• Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

    Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

    For good or bad this is a Marvel movie.

    It stars Chris Pine as a rogueish balladeer with a heart of gold and a tragic backstory. He gathers of a team of quirky heroes and including a chaotic good wizard, a neutral good warrior, a lawful good paladin, and a neutral good druid. Together they must save his daughter from Hugh Grant’s Lawful Evil con man (and Pine’s former partner) and then an entire town from a Chaotic Evil wizard.

    There is a decent amount of true emotion in it and plenty of action and quips. Fun, fast, get in and get out with a little fighting, almost no romance, a dungeon, a fat dragon and a (spoiler) mostly happy ending.

    There were, I’m sure, plenty of in-jokes to make the D&D faithful happy but there was also enough here for an outsider, like myself, to have a good time with it.

    Chris Pine and Michelle Rodriguez play versions of the same character we have seen them play in a half-dozen action comedy movies over the last decade or so. This is not a bad thing. It’s … comfortable.

    Also, I’m looking forward to this phase of Hugh Grant’s career where he just plays weasels. He’s a natural.

    I think this was an above-average take on material that can be impossible to fit into the frame. Not only does it remind me of a Marvel movie but I suddenly recall Pirates of the Caribbean. We all walked in asking ourselves, “A Theme Park Ride? How are they going to make that work?”

    And then most everyone left happy and satisfied.

  • Superman and Lois remains top-notch TV

    Superman and Lois remains top-notch TV

    I know, I know, I’m an easy mark for this stuff.

    But I want you to know that this one is better than the others. You probably had to be a really serious superhero comic fan to watch all (or even most) of the CW Greg Berlanti superhero shows.

    All of those shows followed a basic formula that mostly worked. TV Budget level superhero hijinks in the opening, some light comedy followed by 35 minutes of crying in hallways, 5 minutes of TV Budget level superhero hijinks and then a group hug or a cliffhanger and finis.

    I’m not, necessarily insulting the formula here, despite a lot of what happened over the last 20 years most great TV usually needs a formula. Law and Order, Columbo, House, The Office and dozens of others understood the mission and nailed it down and were rewarded by audiences that loved them for it.

    Anyway, Superman and Lois follow the CW formula but it is usually miles better than its contemporaries. It’s one of those things that sticks out to me because every time I watch the thing I am happy surprised. And it’s nice to be happy surprised because usually surprises from the CW go the other way.

    Here’s what I decided.

    First, the premise of this particular flavor of Superman is the right thing at the right time. It presents Lois and Clark as the parents of teenagers trying to raise their boys while also fighting supervillains and uncovering evil plots.

    That’s a new wrinkle. We’ve had decades of Superboy in Smallville, Superman starting out in Metropolis, and established and married Superman and Lois. But the super-couple with teenagers? I like it.

    One of the boys should have been named Bruce though.

    Also, I think the acting is a cut above.

    Bitsie Tulloch manages to make world famous multi-time Pulitizer prize winning reporter Lois Lane larger than life without stretching it too far. The best bit from a recent episode is that Lois did a Masterclass on reporting. Of course she did!

    This season features Chad Coleman (he’s been in everything but was a big presence in early years of The Walking Dead and The Expanse) as Metropolis gangster Bruno Mannheim. Coleman is one of those actors who always brings something interesting and, again the writers have given him a range of reasonable emotions to play.

    Tyler Hoechlin can really do the Superman and Clark Kent thing quite well. I think his Clark isn’t quite as nerdy as you might want but since the series is set in Smallville and he’s a dad of teenagers what he does with Clark works within the show’s parameters.

    There’s a moment I loved recently when, coming home to find his family had been accosted by a local neer-do-well Hoechlin, with fire in his eyes, announces that he’s going to confront the jerk at the Smallville diner.

    Lois: Superman can’t get involved.

    Clark: Oh he’s not going!

    And then an angry Clark Kent makes that dude pay.

    Incredibly good bit.

    It’s a show full of good bits. A show that makes a meal out of the soap opera elements but also understands the comic book lore and is able to twist that to its own ends.

