Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Review: Empire Season 1

Title: Empire Season 1
Starring: Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, Jussie Smollett
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Music
Episodes: 12

It's become a common trend that people have ditched their cable or satellite providers and have strictly stuck to streaming. I totally understand the switch as it is possibly cheaper to keep up with and the choices of programming is way more vast than what channels provide, especially when these shows come on a specific day and time. Nonetheless, I still find myself being content with having cable and watching television programs that air weekly. I just can't imagine being without it. Because of that, I do find new shows to get into from time to time. This was one of them that caught my eye with its commercials.

Lucious Lyon is founder and CEO of a very successful record label, Empire Entertainment, and finds out that he has been diagnosed with ALS. As he continues to keep his business alive, he must decide on which of his three sons will inherit his business once he passes away. Meanwhile, Cookie Lyons, Lucious' ex-wife and co-founder of Empire, is released from prison and tries to reclaim her position at the company as well as repair her relationship with her sons.

I've heard the popular comparison of this show to the Terrence Howard movie, Hustle & Flow, which I'm sure bare some similarities, but I've never seen the movie. I went into this series with an open mind, curious and a bit nervous how this would go. Would this be some stereotypical fanfare that causes me to cringe? Would the music featured be as annoying as what's trending on mainstream radio? Obviously, I had many concerns, but the show surprisingly progressed African Americans forward in a lot of ways. Let's start with the characters! If you only focus on the Lyon family, there are some cliches/tropes laced within their personalities and background, but the story develops and shapes them into something not as regressive as say Tyler Perry movies. In the past, Lucious and Cookie were involved in the drug business while working their way up in Lucious' music career. Instead of Lucious leaving his three sons behind because of his life choice, Cookie takes the fall and is the one arrested. No matter what, both parents want to be involved in their children's lives, even though there are strains in the relationship between them. Lucious has moved on with another woman and has become very successful with his label, while Cookie was incarcerated. Andre, the oldest son, has faithfully stayed by his father's side by working as CFO, but struggles to reconnect with Cookie once she is released. Jamal, the middle son, doesn't have the best relationship with Lucious due to him not accepting his homosexual relationship. Of course, Cookie is very supportive of his relationship and launching his musical career. Hakeem, the youngest son, wants to follow in his father's footsteps of making a name for himself in the hip-hop industry, but approaches certain situations recklessly or naively. Each of these do have hints of stereotypical traits seen in countless television shows and movies, but also add an extra layer to it.

Empire isn't a show that you're going to attach yourself to every character. The characters are very well developed and interesting, but honestly, you're not going to like a lot of the characters. Since the concept revolves the music industry, it can't be helped to have some dirty characters and underhanded scheming. These elements are what keeps the viewers hooked and saves the characters from being flat stereotypes: the story. This show presents plenty of drama, twists, and turns. It also deals with issues that I'm sure many black families try to ignore or struggle with such as homosexuality, ALS, and bipolar disorder. As well as common issues with interracial relationships, gang activity, infidelity, and paternity disputes. These obstacles do not drag or seem unnecessary for drama sake...well, there might be a couple moments, but it's still entertaining. It feels very natural and it's paced well enough for the audience and the characters to absorb and evolve from it. Each episode feels like there's definite progression and causes you to want more by the end of the episode. I know the season finale made me feel upset that it was all over and I would have to wait. Lastly, I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the music featured throughout each episode. As someone who has stopped caring about the (American) hip-hop genre since 2003/2004, I was very relieved to hear something good. Good enough to want the soundtrack, although the purchasing system/track availability is silly. I might not enjoy every song, but I liked that there was variety that fit each artists' style and personality.

Empire is a welcoming contribution to the few TV shows on air that feature a predominently black cast. It has interesting, well developed, diverse characters; an entertaining story, some surprising but welcomed special guests, and enjoyable music. The second season will be returning on Fox on September 23, 2015. I am very much looking forward to what's going to happen with the Lyon family.

Rating: 4/5

Friday, July 24, 2015

Review: Nana

Title: Nana (2000)
Author(s): Yazawa Ai
Genre: Drama, Music, Romance, Shoujo, Slice of Life
Volumes: 21 (publishing/hiatus)

Nana Komatsu is a young woman who's endured an unending string of boyfriend problems. Moving to Tokyo, she's hoping to take control of her life and put all those messy misadventures behind her. She's looking for love and she's hoping to find it in the big city.

