NOVEMBER 2020 Viewing Recap + Movie of the Month

Wow!! It’s actually December!! Well folks, only a month left in 2020… the year that’ll definitely go down in history as one of the weirdest, most challenging year ever for many of us. I don’t know about you, but I never thought I’d experience a pandemic in my lifetime, but hey surely it isn’t the worst moment in this century. According to the CDC website, the flu pandemic of 1918 happened during WWI. Overcrowding and global troop movement helped spread the virus, causing at least 50 million deaths worldwide, including approximately 675,000 in the US. For comparison, so far Covid-19 has killed nearly 1.5 million people worldwide.

As of today, the lockdown in my state of MN still continues for another 3 weeks… and possibly could last through Christmas. Thank goodness for internet and streaming services … I honestly can’t imagine life without them.

In any case, here’s what I watched in November:

New-to-me Movies

The Nest


Read my full review

Life for an entrepreneur and his American family begins to take a twisted turn after moving into an English country manor.

On The Rocks

A young mother reconnects with her larger-than-life playboy father on an adventure through New York.

I was listening to NPR last Friday, and they were talking about this Sofia Coppola dramedy so I decided to watch it when I got home. I think it’s pretty enjoyable and worth a watch for Bill Murray being his fun, charming self, but overall it feels a bit Woody Allen-ish, and that’s not exactly a compliment.

The Life Ahead

In seaside Italy, a Holocaust survivor with a daycare business takes in a 12-year-old street kid who recently robbed her.

See my quick review below. Highly recommend this one!

Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb

After unearthing a tomb that had been untouched for 4,400 years, Egyptian archaeologists attempt to decipher the history of the astonishing find.

I’ve always been fond of archaeological documentaries and this one is especially fascinating. All the archaeologists are Egyptians or from that region, which I think made it feel even more personal and even emotional as they truly care about what the findings mean for their people.

The Banker

In the 1960s two African-American entrepreneurs hire a working-class white man to pretend to be the head of their business empire while they pose as a janitor and chauffeur.

Based on a true story, Anthony Mackie + Samuel L. Jackson made for quite a wonderful duo though the adaptation feels rather too safe which lessened its emotional impact. Given the immense talents involved, this film could’ve been far more powerful. Still well worth a watch though.

The Love Punch

A divorced couple scheme to recover the retirement money that was stolen from them.

I actually watched this one and The Tourist back to back… I have to say the scenery is what appeals to me as this one took place mostly in the South of France. Plus it’s got Emma Thompson in what promises to be a fun comedy caper. Alas, no amount of star power nor stunning scenery could make up for a dumb script. It’s so embarrassingly bad, I’m willing to bet the actors signed up for this so they get a free vacation on the French Riviera.

A Princess For Christmas

At the invitation of an estranged relative, a young woman travels with her niece and nephew to a castle in Europe for Christmas, where she unwittingly falls for a dashing Prince.

I can’t even count how many holiday movies there are on Netflix w/ the prince/princess in the title 😀  Somehow I kept seeing this banner amongst its seemingly-endless Christmas rom-coms that got me curious. Whaddayaknow, this one has Sir Roger Moore as a rather curmudgeon English duke… and that Scottish hunk from Outlander Sam Heughan. The lead actress Katie McGrath, who looks so distractingly similar to Keira Knightley (esp her toothy grin), is quite likable despite her touch-and-go American accent. Well, predictably, the movie is filled with typical cockamamie fairy-tale plot that’s utterly schmaltzy, but it’s actually not as bad as I had feared. The scenes of the family decorating the Christmas tree and the servants helping the girl out is quite sweet, it sort of made up for the lack of chemistry between the two romantic leads.


TV Series

The Expanse season 4 | The Queen’s Gambit | The Crown Season 4 | The Mandalorian Season 2

I binged on four excellent series this past month. The Queen’s Gambit proved to be a hit on Netflix and it’s indeed excellent (check out Vince’s review if you haven’t already).

