Category Archives: Streamed only

Sisyphus: The Myth (Sijipeuseu: The Myth)

[3 stars]

Deterministic, mutable, or multiverse? Yes, I speak of time travel and timelines. This is the central question that drives the momentum of the plot in Sisyphus. It is rarely discussed that way, but it underlies almost all of the decisions. Which is also part of the problem at times…when characters only take part of that into account as they make their decisions. And the part they take is often purely emotional rather than logical.

Ultimately, it makes the story primarily about selfishness and greed even through it revolves around a growing romance between Cho Seung-woo and Park Shin-Hye, not to mention the fate of the world. So much could have been avoided at a number of points if characters had been willing to sacrifice, even if only temporarily, for the rest of the world. But they don’t. Is it human? Maybe, but it sometimes felt more than a little convenient for the plot rather than real. Of course, in a deterministic universe, it made complete sense, though it still got frustrating.

But that aspect aside, as it quickly would move off those moments and into the next challenges, this South Korean sci-fi epic is worthy of its 16, hour+ long episodes driven forward by that conundrum. And it stretches out the answers, relatively fairly, till the very last minutes.

In addition to the central pair there are a number of supporting roles. Most notable are the creepy Byeong-cheol Kim (and the kid who plays his younger self is just as creepy), and the ever morphing Dong-il Sung, who’s character evolves over and over through the series. Also, Hye-in Jeong has an interesting path and part to play. There are many others over this long epic tale, but most are playing standard kinds of parts that simply move the plot along. And the plot, and the questions it raises, are the main attraction here. What is nice about the format is that it has room for the story and characters to breathe and grow rather than just having to rush from conflict to conflict.

Admittedly, this is no Dark. However, it is a complex story with a lot of solid logic…and a few fudges. But it also doesn’t try to explain everything in dialogue, allowing the last of the puzzle pieces to be yours to assemble; particularly during the final couple episodes. If you enjoy time travel adventure and Eastern film tropes (cause there are definitely some of those as well), as well as a peek into Korean culture amid the flying bullets and chase scenes, this is a show worth your time. It isn’t perfect and it gets a bit sappy and even silly at times, but it managed to keep me coming back week after week for the new episodes. And you don’t even have to wait now that they’ve all dropped. The best news is that the story is complete unto itself; so no waiting for a conclusion either.

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The Irregulars

[3 stars]

I wanted to like this a lot more than I actually did. In no small part that was due to Thaddea Graham’s (Letter for the King) solid performance and presence. She’s at the center of this dark reinterpretation of Holmes that is dominated by its younger cast. Jojo Macari (Cursed), McKell David (iBoy), and Darci Shaw (Judy) work well together and with Graham to form the famous street gang who know or can find anything in London. And Harrison Osterfield (Catch-22) adds an interesting spin to their collective.

But the adults don’t fare as well. One of the main detractions was the choice of Royce Pierreson (Line of Duty) as John Watson. Pierreson just never felt comfortable in the role, the choices, nor in control of the scenes. He was just too unlikeable and unbelievable, pulling me out of the story every time he spoke for 6 of the 8 episodes. (To be fair, I wasn’t particularly happy with aspects of his character’s journey as written either.) It’s as much the fault of the script as it is the directing, but it was an irritant in an otherwise entertaining collection of main characters. Henry Lloyd-Hughes’ (The Pale Horse) Sherlock and Eileen O’Higgins (Mary Queen of Scots) help, ultimately, balance out both Pierreson’s choices and the story’s.

Mind you, most of the adults have the same issue as Pierreson. For instance, the utterly vile Lestrade, played by Aidan McArdle, is pushed so far as to be questionable. Again, a story and directing choice, but it sets a consistent tone for the adults, none of whom seem trustworthy or pleasant, other than Clarke Peters (Harriet). But Peters is unique in the series.

In the end, this latest Holmes remake isn’t going to top the lists of those already out there…even the Guy Ritchie features are better rounded (if so not Holmes)…but it is a fun ride of a show with a lot of potential to come. This set-up season has a lot of promise and some solid new talent to help it grow. Give it some time and see if it doesn’t pull you in as well.

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Invisible City (Cidade Invisível)

[3 stars]

Ready for a  bit of Portuguese dark fantasy? Then you’re in luck. Invisible City plays with a lot of South American myths, constructing a series of origin stories and tying them up with an old mystery.

