Lovecraft Country – A Few Thoughts

Lovecraft Country started out as a brilliant genre mashup of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, history, and social commentary. The first episode thoroughly impressed me because it mixed fantasy horror with real life horror quite effectively. 

The second episode seemed to be a strange break from the first, and each subsequent episode always felt a little disjointed from the series as a whole. There were so many zigs and so many zags that I couldn’t synthesize the overall plot. 

In the end, these inconsistent storylines proved too much for me to say that I enjoyed the series. 

However, Lovecraft Country’s secret weapons are the cast. In the end, I’ll watch anything with Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in starring roles. These two were fantastic. Furthermore, the show just looked good. The costumes, the sets, the props, the cars–everything was topnotch. 

And, though we only got to see them in one episode, Topsy and Bopsy proved to be the breakout superstars of Lovecraft Country. These charismatic fiends are the stuff of nightmares, yet I can’t wait to see them again. 

I appreciate everything Lovecraft Country set out to do. It tackled social issues, historical tragedies, racism, sexism, abuse, and many other important things, all while telling a story based within the worlds of magic and horror. 

In the end, though, it simply couldn’t tell a streamlined, coherent story that stretched across all ten episodes. No matter how great the acting, how beautiful the sets and costumes, and how noble the intent, the writing has got to be the best aspect of any show. 

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The Third Day – A Few Thoughts

I wanted to like The Third Day–I really did. I stuck it out. All six hours. Kept hoping it would get better.

It didn’t.

The Third Day had so much going for it. Beautifully shot. Excellent locations. Charismatic acting. An interesting concept. It’s just … it didn’t make any sense to me at all.

The Third Day jumped around so much that the plot became a muddled mess. The characters made such irrational, ludicrous decisions that I simply couldn’t suspend my disbelief. The show contradicted itself at every turn.

But … the actors! The actors were so good! Naomie Harris, Jude Law, Emily Watson, Paddy Considine, Katherine Waterson–these are quality actors doing quality work!

It just didn’t work.

As much as I want to, I simply can’t recommend The Third Day.

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The Haunting Of Bly Manor – A Few Thoughts

I enjoyed The Haunting Of Hill House, but I love its successor, The Haunting Of Bly Manor

The Haunting Of Bly Manor follows the story of Dani Clayton, an American tasked with caring for two young orphans in the massive estate known as Bly Manor. She is joined by Jamie the gardener, Mrs. Grose the housekeeper, and Owen the chef. Together they form a sort of surrogate family for Flora and Miles, the orphans. Soon enough, however, we learn that Bly Manor has some very dark secrets, and that history can literally come back to haunt you.

I found The Haunting Of Bly Manor to be very well crafted. The pacing struck me as nearly perfect, which is unusual for a Netflix show, and they stuck the landing exceptionally well with the final episode, which, again, is rare for Netflix. 

There are some jump scares in The Haunting Of Bly Manor, to be sure, as well as a general tone of creepiness, but I’m not sure I would define the show as “scary.” Yes, it’s a ghost story–no doubt–but I’m not convinced it’s a “scary” story.

In fact, I think you would be hard pressed to find a more likable group of characters than Dany, Jamie, Mrs. Grose, and Owen. These four characters are the heart and soul of the show, and the actors are a pleasure to watch. I considered them my friends by the end of the series, which doesn’t happen to me very often.

The Haunting Of Bly Manor plays with time, structure, and perspective quite a bit, but this serves to strengthen the overall story. Sometimes these narrative breaks are simply to elongate a series, to stretch it out, but I can reassure you that every episode is vital.

I only have one complaint about the show–just the one–and it involves a personal haunting that Dany is suffering early on in the series. Unless I missed it, I’m not quite sure that subplot ever got resolved.

I completely recommend The Haunting Of Bly Manor. I looked forward to every episode. I think it could be appropriate for the family if you have older kids. There’s no nudity, very little bad language, and while there are jump scares, there’s not much gory violence to speak of.

