Category Archives: Streamed only

My Spy

[3.5 stars]

I kicked off this Dave Bautista (Hotel Artemis) comedy/actioner half-flinching and sure it was going to be painfully unwatchable. It surprised me. The production quality is solid (it was going to be a wide release before the pandemic upended everything), but the trailers hadn’t given me any confidence in the movie.

As it turns out, their marketing folks should have had more faith in their product. It’s really pretty entertaining, especially thanks to the scarily competent Chloe Coleman (Upload). No 11-year-old should be that smooth an actor. But she and Bautista make an amusing pairing. As her mother, Parisa Fitz-Henley (Midnight, Texas, Luke Cage) is also solid, funny, and believable in a not very believable plot.

And that’s where the shame really is in this movie. A bit more effort  on the script to make it credible rather than silly and it would have been so much more. Kristen Schaal (A Walk in the Woods) and Ken Jeong (Wonder Park), in particular, were well reined in by director Peter Segal. They were actually almost human. However, though they were funny at times, I refuse to discuss how painfully outlandish Noah Dalton Danby and Devere Rogers were.

My real frustration was the specifics of the plot: how operations worked, what decisions were made, etc. Those were just absurd at times. I don’t even think kids were being fooled by the flawed logic. Given the script is from Erich and Jon Hoeber (The Meg), you have some sense of what you’re in for.

But squint through that stuff, and you get a funny, at time heart-warming, bit of comedy action that is a fine 90 minutes of fun. Brilliant? No, but certainly not a complete time waste for what it is. And Coleman’s performance alone is worth the time.

My Spy Poster

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

[4.5 stars]

City of Angels is a richly appointed and complex tale of murder, espionage, love, and religious devotion (as well as religious hypocrisy), with a good helping of prejudice and capitalism thrown in.  It is also topical and historically well done, resulting in a beautiful and brutal series.

Natalie Dormer (Patient Zero) is a revelation in 3 of the 4 characters (she really can’t pull of the white Mexican well). It is obvious why she took the role. Likewise Nathan Lane (Carrie Pilby), who gets to play to all his strengths from wry humor to deep pathos. Bouncing between them is Daniel Zovatto (Lady Bird), who serves as the main spine for the series. From the opening scene, he is the man in the balance trapped between outcomes. But until the moments, he is stuck in the gray. We watch him struggle to be part of some world, any world, where he fits and can live with the choices. And it is a compelling tension.

A number of driving roles keep it all moving as well. Rory Kinnear (Years and Years), in particular, has a many layered story to navigate. Through him we see duality in detail: humanity and the inhumane. It is done without any nod and wink, nor any apology. And Michael Gladis (Extant) provides a suitably vile and craven political climber in a world that he wants to crush before it crushes him. Even Zovatto’s screen brother, Johnathan Nieves (See You Yesterday), brings in a set of layers born of hopelessness and anger. It’s a little one-note, but it doesn’t lack credibility even when his ultimate choices are a little forced. There are some nice treats along the way too, like Patty Lupone (Last Christmas) in concert and Brian Dennehy’s (The Seagull) final effort before his passing in April (though he may have other footage still to come in a couple projects).

This time in LA, the lead-up to WWII, has been often visited, but rarely with the kind of scope this series pulls off. Usually you get hyper-focused stories, like Zoot Suit, or Chinatown, or any number of mystery/suspense/noir stories that pull apart the high and low of society, or the gay and straight. City of Angels navigates all of these aspects, and then some. And it does so in a way that makes sense and shows the connecting threads. For that alone, it is worth seeing.

However, while I loved seeing a different take on the era, I have to admit that I was also somewhat upset that it removed primary responsibility for the horrors from the humans. Dormer’s character, as the sweet-tongued devil in many guises, becomes the main impetus for all the action. She really does much more than talk to make it all happen, which is where the trouble lies.

