Media in Review: November 2020


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So, I had heard that Rocketman was really good and that Bohemian Rhapsody was not so great, but I got them smashed together in my head—both flashy biopics of some of my favorite, classic singers/bands. I got to this one on my ever-growing list of movies to watch (when Spirited Away wasn’t available for less than $12), intentionally before I started in on Thanksgiving-themed movies and books. I loved it. I guess I expected another Almost Famous or How to Build a Girl (both about writers, yes, but also about the world of rock and fame), but what I didn’t expect was an actual musical full of—as some people put it—fantasy, but as I would put it, magic realism. It’s a quilt of flashy visuals, biographical tidbits, newly-interpreted music that was already beautiful, nostalgia, emotion, and life. I admit that though the movie is bookended with John in rehab and it is clear throughout that John’s wild lifestyle was anything but fulfilling of that loveless space he had carried since childhood, it can’t help but glamorize the fast life a little, because everything is so textural and lyrical and harmonious and visually exciting. The acting is great and the writing is interesting, but the directing is simply inspired, refreshing, and daring. I’m sure I’ve got you too worked up, and beware of all the drugs and swearing, not to mention a few awkward-depending-on-who-you-watch-it-with (and yet both raw and restrained) “sex” scenes. Other than that, sit back and enjoy what is now one of my favorite musicals. (Note: even people who don’t like musicals might like this one. Yes, people break out into song and dance, but all the numbers are brief and really move things along and express truth and emotion. Plus, they’re songs we’ve all been listening to for decades.)

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A highly lauded family movie from a few years back, this movie was endearing. It was also shamelessly predictable. Thankfully, the writer thought to throw in a few twists at the end to give the viewer some satisfaction, but until then, you hate to admit it but you feel like you’ve seen all this before. On the other hand, I think the refreshing bit about this movie is not the underdog line, but the portrayal of life on “the other side of the tracks” and in a racial minority family, specifically an African American family in an African American community. It’s not all grit and tragedy. There are things to celebrate here. There are lives to be lived, most days in very normal ways. There is grit and tragedy, but it’s not in stark contrast to “the one who escapes.” Not at all. And it also introduces people to the Spelling Bee, including kids. Yes, this is a sport and it is pretty exciting and competitive. Perhaps it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but neither is football. So it’s not my favorite movie, but it’s a great pick for a family or for a classroom. Easy.

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Visually beautiful. Impeccably acted. Super well-written. Intriguing, engaging, and extremely uncomfortable. And I really don’t know how to react, because I feel like the commentary in this movie is subtle and relies on the understanding and complicity of the viewer so much that it could be really confusing and detrimental for some people, especially children. I mean, my twelve-year-old was sort of wandering in and out as the movie played, and I felt like I had to explain everything to him, because it was so tongue-in-cheek. I mean, if you just read the dialogue, without context, it would read like racist propaganda of the worst sort. But we get it, right? It’s a satire on just how ridiculous and horrible this very racist highlight in history was. Then we can take it and apply it to our lives.

Sorta. The movie was so beautiful and comical that I felt, at times, the tragedy was drowned. You have to compare the movie to Life is Beautiful for obvious reasons, but I felt the tragedy in Life is Beautiful much more keenly. And yet, Jojo Rabbit is a special movie. Even without the Nazis. I mean, did anyone else wonder how on earth this movie even got made? How did it get greenlighted and staffed? What was shooting it even like? Totally bizarre, but I couldn’t help but loving every minute of it, and only a little because of its cleverness and message. Mostly I loved what I mentioned at the beginning here: the visual beauty (the colors, the costumes, the architecture), the acting, the humor, and the impeccable writing. Just make sure you’re ready for some awkward juxtaposition in this truly unconventional coming-of-age in the heart of Nazi Youth Germany.

