Category Archives: Streamed only

iBoy

Every story is allowed one really big lie. I’ve said it before, but it is really necessary to restate for this movie because it has one really big leap you have to make in order for it all to happen. Happily, once it does, it is actually a reasonable tale of teenage heroics and recognition that the world, very often, just sucks.

Director Adam Randall’s sophomore outing of writer, Joe Barton’s (Humans) adaptation is definitely aimed at a younger audience, but is willing to (lightly) tackle some tougher subjects.

Bill Milner (Broken) carries the film well. We watch him come into his own as a young man, though not quite adult. His story, as a physical metaphor for adolescence, is actually pretty good. Silly at times, but good. In the other young lead, Maisie Williams (Doctor Who)  continues to broaden her cv away from Game of Thrones. Her performance here is compelling, but is certainly held back by the material from exploring all aspects and reactions to her situation. But, again, this is for a younger audience, so I gave her a pass on that.

Thrown into this mix of young folks surviving the projects are two main adults: Miranda Richardson and Rory Kinnear (Man Up). Without them, the story would have ended up feeling  like a comic book. They add just enough from the real world to make the story feel almost possible.

For a fun distraction with action, humor, and a some fanciful leaps of faith, it really is a good distraction by some solid talent.

Miranda Richardson in iBOY

The Discovery & 13 Reasons Why

Both The Discovery and 13 Reasons Why ask the same two questions: What is life? Why stick around for it? They come to roughly the same answers, though by very different routes.

The Discovery does this through the lens of science fiction. It asks: What if we knew there was something after death? And then it goes on to explore the impact, but tries to remained focused on the smaller stories. It is a rumination on “what if,” bordering on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in feel.

13 Reasons Why does this from the 7th circle of Hell, otherwise known to most people as: High School. 13 Reasons tries to expose the realities of teenage perspective by offering up multiple stories and, potentially, the different variations of truth to them as we learn more. Ultimately, this is more a tale in the vein of Veronica Mars than it is a deep psychological expose, more structured as entertainment than open discourse, but it manages to make its points.

Their overlapping discussions of suicide make them a natural and topical pairing.

In The Discovery, suicide becomes a real, and less scary option for many people. Frankly, I think probably on a much bigger scale than the show posits. The script doesn’t try to simplify the risks or answer questions unequivocally, but it does nicely, if narrowly, follow enough characters to explore the idea.

Robert Redford (Pete’s Dragon), Jason Segel (The Muppets), and Rooney Mara (Lion) topline this intellectual thought experiment. With such a great cast, and a neat premise, it could have been so much more. But it is still engaging and thought provoking. And the ending is anything but passive for the viewer.

13 Reasons Why has a number of strong performances, but the primary standouts are Kate Walsh, Katherine Langford, and Dylan Minnette (Goosebumps). Walsh delivers a solidly heart-breaking performance of a mother dealing with loss and guilt. Langford lays out a progression of decisions and emotional fractures that help you follow her path, if not totally agree with the results–all the more impressive as it is her lead acting debut. And Minnette is a perfect “every kid” lost in the political tides of adolescence and inside his own head.

It is the confluence of these presentations that makes them so interesting to me. Either alone would have been something to notice. But two major releases, and even other shows like Transparent jumping onto the suicide depiction train (and there are many, many more, like Collateral Beauty), speaks to a subject in the air that needs dealing with in some way. Perhaps the documented rise of clinical depression over the last six months, particularly in women, is part of the explanation.

Regardless of the deeper zeitgeist, both of these streams deserve your time for their performances and their ideas. As to the bigger picture…time will tell.

The Discovery 13 Reasons Why

ARQ

I do love me a good time travel tale, and really hate bad ones. ARQ falls into the good camp. Every time (no pun intended) you think it is going to get boring or obvious, it shifts just enough to keep you interested. The world keeps expanding and the stakes keep rising.

Robbie Amell (Nine Lives) and Rachel Taylor (Jessica Jones) are suitably earnest if not entirely perfectly matched as a couple. They are both believable, though some of the driving motivations take time to reveal.

Though an established writer, Elliott (Orphan Black), this was Elliott’s first time directing a feature-length film. He kept it all taut and focused, managing to get the complex aspects of the story across well. He definitely should get more directorial work based on this result.

