Tag Archives: Fantasy

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.

Red Dwarf Poster

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.

Lucifer Poster

 

An odd assortment for many tastes

Here’s a potpourri of material for all kinds of tastes. Though, admittedly, not all are easy to get your hands on.

Mysteries:

Ultraviolet
Not the movie (which isn’t so good), nor the vampire series (which isn’t so bad), but a Polish mystery series. It’s not quite a cozy series, but it isn’t a deeply effective procedural. The mysteries drive it along, but it’s just as much about the band of misfits solving crimes as it is the criminals. They also take a nice sharp left at the end of first season and into the second that shows they were working hard to keep it going. And while the second series isn’t a complete cliff-hanger, we’re still waiting to hear if it is renewed to continue the tale. Even so, there is enough closure that it is entertaining and gets better as it goes along.

Van Der Walk
A 2020 reboot of the 1970’s series, with Marc Warren (Revengers Tragedy, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell) in the title role. The mysteries are interesting, but not brilliant. It’s the characters and the interplay that keep it intriguing.

McDonald & Dodds
Another amusing detective odd couple story, with a few overwrought characters thrown in. Dodds, played by the wonderful character actor Jason Watkins, is the absolute center of these stories…all by being quiet and steady in the midst of chaos. Paired with relative newcomer Tala Gouveia, the two navigate a strained relationship into something quite a bit more interesting. Were it not for their Super, James Murray (6 Underground), being written like an outright fool, the show could really fly. As it is, the two episode inaugural series is fun, and I look forward to its return, but I hope they get the writing more under control.

YA Science Fiction: 

The Cul de Sac
This is a far from perfect Kiwi YA fantasy/sci-fi adventure, but with a nicely evolving mystery and characters. It’s still written for tweens, so don’t expect brilliant plotting and complex emotions, but do expect some amusing dialogue. The first two series built on each other nicely. I’m hoping the third series will wrap it all up nicely, though I suspect it won’t entirely. It will likely be a year before it is available to stream or buy as they seem to be being trickled out after their wrap in NZ a couple of years back. As a short distraction, at 6 ep. seasons/22 min. each, it’s entertaining.

Documentary:

We Are Freestyle Love Supreme
Do you know who Freestyle Love Supreme are? Well, this will tell you something of them, but not really showcase their talents. It’s a docu best seen by fans of the improvisational rap group or, individually, like Lin Mañuel Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns). It is really more a tale of how  show comes into being, with some insights into what it’s like to be a performing theatre creative in NYC.

The Go-Go’s
On the other hand, this music documentary is really very good and engaging. I wouldn’t have thought that the rise, and fall, and rise of the Go-Go’s would be able to keep my attention. But Alison Ellwood’s documentary is cleverly edited, and and the band are very open about their journey. In addition, Ellwood puts it all in great, historical context, following these young women and their influences and influence. This is a story about young women as well as about the music industry. It also is surprisingly reflective of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains–or, perhaps, not so surprising, though that movie was completed before The Go-Go’s even hit their peak.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (finale series)

[4 stars]

Ever since Agent Coulson went to TAHITI in The Avengers, his history and his involvement with SHIELD was a deep well of interest. Actually, it really began back with Thor, but we didn’t know what was coming at that time for his character.

Many shows will do a retrospective for their finale, recapping and calling back to the full run of their series. SHIELD did them all one better by taking their entire last season to walk through their history…and remake it even as they paid homage to it. It was a ballsy move, but one well within the parameters they had set up over the previous runs. To their credit, the choices also filled in and answered issues, particularly around the end of last season, which was quite the wild ride in and of itself. But that finale, as fun as it was, felt more than a little forced and manipulated. Now we know why.

Admittedly, the series as a whole itself is uneven, and has more than a few issues over its 7 seasons. But, generally, it was a great ride and fed into a desire for more things Marvel…that were tangential to the massive movie monster that dominated the last 12 years of cinema. It’s highly rewatchable and covers a huge range of styles, plots, and character development. And what more do you want from a genre series? You want to be transported. You want to be surprised. You want to be entertained. And you want characters you can invest in, root for, and root against. It had it all. It also had a wild arc from beginning to end that constantly had me trying to anticipate where they were going, and almost always getting it wrong (at least in the specifics).

I’m sorry to see the show go, but I’m glad it went out on a controlled high-note. And I’m looking forward to start watching it again down the road.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Poster

The Last Wave (La dernière vague)

[3 stars]

To get a sense of this odd, supernatural suspense/thriller series, imagine if Les Revenants took place on a beach in the South of France and had more than passing cross-pollination with The 4400. Admittedly, those references may be too obscure for most folks. Think Manifest on the beach, perhaps?

