We Don’t Need Another “Pirates of the Caribbean” Movie

pirates-of-the-caribbean-5-johnny-depp

pirates-of-the-caribbean-5-johnny-depp

It’s hard to believe, six years after the disaster that was “Pirates of the Caribbean 4,” Disney is trying to peddle a fifth installment of this film franchise to movie audiences. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” is set to hit the big screen on May 26, just in time for Memorial Day. We don’t need another “Pirates of the Caribbean” and here’s why.

#1: Jack Sparrow just doesn’t work as the main hero

We get it, Johnny Depp has box office appeal. He’s an A-list Hollywood actor. So it’s only natural that Disney is trying its hardest to turn Johnny Depp into the focal point of this film franchise. In the first three installments, he was much more of a peripheral character – someone who spiced up the movie and made it more interesting – but not the main protagonist. And then along came “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” and Jack Sparrow was thrust into the leading role.

Predictably, the film bombed with audiences, scoring just 32% on Rotten Tomatoes. Jack Sparrow is, at best, a “lovable scamp” and a “charming drunkard.” But he’s not a main protagonist, and that’s something that movie audiences told Hollywood with their reaction to Jack Sparrow as the main hero of “Pirates of the Caribbean 4.” So why are they making the same mistake again?

#2: “Dead Men Tell No Tales” looks more like a zombie movie than a pirate movie

The “Pirates” franchise has always relied on elements of the supernatural to make it work. But now it looks the film is heading in a whole new direction, as it can’t decide whether it would rather be a pirate movie or a zombie movie. The title tells you all you need to know. In this case, the “dead men” are the zombie pirate army of Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), who has escaped from the “Devil’s Triangle” and is out to kill all the pirates. From what we’ve seen in the trailers, this is going to include lots of scenes of CGI pirate-zombies swarming the Seven Seas.

But that’s not why people are going to these films. They are going to see swashbuckling pirates, treasure hunts, and adventures on the high seas. Maybe even a little charm and romance. However, they are not going to see zombie battles on boats. This is a dangerous new direction for the film and its producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who must have decided that he had run out of suitable pirate material and needed to start tapping into the monster-horror genre to make this film work.

pirates-of-the-caribbean-5-dead-men-tell-no-tales

#3: What ever happened to the characters we knew and loved?

If you look at the movie posters for the film, it’s easy to see where “Pirates of the Caribbean” has gone dangerously off the rails – it’s forgotten about the characters we cared about. And that means Orlando Bloom (as Will Turner) and Keira Knightley (as Elizabeth Swan). Instead, the movie poster for this fifth installment features Depp, Javier Bardem and Geoffrey Rush (as the pirate Barbarossa). Those are all great, Oscar-nominated actors, but that’s not why people go to see these films. And while newcomer Kaya Scoledario is quite attractive, let’s face facts – if Penelope Cruz didn’t work out in “Pirates 4,” it’s hard to see an unknown talent doing a better job.

In a sign of hope, though, it appears that Disney had a last-second change of mind and decided to bring back Orlando Bloom as Will Turner. There’s now a new “Will Turner trailer” floating around YouTube, and the word is that Orlando Bloom will return for a limited role in this new film. And now there’s growing buzz that Keira Knightley will return as well, for some kind of cameo role. However, according to cinema insiders, all the scenes were shot in private, so it’s far more likely that she will just show up in the credits (or the post-credits) to set up movie audiences for the inevitable sixth installment of this franchise.

#4: Bloated ambitions

This is not a typo – the budget for “Dead Men Tell No Tales” was $320 million. Even in an era where $100 million is just about the standard price for a summer blockbuster film, a total of $320 million sounds absurdly expensive. And that price tag gets at one of the central reasons for the rot at the heart of this Hollywood film franchise – the bloated ambitions of Disney.

Remember – this is a movie based on a theme park attraction. That’s all it was ever supposed to be. That’s what made the first movie so interesting. But now we’re getting into uncharted territory. “Pirates of the Caribbean” suffered from a convoluted plot to find the Fountain of Youth that included all kinds of extra plot twists, narrative arcs, and exposition. There was just too much explaining about something that should have just been very straightforward – a bunch of pirates want to find the Fountain of Youth. OK, got it.

And now this new “Pirates” film looks like it’s going to suffer from the same problem – it’s trying to do too much with too little material. This is turning into one of those Hollywood blockbuster movies where “the world is going to end if the main characters don’t save it.” But the only problem is that we’re relying on a drunken, no-good pirate to do that. And you can bet that a big chunk of that $320 million is going to involve very expensive CGI renderings of pirate ships and zombies. We just don’t need this, do we?

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#5: “All Pirates Must Die”

There’s a line in the new trailer for “Dead Men Tell No Tales” – “All Pirates Must Die.” If there was ever a more apt description for this film franchise, it’s hard to think of one. This franchise had a phenomenal box office run. The first four films have pulled in a whopping  $3.7 billion worldwide, making this already one of the Top 10 film franchises of all time. So it’s clear what’s going through the minds of Disney executives these days – just crank out another film, and no matter how bad it is, it’s still going to make a huge profit for us.

What these executives aren’t keeping in mind, however, is that movie audiences aren’t as gullible as they might appear to be. Setting a debut for this film on Memorial Day weekend, when it must compete with all the summer blockbusters starting to come out, is a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, it’s time for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” film franchise to come to an end. Please don’t let them make another. Truthfully, I’d wait to see it until you can stream it with your internet at home.

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Movie Review: “Kong: Skull Island”

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kong-skull-island-warner-bros

“Kong: Skull Island” is King Kong like you’ve never seen him before. He’s bigger, angrier and more powerful than in any other Kong movie. So you can understand what’s going to happen when you see this film – you’ll be treated to some of the most epic CGI action and violence that you’re going to see in 2017.

The latest installment in the King Kong series of films, “Kong: Skull Island” takes us to an island in the Pacific, where a star-studded cast (Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson and John Goodman) must make sense of the mythical beast they are about to confront. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, this film is set in the 1970s, with action taking place both in Vietnam and the mysterious Skull Island in the Pacific.

