What I Watched March 2019

Movies

Saving Mr. Banks – It is well enough made, though even though the rosy picture of Disney doesn’t really ring true.  Still, it is hard to argue against Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson. ***

Behind the Curve – This is a somewhat tragic documentary looking at flat-earthers.  It is tragic because these sad individuals can’t help buy debunk themselves as they try to prove their theories.  It just stinks of societal failure. ***1/2

Triple Frontier – This is another close thing.  It is kind of a strange heist movie.  A bunch of vets get a plan to rob a South American drug lord, but find a lot more money than they expected.  The early part goes faster and smoother than the usual heist movie, but it is followed by a painstaking escape sequence.  It mostly works, but it feels really close to being something actually special. ***1/2

Aliens – Aliens is great, but you already know that. *****

Big Trouble in Little China – Kurt Russell is amazing in this.  His incompetent bravado is just perfect.  Jack Burton is a sidekick, comic relief character that thinks he’s the protagonist.  It is wonderful. *****

Cobra – I did not like this at all.  It is stupid and mean and not particularly exciting.  It feels like Stallone trying too hard. **1/2

Labyrinth – Yup, it is still a delight. ****

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – I didn’t realize how much of a creep Ferris is in this, but that doesn’t really make the movie any less entertaining.  It is a lot of fun. ****1/2

Invaders From Mars – ehh, not for me. **

Hot Rod – This movie deserves to be remembered as a comedy classic.  It is one of my favorite “recent” comedies. It is so great. *****

Captain Marvel – read review here. ****

Dumbo – read review here. **1/2

The Highwaymen – I kind of loved this.  It is unusual to get a movie about the public enemies era that doesn’t sympathize at all with the criminals.  Here, it is all from the point of view of the cops, who struggle to catch Bonnie and Clyde.  I just liked seeing Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson giving old man speeches. ****

The Dirt – Last year, I didn’t much care for Bohemian Rhapsody; it was kind of a badly made movie buoyed by some genuinely great music.  This is the same, but with not nearly as good music. **

TV

Black Lightning – The second season of Black Lightning is over and while I still think the show is great, it kind of feels like this season started getting away from the creators here.  It expanded in scope, but could not quite wrangle that new scope into a coherent season.  I expect some dropped threads to be picked up in the next season, but some stuff, like the stuff about the new racist principal, was either poorly conceived or poorly explained.  Still, I think the show is generally excellent and look forward to next season.

After Life – I don’t have much to say here. This show is bad. It is an unlikable combination of mean and smug.  Gervais has made quality television before, but he has put together quite the string of misses lately.

The Widow – This has a lot in common with Black Earth Rising, though The Widow adds a lot of action thriller stuff to it.  Kate Beckinsale stars as a widow whose husband died in a plane crash.  Only she finds evidence that he might have survived and she heads to Africa to get to the bottom of things.  She stumbles into many hornets nest and learns some terrible truths.  It is solidly entertaining, largely thanks to Beckinsale and Charles Dance, but feels like it would have worked better if trimmed by a couple of episodes.

Pen15 – This show is well made, but it is hard to watch.  It hits close to home, even accounting for the difference in genders between me and the protagonists.  This is a crushingly accurate depiction of being a teenager at around the turn of the century.

Turn Up Charlie – This show should be bad.  It is strange, with Idris Elba playing a washed up, one hit wonder DJ who is desperate to regain his fame who ends up working as a nanny for his famous childhood friend.  It is an odd set up.  But Elba is great and the show is much more charming than it might first appear to be.  It is definitely worth a watch.

