Tag Archives: Action

The Magicians (series finale)

[4 stars]

I honestly didn’t think Magicians was going to survive the transition from season 4 and the exit of a major character. Not because they were such a great character but because they were a central lynchpin for everything else around them. It was part of what made the finale last season so effective. But where do you go from that?

The answer is to shake it all up. The loss is still there as an emotional ghost driving the machine, at least as a starting point. Characters all deal with the loss in different ways. But, smartly, the show has gone deeper into those remaining characters and, more importantly, even upset the seasonal structure. This round has a unique shape and, possibly, one of the best time-loop stories ever put together; certainly one of the best in a very long time.

This final season managed to be two seasons in one, packing a huge amount of story into the 13 episodes. And the last two episodes manage to wrap up a bundle of threads that leave it all very satisfying without closing off potential. The creators always knew this might be their last, so they worked hard to make this a season as well as a series finale, should it have to be. There is none of that lingering bitter aftertaste of incomplete tales.

The Magicians, overall, is a nicely arc’d five seasons. Sure it is loaded with angst and gratuitous sex and violence (and occasionally forced and overwrought), but all to make it feel different. This isn’t a pretty fantasy world, it’s dark and real and messy. Actions have consequences and people (and gods) disappoint… often. But it is ultimately satisfying and fun, even if it drifted so far from the original book material as to be practically unrecognizable to Grossman fans.

21 Bridges

[3 stars]

Director Brian Kirk’s first feature after decades of solid TV work is impressively put together from a visual, editing, and pacing point of view. In fact, the opening has one of the nicest visuals I’ve seen…I had to rewind and watch it again. But the script, from Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z) has several credibility gaps that, while attempts are made to provide reasons, made my procedural skin crawl. But let me come back to that. It wasn’t that the ride wasn’t entertaining, I think I just wanted more given the cast.

With Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) in the lead on the cop side, there is a solid sense of upright justice and drive. We trust him implicitly, even as we wonder at his naiveté at the overall aspect. With JK Simmons (Klaus), Victoria L. Cartagena (You) and others backing him, we watch the improbable and absurd plot spin out, violating more rules than are easily quantified here. So the trick is to just pretend and go with it…cause, why not? You put this on to escape, not think. (And after this week, when NYC is actually contemplating a city-wide lockdown due to COVID-19, perhaps I’m rushing to judgement.)

The targets and patsies of this fantastical heist and cop movie are Taylor Kitsch (American Assassin) and Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk). The two spin out their portion of the tale nicely as they, too, have to unravel what the heck is going on and why. A nice cameo by Alexander Siddig (Atlantis) helps all that along.

Now, back to that script: It is obvious there is more going on from the beginning, so that’s not a spoiler (and if it is, you really weren’t paying attention). However, none of the reveals are surprises, so the action feels drawn out beyond patience for the results. The entertainment value really lies in the various confrontations and reactions to the reveals rather than the information itself. Is that enough? Well, it wasn’t for its general release, but as a rental, it’s more than adequate to the task.

21 Bridges

Dotor Who (series 12)

[3.5 stars]

Honestly, I don’t know whether to be excited or infuriated by this latest series. There are so many possibilities and answers and openings, and yet it was executed a bit ham-handedly and, ultimately, rushed.

Jodie Whittaker (Broadchurch) continues to grow her sense of the Doctor…and does so with aplomb. Our intrepid companions are evolving, though they have been pushed more to the side as the Doctor has gained confidence and energy. The dynamic of the foursome isn’t always smooth from a story point of view, but they all work well together. I think when Chibnall really gets a feeling of the reins, he could equal Davies first few seasons. But first he really has to get some guidance on what building an arc really means.

This season is very reminiscent of Moffat’s disastrous series 8 as show-runner; fractured and confused. Though I think Chibnall’s overall quality is significantly better than Moffat’s awful season. But Chibnall has struggled with the overall arc and flow. He also allowed the series to get “in your face” preachy about too many issues. The ideas, and even presentations, were fine, but the expositions were painful. The same ideas could have been imparted without stating it all out in detail. In other words, he didn’t trust his audience enough. Even kids would have understood the implications without the pulpit speeches. At least, I do think Chibnall has the sensibility of Dr. Who correct (unlike Moffat much of the time). I just wish he’d be a bit more Torchwood and a bit less Saturday morning kid’s show.

