Friday, September 10, 2021

Capsule Reviews in the Time of Coronavirus — or How I Survived the Pandemic (9)

Like many people, I’ve binge-watched both new and old series television shows throughout the period of stay-at-home lockdown. Although it’s not clear whether the pandemic is close to over yet, here are a few personal favorites that sustained and hooked me over the past year-and-a-half:

Sex Education

I remember seeing this dramedy dropping on Netflix in 2019—though I watched a few minutes of it early on, I quickly checked out, feeling it wasn't for me. Earlier this year, however, when I saw a popup promoting the second season, I gave it another shot and ended up getting totally hooked and bingeing it!

According to online coverage, it is a modern-day homage to classic John Hughes films—but a lot more edgier and diverse. So much so that, though the series is set in England, students at the fictional Moordale Secondary School have lockers and letterman jackets, though that’s not the norm there—it is an American conceit the showrunners used to appeal to a larger (and U.S.) audience.

The initial premise involves a main character, Otis (played by Asa Butterfield), teaming up with a fellow (semi-outcast) student named Maeve, to dispense sex advice at their high school. Otis feels that he has some expertise because his own mother, Jean (played by Gillian Anderson), is herself a sex therapist. Though the show’s main characters are Jean, Otis and Maeve—with Otis and Maeve’s hot-and-cold relationship serving as the heart of the series—it’s actually an ensemble piece, with various storylines tracking the arc of diverse characters dealing with a wide range of teenaged (and adult) issues and uncertainty related to sex, love, relationships and life. This context also provides the opportunity to explore a wide range of sexuality in the series, often very explicitly, with heart and a bit of raunchiness.

Resident Alien (Sci-Fy)
A loose adaptation of a comic-book series of the same name, this is another show that I made a note to watch but didn’t until after the whole series had already aired on SyFy. I ended up bingeing it on our cloud DVR with my wife, who also was won over by the series.

A comedy-drama that is somewhat of a cross between a dark E.T. and the television show Northern Exposure, Alan Tudyk plays an extraterrestrial sent on a mission to destroy Earth who then tries to assimilate (after assuming human form) when he inadvertently crash lands and gets stranded in the remote (fictional) town of Patience, Colorado. Learning English (and police work) through the tv show Law and Order, he becomes the town doctor and gets embroiled and gradually deeply invested in both the lives of the townspeople who soon become friends as well as a murder mystery involving the previous town doctor that provides much of the arc of the first season. (One of the funny running gags is the fact that some earthlings—in this case, a young boy—possess a rare mutation that allow them to see him in his true lizard-like alien form. But nobody believes the boy.)

As the show progresses, predictably, the alien slowly comes to embrace and understand the quirks and humanity of the people he has been sent to exterminate. As the show draws you in and invests you in the arc of the main character and the lives of the people he encounters, the sci-fi aspects of the show kick into high gear as more people learn his secret and rather ruthless government “Men in Black”-like agents show up and close in on him, turning the show into a low-fi action series.

The first season of Resident Alien ends on an uplifting note, with the possibility of continuing. Indeed, the series was quickly renewed for a new season.

Mythic Quest (Apple+)
Even after watching a few episodes of this single camera sitcom series, I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was all in—co-created by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia co-creator and star Rob McElhenney, the show features some of the same kind of “unlikable” and politically incorrect characters as his other show. However, as I watched more episodes, my appreciation for the series deepened.

A workplace comedy set at a video game company that produces an online role-playing game called Mythic Quest, McElhenney plays the company’s creative director. Both a talented visionary and a narcissist, he is surrounded by a rich cast of characters played by talented comic actors that include his co-creative director Poppi (played by terrific Australian-Filipino actress Charlotte Nicdao); washed up fantasy writer C.W. Longbottom (a hilarious F. Murray Abraham); the wishy-washy put-upon game producer David; the ruthless head of monetization Brad (Danny Pudi) and his even more sociopathic executive assistant, Jo; and Rachel and Dana, two game testers who fall for each other in a sweet romance.

