Category Archives: Streamed only

It’s a Sin

[4 stars]

Russell T. Davies (Years and Years) is Britain’s Ryan Murphy (The Prom). Though, to be fair, Davies was there first and Murphy is really our answer to him. Both men have embraced their pasts and are willing to discuss life in all its aspects with the world. They both do it with love and wonder, never forgetting the challenges. And they both have wicked senses of humor.

It’s a Sin chronicles the lives of several young people starting in 1981. But while the story can’t avoid having AIDS as part of the story, it tackles t in a different way than most. It remains powerfully honest and empowering and, weirdly, positive despite many of the events. It is about characters embracing who they are and enjoying life and each other. It’s also the first show I can remember to use the original name for AIDS (GRID, for those who forgot BTW).

Primarily the story is through the eyes of Olly Alexander (God Help the Girl) and Lydia West (Dracula). Both have wonderful moments, growth, and, as it turns out, serious chops for singing together. The core ensemble is wonderfully supported by newcomers Omari Douglas and Callum Scott Howells, both of whom deliver performances far beyond what you’d expect for actors so early in their careers.

In addition to the main cast, there are a slew of guest actors across the five episodes. Perhaps the most fun is Neil Patrick Harris (Beastly), who helps set up a couple of the storylines. However, Keeley Hawes (Summer of Rockets) and Shaun Dooley (Doctor Who) also have some great moments, Hawes in particular.

Peter Hoar directed all five episodes, helping all of the actors navigate complex changes and precarious moments. The final episode especially is a triumph of his efforts. He also managed to put together a brilliant soundtrack, capturing each period beautifully and evocatively. My only gripe is a minor one…I wish the final credits had ended with “La!” to really drive home the sense of family and life. But that’s an exceedingly minor comment.

Why, you might ask, do we need yet another tale of coming out in the 80s? Well, because the challenge of the act is still relevant today and because the horror of the AIDS pandemic has yet to be fully understood by those who weren’t there for it and by those who still wish to deny it or, worse, be glad for it. With the COVID pandemic still in full swing, it’s also probably much more relatable to a greater audience than ever before. Also, sadly, the world is still far too often a hateful place. The reminder that it should be driven more by love isn’t a story that goes out of style or out of date.

But, while all of that is undeniably brought out by the story of these people, that isn’t what this series focuses on. It’s a Sin is ultimately triumphant, ultimately positive, because of the way the survivors respond.

Outside the Wire

[3 stars]

In many ways this is a fairly standard war flick, in the modern style. But it does have a bit of a twist and it ultimately asks some good questions and makes some real points (even if it does so a bit ham-handedly).

With a script by, primarily, a video game writer and directed by Mikael Håfström (Escape Plan), the somewhat quest-styled, surfacey approach to the story isn’t too surprising. It’s still entertaining, and the plot isn’t entirely without flare, but it isn’t brilliant.

The real source of any levels and nuance is brought by Anthony Mackie (Altered Carbon) who adds a sense of gravitas, though he isn’t the main character. The lead is taken on by Damson Idris (Snowfall). Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the presence to dominate the screen and his subtle approach to the role doesn’t manage to provide background, only in-the-moment responses. It’s clear there is a backstory to Idris’s character, but it’s never really revealed either by reaction or script. That leaves us with just the mission we can see, and any questions that may raise.

A few small roles keep it rolling, primarily  Emily Beecham (Hail, Caesar!). But others, like Pilou Asbæk (Overlord) are thrown away.

Ultimately, after a nicely tense climax, it all sort of devolves into the obvious with little learned and little impact for those that remain. The questions certainly still exist, but the story of the movie seems to be just a full circle with, perhaps, a bit more empathy on the part of Idris, though exactly what he’s learned is a little muddy.

For a fun bit of escapism, this isn’t a bad choice. The production is rich and the tension kept nicely high. Just don’t expect it to have the meat it hints it may contain.

