TV Review: Girl Meets World

Anyone that grew up in the 80s and 90s knows about the ABC lineup of programming called TGIF, short for "Thank Goodness It's Funny". Consisting of nostalgic shows like Full House and Perfect Strangers, TGIF enjoyed more than two years of popularity before being phased out in 2000. One popular show from this block was Boy Meets World, a coming-of-age tale of young Cory Matthews who experiences all of the ups and downs of life from middle school to marriage with the aid of his friends. Airing during many people's impressionable years, the show is remembered fondly. So fondly that it's made a resurgence in the form of a spin-off, Girl Meets World which premiered on the Disney Channel just last night.

Focusing on the 12-year-old daughter of Cory and Topanga Matthews, Girl Meets World attempts to introduce the wholesome fun of Boy Meets World to a new generation. Given its Disney Channel roots, it attempts to appeal to a certain demographic, the iCarly/Dog With A Blog/The Suite Life of Zack and Cody crowd, all the while trying to capture the "life lessons" angle of its predecessor. For the most part, it manages to be entertaining with a fairly solid concept, once you get past a few inherent flaws in the execution.

Rowan Blachard plays the role of Riley Matthews. A relative newcomer to acting (not surprising given that she's only 12 years old), Rowan tries to embody the same youthful quirkiness and enthusiasm that Ben Savage gave to his character of Cory 20 years ago. For the most part, it makes her appear awkward and inept; unfortunately I can't tell if that was the end result or not. The real flaw with the approach, however, is that it makes Riley a mini-Cory. Instead of imbuing her with her own personality, they tried to cut a cloth from Cory, taking away from her opportunity to shine.

Riley's best friend is Maya, played by Sabrina Carpenter. With a few additional roles under her belt, Sabrina's character comes off much more natural than Rowan's and at least the pair manage to work well off of each other. Maya is the free-spirit, rebellious, fearless girl who does and says what she wants. Sound familiar? It should because that's the basic description of Cory's childhood best friend, Shawn Hunter (Rider Strong). And at this point, we run into the biggest problem with Girl Meets World; they aren't trying to create new characters. Instead, they are reimagining the characters from Boy. In some cases, this works, such as Maya. But in others, it's downright annoying. Take, for example, Farkle, the class nerd and suck up that proclaims his love for both Riley and Maya and the way they embody two sides of the same coin. Farkel carries himself with a flamboyancy that would make Jack McFarland jealous, leaving viewers to wonder if he wouldn't be more in love with Mr. Matthews instead of his daughter.

"Just Jack...er... Farkle!"
Oh, did I mention that Cory is the new Mr. Feeny? Yes, Riley must endure facing middle school being taught by her father just like Cory had to face middle school taught by his neighbor. This approach flounders hopelessly as you have to wonder if a school board would even place a girl into a class taught by her father. But even this idea is an attempt to ape Boy Meets World. Despite Savage playing Cory, he's attempting to be the role model that Feeny was. And you can see this approach in the class lesson during the pilot episode. "Find a cause you're willing to fight for." Which, of course, strengthens the bond between Riley and Maya over the course of the episode. Meanwhile, the writers completely overlooked a perfect life lesson in a simple line of dialogue Riley proclaims early in the Pilot; she states that she wanted "to be" Maya. Not be like... Be. This, to me, was an even more important plot point, one that could have taught the lessen of the importance of finding oneself and not aspiring to the personality of others. Meanwhile, this gets completely glossed over for the idea of friendship. I won't argue that that's not an important lesson to learn, just one that should take a backseat to being happy with oneself.

But all of this pales in comparison to the show's biggest disappointment: the laugh track. The fact that they included a laugh track is understandable, even if it is slightly insulting. However, it was used far too often, and far too annoyingly. The recorded laughter sounded like it was being played back through an aquarium filled with petroleum jelly, giving it an abrasive echoing timbre. At first I thought it was a problem with my speakers but the rest of the show sounded fine. It almost made the show unwatchable.

