Tag Archives: HBO Max

Binge Watching Between the Deluge and the Floods

In California the idea of “average annual rainfall” is complete garbage.  We either have way too much rain or a drought.  In that situation the average is like the guy with his feet in the oven and his head in the freezer: On the average he is the right temperature.

This year was a rainy year.  The initial floods have subsided for now, but the snow pack up in the mountains will soon be melting and the next round of flooding will begin.  We’re on a patch of high ground, so we’re safe, but others will be in trouble when the rivers rise and the levees break.

My new TV graphic… AI generated

All of which has nothing to do with this post, but sometimes I feel like adding some color to the opening of these.  I suppose I could just jump in with “Here are some mini-reviews of shows we’re watched so far this year.”

A Spy Among Friends – MGM+

I am probably alone in being tired of the Cambridge Five, but not only have I read all about them, my great uncle was friends with Kim Philby and used to pal around with him in Beirut when we wasn’t helping overthrow local governments. (My uncle, that is, not Philby.)  I even have a letter from Moscow from Philby to my uncle.  But my wife wanted to watch it, which also meant we had to subscribe to MGM+, yet another streaming service, in order to watch it.

It covers the details of Philby’s defection in 1963 and the subsequent investigations and events.  It was okay, but not exactly action packed.  I was, however, able to pause the show when my wife had questions and give brief bios of most of the main characters, which at least made me feel engaged.  The acting is fine, it looks good, and I’ll take any indictment of the the old boys network I can get, but overall it felt like style over substance.  Also, I was a bit salty about having to subscribe to MGM+ for this.

War of the Worlds – MGM+

What if they had an end of the world apocalypse show that was set in Europe for once and half the cast spoke French?

Given the past versions of H.G. Well’s 1898 story, I was pretty sure I could guess how it was going to go.  But I was wrong.  I will give the series that.  It starts off as expected, though the aliens are more like Daleks in robo-dog suits.  Then you think it is going Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  And then it veers of into time travel and paradoxes and parallel timelines.  It wraps up and feels done after three seasons, and it did keep me guessing most of the way… though I have a sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t all mapped out that way in advance.  The whole thing was a bit of a slow burn, so if you’re expecting giant three legged machines striding over the earth and destroying cities, be advised.

The Last of Us – HBO Max

What if The Madalorian met The Walking Dead, but everybody he and Grogu ran into ended up dead?  What if we had plant based soy zombies that were really scary… and as scarce as zombies in later seasons of The Walking Dead? What if they made a TV series based on a video game you never played?

It was okay.  Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey work well together.  But I was not invested in the story, its message (hint: people are the real bad guys again], or its fidelity to the video game, and I got to the end of the season and wasn’t really sure where they could take the story from there or if I really cared.

The Night Agent – Netflix

On the rocks FBI agent, who is the son of a disgraced FBI agent, is relegated to answering the night phone in the basement of the White House, a phone that “night agents,” who are off the book operatives, has the phone ring finally, only to get a message from an agent being attacked. For not good reason they send him out to take custody of a survivor of the attack and it turns into a thing and there is a conspiracy to kill them and a plot within the White House including an attempt to kill the president and it all works out, leading to promotions and a new career and a new love.

Also, every plot twist is telegraphed well in advance and the whole thing ends like it is the prequel for a completely different show.  I don’t know.  It was okay, but my wife and I had fun shouting out what will happen next at the TV, but it isn’t like The Wire or anything.  I couldn’t see myself re-watching it.

The Recruit – Netflix

A young, smart ass CIA lawyer gets mixed up in affairs outside of his usual scope, ends up in the field chasing down a lead while goes hilariously bad on multiple occasions.  Funny, wry, silly, it is one of those stories where a simple goal is presented to the main character who finds himself constantly thwarted by complications, office politics, and unreliable rental cars.  It is just eight episodes and a lot lighter and more enjoyable than The Night Agent.

The Diplomat – Netflix

And unlikely premise and an absolutely ridiculous series of events as Kate Wyler is appointed to be the US ambassador to the UK because the president wants to try her out as a possible replacement vice president, but she is a Middle-east expert and doesn’t really want that job and her husband is a former ambassador who put her up for the job and their marriage is strained in part because he can’t take a back seat in any of this and Alfredo from Elementary is her deputy chief of mission trying to get her up to speed for a job she doesn’t want and he is sleeping with the CIA head of station and the UK Prime Minister is a egocentric half-wit, so at least they got something true to life in the whole thing.  Rory Kinnear plays the prime minister, something he has done in the past, in that Black Mirror episode where he has to fuck a pig.

The performances are good, the whole thing is a setup for a second season, and it has been popular enough to spawn a bunch of “that’s not how any of this works” articles in the press, save for the deputy chief of mission, whose role was apparently portrayed somewhat accurately.  Fun, if you like that sort of thing.

Beef – Netflix

The lesson here is to be judicious in the use of your car horn.  A road rage incident entangles the lives of two people who just can’t fucking let it go, and tracks their obsession and how it impacts the rest of their lives and relationships.  Also, it is something of a comedy I think.  I don’t know.  It comes across to me as the gold/blue dress sort of situation, where you’re either going to become invested in the two main characters and hope they get their acts together or you’re going to be like me and spend 10 episodes wondering at the time and dedication the two main characters invest in self-sabotage.

