultural events of the last 15 years, and so must learn how to make her way in a world she doesn’t comprehend, with a childlike naïveté regarding everything about 2015 and without even a middle school education.

 

The Mole Women of Indiana

The Mole Women of Indiana

 

Kimmy is a great character, optimistic hard-working, with a great amount of inner (and outer) strength. She was able to resist the brainwashing of the cult leader, she refuses to leave New York even after a slew of bad luck ends with her losing her job and $13,000 dollars in the same day, and she even manages to rally those around her into bettering themselves, to varying degrees of success. Kimmy inspires her GED study group to band together to pass the class, holds together the Mole Women both in and out of the bomb shelter they had lived in, and helps her wealthy boss Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski) cope with a divorce that leaves her with only a paltry twelve million dollars. Kimmy is a well-developed character, and the plots surrounding her are what make the show watchable. The storylines around the other characters, however, are of a far lower quality.

 

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

 

When Kimmy first arrives in New York, she answers an ad in a newspaper regarding a place to live. The landlord – played by Carol Kane – placed the ad so that she could find a roommate for her favorite tenant; she doesn’t want to evict him, but he won’t pay rent, so she insists that he get a paying roommate. The landlord is a kook who gets some personal development, but doesn’t receive much time in the overall plot. Her character mostly seems to be wrapped up in the single word “kook.” Her tenant is an unfortunate walking stereotype named Titus Andromedon. Many of the jokes in the show are either originated by him or revolve around him in some way, which explains why the funny is missing. He is a poorly written and poorly developed character whose absence could only improve the show. His only redeeming quality is his singing voice which, while beautiful, is implemented into episodes with terrible timing.

 

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The parts of Kimmy’s life that aren’t flashbacks or spent at home or with members of her study group revolve around her job, nanny for Mrs. Voorhees’ two spoiled rich kids. Or rather, that’s supposed to be her job, but she becomes more of a caretaker for Jacqueline herself. Kimmy helps Jacqueline gather up the courage to begin divorcing her husband after Jacqueline discovers he’s been cheating on her. Jane Krakowski may be in danger of getting typecast for the “rich, narcissistic woman” role, since she plays almost the same character that she played on 30 Rock, though her backstory in this show is quite different. It is shown, via flashbacks, that blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jacqueline is actually Native American, but decided that she wanted to be a part of white culture, where she could marry rich and live the high life. The ridiculousness was probably meant to be funny, but the show again missed its mark.

 

Jane Krakowski

 

The show had a number of big names as guest stars, including John Hamm, Nick Kroll and even Tina Fey herself. However, their characters were lackluster and uninspired. The show quickly gets to a point where any scene without Kimmy is to be dreaded, and even the scenes that she’s in she sometimes can’t save for the poor execution and writing of the other characters.

 

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There is little that can redeem a comedy that has no laugh factor. The story premise is original, and the main character is a powerful positive force in the show’s favor, enough so that she makes the show nearly worth watching. But a dismal cast of supporting characters who tell boring and easily-forgotten jokes brings the show crashing down. The show had two seasons ordered by Netflix from the start, so there will be more episodes in the future. Hopefully they can make improvements in the next season.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a Netflix original series. It is produced by Tina Fey and stars Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Carol Kane and Jane Krakowski.

Kingsman: The Not-So-Secret Success

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Before reading any farther, know that I absolutely recommend going to see this movie. It is action packed, humorous, smart and funny, all rolled into one. It spoofs the whole genre of spy thrillers, but it has a cohesive and entertaining plot without too much overt mockery of other such films. “Kingsman: The Secret Service” deserves to be seen in the theatres, and these are just some of the reasons. Spoilers for the movie may follow, so be warned.

 

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The movie focuses on a poor 20-something called “Eggsy” (played by Taron Egerton) who is leading a rough life. He’s had trouble with the law, dropped out of school and the military and his mother’s boyfriend is a violent brute who leads a gang of local toughs. After getting arrested for stealing and wrecking a car, Secret Agent Harry Hart (played by Colin Firth) offers to train him in the craft of being a gentleman spy. Hart belongs to the titular organization, and they are recruiting a new member to replace one of their organization who was killed early in the movie. Each remaining member – all of whom are codenamed for Knights of the Round Table out of Arthurian legend – is allowed to nominate one person who will compete with the other nominees in a series of trials to determine who is most fit to join the Kingsmen.

