American Swing

[2.75 stars]

While focused on the infamous rise and fall of Plato’s Retreat, this docu is really about Larry Levenson, the man behind the bedsheet. Because of that, the historical and psychological aspects of the phenomenon end up ultimately getting sidebarred. The story is eventually overtaken by Levenson’s tale rather than truly examining the sex club’s impact on society in general and NYC in particular.

It’s unlikely you never heard of Plato’s if you’re over 30. But you may not know its history or even it’s reality, though the myths continue to circulate. What American Swing does is try to put a human face to it all. It isn’t entirely without judgement, but it tries to stay balanced within the framework it constructs. There are some interesting interviews, some by recognized names but also many just regular members. As a documentary, I’m not sure what story it has to tell. I get the impression that when Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman set out to expand on Hart’s article, they didn’t realize they had no more than a history report until part way through production. Than they shifted to a focus on Levenson to provide it an arc and some structure.

As a bit of history, American Swing is interesting. Not perfect and not particularly insightful, but it is a glimpse into a part of NYC’s past for those who were only vaguely aware of the club.

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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.

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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.

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Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks

[3.5 stars]

When we left off series 12, there was a major cliff hanger and change was very much in the air. And, I will admit, that my opinion of this current season has improved a little after rewatching it in prep for this holiday special, which also serves as the technical end to the 12th series.

I’m going to have to be brief here as almost any discussion is going to be full of spoilers…and I’ve some really intriguing ideas of where this all may be going. It isn’t the best of the specials, but it is definitely a bridge to what’s to come.

And, like so many of the specials, the show landed a special cast to help spice it up. Harriet Walter (herself) Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Soulmates) were fun additions. And the return of  Chris Noth reprising his series 11 character was initially concerning, but it ends up working in some fun and cheap ways. And, of course, John Barrowman finally making good on his earlier promise was a hoot. Honestly, he’s the best recurring character in the Who-verse. And, other than the Master, may be the most recurring.

But the real question is was it any good? The answer is mixed. This is neither a stand-alone nor a completely integrated episode. After taking another look at the rest of the season that leads to it, there is a certain amount of completion and resetting for the Doctor. Not all aspects of the story are dealt with in depth, or even believably in some ways, but she has to come to terms with all the new information and her own sense of self. And, frankly, there was a lot to take in. Time became meaningless and her isolation/imprisonment became a gift for her. But it is all solved pretty easily and the main plot, the Daleks, is ultimately a Macguffin (and a bit of a mirror) without a lot of teeth, despite some nice battle effects.

Who, as a series, is still going through its transition with Chibnall pulling hard on the reins taking her to a new path. And Chibnall is still learning how to be a show-runner at this level. I can see a destination that would blow people’s minds, but I honestly don’t know what he has in mind. The show is definitely playing a long game. I do continue to be on board to see what it may be. Most importantly, Jodie Whittaker continues to be entertaining and able to add depth to a character that has been around for over 50 years. I can’t wait to see what the next series brings.

Doctor Who 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.

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Superintelligence

[3 stars]

Sometimes silly is just the ticket. This past year that’s probably a truer statement than most. And Superintelligence is just that: silly. Melissa McCarthy (The Kitchen) trots out all her best gags and reactions, along with a sousant of heart to keep this rocky comedy afloat. James Corden (The Prom) and Bobby Cannavale (Motherless Brooklyn) add some solid buoyancy as well to keep it entertaining and heart-warming.

Where the movie loses its steam is with its director and supporting cast member Ben Falcone (Life of the Party). He still doesn’t quite know when to give up a joke or how to ground broad comedy so that it feels like a story rather than a rim-shot fest. Other than Jean Smart (Watchmen), he has the rest of the supporting players, like Brian Tyree Henry (Child’s Play), Sam Richardson, and even himself doing pratfall comedy. That can work, but in this movie it simply pulls you out of the story at every turn. Which isn’t to say the rest of the movie isn’t broad comedy, it is. But there is an underlying sense of reality that Steve Mallory (The Boss) put into the script that lets you go along for the ride.

But, as I said, sometimes silly is just the ticket for a situation. And silly this is, as well as romantic. It is also almost utterly forgettable as soon as it’s over, but that’s OK too if all you need is some amusing distraction. Cook up some popcorn and settle in for a couple hours of escape when you need it.

Superintelligence Poster

The Flight Attendant

[3 stars]

Watching trainwrecks is not something that typically entertains me. Self-destruction is neither funny nor darkly fascinating. So I went into Flight Attendant with a huge deal of caution and concern because Kaley Cuoco’s (Authors Anonymous) flight attendant is the embodiment of self-destruction. So why did I stick with it? Because it’s apparent that there are reasons for her actions (which we slowly get to learn) and because the show sets up a series of nice mysteries and suspense to carry you along. In other words the self-destruction is a symptom of a bigger, human story, not the focus of humor, derision, or weird life lesson in and of itself.

Cuoco is also surrounded by some fabulous talent who keep the series going. Michael Huisman (The Age of Adaline), Zosia Mamet (Girls), Michelle Gomez (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Doctor Who), T.R. Knight (Grey’s Anatomy), Rosie Perez (Birds of Prey), and Merle Dandridge (Greenleaf) are chief among them, though there are many more over the 9 episodes.

This series could have been an episode or two shorter and been the better for it, in my opinion. The ongoing trainwreck of Cuoco’s character gets repetitive and loses sympathy as it continues on past bottom. And, frankly, some of the surprises just… aren’t. But the ride is highly bingeable, and the interactions and humanity of it all are surprising. But you do have to strap yourself in for a crazy ride full of mystery, sex, violence, and a mountain of bad choices. And, ultimately, it’s set up nicely for a new season with entirely different parameters.

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Books of Blood (2020)

[3.25 stars]

Horror is a tricky beast. Most horror focuses on those things that terrified us as children, the stuff that goes bump in the night, the eyes in the dark, that kind of stuff. Most writers create their stories with that kind of scare in mind; Stephen King being the top of the bunch there. But Clive Barker always focused on the adolescent and adult kinds of horror. Not just the fear, but also the sense of betrayal or loneliness or failure or even the pain of just being in the world, and manifestations of those and similar fears. This is part of what set his stories apart, like Imajica or, in this case, his woven collection of tales in Books of Blood.

This incarnation of the book (there was an earlier, less effective, movie) is wonderfully creepy and deeply disturbing, even if some of it feels familiar. And the three storylines are knit together in some very clever ways.

The movie is driven primarily by Britt Robinson (A Dog’s Purpose) and Anna Friel (The Look of Love), who each anchor different storylines. Their controlled performances add to the creep factor and the humanity. There are several other roles, but it’s Freda Foh Shen (Ad Astra) and Nicholas Campbell (Coroner) in Robinson’s tale and Rafi Gavron (Catch-22) in Friel who stand out…each for different reasons.

I have to admit I was surprised the movie was directed and co-written by  Brannon Braga (The Orville), who doesn’t typically delve into that level of darkness. Finding a horror movie in this vein isn’t easy. It isn’t devoid of the scares or guts or terror, but it is filled with a level of believability and sick fascination that makes for truly great horror. Even, in this case, a horror that is worth seeing more than once. If you like the genre and want to see something a bit different and definitely on its game, make time for it.

Books of Blood 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

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