Nana Osaki, on the other hand, is cool, confident and focused. She swaggers into town and proceeds to kick down the doors to Tokyo's underground punk scene. She's got a dream and won't give up until she becomes Japan's No. 1 rock'n'roll superstar.

This is the story of two 20-year-old women who share the same name. Even though they come from completely different backgrounds, they somehow meet and become best friends. The world of Nana is a world exploding with sex, music, fashion, gossip and all-night parties. (Source: VIZ Media)

When I was first venturing into manga more seriously, Nana was a series I've heard many girls talk about. Whether it was the movie, the music, the manga, or the anime series, I knew it was a popular franchise that nearly every girl was interested in and enjoyed. Naturally, I wanted to see what the hype was about, so I've added each medium to my various lists. Eventually, I would start somewhere and, at the moment, I've only covered the manga series with plans of watching the movies and anime. I was almost tempted not to do a review as the manga is still in limbo status. The mangaka Ai Yazawa was in the hospital ill for quite some time and in April 2010, she returned back to her home, revealing that she was unsure when she would be returning to the series. This lengthy hiatus has left a huge cliffhanger for fans and newcomers alike. I'm assuming the closest thing to closure on the series are the movies and anime. So, here we are with a review on an incomplete series that I'm, and many others, are hoping to have some sort of resolution in the near future.

Nana is a series driven by its characters. It can be a challenge to balance multiple subplots and characters as effortlessly as Ai Yazawa displays in this series. The story takes a typical premise of a small town girl moving to a big city and adapting to life in a new surrounding with a totally different set of people. The story simultaneously puts these two Nanas as our main characters while branching off with other characters dealing with their own individual struggles. Since the series currently has 21 volumes and [hopefully] still going, it has plenty of time to develop its characters and give the reader enough background to have a clear consensus. Honestly, it's impossible not to feel something for these characters, whether you like them or not. Nana Komatsu and Nana Osaki have an admirable bond between each other. Their relationship with Nana Osaki's bandmates and even the "rival" band is entertaining, fun, and very well developed.

Since the series heavily depends on its characters, it's very easy to become attached to them, like 'em or hate 'em. There's plenty of ups and downs and the story doesn't drag on certain plot points for too long either. The story also doesn't forget its characters' past accomplishments or obstacles they had to face. The story really depends on the characters' growth as well as their relationships with each other. Because you get to spend so much time with these wonderful characters, it's almost depressing that the series on hiatus. Of course, there are a couple ways to cope until Ai Yazawa gets back into the studio which is to watch either or both the anime and movies. I know that's something I'll be doing eventually.

I know I didn't say too much about the art, but the visuals are good and flow well with the action, from live performances to traumatic or triumphant emotions. Nana is a very entertaining and heart tugging kind of story with amazing characters that help the reader experience the ups and downs along with them. No matter if you're male or female, I highly recommend this series, despite it being on a rather lengthy and unfortunate hiatus. I'm looking forward to joining these characters again in another medium and hopefully we don't have to wait too long for another installment of the manga.

Rating: 4.5/5

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Saturday, July 18, 2015

Quick Movie Review

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014, UK) | Rating: 4/5

At first, I wasn't super interested in this movie, but then my mom mentioned that I would've enjoyed it and she was pretty hyped up about it after seeing it in theaters. Later, a patron came in and recommended it to me as well, so I added it to my watch list on IMDb. Once it was released on DVD, my parents watched it first and my dad joined the hype with my mom, then I finally watched it in my room. I must say, it was pretty entertaining and the action was greatly paced. It took me a while to get into and like the younger characters, but I instantly enjoyed the older ones. The whole evil plot was cliched and silly, but in a good Austin Powers kind of way. The climax was brilliant and worth the build up to the final fight. I wouldn't be surprised if a sequel was released in the near future.

A Girls Walks Home Alone at Night (2015, USA) | Rating: 4/5

I've seen the cover for this movie a couple times and I know it's available on Netflix as well. I think this is the first western Iranian vampire film, which is quite a feat. I can't imagine too many movies being created from Iran that feature vampires, especially female ones. Normally, vampires are very sexualized creatures, but due to culture, this vampire has a gentle, sensuality about her that is easily intriguing to her prey. It's not completely a horror story, so don't expect to be scared. It's more about the characters and how they survive in this world the director has created. I urge you to give this movie a chance. The story is well paced, the characters are enjoyable, and the visuals have an interesting balance of classic horror and current dramas.