 

Kingsman - Colin Firth

 

While Eggsy is undergoing these tests, Hart, codenamed “Galahad,” begins investigating the death of his fellow agent as well as the mysterious disappearances of world leaders and celebrities. He discovers that the Internet mogul Richmond Valentine (played by Samuel L. Jackson) is behind these events. Valentine believes he is trying to save the world from the threat posed by global warming. With so many people on the planet using resources wastefully, the risk is evident, to him, at least. He wants to reduce the population of the earth to only those that he has selected as worth saving – the smart, the powerful, the rich and the artists. Valentine comes off as a fairly happy-go-lucky guy, but what makes him truly terrifying as a villain is that he honestly believes he is doing this for the good of the world, and his reasoning is frighteningly astute for the state of the world today.  Though, he is also aided by an assassin who has blades that extend from her prosthetic legs, so she adds to his status as well.

 

Kingsman - Samuel L. Jackson

 

Since Eggsy is the main character, he, of course, ends up being involved in the climactic final battle, though the twists and turns of the movie to get him there are highly entertaining. A lot of tropes from classic spy and adventure movies are present in this film, which makes predicting the general plotline somewhat easy. What makes a movie like this shine, given that, is the use of detail to surprise or distract the audience from thinking about what’s coming next. “Kingsman” uses both comedy and action to this end, and it works in its favor. It’s not often that you get to see Colin Firth take out a room full of thugs with an umbrella, or watch Samuel L. Jackson get nauseated at the sight of blood while simultaneously plotting the deaths of nearly seven billion people. The movie even finds the right balance between drama and comedy, moving seamlessly from a scene where Eggsy gets caught trying to steal a grenade shaped like a lighter to one where Valentine and Hart face off as enemies.

 

Kingsman - Colin Firth

 

The movie has a strong plot and a lot of star power (Egerton, Firth and Jackson are joined by Michael Caine, Mark Strong, and even Mark Hamill), but it also has a great soundtrack and some amazing cinematography. The music for each scene is well-chosen and well-choreographed, particularly when the fireworks start later in the movie, and the fight scenes are beautiful to watch. While the story revolving around the main character starts rather slow, and ends up being rather goofy, this is an uplifting and action packed movie that simply leaves the audience feeling good. It is well worth the price of admission, even if you only go to watch Colin Firth take out the movie’s version of the Westboro Baptist Church and then attend a private dinner catered by McDonalds.

 

Kingsman - Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson

 

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” is in theatres now. It is produced by Marv Films and distributed by 20th Century Fox, and stars Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson and Taron Egerton.

Podcast Roundup

Alternate Media Feature

 

In reviewing and commenting on media, looking solely at movies and television isn’t enough. There is such a variety in how people communicate thoughts and ideas that focusing just on the wide-spread, visual media leaves a hole in the global marketplace of ideas. This week’s media feature is on podcasts. As most will know, podcasts are regularly released audio programs, similar to radio shows, that can be downloaded and listened to offline at the user’s convenience. They can be a great source of news, thoughtful information or pure entertainment. Below are four recommended podcasts. Let’s take a look.

 

4. Freakonomics Radio

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The Freakonomics Radio podcast grew out of the best-selling book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. Now, it’s easy to look at a title like that and ask, “How could a podcast (or book) about economics be that interesting?” It’s a valid question. Most people who have ever had an economics course tend to remember a dry lecture by an ancient professor who just kept drawing lines on a chalkboard. What one wouldn’t remember from econ class is learning about how cheating in sumo wrestling can help predict cheating in classrooms, or how Roe v. Wade could impact crime rates in the 1980s, or how David Lee Roth is like the biblical King Solomon. While those topics wouldn’t be considered in the classroom, those are the types of topics covered in the books and podcast series. Economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner have worked together over the last decade to find the hidden connections in the world – all supported by evidence and data – and share their discoveries. This is a great podcast for people who want to expand their view of the world or for those who want to have more interesting things to say at dinner parties. Most episodes are between 20 and 30 minutes, and they’re a good way to wake up the mind during a morning commute.

More information about Freakonomics Radio can be found here.