It isn’t brilliantly acted, or written for that matter, but it is engaging as it unfolds over its 7 episodes. How each of these creatures came to be is very much in line with the darker view of the world that persisted for millennia before Disney and their ilk sanitized these kinds of tales. Myths and legends grew out of the understanding that the world is a harsh place and that powerful beings aren’t always devoid of their own issues.

The show itself is a unique kind of police procedural driven by the Environmental Police Department in Rio de Janeiro. Rio has been getting a lot more focus over the last decade. This is one of the first that plays more in the suburbs than the favelas or rich areas. Which isn’t to say that class and money don’t come into play. They do. But while aspects of that drive the story, it is primarily about the people and creatures and their relationship to the world around them. Though, as you can surmise from the title, there is a lot of subtext to it all.

Fortunately, it has been renewed, so you aren’t going to be left totally hanging at the end of this first season. While there is a resolution to the overall story, it definitely ends on a cliffhanger that will carry it forward. But it is all within the framework of the tale, and so it feels fair, if frustrating.

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The Head

[3 stars}

Once you get past some of the odd science choices and setting (like  people standing around with exposed skin as if that wouldn’t cause frostbite, or that some are so unstable as to be dangerous, or that they’re not dual abilities to protect against injury and sickness…)…. OK, well, it’s a lot to get past, but you can because this series is unabashedly a riff on The Thing. Not even the original, but very specifically the Carpenter remake. And once you accept that, well, the sense of it all works fine. Which is to say this is all about the suspense and misdirect; it’s a series where you just have to go with the flow.

John Lynch (Black Death), Alexandre Willaume (Equinox), and Katharine O’Donnelly (Mary Queen of Scots) share the lead; each has a very different quality. The tension between the three forms an interesting sensibility and changing landscape as it goes along. Lynch is a little too extreme in his portrayal for my money, but that is his trademark.

The rest of the cast each bring different stories, issues, and red herrings to the plot. Among them Tomohisa YamashitaLaura Bach, and Amelia Hoy (Black Earth Rising) add the most, though Álvaro Morte (Money Heist) has his moments. I’ve gone out of my way to list some of them so you get a sense of just how international the cast is. That has it’s plusses and minuses as well, since the primary language is English, but it definitely makes for a different feeling series.

Directed by Jorge Dorado (The Ministry of Time), and developed and written by David and Àlex Pastor (Self/less) among others, you can get a sense of what you’re in for. Honestly, it’s some fun distraction and not a whole lot more. But that’s enough many times and, certainly, the mystery is kept alive and changing throughout the series. It’s biggest flaw for me is that it’s an episode too long…which allowed me to get well ahead of almost everything. But even so, The Head had me binging a couple or more a night to see what would happen next.

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American Gods (series 3)

[3.5 stars]

I hadn’t written up this show during its initial seasons as, honestly, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It was pretty. It was shocking (at times). It was inventive. But even having read the books, I couldn’t quite figure out what the heck the story was.

With the third season, things are starting to come together. In fact, this is more the story I expected back in the first season. Many of the important moments pick up on threads that had gone widely divergent from the source material in the first season. In many ways, the season feels like a reset after a long digression.

Ricky Whittle (Hollyoaks) reclaims a good deal of the center of the show, supported primarily by Ian McShane (John Wick 3: Parabellum) and Emily Browning (Golden Exits) in the primary threads. But Yetide Badaki, Bruce Langley, and Omid Abtahi (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) each have essential and powerful sub-plots weaving together the bigger landscape and ultimate denouement.

Though the show clearly kept me coming back, despite any lack of focused plot, is a testament to the cast and the overall power of the storytelling. And this latest offering to the masses from the Gods is their best season yet, even if it (admittedly) is standing on the shoulders of the Gods that came before. I left this season feeling sated and still ready and hungry for what comes next rather than just annoyed and scratching my head as to where the heck they would take it.

UPDATED 29 March: So, of course, the show is cancelled, though there is some hope there will be a wrap-up movie a la Sense8.

