Category Archives: TV

News and reviews from the small screen and online…

Pop Thoughts: Big Hollywood and the War on Independent Journalism (Part One)

Before my rant begins, let me be clear by stating I, in-no-way, consider myself a “professional journalist”.  In fact, I am merely a journalist in the most literal sense of the world in that I am a “person who writes” as an entirely independent commentator and reviewer.  I am more of a “hobbyist journalist” than a paid contributor or a critic contracted to any major media outlet.  To be entirely honest, I will never consider taking such a job without the express condition that I will be absolutely free to offer my own opinion on any product regardless of what others may feel about it.  So, with that capricious disclaimer out of the way, let me express to you why I am so pissed off at, sick of, and downright appalled by the major media both online and in the dying legacy sources…

When I was a kid in the 80’s and 90’s, even at a very young age, I adored watching Siskel & Ebert At the Movies.  They were my first exploration into the world of film criticism and gave me a stronger perspective of how film works on us; How movies should and do affect the audience and how these effects influence our attitudes towards popular culture at large.  Have no illusions, no matter how objective a critic may claim to be, we all have biases that manifest in one form or another.  Take myself, for instance: I really dislike (and often despise) how CGI has affected storytelling in movies and the filmmaking process as a whole.  I find it funny that movies like Avatar and the recent Star Wars movies actually look like video games and, as if it were some Freudian expression, we then get a movie in which Adam Sandler and Peter Dinklage actually battle giant video game characters from the 80’s (regardless of the quality of that film).  That bias does subconsciously affect both my suspension of disbelief and my subjective reaction to special effects as they happen on screen.  My brain processes an 80’s action flick with a real exploding car differently than a massive CGI monstrosity oozing across a screen.  So, when I see most CG special effects I tend to be put off of them and it does change my interpretation of the qualities of the film I am watching.

So, given that I will expect all critics to express their own biases in any report or review they scribe for any site out there.  Even things like political leanings may change one’s interpretation of the content of any media, which is fine as long as these personal determinations are clear to the reader/watcher in some context.  However, where I draw the line is when a reviewer expressly defines to the audience how they should feel about something.  I’m sure I have exercised this fallacy in the past at some point, possibly even recently, and I do appreciate being called out for it whenever possible.  It is important to avoid cognitive dissonance in general, but when you are trying to convey feelings and reactions to media, as trivial as that media may be, if you are unable to provide some objective observation without skewing things to a bent, the factual information provided about the film (basic plot, names of actors, locations, etc.) that may prove useful to the reader or watcher becomes overshadowed with their implicit biases that fire subconsciously during the consumption of said review.

In the past year, we have seen more and more reviews that rely solely on identity politics as qualitative variables to determine the value of a product.  It’s important to accept that all films, video games, TV shows, comic books, and novels are just that: products.  The studios releasing a film do not care about how their product makes you feel, they only want your money.  That’s their job.  Art is subjective and it does act on us whether we want it to or not or even realize it.  This is now apparently being used by major studios and the media to manipulate and even attack potential consumers based solely on their reactions and opinions on something as minuscule in value as a movie trailer.

I hate to say it, but I can’t help but feel like media outlets are using some manipulation tactics to drum up grassroots support for products before their release.  I can’t be certain that is the motivation, but that is certainly happening.  I would say, if you have a movie with a message, that’s fine.  However, a movie that should be accessible, enjoyable and just be entertaining like Ghostbusters or Black Panther being used as a marketing gimmick for studios is not uncommon, but their being brandished as some sort of weapon against potential consumers is unacceptable behavior by a major media company and I do feel this is going to backfire.  This may seem like a new trend, however, these promotional tactics have been used in the past to manipulate audiences into seeing movies.  Sensationalism sells and Hollywood knows it.  This goes back to horror films that were sold as “Banned in ‘x country’!” and “The movie your parents don’t want you to see!”  This isn’t a new tactic and consumers must be wise about how they are being marketed to.

The key to all pop culture is enjoyment.  For every truly awful film, there are fans (I know I have a few bad movies I like) and that’s okay.  It’s just important to remember that not everyone will always share your sentiments towards a particular movie, TV show or game.  This is not going to change in an age where subjective ideals reflected in various mediums are treated dogmatically or even as empirical truths.  So today, Hollywood and major media outlets have begun campaigns to lock out and outright attack independent reviewers for sharing their opinions.  This isn’t exactly a new trend, but it is absolutely obvious why it is being done.  With movies becoming more and more expensive to make, burnout for franchises like Star Wars and various superhero movies at an all-time high and fan cynicism hitting new depths, studios have an incentive to make their movie appear as promising as possible.  If emotional manipulation of consumers is what it will take, then dammit, they’ll do just that.

