The Disappearance of Netflix Picks

Well, no, not really.

Things have gotten a little hectic around here, so I’m going to have to put Netflix Picks on hold for a little while.  With any luck I’ll have it up and running again sometime in November.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this very short review of Stardust.

The hero gets overshadowed by literally all of the other characters, but other than that I really liked it.

Netflix Picks: A Ship of Fools

Comedy doesn’t always translate well across languages, let alone cultures.  Which is why British sitcoms (occasionally called Britcoms) sometimes have a hard time here in the states.  There are a few exceptions however, Monty Python is probably the most well known even though that’s more sketch comedy rather than situational, The Office is a recent example, and there’s today’s pick, Red Dwarf.

Red Dwarf is the story of Dave Lister.  He was the lowest man on a mining ship when, after bringing a pregnant cat on board against regulations, he was put in stasis.  The ship’s computer, Holly (who is male), revives Lister three million years later after the radiation from a leak that killed the crew has dissipated.  Holly then informs Lister of the crew’s deaths and introduces a holographic version of Lister’s immediate superior (and total smeg-head) Rimmer.  Lister and Rimmer then run into a cat person who evolved from the pregnant cat that Lister brought on board who was sealed away in the ship’s hold and thus avoided the radiation.  Lister orders Holly to turn the ship around, and thus begins the long, strange trip of the Red Dwarf.

Red Dwarf is a wonderful send-up of the classic sci-fi situations and tropes.  It takes everything that you know about a typical science fiction story and set-up, and turns it on its head.  The premise itself is a good example of this; typically, the protagonist of a story like this, would be a smart, take charge kind of guy, not a lazy, slobby, chain-smoking bum.  Dave Lister is anything but the hyper-competent protagonist we’re used to, which allows the writers free reign with the jokes that would naturally come out of a situation where the idiot is in charge.  But the real comedy gold comes from the relationship between Lister and Rimmer.  In a lot of ways Rimmer is just as stupid as Lister, but Rimmer has far more ambition and drive than Lister will ever have.  But their ability to find the weakest parts of each others character is where the best comedy comes from.    Lister and Rimmer know how to push each others buttons so well, that the lengths they’ll go to to annoy the other are some of the best parts of the series.

That’s not to say that Holly and Cat are treated as afterthoughts, while they may be in the background for most of the first series, they do get some pretty funny bits for themselves.  Holly functions as part exposition dump and outside commentary on Lister and Rimmer’s actions.  Cat is Lister’s partner in crime and provides a non-human perspective on the situations that the crew finds themselves in.

There are flaws that need to be addressed however.  First of all, the humor will not be to everyone’s taste. It’s very british in its rhythm and timing, which not everyone will get.  It’s also very slapstick, so if that isn’t your thing it’s probably best to stay away.  There’s also the accents to consider, Lister in particular has a very strong accent which might be hard for some people to understand.  Also, the first series feels kind of lackluster to me. There’s some good ideas, Future Echoes is one of the best of that series, but the rest of it feels kind of dull.  Things do pick up as the show goes along, but you have to have patience with it.

Overall this is a solid parody of Science Fiction and the kind of stories that are commonly told in that genre.  There is actually quite a bit of character development from about series two onwards, but the wait to get there might be a little much for some.  But it’s still a funny, enjoyable ride with some of the biggest idiots in the galaxy.

Overall rating: 6.5/10

Netflix Picks: Friday Chinese Detective Story

I love a good mystery story, I’m a big Sherlock Holmes fan, and I like Agatha Christie, Midsomer Murders, and the Murdoch Mysteries series from Canada.  So when I found a Chinese version of the kind of thing I like, I figured “why the hell not?”  Enter Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.

Based on the real life Chancellor of Empress Wu Zetian, the story starts off with the sudden death of an architect working on a giant Buddha commissioned by the Empress.  He dies by what seems to be spontaneous combustion, of course there’s more to it than that; especially when another official dies the same way.  Advised by her Chaplain, the Empress summons Dee (who was imprisoned after opposing the Empress’ rise to power) to take charge of the case.  She doesn’t entirely trust Dee though, so she sends her servant Jing’er to keep an eye on him.  Penal officer Pei Donglai joins the investigation as well, and the trio sets off to find the killer before he can target the Empress.

