The Venture Bros. (Season 6) / *****

venture-bros-season-6-featureIt’s going to be hard for me to be entirely objective about the latest season of The Venture Bros. First of all, here’s a show that I’ve really come to love over the years, one that makes me happy just by being on again (something triggered in no small part by the long wait between seasons). Between the surprisingly rich characterization, the spectacular sense of humor, the more-intricate-than-expected mythology, the great voice work…well, the list could go on, but the short version is, The Venture Bros. is reliably great every single season, every single week. Even the “off” episodes are still pretty great. And yet, even as a fan, I was worried that the last season felt a little purposeless, a little adrift. There was no real need for the story to continue, no big motivation. Hank and Dean knew the truth of their origins. The Sovereign had been defeated, more or less. The Guild and OSI were back in their proper places. And while I was never going to turn down more Team Venture, what was the need for things to keep going? I loved hanging out with these characters every week, but narratively, it felt like creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer were running out of material.

I needn’t have worried. Season 6 did something new for the show, delivering a more-tightly serialized and layered story that pretty much flowed between episodes. More than that, the show basically hit a massive reset button, letting the Guild rebuild itself, the Ventures start a new life in New York City, forcing the Monarch to figure out how to make himself “Mighty” again…in other words, basically letting everything start from scratch. And as the season developed, that turned out to be a genius maneuver. From watching Rusty Venture deal with the possibility of success to the Monarch finding out some secrets about his family, the season had an energy, a life, and a thrust that it’s been lacking for a little while.

What it hadn’t been lacking for, though, was the humor, and that was back just as strong as it had ever been. Between Hank’s love life, wonderfully odd new villains (ranging from a performance art collective to a middle-aged family man who takes one night a year to be the most nightmarish villain of all time), Brock F’n Samson returning to central focus, and Monarch’s unique efforts to help out his career, season 6 of the show delivered some of the funniest, most hilariously smart moments of the show so far, all while never neglecting the character depth that’s made the show great over the years. In other words, it’s everything I’ve always loved about Venture Bros., all with new purpose and narrative drive.

And then, of course, it ended, and with a little bit of a weak finale. (Apparently that’s the result of backstage issues, unfortunately.) But for all of that, the season served as a reminder that in its own quiet way, Venture Bros. is one of the funniest, smartest, richest, and just plain best shows on TV. It may not be one you always think of in the new canon of Peak TV, but don’t miss it if you’re a fan of superheroes, nerdery, or just smart TV.

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Fargo (Season 2) / *****

fargo_season_2_posterSeason one of Fargo came out of nowhere. The idea was laughable: to take the brilliant, seminal film by the Coens and turn it into a series? It was a joke, a pathetic idea on the face of it. And yet, against all expectations, the first season wasn’t just good; it was nothing short of brilliant, capturing both the tone and the complex morality of the Coens’ film and turning it into something more sprawling and broader.

The second season, though, didn’t have that benefit of surprise. More than that, it had to live up to the foreshadowing that had been peppered throughout the first season, which contained references to an ominous series of events that happened in Sioux Falls. Add to that the difficulties of an anthology series where you’ve got an all-new cast and (essentially) a brand new story, and the difficulty curve was high, to put it mildly.

Nonetheless, Fargo‘s second season was all it needed to be and more, taking the same general themes of the first season – the juxtaposition of violence and everyday life, the nature of evil – and moving it the 1970’s. More specifically, it’s the end of the 1970’s, when America was still recovering from the double blow of Vietnam and Watergate, the era of big megabusiness was about to come along, and Ronald Reagan was drumming up support for his presidential run. It’s an odd time in American history, one where the country was trying to regain its moral compass, which makes it a nice setting for Fargo‘s season of mayhem and violence.

And let’s be clear: the stakes are raised pretty high here. While season 1 kicked off with an impulsive murder as one man gave way to his darkest impulses, season 2 is about nothing less than a mob war, as the Mafia decides to muscle its way into a small “family operation” in Minnesota. Mind you, it all goes bad due in no small part to a simple accident involving a man who’s not looking where he’s going…but nonetheless, this is violence on a far larger scale than most of what we saw in season 1.

Even so, Fargo remains a show about morality, about staying true to your code even in the face of unimaginable death and destruction. Much like season 1, the season finds its moral anchor in a police officer named Solverson – this time, it’s Molly’s father Lou, played in his younger years by Patrick Wilson. Lou’s a Vietnam vet, a father with a wife who’s dying of cancer, and a good cop, and so many of this season’s pleasures come from the glimpses of the Solverson home life. Indeed, the season’s more wrenching arc comes from Betsy’s battle with cancer, which is handled in such a good way – never maudlin, but painful, and ultimately honest and heartfelt.

