Tag Archives: Dark

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

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.

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What If…?

[4 stars]

There is no doubt this show was highly anticipated by fans of the MCU, and generally worth the wait. Mind you, if you haven’t watched the whole phase 1-3 sequence you would be completely lost on the references and import of what you’re watching. This is a gift to fans from fans. Period. And that’s a truly rare thing at this level of quality and production. A fully non-canon set of stories that tackle those powerful thoughts of “What if…” that allow for stories that never happened but might have been fun to see.

But how much fun comes down to this: why do you want to watch What If…? There are different answers to the question, and the reactions I’ve seen to the show tend to be fed by which of the two main camps that question creates. Either you’re just interested in being entertained and seeing what fun and silly stuff might come out of mashing up the characters and events, or you want to see something a bit more interesting in terms of how a story really might unspool in a meaningful way thanks to a single change. Up front, I’m in the latter camp. I’m all about the power of “what if” in stories, but I want it to have a purpose and satisfying result. It can get silly, but it still has to satisfy my main criteria: purpose. And after a wandering path, they got there. But that meant seeing it all chronologically and experiencing the stories individually first.

Launching with a riff on the Captain America origin story was a brilliant stroke. It sets up the tone and possibilities. More importantly, it was a story with a change that had impact in its difference. But then it quickly stumbled for me in its second outing as it took on Guardians of the Galaxy, almost instantly breaking the reality by having events out of order in a way that could not work, even in the universe they created. Any fan would have spotted it immediately. The gaff set off alarm bells for me as it meant no one was watching carefully enough to keep it above the realm of bad fan fiction. Because, let’s face it, this series is fan fiction…that is its only purpose to exist.

I had fewer issues with the Avengers Assemble riff. Though, other than shock value, it didn’t manage to really grab me. Part of that may have been the voices; several main characters didn’t voice their avatars.

But Doctor Strange was clever and cut to the bone in a way that most of the episodes don’t. Though I fully admit the run at Infinity War (which sadly spoils the opening surprise with its title) was a riot. And while Iron Man’s alternate journey was interestingly thought through, Thor’s only-child tale lost it’s credibility early on for me. It could have been fun, but it tried too hard and, like the Guardian’s episode, included too many characters that shouldn’t have been mixing.

And then there was the Ultron finale…well, dang. I have to hand it to the series for that storyline along with its repercussions and impact. But it was a long slog to relevance in some ways. Without that finale, I’d have a had a much lower opinion of the series.

Overall, the clever reuse of movie audio, which helped to bring back in original voices in many places that might not have otherwise been possible, and the sense of fun and whimsey amid the dark really pulled it all together nicely.  And now I’m actually looking forward to the next season.

What If...? Poster

Nine Strangers on an Island

[3 stars]

While Nine Perfect Strangers and Fantasy Island aren’t exactly direct competitors or even exactly in the same wheelhouse, there is a shared sensibility and sense of location that has me putting them together.

The reboot of Fantasy Island cleaves a lot more to the original series than the recent movie did. It manages to walk the line of light entertainment with an edge (well, a slight edge), and a slurry of emotional baggage from our hosts as well as the guests. In fact, the show is more a flip of the original, with the guests’ stories reflecting on the hosts’. Which also means that none of the stories are particularly deeply examined, there just isn’t time since the new Roarke and her assistant Ruby are eating up a good portion of the story time with their own issues. But even without the depth, the ideas of the stories are enough for you to enjoy without having to get too wrung out. But they are more snacks than meals. That probably isn’t enough to keep me coming back to it, even with the nicely nuanced efforts by Roselyn Sanchez and Kiara Barnes. But as a distraction with some interesting moments it may, on occasion, suffice.

Nine Perfect Strangers, on the other hand, is a darker and deeply diving examination of personal traumas, relationships, and revenge. It, too, manages to stay somewhat at the surface, or at least enough to keep from ruining your evening. But the performances are a lot more intense. Starting with Nicole Kidman (The Prom) and her crew, Manny Jacinto (Brand New Cherry Flavor) and Tiffany Boone (The Midnight Sky) who run the place and run at each other. And then there is the all-star cast of guests. The reteaming of Melissa McCarthy (Thunder Force) and Bobby Cannavale (Jolt) was one of my more favorite nods. But there is plenty to chew on with the others as well, from Michael Shannon (Knives Out) and Asher Keddie to the solo struggles of Regina Hall (Little) and Luke Evans (Pembrokeshire Murders). Even the simpering of Samara Weaving’s (Ready or Not) becomes something interesting over time. By the time the wheels come off (in an episode aptly named “Wheels on the Bus”) you’re committed to finding out how it can all resolve and you forgive some of the more outlandish choices. Be warned, the finale is improbable and can be interpreted in a couple different ways. It’s somewhat Fantasy Island in that respect, but in a more complete way.

