Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reviews. Show all posts

Pop Diary: 'Love Lies Bleeding,' 'Zone of Interest,' 'Drive-Away Dolls,' Conan and More

What I've been watching, reading, etc.

"Perfect Days" is a perfectly lovely movie. Directed by Wim Wenders, it's a quiet story about an inauspicious man (Hirayama, played by the wonderful Koji Yakusho) who is perfectly content with his job as a clean of public toilets. Even when his daily routine, which he follows with near-religious constancy, is disrupted by the unexpected visit of a young family member, he peacefully adapts. We learn the beauty of acceptance and the gift of adaptability.

"Drive-Away Dolls," directed by solo Coan Bro think's it's much funnier than it is, which is a pity, because the cast, particularly leads Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan, do their best to make the picture work. 

Qualley's free spirited  Jamie and Viswanathan's stressed Marian, both feeling the need for a change get a gig driving a car from Philadelphia to Tallahassee, unlike unaware that there's a suitcase in the trunk that gangsters want to get. 

Nothing unpredictable or even amusing occurs as Coen tropes over his own feet trying and failing to keep us entertained with references to 1950s and 60s lesbian paperback sleaze and hippie exploitation films. Brief appearances by Pedro Pascal and Matt Damon don't help any, although I'll grant that one joke involving Damon's character IS laugh-out-loud funny, but it's a long road trip to get there. Beanie Feldman is utterly wasted in a thankless role as Qualley's ex.

"Love Lies Bleeding," starring Kristin Stewart and Katy O'Brian is the film "Drive-Away Dolls" dreamed of being. The laughs are the grim in this pitch-dark noir and director Rose Glass' references to her inspirations (I'm guessing Jim Thompson's gritty crime novels, for one) are more subtle and much better executed than in Coen's film. 

The always brilliant Stewart plays Lou, attendant at a ratty gym, who falls for body builder Jackie (O'Brian) the moment she struts into the place. Jackie is training for an upcoming body-building in Las Vegas and Lou vows to help her win.

Circumstances conspire against the loving couple, however, namely in the form of Lou's brother-in-law, J.J. (Dave Franco), who Jackie beats up and kills in a fit of near-Hulk-like rage. This doesn't go over well with Lou's dad, played by a menacing and menacingly bewigged Ed Harris, who, it turns out, is a local crime lord. Lou turns against her dad, unleashing a flood of violence. The film can be read as a commentary about women's struggle against the powers of the patriarchy, and/or just a damn good crime thriller, excellently directed with a stellar cast. Either way, it's great, although sometimes tense, viewing. 

"The Zone of Interest" is very tense viewing from beginning to end. Adapted from the Martin Amis novel by director Jonathan Glazer, it is set at the lovely country home of the Höss. All seems tranquil and sweet, but that impression is undermined from the get-go as we realize the Höss home is just on the other side of the fence from Auschwitz, where Rudolph Höss spends his day trying out the most efficient ways to kill the concentration camp's Jewish prisoners.

We never see what's happening on the other side of the fence, but we know it's happening. The film's soundtrack makes us hear it — screams amongst the bird calls and gentle breeze in the Höss' back garden, the hiss of gas and the roar of ovens. Occaionally we see smoke emitted from the camp's chimneys, or see ashes sprinkled in the river where the Höss swim and wade.

The results of this are nearly nauseating as we're made to understand what it means to be complicit to evil, yet ignoring it as we envelop ourselves in home comforts and meaningless household routines. The film doesn't need to outright tell us that this is still happening. We know, even if we pretend we don't.

"Fleishman Is in Trouble."
I went into this limited series on Hulu not knowing what to expect and ended up being greatly impressed by it's storytelling and themes.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Toby Fleishman, a physician recently divorced by his go-getting wife, theatrical agent Rachel, who is played by Claire Danes. Sly comedy ensues as Toby check out dating apps and tests the waters as a newly single dude. 

Less funny is that Rachel seems to have entirely vanished, leaving Toby to single-dad the couple's two young children. His college pals played by Lizzy Caplan and Adam Brody are on hand though, to offer gentle ribbing, sympathy and support. 

Caplan's character, Libby, is the voice-over narrator of each episode, which is interesting and keeps us guessing. Will Libby and Toby get together once he figures himself out?

What happens, though, isn't so predictable. We learn that there's more to these characters than what we're initially told and shown, and that's what makes watching the series and hanging on through the end so surprisingly rewarding.

"The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian." I enjoyed Marvel's black-and-white mag "The Savage Sword of Conan" in high school and read the recent Mavel Epic reprints of "Conan the Barbarian," but I hadn't visited the character's source material since junior high, when I was, frankly, too young to appreciate it. 

I loved the Frank Frazetta covers and winced at Robert E. Howard's graphic descriptions of violence and gore but missed the richness of his writing.

So, picking this book up on a whim during a recent bookstore visit was a good call. Diving into stories such as "The Frost Giant's Daughter," "The Tower of the Elephant" and "Queen of the Black Coast" has been a pleasure. While his plots are often predictable, Howard's ability to set scenes, conjure up supernatural suspense and place us in Conan's ancient world is impressive and unique. Reading these stories, I realized how much George R.R. Martin and the TV series inspired by "A Game of Thrones" owes not so much to Tolkien, as you might expect, but to these dark tales of sword and sorcery.

And, if you're going to revisit Howard, or read his work for the first time, this is the best way to do it: This collection, and two Conan collections that follow, along with compilations of Howard's non-Conan stories all published by Random House Worlds, is definitive. The stories appear in their original form as published in Weird Tales, not as edited in later versions, and they are supplemented by an appendix that includes Howard's drafts, unpublished works, letter and more. As an added bonus, the stories are illustrated by an array of fantastic artists — this first volume by the great Mark Schultz. I'm in for the whole lot of them.

Pop Culture Diary: February 2024 - Henry Threadgill's "Easily Slip into Another World,' 'Beef,' 'All of Us Strangers,' 'Melvin Monster'

What I've been reading, watching, hearing, etc.

"Easily Slip into Another World," by Henry Threadgill
is one of the best books I've read about music, art and being a creative person. 

Threadgill isn't a name you're likely to hear even in the hippest of households, but his distinctive blend of jazz, Western Classical and world music influences has earned him a following among more adventurous listeners and acclaim. He was awarded an NEA Jazz Master Masters Fellowship in 2021 at the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2016.

And he's done it on his own terms. Threadgill's memoir is a collection of stories and recalled incidents, stretching from his childhood in Chicago; his musical education - both formal and in the city's jazz and blues clubs; his experiences as a Black man in Vietnam, where the forces of American racism were more oppressive and dangerous than anything the Viet Cong could dish out, and as composer committed, without compromise, to his muse.

