Tag Archives: Action

Mortal

[3 stars]

Unexplained super-powers is becoming an overdone trope, which is why when you find one that tries to do something new, it’s a particular delight. André Øvredal (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) returns to his Nordic, Trollhunter roots to bring us a slow but intense tale of a young man, Nat Wolff (Admission), who suddenly acquires powers he can’t control or explain.

Iben Akerlie (Little Drummer Girl) plays opposite Wolff and balances him out well. In fact, she and Per Frisch are about the only clear-headed folks in the movie while Priyanka Bose (Lion) serves to remind the world of why Americans just shouldn’t be trusted. A sad cliché, but she navigates it relatively well within the bounds of the script.

As you can imagine, tragedy and stupid government decisions begin to occur. But this isn’t quite the story you expect, nor does it unfold exactly as others of its ilk. Sadly, it also doesn’t quite get to a conclusion so much as a beginning. Whether the tale will continue I imagine is still in flux, but the path is certainly there. In the meantime, if you can handle being left hanging (think a Brightburn kind of ending in style, though not in content), give it a shot. Definitely something a bit more interesting than the typical version of these tales.

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Mid Winter(ish) TV

I’ve not written up some of the new and returning shows over the last few months, so dropping them together in a bunch here. More will be coming in the next few weeks, but this was getting long enough already…

Call Me Kat
This odd offering by Mayim Bialik (Big Bang Theory) is a unique and not entirely comfortable show. It may eventually find it’s feet, but it’s best to think of it as a sketch show or comedy half-hour rather than a story so far. And the abuse of the great Swoosie Kurtz is near criminal. By way of context, this show is based on the UK’s Miranda, adopting the quasi-stand-up nature of the original but trying to push it more toward ensemble…. BTW, if you haven’t caught Miranda, it’s a fascinating to compare the two and it boasts Tom Ellis (Lucifer) in the wish-he-were-my-boyfriend role.

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Mr. Mayor
If you loved The Office, this is probably a show for you. I didn’t and it isn’t for me. It’s just too broad and full of, well, stupid people who aren’t supposed to be stupid or, worse, couldn’t be that stupid and be where they are in life. Given the talent involved in this show, it’s a real shame.

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Call Your Mother
This is a show on the bubble. Kyra Sedgwick (Ten Days in the Valley) manages to walk the line between very broad humor and honest emotion. Whether the writing can keep up with that challenge and create storylines we care about long term…the jury’s still way out on that one, but I’ll give it some more time.

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B Positive
Oh, god, just no. Awful, unbelievable, absurd, insulting, frustrating, and painful.

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The Expanse (series 5)
Twenty years ago, the end of the first season of Farscape was termed “the multipart cliffhanger from hell” by its creator. And it was…and it took a good part of the next season to resolve and cover what happened. The current season of The Expanse reminds me a lot of that structure. After bringing things to a huge climactic pause at the end of the previous season, the various characters are scattered across the solar system pursuing various storylines that will, by necessity, be intertwined and eventually bring them back together. As the show preps for its final season, this is level-setting and putting all the pieces in place for the final confrontations to come. A good season with revelations and some resolutions, especially for Dominique Tipper’s (Mindgamers) Naomi and Wes Chatham’s (Escape Plan 2) Amos, but mostly it serves as set-up for the end.

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Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (series 2)
After its heart-rending and brilliant opening season, I was worried the magic wouldn’t last. It has. And the show, at least so far, continues to build on its characters and conceit. If you’ve yet to try this one out, you absolutely must…and start at the beginning. Yes, it gets heavy, but it builds to one of the most beautiful finales you’ll ever see. And it never loses its sense of humor or love of its characters.

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One Night in Bangkok

[3 stars]

Despite the title and description, One Night in Bangkok is not an action flick. Wych Kaosayananda’s latest is, instead, an uneven revenge film with often questionable morals. The rough nature of the final product is in the pacing, the acting, and, to a degree, in the plotting. But this story still manages to keep interest and tug emotions thanks to the more verbally intimate scenes between Mark Dacascos (John Wick 3: Parabellum) and his driver. The louder, more confrontational moments between Dacascos and others are often just painful.

I’m used to seeing Dacascos centered and focused, even intimidating when needed. But this story gives him the opportunity to bring his Crow sensitivity to a new, mature level. At times, almost spiritual. We see his pain, his memories, his conflicts. And as the story slowly unwinds, we better understand them all. Though, to be honest, the script never really affords us a full picture of who the man is.

