Twenty Twelve: Season 1-2 (TV Review)

Twenty Twelve: Season 1-2 (TV Review)

Twenty Twelve is another pseudo-documentary from Britain’s BBC, that is, of course, pretty solid. It seems like every TV show out of Britain is at least pretty good, going all the way up to excellent. They are simply different from what we are used to, and there is generally always success.

The story of Twenty Twelve is quite simple: a group of people are in charge of organizing the 2012 Olympic Games in London, and they are being filmed while trying to get things done, while avoiding humorous crisis after humorous crisis. The gang in charge, all with their own level of British silliness and foibles, are generally enjoyable, as they do their best not to muck up what is to be the largest sports spectacle in the world. The characters range from the head of the whole thing, the PR lady, the head of legacy and sustainability, the traffic guy, the doting assistant, and the poor former athlete, who is generally confused with what is happening the whole time, while delivering some of the worst motivational speeches you will ever see. The actors here, as with many British shows, have been seen before: there are people from the gamut of UK television and film, like Downton AbbeyShaun of the Dead, and the hilarious Peep Show. It provides the show with an instant sense of familiarity, and allows us to instantly like the characters, even if they are annoying at times.

2012Twenty Twelve is typically British, in that it really does use the typically sedate and dry sense of humour in order to push the show forward. There are some spectacular scenes, including the discussion on the bathroom situations in the athlete’s village, and the double-entendre discussion of how plumbing works for men and women. Something lovable about British TV shows, is that we can honestly ask ourselves if something was meant to be funny, or just was, or that’s just the way they are. As usual, as with most TV series from across the pond, it feasts on our ability to watch awkwardness, and Twenty Twelve is another solid producer in this. Not to the extent of the original The Office, but there are still scenes that are able to make our skin crawl, because it is just painfully awkward.

As usual, I stumbled across this show on Netflix, and it is a decent watch. The two seasons are short, only a few episodes each, so there are not significant demands on your time to pour through the two seasons of the whole thing. The stories themselves are pretty engaging, and manage to provide some decent entertainment. The leadership group getting lost in London due to the miserable traffic and construction delays is excellent watching.

2012-3This show does not belong among the cream of the crop of British TV. It is consistently good, but never really great. As with these mockumentary-type shows, it is partially about the humour, and a little bit about the drama. There is that blend here as well. Neither are exceptional in Twenty Twelve, but neither are bad, either.

I wouldn’t rush out to watch the show, but if you have nothing else going on in your Netflix queue, there are worse things you could be viewing than Twenty Twelve.

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Film Review)

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Film Review)

Since there are seemingly no new stories in Hollywood, we are provided with a reboot of the Jack Ryan franchise, the secret agent best known for the film “trilogy” that included The Hunt for Red OctoberPatriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger. We also had a previous reboot attempt with Ben Affleck in the lead role, in The Sum of All Fears.

In our latest attempt to get people interested in the Tom Clancy character again, we are given Chris Pine, now best known as the guy in the new Star Trek films, playing Jack Ryan, and the origins of how he started working for the CIA and getting involved in all kinds of secret world issues and terrorist plots.

shadow3Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is really, a whole bunch of average stuffed into one film. Sure, there are some cool action scenes. But they almost seem pointless. Sure, there is a stellar cast here, including Oscar-winners like Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Costner, as well as the role of the love-interest/fiancee played by Keira Knightley (it seems like forever since she has been in a movie! I know this isn’t correct, but it feels that way), who adapts an American accent for one of the rare times in her career, making her almost seem like someone else completely. While these stars are present in the film, they don’t really do much. They are just there.

Our plot is about Jack Ryan, a marine who is recruited by the CIA, where he begins working as a numbers crunched for global data. Here, he uncovers a plot that is meant to crash the US economy, and from there, he is thrown into the field in a series of unfortunate events.

There are plenty of cliches throughout the story, and the viewers will be continually reminded that they are watching a kind of James Bond reboot lite, with some of the substance, but not nearly enough to make us really care about anything.

