Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett / *****

goodomens-hard-2006It’s been more than a decade since I last read Good Omens (full title: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch), the collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Since then, I’ve come to know and deeply love the work of Terry Pratchett, and I’ve become more familiar with the work of Neil Gaiman (who, at the time I last read Good Omens, had only had a couple of novels published). That’s made it a perfect excuse to revisit the book, and see how it holds up as a work by two of my favorite writers.

The answer: it holds up perfectly and then some, representing some wonderful union of the best of each author’s sensibilities, and creating something wonderful in the process.

Nominally, Good Omens is the story of the Apocalypse, brought about by the birth of the Antichrist. But, in typical Pratchett style, from the get-go, there are reversals and oddities, from the way that the Antichrist is raised by a family who doesn’t know what their child is and simply raises him normally to the way the book follows an angel and demon as they attempt to prevent all of this from happening. And through it all, Gaiman fleshes out the mythology and imagination of the piece, playing off of Pratchett’s wry social commentary and gleeful silliness.

The result is, first of all, laugh-out-loud, consistently, constantly hilarious, from page one until the end. From a hellhound trapped in the form of a little dog to four bikers who nominate themselves as the followers of the four true Horsemen of the Apocalypse (bikers who have given themselves names like Grievous Bodily Harm, Really Cool People, Things Not Working Even When You’ve Given Them a Good Thumping, and more), from the wonderful banter between a group of children to the running gag about how every cassette left in a car gradually turns into Queen’s Greatest Hits, Pratchett and Gaiman stuff the book with jokes and silliness, ranging from the profound to the absurd and childish. (My favorite throwaway gag involves a group of ducks that’s uniquely attuned to international politics because of all the “covert” meetings that happen at their pond.)

But what makes Good Omens great isn’t the sly parodies of The Omen or the wonderful silliness. No, what makes it great is what makes so many Pratchett (and Gaiman, to a different extent) books great: the way it uses the plot to get to something more meaningful and profound. What begins as a book about the end of the world becomes a study of human frailty (the demon Crowley’s thoughts about how human nature trumps anything he can ever come up with ring as true today as they did when the novel was first written), but also what makes life worth living. As with so many books by these two, the final confrontation doesn’t come down to an action sequence – it comes down to ideas, to optimism (or hope, perhaps) in the face of defeat and cynicism. That’s something both men have always been fascinated by, and always brought out in their work – that the world, and people, are so often horrible, and yet there is something magical and essential about life that’s impossible to ignore. That Good Omens turns that into the text of the novel is what gives is a surprising punch that hits home, even more than any scene of Crowley driving his rapidly disintegrating car or enjoying (what I assume is Gaiman’s work) the novel’s inspired modernization of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (and, in one case, one that has never changed, and never will).

It truly is the best case scenario for a collaboration – something that brings out the best aspects in both authors and plays them off of each other, creating something that feels like both of their work and yet feels totally of its own piece. It’s funny, it’s imaginative, it’s profound, and it makes you feel better about the world, even while we recognize the pain of it all. In other words, it’s typically brilliant Pratchett and Gaiman in every way.




Buster’s Mal Heart / Logan Lucky / Tangerine

large_busters_mal_heart_ver2I missed Buster’s Mal Heart last year at the Chattanooga Film Festival, a festival whose tastes almost always align with mine; as a result, when it showed up on Netflix, I figured it was worth checking out. A weird, twisty, psychological thriller starring Rami Malek (of Mr. Robot fame) and written/directed by Sarah Adina Smith, Buster unfolds in three separate stories whose connections are unclear for much of the film’s running time. In one, a heavily bearded Malek drifts in a rowboat on the ocean, screaming Spanish obscenities at the sky; in another, he plays a wandering drifter named Buster who’s wandering in and out of the houses of the rich. But in the main story, he plays Jonah, a hotel clerk whose marriage and relationship with his daughter is suffering under the strain of his night shifts and the influence of a wandering drifter (DJ Qualls) preaching about the evils of civilization.

