Sit back, relax, and crack open a bag of Content™ with Fun-Size Friday, my weekly
diary entry confessional repository for all of my scattered thoughts on pop culture. Anything and everything is fair game here: comic books, television shows, movies, or whatever else I feel like talking about at this particular moment. For better or for worse, this is the brand of silliness that gets me out of bed in the morning, and now I want to share a small piece of it with you, Hypothetical Reader. Now then, let’s what piqued my interest this week…
SEASON ONE, EPISODE ONE
“Til Death Do Us Part”
Dean Lorey, Justin Halpern. & Patrick Schumacker
Kaley Cuoco, Lake Bell, Alan Tudyk, Diedrich Bader, Jim Rash, Christopher Meloni, J.B. Smoove, et al.
BASED ON CHARACTERS FROM DC Comics
HARLEY QUINN CREATED BY Paul Dini & Bruce Timm
Harley Quinn Episode One [DC Universe/Warner Bros]
In the series premiere, Harley Quinn (KALEY CUOCO) is fed up being the Joker’s sidekick and strikes out on her own – determined to become the criminal Queenpin of Gotham City.
Coming in hot this past week was the first episode of the “adult” animated series Harley Quinn from DC Universe — the same streaming service that gave us Titans, the return of Young Justice, and the already forgotten Swamp Thing series. You may have noticed this already, but this series is the latest in a line of “Joker” themed projects enjoying an auspicious release in the wake of a certain, ahem, controversial blockbuster success. That’s not to say I think a show featuring Harley Quinn — arguably a character as well known as The Joker himself these days — needed any sort of “signal boost” to get more eyes on it, although I can’t imagine the timing is hurting Warner Bros. bottom line any.
Corporate synergy aside, it’s quickly apparent to anyone who watches the first episode of Harley Quinn that the show has waaay too much talent involved for it to be categorized as a cheap cash grab. It’s also quickly apparent that this show isn’t gonna shy away from some pretty “adult” content; there’s a ****ton of uncensored language and pah-lenty of graphic violence sprinkled throughout the twenty-two minute runtime. If you’re on the fence I recommend you watch the “restricted” trailer and go with your gut; if that sort of thing isn’t your thing then you’re probably better off giving the show — and the rest of this review — a respectful pass. You’ll get no judgment from me.
Still here? Well if that’s how it is, there’s a higher-than-average chance you’ll get a kick out of Harley Quinn, or at least the first episode anyway. I went in with mildly high expectations and aside from a few nitpicks I can safely say I was entertained all the way through. Not surprisingly the tone of Harley Quinn has a heavy focus on black comedy — this show positively revels in what it can get away with on screen — but there’s also a few genuine character moments interspersed here and there that make it more than just a Teen Titans Go! style gag-fest. Not every joke will land of course, but the pacing in this episode is good enough that you won’t have a lot of time to groan at one joke before a new one comes along. I wouldn’t call it “laugh out loud” humor but there were a few moments that got a chuckle out of me, mostly if not entirely based on the strength of the cast.
Speaking of, let me briefly talk about performances here, starting with the main attraction — Kaley Cuoco as “Harley Quinn”. While I can’t imagine anyone will ever dethrone Arleen Sorkin’s original iconic portrayal — live-action or otherwise — Cuoco does a darn fine job quickly establishing her own take on Harley. While Sorkin nailed the “hopelessly lovesick” side of the character, Cuoco’s performance emphasizes her scrappy attitude and hyperactive side; exactly the way this more ambitious version of Harley should be. Likewise, Alan Tudyk is clearly having a great time hamming it up as “The Joker”; rather than the Mastermind Of Chaos that Heath Ledger popularized, this Joker is all about living large and having a good time, especially if it’s at the expense of others. Other standouts include Lake Bell playing Harley’s sardonic straight man as Poison Ivy, and Christopher Meloni‘s surprisingly hilarious take on Commissioner Gordon — a cop who is just so completely done dealing with this nonsense.
All that said, I do have one or two small gripes so far. To start, the animation for the series moves nice and fluid and the characters look great, but when it comes to some of the more violent moments there’s a tendency to use CG effects that doesn’t quite mesh with the rest of the show. I don’t know if it would have bothered me so much if there was an effort to blend in the CG more seamlessly with the 2D animation, but it sticks out when the rest of the animation is otherwise solid. The second problem was a blink-and-you-miss-it moment with Batman, where he has a choice to either chase after the Joker or save someone from their imminent death…and he chooses Joker. There’s not even a beat where Batman acknowledges it, the Caped Crusader just runs off without so much as a quick glance behind him. Look, I know it’s the freaking Joker — a guy who’s basically committed mass genocide by this point — but still, that ain’t Batman. It’s ultimately a minor complaint as we don’t really have a solid understanding of this version of Batman yet, so I only have previous incarnations of the character to draw from. Anyway, thought it was worth mentioning.