A bigger, bloodier King Kong

The first thing that you’ll notice about “Kong: Skull Island” is that the film is much more violent and bloodier than any in the past. It’s almost as if there’s a running tally of how many bodies can be torn limb from limb, stomped on, devoured in rage, or shaken like a rag doll. The violence is so non-stop that you soon lose track of who’s going to die. But that’s not a problem, because it’s quite clear that just about every single person who appears on screen is going to die. The only question is really how gruesome or violent their demise is going to be. But even that is a relative issue: is it better to be stomped on by King Kong, or ripped part for dinner by some giant prehistoric beast?

A supersized CGI King Kong

It’s not just King Kong who seems bigger and larger than life on the island. There are giant bugs and prehistoric menaces lurking around every corner. In fact, in many ways, the film feels like one of those CGI monster movies, where mythical creatures like Godzilla are giant, fire-breathing CGI creations poised for an epic battle of dominance. This King Kong is the biggest of all.

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A nod to the previous Kong classics

Of course, as you’d expect, there’s a nod to the previous Kong classics. It seems hard to believe, but the first King Kong – the one where the mythical beast climbs to the top of the Empire State Building with tiny Fay Wray in his hand – came out 84 years ago. There’s no New York and no Empire State Building in this film, but the basic story remains intact. The first part of the film involves the long trip to the island, and then one by one, we learn the back story of Kong and uncover more and more of the mysterious island where he resides. And, of course, there’s always the “damsel in distress.”

The steady Vietnam presence

This version is set in the 1970s, about the time of the Vietnam war. In fact, Samuel L. Jackson plays a U.S. military officer (Preston Packard) who’s none too happy with the ceasefire. And the military helicopters are everywhere. In many ways, the spirit of Vietnam infuses this film. In fact, A.V. Club has called this film a “Vietnam-themed monster mash,” and it’s clear why. The only question is whether or not King Kong is supposed to be a metaphor for the war, and whether we are really supposed to feel anything in our hearts for this beast.

The star-studded cast

This film includes a high-profile cast. There’s Tom Hiddleston as the hunter (James Conrad), Samuel L. Jackson as the military sergeant, a beautiful young war photographer (Oscar winner Brie Larson as Mason Weaver), and John Goodman as a scientist (Bill Randa) who’s using the context of the war taking place in Asia to get funding for his trip abroad.

Overall, the cast does an admirable job of bringing the Kong story to life. If you were expecting a drop dead gorgeous and vulnerable Fay Wray, though, you’ll be disappointed in Brie Larson. She’s certainly beautiful, but hardly vulnerable. With each new iteration of the Kong franchise, the heroine seems to change. (Remember Naomi Watts from the last “King Kong”?)

Some of the funniest lines of the film belong to John Goodman, and of course, Samuel L. Jackson does what he does best: show flashes of anger. And John C. Reilly as Marlow is great.

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The “Apocalypse Now” aesthetic

It’s impossible to ignore all the subtle references to “Apocalypse Now” in this Kong film. In fact, if you just watch the trailer, it’s obvious: the orange sunset, the whirring helicopters, and the Vietnam setting in the 1970s. There’s even music from the Rolling Stones. One of the iconic movie posters for “Kong: Skull Island” says it all – there’s a massive gorilla surrounded by helicopters against the backdrop of the spectacular orange sunset.

Throughout the film, characters walk around, saying things like, “This place is hell.” There’s Marlow, the Marlon Brando-like figure. There’s even a character called Conrad (a reference to Joseph Conrad, author of “Heart of Darkness,” which served as the inspiration for “Apocalypse Now”). Everywhere you look, there seems to be the presence of “Apocalypse Now” director Francis Ford Coppola — there’s even a trip down the river, just as there was in the film (and the book).

Themes of teamwork and courage

Obviously, faced with such a menace as Kong, themes of teamwork and courage serve as perhaps the only unifying themes in the movie. This is really an action-adventure film with a lot of violence and gore, but as far as big ideas and concepts, one could also point to the anti-war message. For the youngest generation, though, references to the “fall of Saigon” may only be a footnote in a dusty history book, not an event that galvanized an entire nation nearly 40 years ago.

Conclusions

Overall, this is a big budget ($185 million) blockbuster that won’t disappoint action and adventure fans. It’s packed with violent action and lots of CGI scenes. According to Box Office Mojo, the film has already raked in $137 million at the U.S. box office ever since it debuted on March 10. It’s also picked up a rating of 78% on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 7.1/10.0 on IMDb, so it’s obviously been a crowd pleaser.

If you don’t go into the film expecting to see Oscar-worthy performances from any of the cast (even the wonderful Oscar-winning Brie Larson), you won’t leave the cinema disappointed. It’s hard to tell if this film is intended to be a reboot of the storied franchise or just an homage to one of the greatest films ever, but it’s easy to see how the next King Kong would try to top this one: bigger, even more action-packed, and even more over the top.

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How Fans Reacted to “Beauty and the Beast”

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beauty-and-the-beast-disney

It’s safe to say that “Beauty and the Beast” has been a huge success, both critically and commercially. According to the latest box office figures, “Beauty and the Beast” pulled in $63.7 million on its first day alone and nearly $170 million on its first three-day weekend. And that was just the domestic box office – it also pulled in record numbers internationally. This live-action musical from Disney has been a box office smash, but how did the fans react?

The hardcore Disney fans loved it

The people that Disney had to win over were the “hard-core fans” – the types of people who took their daughters dressed up in yellow Belle dresses to the film’s premiere. And, judging from the online reviews written by these self-identified “die-hard” reviewers, the film more than lived up to its advance hype.

The sentiment was nearly universal that Disney absolutely got everything right (and almost nothing wrong) with the new film. Super-fans were calling it “the best remake I’ve seen in my life.” Most were just ecstatic, calling it “perfect and beautiful.”

The adults savored the nostalgia

In many ways, this live-action remake of the acclaimed 1991 animated version was for the adults as much as the kids. And, as might be expected, “Beauty and the Beast” resulted in a wave of adult nostalgia. Adults talked about how many times they cried during the movie, remembering so many different moments from their childhood. Some – referencing the lovely enchanted objects in the castle – even said that “furniture made me cry.” Nearly every adult reviewer of the film included a line like, “The film took me back to my childhood.”

