Years and Years

[4.5 stars]

Years and Years embraces the aphorism: The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. And quite the journey it is, from the smallest to the largest step along the road of choices that marks out this slippery narrative.

Russell T. Davies (A Very English Scandal, Bob & Rose) offers up a far spanning look at current politics, all lensed through the very human and personal eyes of a single family. We follow them across a decade as they deal with the fallout and shifting landscape of a world in transition. It is often difficult to watch, especially the time period closest to our own, but it is also hypnotic and gripping. As it moves forward a hundred steps, and then a thousand steps, the world is completely unrecognizable and yet utterly familiar and undeniable. It often isn’t easy seeing how people act and react, but we’ve millennia of proof that we are seeing typical responses.

Though the story is bleak at times, it also celebrates the resilience of people. Survival is key: financial, emotional, physical, and even intellectual. Because that is how it works, the world goes nuts and people do what they must to survive. It is rare that a single event is “the end of it all.” But, of course, as things move on, that is always the risk.

The cast are very much up to the task of bringing this story to life; a bevy of recognizable faces, young and old. Some of the more stand-out performances are Anne Reid (Last Tango in Halifax ), Russell Tovey  (queers. ), Emma Thompson (Men in Black: International), T’Nia Miller (Marcella ), Jessica Hynes (Bridget Jones’s Baby), and Rory Kinnear (Spectre). But, honestly, it is really quite the cast all around, even Lydia West in her first major role shines nicely.

Years and Years is a visceral response by a writer to the world; when good writers get mad they get writing. When they are also artists, they give us timeless classics like The Crucible. Years and Years is likewise a reaction to today’s political insanity and, if not quite as timeless as Miller’s play, it is certainly powerful and impactful. This is a must-see piece of television that will transport you to the very last moments of the series. It won’t satisfy everyone as the ending does leave some things open, but life is rarely fully satisfying…it simply keeps on keeping on. And as long as we can do that, we survive.

Anna

[3 stars]

Imagine Lucy crossed with Mission Impossible with a bit of Red Sparrow and you’ve got a sense of what Anna is like. It is a fun romp with some great fights and good twists…all with a darkly Russian demeanor and French sensibility. In other words, a Luc Besson  film.  This isn’t a classic, but it is certainly good summer entertainment.

Sasha Luss (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) in the title role is suitably inscrutable, if not entirely accessible. And she moves well, helping us believe she could be a trained professional, even if her brawn isn’t obvious.

Around her, Helen Mirren (Nutcracker and the Four Realms), Luke Evans (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women), and Cillian Murphy (Free Fire) provide the intrigue and complications needed to propel the story nicely.

This is nothing more than fun entertainment that is loaded with dark humor, great fight choreography, and twisty plotting tropes that become their own brand of humor. Go for the popcorn and stay for the ride. It may not be the best the summer has to offer, but it is much more satisfying and fun than most of the middling sequels that have been on offer so far.

Happy Death Day 2U

[3 stars]

Happy Death Day was one of the better surprises of last year’s horror offerings. It was full of humor and scares and tackled the Groundhog Day trope with verve. Did we need a follow-up? Probably not, but this one actually managed to build on the original and keep up the entertainment. And, while they force an explanation onto all the craziness of both the first and current film, Christopher Landon managed just enough hand-waving goodness in his writing and directing to let you accept it and move on.

From a character point of view, even more than the first film, this is Jessica Rothe’s (Please Stand By) movie. She doesn’t start the story this time, but she completely takes it over and drowns out all other characters. So much so that the others really don’t matter in the end. This is her journey and resolution. And while they’ve left the door open for a third through a mid-credits tag, my hope is that it was a final joke rather than a heralding of a third film. This vein, fun as it is, is tapped.

Basically, if you liked the first set of loops, you’ll like this set. They are substantially the same stories, but each with a different focus and driver to keep them separate and fresh. And they are both loaded with silly fun tempered with just enough reality to make it work. Definitely a popcorn evening to share with someone of like humor.

Us

[3 stars]

Us is at its best when it’s scaring us, and at its worst when it is trying to explain how and why it is scaring us. Basically, it’s a wonderful bit of creepy horror, but not quite as on point as social commentary as Jordan Peele’s previous Get Out. But, let’s face it, he had a very high bar to meet after that debut.

