TV Review: WandaVision (2021)


Title: WandaVision
Release Date: 2021
Creator :Jac Schaeffer
Director: Matt Shakman
Episodes:9
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

WARNING: This review contains light spoilers, so if you’re sensitive to spoilers and not watched all 9 episodes of WandaVision, please don’t read.

The Disney+ series reunites Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) as a happy couple enjoying domestic bliss in the New Jersey suburb of Westview.  Or are they?  6 of the series’ 9 episodes feature pitch-perfect recreations of tv sitcoms for each decade from the 1950s to the 2000s. But under the facade of the television show there is a reality shadowed in mystery and a lot of creepiness.

Olsen and Bettany do a great job in showing their acting range showing their ability to capture the nuance of old sitcom banter and then shift into more serious and emotional behavior.  The series uses these television genre motifs as a way of exploring grief and the way in which one can find solace in the routine predictability of television entertainment.  Kathryn Hahn is great in her role as Agnes, the nosy nextdoor neighbor.

A lot of the mystery is built up in the first three episodes where it’s really unclear why Wanda and Vision (the latter is supposed to be dead) are starring in these sitcoms.  Is Wanda trapped in someone else’s reality, or is she creating her “vision” of a perfect world?  It’s more complicated than you might think.  We start to get a better idea of what’s going in episode 4 which takes place outside of Westview and involves three supporting characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU): Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), who stole every scene she appeared in Thor and Thor: The Dark World (and does so here); Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), the FBI agent from Ant-Man and the Wasp; and Captain Monica Rambeau of S.W.O.R.D. (Teyonah Parris), whose character appeared as a child in Captain Marvel. It was great to see the three characters step in to lead roles and work together as a team, and I hope Parris returns for future Captain Marvel films.

A familiarity with the MCU is helpful, although not necessary, as it will help with some back story and Easter eggs in the series.  On the other hand, I didn’t get a big twist in a show because it involved the X-Men series of films, which I’ve never watched, and there was plenty of the show that drew on The Scarlet Witch comics which I haven’t read. At an extra metafictional level, Olsen was born into a family where her slightly older sisters were already celebrities from starring on a  popular sitcom.  Maybe the show’s creators thought it was too obvious, but they resisted making any Full House references that I noticed.

For all the creativity and experimenting that went into the series, I felt a little let down by the final two episodes.  The series finale in particularly is mostly a bog-standard MCU punch-em-out.  A lot of the mystery built up over the course of the series is resolved in perfunctory way or misdirections (I really thought that Dottie and the Beekeeper were going to mean something more).  Also, Rambeau, Woo, and Lewis are just spectators. It’s still satisfactory, but just not as good as I grew to expect from the rest of the series.  One thing it does do well though is set up the next phase of the MCU, and I look forward to see what’s coming next.

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

Holiday Movie Marathon: A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)


Title: A Charlie Brown Christmas
Release Date: December 9, 1965
Director: Bill Melendez
Production Company: Lee Mendelson Films
Summary/Review:

It’s not the nostalgia talking, this show is really just great. This groundbreaking tv special deals with seasonal depression, crass consumerism, and even made aluminum Christmas trees go out of style. Add to that a banging jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi. And it does all this in a story about kids putting on a Christmas play in limited animation by the Graphic Blandishment team.

Rating: *****

TV Review: Further Tales of the City (2001)


Title More Tales of the City
Release Dates: 2001
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 3
Summary/Review:

I’ve finished off watching all the televisual adaptions of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books with 2001’s More Tales of the City.  This is the shortest of all the miniseries and apparently was released in three episodes, although the version I watched on YouTube was edited together into a single three hour movie.  The brevity actually benefits the film, because this is the weakest of all 9 Tales of the City books and consolidating the story actually improves the narrative a bit.

More Tales of the City revolved a ludicrous, plot-twist filled story about an Episcopalian cannibal cult. Further Tales of the City revolves around a ludicrous, plot-twist filled story about cult leader Jim Jones living in San Francisco three years after the Jonestown massacre.  This main story line has DeDe (Barbara Garrick) and her adorable toddler children returning home after having gone to live at Jonestown, surviving the massacre, escaping to Cuba, and then being expelled for being lesbian.  The story does give Garrick a part with more gravitas which she performs well and makes me wonder why DeDe was played mostly for laughs in the 2019 miniseries.

