The Umbrella Academy (Series Review)

The Umbrella Academy is the latest Netflix original show, that will hopefully try and fill the void of the Marvel Netflix shows Daredevil, Jessica Jones, The Punisher, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and The Defenders that were all cancelled. But is it in the same league as the others?
No it’s not, but that’s because The Umbrella Academy is in a league of its own. It’s not trying to be a Marvel product. It’s not trying to mimic a superhero show/movie. It’s not trying to be one more in the neverending formulaic superhero genre. It is different, it is weird, it is strange, it knows all of this and it doesn’t care, because it embraces all of that in a true bizarre way.

Based on the comic book series of the same name, created by Gerard Way. Yes, the same Gerard Way, lead singer and songwriter of the band My Chemical Romance. While I am not a fan of his music, I have to say I am a fan of this world and the characters that he has created. I will admit that I have not read The Umbrella Academy comic series, but I will probably check it out soon. Thanks to Netflix I was introduced to this strange and super dysfunctional family. However I have read several comics, and while Umbrella Academy is original in it’s execution, it does pay a narrative and characteristic homage to some comic series, especially Doom Patrol and X-Men. Now while I cannot get into details of what the tributes are because…SPOILERS, I will say that it did not take away the originality of The Umbrella Academy. It still is very much it’s own thing.

Gerard Way

The show has a lot of interesting plots and subplots with many twists and turns so I will not reveal major plot points.
“In October 1989, 43 women gave birth, none of these women had been pregnant when the day first began.” That right there was enough of a tease to have me intrigued in the show. This line of dialogue is said by the founder of The Umbrella Academy (Sir Reginald Hargreeves) in the trailer of the show and it is where the show begins along with the introduction of the characters.

Sir Reginald Hargreeves played by Colm Feore

We see two versions of the 7 kids Reginald adopts, we see a past version of them as teenagers and we see a present day version of them as adults. But since this isn’t your “typical” superhero family, the past and present versions we see or don’t see are not what you might expect.

Luther (Tom Hopper), Diego (David Castañeda), Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), Klaus (Robert Sheehan), Number Five (Aidan Gallagher), Ben (Justin H. Min), Vanya (Ellen Page), Hazel (Cameron Britton)

The best thing about this show has to be the cast, and I don’t just mean the 8 characters above, I mean everybody. From a small supporting character to a lead, this show gave proper character arcs to everyone. The chemistry all the main characters have with each other feels very natural and not to mention hilarious at times. The overall family dynamic is something I truly appreciated along with solid writing of the story. For me however I did feel that the show had some pacing issues, especially with the setting up and exposition of the story and the characters. I found the first few episodes to be quite slow paced with a cyclical reveal at the end of the episode that keeps you intrigued for the next episode. I am glad that I continued to watch the show, because after the “cliffhanger gimmick” at the end of the first few episodes, this show took a shape of its own. I was no longer interested in the reveal at the end of the episode, I was invested in the characters and the story, I wanted to know what was going to happen next. My suggestion to those who plan to try out this show, give it time, the first few episodes take some time to find their footing, but once they do it becomes a thoroughly enjoyable ride.

The members of the academy at the funeral.

In the first episode we find out that all of the brothers and sisters from the academy have gone their own way, but are “reunited” when they come to attend a funeral, it is this reunion that sparks the whole show and its wild story.

Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton as Cha-Cha and Hazel.

Mary J. Blige and Cameron Britton are two of the shows numerous villains, they play your not so typical assassins. They are such strange characters that you can’t help but think how perfectly they fit in this bizarre world. The truly menacing and manipulative villains are beyond them, but I won’t get into those details. I will say that the multitude of villains is another aspect of the show I really loved.

