TV Superlatives: September, October, November – 2021

It’s December, which means–well, a bunch of things, really, but today it means that I’ve come to talk about all the television I’ve been watching for the past three months. Here are the shows:

What If . . . ? (Episodes 1-5)
Star Trek: Lower Decks (Season 2, Episodes 4-10)
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 8, Episodes 7-10)
Running Man/Classic Running Man (Random Episodes)
Black Spot (Season 2)
Last Week Tonight
Nailed It! (Season 6)
Squid Game
Slasher: Flesh and Blood
Yumi’s Cells (Ep. 1- 7)
Evil (Season 2)
The Great British Bake-Off (Collection 9)
Nancy Drew (Season 3, Ep. 1 – 7)
Hawkeye (Ep. 1-3)

A quick reminder for how these work: superlatives may be bestowed upon any show I’m watching, no matter whether it’s currently airing or not. As always, I will do my best to clearly mark all awards with appropriate spoiler warnings. I may discuss events from past seasons, however, without such a warning. Which is to say, I won’t spoil any of Nancy Drew, Season 3, without a big heads up, but any Major Revelations from S1 or S2 are totally fair game.

Shall we begin?

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Triple Spooky Scoop Review: A Quiet Place Part II, The People Under the Stairs, and Escape Room: Tournament of Champions

Horror Bingo continues, but first! An important change to our Very Serious Ice Cream Rating System:

The Old System: I review three films and award them Chocolate (first place), Vanilla (second place), and Strawberry (third place), regardless of how silly it is to compare wildly different movies like this. Every Triple Scoop Review has one of each flavor.

The New System: I review three films and grade them individually with this totally objective and highly scientific ice cream rating system:

God-Tier – Chocolate Salted Caramel
Really Enjoyed This – Chocolate
Enjoyed This Okay – Vanilla
Technically Proficient, But Not My Thing – Strawberry
Well, I Liked SOME of It – Rocky Road
I Actively Disliked This Movie – Pistachio
I Could Not Finish This Movie – Mint Chocolate Chip

Each Triple Scoop Review will be any combo of these flavors. Chocolate Salted Caramel probably won’t get used very often (I suspect it will primarily be awarded to old sentimental favorites), and I honestly kinda doubt I’ll use Mint Chocolate Chip at all because I can’t even remember the last time I started a movie and didn’t finish it. Feel free to argue about how I’ve unfairly maligned mint chocolate chip (or any of the other ice cream flavors) in the comments below, of course, but just know that your opinions are wrong and wrong forever.

With that, let’s get back to our movies!

A Quiet Place Part II

Emily Blunt Aquietplace GIF by A Quiet Place Part II - Find & Share on GIPHY

Year: 2020
Director: John Krasinski
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Paramount Plus
Spoilers: Yes, in paragraphs 3 and 4
Grade: Chocolate

A Quiet Place Part II is a very competently made sequel, and for the most part, I had a pretty great time watching it. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the first one, but I have the general sense that AQPP II got the Aliens treatment, you know, a little louder than its predecessor, more action all around, a bit less claustrophobic in terms of both setting and scope. But like Aliens, that totally works here, and most of what  I really enjoyed about the first film (an active Deaf protagonist, creepy Demogorgon monsters, the close focus on the Abbott family) is still present in the sequel.

Many of the scenes in AQP II have serious video game energy: the opener (which would also make for one hell of a Disneyland ride), the destroyed train scene, any of the moments when someone has to stay perfectly silent and still. (It’d be like in Until Dawn, where periodically you can’t shake the controller or INSTANT DEATH FOR YOU.) It’s all very fun, tense and entertaining. I also enjoyed Cillian Murphy in this, less because Emmett is a particularly groundbreaking character and more because Murphy is just a fantastic actor who elevates the material. All the acting is really solid, actually, and I hope to see Millicent Simmonds in more stuff because once again she’s excellent.

My primary quibbles are these: A) JFC, stop casting Djimon Hounsou just to waste him like this, and B) the feral people don’t totally work for me, mostly cause they seem, like, weird fucked up instead of normal “we kill people for food and joy” fucked up? Like, their eyes are all weird and shit, I don’t know. Maybe they’re sick with some kind of radiation? Vague Zombie Disease? It’s not that I particularly wanted a detailed backstory for these ten-minute antagonists, but they also feel slightly out of place to me like this: a bit forced and unnecessarily distracting

That being said, I did enjoy how “dive” came back around. I also like that the island community isn’t some devious trap and how nobody in the family dies; even Cillian Murphy doesn’t get the obvious redemption death I’d initially predicted. Sometimes, going optimistic works in your favor because, in horror, optimism is often the more surprising and exciting choice. (Which is another reason Djimon Hounsou’s death here annoys me so much; it’s such a predictable, throwaway moment. If his character has to die, fine, but why like this?) I like the triumph in this ending, too, as the kids each literally step up to kill the monster and protect their respective adults. It feels a touch abrupt, since we don’t actually see our heroes meet up again, but I also kinda enjoy it.

