Tag Archives: Drama

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Reservation Dogs

[4 stars]

As a Kiwi, co-creator and writer Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit) is both the most unlikely match for this new series about Oklahoma reservation life, and the perfect choice. If you’ve ever seen his first film, Boy, or even his more recent Hunt for the Wilderpeople, you can see how the same experiences and sensibilities inform this new series. (And if you haven’t seen these earlier films, you should.) Along with Sterlin Harjo the two have created a devastatingly funny and honest look at reservation life. That there should be that much commonality across the globe for indigenous populations is a sad matter for a much longer discussion. Though, to be fair, Waititi’s name is how this show probably got done and most of this show is from Harjo’s experience. But Waititi’s influence is hard to miss.

The story of Native American/First Nations/Indigenous peoples is starting to get more screen time in varying forms. Where Rutherford Falls tries to provide a somewhat split view of life both on and off a reservation, Reservation Dogs dives deep on the reservation side. So deep it barely comes up for air. And unlike Mohawk Girls it’s all a bit more serious, though neither show shies away from some of the deeper truths. And Reservation Dogs tackles growing up on the res rather than the result of that as an adult, giving it a very different viewpoint.

At the core of the series is a collection of young actors, all of whom manage to grab you and make you care. Devery Jacobs(Rutherford Falls), D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, and Paulina Alexis are an unlikely group thrown together by circumstance, but devoted to one another until an event starts to fracture their friendship. Entry into their world is difficult to watch at times, but as the series continues it becomes less bleak. And there are plenty of more seasoned faces throughout the series as well helping buoy it along.

Another wonderful aspect of the series is how it incorporates the culture both in storyline and on screen. It isn’t all strictly mundane, but the magical/mythical aspects aren’t seen as anything but part of the world. Part of the series’ real success is how deeply it drops you into this culture and dark realities (and inferred causes). This is a series really worth investing in and it’s already been renewed, so it won’t be a lost investment either.

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Lapsis

[3 stars]

Science fiction, at its best, reflects on the world to deliver both entertainment and a message (usually a warning about where we’re are now or are headed). Noah Hutton, using an absurdist, near-term sci-fi world, has delivered on both aspects of that declaration. More disturbing still is how possible it feels, despite the unlikely way the world itself works.

Through the desperate efforts of Dean Imperial to provide for himself and his brother, we learn about the new economy and how it abuses the growing underclass it’s leaving behind. Along with Madeline Wise, the two navigate the situation trying to find solutions to problems both very personal and very large. And a surprise cameo by Arliss Howard (Mank) added a nice dimension.

Lapsis isn’t perfect, but it overcomes its humble underpinnings to make you listen. It isn’t as complex as Primer, nor as slow, but in some ways it reminded me of that wonderfully surprising indie. The ending of Lapsis may well leave you scratching your head; it certainly did me. The message, however, is probably as simple as it seems to be. I wish Hutton had been a little more explicit, but he certainly made me care enough to ponder and discuss it, so he did something right.

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Language Lessons

[3.5 stars]

Natalie Morales’ (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and Mark Duplass’ (The Lazarus Effect) Language Lessons is probably the cleverest pandemic film I’ve seen in the last 18 months… precisely because it isn’t about the pandemic, even though it is obviously constructed as it is because of it. Unlike other completed efforts like Staged, Locked Down, or Songbird, this movie is more timeless. It took its constraints as a way to create something rather than as the reason for the story.

And the story is funny and touching all at once (and not entirely what you think it’s going to be). It manages to make an improbable situation feel completely honest and real. Morales did a great job directing and editing the final piece, and the story and script by Duplass and her is surprisingly compelling. The result is something truly affecting. The film’s already started to gather awards, and I suspect you’ll hear more about it as the season picks up. In a world hemmed in by Zoom calls, this manages to break out of the frame, even while staying within it.

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Night is Short, Walk on Girl (Yoru wa mijikashi aruke yo otome)

[3 stars]

A slightly surreal walk through an evening of learning about love, life, and alcohol. I say “slightly” surreal because unlike other animes that delve into the unreal, this watches it mostly from the outside rather than the inner experience for the characters. It’s sort of like watching your friends get drunk, but with peeks inside their heads and listening to their internal narration.

