Category: Books, Movies, TV & Web

 

OK, so I’m a bit late to the party with Game of Thrones. The show ended its run in 2019. But I was curious to find out what the fuss was about, so I spent the past four months binge-watching all 73 episodes.

I had read the first installment of George R.R. Martin’s celebrated Thrones novels years ago. I thought it was OK, but not so good that I wanted to continue reading the books. When it came to fantasy literature, I preferred The Once and Future King, or even the Harry Potter novels.

But HBO’s adaptation of Martin’s books was a cultural phenomenon. And I had missed out (I did see season 1).

In December of last year, I decided it was time for me to check out the entire series.

 

Click on any picture for a larger view

 

Main takeaways: It is a very good show. Not my all-time favorite, which remains Breaking Bad, but it’s probably in my top ten; possibly in my top five. Also, the much-maligned eighth and final season was fine. More on that later. Impressions:

 

1)  Let’s face it. The story is silly. Very silly. It has fire-breathing dragons, witches, giants, and vampire-like ice people. The miracle is that all this fantasy silliness lives in harmony with character-driven scenes in which actors deliver clever, occasionally profound dialogue. There are so many larger-than-life personalities in play, and we know it’s just a matter of time before they clash.

It’s this riveting soap opera that makes the series so addictive — even though the dragons are a hoot. 

 

2)  Season eight’s episode titled “Bells” is essentially a 60-minute fight scene. Normally, I get bored with fight scenes before 60 seconds elapse.

Too many shows conflate deafening sound effects, speed-of-light edits, and swirling camera angles with “action.” They are not good action. It’s annoying chaos when you cannot tell who is who, what is what, where is where, and when is when.

To this episode’s credit, I was absorbed for the entire hour. Thrones is exceptionally good about this in most of its action scenes.

 

3)  I am going to defend season eight as a whole. I thought it was fine. I’m thinking a lot of fans were disappointed by the ending because their favored characters did not wind up on the throne. If you loved Arya and Arya wound up ruling the seven (or six) kingdoms, you’d probably be fine with season eight. Ditto for Jon Snow, Daenerys, et. al.

Season eight also had satisfying wrap-ups for most of the show’s major characters.

 

King’s Landing

 

4)  Much of the CGI in Game of Thrones looked fake, including King’s Landing castles, and the dragons, but I didn’t care. Ray Harryhausen’s skeleton soldiers in 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts also looked fake, but I enjoyed them anyway.

 

5)  The themes were timeless. If you follow politics in 2024, you will recognize many of the same issues and characters in fictional Westeros that we see on the daily news. Are things better with men in charge, or women? How much democracy is too much democracy? Is blood really thicker than water? Are the White Walkers a metaphor for climate change? Would you shoot your abusive father while he is sitting on the john?

 

6) All the gratuitous nudity. Call me old fashioned, or call me a chauvinist pig, but I appreciate that the naked ladies looked like real naked ladies from any historical time period — save the last 30 years. Medieval broads did not have Life Time Fitness. They did not have abs or pecs. They were soft and cuddly.

 

7) Season eight was heavily criticized for abandoning the show’s leisurely pace. But if I had a complaint about earlier seasons, it was that some of the plotlines tended to drag. I am thinking of Arya’s endless apprenticeship as “a girl.” I am thinking of Daenerys’s reign in the continent of Essos. For the most part, Bran’s journey was a bore (the three-eyed fucking raven?).

 

8)  Too often, when the good guys are suddenly surrounded by bad guys, or even armies, and things look dire, they are rescued at the last minute by allies with perfect timing. You can get by with that sort of deus ex machina occasionally, but it happens a lot in Thrones.

 

Overall, Game of Thrones was an excellent show. Its dark moments were often shocking. Its action sequences were well done. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss took a lot of shit for, allegedly, letting down fans in the show’s later seasons. I think they did a bang-up job. A better job than George R.R. Martin in the first book.

I’m going to miss Game of Thrones. Is it my favorite show of all time? No. Does it make my top ten? Definitely. In my top five? Hmmm, maybe. Ask me again in a few years.

 

 

Favorite duo:  Arya and “The Hound” (above)

 

Character I was supposed to love, but did not:  Jorah Mormont

 

 

Character I disliked at first. But much like his waistline, he grew on me:  Samwell Tarly (above)

 

Best villain: Can’t list all of them. But here are my top five: Cersei Lannister, Joffrey Baratheon, Tywin Lannister, Ramsay Bolton, Walder Frey

 

 

Glue holding the entire series together:  Tyrion Lannister (above), of course

 

Best nudes:  Because I have little interest in Hodor’s crowbar or Peter’s dinklage, I’m focusing on Thrones’s actresses.

