Snowpiercer (the series)

[3 stars]

This is a series, thanks to all its delays, who’s timing should have been perfect. It’s all about inequality, authoritarianism, prejudice, and governance based on lies. But the show didn’t quite have the courage it needed to really attack all that. It kept getting blunted by a slightly soapy mentality. Which isn’t to say that relationships aren’t a necessary underpinning of good drama, but the balance wasn’t quite right.

But let’s wind this back just a little before diving in. The source movie of this series was dark, funny, fascinating, and complete. There wasn’t a reason to have to go back. More, it isn’t a world you want to spend a lot of time in. Not only is it restricted in scope, the fantastical aspects are outlandish…fine for a single movie, harder to support in an ongoing tale. And, as this is a prequel (only 7 years into the ride), we already know what happens or the extent of what can happen in many ways.

Fortunately, Daveed Diggs (Velvet Buzzsaw) and Jennifer Connelly (Alita: Battle Angel) are solid actors, and they are supported by many other good performances. Connelly, in particular, is a study in control and nuance. She navigates the complex position she bears at the helm with amazing grace and poignancy. Diggs has layers, but, frankly, they’re nothing we haven’t seen before by him or similar characters. It’s thanks to these two that the show has any real legs at all. However, that doesn’t overcome the base challenge.

I struggled to watch through to the end to see if they could find a rhythm and momentum. It didn’t even get intriguing until the fourth episode, when they smartly decided not to draw out the initial mystery, only to reveal another. But the pacing and motivations and decisions were often all a muddle, though it picks up pace as it goes along, with the final three episodes being an almost continuous run. In addition, their bible is sloppy on some things; for instance, distance is fungible based on their needs. Either the train is 5 mi long or it isn’t. That  is a lot of distance to cover and can add to plot tension, but they seem to be able to do it in a couple minutes of walking when the plot demands.

There is a lot of potential buried in Snowpiercer. More, I will admit, than I thought they’d be able to find. But I’m not sure it hit its moment nor will be able to catch it on the back-end of their return. And, honestly, I was rather frustrated with their huge cliffhanger of an obvious ending. But, perhaps, the happenings of the last six months will more completely inform the storyline going into series 2 coming next year.

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Palm Springs

[4 stars]

Such wonderful, sweet, evil fun.

Neither Andy Samberg (Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance) nor Cristin Milioti (Modern Love) are strangers to comedy or satire. The two navigate the absurd landscape of life in Palm Springs in hysterically believable ways. And, with the help of a smaller role by J.K. Simmons (21 Bridges), you can easily commit to cheering, jeering, or sympathizing with their various predicaments.

First time feature director Max Barbakow did a wonderful job dancing along the edge of absurdity to deliver a romantic tale of finding yourself and finding another. Certainly, a lot of credit has to go to Andy Siara’s script as well, which expands on the themes of his other efforts in Lodge 49, though in much more satisfying way. And his opening scenes are a beautiful study in introducing a well-known trope in a new way.

Palm Springs had been heading to be a big splash indie release…in the before times. And I’ve no doubt it would have found its audience and done reasonably well. But the pandemic had it go straight to stream where, frankly, it lives comfortably and doesn’t feel diminished. This isn’t a big effects film, it is, for all its far reaching commentary, a small and intimate romance that will have you smiling and laughing through to the end, and into the credits.

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Perfect Blue (Pâfekuto burû)

[3 stars]

OK, I know this is considered a classic, and I’m ashamed for not having seen it sooner. I’m even more disappointed because it is also so dated now that it diminished the experience. While it captured the early-mid 90s relatively well, particularly riffing on police procedurals of the time, other aspects now clash. For instance, the long explanations of how the internet works were probably necessary at the time fora portion of the audience, but ring hollow and annoying in 2020. That isn’t the fault of the movie, but certainly had impact.

What sets Perfect Blue apart from much of anime is the story. I think there are better reality-based anime out there, most by this same director, Satoshi Kon, who wrote and directed some of them: Millenium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paprika. But this was his first attempt. And none of what followed quite dives into the darkness of the human psyche quite like this first movie does. Of course, sometime Kon collaborator Sadayuki Murai (Knights of Sidonia) adapted this story, not Kon himself. But it clearly opened a path for movies that followed.

That sets it in context, but is it really a good movie? Yes and no. It’s a challenge to watch at times, particularly for the first third. But as it comes together and it reveals itself, it becomes intriguing and then fascinating. The freedom of animation allowed Kon and Murai to explore the mental disconnection of a person in distress and make it as real for us as it is for them. It isn’t a perfect end result, but it is impressive as it whips through the final third of the story. As part of your anime education, this does have to be seen, but know it is fraying a bit around the edges thanks to time.

