‘Lifechanger’ Review [Fantasia Film Festival 2018]

 

 

A great idea for a science-fiction/horror movie will only go so far in and of itself. Execution is paramount, and executing on an indie film can be a near impossible task these days, even with the greatest of ideas, as indie filmmakers often face seemingly insurmountable odds. Between the sheer amount of movies out there, indie or otherwise, with expansive budgets and recognizable faces and names attached, it’s hard to skate by on merely just a great idea. A movie like Lifechanger, written and directed by prolific Toronto indie horror filmmaker Justin McConnell, and which had its world premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival last week, needs to find an edge and needs to be made competently to avoid being labeled as yet another supernatural slasher flick (of which there are a dime a dozen at a fest like Fantasia).

Luckily, Lifechanger more than delivers in this regard, presenting audiences with a well-written, sleekly-made film that supersedes the conceits of a premise which may have wound up overwrought or pedestrian in the hands of another filmmaker. You probably won’t recognize very many, if any of the actors, and you’ll have to adjust your expectations for the limited special effects and action sequences, but otherwise, this is a solid sci-fi/fantasy horror film with an original, well-executed premise.

Lifechanger follows a man simply known as Drew (voiced in narration by Bill Oberst Jr.) who, for decades, has had the ability to assume the form of any person he comes in contact with. To call it an ability might be over-selling it, as we quickly find out that it’s more of a curse. Drew “absorbs” the form of the people he interacts with, leaving behind empty, dead carcasses that he disposes of at a farm in the country. And he doesn’t have much of a choice, as eventually, his body begins to fall apart and he must move on to his next victim. On top of the regular, blasé instances of self-sustaining murder, Drew is also no stranger to killing people outside of when he does it for his metamorphosis, usually to cover his tracks when someone in the life of whoever identity he’s assumed gets an inkling that something’s wrong. So the viewer is presented with a bit of an internal struggle; Drew justifies his action because he deems it his only means of survival, uncertain of what might happen if he succumbs to the degenerative state of each new body he morphs into. Yet he also murders outside of this, and while he claims not to like it, a self-destructive pattern isn’t exactly a justification for serial murder. Drew is a flawed person and most certainly an antihero. He’s selfish, destructive, and has lost the ability to care about anything other than himself. He’s also an addict, barely trying to justify his substance abuse of cocaine and painkillers as things that will help sustain his current form longer. The film doesn’t try to hide this, as Oberst Jr.’s grim, self-loathing narration has more of a tinge of noir to it, reminiscent of all the Maltese Falcon style of films that inspired things like Max Payne.

In any case, we’re meant to empathize with Drew because he’s on what appears to be a final mission, at the end of his journey, as each body lasts him less time than the last, on a quest to make amends with Julia (Lora Burke), the only woman he ever loved, a girlfriend he was forced to abandon at the worst possible moment, when he had to swap bodies. Every new body he takes over, every move he makes is about making things right with her, but as he tries to get close to her with every new form, things get more and more dire and Drew get sloppier, leaving a trail of bodies and mistakes in his wake destined to catch up with him.

Lifechanger works because it’s more than its cool concept. It works because Justin McConnell has something to say through this character. He has a journey on which to take us, through him, a full-fledged story to tell. One that works outside of the parameters of a shapeshifting serial killer. The kind of thing that could work as a character study, as a story about regrets and fleeting love. This is a story as much about a not about a shapeshifter as it is about a flawed man willing to do anything for love, a man with at least a semblance of dimension to him; whereas other movies might make Drew the villain.

Drew has been shapeshifting and therefore murdering for a long time, unencumbered, seemingly, by the law, and relatively comfortable in every new body he comes across. Throughout the film we see him as several young women, a cop, a dentist, and much more, and he explains certain tips and tricks that allow him to stay in a body longer, such as cocaine and painkillers. Basically, the point is that Drew is an addict, be it to substances or his pattern of shapeshifting and murder. It has a kind of noir tinge to it, aided by Oberst Jr.’s grim, self-loathing narration.

What McConnell accomplishes is especially impressive considering a vast array of actors who have to play not only the characters that Drew murders, but eventually, Drew himself. Over the course of the film Drew is a cop, a dentist, several young women and much more, and the actors, despite being mostly unknowns (many of which have but a few credits on their IMDb), do a pretty good job of making you believe that they’re as much Drew as they are their original character. Barring any restrictions of whatever pool of actors McConnell would have had access to with his budget, this honestly feels like a deliberate choice. Drew is supposed to be good at what he does, with decades upon decades of experience as a shapeshifter and murderer. We’re supposed to believe that he can pass as a receptionist at a dentist’s office as much as we’re supposed to believe him as the dentist himself. Some of these actors do better than others, and getting over that hump might be the tallest task that McConnell asks of the viewer, but they mostly do a fine job under the circumstances.

I’d be curious to know what a movie like Lifechanger would look like with a huge budget, but in many ways that would defeat the purpose. The elevator pitch is that this is a movie about a shapeshifting serial killer, but in reality, it’s a little deeper than that. It’s a movie about the lengths that a flawed person would go to in order to feel the fleeting warmth of love, and how dangerous such a person can be in moments of pure selfishness. It’s about the characters, and that’s something that the filmmaker takes more seriously than you would expect from such such a film, all while being keenly aware of the limitations around him. This is probably the smartest way to make a microbudget indie movie. Lifechanger accomplishes a lot with the short amount of rope that it’s handed, and therefore it gets 7 lifeless carcasses out of 10.

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‘Under The Silver Lake’ Review [Fantasia Film Festival 2018]

The word “homage” can often illicit negative reactions when it’s used to describe a movie or a filmmaker. Even masters of the style, such as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, can often be accused of slipping over into something less celebratory when they employ it in their work. Yet I can think of no more appropriate word to describe David Robert Mitchell’s third feature film, Under The Silver Lake (screened last week at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival). At the risk of sounding pretentious, it even feels like an homage to an homage, as it is a movie blending different genres and even different eras of  filmmaking, and chalk-full of references to as well as actual footage of existing work. Maybe it’s just as tacky to call Mitchell’s film a love lever, but that’s honestly what it feels like he’s going for, and, for the most part, it’s a style that mostly works.