Overall, it wasn’t an unengaging season, and it has some things to chew on, but I’m hoping next round will have more control and shape.

And now, the play by play as the series aired, if you want to understand how I came to these statements.

By the episode (with spoilers): 

Spyfall (parts 1 & 2)
As a sendup of Skyfall, this Bond-like episode has a lot of fun and opens up some new avenues. However, I missed not having a stand-alone holiday special rather than just launching into the 12th series. In part I was also very, very frustrated with the revelation of the big bad. Not that Sacha Dhawan (Iron Fist) isn’t entertaining (if not exactly a Master I can get behind quite yet), but I really felt like that thread had been tied up ever so nicely during the Capaldi years. I suppose, however, that Chibnall just couldn’t resist trying to tackle one of the primary enemies and put his own stamp on it. What these episodes brought us, however, was the shape of the upcoming season with the reveals at the end. Was it worth it? I guess we’ll see.

Orphan 55
This episode starts off interestingly, but devolves into the worst kind of preachy science fiction that just doesn’t work well. Surprising as Ed Hime wrote one of the more challenging episodes from the previous season, It Takes You Away. It’s a shame as there were missed opportunities and, certainly, some fun riffs on Damnation Alley that could have taken the story in different directions. For instance, what if the Dregs were the results of virus infected terraforming tech that Kane was using. But, as it is, it’s one of the weakest episodes they’ve had a in long while. At least it was well directed and acted. And it was fun to see Laura Lane (The Loch) and Lewin Lloyd (Judy) in some different roles. Perhaps this is the one really weak episode this season (there’s always one)…and we’re getting it out of the early rather than late.

Nicola Tesla’s Night of Horrors
Well, I’ll give them this, Edison was portrayed at least a bit like the ass he was. The episode as a whole was OK. It’s another high octane, hand-wavy adventure in history, though this time on American soil with Goran Visnjic (Beginners) and Robert Glenister guesting as Tesla and Edison respectively. Fun, sure, and nice to see Tesla sort of get his due. it was also somewhat clever (and perhaps disingenuous) that Who elevates his ideas, even if the tragic aspects of his life remain.

I do have to wonder, after setting up the larger arc in the first episodes, why have we not even touched on it again yet? There aren’t that many eps to play with so waiting seems like a bad idea to me.

Renegade of the Judoon
Now this is what I’m talking about! This was the best and most complex episode of the season so far. It picks up the opening mystery and explodes it with two major reveals of multiple time lines and the delightful return of John Barrowman’s Capt. Jack Harkness. As a mid-season pivot, it’s wonderful. Why they dropped the thread for a couple eps escapes me as there is clearly a lot of material to work with. The mysteries should have at least been tagged into the intervening episodes to keep it more alive. But we’re here now…hoping the momentum continues and it’s a sprint to the finale.

Praxeus
Really? They couldn’t just keep focusing on the main thread? We had to have yet another “we’re destroying the planet” PSA? And, by the way, they’re getting a bit much and far too preachy in the writing. I know this is aimed at kids, but they’re smarter than the script allows for as well.

The episode is definitely an energetic and entertaining one. It even brings in Warren Brown (Good Cop), who gets to recap a lot of his characters in this one, but with some nice twists with the help of Matthew McNulty (The Paradise). But we just left off a huge revelation and there isn’t even a hint of that in this story.  There are only four episodes left and a hell of a lot to wrap up. Chibnall needs to get a better grip of his seasonal arcs and learn how to weave a whole cloth.

Can You Hear Me?
This fast-paced and energized adventure is great fun and sets up…something. Not sure what yet, but I don’t think this will be the last we know and see of these newest “monsters.” But the story is almost entirely off thread from the main series arc. At least it certainly appears to be stand-alone. What is clear from this episode is that we’re headed to some sort of change-over in, at least, the companions.

The Haunting of Villa Diodati
OK, here we are again with another view of the night Frankenstein was created (the most recent being Mary Shelley). Admittedly, this is a fun and unique use of that infamous (though more likely apocryphal) night. And it gets us back on the main arc…though with more questions than answers by the end.

With only two episodes left in the series, and the stakes and issues all finally at the forefront (although a continued aversion to discussing Jack or the other Doctor), I certainly hope they are both about wrapping all this up. This particularly story is fine, but because of the many recreations of this night, the trappings frankly felt a bit tired to me despite the creative concepts.

