Doctor Who, Series 2

Doctor Who, Series 2 (9/10/15) Netflix (2005-06 ***1/2) Created by Sydney Newman, starring David Tennant, Billie Piper, Camille Coduri, Noel Clarke and Penelope Wilton as Harriet Jones. 14 episodes, originally aired 12/25/05 – 6/8/06. A time-traveling alien and his companion, Rose Tyler, go about the known universe, and history, getting into trouble and doing their best to sort things out. First off, I understand that David Tennant is considered to be one of the favorite Doctors, but I felt like I had just gotten used to Christopher Eccleston in the role and it took me a few episodes to warm to Tennant, who I felt tended to over-act at the drop of a hat. I’ve heard from a number of people that the “new” Doctor Who series starts out rough but at some point the production values should start to reflect bigger budgets. I found the on-screen “values” to be widely varying over the course of the season, though there’s a general sense that they’re “doing the best they can with what money they’ve got.” I haven’t watched any of the old Tom Baker-era episodes since I was a teenager, but they evidently made an impact on me: There was something about the 4th episode, “The Girl in the Fireplace,” that really, really felt like an episode from the late-1970s. It had this whole “shot in the studio” vibe to it, from beginning to end. I have no idea if that was intentional or not. This second season / series also started digging into the old show in a big way, featuring appearances by K-9, The Daleks, The Cybermen and even Sarah Jane Smith, one of the Doctor’s previous companions. As I explained in my review of the first series, I started watching the show on Netflix while by wife was out of town, not sure if I would really commit to it. But I think I actually may have crossed a certain threshold fan-wise: At some point the Daleks went from being ridiculous tin cans with irritating voices to being mildly scary creatures. Does this make me a “Whovian?”

Living With Lincoln

Living With Lincoln (9/6/15) HBO (2015 ***) Directed by Peter W. Kunhardt and Brian Oakes. Peter Kunhardt tells the story of his family, particularly his grandmother Dorothy, and his family’s very special collection of photographs of America’s 16th president. To be perfectly honest, this documentary was a bit of a bait-and-switch. Much, if not most, of its content focused on Dorothy Kunhardt’s life and career. She was the children’s book author of Pat the Bunny and Junket is Nice. While fascinating in her own right, I was understandably more interested in the Lincoln photographs. The documentary technique was solid, featuring home movies and plenty of motion graphics to break up the otherwise static material.

Dear Mr. Watterson

Dear Mr. Watterson (9/1/15) Netflix (2013 ***) Directed by Joel Allen Schroeder, including interviews with Berkeley Breathed, Seth Green, Stephan Pastis and others. This documentary is an examination of the work of Calvin and Hobbes‘ creator, as well as an unabashed love letter to the reclusive “J.D. Salinger of cartoon artists.” The documentary technique was solid throughout, with an appropriate use of motion graphics to break up the talking heads interviews. However, I found the narration to be a bit sophomoric at times, and had wished it were smarter and coming from a more authoritative position with respect to the history of American cartoons. Having said (written) that, the opposite could easily be argued, that it was in fact the perfect choice for the audience, assuming the audience was made up of grade school kids who had just discovered Calvin & Hobbes for themselves. As I watched the film, I kept wondering whether Bill Watterson himself might make an appearance, but (kinda sorta spoiler alert) sadly he did not. One historical note: Subsequent to the release of Dear Mr. Watterson in 2013, Bill Watterson did come out of his cave briefly, returning to the comics pages in a handful of panels in the strip Pearls Before Swine, created by Stephan Pastis, one of those interviewed for this documentary. One has to wonder what connection there might be, if any.

Doctor Who, Series 1

Doctor Who, Series 1 (8/31/15) Netflix (2005 ***1/4) Series created by Sydney Newman, starring Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper, Camille Coduri, Noel Clarke and John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness. 13 episodes, originally aired 3/26/05 – 6/18/05. A Time Lord picks up a 19-year-old companion named Rose Tyler and takes her on a whirlwind tour of time and space, leaving a trail of dead bodies in the wake of his TARDIS. Even though my wife and I had watched the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood in its entirety, I had deliberately put off watching the parent show. But with my wife out of town on her long European holiday and having run low on things to watch, I figured: “Now’s the time.” I had heard from various friends that the “new” Doctor Who reboot (which is ten years old now) starts out very cheesy before settling into something more serious. Consequently I wasn’t entirely surprised by the flatulent extraterrestrial Slitheen family and things of that nature. I also had a memory from my teenage years of watching a handful of Tom Baker episodes of the old show, and, from what I could tell, the new incarnation had a great deal in common with it. I can see the appeal of the show. But am I down with watching another seven seasons? I don’t know. On another note: Sometimes I’m embarrassed by my inability to make even the simplest of connections, but I didn’t realize until after watching most the first season that Billie Piper (who plays Rose) also recently played Frankenstein’s third creation Lily in Penny Dreadful.

Odd Thomas

Odd Thomas (8/29/15) Netflix (2013 ***) Written and directed by Stephen Sommers, based on the novel by Dean R. Koontz, starring Anton Yelchin, Addison Timlin and Willem Dafoe. A psychic short-order cook knows something really bad is going to happen in his small town, just not quite what. I have no real explanation for it, but I’ve been meaning to read Dean Koontz’ novel of the same name for several years now, but had never gotten around to it. I’m sure that’s based almost entirely on reading the back of the paperback in an airport book store at some time far in the past. Based on that interest, when I saw Odd Thomas listed on Netflix I decided to give it a shot, not knowing much about it. According to Wikipedia, the film got a theatrical release, but everything about it screams: “made-for-TV-movie-intended-as-a-series-pilot.” It is very strange tonally. I know I tend to write in my reviews about tone a great deal, but I was surprised by not only how light its tone was, but also the choices made in its premise. Some examples: The main character is a generally well-adjusted young man who not only has a girlfriend but also a good working relationship with the local police. While I don’t think I can give it a strong recommendation, and I found it predictable at times, it was still a mildly entertaining watch.

