Tag Archives: craft

Squid Game

[3 stars]

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are at least aware of Squid Game. It has had even bigger viewership numbers than Bridgerton and has made the news and even a song on SNL. Everything everyone has said is true. It is hyperviolent. It is dark as hell. It is a bizarre lens and commentary on capitalism, life, and society. So no need to go there. I want to talk about what people aren’t mentioning.

To start off, I had spotted the show very early in its release, but the description/warning that pretty much just said that it was “hyperviolent” had me put it off. And then the hype grew and so I gave it a shot. The first episode was numbing and depressing. There were no obvious characters worth investing in, based on their actions. I knew who we were supposed to root for, but frankly couldn’t find a way in to do so. So I paused my return to the Korean spectacle.

And then the hype grew more. I just couldn’t grasp what was causing all the hoopla. So, I went back…and that’s where it all got interesting.

The storytelling in Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game is odd and non-linear. It starts us at a dark nadir for Lee Jung-jae as our main character. But then, with the second episode, we start getting backstory for him and the other players. None of it forgives their actions, but it provides context. And there are lots of stories to tell in this cast, though Park Hae-soo, Jung Hoyeon, and Oh Yeong-su have some of the more interesting. No one in this story is blameless and they all, essentially, accept the reality that they are where they are thanks to their own actions. But the context allows for some amount of empathy and, ultimately, some devastating moments. Unlike, say, Battle Royale, it definitely pays off with a purpose.

Add to all this the amazing production design and you have a show you can’t seem to look away from…unless of course you can’t handle hyper-violence, in which case what the heck are you doing watching this anyway? Ultimately, the story is allegorical and not a little absurd. It jumps the shark near the climax with the arrival of the VIPs for me, and the ending was neither overly surprising nor satisfying. It simply happened to allow for a second season. And, to be fair, I want to see what they do with it, even if I don’t forgive the character manipulation that brings us there.

This isn’t an easy show. It won’t raise your opinion of humanity. But, in a weird way, it leaves you feeling hopeful and with some faith in the individual. It will also put some questions in the back of your head that will rattle uncomfortably as you contemplate them in private. Should you watch it? Again, see hyperviolence. It is brutal at times. If you can’t deal with that, the answer is a flat: no. If you can tolerate the intensity and blood, yeah, it’s something you should see.

Squid Game Poster

Halloween Kills

[2.5 stars]

Buckets of blood? Check. Surprises and jumps? Close enough. Story? Well…not so much.

David Gordon Green’s second installment of the new Halloween trilogy is not so much a movie as it is a commentary on society and reflections on the franchise going back to 1978. There isn’t even any teen angst or hijinks. It is almost all from the perspective of the survivors (guilty and not) of the previous films. While the previous film capitalized on that and flipped the script in nice ways, this one is simply out of control and can in no way stand on its own.

Perhaps the real issue is that Green knew he had three films. This installment is simply a bridge to the third and (promised) unexpected finale. But if you don’t know the series and haven’t seen the lead-in story, you’d be lost. This movie picks up literally from the moment the last ended. But it has no real purpose. No rich stories to latch onto and care about (it tries, but fails). It is violent as hell on all sides, and that is its biggest mistake.

For the statement that Green wanted to make, Meyers should have had the lowest, or even zero, bodies added to his list. All of the death should have come purely from the chaos he inspired. That would have made a statement. As it is we simply go from death to death, one squishy over-the-top moment to the next. And while I can enjoy a good splatter film, this just didn’t engage me.

I am, without proof, hopeful that next year’s Halloween Ends will justify this middling release. But we’ll have to wait to see. For now, whether you see this now or later is entirely up to you.

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Wendy

[3.5 stars]

Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) is not only a gifted storyteller and filmmaker, he is incredibly astute at finding young talent. And while this second feature didn’t get the same kind of attention his first movie did, his abilities are on raw display.

The story, by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza, is a clever retelling of Peter Pan evoking, yet again, their Louisiana roots. The story takes the fantasy and and the desire to never grow up and makes it even more magical that the original Barry tale in some ways.