Ultimately, this isn’t a great film, but it has its moments and its value. There aren’t any really great fights or chases, but there is tension and resolution. If the acting had only been better across the rest of the cast, it could have been something more. But it manages to survive and not entirely embarrass itself. Sometimes that’s the best you can ask when making a film in a non-native language for the majority of the cast, some of whom have minimal experience.

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Outside the Wire

[3 stars]

In many ways this is a fairly standard war flick, in the modern style. But it does have a bit of a twist and it ultimately asks some good questions and makes some real points (even if it does so a bit ham-handedly).

With a script by, primarily, a video game writer and directed by Mikael Håfström (Escape Plan), the somewhat quest-styled, surfacey approach to the story isn’t too surprising. It’s still entertaining, and the plot isn’t entirely without flare, but it isn’t brilliant.

The real source of any levels and nuance is brought by Anthony Mackie (Altered Carbon) who adds a sense of gravitas, though he isn’t the main character. The lead is taken on by Damson Idris (Snowfall). Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the presence to dominate the screen and his subtle approach to the role doesn’t manage to provide background, only in-the-moment responses. It’s clear there is a backstory to Idris’s character, but it’s never really revealed either by reaction or script. That leaves us with just the mission we can see, and any questions that may raise.

A few small roles keep it rolling, primarily  Emily Beecham (Hail, Caesar!). But others, like Pilou Asbæk (Overlord) are thrown away.

Ultimately, after a nicely tense climax, it all sort of devolves into the obvious with little learned and little impact for those that remain. The questions certainly still exist, but the story of the movie seems to be just a full circle with, perhaps, a bit more empathy on the part of Idris, though exactly what he’s learned is a little muddy.

For a fun bit of escapism, this isn’t a bad choice. The production is rich and the tension kept nicely high. Just don’t expect it to have the meat it hints it may contain.

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Mulan (2020)

[3.5 stars]

Niki Caro (McFarland, USA) wasn’t a likely choice to direct this Chinese fantasy, but she pulls it off with heart, and not just a few wire tricks. More interestingly, she manages to bridge Eastern and Western sensibilities in the storytelling, arriving at a comfortable blend between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and any Disney princess film you’d like to consider, though perhaps Pixar’s Brave is a better point on that end of the spectrum.

I admit I went into this one full of trepidation. There were so many controversies around the release of the film. Starting with ill-considered tweets from its star Yifei Liu and then its direct release on  stream. But, I have to admit it won me over. Donnie Yen (xXx: Return of Xander Cage), Li Gong (2046), Jet Li (The Expendables 3 ), Tzi Ma (The Farewell), Rosalind Chao, and Pei-Pei Cheng (Lilting) certainly added to the enticement to see the movie.

Mulan isn’t brilliant, but it’s fun and, most importantly, avoids the really bad choices at the end that it starts to swing toward. I was even surprised by moments. Admittedly, despite the well of talent, the performances are relatively shallow. The story is also far too easy and fast. But it’s full of action and visual distraction. It may be a bit confused in some aspects of its story, but it certainly took some chances by incorporating the Western and Eastern Phoenix tales into the story without much explanation or apology to the mashed-up mythos.

Basically, this isn’t a waste of time, but it isn’t one you have to rush to. And the more Chinese fantasies you’ve seen, the thinner this will seem. However, it delivers on its promise, if not with the depth or emotional impact you might have wished.

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Star Trek: Discovery (series 3)

[3 stars]

In its third season, and practically third incarnation, Discovery has finally bridged the divide that has separated two sets of fandom for decades by dropping Trek characters into a Star Wars-like universe. The highly anticipated third launch of this show starts off with a bang and quickly resets the style, sensibility, and characters … yet again. Has any show changed this much series to series other than Fringe (and even that had some consistencies) or The OA (had it been allowed to continue)?

I actually rather enjoyed the first season. There was some daring darkness and an attempt to remake the franchise into something new. The second season was a bit more confused. Interesting, but confused. Character motivations changed, the politics and focus shifted. The outcome and climax were a bit rushed and not entirely satisfactory. However, that finale opened the door for the series to completely leapfrog all known Trek canon and forge their own path.

And that brings us to the current series, 900 years in the future and several hundred years beyond any known story. There are immediate references to past events setting up mysteries and possible eddies from the time jump to keep us anchored. But the most notable aspect is how changed Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael is. Her entire demeanor has shifted. By the end of the  second episode, many others from the crew will have begun down new paths as well. Michelle Yeoh (Last Christmas), in particular, is being set up for some incredible fun.

