Best Podcasts of 2019

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I continued my regimen of podcast listening as usual in 2019, so here’s a quick rundown of the audio shows that were tickling my ears and my brain the best the past year.

1. Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend
2. Black Check with Griffin and David
3. How Did This Get Made?
4. Harmontown
5. Judge John Hodgman
6. The Ron Burgundy Podcast
7. Pop Mom
8. Pop Culture Happy Hour
9. Unspooled
10. Good One: A Podcast About Jokes

Honorable Mentions
R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: ME (Always a transcendent pleasure, but only released four new episodes in 2019.)
Comedy Bang! Bang! (Released plenty of episodes, but I only listened to a few of them.)

Only a Truly Demented Mind Could Adapt ‘Fantasy Island’ Into a Profoundly Inexplicable Horror Flick

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CREDIT: Columbia/Sony Pictures

Starring: Michael Peña, Maggie Q, Lucy Hale, Austin Stowell, Portia Doubleday, Jimmy O. Yang, Ryan Hansen, Michael Rooker, Parisa Fitz-Henley

Director: Jeff Wadlow

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Few Stabbings, a Little Bit of Gunfire, One F-Bomb

Release Date: February 14, 2020

Fantasy Island is the most unapologetically nuts movie I’ve seen in quite a while, and … I kinda loved it. It’s ostensibly based on the late 70s/early 80s TV show of the same name, which had one of those “exactly what it says on the tin” premises. Each episode, guests would arrive on an island where, for a price, they would be allowed to live out a fantasy of theirs. I have never seen an episode in its entirety, but based on clips I’ve seen, the film, which scooches the “be careful what you wish for” setup into full-on horror, feels like a very liberal adaptation. Or at least, it must be, right? Somebody surely would have told me at some point during my thirty-plus years on this Earth if the show were this unhinged. Because what we’ve got in theaters now feels like the result of an all-night bender in which some folks were like, “Hey, remember that weirdly iconic high-concept show from a few decades ago? What if it were a little more … twisted?”

Michael Peña takes over for Ricardo Montalbán as Mr. Roarke, the island’s proprietor who guides the guests through their fantasies. He welcomes a quintet of thrill-seekers: the relatively nondescript trio of Melanie (Lucy Hale), Gwen (Maggie Q), and Patrick (Austin Stowell) as well as fratty stepbrothers Brax (Ryan Hansen) and JD (Jimmy O. Yang). The latter’s fantasy is simultaneously the most enjoyable and the most stereotypically indulgent. All they want to do is lounge around by the pool with a bunch of hot babes and studs as they yell out party-hearty bromides like “Fantasy Fricking Island!” It’s so cranked up to 11 that it feels like self-parody except for the fact that Hansen and Yang are comedy vets who know how to calibrate that over-the-topness just so. This is a very silly movie.

As for the others, Melanie wants revenge on an old bully from school (Portia Doubleday), Patrick wants to live up to the example of his hero soldier father, and Gwen wants a re-do with an ex-boyfriend who proposed to her. They all assume that their experiences are something like highly sophisticated virtual reality or live-action role-playing (despite Roarke’s insistence on the legitimacy of it all), so they roll with it when dead loved ones and other impossibilities start popping up. With the just-too-perfect nature of everything, it’s clear that we’ll eventually get an explanation of how Roarke is really pulling it off. You might have a sneaking suspicion that that explanation will be deeply stupid, but (for me at least) that’s part of the fun.

So here’s the deal: if your favorite part of Lost was all the mystical mumbo-jumbo about how the island itself was basically sentient and wish that that formula could be applied to any media that takes place on a remote tropical island, then Fantasy Island is definitely for you. If you would also like a hundred twists that gradually make less and less sense piled on top of each other, you need to go see a psychologist immediately, but also, this movie is for you, and also also, you and I are kindred spirits and we should be friends. Writer-director Jeff Wadlow, I don’t know what you ingested or what exists within the core of your soul that led you to take us on this journey, but whatever it is, I salute you!

Fantasy Island is Recommended If You Like: The most fantastical elements of Lost crossed with the glossiness of modern horror and a dash of the sadism of Saw, all mixed up in a cocaine-fueled blender

Grade: 3 out of 5 Regrets

Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 2/14/20

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CREDIT: Chris Johnson, Stuart Collis/Netflix

Every week, I list all the upcoming (or recently released) movies, TV shows, albums, podcasts, etc. that I believe are worth checking out.

Movies
Fantasy Island (Theatrically Nationwide) – I must watch every horror movie no matter how ridiculous.
The Photograph (Theatrically Nationwide)
A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (Streaming February 14 on Netflix) – I loved the last Shaun the Sheep movie!

