The State of the Art: Games 2017

It was a banner year for games, both tabletop and video. In the video game realm, I played previous favorites, like Fallout 4 and am still going strong on Overwatch. Tabletop wise, our gaming group is still not sick of Eldritch Horror, which is impressive.

As far as new video games, I really enjoyed both Year Walk and Cook, Serve, Delicious 2. What Remains of Edith Finch would have been a strong contender, but game bugs introduced disappointment into what was otherwise a hauntingly great game.

I also had fun with Mass Effect: Andromeda, despite its poor reviews, and am still making my way through games like Assassin's Creed: Origins, Civilization VI, and a remaster of Final Fantasy XII.

As far as tabletop, our group had a lot of fun with Descent, Between Two Cities, and in particular, T.I.M.E Stories, in which you must make several runs at the game to solve a mystery set in an old asylum.

And I can't forget my online forum Werewolf games, which are always challenging, but fun. I finally managed to pull out a Wolf win as an evil Russian spy and survive to the end. Take that, capitalists!

There were also a lot of fun RPG nights, from Dragon Age to D&D to Exalted to Miskatonic University. Gaming is one of my life's great joys, and having a fun group to play them with was definitely one of the highlights of 2017.

The State of the Art: Books 2017

Every year, I bemoan the fact that I haven't read more. But then, I also bemoan the fact that I haven't seen more quality movies, played more well-regarded games, and listened to more acclaimed music. I'm only one man! I still managed to find some great books this year. The resolution to read more books by minority authors continues to pay off, as my favorite of the year was No One Can Pronounce My Name, by Rakesh Satyal. It primarily follows two very different Indian immigrants to a suburb of Cleveland. Harit is a lonely man who tries to care for his grieving mother in his own sad, strange way, while simultaneously terrified of forging any relationships of his own. Ranjana is dealing with a distant husband and recently empty nest, and takes refuge in her writing group, though she still has trouble assimilating to American culture. When the two of them meet, they begin to change each other in remarkable, yet subtle ways, and the result is a really terrific novel.

Here's the full 2017 ranking:

No One Can Pronounce My Name - Rakesh Satyal (2017) (A)
Man at the Helm - Nina Stibbe (2014) (A-)
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President - Candice Millard (2011) (A-)
Eleanor & Park - Rainbow Rowell (2013) (A-)

The Wangs Vs. The World - Jade Chang (2016) (B+)
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States - Sarah Vowell (2015) (B+)
The Versions of Us - Laura Barnett (2016) (B+)
Scrappy Little Nobody - Anna Kendrick (2016) (B+)

Morning Star - Pierce Brown (2016) (B)
What Happened - Hillary Rodham Clinton (2017) (B)
The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K. Le Guin (1969) (B)
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body - Roxane Gay (2017) (B)
Norse Mythology - Neil Gaiman (2017) (B)
The Search for Delicious - Natalie Babbitt (1969) (B)
The Girls - Emma Cline (2016) (B)

Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth - Marc Peyser, Timothy Dwyer (2015) (B-)
Crashed - Timothy Hallinan (2012) (B-)
The Crooked House - Christobel Kent (2015) (B-)
Stay Up With Me - Tom Barbash (2013) (B-)
Summerlong - Dean Bakopoulos (2015) (B-)

Library of Souls - Ransom Riggs (2015) (C+)
Make Your Home Among Strangers - Jennine Capó Crucet (2015) (C)

The State of the Art: Television 2017

I can't believe it, but eight shows battled for the top spot in my heart this year. When the dust settled, I chose the resurgence of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which was just fantastic. Here are the eight shows, any of which could have been #1 if they had caught me on the right day:

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (Season 1)
The Good Place (Season 1)
A Series of Unfortunate Events (Season 1)
Bojack Horseman (Season 4)
Master of None (Season 2)
American Vandal (Season 1)
GLOW (Season 1)
The Great British Bake Off (Season 4)

I also watched other stuff, of course, most of which was very good. My "block" of usual shows (black-ish, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Bob's Burgers, Superstore) all had strong seasons, and many of the songs of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Season 2) got stuck in my head. Cartoons and anime were well represented with Steven Universe, Voltron, and Erased, with the latter being the most remarkable I've seen in a long time. Sitcoms are always a good distraction from the misery of the political landscape, so I indulged in Angie Tribeca, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Trial and Error, and Powerless, all of which had their bright spots, though not enough to make the top of my list.

There was also the hard-to-categorize side shows. There's the food porn of Chef's Table, and the strange, but compelling very-special-episode feel of One Day at a Time. I also really enjoyed Lovesick.

So yeah, an excellent year of TV, and with Black Mirror premiering its new season tomorrow, it looks like another one is on the horizon.


The State of the Art: Movies 2017

I've essentially given up on micro-blogging every piece of entertainment I consume, but I would like to leave a year-end list for posterity's sake. Let's begin with movies. Here's the ranking of the 2017 ones I managed to get to in the theater:

Dunkirk (A)
Girls Trip (A-)
Colossal (B+)
Call Me By Your Name (B+)
Wonder Woman (B+)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (B+)
The Disaster Artist (B+)
Thor: Ragnarok (B+)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (B)
Coco (B)
Baby Driver (B)
The Lego Batman Movie (B)
Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (B-)

And the older movies that I finally got to:

Under the Skin (2013) (A-)
La La Land (2016) (B+)
It Follows (2014) (B+)
I'm So Excited! (2013) (B+)
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016) (B+)
The Lobster (2015) (B)
Dr. Strange (2016) (B)
Muppets Most Wanted (2014) (B)

Shorties #22

Spring has sprung, and that means spring cleaning! Not only does the apartment need some tidying, but the Netflix queue needs a good pruning as well. I've been able to catch up on a few of the things that have been clogging my lists, which means it's the perfect time to fire off another Shorties entry.