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Emma Watson was better than people expected

It’s not speculating too much to say that most Disney fans are probably also big “Harry Potter” fans, And for that reason, there was quite a bit of anticipation for the young and beautiful Emma Watson in the role of Belle. Would she really be able to pull it off?

By all accounts, Emma Watson was much better than people expected. Some may have been less ecstatic about her singing roles in the film, but in general, they loved the nuances that she brought to Belle’s character.

In the original animated version, Belle was much more fun-loving and spontaneous and unconventional. In the film version, Emma Watson brought her own take on the character: Belle becomes a little less fun-loving (no more sliding around on library ladders!), a little more conventional (she loves “Romeo and Juliet”), and a little more self-conscious of how the townspeople view her.

People endlessly made comparisons with the animated classic

It’s only natural that fans spent much of their time hunting down all the differences and similarities with the 1991 animated classic. They focused on a few big themes. One, of course, was how the character of Belle changed in the live-action version.

Another was Belle’s romance with the Beast. Here, fans seemed to think that the new film version did a better job of explaining their relationship, and making it more believable. In the animated version, the relationship seemed to be based around things like feeding birds together. In the film version, we see Belle and the Beast reading literature together, having conversations and even flirting with each other. In short, the romance became “more real” according to fans.

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Fans replayed their favorite scenes to see how they stacked up

As part of making comparisons with the 1991 original, fans also dissected key scenes from the movie to see how they stacked up. One scene that got a lot of attention was the musical number “Be Our Guest.” Most agreed that it was almost impossible to capture the magic of the animated original, but that the new version of the enchanted objects dancing and singing came as close as possible to recapturing the old Disney magic.

Another scene that came under a lot of scrutiny was the Beast’s transformation into the Prince (played by Dan Stevens). In general, it seems like fans were a bit disappointed. It was almost better when he was a CGI beast. When we saw what Dan Stevens looked like in real life, he wasn’t a big, broad-shouldered prince, but just a slim, handsome guy. Still very nice for a prince, but not quite as much as fans were hoping for.

Fans applauded the star-studded cast — even Gaston

While Emma Watson (as Belle) and Dan Stevens (as the Beast) obviously stole the show and captured most of the attention of fans, there was still plenty of praise to go around for the other actors – especially Josh Gad as LeFou, Kevin Kline as Maurice and Luke Evans as Gaston – as well as for all the other actors and actresses who provided their voices for the film, like Ian McKellen (Cogsworth), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) and Ewan McGregor (Lumiere).

All in all, this was just a lovely, star-studded spectacle of a movie. It thrilled and enchanted Disney fans everywhere, and created a new generation of fans who will treasure Emma Watson as the new Belle they can aspire to be one day. Anytime you’re remaking a classic, there are risks. But Disney is Disney – and this film was just magical. They know how to make a real fairy tale adventure. It’s no wonder it’s breaking box office records.

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“When We Rise” Sheds Light on Important Issues

when-we-rise-ABC

when-we-rise-ABC

When the ABC mini-series “When We Rise” premiered on February 27, TV fans everywhere knew they were getting a thought-provoking look at some of the most important civil rights issues of the past 40 years, with a special focus on the hard-fought battle for full LGBT rights.

Without a doubt, the highly talented cast of “When We Rise” – including Austin P. McKenzie as the young Cleve Jones, Guy Pearce as the older Cleve Jones, Mary-Louise Parker (as Roma Guy), Rachel Griffiths (as Diane Jones) and Michael Kenneth Williams (as Ken Jones) – helps to shed some light on some important issues.

LGBT rights

Most importantly, “When We Rise” explores the evolution of LGBTQ rights from the period of the Stonewall riots at the end of the 1960s to the modern era. It’s based on the memoir by Cleve Jones, “When We Rise,” which tells the story of this legendary LGBT activist.

All told, the series covers the lives and stories of 23 different LGBT pioneers. We meet so many of the gay, lesbian, transgender and queer activists who have made recent achievements like same-sex marriage a reality and get a better understanding at why this movement occurred at its unique historical moment in time.

Marriage equality

Forty years ago, at the peak of the Stonewall riots in 1969, few could have predicted that same-sex marriage would later become a reality. In the ABC mini-series, we learn how the initial ideas and conceptions for the marriage equality movement took root in a series of rallies, marches and actions. We also learn how marriage equality was at times a fringe concern of the LGBT movement, and at other times, a core concern of the movement’s organizers.

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The relationship between lesbians and gay men

Looking back at this pioneering LGBT movement, it’s easy to assume that lesbians and gay men have always had the same interests in moving forward their part of the U.S. civil rights movement. But as “When We Rise” makes clear, the movement of lesbians and gay men has only sometimes intersected. The liberation of gay men was the first issue that took hold, but it’s hard to say that the interests of the two groups have really ever been divergent.

One key scene is when the young Cleve first meets the young Roma (played by Emily Skeggs). Roma is organizing for a rally to stop violence against women, and asks Cleve if he would like to get involved. At first, however, she is hesitant – as she tells Cleve, men usually don’t show up for these rallies. Moreover, women don’t want them there. As if to cement that point, that first meeting between Cleve and Roma ends with Roma’s female companion giving a disapproving look at Cleve.

The racial tensions within the LGBT movement

Similar to the divide between lesbians and gay men, there’s also a tension between white and black people in the LGBT community. Cleve Jones, of course, is a white gay man. But then there’s also Ken Jones, an HIV-positive gay black man. We learn how gayness is viewed within the black community, with gay black men sometimes excluded both from the black community and the straight community. Masculinity has traditionally been such an important part of the black community, such that gayness among black men has not always been tolerated.

Moreover, there’s sometimes a sense that the LGBT movement was trying to appropriate the U.S. civil rights movement for its own purpose, trading on the struggles and challenges that the nation’s African-American population had to experience before they were treated as equal citizens. In that way, some members of the African-American population were always somewhat skeptical about the true ambitions of the LGBT movement, especially when it comes to controversial ideas like lesbian separatism (which advocates for the rejection of heterosexuality).

