Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Top Ten Films of 1989

Born on the Fourth of July - My favorite Oliver Stone film to date, where he drew from his own experiences as a Vietnam veteran to tell the story of Ron Kovic.  I doubt any other director would have been capable of getting as up close and personal to the trauma as he does. This is not a film for the faint of heart, full of roiling anger, loss and pain. Tom Cruise proved above and beyond that he was capable of handling meatier, dramatic roles here, fully committed to every heartbreaking moment of Kovic's transformation from earnest young Marine to deeply disillusioned veteran.      

Dead Calm - A wonderfully entertaining psychological thriller from Australia's Phillip Noyce, which significantly boosted the careers of everyone involved.  Sam Neill was already fairly well established as a leading man, but this was many viewers' first introduction to Nicole Kidman and a devilish young Billy Zane.  Full of lurid thrills, wild twists, and nautical misadventures, the film is unrestrained in the best way. Yes, it's blatantly exploitative and some parts are in very bad taste, but I was having too much fun to care.  The final sequence in particular is just delightful in its outrageousness.

Kiki's Delivery Service - Hayao Miyazaki's lovely chronicle of a little girl's growing pains.  That little Kiki happens to be a witch is incidental, though it does allow for some lovely flying scenes and a charming talking cat to tag along on adventures.  Miyazaki's slice-of-life storytelling is such a joy to experience, especially the way it takes its time to appreciate the little things, and creates such a peaceful, pastoral atmosphere.  There are few cinematic fantasy worlds as inviting as the seaside town of Koriko, and even fewer that feature a child heroine as realistically complicated and imperfect as Kiki.

Dekalog - Technically a series of television films, but they're as effective as anything ever shown in a movie theater.  My favorite of the set is the fifth installment, the one that Krzysztof KieĊ›lowski would expand into "A Short Film About Killing."  However, all ten episodes of the "Dekalog" are worth a watch, especially for fans of the director. Themes of morality and personal responsibility are explored thoughtfully and intelligently.  The goal was to have the dilemmas of the characters reflect modern Polish life, but there's an enduring universality to the stories that is extraordinary.

Roger & Me - Michael Moore wasn't the first to examine economic downturns and corporate greed through the documentary format, or the first to use film for political and social activism.  However, he was the first to put forth his grievances in such human, relatable terms. The sad saga of Flint, Michigan is fascinating to see unfold, but Moore adds a personal element that helps it to hit much closer to home.  The film now serves as a time capsule of the failures of American capitalism in the late 1980s, and its influence on subsequent documentary filmmaking has been immeasurable.

Steel Magnolias - Captures the contentious, dramatic world of a certain breed of Southern women and all the various relationships that they maintain.  I love the whole cast, but especially Olympia Dukakis and Shirley MacLaine as duelling grand dames. And no one sells a tearjerker like Sally Field, whose performance is the backbone of the whole enterprise.  There are very few films that capture the culture and the inviting intimacy of small town life in the South. So it's no wonder this has been a cult classic for ages, much copied over the years, but never successfully duplicated.

When Harry Met Sally - Can men and women ever just be friends?  Sure, but Harry and Sally can't. Instead, they're destined to be the iconic pairing in the most famous romantic-comedy of its era, forever marking the genre as the natural domain of neurotic New Yorkers.  Full of witty banter and wry observations about the complicated state of modern romance, this was very much a film of it's time. And yet it's aged beautifully, thanks in large part to Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal having terrific chemistry together and being very easy to root for - both together and separately.  
Crimes and Misdemeanors - One of the most cynical of Woody Allen's films juxtaposes a crime drama with a black comedy in a morally ambivalent universe, where there's no justice except what the characters mete out to themselves.  Allen would revisit these themes many times in many other films, but rarely with so much success. There's a painful honesty to the writing, a sense of deep self-reflection and bitter self-criticism. The excellent ensemble also helps to elevate the material, particularly Martin Landau as a desperate man who is able to justify terrible acts to himself.

Do the Right Thing - Still one of the most famous and controversial films about race in America, probably because it's so confrontational about its subject matter.  Spike Lee literally gets in the audience's faces to drive the point home, letting the characters speak their minds directly to the camera. In retrospect, "Do the Right Thing" touched off a new wave of American independent filmmaking, marked by racial, sexual, and other social minorities making waves both in front of and behind the camera.  The jury's still out on Mookie and company, but Spike Lee certainly did everything right.

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover - The most notorious of Peter Greenaway's films, though it's not his most sexually explicit or even his most violent.  I think it's the Grand Guignol depravity of the story, executed with such grandiose production values, and the participation of celebrated actors like Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren that really got people's attention.  It's an art film with a capital A, and yet such a deliciously venal, outrageous one. Sometimes you need a classically inclined artist to really dig into this kind of Grand Guignol subject matter.

Honorable Mention

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure
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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

"Loving Vincent" and "The Breadwinner"

2017 wasn't a good year for US animation.  "Coco" and "The LEGO Batman Movie" were very good, and I continue to defend "Captain Underpants" and "Boss Baby," but mostly we got a lot of sequels and uninspired junk like "The Emoji Movie."  This year's Oscar nominees in the Animated Film category suggest there might be some potential alternatives, however, from studios overseas.

I'm sorry to say that "Loving Vincent" never overcomes its gimmick, which is that the entire film is done in the same style as Vincent Van Gogh's paintings.  Each frame was hand-painted by artists who laboriously transformed live-action footage of actors shot on a green screen into individual oil paintings. The effect is fantastic, and some may find that the film is worth a watch for the unique visuals alone.  Everything else, however, leaves much to be desired.

The plot involves a young man named Armand (Douglas Booth), who has a letter from the deceased Vincent van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk) for Vincent's brother Theo.  Having discovered that Theo has also died, Armand goes on to meet with Vincent's other acquaintances to figure out who the letter should be delivered to. This leads him to investigate the circumstances around Vincent's death, which Armand comes to believe are suspicious.  His travels take him to many of the places that Vincent frequented and painted, creating the opportunity for the film to place the characters in famous Vincent van Gogh paintings like "Cafe Terrace at Night," "Church at Auvers," and "Wheatfield With Crows."