Threadgill is as masterful a storyteller as he is a musician and composer — funny, insightful, instructive. I don't think you need to know his music to be entertained, moved and inspired by this book, but you'll likely be curious to hear it, and you're likely to hear it with open ears.

There's an undercurrent of seething hostility present in 21st century life that's unique to our time. It's fed by our toxic politics and the insidious, addictive powers of social media, which pits us all against one another in a competition over who has the best opinion, job, vacation, family, life.

The last straw is always at hand, ready to be pulled, particularly when we're behind the wheel of a car. We're already pissed off — often we don't even know why — and if a person dares to cut us off or bend our fender, look out.

This satirical streaming series nails it, forcing us to look at and laugh at ourselves as its excellent leads Steven Yeun and Ali Wong go to Spy Vs. Spy lengths to get back at one another following a parking lot altercation. Over and over again, they dish out violence, destruction and blame to the point where they can barely recollect why they hate one another so much. 

The show is so funny it hurts. We realize we're getting swept up, too, in the conflict, alternately rooting for, and sympathizing, one antagonist or another. But, it's jagged points well made, the show overstays it's welcome. At 10 episodes, it's perhaps four or so too long, which is a pity. With some edits to keep the show sharp, "Beef" might've been a mastepiece commentary on our age. But in it's current form, it's merely very, very good.

"All of Us Strangers"
is a haunting meditation on grief and vulnerability, guised as a love story. 

Andrew Scott (Moriarty on "Sherlock") stars as Adam who can't let go of the memories of his dead parents (Claire Foy ("The Crown" and Jamie Bell) even as he tries to forward in a new relationship with Harry (Paul Mescal), a neighbor in his apartment building.

To reveal more would be to spoil things, but suffice to say this is an emotional, powerful film that deals in its subject in surprising, imaginative, highly moving ways. All of the performances are outstanding, in particular Scott's. It will be exciting to see where his career takes him next.

Melvin Monster: Omnibus
. And now for something completely different: A collection of mid 1960s comics from the masterful John Stanley, best-known for his stellar work on the Little Lulu comics.

Familiar with Stanley's Little Lulu work, I went into this one expecting more of the same: Funny, expertly paced gags and plots that heartwarmingly capture and lampoon the concerns and misadventures of childhood. Melvin does some of that, but not nearly entertainingly as Lulu, I'm afraid.

Despite very much enjoying Stanley's artwork, I was disappointed with the writing here, which relies heavily on Bizarro/Addams Family "logic" for its humor. Melvin's dad is called Baddy and him mom Mummy and they are, of course, a Frankenstein-type monster and a mummy. Their expectations of Melvin is that he'll misbehave at school, blow off his homework and generally be "good" by being bad. 

While that twist is likely enough to entertain a child reader, it wears thin quickly for an adult. An adult, like me, who should recognize that, hey, these comics were written for kids. And those kids who bought the comics five decades ago probably loved them. And that's all good. But, where the charm and humor of Little Lulu carries through the ages, and can be enjoyed by grownups as well as children, Melvin, disappointingly, just doesn't.

Pop Culture Diary: January 2024

What I've been reading, watching, hearing, etc. 

Linked items available via Amazon.


My wife last holiday season kindly gifted me with "Swallows and Amazons," the first of Arthur Ransome's charming adventure stories about the four Walker siblings and their friends the Blacketts, and this year she followed up with the second. 

In this one, the kids are back at the unnamed lake where they spend their summers, sailing, camping and playing pirates, excited to get back to their hideaway on Wild Horse Island.

As in the first book, Ransome perfectly captures how kids "work" — how they think, act and interact, and imagine, superimposing their creative fictions over humdrum reality to make everything more interesting. He captures what childhood is like with such humor and charm. These books were published nearly 100 years old, but they are as funny and true as ever.

Just as amazingly, Ransome manages to keep your interest over the course of the book without manufacturing some outside menace to gin up excitement and drama. Here, he does it with a "shipwreck," a hidden cave, a hike through the fog and a plot to evade the Blackett's stern Great Aunt, who seemingly doesn't want anyone to have any fun. 

I'm hoping that the Ransome books become a holiday tradition. There's no better escape than reading about these summer adventures of long a go when it's cold and dreary outdoors.

Avengers: War Across Time

This stand-alone, throw-back tale, the first-ever Marvel Comic penned by DC mainstay Paul Levitz, and illustrated by the great Alan Davis, should've been much better than it is.

The problem, sadly, is with Levitz's script. which is unforgivably dull. He does a nice job, starting out, capturing the patter and feel of early Avengers comics by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Don Heck, but the action amounts to a troll stealing Thor's hammer and Kang the Conquerer standing around making a lot of empty threats. 

The Avengers don't do any time traveling until the final pages, when they glimpse versions of themselves and other members of their super team but, even then, there's precious little action. 

This story originally was published as a five-issue mini-series and I'm not sure I would've continued past the first issue if I'd read it in that format. Each of Levitz's issue-ending cliffhangers lands like a soft, fluffy pillow. There's no drama or threat to hook you.

Davis, on the other hand, is in fine form. His artwork and visual flow throughout the book is a pleasure to behold, and the book is worth a look for that alone. 

I'm always up for self-contained superhero stories like this, and I'd love to see a sequel, but one with a much more engaging story to hang it all on. 


I went into this one not expecting much other than a couple hours of holiday diversion, but ended up enjoying it quite a bit. Rather than spoil the magic of the original by picking apart and subjecting its elements to the cruel, ironic gaze of the present, "Wonka" instead relishes in what makes Road Dahl's sweet maker so fun. 

In the lead role, Timothée Chalamet is sly, mysterious and charming — and a surprisingly good singer (yes, it's a musical). There also are fun performances by Olivia Coleman, Paterson Joseph, Rowan Atkinson and Matt Lucas as some of the not-so-scary baddies, and a scene-stealing Hugh Grant as an oompa loompa.

The film, which I somehow didn't know, was produced by the team behind the recent "Paddington" films, which I also enjoyed, and it has the same humor and humanity as those. 

"American Fiction"

This excellent light satire targets the literary marketplace and notions of "Blackness" while exploding the self-deceptions common to us all.

I say "light" because the film treats its characters gently. Jeffrey Wright, as frustrated novelist Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, is silly, ridiculous, but real, and that humanity helps the film land its punches with more sting — we can relate to Monk and, as a result, see his flawed qualities within ourselves.

This smart, very funny film also incudes fine performances by the wonderful Issa Rae, Tracee Ellis Ross and Leslie Uggams. 

