Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Last Kingdom - Season 3 - Review

Uhtred son of Uhtred is back to claim "Destiny is All" one more time!

One of the things that I love about this show - from season 1 - is the fact that it does not waste any time in build up or unnecessary developments! Each season adapts two books from the Saxon Stories saga, and uses 4-5 episodes to depict each instalment. This medieval history show has a factual component, which is King Alfred's story of how he united all the kingdoms, and a fictional part about Uhtred - a master strategist and the best warrior on the land who sometimes identifies with both Danes and Saxons, and sometimes with neither.

This show was originally a BBC production, but for some reason, they abandoned it after season 2. Luckily, Netflix picked up the show and has renewed it for a fourth season as well. Thanks to the new headmasters at Netflix, we got 10 episodes instead of eight. With the additional two episodes, the pacing (particularly in the second half of the show) is not as tight as it used to be in the first two seasons. Besides this minor gripe, the story is as compelling as before. Few shows manage to make you root for the protagonist and despise the antagonist to the level that the Last Kingdom does.

Tight pacing, great character developments, and a good story (mostly rooted in actual history) make the show rank very high in my book. For the sheer entertainment value, I'd give it a 9.5/10.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Three Pillars of a Good Movie or TV Show

I've been seeing and talking about movies my whole life. I have recently come up with three simple criteria (or pillars) that make a movie or tv show "good"! Each of these pillars will be introduced below, along with some examples of movies or shows that did well or poorly in those areas.

1) Character Development: This is a broad term, but simply, it falls on the screen writer (as well as the director and actors to a lesser extent) to make the audience invested in the success or failure of the characters. More specifically, the audience needs to root or cheer for the protagonist of the story. Along the same lines, the antagonist needs to be feared, despised, and understood - as the antagonist is the hero in his/her own story.

Protagonist(*), or the leading character, does not necessarily need to be the moral compass of that universe. In the golden age of TV, most protagonists are sometimes antiheroes (e.g., Tony Soprano, Breaking Bad's Walther White, Mad Men's Don Draper, the Punisher). Despite the flaws, audience still wants to see the protagonist succeed. As example of a show that failed in that regard, I can think of Boardwalk Empire. That show was created by Terence Winter (a Sopranos alumnus) and produced by the great Martin Scorsese. The sets and calibre of actors were top-notch, but I couldn't care about any of the characters - neither the intended protagonists, nor the antagonists.

The product needs to invoke the right feelings in the audience.

2) Story Logic: It's an unpleasant feeling when after the movie or show is over, you can think of something that could've ended the story 10 minutes in. This is not always a deal breaker though. One example that comes to my mind is Lord of the Rings trilogy. It has been a question for me (and countless others I assume) that why Gandalf didn't ask the great eagles to give Frodo a ride to mount doom. The eagles could have at least shortened the journey by a great deal. As a result, we wouldn't have nearly 10 hours of movies. Or in many superhero films, maybe the main character could've used a certain power and finished the job right at the get go (e.g., Superman could use his heat vision to incapacitate enemies instantly, as that laser beam supposedly travels at the speed of light. Instead he stands and looks helplessly).

I consider this a lesser sin, because the ride might be fun enough that you could forgive those mistakes. Lord of the Rings is a fantastic trilogy, and I'm happy that we have 10 hours of it, rather than just one hour.

As an unforgivable example, I can think of Ocean's 12. We see in the last 10 minutes of the movie that it was all a ruse, and even the team (Danny Ocean and co.) in their own private circle, acted as if they were a few steps behind. Why would they do that? They needed to play coy in presence of others, but why in private?

The audience appreciates a tight and logical story line.

3) Pacing: One of the major reasons for watching movies and TV for me is escapism. I'd like to lose a few hours in a world that is different from my own routine, and get immersed in a different story line. For me, a movie or TV show succeeds in this regard if I don't look at my watch while I'm watching it. The Marvel movies are prime examples that make you lose track of time. In a blink of an eye, the movie is over, and you are happy for spending time with those characters.

Some of the art-house or independent movies, regardless of how interesting the story is or how advanced the acting might be, make you feel that the time has stopped. Revenant, some of the movies that Martin Scorsese makes (e.g., Raging Bull, Mean Streets, Gangs of New York), and most of the European or foreign language films that get nominated for Oscars, are example of movies with horrible pacing.

A well-paced movie makes you lose track of time.

Wrap-up: Ideally, an entertainment product should excel in all three aspects of character development, story logic, and pacing. Of the three, however, the only one that can sometimes be forgiven is logic, as long as the ride is entertaining.

To demonstrate this point, I would like to refer to Stagecoach (1939), a classic in the Western genre, directed by the legendary John Ford - the record holder for four academy awards for best director. At the climax of the movie, a large group of Apache horse riders chase after the stagecoach that is driven by the cowboys (a classic cowboys and Indians chase). The scene last for over 10 minutes and is full of thrilling stunts. Some moviegoers asked why the Apache didn't target the horses carrying the stagecoach to win? John Ford's response was: "because that would've been the end of the movie".