I mentioned one thing I wasn’t a big fan of, which was the initial pacing of the show, apart from that, the only other thing that bothered me was the over use of a soundtrack. I felt in many scenes in practically every episode they just inserted an indie or commercial song when it wasn’t required. I would much rather have an original score that elevates the scenes through sound and music. But in the show it felt over enthusiastic and highly unnecessary at times. Some scenes felt like this, “I need a coffee” (cue song), “I have to go meet him for breakfast” (cue song), “she is our mom” (cue song). You might think I’m nitpicking, but honestly I found the overuse of songs a major distraction from the already engaging storyline.

The Umbrella Academy house.

The set pieces and on site locations of the show were aesthetically beautiful, from the practical locations of the house and the auditorium to green screens and everything in between. In particular I loved the actual Umbrella Academy. It has this somewhat Victorian interior design with a delicate yet grandiose feel to it. Which really works because even though it is their home, they never felt like any of the physical things around the house or the house itself belonged to them, except perhaps their personal effects in their rooms. The look and feel of the show isn’t jarring as it uses a warm but not oversaturated tone that let’s the colors pop yet also having the palette reflect the storyline at times by muting the colors.

I highly recommend The Umbrella Academy as your next Netflix show, especially if you enjoy superhero, sci-fi/fantasy genres.

Rating:
I’m giving The Umbrella Academy an 8.5 out of 10.
Although the show has some initial growing pains with pacing and an overactive soundtrack, it is a highly enjoyable show carried successfully by it’s brilliant cast. Along with a great story that keeps you guessing and a twist to the traditional superhero genre, The Umbrella Academy is a fantastic show that deserves attention and will be well liked by both comic book fans and general viewers alike.

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Alita: Battle Angel (Film Review)

Alita is a film 20 years in the making. James Cameron (who is the writer and producer of the film) bought the rights for Alita over 20 years ago. Originally called Gunnm, it was a Japanese manga (comic) which released in 1990. James Cameron fell in love with the comic and bought the rights and it became his passion project after Titanic. Simultaneously he was working on the script for Avatar but when Avatar released with huge commercial success in 2009, Cameron shifted his focus to make multiple sequels to Avatar, and Alita went to the back burner. Cameron didn’t want this great story to gather dust and never get made, so he used his script and continued to produce the film, but hired seasoned filmmaker Robert Rodriguez to be at the helm and direct this project.

I was lucky enough to attend the premiere of Alita in IMAX. Firstly I have to say that this film is absolutely gorgeous and even more so in IMAX. The world they created in this film is magnificent, I was amazed by all the artwork and visual effects and set building done in combination to create a visually stunning city.
Peter Jackson’s visual effects company, Weta Digital, were the ones responsible for this breathtaking world created on screen and the design of the titular character Alita. Initially when I saw the trailer I found the animation for the character to be kind of out of place, but while watching the movie it did not bother me one bit. In fact, apart from the world created the best thing in the film is the main character.

Christoph Waltz as Dr. Dyson Ido

The film stars Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly , Mahershala Ali and Keean Johnson. And starts with Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) finding Alita (Rosa Salazar) in a scrap yard whose brain is still active so he takes her to his home office to build her a body and bring her back to life. There begins a tender father-daughter connection, and probably the only emotional character relationship in the film that actually works. Waltz as usual is great, but the stand out performance is Rosa Salazar as Alita. Given that most of the action sequences and stunts of the character are done with CGI, Salazar did do all the motion capture performance and dialogues. She does it so well that you can’t help but connect to this lost girl trying to find her place and purpose in this insane world. Unfortunately the film goes on to create a love story between Alita and Hugo (Keean Johnson) and this is where I felt the movie failed. The chemistry between these characters are not strong enough for the audience to be that invested. I won’t go into spoiler territory, but the climax of the film falls a bit flat due to the relationship of Alita and Hugo not being as effective as the filmmakers might have thought.