The Mandalorian Season 3 – Disney+

After 2.5 seasons of The Mandalorian… because we got about a half of season of it in the middle of The Book of Boba Fett… this season felt mostly like an unsuccessful attempt to recapture some of the early magic.  It has some “problem of the week” episodes about pirates and helping Jack Black and Lizzo maintain their droid oppressing regime.  It had some “I don’t really care” episodes about New Republic re-education camps for Imperials.  And then there was a whole “retaking our home planet” thing with the different Mandalorian factions coming together after bickering about helmet etiquette for an episode.

There were some good points, but the through line of the season was kind of choppy.  I will say that the last scene of the last episode was about perfect and that they can just leave it right there and call it done.  But they won’t.  Disney will need to beat the life out of this.  Maybe that will slow them down in their desire to do a remake of the original trilogy.

Perry Mason Season 2 – HBO Max

I was reading the Raymond Chandler Philip Marlowe series when this dropped, and it was kind of nice in that this too was set in 1930s LA.  Perry, having won last season’s big case tries to stay with just civil rather than criminal law… but a new case and a need to see justice done drags him back in.  Racial tensions, immigration issues, blackmail, prosecutorial misconduct, and baseball all pile up to make Perry’s job impossible.  But do you think he loses the case in the end?  Overall it was okay.  It looks a lot better than it plays.

Shrinking – Apple TV

Harrison Ford plays himself as a grumpy old therapist of some sort… they never really go into details… at a practice where he is something of a mentor to his two younger colleagues, one of whom lost his wife in a car accident a while back and has never recovered and his life is spinning out of control, but in entirely humorous ways appropriate to a sitcom.  Well, maybe a sitcom on streaming, since blow and hookers enter into it.  Anyway, that guy is the center of the story.  For all the absurdities, it is solid, well written, and funny with a solid cast that turns in good performances.  What else are you going to ask for?

1923 – Paramount+

Harrison Ford plays himself as a grumpy old rancher in this Yellowstone prequel.  If you watched Yellowstone, then you know the drill.  Good, honest cattle ranchers are beset by land speculators, city slickers, and sheep herders and have to defend themselves by gunning them down or stringing them up from the nearest tree.  Everything that makes the show what it is, but it is in 1923, so they have to ride horses into town rather than big pickups.

There are also side stories about the abuse that Native American children received at the hands of Catholic missionaries sent to teach them the ways of the modern world (when your boarding school has a graveyard for students, it might be a sign you’re not doing this right), the unlawfulness of marriage between the races at that time, and the difficulties of international travel in the age of steam.

Succession Season Whatever – HBO Max

I am not even sure this is done yet.  There might be once more episode or horrible rich people being horrible to each other and those around them.  It was a bit of a spectacle in the first season, and kept me interested in the second, but I am not sure I even finished last season, and this season I am done with.  I mean, which character in this whole show would you want to pal around with?

The strange thing is that this is the show that people keep talking about on Twitter, but Yellowstone gets something like 5x the viewers per episode.  Facebook is where the Yellowstone memes are to be found.  Maybe the last episode will be a cross-over and the Roys will try to buy Montana then Kevin Costner and the Duttons will ride up into New York City and string the lot of them up on Wall Street.  A man can dream, can’t he?

Changes at Netflix, HBO, and MTV

I am still catching up on notes I took almost two weeks ago, but there were some video related topics I wanted not note involving three different video services that have had something of an impact on me.

  • Netflix ends DVD Service

I haven’t subscribed to the Netflix DVDs by mail service in a good six or seven years.  I haven’t felt the need.  But I was always happy it was there as a fall back because, while the Netflix vision was always to stream video, we have learned that streaming services are, at best, fickle stewards of our video culture.  And then the announcement came that their DVD service was going to be shut down.

A Netflix Company

For openers, that is bad because if you REALLY wanted to watch something specific, some movie or TV series, the Netflix DVD service had you covered in a way that a dozen streaming service subscriptions will absolutely fail to do.  You couldn’t do it that night, on demand, but with a little bit of planning that red envelope would show up in the mail and you would have the disk set to watch.

For years we got those red envelopes in the mail regularly… though it helped that we’re very close to their distribution hub.  Netflix is still just up the road from us.

Moving away from DVDs to streaming only is a blow due to the attrition that always comes to pass when we change formats.  There were a lot of titles on VHS that never made it to DVD.  And from DVDs to BluRay more titles fell by the wayside… though at least players supported both formats.  Likewise, there are a lot of titles on DVD or BluRay that nobody has bothered to factor for streaming.

DVDs aren’t going away.  You can still find them and watch them if you have a player or an optical drive in your computer. (I do still!)  But Netflix was by far the easiest way to access the vast library of titles on DVD and, come September, it will be no more.

  • HBO becomes Max

For whatever reason HBOs owners, Warner Discovery, have decided to throw away a reputation 50 years in the making and rename HBO’s streaming service to Max.

Everybody to the Max or something

I mean, it was already HBO Max… after having been HBO on Demand, HBO Go, and HBO Now… but to finally ditch the anchor name that has been around since late 1972 seems like a dumb marketing move.

Yes, the plan is to merge it with Discovery+ content, so maybe the two streaming services combined deserve a new name… but did nobody consider HBO Discovery?  I mean, that maintains the continuity of the services in people’s heads because, because in the case of HBO people think of those three letters for shows like The Wire, Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, and Westworld.