Meanwhile, the expanding scope – which involves not only the Kansas City gang and the local Gerhardt family, but also a butcher and his wife caught in the crossfire – allows showrunner Noah Hawley to create a wonderful cast of supporting characters, all of whom bring life, personality, and style to the show. It’s generally hard to pick standouts, given that they’re all pretty superb, but Bokeem Woodbine’s Mike Milligan is the easy favorite, and for just reason. It would easy, and expected, for the show to do another Chigurh-type figure of malevolent violence and chaos, as they did last season with Billy Bob Thornton’s chilling Malvo, but Milligan is something else – erudite, charming, calm, likable, and unquestionably dangerous. He’s a magnetic figure, and the very definition of the word antihero. It doesn’t matter that he works for the mob – we kind of love him anyway.

On the Gerhardt front, Jean Strong makes the richest, deepest impression as the matriarch of the family who’s struggling to keep everything under control. After her husband has a stroke, it’s left to her to settle the family squabbles and hold off this new threat. That’s of a piece with one of the season’s recurring themes, which is the role of women in this violent world – how they can seize control, why it’s difficult, and how they’re so often underestimated. Indeed, it’s to the show’s credit that Strong works not just as a symbol of a powerful woman (contrasted with Kirsten Dunst’s spectacular turn as a harried housewife desperate to turn her life around), but as a fully realized woman, one who’s equal parts Mafia don and loving mother.

You’ll notice, probably, that at no point have I attempted to encapsulate the plot here. And that’s more or less intentional. After all, much of the pleasure of Fargo comes from seeing how things develop, and how situations escalate slowly and then more and more quickly as things fall apart. Beyond that, though, I wouldn’t dare to ruin some of the gleefully weird surprises the season holds, other than to say that the payoff for one dangling piece of strangeness made me laugh out loud with its gutsiness.

For all of that, though, what elevates Fargo from a good, entertaining crime saga into something great is the richness on almost every imaginable level. The style is sumptuous, making an art out of split-screen shots that become a character unto themselves. The casting is spot-on, which only underlines the astonishing writing and character depth across the board, as every single person, no matter how long they’re in the show, is given depth, nuance, thought, and personality. The music is astonishing, with musical cues that evoke the period perfectly and yet avoid the “on-the-nose” feeling of so many period pieces. And the writing slowly unfolds to reveal such thematic richness – with meditations on the role of women, the pain of accepting death, the effects of Vietnam, the hopes for America, the dangers of violence – that it all but sneaks up on you, becoming something profound when you least expect it.

Put simply, Fargo is one of the best shows on television, and if you’re not watching it, you need to. Your loss if you miss it.

IMDb

Zootopia / ****

zootopia-movie-posterThe first teaser trailer for Zootopia  was greeted with a lot of puzzlement. It was an ad that focused on the film’s basic setup: a world exactly like ours, but filled with anthropomorphic animals. For many people, the whole idea of an ad focused on that seemed ridiculous – isn’t that the premise of half of Disney’s films anyway? It’s not like such an idea was wholly new or original. So why focus on that in your teaser?

Because, as it turns out, that’s not just the basic idea of Zootopia; it’s, in many ways, the basis for the film’s thematic depth. Because when the teaser tells you that it’s just like our world, that’s an important detail – it is just like our world, down to the racism, prejudice, uneasy relationships with the police, and so much more. Zootopia may be just a movie about anthropomorphic animals, but it’s also a parable about prejudice and judgment, and the way we assume so much about people based off of their looks.

I had heard a bit to that effect by the time I finally saw Zootopia, but even knowing it, I was a bit surprised by how thoughtful the film was with its metaphor. Now, to be sure, it doesn’t always work entirely; while the film often features characters judging each other based off of their species (foxes are untrustworthy and deceptive, rabbits are cute and stupid), it also ends up sorting everyone into broader categories of predator and prey, which ends up jumbling up the metaphor a bit more than it needs to be. And yet, even so, there’s more substance to the film than I expected, as characters deal with their own assumptions, discuss how their lives are often shaped by the prejudice they face on a daily basis, and even debate the reality that judgment and racism exists even in a modern world when we pretend it doesn’t.

