Media in Review: September 2020

Well, I am behind on my posts, which can be attributed to a trip that I took to St. Louis to see a friend married and also the demise of my current laptop. To be clear, that laptop—an ancient and cheap HP—was headed out the door for years. It took minutes to do anything, even toggle between apps, and started up with a sound like a jet engine. My son kept begging me to move on, as we waited, grumbling, yet another afternoon for his math site to open. But I couldn’t justify the expense until it had kicked the bucket officially, and my working with it the past few years is a testament both to succeeding with substandard resources and also to my inability to truly find inner peace or patience even when it was required of me every day. I’ll tell you in a later post about the new laptop. In fact, I’ll sing its praises from the rooftop because you think I’m exaggerating about the difficulties of the old one, but I am definitely being nice about it, glossing my struggles over.

Now, here is what I watched way back in September:

MASTER CHEF

(Warning: rant.)

Note: I did not stick around for later seasons, so this review officially only pertains to earliest seasons, with the hosts pictured here.

I told you in the August recap that I would review Master Chef. Let it be recorded here and now that I could not finish the series. I finally gave in to watching it in the first place because 1) I was just about out of food shows to watch on all my streaming services and 2) I was sick of people saying, “What? You don’t watch Master Chef?” as I once again tried to coax them into The Great British Baking Show or Somebody Feed Phil. My reservation about the show was Gordon Ramsay and his reputation for cruelty against chefs and kitchen staff. Perhaps a little schticky, I am really not a fan of meanness in reality TV. Actually, I began with the kid version of the show, Master Chef Junior, which I have already reviewed, because I thought, “How could he be super mean to kids?” And I was mostly right. When I began Master Chef with season one, I had no idea that Ramsay was going to look like a stuffed unicorn next to one of his two co-hosts, Joe Bastianich (the son of Italian food demigod Lydia Bastianich, who I like okay). In some ways, though the show’s intro asserts his success as a restaurateur and head of a wine empire, he has never moved beyond his status as a little boy growing up under the fame of his mother. I mean, he acts like a child repetitively, throwing away people’s dishes and pulling abominable faces, and he also comes across as the biggest snob, even snobbier than the flashy Ramsay.

And beyond that, I have a couple other reasons for stopping the show after, I think, three seasons (besides my husband repeating the phrase, “Why are you still watching this show if you don’t like it?”). First, I found the pacing to be off. Compared to other food competition shows, it’s reeeeely slow. They drag rounds out for forever and sometimes cut them at bizarre moments to be continued the next week. And even more importantly, they are painfully scripted. While I know that there is an element of scriptedness to all reality TV shows, you feel it in this one the entire time. So I looked into it. Turns out, it is especially scripted, with former contestants accusing the show of doing things like keeping them from sleeping so that they emote (and crack) more on the show, plying them with alcohol to get them to say things they wouldn’t normally, etc. etc. I once met a family that had been on one of those home makeover shows, and they said that what people saw on the screen of their family was about 5% them and 95% fiction. While Master Chef claims that the actual cooking is real, I would guess closer to 100% of Master Chef is fiction, forcing contestants to take on acted characters which are now going to become the face of their fame, which just made me super mad when old Joe was throwing one of his temper tantrums about something that was really forced (like a little sideshow to distract us from the (supposedly) volatile character who made a bigger mistake). Barf.

On top of all that, much of the competition on Master Chef clearly has to do with luck and not talent or experience. It depends on the three judges’/hosts’ moods, on where you were in the original queue for tryouts, when in the onion-cutting competition they decide to single you out, blah blah blah. The whole show feels arbitrary and staged to me, for a reason. When I first started watching it I looked up the next audition because, all things being transparent, I am Master Chef competition level (which is basically a talented amateur who knows way more about food than I have a right to), but as I continued to watch and research, I pulled the open call date from my calendar because who needs that nonsense and drama in their life? Not me.

Cover image from Disney Plus.