The murder mystery, frankly, is neither well written nor well acted.  As good as the visuals are, they can't hide the middling performances, tepid dialogue, and general tedium of the undercooked plotting.  As Armand wanders from place to place and famous painting to famous painting, the film drags terribly. And while the style of the picture is executed beautifully in many scenes, in others the seams are showing.  In the black-and-white flashback especially, it's hard to get away from the feeling that the painted images are just live-action footage run through a filter. Animation with oil painting has been done before in shorts, often to much better effect, so the practice isn't all that novel.  I've also seen it executed far better in the past.

A more successful film is "The Breadwinner," made by Cartoon Saloon, the Irish animation studio behind "The Secret of Kells" and "Song of the Sea."  It follows a little girl named Parvana (Saara Chaudry) in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, who decides to try and pass herself off as a boy after her father Nurullah (Ali Badshah) is arrested, leaving his family in jeopardy.  This is some very bleak subject matter, and treated very seriously. The filmmakers don't shy away from putting their young heroine in dangerous situations, and showing the casual violence that the citizens of Kabul face on a daily basis.  The film isn't as intense or disturbing as more explicitly war-themed pictures like "Grave of the Fireflies," but it's dealing with similar subject matter.

Those familiar with Cartoon Saloon's previous films might be taken aback by how visually subdued "The Breadwinner" looks.  The color palette is dominated by grays and browns. It's only the sequences depicting a fantasy story that Parvana tells to her toddler brother that we see brighter colors and more fanciful designs.  However, the visuals are excellent overall, helping to make the plight of Parvana and her family feel more universal and immediate. It's another nice example of animation being able to tell stories in ways that are more accessible than live action.

The only thing about the film that gives me pause is that it doesn't quite ping as a genuine Afghan story. I'm sure everyone involved was well-meaning, and at least  the cast is made up of entirely of Middle-Eastern names, but at the same time Parvanah clearly isn't a real Afghan child and her story, though it contains many darker elements, feels very idealized.  Then again, it was daring for the filmmakers to have tackled this kind of subject matter at all, and it's hardly the first animated film aimed at young audiences to have taken liberties with reality.

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Monday, April 23, 2018

"Darkest Hour" and "Molly's Game"

Along with "Dunkirk" and "Their Finest," 2017 was the year that British filmmakers all seemed to collectively decide to dramatise the Dunkirk evacuations.  Joe Wright already depicted what was going on from one angle in "Atonement," and in "Darkest Hour" he looks in on the event from an entirely different one. Specifically, he follows Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) in the early part of WWII, from the resignation of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) to the famous "We shall fight on the beaches speech" in June of 1940.  Much of the action is seen from the POV of Churchill's secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James).

Joe Wright's filmmaking style has gotten increasingly showy over time.  Often involving long tracking shots and theatrical staging, there's a high degree of stylization in many scenes here.  The film opens with a remarkable overhead view of Parliament in chaos, one that we see echoed in later scenes of warfare.  So there's a distinct sense of artifice that's always present, and this helps a lot of the invented melodrama go down easier.  For instance, there's a much-discussed scene where Churchill goes into the underground to gage the mood of the common people. This was wholly invented, and is frankly so contrived that it's obvious that it didn't really happen.  However, in the context of the over-the-top pageantry of the rest of the film, it worked for me.

The best thing about "Darkest Hour," however, is the performance of Gary Oldman.  Buried under makeup and prosthetics, Oldman is still quite visible, and able to turn in a full-throated Winston Churchill appearance that is terrifically entertaining and distinctly his own.  He is also easily the most down-to-earth element of the film, an obstinate old grump full of doubts and frustrations, who seems to either exasperate or terrorize everyone who has to spend much time with him.  Of course, he turns out to be magnificently empathetic and brilliant when it counts, and it's to Oldman's credit that there's little whiplash as we move from one extreme of his personality to the other. Wright may enjoy his cinematic parlor tricks, but he's smart enough to keep out of Oldman's way, to the movie's benefit.

And now for something completely different.  "Molly's Game" is the directing debut of Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote the script, of course.  It follows the unlikely career of former Olympic hopeful Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), who ran a series of exclusive poker games for the rich and powerful in Los Angeles and New York before the FBI shut her down over her potential involvement in organized crime.  We meet Molly as she's relaying her story to a lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), trying convince him to take her case. Though the film involves a lot of poker, it's less about the game and more about the specific culture around the game as it existed in the particular social circles that Molly was able to gain access to.  

Mostly, however, it's about Molly herself, a young woman carving out an unconventional and  lucrative niche for herself in a world of cutthroat men. There are quite a few similarities between "Molly's Game" and last year's "Miss Sloane," also starring Jessica Chastain.  However, "Molly" is a more complex film about real people, and has the benefit of Sorkin's rapid-fire dialogue and briskly efficient exposition. This is subject matter wonderfully suited for Sorkin's talents, and he doesn't hesitate to explore all the ins and outs of Molly's fascinating empire of privilege and excess.  However, Sorkin runs into some trouble figuring out the emotional core of the story, and eventually decides Molly's personal struggles boil down to issues with her father (Kevin Costner). And none of this material worked for me at all.

Still, when the movie gets some momentum behind it, it hums along beautifully.  Chastain and Elba turn in good performances, and Sorkin does a fine job for his first time in the director's chair.  The movie feels very much of a piece with other recent Sorkin scripted features like "Steve Jobs," more fun for its one-liners and specific scenes than as a whole piece.  It is a lot of fun, though, especially for Sorkin fans. I wouldn't say it's one of his better films, but it's still well worth a watch.

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Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Summer Movie Wager 2018

It's that time of year again! Following the rules of the Summer Movie Pool, I'm going to predict the top ten domestic box office grossers of the summer. It's not about which movies are the best or the most deserving, but which ones simply bring in the most cold hard cash.   I am notoriously bad at this, but after years of scores in the low 30s, I managed 41 points last year, mostly by avoiding the majority of the obvious bombs. Usually the summer movie season starts after May 1st, but there's no way I'm not counting "Avengers: Infinity War" as a summer movie, so here we are.  

Anything being released until Labor Day is fair game. Here we go.

1. Avengers: Infinity War - I don't think this is going to do as well as the fanboys are expecting, but "Infinity War" should be able to capitalize off of being the latest Marvel spectacular, and mybe piggyback on the performance of "Black Panther."  It'll also be the first major summer blockbuster out of the gate, which is always helpful. Now there are some potential limiting factors: franchise fatigue, newbies being intimidated by the high number of characters and storylines, and the fact that this is almost certainly going to be part one of two.  Then again, I personally want to get ahead of the big spoilers I know are coming.