There is an active campaign by Hollywood to discredit and block reviewers who aren’t part of the mainstream press.  The reasons for this are not entirely transparent, but an obvious point could be they realize that independent pop culture journalists are not beholden to any major corporation or media outlet which shares corporate ownership of, or has some ad deal with, a studio or publisher.  As a result, there is less skin in the game when it comes to liking or disliking a movie, therefore their opinions are likely to be more honest.  If I’m not getting a check from Disney, I have no incentive to write a positive review of one of their films if I do not actually enjoy it.  The same goes for any form of media.  So, it behooves a major corporation to be methodical in how they deal with negative reviews.  For instance, a Rotten Tomatoes score can be called a “snapshot” into the quality of a movie, but it in no way actually provides a sound rating of what critics thought of the movie, only an average of critics who liked or disliked the movie in a thumbs up or thumbs down sort of way.  A movie with a 75% doesn’t mean the movie got 3 out of 4 stars, it only means 75% of critics who reviewed the movie liked it.  It’s also important to note that the site deceptively divides reviews based on “trusted” critics versus everyone else.  As a result, it isn’t uncommon to see a dramatic dichotomy between fans’ and journalists’ respective scores, especially in the case of projects with a lot of money on the line.

Because of this, we are starting to see fan ratings of movies become more and more denigrated and with that so are the independent reviewers who just write a quick blurb on IMDB or run their own blog.  The “fans do not matter” mantra that we know Hollywood has held up for decades has never rung truer.  In the end, most of these big budget movies will make more money on merchandising than overall ticket sales anyway, especially in the case of major brands like Marvel.  It’s doubtful a producer is going to scoff at a bad review of a mediocre MCU flick like Thor: Ragnarok, instead they’ll laugh their brand licensing all the way to the bank.  They already have your money, they certainly do not have to care if you liked it or not.  This is why fans’ scores are becoming more and more important on websites.  A reason a lot of sites are removing comment options and disabling ratings for advertised products is that fan ratings, comments and reviews work.  They are proven to have a significant impact the perception of a film and they do have a natural effect on the way people see the final product, even if it is in retrospect.  A person who liked The Last Jedi in the moment but disliked it more and more upon reflection (such as myself) is less likely to jump on the merchandising bandwagon for the long term, so it is essential that my views on such a product be kept hidden as best as possible to ensure maximum sales returns.

I know all of this may come off as a more than a little jaded but given these past few years of nonstop fan-shaming and vitriol coming from creators, actors, etc, towards detractors of various entertainment products who are merely sharing their own opinions, I do not think this is unwarranted.  I do not agree with every view put out there, but I also do not want anyone to feel like they should be afraid to offer that very view.  This concept that one is not allowed to have an opinion of a product because of entirely arbitrary or superficial reasons is asinine and unacceptable.  It’s time to start treating these little pieces of entertainment as they are, oft-nonsensical distractions that entertain at the moment.  If we allow our tastes to be tied to what major corporate outlets dictate, the public loses its autonomy, and in the end, our choices in what entertainment is out there for us.

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TV Pilot Hell: Danger Bay

A lot of TV series that had a degree of success in their day do not really live on long into the annals of pop culture history; Danger Bay from 1985 is one such series.  Character actor Donnelly Rhodes stars as Dr. Grant Roberts, or ‘Doc’ as he’s called, who manages a wildlife reserve and also acts as a sort of de facto animal sheriff/veterinarian.  He supports his two annoying kids and their pet otter named Danger while wrestling with local politicos who care nothing for the wellbeing of the defenseless animals and saving the day from those who would do the environment minor-to-medium levels of damage.

The pilot episode centers on the family searching for Danger after he runs away.  It cuts back and forth between the struggling father trying to console his kids and find their pet while also telling the story of how the otter came under their care in flashback.  All of the blander, more uninspired moments of Danger Bay are then punctuated by something utterly insane.  Two fishermen who are apparently fishing out of season, are busted but instead of paying the presumed fine they would be faced with, they begin to not only open fire on Doc, try to kill Danger for eating fish out of their net and evade authorities for a relatively-minor offense, but they ultimately result in trying to kill Doc’s son, Jonah, for no rational reason other than he might be a witness to their very minor criminal activities.  This isn’t zero-to-60.  This is more like negative 60 to 100 all in a 30 minute pilot that is so overblown and apparently lacking in any real sense of humor that it makes me wonder how this show actually got to six seasons!  Firefly didn’t even get a full season and this goes on for six years?!  I mean sure, it’s Canadian, I don’t know what they watch up there, but dammit!  Why?!

