Six years after the grand adventure that was Dan and Ian Wander Europe, I and a band of friends left for a trek through the Mediterranean. These are our stories.
And that old son-of-a-bitch jet lag.
The second I set foot in central London, I feel a wave of peace and happiness; the knowledge that I am, for a brief while, truly home. The second I arrive in Vancouver, I relax, because the city of Vancouver has taken the emotional place of “the house I grew up in” ever since my parents sold said house. The second I leave Cancun airport I feel… a reminder to chill because my resort is probably still like forty minutes away, and that’s after I find my transport.
Arriving in central Rome I felt… mild anxiety. Because I didn’t really feel… anything. I was in Rome. Rome. The Eternal City. Home of so much history, the setting of so many movies, the former hub of western civilization. After a year of planning, here I was! In Rome! With friends! And I felt… nothing. How could this be? I spent so much money on this vacation, now here I was, why wasn’t I happy?
Okay I know it sounds like I’m starting this new blog series on a down note so let me just cut to the chase and tell you what I told myself that first day… I was so tired. That was the problem. That’s all we’re talking about.
The problem with flying from North America to Europe is that it typically involves landing in what the clocks say is mid to late morning but your body is pretty sure is the very dead of night. If you can sleep on the plane, that helps, but as we’ve covered in the past, I cannot sleep on planes. So I arrived in Rome, having been awake for about 18 hours, very ready for sleep that would not come for many hours more. Because I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I made in Dublin (I’m not linking to it twice, I linked to it two sentences ago, click it or don’t) or Hong Kong and set myself into an untenable sleep schedule by napping mid-day. No, this time I would full-on bully my flesh cage into Italian time by staying up until at least 10 PM, then letting the fact that I’d been awake for 30 hours keep me asleep for the whole night.
So upon arrival, having stashed my luggage at my port of call for the night (I would not check into my actual hotel for another day, once my hotel mates Daisy and Ian had arrived), it was time to find lunch and wander the city to stay awake.
There were, in total, ten of us on the bulk of this trip. Myself, Ian (who I apparently have so many travel stories with that my Peru travel mates made fun of me for bringing him up so much), and Daisy; Daniel, in whose honour this trip was planned, and his essentially-wife Jenn; Daniel’s parents, Ruth and Hugh; his younger brother Noel; his youngest brother Matthew, and his wife Laura. Of these ten, only six of us were currently in Rome. And of those six, four felt they could use a break after the morning’s walking tour, particularly Jenn, who does not enjoy high temperatures, and southern Italy is very warm in June. So Daniel and I went for a stroll, got some pizza, and saw the local sights.
The local sights included the Colosseum. You know, THE Colosseum. If anything aside from a designated smoking area in the airport was going to shout “Welcome to Rome” to me, this had to be it. We had a tour booked in three days, so we just did an orbit, and I lapsed into something I cannot help… the need to play tour guide. Sure Daniel had been in town a day longer than me, but this was his first time in Europe, and my… um… fourth? Fourth time in Rome? Pretty sure it was fourth.
So, yeah, as memories kicked in, everything had a story. Over there is where we saw the Ancient Rome cosplayers hoping to get money for photos (and where we’d see them later), that’s the cafe where we got gelato and mocked Patrick, and that construction site is probably where the wall art depicting the rise of the Roman Empire used to be.
I’d really been hoping to spot those. Daniel is a history buff when it suits him, though I have not been able to lure him into joining me for a binge-watch of HBO’s Rome. I guess they’re now part of a light/projection show they do by the Colosseum at night?
We also discovered an entirely new (to me) scam for tourists.
Now, I know all about the people wanting money for photos. Back in the day I had a pricey encounter with so-called “gypsy” begging women hunting in packs in London. The jags with their mixtapes seem to be a US-only phenomenon, or at least not continental Europe. And the dudes selling cheap souvenirs… in particular an item I can only think of as “splat pigs…” aren’t typically pushy, so they’re mostly harmless. But this one I’d never seen before.
Near the Colosseum, where tourists were thickest, lurked a few black guys. They’d make eye contact, smile, and say “Hey, black and white! Africa!” then zoom in right next to you and try to get a handshake.
We don’t know what happens next. We treated this handshake attempt the same as I treated the mixtape jags after that first run-in… no eye contact, no physical contact, a brisk walking pace is your best defence. So I don’t know what happens if you accept that handshake, but I’m willing to guess it costs at least five Euro. More if you’re not great with confrontation.