The People Under the Stairs

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Year: 1991
Director: Wes Craven
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Peacock
Spoilers: Surprisingly, no, not really
Grade: Chocolate

You know, I really enjoyed this movie. I’d never gotten around to seeing it before and the very little I knew–basically, there are weird people, and they live under the stairs–had me expecting something a bit more Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes. I wasn’t at all prepared for a satirical gothic horror criticizing conservatives, landlords, and gentrification, certainly not one with dark fairy tale sensibilities, deliciously over-the-top villains, cannibalism, bondage suits, and jokes, just like, all the jokes. This movie is a weird mishmash of a story that’s rocking at least four different tones, and I don’t exactly know why it works so well for me, but it really does.

I enjoy all of the acting, especially Wendy Robie as Mommy (or the Woman, as she’s credited). Her performance is so energetic and creepy and hilarious, and she makes for a delightful villain. This Lack of Impressed face right here, as she looks at Daddy?

Home Alone Film GIF by Arrow Video - Find & Share on GIPHY

Oh, man. I felt that in my bones.

But the whole cast is pretty great. Fool is a funny, resourceful MC, and I think Brandon Quintin Adams does a great job with him, especially considering he’s all of, what? 10 or 11 here? I enjoyed A.J. Longer as Alice, too. Ving Rhames and Bill Cobbs were both a delightful surprise, and of course, this Twin Peaks fan was deeply amused to see Everett McGill here alongside Wendy Robie. I also really liked Sean Whalen, who I will always remember from Michael Bay’s “Got Milk” commercial. (Heh. I love that isn’t a joke.)

This is a story about a Black child living in a Black neighborhood trying to save his family from eviction, but it’s written and directed by a white man; as such, there are probably improvements that could be made here. If TPUtS ever does get a remake (and I know there’s been some talk), I’d really hope to see it in the hands of a Black filmmaker. But I don’t have a lot else that I wanna criticize. I thought the pacing was a bit off, maybe? But I also watched it with a couple of commercials (sacrilege, I know) and I had to take a couple additional pause breaks for my cat, so that easily could’ve been the problem. And yeah, there were a couple gags that were bit corny for my personal preference; mostly, though, I just laughed a lot. I adore pretty much the whole aesthetic: the costumes (particularly Mommy’s and Alice’s) and also the design of the house, with its multiple hidden passages and secret doors. I quite like the ending, too.

I kinda wish I’d seen this as a kid. I didn’t really get into horror until I was in junior high, but I wonder if this might’ve been the rare exception because in some ways, it kind of plays like a children’s movie–albeit a very, very dark, very, very weird children’s movie. I could absolutely marathon this with Return to Oz and The Witches.

Escape Room: Tournament of Champions

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Year: 2021
Director: Adam Robitel
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Only in the 4th paragraph (but spoilers throughout for the first film)
Grade: Vanilla

We watched the theatrical cut of this movie, and that’s important because the theatrical cut and the extended cut are apparently wildly different films, with completely different beginnings and endings and even different people pulling the Escape Room strings. That’s . . . weird, right? I feel like that’s weird.

Tournament of Champions is a decent sequel, though I did enjoy its predecessor more. (To be fair, my expectations for the first film were . . . not high.) I did have a good time watching this: I like death games and ridiculous horror, and obviously, yours truly was happy to see Holland Roden as one of the new players. Indya Moore was also a fun addition to the cast. I wish I found Zoey a more compelling protagonist, but I still don’t buy many of Taylor Russell’s line deliveries. I do enjoy Zoey and Ben together, though. Logan Miller is fun, and there’s something potentially interesting about a team who survived the first game entering a whole new one with a bunch of soul survivors.

The rooms and death traps are silly and enjoyable, but I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that Tournament of Champions was trying a little too hard to top the previous film. I did have fun (I definitely laughed when one one of the characters clowned on a dude for trying to be the Chosen One), but the sequel has basically the exact same formula as the first movie, only slightly more . . . rushed? Ludicrous? I just feel like something’s missing, and I’m not quite sure what. Maybe I just wish the puzzles themselves had been more interesting. There aren’t many surprising or exciting plot developments here except for a twist that’s telegraphed a bit too hard.

