A First Look At Backstrom, Via Episode 3

You may wonder why this “first look” is coming three episodes in to the show. To be honest, I’d seen and heard ads for Backstrom and was curious enough to take a look, but didn’t get that chance until this week when I saw it was airing in a time slot after something else I was watching.

This review is actually going to go in a slightly different direction than my usual format, because I’d like to compare it to some other shows I’ve watched in the past.

Backstrom centers around a police detective played by Rainn Wilson (The Office; Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!), and the other members of the Special Investigations department. As with most stories of this ilk, they end up taking the cases that are either too odd for other departments to tackle, or it will probably also eventually include ones that have been passed down as unsolvable.

BACKSTROM

Everett Backstrom is a jerk. The audience knows it, and so do the people around him. What I see as the biggest problem with this show isn’t necessarily it’s run-of-the-mill nature, but rather the fact that I was watching episode three and I didn’t see the kind of character dynamics that make shows like this successful. Big misanthropes are really only tolerable in fictional media, and for someone to fall into that category as heavily as Backstrom, they need some kind of contextual foil as a counterbalance. Greg House had James Wilson (and to some extent Lisa Cuddy, although that fell apart at the end), and Cal Lightman had Gillian Foster. Even when the main character isn’t really that bad, the writers still use a “buddy cop” type of system, for instance when Patrick Jane has Teresa Lisbon, or Richard Castle has Kate Beckett, or Charlie Eppes had his brother Don.

The literary foil is commonly used across genres as a way to show the audience that someone who would otherwise be unsympathetic actually has some interesting traits to them, and vice versa. Backstrom has none of that, at first glance. It’s a shame, really, because I can’t see past it to appreciate any of the other characters, let alone remember what the “case of the week” was. Premise and/or cast are often what get me started, but character dynamics are what keep me coming back.

I may watch more of this if I remember when it’s on, but I don’t intend to follow it as closely as the other offerings that make up my queue.

[If you have a topic you’d like me to cover in a future article, please don’t hesitate to email me at Sara at otdt.net.]

Princess Princess D

 I apologize for not sharing any insights with you last week, having been in the midst of preparing to attend Setsucon. However, to make up for it, here’s what you would have seen:  

Every once in a while, it seems necessary to share something I didn’t particularly enjoy, just to keep things interesting (I have a tendency to gravitate towards stories that pique my attention, but for the purpose of this column, I may have to move away from that). In this instance, I’m talking about “Princess Princess D”, based on the manga and anime “Princess Princess”.  

Before we go any further, I’d like to mention that I did in fact (intentionally) complete the anime before sitting down to the drama, so that I’d have an idea of what was coming. The anime was quirky and funny, but also heartfelt, and so even though I’d been warned against watching the live action series, I was wondering whether it could really be that bad.

Princess Princess D, main cast

Princess Princess D, main cast

 

Princess Princess is the story of students in an all-boys school that has a tradition of choosing a few of the prettier freshmen to dress up as girls for school events and club activities to relieve the stress of being in an environment of all boys, all the time. In the anime, Tooru Kouno transfers into the school mid-year and is immediately chosen to join the existing princesses Mikoto Yutaka and Yuujirou Shihoudani (in the live action, he transfers in at the beginning of the year and is elected at the same time as the other two). The plot focuses mostly on their struggle to find balance between their school lives, private lives, princess responsibilities, and relationships with each other.  

The biggest draws for me to the live action series were Takeru Sato (Rurouni Kenshin, Kamen Rider Den-O), who played Tooru, and Ray Fujita (Garo, Zero: Black Blood), who played Yuujirou. It’s really a shame that even with their skills, they weren’t able to carry it as well as the anime. Probably the main reason it fell apart was because of the budget. The story demands a lot of extra actors to fill in gaps when the princesses are appearing in their female garb, to give the illusion that this is in fact a popular activity at the school. Unfortunately, aside from the three princesses, the student council, and the drama-only “dark princesses” the student body was incredibly sparse. Pairing that with princesses that while are good looking guys, are very awkward as girls, and the live action sadly falls flat.  