#1: Under the Skin: Once in a while, I'll take note of a movie, but intentionally let it pass me by, since it doesn't sound like it would be to my tastes. But then, it'll keep getting talked up by people whose opinions I trust, so I'll circle back around and give it a shot. Such was the case with this 2013 sci-fi movie, which stars Scarlett Johansson as a predatory alien. You definitely have to be in the mood for such a quiet, thoughtful movie about the nature of attraction, violence, and empathy, and luckily, it struck me just right. It's very difficult to make an art film that functions as a genre film (and vice versa), and Under the Skin pulls it off. (Grade: A-)

#2: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping: This is another movie I let slip by until I couldn't ignore its critical praise anymore. I used to have little use for Andy Samberg, but then I became a huge fan of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, so I decided to give this Lonely Island movie a fair shot. And once again, I'm glad I did! This 2016 send-up of Behind the Music style documentaries follows superstar Conner4Real from his days in a mega-popular boy band to his implosion as a solo artist. Comedies are an automatic success when they make me belly laugh several times, so there you go. Both the songs and script are reliably funny, and there are tons of great cameos from celebrities who are totally game to make fun of the culture surrounding stardom. (Grade: B+)

#3: The Lobster: I have a long track record of preferring movies that attempt something interesting. Even if it fails, I like to see something that approaches the story in a refreshing way. That's definitely the case with the 2015 movie The Lobster, which takes place in a universe where single people are rounded up and forced to forge some sort of monogamous commitment. If they can't do so successfully, they are turned into the animal of their choice. Colin Farrell plays David, who is sent to a hotel to find a mate, and we follow his attempts to do so, followed by additional obstacles when he leaves. People have asked me if I liked this movie, and I always respond with a few moments of silence, followed by: "I'm glad I watched it". I don't know that I can say I enjoyed it, per se, but I'm still thinking about it long after I watched it, and there aren't many movies I can say that about. (Grade: B)

#4: Stay Up With Me: Short story collections are a favorite of mine, so when one gets positively reviewed somewhere, I'll usually make an effort to grab a copy from the library. The most recent collection I read was Tom Barbash's 2013 book, Stay Up With Me. Back when I talked about Single, Carefree, Mellow, I praised the stories for kind of being about nothing; they simply explored the inner lives of their protagonists. It turns out there's an art to observational stories where nothing major happens, because this book takes the same approach, but less successfully in my estimation. If there's a unifying theme, it's the fragility of human relationships, and the stories do a lot of ruminating on broken marriages, tense family bonds, and crumbling professional connections. I do want to single out "Letters from the Academy", which was a great story, and somehow creepy and relatable simultaneously. Overall, though, these stories were as melancholy as George Saunders', but not as engaging. (Grade: B-)

#5: Muppets Most Wanted: As a child of the '80s, how could I not be a Muppets fan? By the same token, as a child of the '80s, how could any modern Muppets movie possibly stack up to the classics? Short answer: They can't. Still, I took this 2014 movie for a spin, and was reasonably satisfied. I did like the story, in which the Muppet gang that just reunited in 2011's The Muppets are talked into going on a world tour so that their manager and Kermit's evil doppelganger Constantine can rob nearby museums. The cameos are fun, and the musical numbers are as jolly as ever. It's just that they'll never be able to recapture the magic of The Great Muppet Caper (Grade: B)

The Lion Kings

As I mentioned in my post about Season 1 of Voltron: Legendary Defender, I never watched the original '80s show that the reboot is based on. Turns out that's a good thing, because as a special treat to go with Season 2, they re-released some of the old episodes. I watched one, and wow. That original show was...not good. What the hell was Pidge's voice actor trying to accomplish?

Happily, the new Voltron showrunners have a more thoughtful approach, and Season 2 built on Season 1 in really interesting ways. It would be easy to just have our heroes thwart the evil Zarkon's scheme-of-the-week, then retreat to safety, but this sophomore season does something a lot more daring: The paladins take the fight directly to the Galra. Each episode fits into a larger arc that explores the greater plan for a long-lasting solution to keeping the universe safe, while reserving plenty of time to be goofy.

The interpersonal relationships are more developed this season, too, as Allura must face some uncomfortable truths about the people she's allied with, and Keith strives to learn more about his mysterious past. Shiro fights to stay connected with his lion, Pidge makes some progress in tracking down her missing family members, and even Hunk gets a chance to shine with some newly-discovered lion powers, as well as impressing a demanding chef in the season's best episode, "Space Mall".

Honestly, I never thought I'd wind up enjoying Voltron, since I have no nostalgia about the original to tie it to. I just agreed to watch it with some friends as a lark. It's been such a nice surprise to not only find that I like the show quite a bit, but that it's clearly improving as it goes along.

Voltron: Legendary Defender - Season 2: B+

Girl Interrupted

What's the appeal of cults? Why do people drop off the grid to go live in a hovel led by someone who has delusions of grandeur or godhood? What drives people to willfully overlook obvious danger to themselves or others? These questions are all tackled by a book that got a lot of critical praise last year, Emma Cline's 2016 novel, The Girls.

As an adult, Evie Boyd is a fairly isolated woman, who helps look after others rather than living any real life of her own. Some teenagers who barge into the guest house where she's staying recognize that she was part of a cult way back in the '60s, and are curious to know what that was like. The bulk of the book is Evie stirring up all those memories, trying to make sense of her involvement.

Evie had a fairly standard childhood, though her parents are pretty emotionally neglectful. Her dad runs off to start a new life with another woman, and her mom takes solace in hippie nonsense. Evie finds emotional support in Suzanne, a girl she finds endlessly cool and intriguing. Suzanne takes Evie back to a compound where a group of girls scrounge off the land while obeying every whim of Russell, the charismatic leader.

Evie is thrilled to find a place where she's accepted, and gets drawn into the group's charm, rationalizing all of the red flags that begin to pop up with increasing regularity. The cult is soon hurtling towards actions far more alarming than dumpster diving, and Evie is called upon to make serious choices about her loyalty.

People seemed to really love this book when it came out, but it left me a bit cold. I can definitely give credit to Cline for weaving a world of believable decay; I could almost feel the gross conditions of the cult's compound and everyone living there on my skin. She also did a good job in making Evie's journey from standard suburban teenager to cult member understandable. That said, Evie's obsession with Suzanne is somewhat contrived, and Cline's prose tends to be a little too in love with similes and metaphors.

The Girls is one of those books that was definitely worth the read, and if asked, I'd certainly recommend it to certain friends, but is beloved to a degree I don't understand. This is where I'd attempt a joke about cults if I felt more strongly about the book. As it is, it's a pretty good read that may not deserve its reputation, but still has a lot to offer.

The Girls: B

Tri Tri Again

Back when I was talking about the first season of Angie Tribeca, I mentioned that as a cord-cutter, I'd have to bide my time before being able to watch the second one. Well, guess what just dropped on Hulu? Some television shows demand to be watched slowly, the better to really soak up the themes and nuances of each episode. Angie Tribeca is emphatically not one of those shows, and I binged the whole season in the course of a few evenings.

