All posts by Hg

Murder: Mundane and Supernatural

I’ve been picking up a number of series of late, which has cut down on my movie time. Not all are worth mentioning, but a few of the mysteries bubbled to the top. These three are about as different from one another as you can get in the genre, but all sport sharp intelligence and humanity.

Chestnut Man
Ah, those twisted and dark Danes. This is a great ride of a mystery, led by Danica Curcic (Equinox), Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, and David Dencik (Soap). It is a a collection of interesting character studies as well as a complex and layered story that unfolds in its own time. There are some familiar tropes driving the story, but it manages to make something new of all them thanks to the directing. For lovers of Scandinavian mysteries, this is a must.

Post Mortem: Nobody Dies in Skarnes
And even more twisted and dark folks from Norway. Post Mortem is delightfully of its culture with a dark sensibility, and yet also touching. It isn’t really a murder mystery so much as a black comedy, despite how it is setup. Sure, there are mysteries to be solved, but that is framework for the rest of the story to hang on. Kathrine Thorborg Johansen (The Quake) and Elias Holmen Sørensen make for an amusing pair of siblings, each struggling with their own failings and issues, unaware of the challenges each is facing. Their stories, and those of the residents of Skarnes around them, intersect and come together in unexpected and entertaining ways. It isn’t the show I expected when I tuned in, but I had fun and would watch the next series if it comes about.

Only Murders in the Building
All of which sets up the silly dark satire of Steve Martin (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) and Martin Short (Innerspace), with a queue-up from Selena Gomez (The Fundamentals of Caring). The three are the oddest collection of sleuths in a long while, crossing style barriers as well as generational ones in wonderful ways. The story is a little odd and forced at times, but with folks like Nathan Lane (Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) there to help it all along, it is a fun bunch of half-hour episodes to entertain you with a queue up for the next season as well. It is best simply enjoyed rather than too much examined (it just doesn’t stand up to that). But, oh, the characters and the twists are plenty fun.

The Chestnut Man Poster Post Mortem: No One Dies in Skarnes Poster
Only Murders in the Building Poster

Untitled Horror Movie

[2 stars]

The pandemic has gifted us with a slew of found footage/phone footage movies. It was a trend already in motion with movies like Searching, but it had taken a new sort of energy because what else do creators do when not allowed to create in groups? They create in groups virtually. Staged and Language Lessons are probably the best examples of what has come out of that approach so far.

This film, however, is not in their ranks. It is, to be fair, intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but that can’t forgive all its flaws. The issues are really mostly with the script. Or, to be fair, perhaps it is having me as an audience. It just wasn’t funny. It was all very inside-baseball for the entertainment industry, but with a millennial and GenX attitude that I found more annoying than entertaining.

Luke Baines (Shadowhunters) co-wrote with Nick Simon (Truth or Dare?). For a first feature script by Baines it isn’t horrible. Derivative to a large degree, but not horrible. Simon’s hand is visible in the shaping of the material into a genre film. But Baines also had a major role in the movie, playing a pretty, but not very talented, actor. Draw your own conclusions.

The rest of the main cast are similarly aged talent, all with recognizable faces. Darren Barnet (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Timothy Granaderos (13 Reasons Why), Claire Holt (47 Meters Down), Katherine McNamara (The Stand, Shadowhunters), and Emmy Raver-Lampman (Umbrella Academy). While none of the individual performances really rise to the top, the ensemble creates a believable cadre of a sitcom cast stressing their series renewal, and managing to get along only with the utmost effort on all their parts.

The story picks up pace as it goes along, but it doesn’t find the proper end, nor does it really manage to thrill, satisfy, or scare you. It simply is. Honestly, I can see why the crew got together to make the piece. It was clearly fun for them and it was an outlet during a period of isolation and little-to-no work. That journey is somewhat memorialized in the script itself. But that is also part of the issue, at least for me. I could see all the gears, both in the story and surrounding it. It was a project that was best left on the shelf and dragged out at private parties they could enjoy together. It was a game attempt, and no performer irked me such that I wouldn’t watch them again in something else, but this wasn’t really worth my 90 minutes. YMMV.

Untitled Horror Movie Poster

Squid Game

[3 stars]

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are at least aware of Squid Game. It has had even bigger viewership numbers than Bridgerton and has made the news and even a song on SNL. Everything everyone has said is true. It is hyperviolent. It is dark as hell. It is a bizarre lens and commentary on capitalism, life, and society. So no need to go there. I want to talk about what people aren’t mentioning.

To start off, I had spotted the show very early in its release, but the description/warning that pretty much just said that it was “hyperviolent” had me put it off. And then the hype grew and so I gave it a shot. The first episode was numbing and depressing. There were no obvious characters worth investing in, based on their actions. I knew who we were supposed to root for, but frankly couldn’t find a way in to do so. So I paused my return to the Korean spectacle.