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29th & Gay

[2.5 stars]

This is seriously lo-fi; horrible sound, cheap film, found spaces. But it is also surprisingly sweet and amusing. But that’s what vanity projects can be like…well, to be fair, less vanity and more an actor creating work for himself. James Vasquez (Ready? OK!) wrote and starred in this highly personal and, I suspect, highly autobiographical tale of finally growing up and finding your way in the world. He was lucky enough to have Carrie Preston (who also had a part in Vasquez’s follow-up effort Ready? OK!) take the reins and direct this first feature of his.

In fact Vasquez managed to get several folks to return for that second film after lending talents to this one, including Michael Emerson (Evil), Kali Rocha (TiMER), and others. But the focus of this story is on Vasquez and his semi-obsession with Mike Doyle (Gayby), who is probably the most stable and subtle of the characters in the story.

However, this first effort of his is really raw, though inventively told. It feels like a super-sized thesis film…but it works. Just go with flow and enjoy the truths and humor. I can’t tell you why it works, other than the commitment of the actors and the recognizable human flaws, but it does. And it was interesting to see where he started…even if he seems to have stalled out since then.

A series of series…

What is the collective noun for a bunch of series? A fiction? A stream? A numbing? A time-suck? A profit? There must be one. In any event, there has been a number of series I’ve plowed through, but haven’t felt they needed a separate write-up, so I’ve collected them here. It is a broad range of subjects and providers in no particular order.

Warrior Nun – An imperfect, but engaging fantasy series that got me to check it out through its title alone. But, as it turns out, they hit the jackpot with some of their casting (though not all). Alba Baptista drives the series, coming across, in a positive way, as a young Ellen Page and very credible American. She’s joined by a few solid, and relatively unknown, supporting actors like Kristina Tonteri-Young, Toya Turner, and Olivia Delcán. The plotting is often weak or ill-researched, but the effects and some of the battles are pretty well executed. And the dialogue is often amusing. I’m actually looking forward to seeing what comes next…even if I curse them for a massive and cheap cliff-hanger ending to the season.

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Perry Mason – overlaps heavily (and unfavorably) with City of Angels. It covers the same period of time and with similar nods, but it simply doesn’t manage to capture the era in the same scope. Oh, and yeah, it is only Perry Mason in title… this show just didn’t know what it wanted or needed to be. Couldn’t stick with it despite the cast and my love of murder mysteries.

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Crossing Swords – South Park meets Lego. Almost enough said, but I was surprised to see the silly antics and crazy storylines actually form a seasonal arc. For all the insanity, there is a purpose…well, OK, at least a shape. I couldn’t really binge this show, but it was a fun distraction to fill in 22 minutes when needed. And the voice talent is pretty surprising.

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Love, Victor – There are a number of solid moments and concepts in this series that make it a sweet and clever spin-off of Love, Simon. But, honestly, it doesn’t earn its stripes, but I’ll get to that. If you haven’t heard of this story, it explores the struggles of Michael Cinimo in the title role coming to terms with himself, similar to Simon in the source material, but with more challenges. Rachel Hilson (This is Us), George Sear (Alex Rider), and the somewhat over-the-top Anthony Turpel (The Bold and the Beautiful) fill out Cimino’s inner circle and focus.

To its credit, the show isn’t quite all rainbows and butterflies…Cinimo’s family is a bit screwed up and the world isn’t a perfect place. It’s simplified, to be sure, but it keeps it from being ridiculous. It also provides it some grist to grind on for the series length with multiple layers on the subject of relationships and love. And the easier resolutions provide hope to their target audience.

However, I do have one, not so little, issue with the story. Our hero Victor, while really capturing the confusing nature of growing up, is depicted as falling for Hilson’s character by getting to know her while really only lusting for Sear’s Benji without much sense of who he is. Realistic? To a degree, but it cheapens the inner struggle and diminishes the message that both attractions are real and equal. And it also costs them any credibility in the season one, inevitable, finale. Which was truly a shame as it could have really had a solid season with a little more effort on the writer’s part.

