Tag Archives: Fantasy

WandaVision

[4 stars]

Yes, I avoided talking about this till it was complete. Why? Because it was so clearly going to be a complex arc that wouldn’t likely be fully realized till the end. I’m glad I waited…and enjoyed the ride.

Like many complex tales, there are two experiences: the initial watch and the rewatch/looking-back review. The one thing that is utterly clear is that this massively risky experiment wouldn’t have worked without the incredible acting chops of Elizabeth Olsen (Ingrid Goes West). Her ability to morph through the various styles required, and her depth of emotional landscape sold an otherwise near-experimental theatre presentation. And in support around her through it all were Kathryn Hahn (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and Paul Bettany (Uncle Frank) who balance and feed the confusion. It’s no Watchmen, but it is a heck of an out-there show.

And, yes, there are others, but most are surprises so I won’t enumerate. But Josh Stamberg (Pacific Rim: Uprising) is notable for a truly flawed performance. He was clearly directed by Matt Shakman to chew the furniture and he did so with relish, to the detriment of the series. Mind you, so does Hahn before it’s all over, which is a shame, but she has a wider ranging presentation. However, at least Teyonah Parris (If Beale Street Could Talk) manages to pull off a rather unexpected arc without crossing those lines.

The shape of this series is everything. It begins with a 30 minute format and expands, as the story structure allows, till we get to an hour-long finale. But the first three episodes are slightly self-indulgent setups. Entertaining as heck, but stretched out a bit too long. There is a purpose and a reason for it all (thankfully) but it goes on too long. Shankman should have reined it in a little more. Similarly, the penultimate episode gets old quickly as, by that time, it’s simply revealing information we mostly know but the characters have yet to admit/understand. It could have been done better.

But the finale, which manages in true Marvel/MCU fashion to pull all the threads together, is a nice pay-off. And I say that even though it also, in true MCU fashion, has lots of open threads hinted at in the two codas.

Overall, this is a heck of an achievement. Flawed, and slightly misdirected at times, but not something most of us expected. And it resolves some of the original complaints about Wanda’s Age of Ultron introduction and story. Of course, if you don’t know about Wanda and Vision, you’ll frankly miss 80% of the story. So if you somehow missed the movies, go back to Age of Ultron and watch from there (or at least watch the Legends series to learn enough about the background).

My biggest concern with the story is how well it will stand the test of time and rewatching. Once you know the secrets and rewatch it once, is there enough there? As a stand-alone series, I suspect not. It is built as a vehicle to launch several new paths in the MCU (at least two movies link up with the ending). It isn’t a stand-alone gem of a story, it is an episode in the charcters’ existence, a bridge to what comes next. Very comic book. But is that what we ultimately want to tune in for? Dark Tower had originally planned a movie and TV pathway, because of the scope of the story, all tying together as a whole. Then they panicked and gave us a single, awful movie. So, perhaps, WandaVision is a new type of show and I’m being a little unfair to its purpose. Time will tell when we see if Disney can pay it all off in the year or so to come. Certainly, I give them credit for the ballsy and expensive attempt. Let’s see what they can do with it…

Tom and Jerry (2021)

[1 star]

I accept the fact that some folks may find this entertaining. I didn’t. I couldn’t even finish the movie. The blending of the animation and real world was, at best, odd and, at worst, just pointless. I don’t know what Tim Story was thinking when he agreed to take on this project with a script by Kevin Costello (Brigsby Bear). The blended animation and real-world makes no sense at all in action or substance.

Add to this that the acting, despite some reasonable talent, was stretched beyond credibility. It never found a tone that worked. In fact, Chloë Grace Moretz (Greta) couldn’t even modulate her voice to sound believable. Michael Peña (Fantasy Island) is absurd from the get-go. And, frankly, Jerry is just a dick in this story, way beyond what I remember from the cartoons growing up.

Perhaps the studio got what they wanted in the resulting movie. Maybe, even, Story hit the marks he was aiming for. What I can say is that I wasn’t the target on just about any level. I couldn’t appreciate the technology, the humor, nor the drama. I rarely turn off a movie, but after 30 minutes of this drivel I had to save my evening and I ran away. You shouldn’t even start.

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Mortal

[3 stars]

Unexplained super-powers is becoming an overdone trope, which is why when you find one that tries to do something new, it’s a particular delight. André Øvredal (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) returns to his Nordic, Trollhunter roots to bring us a slow but intense tale of a young man, Nat Wolff (Admission), who suddenly acquires powers he can’t control or explain.