 

3. Thrilling Adventure Hour

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The Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast is a series of stories performed in the style of old time radio broadcasts. The podcast is recorded in front of a live studio audience once each month. Each recording session includes multiple stories that are then released over the course of the month to podcast listeners. Since there are many different stories that all are released under the heading of the Thrilling Adventure Hour, it is possible that listeners may find they enjoy some of the tales more than others. The most popular and most regular stories are “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars” and “Beyond Belief.” Sparks Nevada is about a man from Earth who, along with his companion who is a native of the red planet, is in charge of upholding law and order on Mars. This tale has a dedicated storyline that must be listened to in the proper order, and it is packed with excitement and adventure and humor. Beyond Belief is about an upper class married couple who also happen to be able to see and talk with ghosts. Their drinking time is constantly interrupted by supernatural occurrences that only they can handle. The wit and sarcasm in this segment leads to constant laughter from both the audience and the listeners. Other segments happen with less regularity, but are often equally entertaining and full of adventure. Listeners learn what segments they prefer and can pick those out from the list of episodes. Most segments are about 25 minutes long and are good entertainment for relaxing or before bed.

More information about The Thrilling Adventure Hour can be found here.

 

2. Welcome To Night Vale

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The Welcome To Night Vale podcast is an ongoing story in the style of community radio. It’s released on the first and fifteenth of every month and tells of the happenings in a small desert town in the southwest of the United States. On its own, that may not sound so thrilling. And things in this town are pretty standard. From hooded figures outside a dog park that citizens aren’t allowed to enter to a vague yet menacing government agency working to control everything behind the scenes to a menacing glow cloud (ALL HAIL) that can control minds and that drops dead animals as it passes, life in Night Vale is just the same as it is anywhere else. Stories from small towns like Night Vale, Twin Peaks, Hemlock Grove and Derry, Maine, always seem to capture the interest of outsiders for some reason. Listening to the goings on and interactions between well-recognized town citizens in these small communities is just fun. The tales from Night Vale are heartwarming and bone-chilling all at once, and listening to love and rebellion and death and victory in 25 minute increments is a wonderful way to keep from sleeping at night.

More information about Welcome to Night Vale can be found here.

 

1. Critical Hit/Major Spoilers

Critical Hit Major Spoilers Logo

This entry is somewhat cheating because it’s two different podcasts on the same podcast network. However, both are shows of merit and deserve mention, and Critical Hit would not exist without Major Spoilers. The Major Spoilers podcast is a show that collects and talks about the big nerd news each week, movies and tv shows, but the particular focus is on talking about comic books. The group reviews and rates that week’s releases, and, as the title suggests, they don’t hold back on the spoilers. Given the geek revolution of recent years, there is usually a lot of news to cover, so the podcasts do run a bit long. However, the group is dedicated to their work and seem to have a lot of fun with it, so the show never seems to drag. It comes out every Tuesday, and it is a good way for listeners to catch up on anything they might have missed in the week. Critical Hit is a spinoff show from Major Spoilers that releases every Saturday. It is a Dungeons and Dragons podcast featuring a group playing and discussing the Fourth Edition (and recently Fifth Edition as well) of the classic role playing game. The game has been going now for long enough that it has been broken into seasons, and this has given listeners a lot of time to connect with the characters. For anyone who has ever wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons but has never had the time or the social group to do so, this is a great way to get introduced to the game. Experienced players will enjoy experiencing the story and watching it develop, even those who have expressed dislike of the Fourth Edition system. Some may find that dislike melting away as they join in on the adventure and learn more about the gameplay. Again, the episodes run fairly long, but there is a lot of action and a lot of story, and the time commitment never feels like a burden.

More information about Critical Hit and Major Spoilers can be found here.

 

These are some of my personal favorites. Any readers who would like to share the podcasts they most enjoy, please do so in the comments section below. I’ll listen to them, and you may see your favorite in a future Podcast Roundup.

The Political Thriller of the Year

Youtube Now Streaming

 

Tuesday night saw part six of a seven part miniseries that airs only one episode each year. The show was heavily plot laden with compelling characters – including antagonists who utilized the power of sitting still and silently as their primary weapons and the country’s favorite quirky sidekick, who forgot to unbutton his jacket while he was sitting. While the story was a bit meandering and had been heavily spoiled by previews in the weeks leading up to the air date, it had some humor and plenty of moments that will be discussed and argued about around water coolers for the remainder of the week. With the leading protagonist played by President Barack Obama, it’s time to discuss the 2015 State of the Union Address.

 

State of the Union Logo

 

The United States Constitution requires that the President “from time to time” report to Congress on the state of the union. This requirement has turned into one of the largest political events of the year, a set opportunity for the President to address a joint session of Congress and the American people at the same time. During the speech, the President discusses how things are going in the country – politically, socially, economically – and he lays out his vision of what can and should be done in the next year. Applause and standing ovations interrupt the speech every minute or so, at least from those in favor of whatever statement the President has just made. Many of the more partisan ideas touted by the President will result in half of the room standing to clap while those in the other half vie for the title of “Most Disgruntled-Looking.” Since seating is, for the most part, unassigned, Republicans and Democrats rarely intermingle in their seat choices, resulting in a clear line down the center of the room that divides the aisles. General procedure now explained, let’s move on to the specifics of tonight’s show.

