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'Sunny,' led by a powerful Rashida Jones, is best when focused on personal relationships

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'Sunny,' led by a powerful Rashida Jones, is best when focused on personal relationships

In “Sunny,” premiering Wednesday on Apple TV+, Rashida Jones plays Suzie Sakamoto, an American living in a near-future Kyoto who has apparently lost her Japanese husband and 8-year-old son in the crash of a commercial airliner — although the possibility that things might be otherwise is raised early in the season. As in most mysteries, much is not as it seems.

Grieving and refusing to publicly grieve, Suzie finds herself the unwilling recipient of Sunny (Joanna Sotomura) an Apple-white domestic robot whose adorable, Sanrio-style expressions display on a video screen. This is, she’s told, supposed to make her feel less lonely. (“I’m a hugger,” says Sunny, much to Suzie’s horror. “Bring it in.”) She has no actual friends.

It’s at this point that Suzie learns that Masa (Hidetoshi Nishijima, “Drive My Car”), her husband, was not a refrigerator engineer, as she believed across their decade-long relationship, but was an important person in cutting-edge robotics; he had personally programmed Sunny for Suzie out of, I can only suppose, some prescient apprehension of his eventual absence. Nothing else makes sense, anyway.

(I’m going to call Sunny “she,” because the robot reads as female — in Colin O’Sullivan’s original novel, “The Dark Manual,” since re-titled to match the series, it’s called Sonny — and because all the other main characters, including the primary antagonist, are women. It’s their world we’re in, not accidentally.)

Her initial attempts to divest herself of Sunny entwine with her desire to learn just who her husband was; there will be skulking and unpleasant if incomplete discoveries. Drowning her sorrows in the bar where she and Masa were regulars, Suzie meets lively, motley haired Mixxy (Annie the Clumsy), a new bartender, who tells her of the Dark Manual, an illegal underground guide to homebot hacking that might allow her to turn Suzie completely off rather than just unreliably put her to sleep.

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It has apparently less benign applications, as well, and every step leads her further into the coils of an overly complicated plot; dangerous situations follow upon dangerous situations, with Suzie and Sunny operating as bickering, bantering buddy cops and Mixxy tagging along out of interest — or is it self-interest? We also see early on that Suzie is under surveillance — by whom? For what? Yakuza are eventually knitted into the story, which is, frankly, a bit of a disappointment; even exotic organized crime is, ultimately, mundane.

It’s easy to resist Sunny at first, because Suzie does, and especially as it’s impossible to tell whether she might cause her owner harm. There is a suggestion in the series’ opening that homebots can go dangerously haywire, and Suzie remains suspicious of Sunny even as she comes slowly to accept and rely on her. But one warms to the robot eventually and, indeed, my main concern through the season was whether it would treat her well.

Like animals, in a drama or social media video, sentient machines excite our sympathies. As soon as you give a robot a face or a voice, or even a vocabulary of beeps, clicks and whirs, they become indistinguishable emotionally from human characters, no matter how many times someone will assert, “It’s just a machine.” If anything, they’re more sympathetic for not being us. Astro Boy. Data. C-3P0. Replicants. The death of HAL 9000 is the one heartbreaking moment in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” With her big eyes and soft voice, her attitudes of hope and worry, her capacity to dream and to get “drunk” on visual feedback loops, Sunny is as much a protagonist as Suzie. (The series is named for her, after all.)

Among a smorgasbord of secrets, it’s suggested that Suzie also is hiding something — she won’t answer when Masa, in a long flashback to their meeting, asks her “the real reason” she moved to Japan. Her desire to disappear introduces the real-world concept of hikikomori, an extreme form of social avoidance in which people sequester in their room, sometimes for years — Masa having been one. (“It’s not a meditation retreat,” he says, when Suzie expresses interest. “When people looked at me, it hurt.”)

Some plot points feel mechanical, like a Rube Goldberg gadget where the interaction of a boiling tea kettle, a bursting balloon, a scared cat and a falling bowling ball are all required in order to, say, ring a bell — when the logical thing is just to take a stick and strike it; there is a lot of extra energy expended in getting from A to B — I won’t say “wasted,” but there’s a degree of nonsense you’ll need to accept.

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The series, created by Katie Robbins, is much more successful when it concentrates on personal relationships — I’m including Sunny here, obviously — than on the mystery and conspiracy elements, which are no more compelling or even the point of the journey than a villain’s plans in your average Bond movie. Human mysteries are always more interesting. The prickly relationship between Suzie and her prickly, passive-aggressive mother-in-law, Noriko (actor, singer, woodcut artist Judy Ongg, quite wonderful) is intentionally frustrating and beautifully played.