Iben Akerlie (Little Drummer Girl) plays opposite Wolff and balances him out well. In fact, she and Per Frisch are about the only clear-headed folks in the movie while Priyanka Bose (Lion) serves to remind the world of why Americans just shouldn’t be trusted. A sad cliché, but she navigates it relatively well within the bounds of the script.

As you can imagine, tragedy and stupid government decisions begin to occur. But this isn’t quite the story you expect, nor does it unfold exactly as others of its ilk. Sadly, it also doesn’t quite get to a conclusion so much as a beginning. Whether the tale will continue I imagine is still in flux, but the path is certainly there. In the meantime, if you can handle being left hanging (think a Brightburn kind of ending in style, though not in content), give it a shot. Definitely something a bit more interesting than the typical version of these tales.

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The Stand (2021)

[3 stars]

Timing is everything in entertainment and The Stand, well, it couldn’t have picked a worse time. Despite the long anticipation, and the desire to see this epic tale told with the breadth it deserves, watching a story of a pandemic (even if it is just a McGuffin) doesn’t quite ring right at the moment.

But timing isn’t its only issue. The show suffers from all that was good in the book and all that was bad. Some of the casting works nicely, like Amber Heard’s (Aquaman) Nadine, Odessa Young’s (Shirley) Frannie, and even James Marsden’s (Sonic the Hedgehog) Stu. Other characters like Owen Teague’s (It: Chapter Two) Harold Lauder, and Nat Wolff’s (Admission) Lloyd, aren’t credible…and, in fact, Lauder isn’t even afforded some of his evolutions from the book despite the available time in the series.

Other changes to the story, like making Flagg the actual devil and Mother Abigail potentially an angel (though really more of a prophet) removes too much of the interesting aspects and struggles. Part of the real suspense in the book is that people have to choose (including Flagg and Abigail). That Flagg actually has a supernatural hand in causing the pandemic is just so frigging cheap a choice and shows no imagination on the part of the writers. It’s too easy and lets people off the hook. I do admit that Alexander Skarsgard (The Hummingbird Project) is a near-perfect choice for Flagg. Whoopie Goldberg is a bit less perfect as Abigail, but that felt more like the writing than her efforts.

There are also some nice smaller appearances that work nicely. Natalie Martinez (Self/less) gets to have a nice arc. And Brad William Henke (Bright) delivers within the limitations of Tom’s boundaries nicely. Even Ezra Miller’s (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) Trashcan man, for all its outlandishness, works for the need and the part. But Nadine’s story gets rushed at the end.  And the Vegas crew, generally, is just so over the top as to be entirely ridiculous. You never wonder about the outcome. Only the Colorado side feels real and sustainable (which has its own commentary and point eventually).

When the book came out 40+ years ago, it was something really new. That just isn’t the case anymore. And, worse, it feels culturally old. Despite having been updated in time the characters and situations haven’t been updated for a 2020 sensibility in politics, identities, nor culturally. That gap is squarely on the writer’s and directors. While a lot of the plot is sadly timeless, how we deal with one another has changed and the rhythm and language just feels off.

Ultimately, I wish the writers had been willing to really rework the story without losing its main premise and tension. Good vs. Evil doesn’t have to be extremes. In fact, some of the biggest impacts on both sides are often small gestures or choices that ripple out. Sure, we want it to build to a great crescendo, but the series even pulled that moment from us in an odd throwaway, supernatural event that doesn’t even really fit with the rest of the tale. In fact, the choice utterly cheapened all the efforts of the people involved because, ultimately, they didn’t matter. I do like that they had a coda episode that shows that stories just continue, that they don’t end just because of a plot milestone. Using it to create a second climax, another Stand, was clever. However, again, it cheapened everyone else’s choices and lives by forcing the God/Devil fight directly into it all rather than done at a distance. Deus ex machina is not a satisfying solution for a 9 part series, even if it can be used as a point in shorter fare.

Despite some good performances, incredible scope, and solid production values, this version of The Stand still isn’t the one we deserved after so long. Much like Dune, it struggles to find an artist who can breathe life into its rich and complicated world without making it feel like a farce.

