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.

The One and Only Ivan – A Movie Review

My wife and oldest daughter adore the book that this movie is based upon, so we had to watch it on Disney Plus when it debuted this weekend. Overall, they were very happy with it.

I wasn’t familiar with the story at all, so I didn’t quite know what awaited me. If you’re unfamiliar with the book, Ivan is a gorilla headlining a small circus found in a shopping mall. (Yes, you read that right.) He has lived most of his life in this circus, and though his domain is not as small as a cage, he also isn’t allowed outside and the quarters are cramped. This part of the book is based on a true story, believe it or not. In the movie, he also shares the space with a dog, a seal, an elephant, a parrot, a chicken, and a rabbit. When a new arrival shows up to join the circus, the entire dynamic shifts, but is it for the better? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

First of all, the CGI in this movie is superb. I had a hard time telling where reality ended and CGI began. To my eye, it appeared almost perfect. Ivan, in particular, looked lifelike, especially when it came to his expressions.

Secondly, the voice acting is superb. I loved Sam Rockwell as Ivan. Danny Devito as Bob is equally lovable. I don’t want to spoil the other parts, but you’ll hear voice work from Helen Mirren, Angelina Jolie, Chaka Khan, Ron Funches, and Phillipa Soo. Impressive cast, huh?

Bryan Cranston plays the human lead, Ivan’s owner and ringleader. As usual, Cranston manages to make a man who has some unappealing traits somehow likable. Furthermore, a child actor named Ariana Greenblatt held her own. The only reason I may sound surprised is because this actor plays the youngest sibling on the Disney show Stuck In the Middle. (You folks with kids will know who I’m talking about.)

I found the story appealing, but I won’t lie, it’s a pretty slow moving film. The ending makes the wait worthwhile, but impatient viewers may wander off to the kitchen for a snack. However, like I said, the ending is really good and solidifies many of the themes explored throughout the film. These themes include ideas pertaining to freedom, security, family, and even friendship.

I think this is a very good family film. My eight-year-old got a little antsy about three-quarters through it, but that’s when things picked up, so she got drawn back in. My wife and twelve-year-old daughter were entertained throughout.

It’s not violent, there aren’t any bad words, and it isn’t terribly sad except for the off-screen loss of one character. Those experiencing tears at the end will do so out of happiness, not sorrow. I’m told the book is far sadder.

If you’re a fan of the book, looking for a family movie, or simply a CGI aficionado, I recommend The One and Only Ivan.

My First Impression of HBO’s Lovecraft Country

I’ve been hearing buzz about Lovecraft Country for quite a while now, so when it finally debuted on HBO last Sunday night, I couldn’t wait to give the first episode a watch.

The first ten minutes set the tone for this show perfectly. I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but this show is such a wonderful mix of genre, it truly captivated me.

Set in the early 1950s, Atticus Freeman has returned home to Chicago from the military in order to try to find his father, who has gone missing. He is joined by his Uncle George and a childhood friend, Leti. They embark on a road trip attempting to retrace his father’s steps.

It’s not long until they encounter real horror as white supremacists literally hunt them down with the intent to kill. However, there are more monsters lurking about, and they don’t care about the color of skin when it comes to killing.

The first episode of Lovecraft Country perfectly captures the terror of being black and traveling through racist communities that gleefully resort to murder. It is realistic, powerful, and a vivid reminder of this nation’s ugly past. Yet, the show is unafraid to shift gears in a heartbeat from societal horror to the kind of horror you would expect to find in a book by H.P. Lovecraft. It is such a brave blending of genre, perhaps even jarring to some. I love genre twisting, though, so this kind of show is very much to my liking.

Though it’s only the first episode, a ton of story unfolds and, best of all, we get to know who appear to be the three main characters. Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett are stars in every sense of the word. They play Atticus and Leti. Courtney B. Vance plays Uncle George. Vance has been good for a very long time and he continues to shine in Lovecraft Country.

I literally have no idea where this show is going. Between the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes, it could absolutely go anywhere. I love that it is very rooted in the reality of the time period while also being completely unchained from convention.

If you’re searching for a show that’s just getting started, I highly recommend Lovecraft Country.

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.

HBO’s His Dark Materials – A Few Thoughts

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My daughter is a voracious reader, and though she’s never read His Dark Materials, I thought she might enjoy the show primarily due to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s participation. (She’s a huge Hamilton fan.)

Of course, because it’s HBO, I decided to watch it with her both in order to spend time together but also to make sure it was appropriate.

