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The Best Movies of 2019 That You (Probably) Haven’t Seen

The Best Movies of 2019 That You (Probably) Haven’t Seen

Poster for “Alita: Battle Angel.”

Even though 2019 is being bemoaned for its low box-office sales due to a hard case of “franchise fatigue” with all of the sequels and spinoffs hitting theaters, the year has seen strong outings from Hollywood’s biggest properties in terms of both box office and quality. Avengers: Endgame is approximately three inches away from taking the Highest Grossing Film title away from Avatar, and is also among the MCU’s best films. Shazam!, a terrifically cute superhero re-imagining of Big, did surprisingly well at the box office given DC’s lackluster filmography. While films like X-Men: Dark Phoenix and MIB: International make the franchise pool look murky, Endgame, Shazam!, and non-superhero fair like Toy Story 4 have made 2019 a decent year for franchises so far.

But this article isn’t about those movies. Shazam! doesn’t need my help in getting people to see it (although you definitely should). While my Top Ten of 2019 holds several big-name blockbusters, there are a number of small movies that were quietly uploaded to Netflix or did not attract the audiences at the box-office that they deserve. I would like to give a shout-out to the little guys of 2019 who deserve as much attention as the likes of Toy Story 4.

Her Smell

Alex Ross Perry’s film Her Smell is filthy. Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), the lead of both the film and its fictional punk band Something She, is rancid. Her messy mascara overcoats the cocaine-dust foundation she applies before every gig. Becky’s band mates, ex-husband, and manager attempt to babysit her while she disappears, with or without her neglected child, to snort God-knows-what or perform an impromptu seance with her “spiritual guide.” Her Smell uses the Steve Jobs approach of using five long, frantic scenes across backstages and recording studios to track the rise and fall of Becky Something as she succumbs to drug addiction, the loss of fame that plagues all musicians, and her own refusal to live on other people’s terms.

Her Smell’s scenes put the viewer in the place of her band members and friends trying to keep her in line. We go through the ebb and flow of “she’ll get better, just wait,” “I can’t deal with her bullshit any longer,” and “I think she may just be lost.” People who have experienced addiction themselves, or have loved ones who have struggled with addiction, will likely relate to the stress that Her Smell swims in by imbuing Becky with such unreliability and instability ­– while still making her engaging and funny enough to see why people stick around, despite the heartless way she treats those around her. Even though the film ends on a largely hopeful note, the journey to Becky’s resolution is gruesome. Despite terrific performances from supporting players Agyness Deyn and Eric Stoltz, Her Smell is Moss’s movie: our connection to Becky Something rests on her shoulders, and Moss is unhinged and charming enough to make Becky a character worth dedicating our time to.

Her Smell can be rented digitally on Amazon Prime, or can be streamed through Kanopy. (Kanopy is a streaming service that you can access through your public library. It has a terrific selection of documentaries and independent film. On top of its quality, it is free through your library. Support your library and yourself and use Kanopy!).


Paddleton centers on the friendship between Andy (Romano) and Michael (Mark Duplass). Their lives in their shitty apartment complex is highly routine: they eat lunch together, go behind a billboard to play a racquetball-like game called Paddleton, and return to Michael’s apartment to eat frozen pizza and watch the same kung-fu movie every night. The routine is jeopardized once Michael is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Rather than living his last six months in pain, Michael decides to purchase assisted suicide medicine, which ends up being the central conflict of the film. Andy, largely in denial that Michael will die at all, tries to hide the medicine from Michael – despite the fact that Michael is mostly okay with dying.

Paddleton is so affecting because Romano and Duplass sell the friendship. The film is fairly simple thematically, but it feels more dense than it actually is because Andy and Michael are such a lovable pair. Even in their most heated arguments, the bond between the two never breaks. Paddleton is a straightforward tale about what it’s like to lose a friend, and the friendship at its center makes the loss heartbreakingly poignant.

Paddleton can be streamed on Netflix.

Alita: Battle Angel

I have been accused – by readers online and friends in life – that I am too pretentious with my film taste. I only like “high art” that makes me think; I am incapable of “turning my brain off.” I argue that is not the case, but because I don’t like half the MCU movies nobody ever believes me. So here is my retort: the love that I have for Alita: Battle Angel runs deep. In my veins courses affection unfettered for this Robert Rodriguez sci-fi action movie that has almost nothing on its mind. Critics were mixed on it, as it got an overall 60% Rotten Tomatoes score. But I don’t care. Of the thirty-four 2019 releases I have seen, it is number five on my ranking.  It slaps, as the kids say.

Alita: Battle Angel’s titular character is a cyborg found in a scrap heap by Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz). After Ido restores Alita’s wrecked body, she admits that she has no recollection of who she is nor where she is from. Alita then follows the template of an action video game. Alita explores the city, meets friends like love-interest Hugo (Keean Johnson), takes out Iron City’s miniboss criminals one by one, gets a suit upgrade, uncovers more about her backstory, fights more people, lather-rinse-repeat. It’s script lends itself well to Robert Rodriguez, whose career has been one large attempt to make dazzling action in digitally rendered environments (see Sin City and, oddly enough, all of the Spy Kids movies). But with the aid of producer James Cameron, Rodriguez uses the massive 200-million dollar budget to achieve his long sought after goal. The action in Alita is bananas.  The Motorball sequence, which follows Alita’s playing of a NASCAR/soccer hybrid against giant-weaponized robots, is the most visceral action I have seen on-screen in years. Alita promises nothing more than incredible fights and set-pieces, and it absolutely delivers them.