There isn’t a ton to say about this film. You won’t hate yourself for watching it, it isn’t nearly that bad. It is decent. Everything about it is decent. But in an era now where we demand more from our action movies, such as strong characters, engrossing plot, maybe some humour, even some requirements for intellectual thinking, Shadow Recruit generally does just alright. There is nothing new here, and nothing life changing. If you watch it just for the action, you will be mildly entertained. Even looking at the other reviews for the film, we can see how it is mired in mediocrity. 6.2 from IMDB? Mediocre. 56% from Rotten Tomatoes? Mediocre.

shadowI’ll say that the best part of the film is Knightley, if only because she really seems like the perfect casting for someone who is meant to grow up and be played by Anne Archer in the later Harrison Ford films, like Patriot Games.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit could have been much, much more, and so much better. It continues on the path of strange directorial roles taken on by renowned Shakespearean actor Branagh, but it never really gets out of second gear.

The Death of Bunny Munro (Book Review)

The Death of Bunny Munro (Book Review)

Nick Cave is a mad genius.

The singer, known best as the frontman of groups such as The Birthday Party and the more famous Bad Seeds, is also a damn fine writer.

For those who have seen him live (https://gatsbyfuneral.wordpress.com/2014/06/29/nick-cave-and-the-bad-seeds-in-edmonton-concert-review/), understand how he is a psychotic preacher on stage, taking the audience in, and not releasing his firm grip around their necks until the show has concluded. He can command an audience unlike many vocalists out there. When he is on stage, he owns the audience, bringing them into his world of darkness, love, and murder, before releasing them, gasping, into the night.

bunny2Many years ago, I read And the Ass Saw the Angel, and was taken in by Nick Cave’s dark, gothic, prose. It was a good book. Disturbing, as would be expected from someone like Cave, but undeniably well written.

Upon realizing that he had another novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, I immediately pounced upon it, ready to be taken into his dark world once again.

And I was definitely not disappointed. In fact, I was riveted.

Bunny Munro is a degenerate who sells women’s beauty products door-to-door, a man who proclaims that he could sell “a bicycle to a barracuda.” Bunny is obsessed with sex, and his depraved sexual fantasies often rule his day-to-day existence. Despite trying to sleep with every woman who has a pulse, Bunny is married, and has a young son, Bunny Junior.

When his wife commits suicide, Bunny is left in the care of his son, and is forced to face a strange world in which there is a little person who depends on him for absolutely everything. What better way to christen their new lives, than going on a road trip to try and shake the money tree, and hit up some potential clients for some sales, and some money.

Bunny comes across as one of the most grotesque heroes in literature that I have read. At every turn, he does something only the purest of scumbags would even consider doing, and all the while, he has his impressionable son in tow.

He sells product to people who don’t need it, he tries to take advantage of the elderly, he sleeps with women with the most vile of reputations, he fantasizes constantly about celebrity musicians like Kylie Minogue and Avril Lavigne (in extremely graphic detail, especially with the latter), and he ignores the obvious impairments that Bunny Junior is dealing with. He is an awful father, and an awful person.

Yet, we can’t help hope that things work out for him in the end.

bunny3The Death of Bunny Munro encompasses several subplots, including a madman scouring English towns as a serial killer, dressed in devilish goat horns and red body makeup, terrifying people all across the nation. While this is taking place, Bunny must deal with the visions he has of his dead wife (similar to the visions his son is having about her), and try to remain focused while his life spirals out of control.

This novel is very well written, creating a mood and a tone that is apparent throughout the text. Cave is a master with words, painting pictures that are easily visualized, and never coming across as someone who is a novelist in their spare time. This book writes like it is written by a pro, something that Cave, after two very strong novels, needs to be seen as. He can write more than a passionate and creepy song. In the larger scale, he is able to write a full-sized text, and have it be as completely engrossing as one of his live performances of “Jubilee Street.”

Relatively short in length, The Death of Bunny Munro could easily be a one-sitting novel. It is intriguing, and entertaining. From the beginning, we are forced to wonder if Bunny really will die at the end, as the title suggests, or if he will be able to find some kind of redemption for his life full of sin.

This book is excellent. And not only for fans of Nick Cave. It is just a very good book. Since it happens to be written by a rock star, it will have an immediate audience, but it deserves more than that.

In The Death of Bunny Munro, Nick Cave exhibits once again that he is a true storyteller, and a craftsman with the language of words. This novel is well worth a read for anybody.

