Better Call Saul (Season 4) / *****

(There’s no way to discuss season 4 of Better Call Saul without spoiling the end of season 3, so, if you’re planning on watching the series and haven’t, maybe don’t read this. The summary: just another amazing season of the best show on television.) Continue reading “Better Call Saul (Season 4) / *****”

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The Venture Bros. (Season 7) / *****

VentureBros7It’s been two years since I last got to have The Venture Bros. coming into my house – a relatively short gap, by Venture Bros. standards, but still a depressingly long time to go without this show. Luckily, though, Christopher McCulloch and company came back with one of the best seasons the show’s had in recent memory – and that’s saying something, considering how constantly fantastic this show has been over the years.

Kicking off with an ambitious three-parter that both wrapped up the ongoing Blue Morpho saga and dropped some major revelations about the Monarch, season 7 found the show refocusing on the key relationships that truly matter to the show. Yes, The Venture Bros. has always been filled with weird supervillains and off-the-wall heroes, but at its best, the show was about the Venture family – about a damaged grown man who lives in the shadow of his successful (but monstrous) father and his sons, each of whom is trying to figure out who they want to be. And as the show continued, those key relationships began to include The Monarch – his rivalry with Doc Venture, his genuinely sweet relationship with Dr. Mrs. The Monarch, and his bromance with Gary (Henchman 21), his right hand man and best friend.

This season, The Venture Bros. doubled down on all of that, reducing its focus on Guild and OSI machinations, and making sure that almost every storyline focused on one of those key players. That’s not to say we didn’t get lots of great Guild stuff this season – maybe my favorite was a chance for all of the Council to settle some old scores – but the show kept the focus on the stakes for the characters, not the overarching plot. What we got was funny as anything (this really might be one of the funniest seasons in recent memory), but never forgot to make it about how these characters are finding their lives changing, and trying to figure out how to handle those changes. For Rusty, that means a taste of success; for Dean, that means college life; for the Monarch, it means a chance to remake himself as a villain and get back to what he loves; and for Hank…well, it means being Hank, in all of that weird glory.

That focus definitely means that we didn’t get much time with some of the show’s rich supporting cast – Brock F’n Samson, especially, was largely sidelined, although the show’s finale gave him a showcase and a half. And while that could easily be a letdown, the focus ended up strengthening the rest of the season so much that it worked out for the best. Besides, by this point, the show has so richly filled out its world that it would be all but impossible to give every character their own showcase with their usual short season length – so why not find a focus and a point to it all, and focus in on a story about growth and change around our main crew?

Mind you, all of that makes the show sound more “normal” than it ever could be – after all, this version of “growth” involved the Illuminati, VR headsets, Russian roulette with lawn darts, computer/human hybrids, ghosts, The Empire Strikes Back meets Barbarella homages, Clancy Brown as a giant red nightmare named The Red Death who alternates between brutal revenge plans and time with his grandkids…oh, and so much more. As ever, McCullough and company have immersed themselves in this byzantine world of bureaucracies and secret organizations, but always remember that the show is a) a comedy and b) should be about these characters, not the overarching story.

And it succeeds wildly on both of those fronts this season, culminating with a pair of scenes in the finale – one involved Hank and Dean, one involving the Monarch and Gary – that are both surprisingly sweet and heartfelt, eschewing comedy for genuinely human moments that drive home that all of this insanity so often boils down to human connections, finding meaning and purpose in lives, and doing something you love. That the show somehow does all of this while being so funny, so imaginative, and so well characterized…what a treat.

Now, if they could just cut down on that wait between seasons…

IMDb

The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley / **** ½

13528319Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook gives you one heck of a hook, there’s no denying that. When your book’s opening line is “The body you are wearing used to be mine,” well, that’s a great way to draw in your reader. And as we meet the woman living in the body of one Myfanwy (rhymes with “Tiffany,” she explains) Thomas – and realize that she’s awakened in this body while surrounded by a surprisingly large number of unconscious bodies – we realize that there’s a whole lot going on here. Mind you, Myfanwy seemed to know that her mind was going, and has left a lot of letters behind to guide her body’s new tenant. That’s a fantastic setup for a book, but it only gets you so far – does The Rook have enough to hold up after that intro?