 

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President Obama’s speech did not contain any surprising elements, particularly given that the White House has spent the past weeks talking about what to expect from the address. Topics of note included: free tuition to community college for those willing to work for it; closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp; raising taxes on the rich so as to ease the burden on middle-class families; reforming immigration; closing loopholes in the tax code; opening relations with Cuba; raising the minimum wage; defeating ISIL and terrorists worldwide; focusing on infrastructure development; continuing economic policies that have brought the country out of recession; climate change and energy alternatives; and the need for bipartisanship. One particularly high note in the speech was President Obama’s call for more civil dialogue and elevated debate between the parties. While the sentiment is truly meritorious, it might have had greater impact if it came in a speech that did not so often subtly (and occasionally overtly) insult Republican leadership and positions.

 

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Every word said in the speech is going to be parsed and rehashed in the next few weeks by pundits from both sides, but what deserves mention is the showmanship of the night, by both sides. President Obama is a powerful speaker, and he knows how to stir an audience. His speechwriters wrote a strong speech, and they knew what points needed to be hit to resonate with the American people. More than that, though, the speechwriters knew how to frame the points that Republicans were most likely to attack during their rebuttal. The Democratic members of Congress got an exhaustive workout during the evening, based on how often they were standing and sitting. The Republicans, on the other hand, had all individually found that one comfortable position in their chairs, and they were determined not to lose it. Even during scenes that focused on the President during periods of applause, the reactions of the separate parties could be judged based on the behavior of Vice-President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner, both of whom sat behind the President. The points where Speaker Boehner did not clap or was reluctant to clap will give Republicans across the country a clear idea on the points they should argue with their Democratic coworkers in the morning. His lack of hand movement also suggests that many of the projects proposed tonight by President Obama are not going to pass the Republican-controlled Congress.

 

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The Republican response was delivered this year by Senator Joni Ernst from Iowa. She told stories about growing up poor, having to make it to where she is through hard work and determination. She spoke about her time in the military to highlight how important the defense of America is, and how important it is to stop ISIL. She spoke of the tragedy of the terrorist attack in Paris. And she did it all without emotion or intonation. The problem that Senator Ernst ran into was that her response was pre-written. She was clearly reading lines that had been worked and molded over a series of weeks, but that failed to actually respond to any points raised during the President’s address. The show would have been much improved if the party spokesman had been given talking points instead of a script and had been able to attend the event so that points from the address could be brought up and rebutted. While her military background and the fact that she’s a young, female, Republican Senator may have made her an appealing choice to represent a party that is often seen as being filled with only old white men, she was not the impressive speaker that the Republicans needed to counter the highly charismatic President Obama. Senator Ernst did as she was asked by her party, a noble endeavor, but she was simply not the right person for the job.

 

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Senator Joni Ernst giving the Republican Response to the 2015 State of the Union Address. Full transcript can be found here: http://nydn.us/1yJegRU

 

President Obama has one more State of the Union address to give, one that will help set the tone of the 2016 election year. He will be working with a Republican Congress for the rest of his presidency, which has caused many to already declare him a ‘lame duck.’ However, he is still trying to serve the citizens of the United States as best he can. On January 21, 2015 – the day after his 2015 State of the Union address – he is digitally hosting what is known as “Big Block of Cheese Day,” a chance for citizens to talk to White House staffers about issues that impact them, to ask questions and to give feedback about the state of the union from outside the capital.

 

 

The importance of the State of the Union address has been in question of late, but it is hard to deny the show quality of the event. Anyone who likes political dramas such as House of Cards, West Wing or even Scandal would enjoy the political intrigue at play. Those who don’t enjoy such shows will still find it entertaining and enlightening, and it may impact your vision of the country and its leaders. But, above all else, it is good television.

The 2015 State of the Union Address starred President Barack Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senator Joni Ernst and can be found in full on YouTube, and likely many other news websites as well. The full script will be posted online in coming days. The next episode will air live in early 2016 on every broadcast network and every cable news channel.

I wish…

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Disney gave audiences a great gift this Christmas in the form of Into the Woods, a cinematic version of one of Stephen Sondheim’s most popular Broadway musicals. It’s a story that retells and interweaves classic fairytales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel. With a solid storyline to adapt for the screen, a Tony Award-winning soundtrack and a stellar cast, this is a movie worth seeing.

