Tag Archives: Fantasy

Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

[4 stars]

This series, a prequel to the classic and beloved movie, fully captures the sense and production design of the original. That is both its blessing and its curse. But that said, this story grew on me as it played out, unlike the same-day-launched Amazon fantasy Carnival Row, which diminished over time for me.

Let me get the “curse” comment out of the way. Having just rewatched the original flick, I was looking forward to some significant updating of the approach, particularly the Gelfling designs to make their mouths move more naturally. I can see the bind the producers were in…update a classic and risk the wrath of fans, or cleave closely to the original and risk a more dated feel. Definitely no-win. But there were subtle updates, especially to the Skeksis, whose tongues were truly a thing of creepy beauty.

Also, in order to provide a launching pad for the series, they twisted the known facts a little. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t worry about it. If you have, you’ll need to be more than a little patient to accept the setup and await it all to make sense. Of course the big question is how long before the movie does this series take place? No one seems to know or want to commit. My best guess was about 100 years or so, though it could be longer. The studio was purposefully vague and won’t pin it down.

The voice talent is an astounding list of folks; far too long to enumerate here. The puppeteering is top notch. The production design clever enough to link to the movie but still make it their own. The world of Thra is expanded and gorgeously designed. There are familiar characters and new ones to enjoy. The story is richly complex, despite its clear aim to pull in a younger audience as well as adults. And this installment of the story finally plumbs some of the dark depths the original movie touched on but wasn’t willing to dive into. In fact, the writers and director Louis Leterrier (Now You See Me) helped marry the tale to current times in wonderful ways.

They also left plenty of room for more stories and a whispered about second season, but not in an unsatisfying way…well, at least if you know the movie. However, if you’ve not found the movie yet, wait to see where the series goes and then get to the end of the story.

As both a revival and a continuation of the tale, Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a winner for me. There is something about the craft of bringing these inanimate creatures to life that sparks the imagination in ways CGI, or even most stop-action animation just can’t touch. Here’s hoping they get to continue the story and fully complete the sequence.

Carnival Row

[3 stars]

If Ripper Street and Copper had a magical baby, this is pretty much what you’d get. For me, however, the poor child took on the worse qualities of both parents. A shame as it had the potential to tackle the current issues of immigration and xenophobia sweeping a good part of the globe.

In the end, Carnival Row is a marginally thought-through bit of genre, full of strife and demons (personal as well as real). It is a by-the-numbers fantasy with few surprises and cliche characters; the pacing commensurate with its genre, which is to say: slow.

The show isn’t helped by its female lead in Cara Delevingne (Tulip Fever), who has the look of a Fae, but the emotional credibility of cardboard. Despite Orlando Bloom’s (S.M.A.R.T. Chase) backing her, and with some interesting tension between them, she just never became real for me. Even the host of solid supporting actors are generally forced into tiny boxes of behavior, by script and directing, that does little to show off their talents.

Ultimately, I’m still not sure if I enjoyed this first season or not. It is clear that the it was built around the first episode and final moments in the last…with a whole bunch of stretched out filler in-between. It is, in fact, more of a prologue or setup for a story to come. You may find it more engaging than I did, but despite the grand production values, I found myself frustrated far too often to settle into the tale and become a fan.

Fast Color

[3 stars]

If you like social science fiction, like I Think We’re Alone Now meets The Endless, over effects-laden romps, this movie is for you. While it is a fantasy/suspense film, Fast Color is definitely more contemplative than explosive. Which isn’t to say things don’t get tense or happen, but Julia Hart (Miss Stevens) has created a sort of Daughters of the Dust vibe in this movie as we get to meet and learn about three generations of women with a secret to protect.

And the women are far from perfect. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (A Wrinkle in Time), in particular, has personal demons and a past to overcome. Lorraine Toussaint (Into the Badlands) and Saniyya Sidney (Hidden Figures) also struggle in their own ways to find the right path. With a bit of help from David Strathairn (Godzilla: King of Monsters), the women work to find a resolution.  Each gets to explore and explain their character in ways that reach us and continually have us re-evaluate our assessments of them.

The weakest performance in the movie is from Christopher Denham (The Bay). But he is at the apex of an aspect of the tale that is the least well thought through. In a world that is slowly falling apart, there is a group of men arrayed against the women for reasons that are either cliche or completely undefined. And this is unabashedly a movie about the women; the men are mostly ciphers.