I can only assume the writers of Danger Bay had a degree in psychology as every element in this show is designed to be emotionally manipulative.  A struggling, despondent single father raising two abnormally-smart Disney kids who only want to rescue animals while facing off against greedy penny-pinching suits and sleazy, unscrupulous interlopers with no regard for minor wildlife preservation laws…  It’s a Sophist’s dream..?  I think?

The environmentalist themes are not lost on me.  Hell, they probably wouldn’t be lost on anyone.  This is about as subtle as Captain Planet only without the Speedo (unless that comes later in the series).  The kids are reading off queue cards that could have had dialog pulled straight from of a Green Peace flier and their father, who is apparently supposed to be the grounded realist, is actually struggling with “The Man” over an otter!

Now, I definitely remember this show from the 80’s.  I didn’t remember the name, the plot, or the absurdity; but I definitely remember the otter and the theme song.  Oh!  That theme song.  Never before has a show with such a limited scope been graced with such an over-the-top, absurdly-80’s action theme.  It is almost comical in its bombast.  This would be like playing the theme to MacGyver over the opening reel for Golden Girls.

Danger Bay premiered on CBC (Like I said… Canada!) but saw syndication in The Disney Channel around the same time, which is undoubtedly where I watched it during its run before its cancellation in 1990 (presumably due to its failure to compete with Booker).  I don’t know what anyone was thinking with this pilot, but it is so ridiculous that I almost kind of liked it.  It isn’t offensively-bad by any means, the acting was lazy but that isn’t atypical for this sort of show and there were a few attempts at tension (albeit those attempts were mostly just hilarious to me).  What makes this show come off so strangely is it would be like sending Magnum, P.I. after a teen who stole his neighbor’s television.  It’s all so overwrought and really is a shining example of much ado about nothing!

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Anime Review – A Place Further Than the Universe: Episode 1

Youth is said to be an adventure, and anime can occasionally capture ideas of youth quite well.  A Place Further Than the Universe is a slice-of-life anime series from Madhouse with writing and production from creators of shows like K-On!, Steins;Gate, Nichijou and Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi.

The first episode, entitled “One Mwillion Yen For Youth” (‘Million’ is misspelled in the actual title; I’m not sure why but if anyone knows, please comment below) follows a 2nd-year high school student named Mari Tamaki who longs for adventure but can never bring herself to take the leap, always backing out at the last minute with a new excuse every time.  Everything changes, however, after a serendipitous encounter with a strange girl at a train station.  This mystery student dashes past her and in her rush drops an envelope containing one million Yen!  Mari, who picks the envelope up and unable to resist peeks inside.  Mari is immediately met with a giant moral dilemma.  Resolving to do the right thing, she finds and returns the money to the strange girl, named Shirase, and through their new friendship it is discovered this detached young woman has been saving money for years to travel to Antarctica to search for her missing mother.  In the end, Mari resolves to join Shirase and they embark on a spontaneous and probably dangerous journey to one of the harshest environments on Earth.  The first episode ends as the two teenagers embark on a barge to begin their long journey across the ocean to a moving score.

From what I can tell so far from this 23-minute introduction is A Place Further Than the Universe is a light drama that has a lot of warmth.  I think, however, this series is going to lean more towards the teenage girl demographic than my taste can really endure.  That isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I doubt there will be much to relate or attach to for me here.  I did enjoy the gentleness of the first episode though, the animation quality is top-notch (as to be expected considering it is a Madhouse production), and the opening to the series is also pretty good.  I will definitely give the next few episodes a watch, hoping things pick up a bit more.  However, if you are already a fan of saccharin, girlish charm, you will probably like this one more than me.

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Marvel’s The Defenders Finale Review (Contains Spoilers)

As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues its Juggernaut charge through the otherwise-stale box office, the Netflix series have maintained a surprising level of quality.  The four series leading up to Marvel’s The Defenders set the bar for what should have been a pretty-good series, finally building the seamless connection between the Marvel series while attempting to tell a fresh story.  Unfortunately, this new series did not live up to the standard set even by Iron Fist and Luke Cage.

The plot picks up where both Iron Fist and Daredevil’s second season left off, and carried the heavy burden of molding all the chaos of the series’ sub-plots into a form that would have some cohesion and reason.  To me, it felt more-than-a-little forced, but still worked for the most part up to this point.  The action scenes throughout the series were often satisfying and even though it ran a very short eight episodes, Defenders did land some solid excitement if you were able to get past the slog that was its Pilot but it all came to a close in a way that felt like everyone just wanted to get out of this series and on to bigger things.