Regarding that twist, well. In the first movie, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), who was kinda awesome, fell to her death, only it turns out that she survived, and was forced to design this Escape Room, otherwise Evil Minos would kill her daughter. I was bummed when Amanda died, so I kinda like this, except . . . IDK, it almost feels weirdly more depressing, like Amanda was pretty badass in the first film, but now she’s just broken, and never really gets an arc or a standout moment or even much screen time; in fact, she’s basically dropped once they all “escape.” Mostly, it feels like she’s around to show that unlike Amanda, Zoey would never break. Which, meh. Frankly, I’d probably have traded Rachel and Brianna for Zoey in a heartbeat. Partially because I just like them more, but also because their deaths specifically feel predetermined by the game, like they never really had a shot at winning, and that’s kind of a bummer, too.

Triple Scoop Reviews: Shazam!, Joker, and Little Women

Shazam!

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other: HBO Now
Spoilers: Yup
Grade: Vanilla

Imbalanced, but cute. Tonally, Shazam! is wildly different than its DC live-action brethren, which makes it both a breath of fresh air and also a little, like, huh? Shazam! doesn’t always feel like a superhero movie to me; instead, it’s more of a fantasy-action film about magical kids, a film geared towards young children and their long-suffering parents. I’m having trouble describing exactly why those two sub-genres are different, but they have become different, at least in 2020.

There’s a fair bit in Shazam! that doesn’t work for me. Mark Strong’s villainy game, for example, is usually on point–all hail SEPTIMUS!–but he makes for a pretty boring villain here. Dr. Sivana’s origin story has potential, but it goes nowhere interesting, and the film would be better off if the majority of his scenes were cut. Zachary Levi, meanwhile, is generally funny, but it rarely feels like he’s actually playing Billy; mostly, he comes across as any random kid who’s been magically transported into an adult’s body. It creates a real disconnect for me throughout the film, especially when it comes to the conflict between Billy and Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer). Which is unfortunate because that relationship is a huge part of the story. This movie falls down hardest, I think, in its second act.

OTOH, I really do love Billy’s foster siblings, especially Freddy and Darla (Faithe Herman), who are charmingly chaotic and adorably sweet, respectively. The script is sometimes (okay, often) very on the nose about the found family stuff, but fuck it, these kids are cute, and their parents are sweet and well-meaning, and I just want them to all be happy, OKAY? And can I tell you just how much I adored these kids becoming superheroes at the end? The cameos are fantastic: I am 100% here for Adam Brody as Superhero Freddy, plus Ross Butler was a nice surprise, and Meagan Good was delightful as Superhero Darla. It’s especially awesome they get to remain superheroes, too, like I just assumed this would be a one-time sidekick deal, not that we’d end the movie sharing a secret lair. (Obviously, other viewers were prepared for this, but the majority of my Shazam knowledge comes from animated movies like Superman/Batman: Public Enemies and TV shows like Young Justice.) I’m kinda so-so on this particular film overall, but I find the ending so charming that I’m genuinely interested in seeing a sequel.

A few quick asides:

A. Poor Djimon Hounsou. He so rarely gets to play anybody interesting, and this movie is no exception to that rule. Hounsou plays the Wizard who gifts Billy with his powers, and the most interesting thing about him–other than his hilariously fake hair–is that he is just such an incredible dick. Like, I just called him Asshole Dumbledore the whole movie. (Yes, Dumbledore himself is also Asshole Dumbledore, but still.) Cause, sure, you can’t hold this guy responsible for everything our villain does, but you can definitely hold him responsible for being needlessly cruel to a small child, traumatizing countless people across the world, and, oh yeah, that whole car accident thing. I’m just saying.  No one’s weeping for you, my dude.

B. It’s a very minor complaint, but when your bad guy unleashes the seven deadly sins as his henchmen, like, I just wish they were a lot more fun and distinct than this.

C. That last scene with Superman? Fucking amazing.

Joker

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other: On Demand, I think? (My friends rented it)
Spoilers: A few, yes
Grade: Strawberry

Well, I watched it. And as suspected, I just wasn’t into Joker. Joaquin Phoenix is undoubtedly creepy with his weird laughter and off-putting grin and seriously disturbing ribs–like, man’s got a freaky AF energy to him, I will absolutely give him that. But his performance also feels pretty static to me, like, once I’d seen roughly 15-20 minutes, I felt like I’d seen the whole thing. Plus, I’m just kinda tired of awarding rich white dudes for being difficult to work with, and continuing to glorify actors who starve themselves for roles? Like, no, this is so unhealthy for everyone involved; please, let’s just stop.

