Lois Lowry’s book of terrible parents and suffering kids gets a comedic animated adaptation.
The story is told to the audience by a fourth-wall breaking Cat (Ricky Gervais), starting generations ago with the original Willoughbys, a family renowned for its adventurous, inventive, and devoted members. Unfortunately, the modern Willoughbys (Martin Short and Jane Krakowski) are only interested in their own romance, to the point that they ignore their four children: Tim (Will Forte), Jane (Alessia Cara), and twins both named Barnaby (Seán Cullen). Not in the sense of just not being involved in their lives, but in the sense of not feeding them and locking them in the basement. One day a baby is left on the doorstep of the Willoughbys and, when the Willoughby children try to find a home for this new orphan, they end up making a plan to get a better life for themselves, ultimately involving a Nanny (Maya Rudolph), a candy factory owner (Terry Crews), and a dirigible, in no particular order.
Do you remember when Tom and Jerry had a cartoon about them committing suicide? How about when Pluto went to hell and was judged by devil cats? Littlefoot’s mom dying in The Land Before Time? I only bring these up to give you an idea of what kind of kids movie this is, because it is very, very dark. The film, while it does play some of the treatment of the children for laughs, also is pretty straightforward that what they’re going through is nothing short of aggravated child abuse.
The movie can really only balance humor and dark subject matter because the world of this film, as well as the characters themselves, are all extremely silly. It doesn’t quite get to the charmingly dark level of Roald Dahl, but it’s around the Lemony Snicket level of surreal and tragic. There are strange buildings, incredibly odd people, and unbelievable occurrences everywhere, and the children just tend to express awe and incredulity, and then just roll with it. Naturally, that allows the audience to roll with it, while still appreciating the absurdity.
The cast is all excellent, as you might expect from the list. Ricky Gervais spends much of the movie “taking the piss” as the Cat, which is a fun narrative style when done right. Since that’s pretty much all Ricky Gervais does usually, he has enough experience to do it right. Will Forte brings a sort of deranged optimism to the group, while Maya Rudolph and Alessia Cara both aid their characters’ attitude of “singing through the pain.” Cullen’s twins are creepy, which is all they’re supposed to be.
The downside to the movie is that it feels like it’s got 9 acts rather than the typical three. It’s like a handful of short stories that are woven together rather than a single narrative. I assume that’s because of the nature of the book they’re adapting to the screen, but having never read it, I can’t tell for sure. Other films have done the same structure, but this one never feels quite as smooth as those.
Overall, though, it’s a decent movie, even if it sometimes feels a little disjointed.
One of the best shows of the last few years comes to a close and I can’t avoid talking about it.
SUMMARY (Spoiler-Free for Season 4)
Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) was an Arizona trashbag who died looking for Margarita Mix. She found herself in The Good Place, a heaven-like neighborhood that is designed by Architect Michael (Ted Danson) and maintained by Sentient Omniscient AI Janet (D’Arcy “Please answer my e-mails” Carden). Eleanor is paired up with her soul-mate Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) and introduced to neighbors Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela “SHE DID ANSWER MY TWEET” Jamil) and Jianyu Li (Manny Jacinto). Eleanor quickly realizes that she is not the person that was supposed to get into the Good Place and that she is really bound for the Bad Place. She asks Chidi, a moral philosophy professor, to help her become a better person. After she is on her way, she learns that Jianyu is really Jason Mendoza, who is a Jacksonville trashbag, and encourages him to join her. They’re soon joined by Tahani, only for them to find out that the Good Place is actually The Bad Place, designed by Michael to torture the four humans.
Michael erases their memories and tries to torture them again, only for them to beat him… several hundred more times. Finally realizing that the system is fundamentally flawed because the humans are actually becoming better people, Michael and Janet join forces with the four humans against Michael’s former boss Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson). After meeting with Gen, the Ultimate Judge of the Universe (Maya Rudolph), the four humans get another chance on Earth to prove that they can become better people. This ends up failing, partially due to demon intervention, so Michael, Janet, and the humans become fugitives until they convince the Judge to let them build another Good Place to prove that the system that judges good and bad is broken. Then Season 4 happens and I don’t want to tell you what happens because you should watch it.
