Tag Archives: 3stars

Murder: Mundane and Supernatural

I’ve been picking up a number of series of late, which has cut down on my movie time. Not all are worth mentioning, but a few of the mysteries bubbled to the top. These three are about as different from one another as you can get in the genre, but all sport sharp intelligence and humanity.

Chestnut Man
Ah, those twisted and dark Danes. This is a great ride of a mystery, led by Danica Curcic (Equinox), Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, and David Dencik (Soap). It is a a collection of interesting character studies as well as a complex and layered story that unfolds in its own time. There are some familiar tropes driving the story, but it manages to make something new of all them thanks to the directing. For lovers of Scandinavian mysteries, this is a must.

Post Mortem: Nobody Dies in Skarnes
And even more twisted and dark folks from Norway. Post Mortem is delightfully of its culture with a dark sensibility, and yet also touching. It isn’t really a murder mystery so much as a black comedy, despite how it is setup. Sure, there are mysteries to be solved, but that is framework for the rest of the story to hang on. Kathrine Thorborg Johansen (The Quake) and Elias Holmen Sørensen make for an amusing pair of siblings, each struggling with their own failings and issues, unaware of the challenges each is facing. Their stories, and those of the residents of Skarnes around them, intersect and come together in unexpected and entertaining ways. It isn’t the show I expected when I tuned in, but I had fun and would watch the next series if it comes about.

Only Murders in the Building
All of which sets up the silly dark satire of Steve Martin (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) and Martin Short (Innerspace), with a queue-up from Selena Gomez (The Fundamentals of Caring). The three are the oddest collection of sleuths in a long while, crossing style barriers as well as generational ones in wonderful ways. The story is a little odd and forced at times, but with folks like Nathan Lane (Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) there to help it all along, it is a fun bunch of half-hour episodes to entertain you with a queue up for the next season as well. It is best simply enjoyed rather than too much examined (it just doesn’t stand up to that). But, oh, the characters and the twists are plenty fun.

The Chestnut Man Poster Post Mortem: No One Dies in Skarnes Poster
Only Murders in the Building Poster

Squid Game

[3 stars]

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are at least aware of Squid Game. It has had even bigger viewership numbers than Bridgerton and has made the news and even a song on SNL. Everything everyone has said is true. It is hyperviolent. It is dark as hell. It is a bizarre lens and commentary on capitalism, life, and society. So no need to go there. I want to talk about what people aren’t mentioning.

To start off, I had spotted the show very early in its release, but the description/warning that pretty much just said that it was “hyperviolent” had me put it off. And then the hype grew and so I gave it a shot. The first episode was numbing and depressing. There were no obvious characters worth investing in, based on their actions. I knew who we were supposed to root for, but frankly couldn’t find a way in to do so. So I paused my return to the Korean spectacle.

And then the hype grew more. I just couldn’t grasp what was causing all the hoopla. So, I went back…and that’s where it all got interesting.

The storytelling in Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game is odd and non-linear. It starts us at a dark nadir for Lee Jung-jae as our main character. But then, with the second episode, we start getting backstory for him and the other players. None of it forgives their actions, but it provides context. And there are lots of stories to tell in this cast, though Park Hae-soo, Jung Hoyeon, and Oh Yeong-su have some of the more interesting. No one in this story is blameless and they all, essentially, accept the reality that they are where they are thanks to their own actions. But the context allows for some amount of empathy and, ultimately, some devastating moments. Unlike, say, Battle Royale, it definitely pays off with a purpose.

Add to all this the amazing production design and you have a show you can’t seem to look away from…unless of course you can’t handle hyper-violence, in which case what the heck are you doing watching this anyway? Ultimately, the story is allegorical and not a little absurd. It jumps the shark near the climax with the arrival of the VIPs for me, and the ending was neither overly surprising nor satisfying. It simply happened to allow for a second season. And, to be fair, I want to see what they do with it, even if I don’t forgive the character manipulation that brings us there.