But, of course, these shifts created a problem for the series…it had to start all over again. With the characters, with the plots, and with the Federation. So, after a solid 2-part opening it devolves for a good part of the season into providing stories for these new beginnings which are wrapped up in Star-Trek-easy confrontations and solutions to get them on the path.

While some characters are jettisoned, others, like Oded Fehr (Resident Evil), Ian Alexander (The OA), and newcomer Blu del Barrio bring some new life to the show. Their insertion into the story is forced at times, but all provide new directions. Admittedly, this is also often at the cost of not getting to see some of the characters we’ve already invested in as much as we’d like to. And with all these encapsulated stories everything comes across as a bit too easy and fast to resolve because they have limited time to get it all done in one episode and/or one season. And the big mystery is scarily bad, hand-wavy science, and the entire season is overly earnest, in that very Trek way, particularly near the end of the season.

But, ultimately, this season is a brave and interesting choice for the show. It definitely feels like something new and unique in the Trek ouvre, and it’s relatively self-contained as a new jumping off point. The real question now is, can they build on it rather than panicking and remaking the show yet again in the fourth season?

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Wonder Woman 1984

[2.5 stars]

I’ll admit that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the first Wonder Woman. Outside of its message and positive example, it was a middling movie. This sequel makes that original film look like a timeless classic. How it got greenlit with such a sub-standard script astounds me. It isn’t just that the mechanics and dialogue that director Patty Jenkins co-wrote, are awful, and that the rules of the magic involved aren’t explained for far too long, it’s that Jenkins couldn’t even get credible and sympathetic performances out of her very talented cast.

Pedro Pascal (Prospect) and Kristin Wiig (Ghostbusters) are presented as just fools, not misled or flawed people. While each clearly has a backstory that might have tugged at our hearts or allowed us to understand them, Jenkins pushed them both to be clichés as regular people, and absurd as super-villains. Without that initial grounding, we can’t even feel any triumph or joy at their final endings.

Even the core love story falls flat. Our main couple, Gal Gadot (Ralph Breaks the Internet) and Chris Pine (A Wrinkle in Time), don’t really connect and their second chance doesn’t feel like either a win or a loss. In fact, their final scene together is practically a throw-away. Worse, the climax of the movie, while guided by Gadot’s Wonder Woman (and somewhat flimsily related back to the opening of the movie) is really up to Pascal’s actions. The whole thing just sort of happens without a lot of satisfaction for the viewer and without a real sense of it being Wonder Woman’s effort. For that matter, we don’t even get a complete resolution for Wiig, who’s core to the challenges.

Even the simple mechanics of the movie were weak with time confusions as the story found itself poorly anchored with clues and guidance. Honestly, this could be a franchise killer. The movie had nothing new to say, no interesting way to say what it wanted to say, and no emotional connection to make us care either way. The only true gift was the extra scene about a minute into the final credits.

But DC, in its mainstream superhero films, has never really had great scripts as compared to Marvel. The oversight and vision just aren’t there. But even my low expectations were crushed by the result of this movie. View it if you must, but go in with low expectations.

Sidenote: This was not the triumphant film with which HBO Max had hoped to launch it’s theatrical co-releases. And then there was the issue that their servers were overloaded and their streams had massive problems. How that bodes for the service and the resurrection of the theaters, I don’t know. If this had been released, it would have likely made a bunch of cash, but it wouldn’t have fared well critically nor had the legs of the original. So, perhaps, they made the best decision by pulling it and using it as bait to lure folks into subscriptions. We’ll see how the next 6 months go…

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Tenet

[3.5 stars]

As the first big film victim of the pandemic, Christopher Nolan’s (Dunkirk) Tenet was probably the most anticipated film to bomb in 2020. Not because of the film but because of the shutting down of the theaters and the studio’s stance keeping it from going straight to streaming (unlike the WB/HBO Max decision barely 4 months later). It had limited audience potential to begin with, and many of us had to just await the 4K release, abandoning hope of seeing it on a bigger screen. My time finally came (and was used to inaugurate a new, larger screen of my own).

Tenet is definitely one bat-shit crazy story that is sure to hurt your head, no matter how far you may get ahead of it. And I got way ahead of it. But Nolan was playing in my wheelhouse with this one. It never ruined the moments, but I think I had more rushes of satisfaction rather than gasps of surprise than most. Now, up front, the science in this latest epic is utterly absurd. You have to just let that go and run with it. The depiction of the conceit is really fun and inventive.

