Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 4/10/20

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CREDIT: FX/YouTube Screenshot

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

TV
SNL at Home (April 11 on NBC) – A remotely produced new episode of Saturday Night Live.
Insecure Season 4 Premiere (April 12 on HBO)
Killing Eve Season 3 Premiere (April on AMC and BBC America)
-NBA HORSE Challenge (April 12 on ESPN)
American Dad! Season 17 Premiere (April 13 on TBS) – Still one of the most consistent shows on the air!
Mrs. America Series Premiere (April 15 on Hulu) – Starring Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly.
What We Do in the Shadows Season 2 Premiere (April 15 on FX)

Music
-The Strokes, The New Abnormal

Podcasts
A couple of great-so-far podcasts have recently launched:
The Darkest TimelineCommunity co-stars Joel McHale and Ken Jeong answer your questions.
Oh, Hello: the P’dcast – Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland have discovered a new medium in which to deliver their tuna.

Movie Review: Cate Blanchett Brings Us All Along to Antarctica in the Low-Key Unique ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’

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CREDIT: Wilson Webb/Annapurna Pictures

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Emma Nelson, Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer, James Urbaniak, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Richard Linklater

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Arguments Between Neighbors and Family Members

Release Date: August 16, 2019

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is the sort of movie that I don’t want to say whether it’s good or bad. I’d rather just talk about what makes it unique. Because when you see more than a hundred movies per year like I do, uniqueness can seem like an endangered species, so when I come across it, I feel compelled to deconstruct it. First off, this movie doesn’t fully realize its premise until about two-thirds of the way through its running time – and that’s not a criticism! The title would seem to suggest that architect Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) runs right off from her family as fast as she can, but it actually takes quite a while until she is on her own in Antarctica. And get this – that destination was originally meant to be a family trip with her husband Elgin (Billy Crudup) and daughter Bee (Emma Nelson), so it’s not exactly like it’s supposed to be the most unpredictable hiding place.

You may have noticed that I mentioned that Bernadette is an architect, and that’s significant because this is a movie that cares A LOT about architecture. Director Richard Linklater apparently has a hidden passion for construction. Either that or he did his homework, because significant chunks of Where’d You Go, Bernadette could pass for an architecture mockumentary. The other major upending of expectations comes in the examination of Bernadette’s mental breakdown, or lack thereof. Everyone in her life is a little worried about her, but it turns out that the best solution is much less drastic – and much more fulfilling – than this genre has us conditioned to anticipate.

Pretty much everything about Where’d You Go, Bernadette is both slightly off-key and generally pleasant. A marriage that looks like it’s on the brink of disaster is actually quite healthy! Kristen Wiig plays a queen bee suburban mom who it turns out is actually a genuine human being! There’s a dog named Ice Cream! Anyone who is mildly adventurous will find something to enjoy.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is Recommended If You Like: Crucial James Urbaniak Supporting Performances

Grade: Not Applicable out of 5 Russian Identity Thieves

Movie Review: In ‘The Hidden World,’ The ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ Franchise is Not Particularly Fresh, But the Animation is as Beautiful as Ever

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CREDIT: DreamWorks Animation

Starring: Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, Kit Harington, David Tennant

Director: Dean DeBlois

Running Time: 104 Minutes

Rating: PG for High-Flying Fantasy Danger

Release Date: February 22, 2019

I do not remember a whole lot about the first two How to Train Your Dragon films other than the fact that I generally enjoyed them. The first one was among the initial wave of expansive 3D animated blockbusters. But nine years later, studios hardly ever bother to even screen their films in 3D, and I almost never seek the extra dimension out myself. But the CG animation is still of the utmost quality. Hair blows delightfully in the wind, and from what I have heard from the trenches of animation, realistic hair movement has been one of the biggest bugaboos in this medium. And this is a franchise about dragons, which don’t have a lot of hair! So the fact that the HTTYD team cares that much about rendering its human characters as well as its fantastical creatures should tell you all you need to know about the level of craft at play.