Alita: Battle Angel can be rented digitally on Amazon Prime.

Knock Down The House

2018 saw a record amount of women (and more broadly non-politicians) seeking local, state, and national government offices. It was a year when voters saw more everymen on the ballot than they likely ever had before. Knock Down The House follows four such women – Amy Vilela, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin, and the now-ubiquitous Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – as they join the national trend and run their respective political campaigns.

By mentioning this movie I assume countless people will call me a radical socialist cuck for even thinking to mention a documentary that focuses largely on AOC. And it is worth mentioning that this documentary follows only Democratic candidates. But Knock Down the House really is not that concerned with policy – the most political it gets regarding legislative action is examining the various reasons each of the women ran.  Swearengin has seen her state of West Virginia destroyed by mountaintop removal mining and is seeing countless neighbors die from its affects; Vilela is running after the death of her daughter, which was the result of the family’s inability to cover the medical bills. These women want to fix the issues through liberal policy, sure, but Knock Down the House isn’t as concerned with their agenda as it is with their desire to do good for their constituents. All of the four women’s campaigns are rooted in a deep love for their communities and a want to better them, which makes Knock Down the House one of the most optimistic portrayals of American democracy’s future that currently exist. All Knock Down the House asks is that you believe that America is worth fighting for and that the grassroots citizenry are the people to do that fighting.

Knock Down the House can be streamed on Netflix.

Honorable Mentions

Glass: This movie joins the Alita club of Movies I Like that Critics Hate. M. Night Shyamalan’s follow up to Unbreakable and Split is a very quiet movie where all of its superpowered characters sit in a mental hospital and talk about their emotional problems. It is very subdued and very slow, but its unique portrayal of the characters’ traumas is worth staying for. Glass can be rented digitally on Amazon Prime.

Anima: Paul Thomas Anderson’s collaboration with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke is a treat (and my second favorite film of the year), but is perhaps not the best viewing for a casual movie watcher. Anima is a 15-minute experimental short film set to the music of Yorke’s newest solo album of the same name. It looks like a dream, as the physics of its dancers feel impossible and the projection-art that decorates the scenery feels aquatic and ethereal. It it a very out there film, but at such a short run-time it is worth watching if you’re feeling adventurous. Anima  can be streamed on Netflix.

Midsommar: Perhaps including Ari Aster’s follow-up to Hereditary on this list is a cop-out, since it just opened last week. But it opened against (and was demolished by) Spider-Man: Far From Home so I don’t feel too bad. Midsommar is a hilarious break-up movie that is every bit as disturbing and gruesome as the last 20 minutes of Hereditary. It is not a horror movie, per se, but it is one of the most unsettling viewing experiences I have had. The cultish practices of its Swedish community are chilling, and the terrible deeds of its douchebag boyfriends are infuriating. It is my favorite of 2019 so far and I implore you to see it while it is still in theaters (it is great to watch with a big crowd).

For more of Adrian’s reflections on cinema in 2019, follow him on Twitter @APBryant32.

Charcon Gaming Convention – July 12-14 in Charleston, WV

Charcon Gaming Convention – July 12-14 in Charleston, WV

Charcon 2019, a board gaming convention held in Charleston, WV, is taking place in a little less than two weeks from July 12-14. The event held in the Clay Center is a three day love letter to all that is tabletop gaming and the world that surrounds it.

You might be thinking to yourself, what is the connection between Kentucky Sports Radio and a convention that takes place in Charleston, WV. A few weeks ago at the Origins Gaming Convention in Columbus, OH, I had the privilege to chat with the Executive Director of Charcon, Travis Reynolds. Reynolds, who appears in the above video (as well as making fun of Ryan’s pep talks in the video below), is a huge UK Athletics fan. We spent most of our time, which was meant to be discussed on the topic of board games (as he is the North American Representative of board game publisher, Queen Games), wondering about who the newest recruits to the men’s basketball team were going to be.

Charcon will have a little something for everyone. The convention boasts a huge tabletop gaming library, where you can check out any number of games you may or may not have ever played before. You will find some of the most popular titles, as well as some gems you may not have played since you were young.  There will be 80+ play to win games, meaning if you check out and play those specific titles, you’ll get entered into a raffle to win that game at the end of the convention (and who doesn’t love free games?). There will also be a qualifier for the Catan National Championships. One of my personal favorite games, Wordsy by Gil Hova, will also have it’s Southeast Regional Championship at Charcon.

If Role Playing games are your preference, there will be all kinds of organized play events for whatever your favorite RPG might be. There’s a costume contest on Saturday night, panels, vendors, parties, children’s activities and so much more. Friends of Funkhouser, Patrick and Jeremy from the Blue Peg, Pink Peg Board Gaming Podcast will also be at the convention if you’d like to go say hello. If you’re looking for a great first opportunity to take that next step in board gaming, this would be a great event. For more information on the convention, be sure to check out their convention website, here.

If you’re unsure of what goes on at a gaming convention, be sure to check out Ryan’s visit to Charcon’s sister convention, Lexicon, held in Lexington every April.