Okay, maybe not Westworld, which has been part of the original content purge at HBO so they don’t have to pay the talent in order to save money.  This is another reason Netflix DVD services going away is bad, because you cannot stream some titles now.

But it feels to me like people who don’t pay close attention aren’t going to make the leap to Max.

Also, and this is what leaped into my brain first, HBO’s has a sister service on cable called Cinemax (or Skinemax, as we used to call it for its propensity to show soft core porn back in the day) that has been branded on and off again as just Max.

Is that the association they want?  We’ll see this Tuesday, as May 23rd is the cut over.

Anyway, it seems dumb, but I guess they have already trashed the HBO brand by this point.  I got a deal last year to subscribe to HBO Max for a year at a low price.  I did that, then they started the purge and doing dumb things.  I think we’ll be able to live without Max when that subscription lapses.

  • I miss my MTV

Finally, there is the demise of MTV.  It was announced that MTV News, the last bastion of the once influential network, would be integrated into Showtime as Paramount engaged in cost cutting measure that include slashing 25% of its overall staff.

The idea that MTV would be finally gone for good as something of an independent channel did stir something in me.

Yes, I know, it hasn’t been what I think of as MTV for a couple of decades at this point.  But back in the day it was something.

If you’re like me, seeing this image triggers music in your brain

MTV feels very much like a milestone for my generation.  I first saw it when we were going to move back in May 1982.  The people buying our house wanted cable, something we didn’t have, so it got wired up while we were still moving out.  My sister and I found MTV on the channel options and wouldn’t turn it off.  Our parents hated it… boomers… but we wouldn’t let it go.

It lost its edge a bit with time… there was a lot of Rod Stewart in the early rotation… but it remained a channel you would just throw on with people around, and we all knew the VJs… who didn’t have a crush on Martha Quinn or just want to hang out with her… and they did crazy things.  They had a contest with Madonna that encouraged viewers to make a music video for her song True Blue in 1986.

And then they showed the entries, one after another, so that song was stuck in my head for years.

Eventually interest in just music videos waned and other content began pushing that off the schedule.  Then there was MTV2, the joke being that they need some place for the music videos to go.  Then VH1.  My wife and I would turn on the VH1 video count down on Saturday mornings in the late 90s and early 2000s to watch music videos.

MTV broke gound with shows as well, with Liquid Television, which saw things like Æon Flux emerge, as well as Beavis and Butt-head.  (Beavis and Butt-head also sat around watching music videos and commenting on them.  This is the clip that always comes to mind for them.) Then there was MTV’s Real World, the start of reality television, which I won’t thank them for, but which was certainly influential.

The final bits of MTV being subsumed into Showtime has very little meaning to me and my actual viewing habits today.  I haven’t watch the channel in over a decade and if I want music videos, then there is always YouTube.  I have no idea what directions it has gone in since the days when I used to watch it.  But the mention of its name will always bring up the moon landing channel ID clip they used to play back in the day.

That is my MTV, part of the bygone era that was my late adolescence and early adulthood.

Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan

Our Star Trek film festival continues, having survived contact with Star Trek: The Motion Picture last week, to arrive at Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

The Wrath of Khan

I said in last week’s post that Wrath of Khan might be the most overrated of the films, but having watched it again I am not too sure.

In some ways it is not much more than an over-inflated, two hour episode from the original series, drawing as it did from the episode Space Seed.  But it is also, perhaps, the most iconic and influential of the film series entries.

To start with, it opens with the Kobayashi Maru training scenario, something that has become cultural short hand for a no-win situation.  I saw it applied to Elon Musk’s situation with Twitter just last week in a major publication.

And then there is this.

Kirk shouting “Khaaaaaaan!”

Just go Google “Kirk Khan meme” and see how many entries you get.

So, for cultural impact, its bona fides are clearly established.

But is it a good movie?  Yes?

I mean, it is much, much better than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but it was also the one from the TOS films that I had seen most recently… possibly the only one I had seen this century… and my fuzzy memories from that viewing were not ones of enthusiasm.

And it has the same starting problem.  Why did they make Kirk an admiral only to have to spend time at the start of every film finding an excused for him to take over, commandeer, or steal the Enterprise?  They always come up with something, and we have to have that scene reflecting on being old and missing command of a ship.  I guess that pads out the run time a bit.

Overall though, despite my misgivings over whatever that last viewing entailed, it was pretty good.  I enjoyed watching it.

In being essentially a two hour long TOS episode worked to its benefit.  It got in some of the classic aspects of the show, including two larger than life performances out of Shatner and Montalban as the egos of their two characters clashed on screen.  We had ships fighting, silly space maneuvers, engineering problems, handy close by cosmic anomalies to hide in, some decent uniforms for the crew… both crews, because Khans space rogues were quite the site, and Shakespeare quotes… though not in the original Klingon.

We also got to see Kirk having consequences from a past relationship!

Yes, they had to also work us with the Kirk/Spock relationship.  But after years of the Trek stories in paperback where every budding author couldn’t seem to resist working in some sort of “Spock must wrestle with his human side and his relationship with Kirk” aspect, that is hard to get worked up about.

It was good, kept my attention, had decent effects, a silly but enjoyable plot line, and few dragging moments that felt like they could have been trimmed from the script.  Overall, I’d watch it again.