As I said, it took a few episodes to get into the series—like  McElhenney's other show, episodes often involve terrible people doing terrible things to each other. But then the stories and characters redeem themselves with moments of genuine heart and self-awareness that, at times, really hit it out of the park. Deepening the series were several one-off episodes that did not even feature the main characters: one is a flashback to the 1990s featuring Jake Johnson, about the journey of a couple developing a video game and the sacrifices and compromises they make (and the impact on their marriage) to make the game a success (the episode does at one point subtly tie in to the series); the other is a flashback episode featuring the “origin” of F. Murray Abraham’s hack fantasy author character Longbottom (played by a younger actor) that is set in the 1950s—which pays off in the next episode when the modern-day Longbottom faces off against his colleague and rival from those early days, played by William Hurt! It’s episodes like these that show you the the show occasionally tries to aim higher.  (Another terrific one-off “bonus episode," referencing the pandemic and lockdown, was produced remotely and through Zoom, using it as a platform for how the gaming company itself was operating during the pandemic.)

I found this show extremely bingeable and give it kudos for its diverse casting and storylines. Thouh the cast is outstanding, Charlotte Nicdao, ostensibly the co-lead as Poppi, is a standout.

Ted Lasso (Apple+)
Like a lot of people, I discovered “Ted Lasso” late in the game, well into the pandemic in spring 2021, following its premiere in the late summer of 2020. (A nice perk of upgrading our iPhones was a complimentary Apple+ subscription.)

It’s everything as advertised—about an American football coach hired to coach an English football (soccer) team called AFC Richmond. Co-created by comedian and former SNL cast member Jason Sudeikis, the actor plays the titular lead who, despite his inexperience and lack of familiarity with soccer, gradually wins over the team owner, staff, players and fans by his relentlessly positive attitude and ability to help people be the best version of themselves. The show embraces and takes advantage of its English setting, exposing audiences to the unique devotion and obsession of English football fans to their teams. The show is a terrific amalgam of American and British comedy and acting styles.

Much has been written about the goodness and positive vibes of the series, especially during a time of great division that has, of course, been exacerbated by the pandemic. Far from being syrupy or treacly, however, the show wins you over and the audience's emotional investment through solid heartfelt writing and an understanding of it characters.

Schmigadoon! (Apple+)

Though ostensibly a parody of classic American musicals, down to many of their conventions and clich├ęs, Schmagadoon! turned out to be as much of an homage that also stands as its own as a musical, in strong numbers that both convey character and push the story along, as well as addressing social issues as many past musicals did. 

The cast is led by Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong as an engaged couple whose relationship seems to have gone off the rails and who become trapped in a magical town called Schmigadoon where everyone seems to be in a musical from the 1940s, ready to break out in song. They will only be allowed to leave when they find true love.

They are helped by a strong ensemble of Broadway veterans, including Kristin Chenoweth, Jane Krakowski and Alan Cumming (who, of course, have also done film and TV). Another standout was Ariana DeBose, next to be seen in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Westside Story. 

This is a show that took me by surprise and improved every episode. 

The Deuce (HBOMax)
Running 2017-19 for three seasons, The Deuce is a drama set in 1970s and ‘80s New York City about  Times Square which, during this era, was notorious for its seediness, particularly as a center of  prostitution, drugs and crime. While Times Square has since then been cleaned up and re-invented as a family-friendly tourist destination, the series covers the period when sex work began to evolve and impact the area and its denizens, particularly with the rise and legalization of the pornography industry; at the same time, we are offered brief glimmers into the city's beginning efforts to reclaim and re-gentrify the historic area. (Rudy Giuliani played a prominent role in the transformation of Times Square and is name-checked in the series.) 

Although the cast is led by Maggie Gyllenhaal (who also produces) as a prostitute who transitions to directing porn and James Franco playing a set of twins who operate on the fringes of organized crime and also get involved in the sex work industry, the series is an outstanding ensemble showcase, featuring a wide range of characters and their various arcs as the years progress, ranging from prostitutes, pimps, drug addicts, mobsters, cops both good and on the take, encompassing government and police corruption, the violence of the drug epidemic and the real-estate booms and busts that came with the change.

The show is compelling and extremely bingeable—while I can sometimes take or leave Franco, he does a terrific job delineating two very different twins to the point that you forget it is the same actor. It is a true ensemble piece that very much captures the era, as you follow the transformation not just of New York City and Times Square, but also the diverse cast of characters who for the most part exist on the fringes of society.

Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)
Aside from being a show that works on so many levels—comedy, murder mystery, podcast satire—it is the incredible chemistry and performances of the show’s three leads Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez that make this show work as well as it does.

As much a love letter to New York City, as well as to the loneliness that sometimes comes with life in the big city, the three characters are residents of an upscale co-op who bond over their shared love of true crime podcasts and embark on a podcast of their own when someone in their building turns up dead. As the show expectedly exposes the layers of mystery surrounding the murder, it also slowly reveals the characters and private secrets of the main players.

