Category Archives: Streamed only

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, and can ifnd it, this is definitely worth your time.

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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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Oh, Hello

[2 stars]

When you are the target audience for a bit of satirical comedy and it leaves you nonplussed, it isn’t a great sign.  Oh, Hello is an ironic poison pen letter to New York theatre. Or, if not poison pen, certainly with more than a little bit of ire and frustration. And I do say this as their target audience, based on the subject matter (NYC living and the theater/entertainment world).

Honestly, I just found it mean-spirited and relatively uninspired in its message. With the exception of a couple cameos, it wasn’t even all that funny. Nick Kroll (Sing) and John Mulaney (Documentary Now!) are only marginally decent at playing older men, not that they are intended to be realistic. But the script is just, well, boring. It takes a half hour for the setup to complete so that the jokes can start paying off. But they don’t continue. There are side stories and sophomoric silliness and absurdities and a ton of inside jokes that would leave most people scratching their heads.

I’m sure there is an audience for this; it isn’t entirely unenjoyable. As part of my Netflix subscription it was favorably priced for its value, but I am glad I didn’t spend Broadway prices (or anything in addition) to see it.

Cleverman (Series 1 & 2)

[3 stars]

If it weren’t for the politics and events of the last 8 months or so, Cleverman would just be a middling science fiction series discussing the endemic social schisms that exist today. Despite some good, as well as internationally recognizable talent such as Iain Glenn (Game of Thrones) and Frances O’Conner (The Missing), it is often ham-handed and rushed.

The first series was intriguing on a purely cultural level for me. Out of Australia, this show uses the aboriginal myths and template to posit a recently discovered race of long-lived, powerful hominids that have co-existed with humans. All manner of racism and fear ensue (and a lot of really, really bad wigs). But by crossing the idea with aspects of The Dreaming, other metaphysical concepts, and some truly screwed up families, you got enough to keep you watching the journey of the main character played by Hunter Page-Lochard (The Sapphires). It built to an inevitable crescendo of violence that ensured you’d watch the next series.

Series 2 improved a little in its subtleties and information. We get to understand more…and cringe more. The family drama continues to compound and the relatively unknown Rob Collins tries to bring credibility to a ridiculously overwrought story-line. With only six episodes again this series, the writers were forced to rush their ending and left us hanging in rather frustrating, if again intriguing, ways. I (think) I know how they write themselves out of the final moments, but I’ve no clue where they are going to take it from there that won’t make the series more Planet of the Apes than, say, Gattaca.

Generally, Cleverman isn’t a great series, but it is probably different enough, and short enough in episodes, to keep you hooked. Given the improvements from the first series to the second, I’m hoping that a final or continuing series will continue to build on lessons learned.

Cleverman

The Hippopotamus

[4 stars]

A delightfully weird, wonderful, and often unpredictable comedy cum drawing room mystery. Based on a Stephen Fry (Love & Friendship) novel, you can be sure it is irreverent and witty with a keen social eye and few boundaries. It attacks art, society, family, and religion with equal and unapologetic measure, but with an oddly optimistic sensibility to the human condition. Oh, and it’s funny. Very funny.

Roger Allam (The Lady in the Van), in a send-up of Fry’s own persona, leads the story as the critical observer and assigned debunker of certain “events.” He carries the broad comedy and erudite demeanor beautifully.

Along with Allam are a host of players. Of note are Emily Berrington (Humans), Fiona Shaw (Emerald City), Tim McInnerny (Eddie the Eagle),  and Tommy Knight (Sarah Jane Adventures). They are far from alone, but they were the stand-outs for me. 

The dialogue is delightful, the satire sharp, and the humanity, ultimately, bruised, vulnerable, and triumphant in its way. It is definitely dark comedy, but with a beating heart. You’ll know early on if it is a movie for you, so you don’t have much to lose by giving it 10 minutes to convince you. I had a great time with it and look forward to watching it again as I’m sure I missed some great exchanges because I was still laughing at others.

As a side note, there is a serious sort of critical overtone to the tale, despite all the amusement. It is indicated in the title (from a TS Eliot poem), a reference made clear in the opening, but still required some look-up to fully appreciate. With or without that additional layer, the movie is far from vague and the result very entertaining.

The Hippopotamus

Marvel’s The Defenders

[3 stars]

One of the biggest challenges coming into this collective mash-up was that each of the prequel/origin series had very distinctive styles. Daredevil was a sort of stylized, dark police/action series. Jessica Jones was a gritty, street detective show. Luke Cage was borderline black exploitation, but with a positive flare. Iron Fist was much closer to pure martial arts comic book than anything else, and with a weak lead to drive it.

This is is also the first time I’m aware of multiple shows feeding into a single new entity (and done so with intent, not a temporary cross-over or spin-off). Aspects and mysteries from each of the shows come up and are woven back into a single tapestry for a sixth season climax (Daredevil has had two seasons already). You just have to appreciate the audacity of it, if not always the execution.

The melding of the styles actually worked rather well; the first half of the season spent time mixing them together into a blend of something that absorbed aspects of each. They also didn’t immediately form the team, for which I was grateful. The Defenders are an uncomfortable alliance of, often, reluctant heroes. Fate and The Hand insist on throwing them together, but sometimes they’d rather be throwing each other. It makes for some nice moments of tension and humor, as well as the iconic Marvel “moments in the restaurant.”

In addition to our main heroes (and enemies), adding Sigourney Weaver (A Monster Calls) to this cast was a a coup. She plays one of the most quietly competent and confident leaders of the opposition I think I’ve seen. She never loses her cool or focus, though she  does manage to show some levels.

