Tag Archives: 5stars

Babylon 5 (rewatch n)

[5 stars]

TL;DR: If you’ve not rewatched Babylon 5 recently, you should. If you’ve never seen it, make the time. Forgive its faults and revel in its incredibly intricate and intentional plotting that no one other than Dark has even come close to in the intervening years since its release. And gawk at its unexpected relevance 30 years after its original airing.

And, yes, I started this effort before the recent reboot announcement: https://deadline.com/2021/09/babylon-5-series-reboot-j-michael-straczynski-development-cw-1234845022/

There are some genre shows I come back to on a regular basis. No matter how many times I rewatch them, I find new moments or surprises…or simply enjoy certain stories so much I never get bored with them. Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Stargate SG-1, Star Trek (OS, TNG, DS9)…and Babylon 5 which is probably the least widely appreciated of that list, but which had a most outsized influence on the genre and all that followed.

I am more than willing to admit that some of the writing and directing of B5 is painful at times. But the fact that it remains rewatchable despite that and, more importantly, still relevant and impressive all these years later is a testament to what it was. B5 changed the landscape of genre TV. By creating a pre-planned 5-year arc J. Michael Straczynski (Sense8) was able to thread through clues and foreshadowing with intent rather than retconning them into plots conceived down the road. Not that the latter can’t be done well; Buffy and Angel did it all the time, as did Game of Thrones. But no one has come close to the beautiful construction of B5 through its first four seasons. And no show has purposely evolved in style, focus, and design from season to season the way B5 did. Only The Expanse comes close, and possible Farscape before it.

The simple truth is that if B5 had been birthed in the streaming world it would have been a smash. Its huge gamble was to have an ongoing tale rather than reset, episodic adventures. They kept losing audience and weren’t able to easily pick up new viewers since the earlier shows weren’t available. Joe was ahead of his time…but his influence reshaped entertainment and set a high bar.

But what is amazing to me is how relevant the story remains. Presented in the early 90s, I was glued to the TV every week watching the story reflect the world of politics and society…with a lot of grand adventure, humor, and action to boot. Decades later I was somewhat worried it would have gone threadbare. But no, the mirror still works for today, even with its faults (let’s face it, Joe really didn’t write women well, though he tried).

In fact, the first season or two are disturbingly accurate for today. Politics, in the era of 45, are even closer to the horror story B5 lays out. There are pandemics, which once reflected the AIDS crisis but today are a perfect extrapolation of COVID. Stories of media suppression and control in the age of Fox news and Murdoch. Endless wars and generational hate have moved from the Soviet Union to the Middle and Far East, but still echo in our reality. Honestly, you’d think it was written recently.

Up through most of season 3 and into the start of 4, Babylon is one of the most beautifully, tightly constructed shows ever put to screen. It would have been even better if they weren’t forced into 21 episode seasons; some of the pointless stand-alones could have been dropped. But if you’ve seen it more than once, you start noticing phrases and moments that wouldn’t originally pay off for, literally, years in air-time. The level of conviction and trust involved in that is breathtaking. Because of the history of the show (it wasn’t going to be renewed for broadcast and then had a last minute save for its final season on cable) the fourth season is a bit rushed at the end. And then the fifth season had its own struggles with budget and cast changes…and the fact that Joe did his fans a favor and gave us finale ahead of what he’d planned in case the fifth season never came.

The result is that the fourth season becomes more about falling dominos as the intricate clockwork of the plots spins down. Which isn’t to say that the fourth and fifth season don’t have their moments, but it is more about action and result and less interesting as a modern mirror. But it is still a great ride to the multiple conclusions of threads, revelations about moments we’d been promised and had misinterpreted for years, and harsh and honest commentary on world politics, religion, war, but most of all: humanity.

The real question now, after a recent announcement, is whether the story can be retold better than the original? I wasn’t expecting this when I started my rewatch. Will Joe and the studio allow more writers to be involved and more up-to-date world views (particularly around gender) to have traction? Is the CW really the best home for a show that is this adult? Frankly, I would have looked at streamer like Amazon, HBO Max, or Netflix where the grittier aspects would have been welcome, and where people could have jumped in at any time and started from the beginning. And I’d have pitched it more as an update and rethink than a reboot. But, regardless, I’ll certainly be there to find out if it can fly. If nothing else, perhaps we’ll finally get an HD version of this story since some idiot at Fox deleted all the digital originals to save disk space (no, I’m not kidding).