2. The Incredibles 2 - I'm betting that this is going to be the big kids' title of the summer, especially as it doesn't have much competition for the honor.  There are no Dreamworks or Illumination titles this season, so it's really between this and "Jurassic World," and frankly "Jurassic World" doesn't look nearly as fun this time around.  One potential worry is that Brad Bird is coming off of "Tomorrowland," which was a undeniable dud. Frankly, none of the recent PIXAR sequels have been very good, including last year's "Cars 3."  On the other hand, an "Incredibles" sequel is the one people have actually been asking for since the original.

3. Deadpool 2 - Don't worry R-rated comedy fans, I didn't forget about you.  Yes, superheroes are in all three of my top slots because Hollywood has now worked out a way to make superhero movies aimed at all the major segments of the summer moviegoing audience.  The ad campaign has been great, Josh Brolin looks fab in the Cable outfit, and Dopinder is back! The only thing that gives me pause is that Tim Miller was replaced by David Leitch, who is a much more action-oriented director.  "Deadpool" wasn't a movie I enjoyed for the action. Also, I had some serious problems with Leitch's last movie, "Atomic Blonde."

4. Solo: A Star Wars Story - The production troubles and marketing delays point to this possibly being a disaster in the making.  However, it's a "Star Wars" movie and that's always going to carry some weight. Bradford Young's cinematography also looks absolutely gorgeous, which should get a few doubters to give this a chance.  However, the release date and the extra competition are going to have a big impact. This really should have been a holiday release like the other "Star Wars" films. If it does do well, however, it'll open the door to more than one "Star Wars" film a year as well as sequels and other spinoffs in this vein.

5. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom - "Jurassic World" was the surprise big winner of the summer of 2015, and Universal is putting a lot of resources behind the sequel.  Unfortunately, the trailers look pretty dull, and the only reason I'm personally interested at all is because Juan Antonio Bayona is taking over the director's chair. Evacuating dinosaurs from an island simply isn't as interesting as a theme park disaster with the attractions eating the guests.  I'm sure this is going to still make a lot of money, but I doubt that it's going to make anything close to what the last film did. But maybe I underestimate the public's love of dinosaurs.

6. Mission: Impossible – Fallout - "Rogue Nation" proved this franchise and Tom Cruise's career still have some life in them, and "Fallout" will be proceeding with nearly all the same creatives, even Christopher McQuarrie as the director - he'll be the first to helm two installments.  "Mission: Impossible" has been extremely dependable at the box office over the years, so I have no reason to think this won't perform accordingly. I may actually be underestimating it, depending on how well some of the other big titles perform earlier in the summer. I don't see as many flops happening this time around, so this one stays in the middle of the pack.  

7. Ocean's 8 - Probably my riskiest pick, because the "Ocean's" movies were never hugely successful at the box office and this is a pretty radical new direction for the series.  On the other hand, the female audience certainly helped crown some hits last year, and this looks like a far better choice than "The Hustle," "Book Club," and the other female-led offerings this season.  This could end up being another "Ghostbusters," but I think "Ocean's 8" has a good chance of being a much better movie with the talent involved. It will likely also attract some of the older crowd that doesn't want to watch the superhero brawls.   

8.  Ant-Man and the Wasp - Let's not mince words.  "Ant-Man" was very close to the lowest grossing Marvel film, and I don't see any buzz for the sequel anywhere.  Plus, after "Infinity War" and "Black Panther," there's a pretty high likelihood that audiences are going to be sick of so much Marvel in such a short span of time.  I'm sure that the movie will do okay, but if it breaks $200 million it's going to take the Marvel marketing team a lot of work. They've worked miracles before, and there are some good hooks like Evangeline Lily technically being the MCU's first female headliner, but I'm keeping this low on the list for now.     

9. Christopher Robin - Fully half of this list is Disney movies, which is a little frightening.  I initially balked at the premise of this one, but then I saw that teaser trailer and was just bowled over.  The second I heard Jim Cummings' familiar Pooh bear voice, I knew Disney had a strong potential sleeper hit on their hands.  "Winnie the Pooh" has largely been shelved as a property since the last animated film tanked badly in 2011, so enough time has passed for the nostalgia to really hit home for a particular segment of the audience.  That segment may be smaller than I'm expecting, but I like the odds.

10. Skyscraper - Hey, Dwayne Johnson's going to be in another disaster film!  He's pretty hit or miss at the box office, but when something hits like "San Andreas" or "Jumanji," it tends to make a ridiculous amount of money.  I'm going to bet on "Skyscraper" being one of the hits, even though it's stuck in a crowded weekend in July. There are certain summer moviegoers who just want to see things blow up real good, and "Skyscraper" will come three weeks after "Jurassic World" and two weeks before "Mission: Impossible."  And it will undoubtedly have explosions.
Wild Cards (for extra points if one of them does make it into the top ten)

The First Purge
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation
The Equalizer 2

Okay, "The Purge" movies have been steadily making more money with each installment, so the latest one might sneak into the top ten, especially if their marketing keeps jabbing the right spots.  "Hotel Transylvania," on the other hand, is seeing diminishing returns, but this latest sequel is still bound to make some money. Finally, it's been a while since "The Equalizer," but that movie made nearly $200 million and one should never underestimate the power of Denzel Washington in a slick action picture.  This could do similar numbers, especially in a fairly uncrowded August.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

"Runaways," Year One

Minor spoilers ahead.

I knew very little about the "Runaways" comic before watching the show, only that it was about a group of teenagers in the Marvel superhero universe who discover that their parents are members of a secret cabal of supervillains. On the surface, Pride is a group of wealthy philanthropists raising money for charity, but the kids catch them in the middle of committing a ritualistic murder one night. The premise sounds perfect for a teen show - there's a diverse cast of characters, tie-ins to the the Marvel cinematic universe, and several big honking genre metaphors for growing up and the generational divide. However, the particulars of the plotting also offer some challenges.