CANDACE AGAINST THE UNIVERSE

We are fans of Phineas and Ferb. We watched it as a family when our kids were growing up, and the kids still return to old episodes to wind down, occasionally, much like I used to do as a teen with The Flintstones and The Jetsons after a tough day of high school or Winnie-the-Pooh when I was sick. We enjoyed the first movie, The Movie: Across the Second Dimension. We approached the second movie the way a viewer often approaches an addition to a beloved universe—with a mixture of excitement and suspicion. The newest addition to the impressive world of Phineas and Ferb (including an interactive experience at Epcot at Walt Disney World), Candace Against the Universe, had its high moments and its middle moments, perhaps not as many high moments as we would hope. If you are fan, you should definitely see it, just don’t expect TOO much. If you are not a fan, I would request that you watch the shows or at least the other movie first. In other words, the movie is good, just not amazing, and it doesn’t do much to expand on the characters and repetitive plot that we were already enjoying. On the other hand, it wasn’t terrible or a flop—sigh of relief.

Cover image from Wikipedia.

RADIOACTIVE

I’m not going to agree with a lot of people, here. I think everyone was hooked up on Radioactive’s pondering the negative effects of discovering radioactivity, but I thought the movie was much more—well, pondering than judging. I thought this was an excellent movie, for many reasons, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Rosamund Pike got an Oscar nomination, though I know that usually doesn’t happen for indies. (Is it actually an indie film? I feel the lines are beginning to blur with all the streaming releases and even the pandemic.) Though I kind of hate it when history gets fictionalized and speculated about in movies and books, there were many things that I did learn about Marie Currie doing my impulsive research after watching. So many questions, I had! And as I already said, I didn’t see the portrayal as necessarily negative, just as exploratory and questioning. I would recommend the movie for its acting, costuming, cinematography, history, and creativity (with artistic and stylistic flash forwards), I would just warn you that it is highly fictionalized (and to look into it) and also that it is going to consider both the positive and negative effects of discovering radioactivity and juxtapose them against the triumph of a woman, a foreigner, and someone who diligently pursued her dreams through good intentions and out the other side (because we all know what can become of good intentions).

Cover image from Wikipedia.

I, TONYA

This movie has a lot in common with the previous one, though also much different. I, Tonya, for one, got more respect as a movie, though its fictionalization of history has also brought it criticism. Well, let’s not say fictionalization, maybe, because this one portrays a version of history, very purposefully. It’s the story of Tonya Harding, acted out (superbly) and from the perspective of three of the key players, even when they differ from one another. It is really imaginative, sometimes double-playing scenes and letting the actors interact with the camera, and I don’t mean just when they’re doing their mockumentary scenes. The cinematography, acting, and writing is what really shines in this movie and if you are a movie buff, it’s a must-watch. Gritty and for me, hypnotizing, know that it’s not an easy watch some of the time, with abuse and poverty (not just monetary) as a main theme. In the end, this movie is extremely deft with its execution, and one viewer can leave believing one thing and another, another.

Cover image from Amazon.com.

BEFORE SUNRISE

Hmm, hmm, hmm. An indy film, cult classic from the nineties. I guess I can see that. In fact, once I started watching it (from the Best Movies list I created), I realized Kevin and I had watched it many years ago when we got our first copy of VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever. We had misgiving about it then, and I have misgivings now. Maybe more now, in fact, because the characters are very immature and I’m in my 40s. It’s hard to imagine people out of college even enjoying this movie because of the impulsiveness needed to drive the plot—something that evaporates with life experience (and sense) for almost everyone. Since it was so stripped down and improv, I would have related more to smarter, more mature characters who didn’t have to constantly challenge and rebel in order to feel alive. It takes place in one night, when an American man has a change meeting with a French woman on a train and they decided to layover together in a town they’ve never been in. I can see the appeal of the movie, but I also think many people would find it hopelessly boring. Definitely a college kid, thinking/exploring kind of movie and one that would find a comfortable spot in a film or even philosophy class.

Cover image from Amazon.com.

WEEK IN A DAY

Oh, Rachael Ray. We all love to hate her, right? She really gets under my skin, but she continues to rule over some sort of food kingdom complete with a magazine, talk show, and a series of rampant interests in her marriages and body size over the years. I started watching old episodes of Week In a Day because the idea really appealed to me (as has her 30 Minute Meals cookbooks). Here’s the plan: each episode, Rachael Ray shows you how to spend one afternoon in the kitchen and have five meals to feed your family for the week. Sometimes one meal is used up that night, sometimes you can reserve all five for the weeknights, though I like the idea of using a warm meal right away and eating out (or ordering in) on Friday. After watching several seasons while sick in bed, I snagged the Week in a Day cookbook from the library and tried things out myself. Besides those traits that get under my skin and which are largely personality-related, here’s that thing about Ray: she is FULL of great ideas and energy, but I do NOT like her recipes. Out of all of the ones I have tried over the years, I have left very few alone. Most of them, for taste reasons, I modify until they are no longer recognizable except for the (often great) idea behind them and this was true with the Week In a Day cookbook, too. Love the idea, love all the tips and pointers, but will be using my own recipes and modifying them to Ray’s techniques next time I cook for a week in one day.