In addition, there is a challenge with the plot decisions that bothered me. While the presentation of how LGBTQ people were treated and viewed in the era is relatively, sadly accurate, the series also has no LGBTQ character who isn’t, for lack of a better word, evil. Not just tragic, but actively doing wrong. That feels a shame in a story as big as this and one that has so many levels of detail. And particularly wrong during Pride Month. It isn’t that the characters aren’t human, they just all feel irredeemable.

But, ultimately, this show is so on target for the current situation across the country, the awakening and mobilization of frustration and anger, that it’s uncanny and upsetting. All in an intentional way. City of Angels marks a brick in the path that leads to its own historical volatile times, but it is also a reflection of the powder keg that is today. It insists we look not only at the past but at how we want to navigate the future. And it also forces us to admit the perils of not paying attention to those lessons. Despite its slightly rushed wrap-up and some of the dangling threads, this is a definite must-see for our times and, should these times move on, a must-see for the historic scope and lessons of the past; and yes it’s entertaining as well.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

Space Force

[2 stars]

OK, I’m throwing in the towel on this one.

Up front, I am not and never was an Office fan. The humor just never worked for me…not that I hadn’t lived the cube-life at points, and not that I hadn’t seen a good deal of the truth in the satire. However, mean humor just doesn’t entertain me, it angers me. So, sort of counter-productive. Because of that, it was with trepidation that I entered into the world of Space Force. And it was pure stubbornness that I delayed and delayed this write up trying to watch more of the show even though it left me empty of joy.

What made The Office work was its core truth and that its audience knew, and had internalized, that truth. This satire has none of that advantage. It needed to find something more human for us to latch onto. Frankly, it reminds me of a lot of the issues Avenue 5 has.

The fact is, at least in this household, that despite a cast packed with talent, the show feels surprisingly lifeless. It has moments, but because it isn’t in a familiar setting, and because its inception itself feels like a national joke (something they lean into), it’s hard to relate to or support the characters. We may understand the military, but most of us don’t live it, unlike office life. In other words, we can’t quite grasp all of the intent and, frankly, based on some of the people I know, I know they got a lot of it completely wrong.

With all that said, I couldn’t make it past the second episode, even with John Malkovich (Velvet Buzzsaw) chewing up the scenery in a most satisfactory way. I tried. You may find it more to your liking than I did…humor is highly individual, afterall.

Ne Zha (Ne Zha zhi mo tong jiang shi)

[3 stars]

This skews rather young, but with some good moments, some (though not all) incredible animation, and a truly not-American story. Which is part of both its interest and charm. It isn’t a simple tale nor one that follows the standard Hollywood tropes.  And, as a first feature by Yu Yang, it’s rather ambitious and delivers in a bit of an uneven way. But it kept me watching.

I also found little entertainment difference between the subtitled and dub versions. In fact, there is an interesting advantage to the dub. Even while watching the  dub version, I kept the English subtitles on as they were often quite different from the spoken dialogue. Not just subtle differences…plot differences. It all added a whole other layer of intrigue for me. The legends and culture upon which the story is based have no touchstone in Western myth. The conflict in translation is fascinating.

And, as it turns out, this is the first part of a longer story…the next piece gets laid out during the credits. I actually hope the other parts are forthcoming. I’m curious to see how they can keep it all going now that they’ve laid out their origin story.

Nezha Poster

Some COVID Fun – No, Really

There has been a wave of lock-down art recently. Well, what do you expect with a bunch of artists stuck at home with no outlet? Even the some finales (like All Rise) embraced the situation and wrote it into their tales.

Most of it has come in the form of at-home/garage concerts up till now. But, recently, a number of short video stories have begun to surface.

While there are many, these two really stood out. One for its sheer amusement and the other for its scope. Both are BBC, but I would expect them to be more generally available at some point.