I happily ignore that logical lapse, as I am pleased to have watched that epic chase scene!

(*) I also have written a post about what makes a "good" protagonist in my opinion.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald (2018)

A marked improvement over the first instalment, The Crimes of Grindelwald moves the story forward and develops the characters further.

I was not a fan of the first Fantastic Beasts movie. I thought it was like the pilot episode of a TV show, where the showrunners try to just give you a taste of what's to come, without showing their hands too much. That makes sense for a TV show, but not necessarily for a movie franchise. TV watchers only need to wait another week to see the second episode, but movie goers may need to wait for a few years. In the era of short attention spans, making a movie that is merely a teaser of what is yet to come, is definitely a risky move. Marvel movies, under Kevin Feige's vision work so well because they are cognizant of their audience. Each movie can be a starting point into the franchise, and gives the audience a standalone story.

Going back to The Crimes of Grindelwald, this time around, the director doesn't need to waste time to introduce us to the main players. The film starts with a thrilling chase sequence, that was almost the highlight of the movie in my opinion. Another highlight was Johnny Depp as the titular character. He was more menacing and convincing than Ralph Fiennes' Voldemort in the main Potter saga. Grindelwald's sales pitch was appealing too. Of course, his honesty and good faith are questionable, but his reference to the events in early and mid 20th century (i.e., world wars I and II) was effective in making his point about non-magical people (muggles) being incapable of leading the world.

Jude Law had the tall task of making the role of Dumbledore his own, and I believe he succeeded! Dumbledore is scarcely used in this movie (and also in the main Harry Potter story). Maybe that adds to the mystery of this character and makes him more interesting.

J.K. Rowling's plan is to conclude this story in the fifth movie, so it may be hard to judge the individual part while we are waiting for the whole. There are many flaws and logical inconsistencies with the whole Wizarding World, but I still have faith in J.K. Rowling's imagination and ability to pull this off. This instalment on its own, however, is entertaining enough to justify the price of admission. I'd give it a 8/10.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

House of Cards - Final Season

One of the first 'binge' tv experience sensations is back for one final bow. It remains highly bingeable, but the void left by Frank Underwood's absence cannot be ignored. Considering the ending, I wish they had not made this final season at all.

The first five seasons of House of Cards centred around Francis (Frank) and Claire Underwood's unquenchable thirst for power. In line with the other shows in the golden age of TV, Frank and Claire were antiheroes who served worse people their comeuppance. They lobbied and backstabbed (figuratively and literally) their way to the highest office in the US. They were the ultimate power couple, not in the romantic sense, but in being equal and highly capable partners going after the same goal. Season five ended with Frank deciding to take a backseat role - as he thought that it was where true power lied - and abdicated his presidency to his wife and vide president, Claire.

Kevin Spacey's transgressions in real life became public while season six was in production. Instead of cancelling the show, which I wish they had done, the producers wrote him off and set season six shortly after Frank Underwood's funeral. As a way to punish Kevin Spacey (the actor), the writers decided to attack Frank Underwood, the very fictional character that they had created and championed for the previous five seasons. In season six, multiple women share their experiences with Frank and imply his impotence. Others also refer to him as the stooge who was controlled by Claire (the evil puppet-master) this whole time. This dissonance (how they presented Frank in the first five seasons vs. the final season) was hard to take.

The other sin that the writers committed was transforming Claire from an antihero to an outright villain. The antihero is not a good person necessarily, but has a somewhat noble goal, and fights foes that are more evil than him/her. In case of Claire, the people she was butting heads with were not as evil as she was, and she had no goal other than pursuit of power (out of spite for others).

The other issue that this season had was trying to draw parallels from reality but they were nothing more than poor copies, rather than deep metaphors. The Shepherd siblings (surrogates for Koch brothers),  compromising material on the president, Russian collusion, and Gardner Analytics (read Cambridge Analytics) are just a few examples. In this case, I don't blame the writers for failing to imagine something more absurd than the current political climate, but those reference were plain lazy. Not having these poor copies would've served the series better. Worse than that, was the fact that these plot threads did not have a resolution at the end.

Speaking of the end, without any spoilers, it was one of the worst series finales that I have seen in recent years. The revelations in the last 15 minutes of the show did not make any sense (considering the characters we had come to know in the last six seasons), and it left the audience in a more uncertain place than the first episode of the season. In other words, if the audience is supposed to come up with their own conclusions and write their own endings, then why watch season 6 in the first place? The audience will be better off not wasting their time watching those eight episodes, and just imagine a conclusion to the Underwood saga after what they had seen in season five. In fairness, the last season was easy to watch back to back.

As a completely unnecessary season, with lazy and inconsistent writing, I give it a 1/10 (which is 10% more than it really deserves).