Here’s what I didn’t know about Zootopia going into it: that it’s basically a cop movie, through and through. Not only is it a cop movie, it’s one based on all kinds of hoary old chestnuts: a rookie, overzealous cop; a rough, demanding supervisor; a streetwise partner (this one a criminal, which is straight out of 48 Hours)…it’s all kinds of things you’ve seen before, but put into a kids’ animated film. And yet, it all works pretty well, spinning a surprisingly interesting story that unfolds in unexpected ways, and delivering a kids movie that’s got a more complex story than most – for better and for worse. (That is, it’s mostly for the better if you’re a parent or an older kid; for the worse if you’ve got a younger kid, who’s going to get a little bored during some of the more expositional sequences.) In other words, it’s generally just a better movie than I expected it to be – then again, given that all I expected was a bunch of terrible puns like “Trader Yak’s” and things like that (which, to be fair, are still there aplenty), that’s not saying too much.

In general, then, there’s a lot to recommend about Zootopia. It’s more ambitious than it needs to be, and more thoughtful, and both of those are always a plus in my book. No, it doesn’t always work, and it goes on a little too long; while I like the third act and the direction in which the film goes, it still feels a little too long, a little stretched thin. And while the shoehorned pop culture references aren’t overwhelming, they’re still there, and still pretty painful, especially when it comes to a pop singer everyone’s obsessed with. So, yes, it’s uneven, and flawed. But it’s also more thoughtful, complex, insightful, and (though I hate using this word) important than you would have any reason to assume. I mean, who assumes that a Disney film would be dedicated to exploring racism and prejudice? And that, as much as anything else, makes it a film that’s well worth taking your kids to.

IMDb

10 Cloverfield Lane / ****

10cl_poster10 Cloverfield Lane arrived with an air of mystery, which is something increasingly welcome these days, as every film arrives in theaters complete with revealed plot twists, cameos, and spoilers galore. By contrast, no one even knew 10 Cloverfield Lane existed until its fantastic teaser dropped, one that hinted at so much while telling us absolutely nothing. And none of that even gets into the title, which hinted a connection to Cloverfield, a pretty great monster movie that dropped with a similar lack of fanfare and buildup.

Now, I love that trailer and what it promises. I love the mood of the whole thing. I love the intense psychological games it hints at. And I love, love, love the lack of buildup. But the thing that truly sold me on the movie? The chance to see John Goodman in a role worthy of his presence.

See, I’m a big fan of Goodman, who I generally feel is one of the more underrated actors out there. He’s an actor who’s capable of a tremendous amount of range; more than that, he can slide effortlessly between those moods as the scene demands, ranging from likable slob to terrifying figure of death and back again within a few sentences. And yet, for the most part, Goodman doesn’t get to do much in most films he’s in, unless they’re Coen brothers films; they seem to be one of the few people who realize what Goodman can bring to the screen. Luckily, though, Dan Trachtenberg seems to have been paying attention too, because he gives Goodman one hell of a role here.

It’s sort of hard to talk about 10 Cloverfield Lane, simply because so much of the film benefits from knowing as little as possible. This is a film that plays its cards close to its chest, and rightfully so; much of the tension comes from not knowing the truth about what’s going on, or what motivates people. So let’s just lay out the basic premise, one that’s established quickly and efficiently within the opening minutes of the film: a young woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is driving away from a relationship when she’s in an accident and runs off the road. When she awakens, she’s bandaged, attached to an IV, and handcuffed to a rail; as soon as she realizes that, a man (Goodman) comes in and tells her that he saved her life, and that she needs to rest; more than that, he tells her that there’s been an attack. And everyone outside is dead.

But is that the truth? Does Goodman have ulterior motives? Is that someone else she hears in the bunker? And…wasn’t that a car she heard outside?

Much of 10 Cloverfield Lane is spent unraveling those questions, sometimes more than once, as new information comes to light. And director Dan Trachtenberg does the material right, using the claustrophobia of the situation to maximum effect, and letting Winstead and Goodman carry the story – and their inner lives/thoughts – through their physical performances. Goodman is in fantastic form here; at moments, he’s endearing and charming, and then terrifying within a single breath – all of which keeps us from ever quite knowing how much we can trust him. And his performance keeps the film moving along nicely, adjusting at the film moves through layers and layers of answers, and ultimately hinting at a backstory that we never quite know for sure. But Winstead is just as good here, playing a character for whom honesty and open expression are rarely, if ever, an option. Rather than turning her into a weak damsel in distress, Winstead is capable and smart, and like Goodman, she allows her physical performance to tell her story where her dialogue often can’t. The result is a gripping piece of psychological gamesmanship, with both characters jockeying for power, questioning what they’re told, and scheming against each other – unless they’re not. And that, combined with the constant dread and claustrophobia, as well as our anxiety about what’s outside, makes for a fantastic piece of storytelling.

