I Watched: The Umbrella Academy Season 2

Unfamiliar with The Umbrella Academy? No worries, I can assist you with that. In October of 1989, forty-three women across the globe became pregnant and delivered babies in the course of one day. The billionaire industrialist, Sir Reginald Hargreeves, manages to adopt seven of these infants and creates The Umbrella Academy in order to train his adopted children to save the world. But teen years being what they are, the kids have a falling out and each goes their separate way and don’t reconnect until they’re in their thirties when they learn of Hargreeves’ passing. They reluctantly work together to solve a mystery surrounding their father’s death, which puts them on a collision course with a global apocalypse. All caught up? Good. Here’s the trailer for Season 2:

The end of Season 1 saw Vanya (Ellen Page) absolutely losing her ever-loving mind and inadvertently bringing about the apocalypse but Five (Aidan Gallagher) manages create a time portal for his family to escape before life as we know it is obliterated. But it was done in rush and the math on the portal wasn’t accurate enough to keep everyone together, so the Hargreeves siblings land in the same location in Dallas, Texas but scattered in time across the early 1960s.

Klaus (Robert Sheehan) and Ben (Justin H. Min) arrive at 1960 where Klaus accidentally becomes the leader of a cult; Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) arrives in 1961 where she lands a job in a beauty salon in the colored part of town and marries a civil rights activist; Luther (Tom Hopper) lands in 1962 and becomes an underground boxer for Jack Ruby; Diego (David Castañeda) lands in September 1963 and winds up in a psychiatric hospital; Vanya lands in October 1963 with no memory and becomes the nanny of a young boy who is on the spectrum; and lastly, Five (Aidan Gallagher) lands on November 25, 1963 in the middle of the Soviet Union invasion of America, and when I say middle I mean US and USSR soldiers are battling all around him. Before Five can get his bearings, his brothers and sisters arrive on the scene to aid the US troops but are unable to stop the nuclear missiles overhead from detonating on American shores.

Before the nukes land, however, Hazel (Cameron Britton) appears beside Five and delivers his version of the classic Arnie line, “If you want to live, come with me.” and he transports Five 10 days in the past and arms him with as much information as he can before he’s gunned down by the assassin trio known as The Swedes (Kris Holden-Ried, Jason Bryden, and Tom Sinclair). The Hargreeves siblings, believing they’re stranded in the past, decide to settle into their new lives which makes Five’s job all the more difficult when he has to pull them out of the comfort of their individual worlds to save the world and repair time. Oh, and their father is alive at the time and very much active in some shady goings-on.

I have to admit I wasn’t looking forward to this season because 1) although I liked the first season well enough, the plot’s big mystery felt belabored and stretched thin and I was beginning to lose interest during the midpoint; and 2) Netflix original content ongoing series usually suffers from sophomore slump. That is absolutely not the case here. Season 2 surpasses its predecessor by a country mile.

And while the season is better, it’s almost a little too familiar with the Hargreeves siblings starting out separated from one another, facing yet another global apocalypse, and being dragged into investigating yet another mystery surrounding their father, Sir Reginald Hargreeves. The saving grace is each character is placed in different settings and is allowed to grow outside of the confines of their dysfunctional family relationships. Not so much for Five, Luther, Klaus, or Vanya (who gets a personality reset thanks to a helpful bout of amnesia) but Diego, Allison and Ben are each given their moments in the spotlight, and through Diego, we’re introduced to the most intriguing character of the season, his girlfriend, Lila (Ritu Arya).

Okay, I’m not being totally fair to Klaus or Vanya because they both have moments where they deal with the hardships relating to differing sexual preferences especially when placing the well-being of others before themselves, just as Allison comes face to face with the reality of the lengths some people will go to express their dislike of the color of a person’s skin.

If I had my druthers, I would have liked to see more development in the season’s antagonists. While it’s sometimes fun to watch Kate Walsh chew up the scenery, her one-note characterization detours into tedium after a while. And The Swedes are nothing more than cardboard cutouts of Season 1’s Hazel and Cha-Cha, with every ounce of personality drained from them. I’m also not the biggest fan of the dance numbers and I realize I’m in the minority here, but if you’ve got the time for a dance number, then you’ve got the time to beef up your bad guys. Just saying. And more of Ritu Arya. She’s amazing.