And then the hype grew more. I just couldn’t grasp what was causing all the hoopla. So, I went back…and that’s where it all got interesting.

The storytelling in Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game is odd and non-linear. It starts us at a dark nadir for Lee Jung-jae as our main character. But then, with the second episode, we start getting backstory for him and the other players. None of it forgives their actions, but it provides context. And there are lots of stories to tell in this cast, though Park Hae-soo, Jung Hoyeon, and Oh Yeong-su have some of the more interesting. No one in this story is blameless and they all, essentially, accept the reality that they are where they are thanks to their own actions. But the context allows for some amount of empathy and, ultimately, some devastating moments. Unlike, say, Battle Royale, it definitely pays off with a purpose.

Add to all this the amazing production design and you have a show you can’t seem to look away from…unless of course you can’t handle hyper-violence, in which case what the heck are you doing watching this anyway? Ultimately, the story is allegorical and not a little absurd. It jumps the shark near the climax with the arrival of the VIPs for me, and the ending was neither overly surprising nor satisfying. It simply happened to allow for a second season. And, to be fair, I want to see what they do with it, even if I don’t forgive the character manipulation that brings us there.

This isn’t an easy show. It won’t raise your opinion of humanity. But, in a weird way, it leaves you feeling hopeful and with some faith in the individual. It will also put some questions in the back of your head that will rattle uncomfortably as you contemplate them in private. Should you watch it? Again, see hyperviolence. It is brutal at times. If you can’t deal with that, the answer is a flat: no. If you can tolerate the intensity and blood, yeah, it’s something you should see.

Squid Game Poster

Halloween Kills

[2.5 stars]

Buckets of blood? Check. Surprises and jumps? Close enough. Story? Well…not so much.

David Gordon Green’s second installment of the new Halloween trilogy is not so much a movie as it is a commentary on society and reflections on the franchise going back to 1978. There isn’t even any teen angst or hijinks. It is almost all from the perspective of the survivors (guilty and not) of the previous films. While the previous film capitalized on that and flipped the script in nice ways, this one is simply out of control and can in no way stand on its own.

Perhaps the real issue is that Green knew he had three films. This installment is simply a bridge to the third and (promised) unexpected finale. But if you don’t know the series and haven’t seen the lead-in story, you’d be lost. This movie picks up literally from the moment the last ended. But it has no real purpose. No rich stories to latch onto and care about (it tries, but fails). It is violent as hell on all sides, and that is its biggest mistake.

For the statement that Green wanted to make, Meyers should have had the lowest, or even zero, bodies added to his list. All of the death should have come purely from the chaos he inspired. That would have made a statement. As it is we simply go from death to death, one squishy over-the-top moment to the next. And while I can enjoy a good splatter film, this just didn’t engage me.

I am, without proof, hopeful that next year’s Halloween Ends will justify this middling release. But we’ll have to wait to see. For now, whether you see this now or later is entirely up to you.

Halloween Kills Poster

Wendy

[3.5 stars]

Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) is not only a gifted storyteller and filmmaker, he is incredibly astute at finding young talent. And while this second feature didn’t get the same kind of attention his first movie did, his abilities are on raw display.

The story, by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza, is a clever retelling of Peter Pan evoking, yet again, their Louisiana roots. The story takes the fantasy and and the desire to never grow up and makes it even more magical that the original Barry tale in some ways.

Part of that success is down to new-comers Devin France and Yashua Mack, in the roles of Wendy and Peter. They are near spooky in their ability to be both children and to seem to carry the wisdom of years behind their eyes. Some of that is, no doubt, Zeitlin’s ability to direct them, but much is their own innate talents.

The film is fluid and unexpected in the way it deals with reality. It provides a framework, but not many answers. And, ultimately, it lands on a joyous metaphor that is both positive and bitter-sweet. The largest failing of the story is it’s climax, mirroring “clap if you believe in fairies.” It is a moment that will work for most audiences, but which I found distancing and demanding in a way that was not embracing. It threw me out of the flick entirely in a very bad way. I understand the choice and assumptions, but it was a shame, after so much else before and after that moment worked, that he and his sister couldn’t see the issue they had tripped on with their choice.

That aside, the movie and its ideas are really special. Zeitlin continues to be a filmmaker to watch, with a unique and powerful vision of the world and an ability to nurture talent that might otherwise go missed.