The Funkhouser Situation E61: Across the Multiverse

Lee Cruse and Chris Tomlin are back for another action-packed episode of The Funkhouser Situation. KSR’s pop culture dynamic duo talk about a ton of different topics, like…

— Chris made a terrible recommendation on last week’s show.

— The Hangover vs. Bridesmaids

— A live action role announced for Melissa McCarthy.

— An underrated Brad Pitt movie.

— Favorite war movie moments.

— Is there a celebrity they’d like to meet more than Tom Hanks?

— An interesting description for the new Spiderman franchise.

— Advice for the Marvel universe.

— There’s a new Taylor Swift Feud!

You can easily listen on the KSR App, available on iTunes and Google Play. Streaming online is simple through Pod Paradise. You can also get it directly to your phone by subscribing to The Funkhouser Situation podcast feed on iTunes or via Android’s Podcast Addict app.

Today’s episode is brought to you by Jake’s Cigar Bar. 

Review: Yesterday

Review: Yesterday

Some films have premises too outlandish for audiences to simply suspend their disbelief for. Cars, for me, is one such film, as it begs too many distracting questions for me to actually engage with the film in the way it wants me to. Are the cars born as babies and grow to adulthood? Do they have restrooms? Is gas in this world as frequent as water? If not, how did they develop the technology to create gasoline before dying off as a species? These are pedantic, I know, but there are simply too many possible implications that are too distracting from – and in this case, far more interesting that – Cars itself. Films with such crazy premises can succeed if they examine the implied consequences of their rules enough to put the viewer at ease (to draw more from the Pixar catalog, Ratatouille and Toy Story 4 do a lot of legwork to acknowledge the oddity of their worlds).

Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, though, suffers from Cars syndrome in that it simply asks too much of its audience without giving them enough in return. The world of Yesterday is the world as we know it today, and Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a failing musician in it. After countless years of simply playing pubs and birthday parties as one about to rock, Jack decides after his biggest gig – a crummy tent with maybe five people in it at an otherwise big British festival – to call it quits. On his bike ride home, Jack is hit by a bus at the exact moment all electricity across the globe shuts off. He wakes up in mostly the same world with one notable difference: The Beatles never existed. Jack sees the opportunity before him and begins passing some of the group’s most seminal songs off as his own. In turn he becomes the biggest pop star in the world.

Immediately the mind is filled with countless alternate reality questions. If The Beatles never existed, how can literally any of the pop music we have enjoyed for the past 50 years exist? What caused this mass memory blackout? Was there an equivalent cultural phenomenon to The Beatles in this world? What did they sound like? The film, in response, shrugs and asks us to simply go with it. Which can be fine. Avengers: Endgame pulled a similar trick (this is not going a spoiler, so please settle down) when it asks the audience to believe that the future cannot be changed by changing the past. It makes little sense, but we go with it because instead of diving into time travel gobblety-gook that no one cares about, it spends its time giving us a strong portrait of heroes in grief. Yesterday, then, could get me to be okay with the ludicrous idea that nothing has changed without The Beatles if it gives me an otherwise strong movie.

Himesh Patel as Jack Malik, doing his own rooftop concert.

Unfortunately Yesterday is interested in no more than being a conventional rise-to-stardom picture.  Jack leaves his small town friends behind in pursuit of fame and fortune, changes with his rising status, is rejected by his small town friends, keeps rising up, grows remorseful over his lust for wealth, blah blah blah. It is a movie seen far too many times. And for a movie that puts all its chips in on the cache of The Beatles, Yesterday has little interest in the band itself. While critics, audiences, and pop star Ed Sheeran see Jack’s songs as the best songs ever written, they are not very integral to the film. Yesterday could just as easily substitute the mop-tops’ hits with original songs and the film would play out no differently.  The movie seems to think acknowledging the timelessness of The Beatles’ work is a strong enough love letter to the group. But by ignoring all of the ways the world would be different without The Beatles in order to pursue a by-the-books perils-of-fame movie,  Yesterday does exactly what its lead character does: it uses The Beatles to make itself look like a seminal work of art rather than the stale heel of Wonderbread that it is.

What makes Yesterday‘s complete waste of its premise even more frustrating is the glimmers it has of the movie it could be. The cast is genuinely stellar, even if given one-note roles to work with. Lily James stars as Jack’s hometown romance, and the chemistry between James and Patel is deeply palpable. Even if the will-they-won’t-they arc they are given is easy to predict, the two actors give their characters enough humor and charm to make their moments on-screen together the  best scenes Yesterday has. In their conversations we also learn what other cultural touchstones have disappeared, as Jack casually mentions cigarettes and Oasis only to find in a quick cutaway Google that they (and others I won’t spoil simply due to their hilarity) have gone away. Of course those lead to more questions, and while I can overlook them as they are used as genuinely great jokes, I can’t help but wonder what the Idiocracy version of this movie would look like where the pop-culture is wholly different without five or so components.

Even with its charming components, Yesterday is unable to rise above the Dark Web conspiracizing its premise prompts because it has no interest in trying. It ignores the implications of its universe which are, just like Cars, far more interesting than the movie we get. I don’t want my criticisms of film to be about what a film could be rather than what it is, but the nature of Yesterday‘s hypothetical insist that the mind wander toward its butterfly effects – someone has to ask those questions, and unfortunately it has to be the audience rather than the film itself. In those consequences of a Beatle-less world is a true testament to the timeless value of the band, and if Yesterday claims to be a love letter to the group it would focus on the damage without them rather than assuming everything would be the same.