I’ve cried at three television finales in my life that I can remember. The first was Scrubs, because it was beautiful and touching. The second was Frasier, but only when I watched Kelsey Grammer recite Ulysses by Tennyson while I was in a hospital bed next to a plaque my father gave me bearing the same poem. This was the third and it was completely different than the other two. Scrubs ended with a touching moment where the main character saw all of the guests from the show’s run and then witnessed a scene of all of the cast getting their happy endings. It’s celebratory and self-congratulatory, but also emotional. Frasier’s end was touching to me, but similarly filled with patting itself on the back. This show’s end was more like Breaking Bad, pushing to the very end and winding up in the exact spot that, in retrospect, it had to end. Almost anything other than the ending we got would have felt like a cheat. It’s not revelatory nor self-congratulatory, it’s just the last step on the journey.
The thing that I loved about The Good Place was that it was always about the possibilities of the future and the reality that things can get better. People can get better. Almost anyone can get better if you can find a way to really connect with them and find a moment where the unfairness of the world isn’t present. The show essentially took the position that humans are mostly good, something that seems bold nowadays, when we are constantly bombarded with shows that say otherwise. Moreover, the show told us that goodness does not need to be inherent, but can instead be taught through effort and study. It also supposed that the thing which could most compel us to better ourselves was our interactions and connections with others. Again, in a world where dividing lines are constantly being drawn and redrawn, this always struck me as a bold stance.
The show also spent long periods lecturing about various philosophical principles and schools of thought, usually through Chidi having to explain them to the other characters. They spent an episode on Philippa Foot’s Trolley Problem, episodes on the concepts of Existentialism and Free Will, and essentially the entire series on the Paradox of Heaven and Hell. You could probably do an entire dissertation solely on the name drops in this show and how Tahani’s use of them for status is similar to Chidi’s use of them for credibility and authority. Seriously, the number of philosophers that are discussed or referenced in this series is astounding, although I admit that it has a bit of a Western bent to it (Chidi loves Sartre, so that tracks).
While all of this would normally make a show unbelievably dull or preachy, the series managed to make it work through a combination of spectacular writing and amazing interplay between the cast. All of them have defined character arcs, although Janet’s is a little less distinct by virtue of her omniscience and immortality. All of their personalities are simultaneously exaggerated and also relatable, although, again, Janet’s is a little harder to relate to until she develops more human issues. This allows all of the show’s clever lines and emotional scenes to work as well as they did. Also, let’s be honest, everyone on the show is super attractive and that didn’t hurt things at all.
I loved this show, largely for the fact that it was willing to try to tell everyone that humanity isn’t doomed, because we can always get better. It might end up being wrong, but I think they really had a point and I wish everyone would sit through this series, at least once.
The Lego Movie, the movie that should have been crap but instead was a masterful meta-commentary, got a sequel which should have been crap, but instead was a masterful meta-commentary. I wonder if they actually help sales.
It’s been five years since the events of “Taco Tuesday” depicted in the first movie. Duplo/Mini-Doll aliens from the Systar System have repeatedly invaded and destroyed Bricksburg, occasionally taking people and things away with them. In response, the citizens now live in “Apocalypseburg,” a Mad Max-esque desert wasteland. Emmet (Chris Pratt) is the only person who has maintained a positive attitude about their circumstances, something that annoys Wyldstyle/Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), who wants Emmet to be more gritty and dark. Emmet, however, is troubled by a dream of “Ourmomageddon,” which has all of the Lego citizens sucked into a void.
One day, the town is attacked by the General Sweet Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), who abducts Lucy, Metalbeard (Nick Offerman), Batman (Will Forte), Benny the Spaceman (Charlie Day), and Princess Unikitty (Alison Brie) and takes them to the Systar System to meet the ruler of Systar, Queen Whatevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Emmet takes off to rescue them, with the help of Rex Dangervest, a raptor-training space cowboy archeologist who has chiseled features under his baby fat (Also Chris Pratt).
Also, the whole thing is actually a metaphor for the imagination of some kids.