    The first season featured a unique take on John Henry Irons that had a decent twist along the way. The second season started with the familiar origin of Doomsday and twisted it to present a unique twist on Bizarro Superman. And season three used the soap opera elements to emotionally connect Lois Lane and John Henry Irons’ daughter to the bad guys.

    It’s moments like that when the show plays a card you didn’t quite expect, that it really soars.

    Also, this show is either written by people who love the comics or at least by people who did their research before launching into the superverse.

    Just one example: Lois Lane’s newspaper partner and clumsy sidekick character is named Chrissy Beppo. Beppo is the name of one Superman’s pets. In case you were wondering its Krypto the superdog, Streaky the supercat, Comet the superdog and Beppo, the supermonkey.

    That knowledge is something I’ve carried around forever and is just a freeby for y’all.

    Finally, and to be fair to the other CW shows, Superman and Lois has the advantage of coming along in the era of 12-episode seasons. If this thing had to grind through 22 episodes, I doubt it could work as well as it does. The other CW super shows also started strong and tended to end somewhere between decent and “oh God I gave up.”

    The long middle full of crying hallway scenes were often too much to manage.

    Nor has every moment or storyline in Superman and Lois been a winner. I tend to tune out on subplots involving the teenagers. But what I do find compelling is that the cast has enough people, that you usually understand and care about, that when one of them is in trouble you can get concerned.

    Comic Book Scribe Gail Simone recently noted on Twitter that heroes need those supporting characters to add drama to the super battles.

    A show named Superman and Lois is probably not going to kill off either Superman or Lois. But Lana Lang’s ex-husband? Lois Lane’s military dad (played perfectly by Dylan Walsh of Nip/Tuck) or John Henry Irons’ daughter (Taylor Buck)? All these people could bite the bullet at any moment.

    Season 3 is wrapping up as both the CW and DC Entertainment get new management. All the other CW related shows are done and CW won’t get any new ones. Meanwhile, James Gunn is gearing up for a new future that features a keystone movie that he is writing and directing about a (much younger) Superman.

    I’m not sure there is space in this brave new world for this show. I’m hopeful though, that they get at least one more season to write themselves and their characters a happy ending.

  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

    Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

    Writer/Director James Gunn takes the characters he made famous through one final, musical and emotional adventure that delivers everything a fan could want.

    Gunn once again proves that he can make esoteric superhero and science fiction material and turn in a story with heart and a few laughs. This is a movie that confidently rests its emotional core on a CGI trash panda and Bradley Cooper’s vocal skills.

    Just the intestinal fortitude of that decision alone is enough for me. To center your movie on Rocket’s tragic origins without fear of flopping? Wow.

    Guardian’s aesthetic has, perhaps, been ugly cute all along, but this one really puts the weirdness on display by giving plenty of screen time to the horrific creations of the High Evolutionary.

    The “your CGI looks bad” crowd won’t be complaining this go around. This movie looks great and Gunn takes every opportunity to show you something new and different. An organic space station (or spaceship) is certainly not new but I don’t think I have ever seen one on a mainstream movie and certainly nothing to this degree. Depending on your point of view Nope and Babylon 5 may be the exceptions to this pronouncement.

    Gunn also flies high at two things, top notch fight scenes and giving every, single character a storyline. That’s nearly impossible with a cast that’s gotten this shaggy, but Gunn even finds a setup and a payoff for Cosmo the dog.

    Gunn is also a master of a cliche so old that Sam Peckinpah originated in the Wild Bunch in 1969. But it’s a cliche because when done right it always works. So yes, there is a walk (set to the perfect song) where the main characters all stand together and head off to face unbeatable odds.

    “I’m done running,” one of the Guardians says as the final charge begins.

    Friends, it just works.

    Chukwudi Iwuji, as the bad guy, takes another cosmic Stan Lee and Jack Kirby creation and makes you believe in his unique motivations and emotional flaws. Iwuji deserves so much credit for carrying his part of the story.

    Finally, Gunn finds a way to pay off every storyline that he began in the first movie. Even things that began in an emotional opening sequence. It’s a true final bow to a trilogy that in MCU fashion also includes Guardian storylines from Avengers movies and a small thing in the Disney+ Holiday Special.

