Wednesday, October 1, 2014

New TV Show Mini Review: Forever

So far, this is my favorite new show of the season.  Don't get me wrong.  I think Gotham is excellent so far, but it is very dark.  Dark does not mean bad, but you have to be in a certain mood to watch.  But I've found myself looking forward to this show for the past 3 weeks.

The plot is centers on Dr. Henry Morgan (a fantastic Ioan Gruffudd) who is a man who cannot permanently die.  The reason for the "permanently" is that he can be killed, but he then regenerates naked in a body of water.  In his 200 years he has been learning everything he can about life and death and is now a medical examiner.  Through a series of circumstances he begins working with Det. Jo Martinez (Alana de la Garza) on cases.  Henry uses his powers of observations to see what others can't.  The only one who knows his secret is Abe (Judd Hirsch) who brings such a nice rye and dry wit as well as heart.

So basically this show is Sherlock meets Castle meets Highlander.  So if that appeals to you, I would check this out.

I love mystery shows and Forever has some nice surprises.  The biggest detriment is that there is a voice-over narration that is a little heavy-handed.  Also there are some ironic jokes sprinkled throughout the show about Henry wanting to live forever, which gets a little old.

But I like that the show raises questions about life and death and meaning.  Right now Henry is studying death because he is looking for a way to die.  It reminds me of something CS Lewis said: we do not want to live forever.  We want love and happiness forever, but we only want life because it is a prerequisite for those things.  Right now, Henry has lived so long that he doesn't have a lot of love and happiness, so he is trying to let go of life.  But the show seems to be about finding value and meaning, which I like.

But the show is a lot of fun.  I like the mysteries and there is also an overarching storyline that is tying the entire series.

4 out of 5 stars

New Evangelizers Post: Rejection or Renewal

I have a new article up at

A lot of Catholic bloggers and pundits have spilled a good deal of digital ink on the latest controversy to come out of the Archdiocese of New York:  The St. Patrick’s Day parade will, for the first time, have marchers in it who boldly and visibly support an active homosexual lifestyle.  And this is to be done while Cardinal Dolan is the grand marshal.

Msgr. Charles Pope even put out a post calling for an end the parade itself, citing that it is no longer in any way, shape, or form, Catholic.  He writes:  
“Frankly, lets [sic] be honest, St. Patrick’s Day nationally has become a disgrace of drunkenness and foolishness in the middle of Lent that more often embarrasses the memory of Patrick than honors him… It’s time to cancel the St. Patrick’s Parade, and the Al Smith Dinner and all other sorts of ‘catholic’ traditions that have been stolen by the world. Better for Catholics to enter their churches on their knees on St. Patrick’s day and pray in reparation for the foolishness to end for this confused world to return to its senses. Lets [sic] do adoration and pray unceasingly the rosary and divine mercy chaplet for this poor old world.”
I find it hard to argue with his assertion that a lot of the reverence has left this feast day.  Once when I was in high school, some friends and I went downtown to a St. Patrick’s Day parade.  My only memory of the day was the bitter cold and endless line of drunks wearing green.  

Msgr. Pope also called for the end to the Al Smith Dinner, which is a fundraiser for Catholic Charities where the presidential candidates for both parties, as well as the Cardinal, are in attendance.  He points out that in an age when candidates stand for intrinsic evils like abortion on demand, any appearance of collegiality with them sends out a mixed message.

Now this post is not about what side of the above issues I support.  But I do want to use this to illustrate a constant dilemma faced by the Church: rejection or renewal.

You can read the entire article here.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Trailer Time: TAK3N

I loved the original Taken.  It touched a raw nerve that set off a satisfyingly violent action film.  The second one was a bit of disappointment, to be honest.

I have higher hopes for this one though.  I like the new twist to the story and I like the inversion of the original trailer.  I think I'm going to have to see this one in the theater too.


New TV Show Mini Review: Blackish

A lot of people have made comparisons to Anthony Anderson's new comedy Blackish and the 1980's classic The Cosby Show, saying how similar they are.

They aren't.

That isn't to say that the show is bad.  In fact it is quite a bit of good-natured fun.  But the big difference is that Cosby intentionally created a culture on his show that celebrated his black heritage in a way that did not seem confrontational or controversial.

On Blackish, Anderson's Andre Johnson is living the American dream where he and his wife have achieved great financial success.  But whereas Cosby saw this success for the black family, Blackish sees it as a threat to losing the black identity.

That isn't to say that the show is cynical or hostile.  Everyone is treated to good-natured parody.  And it highlights the paradoxical desires of Andre.  He is upset that his youngest kids don't hang out with the only other black child in their class because they don't think that they should care about race.  He thinks that they should be racially selective.  But Andre is upset that he has been promoted at his work as the head of "Urban" division.  He wants his bosses to be colorblind but not his kids.

