The unyielding onslaught of pop culture, life, work, and concerning politics leaves us so little time to stop and take a breath, but today I say no more! This is me flipping the finger at March and shouting, “Hey, where did February go? That month kicked ass.”
Except for the part where everyone got sick, the weather couldn’t decide if it was winter or spring, yet another school shooting happened, and the divisions between us grew ever wider.
Right. Maybe “kicked ass” was putting it too strongly.
But, other than all of that there was plenty of good pop culture to ease us through such troubled times. With the Olympics overtaking TV for several weeks, February was largely a month where I caught up on some older shows and books. So, here’s the pop culture, new and old, that made me happy last month:
- Annihilation – We need to appreciate, smart, heady sci-fi movies like this while we still can. Pretty soon, they’ll be streaming-only plays or simply turned into TV shows instead of movies.
- Black Panther – What a movie. What a success story. What a crying shame it took this long to happen. Wakanda forever!
- Game Night – Who could have guessed the guys behind the wretched Vacation revival and the writer of both Herbie: Fully Loaded and Disney’s The Country Bears would deliver such an inventive comedy with a clever premise and even-better execution.
- Paddington 2 – This movie is like weaponized whimsy and is clearly far too pure and good for this cruel, cruel world. So glad I finally found the time to see this, albeit on literally the last day it was in theaters in my town.
- The Ritual – Netflix is changing. Disney is looking at it these days and flashing finger guns ala Charles Bronson in Death Wish. Ditto for all the other studios planning to keep yanking their content off the service once the applicable contracts expire. So, out of self-preservation, Netflix is scaling up like no other entity in Hollywood history, producing more hours of new, original content in a single year than the competition combined. Not surprisingly, the diminished returns, they be mounting’. What a relief then to find The Ritual, a British horror movie that takes a cabin-in-the-woods plot and manages to make it feel new again through a real mastery of dread and tension, even if the ending is a bit of a letdown.
- CNN’s Town Hall Gun Control Debate – Regardless of which side you take on this topic, there was no greater drama on all of TV in February than Parkland’s shooting survivors debating Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch.
- Enlightened – Suddenly, Laura Dern is everywhere, and pop culture is all the better for it. She’s a national treasure, I tells ya’. However, if you’re curious as to when exactly her comeback started it might have been back in 2011 when she and co-creator/co-star Mike White started Enlightened together on HBO. In it, she plays a woman who has a rather public and nasty meltdown at work, but when she returns a year later a newly enlightened woman due to her stint at a spiritual retreat she finds corporate America to be more soul-crushing than she realized. Also, she might just be completely lying to herself about how recovered she actually is. Thanks to Amazon Prime, I’m halfway through the first season now, and I can see why it was a perennial pick on critics top 10 lists during it’s all-too-brief stay on TV since it lasted a mere two seasons.
- The Frankenstein Chronicles – It’s has all the gore and period accouterments of The Alienist but with characters I actually care about.
- The Leftovers – WMIF co-founder Julianne decided to finally binge The Leftovers and based on her early reactions I decided to follow her lead. The hangup for me with this HBO series, which plays like a more secular Left Behind story about what happens after The Rapture, has always been its reputation for having a punishingly brutal first season. It got to the point that show co-creator Damon Lindelof more or less apologized for all the misery porn, saying, essentially, “Yeah, I was going through some real dark shit at the time.” Then the second and third seasons turned into the greatest things in the history of TV, at least based on the almost uncomfortably enthusiastic words of leading TV critics. But you had to get through that first season, which bases all of its drama around a cult which stubbornly refuses to let the main characters move on with their lives and forget about the 2% of the world’s population that vanished without a trace. As a result, a full binge of the series requires some mental health breaks since it’s so bleak and depressing. Once you do get to the second and third seasons – yeah, it’s all true. Everything the critics said. Candidate for one of the best TV shows of all time.
- The Magicians – There’s something so satisfying about watching a show come into its own. As with The Leftovers, The Magicians had a somewhat rocky first season. Then it truly found itself in the second season, and now it’s just putting all competitors to shame in its ongoing and truly stellar third season. The producers wrote themselves into a corner at the end of the second season, but here in the third season, they are refusing to take an easy way out, instead putting the characters on a quest to fix what they broke at the end of the prior season (I’m trying really hard not to spoil anything here). This means the changes to the status quo have been honored and we’re seeing the characters put into new situations and pairings. Beyond that, the level of formal experimentation is tantalizingly head spinning this season, from something as little as casually working “fuck” into the dialogue and not being censored to playing an entire section of one episode in near silence to approximate what the deaf character (a guest starring Marlee Matlin) in that section of the story actually hears. The Magicians is a different show every week, yet it also always remains somehow recognizably itself. Kudos to them for that masterful balancing act. Bring on the musical episode next week.
- A Very Fatal Murder – The Onion’s delightfully nutty and unpredictable parody of true crime podcasts, A Very Fatal Murder most directly takes aim at the crass opportunism and exploitative streak of podcasters too in love with the sound of their own voice to truly care about their interview subjects. It undoubtedly plays a little better for true crime fanatics, but similar to Netflix’s American Vandal it’s also just enjoyable as pure, insane comedy even if you don’t totally get what they’re parodying. It’s only 7 episodes long, some of which are barely over 10 minutes long. You can probably knock out the whole thing on the drive to and home from work in a single day.
- The Daily & Today Explained – In an era where nuance has taken a vacation, New York Times & Vox’s daily explainer podcasts dig below the headlines and helps you understand just how we got here and where we’re going.
- Shock Waves – Originally independently launched as Killer P.O.V. years ago, the now-Blumhouse-owned Shock Waves podcast is a must-listen for horror movie fans. Beyond the exclusive interviews they continually land, such as their epic sit-down with John Landis last week, there’s also just the joy of being let into the room with three (or four, depending on their availability) horror superfans who all work in the industry in some way or another. The opening of each episode where they simply discuss what they watched in the past week is how I was turned on to Fade to Black and Super Dark Times. In fact, my love for that segment of their show is what led to me writing this very article.
- Dark Knight: A True Batman Story – Paul Dini’s moving graphic novel about the time he was mugged and almost died while working on Batman: The Animated Series.
- That Was a Bit Mental: Volumes 1 and 2 – Re-published reviews from Chris Scullion’s website of the same name. I come at my own reviews from such an academic/economic/history point of view that I’ve forgotten just how fun reviews can be when the writer doesn’t take himself or the movies quite so seriously. I don’t always agree with Scullion nor do I quite share his true love for schlock cinema, but his arguments are always well and quite entertainingly made.
- Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony For a Ride in Hollywood – A profile of true Hollywood excess. Inspires endless “Can you believe the shit they got away with?” reactions.
MOST MEMORABLE POP CULTURE OF THE MONTH
Black Panther and its historic success.
WHAT I AM LOOKING FORWARD TO IN MARCH
Wrinkle In Time, Gringo, The Strangers: Prey at Night, Ready Player One, Love Simon, Netflix’s Jessica Jones, Veronica, Flint Town, and Wild, Wild Country, More of The Magicians, finally catching up on Channel Zero: The Butcher’s Block, the return of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Ash Vs. The Evil Dead, finishing The Tick
What about you? What did you really dig last month? Or was it kind of a dry period for you in terms of goods things to watch/listen to/read? Or are you someone who got really, really into The Olympics? Let me know in the comments.