David’s Watch Diary: March 2020

Thoughts on Onward, Avenue 5, Emma, and much more as we all stay inside.

Onward

GOOD NEWS FOR YOU, PARENT/PIXAR FAN: Disney in its trillion-dollar benevolence has made Onward available on digital, and it hits Disney+ on April 3rd. That’s also good news for Dan Scanlon’s moving, funny, inventive, quasi-autobiographical film, which has gotten something of a raw deal with [gestures to, you know, everything] you know, everything. Its theatrical release was already under the radar by Pixar standards: it’s not a sequel; reviews were surprisingly muted; many eyes were instead on Pete Docter’s Soul, which is currently scheduled for June (but I’d bet on that now being pushed back), etc.

Frankly, I don’t get the tepid response at all. I flat-out loved Onward. I loved the world-building — a “suburban fantasy” where magic has slowly gone out of the world, replaced by technology. I loved its copious riffs on Dungeons and Dragons and its clever inversions of fantasy tropes. I enjoyed the performances from MCU comrades Tom Holland and Chris Pratt as the elven brothers trying to spend one more day with their dad (even if it’s only his lower half). But the success of any modern Pixar film hinges on its emotion — how effectively it cues the waterworks — and even though we know that going in, and they know we know that, the film’s third act still casts a powerful spell.

Scanlon, who previously helmed the pretty-good Monsters University, has been open in interviews about Onward being inspired by his own childhood, and his relationship with his older brother after their father passed away when Scanlon was just a year old. Even though this world is full of centaurs and manticores, the real-life heartbreak at the center of the film keeps it grounded. But that’s old hat for Pixar, who have spent 25 years wringing pathos out of inanimate objects, robots, rats, and more; if Onward came earlier in the studio’s run, I think it would be heralded as a masterpiece. It only suffers when compared to the predecessors that perfected the formula; the surprises instead come through batty visual gags and other catnip for fantasy nerds like me.

I could talk more specifically about the Bridge of Trust, the stone dragon, the dance break, the trash unicorns, and the rest, but just know that you’re in for a great time. Even mid-tier Pixar is better than most things, and this one will rank highly as a personal favorite.

Avenue 5 (HBO)

Avenue 5 didn’t change; the world did. Armando Iannucci’s first TV series since Veep debuted as a “smile-funny, not laugh-out-loud funny” satire of… I wasn’t sure, exactly. Set on a luxury space-cruise ship where all of the passengers are spoiled and the “bridge crew” are all actor-models (while the real crew toils in obscurity below decks), a dreadful accident knocks the vessel off course and months, if not years, behind schedule as all the souls on board inevitably turn on each other, ignoring the only people who actually know what they’re talking about, literally trapping themselves in a claustrophobic cascade of catastrophe and incompetence — ahhh, I see what happened.

We all see what happened.

Hugh Laurie, toggling between his natural and American accents depending on who he’s around, plays the exasperated “Captain” Ryan Clark, who is forced to keep the passengers happy when the real captain perishes in the first episode. Josh Gad as the billionaire man-child Judd (of Judd Industries), whose name and face are all over the ship, takes a wretched character as written and turns him into someone you actually don’t want to murder with your bare hands, only send away to his room, perhaps forever. Other standouts include Lenora Crichlow’s competent and perpetually undervalued mechanic Billie, the always-reliable Zach Woods as the ship’s sunnily sociopathic passenger liaison, and Nikki Amuka-Bird as the harried authority at Mission Control. The cast is sprawling, and as a consequence underdeveloped; you can imagine later seasons taking a cue from Lost and bringing other passengers and crew to the surface for episodic stints, but Iannucci’s got a lot to juggle already while still writing jokes.

So is Avenue 5 funny? Yes? It’s hard to say! It’s certainly written with the cadence of humor — the same rat-a-tat, simultaneous delivery as Veep, the same grossly vivid imagery and bizarre turns of phrase (“Feels like I’m trying to urinate in front of a war crimes tribunal;” “We’re gonna suck a person out of this room”), but my laughs were more often than not the grim kind. If Veep eventually lost its edge because the real world surpassed it, Avenue 5 could only hope to ramp up the cartoonishness, and it takes about half the season for it to fully find its footing. But when it gets there, oh baby, with the ship surrounded by poop in the shape of Pope John Paul II and a breathtakingly dark sequence of passengers flinging themselves into space because they thought their entire voyage was fake news, I could only think: I don’t know if this is the show we need right now, but it has accidentally become the show of right now.

Emma.

What a delightful surprise! I write this as someone who has never read a single Jane Austen novel, nor (gasp) seen a single movie adaptation of her work, though I certainly have absorbed enough through cultural osmosis to know the difference between Pride & Sensibility and Sense & Prejudice (did I get that right?). Yet whether it was my newfound appreciation for well-written costume dramas or simply the colors (the colors!) on display in the trailer, my wife and I leapt at the chance to rent Emma. — with a PERIODT — on-demand as part of Universal’s clever “the theaters are closed, please watch our movies” initiative. And we weren’t just satisfied, but enchanted.