The show itself is moderately executed, but Rachael is still Rachael with all her imperfections except the one where’s she’s rude to guests (people love to complain about this), because there are no guests. She’s still the worst-dressed famous person I’ve ever seen. She’s still a bit pedestrian, though very passionate. She still has great ideas that aren’t always full-baked. And she still refers to food frequently as “cute,” “adorable,” with a number of annoying nicknames (like stoup and EVOO), and while tossing salt over her shoulder with a smirk on her pretty face encased in hair that I don’t believe has been garnished with a barrette, ponytail holder, dye, or—for that matter—more zealous scissors, in her many years of fame. So, what I’m saying, is that I don’t watch Rachael Ray for entertainment value, I watch it as part of a kitchen education, and on that merit, this show is full of practical, interesting ideas and a place to start if the idea of cooking ahead seems like it could improve your life.

Image from Amazon.com.

THE SOCIAL DILEMMA

When my husband heard whispers of this new movie, he insisted that we drop it into the family movie night queue for the very next week. By the time that week passed, it had become the must-see movie and I imagine that many of you have either seen it, intend to watch it, or are avoiding it because you don’t like it when things are too popular. Whether you’re distracted or too cool for school, you should really watch this movie. And while our teens were pretty bored watching it, at least the two adults and the high schooler really learned from it. Not that I’m saying I was bored. It was interesting enough to keep an adult watching, at least if you aren’t expecting a rom-com or a thriller or something. It’s a documentary, for Pete’s sake, and a pretty good one, at that. Officially, though, I think we’re calling it mixed format, because it has some acted scenes (though what 30 Minutes episode doesn’t?) to drive home the points. The information and the experts, on the other hand, are very much real, as real as the threats the internet and social media poses to us as individuals and as a society. Perhaps it could have said more, but believe me: what it IS trying to say is not what you assume it is going to say. It’s not as much about depression, social isolating, and misinformation as it is about AI creating worlds around each of us (based on economics and advertising as much as anything) that further and further distance us from any information that would contradict our current worldview. It IS alarming in its cold, hard science and ethics hinterland and in the devastating, far-reaching results. I actually started to cry when, like the Matrix, I saw the machine for what it was: the machine that I was watching distance me from my friends and from the truth and yet there were things about the process I didn’t understand until I watched this movie. Really, it’s an important watch.

Cover image from Amazon.com.

ENOLA HOLMES

And then everyone was watching Enola Holmes which crossed our radar for two reasons: starring Eleven of Stranger Things, and being about Sherlock Holmes—sorta. (I am a big fan of Sherlock Holmes.) The idea is that Holmes has a little sister who is seriously homeschooled by their eccentric mother and when the mother disappears, Enola and Sherlock find that they have more in common than he had initially assumed of his much younger, female sister. Um. This movie was okay. Teens will love the heart-throb in Louis Partridge and perhaps flock to the newly-opened movie theaters for the sequel that the writers have so obviously set up in a year or two. The costuming is fun, the scenery, but other than that (and the heart-throb), I can’t say much to recommend it. It’s an acceptable family movie, but I agree with the Sherlock Holmes estate at being taken aback by the portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Who is this character I see on the screen before me? Certainly not Sherlock Holmes. For real. He doesn’t even resemble the character cooked up by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and beloved by many through the generations. The Sherlock of Enola Holmes is stripped down of his pertinent eccentricities, distracting from a story about girl power and coming of age and reminiscent much more of steam punk than of any actual time period. So take it or leave it. It’s fine and was received well despite its obvious ploys for popularity and its unnerving habit of Enola talking to the camera. (That is all the rage, these days.) Maybe the books are better, but I can’t imagine how they could save the portrayal of Sherlock. Girl power!

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