Another central character is Prue (Mary Kay Place), a friend of DeDe’s who had only a small role in previous series, but is the one who discovers and befriends Jim Jones, using the alias Luke (Henry Czerny), when he was living in a maintenance shed in Golden Gate Park.  Her sidekick is Father Paddy, a gossipy and secretly gay priest, played by Bruce McCullough (the second member of Kids in the Hall to appear in Tales of the City after Scott Thompson played a bit part in the previous installment). Another newcomer is a pre-Grey’s Anatomy Sandra Oh as news anchor Bambi Kanetaka, who is Mary Ann’s rival at the tv station and who’s mistreatment by the 28 Barbary Lane family reflects poorly on them and is another reason I like this book the least.

The other storylines seem to be treading water.  Mary Ann (Laura Linney) and Brian (Whip Hubley) are in a long-term relationship now, but straining over Mary Ann’s career focus (something that is better developed in the later books).  Michael (Paul Hopkins) has broken off with Jon (Billy Campbell) basically because of low self-esteem and has a series of flings with an actor (a character Maupin based on his real life lover Rock Hudson), a cop, and a cowboy.  And Mother Mucca (Jackie Burroughs) introduces Mrs. Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) to a man named Royal Reichenbach (John McMartin) in a story created solely for television.

It’s a shame that they were never able to continue adapting the books with the original-ish cast.  Book 4, Babycakes, is my favorite of all the books and all three of the books from the 1980s are more character-driven and deal with more serious issues, especially the AIDS crisis.  Maupin was one of the first authors to include depictions of AIDS in fiction.  Alas, to what could’ve been.

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TV Review: More Tales of the City (1998)


Title More Tales of the City
Release Dates: 1998
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 6
Summary/Review:

Having watched the new Netflix series Tales of the City and then rewatched the classic 1993 miniseries Tales of the City, I dug up the sequel to the original, More Tales of the City on YouTube of all places. This miniseries suffers from the fact that it’s based on one of the weakest books in the Tales of the City series and can’t improve on its source material. The series also  anfeatures several characters cast with new actors that can be jarring.

Paul Hopkins takes over as Michael Tolliver and he end being my least favorite of the three actors to play Michael, as he overdoes the Southern accent and seems to lean in to hard on playing a stereotype of 70s gay man. Nina Siemaszko is somewhat more successful as Mona, playing the character with more vulnerability, but also looking like she’s cosplaying Chloe Webb as Mona. Diana Leblanc takes over for Frannie Halcyon who has a much bigger role in this story, and bears a startling resemblance to Barbara Garrick who plays her onscreen daughter.  Françoise Robertson takes over for D’orothea and also is an improvement for a character getting a bigger role.  Finally, Whip Hubley plays Brian, and while he looks too much like a 70s sitcom character, he does inhabit the role well.

The miniseries overall does have more of a sitcom feel and a lot of the cinematography and direction that made the original Tales of the City great is replaced by more pedestrian styles. I find the plot twists over-the-top (SPOILER) such as Beauchamp dies in a car wreck, Michael is suddenly paralyzed by Guillain–Barré syndrome, and Burke uncovered a Episcopalian cannibal cult! Again, though, those all come from the original source, so they do the best they can.

The main plots of the story involve Mary Ann (Laura Linney) and Michael going on a cruise to Mexico.  Mary Ann finds romance with a man who has amnesia regarding his time in San Francisco, Burke (Colin Ferguson), while Michael is reacquainted with Jon (William Campbell).  Meanwhile, Mona, feeling lost in life, journeys to Nevada where she ends up working as a receptionist at a brothel for Mother Mucca (a cracking good Jackie Burroughs who is actually 8 years younger than Olympia Dukakis, despite appearances).  Brian, enjoying voyeurism from his new penthouse apartment, starts a long distance fling with a mysterious woman (Swoosie Kurtz, 14 years younger than Olympia Dukakis) in another building via binoculars. DeDe has her babies with the help of her new friend-come-lover D’orthea.

It was interesting to finaly see this after 21 years, but unlike the original, I don’t think it would be worth an additional viewing.