    There are a few small flaws. Gunn emptied his playlist and I think included some pop hits that were probably unnecessary. The High Evolutionary is not that far removed from Vol. 2’s Ego in terms of his story beats.

    And? Well, not much else.

    I absolutely would stack it up with any other trilogy you might want to name. These things tend to run out of steam by the time we get to the third one. Guardians of the Galaxy still had plenty of gas in the tank.

    It flies and dances joyously into the forever.

  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 and 2

    Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 and 2

    Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 is not the greatest superhero movie ever made but it is my favorite superhero movie.

    Briefly: The best superhero movie ever made is Spider-man 2 (the Sam Raimi one with Doc Ock). The most important superhero movie ever made is Joss Whedon’s Avengers.

    Vol. 1 goes from a stunning opening where a boy loses his mom and gets kidnapped by aliens immediately into an amusing heist with a dancing hero (Star-lord mannn) and then breezes through a fun plot about buncha losers who find they have to work together to be their best selves and save millions of lives from a racist villain.

    Rhomann Dey: They call themselves the Guardians of the Galaxy.

    Denarian Saal: What a bunch of a-holes.

    Guardians of the Galaxy

    It toes the line between comedy and action and drama so effortlessly and with so much joy that you never come down from that initial high.

    In comics, a team of castoffs and losers was old hat, but at the movies, the A-list still ruled the box office. Despite a wealth of interesting characters DC can never manage to do much more than endless reboots of just Superman and Batman. Meanwhile, which their biggest hit characters licensed out Marvel turned to its other heavy hitters — a super-soldier, a Norse God, and a billionaire scientist with a super-suit.

    The Guardians are most definitely none of those things. Instead, they are space criminals and losers and idiots.

    It is obvious that Director James Gunn had a lot of affection for Star Wars but to comic fans it’s also clear that Gunn had probably read plenty of comics and specifically the classic J.M. Dematteis, Keith Giffen and Kevin Maguire run of the Justice League. Affectionately known (by me at least) as the Bwah ha ha era.

    In that run most of the heavy hitters couldn’t join the Justice League and so the premier super team in DC comics was made up of second-string characters (I like Booster Gold but he ain’t Superman) and although there was plenty of super action there was also a ton of comedy.

    Gunn, who took over the project that was begun by screenwriter and director Nicole Perlman, pulls this off and manages to hit the notes needed for the overarching 10-year-long Infinity Saga plot.

    Both movies also find their groove through the use of pop music. And, no offense to anyone, but most of it is second-tier pop music. Gunn’s ability to find just the right song for just the right moment is up there with two other great directors, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese.

    It’s still a movie that ends with a dance-off. It’s still a movie that doesn’t quite make sense of Starlord’s relationship with his kidnapper. Gunn hints at it and then makes it the central theme of Vol. 2.

    Yondu: He may have been your father, boy, but he wasn’t your daddy.

    Guardians of the Galxy Vol. 2

    It is not perfect. But it is as close to perfect as most any movie ever gets.

    Vol. 2 is the rare sequel that is on par with the original. It doesn’t surpass the original. The second bite at the apple is rarely as good as the first. But it is nearly equal to Vol. 1.

    If Baby Groot dancing between the life and death battle his adoptive family faces doesn’t fill your heart then I wish you joy in your future endeavors and regret to inform you that we cannot be friends.

    The sequel expands a stacked cast with bright spots by adding another ally in Mantis and turning Nebula into a reluctant part of the family.

    The movie drags a bit (though not much) and I giggle every time I watch the scene where Ego takes the song Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl) and uses it to hammer home the plot of the movie he’s starring in. It is not subtle.

    However, a movie with a talking trash panda, two alien assassins, an empath who looks like a bug, a sentient tree, and a muscle-bound warrior who can only understand literal phrases probably left subtle a long time ago.

    As I write this I am a couple hours away from seeing Vol. 3.

    We’ve been on a 10-year journey with this crew with these two movies, last year’s Holiday Special, and their appearances in Infinity War and Endgame.