Bates Motel, Season 2

Bates Motel, Season 2 (8/29/15) Netflix (2014 **1/2) Created by Anthony Cipriano, Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin, starring Vera Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Dylan Massett, Olivia Cooke and Nestor Carbonell. 10 episodes, originally aired between 3/3/14 – 5/5/14. A mother and her troubled son try to make a go of running a motel in a small town where marijuana drives the local economy. It seems wrong somehow that a decade has passed since Freddie Highmore starred in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). He was definitely the best thing about this TV series, and if Netflix ever adds future seasons to their roster, and if I watch them, it’ll be because of Highmore and Norman Bates. I honestly got sick of the season’s major drug war storyline, which I only found mildly interesting when it included Norman, which was rare. I particularly could not have cared less about Norman’s brother Dylan, who somehow goes from drug flunky to drug boss’s right hand for no apparent reason. But back to Norman: Compared to the first season, I found the relationship between him and his mother Norma to be less complex (i.e.: interesting) this time around. Much of the joy to be found there was due to knowing how their relationship turns out, with Norma eventually becoming fodder for Norman’s adventures in the wonderful world of taxidermy.

Get Smart

Get Smart (8/28/15) IFC (2008 **) Directed by Peter Segal, based on the TV show created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, starring Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin and Terence Stamp. A top-secret spy agency analyst named Maxwell Smart is promoted to field agent and teamed with an experienced female agent named 99. Prior to this film being released, I’d looked forward to it. Steve Carell seemed ideally cast for the role made so memorable on TV by Don Adams. But then I read the reviews, which were not kind, settling at a not particularly fresh 51% on Rotten Tomatoes. My personal experience matched that rating pretty accurately. To be honest, more than anything it made me want to watch the original show which ran from 1965-1970, then played in syndication in the after-school block of programming, which is where I watched it. It’s a real shame, too, because I think it could have been an excellent film, worthy of a sequel, if not two. As evidence, I humbly point you to This year’s Spy (2015), starring Melissa McCarthy, which had the same exact premise.

Disturbia

Disturbia (8/26/15) Cinemax (2007 **1/2) Directed by D.J. Caruso, starring Shia LaBeouf, David Morse, Carrie-Anne Moss and Sarah Roemer. When an angsty teenager spends his summer under house arrest, his voyeuristic proclivities lead him face-to-face with a serial killer. I was vaguely aware of this film when it was released eight years ago, yet never quite got around to watching it until now. Clearly intended as a tribute to one of Hitchcock’s greatest films, Rear Window (1954), it didn’t quite land for me. Then again, how could it? Watching the credits, I found it interesting that its Executive Producer was Ivan Reitman, then again maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. It worked reasonably well as a thriller (if you could turn a blind eye to a few lapses in narrative logic), but never really connected with me. As for why, I think I might have to play the generational card on this one: I didn’t really relate to the main characters and would love to know if audience members who were in their teens and twenties when the film was released had more they could relate to.

Happyish, Season 1

Happyish, Season 1 (8/26/15) SHO (2015 ***) Created by Shalom Auslander, starring Kathryn Hahn, Steve Coogan, Carrie Preston and Bradley Whitford. 10 episodes, originally aired 4/26/15- 6/28/15. A 44-year old advertising executive spends much of his commute to and from his Woodstock home contemplating the concept of happiness. The real question this show asks its audience is this: “Even with everything we have to be thankful for, why are we still so chronically unhappy?” That is certainly a question I can relate to more than I wish were the case. There is also no small irony, especially given the show’s theme and some of its content, that the main character was originally supposed to be played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who committed suicide on February 2nd, 2014 at the age of 46. Ultimately, there was much to like about this show, but given its “existential angst” premise, it comes as no surprise to me that it was canceled after one season. And seriously, how fucking hard is it to get canceled on Showtime? This show’s final legacy may be to offer examples of what it “feels like” to use well-known advertising icons like the Geico Gecko, the Keebler elves and Coca Cola in pretty subversive ways. Two final notes: (1) The show addresses the obvious comparison with Mad Men (2007-2015) in its first episode and (2) I was delighted by the Bewitched (1964-1972) reference in the fictional ad agency’s name: “McMann Godsmith & Tate.”

Robocop

Robocop (8/25/15) Netflix (2014 ***) Directed by José Padilha, starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley and Samuel L. Jackson. When the only honest cop in the corrupt Detroit police department gets blown up in his driveway, a robotics company gives him a second chance to clean up the city. I enjoyed this remake more than I expected, mostly because I expected almost zero from it. The film was cast with always-nice-to-see faces in major roles, but I wish they’d cast a more interesting and/or familiar lead. This attempted franchise reboot also tinkered with the original premise, and in particular with the basics of the main character and his relationship with his family. This very much altered the story dynamics in a way that may have been an attempt at a more relatable central character, but resulted in a weaker story overall. The other major questionable decision was to tone down the original series R-rated content to PG-13 level, in the hopes of producing a series with wider appeal. Not surprisingly, it did not result in a better film. However, ignoring that, the new version of Robocop was still mildly entertaining, with a couple of juicy Easter eggs thrown in as well.