With the complex character set-up and the mostly unexplored world and dangers, it isn’t a surprise that is also soon to be a streaming series on Amazon. With that kind of space, we should get a lot more of what is going on. While this movie wasn’t intended as, and doesn’t feel, like a pilot, it certainly makes a solid version of one. I’m looking forward to seeing what they can create from this intriguing beginning.

I have to admit I wanted to like this film more than I did. The performances and direction are emotionally satisfying. I just wanted a little more meat on the bones of the male characters and the purpose of the “bad guys.” It would have made the world and situation more complete and less of an excuse against which to tell the story Hart and her co-writer, Jordan Horowitz, wanted to tell.

High Life

[2 stars]

I don’t mind mixing science and the metaphysical, but I do need some credibility under it all to hold the story and message together. High Life misses on almost all counts. The crux of the tale is, frankly, absurd and such a bad science fiction premise that I had to force myself to continue with the story. In addition, the emotional and metaphysical aspects of the story are, at turns, trite and, at turns, so self-referential as to be completely obfuscated.

Director and co-writer Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In ) is no stranger to mixing narrative with metaphor. Perhaps there was a bigger point here she was trying to make, but it missed me almost entirely. Certainly there is commentary on love, sex, parenthood, and redemption. But there isn’t a clear through-line that knits it together into a whole. We end up with something more like Dark Star meets Sunshine, but with all the negatives of both and few of the positives of either.

Honestly, I can’t recommend this, even with Robert Pattinson’s (Maps to the Stars) subtle performance and Juliette  Binoche’s (Summer Hours) rather frentic, untethered one. There are definitely better ways to spend a couple hours of your life than trying to pick apart this confused, philosophical mess.

Another Life

[3 stars]

Imagine Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Nightflyers all melded into one. In many ways, this is what Nighflyers wanted to be, but missed on so many levels. But Another Life is much more space opera than it is science fiction. Science is, at best, a convenient idea to be used or changed as needed (yes, even worse than Star Trek because it feels more like science fiction). Knowing that going in, despite the trappings of the show, will keep you from getting agitated later (assuming you care about such things).

Katee Sackhoff  (2036: Origin Unknown) delivers a complex and strong female leader. Admittedly, the script has her doing some stupid things at times, but her emotional core is solid. The rest of the shipboard cast, with two exceptions, do well too. Samuel Anderson (Doctor Who, DCI Banks) navigates a difficult road to sentience…your mileage may vary on the results, but it is still a complicated performance. Likewise Blu Hunt, A.J. Rivera, Alex Ozerov (Cardinal), and JayR Tinaco created shipboard life that is at once interesting and, in some ways, ridiculous. But that is more a problem of the Space Opera approach than it is the actors.

Unfortunately, there were also some weaker, or at least uneven performances as well. Top among those were Jake Abel (Love & Mercy) and Jessica Camacho (The Flash). Neither had a subtle bone in their body and, in the case of Abel especially, no presence whatsoever. Back on Earth, Selma Blair (Anger Management), who I normally enjoy, was just as imprecise and unreal in her pivotal role, which was a shame.

The other main Earth-locked cast was fairly solid. Justin Chatwin (Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio) and the young Lina Renna make a great anchor for Sackhoff’s character.

Creator Aaron Martin has a diverse writing background on shows from Degrassi: The Next Generation, to Being Erica, and SyFy romp Killjoys. He isn’t afraid to push limits or relationships and it shows. This series takes a very matter-of-fact approach to the broad spectrum of sexuality that only Sense8 has really challenged in the genre so far. This isn’t the driver for the action, but it certainly adds some nice aspects to the characters and story.

The story also attempts, rather ham-handedly to be honest, to raise the challenge of understanding an alien mind. How much human psychology can you assign to actions and questions an alien raises? How closely will AI evolve to be like or dislike its creators?

I can’t say I ever was sure of the title: Another Life. It has interesting resonance throughout the story, changing as it goes. By the end of this first series I was still unsure of the intention, but had flipped through various options. Perhaps that was the point, but it never felt reflected in the characters.

This show is also a great example of being better streaming than it would have been on broadcast. The story is relentless, ending episodes on intriguing points or cliffhangers and starting off, often, with new situations. In other words, it pulls you along nicely for a binge. If, however, it had been released on a 1-a-week schedule, it would never have hooked in a audience because of that rhythm.