First off, there are more than a dozen major characters to keep track of immediately. Brainy Alex Wilder (Rhenzy Feliz) is the son of former crime boss Geoffrey (Ryan Sands) and high-powered lawyer Catherine (Angel Parker). Goth-girl Nico Minoru (Lyrica Okano) is the daughter of tech gurus Tina and Robert (Brittany Ishibashi, James Yaegashi). Popular jock Chase Stein (Gregg Sulkin) is the son of famous inventor and innovator Victor Stein (James Marsters) and his wife Janet (Ever Carradine). Karolina Dean (Virginia Gardner) is devoted to the Scientology-like Church of Gibborim, run by her mother Leslie (Annie Wersching) and actor father Frank (Kip Pardue). Finally Riot grrrl Gert Yorkes (Ariela Barer) and her adopted younger sister Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta) are the daughters of eccentric scientists Stacey and Dale Yorkes (Brigid Brannagh, Kevin Weisman).

The comic focused on the kids, but to generate enough material for multiple seasons of a television show, the "Runaways" creators have chosen to spend just as much time exploring the parents, who are reportedly much more nuanced and complicated than their original versions. This also allows the series to be structured more like a mystery show, with the history of Pride being revealed little by little at a very leisurely pace, and multiple new subplots in play. After the ten-episode first season, it feels like the series is just getting started, with very little resolved and several of the bigger revelations being held back for future seasons. The writing is pretty good on an episode by episode basis, though the kids are noticeably more well-rounded and relatable than any of the adult characters. Their smart, occasionally sarcastic attitudes help keep them very watchable. I like that they poke fun at themselves and point out when they stumble over old cliches.

Where "Runaways" runs into some trouble is the performances. The kids are all relative newcomers, with varying levels of talent, and the parents aren't all that much better. There are a couple of big moments that don't land right at all, and are a stark reminder that it's harder to play these kinds of melodramatic, over-the-top, comic book roles than it looks. Rhenzy Feliz and Ariela Barer are the standouts as Alex and Gert, who manage to come across as fairly normal kids despite their constantly ridiculous circumstances. The show is much better when it's about the thorny interpersonal dynamics of the parents and kids than it is whenever the superpowers and magic heirlooms come out.

And I should caution that the show is very much a comic book fantasy, and introduces a lot of these elements quickly. After a fairly restrained first episode, we're plunged into a world where magic, mutant powers, time travel, aliens, and mad science all co-exist. And though the show does its best to downplay a lot of the most outlandish business, and nobody ever actually uses terms like "mutant" or "alien," it still causes a fair bit of tonal whiplash when the kids are dealing with serious issues like domestic violence and grief one minute, and then discovering a dinosaur in the basement the next.

At least "Runaways" has enough of a budget that the dinosaur looks pretty good. The production values are high and existing fans should be happy to find that the show's creators took many of its visuals straight from the comics. Despite the plotting deviations, there's every indication that the show was made by people who love this property, and took pains to ensure that it was brought to the small screen with some fidelity. This is not the best version of a "Runaways" show that could exist, but it's still pretty strong, and plenty entertaining.

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Sunday, April 15, 2018

"The Crown," Year Two

For those of you worried that "The Crown" wouldn't be able to recover from the departure of John Lithgow's excellent Winston Churchill, I'm happy to declare that this isn't the case. The series has a wonderful deep bench of acting talent, and the writing, primarily by Peter Morgan, remains fantastic. In many ways I like this year's episodes better than the first, as everyone feels more settled into the series format, and more risks are taken.

The first episode of the series begins in 1956 with Suez Canal crisis, which coincides with a five month separation between Elizabeth and Philip, who is sent to tour the Pacific. The last episode takes place in 1963 during the Profmo affair, mirroring another test of their marriage. There's plenty of political and social upheaval in this run of episodes, and the United Kingdom changes greatly during the time period, but this series of "The Crown" feels much more personal, with the state of the royal marriage constantly at the forefront. Two episodes center on Philip, including a fantastic one that mirrors his difficult childhood with that of a young Prince Charles (Julian Baring). Two episodes center on Princess Margaret, who finds a new partner in photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode). And then there's the fantastic installment devoted to poor old Uncle David, the exiled Duke of Windsor.

There are artistic liberties being taken left and right in the name of historical melodrama, but you rarely see such literate and well-researched historical melodrama. The Duke of Windsor episode finds ways to tie the publishing of the Marburg Papers to the UK visit of evangelical preacher Billy Graham (Paul Sparks) via the Queen experiencing a personal crisis of faith. The much-anticipated episode featuring the Kennedys postulates that a meeting between the Queen and Jackie O. (Jodie Balfour) spurs her political actions in Ghana. There's so much here for a history buff to enjoy. At the same time, the characters have never felt more like genuine, complicated people. Though there's still some occasional pageantry, "The Crown" feels more like "Mad Men" than "Great Moments From History," especially with the amount of alcohol Princess Margaret downs.

Once again, Claire Foy delivers a tremendous performance as Queen Elizabeth, humanizing her and elevating her in just the right amounts. I love her moments of uncertainty, feeling insecure about impending middle-age, or the awkward filming of her first televised Christmas message. However, it's still spine-tingling to see her fully wielding the power of the Crown, dressing down a Prime Minister or making a surprise appearance before an astonished underling. Her clashes with Philip are more impactful this year, and Matt Smith has really stepped up as a scene partner. He's much more sure-footed, not afraid to have Philipp come off as obstinate or petty or even cruel at times. Yet this is also easily the most sympathetic and fascinating Prince Philip I've ever seen onscreen.

And then there are all the smaller roles, inhabited by dozens of memorable performances. Matthew Goode makes a vaguely unsettling, and occasionally very funny Tony, who plays wonderfully with Vanessa Kirby. Anton Lesser has several good appearances as Prime Minister MacMillan, and I was so happy to see Alex Jennings back as the Duke of Windsor. Sadly Michael C. Hall wasn't able to do much with John F. Kennedy, but he was barely onscreen long enough to register. It sticks out as an odd piece of stunt casting. Jodie Balfour's Jackie was considerably better, and she had the more important role anyway.

The production values remain obscenely gorgeous. The usual British prestige pics I've seen this year don't even come close. There's more emphasis on remote landscapes and moody interiors, but somehow there was also the budget for Philip's far-ranging tour of the Pacific, a Nazi funeral, and a state visit to Ghana. What's more, the level of the filmmaking continues to impress. I particularly enjoyed the finale with its long silences, and the Kennedy episode for its use of various different forms of media.

I'll be very sad to see this cast go, but as long as Peter Morgan, Stephen Daldry, and the rest of the creative team are still committed, I'm sure the further series of "The Crown" are going to continue to make for excellent viewing.