Ascension of the Cybermen
Talk about a long lead. Finally we are closing the loop begun in the first episode. This is an action packed story that raises the horror of the Cybermen another notch. While not an official two-parter, the resolution won’t come till next week’s finale. Frankly, not much really happens in this episode other than some adrenaline-based setup and the pulling in of at least some of the open threads. Mind you, there are still far too many left untouched, but I suspect that will change. I just hope the final episode of the series is super-sized so they don’t have to rush the resolution or, worse, leave it unresolved until the holiday special or next season. In other words, this was a fun and exciting episode, but not a complete or satisfying one on its own.

The Timeless Children
As I feared, this episode ended up rushed and, ultimately, open-ended. That said, at least we finally have an answer to Matt Smith’s regeneration from a few seasons back (that infamous number 13) which was never explained. You can buy into that or not, but at least Chibnall has attempted to provide an answer without shattering the canon. However, the depiction of The Master here, both by Sacha Dhawan and as written, is just over the top and weakly supported…and it flies in the face of the most recent incarnations. Sure The Master was always a bit off his nut, and a lot of that was due to his personal competition with The Doctor, but it needed more foundation and explanation throughout the series to get him onto a new path. And the one thing this episode never explained is how The Master survived the end of last season.

And, finally, the tag was more than a little angering. While it pulled back in aspects of the opening episode nicely, it leaves us utterly hanging at least until much later this year (with a possible special). I would have much preferred a conclusion and then a bridging special with tag into the 13th. It felt like a desperate attempt to get folks back after a mixed-result series.

Doctor Who

Angel Has Fallen

[2.5 stars]

Before 300, who would have ever pegged Gerard Butler (Hunter Killer) as the leader of action franchises? Since then he’s done a string of entertaining, but not particularly good, films. And this particular series is as uneven as they come. Olympus Has Fallen was surprising…but its sequel was just awful. However, it made enough to bring us this threquel, which is somewhere between the two in quality.

There are some things going for this story. First, embracing its aging lead and recognizing that a job that involves as many explosions and physical contact as Butler’s has a deteriorating effect on the body. Also, there are some great moments peppered throughout and, perhaps best, the relationship and by-play with Nick Nolte (A Walk in the Woods).

Unfortunately, these tidbits of good are bound together by some of the weakest mysteries, worst logic, and bad writing I’ve seen in a major in quite a while. Poor Jada Pinkett Smith (Magic Mike XXL) is saddled with a character that put the “feeble” in FBI. And Tim Blake Nelson (Just Mercy) is about as credible as a hedghog as the vice president.

Part of what worked against the movie is that its effects and stunts are top notch, making the B-grade script and story show its warts all the more. So, whether you see this one has to be up to you. I’ve seen worse, but I’ve certainly seen so much better. The script is so insulting to the audience that you need to disengage, yell at the screen till you’re too tired to continue doing that, or turn it into a drinking game. Choose your approach carefully.

Angel Has Fallen

Bad Boys For Life

[3.5 stars]

After 17 years, have the boys still got it? Well, yes and no. The story by trio Chris Bremner, Peter Craig (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay), and Joe Carnahan (Death Wish) is full of the humor you expect, plays on the fact they’ve aged considerably, and after a slow first half, finds its groove and ultimately delivers. And directors Adil & Bilall navigate the cast through the odd humor/action/bromance nicely. That rocky start is my reason for the equviocation.

But this franchise survives on its core team: Will Smith (Spies in Disguise) and Martin Lawrence (The Beach Bum). Smith is having a busy year.  Starting with Aladdin, then the technical marvel of Gemini Man, and now a solid return to his earlier days here. The two still have their interplay…that odd broken rhythm that shouldn’t work, but somehow does…but they’re joined by some new and returning folks to help reinvigorate their ageing world.

On the new side, Paola Núñez (The Purge), Alexander Ludwig (The Final Girl and the unrelated The Final Girls), and Vanessa Hudgens (Second Act) really stood out. Each brings a new kind of energy and humor to the story, giving the old guard something to play against. And Kate del Castillo provides a big bad who is up to the task, if not a little off her rocker.

