The State of the Art: Movies 2016

It seems that books aren't the only area of life that I just couldn't whip up the time or energy to devote myself to in 2016. As life gets more hectic and television continues its streak of being awesome, I just don't watch as many movies as I used to. Here's where I'd usually make some grand resolution for the upcoming year about how I'm going to watch a ton of movies that encompass all sorts of interesting genres, but I just can't make the promise this year. Hopefully, I'll see a bunch of movies. Hopefully, they'll be good.

The decline was steep. Last year, I saw 41 movies. This year? I saw 30. If there's one metric where I improved, it's in seeing new releases. 16 of the 30 were released in 2016, so I've gone up a full 10% in keeping abreast of the current cinema climate. I don't know what that says about my movie-going habits (if anything), but apparently, even though I didn't watch a lot, when I did see something, I was happily persuaded into going to the theater.

As always, a note about grading: Grades tend to be awarded not only on how much I liked something, but on how well it accomplished the goal it set for itself. So, if a movie aspires to nothing more than being a goofy comedy and makes me laugh my ass off, it'll rank higher than a character drama that had an annoying protagonist, no matter how prestigious the cast list is.

#1: Pee-Wee's Big Holiday

What I Said: Pee-Wee sets off on a road trip, and encounters all kinds of odd sorts, from a farmer with nine love-starved daughters to a trio of leonine bank robbers who can't help but be charmed by him to an aviatrix who's better at small talk than at staying aloft. I couldn't stop giggling throughout this whole movie. Paul Reubens' sense of childlike humor is still a delight, and every actor in this movie is totally game to share in the silliness.

#2: Moana

What I Said: Disney animation has been on a hot streak lately, and Moana is no exception. There's a lot to love about this movie. The animation is top-notch, which is all the more impressive when you consider how difficult it can be to achieve appealing water effects. The story is extremely respectful to the culture it's depicting. Moana is not only the protagonist, but the full-on heroine of the story, and though she depends on her friends, she is no helpless girl needing rescuing every five minutes. And then there's the music, which I've been full-on, openly singing out loud for a week now.

#3: Captain America: Civil War

What I Said: Really, the best thing that can be said about it is that it takes an incredibly complex moral situation and makes a good case for both sides. I found myself siding more with Iron Man, while the friend I saw the movie with opted for Captain America's side, but both points of view are completely understandable. And what's more important, both points of view are flawed as well.

#4: Kubo and the Two Strings

What I Said: It's a terrific story, at times hauntingly sad, but always visually stunning. If there's one complaint to be made, it's that most of the Asian characters are voiced by white actors, which seems unnecessary at best, but in all but one case, it doesn't distract from the performances, which are excellent.

#5: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

What I Said: For the most part, it fits really well into the Star Wars timeline. Jyn doesn't trust the Alliance any more than she trusts the Empire, and those shades of ever-darkening moral gray in the supposed "good guys" was a bit distracting while I was watching it, but makes more sense the more I think about it. The battle scenes are well-designed and well-edited; though there are several different factions fighting it out, I was never confused about what was going on.

Wow. It sure isn't difficult to see what kind of mood I've been in this year; I desperately needed some light distraction. 2016 put too much on my mind for me to be able to watch weighty dramas the way I usually can. Hopefully, 2017 will be such a fantastic year that I can go back to enjoying a depressing movie from time to time! Hooray! For now, let's look at the full ranking of 2016 movies I was able to catch this year:

2016 Movies

Pee-Wee's Big Holiday (A)
Moana (A-)
Captain America: Civil War (A-)
Kubo and the Two Strings (A-)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (B+)
Arrival (B+)
Bad Moms (B+)
Hail, Caesar! (B)
Finding Dory (B)
Zootopia (B)
Allied (B)
Ghostbusters (B)
X-Men: Apocalypse (B)
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (B-)
Sausage Party (C+)
Jason Bourne (C-)

So, either the gloom of the year is affecting my grading scale, or my quality filter is a bit off. Last year, 55.5% of the movies scored a B+ or higher. This year, it's 43.8%. That's quite a dip, although I do note that there are more in the A-range this year. Let's just chalk the anomaly up to 2016 Sucks In General. But how did the 2016 movies fit into the entire list? Only one way to find out!

Pee-wee's Big Holiday (A)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) (A-)
Moana (A-)
Captain America: Civil War (A-)
World of Tomorrow (2015) (A-)
Kubo and the Two Strings (A-)

Spotlight (2015) (B+)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (B+)
Arrival (B+)
Force Majeure (2014) (B+)
Anomalisa (2015) (B+)
Bad Moms (B+)

Hail, Caesar! (B)
The Peanuts Movie (2015) (B)
Finding Dory (B)
Zootopia (B)
Allied (B)
Ghostbusters (B)
X-Men: Apocalypse (B)
Do I Sound Gay? (2014) (B)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (B-)
The Last Five Years (2014) (B-)
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) (B-)
The Overnight (2015) (B-)
The Heat (2013) (B-)
Mud (2012) (B-)

Whiplash (2014) (C+)
Sausage Party (C+)
The D Train (2015) (C)
Jason Bourne (C-)

The State of the Art: Television 2016

I think it's official now. Television has overtaken movies. Back in the day, movie stars wouldn't be caught dead appearing on TV, which they considered "the enemy". Then, when it was clear television was here to stay, film actors started to deign to appear on the small screen, but there was never any worry that cinema's little brother would ever catch up in terms of quality or prestige. And yet, here we are. Though there are plenty of good movies out there, TV is just exponentially better right now. I don't know how long this trend will last, but for now, it seems clear that if you want top-notch entertainment, you don't even have to get off your couch.

All that said, I have limited time and access to the wealth of variety TV is offering right now, so as always, my top five will look nothing like the critics'. There are certain channels I don't get, and there just aren't enough hours in the day to watch everything I'd like to be. These are the kinds of problems you want to have, though. There was still plenty to delight me over the course of 2016. So why don't we get to the best of the best?

#1: Black Mirror - Season 3

One way I can tell if a show belongs at the top of my list is that I can't stop talking about it with other people. As gloomy and pessimistic as Black Mirror tends to be, I couldn't stop myself from enthusing about Season 3 to anyone who would listen. While all six of the episodes are good, four of them are straight-up excellent, and one of them has the distinction of having absolutely no competition for my single favorite episode of television this year. When people usually talk about horror, what they're referring to are slashers. A group of dumb, horny teens goes to a remote cabin and gets butchered by an axe-wielding maniac. When I talk about horror, I mean watching what we're capable of when the baser aspects of human nature have access to advanced technology. Black Mirror paints a terrifying portrait of where society could be headed if restrictions on our impulses were lifted by convenient techno-gadgets, and what makes it so thrillingly scary is how realistic it is. Even amongst the dire warnings and chilling scenarios, Season 3 found some time for levity, for hope, and dare I say it, for a single happy ending.

#2: American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson

Another way to determine the great shows of the year is by noticing something that shouldn't work at all, yet manages to overcome all obstacles and actually be terrific. There was so much stacked against a miniseries dramatization of OJ Simpson's arrest and trial. There's an inherent danger in it just coming off as tabloid trash, like a pretentious Lifetime original movie. It was helmed by Ryan Murphy, who may be great at starting projects, but has a poor track record when it comes to sticking the landing. People could've had little interest in revisiting the topic; though it fascinated the world at the time, was this story really worth ten episodes? But when I actually sat down to watch this, I shut my fat mouth in a hurry, because it was enthralling. All of those Emmy wins were well-deserved.

#3: The Great British Baking Show - Season 3

What else makes a television show worthy of making the top five? Much like baking, you need consistent quality. Once the novelty of something wears off, it is still entertaining? The Great British Baking Show answers that with a jolly wink and probably an awful food pun or five. Everything I originally loved about this show is still on-point. Terrific bakers, terrific challenges, terrific hosting, terrific judging, terrific food photography... You name it. Unfortunately, nothing this wonderful ever lasts long enough, and once Season 3 had aired, all sorts of news about the impending massive cast upheavals started rolling out. So before too long, we'll likely have to say good-bye to this gem of a show that filled me with happiness and warmth, provided an opportunity to have guests over to enthuse over the people and the bakes with me, and even got me into the kitchen to try some experimental recipes.

