Author: Michael Cook

A theatre kid dabbling in the art of reviewing the things he reads, watches, listens to, and sees.

REVIEW: “The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek” by Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal

bleak creekI’ve been a fan of Rhett and Link’s for a while now. Their content is so wholesome and enjoyable – and they grew up fairly close to where I live – so it’s hard for me not to enjoy their stuff. My love of Rhett and Link is what led me to their first novel, The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek. Were it not to have been written by them, it likely would have never made its way onto my radar. But, with its connection to these YouTubers, I eagerly awaited the publication of the book, unsure of exactly what to expect. Well, having read The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek definitely feels like a first novel. And I don’t really mean that as an insult, but an author’s first novel is often very imperfect and that’s exactly what The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek is – imperfect. There are a lot of really good ideas and characters scattered throughout the book, but it’s all a bit hampered by too-few pages and uneven pacing. (Mild Spoilers for The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek follow.)

The Lost Causes of Bleak Creek by Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal
It’s 1992 in Bleak Creek, North Carolina—a sleepy little place with all the trappings of an ordinary Southern town: two Baptist churches, friendly smiles coupled with silent judgments, and an unquenchable appetite for pork products. Beneath the town’s cheerful façade, however, Bleak Creek teens live in constant fear of being sent to the Whitewood School, a local reformatory with a history of putting unruly youths back on the straight and narrow—a record so impeccable that almost everyone is willing to ignore the suspicious deaths that have occurred there over the past decade.

At first, high school freshmen Rex McClendon and Leif Nelson believe what they’ve been told: that the students’ strange demises were all just tragic accidents, the unfortunate consequence of succumbing to vices like Marlboro Lights and Nirvana. But when the shoot for their low-budget horror masterpiece, PolterDog, goes horribly awry—and their best friend, Alicia Boykins, is sent to Whitewood as punishment—Rex and Leif are forced to question everything they know about their unassuming hometown and its cherished school for delinquents.

Eager to rescue their friend, Rex and Leif pair up with recent NYU film school graduate Janine Blitstein to begin piecing together the unsettling truth of the school and its mysterious founder, Wayne Whitewood. What they find will leave them battling an evil beyond their wildest imaginations—one that will shake Bleak Creek to its core.

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REVIEW: “Headshots” (2019 Film)

HEADSHOTS2019AmzPoster3to4You never know what you’re gonna get with an indie/low-budget horror movie. You could get a movie that’s super charming and works really well within the constraints forced upon it (by budget/time/available talent/etc) or you could get something that’s truly appalling and devoid of any entertainment value whatsoever. Or you could get something somewhere in between, where it’s clear that a lot of love went into the creation of the film but some element of its making went catastrophically wrong. That’s the joy of looking into a low-budget horror movie. For every gem (like Rubber), there’s an enjoyable-yet-bad film (like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes), and at least three films that are too awful to watch (like Thankskilling, half the Troma catalog, or Birdemic). So, where does Headshots fall in this breakdown? Well, much to my surprise and enjoyment, it falls within the first camp. Headshots is a charming film that makes the most of its constraints and brings an interesting twist to its premise. (Mild spoilers follow!)

Headshots (written and directed by Chris O’Neill)
HEADSHOTS follows a young British actress who goes to LA to be a movie star- only to cross paths with a serial killer in her acting class.

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REVIEW: “Doctor Who” S12E04 – Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror

tesla terrorI love a good celebrity historical episode of Doctor Who. There’s just something that’s inherently fun about seeing the Doctor meet some famous person from history and have an adventure with them. Some of the best celebrity historicals are when Doctor Who answers some previously-unanswered question about that historical figure’s life – in The Unicorn and the Wasp, the show posits an answer to the question of why Agatha Christie went missing for a week, only to reappear with no memory of those days. So, when it was revealed that we’d be getting an episode about Nikola Tesla – who infamously claimed to have seen UFOs at one point in his life – it seemed like the show was setting us up for a really fun romp between the Doctor and Tesla that might answer the question of what, exactly, Tesla saw – which sounds really interesting. And with a title as bonkers as Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror, it seemed as though we’d be getting an episode every bit as fun as its premise would suggest. So, was the episode interesting and fun? Was it good? Answer: yes. It is an immensely fun episode. (This review contains spoilers for Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror.)

Season 12, Episode 4: Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror (written by Nina Metivier, directed by Nida Manzoor)
It is 1903 and on the edge of Niagara Falls, something is wrong at Nikola Tesla’s (Goran Višnjić) generator plant, where someone – or something – is sabotaging the maverick inventor’s work. Has Tesla really received a message from Mars? And where does his great rival Thomas Edison (Robert Glenister) fit into these events? The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her companions Yaz (Mandip Gill), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Graham (Bradley Walsh) must join forces with one of history’s greatest minds to save both him and planet Earth.