In some sense, the show shouldn’t be a surprise—much of Martin’s work always has had a streak of intelligence and intellectualism behind it, and his chemistry with Short is well known. But as some reviewers have noted, Gomez is a delightful revelation. I was somewhat aware of the actress’s early work since I have children who were at the right age to see her Disney work, but I was recently wowed by her on-screen presence and sardonic and deadpan comic chops in the Woody Allen film, A Rainy Day in New York. Having been charmed by her work there, I looked forward to seeing her in this role and can say she delivers—indeed, her character in many ways anchors and carries much of the emotional weight of the show.

The show is still dropping episodes weekly as I write this, but it already seems to be a winner.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Jean-Paul Belmondo

Monday, August 23, 2021

Rob Hanes Adventures #22 Now Available!

Following its advance preview announcement, Rob Hanes Adventures #22 is now available to order—visit the WCG Comics website to purchase now!

The issue opens in the waning days of World War II as U.S. soldiers come across retreating Nazis seeking to hide a trove of gold reserves—then flashes forward to the present day as Justice International investigator Rob Hanes picks up the trail of an extremist paramilitary group that is trying to find the still-missing gold to fund its terror operations. 

Past and present fuse as Rob discovers his own personal connection to the wartime incident and races against time to uncover the final resting place of the treasure before the extremists do!

Back Issues Still Available

As always all back issues also remain available, including all single issues and trade paperbacks that collect the earliest runs of the series as well as issues 1–4 and 5–8 to date. Visit WCG Comics website for details.

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Below: Cover art and sample interior pages (art only, sans speech balloons or other text).

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Walk, Don't Run to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Though the Tokyo Olympics has been top of the news these past two weeks, it only just hit me that a personal favorite film of mine, Walk, Don’t Run, used the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as its backdrop.

Starring Cary Grant, and co-starring Timothy Hutton and Samantha Eggar, I stumbled across this film on broadcast tv back in college and found it to be a charming romantic comedy; I’ve seen it many times and am always up to watch it when the opportunity arises.

Grant pays a business executive visiting Tokyo who, unable to find any lodgings due to the Games, convinces a reluctant young worker at the British embassy (Eggar) to sublet a room in her apartment to him. After meeting an athlete from the U.S. Olympics team (Hutton) in a similar predicament, he in turn sublets half of his room to the young man, to the dismay of Eggar’s character who is engaged and worried about the propriety of rooming with two men. Of course, the two young people initially don’t get on, but Grant ends up playing a sly and sneaky matchmaker to the couple. (If the plot sounds familiar, I only just discovered it’s a re-make of the film, The More the Merrier—I’m aware of this earlier film but have never seen it in its entirety, which I plan to correct.) A running gag is Hutton’s reluctance to tell anyone his sport.

The movie is partly noteworthy for being Grant’s last, believing that audiences didn’t want to see him, at age 61, not playing a romantic lead or as a third wheel in a supporting role—which is a shame because Grant’s performance is charming and effortless.

Much of the movie was filmed on location—it highlights Japan’s progress since the war just 20 years prior and makes a brief reference to the country’s fledgling electronics industry. Over the course of its story, the film takes advantage of its setting, serving as a travelogue for the country, offering glimpses into everyday life and Tokyo’s growing reputation as a cosmopolitan city. And as you’ll see in one of the stills accompanying this post, Star Trek actor George Takei has a small role!

As I learned on Wikipedia, the ‘64 Olympics was the first time the Games were held in Asia—Tokyo was initially slated to host in 1940 (following Nazi Germany hosting in 1936!), but its invasion and occupation of China resulted in the games being moved to Helsinki, Finland that year. The ‘64 games were also moved to October to avoid the punishing summer heat and humidity and typhoon season.

In any case, given the Tokyo Olympics winding down this week, this seemed a perfect time to highlight this delightful film!

Monday, July 12, 2021

Rob Hanes Adventures #22 Flashes Back to World War II in Search of Nazi Gold

Inkpot Award Winner releases new issue for Comic-Con@Home 2021

Available at the WCG Comics virtual booth at the Comic-Con@Home edition of the 2021 San Diego Comic-Con: the newest issue of Rob Hanes Adventures, free downloadable comics and previews, trade paperbacks, all back issues, and other merchandise. For additional information, contact Randy Reynaldo at WCG Comics. See below for additional images for promotional use. Reynaldo is a 2018 San Diego Comic-Con Inkpot Award recipient.