By the end of it, Girl Meets World shows promise. It's not your standard Disney Channel fair, putting a group of tweens into insurmountable situations and allowing the hijinks to ensue. Instead, it tries to recreate the tone of 90s sitcoms and does so well enough. Even a few of the throwbacks to Boy Meets World were done cleverly enough, such as naming Riley's school "John Quincey Adams Middle School". If the writers are willing to tone down the caricatures a bit and give the new cast personalities of their own, I could see Girl Meets World being a worthy successor to Boy Meets World.


TV Review: Dominion

One of the great ironies in my life is my affinity for angels. I'm not a religious person yet I'm drawn toward almost anything portraying angels, so much so that my debut novel uses the concept as a central point. So when I heard that the new Syfy show, Dominion, would feature angels prominently, I marked my calendar to check it out.

Dominion is based on the 2010 film Legion, in which the archangel Gabriel leads the army of Heaven against humanity only to be fought back by fellow archangel, Michael. I wondered why Syfy would create a show based on a movie that garnered a 20% rating on Rotten Tomatoes but then I remembered that this is the network that brought us Sharknado and Alien Apocalypse with Bruce Campbell, so things started to make sense. The thing is, I kind of enjoyed Legion in a "brainless, post-apocalyptic action movie" sort of way so to discover that Dominion follows its storyline was a plus for me.

The thing about Dominion is it's a trope-fest: post-apocalyptic future, forbidden love, "the chosen one". They even managed to work in a co-ed shower scene a la Starship Troopers and Spider-Man's "With great power comes great responsibility". It's like the writers, one of which is the show's creator Vaun Wilmott, just rifled through a book of overused television plots and worked as many of them into the pilot as possible. Despite that, the show seems to work, meshing all of these different concepts well enough to create an entertaining pilot.

So far, Dominion's weak point seems to be its casting. Christopher Egan plays Alex, one of the show's main characters. Though he's got a few roles under his belt, Egan isn't really a big name actor and doesn't bring a lot of gravitas to the role. He plays the part of a rebellious soldier fed up with his life until a great responsibility falls into his lap. His emotional range falls between angry and sulking. The lowest point, however, is the role of Michael. Played by Paul Bettany in Legion, Dominion's Michael is represented by emo poster-boy Tom Wisdom. Intentionally flat and emotionless, Wisdom is hardly believable as a tough as nails, battle-hardened archangel. Though he pulled off his well-choreographed action scene well enough, Wisdom just doesn't exude the right aura for Michael.

But that's not to say the casting is all bad. Dominion did manage to bring on a couple of acting veterans in the form of Alan Dale and Anthony Head. The two represent the warring political factions that make up the show's subplot and bring a bit of authority to the series. Though Dale was underused in the pilot episode, I do hope that he manages to get a bit of additional screentime going forward. Head, on the other hand, takes center stage as the show seems to really make him the focus. And as expected, Head nails the role of devious politician, even going so far as to suppress his trademarked British accent. (Can you trademark an accent? You should be able to...)

One benefit Dominion has going for it is that it is a spin-off of an established property. This gives it the ability to forego delving into past events and answering questions of "What happened?" as so many other shows are fond of doing and instead focus on what's going to happen. Dominion even has a companion website, www.enterdominion.com, that supports this theory, where fans of the show can read up on the war against angels and humans and learn more about what happened, as well as learning about the different characters and locations. It also manages to give the show a rich history and continuity without having to bog it down with filler week after week.  It's because of this angle, and the pretty strong pilot episode, that I'm willing to give Dominion a chance and at the very least add it to my DVR library.


Movie Review: Maleficent

Since the first screens of Disney's newest movie Maleficent started hitting the internet, the movie looked like it could be something good. Angelina Jolie, as the titular character, exudes enough creepiness on a regular basis that she was a great choice for one of Disney's most infamous villains. But when I announced to the world on Twitter the morning I was to see it and found that the hashtag "#Maleficent Not Good" was pretty popular, I really couldn't understand way. It had the star power, backed by Disney and one of the most beloved stories of all times. Where had it gone wrong?

