Ted Lasso: Give A Little Love, Get A Little Love

I like to complain about Cormac McCarthy a lot. Like, at every possible opportunity, for example the other day I was listening to a compilation video on YouTube called Behind the Curtain that explores the writing processes for all kinds of things from True Detective to Arrival to the video in question, The Office where what sounds like Michael Shur explains a concept that I champion every chance i get. And, paraphrasing, it’s the idea that the world can be awful and scary and terrible so why not, given an artistic platform, find a way to create a solution, what’s a path out of that, a way of saying here’s some things that help show how the world can also be a better place, if at all possible. To anyone unfamiliar, Mike Shur is responsible for, aside from the American version of The Office, Parks and Rec, Brooklyn 99, and The Good Place. So feel-good comedy is kind of his wheelhouse.

What does that have to do with Cormac McCarthy, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and author of, among other things, The Road, No Country For Old Men, and Blood Meridian, the last of which is one of the most revolting and unpleasant experiences I have ever had since I first started, you know, reading? I don’t have a problem with darkness or nihilism or pessimism in art, be it cinema, literature, or any other medium, but misery for the sake of itself, without any contrast or context, is exactly as much of a waste of time as anything that is on the polar opposite of that. Your Live, Laugh, Love crowd or the people that say Happy Monday and want everyone to go around the room and say something about themselves. Life, and I’m not an expert but I do recycle and chop up plastic soda rings before throwing them away, is pretty weird and complicated. It’s got so many odd layers and tides, the way it gives and takes, painting it as entirely one shade or another is reductive, simplistic, and, in a way, pornographic, which is what I find McCarthy’s inexplicably lauded work to be.

It’s very easy to tear something down or paint an awful picture of life’s inequities. It’s very very difficult to celebrate life realistically, with one foot in optimism and the other in realism, and if you told me a few months ago that an NBC promo for Premier League coverage starring an SNL actor I couldn’t pick out of a lineup of generic white guys, that was converted into full 10 episode season on, of all things, APPLE TV, would or could succeed at doing exactly that, I’d have called you a cab or an Uber or a Lyft because you are clearly drunk and what time is it, what time did you start drinking, I think one of us has a problem.

Ted Lasso is my favorite show in the last…I don’t know how many years. It’s my favorite show, of the laugh/feel/think type, since Scrubs for obvious reasons, Bill Lawrence is the showrunner on both, and what he succeeded with there, he succeeds with here. Ted, on his own, is a funny concept that lives exactly as long as the NBC promo videos that spawned the character but relying on this slightly insouciant yet deceptively insightful coach to carry a full order is both unwieldy and practically impossible; Lawrence and Sudeikis clearly knew this coming out of the gate, so what we have instead is an ensemble of interesting, quirky characters with their own particular journeys and hang-ups. While Lasso’s fish-out-of-water plot is suitably explored, it’s his personality and approach to both coaching and life that invert the trope. To wit, it’s his team and their owner who have to adjust to him and his relentless positivity; how they react to his idiosyncrasies is what generates and provokes a lot of the plot, when they aren’t exploring their own fully realized stories.

Further, if Ted was a perfect, flawless man sent to right everyone’s wrongs and ride off into the sunset, the show would find itself beached on a different shore. While it might not be perfect (I mean, I think it is, but that’s just me), it succeeds in turning Ted’s greatest strength into his greatest weakness, which is where it graduates from good to great. The premise of why exactly an American football coach with no soccer experience or expertise would be hired to coach a Premier League team is reasonable, if a little bit borrowed from Major League, but why an American football coach with no soccer experience or expertise would accept the position is, again, what pushes Ted Lasso above what could be a mediocre novelty.

I don’t really care for Coldplay but in Fix You there’s that line, “When you love someone but it goes to waste, could it be worse?” Coldplay is an English band so this feels like an appropriate reference. As much as I don’t care for their music songs, that line always hits me and, if you can’t relate, Ted’s collapsing marriage can put it in context. Louis CK (may his career R.I.P.) used to say, “No good marriage ever ended in divorce“. Well, that ain’t true. Sometimes people really care about one another but just can’t make it work, they feel around in the dark and can hear each other’s voices but things are always just out of reach; in a way, it can be worse than if that love just died on the vine. In fact, I’ll get even nerdier on you, as Captain Picard once said to Data (with a lot more stank on it than the measured, fatherly memes might imply), “It’s possible to make no mistakes at all and still lose. That is not a weakness, that is life.” I know that it absolutely can be worse but, when love goes to waste, it is no picnic.

One of the reasons I have a blog, a blog where I will regularly quote Star Trek or wax sentimental by bringing up, of all things, a Coldplay song about crying, is because of a character named John Dorian (J.D.) from the TV show Scrubs played by Zach Braff. Zach and Bill Lawrence showed me for the very first time that it is possible to be a sensitive geek who listens to Dido and cries during movies, and that didn’t make me any less of an adult or a man, that being in touch with my feminine side or willing to be the butt of my own jokes was actually empowering because empowering is what happens when you accept and embrace your own personality. J.D. never apologized for being those things, he was never embarrassed to be them and he made me feel okay about being me.

This was something I needed very much in my early 20s and, as I get older, I have found the next version, the next example of that in this unexpected place. I don’t possess Ted Lasso’s optimism or his charm, but I love being as silly and self-aware, I do believe in an individual’s ability to affect their environment, that lifting up others and being a source of comfort and patience is a very difficult thing to do that pays off in orders of magnitude for everyone involved. And I do know what’s it’s like to love someone and it goes to waste. Ted’s an inspiration there, too (Onward, forward). And so is the rest of the cast of Ted Lasso, as they learn from each other and mature and just try to do and be better, I can’t wait for Jaime Tartt’s redemption arc and the potential promotion of AFC Richmond over the coming second and third seasons, and the clever, hilarious ways Ted and company will find their solutions through the awful and the scary and the terrible. Fuck Cormac McCarthy.

WandaVision: Eps. 3 through 9- The Great Red Hype

Well. That was some bullshit.

 

………okay, fine. My original intention was to post something every few episodes of WandaVision, an approach I had a lot of fun with during Game of Thrones, which, for all it’s faults, had enough content to make silly conjectures and theories about all while joking around like a Jokey Jokerton, but damn if that wasn’t both impossible given how lean nearly every episode has been and, come to find out, would have been an utter waste of time anyway. I’m not going to sugar-coat this reaction lads and ladies and non-gender identifiers, this first step into Phase 4, regardless of the delays and rescheduling due to Coronavirus, is a colorful but toothless piece of fluff, it’s exactly the commercial for Disney Plus I suspected it would be, and the best part of the experience were the conversations about what it could have been.

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I bear no ill-will towards the cast and crew, WandaVision, ultimately, is a pretty terrific creation in terms of scale and scope, there’s a lot of attention to detail from the craft-making perspective and I have a great deal of respect for the amount of love that went into putting this odd experiment of a show together. But my contempt, of which there is a lot of, is for the higher level decisions and the writing. Good lord, how do you waste Randall Park at every instance with this Jimmy Olsen caliber, aw-shucks dialogue; this terrific improvisational actor who exudes personality and quirk has been made utterly forgettable. Director Hayward was successfully mysterious, then troublesome, then stupid, then downright Snidely Whiplash evil, not because he was complex and well-written, but because they had no idea how to write him except to be a foil and make bad decisions. Additionally, I even got frustrated with Kat Dennings’ character being limited to exposition and snark, she could have been a completely new character and it wouldn’t have mattered so why bring her back at all? 

The long awaited finale, that was supposed to usher in the next Doctor Strange movie and have some kind of crazy cameo or reveal or something, had and did none of those things. This was, in fact, a self-contained story about Wanda being sad and doing some crazy magic and then stopping. There were no consequences or stakes, no Multiverse reveal, Evan Peters casting is revealed to be, in the most meta of meta ways, just an actor cast in a role which some folks have found to be a cute in-joke and I have found to be a gigantic ‘fuck you‘ to the audience for getting our hopes up that something significant was taking place. We are all dumber for having experienced it, I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

The only saving grace of WandaVision, the raison d’etre, are the performances. In a very short amount of time Kathryn Hahn has elevated herself to full-on meme status, she was one of the few actors whose role had some meat on it, who managed to exceed the relentlessly mediocre writing and put some stank on it, which is no surprise considering she’s, well, Kathryn Hahn. Paul Bettany and Liz Olsen also comport themselves well, but that’s also a given, I even experienced emotional emotions when they were emotionally emoting. But holy Marvel Studios, was any of it worth it at all if the end result was a gigantic reset? I am almost more surprised by the lack of actual plot or movement of the MCU than I would have been if Doctor Strange or Professor X had showed up. What a waste of a great setup and a great concept and great comic book source material. What a waste, period. 