 

Honorable Mentions:

 

Carice van Houten (above) was not shy about showing her goods — all of them

 

Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter, Oona (above) in a cheeky scene

 

Hottest Nudes

 

Nathalie Emmanuel front (above) and back (below)

 

 

Emilia Clarke (above and below), who was every (male’s) queen

 

 

 

Airdates: 2011-2019   Grade: A-

 

 

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A Haunting in Venice

 

Alfred Hitchcock said that he did not make “mystery” movies because, unlike his preferred plotlines, whodunits rely more on logic than suspense. Hitchcock chose to feed information to his audience and then keep it on tenterhooks, anxious not about who the killer was, but on when or how the bad guy would strike.

Kenneth Branagh, starring in and directing his third adaptation of an Agatha Christie whodunit, seems to realize that Hitchcock was correct. A Haunting in Venice, in which Branagh once again plays the indomitable Hercule Poirot, swaps suspense for atmosphere. But oh, what atmosphere!

The plot: A cast of typical Christie characters are stranded in a cavernous Venetian palazzo during a storm and, following a séance, learn there is a murderer in their midst. Poirot must unmask the villain while simultaneously battling odd visions. Is he fighting an ordinary criminal or is the supernatural at work?

Not every plot element holds up to inspection, but Venice has never looked lovelier — or creepier. Release: 2023  Grade: B+

 

Would I watch it again? Eventually, yes.

 

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Bodies Bodies Bodies

 

I was ready to write off this movie after the first act. OK, I thought, it’s a whodunit like And Then There Were None meets Any-Slasher-Movie, Gen Z-style. Seven young people gather to party at a mansion during a hurricane, and they are picked off, one by one. Been there, done that — plus, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t stand the music on the soundtrack (yes, I am old).

But a funny thing happens at the end that redeems the whole movie. There is a brilliant twist that I didn’t see coming, and it was good enough that I’m upping my grade from, oh, C-minus to (see below). Kudos to three creative chicks: Kristen Roupenian and Sarah DeLappe, who wrote the film, and Halina Reijn, who directed. Release: 2022  Grade: B+

 

Would I watch it again?  Yes.

 

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by Louise Penny

 

The Plot: 

Someone using a bow and arrow kills a beloved old lady in the woods. Was it an accident, or is someone in an arts-loving Canadian village responsible?

 

What I Liked:

Clues to the killer — and other village secrets — are hidden in a unique setting: the victim’s living-room walls. The walls are adorned with a giant mural depicting the residents of tiny Three Pines. Did the dead woman leave a clue to the identity of her eventual killer in her mural?

That’s a fun idea that I haven’t really seen done before. The detectives, the villagers, and readers alike are invited to ponder this maze-like puzzle.

 

What I Didn’t Care For:

The main characters are a collection of middle-class liberals who believe that, deep down, they are undiscovered great artists. They seem oblivious to the fact that history’s great artists were not often middle-class liberals.

Penny wants us to view lead detective Armand Gamache as an enigmatic, wise man of few words. I saw him as bland and forgettable. (Gamache is much like another low-key detective who leaves me cold, P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh.)

I prefer my protagonists to have a bit more color, a la Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes.

 

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The Invisible Man

 

This is what you don’t need when casting the titular character in The Invisible Man — Cary Grant or Clark Gable. Movie-star looks, it should be apparent, are irrelevant when you can’t be seen.

This is what you do need — A Voice.

Director James Whale hit the jackpot when he cast Claude Rains as doomed chemist Jack Griffin in this 1933 classic. Rains, whom we don’t actually see until the last scene of the film, had The Voice.

In normal-guy mode, Rains’s delivery is sonorous, commanding, and oh-so-British. But when poor Jack literally loses his looks, and then his mind … talk about putting the “mad” in mad scientist.

I still wake up in the middle of the night hearing his gleeful, piercing cackles.

OK, so the special effects are what you might expect from a 90-year-old movie (crude — but amusing). But overall, The Invisible Man has a winning combination: Rains’s incomparable voice acting and Whale, the king of campy horror, delivering fast-paced, entertaining set pieces.

Release: 1933  Grade: A-

 

Would I watch it again? Happily.