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Synchronic

[3.5 stars]

Some writer/directors have a signature to their work; a flavor that identifies their efforts but that can be executed in many different ways. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are such a pair. They have returned with another brainbender in Sychronic. Their previous couple of movies, Spring and The Endless, were solid proving grounds for pulling together this much more mature piece of film. They keep learning with each release how far they can push ideas and how much they can leave unexplained. They also managed to snag a talented cast to pull it off.

In the primary role, Anthony Mackie (Outside the Wire) drives the story. Mackie has had wide-ranging taste in his recent roles, but they’re always characters with an inner strength and sense of morality. Synchronic, despite its dark overtones, is no exception to that list. And, in this case, the script and story are actually a match for his efforts. Opposite him is Jamie Dornan (A Private War) who anchors the story, quite literally, for the drifting Mackie. The two long-time friends and co-workers butt heads but they are a solid pairing against the dark and seedy life of being New Orleans EMTs.

The story, like Moorhead and Benson’s previous offerings, slowly reveals itself, though not in a straight line. It teases and plays with you. And, more importantly, it tries to cover all its bases as it goes. We learn with the characters what the issues and possibilities are. And, in the end, we are left with a sense of wonderfully incomplete completeness that is sure to generate conversations while the credits roll. It also has to be called out that the cinematography and edits are in beautiful support of the story.

I wasn’t sure what Synchronic would be when I started it. And that is probably the best way to go into it. Just enjoy the ride. The road is dark, but the destination holds  warm fire, friends, and family at the end, even if in unexpected ways.

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Mulan (2020)

[3.5 stars]

Niki Caro (McFarland, USA) wasn’t a likely choice to direct this Chinese fantasy, but she pulls it off with heart, and not just a few wire tricks. More interestingly, she manages to bridge Eastern and Western sensibilities in the storytelling, arriving at a comfortable blend between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and any Disney princess film you’d like to consider, though perhaps Pixar’s Brave is a better point on that end of the spectrum.

I admit I went into this one full of trepidation. There were so many controversies around the release of the film. Starting with ill-considered tweets from its star Yifei Liu and then its direct release on  stream. But, I have to admit it won me over. Donnie Yen (xXx: Return of Xander Cage), Li Gong (2046), Jet Li (The Expendables 3 ), Tzi Ma (The Farewell), Rosalind Chao, and Pei-Pei Cheng (Lilting) certainly added to the enticement to see the movie.

Mulan isn’t brilliant, but it’s fun and, most importantly, avoids the really bad choices at the end that it starts to swing toward. I was even surprised by moments. Admittedly, despite the well of talent, the performances are relatively shallow. The story is also far too easy and fast. But it’s full of action and visual distraction. It may be a bit confused in some aspects of its story, but it certainly took some chances by incorporating the Western and Eastern Phoenix tales into the story without much explanation or apology to the mashed-up mythos.

Basically, this isn’t a waste of time, but it isn’t one you have to rush to. And the more Chinese fantasies you’ve seen, the thinner this will seem. However, it delivers on its promise, if not with the depth or emotional impact you might have wished.

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Star Trek: Discovery (series 3)

[3 stars]

In its third season, and practically third incarnation, Discovery has finally bridged the divide that has separated two sets of fandom for decades by dropping Trek characters into a Star Wars-like universe. The highly anticipated third launch of this show starts off with a bang and quickly resets the style, sensibility, and characters … yet again. Has any show changed this much series to series other than Fringe (and even that had some consistencies) or The OA (had it been allowed to continue)?

I actually rather enjoyed the first season. There was some daring darkness and an attempt to remake the franchise into something new. The second season was a bit more confused. Interesting, but confused. Character motivations changed, the politics and focus shifted. The outcome and climax were a bit rushed and not entirely satisfactory. However, that finale opened the door for the series to completely leapfrog all known Trek canon and forge their own path.

And that brings us to the current series, 900 years in the future and several hundred years beyond any known story. There are immediate references to past events setting up mysteries and possible eddies from the time jump to keep us anchored. But the most notable aspect is how changed Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael is. Her entire demeanor has shifted. By the end of the  second episode, many others from the crew will have begun down new paths as well. Michelle Yeoh (Last Christmas), in particular, is being set up for some incredible fun.

But, of course, these shifts created a problem for the series…it had to start all over again. With the characters, with the plots, and with the Federation. So, after a solid 2-part opening it devolves for a good part of the season into providing stories for these new beginnings which are wrapped up in Star-Trek-easy confrontations and solutions to get them on the path.