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Cobra Kai: Seasons One and Two – A Few Thoughts

I’ll admit it: I thought it was a terrible idea when I heard YouTube planned to release an original series furthering the Karate Kid story. But, as time progressed, I heard some positive things about the show. Some were even calling it a hit.

Cobra Kai, the show in question, came to Netflix a few weeks ago. My wife and I thought we’d preview it to see if it was appropriate for our twelve-year-old. First of all–it’s not appropriate for a twelve-year-old due to sexual references; second of all–we LOVED it and binged the whole series.

Cobra Kai is a magical blend of nostalgia and modernity. For middle-aged folks like me (I’m 43), it brings back all of the incredible feels from the original Karate Kid. It even goes so far as to provide literal cuts from the first movie during flashbacks.

However, it’s novel in that it provides a completely different take on the prototypical teenage bad boy–Johnny Lawrence. Johnny is no longer the archetypal golden boy villain. He’s now relatable, sympathetic, and even likable. Sure, he’s still rough around the edges, but I think the older crowd sees a lot of themselves in him … for better or for worse.

On the other hand, Danny LaRusso has changed as well. He’s still trying to do the right thing, but we learn Johnny has his own ideas about how things happened back in the 80s which casts Danny in a different light. Furthermore, in his own way, and despite being very successful in life, Danny can’t let go of the past, either. He is every bit as paralyzed in time as Johnny Lawrence.

This kind of complex characterization was COMPLETELY unexpected and riveted us.

Also, the show struck gold with casting their new karate kids. In my opinion, Xolo Maridueña, who plays Johnny’s first protégé, is the heart and soul of this show. He’s a likable, charismatic actor who makes us care about the ups and downs of his character. In fact, though talent varies a bit, all of the “teenage” characters are extremely engaging in their own way. Each one of them has a distinct personality and unique motivations. The days of one-note teen archetypes are over in the Karate Kid saga.

Most surprisingly, Cobra Kai is truly funny. Johnny, though always completely serious, is absolutely hilarious. He’s so disengaged from the modern world to such a degree that he doesn’t understand contemporary civility, technology, or even medical conditions. He utters some horrifically crude lines, but I can’t deny how funny they are.

Finally, the action is fantastic in Cobra Kai. Ralph Machio (Danny) is currently 58. William Zabka is 54. Both of these men can still sell the martial arts. Xolo Maridueña seems to be a natural as do the other lead karate students. There are some great fight scenes in this series, particularly in the final episode of Season 2.

I’m not surprised Cobra Kai is taking the world by storm now that it’s on Netflix. It’s the best of something old and something new. I’m so happy for this second chance at stardom for the original cast, and I love that the new blood is forging their own fame. As you’ve probably guessed, I highly recommend Cobra Kai.

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An American Pickle – A Movie Review

An American Pickle is a strange, disparate comedy, but I actually enjoyed it quite a bit.

The premise is that an impoverished immigrant comes to America with his new wife, begins working in a pickle factory, and then, after falling into a vat of brine, wakes up 100 years later in modern day Brooklyn. He only has one surviving member of his family left, a great-grandson. By the way, Seth Rogen plays both the immigrant and the great-grandson.

I described An American Pickle as strange and disparate because while there are some laugh-out-loud moments, this movie is oddly quiet and serious at times. It very much centers on the importance of both family and faith. However, it will then switch gears and become absolutely ridiculous. This uneven pacing threw me for loop, but that’s not to say I didn’t like it. The unpredictable nature of the film actually kept me engaged.

Again, An American Pickle has a rather unexpected sense of poignancy. Rogen plays both Herschel Greenbaum and Ben Greenbaum. Herschel is literally a relic of the past. He is bias, violent, crude, and uneducated, yet he is also devoted to family, hardworking, tenacious, and devoutly religious. Ben, on the other hand, is technologically savvy, intelligent, and politically correct, but he’s also disconnected from society, has no real sense of family, and won’t acknowledge his own emotions. I think we recognize certain aspects of ourselves in both these characters–the good and the bad.

