Entertainment To-Do List: Week of 9/18/20

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Wilmore (CREDIT: 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
Ratched Season 1 (September 18 on Netflix) – Ryan Murphy sends Sarah Paulson beyond the cuckoo’s nest.
-PEN15 Season 2 Part 1 (September 18 on Hulu)
Wilmore Series Premiere (September 18 on Peacock) – The Comedy Central alum is back to chatting.
-Creative Arts Emmy Awards (September 19 on FXX)
-72nd Primetime Emmy Awards (September 20 on ABC)
-DIY Conan (September 21 on TBS) – Conan O’Brien’s fans make an entire episode of his show.
The Masked Singer Season 4 Premiere (September 23 on FOX)
I Can See Your Voice Series Premiere (September 23 on FOX) – Ken Jeong’s on another wacky singing competition show.

Music
-Neil Young, The Times EP

‘Abominable’ Follows the Tropes of the Weirdly Thriving Yeti Adventure Mini-Genre

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CREDIT: Universal Studios and Pearl Studio

Starring: Chloe Bennet, Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Eddie Izzard, Sarah Paulson, Tsai Chin, Michelle Wong

Director: Jill Culton

Running Time: 97 Minutes

Rating: PG for Danger on Rooftops and Mountains

Release Date: September 27, 2019

Yetis and bigfoots are having quite the cinematic moment. As are lovingly shot, delicious-looking Chinese dumplings. Abominable probably isn’t the pinnacle of either of these trends, but it is a demonstration of their bountiful charms. By this point in the mini-genre, you know the basic plot outline: a giant mythological creature bumps into an intrepid human, who must then protect the hairy fellow from agents of government, science, and/or media, who have their own exploitative agendas in mind. In this case, the harried and ambitious Yi (Chloe Bennett) discovers a goofy yeti making a ruckus on her Shanghai apartment, and then she and her friends Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and Peng (Albert Tsai) suddenly find themselves on a mission to safely escort the beast, whom they dub “Everest,” to his home on Mount Everest. But really, everyone just wants to get back and chow down on Yi’s grandma’s pork buns, Peng and Everest especially.

Meanwhile, some rich dude (Eddie Izzard) and a zoologist (Sarah Paulson) are on Everest’s tail for less scrupulous reasons. Chances are pretty high that the two of them will either get their comeuppance or see the light or some combination of the two. Hearts are warmed, la la la, credits roll, goofy callback to some joke from earlier before the curtains close. If this formula comforts you, you know who you are. For those craving something at least a little different, we get Everest’s special powers, like teleportation and his ability to summon giant blueberries that splat berry juice all over everyone. It’s good to know that sticky messes still have their place in kids-targeted entertainment.

Abominable is Recommended If You Like: Smallfoot, Missing Link, Bao

Grade: 3 out of 5 Pork Buns

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Glass’ is an Off-Kilter But Rewarding Examination of Superpowered Beings

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CREDIT: Jessica Kourkounis/Universal Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in January 2019.

Starring: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard, Luke Kirby, Adam David Thompson

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Running Time: 128 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Popping Veins, Sharp Objects, and Bodies Thrown Violently

Release Date: January 18, 2019

With Glass, M. Night Shyamalan is attempting a sort of Grand Unified Theory of Superheroes. According to this particular model, the stories told in comic books are based on the exploits of real people. We only think they are myths because they have had to live in the shadows. I’m pretty sure that Shyamalan does not actually believe that there are superheroes and supervillains in the real world, but the wonder that infuses those stories is very real. It is what drives us to understand the unbelievable. It is also what drives Shyamalan to deconstruct the entire superhero genre at its most atomic level.

Picking up nearly two decades after the events of Unbreakable and soon after those of Split, Glass kicks off with Bruce Willis’ super-strong guardian David Dunn tracking down James McAvoy’s ravenous multi-personality villain Kevin Wendell Crumb. They are both subdued by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who specializes in patients with delusions that they are superpowered, a condition that she assures us many people are suffering from. They end up at the same institution that has been housing Sam Jackson’s Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass, the man who engineered a series of terrorist attacks to uncover a superhuman like David. Also returning are Spencer Treat Clark as David’s son Joseph, Charlayne Woodard as Elijah’s mother, and Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, Kevin’s surviving kidnapped victim. Oddly enough, most of the film takes place within the institution, making this mainly a battle of wits between Dr. Ellie and her charges. It is a surprisingly talky approach to what is ostensibly an action film, but it is profoundly part and parcel of what Shyamalan is doing.