Under The Silver Lake is a movie about a perennial slacker named Sam (Andrew Garfield) who doesn’t seem to have a clear line of work, constantly living within a few days of eviction and homelessness yet more concerned about scoring with every girl that crosses his path. The film’s plot kicks off when he meets Sarah (Riley Keough), a gorgeous Manic Pixie Dream Girl that catches his eye while he’s checking out the action in the pool area of his building between hook ups with another girl (played by Riki Lindhome but interestingly never named). His first interaction with Sarah ends too soon, but his quest to woo her is cut short when he discovers that her apartment has been emptied. Sam is further dismayed when he fears Sarah to be dead, launching him into a sweeping mystery as an increasingly ridiculous set of conspiracy theories unfold before him.

The film is officially described as a “neo-noir black comedy crime thriller”, and it probably deserves all of those qualifiers and more. Under The Silver Lake is about a lot of things on paper, as throughout its 140 minute run time Sam is tasked with unraveling a number of increasingly elaborate mysteries and taken on various side quests. Sam runs the gamut of Mitchell’s version of hipster LA, attending parties in the weirdest settings with the most ridiculous of entertainment, like a balloon dancer and a band that calls itself “Jesus and the Brides of Frankenstein” and movie screenings in cemeteries. Everyone he comes across is in every new location he visits, and everything is purposely interconnected. This is a movie that is made to feel small, close-knit, even though the supposed message it presents is grand and sweeping.

And that’s on purpose, as Mitchell sells us this homage full of homages with an eventual message that feels deep and personal and the main character and why he sets out on this quest. Honestly, without spoiling anything, it’s probably one of the only things about the movie that didn’t work for me, as it comes out of nowhere after most of the movie is spent completely unconcerned with who Sam really is or what he cares about. The end of the film, as it pertains to Sam’s arc and journey, it meant to convey that he’s learned something deep and meaningful about himself and why he would go to such lengths to find out what happened to some girl he met, why he would care more about her than himself, but it comes off as flat since this otherwise isn’t a character-driven story. I’m not sure if that ending was a last-ditched effort in the writing stage to salvage a sort of meaningless plot, or if it’s purposely meant as some sort of meta-narrative that went over my head, but I would have been just as happy if this was just a movie about a lazy dude going on a meaningless journey full of dead ends to solve a mystery that doesn’t really matter simply because it’s more interesting than facing his responsibilities. Instead, it’s something else, and it’s sort of tacky.

Anyway, that whole thing sort of had me leaving the theater on a sour note, but having had some time to thing about the movie as a while, I otherwise really enjoyed it. It’s fun, loose, rousingly funny and entertaining from beginning to end. For me, it plays its references and homages perfectly. While they may be too much for some, I thought the way they’re used so heavily and as such a breakneck pace really added something unique to the film. Because Under The Silver Lake manages to balance being a lot of things, thematically, in part by wearing its references and influences on its sleeve, with reckless abandon. It lays a lot of different roots of influence. The most overt as the classic pre-60s films that they literally watch at various points in the film. There’s a lot of Hitchcock in there too. The comparisons you’ll likely see the most are to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye or David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. I think there’s a lot of early Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino in there too, since every post 1995 indie movie is in some way influenced by some combination of Mallrats/Clerks/Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction. It’s certainly influenced by grunge and college rock (the soundtrack features multiple R.E.M. song, after all). And that’s probably just the tip of the iceberg.

I’m pretty keen of describing Under The Silver Lake as the anti-Wes Anderson film. There’s an attention to detail in Mitchell’s work, because the story demands it, but at the same time, it manages to be all over the place. It’s a movie about patterns that don’t seem to fit together but form a larger mosaic. It purposely borrows from other movies and filmmakers, and their idiosyncrasies, in order to make a point about pop culture as a whole. It’s a movie about a lot of things, but also kind of nothing at all at its core. In a sense, I couldn’t really tell you why this movie exists or why I liked it so much. It just sort of works, and it just manages to be incredibly entertaining.

Under The Silver Lake gets 8.5 movie references out of 10.

 

‘Blue My Mind’ Review [Fantasia Film Festival 2018]

 

As someone who has attended and covered Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival for the better part of a decade, I’ve come to expect the unexpected and anticipate the weird. As one of North America’s longest running genre film fests, Fantasia isn’t satisfied with merely presenting attendees with the kind of mainstream horror and science fiction that might get them more clicks and likes. Fantasia is purposely seedy. A good chunk of it wants to operate in the fringes of genre film, because while that kind of stuff might not be as polished or accessible as the kind of horror you can see at a theater chain, it’s the kind of movies that drives filmmaking forward.

Despite all of that, I was still managed to be surprised by one of the first films I managed to see at this year’s festival. I was somewhat late in joining the festivities this year, so Blue My Mind was a late addition to my coverage and went into the Swiss film sort of blind, other than taking a quick peek at the film’s synopsis. And, quite frankly, all that really told me was that this is a coming-of-age drama about a 15-year-old girl named Mia experiencing a transformation all while trying to fit in with the popular girls at school in a new town.

(If you’re a more adventurous filmgoer, and what I’ve said so far appeals to you, I’d suggest closing the window right now (or, you know, checking out some of my other posts) and do the same as I did. If the idea of weird, subversive Swiss filmmaking doesn’t appeal to you, then read on, but be warned that this is as vague as I can be without spoiling what should be a pretty obvious twist.)