Once returned to the hotel, there actually was something close to a nap as I drifted in and out for about half an hour, then dinner at a nearby restaurant, where I saw mozzarella and prosciutto in one dish and said “I’m having that,” and it was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.
I cannot believe we never went back there.
Following dinner was a walking quest to find internet-recommended gelato, a quest well worth taking, because I’ve never had spicy ice cream before but this place had it, and man it delivered. They called it “Dracarys,” after Game of Thrones, something that will last shorter and age better than anyone who named their children “Daenerys” or “Cersei.” I didn’t think to get a scoop for myself that night, as I’d discovered the flavour “creme de leche,” or milk cream, which was like ice cream and cheesecake in one creamy package, and I would not be denied another hit.
By the end of that excursion, I’d done it. I’d stayed up (more or less) until 10. And faffed about until 11, so I was sure to acclimate to local time.
Okay. Here we go. But first… one piece of new business.
Every year, some show in the rankings has been in its last season, but never enough to keep the list from growing from seven to twenty-two. But we’ve hit a point where there are enough that they’re killing themselves down to a more sustainable level. Thus, some farewells.
The Tick. Oh, The Tick… like always, maybe you were just a little too cult to live. But while you lived, you were nailing it. Wait– you had one fewer episode overall than Iron Fist? No wonder God has forsaken us.
Gotham. You were never the best show, not by a wide margin, but there were flickers of greatness… well, pretty-good-ness… that meant you weren’t the worst, either. Well, okay, sometimes you were the worst, but not recently.
The Gifted.You may have been the Agents of SHIELD of Fox’s X-Men universe, the red-headed stepchild not allowed to play with the other kids, but you did your best. Still, that Disney buy-out was your death. And come on, man, you did not have the ratings to be ending on a cliffhanger.
Literally all of Marvel Netflix. In the beginning, you set a high bar for comic TV, but you never quite matched those first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Until the end you struggled with pacing issues, unnecessary side characters, inability to pick a main villain, and a refusal to do anything too “comic booky.” And yes, you bungled the big crossover. Still, the franchise had more good than bad overall. Even Iron Fist was starting to get its act together. Was Jessica Jones’ third season a fitting send-off for the entire franchise? No, and that’s irrational, it couldn’t have been, that would have required a second, hopefully better Defenders series, maybe involving the “Who can stop Luke Cage, King of Harlem” fight they kept teasing, but “proper send-off” wasn’t on Netflix’s agenda. Disney+ was your franchise’s end. Via con Dios, Defenders.
The idea that the Marvel movies and TV shows share a universe. Not even Agents of SHIELD, which is normally first in line to name-drop any event from the movies, acknowledged the events of Avengers: Infinity War. And given when season six takes place, and when Endgame takes place, it would have to. So… guess that’s over.
Now, on with the show! (I apologize if the last two posts maybe drained some suspense out of who’s taking the top spot.)
Okay! Let’s get into the best superheroes, supervillains, and other comic-related characters of the season!
Honourable Mention: Real talk… few of these characters delighted me like the one character who defies every single category I have: Doom Patrol’s Danny the Street.
Danny’s a sentient, teleporting, genderqueer street that houses a community of misfits and outcasts, and they’re delightful, and I was so happy the writers embraced the Grant Morrison weirdness of the Doom Patrol franchise enough to include Danny. Their debut episode, “Danny Patrol,” was a blast.
(I may eventually need more non-gendered categories, especially if one of these shows casts Liv Hewson or Asia Kate Dillon or another non-binary actor of their caliber… but not today.)
Anyway, on to characters a little easier to categorize. So easy they don’t even need introductory paragraphs to explain the categories.
Best Female Supporting Character!
Honourable mentions: Carrie-Anne Moss and Rachel Taylor had some good spirals into self-destruction on Jessica Jones; Yara Martinez remained fun as Miss Lint on The Tick; Julie Ann Emery had great edge as Featherstone on Preacher.
Bronze: Rachel Taylor as Trish Walker, Jessica Jones
For the first two seasons of Jessica Jones, and a bit of The Defenders, Jessica’s best friend and adoptive sister Trish pushed Jessica to be a better hero, to use her gifts to help people and fight evil. But after the events of season two, Trish finally has powers of her own. She can finally be the hero she’s always wanted Jess to be. Sure the process that gave her powers has a slight history of also causing homicidal rage, and yes, her need to feel powerful caused all sorts of bad choices in season two, but this should be easy! Right?