    And with Gunn taking over the film and television division of DC this is most likely the closing chapter for both the Guardians and Gunn’s involvement with the MCU.

    Every great story needs a final chapter and in the movies when you hit the third one it’s usually a fine time to turn out the stage lights.

    We don’t know what tomorrow holds but we can be certain that this was a great ride. All the way from the opening notes to (hopefully) the final stanza.

  • Charlie Wilson’s War

    Charlie Wilson’s War

    Charlie Wilson’s War is not quite a bullseye but second tier Aaron Sorkin is still full of crackle and wit. 

    Sorkin is a screenwriter, like David Mamet, Quentin Tarantino, Jane Espensen and Kevin Smith who’s style is so distinct that I can pick it out with my eyes closed. 

    Most of us who write are interchangeable but a few have a style so distinct that it is unmissable. 

    And this is right in what would seem to be Sorkin’s wheelhouse. A somewhat true history about a shady US Congressman who recognized that the country should fund Afghanistan fighters in their war for freedom against Russia. 

    Sorkin, who wrote both the American President and the untouchable first four years of The West Wing is the perfect guy for a tale about the inner workings of the US Government. 

    The movie joins Wilson at a party with naked playboy models and cocaine in Las Vegas. Wilson clearly revels in a liberated life and is enjoying the perks all his status has to offer. 

    Here’s his statement to the press when a scandal about that lifestyle breaks, “The congressman has never been to rehab. They don’t serve whiskey in rehab.” 

    Whether or not Charlie Wilson needs to go to rehab (yes he does) is not the point. Wilson (Tom Hanks) is functioning just fine and he seems to be able to do a decent job of being a congressman. 

    He offers an obvious solution to a political problem early in the flick and surrounds himself with a whipsmart staff. They also happen to all be beautiful women. 

    He has a reason for that … which I’m not going to repeat here. 

    Wilson gets dragged into the Afghanistan conflict and then he goes to the country and finds himself in a unique place where he has the power to do, what he believes is an important thing. 

    He will use the levers of the US government to fund the Mujahideen and fight off the Russians. Afghanistan will become their Vietnam — a quagmire that drags the whole empire down. 

    Wilson is joined by Julia Roberts who is having a ball playing the 8th richest woman in Texas and who sees Afghanistan as a holy war for her particular flavor of conservative Christianity. 

    And the late Philip Seymore Hoffman plays CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos who is perhaps the only spy in the history of the movies who constantly tells the truth to everyone he meets. 

    I particularly enjoy the way Hoffman hits this line, “For twenty-four years people have been trying to kill me. People who know how.”

    The movie has a solid flow and it rushes  through its historical set up and then to what Wilson and his compradres did to fund this phase of the cold war with the Russians without starting a hot war. 

    I think the rush to the finish line sacrificed a lot of nuance and I get the feeling that some scenes were left on the cutting room floor. There are times when Wilson seems to have serious alcohol related medical issues but that’s never dealt with or explained. 

    And this ever rises to top-tier Sorkin for me. It’s not in the same league as Moneyball or The Social Network. I’m not sure I can articulate exactly why. I wonder if it’s just hard to buy Tom Hanks as a congressman who says with a straight face: 

    Charlie Wilson: Well, Jesus, Donnelly. Everyone in town knows I’m on the other side of that issue.

    Donnelly: Ethics?

    Charlie Wilson: Yeah!

    Hanks’ persona is built on earnest affability. But Charlie Wilson needed something different, I think. Hanks doesn’t, for instance, snort cocaine at a cocaine party in Vegas. Later, Hanks would say that he didn’t refuse to do it but that no one ever asked him to pretend to do a line. 

    That’s kind of the definition of the problem. Would casting someone else have made a difference? 

    Maybe. We’ll never really know. To quote a former U.S. Secretary of Defense it’s an unknown unknown. 

    In the end Charlie Wilson is around to catch both his flowers and a warning from Gust about how this glorious victory might backfire. 

    The audience and the filmmakers have the benefit of hindsight and so we know that eventually, the Mujahideen come to believe that Russia is only one of their enemies and that they attack us several times over the next few decades until they kill 3,000 Americans on 9/11. 

