What I'm Watching: The Devil Next Door

The '80s-'90s trial of John Demjanjuk, immigrant Cleveland auto worker, claimed by accusers to be Ivan the Terrible, a sadistic guard from Treblinka. There's a lot of footage of the death camps, and the survivors after the war, and mostly very bad flickering VHS transfers of the trial. The period testimonies are the strongest part.

Modern interviews with his defense lawyer Sheftel are charming, if that's a word for this situation. Most of the other modern interviews are so cut up to avoid spoilers of the next episode that they're uninformative, or openly… deceptive? Pushing a point of view, anyway.

I'm horrified by the delusional belief in eyewitness testimony 40 years after the events, especially in a less technical legal system like Israel's (of the '80s; maybe they've modernized since). And the crowds of Jewish people chanting for death for someone, turning completely into their former persecutors. You'd have a more just trial by flipping a coin or studying bird entrails.

Up to episode 3 or so is at least informative and has an interesting narrative. After that the series falls apart badly.

I followed the first part of the case back in the '80s, but got distracted after his first conviction, waiting for the appeal, so was never really aware of the outcome.

The appeal and "happily ever after" are given short shrift, just a recounting of the events and brief glimpses of the exculpatory evidence. Then even shorter shrift, with only the barest video of the start, of the post-Millennial second extradition and German bullshit trial where all evidence was ignored, a 91-year-old man was convicted of maybe—probably, but without hard evidence—being a soldier at a different camp. Before dying of old age in prison, and rendering the whole thing moot.

Then there's some moralizing about war as a criminal act.

The attitude by Representative Holtzman seems to be—never clearly stated but strongly implied—that all soldiers on a losing side should just be charged with murder and executed. If that was wartime law, nobody would ever surrender and wars would rage until half the population was exterminated. There'd be peace on Earth, eventually, when the last two people killed each other.

When WWII ended, the US brought home Wernher Von Braun, one of the worst war criminals in history, who killed maybe a million people with his weapons, used Jewish slave labor hand-picked from the camps. He was made an American citizen, never tried for war crimes because he was useful, got our space program and ICBM global thermonuclear war systems running, constantly lied about his former devotion to the SS, slowly went crazy religious, died at peace. Is that justice? Certainly not. But it was practical and merciful.

We accepted many immigrants after WWII from Germany, Italy, Ukraine, France, and elsewhere who had been enemy soldiers, because war is not subject to peacetime law, and they could put their past behind them and work. If they worked and kept their heads down, they were of value to us. And we'll want the same mercy extended to us if we lose a war again. Demjanjuk's former line supervisor gets this, and the son-in-law gets it.

Holtzman especially doesn't seem to understand the difference between being drafted and fighting for your country, doing the job assigned to you, when they just happen to be Germany or Ukraine or Italy; or modern-day Illinois Nazis who do it because they're assholes and do not have the excuse of wartime service.

The whole series needed a hard editing cut of about half the footage, put the interviews back together to be coherent, rather than the chopped-up mess it is, and show more hard evidence. Maybe get a military lawyer to talk about wartime law, and immigration lawyer and the Open Borders comic author to talk about accepting immigrants of dubious backgrounds. No such effort was made.

★★★★☆ up to E3, declining to ★☆☆☆☆ by the end.

What I'm Watching: Agatha Christie

The ABC Murders (2018, Amazon Prime): John Malkovitch is a fine actor. Sadly, he is 30cm too tall, very not Belgian, his accent fades in and out even in the same scene, and wouldn't shave down to a moustache, instead keeping a slightly scruffy Van Dyke which he ridiculously dyes in the first ep. Perhaps they should have done an animated Hercule Poirot show, and got him a Belgian voice coach.