The Other Dream Team (Film Review)

The Other Dream Team (Film Review)

Most North Americans know the story of the use of professional athletes in the basketball tournament of the 1992 Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain. The United States basketball team, known as the “Dream Team,” consisted of the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson, all together on the same team for the first time. They demolished the competition on their way to the Gold medal, to the surprise of nobody on Earth.

dream2But there was another story going on at the same time, and one that was more important for the political state of the world, and for basketball itself. It was the other dream team. The group of men from the new sovereign state of Lithuania, who had taken an unprecedented route to make it not just to the Olympics, but to that point in their lives altogether.

The Other Dream Team is a documentary that tells the story of what eventually becomes the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic basketball team, and the journey that they, and their country, took to get there.

This film seamlessly blends the political story of Lithuania and its quest for independence from the Soviet Union with the stories of the players, who went through lives that cannot be imagined by most Westerners, just to play the game that they love.

dream4During the heyday of the Soviet Union, the majority of its “national” basketball team hailed from Lithuania, the small Baltic nation that had been annexed by the USSR during the Second World War. They had grown up under the harsh foot of communism, and they weren’t allowed to play for their own country, because essentially, their own country did not exist. But they felt that it did. Basketball gave some of the players the opportunity to travel to different parts of the world, enabling to see how Western life compared to their dreary Soviet existences. And it provided them with dreams, not just for themselves, but for the freedom of their country.

Lithuania was the first nation to try and break away from the Soviet Union, declaring their independence before anybody else. They were a tiny nation, just hoping for the freedom that had been taken from them against their wills. This led to revolutions on the streets, and the world rallying around the case of this little country that most people had never even heard of before. Lithuania was making a stand on the international stage, and people understood their plight, and rallied for their cause.

This also led to the decision that Lithuania needed to have a basketball team at the Olympics, to announce their presence to the world, as a unified, and free country. With all of the political upheaval at home, there was no money for this, but the team found an unlikely source to help them out: The Grateful Dead.

dream3The Other Dream Team is an incredible story, about how this team took the world by storm. They were beloved at the Olympics, for their fun attitudes, and for their crazy tie-dyed shirts they wore, which had been given to them by the Dead, and had become their uniform off the court. The team embraced their new personalities, and the world ate it up. They were not underdogs because of their skill, but because of where the political landscape had placed them.

This documentary takes us from the childhoods of the team, where they would build their own nets in dreary playgrounds, and the importance of the game in their lives. We see them grow, playing for the Soviet national squad and being tremendously successful there. The Soviet pro leagues are also shown, including the heated rivalry between the Lithuanian team and the menacing Red Army team, and the intense battles on the court they would face. The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the independence of Lithuania is woven perfectly into the storyline, as the battles on the court were always representative of the political battles being fought for the small nation. There was a feverish national pride in the country, and an intense love for the sport at the same time. We are also taken to the NBA, where some of the Lithuanian talent was being recognized by the biggest pro league in the world, and players were getting drafted, and slowly trickling over to America.

The story crescendos to the Olympics, where the Lithuanians roll through the tournament, only to get wiped out by the American team. But that game did not really matter to them. Nobody thought that they were going to beat the US, including the Lithuanian team. That was not their goal. As usual, they had fun with it, even taking pictures of the famous American basketball players while the game was still going on. The Lithuanians were free, and they were representing their brand new country, and the millions of people back home, who had just had their hope restored.

It was not the game against the US that mattered, it was the Bronze medal game against the Soviet Union (playing as the Unified Team, due to the collapse of the USSR), that would make all the difference. This was it. The small child playing against its imposing father, the one who had controlled it for so many years.

It was absolutely more than just a game for a medal. For Lithuania, it was everything.

And The Other Dream Team manages to chronicle that struggle, both on and off the court, perfectly. A great sports documentary.

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (Film Review)

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (Film Review)

This documentary had been sitting in my Netflix queue for quite some time, and I finally got around to watching the film made about a Class-A baseball team that started playing in Portland, Oregon, during the 1970’s.

And boy, was I glad I did finally watch it.

The Battered Bastards of Baseball is an exceptional documentary about baseball, about the minor leagues, about one man’s baseball dreams, a city embracing the ultimate underdogs, taking on the system, and having fun playing a game. It is definitely worth watching.