Mahershala Ali as Vector and Jennifer Connelly as Chiren

The other problem I have with the film is the wasted talents of Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali. Both these Oscar winning actors are great but in this film they just seem like random supporting characters that could have been played by any other less talented actor and it wouldn’t have changed the film. Mahershala Ali (who has won an Oscar for his performance in Moonlight and is nominated for Green Book this year) is one of the most talented actors currently working in Hollywood. So if you are going to cast him as your villain, you have to make him a strong, menacing villain. But he is none of that, he just seems like a bland character who is more of a puppet than the actual shot caller.

The action choreography and the overall action sequences are elegantly done and captured. I am truly grateful that we did not get another quick cut action film, that cuts 50 times in a 2 minute fight scene. The framing of the action gave the characters breathing room and had the audience follow every movement and every detail of the world. This is especially effective during the Motorball scenes in the film. Due to the high speed pace of the sport, it was good to have clear visuals of what was happening. I was actually hoping there would be more Motorball in the film, because it was really impressive how the effects team executed it.

The only other film I can compare Alita: Battle Angel to is Ghost in the Shell (2017) starring Scarlett Johansson. That is because both these films are based on Japanese Manga that came out around the same time, 1989/1990. Both these films have a female lead who is part human and part cyborg, both of them are sci-fi/cyberpunk genres. But where Ghost in the Shell failed, Alita: Battle Angel flourishes.

Alita: Battle Angel is pretty accurate to its source material and creates a strong female lead. The film shines as an example on how to make a Hollywood film from a Manga/Anime. We have had decades of failed films that tried to recreate the magic of Japanese Manga/Anime. With Alita there is hope, it is a huge step in the right direction. The film might waste some of it’s characters and might use some cheesy dialogue, but it is a visual fest that has tremendous heart in it’s protagonist and her mentor, Dr. Ido.

Ido preparing Alita for the Motorball race.

Rating:
I am giving Alita: Battle Angel a 7.5 out of 10.
A fun film and a visual treat for fans of manga/anime and fans who generally like sci-fi action films. The film does fall short in terms of its villain, supporting characters and their performances. Luckily it has the well captured bond of Ido and Alita that keeps its emotional arc afloat.

Russian Doll (Series Review)

A new Netflix show with an all female powerhouse team of writers/creators and directors.

Looking for your next Netflix binge? Look no further, Russian Doll is the perfect choice.

I recently watched the whole season, which actually isn’t that long, it is 8 episodes of about 25 minutes each. It is a short and crisp show that you could ideally finish in a day or two. The fact that it uses a short format with only 8 episodes makes it one of those rare shows that doesn’t divulge much into side plots or stray away from the main story. Essentially this is a comedy-drama with a sprinkle of science fiction/fantasy.

Natasha Lyonne’s character Nadia staring into the mirror

Without giving too much away, the show starts off with Nadia a cynical software engineer (played by Natasha Lyonne) who is staring at a mirror in a bathroom on her 36th birthday, at a party her friends have thrown for her. Beyond that the show dives into the surreal where Nadia starts to relive her birthday again and again with sheer dark humor. She spends the remaining of the show trying to find answers as to why this is happening while simultaneously pondering life, her relationships with people and her past.

The first episode does struggle to find it’s footing at first but the show goes leaps and bounds beyond my expectation, I am so very glad I stuck with the show. It is surprisingly whimsical and intelligent with a strong female lead character. At first the show can come across as slightly pretentious but trust me there is a good reason for all the choices made in the show, be it music or characterizations or even character choices. My favorite was the use of a book (Emily of New Moon) as a narrative device for the show. Anyone who has been passionate about a book or has a favorite “go to” book would understand why this is in the show and why Nadia is so attached to it.

Natasha Lyonne’s character Nadia with the book (Emily of New Moon)

My worry at first was how would a new Netflix show use a redundant narrative tool of time loop, where the main character relives the same day over and over again, and make it original and fresh. (Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Source Code, Happy Death Day all used this same narrative device, some with success) Although my worry did not go away in the first 2 episodes, it was at the end of the 3rd episode that my interest piqued by a twist which I wish wasn’t ruined by the trailer. But even with that, the show is very strong and gets better with each engaging episode. There were times where I laughed and times where I honestly felt such high levels of tension to the point of feeling sick with dread with the sheer intensity of stress and drama. The show very intelligently flips through the emotions and tones with each episode, making the viewer hold on for a fun yet valuable ride down the rabbit hole. It is not very often that a show executes multiple tonal shifts successfully, but Russian Doll does it.

