Archer (Season #4)

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Another season passes and still Archer remains the same.

To be fair, this season does have its share of fun episodes, like the Bob’s Burgers crossover by dint of Archer and Bob sharing the same, versatile voice actor (H Jon Benjamin), or the episode featuring a epithet-spewing celebrity chef in the style of American-TV Gordon Ramsay but voiced by Anthony Bourdain (RIP). But the Archer formula continues to bear fruit, churning out episode after episode where the characters rely on well-established patterns of dialogue, action and mutual abuse. One might even admire the series for maintaining such a consistent level of quality for four seasons – in the unflagging sharpness of its writing and the tautness and brazen misantrophism of its storytelling.

Over the past couple of seasons, though, the penultimate and last episodes usually culminate in a slightly bigger and more serious saga that does see Archer acting in a way that isn’t selfish or narcissistic for once – but it doesn’t last – hes’ back to his old self at the start of the next season.

By its 4th season, Archer has clearly built a pretty solid niche in television as that show that never fails to deliver, as long as what is delivered is what is desired. Personally, I find it very tolerable watching as long as I don’t expect too much from it.

I give this: 3.5 out of 5 hydrogen bombs

 

 

 

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Game Night

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Game Night was a surprisingly fun film to watch on a 16-hour long redeye flight.

Max and Annie are a well-to-do and competitive upper middle class couple living in a nice big house, who invite their similarly upper-middle class friends every weeks for routine rounds of game night session.  When Max’s seemingly much more successful big brother comes into town and suggests a far more elaborate game night, Max’s status envy is triggered. But then, things start to get a little weird and dangerous.

Game Night is surprisingly tightly-plotted for a Hollywood comedy, featuring no small number of plot hijinks and twists, which I won’t go into here. There are also standout characters, like Jesse Plemons’ creepy, thousand-yard stare policeman Gary, who ends up being somewhat of a standout character for the show. But I think what actually sets this apart from other hijinks-based Hollywood action comedies is its creditable character-building. Max and Annie (played by Jason Bateman and Rachel MacAdams) have real on-screen chemistry, and work well together as a team – something strangely rare in films featuring couples.

And while the ancillary characters are mostly sketched in broad shades, they don’t become caricatures of their own roles; even the douchey Brooks and the oddball Gary have their own, somewhat sympathetic sides.

It’s not a film that brooks much discourse, being a pure vehicle of stress-releasing entertainment in the Hollywood vein. But it is one of the better-made examples of its ilk.

I give this: 4 out of 5 Faberge Eggs

 

Bojack Horseman (Season #3)

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Season 3 of Bojack Horseman continues to confidently take the series into ever greater depths of emotional pathos, whilst maintaining, with admirable originality, its frenetic, often brilliantly absurdist humor.

By Season 3, we already know Bojack for what he is – a selfish narcissist, and an inveterate seeker of validation that forever eludes him because ultimately, he can never be satisfied. Career-wise, he’s never been better – he’s had a career-defining role and an Oscar nomination in the bag.

But, as expected, he’s still dissatisfied, and that dissatisfaction leads him to strike out and act in ways that cause immense, and at times irreversible, hurt to the people around him. And yet we still like and root for him, because there is something so human, so relatable in his canny self-awareness of his shortcomings.

In Season 3, we find out that Bojack, hitherto known for its pitch-dark bouts of existential despair and its sophomoric animal-pun humour, is also capable of moments of beauty. Episode 4, Fish Out of Water, rightly deserves its reputation as being one of the most richly imaginative episodes of an American animated TV sitcom in the recent past, with its wordless, choreographed adventure through an underwater city, giving us a glimpse of the alternate, animal-dominated universe that we had hitherto thought of as part of the joke.

And Bojack is also capable of moments of resoundingly human pathos – not the choking despair of seeing Bojack fail at being a decent person time and again, but of a dramatic culmination of the tragic story arc of another (in “That’s Too Much, Man!”), a tragedy for which Bojack is only, this time, partially responsible.

As always, Bojack-watching is an exercise in catharsis, and sometimes levity can modulate our emotional responses to what is often an utterly depressing shitshow. The show intersperses that with lighter elements from other story arcs, and . In particular, Todd’s misadventures starting his Uber-mocking Cabracadabra business can always be relied on for a dose of delightful absurdity and satire, although in this season he seems to be grappling with problems of his own – namely, his personal struggle coming out as an asexual, an arc that was greeted with some minor acclaim from that community upon the season’s debut.

In all, probably the best Bojack season yet. I look forward to watching the next season with a kind of anticipatory trepidation, to find out how else Bojack can ruin his life.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 ‘Blarn’ name-tags

The Shape of Water

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A contrarian view: this Oscar-winning work of Cold War-era romantic fantasy didn’t quite measure up, in my view, to the lofty praise heaped upon it.

