Category Archives: Movie Review

Cursed in Arcadia Ego

[4 stars (Tales of Arcadia) or 2.25 stars (Cursed)]

Two very different Netflix shows currently tackle the Arthurian myth. And, surprisingly, the children’s show does it better and more interestingly. Arthur is rich in myth and history with enough room in it to allow for many types of retellings. And these two shows couldn’t have done it more differently nor with such different levels of success.

Tales of Aradia was created by Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone), based on his co-written books. It’s an interconnected collection of series that began with Trollhunters. Then came 3Below, followed by the most recent: Wizards. But the threads that lead to Wizards begin in the first episode of Trollhunters. And, yes, these are really aimed at older kids and young teens, without question, particularly the first couple series. However, I jumped into Wizards without watching the others and it hooked me. It was inventive with the myth, stretching it like crazy, but not breaking it in a way that felt wrong. And while it was clear I didn’t know the backstories of a lot of characters, I was never entirely lost; a credit to the writing of the show.

When I went back to the beginning of the inter-connected series, I was surprised to find references to events I’d just witnessed, and which would have gone unanswered for viewers for three years. In other words, I don’t think it matters which end of the time stream you start, it all comes together in fun ways.

The show is loaded with voice talent, and won several Emmys as well. Most notably in the cast is Anton Yelchin (Thoroughbreds), who began as the lead, and stayed with it through his untimely death near the beginning of season 3. And then the series made some great choices to both continue, and to not dismiss his loss when they changed the character voice to Emile Hirsch (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood).

When you’re looking for some distraction, some fairly solid animation, and a clever tale, this set of shows will work for you. And, more importantly, they don’t insult your sense of the underlying material they plundered to create their world.

Now, on to Cursed

Where to start with where this series went wrong… How about the desire to rewrite the Arthurian tale rather than just do a true prequel? How about mucking up Roman/Britannia history so badly as to be embarrassing? How about having people make stupid choices and dialogue that was utterly painful at times? How about an unrelenting dirge of a tale with barely a respite? Well, it’s a start.

I will admit I soldiered on through to the end of this story, though I almost completely bailed about half-way through the second episode. It was close and I did turn it off at that point. But I came back to see if they could rescue it. They sort of did. Sort of. But I was still let cursing (appropriately) at my screen in the final 15 minutes of the series.

Aspects of the reimagining are clever…but they’re also contradictory in their set-up, implying it is way before Arthur’s time, when in fact is is contemporaneous with it. That just threw it all into disarray at the outset. And then there is the religious war aspect, which was half-true, though massively shifted time-wise to feed their hungry beast of a plot.

The cast does what it can with the painful scripts and choices, but they are left hanging on the screen, more often than not, looking less than comfortable with the results. Katherine Langford (Knives Out) and Devon Terrell (Ophelia) bumble around the countryside having to deliver mouthfuls of bad dialogue, and strained protestations of affection. And Gustaf Skarsgård (Vikings) has created an outrageous Merlin, that tries to resurrect Nicol Williamson’s unforgettable turn in Excalibur. And then there’s the sadly miscast Sebastian Armesto (Tulip Fever) as Uther Pendragon, whose been shrunk to a fool and wisp of a man. And that doesn’t even touch the psychotic nun, Emily Coates, who does OK, but who we never get enough about to understand what drives her. At least the young Billy Jenkins (Humans) gives us a full character, even without all the backstory.

Honestly, if we’re looking for strong, female-led tales of the time, and Arthur in particular, can’t we just finally adapt Mists of Avalon or Parke Godwin’s Firelord series? The characters are way more interesting, and the story much more credible and fascinating (and closer to true history and embraced myth).

The point is that if you’re going to do a re-imagining, do it with a purpose, not just changing things for shock value or convenience to muck with people’s expectations. Ultimately, that’s all Cursed does as it slogs through its torturous existence, and without even the courage to finish the story.