Well, it depends. How do you feel about a secret government organization that dabbles in supernatural affairs, fights a group of genetically engineered Belgians, looks for oracular ducks,  has members with hive minds, and so much more? Because – and this is just speaking for myself – I had a blast with it.

The Rook is absolutely bonkers at times, and I mean that in the best possible way. There’s a tendency with first novels to be a bit overstuffed with ideas, as though the author is worried that this is their one chance at it all, and they’ve got to put everything in just in case they don’t get another shot. And that definitely can be the case with The Rook, which is filled with digressions, odd tangents, bizarre side characters, and sometimes can feel meandering. But when all of those ingredients are so enjoyable and fun, who really cares? O’Malley has put together a wonderful secret world just below the surface of our own, and has packed it with oddities, nightmares, and the inexplicable – and also, views it all with a sense of humor and a realization that even with supernatural powers, people can still be clueless idiots.

What that all adds up to is a book that defies easy categorization – it’s got elements of science fiction, espionage, British comedy, action, horror, government thrillers, and so many other things, and yet in the end, it feels like nothing so much as it feels like itself. And that’s something we don’t get all that often. The overarching plot of the book is great – as the new Myfanwy tries to figure out who has betrayed her, and what it has to do with an invasion of nightmarish Belgian creations – but The Rook works because of how much O’Malley has invested in this world and the characters that populate. From the bizarre Gestalt (who has four bodies, but only one mind) to the dreamwalking Lady Farrier – and those are the most normal ones – O’Malley gives every single character proper time and depth, bringing them all to life in a variety of ways, and letting them be far more than just a unique power; instead, they’re all figures of menace, wonder, and, yes, strangeness.

The Rook has a strange structure for a novel, alternating chapters in which we follow the new Myfanwy as she navigates her new life and tries to figure out the threats around her with long letters from the original Myfanwy – letters that she’s left for her successor (how she knew that she was going to lose her memory is part of the book’s story). That can lead to the sense that O’Malley is tossing in massive exposition dumps frequently, or stopping the narrative flow that he’s got going for these long tangents that don’t quite go anywhere. That’s not an unfair complaint to have, and there are times where The Rook can feel too loose. But every story builds out this world in such interesting ways, and more than that, there’s the way that O’Malley is making the absent Myfanwy as much a character in the book as the new one – and contrasting the two so sharply – that I’m willing to forgive it. (Also, one of those letters gives the story about the oracular duck, which is so good that it could be a short story in of itself, and leave me deeply satisfied.)

The Rook isn’t flawless; even apart from that loose structure, O’Malley definitely falls into that trap of having his female characters spend too much time thinking about their own attractiveness and that of their friends. (It’s not constant, at least; more than that, He does, thankfully, nicely avoid the trap of turning them into being defined by their desire for men. Indeed, there’s almost no relationship drama at all in The Rook, which is nice.) But on the whole, The Rook, giving you more plot than your average novel – a conspiracy, a betrayal, a secret organization, supernatural powers, infiltration missions, and more – all while playing around in a world that’s full of weirdness, wonder, and a surprising amount of idiocy. It’s done with humor and a light touch, turning what could have been a grim story into something really fun and engaging. I had an absolute blast reading it – every digression, every tangent – and I’m glad there’s more books to come, so I can come back to this wonderfully weird world.

Amazon

Ursula, Under, by Ingrid Hill / **** ½

295687Ursula, Under was recommended to me by a friend after he heard me raving about David Mitchell’s incredible Cloud Atlas, in which Mitchell spans time, gender, and genre to tell a series of interlocking stories about reincarnation, slavery, oppression, greed, and so much more. Trying to recommend anything even close to Cloud Atlas is a fool’s errand, I would think; what else could be like that? But here’s Ingrid Hill’s remarkable, moving Ursula, Under, which reinforces the value of human life by reminding readers that every life is the end product of millions of other lives, each of which is made up of millions of decisions, and all of which lead to…well, you.