 

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If it’s not evident from the opening paragraph, this movie is a musical. Go into the theatre expecting lots of singing. Songs move a lot of the action in the film. I feel this needs to be clear and stated up front because as I walked out of the theatre, a surprising number of people were saying, “I didn’t know it was a musical,” or, “There was too much singing.” If you’re not a fan of musicals in general, no matter the genre, don’t go see this movie. If you’re open to giving musicals a try, however, and you like fairytales, this is a great starter musical.

Note that I won’t be critiquing the fairytale logic used in terms of the storytelling. Things such as people getting eaten by wolves and surviving, beanstalks growing to the sky overnight, climbable hair and people being able to talk to birds are just accepted as magical. I’m not looking to quarrel with the Brothers Grimm about precisely how far a giant would have to fall to be killed.

 

Emily Blunt and James Corden as the Baker and his Wife

Emily Blunt and James Corden as the Baker and his Wife

 

Additionally, given how much of a fan I am of the original play, I’ll do my best to be impartial and judge the movie on its own merits. That does not mean, however, that I won’t make some comparisons between the two.

For example, many of the problems in the film come from simple differences between screen and stage. Though Sondheim himself was involved in all aspects of the movie except the editing, the film does stay remarkably true to the play’s script, down to exact lines being repeated. However, a straight adaptation of a play to a film often does not work. One such point is the transition between plots. The first half of the play and the movie both involve the main characters traveling through the woods to get their dearest wishes. The second half happens sometime later, but involves the characters discovering that wishes have consequences, and that happily-ever-after doesn’t always last. This divide in plots works well for the stage show, where intermission can separate the two halves. In the movie, however, there is no divide, and it’s somewhat jarring to go from a celebration that many in the theatre thought was the end of the movie (people were standing to leave) to another 45 minutes of a new plot.

 

Meryl Streep as the Witch

Meryl Streep as the Witch

 

The other poor transitions from stage to film were not nearly as major. There were points at which Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) seemed to be overacting a little, but that could only be seen during close shots in his big number “Giants in the Sky.” Huttlestone sang the piece wonderfully, but he looked constantly surprised. While this was probably meant to be portraying his shock at finding giants living in a palace on the clouds, it looked more like he couldn’t believe the sounds coming from his own mouth. This overacting, which can help in the theatre when people in the seats might be too far away to see small facial changes, does not work for the big screen, where every tic and gesture is hard to miss. The other overacting scene belonged to the two princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) during the song “Agony,” though that was surely intentional, meant to show the characters’ over-the-top nature; it turned out well, and was a funny scene to accompany a funny song.

 

Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine performing "Agony"

Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine performing “Agony”

 

Audiences should also go into this movie realizing that the focus is on the characters and the score, not on the scenery – another holdover from the stage. While the backgrounds are beautiful and well designed, they are also fairly static. A lot of the sets are seen multiple times, and it can be hard to tell different sections of the forest from others. There are a few grand, sweeping shots, but, on the whole, the point of the movie is not where the characters are so much as what they’re doing and saying. The special effects were rather muted too, but again, not the point.

Now, saying that the focus isn’t on the scenery and effects doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t visually striking. The costumes are impeccable; the outfit for the Wolf (Johnny Depp) is particularly imaginative (I will say, though, the Wolf costume from the stage show has its own, shall we say, anatomical merits; I recommend an image search…). The actors are all incredibly attractive people too; even while Meryl Streep as the Witch is complaining about being cursed with ugliness, she’s still one of the most beautiful women on the planet.

 

Johnny Depp as the Wolf

Johnny Depp as the Wolf

 

Speaking of actors, aside from the overacting issues mentioned, the characters are brought to life by an incredibly talented cast lineup. The main cast is made up of six actors: Daniel Huttlestone (Jack), James Corden and Emily Blunt (the Baker and his Wife), Meryl Streep (the Witch), Anna Kendrick (Cinderella) and Lilla Crawford (Little Red Riding Hood). While the cast is rounded out by actors such as Christine Baranski (Cinderella’s step-mother) and Tracy Ullman (Jack’s mother), these six carry the action and the story. The jokes are delivered with precise timing, the personality of the characters is found and displayed expertly and, more than anything, these actors can sing.