As Glass reveals what it is all about, much of the dialogue turns into language that only ever appears in comic books. That is to say, it is the language of comic book narration, of the variety that goes “the bad guys are teaming up” and “this is an origin story, but not for the character you thought.” Not only do real people not talk like this, neither do movie characters, and neither do comic book characters. The only actor who manages to deliver any of it with any gravitas is Jackson. Clark, Woodard, and Taylor-Joy, on the other hand, sound as unnatural as possible. However, as disorienting as all that is, I am not eager to write this element off as a failure.

The film’s structure also leads me to question some things, particularly the revelation of Dr. Ellie’s true nature. I did not find it to be a huge shock, and I wonder if Shyamalan would have benefited from revealing it to the audience earlier to really explore the consequences of what her character represents. But even with the reveal at the end, that point can retroactively click into gear. And as for all the unnatural acting, I could say that maybe that is the point, and that this is a highly affected world, or at least these are highly affected people. That would be generous, though, especially considering that Clark, Woodard, and Taylor-Joy sounded like much more typical humans in Unbreakable and Split. But even if I choose to have the least generous interpretation of every questionable element, I remain utterly fascinated by Glass. This is not Shyamalan at his most straightforwardly powerful, but it is also not him at his most insufferable. He is on a cloud of thinking that most people would never think to go to, but he has found insights there that I am very happy we now have.

Glass is Recommended If You Like: The Village, The Happening, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Grade: 4 out of 5 Origin Stories

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 Defense of Journalism Mounted by ‘The Post’ is Admirable and Often Rousing, But Almost Quaint

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CREDIT: Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox

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

Starring: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, David Cross, Alison Brie, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Jesse Plemons, Carrie Coon, Zach Woods

Director: Steven Spielberg

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Deadline-Related Light Profanity

Release Date: December 22, 2017 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide January 12, 2018

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees some fundamental freedoms, but certain limits on those freedoms are understood. Hate speech is not protected by free speech, for example, and human sacrifice is not protected by freedom of religion. But there is not quite the same shorthand for limits on a free press. Publishing anything demonstrably libelous is certainly unacceptable, but when is it inappropriate to print what is in fact true and has hitherto been hidden? This question is at the heart of so many present-day media matters, so in comes Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which examines a time when this conflict was a momentous occasion and not an everyday one.

In 1971, The Washington Post finds itself in possession of the Pentagon Papers, a trove of documents detailing the United States’ involvement in Vietnam over the past few decades. Executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and his team of journalists think the public deserves to know this information. The federal government says it would be a felony to print it. There is no mistaking where The Post (both the paper and the film) comes down on this conflict. This is not new information and thus serves no imminent threat to American troops in Vietnam. The only harm it can cause is embarrassment for former presidents. The actual conflict that The Post grapples is the attempted reconciliation between ethical and business concerns.

The constant struggle of press outlets, even institutions as big as The Washington Post, is figuring out how to make money by delivering the truth. That struggle is writ large when making a public offering, which is what we’ve got here. Do you make a stronger case to your investors by laying low or by making a ruckus in the course of standing up for your principals? As publisher Katharine Graham, Meryl Streep is all contorted faces and knotted anxiety as she takes the lead to make the decision of printing the Papers or not. The drama is wrung in screwball fashion, with Bradlee appealing to her over the phone at the last a minute, as a gaggle of other interested parties hop on the line.

For as grand as The Post’s ambitions are, it is strange to consider that most of it takes place over the course of just one day. It all then feels almost inconsequential, but of course, certain individual moments can change the course of everything. When that is the case, there has probably been months, or even years, of work behind the scenes setting up those moments, as conveyed by an early scene of Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) gathering and absconding with the Papers. Also delivering the dynamic agita is Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, an old buddy of Ellsberg’s who tracks down the delivery. Odenkirk’s comedic background is an asset – he moves about with a paranoid shuffle that is somewhere between absolutely necessary and hilariously unnecessary. Also rousing is a typesetting montage following the decision to publish the Papers. This mechanical peek at how things are done is a valuable reminder of underlying structure in much the same way that Michael Mann’s Blackhat spent so much visual space on the wires that undergird the Internet.

Ultimately, while The Post’s advocacy for journalism is timeless, its story feels small-scale, a prelude to the much bigger fallout of Watergate and all the modern-day scandals that use -gate in their nomenclature. The Richard Nixon of The Post is only ever seen from behind and through a window. His fight against the press was fought in the shadows, but today his same tactics are being employed right out in the open. The Post’s lessons are ones I hope everyone takes to heart, but I wonder (despair?) how useful they are when the sorts of secrets exposed by the Pentagon Papers are now nonchalantly tweeted every day.

The Post is Recommended If You Like: All the President’s Men, Spotlight, a Free Press

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Sealed Documents