Bing Russell managing the Portland Mavericks in the Battered Bastards of Baseball documentaryWhen the Portland Beavers left for Spokane, the city had lost its AAA baseball team, and the sport was essentially dead in the Oregon town. But one man, actor Bing Russell (father of Kurt), decided that he wanted to bring baseball back to Oregon, in the form of an independent Single-A team, which he named the Portland Mavericks.

Russell was obsessed with baseball, and had spent his youth around the famous New York Yankee teams of Lefty Grove and Joe DiMaggio, and had spent some time playing in the minor leagues himself. He was a true student of the game, analyzing it to death, and going to far as to make baseball documentaries that would teach others how to play the game the right way. He wrote about how to play in every possible situation.

This was not some actor trying to recapture his youth, it was an actor with a baseball dream, and one that he understood incredibly well.

Buying an expansion franchise for a miniscule price, he held open tryouts for the Mavericks, which led to the team being stocked with a bunch of no-names and men whose dreams of baseball had seemingly died when they were never drafted or signed by a big-league club and allowed to play in their massive farm systems.

By being an independent team, meaning there was no affiliation with a major league club, meant that the Mavericks were going to be playing against developing major league players, and the bonus babies that the big teams had down in the minors, to learn the game. They would always play with a chip on their shoulder.

And the Mavericks made the big league teams look bad. Because they were good. Russell assembled a team that would win, playing their hearts out to prove that teams made mistakes in not drafting them at some point during their careers. They weren’t all pimply-faced college kids, as many A teams are, but a mixture of youth and veterans. But they all held one thing in common: they all loved baseball, and they just wanted to play.

Since there was no MLB affiliation, Russell had to foot the bill for everything himself. And it took some time to build up a fan base in Portland, but when they did, they set records. The city began to truly embrace their gang of miscreants, the team that would go out on the field, play the game the right way, and have a ton of fun doing it.

battered3The Mavericks didn’t play for long in Portland, because the Pacific Coast League, the largest AAA league in baseball, eventually decided that they wanted back into Portland after seeing the massive crowds that were attending the Mav games. Due to baseball legislation, they were allowed to do this, and they simply had to buy back the territory owned by the Mavericks. This lead to a court battle based on the price they needed to pay, and here we see Russell standing up to the PCL, because he had built up something incredible for the low minors, and they just wanted to take it away from him.

The return of the PCL signaled the end of the Mavericks, but their legend can now be seen by everyone. They set attendance records for A ball, the team had winning records that were unmatched, and some of the players from the team went on to do big things (including an Oscar-nominated bat boy, and of course actor Kurt Russell, who was a player on the team, the inventor of Big League Chew, and a pitcher who made it back to the majors). The Mavericks proved that even as the only non-affiliated minor league team in the country at the time, they could make it work, and they could play the game that they loved.

The story is told through interviews with some former players, the commissioner of the league, the bat boy, and others, and they all look back fondly at their time with the Mavericks. Their individual stories are great and compelling, as are the results of some of their lives.

This is an excellent documentary, and a definite must-see for any baseball fan. It shows the possibility of the love of the game, and has a great us-versus-everyone storyline that is undeniable. The Battered Bastards of Baseball is well worth the time to check out.

Margin Call (Film Review)

Margin Call (Film Review)

I’ll admit that I don’t really understand the business world. To me, it is so complex, and terms are thrown around that I have no idea what they mean. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love me a good movie about Wall Street people doing sketchy things. There has been a solid history of movies about financial fraud or insider trading, that I decided to give Margin Call a shot.

The story is based around a problem discovered by one of the risk analysts of a large firm, just prior to the collapse of the markets in 2008. Margin Call is sort of the last hurrah for this company before everything goes bad, and the rest of the markets follow suit, causing one of the largest financial crises in American history. Now, to describe the issue that was discovered, I revert to the wonders of wikipedia: “That night, Sullivan finishes Dale’s project and discovers that current volatility in the firm’s portfolio of mortgage backed securities will soon exceed the historical volatility levels of the positions. Because of excessive leverage, if the firm’s assets decrease by 25% in value, the firm will suffer a loss greater than its market capitalization. He also discovers that, given the normal length of time that the firm holds such securities, this loss must occur.”

marginSo, what I got out of all that was that things were going to be bad, as they were selling things that weren’t really worth that much anyway.

