Tag Archives: Fantasy

Murder: Mundane and Supernatural

I’ve been picking up a number of series of late, which has cut down on my movie time. Not all are worth mentioning, but a few of the mysteries bubbled to the top. These three are about as different from one another as you can get in the genre, but all sport sharp intelligence and humanity.

Chestnut Man
Ah, those twisted and dark Danes. This is a great ride of a mystery, led by Danica Curcic (Equinox), Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, and David Dencik (Soap). It is a a collection of interesting character studies as well as a complex and layered story that unfolds in its own time. There are some familiar tropes driving the story, but it manages to make something new of all them thanks to the directing. For lovers of Scandinavian mysteries, this is a must.

Post Mortem: Nobody Dies in Skarnes
And even more twisted and dark folks from Norway. Post Mortem is delightfully of its culture with a dark sensibility, and yet also touching. It isn’t really a murder mystery so much as a black comedy, despite how it is setup. Sure, there are mysteries to be solved, but that is framework for the rest of the story to hang on. Kathrine Thorborg Johansen (The Quake) and Elias Holmen Sørensen make for an amusing pair of siblings, each struggling with their own failings and issues, unaware of the challenges each is facing. Their stories, and those of the residents of Skarnes around them, intersect and come together in unexpected and entertaining ways. It isn’t the show I expected when I tuned in, but I had fun and would watch the next series if it comes about.

Only Murders in the Building
All of which sets up the silly dark satire of Steve Martin (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) and Martin Short (Innerspace), with a queue-up from Selena Gomez (The Fundamentals of Caring). The three are the oddest collection of sleuths in a long while, crossing style barriers as well as generational ones in wonderful ways. The story is a little odd and forced at times, but with folks like Nathan Lane (Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) there to help it all along, it is a fun bunch of half-hour episodes to entertain you with a queue up for the next season as well. It is best simply enjoyed rather than too much examined (it just doesn’t stand up to that). But, oh, the characters and the twists are plenty fun.

The Chestnut Man Poster Post Mortem: No One Dies in Skarnes Poster
Only Murders in the Building Poster

Wendy

[3.5 stars]

Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) is not only a gifted storyteller and filmmaker, he is incredibly astute at finding young talent. And while this second feature didn’t get the same kind of attention his first movie did, his abilities are on raw display.

The story, by Zeitlin and his sister Eliza, is a clever retelling of Peter Pan evoking, yet again, their Louisiana roots. The story takes the fantasy and and the desire to never grow up and makes it even more magical that the original Barry tale in some ways.

Part of that success is down to new-comers Devin France and Yashua Mack, in the roles of Wendy and Peter. They are near spooky in their ability to be both children and to seem to carry the wisdom of years behind their eyes. Some of that is, no doubt, Zeitlin’s ability to direct them, but much is their own innate talents.

The film is fluid and unexpected in the way it deals with reality. It provides a framework, but not many answers. And, ultimately, it lands on a joyous metaphor that is both positive and bitter-sweet. The largest failing of the story is it’s climax, mirroring “clap if you believe in fairies.” It is a moment that will work for most audiences, but which I found distancing and demanding in a way that was not embracing. It threw me out of the flick entirely in a very bad way. I understand the choice and assumptions, but it was a shame, after so much else before and after that moment worked, that he and his sister couldn’t see the issue they had tripped on with their choice.

That aside, the movie and its ideas are really special. Zeitlin continues to be a filmmaker to watch, with a unique and powerful vision of the world and an ability to nurture talent that might otherwise go missed.

Wendy Poster

The Watch

[3.5 stars]

Sir Terry Pratchett’s humor was a gift to the world. Silly, yes. Dark, most definitely. Wry? Always. Hogfather is still one of my annual favorites. Adaptations of his books didn’t always go great, but I was always happy to give them a shot. The Watch is inspired by his world, if not directly extrapolated from it.

Creator Simon Allen has the wide ranging background to bring it all to life as the primary writer. The result is significantly darker than other adaptations, both in plot and character. And it goes down like a shot of tequila, harsh at first but slowly warming as it settles. It is very, very English in terms of its style, but not unapproachable. Admittedly, though, some of Richard Dormer’s (Rellik, Game of Thrones) lines can bend your ear between the mumbling and the accent. But his rubber face rivals that of Jim Carrey at times, which helps meaning and entertainment even when specific words get lost.

The rest of the Watch’s squad is a motely mix to be sure. From Marama Corlett, Adam Hugill (1917), and Jo Eaton-Kent to their adjunct Lara Rossi, they are, to a one, broken and looking for redemption. The show follows the band of misfits as they coalesce and try to win the day against impossible odds in a city where crime has been legalized. Yeah, chew on that a while.

Arrayed against the Watch are a slew of fun characters. Samuel Adewunmi, Bianca Simone Mannie, Jane de Wet, and Paul Kaye (Anna and the Apocalypse) are among them, but there are so many more. The world is rich with outlandish technologies, magic, and commentary.