The plot is, of course, a bit extreme, a bit absurd, and wholly unlikely, not to mention utterly forced at the end. But you don’t go for high literature to this series. You go to Bad Boys for the action and humor, and it manages to retain both nicely. If you liked the original two, you’ll enjoy this latest addition (and its forthcoming sequel which is already in the works). And, should you go, stay for the tag scenes through the first minute or so of the roll.

Bad Boys for Life

1917

[4 stars]

Some movies are just great rides, and this is one of them. What Sam Mendes (Spectre) has accomplished with his planning and directing is a movie miracle from a technological point of view. And, in this case, that’s enough to recommend it. The script he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful), however, isn’t quite on the same level; it is more than a little forced. These aspects make 1917 an interesting duality.

There is no question that that is worth seeing and, in particular, worth seeing on the big screen. It pulls off what Birdman tried to but was too coy and self-conscious to pull off: making the one-shot completely invisible as a device. From the moment it begins, 1917 makes you walk alongside the young soldiers about to traverse a special kind of hell. George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Blinded By the Light) are perfect choices to lead our trip…they aren’t very recognizable, allowing them to be more believable. In fact, their lack of celebrity only heightens other faces we do recognize such as Andrew Scott (Lear), Mark Strong (Shazam!), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Current War), and Richard Madden (Rocketman). It is a purposeful effect, lending power to these small parts and diminishing even more the pawns we are following.

But here’s the tricky thing… their mission and the course it takes, in order to be dramatic, feels directed or manipulated. You may not know exactly what’s going to happen all the time, but you have a good sense since we’ve been on these rides before, just on more highly edited trips. MacKay, in particular, is simply a vessel for us. He is a complete cypher until the very end of his particular journey and then, well, it just isn’t enough.

1917 is a tchnologlcal monster in the way Gravity was in its year. In addition, it has an uncomfortable resonance, particularly now as we sit (yet again) on the brink of war. But despite all that, it isn’t a great story…which makes it only a solid movie and not a great one. Still, it will wow enough voters to get a Best Picture nomination and it may even sway enough to win. Certainly the editing, cinematography, and sound are worthy of notice. Directing as well, given the Herculean effort it took to pull it all off. But the story just isn’t there for me.

Part of my sense of the emotional gap is because of They Shall Not Grow Old, which never really focused on a single soldier, but which managed to create a more emotional journey for me. Part of it was the difference in scale. MacKay and Chapman spend most of their time in No Man’s Land. This sets them in an empty landscape surrounded by the debris of war but not in the midst of it. Those moments come, but the scope of it all was lost by the narrow focus, even as the beginning and end try to bring it back in. Though I fully admit the tension of the journey (one of many soldiers like these had to make) leaves you a wet rag as the credits role; physically, if not entirely emotionally, exhausted.

See this on big screen with big sound (Dolby definitely did this film justice on that level). 1917 is late to the race this year, but it is one you’ll be hearing a lot about over the next month or so.

1917

Cold Pursuit

[3.5 stars]

Coal-black comedy against a snow-white landscape. If only this movie had remembered what it really was, it could have been great. Despite the trailers you may have seen, this isn’t the standard Liam Neeson (Men in Black: International) revenge romp…it is something more like Boondock Saints in the Arctic. But as much as it wants to be a black comedy, it can’t quite commit to that path, though it punctuates the movie through to the very end.

Neeson is surrounded by a cadre of criminals, a bit of family, and a couple law enforcement officials. But they’re all just foils for the story. Most have no real life to go with them other than the immediate motivations needed to drive the tale. Emmy Rossum (Beautiful Creatures) is a marginal exception to that, having one of the more complete backgrounds and story of her own. Domenick Lombardozzi (Bridge of Spies) had an implied story, but without much depth. Even Tom Bateman (Murder on the Orient Express), despite being the big bad, never really fleshes out, though a good deal is implied.

For a first script, Frank Baldwin showed considerable bravery in the direction he set for this satirical revenge romp. Unfortunately, director Hans Petter Moland just couldn’t find the rhythm and style to quite sell it to general audiences.

[This write up has languished for months while I kept promising myself I’d also screen the original, In Order of Disappearance – Kraftidioten. Sadly that hasn’t happened but it clearly has an equally capable, if very differently energized, lead in Stellan Skarsgård (Our Kind of Traitor, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote). At some point I will get to that as well, but for now, at least you get to hear about the remake.]