So that is two of the films down, and in the hope that we’ll keep watching, I’m going to start a stack rank of them by quality or enjoyment or whatever metric is within me.  It is easy at this point, with only two films under our belts.

  1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
  2. Star Trek: The Motion Picture

The next on the list is Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the Spock’s Brain entry in the series, if you know what I mean.  I haven’t see it since it came out.  We’ll see how it rates.

Binge Watching into Another Season

Back again with more TV that we have been watching.  There isn’t, technically, a pandemic right now.  We’re all back to pretending COVID is gone, though the case numbers are rising again.  But now we’re in the habit and routine of watching a lot of TV.  So here we go again.


In some not too distant future… or past, the time line is ambiguous… Lumon Corporation has perfected a technology called “severance,” which allows them to split the conscious brain into two parts, separating a person’s work life from their outside and home life.

If you have the procedure, your work self knows nothing about your outside life and vice versa.  In fact, your work life has no outside memories, it only knows work.  Every day when you arrive at work you pass through an elevator that activates the change to work.  The work version of you… your “innie” in the slang of Lumon… only knows an endless existence of entering the elevator to leave, then immediately exiting the elevator, back at work for another day.

The procedure is controversial, but Mark, the lead character, has chosen it because his wife recently died in a car accident and being able to forget that for the work day seems like a blessing.

Meanwhile, what he and his team do an Lumon is a mystery, even to them.  They have quotas to meet, which earns them rewards like a waffle party, but they have no idea what they are actually accomplishing.  Meanwhile, Lumon has a cult-like corporate culture, with a handbook of quotes from the founder, and an obsession with security even within the severed portion of the company.  The groups there are kept apart through a labyrinth of corridors.

The series starts slowly, kicking off with a new employee, Helly, being brought into the group, and seems very strange, but you do get some payoff by the end of the season as to what is going on.  A slow burn, but it kept me hooked.

The Flight Attendant

Flight attendant Cassie is living the carefree airline lifestyle, traveling the world, drinking to excess, partying, and sleeping with people she has just met.  And then she wakes up next to one of them, a first class passenger who was on her flight to Bangkok, to find he is dead.  She was in an alcoholic blackout and doesn’t know if she killed him or what happened.   She panics, cleans up the crime scene, then gets on her flight back to the US, where she and the rest of the flight crew are questioned by the FBI because the body has been discovered and the Thai police are following up leads.

She isn’t a suspect, but panics and ends up doing a bunch of dumb things that bring more attention to her, while also somehow unraveling by accident the actual conspiracy that led to the murder.  It is dumb but fun, and Kaley Cuoco, best known for her role in Big Bang Theory, is probably the perfect actor to pull the whole thing off.  It isn’t a huge stretch from the BBT role.  So it is fun and silly and full of “that’s not how this really works” moments, but whatever.  You’re there for the ride, and the first season pays off pretty well.

And then there is season two, where the manic quirkiness… well, it isn’t over, but it isn’t quite the same either… changes but the “that’s not how things really work” aspect is doubled down on and I couldn’t make it past the second episode.  But we’ll always have the fun first season.

Vikings Valhalla

A follow on to the Vikings series, which I have not seen, this takes place 100 years down the road, opening with Æthelred, King of England, unleashing the St. Brice’s Day massacre, an attempt to slay all the Danes living in England.  This pisses off the Danes, who sail for England to exact revenge.

And from there we follow the stories of King Cnut, Lief Erikson and his sister Freydis, and the schism between the Vikings who have turned to Christianity (with a very Viking aggressiveness) and those who still follow the old ways.  I wasn’t expecting much from it… it seemed to lack in Skarsgards for something Nordic… but I ended up quite liking it.

Slow Horses

In MI5 Slough House is where you get sent if you have screwed up just shy of being fired.  There Cold War burn out Jack Lamb is in charge of keeping those sent to this purgatory busy with a mix of menial tasks, like sorting through and cataloging the garbage of a somebody who isn’t really suspected of much, and a steady diet of scorn and derision.  Those assigned, the “slow horses” of the title, can put up with it and maybe get back into a better position or resign.

Up and comer River Cartwright, whose grandfather was a major player in the service, makes a very public mistake and is sent there, but cannot leave well enough alone.  He does his tasks but also carries on with some extra curricular activities which Lamb tells him to stop, but then grows interested himself, in his own scornful way, as it turns out Cartwright is on to something and it leads back to Slough House.

Fun, dynamic, and it has Gary Oldman and Kristen Scott Thomas.  What else do you need?  I actually waited until the series was complete… Apple insists on the one episode a week drip… so my wife and I could binge it if we wanted… and we did.


Jack Reacher has been done before.  The popular 26… soon to be 27… book series has already had two movie adaptations starring an unconvincing Tom Cruise as the title character.  I’ve read a few of the books… not a huge fan as the quality of the early books varies quite a bit… and Jack Reacher, who everybody just calls Reacher, is a muscular 6’5″, while Tom Cruise is a wiry 5’7″ on a good day.  There is only so much suspension of disbelief he can carry.  Also, Tom Cruise only knows how to be Tom Cruise.  He is very good at it, and if you have a role written for Tom Cruise, only Tom Cruise will do.  But Jack Reacher isn’t a very Tom Cruise role.