TV
Duncanville Series Premiere (February 16 on FOX) – Is this the next great animated FOX show?
Good Girls Season 3 Premiere (February 16 on NBC)
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Season 7 Premiere (February 16 on HBO)

Music
-Tame Impala, The Slow Rush

 

‘The Photograph’ Captures Generations of Love Blossoming and Spreading Free

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures

Starring: Issa Rae, Lakeith Stanfield, Chanté Adams, Y’lan Noel, Rob Morgan, Lil Rel Howery, Teyonah Parris, Courtney B. Vance, Chelsea Peretti, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jasmine Cephas Jones, Marsha Stephanie Blake

Director: Stella Meghie

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Sizzling Moments

Release Date: February 14, 2020

The ads for The Photograph have been giving off strong “Nicholas Sparks, but with black people” vibes. However, I had a hankering suspicion that it wouldn’t actually be as saccharine as that glossy presentation suggested. First and foremost, the two leads, Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield, are not exactly for taking on such gloopy material. Surely their presence would ensure that things would end up a little more left-field than this genre typically goes. Indeed that has turned out to be the case, but to be fair to the marketing team, this is not an easy movie to advertise. It has a slow-burn meditative spirit (driven along by Robert Glasper’s jazzy piano score) that does not immediately grab you in the way that trailers are meant to in a couple of minutes. But if you simmer in it for a couple hours, your heart might just grow a few sizes.

Michael (Stanfield) is a reporter working on a story that happens to involve recently deceased photographer Christina Eames (Chanté Adams). He then finds himself smitten by Christina’s daughter Mae (Rae), who is working her way through the truth bombs that her mom has left her in a pair of letters, one addressed to Mae and one to Mae’s father. Meanwhile, writer-director Stella Meghie frequently takes us back to Christina’s young adulthood in small-town Louisiana where she is unable to reconcile a possible future with the man that she loves (Y’lan Noel) and her dreams of making it big in New York City. She tends to always choose her professional goals over her loved ones, and in a case of family history rhyming, Mae and Michael find themselves worried that they are going to do the same. That struggle to find the nerve to say what you know is in your heart is deeply felt in The Photograph.

I have noticed a lot of excitement around this movie about the potential to see black love that is not also about trauma on the big screen. And if that is what you are looking for, I suspect that you will be satisfied. The blackness in The Photograph is not meant to represent all blackness, as Michael and Mae’s story is by no means a microcosm of all people of color. They are two people who happen to be black and happen to be falling in love. The details are their own, while also being part of a continuum of their lineage. It is an openhearted, generous story that I think a lot of people are going to be happy to witness.

The Photograph is Recommended If You Like: Beyond the Lights, Love & Basketball, A bottle of wine and a record player on a rainy night

Grade: 4 out of 5 Darkrooms

‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ is Awfully Silly, And That’s Okay

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures and Sega of America

Starring: Ben Schwartz, James Marsden, Jim Carrey, Tika Sumpter, Adam Pally, Lee Majdoub, Natasha Rothwell, Frank C. Turner, Neal McDonough

Director: Jeff Fowler

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: PG for Hedgehog Mischief and Mad Scientist Arrogance

Release Date: February 14, 2020

Sonic the blue video game character and Sonic the drive-in fast food chain are very different, insofar as running around loop-de-loops really fast is advisable with only one of them. But they are also similar, insofar as they are both fine and enduring examples of lowbrow culture. So the release of the Sonic the Hedgehog movie raises the question: is this a good flick to watch while chowing down on some burgers and tots? I would have to definitively say yes, and thus I am awarding the Jeff Fowler-directed Sonic the Hedgehog the first (and perhaps also last) ever Sonic Feast Stamp of Approval.

Remember that hullabaloo about Sonic’s CGI teeth needing to be reanimated to something less uncanny valley-ish after the first trailer was released? It turns out that job was taken care of thoroughly and that snafu will henceforth only be a footnote in cinematic history! Thus, we are all able to fully focus on our spiny friend’s hairy adventures. Not that we need to focus too much to understand what’s going on, as the plot follows a standard formula for kid-friendly video game creature adaptations. Sonic, voiced mostly amusingly by comedian Ben Schwartz, gets magically transported to the world of humans where he strikes up an unlikely friendship with Tom (James Marsden), a small-town guy with big-town ambitions, and runs afoul of his nemesis, Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey), whose physical presence is more Earthbound than his typical video game iteration though his personality is full-on cartoonish.

Anyway, Sonic loses his bag of gold coins that he uses to transport between worlds, so he wrangles Tom in for a road trip to go find them, even though with his supersonic capabilities, he could probably do it himself in a matter of minutes. It doesn’t matter. It’s all just an excuse for Sonic to get up to shenanigans like causing a ruckus in a biker bar as Schwartz vamps, Carrey mustache-twirls, and the Olive Garden jams its way in there with some stealthy product placement. Also, Natasha Rothwell is on standby as Tom’s sister-in-law for some inexplicable running gag in which she keeps telling his wife to divorce him. It’s bright and colorful and silly, and frankly, I’m glad we live in a world in which doofy video game adaptations can still get made.