Iron Fist S2 – It says a lot about how bad the first season of Iron Fist was that the second season could improve so much and still not really be any good.  This show is just kind of out there in no man’s land.  The tone of the Netflix  Marvel shows was established by Daredevil and the other characters work, to varying degrees, with that tone.  It isn’t the only choice, but that dark, grounded-ish world works for Jessica Jones and Luke Cage and especially The Punisher.  But that it is hard to fit Iron Fist into that mold with its super-powered martial arts masters.  The character needs to be something campier and sillier than the Netflix tone allows for.  This second season pushes things closer that way, but it is still sapping the fun out of Iron Fist instead of forcing the fun onto Netflix.  The big improvement comes from the show realizing how much Danny sucks, and therefore moves a lot of the work off him.  I don’t want to blame it on Finn Jones, who is trying as hard as he can.  But he can’t convincingly fake fight and isn’t helped out by another part of the show to fake it.  In a show that is supposedly about one of the greatest martial artists in the world, him not being able to appear to fight is a problem.  By making him a lovable (or at least potentially lovable) goof, the show is a lot less tedious.  It also cuts things down by about 5 hours, but still manages to have the same ratio of plot to filler, so that isn’t really an improvement.  I intend to get to the rest of Marvel’s Netflix shows, hopefully by the time Jessica Jones hits, but I can’t say I’m sad to see them go.

Arrested Development S5 Part 2 – The word that comes to mind when analyzing this (hopefully) last batch of Arrested Development episodes is timing.  Because the timing of these episodes is terrible.  Timing was one of the strengths of the original run of Arrested Development.  The show just seemed to know when to drop which joke, the actors all seemed to know just how to play off each other.  It was like watching recent Golden State Warriors games. Everything was in sync.  Here, everything just feels mistimed. It spends too long on jokes that don’t work and brushes by good one.  Also, the satire was perfectly poised to deal with the social climate of the early aughts.  However, a lot has changed since then.  This whole season has felt like a once great athlete playing past their prime.  To keep the basketball comparison, it is like watching Jordan on the Wizards.  You can still see what made him special, but it’s not really there anymore.  While it might just be too long since Arrested Development’s heyday for this to really hit.  The huge break between the first half of this season and the second did it no favors.  It loses any momentum it could have built up.  I am going to have to go back and watch the whole season in one go to see if it works better.  I don’t know what to say about this; the show is a pale shadow of one of my all-time favorite shows.  Arrested Development went a long ways in defining my sense of humor.  Stumbling onto the first season was like having everything click in my head, discovering that this is what I like.  But the magic is gone. I’m sad to see this show go, but it really feels like the time.

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All Things Must End

Recently the last season of Psych hit Netflix. I didn’t remember liking most of those episodes when they aired, but I do remember being largely satisfied with the ending. Watching the season again mostly confirmed those memories. I have also been watching 30 Rock. It has a really truly terrific ending. I wanted to write about how these shows shook the trend of TV shows falling apart at the end and having terrible endings. The problem is, the more I thought about shows that I like, the more I realized that most of my favorite shows have really good endings. In fact, I can think of more good endings than bad. Honestly, as much as I like it, Psych kind of gets stuck in that bad ending rut, if the whole season and not just the last episode are taken into account. Coming up with a satisfying ending for a long running TV show is clearly hard, though not surprisingly, good shows manage to do this more often than not.

The problem is with the nature of American TV. Shows are designed to be eternally in the middle act. There is a pilot, an opening, but after that most shows are not really moving anywhere. They are telling stories, but the action is designed to leave the characters right where they started. Seinfeld is not building to anything and there is no natural end point for Friends. Psych is set up to tell mysteries, the characters may grow and change some, but the central relationships are firm. The longer a show runs, the more likely it is that things start to break down. One change causes another change, then another, rippling out until the changes start to tear the fabric of the show apart. The trick is getting the most out of a show but ending before it changes into something else entirely.

Shows tend to end badly for two reasons. Or possibly for one reason depending on how one looks at it. They either end too soon or end too late. Take My Name is Earl, for example. It is, or at least started as, a pretty darn good show. (That first season is excellent, but the show kind of lost its way but the end.) Still it is a show with a built an out. Earl has a list; the show ends when he completes that list. However, the show actually ends on a cliffhanger, with a shocking revelation about Earl’s black son, Earl Jr., having a different father than everyone suspected. The show has the worst kind of ending: no ending at all. It is hard to say that a show with 4 seasons was cancelled too soon, especially one that was as far off track as Earl by the end, but it still deserved some kind of resolution. That is a show that ended too soon. On the other hand there are shows like Scrubs, which clearly went on too long. For give or take four seasons, Scrubs was some fine television. However, the show stayed on the air longer than was good for it. So long that most of the original cast moved on. It is hard to find a satisfying conclusion for a show that ran for the better part of a decade when the characters that everyone loved are no longer part of the show. That show hung on way too long. Good shows can make the best of those situations. Arrested Development certainly ended too soon, but its first ending, the end of season 3, was as good a wrap up as possible. And The Office went sorely off track in the later seasons, only to rally in its final season and go out with a truly excellent final episode.