Inspector Japp dies after a brief cameo (spoilers for plot-irrelevant elements, oh no), the new guy is awful and hostile, and there's no Arthur Hastings at all, so too many scenes are literally Malko-Poirot sitting alone silently waiting for the mail, instead of explaining his reasoning. No mention of his little grey cells, and even his background as gendarme is questioned with a ludicrously melodramatic new backstory which adds nothing to the plot. ABC is quite well played by Eamon Farren, the rest of the cast is forgettable.

I like the original story, and wish I'd just reread it instead of seeing this farcical reimagining.
★★☆☆☆

Ordeal By Innocence (2018, Amazon): A non-detective murder mystery. First it has to get over a big hurdle with me: It's about a rich English family, and I loathe everything about that. The father's the epitome of what most disgusts me about Humans, but there's also the thug son, the asshole son-in-law, the simpering daughter, the utterly forgettable daughter, the meek black daughter (for they are all adopted, it turns out), the gold-digging secretary, and the maid (who is apparently also an orphan, but not adopted? Well, English need someone to do the dirty work; and what you expect in an English manor is what goes on in an English manor), and the mother who was a harpy, until someone killed her.

Jack, the son accused of murder, seems like the only half decent one, but he's not around. And then an alibi shows up to distress everyone. Casting's pretty generic, tho they had to reshoot every scene of the original thug son with a new actor after the first was accused of sexual assault; but that doesn't matter much since almost every scene is two assholes leaning in doors or sitting straight in uncomfortable chairs sniping at each other.

The dead mother is increasingly shown to be worse than a harpy. You know Harry Harlow's monkey experiments with the wire mother and terrycloth mother? This woman's a wire mother. Functional but unloveable. I know the feeling.

There's a theme of fear of nuclear war, but until quite late it's never discussed, only mentioned in passing. This would've greatly enhanced the show if it was. And John Wyndham's book The Chrysalids, which is of course about nuclear war, family secrets and betrayal, rejection of the outsider and mutant.

This presentation has the awful habit of showing spoilers for the next episode over the credits, so skip forward as soon as one ends.

I don't recall this book at all, so it's somewhat of a mystery to me, but I also don't feel sympathy for any living character so don't care if they all did it.

The final scene's a little ridiculous, out of character, and unnecessary after the actual finale a minute before. Some producer had to piss in the soup to say he contributed, I expect.
★★★½☆ — I complain a lot, but I watched it in one sitting. Still hate everyone except dead Jack.

What I'm Watching: Goliath S3

S1 and S2 were great scrappy lawyers vs giant foe shows, with some treachery and Billy's shitty personal life (and incidentally, he should very obviously have been named "David" instead, the writers really dropped the sling stone there). Fantastic work. Billy Bob Thornton and Nina Arianda are fantastic in these seasons.

S3 has Billy, inexplicably scruffy despite the millions he must've made in S1-S2, wandering in a daze through a shitty Indian casino, drinking and talking to a barfly, occasional hookups with "Applebees" from last season, vague yet menacing subplots that go nowhere. See, the California drought is being taken advantage of by a nefarious almond farmer Wade Blackwood (so the writers are on point with that naming; played by Dennis Quaid), borderline incestuous sister Diane, her two adopted black sons who are cuckoo, Littlecrow (Graham Greene, aka Malachi from Longmire) the casino operator, Stephanie Littlecrow (Julia Jones) as a stuntwoman who is one of the few competent, interesting characters, and "Roy" (Beau Bridges) as the sorta sympathetic conspirator.

And why not, they bring back Cooperman (William Hurt) and Marisol Silva (Ana de la Reguera) from past seasons even though they have nothing to do with the plot. The daughter and the hooker are in college, and at least they have some hope of escaping from this clusterfuck of a show. Patty just gets dicked around and keeps forgetting to bring comfortable shoes for wilderness treks.

Sherilyn Fenn shows up in flashbacks as the cause of this case, and… she does not look good. Like, she's a couple years older than me, and she looks 20 years older. Props for showing adult women on TV, but jeers for letting her on camera looking like this.

