Tag Archives: 4stars

The Watch

[3.5 stars]

Sir Terry Pratchett’s humor was a gift to the world. Silly, yes. Dark, most definitely. Wry? Always. Hogfather is still one of my annual favorites. Adaptations of his books didn’t always go great, but I was always happy to give them a shot. The Watch is inspired by his world, if not directly extrapolated from it.

Creator Simon Allen has the wide ranging background to bring it all to life as the primary writer. The result is significantly darker than other adaptations, both in plot and character. And it goes down like a shot of tequila, harsh at first but slowly warming as it settles. It is very, very English in terms of its style, but not unapproachable. Admittedly, though, some of Richard Dormer’s (Rellik, Game of Thrones) lines can bend your ear between the mumbling and the accent. But his rubber face rivals that of Jim Carrey at times, which helps meaning and entertainment even when specific words get lost.

The rest of the Watch’s squad is a motely mix to be sure. From Marama Corlett, Adam Hugill (1917), and Jo Eaton-Kent to their adjunct Lara Rossi, they are, to a one, broken and looking for redemption. The show follows the band of misfits as they coalesce and try to win the day against impossible odds in a city where crime has been legalized. Yeah, chew on that a while.

Arrayed against the Watch are a slew of fun characters. Samuel Adewunmi, Bianca Simone Mannie, Jane de Wet, and Paul Kaye (Anna and the Apocalypse) are among them, but there are so many more. The world is rich with outlandish technologies, magic, and commentary.

The story is layered and complicated and open to a next series. Actually, it sort of demands it, though it does so through a coda rather than leaving you hanging on the main story. However, as of now, BBC hasn’t yet decided whether to renew the show. I really hope they do. I want to know what more they can do with this group and world.

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What If…?

[4 stars]

There is no doubt this show was highly anticipated by fans of the MCU, and generally worth the wait. Mind you, if you haven’t watched the whole phase 1-3 sequence you would be completely lost on the references and import of what you’re watching. This is a gift to fans from fans. Period. And that’s a truly rare thing at this level of quality and production. A fully non-canon set of stories that tackle those powerful thoughts of “What if…” that allow for stories that never happened but might have been fun to see.

But how much fun comes down to this: why do you want to watch What If…? There are different answers to the question, and the reactions I’ve seen to the show tend to be fed by which of the two main camps that question creates. Either you’re just interested in being entertained and seeing what fun and silly stuff might come out of mashing up the characters and events, or you want to see something a bit more interesting in terms of how a story really might unspool in a meaningful way thanks to a single change. Up front, I’m in the latter camp. I’m all about the power of “what if” in stories, but I want it to have a purpose and satisfying result. It can get silly, but it still has to satisfy my main criteria: purpose. And after a wandering path, they got there. But that meant seeing it all chronologically and experiencing the stories individually first.

Launching with a riff on the Captain America origin story was a brilliant stroke. It sets up the tone and possibilities. More importantly, it was a story with a change that had impact in its difference. But then it quickly stumbled for me in its second outing as it took on Guardians of the Galaxy, almost instantly breaking the reality by having events out of order in a way that could not work, even in the universe they created. Any fan would have spotted it immediately. The gaff set off alarm bells for me as it meant no one was watching carefully enough to keep it above the realm of bad fan fiction. Because, let’s face it, this series is fan fiction…that is its only purpose to exist.

I had fewer issues with the Avengers Assemble riff. Though, other than shock value, it didn’t manage to really grab me. Part of that may have been the voices; several main characters didn’t voice their avatars.

But Doctor Strange was clever and cut to the bone in a way that most of the episodes don’t. Though I fully admit the run at Infinity War (which sadly spoils the opening surprise with its title) was a riot. And while Iron Man’s alternate journey was interestingly thought through, Thor’s only-child tale lost it’s credibility early on for me. It could have been fun, but it tried too hard and, like the Guardian’s episode, included too many characters that shouldn’t have been mixing.

And then there was the Ultron finale…well, dang. I have to hand it to the series for that storyline along with its repercussions and impact. But it was a long slog to relevance in some ways. Without that finale, I’d have a had a much lower opinion of the series.

Overall, the clever reuse of movie audio, which helped to bring back in original voices in many places that might not have otherwise been possible, and the sense of fun and whimsey amid the dark really pulled it all together nicely.  And now I’m actually looking forward to the next season.

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Q-Force

[4 stars]

Yes, it’s outrageous. Yes, it’s absurd. Yes, it crosses the borders of cliché and travels well into country that could be taken as insulting. But it is all done as matter-of-fact and with an embracing sense of love. It turns everything up to 11 (or maybe 1100) and lets the freak flags fly. And, to top it off (no pun intended), it develops a solid arc pulling the first series together.

The voice cast lean into every aspect of the story and situations. There are no hesitations or apologies as they solve outrageous, Bond-like crimes and neutralize the bad folks, foreign and domestic. And there is a long list of recognizable names giving those stories life, but you can discover them easily enough. We aren’t talking Oscar level work, just solid delivery and respect for the scripts and story which is where the series thrives.