#4: Lady Dynamite - Season 1

Consistency is great, but there are also shows that come out of nowhere, and are completely unlike anything else on the air. It took me a few episodes to fully embrace Maria Bamford's absurdist, semi-autobiographical show about clawing her way back to a life in entertainment after a mental breakdown. Haha! What a laugh riot! Thing is, it was! Before a few modern shows came along (see below), most comedy/sitcom characters always had such easily-solvable problems. Whether it was a misunderstanding at work or accidentally giving your date food she's allergic to, there was nothing that couldn't be dealt with in a half hour. These days, though, comedy is stretching its muscles to talk about issues that aren't so tidy. It must be incredibly difficult to walk that fine line between being funny and having something real to say about bipolar disorder, and this show pulled it off perfectly.

#5: BoJack Horseman - Season 3

Though Bamford's story is factual, fictional depression can also amazingly be adapted into comedy, if you're smart enough to do it well. And BoJack Horseman does it very, very well. Like The Great British Baking Show, this is not the show's first appearance on the end-of-year favorites list. Unlike GBBS, though, which maintained its superiority by sticking with a formula that works, BoJack Horseman expanded its universe even further than last season. There are scenes that made me laugh out loud, and scenes that made me cry. There's an underwater episode that's almost entirely wordless, which was a close second to Black Mirror's "San Junipero" in Favorite Episode of the Year. The other four shows on my favorites list almost sell themselves, but this one is weird enough that it tends to drive some people away. Don't be frightened. Jump in!

Honorable Mentions

They may not have made the top five, and some of them aren't terribly current, but I can't ignore the other shows I saw this year that got at least an A- on the grading scale. These are all definitely worth your time, so settle into your couch and treat yourself to some quality entertainment.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend - Season 1: A really fantastic show with really fantastic music, but even I can't justify having three shows about mental illness on my top five. That, and the CW makes this show impossible to conveniently stream, so I tend to catch up a long time after it airs. Still, I often can't keep myself from singing those (often-inappropriate) ditties to myself out loud.

Man Seeking Woman - Season 1: Ineligible, since it aired in 2015. This is another one that doesn't stream until well after it airs, so it'll constantly be playing catch-up. The magical realism technique for cracking wise about the maddening complications of the dating world works incredibly well in this show, and its absurdities are zany without ever becoming obnoxious.

Making a Murderer - Season 1: Ineligible, since it aired in 2015 (and probably wouldn't have quite cracked the top of the list, anyway). It's tough for documentary television to grab my attention, since I usually use television as an escape from the grim realities of life, not to delve even deeper into them. But the story of Steven Avery's trial and conviction are so compelling that I couldn't tear myself away. As agitprop decrying the corruption of the judicial system, it may have been a little one-sided, but I can't argue with the production value one bit. I'm not a true crime fanatic, but am firmly on board for more episodes of this.

Superstore - Season 1: Hey, did you know NBC is capable of making good sitcoms again? I know, I was shocked, too! After a few place-setting episodes, this one snapped into a really terrific ensemble comedy. It's very jokey, but still finds sly ways to comment on the culture of big box stores, whether it's their anti-union policies or the token nods to minority employees. The interstitial shots of customers being all customer-y, and the fact that it's set in my hometown doesn't hurt, either. It may not be the most groundbreaking show on television, but it makes me laugh, and that's all I want out of it.

The State of the Art: Books 2016

They say a rising tide lifts all boats, but then that must mean the opposite is true, too. Once a year turns shitty in one area, it's bound to affect other areas as well. I don't know if I can truly connect them, but here are two facts for you: 1) 2016 has been one of my worst years ever. 2) Since I've been list-making, I've read the least amount of books in 2016, and the great majority of ones I did read do not begin to stack up in quality to the ones in previous years.

You'd think I'd be more focused on the problems in my own life and in greater society in general, but right now, all I can do is mourn over this weak, pathetic little list of books. It honestly makes me cringe a bit in embarrassment. I guess the only thing to be done is to buckle down, and hope against hope that I'll have a better reading year in 2017.

That said, there were a few gems in the pile of rocks. As usual, once I start looking back at the year, a theme emerges that I didn't notice while I was in the midst of it. 2013: Year of the Short Story. 2014: Year of the Parallel Universe. 2015: Year of the Family Drama. All three of those themes show up this year, too, but in looking at my list, it appears that 2016 is officially the Year of the Protagonist in Peril.

A time-traveling woman must survive a slave plantation. A band of traveling artists must survive a post-pandemic world of dangers. A young boy must survive a crumbling house built on a pile of shifting garbage. A rural gay teen must survive a high school full of homophobes. And then there were the actual women who...didn't survive Puritan Massachusetts. Everywhere I look on this list, mortal danger looms. There's probably a lesson in that, somewhere. Enough bad news, though. Let's get to the top five that did their best to save 2016.

#1: Kindred - Octavia E. Butler

What I Said: It's only February, but I can already tell that this is likely to land on my top five at the end of the year...[Dana] must survive, but she doesn't want to be completely servile. She wants the union between Rufus and a slave girl to eventually happen, but is unhappy with his attitude towards the slaves under his family's watch. It's a really fantastic book, and a much-needed reminder that the horrors of slavery can't just be summed up in a dry recitation of facts in a high school history textbook.

#2: Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli

What I Said: This is easily the best of the books I've read lately. It's incredibly difficult to write a character with a different gender. It's incredibly difficult to write a character with a different sexual orientation. It's incredibly difficult to write a believable teenaged character (especially one who isn't an annoying ass). And yet, somehow Becky Albertalli has pulled off the trifecta.

#3: Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

What I Said: Station Eleven got a lot of attention when it was published, and I was immediately intrigued by its plot. At first glance, it's another of the many books to tackle an outbreak that wipes out most of the world's population. But this book sets itself apart in many ways, not least of which because it doesn't really focus on the collapse of society at all, but in the times just before and just after. Its characters are complex and relatable, and I found myself truly invested in how they would navigate a world that's totally alien to the one they were born into.

#4: The Clasp - Sloane Crosley

What I Said: This book combines the fun of an adventure story with Crosley's perfectly acerbic brand of humor, and was a really enjoyable read.

#5: Three-Martini Lunch - Suzanne Rindell

What I Said: As someone who enjoyed Mad Men, how could I resist a book set in the publishing world of 1950s New York? It wasn't the most remarkable book I've ever read, but it's a solid, entertaining read. It also really captures the mood of the era, which is a tough feat to accomplish.

Hey, my top five is all female authors! Nice! Assuming that I'm able to pick up the reading pace in 2017, I'd like to continue my ongoing resolution to read more books by women and minority authors. In the meantime, let's look at the full year's ranking, with books published in 2016 underlined:

Kindred - Octavia E. Butler (1979) (A)
Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli (2015) (A)
Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel (2014) (A-)

The Clasp - Sloane Crosley (2015) (B+)
Three-Martini Lunch - Suzanne Rindell (B)
Why Not Me? - Mindy Kaling (2015) (B)
The Witches - Salem, 1692 - Stacy Schiff (2015) (B)
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on The Decision Not To Have Kids - Edited by Meghan Daum (2015) (B)
The Hand That Feeds You - A.J. Rich (2015) (B)

Sorceror to the Crown - Zen Cho (2015) (B-)
The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks - Toni Tipton-Martin (2015) (B-)
The Unfortunates - Sophie McManus (2015) (B-)
Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here - Anna Breslaw (B-)
The Doll Maker - Richard Montanari (2014) (B-)

Cub - Jeff Mann (2014) (C+)
The Miniature Wife and Other Stories - Manuel Gonzales (2013) (C+)
Heap House (Iremonger #1) - Edward Carey (2013) (C)
The Eighth Day - Dianne K. Salerni (2014) (C)
Swamplandia! - Karen Russell (2011) (C-)

And finally, a few books that get no grade at all. These have the dubious distinction of joining the handful of books that I couldn't even get through. Sometimes, it's my fault; I'm just not in the right mood to work with what a perfectly-decent book is trying to convey. Not always, though.

Notorious RBG - Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik: I adore Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but I need to go find an actual biography of her. This is a cute little coffee table book from 2015, but doesn't really explore anything beyond her highlight reel.

Louisa Meets Bear - Lisa Gornick: A 2015 book of short stories, each of which featured a different protagonist, though they're all linked in some way. I just couldn't connect with any of the characters, and gave up halfway through.

Earthly Possessions - Anne Tyler: A 1977 novel that was so boring that I literally fell asleep every time I tried to read it.

Thank goodness we can now tie a bow on this reading year and put it on the shelf. Hopefully, 2017 will give me enough of a break to relax and enjoy some terrific books. There's plenty of talent out there; I just need to catch my breath and find it.