"Poor Things"

I'm still puzzling over this very weird, very raunchy, Frankenstein-inspired, coming-of-age tale. That says something, since memories of most other movies tend to fizzle away within the trivia-saturated confines of my fuzzy brain.

I'm not certain what director Yorgos Lanthimos and his accomplices are trying to say, but they say it in such a unique way, and with such imaginative imagery, that their story is unforgettable. "Poor Thing" exists in its own world, unlike anything we've seen before. 

There are points made here about the agency of women in a world, like ours, where men try to define, and even "create," their lives for them, but I think there's a lot more to discover here, too.

Emma Stone's performance is astounding. She brings Bella Baxter alive in ways that mad scientist Dr. Goodwin Baxter (played by an unhinged, yet tender, Willem DaFoe) could've never imagined. Mark Ruffalo and Ramy Yousef also are excellent as the baffled men in Bella's life.

"The Crown"

Netflix's charting of the historical course of Britain's modern royals wrapped up its run in the same tacky/classy manner in which it started out. 

The fact that this season covers a period so close to the one we're living in made it even more of a guilty pleasure. Some commentators wonder why we just can't let Lady Di rest in peace, and they make a good point. Yet, having started, and it's hard to stop watching now.

In my view, the writing and performances in the "The Crown" have been great throughout, and it was a pleasure to see previous Queens Claire Foy and Olivia Coleman join the older Elizabeth, played by Imelda Staunton, in flashbacks and fantasy sequences in the finale.

As a whole, "The Crown" provided a compelling commentary on post-war British events while make us feel sorry for a crew of eccentrics and malcontents born into privilege (and responsibility). Like many viewers, I suppose, I came away thinking that the monarchy is really weird. And, also, sort of impressive and cool.

The Beatles "Red" and "Blue" Albums: 2023 Editions

I've been playing these new versions of 1973's classic compilations a bunch and am enjoying them in this new form.

Not a straight remaster of the originals (that's already been done) these versions include remixes by Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer, George. Some of these remixes have shown up already on the Super Deluxe editions of Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, "The White Album," Let it Be and Abbey Road but there are plenty of new ones here, particularly on the Red album, which covers the band's output up through 1966.

Martin, on these new versions employs the same machine-learning tech developed by director Peter Jackson's team for "The Beatles: Get Back" documentary. The system is capable if identifying different voices and instruments and separating those elements into their own "tracks." 

In Jackson's film, the tech was use to extract dialogue from music and background noise so we could hear it more clearly. Martin, meanwhile, has used it to "demix" recordings so he can remix the elements again. As a result, each part in a Beatles recording can be isolated — vocals, guitars, bass, even the individual parts of Ringo's drum kit: snare, toms, cymbals, etc. — and put back together.

As a result, the remixes bring us familiar tunes in stunning clarity. Turn up the volume, and you feel like you're standing next to John, Paul, George and Ringo doing their collective thing in the studio. 

Too put it mildly, I'm a bit of a Beatlemanic. I'm an associate editor at Beatlefan mag and run a Fabs blog as a sister site to this one. And I'm a purist about the Beatles' original masters being "canon." But I also enjoy hearing the tunes in different ways, and these releases provide a wonderful opportunity to do that. 

For the most part, I appreciate, and often very much enjoy, what Martin has done. The remixes of "We Can Work it Out" and "I Am the Walrus" stand out as a couple that I really, really like. But, for me, they'll never replace the mono and stereo versions the band originally released. 

And that's what makes these new releases a little odd. Back in the 1970s, they served as an introduction to the Beatles' music for a new generation of fans (my generation, as it turns out). But I'm not so sure how I feel about these new versions playing that role. 

Part of me — a weird, controlling, dictatorial part — thinks that newcomers should start with the original masters. The more rational part of me, however, thinks that anyone, listening to any of the Beatles recordings, can only be a good thing. 

Ambrose Akinmusire - Owl Song

Two of my favorite jazz musicians, trumpeter Akinmusire and guitarist Bill Frisell, abetted by drummer Herlin Riley, come together on this gorgeous collection of original tunes. 

The songs aren't merely vehicles for improvisation. The melodies are captivating and carefully structured, very much composed, yet open to the on-the-fly melodic and rhythmic contributions of the players. 

The results are understated and quiet — perfect listening for a dark winter night.

Pop Diary: Reviews of "Pam and Tommy," "Box of Pin-Ups" and "Ladhood"

Pam & Tommy is too long (Hulu is frustratingly dealing out the episodes a week at the time and there are still three out of eight left) but otherwise extremely well done. 

We all know the story of the stolen sex tape, yadda, yadda, and it's a big joke because its stars are/were so tacky and dumb and who cares about what happens to famous people anyway. Except that the show does make us care, particularly about Anderson, who is uncannily and sensitively played by an unrecognizable Lily James. 

The early episodes play as parody and let us laugh at her and heavy metal drummer Tommy Lee (also well played by Sebastain Stan) as they go through a whirlwind I-guess-you-could-call-it-a-courtship and spontaneously get married. They seem to love each other but you can tell from the get-go that it's probably not a great idea. And neither is leaving their honeymoon tape in a safe where it can be stolen by a construction worker, (Rand Gauthier played by a funny, understated Seth Rogan) that Tommy treats like shit. 

Viewing the tape at home, a shocked Rand naturally shows it to his pal in the porn industry "Uncle Miltie" a.k.a. Ron Swanson's sleazy brother played by the always welcome Nick Offerman. These two goofballs then make use of the nascent Internet to sell copies for a massive profit and rest is tawdry history, except for what we start to see in the later episodes, which chart the horrible humiliation of this caused for  Anderson, contibuting to a miscarriage and derailing what might've been a career that involved more than her looks. 

All of it could've likely been done in two hours, but it's a well-told story, nevertheless, with a lot to say not just about the inherent sexism in our society, but the dehumanizing impact of fame and the lack of accountability afforded by online anonymity.

Box of Pin-Ups: The British Sounds of 1965 is an excellent three-CD compilation from Cherry Red Records' Grapefruit imprint that's been getting a lot of play around our house lately. The selection focuses mainly on the fuzzy, hard sounds that emerged as Merseybeat started to fade. 

As you might imagine, the Kinks, Yardbirds, Small Faces and Pretty Things are all on hand, but so are a host of others, including the Beatstalkers, Frays and Baskervilles, all providing punchy, rocking tunes that slot in well alongside those by the better-known acts. Early tracks featuring the likes of Marc Bolan, Rod "The Mod" Stewart and Elton John also feature. 

Buying it all on the original 45s would cost a fortune, but this set — all in great sound (some of it in the original mono), plus a 48-page, picture-packed booklet  — will only set you back 30 bucks or so and is well worth it.  

