TV Superlatives: September, October, November – 2020

It’s TV Superlative Time! Except . . . there’s a problem: over the past few months, I’ve dropped nearly every television show I’ve started watching. I am officially in a TV Rut.

This is rare for me. It happens with books more often than I’d like and also with movies, but not so much with television. Which means that instead of our usual overly long list of nonsense superlatives, we’re gonna have to do things a little differently today. Thus I present to you my list of What I’ve Been Watching (And Abandoning) In Fall of 2020.

(Spoilers: it’s mostly K-Dramas again.) Continue reading

TV Superlatives: June, July, August – 2020

It’s that time again! We must discuss only the most prestigious of TV Awards: Favorite Sidekick, Best Revenge, Most Horrifying Fashion, Favorite Ship, and more!

A quick reminder for how these work: I will bestow whatever TV shows I’ve recently been watching with such awards, whether they’re currently airing or not. As always, any awards with spoilers will be very clearly marked. As a reference point, here are the shows I’ve been watching for the past few months:

Agents of SHIELD (Season 7)
Village Survival: The Eight (Season 2)
Star Trek (Season 2: Ep. 7-10)
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (June 7th – August 30th)
13 Reasons Why (Season 4)
Floor is Lava
Mystic Pop-Up Bar
Dear White People (Season 1)
Unsolved Mysteries (2020)
Dark (Season 3)
The Baby-Sitters Club
I Remember You (Hello Monster)
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay
Chip-In
Love in the Moonlight (Moonlight Drawn by Clouds)
Lovecraft Country (Ep. 1 – 3)
Running Man (er, just a bunch of random episodes from multiple seasons)

(You may notice that some shows have two titles listed. K-dramas usually have at least two, and sometimes my brain flip-flops helplessly between both. I’m going to attempt some consistency throughout these superlatives, but I make absolutely no promises.)

Also, clearly, it’s just . . . it’s a lot of K-Dramas, folks. MY LIFE HAS BEEN TAKEN OVER BY K-DRAMAS AND VARIETY SHOWS, AND I’M OKAY WITH IT.

Continue reading

Triple Scoop Review: Doctor Sleep, Underwater, and Tigers Are Not Afraid

Doctor Sleep

Year: 2019
Director: Mike Flanagan
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: Some
Grade: Vanilla

Let’s get this out of the way for anyone who doesn’t already know: I’m not a huge fan of The Shining. (Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of Kubrick’s work in general: I tend to like the cinematography and not much else.) Many adaptational changes annoyed me, especially as I saw the film soon after reading the novel. Admittedly, that was all roughly 15-20 years ago now, so I might feel differently if I were to ever try it again. Point is, unlike many horror fans, I didn’t come into this weird hybrid of a sequel with much in the way of expectations, high or low. It was pretty easy to judge Doctor Sleep as its own thing. And fortunately for me, I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Unlike The Shining, which is straight-up horror, Doctor Sleep has more of a dark fantasy vibe. Like, there are creepy moments, absolutely (I fucking loved it when Abra turned the tables on Rose), but the overall flavor of scare is different, kinda like the transition between the quiet, claustrophobic horror of Alien to the action-fueled horror of Aliens. It seems like a natural progression, but I can also see how fans of the original might have been disappointed. What’s really impressive, though, is how much I enjoyed this film, despite its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Horror movies, especially, have to work hard to earn that length without losing tension or momentum, and Doctor Sleep does a pretty good job with that: there are problems in the third act–which we’ll get to shortly–but overall, the slow, steady pace of the film works well for me.

The cast is great, especially Kyliegh Curran (who’s absolutely fantastic as Abra) and Rebecca Ferguson (who makes for a pretty iconic villain, one who I’d like to cosplay immediately.) Ewan McGregor does solid work as grown-up/fucked up Danny Torrance, and I like pretty much the entire supporting cast: Carl Lumbly is a stellar choice as Dick Hallorann, Cliff Curtis is instantly likable as Billy, and Zahn McClarnon is an excellent right-hand man/second banana bad guy. All of McClarnon and Ferguson’s interactions are pretty great; in fact, the whole villainous family dynamic is awesome and makes these guys much more compelling as antagonists.