Trish’s journey over season three is a rollercoaster, I tell you what, and Rachel Taylor came to play.
Silver: Tala Ashe as Zari Tomaz, Legends of Tomorrow
Playing a character whose classic hero name they can’t really use anymore, Tala Ashe’s dry wit was a welcome addition to Legends last season, and it remained so this year. But we also got to watch Zari’s tough shell begin to crack, as her survival instincts from the ARGUS police state future she came from began to relax. Her gradual, mutually awkward flirtation with fellow Legend Nate Heywood (spurred by something simple: pretending to be a couple for a heist and then thinking “Huh, we’re both hot, we could just do this”) was consistently adorable, and led to both one of the year’s best musical numbers (see last entry) and an emotional finale where she has to risk having her entire history rewritten to save Nate.
Plus she cut loose on some witch hunters (emotional), impersonated a 70s DJ (funny), and got turned into both a cat and a puppet (legendary). And if all of that weren’t enough, she opened the season with a powerful monologue on how fear took over her society, ending with one small but killer line. Lots of shows tackled fear and hate this season, but few managed as simple and powerful a moment as Zari watching her hijab-wearing mother smiling and laughing with young Zari in a playground, and asking “How could anyone be afraid of her?”
This season may have had slightly too little time for all of its character arcs, but Zari always shines.
Gold: Katie McGrath as Lena Luthor, Supergirl
There is a marvellous subtlety to Katie McGrath’s performance as Lena Luthor. She went through a lot of unpleasantness this season, loss and heartbreak and betrayal and more betrayal and a global hunt for her brother, and Katie McGrath managed to convey all the pain and sorrow Lena went through without dropping the cold, hard exterior she’s had to develop as both a successful businesswoman and a Luthor. Not the most open and loving family. Katie handled Lena’s bleak year with incredible nuance.
Katie is masterful at this role. Lena’s heading to a dark place, but I’m hoping she doesn’t go full-villain, because I don’t think I can bring myself to root against her.
Best Male Supporting Character!
Honourable mention: Jay Ali’s take as the tortured Agent Nadeem on Daredevil; most if not all of the male cast of The Umbrella Academy. Unless you consider all the Hargreeves kids to be leads, in which case just Hazel and Hargreeves Sr, I guess.
Bronze: Jesse Rath as Brainiac-5, Supergirl
Last season, Jesse Rath swiftly won me and others over as Querl Dox, aka Brainiac-5, the Legion of Superheroes’ resident super genius. In season four, he takes the departed Winn Schott’s place at the DEO, working as both a DEO agent and secret superhero ally to Supergirl and her band of alien do-gooders when relations between the two groups deteriorate.
Rath’s always done a good and amusing job at portraying Brainy’s alien, calculating nature, existing somewhere between and to the left of Data and Spock, but as he began an awkward flirtation with Nia Nal, who he swiftly recognized as an ancestor of his old teammate Dream Girl, Brainy found new levels of cute.
But what really gets him on the podium came late in the season, as the alien-hating Children of Liberty accidentally unleashed Brainy’s dark side. As anyone familiar with Superman’s rogues gallery knows, the Brainiac line is not filled with pleasant people, and under torture, Brainy lost control of his ancestral memories. After an emotional moment, a darker, crueler Brainiac was unleashed, and Brainy went from cute to chilling.
I miss Winn sometimes, but damn Brainy’s fun to have around.
Silver: Robin Lord Taylor & Corey Michael Smith as Penguin & Riddler, Gotham
There were definitely a few things Gotham did well, in the sea of things they did poorly. The art design, cinematography, at least half of their villain creations. But if I were to point to one thing that kept me going through all 100 episodes, one facet of the show that made coming back worthwhile through all the Mad Hatters and Jeromes and Jim Gordon never bringing backup, it was Robin Lord Taylor’s performance as Oswald Cobblepot. There is a time and place for restraint in acting, and Taylor understood that Gotham is not it, throwing every inch of himself into every scene he had. But he worked best when part of an unexpectedly great double-act.