Margin Call could have taken some time to more deeply explain the problem here, for those of us who are not financial experts. Regardless, even without completely understanding what the central problem was, this was still an enjoyable film. There is an all-star cast here, and the movie was nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Based on the strong writing, and the superb acting, seemingly unimportant things become highly suspenseful, and it is exciting to watch and see what the firm is going to do in order to either solve all of their problems, or cut the line and hope for some damage control afterwards. Careers are ended, scapegoats are made, and problems are solved, all with an eye on still being able to make some money once everything settles down.

It is an interesting look at what could have been going on behind the scenes when everything went bad on Wall Street in 2008, seeing how quickly massive, life-altering choices were being made, in order to minimize the damage. Of course, there are ethical issues, whereas the people buying the parts of the company as they attempted to liquidate everything in one day after discovering the glitch, were essentially buying something that was worthless. It is not surprising to see how little value is placed on the end users of these large deals.

Even by the end of the film, I didn’t really understand everything that had happened. Margin Call is definitely for someone who is smarter than me. There was no spoonfeeding of the way things work as there was in other comparable films, such as Wall Street. 

But that didn’t change things from being quite entertaining. Again, with a cast that includes heavyweights like Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, and Zachary Quinto, it is hard to go wrong.

I randomly gave this one a shot on Netflix, and was not disappointed. A very strong, well written, and well acted look at those last moments on Wall Street, when people started to realize that things were going to go south in a big hurry, and the way that they reacted to it.

Worth a watch.

The Walking Dead: Season 4 (TV Review)

The Walking Dead: Season 4 (TV Review)

I know it has been a while since the release of the fourth season of The Walking Dead, and they are already a few episodes into the fifth season. Such is the life of a Netflix-er. Always behind a little bit.

To be honest, I have been put off by The Walking Dead over the past couple of seasons. There is no denying the brutal honestly in the storytelling of the first season, but after that, there was a definite fade. Once the gang holed up in the prison, it really felt as thought the story got really repetitive, and at points, it simply ground to a halt.

Which made me leery about even starting the fourth season. Was it going to be worth it? Was something going to finally happen?

dead2After a slow start to the fourth season, things finally did start to happen. Without providing too many spoilers, the season really took off once we saw that The Governor was still around. After that moment, of seeing him lurking in the bushes, we knew that things were finally going to go down.

And they did.

After this moment, the season took off, and became, in my opinion, the best season of the show yet. Because a different kind of storytelling was employed. Traditionally the strength of the show is the group, but this has prevented us from really knowing any of the characters, and being forced to only really care about the main people, while basically forgetting any of the secondary characters.

In season four, the groups are split up, and we are able to see complete episodes that involve the different people in the group. We got more small-scale story telling, not having to worry about the group all of the time. A couple of the best episodes involved Darryl Dixon traveling with Beth, after they managed to escape the prison. This allowed us to see a little bit more about the character that many claim to be their favorite (Darryl), and one that never got the screen time she really deserved (Beth) because she was being over shadowed by the large group.

dead3This kind of depth allowed the story to move forward, and there were plenty of exciting things that were taking place. There is the introduction of many new characters, in new groups, that provide enticing opportunities for the story moving forward. We get the chance to start to like some of these characters that we have spent a couple of years with already. Like Michonne. Nice to hear that she has a little bit of backstory, and for seemingly the first time, she smiles in Season 4. It makes her that much more real, and easier to cheer for. The constant brooding got a little tiresome, for all of the characters, so it is good to know a little bit about why they are the way they are.

The main premise of the season, once the stragglers leave the prison, is that they are looking for a place called Terminus, where all the train lines meet. This gives everybody a goal, and gives hope for those who have been separated to get back together.

The Walking Dead, season four, is the best, because there is always something going on. There are more zombie attacks, there are plenty of zombie (as well as human) deaths, there is the usual loss of a long time character or two, and for the first time in a couple of years, there is action.

I know that I am in the minority saying that the past couple of seasons bored me, but this one picks up where it perhaps should have been all along: with adventure and action.

Now, I am excited to see the fifth season once again.