Unfortunately, that third act is where things start to falter, which is frustrating because most of the problems here could easily be solved by just not returning to the Overlook. Physically, that is; half the Final Battle takes place in Danny’s head, anyway, so why not just make the entire thing one big mental showdown? We could still get all those iconic references and flashbacks without Danny and Abra literally driving to Colorado for no goddamn reason. (There is a reason: Danny is convinced that they can’t beat Rose on their own, but that’s sorta nonsense because at this point, their batting average against her is pretty goddamn phenomenal.) This would also eliminate the awkward sense of Abra just chilling alone in the car for ten minutes, while Danny has an emotional catharsis inside the hotel with his dad. Like, I genuinely enjoy that scene, but also . . . maybe don’t leave the kid alone outside when a monster is literally hunting you down?

Random Notes:

1. Actually, maybe we could scale back just a bit on those iconic references? Cause I do want them, but also, it feels like Mike Flanagan is vomiting The Shining at you for the last 20 minutes? Like, hey, here are the twins, here is the blood, here is the bartender, the axe, the door, the boiler room, etc., etc., etc. Give me these moments, but not one for every goddam minute, please. Space them out or whittle them down.

2. Snakebite Andi might be the most Stephen King name I’ve ever heard in my whole fucking life. I really liked Emily Alyn Lind in the role, though, since I forgot to mention her before. Also, MR. HOMN!

3. I wish Rose the Hat’s hat was, like, more important? Especially after the grocery store scene, I kind of expected something else. Still, I’m never gonna complain too hard about fashionable millinery. I will complain about Danny hitting rock bottom, however, because I definitely interpreted that scene as “baby starved to death after Danny left him alone with his dead mom,” which . . . yeah, didn’t sit well with me. Apparently, though, there are multiple different interpretations of what actually happened to Mom and Baby? Still. If you’re trying for a redemptive story, IDK, I think everyone should be real clear on exactly what your MC is being redeemed for. Especially if it’s dark ass shit like that.

4. Now that I’ve read the differences between book and movie, holy shit, I’m kinda glad I never read this. The 9/11 subplot? The “we’re related” nonsense? What the actual fuck?

5. I’m just gonna say it: “steam” is a little hard to take seriously.

6. Finally, there is a RWBY poster in Abra’s room. I haven’t watched that show in years, but still, I found this small detail surprising and delightful.

Underwater

Year: 2020
Director: William Eubank
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: VERY MUCH SO
Grade: Strawberry

This was fun enough, but it also could’ve been better. Some scenes are successfully creepy and tense: whenever our characters are crawling through Way Too Tiny Shit, for example, or when poor Mamoudou Athie fucking implodes. (I was disappointed by this; I really thought he was going to last longer.) Most of the cast is pretty great, although I’d probably recast and rewrite Paul (TJ Miller). Still, I’m here for Kristen Stewart’s whole aesthetic, am happy that Smith survived, was amused by last minute Cthulhu, and really enjoyed that Jessica Henwick was our surprise Final Girl. Holy shit, that’s two Western horror movies now with Eastern-Asian women who live. 2020, this is actually something I like about you.

So, that’s the good. As far as the bad, well. The voiceover shit completely fails, like, I honestly have no idea what it’s even doing in this movie? The beginning is especially weird because the first few minutes have this strange, in medias res quality to them that makes the whole scene kinda feel like a dream. It doesn’t fit at all; in fact, I seriously wondered if they were trying to set up some kind of unreliable narrator here. But the rest of the movie is a pretty straightforward action-horror movie (with just a bit of a Lovecraftian twist).

Not all the action scenes work for me, either, because some of them are so muddy it’s impossible to tell what’s happening to whom. Like, I get it: Underwater is underwater. Chaos, poor visibility, all that. Still, when a monster drags two characters away, I wanna be able to tell who they are. I might’ve been more inclined to forgive this if these scenes were strictly from Norah’s POV, as she sadly loses her glasses early in the film and presumably can’t see for shit; unfortunately, that’s not really how they play. Which is a bummer, actually: if I ever lost my glasses in any kind of horror movie scenario, like, it would very much impact my day and/or likelihood of survival. It might’ve been kind of neat, seeing Norah actually dealing with this during the film.