Rebel Yell

It's about time to compile the rankings of this year's movies, but it's also a busy time of year for movie-going itself. Despite being swamped with the demands of the holiday season, I somehow managed to go out and snag two more movies for the 2016 list, both of which are about rebellion for a greater cause. The first was the newest animated film from Disney, Moana. Pro-tip: If you're battling the winter chill, go see this movie right away; its depictions of warm, sunny beaches will have you feeling like it's July. At first blush, Moana would seem to be the newest in a long line of Princess Movies. A young girl (Auli'i Cravalho) who will someday be chieftain of her Polynesian island feels the pull of seafaring adventure, but her parents aren't having it. When the island starts to lose its natural resources to an impending curse, Moana sets out anyway (with an animal sidekick in tow, natch) to persuade the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) to restore the islands' natural order.

Disney animation has been on a hot streak lately, and Moana is no exception. There's a lot to love about this movie. The animation is top-notch, which is all the more impressive when you consider how difficult it can be to achieve appealing water effects. The story is extremely respectful to the culture it's depicting. Moana is not only the protagonist, but the full-on heroine of the story, and though she depends on her friends, she is no helpless girl needing rescuing every five minutes. And then there's the music, which I've been full-on, openly singing out loud for a week now. There are a couple of clunky lines, and as with the trolls in Frozen, there's an unnecessary side character with a forgettable mid-movie song, but other than that, Moana is a terrific entry in the franchise.

The short ahead of it, Inner Workings, is fun and clever as well. It's not as sweeping and grand as Paperman was, but a cute running joke about the struggle between what our brains and hearts want for us.

Up next was the first stand-alone Star Wars movie, Rogue One. I went ahead and splurged on an IMAX 3D screening for this one, which turned out to be a good decision. Like the other Star Wars movies, there are expansive scenes, not only in the usual space battles, but on the surfaces of various planets, all of which had wildly varying design. Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance transitions from trying to achieve their goals through political maneuvering to straight up military incursions. This movie takes place right before the events of 1977's Star Wars. Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a young woman whose father is a reluctant Imperial scientist in charge of designing the Death Star. He has second thoughts, but rather than openly resisting, which would only lead to his death and slightly stall their plans, he subtly sabotages their efforts by building a flaw into the blueprints (so there's that old plot hole explained away). When Jyn learns of these plans, she and a band of Alliance members who are tired of sitting on their hands team up to steal the plans from the Empire so they can learn how this flaw can be exploited.

For the most part, it fits really well into the Star Wars timeline. Jyn doesn't trust the Alliance any more than she trusts the Empire, and those shades of ever-darkening moral gray in the supposed "good guys" was a bit distracting while I was watching it, but makes more sense the more I think about it. The battle scenes are well-designed and well-edited; though there are several different factions fighting it out, I was never confused about what was going on. That said, there are definite flaws. The late-stage edits are pretty evident. In particular, Forest Whitaker was clearly supposed to have a different arc than what's shown. The use of CGI Peter Cushing was an unwise choice. Overall, though, if all Rogue One set out to do was be a ripping adventure, it very much succeeds.

Moana: A-
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: B+

Shorties #21

Since it's getting to the time of year to write out our best-of lists, I need to wrap up the mentions of what culture I've been consuming in 2016. By happenstance, this last Shorties entry of the year is a wealth of diversity, containing one title from each of the entertainment categories: Movies, TV, Books, Games, and Music.

#1: Bad Moms: I am emphatically not in the target audience of this 2016 movie about a trio of suburban moms who get fed up with the constant demand of perfection from their kids and the other moms around town, and who decide to let themselves enjoy life for once. That said, it's always a pleasant surprise when a movie that isn't trying to impress me does so anyway. Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell are very good as the moms who are cracking under their familial pressure, while Kathryn Hahn just about steals the entire movie as the foul-mouthed rebel mom who doesn't give a good goddamn what anyone thinks. Toss in Christina Applegate as an ice queen, and you've got yourself a pretty fun flick. (Grade: B+)

#2: Food Wars (Season 2): I've already described how I found myself drawn to the first season of this anime, and so I happily jumped into the second, released onto Hulu in 2016. Soma is still facing down his classmates in dramatic food competitions, and the food animation is still as droolworthy as ever. However something that sparked in the first season is missing now, and those are the sections where nobody's challenging someone else. I miss the interactions between Soma and his house-mates, as they build friendships that give them the confidence to be stronger cooks. This season is all about the battles. It also unnecessarily introduces a ton of new characters, at the expense of the ones we were still getting to know. Oh! They also changed the theme music, and I much preferred the original. It's still a fascinating show, and though the last episode felt awfully final, if they ever make another season, I'm on board. (Grade: B)

#3: The Witches - Salem, 1692: I do wish the morals and lessons America should have learned from the tragedy and horrors of Salem, Massachusetts didn't keep making themselves terrifyingly relevant in modern times. Yet, here we are. However, even though we all know the basics (people executed because a bunch of teenage girls accused them of witchcraft), I wanted to get a deeper understanding of just what in the hell happened in 1692. Stacy Schiff's 2015 book explores not only the people who found themselves at the end of a hangman's noose for the crime of being unpopular, but the society that allowed such hysteria to take root. A lot of non-fiction is taken to task for writing styles that are too dry, but I actually have the opposite request. Sometimes, Schiff's language is a little too flowery, and I just wanted her to get to the point and tell me what was happening. That said, it was an overall entertaining read from which I learned a lot, and that's all I ask when it comes to reading about history. (Grade: B)

#4: Jackbox Party Pack 3: We play all sorts of tabletop games at my friend's weekly game night, but this is the first time we've incorporated an interactive technological one. Sure, we all play video games too, but that tends to be a more solitary activity. This one involves the whole gang. 2016's Jackbox Party Pack 3 is made by the same folks who gave us You Don't Know Jack, which I used to enjoy (and dominate at!) quite a bit. They've upped their game, so to speak, by making this a video game that people play together from their phones. There are five games available, from "Quiplash 2", which is somewhat like Cards Against Humanity, as your friends vote for who had the best/funniest answer, to "Trivia Murder Party", in which you'd better answer questions correctly, or the homicidal host will tear your little stuffed doll avatar to shreds. We've been having a lot of fun with this game pack for several weeks now, so I can definitely recommend it for your next party. That said, bring a charger. Your phone's battery will be taking some punishment. (Grade: B+)

#5: "White Knuckles" - Boh Doran: It's going to be tough to narrow down a favorite song of 2016, but I do want to feature one of the runners-up, which is this 2015 jam that should give you a good idea of where my musical tastes lie this year. Here, have a listen. I could talk about how I relate to the lyrics, which allude to holding on to something (or someone) too tightly, as if you're afraid it's going to slip through your fingers at any moment. But if I'm being honest, I just really like the tune. (Grade: B+)

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

I'm certainly far from the only person who enjoyed the first two seasons of Black Mirror. It got so much attention here in the States that it was picked up for additional episodes to be produced by Netflix. While the previous seasons were both from a British perspective, Season 3 is a healthy mix of British and American episodes.

The tone remains extremely misanthropic, and very pessimistic about human nature and what our baser instincts would lead us to do, were we to be presented with advanced technology. It's actually really fitting, given our current political climate. If you want a good wallow in what kinds of cruelty humans can inflict on each other, given the right tools, this is the show for you. Normally, I'd hate a sci-fi show that was this grim, but Black Mirror always finds a way to tell these stories in a compelling way, when it could just as easily be totally repellant. And there's even a kernel or two of hope here in Season 3! Dare I say it, there's even an episode with a happy ending.

Here's some quick descriptions, but I won't spoil the ending of any of them, because I want you to go watch these. "Nosedive" imagines a near future in which everyone is evaluated by their social media popularity. Your job, your housing, and all the services available to you are based on how many stars you're rated. Bryce Dallas Howard is fantastic as Lacie, a woman who's trying to bump her rating to attend the hoity-toity wedding of her highly-ranked friend. In "Playtest", an easy-going American (Wyatt Russell) is traveling the world, and when his identity is stolen and he runs short of cash, he agrees to test out a secretive project designed to bring horror games to new levels of realism. This one was not as successful, as it crosses over the line from having a dark tone to straight up gratuitous misery porn. It's still very watchable, and Russell is great, but it was easily my least favorite episode of the season.

