Category Archives: Streamed only

Altered Carbon

[4 stars]

Altered Carbon is solid science fiction. This also means it has struggled to find an audience. If you want real science fiction set in worlds that have been thought through and, sure, with plenty of violence and skin, you need to see and support it, or we’ll lose another opportunity.

This series was ably adapted for Netflix by Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Terminator: Genisys), based on Morgan’s award winning book. The world has some holes and gaps, but it is a believable society based on how the tech affected it. The show also has some incredibly complex plotlines going through it. In fact, probably a bit too complicated at times…the last couple of episodes have to rush to the end with a lot of rapid exposition to fill in the answers that are being revealed.

Driving the action, Joel Kinnaman (Suicide Squad) puts in one of his better performances. Alongside him is a kickass detective played by Martha Higareda (Royal Pains). A slew of great minor characters are around them, but it is their show through and through. Worth calling out, though, are Chris Conner’s delightfully weird and fun Poe and Dichen Lachman’s (Dollhouse) powerful and complex Reileen.

Adult science fiction is rare off the big screen (and not particularly prevalent on the big screen either). Typically, what is offered is something between Star Trek and Game of Thrones. In other words, something that may tackle tough issues, but usually in watered down or palatable ways without actually working through the true implications of the world that was created or the consequences of actions. Flash and action often substitute for actual logic and plot.

There are some exceptions. Humans is a current show that tries to tackle and deal with the implications of AI. Sense8, as well, took on a world altered by the possibility of gestalt entities. Farscape tackled an empire structured society with significant biotech. But, more often than not, you end up with something more like Stargate, Orphan Black, or The Walking Dead, all highly entertaining, but not good science fiction.

So, if you want the real stuff (with a bit of HBOness to it, without the HBO) jump on Altered Carbon so we can get another season. Even if we don’t, this 10 ep run is self-contained enough to not leave you hanging, but there is so much more to explore if they’re given the time to do so.

Altered Carbon

The Cloverfield Paradox

[3 stars]

At the end of last year, Netflix stepped afield from original and purchased series programming and entered the big-budget feature game with Bright. It wasn’t an instant classic, but it was a shot across the bow of the current film distribution system and raised the bar in some ways for its pure streaming competitors.

This latest feature had a surprising trajectory that may remake the release landscape yet again. Bright was bought early in its inception  band guided by Netflix. In the case of Cloverfield, what was supposed to be a big theatrical release this April got picked up and near-instantly released by Netflix. Mind you, there are reasons it was available for such a purchase, but it speaks both to the power of the streaming giant and the new thinking of studios who are scared of losing money.

The movie itself, even with its flaws, is certainly on par with a lot of what hits the big screen; a low bar, I know. It parallels the Cloverfield universe, offering up (perhaps) some answers to where we left it off in 10 Cloverfield Lane.  And it tackles the story with the expected bad science fiction the series has embraced, and a great cast.

And the cast is probably one of the more surprising aspects of the story. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Miss Sloane) drives this tale with incredible and complex (and occasionally questionable) emotional and intellectual strength. David Oyelowo (Queen of Katwe), as well, brings a command and depth to his performance. Daniel Brühl (Burnt) is a bit forced, but commits to his part of the story. The same is true for Ziyi Zhang (The Grandmaster), Elizabeth Debicki (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), as well as the relatively unknown (in the US) Roger Davies. Chris O’Dowd (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) is the odd man out in the cast personality-wise. He works, but mostly as delightfully understated comic relief. He isn’t a particularly credible crew member, but then again, none of them are. The most abused by the bad aspects of the script was Aksel Hennie (The Martian), whose taciturn Russian was way too cookie-cutter.

As his second feature, director Julius Onah shows some solid promise controlling big stories. He built a good path in terms of energy and flow and elicited some real emotion in the middle of what is arguably just a horror film on the order of Event Horizon. The real weakness was Oren Uziel’s (Shimmer Lake) script, which had unrealistic characters as well as forced and unexplained plot trajectories and moments. Fun? Sure…and O’Dowd got to take the most advantage of that…but completely inconsistent in ways that just left too many questions rather than a sense of something happening. For all its absurdity, Life at least had their astronauts behave like astronauts and their creature obey some set of definable rules.

Netflix still doesn’t quite know how to produce a solid feature-length film, but they’re learning and getting to use some impressive name dropping to keep it going until they do. I’ve seen way (way) worse on the big screen over the last year, and this is a perfectly fun and distracting entertainment with a couple really good performances.

Ultimately, and not unsurprisingly, there are more Cloverfield stories to come. Overlord is due in October this year to continue the universe (or so it’s rumored). What dropping a critical installment of this sequence of films straight to streaming will do to the franchise will be an interesting story to follow.