The Hidden World, the third in the series, finds Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his trusty dragon Toothless realizing that they are running out of room on their little island for all the humans and dragons to fruitfully co-exist. Meanwhile, an infamous dragon hunter named Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) has declared he has his sights set on Toothless and all the other domesticated fire-breathers. There are admirable messages here about looking past surface differences and treating nature with respect, but there is also a bit of a sense of same-old, same-old. At this point, shouldn’t everyone know that these dragons are as loyal and affectionate as dogs? But while the story may be a little pedestrian, the animation continues to stun. Toothless develops himself a bit of a crush, and let’s just say, the dragon seduction dance is a (family-friendly) sight to behold.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is Recommended If You Like: The Most Thorough Animation in the Business

Grade: 3 out of 5 Night Furies

This Is a Movie Review: There Are Spurts of Cinematic Magic Within ‘The House with a Clock in Its Walls’

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CREDIT: Quantrell D. Colbert/Copyright: © 2018 Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Renée Elise Goldberry, Sunny Suljic, Lorenza Izzo, Colleen Camp

Director: Eli Roth

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: PG for Children in Danger and Creepy, Occasionally Macabre, Magic

Release Date: September 21, 2018

Despite some spirited performances and thorough production design and effects work, The House with a Clock in Its Walls ultimately feels rather perfunctory. But would I have this way if I saw it for the first time when I was eight years old, or would I have instead been truly excited? And as a PG-rated fantasy flick, perhaps we should primarily be asking what pre-teens will think about it. But maybe we should also be asking if it is good enough for them to continue to cherish it (beyond nostalgia value) as they grow older.

There is definitely plenty in here for kids to identify or empathize with, as recently orphaned 10-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) makes his way to his uncle’s house in New Zebedee, Michigan. Any youngsters who have ever struggled to fit in – whether because of a new school, a weird new home, cruel classmates, or whatever else – will be able to see themselves in Lewis, and that shouldn’t be discounted. But beyond his fashion signature of goggles based on his favorite sci-fi TV show, he doesn’t have the most memorable personality.

Luckily, the adults around Lewis do make more of a lasting impact. Jack Black leans into his bumbling side as Uncle Jonathan, a warlock who constantly downplays his own abilities, perhaps to his detriment. His neighbor Florence (Cate Blanchett) is a much more regal magical presence. Black and Blanchett have decent platonic chemistry, with their insistence that they are nothing more than friends never undercut by their repartee. As Jonathan’s sinister former partner Isaac, Kyle MacLachlan displays plenty of charisma despite working under mounds of makeup. And the house itself, in which the furniture acts like a pack of friendly dogs, is fun enough, with director Eli Roth demonstrating his knack for rendering fully realized, character-rich settings (but obviously more kid-friendly than what we’re used to from him). But at the end, you’re liable to be left thinking, “Welp, that all happened.” The stakes are apocalyptic, but they never feel that dire. Lewis saves the day, and that’s nice and all, but there could have been more zip and zaniness.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls is Recommended If You Like: The Pagemaster, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The NeverEnding Story

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Magic Keys

This Is a Movie Review: Meet the ‘Ocean’s 8’ Heist, Same as the Old Heist

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CREDIT: Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in June 2018.

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Richard Armitage, James Corden

Director: Gary Ross

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Indulgent Behavior That Might Be Incriminating

Release Date: June 8, 2018

I am always wary of crime flicks in which the criminals are the protagonists and get away with it. Sure, cinema can be escapist fantasy, and I trust that most audiences understand that the glorification of illegal behavior does not make it okay in real life. But there is a moral component to movies, so this genre needs to be careful about the messages it sends out. That is what most concerns me about Ocean’s 8, much more so than whether or not it is a good idea to have all-female spinoffs or if these ladies would be better off assembling for some original concept (it is at least theoretically possible to have both, after all). We can rest assured that Debbie Ocean’s (Sandra Bullock) heist is mostly a victimless crime, although maybe a few millionaires take a hit. There is no sense, though, that this is a matter of acting on behalf of the little guy to stick it to the 1%. The underlying message is basically that you do what you do because you’re good at it, and that cavalier attitude is not exactly ruinous, but it can be mighty discomforting if you think about it.