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Friday, April 13, 2018

Rocking "Thor: Ragnarok"

First, I had very high hopes going into "Thor: Ragnarok" because of Taika Waititi's involvement, and I'm happy to report that it is the best "Thor" movie by a wide margin. However, it is far from the really full-throated, rule-breaking comedy that I was hoping for. "Ragnarok" is still very much a typical Marvel movie, with the same requisite action beats, mediocre villains, and distracting connector pieces to other Marvel movies. There's a lot of good stuff here, so it's well worth a viewing, but it's best to temper expectations.

Easily the best thing about "Ragnarok" is that it gives Chris Hemsworth the opportunity to have more fun as Thor. There aren't any major changes to the character, but he's been recontextualized so that he comes across as more of an affable buffoon, cheerfully getting into dangerous situations and provoking trouble without thinking things through. In his prior adventures, his godly status gave him an air of invulnerability. In "Ragnarok," the universe is not playing along, and makes him look like an idiot as often as it lets him look cool. Hemsworth is perfectly game for both. Loki, similarly, undergoes similar reworking so that he comes off as more vain, pathetic, and weaselly, to great comic effect. In this outing, he and Thor actually feel like brothers who have grown up together and been at odds since they were kids.

Thor spends most of the movie stuck on the junkyard world of Sakaar, ruled over by the tyrannical Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who ropes Thor and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) into the gladiatorial games he puts on. Thor's biggest challenge is talking his few potential allies - including Hulk, Loki, and a former Asgardian warrior (Tessa Thompson) - into helping him return to Asgard to defeat the invader, Hela (Cate Blanchett), before she destroys the place. This is not easy when he's lost most of his powers, nobody knows or cares who he is, and he's completely cut off from all his friends on Asgard and Earth. Fans of the Marvel comics will recognize a good chunk of the story has been adapted from "Planet Hulk." Also note that the film completely ignores the human characters from the previous "Thor" films.

The cast is superb, but they're not all well served by the script. I was really looking forward to Cate Blanchett's appearance in the film, but there's not much for her to do except look imposing (which she does) and throw out the usual cliche villain dialogue about taking over the cosmos. At least she looks like she's having fun, and commands the screen with every appearance, but it still feels like a waste of Blanchett's talents. Our other major newcomer, Tessa Thompson, gets to show a little more personality and deliver better dialogue, but still pings as sorely underdeveloped. Were some of her scenes cut for time? I actually felt more for Skurge (Karl Urban), an Asgardian who Hela recruits as an underling, since he at least gets a full character arc.

The more comedic the character, the more successful. Jeff Goldblum is perfect as Grandmaster, while deviating very little from his usual persona. Taika Waititi himself voices Korg, a soft-spoken rock monster who Thor meets in the gladiatorial games. I liked Benedict Cumberbatch here in his brief scenes as Doctor Strange more than I liked him in his own movie, because he's played as just a totally arrogant bastard. Waititi's influence really comes out whenever the film just lets the characters interact and bounce off each other, highlighting the inherent absurdity of their situation. Thor's multiple attempts to reason with the Hulk are a highlight. Nobody makes the mistake of taking things too seriously, like the last "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie.

"Ragnarok" looks great too, full of wild Marvel alien designs, bright colors, and kitschy little aesthetic touches reminiscent of Jack Kirby comics and 1980s space fantasy like the "Flash Gordon" movie. There's tons of eye-popping CGI, of course, but the best moments are often the little visual gags like Thor getting clobbered by a ricocheting projectile while trying to break a window. Mark Mothersbaugh was responsible for the delightful electronica-heavy score, and whoever cleared the rights for the film to use Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" as Thor's battle theme gets the biggest cookie. When Thor gets to be cool in "Ragnarok," he gets to be really cool.

All in all, this is a huge improvement for Thor as a cinematic character, finally giving him a larger-scale story that fits his outsized persona. After three films, he finally feels like a hero worth rooting for on his own terms. And I'm glad Marvel and Taika Waititi weren't afraid to go off in an entirely new direction from the previous films to get him there. I think "Ragnarok" could have been better in some key areas, but overall I'm satisfied. It's a big silly action movie, and commits to that wholeheartedly.
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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

"The Last Jedi" (With Spoilers)

There's a scene early in the film that I feel is a good test of how a viewer is likely to react to "The Last Jedi." Princess Leia's has just been ejected from her ship into space, and is floating in the debris field, appearing to be dead. Then suddenly she revives and appears to fly with the use of the Force until she's safe onboard the vessel once more. It's a somewhat ridiculous visual out of context. However, the sight of Carrie Fisher seemingly coming back to life, backed by John Williams' immortal theme for Leia, left me teary eyed.

And so did the throne room fight scene. And the return of the puppet Yoda. And Luke Skywalker fighting Kylo Ren. And the glorious binary sunset leading into Luke fading away into nothingness. I know that the film was overlong, had a lot of weaker material, and really didn't do right by some of its characters, but the parts that were wonderful were so wonderful that I'm willing to forgive it more than I probably should. Frankly, this was the "Star Wars" film that I needed in order to stay invested in this universe. It answered all the questions I had, gave me nostalgic callbacks that were actually meaningful, and realized some pretty damn ambitious filmmaking. We got new Force powers! A kamikaze hyperspace jump attack! And Rey and Kylo Ren fought those sinister looking elite guards in the red armor, who always looked way too cool to just be background extras!

Clearly there were things that didn't work, or weren't developed enough to pass muster. Just about everything in Canto Bight fell into that category, which was a shame because what little we saw of the planet made me want to see more. Rose and Finn's romance was very awkwardly put together, but I still like both characters and appreciate what the filmmakers were trying to do. Much more problematic was the material with Poe Dameron and Vice-Admiral Holdo, one of those dreaded extended conflicts that could have been sorted out if people were communicating properly. I don't think it would have taken much to improve that storyline either. As memorable as her exit was, this still felt like a waste of Laura Dern in what could have potentially been a very strong role. I suspect that the writers simply weren't as invested in these characters and their stories as they were with others.