    The movie suggests that if America had done more to rebuild Afghanistan after Russia fled this might not have happened. 


    Or perhaps the people who attacked America were simply mad men who would attack us no matter what we did or didn’t do. 

    I’m reminded of a quote from another great war movie. 

    “Doesn’t matter what it was. When one man says to another, “I know what let’s do today, let’s play the war game.”… everybody dies.” 

    A Bridge Too Far
  • Murder Mystery 2 and the films of Adam Sandler

    Murder Mystery 2 and the films of Adam Sandler

    I have spent, perhaps, too much time thinking about Adam Sandler movies.

    The original Murder Mystery was one of those light surprises you find sometimes in the world of streaming cinema. Jennifer Anniston and Sandler had interesting married couple energy and the jokes mostly landed.

    I didn’t exactly rush to my tv to see the sequel but I had some time to kill over a weekend and I flipped it on.

    I did in fact finish it but lost interest pretty early. And that led me to think about Sandler’s career.

    So we should start with a Jimmy Kimmel clip where Sandler says that he sometimes makes movies by setting them in places that he wants to go on vacation. I can’t find that clip now (I suspect it’s been scrubbed because he gave the game away).

    Murder Mystery and it’s sequel have that lazy, eh I want to get paid to go on vacation feeling.

    The premise is an American couple — Sandler’s a cop, Anniston is a hair dresser — who get caught up with European royalty and accused of murder.

    There is an elaborate dance number in Murder Mystery 2 and every person in the cast does the moves perfectly … except for Sandler and Anniston. This is explained away as dumb Americans who missed the directions in the room (or something, I’m hazy on it). But it’s just as likely that Sandler and Anniston said “learn an elaborate dance for this movie? Nah, I’m going back out for shenanigans in Europe.”

    I mean I don’t know anything about movie making, I’m sure that’s not true, but yeesh.

    Another moment that caught my eye was that they made some poor VFX artist turn smoke rings into CGI images of coitus. Kinda a funny. But also made me think, ‘of all the things you could have spent money on you chose this?’

    I think it’s clear that I didn’t much care for Murder Myster 2. But man, do I think Adam Sandler earned the right to make this particular kind of thing if he wants to.

    If you go all the way back to the 1990s Adam Sandler and a core group of friends because hot on Saturday Night Live.

    He’s popular. He’s inventive. He’s the funniest person in the show. And then he gets fired.

    Sandler then strings together a decade or so of hit movies and becomes one of the biggest comedy stars of all time.

    He basically owned a decade from Billy Madison in 1995 until 2004. Sandler’s movies definetly had a formula but the secret of longevity in Hollywood is giving the audience what it wants.

    Tom Cruise owned the 80s by making the same movie a half dozen times. And, Tarantino knew when he cast John Travolta in Pulp Fiction that people would really want to see him dance.

    But even early on, Sandler was willing to take chances. Anger Management and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love looked at the darker side of Sandler’s angry man child persona.

    In 2014 Sandler signed a $250 million deal with Netflix to make 6 movies. The deal has been extended since then and he’s made … more Adam Sandler movies.

    Looking back this may have been one of the shrewdest moves by a movie star in that entire decade. What happens to just about every star? People stop going to the theater to see them.

    The headlines about box office bombs crush them. And either they climb their way back to the top or they move into TV.

    Sandler dodged that part of his career and kept making what he wanted to make.


    You need to check out Sandler’s triumphant return to Saturday Night Live. He performs two songs, one a hilarious tune about how he got fired from the show. And the other a touching tribute to his friend Chris Farley who was on his way to having an all time comedy career when he died.

    As he’s singing about Farley you can see how much he’s still broken up, even now.

    So here’s a guy, you can imagine, who was changed by a number of things, getting fired, losing his friend, and the weirdness that comes with being the biggest movie star in the world.

    And he, retreats? Plays it safe? Makes broad comedies with his comedy pals and keeps them successful.

    If I could count Chris Rock, David Spade and Kevin James as my friends I would probably cast them in as many movies as I could too.