While some characters are jettisoned, others, like Oded Fehr (Resident Evil), Ian Alexander (The OA), and newcomer Blu del Barrio bring some new life to the show. Their insertion into the story is forced at times, but all provide new directions. Admittedly, this is also often at the cost of not getting to see some of the characters we’ve already invested in as much as we’d like to. And with all these encapsulated stories everything comes across as a bit too easy and fast to resolve because they have limited time to get it all done in one episode and/or one season. And the big mystery is scarily bad, hand-wavy science, and the entire season is overly earnest, in that very Trek way, particularly near the end of the season.

But, ultimately, this season is a brave and interesting choice for the show. It definitely feels like something new and unique in the Trek ouvre, and it’s relatively self-contained as a new jumping off point. The real question now is, can they build on it rather than panicking and remaking the show yet again in the fourth season?

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Equinox

[3 stars]

Dark. Moody. Danish.

There have been many shows from this area of Europe of late. Most are straight-up mysteries. Some are supernaturalish hybrids, like this offering. Led with intensity by Danica Curcic (The Bridge (Bron/Broen)), this is a tale of inevitability as well as mystery. It is less about surprise and more about trying to identify what is real and what is just a symptom of something else.

There are some familiar faces around Curcic. Lars Brygmann (Dicte) and Alexandre Willaume (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) are among those. Neither really gets to cut loose, but both do manage to creep you out. And there is also a nicely nuanced performance by Hanne Hedelund as Curcic’s mother.

The six-episode arc will keep you intrigued. The craft of the show as it bounces between past and present, fantasy and reality is a bit awkward and confused at times, but it generally works and is sometimes purposefully vague. The story is, however, complete in the one go, though they may decide to come back to it. They certainly didn’t answer all questions to my satisfaction. And it’s no Dark, or Les Revenants. While the story is somewhat layered and complex, it won’t make your brain bleed.

Ultimately, this is nice distraction from the standard. It delivers fairly on its promise and it’s reasonably well executed. I realize this isn’t screaming praise…I think I wanted a bit more from it given the setup and potential. But that was more a problem with expectation than delivery.

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Soul

[4.5 stars]

Just wow. Not only is this a beautifully drawn and designed film, it’s a clever and engaging animated tale that will entertain young and old alike. In fact, the only reason I couldn’t give this a straight-up 5 stars was because of some of the minor bits that were there for laughs alone for the youngsters and small flaws that made no real-world sense. Otherwise, this is an instant classic and will bear up under rewatching for years to come.

The vocal duelling between Jamie Foxx (Project Power) and Tina Fey (Admission) is wonderfully entertaining and amusingly animated (literally and figuratively). Add the dry fun of Richard Ayoade (The Boxtrolls), Alice Braga (Kill Me Three Times), and Rachel House (Thor: Ragnarok) and you’ve an incredible pallet of humor to bounce off of. A host of smaller roles are given life by talented names as well. And then there’s the jazz arrangements and playing under the guidance of Jon Batiste.

Peter Docter (Inside Out) and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami) co-directed and, with an assist by Mike Jones, co-wrote the script. It is a masterful piece of wry wit and honest reflection on life. There’s no point in describing more of it because you should just experience it, whether now or later. It’s a pity this one didn’t see the large screen, but it certainly entertains like it should and doesn’t disappoint.

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Helstrom

[3 stars]

Hulu’s latest Marvel adaptation is quite the dark ride. A cross between Constantine and Legion, it’s a psychological and (literal) hell-ride for a pair of sibs battling their past and fighting for their future.

The pacing is a bit slow, but the intensity remains high. So does the hyperbole. Subtle writing this isn’t, nor does it have many surprises. There are a few, however, and they are big ones.

While Tom Austen (The Royals) and Sydney Lemmon (Velvet Buzzsaw) are the center of the show, it’s really more carried by the side characters. Elizabeth Marvel (Manifest), Robert Wisdom (Motherless Brooklyn), and Alain Uy (The Passage) all have better lines and more interesting challenges, whereas the main characters seem somewhat hemmed in by the genre. I will grant that Lemmon has a nice arc while Austen is just relentlessly earnest.

As a series Helstrom has more promise than delivery, but there is definitely promise and I’d like to see where they go next and if they can raise the bar. Here’s hoping for a second season and a bit more rigor.

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