The Great Upload on Avenue 5

Here are a few more streamers. Two worth your time and one that is entirely up to your sense of humor. Then again, I suppose they all depend on your sense of humor, but let’s just say I found the first two to have more of an easy entry and wider appeal, but that may just be me…

The Great (Hulu)
If The Favourite had spawned a series, in style and concept, this would have been the result. I know it is actually based on different IP (a play) but you can’t help but see the parallels, especially with Nicholas Hoult (The Current War) in one of the leads.

But this is really Elle Fanning’s (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) moment, her chance to take the reins and reign as an adult. Watching her navigate her world, and the absurd situations, is a riot and, at times, terrifying. Helping her along in her conspiracy to bring sanity to Russia are Sacha Dhawan (Doctor Who) and Pheobe Fox (Eye in the Sky). And Belinda Bromilow (Doctor, Doctor) and Sebastian De Souza (Medici) add a wonderful counterpoint and humor to it all. Even Charity Wakefield (Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio) and Adam Godley (Umbrella Academy) add a sort of caustic and clever nastiness. Honestly, there are too many good performances to call them all out. If you’re up for some (sort of) period comedy, this one is worth the effort.

The Great

Upload (Prime)
A little bit science fiction, a little bit rock-n-roll… ok, more a little bit Sleeper with a huge dash of Her, though both with backflipping twists on the approach. Robbie Amell (ARQ) and Andy Allo (Pitch Perfect 3) drive this show wonderfully. Allo, in particular, skips through emotional changes like a quick-change artist. Creator Greg Daniels brought his Parks and Rec comedy chops, but with a bit more restraint, to sell this entertaining satire that also comes with a nice mystery embedded. The first series is a solid start, but while it gets to a pause-point, it definitely ends on some serious cliffhangers. Fortunately, it is already renewed, so you won’t be left hanging forever.

Upload

Avenue 5 (HBO)
Yeah, I’m sorry, I just don’t get the appeal of this one. And it’s not because Hugh Laurie (The Night Manager) isn’t great fun. Nor is it that Lenora Crichlow (Collision) doesn’t manage to balance out the craziness. It’s that the writing and, particularly, Josh Gad (Little Monsters) just don’t know how to set limits that keep it all fun.

What could have been the black humor counterpart to Aniara, turns into a broad comedy mess without much to say for itself.

Avenue 5

RocknRolla

[?? stars]

It’s all a question of style. This 2008 Guy Ritchie (Aladdin) comedy-heist film is pure Ritchie. His natural voice and approach have a clear signature. It is a dark sort of comedy, with a lot of quick cuts, dry delivery, and violent action. And, for whatever reason, and despite its relative success and following, I just could not make it through this one at this time. Perhaps it’s the pandemic, perhaps my tastes have shifted, but people being that awful to each other for no other reason than greed, and no character having truly redeemable qualities, just isn’t an escape for me right now…it’s a horror show.

I realize this probably says more about me than the movie. And normally I wouldn’t even have written this up because I don’t believe this is a fair reflection on the effort…but that’s why I also didn’t actually rate it. If I were being paid for this effort, I’d have forced myself through and found a way to be unbiased, but since this is purely a labor of love, the hell with it. Life is to stressful and short right now to waste time on something that isn’t engaging me in any kind of positive way (which isn’t to say it has to be a positive movie…I love dark comedy).

So, with apologies to the most excellent cast and even to Ritchie, I’m passing on this one. I wish I’d seen it long ago when my mood may have allowed me to enjoy it, the way I have many of his earlier films. Maybe someday I’ll come back to this and be willing to take the ride. But not today.

RockNRolla

The Half of It

[4 stars]

It isn’t perfect, and it’s certainly predictable in many ways, but The Half of It is also down-to-earth and earnest in the best possible sense. And I say this even with the framework of Cyrano with echos of Love, Simon and Hedvig and the Angry Inch paving the way. Director/writer Alice Wu (Saving Face) really came through in her Sophomore outing. She navigates the sea of high school awakening and romance with confidence, honesty, and a good dash of fantasy to allow for dramatic moments. But she never loses credibility, despite the well trod ground.

Much of the success here goes to the three leads. Leah Lewis (Nancy Drew) as our Cyrano is heartbreakingly lost in her world, trying to balance life and family. Daniel Diemer, is surprisingly effective as a “inarticulate jock” with hidden capacities. And Alexxis Lemire, as the object of affection, walks an interesting line without stumbling. With Wu’s guidance, each of them manages to remain both aware and innocent, intelligent, but naive. In other words, very much of their age rather than adults playing at being teenagers.

This is where the movie sets itself apart from another similar outing in 10 Things I Hate About You. 10 Things, while practically a classic, leans into its classical underpinnings and loses the pretense of reality. The Half of It leans more into life, and embraces the joy and the suck (at least to a degree) that is being a teenager in love.