"Shut Up and Dance" does a better job of bringing a terrifying scenario to life. A shy teenager (Alex Lawther) clicks on a link he shouldn't, and soon after, blackmailers who videotaped him in his bedroom are forcing him into increasingly wild and dangerous stunts, under threat of exposure. Along the way, he encounters others who are also being blackmailed, and they desperately hope that if they give the shadowy hackers a good show, they'll be let off the hook. That one was probably my second-favorite of the season, and it was immediately followed by not only my favorite episode of the season, but the best episode of Black Mirror to date, and is in fact probably my favorite episode of television this year, full stop.

You've likely heard the words "San Junipero" floating around the web, and for good reason. A shy, retiring young woman (Mackenzie Davis) meets a fun-loving outgoing girl (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in a seaside town in the '80s, and begin to be drawn towards one another. As their relationship develops, the audience discovers that the women are not all that they seem to be, and neither is the town they inhabit. It's an incredibly beautiful, moving, and gripping hour of television, and it also just happens to contain some of the best music choices ever. If you watch one episode of television this year, make it this one.

Unfortunately, it was followed up by my second-least-favorite episode, "Men Against Fire". It centers around a soldier named Stripe (Malachi Kirby), a newbie who joins a military company to help protect a village against a horrifying invasion of ghoulish monsters. Since this is Black Mirror, the underlying facts aren't as simple as that, and Stripe must come to terms with where his loyalties truly lie. It's not a bad episode by any means, but I found it didn't dig deeply enough into the show's core credo of how human nature is warped by technology. It's just kind of a facile episode about war. Thankfully, the season ended on a high note with "Hated in the Nation", which has the longest running time, and is really more of a movie than a television episode. The always-wonderful Kelly McDonald plays Karin Parke, a police detective who takes on rookie sidekick Blue (Faye Marsay) in order to investigate the mysterious deaths of people famous for being pilloried on the internet.

Parke is the kind of traditional detective we've seen on countless shows, but unlike those universes, she must contend with the futuristic technology that is implicated in the deaths. Equal parts thriller, crime procedural, and spine-tingling sci-fi, "Hated in the Nation" was a really great episode, and capped off my favorite season of Black Mirror so far. Depressing as the show often is, it's such a terrific blend of quality writing, acting, and production design that I simply can't resist.

Black Mirror - Season 3: A

The Allied Invasion

The winter holidays rolling in generally signals an uptick in movies for me. Whether it's heading to the theater with friends or family, November and December tend to be big months for actually heading to the local multiplex, as opposed to kicking back with some Netflix. This year is no exception; I've seen a trio of new movies in the past few weeks, all of which have to do with the challenges of interacting with a mysterious Other.

The first was Arrival, Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of an existing story about a linguist (Amy Adams) who is recruited to decipher the language of an alien force hovering just above the Earth's surface. Adams' character Louise is excellent at her job, but leads a solitary existence. Still, she can't resist being roped into the effort to understand the newly-arrived aliens and what their plans might be. The extraterrestrial beings are not the only complicated life forms to deal with, as she must contend with the military and the responses of other countries who may not have as measured a response as she wants to have.

It's a fascinating movie, and I was a big fan of its tone, which combines intellectualism with a dreamy emotional bent. That said, it does suffer from some plot flaws that keep it from being the cinematic marvel that a lot of reviewers are claiming it is. There are some unnecessary obstacles that are thrown up as pure contrivance, which held the movie back a bit. Also, as a purely petty complaint, I'm not sure whose idea it was to have Forest Whitaker play his character (Colonel Weber, the head of the US military presence) with a grating Boston accent, but it was a mistake. Arrival is well worth your time. It's probably one of the better movies I've seen this year. It just wasn't as rapturous a success as everyone's making it out to be.

After that, it was time to dive back into the world of Harry Potter with the kickoff to a new series, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I love the Potterverse, though I waffle back and forth on how well the movies come off in comparison to the books. In this case, there's somewhat of a combination, as this one marks the screenwriting debut of J.K. Rowling. The movie follows the American adventures of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the eventual author of the titular book that Harry Potter and his contemporaries use in their studies.

Scamander is obsessed with the study and conservation of magical creatures, and has come to 1920s New York to... Well, actually, there's no real reason for him to be in New York. He just is, okay? An accidental briefcase switch with a Muggle (or a No-Maj in American parlance) leads to several creatures being let loose on the streets of Manhattan, which could not come at a worse time. The wizarding world is under intense pressure to remain secret from the general populace and deal with escaped dark wizard Grindelwald. Local governmental employee Tina (Katherine Waterston) assumes the duty of wrangling Newt, his animals, and the No-Maj Kowalski (Dan Fogler), with limited success.

As a family-friendly, effects-heavy popcorn flick, you could do a lot worse. As a tentpole that's supposed to anchor a full series of movies, it's pretty disappointing. It's not that I was bored or pissy about the giant plot holes (of which there are plenty). There just isn't enough interesting story to sustain the character, so it essentially becomes a bunch of video game fetch quests. Alison Sudol is extremely impressive as Tina's mind-reading sister Queenie, but beyond that, this one was a bit of a letdown.

Finally, over Thanksgiving break, there was the World War II romantic drama Allied, starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. The two play Max and Marianne, a Canadian and French spy respectively, who are paired up in order to take out a Nazi operative in Casablanca. The first part of the movie is all about their mission, but once that's complete, the two get married and move to London. Later, Max is informed that it is believed that Marianne is in actuality working for the Nazis, and is asked to set up a sting operation to discover her true motives.

I enjoyed the movie far more than I thought I was going to, even if the plot points are pretty paint-by-numbers. You can elevate a certain amount of rote story with good acting, and Cotillard is reliably fantastic (Pitt is fine, too, but she's the one who really shines). This would normally not be a movie I'd choose for myself, but unlike some other recent offerings that I agreed to tag along for, I didn't walk away from this one feeling like it was a waste of time.

Arrival: B+
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: B-
Allied: B

Speed Reading

The world is full of so much bad news lately that retreating into the world of entertainment and pop culture is one of my few respites. One of the best ways to avoid hearing about...well, absolutely anything going on around you, is to stick your nose into a book. My last post about my current reading list was way back in March, but I haven't been avoiding the library. Far from it! So let's dive into these lifesavers that have been able to keep me from going completely insane.

Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda - Becky Albertalli (2015)

Let's get the worst thing about this book out of the way first: It's got a bad title that doesn't relate strongly enough with the story to justify its use. But please don't let that put you off, because this is easily the best of the books I've read lately. It's incredibly difficult to write a character with a different gender. It's incredibly difficult to write a character with a different sexual orientation. It's incredibly difficult to write a believable teenaged character (especially one who isn't an annoying ass). And yet, somehow Becky Albertalli has pulled off the trifecta. This book is about sixteen-year old Simon, a closeted gay teen who doesn't belong to a popular clique, but neither is he an isolated loner. He just keeps to his small circle of friends. (Gee, I wonder why I relate so much to this book, huh?) Simon begins to email with a mystery boy at his school, and the two begin to get closer and closer, while still being unsure of the other's identity. When one of Simon's emails is discovered by a classmate who indulges in some mild blackmail to get Simon's help with his own dating life, the situation becomes a lot more tenuous. I'm always mildly surprised when I enjoy a YA book this much, but given that I had similar experiences to Simon in high school (minus the hot mystery boyfriend), I suppose it's understandable. I'm not sure if someone who couldn't relate as much to the character would enjoy the book as much as I did, but it was definitely a highlight of my reading year.

The Eighth Day - Dianne K. Salerni (2014)

If there's one thing that disappoints more reliably than other flaws, it's a book with an excellent premise that collapses in the execution. It just makes me think about what could have been. The Eighth Day is the first book in a series that explores an intriguing possibility: What if there were some people who experience time differently than the rest of us. They get an extra day between Wednesday and Thursday while the rest of us jump right over it. Not only that, there are other people who live exclusively in this extra day, so a great deal of the population just seem to disappear each week. Sounds like rich material for a series, right? Unfortunately, the story veers into deeply silly territory having to do with Arthurian lineage and an out-of-nowhere apocalyptic plot to destroy the seven-day world. It's an eminently readable book, and doesn't have any issues with structure or anything like that. It just has nothing interesting to say. It's disappointing that such a promising idea landed with such a thud, but there's no way I'll be continuing with the series.