Babylon 5 Poster

Striking a Sinful Pose

[4 stars]

I’ve held off writing up Pose for a lot of reasons. And held off posting this discussion for even more. But now that it has wrapped, and my brain was whirring on the shape of it all, I found my fingers unable to avoid it. And I know I’m going to get some grief for doing so. That’s OK, I can own it.

There are few writers looking at the LGTBQ+ community with the love and honesty that Ryan Murphy (The Prom) does. Only Russell T. Davies (It’s a Sin) comes to mind in terms of other writers of similar impact and power. But while It’s a Sin and Pose came out about the same time they are very different contexts and very different shapes, though ultimately both celebrations of love, life, and the community they inhabit.

It’s a Sin compresses the start and turn-to-hope of the AIDS crisis into a single, limited series that is devastating and joyful at the same time. I’ve written it up separately and will try not to repeat that here other than in comparisons.

Pose, on the other hand, targets roughly the same period over three seasons, a different decade in each, in a more, shall we say, Dramatic way. I don’t mean the flamboyant wonderfulness of the women in the show, I mean the story structure. The melodramatic sensibility mirrors the personalities, but it is also intentionally huge and just a tad soapy.

In some ways I not only respect that choice, but love it. It was certainly entertaining and, more importantly, there was never a doubt or hesitation to recognizing the women in the story. For those not aware of the Ball culture or without a lot of contact with (or with misconceptions about) the trans community, it was also an education as well as an entertainment. It took the joy and the horror of the controversial Paris is Burning and brought it to fictional life in unforgettable and sympathetic ways.

But I also found the story approach putting distance between me and the characters; especially in the final season. And that was a bit unexpected as I remember those years. I was there for some of those events, but certainly knew many who were when I wasn’t. And that frustrated me as a viewer. Not that I didn’t cry… I most certainly lost it often through the show (and through It’s a Sin too) even as I’d also be belly laughing at other times.

And while I was not at the Balls, neither was I part of club culture in England (or NYC for that matter) during those eras. But I knew (and lost) people from all those walks of life. In fact, I just recently lost another friend who had survived on the cocktail for decades. I suspect the pandemic as the precipitating cause, but I may never know. Like so many friends living at a several state remove, he vanished until word trickled back to me via the grapevine.

My point is that neither of these worlds or stories or people or lifestyles are utterly alien to me, though I have to admit that I’m more connected to It’s a Sin than Pose in a direct sense.

Perhaps what it comes down to is that Pose is a wonderful story while It’s a Sin is more a wonderful statement. Both are some of the best and most complete views of the communities they depict. But my aversion to the melodramatic definitely made Pose a challenge at times. But both are important milestones in media and emotional stories that will wring you out even while you cheer and laugh.

Pose Poster It's a Sin Poster

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

[4.5 stars]

I hardly know where to begin with Lee Daniels’ (The Butler) latest. The politics? The art? The tragedy? The dark mirror on the present? Perhaps it’s best to just try to do each bit separately…

The voice. There are a handful of singers whose voices are unique signatures, not just because of their sound (there are plenty of them) but because of the emotion they impart with every breath. Billie Holliday is one of those few. Holliday is singular and recognizable and, with every note, grabs you by the throat. Andra Day captures all of that in her beautiful performance and with her expert voice that has you initially wondering if she was lip syncing the original tracks. She isn’t.

The song. You never forget the first time you hear Strange Fruit. It is haunting, horrible, accusatory, righteous, defiant. Writer Suzan-Lori Parks sets it up to perfection in her adaptation, and Daniels knocks it over the fences in the film.

The honesty. Holliday was a flawed person. Damaged and self-destructive, but not paranoid: they were out to get her. She had a string of damaging and intense relationships, including Trevante Rhodes’s (Bird Box) federal agent Jimmy Fletcher and Natasha Lyonne’s (Russian Doll) Tallulah Bankhead. She was also an addict and fiercely independent in ways that damaged others. All of this is on display without judgment and without apology. By keeping the story relatively honest, it’s even more impactful.

The politics. Need a reminder of where we’ve come from and how little has really changed? Here it is…again. While it focuses on one face as the force behind the reign of horror on Holliday in Garrett Hedlund’s (Mudbound) Harry Anslinger, Hoover hovers behind it all as he did over the country for decades. Along with Trial of the Chicago 7, One Night in Miami, Judas and the Black Messiah, Selma, BlacKkKlansman, and so many other recent films, this story adds to the dark map of race relations in this country.

