Tag Archives: Fantasy

The new (early) Fall batch

A smattering of new shows kicked off the Fall season, or bridged the late Summer into Fall. It was a mixed bag, as you’d expect. There are more to come, but these led the pack and have, in at least one case, already met their fate.

Transplant
Surprisingly, even with a glut of medical dramas, this Toronto based tale has found a new formula and a set of timely subjects. By focusing the story on a Syrian doctor trying to get recertified in Canada while supporting his family and getting over PTSD, we have a new kind of perspective. It also allows for a number of layered tales of discrimination and issues for immigrants and the poor. Of course, because it is based in Canada, the hospital workings feel a little odd. And, to be honest, the writing isn’t always great when it comes to the medical emergencies, but they manage to pull it off. And the opening of the show is definitely hell of a kick-off.

Next
This one keeps barely holding on to me, though I’m pretty sure I’ll be dropping it soon. For every aspect of AI they get right, they get others wrong or make the characters do something stupid to allow the plot to work they way they want it to happen rather than finding a more elegant, natural solution. Frustrating. The story is a riff on Person of Interest combined with Emergence. Despite some of the writing challenges, the acting is actually pretty good. However, it has been cancelled at the end of its freshman run, so we may never know what it might have become.

Pandora (series 2)
Talk about a complete retcon. The first season of Pandora was a poor-man’s Trek substitute. But as a summer filler it was watchable in a kitschy sort of way…barely. But the end of the first round was so bad I almost didn’t come back. However, I decided to see how they’d write themselves out of their bad choices. The answer: completely rewrite and reconceiving of the show. The writing is still weak and the acting marginal, though a tad improved. I may give it a bit more time given the dearth of new shows this pandemic year, but so far I can’t see a reason to stick with it.

Transplant Poster NEXT Poster Pandora Poster

Over the Moon

[3 stars]

I don’t know a parent who hasn’t sweated the two really big conversations with their kids: sex and death. Over the moon takes on the latter in a very accessible and relatively honest way without losing the magic of the tale. The story, by the late Audrey Wells (The Hate U Give), doesn’t shy away from many of the issues and feelings while also not making it overly depressing; she was targeting tweens and younger. The result of this latest Netflix drop is definitely a movie for kids, but with a delightfully odd mix of story and craft that kept me interested.

On the craft side, it is an odd mix of high-end CGI and flat animation. And, generally, the flat animation is used for the fantasy side of the world rather than the Fei Fei, our intrepid and driven heroine’s world. It makes for an odd experience, but it somehow works.

The story, however, is probably the more interesting of the choices. It brings in science as a way to focus the action, but then leaps into fantasy without apology. It also tackles some real life challenges.

The voice talent is adequate, but nothing that really stands out, despite some recognizable names. And the music is good, but never quite finds a song that will stick in your head…it’s close, but just misses. I will, however, give them props for some of the lyrics and script being at least a bit honest about how complicated families and life can be.

Over the Moon is fun once for adults, if you like anime and particularly if you like seeing other myths than we’re used to catching in English. Kids will likely enjoy this more, and perhaps even more than once, though I’m not a great predictor when it comes to that. But it is certainly a solid achievement and a funny and poignant tale.

Over the Moon Poster

Tiramisu (Luen oi hang sing)

[3 stars]

For a good part of this story, I was willingly transported on an elegiac fantasy about love and art. Two people meet, by accident, make a connection and then, well, weirdness and the unexpected occur. It is very much a Chinese myth and story, right through to the end. But, this is a modern framing for myths you may know, and some that are made up. It isn’t full-on magic and weirdness, but stays focused on the characters and their relationships, with just enough oddness to keep it all unique.

Dante Lam directs with an open heart and love for the characters and with an artist’s mind. The result turns Kin Chung Chan’s script into something quite beautiful and, often, funny. Nicholas Tse and Kar Yan Lam work well together keeping the story light, but intense. Their side-kicks, Candy Lo and Eason Chan, help kick it along as well, though Chan is more than a little over the top.