The Expanse season 4 kept up the thrills from the previous 3 seasons, and I love that this time, most of the drama takes place off the ship, in an earth-like planet referred to as Ilus, or New Terra by the UN. It made me even more excited to see Season 5, esp. involving a man from Naomi’s past, Marco Inaros.

I’m not a huge royal family fan, but I can’t help but get caught up in the whole drama of Charles + Diana again after watching season 4. Emma Corrin was really convincing as Princess Di, that’s quite an acting coupe to get someone who doesn’t just look the part but could portray the essence of who we think Diana was. Gillian Anderson is an inspired casting as Margaret Thatcher but I think she did a good job, and I ended up watching a couple of documentaries on the real Iron Lady on youtube.

I’ve only seen 2 episodes of The Mandalorian season 2, but I love that first episode with Timothy Olyphant as The Marshall. My hubby commented right away how he looked so much like Pierce Brosnan with his salt/pepper hair, so true!


Rewatches

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

A dose of Jane Austen is always a good idea. I love, love the visuals of this Joe Wright version and the music by Dario Marianelli.

Vanity Fair (Miniseries)

I wanted to see Tom Bateman in something, anything… and Death on the Nile has been delayed indefinitely 😦 Anyhoo, I quite like this miniseries, which captured the essence of the sly Becky Sharp, played brilliantly by Olivia Cooke. Mr. Bateman looks fetching in that cavalry uniform, even as he falls hopelessly in love with the shrewd miss Sharp.

The Little Mermaid (1989)

This is one of my childhood faves and I still absolutely adore the visuals and the songs by Alan Menken. I gotta admit though, the premise of a girl giving up her entire identity in search for a man’s love doesn’t have the same appeal anymore.

The Tourist (2010)

Can’t believe this movie is 10 years old! This was Jolie pre-Brangelina and Depp hadn’t even met Amber Heard yet… boy that seemed like three lifetimes ago. Well, this movie is so gorgeous to look at–and makes me yearn to one day visit Venice again–but the plot is still as daft as ever. I did find it funnier than the first time I saw it however, but I also find myself shaking my head how a movie credited with three award-winning writers, including Christopher McQuarrie and Julian Fellowes, could’ve written such a turd!!


MOVIE OF THE MONTH

THE LIFE AHEAD

Though Sophia Loren is one of the most famous actresses of Hollywood golden age, I’ve actually only seen one of her films, Arabesque (because I was hugely into Gregory Peck almost a decade ago). This is a comeback of sort for the 86-year-old actress, as her last feature was in 2010, and The Life Ahead was directed by her own son, Edoardo Ponti. I’ll do a full review of it at some point, but I highly recommend this beautiful and heart-wrenching drama, which you can now watch on Netflix.


Well, what have you been watching in November? What’s YOUR fave movie you saw last month?

Bingeing on ‘The Expanse’ – the best sci-fi series I’ve seen so far

I don’t know about you but I LOVE when I discover a new show that I love, especially those that have been around for a while with tons of episodes to catch up on. THE EXPANSE has been around since 2015 and I’ve often seen the banner pop up on Amazon Prime, but somehow I haven’t felt compelled to check it out. About a month ago, my hubby said a few colleagues of were talking about that show on one of their Zoom meetings and they highly recommended it–saying that it’s one of the best, most realistic sci-fi shows they’ve seen. So we decided to give it a go, since we actually loved Battlestar Galactica (the early 2000s version by Ron Moore) that we binged on a decade ago.

Well, right from the very first episode, we instantly LOVED it and we had been catching up to the first 3 seasons in just 3 weeks, so one season per week which is actually pretty fast as we usually don’t watch anything on weeknights. But fortunately each episode is only about 40-minutes long and always ends on such an awesome cliffhanger that it’s hard NOT to keep watching!