Also, the character work needs, well, work. Norah (Stewart) and Smith (John Gallagher Jr.) both lost someone–the same someone–prior to the events of this movie, but for some reason, they barely have any interactions throughout to build their dynamic and/or lay in the groundwork for this reveal. More space, too, could’ve been given to the Captain and Norah’s relationship, or to Smith and Emily’s. Instead, we spend too much time with TJ Miller, who’s supposed to be the funny, weird guy, and generally lands harder on the latter than the former. (Although I will admit to laughing when he fake-volunteers Emily (Henwick) to investigate something, all, “This is your moment.” That shit was funny.)

Random Notes:

1. I love that Emily saves Norah, and Norah saves Emily, and they both save Smith together. Also, kinda love that Norah punches Emily in the face. Not because she deserves it, but because it’s a good “who will sacrifice themselves for the other” moment.

2. I’m considerably less impressed by how the women have to get way more naked than the dudes. Except TJ Miller, of course, but this is purposefully meant to be comedic, rather than sexy, presumably because he’s fatter than anyone else in the cast. #RAGE

3. The hands-down funniest thing about this movie: Paul carries around this stuffed bunny, right, like, he cradles it, strokes it, makes sure it’s okay as he’s going through dangerous, water-logged parts of the station, etc. He is 100% acting like it’s a real bunny, and I was seriously wondering if we were gonna get some kinda high-pressure nervous syndrome/space dementia subplot shit going on, especially because of all the Alice in Wonderland references. But apparently, there actually was a real bunny while filming, until the director got a stuffed one instead because of safety concerns. Only for whatever reason, he never bothered telling Miller that the stuffed rabbit wasn’t a stand-in. So, dude acted like the rabbit was real because he thought it would be post-production. I can’t begin to tell you how much this all delights me.

Tigers Are Not Afraid

Year: 2017
Director: Issa López
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other – Shudder
Spoilers: Mild
Grade: Chocolate

I’ve been meaning to watch this Mexican dark fantasy film for a while now, and I’m so glad I finally did, because it’s pretty fantastic. Admittedly, I probably could’ve picked a better week for it, like, if you need an escapist upper, uh, this isn’t it. (I literally held my breath when two of the kids walked up to a police car, and was utterly relieved when the cops just took off without killing them.) The violence here isn’t particularly gratuitous; in fact, it’s not a very gory film at all. But children do die, and die violently, on screen. Best to know that going in.

All of the kids are fantastic, especially Estrella (Paola Lara) and Shine (Juan Ramón López). I’m amazed that none of them had any prior acting experience because they’re all so good in this movie. One of the things that works best about Tigers Are Not Afraid: the quiet, funny moments when the kids are just hanging out: play-acting some American Idol shit in an abandoned building, telling ghost stories about this dude who eats kids with his pepperoni, etc. And while I can be hit or miss on stories that walk the line between “literal magic” and “is it, though?” I think the ambiguity serves this dark fairy tale well. Which probably isn’t so surprising, as it’s definitely a Monkey’s Paw kind of story.

I honestly don’t have many criticisms with this one. There are a few moments with this stuffed tiger that I found sorta hard to take seriously, but . . . yeah, that might kind of be it. While I’d hoped for a few specific things that didn’t end up happening, the actual ending itself fits the story well and isn’t wholly, needlessly bleak. And since I am, for once, trying not to spoil too much here, let me leave you with a vague list of some other things I really enjoyed:

The trails of blood
The goodbye scene
Morro is adorbs
The chalk
When the bodies are found

Also, the movie was both written and directed by a woman. YES!!!! I’m always excited to see more horror crafted by women!