I ignored the warnings to stay away from this one, but I hope you’ll take it seriously.

Rating: 1st gear

[If you have a topic you’d like me to cover in a future article, please don’t hesitate to email me at Sara at otdt.net.]

The Lego Movie

[For the record, this article was completed after the recording of the “recommended viewings of 2014” podcast.]

Everything is awesome! Or, at least that’s what Emmet Brickowski would like to believe.

Yes, I’m talking about the Lego Movie. Having gone into my first viewing after only seeing a trailer or two, and not reading any summaries, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect besides nostalgia and hilarity. Well, it served up both of those things, and a good bit more.

The-Lego-Movie

The movie opens mid-battle, between the wizard Vitruvius (voiced by Morgan Freeman), and Lord Business (voiced by Will Ferrell). As Vitruvius is nearly defeated, he recites a prophecy about a “Master” Lego builder who will save the world. Skip forward a few years, and things have calmed down quite a bit, to the point where there’s vibrant utopian city life. Everyone follows “the instructions”, a reference to the classic booklets containing step-by-step illustrations that come with most Lego sets. Along comes Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) – a rather plain construction worker minifigure who’s sole purpose in life is to fit in with his coworkers and garner their approval. One night he notices someone moving around the work site after hours, and decides to follow them. It turns out the woman is looking for something called the “piece of resistance”, and tries to warn him off her trail. Following his refusal and a tumble through the earth below the construction, a piece of something (very notably not a Lego) gets stuck to his back. She identifies it as the item she seeks, and declares him a “Special” minifigure.

This movie rated unbelievably high on the nostalgia meter. Anyone roughly “Generation Y” or older (and possibly some younger) will remember having bins at home, filled with randomly sized and colored bricks that they could use to their imaginations’ content. We remember the evolution of the minifigures, and the introduction of more and more specialized building sets. As such, it’s very easy to see this story from both the league of specials’ point of view, and that of Lord Business. That all being said, there are several levels the movie runs on, and children will get a very different experience out of it from the adults who watch it with them. Even people who were never really into Legos will likely find something to latch onto, whether it’s the story itself, or the mass of memes it’s riddled with, or the surprise twist at the end. It’s the kind of movie I wish I would have been able to share with my grandfather.

Musically, there isn’t much variation. There’s a lot of repetition of the song “Everything is Awesome”, and most of the rest of it is background music. That’s actually okay, though, because it drives home the drone mentality that the average minifigures are accustomed to. On the other hand, the film is visually stunning… and it can’t afford not to be. The audience has to be able to see every piece of every build, and the animation team really delivered. The first part of the closing credits is even proper stop-motion.

Please go see this movie.

Rating: 6th Gear

[If you have a topic you’d like me to cover in a future article, please don’t hesitate to email me at Sara at otdt.net.]

The Newsroom

It’s a show about a show about the news.

If that reminds you of the tag line from a Comedy Central ad for a weird little two-season ABC network program called Sports Night, you’re not far off. I’m referring to The Newsroom, another (more recent) show also helmed by Aaron Sorkin, which ran for a total of 25 episodes on HBO, the finale airing on December 14. It starred Jeff Daniels (Dumb and Dumber, 101 Dalmatians) as news anchor Will McAvoy, and Emily Mortimer (Howl’s Moving Castle, Hugo) as the news show’s executive producer MacKenzie McHale. The Newsroom actually has an excellent ensemble cast, although several of the episodes, and most of season three’s over-arcing thread feature Will and MacKenzie trying to figure out where they stand with each other.

jeff-daniles-emily-mortimer-the-newsroom1-ep-5-550-hbo

Will and MacKenzie

If you’re already familiar with Sorkin’s previous works, like Sports Night or The West Wing, you’ll have a decent idea of what to expect from this series. There’s no shortage of sexual tension or characters moving from one relationship to the next. I don’t know if that’s because of the fast pace and high stress of living in that segment of society, but it seems to get blown out of proportion for the sake of sensational programming.