There is also one wonderful bit part worth mentioning, as it is a real standout. Becky Ann Baker (Girls), as Lewis’s teacher, has a few fabulous moments that also serve to expose the town at large with a few brushstrokes.

Make time for this one, if you haven’t already. It will put a smile on your face without rotting your teeth. And the story, humor, and moments are certainly worth revisiting again down the road.

The Half of It

The Story of Plastic

[3 stars]

I have to admit, as versed as I am in much of the environmental movement, I learned some things from this docu. None of them will help me sleep better at night either.

Activist director Deia Schlosberg is passionate about her subject and cause. By taking us into the root business drivers for the plastic industry, she provides both context and a disheartening sense of reality. All the things we thought we knew, all the things we thought we are doing and could do, are wrong and lies.

It would be easy to come to the end of this nearly two hours despondent and without direction, but that isn’t Schlosberg’s intent. The experience ends on a call to action and links and organizations to get involved with or donate to. While I could certainly argue the movie is a bit longer than it needs to be, often repeating itself or lingering on shots, it certainly enlightened me on aspects of politics and misrepresentations that had evaded me (and I’m a cynic to start with).

It may not be the best documentary you’ll see, but its information and message are both critical and essential and it may even shift your view and choices. I know I can’t even look at my garbage and buying habits the same way anymore.

Some Girl(s)

[2.5 stars]

What starts as a semi-amusing, if navel-gazing, journey of discovery for Adam Brody (Damsels in Distress), quickly becomes something darker for the audience observing the discussion duets. Each vignette exposes another layer of Brody’s truth. I had expected something a little lighter and funnier, but this is not that film. The fact that Brody’s character doesn’t even have a name, unlike the women, tells you a bit about the focus and judgement of Neil LaBute’s (Some Velvet Morning) script that brings LaBute’s own play to screen.

Brody’s supporting cast is, frankly, more of what had me load up the film. They are quite the range of talent and styles: Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick), Jennifer Morrison (Bombshell), Emily Watson (The Happy Prince), Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars), and Mía Maestro. Each encounter exposes an aspect of Brody, and each section is intended to have the viewer self-examine their own lives, at least just a little.

Daisy von Scherler Mayer’s direction was adequate. She adapted to each story and character well enough, but she never quite made the uncomfortable moments feel natural and real. There was still a sense of it being forced and heightened as if it was a filmed play rather than a movie. Some of that has to fall to LaBute’s script, but it was Mayer’s job to smooth that over.

As a sort of curious mystery and exposé of a particular kind of young male life, the movie has some value. But it doesn’t really come together so much as take us through part of an endless journey. Whether you want to take that journey will have to be up to you. None of the performances are exceptional, and the message is a little dark if you are hoping for light distraction.

Some Girl(s)

First Love (Hatsukoi)

[3 stars]

Ah, the bloom of young love. Takashi Miike (Blade of the Immortal) is one of the few directors who could take a sweet romance as the spine of a black comedy drenched in blood and make it work. And he took Masa Nakamura’s (The Bird People in China) script and did it in style, giving us real characters and drive amid the battles between Yakuza, Triad, and various other elements.

Masataka Kubota is caught up in the center of the storm that Shôta Sometani starts in motion, and which kicks Becky into overdrive. The plot goes somewhat as you expect, if you expect a farce resolved in sword and gunplay rather than the slamming of doors and marriages. But Miike takes his time with the quieter moments as well, which makes this a bit more than you might expect, even if it is solidly between the lines of its genre.

If you like Miike, you’ll enjoy this romp. If you’re not familiar with his work, this isn’t a bad place to start. This is one of his modern settings, and less fantastical, but it definitely retains the dark heart that beats in everything he puts to screen. And if you are new to his work, just know it’s OK to laugh. In fact, it’s intended.

First Love

War of the Worlds (2019 v2)

[4 stars]

In a weird confluence there were two War of the Worlds adaptations recently. The 3-part BBC broadcast, which was quite true to the original material, and this updated version by Howard Overman (Crazyhead, Misfits), originally for Epix.

It’s important to remember that HG Wells’ source tale is allegorical, and so is also full of plot holes in the logic because it wasn’t intended as truth, but as example. It’s still a rollicking adventure with a message. Overman took that and then interrogated the story to ask the questions we all think (like: why invade? why approach it they way they did in the original? etc).  His rethink results in a solid bit of science-fiction and story-telling with interesting characters and unexpected twists and issues. It is also rather dark and unforgiving at times, which war is.

