Tag Archives: Fantasy

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

Ne Zha (Ne Zha zhi mo tong jiang shi)

[3 stars]

This skews rather young, but with some good moments, some (though not all) incredible animation, and a truly not-American story. Which is part of both its interest and charm. It isn’t a simple tale nor one that follows the standard Hollywood tropes.  And, as a first feature by Yu Yang, it’s rather ambitious and delivers in a bit of an uneven way. But it kept me watching.

I also found little entertainment difference between the subtitled and dub versions. In fact, there is an interesting advantage to the dub. Even while watching the  dub version, I kept the English subtitles on as they were often quite different from the spoken dialogue. Not just subtle differences…plot differences. It all added a whole other layer of intrigue for me. The legends and culture upon which the story is based have no touchstone in Western myth. The conflict in translation is fascinating.

And, as it turns out, this is the first part of a longer story…the next piece gets laid out during the credits. I actually hope the other parts are forthcoming. I’m curious to see how they can keep it all going now that they’ve laid out their origin story.

Nezha Poster

V for Vendetta (redux x)

[4.5 stars]

Still relevant…and increasingly prescient.

I’ve seen this film a dozen times or more. It never fails to amaze and recharge me. It provided me hope and entertainment when it first came out and, in the midst of the horrors of what has happened over the last few years, it provides me some glimmer of hope now.

But, I admit, this rewatch was particularly spooky; pandemics, economic crisis, social unrest, and authoritarian governments out of control all map eerily to today (even the death counts). With the nationwide marches rising up,  it is even more on point. However, this is a movie about taking back power and making government again afraid of its people, not the other way around. It’s a message we all need to hear and believe right now.

Hugo Weaving (Mortal Engines) delivers that message with an amazingly subtle performance, and without ever once showing his face. Natalie Portman (Vox Lux), as the unexpected heroine, was divisive in the role, but some of that was the foreshortened story in the Wachowski’s (Sense8) adaptation. The film is also loaded with UK talent: Stephen Rea (Greta), John Hurt (Jackie), Stephen Fry (The Hippopotamus), Rupert Graves (War of the Worlds), Roger Allam (Endeavour), Sinéad Cusack (Marcella), and Tim Pigott-Smith (Victoria & Abdul).

I recognize it isn’t a perfect movie (particularly regarding its lack of diversity). However, if you need an escape and a boost, it’s hard to beat this movie and its message as the delivery method. The end still practically brings me to my feet shouting in joy and with tears in my eyes as it did the first time. And, just let me say, I’d love to see one of our internet billionaires make the ending of this flick come true…that could be an amazing use of some of their windfall, and a way to unite a splintered populace.

V for Vendetta

Paradise Hills

[3 stars]

There is a lot to unpack in this movie. It is, above all else, sumptuously designed, rich in visuals, and minute in its detail. That alone makes it worth seeing. The story, an interesting twist on the old Stepford Wives trope (either version: 1975 or 2004…, though, better yet, just read the book), isn’t nearly as strong. The plot just doesn’t come together, even if it is a gorgeous trip getting there.

In short, director Alice Waddington Waddington produced a wonderful style over substance response to #metoo. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a message, just that the message is obvious and the path getting there is a bit weak. However, it is almost an entirely female cast, which is always a nice surprise.

Emma Roberts (American Horror Story) is the focus of the steam-punkish tale. She’s a fighter and has a brain. She’s joined by Awkwafina (Jumanji: The Next Chapter), doing Awkwafina, but it is entertaining. Completing the female fighting faction are Danielle Macdonald (Bird Box) and Eiza González (Baby Driver), who add some interesting moments, if not some depth.

Lording over all of them is a somewhat stilted Milla Jovovich (Hellboy). Some of her attitude becomes clarified during the tale, but it isn’t what you call a compelling performance.

And then there is one bit of boy toy in Jeremy Irvine (Stonewall) whose role is about what you’d expect.

As I said, this is less about the story and more about the visuals. If you can turn off your brain and just go with the story, it’s kinda fun and angering. If you look at it too hard it falls apart. Take from it what you can. I’d love to see what Waddington could do with a better script, she certainly has an eye. Though, to be fair, this was her story idea… but Nacho Vigalondo (Colossal) and Brian DeLeeuw either couldn’t turn it into a cohesive story or Waddington didn’t recognize the gaps.