 

Whale, left, on the set of “The Invisible Man”

 

*

 

Thanksgiving

 

Eli Roth has been accused of making mean-spirited, unpleasant, misogynistic movies. I’m talking about films like Hostel, or The Green Inferno. That might or might not explain why Roth pivots toward more mainstream with his latest directorial effort, Thanksgiving.

Love or hate Roth’s previous films, they were at least interesting. Thanksgiving, on the other hand, is just another teen slasher flick. A masked killer picks off vapid kids, one by one. Gory kills abound. Sound familiar?  Yeah, too familiar. Release: 2023 Grade: C

 

Would I watch it again? No.

 

*

 

Evil Dead Rise

 

What I liked:

Actress Alyssa Sutherland has the perfect face to play a mother who is possessed by a demon. That face was not lost on the film’s marketing team; it’s what we see in most of the posters (see above). Sutherland has an excellent evil grin.

I liked the setting. The filmmakers ditch the obligatory cabin in the woods for a creepy, decrepit high-rise apartment building. Reminded me a bit of the old building in Rec.

What I disliked:

There is one movie trope that irritates me more than the “it was only a dream” cliché, and that is the monster who refuses to die. There is little suspense to be had when you can predict, with 99 percent certainty, that the “killed” demon is only resting.

Gore and a deafening soundtrack are no substitutes for genuine suspense — even in a horror movie.

I enjoy the Evil Dead franchise, movies and the TV series. But most of them have one element that is lacking in Evil Dead Rise: humor. Release: 2023 Grade: B-

 

Would I watch it again? Probably not.

 

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Thoughts on Big, Bad Barbie

 

Satire works best when it has at least a trace of subtlety. Barbie, the live-action cartoon from director Greta Gerwig, has all the subtlety of a fart in the face. Its message: Patriarchy is bad, patriarchy is everywhere. Patriarchy is responsible for all the (primarily female) misery in the world.

If only feminists always had the upper hand and men had more feminine natures, everything would be great!

 

**

 

Plot:  Margot Robbie’s “stereotypical Barbie” leaves her Mattel-created fantasy land and discovers the horrors of the real world, in which men dominate and women are downtrodden.

Barbie (and Ken) returns to fantasy land, having learned a valuable lesson. Everything is better when men are their “true” selves (i.e., more like women) and women assume their natural roles of running everything.

Uh-huh.

 

**

 

 

In the Barbies’ fantasy land, women drive pink convertibles (likely built by men) and live in dream homes (likely built by men) and idle away their days complimenting each other, dancing … and taking men for granted.

In the so-called real world (which is apparently 1965), construction workers slap women on the ass. Every Supreme Court justice is male. Every member of corporate boards of directors is male. The injustice of all this male domination culminates in a pity-party speech by Oscar-nominated America Ferrera (above). She wails about how difficult and unfair it is to be a modern-day woman.

I am sure there are coal miners, single dads, and military amputees — most of them men — who shed tears as they listen to Ferrera’s heart-felt speech.

 

**

 

Margot Robbie (not Oscar-nominated) and Ryan Gosling (Oscar-nominated) as Barbie and Ken:

They play plastic dolls in goofy, likeable manners. That’s it.

Somehow, I doubt that Katharine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier are having their acting-chops legacies challenged.

 

**

 

Ugh. I had to pause this movie at the halfway point because it was so tedious. As if the insufferable musical numbers weren’t enough to put me off.

Here’s a novel thought: Maybe, just maybe, the world works best when men and women use their complementary traits to problem solve — rather than by glorifying one sex and demonizing the other.

 

**

 

I’m giving Barbie an average grade because, despite its propagandizing and politics, it is a handsome production, and it does have some witty dialogue. And although it’s too long, it’s certainly thought-provoking.

Release: 2023 Grade: C-

 

 

 

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Society of the Snow

 

There aren’t many true stories that inspire multiple first-rate movie and book adaptations. A 1972 plane crash in the Andes, in which just 16 of 45 passengers survived — including a grueling 72 days stuck on a mountain — is one of them. The book Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors is superb. A 1993 movie, also titled Alive, is riveting. Now we can add this Spanish-language production, which might be the best rendition of all.

The harrowing flight disaster is remembered today, in part, because the group of mostly young men had to resort to cannibalism to survive. But what resonates most for me about this saga is not the cannibalism, but rather the heroism. Release: 2023  Grade: A

 

Would I watch it again?  Yes, but not right away.

