Wednesday, November 18, 2020

This Is Us 5.04: "Honestly"

“Do not make your dreams smaller, make them bigger. Not in spite of your daughter, but for her.”
– Randall

This episode moved the story along marginally more than the last episode did, but we got some interesting and needed nuggets of backstory, especially for Kate. She and Toby are trying to temper their expectations with Ellie (their potential birth mom) as they sign a birth plan and Kate goes her next ultrasound. Things seem to be going well until Kate calls the baby Chloe. Ellie later explains that a girl in high school who bullied her and tried to convince her future husband not to go out with her was named Chloe. More importantly to the story, though, she admits she consid4ered abortion. Kate says there’s no judgment there but later on, she admits to Toby (and it may very well be the first non-medical person she’s told) that after her break-up with Marc, she discovered at age eighteen, that she was pregnant. We knew that there was going to be more to Kate’s story and that this will lead into her dependence on food. I’m wondering if she turned to food and put on the weight to avoid men wanting to be with her so she wouldn’t risk getting pregnant again. I am eager to see where this storyline goes and I pray it isn’t as traumatizing as it could be (as in, I hope she doesn’t have to deal with Marc over the decision to abort the pregnancy but this was in the 90s so it’s possible).

Out in Philly, Randall is kind of excited to have Malik shadowing him for the day for a civics project. Things don’t go as planned though because Malik shows up six minutes later and he’s yawning through a morning meeting with Jaewon. Randall has taken to doing a daily livestream to his constituents where he shares news and answers questions. Malik is excited to be able to help out when Jaewon has a conflict, but his attention gets diverted by a phone call from his mom about his daughter and he misses the cue to cut the livestream. This results in all of Philly getting to see Randall Pearson undress (well only his shirt but still) and do a nerdy little dance around his office while he folds his dress shirt. The video goes viral and we see the Vietnamese man watching and he seems to recognize William’s name. There’s clearly more to that story that I hope we find out soon.

Kevin’s story in the present is the most tied in to the glimpses we see of the Pearson past. We get to watch Rebecca and Jack trying to sleep train baby Kevin who just keeps howling. Having been there not that long ago, it definitely hurt my heart. But jack was right, they had to let Kevin cry it out and eventually he managed to settle himself down. But this gives us a look at how Rebecca treats Kevin. Whenever things get too hard for him, she swoops in and lets him off the hook. Didn’t want to continue Boy Scouts because it was boring, she let him quit. And in the preteen storyline, she’s ready to let Kevin quit football because he seems miserable. Jack insists that Kevin made a commitment to the team and he needs to stick with it. (Side note: I was kind of surprised to see George Eads playing the football coach). Kevin has been working out a lot but he’s not having any luck memorizing the playbook. He calls Randall a nerd for color coding his study notes but eventually, he begs his brother to help him learn the football plays. Rebecca see the boys getting along and it’s kind of touching to see Kevin studying the plays via flashlight after Randall has gone to bed. Jack is also pleased to see his son has managed to stick with something. He tells Rebecca that he wants to let his kids know that he sees greatness in them because his father saw nothing in him and called him “Jack of all trades, master of none”. I do hope we get to see more of Jack’s history with his father. I really want to know how the man we saw when Nicky was born became the abusive alcoholic asshole he was when he died.

In the present, Kevin has gone for the meeting with the director for the new movie and he’s excited to be working with both the director and the female lead. But the director is overly dismissive of Kevin and praises the female lead repeatedly. Kevin gets kind of frustrated as he’s trying to do what the director wants but isn’t sure how his performance isn’t meeting expectations. While I understand the director wanted to push Kevin, I thought he could have bene less of a jerk about it. He could have actually given Kevin notes if he thought he wasn’t handling the scene the way he’d envisioned it. Afterward, Kevin tries to get feedback which the director takes as looking for an “Atta-boy”. He tells Kevin he could be a great actor if he put in the work. Kevin ultimately says he’ll be back the following day. But on the ride home, he calls Kate and says he thinks he might not stick with it because his performance was “tired” (Randall used the same words, which Kate points out). Kevin is dismissive of Kate bringing up Randall’s feelings of being unseen in his white family although we see in the past that Randall points out that he has to try twice as hard as all the other kids at his school to be the best because of his race. That night, the director sends Kevin an “Atta-boy” gift basket and Kevin tosses it aside and goes back to using Randall’s study method to learn the script. So maybe there will be some sort of reconciliation down the line.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

This Is Us 5.03: "Changes"

“I got stuff too, Madison. I got a lot of stuff. Including stuff with my brother I have to work out. but sometimes I lay in bed and I stare at the ceiling and I worry that I’m gonna pass that on to my kids.”
- Kevin

So, this episode didn’t move things although very far in any particular story but it was nice to see the pre-teen (eighth grade) Big Three starting to hit puberty and watch Jack and Rebecca try to deal with all of that while Randall and Beth tried to deal with an acting out Tess. In the past, we see some of the competitiveness between Kevin and Randall come out when Randall points out that Kevin’s weight at the doctor is below average. Then at home, Kate is excited because her ex-boyfriend, Stuart, picked to be in her group project. While Jack tries to bond with Kevin over sports and working out (something that ultimately becomes an addiction and obsession for Kevin), Rebecca tries to help Kate impress Stuart while the other girl in her group hits on Randall. She tries to kiss him he freaks out. She makes a comment about how she’s always wanted to kiss someone like him. That’s either a race thing or a smarts thing and given where the writers are taking Randall this season, I’m inclined toward the former. And poor Kate learns that Stuart just wanted to be in her group because of the subject they were covering.