Because when Penguin’s plots linked up with Ed Nygma’s? Magic. As begrudging allies, best of friends, or sworn enemies, their scenes together routinely popped. As we bid farewell to Gotham, it seemed fitting to give a final tip of the hat to their two best and most consistently entertaining villains.
Gold: Pip Torrens & Joseph Gilgun as Herr Starr & Cassidy, Preacher
Last year I talked about how perfectly Pip Torrens captures the cold, vicious, and utterly captivating Herr Starr, chief enforcer for the Grail, Earth’s secret rulers. Well, I’m not going to do that this year.
Because if anything he is surpassing his comics counterpart.
The chilling calmness with which Starr goes through his bloody business is always riveting to watch, and often hilarious. It’s at the point where I’ll be sad to see his joust with Jesse come to an end. And not just because I wasn’t ready for the show to be over after next season.
Meanwhile, Cassidy had some big moments this year, from fighting his best pal Jesse (a few times) over Tulip, even taping himself back together to go an extra round; to a quiet, sad, moment of choice where he realizes there are lines he can’t cross to keep Tulip; to his discovery of Les Enfants du Sang, a group of vampire wannabes led by the first fellow vampire Cassidy’s met in decades. Gilgun found new depths to Cassidy this season, and nailed them all. And he keeps the humour of the character, if his debate with the Enfants over how to kill a Grail infiltrator proves anything.
It’s that time again! Time to look through a season’s worth of comic book TV shows, look at who did what best, and deliver a conclusive ranking, based on my highly scientific standard of “Which ones I liked more, and also you didn’t watch them all so you don’t know I’m wrong.”
So, here are this years’ competitors, with links to blog posts if posts there do be:
(Why are the two seasons of Cloak and Dagger ranked separately but not Sabrina? Because Netflix ordered twenty episodes of Sabrina then released them in two chunks and a Christmas special, while Cloak and Dagger did ten episodes then had to get renewed before they made ten more.)
TV shows are constantly being released. Krypton and Legion started up new seasons in the past couple of weeks, and The Boys is coming up fast. So I have to draw the line somewhere. As such, I’m only including shows that ended their season between July 1st 2018 and June 30th 2019. This means some personal favourites are off the list this year because their finales are still a few weeks or months out, and Game of Thrones reminds us not to build monuments to the living, for they can still disgrace the stone. Or in other words, any show can trip over its own feet at the finish line.
So this year doesn’t include the latest seasons of Agents of SHIELD or Krypton, the final seasons of iZombie and Legion, or what is apparently the only season of Swamp Thing.
Or Walking Dead because I don’t care and you can’t make me care.
Or anything I hadn’t heard of until it was already cancelled, like whatever Deadly Class was.
Things are bad out there, you guys. Really bad. The world is dangerously close to climate-based mass extinction, and instead of banding together to stop it, more and more of the world is getting sucked into alt-right, arch-conservative, anti-science, bigoted, “us first” nationalism. The American south is attempting to treat women and reproductive rights with all the care and respect that the Confederacy treated people of colour, and Canadian conservatives are watching it happen and thinking “Say, that gives me an idea.” Nobody’s willing to call a mulligan on that whole Brexit debacle. Disney owns 40% of the concept of entertainment, and the layoffs have begun.
It’s dark out there. But I don’t have a lot of answers for that, outside of STOP. VOTING. FOR. CONSERVATIVES,so today I’d just like to talk about something related to the apparent collapse of human society.
How do superheroes respond to today’s world?
The CW superhero shows, still known as the Arrowverse and not the DCW-verse because we are incapable of coming up with good names*, devoted themselves this question this season, potentially their final season as The Best Superhero Franchise on TV. (The CW shows are of higher average quality than Marvel Netflix was, fight me, but the DC Universe streaming service came to play, peeps. Titans was better than it deserved to be and Doom Patrol is so good you guys.) Each of the four Arrowverse shows (Black Lightning remains separate for at least another half-season) spent their season addressing the state of the world in some way or another, some more nakedly than others.
So instead of a typical review of the Arrowverse shows, I want to look at how each one tackled the state of the world and their home country.
*The Canadian two-dollar coin is called the “toonie,” as the dollar coin was called the loonie, but “dubloonie” was on the table. I will never forgive my country for making the wrong choice.