 

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella

 

The soundtrack for this movie is nothing less than beautiful. Even compared to the soundtracks from the staged shows, this soundtrack with these actors is a powerful musical selection. I’ll admit to a bit of apprehension about the soundtrack before it was released; Johnny Depp in Sweeny Todd and Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia were not at their best vocally. My fears for this movie, however, were quickly scattered. Though Depp is perhaps the weakest singer of the group, even his number “Hello, Little Girl” was solid, and he was a great choice for the role; he played the pedophilic wolf with a level of weirdness audiences have come to expect from him. Daniel Huttlestone and Lilla Crawford, despite their young ages, are quite talented musically; Jack and Little Red Riding Hood have some fun but challenging songs in this film, and they were beautiful to hear. Anna Kendrick was a good fit for Cinderella, and her voice stood out in every song she sang. James Corden and Emily Blunt seemed to have a lot of fun with their songs, and their enthusiasm showed through the music. Meryl Streep, however, was far and away the star vocalist. The Witch gets the largest number of solos in the movie, and all of these songs are emotional and powerful and beautiful. For sheer hilarity, however, my favorite song is “Agony,” sung by the princes about how unfair life is to them (video below).

 

 

Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale play about taking care what you wish for and your wish’s ability to bring you happiness suffered some hiccups in the transition from stage to screen, but it is one of the best film adaptations of a stage musical to date. It is a PG-rated Disney movie, so it is appropriate for all ages, though it did lose some of the dark edge that makes the staged show so popular. There is a filmed version of the stage show on DVD and Netflix, if you’re ever in the mood to see the original. In the meantime, however, the film adaptation is an amazing rendition of a classic play, and one that I would recommend to any fan of good music, musical theatre or fantasy and fairytales.

Into the Woods is in theatres now. It is directed by Rob Marshall, distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and is based on the musical play of the same name by Stephen Sondheim.

How to Make Today a Great Day

Netflix Now Streaming

With 104 days at your disposal, what sort of adventures and activities could you come up with to keep busy? For most of us, work or tv or books or video games would consume our time, cementing us to our couches and chairs. We wouldn’t take advantage of all the adventure and excitement that the world holds. The Disney X D show Phineas and Ferb explores this idea of making the most of each and every day, turning 104 days of sitting in front of a screen into 104 days of exploration and imagination. With three seasons and a full-length movie on Netflix, anyone can and should spend time watching how these creative kids spend their time.

 

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Before delving too deeply into this review, I should point out that, yes, this is a cartoon, and one originally aimed at kids. However, Disney is masterful at making cartoons for kids that appeal to adults too. The company knows that the parents are going to be dragged into watching whatever the kids are watching, so small jokes and references are added into most Disney cartoons. Phineas and Ferb takes that to an even higher level. Many of the jokes are ones that kids would never get without explanation, ones that adults will find uproariously funny. So, even if you think that cartoons are for kids, and that you won’t enjoy the show, give it a chance. You may find the show funnier than you imagined. Each episode of Phineas and Ferb follows a pretty standard formula. Without commercials, the runtime of each episode is around 23 minutes, broken into two parts. Sometimes a storyline will take the whole 23 minutes, but most episodes have the two separate stories. Within each story, there are three intermingling plots.

 

Ferb and Phineas with friends Isabella, Buford and Baljeet

Ferb and Phineas with friends Isabella, Buford and Baljeet

 

The first revolves around the titular characters, Phineas Flynn and Ferb Fletcher, step-brothers who are inventive and mechanical geniuses. The pair are not content with just sitting lazily around, they have to be building something new or else they get stir-crazy. These inventions often defy logic, explanation and physics. The science of the world seems to bend itself backwards in order to accommodate the brothers. Also included in their story for the episode are their three closest friends, a bully named Buford, a nerd named Baljeet and Isabella, the leader of the local Fireside Girls troop (think Girl Scouts meet Navy SEALS).

 

Linda and Candace Flynn

Linda and Candace Flynn

 

The next story involves their older sister, Candace Flynn, and their mother, Linda Flynn-Fletcher. Candace is spending her summer caught between trying to “bust” her brothers to their mom – her version of tattling and getting them in trouble – and trying to pursue the boy she likes. Linda tries to keep her daily life going despite all the interruptions by her daughter, and she never manages to see the crazy contraptions that her sons build, much to Candace’s dismay. Over time, Candace begins to believe that there’s a mysterious force at work that is plotting against her, ensuring that their mother never sees what the boys are building. More often than not, though, it’s just the work of an evil scientist fighting his nemesis.