One of the things that I enjoy about French genre entertainment is that, whether it is based more on science (like Ad Vitam) or fantasy  (like Les Revenants) it always focuses on the effect of the issues on people and society. Because, in the end, what’s important is how it affects people, not the secret or issue itself; that’s just a medium to explore humanity.

The Last Wave is definitely more on the fantasy side of things, but with the trappings of science. An event occurs in a small town and then, with a bunch of hand-wavy explanations, we are treated to a struggle of conscience and politics that carries the story through to the end. The writing isn’t brilliant, but the story is very engaging and wide ranging. But, in the end, I was happy to ride their wave to the finale, which is complete and as-intended. So, no cliff-hanger that will leave you wondering if you’ll ever see the end.

Umbrella Academy (series 2)

[4 stars]

After a hell of a cliffhanger at the end of their first series, Umbrella Academy kicked off their second series with a great reset and kickoff. The first 5 minutes sets up a whole new set of challenges that will take the supercharged siblings the full 10 episodes to unravel. Getting there is full of action, mystery, humor, new questions, and unexpected answers. And, best of all, this series is even better than the first.

The story is much more complex than the simple, and somewhat obvious, big mystery of the first round. Much of the story is driven wonderfully by Aidan Gallagher’s (Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn) Five and Ritu Arya’s (Humans) Lila. Though it should also be noted that they are counter-balanced by Kate Walsh’s (13 Reasons Why) somewhat over-the-top and forced Handler. She’s intended to be that way, but a little more restraint, particularly at the end, would have gone a long way and would have had me rating this second go-round higher.

But it isn’t just the plotting and quipping and action that drive this second offering, it also the meat of it. The series digs into social and other issues without blinking. It isn’t concentrated there, so I can’t say they manage to truly explore them, but there are unforgettable moments throughout. The series will sweep you along and then go into warp speed for the final few episodes.

It should also be noted that the show is one of the most visually inventive and best scored series out there right now. Even each of the opening credits are a little gift to the audience, and the music fairly rocked.

In the end, we’re left with new questions and possibilities. My biggest complaint? We’re going to have to wait a long while for the next round thanks to the pandemic. But that will just give me time to rewatch the entire series while we twiddle our thumbs.

The Umbrella Academy Poster

Farmaggedon

[3.5 stars]

Despite the foreboding title, this sequel to Shaun the Sheep is every bit as silly and sly as its predecessor, and with a bit more meat on its bones. It isn’t quite the depth of Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit but it has more going for it than Aardman Studio’s recent Early Man.

Part of what makes this serving of stop-motion animation so wonderful is the complete lack of dialogue, outsides of grunts, sighs, and expressions of surprise and delight. Even without spoken words, we get an entire story of surprising breadth and depth.

Now it may be an absurdist tale of sheep and aliens galavanting about the countryside, but it holds together and manages to cater to both kids and adults in its references and actions. And for their first feature out of the art room to direct, Will Becher and Richard Phelan did Aardman Studios proud pulling it all together.

When you’ve some time to spare and just want to sit back and laugh, with or without young viewers by your side, this is a nice distraction. And, of course, the animation is a delight all on its own.

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon Poster

Dante’s Inferno (2007)

[2.5 stars]

This film is a triumph of style over result. Part of the problem is the source material, which has been done over and over again. In books as diverse as science fiction (Niven & Pournelle’s or Steven Boyett’s, for example) not to mention too many movies to mention, and mainstream fiction. But the very nature of Inferno is that is episodic exposition after episodic exposition; speech upon speech about morality and the wages of sin.

That may have worked in Dante’s time, and certainly fit the structure of his cantos, but not so much anymore. Even when using it as a foil, it tends to devolve into a playground for airing personal senses of justice about current times or historic figures rather than about the characters in the story. This wasn’t even the only movie to attack Inferno in animation. Just a couple years later, in 2010, there was another: Dante’s anime, though that was adapted both from Dante and a video game.

So what does this movie have going for it? Inventiveness, for one. This is done with paper puppets manipulated by a talented crew headed by Paul Zaloom. This was all clearly a labor of love put together with collaborators Sean Meredith (who was also the primary director), Sandow Birk (also the primary writer), and Zaloom. And they got two capable actors to voice the main characters: Dante by Dermot Mulroney (The Mountain Between Us) and James Cromwell (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) as Virgil.

But it doesn’t really come together as more than a curio. The puppetry is interesting. The political commentary is also unnervingly on point even 13 years later. In the end, however, it just sort of happens and then it’s over. True to the original material, but not quite enough for me to feel satisfied.

Dante's Inferno Poster