Travelers (series 1 & 2)

[3 stars]

I didn’t write up the first series of Travelers because, well, it was just pretty typical Canadian science fiction. And, yes, that is an identifiable genre at this point. Think things like Continuum, Dark Matter, 4400, Lost GirlKilljoys, Orphan Black, Warehouse 13, Sanctuary. Some good some bad, but they all share some base sensibilities. Their stories tend to be rushed or shorthanded, the casting often shared among shows, the production qualities uneven, but often slick. The humor tends to be broad. The cinematography often feels overly polished (oh, and lots of smoke and alleyways). There is also a perceptible difference between BC and Ontario productions, but I won’t belabor this conversation. Almost all are entertaining enough to survive at least a few seasons, but don’t rise to classic status. And then there is the exception that proves the rule: Stargate SG-1 (the other spinoffs fall more in the main category). Most do, however, get a solid cult or fan-base dedicated to them. Certainly, I watch enough of them myself.

But back to Travelers. It has an intriguing, if not new, idea and some good complications for its characters. It does suffer from the uber-conspiracy approach, but it also tries to make it work in their favor without becoming “everyone is evil and can’t be trusted.”

They also pulled together a pretty solid cast, led by Eric McCormack (Will & Grace). A number of recurring characters are familiar faces such as Ian Tracey, Amanda Tapping, Teryl Rothery, and, probably the best of the bunch in terms of part, Patrick Gilmore (SGU Stargate Universe). Given the involvement of Tapping and Stargate creator Brad Wright, the sensibility of the show shouldn’t be surprising, but it still hasn’t quite found the magic of his biggest hit.

So why write this up at all now?  Travelers managed something most shows really can’t: it survived its first season and actually improved in it is second (at least until the very end). And it is that hiccup at the end that drove me to write it all up. The first series was a good setup with some nice individual tales and a crazy cliffhanger for a finale. Generally uneven, but interesting enough to keep me coming back. It thought through some of the science and issues (though not all) and tried to tackle some very tangled morals in the process. The second series adds some new explanations and complications. And while the season as a whole is true to its arc, I really disliked the conclusion. The finale choices aren’t well considered nor sustainable for the characters or the show.

I will be back for the next round, assuming they are renewed. The improvements from 1 to 2 give me hope. Hopefully they can break the mold and find a more sustainable path. If not, it remains a reasonable distraction as part of your Netflix subscription. I just always want a bit more when I can see potential.

Travelers

Electric Dreams

[4 stars]

While it may not be fair, it is hard to view a science fiction anthology series these days without comparing it to Netflix’s Black Mirror. So, lack of fairness acknowledged, this steam punk take on Black Mirror, by Amazon and the BBC, is entirely fascinating and captures Philip K. Dick’s (PDK’s) sense of the surreal wonderfully. It is Twilight Zone on drugs… which is to say that each episode has some great stories and compelling characters, but exists in a world with its own set of rules rather than just trying to shock or spook you out.

While both are creating cautionary tales, there are interesting contrasts as well. Black Mirror builds a world from the path we’re on, and even interlinks the stories via technology and reference. Each episode of Electric Dreams, however, is about a different world on a path not taken by ours; not quite real even though all of its messages still apply. Even when reaching into the bizarre, Electric Dreams has solid writing and is stocked with recognizable names and faces, that keep it all intriguing.

PKD was known for challenging your mind and sensibilities (and, yes, recreational drugs). His work is prone to dystopia. However, there is humanity in every one of the tales I’ve seen so far. It is that spark, that base reality, that makes them compelling and effective. It has a little bit of everything in it, from politics to comedy, and each served up as a little gem of its own.

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Witnesses (Les témoins)

[3.5 stars]

I jumped into series 2 of this show by accident, but haven’t found that to be a detriment. The sequence feels like it stands on its own as a dark, character-driven police mystery with a greatly imaginative perpetrator. It is also full of female characters, most notably Marie Dompnier and Audrey Fleurot (Spiral). The influence of shows like The Tunnel are even more amusing given that the primary lead, Dompnier, has appeared in that show as well.

The writing is generally very realistic; information is ignored, but usually justifiably so. The officers, even when they seem to be bull-headed or lazy, are actually all pretty good at their jobs; some are just more jaded than others, like Jan Hammenecker (Broken Circle Breakdown). The last couple of episodes stretch credibility for some of the decisions, but they do a heroic job trying to give them cover. And by that time, much like in The Bridge and The Tunnel, you don’t care, you just want to understand and see it all resolve.

The overall effect is a French version of the Nordic wave of mysteries taking over the book shelves and streams ever since The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo hit the scene. The moody and complex plot is fun and disturbing, and the acting compelling. I am definitely going back to pick up series 1 and look forward to series 3, should it come about.