But as a series unto itself, as clever and fun as it is, the entire plot rests on the shoulders of the Iron Fist. Frankly, Finn Jones is just not up to the job. He comes across as immature and petulant rather than as broken and troubled while trying to find his way. It weakens the result and keeps you from emotionally committing to the effort. You just want to slap sense into the man-boy. It particularly makes the events leading to the climactic reveal feel silly. The ongoing reluctance of Daredevil’s sidekicks was a drag on the story as well, though it is handled significantly better.

Ultimately, the series goes where you’d expect, which is fine. This is a super-hero trope and the journey is as important as the results. The fact that clues to it are throughout the previous five series is really fun. I do want to see what comes next, but I’m hopeful/hoping that the focus will be on a different character, and that Danny Rand will finally grow into his long pants and be a bit more Tony Stark than Pee Wee Herman (and aren’t there golden fists jokes to be made there?). But you do have to see this if you’ve committed to any of the previous lead-ups just to see the other characters grow. It certainly isn’t wasted time, but I had hoped for something better given the strength of the other three leads.

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Series 3)

[3 stars]

OK, I honestly didn’t see myself writing about this reboot again. The first series was wonderfully surprising, but still aimed a bit young for my taste. The second series was middling and felt like it was simply pushed out too quickly.

This third installment, however, has a bit more subtlety to it. Lotor, the new evil, is actually a bit more real, a bit smarter, and a lot more intriguing…especially given our world today. He conquers with kindness, stealth, and power. It is a great evolution in how cartoon enemies are drawn for this kind of story and this audience. Shades of grey are always more interesting than simple black & white.

Frustratingly, despite the interesting start, the end of this series was rushed. The final episode is just a huge flashback explanation on the origins of the war and, as it happens, Voltron. The explanations are clever and made me appreciate the writers. But then, well, let’s just say they fell back on what they knew rather than continuing to go someplace more interesting. I have a sense where series 4 will go, but I do hate missed chances.

At least we don’t have long to wait to see what happens next. Series 4 arrives in October.

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Rememory

[3 stars] Rememory is an interesting, true classic science fiction tale. By that I mean it tackles the human condition with the technology and tale as metaphor. It isn’t brilliant; there are a number of glossed aspects to the plot in order to keep the story small and the budget low. However, the main thrust of the story is intriguing and the layered mystery is enough to keep it driving forward. Even when you get ahead of it, the point isn’t the mystery but the effect of the resolution, so it continues to work through to the end.

As an early film by director and co-writer (along with playwright Mike VukadinovichMark Palansky, it shows interesting promise for the future. While remaining genre, the focus was on the characters and their struggles.

Peter Dinklage (The Boss) drives the story well. He navigates a complex personal story while acting as amateur detective. The latter aspect is a bit forced, particularly in his ability to succeed, but the motivation and raw emotional energy he uses to drive it cover the gaps nicely. 

Dinklage has a broad cast of characters to contend with. Evelyne Brochu (Orphan Black) and Julia Ormond (Witches of East End) probably have the most nuanced roles. Henry Ian Cusick (The 100) and Martin Donovan (Ant-Man) are a bit more cardboard in their depictions, likely for plot reasons, though I think they could have done better. But the odd specter hanging over this film is Anton Yelchin (Star Trek Beyond). This, near as I can tell, will be his last film to be released. It again reminds us what a senseless loss his death was. Yelchin’s ability to expose a raw personal landscape, even in the smallest of roles, is impressive.

Rememory isn’t going to land on your top 10 list. It is a good, solid indie film that is a bit shy of big-screen worthy (which would explain why it is premiering on Google Play in advance of a small theatrical release). But the ideas, story, and the acting make it worth the time investment. Certainly the chance to see the start of some careers alone makes it interesting.

Rememory

Okja

I have to say, I was glad I had a meatless dinner before seeing this movie, and I suggest you do the same. Like his previous Snowpiercer, Joon-ho Bong has written and directed another ecological warning, and done so with style and a critical eye on both sides of the conversation. In many ways it is the perfect melding of Snowpiercer and his previous The Host. Okja is one part Disney animal adventure, one part E.T., and one part Delicatessen.

Unlike Snowpiercer, however, Okja takes place pretty much in our world, with a mild twist, which makes it all the more disturbing when it wants to be. It follows a young girl, Seo-Hyun Ahn, as she fights for her friend with a bit of outside help from Paul Dano (Swiss Army Man), Steven Yeun (I, Origins), Lily Collins (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones), and others.

Driving the plot, Tilda Swinton (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) creates another unusual character, but not one as outlandish as some of her previous roles. Her twins are just this side of normal, though clearly at the edge of sane behavior. On the other hand, Jake Gyllenhaal (Life) creates a broken ex-star struggling with his choice of survival. It isn’t his most compelling turn, though it is an hysterical send-up of Geraldo Rivera. There is also the irrepressible Shirley Henderson (Bridget Jones’s Baby) as Swinton’s assistant trying to tread water in an ever-changing environment.

The movie is full of fun and adventure, but it pulls no punches about its targets. It is also willing to beat up its leads with a bit more realism than you may be used to for a film with a child lead. You are never quite allowed to just sit and relax, but the messages are all buried in the story. By the climax, which hits hard and unapologetically, you are on board and seriously considering what to do about it all in your own life. The story even continues to unspool through the final moments and one bit after the credits, but it doesn’t provide any easy answers.

Okja was every bit worth the wait. Beautifully filmed, it will deliver on small or large screen, but finding it on the large screen is unlikely. So tuck in with Netflix and enjoy this newest Joon-ho Bong adventure.

Okja