“Shadow And Bone” Assembles Its Cast!

I only just recently discovered the Six Of Crows series of novels of Leigh Bardugo; and I’m glad that I did, because reading them has given me the ability to speak with some knowledge on the new casting announcements for the upcoming Netflix series, Shadow And Bone, based on her collected works. The series, which will be faced with the daunting task of condensing or combining elements from her Shadow And Bone and Six Of Crows novels, is shaping up pretty neatly, and has me hopeful that, along with The Witcher and Narnia, Netflix could be developing their own fantasy empire to challenge the likes of HBO and Amazon Prime in the near future.

So who’s been cast? Several of the major characters from Bardugo’s novels are present in the group photo released today by Netflix, with a handful conspicuously absent. Among those gathered we have the master thief and strategist Kaz Brekker, the assassin Inej Ghafa, and the sharpshooter Jesper Fahey, all from Six Of Crows, alongside the powerful Grisha sorceress Alina Starkov, the mysterious “General Kirigan”, and Alina’s best friend Malyen Oretsev, from the Shadow And Bone series.

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The biggest name among the cast is undeniably Ben Barnes (Kirigan), who previously portrayed Prince Caspian in the Chronicles Of Narnia – but that’s not saying much. Freddy Carter (Kaz) is probably going to be one of the show’s leads, but he is a mostly unknown actor, whose previous work includes Wonder Woman. Amita Suman (Inej) is best known for a guest role on the latest season of Dr. Who. Jessie Mei Li (Alina) has some experience in theater, but only a handful of acting roles in film. Kit Young (Jesper) has no acting credits. Archie Renaux (Malyen) will appear in next year’s Morbius, but has no other acting credits. So, with the absence of any real star power, we just have to hope that these six actors have a lot of talent between them.

We have yet to hear casting announcements for the other major characters of Bardugo’s series, including Wylan Van Eck, Matthias Helvar, and Nina Zenik. But this adaptation will clearly be playing around with Bardugo’s established timeline for her books, so it’s possible that those characters may not be introduced until later seasons of the series.

So what do you think? Are you happy with the casting announcements? Are you familiar with any of these actors? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Netflix’s “Umbrella Academy” Adds To Season 2 Cast!

While the second season of Netflix’s gritty superhero drama Umbrella Academy is still at least a year away (at best), the show has begun filming in Toronto, Canada, with the main cast returning to their instantly-iconic roles. But alongside the Hargreeves siblings, there are three new faces to add to the mix.

Netflix has just cast Ritu Arya, Yusuf Gatewood, and Marin Ireland for what appear to be large roles on the show. So let’s break down who they’re playing, and what their inclusion could mean for the series, and the future of the Umbrella Academy.

First of all, are they playing new members of the Academy – a.k.a. any of the thirty-six other supernaturally-gifted children all mysteriously born on October 1st, 1989? Well, it’s most likely that Arya and Gatewood, who are both around the same age range as the other Hargreeves, could be some of those long lost kids.

Additional confirmation of this could come from the character descriptions released by Netflix: Arya’s character, Lila, is an unpredictable “chameleon who can be as brilliant or as clinically insane as the situation requires”. To my mind, that suggests she has the ability to either shape-shift or, more interestingly, drastically change her personality in such a way that she becomes an entirely different person to any but the most discerning eye. Lila also has a macabre sense of humor: this suggests a villain at first, but pretty much everybody in Umbrella Academy has a macabre sense of humor, so it’s not very telling.

As for Gatewood, his character Raymond sounds more than a bit like Emmy Raver-Lampman’s Alison Hargreeves – a “born leader” with the “innate ability to disarm you with a look”. He’s married, and devoted to his spouse, and seems to have a wide social circle who love and adore him. But what does it mean? Is he, like Alison, creating a perfect life for himself by mind-controlling his friends and family? Or is he just a really great guy? That seems way too good to be true on a show like this, where everyone is hiding a secret.

Marin Ireland’s “no-nonsense Texas mom” Sissy doesn’t seem as much like a possible Umbrella Academy child to me, but she sounds interesting: at forty, Ireland will be portraying a “fearless”, free spirited woman who seems to be getting past a stale marriage and moving on to the next chapter of her life with fervor. She probably lives in Texas, and she obviously has kids: other than that, we don’t know too much about her, but she sounds like she could be the moral compass of the next season, like Agnes (and, to some extent, Hazel) were in the first.