Alan Ritchson though, the star of the Amazon Prime series, he very much sells the Jack Reacher role.  If you have read the first book… and the series starts with the first book, unlike the movies, which picked up in the middle of the series… the first episode of the series will seal the deal.  You don’t get the inner monologue from the text, but Reacher doesn’t waste words, and when he does speak he tends to hit the mark hard.  A couple people I know who love the books were big on the series as well.

And if you haven’t read the books, the first season is still very good without that knowledge.

Binge Watching Too Many Mysteries

The TV stays on and we keep watching most evenings.  Mysteries seem to be the neutral ground for my wife and I, a genre we enjoy together.  The problem starts when you watch too many and you start to unravel how they work and so we’re constantly calling out what will happen next, and rare is the program that fools us without cheating. (Looking at you Click Bait and Broadchurch. )

But the other shared ground for us, science fiction, doesn’t have as many options popping up.  I am going to guess that the effects and props budget for mysteries are a lot smaller.

Not even a title card, but this image makes sense if you watch the series

The full title is actually The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window, but it was supposed to be just The Woman in the House early on in production.  Also, that fits more easily on the page as a bullet point without wrapping.

Why the change to the long, silly name?  My guess is that was a flag to ensure people got that the series was trying to parody such mystery thrillers.  That it needed to raise such a flag probably says more about the genre than the attempt to parody it.  A good parody immerses itself in the material it is poking fun at, but the genre has been a bit off the rails, so it can be tough to tell if something was supposed to be funny or just trying to one up something else.

Anyway, it is fine as a parody, and better than some serious mysteries we’ve watched of late.  Kristen Bell is solid and the show hangs on her.  It was worth the eight episode investment.

The Stranger is such a common title they had to specify

A strange woman in a hoodie, the “stranger” of the title, tells a married man that he needs to look into something about his wife.  When he finds the information, she asks him for more time before she explains, then disappears.  Meanwhile, the woman is also blackmailing some people with information she has found, and the man, who is a lawyer, is trying to keep some old neighbors house from being knocked down, and the company trying to knock the place down turns out to be run by the mans estranged father.  Also, Jennifer Saunders is in it, briefly.  That sounds like trivia, but it was the selling point for us to start watching it.  Anyway, several people end up murdered, then it turns out key people are related and everybody tries to just forget it all happened.  In the end, it was society or middle-class values to blame.

This was a few steps from being a parody of the mystery genre itself.  It did get us hooked with the first episode, but by about the half way point we were mostly watching just to see which next twist would get thrown into the mix.  I will give it credit for keeping us from guessing what was going on too early on in the show.

Stay Close to what now?

  1. Stay Close – Netflix

Also a Harlan Coben novel made into a series, and probably the leading indicator that we have been watching too many mysteries.  It was only eight episodes, but my wife kept saying, “Oh, we’ve seen this one already.” through the first three, because… well, because there wasn’t a lot to set it apart.

And I almost forgot to add it to this post because I keep forgetting the title and what it was about.  Seriously, in my notes I wrote “the one I keep forgetting” because I couldn’t remember it.  Eddie Izzard is in it, if briefly, as is the lead actor from The Stranger (same author but not the same character or story… I think…), and an English actor who kept pulling faces that reminded me of Titus Welliver in Bosch.  Too dull to be a parody I think… but I really cannot recall it well enough to be sure.

Post-Wallander Wallander

I enjoyed the moody, introspective, and empathetic Kurt Wallander played by Kenneth Branagh, which came to the states over a decade back via the usual BBC ratline to the Americas, US public television.  The moody bleakness of Sweden makes such a good background for murder.

That show was a success and when you can’t make more of them, you make a prequel!  It worked for Lucas!  Right?  RIGHT?

So now on Netflix we have two seasons of Young Wallander which, in an odd twist that most people won’t care about, takes place in the present day, which means technically Young Wallander happens after Wallander.  How can old Wallander be hopeless with tech while his younger, future self seems comfortable with it?  Also, insert Benjamin Button joke here.

The show works hard at laying the groundwork for the the Branagh version of the character, perhaps too hard and too obviously, but then doesn’t do much to make the young one very interesting.  It was good enough to get a second season, no doubt based on the popularity of the original, but it could have been much tighter if it had used the old show’s shorter format.  Like a lot of shows, it seems to spend time looking for ways to fill out all the episodes it was contracted to provide.  Very much not a parody.  Also, how can you set a show in Sweden and have nobody in the main cast with blonde hair?  One of the detectives actually dies her hair blonde in the second season, and I think it was just to get past this obvious error.

The good title cards were all in portrait mode

The series opens up with an Irish tourist in Australia being chased by a truck, a turn of events that ends up with him in the hospital with amnesia.

“Oh no, the amnesia trope!” I hear you say, and would tend to agree that it is a bit cheesy.  However, the show sticks with it firmly, even while half the characters seem incredulous about it.  But it does allow you to go on a voyage of discovery with the tourist, who is trying to piece together who he is and what happened to him… and why somebody was trying to kill him… which, of course, he doesn’t remember so has to find out about afresh.

The whole thing is very improbable, and close to parody itself at times.  Or maybe it was parody.  Parody is generally cast as comedy, and there is comedy in this show.  But sometimes comedy is just comedy.  It is one of those shows where the little details can be quite amusing.  Overall a fun ride.  If you watch through some of his dream sequences, make sure to pause the video and read all the signage.  Unusual for an HBO Max series as they dropped all the episodes at once.  But it was a series they bought, so maybe they don’t bother with those.