    Meanwhile, Sandler also occasionally makes himself available for something as astonishingly great as Uncut Gems. That movie was a heart attack but it was also amazing.

    There’s a tendency to yell at movie stars, “Just make great movies!”

    As if they aren’t trying to make great movies most of the time.

    Maybe that was just the best they got offered that year? Or maybe they thought that’s what their audience wanted. Or thats what Netflix wanted for its $250 mil.

    Maybe they just wanted to film a movie in Africa and they got offered Beast?

    I mean would you turn that down?

    Even my little note at the top of this piece about Sandler picking wild vacation spots to film his movies. Even that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a bad movie.

    The first time he did it the movie was set in Hawaii. Great vacation spot. And also home to one of the best Sandler films of all time: Fifty First Dates.

  • What Succession, Beef, and Yellowjackets, all have in common

    What Succession, Beef, and Yellowjackets, all have in common

    To answer the headline, they are all shows I am watching right now and they are so tense that I, at times, couldn’t take it.

    Spoilers for a lot of this, including a major spoiler for Succession as we get going.

    In the third episode of the fourth and final season Succession played the Ace showrunner Jesse Armstrong has been holding up his sleeve since the premiere. Logan Roy, the head of a right-leaning media empire died. His children, all broken by his monstrous behavior (but also all extravagantly wealthy) must now navigate a new world and determine how or if they will take over his company.

    Given that his ailing health has been a constant part of the show Roy’s death should not be a surprise. But it hit me at least as hard as the infamous Game of Thrones episode The Red Wedding. I’m confident that this episode of Succession being called Conor’s Wedding is no coincidence.

    My explanation of this episode would be somewhere between The Red Wedding and The Body from Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

    All of them deal with a shocking death and the immediate ramifications for the characters. They also happen to be exceptional single episodes of television.


    Everything here is a masterclass, the acting is up in the seventh Heaven but the directing work by Mark Mylod maximized the tension.

    One example of the great choices: You see a stewardess doing chest compressions on someone but you only actually see Roy very late in the process. As a viewer, you still think, “Is this really happening?”

    Another: We see Tom’s phone calls to his estranged wife Shiv but she and the audience don’t know why he keeps calling. And she naturally, ignores them.

    And then, she’s the last one to maybe speak to her father who was most likely already gone.

    How can I as an audience member, be going through the five stages of grief (especially denial) alongside a fictional man’s fictional kids? I don’t know. But I was. Even now I’m hearing from fans and others who are still in the denial stage.

    It’s Logan trying to get one over on the kids! It’s a trick of some sort! We never saw the body! (Narrator: We did.)

    The actors, writers, and director put their own audience into one of the stages of grief. How great is that!

    Anyway, next comes bargaining guys. It’s part of life.


    In the second episode of this season, I started writing down lines that made me cackle because I wanted to be able to recall them when talking about the show in the office. Basically, everything everyone says in the first two episodes is impressive and has hilarious dialogue.

    But this episode wasn’t that kind of thing, because everyone was dealing with an actual distressing fact instead of the usual fun and games nonsense people this wealthy mostly (theoretically) face.

    And then it was Succession again as the kids started to deal with the fallout.

    We’ll get a funeral off the rack. We’ll do Reagan with tweaks.

    Kendall Roy

    I don’t want to just do quotes but this one after Logan’s girlfriend moves through the plane in obvious shock is another home run in a show full of them.

    Judging by her grin it looks like she caught a foul ball at Yankee Stadium

    Tom Wambsgans

    There was another moment where Keiran Culkin just sneered at one of the minions when they offered their condolences that absolutely killed. Culkin has the best sneer in the majors.

    In the first episode of this season, Logan Roy compared himself to his fellow humans in the only way that matters to people like him: his wealth.

    “What are people? They’re economic units,” he said. “I’m a hundred feet tall. These people are pygmies.”

    Write that bit of philosophy on his gravestone. It will be as much use to him now as all that money.

    This weekend I started Beef on Netflix and the first season of Yellowjackets on Showtime.

    Hoo boy.