All in all, this sounds like a great deal of fun, and the characters each seem to have a lot of depth and layers already: we’ll just have to wait and see whether they turn out to be long lost siblings, time-traveling assassins, or maybe even more donut-shopkeepers.

“The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance” Review!

Right up front, I’m going to express my disappointment that my review of Netflix’s new original series is not quite as glowing as certain others are. Not only do I disagree with Rotten Tomatoes’ 89% Fresh rating, but I don’t understand it. I do notice, though, that the series is not rated Certified Fresh, which is some relief to me, writing this ballad of a sadly underwhelmed audience-member. Audiences across the world seem to be greatly enjoying The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance, but it’s rather hard to figure out whether that excitement comes from hardcore Dark Crystal fans or mainstream Netflix-watchers. I’m going to guess the former, because this show seemed, at least to me, to have very little mainstream appeal. Let’s discuss.

Firstly, puppets. Puppets can be wonderful fun, and, if done right, with charm and humor, they can even be fun to watch onscreen: countless Muppet movies (great Muppet movies, at that) and the huge success of Sesame Street prove that. But unfortunately, charm and humor are two noticeable absences in the Dark Crystal franchise, which is both grim and serious, and incredibly macabre – even nightmarish, but we’ll get to that. Where Jim Henson’s other movies had fun and dance, musical numbers, cameos from human actors and a general atmosphere of carefree recklessness, his original Dark Crystal was an attempt to pivot away from that image. It deserves praise for the fact that it was one of the first big fantasy epics, and its creation was a huge undertaking. However, when it released in 1982, it was not the massive success that Henson had hoped for, receiving a mixed response from both critics and audiences. Those who did fall in love with it, however, never fell out of love, and so the new Netflix prequel has a small, but loyal niche fanbase that it wants to attract. As for me, I have never loved the original movie: I hated it, in fact. The puppets, with their strange, glassy eyes and grotesque rogues gallery of bird-like Skeksis, all living on what was supposed to be a barren alien planet – not my thing.

That’s probably at least partly why this new series just wasn’t for me. The puppets haven’t changed in the decades since the original movie was released. I am not an expert on puppet technology, but as far as I can tell, an effort has been made to use the same sort of techniques as Jim Henson did all those years ago: over-zealous loyalty to a project is not unheard of, and can be understandable, if said project doesn’t really require major changes for modern audiences to enjoy it. Dark Crystal, however, is outdated, and makes no effort to change that: the story is still a huge, intricate mess of mythology, religion, philosophy and fantasy cliches; the puppets are still obviously puppets, and their glassy-eyed stares remain their signature feature.

I intend no disrespect to the series’ puppeteers, who do an excellent job: their work is incredible, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be. I also have huge respect for the amazing voice cast: many of the actors are quite good in their roles, though there are more than a few who only show up once or twice and have barely any dialogue: Alicia Vikander, Natalie Dormer, Hannah John-Kamen and Mark Strong are some of the latter – of the former, we have Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nathalie Emmanuel, Donna Kimball and Lena Headey to thank, for making this show ever so slightly more entertaining than it would otherwise have been. I’ll spare some praise for Sigourney Weaver, who gets to narrate the opening of the first episode.

As for the characters these hugely-talented actors and actresses are voicing, well…watching their individual stories isn’t always quite as interesting as playing Who’s Who with the voice cast, but there are a few I can think of: Mother Aughra (Donna Kimball), the benevolent but cranky guardian of Thra, is especially fun to watch, and the puppeteers gave her enough quirky little traits, from facial movements to her distinctive style of dancing, that make her seem like an actual character, rather than some of the thin, underdeveloped cardboard cutouts that pass for protagonists in this series. Tavra, Seladon and Brea, the three sundered daughters of the All-Maudra (Helena Bonham-Carter), are also especially interesting, and the way that their stories diverge and reunite is imaginative. But of these, only Brea (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a main character: for the most part, we’re stuck watching Rian (Taron Egerton) either walking from place to place, or stopping to share his memories with literally everybody he meets (after the third or fourth of these long, redundant, dream-sharing encounters, I was ready to turn off the show). Deet the Grotten (Nathalie Emmanuel) is somewhat more interesting, but her story takes a bizarre and unexplained twist in the last few episodes. As for Maudra Fara, she’s actually quite likable, which is somewhat conflicting, considering that she speaks with the villainous voice of Lena Headey, who portrayed the evil Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones.

