Olympus — a review

I can hear ya knocking but ya can't come in!

I can hear ya knocking but ya can’t come in!

I’ve always been fascinated by the ancients, or the classical civilizations such as Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire. We laid much of our own civilization upon the foundation built up by these mighty societies, and yet they existed so long ago, and some of their customs seem so strange that they may have well lived on another planet. So when the perpetually misspelled SyFy Channel premiered Olympus, a saga of ancient Greek mythology, I was afraid…oh, so very afraid….

Taking place in 2015 BC (ah, I see what you did there!), with the Greek city-state of Athens under siege by the Minoan army, a young man (Tom York) whose very name is a curse (but everybody calls him Hero) survives a deadly encounter with a Cyclops, and in doing so, meets up with a woman named Oracle (Sonya Cassidy). Oracle discovers that Hero has the Lexicon within him, which is a source of great power that can lead to opening the doors of Olympus, the home of the gods, to mere mortals.

Um, there seems to be a mistake. I'm just here for the foot massage.....

Um, there seems to be a mistake. I’m just here for the foot massage…..

Right off the bat, this isn’t an accurate depiction of Ancient Greece. Hell, it isn’t even an accurate depiction of the Greek Myths. When Olympus begins, and going through about two-thirds of its season, it plays like a low-rent version of Game Of Thrones meets Xena, with the show runners trying their best (and failing) to be as sexy as they can under the censorship of an advertisement-supported network like Syfy (Game of Thrones is on HBO, which allows them to be as wild and racy as they want). Instead of depending on sex to sell their series, the Olympus people should fall back on solid scripts.

But the writing isn’t as strong as it should be, with several characters–namely the members of the royal court of Athens–coming off as being nothing more than cardboard stock figures whose sole purpose is to provide exposition and throw a few monkey wrenches into the proceedings. The cast try their best with the material they’re given, but it’s an uphill slog for them. Standouts in the cast include Sonya Cassidy as the soulful-eyed Oracle, Sophia Lauchlin Hirt as the naughty vixen daughter of the Minoan king, and Matt Frewer, Max Headroom himself, as Daedalus, the legendary inventor.

I seem to recall a lot of glitches. It was the 80s, what could you do?

I seem to recall a lot of glitches. It was the 80s, what could you do?

Another problem with the series is its dependence on CGI not just in the effects scenes with monsters and mayhem (and in which they’re well done), but also for sets, as well. There are too many badly done shots of actors wandering around what looks like a bad video game screen. Maybe it’s because of this that Olympus lacks the sense of gravitas that’s needed whenever you watch a truly monumental story that’s being told on an epic scale. The cast and crew try hard, and they are to be commended for at least doing something different (the last batch of episodes make a break with all convention and take a leap right into the Twilight Zone), but sadly, Olympus never really shakes that feeling of being an also-ran. –SF

Blindsided (Penthouse North) — a review

We just want you to explain to us the ending of Source Code, that's all.

We just want you to explain to us the ending of Source Code, that’s all.

In Blindsided, Michelle Monaghan plays a former photojournalist named Sara who has lost her vision while embedded with the troops in Afghanistan. Three years later, she’s living in New York City with her boyfriend Ryan (Andrew W. Walker) in a luxury penthouse. After coming back from getting booze for a New Year’s Eve party she and Ryan will be hosting later that night, Sara discovers Ryan’s corpse on the floor, which might put a dent in that evening festivities–unless the guests are willing to step over him. Michael Keaton and Chad (Barry Sloane), a hired thug, shows up looking for…something…in the apartment. He keeps insisting that Sara knows what it is he wants and where it’s located, but a terrified Sara claims to have no idea.

You sure there's no part for me in Birdman 2?

You sure there’s no part for me in Birdman 2?

And so the night of horror begins.

And on top of all of this, the pigs in blankets that Sara got for the New Year’s party are beginning to thaw out. Damn these thugs….

Blindsided is a reworking of Wait Until Dark, the classic thriller directed by Terrance Young and starring Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman terrorized by thugs looking for heroin hidden in a doll. The film version was based on a Broadway stage play starring Julie Herrod. Wait Until Dark is a captivating and entertaining thriller, unlike Blindsided (which was originally named Penthouse North). Although Michelle Monaghan is very engaging as always, and Michael Keaton gives it his all here, the movie just falls flat for me for several reasons.

For the last time, where's my toupee?

For the last time, where’s my toupee?

One problem was that I never truly believed that Monaghan’s character was blind; there are several moments where she looks right at objects that she shouldn’t even be noticing (that comes with being blind, after all). And while the fact that the lead actress is not convincing at playing her disability is bad enough, despite ready and willing actors playing the villains, there’s also never a sense of dread or menace from them, either. Nor is there any real suspense overall, in spite of some scenes showing Monaghan under duress and even torture.

The entire movie has this rote, going by the numbers feel to it, with too many little problems that mount up and keep pulling you right out of the story, such as a badly designed set that also doesn’t convince me that it’s an expensive penthouse. I’ve seen far better sets in low budget theater groups. As much as I wanted to root for Michelle, with its myriad of problems, Blindsided just isn’t worth it. Check out Wait Until Dark if you want to watch a superior cat and mouse mystery story. –SF

Star Wars Rogue One: first cast photo

First look at the cast for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

First look at the cast for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Walt Disney dropped the very first picture of the cast from its newest Star Wars film, Rogue One. The name is now officially Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

The very impressive cast assembled by director Gareth Edwards (who directed the 2014 Godzilla film) includes Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal), Alan Tudyk (Wash from Firefly, as a motion capture character), and Riz Ahmed.

