Captain Marvel, three random short series, and more!
The Right Hand by Derek Haas
This is a spy novel about a - hold onto your hat here - spy who's sent to Russia to uncover what happened to another spy and, via some mission creep, winds up involved in unmasking a much larger plot. I won't spoiler the plot details - they're somewhat conventional anyway - but I'll just say that the book zips nicely along and kind of simultaneously succeeds and fails with its lead character. It succeeds in that the author develops a somewhat interesting backstory for the character and fails in the sense that the author doesn't then follow through and play out that backstory in a specific way in the present-tense story. Like the backstory (without spoilering) involves some rough parenting and I kind of wanted to see either (or both) (a) the messy unresolved psychology around that backstory playing out in spite of the rigidity of spy training and/or (b) some of the scrappiness he evinced as a child showing up in how he handles the present-tense event. Instead, the lead’s just a pretty conventional spy thus making the specifics of his backstory somewhat meaningless other than as filler. It's not that the book is boring or anything - it’s a short and fast read - but just somewhat by-the-numbers and I guess all the backstory made me think I'd be getting a lead with an odder more unconventional process a, dare I say, bit of a maverick in contrast to spy stuff I'd read before. The book passes the time and you could totally finish it on a cross-country flight, but it kind of missed the mark for me overall.
The Great British Photography Challenge (Season 1):
This is a very short (4 episodes) competition reality series - or at least that's how it's billed - but I'd say it's more of a series about dedicated amateur photographers discovering their style. I mean, yeah, there's a "winner" at the end but really the bulk of the show is about 6 photographers brought in under a successful professional photographer and given challenges to push themselves. For example, each week sends the contestants somewhere to do a challenge where they have an hour to get an interesting shot with the same equipment we all have, i.e. a phone. They then get sent to be mentored in something specific, like sports photography or taking a nature pic and the like. Then there's some commercial challenge (fashion, actor photo, branding, etc.). No one's eliminated, which is why I'm not really considering this as a competition show; rather, the photos are critiqued by the professional and his team. The show itself is in that uniquely British blend of interesting topic done with a bit of ponderous seriousness meaning your interest in the show is primarily connected to your interest in photography. My interest in that topic is minimal, but I still liked it because the interesting thing about photography in a TV/Streaming show is that you, the viewer, are, from your couch, kind of in the same position as the contestants and I found myself wondering what I’d shoot thus making the reveals later of what the contestants had shot much more interesting because I had some kind of reference point in my head. I think the thing that makes this show relatable (if admittedly slightly dull - I'm not sure I could handle more than 4 episodes unless the production team really made it much more of a competition) is we all have cameras and there's something about looking at an environment then a few minutes later seeing what these six individuals captured in that environment that made me think about maybe upping my own game photographically until I instantly became too lazy to do exactly that. If the topic is of interest and if you think of this more as a documentary series about amateur photographers learning to develop a professional eye rather than a competition show, it's really not bad.
The Other Two (Season 1):
This is a sitcom about the older less successful siblings a teen Youtube sensation and it's one of those shows that's funny in smallish doses but impossible, at least for this Janice, to binge because of the rat-a-tat joke-rhythm sameness and the fact that the characters are pretty cardboard and the situations the same more or less from episode to episode. To be clear: I enjoyed it but like in 10ish minute increments spread out over a month or two. Essentially the setup is there are two 20something siblings, the guy waiting tables while chasing an acting career and his sister sort of being aimless careerwise and how they try to glom onto their younger brother's overnight success to grab fame. For sure, the writers create funny jokes and situations out of this setup but I don't know - watching people trying to become famous week after week feels, not just uninteresting (it's 2 1-note characters here), but kind of tired as a trope. I mean yeah I realize there are still billions of people trying to become Insta/TikTok-famous but as a source of current humor it feels so, I don't know, post-Kardashian-post-Kardashian-backlash-post-I’m-the-next-Kardiashian-post-who-are-the-Kardashians-yawn aka 2017. So the reason this show isn't bingeable - or perhaps would be precisely the reason it's bingeable for you I guess - is that it's more or less episode after episode of the characters trying to get invited places where they'll meet famous people or can try to wedge their way onto an influencer's feed or whatnot. The characters are all written with such absurdity that, while there's a point late in the season where the writers ask the viewer to take a character moment of sadness seriously, it's impossible because everything is just so ridiculous. To me the show feels like an SNL sketch stretched to 10x its length then multiplied by 10 or so episodes. I don't know. Like I said, it's amusing in small doses but the almost aggressive lack of anything resembling reality in terms of the world or anyone's behavior becomes really wearing over time. But for the 10ish minutes (episodes are around 20 mins each) while getting ready to go out or go to bed or whatever, it's pretty entertaining and you can absolutely start and stop anywhere because, while there are vague connections to prior episodes, really they mostly play as one-offs and, as they're all pretty much the same, if you like/hate the first episode you'll probably like/hate them all.