Talking of villains, it’s time to discuss those which dwell in Thra, and present the main threat to our Gelfling heroes. The Skeksis, repugnant vulture-people from another world, who have subjugated the Gelfling people and enslaved the Crystal of Truth to their will. I want to take a moment to point out that, somehow, the Gelflings, who are shown to have vaguely-human aesthetics and personalities, are completely oblivious to the fact that gigantic, hulking anthropomorphic vultures living in a claw-shaped Gothic castle might be evil. The Skeksis are absolutely revolting and repulsive, with zero redeemable qualities, and no actual personalities to speak of – so why, then, do we spend about fifty percent of the show’s screentime watching them squabble pointlessly, in a boring parody of Game of Thrones‘ layered dynastic rivalry and wars for the throne. There are so many pointless scenes of Skeksis eating, I thought I might lose my mind: if not my appetite. This is a personal preference, but I cannot stand two types of villain: (a) the CGI-construct with no personality who yells “Kill them all!” and dumb stuff like that (Azog from The Hobbit fits the bill), and (b) pompous, swaggering, disgusting buffoons (such as the Master of Lake-town from The Hobbit). The Skeksis combine the worst elements of both of these villain cliches, and take them to the next level. Only The Hunter even came close to being an intimidating antagonist, but his supporting character-status was undeserved and infuriating.

All this is truly saddening, because the Skeksis could have been excellent. If I had been the showrunner, I would have probably changed their appearance, first of all: wouldn’t resplendent peacock-feathers or gaudy, glorious plumage have done the trick of showing Skeksi greed and avarice just as well as bald, wrinkly faces and harsh, raspy evil laughter? This is a prequel, for Thra’s sake – they could have done anything with the Skeksis! The possibilities were endless. There were themes and shades of some of the great fantasy villains at work here, but none ever reached full potential: the Skeksi fear of death and their desperate attempts to evade it, for example, resembled the actions of Tolkien’s Numenoreans, clinging to life at all costs, warring on the earth and the gods in the faint hope of winning immortality.

It’s not the only Tolkien theme glimpsed in Age of Resistance: in the very first episode, while a Skeksi narrates about the inevitability of evil and how the strong will always conquer the weak, we watch a montage which proves otherwise, showing various Gelfling heroes starting out on their individual quests for justice and truth, in a reverse of Sam Gamgee’s “stories that really matter” speech at the end of Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers (which is also on Netflix, now, by the way). The series has very Tolkienesque ecological messaging, and the Gelflings, bound up with the fate of Thra, are nothing if not a hybrid between Tolkien’s hobbits and elves. But sadly, these themes get buried under so many fantasy plot points (magic sword! prophecies! mystic arts!) that it’s hard to find them at first.

All in all, the series is far too long. I flew through the first three episodes, even if they were rather weak, and the fourth through sixth episodes were actually quite good: seven through ten, however, drag the story out far too long. The eventual finale lands with a resounding thud: a more disappointing climax, I could not envision. That might be because the series tries too hard to make you want to go watch Dark Crystal after it’s finished, which is something I do not want to do, and don’t ever want to do again. So many things are left unanswered, and the final showdown between Gelflings and Skeksis is so underwhelming – was it because full-out puppet war is rather hard to manage? Did the budget not allow for it? I don’t know: all I can say for certain is that I was hugely disappointed.

It’s unfortunate. I really wanted to like it. The trailers showed off stunning visual beauty, Gelfling heroics, and epic warfare: unfortunately, in the actual series, these things are few and far between. If you’re a puppet nerd, a hardcore sword-and-sorcery fan, or a Henson completionist, I urge you to watch this series, since you might enjoy it far more than I did. But all that I’m left with is the feeling that I wasted time on this series, when I could have been…oh, I don’t know, watching The Two Towers instead. It’s all the same stuff, but it doesn’t have creepy vulture-puppets.

Series Rating: 5/10

“Falling Inn Love” Movie Review!