The Shape of Water is the story of an interspecies romance between a mute cleaner at a clandestine government facility, Elisa Esposito, and a mysterious amphibian humanoid known only as the “asset”. She first meets the creature and is struck by her ability to communicate with it in a way that transcends the boundaries of language, feeding him eggs and gaining his slow trust. But when she finds out the asset is to be vivisected to obtain knowledge to gain an upper hand in the Cold War, she concocts a plan to help the Asset escape. And in the process, their bond blossoms into something more.

It surely must be one of the most progressive conceits in cinematic history – the wordless love story of two outcasts, one mute; the other alien; their quest helped by a gay artist, a black woman, and a Soviet spy, standing against the icons of white-bread American might in the form of the gross Colonel Strickland with his strangely childlike love of candy and his slowly-blackening, gangrenous fingers.

Unfortunately, it’s somewhat hamstrung by its ambition. There are a lot of things going on in the film – Soviet spy-stuff, Strickland’s weird home-office life, Elisa’s and the amphibian’s burgeoning romance, and the mini-plots of the various other characters – and they come together to construct a narrative that is disjointed, unevenly paced, and a little too long.

Many of its constituent parts are not that convincing – the way Elisa and the amphibians’ relationship is depicted is about as valiant as any such relationship has any right to be on screen, but it’s not enough to convince me of its fundamental sustainability and relies on a regressive, Hollywood-like idea of romantic affection as transcending the boundaries of communication. Strickland’s depiction is a cartoonishly evil, and the significance inherent in his gangrenous hand and picture-perfect American family are far too in-your-face – he also likes to over-explain his worldview to would-be victims, which is so totally cliche villain.

And also, the film contrives the plot a little to make things happen – like the fact that the room in which the amphibian is housed not being CCTV covered at all, allowing Elisa to even discover him in the first place.

In the end, it’s a bombastic story set in a world that doesn’t quite have too much internal consistency, whose central romantic conceit doesn’t quite convince, that lacks subtlety in its messaging about the true monsters about our midst, and could use a bit of tightening. A fantasy film that, while resplendent with the kind of mysterious fairy-tale like quality of a del Toro film and the sinuous, alien grace of a Doug Jones performance, doesn’t quite earn a number of its vaunted Oscars.

I give this: 3 out of 5 eggs

 

 

 

Lady Bird

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Lady Bird is a deftly written, scintillatingly funny, and richly textured portrait of a girl in the last throes of teenagerdom and her fraught but close relationship with her mother.

The film follows Christine MacPherson (played with intense charisma by Saoirse Ronan), who goes by Lady Bird, as she juggles the many facets of her life in her senior year in a Catholic high school in boring city of Sacramento, California. A precocious and iconoclastic teen, she dreams of college life in a big east-coast city while navigating the preoccupations of adolescence – adventures with her best friend Julianne, trying to fit into social groups, navigating the contours of teenage romance, rehearsing for the school play. But her outsize ambitions are kept in abeyance by her family’s relative poverty and the strictures of her loving, slightly controlling, eternally chiding mother (played with perpetual worry lines by Laurie Metcalf).

While it sounds like any old high school story, Lady Bird is really much more – it’s utterly unique in its sensitive and nuanced portrayal of characters and relationships. Lady Bird herself is a beautifully complex character, fallible, capable of great superficiality but also depth, both wise and naive, faux-cynical and earnest, and wickedly acerbic in her wit when it suits her. She embodies the turmoil of teenagerdom. Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother, Marion, is in many ways the emotional bookend of the film, full of the thunderous rancour and sentimental pleasures that constitute the love between parent and child. In a whiplash moment, Lady Bird and her mother can go from crying together over a moving audiobook to screaming at each other. Lady Bird shows itself uniquely capable of painting a scene like that, to make it so full of tenderness, pathos, and bleak humor.

It is that humor, so subtle yet effective, that is another one of the film’s pillars. From the quietly tortured soul that is the teacher in charge of the school’s theatre program, to the cloying pretentiousness of Lady Bird’s second boyfriend Kyle, Lady Bird balances its emotional stakes with a humour resplendent in the ways in which it weaves into and provides contrast to the film’s more tumultuous emotional moments.

Above all, Lady Bird feels utterly real. Near the end of the film, when Lady Bird makes up with her best friend Julianne after having abandoned her in favour of a bunch of delinquents and discovers she’s been accepted into a college in New York City, but gets into a big fight with her mother over college financing that leaves them not saying a word to each other, you can’t help but feel that there is that truth to Lady Bird’s lived experience, that the totality of the film has been a distillate of the rawest and most essential parts of that period of a life, with its complexities, hopes, ambitions and disappointments. Like Christine waking up in a hospital bed after blacking out from too much drink, you feel the weight of sacrifice behind your ambitions and feel the call of home.

I give this film: 4.5/5 issues of Playgirl magazine

Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Solo is a fun and entertaining film that tells a story that didn’t need to be told.

Solo is the logical epitome of the film industry of today – a movie designed to garner views and attention though sheer audience pandering. Studio executives must have thought: who doesn’t want a film about the greatest silver screen space smuggler of all time? Unfortunately for them, it seems like, a surprising number of people.