This Way Up (Seasons 1-2):
While I wouldn't say the second season of a Britcom about a functioning but somewhat messed up woman trying to find love is as good as the first, it's still entertaining, and I’ll totally watch a third if it comes out. The show focuses on two sisters - the messed up one and one who's messed up but in a more functional way - and, because all the situations they get into are either very sitcomy (e.g. messed-up-sister loses a tooth and tries to hide it from her boyfriend) your enjoyment of this show will be dependent on how funny you think the actors are in playing both their various situations and their highly-codependent sibling relationship. I like the actors (the less-messed-up sister is the lead woman from Catastrophe and the other is someone I'd never seen before) and think they're both funny so enjoyed this show. Much of this series revolves around the messed up one and her boyfriend - the single parent of a student she's tutoring - getting into then later hiding their relationship though I wasn't really clear why (and, no, that's not a season 1 spoiler because you can kind of see it coming from the first episode though that season is primarily about how they fall into that relationship). There are definite dramatic beats - less-messed's finance wants kids and she isn't sure; messed-up overhears her boyfriend saying negative things about her to his friend; etc. - which add to the show and each season carries a full story arc. But really the pleasure (or not depending) is based, as noted, on how appealing you find the actors and how funny you find the somewhat rat-a-tat though nowhere near as rat-a-tat as The Other Two (above) dialogue to be. Overall I think the show’s entertaining though it has a tendency to go for body/dick humor (like there's a whole sequence around messed-up's hemorrhoids) which can be very hit or miss (though the jokes do definitely sometimes hit) and a feeling of contrivance around the dramatic situations, like if you think too hard about the main relationships and why the characters are behaving the way they are, it sort of falls apart. All that being said, I enjoyed this show because I like the actors, thought when the jokes hit they really hit, and found enough appeal in the dramatic stuff that I wasn’t bothered by some of the situations or when the jokes fell flat. It's about women in their 40s groping for love and relationships in the context of close but very different siblings with around 25ish mins per episode and only 6 eps per season and at that length with those characters and jokes I was thoroughly entertained.
Captain Marvel (Marvel Universe #21) - What with Black Panther and its implicitly racist though still more progressive than not all/mostly-Black cast and now this movie with a female (I assume that’s how she identifies though it’s never discussed) superhero, the Marvel Universe has made an amazing social leap to the early '80s! Also this film FINALLY pronounced Marvel the way I always do in my head (and sometimes out loud if I can't correct myself in time) which is MarVEL as in CarVEL as in thinking about ice cream cake 24/7 and getting the two confused. I'm not gonna say I understood a huge amount of what was going on in this film, but I am going to say I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of whatever it was I understood or misunderstood as this one, unlike the drastic bulk of these movies, actually managed to be entertaining with a fun plot twist that the gummied among us certainly never saw coming plus Annette Bening and so I was good.