Because you’ll see, there is a sort of quiet genius to the show. Even with the painful acknowledgment of prejudice that launches the show, it offers up the reverse mirror of what the LGTBQ+ community has to deal with all the time in entertainment: worlds full of non-gay people acting like that’s all there is in the world. It is a reaction and a statement. It’s also hilariously funny at times.

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Come From Away

[4 stars]

Every person has a story, or so the saying goes. And with nearly 7000 in-comers nearly doubling the population of one corner of an island, that’s a lot of potential stories to tell. But I can’t say I rushed to watch this remembrance of 9/11. I mean, a musical with true stories about one of the most shocking days in recent history? I knew it had been lauded, and I’d even seen a number or two performed, but I just couldn’t let go enough to enter that world. I wish I had sooner.

Despite the subject, the show is full of humor and human kindness (all summed up with one, and intentionally, very bad knock-knock joke near the end). The music and stories are wide ranging, with actors playing multiple roles. It touches on the whimsical and the dark, but leaves you with hope and some sense of bittersweet joy. Not because of any one story so much as the overall efforts of the people of Newfoundland during the five days the world came to a halt. The whole thing is delivered as a swift 90 minutes without an intermission and with a solid cast. And the filming and sound are wonderful, keeping the feel of a stage performance but with cinema level visuals and soundtrack.

My suggestion to you, if you’ve avoided the show so far, is to give it 10 minutes. If it hasn’t locked you in by then, you’re not their audience. I found myself totally absorbed despite the stories mostly being obvious and the overall tale part of history. It is cathartic in its way, but neither jingoistic nor apologetic. It is focused on the minutia of the tragedy and the reminder of who people can be. Honestly, it isn’t a bad message for today either, given the strife and division tearing at society as a whole. The fact that it was filmed during one of the first performances after Broadway reopened after the pandemic shutdown only enhances that echo.

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Reservation Dogs

[4 stars]

As a Kiwi, co-creator and writer Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit) is both the most unlikely match for this new series about Oklahoma reservation life, and the perfect choice. If you’ve ever seen his first film, Boy, or even his more recent Hunt for the Wilderpeople, you can see how the same experiences and sensibilities inform this new series. (And if you haven’t seen these earlier films, you should.) Along with Sterlin Harjo the two have created a devastatingly funny and honest look at reservation life. That there should be that much commonality across the globe for indigenous populations is a sad matter for a much longer discussion. Though, to be fair, Waititi’s name is how this show probably got done and most of this show is from Harjo’s experience. But Waititi’s influence is hard to miss.

The story of Native American/First Nations/Indigenous peoples is starting to get more screen time in varying forms. Where Rutherford Falls tries to provide a somewhat split view of life both on and off a reservation, Reservation Dogs dives deep on the reservation side. So deep it barely comes up for air. And unlike Mohawk Girls it’s all a bit more serious, though neither show shies away from some of the deeper truths. And Reservation Dogs tackles growing up on the res rather than the result of that as an adult, giving it a very different viewpoint.

At the core of the series is a collection of young actors, all of whom manage to grab you and make you care. Devery Jacobs(Rutherford Falls), D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, and Paulina Alexis are an unlikely group thrown together by circumstance, but devoted to one another until an event starts to fracture their friendship. Entry into their world is difficult to watch at times, but as the series continues it becomes less bleak. And there are plenty of more seasoned faces throughout the series as well helping buoy it along.

Another wonderful aspect of the series is how it incorporates the culture both in storyline and on screen. It isn’t all strictly mundane, but the magical/mythical aspects aren’t seen as anything but part of the world. Part of the series’ real success is how deeply it drops you into this culture and dark realities (and inferred causes). This is a series really worth investing in and it’s already been renewed, so it won’t be a lost investment either.

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Dating & New York

[3.5 stars]

Like Broken Hearts Gallery, this first feature by Jonah Feingold delivers on almost all levels. They both aim at Millennial love connections and struggles. And both made me realize how much things have changed about dating… and how much they’ve really stayed the same. Dating & New York is a bit less polished than Broken Hearts, and it’s more unapologetically aimed at a younger audience, but there is plenty there for all ages to sympathize and recognize and laugh with (and at).

From the moment it starts we know we’re about to enter a sort of satirical view of old romance films, but done with both love and affection. It isn’t making fun of those fantasies so much as updating them. And the main couple in this modern romcom comes to wonderful life with Jaboukie Young-White and Francesca Reale (Stranger Things). The energy and easy nature of both are completely engaging. And their friends, Catherine Cohen (The Lovebirds) and Brian Muller, bring some framework and balance to what we know just has to get messy eventually, no matter how civilized and above-board it all starts.

Feingold keeps the pacing unrelenting…exhausting even, at times. The story is entertaining. The ending is honest and romantic. The gender flips he does are nicely turned. And, OK, absent one character, I never had any idea how any of these people supported themselves, but that wasn’t the focus of the story. Having found out he filmed it all in 15 days, this movie is sort of amazing.

This is a romantic comedy for both those that like romantic comedies and those who scoff at them. It’s an honest romantic comedy. Well, mostly honest. Mainly, it’s believable where it needs to be and wry where it threatens to get too syrupy. Above all, it’s fun and funny.