Five years ago, Fox greenlit a series about Gotham City in the years before Batman. Why? Out of faith in one of comicdom’s better supporting casts of flawed do-gooders and colourful villains? Maybe, but as I’ve explained in the past, there were better ways to do that. Maybe it was because Smallville lasted ten years and– ten years. Son of a bitch. I watched that show for a decade. That is not a trivial percentage of my life. I was young and married and full of hope when that started, thinking George W. Bush was as bad a president as we’d ever see… all of that sure changed…
Anyway, five years and 100 episodes later, Young Jim Gordon’s quest to redeem Gotham City but not to a point where it wouldn’t eventually need a bat-themed superhero saviour has come to an end.
Earlier this season, I did defend portions of Gotham, if only to underline all the problems I had with Cloak and Dagger’s first season, but in the end… and we have hit the end… it was unique. Not in its subject matter… “DC Prequel Show Named After a Place” is basically a genre at this point… but in its devil-may-care bonkers approach to the subject matter. Gotham’s willingness to try any idea, no matter how insane or ill-conceived, led to some truly operatic battles between order and chaos, many of them really stupid, some of them bizarrely compelling.
As we say farewell to Gotham and brace for the showrunner’s new prequeller prequel Pennyworth…
I thought it worth a look back, through the veil of this 12-episode final season.
If anything else… they made 100 episodes of a show about the origins of Batman and a large amount of his rogue’s gallery that never said “Batman,” “Joker,” or “Catwoman” out loud, and that’s… kind of an achievement?
This season, because I love nerd stuff more than I apparently like myself, I decided to binge my way through two shows that I had very little reason to suspect I’d enjoy. Very little. But so determined am I to keep up on any and all comic book TV series… based on comics I’ve heard of… that don’t rhyme with “Smocking Smed…” that I dove in anyway.
On the one hand, we have the Runaways.
Their second season hit back in December. Their first season was… okay… (ranked 15th of 22 last year) but sluggishly paced, and didn’t really get anywhere. I described it as a ten-hour pilot, because I can’t really remember any storylines that weren’t just gradually getting pieces in place for the origins of the runaways or storylines from season two. Sure Preacher’s first season (5th of 13, 2017) did kind of the same thing, ending the season at the end-point of the first story arc, but it felt like Preacher had a lot more going on than Runaways did (hint: Preacher almost always has more going on, it’s great). Runaways isn’t the first show I’d name when describing how a slow burn can go wrong, but it’s on the list.
Titans, the first entry from the DC Universe streaming service (available here through Netflix), didn’t have a predecessor to compare to, favourably or otherwise, but it did have a super dark and very baffling trailer that made it look like an impending train wreck.
So we have two shows, based around younger heroes, that I had every expectation of not being good… and both surprised me. Runaways seemed to take my criticisms to heart… which, yes, heavily implies that I wasn’t the only one making them… and Titans managed to be the season’s biggest surprise so far. I came in expecting to make another “Let’s laugh at how bad Iron Fist was” post, and instead it’s… legitimately interesting?
That’s nearly all they have in common. One’s a YA series with occasional mild profanity that’s as grounded as a show with aliens and magic and a dinosaur can rationally be; the other is a hard-R, curse-filled, graphically violent tale of four damaged youths trying to learn to be a team. So I guess they both have “found family is sometimes better than blood family” going on as well, and that’s all I need to justify the joint post. And along the way, I bet we find more. Rock it.
With the last cancelations now announced, Marvel/Netflix’s Defenders franchise is winding down and will end with season three of Jessica Jones.
So it kind of makes sense, at this point, to begin looking back at this sometimes great, sometimes terrible collection of shows… and it makes extra sense, because within Punisher season two, we can see nearly every way they went wrong.
Now, I’m not saying Punisher will show us why Netflix started canceling the whole lineup. We already know why that’s happening. Disney, Marvel’s parent company, is starting their own streaming service, and that soured their relationship with Netflix, which like a white man in Hollywood is probably really annoyed that they’re no longer the only game in town.
No, I’m saying that if we examine all the ways Punisher season two didn’t work, we find nearly all of the routine failings of the five series (and one mini-series) that made up the Defenders-verse.
Including the fact that it’s not connected to the films and it never was. If Kevin Feige reboots Daredevil in three years with new actors, will you all believe it then? Or will you just blame it on the Thanos snap somehow? Probably the latter.
As I go… I’ll slip in the things they did well. Unless I run out.