"Ladhood" is a British comedy that manages to blend the hilarious "Derry Girls" with "The Wonder Years." Show creator Liam Williams stars and narrates as the action switches back and forth from the present day to his teen years in mid-90s Leeds.

Young Liam and his mates lead funny but fairly aimless lives smoking dope, listening to hip hop and never getting girls, while also being harassed by a pair of sometimes friendly/sometimes hostile bullies, Rupert and Tin Head (an autodidact whose monotone holding forth on pretty much everything is a riot). 

Liam is a bright kid, interested in shaping a creative life and getting the hell out of town, but he's also got anger issues. The frustration of his daily life leads to much bin kicking and other forms of destruction. And when we shift to the present day, we see that not much has changed. 

Grown Liam is still frustrated and still kicking garbage cans when he gets pissed off. His failure to get a handle on things leads to the destruction of his relationship and causes trouble with his friends. It's sad, yet funny, and all very deftly handled. I'm glad to learn that a third season is planned.

Pop Diary: Reviews of "All of the Marvels," The Beach Boys' "Feel Flows," and "Trying"

What I've been reading, hearing, watching.

"All of the Marvels," by Douglas Wolk
, is an entertaining read that both longtime fans of the comics and those coming in fresh thanks to the Marvel movies are likely to enjoy. 

The book is essentially a summary of observations made by Wolk after he read pretty much every ding-dong comic that Marvel has published since the dawn of the Silver Age up.

Wolk's doesn't summarize every Marvel comic or series, but instead focuses on themes he sees running throughout everything that Marvel has published. He takes the stance that, given the shared universe that most of the Marvel characters inhabit, Marvel is essentially publishing One Huge Story. And it's an epic that's ever-growing and ever-changing. That's an interesting take and one that may lead you to read Marvel's comics in a different way. 

Personally, I've always viewed Marvel in terms of individual characters and series that sometimes overlap. Cynically, I think that some of these interactions — especially the large crossover events that have been such a fixture in superhero comics since the late 1980s — are used mainly as a way to make readers buy more comic books, and that these crossovers often detract from, rather than supplement, the storylines going on in individual books. More charitably, I see the shared universe as pretty cool, and agree that seeing different characters meeting up and interacting can sometimes be a lot of fun. But as to it all being One Huge Story? I'm not totally on board with that concept. I think that Marvel and its creators are making it all up as they go along. Sometimes the results are mind-blowing and impressive, sometimes they are just a way to gouge readers who fear missing out. 

Wolk, on the other hand, is an event and crossover fan, and he uses them to demonstrate the Big Story that's being told, and how they frequently are used to profoundly alter and sometimes reinvent characters.  As a result, the book spends a lot more time on these crossovers and big events than on particular comics creators and definitive runs on different series — an approach that would've been more appealing to me. Wolk also spends a surprising number of pages spent talking about Squirrel Girl. 

All that said, it's a smartly written and entertaining book. Even if I don't view Marvel's comics the same way as Wolk does, or share in all of his opinions about which are best, I found his take interesting and thought provoking. And that's what good criticism is all about.

Feel Flows: The Sunflower and Surf's Up Sessions 1969-71
by the Beach Boys.
Years ago when I first got into the Beach Boys and made my way through all the great Brian Wilson-led albums, I was, of course, left wanting more. So it came as a relief to discover that the Beach Boys continued to do some pretty great stuff after Brian became less involved. 

Sunflower and Surf's Up — presented here along with a generous heap of outtakes, session recordings and live tracks  — are great, if not perfect, Beach Boys albums that show other members of the group coming to the fore, particularly Carl Wilson as a songwriter and producer and Dennis Wilson as a singer and writer. 

"This Whole World," "Add Some Music to Your Day," "Forever," "Cool, Cool Water," "Our Sweet Love," "Long Promised Road," "Disney Girls," and "Til I Die" are all among my favorite Beach Boys tunes, and it's great to hear them here, not just in remastered form, but in live recordings and session tapes that emphasize their intricate instrumental backings along with a capella versions that strip away the backing tracks to let us hear only the vocals. Sure, you do have to contend, also, with multiple versions of "Student Demonstration Time," the absolute worst Beach Boys song ever, but all the rest of it is a joy.

is a British comedy about a sweet, 30-something couple in London who long to have a child. When they are unable to do so on their own, they pursue adoption, which proves to be a funny, heartbreaking roller coaster ride for them and us alike. 

Esther Smith is fantastic as the lovable, goofy, Nikki, whose sense of empathy is in overdrive, and Rafe Spall is a perfect as her partner Jason, who's less certain of this whole parenting thing. There's great chemistry between the leads and they are surrounded by equally interesting and entertaining friends, all struggling/trying to work their way through marriage and parenthood in their own manner. 

In many ways — tone, setting, humor — the show struck me as a nicer, gentler "Catastrophe," another series I love. I'm looking forward to season three and watching what happens when these Nikki and Jason finally get to be parents and are confronted with a whole new set of trials.

Pop Diary: Reviews of "Asterix and the Griffin," "Hacks" and "Save Yourselves"

What I've been reading, watching.

Asterix and the Griffin
. As an Asterix fan since childhood, I always get excited about a new adventure featuring my favorite super-potioned Gauls. And new adventures is what we've been seeing pretty much annually since a new team was named to carry on the masterful, classic work of Goscinny and Uderzo. 

Those are big shoes, but new writer Jean-Yves Ferri and artist Didier Conrad have now been at it since 2011, and just turned in this, their fifth Asterix collaboration. Like the rest of the team's books, it's not bad, but it's also not classic Asterix (like I was saying, those shoes are pretty roomy...) 

Here, our heroes Asterix and his steadfast pal, Obelix, are enlisted by friends belonging to a village in the far eastern region of Barbaricum to retrieve one its members who's been kidnapped by a bunch of Romans because she supposedly knows the location of the mythical, and titular, griffin, which Caesar, being Caesar, wants to display in a circus. 

Never ones to turn down an opportunity to beat up some Romans and rescue a fair maiden, our heroes agree to the quest, which is complicated when the magic potion that provides Asterix with his superhuman strength can't be consumed because it's frozen. 

There are some funny moments - the frozen potion is a nice twist - and Conrad's art is spectacular, but overall, the laughs are lacking. Ferri likes sprinkling references to our current times into his Asterix tales and here it's a lot of joking references to Amazon and online life that aren't terribly up to date or that humorous, and will only become more dated as the years go by. That's sad when one considers that most of the original Asterix tales still hold up pretty well in terms of entertainment value. 