So, when it comes right down to it, the question is this: is Harley Quinn worth your time? I would say so. Is it good enough to justify buying a DC Universe subscription all on it’s own? No, but I did find it to be a solid twenty-plus minutes of brutal action and dark comedy. If you’re looking for something to watch in the vein of, say, The Tick, but set in a DC Universe where characters cuss like sailors and heads get blown up, then Harley Quinn might be just what the doctor ordered.
*Seriously, do not Google Hellsing Ultimate if you’ve got a weak stomach for violence. It can get pretty freaking graphic if you’re going in blind. You have been warned.
HARLEY QUINN EPISODE ONE IS AVAILABLE TO STREAM NOW EXCLUSIVELY ON DC UNIVERSE
Jennifer Lee & Chris Buck
Kristen Anderon-Lopez, Robert Lopez, Marc E. Smith, Chris Buck, & Jennifer Lee (Screenplay)
Idina Menzel, Kristin Bell, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, et al.
PRODUCED BY Walt Disney Pictures
INSPIRED BY Hans Christian Andersen‘s “The Snow Queen“
IMDB [Walt Disney Pictures]
Elsa the Snow Queen and her sister Anna embark on an adventure far away from the kingdom of Arendelle. They are joined by friends, Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven.
It’s funny, up until a couple years ago I would be pretty stoked to hear Disney was making a sequel to Frozen, but after seeing so many lackluster or pointless sequels to stuff I otherwise enjoy, I’m more than likely to feel dread than excitement*. Still, when that first trailer dropped it was hard for me not to get at least a little hyped. Elsa trying to cross an ocean on foot; a castle surrounded by weird looking crystals; Anna grabbing a sword and swinging at some unseen stalker, Kristoff leading a herd of reindeer through the woods. Er, okay, perhaps that last one doesn’t sound quite as interesting but darn it if the soundtrack didn’t make it look epic. And so, I allowed myself to hope.
With all of that said, is Frozen II a worthy follow-up to the first movie? Well, having had a couple days to mull it over I’d say it’s definitely a better-than-average Disney movie, but maybe not the best Frozen sequel that could have been made. It’s a bit hard for me to peg down the exact reason, but I think the biggest problem is that Frozen II is just a tad too ambitious for it’s own good. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the writers and directors for swinging for the fences here; the movie was always gonna be profitable, so I’m glad they didn’t just phone it in. Still, they’re asking audiences to take in a lot of new information throughout the run-time and — at least for me — it wasn’t handled as smoothly as it could’ve been.
Without going too deep into spoiler territory, let’s look at my biggest complaint: the motivations behind the main characters, starting with Elsa. Elsa’s goal is the driving force behind the whole plot — figure out the mystery behind the strange voice that’s been calling to her — and while I thought the conclusion to her character arc was fine, I didn’t think there was enough set-up along the way for us to accept the choices she ultimately makes. Then there’s Anna — Anna is there to protect and support her sister but, for better or worse, it is Elsa who ultimately decides what direction Anna’s story takes, which seems a shame for a character who showed so much agency in the first movie. Meanwhile, Kristoff is saddled with the most inconsequential character arc — finding the right way to propose to Anna — but ironically that makes his journey from start to finish the most believable and straight-forward of the group. As for Olaf, well, he doesn’t really have a motivation, but I can’t really complain about a lack of direction for the comic relief/mascot character. Olaf is there because the rest of them are there and makes most of the jokes; anything else is just a bonus.
Perhaps Frozen II would have had more time to flesh out the motivations of the main characters if it didn’t have a bunch of new side characters to introduce. With everything else the movie has to cover there simply isn’t enough time (and definitely not enough speaking lines) to justify their presence here. For all of the talent attached to these characters — including actors like Sterling K Brown, Jason Ritter, and Rachel Matthews — the story treats them as pretty much inconsequential; they pop in and out of the story with zero fanfare and have little to no impact on the plot, whether they’re on screen or not. If the creators had time to write up another draft, maybe they could have found a way to better integrate these new characters into the narrative — or just cut them completely — but as it stands their presence in this movie seems to be mostly vestigial.