In the present, Tess is being a somewhat typically moody teenager, not wanting to eat her mom’s pancakes and just being contrary. We soon learn she and a friend made a video insulting/clapping back at a teacher they felt wronged them. The teacher touched Tess’s hair and referred to her friend as ‘she” when the friend goes by “they/them”. The video included the phrase “screw you”. Beth classified this as profane language and Tess ultimately gets grounded and loses her phone for six weeks. Now, I don’t disagree that the video was inappropriate, and it appears the conduct toward Tess stopped when she confronted the teacher about it. But the punishment does seem rather harsh. There are far worse things they could have said in that video. On another note, Randall has found a new Black therapist whom he feels comfortable with. He is also instructed by said therapist to write down the first childhood story that comes to mind. I think it’s the one we saw play out in this episode because I’m sure Randall never really processed those feelings.

We have a little bit of mystery this episode, too, with a Vietnamese grandfather and his granddaughter. They’re out fishing, and the little girl catches a big fish, but is then impatient while her grandfather prepares and cooks it. He points out that he learned to cook to impress a woman and by episode’s end we see that the woman is Laurel, Randall’s birth mom. So, either she was a long-time love who died or was just a passing part of his life but it is entirely possible that Randall has other family out there, not that he seems overly interested in keeping in touch with the ones from William’s side of the line. But I’m sure we will find out all there is to know in due time.

Out in LA, Kate and Toby meet their potential birth mother. In typical Kate and Toby fashion, they banter a little while they wait but then it seems almost too goo to be true when she arrives. She loves Kate’s mask, named her daughter Willow after the character from Buffy (apparently Hush is her favorite episode….yeah I won’t go into that because I personally felt all of season 4 was pretty terrible). She has a Ghost Busters ring tone. As Toby points out, it was like she looked them up on social media ahead of time. Having never been involved in an adoption I don’t know the kind of things they would put in an adoption profile but I’m pretty sure it isn’t that kind of information. But the birth mom explains that she has an eight-year-old daughter from a marriage that ended when her husband died. She rebounded with some random guy and she doesn’t want this baby. The look on Kate’s face when she talked about ending up in bed with a stranger only hours after meeting him reminds me of some of Kate’s behavior from the first season and I’m wondering if that informs part of why she turned to food as her vice. I can’t tell if she’s playing them or if this might actually work out because she did mention that the baby is a girl, and we know Jack has a sister. We also get a kind of adorable argument over diapers which is also quintessential Kate and Toby.

And we can’t end without checking in on Kevin and Madison, who honestly are starting to grow on me. Kevin gets a call about a new movie role, but Madison seems kind of unhappy about it. He tries to ask her about it, but she brushes him off until they eventually both open up to each other. Kevin admits that working out is an addiction, like alcohol and so he’s been obsessing. Plus, at 40, it’s harder to maintain a ripped physique and that’s how he made his career, so he feels like he needs to keep it up. Madison explains that she struggles with bulimia and she keeps the sonogram of the babies on the fridge to remind herself t eat because when she goes to the doctor and they weigh her and she sees the number going up, she panics. While they’ve done this whole relationship thing backwards, I think it was probably one of the most self-aware, mature conversations Kevin’s had in a while. So, good on them. I am interested to see where they go with this relationship as time goes on.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

A Belated Halloween Round-Up: Modern Takes on the Classic Country House Murder Mystery

As I’ve said on here several times now, I’m not watching much traditional scripted television anymore. I’m a Youtube fiend (give me all the travel, cooking, and foreign language learning channels!), and I still love me a good calming stand and stir or cooking competition. I’m also trying to learn Spanish (I was actually supposed to be in Mexico for Dia de Muertos right now, but that has been postponed for probably at least two years), so finding content in Spanish on streaming services has also been a focus for me. La Casa de la Flores on Netflix is especially fun. All this is to say I wasn’t originally intending to do my usual seasonal posts this year. Then, when I was watching “Clue,” one of my favorite movies, on Halloween night, I had an idea for a belated, not really about TV Halloween post. I’m going to talk about modern takes on the classic country house murder mystery. Three are films, and one is a web series, and all are quite entertaining. Welcome to Jen’s Halloween mystery dinner party. Will you survive?

Clue (1985)

When I was growing up, Clue was one of my favorite board games. My Dad taught me a strategy that would give me a very high chance of winning (I’m not telling), and I always relished a chance to put that strategy into action. Movies based on any existing piece of intellectual property a studio can come up with (Battleship, anyone?) is kind of a cliché joke these days, but “Clue,” coming decades before this trend, is truly a well developed, clever film.

