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.
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.
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.
Nomadland asks two fairly simple questions: What is home? What is family? The answers, as we all know, aren’t that simple. Director and writer Chloé Zhao tackles the concepts in a quiet, but compelling exhibition that is primarily populated by real Nomads. The result has garnered a mountain of praise and awards notice.
Holding the various talking head segments together is Frances McDormand (Isle of Dogs), whose journey into the nomad life is told with barely an initial explanation. With David Strathairn (Fast Color) as a catalyst, we watch McDormand struggle inwardly until near the end when details are expressed. Though, to be fair, most of those are already understood by the audience, just not by her character.
For all its lauds, and its craft at pulling you along, Nomadland isn’t as good a film as I was expecting. I think McDormand has had better and more challenging roles. Strathairn is a somewhat unfinished and empty character. The stories and ideas we hear are interesting, but they feel like a documentary invaded the story-telling. Somehow it does come together, but it is best to watch this with no expectations, despite the hype that has been building around it over the last year. You’ll find it satisfying, but for a two hour narrative I think Zhao could have been more focused in her script.
Timing is everything in entertainment and The Stand, well, it couldn’t have picked a worse time. Despite the long anticipation, and the desire to see this epic tale told with the breadth it deserves, watching a story of a pandemic (even if it is just a McGuffin) doesn’t quite ring right at the moment.
But timing isn’t its only issue. The show suffers from all that was good in the book and all that was bad. Some of the casting works nicely, like Amber Heard’s (Aquaman) Nadine, Odessa Young’s (Shirley) Frannie, and even James Marsden’s (Sonic the Hedgehog) Stu. Other characters like Owen Teague’s (It: Chapter Two) Harold Lauder, and Nat Wolff’s (Admission) Lloyd, aren’t credible…and, in fact, Lauder isn’t even afforded some of his evolutions from the book despite the available time in the series.
Other changes to the story, like making Flagg the actual devil and Mother Abigail potentially an angel (though really more of a prophet) removes too much of the interesting aspects and struggles. Part of the real suspense in the book is that people have to choose (including Flagg and Abigail). That Flagg actually has a supernatural hand in causing the pandemic is just so frigging cheap a choice and shows no imagination on the part of the writers. It’s too easy and lets people off the hook. I do admit that Alexander Skarsgard (The Hummingbird Project) is a near-perfect choice for Flagg. Whoopie Goldberg is a bit less perfect as Abigail, but that felt more like the writing than her efforts.
There are also some nice smaller appearances that work nicely. Natalie Martinez (Self/less) gets to have a nice arc. And Brad William Henke (Bright) delivers within the limitations of Tom’s boundaries nicely. Even Ezra Miller’s (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) Trashcan man, for all its outlandishness, works for the need and the part. But Nadine’s story gets rushed at the end. And the Vegas crew, generally, is just so over the top as to be entirely ridiculous. You never wonder about the outcome. Only the Colorado side feels real and sustainable (which has its own commentary and point eventually).
When the book came out 40+ years ago, it was something really new. That just isn’t the case anymore. And, worse, it feels culturally old. Despite having been updated in time the characters and situations haven’t been updated for a 2020 sensibility in politics, identities, nor culturally. That gap is squarely on the writer’s and directors. While a lot of the plot is sadly timeless, how we deal with one another has changed and the rhythm and language just feels off.
Ultimately, I wish the writers had been willing to really rework the story without losing its main premise and tension. Good vs. Evil doesn’t have to be extremes. In fact, some of the biggest impacts on both sides are often small gestures or choices that ripple out. Sure, we want it to build to a great crescendo, but the series even pulled that moment from us in an odd throwaway, supernatural event that doesn’t even really fit with the rest of the tale. In fact, the choice utterly cheapened all the efforts of the people involved because, ultimately, they didn’t matter. I do like that they had a coda episode that shows that stories just continue, that they don’t end just because of a plot milestone. Using it to create a second climax, another Stand, was clever. However, again, it cheapened everyone else’s choices and lives by forcing the God/Devil fight directly into it all rather than done at a distance. Deus ex machina is not a satisfying solution for a 9 part series, even if it can be used as a point in shorter fare.
Despite some good performances, incredible scope, and solid production values, this version of The Stand still isn’t the one we deserved after so long. Much like Dune, it struggles to find an artist who can breathe life into its rich and complicated world without making it feel like a farce.