Disregarding that, the wife and I headed to the theater. As the movie began, we were treated to a fantastically imagined world full of fairies, pixies, and playful water creatures. The story quickly unveils Maleficent's past and her history with a young boy named Stefan. An orphan, Stefan yearns to earn his place into the trust of the kingdom and does so at the cost of his relationship with Maleficent.

In a nutshell, that's the part of the story we don't know, the origins of Maleficent that they didn't show in Sleeping Beauty. The majority of the film, however, focuses on the events that occur during Sleeping Beauty, just from Maleficent's perspective instead of Aurora's.

As I was watching the story unfold, I began to realize the flaw with revealing the origins of a great, evil character. (I'm gonna put a SPOILER WARNING here.) The purpose of an origin is to get a feel for what drives a character's motivations. The starting point of their path to where they eventually find themselves. In this case, we know that Maleficent is an evil witch who placed a curse of the princess to make her fall asleep forever. But what happens when we can understand why she did what she does?

That's what I considered the main drawback of the movie; we start to sympathize with Maleficent given everything she'd gone through. She placed her trust in Stefan and was betrayed by him, in a scene that makes his betrayal reminiscent of a physical sexual rape (which, I have to say, despite it being uncomfortable to watch, was played magnificently by Jolie). So to see all of this unfold, we understand why she wants revenge. Why she placed a curse of Princess Aurora, who happens to be the daughter of the newly crowned King Stefan.

As the movie continues, the audience gets the feeling that the writer and director didn't even bother to watch Sleeping Beauty and just crafted a movie around some key plot points. But the end of the film explicitly says that this is the true story, how events actually happened. And it begins to make sense. Looking at it this way, the portrayal of Maleficent as a tragic heroine who succumbed to her own dark feelings only to find redemption at the end was pulled off well. And Jolie really brought the character to life, despite a few eye-rolling bits of over-acting. She had a knack for the part and managed to embody yet another strong, female character.

Which brings about another point. Maleficent is notable in the sense that two of the movie's main characters are women, with Jolie playing opposite Elle Fanning as Aurora. One of Hollywood's biggest fallacies is that female-driven films don't do well at the box offices. Even though this has been proven false on a number of occasions (such as by the success of the Hunger Games films), to see Maleficent earn $70 million in its opening weekend should be enough to put that untruth to rest. This could open up the doors to a number of female-driven films, such as the long-awaited Wonder Woman movie.

But even Angelina's pronounced cheekbones could not out-creepy the new version of the classic Sleeping Beauty theme song, "Once Upon A Dream". A seminal Disney classic, the newest version is crooned by recent star Lana Del Rey and is one of the scariest songs ever put into a Disney movie. The song itself isn't the problem; Del Rey's rendition is. The song is produced to be quite mellow and almost atonal. Pair that with Del Rey's slow, drawn out lyrics and the song becomes almost bone-chilling. I'm not educated when it comes to making music so I can't really explain why the song gives off such a creepy vibe but it does. I'm just glad that they didn't include it at the beginning of the movie otherwise it would have set a tone that didn't jibe with the film itself. Listen and decide for yourself.

Though I was expecting Maleficent to be a decent but wholly forgettable film along the same vein as Snow White and the Huntsman, I was very pleased with the final product. Jolie's take on the evil witch and Elle Fanning's turn as the innocent princess proved to be a pretty powerful combination. Add to that the latest reimagining of "true love" and you have a film that you're not embarrassed to let your little girl watch. If Disney can continue to make movies along this caliber, the movie theater would be a much better place.


Toy Box Confidential #1: The Real Ghostbusters Proton Pack

It's really difficult to believe that today marks the 30th anniversary of the theatrical release of Ghostbusters. Growing up, I adored everything about Ghostbusters, from the movie to the cartoon, The Real Ghostbusters, to the vast toy line that tied into the animated series. In honor of this, I've decided to start a new feature here at Caution: Idiot At Play, a feature I've been kicking around in my head for a while.

Welcome to Toy Box Confidential!