Bright

[3 stars]

Imagine Alien Nation reconceived with orcs and fairies instead of extraterrestrials. More importantly, imagine that world as if it had been the status quo for thousands of years instead of only a decade or so. It is an intriguing concept, especially with the rise of fantasy into the mainstream.

This is the world that writer Max Landis attempts to lay out for us. Frustratingly, he is an unpredictable writer. He can hit the mark with movies like American Ultra as well as miss the target widely with fare like Victor Frankenstein.  Bright is a script that lands in the middle of those two. Unlike Alien Nation, he loses the family dynamic for buddy cops Will Smith (Collateral Beauty) and Joel Edgerton (It Comes at Night), which is essential to bridging their understanding of one another. Truthfully, neither of their characters is fleshed out in any real, believable way. There are odd gaps in understanding and culture as well a demonstrated well of intelligence and capability in a world they have supposedly grown up in.

It comes down to a matter of genre. Landis didn’t quite know how to show us this new world so we could understand it. He  also really didn’t understand how to tweak history, which would have radically changed where we are today, not just a few little things, to create a fleshed out, new LA. And the ending is so telegraphed it is actually almost a disappointment when it finally arrives.

I do wonder if some of the lack of depth is due to director David Ayer’s (Suicide Squad) choices or decisions. Ayer has played on both sides of the camera in the cop milieu. He wrote Training Day and directed End of Watch, both critical darlings. Both were also quite dark and violent, which is where this movie shines in fight (after fight after fight) with different players all trying to wrest the prize from Smith and Edgerton. The fights get quite inventive and fun, but they’d have meant more if we had more invested in the world and characters.

One of the sets of anti-players is led by a very spooky Noomi Rapace (Unlocked). She doesn’t get to act much in this movie, but she gets some great tableaus and costumes. She is helped along by two credible fighters in Veronica Ngo and Alex Meraz. Another incomplete pairing, from the law enforcement (dark)side, is Ike Barinholtz (Mindy Project) and Happy Anderson (The Knick) who serve for exposition and additional tension, though not a lot of believability.

So, how much confidence does Netflix have in this movie: They’ve ordered a sequel on the day of release. There is a LOT of potential here, but they need to get someone with more genre experience, like Rockne S. O’Bannon or one of the Whedon clan to come in and fill out the world and characters to make them more compelling.  It feels more like a prologue than a complete story due to the lack of world and character depth. We want and expect more, but will apparently have to wait for it.

This is still a fun ride, and worth a couple hours on the couch with some popcorn, but given the depth of talent in the main roles, you’d like to see it used rather than just as names on a marquis.

Dark

[4 stars]

What would happen if Stranger Things collided with the last couple of seasons of Lost? Well, you’d get something like Dark.

This show takes some work to follow, especially with the added challenge of subtitles (if you watch in its original German; and why wouldn’t you?). The story is incredibly complicated and slowly revealed over its 10 parts. Part of the fun of the story is trying to get ahead of it and only occasionally succeeding. But Dark is also aware and unapologetic about the challenge of the story, even providing guidance to help viewers. Some of that comes as some classroom teaching via the teens in the series, other assistance comes as voice over, and still more as allusion or as split-screen explanations.

But all the effort is worth it. I say this even admitting it is based on some of the worst kind of science fiction. What saves it is very clever plotting and structure and solid acting across the board.

One of the things that makes limited series so much better, typically, than the more standard American 20+ episode approach is that a limited series (or season) can be fully and carefully crafted; even over multiple arcs with less time pressure and more craft. And, while this is an example of that advantage, the series inevitably allows itself an escape hatch into series two. As long as there is a series two, I’m OK with that. However, too many shows do that with the hope of garnering enough outcry and interest to get renewed, when what really works isn’t so much open ended plot points as really good writing.

At the time of this writing, Netflix has yet to commit to the follow-up, but interest in the show points to a renewal. Give it a shot even without the commit, if you haven’t already.

Dark

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

[5 stars]

The pilot of Maisel grabbed me instantly, but I’d expected that, or at least hoped for no less from the creators of the Gilmore Girls. It is full of snappy dialogue fed by the sharp social eyes of the writers. The first season run of Maisel has certainly lost no momentum, as well as kept up the revelations and interest. The Sherman-Palladinos are an astounding pair of writer/directors who can take the obvious and inevitable and get there in interesting and unexpected ways.

This show is as much a continuation of the Fanny Brice tale as anything else, but mainly it is a story of women and the new era that dawned in the early 60s. The powerhouse of Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards), who is Maisel down to her bones, drives this show breathlessly and effortlessly. It is hard to imagine this show succeeding without that brilliant bit of casting. It is a role that may dog her for years, but it is an opportunity to brand herself onto the psyche of the viewing public.