What makes this work is that Blackish never seems mean.  Everyone seems ridiculous.

And the writing is fairly sharp.  My favorite part of the pilot was this exchange between Andre and his doctor wife Rainbow (Tracee Elis Ross) about their son losing their black identity (I'm paraphrasing)

ANDRE: If he [their son] tries to too much like a white man might end up being chased down the highway in a white Ford Bronco by the cops
RAINBOW: So you think if he plays field hockey he's going to end up murdering his wife?

I laughed so hard I had to pause the DVR.

The rest of the pilot was fairly fun.  Lawrence Fishburne as Andre's father brings a nice grounding.  When asked about how he used to keep it real, he responds, "I didn't keep it real, I kept it honest."

The thing I liked the least was a moment with Andre and his son Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner) where he says that he says that he's trying basically to get to second base.  Rather than taking a fatherly moment and talk about respecting women, the grandfather chimes in "Can't be mad at him for that!"

But overall, the show is fairly funny with good potential.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, September 29, 2014

Film Review: The Maze Runner

I'm a sucker for a big, mythic mystery.  And that is what I was expecting from The Maze Runner, a sci-fi film that starts by thrusting the audience into a big mystery.

The story kicks off with a teenage boy (Dylan O'Brien) being sent up an industrial elevator with a myriad of supplies.  He is rocketed up in darkness until he reaches the top where it opens up to a walled in glen populated by other teenage boys.

None of the boys can remember anything other than their names (the new boy soon remembers that his is Thomas), but they have built a livable society in that walled in glen that seems limited, but sustainable.  Everyone has a job.  Alby (Ami Amee) is the most senior and the default leader.  Gally (Will Poulter) is the tough one.  Newt (Thomas Brody-Sangster) is the cerebral second in command.  Chuck (Blake Cooper) is the young, innocent comic relief.

There is one opening that closes every night and opens every morning.  In that path is the maze.  Boys have been assigned to be Maze Runners who map out the maze to find a way out.  No one has spent a night in the maze and lived.  For 3 years, the boys have been living there trapped and no one knows why.

But Thomas is different.  He is curious and he is an original thinker.  With the exception of running the maze, most people in the glen are content with their lives.  Thomas questions the rules by which they live which sets the rest of the plot into motion.

One of the very nice things about the story is that it doesn't wait too long until it starts throwing up the established rules.  The set up is excellent at filling you with fear about the unknown maze, especially about the mysterious "Grievers" that inhabit it.  The rules don't feel like sheepish obedience.  You can understand how strict discipline has been necessary for basic survival.  So when Thomas starts upsetting the apple cart it feels like an incredibly dangerous act to everyone.

It is hard to talk about the rest of the plot without giving away the surpising plot points.  But Thomas' main question is why?  Why are they there?  Why put them in a maze at all?  Why take away their memories? The story does a good job of showing that hope and freedom, while precious, require a lot of risk and sacrifice.  There are some like Sliverweed in Watership Down or Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption who have come to depend on their prison walls.  Fear of what is beyond has paralyzed them from reaching out.

The action is fast-paced and director Wes Ball does an excellent job with his first feature.  Every new discovery leads to new possiblities and new dangers.  He is able to capture the grandure and danger of every moment in the maze.  He is also able to get some fairly good performances out of his young cast.

What I espescially like about his direction is the sense of both grandeur and clostrophobia.  Like the low-budget sci-fi classic Cube, the Maze is frought with everchanging danger.  And while the walls are high and some of the space is big, Ball also makes you feel how the walls are closing in and can literally cut you off.

The biggest downside of the story is the ending.  This is the first in a trilogy and it feels like they withheld a lot for the next chapter.  So if your investment in the movie is based purely on having the mystery resoloved, like Cube, you will be disappointed.

But I have to say that the story now has me hooked.  And I now want to know what happens next to those who survive the maze.

3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #10 - Parks and Recreation


When this show first came out, it seemed like the less intelligent cousin to The Office.  And to be sure, Parks and Recreation had a lot of growing pains.  For a long time, the show had trouble finding its way.  But finally, everything clicked and not only made the show click, but it made the previous awkward episodes more watchable.

There are 3 stars to this show.  The first is Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope.  Poehler is one of the finest comediennes ever on television.  She brings a passionate intensity to her character that is at the same time infuriating and endearing.  She is so earnest that you cannot help but admire her.  And even when she steamrolls, she does so with great enthusiasm and love.  She is masterful at both joke delivery and funny body language.

But the second star counterbalances her: Nick Overman as Ron Swanson.  He is the prefect foil to Leslie and their comedic chemistry is not only wonderful, but he has some of the funniest lines of the show.  His part is not very showy, but there is a masculine restraint and deadpan that he is able to draw out amazing laughs with very little outward energy.