Sonic the Hedgehog is Recommended If You Like: The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, Batman Forever, The Smurfs

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Loop-De-Loops

‘Downhill’ Demonstrates the Limits of Constrained Remakes

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CREDIT: Jaap Buitendijk/Twentieth Century Fox

Starring: Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Miranda Otto, Zach Woods, Zoë Chao, Julian Grey, Ammon Jacob Ford

Directors: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash

Running Time: 86 Minutes

Rating: R for Bold Language That Pops Out on Vacation

Release Date: February 14, 2020

Sometimes a remake that otherwise seems pretty pointless can be useful for helping to clarify something that you may have missed in the original. That happened to me with the explosive conclusion of the Korean classic neo-noir Oldboy and Spike Lee’s 2013 remake, and now I have experienced it once again with Downhill, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s take on the 2014 Swedish cringe family comedy Force Majeure. There’s a climactic moment on a ski slope in Force Majeure that felt to me at the time meditative and ambiguous, but when I saw Downhill‘s take, the purpose of that incident was spelled out much more clearly. (Although reconciling these two as congruent requires a specific interpretation of Force Majeure.) There’s an argument to be made in favor of leaving the meaning as subtext, but I know I felt satisfied in the moment. As for the rest of this American version, let’s just say this material is very tricky to make entertaining, no matter what part of the world you’re in and no matter how many times it’s been told.

Force Majeure‘s inciting incident is an all-time doozy, and Downhill does it pretty much exactly the same. The Staunton family on vacation at a ski resort in the Alps when a supposedly controlled avalanche looks like it is about to turn deadly. In a moment of panic, Dad Pete (Will Ferrell) runs away from his wife Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and his two sons. Ultimately nobody is hurt, but the tension remains simmering for the entire vacation. This all plays out in set pieces that are quite often lifted directly from the original. Pete’s psyche breaks down as he cannot bring himself to admit his betrayal, while Billie insists on the version of the truth that she can so clearly see is the correct version, and friends and acquaintances look on horrified, profoundly flummoxed by the impossible task of lightening the mood.

It’s not necessarily a more Americanized version of the same thing, at least no more so than a version starring American actors must necessarily be. Instead, it’s a more mature version, as Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus are more than a decade older than their counterparts, Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli, were when Force Majeure came out. The original dealt with new-ish parents struggling with their evolving self-identities, while Downhill is about a middle-aged couple despairing, “It can’t be this disastrous after we’ve come so far, can it?!” That’s a theme it would have been wise to lean into more instead of relying so much on the template it had ready to go. But as it stands, it is still a fascinating dive into the panic that arises when we realize that we may never fully know who we and our loved ones really are.

Downhill is Recommended If You Like: Hard Questions

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Avalanches

It’s Time to Get ‘Buffaloed’ and Learn About Debt Collection!

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CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures

Starring: Zoey Deutch, Judy Greer, Jermaine Fowler, Noah Reid, Jai Courtney

Director: Tanya Wexler

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: Unrated, But It Would Probably Be R for Everyone Acting Like a Bunch of Jagoffs

Release Date: February 14, 2020 (Limited)

Hey Buffaloed Zoey, what did you kill, Buffaloed Zoey?

Please, dear readers, tell me that you are familiar with the Beatles song “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” for otherwise that opening line will sound the ramblings of a madman. (Though even if you get the reference, you might still find me a madman.)

Is Peg Dahl, Zoey Deutch’s character in the Tanya Wexler-directed Buffaloed, indeed in the mood for killing? You could certainly say so. She’s grown up lower-middle class in Buffalo, New York, and her ambitions are a little too ravenous to be contained by a city with a small-town midwestern sensibility. She’d like an Ivy League education very much, please, but that doesn’t seem too likely without crushing student debt. So she turns to hustling, which lands her in prison when she’s barely old enough to be tried as an adult. Ergo, no college loans, but plenty of legal fees. Debt collectors soon get on her back, but she flips the script, realizing that she’s pretty good at convincing people to do things that are not necessarily in their best interest and thus starts working for the collection agency with an eye towards fast-tracking the clearing of her debt.

Peg’s a bit of a wide-eyed idealist, or at least as wide-eyed idealist as you can be when working in an industry built upon preying on people at their most vulnerable. But soon enough she learns about the more unscrupulous practices, like collecting on the same debt multiple times from people who have forgotten they are already in the clear. Collectors get away with this baloney since the industry is nowhere near as regulated as it needs to be. But Peg sets upon forming her own agency, vowing to do it all aboveboard, to the incredulity of everyone around her. Ultimately, naturally enough, she realizes that you cannot ever really clean up something that is dirty to its core. This is activist, occasionally fourth wall-breaking, cinema, delivered with a jagoff spirit. In that way it’s a sort of Big Short Jr. If it somehow, some way, leads to more robust protections for the indebted, then it ought to be considered a positive force for humanity. (And if instead it just makes you cackle for an hour and a half, then that’s okay, too.)

Buffaloed is Recommended If You Like: The Big Short, My Cousin Vinny, Judges who eat while on the bench

Grade: 3 out of 5 Buffalo Wings

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