Small Screen is the New Big Screen

aka the Top Ten Television Shows you should be watching if you want to hang by the water cooler.

tv dramas

So, what is good TV?  Of course it’s subjective (my guilty pleasures aren’t on this list), but here are by far the most hyped, most talked about, most must-see, if you will, television dramas I have come across over the last few months; if the box office suffers this summer, the studios can blame these shows.  This kicks-off Ten Posts in Ten Days.

10. Downton Abbey

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Now awaiting its 4th season, Downton Abbey is a mix of sophistication, drama, wit, performance and dialogue.  Set in 1912, the show follows the day-to-day life of a titled family and their serving staff all living at Lord Robert Grantham’s estate, Downton Abbey.  Consider it Gosford Park without the murder.

Rating:  The first season is a masterpiece, the second two have yet to measure up.

IMDb: 8.7         metacritic: 92%

What to watch

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If you’ve plowed through your watch list or caught up on your pvr’d shows and you’re looking for some entertainment over the weekend here are a few ideas I found browsing the net today.  Might be some gems on Netflix, but admittedly I’ve seen all of the animated movies and romances already.  Enjoy!

Amazing Netflix Movies You’ve Never Seen

Top Ten Animated Features 2000s

High Five: The best film romances since 2000 | canada.com. (Thanks Jay Stone.)

Warm Bodies (2013)

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Directed by: Jonathan Levine
Written by: Jonathan Levine (screenplay), Isaac Marion (novel)
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Teresa Palmer, Analeigh Tipton, Rob Corddry, Dave Franco, John Malkovich and Cory Hardrict

When I talk about doing something new with a tired genre, this is exactly what I mean.  Based on Isaac Marion’s novel of the same name, Jonathan Levine’s “Zomedy” or “Zom-com” about a zombie who falls in love with a human, and the connection he tries to form with her is endearing and witty and that’s it; but that’s all it needs.   It was a pleasant surprise considering the haphazard trailer left me with no desire to see the film.

What I liked: I’ve been looking for a comedy that does nothing more than entertain.  I tried Movie 43 and turned it off after the opening scene.  I tried I Give it a Year and turned it off after 15 minutes.  But this zombie flick had just enough gore, horror, humour and romance to hook me from the opening right through to the end.  I appreciated the movie’s fast pace and Levine does a good job of keeping the focus on the love story rather than a problematic post-apocalyptic society.   Nevertheless, Levine stays true to the zombie genre but without the gore that could have made it unwatchable.  Nicholas Hoult does a credible job as the zombie R whose character comes alive through minimal facial expressions and voice-over.  Teresa Palmer plays the embattled love interest with charm and strength and the two have great on-screen chemistry.

What I didn’t like:  As I mentioned above, there really isn’t much to this movie. The zombies have no memory so the characters have no past.  The zombies can’t really speak so most of the heart comes from R’s inner thoughts and his inability to express them.  There is no real foil and no real villain but the time the two protagonists spend together moves the romance forward and that is enough to keep audiences engaged.

My rating: A perfect rainy day romance.

IMDb:  7.0       tomato: 80%

Game of Thrones (2011 – )

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Created by: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss

Starring: Sean Bean, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, Michelle Fairley, Maisie Williams, Emilia Clarke, Alfie Allen, Iain Glen, Kit Harington, Sophie Turner, Jack Gleeson and a host of others.

Game of Thrones is the most talked about drama on television.  Almost every comedy or late night talk show I’ve watched in the last six months has mentioned it, at least once, not to mention friends, strangers, family members etc.  So, naturally, when Showcase started airing Season 1, I decided the join the party before any major plot points were ruined.

Quite simply, had I been one of the first to discover it, I would be making a gift of the DVD set for at least a year.  As it stands, everyone is already in the know but at least they humour me with first season discussions and remind me that it only gets better.

Based on George R.R. Martin’s novel of the same name, the series is about a medieval fantasy world where seven noble families battle to claim the Iron Throne.   There is violence, intrigue, plotting, romance, sex, nudity, charm, wit, humanity and intelligence crammed into every 55 minute episode.

What I like:  The show is executed like a film divided into 10 parts. The exceptional quality of the filming, directing, and staging transported me to a  fantasy world that feels real down to its language and landscapes.  Strong editing drives the story forward with force as we jump from family to family and scene to scene constantly wondering what will happen next.  The casting is perfect and the performances are complex and driven which provide depth and a touch of sympathy to almost every character.

