Tag Archives: craft

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

[4.5 stars]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

The Valet (La doublure)

[3 stars]

There is nothing quite like a well-controlled French farce to help put a smile on your face. And director and writer Francis Veber (Dinner for Schmucks, La Cage Aux Folles) certainly understands farce. His main strength is almost always going for the understated response from his main characters, while allowing the peripheral ones to go  broad. It keeps the entire story from ever getting too shrill or ridiculous, even when it is outlandish or ridiculous.

He also has a great touch for casting. Gad Elmaleh (Mood Indigo) is wonderfully comfortable with his life and choices, even when offered something much more. And Alice Taglioni and Kristin Scott Thomas (Tomb Raider), as pawns turned queens, provide some great moments as well as implying some deep backstories that we never really get to learn about directly.

There are many other amusing, smaller roles, some created by faces you’ll recognize from French and International cinema. They all add sparkle and entertainment, pushing the story along with many laughs.

For a bit of warm escape, this is a great choice…and also a good one to share with someone you care about. Pop the corn, pour the libations, and curl up together on the couch for a good laugh.

The Valet Poster

Some COVID Fun – No, Really

There has been a wave of lock-down art recently. Well, what do you expect with a bunch of artists stuck at home with no outlet? Even the some finales (like All Rise) embraced the situation and wrote it into their tales.

Most of it has come in the form of at-home/garage concerts up till now. But, recently, a number of short video stories have begun to surface.

While there are many, these two really stood out. One for its sheer amusement and the other for its scope. Both are BBC, but I would expect them to be more generally available at some point.

Staged

What happens when David Tennant (Doctor Who, Good Omens) and Michael Sheen (Slaughterhouse Rulez) try to mount a play during the lock-down? Well, with the help of relatively unknown Simon Evans as writer/director/actor and their families, hilarity ensues. This series, comprised of 6 short episodes is self-aware, self-deprecating, and utterly irreverent. Find it…and remember to pay attention to and watch through the credits. The fun just keeps on giving while touching on the realities of the world as it is being reshaped.

Staged Poster

Unprecedented 

There are too many people involved here to list. In several half-hour episodes, each comprised of 3 10-minute plays, you see a huge scope of pandemic life. Some of it is is funny, some uncomfortable, and some just poignant, but all are worth seeing and none are so long as to get boring.

Unprecedented: Real Time Theatre from a State of Isolation Poster

American Adobo

[3 stars]

This isn’t a great film. The script, by first-timer Vincent R. Nebrida, is painful at times. And the effort to overcome those lacks by director Laurice Guillen doesn’t help her break into the States, despite being widely celebrated in the Philippines and abroad. Even the fairly experienced cast had trouble finding an even rhythm and delivery.

But, there is a sweetness to the story and the performances that made it engaging. Certainly the peek into Philippine culture was interesting (even if aspects were overblown at times). In between cringing at the dialogue and some of the acting, it will reach you and make you smile as you grow to understand this group of friends who bond over the past and food while negotiating their way into their futures.

American Adobo Poster

In the Mood for Love (Fa yeung nin wah)

[4 stars]

Director/writer Wong Kar-wai (The Grandmaster) has a beautiful sensibility about film and about characters. It isn’t just about the framing, which is always impressive, it is about his awareness of the moments. He imparts emotion by virtue of how they are presented, adding a layer to the performances and story.

When paired with subtle performers like Tony Chiu Wai Leung (The Grandmaster) and Maggie Cheung (2046), the result is riveting. We swept up in their lives as they reevaluate their marriages and each other. It is always as much about the silences and what we can’t see that expands the story, sometimes even more so than what is on screen.

Beyond the story itself, Kar-wai plays some entertaining games with the film. Cheung, for instance, has an astonishing wardrobe that rarely repeats. Some characters are never fully in frame or seen from the front. Rain and smoke become motifs for emotion and thought. And the episodic nature of the film ultimately drives unexpected aspects of the tale. It is no wonder it picked up so many awards; it pulls you along with inexorable curiosity, longing, and hope.

In the Mood for Love Poster

Dark PSA

Just a friendly reminder that the third (and final) series of Dark drops on 27 June. Start rewatching now if you want to be ready and don’t want your head to explode while trying to watch it all.

If you haven’t discovered it yet, Dark is one of, if not the most, complicated plot I’ve ever seen on a TV serial. Possibly the most complicated I’ve seen in any visual media. So far it has managed to stay consistent through two series, but following it is a Herculean task of names, time-frames, and story threads. And yet it is worth every bit of struggle and pain because it all pays off.

The 18 previous episodes that lead to the final round can only be ingested at a moderate pace (one or two episodes a night at most). If you don’t have the time, find your favorite online resource for tracking all the characters… trust me, without one, the other, or both, you will be utterly lost.

Frankly, I can’t wait to see if they can pay this all off.

Blitz

[2.5 stars]

Despite a lot of potential, this is a middling action film masquerading as a police procedural…and not with a very good costume. The result is somewhere between a BBC mystery drama and Taken. And the problem is that neither is entirely believable, though the violence is definitely visceral and the cast fairly well put together (which is what got me here in the first place).