These are many of the same issues that cropped up in the other post-Disney "Star Wars" movies, particularly "Rogue One" in its deeply flawed first and second acts. There's been a lot of chatter online about how the film was actively trying to subvert the fanbase's expectations related to a lot of the little mysteries that were set up in "The Force Awakens," like Rey's parentage. I think the issue was really that there were a lot of clever ideas that weren't handled well, not everything fit right, and the film gave some answers that people didn't like. It also had no end of tonal clashes and pacing problems. At 150 minutes, this was the longest "Star Wars" film and it certainly felt that way. Even with the bigger climactic moments sprinkled throughout, "The Last Jedi" is often a slog, and exhausting to watch.

However, it still got enough right that I'm plenty invested in where the story is going next. I expect that JJ Abrams coming back will mean a much more restrained final film, but also one that will have a lot more room to expand into new territory since "The Last Jedi" provided such a strong, definitive conclusion to Luke Skywalker's story. I'm looking forward to Rian Johnson making more "Star Wars" films, and maybe some of the problems he had here might be alleviated by being able to tackle a whole trilogy from the beginning. Another writer or two in the mix would also help. Johnson's got solid filmmaking fundamentals, but could use a little more finesse with the dialogue.

I'd expected to be much cooler on the movie after all the sturm and drang about it being such a disappointment to a certain segment of the fanbase. Instead, I'm absolutely delighted. Sure, the movie has flaws, and big ones. However, it was also made with love and care and more guts than I would have thought possible. And if it's got so many people this upset, it probably did something right.

"Star Wars" is dead. Long live "Star Wars."

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Monday, April 9, 2018

"The Last Jedi" (Without Spoilers)

I loved "The Last Jedi." I don't know what all the controversy has been about, or all this business concerning subverted expectations and the disappointed fanbase, but I'll tell you that as a fan of "Star Wars" since I was eleven years old, I loved "The Last Jedi" unreservedly. And I haven't felt that way about anything "Star Wars" since the originals.

My biggest issue with "The Force Awakens" was that it felt like a Greatest Hits compilation of the first"Star Wars" trilogy crammed into a single movie, and didn't give enough of the spotlight over to the new characters. "The Last Jedi," though it pays obvious homage to the older films, and has particularly strong echoes of "The Empire Strikes Back," avoids this. Yes, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) living like a hermit on the craggy islands of the planet Ahch-To and training Rey (Daisy Ridley) is reminiscent of Yoda in the swamps of Dagobah, but the dynamics are different. A battle on the crystalline planet Crait resembles the one on Hoth, except that the mechanics and strategy are different.

More importantly, there is a significant sense of advancement in the story. Big things happen, and quickly. We aren't just visiting with old friends, but watching Rey, Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac) off having their own meaningful adventures. And returning characters like Luke Skywalker and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) are now in very different phases of their lives, and their stories are still steadily moving forward as well. Luke, for instance, naturally shows up in the aged master role, but he's very different from the Luke who appeared in the original trilogy, having become bitter and disenchanted with the notion of resurrecting the Jedi. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) continues to progress further down the path to the Dark Side while showing occasional flashes of doubt.

"The Last Jedi" is often an uneven outing because all these different characters aren't as equally compelling to watch. Finn and his new bestie Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) gallivanting around an intergalactic casino, and Poe recklessly plotting a mutiny against the infuriating Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), feel silly next to the juicy melodrama of Rey trying to convince Luke to join the Resistance, or Rey's Force visions of Kylo Ren. There's so much crammed into the movie, though, that even if you don't particularly enjoy one segment, the next one is likely to knock your socks off. Unfortunately this makes the film feel mightily overstuffed. By the time we got to the big finale at Crait, after what I thought was the big finale in space, and the big finale with Snoke, I was incredulous that we somehow still had another full act to get through. But it's one hell of an act.

Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver are still the strongest performers in the cast, and "The Last Jedi" gives them several scenes together, all very enjoyable. However, the performance that's really going to stay with me is Mark Hamill's as Luke Skywalker. Unlike the return of Han Solo in "The Force Awakens," Luke feels like someone who went and had a lifetime of adventures since we last saw him, someone familiar but who we don't really know anymore. Getting to know him again is a fantastic experience. There's also a substantial improvement in the portrayal of Princess Leia, who is given a more solid leadership role. The actors saddled with the weaker material, namely John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, still manage to nail their better moments when they can.

The production design is endlessly inventive, full of gorgeous new alien worlds, fantastic imagery, and flawless CGI. There are sequences on Ahch-To and Crait, and at least one shot in the big space battle, that I expect will be considered as iconic as anything from the original trilogy. John Williams' score does a lot of the emotional heavy lifting, but then it's been such a long time since any movie has allowed for that, it was a thrill. I'll be humming "Rey's Theme" for days.

As for the director, Rian Johnson, the last time I reviewed one of his movies, I declared that he was very close to making a great movie. I can't say that "The Last Jedi" is that movie, but it's one that feels more like a "Star Wars" movie than anything else I've seen in two decades.

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Saturday, April 7, 2018

"Justice League" and the DC Movie Mess

Spoilers ahead.

Zack Snyder was the worst thing to happen to the DC films, and I can't say I'm sorry that he wound up sidelined from the "Justice League" after a personal tragedy. His vision of Superman and the other DC superheroes as these heavy, morose, tormented souls was a complete misunderstanding of their appeal, and worse, a bore. There's still a lot of this in "Justice League," and Joss Whedon's contributions to the film often clash terribly with them, but at least the resulting film is watchable, whereas Snyder's "Batman v. Superman" was not.

Let's focus on the good things first. Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman remains a highlight, though she's not given much to do. I also enjoyed Ezra Miller's take on the Flash as a quippy, wet-behind-the-ears newcomer, and Jason Momoa as a shaggy, hard-living Aquaman. Momoa gets one of the movie's best laughs, in a scene involving Wonder Woman's lasso. Frankly, the fact that there are some genuine laughs, and that several of the actors display good rapport with each other, goes a long way toward making up for the rougher, more slapdash parts of the film. I was less impressed by the introductions of Ray Fisher's Cyborg and Amber Heard's Lady Mera, but there's still some potential there.

The movie did nothing, unfortunately, to improve the portrayals of either Batman or Superman. Affleck gamely plays along, but his Bruce Wayne is inert, and his Batman mostly relies on gadgets and vehicles. He seems to be around for exposition more than anything else. I found reports of Henry Cavill's digital mustache removal a little overblown, but he still feels awkwardly shoehorned into the last act of the movie, with nothing resolved about his status as a potential threat to the human race. The film's big crisis, involving the alien invader Steppenwolf, a CGI monstrosity voiced by Ciaran Hinds, is nothing egregiously bad, but it's certainly nothing interesting or enjoyable either.