Sorcerer to the Crown - Zen Cho (2015)

Speaking of series that I'm dropping after the first entry, here's another one. This one was slightly better, though, coming off as a slightly less-dry version of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Zacharias Wythe is a freed slave who apprentices with the Sorceror Royal of Great Britain, and who later attains the same position. Naturally, this doesn't sit well with the staid, white magicians who make up the majority of magical society. Part of Zacharias' duty is to undertake the task of figuring out why magic is drying up in the land, and along the way, he meets Prunella, a young lady with some remarkable gifts of her own. It could be a ripping story, but unfortunately proceeds in too slow and plodding a fashion. As a stand-alone book, it's not bad, but as the kickoff to a series, it's a slight letdown.

Swamplandia! - Karen Russell (2011)

Let's round out the disappointments with the biggest one of all. Proof that being popular doesn't always mean a book will hold your attention, Swamplandia! was so stupefyingly boring that I almost couldn't get through it. At first, it appears to be about the diminishing fortunes of an alligator wrestling-themed attraction in the Florida swamplands, and how the family that runs it responds to its flagging popularity. But once the tourists stop visiting, the family splits off into separate directions, and the book follows each of them. To be fair, the third of the book that focuses on the protagonist Ava Bigtree's brother Kiwi is quite decent. So, 33% credit! Unfortunately, the third that focuses on Ava herself - as well as the portion that follows the spiritual romance her sister Ophelia pursues with a local ghost - are the world's greatest cures for insomnia. I somehow managed to drag myself to the finish line on this one, but the best part about reading Swamplandia! was the part where I got to give it back to its owner.

The Clasp - Sloane Crosley (2015)

I needed a palate cleanser after that one, and luckily, Sloane Crosley was there for me. I've liked her previous books of essays, so I was excited to give her first fiction a whirl. College friends Kezia, Nathaniel, and Victor reunite at the wedding of a mutual acquaintance. They have a complicated romantic past with each other, and their lives have been proceeding in wildly different directions, and with varying degrees of success. Sad-sack Victor passes out in a bedroom, where he is discovered by the groom's mother, who tells him the story of a lost heirloom. Adrift in his life, Victor decides to track it down. Kezia has issues with a controlling boss, and Nathaniel is trying to establish himself in the dog-eat-dog world of entertainment. Victor's quest eventually wraps them all up, and forces them to re-examine both their own choices and their relationships to one another. This book combines the fun of an adventure story with Crosley's perfectly acerbic brand of humor, and was a really enjoyable read.

The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks - Toni Tipton-Martin (2015)

This one's tough to grade, because as a compendium of the historical record of cookbooks inspired by and written by African-American authors, it's excellent. But being good reference material and being a good book to read are two vastly different things. Tipton-Martin does the food world a service in putting these cooks and nutritional pioneers center stage, as so many of their achievements were either ignored, or the credit stolen from them. If this book had focused on the early days of African-American cooking, and how we should celebrate talent and intelligence over the cultural insensitivity of the Magical Black Woman Who Instinctively Knows the Secrets of Home Cooking, I think I'd have liked it even more. It does go into that, but after a while, morphs into more of a rote almanac, which is kind of a shame. Anyone who's interested in the world of food will find a lot of the information in this book fascinating, but it's more valuable as an informational resource than as a reading experience.

Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here - Anna Breslaw (2016)

Hey, it's a YA novel about a teenager who just doesn't fit in at school! Finally! I mentioned up in the Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda entry how hard it is to write a realistic, unannoying teenager, and here's proof, as the eponymous Scarlett is both somewhat unrealistic (a perfectly normal-looking, intelligent girl with no friends) and somewhat annoying (simultaneously insecure and snobby). Scarlett spends her free time writing fanfiction about her favorite supernatural TV show, and when it is canceled, she tries her hand at writing fictionalized stories transparently based on the people around her at school, instead. Naturally, this leads to complications. It's not a bad book by any means, but did have me rolling my eyes a fair amount. It can be challenging to enjoy a book with an unrelatable protagonist, but with a fairly decent plot, this book manages to rescue itself from its less-successful elements.

Three-Martini Lunch - Suzanne Rindell (2016)

As someone who enjoyed Mad Men, how could I resist a book set in the publishing world of 1950s New York? Plus, I won a free copy in a Goodreads giveaway! The book follows three characters: Cliff (a privileged editor's son with a healthy ego about his own prospects), Eden (a secretary who attempts to rise above the obstacles sexism and jealousy pose while trying to become an editor), and Miles (an African-American writer with plenty of talent, but who's struggling with his romantic life and his father's past). The three of them become entangled with each other and the challenges of making it in such a competitive field, having to make tough choices and sacrifices along the way. It wasn't the most remarkable book I've ever read, but it's a solid, entertaining read. It also really captures the mood of the era, which is a tough feat to accomplish.

Why Not Me? - Mindy Kaling (2015)

I don't watch The Mindy Project, but since I liked Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? so much, I wasn't about to pass up Mindy Kaling's second book of essays. It gave me plenty of chuckles, and was the perfect book to read on a plane ride. She always seems to be really good at straddling the line between gossiping about the celebrity life and being a well-adjusted, normal person. In this book, she dishes on a lot of the aspects of being famous-but-not-that-famous and about Hollywood's crazy standards. It wasn't as great as her first book, but it was still a lot of fun.

The Unfortunates - Sophie McManus (2015)

What is it about seeing rich, white, Northeastern, upper-class families fall apart that appeals to me so much? Whatever the allure is, I was definitely drawn to this book about...well, exactly that kind of family. The Somners are a wealthy family, but the money and power mostly lie with matriarch Cecelia, who finds herself battling a rare disease. As she attempts to maintain her high standards while dealing with the inconveniences of ill health, her son George starts to flounder without her around for support. It starts off as a really engaging story, but takes some less interesting turns, culminating in a very poor plot twist that threatens to derail the whole thing. Overall, it was still worth the read, but its flaws are pretty glaring.

Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda: A
The Eighth Day: C
Sorcerer to the Crown: B-
Swamplandia!: C-
The Clasp: B+
The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African-American Cookbooks: B-
Scarlett Epstein Hates it Here: B-
Three-Martini Lunch: B
Why Not Me?: B
The Unfortunates: B-

Hot Takes

Now that we're fully immersed into the fall television season, I need to get into gear and mention all those shows that helped fill the summer doldrums. Summer TV has the reputation of being awful, but thanks to the rise of streaming, it's become a season of debuting interesting experimental shows, and for catching up on all those shows we missed over the previous year. I had a healthy mix of both of these types of programming, and for the most part, everything was pretty good! There is one internet sensation that needs a little air let out of its balloon, but otherwise, it was an entertaining season.

First up was the new version of Voltron: Legendary Defender. I never watched the '80s show, so I came in with zero expectations and zero nostalgia to live up to. Maybe that's why I wound up liking it more than the general population. Five teenagers discover an affinity with five mechanical lions, each with their own special powers. When the lions combine, they form Voltron, a mega-robot who comes to the defense of helpless citizens of the universe. The bad guys are your run-of-the-mill imperialistic overlords trying to seize control of Voltron themselves, while the teens are mentored by Princess Allura, who directs them to wherever they're needed. It was a perfectly decent inaugural season, that did a lot more with interpersonal relationships than you'd expect in a show about battle robots. None of the episodes left me doing cartwheels, but as far as lore-based cartoons go, you could do a lot worse, and I'm looking forward to seeing if a second season is being planned.

Next up was the sophomore season of Steven Universe. You may remember my strong feelings about Season 1, and I was itching to see if it would maintain its firm grip on my heartstrings. Long story short: Yes, to an extent. Season 2 continues to build on the town and its denizens, with detours into stories about Onion's family and Connie's family. The real expansion, though, comes with a long story arc about Peridot. In Season 1, Peridot was just a slightly-villainous nuisance. In Season 2, she reluctantly joins forces with the Crystal Gems to track down the potentially Earth-destroying Cluster. The episodes are as warm and emotional as in the previous season, but none of them hit me in the gut as much as the Season 1 episodes did. It remains a hugely compelling show, though, and if Cartoon Network ever gets their act together when it comes to making their shows more widely available to cord-cutters, I'll willingly dive into Season 3.

The most pleasant surprise of the summer was Man Seeking Woman, an FXX show that I was able to stream through Hulu. The book this show is based on was my second-favorite read of 2013, and the television version does a great job of adapting the absurdity and surrealism of the stories. Jay Baruchel stars as Josh, a guy who can't seem to make anything about his life work, from his near invisibility at his temp job to his lack of skill in relating to women. All of the woes Josh goes through in his dating life are taken to their extreme. If you're forced to attend a wedding at which your ex-girlfriend is seated at the same table with her perfect new man, you feel like you're in Hell, which is exactly where the reception is. Having wandering thoughts when you're supposed to be devoted to your girlfriend feels like being hauled into court, and so Josh is. And of course, no matter how nice someone's personality is, she can still be...shall we say "not your type"? So Josh is set up on a date with a literal troll.