Here’s the part where I would normally expound on some of the deeper themes and resonance of WandaVision, how it explores some metaphor or concept but I’m still grasping for straws. Wanda’s grief, in the penultimate episode, is effective in retconning her history and what I was worried about was a subsequent giant CGI slap fight which is exactly what took place. I will give credit for, and this is important to note, that the Vision versus The Vision (typing words about the MCU is getting so stupid) was concluded in a very satisfactory way. Something that gets lost in all the green screen and computer effects is that in the comics the action and big splash pages were only half of the draw. The rest is the writing. More often than not the heroes had to reason their way out of a problem, as opposed to punch the problem away. This has only occurred a handful of times so far, with Doctor Strange outsmarting Dormammu (ugh, fake words) and the conclusion of Spider-Man: Far From Home, which has a lot of punching but ultimately Peter snags the pistol Mysterio has aimed at him because he still has his guard up, because he learned. So, good job, WandaVision, you have continued the tradition of setting up Bettany with some of the best lines and insights into the human condition. 

Let’s talk post-credit scenes. While it’s not clear what Monica Rambeaux’ powers are exactly, some research on the interwebs (because good writing always requires a google search to understand what’s happening) reveals her as Photon/Spectrum, and she will play a role in the upcoming Captain Marvel 2. Also, there are Skrulls and Nick Fury is in space, both things that were revealed at the end of Spider-Man: Far From Home, so, who gives a shit? Further, Wanda in a cabin in the mountains being maniacal at the camera and implying…something, that smacks a lot of Ed Norton’s failed turn playing the Hulk. Again, I’m more confused than anything else at the dearth of content. Why are they holding back at all? Why won’t you talk to me Marvel?! This was like having a messenger conversation with someone where the little ellipses go wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, for five minutes and then the message you get is “LOL IKR” and you’re like, what the actual hell.

Say something nice, my mom’s voice is chiming in my head. Fine. For seven weeks or so WandaVision was a successful pop culture phenomenon that raked up all kinds of otherwise obscure comic book references and lore. It’s always fun watching the internet buzz about something that isn’t awful or offensive or divisive, and although the week-to-week releases are annoying in the age of instant streaming, it also unifies people in real-time and becomes a shared experience in a time when we can’t have a lot of those or, you know, nice things. So, cool beans. Even though the entire venture would have made more sense as a four-part mini-series or even a full-length feature where they can still give every single crew-member their own credit screen in order to artificially stretch out the run-time right down to the craft-service people, because you can fool some people Disney, but you can’t fool me, I’m hip to your game and I’m not going to stand for it. Not any more. This far, no further. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…you can’t get fooled again, is what I’m saying.

….anyone know when the Loki series debuts? I’ll take The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, whatever, just give it to me, already.

Nomadland: Not All Who Wander

I absolutely despise the film Into The Wild, starring Emile Hirsch, that tells the real life story of Christopher McCandless, a young man who decided to walk away from a college degree and a good life in middle America in order to become a drifter and live off the land. He, with no actual training or survivalist experience, eventually made his way to Alaska in order to become one with nature and have a lot of deep, existential conversations with trees or whatever. Eventually, after nearly starving to death, he poisons himself and dies a short distance away from a bridge spanning a river he was isolated by, that he would have easily been able to traverse and possibly save his own life, except that he had not bothered to consult a map of the area he was in. He died in an old abandoned school bus that he was using for shelter, a school bus that in real life had to be removed by authorities because too many copycats and admirers were getting lost or injured trying to find this absurd landmark.

If it sounds like have a particular note of contempt in my tone it’s because while I understand the sentiment and even some of the adulation towards someone who boldly swears off the shackles of a consumer society and communes with their ancestral instincts and desire for adventure, I grew up poor. And when you grow up poor you walk by the windows of these homes, with their firelight and Thanksgiving decorations left up for too long, you wonder what it’s like to go to college first and then decide what your major is going to be, because unless you’re one of those Very Special Episode kids, you don’t even know what a game plan looks like to earn a scholarship, it’s all loans and debt. For every amazing teacher or counselor there are about 10,000 more who do not give a shit. So Christopher McCandless, while the ambition is respected, is an asshole in my book. Into The Wild is a very good film, though, context aside.

Nomadland is a film that is both antithetical and complimentary to Into The Wild. Rather than a celebration of the potential and wonder of youth and the power of nature, it’s a patient meditation on the quiet slide into disrepair and obsolescence. It’s about people who have been left behind finding a way back to community and purpose, while marking time towards eventuality with dignity, in the face of relentless indignities. Nomadland exists in and examines that inevitable time and place when our wounds will stop healing and get the better of us, but does so without losing sight of the beauty in the desolation, in the in-between forgotten places full of artifacts and ghosts.

Frances McDormand is that rare talent who can not only carry a film this minimalist, but tell a story with this little dialogue or conflict and Nomadland, while populated with the actual nomads and itinerant people the film is based on, lives or dies on her ability to humanize and emulate them without pandering. These are the odd-yet-familiar people you pass on the street or see driving by in a camper and don’t think twice about. McDormand’s character Fern, is that woman well into her twilight years still working a fryer, wearing a fast food uniform, with a map of the world on her face, and cigarette stained fingernails. She, and they, are the people you know have a fascinating story that brought them to this place or another, and it must be a sad one but oh, well. That will never happen to me, which is exactly what they must have thought once upon a time.

To say Nomadland is bleak does a disservice to what is a powerful and remarkably confident film about what it is to be an outsider, even among outsiders, and still find ways to be kind and considerate. Fern, having lost her husband and the idyllic life they had made for themselves, has committed herself to living out of a van. She works hard and treats the people around her with the kind of motherly/sisterly respect that you would expect if you ever had the opportunity to work around or with Frances McDormand. To say Nomadland is uplifting also does a disservice to how much faith director and writer Chloe Zoa has in the audience to confront the realities of mortality and the fundamental inhumanities inherent to late-stage capitalism, which isn’t a political statement so much as the full-throated iteration of the fact that the moment you stop producing or consuming, you are only so much chaff to be recycled or stepped over.

For that experience, and the cognitive dissonance found in feeling both depressed and fulfilled afterwords, I am on the hype train for Nomadland and it’s inevitable deluge of awards and accolades. This is a film that is a slice out of time in a place that only exists because of the people who have decided to occupy it, people who lost their livelihoods or loved ones or homes and said, fuck that, home is where I say it is. I suspect it will inspire that same romantic wanderlust that Chris McCandless and Jon Krakauer artfully inspired in folks searching for meaning or substance in their own lives, that abandoning one’s problems is a valid alternative to working them, selectively ignoring the fact that these denizens of the road have, in many cases, lost every other choice. For them the option is not romantic, simply the only one left. But maybe I’m wrong, maybe wandering with the purpose of getting lost has been the point all along, I have a feeling I’ll find out one day.

WandaVision: Episodes 1 and 2- The Dimension of the Imagination…

Cheers! This is the 101st time I’ve published an article on my blog since I started it about 8 years ago and if you’re wondering why I didn’t celebrate the 100th it’s because, and this is very important: I didn’t notice, so hooray 101! On with the fun.

I am old. Not too old, but old enough to have lived in both the analog and digital era, which is something I really appreciate and if being proud about knowing how to use a rotary phone seems like a weird flex, that’s one of the things about being old: the victories get smaller and stupider. Back in my day I grew up in a pretty crowded household and one of the only bastions of privacy I had was late at night, when everyone else had gone to bed. And in the middle of the night I would watch TV and since the only thing we could afford was basic cable, that meant hours upon hours of Nick at Nite where I enjoyed everything from The Dick Van Dyke Show to I Love Lucy to Anne of Green Gables to The Andy Griffith Show…the list goes on but suffice it to say I didn’t have a lot of friends as a child. Correlation? Maybe.