Nine Perfect Strangers also has the advantage of being a short commitment rather than an ongoing series. Sometimes a short vacation is more desirable than an ongoing appointment. And certainly Fantasy Island is more an empty calorie snack than the other offering. Wherever you decide to vacation, neither will tax you too much, and both resolve enough to not feel frustrating.

Nine Perfect Strangers Poster Fantasy Island Poster

Level 16

[3 stars]

Danishka Esterhazy (SurrealEstate) imparts a nicely dark sensibility into this suspense/horror with her directing and writing. It isn’t a story that really pays off believably by the end, but the trip to the end is taut and suitably creepy.

What really sells the story, such as it is, is a couple of the performances. Katie Douglas (Defiance) is the undisputed center of the story, along with Celina Martin helping to move it along. The two young women have great presence and nicely leveled deliveries. Peter Outerbridge (Code 8) also helps ground the pervading weight of the situation, even if his placement is predictable and self-conscious.

But some of the production is also over-the-top. For instance Sara Canning’s (Nancy Drew) Jackboot fetish styling is a bit much. And the mixed culture of the real bosses feels unlikely.

Ultimately, this is a silly sort of fun…if one can look at a story like this and the abuse of young women in that light; it is a horror film after all. Unlike many others of the genre, it doesn’t really deliver a message, only a creepy disgust of the situation. Part of that is that the science and logic are a little ridiculous. But part of it is also the intentional distancing of the characters and locality from its primary audience geographically. It makes it hard to connect with the situation.

Suffice to say this is a rainy afternoon flick, not one that fills a night in a satisfying way. And that’s OK. It was certainly interesting to see Douglas’ and Martin’s turns; I’d like to see what more than can do. Even Esterhazy impressed me with her ability to set a mood both in this and her television work. So not a total loss. Your call on whether you spend time with it.

Godzilla: Singular Point

[3 stars]

Who would have thought they could find a new Godzilla tale to tell rather than remake after remake (however clever)? Singular Point is an amusingly complex tale of hyperspace, quantum physics, cryptology…and Kaiju. What more can you want in an entertaining anime? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it does have fun getting there and trying to explain it. And it has the one of the best weapon names every put forth in this genre.

I will admit that I watched the first episode and walked away for several weeks. There was something intriguing there, but I was worried it was going to just devolve into silly, overdone tropes. After I came back, they proved those assumptions very wrong. This is a very different tale of Godzilla, and a very different sort of battle for the planet.

This first series is fairly self-contained. If you watch through the final credits, there is a coda that opens it up for a follow-on story. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but given this last round, I’d give them a chance to pull me back in again.

.Godzilla Singular Point Poster

The Voyeurs

[3 stars]

The Voyeurs is a movie that demands your trust, but it doesn’t really do enough to earn it, even if it eventually pays off. And because of that, Michael Mohan’s dark trip down a twisted rabbit hole never quite attains the credibility it needs to get you from event to event.

The real weakness here isn’t the story, it’s the casting. It aspires to be Rear Window with a dash of Eyes Wide Shut. But that cocktail requires a certain level of maturity and depth of character. We have to believe in each of these people and their choices. It isn’t that we haven’t all been in the position of choosing whether to keep watching something we shouldn’t or not, it’s that we have to believe in the obsession that builds for the main couple we’re watching (who are watching others…love the meta yet?).

Justice Smith (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) holds his own in this respect fairly well. So does Natasha Liu Bordizzo (Wish Dragon). But neither of their partners are, frankly, old enough to be believable. Sydney Sweeney (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood) is literally too young to have the position her character holds. She has nice range, if a bit shallow, but she’d have to have been a tween in college. And Ben Hardy (6 Underground) has the needed ego and frenetic energy, but none of the magnetism and maturity to help ground the character and set him apart from those around him. And it makes the dynamic between him and Sweeney somewhat frat-boyish rather than with more levels.

