I want to tell you about the Transformers!

So lately, I’ve been swamped with a whole bunch of school stuff. But what’s kept me going through all that, beyond the reward of a job well done, is finishing in my downtime the first season of Transformers Prime and starting on the second. I’ve talked about this series before, I know, but lately I’ve come to realize just how GOOD it actually is.

I mean, if the fact that the show has had 11 Daytime Emmy  nods (and four wins) doesn’t tip you off to its quality then let me say that this is quality television, not just for kids; heck, it’s one of the best dramas around right now (IMHO obviously; keep in mind I haven’t watched Game of Thrones yet). But first, a little explanation on my part.

I’ve been a Transformers fan since I was 8 years old. Yes, I’ve seen the movies (first two but not the third). However, as great as the film franchise has been for keeping the Transformers name alive in the public consciousness and almost certainly made this show happen, I do not like them. They are bad; the first film is boring and has basically no robots for most of the time, the second one is more goofy fun and more robot fighting but it’s still pretty dumb and I don’t know about the third.

But because I still consider myself a fan, I have friends and strangers who assume that I love every aspect of the franchise, including the movies. Well, let me say that’s not true. I like what the movies have done as far as impact goes, but I do not like THEM. That may sound harsh, but that’s how I feel.

With that in mind, I was surprised when I watchedthe first episode of Prime and found myself really invested. The plot begins as these things usually do; the Autobots and Decepticons have been hiding out on Earth–specifically, in and near the town of Jasper, Nevada after fleeing there from their decimated homeworld of Cybertron. But when Arcee (the only girl robot up there, voiced by Sumalee Montano) sees her partner Cliffjumper (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. No, really.) kidnapped and accidentally alerts teenagers Jack Darby (Josh Keaton) and Miko Nakadai (Tania Gunadi) and 12-year old Rafael “Raf” Esquivel (Andy Pessoa) to her species’ existence, she’s forced to take them to the rest of the team: leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), tough guy Bulkhead (Kevin Michael Richardson), medic Ratchet (Jeffrey Combs aka the guy from Re-Animator) and scout Bumblebee, who speaks in beeps because that’s what the movies did.

The Decepticons are pretty nasty too; second-in-command Starscream (Steven Blum) kills Cliffjumper about 5 minutes into thee first episode, the mute Soundwave is terrifying because he seems to be everywhere, and Megatron (Frank Welker) is just straight up ruthless. Most episodes of the first season are stand alone adventures, but there’s a LARGE overlaying story that becomes more prevalent in the second season.

Credits-wise, the show was conceived and is executive produced by the screenwriting team of Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman who wrote the first two movies and have also made millions of dollars by writing a whole bunch of other stuff and also the show Fringe, along with big-time animation producers Jeff Kline and Duane Capizzi. All four serve as showrunners over a small writing staff that basically is a hive mind, telling a show that has a single story in mind and pretty much never diverges from it.

What’s remarkable about this show is how ambitious it is. The series began with a 5-part mini-series instead of a pilot and had a seven part story arc stretching across the end of the first season and into the beginning of the second, which has since been edited and released as its own movie. That’s ballsy of any show to do that, let alone a show that’s rated TV-Y and targeted towards kids.

But the thing is, this show has a broader appeal. If you were hooked by the movies, this show’s for you, but it will make you feel smarter afterwards. It feels like the production staff knows that they don’t want to make a time-waster for kids but a truly grand sci-fi show. And honestly, they’re succeeding. The dark places this show can go to are always surprising, the characters, even the kids who are meant to be surrogates for the show’s young viewers, are unbelievably well-developed (the depths that the treacherous Starscream goes to make me think of a Shakespereian villain) and the stories are always gripping.

Of course, the animation and voice acting do their parts to help that along. The animation, produced by Polygon Pictures, is a little limited looking, admittedly; facial expression isn’t all that great and the overall feel of the backgrounds are a bit static. But it makes up for it with detailed movement and pretty bravura action sequences. The voice acting is GREAT: I could devote an entire post to it alone, it’s that good. Blum–who’s been in everything from Digimon to The Legend of Korra (he was Amon)–shows why he’s a voice acting legend: his Starscream is menacing, threatening and captivating. The  rest of the cast is all fine too: Montano is the tough female role model Transformers loving girls have NEVER gotten until now, the actors playing the kids actually make them interesting and Ernie Hudson (yes, Winston Zedmore himself) is fun as the Autobot’s government liaison Special Agent Fowler.