But you have to ultimately come to the most important question: is it a good movie? It is unequivocally an important one. It is somewhat flawed in a general sense. While it is uses clever visuals to take us back in time, it also has some odd POV choices that aren’t always effective. Anslinger is played just a little too oily–which, even if accurate, makes it harder to accept the truth of the tale. And Rhode’s is, amusingly, just a bit too ripped for his role. It may be pleasant to see, but it is out of character and period. And, frankly, Holliday’s sexuality isn’t fully balanced in its presentation and exploration.

But, overall, it is very, very effective and leaves you breathless. And if you needed any indication of Daniels’ own conflicted feelings of the story and the truth, watch through the first half of the credits for a sweet coda.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday Poster

The Father

[4.5 stars]

Let’s talk about POV. Like the recent Bliss, Florian Zeller’s freshman outing relies heavily on character point of view and editing to provide the necessary information for navigating the story. By watching very carefully, you can tease apart most of the truth. Most of it. Unlike Bliss, Zeller’s adaptation of his play, with help from Christopher Hampton (Adore), the truth can still elude you; but that’s ok. Unlike previous stories, like Still Alice, the film tries to recreate what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s from the inside rather than primarily from outside. How they go about that is something you just need to experience, but to say you’ve got unreliable narrator is an understatement. But the threads are (mostly) there for the watcher to stay relatively grounded. Honestly, I’m still discussing it with people trying to pull it all apart.

Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes) delivers a wonderfully mercurial performance as his character is buffeted by his confusion and frustration. But while he is the primary POV, his daughter provides a second, which is another way Zeller helps you along. Olivia Colman (The Favourite) delivers a heart-wrenching performance as she navigates her father’s illness, giving us glimpses into the emotional and physical realities and a small touch of what must have been their past.

The rest of the supporting cast is equally capable and storied. Olivia Williams (Maps to the Stars), Mark Gatiss (Locked Down), Rufus Sewell (The Pale Horse), and Imogen Poots (That Awkward Moment) perform a wonderfully seamless dance filling out the story.

This is also a movie where the production designer Peter Francis (Rocketman) and editor Yorgos Lamprinos have had huge impact on the story-telling and need to be called out. Pay attention to the details in the sets and how the sequences are put together. Truly amazing work all around.

My only issue with the film comes near the end where it felt a little forced and rushed. It isn’t necessarily an untrue depiction, but my gut is that the events could have remained while the dialogue could have been a little more finessed. That minor criticism aside, The Father has already garnered a lot of nominations and wins, with more sure to come. This is one movie who’s odd ride is worth every moment you spend with it, and it’s a wonderful class in perspective and humility.

The Father Poster

Promising Young Woman

[4.5 stars]

Some movies just sucker punch you because you’ve no idea what to expect. In terms of quality, this one’s right up there with Soul, Trial of the Chicago 7, and Palm Springs…among the best this season.

Even more impressive is that this is writer and director Emerald Fennell’s (Killing Eve) first feature; she’s better known for her acting chops. But Promising Young Woman makes an impressive application of all she’s learned over the years in front of the camera.

And then there is the woman at the center of the on-screen story, Carrie Mulligan (Collateral).  She flattens you with her powerful performance and shoulders the film on screen with her charisma, intelligence, and sense of humor. From the moment she appears you can’t take your eyes off of her. And once you understand her, you can’t help but cheer her on and not turn away.

There are some nice supporting roles by Lavern Cox (Orange is the New Black), Clancy Brown, Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade), and Alison Brie (Happiest Season). But this story is utterly through Mulligan’s eyes and perspective by necessity, and she carries it off.

The movie does have its weak moments, but they’re few. One aspect is around some of the soundtrack, which goes just a bit overboard at times, not trusting the actors and situation to make the point. The other is around some transitional moments that are less than smooth. But in the face of the rest of the film, I forgive them all.

Promising Young Woman grabs you by the soft bits and drags you through to the end. And it manages to remain triumphant despite the subject and the situations. It is sure to generate controversy and contemplation for the actions and probably even leave a few in the dust as to the title. But that’s all part of the point. Make time for this one, both for the central performance and the story itself. Despite the weird festival season, it’s been making itself heard, and I expect that to continue through the majors over the next few months.

Promising Young Woman Poster

Soul

[4.5 stars]

Just wow. Not only is this a beautifully drawn and designed film, it’s a clever and engaging animated tale that will entertain young and old alike. In fact, the only reason I couldn’t give this a straight-up 5 stars was because of some of the minor bits that were there for laughs alone for the youngsters and small flaws that made no real-world sense. Otherwise, this is an instant classic and will bear up under rewatching for years to come.