Outside the Wire Poster

Mulan (2020)

[3.5 stars]

Niki Caro (McFarland, USA) wasn’t a likely choice to direct this Chinese fantasy, but she pulls it off with heart, and not just a few wire tricks. More interestingly, she manages to bridge Eastern and Western sensibilities in the storytelling, arriving at a comfortable blend between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and any Disney princess film you’d like to consider, though perhaps Pixar’s Brave is a better point on that end of the spectrum.

I admit I went into this one full of trepidation. There were so many controversies around the release of the film. Starting with ill-considered tweets from its star Yifei Liu and then its direct release on  stream. But, I have to admit it won me over. Donnie Yen (xXx: Return of Xander Cage), Li Gong (2046), Jet Li (The Expendables 3 ), Tzi Ma (The Farewell), Rosalind Chao, and Pei-Pei Cheng (Lilting) certainly added to the enticement to see the movie.

Mulan isn’t brilliant, but it’s fun and, most importantly, avoids the really bad choices at the end that it starts to swing toward. I was even surprised by moments. Admittedly, despite the well of talent, the performances are relatively shallow. The story is also far too easy and fast. But it’s full of action and visual distraction. It may be a bit confused in some aspects of its story, but it certainly took some chances by incorporating the Western and Eastern Phoenix tales into the story without much explanation or apology to the mashed-up mythos.

Basically, this isn’t a waste of time, but it isn’t one you have to rush to. And the more Chinese fantasies you’ve seen, the thinner this will seem. However, it delivers on its promise, if not with the depth or emotional impact you might have wished.

Mulan Poster

Star Trek: Discovery (series 3)

[3 stars]

In its third season, and practically third incarnation, Discovery has finally bridged the divide that has separated two sets of fandom for decades by dropping Trek characters into a Star Wars-like universe. The highly anticipated third launch of this show starts off with a bang and quickly resets the style, sensibility, and characters … yet again. Has any show changed this much series to series other than Fringe (and even that had some consistencies) or The OA (had it been allowed to continue)?

I actually rather enjoyed the first season. There was some daring darkness and an attempt to remake the franchise into something new. The second season was a bit more confused. Interesting, but confused. Character motivations changed, the politics and focus shifted. The outcome and climax were a bit rushed and not entirely satisfactory. However, that finale opened the door for the series to completely leapfrog all known Trek canon and forge their own path.

And that brings us to the current series, 900 years in the future and several hundred years beyond any known story. There are immediate references to past events setting up mysteries and possible eddies from the time jump to keep us anchored. But the most notable aspect is how changed Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael is. Her entire demeanor has shifted. By the end of the  second episode, many others from the crew will have begun down new paths as well. Michelle Yeoh (Last Christmas), in particular, is being set up for some incredible fun.

But, of course, these shifts created a problem for the series…it had to start all over again. With the characters, with the plots, and with the Federation. So, after a solid 2-part opening it devolves for a good part of the season into providing stories for these new beginnings which are wrapped up in Star-Trek-easy confrontations and solutions to get them on the path.

While some characters are jettisoned, others, like Oded Fehr (Resident Evil), Ian Alexander (The OA), and newcomer Blu del Barrio bring some new life to the show. Their insertion into the story is forced at times, but all provide new directions. Admittedly, this is also often at the cost of not getting to see some of the characters we’ve already invested in as much as we’d like to. And with all these encapsulated stories everything comes across as a bit too easy and fast to resolve because they have limited time to get it all done in one episode and/or one season. And the big mystery is scarily bad, hand-wavy science, and the entire season is overly earnest, in that very Trek way, particularly near the end of the season.

But, ultimately, this season is a brave and interesting choice for the show. It definitely feels like something new and unique in the Trek ouvre, and it’s relatively self-contained as a new jumping off point. The real question now is, can they build on it rather than panicking and remaking the show yet again in the fourth season?