For something a little different, with a solidly recognizable thread, this was fun. Though I will admit that it sort of falls apart at the end. I would have laid out the last few moments differently, both for consistency and to carry through the themes, but it still works emotionally. For a light-ish romantic tale with some classic overtones, check it out sometime.

Lovecraft Country

[4 stars]

The origin of this series is the book of the same name by Matt Ruff. The book is a perfect match for our times all on its own, and predated the explosion of outcries that have swept the nation in a prescient coup when it was published back at the top of 2017. The book even predates Get Out. Like the HBO adaptation, it’s also episodic by design and full of adventure amid the message. And Jordan Peele (Us) is the perfect match for overseeing series that Misha Green has created. Much like Watchmen and Penny Dreadful: City of Angles, this is an entertaining commentary that is impossible to look away from and devastating to run through.

From the beginning the show separates its action from the book, but manages to retain the sense and direction of it entirely. It’s quite a feat of adaptation. There are reasonable arguments to be made that they tried to do too much, overloaded the metaphors with too many examples and storylines. But I enjoyed the additional layers; the arc of this series builds a house of cards through its 10 episodes that we get to asail in the finale. How it all plays out is completely open till the end which helps add to the suspense. And, of course, there is setup for what could be an even wilder ride for a season 2 (read more about that here after you’ve seen the current series). However, one of the impacts of the changes from the book is also a much less likeable cast of characters. None of them are wholly positive, and all of them are often prickly to the point of being nasty.

The story itself is a quietly complex and intense tale that slips in and out of the world we know and a world that only haunts nightmares. More impressively, it makes horror, well, feel more real. It isn’t about making you jump, it’s about making you metaphysically ill and uncomfortable while making the characters truly afraid. Despite the wild situations, they all feel very grounded in truth, be it real humans and their repugnant ways or ghosts and elder gods and their swinging tentacles and many eyes. Look, in particular, at the third episode, “Holy Ghost,” and consider these aspects.

Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) and Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Birds of Prey) are the primary focus pulling us along. Their relationship, and tension in that relationship, evolves over the stretch of the story and serves as the backboard against which so much else bounces.

Smollett-Bell is also just one of many powerful women in the story. She is joined by Aunjanue Ellis (If Beale Street Could Talk), Wunmi Mosaku (The End of the F***ing World), and Abbey Lee (The Dark Tower) who serve as example and preachers to the plight of women and the taking of power. Even Courtney B. Vance (Project Power) and Michael Kenneth Williams (Motherless Brooklyn) take backseats to their storms.

There are too many amazing episodes to call out, though “I Am” certainly ranks up there requiring a special call out…if nothing else for its audacity given the mainstream audience target. In a good year of content creation, Lovecraft would have stood out as something special. In the year of the pandemic where new material is fairly restricted, it towers over most of the rest. Much like Watchmen’s sweep of awards last season, watch for Lovecraft to dominate nominations, if not also taking home many awards.

Lovecraft Country Poster

Sonic the Hedgehog

[3 stars]

Thanks to the pandemic, it’s taken ages to get my hands on a copy of this silly romp. Frankly, it was better than I expected; though far from a good film, it was entertaining for its intended audience.

And the intended audience is young. Fortunately, the cast truly committed to the story and, in context, it works just enough to let an adult get through it with a knowing smile. It doesn’t have the edge of Pokemon: Detective Pickachu, but it’s self-conscious enough that you don’t have to groan through it all.

James Marsden (The Female Brain) and Jim Carrey (Kick-Ass 2) really carry the story, though Ben Schwartz’s (Standing Up, Falling Down) Sonic knits it together nicely. Marsden actually outshines them both thanks to his guileless delivery and charisma. Despite the likes of Tika Sumpter (Old Man & the Gun) in the cast, women are notably absent in driving roles.

This is director Jeff Fowler’s first real foray directing. But when you realize he’s working with writing team Pat Casey and Josh Miller, best known for such tightly written gems like Transylmania and Golan, the Insatiable, you gotta cut the guy a break on what he could accomplish.