And then, there’s the film’s final act, which goes…well, it goes for broke, without a doubt. In some ways, that final act is a step too far; there’s a moment where the film could have ended, and instead, it keeps going, ultimately resulting in something that feels a bit too over-the-top, a bit too actiony for a film that’s been so much about small actions and psychological games. And yet, I kind of loved the weird gutsiness of that final section, which makes a decision and absolutely runs with it, and to hell with expectations or assumptions. There are some good arguments about why the ending works (if you’ve seen the film, I highly recommend Tasha Robinson’s piece about how the final act represents the completion of Winstead’s arc), but in the end, I’d be lying if I didn’t say it sort of hurt my feelings on the film as a whole.

Bizarre ending notwithstanding, though, I’d still pretty highly recommend the film. There’s something wonderful about seeing something original these days, especially when almost everything else in theaters is a comic book film, a sequel, or a remake. In that atmosphere, along comes this film, which manages to be smart, engaging, tense, and just generally a great time. And if the worst you can say is that it goes in an unexpected direction, isn’t that sometimes half the pleasure of films – getting something you never thought you would?

IMDb

The X-Files (Season 10)

txf-two-shot-2Look, let me say this up front: I love The X-Files. I dabbled in the show for the first couple of seasons, but once season 4 started, I became religious about watching it. I didn’t miss an episode from then on out – yes, even after Duchovny moved on, even in those final dire years. I saw both films (and liked both films). I caught up on the first two seasons. And for a while, I could even explain to you all of those various mythology threads. So, yeah. I was a big nerd for the show for a long, long time.

And so, when it was announced that The X-Files was being revived, I was understandably excited. Yes, TV has moved on and evolved a lot since then. But there was something so fundamental and iconic for me about this series. I latched onto it just as I started to get into horror, and it helped that passion of mine along the way. The mythology showed me what TV could do with some scope, even when it didn’t always work. And when the show broke format – or just did something unexpected, whether it was the deranged nightmare of “Home” or the gleeful fourth-wall destruction of “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space“, there was nothing else like it.

So of course I was excited. And even when the early word started to sound dire, I stayed cautiously optimistic. After all, the show had gotten pretty awful by the end, but I stuck with it through that. And it probably couldn’t be that bad, right?

And, no, the first episode wasn’t that bad. Sure, it was clunky, a little ham-handed, a little exposition-heavy – in other words, pretty much what any fan has come to expect from a Chris Carter-penned mythology episode. Of course, given that Carter was basically throwing out/rebooting so much of what he’d done before, that was a little more understandable. But for better and for worse, it was the show, through and through, and it reminded me of why I got into it in the first place. Whatever else you could say about it, there was something ambitious, something off-kilter about its sensibility, and I really enjoyed having it back, warts and all.

And from there, things only got better. The second episode, “Founder’s Mutation,” was a fun (and grisly) little Monster-of-the-Week episode, reminding you of what the show could do just on a week in, week out basis. “Home Again,” the fourth, reminded us that Scully and Mulder were people we cared about, and nicely incorporated some rich drama into another monster case.

But the knockout, and the episode that single-handedly justified the whole revival and then some, was Darin Morgan’s “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster,” a gleefully bizarre episode that just kept on getting better and better. Suffice to say, it started as an episode about Mulder doubting the need for the X-Files to exist, somehow became an investigation about a possible werewolf, and then…well, and then everything turns on its head, and the show becomes a hilarious (and quietly heartbreaking) look at the human condition in modern times, all anchored by a spectacular performance by Rhys Darby. It’s an absolute blast, and ranks among the best things the show ever put out.

If only it had all stopped there.

Because after that, we went through not one, but two more Chris Carter episodes. And if it tells you anything, the comedy episode about Muslim suicide bombers was the better one. And it was about as full of good taste as you might think from that summary. Bringing in a modern version of Mulder and Scully, a ten minute drug trip, and half-assed questions of faith may not have made for a coherent episode, but at least it was never boring.