There’s also a lot of very strong opinions and characters trying to do what they think is right (with varying degrees of accuracy and success). Even in episode one, the viewer sees MacKenzie rousing Will from his highly rated by-the-book, dialing-it-in news show to start taking a stand on issues and making full, well-rounded reports. Usually when a tv show decides to talk about real news events, they do a little rewriting and renaming to make it fit their fictional world. The Newsroom does almost none of that. They leave world events intact, sometimes even using legitimate video from other preexisting news features. It makes for high-impact storytelling. I think one of my favorite story lines was from season three, when the network’s finance reporter Sloan Sabbith gave one of the tech guys a dressing down for developing a mobile app that would allow people to share when and where they saw various celebrities.

There’s a lot of compelling material to The Newsroom, and I almost didn’t watch it because I didn’t think it would interest me, but Will’s response to the question of what makes America great drew me right in. The end of the series echoed strongly of the end of Sports Night, and I’d like to think that even though Sports Night was entirely fiction, it’s possible they could be set in the same universe. This show may not be deserving of a rewatch in my book, but if asked whether I’d still have made the decision in the first place, I’d probably say yes.

Rating: 4th gear

[If you have a topic you’d like me to cover in a future article, please don’t hesitate to email me at Sara at otdt.net.]

Nobunaga Concerto (live-action drama)

It’s been done before, and it will probably be done again. Sending characters through time somehow seems to not become overused – as long as it’s done well.

Nobunaga Concerto

In this case, I’m talking about Nobunaga Concerto. The story starts with a high school student named Saburo, played by Shun Oguri (Lupin III, Space Brothers), who is on a field trip to a historical style village. Having wandered off by himself and gotten turned around, he climbs up onto a wall to try to find his way out. His foot slips on a shingle, and he slides off, falling down a long hill and onto a dirt road. Around the bend come two figures on horseback, one of which being Nobunaga, of the famous Oda clan of Japanese history. Nobunaga is frail and under constant threat of murder. He and Saburo size each other up, noticing that their faces are identical, and he asks Saburo to take over his role as the up and coming leader of the clan, handing over a sword that will serve as proof of heritage. Saburo, thinking he’s still inside the historical tour, accepts it with a smile.

Saburo of course quickly discovers that it’s all very real. He’s really in the “Warring States” era, his life is really in danger, and everyone thinks he’s really Nobunaga. Including Nobunaga’s wife Kichou, played by Kou Shibasaki (Battle Royale, Galileo). Coming from a future where there’s an atmosphere of relative peace, he has a lot of trouble with the concept of everyone trying to kill each other and themselves. He is gradually able to win people over though, as he continually makes the arguments to start building towards his future.

I’m not much of a history student, so I really appreciate shows like this, even knowing full well that they’re mostly fiction. Every once in a while, Saburo comes across someone else who had fallen through the time slip (offhand I can think of two), and aside from his school textbook I’m actually glad that aspect wasn’t given a whole lot of attention. The story was largely character-driven, and it was great to see the chemistry between all the actors. I had somehow grown so attached to Saburo, that I found myself in tears when he faced his biggest decision in the climax of episode 11.

Having read an unfavorable review of the anime and watched part of episode 1, all I can say is that there are a lot of things that can be done in live action that can’t necessarily be done with animation, especially in this case with differences in time allotment per episode. The sets and costuming were gorgeous, and while the dialogue may not have been historically accurate to character, it was believable.

I’ve seen rumor that there’s more to the story. The manga extends beyond what we’ve seen, so I sincerely hope the rumor is true. Because if it’s not, somebody wasn’t planning very well.

Unless historical fiction is the complete opposite of your “cup of tea”, I definitely recommend checking this one out.