NEWS RELEASE – For Immediate Release

Cartoonist Randy Reynaldo and his publishing imprint, WCG Comics, has been a mainstay exhibitor at the San Diego Comic-Con for more than 25 years, and continues that tradition as a virtual exhibitor at this year’s Comic-Con@Home. And no badges needed for one of the biggest and well known comic-book and pop culture conventions in the world!

Rob Hanes Adventures #22 will be available for preview and pre-order this year at WCG Comics' virtual booth at Comic-Con@Home, scheduled July 23–25. The issue opens in the waning days of World War II as U.S. soldiers come across retreating Nazis seeking to hide a trove of gold reserves—then flashes forward to the present day as Justice International investigator Rob Hanes picks up the trail of an extremist paramilitary group that is trying to find the still-missing gold to fund its terror operations. Past and present fuse as Rob discovers his own personal connection to the wartime incident, but will he be able to uncover the final resting place of the treasure before the extremists do? The issue is anticipated to be available in August.

Also available will be all back issues, including trade paperbacks, single issues, downloadable previews, merchandise, and even a FREE downloadable comic-book issue in its entirety for readers to sample the series!

Trade paperbacks collecting the early runs of the series, and two volumes collecting issues 1–4 and 5–8 at special reduced prices! Selected packages to purchase the entire run of Rob Hanes Adventures or the run along with the trade paperback collections of additional material not appearing in the main series. And, of course, all back issues, such as the popular and perennial “Death at Comicon” murder mystery! All orders will receive our usual freebies like bookmarks, pins, and a free back issue! With Comic-Con open to all this year, now is the time to experience the exhibition hall and panels for the first time and in an all new way!

About the Series

Rob Hanes Adventures is an all-ages light-hearted action-adventure series featuring the exploits of a globetrotting private eye and troubleshooter from Justice International who travels the world on assignment, facing adventure, intrigue and romance at every turn, with occasional dashes of good humor and forays into other genres. Every story is self-contained, making it easy for readers to jump in with any issue.

Launched in 1994, the title is one of the longest-running indie comics series. Readers and fans have praised Rob Hanes Adventures for recapturing the spirit of the classic adventure strip and updating it for a modern-day audience. Inspired by the classic adventure comic strips like Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates, Will Eisner's Spirit, and Roy Crane's Buz Sawyer, Randy's graphic black-and-white art has been favorably compared to the work of artists like Alex Toth and the modern-day cartoonists who evoke the same timeless style like Paul Dini and the late Darwyn Cooke.

In 2018, series creator-writer-artist Randy Reynaldo was an invited featured guest at the San Diego Comic-Con, where he was honored with an Inkpot Award for Achievement in Comic Arts.

For more information about the series, previews and to purchase back issues, visit A PDF with excerpt pages from the series is also available

Additional information about the series is available at the article, Twenty Years (and more!) of Rob Hanes Adventures.

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Friday, April 2, 2021

Reviews in the Time of Coronavirus (7)

Mike Nichols: A Life

I like to say I’ve been a fan of Mike Nichols since I saw the Graduate, one of my favorite films of all time, but after reading this book, I have to admit I found I was not as fully aware of the breadth of his film efforts and, particularly, his stage work, for which he’s won 9 Tonys (in fact, he’s an EGOT!).

I was already familiar with most of the broad outlines of his biography as a Jewish refugee from Europe, a groundbreaking improv and skit comedian with his comedy team partner-in-crime Elaine May, and a film director. But this book, written by Mark Harris—who also wrote the terrific Pictures at a Revolution and Five Came Back—showed me the full breadth of his work, encompassing pictures he directed that I’ve seen and/or had forgotten, such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, Silkwood, and the Birdcage. And there were several I was shocked I had never heard of (or didn’t recall) like Day of the Dolphin, Wolf, and the Fortune!

But it was the breadth of his theater work that was a revelation, ranging from “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Odd Couple” in the 1960s (pairing with Neil Simon on several occasions) to “Spamalot” in 2006.

Of special interest to me, of course, is his cartooning connection—one of the first plays he tackled as a director was by cartoonist Jules Fieffer, who discovered that Nichols and May were fans of his own work (upon seeing them on stage, Feiffer found them to be kindred spirits, doing work similar to his own “but better”). Nichols would later go on to direct the film, Carnal Knowledge, on which he had Feiffer on set for most of the shoot.