You can follow Adrian on Twitter @APBryant32 for more thoughts on film and consistent reminders that Beatle-Mania never died. 

Four Albums To Blast In Your Car This Summer

Four Albums To Blast In Your Car This Summer

I have discovered that my routines and tastes are seldom dictated by season. My girlfriend asked me recently what my favorite summer food was, of course thinking in terms of bar and grille food that people love to make during summer cookouts. But burgers, hot dogs, wings, cheese sticks, and other greasy gastrointestinal nightmares are the bulk of my diet year round (and my rapid consumption of such food is the reason I will inevitably join the 27 Club).

Music is the exception to my season-ambivalent taste. My music interests skew toward pop in general, but the summer is when I find myself replaying the same ten or so records repeatedly, screaming along to them and dancing incessantly in my car – much to the chagrin of my neighbors and passengers. Summer is a time for unabashed joy, and listening to energetic music is the best way to achieve the bliss that summer requires. Narrowing my favorite summer records down to four was a painstaking task completed with the spillage of blood, sweat, and tears by the gallons. But injuries aside, below are my four favorite records to annoy my neighbors with as a blast them down the street with the windows down.

You Get What You Give – Zac Brown Band (2010)

Zac Brown Band shot to fame in 2008 by pandering to country music’s worst tendencies with their torpid single “Chicken Fried,” a glorified listicle of all the things mindless country songs must bow to: fried chicken, cold beer, jeans, pecan pie, what have you. I would normally take this song as a warning that ZBB was only interested in appeasing the mainstream country music fanbase but their first album The Foundation ­– from which “Chicken Fried” cursed the land – had astounding promise. Songs like “Where the Boat Leaves From” and “Jolene” showed that they had influences ranging from reggae to blues ballads.  While The Foundation  was more often cliche than not, it had some gems.

Thankfully, Zac Brown Band used their massive platform in 2010 to create a genuinely unique record that country radio was not prepared for. At its absolute worst, You Get What You Get What You Give is boring: “I Play the Road” and “Colder Weather” are fine songs, but fall too close to feigned schmaltz. The rest of the record, though, is Zac Brown Band doubling down on their love for beach bum reggae and stadium rock, almost eschewing their ties to country music. “Knee Deep,” one of the band’s many odes to the breezy ocean shore, opens with a deceptively complicated to play (but easy to listen to) lick that opens the doors for Brown’s sultry voice to remind us why sitting in a chair, mind still and effort nonexistent, is a good thing to do from time to time.

Just as easily as they uplift relaxation through soothing reggae, they show their rock chops in “Quiet Your Mind,” the band’s best song to date that would animate a packed-arena crowd like few other country acts would. “Quiet Your Mind,” despite its pounding electric slide guitar, is embedded with the same message that the whole album, musically and lyrically, carries: just take a breather.  You Get What You Give is a testament to the power of rest. And even though the majority of the songs are remarkably bouncy, they make you calm and peaceful because the band is constantly reminding you to forget your stress. It is the perfect summer album because it  is the embodiment of vacation: replenishment through activity.

Summerteeth – Wilco (1999)

In an interview promoting Summerteeth, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy said pop music could be “subversive in some ways,” because it allows one to embed dense ideas that may be off-putting to a listener on their own within happy-go-lucky tunes. Pop can be used as a massive bait-and-switch, because “people would be humming [the song] for a year or maybe a week… before they fully get what the lyrics are about.”

If Summerteeth was conceived as the Thinking Man’s Pop Record by Tweedy, the project deftly succeeds. Summerteeth, lyrically, is one of the more frightening records I have ever listened to. It is a contemplation on the aggression that romantic relationships, if kept off-guard, can easily drift towards. “She’s a Jar,” a song indebted to the easy listening styles of Bob Dylan, presents itself as a “Hey There Delilah” song written by and for wistful college lovers – that is until it takes a dark turn toward being a song on domestic violence. But the shift is so easy to miss once locked into the music’s trance. Such musical skill, though on subjects often less brutal, is used throughout the whole album. It demands multiple listens because it easily sneaks its poetic ruminations past you through its relentless sonic joy.

Of course, the album isn’t all masked gloom and doom. “Via Chicago,” the album’s darkest song, marks an important shift: if all the songs up to and including “Via Chicago” are about how relationships crumble, all the songs after “Via Chicago” are about picking the pieces back up. Summerteeth is a very hopeful album, even if it takes time to get to its optimistic side. But the road there is seamless, and the kineticism of songs like “A Shot in the Arm”  and “I’m Always in Love” make for some of the most summertime driving songs out there. They are reminiscent of Wilco’s alt-rock contemporaries Weezer and Coldplay, except Wilco’s ambience is coded with enough technical skill to keep it from sounding like plodding anesthesia (sorry not sorry Coldplay fans). Summerteeth is a purposefully deceptive record, but even at its bleakest Wilco manages to make it an obvious album to turn on when the sun is out and the grills are on.