There’s 2/3’s of an entertaining movie here. Sadly, that last act is missing. Honestly, what you get is really just the first installment of a series…but there doesn’t seem to be another one in the works. And, besides, it’s a cheat to end mid-tale rather than to have a coda that can expand the story for later. In other words, every movie needs to stand on its own, even if it feeds into a bigger arc. Director Goro Miyazaki (From Up on Poppy Hill) knows this, so I don’t quite understand the choices, unless they were driven by cost or other factors.
Added to the challenge is that Studio Ghibli is clearly trying out new tech with this film. The result is very cold, losing all the warmth and subtle artistry the group is famous for. The look of the characters is very plastic-y and the lips don’t sync well at all. Some of that may have been the voice talent, but it was more noticeable than I’ve seen before in a Ghibli release.
And the voice direction was only middling. So much so that only a couple of the smaller characters really stood out. Neither of them were the women at the heart of the tale. Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and Dan Stevens (Colossal, Legion) were either given more leash or put in more effort, but it was their deliveries that were the most memorable.
Goro’s father, Hayao Miyazaki (The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness), apparently helped with the planning of this story. You can see his influence in some of the interesting flows and the general joy and humor of the film, but I can’t believe even he was happy with the ending.
Ultimately, assuming the story is continued, this will be an intriguing first installment. But if it ends up just standing on its own, it is somewhat pointless. Frankly, I’d hold off till there is the promise of more, or you’re either prepared to be left hanging, or know the original books enough to know what’s going on.
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.
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.
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.
Oh, god, just no. Awful, unbelievable, absurd, insulting, frustrating, and painful.
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.
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.
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.
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?
There have been many shows from this area of Europe of late. Most are straight-up mysteries. Some are supernaturalish hybrids, like this offering. Led with intensity by Danica Curcic (The Bridge (Bron/Broen)), this is a tale of inevitability as well as mystery. It is less about surprise and more about trying to identify what is real and what is just a symptom of something else.
The six-episode arc will keep you intrigued. The craft of the show as it bounces between past and present, fantasy and reality is a bit awkward and confused at times, but it generally works and is sometimes purposefully vague. The story is, however, complete in the one go, though they may decide to come back to it. They certainly didn’t answer all questions to my satisfaction. And it’s no Dark, or Les Revenants. While the story is somewhat layered and complex, it won’t make your brain bleed.
Ultimately, this is nice distraction from the standard. It delivers fairly on its promise and it’s reasonably well executed. I realize this isn’t screaming praise…I think I wanted a bit more from it given the setup and potential. But that was more a problem with expectation than delivery.
Angering, funny, and terrifying. Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game) chose the last time in the modern age that our democracy balanced on a knife edge to both instruct and provide hope for the times we’re in now. We got through it back then, afterall. The system ultimately worked despite every effort to subvert and abuse it. And while I recognize that as a false equivalency as the system itself has been undermined massively over the last 12 years, it isn’t entirely without merit as an argument. It certainly is a reminder of responsibility and where the power of the government lies.
And yet, I will admit that I’d avoided this story afraid of having to deal with the frustration of the reality it depicts. And, yes, I was tense with anger and frustration for a good part of the movie. But Sorkin punctuates the tension with some well barbed humor and glimmers of humanity to keep it moving along. He also landed some amazing talent to recreate those involved.
As a whole the cast is truly fantastic and wonderful at representing their historical counterparts. But there were a few standouts. Sacha Baron Cohen (Alice Through the Looking Glass) as Abbie Hoffman is chief amongst those. Mark Rylance (Blitz) and Eddie Redmayne (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) are close behind along with John Carroll Lynch (Big Sky). And, in a purposefully incidental role, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman) quietly and righteously froths with intelligence and fury on the periphery.
On the other side of the aisle, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Project Power) and Frank Langella (The Time Being) are impressive to watch, but neither really gets much of an arc to work with. Even Gordon-Levitt, who gets a few important moments, doesn’t really get to exploit or explore them for us in any fully satisfying way. But without either of them, the rest of the story would have sagged and the truth would have been less richly displayed.
With Jan 20 just around the corner, the movie is also a lot more palatable than it was two months ago…though also with a reminder that democracy is something we have to constantly nurture. This movie is heavy with history, but it is also full of entertainment to help put it all in perspective. That is Sorkin’s genius as a writer and, now with this sophomore outing, also as a director. Trial is not an anti-government film. It’s a story of what happens when the government forgets that it works for the people, not the other way around.