Right, let’s address the musical portion of the film, scored by Christophe Beck with songs by Robert Lopez & Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Let’s face it, even if Frozen II was perfect in every other way if the songs don’t work then the whole thing falls apart. I liked them fine enough, although I’ll readily concede they’re not exactly a collection of toe-tappers like the first movie. To be fair though, the first movie was more of a traditional Disney adventure — a breezy tale of adventure with a few modern deconstructionist flourishes — while the second movie is a darker, largely introspective tale. The challenges our characters are facing here are more complicated, more abstract than their last cinematic outing, so it’s only natural that the music fit this more reflective tone.
I’ll let you in on a little something I discovered; listening to the soundtrack a couple days after, I find myself enjoying the music more than I did while I was watching the film itself. It’s not that I think any of the songs are terrible, per se, but for some reason they didn’t leave much of an impression on my initial viewing. Real quick — how many of you can hum the chorus to “Into The Unknown”? Now, how many of you remember how “The Next Right Thing” goes off the top of your head? It’s hard, right? See, some critics have complained that the number of songs was the problem but, respectfully, I think the issue is less a problem of quantity and more a problem of pacing. In a plot that’s already suffering from a lack of urgency, having multiple slow emotional songs back-to-back coupled with long stretches of exposition dumping makes it difficult for audiences to stay invested. Perhaps I’m in the minority here — maybe I’m just getting old and tired and can’t watch cartoons after 8PM anymore — but as nice as the songs were it was getting pretty hard to tell them apart by the end. I don’t know, take this last complaint with a grain of salt.
Right, enough of that, now I’m gonna gush about what I loved most about Frozen II: it looks absolutely breathtaking. You can complain about Kristoff’s proposal subplot until you’re blue in the face, but there’s no denying that the team at Disney really took their time to make this movie look beautiful. There’s so many things I could single out here in the scenery alone; the beautiful autumn color palette of the Enchanted Forest; the dark and violent ocean tides; the coldness of a frozen cavern; everything just looks so alive that you completely forget the whole thing was coded and rendered on a computer. That’s not even mentioning the elemental creatures we meet over the course of the film; the water horse** you’ve seen in all the promotional material is probably the single most impressive visual effect I’ve seen all year. I can’t imagine how long it took to animate that thing’s watery “mane” alone but man was it worth it. I’m not saying the visuals are worth the price of your ticket alone, but I’m also not…not…saying that. Ugh, I’ve been talking about this movie for a long time; let’s wrap this up shall we?
Look, by the time this post goes live it won’t really doesn’t matter one bit whether you see this movie or not; Frozen II has already made all of the money. Considering how late to the game I am talking about this you’ve probably already seen it by now and formed your own conclusions, but hey, what’s one more think-piece on the Internet, eh? As for me, I found watching Frozen II to be a mostly enjoyable time; if you’re looking for something both you and your kids will enjoy then you could do a heck of a lot worse, not naming any Arctic Dogs names. To attempt a metaphor, this snowflake of a sequel may have a more ornate and complicated design than the first one, but at the end of the day it’s still one darn good-looking snowflake.
*I realize that we live in an age of real problems and worrying about something as trivial as a movie made for children is pretty stupid in the grand scheme of things. To that I say: why can’t I worry about both?
**Wikipedia, my first and often last source for information gathering these days — when did I become so averse to doing proper research? — has kindly informed me that this creature is called a “Nokk”, one of a half-dozen or so names for a shape-shifting water spirit from Germanic mythology and folklore. See, we can be fun and educational. I’m basically the Ms. Frizzle of blogging right now.
SHOWTIMES FOR FROZEN II NOW AVAILABLE AT A PARTICIPATING THEATER NEAR YOU
NO TIME TO DIE
CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS
There were a couple big trailers that came out in the last week, so many in fact that if I did my usual ranting and raving this post would be about triple the usual length. Instead, we’re gonna do this one Lightning Round style: no more than a hundred words about each trailer. Sort of a throwback to the old “fun-size” limit, but this way I don’t have to do it for every single post. Alright, let’s get cracking!
BLACK WIDOW (MAY 1, 2020)
Fun fact: that techno guitar riff works great as an antidote for “Into The Unknown”. David Harbour looks like he’s having the time of his life as “Marxist Santa Claus”, and Scarlett Johansson is totally rocking the all-white variant costume. All-in-all, Black Widow looks like a fun time. Only thing that bugs me is that everyone on Natasha’s team is Russian and yet they’re still speaking to each other in heavily accented English (except Natasha, because reasons). Come on Marvel, this is Phase Four! We sat through The Dark World*, we can handle reading a few subtitles.