I hope - I guess eternally - that our Gauls' next adventure will be better.

NOTE: The translation of the book I read was published by Papercutz, which got the rights to publish Asterix in the U.S. a few years back, and I was troubled to see that they've changed the name of Asterix and Obelix's druid friend Getafix to Panoramix, as he's called in the French versions. I assume this is to avoid making a drug reference, but that's stupid. 

is a pretty much perfect limited series. In 10 episodes we learn to love two prickly people - Jean Smart as a veteran standup comic whose career is in stagnation and Hannah Einbinder is the smart, snarky young writer brought in to freshen up her act, and we're left with a perfect ending that leaves us wanting more. 

Smart's Deborah Vance isn't thrilled about having this whippersnapper thrust into her life, and resents the idea that the younger woman somehow knows funny more than she does, given her long and successful career, and Einbinder's Ava isn't crazy about having to spend time with an unhip has-been. From sparks come fire and, eventually, warmth. 

Witnessing first grudging appreciation and, ultimately, friendship develop between these two is hilarious, occasionally cringey, sometimes sad, and always engaging. 

Watching Smart's performance I kept thinking how remarkably talented, and incredibly overlooked, she is. This is a performer who really should've been making features over the past 30-plus years, not confined to TV. But TV these days is pretty great, and here she's found a part of the ages. Einbinder is one to watch, too. The daughter of SNL vet Laraine Newman, she's got great comic timing, but also real depth. 

Save Yourselves
is one of the most consistently funny comedy films I've seen in a while. Su (Sunita Mani) and Jack (John Reynolds) are hip what-we-used-to-call Yuppies who realize that phone addiction is killing their relationship and, possibly, their very souls. 

Sitting on the couch at home, they scroll mindlessly rather than communicating. When they do make eye contact it's only until the next notification dings. 

Eager to set things right, they head off to a friend's cabin in the woods with plans to completely tune out. Trouble is, that's when the aliens choose to attack. It takes them a bit to realize this, but they soon discover the entire world - including their cabin - has been invaded by surprisingly formed extraterrestrials. 

There's nothing like a crisis to bring people together, and this one does so delightfully thanks to a sharp script, originally executed plot and two extremely likable lead characters.

Pop Life: Wonder Woman 1984; Aubrey-Maturin novels; Cut Worms

What I've been reading, watching hearing, etc.

After witnessing all the hubbub about the new Wonder Woman movie going straight to TV, along with screening in theaters, due to COVID-19, and then watching that actual film, I came away thinking this thing belongs on TV.

"Wonder Woman 1984" is a small picture: Lacking in vision and execution, and failing to meet its potential. The first WW film, I thought, was great. The direction was ambitious and the story was inspiring. Gal Gadot is a charismatic star born to play this role. 

The movie presented us with a true super heroine—unlike her male counterparts who are motivated by revenge and/or a compulsion to fight for truth and justice, Diana wants to help people because she likes... people. Her approach to superhero-ing is based on compassion. The scenes of her in the first film, coming to the aid of families displaced and victimized by war were genuinely moving in a way that's extremely rare for films of this genre.

The follow-up film, sadly, pales in comparison. The plot, about a magic rock that grants wishes (for real, that's it) could've come from an episode of the actual 1970s/80s Wonder Woman TV series. Or from the 1960s Batman series. Or "Gilligan's Island." It's a dumb TV episode plot extended to two and a half hours.

And rather than pit Diana against a female villain worthy of her, the main baddie is a stereotypical businessman, Maxwell Lord (played by the should've-been-given-something-better-to-do Pedro Pascal) who simply wants to be rich and famous. Kristin Wiig is on hand as the Cheetah, but on the sidelines. In the style of the 1990s Batman films, she's the prep-villain who's given an origin story here and likely to reappear later, maybe, as the major villain of a follow-up film. In my view, it's a misstep. The Cheetah should've, could've been built up as the major foe of the film, creating a more interesting story that featured two female characters in the lead roles.

Chris Pine, who's back from the dead (magic rock—that's not spoiler, it's utterly predictable) and provides a few chuckles as a displaced dude from the Forties who gets into wearing 1980s fashions. This joke is the only reason I could figure for why this film was even sent in the 80s.

What a bummer. But at least I got to see it on HBO Max, which I already pay for, rather than spending a bunch of money on it at the theater (and maybe catching the virus).

I hope you all had some time off over the holidays to relax and read. I took an extended staycation and thoroughly enjoyed it, although I did miss time with family and friends. I'm glad, at least, that I have my wife and daughter here to keep me company!

For me, the break was a great time to dive into the utterly transportive world of Patrick O'Brian and "Treason's Harbour," the ninth entry in his series about British Naval Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, surgeon-spy Stephen Maturin, and their adventures during the Napoleonic Wars.

I've been making my way, very slowly, through these books for many years now. I'm pacing myself, because O'Brian only (only!) complete 20, and when I'm done, there ain't no more. Although, I'm hanging onto them in anticipation of simply starting over once I reach the end. In fact, I'm really looking forward to re-reading books I haven't even read, yet! That's how good they are.

If you haven't (do!), the books, of course, are full of exciting Naval battles and shipboard life and missions that mix fiction with history. But what I love most about them are the characters, who are so richly developed and real. Aubrey-Maturin are good men, but with flaws and minor foibles that amuse, disappoint and sadden us as we read about them, because they are true to life. Their friendship also is utterly real. I've never read a truer depiction of two, very different, people and the mutual respect, and necessary tolerance, that binds them together.

O'Brian's story are full of action, emotion, humor and wisdom. Reading them makes me a better, fuller, person, I think. 

And this one was a real cliffhanger! I don't know that I'll be able to retain my slow pace of reading, now.

I was fortunate to get a lot of new music for Christmas. I'm sure I'll be writing about more of it. But one album I wanted to flag is Cut Worms' "Nobody Lives Here Anymore." I discovered this music via Spotify and immediately fell in love with its blending of Brill Building pop and touches of country. I didn't know anything about the creators and figured the Cut Worms were a band. Turns out there's no "the" and Cut Worms is a guy named Max Clarke, a very talented singer and songwriter from Ohio. This is a very strong LP that holds together well, and I've enjoyed earlier Cut Worms tunes that have popped up on my Spotify playlist, too. Check him/them out. It's good stuff.

Pop Life: The Derry Girls visit Bakeoff; Matt Wilson's charming "Hug"; "The Queen's Gambit" genius chess moves; Allen and Masekela's "Rejoice"

Like most all of you, I suppose, I've been taking refuge from the pandemic by watching lots of TV, listening to lots of music and reading lots of books. 