Star Trek: Discovery Poster

Two Weeks To Live

[3 stars]

If you like the nihilist humor of The End of the F***ing World, the wry and sad romance of Dead Pixels, and enjoy watching Maisie Williams (iBoy), this one’s for you. Especially as Al Campbell, the man who directed Dead Pixels, directed all these episodes as well.

Two Weeks, as a title, is a little misleading. The reference is an oblique nod to events. But, ultimately, it’s metaphorical and the driving sensibility to choices that need to be made. Primarily, the show is really a vehicle for Williams, though she has some nice support from Sian Clifford (Fleabag) and Mawaan Rizwan who provide solid backboards for her humor.

When you’re looking for short and amusing, with some entertaining surprises, this will do. It’s a bit violent and the ending certainly sets up another round, but the six half-hour episodes tell a complete story. For a bit of dark funny, it certainly worked for me.

Two Weeks to Live Poster

The Witches

[3 stars]

Welcome to the weird and wonderfully dark work of Roald Dahl’s children’s stories. The Witches is cut from the same cloth as Charlie and the Chocolate factory, though without quite the same pizzazz. At least not in this incarnation.

Director and co-writer Robert Zemeckis (Welcome to Marwen) certainly picked up the weird in this tale, but it has an uneasy truce with the wonderful. The production design nicely captures the dark and nasty side of Anne Hathaway’s (Becoming Jane) grand high witch and her twisted coven. Their costumes and prosthetics are delightfully creepy, but also probably a bit too scary for a really young audience.

And Octavia Spencer (Onward) provides an adult ally to the young Jahzir Bruno. Her warmth and parentship are solid, but it never feels entirely right. Meanwhile, Stanley Tucci (A Private War) and his cadre of hotel workers provide the broad humor and pratfalls attempting to keep the chaos and danger on the lighter side.

This isn’t a brilliant film, but it’s well executed. Part of its struggle is that it is a story out of time. As told, it only really works set in the past, but it is also afraid to truly tackle that past as part of the story. Had Zemeckis and his co-writers, which included Guillermo del Toro (Tales of Arcadia), were happy to take the backdrop, but not confident enough to fully acknowledge the implications.

For a little light entertainment that is a few shades darker than treacle often offered young viewers, this may do. It is diverting and has its moments as the three adult leads certainly know how to deliver physical humor. It just doesn’t fully come together as a classic or even strongly rewatchable fare.

Roald Dahl's The Witches Poster

Trial of the Chicago 7

[4 stars]

Angering, funny, and terrifying. Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game) chose the last time in the modern age that our democracy balanced on a knife edge to both instruct and provide hope for the times we’re in now. We got through it back then, afterall. The system ultimately worked despite every effort to subvert and abuse it. And while I recognize that as a false equivalency as the system itself has been undermined massively over the last 12 years, it isn’t entirely without merit as an argument. It certainly is a reminder of responsibility and where the power of the government lies.

And yet, I will admit that I’d avoided this story afraid of having to deal with the frustration of the reality it depicts. And, yes, I was tense with anger and frustration for a good part of the movie. But Sorkin punctuates the tension with some well barbed humor and glimmers of humanity to keep it moving along. He also landed some amazing talent to recreate those involved.

As a whole the cast is truly fantastic and wonderful at representing their historical counterparts. But there were a few standouts. Sacha Baron Cohen (Alice Through the Looking Glass) as Abbie Hoffman is chief amongst those. Mark Rylance (Blitz) and Eddie Redmayne (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) are close behind along with John Carroll Lynch (Big Sky). And, in a purposefully incidental role, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman) quietly and righteously froths with intelligence and fury on the periphery.

On the other side of the aisle, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Project Power) and Frank Langella (The Time Being) are impressive to watch, but neither really gets much of an arc to work with. Even Gordon-Levitt, who gets a few important moments, doesn’t really get to exploit or explore them for us in any fully satisfying way. But without either of them, the rest of the story would have sagged and the truth would have been less richly displayed.