It takes a certain kind of personality to hook into this type of storytelling device, and I am definitely on board. I've always been a fan of magical realism, and using it to wryly comment on the challenges of modern dating is all kinds of genius.

OK, I've been putting it off, but it's time to talk about Stranger Things. If you haven't heard about this show, please allow me to congratulate you on finally escaping that rock you were living under. Stranger Things is a throwback love letter to the sci-fi of the '80s. A group of nerdy kids stumble across an young escapee from a military installation who has creepy powers, and with her help, begin to untangle the dark designs the agents have for their town and the monster that lurks beneath it. Everyone has been collectively having spontaneous orgasms over this show. It's the biggest hit of the summer, if not the year. I've already seen Stranger Things cosplay and Halloween costume ideas. All of this for a show that was...fine, I guess?

I have absolutely no complaints about the production design. Everything from the sets to the costumes to the hair is perfectly '80s. The story premise works, too. Mix ET, The Goonies, Super 8, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and you'll have a good idea of the aesthetic this show successfully achieves. So what's the problem? The writing, mostly. All of the dialogue is completely unnatural. People react to things in ways they never would in real life. The action beats work, but whenever those stop and people start talking, I found myself losing interest rapidly. And while I tend to like Winona Ryder, she's at a level 11 of hysteria throughout the season, which got grating.

I didn't dislike this show. It was worth the watch, and I'll be tuning in when Season 2 is released. But when a gazillion articles are written about a character who has seventeen lines and four minutes of screentime, I get rankled. I tend to treat things more harshly when they're getting praise I don't think they deserve, but I'm trying to fight against that urge here. Stranger Things was an eminently watchable show. But it'll inevitably be added to those best-of-the-year lists you see in December, and it shouldn't be.

Voltron: Legendary Defender - Season 1: B
Steven Universe - Season 2: B+
Man Seeking Woman - Season 1: A-
Stranger Things - Season 1: B

Prove It

With the autumnal TV season upon us, I really need to get into gear to wrap up and talk about the shows I watched over the summer. I've got one episode left of a massive cultural hit that I will have some...contrary opinions about. For today, though, let's talk about an old favorite. The other shows might get rolled into a single post, but something as special as The Great British Baking Show deserves a space of its own.

Any regular reader already knows how I feel about this show, but for the uninitiated, I think it's the best show in recent history, and when it entered my life, it skyrocketed to the top of my favorites list. There are metric tons of both food shows and reality shows on the air, but none of the others come close to capturing the warm, life-affirming tone this show does. You can even listen to a friend and I wax rhapsodic over it if you like.

If you follow the show at all, you know that nothing good lasts forever, and the better something is, the more you'd better treasure it while it exists. We'll get to that momentarily, though. For now, let's talk about this most recent season. As far as the general structure goes, it was as fantastic as ever. Beautiful photography, engaging contestants, good challenge design, fair judging, fun hosts... You've heard it all from me before, and nothing's changed. The initial contestant pool was perhaps not as stacked with intriguing personalities as in seasons past, but once we got down to the final handful, I was as in love with the bakers as I always am. Early standouts included Flora, who often sacrificed flavor for ornate decoration, Paul the prison warden who struggled in early challenges but consistently nailed the Showstopper, and Mat, the adorable fireman. The final three were also an intriguing bunch. Ian was inventive, Nadiya was intensely-focused, and Tamal was a wizard with flavors. Oh, and on a personal note...also super-hot.

So, everything was top-notch as far as the production went, but circumstances surrounding it impeded some of the joy I'd usually get out of my favorite show. Whoever is in charge of scheduling at PBS is clearly in the final throes of dementia. Episodes had no consistency in their airing, be it the day or the time. When it came down to the final two episodes, my local affiliate decided to take a few weeks off from airing it at all. The season's winner was spoiled online. It was as if people were actively trying to ruin a good thing.

And that's not even getting into what's coming next. News is still rolling in about this, so by the time I post, it may well have changed again, but here's how it stands now. First, BBC had the rights to the show bought out from under them by Channel 4. That means it's going from a station funded by governmental license fees to an advertising-supported one. If you're American, this would be akin to Masterpiece Theater going from PBS to NBC. That's not a good thing.

Know who else doesn't think it's a good thing? Hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, who quit the show when it was announced it was making the move. Know who else doesn't think it's a good thing? Judge Mary Berry, who quit shortly thereafter. Right after that happened, it was announced that Paul Hollywood is sticking around as judge of whatever the new version of the show will look like, and that Mel and Sue have already scored a new show of their own.

A new season of Great British Baking Show is currently airing in Britain, so we've got that to look forward to. Plus, there are the three initial seasons that never aired in America, so tracking those down could keep this amazing program in our collective consciousness for a while. But as far as what the future will bring in terms of this franchise? It would appear that the cookie is crumbling.

The Great British Baking Show - Season 3: A

Shorties #20

The days are rapidly getting shorter, so that must mean it's time for some Shorties! OK, fine, that was a weak transition. Give me some coffee, and I'll do better. In the meantime, how about we take a quick look at a handful of movies?

#1: World of Tomorrow: This 2015 short film (it clocks in at 17 minutes) was nominated for an Animated Short Oscar for last year's awards. It was made by Don Hertzfeldt, whose work I've liked before. It becoming available on Netflix streaming was the final incentive I needed to watch it, and I'm glad I did! It tells the story of a little girl who is visited by a future version of herself. Future Emily tells Emily Prime in a flat, dispassionate voice about all the wonders and horrors that await in the future world, but since Emily Prime is just a little kid, she's more interested in pretty flashing colors than in the plight of clones. It's amazing how much pathos and story can be packed into just a handful of minutes, and World of Tomorrow is definitely worth your time. (Grade: A-)

#2: The Heat: I liked Bridesmaids and Spy, and Ghostbusters was decent enough, so I felt I had to fill in my final Paul Feig/Melissa McCarthy gap with 2013's movie about mismatched police partners (McCarthy and Sandra Bullock) attempting to take down a drug ring. It was okay, and I laughed out loud a few times, but it didn't blow me away. It seemed like an excuse for Melissa McCarthy to cut loose with some off-the-cuff profanity for an hour or so, and the humor that can be wrung from that is limited. Still, it was worth a Netflix watch. (Grade: B-)

#3: Force Majeure: This 2014 drama from Sweden made waves in international film chatter, and I remember reading how surprised everyone was when it wasn't nominated for an Oscar. My friend Kyle and I were looking for a movie to watch after dinner one evening, and this one had floated to the top of both our lists. A Swiss family is taking a ski vacation at a resort in the French Alps. One afternoon, as they sit on the patio enjoying lunch, a minor avalanche descends on the guests, freaking everyone out. Nobody is hurt, but when he sees the snow coming, the dad Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) hightails it out of the restaurant, leaving his wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli) behind, along with his children. At first, everyone is relieved that no harm was done, but the fact that Tomas' first instinct was to abandon his loved ones pulls a thread that threatens the entire family dynamic. It's a really fascinating movie that leads in interesting and realistic directions about how people react when their fight-or-flight response kicks in, and what that means about our relationships with others. (Grade: B+)

#4: The Peanuts Movie: I'll admit, I was suspicious of a modern take on Peanuts, which is such a classic property. Most remakes of childhood favorites are terrible, and I didn't want a smudge on Charlie Brown's legacy. But when this 2015 movie started getting decent word-of-mouth, I decided it was worth a Netflix rental. Happily, the filmmakers know how special these characters are, and were very respectful of the source material. That doesn't mean nothing's changed, of course. The animation has been updated, and for the first time ever, we actually meet the little red-haired girl that Charlie Brown has been so enamored with for decades. Though there was too much focus on Snoppy over the the kids, I know I'm in the minority on that opinion. Overall, though, this movie really captured the heartfelt, sincere tone of the original comic strip and cartoon specials. (Grade: B)

#5: The Overnight: I read a couple of things about this 2015 comedy, and figured Adam Scott was enough of a draw to check it out. He and Taylor Schilling play husband and wife, who are new in their neighborhood, and are looking for other friends. Their kid sparks an acquaintance with another child, whose dad is Jason Schwartzman. He invites them over for dinner with him and his wife (Judith Godrèche), and after a lot of liquor, the relationship forming between these people who find each other so fascinating starts to take a strange turn. The movie has its charms, and wasn't a waste of time or anything, but it seems to think itself really daring for "transgressions" that aren't that wild. It's not a bad movie, but nothing about it stands out as particularly noteworthy. (Grade: B-)

This World is Worth Fighting For!