TV Review: Tales of the City (1993)


Title Tales of the City
Release Dates: 1993
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 6
Summary/Review:

After watching the new Tales of the City miniseries on Netflix, I saw that this original miniseries is also on Netflix and had to rewatch.  As good as the new series is, this original is really a masterpiece of television.  There’s a lot about it I love – the dialogue, the pacing, the way San Francisco is incorporated as a character, the camerawork (I especially enjoy how many scenes are shot through windows), and the music, both the period-specific pop tunes and the original score for the series. The new series, and well, a lot of television misses these deft touches.

I also like how it slowly reveals that in a city where no one seems to have any secrets that everyone has deep secrets indeed.  I like how well they handled a romance between an older couple – Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) and Edgar Halcyon (Donald Moffat) – something you rarely see depicted on film.  Marcus D’Amico is really the most heartwarming perfomer as Michael Tolliver, and I really loved his strong friendship with Mona Ramsey (Chloe Webb). That Michael in the new series doesn’t share any memories of Mona and even changes the story of how he met Mrs. Madrigal is all the more disappointing.

Even though I haven’t watched this in at least 20 years, I was surprised how well I remembered so many scenes.  The big exception is that I forgot the whole thing about D’orothea (Cynda Williams) pretending to be Black and Mona trying to appeal to her with sould food, which is one of the big misteps of this whole series and worth forgetting about.  Otherwise this is a terrific show and if you have Netflix give yourself a treat and watch it.

TV Review: The Race Underground (2017)


Title The Race Underground
Release Date: 31 January 2017
Director: Michael Rossi
Summary/Review:

The American Experience documentary adapts a portion of the book by Doug Most relating to Boston’s effort to create America’s first subway.  As a Boston partisan myself, why not leave out the portion of the book about New York City, even if they built a far more extensive subway system very swiftly after Boston’s first tunnel opened?  Kidding aside, it is a dramatic figure focusing on key figures such as Frank J. Sprague, who invented the electric trolley car, and Henry Melville Whitney, who consolidated the trolley lines into the West End Street Railway Company and persuaded city officials to approve the first tunnel.  There are challenges along the way including negative popular opinion, graves of Revolutionary War era soldiers, and an explosion, but the subway is completed and convinces the doubters.  The documentary is well-illustrated with photographs and vintage film, and is a delight to watch.
Rating: ***

 

TV Review: BoJack Horseman (2016)


TitleBoJack Horseman
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 12
Summary/Review:  This is the third series of the animated Netflix show that is laugh out loud funny, acerbically satirical, emotionally raw, and thoroughly depressing.  Two plots are intertwined through the series: BoJack making the circuit of appearances in hopes of getting an Oscar nomination for the biopic of Secretariat and flashbacks to 2007 when BoJack helped create a tv show that flopped (kind of eerie how the show makes 2007 feel like a long time ago!).  Both plots deal with BoJack’s inability to feel happiness, his capacity for self-sabotage, and his unreliability to friends and colleagues.  Looking back on the season it seems so glum, it’s hard to remember that there was a lot to laugh about, but BoJack Horseman is all about using humor to peel back the most painful wounds.  The highpoint of the season is episode 4, “Fish Out of Water,” where BoJack goes to a film festival in a community under the sea and thus there’s almost no dialogue in the entire episode as the undersea world is brought to life with fantastic visuals, sound effects, and music.  It’s a tour-de-force in what is a really well-done season of television.

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TV Review: BoJack Horseman (2015)


TitleBoJack Horseman
Release Dates: 2015
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 12
Summary/Review:

The first season focused on BoJack & Diane writing his memoirs, but the second series is more scattered in focus ranging from BoJack starring in a Secretariat biopic, Mr. Peanutbutter’s new game show (created by J.D. Salinger!), Todd getting involved in an improv comedy cult, and even an entire episode built around jokes about auto-erotic asphyxiation (disturbing, but surprisingly funny and touching too).  Over the course of the season both BoJack and Diane go in a downward spiral.  On the upside, Princess Carolyn and Mr. Peanutbutter get a lot of great character development. The best episodes are “After the Party” showing the stories of three couples after a disastrous party and “Hank After Dark” a takedown of the culture that protects celebrities from allegations of sexual assault (featuring a thinly-disguised Bill Cosby character).  The show gets darker and more serious while still being incredibly funny.  I eagerly look forward to season 3.