Apparently this show was originally on SyFy Channel, which cancelled the series in early 2018 just before airing its third season. Thanks to fan-campaign to save the show, Amazon picked it up and currently the show is on its 5th season. I’ve only finished season 3 so far, but I think we’ll be caught up with all four season by the time season 5 drops on December 15.

PREMISE

Hundreds of years in the future, the Solar System has been colonized by humanity. The three largest powers are the United Nations of Earth and Luna, the Martian Congressional Republic on Mars, and the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA), a loose confederation of the asteroid belt and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Sci-fi shows are a dime a dozen but I find The Expanse unique given that it takes place on multiple planets including earth, and instead of humans + aliens fighting or co-existing, all of the characters on Earth, Mars and those living in the asteroid belt (hence called Belters) are all humans who have since colonized other planets.

The series follows a disparate band of antiheroes – United Nations Security Council member Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), police detective Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane), ship’s officer James Holden (Steven Strait) and his crew – as they unwittingly unravel and place themselves at the center of a conspiracy which threatens the system’s fragile state of Cold War. I love the detective noir aspect of Miller’s narrative in trying to find a missing young woman, and the show-runners did an outstanding job mixing the noir elements with science-fiction and relevant political climate & intrigue that actually feels relatable to what’s going on in our world today.

L-R: Thomas Jane, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Steven Strait

Based on the book series of the same name by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey), they also serve among the show’s producers and writers. It’s the kind of shows that are super fun to sink your teeth into because of their excellent world-building and scientifically accurate of depictions of life in space.

Well, if the Rotten Tomatoes ratings are any indication, this is one of those rare series that consistently get high rating that get better and better each season. In fact, the first season’s rating of 77% is the lowest of the four seasons so far, with season 3 and 4 getting 100% fresh rating!

Here are just some of the reasons I LOVE The Expanse:

FANTASTIC ENSEMBLE CAST

I LOVE the racially-diverse cast who are massively talented but not big-name stars. I have to say the only two people I knew prior to watching the show are Thomas Jane and Shohreh Aghdashloo but I grew to love all the main cast, especially the four main crew of the Rocinante, the Martian gunship the crew managed to escape in when their original ship Canterbury was destroyed. 

  • Steven Strait as James Holden, the Earther executive officer on the Canterbury, later the captain of the Rocinante
  • Cas Anvar as Alex Kamal, the Martian pilot of the Canterbury, later the pilot of the Rocinante
  • Dominique Tipper as Naomi Nagata, a Belter engineer of the Canterbury, later the engineer of the Rocinante
  • Wes Chatham as Amos Burton, an Earther mechanic of the Canterbury, later the mechanic of the Rocinante

This is a memorable scene when they renamed the ship Rocinante.

Each of the characters has an interesting backstory that’s slowly revealed as the series progresses, and the show feels like a terrific ensemble-piece instead of the merely focusing on just one or two characters. It’s hard to pick a favorite as I LOVE the four of them pretty much equally. Holden is an idealist reluctant leader whose principles somehow command loyalty from the crew… I like that he’s not a typical captain that just barks orders at the crew. Alex is a brilliant yet fun pilot, he always makes me smile, plus he’s a great cook, who doesn’t love that!! I gotta get some of those space pasta! I’ve grown to appreciate Amos more and more, I love his brutal honesty, his hot temper is actually endearing (though I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of his!). All the guys are super easy on the eyes as well, which makes them extra easy to love, ahah.

I think the real MVP of the Roci (love the cute nickname for the ship!) is Naomi Nagata, the super-engineer who can fix practically anything and she’s tough as nails!!

I bow to thee, Naomi Nagata!

The four crew member have such a great chemistry and despite their different personalities, they somehow complement each other nicely. Of course they don’t always get along, which is realistic given each came from different backgrounds and their viewpoints/ allegiance don’t always align. Plus it adds to the dynamic element of the show when they do butt heads… or when sparks fly (as in the case with James and Naomi).