I do have to warn you that it doesn’t provide a great ending, unfortunately. Ultimately, it feels more like a pilot, or perhaps the plot became intractable, and so the story was wrapped up in an obvious way. But up to that last moment, it really is pretty clever and worth the time. And even with the flawed ending, it is a good ride.

ARQ

Girlboss

Silly, crude, empowering, oddly romantic, and not a little embarrassing, this is a fun series. And, yes, here we go again with Brit Robertson (A Dog’s Purpose). Seriously unintentional… just a matter of timing.

With this series, Robertson hard turns from young, sure teen to the kind of trainwreck most suitors can’t resist and yet should probably run away from. She cuts loose as the driven, and not a little scary, Sophia, who is trying to figure out her life while simultaneously blowing it up (including dating a drummer).

Her anchors, Jonathan James Simmons (The To Do List) and relative new-comer Ellie Reed, provide both encouragement and guidance, though not always the right kind. But all work well together and balance nicely. And, as her father, Dean Norris (Men, Women, Children) adds a solid sense of familial love and strife.  To add to the fun, there area host of recurring guest appearances by folks such as Melanie Lynskey (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Jim Rash, Louise Fletcher and the infamous and fabulous RuPaul.

The show is full of humor and reality… and quite a bit of reality stretching, but that is admitted to right up front. Created and written by Kay Cannon (Pitch Perfect 2), she brings the same kind of humor and heightened reality she loves playing in. The series is a fun distraction, with some reasonable life lessons, and a moment to mark for Robertson, as she has definitely left her child-actor years behind her.

Girlboss

Sense8 (series 2)

The first series of Sense8 was a mind-blowing experience. Its scope and inventiveness blazed new ground for the small screen. It challenged its viewers on many levels and managed to set up a world and set of conflicts that had you begging for more. Even if it wasn’t new material for readers of folks like Theodore Sturgeon, it was the best depiction of those ideas I’d ever seen in visual media.

Then came the holiday special, which was an important story bridge, but which also indicated a potential shift in quality. So it was with no little trepidation that I dove into the long awaited second series.

One of the first things that is immediately obvious is that one of the rich aspects of the show, the 8 languages, has been shifted to all English. It is a subtle change at first, but as the show goes on it definitely feels diminished and less credible. One of the fascinating and wonderful aspects to Sense8 was the multi-cultural breadth of the characters. It is part of its core message that people of all countries and creeds can work closely together, can love one another. Now, not only does it all sound the same, but some of the actors are struggling with the language, and subtleties, such as using English as a way to make others feel dumb or less, have been lost.

The scale of the show has also been pulled back. In some ways this was anticipated. Sense8 is not one of Netflix’s most successful shows in terms of sheer force. It will work for them for years, I’ve no doubt, but budgets aren’t typically planned on that hope. So I can forgive this, especially if it means we get more. However, there was at least one great addition to the cast (which I can’t discuss without blowing surprises), but I will say that Doctor Who fans will be pleased.

While Straczynski (Babylon 5), and Lana and Lilly Wachowski (Jupiter Ascending) are all still very involved, I was sad to see Tom Tykwer (Drei/3)disappear from the creative staff. There was a magic with all of them that seems just a little less without him there. And the rules of this world are somewhat fungible at this time… this could be because our main characters really are still learning about what they are or it could be that the writers are not staying consistent. Time will tell on that, but it does need to clarify how Sensoriums can reach out to one another and when/how someone can take over someone else.

OK, all of that said, this is still a fascinating and brave show. It is doing things and dealing with themes that no one else really is, and certainly not in this way. The end of this series, of course, sets up the next and it has definitely raised the stakes again.  So, yes, I am anticipating the the next series already. I hope it gets renewed and I hope it comes with a bit more of the original series feeling back into it.

[Updated 1 June, 2017: And this is why fans have such trouble committing to great shows: Sense8 is officially cancelled]

Sense8

Marvel’s Iron Fist

This is by far the most disappointing of the Marvel Universe series that Netflix has produced, which is why it has taken me so long to complete the run. It is the weakest writing and the least stylistic. It is, however, steeped in the mythos of the other tales: Jessica Jones, Daredevil, and Luke Cage. These aspects make it more interesting than it has earned, frankly.