There also seems to be quite a bit of social commentary in An American Pickle (but you have to perhaps overanalyze the film in order to recognize it). The insanity of our current political climate, our overabundance on technology, our waning sense of community, our religious indifference, and our tenuous grip on family bonds are all on display in An American Pickle. Of course, the film is not overemphasizing these issues, but they are definitely there if you want to notice them.

I wouldn’t say An American Pickle is among my favorite movies, but I certainly enjoyed it and appreciated the fact that it took a different approach to comedy. If you’re in need of a quick, unusual movie to watch, I recommend you give An American Pickle a try.

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The Kind Worth Killing By Peter Swanson – A Book Review

A friend recommended this book to me after I requested a fast, action-packed read. The Kind Worth Killing did not disappoint.

The story is centered around Ted and Lily, two strangers who meet in an airport bar. During conversation, Ted reveals he’d like to kill his cheating wife, and Lily is more than happy to assist.

From there, things get very complex as their pasts become interwoven with the present. The author, Peter Swanson, also alternates perspectives from Ted to Lily with each chapter. As the book progresses, however, new perspectives enter the fray, which offers fresh insights into the overall story.

Swanson absolutely knows how to write a fast-paced story. The chapters are short, the plot races forward, and the dialogue flows smoothly. The twists and turns were very entertaining, and the book as a whole proved quite fun.

My only complaints are that the characters tended to sound the same to me. The men all seemed to have the same voice, as did the women. Their plots and circumstances set them apart, but their voices did not. None of their personalities were unique.

I also found the very last two pages of the book unnecessary. A revelation occurs that is executed in a manner inconsistent with the rest of the style, and this revelation really serves no purpose other than to suggest a sequel. As it stands, those last two pages usurp an otherwise satisfying ending.

This is a slight grievance, however. Overall, the book thrilled me for several days as I truly enjoyed it. If you’re looking for an exciting mystery or thriller, I recommend The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson.

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HBO Max’s Harley Quinn: Seasons 1 & 2 – A Few Thoughts

I subscribed to HBO Max because I am DC Comics for life and I could not resist the Zack Snyder Justice League Director’s Cut. 

Okay. There, I said it.

However, there have been some very welcome surprises since subscribing to HBO Max, and Harley Quinn is very much among them.

Let me explain. DC Comics launched a streaming service about two years ago featuring original show content such as Swamp Thing, Doom Patrol, Titans, and Harley Quinn. I heard rumors that, with the advent of HBO Max, the DC streaming service might get absorbed, at least in terms of shows. To my great advantage, that is happening even as we speak. 

Harley Quinn never struck me as a must-watch, but I’d heard good things about it, and so when it popped up on the HBO Max “just added” page, I gave it a shot.

I instantly loved it.

At just about 23 minutes apiece, this animated comedy regularly made me laugh out loud as I powered through the first two seasons. The show is cartoonishly bloody and relentlessly profane, but it is absolutely hilarious.

It features Harley Quinn played by Kaley Cuoco, Poison Ivy played by Lake Bell, Batman played by Diedrich Bader, Clayface played by Alan Tudyk, King Shark played by Ron Funches, Dr. Psycho played by Tony Hale, and Commissioner Gordon played by Christopher Meloni.

You’ve also got substantial voice appearances by J.B. Smoove, Jim Rash, Jason Alexander, Giancarlo Esposito, Michael Ironside, Wanda Sykes, Rachel Dratch, Wayne Knight, Will Sasso, and Alfred Molina. These are NAMES, people!

However, I’m not sure how funny this show is to anyone not deeply steeped in nerd culture. There are a ton of inside comic book jokes, parodies, and satires squarely aimed at the last eighty or so years of DC Comics.