Let’s highlight the three other characters I love on the show:

Shohreh Aghdashloo is so bad ass as Chrisjen Avasarala (what a fun name!) one of the UN Security Council members who’s sharp and resourceful in maneuvering the fragile political situations between the three planets, definitely a stand-out amongst the cutthroat, male-dominated field. I LOVE how colorful and intricate her costumes are in this show, she’s always decked in sparkly jewels in nearly every episode, such a respite from the austere military uniforms most of the characters wear.

Thomas Jane’s Josephus Miller (with his iconic detective hat) is quite a fun character as he seems like he’s sort of disillusioned and just cruising through life, that is until he starts investigating the disappearance of Julie Mao (Florence Faivre). In a way, she brought his mojo back as he’s becoming more inspired the more he learns about her life. 

Last but not least, one of my fave characters from season 1-3 is Mars’ Marine Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams). I love her no-nonsense character from the moment she was introduced in Mars, and she’s got tons of memorable moments that just makes me love her more and more. 

The meticulous world-building that as scientifically-accurate as can be

It’s always important for any series that they come up with a compelling universe and its own sets of rules… I think even more so in a science fiction that deals with worlds other than our own. The show-runners have definitely done a phenomenal job setting up complex, intricate narratives with high stakes that build genuine tension from one episode to the next. 

For example, the zero gravity concept which this Wired article sums it up nicely ‘There are no pew-pew lasers or faster-than-light space travel here—just serious science.’ For example, unlike many sci-fi shows where humans can just walk normally on a spacecraft, in this show, they’d be floating around if they’re not strapped in, unless they wear magnetic boots that ‘lock’ them to the ground so they can walk. This article talks about the science of spinning aircraft, which the show also depicts in a much more realistic way than other similar shows.

The opening of the first episode sees a girl trapped on a ship that’s apparently has been abandoned. It’s the scene that started it all, which also does a good job in introducing the kind of world The Expanse is set in.

Now, obviously The Expanse is a fantasy sci-fi show, but I like that the showrunners at least has a pretty good understanding how science works. One of them, Naren Shankar, holds a PhD in physics and engineering from Cornell and he also said the book authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck also have extensive knowledge about science.  This Wired article talks about how the show paid great attention to real physics, such as how gravity or orbital trajectories work. I read this interview with Shankar on Sciencemag and I definitely come away with the notion that this show raised the game for other shows in similar genres.

It’s not just the space science the show get right, but also the cultural ramifications that resulted from humans living in different planets. Instead of racial tension between people of different skin colors that we have today, in the future we have tensions between the Earthers, Martians and Belters who are all humans that have ‘evolved’ to have different physical appearances due to the climate of the planets they occupy.

For example, Belters suffer when exposed to Earth’s gravitational force, due to their altered physiology from growing up and living in low gravity environments. So Earthers would use Gravity torture is a form of torture that is used on Earth against Belters, such as the one seen in this scene.

It’s interesting how watching the show reinforces how we earth-dwellers have taken so many things for granted–blue sky, breathable air, oceans, etc. which are foreign to Martians and Belters. The Belters are raised in low gravity environment which makes them have longer bones and larger skulls than the humans of earth. Martians are highly efficient society as everyone there are laser-focused on the terraforming project, that is trying to make Mars to be the new earth. Martians are highly advanced in terms of military and technology, as the terraforming project is considered the greatest engineering project in human history. 

The culture of the show is so fascinating stuff but yet somehow relatable because despite the show being set mostly in space, the story is about humans and their journey navigating the new reality. The discrimination, prejudices and other sources of tensions between the three planets feel eerily similar to what’s happening in our world today.

The genuine mystery + terror of the mysterious enemy

Out of the many mysteries presented on the show, the protomolecule is at the heart of it as it affects the lives of all human kind. Per The Expanse Wiki, The protomolecule is an infectious agent of extra-terrestrial origin that has the ability to radically alter infected life forms and utilize their biomass in various ways. The show’s main villain, a wealthy tycoon Jules-Pierre Mao (François Chau), has been working on a project to weaponized the protomolecule which leads to unfounded war between Earth and Mars.