Wendy Poster

The Watch

[3.5 stars]

Sir Terry Pratchett’s humor was a gift to the world. Silly, yes. Dark, most definitely. Wry? Always. Hogfather is still one of my annual favorites. Adaptations of his books didn’t always go great, but I was always happy to give them a shot. The Watch is inspired by his world, if not directly extrapolated from it.

Creator Simon Allen has the wide ranging background to bring it all to life as the primary writer. The result is significantly darker than other adaptations, both in plot and character. And it goes down like a shot of tequila, harsh at first but slowly warming as it settles. It is very, very English in terms of its style, but not unapproachable. Admittedly, though, some of Richard Dormer’s (Rellik, Game of Thrones) lines can bend your ear between the mumbling and the accent. But his rubber face rivals that of Jim Carrey at times, which helps meaning and entertainment even when specific words get lost.

The rest of the Watch’s squad is a motely mix to be sure. From Marama Corlett, Adam Hugill (1917), and Jo Eaton-Kent to their adjunct Lara Rossi, they are, to a one, broken and looking for redemption. The show follows the band of misfits as they coalesce and try to win the day against impossible odds in a city where crime has been legalized. Yeah, chew on that a while.

Arrayed against the Watch are a slew of fun characters. Samuel Adewunmi, Bianca Simone Mannie, Jane de Wet, and Paul Kaye (Anna and the Apocalypse) are among them, but there are so many more. The world is rich with outlandish technologies, magic, and commentary.

The story is layered and complicated and open to a next series. Actually, it sort of demands it, though it does so through a coda rather than leaving you hanging on the main story. However, as of now, BBC hasn’t yet decided whether to renew the show. I really hope they do. I want to know what more they can do with this group and world.

The Watch Poster

 

Voyagers

[2 stars]

Short version: it’s Lord of the Flies in space but without any of the weight of the original allegory.

Longer version: The world is dying so a group of scientists send a bunch of teenagers into space without much personal or automated supervision for 86 years. What could go wrong?

Honestly, the premise of a generation ship could have worked had they not already admitted they had both invitro fertilization and extra-utero gestation solved. Why the heck did they need more than a few adults to get the ship where it needed to be? Bring a seed bank of humans; the rest could have been made later either in waves or all at once near the end so they were useful. Would have saved a ton of supplies and space.

But that wasn’t the story Neil Burger (The Upside) wanted to tell. He wanted to show the horror of mankind unbound. Except he didn’t. He showed what a couple of psychopathic teens could accomplish when adults were too stupid to take precautions like monitoring their charges physically, chemically, or some other way. The pitfalls of the plan are obvious to anyone and the results inevitable. So the movie is really about the spectacle.

Unfortunately, while there are some nice design an visual effects, there isn’t a lot of good spectacle on display either. Not in terms of fights, skin, or anything else that might qualify. Burger couldn’t really commit to his vision, or the studio kept scaling it back. Frankly High Life or even the nearly unwatchable Climax took on these themes better. And Passengers, for any flaws it may have or others thought of it, looked at long space flight better as well.

What is a shame is that he had some talent there waiting to tackle the problems. Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Dark Phoenix), Fionn Whitehead (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch), Lily-Rose Depp, not to mention Colin Farrell (Ava) all have chops. But Burger’s script and direction did them no favors. While they all start at a good place and are good at the understated base from which it all launches, none of them really have an arc we care about emotionally.

So, yes, skip this. My pain should not be yours. Burger is a capable filmmaker, but this was not one he will be remembered for. And none of the actors will admit to this down the road unless under duress.

Voyagers Poster

Fall In-comers

A few of the new shows have dropped. It feels rather thin for this Fall, but then again, the pandemic hobbled production more than a little.

Ordinary Joe
If you love This is Us, this may be for you. Riffing on some of the same ideas, but in a very different format, Ordinary Joe follows three potential futures for a man from an inflection point back in his college days. Suffice to say that once you grit your teeth through the opening scenes which has the 30-something James Wolk (Watchmen) pretending to be in his early 20s, the story is mildly intriguing. And he definitely has some talent and charisma to pull off the role. It is also particularly clever how the timelines intersect in unexpected ways and how the production keeps them all crisply defined. But is it gripping enough to survive? I’ve no doubt it will find its audience and, if the writing can sustain the story, it will last at least the season. For me, however, it’s a bit too, well Lifetime movie. I enjoyed the unexpected aspects of the tales, but the core piece of it just tries too hard.

La Brea
If you’ve never seen either iteration of Primeval/Primeval: New World you’re missing out on a better version of this idea. OK, the earlier shows were aimed younger, but the writing wasn’t nearly as annoying as this supposedly adult, current-world attempt. Logic holes and character stupidity are on high display through the first episodes, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the series. That was the best they could do? There is potential in the setup and the idea, so perhaps they can pull it together, but I have to say I’m less than convinced given that they’re going to get much better.