There really isn't much to "review" in shows like these. If you liked the complete zaniness and absurdity of season one, then you're all set. The puns, the visual gags, and the ridiculous situations are all back in full force, and each episode is good for a least a giggle or two, if not a full-throated belly laugh.

One new aspect is the inclusion of an actual seasonal arc, which you wouldn't expect in a show that basically functions as a simple joke delivery system. In season 2, Angie awakens from a coma to discover that Geils is now in a relationship with Dr. Scholls, and complications ensue, especially when her previously-thought-dead partner resurfaces as the head of a shadowy organization.

It all sounds very Alias, until something like a full-sized office desk built out of sand or Tanner in geisha regalia shows up. Season 2 didn't grab me by the funny bone as much as the inaugural season did, but this show's embrace of complete silliness works in its favor, and though it's no doubt a long way off, I'm already looking forward to being able to stream season three.

Angie Tribeca - Season 2: B

Past Imperfect, Future Tense

It's comforting to know that with all the problems plaguing our current society, things have always sucked, and always will. Wait, maybe that's not so comforting to you. But to me, it does relieve the mind a little to know that no matter what point on the timeline of human dominance I was destined to be born in, there was always going to be some sort of obstacle, so it's silly to pine for another era.

This was borne out in a pair of books I just finished, both of which revolved around a war waged to free citizens from tyrannical rulers. However, one was a non-fiction exploration of particular aspects of the American Revolutionary War, and one was the fictional conclusion of a series of futuristic outer space colony wars.

The first was Sarah Vowell's 2015 jaunt through history, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. Students are often given pretty dry information regarding the War of Independence. They learn the names, the dates, the battles. The events were given some nice color (literally) in the Hamilton musical, but that was written more to entertain than to educate. This book strikes a nice balance between the two; as with all of Vowell's books, it adopts a light, humorous tone, but imparts actual information about the Frenchman who devoted his life to securing the freedom of a country across the ocean. What was he like as a person? Why fight for America when France had plenty of its own problems?

I really like it when history is approached in this way. It's still factual information, but the conversational delivery makes it a lot more pleasant to engage with than simple recitation of the where and when. I got a real sense of Lafayette and other 1770s figures as actual humans, rather than just as symbols or names on a park statue. Though it wasn't my favorite of Vowell's works (that'd probably be Assassination Vacation), this book is still a really fun read, and would make a good assignment in a high school history class.

The other book was Pierce Brown's 2016 sci-fi thriller, Morning Star, the final entry of the Darrow trilogy that kicked off with Mars Rising, and continued in Golden Son. I don't believe I've ever said this about any other trilogy before: The second book was actually the strongest.

In this final book, Darrow has been exposed as a Red operative, and he must gather his allies for one last stand against the Gold oppressors. There are some thrilling sequences, but there is also a lot of ticking of boxes to wrap up all the loose ends. Brown is very good at giving this universe a sense of scale (casualties are often counted in the millions, rather than the thousands), but by the same token, the story tends to suffer from the same problem that plagues Game of Thrones: What I call the Paper Doll Syndrome. If life if so cheap as to throw a bunch of them away on every page, how am I meant to get invested enough to care?

Though I sound less than enthusiastic, I did enjoy the series, and can see myself re-reading it someday, which is rare for a trilogy. Darrow is an engaging protagonist with relatable worries about being "the chosen one". His internal struggles are a hell of a lot more realistic than other books I could name. The battle scenes are legitimately thrilling, to the point that I could sometimes feel my heart rate increase.

A movie series is reportedly in development, and if it's done correctly, I can see it working pretty well. With some minor tweaks, this series could have easily been one of my favorite sci-fi works. As it is, it's still pretty good, and though you wouldn't use that as a pull quote on the jacket flap, it's high enough praise to put this above 85% of the other sci-fi I've read.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States: B+
Morning Star: B

(I)'ll Fly Away

Back in the late '90s/early '00s, I was all in for Pedro Almodóvar movies. I had just caught up with his 1988 movie, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and when I saw All About My Mother and Talk to Her, I knew this was a director to watch.

And then I stopped watching, and I have no idea why. Almodóvar simply dropped off my radar. In looking around for semi-obscure titles to continue the ABC Project, I stumbled across his 2013 movie, I'm So Excited!, which seemed like it would make a perfect entry. Would the affinity I had for his movies a decade ago still hold? Would his work have appreciably changed with the passing of so much time?

What I got was one of the wackiest damned movies I've seen in a long time, and which could have easily been irritating and obnoxious in the hands of a less-skilled director. Instead, he manages to make something quirky and charming out of this story of a plane diverted for mechanical problems and whose first class cabin is occupied by: A dominatrix convinced there is a giant political conspiracy against her, a semi-psychic virgin, a financier likely going to jail for massive corruption, an actor trying to iron out past romantic relationships over the phone, a guy smuggling drugs in his ass, a hitman, and three flamingly gay flight attendants who between bouts of lip synching and getting the passengers drunk, make sure to stop in the cockpit to get caught up on the situation and give the pilots a quick blowjob.

Oh, and did I mention that everyone in coach has been drugged and is put to sleep for the entire flight? Yep, that's this movie. But like I said, despite the complete craziness of the plot, somehow it all works without going completely off the rails.

Even with all of the performances and the story being ramped up to eleven, Almodóvar creates characters that you actually become invested in. This may be one of those strange movies that I enjoy myself, but would have real reservations about recommending to others. If you like your movies to follow a certain standard template, maybe stay away from this one. But if, like me, you want your movies to go completely bonkers once in a while, then definitely give this one a shot.

I'm So Excited!: B+


When the first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend came along, it was such a delightful surprise. It didn't get great ratings, but it was such a critical darling that the CW made the wise and easy decision to renew it. Rachel Bloom mentioned that with every new season, the underlying theme would be different, and this idea has been brilliantly supported by writing an entirely new theme song. The title of this post is how every episode of season 2 kicks off, and it made me giggle every damn time.

If season one was about denial, then season two has been about pure, unadulterated obsession. Now that Josh knows about Rebecca's deep, all-consuming crush on him, she'll do anything in her power to get him into her clutches. Or will she? Because every time he pulls away, she starts thinking that maybe she'd be better off with Greg, after all. As with season one, Rebecca may be the protagonist of the story, but it would be a stretch to call her the heroine. She has good intentions, but her egocentrism and excessive enthusiasm about whatever her current scheme is always threatens to destroy any relationship she's built.