Honestly, I’m not sure which of us enjoyed it more!

I’ve also never read His Dark Materials (despite also being a voracious reader), so I really didn’t know what to expect.

His Dark Materials’ actors are among the best of the best with names such as the aforementioned Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy, and Dafne Keen (of Logan fame). There’s also many other actors that are exceptional but not necessarily household names.

The story itself takes place in a fully realized alternate reality. This world they create is much like ours, but just a little bit different. Those differences will become obvious almost immediately. However, this world looks very lived in. It references historical events in passing, has crumbling buildings, ancient books, and aged tombs. In other words, it feels real.

Speaking of real, the CGI in this show is excellent. I won’t spoil much for you, but there are a great deal of animals in this show, and the vast majority of them are CGI. However, there were many instances when I truly couldn’t tell if they were using a real animal. Even the really big animals, the ones that usually look CGI, were nearly seamlessly inserted into the scene. It was amazing to behold–some of the best I’ve seen mixed in with live-action.

Furthermore, every single episode is cinematic in scope. Each installment  looks like a movie. The acting, the locations, the set pieces, the scenery, the costumes, the special effects, and the CGI are of the highest quality.

Besides looking wonderful, though, the plot is what’s really got us engaged. Again, I won’t spoil it, but His Dark Materials seems to be about one thing, but then it adds a very complex addition to the plot, and then it does so yet again! I’ve heard the books making up His Dark Materials are quite controversial to some, and it appears that the show is not shying away from the more challenging material. I’m fascinated to experience these notions alongside my daughter–I’m sure it’s introducing ideas she hasn’t previously considered.

If you’re looking for a show to watch with your children, I recommend His Dark Materials. It is somewhat violent with some difficult moments that probably aren’t suitable for kids under 12, but the older kids will love it, and you will, too.

(One minor spoiler: Lin-Manuel Miranda does not sing, rap, or dance in His Dark Materials.)

 

 

 

 

The Old Guard – A Movie Review

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Netflix’s The Old Guard is a movie about four immortals who use swords and guns to do good deeds in the modern world. A young pharmacy tycoon wants to harness their genes in order to make another fortune just as a fifth immortal arises. There is lots of shooting, lots of cliches, and the obligatory story seed planted for the sequel. That’s about it.

Charlize Theron is inequitably too good for this movie. If you want to see her actually acting in a great action movie, try Atomic Blonde or Fury Road. Every line she had in The Old Guard has been uttered at least once in some other action movie at some other point in time. Even she seemed bored by her character.

Chiwetel Ejiofor was also too good for this movie. Unlike Theron, he actually gave it a solid shot and added some dimension to his character, but even he couldn’t get The Old Guard off the ground.

Otherwise, there is no good reason to watch this film. It’s too long, too contrived, too cliched, too obvious, and the dialogue is too lazy.

I cannot recommend The Old Guard.

The Vast Of Night – A Movie Review

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I watched this Amazon Original mostly because Amazon Studios rarely go wrong and the subject matter interested me … and because it’s only ninety minutes long.

The premise is that during the 1950s a small town radio DJ and his friend start to investigate a strange sound emitting through the radio and telephone. They determine that the sound could be extraterrestrial in nature, and that it’s previously appeared in their locale. But how close will they actually get to the sound’s source? You’ll have to watch the movie for the answer.

I actually enjoyed this movie quite a bit because it’s so different from most conventional fare. First of all, it takes place during a single night. Furthermore, it’s almost entirely dialogue–there’s very little action. The camera is usually tight on the actors’ faces, but then it also goes on these long sprawls throughout the town and countryside. These nighttime tracking shots weave through the streets, into active high school gymnasiums, across fields–you definitely get a sense of the entire environment. In fact, the camera work in this film is quite pleasing to the eye. It certainly worked in conjunction with the film to intensify the appeal.

In terms of acting, everyone was very good, but I have to admit that I recognized no one. I don’t know if this is a cast full of unknowns or not, but the fact that I had no preconceived notions about them allowed them to exist fully within the skin of their characters.

I admit that it takes awhile for The Vast Of Night to hit its maximum pace, but it does a brilliant job until that point of establishing the available technology of the time, the mood of the small town, and the rapport of the two main characters. I wasn’t alive in the 1950s, but the film seems to have captured that time period’s authenticity well.

Also, the film’s score is exquisite. When the climax finally arrives, the music wonderfully guides our emotions and builds the excitement.