I did appreciate Mohan’s approach to the story and the complexity he engineered, but the casting issues really diminished the impact. Though the addition of Katharine King So (Transplant) as a grounding voice in the midst of it all helped. Still, the movie is filmed and edited well, and the story will pull you along, even if you cringe at a few particular moments. But Mohan crafted the journey nicely. I just wish he had cast it to better meet his goals.

The Voyeurs Poster

Brand New Cherry Flavor

[3 stars]

It’s hard to turn away from this unexpectedly magical, dark, and twisted Hollywood-meta horror ride. It not only echoes so much of what has come before (and current affairs), but builds its own mythos and little corner of hell. And Rosa Salazar (Alita: Battle Angel) and Catherine Keener (Incredibles 2) are wonderfully matched as they share and spar.

It’s also easy to see why both of these women took on their roles. Salazar gets to grow up and command the screen. Keener (Incredibles 2) took the challenge of trying to make the truly weird and fantastical into something accessible and believable. And she rides that line beautifully.

There are a few men playing in their world. Jeff Ward (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as a naif pulled into the maelstrom and Eric Lange (Wind River) as the catalyst and Weinstein stand-in. But one of the more unexpected, though his role is rather small, was Manny Jacinto (The Good Place, Nine Perfect Strangers). Jacinto proves again what a chameleon he is; every role his sense of age, even of height, seem malleable.

If you like the weird and dark, The ride of Cherry Flavor is worth every minute you get to spend with it. It’s sense of dread and magic, power and control as it all shifts and is explained is compelling. The ending…well, let’s just say they wimped out. Yes, it sort of completes, but they left it wide open for a sequel. Honestly, I would have preferred a solid ending. But that is only the last few minutes of an 8 episode dark epic that grabbed me and pulled me along, even against my will at times. It isn’t for everyone, but it is very well crafted and wonderfully acted.

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The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf

[3 stars]

It’s been a while since Witcher came on the scene. And we’re still awaiting December’s launch of the next season. In the meantime, we’ve got this surprisingly entertaining animated movie to provide some background and to give us a new story. And while the script attempts to make this work as a standalone story, it is probably best viewed after seeing the first season of the show rather than as an entry point.

There is some nice voice talent carrying along the tale and filling out the complicated world. Theo James (Divergent Series: Allegiant), Mary McDonnell (The Closer), and Lara Pulver (Legacy: Black Ops) are the ones that rise to the top. Each of them has some wonderfully subtle moments to navigate and depths to expose.

Nightmare of the Wolf is definitely not aimed at kids. For all intents, and even in structure, it’s very much of the Witcher brand and approach. Expect blood, betrayal, sex, and innuendo. And, of course, a lot of fighting, death, and violence. But the chaos and story builds to a final point and, sadly, much of it feels disturbingly relevant to the real world and its current state. Yet it remains entertaining and intriguing…and definitely whets the appetite for the upcoming continuation of the live action show.

The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf Poster

Baptiste (series 2)

[3 stars]

The first round of this spin-off mystery was satisfying but left our title character in a dark place. Tchéky Karyo returns in a second round to wrap-up his story in this evil and bitter little confection to more properly send off his weary detective. Which isn’t to say that the way isn’t open for more stories at the end, but it rounds out his arc very nicely and wouldn’t be harmed by being left alone from here on out.

But, that said, he has at least one more missing person to find. And Fiona Shaw (Ammonite) joins Karyo to drive the story as an immensely flawed and broken human. Her missteps are often frustrating, but they are at least consistent. The story itself is both timely and profoundly disturbing. Told primarily in French, English, and Hungarian, we navigate the rising tide of the far right in Hungary as the backdrop to this case.

Joining the main duo, the Hungarian actors Dorka Gryllus, Gabriella Hámori, Miklós Béres and the well-known English character actor Ace Bhatti provide background and side plots.

Baptiste lives in a world of trafficking, hate, drugs, and loss. If it weren’t that challenging, anyone could do what he does. But at what cost? And that is the crux of this second series. What has he sacrificed and what can he recover of his life with Anastasia Hille (Pembrokeshire Murders) after the last case and because of this current? This is the focus of the latest six episodes and, with some minorly frustrating choices, it navigates it all quite well.

Baptiste Poster