So, would I recommend The Umbrella Academy Season 2? Yup. Much like the Hargreeves siblings, the series as a whole still has a lot of growing up to do but this season shows the promise of the better, faster, stronger show it can be if it abandons its rehashed story beats and explores bold, new, weightier territories (and by weightier I don’t mean another global damned apocalypse). If you’re looking for superhuman action, humor, jukebox moments and head-scratching time-travel antics, then you’re in the right place. Still not convinced? Why not check out Season 2’s opening scene (it doesn’t spoil anything, trust me):

Ciao til next now.

I Watched: Japan Sinks 2020

Based on the 1973 disaster novel, Nihon Chinbotsu by Sakyo Komatsu, Japan Sinks 2020 is a 10-episode anime series available on Netflix in which a series of major earthquakes hit Japan. We follow the Mutou family (who were separated when the first quake hit) as they reconnect amidst the chaos and try to escape the city before additional quakes and the possible eruption of Mount Fuji threaten to sink Japan.

And that’s all I’m going to give you because I truly do not want to spoil a moment of this for you.

So, would I recommend this series? Without a doubt but it comes with the caveat to keep in mind this is based on a disaster novel, so if you’re out for a lighthearted coming of age Ghibli romp full of magic and wonder, this might not be the anime you’re looking for. The Mutou family and the people they pick up along the way are plunged into extreme life and death situations and from early on you realize that No. One. Is. Safe. which I appreciate, though you might feel differently about it. Different bikes for different likes.

I’ve heard people complain about Naoya Wada’s character designs, Science Saru’s animation style and the fact that the characters in the series live under a constant cloud of hopelessness as the pendulum swings both ways as they experience lucky breaks and violently devastating events in near equal measure, but I was far too interested in the story to nitpick any of these details. When it comes to the show’s atmosphere, I suppose it all boils down to your personal outlook. Is the glass half full or half empty? Do you only see the unapologetically brutal chaos brought on by a natural disaster and how it brings out the worst in some people or can you admire the strength to keep moving forward, the determination to survive in the face of unending adversity which is a cornerstone of the human spirit? Again, each person to their tastes.

For my money, this is a wonderful, intense and compassionate anime series that starts off strong and remains consistent throughout. I started out only planning to watch one episode to get a feel for whether it was in my wheelhouse or not and ended up binging the entire thing in one sitting because each segment closed with a cliffhanger that immediately drew me to the following episode. This deserves more attention and respect than it’s getting. I hope that changes soon.

Ciao til next now.

I Watched: The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night, written by Andrew Patterson (under the pseudonym of James Montague) and Craig W. Sanger, directed by Andrew Patterson and starring Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz, isn’t a movie, not exactly. It’s a tv show inside a movie that runs parallel to real-life events starring the local townsfolk as actors playing themselves, though I doubt they realize it. Got it? Good. Moving on.

The television show being broadcast is Paradox Theater (an homage to The Twilight Zone with a dead-on vocal impression of Rod Serling) and the episode airing is titled, you guessed it, The Vast of Night which takes place in the small town of Cayuga, New Mexico sometime during the 1950s on the night of a high school basketball game. It’s a big event with nearly the whole town in attendance except for those who have to work and among these unlucky few are two teenagers, disc jockey Everett, the Mr. Fixit cock of the walk in his high school circle who carries himself with just enough swagger to be a likeable jerk; and his switchboard operator friend, Fay, a curious science nerd with a deep interest in technology who also wants to become a radio broadcaster.

At work, Fay listens to Everett’s radio show, which gets interrupted by a strange audio signal which is also coming through over the phone lines as she begins fielding calls from the town locals about something strange happening in the sky. Fay calls Everett at the station, lets him listen to the mysterious noise which he, in turn, broadcasts on the air and asks his listeners for information about the signal.

You’re going to hate me for this but I’m not interested in dishing out spoilers so that’s all I’m going to tell you about this film (you can basically get what I’ve mentioned from the trailer). I will say that if you’re looking for some CGI effects-laden alien invasion action extravaganza, this ain’t the film for you. The story is laid out like a breadcrumb trail that leads you to one answer after another in order to solve the big mystery of what’s going down in Cayuga and it’s in no rush to deliver those answers to you.