Furthermore, they make everyone hilarious. Clayface makes me roar every time he talks, Bane is comedy gold, and King Shark is adorable. Kite Man has become the most sympathetic character going, and Poison Ivy is cooler than anyone ever imagined possible, and also bitingly funny. Don’t even get me started on Commissioner Gordon. 

Harley Quinn is such a fresh take on these characters and so unusual that you have to watch it for the novelty alone. For anyone who says DC is too dark, I dare you to feel the same way after watching Harley Quinn. (Just don’t pay attention to the blood, the maiming, and the general anarchy.)

Best of all? HBO Max just announced that Harley Quinn: Season 3 is coming exclusively to HBO Max.

If you have HBO Max, I highly recommend that you give Harley Quinn a try.

HBO Max’s Doom Patrol: Season 2 – A Few Thoughts

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Doom Patrol is a show based on the DC Comics title. During it’s first season, it aired on DC Universe, a streaming service. However, because HBO and DC both fall under the Warner Brothers umbrella, this second season of Doom Patrol appeared on HBO Max. (Conventional wisdom says DC Universe is going to be folded up and inserted into HBO Max. We’ll see.)

Doom Patrol has been around since 1963. The title has always been comprised of strange misfits that don’t quite work anywhere else in the DC Universe. You won’t find most of these characters in the Justice League, the Teen Titans, or even The Outsiders. They are sometimes a super hero team, sometimes a dysfunctional family, and sometimes just a bunch of people occupying the same space at the same time.

The first season of Doom Patrol proved a success in that it looked great, hit some very offbeat notes, and struck the audience as genuinely unique compared to most “comic book” screen properties. Furthermore, it featured some impressive names such as Brendon Fraser, Diane Guerrero, Matt Bomer, Alan Tudyk, and Timothy Dalton. Like most first seasons, though, it spent a great deal of time simply establishing character and chemistry. Unfortunately, I found myself distracted at some point during most of the episodes as they seemed about twenty minutes too long.

While the second season had some great moments, I’m afraid I can’t say it much improved on the first. The episodes are still too long for the stories, and the characters are still being developed to the point that they don’t seem to interact with each other all that much. The show is called Doom Patrol, after all, yet there are very few moments when they all appear on screen together.

Individually, the characters are all dynamic, visually interesting, and well-acted. But each episode seems to focus on their individuality rather than the “group” aspect of the show. They are a lot of fun when they are all together–I’m not sure why they don’t have them all together more often. They tend to break off into teams of two or three.

There are a few breakout stars of this show. Personally, I find April Bowlby to be the heart and soul of Doom Patrol. She plays an actress from a bygone era who does not age, yet also cannot guarantee that she won’t turn into a pile of goo. Bowlby has great timing, humor, and her voice work never fails to entertain.

I also like Joivan Wade, who plays Cyborg. Why is Cyborg a member of Doom Patrol? I have no idea. After all, he’s been a member of the Justice League both on screen and in the comic book for years. Furthermore, he’s never been a member of Doom Patrol in the comics; he actually started off in The New Teen Titans. Though it seems a strange decision, I like Wade and I think they present Cyborg well. It’s fun to see him with practical effects instead of CGI.

Speaking of which, the sets and costumes in Doom Patrol are always top-notch. The only time they get themselves in trouble is with some of the grandiose special effects. Some of the effects look good, but when the effects get too big and too complicated, they are noticeably flawed. Season 2’s main antagonist never quite looked right to me. The CGI big-bad DC dilemma strikes again, right? (I’m talking to you, Doomsday, Steppenwolf, Incubus, and Ares.)

I also understand that Fraser’s character, Robotman, is very rough around the edges, but they have him screaming–yes, screaming–the “F” word every ten seconds. I’m no prude, but they are way over the top with the use of that particular piece of profanity.

Honestly, the second season of Doom Patrol failed to capture my full attention with every episode as well due to an inevitable slog at some point. When compared to shows such as The Umbrella Academy or The Boys, which are similar in tone but far better paced, this is disappointing.