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The AIDS crisis of the 1990s

The sweeping range and scope of “When We Rise” also exposes us to one of the most important periods in the LGBT movement — the AIDS crisis of the 1990s. We learn how some of the practices and ideas that were commonplace in the 1970s were now leading to a massive health epidemic. Since it was primarily gay men who were getting AIDS, there was a very real risk that being HIV-positive would become a literal death sentence for living a certain lifestyle.

We also learn how many of the young gay men of the 1970s and early 1980s faced major decisions of how to lead their lives later. Would they need to go back into the closet in order to get ahead in the corporate world? What happens when other fields – not just the arts – begin to embrace the LGBT community?

Equality in America today

“When We Rise” is certainly an ambitious gay rights drama. And, as many reviewers have pointed out, it may try too hard to show every issue, every key figure of the LGBT movement, and every key event that led to full LGBTQ rights. It doesn’t help, of course, that four different directors – Gus Van Sant, Dee Rees, Thomas Schlamme and Dustin Black (who is also the creator and writer of the mini-series) – were involved in the 8 hours of filming.

Yet, each of them brings a new and unique perspective on the LGBT civil rights movement, and that’s important for shining a light on the most important issues. Flash forward to the current period, and it’s unclear what the Trump administration has planned for the LGBTQ community. Despite promises and assurances that rights will be respected, the push for “state’s rights” when it comes to determining issues could be used as a wedge to rollback same-sex marriages in some states. We’ve already seen a foreshadowing of this legal strategy with the whole debate over transgender bathrooms, in which the Trump administration is looking to get involved in the debate over rights for transgender people.

That’s why all the characters who make their presence felt in “When We Rise” – the gay men, the lesbian women, the transgender activists, and the drag queens – are all important in showing how rich and diverse are the experiences, interests and ideas of these people.

But what they all have in common is a hope for a future where everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, can be treated as an equal and their rights respected. If that future ever happens in America, we can all look back and thank the early pioneers like Cleve Jones.

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Why Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is a Masterpiece

get-out-jordan-peele

get-out-jordan-peele

You have heard of horror movies. You probably have heard of horror comedies. But have you ever heard of a horror comedy dealing with the topic of racism? Yeah, we thought so. And that is just scraping the surface of what “Get Out” promises and delivers spectacularly. Talk about being different.

Get Out is not only about a fresh take, but also about impeccable direction, impressive writing, and praiseworthy acting. Let’s get into the details of how and why this movie has created such a buzz and why you should absolutely not miss it.

Get Out is Jordan Peele’s maiden project and he has worked really hard to make the movie happen. Through the many years that he has pitched the script to the producers, the only thing constant was people telling him that such a movie can never be made. But, the man marched on and this is the fruit of all his efforts. But, why would Hollywood’s elite not sign up an amazing talent like Pele? You will get the answer to your question when you watch the movie. The movie is as much a horror flick as it is a satirical comedy. And the theme it circles around is one of the most sensitive topics in America – race and racism.

The movie begins with Chris and Rose planning to visit the girl’s parents to take their relationship to the next level. However, there is just one elephant in the room – Chris is black and Rose is white. Anyone reminded of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”? Chris is a mature man and does not hide his concerns on the issue, but Rose assures him that her parents are not racists and that there is no real problem.

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Mrs. Missy and Mr. Dean Armitage, Rose’s parents, don’t turn out to be half bad either. But, they are one of those idealist liberals who are trying very hard to put it across to Chris that they are not racists. They even share that they would vote for Obama the third time, if it was possible. Yup, that’s how “non-racist” they are. They do have a black maid and a gardener, and Dean cannot explain enough that they were employed to help Rose’s grandparents, who were no longer with them. In a nutshell, they say everything possible to make it clear that they are happy with Rose and her black boyfriend (with a big emphasis on BLACK).

But, there are obvious awkward moments in the movie where racial differences do surface. But, this is nothing compared to what Chris will have to deal with later. The movie has insane twists and turns. There is a horror movie in there, and it starts revealing as you get further along with the movie. The anticipation is as exciting as the revelation. But, no spoilers here. So, relax.

Let’s talk about the actors in the movie. Daniel Kaluuya is playing the role of adult Chris, while Zailand Adams is portraying the younger version of Chris, also a part of the movie. He is the black guy in the movie and it is around him that the movie revolves. Daniel has done justice to his role in every way possible. He conveys Chris’ emotions brilliantly and helps the audience connect with him better. Rose Armitage is played by Allison Williams, who is sensational in her role. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener are completely believable in their roles as the liberal white Mr. and Mrs. Armitage. It is an absolute delight to watch them.

Peele has made sure that the movie hits you in parts. Bad things are happening and all the nice people he thought were harmless and lame are, in fact, a threat. Get Out is a brilliant satire. But, the idea of making it into a horror movie adds a flavor to it that is unlike any other. This genre allows Peele to include high tension social issues in the movie. Not only is he able to put forth his two cents on the topic of racial problems running rampant in America, but is also able to do it without offending anyone. Chris becomes paranoid, and this, combined with tongue-in cheek dialogues, lend the movie a comedic touch. Did you ever think that you would be discussing slavery, race relations between black and whites, and what not against the backdrop of a horror comedy? You know what? In all probability, no one but Peele did.

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The best thing about the movie is that it does not talk about in-your-face racism. It brings to light the subtle form of the problem that is prevalent in our society today. It is about pseudo-liberals. In the movie, no character verbally attacks Chris directly. But, their dialogues are borderline racist. They are being nice, but Chris gets their stereotyping. They make him feel ‘different’ and almost unwelcome. The way the movie captures the ‘almost’ is without a doubt a work of a genius.

It is not too long before the so-called well-meaning folks show their true colors. But, we will let the movie do the rest of the talking.

It is evident from the final shape of the movie that Peele had a crystal clear vision of what he wanted. Not only that, he also has a keen understanding of how the society works and knows that the devil is in the details. Yes, horror comedy does not essentially sound like a genre that you go to expecting being wowed by the cinematic brilliance. But, this movie will change that for you. Granted, Peele is a first time director. But, if this is the caliber of the work he can deliver, then his newfound fans will keenly wait for his next project to hit the screens.