Finally, a decent title card

Raised by WolvesHBO Max

And, finally, a science fiction show and not a current day mystery!  Or a parody!

Earth is wracked by a war between religious zealots, the worshipers of Sol, and the unbelievers, and all life on the planet seems likely to be wiped out shortly.  An unbeliever scientist reprograms a combat android and a utility android and sends them off to Kepler 22b, a potentially Earth-like planet (which was also mentioned in a show we started watching), with a supply of embryos in order to ensure the survival of the human race.

But both sides in the war know about the planet and soon both sides are there and seem intent on finished the work started on Earth.  The first season starts strong… hey, Ridley Scott directed the first two episodes… but then it meanders for a few episodes.  The second season, which is two episodes shorter, stays more on point.  The second season wrapped up last week, so it is available for full binge.  Strange but compelling.

Watching Dune Part One

The big day came this past weekend; the new Dune movie arrived.  I was going to put off posting this until next weekend, but I finished up the post and the topic seems timely, so here we go with a Monday movie post.

That brief moment when they tell you it is a two part series

I am also going to put a mild spoiler warning here.  I discuss plot points of the story.  If you’ve read the book or seen the previous movie or mini-series, these plot points are well known to you already.  If you haven’t, well, they’ll probably be more confusing than spoiler-ish.  But if you want to go into the film clean, don’t read any reviews, including this one.

My wife and I had been talking about seeing Dune in the theater and then I saw that it was also going to be available to watch on HBO Max for the first month of its release… the hedging against small pandemic audiences continues… so we decided to sit on the couch and watch it instead.

I regret not seeing it in the theater on a really big screen a bit… but not enough to actually go out and do so.  It is quite beautifully shot and there were points my wife and I both said something like, “I bet that would have been spectacular in the theater,” but that is the way it goes.

I am also going to make a minor fuss up front here about this being “Part One,” but only because the studio seems to have gone out of their way to hide that fact.

None of the movie posters, ads, or other marketing I have seen says that this is only the first half of the book.  Even on HBO Max it just says Dune.  This seems to me like a particularly pointless, and even counter productive, act.

People are going to find out.  I knew about it before we saw the film from people complaining that the studio seemed to be hiding the fact.  Turning the book into two films certainly didn’t bother me, and it is not something without precedent in Hollywood.  People remember Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Hunger Games: Mockingjay were both two parters and neither seemed to suffer in the box office… though admittedly both were the final chapters in already established successful series on the big screen.

So I am at a bit of a loss about the studio trying to hide this fact.  Even in the opening credits, the title of the movie only appears for about five seconds, and only in the last two seconds of that appearance does it say “Part One.”  That is enough to miss it, which actually happened to my wife while we were watching, though that is one of the hazards of watching at home where there are many more distractions.

Having hidden the whole “Part One” thing, what are they planning to call the next movie, Also Dune? More Dune? Dune Dune? Or will they go full George Lucas and call it Dune Episode IX – The Fremen Ascendant?
Anyway, that was more words expended than the issue required, though there is more to consider on this front, which I will get to in a bit.

The film itself is very good, certainly relative to its 1984 sibling, about which I wrote last week.

The whole tale still needs a lot of explaining to get the audience on board as to what is actually happening, but it is done in a much more organic way.  Gone is the almost non-stop intonations and articulated thoughts of the main characters of the earlier outing as the script/director strive to show the situation through a series of less structured encounters.

People are still spilling forth more information than they might otherwise, but it doesn’t begin to approach the “Ben Stein lectures on the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act” presentation to the audience that even the book spins perilously close to at times.  My wife said aloud at several points early on that the story was being presented in a much better fashion.

The film also dispenses with the Princess Irulan historical narration, which is in both previous adaptations and the book.  This version is firmly set in the here and now.  Or the “then” I guess, since this is ten thousand years in the future.

Things are not quite as grandiose in this telling either.  It is beautifully filmed and looks excellent on screen, but it is also more like to real life.  Things are dirtier or grittier or less well lit.  Uniforms are not as gaudy, ceremonies are more subdued, and House Harkonnen isn’t so obviously the bad guys.

I mean, they are still clearly the antagonists, but not quite in the almost comic book fashion of the 1984 film, where they were comparable to Batman villains.  Their evil is more banal, their greed more ordinary, their machinations less fraught, their maniacal laughter much more subdued.  The Baron is still weird and icky, but at least we aren’t spending a lot of time focused on his acne issues..

We also get a much closer look at the Emperor’s Sardaukar troops, establishing their loyalty and fanaticism.  The Emperor himself though, he gives the whole thing a miss, and we see only his herald delivering the news about Arakkis is being transferred to House Atreides.

The whole house swap plan still seems like a mildly ludicrous way to deal with whatever problem the Emperor is trying to solve… a problem that is not really explained at all… but the film does at least spend some time demonstrating how House Harkonnen screwed over House Atreides on the deal more fully than I seem to recall even the book doing.  House Atreides is clearly being set up for failure, and that is the part of the plan that is important in the moment.

The film spends its first 90 minutes with foundational material and setting up the coming conflict before House Harkonnen finally attacks to retake Arakkis with support from the Emperor’s Sardaukar.  There is the betrayal, the battle, the escape, the Baron, and all the bits and pieces you may recall from book, movie, or mini-series past.