Unsurprisingly, the movie plays fast and loose with the actual history.  But if you aren’t well versed in Chinese history, I doubt you’ll notice.  There’s also quite a bit of the wire work action sequences that Chinese film has become famous for.  While the movie doesn’t exactly have the budget that a Hollywood backed production would have, the production values are still pretty good.  The costumes and sets are impressive, and while there are a few hiccups where the CGI is a little too prominent, the wire work stuff makes up for it.

The mystery itself is fairly well done, but the reveal of who the Chaplain is seems a bit off to me.  Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, but it really did seem to come out of nowhere.  That said, the acting is pretty good; Andy Lau does well as Dee, but the real stand-outs in my opinion are Carina Lau as Empress Wu and Deng Chao as Pei.  Carina Lau brings a ruthless grace to Wu, making her an interesting character to watch.  Chao makes Pei a relatable character, even if he’s a bit hot-headed.

Overall, it’s a pretty good and fun movie.  If you like Chinese action movies, I think you’ll find a lot to like about this movie.  If you’re a mystery fan, this is an interesting take on the genre.

Overall rating: 6.9/10

Netflix Picks: *Sniffle* *Cough*

Ok, so I’ve been sick for the past couple of days.  And consequently, I haven’t wanted to move much from the couch.  So what does one do when you’re in misery and just want something mindless to watch?  Well, I can tell you what I do; I watch Godzilla movies.

I generally prefer the older ones, but I will watch something from the Millennium series if that’s all that’s available.  These movies are a bit like comfort food for me.  I have fond memories of watching marathons of them with my mom on weekends and riffing them a little.  I’m generally not paying much attention to the plot, I’m in it for the monster fights.  And the toy tanks that they use to attack the guys in rubber suits.

Some of my favorites include, pretty much anything involving Ghidorah (or King Ghidorah), Mothra works too, Godzilla vs. Hedorah (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) is fun; if utterly ridiculous.  There’s quite a few on Netflix, mostly from the Showa Era, but you can find a few on Hulu as well including the aforementioned Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster; and Crackle has some as well, mostly the Millennium stuff.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go crawl under a blanket and watch some guys in rubber suits beat each other silly.

Netflix Picks: Speaking of Doctors…

Fair warning, with the series 8 premier on Saturday, I’m going to be focusing on Doctor Who for the next couple of days.  Starting with today’s Netflix Pick.

If you’re new to the series, you probably haven’t seen much of the classic series that aired from 1963 to 1989.  And it’s high time you changed that.  Now, Netflix doesn’t have a lot of the classic series episodes (Hulu has a whole bunch more, but most of them are under Hulu’s premium service.) But they do have some classics like City of Death, and today’s Pick The Mind Robber.

The Mind Robber is a trippy piece of work.  It starts with the Crew of the Tardis landing in the middle of a big white void, and it only gets weirder from there, especially when fictional characters like Rapunzel and Gulliver from Gulliver’s Travels start showing up and helping the crew out.  Eventually the Crew finds their way to the Master of the Land (as opposed to The Master) who controls all the strange goings on in the Land of Fiction.  This particular master wants The Doctor to take over the control of the Land of Fiction as he’s getting old.  I won’t spoil how the Doctor gets out of this one, because it’s arguably the best (and in some ways the silliest) part of the episode.

Like I said, this one’s a bit trippy.  There’s a whole surrealist feel to the episode that works really well in context.  Random castles, clockwork soldiers, it kind of feels like the Tardis crew have fallen down the rabbit hole and ended up in Wonderland, a really dangerous Wonderland at that.  There’s also a lot of humor in this episode, which also works well with the surreal setting.  Now, the acting is a tad stilted, but that’s normal for an early TV show like this.  But the writing does make up for that on the whole.

There are a few things to be aware of; first of all, this is old TV.  Early Who and other shows like it had miniscule budgets to work with, and the effects technology of the time was extremely limited.  That said, the effects do have a certain charm to them.  At least, I think they do.  The other thing to be aware of is that while I call this a single episode (and it is, in terms of the show) it’s really more of a short serial.  There’s four episodes in all, and they clock in at about twenty minutes each.  So again, not a big time investment.  But the parts of the serial were meant to be watched with a week in between each part, which makes binge watching a bit of a trial at times.  Especially when there’s a long recap of what happened at the end of the last part at the beginning of the next one.  But if you can look past those slight faults, this particular episode is a lot of fun; and well worth watching for anyone who’s looking to watch some Classic Who.