The Lazarus Effect (2015, USA) | Rating: 1.5/5

Most times I can tell the good from the bad when it comes to horror movies. This one I expected to be somewhere in the middle and I was pretty close. Mostly, I was happy I didn't waste any money to see it in theaters. For the most part, it has an interesting premise, but the execution is kinda poor. The movie didn't really take too much time with a lot of the characters and even when you did, it's a little hard to follow. Either there was too much detail or the details were not that interesting. There's lots of jump scares, poor build up, and just a lot of things that don't logically make sense. In short, this movie isn't really worth your time in seeing. It isn't the worst thing I've seen, but it's not even entertaining in a bad way.

The DUFF (2015, USA) | Rating: 3/5

Another movie based on a teen book, but fortunately doesn't have a dystopian future or supernatural elements to it. No, this is just another contribution of fixing up an average girl into someone dateable...or something like that. It's not truly a makeover story, it's a mixture of delving into the people who make cliques and just surviving high school. Most of us have heard of that one ugly friend in each group when it comes to groups of girls in a club, so this is basically the same without making it exclusive to one specific gender and in high school. I don't see a general audience watching this and it definitely appeals to the female crowd, not because of the majority female cast, but because of the contents. Although, I don't find the main character to be that fat or ugly, the movie does explain that the friend doesn't necessarily have to be either. The story is simple and the characters are fine. It's definitely for a younger demographic, but I found it enjoyable, even if it is a little silly at times.

Jurassic World (2015, USA) | Rating: 4/5

Originally, I was going to do a full review for this movie, but I kinda don't have too much to say about it. Before you assume anything, I really enjoyed this movie. I've heard a few complaints about it being a little slow in the beginning or even the CGI not looking very good, but I wasn't bothered by any of this. Like most additions to older franchises, it was unnecessary, but not a terrible installment. Also, if you're worried about not seeing the previous three films, all you really need to watch is the first one as the movie does reference more things from Jurassic Park. Anyway, my mother and I found ourselves very entertained. In the beginning, I was a little annoyed by Gray and Zach, but they slowly grew on me and I started to care about their well being. Occasionally, Claire would straddle the fence of defenseless/useless female character cliche, but she did redeem herself with some sort of character development. There are some predictable plot points, but overall, I thought the movie was a fun ride and the climax was very satisfying.

If there's something you want me to review (or want a more in depth review of the movies above or previous ones), check out this post on how you can submit requests.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Top 5 Recommended Music Videos

"Unlock" by Daichi Miura
Every time this man releases a new music video, I feel like everything must come to a halt and watch his video for a moment. The video mostly focuses on the amazing choreography, but really, that's all you need from Daichi's videos. His choreography remains unique, creative, and visually appealing. It exudes energy and passion and fits the tone of the music. The song is also very nice to listen to as well, which is just as important. It has a strong power to it and I enjoy the transitions between the verses and chorus.

"Smile Drop" by SKY-HI
This guy and Daichi are both part of Avex and I wanna say that I saw this in the related videos section of YouTube. I've seen his name from time to time and I figured I'd give him a chance. I ended up liking a few videos I saw and this is one of them. I like the fusion of modern and vintage with the visuals and sound. We have a very classic, lounge setting along with lots of brass instruments mixed with pop melodies and SKY-HI's back and forth vocals singing and rapping his lyrics. It's a fun, feel good song that you can't help but enjoy and move to.

"LUCIFER" by Anna Tsuchiya
Ever since seeing her live, I feel like I've missed so much and I don't even know how. Seeing new material from this very talented artist always makes me excited as the releases seem few and far between. This isn't a feel good summertime hit like "Brave Vibrations"; this brings in the goth and rocker sides of Ms. Tsuchiya. It has some beautiful gothic imagery and Anna looks very beautiful in both light and dark forms. I love the balance of tortured and quiet calmness of the music. It knows when to quiet itself during the dialogue and come back with a punch for the chorus.