What I don’t like:  It’s amazing how fast you can go through ten episodes.  Only two weeks after I invested myself in this program, I’m almost at Season 3.  Thankfully the show has been renewed for a 4th Season so there will still be more to look forward to once I catch up. Mainly my complaints are directed at Showcase, the network that airs Game of Thrones in Canada.  For those of us who don’t have HBO, I highly recommend renting or buying the DVD set.  I appreciate Showcase’s effort to bring critically acclaimed programs to the masses, and I would have been a lot longer to the party  without them,  but a 6 min commercial break is more than I’m willing to put up with, even if PVR’d.  Going on hiatus after Season 1 was also not the best choice when it was quite easy for me to get my hands on Season 2 without waiting.  My suggestion: If you’re going to start three seasons behind, then play them all back to back.  Finally, promoting Season 3 during Season 1 episodes was a nice idea in theory but they should have been more aware of revealing crucial plot points in the execution.

My rating: Two enthusiastic thumbs up for the show; one thumb down for Showcase.

IMDB:  9.4  (I am not providing a link to IMDB as it ruins plot points for those who have yet to start from the beginning)

Metacritic: 79%

Airs:  Showcase: Season 2, ??
HBO USA & Canada: Season 3, Sundays at 9pm

Skyfall (2012)

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Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by:  Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan
Starring: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe, Albert Finney and Ben Whishaw

The latest Bond flick is the type of well-executed entertainment that will likely be played and replayed on Saturday afternoon programming for years to come, and I’m okay with that.  The 23rd installment of the Bond franchise is sleek, cinematic, action-packed, touching and updated in fun ways that didn’t seem to offend Bond purists.

What I liked: Mendes does a superb job developing a visual sense of character rather than relying on the trite Bond-speak.  For those who still haven’t seen it, suffice it to say, there is a sense of meaning in each visually charged landscape that offers us a glimpse into the character for who it is designed or meaningful, and which explains the Oscar nod for cinematography.  The performances are strong across the board with Judi Dench and Javier Bardem edging out the rest.  The story rushes forward loaded with energy and grace despite the daunting 143min running time. Finally, as one who loves origination stories, I have appreciated that the latest Bond films continue to reinvent and rediscover well-known characters and characteristics that might have all been jammed into Craig’s first film.

What I didn’t like: You can’t exactly fault an action flick for being…well, an action flick, so despite the fact that the story and characters are slotted in to fit the visual highlights I think Mendes did a credible job of mining the details.  Though an interesting story might have been rushed and some more character development would have interested me, there really isn’t much room for improving a movie jam-packed with so many qualities, only to say that there are so many.

My rating:  Looking forward to watching it again.

IMDB: 7.9

Rotten Tomatoes:  92%

Note on the trailer:  I prefer the subtler trailers that don’t offer an abridged version of the entire film but I think it’s safe to assume that I was one of the last people to see this movie so enjoy the highlights.

End of Watch (2012)

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Directed by: David Ayer
Written by: David Ayer
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, Frank Grillo, David Harbour and America Ferrera

I’m happy to see that filmmakers are branching out to do their own thing. Finding something a little off the beaten path has been the best part about watching movies in 2012. The trailer for David Ayer’s cop drama doesn’t do the movie justice.  More than an action drama this is a character study of two cops playing the hero and a glimpse into the crimes and troubled lives of their community.

What I liked:  I almost wanted to check the press junkets to see if Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña spent any time together to build the brotherly bond between them.  Their performances are perfection and they feed off each other so naturally that their characters added significantly to the film’s realist aesthetic.  The camera work also engages with a constant shift in point of view as the characters ‘film’ the majority of what we see with handheld devices.

What I didn’t like:  I could really feel Hollywood’s hand in the ending and while I was engaged by the constant camera shifts, Ayer isn’t consistent enough with his message to make it worthy of discussion after it’s over.

My rating:  Can’t fathom why Silver Linings Playbook was nominated for an Oscar and this wasn’t.

IMDB: 7.7

Rotten Tomatoes: 85%

Flight (2012)

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Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: John Gatins
Starring: Denzel Washington, Nadine Velazquez, Don Cheadle, Brian Geraghty, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood and John Goodman

Oscar Nominations: Original Screenplay and Best Actor (Denzel Washington)

Unlike some of the Oscar nominated movies I’ve raved about, there is nothing particularly new in Flight, the story of a troubled airline pilot who prevents a devastating plane crash and the ensuing investigation into his competence.   The narrative, editing and directing are all straight-forward and yet there is something unsettling but engaging about the movie that is, I believe, entirely thanks to Denzel Washington.

What I liked:  Washington is transcendent.  His character is so well-developed (hence the screenplay nod?), so complex, so arrogant, so charming and so frightened that each scene elicits an emotional response.   He is at his best when his character, Whip Whitaker, is at his worst.  The story itself is interesting and moves smoothly forward to its finale.  The supporting cast provides some wit, some centering and helps to ask some tough questions.

What I didn’t like: The story itself felt nuanced enough that the lyric-heavy score annoyed me with its blatant reminder of what we were seeing.  The frequent reference to God as explanation for personal tragedy or salvation was probably meant to invoke discussion  but felt heavy-handed to me.