Wonder Years
While this reboot hadn’t quite found its voice in its first ep, it is wickedly funny and poignant in a non-sugary way. Don Cheadle (Space Jam: A New Legacy) manages to amp up his vocal engagement in the voice-overs as the series continues to help sell it a little more. But the cast, the setting, and the broad historical honesty (at least so far) are very, very compelling. And as a mirror to its earlier namesake, it’s a pretty important show. If the quality continues, it has real potential for a long run.

Ordinary Joe Poster La Brea Poster
The Wonder Years Poster

What If…?

[4 stars]

There is no doubt this show was highly anticipated by fans of the MCU, and generally worth the wait. Mind you, if you haven’t watched the whole phase 1-3 sequence you would be completely lost on the references and import of what you’re watching. This is a gift to fans from fans. Period. And that’s a truly rare thing at this level of quality and production. A fully non-canon set of stories that tackle those powerful thoughts of “What if…” that allow for stories that never happened but might have been fun to see.

But how much fun comes down to this: why do you want to watch What If…? There are different answers to the question, and the reactions I’ve seen to the show tend to be fed by which of the two main camps that question creates. Either you’re just interested in being entertained and seeing what fun and silly stuff might come out of mashing up the characters and events, or you want to see something a bit more interesting in terms of how a story really might unspool in a meaningful way thanks to a single change. Up front, I’m in the latter camp. I’m all about the power of “what if” in stories, but I want it to have a purpose and satisfying result. It can get silly, but it still has to satisfy my main criteria: purpose. And after a wandering path, they got there. But that meant seeing it all chronologically and experiencing the stories individually first.

Launching with a riff on the Captain America origin story was a brilliant stroke. It sets up the tone and possibilities. More importantly, it was a story with a change that had impact in its difference. But then it quickly stumbled for me in its second outing as it took on Guardians of the Galaxy, almost instantly breaking the reality by having events out of order in a way that could not work, even in the universe they created. Any fan would have spotted it immediately. The gaff set off alarm bells for me as it meant no one was watching carefully enough to keep it above the realm of bad fan fiction. Because, let’s face it, this series is fan fiction…that is its only purpose to exist.

I had fewer issues with the Avengers Assemble riff. Though, other than shock value, it didn’t manage to really grab me. Part of that may have been the voices; several main characters didn’t voice their avatars.

But Doctor Strange was clever and cut to the bone in a way that most of the episodes don’t. Though I fully admit the run at Infinity War (which sadly spoils the opening surprise with its title) was a riot. And while Iron Man’s alternate journey was interestingly thought through, Thor’s only-child tale lost it’s credibility early on for me. It could have been fun, but it tried too hard and, like the Guardian’s episode, included too many characters that shouldn’t have been mixing.

And then there was the Ultron finale…well, dang. I have to hand it to the series for that storyline along with its repercussions and impact. But it was a long slog to relevance in some ways. Without that finale, I’d have a had a much lower opinion of the series.

Overall, the clever reuse of movie audio, which helped to bring back in original voices in many places that might not have otherwise been possible, and the sense of fun and whimsey amid the dark really pulled it all together nicely.  And now I’m actually looking forward to the next season.

What If...? Poster

The Future

[2.5 stars]

Miranda July (Madeline’s Madeline) wrote, directed, and starred in this, her Sophomore feature outing a decade ago. She and Hamish Linklater (The Angriest Man in Brooklyn) are a pair of aimless adults not quite in the swing of life. They’re lost and broken rather than open to the world around them and enjoying their “freedom.” And therein lies the spark that leads them down separate and twisting paths that include, amongst others, a creepy and sort of sweet turn by David Warfshofsky and an early appearance by Isabella Acres (Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated) who has an equally odd little character.

This isn’t a fast or intense tale. It unfolds inexorably. But every time the story was starting to lag or get uninteresting, July would throw in something new or surprising to help keep it going. In fact, the last third was a completely brave crapshoot that saved the flick for me.

I can’t honestly say I actually enjoyed the full result, nor that I entirely understood her full intent, but I did stick it out to see where she’d end up. As with many indie’s, this one gets rather metaphorical. I think it’s intended to be positive, but I didn’t really feel that way at the end. It isn’t that I haven’t used the same dark mirror to carry an uplifting intent or message, but the order of things at the end didn’t add up that way for me.

If you’re looking for something a little different, a little quiet, but handled with some care, this may do you. It has romantic themes, but it is far from Romance. This is more a story of finding yourself and being open to what’s around you in a real way, not a reactive one. How you respond to it will depend a great deal on your own experiences and where you are in life now.

 

The Future Poster