But Mia’s transformation isn’t what you’d expect a 15-year-old girl to go through in a movie like this. Blue My Mind plays itself completely straight, almost entirely devoid of any irony or humour. Other than sporadic clues that it leaves in its wake, this is pretty much a straight-up drama about the struggles of being an angsty teenager, going through all the same kind of things any other angsty teenager would. The only difference is that on top of getting her period and facing peer pressure and exposure to alcohol and drugs and sex, Mia just so happens to be, well, turning into a mermaid.

I’m not sure if this kind of movie is common in Switzerland, but in North America, our mermaid films are mostly comedies. And our coming-of-age films tend to lean on the comedic side. Yet there is no comparison between Blue My Mind and, say, Splash, The Little Mermaid or Aquamarine. Nor is this Lady Bird or Boyhood. If anything, Lisa Brühlmann’s debut film seems to draw from things like Kafka’s The Metamorphosis or maybe even The Fly, if we’re pushing it. Brühlmann treats what happens to her main character like a serious thing. As a matter of fact, she treats is as one of many serious things that happen to Mia, as there are arguably worse, more jarring things that she goes through in the movie, and the changes to her body could even considered to be a beautiful thing.

With Blue My Mind, Brühlmann is delivering a message of empathy with the struggle of growing up. She’s presenting the coming-of-age story not with the kind of nostalgic, uplifting tone that we’ve become accustomed to even in the more serious American coming-of-age movies, but rather as dry and dark. The end result is a refreshing and unique movie that subverts expectations. Which is especially impressive when you consider that this is Brühlmann’s first movie out of film school, something which I would have never guessed, not with the finely crafted cinematography or crisp storytelling and fine young actors this movie has to offer.

Blue My Mind is the weird, unique, well-made and the perfect kind of movie for Fantasia. 7.5 angsty sea creatures out of 10.

 

 

‘Justice League’ is a surprisingly enjoyable superhero movie, once divested of its own hype

This past November, I did something crazy. For the first time that I can remember, a major studio superhero movie based on beloved comic book characters came to theaters, and I didn’t go to see it on opening weekend. In fact, I wound up abstaining from seeing this particular film in theaters completely, opting instead to wait the better part of nine months for it to hit premium cable (one of the remaining benefits of a cable subscription). Anyone who knows me might ask me if something is wrong at this point, as this is unusual behaviour for me. Bad reviews generally don’t keep me away from these movies, and outside of the pitfalls of my own fandom and the frivolous nature of my entertainment spending, there’s actually a reason for that; there’s something about seeing this kind of movie just as it comes out with a revved up fan base. Something about being among the first people to see characters you’ve grown up with come to life, and doing it in a communal setting where it’s okay to get excited, to react.

As a result, even a bad comic book movie can be a good theater experienced. I’m sure we all remember some of these movies fondly after first seeing them, only to revisit them some time later to find they don’t hold up, quizzically pondering how you could have ever enjoyed, say, Thor: The Dark World in the first place.

But for some reason, I didn’t want to do that mental math in the run up to this particular November 2017 release, which, by now, you’ve probably guessed isn’t the excellent follow up to The Dark World, but instead a D.C. movie released a few weeks later called Justice League.

In retrospect, I can’t say exactly why I decided to draw the line here when it came to their movies. Sure, this post-Christopher Nolan DC Extended Universe had burned me more often than it didn’t, but even bad DC movies like Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad had moments that allowed them to fall firmly in that “theater experience” field, and Wonder Woman was a step up a few months earlier. With a potentially net positive director change during production in the form of one Joss Whedon, with the promise of uniting even more beloved DC characters, with the general hype that surrounds these movies, you’d think it’d be a can’t miss. And yet, here I am, having missed up.

Until this past weekend, when it debuted on my premium cable package and I decide to give it a whirl in the midst of a lazy Sunday, in a vacuum devoid of the initial hype and backlash that raged among fans, critics and general moviegoers. And despite the reticence that pushed me away back in November, despite every negative reviews and all the behind-the-scenes shake-ups that have occurred at DC Films ever since the supposedly modest $650 million worldwide gross of the film had executives at Warner Bros demanding heads on platters, I have to say that I had a pretty good time with this movie.

Maybe that’s not the ringing endorsement to be expected after that diatribe of a lead-up, but I went into this thing expecting the worst. I had psyched myself into believing that there’s no way this monstrosity of a superhero team-up movie could be any good, but in reality, I was just a victim of whatever reverse-hype voodoo has been cast upon these movies ever since Zack Snyder was brought on board. I suppose I feared that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy Justice League the way I wanted to. The added bonus of not having to pay $18 bucks to see it in 3D with assigned seating opening night, of not having to schlep out to the movie theater and coordinate plans with all my friends, to deal with the guy in front of me on his phone and the one beside me chewing his popcorn too loudly, it took the pressure off.

I’m not exactly sure what that means, or if I’m trying to get to some larger point about the state of the movie industry and how going to the theater has, more often than not, turned into a chore, which sucks as a lover of movies. I’m not sure if that counts as a silver lining for Warner Bros, which knew that this movie wouldn’t meet its expectations long before it subverted mine. I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that the movie culture we currently find ourselves in doesn’t allow for patience, and that’s beginning to be kind of a problem.  The way all of this works, with Rotten Tomatoes and opening weekend box offices and award ceremonies and year-end best of lists, it forces us into this very binary decision-making process that means we have to accept or reject something like a Justice League at first glance. The lion’s share of DCEU movies have been, to a certain extent, eyeroll enducing, so seeing what Justice League was shaping up to be made me check out before it even came out, and made me miss out on something that I could have enjoyed in the moment. And it’s at least the fourth time it’s happened to me in 2018 with a calendar 2017 movie that I chose to skip, after Roman J. Israel Esq., Logan Lucky and Kong: Skull Island were so good that I’m mulling redoing my list of best 2017 movies.