The ocularly gifted Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance) plays the titular role of Emma Woodhouse: Handsome, clever, rich, young, bored. She lives with her hypochondriac father (Bill Nighy, always welcome) in their estate; uninterested in further social mobility or marriage, she gets her jollies from playing matchmaker for others in her village. Unfortunately, she’s not actually that good at it, and when her well-laid plans for her lowborn and amiably simpleminded protege Harriet (Mia Goth) go awry, her perfectly ordered life — and her own chance at love, perhaps? — is put in jeopardy. Familiar? Sure! But when executed with this much freshness, old is new again.

Emma. is, awesomely, the first feature for longtime music video director Autumn de Wilde, and she brings not just impeccable visuals (Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography, Alexandra Byrne’s costumes, etc.) but playfulness and grace as well. Emma is not the most virtuous protagonist — Austen famously wanted to create someone “whom no one but myself will much like” — but in Taylor-Joy’s hands she is relatable in her failings, root-able in her brashness, and when paired with Johnny Flynn’s Mr. Knightley, a young woman whose true potential only he (and by extension, we) can see. Flynn, a talented singer-songwriter in his own right, turns out to be a naturalistic leading man; de Wilde stages their scenes with just-off-kilter effervescence, like a much sunnier The Favourite, or a Wes Anderson dollhouse with a more freely-flowing camera. As the various schemings, pairings, and re-pairings fling against the beautiful sets with centrifugal force, it’s Ms. Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley’s undeniable chemistry that holds the center. If anything that I’ve written here sounds like your cup of tea, it’s well-worth the $19.99 on iTunes or what have you.

Quick hits:

  • Better Call Saul is the best show on TV, again. I don’t know how Gilligan and Gould keep doing it. There’s so much to absorb and analyze: Jimmy going full Saul, Kim’s dangerous needle-threading with Mesa Verde (PROTECT KIM), Mike in Mexico with Gus Fring, Nacho and the tremendously charismatic, tremendously dangerous Lalo Salamanca, etc., etc. But even though Saul often feels like two or three shows in one, it’s expertly balanced, with each arc subtly informing the themes of the others. Read Brian’s coverage for a more in-depth breakdown.
  • I’m also hooked on Devs, the first major offering from “FX on Hulu” — which I’m still not sure needed to be a thing, almost like Alex Garland’s brilliantly weird series has been exiled instead of honored with the old The Americans broadcast slot. In any case, it’s as heady, chilly and visually masterful as you’d expect from the director of Annihilation and Ex Machina. Nick Offerman plays against type as the secretive and potentially murderous boss of Amaya, a tech company lurking on the edge of Silicon Valley; Soyona Mizuno plays Lily, a spacey software engineer whose investigation of her boyfriend’s disappearance puts her in grave danger. The tech itself is fascinating. Much more to say when it wraps up.
  • I came to USA’s Briarpatch out of loyalty to Andy Greenwald, the longtime co-host of Ringer entertainment podcast The Watch. I stayed because I’m enjoying it, in all of its deep-fried, tar-black, Coen-inspired charms. Rosario Dawson, who objectively rules, works to untangle the web in her hometown after the death of her sister; the show’s not always a perfect mix, and sometimes a little too labyrinthine for its own good (it’s based on an Ross Thomas novel), but it’s a crackling mystery nevertheless.
  • Dammit, Survivor, you got your hooks in me again. Just a few months after the extremely icky and disastrous Island of the Idols, which had one contestant kicked off (several episodes too late) for unwanted touching, here comes Winners at War to not only remind everyone why we watch, but to potentially be the best season in all of its twenty (20!) years. It was red-hot out of the gate, with this group of former champions — from bona fide legends like Boston Rob and Parvati, to “new-school” players looking to prove they could hang — jostling for power the second they hit the beach. Every single week has been a banger. Past relationships matter; if you were someone’s poker buddy, or ex-boyfriend(!), you’re a threat. The island has actual currency now. Ethan nearly died carrying logs up a mountain. Blindsides galore. It’s so, so much fun in a way I can only describe to fellow fans. Also, and this is important: Yul all the way.
  • The latest season Doctor Who ended fine. Over five decades since it began and fifteen since it rebooted, it can’t help but be derivative of itself, and I guess we have to live with that. It’s no fault of Jodie Whittaker, who works so hard every single episode even when the writing lets her down. But it’s also not all bad, either — I really enjoyed “The Haunting of Villa Diodati,” a vintage spooky-house story that actually found a fresh take on the Cybermen. The season’s ultimate ending, with the “Timeless Child” reveal? It’s fine. The Doctor’s history has been rewritten and supplemented so many times it’s hard to care anymore. I just want a good story cleverly told, and that comes from the one-offs, not the big-picture episodes.
  • I bailed on The New Pope. I’m sorry. I heard it got better, it just never gelled for me and I didn’t make the time to catch up. Even now. I’m too busy playing The Witcher 3 right now.
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Pure comfort television. But I want to give a special shout-out to the episode “Trying,” a bold structural experiment as thoughtful as it was clever, and worth watching on its own.

Looking ahead to… Sean Bean & Helen Hunt in the WWII miniseries World on Fire (4/5 on PBS); Domnhall Gleeson & Merritt Wever in the comic thriller Run (4/12 on HBO); Cate Blanchett’s ERA miniseries Mrs. America (4/15 on Hulu); the triumphant return of What We Do in the Shadows (4/15 on FX) and Killing Eve (4/26, BBC America); and in cinemas… uh, nothing. There are no movies. This is still weird.

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