This is an earlier film by director Masaaki Yuasa (Japan Sinks 2020). Mind you, it isn’t all that old, only 4 years, but it is an earlier example of his efforts and a very different sort of perspective on the world than his most recent. The animation is also a lot simpler, even cruder at times. Simple line drawings and blocky representations rather than the rich worlds he’s been producing of late. And the story is hopelessly, though in a twisted way, romantic.

I can’t say I loved the tale, but it dragged me along and made me laugh, even between the cringes. I’m sure there is something to be gleaned about the segments of society he’s poking fun of even as he embraces them, but I’m equally sure a lot of that went way over my head. Still, I can make educated guesses, even if the nuances were lost on me. It helps that the main character, Naoko, is tirelessly optimistic and attempting to bring good into the world around her.

For a trippy sort of escape without a lot of weight to it, I was glad I went back to pick up this earlier film of Yuasa’s. It indicates a breadth of interests and possibilities for his talents that will keep me seeking him out for a while to come.

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Annette

[3 stars]

Describing Annette in explicit detail is pointless because it would provide events absent context…and Annette is all about context. The movie is, in truth, an opera couched as a meta musical. It’s about love and fame and family and pop culture and the insatiable need by the public to be fed a story. It’s also about children and narcissism and that moment when children become their own beings. It’s broad and yet also microscopic in its focus.  But is it good?

Well, it’s certainly unique. So let me come back to that question.

Leos Carax (Holy Motors) and Sparks have put together a mesmerizing story of intense fame and intense love. It is obvious it’s a tragedy from the start, but the path to that end, and then end of that path, makes you pull for change of course.

Adam Driver (Marriage Story) and Marion Cotillard (Assassin’s Creed) are an odd couple, by design. Each performs wonderfully, but I can’t say I ever really understood why the two of them were together. Perhaps that was by explicit choice or perhaps a lack of chemistry. Honestly, I can’t say which. It works for the story, but it is a bit less satisfying for the viewer.

Other than the chorus there aren’t many other individual characters to lay out this tale. But two others certainly make an impression. Simon Helberg (Florence Foster Jenkins) puts in a fine showing from their periphery, and the very young Devyn McDowell frankly blows the doors off with her scenes.

But again, is it good?

I honestly am struggling with that question. It is fascinating. It is inventive. It is almost so true to life as to not feel like it was an opera. It left me with ideas and images. And it was beautifully filmed and presented, right up there with a Peter Greenaway flick. I don’t want to talk about specifics because, honestly, you should be allowed to experience them as they appear… if you decide to put in the 2.5 hour commitment the film requires. Suffice to say, if this isn’t your cup of whiskey, you’ll turn it off in the first few minutes. If it is, you’ll find it a long sip to the bottom, but probably as intriguing as I found it. So let’s allow the decision of “good” to be in the eye of the beholder.

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Reminiscence

[3.5 stars]

For her first feature Lisa Joy (Westworld) has delivered a dark and deliberately pace noir mystery. It also has the melancholia and rumination of Blade Runner, as Hugh Jackman (The Front Runner) falls down the rabbit hole of trying to help the femme fatale that drops into his life.

Reminiscence is expansive in its world building, but generally very intimate in its cast and focus. The story really revolves around only three characters. Thandiwe Newton (Solo: A Star Wars Story) provides Jackman an anchor to reality while Rebecca Ferguson (Doctor Sleep) is the chain around his neck and heart. The three form an emotional, if not romantic, triangle that shifts and evolves as the story unfolds.

There are plenty of side characters to keep the action going as well though Only Cliff Curtis (Hobbs & Shaw) and Daniel Wu (Tomb Raider) really have enough time and depth to be of notice. Both of these antagonists help flesh out the world and provide a wider view of what’s gone on and what’s gone wrong.

While Joy hasn’t made a perfect flick, it is one that will stick with you, bouncing around your head as you consider the points. She had the guts to deliver exactly what she tells you she will in the film. And while the plot unravels a bit toward the end and is a bit forced and unlikely, it’s still effective. The journey getting there is just complex enough to keep you engaged and satisfied. It’s also a complete story without any intention of a sequel (a nice change of pace these days). And, finally, despite the pall of the dystopia she sketches out for you, Reminiscence is a highly romantic film, even as it questions that concept as part of the story.

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