This isn’t an easy show. It won’t raise your opinion of humanity. But, in a weird way, it leaves you feeling hopeful and with some faith in the individual. It will also put some questions in the back of your head that will rattle uncomfortably as you contemplate them in private. Should you watch it? Again, see hyperviolence. It is brutal at times. If you can’t deal with that, the answer is a flat: no. If you can tolerate the intensity and blood, yeah, it’s something you should see.

Squid Game Poster

Wendy

[3.5 stars]

Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) is not only a gifted storyteller and filmmaker, he is incredibly astute at finding young talent. And while this second feature didn’t get the same kind of attention his first movie did, his abilities are on raw display.

The story, by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza, is a clever retelling of Peter Pan evoking, yet again, their Louisiana roots. The story takes the fantasy and and the desire to never grow up and makes it even more magical that the original Barry tale in some ways.

Part of that success is down to new-comers Devin France and Yashua Mack, in the roles of Wendy and Peter. They are near spooky in their ability to be both children and to seem to carry the wisdom of years behind their eyes. Some of that is, no doubt, Zeitlin’s ability to direct them, but much is their own innate talents.

The film is fluid and unexpected in the way it deals with reality. It provides a framework, but not many answers. And, ultimately, it lands on a joyous metaphor that is both positive and bitter-sweet. The largest failing of the story is it’s climax, mirroring “clap if you believe in fairies.” It is a moment that will work for most audiences, but which I found distancing and demanding in a way that was not embracing. It threw me out of the flick entirely in a very bad way. I understand the choice and assumptions, but it was a shame, after so much else before and after that moment worked, that he and his sister couldn’t see the issue they had tripped on with their choice.

That aside, the movie and its ideas are really special. Zeitlin continues to be a filmmaker to watch, with a unique and powerful vision of the world and an ability to nurture talent that might otherwise go missed.

Wendy Poster

Fall In-comers

A few of the new shows have dropped. It feels rather thin for this Fall, but then again, the pandemic hobbled production more than a little.

Ordinary Joe
If you love This is Us, this may be for you. Riffing on some of the same ideas, but in a very different format, Ordinary Joe follows three potential futures for a man from an inflection point back in his college days. Suffice to say that once you grit your teeth through the opening scenes which has the 30-something James Wolk (Watchmen) pretending to be in his early 20s, the story is mildly intriguing. And he definitely has some talent and charisma to pull off the role. It is also particularly clever how the timelines intersect in unexpected ways and how the production keeps them all crisply defined. But is it gripping enough to survive? I’ve no doubt it will find its audience and, if the writing can sustain the story, it will last at least the season. For me, however, it’s a bit too, well Lifetime movie. I enjoyed the unexpected aspects of the tales, but the core piece of it just tries too hard.

La Brea
If you’ve never seen either iteration of Primeval/Primeval: New World you’re missing out on a better version of this idea. OK, the earlier shows were aimed younger, but the writing wasn’t nearly as annoying as this supposedly adult, current-world attempt. Logic holes and character stupidity are on high display through the first episodes, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the series. That was the best they could do? There is potential in the setup and the idea, so perhaps they can pull it together, but I have to say I’m less than convinced given that they’re going to get much better.

Wonder Years
While this reboot hadn’t quite found its voice in its first ep, it is wickedly funny and poignant in a non-sugary way. Don Cheadle (Space Jam: A New Legacy) manages to amp up his vocal engagement in the voice-overs as the series continues to help sell it a little more. But the cast, the setting, and the broad historical honesty (at least so far) are very, very compelling. And as a mirror to its earlier namesake, it’s a pretty important show. If the quality continues, it has real potential for a long run.

Ordinary Joe Poster La Brea Poster
The Wonder Years Poster

The Future

[2.5 stars]

Miranda July (Madeline’s Madeline) wrote, directed, and starred in this, her Sophomore feature outing a decade ago. She and Hamish Linklater (The Angriest Man in Brooklyn) are a pair of aimless adults not quite in the swing of life. They’re lost and broken rather than open to the world around them and enjoying their “freedom.” And therein lies the spark that leads them down separate and twisting paths that include, amongst others, a creepy and sort of sweet turn by David Warfshofsky and an early appearance by Isabella Acres (Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated) who has an equally odd little character.