Cute and classy, Netflix’s new late-summer love story, Falling Inn Love, is decent enough fare for an end-of-August afternoon, but might not do much to satisfy audiences craving bold new content with unexpected plot twists or subverted expectations. This really is the sort of movie that should be watched on a couch, preferably while wearing pajamas, when there’s nothing else to do. That’s not an insult, just a reference for when and how you should go into this film in order to get the desired effect. It’s sleepy comfort-food for the soul.

The romance at the heart of the film is charming enough, and relies on the Opposites-Attract formula. Gabriela (Christina Milian) is a stressed out architect from San Francisco who’s bored with the corporate hamster-wheel of her busy life: finding no comfort in either yoga sessions or her over-eager boyfriend, she flies out to New Zealand after she wins a charming little bed-and-breakfast inn in a contest. Once there (literally, as soon as she arrives), she runs into Jake (Adam Demos), the town’s most eligible bachelor/contractor, who decides to help her renovate and remodel the place. That’s basically it. Both stars are likable, but Milian more so: perhaps because Demos’ charming Kiwi handyman takes on the Moody Brooding Leading Man™ persona about halfway through, which then leads to some severe misuse of the Misunderstanding™ trope, followed by some of that good old “I Can’t Fall In Love Because [Insert Past Tragedy]”™ cliche. I won’t spoil too much, but the story basically devolves into a series of well-worn story beats a little more than halfway through.

As for the scenic backdrop of New Zealand and its culture, which wows Gabriela, well…it’s barely ever seen. In a small-budget film like this, that’s not really surprising, but it does make one wonder why the script focuses so heavily on Gabriela’s constant surprise at the Kiwi way of life, when almost everything we see in the rural locale of Beechwood can be found in any American town. I say almost because there are a few Maori phrases in the cast’s vocabulary, as well as a few Maori extras and supporting characters. But really, this film could be set anywhere and it wouldn’t make much difference.

So, if you don’t plan on going anywhere for an hour and a half, why not relax on the sofa, grab some snacks, and give Falling Inn Love a chance? It’s cute, it’ll pass the time, and it doesn’t require too much thought. But in a world where rom-coms are becoming increasingly more thought-provoking (looking at you, Last Christmas), it just might not be enough.

Movie Rating: 6/10

“Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance” Final Trailer!

The Darkening is upon us in the final trailer for Netflix’s Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance, the prequel series to Jim Henson’s cult-classic Dark Crystal. Personally, I never knew we needed a prequel to that film. But then again, I also never knew I would actually be interested in that prequel.

This series looks…good. It still looks kind of terrifying and weird, because it still relies on puppets – and these aren’t the types of puppets you see on Sesame Street: they’re slightly more realistic, in a weird, distorted sort of way, and some of them are huge lurking vulture-creatures called Skeksis, who want to control the magical world of Thra. None of them are particularly adorable or endearing, which could end up being a turn-off for some people. I’m trying not to get freaked out by them, though, because the story looks insanely epic. There’s amazing visuals, an incredible voice-cast, and a compelling message of hope, inspiration, and courage. At least, I think the message is one of hope – I can’t really remember anything from Dark Crystal except that there were lots of vulture Skeksis, so I’m going to assume that the resistance in Age Of Resistance possibly doesn’t eradicate them entirely? Honestly, I don’t know, so I’ll be going into this series pretty much blind. And yes, I will be watching it, no matter how frightening it is.

I was already sold when Lena Headey joined the cast, but this trailer has done a lot to cement my hopes for the show: this trailer is everything I needed it to be – the stakes are high, the thrills are intense, the range of emotion coming from these puppets is disturbing. I feel invested in the arcs of our protagonists, Deet, Rian and Brea…even  if I don’t know which is which yet. Maybe it’s the stirring music, or the beautiful narration about the fragility of hope, which “catches the light, splitting the darkness, revealing your destiny”. Maybe it’s just because I still feel shell-shocked and I’m not even realizing that I’m seriously considering watching an entire series about creepy puppet-people.

While I sort out my emotional trauma, I’ll pose the question to you: are you planning to watch Age Of Resistance when it debuts on August 30th? Are you scared of the Gelflings and the Skeksis? Are you totally comfortable with the idea of watching scary Muppets fight to the death for the freedom of their alien world, and if so, do you think you should seek help?

Trailer Rating: 8/10