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Killing Eve (1-3) – I never wrote up this series as, frankly, it was getting more than enough press. My thoughts were completely unnecessary. However, having recently completed the third series, I was struck by how the plot has evolved each year. I was impressed with the evolutions of Fiona Shaw (Mrs. Wilson) and the addition  of Harriet Walter (Black Earth Rising) in particular. Not that the rest aren’t great and fun, Ken Bodnia (The Bridge) has some particularly wonderful moments, but I’m doing this as a drive by. The third outing is definitely a shift in presentation and tone, but I still find the story pulls me in and the disintegration and remaking of Sandra Oh’s (Last Night) Eve and Jodie Comer’s (Doctor Foster) Villanelle fascinating. I’m very curious to see what comes next and if they can sustain it; but I’m also hopeful that they’ll wrap it up soon and let it enjoy a completion. It can only be milked for so long without completely devolving or getting boring.

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Upstart Crow – Such great, silly, and very clever fun. In fact, the series only improved as it went along. From one of the minds that helped birth Black Adder, comes this great social satire through the lens of Shakespeare’s life. With a solid cast and tight writing (and wonderful nods to the canon itself) this is one of the better half-hour concept comedies I’ve seen…if nothing else for the impressive scripts.

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Cardinal (series 4) – This could well be the end of the series, though they’ve left a nice trapdoor to keep it going. Previous series were good and interesting, but not brilliant. With this fourth outing, the writing has suddenly gelled even as they wrap up some long arcs that began with the first episode. This is, by far, the best written and delivered tale so far. I’m hoping they get to continue with the stories and these characters, but I wouldn’t feel left hanging if this was the end.

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Before We Die – Another Scandinavian police procedural, yes, but definitely with its own unique set of characters and the dark malaise that hangs over all that genre. It starts with a strong statement and quickly knots up the characters into an intriguing tangle that unspools through the series.

 

Trolls World Tour

[3 stars]

Some silly escapist fun, with enough music and movie references to keep the adults mildly entertained. After an opening that rivals Moulin Rouge’s frenetic introduction, this settles back into a treacly distraction with a timely, if overly hammered, message. To its credit, it mostly manages to do so while also making fun of itself.

The story itself is a little more complex than the first installment. It also has a wider range of music, thanks to some serious retconning. And, of course, it picks up the fuzzy tension between Anna Kendrick (A Simple Favor) and Justin Timberlake’s (Wonder Wheel) characters. They’re joined by a host of recognizable singers and actors that fill out the story, most of which are best left to surprise you. Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), however, leads that crowd and drives the new story. She’s amusing, but lacks the nuance to completely sell the transformation necessary.

I can’t say that either the story or the music were entirely engaging. The songs were all too short or medleys with small snippets of tunes that end up more of a tease than satisfying. But the animation was inventive and expanded the original design from the first movie.

All that aside, yeah, kids will love it and adults won’t feel twitchy every time their small charges turn it on. At least not quite as quickly as other children’s movies with longer musical sequences. For households without kids, it’s a very weak recommend.

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The Old Guard

[3.5 stars]

Oh, hell yeah. I know it’s a riff on Highlander, but it’s great to see a story that at least tries to think about implications and does it with a solid cast and director. Gina Prince-Bythewood (Secret Life of Bees, Love and Basketball) took Greg Rucka’s (Stumptown, Whiteout) adaptation of his own graphic novel and gave us a solid (potential) franchise launch. It also is a strong example of what a good “comic book” movie can be.

With Charlize Theron (Bombshell) in the star-power lead, we are introduced to a motley group of warriors and their stories. Matthias Schoenaerts(The Mustang), Marwan Kenzari (Aladdin), and Luca Marinelli (Trust) are the rest of her long-standing cadre. But the main focus is on KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk), the newcomer. Even with the solid ensemble work, it’s through Layne that we learn, as she does, about the Old Guard, their place in the world, and their perspective. Throw Chiwetel Ejiofor (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) into the mix and you’ve a powerhouse cast. Frankly, the only sour note in the movie is Harry Melling (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) who tries to give us a big bad to hate yet understand, but ends up picking furniture out of his teeth.

Still, the balance of amazing fights and discussion, as well as a wicked sense of humor, keep you engaged and wanting more. This has amazing potential to spin out stories, if the writing is maintained. Even with the obvious branch to the ending/beginning (as this is a sort of origin story) I exited the credits wanting to see the next tale to come. Netflix definitely made a great choice grabbing this one. And much like Extraction (and unlike 6 Underground), they’ve got bones to build on, if they can keep their casts and do it with a care to keeping the quality up.