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MOANA (2016)

Like any self-respecting mother of small children a handful of years ago, I saw Moana shortly after it was released. We were all waiting for the next Disney “princess” movie, right, and Moana was another more-diverse interpretation of this theme, the second in line (after Frozen) of princesses who would not need a prince in their story. The princess could save the day without him, and this time without any romantic storyline. And yet, there are a lot of classic Disney “princess” similarities (though the animation keeps slowly changing with time). You have the young girl, the insta-hit songs, the impeccable animation and similar storyline based on a fairy tale of sorts (this time from Polynesian lore). The animation of the water, alone, is worth mentioning. It looks like real water, but it’s brighter and sparklier and prettier, like hyper-realism. Heightened realism. Though it didn’t gain the popularity of Frozen, it also wasn’t as forgettable as Treasure Island, Atlantis, or Hercules, which all might not be “princess” exactly, but are in the same vein. Moana is a good movie. It has the best Disney sidekick (except maybe Olaf), beautiful animation, a solid story, a spunky protagonist, and those catchy songs, some better than others. A solid release.

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I was happy to see that the pandemic would not get in the way of a new season of Great British Bake Off (still often affectionately referred to by its previous name under PBS, Great British Baking Show). I was surprised and not surprised when they opened the new season with a short explanation that in order to do the season, they created a closed commune of competitors, hosts, and other various employees (including tech, cleaning crew, and even medical team) and that everyone was required to walk away from their physical life for seven weeks and live in the airtight commune. That way, they didn’t need to keep all the competitors distanced or wearing masks. Seems like a pretty interesting idea, and we all want Great British Bake Off to go on. After you get used to seeing people interact normal during the pandemic, it’s just another season with a few changes that fans will notice (like no family picnic at the end and the occasional on-screen appearance of children—who were allowed to live in the commune). I also noticed that, while I became invested in the bakers (something that GBBS does so very well), none of them really rose to the baffling technique and style that some of the previous competitors did. In fact, they seemed to hold on to one baker way too long, building a fiction that the viewership eventually bought in to. Then when they eliminated her, finally, it was a shock. Whatever, she had serious issues from the beginning, from what I could tell. So, maybe not my favorite season of GBBO, but still enjoyable and a show I will continue to watch until they stop making it. See HERE for previous review.

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I do like to occasionally land on a comedy special. This special was Seth Myer’s Lobby Baby. He was about as approachable as anyone I’ve seen on the stage in quite some time. Right before watching, I had previewed the new Dana Carvey special—which I wanted to watch largely because I was such a Wayne’s World fan—but it looked super edgy, over the top, and though this is a popular style for comedians, I moved on. I also got a kick out of Myers putting a SKIP button on the screen so that you can—honest to goodness—skip the political bit in the middle. Lobby Baby was funny enough. I didn’t curl up on myself laughing, but I laughed a little. It was relevant and yet not so political or about sex or deviant lifestyles or whatever. I enjoyed it.

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THE VOW and SEDUCED (2020)

The Vow, which I kept seeing advertised on Netflix/HBOMax, seemed like a good place for Kevin and I to settle during his Thanksgiving break (since we don’t often get to watch shows together). He hadn’t already seen it, and it was a crime show that I was curious to watch, unlike many of the others. Cults do make me curious, and both The Vow and Seduced arrived on the heels of Keith Raniere’s conviction for crimes at the head of NXIVM, a self-help company with a bit of a pyramid scheme that was sometimes accused of being a cult. The Vow was quite long for what it was; something like ten, hour-long episodes following the enrollment, involvement, and defection of a few of the top members. These four people eventually team up with the famous mom of a famous top member who was desperate to save her from the organization, which she found out was branding, torturing, brainwashing, and trafficking some of their members. Vow is done chronologically and with a lot of cinematic flair and modern feel, veeeery sloooowly unfurling the layers of the story. It has a bit of a soporific effect while also being really addictive. Each episode leads up to one startling revelation that is revealed at the very last second, drawing you further down the rabbit hole. In fact, there are many early episodes when you wonder, is this a cult? Is there anything even going on? While The Vow is a better series, there are still many questions left unanswered and once you turn to Seduced (Starz) to answer those questions—a much more conventional cult-exposure/crime documentary—you realize, as my husband kept saying, just how easy they were on Keith Reneire in The Vow. Nice, even. But note: there is a second half of The Vow series set for the spring of 2021, and I think they might keep revealing the layers of Raneire and his past as they move, chronologically, into the trial. And still there are a few questions, and I finished both series with a little online research. So, what I’m saying is that The Vow and Seduced are easily addictive and go well in that order followed by a little research. If you go in for that sort of thing, you’re bound to enjoy both of them.