It can be a challenge to review video games without a story (and thus, without an ending). You're never truly "done", and the mechanics could change at any moment, so any judgement calls you make could be irrelevant in a month. Still, I have to make the attempt, because I've been playing Overwatch for more than a month now, and it doesn't seem to be waning at all. I'm far from the only person it's hooked; currently it sits as Blizzard's best selling game ever (even topping World of Warcraft) and has something like 10 million players worldwide.

Normally, I'm on record as enjoying the more quiet, single-player, narrative-based games. What would I be doing playing a shooter with other gamers, a lot of whom are complete garbage humans?

Easy! All you have to do is make an impeccably-tailored game that excels at character design, sound design, map design, and has intuitive controls for beginners while leaving room to improve into an expert role. That's all there is to it! That's not to say the game is perfect, but a lot of its flaws aren't the designers' faults. Most of the issues result from those other gamers I just mentioned. When the entire game is based on teamwork with strangers, may of whom are basement-dwelling teenagers with inflated egos, of course some of the matches will be less than civil. Really, there's only one business practice that I've had a problem with, which I'll mention below. First, let's get to the good stuff.

I cannot overstate how cool this game's cast of characters is, and how much thought clearly went into it. You can play as any of twenty-two characters (with more in development!), and you can tell from that pic up there how diverse they are. They range not only in nationality, age, and abilities, but in temperament. Want to play as a wise, salty old woman? Meet Ana. An anarchic pyromaniac? Junkrat! A kindly Swiss doctor? Mercy! A semi-intelligent robot fascinated with birds? Bastion! Currently, my favorite character to play is Mei, a Chinese research scientist with an ice gun that excels in frustrating opponents by freezing them to the spot or walling them off from their destinations. In a lesser game, I'd figure out the three characters I enjoy playing and just focus on them. So it's an incredible feat that I've found something to enjoy about each and every one of these heroes. Sure, I don't really play as Genji or Bastion much, but there isn't one who's wholly unplayable to me, and I don't think I've ever seen that before.

Each character is adept against some of the others, and is vulnerable to some of the others. You and five other players form a team of six and either attack or defend an objective on one of thirteen current maps (again, more are in development, and each of the thirteen have multiple locales). Whoever is able to remain in control of a certain spot (or is able to escort/prevent a moving object from reaching a destination) wins, and then it's on to the next match.

It's deceptively simple, yet there are countless strategies to employ. There are also multiple game modes. You can play against AI robots. You can play a goof-around match against other people. You can design your own custom match. Or you can join the competitive ladder and work towards rewards for the best players. This is also a game that emphasizes positive teamwork; it features good plays and doesn't display your mistakes for others to see. There are built-in ways to congratulate and thank people. There really isn't much to criticize in the way of gameplay. It's all been terrific so far.

The only sticking point has been the leveling/loot system. Each hero has a bunch of cool cosmetic things to acquire, from voice lines to costumes to spray paint tags. Every time you level up, you receive a loot box with four of these items in it (or credits that can be used to purchase them). But the loot system is random, so it'll often give you the crappy little things you already own, offering a miniscule credit bump to compensate for duplicates. This is obviously a ploy to get people to spend real money on loot boxes, which I'm ashamed to admit I've done. It's irritating, but it was only a real problem during the Olympics, in which they offered games-themed items. Again, they were randomly generated, often duplicated, and you're not allowed to use in-game credits to purchase them. That means people who just want a simple costume could either spend an inordinate amount of money to get the chance to obtain it, or they can wait a year and try again. That seems overly greedy to me.

Besides that, Overwatch has been a joy to play, and has been sucking up all of my free time. Even as I type this, I wish I could go home and fire up a match, and am still thinking of ways to cajole my friends into joining up. Lines from the game have been infecting my everyday speech. Like I said at the top, though, this is a dynamic game, and they could change it whenever the whim strikes them. For now, though, it's been an extremely pleasant obsession.

Overwatch: A

Song of the Summer 2016

Well, it's dark by dinnertime now, so that must mean that summer is soon drawing to a close. As always, it's been a musical mix this season, between the catchy pop tunes, the inexplicably popular tracks, and the songs that aren't by a Big Name and thus fly under the radar.

And as always, the song that wound up most appealing to me is somewhat of a bridge between the pop and indie world. The songs that tend to draw me in have aspects of both worlds: It generally has the hook and earworminess of a pop song, but isn't an overplayed anthem on commercial radio.

I'm a big fan of Tegan and Sara, so it comes as no surprise that the winner of this year's Song of the Summer contest in my heart goes to their song, "U-Turn".

Just ignore the goofy video and enjoy the music. It had some competition, though. I'm also awfully fond of Lizzo's "Good as Hell", Wolf Alice's "Freazy", the Miguel/Kacey Musgraves version of "waves", and naturally, Carly Rae Jepsen's entire "Emotion - Side B" album.

It's been a pretty mellow season, musically, which I enjoy. There's plenty of lighthearted summer tunes, but nothing that smacks of trying too hard to capture the seasonal market. There also hasn't been an outright terrible song that other people like for some reason, so I don't have to walk around carping about kids these days. That's always refreshing.

So let's all grab a glass of wine, kick back with a 2016 summer playlist, and welcome the incoming season of amazing autumnal foods!

Young Adult

One of the themes of my entertainment consumption is that I like to pinball between genres pretty rapidly. If I've just read a weighty non-fiction book, the next one will likely be light and funny. If I've just shotgunned a bunch of sitcom episodes, I'll probably follow it up with a pensive drama. This pattern held firm with my two recent visits to the theater, with a duo of animated movies that couldn't have had more different tones.

The first was Sausage Party, the latest movie from Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg. I found a lot to like about This Is The End, though I'm not as enamored with "funny" gore as these guys are. But hey, here's an easy way to get around that problem: Make an animated movie about food. It's a lot easier for me to handle the death of a cartoon carton of milk than a live action evisceration. The hero of Sausage Party is Frank (Rogen), a supermarket hot dog that desperately wants to be chosen by Human Gods alongside his bun girlfriend Brenda (Kristen Wiig) to go to the Great Beyond, where they'll finally be free to consummate their relationship.

It's not just them. All the denizens of the store assume that nothing but wonderful things await them once they're chosen. When a jar of honey mustard returns with tales of the horrors that really await the chosen food, it sets off a chain reaction of events involving a murderous douche (Nick Kroll), a lesbian taco shell (Salma Hayek), and the solution of the Israel/Palestine conflict via vigorous rimjobs. Nope, not kidding.

The movie isn't bad, per se. It's just so...obvious. The metaphor about blind faith in religion is fine, but pretty low-hanging fruit (no pun intended). And the rest of the comedy is derived from a combination of food puns, racial and sexual stereotyping, and extreme violence. Which, if you're into that, is fine. It's just not my bag, generally. I'm actually glad I saw this movie in the theater, because I wouldn't have liked it half so much without having the reactions of the other audience members to bounce off of. I'm already on the record as being emphatically fine with stupid comedy. But the best stupid comedies have a lot of brains behind them, and Sausage Party doesn't really have anything on its mind. It's just an excuse to goof around.

A few days later, it was time for an animated movie that has plenty on its mind. I'd heard a recommendation for Kubo and the Two Strings from the /Filmcast podcast, and based on that (plus it coming from the studio that made Coraline and ParaNorman), I sprinted to the theater with some friends for a 3D screening of it.

Kubo and the Two Strings is basically an Asian hero's journey movie, with all that entails (legends, fairy tales, epic heroism, ancestral heirlooms, and so on). Kubo lives in a small cave with his taciturn mother, who warns him never to venture to the nearby village past dark, because his grandfather and aunts are powerful enemies who have already plucked one of his eyes and are now after the remaining one. Kubo has the ability to animate origami paper with his music, and puts on shows for the delighted villagers, but when he spots the community conducting a twilight ritual honoring their dead relatives, he can't help but become enamored with participating to honor his dead father. This keeps him out past dark, and the shadows come for him. What follows is his journey to collect the mystical armor necessary to fighting off the evil. He's helped by a monkey (a figurine brought to life by his mother's magic) and an amnesiac soldier who's been cursed to be half beetle.