Nothing happens for hours, days of basically b-roll pickup shooting pushed onto the screen. Once in a while you catch a glimpse of a plot. Finally they do a flashback which explains most of the start of the story, and the actors/writers/director all sober up enough to film some court scenes, get through some depositions—WOO! Most exciting thing in this very very slow season. And then in the last 1.5 eps they finally have everyone do crimes to cover up their previous crimes, and happy or sad endings are distributed like drunk, diarrhetic Bad Santa showed up on the set.

To say this was a pointless waste of time is an insult to pointless wastes of time. I would've been more rewarded by watching Real Horny Housewives of East LA or whatever the fuck is on broadcast TV.

★☆☆☆☆ pretty much solely for Julia Jones' couple of fight and chase scenes, which are literally from a movie within the show.

What I'm Watching: El Camino

Don't be fooled by the title, the El Camino barely appears in this movie, and it teaches you nothing about the history and operation of the hybrid car-truck.

Instead, we have a lot of flashbacks and added scenes for a show called Breaking Bad which was a popular show about a science teacher like Mr Wizard and his little buddy Jessie.

OK, seriously, it's the final episode that the show gave Walter but didn't give Jessie. But since it's been a few years, it's all bottle episode with only a little new content. In between the flashbacks are Jessie continuing to be very stupid and revisit past haunts. There's brief cameos by people who obviously can't be present.

I call Jessie very stupid, but it's erratic. He'll make a very good decision, a cunning ruse, and then follow it up with completely idiotic unthinking reactions; he can't tell who's a cop and who isn't, can't figure out how much money he has, can't cut and run instead of taking revenge.

And it's slow. The flashback scenes are awful, just misery porn except too slow for me to feel any concern. Jessie wants to be a victim and always puts himself back in that position.

The one heroic, effective scene is then completely implausible, because everything goes right, no hilarious fuckups or bad side-effects. The writer just gave up on who Jessie Pinkman is for this scene.

★★½☆☆ – a whole extra episode of BB. Whoo.

What I'm Watching: Hell or High Water

A nice little modern western/crime drama. Reminds me of Longmire and Justified, but mostly from the criminal's point of view.

A couple brothers rob banks in Texas, or rather branches of one bank, not doing anything stupid, nobody gets shot, at least that's the plan. Two Rangers, an old honky about to retire and his Comanche partner, go out looking for them.

The banks are the enemy of country folk, and the brothers have a reasonable grudge and the smart one has a plan. But everyone in Texas has a gun, and the Rangers aren't that stupid.

Too sad and doomed to be Coen Brothers. Might watch some more of David MacKenzie's movies. Also nice to see Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges playing out of stereotype.

★★★★½

What I'm Watching: Undercover, L4yer Cake, Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse

Undercover S1: A Belgian/Dutch crime drama, based very loosely on a real case, with Anna Drijver as a Dutch woman cop (and rather sexy when she cleans up, or if you like dirty biker chicks), and Tom Waes as a Belgian asshole man cop, setting up an undercover observation of a drug kingpin. Except the drugs are mostly ecstasy, the action is mostly in a campground trailer park, and everyone is just pathetic and low-rent. It's barely above reality TV at times, the filmmaking is not excellent, and the plot is glacially slow. The tension between these cops who have to pretend to be a couple, and the shitty crime boss, his pathetic wife, and ever-changing roster of idiot henchmen, is much better than you'd expect. Watch it in the original Dutch/Flemish. Don't expect a fast burner, this is one to watch a bit, go on with your life, watch a bit more…

★★★½☆


L4yer Cake: Great crime book, if a little heavy on the "oo eck 'e're so 'ery English wot wot" shit. Movie's about 50% of the book, plus 25% new shit out of the writer's ass, not always seamless. Movie ending is bullshit—in the book the same asshole shoots him but he lives and then delivers his "if you knew my name" line.