Iron Fist, as a character, has somewhat nebulous powers and rules, and his backstory is only marginally interesting for most of the series. Finn Jones (Game of Thrones) manages a sweet demeanor, and the somewhat lost vibe of a young child in the world, but he is also just plain dumb as a character, making foolish choices. If this is the absolute best that Kunlun has to offer, they need a bigger population. And how did this simpering, whiny, tantrum throwing kid make it to Iron Fist anyway?

More generally, motivations for all the characters are hard to believe and understand. Tom Pelphrey (Banshee) and David Wenham (Lion) are all over the map on their choices and drives. Sure all of the men, including Jones, have some intense backstories, but I’d expect a clarity of purpose to be driving them so I can understand when things change.

The women fair a bit better for most of the series. Jessica Henwick (Star Wars: Force Awakens) has nice levels and some obvious secrets. Jessica Stroup (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) is a tough character but hard to pin down because she is unevenly written and used. By the end of the sequence, they have squandered her completely and weakened her unforgivably.

It is really the two returning characters are best served because they have actual history to draw on: Wai Ching Ho (Daredevil) and Rosario Dawson (Gimme Shelter). Both are easy to understand and, in the case of Ho, we finally get to learn a lot more about this enigmatic kingpin.

There really is only one reason to watch Iron Fist, but you’ll need to see the whole series to understand why and, even then, you’ll have to make a logical leap beyond their unearned finale. Marvel was due a weak delivery after all its high powered hits. And, to be clear, this isn’t awful, it just isn’t in the same class as its colleagues. Better writers and directors would definitely help. Some more time in the writers’ room to break out the episodes and season more interestingly wouldn’t be amiss either; creator/producer/writer Buck (Dexter) just didn’t hit his mark. I am hoping that as the story carries forward, the Iron Fist will find more solid story-telling.

Image result for iron fist

Amazon Pilot Season

The democratization (bad or good) of TV with open pilot seasons at Amazon is fascinating. We used to get to see some pilots on TV and vote by ratings. That approach has evaporated  and has been replaced with other selection methods, particularly with the short series approach.

Amazon offers up 5 new shows this round. Only 3 even caught my attention. Two were really quite good. If you haven’t put in your votes yet, do. You only have yourself to blame for what they offer if you don’t vote (kinda like other things in this country). Of course, any selected tend to have their series delivery lag by months (if not longer) since the entire season has to be in the can before it is released. Frustrating when you’ve seen something you enjoy.

In order of decreasing potential:

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

By far the best of the lot. But that is no surprise given its pedigree. This 1950s/1960s romp through stand-up and Upper West Side life is from the Sherman-Palladino’s (Gilmore Girls). The dialogue and character work is great fun and is just barely getting started. The dynamics will be familiar, but the cultural pieces are pretty new for television. At its center is the dynamic Rachel Brosnahan (Crisis in Six Scenes) who chews up the screen and spits it out in colorful bits of art as homecraft. She already has a nice career, but this could be an amazing break-out given its scope.

Oasis

Based on Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, this large-scale and philosophical science fiction epic has real potential. It will all depend on where they take it and how it develops. But the pilot is certainly intriguing. Starring Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) and with other faces like Mark Addy (Atlantis), Zawe Ashton (Nocturnal Animals), and Haley Joel Osment (Tusk), it also some some good bones holding it all up.

The Legend of Master Legend

The weakest of the three I sampled. John Hawkes (The Driftless Area) is committed to the role, but watching self-destructive or pathetic behavior just isn’t my sense of humor. Despite some very nice family dynamics and possibilities, I can’t see watching this show, though others may well love it.

 

 

The Holiday episodes

Typically, this time of year shows tend to do stand-alone specials about Christmas, harping or concentrating on the holiday in a way that is highly exclusionary to anyone who doesn’t celebrate in the same way. The effect can be to push away large sections of their viewing public.

This year, however, most shows I was following found ways to make the holiday ancillary or as pivot point for their series. Below is a sampling.

Last Tango in Halifax
A nice 2-parter and shift for the characters. I can’t imagine this isn’t setting up a longer, new series, but it is as entertaining and painful as it usually is. Centered around the holidays, it takes that pause in the year to throw together the characters, decisions, and revelations.

Doctor Who
Reviewed more deeply separately, but definitely a pivotal episode with little to hang on the holiday. A nice shift that was years in the making for the show since Moffat took over and made the first few Christmas specials odd Christmas fables rather than Doctor Who.