WandaVision, the first entry in Marvel’s Phase Four, starts out as a paean to this era of television which it very much succeeds at in both tone and humor and this is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good because it’s funny and charming while hinting at a sinister secret, that there is something terribly off about this Rockwellian dreamscape. It’s bad because that’s everything we already know from the trailer; the first two of nine total episodes tells us absolutely nothing new, which would be fine if Disney Plus were treating us like adults instead of desperately trying to add to their subscriber base by releasing episodes weekly…but they are releasing these episodes weekly going forward. Further, they only clock in around 20 or 30 minutes in length but I want something to write about so we’re going to dig in to what we have so far.

Things to Like: The scene where Vision phases through the ottoman while carrying Wanda is tribute to Dick Van Dyke, who would famously and hilariously trip over his which is positioned in the same spot, and that was super cute, I thought, I like this, this is a thing I like.

Things to Not Like: The first episodes are structured the way many Golden Age sitcoms are, and I thought, Oh neat, it’s like they are recreating the tropes and antics of an episode of I Love Lucy. And then that’s exactly what they did. Which is great if you’ve never seen an episode of that show, but if you have seen every episode it’s a bit like hearing a new, modern band in concert (remember concerts?) start playing a golden oldie like Free Bird or Simple Man but they play it exactly the way Skynyrd does, without bringing anything new or adding their own spin. There’s a few scenes, of course, that go a little haywire, but they come and go without any real sense of dread and we are back on (laugh) track in no time. This concerns me because with WandaVision I want David Lynch, but what we are probably getting is Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Things to Like: Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen are delightful and it’s fun watching them work, especially when they have to switch between “Oh, darling! (cue laugh track)” and “I think our reality is a lie (……………….cue laugh track)”. I expect this to ratchet up as the season progresses.

Things to Not Like: Marvel and Kevin Feige have got us by the short and curlies and they know it. Instead of opening with a bang, they are going to draw this out as much as possible and I don’t like it, no sir. Their audience is captive, we have to know what’s next after the devastating conclusion of the Infinity Saga and while I have the same obvious suspicions about where Phase 4 is going, I’m concerned in a nerd-sense that we are rushing to a middle on Marvel’s ability to innovate and reinvent. This happened when I read comics enthusiastically, the constant resurrections and retcons invalidated any sense of stakes and I moved on to novels and more mature fare, this is fairly inevitable when it comes to this kind of serialized storytelling. So a cautious Yellow Alert, which is a Star Trek reference and that ‘not having a lot of friends growing up’ thing is making more and more sense now, isn’t it.

Things to Like: There are a ton of Easter eggs and interesting casting decisions sprinkled throughout the first two episodes (is there any role that Katherine Hahn can’t be Katherine Hahn in? She’s like a female Vince Vaughn) and then Monica Rambeau for some reason. And this S.W.O.R.D. logo appearing? I don’t mean to slight anyone here, but it’s a little bit like that stupid show I definitely don’t watch, The Masked Singer, where everyone is like OMG who is the singer?! And they reveal the singer and America is like I don’t know who that is! with no loss of enthusiasm or joy. This sounds like a thing that I do not like but I’m trying to be polite, like when someone’s parents hire a clown to perform at a birthday party and all the kids humor him even though they are uncomfortable but also they were raised right. I think two metaphors are enough. I’m just saying I hope these cameos and Easter eggs make sense later on. What was up with that creepy toaster commercial?

Things to Not Like: Disney Plus. Disney is like Gus Fring, genial and polite on the surface, but whose avarice and capacity for manipulation know no bounds. Disney Plus is their most recent Los Pollos Hermanos, their latest vehicle for extracting nostalgia and sentimentality for cash, and like any successful fast food franchise, they have gotten very good at following a formula. Just like anyone with a pulse and a childhood, I really enjoyed The Mandalorian, especially the heart-warming, thrilling finale of the last season. I mean, I don’t really identify as a Star Wars fan exactly and I had tears running down my face. But as well made and entertaining as that show is, however, it was not exactly an artistic labor of love. Someone didn’t have a story that needed to be told and, through the right combination of persistence and luck, managed to find a way to bring it to life.

Disney wanted a new Star Wars property so they hired Jon Favreau to make it happen and we’re all better for it but from a marketing perspective the entire thing is just a commercial for Disney Plus. That’s why most of the episodes are ~30 minutes long and why they are regressing to the weekly episode format, it’s the same reason drug dealers don’t offer to sell to their customers in bulk. WandaVision already has that feel to it, but I’m hoping Disney’s better half in Kevin Feige, has some say in at least the quality of this latest commercial.

Now for something I’m going to call SPECULATION-LAND …a thing I need a new name for. If you don’t want to be spoiled by my conjecture or comparisons to the (potential) comic book source material go no further. Thar be potential spoilers ahead.

So this is confirmed to be at least influenced by House of M, right? There were a lot of questions about where to go after Thanos annihilated half the Universe, what stakes could possibly compare to that kind of scale and scope. Well, Scarlet Witch is the logical next step for a few reasons. In the comics she is one of the most powerful mutants in existence and the House of M storyline is the perfect mechanism for reorienting the MCU to include a host of other intellectual properties that they have been tip-toeing around since the beginning rather inelegantly, specifically, the X-Men franchise that Fox has been desperately milking for cash after Bryan Singer’s career self-destructed. After the abysmal Dark Phoenix someone finally stepped in and took their toy away from them then made them sit in the corner to think about what they’ve done. I mean, not really, 20th Century Fox was sold, but it’s what I imagine happened every time I remember trucking out to the theater to see dumb-ass Dark Phoenix.

Anyway, another review referred to Disney as the House of Mouse and I went, DAMN it, why didn’t I think of that, I wish I could go back in time, stop myself from reading that article and then come up with that inference on my own. There are obvious obstacles to recreating the source material in that the two major protagonists/antagonists are either dead (Quicksilver) or do not exist in the MCU (Magneto) which leaves very few alternatives. If Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was canonical (which I don’t think that it is since the Snap did not seem to occur or effect the series, time travel shenanigans aside) then Hydra is also a no-go, Agent Coulson and company destroyed them…multiple times over if I recall.

If Marvel stays true to tradition the antagonist will be someone who was incidentally harmed or effected by the Avengers while they were doing do-goodery and forms a lethal fixation on destroying them from the inside out or something, I don’t know, that’s been kind of their villain motif. It’s been announced already that WandaVision is essentially the opening act for Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness which will truly kick off Phase 4, and that’s all fine and good, I haven’t wanted to see a Sam Raimi film in a long time but this seems like the perfect combination of material and talent, even if I will have to put up with Tobey Maguire in the suit again (come at me, bro).

But it’s important to note that the other source material Feige referenced was The Vision and the Scarlet Witch, which I have not read but appears to have more to do with the actual relationship between Wanda and a (currently dead) robot. I suspect this is where the emotional manipulation comes in, and what will have me blubbering like a little baby boy whose balloon floated away by accident (true story). That we will have an examination of the relationship that Wanda and Vis could have had and the ultimate realization that that life is never going to happen will be what shatters her psyche. I can’t imagine them portraying the Decimation, it’s too similar to the Snappening (or the “Blip” as the MCU refers to it but I never will) and also, how are you gonna decimate mutants when there are no mutants? It’s all very exciting.

That’s it for now, I don’t think it will be possible to review every episode so we’ll do this in portions. When I said “hooray 101, on with the fun” I didn’t mean to rhyme it. I apologize.

The Midnight Sky: Disappointment Immeasurable, Day Ruined.

Spoilers, because this is nonsense.

At the finale of The Midnight Sky, with the actors tapping at generic instrument panels like extras on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation the credits begin to roll and the action continues, much like the ending of Michael Clayton, a far, far superior film and I made a sound like a camel giving birth or dying. Or both, I don’t know but my groan and attempt to say Oh my God, at the same time, my attempt to express my intense irritation and discomfort with everything that it tries and fails to be all came out at once and my dog, who is just as depressed as I am these days, rolled his head over at me in concern.