So, up front, you have to see the first movie for this one to really work well. This movie goes straight into the meta-narrative that was sort of the big “twist” of the last movie: Everything that’s happening is both part of the narrative (i.e. the Lego World) and also a representation of the meta-narrative (i.e. what’s happening in the Real World). Stuff that happens in each one actually impacts the other, however, which almost makes this a pataphysical movie… something that is really unbelievably complex for a children’s film and impressively done so well that this movie is actually really easy to follow.
Unlike the last movie where the revelation is pretty late, this movie makes it pretty explicit up front that the “Systar System” is a representation of Finn’s (Jadon Sand) sister, Bianca (Brooklynn Prince). In fact, if you don’t get that pretty quickly, I’d actually say that the first few scenes don’t really make sense. For example, in the opening battle against the Duplos, the Duplo monsters respond to being shot with lasers with “okay, I eat lasers” and to being hit with batarangs with “you missed.” Anyone who has ever tried to play an imaginary game with a small child will immediately recognize this interaction. What’s great is that you could analyze almost every scene from both the normal and meta levels and both work perfectly. I’m not sure how Lord and Miller keep doing it, but I’m damned glad they are.
The messages of the movie, and yes there are several, similarly work on a bunch of levels, both as the lessons learned by the characters and also the lessons learned by the kids through the characters. Everything is a pretty wholesome moral, ranging from the value of family to the nature of maturity to the fact that it’s easier to be a judgmental dick than it is to genuinely keep opening yourself up to people and hope for better. No matter who you are, there’s something to get out of this movie.
The music is just as fun as the last movie, particularly the movie’s signature song “Catchy Song” which is such an earworm while also being a song about how the song is an earworm. I also would give credit to all of Tiffany Haddish’s songs, which are hilarious and awesome, as well as Lonely Island’s song with Beck and Robyn.
Last, I have to complement how well the movie handles references, much like its predecessor. Unlike the last one, where most of the characters that pop up are just there because Finn’s dad (Will Ferrell) owned the kits, in this one, you can actually figure out why Finn and Bianca themselves would have these figures and the reasons range from funny to borderline profound. My personal favorite is ***MINOR SPOILER ALERT*** the fact that Finn keeps seeing Bruce Willis in ducts… because his dad showed him Die Hard and, as a teenager trying to be “mature,” that’s a movie that you tend to focus on ***SPOILER OVER***.
Overall, I loved this film. It definitely has a few slow scenes which tend to make more sense from the meta-level, but most of the movie is just so clever you’ll forget about it.
Already reviewed one episode of this season, but since they finally put it on Netflix, I’m going to go ahead and do the whole thing. Spoilers, I’m trying to do this so you can watch Season 3 when it comes up, even if you don’t want to catch up on the last two.
Michael (Ted Danson) commences the reboot from the end of the last season, trying a new version of the original strategy to get Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and Jason (Manny Jacinto) to torture each other for thousands of years. However, Eleanor placed a note in the mouth of Janet (D’Arcy Carden) at the end of last season, telling her to find Chidi, which quickly leads her to realize that she’s already been in this situation before. This leads to her figuring out that they’re in the Bad Place in a few days, rather than the months in the original run. Michael decides to just reboot them yet again, without the note, but has to conceal this from his boss, Shawn (Marc Evan Jackson), who told him he only had two chances. Unfortunately for Michael, it turns out that his plan is inherently flawed. Every time he reboots them, Eleanor still realizes that they’re in the Bad Place somehow (although, once, Jason realizes it, something that Michael admits “hurts”).
Over 800 attempts later, the other demons in the fake Good Place finally go on strike, led by Vicky, the “real Eleanor” from the first attempt (Tiya Sircar). She blackmails Michael to take over, but Chidi and Eleanor see a demon out of his human suit and realize they’re in the bad place. They flee to the Medium Place, where Mindy St. Claire (Maribeth Monroe) reveals that they’ve been over a dozen times before, but each time they return to the fake Good Place and get rebooted. She also reveals that Chidi and Eleanor almost always are together and once even said they loved each other, something neither of them has ever really done. However, in this timeline, they barely know each other.