Let’s take a moment and talk about the women responsible for this show. This show is entirely created, written and directed by women. The creators are Natasha Lyonne (who is also the lead of the show, and plays her character astonishing well) Amy Poehler (writer-actor of Parks and Recreation, and of Saturday Night Live fame) and Leslye Headland (who has written several shows and movies throughout her career).

Left to right: Cindy Holland (VP of Netflix Original Series), Amy Poehler, Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland)

This powerhouse trio made one of the best new comedy/dramas I have seen. They make the viewer extremely invested and involved through the show and I kept thinking and coming up with my own theories as I was watching. There are so many subtle hints and easter eggs, it really makes the show a joy to watch.

If you like shows with strong characters and a unique plot with several twists, you will definitely like this show. When I started watching it I did not have very high expectations, which was a good thing, because this show proved me wrong. It is a show I should have never underestimated and I am glad there are talks of a Season 2.

Rating:
I’m giving Russian Doll a 9 out of 10.
A slightly rocky beginning to an otherwise fantastically fun show that makes the viewer think and ponder on life and our choices of the past, present and future.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (Film Review)

Before I begin writing about the third part of this trilogy, I would like to first address a few things regarding the first two films. (SPOILER WARNING of the first two films, SPOILER FREE REVIEW for the third film)

The first film which came out in 2010, is still my favorite of the trilogy. Mainly due to the fact that it did not have the standard “good vs evil” plot and did not have a proper “bad guy/villain,” except for perhaps Hiccup’s father, Stoick. The first film focused more on a coming of age story about Hiccup and the special bond he has with Toothless. AND THE MUSICAL SCORE, wow I loved the music throughout the film, and they kept using it for the other films as well as the TV show.

The second film, although with some truly emotional moments (Stoick’s death at the hand of Toothless, Hiccup finding his mother, Toothless becoming the Alpha) does sort of fall into the equational trap of most standard heroic films. Which is fine, the entire MCU is built on that equation, and most animated films are too. But that is what set the first HTTYD film apart from the second. While I still enjoyed the second film, I found it slightly flat narratively compared to the first.

The Hidden World, the conclusion to this heartwarming and touching trilogy is a film sure to be remembered. While the film does start and end on high notes, it is the entire second act that feels quite derivative. Again this is a spoiler free review so I will not go into plot points.

Opening sequence of the film

At the start of the film we are treated to a well choreographed single take action sequence. Even though it is an animated film, it is still wonderful to see a nice long take done right. Another animated film that I feel did a great long take was The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. If you haven’t seen that film, it’s worth checking out, at least for the long take.

The colorful palette of the film during the first act.

“Thou shalt not deviate.”
The Hidden World starts very colorfully and as the narrative tone changes after the first act, so does the palette, but then once again shifts towards the third act. The first act does also show the large scale of the film and the large growth of the village of Berk. I do not want to go into spoiler territory but I will say this, the last 30 min of the film is quite an emotional journey. I actually teared up twice during the end of the film, for me it has been a 9 year journey of Hiccup and Toothless and this film has a fitting end and conclusion that gave justice to such a beautiful cinematic bond of characters. Once again, the same as the other 2 films before, the highlight of this film is the characterization of Toothless, his bond with Hiccup, and the musical score that elevates emotional and motivational moments of the film. Overall I recommend this film to all those who are fans of the franchise, and to those who haven’t seen the previous films I would say that you are missing out on a great animated trilogy.

Rating:

I am giving How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World an 8 out of 10.
Highly recommend it even though it’s not the best in the trilogy, it does give it’s fans and audience a perfect closure to a beloved franchise.