So what else is new? If ever there was a disaster made for introverted homebodies, it was Our Year of COVID 2020. Still, I do like to get out to a restaurant and concert occasionally... 

But that will come.

Meanwhile, in the past week or two, some of things I've enjoyed most are watching members of the Derry Girls cast on a holiday edition of "The Great British Baking Show." Two of Netflix's greatest hits combined? How could it not be great? But it was even greater than I'd anticipated. 

Either Saoirse-Monica Jackson (Erin), Nicola Coughlan (Claire), Jamie-Lee O’Donnell (Michelle), Dylan Llewellyn (James) and Siobhán McSweeney (Sister Michael) showed up to bake in character, or their "Derry Girls" roles are written on their real-life selves. All were hilarious trying to keep pace with the challenges thrown down by Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith while failing miserably. It's the most I've laughed in a long time.

Realizing I'm late to the party on this one: But I loved the acclaimed "The Queen's Gambit" on Netflix. I've never understood chess—how it works, why people play it, why there are clubs for it—and still don't. But it didn't matter a bit. I was hooked from the get-go. Ana Taylor-Joy's performance is remarkable and the writing is top-notch. If it were a movie, with all the plot points compressed, I think the result likely would've been predicable feel-good fare: An underdog makes good. But by spreading it out and letting us know Beth Harmon bit by bit, learning to gauge her character and next moves as in a long game of chess, the story is addictive, heartwarming and supremely moving.

Music-wise, things have been upbeat, too. There's lots of Christmas music playing in the house now, of course. But I've also been spinning the Matt Wilson Quartet's charming Hug!—an LP that lives up to its name. The performances are charming, heartfelt and playful, ranging from soulful bop accessibly free, and funny. The title track is super-catchy in a Herb Alpert-ish sorta way, the type of thing that might've been a hit back in the more diverse days of 1960s Top 40 radio. The cover of "King of the Road" is great, too. And I love the lighthearted social commentary of "Space Force March," which interpolates Sun Ra's "Interplanetary Music." Some listeners will wish it came with a trigger warning due to the surprise vocal cameo, though.

Also blessed with an upbeat title is Rejoice, the final album—and first collaboration—by the hugely influential African musicians trumpeter Hugh Masekela and drummer Tony Allen, both of whom passed away this year. The LP is a gem, driven by Allen's insistent, always funky beat and Masekela's Miles-influenced playing over the top. Some of the tunes are augmented by chants and vocals that add, never detract, as on the tribute to Allen's former boss, afro-pop pioneer Fela Kuti, "Never (Lagos Never Gonna Be the Same)." 

Visit Christmas past with "Holly Jolly" - a nostalgic new photo book

Christmas is a time for nostalgia—maybe this year more than most. And this book is a great tool for fortifying those feelings as we look for distractions from the crisis at hand.

Authored and assembled by Mark Voger, it's packed with photos of favorite comics, toys, movies, TV specials, holiday records and more from the past, along with detailed information about all of those topics. The book is a great guide to holiday viewing and listening, and will bring back many fond memories. It's nearly as fun to leaf through as a vintage Sears Wishbook.

But there's deeper level to it, too. Voger write about what the holidays mean to him, and shares recollections and photos from his childhood. And the early chapters are downright historical, detailing the Biblical, cultural and commercial beginnings of the holiday season and how it got to be the mixed-up jumble it is today.

From the manger, Santa and Scrooge to "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Grinch" and "The Star Wars Holiday Special," it's all here, and more.

Spend your Christmas at home this year with this book, your memories and close family, and keep others safe. Next year, we'll all be together again to make new memories.

Order from TwoMorrows Publishing.

Pop Reviews: Mac Raboy - Master of the Comics

The saying goes "quality not quantity," but that's not necessarily so. Some of the best artists in comics were also among the most prolific.

Jack Kirby, for example, could turn out three blockbusting pages a day. And he wasn't just drawing. He was plotting the stories and essentially creating the Marvel Universe at the same time.

Mac Raboy, meanwhile, could reportedly spend an entire day penciling, erasing and re-penciling one panel of a single page. Granted, they were really nice panels! But the guy was slooow and a perfectionist. That's the testament of nearly every peer of his interviewed by Roger Hill for this beautiful new book.

Raboy is likely best-known for his Golden Age work on Captain Marvel Jr. and his long run, from 1948 to 1967, on the Flash Gordon Sunday strip. He was an incredibly talented draftsman, one of those guys who could paint with a pencil. His faces and figure work were gorgeous, and clearly his true love. As Hill reports, some of his peers in comics complained that Raboy didn't like illustrating action, which, obviously, is the bread and butter of the superhero game. So, consequently, you get the sense that Raboy was one of those creators who, despite being supremely talented at what he did, didn't much enjoy doing it. Which is sad. Still, you'd never get that just from looking at the pictures.

What more do we learn about Raboy in this book? Not a heckuva lot. He was a quiet guy who didn't socialize much with his work peers. We don't get too much more information about his personal life or personality, but that's not for lack of trying on Hill's part. He includes interviews with several of Raboy's assistants and has done a great deal of research. He also interviewed the artist's son. But, for all of that, Raboy, the man, still emerges as a bit of a mystery.

Fortunately, there's a great deal of wonderfully selected and, often, rare art on display here, too. Included are some beautiful woodcuts Raboy did for the WPA during the Depression and, of course, lots of his comics work. The book is nicely written and designed, with excellent reproduction. You can order it via TwoMorrows Publishing now.

Pop Life: Ken Burns' "Country"'; Alex Toth

What I've been watching, reading, hearing etc.

 Ken Burns' "Country Music." I finally finished streaming my way through Ken Burns' most recent portrait of America, this one through the lens of country music from its beginnings to the present.

As with most of Burns' documentaries, it's mostly well done with lots of great old photos and clips - and a few egregious flaws.

The flaws? Well, for starters, there's no discussion of "Hee Haw," the hugely popular syndicated show that, for most Americans, was THE face of country music from the late 60s through the 1970s. Noting this, along with the fact that many country musicians and fans hated the show because it presented a derogatory and stereotyped view of the genre and of rural life, would've contributed valuable perspective to why many Americans still see country music as the soundtrack of bumpkins, not as real art or music, which it most certainly is - or, at least, can be.

Also, no discussion of of Glen Campbell, one of the genre's biggest crossover stars, who also had a TV show in the late 1960s and early 1970s that was country's other major face to the world.