There are detours in the home stretch, which leads to a twist or a cliffhanger, depending on whether a second season is coming. (There certainly seems more to discuss.) An antepenultimate episode — following the now-common strategy among streaming serials of backing up into the past before finishing in the present — gives Nishijima’s Masa a welcome wealth of screen time; the episode that follows goes, surreally, inside Sunny’s head, for more backstory and context, while Jones remains almost entirely offscreen.

Wayward plotting aside, it’s easy to watch — very nicely made, handsomely designed and photographed, with colorful minor characters and striking performances by the major ones. Best known for “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Angie Tribeca,” Jones — though she spends much of the time depressed — is powerful even in her inwardness. There’s not a lot of vanity in her performance and less comedy than usual. (The series has a certain comic lightness, from the bright Saul Bass-style opening credits onward, but it is rarely funny.)

Finally, she’ll become a sort of slow-moving action hero — think of Doris Day in the climax of “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” The creators may have.

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‘Frankie Freako’ Is a Fun Ode to ’90s Puppet Mayhem Movies [Fantasia Review]

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‘Frankie Freako’ Is a Fun Ode to ’90s Puppet Mayhem Movies [Fantasia Review]

Seeing isn’t always believing in The Chapel, the latest film from Piggy writer/director Carlota Pereda. Written by Pereda, as well as Albert Bertran Bas and Carmelo Viera, The Chapel is a supernatural drama about intergenerational trauma between mothers and their daughters.

The film opens in 1631 in a small Spanish town that is besieged by the Black Plague. Men in plague masks gather up sick individuals to lock them in the titular chapel to preserve the health of the community and, as the crowd watches, a young, infected Uxoa (Alba Hernández) is separated from her mother, who refuses to help.

The moment of familial discomfort is upended, however, when a member of the crowd raises a smartphone to shoot video of the event, shattering the authenticity of the moment. It turns out what we’re seeing is a historical reenactment: these are actors who are playing a part in an annual five day festival. Once a year the haunted church is opened up and the town becomes a debauchery-laden tourist destination.

A similar instance of visual questioning occurs only a few moments later when characters walk through town and arrive at a painted facade two-stories tall that mimics the real street behind it.

Because these moments are so close together – and occur so early in the film – it is clear that it’s a larger part of Pereda, Bas and Viera’s subtle agenda. The Chapel is clearly interested in exploring notions of life after death, spiritualism, and belief, but the screenwriters also seemingly want the audience to evaluate what we’re seeing and what constitutes truth.

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The heroine of the film is young eight year old Emma (Maia Zaitegi), an aspiring medium who is bullied at school because it’s a well known fact that her mother (Loreto Mauleón) is dying of cancer. Although the woman is effectively in hospice, Emma can’t bear to be separated from her mother, so instead of being sent away to relatives or into foster care, Emma is regularly babysat by well-intentioned neighbors, Edurne (Elena Irureta) and Asier (Jon Olivares).

The kindly adults are no match for Emma’s strong will and her tendency to sneak out, however, so her de facto surrogate parent becomes police officer Jon Elorza (Josean Bengoetxea). He’s the one who typically finds Emma in the middle of the night, unaccompanied, and performing spells to try and speak with the spirit of Uxoa, who haunts the chapel.

The plot kicks in when Ivana Peralta (Nagore Aranburu), the old “witch” Emma was studying under, dies of natural causes on the eve of the festival. Concerned that if her mother dies during the five days, her spirit will be imprisoned inside the religious site, Emma befriends the witch’s daughter, Carol (Belén Rueda) who arrives in town to settle the estate and manage the funeral.

Rueda is eminently watchable as the scowling disbeliever with a tortured backstory. Carol makes a living as a fraudster mystic, she actively tells Emma she hates children, and she stalks through town in her mother’s fur coat like a fury. She also wears her history, quite literally, on her face: the entire left side is badly burned, a detail The Chapel mines for a narrative reveal in the last act.

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The skeptical adult/precocious child partnership isn’t new, but it works exceptionally well here because both actors are great. Zaitegi is especially revelatory: the rare child actor who negotiates the fine line between cloying, annoying, and dangerously mature for their age. It’s the centerpiece performance of the film and it only works because Emma is inherently worth rooting for, even when she repeatedly sneaks out after dark, engages in risky spiritualist activities, and actively courts the attention of violent ghosts.