This isn’t a fast or intense tale. It unfolds inexorably. But every time the story was starting to lag or get uninteresting, July would throw in something new or surprising to help keep it going. In fact, the last third was a completely brave crapshoot that saved the flick for me.

I can’t honestly say I actually enjoyed the full result, nor that I entirely understood her full intent, but I did stick it out to see where she’d end up. As with many indie’s, this one gets rather metaphorical. I think it’s intended to be positive, but I didn’t really feel that way at the end. It isn’t that I haven’t used the same dark mirror to carry an uplifting intent or message, but the order of things at the end didn’t add up that way for me.

If you’re looking for something a little different, a little quiet, but handled with some care, this may do you. It has romantic themes, but it is far from Romance. This is more a story of finding yourself and being open to what’s around you in a real way, not a reactive one. How you respond to it will depend a great deal on your own experiences and where you are in life now.

 

The Future Poster

The Starling

[3 stars]

The individual parts of this movie are all really good. Matt Harris’s odd, semi-funny tear-jerker script about life, love, and survival, is unexpected. Each of the performances stands nicely on its own. And director Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures) guided the arc of the story nicely. What is missing is connection between the main couple.

Melissa McCarthy (Nine Perfect Strangers) and Chris O’Dowd (State of the Union) both deliver believable parents in mourning. But I never was able to see them as the couple they are supposed to have been. Or even, for that matter, the reason they are trying so hard to be that couple again. All we have to go on is an opening scene, several statements from both of them, and a few short flashbacks. But when they’re together, it just doesn’t quite work. There is more connection between McCarthy and Kevin Kline (Cyrano de Bergerac) than between her and her purported husband. Heck, McCarthy and the titular starling have more of a connection. (I’m reminded of similar issues in Contact, where Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey had no visceral connection to bind the tale together.)

I realize that sounds like the result is a disaster, but it isn’t. Each of the journeys is worth seeing. Each has both its funny and poignant moments. And, despite the subject, there is humor enough to keep it from being a leaden affair with only light at the end of the tunnel. Even the supporting cast is really quite good and with a number of surprising faces showing up. When you want something a bit more dramatic but with a range of humor (some wry, some broad, some subtle) this is a good choice.

The Starling Poster

Ted Lasso (series 2)

[3.5 stars]

Topping the first season of this show was going to be unlikely at best. No matter how good the writing might stay, the element of total surprise was gone. And, in fact, after the success of the first round, the show tried a bit too hard to compete with itself.

This second series is funny, and there are some utterly brilliant moments. But it is also scattered, jumping between individual tales in a way that is less smooth and which doesn’t build on itself as the first round did. Of course, they also went into this season knowing they already had a third on order where they could expand on everything they’ve set up. So, perhaps, they took advantage of that to explore different styles and characters so they can pay it all off next round?

However you parse it out, the “weaponized optimism” of Ted Lasso continues to entertain. And despite any faults, it’s a welcoming world with enough reality to keep it from rotting your teeth. And a few truly hysterical moments that will drop you off your couch.

Ted Lasso Poster

Lucifer (series finale)

[3.5 stars]

Lucifer could have ended last season, as planned, but it definitely would have gone out on a more obvious note. This final 10 episode wrap-up cleverly manages to find a better story with a broader scope, while providing most of its characters better wrap-ups.

The surprise addition of Brianna Hildebrand (Tragedy Girls) was also both smart and nice casting. Hildebrand has the charisma and presence to share the screen with the well established cast; not an easy thing to do this late in a series.

Lucifer was never a brilliant show, but it was almost always entertaining and often surprising. It also serves as a great example of what the right home for a show can do. Getting Lucifer off broadcast was the best thing that could have happened for it. The freedom from censors really allowed it to stop self-editing language and situations. He’s supposed to be the devil after all.

Finales are really hard to do right, but this is about as close to a perfect one as you can get, given the story that has come before. We can always want more, but the series holds together as a whole and, though it had a twisty road to the finish line, it remained true to itself and its fans.