So we meet Mrs. Marvel, who's neither married, referred to that way, or an ice cream cake yet that's how I thought of her the entire time, though perhaps that's because she was at some point in a haze of memory (a recurring theme of this film as you'll soon see) referred to as Ms Marvel (which is now a series I think? it’s all so confusing!), though I make no promises as to that. And just to sidebar: while I know Ms was revolutionary for its time, women now seem to have three options available to them: I'm not married (Miss); I'm married (Mrs.); I'm not going to reveal my marital status (Ms). Are you seeing a theme here that doesn't apply to Mr. at all? Martial status aside, I'm pretty sure everyone involved in this project was hyperaware that their lead was NOT A MAN (though also not not White as I guess non-male AND non-White would've shattered the Marvel Universe in such a way that it would've demanded a bunch of White men come to save it thus defeating the entire purpose), though it would've been nice if they'd put the same hyperawareness on explaining to anyone (me) what was going on. Thus to emphasize her gender absent any reference to marital status I'm hereby dubbing her Lady Marvel for the remainder of this review and perhaps all time.
Just to note before continuing: much of the plot confusion, which I’m going to avoid discussing for what I’d like to claim are spoiler reasons but mostly because I had no idea what was going on, stems from, as with Christopher Nolan's Memento (but not abominable Tenet) and that other dreamy one he did with dreamboat dreamer Leonardo DiCaprio, Lady Marvel’s efforts trying to recover her memories which basically involves somehow going back in time or something like that to relive things she forgot and all that time travel and amnesia was a LOT for me.
As far as I can gather, Lady Marvel, who, as with Captain MAGA, is also a Captain of absolutely nothing but it's in the title so there that is, works under Jude Law as a kind of, I don't know, superpowered enforcer of some kind on behalf of some other I don't know - alien leader or something? - where Annette Bening is the face of the supercomputer that runs everything only she's Annette Bening to some and has the face of someone else to others, a point which is emphasized numerous times but never seems to make a difference one way or the other. Is this making a lick of sense? Basically (I think) there's a big Annette-Bening-shaped supercomputer plus some interplanetary warleader thing plus Jude Law. Did it make one lick more of sense when I typed it a second time? Yeah, me either.
So Lady M gets captured on Earth at some point where it's revealed she has some kind of amnesia though I have absolutely no idea whatsoever why and, in the course of trying to remember whatever it was she forgot, she, like all of us, dreams of Annette Bening training her in kickboxing and putting some superpowered weaponry in her fist which Lady M uses to wipe out swaths of civilians and whatnot in the name of, well, Jude Law? Or maybe his boss? Whatever. She kills people on behalf of other people and eventually discovers her memories are residing in a crystal on Earth (perhaps in an earlier era with time travel or maybe not?) and I'm sure there was a very good reason explained in exquisite detail as to why her memories are residing in a crystal and how, since as just noted her memories are locked in a crystal, she remembers they’re locked in a crystal but, if so, my memory of all that is also I guess locked in a similar crystal somewhere because I have absolutely no idea. Additionally, Annette Bening it turns out isn't just a supercomputer but was also Lady M's boss when Lady M was a fighter pilot living on Earth (maybe?), though Annette Bening-as-boss was apparently also a rebel alien species wearing Annette Bening drag in order to pass as Lady M's fighter pilot boss and reveal critical plot information which I think winds up in the crystal.
I’m going to ask one more time: does any of this make sense (no really)?
As it turns out Lady M also had some besties back from her Earth days which her amnesia erased and, well, I won't spoiler - and, yes, there is a spoilerable beat in here which I actually understood and remember thank you very much but am not going to reveal as it’s definitely fun if you don’t see it coming (which quite possibly may be more of a sorry statement about moi than a compliment to the writers though I’m really hoping it’s the latter) - but basically the entire movie is about Lady M going farther and farther back into her memories where Annette Bening (kind of) reveals what's really going on (this would be the spoiler) and then Lady M's megabattle to deal with the spoiler issue. Even though I understood more or less nothing, I was still thoroughly entertained and, despite my cluelessness, I still got enough of the gist of it to follow the basic plot. Or even if I didn't really follow it, I followed something and was amused by it and most of Earth survived so I'm calling this a win for Marvel, both the Lady and the Universe, and, I guess, the ice cream cake.