It’s all an interesting enough setup, and Malek plays his parts incredibly well. But Buster’s Mal Heart is far less than the sum of its parts, with the ultimate connection between the story feeling meaningless and more than a bit pretentious, and some of the film’s other big moments ending up thudding and obvious. It all feels like it’s going for something profound, or at least mind-bendy, but instead, it just ends up muddled and dull, Malek’s performance aside, turning into something little more than a tired retread of ideas from better movies. Rating: **

1510598-bI’m pretty glad that Steven Soderbergh is unable to retire, from a film fan point of view. As long as he’s working actively, I’m guaranteed a regular stream of interesting, engaging movies; more than that, he’s almost completely incapable of repeating himself (a couple of Ocean’s sequels aside), as Logan Lucky shows. It would be entirely easy for Soderbergh to retread Ocean’s 11 again; after all, this is a heist film at its core. But, instead of giving us a smooth, sophisticated con game, we get something more low-key and natural-feeling, which befits the different world of Logan Lucky. This isn’t high rollers and con men; this is the working poor, stealing to stay alive, and Soderbergh brings a more controlled, thoughtful approach to much of the film’s setup period.

Indeed, it’s fascinating how much the downturn in the economy has shaped recent Soderbergh films, from Magic Mike to The Girlfriend Experience, and Logan Lucky is perhaps the most explicit version of this to date, with Channing Tatum’s single working dad getting laid off due to insurance liability, and Adam Driver’s bartender only having one arm thanks to three tours in the Middle East, a job he took due to a lack of other options in the area. It’s never hammered on, but the subtext is impossible to ignore here, and it’s what keeps the movie from being the condescending look at the poor that some people have accused it of being. Soderbergh’s clearly got some cynical feelings about corporations and big business, culminating in a brief scene in the aftermath of the heist where we get the business’s side of it, and his sympathy is deeply with these characters. Does he find the comedy in them? Oh, undoubtedly – Logan Lucky is incredibly funny. But all of these people are smarter than you might first assume, and there’s an undeniable Robin Hood feeling to the heist – the poor robbing from the rich.

All of which adds up to a great heist movie, but something that’s also quintessentially Soderbergh – something more character-driven, more stylish, and more entertaining than the simple story would ever lead you to believe. I had a blast with it, and love that Soderbergh’s work ethic means he’s going to be churning out more movies for a long time to come. (Oh, and the famous Game of Thrones joke? It’s every bit as funny and wonderful as you’ve heard and then some.) Rating: **** ½

tangerineBefore he made the incredible The Florida Project (my favorite movie of last year), director Sean Baker rose to fame with Tangerine, a dark comedy/drama that follows two transsesxual prostitutes on a Christmas Eve of manic events, largely orbiting around Sin-Dee’s (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) efforts to track down her pimp/boyfriend who cheated on her while she was in prison. At the time, I was never sure if Tangerine was famous because it was good, or because it was shot entirely on an iPhone and still looked pretty great; having seen it, I can tell you that it’s almost entirely the former.

Yes, Tangerine looks incredible, to the point where you probably won’t remember the iPhone shooting while you’re watching; it doesn’t hurt that Baker has such a great eye for finding the beauty in everyday images, as well as a cinephile’s eye for framing. But as he did in Tangerine, Baker creates a naturalistic, fleshed out world, one where you don’t feel like you’re watching a movie so much as trespassing in a whole society that we’re only barely privy to. As Sin-Dee and her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) make their way around the city – Sin-Dee hunting down her boyfriend, Alexandra trying to drum up audience interest in her performance that evening – we watch as they argue, talk at each other and everyone else, chat with old friends and new enemies, and just sort of exist. The result is a little more plot driven than Florida Project was – the two women have a full character arc each, as does Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a local cab driver who’s got his own life that weaves in and out with these women. Again working with primarily new faces, unknown actors, and inexperienced newcomers, Baker brings his world to life, depicting these lives without pity or judgment.