Overall rating: 7.5/10

Netflix Picks: In Revolutionary Russia, Young Doctor is Clueless

I think it’s about time I explained how I pick what I’m going to review for this series.  I go onto Netflix, have a quick look around, and pick the first thing that looks interesting that I haven’t seen yet.  Which brings us to today’s pick, A Young Doctor’s Notebook.  I had already heard of this British mini-series thanks to the cable channel Ovation, but I’d never gotten the chance to watch it until now.

The show stars Daniel Radcliffe (a.k.a. Harry Freakin’ Potter) as the titular Young Doctor, and John Hamm (of Mad Men fame) as the older version of the young doctor.  The show is set in early twentieth century Russia, it actually splits it’s time between 1917 and 1934, in a hospital in a remote village.  A trip to the local shop will take half a day to get there, and half a day to get back, and the shop doesn’t open until August.  That’s how remote this place is.

Even though it’s called A Young Doctor’s Notebook, the story really centers around how the young doctor becomes the older one.  Most of the action takes place in the older doctor’s memories of what happened.  He then injects himself into those memories, giving his younger self the advice and encouragement that he wishes someone had given him at the time.  Before he became the man who’s being questioned about forged prescriptions.

The writing in this mini-series is pretty strong, essentially, this is a comedy; but a comedy of a pretty dark kind.  The characters have a quirky, but dark tone to them that works well in the Russian setting.  Speaking of the characters, the acting is well done.  Hamm and Radcliffe do well, as expected, and the supporting cast works hard to bring life to what might well be one note characters.

If you like black comedies, or just want to see how well Daniel Radcliffe has been doing since Harry Potter, I can definitely recommend giving this one a watch.  There’s two seasons, split up into four episodes each.  And each episode is only about twenty-three minutes in length, so this one isn’t going to require a big time investment.

Overall rating: 7/10

Netflix Picks: Manliest. Space Pirate. Ever.

I have a pretty casual interest in anime on the whole. I’m not nearly as knowledgeable about it as I would like, but goodness knows that never stopped anyone from giving their opinion on the internet. Today’s pick is based on one of the most popular and influential animes of the 70’s, in Japan at least. It’s never really caught on here the states. And that’s really a shame, because it’s a pretty solid franchise on the whole; and this particular movie is a pretty good introduction to it. It also has the manliest character in the history of anime. More manly than a whole barrel full of Kaminas. More manly than Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris arm wrestling Grizzly Bears in the middle of the Super Bowl. I speak, of course, of Space Pirate Captain Harlock.

The story itself is relatively simple, or at least as simple as a Leiji Matsumoto plot ever gets. In the far distant future, or possibly the past (that part’s a little hazy), humanity has spread throughout the cosmos. Eventually there was a call to return to Earth. But the planet couldn’t support the sheer amount of people who wanted to come back. Thus began the Homecoming War. Out of the ashes of that war two opposing forces rose to put their stamp on the galaxy. On the one side was the Gaia Coalition, the authoritarian central government. And on the other side stands Captain Harlock, Space Pirate. Harlock is on a mission to exorcise the demons of his past, and save humanity in the process. Maybe. It’s kind of hard to tell with Harlock.

Without giving away a lot of spoilers, this is a pretty damn good movie. The animation is spectacular, with detailed backgrounds and character models. Even if the characters do look a little plastic-y from time to time. Now, there’s a fair amount of techno babble being thrown about during the course of the movie, but I don’t think that it hurts the movie too much. There’s also the story to consider. Without giving too much away, there’s a really big twist about halfway through the movie that could change your perceptions of the characters dramatically. But that’s the whole point of plot twists, and this one didn’t bother me much at all. But as we all know, you don’t go to an action movie expecting a cerebral drama. And that’s where this movie really shines. The action scenes are jaw dropping. There are multiple moments where you just might find yourself jumping up and cheering, even if you’re wearing headphones.

Overall this is one of those “sit back and enjoy the ride” movies. And what a ride it is. It should really say something that after I finished watching it the first time, I immediately put it in my Netflix queue and had to restrain myself from watching it again right away. So, yeah. I think I liked it.

Overall rating: 8/10

Netflix Picks: Mummies, Pterosaurs, and Girl Reporters! Oh, My!