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Language Lessons

[3.5 stars]

Natalie Morales’ (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and Mark Duplass’ (The Lazarus Effect) Language Lessons is probably the cleverest pandemic film I’ve seen in the last 18 months… precisely because it isn’t about the pandemic, even though it is obviously constructed as it is because of it. Unlike other completed efforts like Staged, Locked Down, or Songbird, this movie is more timeless. It took its constraints as a way to create something rather than as the reason for the story.

And the story is funny and touching all at once (and not entirely what you think it’s going to be). It manages to make an improbable situation feel completely honest and real. Morales did a great job directing and editing the final piece, and the story and script by Duplass and her is surprisingly compelling. The result is something truly affecting. The film’s already started to gather awards, and I suspect you’ll hear more about it as the season picks up. In a world hemmed in by Zoom calls, this manages to break out of the frame, even while staying within it.

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Love and Monsters

[3.5 stars]

There was something quite fun in taking the action-hero oriented Dylan O’Brien (Infinite) and making him into a somewhat inept, but able to learn, heartsick dweeb during the apocalypse. It also helps that the script was wickedly funny and unpretentious. By combining the raw sarcasm of  Brian Duffield (Spontaneous) and sweet sensibility of Matthew Robinson (Dora and the Lost City of Gold), the result is an unexpectedly humorous and entertaining action romance.

The story is unabashedly absurd from the start, but not without heart. In fact, if anything, that is the point of the story: family and love (in case the title wasn’t enough of a clue). But it’s all done with a wry wink. Michael Rooker (Vivo) and Ariana Greenblat (Awake) add to that considerably. And Jessica Henwick (On the Rocks) provides a suitable and believable focus for our hero.

This isn’t brilliant comedy or action, but it is totally entertaining and never takes itself too seriously. And, even amidst the absurdity, there is a real base of emotion and intention. It’s a flick that fulfills many needs for an evening and will have you laughing and jumping. Had it not released during the pandemic, it may even have found a wider audience on the big screen, but now it will just have to grow it from a smaller one; and it should.

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Cruella

[4 stars]

Oh, what a wonderfully unexpectedly deep and dark confection. And from Disney no less. Who knew they could do psychopaths and still keep it all PG? To be fair, Emma Thompson’s (Last Christmas) Baroness is more a psychopath while Emma Stone’s (Zombieland: Double Tap) Cruella is really a sociopath, but why split dog hairs? Both performances are nearly flawless.

There is something for everyone in this story: mystery, surprises, fashion, music (seriously, a heck of a soundtrack from the 60s-80s), snark, heists, and cuteness (even if mostly CGI’d). However, it is a bit dark for the wee ones, so it is more of a 3 quadrant flick rather than a full family affair.

Part of the real brilliance of this story is that it not only provides a backstory for one of Disney’s more heinous criminals (from the kid’s stories) but it also builds out the origin of the henchmen Jasper and Horace in the guise of Joel Fry (benjamin) and Paul Walter Hauser (Songbird) respectively.

The story also manages to shim up with everything we already knew about 101 Dalmatians in a quite wonderful, if rather forced, way.

If I have any real criticisms on the execution of the story by director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) it was around the critical shift for Stone’s arc. There is a moment (it is obvious), that she is forever forged as the criminal we grew up to fear. But, sadly, it isn’t crisp visually. It’s a story beat but we don’t really see the final transformation. The movie quickly sweeps on and you forgive it, but it’s the one element that I felt he missed amidst the opulent cinematography and framing that carried the swift and biting comedy along. It really is a dark and wonderful surprise of a film.

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Reminiscence

[3.5 stars]

For her first feature Lisa Joy (Westworld) has delivered a dark and deliberately pace noir mystery. It also has the melancholia and rumination of Blade Runner, as Hugh Jackman (The Front Runner) falls down the rabbit hole of trying to help the femme fatale that drops into his life.

Reminiscence is expansive in its world building, but generally very intimate in its cast and focus. The story really revolves around only three characters. Thandiwe Newton (Solo: A Star Wars Story) provides Jackman an anchor to reality while Rebecca Ferguson (Doctor Sleep) is the chain around his neck and heart. The three form an emotional, if not romantic, triangle that shifts and evolves as the story unfolds.

There are plenty of side characters to keep the action going as well though Only Cliff Curtis (Hobbs & Shaw) and Daniel Wu (Tomb Raider) really have enough time and depth to be of notice. Both of these antagonists help flesh out the world and provide a wider view of what’s gone on and what’s gone wrong.

While Joy hasn’t made a perfect flick, it is one that will stick with you, bouncing around your head as you consider the points. She had the guts to deliver exactly what she tells you she will in the film. And while the plot unravels a bit toward the end and is a bit forced and unlikely, it’s still effective. The journey getting there is just complex enough to keep you engaged and satisfied. It’s also a complete story without any intention of a sequel (a nice change of pace these days). And, finally, despite the pall of the dystopia she sketches out for you, Reminiscence is a highly romantic film, even as it questions that concept as part of the story.

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