Basically, this is safe for kids and not boring for adults. It isn’t a great film, but it is a reasonable translation to screen for a game…but that isn’t too high a bar, is it?

Sonic the Hedgehog Poster

Weathering With You (Tenki no ko)

[3 stars]

Makoto Shinkai’s (5 Centimeters Per Second) latest piece of animation plays to his strengths, but is ultimately a little confused and problematic.

Shinkai is devoted to the passion of love; young love in particular. He waxes poetic both visually and in plot chasing that ideal. And his animation is wonderful. That’s enough to pull you along through his tales.

But Weathering, while hitting on those notes well, ends up delivering a confused message about climate change in an alternative Tokyo that isn’t quite thought through. And, frankly, it just isn’t up to the standards of his previous work story-wise. There isn’t enough meat there, nor enough resolution to really sell it all.

All this to say: it’s pretty, it’s well voiced (in both Japanese and English), and it’s certainly inventive in its telling and ideas. But after a tour de force like Your name. my expectations were higher than he could deliver.

Weathering with You Poster

Cursed in Arcadia Ego

[4 stars (Tales of Arcadia) or 2.25 stars (Cursed)]

Two very different Netflix shows currently tackle the Arthurian myth. And, surprisingly, the children’s show does it better and more interestingly. Arthur is rich in myth and history with enough room in it to allow for many types of retellings. And these two shows couldn’t have done it more differently nor with such different levels of success.

Tales of Aradia was created by Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone), based on his co-written books. It’s an interconnected collection of series that began with Trollhunters. Then came 3Below, followed by the most recent: Wizards. But the threads that lead to Wizards begin in the first episode of Trollhunters. And, yes, these are really aimed at older kids and young teens, without question, particularly the first couple series. However, I jumped into Wizards without watching the others and it hooked me. It was inventive with the myth, stretching it like crazy, but not breaking it in a way that felt wrong. And while it was clear I didn’t know the backstories of a lot of characters, I was never entirely lost; a credit to the writing of the show.

When I went back to the beginning of the inter-connected series, I was surprised to find references to events I’d just witnessed, and which would have gone unanswered for viewers for three years. In other words, I don’t think it matters which end of the time stream you start, it all comes together in fun ways.

The show is loaded with voice talent, and won several Emmys as well. Most notably in the cast is Anton Yelchin (Thoroughbreds), who began as the lead, and stayed with it through his untimely death near the beginning of season 3. And then the series made some great choices to both continue, and to not dismiss his loss when they changed the character voice to Emile Hirsch (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood).

When you’re looking for some distraction, some fairly solid animation, and a clever tale, this set of shows will work for you. And, more importantly, they don’t insult your sense of the underlying material they plundered to create their world.

Now, on to Cursed

Where to start with where this series went wrong… How about the desire to rewrite the Arthurian tale rather than just do a true prequel? How about mucking up Roman/Britannia history so badly as to be embarrassing? How about having people make stupid choices and dialogue that was utterly painful at times? How about an unrelenting dirge of a tale with barely a respite? Well, it’s a start.

I will admit I soldiered on through to the end of this story, though I almost completely bailed about half-way through the second episode. It was close and I did turn it off at that point. But I came back to see if they could rescue it. They sort of did. Sort of. But I was still let cursing (appropriately) at my screen in the final 15 minutes of the series.

Aspects of the reimagining are clever…but they’re also contradictory in their set-up, implying it is way before Arthur’s time, when in fact is is contemporaneous with it. That just threw it all into disarray at the outset. And then there is the religious war aspect, which was half-true, though massively shifted time-wise to feed their hungry beast of a plot.

The cast does what it can with the painful scripts and choices, but they are left hanging on the screen, more often than not, looking less than comfortable with the results. Katherine Langford (Knives Out) and Devon Terrell (Ophelia) bumble around the countryside having to deliver mouthfuls of bad dialogue, and strained protestations of affection. And Gustaf Skarsgård (Vikings) has created an outrageous Merlin, that tries to resurrect Nicol Williamson’s unforgettable turn in Excalibur. And then there’s the sadly miscast Sebastian Armesto (Tulip Fever) as Uther Pendragon, whose been shrunk to a fool and wisp of a man. And that doesn’t even touch the psychotic nun, Emily Coates, who does OK, but who we never get enough about to understand what drives her. At least the young Billy Jenkins (Humans) gives us a full character, even without all the backstory.