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My husband and I have been trying to get the kids to watch this for family movie night ever since it came out, what?, in the fall? Summer, even? For some reason, the concept that really appealed to us did not so much appeal to them: a hundred years ago a Jewish immigrant fell into a vat of pickle brine at the New York factory he was working in and the vat was closed and abandoned. When it’s opened, present-day, he is perfectly preserved and they find one living relative to take him in: his great-grandson, a hipster looking to make the next big app. Both parts are played by Seth Rogan. (So, some of the appeal might have come from our love of Freaks and Geeks and the actors it produced, but it was mostly the idea, which we thought was brilliantly funny and they thought was absurd and forgettable.) By the end, we had all met somewhere in the middle. It was better than they feared and it was not as great as we had hoped. Let me qualify that—I’m not sure we expected much from it, so maybe it was about what we expected and less than we had hoped. So, it’s an okay movie. It underscores the crazy roller-coaster of “cancel culture” and also the extremes of either being irreverent and prejudiced or being uber-sensitive and over-the-top PC. The acting was okay. The humor was subtle. Really about family and success. A movie you could watch, but it probably won’t become your favorite.

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Yay! Another season of Somebody Feel Phil came out! It was filmed right before the pandemic hit and all the footage was edited into two seasons, season 4 the second. Let me take you back. “It” all began in 2015 with I’ll Have What Phil’s Having. The six-episode series did not get renewed until it got re-bought and re-vamped by Netflix and became Somebody Feel Phil. I don’t know what was wrong with those original people, because I have loved Phil and his gustatory, good-will-spreading travels from episode one. It’s one of my favorite shows. They really keep teasing me, though, with these super short seasons and I hope that they keep on making them for a while. Phil, Phil Rosenthal, if you don’t know, is famous for Everybody Loves Raymond. He has done some acting, directing, and even writing besides, but this series is so wonderfully perfect for him: he’s goofy and funny and wide open, sure, but he’s also this older, Jewish guy who passionately loves food and even more passionately loves to meet people. Any people. All people. On the series, he comes across as sweet, kind, curious, willing to try just about anything, and smart. He’s a food lover more than a foodie (like, lacking the snobbery and maybe some of the knowledge) but just like Anthony Bourdain, this is journalism about people and culture more even than it is about food. It’s a pretty popular scene right now: using food to demystify and bring together through the medium of TV reality shows. My two favorites in this category have long been Anthony Bourdain and now Phil. You should at least check it out and see if you love Phil, too.

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This movie was listed as a Thanksgiving watch, and it was a favorite growing up, so I managed to convince my son to watch it with me one night before bed. In my head, I was getting it mixed up with The Great Outdoors, Home Alone (the sub-plot with the mom trying to get home to Kevin) and even a little Tommy Boy. I haven’t seen it in a loooooong time. But I must have watched it plenty growing up because I always knew what was coming and more than a dozen scenes I whispered to my son, “Oh, this is a classic scene” before anything even happened. If you haven’t seen it, it falls in line with a number of other popular comedies from the late seventies to the early nineties. Starring John Candy and Steve Martin (hugely popular at the time), it follows one New York businessman (Martin) as he attempts to get home to his family in Chicago in time for Thanksgiving dinner. His plane is delayed and in his suffering he falls in with a curtain ring salesman (Candy) with a number of annoying habits but a much bigger heart. The rest of the movie is a number of spoofy obstacles between the two men and Chicago and incidences that keep squishing them together even as they naturally repel. There’s nothing wrong with this movie. It will need some careful reviewing if you want to present it to the family, but as nostalgic, grown-up entertainment, it has both a funny bone and soul, though the plot be predictable. Standard comedy gold.  

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I make my children sit through a total of an hour, tops, of Peanuts viewing per year: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown for Halloween and A Charlie Brown Christmas for Christmas. They are traditions that I have clung to because when I was a kid, we knew every year when these were scheduled to air and we were home and on the couch, as a family, ready to watch. Nowadays, I own the DVD set and, should we feel too lazy to go upstairs and get them, they’re likely streaming somewhere we have a subscription, anyways. Speaking of my DVD set, it came not just with the two specials I was familiar with, but with a Thanksgiving and Easter one as well. I don’t know about the rest of Gen-X Americans, but these were below my radar. I find all the old Peanuts specials to by comforting. They are short and sweet, so the boring bits fly by, but it’s like returning to an encouraging friend. Linus is pretty much that encouraging friend. I also really enjoy the animation style here: the beautiful watercolor washes behind the boldly-outlined and somewhat crudely-drawn characters and major props. At only 25 minutes, how can you go wrong with trying it out?