For some interesting distraction, this is a fun series. I’m hoping that it not only gets a second round, but that they learn from this first and take the scripts up a notch. It wouldn’t take much to take it to a higher level and really build out a franchise.

Little

[2.5 stars]

Cute idea. Childish execution. Tina Gordon directed this movie as a Disney Channel special rather than as a feature release. The style and script, with co-writer Tina Oliver (Girl’s Trip), is very much a child’s view of the world rather than an adult learning about how to view the world as a child again.

It doesn’t help that Regina Hall’s (The Hate U Give) performance is so broad at the beginning at that I almost turned off the flick in frustration. There was no way this person would have still had a company with her behavior. This means that the movie started at a massive deficit…and I could never quite suspend disbelief because it was so obviously wrong. Issa Rae (Insecure) and Marsai Martin (Black-ish) help pull the movie back toward center, but never manage to make up for the the rest of the weaknesses even with their efforts.

People have been trying to recapture the magic that was Big for decades. The sentiment never really goes out of style, but while the general story is what people remember (even with the reversal), the filmmakers forgot that it was the chemistry of that film that really made it a classic. And no one in this cast matches Hanks’ vulnerability and charisma.

Breaking the Rule of Binge

I don’t, as a rule, binge watch programs. I like the episodic nature of stories. I like time to reflect and think on what has happened in a story and what may happen in the next installment. It’s an art to do it well and it’s satisfying as an experience for me. I know…I’m in the minority at this point.

Recently, however, I’ve been breaking my rule of no more than two episodes of a show per day due to some truly engaging writing. The first slip was for Jessica Jones‘s final series, and then shortly after for Stranger Things. The first because I had time, more than the structure, and the latter because of the cliff-hanger endings. But then came Russian Doll and Dark. Both seriously binge-worthy shows, though each for different reasons.

Russian Doll

I devoured this show in two sittings…and would have done it in one if I could have seen straight enough that first night. While the first episode wasn’t exactly giving me hope, there was something intriguing about it that brought me back. By the end of the second episode, I just couldn’t stop.

Groundhog Day, though not the first of its kind, is the de facto term for all repeating day stories. It is even a trope that has come back into vogue again with fun jaunts in many genre, like Happy Death Day. Russian Doll is yet another riff on this idea…and explained about as much any of them do, employing multiple references, including Felini. But who cares…that isn’t what the story is about. Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black) knocks it out of the park with her gravelly-voiced, prickly NYC software designer.

Unsurprisingly, Russian Doll is already renewed (especially given its 11 Emmy nominations which were recently announced). My hope is that they don’t rush it, because even if they manage to expand on the story, like Happy Death Day 2U, I’d really like for them to do something as new and wonderful as their first round of this addictive and inventive tale.

Dark

Dark is wonderfully intriguing with interesting ideas and characters, and some great mysteries and events. But that isn’t why I ended up having to binge. It is simply one of the most brain hemorrhagingly complex stories I’ve every encountered…holding it all in your head requires watching it all close together. If you go more than a day without watching an episode, you’re going to need one of the many write-ups on the web (organized by family grouping or chronology).

Series one hooked me with it complexity and ended on a cliff-hanger where series two picks up.  This second chunk comes to a sort of conclusion, but opens up for the third series scheduled for next June (to coincide with the dates of the story). But my suggestion is that you watch the first two series back-to-back at a one or two a night clip…frankly, I don’t think the human brain can take more than that. If you can, power to you. Then, before watching the new stories, rewatch the series again so it’s fresh in your mind. Honestly, this thing needs visual aids, but it is delightfully and intricately structured…a true thing of beauty even if the story and characters aren’t.

Tale of Tales

[3 stars]

If you’ve ever been frustrated by how fairy tales and myths have been depicted on screen, this may be the film for you. This movie takes a non-sanitized approach to, if not exactly purely adapting, the collected fairy tales of the late 16th Century poet Giambattista Basile’s. Given that it is from director Matteo Garrone (Gomorah), the dark aspects of the story shouldn’t be a surprise, nor should the sure hand behind the camera guiding you through its interconnected tales.

While there are some recognizable faces in this movie, no one really stands out. The star here is the story and the production. Think adult bedtime stories of a darker nature and you’ll get the idea. Being a collection, it doesn’t really come together into a single story, but characters keep crossing paths from the opening story to the final. Basically, if you like auteur cinema, the original Grimm tales, or simply twisted plots, you’ll likely enjoy this colorful romp of moralistic and humanistic failings. If you prefer a cohesive plot with a single purpose, this isn’t your movie.