Okay, so, we should all know the drill by now, yeah? The Oscars are about to happen, and even though they’re a deeply flawed ceremony that tends to play to the sensibilities of an out-of-touch voting block rather than award films that will truly stand the test of time (see The King’s Speech, which is aging into a hard Jeopardy question and an obscure Office reference), and hand out acting trophies to people seen as “due” rather than deserving (Al Pacino losing for The Godfather Part 2 to Art Carney for a film nobody remembers, so Pacino had to win for Scent of a Woman over Denzel Washington in Malcolm X, and so on and so forth), they remain my little film-based obsession.
So here are the nominees for Best Picture of 2018, in the order I prefer them, this time with Hot Takes and, borrowing a page from this Twitter genius, out of context John Mulaney quotes, why not!
8. Bohemian Rhapsody
Premise: The rise to fame of Freddy Mercury, and to a lesser extent the other members of Queen.
Hot take: So we’re still doing these, huh?
The camera zooms in on Mike Myers while he makes a Wayne’s World reference. That’s not a joke. That is a thing that happens in this Golden Globe-winning movie that somehow isn’t a parody. The future is not what any of us hoped it would be.
Rami Malek does give a great performance as Freddie Mercury, he really does, but then that’s what Bohemian Rhapsody is. It’s a biopic about someone generally loved designed to say “Look at how great he was” and win someone a Best Actor Oscar. I can’t say I learned anything about Freddie the person, I just watched Freddie the persona walk through all of the key moments* from him joining the band that would become Queen, to the moment of inspiration for some of their better known songs, to their entire Live Aid set.
Much like The Darkest Hour had nothing to say about Winston Churchill’s more controversial post-war political career, there’s also nothing about Live Aid’s famine relief money being spent on guns from the Soviets, because we’re just here to watch Freddie Mercury be great, not, like, interrogate the man and his life and his choices or anything.
Maybe if we start doing that, these endless biopics might serve a purpose, but for now… well, at least it was more fun than The Imitation Game. I almost said The Theory of Everything but actually that one was also okay.
*Save for signing on to write the soundtrack to Highlander. Who Wants To Live Forever is snuck into the soundtrack but that whole album is skipped over.
7. Green Book
Premise: Named after a guide book to help black people travel through segregation-states without Incident. Based on a true story which has been angrily refuted by family members of one of the characters, a famous jazz musician hires an Italian-American bouncer to be his driver and assistant on a tour of the segregation-era South, showing us how institutional racism affected this black musician…’s white driver.
Hot take: Two movies with black protagonists, the word “black” right in the title, and the frontrunner is a movie about a white man learning to be less racist because he has a black friend? Oh, Oscars, why you gotta be so white about everything…
So the main strength of this one has to be in the performance of the two leads: a wonderfully stoic take from Mahershala Ali as jazz musician Dr. Don Shirley, attempting to tour Segregation South while both black and gay, playing for people that will act like he’s a star but refuse to let him use the same washroom as them; and a nigh-unrecognizable Viggo Mortensen as the gluttonous, unpolished Tony Lip. Segregation South is played as cartoonishly evil, but is there really another way to portray it? Aside from that… we watch a man who tried to throw out two drinking glasses because black people drank from them witness how aggressively evil that sort of racism actually is, and become basically better, while Dr. Shirley learns that maybe he should lean into the stereotype and try fried chicken? Is that his character arc? I don’t know why I’m asking you, I’m the one who watched it…
Anyway, it’s… fine. It’s okay. I remember laughing a few times, if not at what, specifically. I was disappointed that Tony Lip didn’t go upside the heads of more racists, but I get it. You watch it, you enjoy it more than you’re bored by it, and then it’s over and you basically move on, largely unaffected, because either you know racism is bad, or you probably didn’t watch this one. I just remember a time when “It’s okay” wasn’t enough for an Oscar nomin– no, wait, turns out I don’t remember that time, I just wish it would hurry up and get here.
6. A Star is Born
Premise: Jack, a fading country singer, meets Ally, a songwriter who doesn’t think she has a chance. Their relationship launches Ally’s career, and delays Jack’s descent into self-destruction from alcoholism and pill addiction by, oh, several months, at least.
Hot Take: Any conversation about Hollywood being out of new ideas surely needs to include this one, right? This is our fourth time on the Star is Born roller coaster.