But Brosnahan isn’t alone. Alex Borstein (Killers) is a great counterpart and a complex piece of work on her own. Michael Zegen (Brooklyn), for all his bluster and seeming shallowness, builds a man as confused about life as Brosnahan’s is sure of it.

Then there is the older generation who serve as the litmus for the tales. Tony Shalhoub (BrainDead), Marin Hinkle (Speechless), Kevin Pollak, and the ubiquitous but lesser-recognized Caroline Aaron provide guidance, broad humor, and a view into the world Maisel came up in and is leaving behind. They feel almost absurdist, but they are more realistic than most people would like to recognize or admit. 

Finally, there is Luke Kirby (Rectify, Slings and Arrows) as the most infamous comic of the era and the man who invented modern stand-up. His understated portrayal and energy come onto the screen as a crackling, dark light at necessary moments throughout. He humanizes the character in ways that haven’t been done before. Much like Brosnahan, it is hard to imagine someone else in the role. There are also other, delightfully surprising guest spots throughout the season.

Social commentary aside, Maisel is also a brilliant look inside the craft and effort that is stand-up. The world of comedy has become a popular subject recently. Whether in competitions like Last Comic Standing, or tales like Don’t Think Twice, or opportunity venues like The Stand-Ups, there is a fascination with what it takes to be in comedy. The last few episodes of this first season are particularly poignant on these lines.

Amazon certainly recognized what they’d found when they approved the first two seasons out of the gate (a first for the online studio giant). Fortunately, this means we won’t have to wait too long for the next installment. In the meantime, Maisel is sure to be a long-enduring classic for its entertainment and its scathing satire. Make time if you haven’t to burn through these eight episodes. And then make time to do it again soon. The dialogue is so packed and fast it demands multiple viewings to catch everything, making it differently funny every time you watch.

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The End of the F***ing World

[3.5 stars]

Evil, evil fun (with a point) in the vein of Skins meets Misfits meets Perks of Being a Wallflower. It even brought to mind God Bless America and not a small dash of Bonnie & Clyde, though this takes place in England. I hate trying to describe things by comparing it to other offerings, but sometimes it is the best way to get across a sense of what a non-traditional or surprising bit of media is like. And, boy, is this surprising.

Jessica Barden (Penny Dreadful) and Alex Lawther (A Brilliant Young Mind) create compelling teens struggling through the hell of adolescence by creating strong facades. We get to hear their inner voices as well as watch their actions, which adds to both the pain and the humor. Let’s face it, there isn’t a person who survived into adulthood who hasn’t lived through at least a moment of that kind of duality. Their journey, while alternately absurdist and hyper-realistic, will resonate with most people if they can get past the violence of it all. 

Wunmi Mosaku (Fearless) and Gemma Whelan (queers.) are the officers in pursuit of these hapless teens. Mosaku is starting to get type-cast a bit in her cop roles, but Whelan got to try out some new moves and layers. This isn’t a police procedural or typical UK suspense. The relationship between these two characters is reflective of the kids they’re after, directly in their relationship to one another and indirectly as a representation of the “world that is against them.”

Better known as an actress in shows such as Marcella and Cucumber, writer Charlie Covell tackled the adaptation of Forsman’s graphic novel brutally and without flinching. It took some serious guts to even consider the tale and serious skill to sell it with the nod and wink she did; and she even manages a stark and effective conclusion.

The series itself is designed like the serial graphic novel that was its root. It is broken into 8 2-part shots, each shot about 10 min. It isn’t a long commitment, but it is a wild ride right up to the final unforgettable moments. If you’ve got the stomach for it, this is definitely worth your time.

Vincent Has No Scales (Vincent n’a pas d’écailles)

[3 stars]

If you needed any indication of how broad the response to superhero overload is, Vincent is your answer; a quiet French indie, which shows that this trend is spreading worldwide.

Writer, director, and star Thomas Salvador takes advantage of this sensibility (and others, like The Tick) to create an ordinary man with extraordinary abilities and very little intention or need to use them in traditional ways. His adventures are a bit mundane, but also oddly sweet with Vimala Pons (Elle). It is, at heart, a simple love story; we all have secrets. That Salvador could wear all those production hats and still pull this film off in a credible way is impressive.

Deadpool signaled the mainstream embrace of the counter-superhero (as opposed to anti(super)hero, because I think it is more about story telling than good vs evil). And I expect the super hero backlash will continue to build, which isn’t a bad thing. Marvel will continue to ride the wave better than most because they never took themselves too seriously (unlike DC). But this shift in thinking is opening the possibility for more inventive and smaller stories like Vincent. For an evening of romantic charm and silly comedy that borders on farce at times, this will suit.

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