Rating: 4th Gear

[If you have a topic you’d like me to cover in a future article, please don’t hesitate to email me at Sara at otdt.net.]

White Collar TV Series Review

After six fun years, the USA Network series “White Collar” aired its final episode on December 18th. Starring Matt Bomer (Magic Mike, Chuck) as the slick con man turned criminal informant Neal Caffrey, and Tim DeKay (Swordfish, The New Adventures of Old Christine) as his FBI handler contact Peter Burke, the show took the buddy cop genre and spun it sideways.

Peter and Neal

Peter and Neal

 

The series started back in fall 2009, with a nearly silent “cold open” (the segment of a program that runs before the opening theme and credits) showing Neal escaping from jail. The effort was in vain, as he returned only to find his girlfriend gone, and was subsequently caught and arrested again by the same FBI agent that had been tailing him for years. He sits despondent in jail for a few days, eventually resolving to negotiate with Peter to be allowed to make his residence outside in exchange for his assistance in helping to solve unusual and tricky white collar crimes. Much to Peter’s chagrin, Neal is able to find enough wiggle room within the terms of the agreement, to live much more comfortably than anyone at the FBI had anticipated.

Over the years that the show aired, it was interesting to observe the effects that Neal and Peter had on each other, as well as the rest of the characters rounding out the main cast. Peter started out a very straight-laced, by-the-book, no-nonsense type, and Neal’s antics slowly wore that away until the viewer would have a bit of a time recognizing his actions at the end as being in character. Neal, on the other hand, seems to have been thinking at least a dozen steps ahead, even when that wasn’t given any focus in the over-arcing story. In any good long-running television series, the characters can’t change too much without ruining the formula that made it so popular in the first place, and unfortunately for the good guys among us, “White Collar” is no exception. Neal barely changed at all, even if there were times he appeared to be turning over a new leaf. His goal from day one was to regain his freedom.

So let’s go back to the final episode. As I sat in front of my television that night, I was pleasantly surprised to see how many events and ideas were recalled from previous episodes, all the way back to the combination lock cracking in episode 1 (the result of which being how Neal got out of jail and onto the tracking anklet). The Matthew Keller thread was resolved once and for all, as was fitting for having him return as a season six regular character. If anyone recalls the series finale of “House MD”, allow me to just say that the ending of “White Collar” was far more satisfying than that was. To be honest, I’m glad Peter made the decision he did after everything was said and done.

It’s unusual anymore for a television series to last six years without going stale, or changing too many things and ruining its formula. The writers and producers made some interesting decisions over the course of the run, in order to keep it fresh, and this show was that much better for it. As with any long-running series, especially one that has hour-long episodes, it becomes a serious time commitment. However, this series rounded out at 81 (episode 1 being extended length as a premiere), so if you do have the time and the inclination, I highly recommend checking this one out.

Rating: 5th Gear

[If you have a topic you’d like me to cover in a future article, please don’t hesitate to email me at Sara at otdt.net.]

Kuroshitsuji (2014 Black Butler live-action film)

This is your spoiler alert for the review that follows, as it may be more difficult to discuss without them than usual.

When the production announcement came down for the Kuroshitsuji 2014 live-action movie, it stirred quite a bit of attention. The studio wanted to make the film, but only if they could have Hiro Mizushima (Kamen Rider Kabuto, Hana Kimi 2007 ver.), who had retired from acting, come back as Sebastian. Luckily he said yes to playing the butler to Ayame Gouriki’s (Mirai Nikki, Gatchaman) Kiyoharu.

Having not read the manga, and only watching one episode of the anime (through no fault other than it was a free download, and I was ensconced in other series at the time), I’m not sure whether it was a good or bad thing to come into this movie with fresh eyes. The story opens in a warehouse, where Kiyoharu is being held with a group of girls.

Let me start over. Kiyoharu is a descendant of the Phantomhive family (establishing the link to Ciel), and he is actually a she. The Phantomhive’s family business can only be governed by men, so after Shiori’s parents were killed, she disappeared for a while, returning under an assumed name so that she could use her new status to take revenge for their murder. Going forward, I’ll be using male pronouns, since that’s how the character is primarily presented.

So after Sebastian steps in at the warehouse, takes care of business, and gets Kiyoharu home, they’re faced with a new task brought from the queen by Charles Sato (played by Yu Shirota [Great Teacher Onizuka 2012 ver., Arakawa Under the Bridge]), who also happens to have a personal stake in seeing the mystery solved. Some thorough detective work and carefully worded master-to-butler commands later, they think they have everything figured out… which is mostly true. Kiyoharu didn’t realize his own personal ties to case until it was almost too late.

Generally speaking, it wasn’t a bad film. It wasn’t my favorite, but I’m happy they went for Mizushima, as I’m not sure anyone else could have filled the role of Sebastian like he did. The fight scenes actually made the movie more than the story, especially with Rin’s “hidden badass”, to use the TV Tropes term. The one thing that really broke it for me, though, was at the end when Kiyoharu was dying from the poison. Sebastian held the antidote, put it in his own mouth, and then leaned in to give it to Kiyoharu. I actually found myself asking out loud if that was really necessary. Maybe I don’t know Sebastian well enough, but the act seemed a little over the top, when reading between the lines up until that point had sufficed.

The ending was left wide open, with the small mystery being solved but not actually catching the leader of the operation, so it will be interesting to see if they decide to continue the story in a second volume. I think watching this movie once was enough, but if a second one is produced, I’ll probably sit through it as well.

From what I understand, if you’re a fan of the original Kuroshitsuji story, this may not be the movie for you. But if you like any of the actors, it could be worth at least a passing glance.

 

Rathing: 3rd Gear

[If you have a topic you’d like me to cover in a future article, please don’t hesitate to email me at Sara at otdt.net.]

D-Boys/ D2 Update

Being the OTDT liaison to the D-Boys/ D2 fan community, I feel obligated to bring you, our readers and listeners, periodic updates regarding events affecting the troupe and the community as a whole.

On Monday December 1, Tooru Kamitsuru announced on his blog that he would be stepping down and leaving Watanabe Entertainment (the umbrella organization that manages the group) when his contract expires on December 25. Thanks to translations from the lovely tumblr user maketakunai and her D2 blog, I was able to read both his original post, and the series of replies from the other members of the subgroup. The outpouring of love and support in the midst of the corresponding heartache truly enlightened me to the kind of person Kamitsuru-san is.

Kamitsuru-san was one of the founding members of D2 when it was started as an offshoot of the main D-Boys group. As more people were brought in, eventually bringing their number up to 16, everyone seemed to initially be afraid of him and his bleached hair. He quickly turned their opinions around, though, and one by one they started to rely on him as a senpai and older brother type. He often took Master of Ceremony duty at live events, and seems very much the sort of person who leads by example.

I’m sad that a lot of this information was gleaned second-hand, as the majority of my fandom stems from the television. He primarily appeared on the theater stage and at live events, so he hasn’t been as visible to me as some of the other group members are. This is also my first idol graduation, so I haven’t been sure on multiple levels what an appropriate reaction would be.

The factors in his making this decision remain unclear, whether it just seemed like the time was right, or whether there are health concerns going on (as had been the case with Nakamura Yuichi, who was sick, recovered, and is now returning to entertainment through a different talent agency). There’s also the theory that while the merger with the main D-Boys group last year may not have been a factor, it probably made the decision a little bit easier. I know that there had been some concern in my corner of the fandom, since his blog posts had become less and less frequent, that something wasn’t quite right. Either way, the other members of the group intend to stay as close to him as ever, even if he won’t be appearing with them on stage anymore.

Let’s stand with them in wishing him luck in whatever adventure lies next on his path.