The important thing for an ending is tone. While something more poignant is possible and sometimes fitting, with a show that has been running the better part of a decade cheese might be the best option. At least for a comedy, with a drama that is a different proposition. Malcolm in the Middle’s ending is occasionally preposterous, but also touching. Completely fitting for the show, though. The idea that Lois has planned out Malcom’s future entirely, right down to how he becomes President, is equally ridiculous and expected. It is a perfect example of what shows should strive for. It feels momentous, clearly an ending, but still a part of the show.

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Psych is a show that seems to have held on a little too long. There are still some good episodes in the last season, but it feels very flabby. The mystery plots are muddled or nonexistent. The show is more concerned on how it is going to bring the series to a close. Characters are moving around. First, Chief Vick is removed. Then Lassiter is made chief. Then Juliette leaves with Chief Vick. The central character relationships that were the heart of the show break down over these last ten episodes and it feels drawn out. There are highlights, like the first episode of the season which is a Guy Ritchie pastiche filled with Harry Potter jokes and one last Cary Elwes appearance. Honestly, it is one of the great episodes of the series. Then there is the last episode, titled The Break Up. Shawn is trying to break up, not with Juliette but with Gus. He is going to San Francisco to be with Juliette. This decision is made easier with the new head detective, who is good enough that she doesn’t need Shawn and Gus to help. It is amazing how well the episode manages to give a fitting ending to each and every character. Lassiter is chief and has a wife and kid, eternal whipping boy McNabb finally gets a promotion to detective and Henry stumbles into teaching criminology. Shawn relocates to San Francisco to be with Juliette and work with Chief Vick (with a bonus shout out to Monk thrown in there) and finally proposes to Juliette. There is a decent mystery tangled up in there, but it is mostly tying a bow on everything. Season 8 of Psych is not a good season of TV, but it does manage a quality ending to the series.

The other ending I recently watched was that of 30 Rock. I didn’t give that show its due when it was on the air. I don’t like being told what to watch. I take a slightly absurd amount of pride in the fact that I came across Arrested Development early in its run. I started watching it somewhere around episode 10 when it originally aired. I was the one telling all my friends and acquaintances to watch it. The same goes for The Office, which I discovered at the start of its second season. With 30 Rock, I was seeing all the gushing love for it online, but to me it seemed to come at the expense of shows I like more. I was a fool. I’ve now watched the show through on Netflix several times. Every time I watch it I like it more. The ending, specifically the last three episodes, are just about perfect.

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30 Rock is a show with high peaks, but no significant troughs. It nearly captures the manic pace and interconnectedness of Arrested Development and keeps it up for more than twice the run time. It should be no surprise that it has a great ending. Still, it ends as well as possible. With a show about a show, the ending is obvious. The show must get cancelled. This happens in A Goon’s Deed in a Weary World, the third from last episode. It has Liz desperately trying to save TGS while Criss prepares for the arrival of their adopted kids. Also, Jack looks for his replacement. It ends in what could have been the last episode of the show, with TGS cancelled and Liz meeting her kids, who act just like Tracy and Jenna. But that is not the ending; there is a two episode coda. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Liz tries to deal with being a stay at home mom, but it isn’t for her. She ends up doing one more episode of TGS to avoid paying Tracy thanks to an odd clause in his contract. How it ends is known, but it lets the show give the characters an extended farewell, one last chance for everyone to shine. It is a perfect encapsulation of the show. Perfect character beats between silly pratfalls and constant in jokes. The show goes out on a song from ‘The Rural Juror,’ Jenna’s movie from way back near the start of the series. It is funny and touching and perfect.

