1. Legends of Tomorrow: Season 2. The second season of DC’s “time-traveling superhero team up” show is a vast improvement over the pretty good first season, with better writing, more interesting villains, and some very entertaining trips to the past (including the Old West, Feudal Japan, prehistoric times, and the trenches of WWI, among many others). The highlight is the very well-done midseason episode, which involves a crossover with Arrow, Supergirl and The Flash to stop an alien invasion. The first half of the season is pretty episodic, but it gains focus in the second half, when the team goes on an Indiana Jones-esque quest through time to find the Spear of Destiny and the blood of Christ before the villains do.
The show does employ its usual penchant for social justice, with dialogue about women’s empowerment, a visit to a Confederate plantation during the Civil War and the fact that every other female they meet in history turns out to be a secret lesbian who wants to get into a bisexual team member’s pants. But at least it’s less preachy and more woven into the storyline than last season. (The show’s makers also were apparently so convinced that Hillary Clinton would win the election last year, they created an “alternate reality” 2017 in which Trump is President. Whoops!) On the other hand, we also get to see the team help George Washington fight the Redcoats, and make a quip about how bad the government is at getting things done. The show’s real saving grace is Mick Rory, the team’s amoral smart aleck played by Dominick Purcell, who livens up even the weakest episodes with his amusing quips and devil-may-care attitude. He does for this show what Jayne Cobb did for Firefly. That plus some snappy dialogue and breezy adventuring makes for a mostly-satisfying season of television.
2. Sandy Wexler. I gave Adam Sandler’s newest Netflix flick a watch based on Eric’s recommendation, and found it to be a mixed bag. Sandler plays a kind-hearted but clueless and incompetent Hollywood agent who watches as one of his clients (Jennifer Hudson, whom I’ve never seen quite so charming or likeable) hits it big and ends up leaving him behind in the dust. There are some funny moments (mostly from the supporting cast like Terry Crews) and lots of amusing celebrity cameos, and its being set in the ‘90s generates some laughs about how quickly things became dated after that.
But there are at least as many jokes that miss as those that hit, and the last 20 minutes goes almost completely serious on us. I like Sandler, but his character is pretty annoying (the running gag is that he tells idiotic lies, then tells even worse lies to get out of them, which isn’t particularly funny), and the movie goes on way too unbearably long. 2 hours and 10 minutes, seriously? This is a 90-minute story, tops. I appreciate that Sandler’s doing his own thing with Netflix, but if he wants to keep people watching his movies, he’s got to reign things in a bit.
3. Tangled. At Jimmy Jr.’s request we rewatched Disney’s recent Rapunzel movie for the umpteenth time. It came out shortly before Frozen, and many remarked at how similar the two films were in terms of story (both are about a young princess with magical powers who is separated from her family at a young age). But seeing it again I was struck by how it’s not only better than the overrated Frozen, but a much more conservative take on that story as well. While Frozen was basically misanthropic, seeing people as mostly bad and bigoted and defining “empowerment” as getting away from everyone and leaving them to freeze, Tangled is humanistic, seeing people as mostly good and worthy. In fact, a major plot point is that the villainess keeps the heroine enslaved by lying to her that everyone else is evil, when in fact she is the evil one.
Frozen also takes an ultra-feminist view of gender, seeing women as the only ones allowed to be heroes and depicting the men as either useless or evil. Tangled, on the other hand, allows men to be men (more masculine, roguish and assertive) and women to be women (generally more feminine and caring towards others), and there are good and evil of both genders. It’s not all one gender good, one gender bad. And other than the music (which is still pretty good although not Frozen-level quality), Tangled is the superior film in every way: more likeable characters, more upbeat storyline, better action and dialogue, the love story is deeper and more heartfelt, and even the animal sidekicks are more fun to watch.
4. Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return. Given the sorry current state of comedy, when I heard they were crowd-funding an MST3K Reboot I expected an unfunny politically correct rehash shackled (especially given the involvement of annoying liberals like Patton Oswalt). However, after checking out the first season, “pleasantly surprised” doesn’t even begin to cover it. All the ‘bots are back, the format is basically the same (even the theme song has only been slightly reworked), and by some miracle they get the tone just right – it helps that Joel Hodgson returned as one of the writers. The jokes are consistently funny, observant and family-friendly. And best of all, the show hasn’t been infiltrated by the PC monster. There are even jokes about safe spaces and common core! If you walked into one of the movie segments with no prior knowledge, you’d swear you were watching the original show, at least until they threw in a reference to Kickstarter or social media. Even the host segments (which were the weak part of the original show IMHO) are pretty good. Take this one, where new host Jonah breaks into an irreverent song about how every country has its own mythical monster:
As host, Jonah is not quite on the level of Mike or Joel, but he definitely gets the job done. He’s witty and down-to-earth, and his enthusiasm for the material is palpable. Felicia Day is also quite funny as the new mad scientist, and Oswalt is, well, tolerable as her assistant. There are plenty of homages to the original show and cameos by its cast members to keep fans happy, too. This is not a cash grab, but something clearly made by people who loved the original and want to pass that experience on to a new generation.
5. 300: Rise of an Empire. The follow-up film to 300, which serves as both a prequel and a sequel to that film, doesn’t quite rise to the same heights as Zack Snyder’s masterpiece but serves as a worthy companion piece. It starts out by telling us of the rise of Xerxes and his Persian empire, aided greatly by Artemisia (Eva Green), a turncoat female Greek warrior with a grudge against her own people. Following that, it depicts the Greek vs. Persian naval battles that paralleled and followed the story in 300. It doesn’t tell quite as grand a story as the first film, but the battles are on a greater scale, and seeing these old-fashioned wooden boats engage in naval combat is something to behold.
Aussie actor Sullivan Stapleton (Strike Back), playing the Greek hero Themistocles, doesn’t fill Gerard Butler’s considerable shoes, nor does he try to. His character, and his men, aren’t fanatical Spartans but more of a regular guy forced into a difficult war which makes him easier to identify with but less fun to watch. On the other hand, Rodrigo Santoro and Eva Green make great larger-than-life villains, and most of the surviving members of 300’s cast return to kick more Persian asses. Again, while it’s filmed in the same style as 300, it doesn’t try to ape that film, but instead tells its own story, which is pretty entertaining in its own right. It also has plenty of bloody action, and what has to be one of the weirdest sex scenes in movie history. So there’s that.