So, why should that idea of enjoying something in the moment matter? Well, the quickness at which these things move suggests that if we don’t support even a big tentpole like Justice League when it first comes out, the people that make it are going to treat that as a failure and move forward differently. My enjoyment of Justice League may not have been any different on Sunday, July 15th, 2018 than it would have on November 15th last year, but since Warner Bros didn’t see my money back then, they’ve gone through multiple shakeups behind the scenes and greenlit some bizarre shit, like multiple Joker movies (with different actors playing The Joker). There’s even talk of replacing Ben Affleck as Batman and lord knows what’s happening outside of the already-confirmed Wonder Woman sequel and December’s Aquaman.

And while Justice League is by no means a perfect movie, that’s kind of a shame. Because I would have been curious to see how the DCEU could have evolved if Joss Whedon had been handed the reigns, if they took Zack Snyder’s vision, as messy as it was, and steered it towards what Whedon had already done at Marvel and moved forward from there. The movie is kind of a Frankenstein’s Monster of both Snyder and Whedon’s styles, with Whedon’s wit, comedic chops and melodrama sticking out like a sore thumb in between Snyder’s juvenile, CGI-riddled explodathon sensibilities. But Whedon is a talented directed, and whatever he did to patch this thing together made it sort of work. You can see him applying what he did to Marvel here, and while Marvel has moved on to insane new heights in his absence, the foundation he laid is still very much visible. Whedon could have brought a lot to the DCEU, and it shows.

Whedon’s humour and snap is a welcome edition to a universe that had previously been the bud of many jokes about the unnecessary levels of grit and darkness. Inserting that into a movie like Justice League, which doesn’t have much of a point to it and where the stakes are questionable at best, makes it a sloppy endeavor where little makes sense and nothing really matters. Whedon likely came on board too late to have a true impact, so we don’t get his signature Death In The Family to build stakes maneuver, nor do we get any worthwhile twists and turns. This is a straightforward movie. The world is reeling following Superman’s death, open to otherworldly threats that Superman’s mere presence pushed away. Batman puts together a team to protect the planet, but they’re not strong enough without Superman to stop it, so they (checks notes) ah yes, bring him back from the dead and them easily take out the bad guy.

Listen, the plot is bad. The action is riddled with CGI, but most of it looks good and there are some good – if forgettable – action sequences. But I liked a lot of the humour, I liked most of the character development and I liked that the movie decided to have some fun with itself wherever Whedon was able to insert it. The jokes largely land, the characters that are supposed to be funny are enjoyable, and you can feel that, despite likely knowing what kind of a mess they had gotten themselves into, the cast had started to develop a comradery. Ezra Miller’s depiction of The Flash is completely different than the one we see in the TV show, and I want more of it. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman is dumb and speaks in monosyllabic catchphrases, but Momoa is so charismatic that he makes the jocky surfer dude version of this character work. Ben Affleck, I maintain, is a underrated Batman, an older depiction of a Bruce Wayne done giving fucks and fully on board with using his billions to finance the most ridiculous gadgets and vehicles possible. It’s such a shame that it’s likely the last time we’ll see him portray the character, because I truly believe that a Batfleck solo movie could have been a different, special kind of Batman we had never seen on the big screen before, more comic-accurate than ever before.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of the other three characters here, however. Henry Cavill’s Superman shows signs of growing a dimension but likely needed more screen time to make it work. Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is a plot device at best. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman talks about how much she misses Steve Trevor so much that it actually becomes a joke in the movie, likely added by Whedon when he realized he couldn’t make the dialog work if he removed the instances of it that were already filmed. But none of them are abjectly terrible, and while the movie could have been finer around the edges, more developed and meaningful for such an iconic team-up, it had enough moments and was occasionally gratifying and funny enough that it made for perfect Sunday afternoon viewing. As sloppy as it wound up being , I’m glad that it exists in this form.

It’s just such a shame that DC got this whole thing backwards. Josh Whedon took characters that Marvel had spent years making us care about and gave us something special when he teamed them up. DC took characters that they insist we’re supposed to care about, teamed them up with others that we don’t, and brought in the same guy to patch it together after it broke apart. And my dude did a fairly decent patchwork of it.

Maybe in a world devoid of all that pressure felt back in November, maybe in this post-Infinity War world (which I can’t believe I didn’t even really think about when watching the movie and then thinking about it), it’s easier to just sit back and enjoy something like Justice League for what it is, rather than what I expect it to be. And that’s fine, movies should stand the test of time, at least longer than their opening weekend. It just gives me a lot to think about as a moviegoer and raises interesting questions on the subject of being in the moment of a given film’s zeitgeist.

The moral here is, if you skipped out on Justice League last year, give it a shot outside of the context of how it was made and released, try to enjoy it for what it is and what it is only. It’s surprisingly worth the time.

2018 Emmy Nominations: Let’s Get Mad About All The Snubs

 

The nominees for the 60th Annual Primetime Emmys have been announced, and for the second straight year, I have to say that I’m pretty happy with most of the categories. While, as usual, there were some major snubs that the internet is fuming about, it’s hard to get upset about too many of the people that were actually nominates. After taking some time to ruminate, I thought it might be fun to go through the major categories and look at who was nominates, the major snubs, and to take a look back at a list of dream nominees that I had prepared in private a few weeks ago.

But first, some general musings; I know a lot of people get angry about one show or another missing out on nominations, or another getting way too many, and while I do agree that the Emmys could use some category revamping, generally speaking, I’m happy with these nominations. There are a fair amount of new shows represented in the major categories, and I honestly feel like it’s a list that might set us up for some upsets.

On the drama side, last year’s dominant winner (The Handmaid’s Tale) became even more dominant with an egregious amount of acting nominations, besting the previous year’s returning champion, Game of Thrones, which is well represented, but missing some key players itself. Both shows have seen backlash, so does that open things up for a show like The Americans, a critical darling in its last season? For comedy, everyone (rightly) expects Atlanta to dominate, and that would be okay, but Barry snuck in there with its fair share of nominations and I’m overall really happy with most of the comedy categories.