The Defenders finale sets the stage for the now-united Defenders’ duel with a possessed Elektra (A plotline that carried over from Daredevil’s second season).  The heroes then fight their way into a hidden cave deep below a New York highrise where they split up into groups.  One to take on The Hand who is attempting to use the Iron Fist to achieve their ends of attaining immortality, and one small group to plant explosives to level the building.  That is pretty much it.

I did not have a problem with the simple set up as it carried some plot points from earlier in the season, but this finale was so very, very forgettable.  I suppose this was a problem with the entire series.  It was necessary to re-establish Jessica Jones and Luke Cage to integrate them into the more comic book worlds of Daredevil and Iron Fist (despite them always having taken place in the same New York City) but the way it was done was rushed due to this spinoff’s very short run.  These are the same writers who did Daredevil, yet the entire series of Defenders feels like it’s on a caffeine high, and it culminates in an ending that is far less impactful than it could have been if the creators would have taken their time building things up patiently, allowing for more depth to the story, but it’s difficult to do that in a television series that only runs about six hours in total.

The tone of the finale (simply titled “The Defenders”) is all over the place.  It has a lot of dark undertones, themes of sacrifice, love, friendship and facing the past head-on, but then it ramps up the cheese with overwritten and laughably-bad lines.  On top of that, all of the the characters (including the supporting ones) are forced to face all of the plot points foreshadowed through the first seven episodes in one 48-minute sprint.  It is then blended with hamfisted dialog, bloated action movie cliches, and some truly cringe-worthy scenes, resulting in what is more of a predictable and shallow whimper, as opposed to the promised bang, despite the very literal one at the end.

 

For all of the problems I had with The Defenders leading up to the finale, I was even more disappointed with the conclusion.  It wrapped up safely, not taking any risks, with a predictable closing for all involved characters and the dramatic shift in tone was jarring, at-best.  I can say a lot of this is the bad screenplay but some of the blame could be the result of the episode’s director Farren Blackburn.  This is the only episode directed by Blackburn and it shows with its shift in focus.  The action scenes are all obscured, which is just baffling to me.  One scene with Colleen Wing finally facing her former master is spent with almost the entire fight taking place out-of-focus, in the background, behind a bunch of pipes, while the camera focuses on Claire Temple hiding and talking on a cell phone.  The rest of the action mostly takes place in a dark cave where quick-cuts and identical-looking bad guys fly through the air.  Every scene was so disjointed and ugly and the creators’ decision to obscure the action from the viewer is outright maddening!  I cannot even begin to fathom the series of pitches and ideas that brought the writers and director to make that call.  It is probably the stupidest decision I’ve seen from any of Marvel Studio’s creations to date.

Add to that the fact that two of the main fights the series were building up to barely happened at all (aforementioned Wing v. Bakuto and then Daredevil v. Elektra) and you have a truly upsetting finale.  While Wing and Bakuto’s final duel took place almost entirely off-screen during a phone call, Daredevil and Elektra’s fight was obscured in darkness making the fight barely-visible and was peppered with sappy attempts by Matt Murdock to convince his former love to stop fighting and go back to the way she was before her death.  It was really badly-written, repetitive and very, very long.  It all ends with a CGI building blowing up, and that’s it.  The epilogue involves a long, boring conversation between Foggy Nelson and Karen Page in a church and a tease that there may be a second season of Jessica Jones.  Then it just sort of stops with a single, final reveal that essentially undoes all of the drama of the events that took place during the climax and takes suspension of disbelief and mutates it into an outright rejection of rationality.

For a series that had to rush through its 8-episode run, a big, exciting, engaging finale was absolutely crucial.  This wasn’t a five-chapter season of Sherlock where the individual episode was like a movie, running 90-120 minutes; this was eight episodes running a standard TV hour block (about 44-48 minutes).  There was no room for meandering, laziness and obfuscation of the action.  Zero room!  The choice to close this much-anticipated and hyped series out with such an ugly, dull, lackluster finale is beyond the pale.  It isn’t unusual for a series or even season finale to leave much to be desired, but this isn’t Seinfeld!  There was an underlying story, theme and goal here.  What needed to be done was known.  All they had to do was execute it in a satisfying way.  The Defenders was tolerable at best up to its finale so they could have gone big and at least left an impact, but instead we get what is probably the worst of all of the Marvel series on Netflix, a shell of a series hampered by what I can only assume is utter apathy on the part of the director.

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