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REVIEW: “Doctor Who – The Target Storybook”

target storybookLast year, the Target line of Doctor Who novelizations burst back to life with the first adaptations of episodes from the revived TV series – Rose, The Christmas Invasion, Day of the Doctor, and Twice Upon a Time. The novels were really solid works in their own right, managing to take all the best elements of their respective TV episodes and weave them into something that worked as a novel. They also had the added bonus of reinvigorating the entire Target line – another batch of new adaptations has been announced for July 2020. And then there’s this collection of short stories that was published in October 2018. Normally, the Target range adapts preexisting Doctor Who TV stories, but this collection of short stories decided to go a different route – bringing readers a collection of stories set before/during/after iconic stories from all through Doctor Who‘s 50+ year history. And, I gotta say, a lot of these stories are really, really good.

Doctor Who: The Target Storybook (featuring stories from various authors)
In this exciting collection you’ll find all-new stories spinning off from some of your favourite Doctor Who moments across the history of the series. Learn what happened next, what went on before, and what occurred off-screen in an inventive selection of sequels, side-trips, foreshadowings and first-hand accounts – and look forward too, with a brand new adventure for the Thirteenth Doctor.

Each story expands in thrilling ways upon aspects of Doctor Who’s enduring legend. With contributions from show luminaries past and present – including Colin Baker, Matthew Waterhouse, Vinay Patel, Joy Wilkinson and Terrance Dicks – The Target Storybook is a once-in-a-lifetime tour around the wonders of the Whoniverse

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REVIEW: “My Hindu Friend”

My Hindu FriendI’m always willing to give a movie with an interesting premise a shot – especially if that film has a solid trailer. This was the case with My Hindu Friend, a film that sounded like I might enjoy it. While I don’t often watch films that fall into a strictly realistic genre, I can enjoy a good one. But the trailer for My Hindu Friend made it look like something more unique than any of the other films that have tackled this kind of subject. And, to be totally fair to the movie, it probably is unique from most other films of its ilk – but I wouldn’t say that’s really a compliment in this case. Let’s be clear – there are moments of brilliance in My Hindu Friend, but it takes the better part of an hour to find any of them and much of the rest of the film just feels like a jumbled mess of scenes, ideas, and characters that never fully coalesces into a coherent story. But, hey, at least those few moments of brilliance are fun to watch.

My Hindu Friend (written by Hector Babenco and Guilherme Moraes Quintella, directed by Hector Babenco)
Diego (Willem Dafoe) is a film director very close to death, surrounded by people who are having trouble dealing with his current tempestuous mood. Chances are he won’t survive, but if he does, that means he needs to relearn how to live.

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REVIEW: “Doctor Who” S12E03 – Orphan 55

orphan 5Ed Hime’s previous Doctor Who episode, It Takes You Away, was one of my favorite episodes of the previous season. I thought it had a perfect balance of character stuff and plot stuff and it was just a whole lot of fun to watch – especially with that whole bonkers idea of a sentient universe presenting itself as a talking frog. With that episode being as good as it was, I was definitely looking forward to what Hime would do in his second episode. I mean, there’s no realistic way it was gonna be quite as weird as his first, but I hoped it would be pretty fun. And, to be fair, it was very fun. Orphan 55 has a great premise, some great characters, a poignant message, and some truly scary monsters. It’s an extremely entertaining episode that’s let down a little bit by a very on the nose ending. (Spoilers follow!)

Season 12, Episode 3: Orphan 55 (written by Ed Hime, directed by director Lee Haven Jones) 
Having decided that everyone could do with a holiday, the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) takes Graham (Bradley Walsh), Yaz (Mandip Gill), and Ryan (Tosin Cole) to a luxury resort for a spot of rest and relaxation. However, they discover the place where they are having a break is hiding a number of deadly secrets. What are the ferocious monsters that are attacking Tranquillity Spa?

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REVIEW: “The Dreaming, Vol. 2 – Empty Shells” by Simon Spurrier

The Dreaming Empty ShellsAs I said in my review of the first volume of this new run of The Dreaming, one of my favorite things about Neil Gaiman’s original Sandman run was the way the comic’s story was partially about the very nature of stories. Gaiman played with various structures to examine the fabric of storytelling and why it’s always been such an effective means of communication. Everything else was the icing on this theme of a cake. This examination of storytelling is one of the key things that brings readers back to those comics time and time again. Simon Spurrier continued this approach in the first volume of his run on The Dreaming, and he continues it in this next volume – a volume that helps bridge the story of The Sandman with this new story being told here. It’s a really good graphic novel.

The Dreaming, Vol 2: Empty Shells (written by Simon Spurrier, art by Bilquis Evely and Abigail Larson)
As his kingdom crumbles and his subjects search for him in desperation, Dream of the Endless wanders the Earth as an exile from the realm he is meant to embody. Here, far from the Gates of Horn and Ivory, there are wonders and horrors that even an immortal cannot imagine—until they experience them firsthand.

When an ill-fated romance collapses, Dream is vulnerable to exploitation by sinister forces. And when the heart of an Endless breaks, worlds break with it. Meanwhile, as the Dreaming’s abandoned inhabitants hunt their absent sovereign, the realm’s reluctant new ruler strains against the confines of its throne, threatening to undo the very reality that supports it. What happens to a fairy tale’s inhabitants when their author goes missing?