Since that moment the only real thought in my head regarding The Midnight Sky is whether or not I hated it more that Ad Astra, a film so self-indulgent and unoriginal that I made two attempts to write a scathing review of the thing before it was too late. All memory of the experience had evaporated like a dream in the morning, nothing remained but an impression and a vague sense of having been robbed of time. I almost made a decision when I decided that Sky at least has a positive message but I realized it does not, there is no message at all about climate change or environmental matters, it’s as if The Road were set in the Arctic and all the horrifying examinations of humanity, absent decency or hope, were removed. What remains is just a real bummer, man, and that’s saying something when comparing it to THE ROAD.

Not only is there no real purpose or enjoyment to be had here it contains one of the two cringiest moments I’ve experienced this weekend, two moments that vaulted into the top five cringiest things I’ve seen all year, yes, this year. The first was Diana Prince suddenly realizing she has the power to make things invisible with some hand wiggling, including an entire jet all of a sudden, never mind that radar doesn’t work by actually seeing the object it’s detecting but whatever. That was dumb but brief and then neat because fireworks! That moment was usurped here in The Midnight Sky when an ensemble cast of actors, in space, play and sing along to Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, a song that I don’t hate because it seems to make (white) people so very happy, however I never ever want to hear it again in my life if it can be helped. This scene had me rooting for the meteor shower, is what I’m saying.

I had to double check the Wikipedia article to confirm that this film identifies as “science fiction” to which I respond, How dare you. I’m not usually a plot holes guy, I find it to be low hanging fruit and mostly ammunition for the kill-joy crowd, all films have logical inconsistencies somewhere to greater or lesser degrees and I like getting lost in the movie. I want to believe, I want that suspension of disbelief so I generally turn a blind eye but yikes, Clooney. It’s the present day and we can tell there are potentially habitable worlds in other star systems so the idea that there is a paradise moon orbiting Jupiter that just popped into discovery in the modern era is kind of ludicrous, bro. Humanity has been staring at our celestial neighbors for a few hundred years and while there is still much to discover and a lot of potential in places like Europa, there are not oxygen rich, forested utopias a couple months away by giant space ship. Also, why is there lattice work decorating this admittedly impressive interplanetary spacecraft? Even forty years in the future it’s still going to be about practicality and utility, and in the era of television that features The Expanse at the forefront of what space travel is going to be all about if we survive this era of self-destructive adolescence, why are you decorating with an ensemble cast and big budget special effects.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the Netflix model has one endemic flaw in it’s desperation for new content and accommodation of A-List talent and that’s a lack of oversight. One of my favorite Twitter threads is Network Notes, a series of bizarre directions and requests from studio heads that range from completely tone-deaf to utterly insane contradictions but for every thousand or so of these there are probably some reasonable assertions and suggestions to rein in creative types or creative attempts that are destined to fail. The Midnight Sky needed someone to say something about the abysmal pacing, the relentless cliche, and the absence of entertainment value in watching George Clooney do nothing of value. It’s not as if the Aether (which is the name of the spaceship, insert camel dying sound) needed to be warned of the condition of a dying Earth because he fails to warn them and they just see it for themselves, anyway, and he has no information as to the who/what/why.

There are voices that argue it’s a father protecting his daughter but, if you get to the conclusion, that is utterly irrelevant. Maybe it’s about the resiliency of the human spirit in the sense that two characters decide to abandon Earth and return to Dream Moon but, and I’m not a geneticist or a scientist but I did stay at Holiday Inn Express one time, two human beings can’t repopulate the entire race. That Coach Taylor and Hispanic stereotype decide to land on Earth anyway is pointless and suicidal so, you know, why. If the entire endeavor had been an exploration of nihilism I may feel inclined to grant some leeway but in the same way that I absolutely despise Cormac McCarthy and the previously referenced The Road it’s because absolutely fuck you.

Not you, personally. But one of my favorite Doctor Who moments has to do with Vincent Van Gogh, and not just the nerd fantasy of showing a great artist, who was racked with depression and insecurity in his life, the power of his works. It’s in the line, “He transformed the pain of his tormented life into ecstatic beauty. Pain is easy to portray but to use your passion and pain to portray the ecstasy and joy and magnificence of the world…” Pain is easy to portray, that’s true. I’m guilty of perpetuating it here, in my disappointment and frustration with The Midnight Sky. George Clooney is a terrific actor, see Syriana and a terrific director, see Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Goodnight and Good Luck. But where McCarthy has what is described as poetry to his nihilism, here there is none of that, only a beginning and middle which is not art, just dazzling set pieces and half-formed ideas. What a waste, particularly in our time and our need for some kind of clarion call. Like the devastated, chaotic Earth hastily and half-heartedly gestured at, what an inexplicable waste of resources, money and time.

The Wilds: On An Island In The Sun

It’s been awhile and I thought it would be nice to check in. There sure is a lot of television to watch, which is a good thing while it lasts. With the world in the state it is, there’s plenty of time to binge watch any and everything and I’m even tempted to get an Apple TV subscription, even though I find the concept morally and ethically repugnant. But there’s Ted Lasso! However, the will to watch something brand new hasn’t exactly manifested, instead I’ve been rewatching old favorites. I even discovered I have an HBO Max subscription in addition to my HBO Now and the most remarkable thing about that addition is there is almost nothing in that massive collection of media that I have any interest in. Way to go, Warner Media, I will be enjoying your theatrical releases at home next year.

The primary reason for my recursive viewing habits is your generally depressed state of mind, I get that chronic Seasonal Affective Disorder and with all that’s been going on, it hit with a real vengeance this December. So I stick with what’s familiar, with what won’t trigger the sad faceys or, you know, an existential crisis. But after stumbling across a positive review from a site that I trust I decided to give The Wilds a shot, based on the interesting premise and not because I’m a pervert or something.

Nine teenage girls are trapped on a deserted island after a plane crash and… now, wait, wait, hold on. I said I was not a pervert and I meant it. In this regard, anyway. The show’s creator and most of the writers and directors are women and there are none of the typical attempts to sexualize any of the actresses. They have sexuality, from the more conservative to the very much not that, but it’s in no way a byproduct of titillation (heh), rather than one of the many ways that each of them, coming from all different walks of life, are humanized.

I’d have to share the sentiment that the review that inspired my viewing also shared; this is not going to blow the doors off the pop culture establishment, it’s not a watershed moment in TV history, and is flawed in a handful of small, inside baseball kind of ways. Stuff that only nerds like me, who rewatches something like The West Wing at least once a year, for fun, will notice in terms of shot selection, dialogue, story logic. But nitpickery aside, The Wilds is a very good television show, with a lot of heart, an intriguing premise that it mostly effectively explores, and a uniquely feminine story perspective that is becoming more and more commonplace thanks to a certain movement.

I like that movement and it’s effects on popular culture and not because I’m trying to impress some Women’s Lib chicks or anything, obviously, I just used the word ‘chicks‘. I like stories from a new or different perspective because, hmm, let me try and find the words to explain succinctly…because they are new and/or different. I do not understand the brand of internet troll that get bent out of shape because female or minority characters are empowered or stories are now being told from their viewpoint, who shout WOKE BULLSHIT on whatever message board will have them. I could not be less impressed with people who object to inclusiveness or progressive concepts in storytelling or strong female characters, even if it occasionally fails, he said, looking in the direction of Rey…”Skywalker”.

And it does fail here and there, because when it’s artificial and token I understand the hostility, but The Wilds is neither of those things. If it were just about some teens trying to survive on coconuts and berries that have complimentary personalities or skillsets, that find friendship and each other, if this were The Breakfast Club crossed with Cast Away, I’d be far less inclined to write about it. I mean, it kind of is those things, exploring each character’s history and pathos via flashback a la Lost but with one fewer Smoke Monster but it is also satisfying and addictive, if a little bit of a stretch practically. Because there is more going on on the island than there appears. There is a mystery afoot. The premise is…sus.

Did I use that reference correctly? I don’t play videogames with other people or lie which is what I believe is the whole point of Among Us and I only know that because of Reddit. So I will give away the one minor spoiler that is revealed in the pilot episode and really needs to be in order to sufficiently drum up interest: the girls are alone on the island but they are being monitored by electronic, possibly nefarious means. How does that work? Well, that’s all you get from me.