"Bounce" by BOYFRIEND
Lately, the direction this group has been going is becoming more and more appealing to me and that kinda scares me. Not quite a fan, but I'm enjoying these darker, more mature concepts from this group. Sure, "Alice in Wonderland" has been used as a concept before, but they bring their own little style to it. It's a poppy goth that looks very sleek and polished on screen; I can see VIXX pulling this off. The song is far from dark and sticks to being a quite danceable and energetic pop song. I think this works a little better than their whole vampire concept.

"Paradise Lost" by GAIN
Every time this woman releases a music video, you know it's going to mature and sexual and this video is no different. It's not something I'm tired of either. It doesn't feel exploitative or forced either. What I've noticed is that she knows exactly how to express her sexuality and cover areas that most kpop idols can't touch for one reason or another. Going with the theme of her latest mini-album of Adam and Eve, this carries that theme of a forbidden paradise filled with many forms of temptation while making it entertaining, sensual, and slightly beyond current. The song is full of dramatics as well as the choreography and a great range of vocal and lyrical conflict. A great comeback song for Gain.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Quick Movie Review

The Cobbler (2015, USA) | Rating: 3/5

This movie really didn't get much advertising, which is kinda unusual for an Adam Sandler film. I know a lot of people (and possibly fans) have pegged his movies as mediocre or a waste of time and they most likely have good reason to. I've heard little to nothing about the reception of this movie and the little was negative. I wanted to give this movie a chance, because it actually did look decent. Once I watched it, it actually wasn't that bad. I thought the story was based on The Elves and the Shoemaker, but it's not. It kinda follows a kids movie in which the main character has this boring life and wants to be someone else, which eventually happens for him. Although, it has some adult jokes throughout the movie. I guess this movie straddles the fence of being PG-13 and R. Adam Sandler's character is not obnoxious in the least. You understand his character and it's easy to sympathize with his struggle. In short, I enjoyed the first half of the movie, but the second half does become a bit silly and convoluted.

No More Tears for the Dead (2014, South Korea) | Rating: 2.5/5

A co-worker recommended this movie to me and I picked it up noticing that it was directed by the same person who filmed The Man From Nowhere, which I enjoyed. This movie didn't contain as much excitement for me as the previous movie, unfortunately. It is more exciting than The Suspect, but it seemed like certain elements were recycled and slightly tweaked from The Man From Nowhere. The action is good, but the story is a little confusing. I understand the motive, but some details about the main character and his career seem overly complicated like there's details missing to make the viewer understand his conflict.

Why Don't You Play in Hell? (2013, Japan) | Rating: 4.5/5

I'm so happy to see more of Mr. Sono's work and this is one I've seen advertisements for. This movie stays consistent on being out of the box, entertaining, and strange. It puts together filmmaking and yakuza all in a nice, fun, bloody package. The characters are all likable and the movie really doesn't force you to pick a side in this war as everyone's motives seem reasonable. It's kinda odd to have story where you really don't have one person to root for or a central bad guy. I mean, there is one, but he's so entertaining, hilarious, and has such good intentions for his enemy's daughter it's hard to wish ill will of him. Most likely, I'll be giving this movie a full length review, along with Hizimu and other Sion Sono films for a month or something.

Eastern Boys (2013, France) | Rating: 3.5/5

If you look back in my history of movie reviews, I enjoy gay themed movies and lately I haven't been able to watch too many of them. Hopefully, that will change some day! Anyway, I picked this one up from work with no expectations and it had a loose gay theme to it. I thought about doing a full length review and, as I write this, I'm still kinda contemplating over it, but for now, this quick review will have to suffice. The movie really doesn't focus on homosexuality, but more about immigration and the struggle to fit in. Although the main characters are involved in a sort of sexual relationship, they become something more than sleeping partners. Daniel gradually evolves into more of a father figure than a lover. It's an interesting evolution and I was pleasantly surprised that the ending wasn't unhappy. Sorry if that spoilers things. Only complaint I have is the audio. It's really hard to understand them talking, especially in English, so I was happy when the subtitles appeared and there's sadly no subtitle option for the English either. If you're interested in a full review, leave a comment~

Inside Out (2015, USA) | Rating: 4.5/5

Not too many animated films this year have caught my interest, at least this summer. This movie is obviously one of them. I saw this with my mother, who initially had no interest in it, but figured, "it's Pixar!". This is one of those rare movies that both children and adults can understand and enjoy intellectually. It presents some smart ideas and doesn't talk down to its audience about understanding your emotions and growing up. For a movie that has to deal with memories and brain development, it actually makes you think about your own memories and experiences. The characters are entertaining and successfully present friction among each other as they represent different emotions: joy, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust, but it also succeeds in proving its point of having the joy with the sadness. You can't be happy all the time, otherwise you can't grow and learn from those experiences. This is a great film for the family and the visuals don't disappoint by being vivid, colorful, and eye catching.