The vocal duelling between Jamie Foxx (Project Power) and Tina Fey (Admission) is wonderfully entertaining and amusingly animated (literally and figuratively). Add the dry fun of Richard Ayoade (The Boxtrolls), Alice Braga (Kill Me Three Times), and Rachel House (Thor: Ragnarok) and you’ve an incredible pallet of humor to bounce off of. A host of smaller roles are given life by talented names as well. And then there’s the jazz arrangements and playing under the guidance of Jon Batiste.

Peter Docter (Inside Out) and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) co-directed and, with an assist by Mike Jones, co-wrote the script. It is a masterful piece of wry wit and honest reflection on life. There’s no point in describing more of it because you should just experience it, whether now or later. It’s a pity this one didn’t see the large screen, but it certainly entertains like it should and doesn’t disappoint.

Soul Poster

Enola Holmes

[4.5 stars]

Was there ever any doubt that Millie Bobby Brown (Godzilla: King of Monsters) had the chops to carry a movie? And what a wonderful vehicle she has found. Not only does she own the screen with her charisma and chops, but her character drives the tale, pushing her brothers Mycroft and Sherlock to the periphery, making it a decidedly female-driven story.

Sam Claflin (Charlie’s Angels) is a perfectly uptight Mycroft, while Henry Cavill (Witcher) is the thoroughly self-absorbed, but surprisingly available Sherlock. Throw in Helena Bonham Carter (Ocean’s 8) as their rather unique mum, and you’ve a family to be reckoned with…and likely a good salary for a mental health professional. But all their performances are tightly controlled under Fleabag  director Harry Bradbeer’s entirely capable hands.

Despite these lofty names in her family, the story really focuses more on her adventures with the young Louis Partridge; Enola’s master-in-distress. The story manages to both lean into and avoid the young love tropes without making it insulting to either of them. And with Burn Gorman (Pacific Rim: Uprising) constantly at their heels to push along the danger, there are adventures to be had.

The cast is also chock full of other great talents to help buoy the film. Adeel Akhtar (Murder Mystery), Susan Wokoma (Crazyhead), Fiona Shaw (Killing Eve), and Frances de la Tour (The Lady in the Van) help fill out the film with known and unknown characters from the Holmesian universe.

But it isn’t just all fun and games (afoot). Enola Holmes is a timely flick, in more than one way…and the fun is watching all that play out. The adaptation from Nancy Springer’s series by Jack Thorne (Radioactive) is wonderfully on point for current needs. And the result is also an example of what Netflix can find when it really tries, though it’s a shame this never saw the big screen. I think this film could have found an audience. Certainly the cinematography was with the larger format in mind, though it plays perfectly well on a home setup.

Make time for this one, whether you’ve a young woman at home with you or not. It’s fun, wry, sly, and full of adventure; perfect for a light escape that won’t insult your intelligence. And to see Brown beginning to come into her own just adds to the icing on this slightly savory confection.

All In: The Fight for Democracy

[5 stars]

The single, most important film this year so far. Whether you grew up during these fights or not. Whether you think you know all about it or not. Whether you want to hear the message or not:

See it. Get Angry. Vote.

Learn from it. Hear it. Vote.

Basically: VOTE

In case it isn’t obvious,  directors Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus, with the help of Jack Youngelson’s script, created a compelling presentation of Stacey Abrams gubernatorial run, while providing a historical and contextual framework for the history of voting in America. It’s a call to action that cannot be denied.

Honestly, I wept and gritted my teeth openly…and I knew most of it going in.

Dark (series 3 – finale)

[5 stars]

I’ve been talking up Dark for a while now. And having rewatched it from front to back again, I plan on continuing.

The series starts as a fairly standard mystery and then rapidly evolves. By episode 1.3 you have some sense of the complexity. By the end of the first series your brain is likely bleeding. In the second series it only gets more complex and convoluted and yet…. either it was all planned brilliantly or retcon’d seamlessly because on every major point it holds together. There are some minor bits and pieces that are left hanging or glossed (and yes, I look at you episode 2.4). And I admit there is one choice in the series 2 finale that makes me grind my teeth as it wasn’t necessary for plot, but simply contrived to get a visual and then they got stuck with it. Then, at the end of series 2, you’ve taken a hard left turn.

But the big events, the important confluences, all work as one.

And here we are at the completion of the tale, series 3; it makes the first two runs look simple…in fact, the penultimate episode left me exhausted. More importantly, the finale brings it all together in a fair way, given the story that’s been laid out before us–the clues are all there. Even the title finally gets an explanation.