So once again our main strength here is in performances. Lady Gaga gives a stellar performance, especially in the key scene where Jack lures her on stage at one of his concerts to sing a song she wrote. The emotions that play over her face as she makes the choice to join him onstage, through to the elation at singing her song in front of a crowd of thousands. That scene is killer. From there, it’s just waiting for Ally’s push into actual music instead of country and Jack’s substance abuse issues to drive them apart, and wondering how bad it will be when everything hits a breaking point. Not… not the happiest ending, no it is not.
So… can’t say that the second half lives up to the first. Also the first half was a little troubling, because Jack’s pursuit of Ally was the sort of thing Me Too stories are made of, but I guess we were supposed to find it charming? I was busy trying to figure out if Ally was actually attracted to Jack or if she was too scared to walk away from a really uncomfortable flirtation.
It wasn’t as unhealthy as, say, that freak relationship from The Phantom Thread last year, or even Rocky Balboa’s first date with Adrian, but… Bradley Cooper’s my third or at least fourth favourite Alias veteran*, so I’d really like him to not be a creep, but he wrote that creepy-ass first date, and now I’m worried.
*He’s competitive with Kevin Weisman, but nobody can outrank Jennifer Garner and Victor Garber. Also it warmed by geek heart that he slipped two other Alias castmates into small but key roles.
Premise: An indigenous maid in early 70s Mexico works for a richer, whiter family. The family is falling apart, and her dirtbag boyfriend gets her pregnant and then vanishes faster than that Live Aid money disappeared into some Russian arms dealer’s bank account (callback joke! I am nailing this!), and then she gets to deal with all of that.
Hot take: I know Hollywood was just arguing that cinematography is a more essential part of film making than screenplay, but I don’t know, maybe tell a story?
That’s a harsh hot take, to be sure, but that is what hot takes are for, if I understand the term correctly.
This is certainly the most artistic of the nominees, so if it were to win, I could live with that. More than I could if it went to Green Book, I tell you what. The film, if I understand the discourse I’ve read since properly, is meant to be like memories. Most shots are from a single perspective: fixed but rotating cameras, inserting the viewer into the moment more fully than a lot of cuts and coverage would. And this is a very interesting shooting technique, more so, possibly, than Birdman’s faux-single take approach. So it’s well-shot, well-acted… it just feels a little narratively thin to me, and I am nothing if not a slut for narrative.
Probably worth watching, but if you watch it, don’t be on your phone. The visuals are as important as anything, even the dude doing martial arts with his dick flapping around.
I’m not kidding, that’s a thing that happens.
4. Black Panther
Premise: In the wake of his father’s death in Captain America: Civil War, Prince T’Challa returns to the secretly super-advanced kingdom of Wakanda to replace his recently departed father as king, only to face an unexpected challenge for both the throne and the role of Wakandan champion the Black Panther from the American cousin he didn’t know he had.
Hot take: Let’s not pretend that Disney didn’t throw their immense money and influence into finally breaking the “Super hero movies don’t get Oscar nominations” stigma.
Look. I’m not here to dis Black Panther, or complain how CG the third act is, or claim that it’s nomination is entirely based on Disney money, or any of the things that, I have to assume, primarily white comic nerds are doing in the wake of Marvel’s first black hero also being the first to land a Best Picture nomination. And it was never going to be Infinity War, because Infinity War broke a very simple rule… never show a man half a job. For all of its strengths, Infinity War is half a story.
Black Panther, however, is a complete tale, with an exploration of what a great nation’s responsibilities to the world might be, with a top-tier villain turn from Michael B. Jordan. If I were to name one Marvel Studios picture that deserved to make the Best Picture shortlist, yeah, I’d pick this one. In terms of superhero movies as a whole I would have backed Wonder Woman last year but that third act had some flaws, and not just in terms of CG. Logan certainly deserved more love than it got, but we’re here now.
Just remember, Marvel Zombies (a preferred term for hardcore Marvel fans)… this wouldn’t have happened if the Oscars hadn’t expanded the Best Picture category to “Up to ten” in the wake of the massive public uproar over The Dark Knight getting snubbed for that waste of time movie The Reader. So a Marvel movie was first to the podium, but DC changed the system.
3. The Favourite
Premise: Queen Anne (a delightfully batty Olivia Colman) rules England, but the worst kept secret in the palace is that her best friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) is essentially running the country, and pushing it towards an expensive war with France. All of this is threatened when Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), arrives at the palace seeking employment, her family having been ruined by her father’s gambling. Abigail’s attempts to secure a place back in high society and Sarah’s ambitions for the country find themselves at loggerheads, as they compete to be, well, the Favourite. Right there in the name.