 

Perry the Platypus and Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz

Perry the Platypus and Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz

 

The third plot line centers on the family’s pet platypus, Perry. While it’s weird enough for a family to have a pet platypus, this particular platypus also happens to be a secret agent named Agent P working for a group known as OWACA – the Organization Without A Cool Acronym. OWACA utilizes unusually smart and strong animal agents to combat evil; though the animals are talented, they cannot speak – they are just animals, after all. Perry the Platypus spends his days fighting Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, an inept evil scientist scheming to take over the Tri-State Area. Dr. Doofenshmirtz has a new device – which he calls an “inator” (as in “forgetinator” or “turn everything evil-inator”) – that complements whatever painful backstory he has in mind that day. The fight between Perry and Dr. Doofenshmirtz follows roughly the same formula each episode: Dr. Doofenshmirtz traps Perry in an overly elaborate trap, gives his backstory monologue, begins to activate his machine (which invariably causes whatever the boys are doing to escape the notice of their mother), and then Perry escapes, blows up the machine (and Dr. Doofenshmirtz at the same time) and flies back home, where he resumes his secret identity.

In the course of these three interwoven stories, there is always at least one musical number. The music is original to the episode, and the songs are often catchy enough that you’ll find yourself humming them days later (one of the most popular songs can be found below). Disney even released a cd of the top songs from the first season, well worth a listen. The songs are usually either funny or touching, sometimes both, and the stellar vocal cast that the show has gathered performs them to perfection. In fact, the musical numbers have earned the show four Emmy nominations, an impressive feat for an animated show.

 

 

One of the best features of this show that separates it from other cartoons is how it deals with the characters. Most cartoons – especially ones aimed toward children – will give the main character some sort of flaw that lasts for exactly one episode, and that they must overcome in order to beat the bad guy and resolve the story. Phineas and Ferb doesn’t do that. The characters have remained fairly stable since the beginning. Major changes in character are due to long-term story arc changes or due to outside forces such as one of Dr. Doofenshmirtz’s devices, not some personal failing that suddenly surfaced just in time for the character to learn some important lesson.

The language used in the show is a key factor in its appeal to adults. Now, by that, I don’t mean to suggest that the cartoon kids are doing their versions of the “Seven words you can’t say on tv.” Rather, the show does not talk down to the audience, either the kids or the adults. In fact, at times the show’s use of words may be beyond what a child could handle. Words such as sesquipedalian, techno-mimetic and septuagenarian have all appeared in just the last few episodes that I re-watched. The show managed to work them in seamlessly, too. Sesquipedalian is not an easy word to use in a punchline, but Phineas and Ferb found a way.

 

Final shot of the musical episode "Rollercoaster: The Musical!"

Final shot of the musical episode “Rollercoaster: The Musical!”

 

No show is perfect, though this one comes close. Apart from the pains of waiting for more episodes to go up on Netflix and the suspense of whether the show will continue to run, the only downside is in comparison to itself. The show has some phenomenal episodes, including two episodes that featured Disney’s recently acquired properties Star Wars and Marvel Comics. While there are no truly bad episodes of the show, some are weaker than others. This is mainly noticeable if you watch multiple episodes back-to-back in marathon style, though it can also be seen in the first few episodes of the series, while the show was still working to set itself up. Fortunately, there’s no real over-arching plot, so you can skip the early episodes and come back to them once you’re a devoted fan of the show.

 

The Phineas and Ferb/Marvel crossover event titled Mission: Marvel

The Phineas and Ferb/Marvel crossover event titled Mission: Marvel

 

Overall, I rank this in my favorite shows, so I recommend it to anyone of any age. I was introduced to the show by my 40-year-old high school physics teacher and my 22-year-old (at the time) best friend, independently of each other. I was resistant at first, thinking it to be a show for kids, and then laughed my way through the whole series. Multiple times. I’m even re-watching it as I write this review. There’s a lot of humor that will resonate with people of all ages. Give the show a try; watch two episodes, and if you’re not in love with it by then, you don’t have to watch any more. But I’m willing to bet you’ll be singing along to the theme song as you make the choice to start the third episode.

Phineas and Ferb is written by Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh and airs on Disney and Disney X D. Three seasons and the movie are available to stream on Netflix Instant.