30 Rock is the perfect example of how to end a TV show, though few shows have been consistently well written enough to pull it off. Psych does things less well, but it still manages to salvage things, leaving a largely pleasant taste in the viewer’s mouth. Both of these are good shows, and they have good endings. Which the more I think about it the less it seems exceptional. I hope the few show currently running shows I’m into can have as good of endings as these two shows did. Let’s hope Parks and Recreation goes out on top, and Always Sunny in Philadelphia can go out on the bottom. And if we are all lucky, maybe someone will perform a mercy killing on The Simpsons and Family Guy. But that is another subject entirely.

Arrested Development Season 4

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It has been more than a year since Season 4 of what I consider the greatest show to ever air on American television premiered on Netflix. I had planned to write a review of it after I gorged on the fifteen plus-sized episodes, but after a couple abortive attempts I gave up on it. A few weeks ago I found myself watching through the show again and when I got to the new stuff, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I liked it the first time, but this time through it really clicked for me. While this new season is a different beast than the original run it is almost as good. I think it is a shame that many people seem to have written it off as a poor addition.

It does have its faults. The first and biggest one is that they couldn’t get the entire cast there at the same time for the bulk of the episodes. The busy schedules of the stars more than half a decade after the show ended is the unfortunate reality we live in. In order to get any new Arrested Development at all we had to accept that the cast was going to be scattered. This does kill one of the best parts of the show, the crack timing of all the characters in every scene. Season 4 is at its best when it has most of its characters together; scenes which are all the more notable for how infrequent they are. By giving each of the characters room to breathe on their own it becomes apparent that most of them are wholly unlikable. Early on even the usually relatable, though never as good a person as he thinks he is, Michael looks incredibly bad.

The second big problem is the ending. Spoiling as little as possible, I have to say that it is unconscionable that they ended it with a cliffhanger. The show has already gotten one miracle revival. No matter what hopes the creators and cast have for a movie or another Netflix season, they needed to end this with some closure. Instead, many of the plot threads only sort of tie together into an opening for the next story. Much like how the bulk of the episodes end. If there was a solid guarantee of more Arrested Development, then maybe the ending would be acceptable.  Since there isn’t it makes the ending we received somewhat tragic. Especially in light of the nearly perfect conclusion Season 3 had.

Still, Season 4 works. Individually, each episode may not be perfect, but the season as a whole tells a great story. It is still subtle, clever and layered, but the usual 3 episode story is blown up into a 15 episode season. It works even better on second viewing; once the viewer knows what’s coming many of the jokes hit all the harder. It is like getting tiny glimpses of the gears in a watch. At first you can only see a few of the moving parts and have no idea how it all fits together. Each episode shows another small part, but each glimpse tells more the bigger picture. Once it all is revealed, the intricate nature of how it all works together is apparent. What is most amazing about this is that they manage to do without the character actually interacting, other than in pairs and with Michael.

They actually make the separated cast work with the story. Without Michael there to keep everyone together, the family has dispersed over the six or so years since the show ended. Lucille has gone to prison, George Sr is near the Mexican border scamming CEO’s, George Michael has gone to college, etc. While most of their circumstances are roughly the same, though their precise situation is different, when the show starts Michael has hit rock bottom. It is hard to see him like that. The others are awful enough that the viewer can enjoy their failures. While Michael tends to be self-righteous and smug, but he is usually a smidge or so better the rest of his family. It’s not a lot, but he at least seems redeemable. At the start here he is pushed to the worst possible level of his indulging his faults. The whole season seems to be Michael’s refusal to actually climb back out of that hole. Every time he gets close, he jumps right back in. In the last episode, when George Michael finally punches him in the face it feels well-deserved.

Once I accepted that the show can’t be exactly like it was before, I gained a greater appreciation for what Season 4 is and what it does. Instead of futilely trying to recreate the magic of the original run, it keeps many of the same traits and does something slightly different. Season 4 is not the continuing misadventures of this horrible family; it is one big overarching episode in their story. And it is a pretty damn good episode. I only hope they get the chance to finish the story.