Never said in the book or movie, but his name is Bond, James Bond. Thus XXXX and the fake posing as Bond, sudden development of Navy Seals level murder skills, and fucking another man's wife (which is rarely brought up in the Bond movies, but in the books it's a common theme, also common to Ian Fleming himself—adultery made philandering without consequences easier for him/them).

I don't especially like Daniel Craig as XXXX or Bond, but if you're gonna do both, he barely passes. Book XXXX is just short of 30, Craig was 36 at the time, but looked 40+, a dried-up ballsack face already. Bloated tub of lard Colm Meany will always and only be sad, pathetic Transporter Chief O'Brien to me; he just looks constipated and confused when he's trying to be menacing, or really all the time. George Harris as Mortimer is too pleasant much of the time to be the borderline personality of the book; it's legitimately shocking when he does snap. The girl, Sienna Miller (named for the shittiest color crayon), is about a 7 or 7.5, not the perfect femme fatale of the book; tho the English have a lower scale of hotness so she's probably as good as they've ever seen; and she has few scenes to even establish the adultery subplot.

Funniest moment of the show was the "Serbian" gangsters speaking Romanian; I couldn't tell everything they were saying with my half-assed Spanish and quarter-assed French, but all Romance languages are recognizable. The English filmmakers probably didn't know the difference; anywhere east of Germany is Poland, eh, limey?

★★★☆☆ — aggressively mediocre interpretation of better but not amazing source material.


Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse: So, up front: I don't especially like Spiders, or Men, or Spider-Men, and as noted in The Boys, I don't trust anyone with super-powers not to be a super-jerk. I grew up with the Electric Company Spider-Man, but by the '80s that motherfucking bug had his own live-action TV show, cartoon, cereal, toys, Japanese sentai show, and more, raking in $millions a year. Plus the police, military, and civilian applications of his web-shooter goop must be worth $billions. If he's married to MJ she's worth at least as much as an actress. The poor white boy from Queens act is offensive.

But I needed something light and dumb after the hash they made of L4yer Cake.

Miles Morales is certainly a more humble protagonist than '60s-era Peter Parker; less Hardy Boys and more Boyz n the Hood. But it's taken 20 minutes to get him bitten and plot to start. How are there not thousands or millions of Spider-People in a world where every radioactive spider produces the same powers? As usual in the movies and TV shows, with limited rights and limited creative people of their own, they only acknowledge the existence of Spidey's "rogues gallery", not any of the hundreds of other supers placed in New York in the comics.

I'm not a big fan of urban graffiti; it's mostly criminals marking territory they extort protection money from, or vandals damaging property they don't own. Buy a fucking canvas to paint on.

Mama Morales speaks like two lines of Spanish ever, then switches back to English for the honky audience. NYPD Cop Dad is the stern-but-fair bullshit they'd like to sell; I expect he's all Training Day on the streets.

Even in cartoons, Stan Lee got his cameo. But not Steve Ditko. They can't spare one fucking scene in this Russian-epic-length film for the man who created classic Spider-Man and drew the comic until Stan stiffed him on money (as he did to everyone)? There's a passing mention of him in the credits, which is sadly better than most do.

I did genuinely laugh at one joke: "Hey, maybe you guys can go around? OK, thanks, New York."

Spider-Gwen and Noir SM are good takes on the idea; I'm familiar with SG from the comics. Has-Been SM and Spider-Ham are awful, jokes carried way past their sell-by date. Old Aunt May with a baseball bat is good and strong, as fits a potential Herald of Galactus. Mary Jane as slightly frumpy Jessica Rabbit is weird, but she has little screen time, she's just a trophy for various Peters.

Kingpin's a perfect villain as always and chews the scenery less than in the Daredevil TV show. But for someone so obsessed with family, he isn't very understanding of others' familial conflicts. Still, he halfway saves this flick.

Doc Ock is interesting, but I don't see how the relationship with Aunt May can work after this. Prowler's given a surprisingly good background (but a very Huntress-like outfit with nipple patches). The other villains are just big mooks, zero personality.