Hot take: Flip some genders and glamorize the rulers a bit more, and this would run for six seasons on Starz.
Well this one was a lot of fun. Abigail’s attempts to climb the ladder without getting whipped too much, Lady Sarah’s push for war, Nicholas Hoult as Harley, the Leader of the Opposition, trying to foil Lady Sarah, and an oddly engaging refusal to make any of these people 100% worth rooting for. Sure Lady Sarah’s harshness and Abigail’s sympathetic circumstances push you in a direction at first, but things don’t stay that simple for long. And yes, Harley wants peace and lower taxes and those are pretty good, but man can he be a dick about it.
And at the center of it all, a wonderfully deranged take on the Queen from the splendid Olivia Colman. Even if the other women weren’t on her level, she’d be worth it. Thankfully, they are, and while the movie loses a bit of steam in the last half hour, the whole trio make for an impressive battle of passive-aggression.
Premise: From the director of The Big Short, another fourth-wall-breaking comedy/drama attempting to help you understand a way in which American society broke recently: this time, the rise to power and the attempt to seize absolute power by Dick Cheney.
Hot take: The current president is a wannabe dictator with no leadership abilities and his vice-president wants to take money out of AIDS research and use it to torture gay teens, but sure, let’s hop in the old Wayback Machine…
The makeup effects to turn Christian Bale into old, crotchety Dick Cheney were certainly impressive, and Bale had Cheney’s character down pat, but young Cheney was less impressive. Bale never looked younger than 42.
My favourite moment in this movie comes as a young(?) Cheney asked his new mentor, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), “What do we believe?” and Rumsfeld just laughs, and laughs, and laughs. This, to me, was the most important message of the movie, even more so than Cheney’s attempts to seize as much unchecked power as he could. It’s why I don’t trust conservative political parties. The modern Republican party, and more and more right-wing parties like them, have no values. No beliefs. They just want power, as much of it as they can grab, and to use that power to make themselves and their rich friends even richer.
Sure there’s entertainment in how they depict Cheney’s rise through the ranks, and they have a few fun Big Short-style “To explain subprime mortgages, here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath” moments. Also the narration works, provided by Jesse Plemons as a character with an unexpected connection to Cheney.
I also liked the mid-credit scene where they poke fun at how Republican voters are probably just going to dismiss the whole film as liberal bias and the country will remain divided. But if we’re talking biopics about the deep flaws in America that are more of a problem than ever…
Premise: Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel), first black police detective in Colorado Springs, decides to launch an investigation into the Ku Klux Klan, posing as a white man over the phone, and enlisting Jewish detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to take over the role for in-person meetings.
Hot take: And the only acting trophy goes to the white sidekick? Why you gotta be so white all the time, Oscars?
Hoo doggy. If we thought Green Book was unflinching in portraying racists as terrible people, check out what Spike Lee does. But while the dangers of the Klan are never understated, he also does enjoy making them look the fools. Something aided by a cameo from Alec Baldwin as… you’d just have to see it… Topher Grace as a seemingly-genial, easily-duped David Duke, and the inclusion of I, Tonya’s Paul Walter Hauser, who has a gift for playing bad guys who are no less dangerous for being comically stupid.
Sure, Stallworth’s investigation didn’t exactly bring down the Klan, as the montage at the end of the movie of news footage from that long-ago year of 2017 reminds us that they remain a resurgent problem, but it is a tense and satisfying story just the same.
Anyway that’s all of them. There have been worse years, there have been better years… and yeah, there’s something uninspiring about being this middle-of-the-road, but I’ll be watching the show just the same.
It’s getting close to my annual post ranking the best picture nominees at the Oscars. I just need the Academy to decide what the best picture nominees actually are so I know which ones I haven’t seen yet. Other than A Star is Born, probably.
So while we’re waiting on that… and my Arrowverse Year Three rewatch is ongoing… let’s talk about the year’s superhero movies.
But not a rank ordering. I don’t see the point. There are interesting trends and symmetries this year, but the worst superhero movie I saw was fun, just a little disposable.
(I refer to Ant-Man And The Wasp, but if you thought I meant Aquaman... well, we disagree a little but that’s fine.)