Time Freak

[4 stars]

Romance, comedy, and time travel, especially when wrapped in honesty and told with some intelligence, is a triumverate always guaranteed to grab my attention. Unlike the recent Palm Springs, the character intent here is deliberate, but they both deliver the story in a similar way that let’s you connect with it immediately and get on board for the ride.

The story, despite its scope, is really driven by just three characters. Asa Butterfield (Slaughterhouse Rulez) and Sophie Turner (X-Men: Dark Phoenix) are the romantic crux of the story. And while that may sound like an odd combo, it’s supposed to be. And yet the two have a believable chemistry between them. More surprisingly, it comes mostly from Turner’s performance, which is the best I’ve seen her do. I actually believed her completely, something all of her previous performances have lacked for me. Butterfield is playing into his strengths in this film, but does so with heartfelt earnestness that wins you over.

While the main couple certainly carries the story forward and keeps it focused, Skyler Gisondo (Santa Clarita Diet) adds the final element that makes it all work: comic relief and, often, common sense. This is especially amusing as he’s a complete screw-up. This isn’t the basis for comedy I usually enjoy, but it works here due to its restraint and evolution. Even Will Peltz’s (In Time) side character, as extreme as he takes it, manages to find ground often enough to add to the depth of the tale rather than distract from it.

Writer/director Andrew Bowler expanded his Oscar nominated short into this truly delightful and funny exploration of life, love, and relationships. The cleverly written script spends the first third in familiar territory. And, honestly, even if it hadn’t expanded on that, I would have enjoyed the movie thanks to his control of the performances and pace. But it is Bowler’s willingness to try to explore the characters and plot more deeply that makes this particular run at the sub-genre something worth seeing.

When you need something enjoyable and not entirely devoid of logic and intelligence, queue this one up. You won’t be sorry.

Inheritance (2020)

[2.5 stars]

There is only one reason to see this rather predictable, if nicely tense, movie…and that’s Simon Pegg (Slaughterhouse Rulez). His complete transformation and performance is really quite amazing.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast isn’t quite so engaging. Lily Collins (Tolkien) is completely miscast as a highly respected and tough NYC DA. She just doesn’t have that gravitas…and her reactions through much of the story are, well, not from a woman who should be more  prepossessed. Chace Crawford (The Boys) is fine, but sadly typecast in his role; there are no surprises there.

And then there’s the story. To be honest, as director Vaughn Stein’s follow-up to his more stylish and satisfying Terminal, I was rather disappointed. His handling of the script is fine, but he should have pushed for something beyond the obvious. There was an opportunity for a more interesting conclusion that was completely missed. By taking it just one more step to complete Collins’ journey, a bland and obvious ending could have been elevated; but that isn’t what’s on offer.

Certainly, there is some good tension and by-play in this piece, but I can’t really recommend the cost of nearly two hours. However, if you do tune in, Pegg alone may keep you nailed to your seat to stick it out. Just don’t expect revelation at the conclusion, merely an ending.

Underwater

[2.75 stars]

From three minutes into this movie it’s just a suspense run. Not a particularly surprising one, but fairly well engineered to keep you on the edge. Of course, that’s often mucked up by the challenge of figuring out who’s in trouble when and where since so much of the time they’re in heavy gear, but that’s a different aspect to discuss.

Certainly, at least, Kristen Stewart (Charlie’s Angels) provides a relatively strong lead. She’s even somewhat believable as the mechanical engineer “sciencing the shit” out of stuff to survive. OK, really more Macgivering it, but you get the idea. The others… well, you do have to wonder why the hell the company even allowed them on their multi-billion dollar rig in the first place. I couldn’t figure out their value-add or purpose even by the end of the movie.

Her colleagues are a diversity panel’s dream, for no particular reason. They all do fine with what they have, but what they have isn’t a lot. Vincent Cassel (Jason Bourne), Mamoudou Athie (The Front Runner), Jessica Henwick (Iron Fist), and even the cypherish John Gallagher Jr. (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) create characters with some depth and sympathy, if not credibility. Only TJ Miller (Deadpool) is less than a complete person, serving entirely for comic relief that feels very out of place and makes him seem a fool.