There's no plot or conflict except "can Miles survive 3d6 random fight scenes and then push a button?" You will be shocked to learn the answer is yes, he pushes the button.

By 1 hour 20 minutes in, I'm ready for the end of the movie, but there's 40 minutes of this to go. Brevity is the soul of wit, but alas. This just drags out the "kid can't fight" part before the moment of heroism schtick. Then a very long neon Jackson Pollock screensaver with Doc Ock taking an improbable amount of abuse, instead of using a bruiser villain or fighting with the tentacles. All the villain fights get dumber and more punchy as the film progresses. The collider's said to be making a black hole, which means it has at least the mass of a planet, possibly a star; but happily magic dimension shit just reverses itself and there's no lasting apocalyptic results like a city vaporizing even if you do shut it down. Consequence-free adventuring.

"Anyone can wear the mask", moralizes (oh, "Morales", I get why he's so preachy now, "Miles" of it even) a kid who is faster and stronger than any athlete, can recover from almost any injury, swings by his arms from tiny spider strings, and can be invisible (and what man could be good with that power?!) and shoot lasers from his hands. You know, like a SPIDER. If a normal kid wears a SM mask and leaps off a building, they'd just die horribly.

★★☆☆☆ — massively overstayed its welcome, shitty final sequence, too many underdeveloped characters.

What I'm Watching: Mindhunter S2

Based on the book by FBI agent John E. Douglas — the character Holden Ford is based on him — S1 set up a format of serial killer interviews interspersed with a little too much personal drama in Holden's love life. Their portrayal of Ed Kemper, the Co-Ed Killer, was especially impressive. Sympathetic sociopath.

S2 starts out more of the same, interviews with Ed Kemper again, Charlie Manson, David Berkowitz, and several others, building up the theory of sexual compulsion; interrupted by Wendy trying to have a relationship, Bill's kid becoming a budding sociopath and his wife's high-strung nonsense so Bill has to fuck off of work every weekend to try to be a dad. All the personal stuff's a waste of screen time.

But then it starts to focus on the Atlanta Child Murders, brings back agent Jim Barney for local expertise. The long, half-assed struggle as they don't really know how to profile yet, or have adequate support from Atlanta PD (the photocopy flyer story is hilarious/awful; Kinko's was around and used by every indie zine and punk band, and by the alleged killer, and by BTK in the before-credits scenes, but the cops and FBI can't get anything done in less than geological time). There's a ridiculously long stakeout that finally gets them their one suspect, and the difficult politics in getting him prosecuted.

In reality, Douglas got censured for saying the suspect "fit the profile … looked pretty good for a good percentage of the killings". Holden doesn't get to shove his foot that far in his mouth. And we still don't know how many people the suspect actually killed; there's better evidence of some, but he definitely didn't kill them all. Someone else killed at least a dozen kids and got away with it.

★★★★☆ — needs focus on the criminal profiling, not the quasi-fictional characters on the side. Tends to be too gentle on Holden Ford/John Douglas who is seriously quite a flaming asshole.

There's also a podcast, Atlanta Monster about the case, S2 is going into Zodiac.

What I'm Watching: Hap & Leonard S3

It is 1989. Hot (black) lawyer Florida goes down to a backwoods Texas shithole to deal with rights to a legendary blues man's lost recordings, goes missing, Hap & Leonard cowboy up to find her, and run into the KKK. They have a satchel of guns, it'll work out.

Great new and old rogue's gallery of weird characters, from Sneed the creep cop from last season, useless Sheriff who's doing Little Bill from Unforgiven with a busted nut, Deputy Hitlerella, Brown the KKK cult leader, creepy mechanic, Bacon the step&fetchit who's more than that. Andrew Dice Clay does a good turn as a DJ, I know he's vilified by the Kids Today™ but I loved The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and clearly the producers did, too.

Not a lot actually happens until E5, but there's good banter and threats and some Twin Peaks-like weirdness.