Alas the film loses its way roughly halfway through. While The Chapel makes a clear throughline between Uxoa, Carol, and Emma’s “abandonment” by their respective mothers, when it comes time to confront the literal ghosts of their past, there’s nothing else to explore. The climax is particularly muddled, as the aforementioned “question what you see” element comes roaring back in a poorly shot sequence featuring a fiery pyre. 

It’s even more disappointing considering the spectacle that Pereda creates only moments before: a mountain of mutilated plague bodies piled on top of each other. This is easily the most haunting visual in the entire film, but it stands out in stark contrast to earlier unconvincing CGI on the Plague Mask ghost that regularly attacks Emma.

Alas, it is the horror elements where The Chapel falls down. There’s more mood and tension in a scene when Carol stumbles drunk through the town in the middle of night than most of the overly familiar monster attack sequences. 

The film works best when it is investigating the nature of female relationships between Emma, her mother, and Carol or when it explores Emma’s inability to process her mother’s impending death (fans of J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls will find this to be a suitable companion piece). 

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As a female-centric drama with genre-adjacent tones, this is a strong calling card for Pereda’s talent. As a horror film, though? The Chapel is muddled.

3 skulls out of 5

The Chapel made its North American debut at the Fantasia International Film Festival.

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'America's Got Talent' breaks an unlikely underwear world record on final audition night

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'America's Got Talent' breaks an unlikely underwear world record on final audition night

We see London, we see France, we see — the “America’s Got Talent” audience’s underpants?

“AGT” broke a Guinness World Record in the episode that aired Tuesday night: the record for the most people wearing underwear on their heads for at least one minute.

Nicolas “Nick” Manning, a contestant from Australia, came on “AGT” initially intending to break the record for the most pairs of underwear pulled on, one pair at a time, in 30 seconds.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always wanted to be the best in the world at something,” Manning told the crowd.

The current record is 23 pairs in 30 seconds, which Manning set last July. In his attempt to beat his own record, he planned for the 24th to be a golden pair of undies.

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“So we are going for the gold in the year of the Olympics,” celebrity judge Howie Mandel said.

The crowd cheered him on in his attempt, but Manning ultimately fell short of a new record by two pairs. But he didn’t end the night there; he wanted to attempt to break another world record, one that would include the audience, judges and stage crew.

“There is a record for most people gathered in one place wearing underwear on their heads,” Manning told the crowd. The record was 355 participants.

The underwear had to be donned for a full minute, with a Guinness judge there to supervise. So all at once, the audience and judges, plus host Terry Crews, pulled out white underwear and put it on their heads. Crews even led the crowd in a chant to make judge Simon Cowell put underwear on his head as well. (He reluctantly obliged.)

More than 1,200 people participated. The room erupted in cheers upon hearing the total, but audience members soon had their underpants in a twist over the judges’ reactions to Manning’s audition.

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“I understand that a lot of people are very fascinated about those records. I for some reason, don’t really care about seeing them happen, so I didn’t love it,” judge Sofia Vergara said.

“Well, he failed on the first one, succeeded on the second one,” Cowell said. “But it didn’t feel that it was very difficult to break that record, if I’m being honest.”

So it was a “no” from all four judges, including Heidi Klum, and Manning failed to advance in the competition. But he had great support from the crowd as he exited the stage.

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DEADPOOL & WOLVERINE Review

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DEADPOOL & WOLVERINE Review
(PaPa, C, B, H, LLL, VVV, SS, N, A, DD, M):

Dominant Worldview and Other Worldview Content/Elements:

Strong pagan, slightly mixed, irreverent, often lawless worldview, but the movie’s premise has a solid redemptive, moral aspect to it where the main character wants to make a difference, save his friends, be a hero, and defeat two power-mad villains, and sacrifice ultimately solves the movie’s plot problem, and this is overtly referred to in the dialogue, plus the movie takes place in a humanist multiverse, though the movie appears to acknowledge the monotheistic idea that there are ultimate values that transcend the individual multiverses (thus, for example, Deadpool truly does want to be the kind of hero that his girlfriend wants him to be);

Foul Language:

At least 139 obscenities (including many “f” and “s” words), one possible Jesus profanity, seven GD profanities, and 13 light profanities;

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Violence:

Lots of extreme and even bloody and well as strong violence includes Wolverine gets really mad at Deadpool two or three times, and they fight and try to kill each other even though the bodies of both men have regenerative power, lots of stabbing from Wolverine’s claws and Deadpool’s swords against each other and against bad guys, Deadpool decimates a bunch of Time Variance Authority soldiers with bones from a skeleton that have been infused with unbreakable adamantine steel, some explosions, a villain is able to infiltrate and control the minds of other people (this is depicted as if one of the villain’s hands is poking through the person’s head – there’s no blood, the action seems to be more metaphorical or taking place on a non-physical plane), explosions, gunfights, people are shot multiple times (for example, both Deadpool and another character shoot Wolverine multiple times in two plot twists), and-to-hand combat, villain with telekinetic powers kills one character by ripping his skin away, and people go flying during the movie’s many fight scenes;

Sex:

No sex scenes but the dialogue has a smattering of crude sex jokes, including a joke about a Boy Scout leader exposing himself;

Nudity:

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Brief upper male nudity;

Alcohol Use:

Some alcohol use;

Smoking and/or Drug Use and Abuse:

No smoking, but an older side character enjoys cocaine, and there are jokes about her cocaine use, though it’s never depicted; and,

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Miscellaneous Immorality:

Deadpool lies to Wolverine about an important matter, but Wolverine eventually forgives him and accepts Deadpool’s perspective on why his lie wasn’t really a lie.

In DEADPOOL & WOLVERINE, Deadpool wants to make a positive difference in the universe to regain the love of Vanessa and teams up with a reluctant Wolverine to stop a power-mad bureaucrat from the Time Variance Authority who’s trying to destroy Deadpool’s universe. DEADPOOL & WOLVERINE takes the crude language and extreme violence in the first two Deadpool movies to new depths of degradation, which ultimately overwhelms the movie’s redemptive heroic premise and dilutes the movie’s enjoyment level.

In the story, Wade Wilson aka wants to regain the love of his girlfriend, Vanessa, to become a true hero. However, The Avengers turn him down, so he stops using his Deadpool identity altogether and just enjoys being with his friends, including Vanessa. He still wants to get back with her though, but she nixes the idea.

Two years later or so, a power-mad bureaucrat from the Time Variance Authority (TVA), calling himself Mr. Paradox, picks up Wade. Paradox thinks Wade has matured enough to be a hero. He wants Wade’s help for a special assignment. Wade is gung ho and gets Paradox to build him a new Deadpool suit. However, he rebels against Paradox when he discovers that Paradox is trying to destroy Wade’s universe, including Vanessa and his friends. Apparently, the death of Logan, aka Wolverine of the X-Men, in Wade’s universe has set off a chain of events that will lead to the universe’s destruction sometime in the future anyway. So, Paradox decides why wait for all that pain and misery to develop? Why not just destroy Wade’s universe now?

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A fight occurs Paradox’s offices. Wearing his Deadpool suit, Wade manages to escape in one of the TVA’s multiverse time travel portals. Deadpool travels back to Wolverine’s burial place to revive him. Things don’t go according to plan, and Deadpool finds a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. He eventually figures a way around it, but only to find another obstacle. Wolverine is not interested in stopping Mr. Paradox, and certainly not to work with Deadpool, whom he loathes.

Even when Wolverine finally reluctantly agrees to help, he and Deadpool encounter the biggest obstacle of all, a new, even more powerful villain. This villain wants to destroy the whole multiverse except for one area.

Can Deadpool and Wolverine stop this new villain and Mr. Paradox too? Can Deadpool save his own universe? Will Deadpool stop his incessant talking?

Except for some exposition, the jokes and action in DEADPOOL & WOLVERINE don’t stop. The movie also has some surprising, funny cameos. However, the movie takes the crude language and extreme violence in the first two Deadpool movies to new levels, or depths.

For example, Wolverine gets really mad at Deadpool at least twice. They fight and try to kill each other, with Wolverine stabbing Deadpool repeatedly with his claws, and Deadpool stabbing Wolverine repeatedly with his samurai swords. As fans of the two characters know, the bodies of both men have regenerative powers, so these scenes seem to go on forever with no resolution. In another long scene, Deadpool slices and dices multiple TVA policemen. Also, in a third long scene, Deadpool and Wolverine wade through a horde of assailants together. The brutality of the violence is clearly too extreme.

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The number of obscenities in DEADPOOL & WOLVERINE has also sunk to new “heights,” going well over 100 to about 140 or more. There’s also some strong lewd dialogue, including a joke about a Boy Scout leader exposing himself. Unlike the first DEADPOOL movie, however, this third movie has no explicit sex scenes or nudity.

Ultimately, the brutality of the violence and the amount of obscene language in DEADPOOL & WOLVERINE dilutes the enjoyment of the story. It also overwhelms the movie’s redemptive ending. Shock for shock’s sake is a flawed concept that ultimately turns off more people than it attracts.

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