 

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by J.B. Priestley

 

In 1932, legendary Hollywood director James Whale gave us The Old Dark House, a real gem of a movie. Whale infused his film with his trademark wit, humor, and camp. Oh, and yes — at least by 1932 standards, it was quite scary.

Whale was also remarkably faithful to the plot of his movie’s source material, J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel, Benighted.

The plot of both book and film: A group of five young travelers take refuge from a raging storm in an isolated mansion inhabited by members of the Femm family, a collection of oddballs ranging from the eccentric to the sociopathic.

Is Benighted as good as Whale’s movie? I’d say yes and no.

Priestley’s novel is more introspective, getting inside its characters’ heads and finding there: despair, disillusionment — but also glimmers of hope — in the mindsets of young people struggling with the aftermath of The Great War.

Priestley’s focus is on psychology. Whale dispenses with all the navel-gazing and instead highlights the Femms, whose members resemble a 1920s version of the clan of lunatics in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

I prefer Whale’s funhouse interpretation. But I also recommend the book.

 

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I finally got around to watching Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. If you’d like to read a traditional review of the film, there are 484 of them on Rotten Tomatoes, and 442 on IMDB (probably some overlap between the two sites).

I’m not going to do a traditional review. Instead, here are some of my thoughts about the film:

 

 

 

Nolan’s biopic is ostensibly the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the enigmatic, scientific genius dubbed the “Father of the Atom Bomb.” But with apologies to Jordan Peele, I think Oppenheimer might have more accurately been titled Us. It’s about much more than a single man.

I was born long after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so I’ve lived my entire life under the shadow of potential nuclear war, the specter of global annihilation. I presume that you have, too. It makes me wonder if the Japanese bombings fundamentally changed the psychology of the human race.

Did people born pre-1945 have a completely different outlook than those of us born later? If so, how does that manifest itself today? According to the movie, Oppenheimer himself was haunted by his creation. Shouldn’t we be, too?

 

 

I’m no scientist nor a historian, so I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of this movie. But as a dramatization, it is gripping and, for such a lengthy (three hours) production, moves at lightning speed.

It’s very talky. In that respect, it reminded me a bit of The West Wing. As in Aaron Sorkin’s TV series, I got lost trying to keep up with the incessant talk about subjects with which I was unfamiliar. In West Wing, that was often government policy; in Oppenheimer, it’s fission, fusion, isotopes — and the political climate of the 1940s- ‘50s. But there’s something mesmerizing about watching smart people discuss difficult subjects, whether we are well-versed in those subjects, or not.

 

 

There’s been a lot of praise for Robert Downey Jr., who as politician Lewis Strauss returns to “serious cinema.” From some Web-site articles, you might suspect that Downey had been kidnapped and held hostage in South America for the past ten years or so.

Uh, not really. He very happily grabbed lots of cash and turned his career into a series of comic-book movies.

 

Downey doing comic books

 

 

 

Oppenheimer makes me an even bigger fan of Cillian Murphy.

With his baby-face, I did not expect Murphy to completely own the role of a tough mobster in the TV show Peaky Blinders. But he excelled as Tommy Shelby. Ditto for Oppenheimer, in which Murphy nails the titular character. Baby face or not.

 

Baby-faced Tommy Shelby

 

 

 

I have never been a huge Nolan fan. I was underwhelmed by Inception and haven’t bothered to see his comic-book movies (about Batman). But this movie is clearly a triumph for him.

Nolan’s been criticized for making films that are “too much brain, too little heart.” I’m afraid that holds true in the final hour of this film, in which Oppenheimer comes under attack in the aftermath of the war and finds supporters in short supply. The last third of the movie should have been more powerful, like the two hours that precede it.

 

Release: 2023  Grade: A-

 

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by Emily Guendelsberger

 

Guendelsberger follows in the footsteps of journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, who 22 years ago went undercover to document low-wage jobs for her book Nickel and Dimed. In 2019’s On the Clock, Guendelsberger becomes a (temporary) worker bee in an Amazon warehouse, at a call center, and in a San Francisco McDonald’s.

Most of her book depicts the misery and humiliation endured by people working such jobs — but then, we already knew about that (or should know about that).

The question is, why don’t corporations and governments do something to alleviate the pain of folks who can’t afford health insurance, can’t afford to move, and find themselves at the mercy of algorithms, invasive monitoring, and decision-makers so far removed from life at the bottom that, even if they wanted to improve conditions, might not know how?

If nothing else, those of us fortunate enough to be on the other side of the cash register (or the phone line), might think twice before blowing up at the human being stuck trying to help us.

 

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