Media in Review: July 2020

Since I made that gigantic list of best movies and TV shows, I said that I would give you updates. But this is primarily a reading and writing blog, so I am going to limit my movie and TV reviews to a once-a-month update. (This has also come out of the pandemic, as I have had time to reconnect to my love of movies and have had way more screen time than is normal for me.)

Here’s what I’ve been watching this month.

DARK (TV series)

I didn’t watch the entire series this month, but my husband finished watching the second and final seasons while I mostly paid attention. There was something about this series that didn’t hold me for long at a time, though I would be pretty alone on that, at least for people who would normally like this sort of thing. It’s a German sci-fi series, and you can find it in both subtitles and in overdubbing. My husband—despite his loathing of overdubbing—switched to it part of the way through because it takes a lot of brain power (rewinding, and Googling) to watch this one. It’s about time travel, mostly, which means my husband was in from the word “go.” We’re in small town Germany, a child has gone missing and a father has committed suicide. Before it’s all over, we have characters from various time periods, a number of missing children, time travelers, villains and heroes. Always slow, dark (ha!), and serious, we end up spanning more than a century and into the future, getting in a confused mess of families, relationships, theoretical science and moral gray areas, hoping that someone will save the day, whatever that means here. There’s been a lot of enthusiastic recommendations of this one, and if it’s your sort of thing, you’ll probably walk away singing its praise. Solid. Not for kids, and I love how Europeans know how to have a show and then end it. Catch it on Netflix.

THE GREAT (TV series, season 1)

Well, my rule is usually if a show starts out with gratuitous sex and depravity, just leave off and let other people watch it. I don’t know if I made an exception because The Great is history (very loosely—this didn’t work with Vikings or Rome) or if it’s because depravity is the point (didn’t work for Game of Thrones), so we’ll have to just say I did watch it and I did do my Google-comparisons to actual history as it went along, which is the way I like to watch The Crown, as well. Not that this show is anything like The Crown. The Great is a new Hulu streaming series starring one of those omnipresent Fanning girls and Nicholas Hoult of Warm Bodies and About a Boy (both movies I recommend, incidentally). It’s a comedy, totally tongue-in-cheek. It’s rowdy. It’s bawdy. And it claims only an occasional relation to the history of Catherine the Great as she ascended to the throne in Russia. I have fast-forwarded over some of the sex, especially the scenes that modern shows seem to favor in a series’ infancy that have absolutely no plot-relevance. And yet the point is that the court of an 18th century Russian emperor was one wild, crazy, bumpy ride of cow-towing, violence, luxury, sensuality, and whim mixed with war, intrigue, religion, and a distant enlightenment. It seems an exaggeration, but it is interesting to contemplate what might happen if you had generations of entitled rulers bred and raised in an insular, incestuous world where no one was allowed to question their decisions. The series, so far, has excellent reviews and I kept waiting with bated breath for the next episode. Jury’s still out, for me.

THE MATRIX (movie)

We jumped right into the Best Movies and Shows list with The Matrix, on our first family night. When I was in college, and in a philosophy program to boot, this movie came out and blew all of our minds. Kevin and I explained to our kids the context, including the innovative way the directors used stop-motion and multiple cameras and even invented techniques of filming in order to create a type of slow-mo action that is now fairly commonplace (and they could easily identify). We also made sure they didn’t ask too much about the movie up front because it really is better the first time around, when you don’t know what’s coming. Not that that kept me from watching it over and over when I was in my early twenties, partly because students in philosophy classes were very fond of referencing it, ad nauseum.

So what can I tell you? I can tell you that we own a copy, but that we rented it on Prime anyways because the effects are much better if you get the remastered version. Plus, it is so literally dark that it is just easier to see remastered, when you have older and more spoiled eyes, like mine. If you really don’t know, The Matrix is a 1999 action/sci-fi classic starring Keanu Reeves (in the one role I don’t mind him in). He’s a reclusive hacker with a monotonous day job who has an inkling that there is something more going on out there. He follows a white rabbit—and Trinity—down a rabbit hole that leads him to the truth about reality and a choice whether or not to accept it and truly live. I have to stop there, because it just has too many secrets.