Paradise Hills

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

[3 stars]

While this Studio Ghibli film has echos of Spirited Away, it has neither the richness of animation nor the depth of story to compare. That doesn’t make it bad, but it does shift the audience to be decidedly younger. And, for a younger audience, it is likely quite magical and engaging; especially for girls since the main character is a young girl who gets to save the day.

Director and co-writer Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty) knows the language of children, their sense of wonder, and their unrelenting drive. He captures that aspect well. But without more meat, like his previous When Marnie Was There, it is really just a pleasant distraction and long-form cartoon rather than a movie.

If you like Ghibli’s catalog, particularly the stories intended for their newest enthusiasts in your household, this is a great choice. It has just enough adventure and danger to keep it feeling exciting for them, but nothing permanently bad happens, making it safe. For adults, it will depend on your tolerance for the sillier aspects and overly-simplified plot in exchange for some of the more creative efforts.

Mary and the Witch's Flower

Motherland: Fort Salem

[3 stars]

I wasn’t looking for this one. I tend to find alternate history shows more than a little frustrating as so few really find a good hook in or follow through with their logic. Motherland is sort of a grown up Charmed (or rebooted Charmed if you prefer), though still aimed at the younger, and particularly female, set. But it is more empowering and with significantly more grit than the CW show.

One of the things that sets this show apart is the complexity of the magic and the depth of the rules. Eliot Laurence (Welcome to Me) spent time on his creation to be sure it remained consistent rather than just inventing rules as he needed them to support his plots. This is what makes great fantasy, and it’s a rare commodity. It is building to be as complex as Buffy, though without that level of dialogue and cast chemistry (but what does?).

That doesn’t mean to say the cast is bad. Taylor Hickson (Deadly Class), Amalia Holm (The Girl in the Spider’s Web), and Ashley Nicole Williams form the primary triumvirate and center of the show. They’re not an entirely balanced ensemble, but they slowly come together over the season and each has a particular charisma. With the help of Jessica Sutton (Escape Room), Demetria McKinney (House of Payne), and Lyne Renée (The Hippopotamus), among others, the world is filled out and made complicated.

The inaugural season as a whole starts strong, but does make one huge and cheap leap to take the turn to the finale in the final episodes. It is only one major miss-step, so I’ll give it to them, but it was unworthy writing compared to what had come before. And it was completely avoidable and lazy. The finale was also rushed, pulling together a number of threads, not entirely satisfactorily, and leaving you with multiple cliff-hangers rather than a comfortable pause. In other words, it was sort of cheap. Those two aspects, more than anything, are why I dinged its rating. That said, I’m glad they’re renewed and I’m looking forward to seeing where the series may go. I just hope the quality that I can see in there is nurtured more in the next round.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

[3 stars]

The challenge with fairytales, whether about fairies or simply of the genre, is that we know the structures so well that suspense is something we have to talk ourselves into. Maleficent found a clever point in their story to return to the world of the moors and castle but, despite expanding the story, it really had very few surprises. The other point of a fairytale is that they are retellable over and over for their adventure and lessons. On those points I suppose it partially worked, but I never got the experience and excitement of the first-read. But that’s the critical response to what is, clearly, intended solely as an adventure.

Angelina Jolie (Maleficent), Elle Fanning (Mary Shelley), and Michelle Pfeiffer (Ant-Man and the Wasp) are a formidable trio of talent and power. They easily dominate the story, even with Chiwetel Ejiofor (Sherlock Gnomes), Ed Skrein (If Beale Street Could Talk), Sam Riley (Free Fire), and Robert Lindsay filling out the main cast. Pfeiffer is more than a little arch, and Jolie a bit uneven in her motivations, not to mention Fanning being ridiculously naive even after years as a queen, but they all drive the tale forward. Oh, and did I mention how easily and obviously it is all resolved?

My biggest frustration with the movie, however was that director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) made the lessons in this sequel confused, at best. While strongly from a female point of view, all the stated lessons seem to be (unironically) male dominated, which was a damned shame. What you’re left with in the end is a typical message of family, fecundity, and male leadership. Seriously?

For a visual sort of a escape and a chance to revisit this prismic view of the fairy tale, you can make time for it. It isn’t brilliant, it certainly doesn’t achieve its potential, but it can distract for a while if nothing else. Leaving this one to you and your own personal tolerances.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divu)

[2 stars]

Sometimes you dig back into film history, particularly with The Criterion Collection as a guide, and find undiscovered gems to fill the gaps in your understanding of film. Valerie, clocking in at 50 years old, is not one of those. This hackily made vampire tale is, at best, confusing.