But the real stars are of course Cullen and Welker, who voiced Prime and Megatron in the original series (although the latter was voiced by Hugo Weaving in the films). If anything, the age of the two actors now compared to the ’80s has made them understand these icons more. Cullen embues Optimus with wisdom, experience, confidence and a sheer commitment to peace after seeing a lifetime of war. He makes you realize just why the Autobots would follow him anywhere (my pastor friend Josh at Spiritual Musclehead has a great post explaining this). Welker–who, by the way, is the most successful actor alive due to the sheer amount of stuff he’s been in–is desperate, evil and malicious as Megatron. If nothing else, watch this show to hear some GREAT voice acting.

The more episodes I watch of this show, the more I feel that this is what Orci & Kurtzman wanted the movies to be like, but couldn’t make happen, because of having to work with Michael Bay. What they’ve done here is created a smart, compelling show to teach kids what good storytelling and good science fiction can be. The second season wraps up next week–and yes, this airs on digital cable, unfortunately for a lot of people– but comes out on DVD around Thanksgiving, so feel free to pick either of the boxsets up. Or, if you like, the five-episode miniseries is available as its own DVD. Check this out; you won’t regret it.

Now roll out!

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Star Trek Saturdays #6

It’s time for Star Trek Saturdays #6!

This week’s episode is “The Naked Time”and a combination of a killer premise, dynamite scripting and camerawork and a bravura breakdown from Leonard Nimoy make this a brilliant counter to last week’s terrible episode.

We open to find the Enterprise orbiting the frozen wasteland of Psi 2000,a planet Spock says at one point was much like Earth in its distant pas before its sun went dark, but is now set to implode due to age. Spock and Lieutenant Joe Tormolen (Stewart Moss) beam down to the planet to discover that a scientific team stationed there are all dead in bizarre fashion: a woman has been strangled to death and one of the men has frozen to death in a shower with all his clothes on. Tormolen removes the glove of his contamination suit (which looks like a hazmat suit was covered in bubble wrap) to scratch his nose, and a small blood-like substance on the ice moves forward and jumps inside of his hand. Unknowing, Tormolen takes the substance back to the ship and it leaps from there to infect Lieutenant Sulu and Lieutenant Kevin Riley (Bruce Hyde), who is the ship’s current navigator.

So what does this substance do? Well, specifically it causes the infected to lose their inhibitions and let their emotions run unchecked. So, in short order we have Tormolen rave hysterically about how mankind shouldn’t be in space and try to kill himself, Riley become maniacal and hole himself up in Engineering giving himself complete control over the ship’s engines and Sulu does…this…

(Really, this happens.)

He runs around hysterically with a fencing foil acting like one of the Three Musketeers. It’s both awesome and a little scary how unhinged Sulu gets here, but it fits the episode well. Riley, in a fit of madness, disables the ship’s engines, plunging the Enterprise straight toward the imploding planet. It’s a race against time as Kirk and the rest try to figure out what’s going on and how to stop it…

This episode is GREAT. John D.F. Black’s script is a treasure, with a killer hook, a great villain in Riley and some wonderful narrative tension. Marc Daniels’ direction is brilliant too, perfectly capturing a ship full of professional spacemen quickly turn into a madhouse. He also gets the cameras up close and personal for an absolutely great scene.

Slight spoilers here, but eventually Spock contacts the strange substance. Given that, as a half-human/half Vulcan, he’s constantly battling between full emotion and cold logical reason, he’s understandably afraid that he’ll break down as a result. Isolating himself in the briefing room, he attempts to calm himself down, but breaks down completely as Daniels’ camera gets up close. Filmed in a documentary-esque manner, there’s no doubt we’re witnessing this highly rational man have a complete emotional breakdown. According to the Memory Alpha page for this episode, this scene was shot on the last day of filming and completely improvised by Leonard Nimoy; if that’s true, then holy crap have we underrated Nimoy as an actor. Seriously, this 2 1/2 minute sequence makes the whole episode worthwhile.

What that scene reminds me of is a later episode in The Next Generation called “Sarek.” The titular character, Spock’s father and a legendary diplomat, comes aboard the Enterprise-D to negotiate a treaty. It turns out that he is succumbing to Bendii Syndrome, which causes 200+ year old Vulcans to lose emotional control. In order to go through with the negotiations, Picard agrees to mind meld with Sarek so he can experience all of his emotional anguish while Sarek does his job. This culminates in a similarly harrowing breakdown scene courtesy of Sir Patrick Stewart. Undoubtedly, whoever scripted that episode had this scene in mind.

This is a great episode that shows just how much tension can get into this show, even without an external villain. George Takei shows some bravura chops as an unhinged Sulu. Moss is wonderful as the tormented Tarmolen and Hyde is great fun as the loopy, hysterical Riley. This episode also marks the debut of Gene Roddenberry’s wife Majel Barrett as Nurse Christine Chapel; she’ll come back here, and also on TNG as the voice of the ship’s computer and the outrageous Lwaxana Troi.  Definitely recommended.