I enjoyed watching it again, though I was surprised at how slow it moved at certain parts. It still remained suspenseful, over all. The cinematography was lush even though washed-out and, as I said, dark. It is a complete world we’re seeing here, though a bit gritty, for sure. The acting is pretty solid, though there are a few lame lines along with the quotable and a certain amount of stock characterization. I have joked many times that they finally found the role that Keanu Reeves has been playing his entire life and put him in it. The movie is a classic, and I was surprised by how many moments in the film are truly iconic, both in the action sequences and in the drama or the general story. (My son kept saying, “That’s a meme!”)  If you don’t like action, thriller, or sci-fi, I guess don’t bother. But if any of those have even a small purchase in your viewing habits, The Matrix is a must-see. (The sequels, on the other hand, are not. I would just leave them.)

THREE NEW FOOD SHOWS: CRAZY DELICIOUS, TIME TO EAT and TASTE THE NATION

I triple-dipped this month in emerging food shows. Now, I am a sucker for food shows, but I don’t love them all. In fact, sometimes I get addicted to one, and I’m not sure why. Anyhow. Crazy Delicious is a British, food competition show on Netflix, which involves three competitors and three rounds of cooking hosted by an accented comedian, the first round giving an advantage, the second an elimination, and the third the prize (a golden apple). Sound familiar? Yeah, it totally is. The bend here, in an attempt to draw viewers, is that the food has to be both crazy ­and delicious and also that the chefs/cooks are cooking in an edible garden for the “food gods” (read: famous food personalities). It’s okay. It has fallen flat with reviewers and audiences, and I just kept being annoyed that the host wore the same thing every episode. I would watch more, but I’m not really waiting for more of the same.

Time to Eat is Great British Baking Show champion Nadiya Hussain’s companion show for her cookbook, Time to Eat. I am a fan of Hussain’s, who won me (and everyone else) over way back on Great British with her bright eyes and shy smile, innocence, humility, and gentleness, not to mention talent. I follow her on Insta. She’s endearing, and I have now been won over to Time to Eat (and to the cookbook). I hope she makes many more seasons. And it’s not just her, it’s also the genius of many of the recipes. In the show, Hussain takes the viewer along on a journey into the kitchen and life of a home cook. (She also visits the source of a common English pantry staple, which is reminiscent of Sesame Street and very interesting.) While I won’t be recreating some of her hacks, there are a number of them that I now have in notes, like Why didn’t I think of that? Baked pancakes with flavor swirl? Ramen prepped in Mason jars with jerky? Love it!

As for Taste the Nation, the verdict is still out, for me. Now, when Lorraine Pascal went from model to food icon, I somehow went along for the ride. Somehow, I find Padma Lakshmi doing it more distracting, like I constantly question her authority. On Taste the Nation, she travels to different communities in America (from a native population to Chicago) to uncover the history and idiosyncrasies of food in that area. It’s compassionate and interesting enough, but, well, it’s no Anthony Bourdain. Perhaps I’m just not enamored with the hostess, or maybe I want more journalism with this otherwise great idea, but I can’t decide if I really like it or not.

JERRY SEINFELD SPECIAL

Last month I finished watching every single episode of Seinfeld, which was of course a great experience. Seinfeld is so funny and iconic. Even laughing at the bad acting is a fun experience. It seemed appropriate, then, to click on Seinfeld’s newest comedy special on Netflix, 23 Hours to Kill. While I sorta hate when comedy specials don’t make me LOL, I still really liked this one because it was still really funny, just in a quieter way. I referenced it in my head throughout the week, thought my husband should watch it, and then it’ll fade into eventually not remembering if I had watched it or not. The truth is, it’s really hard to come up with a great stand-up special, and this one is worth a watch.

THE WORLD WIDE WEB (:-))

What is happening on the internet and social media that is worth mentioning, this month? Well, for me it’s got to be SarahCPR (who I follow on Instagram). It is a channel currently devoted to making fun of what Trump says and how he says it, but man is it good stuff. If you’re not comfortable with that, you could try out wantshowasyoung on Instagram. In a twist on the weird-things-making-people-famous story, this elderly Taiwanese couple, who own a laundromat, has been rocketed into super-popularity by their grandson’s photos of them. In the photos, the two model lost and left-behind clothes from their laundromat and it is as cute as a button and hip as can be. What else did I share with those I love? The Holderness family pretending to be Rona (the annoying virus-turned-lady), kids drawings photoshopped to look disturbingly real, mask memes, Jordan Klepper at Trump rallies, 2020 memes, Leslie Jordan, Stan Carey cartoons, Reba the stowaway chicken… There’s always something to find on the internet, but I do try to stay away from it for most of each day.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY

Another movie from the Best Movies list, I own this one, have seen it before, and thought it would make a good family night movie. It did, mostly. My son, at twelve, didn’t appreciate it as much as the rest of us. I, on the other hand, love this movie. I mentioned it previously on the blog as a recommend for the summer of 2014, but I didn’t say much more. Walter Mitty is based on a James Thurber short story and then an older adaptation, which I can’t seem to find any info about. In this version, Ben Stiller plays Walter, a subdued film acquisitions guy at Life magazine at a time when the magazine is being acquired and dismantled. He has a thing for his co-worker, played by Kristen Wiig, and an issue with Adam Scott. In an attempt to save his job, he has to track down a famous photographer, played by Sean Penn. Oh, and by the way, Walter lives a lot of his disappointing life in his head, and we watch his zone-outs like fantastical scenes of the movie until the events of the movie eventually become equally as fantastical. Romantic. Endearing. Funny. Despite its mixed review, I think it’s a hidden gem.

BEAT BOBBY FLAY

When I find episodes of one of my top twenty Food Network shows, I just watch them until I have exhausted the free ones. This month it was Beat Bobby Flay. If you don’t know who Bobby Flay is, you may have been living under a rock. But I’ll tell you. He is a major food personality, a more-than-competent chef and restaurant owner, and a modern food rock-star. He’s everywhere, especially if you watch Food Network, and as an Iron Chef etc., Flay has become the one to beat. Thus the show. Two chefs come on each week, compete against each other in one round, and the chef left standing challenges Flay with a dish of their choosing. Flay, who sometimes has never even made the chosen dish or has minimal knowledge, still frequently goes on to whoop the other chef’s butt, despite attempts by the famous hosts, who all have it out for him (in a friendly way), trying to take Bobby down a peg. I think my husband finds this whole set-up obnoxious, with cocky Flay strutting around and practically cooking with his hands strapped behind his back. I, on the other hand, have accepted Flay as the master he is and study his methods with curious precision. Watch enough and you begin to see a method to the madness. Plus, I like almost any show that features plenty of food and cooking techniques of high caliber and at a rapid pace. It’s not my favorite food show, but I will keep watching it when it’s on.

PHINEAS AND FERB

I didn’t do much actual watching of this show this month. My kids did, for nostalgia’s sake, but I have seen most of the show’s four seasons before. You see, when my kids were little nuggets, I noticed these strange-head-shaped cartoons around, but I just couldn’t get past the strange choice in animation. And then my daughter started watching it. And then, passing through the room, so did my son. And my husband. And me. And it became not only a family show to watch—the best animated series we’ve ever enjoyed together—but also a minor obsession, from a Perry coffee mug to a Perry beach towel to a four-character Halloween costume. It’s a ridiculously simple idea which repeats every single episode: it’s summer vacation and two step-brothers look for fun in inventions of epic proportions. Their friends join in the fun, their sister attempts to tattle on them to their mom, and meantime a villain-inventor from the same town is busy with devious creations of his own, which is always thwarted by Phineas’ and Ferb’s secret agent platypus in such a way as to make their own invention disappear in a poof of teen sister Candace’s frustration. Just go with it. It’s funny. It’s cute. It’s creative. If you have Disney Plus, and especially if you have kids, you should give this show a shot. It is entirely possible you’ll enjoy it much more than you anticipated.

RECENT SPIDERMAN MOVIES

And then we got on to a Spiderman kick. My son randomly turned Into the Spiderverse on my room TV one night, and I just couldn’t look away. I’d seen this movie once before, and I don’t exaggerate when I say it is hands-down my favorite comic book hero movie. You’ve probably already seen if it you are going to, but still. Animated in a compellingly creative way, it is in some respects the traditional Spiderman story we’ve heard before until we realize that Spiderman has counterparts in other dimensions and when a couple of the classic villains build a machine to snatch people from those other dimensions, a few versions collide. Given modern twists to make this one especially relevant, this version really stands a head above the rest. Visually stunning. Thoughtful. Even good dialogue. Full of heart-warming characters and great twists and turns, this is comic book movies at its absolute best.