But if we can allow ourselves to revel in the fantasy for two hours, does Ocean’s 8 deliver the entertainment that it is designed to? It takes a while to get going, with a rather sluggish pace as Debbie assembles her crew. And it does not help that we have seen these character types before: the tech expert, the street scam artist, the suburbanite trying to hide her criminal past. But once the plan gets going, the pace clicks along nicely. The heist itself – get celebrity Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) to wear a famous necklace worth millions at the Met Gala, swipe it off her and replace it with a convincing facsimile – is adequately innovative. As everyone carries out their jobs, the cast comes alive, with Hathaway in particular having a blast. And it pulls off the third act moments that make you go, “They did it. Those magnificent bastards pulled it off!” There are the moments when we learn what really went down that we didn’t see at the time, and then here comes a new major character who helps the ladies wrap it all up in a bow. Nothing is getting reinvented, but the gears are still turning smoothly.

Less interesting, and much more perfunctory, are the connections to the Ocean’s franchise at large. A few vets of Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen pop in for cameos, which might spark thrills of recognition. Much is made of Debbie’s connection to her brother, the supposedly deceased Danny, that is meant to go beyond, “Hey, remember this character you already love?” There are some ideas about genetic destiny that are worth exploring more in depth, but Ocean’s 8 mostly plays these moments as just a toast to its forebears. Acknowledgement of one’s predecessors is generally a good idea, but you need to take it a step further if you want to truly slay.

Ocean’s 8 is Recommended If You Like: All the typical heist film beats, Suspending your moral compass for two hours

Grade: 3 out of 5 Blind Spots

This Is a Movie Review: The God of Thunder Gets Stranded in the Louche ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

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CREDIT: Disney/Marvel

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins

Director: Taika Waititi

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Colorfully Stylized Action Violence and a Glimpse of Hulk Butt

Release Date: November 3, 2017

Even in its stronger outings, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has consistently exemplified the distressing 21st century trend of “franchise film as trailer for its upcoming sequels.” But putting at the helm Taika Waititi, the New Zealand director behind vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows and coming-of-age charmer Hunt for the Wilderpeople, would perhaps signal a willingness to kick back with an idiosyncratic one-off effort. And indeed, Thor: Ragnarok is not particularly burdened by setting up the next “phase” for all the other Marvel heroes, save for the mandatory post-credits scene as well as an early rendezvous with Doctor Strange that at least has the courtesy to be completely ridiculous. But as Waititi is not creating something out of whole cloth, it is still a bear of a job to wrap his sensibility around Thor’s personal history and Asgard’s extensive mythology.

One of the biggest disappointments of most MCU films, and what made Doctor Strange so satisfying when it bucked this trend, is their lack of imagination in design and music. Their craft is far from ugly, but it is no more than workmanlike. Ragnarok has plenty of personality, but it kind of gets in the way of itself. Mark Mothersbaugh’s prog-rock synth score is entirely fitting, but it never really fully rocks out until the end credits. All the new supporting characters make a convincing case to be the breakout star, but there is only room for so much of that in a busy 2 hours. I would never willingly sacrifice Cate Blanchett’s evil diva goddess Hela, or Jeff Goldblum’s eccentric sensualist Grand Master, or Tessa Thompson’s hard-drinking and unapologetic Valkyrie, or the most hedonistic version of the Hulk we have yet seen on screen. But this is a series of solo acts, not a supergroup. They play nice together, but they only intermittently gel as a unit greater than the sum of its parts.

The plot of Ragnarok is fairly straightforward, but a little overwhelming in its climax, due to the surfeit of moving parts. The titular end of Asgardian days is threatening to come to pass with the return of Hela, the long-imprisoned goddess of death and sister of Thor. Thor and Loki broker one of their many peaces to team up and save their home realm, but they are first waylaid onto the Grand Master’s home planet, where they get caught up in some gladiatorial combat.

By the end of it all, I found myself confused about who was defeated and who was victorious, and how much so on either count. Frankly, I am perfectly willing to forgo any prosaic interpretation for the sake of embracing a more expressionistic experience. This is not hard to do, as there are plenty of blasts of pure imagination (punneriffic reference perfectly intended). Trouble is, the story does matter to the people who made this movie, and even if it did not, it is too imposing to disregard. By the end of all these affairs, Ragnarok is the type of feast that overloads you with deliciousness but leaves you crashing instead of the kind that fills you up and floods you up with endorphins. It is adequately cromulent, but not very transcendent.

Thor: Ragnarok is Recommended If You Like: Doctor Strange, ’70s Glam Rock Stars, Kiwi accents

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Nonsense Circles