Season 2 wasn't as innovative and genius as season 1, but it definitely had a lot of bright spots. Rebecca has always been pretty selfish in her friendship with Paula, and a fight between them was due. Digging a bit into Rebecca's past to unravel why she is the way she is was an interesting plotline to explore. And the show even found a way to re-incorporate Valencia in a pretty cool way. Aside from that, though, the story beats of season 2 were kind of a disappointment.

And what about the music? The songs of Season 1 were infectious bits of wonder; I still find myself singing "I Have Friends" in the shower to myself. While the songs of season 2 were all pretty good, only a couple reach the heights that the inaugural season did. I really enjoy "The Math of Love Triangles", but the absolute pinnacle was Rebecca's view of how East Coast Jews view life: "Remember That We Suffered".

I have relatives exactly like this, and this song is a perfect encapsulation of their attitudes. So while Season 2 has a bit of a sophomore slump, this show is still really engaging, and is unlike anything else on the air right now. They've already been renewed for season 3, which looks like it's going to have an even darker tone, and I am all in for it. Because if all this wackiness is what ensues when Rebecca has a sunny disposition, imaging what she's going to wreak when she's out for blood.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend - Season 2: B

The Rewatch: Friends - Season 6

Certain shows, like The Golden Girls, are timeless. Sure, there are some dated references, but for the most part, the jokes and situations are just as relevant today as they were when the show was airing. One thing I've been noticing about this Rewatch, though, is as time goes on, and television gets better and better, Friends is beginning to fossilize. You wouldn't think a simple sitcom about a group of people hanging out would age rapidly, but the tone, writing, and plotlines of Friends are looking more archaic with every passing season.

That's not to say that it's a bad show now; it's just very of-the-moment in a way that I didn't expect. The '90s technology, the continued reliance on gay panic jokes, Bruce Willis with hair... All of these make the show look older than it really is. Season 6 did have a few welcome changes, though. I mentioned in the Season 5 post that Friends is weakest when it focuses too heavily on the romances within the group. While there is still certainly plenty of that going on, this season definitely has a better balance of non-romance episodes, in which they get back to the silly friend interactions that made the show so successful in the first place.

However, as shows goes on, characters tend to calcify into extreme versions of their biggest personality traits, and that is definitely beginning to occur here. For the most part, everyone still acts like actual human beings, but Season 6 is when you can start charting things like Monica turning from organized neat-freak into compulsive, anal-retentive shrew, or Ross from clumsy-at-relationships to full-on psychotic liar. When the comedic situations turn from things like "This lady is messy!" to "I'm going to keep my marriage a secret from the bride herself!" you know things are getting too wacky, too fast.

The first and last batch of episodes of the season focuses on the shifting romantic relationships between Ross/Rachel (attempted annulment, eventual divorce) and Monica/Chandler (moving in together, marriage proposal), but in the middle, there are some real gems. As I said in Season 5, Friends really shines in their Thanksgiving episodes, and Season 6 is no exception. There's also a fun two-parter in an alternate universe in which Monica is still fat, Joey is still a soap star, Ross is still married to Carol, and so on.

This is also the season in which Ross is a professor, and has an affair with one of his students (Elizabeth). That may have worked as a one-off episode, but Elizabeth sticks around for several episodes, and is far too boring a character to justify the time spent on her. Ditto for Joey's temporary roommate Janine. Guest stars apparently work best on this show when their appearances are brief. The episodes that really work best are the ones that stick to the core cast, and just let their personalities bounce off of each other.

Notable Guest Stars: As mentioned above, there's Alexandra Holden as Elizabeth and Elle Macpherson as Janine, neither of whom should have gotten as much screen time as they did, the former because her character doesn't have enough personality, and the latter because... let's just say her range is limited. Bruce Willis also shows up as Elizabeth's father, and is similarly over-used. There are some good flashing guest appearances, though, from Reese Witherspoon as Rachel's sister Jill to the always-wonderful Missi Pyle as one of Ross' ill-fated dates. The usual recurring folks (Elliot Gould, Christina Pickles, Tom Selleck, Maggie Wheeler, etc.) are also back, and they're always a welcome presence.

What's Keeping Ross and Rachel And Their Apparently Greatest Love in the History of the Earth Apart This Time: After the drunken wedding in Vegas, there are several episodes devoted to its dissolution. Ross trying to keep their marriage going in secret is one of the dumbest things ever written for this show, but I can't deny that there are also some genuinely funny aspects to this most recent split. After the divorce is final, they're able to get back to a state of platonic friendship, which is nice to see, though I'm aware that it won't last.

Best Episode: This one's easy. "TOW Ross Got High" is the season's Thanksgiving episode, and it is just wonderful. Between Rachel's disastrous trifle and the Ross/Monica exchange where they hysterically expose each other's secrets to their parents, this episode fires on all cylinders from beginning to end.

Worst Episode: A trio of the Elizabeth/Paul episodes ("TOW Ross Dates a Student", "TOW Ross Meets Elizabeth's Dad", and "TOW Paul's the Man") could certainly vie for this dubious honor on account of how dull they are, but the worst episode of the season shouldn't just be the absence of good. There should be something actively bad involved. That's why, despite the involvement of Missie Pyle and Joanna Gleason, I have to go with "TOW Ross' Teeth", which may as well be called "TOW Dudes Should Loudly Proclaim Their Heterosexuality at Every Opportunity". Joey is mad because the woman who pays him rent is making their apartment too girly. Ross is ridiculed for putting on makeup. For fuck's sake, '50s educational shorts didn't have this much pressure to hide your personality quirks in order to conform.

In looking at the season as a whole, I'm conflicted. There are definite bright spots, but the show also appears to be taking a turn. It's tough to identify, but we may be approaching the point of the proverbial shark jump. The big arcs of the show are moving forward, but as it progresses, it's becoming more about the characters' love lives than any joy in spending time together. In short, Friends isn't about friends anymore. Will Season 7 continue this trend? There's only one way to find out. Onward!

The Sun'll Come Out, Tomorrow

Orphans! They're just like us! Well, except for the fact that they're completely different. The psychological scars of the typical nuclear family are wholly different than the ones inflicted on the parent-less, which means that orphans sure do make for good storytelling. So much so that by happenstance, I just watched two wildly different titles that revolve around orphans and how they begin to rebuild a sense of family.