The action scenes were thankfully comprehensible, in spite of the chaotic plotting that strings them together. Wonder Woman gets a good set piece early on, and and I liked the way the Flash's super-speed was shown in slow-motion. Ironically, it's one of Zack Snyder's little stylistic touches that actually makes sense in context. Aquaman's underwater sequences, however, were pretty poor. I have no idea how they're going to build a feature around this character when they clearly haven't figured out ocean-based action scenes for him yet. Then again, the "Aquaman" movie is being handled by a different director who only has to focus on one hero, so we'll have to wait and see.

I think that the series could continue in this vein for a few more films, and in the right hands it could improve. Joss Whedon, left to his own devices, would probably turn out something a little too close to the "Avengers" movies, but even a knockoff of "Avengers" would be a pretty good outcome considering how rocky the last few DC superhero movies have been. However, as a fan of these characters and this universe, there's a significant part of me that thinks that Warners should just scrap it all and start over from scratch. I expect Superman will need to be rebooted or at least heavily reworked again, as Snyder's just done so much damage to the character.

The upcoming slate of DC movies is totally made up of stand-alone features at the moment, plus the "Wonder Woman" sequel. I sincerely hope the Matt Reeves "Batman" feature can help to course correct the Affleck version of the character a bit, and that a successful "Shazam!" or "Aquaman" might encourage Warners to keep exploring the more obscure DC comics material for a while. "Flashpoint" has been long rumored, and that's the one I'd be the most interested in seeing with the current cast.

However, I don't have much interest in another "Justice League" in the short term, or see much of a future for this version of a shared DC universe. There's been such a stunning mismanagement of the DC IP over the past few years, I'm actually surprised "Justice League" wasn't worse than it ultimately was. I can only hope that the film's failure at the box office will eventually lead to significant changes at Warners, regarding the DC cinematic universe going forward.

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Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Return of "Roseanne"

I've gotten into the habit of waiting until a season of television is over before writing anything about it, but I'm going to make an exception for the "Roseanne" revival.  For one thing, it's timely in a way that few pieces of media have been outside of late night, and has generated a lot of conversation. For another, the two episodes that aired last week already provide more than enough material to write a whole post about.

So it's been roughly twenty years since we last saw the Conners and Langford.  Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) and Dan (John Goodman) are now in their sixties. Darlene (Sara Gilbert) has just moved back home with her two kids Harris (Emma Kenney) and Mark (Ames McNamara), after losing her job.  Widowed Becky (Lecy Goranson) works as a waitress and has agreed to be a surrogate mother for a wealthy woman named Andrea (Sarah Chalke). DJ (Michael Fishman) is fresh out of the army, taking care of his daughter Mary (Jayden Rey) while his wife is still stationed overseas.  Finally, Roseanne is in the middle of a feud with Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), and they haven't spoken since the election.

Most importantly, the show's creators decided that the last, weird, nutball season didn't really happen.  So Dan survived his heart attack, and the Conners are still working class and struggling to get by. There are definitely some new challenges - Roseanne is now "Granny Rose" to a biracial granddaughter and a grandson who is more comfortable in a skirt, while Darlene struggles with being a single parent.  Still, most things are the same. Roseanne and Dan remain loving and abrasive. Darlene and Becky trade insults constantly. Jackie is still a basket case. The Conner homestead is almost totally unchanged. Some of the actors are a little rusty in the first episode, noticeably Gilbert and Goranson, but they settle in by the second.

And by and large, the show is able to pick up almost right where it left off.  The laughs come easily, and the moments of melodrama have some surprising bite.  The show is uncomfortably genuine at times, reflecting middle and lower class America in a way that not much other American media does.  There's been a lot of press about Roseanne being a vocal Trump supporter, which is at the center of her feud with Jackie. The show keeps the actual politics offscreen, only mentioning Jill Stein by name, but it's still unnerving to hear Roseanne firing off right wing slogans without a hint of irony.  That's a good thing, though. It wouldn't be "Roseanne" if it wasn't going against the grain in some capacity.

As a revival, "Roseanne" is among the better ones I've seen.  The changes in the characters feel very organic, and the show's '90s sitcom format still works fine.  Laurie Metcalf and John Goodman remain the MVPs of the cast, as they always were, but I found that I was happiest to see Roseanne herself almost exactly the way I remembered her - opinionated, loud, uncompromising, and yet terribly endearing.  The second episode was much better than the first, as it puts the Conners in the middle of a new parenting (and grandparenting) dilemma, and watches them deal with it in their typically raucous and blunt, but entirely well-meaning manner.

There are several nods toward nostalgia, including a very prominent voice-over right up front stating that "Roseanne" was taped in front of a live studio audience.  This also doubles as a disclaimer that the occasional "Oooohs" we hear in response to Roseanne and Jackie trading snarky political barbs are genuine. The little self-referential bits, like Dan finding Roseanne's book where he was killed off don't work as well, but I'm hoping the creators got most of that out of their systems after the first episode.    

It'll be interesting to see how the revival does in the long run.  I want to see if they'll handle race issues better this time around, and whether some of the old faces like Leon and Bev and Crystal wil return.  We've been promised that the politics aren't coming back, but I wish that they would. "Roseanne" could probably handle digging a little deeper into the psyche of a Trump supporter, and this is one of the better platforms for it.  Maybe next year - because it's already obvious that there needs to be a next year for this show.
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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Rank 'Em: Electric Dreams

"Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams," an ambitious Channel 4 anthology series that was supposed to help fill the hole left by "Black Mirror" defecting to Netflix, is one of the most severely hit-or-miss series I've ever seen. Most of the installments are very mediocre for sci-fi television, largely because of dreary writing. There are a handful of standout episodes, however, and some good performances scattered throughout, as nearly every episode has a famous face or three. So I'm writing up my thoughts on each individual episode as a "Rank 'Em" post. The ten installments are ordered below from best to worst.

"Autofac" - Juno Temple stars as a member of a small resistance group in a world dominated by an automated factory. The twists in this one are very well deployed, the science-fiction concepts are nicely realized, and the performances are great. This is the only episode that feels like it could be a "Black Mirror" episode too, though to be fair most of them aren't trying to be.