In all honesty, it was a few episodes of the 10 episode first season before I really set my phone down and felt invested, through no fault of anyone involved. Such is the risk of an ensemble cast, each episode spends more time with one character at a time, so it’s essentially like watching a series of first episodes. This is only detrimental if your attention span is as short as mine is nowadays (second shout out to Reddit), but by the end of the season I found the quality I was looking for. One of my favorite things that good television can do is surprise the audience’s expectations with regard to which character they sympathize with and how. I like to think of Jon Bernthal’s character in The Walking Dead, back when I still cared about that show. I remember hating him so much, I fumed at everyone for not seeing what was happening to him. Then his character was killed off and I suddenly lost interest in the whole thing. It was immediately apparent that even though he was loathsome, Shane was the most interesting part of the entire show. He had an arc and affected the characters around him as opposed to everyone else who just seem to have things happen to them.

The Wilds does this really well. I found myself most interested in the character that I least liked originally. I found the strong characters in the beginning the most flawed and the boring characters suddenly tragic. It brought to mind one of the best examples of this kind of social experiment, the science fiction film Cube which similarly examined the effect of an extraordinary, high stress situation on conventional personality types. The Wilds takes that experiment and adds another element, one I will definitely not spoil, that keeps the thrills and twists coming all the way through.

So without being too…sus myself, (I’ll stop) I’m going to suggest sitting down with the 10 episode first season now streaming on Amazon Prime, but do yourself a favor. Take notes on who everyone is at first and then take a look at that list at the end. This is something I wish that I’d done on my first go around because it’s all the more rewarding when the storytellers effectively pull the wool over your eyes, like a well executed magic trick. And even if the mystery isn’t your thing, there’s still a series of well told stories about well realized characters at the heart of this maze. Or is there?

(That was confusing, yes, there are.)

TENET: The Only Way is Through

I’m going to annoy my friends and probably more than a few strangers and out myself as a fan of Tool. I love the band and their weird spirituality, self-serious philosophy and the terrific and compelling command of visuals but above all, the music. It’s the complex, polyrhythmic, melodic-yet-masculine churning progressive rock/metal hybrid that is distinctive and influential yet never successfully imitated. Like System of a Down or Rage Against the Machine, no one sounds like them and no one really bothers to even try. But no matter how much I love Tool I’ve never, not once, enjoyed their music the first time I heard it. Ever. More often I hear what other people do, the obscurity or the pretentiousness, but I try to get past that and just figure out whatever is trying to get through which is usually a rewarding experience.

There are a couple of reasons for this, one is that aforementioned complexity, they just don’t lend themselves to being processed right away and nothing is more fun than watching a new fan, someone who is just starting to get into their sound, try to headbang or rock out to them. It’s the time signatures. They’re just ridiculous and new fans look like kids a Sadie Hawkins dance trying to boogie to Copperhead Road for the first time, but like, back when I was a kid, not nowadays when children appear to be trained hip hop back up dancers because of YouTube and Instagram. The other reason is that I’m pretty stupid that way. My brain requires repeated listens in order to pick out the patterns and chord progressions, and it’s similar with movies.

As much as I love writing about them, I very rarely pick up on the visual cues or motifs or, particularly, symbolism. Usually, if a film is good I’ll know it just not…why exactly. Then on a second viewing, when I’m not paying as much attention to the “what is going to happen” as the “why/how is it happening”, then a lot more gets through. I bring this up because I really enjoyed TENET….the second time.

This is not to say it’s bad the first go around, but it is relentlessly expository and unrelentingly convoluted. This wouldn’t be that big a deal if, and I say this will all the respect and affection in the world for one of my favorite writer/directors, it was possible as a theater goer to understand more than, hmm, half of the fucking dialogue. I could barely manage that and I was sitting up close, leaning into the screen the whole time.

Seriously. Interstellar is probably my favorite Chris Nolan film (yeah, I know) and that film has the same issues in places, as opposed to here where the muffled, low volume, the masked faces, the constant ambient background noise is absolutely endemic. I apologize for that word choice. But there is no excuse for this in a modern blockbuster, somebody needed to pull Chris aside and say, buddy, great job I think, now get these actors in an ADR booth and re-record the dialogue because it sounds like the audio was recorded on one of those Talk-Boy devices from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. And I mean recorded back in 1992, not one now that has miraculously survived and is being used by a sound guy who duct taped it to a hockey stick in present day on a 200 million dollar movie.

I read somewhere that Nolan is red/green color blind and that’s both inspirational and an explanation as to why his films are so blue and yellow. It’s possible that this blindness to a certain range of the color spectrum has somehow enhanced his hearing, like Daredevil and he’s like, I don’t know what you guys are talking about, I hear everything. It’s truly more baffling than the plot itself and that is saying something.

About the actors, the only character who has any opportunity to emote or express pathos is Elizabeth Debicki, who comports herself very well considering. I also admire the fact that she is 6’3” and is absolutely depicted that way. No one around her are wearing lifts, she is not constantly lounging or kneeling. She towers over her male costars and, aside from being tall, is also very long, she’s like a beautiful, sexy wacky waving inflatable arm-person. John David Washington is very good as John David Washington, his facial hair is tremendous and I look forward to the rest of his career which is, unfortunately overshadowed by his pops. Denzel has the rare gift of elevating everything he’s ever been in, for example John Q. is objectively a bad film that is a terrific watch because of his presence alone. JDW, you’re alright, so far. Kenneth Branaugh is in this as well. Since people don’t always click on linked .gifs, picture a satisfied shrug that implies sarcasm. Robert Pattinson is, goddamnit, the best and most underutilized part of the movie.

So. TENET is probably the least emotional, the least human film that Chris Nolan has ever made. In Inception the main character was struggling with his guilt and the loss of his wife, this was central to his character and the plot, The Prestige was all revenge and professional jealousy, Interstellar was a giant cry factory (why I love it). But there’s really nothing like that at the center of TENET, which is just full on spy movie/Bond film that is mainlining NOLAN-TIME-JUICE directly into a major artery.

What is NOLAN-TIME-JUICE? Well. I could explain it but I’d have to start at the end. And the middle and start explaining before you actually asked. For better or worse, Chris Nolan has leaned entirely into his latest plot contrivance without attempting any real emotional connection with the audience, which is a new one for him and really tests his abilities as a storyteller to mixed results. I daresay his reach may have finally exceeded his grasp and that’s a good thing. It should, this bravery and bold approach is what put him on the map in the first place and I hate to say that I wonder where he’ll go from here but…I wonder where he’ll go from here, because this is probably his first real misfire, all technical achievement and virtuosity aside. However, there is an effort to address something that is permeating the collective conscience, the alarming, persistent sense of the world ending.

This is something that Nolan has had an eerie prescience for, when The Dark Knight came out he predicted the rise of George W’s surveillance and 4th Amendment violating Patriot Act in Bruce Wayne’s magical cell phone sonar technology, science that asked questions of privacy versus security in the age of terrorism. In The Dark Knight Rises, it was the Occupy Wall Street movement as weaponized in the form of Bane and Catwoman and her distressingly proletariat threat, “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

TENET, for all it’s capabilities and innovation, turns a blind eye towards the world’s ails and, in it’s aspiration to be a Bond film, reduces the problems of global existentialism into what is both the most creative and least interesting MacGuffin-driven exercise in camera tricks and trick photography. On a second viewing, I’m still not quite clear on what was going on in the finale or why, and who I should care about, so…that’s actually pretty on par with Bond movies, point awarded. I am all about escapism but the resolution felt, in many way, worse than the letdown that Avengers: Endgame was in hindsight. While thrilling and funny and a fine enough end-cap to it’s 22 film long series, it was also utterly toothless and a pure fan-service and a testament to the unequivocal fact that time travel, as a plot device, results in a weak denouement, even when it’s at the forefront of the story.

As for that actual plot contrivance, well. It’s better experienced than explained and actually somewhat more confusing the second time around. I was worried I’d be slightly bored having already seen the final reveals but that’s not the case, instead I was able to focus more on the details and the landscape, on actually trying to wrap my head around the logic instead of just giggling stupidly to myself when things really ramp up, like Vince Vaughn at the end of the sex montage in Wedding Crashers.