Triple Scoop Reviews: Captain Marvel, Cast a Deadly Spell, and Bad Times at the El Royale

Captain Marvel

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other (Theater)
Spoilers: Not really
Grade: Chocolate

Well, I finally did it; I left my house and got my ass down to the movie theater for the first time in, like, a bunch of months. I confess, I don’t know exactly where Captain Marvel fits in my Ultimate Marvel Movie Ranking, but I had a pretty good time: Brie Larson is a joy to watch, she has amazing buddy cop chemistry with Samuel L. Jackson, and I really like her friendship with Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch). I know some people were really into Carol/Maria, though personally, I can’t say I ship it myself. I didn’t quite see that type of chemistry, and besides, I’m (unsurprisingly) ecstatic that Captain Marvel a) features an important friendship between two women, and b) doesn’t waste time on a needless romantic subplot. That all being said, should Carol end up with, say, Nebula or Valkyrie in later films? I’m saying, I could be here for that.

I do feel like Captain Marvel starts a bit rough. I’m not totally sure why, either, just that I wasn’t super engaged with the first, say, 20 minutes of the movie? The second Carol lands on Earth, though, the whole story comes alive. Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson are comedy gold; I particularly enjoy seeing a younger, happier, cat-loving Nick Fury. Obviously, Goose is fantastic, too. And actually, I really like all the supporting players: Ben Mendelsohn steals half the scenes he’s in, Annette Bening’s character, Dr. Lawson, goes in a pretty neat direction, and I always enjoy seeing Agent Coulson pop up. Although. Whatever they did to his eyebrows? No. Just no.

What I really like about this one, I think, is that it’s just a fun movie with a badass female lead. There’s often so much pressure on women-led films to not only be flawless but also Significant; like, if the films themselves aren’t Perfect Feminist Victories, then they’re automatic failures that only prove how this “trend” of gender-flipped and/or women-dominated films are unnecessary, a PC ploy, etc. But that’s crap for a lot of reasons: for one, every damn movie has flaws or things that could be improved; for another, a film can be significant without having to be Significant. And for the most part, Captain Marvel strikes me as a fun, easy-breezy installment in the Marvel machine; it’s another superhero movie that just so happens to have a badass lady at the forefront. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly groundbreaking material; I would say that it’s a lot of fun, and it would’ve meant a lot to me especially if I could’ve seen it as a kid.

A few final notes:

A. Gemma Chan doesn’t have a ton to do here, but I like her and I’m interested in seeing more from her in other films.

B. I’m a 90’s kid, so obviously, I’m all about this soundtrack. Garbage! Hole! No Doubt! TLC! Surely I’d buy it if I didn’t already own a good chunk of the songs.

C. Any superhero who’s dressed in a NIN shirt for half the movie is a superhero I’d like to see more of.

D. I really do like Brie Larson a whole lot in this. I’ve loved her since Envy Adams and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, and I’m eager to see her in Avengers: Endgame . . . even if I’m still not super pumped to see Avengers: Endgame itself.

E. There are lots and lots of great lines in this movie, but without a doubt, the most powerful one for me was “I have nothing to prove to you.” That’s already on a T-shirt, right? I need to buy it immediately.

Cast a Deadly Spell

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Other (HBO)
Spoilers: Yeah
Grade: Strawberry

Look, I was five, mostly, in 1991, so there were a few things I missed out on. For instance, did you know that HBO made a fantasy-noir TV movie about H.P “Philip” Lovecraft, a private eye who refuses to use magic in a world where everyone else does? It’s true! Fred Ward plays our shamus; meanwhile, Clancy Brown plays a gangster, Julianne Moore plays the femme fatale, and David Warner the rich, shady client. And it’s not just witches and warlocks, either; there are unicorns, gremlins, vampires, werewolves, gargoyles, demons, voodoo zombies, and, of course, the Old Ones. This is full-on urban fantasy, set in a noir backdrop, and I can’t believe I had to wait almost 30 years to discover it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean this movie is any good. Oh God, no. There’s a reason film noir is so easy to parody: hardboiled dialogue is tricky to pull off naturally, and I’m not convinced Fred Ward quite manages it. The script has a number of issues, from problematic queer rep to problematic racist shit to forgetting the basic principles of Chekhov’s magical gun. And the special effects are . . . well, let’s just say HBO has come a long way in 30 years.