The hook of Ursula, Under is simple enough: a little girl named Ursula Wong, a child of an interracial couple, falls down an abandoned well. And as the rescue operation cues up, a woman watching on TV asks (to herself and her drink) why everyone is spending all that money on a little kid like that. (The actual question is a bit more offensive and rude, but you get the idea.) And then Hill sets about answering the question, tracing Ursula’s ancestry over the course of a thousand plus years, following a Chinese alchemist, an abandoned orphan in the court of Gustavus Adolphus, a traveling merchant, and more.

One can’t fault Hill for her ambition; Ursula, Under gives every character their due, plunging us into their lives in depth, bringing the history to vibrant life. But more importantly, Hill lets every character live and breathe on their own terms – not only as ancestors for little Ursula, but as individuals who are living their own lives. It’s a remarkable feat, but one that conveys ancestry in a way that no other book I’ve ever read has done. It’s one thing to see your family tree on a sheet of paper; it’s another to be so forcefully reminded that everyone on that tree was a human being who had their own dreams, their own goals, their own loves and lives. Yes, it should be obvious to us, but it’s still a reminder that even though we are the heroes of our own story, we are the end product of so many lives before us – and without them, we’re not here.

It’s a beautiful way of conveying the book’s central thesis – that every life is intrinsically worth something, simply by virtue of the incredible series of events that had to occur for someone to even exist. But more than that, it gives Hill’s writing the chance to shine as she weaves in and out of her various stories, giving us an omniscient narrator that underlines the connections, both known and unknown, that all lead up to little Ursula being stuck in that well. The whole experience becomes something truly beautiful, laying bare the threads of time, all while never shortchanging the characters that she’s depicting, or their own individual lives. The comparison to Cloud Atlas is an apt one; just as Mitchell tells every single story as its own distinct creation, all while never losing sight of the bigger picture, Hill weaves all of her narratives together seamlessly, creating something that’s so much more than the sum of its parts.

If there’s a knock to be had against Ursula, Under, it’s in the depiction of the book’s “antagonist” (for lack of a better word), a character who never quite works in the book’s generous, warm worldview. More than just being a constant thorn in the lives of our main characters (in a way that sometimes strains the book’s connected narratives), the character is all but irredeemable – and worse than that, she’s impossible to empathize with. That’s a shortcoming in an otherwise magical book that wants to show that every single life is worth living, given that it struggles so much to find worth in this mean-spirited, hateful woman, nor find a purpose that’s motivated her. But in the end, that’s a small flaw in this otherwise beautiful gem of a novel, and one that only slightly detracts from its impact and richness. In a day and age where so often individual lives are ignored or passed over or viewed as unimportant, it’s good to be reminded that none of us – not a one – isn’t here because of so many people we never knew. And that gives us worth, in a way it’s important to remember.

Amazon

Twilight Zone: The Movie / ** ½

twilight_zoneAnthology films are a difficult thing to review under the best of circumstances. By their very nature, the quality of each segment is going to vary, leaving anyone trying to write about them doing their best to average it all together. But that situation is even worse in the case of Twilight Zone: The Movie, where not only do the segments swing so wildly in quality, but one of them casts such a pall over the rest of the film that it’s hard to look at the rest of the movie without remembering it.

But even without that segment – and we’ll come back to it soon – Twilight Zone is all over the map in terms of quality. On the other hand, each successive segment improves on the one before it, so that’s not nothing, especially when it all ends with George Miller’s fantastic take on “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in which a passenger with acrophobia becomes increasingly convinced that there’s a creature sitting on the airplane’s wing, destroying it. Between John Lithgow’s gloriously intense performance as the passenger and George Miller’s stylish, unnerving direction, “Nightmare” is the runaway hit from the film, and almost worth the entire running time to watch – it’s fun, creepy, and genuinely thrilling in a way that most of the rest of the film never even comes close to. (It’s also one of the only times where the film justifies the decision to remake classic segments instead of doing new ones entirely…although, of course, the one original segment has its own problem.)