The first was the inaugural season of the Netflix adaptation of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. I really liked all the books, but the original movie was not particularly great. It was inoffensive enough, but the only thing that really stood out were the end credits. That didn't prevent me from getting my hopes up when this new version rolled around, for a few reasons:

Neil Patrick Harris was attached as Count Olaf, which is terrific casting. Daniel Handler (that is, Lemony Snicket himself) was in charge of the writing. Barry Sonnenfeld, who gave us such gorgeous visuals in Pushing Daisies was giving this show a similar look. That, plus the fact that putting this property on TV gave it move time and space to breathe than a single movie, had me anticipating this show more than any other.

Was it worth the attention? Affirmative, a word which here means "of course it was". All of the points I just mentioned paid off in spades, and there were so many more. The show really captures the tone of the books, and the producers are obviously having grand fun with casting the guest stars, from Joan Cusack as Justice Strauss to Alfre Woodard as Aunt Josephine. Neil Patrick Harris is able to walk the fine line between making Olaf a farcical figure of fun and an actual menace. His troupe of ne'er-do-well henchmen are just on the right side of goofy. Patrick Warburton is perfect as the melancholy, stone-faced narrator. And the Baudelaire orphans themselves? They're fine, if not that noteworthy. The children may be determined, but they're fairly reactive characters, so I don't blame the actors if they're somewhat placid; they're the sad calm in the midst of a hurricane of wacky adults.

Each book gets two episodes, so it's basically one movie per book, with the season covering the first four. Despite the horrors the Baudelaires are forced to endure, it was a joyous viewing experience, and I'm already looking forward to the next installment.

Up next was an orphan of a different stripe. It's that moody caped crusader, Batman himself. And although he's as grim and dour as ever, his surroundings are pretty bright and cheery. That's right, it's The LEGO Batman Movie. And speaking of casts that are stacked with talent, just check out this one. Everyone loaned their voice to this movie!

It's incredible how many different rights the producers of the LEGO movies have to lock down, but they somehow manage. Though Batman (Will Arnett) is the nominal star, there are appearances from characters from all sorts of other realms, from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter. Batman is used to working alone, but between the Joker's new evil plan, a forceful Barbara Gorden as police commissioner, and an eager sidekick trying to get adopted, he has to learn to rely on others.

The story arc is fairly straightforward, but given that this is a LEGO movie, it's really more about the rapid-fire jokes and references. They all landed well, giving me a lot of good chuckles. The movie isn't as clever or inventive as the original one, but it was still a lot of fun, and kids will love it.

A Series of Unfortunate Events - Season 1: A-
The LEGO Batman Movie: B

Oscar Nominations 2017

Another year, another apology for not being a better, more refined movie-goer this past year. I always get something out of the Oscars (though I can't be the only one dreading the inevitable parade of politically-tinged acceptance speeches this year), but I used to approach them with a lot more background knowledge. Now I'm just more of an observer, which is somewhat disappointing.

But that's what I get for having such an embarrassing, sub-par year of movie-watching habits. If nothing else, the Oscar nominations are always a good highlight of films to put on my Eventual To-Watch List When I Trip Over a Wheelbarrow Full of Free Time. It's also very refreshing to see some melanin this year; there's been so much bad news lately, it's nice that noteworthy performances/craftsmanship by minorities is getting a ton of recognition. Okay, enough chatter. Let's look at the list.


Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

Oh, look. Here's the perfect example of my inability to catch the culturally-important movies of the year, because I've seen precisely two of these. Fortunately, one of them is the odds-on favorite to win. La La Land has a record-tying number of nominations, and will likely capture Best Picture without breaking a sweat. I would like to get to Moonlight soon, and would certainly be willing to catch up with most of the others at some point, too. Except Hacksaw Ridge. Hard pass on that one.


Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge)
Ryan Gosling, (La La Land)
Viggo Mortensen, (Captain Fantastic)
Denzel Washington (Fences)

Though La La Land is expected to dominate most of the evening, I believe the Casey Affleck is the favorite to win this one. I just need to be in the right headspace to watch a movie as apparently depressing as Manchester by the Sea, and I'm not there yet. I'm pretty curious about Captain Fantastic, too. Though I'm certainly not against melodramatic plays being adapted into movies, I've still got some residual disappointment from August: Osage County, so Fences is hovering at the bottom of the to-watch list, currently. I've heard great things about Denzel Washington both behind and in front of the camera on this one, though.


Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
Ruth Negga (Loving)
Natalie Portman (Jackie)
Emma Stone (La La Land)
Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)

Listen, I love Meryl Streep as much as the next guy. She's a national treasure. That doesn't mean she's required by law to be nominated for every performance she gives. She didn't deserve it for August: Osage County, she sure as hell didn't deserve it for Into the Woods, and by all accounts, her nomination slot for this year's awards should have gone to Amy Adams for Arrival. That said, I can't decide if I think Emma Stone or Natalie Portman is going to win. I do love Isabelle Huppert, but I don't think enough people have seen Elle to cement her win. Negga is getting heavy praise, but Loving has been pretty much ignored otherwise. If forced to guess, I think Emma Stone will snag her first win on a tidal wave of Hollywood love for La La Land, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it.


Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water)
Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)
Dev Patel (Lion)
Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)

Though I mentioned at the top of the post that it was great to see some diversity in the nominees, you'll notice I haven't predicted any minority winners yet. The supporting acting categories are where I think that will change. Mahershala Ali is just everywhere this year, and any article about Moonlight goes out of its way to single out his performance. It would be pretty awesome to see him get this win.


Viola Davis (Fences)
Naomie Harris (Moonlight)
Nicole Kidman (Lion)
Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures)
Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)

And while I'm handing out awards to performances I haven't seen yet, it's high time that Viola Davis got an Oscar. This is her third nomination, and I believe it's also going to finally be her year to win. Her closest competition is probably Michelle Williams, but I think Davis has more momentum.


Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge)
Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)
Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)
Denis Villeneuve (Arrival)

Well, now. A couple of very interesting things to discuss here. Firstly, there's the horse race between Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins. La La Land has so much steam right now, it's hard to imagine anyone but Chazelle winning. That said, Moonlight blew a lot of people away, and the temptation to give a deserved award to an African-American director for the first time in history will be incredibly strong. I honestly don't know which way it'll go. There's also the inclusion of Mel Gibson on this list. Is he now re-accepted to Hollywood society? Who decided that, and when? I certainly didn't put my stamp of approval on it.