The battle and aftermath gets things close to the two hour mark, after which we spend about 40 minutes with Paul and his mother traipsing about the desert, finding the Fremen and getting accepted by them which, while an important aspect of the story, is kind of a slow roll even when compared to the early exposition laden portions of the film.  And then the end credits show up and we’re done.  That was a bit of a surprise to my wife who, as I mentioned above, missed the two seconds flash of “Part One” in the opening.

Overall a strong outing, well written and performed, with a Hans Zimmer score that seems to live and breath with the film.  I enjoyed it.  Go see it in the theater if you can, if Dune and theaters are both your thing.

They trimmed back the cast of characters, no doubt to keep the focus of the story getting too diluted/confused.  So the Emperor and his plans are left out, along with the Spacing Guild and Baron Harkonnen’s other nephew, played by Sting back in 1984.  But Dave Bautista has chops enough to fill out all the nephew needs of this film.  Even the Bene Gesserit feels like it has been left behind after the Reverend Mother plays “What’s in the box?” with Paul early on.

But there is time for all of those who went missing in Part One to make their appearance in the second film, which will necessarily revolve around Paul rising to lead the Fremen and the reactions of House Harkonnen, the Emperor, the Spacing Guild, and the Bene Gesserit to the Fremen insurrection and the disruption of the spice trade.

That is, if we get a second film.

Part of the reason the studio might have been shy about the whole “Part One” things is that, as of this writing, the second film hasn’t yet been officially sanctioned.  There is a lot of vagueness about the future of the series at the moment, which I imagine mostly rests on how well Dune Part One does at the box office.

Given that the film barely cracked $40 million mark in the US on its opening weekend, which is good but not great, there does seem to be reason for doubt. (For comparison, Venom did $90 million, Shang-li did $75 million, No Time to Die did $55 million, and even Halloween Kills managed $49 million, all during the last two months.)  I am sure HBO kicked in a pile of cash to be able to show it on their service, but was it enough to make up for how many people they kept from going to see it in the theater.

I know at this point somebody is at least thinking “foreign box office!”  I would like to remind anybody going down that path exactly how many Warcraft sequels we got when it did so well overseas:  Zero.  Zero sequels.

So we shall have to wait and see and hope.  I want the next film.  My worry is that the current one won’t make the cut financially to warrant it.

This is also a reminder to those of us in the nerd faction about the popularity of the Dune IP.  I keep seeing people ranking the Dune series in importance culturally with Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.  That might just be for our demographic.

Meanwhile, even if the sequel does get the green light to go forward, we’re probably 2-3 years away from a release.  Maybe more.  That will give people time enough to go read… or re-read… the entire Dune saga.

Addendum: The sequel has been officially sanctioned.  The estimate is October of 2023 currently.

Binge Watching in the New Normal

Pandemic restrictions have been lifted, but just last week I was buying some KN-95 masks because I live in California where things are just on fire for months at a stretch.  There was a brief conspiracy theory about why we all had masks on hand when Covid hit, and then we reminded people it was literally raining ash over most of the state during the summer of 2019 so we needed them to breath.

All of which is just another reason to stay inside and watch TV.

The show is about an aging stand up comedian, Deborah Vance, who was an early female presence in the genre (think Joan Rivers) and who has been doing a Las Vegas show for many years running on the same material.  Her agent sends out a 25 year old female comedy write who was just fired from her last gig for being too controversial on Twitter in an effort to get Deborah’s act to appeal to a younger demographic.  The two meet, don’t like each other, and the usual generational sniping begins which ends with grudging acceptance than a genuine relationship.

This could have been a very predictable show.  In fact, it often is very predictable.  I am not spoiling anything in my description above because you’ll see it coming a mile away.  But Jean Smart’s performance as Deborah Vance manages to make it rise above what could have been another throw away series about show business and the generation gap.  I don’t want to sell the rest of the cast short.  There are plenty of good performances, but Jean Smart is the anchor that sells it.

In the air flight 828 experiences some severe turbulence.  When they land in New York the passengers and crew find that five years have passed since their flight departed.  They have been missing, presumed dead for most of that time.  The government wants to know what is going on, a shadowy defense contractor is very interested in the passengers, a scientists fringe theories seem to be born out by the event, and a semi-religious following starts obsessed with the people who disappeared and were returned with flight 828.

Meanwhile, the lives of the passengers all moved on while they were away.  Kids grew up, spouses found new partners, jobs and technology and science went along without them.  And some of the passengers start hearing voices in their heads, giving them vague instructions or showing them visions.

There is a lot of possible content there to mine to drive a story.  But the writers try to have it all, and in trying to cover all the possible angles, end up with a show that feels like it doesn’t deliver fully on any front.  The episodes jump around, dealing with relationship issues, the NSA investigation of the passengers, the defense contractor’s odd motives and experiments, seeded with plenty of Walking Dead-like flash backs to make sure we know everybody’s store.  The whole thing just didn’t jell for us and we stopped after the first season.

The show follows the aging Sandy Kominsky (Micheal Douglas), a one time aspiring actor from New York who ended up in LA and never quite made the cut.  So he became an acting coach and opened his own school of acting, which he runs with his daughter.  He has still lived the LA lifestyle, has been married three times, has slept with numerous stars, and tends to favor much younger women.