And before you wave this off to go and rewatch Independence Day for the thousandth time, let me assure you that if you’re a science fiction cinephile, this film is worth your time. The small town feels like a genuine small town, the townies come across as authentic, the atmosphere makes you feel like you’ve slipped on a patch of time and landed back in the 50s, and the acting is top-notch all around. Plus, there’s an innocence present that’s sadly missing from the movies released in the past few years, which is kind of refreshing, actually.

So, would I recommend The Vast of Night? You betcha! And, if the producers got it in their minds to do an X-Files-style tv series featuring Everett and Fay exploring all the mysterious, extraterrestrial and supernatural goings-on that occur in Cayuga during the 50s, I’d be first in line to watch it!

Til next now, “Bacon, bacon, nine-forty.” Watch the film, you’ll understand.

I Watched: Isolation Stories

As we continue to wade through conflicting reports of plans to reopen or reopenings gone horribly wrong thus forcing an immediate shutdown, production studios have been finding ways to provide programming for our viewing pleasure. One such attempt is Isolation Stories, four 15-minute dramas created under lockdown that reflect the trials and tribulations families are going through after weeks of isolation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic crisis. The series is the brainchild of Jeff Pope (writer of Stan & Ollie), whose entire family contracted the coronavirus and luckily were able to come out on the other side in good health without the need for hospitalization.

First up, we have “Mel” written by Gaby Chiappe, directed by Paul Whittington and starring Sheridan Smith in which we find the titular Mel heavily pregnant and absolutely alone in her apartment. To say she’s fed up with life would be an understatement. The father of the baby is a married man who decided to stay with his wife and family, leaving her having to go through the birth of her first child without any support. She even feels estranged from her own family who are all holed up at her Mum and Dad’s house.

Boredom, fear and maybe even a touch of cabin fever causes her to go down the list of people on her phone, desperate to make a connection, even reaching out to a person she hasn’t spoken to in years. Later that evening, Mel is awakened by a call from a stranger. It turns one of the old numbers she dialed belongs to someone new. The female voice on the other end of the line is kind and soothing as Mel gives voice to all her fears and woes. The voice reassures Mel that she’ll be a great Mum but the call is interrupted when a male voice begins shouting and the call is abruptly cut off.

I have a problem with this. Obviously, the woman on the other end of the phone is in an abusive relationship and Mel does attempt to call back but the phone number has been withheld. The story simply moves on from there with Mel having a new appreciation for her situation. What happened to the selfless woman who, despite her own situation, reached out to offer comfort to someone in need? Yes, her number was withheld, but Mel still had the number of the old friend on her phone and could have, should have, called to check on her.

In “Ron & Russell” written by Jeff Pope, directed by Louise Hooper and starring Tom Glenister and Robert Glenister, we find ex-convict Russell who is none too pleased to be isolated with his father, Ron, who believes his son has brought shame on the family. Ron is ill but it’s too early to tell if it’s related to Covid-19 and added to that is the fact that he might have a touch of dementia as he’s convinced he’s not in his own home. Russell doesn’t carry that care-giver gene but as the only healthy person in the house, he’s forced to become his father’s keeper. Things do not go smoothly, especially one time during a feeding when Ron mistakes Russell for his older brother and confesses what a disappoint his son is and calling him a compulsive liar. Russell decides to use his proclivity for lying to do some good for once in order to keep his father’s spirits up. The outcome is heartwarming.

In “Mike & Rochelle” written by William Ivory, directed by Paul Andrew Williams and starring Angela Griffin and Darren Boyd, we meet Mike, an utterly self-absorbed, paranoid hypochondriac who’s living his worst fear of being surrounded by an undetectable, untreatable, silent killer virus. Rochelle gives in to his insistence of an emergency online session, prepared to try and talk him down from the precipice, despite the day being the anniversary of a personal day of hardship for her. Of all the stories, this is the most character driven and a perfect example of role reversal done properly. My personal favorite of the lot.