    I watch plenty of stuff as it comes out and while I certainly binge, I tend to watch an episode and then go do something else. Over a weekend, when I’m keeping an eye on a kid and watching tv on my iPad, I’ll try and pick a few things to break up the time.

    And if you have watched these shows you might be laughing at me right now. Yellowjackets is a thriller that is occasionally so tense that it can almost be too much. Beef is ostensibly a comedy but it is occasionally so tense and so connected to the suppressed anger of its two main characters that it can almost be too much.

    It was a heck of a weekend.

    I only made it through three episodes of each and will probably slowly work my way through the first seasons of Beef and Yellowjackets over the next week or two. But I won’t be able to use one as a sort of relief valve for the other. A new, good, 30-minute sitcom is great for this. Shrinking was filling that role for me for a while. But I’ve finished it. And Ted Lasso remains great but

    A. I’m watching it as it comes out.

    B. It’s hasn’t really been a comedy since the first season. It’s a funnyish drama now.

    Tension, of course, can be great fun in the film and tv world. I loved Uncut Gems, but it was a heart attack and not a movie. There is a decent chance I will never watch it again even though I thought it was great.

    Alan Sepinwall, Rolling Stone’s TV critic, has related more than once that he could not initially get through The Bear because it was, “the most stressful thing on TV.”

    Anyway, the tension was set to boiling for me this weekend and the black comedy that is normally Succession offered no relief. A new episode of Abbott Elementary cannot come soon enough.

  • Air


    Ben Affleck is going to mess around and have a directing career as storied as Clint Eastwood.

    Affleck’s Air is a dramedy about the men at Nike who figured out before his rookie season that Michael Jordan would be one of the great NBA players of all time and made a big bet on landing him for their poorly performing basketball division.

    The Air Jordan would become the most iconic shoe, and one of the most iconic products of the 20th century.

    In the world of the movie Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) watches a game tape and realizes that he must land Jordan. He then drags Nike founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) to the table. He’s assisted by Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman), Howard White (Chris Tucker), and Peter Moore (Matthew Maher) as the men who will eventually blast Jordan and Nike into the stratosphere. Vaccaro drafts Jordan’s mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), to his cause and outmaneuvers Jordan’s agent, David Falk (Chris Messina).

    There’s a temptation to single out individual performers here (cause this is the section in the review where that goes) but everyone nails every moment.

    Falk? Smashes it.

    Tucker? Amazing.

    Moore? Weird and wonderful.

    Julius Tennon gets, I think, three lines as Jordan’s father. He nails it.

    Viola Davis? Come on man. She’s perfect.

    Now in real life, even though Jordan was not picked first in the draft there were plenty of people who knew what he was about to do. Affleck and Damon talked about how Bobby Knight recognized Jordan’s unique abilities and was explaining it before he went to the NBA.

    Does that matter in the movie? Nope. Every scene in this movie works. Every scene shows Vaccaro as the guy who sees what others either don’t understand or don’t yet believe.

    No one out there can play earnest belief quite as well as Damon and no one can hit ego-driven anger like Affleck. I don’t know quite how Phil Knight is going to feel about Affleck’s portrayal of that particular moment in his life but in the context of the movie, it was just the right amount of sound and fury.

    The other thing that’s striking is that while you know how the story ends (or think you know) it has no impact on how strongly the movie engages the audience. You know what’s going to happen in Titanic too. But knowing actually enhances that story. Here too, interesting characters, smart dialogue, and a unique view of the material make the movie a lot more than its ending.

    One thing that the audience gets with a setup like this is that the movie can convey something to us that the characters do not yet realize. Everyone in the flick who works at Nike can’t stop talking about how fun it used to be. How Nike was great when it was just starting out. They don’t know, I thought, how great this thing is going to become. These men in their 40s who think they are done, don’t realize that some really great days are yet to come.

    You may not feel that, but as a dad in his 40s, I can confirm that it hit me hard.

    When we get to the conclusion Affleck and screenwriter Alex Convery have one more card to play, something basketball and shoe people know but a general audience member (like me) did not know.