Lucifer Poster

Nine Strangers on an Island

[3 stars]

While Nine Perfect Strangers and Fantasy Island aren’t exactly direct competitors or even exactly in the same wheelhouse, there is a shared sensibility and sense of location that has me putting them together.

The reboot of Fantasy Island cleaves a lot more to the original series than the recent movie did. It manages to walk the line of light entertainment with an edge (well, a slight edge), and a slurry of emotional baggage from our hosts as well as the guests. In fact, the show is more a flip of the original, with the guests’ stories reflecting on the hosts’. Which also means that none of the stories are particularly deeply examined, there just isn’t time since the new Roarke and her assistant Ruby are eating up a good portion of the story time with their own issues. But even without the depth, the ideas of the stories are enough for you to enjoy without having to get too wrung out. But they are more snacks than meals. That probably isn’t enough to keep me coming back to it, even with the nicely nuanced efforts by Roselyn Sanchez and Kiara Barnes. But as a distraction with some interesting moments it may, on occasion, suffice.

Nine Perfect Strangers, on the other hand, is a darker and deeply diving examination of personal traumas, relationships, and revenge. It, too, manages to stay somewhat at the surface, or at least enough to keep from ruining your evening. But the performances are a lot more intense. Starting with Nicole Kidman (The Prom) and her crew, Manny Jacinto (Brand New Cherry Flavor) and Tiffany Boone (The Midnight Sky) who run the place and run at each other. And then there is the all-star cast of guests. The reteaming of Melissa McCarthy (Thunder Force) and Bobby Cannavale (Jolt) was one of my more favorite nods. But there is plenty to chew on with the others as well, from Michael Shannon (Knives Out) and Asher Keddie to the solo struggles of Regina Hall (Little) and Luke Evans (Pembrokeshire Murders). Even the simpering of Samara Weaving’s (Ready or Not) becomes something interesting over time. By the time the wheels come off (in an episode aptly named “Wheels on the Bus”) you’re committed to finding out how it can all resolve and you forgive some of the more outlandish choices. Be warned, the finale is improbable and can be interpreted in a couple different ways. It’s somewhat Fantasy Island in that respect, but in a more complete way.

Nine Perfect Strangers also has the advantage of being a short commitment rather than an ongoing series. Sometimes a short vacation is more desirable than an ongoing appointment. And certainly Fantasy Island is more an empty calorie snack than the other offering. Wherever you decide to vacation, neither will tax you too much, and both resolve enough to not feel frustrating.

Nine Perfect Strangers Poster Fantasy Island Poster

Level 16

[3 stars]

Danishka Esterhazy (SurrealEstate) imparts a nicely dark sensibility into this suspense/horror with her directing and writing. It isn’t a story that really pays off believably by the end, but the trip to the end is taut and suitably creepy.

What really sells the story, such as it is, is a couple of the performances. Katie Douglas (Defiance) is the undisputed center of the story, along with Celina Martin helping to move it along. The two young women have great presence and nicely leveled deliveries. Peter Outerbridge (Code 8) also helps ground the pervading weight of the situation, even if his placement is predictable and self-conscious.

But some of the production is also over-the-top. For instance Sara Canning’s (Nancy Drew) Jackboot fetish styling is a bit much. And the mixed culture of the real bosses feels unlikely.

Ultimately, this is a silly sort of fun…if one can look at a story like this and the abuse of young women in that light; it is a horror film after all. Unlike many others of the genre, it doesn’t really deliver a message, only a creepy disgust of the situation. Part of that is that the science and logic are a little ridiculous. But part of it is also the intentional distancing of the characters and locality from its primary audience geographically. It makes it hard to connect with the situation.

Suffice to say this is a rainy afternoon flick, not one that fills a night in a satisfying way. And that’s OK. It was certainly interesting to see Douglas’ and Martin’s turns; I’d like to see what more than can do. Even Esterhazy impressed me with her ability to set a mood both in this and her television work. So not a total loss. Your call on whether you spend time with it.