Basically, this is a bit of Abyss meets Cloverfield meets Alien meets, oh, figure it out for yourself if you dare. It’s a 90 minute romp with a  lot of fun effects, some good scares, and an absurdly thin plot. Director William Eubank (The Signal) didn’t really bring what talent of his I’ve seen before, other than the pacing. And the script by Brian Duffield (Insurgent) and Adam Cozad (The Legend of Tarzan) just didn’t hold together well. But it may be enough to get you through.

And, yes, my rating is splitting a lot of hairs, but I just couldn’t live with giving it three stars given all the plot and other issues. What I will say, however, is that it’s certainly a story of heroism and drive; for that it got to survive. And the “Live Bunny Montage” on the extras is definitely worth the viewing after the flick.

Fantasy Island (2020)

[3 stars]

It’s easy to forget that Fantasy Island wasn’t all 80’s kitsch and sweetness, it had a dark side. This remake tries to capitalize on that aspect. And, for the most part, it’s successful, even if the logic is stretched and the plot falls apart near the end. But up till then, director and co-writer Jeff Wadlow, along with the rest of his previous Truth or Dare? team (Jillian Jacobs and Chris Roach), is somewhat clever in how he helps it embrace both aspects of the classic show.

Much like the original, this is a collection of stories. In the wide-ranging ensemble, Lucy Hale (Truth or Dare?), Maggie Q (Priest), and Jimmy O. Yang (Space Force) stand out by force of charisma. They’re joined by a number of other good players that bump the plot along, such as Michael Rooker (Brightburn), Portia Doubleday (Mr Robot), and Parisa Fitz-Henley (My Spy). The rest of the cast serve simply to fill out the story; not poorly, just not memorably.

However Michael Peña (Dora and the Lost City of Gold), in the pivotal Mr. Roarke roll, feels utterly wrong. You have to be both pulled to the man and terrified of him. Peña has neither the presence nor the menace necessary.

What I will grant the movie is that it is a movie, not just an overblown TV episode. But while it can stand on its own, I suspect it has much more impact as a retcon of the series. Were it not for the wobble near the end, it would have been much more satisfying. But it’s a pretty big wobble as it tries to wrap it all up. Fortunately, the final moments are a bit more fulfilling. As to whether you should book a trip here…well, that’s up to you.

Wait for Your Laugh

[4 stars]

Rose Marie was a fixture in comedy for close to 90 years in the industry. She was one of the original megastars of vaudeville and radio, and transitioned to TV and film without missing a beat. But that’s what she accomplished, not who she was. She was also a fascinating character with a life you couldn’t invent and be believed.

This documentary by Jason Wise and partner Christina Wise is funny, well-paced, and a great overview of the entertainment industry as it evolved. And for those that only grew up knowing Rose Marie as the sharp-tongued, gravelly voiced actor from Hollywood Squares, it will probably be revelatory.

But beyond the factual, this is also a wonderful tale of love, endurance, and persistence. It’s a reminder that life is constant change and effort…but doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it along the way. When you need a break from all the craziness, this is a wonderful distraction.

Irresistible

[3 stars]

There is little subtlety to this latest outing by Jon Stewart (Rosewater). But, then again, did you expect any?

Steve Carell (Vice) and Rose Byrne (Instant Family) are the core of the movie. They are both absurd in their presentation…partly to make a point, but partly because Stewart just couldn’t resist hammering it all home. It’s a shame as pulling them back a little, to make it feel a bit more real, would have been more interesting. I wonder if he wasn’t trying to get a broader audience by making fun of the DC pundits with impunity. But, frankly, it only worked for the first few scenes of it… after that it became an SNL skit (with admittedly better writing and timing).

While there is a pile of really solid talent backing up and propping up the rest of the movie, it’s Chris Cooper (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) and Mackenzie Davis (That Awkward Moment) that carry it all home.