*Hot take — I actually prefer Thor: The Dark World over the first Thor movie. Yeah, I know I’m past the word limit already, but technically I’m not talking about the Black Widow trailer, so…pass?
NO TIME TO DIE (APRIL 8, 2020)
Oh boy, I sure am excited for that movie Daniel Craig said he didn’t want to do time and time again. Sorry marketing execs, it’s a fine trailer, but when your lead star has repeatedly expressed how done he is playing James Bond, people listen. I don’t know about you, but for me the “Daniel Craig Era” peaked early with Casino Royale and I’ve just been coasting off that first high ever since. Who knows though, maybe Rami Malek playing the villain from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie will help end things on a high note. Fingers crossed.
MULAN (MARCH 27, 2020)
I’ll say this for the Mulan trailer, it certainly looks like the creators are at least attempting to make something other than a straight-up copy of the 1998 animated movie. Best moment for me is definitely the Huns doing a Matrix-style run up the wall, although Mulan’s dad saying “I am blessed with two daughters” was a surprisingly sweet touch. Not sure what’s up with the witch though; I thought the creators said they were going for something more realistic? I probably won’t see it in theaters, but it could be worth a Redbox rental.
CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS (DECEMBER 8-10, 2019 & JANUARY 14, 2020)
The first ever live-action adaptation of one of the greatest events in the history of comic books…and it’s airing on The CW. Sigh. I’ve never been the world’s biggest fan of the “Arrowverse”, but I can’t deny my interest is piqued, especially with the number of cameos from past superhero shows they’ve managed to wrangle. I know it can’t possibly be as good as I want it to be, but at least the attempt should be entertaining. Right?
TOGO (DEC 20, 2019)
Hey kids, remember the Balto movie? You know, the one about the wolf-dog who helped pull a dog sled full of medicine and saved the tiny Alaskan town of Nome from a deadly virus? Well, it doesn’t really matter anyway, because now it’s time for the real hero of the 1925 Serum Run to get his time in the limelight. That’s right, this time it’s Togo’s turn to have his story loosely adapted to film, and Willem Dafoe‘s along for the ride. I dunno; if the movie’s half as crazy as it’s trailer, this could be a lot of fun.
SEASON ONE, EPISODE FOUR
“Chapter Four: Sanctuary”
Bryce Dallas Howard
Pedro Pascal, Gina Carano, Julia Jones, Asif Ali, Eugene Cordero, Isla Farris, et al.
CREATED BY Jon Favreau
BASED ON Star Wars by George Lucas
The Mandalorian Episode Four [Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Pictures]
The Mandalorian teams up with an ex-soldier to protect a village from raiders.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a small village employs a few experts to help them fight back against a large group of oppressors and you already know where I’m going with this, don’t you? Yeah, the truth is that if you have even a passing familiarity with the plot of Akira Kurosawa‘s Seven Samurai — or it’s gun-slinging American cousin The Magnificent Seven — you’ll probably have this whole episode pegged within the first two minutes. It’s not exactly a revolutionary plot we’re dealing with here; dozens of movies and TV shows have been mining this exact story structure for the last sixty-odd years, in anything from The Three Amigos to that one episode of The A-Team. As a matter of fact, this isn’t even the first time Star Wars has used this idea — that honor goes to The Clone Wars season two episode “Bounty Hunters”. Still, there’s no such thing as a legitimately original idea anymore, especially in 2019, so in this instance I choose to focus on the way the creators execute their own take on a familiar set-up.
My thinking is this: if you’ve found some new angle or combination of elements to shake things up, why shouldn’t you be allowed to re-imagine a classic plot? With that said, does this latest attempt do enough to distinguish itself from the literally dozens of other “re-imaginings” we’ve seen in the past? I mean, they’ve got a shot of “Baby Yoda” sipping soup for a couple seconds, so I guess The Mandalorian has that going for it.
IMAGE SOURCE: The Mandalorian Episode Three [Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Studios]
Oh yeah, in case the last sentence and the pointy-eared goblin in the image above wasn’t a clear enough indicator, my personal spoiler ban on all things “Baby Yoda” has officially expired. If that was a spoiler for you I do apologize, but to be fair to myself you did have about a month to watch the first episode and that tiny green face is freaking everywhere else these days. I’m actually a bit taken aback that Disney managed to keep the big (tiny?) reveal under wraps for as long as they did, and doubly impressed that they restrained themselves from not flooding stores with “Tickle-Me-Yoda’s” a few weeks before Christmas. I mean, there’s plenty of stuff you could order, but it doesn’t look like anything’s actually shipping until May at the earliest. But enough talk about the thing designed to sell toys, let’s talk about the thing designed to sell Disney Plus subscriptions.