While I really want the Emmys to do a better job of recognizing genre TV like science fiction, there is good diversity in every sense of the word in most of these categories and I hope it’s going to make for a good show. Beyond that, there are other cool things that could potentially happen at the ceremony, like John Legend completing his EGOT in four years for Jesus Christ Superstar, or Jeff Daniels winning in two Limited Series categories. There are always surprises at this show, and I’m looking forward to it.

Until then, here’s my major category anlysis. You can find the full list of nominees on the Emmys site

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COMEDY SERIES

The Nominees: Atlanta, Barry, Black-ish, Curb Your Enthusiasm, GLOW, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Silicon Valley, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

The Snubs: Modern Family,  Insecure, Will & Grace.

Dream Nominees: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place, The Good Place, and did I mention The Good Place?

Analysis: I’m not going to pretend that I’m not happy with how this category turned out. I watch everything nominated except for Black-ish, and most of these shows made my list of the best TV of the first half of 2018. However it was a pretty stacked year for comedy, so it was kind of surprising to see some of these omissions. Modern Family was completely shut out after an eight year streak in this category, and Insecure and Will & Grace but had acting noms but failed to break through for Best Comedy. The Good Place saw a Ted Danson nominee but couldn’t break through in this category, despite being one of the consensus best shows on TV, and B99 couldn’t capitalize on the goodwill coming out of its surprise NBC pickup this past may. But, hey, I’m not angry. Atlanta will likely take home everything it’s up for, and if it doesn’t, that means that Barry is going to be the upset, and that’s fine in my book.

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DRAMA SERIES

The Nominees: The Crown, Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, Stranger Things, The Americans, This Is Us, Westworld

The Snubs: Ozark, Killing Eve

Dream Nominees: 9-1-1, Counterpart, Mindhunter,

Analysis: No surprises in this category. Literally no surprises. Five of the seven nominees are repeats from last year, and the other two others (The Americans and GOT) were expected to jump back in as they were nominated in 2016 and the shows they’re replacing (Better Call Saul and House of Cards) weren’t on this past year and had been deemed untouchable due to scandal, respectively. It’s kind of boring, sure, but I think that it’s probably going to be an interesting race. Three of these shows, including the two likely frontrunners (GOT and Handmaid’s) saw a lot of backlash for their most recent seasons. , which may open the floodgates for a surprise Stranger Things or The Americans win, one being universally beloved and the other sticking the landing impressively with its final season.

As for the snubs, the only shows close to a surprise were Killing Eve and Ozark, which were honoured elsewhere but failed to break through in the main category. My dream ballot had three new shows on it. 9-1-1 was a big broadcast hit but likely too broad for what the Emmys has become. Counterpart, a great sci-fi thriller that had the opposite problem. And Mindhunter, arguably Netflix’s best original series, has bizarrely been forgotten by many, although Cameron Britton’s incredible guest performance as serial killer Ed Kember was rightfully recognized.

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LIMITED SERIES:

The Nominees: The Alienist, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Genius: Picasso, Godless, Patrick Melrose

The Snubs: Twin Peaks

Dream Nominees: The Looming Tower, American Vandal, Collateral

Analysis: Limited series at the Emmys will always have some weird choices, but it seems especially weird that they’d ignore a show like Twin Peaks, which managed to score 9 mostly below-the-line nominations but failed to break out here or in any acting categories. People are really mad about it. I haven’t seem most of these, so I’ll probably be rooting for Godless and ruminating about how Carey Mulligan’s amazing performance in Collateral or the perfect dick jokes in American Vandal were ignored.

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LEAD COMEDY ACTRESS

The Nominees: Pamela Adlon, Rachel Brosnahan, Allison Janney, Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross, Lily Tomlin

The Snubs:  Kristen Bell, Debra Messing, Ellie Kemper, Alison Brie

Dream Ballot: Constance Wu, Wendy McLellan-Covey

Analysis: All of these tremendous women certainly deserve to be nominated, however we could make an entirely new category out of the snubs and dream nominees. Alison Brie’s omission from GLOW is especially glaring. Kristen Bell’s was expected, but it still stings. And I gotta throw some love towards my favourite ABC sitcom moms, hopefully some day there’ll be room for them. That being said, this is all moot, because of Rachel Brosnahan doesn’t win for The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, then the Emmys have bigger problems.

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LEAD COMEDY ACTOR

The Nominees: Anthony Anderson, Ted Danson, Larry David, Donald Glover, Bill Hader, Bill Macy

The Snubs:  Jeffrey Tambor, Eric McCormack, Will Forte, Thomas Middleditch, Zach Galifianakis, John Goodman, Jason Bateman

Dream Ballot: Andy Samberg, Randall Park

Analysis: Just like with the women, this year’s crop of comedy actors is so stacked that we could make a full category out of the people that were snubbed, but similarly, I can’t say that any snub is egregious or that any one person shouldn’t have been nominated. Tambor’s included in the snubs just because he’s a previous winner, but we all knew he’d be left off due to his scandals. John Goodman should have broken through for Roseanne if Laurie Metcalf did, and we won’t pine over Jason Bateman being left off for Arrested Development after coming in as a double nominee for Ozark. And just like lead actress, it’s all mood, because there’s no world in which Donald Glover doesn’t repeat his win for Atlanta.

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LEAD DRAMA ACTRESS

The Nominees: Claire Foy, Tatiana Maslany, Sandra Oh, Elisabeth Moss, Keri Russell, Evan Rachel Wood

The Snubs: Mandy Moore, Emilia Clarke, Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Dream Ballot: Gillian Anderson, Connie Britton, Laura Linney, Claire Danes

Analysis: I think you get the point by now. There are plenty of talented actors who deserved to be nominated in these competitive categories. I don’t think there was anything too egregious in this one, other than maybe Mandy Moore being left out after her performance in This Is Us season 2 was arguably more lauded than in the first. It would habe been nice to see Claire Danes get back in after a resurgent season of Homeland, or something a little crazier like Anderson for The X-Files or Queen Britton for 9-1-1, but at the end of the day, this is a good category that I could honestly see going to almost any of these ladies. Moss is the defending champion, Maslaney a previous winner, Keri Russell is a goddess in the final season of one of the best shows of the decade, and Sandra Oh is coming in hot off a surprise hit in Killing Eve. At the end of the day the Emmys will probably be boring and give it to Moss again, but I’m crossing my fingers for Russell.