The best moments are, frankly, the pre-credit scenes and the end sequences, but you need the middle to get there, even if you have a sense of what’s coming; it is a comedy afterall.

I understand this doesn’t feel like a glowing review, and in ways it isn’t. But the movie is funny. And, more importantly, its points, which carry through the credits, are a call to action. It’s both a love letter and indictment of the current political system. One thing Stewart did very well was to edit it down to a swift 100 minutes so that it rarely overstays its welcome. But, even if you decide to bail on it, watch the short interview that runs during the credits. Understand that the absurd is not only possible, it’s legal. And while this doesn’t have the punch of All In: The Fight for Democracy as a call to action, it should urge you to your feet regardless.

All In: The Fight for Democracy

[5 stars]

The single, most important film this year so far. Whether you grew up during these fights or not. Whether you think you know all about it or not. Whether you want to hear the message or not:

See it. Get Angry. Vote.

Learn from it. Hear it. Vote.

Basically: VOTE

In case it isn’t obvious,  directors Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus, with the help of Jack Youngelson’s script, created a compelling presentation of Stacey Abrams gubernatorial run, while providing a historical and contextual framework for the history of voting in America. It’s a call to action that cannot be denied.

Honestly, I wept and gritted my teeth openly…and I knew most of it going in.

Sometimes Always Never

[4 stars]

Let’s face it, just about anything with Bill Nighy (Emma.) is worth watching just for him. Often it is only a taste of Nighy as a smaller side character. But in this film he and Sam Riley (Radioactive) share this story of family and survivorship. Both men play against their typical type, though Riley is a bit more consistent at it; Nighy’s accent kept slipping. However, both provide endearing and riveting performances as they verbally spar and converse.

The cast is also gifted with Jenny Agutter (Call the Midwife) and Alice Lowe (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch) who swirl around the two men with funny and poignant moments. Neither is given full rein, but both have impact and are part of why the film works so well. Even the young Louis Healy helps fill out the film nicely with minimal time.

As a first feature, Carl Hunter directs the tale with a confident hand and a delightfully playful vision. Despite the intense emotions of the story in Frank Cottrell Boyce’s (Goodbye Christopher Robin) script, Hunter keeps it all quietly real and funny. Also, the design of the film is breathtaking, from the wide vistas, to the distortion from the lenses, to the odd greenscreen and paper puppetry, it’s a unique combination of visuals that serve to amplify the story. Even the color pallet is retimed in order to make it, to put it mildly, bilious.

I didn’t know what to expect going into this story, and that was fine. I’d suggest you do the same. Go for the comedy and the sweet sense of family it creates. Stay for the performances, message, and the wonderfully odd presentation; but make time for this.

Freaks: You’re One of Us (Freaks: Du Bist Eine Von Uns)

[3 stars]

I love that we are looking more and more at the dark side of superhero-dom. Mind you, we’re in danger of getting as swamped with those kinds of movies as we are the more earnest versions. But it’s nice to have some balance.

And Freaks is a bit more than just an anti-superhero tale. It’s a bare philosophical metaphor for mental illness and otherness in general. The argument can be made that almost all superhero stories are about otherness, but they often bury it or ignore it entirely in their stories, leaving it to critics to make the case. Freaks makes it front and center.

Though it is played for honesty, particularly by Cornelia Gröschel in the lead as a struggling, young parent, it drifts into a rather arch confrontation and events. Her counterpart, Tim Oliver Schultz, in particular, spirals pretty far afield from the grounded beginning. The result ends up being more like a TV pilot than a movie. That doesn’t make it bad. It’s very entertaining and relatively well thought-through. The approach does, however, make it less than it could have been.

The TV feel to the overall shape is partially due to director Felix Binder, who’s spent most of his career in the smaller venue and pushing shows. He made a lot of choices that were reflections of that experience. On the other hand, some of the success to the result also goes to writer Marc O. Seng, who wrote several of the episodes for Dark.

Basically, Freaks is a fun distraction for an evening. It trods well-known ground, but finds a way to keep it feeling fresh and provides characters to keep us interested.