Jason Statham (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw) is at center stage. He’s surrounded by serious talent here. And he needs to be the way he’s written. There is almost no real emotion to his character, who’s circling the drain as a burned out detective. In his nearest circle, he has Paddy Considine (The Death of Stalin) as his partner and Zawe Ashton (Velvet Buzzsaw) as his suffering mentee.  But a step away you have Mark Rylance (Ready Player One), Luke Evans (Murder Mystery), and David Morrissey (The City & The City). And then there’s Aiden Gillen (Bohemian Rhapsody) aligned against them all.

That is a pile of possibility…all of which director Elliott Lester, on the whole, squandered. To be fair, the script wasn’t particularly great, which was a little surprising. Adapted by Nathan Parker (Equals), I expected, or at least hoped, for more. I will grant that the pacing is pretty relentless.

Up to you on this one. I watched the whole thing, but would have happily missed it to rewatch the equally flawed, but way more fun, Transporter for my Statham action fix.

Blitz

Homecoming (series 2)

[3.5 stars]

The first season of Homecoming was a twisted tale of mind-bending fragments that coalesced into something more pedestrian and down-to-earth. That wasn’t a bad thing…it was honest and logical. The perspective was from inside the mystery and it added great suspense and confusion. But now we know the truth.

What we get with the second series is a look at some of the peripheral aspects and the extension of the fallout as we follow the thread left by Stephan James’s (21 Bridges) character. And there are some interesting paths and aspects to explore.

But the best reason to see this second round is Janelle Monáe (Welcome to Marwen) and Hong Chau (Watchmen). They are natural and unforced as a couple. They also each have their own stories and arcs to travel. Chau’s starts in the first season, but this provides another angle on the wonderful final moments she is part of. And Monáe fits seamlessly into the twisted world we traversed as if she’s always been there.

Like the first round, there is a mystery to unravel, though with fewer surprises. And it is full of suspense with bursts of activity. I was with the story completely (despite some willful stupid moments) until the final 10 minutes or so.

The ending didn’t ruin the ride for me; I can understand the decisions that were made. However, it left me very conflicted. To my mind it was out of proportion in scope and depth for the plot. Basically, it violated my sense of balance and left me without sympathy for the characters we probably should have had some sympathy for. Was it a fair choice by the writers? Maybe, but it wasn’t the satisfying punch I think they were hoping for. More importantly, it makes me question whether the third round, assuming it happens, is something I want to see.

Homecoming Poster

 

Rim of the World

[3 stars]

Kid’s films are hard. Getting the balance of humor, action, language, not to mention age appropriate plot is a delicate balance. Zack Stentz’s (X-Men: First Class) script delivers a tween-level tale and language. Just enough action and language and challenge to sate a 13-year-old’s sense of adventure. Director McG (Three Days to Kill) pushed a bit hard on the broad humor, as he often does, but for this audience, he probably did good.

The result is an amusing, if utterly improbable, kids save the world adventure, with some nice bends in the typical characters. For example the main kick-ass in the group is the miniscule Miya Cech (The Darkest Minds). She also delivers almost all the best lines and keeps her wits about her to keep the group going.

The rest of the gang is the typical rag-tag Goonies-like group. Jack Gore (Ideal Home) takes the main focus. He has the only fully realized character in the movie, and the fullest arc, but it isn’t the most sparkling (which is Cech). He’s joined by Alessio Scalzotto, in a thin role covering the LatinX community, and Benjamin Flores Jr. covering the Black community. Flores, in particular, should slap McG silly for how he had him attack his character. It’s beyond painful at times.

But all of the weaknesses aside (and they are legion) the movie somehow remains entertaining and engaging. It has good production values, a high octane plot, big stakes, and makes adults look helpless. What more does a tween want in an adventure film where they get to be heroes? What’s a shame is that it could have been so much more if they’d approached it in earnest rather than in satire.

Rim of the World Poster

The Lovebirds

[3 stars]

Sometimes the whole isn’t more than the sum of its parts.

Lovebirds is at times a sweet and, at times, a painful romcom that never really comes together. It works best when Kumail Nanjiani (Men in Black: International) and Issa Rae (Little) are being honest with one another as characters. When they’re trying to out-comedy one another, it just falls apart, losing steam and focus while adding nothing really of value. Had that been more constrained and used more precisely by director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick), it might have worked.

What is scary is that this was supposed to release in theaters till the pandemic hit. It was one of the first big films to dump plans and go straight to a streaming service. It was a definitely a better choice for it as it would have done middling, at best, out in the theaters. As part of Netflix, it’s level of quality is acceptable if disappointing.

(Side Note: I really hope that they start raising the bar a bit more on their acquisitions. I love the breadth of material they offer, especially the foreign fare, but their ability to recognize quality is definitely suspect far too often).

For an evening where you can’t find anything else or when you want a story that requires no effort or investment with a bit of humor (a very little bit), this will suffice. I did, afterall, watch the whole thing. But, honestly, you deserve and can do better.

The Lovebirds