"The Hood Maker" - I like this one mostly for the worldbuilding, the way it sets up an interesting new universe populated by telepaths. The actual story feels very truncated, but the way it ends on such an ambiguous note also helps it to linger a little longer in the mind. This could be the pilot episode for a series the way it's laid out, and I'm honestly a little sad that it's not.

"Kill All Others" - The most heavily political episode, and least subtle. However, there are a lot of strong ideas here. I like all the ways that we see horrible things being rationalized and downplayed by society before becoming accepted. I like the brief looks at the sinister side of automation, advertising, and media. This could be better, but I admire it for being as ambitious as it is.

"Human Is" - This one is elevated a great deal by the performances of Essie Davis and Bryan Cranston. I found the dystopia they inhabit a little half-baked, and the plotting is very predictable. However, all the relationship and interpersonal stuff worked for me. I can't help wishing that so much time hadn't been wasted on a bizarre sex club sequence that ultimately adds very little.

"Safe and Sound" - I found the execution of some parts of this one very poor, especially as it makes the main character seem like an idiot. However, the underlying themes are solid, and I like the way that the episode shows how minor privacy invasions can ultimately lead to much bigger violations. This is another one that feels more like a pilot for a series than a properly finished story.

"The Commuter" - I really like Timothy Spall in this, as a man who discovers a secret paradise and has to decide if he can live with the cost of enjoying it. Unfortunately, the sequence of events just isn't relayed well enough to have the kind of impact that it should have. It doesn't help that we've seen this kind of story before, done much better - most famously by "The Twilight Zone" over fifty years ago.

"Crazy Diamond" - I'm not really sure what this one was getting at, honestly. The production design is very eye-catching, there's an appealing weirdness to the worldbuilding, and I always enjoy Steve Buscemi and Sidse Babett Knudson in anything. However, the writing completely fails to do anything compelling with any of the wacky concepts that the episode features.

"Real Life" - It doesn't matter that the actors are good - and they are pretty good - when the scripting is so thoroughly dull. Even one of the characters calling out how flimsy her own construction is doesn't help matters. It doesn't help that I watched this episode right after the recent "Blade Runner" movie, which just made its own cyberpunk future look that much more tired and uninspired.

"Father Thing" - Another very familiar old plot, this time told from a kid's perspective. This one had some promise, and Greg Kinnear's pretty good as the dad. Unfortunately, it just doesn't bring much new to the table, and the characters are disappointingly generic. Like a lot of the weaker episodes, this feels old and out of date, rehashing familiar tropes like "body snatcher" aliens.

"Impossible Planet" - Well, the idea for this one was pretty sound, and I liked the characters and the way everything was set up. The payoff, however, did not work at all. You can get away with more fantastical endings if they're properly executed, but "Impossible Planet" didn't even come close. I have to wonder if the episode ran long and they just cut out a chunk of the last act.

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Sunday, April 1, 2018

"Game of Thrones," Year Eight Special Review

Spoilers ahead.

Right off the bat, I am so skeeved out at the final pairing of Jon Snow and Sansa Stark.  I mean, I was perfectly happy with Jon ending up on the Iron Throne after Danaerys kamikaze-ed herself out of the running, but kissing cousins is really not all that far off from aunt-nephew relations on the yuck index.  At least it's clearly a political marriage, and both of them have racked up enough failed relationships over the course of this series that they can surely work out some kind of arrangement if one or both of them actually ever manages to fall in love with someone again.    

Okay, now that that's out of my system, lets get to bigger picture.  As expected from the previous season's embracing of spectacle over intimate character drama, so much of this season was taken up by battles and other destructive set pieces.  And since there were only six episodes, that meant many of the story developments felt rushed, though not as badly as last year.  The bigger confrontations and deaths were nicely spaced out and mostly given the room to play out naturally.  I was very satisfied with the final fates of Cersei, Jaime, Daenerys, Arya, and all the rest.  Tormund had my favorite death scene of lot, and though his romance with Brienne was ridiculously brief, it sure was memorable.  I was actually more surprised with some of the characters who made it to the end of the show in one piece.  Well, almost in one piece in the case of Theon.

I was less happy with how little time we got with other members of the cast.  But then, there were still so many characters left after last season, it would have been impossible to give everyone their due in the end.  So a lot of my favorites like Varys and little Lyanna Mormont barely got any time at all, or were gotten out of the way early like Grey Worm and Missendei.  I still have no idea what the point of Beric Dondarrion's arc was, since the show was never very good about exploring the spiritual side of "Game of Thrones."  And I didn't realize how many of the goodbyes from last year were actually final - we couldn't find any extra time for Meera?  Or the direwolves? There were also a lot of places on the map where I wish we could have checked in again, if only for a few seconds.  After all, we did spend considerable amounts of time in Braavos and Essos and with characters who are still kicking around.     

I do feel that Benioff and Weiss were pandering the to fans pretty fiercely.  I mean, there was no reason for the "Cleganebowl" showdown to have taken place, especially in the over-the-top fashion that it did.  All that accomplished was to draw out the Euron Greyjoy subplot, which was already drawn out as it was.  And we all love Peter Dinklage, but Tyrion's unexpected happy ending was one of the more egregious missteps here.  Sure, Sam and Gilly going home with their cute little family is fine, but this isn't the "Lord of the Rings" movies where everyone who survives the big war should automatically get all their conflicts wrapped up with a nice bow on top.  One of the pleasures of this universe is how messy it is.  I was looking for more loose ends and signs of impending bad consequences in the finale beyond Melisandre's usual boilerplate portents of hazy doom.

The production values were spectacular, of course, and I'm a little regretful that I didn't see some of these episodes in a movie theater, specifically "The Battle of Winterfell" and "A Dream of Spring."  "Game of Thrones" may well be the last gasp of the monoculture, and so things like the dragon brawl, Hodor the Wight, and Dany's glorious takedown of the Night King are likely to become cultural touchstones.  It really felt like everyone was going the extra mile, from the map sequence updating from week to week, to the surprise cameos, to that epic choral version of the main theme used in the finale.

I have my qualms with some of the dumb decisions that were made concerning specific story elements, and I'm sad that we didn't really get George R.R. Martin's version all the way through, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the hell out of the final six episodes.  Even if I think the end result could have been better, there's a lot of work and passion that went into this ending that I'm very grateful for.

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