And yet, it’s still better than the trainwreck of a finale, which packs about 2 hours of story into 45 overstuffed minutes of exposition, brings back a character no one particularly liked or missed, overcomplicates an already complex and freshly rebooted mythology, puts all of the human race into jeopardy for reasons that never made much sense, mixes up the chronological timeline, shoehorns in awful dialogue in every scene, and ends…on a cliffhanger.

That’s right. This limited run of the show, from which there may never be more…ends on a cliffhanger. And it’s a really, really stupid cliffhanger at that.

Look, I love The X-Files, even now. And if more episodes come – and given the ratings of this batch, that seems likely – I’ll probably watch them. But like so many – Alan Sepinwall and Todd Vanderwerff among them (and I seriously recommend those articles, especially Todd’s, which gives a thoughtful take about what Carter could do and why it would play to his strengths) – I’d be so, so much more excited if it turns out Chris Carter was stepping back from the show. If we get more, but it’s all Carter…we may just have to all collectively agree to cut our losses. Because the end of the show may have been rocky last time, but it’s way, way better than what we got in this ending.

IMDb

The Witch (2015) / *****

thewitch_online_teaser_01_web_largeRoger Ebert once said of movie trailers that “Any trailer is more likely to reflect the movie the studio wanted than the movie it got.” Rarely has that been more apropos than in the case of The Witch, a spectacularly strange, unnerving film that’s being marketed as a traditional mainstream horror film…despite the fact that, while the movie is undeniably creepy, chilling, and scary, it’s only barely a horror film (to borrow a line from Scott Tobias’s NPR review).

That’s not to say that The Witch isn’t very, very good. It’s just that, based off of the trailers, people are expecting jump scares, demonic animals, evil witchcraft, and instead are getting a movie that’s entirely told in Puritanical dialect, with long camera shots, horror that often unfolds offscreen or in the shadows, and whose most chilling moment consists of little more than some whispered lines of dialogue. In other words, it’s not the movie people want it to be, and so I don’t necessarily blame them for reacting so strongly against it.

And yet, to dismiss The Witch like that is to turn your back on one of the most singular, stark, compelling pieces of independent horror in some time, one that manages to be simultaneously historical drama, psychological horror, and discussion of faith (and feminism) in America. If you took the witch-hunt paranoia of The Crucible, set it in the unnerving atmosphere of The Shining, and mixed in the religious conflict of the original Wicker Man, you might get something like The Witch – and if that feels like some unexpected inspirations for a horror film, you’re not wrong.

Set in a desolate, stark outpost on the outskirts of a Puritan settlement (our family has been outcast, for reasons that are never made entirely clear), The Witch feels like it’s as much a horror film about this alien, unwelcoming world as it is the titular entity lurking in the nearby woods. Because make no mistake: there is a witch in this film, and the film wastes little time in making sure we know it, as a young child vanishes from under the watchful eyes of her older sister, only for us to be shown her fate in grim detail. What follows from there is a slow escalation of paranoia and tension, as the family turns on each other, the wilderness around them turns increasingly hostile, the children start acting up, and accusations start flying.

None of that even gets into the fascinating subtext of the film, which largely orbits around the fact that the older sister is on the verge of puberty – a fact that’s neither lost on her parents nor on her younger brother. And with the family’s strict religion cracking down on the role of children and women, to say nothing of the sin that keeps creeping into their lives in various ways, it’s not hard to feel like the film has a lot to say about the role of religion in gender roles and institutionalized sexism, even before you get to a strange, unsettling ending that lingers with you.

And even while all of this is mixing, the film constantly builds on its dread, slowly increasing the level of unease through the use of shadows, an unsettling score, and long camera shots that constantly convey a sense of wrongness at all times. It’s a quiet horror film, but that doesn’t mean it’s not horrifying; as the family starts turning on each other and whatever it is in the woods gets braver, the film becomes nigh on unbearable at points, eschewing cheap scares for something more fundamentally unsettling, disturbing, and somehow just wrong.

It’s not a film for all tastes, rest assured. It’s a stranger film than you might expect; more subdued, more atmospheric, more subtle, more thoughtful. And ultimately, it’s less comforting than your usual horror film. There’s no easy answers here, no simple good vs, evil confrontation; instead, it’s something stranger and more alien, and something more primal. And if that works for you – like it did for me – you’re in for one of the best horror films in recent memory.

Just…you know…watch out for Black Phillip. There’s something strange about that old goat.

IMDb