As I noted in my review a few years back of Feiffer’s memoir, Backing into Forward, Feiffer (and Nichols) grew up during a fascinating era in the 1950s and ‘60s when artists, entertainers and actors, intellectuals, playwrights, movie directors and, yes, cartoonists like Feiffer seemed to mingle and cross-pollinate. I’m not sure if this was a reflection of the era or particular to the New York City social scene, but Nichols’ friendships with Feiffer and others like Simon, Richard Avedon, Leonard Bernstein, Jackie Kennedy, Gloria Steinem and, as he transitioned to Hollywood, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (first befriending the former along with Julie Andrews when his show with Elaine May was at the Broadway theater next door to where Camelot played), Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Whoopi Goldberg and more demonstrate his wide circle of connections that span decades.

While for some reason I thought Nichols to be a genial sort, like a lot of gifted artists, his personal life and demons belie that. Born to an unloving mother, prone to depression and (most surprising) addicted to coke and crack at various times in his life, he could be cruel to actors and crew on set. Like many immigrants and performers, he also was someone who reinvented himself – a Russian-Jewish immigrant by way of Germany with the birth name of Igor Mikhail Peschkowsky, he escaped Germany before the Holocaust. As he faced his demons as he got older—internalizing his guilt as a Jew who escaped Europe before the Holocaust—Nichols found a measure of peace. This was due in large part to his happy marriage to television broadcaster Diane Sawyer, who generously worked to ensure he maintained a healthy relationship with his previous wife and children. I found the book to be a compelling read about a comedian and director who had a huge impact on both the film industry and stage, and the book offers fascinating glimpses into the art that went into this work, with plenty of great anecdotes about the great figures (and their eccentricities) of the time.

Some Nichols and May, in one of their most famous sketches:

Justice League: The Snyder Cut

Director Zack Snyder is a divisive figure among movie and comics fans. While I was incredibly impressed by his film adaptation of Watchmen, like many, I’ve been put off by his incredibly dark approach to the DC Comics film universe as reflected by Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a tone that has permeated many of DC’s other films. While it’s perhaps not fair to compare Marvel’s films to DC’s/Warner Brothers, Marvel has admirably built a franchise brand that exists as an interconnected and cohesive movie universe where the films share a common DNA yet still allow for a wide range of variety and expression, ranging from period pieces like Captain America: First Avenger, to political thrillers with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, to near-comedies like Thor: Ragnarok and Ant-Man. It’s a world-building approach they are now expanding into their DisneyPlus streaming shows, such as WandaVision and Falcon and Winter Soldier. Ultimately, most of the Marvel films have a sense of fun and are great popcorn movies. Their success also is the result in the complete conviction and faith in the strength of their intellectual properties.

While DC’s characters are just as rich, without the single guiding hand of someone like Kevin Feige, DC has never shown the same conviction and belief in their characters and universe as Marvel did at the very outset. A case in hand is the fate of Justice League. After Snyder and his producer-wife left the project following the tragic suicide of his daughter, Warner Brothers Studio hired Joss Whedon, who played an early role in Marvel’s success, having directed the Avengers and Avengers 2, to complete the film. As it was eventually revealed, Whedon significantly revised and simplified Snyder’s script and vision, and it may have been partly the result of Warner Brothers getting cold feet (again) over the density of the mythology.

I won’t say that I disliked Whedon’s Justice League as some fans, but neither did it make much of an impression on me nor was I among those clamoring for the “Snyder Cut.” That said, now having seen it, I must agree it’s a somewhat better movie — while I’m still not convinced that Snyder’s dark somewhat joyless approach to the characters is the way to go, at least this film reflects his singular vision and it’s  better for it. Not only did he get a mulligan to improve the CGI design and character arc for the film’s original villain, Steppenwolf, but he gives him a richer back story and motivation (as opposed to simply wishing to take over the world); in fact, in this version, he is actually a low-level toady to an even bigger villain, Darkseid, that expands the DC film Universe further.

The film’s plot is also slightly re-jiggered, with Cyborg playing a more central role to the plot and having a clear character arc, which Whedon completely wrote this out of his version. We also see a little bit more of Superman and more of an origin background for Flash.

Of course to accomplish this, Snyder also made it a longer movie with a running length of 4 hours. For the most part though, the movie moves along, notwithstanding the excessive use of slow-mo.

But at least the Snyder Cut is finally out there for the world to see. While it doesn’t appear that Warner Brothers has any plans to continue the path that Snyder began with this movie – and tries to tease with epilogue scenes — at least his vision has been realized.