So what is Toy Box Confidential? Well, it's going to be a look at the toys of the past. Stuff that was popular when I was a kid or things that I coveted but never had. It's basically anything that strikes my fancy when I find the fancy to write about it.

What does this have to do with Ghostbusters? Glad you asked. Our first installment is going to take a look at the Proton Pack, created by Kenner in conjunction with The Real Ghostbusters.

Pictured: Nostalgia
The Proton Pack was released in 1988, making me 8 years old at the time and already 2 years into the run of the animated series. It came with everything a junior Ghostbuser needed to busts ghosts: the Proton Pack itself with adjustable straps, the Nutrona Blaster with removable foam stream, a PKE meter, and a Ghostbusters arm-band and ID card. Unfortunately, the ID card, arm band and foam stream have not survived the test of time but the other pieces of the set are in remarkably good shape, a few dings, tears and missing stickers not withstanding.

Let's look at this beauty piece by piece.

The Proton Pack itself was little more than a hollow plastic backpack, the stickers that decorated it mostly modeled after a simplified version of the Proton Packs from the cartoon. Though the toy had its own look, that never stopped me from appreciating it for what it gave me: the opportunity to act, nay, be, a Ghostbuster. I'm sure thousands of other kids, just like me, got that feeling of being a badass every time we strapped it on. After pulling the Pack out of the attic and really looking it over, I can admit that it definitely comes off as a subpar recreation of the Ghostbusters' most trusted equipment but to an eight year old, none of that mattered. The only important thing was being able to strut around the house, kicking open doors and making sure your family lived in a ghost-free environment. The only downfall to the Pack was the tiny nubbin that the hose on the blaster would connect to. It was so small that the hose would fall out every time you made a quick turn or snatched the blaster off the pack to hard. Other than that, the pack held up pretty well and provided hours of enjoyment.

Next we have the Nutrona Blaster, even though no kid on earth ever called it that. What I loved most about this piece was the trigger. When you pulled it, it would release a short whirring noise, which essentially was a poor emulation of the noises the blaster made on TV but again, whatever. It helped to add the the imagination of actually being a Ghostbuster. The trigger on my Nutrona Blaster has been stuck for years so I can't get the same enjoyment from the toy as I once did, but I still remember that sound as clear as day.

I will admit, however, that I hated the foam stream. It was so long and unwieldy that it always got in the way. It would have to stay out when you stored the blaster on the hook attached to the pack and you would have to plug the thing into the end of the blaster every time you wanted to "throw 'em". Every time you made a change like that, you would break the continuity of the imagination. In the end, I usually just left it somewhere to the side or used it to slap my sister when she wasn't suspecting.

The PKE Meter probably was, and still is, my favorite piece from the set, even though it's the most disappointing. It was big enough that it wouldn't get lost or broken but small enough that most kids would be able to carry it around. Though it was decorated with dials on the sides, the only moving parts it had was a spinning antennae and a dial on the front that you could turn. I never really played with the front dial, though, as it was always too tight to turn. But regardless, I would carry that thing around the house and "sweep for valences".

The one thing I didn't like about the PKE Meter was that I always felt it should do more. It was much different from what the Ghostbusters used in both the movies and the cartoon that it felt like a gyp how Kenner replicated it for the toy. I wanted one with the stem in the center and two prongs that rose from each side. Maybe if there was a little trigger on the back of the handle that would send a puff of air through the thing, lifting the prongs. I don't know. I guess I shouldn't complain. At least they made a PKE Meter and included it with the Proton Pack. I had to wait years for a Ghost Trap to be released and never got the chance to own it.

I would have to say, the Proton pack was a must have toy for any Ghostbusters fanatic in the '80s. Though action figures were always popular, some times kids had to break away from playing with figures and let their imaginations run wild. What was so great about the Proton Pack is that it made that possible. Get a group of kids together with their packs and blasters and they would roam the neighborhood seeking out frightful phantoms and ghastly ghouls. What I wouldn't give to go back to that time.

Box art from Ghostbusters Wikia
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