And while I won’t spoil the Season 2 finale, I found it so abrupt, so off-kilter, that I had to double check that it actually was the finale. As finale’s go, it doesn’t get much more dissatisfying.

The Umbrella Academy: Season 2 – A Few Thoughts

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As good as The Umbrella Academy was during its first season, the second season has easily proven superior.

I’m going to go to great lengths to avoid spoilers, not just for the second season, but also for the first. My hope is that the uninitiated will give The Umbrella Academy a try after reading this piece.

The first season established the characters of these seven extraordinary brothers and sisters. Fetched from all over the world as children in order to use their wondrous powers for the forces of good, their benefactor, Sir Reginald Hargreeves … well, he created a rather dysfunctional family. Things worked out fairly well for them as children, but as they grew into adulthood and gained independence … they began to see Hargreeves for what he actually was.

Once this dynamic got covered in the first season, the second season got to blow it all apart. These interesting characters are now absolutely mesmerizing. They are flawed, funny, and lovable. Everyone has had a shift from the first season, which makes this season feel totally fresh.

This show is part comedy, part action-adventure, part family drama, part social commentary, and very sci-fi. There are fist fights, martial arts, energy blasts, time travel, talking ghosts, talking fish, and even nuclear explosions. It’s bonkers, yet it all works.

The Umbrella Academy is also smartly written. The plot is mostly tight, the story is exceptionally satisfying, the dialogue is crisp, the pace is perfect, and the twits never stop. It absolutely builds off of the first season and is even dependent on the first season, but it never comes close to feeling like a repeat of the first season.

But the real magic is the actors. These actors are all charismatic and the chemistry between the brothers and sisters is a joy to watch. They are exceptional on their own; together they are magnificent. Whoever selected these actors nailed it. They seem so comfortable this season and actually living in their characters’ skin.

If you’re looking for a fun, fast, action-oriented show with superb characters and captivating plots, The Umbrella Academy is for you. Just keep in mind that it gets a tad violent from time to time, and there is a bit of profanity.

An Open Letter To Political and Educational Leaders

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Before I begin, I’d like to state that I truly believe almost all teachers and administrators honestly want the best for their students. I cannot say “every” because I try not to deal in absolutes, but the vast majority of teachers and administrators with whom I’ve worked put the students first.

Educational leaders are in an impossible situation. They know that children need to be in school. It’s not a political responsibility, it’s not an economical responsibility, it’s simply a responsibility to the child’s well-being. Children need to grow socially, intellectually, and emotionally, and school is an exceptional place to do that. School is a place for children to exist independently from their parents or guardians and a place for them to find their own voice. Yet it is also a place filled with structure, routine, boundaries, and–perhaps most importantly–professional guidance.

However, school is impossible without teachers. We all seem to be forgetting that fact. Teachers are, right now, being asked to enter often poorly ventilated, overcrowded classrooms filled with children who are proven to carry the coronavirus. We are literally asking our teachers, many of whom are over forty years old, to risk their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

I often hear the argument that grocery stores and doctors’ offices are open–schools can open, too. I think it’s important to remember that those are usually very well-ventilated environments with strict control over who and who cannot enter. If someone refuses to comply, they literally have a security force they can call upon. We took our child to the doctor the other day. We had to wait in the car until we got a text. Then, when the text came, we entered a side door, spoke to no one, and made our way directly to the patient’s room. We wore masks the entire time, as did the medical staff. It was an incredibly controlled, rigid system. My wife’s eye doctor even had a placard placed in her examination room stating the room is disinfected between patients.

Think back to your days in school. Do you really think children are going to stay six feet apart (even though most agree this will be impossible to accomplish in classrooms due to limited space and teachers). Do you really think schools are going to be able to force students to wear their masks correctly?