A decent analogy would be to compare it to a roller coaster. The first time is all fear and uncertainty, the second is about looking around and the thrill. TENET is very cool. It’s also a uniquely Nolan-esque experience, no one does it like him, no one sounds like him. Like Tool or Rage or System, there just isn’t anyone comparable, it’s not that these examples including him are in a different league, they are playing a different sport. So with its flaws, which it certainly has, it’s an undeniably unique ride, one that requires a second, possibly third to be fully appreciated. Also fucking subtitles.

Is TENET worth trucking out to theaters during our current health crisis? That’s a tough question. I’m very fortunate in that I have access to Alamo Drafthouse, a chain that in normal circumstances is a bastion for cinema lovers. It’s a theater where I love showing up early because instead of commercials or advertisements, they screen fan films or have short documentaries about the source material, it’s invested in being as consumer friendly as possible, I’ve seen special screenings of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and Gerald’s Game with star Carla Gugino (who still hasn’t returned my emails but she’ll come around, I know we have a lot in common and WHY WON’T YOU LOVE ME CARLA) in attendance. It’s a great place that has put multiple checks in to ensure people’s safety, including temperature checks at the door, buffered seating and remote ordering of food and beverages. For me, it was a small return to normality that I needed. But TENET is not a life changing experience, rather a brief escape and lovely reminder of the power and possibility of cinema to expand our imaginations, which in turn has the capacity to cultivate the soul. That’s what art is for and this is certainly that, while being more of a technical marvel than an emotional one. Like a Tool song, it requires a second or third take to really process and it’s a worthy addition to….

*sigh*

Okay. I haven’t written in awhile and as a result, I’ve lost a step. I keep wanting to revisit this quote, I want to shoehorn it into the review of this film but it doesn’t quite fit so I’m just going to say it because it’s worth saying. Things are getting a little dicey in the world, storms both political, racial, and literal in the form of both fire and rain, chaos is starting to feel like the norm. And there is a temptation to accept this and feel helpless or defeated, like this is just the way it is and it’s only going to get worse. I know this because I feel this. I hope I’m alone, I know I’m not. Here’s the quote:

Len says one steady pull more ought to do it. He says the best way out is always through. And I agree to that, or in so far. As that I can see no way out but through.”

-Robert Frost

We’re in it right now but we’re not alone, not yet. So take it at your own pace, be safe, and look out for each other and see this film, one that didn’t blow my hair back as much as tangle it a little and give it some volume, when it is safely accessible to you and yours.

365 Days: 50 Shades of WTF

Wow. What a treat. For some reason 365 Days is trending on Netflix, a feat I was so proud of Avatar: The Last Airbender for achieving and now I feel like that success is sullied by this gross, horribly acted, poorly written, bizarrely directed adaptation of a Polish author’s trilogy of books who is, shockingly, a woman. All due credit to directors like Michael Bay who turn women into lips and boobs and sweaty trophies to be shunted from one place to another, but you really can’t beat the way some very successful female authors are capable of turning their main characters into vapid, objectified caricatures whose only personality is ‘hot’. It’s got to take an almost Uncle Ruckus type level of self-loathing on their parts but I can’t really fault them because, well, there’s sure as hell an audience for this kind of story. Credit is also due for transforming their male “protagonists” into domineering, preening, sex obsessed, well…. predators, it’s equal opportunity if both sexes are portrayed as everything that we try to teach children it’s not okay to be.

I understand this is fantasy, that hasn’t escaped me but it’s pretty fucked up fantasy. After the son of a mafia boss watches his father get murdered by a…sky bullet or something, Massimo sees a hot lady on the beach and is enamored as he lays in a pool of his and his father’s blood. Five years later he randomly sees her again while glancing out of the car window while pulling into the airport and recognizes her. That’s some wild shit right there, I can barely remember someone’s face after an hour of conversation but Massimo immediately sets a plan into motion to, let me check my notes here…, ah, yes. Kidnap her from her best friend and boyfriend, cover it up with a note and imprison her for 365 days during which he will try to earn her true love but if he doesn’t she’s free to go. You know. Like ya do.

Now, I don’t daydream as much as I did when I was a kid, I miss it to be honest, but even back then when I was lost in my imagination and things took a weird turn I had the presence of mind to think, nah, heh, that actually just stupid, back it up a few beats. Blanka Lipińska, whose novel this film is based on, apparently never developed that same editorial instinct because this character, Laura, just kind of goes with being abducted and torn away from her life in order to fill the niche desires of a career criminal and sexual predator because he saw her on the beach one time after he got shot a little bit. Contrary to what some friends and exes might assert, I am not a girl, so I don’t quite understand this obsession fantasy, this desire to have a powerful, dangerous figure basically threaten sexual violence but stop short so many times eventually I’m like, well now I actually want to, good job knowing that I wanted to be choked and thrown around and afraid for my life but not really because you, in fact, love me. I must have looked so good on that beach where you saw me one time while you were in shock and had just lost your father to murder and were also bleeding out. 

I do have to be completely honest, however. When the credits suddenly and inexplicable rolled, oh, I don’t know, halfway through the third act I was enormously disappointed. Somehow this artless, exploitative, utterly tone-deaf travesty of a film had me invested, I needed to know where it was going, not why, I’d given up on “why” about 15 minutes in when the main male character sexually assaults a flight attendant but it’s okay because she masturbated about it later. Because I guess consent can be retroactive, way to think fourth-dimensionally, Europeans. But for some reason I had to find out what happens to these characters I didn’t really care about, maybe it was morbid curiosity, or maybe it was horniness. Or some combination of the two? Morbid Curi-Orniness. Apparently, a sequel has been greenlit by Netflix but filming has been delayed by some kind of contagion, I don’t know, I’m in Texas and we’re all carrying on like nothing is wrong.

A word on directing. What’s odd is that 365 Days looks pretty spectacular. It could be that technology and digital filmmaking is at a point where any toddler can point a Red camera at a pile of rocks and make it look like art, but the lighting, set design, and cinematography are all top notch, this movie looks fantastic, it’s like a Bond film had a baby with a watch commercial. And then someone filmed softcore pornography on top of that baby. This is, again, not a compliment to the directing because the camera work itself is remarkably awful. As in it’s almost impressive how wrong the decisions are to film, for instance, an intimate dinner scene by swaying inexplicably back and forth like a pair of adolescents clutching each other at a Sadie Hawkins dance trying desperately to find the beat and failing, failing, failing. The constant orbiting of characters is a problem that makes it hard to understand whom is speaking to whom or why. Camera positions and blocking are used to communicate standing and strength or vulnerability, to imply a comfortable relationship between X and Y or an antipathy between W and Z. But if the camera is just wandering around aimlessly it’s an entire avenue of communicating information shut down.

It occurs to me that the name of the film is 365 Days because that’s how long Massimo needs to make his victim love him, and that I wondered how he was going to come up with a full year’s worth of sexy, seductive Stockholm Syndrome stuff to do and apparently so did the filmmakers because the story itself only lasts about 2 months. And when it ends, oh, man. I had to rewind the damn thing to make sure I hadn’t missed something. I hadn’t, there’s nothing to miss, but damn if it didn’t make want more. Laura Biel, the main love interest had a character arc that consisted of, essentially, that she was a brunette at the beginning of the film and blond at the end. Massimo was a blank slate at the beginning, a sex criminal in the middle, and a sadder sex criminal at the end because of something called the Hero’s Journey? This all happened in the middle of some kind of mafia war that some of the unnamed side characters who were not sexy and naked all the time insisted was going on. If you say so, more unrealistic sexual positions, please!

Any real review boils down to a recommendation or the polite suggestion to save your time and in this case, I’d give 365 Days a shot for one reason. Well. Two reasons. That first one is that I learn a lot about storytelling and film from good movies, the really good ones are great for inspiration but I learn exponentially more from bad films. You learn pacing and what bad acting looks like and how much can go wrong and it’s fun to learn, thanks Levar Burton. The second reason is the music and you’ll have subtitles on because there are three different languages spoken and English is no one’s first but the music, oh the music, the wonderfully corny, sappy, trite euro-pop and the lyrics therein. Bellisimo. Because this big ol’ slab of man named Michele Morrone can also get rapey jiggy with it.