Malibu – Anderson .Paak (2016)

I doubt Anderson .Paak is a huge Wilco stan, but Malibu follows a very similar philosophy of putting unapologetically confrontational subjects in a blindingly sunny setting. .Paak is a bit more direct with his intent, using the mid-tempo opening track “The Bird,” to establish his character. He grew up in a fatherless house with a gambling addicted mother, with the only luxury of his poverty-stricken youth being love. The rest of the album tracks one relationship and the ways in which .Paak’s arrogance, sexism, and proclivity for cheating ruin his romance. Concept albums seldom work, but .Paak manages to make this single-story LP deeply impactful.

While it is the best written album on this list, the true reason to turn on Malibu is to be transported to the city itself. .Paak combines influences as diverse as The Beach Boys and Stevie Wonder to create an R&B album drenched in the sweat of a surfer. Several audio clips from various documentaries about the thrill of surfing punctuate songs, and the music itself carries listeners over waves with its endless breeziness. Malibu is always groovy but never pounding. “Parking Lot” almost makes you smell the salty Atlantic, overlaying a windy synthesizer over the funky pace of his drums.  “Put Me Thru” and “Am I Wrong” are the most danceable tracks (and you certainly will dance), and both display the wave-like range of .Paak’s voice: he can shift effortlessly from pit-patter rapping to skillful harmonies that rival any church choir. If Zac Brown is sitting on the shore drinking a beer, Anderson .Paak is riding the ocean blue in front of him.

Recreational Love ­- The Bird and the Bee (2015)

I am an English major and a regular writer here at Funkhouser, so I generally have a relentless urge to read into everything I consume, from books to movies to music. Even in this list that is supposedly about the best albums to blast in your car mindlessly, I have dived deep into the waters of interpretation. It is an uncontrollable tendency.

With that said, I have no clue what The Bird and the Bee’s Recreational Love is about. And frankly, I don’t care on bit. For me to like a song, it only has to accomplish one of two things: make me feel something emotionally, or make me dance. Thankfully, given my criteria, Recreational Love’s one and only goal is to make people dance. And it succeeds with flying colors.

An unofficial genre of music exists in my mind called “Department Store Pop.” Department Store Pop is the music you hear in American Eagle or Aeropostle. Its electronic beats and simple melodies sound so pastel and bright that you think you will go insane from how hard it is trying to make you happy. Recreational Love is Department Store Pop as made by geniuses. “Young and Dumb” begins with the synthetic bops of the Nintendo Wii’s homepage music set against a typical bass-clap drumbeat. But where most Department Store Pop would take these components and maximize them to the brightest setting, Greg Kirsten (the man behind the beats, who has produced music for the biggest names in music, from Sia to Adele to Paul fucking McCartney) keeps “Young and Dumb” remarkably minimalist. Even Inara George, a relentlessly talent vocalist, keeps her performances smooth and low. It has just enough to compel involuntary dancing, and that’s all it needs. Recreational Love keeps this minimalism intact throughout its brief 35 minute runtime. Songs like “Los Angeles” and “Runaway” bring the cheeriness of 80s pop to a modern setting while shunning the overwhelming indulgence of 80s music. It is the happiest album I have heard, and to play it in the beaming sun of summer is to create the ideal marriage between sound and season.

Honorable Mentions (As Picked By Twitter)

I asked Twitter followers what albums they blasted in the summer. Recommendations by my very tasteful followers include:

Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles (you may have heard of them)

Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper

Cosmos Factory by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Life and Times by Jim Croce

High as Hope by Florence and the Machine

For more of Adrian’s excited rambling on songs of the summer, follow his radiant Twitter feed @APBryant32.

The Funkhouser Situation E59: Lee Cruse speaks for first time since WLEX dismissal

Lee Cruse is back in front of a microphone with Chris Tomlin in a new episode of The Funkhouser Situation. In his first public comments since his dismissal from WLEX, Lee explains what happened, where he went wrong and what he’s done since the events unfolded.

The rest of the show is what you’ve come to know and love from KSR’s pop culture podcast.

You can easily listen on the KSR App, available on iTunes and Google Play. Streaming online is simple through Pod Paradise. You can also get it directly to your phone by subscribing to The Funkhouser Situation podcast feed on iTunes or via Android’s Podcast Addict app.

Today’s episode is brought to you by Jake’s Cigar Bar. 

The Twilight Zone (2019): Season Finale Review

The Twilight Zone (2019): Season Finale Review

[Spoilers for The Twilight Zone’s season finale “Blurryman” follow.]

I have largely stayed away from online discourse concerning The Twilight Zone. While I normally read reviews for movies before I watch them, I wanted to go into this show relatively blind as to what other critics and viewers were saying. Today I went back through some articles at various and found that  my frustrations with this show – that it is too unsubtly preachy and not nearly sci-fi enough – are frustrations that many other writers have had.  But with the show’s meta season finale “Blurryman,” the creative team behind The Twilight Zone retort the collective criticism against it by screaming “We made this season bad on purpose! We are actually smart, trust us!”

“Blurryman” opens with Seth Rogen writing the outline of a movie, kicking himself for being an imposter and a hack. His movie is a nuclear apocalypse piece where only midway through do mushroom clouds end society. Once Rogen’s character thinks to move the nuclear war to the beginning, he feels more at ease and accomplished with his work. He looks outside in joy, thinking about how cooped up he has been and wanting to get some fresh air. But when he opens the window he finds that his story has become reality and the world has become a desolate nuclear wasteland. Peele enters the screen espousing narration about how Rogen will soon learn the social responsibility of a writer, and that he needs to create more than simply “entertainment,” but rather he needs to create “art.” It is incredibly tacky and cringey, directly in line with the rest of this season’s episodes.