I’ve seen some plans where teachers are being told to wear a mask all day, disinfect desks between class periods, eat lunch with the same group of students in the classroom daily, prohibit shared material (like textbooks), stay six feet away from those students in the classroom (which will literally be impossible in many cases), enforce temperature regulation, and direct traffic in the hallways. This is on top of the daily lesson planning, teaching, grading, behavior management, parent contact, and meetings.

Furthermore, some schools are going all in, every student every day, while others are going half in-session and half remote learning. I have a child at the elementary level and then another child at the middle school level. The middle school is essentially going part-time, while the elementary level is going full time. Meanwhile, my place of work (a high school in a different district), is going all in, full time. This is an incredible burden on me both as a parent and as an employee. I’m being asked to leave my middle school child home alone for three days out of the week, find after school care for my elementary school child (which further bursts any already-lackluster bubble), and work full time in my own building. My middle school child is going to be isolated at home for many, many hours, which is dangerous at a physical, emotional, and social level, while my elementary child is unnecessarily being exposed to even more people. As a parent, I find this incredibly stressful.

If your child is next to a child who shows any of the numerous symptoms, your child is quarantined for several days. If your child’s teacher shows any of the symptoms, he or she is quarantined for several days. In some cases, an entire class could be quarantined for several days–perhaps as many as fourteen. This is all true for school buses as well. We are quickly going to run out of teachers, substitute teachers, and drivers. You’re going to be finding someone to watch your child as they keep getting quarantined when kids in their classes show symptoms. It’s going to get very chaotic, very quickly.

Though it’s not the popular solution, the most logical, rational, and safest decision is for all school districts to go 100% remote. Families can continue with whatever summer childcare they have in place, which will keep them within whatever bubble they’ve established. We can all start the school year off with a remote learning procedure in place. As it stands right now, schools meeting in-session will be doing so completely out of any previously proven routine, and will likely have to go remote within four to six weeks anyway. When that happens, many are going to be scrambling for childcare and trying to figure out remote learning anyway. Doesn’t it make more sense just to start off with 100% remote learning when we know it’s coming? Neither choice is easy–I understand that. There will be hardships even with 100% remote learning. This is obviously a case of choosing the lesser of two evils. Personally, I feel ensuring the physical health of our teachers and students must take priority.

As a nation, we have not done our part. As a nation, we’re not wearing masks, we’re not staying home, and we’re not establishing a bubble. People at my grocery store won’t even follow the arrows marked on the floor. We teach our students that behaviors have consequences. Guess what, America? 100% remote learning is the consequence of your behavior. Many have taken the necessary precautions, and it’s awful that those people must suffer the ramifications of those who haven’t been responsible.

Additionally, I fear this is further reinforcing the class divide. I hear more and more of my friends who are upper-middle class or upper class opting to keep their kids home in order to guarantee their safety. They will still have outdoor play dates, Facebook Messenger For Kids calls, trips to the park, and bicycle rides. Those parents, who are likely working remotely due to white collar, well-paying jobs, don’t have to think about it too hard. Meanwhile, lower-middle class families and low-income families don’t have a choice at all. If they don’t physically go to work, they don’t get paid. They literally cannot afford to do what they think is best for their kids–they have no choice in the matter. They will risk their lives, their children’s lives, and their extended families’ lives because they have to. This is the height of inequality.

It will take incredible bravery, morality, and willpower for school administrators to do the right thing and implement 100% remote learning at the start of the year. It will be incredibly hard. They will be ridiculed every step of the way. Many will question them at every opportunity. There will be several challenges, such as food distribution, guaranteeing WiFi, and providing services for those students with unique needs. However, in the long run, it will be what’s best for our children.

As for politicians, I suspect the most powerful of politicians never attended public school nor send their own children to public school, so they should stay out of it and let the experts–teachers and school administrators–work it out. I’m tired of politicians using our children as pawns in their political warfare and you should be, too. I was under the impression that they were here to serve us, but it seems to be just the opposite.