Staged

What happens when David Tennant (Doctor Who, Good Omens) and Michael Sheen (Slaughterhouse Rulez) try to mount a play during the lock-down? Well, with the help of relatively unknown Simon Evans as writer/director/actor and their families, hilarity ensues. This series, comprised of 6 short episodes is self-aware, self-deprecating, and utterly irreverent. Find it…and remember to pay attention to and watch through the credits. The fun just keeps on giving while touching on the realities of the world as it is being reshaped.

Staged Poster

Unprecedented 

There are too many people involved here to list. In several half-hour episodes, each comprised of 3 10-minute plays, you see a huge scope of pandemic life. Some of it is is funny, some uncomfortable, and some just poignant, but all are worth seeing and none are so long as to get boring.

Unprecedented: Real Time Theatre from a State of Isolation Poster

Dark PSA

Just a friendly reminder that the third (and final) series of Dark drops on 27 June. Start rewatching now if you want to be ready and don’t want your head to explode while trying to watch it all.

If you haven’t discovered it yet, Dark is one of, if not the most, complicated plot I’ve ever seen on a TV serial. Possibly the most complicated I’ve seen in any visual media. So far it has managed to stay consistent through two series, but following it is a Herculean task of names, time-frames, and story threads. And yet it is worth every bit of struggle and pain because it all pays off.

The 18 previous episodes that lead to the final round can only be ingested at a moderate pace (one or two episodes a night at most). If you don’t have the time, find your favorite online resource for tracking all the characters… trust me, without one, the other, or both, you will be utterly lost.

Frankly, I can’t wait to see if they can pay this all off.

Homecoming (series 2)

[3.5 stars]

The first season of Homecoming was a twisted tale of mind-bending fragments that coalesced into something more pedestrian and down-to-earth. That wasn’t a bad thing…it was honest and logical. The perspective was from inside the mystery and it added great suspense and confusion. But now we know the truth.

What we get with the second series is a look at some of the peripheral aspects and the extension of the fallout as we follow the thread left by Stephan James’s (21 Bridges) character. And there are some interesting paths and aspects to explore.

But the best reason to see this second round is Janelle Monáe (Welcome to Marwen) and Hong Chau (Watchmen). They are natural and unforced as a couple. They also each have their own stories and arcs to travel. Chau’s starts in the first season, but this provides another angle on the wonderful final moments she is part of. And Monáe fits seamlessly into the twisted world we traversed as if she’s always been there.

Like the first round, there is a mystery to unravel, though with fewer surprises. And it is full of suspense with bursts of activity. I was with the story completely (despite some willful stupid moments) until the final 10 minutes or so.

The ending didn’t ruin the ride for me; I can understand the decisions that were made. However, it left me very conflicted. To my mind it was out of proportion in scope and depth for the plot. Basically, it violated my sense of balance and left me without sympathy for the characters we probably should have had some sympathy for. Was it a fair choice by the writers? Maybe, but it wasn’t the satisfying punch I think they were hoping for. More importantly, it makes me question whether the third round, assuming it happens, is something I want to see.

Homecoming Poster

 

The Lovebirds

[3 stars]

Sometimes the whole isn’t more than the sum of its parts.

Lovebirds is at times a sweet and, at times, a painful romcom that never really comes together. It works best when Kumail Nanjiani (Men in Black: International) and Issa Rae (Little) are being honest with one another as characters. When they’re trying to out-comedy one another, it just falls apart, losing steam and focus while adding nothing really of value. Had that been more constrained and used more precisely by director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick), it might have worked.

What is scary is that this was supposed to release in theaters till the pandemic hit. It was one of the first big films to dump plans and go straight to a streaming service. It was a definitely a better choice for it as it would have done middling, at best, out in the theaters. As part of Netflix, it’s level of quality is acceptable if disappointing.

(Side Note: I really hope that they start raising the bar a bit more on their acquisitions. I love the breadth of material they offer, especially the foreign fare, but their ability to recognize quality is definitely suspect far too often).