There’s the episode’s director for starters: I’ve only ever known Bryce Dallas Howard for her acting work, so when I heard she was directing an episode I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. As it happens though, after directing a few projects of her own beforehand, Howard’s got this directing thing down pat. In particular I’ve got to give points for Gina Carano’s Cara Dune getting to flex her muscles in her thirty-second fight scene against Mando* – I never get tired of seeing a Mandalorian bust out their flamethrower — and the way the show depicts the conventionally silly looking AT-ST as a legitimately imposing threat. Still, if I may be so bold, it’s the quieter moments scattered throughout the episode where Howard’s direction really shines: the tense scene between mother and daughter hiding in a watery trench; “Baby Yoda” staring up at the stars through the trees; Mando solemnly watching the village children playing outside. More than anything else, those are the shots I’m ultimately going to remember most when looking back on this chapter.
IMAGE SOURCE: The Mandalorian Episode 4 End Credits. Original Art by Christian Alzmann [LucasFilm/Walt Disney Pictures]
Besides the direction, everything else works fine enough. The performances are all at least decent, with Gina Carano being the clear standout and winning the coveted “Most Likely To Be A Recurring Character” award. The story doesn’t give us a ton of time to develop her, but she looks cool and she can stand toe-to-toe with our hero, so that’s a decent start to build off. Speaking of “Mando”, I’m pleased to see the show finally addressed the fact that this particular Mandalorian never takes his helmet off. I mean, I’m not entirely sure why he doesn’t do it other than a vague sense of honor and respect for Mandalore code, but “this is the way”, I guess. Still, kinda weird how he talks about how he can never take it off in front of people, and then a minute later he takes it off in front of a window in plain sight of a bunch of kids. Whatever, maybe it was just really dark in that room and I’m being needlessly pedantic.
Following a solid trifecta of episodes, “Chapter Four” gives us the start of what I’m going to assume is going to be the driving plot for (at least) the rest of the season: Mando travelling the galaxy, dodging the bad guys and trying to keep his tiny green son from getting dissected for his midichlorians or something. There’s not a ton of new meat on this bone story-wise, although what little we get about Cara Dune’s backstory as a Rebel Shocktrooper is certainly intriguing, as it sounds like she didn’t leave the New Republic on the best of terms. It’s odd to me, now that I think about it, how little thought I’ve given to the larger universe The Mandalorian is taking place in. I thought, for instance, we would be getting more details on the fallout of Return of the Jedi — the origins of The New Republic, how The First Order got started, that sort of thing — but aside from a few throwaway lines here and there, there hasn’t been an awful lot of focus on the bigger picture…and I’m weirdly cool with that. I’m sure that as the season and the series in general moves forward we’ll undoubtedly get to see more of the galaxy far, far away, but for now I’m content to follow the adventures of “Lone Wolf & Cub In Space”.
*I know there’s an interview out there where Pedro Pascal revealed his character’s real name, possibly — this is Disney after all — but I’m far too lazy to Google it right now and frankly nothing could possibly be as amusing to me as “Mando”.
THE MANDALORIAN IS AVAILABLE TO STREAM NOW EXCLUSIVELY ON DISNEY PLUS
IN CLOSING, REMEMBER: DEADLINES ARE THE WORST.
In hindsight, I definitely picked the wrong time to take the limiter off my word count.
Between getting ready for the holiday season, sorting out the chaos at my Day Job, and getting at least six hours of sleep a day, it’s hard to get motivated to sit down and write about anything. I don’t regret having more room to delve into the specifics of why I like what I like, I just probably should have waited until I’d gotten a little better at breaking down my thoughts into something legible before committing to the change. I like to think I’ve been upfront about how Fun-Size is still a “learn as I go” experiment, but it doesn’t make the fact that I’m struggling to hit my deadlines any easier. I don’t want to make excuses here, I just thought I’d put that out there in the interest of full disclosure, you know, in case I miss a week or two. The most important thing is that I take care of myself and I keep my real paying job, but I’m still gonna do my best to catch up to where I was before.
I guess the lesson here, as always, is to take care of yourself first and foremost. Sure it’s important to work at something you care about if you want to improve, but make sure you aren’t burning yourself out in the process. Acknowledge that you’re learning and improving every day, no matter where you are in your personal journey, and then cut yourself a little slack.
Take it easy out there, stay safe, and keep reading because, hey, reading is awesome, and when you do it you’re awesome. Later!