Finally, Chris Pratt as Andy Dwyer shines in this show.  This is surprising since his character was mostly an unlikable leech in the first season.  But Pratt brings an innocent enthusiasm to his performance that you can see his mental wheels slowly turn and he rings every laugh not only out of every gesture but with some pretty wild pratfalls.  He isn't afraid to go big, which is perfect for his character.

The rest of the supporting cast is also fantastic.  Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, and Aubrey Plaza are fantastic.  Rashida Jones plays the shows "straight man."  Aziz Ansari is mostly annoying, but after a few seasons you get used to him.

One of the show's strengths is that it plays politics at large on the local level for laughs.  Leslie is for larger, more involved government.  Ron is for no government at all.  Surprisingly, the show does not make Ron automatically wrong the way Family Ties did for Alex P. Keaton.  Instead, his points are made and sometimes Leslie has to learn from them.  In one episode, they are planning on putting a copy of Twilight into a town time capsule.  One very conservative looking woman stands up and objects because of how anti-Christian and sensual the book is.  Another liberal hipster-looking man stands up and objects because the book is too overtly Christian.  The show works best when it mines humor from both sides of the political spectrum.  And while Leslie and Ron often disagree, there is still a notable mutual respect.

Of course it should be noted that while there is a healthy respect on the show for liberalism and libertarian moral conservatism is caricatured and lampooned.  The weakest and worst part of the show is when moral issues come up like "gay marriage," pornography, or contraception comes up, anyone who espouses a traditionally moral position is painted in broad, villainous brushstrokes.

But the above is not often a factor.  Instead, the show is an hysterical collection of social foibles in small town America.

"Flu Season" (3x02)

This show has a particularly long threshold because it took a long time for it to find its voice.  If you go and watch the first season, you can see the bones of some of the great characters like Ron and Andy, but something wasn't clicking.  In the second season, things became funnier, but the show had yet to become appointment television.

But at the end of the second season, they cut Mark Brandanawitz (an adequate Paul Schneider) and added the relentlessly cheery Chris Trager (Rob Lowe) and the budget slashing Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott).  This cast shake up was exactly what the show needed.  And this became clear in the Flu Season episode.

In this episode, Leslie has to give a make-or-break presentation to local businesses, but she is too sick with flu to do it well.  Some of Poehler's funniest moments come in this episode.  It also clearly sets the space and relationships to all the other characters and the chemistry finally begins to percolate.

"Sex Education" (5x04)
As stated earlier, here is where the show loses some of its spark.  This episode uses an outbreak of STD's among the elderly as a metaphor for getting contraceptives to teens.  It is with this episode that the show takes not only a kind of nasty stab at people who are interested in morals, it takes a dip in writing quality.  The shows bad guys become completely 1-dimensional  In the previous episode, they introduced Councilman Jamm, who has no other function than to be a jerk.  Nothing he does is funny or logical.  He is unpleasant to watch and makes every scene he is in uncomfortable to watch.  The "bad guys" in this episode are also portrayed this way.

There is a laziness here that pops up more and more from this point forward on the show.

"April and Andy's Fancy Party"

There is an episode in the 5th season called "Two Parties" that has some of the shows best moments as all of the male characters go on a bachelor party marathon, but the other half of the show is not nearly as good.

But this episode from the 3rd season was surprising and hilarious.  April is a dour, cynical 21-year-old who has fallen in love with the man-child Andy despite herself.  After nearly a year of "will-they-won't they," they finally start dating a few episodes earlier.  And then in this episode they throw a fancy party that Leslie only finds out later is going to be their wedding night.

Leslie's reaction is fantastic:  "Why?  Why.... why... is this wonderful thing happening?"  The rest of the episode plays out with some fantastic character moments with the rest of the cast that is both funny and joyous.

On a side note, I was so shocked that these two characters got married.  Instead of following the usual path on TV (and other characters on the show) of engaging in a long-running sexual relationship and then maybe getting married, these two get married and then move in together.  I'm not saying that they are paragons of virtue, but it was strangely refreshing as it was clear that they took their vows seriously.  And it was nice to see how they each complimented each others qualities and made each other better characters.

The episode is silly and touching, like much of the series.


Parks and Recreation is a silly show that is fun to watch and incredibly endearing.  Thinking about the show will not fail to leave a smile on your face.  The show has one more season and can still knock it out of the park with some amazing energy and wacky humor along with an earnest spirit.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Film Flash: The Equalizer

15 words or less film review (full review to follow soon)

Denzel goes full Liam Nesson in Taken and maybe even outdoes him.  Graphically violent fun.

4 out of 5 stars.