And, finally, what's Wynton Marsalis doing here? Yes, Burns' including him in his jazz documentary made sense, even though Marsalis was way overused there. But including him here makes no sense at all. Not only is Marsalis not a country musician (although he's performed with Willie Nelson) he's possibly the most narrow-minded musician of all time. His jazz policing of the 1980s, during which he disparaged his more progressive elders non-stop, ruined careers and led to a forgotten generation of musicians who created far more interesting music than the corporate-delivered frozen-in-time hard bop he purveyed. And here he's supposed to be the guy with open ears. Just weird.

Nearly as weird is the inclusion of Darius "Hootie" Rucker who also once performed with Willie Nelson. But why is he here? Just because he's a familiar face? It's dumb. He certainly doesn't come across as an expert and offers nothing in terms of insight.

But, like I said, there are still lots of great old photos and many great musical clips.

If you're a person interested in learning more about country, the series may expose you to artists and songs you didn't know and it will give you a basic history of the genre. But it's imperfect and only the beginning of your journey.

UPDATE: From the comments section - sounds like some "Hee Haw" discussion must've slipped by me. Apologies to moptop Ken. I'll need to go back and look. Stand by the rest of this though! In particular, the commentators. Marsalis and Rucker are odd choices when there are so many other possibilities. Marty Stuart and the other genuine country musicians featured as commentators were great, and we're fortunate that Merle Haggard was interviewed before his passing. I wonder if they tried getting Tyler Mahan Coe, whose excellent Cocaine and Rhinestones podcast present an excellent history of country music - better than Burns'!

Treasures Retold: The Lost Art of Alex Toth. After three huge picture-packed volumes recounting the life, comics and animation work of the brilliant Alex Toth, IDW follows up with a huge supplementary collection of rare Toth works - both from his years in comics and his later days working as character designer and storyboarder for Hanna-Barbera.

As you might expect - given that we're talking about Toth - it's all beautiful stuff. The comics work - in black-and-white and color spans genres, from romance and sci-fi to suspense and high adventure. There are two long film adaptations, which are a wonder to behold. This is an artist who loved aircraft and it shows in his beautiful scenes of planes in flight. Somehow, he makes the rotors of helicopters appear like they're in motion. He was a master of the form.

The book is a real grab-bag - in the best possible sense of the phrase. Along with character designs for "The Herculoids" and some storyboards near the back of the book, there are also some rare promotional/educational pieces on the history of flight and...the history of milk! Who but Toth (except maybe Jack Kirby or Will Eisner) could make something like that beautiful and interesting?

This isn't the place to start if you want more Toth on your bookshelf (I'd go with the other three books first) but it's a glorious addition, beautifully presented (although the type is a little small, and I don't think it's just because I'm getting older). Highly recommended.

Pop Life: Prince; Khruangbin; Comedians in Cars

What I've been reading, watching, hearing, etc.

The Book of Prince. Fascinating article in The New Yorker this week from the co-author of Prince's upcoming, incomplete, memoir. We get a portrait of an enigmatic and brilliant artist, thinking deep thoughts on art and race and how he might use his planned book to change the world and upset the social order. His sudden death surprised his co-author just as much as anyone.

Khruangbin - Con Todo El Mundo. Surfy/psych/exotica that sounds indeterminantly ethnic but is made in America. On repeat on the kitchen stereo. They have newer stuff. Need to get that, too.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Cruising through the new season on Netflix. The Eddie Murphy episode is brilliant. He recently announced he's getting back into standup. Judging from this he's ready.

Review - "American Comic Book Chronicles: 1940-1944"

The Sixties were nothing to sneeze at, but when it comes to American comic books, the Forties were the biggest decade of all.

Comics were new pop culture sensation of the day - selling millions of copies at the newsstand and spawning multimedia tie-ins: radio shows, comic strips, movie serials and decoder rings. Hell, who needs streaming video and the Internet? Decoder rings!

After Superman and Batman socked open the floodgates in 1939, America's corner shops and grocery stores were inundated with a flood of colorfully clad heroes with seemingly more and more of them always on the way.

From DC (then known as National, which also soon swallowed up All-American Publications), you had not just the World's Finest duo, but also Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Hawkman, the Atom, the Spectre and more.

From Marvel (then doing business as Timely Comics) you had Captain America along with fire/water sparring partners the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner.

And over at Fawcett, you had the biggest-selling hero of all: Captain Marvel.

Plus, from all over the place, you had a whole range of other heroes - some great, some terrible: Blue Bolt, the Shield, the Fox, the Green Llama (for real!), etc., etc., etc.

And that's not mention other genres (yes, there were once other genres): Westerns, jungle adventure, sci-fi, funny animals and teen humor (a kid named Archie made his debut in 1941). All in color for dime.

So it's no wonder TwoMorrows is covering this storied decade over two - not just one - volumes in its excellent "American Comic Book Chronicles" series.

This first installment, penned by Kurt F. Mitchell in consultation with the famed Roy Thomas (who knows a thing or two about comics of the Forties. Don't get him started on the Justice Society), is excellent.

Mitchell's writing is clear and engaging and his scholarship robust. He does a great job of setting the stage, detailing where America was as the decade began - just recovering from the depression with a war on the way. Comic books, along with the aforementioned movies, serials, radio shows and more,  provided a lively distraction from it all. The book chronicles the gamut, from great comics and innovative creators to the crap and the hacks.

The decade saw the debut of masterful visual storytellers who became giants in the field: Jack Kirby, Will Eisner (yes, we're counting his Spirit strip as a comic book), Jack Cole, Reed Crandall, Mort Meskin, Mac Raboy, C.C. Beck, H.G. Peter and Carl Barks. But the book also makes mention of oddball creators of the day such as Basil Wolverton and the bizarre Fletcher Hanks, who'd like be classified an "outsider artist" if he were around today.

Examples of these and other creators is found throughout the book, which reproduces hundreds of comics covers and art pages - it's a joy to browse.

The emerging war, and America's involvement in it, is a constant, unavoidable part of the narrative throughout the book. By 1941 and 1942, domestic gangsters start to get sidelined as villains; our heroes are now too busy fighting the Axis threat. Jack Kirby's unforgettable over to Captain America #1 depicts the star-spangled warrior punching Hitler right in the face. Violent, yes, but such comics and images emboldened young Americans and fired them up to defend what's right.

Unfortunately, the war also sidelined many top creators for a number of years. Kirby was drafted and ended up fighting real Nazis in Europe, nearly freezing off his feet in the process. Eisner also served in the military, using comics in a new way to teach soldiers how to maintain equipment. A young writer/editor at Timely named Stan Lee was drafted, too, working in the Army's film training division. Part two will presumably cover the return of those creators and others following the war and their continued creative development, which saw the rise of the romance, crime and monster comics that ruled the Fifties (an era already covered in TwoMorrows' series).