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LEAD ACTOR DRAMA

The Nominees: Jason Bateman, Sterling K. Brown, Ed Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Matthew Rhys, Milo Ventimiglia

The Snubs: Freddie Highmore, Kitt Harrington, Rami Malek, Liev Schreiver

Dream Ballot: Jonathan Groff, J.K. Simmons, Dan Stevens, Peter Krause

Analysis: The only real surprise here is that Freddie Highmore didn’t get in for the overall-snubbed but highly watched The Good Doctor. This is another category that could have stood to see some genre diversity (hence my dream ballot picks), but like the women, it could go either way and see a (deserved but boring) repeat from SKB, or a surprise from any one of the high-profile, terrific actors he’s nominated with. In my dreams, Matthew Rhys wins right after his wife does for The Americans, but you know this already.

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SUPPORTING ACTRESS COMEDY

The Nominees: Zazie Beetz, Aidy Bryant, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Betty Gilpin, Megan Mullaly, Laurie Metcalf, Alex Borstein

The Snubs: Rita Moreno, Jessica Walter

Dream Ballot: D’Arcy Carden

Analysis: A wild category saw a whopping eight nominees this year (up from six last year) to accomodate for virtually everyone on the SNL cast. At this point the Emmys’ love for the NBC variety show is getting out of hand. It’s nice to see Aidy there, but Leslie Jones is barely on the show. It would have been much better to see that spot go to one of the three other actresses I mentioned, particularly Jessica Walter, as this may have been her lost shot for Arrested Development. It seems likely that they’ll wind up rewarded McKinnon again, as she keeps reinventing what she can do on SNL, but I wouldn’t count out Beetz.

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SUPPORTING ACTOR COMEDY

The Nominees: Louie Anderson, Alec Baldwin, Kenan Thompson, Titus Burgess, Bryan Tyree Henry, Tony Shalhoub, Henry Winkler

The Snubs: Sean Hayes, Marc Maron, Ty Burell, Ed O’Neil

Dream Ballot: Lakeith Stanfield, Tony Hale, Will Arnett, J.B. Smoove, Zach Woods

Analysis: Alec Baldwin doesn’t deserve to be nominated for a role he sporadically plays on SNL and that he doesn’t even like. I get why he won last year, and I get why that basically guarantees him a spot this year, but if he wins again, then that’s some bullshit. The Emmys made up for it by giving in to the Kenan Thompson campaign, so it’ll be nice to see him there. But both these SNL spots should have probably gone to some combination of two snubs/dream nominees. Particularly Marc Maron. How the hell did they miss him? As for potential winners, dread the Balwin repeat, but I would hope the academy would recognize Henry’s brilliance on Atlanta, as they do his co-star Donald Glover’s. If not that Henry, then giving Henry Winkler his first Emmy (I can’t believe he’s never one either) for Barry would be more than acceptable.

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SUPPORTING ACTRESS DRAMA

The Nominees: Alexis Bledel, Yvonne Strahovski, Ann Dowd, Millie Bobby Brown, Lena Heady, Vanessa Kirby, Thandie Newton

The Snubs: Chrissy Metz, Uzo Aduba, Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale

Dream Ballot: Aubrey Plaza, Holly Taylor, Julia Garner, Anna Torv

Analysis: If a Handmaid’s actress doesn’t take this statue with 50% odds (and after Ann Dowd did last year) then these women are as unlucky as their characters, am I right fellas? Seriously though, expect this category to set the tone for the name. If one of those three doesn’t take it, we might be in for a night of surprises. As for the snubs, you know me and how I want more diversity, so seeing three actresses from the same show in this category, as deserving as they may be, is somewhat unnerving. Especially when multiple actresses from The Americans could have wound up in there.

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SUPPORTING ACTROR DRAMA

The Nominees: David Harbour, Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Joseph Fiennes, Mandy Patinkin, Matt Smith

The Snubs: Noah Emmerich, Justin Hartley

Dream Ballot: Brendan Fraser, James Marsden, Jason Isaacs, any of the Stranger Kids

Analysis: Lots of repeat nominees here, so it’ll be interesting to see if Joseph Fiennes could ride some Handmaid’s momentum to an upset win. In all likelihood we’re in for a Harbour or Dinklage repeat. Which is boring to me, especially considering they left out arguably the most egregious snub outside of Kyle McLaughlin in Noah Emmerich, who really did a phenomenal job of making the final season of The Americans as much his own as it was The Jennings’.


That’s it for now! The 70th Annual Primetime Emmys will be presented September 17th, 2018 on NBC, hosted by SNL Weekend Update due Michael Che and Colin Jost.

The Best Shows of the First Half of 2018: Barry, GLOW, Atlanta, and More!

 

TV – there’s so much of it these days! How do you parse the hundreds of scripted shows on at any particular time and figure out what’s worth watching? Well, you have psychos like me, who watch way too much television and try to parlay what’s actually good and worth watching. If the exhaustive list of my favourite shows of 2018 so far is any indication, it’s not a job I’m particularly good at. But seeing as we’ve passed the midway point of 2018, and we’re only a couple of days removed from this year’s Emmy nominations, I thought it would be fun to check in on what I’ve been watching this year that may be worth your time. Some, like Barry, The Americans and Atlanta, you’ve probably seen on similar lists, and some shows like Killing Eve or The Terror I unfortunately haven’t gotten around to watching, but I hope you’ll also find some off-the-beaten path shows on here you might not expect to find

So without further adieu, where are my unsolicited thoughts on nearly 20 shows that have aired in the first half of 2018, presented in the best of orders, alphabetical!


AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D – SEASON 5 – ABC

Phil Coulson and his Agents of SHIELD had a hell of year. They traveled to a dystopian future where the planet has been destroyed, and what remains floats in space under the control of Kree warlords running genetic experiments on survivors in order to traffic Inhumans. The first half of the season was a huge departure from what the show had done in the past, and yet another welcome change for one of TV’s most dynamic superhero dramas. And if that wasn’t enough, the second half of the season transformed General Talbot, a beloved character played by Adrian Pasdar, until the comics supervillain Graviton. Unfortunately, the show didn’t tie into the events of Avengers: Infinity War, despite some generic teases, and ABC put us through the ringer before they finally renewed the show for a shortened sixth season, but that’s not enough to detract from how delightful Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to be.

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THE AMERICANS – SEASON 6 – FX

If the plodding, overlong season 5 of The Americans is what it took to deliver one of the best final seasons in recent memory, including a pitch-perfect finale, then opinions on season 5 need to be retroactively adjusted. With season 6, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields deliver 10 episodes that not only bring the tale of The Jennings (and all the characters around them, notably their lowly FBI agent neighbor Stan Beeman) arc to a satisfying conclusion, but they do it in a way that (without spoiling anything) no one could have possibly anticipated. Philip and Elizabeth, the villains in their own story from the very beginning, don’t get the kind of comeuppance that media has trained us to expect them to get, in a finale that could easily garner two of the top spots in the best TV moments of 2018 (that parking garage scene! With or Without You!).

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ATLANTA – SEASON 2 – FX

What can be said about Atlanta that hasn’t been said already? Donald Glover’s opus (one of many, if we’re being honest) is a unique, creatively rich experience that transcends the traditional confines of what most expect TV to be, even in 2018, when it can be pretty much anything. Everyone points to “Teddy Perkins” at its fulcrum, but almost every episode this season has something to offer worthy of those same accolades. It would be easy to name them all, but my favourites (and each for very different reasons), would probably be “Barbershop”, “Woods”, “North of the Border” and “FUBU”.

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BARRY – SEASON 1 – HBO

I’ve already spoken at length about all the things that made the first season of Barry special. It’s black comedy that can be gut-bustingly funny when it needs to be and uncomfortable or melodramatic in its more serious moments. Bill Hader is a revelation in the titular role, and everyone around him, notably the great Henry Winkler, are perfect in supporting roles. And maybe most importantly, the story goes places you wouldn’t expect it to, to the point where I’m having trouble conceiving what season 2 might look like. And that’s an exciting feeling to have for a show these days.

BROOKLYN NINE-NINE – SEASON 5 – FOX

You probably don’t need a full diatribe to understand why Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a special show that will wind up in the pantheon of single-cam comedies. It’s regularly hilarious, its cast is perfectly balanced between television vets, established comedians and relative unknowns (at least prior to the show), and it has a tendency to be able to get serious when it needs to. It also continues to get better with every passing season. And this past spring, it managed to rally the internet around its cancellation and subsequent resurrection at NBC with the kind of love you simply don’t see for a TV show anymore. B99 is television comfort food and I hope it never goes away.

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COUNTERPART – SEASON 1 – STARZ

Competing with Barry for one of 2018’s best new shows is this sci fi drama about parallel earths and the spy shit that goes on between them. Counterpart feels like it’s drawn straight from a Cold War mystery novel. Its world(s) feel lived in and distict, interesting in the ways they subtly deviate from our own, its characters fully fledged (including a set of doppelgangers played expertly by J.K. Simmons, in dual roles so different from one another that may actually convince you that he has a twin brother who’s just as good at acting as he is). I want to see so much more in the world of Counterpart, and yet it is a show that’s really good at holding back until it absolutely needs to, leading to some very satisfying moments peppered throughout season 1.

GLOW – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX

Back on my old site, I proclaimed GLOW the best new show of 2017. It was a decision I was relatively comfortable with, but one I had to mull, as putting a sitcom about women’s wrestling in the 80s ahead of things like Mindhunter, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and The Handmaid’s Tale in such a stacked year for frashmen shows, especially dramas, felt kind of odd. But I don’t regret it, because GLOW is such a feelgood, uplifting show that perfectly encapsulates its time period and projects it against some of the issues we face in society today, especially women’s rights. Season 2, which recently came out on Netflix, only reinforces my views on the show. It’s just as good, if not better, than the first season, and it’s transformative and different from the first season in the best possible way.

THE GOOD PLACE – SEASON 2 – NBC

This might be cheating, because The Good Place only aired five episodes in 2018, but those episodes were among the best of a second season most of us had no idea what to expect of, and introduced us to Maya Rudolph’s Judge Gen. Since we’re a couple days removed from the second season’s inevitable Emmy snubs, it seemed only fair to give it a shoutout here.

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THE HANDMAID’S TALE – SEASON 2 – HULU

A lot of people have struggled with the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, because it doesn’t hold anything back. It’s a tormenting, depressing, dark, drab show that you don’t feel good about while watching. But it’s an important show, serving as a somber warning about the kind of society we could be headed towards, and it’s expertly acted and made. The sort of existential conversation around this show is whether or not this is the kind of thing people want out of a television viewing experience, as being told that a show is important is a tough pill to swallow in a medium that’s mostly seen as entertaining, but, like, we don’t have a trouble with the idea of the importance of a movie (contrasted with whatever building The Rock is jumping out of this quarter), so why can’t we accept the importance of a TV show?