Ultimately, this is one of the best attempts to both philosophically attack and support a deterministic universe. There are characters on both sides fighting to defend and break it. And not a one of them is telling the truth. We know that early on, but never actually find solid ground till the end, when their intentions are truly revealed. Sure the science is, at best, fantastical at times, but not all of it. Some is well-established theory, and the mix of the two allows you to swallow the conceits in full; even when they get it horribly wrong.

One of the aspects that makes this series work is their, mostly, amazing casting. Only This is Us has come close to the need and quality of finding actors to portray characters at different ages. And, honestly, Dark has done it better. Some of the actors you will swear are the same person, just aged. It helps tremendously with keeping track of the story and the credibility of the plot. They also weren’t afraid to try new ways to work with the audience visually. Each series experiments with new visual cues and approaches to help you navigate the insanity. Series 3 even uses more than one approach over the eight episodes.

Dark lives comfortably with some of the great time-travel tales of the last few decades, including Timecrimes, Primer, Edge of Tomorrow, Predestination, Doctor Who (Blink), Looper, Safety Not GuaranteedWatchmen, The Magicians (ep 5.6: Oops..I did it Again), Babylon 5, and even (despite its flaws) Terminator: Genisys. If you haven’t tackled it yet, make the time…and watch it from start to finish in a straight go (no more than two episodes a night). There are so many subtle and wonderful moments and echos that will get missed if you stretch it out too long.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

[4.5 stars]

City of Angels is a richly appointed and complex tale of murder, espionage, love, and religious devotion (as well as religious hypocrisy), with a good helping of prejudice and capitalism thrown in.  It is also topical and historically well done, resulting in a beautiful and brutal series.

Natalie Dormer (Patient Zero) is a revelation in 3 of the 4 characters (she really can’t pull of the white Mexican well). It is obvious why she took the role. Likewise Nathan Lane (Carrie Pilby), who gets to play to all his strengths from wry humor to deep pathos. Bouncing between them is Daniel Zovatto (Lady Bird), who serves as the main spine for the series. From the opening scene, he is the man in the balance trapped between outcomes. But until the moments, he is stuck in the gray. We watch him struggle to be part of some world, any world, where he fits and can live with the choices. And it is a compelling tension.

A number of driving roles keep it all moving as well. Rory Kinnear (Years and Years), in particular, has a many layered story to navigate. Through him we see duality in detail: humanity and the inhumane. It is done without any nod and wink, nor any apology. And Michael Gladis (Extant) provides a suitably vile and craven political climber in a world that he wants to crush before it crushes him. Even Zovatto’s screen brother, Johnathan Nieves (See You Yesterday), brings in a set of layers born of hopelessness and anger. It’s a little one-note, but it doesn’t lack credibility even when his ultimate choices are a little forced. There are some nice treats along the way too, like Patty Lupone (Last Christmas) in concert and Brian Dennehy’s (The Seagull) final effort before his passing in April (though he may have other footage still to come in a couple projects).

This time in LA, the lead-up to WWII, has been often visited, but rarely with the kind of scope this series pulls off. Usually you get hyper-focused stories, like Zoot Suit, or Chinatown, or any number of mystery/suspense/noir stories that pull apart the high and low of society, or the gay and straight. City of Angels navigates all of these aspects, and then some. And it does so in a way that makes sense and shows the connecting threads. For that alone, it is worth seeing.

However, while I loved seeing a different take on the era, I have to admit that I was also somewhat upset that it removed primary responsibility for the horrors from the humans. Dormer’s character, as the sweet-tongued devil in many guises, becomes the main impetus for all the action. She really does much more than talk to make it all happen, which is where the trouble lies.

In addition, there is a challenge with the plot decisions that bothered me. While the presentation of how LGBTQ people were treated and viewed in the era is relatively, sadly accurate, the series also has no LGBTQ character who isn’t, for lack of a better word, evil. Not just tragic, but actively doing wrong. That feels a shame in a story as big as this and one that has so many levels of detail. And particularly wrong during Pride Month. It isn’t that the characters aren’t human, they just all feel irredeemable.

But, ultimately, this show is so on target for the current situation across the country, the awakening and mobilization of frustration and anger, that it’s uncanny and upsetting. All in an intentional way. City of Angels marks a brick in the path that leads to its own historical volatile times, but it is also a reflection of the powder keg that is today. It insists we look not only at the past but at how we want to navigate the future. And it also forces us to admit the perils of not paying attention to those lessons. Despite its slightly rushed wrap-up and some of the dangling threads, this is a definite must-see for our times and, should these times move on, a must-see for the historic scope and lessons of the past; and yes it’s entertaining as well.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels