A First Look at The Odd Couple (2015)

[Please note, this was written before episode 2 aired]

In this era of remakes and reversionings, it seems like it was only a matter of time before someone started looking at the old sitcoms. What better way is there to tap into nostalgia than in half-hour comedic bite size chunks, after all?

This seems like a slightly different case, though. The Odd Couple was originally based on a stage play by Neil Simon, even as it was made into a movie in 1968, a television series in 1970, and then a sequel movie in 1998 (and a couple other unsuccessful versions along the way). This new television series stars Matthew Perry (Friends, Mr Sunshine) as the generally unkempt Oscar Madison, and Thomas Lennon (Reno 911, Sean Saves the World) as the super-tidy Felix Unger.

odd couple

Right up front, this show presents a lot of opportunities that it doesn’t seem interested in banking on, especially with respect to gender identity. Oscar and Felix are recently separated from their wives (the latter being quite a bit more recent), and Felix shows up at Oscar’s apartment looking for a place to stay and a shoulder to lean on. Upon seeing the state of the living space, he immediately goes about working his magic to make it presentable. He even endeavors to cook for Oscar’s friends when they come to visit. It’s sadly at this point when the writing slides distinctly into catering to stereotypes, no pun intended. Felix’s gravitation towards tasks that in the past would have been dominated by women, along with his choice of foods to serve, cause Oscar’s friends to question Felix’s sexuality. Oscar takes steps to brush it off with the line “he [seems] like it, but he’s not”. In the multitude of productions over the years, Felix has been played with varying levels of flamboyance, so it really felt like they dropped the ball by addressing the issue with anything other than a defensive “well, why does it even matter?” The fact that it was followed up by a mention of the “token” minority member, didn’t help either. Luckily, Felix was out of the room at the time, so he may be able to salvage it in the future. It would have meant more coming from Oscar, though.

If this was just about two very different people trying to figure out how to co-habitate, that would be one thing, so I’m really hoping this isn’t a case of media taking one step forward and two steps back.

I don’t watch a lot of sitcoms because I don’t like being told when to laugh, but I think I’ll try to keep an eye on this one just to see what they end up deciding to do. According to listings, there are only seven episodes, and it says it’s completed.

 

[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.]

Ressha Sentai ToQger

Twice a year, the main tokusatsu (special effects filming) franchises conclude one story, and prepare to start the next one – Kamen Rider in the fall, and Super Sentai in the winter. Last week marked the passing of the baton from Ressha Sentai ToQger to Shuriken Sentai Ninninger.

TOQ08-1002

Tokusatsu series (both riders and sentai) generally have two main themes – a physical theme and an emotional theme, in ToQger’s case these being trains and the railroad, and the power of imagination. The biggest gimmick at the outset last year was that the five team members weren’t being referred to by their colors, like previous teams had been. Each of them had a numerical designation, and once transformed, they were able to change colors among themselves. It was actually pretty entertaining, because various members were caught by surprise from it. The most prominent rule governing the ToQger world was that items worked the way characters thought they did – if they could imagine it, that made the item’s behavior reality. The various trains combined to form a giant robot because ToQ-1 though that was something they should be able to do, and he figured out how to use the mid-season power up by imagining it as well.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, most tokusatsu falls into the category of “these are stories which are designed to sell toys” (sort of like Pokemon, if that helps). With every new physical theme, there comes a whole new set of transformation devices, play weapons, figurines, and other associated items. Most people will say that a show’s success actually depends on how well these toys sell, and they’re not wrong. Frankly speaking, ToQger has some fun toys. ToQ-1 through 5 transform using a wrist brace that actual train car pieces slide into, and since there’s potential to transfer colors, the brace was programmed to remember which one you put in first. There’s even a deluxe box that comes with all five colors of trains, and they assemble to make the robot… but they also all fit into the brace (the basic box usually only comes pre-packaged with the red piece for any team you’re looking at). Also, they’re trains, for goodness sake.

That’s not to say the show isn’t also important, though. The progression of any particular story can usually be anticipated by looking at who the head writer is. The head writer for ToQger was Yasuko Kobayashi, who also wrote for Tokumei Sentai GoBusters, Kamen Rider OOO, Kamen Rider Den-O, and Samurai Sentai Shinkenger (she’s also done some work with Garo, including Honoo no Kokuin, but that’s a different article). Except for GoBusters, which was a darker story the whole way through, her work tends to start out on the light side, and then part way through start to drop some seriously heavy ideas on everyone, eventually ending on a heart-wrenching note in the finale. She did not fail to deliver this time around.

ToQger will not likely be adapted for western audiences for various reasons, not least of which being ToQ-1 transferring to pink, but I think that’s okay. GoBusters wasn’t adapted either, and when they looked at Shinkenger, they made a pretty close copy of the source story (from what I understand… sadly, I haven’t watched that version yet). We’re a few hours away from the premiere of Ninninger, so the only thing to do is keep looking forward.

This series may not necessarily be the best one to come into the franchise on, although your mileage may vary. Even if you watch something else first, I definitely recommend coming back to it.

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.]

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno

In taking a story from manga to anime, to live action, there are bound to be changes that make it more format- and audience-friendly. As we saw a couple weeks ago, it doesn’t always come out successfully, but in the case of today’s subject, the combination of writing, acting, directing, and the rest of the crew has come together to put out a truly excellent product.

RK Kyoto Inferno

This time I’m looking at volume two of the Rurouni Kenshin film series, “Kyoto Inferno”. With Takeru Sato and Emi Takei reprising their roles as Kenshin and Kaoru, respectively, the story picks up not long after where it left off at the end of the first movie. The audience is introduced to Makoto Shishio in all his insanity, and it becomes obvious to newcomers that he’ll be the primary antagonist going forward. The movie covers the section where Kenshin is egged into going to Kyoto out of a responsibility for resolving the fact that Shishio even exists in the first place, up through the encounter on the ships in the harbor. Fans of the source material will hopefully recognize the new character brought in at the very end.

Rurouni Kenshin fans will also probably pick up on the fact that even though this second movie follows closer to the original story, it is still constrained by the changes made to it in the first one. Sanosuke’s loyalty is established, so that’s not such a big deal, but we don’t see as satisfying an explanation of the level of motivation associated with Aoshi Shinomori’s obsession with Kenshin as we’re familiar with because he wasn’t part of Kanryuu’s crew this time around. That all being said, everything fits well within the existing parameters of this modified version, and it’s a beautiful ride all over again. The only story element I was truly disappointed in was that Kenshin’s departure was so close to the beginning. I felt like we didn’t have enough of a chance to get back into the right emotional head space, to have it hit as hard as it did in the manga and anime.

This movie could exist in a vacuum if it wanted. Viewers don’t necessarily have to be familiar with the first installment or the source material to get something out of it, and that’s definitely a good thing. You will be left wanting for part three, though, and that’s a good thing too. If you have any feelings about the story, actors, setting, or any other relevant element, I highly recommend checking this one out. I know I’m eagerly waiting for the ‘end of the legend’.

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.]

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.]

Life Is Strange

If you have ever made a choice that you regret, what would you do if you could try that choice again? If you’re a fan of adventure games, you already know the answer: you save before you make any and every choice. But reality doesn’t work that way, and most of us simply live with the consequences of our choices. Then again… what if it did?

Dontnod Entertainment’s second game, Life Is Strange, follows a young woman Max Caulfield as she endures her senior year at a prestigious high school on the Oregon coast. It’s been a month since she came to Blackwell Academy, and already she’s disillusioned with her surroundings; her classmates are hostile, she’s targetted by the local snotty girl posse, and the teacher she most admires seems to be putting way too much pressure on her. For Max, the only bright spots are her photography– the reason she’s at Blackwell– and the thought of reuniting with her friend Chloe, who she hasn’t seen in five years– and hasn’t had the guts to make contact with almost a month into school.

All this changes when Max happens to encounter a butterfly in the ladies’ room one late October day. The butterfly’s arrival coincides with a maniac with a gun shooting someone else in the bathroom… and then Max wakes up in the classroom, minutes before the butterfly’s arrival. She has somehow acquired the means to turn back time in a limited fashion, allowing her to undo choices and re-live moments. This blessing comes with a curse: a premonition of the city being destroyed in a massive tornado in less than a week. And by saving that girl in the bathroom, Max has put herself in the crosshairs of forces she doesn’t yet understand.

Playing out as a very relaxed-pace adventure game in the vein of Telltale Games’ chaptered tales, Life Is Strange‘s first chapter (released this past week on PS4 and Steam) is a short introduction to both the mechanics and world of the game. It probably won’t take more than about an hour or two to play “Chrysalis” to its completion, which is a little disappointing because the storytelling does such a wonderful job of drawing the player in. Between the excellent voice acting, the wonderfully-curated music selections, and the strong scriptwriting, the rather abrupt end will most likely leave you counting the days until the next chapter’s release.

The game does suffer from a few minor flaws, of course. In keeping with the moderate pacing, Max moves maddeningly slowly, and the offered acceleration button doesn’t really give her too much more speed. The game’s Unreal Engine-powered graphics experience texture pop-in and some rather frank ugliness on occasion. And, while Max’s actress does a good job expressing Max’s disaffectedness, it’s sometimes easy to mistake that for a flat tone and wooden acting. Still, these are exceedingly overlookable in the larger picture of the great story being told.

Without a doubt this is going to be a strong contender for awards when 2015 is said and done. More, Life Is Strange is the next evolution of “interactive movies”, a form of game storytelling that had its origins in the old Don Bluth laserdisc games and has been refined, with varying success, ever since. Titles like Heavy Rain, L.A. Noire, and The Longest Journey have all brought us closer to the ideal posited with the advent of full motion video, and Life Is Strange is simply the next step. As a game, it’s a true breakthrough, simply because of the massive amount of choices being tracked and affecting the story. As a story, it’s enthralling and intriguing that something this well-crafted is being directed by the player in real-time. This game hits fifth gear from the very first moments and is not going to let up anytime soon.

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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.]

Onirim

In 2010, a little card game caught my eye. Onirim was a small, pocket-sized box that held one of the most addictive and engaging single-player card games I’ve ever played. I gave away the game to a friend shortly thereafter, encouraging her to play it, and thinking that it would be easy to re-acquire. Well, it wasn’t. It took four years for the game to go back into print, but it was well worth the wait.

Now in a significantly larger box, Onirim’s 2014 rerelease includes the same core set as well as its full slate of seven expansions, making it the definitive edition of the game. Players are tasked with finding and opening the eight Oneiric Doors, gates within the land of dreams. Unlocking a door is as easy as creating a set of three cards of the same color, without having consecutive cards bearing matching symbols. You can also open a door if you draw its card and have a corresponding key in your hand. Beware, though: Nightmare cards also lurk in the deck, threatening to undo your progress. If you open all eight doors before the deck runs out, you win. But if even one remains locked when you must draw a card, you remain trapped forever.

Onirim is relatively unique in that it is designed explicitly as a solitaire challenge. The core game is challenging but still winnable with a little experience and skill. Where the game becomes interesting is in the addition of the expansions, which introduce additional effects and twists. For example, one expansion requires you to open the doors in a specific order. Seems like a pretty simple change, right? Well try saying that when you need to open a green door next and you have a hand full of blue cards. The expansions can be added in any combination, making the game as easy or as difficult as you choose.

The game is not without its drawbacks, of course. First, there is a lot of shuffling involved; it rivals most deck-building games for number of shuffles per minute of gameplay. This makes it slightly prone to damage to the edges of the cards early on; worse, the deck size is not conducive to the use of card sleeves, meaning the only solution is caution. The game also has an annoying tendency to either be too easy or completely unforgiving. While it is a game predominantly based on strategy, player choices can become frustratingly obviated when streaks of Nightmare cards show up. Fortunately, the game’s lightning-fast pace smooths over most of these concerns; if you had a bad deal, you’re only stuck with it for about ten or fifteen minutes.

It might seem a little odd for a solitaire game to be considered a must-own for board game enthusiasts, but Onirim is one of those rare titles that combines challenging gameplay with simple mechanics and fast play. Unfortunately, the game’s popularity in the United States has made it scarce yet again, but with a bit of patience you should be able to track down a copy. I can’t recommend enough that you do so. Onirim is a solid fifth-gear choice.

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.]

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