In “Karen” written by Neil McKay, directed by David Blair and starring Eddie Marsan and David Threlfall, Stephen is isolated in the house with his two sons but his father-in-law, Brian, stops by outside the sliding glass doors leading to the back garden every day to mess about and make boy smile. But Stephen is still bitter and hurting after being left by his wife, the titular Karen, and is annoyed by the daily visits. He’s also ignoring Karen’s request to come see the boys, that is, until he and Brian have a private heart to heart about infidelity and forgiveness.

There’s also a fifth instalment, Isolation Stories: Behind the Scenes, that shows the process of the actors and their family members setting up equipment and shots to film themselves with the directors viewing the footage via smartphones in order to ensure the best takes possible.

So, would I recommend Isolation Stories? Most assuredly. And I wouldn’t mind seeing an additional, expanded series showcasing the various experiences that families and individuals are going through during these difficult times. I’m sure there are hundreds of unique stories just waiting to be told.

Ciao til next now.

I Watched: Trigonometry

Meet Gemma (Thalissa Teixeira), a bisexual independent café owner and Kieran (Gary Carr), her risk-taking paramedic boyfriend who’s constantly getting injured on the job. They work opposite shifts and the only time they have for intimacy is the tiny window between when one comes home exhausted from work and the other has to get ready to go to their job. Not the best recipe for a successful relationship. Added to their woes is the fact that they live in the small, overpriced London flat above Gemma’s struggling café and are forced to take on a renter.

Enter Ray (Ariane Labed), a French Olympic swimmer who retires after sustaining an injury during a performance. Her entire 30-year existence has been training and practicing for Olympic competitions and with that gone, she’s looking to move out from under the protective wing of her parents and experience the world.

When Ray arrives at the address, she sees Kieran rushing to get inside (he and Gemma are trying to sneak in a quickie before interviewing their prospective tenant). Unaware that their interviewee is early for their appointment, Gemma hops out naked from the waist down to surprise Kieran and is instantly mortified upon seeing Ray.

Arguably my favorite line in the series is delivered by Kieran when he tries to defuse the situation by saying, “Probably a good icebreaker, seeing your prospective landlord’s vagina.”

Gemma and Kieran like Ray, offer her the room and after she moves in, Ray likes Gemma and Kieran, so what could be the problem? The fact that both Gemma and Kieran like-like Ray and she like-likes them back. Our thruple then begins walking the path of jealousy, acknowledgement and acceptance, which is fine in the microcosm they create but not-so-fine when they introduce their unique relationship to friends and family.

Similar to my last review, I should point out that I’m not the target demographic for Trigonometry and the show is definitely not in my wheelhouse. So, why am I talking about it? Simple. I like it. Despite the fact that it is absolutely not what I look for in a television show, I actual enjoy this drama/comedy series is written by Duncan Macmillan and Effie Woods and directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari and Stella Corradi. It’s been described as “warm, funny and emotionally truthful” to which I wholeheartedly agree and the undeniable chemistry between the three main characters is a joy to behold. More than just sex, this show explores the emotional complications that arise between three people in a committed relationship.

So, would I recommend Trigonometry? Definitely (as if that comes as a surprise). And before you complain about the lack of story breakdowns and spoilers, realize that I’m doing you a favor and I’ve probably said too much already. Go watch it for yourself.

Ciao til next now.

Project Greenlight Review

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I’ve never been much for reality programming, even before studios got busted for reenacting events and creating fake situations for content, forcing them to minimize their liability by coining the term assisted reality, but when HBO first announced a show focusing on first-time filmmakers being given a chance to write and direct a feature film… I was hooked. Aside from being an aspiring filmmaker, I’m also the type of guy who loves all those wonderful DVD featurettes showing the behind-the-scenes goings on from tv and movie sets, and in most cases, find them to be far more interesting than the actual movie itself. The added value to Project Greenlight is it ran an online script contest, which meant I could actually be a part of the show, if my screenplay survived the brutal peer review stage.

It didn’t.

But I was still very much interested in the show. I can’t describe my disappointment as I watched winner Pete Jones stumble his way through shooting Stolen Summer, a humdrum period piece snorefest about a Catholic boy who tries to help his Jewish friend get into heaven. Had I not watched the tv series, I wouldn’t have bothered seeing this film even if it played on the insides of my eyelids.