But midway through narration, Peele breaks character and says the narration needs to be written. “Blurryman” takes place on the production of The Twilight Zone, with Peele and Rogen playing themselves as they create a new Twilight Zone episode. Peele goes to his makeup room and talks to the episode’s writer and showrunner Sophie Gelson (a fictional character, played by Zazie Beetz) about the opening narration. Peele is turned off by the distinction between art and entertainment; they should not be separated because they are not mutually exclusive. Sophie thinks that the sci-fi story that Rogen’s character in the episode is “genre trash” and cannot be art. Genre fiction at all is just pulp nonsense. Art cannot be silly nonsense. It needs to say something, she believes, and the “slippery slope from superhero movies and sci-fi crap to idiocracy” is what episode being produced in “Blurryman” is all about. Peele replies “Our show is sci-fi, right?”

Jordan Peele in “Blurryman.”

Sophie retreats to her office to rewrite the narration.  When she submits it and watches the shooting of it on set, the cue cards have been replace with narration about “writer Sophie Gelson’s” refusal to “confront her fears.” She is convinced it is a prank and tries to track down the person who messed with the narration. In this process she finds out that in the background of every episode of season one there has been a blurry figure ominously standing (the blurry man is truly in every episode, and TV Guide found all of his appearances and put them in this list). On the crew’s lunch she wonders around the set and stumbles upon the Blurry Man. The episode turns into a cat-and-mouse chase with Sophie running across the production lot to ward of the Blurry Man, but she is never able to fully do so.

Sophie somehow knows the Blurry Man’s presence is connected to her hatred of genre fiction. “Jordan’s putting you up to this, isn’t he?” she screams at the figure. “Because horror is real? Because the genre stuff isn’t just bullshit.” There is a tension in Sophie’s mind between the fantastic and the intelligent. For her, sci-fi itself is not quite able to reach a profound level. What she believes Serling did was not give profound stories, but rather gave profound narration at the beginning and end of trashy sci-fi episodes because that was the only way to reach the masses. We know in this alternate reality that Sophie is one of the chief creative minds behind the new Twilight Zone, and her idea that the new show needs to shrug away its genre tendencies to deliver message is very much in-play in almost all of The Twilight Zone’s actual episodes. Very few of this new season resides in the supernatural, and “Blurryman” gives us a reason for that: Sophie hates the supernatural. The soapbox messaging of “Point of Origin” and “The Wunderkind” are a result of her reluctance to dive into genre storytelling and insistence that the show needs to bluntly say something insightful.

But after she figures out that the Blurry Man is in fact real and not some prank Peele has orchestrated, she decides to open herself up to him. He clouds her in smoke and she sees a vision of a young Sophie, eyes locked onto an old Twilight Zone episode. “These are make-believe stories,” her dad protests to her mother. “She needs to get out in the real world with real world.” “She could do both? Right, Soph?” her mom replies. Sophie sees in this vision not only her fear to reckon with the unknown, but also that the supernatural and the natural need not be dichotomized. Genre fiction can be art. Serling’s work on the original Twilight Zone proved this to be the case.

The episode ends with the Blurry Man revealing himself to be Ron Serling, CGI recreated like Peter Cushing in Rogue One.  He takes Sophie’s hand, claiming “we have a lot of work to do,” and walks her through a black-and-white door that presumably leads to… The Twilight Zone. It is a note that looks forward to the season two, a promise that the future episodes will be more in-line with the original series. “Blurryman” retroactively turns the new Twilight Zone into an essay that argues that sci-fi metaphors of the original series were necessary for its success, and by removing the sci-fi “entertainment” from the new episodes in favor of “artistic” messaging a new Twilight Zone can’t work. But of course what the original did, and what “Blurryman” realizes, is that the genre entertainment heightens the importance of the artistic marriage. Entertainment and art are married, not separated. The supernatural aspects of the original Twilight Zone are just as real and weighty as its themes.

Zazie Beatz in “Blurryman.”

Season one is an interesting exercise then, an ambitious effort to see if a bad season of television can still have a satisfying payoff. I appreciate the goal and the sentiment – it is a true celebration of Serling’s original series and displays a knowledge of why that show was so incredible – but I don’t think it quite works. “Blurryman” is a fascinating course-correction, but it doesn’t make watching nine episodes of bad television worth it just to find out in the tenth that the first nine were bad on purpose. In fact it may wind up being a damaging experiment. While “Blurryman” indicates a more adventurous second season will come, I don’t think that I will bother watching it because so much of season one – even though it was meant to – left such a sour taste in my mouth. I can’t imagine I am alone.

Creating an actively unentertaining reboot as a way to celebrate the genius of the original property is in its own way genius and subversive, but it works much better as an intellectual thought than it does as a legitimate show. While “Blurryman” is a terrific individual episode and makes me admire season one so much more, the test of The Twilight Zone’s first season doesn’t quite work for me. At the end of the day, no matter the intention and cleverness, if most of the episodes of a TV show is bad, then the show is bad. The Twilight Zone reboot, though it tried, could not overcome that truth.