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Hillbilly Elegy

[3 stars]

How long are you willing to wait to see hope in a film? Hillbilly Elegy certainly pushes boundaries. While there is undeniably hope hinted at from the beginning, Ron Howard’s (Beatles: Eight Days a Week) latest tale of growing up is a long slog to the final moments of (qualified) triumph. Given that this is based on Vance’s memoir, I don’t know whether to be impressed with Howard’s guts to lay it out in relative order to heighten the result, or lambast him for the dark road travelled to get there.

To be honest, despite the truly great performances by Glenn Close (The Wife), Amy Adams (Vice), and the older/younger versions of Vance in Gabriel Basso (The Kings of Summer) and Owen Asztalos (The Flight Attendant), I just can’t recommend this experience. It was frustrating, dark, sad, angering. It is an unflinching look at poverty, abuse, and addiction, as well as the generational impact of those challenges. Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) adapted Vance’s book with harsh honesty, allowing characters to be much less than perfect but not without humanity and love. But I watched the entire film with clenched jaw and angry at the situation and, just as often, the characters.

If you can handle that kind of tension or, now knowing that there is a end point that isn’t utterly tragic, and you want to see some amazing transformations and performances, give this a shot. But go in feeling strong and strap in to have that mood challenged. In other words, I am struggling to recommend this film not because it isn’t done well, but because it is. You have to ask yourself if you’re ready for that.

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A Discovery of Witches (series 2)

[3 stars]

There is a story in here…somewhere between the melodrama and hand-wavy, pointlessly designed magic. It was in the books, but the translation to screen has been frustrating and very much in the soap opera vein. Frankly, the first season was a bit more interesting because there was so much world to explain. But, now that the foundation has been laid, I expected a lot more information than I got this round. Certainly a lot more about how magic works and about the creature histories since that is the focus of the second season’s uber-arc.

Instead, we get serial drama and romantic drivel… which can work if it is part of something bigger, but this season had about half the suspense and tension that the first did. Not what you expect in the middle acts of a trilogy. Most of the issue, outside of the scripts, is that Teresa Palmer (2:22) just doesn’t have the presence to own the show. There is something missing for me. And Matthew Goode (Ordeal by Innocence) keeps substituting intense glower for acting. Both of these characters are massively layered and full of potential, but somehow it all feels silly and without much real power under it all.

There are some nice expansions of character in this season for Edward Bluemel (Killing Eve), but most of the rest have small additions to what we know or expect.

With only one season left (if they cleave to the books), I’m going to hang out to see if they can pay it all off. Also, because they left this series on a collection of annoying cliff-hangers and I at least want to see how they wriggle out of them or not. As a magical, light romance in the vein of Outlander, this will appeal to many. I’m on the fence, but not yet running away, but I do hope there is more meat on the bones for their finale.

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Pacific Rim: The Black

[3 stars]

Netflix continues its push into adult anime. Like Voltron, Castlevania and Blood of Zeus, this latest was provided a short initial season to see if it would stick. I have to say, I’m hoping it will. While clearly aimed at tweens, the story is decidedly dark and more mature…even more so than Voltron was. Admittedly, it still adopts some of the typical anime riffs and doesn’t hide its biggest secrets very well from the audience. But it does pack a lot into it’s first seven episodes.

Now, neither Pacific Rim nor its sequel were particularly great movies. Fun, but not great. This animation spin-off tries to correct for some of their lacks by injecting more story into the Kaiju action. But the result, despite some of the echoes, is no Exosquad. Part of the challenge is the made up science and backstory…which never really made much sense. And it still doesn’t. But in animation it feels a bit more acceptable than it did in live action.

The art and voice talent are all solid. No standouts, and no big names, but everyone delivers on all sides of the production. It certainly isn’t a big commit at 22 min/episode if you want to try it out. I definitely found myself enjoying it and the darker depth of the plot.

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Coming to America (1 & 2)

[3 stars]

As I got ready to watch Coming 2 America, I realized that I’d never seen the original. It was a timing thing when it came out…but I have no answer as to the 33 intervening years. So, I made this one a double feature over two nights…and I was glad I did.

First, yes, they’re entertaining. A bit pushed on the comedy at times for my taste, but always only briefly so I don’t have to give up on the story. Second, they’re really a single movie. The first stands on its own and makes its own points. The sequel tries to stand on its own, but it references so much of the original that it frankly can’t. At least not if you want to get the whole point.