This is a vital chunk of comics history, extremely well-captured. You can order it here.

Pop Life: Game of Thrones; Ramsey Lewis; Community

What I've been reading, watching, hearing, etc.

SPOILERS: After two, super-intense, episode-long battles, I found the final episode of "Game of Thrones" a bit slow and underwhelming. I appreciate the symmetry of naming Bran heir of the (now melted) Iron Throne elegant, but also a bit dissatisfying.

There were so many spectacular female characters on this show, it would've been nice to see one of them ascend. Why not Sansa or Arya? It's sort of like a presidential primary where there are lots of impressively qualified women in the race, but then somebody's creepy old uncle comes along and becomes the automatic front runner. Not that that would happen in our word. But, low-energy Bran (seriously, he looks like he's about to doze off half the time) has mystical powers and stuff, so there you go.

All-in-all, though, GOT was a captivating series. Lot of great characters and twists and turns. Not that it wasn't flawed. The torture, violence and, particularly, the sexual violence, was often more extreme than warranted. But I grew attached to many of the characters, some of which even made it to the end!

Now, will George R.R. Martin ever finish those books...?

Ramsey Lewis - "Mother Nature's Son." I picked this one up at a record sale a while back and found it unexpectedly groovy. I was expecting Beatles covers in Lewis' soulful trio format, ala his hit cover of "The 'In' Crowd." Instead, we get a batch of hot-of-the-presses "White Album" tunes with full orchestra and lots of wild, psychedelic production touches. Very much worth a listen.

"Community." My wife and I are re-watching this series on Hulu with our teen daughter and I'd totally forgotten how brilliant it is. The ensemble - including Chevy Chase, Alison Brie, Gillian Jacobs, Ken Jeong, Joel McHale and a yet-to-break-big Donald Glover - is fantastic, as are the "meta" concepts. On-the-spectrum character Abed (Danny Pudi) treats life as a TV show or movie, a perspective that's reinforced by numerous concept episodes, which include parodies of "Doctor Who," a clay-animated Christmas special and, of all things "My Dinner with Andre." My appreciation is renewed - the smartest/silliest thing I've ever seen. If you haven't watched it, you're in for a treat.

Pop Life: Aretha Franklin; Corto Maltese

Stuff I'm watching, reading, hearing.

"Amazing Grace." What a perfect way to spend Easter weekend - watching the Queen of Soul belt out gospel tunes before a small, live audience in a Los Angeles church. The experience is rapturous, even if you're not terribly, or traditionally, religious. Filmed in 1972 by director Sydney Pollack and a small crew, this wasn't released at the time due to technical issues (they didn't manage to syn the image and sound!), but is now beautifully restored. Filmed over two nights, the first is the best. The second seems more self-conscious and aware - as Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones are spotted by the camera seated in the back pew - and Aretha's too-slick and creepy dad taks the mic. But when she sings, man. Even the folks in the choir, no slouches themselves in the vocal department, can't help but gasp. In good theaters now.

"Corto Maltese: The Secret Rose." I'm only now getting into this series of remarkable graphic novels ("albums," they've called 'em for decades in Europe) by the amazing cartoonist Hugo Pratt. Corto Maltese is a rogueish, sea-faring adventurer. And, from what I've seen he does have real adventures. But in this one, the adventure takes place within his mind, as he contemplates alchemy, good and evil and the Holy Grail while under the mental/spiritual influence of author Hermann Hesse, who he meets up with while in Switzerland. Pratt's art - simple and in black and white - is a great example of what's so wonderful, and achievable in the comics medium as Corto travels through the surreal landscapes of his own consciousness. I need to take a deep dive into Pratt's work - this one moved and inspired me as only the best literature, graphic or otherwise, can. Order it here.

Pop Life: "Catastrophe," "Killing Eve," "Apollo 11"

What I'm reading, watching, hearing, etc.

"Catastrophe." That was way too quick. My wife and I buzzed through all six new season 3 episodes of this brilliant Amazon Prime series in just as many days. The show is a cringe comedy, but not one that generates uneasy laughter via unlikely situations. This show's situations and dialogue are all too real. Anyone who's been married for a while will recognize how real life will never let the ideal of marital bliss realize it's just a crock. The frustrations of child-rearing, the stress of career, the anguish of loss, annoying family and friends - it's the ability to get through all this crap together, and to recognize it's absurdity, is what successful marriage is truly all about. The comic chemistry, and writing, of co-stars Sharon Hogan and Rob Delaney is brilliant. As a couple, they never seem less than real - just a lot funnier and, frankly, meaner than most married folk. There are a few moments in this short season that fall to the level of "just plain comedy" and predictability, I'd say, but "Catastrophe" set it's bar very high and, overall, this is still one of the best shows running/streaming anywhere. The last episode of this run, which serves as a tribute of sorts to the late Carrie Fisher, who played Delaney's mother, is a heart breaker for all sorts of reasons - hard to watch, yet I wanted to see more and more.

"Killing Eve." Before we buzzed all the way through "Catastrophe," we buzzed all the way through season 1 of this suspense-comedy starring the endearingly awesome Sandra Oh as an intelligence officer pursuing, and being pursued by, the terrifyingly awesome Jodie Comer as a French assassin. The two leads here are incredible. The show's suspense comes not from the situation they're placed in, but in trying to guess - usually unsuccessfully - how each character will respond. Both Eve (Oh) and Villanelle (Comer) are loose canons. Their motivations are unclear and unpredictable - not just to the view, but to the characters' themselves. They aren't quite sure, moment to moment, what they will do, or why. The dialogue is sharp - some of the funniest of seen/heard anywhere on screen in recent years. Season 2 starts April 7 on AMC/BBC America, but we're cord cutters, so hopefully it'll turn up on Hulu before too terribly long.

"Apollo 11." Anyone fascinated by the Golden Age of space exploration and in love with the 1960s will eat this documentary up with the spoon. The footage, both terrestrial and lunar, is vividly restored and in bright color. Maybe you're old enough to remember the first moon landing (I'm not, I was 3) but you never saw it like this. There are no talking heads looking back 50 years. The narration comes from news coverage (including lots of the late, great Walter Cronkite) and NASA personnel. The action unfolds in real time and it's scary and exciting even though you know exactly what's going to happen. The bravery of Apollo's crew and the brilliance of NASA's engineers are inspiring, yet there's also an undercurrent of sadness knowing that America is no longer as united, as imaginative and as daring as it was when the space program was firing on all cylinders. Side note: Seeing guys land on the moon was awesome, but so is seeing a young Johnny Carson in shades sauntering through the crowd watching the Apollo lift-off at Kennedy Space Center.