The Witcher – Black Magic Woman and/or Man

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First of all, let me get something off my chest that has been bothering me for weeks: why the hell are the episodes of The Mandalorian so short? I know a lot of focus has been on how pants-shittingly adorable Baby Yoda is but if you subtract that one little guy how compelling has the show been, really? I finally lost my cool after this week’s episode, Chapter 7, which was a grand total of 35 minutes long. I believe that Jon Favreau is a first time showrunner, which is understandable but this is Star Wars, hire some more guys, flesh the thing out, take your time. If you add to the fact that the show’s a Western, you’re already padding out the runtime with lots of landscapes and staring into the middle distance. Through a helmet. Disney Plus’ catalogue of original content is already pretty anemic and I almost found myself actually asking for some filler episodes until I realized that they are almost all filler episodes. It’s the second to the last episode of the season and we finally get to meet the Big Bad, for all of two minutes. With the flak that The Rise of Skywalker is getting I find myself truly dumbfounded, how is it so hard to do a Star War? It was invented by a guy that went on to make Howard the Duck and had the balls to release it to the public, for heaven’s sake, on purpose. And these muppets can’t crack the code.

Anyway.

So The Witcher, despite the critical consensus, is a very good show but I understand some of the opinions to the contrary. The first issue is with the pilot, which has a similar problem as the first novel, which I tried and failed to get invested in and that problem is an absence of world-building. Characters just start talking about the different kingdoms and locales as if this the third or fourth season instead of the first, so there is no sense of geography. This is something, and I’ll apologize now because the comparisons are inevitable, that Game Of Thrones did very well from the outset, we start beyond the wall, we travel to Winterfell, then further south. Maps are shown. Allegiances explained. The whole of Westeros and beyond felt lived in, real and palpable.

I have no idea what the layout of what has only peripherally been referred to as ‘The Continent’ is, and this is including any knowledge I gleaned from the book. I have no idea where Rivia is relative to the show’s events. And worse, the names of places are very stupid, that’s just inarguable, they seem like someone stuck their hand in a bag of Scrabble pieces, grabbed a bunch and threw them at the wall. Again, Winterfell, that makes sense to me, King’s Landing, must be important, what in the ever-loving hell is a Blaviken? Uh oh, Cintra is under attack, even though it sounds like the name of an off-brand household cleaning product, it’s curious that the showrunners didn’t pick up on this disorienting, even alienating misstep by the narrative that very probably dissuaded some viewers right out of the gate.

However, like any decent show with a capable showrunner, as the episodes progress the writing staff get better and better at figuring out what kind of thing they are making and this is clearly the case with The Witcher. What that thing is, exactly, is closer in tone to an R-Rated big budget clone of Hercules/Xena: Warrior Princess, and if you for some reason interpret that observation as pejorative or insulting to The Witcher, what’s it like growing up with no joy, having had a shitty, friendless childhood? Those shows were terrifically entertaining if you could look past the production value and some of the acting and the same can be said of this new series, it’s a lot of fun disguised as a Dark Fantasy, grown-up softcore romance novel.

Lauren Schmidt Hissrich has a great track record with Netflix and her resume goes back as far as The West Wing, so you know I’m on board. What she has brought to the story is something that I felt was missing from that first book and that thing was a female perspective. I don’t mean there aren’t some strong female characters in the book, sort of, and I don’t mean this in a social justice kind of way, I mean that The Last Wish, the first in the series, is a book in a category of Fantasy that I just don’t get behind.

Take the Lord of the Rings books, for example, those were written by a guy who invented a language first and then wrote a story around that language until it became a fully realized world. A Song of Ice and Fire was written by an historian who cribbed the real life War of the Roses to create a story that was full of rich characters and dynamic alliances. The Witcher books appear to have been written by a man who saw a lot of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone movies in the 80s and thought, I gotta get a character like that fighting witches and ghouls and things. So that’s a bit reductive and rude, I would apologize to Andrej Sapkowski but I doubt he’d hear me through the Scrooge McDuck-style mountains of cash he’s made from his terrifically successful series of novels, so, good for that man but he can take it.

Although the action scenes are well-written, something that is very hard to do, I was sort of put-off by this character, who, while laying injured and barely conscious in bed, gets mounted by some super sexy nurse within the very first scene of the book. I get that this is some people’s fantasy style, it’s just not mine, and if anyone is curious about my contemporary taste in the genre, I’m fully on-board with the Wheel of Time series which was as brilliant as it was loooong, I’ve dipped my toe in the Kingkiller Chronicle, got all the way through Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series before waking up to the wretched, derivative Ayn Randian fan-fic it really is, and have some real affection for the Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch. I also have a Dark Tower tattoo but that’s kind of a different animal all together.

So when I say that The Witcher needed a female perspective I’m not trying to impress some liberal chicks, I literally mean that it’s narrative is missing that other perspective to feel like a more complete story and that’s, again, where the TV series succeeds. The equal time given to developing the character of Yennefer is so much more interesting, I barely registered her in the book but here she’s a living breathing part of that world.

Also, good for Henry Cavill. As a nerdy kid and a pretty nerdy adult I don’t usually empathize with guys who are that fucking handsome but I really do feel for the dude. He’s a full on nerd himself, he plays WoW, he was obsessed with Geralt of Rivia and lobbied relentlessly to get the role and he really owns it in a way that is rarely seen, it’s absolutely pitch-perfect casting. Why do I feel bad for him? Well, his Superman was just fine in a series of movies that were really, really not fine and that role may be lost to him finally. Also, The Man from UNCLE is one of the best action/spy films of the last decade that no one saw and established, for me at least, how incredibly charming and funny he can be when he’s not being directed by Zach Snyder.

It’s nice to see the guy get a role that he clearly loves this much and I think that it shows in his physicality and raw enthusiasm. Usually I prefer a bit of wacky Whedon-esque turns of phrases in my fiction but the man lands a frustrated, defeated, “……..fuck.” so perfectly that I can excuse the brevity. The action sequences are as thrilling and well executed as I would have hoped for, I was a little concerned that not much of them were revealed in the trailers but that appears to have been intentional, as a treat rather than a selling point.

The rest of the cast is…good. Anya Chalotra is a great new find and I’m thoroughly enjoying the other newcomer Joey Batey as Jaskier (he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page!), who brings much much needed levity and humor to a story that is dangerously close to being swallowed up in it’s own seriousness and self-importance. Beyond that I need a rewatch to remember the rest of the cast, sometimes they just kind of come and go without being well-explained. This comes back to that first problem and geography, the same thing happens with the drama, no effort is made to establish who or what the hell is happening until after it’s taken place. This is troublesome.

The big question everyone is asking and joking about on Reddit, is this the next Game of Thrones and I’ll take that one if you don’t mind: no, no it’s not and it never will be. And that’s okay. The thing is, what made GoT so fantastic and intricate, so unpredictable and shocking, so affecting is because of one George R.R. Martin. Now that the series collapsed under the weight of the showrunner’s incompetence, laziness, and I’d argue contempt for their audience, it’s clear that he was the one and only thing that made that story tick.

And there’s not going to be another George Martin, it’s just not happening. Maybe someday another will rise but he was the big love of our pop culture lives, folks, the real thing for this generation and now that that’s over we should stop asking for the next one. Instead, we’ll have to be content with things like The Witcher, which may not be true love, but it might just undo it’s nurses uniform and slide into bed with us while we convalesce over Jon and Dany and Arya and give us a good, stupid romance novel-style snog and that’s fine. That’s going to have to be enough.

 

 

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker- This Is Fine

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One of the first viral videos I ever experienced, possibly before the term had even been established, involved some proud family recording their child’s very first steps in the world. The kiddo in question slowly found his footing using a couch as a crutch before wobbling forward on his own, a landmark moment for anyone, while the family cheered with excitement off-screen. The family dog, one of those small yippy ones that no one who isn’t the owner really likes, walked casually into frame, hunched up his back and proceeded to drop a few rounds of freshly digested Kibbles and/or Bits alongside this child’s first real accomplishment in life. The family roared with laughter, of course, (how funny!) and the child seemed to sense he’d lost the spotlight without knowing how or exactly why. So, disoriented, the child tries to reposition, loses his balance, and falls ass-first into the dog’s droppings, and his loving parents lose their ever-loving shit, all while making no effort to assist the kid in his new predicament.