John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) creates a solid action-hero who’s ability to go with the flow (in any direction) is pretty fun to watch. He’s a soldier with a soldier’s mentality of working with what you’ve got, even if it doesn’t quite make sense at the time. Robert Pattinson (High Life) delivers a great side-kick and very different persona than you’re used to seeing him do. But while these two drive the action, Kenneth Branagh (As You Like It) really steals the acting show in this flick. His performance is nuanced and chilling, but with a human inside the horror. Even Elizabeth Debicki’s (The Burnt Orange Heresy) tortured and trapped wife and mother doesn’t have the depth and impact of Branagh’s delivery.

The 2.5 hour runtime of the film is utterly invisible thanks to the pacing. And while the dialogue is packed, it is often only a backdrop to the story. I absorbed maybe half of what was being talked about, but was never out of step with the intentions. I do look forward to rewatching the movie to see what more I may pick up, however. But the film is a veritable fire-hose of information streaming at you and you have to choose where to invest your brain as it unspools. It is also, of course, gorgeous visually and sound designed to within a picometer of its life. You may disagree with the choices in some cases, but Nolan is utterly in control of this film from beginning to end.

Now, back to that big-screen sadness. Honestly, as long as you’ve a reasonably large screen and a good sound system, I’m not sure it makes that big a difference. The visuals aren’t predominantly panoramic or otherwise huge, though certainly there are some moments. And seeing it with an audience to gasp and gawk together probably would have been a bit more energizing, but the story is plenty gripping on its own. Do I feel a little cheated? Sure, but I wasn’t at all displeased with my experience at home. If you like Nolan, particularly his more crazy flicks like Inception or The Prestige, you’ll be on board for Tenet.

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Ava

[3 stars]

It’s easy to see why the cast signed on to this action flick. The bones of a great story are there in Matthew Newton’s (Who We Are Now) script. And, as we’ve seen recently, every female lead wants to make their mark as an action figure these days: Mad Max, Atomic Blonde, Red Sparrow, Rhythm Section…the list goes on. And with a better director than Tate Taylor (The Girl on the Train) this film may have actually been something to see and a franchise opportunity rather than a one-shot wonder.

Jessica Chastain (X-Men: Dark Phoenix) delivers a deeply flawed character who has found her way in the world, only to discover it’s a dead end. Around her are a number of other great talents, from John Malkovich (The Rhythm Section) and Geena Davis (Marjorie Prime), to Colin Farrell (Dumbo) and Joan Chen (White Frog). Even Common (Smallfoot) has a small role. But other than brief moments for each, none get to build out something that feels complete nor ever quite believable. And, to be honest, there are some painfully bad on-screen moments for each as well.

In the end, all the potential really got lost in cheap choices and lackluster control by Taylor. Even the action sequences were choppy and not particularly well filmed.

There’s still some enjoyment to be had here, but this isn’t the film it could have been. Given the cast and what I could see in the story, I really found myself demanding more, which is why I’m so disappointed. It’s still a diverting movie and worth seeing, if you like such films, but it should have been so much more (have I mentioned that already?).

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Unknown Origins (Orígenes Secretos)

[4 stars]

One of the best geekfests since Deadpool, and considerably more down to earth. I could explain more, but it would give away the fun.

Director and co-writer David Galán Galindo walks a very difficult line to deliver an odd buddy-cop movie that somehow rides the border of absurd without ever quite losing control. And while a lot of that is due to the script, it is in large part thanks to his cast.

Brays Efe, begins as a clear riff on Jack Black, but evolves into his own, becoming someone quite a bit more as we learn about him and as the plot demands. And Verónica Echegui (Fortitude) starts off equally absurd, but quickly proves her abilities and status. Even Ernesto Alterio’s slightly gleeful and dedicated coroner pushes edges but never loses credibility. The story is helped by the solid center of Antonio Resines as the outgoing guard and the incoming Javier Rey, who are both more traditional detectives, thought at very different ends of their careers. Rey’s earnest nature provides ample foil for the rest of the cast while he finds his way.

Somehow the grabbag of strange characters comes together into something believable enough to entertain and be taken almost seriously. It is definitely more than the sum of its parts and aimed squarely at a particular kind of audience. While it may work generally, the more you know of the superhero or comic world, the more you will enjoy the tale. Anyone with a leaning in these areas should make time for this; you won’t be disappointed. Oh, and don’t miss the bonus scene at the end of the credits for a final treat…