Mysterious Witchers Lost in Space

Each of these streamers deserves to be seen and to have their own write up. But that felt like overkill and, I suspect, many folks will have been ahead of me already. However, all are enjoyable, intelligent, and all are very different.

Witcher

Henry Cavill (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) was a perfect choice for the lead in this entertaining, if not brilliant, series. He captures the sarcasm and dry wit of the game character, not to mention he is the physical emodiment of Geralt of Rivia. He’s backed up nicely by Joey Batey and Anya Chalotra. There are other, more recognizable faces, such as MyAnna Buring (In the Dark) and Anna-Louise Plowman, but it is generally a lot of semi-familiar and unknown faces.

The series is challenging thanks to its narrative form (which is part of the secret of the first season, so I really can’t discuss it here). I think it could have been handled more clearly, but it ultimatley comes together in interesting ways and I appreciate that they didn’t treat their audience like idiots. Much like Watchmen, it lends itself to rewatching once you understand it all. I’m definitely on board for the next season, but that isn’t coming till 2021, so you’ve plenty of time to watch the series and/or play the games if you want beforehand.

Lost in Space 2

The first season reboot of this show surprised me completely. Netflix transformed the silly Saturday morning show into something richer and darker, if still with a child’s sensibility of adventure. And if you thought Dr. Smith was complex and dark in the first series, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Parker Posey (Cafe Society) has definitely found a role she’ll be remembered for.

This season is incredibly well constructed, even if some of the writing still takes too many character and plot short-cuts. Still, I admire the risks they were willing to take even if getting there has some flaws. And every major character gets their moment to grow and expand in some very nice ways. The new season pulls you along with barely a chance to breathe, making it a great binge show, but also means it is over too soon. Series 3 isn’t officially confirmed, but expect it to take another year, if for no other reason to complete all the f/x needed for the show.

Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated

This wonderfully self-aware reconception of the cartoon classic is more Buffy than kid’s show. Conceived as a complete 2-season arc, and loaded with adult nods and layers of mystery, it is both wonderful nostaligia and entertaining distraction in 20-minute bites. It’s also loaded with surprise voice talent in major roles and guest roles. Give it a shot, you’ll know in a few minutes if it is for you or not.

Watchmen

[4.5 stars]

I know others have gotten out there before me, but I really hate writing up a show before a season is complete. There are just too many chances for a series to go off the rails after a great start. And with Watchmen, I was holding my breath as it started strong and just kept improving as it went…at least until the very end where it, perhaps, lost just a tad bit of steam wrapping it all up and prepping for what’s to come.

This series grows naturally out of its birthing material, without leaving behind the graphic novel or the movie. It does it without forgetting or forgiving what came before, which is a real gift. Those who love the original find all kinds of touchstones while those that are new to it sense the depth of the world and its underpinnings.

Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) is a powerhouse and full of complications. Her story and journey hold together the entire series. But she isn’t alone in the tale.

Some of the most interesting characters arrive later in the sequence. Jean Smart (Legion) and Hong Chau  (Downsizing), for instance. And Jovan Adepo  (Overlord) as the younger version of Louis Gossett Jr. navigates a world of levels.

Jeremy Irons (Red Sparrow) gets to play alongside the main plot for more than half the sequence before having direct impact. And with Sara Vickers (Endeavour) and Tom Mison (Parade’s End) supporting him, the trio have a wonderful plot of their own that is loaded with humor and horror.

This is a wonderfully constructed world, unafraid to go where it must. The story is both familiar and topical without having to be completely obvious. Well, not always anyway. And it manages to treat time and flow in a way that will surprise and even insist you go back and rewatch to catch everything; taking on some of the same challenges as Legion, but in a more grounded way.

I am not a huge fan of Damon Lindelof as a writer. But in this case, he took his time to craft something wonderful. It is full of ideas, adult humor, bleak forcasts, and complex characters. I can’t wait to see where he goes with it next. But even if there isn’t more to come (and Lindelof is admitting he has nothing in the pipe to do so), this works as a cycle on its own, with a few open questions to tickle your brain as you consider implications.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

[3 stars]

Thank god it’s finally over.

 

Seriously, there is no point in discussing the issues…like lousy editing, weak story, empy music, or the lack of an emotional release after a 42 year committment. You’re either on board for this or you’re not. Nothing I say is going to matter.