If this story seems out of place in a review allow me to clarify. Going into The Rise of Skywalker, I perused some high level reviews and scores and got the sense that what I suspected after the first trailer was released, that it would be bad. Very, very bad. The Force Awakens, in this example, is like that child in the viral video, in the beginning unsophisticated, well-meaning, but not in anyway reinventing the wheel or impressing anyone who wasn’t already completely invested in the end result. The Last Jedi is that dog. Now, I’ll still defend that movie to some Star Wars fans if only by saying that while I think it’s a better movie than audiences give it credit for, I’ll admit it’s a very bad Star Wars movie; it’s incongruous with the rest of the canon, it undeniably shunted contemporary social politics into a space opera about wizards and robots, and it is guilty of being, in the end, pedantic and joyless. But it is also a surprising and I’d argue bold head-fake. Just like that damn dog when it pulls up to do his business, no one viewing it didn’t go, ‘Wait, what am I watching now? This is not what I expected,’ which doesn’t make it good automatically, however it does take some real shots and I’ll respect a film that takes the wrong shots over none at all, he said, looking conspicuously in the direction of The Force Awakens. 

It’s just too bad that neither that first or second act of this trilogy appeared to have an endgame in mind, nor did their directors JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson, seem to have compared notes at all while making entries in this, you know, massively influential billion dollar franchise and cornerstone of modern pop culture. This has resulted in wildly disparate takes on the same characters and story arcs, such as they exist at all and while the blame for failing to coordinate a singular tone or narrative theme is theirs to own, I don’t hold them ultimately accountable for the sequel trilogy’s failures. The guilty persons or person in this situation are the studio heads in Disney and Kathleen Kennedy herself for not doing one simple thing at the beginning of this whole goddammer, and that’s find a Kevin Feige. One creative talent to rule them all, to conceive some incarnation of the Hero’s Journey, the thing that so thoroughly and effectively permeated the original trilogy and, shockingly, is even portrayed adequately with some fits and starts in the prequel trilogy, which failed for entirely other reasons. Reason. One reason, (George Lucas).

I am no Lucas fanboy, far from it clearly, but after the resurrection of the Star Wars Universe in the 90s turned one of the greatest villains in cinematic history into an obnoxious little kid and then a petulant, hormonal teenager, and then child-murderer I thought that things couldn’t get any worse, and that the quality of the original movies was somehow tarnished by these hours long toy commercials with razor thin plotting and cardboard characters.

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One of the great things about growing up is learning how to admit when we are wrong, and boy was I ever. As much as the thought of watching the prequels again makes me mildly nauseous, I have to at least give Lucas credit for having some vision for how his characters would develop. for having some direction. Anakin’s failure to save his mother feeds into his drive to save the love of his life from the same fate, whatever the cost, Obi-Wan’s desire to train Anakin despite the Jedi Council’s warning, and the Council thinking they know what’s best because they are all knowing and have this spectacular view of Coruscant, all of this is pretty good stuff. This is obsession, hubris, arrogance all the things that lead to the downfall of the Republic, all good intentions gone awry while again, badly written and directed but at least composed of fundamental storytelling techniques. At least there seemed to be a point.

Back to the little kid and that goddamn dog. The Rise of Skywalker, fortunately or unfortunately for my analogy, is not quite the small child tumbling into a pile of dog shit that I was anticipating now that I’ve seen it. I may get some heat about this and also some distrust, since I also said that I liked The Last Jedi when it came out but I honestly enjoyed this last entry far more than I was expecting. Is it flawed? Oh, most definitely. Is it a return to the fan service pandering that littered The Force Awakens? Spectacularly. Is it entertaining, though? That’s the real question and I’ll answer with this; yes, yes it is. Come at me, bro. I won’t suggest for a second that JJ Abrams is a more intelligent director than Rian Johnson, but he is just a better entertainer when it comes to this kind of material. This is crowd pleasing, cacophonous, emotionally manipulative fluff and it’s right in JJ’s wheelhouse, it’s how he dragged the Star Trek Universe back from the bold frontiers of exploring science and the human condition down into the dregs of garbage, soulless action films akin to The Fast and The-… YES, I admit again that I am primarily a Star Trek fan (*produces a switchblade, inexplicably, and retreats*).

Surprisingly, I’m content and thoroughly pleased with this final entry. There is a conversation about identity and fate and the whole Light Side/Dark Side dilemma. It’s about family and blood and how friendship can transcend both those things. A fucking planet gets blown up.  And most importantly, to me, anyway, Carrie Fischer gets the right send-off,  I couldn’t have asked for a better one, so all glib aside, cheers to Abrams and company for that. It’s entirely possible that my expectations were so low to begin with that anything superior to Jar Jar Binks kicking BB-8 around like a soccer ball for two and half hours while spitting out definitely racist tropes and banter would feel like success, but in all honesty those expectations, in tandem with the almost gleeful destruction of every mystery box/hanging plot thread Rian Johnson could get his hands on in The Last Jedi, (like Edward Scissorhands, he only wanted to love but all did was hurthas led The Rise of Skywalker to feel almost like a standalone film on it’s own.

We know the characters, we have some idea of the central conflict (First Order = Bad, Kylo Ren = Evil Cosplayer, Rey = Searching for Purpose/Good at All The Things) but what’s been missing is provided in TROS and that’s a true Big Bad, even if JJ had to return to the well to find it. As a standalone affair this last entry has to pipe a ton of exposition into it’s run-time, as well as undo a lot of the damage to the Star Wars Universe done by Johnson. This is largely accomplished with a few offhand comments that attempt to explain away the things that had the more toxic members of the fanbase throwing conniption fits all over the internet for the last two years. And while that same fanbase is going to sing the NUMA NUMA song at the top of their lungs in a perceived victory at Abrams revisions, they are also going to have to acknowledge the narrative tools Johnson introduced that JJ has appropriated, expanded on, and used to great effect in this last film. I won’t go into any more detail than that for fear of spoilers but I was definitely pleased to see more than a little DNA from The Last Jedi leftover in The Rise of Skywalker.

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Speaking of which. All the money in my pocket against all the money in your pocket says that they came up for the title of this film before they had a story. I’ve been avoiding negativity here because it all feels like low-hanging fruit but this would be incomplete without some, so here goes. Not enough Rose Tico? I don’t know. It definitely feels like it was written by five different guys as the conclusion to a trilogy written by three other guys. The transformation of Emperor Palpatine and the Knights of Ren into the Night King and the frickin’ Nazgul was a bold choice, Cotton, let’s see if it pans out. Also the introduction of a Sith homeworld with a whole secret entrance or whatever would have been great information if it had been brought to my attention YESTERDAY. Seriously, did we not know about this stuff and why couldn’t it have been set up or hinted at or foreshadowed years ago? Like how Senator Palpatine was hiding in plain sight in the prequels for two whole movies, I mean it was boring but at least it gave us something to look forward to and then the moment came and Sam Jackson got defenestrated and we were all like, well I guess that was worth it.

Seriously, was it really so difficult to explore the First Order and maybe develop some structure or impetus? How about this, after the Empire was destroyed the primary members of the Order came from a single planet or system that was unfairly vilified, disproportionately so by the re-emergent Republic and that resulted in famine and poverty until some charismatic nutjobs came along and whipped everyone up into a nationalistic furor. They started rebuilding and taking back territory while the rest of the galaxy just partied and APPEASED them because they could Not See how powerful they were becoming? Etc. Etc. See the comparison I’m making there? The historical parallel? It’s Nazis. They could have made them Nazis. So that would flesh out the first two entries in the series and, bonus points, contemporary political statement as well, TRIPLE WORD SCORE. But instead JJ and company just couldn’t be bothered.

As much as I probably need to check the movie out one more time to be sure, my affection and legitimate enjoyment of The Rise of Skywalker is apparently the minority opinion. Critically it’s taking a bit of a drubbing and that’s a shame, while flawed and rushed and a dozen other things, the cast and crew clearly have poured their all into this movie and that’s not nothing. It’s also easier for me to sit back and throw a big thumbs up because I don’t feel a sense of ownership over it or the Original Trilogy, I have other things to get worked up over (I’m coming for you, Star Trek: Discovery). I’m more disappointed in the fact that I wasn’t able to conclude my original analogy. Who is the little kid that falls in dog poop? Is it the audience? Is it the entire Intellectual Property that is the Star Wars franchise? Oh, I know. It’s JJ Abrams. Definitely.