It's a terrific story, at times hauntingly sad, but always visually stunning. If there's one complaint to be made, it's that most of the Asian characters are voiced by white actors, which seems unnecessary at best, but in all but one case, it doesn't distract from the performances, which are excellent. Nobody knows quite to make of this film. It's too adult to be a kids' movie and too quiet to be a summer blockbuster. That doesn't mean it's any less gorgeous, though, and I wish more people were seeing it.

Sausage Party: C+
Kubo and the Two Strings: A-

Manic Depressive

When television shows want to make an attempt at addressing deep psychological issues, the traditional method would be to produce an intense character drama. Gritty, serious scenes are delivered by actors whose faces are perpetually grim, and the air hangs heavy with weighty dialogue.

Recently, though, television shows have been branching out into a new way to explore mental anguish: Comedy! And it's been working! Last year, I described how Steven Universe could take a simple show for kids and use it to reach in and yank my heartstrings. This year, it's the adults' turn, as two shows mined our common psychoses for giggles.

I've enthused over the first one before. Season 2 of BoJack Horseman ranked among my favorite shows of 2015, and Season 3 is similarly incredible. BoJack is riding a temporary high from the Oscar buzz surrounding his "performance" in Secretariat, and plenty of Hollywoo hangers-on are happy to ride his coattails. Those who know him best, however, know that BoJack excels at destroying anything positive in his life, and despite their best efforts to help, his depression and narcissism continue to drag him down, taking his friends with him. Sounds like a hoot, right? It actually is. Though the show is often intense, it never forgets to throw in plenty of jokes, visual gags, and anthropomorphic animal humor. But just as it builds up a steady stream of laughs, it pulls the rug out and hits you with some truly dark material.

I keep encouraging people to power through the relatively blah set-up of Season 1 to get to this wonderful stretch of episodes, and after watching another strong season, I'm going to keep at it. WATCH THIS SHOW.

The other journey into mental illness comes courtesy of Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), now that the first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is finally on Netflix. This show does a lot of off-kilter things. As I mentioned, it uses humor to describe some pretty serious emotions, but that's just the beginning. It also has hour-long episodes, which is unusual for a comedy show, and every episode is peppered with insanely catchy songs.

The songs parody all sorts of styles, from Broadway to Disney movies to rap battles to bubblegum pop groups. But as joyous as those songs usually are, in this show, they can be describing insecurity, terrible advice, or smug arrogance. Though Rebecca is ostensibly the heroine of the show, she's often doing awful things in order to get her hooks into her childhood crush. It's a unique take on the romantic comedy genre, and the fact that the music is so goddamn good turns what would be a clever show into an unmissable one.

BoJack Horseman - Season 3: A-
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend - Season 1: A-

Stars and Bars

Being in an era of "Peak TV" has made master schedulers of us all. We now need to conscientiously put aside time for specific shows to keep up with as they air, time for shows we know we'll need to catch up with later, and shows we'll allow to pass us by. This past week, I was able to put away multiple shows, and feel absurdly good about myself, as if I've just completed an important work project or something.

One of the show I just wrapped was the fourth season of Orange is the New Black, but in looking at this blog, I also realized that I'd never written about a show I watched several months ago, Making a Murderer. Since both shows revolve around the justice system, I figured I'd roll them together now.

I was among the people that rather liked the slower pace of Season 3 of Orange is the New Black, but I do have to admit that raising the stakes certainly got tongues to wag. The tension in Season 4 is significantly heightened. Loads of new inmates have arrived, and the problems they bring with them are far more dangerous than mere overcrowding. Adding to the powder keg is a new batch of guards, most of whom alternate between laziness and sadism.

As usual, there are so many stories to tell in a season that I can't mention them all, lest this wind up being a laundry list of who's up to what. But there are major changes afoot in Season 4. Piper is convinced that she's queen of the yard after her success with the panty business, and is clearly setting herself up for some major comeuppance. A new, famous inmate named Judy King (Blair Brown) appears to be a blend of Martha Stewart and Paula Deen, and is given special treatment, a move that both frustrates the other inmates and gives them ideas about cashing in. A figure from Alex's past comes to menace her, with far-reaching consequences for everyone in the entire prison.

With everything that's been in the news recently about how our law enforcement and justice systems treat African-American citizens, Orange is the New Black does not shy away from depicting the depressing reality of the abuse that minority populations suffer, taking it to a shocking and saddening extent. That doesn't mean that this is a Homework Show, though. It's still thoroughly entertaining, at times hilariously funny, and always a good watch.

I should have mentioned the Netflix true crime documentary series Making a Murderer back when everyone was talking about it, but it somehow slipped through the cracks. This show explores the story of Steven Avery, a man who was unjustly locked up for 18 years for sexual assault. Two years after he was exonerated, he was arrested again, this time for murder. His trial was a circus of inept police work and prosecutorial malfeasance, and yet he was convicted.

That's not to say that Avery is obviously innocent. Though the documentary goes to great lengths to show just how much reasonable doubt exists in this case, it still seems as though Avery is most likely guilty. That's not how the judicial system is supposed to work, though, and this documentary makes an almost unassailable case that Manitowoc County, Wisconsin did everything in their power to put Avery away, no matter what facet of the system they had to corrupt.

It's a very sad state of affairs, where nobody comes out looking good, and nobody wins. By the same token, though, it's an utterly fascinating case, and an extremely well-made show. It's certainly edited to be one-sided, but hey, it's a TV show, not an affidavit. The saga of Steven Avery continues, and they've announced that they'll be making more episodes, which I'm certainly looking forward to. Though I won't be one of those tiresome internet commentators who proclaim to know the truth of the situation, I will be one of those tiresome internet commentators who urge you to watch this show. It's gripping.

Orange is the New Black - Season 4: B+
Making a Murderer - Season 1: A-

Shaky Premise

I'm fortunate in that 95% of the entertainment I consume is by my choice. Sure, I may not have a loving husband to come home to, but that means I get full control of the remote. No kids means no suffering through whatever Chipmunk claptrap is oozing into theaters. And my circle of friends has diverse tastes, so there's nearly always someone ready and willing to accompany me to whatever happens to be catching my attention, whether it's a superhero blockbuster or an art-house character study.

Once in a while, though, I agree to ride in the sidecar to something someone else has chosen. Sometimes, it doesn't turn out too badly, but for the most part, if I was avoiding or ignoring a property, it's for a reason. That theory was put to the test again this week, when a friend wanted to go see the new Jason Bourne movie, a franchise I have minimal interest in. I dimly remember liking the original movie, but when the sequels got increasingly dependent on the scourge of the cinema known as ShakyCam, I officially checked out.

I keep up on film news, so I'm familiar with the strange path these movies have taken, including an entry without the star or director that made them popular in the first place. That divergence implied that when star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass returned to the series, it must be because the new movie was simply too awesome for them to pass up.

Nope. Everything that drove me away from the Bourne movies is still present in full force, with the newly-added detriment of making absolutely no sense, plot-wise. Characters ally with each other for no reason. Characters attack each other for no reason. Characters betray each other for no reason. Beyond some poorly-developed daddy issues, Bourne doesn't really have any motivation at all, really. He just reacts to things, and a lot of his decisions are straight-up terrible. At the heart of the movie is a big social media company that supposedly affects more than a billion people. What does the company do? Good question! They never bother to tell us. Want the audience to know that a flash drive has encrypted files on it? How about you just write "ENCRYPTED" in big block letters on the side, with a folder helpfully labeled "BLACK OPS" front-and-center? So dumb. Matt Damon phones in his performance, but I can't tell if that's because he's as bored as I was, or if he was just hung out to dry by the script. Tommy Lee Jones and Alicia Vikander do their best in supporting roles, but again, there's not much there to work with.

If the plot didn't make sense, at least the film-making was cool and exciting, right? Well, I can't really answer that, since hardly any of the shots last longer than 1/3 of a second. As I said on Facebook, a more appropriate title for this movie would be Caffeine-Addicted Parkinson's Sufferer on a Trampoline During an Earthquake. The ShakyCam is horrible, making even non-action scenes a chore to watch. And when the camera finally does settle down for a moment, it only reveals how shoddy the stunts and action beats are.

So really, the only interesting question this movie brings to mind is how fair it is for me to judge. After all, I didn't really want to see it in the first place; is me not liking it just confirmation bias? Well, after reading/listening to some reviews from people who went in ready to be dazzled, I think I'm good. But this movie sure as hell isn't.

Jason Bourne: C-
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