The horrific Eros-incident revealed in Critical Mass is downright horrifying and heartbreaking. The stakes are truly high here as Miller and Holden + crew have to figure out just what evil they’re dealing with that could do such unimaginable horror to the Belters in that space station. The moment Marine Bobbie Draper first encountered the Protomolecule Hybrid on Ganymede Station is pretty darn scary as well and deepens the mystery of the whole illicit project.


Video Cheat-sheets

Whenever I’m watching shows that are full of intricate concepts, I find it helpful to get a crash course on the world it’s set in after I watch the first couple of episodes. I only watch them if I decide the show is worth investing my time on, so I found this one that explains the many worlds presented in the show without any spoilers:

Now, this Kevin Smith one is fun but I recommend waiting until you finish all three seasons as it has quite a few spoilers. It definitely made me anticipate season 4 even more!

More of The Expanse series in the works, yay!

Well, the good news for fans is the show is far from over!! Season 5 will arrive on Amazon Prime on December 15 and according to this article, it’s already been renewed for season 6!

I’m excited to start season 4 next week, as soon as I’m done watching The Queen’s Gambit (which is also very good but glad it’s only a limited series with 7 episodes!). I actually miss the characters of The Expanse already after not watching for a few days.


Have you seen The Expanse? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the series!

///

OCTOBER 2020 Viewing Recap + Movie of the Month

Happy first Monday in November! It’s also the day before the general election… which means we’re truly at a tipping point in the United States. I have to say it’s a bit of an unsettling time for me. I mean, election is always a very interesting time, but more so this year than ever… not only because it’s the first time election happens during a Pandemic in a looong time, but also because of how divided this country is.

In any case, this is a film blog and so I’m going to keep the focus about movies. Hey, we all need escapism during these strange times, don’t you? Well, I’m glad Twin Cities Film Fest went ahead with its first ever hybrid film festival, which means I saw movies online AND at the theater. I actually went to the theater three times in a week, which is unusual in itself given the time we live in now, but Covid protocols were followed carefully with temperature-checking, seatings arranged at least six-feet apart and vigorous theater cleaning. I certainly felt safe going to the movies, though I understand some people might not feel comfortable going just yet.

Anyway, here’s my recap:

New-to-me Movies

The Wine of Summer

I only watched it for Ethan Peck… and the Italian scenery. It’s got an intriguing premise that promises mystery and romance, but the execution is lacking both. Elsa Pataky and Sônia Braga are both alluring women but they’re given barely anything to do. Marcia Gay Harden is also criminally-underutilized as a drama teacher. Now, Ethan has the looks of his famous grandfather Gregory Peck but not quite the talents, but perhaps he just needs the right role

Kissing Booth 2

Maisie Richardson-Sellers – deserves sooo much better than this movie!

I have to admit I only watched this as I’m curious to see Maisie Richardson-Sellers in a supporting role. Oh man, this movie is absolutely awful that I could barely finish it. I fast-forwarded so much of it and STILL it felt too long. So pointless and full of ridiculous and annoying characters, I can’t believe there are TWO of this garbage masquerading as a film, ugh. I’m surprised at the 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it should’ve been waaaay lower than that!!

Interlude in Prague

Having just visited both Vienna AND Prague last year, naturally I’m intrigued to see this as it was filmed on location. Naturally it’s going to be compared to Amadeus but this historical fiction actually focuses more on Mozart’s time in Prague and imagines a scandal involving the woman he’s having an affair with which supposedly inspires his work in ‘Don Giovanni.’

I might review it in details later but I must say the murder-mystery aspect isn’t as suspenseful as it could be and there’s actually a lot more focus on Mozart working on his music. I do enjoy watching Aneurin Barnard‘s (who’s a musically-gifted actor himself) playful and emotional take of the music maestro, while the talented James Purefoy deserves so much better than a vile, one-dimensional evil baron. I’d imagine it’s still worth a watch for Mozart fans however.