Honestly, if we’re looking for strong, female-led tales of the time, and Arthur in particular, can’t we just finally adapt Mists of Avalon or Parke Godwin’s Firelord series? The characters are way more interesting, and the story much more credible and fascinating (and closer to true history and embraced myth).

The point is that if you’re going to do a re-imagining, do it with a purpose, not just changing things for shock value or convenience to muck with people’s expectations. Ultimately, that’s all Cursed does as it slogs through its torturous existence, and without even the courage to finish the story.

Fantasy Island (2020)

[3 stars]

It’s easy to forget that Fantasy Island wasn’t all 80’s kitsch and sweetness, it had a dark side. This remake tries to capitalize on that aspect. And, for the most part, it’s successful, even if the logic is stretched and the plot falls apart near the end. But up till then, director and co-writer Jeff Wadlow, along with the rest of his previous Truth or Dare? team (Jillian Jacobs and Chris Roach), is somewhat clever in how he helps it embrace both aspects of the classic show.

Much like the original, this is a collection of stories. In the wide-ranging ensemble, Lucy Hale (Truth or Dare?), Maggie Q (Priest), and Jimmy O. Yang (Space Force) stand out by force of charisma. They’re joined by a number of other good players that bump the plot along, such as Michael Rooker (Brightburn), Portia Doubleday (Mr Robot), and Parisa Fitz-Henley (My Spy). The rest of the cast serve simply to fill out the story; not poorly, just not memorably.

However Michael Peña (Dora and the Lost City of Gold), in the pivotal Mr. Roarke roll, feels utterly wrong. You have to be both pulled to the man and terrified of him. Peña has neither the presence nor the menace necessary.

What I will grant the movie is that it is a movie, not just an overblown TV episode. But while it can stand on its own, I suspect it has much more impact as a retcon of the series. Were it not for the wobble near the end, it would have been much more satisfying. But it’s a pretty big wobble as it tries to wrap it all up. Fortunately, the final moments are a bit more fulfilling. As to whether you should book a trip here…well, that’s up to you.

Red Dwarf: The Promised Land (series 13)

[3 stars]

Way back in 1988, an outrageous show began with the spilling of a bowl of gazpacho. 32 years and 13 series later,  it’s still carrying on with a fan base to help it stay on its feet.

In their latest series, much like series 9’s Back to Earth, it’s a single, movie-length story rather than a bunch of episodes. Is it brilliant? Well, no, but it is a solid callback to its roots and with their particular vein humor that you’ll recognize.

Sure, you can write some of the dialogue before it’s even spoken, but that’s part of the comforting charm if you’re a fan. And comfort comedy is something very necessary these days. So heat up a vindaloo and pull up a seat for an evening of fun and silliness; if you’ve been looking for a Red Dwarf fix, this will scratch that itch. And if you’ve never found Red Dwarf, go back to the beginning and enjoy the ride… this will be waiting for you when you’re ready.

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Lucifer (5: penultimate series)

[3.5 stars]

I’ve said it before, but getting off broadcast was one of the best things that ever happened to Lucifer. And this season continues to get even better. In fact, they’re getting more inventive and having more fun than ever, while still building on the story and characters.

While this fifth series was originally going to be its last, Netflix granted them a sixth in order to pull together all the threads they’ve been stringing out. It makes for a much more focused and complex set of interactions, and a real sense of forward motion for the characters.

I admit that it’s still not brilliant writing, but the character work and humor continues to keep me coming back. And over these last couple seasons there has been a lot of growth for each of the characters as well. Lesley-Ann Brandt, especially, has an interesting path to tread, and continues to improve her chops in the process.

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