The narrative structure of Joker goes something like this: introduce a mentally ill man and present him with about 80 triggers until he inevitably explodes. Which is . . . fine, but the build feels off to me here. The revolution is weak, primarily off-screen and inspired by murders I never quite bought as a rallying point. The social commentary feels thin, too; like, “eat the rich” is a pretty popular theme these days, but this might be one of the least successful versions of it I’ve seen. There are some ideas I like, if not always their execution: Gotham from the POV of the lower classes, for instance, or reinterpreting Thomas Wayne as a mega Chief Asshat. The eternal, cyclical nightmare that is this city, how Gotham creates villains by failing the people, and how those villains in turn create our heroes, who only ever perpetuate the system . . . but the writing is just such weak sauce, lazy and muddled. If this wins for Best Adapted Screenplay over Little Women, I swear to God . . .

I also can’t say I’m particularly impressed with any of the female roles, either. Zazie Beetz is criminally underused: her character has no real function, except to serve as a Big Twist, one that fails to be meaningful, compelling, or even surprising. It would, at least, take a modicum of effort before one could cut Penny (Frances Conroy) out of the film, but still, the whole backstory about Joker’s mom is just so . . . meh, all of it, meh. Joker is hardly the worst film I’ve ever seen: the acting is generally fine, and I quite like the cinematography. I had a good time hanging out with my friends and eating pizza, at least. But I just didn’t connect to this film at all, and I remain a bit baffled by its multiple Oscar nominations. There are so many better movies than this. My nerdish heart wants more.

Little Women

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other: Actual Goddamn Movie Theater
Spoilers: Yep
Grade: Chocolate

Initially, my interest in Little Women was mild. I’ve never read the book, and I was pretty content with the 1994 adaptation I’d grown up with. I didn’t know I needed another version of this story. But then I became more interested, partially because I’d like to support more female directors, partially because I desperately didn’t want Joker to be the only Best Picture nominee I’d actually seen, and partially because of this video by Be Kind, Rewind, which examines four different film adaptations of Little Women and discusses how each teaches us something about the era it was made in. (Oh, and because I wanted to finally check out the Alamo Drafthouse, and Little Women was the only film playing that I wanted to see. Not gonna lie, folks: if either Parasite or the less cinematically beloved Underwater had been available, you probably would’ve gotten a different review.)

Happily, I thought Little Women was fantastic. I was surprisingly engaged throughout the film, which is partially due to the changes in narrative structure. It’s not that telling a story using flashbacks is some groundbreaking approach never accomplished before; it’s that using flashbacks to tell this story gives these characters so much more dimension (and their respective arcs better shape) that I could’ve possibly imagined. Not to mention, the juxtaposition of certain scenes, like watching Beth’s miraculous recovery right before Beth’s tragic death, is just beautifully heartbreaking. And while I had my doubts, initially (as “ambiguous” and “meta” are not always words I enjoy when applied to endings), I quite like how this movie concludes. I love that Little Women never forgets Jo’s consistent antipathy towards marriage, and the more I learn about Louisa May Alcott, the more this ending really appeals to me.

The acting, too, is all-around spectacular. Amy is a much more interesting character in this version of the story, and I think Florence Pugh does an absolutely fantastic job. Her acting nod feels well-earned, and the same for Saoirse Ronan, who I think makes for a very compelling Jo. I quite like Emma Watson as Meg, too; considering she previously played both Hermione and Belle, Meg is the non-standard choice, and I’m kind of obsessed with it. I also like Eliza Scanlen as Beth, but I’ll admit, she’s probably the character that suffers most by comparison, if only because “Claire Danes,” “90’s,” and “ugly cry” are so inextricably linked in my head. You know who really gets me to ugly cry in this movie, though? Mr. Laurence, as played by a nearly unrecognizable Chris Cooper. Jesus Christ. I was bawling well before Beth even died because of this kindly motherfucker.

TBH, my only real problem with Little Women is that for a film which gives us a much more sympathetic Amy, I’m at least twice as mad about the whole “burning Jo’s book” scene. Partially because I’m slightly more inclined to forgive Kirsten Dunst purely on the basis of age, partially because Pugh’s Amy is much more deliberate, methodical, and smug about what she’s done, partially because Amy’s apology here feels so obviously forced and insincere . . . but mostly, I think, because there’s something about this new version that seems to especially condemn Jo’s fury, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’ll freely admit to carrying some personal baggage with “be the bigger person” arguments, but there are times when that message works for me: Jo not lashing out at Amy about Europe, for example, is one such occasion. But to expect Jo to forgive Amy in less than 24 hours, to show Jo’s righteous fury wholly and immediately redirected at herself after Amy’s near-death experience . . . you know, maybe it’s not that this version is any more cruel than the others. Maybe it’s just that in such a revisionist adaptation, I wish Greta Gerwig had updated this scene as well. Because the idea that you have to forgive your family, no matter what, simply because they’re your family . . . I think it’s an unhealthy message, and it’s my only real disappointment in what I think is otherwise a thoughtful and fantastic film.