Episodes of “The Twilight Zone” are available exclusively on CBS All Access. For more of Adrian’s rants concerning bad reboots (looking at you “The Lion King,” probably), follow him on Twitter @APBryant32.

Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein in "Booksmart."

Review: Booksmart

Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein in “Booksmart.”

Cinema was perfected when the party comedy was conceived. With the right talent behind them, party comedies like Neighbors and Blockers can transcend our common understanding of art and elevate us to a higher plane of cinematic enjoyment we never thought possible before. And even bad movies like Sisters and The Hangover trilogy are watchable at the very worst, because it is always a pleasure to see people chuggin’ booze and munchin’ shrooms. Although I am being slightly facetious about the importance of party comedies, if any pitch involves the phrases “high school party” or “middle aged people partying in an effort to be young again,” I am automatically and earnestly hooked.

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart is right up my alley. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are their high school’s best two students. They have slaved away all of their K-12 career acing tests and swimming through endless extracurriculars so that they can glide into the nation’s Ivy League schools. Their efforts have worked, but once Molly finds out that many of her classmates who spend their days chuggin’ booze and munchin’ shrooms are also getting into top-notch colleges, Molly convinces herself that her and Amy’s efforts were all for naught. They decide that they will go to their classmate Nick’s (Mason Gooding) party on the night before graduation so they can say they didn’t spend all of high school not having any fun.

Their biggest stumbling block is the fact that, since they have mostly had their heads in the scholastic realm, they do not know Nick’s address nor do they know anyone with Nick’s address. The first 40 or so minutes of the film follow Molly and Amy’s efforts to get to Nick’s house, and these minutes are where Booksmart shine because it conveys the true oddity of high school. Eighties high school movies like The Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink have their merits, but their depiction of all high schoolers as fitting into a very specific stereotype have always kept me at arm’s length from them emotionally. But Booksmart (and many other recent high school pieces like Netflix series American Vandal and young adult novel Me and Earl and The Dying Girl) refute that tendency by giving its supporting characters their own flavor of weirdness that is unique to them – something I saw much more often in high school than I saw people who were super stereotypically jock-ish or preppy.

Skylar Gisondo as Nick in “Booksmart.”

Highlights from the supporting cast include Gigi (Billie Lourde), who pops up in every destination that Amy and Molly find themselves in on the way to Nick’s as if some kind of drugged out North star. Gig knows how to get to Nick’s house, but rather than giving our duo the  address she gives out cryptic fortune-cookie clues that push them slightly farther to Nick’s right before she mysteriously backs into the shadows. Jared (Skylar Gisondo) is also a stand-out of the film as an awkward loner who tricks out his race-car and rents party yachts with his dad’s money in an effort to attract friends who are unwilling to hang out with him because they see him as (and granted, this is his literal license plate ID) a “fuk boi.” Even Nick, who is portrayed in the film’s opening moments as an ignorant ape, is quite charming and deceptively smart. All of the high school characters – jock, nerd, rich, prep, whatever labels we’re tempted to use – have complicated lives that aren’t waiting to be discovered, as a movie like The Breakfast Club would argue, but they are already presented openly in their day-to-day interactions with each other. And most of them are aware of each other’s complexities. It is Molly and Amy who have spent so much of their time doing homework and looking down upon their “dumber” cohort who need to open their eyes and catch-up to their classmates’ awareness.

The success of the supporting cast is only heightened by the seamless performances of Feldstein and Dever. Booksmart is a movie about their eyes opening to the high school they missed out on, but it is also a movie about their relationship. Molly is a more commanding force, and often seems to drag Amy into situations (like going to Nick’s party at all) that she does not want to be in. But Amy levels Molly at points by giving her heaps of uplifting encouragement that warms up her sometimes cold heart a bit. They both give and take quite a bit in their friendship and Dever and Feldstein sell that friendship effortlessly. In scenes where Amy and Molly are separated, their classmates make remarks like “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without Amy/Molly,” and audiences have that seem feeling every time they are apart; the bond is so strong that it is hard to process them as individuals rather than a unit, which eventually becomes a conflict in their friendship in the movie’s third act. It takes a lot for two actors to create such a dense unity between characters, but Feldstein and Dever are incredibly successful in doing it.

The main reason I am incredibly susceptible to party comedies is that parties have a positive and wholesome undercurrent to them. Everyone is gathering just to have a good time. Things go awry at many, to be sure, but they are created simply for people to unify and have fun. The party setting bonds groups of people who often seem like they can’t have a bond. Booksmart uses that setting to show that people’s tendency to heap ill-informed perceptions and roles onto others is foolish, because at their core high schoolers are all scared but well-meaning people who are trying to find their identity. Molly and Amy have spent so much time assuming that their classmates are below them when in fact they are all on the same playing field, and without having gone to Nick’s party the duo would likely have never learned that. But at the same time Molly and Amy’s friendship, while very insular, is a remarkable one that is worth celebration and the party setting of Booksmart does exactly that. Olivia Wilde told NPR that she hoped Booksmart makes teens “celebrate being young,” and its love for its characters and their weirdness certainly shows that being young is a treasure rather than a burden.