HOMELAND – SEASON 7 – SHOWTIME

This is probably the only place you’ll see Homeland on such a list. It seems as if critics and viewers have long abandoned Showtime’s once seminal drama, and that’s a real shame, because I truly believe that, with season 7, Claire Danes and co. delivered the Homeland season since its first. Season 7 tells a very pertinent story about the overreach of government, about fake news and media manipulation, about the danger of falling prey to conspiracy theories. It even ropes in the Russians in a very tangible and scary way, all while skirting the obvious places it could have gone in this post-Trump world. Season 7 of Homeland it the most relevant its ever been, and a more realistic and grounded version of 24, a show that’s often been drawn in comparison to Homeland but never previously embraced the way it had this year. Nu-Homeland is hyper-relevant, its storytelling and action is tight and gratifying, and the performances are as good as they’ve ever been. I urge people who were once fans of Homeland to jump on board this train, because season 7 is probably the best season of television in 2018 that you’re not watching.

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LEGION – SEASON 2 – FX

Legion’s best quality is that it’s willing to go places most shows won’t ever want to come near. It’s TV’s high brow superhero drama, its most unique and interesting show about mental illness, and probably the least linear thing you’ll see on mainstream TV this year. But you already knew that after season 1. If anything changes with season 2, it’s probably that the storytelling is more coherent and the action is better, with “fight” scenes that are stylized and weird (ranging from cartoons fighting among the clouds to dance battles of the mind). Almost every episode of season 2 has mesmerizing, entrancing scenes unlike anything else on TV.

THE LOOMING TOWER – MINISERIES – HULU

I kind of don’t know why The Looming Tower exists. It’s a throwback miniseries that feels like it’s using standards abandoned by TV filmmakers years ago, telling a long-form story about the events leading up to 9/11 that don’t seem to be sure about whether they want to tell the story about what led to 9/11, or about the quirks of the people involved. The miniseries has a stacked cast led by Jeff Daniels and Peter Sarsgaard, both of whom act their asses off and bring life to a story that would be hard to tell without the baseline pizzazz that they try and offer. The Looming Tower isn’t perfect, but it’s probably the best narrative take on the most important event of the past 30 years that I’ve yet to see, managing to be entertaining and interesting despite its difficult subject matter.

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LUKE CAGE – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX

After a string of disappointments from the ongoing partnership between Netflix and Marvel Studios, I truly felt as if they finally delivered something that, from beginning to end, felt coherent, worthwhile and not terribly overlong with Luke Cage season 2 (maybe for the first time since the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones). While most will probably continue to insist that these Marvel Netflix shows probably shouldn’t be 13 episodes long, this was the first time in a while that I didn’t find myself checking how many episodes I have left or complaining about how long they they were. This was the first time I wanted more from one of these shows, and that’s saying a lot. Could it have been 10 episodes instead of 13? Maybe, but it still didn’t feel as if it dragged. What’s more, they manage to stick the landing better than any of these shows, an ending which transforms the titular character, give him more depth than ever before and sets a completely different, interesting path forward. I suspect I need to do a rewatch of all these shows, but Luke Cage S2 might be gunning for the top spot in my ranking of Marvel Netflix seasons.

SILICON VALLEY – SEASON 5 – HBO

The writers on Silicon Valley took fan complains to heart and finally gave us a season of the show where the characters don’t fail upwards. Seeing a modicum of success in season 5 reinvigorated the HBO sitcom, allowing the show to go different places and do some different things. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s still one of the funniest shows on TV with one of the best ensemble casts.

SUPERSTORE – SEASON 3 – NBC

Speaking of one of the funniest shows on TV with one of the best ensemble casts, Superstore continues its quiet run as a reliable sitcom about the inner workings and relationships at a department store. I don’t have much to say about this one, but it perennially deserves a shoutout.

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WESTWORLD – SEASON 2 – HBO

While I can certainly acknowledge that season 2 of Westworld had more than its fair share of issues with storytelling and pacing, I also can’t deny that it’s a show that’s a compelling, wildly entertaining visual feast. I think the backlash for the second season largely stems from the creators obvious and probably misguided attempts to subvert fan expectations and likely purposely mislead them after they so quickly figured out the “puzzle box” of the first season. And that’s fair. But there also isn’t any other show on television that can give me a downright perfect bottle episode like “Kiksuya”, the Akecheta background episode, or “Akane no Mai”, the long-awaited foray into Shogunworld. There is no other show on television that can simultaneously mistify and entertain, no other show that goes this hard on its sci-fi premises of artificial intelligence and the singularity. Season 2 of Westworld wasn’t perfect, but its peaks, and its potential are among the things that will keep me coming back and keep me hoping that it can get better.

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THE X-FILES – (MOST OF) SEASON 11 – FOX

Just hear me out.

The likely final season of The X-Files ended in a terrible way that I’d extinguish from my memory if I could. It showed me that there is no saying this once revered Mythology. Seeing Chris Carter continuously besmirch his own oeuvre the way he has with these revival seasons has left me battered and broken. But there’s a silver lining. And there’s merit to the continuation of The X-Files, within its procedural Monster-of-the-Week episodes. The clunky season 10 gave us a pantheon-worthy episode in “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”, and several episodes in season 11 proved that this was no fluke, that we deserve to see Mulder and Scully occasionally get together and solve an anthology of good old-fashioned paranormal mysteries, unencumbered by a Mythology that’s beyond saying. So if you haven’t seen season 11 yet, I’d recommend you forget the Cigarette Smoking Man or Mulder and Scully’s super-son or the impending end of the world. Ignore all the bad stuff from this past season, and instead watch the half-dozen or so episodes that don’t rely on the mythology and stand on their own. My two favourites this year were “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”, in which we’re introduced to a third, previously unknown member of team X-Files played by Brian Huskey as the episode explores the Mandela Effect, and “Rm9sbG93ZXJz”, where Mulder and Scully are haunted by AI restaurant staff in search for a tip, an episode presented almost entirely devoid of dialog. These episodes are good enough to overcome Chris Carter’s malice and will hopefully stand the test of time for this show. They deserve to be watched, and deserved to be mentioned on this list.