Mike Mills (20th Century Women)
Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water)
Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou (The Lobster)
Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)

Oof. This is the toughest one to predict so far. I would love to see The Lobster win, but there are a lot of other forces at work, here. There's the La La Land nomination juggernaut, even though its screenplay has no business being nominated. There's the fact that Manchester by the Sea might not get much attention in other categories, so people may throw their votes for it here. And then there's Hell or High Water, which also has a decent chance.


Eric Heisserer (Arrival)
August Wilson (Fences)
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures)
Luke Davies (Lion)
Barry Jenkins; Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight)

Several good choices here, too. If Barry Jenkins doesn't win director, he could still garner votes in this category. Arrival depended heavily on its screenplay, and it was masterfully done. I'm not sure how common posthumous awards are, but despite August Wilson's obvious talent, I doubt he'll be able to secure this win from the grave. And Hidden Figures is unlikely to win much come Oscar night, but if it does, it'd probably be in this category.


Kubo and the Two Strings
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle

Oh, dear. This is the first time in a while that Pixar isn't up for anything, and I really loved both Kubo and the Two Strings and Moana. Kubo really didn't get much attention while it was out, so I suppose I'd predict Moana based on pure word-of-mouth, and if I'm being honest, I probably did like it a bit more.


A Man Called Ove (Sweden)
Land of Mine (Denmark)
Tanna (Australia)
The Salesman (Iran)
Toni Erdmann (Germany)

I don't know much about the foreign language field this year, other than the shockingly shameful situation that our current political climate has imposed on the Iranian director, Asghar Farhadi. Given that he also made A Separation, I wouldn't be surprised if he won.


La La Land

Yeah, La La Land has this one sewn up.


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Florence Foster Jenkins
La La Land

There's no really grand, sweeping period piece like Anna Karenina this year to draw all the attention. That probably means that the bright, colorful costumes of La La Land will get most people's votes.


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hail, Caesar!
La La Land

Aw, it's nice to see Hail, Caesar! represented. I don't think it can overcome the La La Land onslaught, but it would be a fun twist if it won. Arrival would have a better chance in a different year, but I have the feeling that it may go home empty-handed, unless it's able to grab the screenplay award.


Fire at Sea
I Am Not Your Negro
Life, Animated
O.J.: Made in America

This category has generated a lot more chatter than usual. Both 13th and I Am Not Your Negro have been getting a ton of press for their thoughtful deconstruction of the frustrating state of race relations. Life, Animated is an interesting look at using Disney movies to cope with life's challenges. And O.J.: Made in America was universally praised, but is controversial in that it's really more of a TV show than a movie. Despite that argument, it appears to have a slight edge on winning.


4.1 Miles
Joe’s Violin
Watani: My Homeland
The White Helmets

Even in a normal year, I'd be woefully unprepared to discuss this category. This year is even worse, because even with all the reading I do about movies and the numerous movie podcasts I listen to, I haven't heard boo about a single one of these. So, pick your favorite! That one's gonna win.


Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
La La Land

This will likely go to La La Land, though I'd be tickled pink if Moonlight gets it. Editing a movie with time jumps takes a lot of detailed work.


Deepwater Horizon
Doctor Strange
Jungle Book
Kubo and the Two Strings
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Ooh, this would be a fantastic way of throwing a bone to Rogue One. That movie had some excellent effects, though Kubo's effects were marvelous, too. If either one of those two wins, I'll walk away happy.


A Man Called Ove
Star Trek Beyond
Suicide Squad

Yikes, this is the best list they could come up with? I can't believe they couldn't either pad this out with other movies or find some worthy replacements. As it stands, I don't care one bit who wins this one.


La La Land

La La Land seems like a lock for this one, honestly. I may be overestimating how much awards love that movie will get, but its score seems like one of its safer bets.


“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)" (La La Land)
“Can’t Stop the Feeling” (Trolls)
“City of Stars” (La La Land)
“The Empty Chair” (Jim: The James Foley Story)
“How Far I’ll Go” (Moana)

OK, this is where I'm supposed to predict that obviously, the musical that's favored to win Best Picture is going to win for Best Original Song, too. There are just two little flies in the ointment. First, there are two songs up from La La Land, which means that they may split the vote. Second, if Moana wins (and frankly, it should), it puts Lin Manuel Miranda that much closer to an EGOT, which people really want to see happen. La La Land is poised to win so many other awards, I feel myself grasping onto tiny glimmer of hope that "How Far I'll Go" can emerge victorious.


Blind Vaysha
Borrowed Time
Pear Cider and Cigarettes

The only one I've seen or have heard about is Piper, which was very cute, and had the best water effects I think I've ever seen.


Ennemis Interieurs
La Femme et le TGV
Silent Nights

I'm afraid that as in the documentary short category, I know nothing about any of these. So let's throw a dart at the wall. Timecode it is!


Deep Water Horizon
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land

I have it on good authority that the winner this year is a sound clip of me yelling about how this should be part of the untelevised technical awards, because nobody gives a good goddamn.


Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Which goes double for sound mixing.

Oooh, Heaven is a Place on Earth

After such triumphs as Parks & Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, you can bet that when I hear the name Michael Schur, my ears perk up. So when they announced he'd be making a show about a foul-mouthed jerk played by Kristen Bell accidentally getting into heaven, I was on board before I knew any of the other details. That trust has now paid off in spades, because the first season of The Good Place has just wrapped up, and it was fantastic.

Indeed, the first focus of the show was on Eleanor Shellstrop (Bell), and how out of place she is in an environment full of people who spent their time on Earth being good-hearted and philanthropic. Everyone is supposed to be assigned a soulmate in the Good Place, and her interactions with ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper) put him in jeopardy as well as her if her presence is ever discovered. There's also next-door neighbors Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and her silent Buddhist monk soulmate Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), both of whom throw wrenches into Eleanor's plans for different reasons. The entire enterprise is administrated by the architect, Michael (Ted Danson), who's fascinated by human behavior, and an anthropomorphized computer program, Janet (D'Arcy Carden), who is there to make the residents' afterlives more convenient, but who has entertaining glitches of her own.

As the season progresses, Eleanor faces her regrets about how she behaved while she was alive, and tries to change her ways, while also rubbing off on the would-be saints she now hangs out with. This is a comedy, though, so the biggest factor should be whether the show is funny or not. Well, good news. It's hilarious.

That said, The Good Place also manages to do something a lot of sitcoms don't even bother to attempt; it builds a sustainable story arc with engaging twists and turns. Other shows are content to reset after each episode, which is perfectly fine, but this one strives for more. It actually creates a threatening situation for its protagonist, and spends the entire season exploring her efforts to overcome those obstacles. To be able to do that while still making me guffaw out loud several times per episode? That's pretty forking cool.