Immediately before “Nightmare” comes Joe Dante’s bizarre, off-kilter take on “It’s a Good Life,” which again mostly justifies the decision to remake an iconic story by doing it in a wholly unique, strange style. Dante steers into his love of physical comedy and cartoons, turning the story of an all powerful boy whose family lives in terror of him into a surreal, expressionist nightmare of a tale, blending cartoons and live action into something truly wild. If Dante had been able to stick the landing, “It’s a Good Life” could have stolen the film; it’s ambitious, weird, and feels like little else out there, indulging all of Dante’s quirks and ideas and then some. But the ending collapses out from underneath the film, backing off from the story’s bleakness in a way that feels like a cop out. (The rumor I’ve heard is that Spielberg, who was producing the film and dealing with the behind the scenes issues, asked Dante to back off and redo the ending.) It’s a shame, because the rest of the short? Pretty fantastic.

But the rest of Twilight Zone? Eesh. There’s the weak frame story that gives a pretty perfunctory twist without much to note, and really only works as much as it does thanks to a brief appearance by Albert Brooks. Then there’s Spielberg’s saccharine, syrupy take on “Kick the Can,” which is so filled with cutsiness and schmaltz that it gets overwhelming quickly and never lets up. Its heart is in the right place, and the idea of having one non-horror segment isn’t a bad one, but this one is too maudlin for the film, and truly just gets eye-rolling quickly.

And then there’s John Landis’s segment.

Look, it’s hard to judge “Time Out” on its own terms as it is. Here’s what clearly is an unfinished segment, with the ending unshot and the story incomplete. But even before that, “Time Out” is a nasty, black-hearted segment, one that leans too heavily on its role reversal and gives us a protagonist whose racism makes him hard to root for, even if it’s supposed to be a learning experience for him. And in Landis’s hands, the thriller element is completely gone; everything is bludgeoning, ham-handed, and obvious. Even if you ignored the elephant in the room – and it’s a big elephant – the segment is dull and overwrought.

And if you remember that people died for this segment – that Landis’s selfishness, greed, and carelessness cost the lives of Vic Morrow and two young children, in a nightmarish accident that should never have happened, and should have cost Landis his career…well, it’s even harder to watch.

Twilight Zone is a fascinating experiment, in so many ways. And in those final two segments – Dante’s and Miller’s – you can see the movie we could have gotten. But even if you can set aside a terrible first segment and a tragically inert second segment, it’s impossible to watch the movie without knowing what happened behind the scene, knowing that Landis got paid for it, and people died for a movie. That makes it very, very hard to enjoy what we got, even if the craft in the last two segments makes them worth seeing on their own – just, maybe not as part of this anthology.

IMDb

Driving to Geronimo’s Grave and Other Stories, by Joe R. Lansdale / ****

1014249636As much as Joe Lansdale’s wonderful Hap and Leonard books are a constant source of joy in my life, I can’t ever forget that what made me fall in love with Lansdale wasn’t those books. No, what struck me so quickly about Lansdale – after reading the truly bizarre The Complete Drive-In and the short story collection The Best of Joe R. Lansdale – was the absolute inability to pigeonhole him into anything approaching a single genre. Does he write horror? Crime? Science fiction? Comedy? Noir? Supernatural thrillers? Character studies? Drama? Lansdale writes all of those and more, but does them all at the same time, running through genre boundaries as though they were non-existent, and doing it all with a Texas drawl and a storyteller’s voice that’s undeniable.

Driving to Geronimo’s Grave and Other Stories, Lansdale’s latest short story collection, is just another reminder – if you needed one – of the wild range he has as a writer. And if the contents aren’t quite among his best collections, there’s still plenty to enjoy here – trust me, even lesser Lansdale is better than most writers will ever manage to be.

Geronimo’s Grave consists of six stories and copious notes from Lansdale himself – notes that serve partly as introductions to the stories, partly as a chance for him to opine and muse about things. Oddly, the most compelling set of notes comes as a predecessor to the collection’s weakest entry, the H.P. Lovecraft homage “In the Mad Mountains,” which finds Lansdale playing around in Lovecraft’s famous Mountains of Madness, all while bringing his own sensibility to it. The story itself is fine – Lansdale adds some great touches towards the story’s end, but often feels as though he’s not super comfortable in Lovecraft’s world – but the notes before it are fascinating, as Lansdale discusses not only his own mixed feelings on Lovecraft, but the much larger questions about Lovecraft that so many authors have to grapple with – namely, how to handle his virulent racism. Lansdale has never made any secret of his loathing of any and all racial prejudice, and his long, thoughtful take on Lovecraft’s legacy and how we handle it today makes for a great read, with lots of insight to spare.