The end result is surprisingly funny; there’s no end of drama and screaming, but I ended up laughing at a huge amount of it, and there’s no denying that Alexandra’s dry commentary on half of the drama makes every scene all the better. But Baker finds the emotional core buried deep within the women, ending on a quiet scene that’s perfect in every way – a moment of tenderness, understanding, and peace in the middle of all of it. In a way, that’s Baker’s movies, too – an affectionate, nonjudgmental portrait of people we tend to overlook. Rating: *****

IMDb: Buster’s Mal Heart | Logan Lucky | Tangerine

Hunt for the Wilderpeople / *****

hunt-for-the-wilderpeople-movie-poster-2016-1020773853It has been a long time since I fell in love with a movie as hard as I did with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, director Taika Waititi’s wonderful, incredibly funny, deeply warm-hearted film about a foster child who goes on the run into the New Zealand bush with his uncle rather than be returned to Child Services. That doesn’t sound like the setup for a comedy, but I cannot overstate how often and how hard I laughed at Wilderpeople. But more than that, what won me over about Wilderpeople was its incredibly big heart and humane spirit; it’s never cheesy, never ridiculous in its earnestness, but it never is less than kind to its characters and honest in its belief in the importance of love and kindness.

That mixture is evident even from the opening scenes of the film, which depicts the arrival of new adoptee Ricky (Julian Dennison, whose performance is a wonder) at the home of Bella and Hec, a couple living near the edge of the New Zealand bush. Hec is gruff and silent, and Ricky is presented as “a bad seed” – a trouble maker, a wanna-be gangster, and just generally a bad kid. But Bella’s mothering can’t be denied, and the look on Ricky’s face when he finds that she’s left a hot water bottle to warm his bed for him speaks volumes – it’s a moment of kindness toward a child who may have never experienced any, and Dennison’s underplayed reaction is quietly moving in its appreciation and awe.

That’s how the film goes, though. Waititi is known for comedy, and Wilderpeople is laugh-out-loud funny throughout, with Waititi making the best of the wonderful chemistry between the outsized personality of Dennison and the taciturn straight man of Sam Neill. But he populates the film with silliness throughout, never letting the film escape the grounding of its story, but finding the absurdity and ridiculousness in almost every scene, from a bewildering funeral speech to an entirely overzealous child services officer. And none of that even takes into account the brief role played by the wonderful Rhys Darby, who never fails to make me laugh, as the self-titled “Psycho Sam”.

And yet, even though it’s that funny, what turned me from enjoying Wilderpeople to loving it is the depiction of this lonely, rejected child and the hardened man played by Neill. Yes, I’m sure you know the broad outlines of how that relationship will go, but none of it detracts from the way that Waititi fleshes it out – the slow unveiling of both characters’ past traumas and vulnerabilities – nor the way both performances convey so much about the characters without Waititi needing to spell out every detail. Indeed, so much of the joy of the film comes from its willingness to take its characters seriously, even when it’s peppering you with silliness.

For some, I suppose the disconnect of the absurdity (which hits its peak in an elaborate and over the top finale) and the human element might be an issue. But for me, somehow, Waititi holds it all together, letting his characters drive the comedy, generally preferring the simple gag to the elaborate one, but always making the humor about the world and the characters, not at them. Even Ricky, who’s presented as one sort of trope, becomes something better and richer – a young child who just wants to be loved, and whose front is, well, a front. That he manages all this while still giving us a rich adventure tale in the New Zealand bush – a manhunt, hunting trips, confrontations with locals, and more – is all the more remarkable, but makes the overall movie all the more joyous and warm as a result. It’s funny, humane, kind, absurd, and just wonderful in almost every way I can think of, and I loved every second of it.


My Brother, My Brother, and Me (Season 1) / *****

my_brother_my_brother_and_meI’ve made no secret of my deep and abiding love for the McElroy brothers in general, and not even on this blog. One of the few non-book and movie review posts I ever made was a review of the Balance arc of The Adventure Zone, a podcast in which the brothers and their dad play Dungeons and Dragon and created something truly incredible out of it. And then there’s their primary podcast, My Brother, My Brother, and Me, which is theoretically an advice show but really just a vehicle for their anarchic silliness. But more than any of that, I love the McElroys not only because they’re funny and hilarious, but because they’re warm and positive in a way that’s never treacly, but always makes me feel better about the world – something that’s been very welcome in the past couple of years.