Get Out has been showered with praises and rightfully so. It is nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece. It’s not every day that you come across something magical on the screen. But, when it happens, it leaves a lasting impression that you cherish for a long time. Jordan Peele’s Get Out is that magical gem of a movie.

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What to Expect from “Big Little Lies”

big-little-lies-trailer

big-little-lies-trailer

Fans have been patiently waiting for HBO’s adaptation of the bestselling book “Big Little Lies” by Australian writer Liane Moriarty, and it looks like the new comedy-drama miniseries is going to be must-watch television starting on February 19. The seven episodes feature a star-studded cast, some gorgeous cinematography of California, plenty of twists and thrills and one big unsolved mystery. So here’s what you can expect from “Big Little Lies.”

#1: An unsolved mystery

The major premise of the new HBO show is that a lot of “little lies” have led to something “big” – what appears to be an unsolved murder at a California school. But here’s the thing  – we don’t know who’s actually dead until the very end of the series. Episode 1 (“Somebody’s Dead”) leads off with a police investigation into a suspected murder that has taken place at an elementary school fundraiser in Monterey, California. But we’re not shown any of the evidence, there are no clues, no police officers showing up at houses, and there is no moment when the murder is discovered.

All we’re given are segments of police interviews with parents from the school. As viewers, we need to determine who’s trustworthy and who’s not, and what pieces of information are really central to discovering the truth behind the mystery. As HBO has told us, “it’s the little lies that are the most lethal.”

From the trailer that HBO has released for “Big Little Lies,” it looks like there is a gun involved, a very mysterious 40-something woman (played by Nicole Kidman), a dangerously abusive husband (played by Alexander Skarsgard) and lots of hyper-competitive, wealthy parents who are using their young kids to climb the social ladder. Again, HBO teases us: Is this a murder, an accident or just parents behaving badly?

#2: An amazing, first-rate cast

The big selling point of HBO’s new “limited dramatic series” are all the big-name actresses involved: Reese Witherspoon (as Madeline Martha Mackenzie), Nicole Kidman (as Celeste Wright), Shailene Woodley (as Jane Chapman), Laura Dern (as Renata Klein), and Zoe Kravitz (as Bonnie Carlson).

The show is really the story of how all these moms interconnect and get along (or don’t get along) together. Reese Witherspoon plays a Type A mom who takes a new mom at the school, Shailene Woodley, under her wing. Nicole Kidman plays a woman full of secrets who may or may not be the victim of domestic abuse by her husband. And Laura Dern plays a high-powered Silicon Valley executive who seems to be in control of everything – except her daughter.

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#3: A narrative featuring lots of twists and thrills

The storyline at the heart of the police investigation directly involves two of the moms – Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley. We’re told that Woodley’s son Ziggy (played by Iain Armitage) has been bullying the daughter of Laura Dern. That bullying eventually led to her being choked in school. But can we believe this narrative? There’s a social dimension involved here – Shailene Woodley is a new mom who seems to be quietly observing everything that’s happening around her. Laura Dern, in contrast, is more of a high-powered hotshot (on the board of a major tech company) who absolutely won’t stand for the fact that her daughter is being bullied.

By taking a closer look at the trailer video for the show, it’s possible to piece together some of the key moments of the seven episodes – there’s going to be a (literal) cliffhanger (as a young woman out for a run suddenly veers off a cliff), a gun, a sexy costume party, biting jokes about the age of certain moms, and plenty of mystery and intrigue about the Nicole Kidman role (it’s impossible to tell if she’s happy, sad or somewhere in between with her life).

#4: The perfect life that’s not so perfect

In the original bestselling novel, the action took place in Australia. In the HBO miniseries, though, all the action takes place in Monterey, California. As a result, we’re shown amazing ocean side homes, beautiful people, great schools and lots of “lifestyle porn.” Everything just looks so amazing. This is the way you’d imagine living a super-wealthy life in sunny California. It’s perfect enough for a postcard.

But that’s where all the twists and turns are involved. Some reviewers have called this HBO show “twisted and dark” – and for good reason. The most obvious example is the character played by Alexander Skarsgard (Perry Wright) – he’s handsome and young, but he’s also violent and a little scary. And it’s clear that almost all the moms at the school are not opposed to telling a few “little lies” if it helps them move up the social ladder.

#5: Relationships on the edge

Some have tried comparing “Big Little Lies” to “Desperate Housewives,” and while there are some similarities, the new HBO show is really more of a sexy mystery-melodrama that’s targeted to women over 35. As a result, the show includes insights into all the problems faced by women in this age range – trying to raise young kids at the same time as they are trying to move a career forward; dealing with marriages on the brink of failure; and trying to find meaning and mission in a life that seems to have no clear direction.

In many ways, the children of the moms are “proxies” for solving these problems. They enable the moms to deal with various aspects of their work, family and social lives that need to be fixed. The only question is: How far will they go in fixing their lives?

Already, the buzz around “Big Little Lies” has been very positive. The show has picked up a rating of 87% on Rotten Tomatoes. Since this is HBO, it’s a safe bet that this show will turn out to be as addictive and fun to watch as all the other HBO shows that have debuted on a Sunday night. It seems to have all the right elements to make it a success – lots of top talent, a great screenplay based on a bestselling book, wonderful scenes of California, and plenty of dark, twisted thrills. We can’t wait to see how it all turns out in the end.

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Why Fans Love “Shameless”

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It’s hard to believe that we’ve already had 7 seasons and 84 episodes of the comedy-drama “Shameless.” In that long period of time, we’ve had plenty of time to fall in love with the characters and understand what makes the Gallagher family so unique. By almost any measure – like an 8.7/10.0 rating on IMDb – the show has more than its share of committed and loyal fans. So what are some of the reasons why fans love the Showtime TV show “Shameless” so much?

#1: William H. Macy as Frank Gallagher

The show has always revolved around the Oscar-nominated William H. Macy, who has introduced the world to Frank Gallagher, a single father of six who spends much of his time drunk (or plotting new ways to get money to get drunk). He’s largely distant from any real parenting duties, and is responsible for his kids growing up poor and struggling with life on Chicago’s South Side.