My rating: My favourite Denzel performance.

IMDB: 7.7

Rotten Tomatoes: 78%

Tuesday Night Comedy

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What to do on a Tuesday night when it’s -30C degrees? Grab a drink, curl up on the couch and tune in to New Girl at 9pm followed by The Mindy Project at 9:30pm.  These two sitcoms make my Tuesday night.  Granted, I know a lot of us are ‘over’ the genre (what do people see in The Big Bang Theory?!) and both of these are sitcoms in their truest form:  22 minutes of quirky characters finding themselves in compromising predicaments; but that doesn’t preclude them from being funny.  In fact, they feature two of the funniest people on television in Golden Globe and Emmy nominee Max Greenfield as New Girl’s Schmidt and the eponymous Mindy Kaling.  Here’s a tidbit about both but there’s no real point in critiquing them because a) I enjoy them for what they are: laugh out loud (literally…) funny and b) I’ll let the material speak for itself.

New Girl (2011 – )

Created by: Elizabeth Meriwether
Starring: Zooey Deschanel, Max Greenfield, Hannah Simone, Lamorne Morris, Jake Johnson

IMDB: 7.9/10
Airs:  Fox, CityTV Tuesday, 9pm.


Video courtesy of cooooourtneyy
**These clips don’t even include Season 2’s ‘drum roll’, ‘rebranding party’, ‘Halloween headbutt’,  ‘stripper dance’ or, of course, the ‘Douche Bag Jar’.

The Mindy Project (2012 – )

Created by: Mindy Kaling
Starring: Mindy Kaling, Chris Messina and Ed Weeks

IMDB: 6.4/10
Airs:  Fox, CityTV Tuesday, 9:30pm.

My rating: The writing and casting are far better in New Girl but Mindy Kaling may be the funniest woman on TV at the moment.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

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Directed by: Benh Zeitlin
Written by: Lucy Alibar & Benh Zeitlin (screenplay), Lucy Alibar (stage play “Juicy and Delicious”)
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry and Levy Easterly

Nominations: Screenplay (previously produced material), Actress (Quvenzhané Wallis), Directing & Picture of the Year.

Quite simply, I loved this movie.  Benh Zeitlin’s directorial debut about a young girl who describes her understanding of the universe is gritty and magical, grassroots, poetic, heartbreaking and beautiful; it drags us in, wrenches the heart and considers all the wonder and decay of the Deep South. Don’t get me wrong, despite my gushing review this film is far from perfection but the emotion of it is enough to carry the whole.

What I liked:  Quvenzhané Wallis is a revelation as Hushpuppy and Zeitlin does a brilliant job telling the story through her eyes; especially with voice-over narration that eases the film forward with delicate quips about her views on the world.    Dwight Henry, who plays her retreating father, is also commendable in his first ever performance and the relationship between the two is poetry – in all its anger, love and honesty.   The creative camera work and editing yanks us into the Bathtub, so much so that we are transported, not only into their world but also into their understanding of it.

What I didn’t like:  If we’re going to compare stories then most of the other nominees in the Oscar screenplay category are probably better told tales.  The story here feels like an idea moving forward.  There is no real plot and at times the jump cuts took me out of the film and I had to reorient myself.  That said, the heart of this film and the creativity in which it unfolds is the driving force behind it.  The narrative is crafted beautifully by Zeitlin and carried out heart and soul by Wallis.  When I think about it, I still feel the emotion of it, and that is no small feat.

My rating:  My favourite film of 2012 so far.

IMDB: 7.5

Rotten Tomatoes: 86%

Rebelle (2012)

War Witch (In English)

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Directed by: Kim Nguyen
Written by: Kim Nguyen
Starring: Rachel Mwanza, Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien, Serge Kanyinda and Mizinga Mwinga

Nominated for: Best Foreign Language Film

It’s Oscar Season!  I will try my best to preview most of the films that are up for notable Oscars despite the fact that I am among those who believe the ceremony is directed towards commercially appealing talent rather than actual artistic talent but I digress… Anyway, I thought I’d begin my Oscar posts by promoting some homegrown talent.  Montreal filmmaker Kim Nguyen has garnered much press and accolades for his French war drama, Rebelle (aka War Witch), about a teenage African girl who tells the story of her war-ravaged youth to her unborn child.  The movie has already been nominated, and won, a number of awards for Nguyen and his leading actress Rachel Mwanza, including an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film for Nguyen at the upcoming Academy Awards.  The trailer looks both beautiful and disturbing, which makes me eager to see it.

In Montreal, it can be seen in theaters starting January 18th at Cinema du Parc.  Hopefully it will gain a larger distribution with this nomination as it has already finished screening in theatres, but if not, keep your eyes out for it!

IMDB: 7.0

Rotten Tomatoes: 89%