Season Two rolled around and this time the contest was split into two categories: writing and directing. I didn’t bother submitting for either category, but because I was still fascinated by the behind-the-scenes aspect, I watched Erica Beeney’s script, The Battle of Shaker Heights (a 17-year old WWII reenactor decides to put his battlefield knowledge to work in real life against his high school enemy), win with Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle landing the coveted directing prize. I figured the showrunners learned from the previous season’s debacle and made the effort to put together a superior show this time around.

Sadly, this was not the case.

The show was such a stinkpot, it got booted from HBO and found a new home on Bravo for Season Three. This time the genre was horror, and a script titled Feast by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, won with winner John Gulager as the director. Even though I thought this season was particularly horrible, Feast (folks trapped in a bar, fending off creatures trying to eat them) turned out to be the most lucrative product the show produced both in box office and DVD sales (hell, it even spawned two sequels).

But the writing was on the wall and the show disappeared into obscurity… or so it seemed.

Nearly ten years after the last season, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck resurrected the series, this time focusing on comedy with a ready-to-shoot Farrelly brothers script on hand. All the mix needed was a first-time director. Once again, my thinking was, come on, it’s been ten damned years since the last run surely the producers have gotten their act together and they wouldn’t bother exhuming a turd and try to pass it off as art, would they? So, out of curiosity (and a bit of hopefulness) I tuned in.

And was pleasantly surprised. The pilot opened with Matt and Ben confessing that the Project Greenlight series had nearly wrecked their careers and their friendship. Great! Now, maybe we would get to go behind the behind-the-scenes to get the scuttlebutt on what really transpired on the show. Maybe this time the Good Will boys would open up and speak candidly about what went wrong with the past seasons and address how the current season would travel more in the true direction of the show’s original vision.

But that never came.

I watched with anticipation as the semi-finalist directors were whittled down and the finalists faced the interview process with a judges panel that included Matt and Ben and a line producer the press would soon come to know, Effie Brown. Each one of the contestants were pleased as punch to be there, expressed an eagerness to work on a Farrelly brothers script, discussed what they could bring to the project… all except one, Jason Mann. From the moment he walked into the interview room, Jason acted like he’d rather be anywhere else in world. He showed no real interest in shooting a comedy, stating in no uncertain terms he’d much rather shoot his own screenplay (a feature length version of the short that landed him a finalist position in the contest). Way to talk yourself out of job there, buddy, I thought.

I will never learn.

By swimming against the supposed stream of the show, Jason made himself a controversial figure, and since this was a reality TV show and we all know these assisted reality shows thrive on conflict, guess who won the contest?

What followed next was a series of staged Hollywood fights (indirect confrontations) where new kid on the block Jason did end runs around all the seasoned professionals. The squabbling and inability to resolve any of the preproduction hurdles led to the quitting of the Farrellys and the fake deliberation over whether Jason got to shoot is own screenplay. Yeah, I called it. It was a setup. The intention was to shoot Jason’s screenplay from the get-go. It was also the worst job of creating drama I’ve ever witnessed. I mean, these guys shoot fantasy-as-reality everyday and are able to elicit rage, instill happiness, or bring audiences to tears, so why the blazes couldn’t they make this scripted nonsense look and feel more authentic? If you’re going to go carny, go full out. I’ll gladly be a rube as long as I can’t see the puppet master manipulating the strings.

And Jason Mann was such and uninteresting and one-dimensional character they had to beef up Effie Brown’s role, putting her at odds with everyone (especially Matt Damon) as she fought for gender and racial diversity. Noble causes, both. Too bad it was wasted on this nothing project. This will be the first time I won’t bother viewing the finished product, The Leisure Class. I’m done. I’m out. Project Greenlight and I are parting ways for good.

I give Project Greenlight, the entire series, Zero Homeless Shopping Carts, but trust me when I say it’s me, Greenlight, not you. I’m the one who hung all the extra tinsel on you, expecting you to live up to my expectations instead of accepting you as you truly are. You’re a second rate reality show that hasn’t been fully thought out and you deserve a viewer with indiscriminate tastes. Truly my bad.

See ya at the concession stand.