Really, all of the introductory notes are fascinating, and if you’re a fan of Lansdale, they’re worth the price of admission in of themselves – sometimes they’re relevant to the story, sometimes they’re more about the issues the stories raise, and sometimes they’re just Lansdale telling stories about himself, same as he tells stories about his characters. But the tales themselves are fun, and often – though not entirely – orbit around Lansdale’s version of a coming of age story. There are exceptions, of course; the aforementioned “Mad Mountains” is more of a surreal horror tale, while the collection’s closer, “Everything Sparkles in Hell,” is a Western about an African-American bounty hunter named Nat Love (featured in a couple of other Lansdale stories, as yet unread by me), some ruthless criminals, and one nightmarish grizzly bear.

But many of the rest are stories of young people forced to grow up in unexpected ways. The title story, for instance, tells of a Depression-era youth who goes on a road trip with his bratty sister to go retrieve the corpse of a distant relative from where it’s been left, a story that gives Lansdale the chance to play around with the variety of occurrences that can come up in a road trip novel. Meanwhile, “Robo Rapid” finds Lansdale playing around in a post-apocalyptic science-fiction world (an homage to a famous sci-fi classic) where a young girl is attempting to save her family members from robots bent on human sacrifice for bewildering reasons. (Those reasons, when they are eventually revealed, are both slyly funny and give Lansdale the chance to make some barbed points about human nature and where our creations might be getting their bloodlust from.) Or there’s “The Projectionist,” a mix of grim noir and teenage love, set in a movie theater that’s being blackmailed by some very dangerous guys. In other words, even within the parameters of “coming of age” story, Lansdale finds every possible way to do it.

Then there’s the collection’s highlight, “Wrestling Jesus,” a wonderfully odd story that starts with a young boy being beaten up by bullies before being saved by a senior citizen with martial arts training. In so many ways, “Wrestling Jesus” could fall into cliches – it’s the story of an older man who takes a young bullied kid under his wing; the story of how martial arts training and learning to fight fills that kid with confidence; the story of how the grouchy old man and the bullied kid become friends. Oh, and it’s also the story of how that senior citizen and another equally old man have annual wrestling matches for the honor of a woman who might be a witch. So, you know. That old chestnut.

Whatever else you can say about Joe Lansdale, the man is incapable of phoning it in or giving you just another story you’ve heard before. The pieces in Driving to Geronimo’s Grave may not have the perfect tightness and snap of some of his best work, but there’s a joy in luxuriating in Lansdale’s dialogue, musings, and worlds, and in losing yourself in his gift of storytelling. And when it’s impossible to read any of these stories and not wish there was more – well, that tells you enough, doesn’t it?

Amazon

Spirited Away / Beauty and the Beast (2017)

animation-cartoon-movie-kraft-paper-poster-wallpaper-wall-stickers-cartoon-spirited-away_640x640It’s been years since I watch Hiyao Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away – indeed, I probably haven’t seen it since it was released in theaters. And yet, it’s stuck with me in a way so few movies ever have, filling my mind with iconic images captured perfectly. I wasn’t exposed to Miyazaki until college, when I decided on a whim to go see Princess Mononoke, and came out staggered by what I had just seen. Here was animation like nothing I had seen before – lush, unpredictable, detailed, and displaying a boundless imagination that swept me up in its world. And Spirited Away might be the perfect encapsulation of all of that.

So when we sat down to watch it with my kids, it’s really no wonder that I got so swept up in the film. (My original plan had been to maybe catch up on grading as we watched; that quickly was put aside.) The story is simplicity: a young girl on a road trip with her parents is separated from them when they fall under an enchantment that turns them into pigs; she escapes into a bizarre bathhouse that serves the wandering spirits and gods that roam the landscape.