It’s a dark and spooky night of course, and a group of Washingtonians (and one New Yorker who works for the WHO) find themselves at a remote mansion dinner party at the invitation of “Mr. Body.” They are all asked to use pseudonyms, of course, and so we meet Professor Plum the kind of skeevy psychiatrist, Miss Scarlet the madam, and Mrs. Peacock the Senator’s wife, to name a few. The events that follow weave together blackmail, state secrets, and “me too” before its time. There are so many great, classic performances in “Clue.” I think the late, great Madeline Kahn describing her anger at her husband as “flames on the side of my face” is always quotable. Tim Curry, in a memorable turn as Wadsworth the butler, says “no” in a unique way that uses all the vowels. Christopher Lloyd is always a treat, even as the super creepy psychiatrist. Eileen Brennan (you’ll hear about her again) brings both comedy and an edge to Mrs. Peacock. Michael McKean as the hapless (so it seems) Mr. Green is also memorable. To top it all off, there are three endings to the story, and any way you watch it, you’ll get to see all three.

Edgar Allan Poe’s Murder Mystery Dinner Party (2016)

As a Baltimorean, I’m a bit of an Edgar Allan Poe enthusiast. I have raven bookends on my kitchen cookbook shelf and a picture of a “passive aggressive raven” that says “nevermind” near that. I also lived across the street from Poe’s grave for three years, and some friends who lived in the same apartment building even threw a Poe’s birthday party one year. So I was predisposed to like this literary take on a country house murder mystery featuring Mr. Poe and his friendly household ghost, Lenore.

“Poe Party,” as it is known among fans, was written by siblings Sean and Sinead Persaud and produced by their web video production company Shipwrecked Comedy. It was funded by Kickstarter (full disclosure: I was a backer). Shipwrecked always tries to do work with a literary bent, and “Poe Party” was the epitome of that. Poe, in a bid to win over the heart of Annabel Lee, hosts a big murder mystery dinner party and invites all famous authors like Mary Shelley, Charlotte Bronte, Earnest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells, and more. The murder mystery party turns into a real murder mystery, and the twists and turns keep coming. “Poe Party” is mostly a very clever comedy, but it has its tragic moments as well, and the cast clearly loves what they are working on.

Knives Out (2019)

I spent New Year’s Eve 2019 seeing “Knives Out” at one of those upscale eat a mediocre yet overpriced dinner while you watch your movie places because it was close to my house, and I don’t like to do a whole lot of driving on New Year’s Eve. Little did I know that I would only see one more movie in a theater (Parasite) before the pandemic would hit. I decided to watch “Knives Out” because I generally like country house murder mysteries, and I thought it would be fun to see a contemporary take on it. As much as I love all things Disney (the animated movies, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars – all of it), I was also craving something with an original plot not based on existing intellectual property.

“Knives Out,” directed by Rian Johnson (I liked “The Last Jedi." Luke has always been a whiny brat. Fight me.), has quite the all star cast, including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Christopher Plummer. Plummer plays famous mystery writer Harlan Thrombley, who has serious health problems and is nearing the end of his life. His nurse, Marta, is played by Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas, who gives a very memorable performance (and is now currently dating Ben Affleck, but that’s a subject for another blog!). Thrombley is found dead of apparent suicide after hish eighty-fifth birthday celebration, and the plot takes off from there. What is a bit different about “Knives Out” compared to the other works we’re talking about here is that the police and famous Louisiana detective Benoit Blanc (Craig) are investigating a murder that has already happened, as opposed to a bunch of unrelated people being gathered for a party, and then a murder taking place that they have to solve. It is a lot of fun and even manages to work in some immigrants’ rights material.

Murder by Death (1976)

“Murder by Death,” written by Neil Simon, is the oldest of the murder mystery parodies I’m showcasing here, and there are certainly aspects of it that don’t age well at all (mostly having to do with Sam Diamond, who is played by the legendary Columbo himself, Peter Falk, and the stereotypical Chinese detective Sidney Wang, played by the talented, but Caucasian, Peter Sellers). I tend to take films as products of their time and not completely disregard them for how women and minorities are portrayed, but I felt it was important to point out those aspects here, because they are definitely problematic in 2020 and don’t reflect the world as it should be.

Like “Poe Party,” “Murder by Death” has a literary bent. Lionel Twain, played by none other than Truman Capote, has called together five of the world’s greatest private detectives and their companions for what essentially turns into a competition for who can solve his murder first. Each of the detectives are parodies of detectives in literature and pop culture, such as Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and the Thin Man. I feel like “Murder by Death” is the most farcical and out there of the four parodies. It includes twists and turns such as multiple versions of the same room and simulated thunderstorms. Lionel Twain (or is he really Lionel Twain?) is one sick puppy. I do enjoy watching the mystery unfold, though, and I also enjoy the caricatures of famous fictional detectives. Oh, and at the risk of not following the Chekhov's gun rule, Eileen Brennan was in this film too, as Sam Diamond's harried assistant, Tess Skeffington.