So that's where I got up to by last weekend. Now, to finish…

Finally the shit hits the fan. Fights and shootouts and a Mexican standoff… and then it ends abruptly and wrongly, without resolution. Are they planning to do more of this season? What the hell?!

I was like ★★★★★ up to this point, but now I'm angry.

Finishing Happy!

Done. Parts of this worked out well, as a violent fairy tale for Christmas.

The mob boss's sister's reality TV show, bruja grandmother(?), and the sort of return of her son was both annoying as hell (fake-ass social media & TV people, ugh), and sometimes the only good parts of an episode; but the actual supernatural shit going on around this later is jarring. Imaginary friends can be seen by someone else, great premise. They can touch things, uh, this is weird… But the demonic stuff I'm not so sanguine about (the sanguinary sauce scene is great, though!)

The bad guys' constant running the kids around to different places, no clear explanation of who's coming for them, the Big Bad's weird-ass bug suit cult, Bad Santa's, uh, friends… Not tied up neatly at all. Reminds me a bit of Shadowrun's Universal Brotherhood which are really insect spirits. Grant Morrison's had insectile villains, doing radical body and brain surgery with very similar results in The Invisibles, too.

The characters remain cartoonish and hard to take seriously. And there's a homophobic vibe to some of it, two villains are gay and weird about it, there's no positive portrayals (not that anyone's positive in this show, but still). I dunno if this is intentional; Chris Meloni's pro-gay rights, has done all but gay porn in Oz, so he's probably not meaning it to be taken this way. Grant's a cross-dresser, and is weird about it, but not like this. I still went "Oh, that's not OK" a couple times.

As is often the case, even on a short series, there's a lot that could've been cut. About 2-3 episodes worth are just "Nick goes to a new location, gets in a fight, gets a clue or has to flee to the next location". The fights are good, often funny slapstick; there's axes, and a chainsaw, and a kung fu gang in Chinatown. Blood but still not a lot of visceral damage.

There's a parody of a Tarantino film scene that made me laugh out loud for over a minute, and freaked out my dog. The show keeps dragging down to boring, and then up pops a good gag and it carries me forward to the next.

If we were making a checklist:

  • Bad Santa
  • Smoothie
  • Blue
  • Nick being an asshole all the time.
  • Big Bad

So, still ★★★★☆, but I'm creeped out by some portrayals, and probably other people will be, too.

What I'm Watching: Happy!

So, this is adapted from a Grant Morrison comic. Grant's a crazy person; one of my favorites, but I think adapting his work is a memetic hazard, immanentizing the eschaton.

Take Chris Meloni from Law & Order: SVU, and make him a washed-up drunk ex-cop Nick Sax. Add a CGI blue flying unicorn, imaginary friend of a little girl. … Sure. And a bad Santa who's kidnapped that little girl. Nick soon convinces himself he's not hallucinating, but he's such an asshole he may not care.

This is bizarre. It veers between parody of SVU, itself so earnestly grimdark it wrapped around to comedy, and Roger Rabbit comic antics.

You never feel bad seeing Meloni get beaten, tortured, or hit by a car; he's very punchable and seems like a bad dude even when playing good, and Nick's shit. There's a lot of blood and screaming, it's as violent as a Friday the 13th film; not quite Eli Roth but not cartoony. There's a flashback scene explaining how Nick got that way, and it would be traumatic to watch if not so far past plausible.

Almost all the characters are ridiculous caricatures; and then the mother of the girl isn't. She walked in from some totally different show and everything being insane around her doesn't faze her, she just wants her kid back.

Happy the unicorn is obnoxious in the way children's cartoons are, but watching him cope with Nick's horrible life is amusing.

I don't know if this is good in any rational sense. Like, if you sat down a normal, well-adjusted person with minimal traumas and made them watch this, they'd hate it and then vomit profusely. I find it kinda charming, a new holiday special up there with Lethal Weapon and Island of Misfit Toys.

★★★★☆