Thanks to Memory Alpha, the official Star Trek wiki for the pics and episode information, as well as Amazon Instant for hosting the show. We’ll see you next Saturday and until then, live long and prosper.

Why I love Community

Lest certain of you may think otherwise, I’m not talking about community the concept. That’s all well and good of course, but today, I’m talking about what might be the greatest thing on network TV right now.

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Community is a sitcom that has aired on NBC for three seasons and was supposed to start its fourth tonight, but NBC–after firing creator Dan Harmon from his role as showrunner over the summer –then decided to abruptly cut the show from its  Friday night at 8:30 ET slot just…pretty much just because. This is especially worrying for fans of the show because the show is already perpetually low-rated (it initially aired after The Office but was bumped to the start of the Thursday night lineup after a few weeks) and isn’t very well-known. But despite that, I absolutely LOVE IT.

OK, so the main plot of the show involves Jeff Winger (played by Joel McHale, host of The Soup AKA the only legitimately worthwhile program on E!), a suave lawyer who loses his right to practice after it’s discovered that he has a fake bachelor’s degree. He enrolls at Greendale Community College, hoping to just quietly burn through a few years of school then get back to his old life…but that all changes when he meets the goofy former anarchist Britta Perry (Gillian Jacobs) in his Spanish class who he tries to win over by pretending to be an expert in Spanish and inviting her to a study group. Thinking it’ll just be the two of them, he later sees she invited perhaps the most diverse, crazy group out there: former high school quarterback Troy Barnes (Donald Glover, who I talked about before), over-studious neurotic Annie Edison (Alison Brie), Christian housewife Shirley Bennett (Yvette Nicole Brown), pop-culture obsessive Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) and doofish millionaire Pierce Hawthorne (Chevy Chase, yes, that one). Although he starts out tolerating them solely to get with Britta, Jeff eventually sees this group of weirdos as friends and maybe even the family he never really had.

The fact that there’s seven leads here (plus Ken Jeong as Ben Chang, the group’s completely insane Spanish teacher/antagonist and Jim Rash as the off-kilter but well-meaning Dean Craig Pelton) provides the show with a lot of potential for storylines and boy, does it take every advantage it can. The cast is great together–Pudi & Glover have a dynamite chemistry together and provide many of the show’s best moments, McHale has a remarkable dry wit, Brie, Jacobs and Brown work terrific when going with or against each other and Chevy Chase shows why he’s a comedic  legend through his great improv skills and willingness to let himself be the butt of the joke–but the show’s real star is its terrifically sharp writing, which takes on every imaginable sitcom trope and subverts them wonderfully.

The show is also willing to go where no show has gone before. They do things like a pitch-perfect Law & Order homage, an episode about the group playing Dungeons & Dragons to comfort a suicidal classmate and a stop-motion Christmas special. And that’s just for starters. How many other shows do you know that would commit to even one of those things, let alone ALL of them?

This is a show that not only welcomes nerds, it celebrates them, whether through references to Energon cubes, Easter eggs that play out across the seasons or by having Abed, the excessive geek character, be perhaps the most well-adjusted of the whole group and sometimes even the most levelheaded.

I initially tuned in to this show with my sister because we liked watching McHale onThe Soup but we fell in love with everything about it. A recent rewatch of the entire series this past summer only confirmed my love for it. The show will start airing in reruns on Comedy Central next year and I highly recommend you watch it. It’s also available on Netflix, Amazon Instant and Hulu Plus.

But if you want a taste now, well, here you go…

Six seasons and a movie!

Apologies and New Schedule

Hey folks, just wanted to clear a few things up.

First, I am TREMENDOUSLY sorry there has been no Star Trek Saturday these past couple weeks. It’s a combination of poor timing and me not planning ahead. But we will get back to that; I know how much you folks like reading them as much as I like writing them.

Second, college has gotten crazy again so I’m afraid I’ll have to cut things down from 4 posts to 3. No Monday posts for the time being. I do this because it’s the easiest for me to cut and is usually the one I’d forget anyway.

So from now on, tomtificate updates Wednesdays, Fridays and of course, Saturdays.

So be back here Friday for more from me. Thanks and take care, you guys!

Replay Wednesday

I may have a paper to finalize now, but I feel really good about it. Because a.) I think it will turn out all right and b.) I just played Sly 2: Band of Thieves for the last hour and a half or so, which gives me the happy.

File:Sly 2 - Band of Thieves Coverart.png

I mean, is there any other stealth platformer of the last console generation with such fluid mechanics, such smooth cel-shaded graphics, such KILLER voice acting and a badass story and soundtrack? I don’t think so.

I got this game as a gift back in the day and spent hours on it. It’s one of the first times I’ve ever come close to 100% beating a game. Then I lent it to someone who promptly misplaced it.