With Jan 20 just around the corner, the movie is also a lot more palatable than it was two months ago…though also with a reminder that democracy is something we have to constantly nurture. This movie is heavy with history, but it is also full of entertainment to help put it all in perspective. That is Sorkin’s genius as a writer and, now with this sophomore outing, also as a director. Trial is not an anti-government film. It’s a story of what happens when the government forgets that it works for the people, not the other way around.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 Poster

Soulmates

[3 stars]

Soulmates starts with a fabulous premise: what if you could identify your soulmate? How would that affect current couples? How would it change how you date or your expectations. It doesn’t make life as simple as it would seem on the surface.

Unfortunately, after the great premise, and admittedly some interesting situations and events, frankly the show fails to meet expectations. In trying to be the answer to Black Mirror, and to stay in the mainstream, it also avoids all the other lovely complications that, say episode one of Weird City was more than happy to tackle, or even Black Mirror’s Striking Vipers. That said, the main writers/creators William Bridges (Black Mirror: USS Callister) and Roy Kent (Ted Lasso) are both very talented. I just don’t think they had the freedom or, perhaps, the guts to really tackle the possibilities.

Fortunately, the episodes are chock full of talent to carry off the stories they did offer. Some highlights are Kingsley Ben-Adir (One Night in Miami), Malin Akerman (Rampage), Sarah Snook (Winchester), Bill Skarsgård (It: Chapter Two),  Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Utopia), Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things),  Tom Goodman-Hill (Residue, Humans), and Steven Mackintosh (Rocketman). You may have noticed a number of Europeans in that list… and you’d be right. It is part of the odd feel of the series as they are almost all playing Americans (or North Americans, at any rate).

I’m not saying avoid this series. It’s definitely thought provoking and often clever. It just didn’t quite meet the expectations it set for me given the writers involved and the foundation of the premise. But I’d love to see if they could grow on what they’ve started and really expand their thinking and risks in a second series. And, in the meantime, we get these six stories to whet our appetite.

Soulmates Poster

Love Life

[3 stars]

Basically, if you’re an Anna Kendrick fan, this one’s for you. She isn’t the only character in this series, her roomates Zoe Chao (Where’d You Go Bernadette?) and Peter Vack (Mozart in the Jungle) add to the fun, but this is a vehicle that spins around her and her sense of humor. And humor there is.

We follow Kendrick’s search for “the one.” Narrated (yes, yet another show with an unseen narrator) by Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread), we get to relive and cringe and wonder at her choices and situations. Think a more focused, less-soapy Sex in the City. But it is entertaining and does build on itself nicely. And to its credit, it doesn’t take the easy or expected (or even feared) paths.

What we’re left with is a fairly honest, if somewhat idealized, look at life and growing up. It isn’t always pretty, but when you keep moving forward, you actually get somewhere you want to be.

Love Life Poster

Soul

[4.5 stars]

Just wow. Not only is this a beautifully drawn and designed film, it’s a clever and engaging animated tale that will entertain young and old alike. In fact, the only reason I couldn’t give this a straight-up 5 stars was because of some of the minor bits that were there for laughs alone for the youngsters and small flaws that made no real-world sense. Otherwise, this is an instant classic and will bear up under rewatching for years to come.

The vocal duelling between Jamie Foxx (Project Power) and Tina Fey (Admission) is wonderfully entertaining and amusingly animated (literally and figuratively). Add the dry fun of Richard Ayoade (The Boxtrolls), Alice Braga (Kill Me Three Times), and Rachel House (Thor: Ragnarok) and you’ve an incredible pallet of humor to bounce off of. A host of smaller roles are given life by talented names as well. And then there’s the jazz arrangements and playing under the guidance of Jon Batiste.

Peter Docter (Inside Out) and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) co-directed and, with an assist by Mike Jones, co-wrote the script. It is a masterful piece of wry wit and honest reflection on life. There’s no point in describing more of it because you should just experience it, whether now or later. It’s a pity this one didn’t see the large screen, but it certainly entertains like it should and doesn’t disappoint.

Soul Poster