On the surface, that’s hardly the recipe for a sympathetic character. In fact, you might even call Frank Gallagher more of an “anti-hero” than a “hero” – he’s someone that you don’t want your kids to emulate. He’s a deadbeat, an addict and someone who only schemes and steals to get ahead in life. Yet, there’s something very captivating about him. He is a polarizing character, but someone that binds his family closer to him merely by the fact of being such an absentee father.

#2: Emmy Rossum as Fiona Gallagher

It’s William H. Macy, in fact, who makes us appreciate the beautiful and talented Emmy Rossum so much. She’s everything that he’s not – she’s attractive, intelligent and resilient. She’s someone who cares for the family and puts all of their interests first, not hers.

And, yet, she’s not a perfect angel either. She doesn’t even have a high school graduation, and has a weakness for men who steal cars and drink. And, yet, you feel that she’s just looking for someone to fix her life and tell her that she’s doing OK. She’s been called “one of the most real characters on TV,” and for good reason. She has plenty of positive features, but also plenty of flaws. But don’t we all?

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#3: All the messy romances

Throughout all the daily grievances, addictions and pettiness, there’s always the romance. And that can be wonderfully uplifting (or at least, sustaining) when confronted with a grim view of the world. We have the wonderful and talented Joan Cusack (as Sheila, one of Frank’s potential love interests, as well as the always scene-stealing Svetlana. We have Justin Chatwin (playing Jimmy Lishmann), as someone who steals for a living but who desires Fiona. And, of course, we have the budding gay relationship between Ian Gallagher and Mickey Milkovich. It’s all the messiness of being young and in love, and having so many confusing feelings.

#4: The great Gallagher kids

Fiona (Emmy Rossum) may get most of the attention – and deservedly so – but the other Gallagher kids also play a huge role in making the show so much fun. One of the best characters is Phillip “Lip” Gallagher. He’s smart but self-destructive. You get the feeling that he could be one of the smartest kids in his class, but driven by circumstances, he’s selling pot out of the back of an ice cream truck. And so it goes with the rest of the family – they all seem to be resilient, if a bit damaged.

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#5: The attitude of the “So here’s what you missed” segment

The opening of every episode always starts with a “so here’s what you missed” segment, and it’s a real winner. This is more than just the traditional “Previously on…” segment that’s now become such a cliché on TV. Instead, “Shameless” delivers this segment with a bit of attitude and character. (It’s almost as if the characters voicing the segment have a total disdain for the viewers, who were just too ignorant or drunk to have missed the last episode.)

#6: The shamelessness of keeping it real

In life, you have to “own” what you have become. And to do so, you often have to be shameless. And that’s why, at the end of the day, we really love and respect “Shameless” – the show could have sold out and showed us some sickly, sentimental view of what it means to be poor and working class. But this is life as it’s being lived in America today.

As one fan has pointed out, this show just wouldn’t mean as much if it was filmed in a trailer park – that would have turned all the characters into just stereotypes. Instead, these characters feel like real, three-dimensional characters who might live a few blocks down from us.

For much of its first 7 seasons, “Shameless” has been primarily a social media phenomenon, an entertainment favorite that’s shared via word-of-mouth, Twitter and Tumblr. The critics may have been missing out on the show, but fans have not. You can watch “Shameless” on Showtime as well as Netflix.

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The Hilarity of “Santa Clarita Diet”

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There’s never been a zombie comedy like “Santa Clarita Diet” before, that’s for sure. This Netflix Original Series has steadily gained in fans and popularity ever since all 10 episodes of he first season debuted on February 3. The reason for the popularity is simple: the entire premise of “Santa Clarita Diet” is just hilarious. When you have a zombie family in the middle of suburban California, you can’t help but laugh.

Drew Barrymore’s comic genius

First of all, you have Drew Barrymore as a genuinely funny zombie. Ok, maybe the gruesome gore can be a bit much, but let’s just repeat this: Drew Barrymore is a zombie. In addition to being a wife, mother and real estate agent, of course. She’s enjoys eating human flesh, but even Slate.com forgave her for this, calling her “adorable.”

What makes it work is how much Drew Barrymore really embraces her role as Sheila Hammond. Becoming a zombie was difficult at first – she didn’t understand all the stomach aches and sudden craving for raw meat – but now it’s easy. “I’m so much more confident – I can parallel park in one move now!” she proudly tells her family.

A new kind of zombie genre

Let’s face it – everyone is at a saturation point with zombie apocalypse movies. And that’s what makes “Santa Clarita Diet” so enjoyable: it completely reinvents the zombie genre. The whole series is really more akin to “Dexter” or “Desperate Housewives” (or a mix of the two) rather than any zombie movie you might have in mind. That’s because, as much as it’s possible, this zombie only kills people who deserve it. There’s no more of the undead mindlessly searching out victims!

This new genre is a mash-up of a family drama and the undead horror film. Mom is afraid she might want to eat her family. The husband (Joel Hammond, played by Timothy Olyphant) is initially concerned about living with a zombie wife, but then decides to get in on the action himself. And the family’s sole daughter – Abby, played by Liv Hewson – views her mom’s transformation into a zombie as just one more growing pain of adolescence.

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California satire at its best

What’s also brilliant is the skewering of suburban California life. Take the title of the show – it seems to invoke a very California thing like “the Malibu Diet,” but it turns out that the Santa Clarita diet involves human flesh. But, hey, if it keeps you looking young and full of energy, then it must be doing, right? Just tell that to all the women in California, who inject themselves with a poison (Botox), in order to keep their skin looking young and rejuvenated.

What makes this California satire work so brilliantly is that the beautiful neighborhood cul-de-sacs all look so wonderful. It’s the same idea as in “Desperate Housewives” – behind all this scripted wonderful life, there must be some deep, dark secret, right? Zombie shows are supposed to take place in dark, creepy locales – not in the middle of bright, shiny, happy California. Every joke in “Santa Clarita Diet,” then, takes on a whole new satirical side.

Things are not what they seem

The executive producers of the show – which includes both Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant – are not going to be content just swapping in a few zombie jokes here and there. They want to challenge the conventional notions of what’s possible with the plot line.