This week’s pick is something that I’ve wanted to see for a long time, just because it seemed so “right up my alley”.  The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec is a French film about an intrepid female reporter in the tradition of Nellie Bly in early twentieth century Paris.  Adèle is on a quest to cure her twin sister Agathe who fell victim to an unfortunate accident involving a high velocity tennis ball and a hat pin.  But before she can save her sister, Adèle is going to have to bust a professor who has discovered how to bring the dead back to life out of prison and solve the problem of the pterosaur that the professor accidentally revived.  Also thrown into the mix are a bunch of bumbling policemen, a spectacularly inept big game hunter, the President of France and his dog, and a whole mess of ancient Egyptian mummies taking a sightseeing stroll around Paris at night.  Needless to say, this is a very unique movie.

Most people would file this movie under “Steampunk”, but all it shares with that genre is the sensibility.  It’s really more of an action comedy with some supernatural elements in the vein of the Mummy franchise (before it really started to suck) and the Hellboy movies.  Oh, and one more thing it shares with Steampunk, a seriously awesome heroine. Adèle is smart, resourceful, and takes no crap from anyone; especially the male characters. She’s a reporter only in the sense that she writes books about her adventures, and most of her adventures are centered on curing her sister. And there’s nary a love interest to be seen. Oh there’s a character who’s in love with her, but Adèle has precisely zero interest in him. One thing to point out here is that while the cast is mostly made up of men, they aren’t exactly portrayed in the most flattering light. In fact, most of them are either stupid, or have very little effect on the plot, Andrej being the sole exception to that. Andrej is the guy who’s in love with Adèle, and he helps her find the pterosaur that’s running (or rather, flying) rampant through Paris. But he isn’t really fleshed out as a character aside from his infatuation with Adèle. But the rest are there pretty much as comic side characters, and to provide a foil for Adèle to work off of.

Speaking of comedy, there’s quite a bit of it in this movie. But if you’re not at least a little familiar with the way Europeans do it, you might find yourself a bit lost. There are certain scenes that wouldn’t really land well with an American audience. A few of the bits with the big game hunter and the professor come to mind, as well as the use of heavy make-up on some characters. But a good portion of the comedy works really well, in any language. I particularly liked Adèle’s increasingly desperate use of disguises to get the professor out of the prison. Funny and it showcased Adele’s never say die attitude. There are also some really good bits with the mummies, especially Adèle’s interactions with Rameses. The CG in this movie isn’t particularly good, but then again this is a foreign film being done by people who aren’t Industrial Light and Magic. But it’s still pretty passable.

Overall, this is a really fun movie with a great female lead. And we really don’t get to see many of those. So if you’re looking for a decent action movie with a lot of wit, you really can’t go wrong with The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec.

Netflix Picks: A History of Comic Books in Three Easy Lessons

I’ve decided to implement a new weekly article.  Netflix Picks.  If you’ve ever sat there, looking at what Netflix has offer, completely flummoxed by the sheer amount of stuff they have, I may have a solution for you.  From now on, every Friday, I’ll be giving you a short review of some movie or show that I’ve found that I believe is worth watching.

Today’s entry is Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle.  Comics have become a seriously big thing in the past few years.  Marvel seems to be printing money with their comic book movies.  DC is still lagging behind on that front, but they did just celebrate 75 years of Batman kicking batarang and taking names.  So right now seems like a good time to take a look back at the history of the comic book medium.  Which is exactly what this three part documentary does.

Now, if you’re well versed in comic book lore and history, you’ve probably heard all of this before.  They don’t go into a lot of detail over the three 55 minute episodes.  It’s basically Comic Book History 101.  But if you’re new to the world of comic books, this is a pretty darn good place to start.  They’ve got interview with some of the biggest names in the industry both past and present, Stan Lee, J. Michael Straczynski, Denny O’Neill, Joe Quesada, and there’s footage of Jack Kirby, Walt Simonson, and Alan Moore.

The documentary goes over the history of the medium from the Golden Age to the Silver Age right on through the Dark Age, the collecting boom (and subsequent bust), and the Modern Age with all of the movies, video games, and how digital comics are keeping the industry alive after nearly 80 years.  It’s a pretty general look at where comics have been, and some of the bigger speed bumps in the road.  Like I said, it works really well if you’re new to comics, but longtime fans might find things a little boring.

Overall rating: 7.5/10