If there's something you want me to review (or want a more in depth review of the movies above or previous ones), check out this post on how you can submit requests.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Review: Penny Dreadful Season 1

Title: Penny Dreadful Season 1
Starring: Josh Hartnett, Timothy Dalton, Eva Green
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Horror
Episodes: 8

I heard about this series through a friend talking about it on social media. I know her tastes are somewhat similar to mine and I was looking for more TV shows to check out. I was happy to know that my workplace had it and it took me some time to actually watching. After a few months, I finally popped it in and unintentionally watched the whole first season in one go.

Explorer Sir Malcolm Murray, American gunslinger Ethan Chandler and medium Vanessa Ives unite to combat supernatural threats in Victorian London. (source: IMDb)

Um...yeah, I'm sorry for lack of description. IMDb and Wikipedia didn't really have too much to say as far as plot goes and I'm just at a lost for words on how to describe the story myself. The first season revolves around three different plot points: Vanessa assisting Sir Malcolm with the "Ripper" case and dealing with her own demons, Dr. Victor Frankenstein dealing with his monsters, and Ethan deals with an unexpected relationship along with his investigation with Vanessa and Sir Malcolm. All these characters are constantly on the move and also deal with the problems the other characters are dealing with, especially Vanessa's inner demons. Out of the three plot lines, I found Dr. Frankenstein's storyline the most interesting. Avoiding any spoilers, Dr. Frankenstein's relationship with his monster has a lot of depth and thought put into it. When Caliban (or John Clare) enters the picture, things become even more interesting for Frankenstein and his new monster.

So, the other characters...I guess I'll go from least memorable to the most memorable. Sir Malcolm was probably the least memorable character for me. While I assume he is supposed to be an important figure in town, I just can't remember anything about him nor care about what he's doing. There is a tiny bit of story I do remember about him which involves a séance and his missing daughter, but it's kind of uneventful. Ethan Chandler is next on the least memorable. He kinda lacks personality, which isn't a good thing for a supernatural, horror show like this. The only memorable moments with Ethan involve his relationship with a prostitute named Brona Croft and the moment he helps Vanessa deal with her demons. Later on in the season, there is a little surprise pertaining the character that was definitely unexpected. Even though he doesn't show up as much as the previous two characters, Dorian Gray is memorable for his intriguing background. Whether you're familiar with the story of Dorian Gray or not, his behavior presents curiosity. Lastly, Vanessa is probably the second most memorable character in the series. One reason is obviously that she is the main character of the series. She's a medium, has a mysterious past involving Sir Malcolm's daughter Mina, and, of course, those inner demons. She's not a helpless character and she presents herself with plenty of dimension in her personality.

The show presents plenty of interesting characters and it's the main reason I stuck through it, but the flaws did make it a little difficult for me to keep going. I know the show is on Showtime, but the sex scenes were very distracting. I know it's part of Dorian's character, but I feel like the script could've presented the scenes a little better, shortened them, or erase them completely. They don't really add anything to the show or the character, especially as many times as Dorian seduces someone new. The biggest problem the show faces is pacing. The show is very slow. You have to have a ton of patience for about half of the episodes in this short series for the story to pick up. It's quite sad, especially when you have such interesting characters and the story sometimes feels like we're not progressing forward. Of course, it is worth it once certain events occur.

Penny Dreadful brings well known characters from gothic tales and puts them in a Victorian period that nearly everyone is familiar with to some extent. The costume and set designs really set the tone for horror and mystery and the characters are intriguing and bring a slightly new, alternative twists to familiar characters such as Dorian Gray and Victor Frankenstein. Despite the slow pace and distracting sex scenes, the show is entertaining and great with its visuals. I hope that the second season improves on its faults.

Rating: 3/5