The one episode that everyone is talking about is Episode 5 (“Man Eat Man”), in which a cop neighbor (Dan, played by Ricardo Chavira of “Desperate Housewives” fame) discovers a human finger in Joel’s backyard. As a cop, he immediately runs the finger for prints and finds that it belongs to a California neighbor who’s been missing. So what is he supposed to do – arrest Joel and Sheila after confronting them with the evidence?

Ha, that would be the easy way out. Instead what Dan does is ask Joel to kill someone for him – to murder a murderer. What could possibly go wrong? Well, since this is “Santa Clarita Diet,” a lot can go wrong.

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A family comedy with zombies

On one level, a teenage daughter who’s starting to question her parents and her role in life is the stuff of family sitcoms. But what happens once you work in zombies? In many ways, the fact that Abby’s mom is a zombie is a metaphor for something much larger. There’s one line of dialogue – “Did mom die when mom died?” – that perfectly captures both the ridiculousness and the horror of Abby’s new situation.

And, with plenty of wacky neighbors, there’s no shortage of potential friends – or victims – for the family. The family that craves together, stays together. This is a horror-comedy, with everything that makes zombies so horrifying (their undead status, their craving for human flesh) turned into a source of rich, hilarious comedy.

A whole new kind of physical comedy

American comedies have never been afraid to embrace physical comedy, but “Santa Clarita Diet” takes it one step further, because the physical comedy often involves blood and guts (literally). The show gives entirely new meaning to the idea of “chowing down” and will make you re-think the next time you decide to pig out on some chicken wings (beware the bones!).

Some of the physical comedy is meant for laughs – like Episode 8, titled “How Much Vomit?” But all those vomit chunks are also meant to be a type of comic glue that holds each episode of the series together. Don’t worry — once you’ve embraced the idea of Drew Barrymore as a mom who craves human flesh, you’ll start to see the hilarious comedy involved in having a little human midnight snack.

Ultimately, “Santa Clarita Diet” is a very dark comedy even if it’s filmed in very sunny California. But that’s exactly the point – each episode can be thought of as part of a dark comic journey that viewers take together to some place lighter. Already, “Santa Clarita Diet” has picked up a 70% Rotten Tomatoes score and a rating of 8.0/10 on IMDb, so it’s clear that it’s doing something right. If you’re looking for a hilarious new comedy to watch, you absolutely have to watch Netflix’s new original series, “Santa Clarita Diet.”

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Why Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” is the Show America Needs

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Right now, America is a polarized nation, split by class, by race, and by gender. What it needs more than ever right now is a show like Donald Glover’s “Atlanta,” which is not afraid to take on some really big issues without taking itself too seriously. In fact, the FX Network bills the show as an “innovative comedy” and it’s this humor that keeps the show from getting too heavy.

A solid dose of reality

Donald Glover, the creator of the show who also plays the role of the protagonist Earnest “Earn” Marks, has said that, “I wanted to show real people in real situations.” And that’s exactly what “Atlanta” has delivered ever since it debuted in September 2016 – a dose of reality about what it’s like to be black, single and trying to make it in the hip hop industry in Atlanta. This is not some glamorized view of what it’s like to be a rapper, and it’s also not a dark look at the crumbling state of America’s urban neighborhoods.

In other words, this isn’t a show that’s been infected with the deeply polarizing sentiment of the recent election campaign. Yes, it can be tough trying to make a living in urban Atlanta, but it’s not the dark “American carnage” described by the current Trump administration. It’s a reflection that reality can be messy and convoluted. There’s no easy way to make it – you have to keep working at it daily.

Characters we can identify with

Earn is a college dropout with no money, no real home, and no real prospects. He has a daughter, too, that he’s trying to provide for. And he’s still trying to patch things up with his girlfriend, Vanessa (“Van”). He’s hustling to make a go of it, and he spots any opportunity with his cousin Alfred Miles, who is now an up-and-coming rapper in Atlanta known as Paper Boi. Along the way, Paper Boi and Earn are helped by Darius, who has become an indispensable part of Paper Boi’s hip hop entourage.

Starting from Episode 1 of Season 1, the stories of these characters become intertwined in ways that have audiences coming back for more. Viewers are truly invested in the lives of these characters. So much so, in fact, that the series picked up two Golden Globes this year. “Atlanta” won Best TV Series (Musical-Comedy) and Donald Glover won Best Actor for a TV Series (Musical-Comedy).

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Relevant political themes

Atlanta” is not afraid to take on a lot of big issues that Americans are talking about these days – the nation’s drug problem, racial inequality, poverty, and police brutality. It’s far too easy to separate along party lines and come up with a quick and ready response to any of these problems.

But it’s clear that these widely differing approaches to the problem haven’t worked. By politicizing the problems, we’ve only made them worse. Ferguson was only a symptom, not the problem itself. Solving the problem shouldn’t pit black vs. white or urban vs. rural. We’re all in this together.

And that’s why “Atlanta” is such an important new TV show. It sketches out the people who populate the reality. And they are not cartoon characters, either, they are real people. Deep down, they are well-meaning, but they’ve been put into difficult situations. They have families they care about, and people they love, but they also have to put money in the bank and that’s where things are tough because there are no easy answers. They are trying to head down a positive path, even if everything around them is negative.

“Atlanta” should be required watching for any politician or political lobbyist who thinks that the answer to our problems is to “lock them up” or “build a wall.” These are real people with real problems, something we see everyday with Earn, Paper Boi and Darius.

A new kind of binge watching

Some TV critics have pointed out that “Atlanta” doesn’t seem to have a real plot, and nothing ever seems to get resolved. There are “no cliffhangers” and “no jaw-dropping moments.” In short, this is what a comedy looks like when the laugh track has been stripped away; this is what a comedy reality show should look like, instead of having tiny scripted moments intended for TV audiences.

What all this means is a new kind of binge watching, if you decide to watch all 10 episodes of Season 1 at one time. As Donald Glover explains, the city of Atlanta influenced the tone, rhythm and pacing of the show. For some, the pace seems to be too meandering. But it perfectly matches what is happening in the real lives of the characters – they are meandering through life, trying to grab things when they can, realizing there’s no easy answer.