Disney reports that filming on this has just begun. It’s due to be released in 2016. I’m really looking forward to it.

Doctor Who: the Eight Season — a review

OK, I've got one of the Doctor Who writers tied to a tree there. See? Now just pull back....

OK, I’ve got one of the Doctor Who writers tied to a tree there. See? Now just pull back….

Well, I enjoyed the first episode of the eight season of Doctor Who, the season that introduces Peter Capaldi as the doc, and I really enjoyed the Christmas special–but while I dug the bookends, it was the stuff in-between that I had found lacking.

I understood the need for Capaldi, an actor in his fifties to play the new doctor. After David Tennant and Matt Smith, two younger Doctors (with Smith being the youngest to play the role so far), the DW producers had wanted to go in a different direction by going back to the older, father-figure type of doctor that I grew up watching back in the 1970s. And Capaldi was a great choice; he still is. He plays the doctor as an interstellar curmudgeon perfectly. But if only the writing was as good as he is, as well as the other actors.

Where are the kids? The ever precious school kids who've taken over this show, where are they?!

Where are the kids? The ever precious school kids who’ve taken over this show, where are they?!

While there are some good episodes here, like Robot of Sherwood and Flatline, most of the episodes that make up the eight season have a weird, disjointed feel to them, with some of them–like Time Heist–feeling like it had been heavily edited down from a longer version. Another episode, In The Forest of Night, has a happy ending in the very last shot that feels like its been tacked on. In The Forest of Night also shares another problem that’s been running through the eight season: frigging school kids.

Clara Osborne (Jenna Coleman), the doctor’s companion (at least in the episodes where she’s not constantly threatening to leave him) works as a teacher in London, and the Doctor Who writers feel as if we need to always see Clara on the job, working with the kiddies in virtually every episode. And when she’s not playing mother hen to the kids, Clara is playing house with Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), a fellow teacher at the school. Every so often, Clara manages to take some time from her busy schedule to run off with the Doctor (hey, remember him, that Time Lord guy?).

Time Lord? Traveling through space and time? You mean this wasn't Sesame Street?

Time Lord? Traveling through space and time? You mean this wasn’t Sesame Street?

But even when she’s with the Doctor on a far off adventure, it seems as if Clara is always reminding him that she needs to get back and mark papers, etc. And there are several episodes, like the aforementioned In The Forest of Night, and The Caretaker, and the unbelievably stupid Kill The Moon, where the kiddies from the school are part of the main plot. Is this an attempt to make the show appeal more to children? There’s no need to pander to kids, BBC, because Doctor Who was already a hit with them.

The reason I like to watch Doctor Who is because I need an escape from the everyday, from the mundane. The last thing I need to see on this show is a life lesson from Danny, who’s telling Clara why it’s more important to just stay at home and never mind traveling through space and time. That speech reflects the whole attitude of this season, which is a celebration of the mundane and the everyday. And it’s sad to see Doctor Who embrace the humdrum. That’s like having an episode of Star Trek where Kirk says, “You know what? Screw this exploration shit, let’s get a beer.”

We're about to pull the biggest heist in the universe, and she's babbling about needing to go mark some term papers?!

We’re about to pull the biggest heist in the universe, and she’s babbling about needing to go mark some term papers?!

The season is seeded with scenes throughout of Michelle Gomez, playing the Big Bad, who is “collecting” or “recruiting” people from various episodes after they died. But all my hopes for a really cool finale were smashed once I saw Dark Water and Death In Heaven, which wound up being so lame, with people just standing around, posturing while sprouting catty dialogue–and not doing anything else–that I was actually grateful when it was all finally over.

The advance press for the ninth season of Doctor Who promises that the Doctor and Clara will finally get out and do some hard core exploring through time and space, which is something they should have been doing all along. Here’s hoping this series can get back on the rails before it flies completely off. –SF

A Most Violent Year – a review

I'm gonna go beat some money out of a guy, you want anything?

I’m gonna go beat some money out of a guy, you want anything?

The winter of 1981 was known statistically as one of the most violent in New York City, and it’s in this time and place that the film A Most Violent Year is set. Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain star as a husband and wife who are also the owners of a home heating oil business that’s seen a welcome surge in profits lately. Abel Morales (Issac) is trying to branch out by buying an oil storage facility with large storage tanks and direct access to the river, which will enable his business to grow even more. But just as he puts the down payment on this expensive property, a major problem rears its head.

Abel’s oil tanker trucks are being hijacked, their drivers left by the side of the road, usually injured. The hijackers are always two armed men who are well organized, and when the trucks are found again later, the oil–worth thousands of dollars–is gone. Abel is an immigrant who fought his way to success from his early days of being a tanker truck driver. He takes pride in the fact that, despite the shady mob connections that his wife’s family has, he has always been on the up and up. But on top of having his oil deliveries stolen, Abel’s company is also facing indictments from an ambitious New York City DA, and as he’s being squeezed from all sides, Abel discovers that being on the up and up may not be what it takes to stay alive anymore.

Directed in a slow burn style that keeps building its tension scene by scene, A Most Violent Year isn’t the typical over the top crime drama with people screaming at each other and guys going down in a hail of bullets. It’s a much more subtle story about corruption that depends largely on its brilliant script and superb performances from a marvelous cast. Issac is fantastic as a genuinely decent man who’s trying to keep it together underneath an unbearable amount of pressure, while Chastain (Interstellar) gives another great performance as his indomitable (and somewhat domineering) wife. Albert Brooks is also a standout as Abel’s lawyer and friend. Don’t miss it. –SF