But Peele aside, this is Lupita Nyong’o’s (Black Panther) film. Period. Even with a fun performance from her Black Panther colleague, Winston Duke (Avengers: Endgame), she dominates the story in every way. Her performance makes this worth seeing regardless of any issues I experienced.

And there are issues. For instance, the plot doesn’t bear up under any kind of scrutiny. Us is much more traditional than Peele’s previous dark horror. Bad stuff happens, carnage occurs, people fight back. There are social overtones, but they are much more subtle and conceptual, requiring Peele’s explanation in a short featurette to get across all the aspects. That isn’t a great sign. The ideas are interesting, but they don’t hold together if you start to ask questions. And that’s the one thing you really don’t want anyone to do when watching your film: have them asking questions and poking holes in your ideas. When that happens, it pulls them out of the moment. A good chunk of the end of the film is explanation–and it just isn’t explanation that makes much sense.

However, for a really suspenseful blood-fest and popcorn spilling film, give Us your time if you haven’t already. It’s a perfectly solid horror pic. Don’t expect the powerful subtlety or outright gut-punches of Get Out, but there is meat on the bones and it is a well executed. Peele has nothing for the big screen currently scheduled, but he continues to show himself as a new and interesting voice in cinema, willing to tackle ideas as well as entertainment. I’m very much looking forward to his upcoming adaptation of Lovecraft Country on HBO. It is a perfect marriage of his ability, interests, and content sensibility.

Always Be My Maybe

[3.5 stars]

It may not have the polish and flow of Crazy Rich Asians, but it has the sentiment and a wonderful sense of reality amid the hijinx. Randall Park (Ant-Man and the Wasp) and Ali Wong (Ralph Breaks the Internet) paired up on the script and on the screen with a slightly outlandish, but sweet tale of destined love.

At the helm, director Nahnatchka Khan makes the jump to the large-ish screen well. But, despite the range of years and geography, it still feels more like a TV movie than big-screen fare. That doesn’t make it bad, it’s just a reaction to the sense of it. For that reason, Netflix was a perfect release vehicle. It is entertaining and flows well, but would have probably had a very limited release in theaters, and likely a small audience. Netflix gave it a wider audience who may never have found it otherwise, and it did so out of the gate.

This is definitely worth your time, especially for an evening to cuddle up with someone you care about. Everyone will find something in there they’ll recognize in their relationships and actions.

Men in Black: International

[3 stars]

First you have to ask yourself: Did we really need another installment in this universe? We didn’t. The original trilogy, while never great writing, relied heavily on character over plot to make it work. And, more importantly, it wrapped up nicely. OK, moving on because they did make it…

This latest offering is entertaining, but feels more like a knock-off than a solid relaunch, despite some really good comic work by the Avengers duo Chris Hemsworth (Bad Times at the El Royale) and Tessa Thompson (Creed II). In fact, even with the addition of Emma Thompson (Lear), Liam Neeson (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick), Rebecca Ferguson (The Kid Who Would Be King), and Rafe Spall (A Brilliant Young Mind) there is nothing really new or surprising here. That’s saying something with that kind of cast pile. And, again despite Thompson’s work, there is nothing like the characters that Smith and Jones created in the original material to draw us in both emotionally and plot-wise. I will admit that Larry and Laurent Bourgeois (aka Les Twins),  were done quite well, however. That high point was thanks to a combination of the actors with some excellent CG to make them both fascinating and menacing.

But the mediocre results aren’t just down to writing. There is also a major flaw in the structure of the movie…and I suspect it came down to a decision by director F. Gary Gray (The Fate of the Furious) trying to find a way to kick the story into gear immediately rather than ease into it. It was a mistake. The opening starts 3 years in the past, then jumps 20 years in the past, and then comes to the present. The time shifts are not only mind bending to track but they also make it difficult to figure out what character is intended as the focus. It’s supposed to be Thompson, but the opening diminishes that. It could have been fixed by interleaving the two important plot points, but presented as two chunks from frame-open, it was a bad mistake.

That said, for some popcorn distraction this isn’t bad it just isn’t great. Compared to a lot of the sequels this summer, it’s actually a cut above. But I kinda wish they had just let the property die and done something new instead. Or at least found a new story to tell. If you like the universe, do catch this at some point. Sure it’s more of the same, but it will provide good distraction. It’s also certainly f/x heavy and will play better on the big screen if you have the time and desire. But if you’re not chomping to see it or don’t have the time, later on disc will probably do.