“Booksmart” opened in theaters May 25th. See your local theater for showtimes and watch the trailer here. You can follow Adrian on Twitter @APBryant32 to hear more of his never-ending love for boozey party comedies.


Chris O'Dowd in "The Blue Scorpion."

“The Twilight Zone” (2019): Episode Nine Review

Chris O’Dowd in “The Blue Scorpion.”

[Spoilers for “The Blue Scorpion” follow.]

At midnight this past Thursday, the comedy music troupe The Lonely Island dropped a visual rap album (think Beyonce’s Lemonade) called The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience. The “visual poem,” as they refer to it, centers on the eponymous Bash Brothers Mark McGuire (Akiva Schaffer) and Jose Canseco (Andy Samberg) and their use of steroids to propel their skill as Major League Baseball players. In the song “Focused AF,” Canseco engages in a question-and-answer breakdown with McGuire that reveals their true motivations for ‘roiding out: “Where is the limit? / There are no limits. / And what is the goal? / To make dad love me. / To make dad love me. / [In unison:] To make dad finally love me!”  One of the album’s latter songs “Daddy” is directed to both of the athlete’s dads: “Got much bigger, faster, stronger, Dad / Hit so long / But you always want it longer, Dad / ‘But therapy’s for losers, little boy / therapy’s for losers.'”

Oddly, the incredibly hilarious Bash Brothers is a much more successful portrait of obsession and daddy issues than The Twilight Zone’s newest episode “The Blue Scorpion.” But instead of focusing on steroids as a coping mechanism, the addiction that controls Jeff Storck’s (Chris O’Dowd) life is a gun. Jeff is at the lowest point in his life, staying with his dad while he goes through a divorce that he can barely afford. When he returns home one night, though, Jeff finds that his father has committed suicide. During the police investigation Jeff is presented with a gun and asked to confirm whether or not it was his dad’s gun. Jeff is confused at the sight, as his dad was a “hippie” that loathed guns his entire life.

The gun, gold-plated and stamped with rose-pedal imprints with an ivory grip featuring a blue scorpion, soon entrances Jeff. Once he sees the gun, he grows more paranoid and distrusting of the world. Every man he runs into is named Jeff, and even one of his students reports a feeling that the objects in her dorm are communicating with her. The gun itself (named The Blue Scorpion), Jeff finds out from a gun shop owner named Bob Jeff, was once owned by Che Guevara and has only been owned by six people before Jeff. “The legend is,” Bob says, “you don’t find [The Blue Scorpion], it finds you.” Any bullet that Jeff loads into The Blue Scorpion’s cartridge is engraved with his name. As the gun radiates some sort of mystic energy, Jeff begins to believe that he cannot trust anyone. All he can trust is The Blue Scorpion which came for him.

Jeff pointing at Jeff in “The Blue Scorpion.”

“The Blue Scorpion” seems to be leading its viewers to see Jeff’s sanity as crumbling due to the gun. Given the leftist politics of the show so far, it’s expected that the episode is going to condemn guns and advocate for either a ban on guns or further restrictions. And I think  the episode believes it is doing that. Peele’s closing narration bemoans human tendency to treasure objects more than human life, which is a not so subtle message that the U.S. is more caring about the rights of guns than people who die from them. But the ending of the episode’s plot shows Jeff using the gun to kill a neighborhood house-invader after the invader tries to break into Jeff’s car. Once the invader is killed, Jeff is praised in the newspapers as a hero and is granted a position as the Chair of his university’s Anthropology Department. Everything works out perfectly for him thanks to the gun, but Peele’s narration claims that the gun has led to great tragedy.

But where is this tragedy? My best guess is that “The Blue Scorpion” is saying that instead of everybody focusing on the death of the invader and mourning the loss of life, they are celebrating his demise at the hand of a gun. I could buy that if the show treated the invader with any amount of sympathy. He dies and the cops are like, “Oh, great job killing this dude,” and that is as much time as is spent on him. There is a large incongruity between Jeff’s ending as a character and Peele’s narration that I cannot square. Even though the episode claims to be anti-gun its plot delivers an oddly pro-gun story.

The Lonely Island’s Bash Brothers toes a similar line as it consistently refers to the players’ use of performance enhancing drugs. But McGuire and Canseco are portrayed as broken buffoons who retreat to baseball as a way to, albeit unhealthily, deal with their fathers’ rejection of them. While the piece ends with the Oakland Athletics winning the World Series, we know that their use of steroids is not being promoted as a means for success. “The Blue Scorpion” tries to do the same thing – showing Jeff’s rise and success because his obsession with the gun but not endorsing the gun as a path to success – but it fails tremendously.

If anything distinguishes “The Blue Scorpion” from the other political episodes of The Twilight Zone, it is that it drops the ball so hard in its messaging that it ends up romanticizing the very thing it means to attack. Its embellishment of the gun with mystical properties makes the gun come off like a well-meaning genie rather than the deceptive demon it is meant to be depicted as. It is hard to tackle to the anti-gun argument of the episode because it fails so hard at making that argument. The previous episodes of this show have been bad, but they have at least had a clear message; “The Blue Scorpion” cannot even make it to that low-bar.

Episodes of “The Twilight Zone” are available exclusively on CBS All Access. For more of Adrian’s piping hot-takes and foolish opinions on pop culture, follow him on Twitter @APBryant32.