Eddie Murphy (A Thousand Words) and Arsenio Hall reteam seamlessly, as do a number of the original cast. And getting Wesley Snipes (The Recall) was a solid choice for them to bump up against.

And then there was the new generation. Jermaine Fowler (Sorry to Bother You) was a perfect choice for Murphy’s son. His command of comedy and drama, and the ability to flip back and forth between them sells the part, regardless of how silly and forced some of the situations become. Likewise, KiKi Layne (The Old Guard) as his daughter is a powerhouse of a person as well as an injured child.

I, honestly, could have done without some of the broader humor from Leslie Jones (Ghostbusters) and Tracy Morgan (The Boxtrolls), but that’s my taste. There are moments it works, but it just as often threw me out of the story, unlike the barbershop moments which acted as humorous asides.

If you liked the first movie, you’ll enjoy the second just as much. It is a nice evolution of the characters and respectful expansion of the sentiments and intents of the first. Oh, and yes it’s funny and romantic, just like the original. It’s even updated in its thinking in nice ways, and full of amusing cameos.

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WandaVision

[4 stars]

Yes, I avoided talking about this till it was complete. Why? Because it was so clearly going to be a complex arc that wouldn’t likely be fully realized till the end. I’m glad I waited…and enjoyed the ride.

Like many complex tales, there are two experiences: the initial watch and the rewatch/looking-back review. The one thing that is utterly clear is that this massively risky experiment wouldn’t have worked without the incredible acting chops of Elizabeth Olsen (Ingrid Goes West). Her ability to morph through the various styles required, and her depth of emotional landscape sold an otherwise near-experimental theatre presentation. And in support around her through it all were Kathryn Hahn (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and Paul Bettany (Uncle Frank) who balance and feed the confusion. It’s no Watchmen, but it is a heck of an out-there show.

And, yes, there are others, but most are surprises so I won’t enumerate. But Josh Stamberg (Pacific Rim: Uprising) is notable for a truly flawed performance. He was clearly directed by Matt Shakman to chew the furniture and he did so with relish, to the detriment of the series. Mind you, so does Hahn before it’s all over, which is a shame, but she has a wider ranging presentation. However, at least Teyonah Parris (If Beale Street Could Talk) manages to pull off a rather unexpected arc without crossing those lines.

The shape of this series is everything. It begins with a 30 minute format and expands, as the story structure allows, till we get to an hour-long finale. But the first three episodes are slightly self-indulgent setups. Entertaining as heck, but stretched out a bit too long. There is a purpose and a reason for it all (thankfully) but it goes on too long. Shakman should have reined it in a little more. Similarly, the penultimate episode gets old quickly as, by that time, it’s simply revealing information we mostly know but the characters have yet to admit/understand. It could have been done better.

But the finale, which manages in true Marvel/MCU fashion to pull all the threads together, is a nice pay-off. And I say that even though it also, in true MCU fashion, has lots of open threads hinted at in the two codas.

Overall, this is a heck of an achievement. Flawed, and slightly misdirected at times, but not something most of us expected. And it resolves some of the original complaints about Wanda’s Age of Ultron introduction and story. Of course, if you don’t know about Wanda and Vision, you’ll frankly miss 80% of the story. So if you somehow missed the movies, go back to Age of Ultron and watch from there (or at least watch the Legends series to learn enough about the background).

My biggest concern with the story is how well it will stand the test of time and rewatching. Once you know the secrets and rewatch it once, is there enough there? As a stand-alone series, I suspect not. It is built as a vehicle to launch several new paths in the MCU (at least two movies link up with the ending). It isn’t a stand-alone gem of a story, it is an episode in the charcters’ existence, a bridge to what comes next. Very comic book. But is that what we ultimately want to tune in for? Dark Tower had originally planned a movie and TV pathway, because of the scope of the story, all tying together as a whole. Then they panicked and gave us a single, awful movie. So, perhaps, WandaVision is a new type of show and I’m being a little unfair to its purpose. Time will tell when we see if Disney can pay it all off in the year or so to come. Certainly, I give them credit for the ballsy and expensive attempt. Let’s see what they can do with it…

UPDATED: So, remember that two ways to discuss the show? Well there may be even more now that Shakman is talking . Check out this Fatman Beyond episode (starting at about 35m) for huge amounts of insight and background. In addition, there is also a short interview with the creator of the show, Jac Schaeffer.