A First Look at “Garo: Honoo no Kokuin”

Having now watched the first episode of the Garo anime (sub-titled “Honoo no Kokuin)… and being a fan of the tokusatsu franchise it was birthed from, and knowing that some fans of the franchise aren’t liking the anime, I’d like to make a few observations.

1) This is a story they probably wouldn’t tell in the live-action format – and not because of the required cinematography or effects, as we know they have a pretty darn good animation department all on their own… no, just based on the story itself. it feels like they took a little bit of “Yami o Terasu Mono” and dialed it up a few notches, although it remains to be seen how long it will take Garo and Zoro to redeem their reputation

2) All of the characters have western names, and the setting feels very medieval – where the toku franchise took place in some far-secluded mystical part of Japan, this series very much does not. I don’t know how it ties in to the rest of canon, and I doubt they’ll bother to explain how the armor manages to get from point A to point B (sort of like how we still don’t know how it went from the Saejimas to Ryuuga either). We also haven’t seen Zaruba yet, so there’s no way of telling at this point what he’ll be able to do to pull it all together

3) it has a bigger regular cast – another possible reason for them to tell the story by animation

I’ll probably keep watching simply because I’m a completionist, and I do see potential for it to fall into the regular Garo tropes… I don’t mind waiting to see what lies ahead.

[If you have a topic you’d like me to cover in a future article, please don’t hesitate to email me at Sara at otdt.net.]

Gatchaman (2013 live-action film)

In the not-so-distant future of a timeline where the Earth has been taken over by the mysterious “Galactor” organization, five people come together in an effort to defeat them and restore the planet’s freedom.

That’s the premise of the 2013 live-action movie “Gatchaman”. I’d heard some rumors shortly after the release of this movie, that it wasn’t actually all that good. Despite that, I wanted to see for myself and pass my own judgment. Admittedly, I didn’t remember much from the original animated series besides the design of the team’s fighting suits, so the cast ended up being the main draw. Most notably featured was Tori Matsuzaka as Ken, the team’s leader. There had been some concern that he was being type-cast in first position, since he’s probably best known for his role as Takeru Shiba in “Samurai Sentai Shinkenger”. And there were a lot of echoes of Takeru in his portrayal of Ken. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The rest of the team was rounded out by Ryohei Suzuki as Ryu, Ayame Gouriki as Jun, Tatsuomi Hamada as Jinpei, and Go Ayano as Joe, each of whom also has an impressive resume of his or her own.

The great thing about a story like this, is that since it’s a five-person team, it’s basically a sentai, and is able to pick up on some of the typical tokusatsu tropes. Even though there’s no visual assignment of colors, per se, it’s easy to see where the basic color theory would lie – Ken as red and Jun as pink, and then probably Joe as blue (no associations with Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger intended since these names were chosen in the early 1970’s), and Ryu and Junpei as yellow and green. Plus, the heroes all survive, if a little worse for wear. Also: borrowed from Kamen Rider is the idea that the good guys and bad guys both effectively use the same power source. This allowed me to predict one twist in the plot, unfortunately, although it was followed up by one I very much did not anticipate (but probably should have).

One thing that rubbed me the wrong way a little bit was how much it felt like I was watching a western-style super hero movie, ala something out of Marvel or DC. A Japanese film should feel Japanese, right? Upon doing a little research into the original series, I discovered that this was actually kind of the point. “Gatchaman” was intended to have a more western feel to it. Okay, so where does that leave it, then? There were a lot of explosions, and the animation was pretty, and the fight scenes were pretty. But it didn’t really feel any different than if I was watching “The Avengers” or “Harry Potter”.

The result of all this is that it probably did take itself a little too seriously. It was fun to watch at home on a quiet afternoon, but I’m not upset that I was unable to see it in the theater. As a warning to people looking for the nostalgia factor: I don’t know how it stands up to the original story.

Rating: 4th Gear

[If you have a topic you’d like me to cover in a future article, please don’t hesitate to email me at Sara at otdt.net.]

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