In addition, Overman gives us more than a single point of view of the invasion, with the action spread across France and England. We’ve a scientist in each locale, Léa Drucker and Gabriel Byrne (Hereditary), both following threads that lead to revelations. And, of course, we’ve survivors and families working their way across the devastation to various points and for various reasons, and finding others along the way. Stephen Campbell Moore (Red Joan) and Natasha Little (Absentia) provide one set of nodes. Elizabeth McGovern (The Wife) adds some nice variables, while Daisy Edgar-Jones is enjoying multiple notable performances with her concurrent role in Normal People.

My only gripe with this series is that it ends on a set of massive cliff-hangers with only the smallest bits of resolution. Given that it is still not renewed I don’t know if the story will ever be completed. Despite the ending, it is still one of the best thought through stories of its kind in a very long time and worth your time.

War of the Worlds

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

[3 stars]

The challenge with fairytales, whether about fairies or simply of the genre, is that we know the structures so well that suspense is something we have to talk ourselves into. Maleficent found a clever point in their story to return to the world of the moors and castle but, despite expanding the story, it really had very few surprises. The other point of a fairytale is that they are retellable over and over for their adventure and lessons. On those points I suppose it partially worked, but I never got the experience and excitement of the first-read. But that’s the critical response to what is, clearly, intended solely as an adventure.

Angelina Jolie (Maleficent), Elle Fanning (Mary Shelley), and Michelle Pfeiffer (Ant-Man and the Wasp) are a formidable trio of talent and power. They easily dominate the story, even with Chiwetel Ejiofor (Sherlock Gnomes), Ed Skrein (If Beale Street Could Talk), Sam Riley (Free Fire), and Robert Lindsay filling out the main cast. Pfeiffer is more than a little arch, and Jolie a bit uneven in her motivations, not to mention Fanning being ridiculously naive even after years as a queen, but they all drive the tale forward. Oh, and did I mention how easily and obviously it is all resolved?

My biggest frustration with the movie, however was that director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) made the lessons in this sequel confused, at best. While strongly from a female point of view, all the stated lessons seem to be (unironically) male dominated, which was a damned shame. What you’re left with in the end is a typical message of family, fecundity, and male leadership. Seriously?

For a visual sort of a escape and a chance to revisit this prismic view of the fairy tale, you can make time for it. It isn’t brilliant, it certainly doesn’t achieve its potential, but it can distract for a while if nothing else. Leaving this one to you and your own personal tolerances.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Fantastic Planet

[3 stars]

Despite being 47 years old, and highly stylized, this ground-breaking anime is still effective and, sadly, still relevant today. As René Laloux’s first feature, and one of his few releases, it is a hypnotic tale of humanity from the point of view of aliens. The look is a bit like Monty Python meets Yellow Submarine, but it manages to make you care and pay attention despite the rough edges of the art and movement.

The story is based on on a book by French science fiction author Stephan Wul and is presented as a surviving diary of the main character. Admittedly, it is a bit rushed and more than a little too on-the-nose at times. However, when you’re stuck at home due to a pandemic with fools running the response and idiots screaming that they should be allowed to go about their lives regardless of who it puts at risk, you can’t just ignore the lack of progress in humanity and the human condition.

At about 70 minutes, it is on the short side of feature, but it won notice at Cannes and from the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) for a reason, and is still worth your time today if you enjoy anime on any level.

Brainstorm

[3 stars]

This early-1980’s science-fiction/horror is more Altered States than Scanners or Dreamscape despite some common ground. Brainstorm’s horror is very much focused on the human in the equation and the philosophical and existentialism of the era.

Brainstorm stuck out for several reasons. Among other things, it was Nathalie Wood’s last film. Not as bad a legacy as Raul Julia’s Street Fighter, but her passing was quite a bit more unexpected. Her death caused delays in the post-production and release, possibly also costing the movie it’s moment. The two year shift in its release, and a lacklust promotion engine, had it fall flat in theaters when it finally made it out the door.

But what sets this movie apart from its brethren is how much they got right by filming in an actual R&D lab, and focusing on the human in the horror rather than blood and guts. This is a story about people and conscience as well as consciousness. Certainly having Christopher Walken (Nine Lives) and Louise Fletcher (Girlboss) as the other primaries doesn’t hurt its credibility either. Cliff Robertson has a small role to play as well.

Another reason for this film’s infamy is that it derailed director Douglas Trumbull’s career, by his own choice and frustration, because of his experience with this film. After getting off to a strong start with socially conscious material, like Silent Running, we’ll never know what more he could have brought to the screen and what influence he may have had.

I don’t want to oversell this flick. It is very much of its time…but it also has a lot more going for it than you probably imagine going in. And while it may feel trite and dated now, in historical context, it has some chops. For an evening’s entertainment filling in some gaps in your film memory, or, perhaps, refreshing it, it’s an interesting ride to take.

Brainstorm

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…

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