So, look, it’s no surprise that I really loved the TV series the brothers got to make. I’m predisposed towards the brothers, so I can’t tell you if you’ll like it knowing nothing about them. But what I can tell you is that the show is every bit as funny and ridiculous and silly as the podcast, with the added joy that I get from watching utterly silly people being given a budget and using it in the most absurd ways possible – and that’s something I am always for.

I don’t know what it was like to be (the now defunct) Seeso and give the brothers money, only to find them using it for parades in honor of cockroaches, or killer boxes of clowns, or weird secret societies that meet at skating rinks. And I certainly don’t know what it was like to live in the brothers’ hometown of Huntington, Virginia, and have this insanity and silliness unleashed. But as a viewer, I was often in tears at the absurdity of it all, and how much the show seemed so often to be anchored in the sheer joy of three brothers making each other laugh. (There may be no better example of this than the “Safety Town” sequence, which begins with the brothers establishing control over a police-sponsored playground for children, and slowly escalating to Mad Max/The Warriors style mayhem until they’re asked to leave.)

But even apart from their gleeful silliness, what I really love about the McElroys – and what truly comes through in their TV series – is the deep affection they have not only for one another, but for the world in general. On the rare occasions that the McElroys ever make fun of someone, it’s pretty much themselves, as they do here when they make an effort to relate to teens in the most uncomfortably “hip” way possible. But more often, there’s an undercurrent of love and positivity to them; their humor is about silliness and absurdity, yes, but look at how Travis is encouraging the teens he’s mentoring, even in his ridiculous way, or how the boys always find time to talk to their dad as part of the show. Look at the genuine apology that comes after Justin and Griffin end up getting Travis so mad he hits one of them, and most of all, look at the truly genuine moment between Justin and his brothers, where he comments that even if it took a TV series to do it, at least he got to do something with his brothers for a while, and got them back home for a long time. That’s a sweet, human moment, and it’s always something the McElroys can be counted on to bring out in the world.

Of course, this is first and foremost a comedy, and it’s a deliriously funny one. From attempts to bust ghosts to efforts to seize control of their town (sidebar: each and every scene with the mayor of Huntington is an absolute treat, with his effort to provide the straight man to the brothers’ cackling insanity), from absurd secret societies to a surprise attack of Christmas spirit, the show is infused with ridiculous moments too wonderful to spoil, and anchored by the McElroys’ sense of glee that they’re getting away with any of this. It’s a wonderful slice of ridiculous fun, and even if another season never happens, at least we got this one out of it.


Groundhog Day / *****

tumblr_n45jlonpsj1s80h8lo1_500I couldn’t tell you how long it’s been since I last saw Groundhog Day, a funny, surprising comedy that’s built up a reputation as a truly great and thoughtful piece of filmmaking over the years. What I can tell you is that it’s been too long, and that watching the film this time, you can count me filmy among those who find it far more profound, thought-provoking, and even moving than any movie in which a man lets a groundhog drive a car has any right to be.

There’s little need for me to go over the plot of Groundhog Day – a man is trapped in a cycle of the same day for…centuries? Millenia? The length of time varies (director Harold Ramis has put the length somewhere ten years; the original screenplay said 10,000 years; the film, wisely, leaves that to the imagination, as it does so many other details), but it’s long enough to watch cranky, arrogant, solipsistic weatherman Phil Connors run the gamut of emotions – denial, acceptance, anger, depression, excitement, confidence, and more. From a cinephile’s perspective, what it means was the first time many of us got to see that there was more to Bill Murray than the cocky, confident, smart-assed persona he brought to every other role he played. To quote (probably it’s more of a paraphrase) a friend of mine, “Murray was always a fun person to watch, but you got the impression that if you had to deal with him in the real world, you’d punch him. And Groundhog Day was the first movie where Bill Murray played a character who had to answer for the Bill Murray character.” And yes, there’s Chris Elliott, and Andie MacDowell in maybe her best role (I’ve never been a giant fan of MacDowell, but I couldn’t deny that she’s perfect for the role of Rita here – optimistic, sweet, genuine, and everything that Conners isn’t), and yes, Michael Shannon, looking very young but unmistakably Shannon-ish. And, of course, Groundhog Day is funny, with Murray at the top of his game, Harold Ramis’s direction insuring great comic timing, and the editing doing a picture perfect job of maintaining the cyclical rhythms of the film.