But yesterday, I found a copy at a Play N Trade about 5 minutes from my college for under $5. I’m so pumped right now that I think I just might log an hour a day or so to de-stress. If my studies will let me…

Looper–Film Review

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I have this friend who, for a long while, has tried to get me to sit down and watch filmmaker Rian Johnson’s film The Brothers Bloom.  I had been meaning to do so, but now my resolve is hardened after seeing Johnson’s new film Looper, a smart, dark, impactful time travel story that premiered to positive acclaim at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and is probably one of the best films of the year.

The basic setup you’re probably already familiar with from the trailer: time travel, as of the year 2044, the movie’s setting, hasn’t been invented yet, but 30 years from now, it will be. Almost instantly outlawed, it is used by mob bosses to send people they wish to get rid of back to 2044, where assassins known as loopers–a group which Gordon-Levitt’s Joe belongs to–kill them instantly upon their arrival.

Joe isn’t your typical hitman. At least, not your typical movie hitman. He’s friendly, non-flashy and is teaching himself French so that, when he gets out, he can go overseas. He lives in a small city in Kansas. He’s a pretty decent guy, although that’s tested when he participates in a series of events involving his friend Seth (Paul Dano) and his older self from the future.

Another wrinkle about Johnson’s world: whenever the mob bosses want to close a looper’s contract, they send back his older self from the future with a huge payday attached. After the looper kills their older self, they proceed to live their lives for the next 30 years, until they’re sent back to die, thus closing the loop. To fail in doing this is, as we see in a horrific, absorbing sequence, is a death sentence.

But when Joe is sent his older self–played by John McClane himself, Bruce WIllis–to kill, his older self fights back. Knocking him out and stealing his truck, Old Joe attempts to change the present to make a better future for himself. What happens next, involving Joe’s mob boss from the future, Abe (Jeff Daniels) and the events surrounding a single farming mother (Emily Blunt) and her son (Pierce Gagnon), are spellbinding, terrifying and absolutely wonderful.

Johnson’s delicate bare-bones screenplay works brilliantly and key to helping it work is his longtime collaborator, Gordon-Levitt. Much has been made of the prosthetic devised by makeup artist Kazuhiro Tsuji to make him physically resemble Willis (and that should almost certainly be worth an Oscar, IMO) but another thing I discovered while watching it is that Gordon-Leviit behaves and acts like a younger Willis. It’s almost chameleon-like, he’s that good. I can only imagine he watched the classic Willis films over and over again.

As for Willis himself, he’s good but then he’s always good. That’s nothing new; he makes Old Joe a tragic hero you come to sympathize for and hate in equal measure. Emily Blunt is revelatory here as a tough world-bitten single mother and her American accent is flawless.

But the real star? Pierce Gagnon (best known for a recurring role on One Tree Hill), who at only 5 years old is already completely absorbing as an actor. He’s terrifying and incredible.

I can’t praise this movie enough.  It deserves it. It’s an intelligent, thought-provoking, original science-fiction film in an age with too few of those. Go see it.

Bits of News

1.  I got an offer to write a TV show review for a magazine published by my college, so that’s cool. More as that develops.

2. The first Presidential debate–as in, the first debate between the two actual candidates, not a bunch of people all vying for ONE nomination–aired/is airing tonight. I’ll be writing my thoughts on that soon.

3. The trailer for Disney’s new Lone Ranger film premiered on The Tonight Show last night (can’t embed it, but it’s available here ) and, well…I’m of two minds.

 On the one hand, I’m excited to see how somebody as visually stylish as Gore Verbinski will do with material like this. There’s a bit of nostalgia involved as I remember watching the old TV show as a kid on Saturday afternoons. And the fact that it seems like the railroad will be a big key in this film’s conflict between its heroes and villains is a pretty novel angle.

But on the other hand…I really don’t like how the trailer is SO focused on Johnny Depp as Tonto. I GET he’s a huge star, but if they focus on him so much in the film as they do in the trailer–he’s got top billing, notice, and Armie Hammer as the Ranger doesn’t even get one freaking line–it’s going to be a disaster. I’m eh on Helena Bonham Carter being in it, but then again, I always am. And I get the sense that, story wise, this might turn out at least a little similar to 2009’s Jonah Hex movie, which took perhaps my favorite comic book character of all time, a tough, hard-living bounty hunter…and made him BORING, teaming up with Megan Fox and thrusting him into a half-baked version of what some studio head thinks is a steampunk story. I REALLY hope that doesn’t happen, but the fact that Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, who wrote the first 2 good Pirates movies, then destroyed the franchise with all their cramming in of world-building in the 3rd one, are credited with the screenplay has me worried.

Still, HI YO OPTIMISM!