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REVIEW: “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist - Season 2019It should come as no surprise to anyone that I love a good musical. There’s something that’s just so fun about musicals. Something so heartfelt about that. I’ll also be one of the first to admit that it’s incredibly difficult to pull off a TV show that’s also a musical. Musical films are a little easier to do, but musical shows seem unable to find a way to balance all of the necessary elements in a way that’s sustainable in the long term. Glee came the closest, but its writing quickly fizzled out after a few seasons and both SMASH and RISE failed to attract a large enough audience to justify their existence. But along comes Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, a show that owes a lot to those previous attempts at musical tv shows. Having seen the first four episodes of its first season, it seems that Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist might have found a way to balance all of the elements of a good musical with the necessary elements of a long-running TV show. But the question still remains if it can find an audience and/or maintain its quality writing and energy in the long term. All of that aside, these first four episodes are pretty darn good, though.

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (created by Austin Winsberg)
If there’s a song in your heart, it will get in her head. Jane Levy stars in this high-concept drama as Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy), a whip-smart computer coder forging her way in San Francisco. After an unusual event, Zoey, who always preferred podcasts over pop songs, suddenly starts to hear the innermost wants, thoughts and desires of the people around her – her family, co-workers and complete strangers – through popular songs. At first, she questions her own sanity, but after getting some guidance from her musically adept neighbor, Mo (Alex Newell), and making a breakthrough with her ailing father (Peter Gallagher), Zoey soon realizes this unwanted curse may just be an incredibly wonderful gift as she connects with the world like never before.

The series stars Jane Levy, Skylar Astin, Alex Newell, John Clarence Stewart, with Peter Gallagher and Mary Steenburgen. Lauren Graham is special guest star.

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REVIEW: “Doctor Who” S12E02 – Spyfall, Part 2

DOCTOR WHO: SERIES 12: EPISODE 01I love a good two-parter, I really do. But I’ll also admit that it’s extremely hard to stick the landing on one. The best two-parters have pretty explosive (sometimes literally) cliffhangers that have to be satisfactorily dealt with before the rest of the episode can focus on actually concluding the greater story being told. This was something previous eras of Doctor Who had struggled with a bit; RTD tended to write himself into corners that required a deus ex machina solution while Moffat’s two-parters often were more spiritually connected than narratively. Both of them frequently struggled with figuring out a way to properly conclude the stories they were telling. With Spyfall being the first two-parter from the new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, the hope would be that he’d find a good way to thread this needle. And, for the most part, he does a pretty good job, delivering an episode that’s most definitely a narrative continuation of the previous and providing some solid answers while setting up an intriguing throughline for the rest of the season. (This review will contain spoilers for Spyfall, Part 2. Proceed at your own risk.)

Season 12, Episode 2: Spyfall, Part 2 (written by Chris Chibnall, directed by Lee Haven Jones)
In part two of this epic spy thriller, a terrifying plan to destroy humanity is about to reach fruition. Can the Doctor and her friends escape multiple traps and defeat a deadly alliance?

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REVIEW: BBC’s “Dracula” (2020)

draculaI was one of the few people who remained a fan of Moffat throughout his tenure on Doctor Who. His episodes certainly weren’t perfect, and often ranged dramatically in quality, but I was mostly on board with what he was doing with the storyline – even if his grasp on writing the companions’ character arcs was always weak. I also really enjoyed the first two seasons of Sherlock – even two of those first six episodes weren’t particularly good. While Moffat’s run on Doctor Who was mostly consistent, his and Gatiss’ work on Sherlock took a noticeable dip in quality during the third and fourth seasons, completely blowing any goodwill they’d accumulated from the fanbase by the end of the fourth season’s finale. And it’s this trend of inconsistent quality that brings us to Dracula. There is something appealing about the writers who revived Sherlock Holmes for a new generation tackling another literary legend like Dracula. In that sense, I was very excited to see what they’d do, hoping it would skew closer to the first two seasons of Sherlock in terms of quality. Unfortunately, it skewed heavily toward the last two seasons of Sherlock, giving us a mess of a show that tries to be more clever than it is and eschews telling any kind of coherent story in favor of distracting plot twists that don’t work half as well as Moffat and Gatiss think they do. (Spoilers for all three episodes of Dracula.)

Dracula (written by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat)
For over 120 years, Bram Stoker’s classic novel, Dracula, has inspired generations of filmmakers. Now the creators of Sherlock give the legend fresh blood! It’s 1897 and St Mary’s Convent in Budapest plays host to a desiccated husk of a human being, Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan), an English lawyer with a strange and unsettling story to tell. Listening in is the kind and inquisitive Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells), a nun with an unusual interest in the creatures of the night.

Invited to Transylvania to meet the reclusive Count Dracula (Claes Bang), Harker finds himself trapped in an ancient, terrifying castle, a maze of mouldering corridors and vaults: a prison without locks. It soon becomes clear that he and his client are the only things living in the echoing halls of the moulding pile, and that the Count himself isn’t living at all. In fact, Dracula is a 400-year-old vampire who has grown weary of his own exhausted country and has set his sights on the new world. As the shadows lengthen and Harker’s account unfolds, it becomes clear that the remorseless vampire may have unfinished business with his erstwhile guest.

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