Hollywood Fringe (read my review)

Born Just Now (read my review)

Sylvie’s Love

I had the privilege of seeing this at Twin Cities Film Fest (TCFF). It’s a charming romance that’s beautifully shot and wonderfully-acted, but I have some issues with the narrative. It has a bit of a La La Land vibe given the music-themed. I’ll review it in more in depth later in December as it gets closer to its release date.

Rebecca

Well, despite the supremely beautiful cast (Armie Hammer and Lily James look ravishing in period costumes) and gorgeous Monte Carlo and English scenery, this film just lacked the mystery/intrigue of the Hitchcock version. It’s still worth a watch for the cast, especially Kristin Scott-Thomas as Mrs. Danvers, but I feel like it doesn’t really give us a compelling reason to exist.

Sold Out

I actually saw this film sort of by accident, but I’m glad I did as I really enjoyed it! I have written the review already but will post it at a later date as I’m hoping to interview the filmmaker as well. All I can say for now is watch out for Kelsey McMahon, such a talented performer!!

Uncle Frank

It’s one of the three films I saw on the big screen at TCFF and I practically went to see it blind, not knowing anything about the story other than it stars Paul Bettany and Steve Zahn. All you need to know is this: Frank Bledsoe (Bettany) and his 18-year-old niece Beth take a road trip from Manhattan to Creekville, South Carolina for the family patriarch’s funeral. I’ll review it closer to Thanksgiving which is the date it’ll drop on Amazon Prime.

Nomadland

You’ve likely read about this here if you read my blog regularly. I’m a big fan of Chloe Zhao and this is another reflective, thought-provoking film she wrote & directed, starring Frances McDormand. It’s a rather slow film with not much going on, but definitely a fascinating film nonetheless as we follow a woman in her 60s living as a modern-day nomad in her rackety van.


TV Series

I haven’t even seen the original Perry Mason series but I LOVE this one and it’s a compelling, well-crafted origin series on how the titular character became the defense attorney he’s known for. Matthew Rhys is truly one of the best, most-underrated actors working today… he reminds me of another criminally-underrated Welshman who should be a much bigger star than he is, Timothy Dalton.

My hubby and I had been wanting to binge on The Expanse for a while and we finally started it a few weeks ago. Soooo good!! We finished two seasons in under two weeks and it just keeps getting better and better. We definitely will be on track to catch up on all four seasons before season 5 hits on December 15. Can’t wait!!

On the flip side, I’ve only managed to see one episode of Emily in Paris and I don’t even know if I want to watch anymore. It’s just so superficial, clichéd, silly and kind of insulting to French people or anyone who’s even been to Paris! There’s less froth in this show than even in your regular Starbucks latte! Morceau de merde!


Rewatches

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Not too many rewatches this month but I did see two of my favorite Jane Austen films, Persuasion and Sense & Sensibility with some friends, which is always a lovely time. The only horror-related movie I saw the entire October was Sleepy Hollow, which isn’t that scary but I just love the production design of Tim Burton’s classic, and I find it much more comical than I originally did. I mean, what’s with the sharp teeth of the Hessian aka the Headless Horseman. Poor Christopher Walken must’ve bitten himself so many times wearing those fake teeth!

After I saw Interlude in Prague, I rewatched Hunky Dory again as I just love Aneurin Barnard‘s voice. I’d love to see him in a huge Hollywood musical similar to The Greatest Showman or Singing In The Rain as this Welshman (yes I have a thing for the Welsh don’t I?) can act AND belt a tune!


MOVIE OF THE MONTH

Now, even though I’m not as in love with NOMADLAND as I thought I would, I still think it’s the best film I saw this month and I can see why it’s winning rave reviews all over major festivals. Such glorious visuals with a quiet, meditative grace. I’ll do a proper review of this sometime in December.


Well, what have you been watching in October? What’s YOUR fave movie you saw last month?