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I had forgotten that there was another The Grinch movie that had come out in the last few years. I am happy with the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas, from 1966, to be honest, and had no use for the 2000 version starring Jim Carrey. My daughter wanted to watch this newest one in the couple days after Thanksgiving, however, and when I found out the Grinch was voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, I was happy to oblige. If you are new to our culture, perhaps you don’t know about the Grinch. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a children’s picture book written by Dr. Seuss and has become a given character in the American pantheon of Christmastime. He’s a second version of Scrooge (a la The Christmas Carol), playing the part of a curmudgeonly recluse who hates Christmas. In The Grinch, the Grinch purposefully seeks to destroy Christmas, but the resilience of the Whos change his mind and his heart, in the end. The 1966 movie is a short, animated, made-for-TV special that many children in the 70s, 80s, and perhaps even 90s grew up watching annually along with the Charlie Brown special (1965), Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), and Frosty the Snowman (1969). So I have deep loyalties to these classic versions (except Frosty—I was never a fan) and a new movie would never replace the oldie, just be something else. All in all, the newest version—a CG animated blockbuster—is okay. It has its cute and interesting moments, its additional plotlines to drag the story out, its modern twists and relevancies. (It’s his color that both alienates and defines him here, though we never find out what exactly he is.) It also falls flat in many places (the back story, for instance, and the possibility of romance). It’s also missing some sort of magic, an authentic humor, perhaps. I would watch it again, next year, but I won’t be seeking it out or forgoing the oldest version.

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I am revealing a hole in my life’s experiences here, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen Miracle on 34th Street. That might be forgivable for a youngin’, but I honestly don’t know how I skated through the last 40 years of Christmases without ever being submitted to Miracle on 34th Street. Then again, it wasn’t the sort of movie my parents would have liked. It’s reeeeealy classic, and was recommended to me recently as a good one to watch on Thanksgiving or the day after. Indeed, the opening scenes take place at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a TV tradition I do take part in every year, though nowadays it’s playing in the background while I am in eye- and ear-shot in the kitchen, cooking and baking away while I shoo the video-gamers away. The movie’s old-fashioned, black and white, and outdated, to be sure, and my kids would never tolerate a movie like this. I, on the other hand, have no problem with mining the classics—like in all sorts of fields and forms—for entertainment, enjoyment, and education. I can see why this movie has been popular and enduring. It is pretty solid, feel-good, and of course ends with Santa Claus being real, which is one of our most popular Christmas movie themes. It’s a romance and involves a child, bumbling authority, ill-intentioned establishment, and all the bells and whistles of a typical Christmas season. On the other hand, it touts traditional beliefs over new-fangled ones, and so, I’m sure, alienates many of the younger people. I’m sure there is someone, somewhere who has written about the dangerous, anti-feminist stance of this movie, but I find it harmless and calming. I agree, a great movie for Thanksgiving, when things are winding down and you’ve got either a whole range of people to please or the family room, punch, and pie all to yourself.

ELF (2003)

And then we dove into our regular holiday viewing with what is undoubtedly our family favorite: Elf. Clearly, we are not alone. Elf quickly shot its way into the pantheon of holiday viewing and has remained strong. Very strong. Starring Will Ferrell and Zoey Deschanel (among others), Elf is the story of a baby boy orphan who ends up in the North Pole and is raised as an elf, though he clearly doesn’t fit in. When Santa reveals to him who his real father is and—gasp!—that he is on the naughty list, Buddy the Elf takes off on a journey to New York City that is part rescue and part self-discovery. It’s straight-up comedy, though with a heart, and a sensitivity to a wide viewership, and I can’t imagine the person who won’t giggle along with Buddy’s antics and Ferrell’s one-liners. It’s cute and cuddly, but also funny and homey and very, very, Christmas-y. “Buddy the Elf! What’s your favorite color?”

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