But none of that is really what sticks with you about Groundhog Day, is it? No, this time around, I found myself fascinated by the detours the film takes – the scenes that feel like they’d never survive a more test-screening-driven world. Scenes where Connors debates the nature of God, and wonders if there’s not really a God, just someone who’s been around long enough to know all the patterns. Scenes where Connors gives into the depression and hopelessness that come with being stuck in a cycle that will never end. Scenes where he desperately wants to make everything perfect, but never can get things just right. And most of all, there are the scenes involving Connors realizing that some things simply can’t be controlled or changed; there’s a brief sequence involving a homeless man that truly kicked up some dust in the room, even knowing it was coming, and leads to a quietly powerful line from Murray that hits hard. When told that sometimes, people just die, Murray pauses, and then responds, “Not today they don’t.”

Somehow, this bizarre, high-concept comedy grapples with rich, incredible concepts, doing so with even more success for how it doesn’t actually force them into the film. It’s a film that’s all about self-improvement, but not in an easy or tidy way. It’s a film about the quest for fulfillment, for understanding the meaning of existence, for grappling with our place in the universe. It’s a film that deals with depression and acceptance, love and isolation, and so much more. It’s genuinely, frequently hilarious, yes, but it also manages to leave you thinking about the issues it raises far more than anything more didactic could ever manage. (In many ways, I spent some of Groundhog Day thinking about NBC’s The Good Place, which similarly finds a way to tell a story about true self-improvement and moral quality in the guise of a surreal, insane comedy.) It’s a film that becomes great, not because it set out to be, but simply does so by taking its concept seriously enough to think about it. What a joy it is to watch.


Envy of Angels: A Sin du Jour Affair, by Matt Wallace / **** ½

9781466892828One of the things about picking up books as they go on sale is that often, by the time you read it, you forget what attracted you to pick up a copy in the first place. Such is the case with Envy of Angels, which I really picked out of my digital To Be Read pile because it was short. I didn’t remember what it was about, what genre it was, or really anything about it…which made the resulting ride an absolute blast to go on, because Envy of Angels is wild, funny, surreal, nightmarish, and just plain fun, if you have a certain dark sensibility.

Setting aside a fairly bizarre opening chapter (which feels as though it was added in under the advice of an agent telling him to grab people with a big opening, even if it doesn’t make sense for the overall story and you’re never coming back to it), Envy of Angels tells the story of a couple of unemployed chefs who get the offer to come help out with a highly regarded, presumed dead chef who needs help for an event he’s handling. Of course, once they get there, there are people flying through windows, weird helpers with defibrillators sewn on to their chest…and then they find out that the main course that evening is an angel. A divine messenger of God, due to be served up to commemorate a treaty between two warring factions of demons.

See, the Sin du Jour series is set amidst a cooking crew that’s employed by the federal government to provide food for demons. Oh, there’s more to it than that, but at its core, their job finds them dealing with nightmares both on the plate and off. But cooking an angel is a bridge too far…but what could take the place of a divine presence?

I don’t want to give too much away about how wild this one gets, or the directions it goes, because that would ruin half of the fun. Suffice to say, Envy of Angels is gloriously demented, sick fun – somewhere between Kitchen Confidential and Evil Dead 2. There’s a satirical edge, to be sure, especially in the book’s second half, which finds our story drifting into the fast food world for reasons I wouldn’t dare begin to explain. But more than any of that, what I took away from Envy of Angels was just how much fun it is. Author Matt Wallace’s imagination is gloriously weird, creating an anarchic world full of weirdness, nightmares, a healthy dose of gore, and a demented sense of humor that gives every since chapter a burst of pep and energy that’s impossible to ignore. Envy of Angels is one of those books that just stomps on the gas at the beginning and never lets off, managing to keep its speed, silliness, violence, horrors, and dark comedy sustained for all 250 pages. I had a blast with it, and whatever made me pick it up in the first place, I’m glad I did.