For an evening where you can’t find anything else or when you want a story that requires no effort or investment with a bit of humor (a very little bit), this will suffice. I did, afterall, watch the whole thing. But, honestly, you deserve and can do better.

The Lovebirds

Ad Vitam

[4 stars]

What if you could live, essentially, forever? How would that change you and the world? And what about those who couldn’t or those that have to wait for treatment? There have been plenty of stories based on this idea…few have thought through the implications in interesting ways. Altered Carbon certainly did, but that’s far future. Ad Vitam is a look at a similar impact in the near term.

Thomas Cailley created a result that is a great mystery wrapped in a very human story. And, yes, it is all very French, as the saying goes. But it is solid story-telling with plenty of surprises and resolutions. Led by Yvan Attal as a detective approaching the end of his career and a young woman connected to a past crime, Garance Marillier, who is the thread that unravels the story.

It is a typical mystery/suspense set up in a very new setting. If you like dark tales of the world and a look at the psyche of our species, this one is for you. While you can just let the story wash over you, it’s hard to ignore the bigger picture and commentary as the truth is uncovered. It is also a self-contained 6 episodes, making it a very satisfying viewing.

Ad Vitam

The Vast of Night

[3.5 stars]

On the surface this new streamer is a fairly standard, if cleverly told, story of 50s middle-America dealing with paranoia and possible invasion (by who and what are unknown). We’ve seen this many times before, and new director Andrew Patterson and his writers, James Montague and Craig W. Sanger don’t shy away from that fact. Indeed part of what sets this film apart is that they lean into it, framing the entire story in a Twilight Zone-like box.

I’ll come back to the story and presentation, but it’s first worth noting the cast, led by Sierra McCormick as a believable 16 year old in over her head, but afraid of nothing. She is backed up by a less heeled, but solid, Jake Horowitz as the two unravel and pursue the mystery that drops in their laps. Horowitz channels James Dean while McCormick is something like a super-charged Nancy Drew as they scramble with equipment and  have frequent dashes across town at an unrelenting pace. In a small but focused role, Gail Cronauer (Te Ata) is the only character to steal back the camera for a while from the two leads, delivering and extended and haunted tale full of emotion.

Now let’s get back to the presentation. Because, despite all these praises, the story is really fairly obvious and nothing new. What keeps you intrigued, even during the slower or overloaded segments (like the opening 20 minutes of setup and dialogue) is the direction and cinematography. Patterson squeezed the story to remove all moments of breath, but not so much that it feels rushed so much as normal. Even with Horowitz’s mumbling around his cigarette, which could get frustrating as a listener, it feels right and real and nothing of any import is missed.

But the real question, and nod, I have goes back to that framing. I don’t know if it was in the original script or, if during development or in the editing room, they realized they were doing pure homage and needed to find a way to set it apart to do their work justice. I lean heavily toward this latter suspicion since it was all done in post and changed none of the movie. They knew what they were doing with the story, but needed a way to tip that to the audience and reframe it so it wouldn’t feel stale and tired. And, in fact, the opening, closing, and few reminders, make it more fun and let you go with the flow.

However, it has an ancillary effect of leaving you wondering if it was part of the plot or only part of the presentation. And this is where I was a little more frustrated with the choice. The story doesn’t rise to the level of needing any meta-layers or messages. And 50s-style horror doesn’t particularly have a lot to say about the human condition that isn’t on the screen in big flashing neon. So the framing is a nice artistic choice, but a forced one for the story itself since it is merely a comment and never used. Add to this the ending, which can be read more than one way, and you’re left with one too many unanswered aspects…or at least I was.

To see these performances and a new set of voices entering the cinematic fray, this really is a movie worth seeing. It isn’t perfect, but it is crammed with promise and definitely put together with deft hands. And it is entertaining, enough so that I wanted to examine these other aspects rather than just taking it just for what it is. Watch for these people in the future, they’re sure to be coming up with something new and interesting.

The Vast of Night Poster