Michael talks with Jason, who accidentally convinces him to join the human team. As a condition of working with him, Eleanor insists that Michael also take ethics classes, something that doesn’t come naturally to a demon. Eventually, he starts to understand the concept and bond with them. Janet begins to malfunction, and it’s revealed that she’s still in love with Jason from the first reboot, when they got married. She attempts to get over him by creating a rebound guy named Derek (Jason “How did this get made” Mantzoukas), but eventually is forced to realize that she has to deal with her feelings, something no previous Janet has ever really had (Janets become smarter every time they’re rebooted, and she’s been rebooted the most by a lot).
Shawn returns and ends the fake Good Place, believing that it was a massive success and promises Michael a promotion. Michael betrays Shawn, however, and sides with the humans and helps them avoid going to the real Bad Place. Instead, they sneak through the Bad Place and head to meet the inter-dimensional judge who rules over all the matters of good and evil, Judge “Gen” Hydrogen (Maya F*CKING Rudolph). The Judge gives each of the four a test of their growth, but only Eleanor passes. She tells the others that she failed because they’d agreed to all go to the Bad Place if anyone failed.
At the last minute, Michael arrives and intervenes, convincing Gen that, since people can become better by working at it, they should give each of the four another shot on Earth and see if they get better. Eleanor goes back to the moment of her death, is saved by Michael, and resolves to become a better person. However, after it proves difficult, she starts to backslide. Michael pretends to be a bartender (because he’s Ted Danson) and asks her a question: “What do we owe each other?” She Googles this question and finds a lecture series by Chidi, leading her to fly to Australia to meet with him, ending the season.
Okay, do you see how long that summary was? That’s me condensing the hell out of this season. So much happens that I had to double check that each episode, aside from the first one, is only 22 minutes long. Granted, there are less actual discussions about philosophy in this season, because most of it is just so packed, but they still have several episodes dedicated to it, including an episode called “The Trolley Problem” which is about… well, the Trolley Problem. If you want to find out about that, my Grouchy counterpart wrote some crap on it. The season addresses the concept of moral absolutes and moral relativism, existential crises, whether utilitarianism or deontology is better for deciding a course of action, and whether or not throwing a Molotov cocktail is actually a solution to anything. If you didn’t understand any of those things, this show will explain them to you better than I can, and will do them in hilariously entertaining ways that don’t even feel like you’re learning (that way it doesn’t hurt).
The structure of good and evil within the show is also elaborated upon and it is so interesting and yet relatable. Is it wrong for a person to innocuously start a really annoying trend, like a waiter seeing an empty plate and saying “I see you hated it?” Is it okay to murder someone if your intent is solely to make someone else’s life better? Are burritos better when coated with a dash of envy? I didn’t even know I needed the answer to some of these.
The main thing about this season is that it feels like a very different show, while still being almost the same at its emotional core. The characters still relate to each other much the same ways they did during the last season, even if the background behind their connections has changed. They’re going through different challenges, however, and those struggles don’t feel at all like the things they were dealing with in the last season. Then, several episodes even change the setting and the stakes, making a lot of the actions feel more urgent than they were before. It’s a great ramp-up to the finale, which, itself, changes the show’s framework. This isn’t a show where the characters stay the same, they grow and change and the show changes so that it continues to make sense. Brilliant storytelling.
The acting and writing in this season is just as good, if not better, than the last one, so see yesterday’s review if you want to know my opinions on that (hint: GREAT!). Some notable additions are Jason Mantzoukas as Derek, the fake rebound guy that Janet builds, Dax Shepard as Chet, the demon who tortures people with toxic masculinity, and Maya Rudolph as Judge Gen. Mantzoukas plays a character who literally doesn’t follow any laws of human development, since he was spontaneously created, which he somehow pulls off, never seeming even close to a regular person in the funniest way possible. Shepard doesn’t get a huge role, but, like Adam Scott in season 1, he portrays a hilariously douchey take on the traditional demon idea, being not an old-school evil figure, but a more modern version of dickish evil. And Maya Rudolph is Maya f*cking Rudolph, if you need more than that, I advise you to go watch anything Maya Rudolph is in, particularly Idiocracy. She’s amazing and you should pay respect to her.
Overall, when this season ended I was just pissed off that I was going to have to wait a year to watch the next one. If that’s not a sign of quality television, I don’t know what is. The next season starts this month on NBC, so get caught up and watch, people.