The Good Place - Season 1: A

You Were Meant For Me

What-if kind of stories are extremely popular right now, which I'm all for. If it's done dextrously, I enjoy a good parallel universe story as much as the next guy, so Laura Barnett's 2016 book The Versions of Us pretty easily elbowed its way to the top of my library list. Absolutely every review, every blurb, and every webpage I've seen regarding this book goes out of its way to use the phrase "One Day meets Sliding Doors", and I enjoyed both of those, so why not? A few pages into The Versions of Us, it is 1958, and fellow college students Jim Taylor and Eva Edelstein meet when she has a near miss with her bicycle. They hit it off right away, and so begins a grand romance that spans decades. Or falls apart. Or they don't meet at all.

The narrative splits into three versions, told concurrently. The events of Jim and Eva's lives vary wildly between versions, and naturally, it impacts the other people in their circles, from parents to lovers to friends to children. At the heart of each of the versions, though, there is a bond between them, sometimes strained, or perhaps even invisible, but never broken. They both have personal and professional aspirations, and in different versions, they have alternate levels of success at each of these. In one, Jim may become a popular artist, but be all thumbs at romantic relationships. Eva may find love that nevertheless presents enormous challenges. In one version, one of them may have a studious, polite daughter, while in another, a rebellious, sullen teenager who withdraws from her family.

I really enjoyed how plausible each of the three versions were. None of them were purely "good" or "bad". They just represent three different paths Jim and Eva may have found themselves walking down. The major complaint I've seen about the book is with the interweaving versions making it difficult to keep up with which one you're in, but I didn't mind that too much. Yes, it was sometimes tough to remember which narrative I was dealing with at the outset of each chapter, but it became clear soon enough. If I have one issue with the characters, it's how quickly they fling themselves into major life changes. These things happen, of course, but the regularity of relationships coming together, breaking apart, and leading to pregnancy were a little... Well, "rushed" doesn't seem like the right word, but let's just say that a lot of women find themselves immediately knocked up.

That didn't detract too much from my enjoyment, though. It was a very good book, and as Jim and Eva's lives unspooled, I found myself getting emotional, and even a little teary, as if I were watching an installment of The Up Series. We all often wonder what our lives would be like if we'd taken that job, or we'd never given up piano lessons, or had gone out with Paul when we had the chance. What The Versions of Us does so well is show us that no matter which way we go, we're still us, and that can be a heartening notion.

The Versions of Us: B+


Ever since The Great British Baking Show started airing on American television, it has consistently been one of my favorite shows. It's the perfect blend of competition and cooking show, and nothing has ever come close to matching it.

That doesn't mean people won't try, though, and TV executives weren't about to let all of us fervent American fans of the show slip through their fingers. They attempted to capture the same lightning by producing The Great American Baking Show, which premiered last year. Rather than a generalized baking experience, it aired around the holidays, which naturally drove all the challenge inspirations as well. That was probably a wise decision, even if I soon tired of Christmas-themed bakes. Mary Berry agreed to tie the show to its foreign counterpart by acting as judge, along with Johnny Iuzzini, who has already acted as a reality show judge, with limited success. In place of Mel and Sue, the show is hosted by Nia Vardolos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and her husband, Ian Gomez (Cougar Town).

Here's the thing about capturing the spirit of a runaway hit show: It's really, really, really difficult to do. And the first season of The Great American Baking Show was so unsuccessful, it struggled to even rise to the level of pale imitation. On the most basic level, it just didn't have any of the chemistry that makes the original program so enchanting. The judges didn't gel, the hosts were visibly trying and failing to capture the giddy enthusiasm of Mel and Sue, and the contestants... Well, that was the worst part. I'm sure they're all lovely people, and I know this is a show for amateurs, but as with inaugural seasons of a lot of competitive reality shows, they suuuuuuuuuuucked. All of their bakes looked terrible. It got to the point where I was literally embarrassed for us as a country.

I chalked the show up as a failed experiment and moved on with my life. Until about a month ago, when I noticed Hulu recommending the second season to me. Against my better judgement, my curiosity was piqued. Were any lessons learned? Could the show improve, or was it just destined to languish in the shadow of its older cousin? Well, I have some good news!

Season 2 was much, much better. Nia and Ian are still a bit over-hammy, but they've settled down to an acceptable level. The judges (Johnny specifically) are still a bit awkward, but their explanations are better articulated now, and they seem to be in better moods. That may be because the contestants are worlds better this time around. It's night and day. Sure, there was some obvious chaff, but the wheat was soon separated out, and I found myself really invested in their success. Finally, some American bakers our nation can be proud of.

The second season was again holiday-themed, which limited what it could do, but I was so giddy over the show's rise in quality that I hardly minded. Does The Great American Baking Show stack up to the Great British Baking Show? Hell, no. Not in any way whatsoever. But it certainly takes home the engraved cake plate award for Most Improved.

The Great American Baking Show - Season 1: C
The Great American Baking Show - Season 2: B

For Never Was a Story of More Woe

Ah, doomed romances. Where would literature be without them? Love is decidedly tricky, and so naturally, stories about the trials and travails of romantic relationships comprise a gigantic percentage of fiction. I just finished two books revolving around the love lives of their characters, and while you'd think I'd relate more to the one about adults, it's the one that focused on high school students that really shone.

The first book was Summerlong, a 2015 book by Dean Bakopoulos. Over the course of one sweltering summer, a handful of people in an Iowa neighborhood re-evaluate their lives, and as one marriage crumbles, both the husband and wife find themselves drawn to other people, who are also involved with each other. It sounds very Melrose Place-ian, but these characters are a lot more emotionally mature, and at least attempt to do right by themselves and others, while still searching for a way to be happy.

Still, the book falls prey to Annoying Protagonist Syndrome a bit. Why should I care what Claire wants to do with her life if she's going to be such a relentless chore? If all ABC wants to do is reconnect with the spirit of her dead girlfriend, what is she hoping to accomplish by messing around with everyone who gives her the side-eye? Overall, it wasn't a bad book at all, just not one that has anything particularly interesting going for it. The characters aren't terrible people, they're just not very people-like. They seem to do things purely to drive the plot forward, rather than acting like people actually would. This book would be a good airplane read, but not one that will ever hold a place of honor on your bookshelf.