Farinelli

[3 stars]

Stardom has been with humanity since its earliest days. What excites the masses shifts, but there is always something that captures imagination. In the 18th century, for a time, it was castrati; singers sans balls who’s life altering choices were made for them as young boys. Farinelli was one of the biggest. Singers, that is.

Though made in 1994, the movie resonates with current tastes and reflections. From the camp to the glitz, you can’t watch this without thinking of Freddie Mercury’s story as told in Bohemian Rhapsody, the docu Studio 54, or even reflect on the careers of Bowie and Elton John. This is Glam Rock in its infancy.

The story, however, is more of an opera: overblown and extreme. But the film struggles a little on bringing us into it all. In large part that is because it is more than halfway through before you start to understand the character’s motivations. In fact, it wasn’t until after the final moments and thinking about it more that it came into full clarity. That either makes director and co-writer Gérard Corbiau’s result very clever art or a poorly constructed film. It isn’t an easy call to make on that point.

Stefano Dionisi’s Farinelli is everything you’d expect. His brother, taken on by Enrico Lo Verso is more cryptic. The two play off each other well…but it is a curious and fraught relationship that is as much confusing and it is sibling battles. Arrayed against them is the better known actor (stateside), Jeroen Krabbé, who tackles a much-conflicted Handel. Some of the film smacks of Amadeus because of this conflict, but the stories, while philosophically often sharing ideas, are very different.

This would be a really fascinating movie to remake today. Given the sexual politics that have dominated so much of the news, not to mention the tensions mounting around the world, there is fertile ground for both spectacle and commentary. For now, however, we’ll have to settle for this incarnation of it, which hits on many historical accuracies, even if that isn’t its real intent or focus.

The Mustang

[3 stars]

There are few surprises in this movie, but it is done with such emotional care and intensity that it works. And I say that despite the fact that it is essentially one long, rather abused metaphor. But director and co-writer Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre tackles that head-on and without apology, making it all palatable. She even plays with it in some clever ways.

But, directing aside, it is Matthias Schoenaerts’s (Red Sparrow) performance that sells the story. He is stretched so tightly through most of the movie that you expect him to literally burst. He maps a compelling journey that is far from a simple happy ending, but yet still manages to provide some closure for the audience. Bruce Dern (Nostalgia), Connie Britton (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women) and Jason Mitchell (Mudbound) along with Gideon Adlon provide the walls for Schoenaerts to bounce off of and reveal himself.

Filmed beautifully, and kept taut as a story, it is easy to make it through this movie even when you are sure of its direction. It is a glimpse into the criminal justice system and the Mustang program as well as a personal journey that reflects, at least in facets, aspects in most of us.

Some Streaming Odds and Ends

Good Omens (4 stars)
Honestly, for David Tennant (Mary Queen of Scots) and Michael Sheen (Far From the Madding Crowd) alone this farcical romp about the world, life, and religion is worth it. It is delightfully Pratchett and Gaiman, just as their book was. For those unfamiliar, think an updated Monty Python’s Holy Grail in style, but with more of a coherent through line. That Gaiman wrote the series didn’t hurt in preserving its translation to small screen. And Douglas Mackinnon directed the material flawlessly.

With Jack Whitehall (Nutcracker and the Four Realms), Miranda Richardson (iBoy ), Adira Arjona (Emerald City ), and Michael McKean in inventive pivotal roles, the amusement and pointedness just keeps coming. The show is also chock full of special guest stars and smaller roles as well, which only adds to the fun. If you like British humor and don’t mind having religious institutions poked at, make time for this wonderful comedy.

The Tick (series 2) (3 stars)
I had my doubts when Amazon took up the Tick in its third broadcast incarnation (previously there was the animated series and a short-lived network series). Each captured aspects of the original graphic novels, but neither had found a solid enough formula to keep it going. The first series on Amazon was no exception. It was misbalanced and not quite credible, but it was amusing enough and with some nice character work to make you come back for more. The second series really found its footing and came together nicely. The balance of humor and absurd is much better and the story is more complex and compelling. I’d have loved to see what came next.