Part of that success is down to new-comers Devin France and Yashua Mack, in the roles of Wendy and Peter. They are near spooky in their ability to be both children and to seem to carry the wisdom of years behind their eyes. Some of that is, no doubt, Zeitlin’s ability to direct them, but much is their own innate talents.

The film is fluid and unexpected in the way it deals with reality. It provides a framework, but not many answers. And, ultimately, it lands on a joyous metaphor that is both positive and bitter-sweet. The largest failing of the story is it’s climax, mirroring “clap if you believe in fairies.” It is a moment that will work for most audiences, but which I found distancing and demanding in a way that was not embracing. It threw me out of the flick entirely in a very bad way. I understand the choice and assumptions, but it was a shame, after so much else before and after that moment worked, that he and his sister couldn’t see the issue they had tripped on with their choice.

That aside, the movie and its ideas are really special. Zeitlin continues to be a filmmaker to watch, with a unique and powerful vision of the world and an ability to nurture talent that might otherwise go missed.

Wendy Poster

Voyagers

[2 stars]

Short version: it’s Lord of the Flies in space but without any of the weight of the original allegory.

Longer version: The world is dying so a group of scientists send a bunch of teenagers into space without much personal or automated supervision for 86 years. What could go wrong?

Honestly, the premise of a generation ship could have worked had they not already admitted they had both invitro fertilization and extra-utero gestation solved. Why the heck did they need more than a few adults to get the ship where it needed to be? Bring a seed bank of humans; the rest could have been made later either in waves or all at once near the end so they were useful. Would have saved a ton of supplies and space.

But that wasn’t the story Neil Burger (The Upside) wanted to tell. He wanted to show the horror of mankind unbound. Except he didn’t. He showed what a couple of psychopathic teens could accomplish when adults were too stupid to take precautions like monitoring their charges physically, chemically, or some other way. The pitfalls of the plan are obvious to anyone and the results inevitable. So the movie is really about the spectacle.

Unfortunately, while there are some nice design an visual effects, there isn’t a lot of good spectacle on display either. Not in terms of fights, skin, or anything else that might qualify. Burger couldn’t really commit to his vision, or the studio kept scaling it back. Frankly High Life or even the nearly unwatchable Climax took on these themes better. And Passengers, for any flaws it may have or others thought of it, looked at long space flight better as well.

What is a shame is that he had some talent there waiting to tackle the problems. Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Dark Phoenix), Fionn Whitehead (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch), Lily-Rose Depp, not to mention Colin Farrell (Ava) all have chops. But Burger’s script and direction did them no favors. While they all start at a good place and are good at the understated base from which it all launches, none of them really have an arc we care about emotionally.

So, yes, skip this. My pain should not be yours. Burger is a capable filmmaker, but this was not one he will be remembered for. And none of the actors will admit to this down the road unless under duress.

Voyagers Poster

Fall In-comers

A few of the new shows have dropped. It feels rather thin for this Fall, but then again, the pandemic hobbled production more than a little.

Ordinary Joe
If you love This is Us, this may be for you. Riffing on some of the same ideas, but in a very different format, Ordinary Joe follows three potential futures for a man from an inflection point back in his college days. Suffice to say that once you grit your teeth through the opening scenes which has the 30-something James Wolk (Watchmen) pretending to be in his early 20s, the story is mildly intriguing. And he definitely has some talent and charisma to pull off the role. It is also particularly clever how the timelines intersect in unexpected ways and how the production keeps them all crisply defined. But is it gripping enough to survive? I’ve no doubt it will find its audience and, if the writing can sustain the story, it will last at least the season. For me, however, it’s a bit too, well Lifetime movie. I enjoyed the unexpected aspects of the tales, but the core piece of it just tries too hard.

La Brea
If you’ve never seen either iteration of Primeval/Primeval: New World you’re missing out on a better version of this idea. OK, the earlier shows were aimed younger, but the writing wasn’t nearly as annoying as this supposedly adult, current-world attempt. Logic holes and character stupidity are on high display through the first episodes, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the series. That was the best they could do? There is potential in the setup and the idea, so perhaps they can pull it together, but I have to say I’m less than convinced given that they’re going to get much better.

