WandaVision – My First Impression

The long wait is over and the MCU streaming shows have finally arrived at Disney Plus!

First up? WandaVision.

Personally, the wait was well worth it. I don’t know what I expected from WandaVision, but it certainly exceeded whatever I had in mind.

I’d like to initially say that the show is most delightful because it displays what we’ve all suspected to be true–Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany have great chemistry together. We were made to believe that these two were in love during the MCU movies, and while they did their best to convey that storyline, it simply proved too hard to deliver what with all the stones and purple aliens and things blowing up.

But now we get to see them–just them–and they are a ton of fun.

I’m also pleasantly surprised by Elizabeth Olsen. I don’t think I’ve seen her in anything other than the Marvel movies. Frankly, they didn’t give her much to work with while playing Wanda Maximoff. She often felt shoehorned in. And though she always had some cool action scenes, I never saw her being much else than angry, sad, or mopey. With WandaVision, we get to see a very full range from Olsen. Her voice, her body language, her eyes–she’s using them all to let us know what Wanda is feeling. Best of all? Olsen’s funny!

The premise of WandaVision … I don’t really know how to explain it nor do I really know much to explain. They are living within the realm of sitcoms. The first two episodes are in black and white with all the sitcom tropes and clichés you experienced during Leave It To Beaver, I Dream Of Jeannie, and I Love Lucy. They’ve got a full cast of delightful characters, especially Kathryn Hahn, and the first two episodes center around Vision’s boss coming to dinner and then a neighborhood talent show.

Yes, you read that right.

Yet, amidst these familiar events, there are moments of real foreboding, discomfort, and even suspense. WandaVision slips into something more like The Twilight Zone, but only for seconds at a time.

For me, the real joy of WandaVision is that I have no idea what’s going on, I have no idea what to expect, and I have no idea where they derived their plot. With most of the MCU movies there is a comic book somewhere out there that laid the groundwork. This feels totally original.

The tone is perfect, the acting is a blast, the story is unpredictable, and the show is just plain fun. I never had any doubts, but if WandaVision is any indication, the MCU has flawlessly transitioned to the small screen. Furthermore, they’ve already proven that they have no fear. These MCU shows will be given room to breathe, and these shows will break the mold previously set by the MCU.

Black Beauty (2020) – A Movie Review

Did you know Black Beauty is based on a book written by Anna Sewell and published in 1877? I sure didn’t.

I remember watching a Black Beauty movie as a kid in the early 1980s. Though I don’t remember much about it, I still have fond feelings for it even to this day.

When I discovered that Disney Plus released an adaptation of the title, I couldn’t wait to watch it with my own kids.

I’m very pleased to share with you that I think Black Beauty (2020) is a wonderful family film. It is exciting, pleasing to the eye, emotional, fast-paced, and imparts several important lessons.

I’ll admit that it gets a little sappy from time to time and that it pushes the boundaries of logic when it comes to plot, but, like I said, it’s got a great message and proved entertaining for the whole family.

If you have Disney Plus and would like to watch something as a family, you could do a lot worse than Black Beauty.

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey – A Movie Review

If you’re looking for a movie to watch as a whole family, I completely recommend Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, available to stream on Netflix.

Full of stars with excellent singing and dancing, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is also funny, wholesome, entertaining, and full of surprisingly good special effects.

I don’t want to disparage Netflix, but I wasn’t expecting the quality evident in Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey. Don Juan Diego, played by Ricky Martin, is a metallic puppet that looked so grounded in reality that I found myself mesmerized–he quickly became my favorite character! Furthermore, a robot eventually appears that is also thoroughly realistic. The sets are extraordinary as the tale unfolds in some sort of a steampunk alternate world where technology is both amazingly complex but also archaic. The costumes are intricate and beautiful to behold. This movie is honestly a pleasure to view.

But the songs and the dancing, for me, are the real draw. I guess that shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, because John Legend played a role in writing the music. Plus, who knew Forest Whitaker could sing? I’ve been watching this man since Platoon and I had no idea. And, of course, Keegan-Michael Key played a bad guy who’s still pretty darn likable and not all that terribly bad. (If you ever want to go on a deep dive with me, I think Key’s character was simply the victim of mistreatment by Whitaker’s character that led him to his villainous ways.) The entire cast is really a delight.

The story is a little scattershot and takes a few detours, but it all ends up making sense and works. Again, for a Netflix movie, it proved unexpectedly coherent.

So if you need a good movie to watch this weekend with the family, give this one a shot. I think everyone will enjoy it.

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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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.