One scene perfectly illustrates this – the scene where Paper Boi goes after the club promoter and gets back the money that’s been taken from him. Earlier, the club promoter had taunted Earn, giving him only $750 instead of the $5000 due him, citing all kinds of things, like extra security for Paper Boi’s shows. But Paper Boi doesn’t even hesitate, “We’re getting our money.” And that’s where the comedy of the show takes over and keeps things from getting too dark: the club promoter has just been beaten up and his money taken from him, but all he can say is, “That boy’s gonna be a star.”

The healing power of music

Finally, “Atlanta” seems to stretch across generations with its appeal, and one way it does this is via music. There’s music from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as hip hop  and rap from the current era. Plus, there’s an eclectic mix of music: jazz, soul, hip hop and rap. The music, one could argue, is the “glue” that keeps all the parts of the show together. It unites races and it unites generations.

And, so, at a time when so much of America seems starkly divided, there’s a sign of hope that the nation can finally find a healing solution. Music and comedy may be the two keys to getting different races and classes to come together as one united society, and that’s something that “Atlanta” makes clear from the very outset. For that reason, Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” is the show America needs right now.

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7 Shows To Watch While We Wait For “Game Of Thrones”

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It’s already been a long wait since the last episode of “Game of Thrones” aired on HBO in June 2016. But as we gear up for the new Season 7 sometime in mid-2017, there are plenty of shows available for streaming to recapture the mix of action, fantasy and adventure that we’ve come to expect from “Game of Thrones.” So, as we prepare for the imminent arrival of Season 7 of “Game of Thrones,” here are 7 shows that might be reasonable alternatives.

Vikings (History)

You’d normally expect a big blockbuster series like “Vikings” to appear on a premium cable TV channel like HBO or Starz, but this is actually a History channel original series that’s remarkably good. First of all, you have Vikings, so you know that there’s going to be plenty of action and violence. And there’s a great back story, too, as we watch the rise of Ragnar Lothbrok from poor farmer to Norse legend. There’s plenty of power struggles and warring kingdoms, so this is actually a really good “Game of Thrones” alternative. The only downside is that it’s not currently available on Netflix – but it is available via Hulu, Amazon Prime and Apple iTunes.

Spartacus (Starz)

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Just from the title, you know this “sword-and-sandal” series is going to feature some amazing gladiator action from ancient Rome. What makes this series unique is that it has 3 regular seasons and 1 prequel season, so you learn the whole story behind the rise of Spartacus as an unknown Thracian warrior into one of the true legends of the modern era. For a series so packed with action and bloody fight scenes, it’s also remarkably filled with sex scenes and frontal nudity scenes. The historical backdrop, the gladiator scenes and all the imperial drama of Rome makes “Spartacus” a very good alternative to “Game of Thrones.” It’s available via Netflix and Amazon Prime, but not on Hulu.

Marco Polo (Netflix)

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In December 2014, “Marco Polo” was Netflix’s big, splashy entrée into the world of sweeping historical dramas. While Season 1 starts off relatively slowly, by Episode 5, the action really starts to pick up. And, whoa, just wait until you get to Season 2. If you’ve been fascinated by the story of Marco Polo and his travels around the world, this is the place to start. The narrative focuses on Marco Polo’s early years in the court of Kublai Khan, the leader of the Mongol empire. In this series, you get the same sweeping storytelling arc as “Game of Thrones.” This is a Netflix Original, so of course, it’s available via Netflix. You can also find it on iTunes. Unfortunately, Netflix canceled the series after just two seasons, reportedly after losing $200 million on the production (try explaining that to your boss!).

Outlander (Starz)

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“Outlander” is a mix of historical fiction, fantasy and romance. It tells the story of a World War II nurse who finds herself transported back to Scotland in the 18th century, where she encounters a band of Highlanders. And, from there, it’s on to the Jacobite rebellion, featuring the attempt by Charles Edward Stuart to regain the British throne. Unlike other series that have tried to emulate elements of “Game of Thrones,” this series is strongest on the romance angle. As an added bonus – Diana Gabaldon, the author of the books that inspired “Outlander,” is a friend of George R.R. Martin, the creator of “Game of Thrones.” You can definitely see some of the shared influences on both shows. The series is not yet available on Netflix or Hulu, but you can find it on Starz On Demand, Amazon Prime and iTunes.

The Shannara Chronicles (MTV)

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Part of the re-invention of MTV was coming up with original programming like “The Shannara Chronicles,” which adapts the popular “Sword of Shannara” trilogy series from Terry Brooks. There are plenty of elves, demons and quests to satisfy most fans of magic and fantasy, especially fans of movies like “Lord of the Rings.” (And, just like LOTR, “The Shannara Chronicles” was filmed in New Zealand.) The good news is that this 2016 series is now available via Netflix, just in case you don’t get MTV.

The Last Kingdom (BBC)

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This BBC historical drama is based on books written by Bernard Cornwell, who is also a colleague of George R.R. Martin. And the storyline should be familiar to any fan of “Game of Thrones” – a displaced heir is on a mission to unite all the kingdoms of the land. “The Last Kingdom” tells the story of England in the ninth century, when the land was divided into several kingdoms while being attacked and ruled by Danish invaders. As an added bonus: Netflix has decided to create a second season of 10 episodes that will premiere in 2017.

Rome (HBO)

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Bruno Heller’s “Rome” is an old HBO show, so you won’t have to go very far to get your “Game of Thrones” fix. In many ways, back in 2005, this HBO show was “Game of Thrones” before there was “Game of Thrones.” It tells the story of Julius Caesar in ancient Rome. So much of the look and feel of the show will remind you of “Game of Thrones.” As an added bonus, a surprising number of “Game of Thrones” cast members actually showed up in “Rome” first – including Ciaran Hinds as Julius Caesar. So if you’re looking for greater understanding of how “Game of Thrones” started, look no further than “Rome.”

**

That just about brings us full cycle, from “Game of Thrones” to the show that inspired and laid the groundwork for “Game of Thrones” on HBO nearly a decade earlier. Of course, there’s not a single show on TV today that can match “Game of Thrones” for its storylines, mix of fantasy and history, and combination of violence and drama. So one option might just be to go back and re-watch “Game of Thrones” from Season 1 through Season 6 so that you’ll be ready for the awesomeness that’s about to happen in mid-2017 when we finally get Season 7 of “Game of Thrones.”

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