Sense8
A definite continuation and setup. Also more deeply discussed in a separate post. A bit more focused on the holiday and its meaning, but mainly as catalyst rather than as hammer. If there is an overall message there it is that family is what you make it, not what you’re born into. A good and worthy sentiment… just wish it had been delivered with better craft on par with the first series.

Only Father Brown in The Star of Jacob and the Grantchester Christmas Special really did a traditional tale. Given their main characters that seemed rather appropriate. But Grantchester also takes the opportunity to shift its show into a new mode in addition to focusing on the aspects and analogies you’d think would be there. Father Brown is a tad more traditional, in series and in delivery, on this one. In this case, though, it was also the first episode of its 5th series, providing a respite and celebration before going on to evolve its cast from there.

Sense8 (Christmas special)

The first series of this Netflix original was mind-blowing and wonderful. Honestly, I’m still chomping to see the second series this May when it is released. This holiday gift from creators/writers Lana Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski is an important bridging episode from the previous series finale, but it isn’t done as well as what has come before. Disappointing, to be sure, but not unwatchable or uninteresting.

The first series was crafted to within an inch of its life. The plot was intricate and unexpected, the format unique, and the approach a gamble at best. It resulted in one of the most unique shows ever put to small screen both in format and subject matter. This holiday special exists to pivot to the new series.. to set it up and put all the pieces where they need to be to start a new run.

The humor remains, and some of the provocative ideas and approaches. But this semi-standalone was much lower budget, and it feels like it. It also dropped the primary use of subtitles, making it feel much more faked than real. One of the great aspects of the show was its international reality and sensibility. Having it all in English (or nearly all) removed that sense of global sweep and grasp.

The plot, also, was much more fractured. Not only did it rely on you remembering everything from the first series, which would have been a minor miracle, the structure of the tale was loose and hard to follow. There is a point to it all (a point you sort of expect) but there isn’t an overall plot that comes together. The final scene and comment are amusing, but doesn’t punctuate any real meaning or tie up any loose ends… it simply is and awaits the May release of series 2.

Frustration aside, I still stand behind my recommendations for Sense8. It is a gutsy show being run by some of the best story-tellers of the cinematic universe (large or small screen). They may not always produce gold, but they always try and stick to their artistic goals. Few do these days. If you enjoyed the first series, you do have to see this installment. If you haven’t seen the first series yet, go watch it now and then see this. It really doesn’t make any sense at all without the background.

The OA

Stranger Things ushered in a new wave of material on Netflix. Riskier, odd, but well-written and produced material that would never get a chance on broadcast television because it could never find an audience in that medium. The OA is right alongside that effort, equally interesting, though aimed at a very different section of the viewing public.

Creators Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling are known for their highly unique approach to story and film. Their most recent collaboration, I Origins, delved into the concept of identity and a few other unexpected ideas. They also like to play with how a story is told, literally, and how it is presented. In this case, OA episodes are even of varying lengths based on the need of the that particular section.

Everything matters in Batmanglij and Marling’s tales. They pace the tales to give the audience time to absorb and, maybe, understand or even get ahead of the plot, when that is to their aims. Their worlds and tales carefully unfold, exposing first just the odd edges and then the truly strange aspects of their ideas. The OA is no exception. By doing so, they bring you along and drop you in utterly unexpected country, but with enough knowledge to navigate it.

Batmanglij directed the entire series and pulled together a great ensemble of unlikely characters. Alice Krige (Solomon Kane) and Scott Wilson (The Walking Dead) as Marling’s parents, and Jason Isaacs (Awake) each deliver nuanced performances in key roles. The rest of the main cast has a few notables: Emory Cohen (Brooklyn), Phyllis Smith (Inside Out), and Patrick Gibson (What Richard Did), as well as newcomers Brandon Perea and Ian Alexander make up a solid core for Marling’s tale. Marling herself, in the title character, controls the story with a confidence and charisma that maintains your interest even through the most steadily paced moments.

Identifying the truth or reality in this story is part of the fun. There are a lot of clues, but each has multiple interpretations. But truth is less the point than the fun of considering the possibilities. It all comes to an ending that is at once mundane and wondrous… and likely divisive, but that is also nothing new for this creative duo.