The other book was Rainbow Rowell's celebrated 2013 book, Eleanor & Park. I'd call it YA, but I'm not sure what age range it's aimed at, since the characters say "fuck" an awful lot. This book's characters are a lot more understandable, even when they're making questionable decisions. Park is a half-Asian kid who gets along in school by keeping his head down, but all that changes when he falls for new student Eleanor, who has wild red hair and wears threadbare, patchwork clothes to school. Far from being hipsters, these are kids who don't fit in for very valid reasons, and they approach each other with caution, fearing rejection for all sorts of reasons.

They begin to bond over music and comic books, but the circumstances of their home lives are a constant threat to their happiness. I really liked how the story unfolded in a very realistic way. Not everything works out the way they want, but neither are they doomed from the start. Eleanor and Park strike me as people that could actually exist, instead of acting like, well, characters in a book, and that's apparently harder to pull off than it sounds.

Summerlong: B-
Eleanor & Park: A-

Pants on Fire

Making modern romantic comedy is tricky. The formula that worked so well in the '80s and '90s is now officially stale, and audiences are looking for different ways to engage with stories about the arc of a relationship. I'm a guy that always enjoys a well-executed gimmick, so when Scrotal Recall (ugh, that title) came along and played with the convention by leaping around chronologically and viewing its characters through the lens of the past girlfriends/hookups that Dylan may have given chlamydia to, I was delighted.

The delight continues, not only because Netflix has released another season, and not only because the producers have taken the original story idea and have begun building on it in really interesting ways, but because they changed the damned title. The show is now called Lovesick, which is exponentially better. In its sophomore season, Lovesick eases up on the past girlfriend model a bit, and begins to concentrate more on Dylan, Evie, and Luke in the present. Things have gotten complicated. Evie is about to get married, but lingering feelings for Dylan have her doubting her every move, while he attempts to ignore his reciprocal feelings to focus on his burgeoning relationship with Abigail, who's just terrific. (I really like Abigail, you guys.) Clearly, this is all going to blow up at some point, and the writers are doing a good job so far of keeping things tense without stretching them out to an annoying degree.

Meanwhile, Luke has been questioning his sluttish ways since the Phoebe episode, and a flashback to his relationship with Jo gives us context for why he is the way he is, and how he's changing over time. Even Angus gets some time in the spotlight, as he cheerfully follows his id wherever it leads him. The second season also brings back some familiar faces from the past, for both good and ill. It's always nice to see Jane ruining everything.

The Dylan/Evie roller coaster isn't my favorite aspect of the show, and since the second season focuses on it quite a bit, this second season doesn't quite stack up to the first one in my mind. That said, this is possibly the most ignored, underrated show on the air right now, and I desperately hope that they make a third season.

Lovesick - Season 2: A-

Living the Dream, Living the Nightmare

The beginning of a new year is often a flurry of frenzied activity. Time to make those appointments you never got around to last year. Time to assign yourself some tasks for the year ahead. Time to catch up on all those things you swore you'd get to. That applies to the entertainment world as well; a new year is often accompanied by a burst of well-meaning attempts to whittle down the Netflix queue or see some likely Oscar contenders.

2017 is no exception. The year has hardly begun, and I've already knocked out a couple of movies. They couldn't be more different from one another. One is 2016's La La Land, a rainbow of bright colors and music that follows a young couple trying to make it in the highly-competitive Los Angeles entertainment industry. The other was 2014's It Follows, a dull-colored horror, set in the crumbling suburbs of Detroit. And despite their differences in production design and tone, they both were rousing successes.

La La Land seemed at first to be tailor-made to my tastes. It's set in the present, but its aesthetic is very Old Hollywood. Struggling actress Mia (Emma Stone) keeps running into disaffected jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and as their fledgling relationship grows, they are faced with some difficult decisions about just how much they're willing to sacrifice for their dreams of success. If that sounds like a weighty story, it has one hell of a leavening agent, in that it's also a musical, complete with large-scale song and dance numbers. This movie has been landing on a lot of best-of lists, but if I had to single someone out to recognize, it would be the production designer. This is one of the most beautiful movies I've seen in a long time, and actually does the trick of making Los Angeles seem like a magical land of dreams.

Stone and Gosling are both excellent in their roles, and I enjoyed the music as well. But for a movie that practically shows up on my doorstep with an engraved invitation, something was missing. Or rather, something was added; a pair of gigantic Deus Ex Successicas. The movie goes to a great deal of trouble to depict the hardships and obstacles Mia and Sebastian must overcome in order to further their careers, but just winds up waving a magic wand over them. However, the film does do something very interesting with the ending that I'm still chewing over in my mind, and made me appreciate it a lot more. Though it didn't quite meet the expectations I had built up for it, La La Land is still a pretty great movie, and definitely worth your time. Once Oscar season is behind us, I'll likely watch it again to see what I can pick up on a second viewing.

I will not be gracing It Follows with a second viewing, but that's nothing against the movie. I am emphatically not a fan of the horror genre, so filmmakers have to do something pretty interesting story-wise to pull me in, while simultaneously not driving me away with large amounts of gore. It's a fine line to walk, and it's no wonder that it's really difficult to find movies that fit the bill. When It Follows got some pretty rapturous reviews, and continually stayed on my radar, I had some friends do a gore check for me. It turns out that I only had to turn my ahead away for a couple of brief moments. The rest of the movie is psychological horror, rather than a slasher.

The movie centers on Jay (Maika Monroe), a pretty young college student who lives a pretty standard life in the Michigan suburbs. After a couple of dates with a guy, she has a sexual fling with him that winds up having severe consequences. He temporarily kidnaps her, but not to hurt her. He just wants to explain that he's passed on a demon of sorts. This entity will follow and kill its victims, but will move on to the next person if the intended target has sex with someone. If it kills someone, it will revert back to the last person in the chain. It can appear in any human form, and always approaches in a silent, steady walk. So yeah, it's basically an STD in the form of a supernatural killer. Sounds so weird, right?

It's actually a really deep and thoughtful movie. Jay has to deal not only with the assault and betrayal of someone she thought she really liked, but now has to contend with an unkillable, invisible-to-others stalker. Should she constantly go on the run? Can she trust anything she sees? Can she morally justify passing it on in order to secure some sort of safety? What does all this mean in regards to the the movie's position on hookup culture? Watching Jay try to work through these issues while evading her pursuer was really fascinating. If more horror movies were like It Follows, the genre would have a new devotee.

La La Land: B+
It Follows: B+
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