    I don’t want to spoil it but it’s not only the thrilling cherry on top it also feels like a statement of purpose for two guys (Affleck and Damon) who just started a movie studio with the idea that everyone who works on the movie will share in the success.

    My final thought was how Affleck the director (divorced from his star persona and celebrity) has made a series of incredible movies. Gone Baby Gone, The Town, Argo, and Air are all four or five-star flicks for me. I’ve never seen Live by Night but I clearly need to remedy that.

    What I’m struck by is that Affleck, like Eastwood or Eastwood mentor Don Seigel, never does more than the story requires and never lets the flick drag. It’s clean, professional, and winning storytelling.

    Here’s hoping for several more decades of Affleck the director.

  • From Poker Face to Perry Mason, the private eye is back

    From Poker Face to Perry Mason, the private eye is back

    Spotting a trend is always asking for trouble. You think you see where the culture is going, or where it’s coming from, and then it darts into a different alley and leaves you in blood and tears.

    However, the last few years seem to show that the creatives who can get mystery stories up on the big screen are telling stories about detectives working outside the law.

    One of the most satisfying moments in the first episode of Poker Face — the Ryan Johnson mystery of the week show starring Natasha Lyonne as semi-superpowered Columbo — is when she reminds the villain that she is not a cop.

    Meanwhile, much of the entire first season of Perry Mason had him acting as a private detective working for a defense attorney. Comic book fans will recognize this trope as Perry Mason Year One.

    Supposedly detective fiction works like this: when the country is in a good mood and its institutions are trusted the popular detectives on tv, in the movies, and in books are cops. When the country’s cynicism is high, the government is not to be trusted, and the heroes (sorta) are private dicks like these two counterculture icons from the 1970s: Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes (Chinatown) and Elliot Gould playing Philip Marlowe as half a hippie in The Long Goodbye.

    Charlie Cale is a fugitive, both from the law and from a criminal organization in the first season of Poker Face. The show doesn’t have a strong agenda though. Its mystery-of-the-week format allows it to go everywhere and anywhere required by that week’s story. The first season did give Cale a pal in an FBI agent who rises through the ranks thanks to his partnership with her and he manages to both befriend and help her without, essentially, deputizing her.

    That she’s not a cop is one of the most vital parts of the show. It both forces the writers to invent new situations and people for Cale to encounter and it forces them to come to different methods of ‘justice’ for Cale to enforce on the murderers.

    Please never forget that when they wanted to make Batman safe for children they made him a duly deputized law enforcement officer who worked for Chief Gordan in a — I’m gonna call it singular — partnership.

    Cale’s friendliness with everyone is a key selling point of the show. Perry Mason, on the other hand, is a burned out and cynical World War 1 veteran who has nearly bottomed out by the time the show begins.

    The show’s main villain? It’s the Los Angeles Police Department of the 1930s. Perry Mason also eschews mystery of the week in favor of one season long story.

    Poker Face creator Ryna Johnson said when he tried to sell the show as a mystery of the week he got blank stares from most of the television (streaming?) executives he spoke with.

    It’s amazing that an industry built almost entirely on telling one story in a 30- or 60-minute chunks now can’t even conceive of such a thing. Reality shows really will rot your brain I guess.

    Anyway, Perry Mason has come back for a second season and it’s a solid slab of detective/lawyer/crime fiction. If the central mystery of the first season (the murder of a baby) was too much for you I can confirm that the show manages to rise above its shaky start.

    Season Two has some connections to season one and it’s worth it to watch all of it, but if you start fresh in the second season I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

    If nothing else it’s consistently one of the best looking shows on television. The second best? It’s Poker Face.

  • I have podcasted

    I have podcasted

    My pal David Ginsburg started a podcast nearly a decade ago. Tales From the Fandom is a kindhearted visit to various fictional worlds with passionate fans of everything, everywhere, and quite a few things you may have never heard of.

    David occasionally gives me time to rant, mainly cause he’s a nice guy and also I used to cook dinner for him in college.

    Anyway, you can listen to us here. And if you want a whole lot more the link will take you to the seven other times I have crashed his podcast.