Next, my daughter talked me into allowing the two most recent Spiderman remakes. (I believe there is a third one being made.) I get very weary of watching comic book movies. The way I remember it, there used to be one or two big comic book movie come out in a year and it was a big deal and everyone went and saw them and came out punching each other and hootin’ and hollerin’, thinking they could save the world. I feel like now there’s another Marvel or DC movie every week and they’re all incredibly interconnected (like the comics, I know) and serial and yet not serial, and the actors change and then we do a re-make like two years after the last one and… Not that action was every really my genre, but I can appreciate a big blockbuster and innovative CG with the rest of them.

We watched Homecoming and Far From Home in one night (our nights have been getting later and later all summer) over our Thursday night local take-out (falafel, actually). I agreed because even I am sometimes outvoted. I also agreed because my daughter enjoyed these movies so much she owns the first one, and the rest of us had never seen them. Thankfully—though not as special as Into the Spiderverse—these two movies do have a different flavor from most the other comic movies, in that they’re much more childlike, more innocent somehow. And the characters feel a little more down-to-earth. Also, can you imagine the chutzpah it takes to produce an entire movie where the love interest is present and yet hidden in plain sight? (Of course, if you weren’t sure you could develop the series further…) There was enough different (in an exciting way) about these movies, that I would recommend them, even if you don’t especially love superhero movies. If you do, well, then you should definitely see them.

THE HARRY POTTER MOVIES

Like many stay-at-home-during-the-pandemic families, we have tried out jigsaw puzzles. I was opposed, at first, but after Kevin said he’d like one and my aunt sent one along to help with quarantine and then it sat, slowly forming, on the family room table for weeks, I got hooked on making my own contribution once in a while. When my husband mentioned within earshot of my mom that he was enjoying puzzles, she also sent one along, this time a Harry Potter one, which made us feel understood and loved. So we began again. Now, we (Slytherin + Gryffindor = Hufflepuffs) are already obsessed with Harry Potter and we watch the movies at least once a year. I have already reviewed them HERE (as well as the books, of course), so I don’t need to do it again. But this has been our thing for the last few weeks: nights where we eat popcorn, drink seltzer mocktails, fiddle with the puzzle, and watch the next movie in the series. We’re making memories here, folks. Anchoring in the storm.

A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

When I heard they were making a movie about Mr. Rogers, I was psyched. Not only was I a Mr. Rogers fan in my youth, but I know that Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian minister and I was hoping for a positive portrayal of the Christian faith on the big screen. Tom Hanks seemed like a pretty good choice to play the role, and I waited. And waited. And waited. Because somehow I couldn’t seem to get to the theater to watch it, or get my family on board to rent it. Which was maybe an okay thing, because the movie ended up just okay. I would recommend it, but I doubt I’ll watch it again. It was unexpected, but not in the best way. Let’s just get you ready: it’s not a biography, but the story of Mr. Rogers’ relationship with a rogue reporter from Esquire magazine. The story is embellished quite a bit, but the real main character here is Lloyd, the fictionalized version of Tom Junod, not Rogers. The story is interesting, though largely for the bit we see into Rogers’ life, not the been-done man-off-the-rails finding-his-way-back bit where he comes to terms with the alcoholic father who abandoned him. Also, the framing of the movie is unique, but it has a hard time deciding if it’s innovative or creepy. It’s like we’re watching a looooong episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood with some startlingly adult footage (though not inappropriate, that’s not what I mean). It works because Rogers is doing what he did best: helping someone reach maturation through dealing with their feelings, and the story has its genesis in a real relationship and events. But it also feels disorienting to those of us who are triggered to certain gentler feelings with the so-familiar xylophone music and hand puppets. Where are we?!? I wish it had been better.

SPEED

For our final family movie night of the month, we toyed with four ideas from the Best Movies list and settled on Speed. Yeah, the one from the nineties with Keanu Reeves (again) and Sandra Bullock in her quintessential role. My husband was all like, “Speed? What’s that doing on the list?” and I was all like, “I think it’ll be popular all ‘round.” And, believe it or not, it totally was. There are a couple incidences of gory violence, a comment about sex, and plenty of swearing, but for our tween-teens and us, it was a great pick. We laughed. We chatted. We sat on the edge of our seats. We laughed at the movie instead of with it a couple times. We marveled at how solid it was for an old blockbuster. We gasped. We frowned. We smiled. You get it. With the romance, action, and super-classic feel of this movie, you leave feeling like it’s the uber-movie of its type.

I also watched the recent Little Women with Emma Watson and the entire Twilight series this month, but their reviews will be going with their respective book reviews. I recommend them both, but for totally different reasons and one with caveats galore.

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