Unfortunately, the improvements weren’t enough for Amazon, who decided this would be the last season (at least for now). And this is part of my frustration with streaming services. Yes, they’re taking risks on new content, but they tend to throw it out there and then let it sink or swim on its own and forget about it when it isn’t an instant success. Even Cheers took years to build its audience. The point of these services was to try something new… perpetual content means you should be able to come to it when you’re ready. Sometimes that isn’t when the company drops the entire season at once. We’re just back to where we started with the inability to trust something will actually be supported and be back another season.  So much for serving the niche audiences, as we were promised. Services should, at the least, insist all series come to an end so no one is left hanging if they get cancelled. That doesn’t mean the stories can’t continue, but the main narrative shouldn’t be left as a cliff-hanger. At least The Tick embraced that credo so we weren’t totally left to wonder.

Lucifer (series 4) (3.5 stars)
The last broadcast season of Lucifer was a mess. So much so that it lost enough viewers to find itself begging for a venue. Fortunately, Netflix saw the potential and revived the wonderfully acerbic and amusing mystery/romance/comedy… whatever it is. This season, having lost the fetters of the broadcast censors, is able to finally be much more of what it really could be (it still PG-ish, bordering on a soft R). And they took time with the writing this series to make it a much more satisfying journey. The characters this season all act much more believably than the last go-round. If you at all liked the first season of Lucifer and gritted your teeth through the subsequent two seasons as it diminished, come back to it again. Netflix really breathed life back into the afterlife on this one. Well, at least for one more season to come, which is to be its finale. I will add that the final moment of the fourth season has one of my favorite unspoken jokes of the year. It is a silent joke during a moment that isn’t intended as funny…but someone slipped in the chuckle. And, given the show, it is much in keeping with the show’s sensibility.

Love, Death, and Robots (3 stars)
This anthology series is everything great and everything awful about anime. It is a testosterone fueled set of adventures with buxom broads and hairy men (and the occasional funny episode). It was an idea rich with possibilities, but David Fincher (Gone Girl) and Tim Miller (Deadpool) as the primary producers got lost in their 13-year-old selves and missed the chance to tell a much wider range of stories. It isn’t that any individual episode isn’t interesting, they are all good in their own way. And the range of styles and ideas is pretty unique with all types of animation on display. But it is so male-dominated and full of violence and, mostly, naked women that after a few you’re almost embarrassed to watch it…its like someone found your porn stash but it’s up on your TV screen.

The issue isn’t the talent or the tech or the acting, it is simply that the anthology is horribly unbalanced and ends up missing an audience it could have had. Watch it, but in small doses to keep from burning out on it. I found 2 or 3, at about 5-15 min. each, sufficient for an evening. Beyond that, they got numbingly similar. On the up side, a second season is on order and it has Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who drove much of the animation for and directed the last two Kung Fu Panda movies, at the helm. Perhaps her sensibility will help bring some variety to the series. Certainly I applaud the idea behind the show; I’d like to see it succeed.

 

What Men Want

[3 stars]

I wanted to like this more than I did.  It is funny and distracting, but, for me, the humor was just a little too stretched at times. Over and over again, just as I would invest and believe, the characters would fall into broad slapstick and lose credibility. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t funny, or even poignant at times, but it lacked consistency and an over-all believability.

Taraji P. Henson (Ralph Breaks the Internet) gives a fine comedic and emotional performance, backed by Aldis Hodge (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back), Josh Brener (The Front Runner), Max Greenfield (Hello, My Name is Doris). And with ultimately throw-away performances by Jason Jones and Kellan Lutz (The Expendables 3), there are a lot of avenues to travel. However, despite the female empowerment message, and even plotting, you’ll notice that the cast is dominated by men rather than women. There are female characters, Erykah Badu in particular, but it is the men that stand-out around here. Some of that is the focus of the story…it is the men’s heads she’s focused on…but it’s far from a woman’s movie (like Sex and the City or even Mama Mia!); it is more a comedy for women than about them.

Director Adam Shankman (Hairspray) is no stranger to outlandish comedy. This movie, however, slips in and out of that sensibility rather than holding onto an approach. The effect is like being whipsawed on a roller-coaster as the transitions are abrupt from scene to scene rather than eased into and out of, generally. I had fun, but this isn’t a new classic comedy, or even one I’d likely go back to watch again, because it just isn’t that smoothly done. Once the jokes are delivered and the message complete, there isn’t much left there to return to. See it once and laugh with someone, but then you can confidently forget it and move on to the next empty comedy.

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…