Though The Vast Of Night is a little slow compared to most movies today, I found it absorbing and well made. In fact, it’s one of those works that’s hard to stop thinking about once it’s over. If you’re looking for something different from the typical yet still maintaining an adherence to high quality, I recommend The Vast Of Night.

 

 

HBO’s Perry Mason – A Few Thoughts

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I’m not going to pretend to be a fan of the 50s and 60s Perry Mason. In fact, I’m not sure I ever watched a single episode (in reruns, of course). However, something about the HBO revival of the show caught my interest–probably Robert Downey Jr.’s involvement as an executive producer.

I took in the premiere episode a few days after its debut and have kept up with it every week since. The third episode aired last night, and I believe I’m ready to share my opinion of the show.

Simply put: I like it.

I wouldn’t say I love it, but I do look forward to watching it each week. Truthfully, it’s not the story that’s captivated me. Rather, it’s the performances, the costumes, the set pieces, and the cinematography that keeps me coming back.

Set in the early 1930s, this Perry Mason is a private investigator suffering PTSD from WWI, struggling to hold on to his family’s farm, and basically down on his luck in every way possible. He’s rough around the edges, cynical, and not afraid to get his hands dirty. Yet, somewhere behind the weary exterior is a good man, a man who could have shined under different circumstances.

There are some excellent performances in Perry Mason. Matthew Rhys has truly brought Perry Mason to life. The slight expressions, the body language, the voice inflection–it’s all working to create a dynamic character that is, though incredibly flawed, deeply appealing. Tatiana Maslany is always fantastic. I haven’t seen her since Orphan Black, but she’s as potent as ever. Of course, there are other superb actors in the show as well such as Juliet Rylance, John Lithgow, Robert Patrick, Chris Chalk, Gayle Rankin, and Stephen Root.

The “look” of the show is gorgeous. Some of it is CGI, but much of it is actual reproduction of architecture, clothing, and vehicles from the 1930s. The costumes are beautiful, by the way. The suits, the hats, the leather jackets–outstanding. It’s just an interesting show to watch.

Be warned, however, there are some disturbing images from time to time. A podcast warned me to be ready regarding a dead baby during the first few moments. There’s also an intense scene taking place on the battlefield of WWI, gun violence, and regular visits to the police morgue.

Again, I can’t say that Perry Mason has connected with me at a visceral level, but I appreciate it for what it is: a very good show with beautiful costumes, exquisite set pieces, and superb acting.

Hamilton On Disney Plus – A Few Thoughts

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When Disney Plus announced that Hamilton would be coming to their service, my family got very excited. Yes, my wife and I saw the Chicago production back in 2018, but my nearly twelve-year-old daughter has never seen it and desperately wanted to for years.

Friday night, July 3rd, my wife and daughter hunkered down in the basement and watched it together–they both loved it.

Yesterday, July 4th, I put it on the main TV as we were going about our day. It wasn’t long before I found myself completely captivated by it, on the couch, abandoning my other pursuits.

Because here’s the thing: as good as the Chicago cast was back in 2018, there is something hypnotic about Lin-Manuel Miranda and the rest of the New York cast. In my opinion, Miranda is not a great singer, nor does he have a beautiful voice, yet it’s undeniable that he is a star on that stage. You simply can’t take your eyes off of him.

I also discovered something else about myself in regards to stage theater. Before I get to that though, it’s important to understand Disney Plus’ concept of Hamilton–they simply presented a version that was recorded in 2016. Someone had the forethought to record the musical on the actual stage, which results in closeups on the actors’ faces and the dancers’ movements. The camera weaves in and out of the action, but completely maintains the stage theater’s atmosphere. Hamilton has a rather unique set that is both stationary and dynamic–that is, the set pretty much remains the same but there are several moving components within that set.

Which leads me to my discovery in regards to stage theater: I feel the same way about stage theater as I do about live sporting events. If I’m not close to the front row, I much prefer just to watch it on TV. At the Chicago production, we were so high up that I couldn’t see every little detail of the actors’ expressions, and, though people were moving, the view appeared fairly static. The screen version’s quick cuts and closeups, just like with sports, made for a more intimate, exciting experience.

If you haven’t seen Hamilton, I recommend you do so. Honestly, a year’s subscription to Disney Plus is still a fraction of the cost of an actual Hamilton ticket. I think it’s amazing that seeing Hamilton is no longer an elite experience–now everyone can partake in the event.

It is, frankly, impossible to walk away from Hamilton without feeling some kind of inspiration. It will motivate you to think more, to be more politically active, to be more creative, to better appreciate diversity, and to recognize more often the astounding steps it took to construct this great nation.