But Christ, I’d love the opportunity to remake the hell out of this. I mean, I’d change a LOT. Our detective absolutely does not need to be named Lovecraft; seriously, fuck that guy. I’m keeping the Old Ones, sure, but HP goes. I’d also prefer our gumshoe had a better reason for abstaining from magic than condescending moral superiority. Everything about the queer couple (the gay guy is fat, sweaty, and pathetic; the trans woman is attacked both verbally and violently by our hero, both die badly, etc.) must fuck right off. It’d really be for the best if all the zombie slaves weren’t black, and if a virgin is going to save the day by losing her virginity before she can be sacrificed, it would help if a) she had more agency, b) wasn’t underage, and c) was actually allowed to be the hero. Instead, it’s the schmucky, adulterous, very adult cop who’s called a “hero” for having sex with her.

Still, if I could write an adult hardboiled noir urban fantasy series with or without Lovecraftian undertones for HBO today? Oh my God, that is the dream. Until then, I’ll just have to console myself with the fact that Hypolite (a witch, Lovecraft’s landlady, and presumed dead meat character) actually lives. Also? There’s a sequel. Starring DENNIS HOPPER.

I take it back. That’s the fucking dream right there.

Bad Times at the El Royale

First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, or Other: Amazon
Spoilers: ALL OF THEM
Grade: Vanilla

Man. I wanted to like this so bad.

It starts out great. The movie has a fantastic premise, a talented cast, and atmosphere in spades. I like Cynthia Erivo a lot, as well as Lewis Pullman and Jon Hamm. Hamm’s whole section–where he discovers 80 bazillion bugs in his motel room, as well as all the two-way mirrors–is particularly creepy. Unfortunately, the film also starts falling apart shortly after he dies. Specifically, I think it starts falling apart when Chris Hemsworth arrives on scene, which feels sacrilegious to say, I know. But it’s not an acting problem. The third act just desperately falls short of all the movie’s potential.

One problem, I think, is that cult leader Billy Lee (Hemsworth) doesn’t feel important enough to be this film’s chief antagonist. Creepy shirtless dancing aside, his presence and placement in this story feels a bit too random; he should just be one of the strangers at the motel with a secret agenda, not a Big Bad who strolls in thirty minutes before the end of the movie. He is, honestly, a little too boring to hold the whole third act. This story’s real Big Bad ought to be Management; they’re the villains that tie everyone’s stories together, or should, anyway. But Management is only briefly discussed, a vaguely nefarious non-entity who drops out of the movie entirely, presumably because the writers don’t know who or what the hell Management really is.

Or maybe they do know but don’t care–there’s something of a smug “we don’t have to tell you all the answers” vibe to this movie. Who’s on the film reel, for instance, and hey, I actually agree with that: we don’t need to know which famous dead person was filmed. Still, there’s a limit to how many times a movie can cheekily avoid giving you a straight answer before you wanna smack it right in the face, and Bad Times at the El Royale well surpassed that limit. Not to mention, there are just so many dropped plot threads by the end of the movie that you know it can’t all be intentional.

For instance, who murdered bank robber Nick Offerman? The movie sets it up as a mystery–we never see the killer’s face–but presumably it’s the third partner we barely glimpse in flashback, someone who’s only referred to as “the kid.” And wouldn’t you know it, desk clerk Miles (Pullman) certainly fits the bill: he’s roughly the right age, still working at this dodgy ass motel for some reason, and keeps trying to confess something that isn’t all the pervy spy shit to Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges). Except it turns out that Miles is not that guy, considering he’s literally the only character in this movie who actually thinks Flynn’s a priest–and, well, that’s it. The movie sets up a mystery in the opening act and then promptly forgets about it for the rest of the film. Also! Why the hell set a movie in a place where a literal line divides characters in different states if you’re not going to prominently use said line in an interesting way during some awesome climactic scene? Or, shit, at least figure out a way to tie it into some goddamn themes.

At 2 hours and 20 minutes, Bad Times at the El Royale is easily 20 minutes longer than it needs to be, with too much time spent on lengthy or unnecessary flashbacks. (Case in point, Miles’s incredibly last minute Vietnam War scene.) Despite all this, though, the movie is still totally watchable, especially if you, like me, are a sucker for these kinds of stories. Unfortunately, that only makes it more disappointing when what started out so promising turns out to be such a hot mess by the end.