The show begins by contrasting him with his best friend, Norman Newlander, who came out from New York with Sandy and who found great success as an agent and runs a major talent agency in LA.  He is also Sandy’s agent, but never finds Sandy any work.  Norman is played by Alan Arkin in that very typical cranky, cynical character that has worked for him for so much of his career.

The show is very good and we burned through all three seasons pretty quickly.  It does remind me a bit of Brockmire in form, if not in content, as it starts off as a pretty light show about two cranky old guys complaining about their prostates and Norman chiding Sandy about who he is sleeping with, and then develops into a much more serious show about death, children, and one’s legacy.  But it remains funny and and not too heavy.

This has been floating around in my periphery for a while.  Netflix kept pushing it at me as a recommendation for years, and it has a reputation as a show with a cult following, but the show’s description on the service did not spark any interest, nor did the title card featuring Ken Jeong dressed as Napoleon.  Not that I dislike him, but a little bit of Ken Jeong can go a long way.

And then I found out that Rick & Morty season five wasn’t going to be on any of my streaming services until the season was complete… looking at you HBO Max after you made a big deal about how you now have the show… you can get first run movies but can’t get an Adult Swim cartoon until it has been aired elsewhere I guess… and started looking up Dan Harmon to see what his problem was and made the connection with Community, which is basically the show he did before Rick & Morty.  So I started to watch it.

The basic, first episode premise, is that now ex-lawyer Jeff Winger, having be caught out lying about having a bachelor’s degree, enrolls at Greendale Community College in an effort to find the shortest path between him and a degree so he can get back to what he is good at.  His plan involves finding a study group that he can use to help him along.  He lies to them about being a professional tutor to get them to join him, but they somehow become a solid group.

While Jeff is the main character and the de facto leader of the group, it is TV and movie obsessed Abed who is their soul as well as being the wink towards breaking the 4th wall as he describes their situations in movie and TV tropes and cliches which the show often then embraces.

Anyway, I am through season two and am hooked.  It is a show that I laugh out loud at regularly, as my daughter can attest.  My main problem is that I started watching it on my own, and now I wonder if I should go back and rewatch the first two seasons with my wife, get her to just pick up in season three, or simply keep the show to myself.

Pandemic Binge Watching and HBO Max

Last month HBO and Roku worked out whatever it is that was keeping me from being able to access the service on my Roku Stick, so I now have access to all the wonder and majesty that is HBO Max.  And it is a bit of a mess.

It is fairly obvious what the plan for HBO Max is in the evolution of HBO overall.  Back in the day, HBO was a service that let you watch a few movies that had recently been in the theaters along with a haphazard selection of older movies.  Then they started producing some original content with things like comedy specials and shows like The Wire and The Sopranos.   With Game of Thrones their original content was clearly the biggest draw for the service.  And now, in the world of the pandemic and theaters being closed, HBO has leveraged the situation to get some films to open on their services at the same time as their theatrical release.

Also, Netflix and Hulu have been doing pretty well with a bunch of old but popular shows, so HBO wanted to jump on that bandwagon as well, which brings us to HBO Max, which attempts to bring all of that together into a single user interface.

As I mentioned, it is a bit of a mess.

That doesn’t mean it is bad.  They have added some features that they were lacking when compared to other services.  You can now have a user profile, something I think Netflix has had for a decade at this point, so if your kid binge watches Sesame Street you don’t have that polluting your recommendations.

You can also skip over ads for other shows or the opening credits or the series summary with a press of a button now.  And these are good things.

But, at its heart, HBO Max is an attempt to have a lot more content without making finding something you want to watch any easier.  This is a problem every service has, so it is a matter of where it stands in the hierarchy of channels we use.  HBO Max does this a bit better than Amazon Prime or Hulu, but not as well as Disney+ and not nearly as well as Netflix.

Which is odd, because HBO Max was clearly trying to emulate Netflix in their own way.  But despite the fact that a lot of the same categories are up at the top of the page when you open the service… just added, popular, continue watching, items from your list… and despite my occasional annoyance at how brazenly eager Netflix is to start rolling video the moment you pause on some title… Netflix just does it better.

Part of this is that Netflix is easier to read from across the room on the couch.  They have titles in big bold print, while somebody at HBO decided that the title card for a show or movie has the name on it and that is good enough, forgetting how often that text can be tiny, in a frilly script, or made otherwise unreadable to older eyes.

And part of this is that HBO Max just doesn’t run very well on the Roku.  It is slow to load and slow to respond to inputs, which is a bad look next to Netflix, which is light and nimble and responsive even as it is more active and throwing video at every turn.  How can Netflix be so smooth with dynamic responses to selections and streaming clips on the fly as you move through a list while HBO Max, which is relatively static, chugs along, responding eventually to your inputs?

But there is also just the simple ability to find something to watch.  Maybe because my Netflix account is now about 20 years old, counting the old disks by mail era, they know what to serve up to me as options.  Maybe their algorithms are more sophisticated.  Maybe they just have better content.  But if we sit down on a Friday night and I pull up Netflix I am generally able to find something for us to watch on which we can both agree.

And, in the end, finding something to watch is the most important thing.  HBO Max promises more movies coming with their theatrical release dates, while Netflix has been telling me they’ll have a new movie every week this year.  We shall see how these two services compare over time.  While we are currently subscribed to both, I have to give the nod to Netflix at the moment.