Director and adapter Jaromil Jires created a fractured tale of sexual awakening wrapped in a fable-like sensibility. Not unusual for the time and not off the mark for the analogies. But the presentation is a jumble of scenes that are often separated by hard cuts that provide little sense of relationship between them.

Jaroslava Schallerová in her first role as Valerie is the picture of confusion and innocence with a sense of longing. But it isn’t a breakthrough performance and it has no lasting impact. In fact, the film had no impact at all on me. Even in an historical context I found it overwrought and self-conscious to the point of annoyance; it was trying to commit art. And yet, I finished watching it as I kept hoping it would resolve into a story. It almost did.

Frankly, I’d skip this, but you may feel differently or have an interest in where it fell in cinema. At least the restoration is fairly good and it’s only about 75 minutes long, so your investment isn’t much if you decide to check it out.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

I Am Not Okay With This

[3.5 stars]

This odd, 7-episode season inhabits a fun place in the streaming pantheon somewhere between Heros and The End of the F***ing World. Frankly, if it had done more than just barely set things up for the next series I would have rated it quite a bit higher, but little is resolved by the end and far too little really happens to make it feel complete.

That said, the journey is really quite a bit of unexpected fun. Sophia Lillis (Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase) continues to expand her range and work on her delivery. She is magnetic and quirkily charismatic as she negotiates her High School and evolving powers. Joined by fellow It alum, Wyatt Oleff, we see well into the lives of their families, often without having to see it explicitly. The work by creator/director Jonathan Entwistle (The End of the F***ing World) to expose by inference and off-screen action is one of the more powerful aspects to the show: the implied, the hidden.

Sofia Bryant (Birdboy: The Forgotten Children) adds both bridge and irritant to the relationship of the main characters, and access to the other cliques at the school. The three, together, form an odd set of bonds and uneasy relationships that typify late teen years…especially those who are more self-aware.

Entwistle has a solid vision and ability to navigate  heightened truth and make it feel utterly imperative and real. In other words, he can tap his inner teen really, really well. This slightly less offensive (by typical standards) series show he’s also getting more savvy in his content pics without compromising his desire to live at the edge. I’m curious to see where he takes this, as his follow-up series to The End of the F***ing World really didn’t sustain its impact and unique qualities. But this has more potential and more of an open-ended tale, so I’ve hope.

I Am Not Okay with This

Onward

[3 stars]

I was both touched and frustrated with this latest fantasy from animation powerhouse Pixar. At its core there is a wonderful tale of a young man trying to resolve the loss of a parent that he never met, not to mention trying to navigate becoming an adult. Tom Holland (Spies in Disguise) is suitably naive and intelligent for the role. And Chris Pratt (Avengers: Endgame, Passengers) as his older brother is well paired. Even Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said) makes a wonderful mom to the two, with her own minor plot running in parallel, with Octavia Spencer (Luce) at her side.

The story is, mostly, predictable and full of the Pixar-ish moments you expect. You’ll be charmed, laugh, and yes, weep. Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) knew how to use the templates and talent to get where he wanted.

So why, you may ask, am I not rating it higher? Well, frankly, it met the bare minimum on all those counts above, it didn’t exceed them. And while the animation is, as you’d expect, well done, the design was mediocre at best. Unlike, say, Zootopia, there was no thought put into how a world that had these kinds of creatures in them would actually look and work. The fact that cars don’t fit centaurs may be amusing to watch, doesn’t mean it makes any sense in a world where centaurs are common, if you follow. The concept behind a world that lost magic because it got lazy is just fine…that that world has to utterly mirror ours to make a point is just lacking in creativity. Also, how certain things worked (like when and how their father was aware and could function) was less than consistent. And, finally, that it was so lacking in female leads was a bit disappointing. Not that Dreyfus and Spencer weren’t tough characters in their way, but they were only bit players.

What I will grant Scanlon, and his fellow writers, is that they didn’t go for the easy ending. They, instead, took the more interesting route and in the process also utilized all the bits and pieces they had set up during the quest.

While Onward isn’t Pixar’s best creatively, it is effective and poignant. It may never live among its more successful cousins (and COVID-19 certainly didn’t help on that point) but it’s not a waste of light and magic. It’s just not what it could have been with a bit more critical thinking going on in the writer’s room.