Wonder Years
While this reboot hadn’t quite found its voice in its first ep, it is wickedly funny and poignant in a non-sugary way. Don Cheadle (Space Jam: A New Legacy) manages to amp up his vocal engagement in the voice-overs as the series continues to help sell it a little more. But the cast, the setting, and the broad historical honesty (at least so far) are very, very compelling. And as a mirror to its earlier namesake, it’s a pretty important show. If the quality continues, it has real potential for a long run.

Ordinary Joe Poster La Brea Poster
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The Future

[2.5 stars]

Miranda July (Madeline’s Madeline) wrote, directed, and starred in this, her Sophomore feature outing a decade ago. She and Hamish Linklater (The Angriest Man in Brooklyn) are a pair of aimless adults not quite in the swing of life. They’re lost and broken rather than open to the world around them and enjoying their “freedom.” And therein lies the spark that leads them down separate and twisting paths that include, amongst others, a creepy and sort of sweet turn by David Warfshofsky and an early appearance by Isabella Acres (Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated) who has an equally odd little character.

This isn’t a fast or intense tale. It unfolds inexorably. But every time the story was starting to lag or get uninteresting, July would throw in something new or surprising to help keep it going. In fact, the last third was a completely brave crapshoot that saved the flick for me.

I can’t honestly say I actually enjoyed the full result, nor that I entirely understood her full intent, but I did stick it out to see where she’d end up. As with many indie’s, this one gets rather metaphorical. I think it’s intended to be positive, but I didn’t really feel that way at the end. It isn’t that I haven’t used the same dark mirror to carry an uplifting intent or message, but the order of things at the end didn’t add up that way for me.

If you’re looking for something a little different, a little quiet, but handled with some care, this may do you. It has romantic themes, but it is far from Romance. This is more a story of finding yourself and being open to what’s around you in a real way, not a reactive one. How you respond to it will depend a great deal on your own experiences and where you are in life now.

 

The Future Poster

The Starling

[3 stars]

The individual parts of this movie are all really good. Matt Harris’s odd, semi-funny tear-jerker script about life, love, and survival, is unexpected. Each of the performances stands nicely on its own. And director Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures) guided the arc of the story nicely. What is missing is connection between the main couple.

Melissa McCarthy (Nine Perfect Strangers) and Chris O’Dowd (State of the Union) both deliver believable parents in mourning. But I never was able to see them as the couple they are supposed to have been. Or even, for that matter, the reason they are trying so hard to be that couple again. All we have to go on is an opening scene, several statements from both of them, and a few short flashbacks. But when they’re together, it just doesn’t quite work. There is more connection between McCarthy and Kevin Kline (Cyrano de Bergerac) than between her and her purported husband. Heck, McCarthy and the titular starling have more of a connection. (I’m reminded of similar issues in Contact, where Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey had no visceral connection to bind the tale together.)

I realize that sounds like the result is a disaster, but it isn’t. Each of the journeys is worth seeing. Each has both its funny and poignant moments. And, despite the subject, there is humor enough to keep it from being a leaden affair with only light at the end of the tunnel. Even the supporting cast is really quite good and with a number of surprising faces showing up. When you want something a bit more dramatic but with a range of humor (some wry, some broad, some subtle) this is a good choice.

The Starling Poster

Ted Lasso (series 2)

[3.5 stars]

Topping the first season of this show was going to be unlikely at best. No matter how good the writing might stay, the element of total surprise was gone. And, in fact, after the success of the first round, the show tried a bit too hard to compete with itself.

This second series is funny, and there are some utterly brilliant moments. But it is also scattered, jumping between individual tales in a way that is less smooth and which doesn’t build on itself as the first round did. Of course, they also went into this season knowing they already had a third on order where they could expand on everything they’ve set up. So, perhaps, they took advantage of that to explore different styles and characters so they can pay it all off next round?

However you parse it out, the “weaponized optimism” of Ted Lasso continues to entertain. And despite any faults, it’s a welcoming world with enough reality to keep it from rotting your teeth. And a few truly hysterical moments that will drop you off your couch.

Ted Lasso Poster

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

Come From Away

[4 stars]

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

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

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

Come From Away Poster