God, the Devil and John

NBC Now Airing

With the winter hiatus upon us and a lack of new episodes until mid-January at the earliest, now seems like a good time to take a look back at one of this season’s newest gems. Constantine premiered late in the season in the timeslot vacated for Hannibal’s season break. NBC didn’t stray far in swapping out the two shows – they’re comparable in terms of blood, mystery and number of gnawed on humans. Production on Constantine’s inaugural season halted after only four episodes had aired. However, right around the time of the fifth episode, things started picking up. Viewership increased, ratings went up and the plot began to truly resonate with the audience. Unfortunately, because the show hit its stride after the decision was made to halt production, we may only get to see the 13 episodes already made before this show is gone. That is, unless it picks up more in ratings and viewership. So, here’s why your date night on Friday, January 16th should involve a date with your couch and an NBC show about a British detective… who hunts demons.

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Constantine – based on DC Comics’ Hellblazer series – centers on supernatural detective John Constantine and his companions as they fight the often referenced “rising darkness.” John’s core support team is his seemingly immortal friend Chas Chandler and the clairvoyant mystery woman Zed Martin, both of whom appear in the original comics in some form. Heaven’s support of the team arrives in the form of an angel named Manny, whose cryptic clues often frustrate John onto the correct path. How can a show get more interesting than when it has a spellcasting detective, a psychic, an immortal and an angel fighting evil? You add in a haunting backstory, powerful and threatening villains, and easter egg allusions to other DC properties.

Harold Perrineau, Matt Ryan, Angélica Celaya and Charles Halford as Manny, John Constantine, Zed Martin and Chas Chandler respectively.

Harold Perrineau, Matt Ryan, Angélica Celaya and Charles Halford as Manny, John Constantine, Zed Martin and Chas Chandler respectively.

Though the show is based on a comic book line, it’s not a direct port to the screen. John’s backstory in the show is from an arc that happened early in the Hellblazer run, but the detective’s introduction to the supernatural world happened differently in the comics and the show. Constantine opens with John in a mental hospital after a trauma from years before – the accidental casting of a young girl’s soul into Hell – finally caught up with him. The show has done a good job of building on this background with each episode while not rubbing it in the audience’s face. In these first eight episodes, John has teamed up with a number of others who were a part of that exorcism gone wrong, all of whom are dealing with the psychological damage in their own way, from drinking to drugs to joining a convent. Meanwhile, the mystery of Zed – who saw visions of John before they met and who is learning from him how to control her clairvoyant powers – is dangled tantalizingly both in front of the audience and in front of John himself, as Zed refuses to share any details about her past.

To counter such a crack team as this, the forces of evil moving against them have to be compelling and believably strong. While the show has started as a “monster of the week” type show, using the phrase “rising darkness” as a catch-all for the things going bump in the night, the individual villains don’t feel forced or out of place in this story. The only antagonist to show up more than once so far is a character named Papa Midnite, though his motives tend more toward personal gain and less toward outright evil. Papa Midnite is another character straight from the comics, and he’ll likely make more appearances in the back half of this first season. While remaining free of spoilers, it should be noted that the presumed cause of the “rising darkness” is introduced in the eighth episode, the cliffhanger episode that aired leading into the hiatus.

Michael James Shaw as Papa Midnite

Michael James Shaw as Papa Midnite

One thing that makes tv shows based on comic books fun is the connection to the source material. With such a rich and extensive history to look at, fans who have read the comics have the opportunity to speculate on what might happen next based on what they know of the characters and plotlines already. Not only that, but the linked nature the DC universe allows for other popular characters to show up unexpectedly. While we likely won’t see Batman or Superman or any of the other big names of the Justice League on the show anytime soon, there have already been some hints toward the characters Dr. Fate (his helmet was in the first episode) and Swamp Thing (mentioned in a message if you call the phone number on John’s business card). Jim Corrigan, known to DC Comics fans as the man who becomes The Spectre upon his death, showed up in episode five; his return as The Spectre was hinted at through Zed’s clairvoyant visions. While this does give a little extra treat to those in the audience who have read the comics, not recognizing these add-ins doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the show at all.

Every show has its growing pains, but Constantine got them out of the way early. It has become a solid show that deserves more than one truncated season. With over 25 years of source material to draw from and a skilled cast to bring the characters to life, the only thing this show lacks is the dedicated fanbase and audience to keep it on the air. January 16th, the return from hiatus, will be a key night in deciding the future of this show. In the meantime, new viewers can catch up on Hulu and NBC.com. I highly recommend this show to anyone who is a fan of fantasy, science fiction, comics, horror movies or any good, character-driven dramas with witty and sarcastic humor.

Constantine stars Matt Ryan, Angélica Celaya, Charles Halford and Harold Perrineau and airs Fridays at 8/7c on NBC, at least for five more weeks.