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Ophelia

[3.5 stars]

Retellings of well-established tales have been all the rage for the last decade or two in books and film. And it’s about time, with the current climate, that someone gave Ophelia her due… especially as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern already had the opportunity decades ago (more than once). This movie is actually a double adaptation… first as a book, and then into this screen version by first-timer Semi Chellas; but it retains its deep roots to Shakespeare.

The movie is decidedly female-driven, with Daisy Ridley (Murder on the Orient Express, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker) in the title role. She brings a steeley mind and brave innocence to the part as she slips in and around the play as we know it. And Naomi Watts (The Impossible) gives life and layers to Queen Gertrude that I’ve never seen. She is far from the purely manipulating and unfaithful woman that Shakespeare suggested, though she is also aware and culpable. And Clive Owen (Gemini Man) gives them both a solid foil to beat against.

With this new perspective on the story, Hamlet himself, George MacKay (1917), is practically a cipher, though MacKay imbues him with some significant drive and levels with his brief appearances. Brief moments from the original play provide us milestones of where we are in the tale and set context for Ophelia’s perspective. Some jibe with what we think we know and others are informed by the skewed narrative. The relatively unknown Devon Terrell, as Horatio…always the naive explainer of all things Hamlet…adds some nice depth to the story and bridges the action for Ophelia. One nice surprise is Sebastian De Souza (The Great) in a loathsome role which he pulls off smoothly.

Admittedly, there aren’t a lot of surprises as the alternative perspectives unfold. The foreshadowing and clues are not very subtle. But, then again, there aren’t many surprises in Hamlet anymore either, it’s so well known. Ultimately it’s rather satisfying how it all comes together without having to change the original tale. However, watching this female driven story where the women control their own destinies, but not the world around them, is an interesting experience. It keeps the integrity of Hamlet as we know it, but finally provides a full sense of personhood about the women, who have always been so key to Hamlet’s tale.

Ophelia Poster

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains

[3 stars]

I don’t know whether to be impressed or disturbed that this movie still works after almost 40 years. Its points still hold and its humor is still on point. Not bad for Lou Adler’s (Up in Smoke) only second directing gig. And it has some fairly good music performances in it as well.

But, message and amusement aside, it is the cast that wows you. Not because they deliver such great performances…they’re reasonable. But the main cast are young stars that were all near the beginning of their careers. Diane Lane (Serenity) is the front person for the Stains; a young woman with an axe to grind and a desire to succeed. She’s joined by Laura Dern (Marriage Story) and one of Marin Kanter’s few performances. And then there are early appearances of Christine Lahti (Operator) and Ray Winstone (Point Break) as well.

This isn’t a great movie, but it is surprisingly effective for all its lo-fi, indie feel. It captures a small sense of the era, and takes some wicked swipes at the music industry. When you have time and want to spelunk the early 80s and the Punk/New Wave movement in a light way, it is a fun and entertaining view.

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Precarious

[3 stars]

Much like the recent surprise, The Vast of Night, this festival indie embraces its own strong point of view. In this case, though, the style is more magic realism than 50s scifi/horror homage. From the gorgeous opening credits through to the final visuals, it is a feast for the eyes. Your brain, admittedly, needs to take a bit of a holiday about the plot, but your eyes will be happy it did. The art direction and production quality are amazing as you glide through a twisted world of desperation and, for all intents, addiction in a sort of noir-esque tale of money and power. But it’s all kicked off, if not tied up with, a murder mystery that launches the story.

Like Blue Velvet, or the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, or just about any Jodorowsky, the story quickly slips sideways into a world of its own rules and language. We learn about it as the main characters do…or as they admit they do in any case. It isn’t a rushed journey. Some of the languid pace works for its purpose, though it would have been better for some tightening of shots, edits, and scenes.

But, if nothing else, watch at least the opening credits should you get the chance. If those don’t suck you in, then this flick isn’t for you.

In the end, the story doesn’t quite come together and make sense. This type of fantasy rarely does. However, in this case the logic, fully expanded, implies an undesired outcome, though the movie tries to suggest otherwise. But getting there is really quite a journey of practical effects and visual joy that just kept surprising me.

Check it out for some names you may be seeing again, especially Louise Franco as the art director. I’d also be curious to see what Weston Terray will come up with next to direct; he squeezed a lot out of this story and created a consistent and semi-magical mood out of a tough script (of his own devising). I’d love to see what he could do with a more solid tale and a more vicious editor. Ben Eshbach’s score was also a wonderful compliment to the mood and intent. And if you want a bit more on how it all came together, check out this discussion with Terray at FlimInk.

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