What happens from there is entirely sensible as you watch the film, but all but impossible to describe afterwards – it’s as though you’re lost in a dream, watching the events unfold and understanding them effortlessly in the moment. But when it’s over, all you can remember is the wondrous visions that Miyazaki brought into your life. Boiler supervisors with spider-like limbs; dripping slime blobs stuffed with pollution and trash; wandering spirits whose masks crack open to reveal gaping maws; and so much more. To watch Spirited Away is to lose yourself in a world where anything is possible, where gods and spirits wander the land and everything we consider “normal” is gone from us. And Miyazaki plunges us into it effortlessly, making it wondrous and not horrifying, magical and not repulsive. It’s a reminder of what makes animation special – the way it can create worlds that we’ve never seen and stretch “reality” in ways that feel alive.

I don’t have much new to say about Spirited Away that hasn’t already been said over the years. It’s funny, imaginative, warm, thoughtful, and rewarding in so many ways. It’s packed with unforgettable visions, incredible detail, and imagination to last me a dozen films. It’s got beautiful moments, reminders of humanity’s obligations to the planet, lessons about kindness, adventure…god, what doesn’t it have? To watch it is to be reminded of why we loved cartoons as children in the first place. Rating: *****

And then, a week later, we have an equally effective argument for the importance of imagination and animation – just in an entirely different way.

beauty-the-beast-one-sheet_a-g-14910214-0It is hard offhand to think of a more laborious, pointless, inert, lifeless film than Disney’s live action version of Beauty and the Beast, but goodness knows I’ve tried. Here’s a story that’s essentially been told in almost the exact same way three times now: in Jean Cocteau and René Clément’s astonishing 1946 version, in Disney’s 1991 iconic animated adaptation, and now this slab. The 1946 version set the stage for what was to come, giving us a house brought to life, filled with living candelabras and other animated objects, but all done with a sense of magic and wonder (thanks in no small part to the staging of it all using cinema trickery). Then Disney removed some of the subtext and surrealism of that version, but added in animated wonders to spare, bringing the story to rich life.

Now, here’s the part where I confess that I never really understood why it was that Beauty and the Beast became the legend that it is. I don’t dislike the film, but it’s never done all that much for me. Part of that is the source material – the original story was never one of my favorites – but much of it is simply that I never felt there was much exciting or interesting to hold onto in the film. None of the characters are that compelling to me, and the bond between them even less so.

But even with all of that, at least the 1991 version gives us Disney animation to enjoy, plunging us into a world where the magic can enter into the frame effortlessly. And, what’s more, it has the decency to not stretch that already thin story more than it has to, telling it all in less than an hour and a half.

Nearly half again as long as its predecessor, Bill Condon’s live action retelling has basically none of the assets of any of its predecessors, while having all of their flaws and then some. Gone are Cocteau’s magically incorporated servants; in their place is ugly, overdone computer animation that feels busy and dull, robbing any scene of anything close to wonder or imagination. (This may be worst of all in Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth, whose overly busy clock face is just distracting and ugly to watch.) And by and large, there’s not a scene that doesn’t end up suffering in comparison to the simplicity of the animated version; by and large, director Bill Condon seems to mistake “style” for “pack every surface with elaborate and distracting busyness,” making the whole movie nothing if not absolutely hideous to look at.

You could argue, if you really wanted, that the movie fleshes out the characters a bit more than the original; it’s a point I’d firmly disagree with (and I would let Tasha Robinson’s excellent breakdown of the differences between the animated version and the live action version speak for me here), but I guess the movie makes some half-hearted efforts that way. But they’re not efforts that help the film in any sense, and if they have any success, it’s thanks to people like Kevin Kline who elevate the lackluster material through their performance. Few of the cast get the chance to do anything interesting, though; mostly, this is a film of going through the motions, overdoing the visual style, and letting computers do the heavy lifting rather than creating anything close to actual cinema.

Here’s what I will say about the live action Beauty and the Beast – it definitely made me appreciate the animated version more than I had. At least it’s elegantly simple and stylish in a way that lets the story shine, as opposed to this ugly, lifeless cash grab without anything whatsoever to recommend it over any other version. Rating: *

IMDb: Spirited Away | Beauty and the Beast (2017)