22 Hot Zone Heroes, or More Streaming Fun

The Hot Zone
This is an old story given new, and surprisingly terrifying, life given we know the outcome and that Preston’s book is well over 20 years old. It is a little uneven in acting, though the issue is more casting than performance. While Julianna Margulies (The Upside) is solid as army research doctor, James D’Arcy (Survivor)  just didn’t work for me on multiple levels from his accent to his whiny nature. But that aside, the story is surprisingly gripping and the warning not a little unsettling.

Catch-22
The real question with this one was: How do you film the impossible book? Well, up till the end, apparently really well. This six-part look at the absurdity of war and humanity generally is funny (till it’s not) and gripping through till its final moments (when it isn’t). On screen, the reason for its success is unequivocally Christopher Abbott (First Man) in the main role of Yossarian/Yo-Yo. Without him, it all falls apart. Around him are a cadre of characters that are, basically, absurdist creations that remain all too connected to truth. On its own, this version of Heller’s classic has a point to make. But if you’ve read the book, you might find the finale more than a little frustrating, especially after having been teased along so expertly for the rest of the journey.

MARVEL ACROSS THE GENERATIONS
Marvel is everywhere and, it seems, represented on almost every major channel or streaming option. Hulu and Netflix have some of the most interesting offerings. And, between them, they reach out to a range of ages.

Jessica Jones (series 3)
Jessica Jones is, by far, the most adult of the range. Since its inception, Jones has been one of the most interesting characters. As a flawed, powerful anti-hero, she was instantly engaging, even when those around her weren’t. This finale to the series is worthy of her journey, even if it was somewhat cut short.

Cloak and Dagger (series 1 & 2)
This teen-oriented, but delightfully dark story of two teens tied together by happenstance is lots of fun and often shocking for the places it’s willing to go. It is much more fantasy than science fiction, leaning heavily on New Orleans hoo doo. But the show maintains its consistency and drags you along into its weird and wonderful world. It isn’t perfect, often dipping heavily into clichè, but Olivia Holt (Same Kind of Different as Me), Aubrey Joseph, and Emma Lahana (Haven) get to have a heck of journey over the first two seasons…and a lot of fun, sweat, and tears getting there.

Runaways (series 2)
Of all the Marvel shows, I was actually most interested in this one, till I got to see it. Mostly it had my attention because of the various writers of the comics over the years. But the result is something aimed to the tween audience (or younger) and rarely with any credibility. There is enough of a mystery to keep me semi-interested, but I grind my teeth way too often while trying. The writing is weak, the plotting forced, the characters willfully ignorant or just plain stupid, and the purposes just downright confusing at times. Ultimately I fell away halfway through the second season, though I may pick it up again to see how they resolve it all.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

[3.5 stars]

Before the opening scene begins to roll, even writer/director Terry Gilliam (The Zero Theorem) admits this was a long time coming. As one of the most cursed productions ever undertaken, expectations for the final result were probably wildly out of balance, even given its pedigree.

The movie that was finally delivered is a modern fantasy that never quite anchors itself in reality, all in service to the inspiring, original Cervantes material. It is absurd and entertaining, confusing and frustrating, but ultimately bittersweet and triumphant. It has a large cast, but the story is really held together by Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman), Jonathan Pryce (The Wife), and Olga Kurylenko (The Death of Stalin). The three form the Quixote, Sancho, Dulcinea trinity.

This is one of Gilliam’s most grounded films, slipping between reality and fantasy without ever showing you the line. It can be disorienting and, at times, angering, but it is all appropriate. It is also beautifully filmed for the big screen–which I didn’t get to experience, sadly, but you should if you can still find it in theaters. Don Quixote is one of those movies that you will keep thinking about it long after its heroes have trotted off into the sunset. It implies a lot but says very little directly. It is wildly inventive but emotionally very simple, keeping it focused and relatable moment to moment even when the whole hasn’t revealed itself.

This may or may not be the story you had been waiting for after 25 years. It isn’t perfect, but it is the tale we eventually got. I admit I am a Gilliam fan, so there was unlikely any chance I’d have disliked whatever result I was offered. However, worth the wait or not, it is a movie with enough layers to bring me back at least a couple more times. It will need that to fully absorb it and put it in both its own context and the context of its production journey.