To be fair, Star Wars has never been high art, but it told a story that was good, a Campellian arc for the post-Vietnam War world. The prequels too, for all their faults, had a place in the Star Wars mythos, deepening and revealing the context of the original films that had only been hinted at and speculated on in accessory books and games. Even Rogue One had an important story to tell of the heroism of the everyman and their role in securing the Death Star plans.

Solo, on the other hand, doesn’t have a story that it needs to tell, as opposed to a set of checkboxes to tick – the landmarks of the life and times of Han Solo. The film doesn’t really tell us what we don’t already know about the man – that he grew up on Corellia, was a great pilot, rescued Chewbacca from the Imperials, became a smuggler. It is an exercise in visualising all the offhand references made throughout the Star Wars saga – how he won the Millennium Falcon from Lando and did the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.

To be clear – this isn’t a problem – films can be enjoyed for the spectacle and fan-service they provide. But generally, it would be nice if films comprised more than just those superficial parts – if they had a cohesive and compelling narrative tree upon which to drape these accoutrements.

But Solo isn’t quite like that. It doesn’t add value to our idea of Han. It’s just an echo, an acting out, of who he was in the original films, except younger. It doesn’t help that Alden Ehrenreich,  who is doubtless doing the best he can, just doesn’t have that Harrison Ford swagger. And while there is that whole thing about his love interest Qi’Ra and how never to trust anyone, that isn’t really who Han is by the time of the OT. So that’s really a kind of dead end in narrative terms.

There are also a bunch of continuity annoyances that diverge from my headcanon of Han Solo and the Star Wars universe in general. First, Corellia was talked about as some kind of cesspool planet, when it was a major Core world  and important shipyard. Han’s rescue of Chewbacca was also less compelling than it could have been – in the EU, he was expelled from the Imperial Academy for freeing him, which speaks of a greater nobility than what was in the film. Finally, his Solo moniker had grander origins in the EU than what it was made out to be in the film – essentially a bastard name conferred by a punny Imperial officer.

I still enjoyed Solo for what it was – an action film of spectacle and some light pathos, expanding upon the Disney Star Wars universe. But beyond that, it doesn’t really have much to go for it. And I was constantly struck with the impression that it was rather ghoulish for Disney to have killed off the character in a sequel film for narrative effect and come back to do a prequel that was in many respects narratively inconsequential.

I give this film: 3.5 out of 5 dice

 

VA11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action

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Va-11 Hall-A is a product of our new global culture. A game from a Venezuelan studio, set in an fictional North American city, published by a Singaporean company, infused with an anime aesthetic and powered by Japanese game design; a game that sees you mixing drinks in a dystopian cyberpunk metropolis to the plodding but addictive electronic hum of a retro-futuristic synth soundtrack.

Vallhalla (I’ll write it that way for simplicity) sees you assume the role of Jill, a 27-year old bartender working in a well-kept bar in a lousy part of town. It’s 207X and Glitch City is a festering cesspool of megacorps and street violence, where nanobots suffuse your bloodstream and monitor your every waking moment. But the game doesn’t take you down the dark paths of future-noir hyper-violence and body-horror – it weaves a strangely prosaic narrative web; telling tales of the lives of the people that live in this checkered megalopolis. As a bartender, you listen to their confidences, you get to know them, and the only thing you can give is your undivided attention and a pinch of conversational brio.

But the game handles all that for you, because Jill herself is a full-fledged character. The only control you have over her is the choice of drinks to serve to customers. And here, the beauty of this minimalist game design shines through, because the game basically forces you to pay attention to get good narrative outcomes, and the causal connection between the choice of drink and the outcome is not transparent. It’s hard to “game the system” to win, like it is in a game like Mass Effect where you basically know in advance what choice to make to achieve a certain Paragon/Renegade outcome.

But at the same time, the choices are simple; almost binary. So all you have to do, is really just to be the best and most attentive bartender you can. And while in terms of raw gameplay variety, there isn’t much – there are really only 25 drinks and you get tired of the mechanics of drink-mixing really fast – there is a simplicity to that concept that I find appealing – it drills down to the core of roleplaying and what it means to assume a persona in a video game.

And for the most part, the narrative and stories are compelling enough to sustain the interest in the game despite the monotonous gameplay. Characters that are sly subversions of their own anime-inspired tropes abound – the robot sex worker who takes pride in her professionalism, the big-busted serial-dating hacker who isn’t a femme fatale, a white-haired genki boss with a colorful history but a real human touch, and Jill herself, a normal girl with a checkered but utterly relatable past. Writerly witticisms, sly cyberpunk references, and intimations to the wider universe shared by Read Only Memories complete the package and turn this into a special, if somewhat brief, experience, that in many ways really pulls you more into that world than a lot of narrative games with ten times the graphics budget.

I give this: 4 out of 5 Zen Stars