The story is layered and complicated and open to a next series. Actually, it sort of demands it, though it does so through a coda rather than leaving you hanging on the main story. However, as of now, BBC hasn’t yet decided whether to renew the show. I really hope they do. I want to know what more they can do with this group and world.

The Watch Poster

 

What If…?

[4 stars]

There is no doubt this show was highly anticipated by fans of the MCU, and generally worth the wait. Mind you, if you haven’t watched the whole phase 1-3 sequence you would be completely lost on the references and import of what you’re watching. This is a gift to fans from fans. Period. And that’s a truly rare thing at this level of quality and production. A fully non-canon set of stories that tackle those powerful thoughts of “What if…” that allow for stories that never happened but might have been fun to see.

But how much fun comes down to this: why do you want to watch What If…? There are different answers to the question, and the reactions I’ve seen to the show tend to be fed by which of the two main camps that question creates. Either you’re just interested in being entertained and seeing what fun and silly stuff might come out of mashing up the characters and events, or you want to see something a bit more interesting in terms of how a story really might unspool in a meaningful way thanks to a single change. Up front, I’m in the latter camp. I’m all about the power of “what if” in stories, but I want it to have a purpose and satisfying result. It can get silly, but it still has to satisfy my main criteria: purpose. And after a wandering path, they got there. But that meant seeing it all chronologically and experiencing the stories individually first.

Launching with a riff on the Captain America origin story was a brilliant stroke. It sets up the tone and possibilities. More importantly, it was a story with a change that had impact in its difference. But then it quickly stumbled for me in its second outing as it took on Guardians of the Galaxy, almost instantly breaking the reality by having events out of order in a way that could not work, even in the universe they created. Any fan would have spotted it immediately. The gaff set off alarm bells for me as it meant no one was watching carefully enough to keep it above the realm of bad fan fiction. Because, let’s face it, this series is fan fiction…that is its only purpose to exist.

I had fewer issues with the Avengers Assemble riff. Though, other than shock value, it didn’t manage to really grab me. Part of that may have been the voices; several main characters didn’t voice their avatars.

But Doctor Strange was clever and cut to the bone in a way that most of the episodes don’t. Though I fully admit the run at Infinity War (which sadly spoils the opening surprise with its title) was a riot. And while Iron Man’s alternate journey was interestingly thought through, Thor’s only-child tale lost it’s credibility early on for me. It could have been fun, but it tried too hard and, like the Guardian’s episode, included too many characters that shouldn’t have been mixing.

And then there was the Ultron finale…well, dang. I have to hand it to the series for that storyline along with its repercussions and impact. But it was a long slog to relevance in some ways. Without that finale, I’d have a had a much lower opinion of the series.

Overall, the clever reuse of movie audio, which helped to bring back in original voices in many places that might not have otherwise been possible, and the sense of fun and whimsey amid the dark really pulled it all together nicely.  And now I’m actually looking forward to the next season.

What If...? Poster

Lucifer (series finale)

[3.5 stars]

Lucifer could have ended last season, as planned, but it definitely would have gone out on a more obvious note. This final 10 episode wrap-up cleverly manages to find a better story with a broader scope, while providing most of its characters better wrap-ups.

The surprise addition of Brianna Hildebrand (Tragedy Girls) was also both smart and nice casting. Hildebrand has the charisma and presence to share the screen with the well established cast; not an easy thing to do this late in a series.

Lucifer was never a brilliant show, but it was almost always entertaining and often surprising. It also serves as a great example of what the right home for a show can do. Getting Lucifer off broadcast was the best thing that could have happened for it. The freedom from censors really allowed it to stop self-editing language and situations. He’s supposed to be the devil after all.

Finales are really hard to do right, but this is about as close to a perfect one as you can get, given the story that has come before. We can always want more, but the series holds together as a whole and, though it had a twisty road to the finish line, it remained true to itself and its fans.

Lucifer Poster

Nightbooks

[3 stars]

In the best R.L. Stein tradition, Nightbooks delivers a kid-friendly, but not too saccharine, horror tale. The writer/director mix has a lot to do with the success of the story, but it would have fallen flat if it weren’t for the impressive, young cast they found to drive it.

Winslow Fegley and Lidya Jewett both have cred, but watching these two hold up a whole film was impressive. Even when put up against Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones), they hold their own nicely.

The story is somewhat episodic in structure, but co-writers and collaborators Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (who brought to screen Five Feet Apart and The Curse of La Lorona) were a solid choice to play on the line between YA and horror. And director David Yarovesky (Brightburn) had a suitably tongue-in-cheek approach to the tale.

Add to the flavoring that the production was stewarded by Rami and Tappert (the creators of the Evil Dead trilogy, not to mention Hercules and Xena) and you can understand why there is also a dark comic edge to it all. The not-so-subtle Lost Boys pokes are a riot as well.

This is pure escapism in a wonderfully digestible way. You may get ahead of things, you may not, but you’ll laugh a little and certainly be surprised at how dangerous things can get. The production is also visually rich with lots of wonderful detail…Ritter probably did the role just for the outrageous costumes she got to wear. And, should you like it, know they followed tradition by leaving it open for a sequel.

Nightbooks Poster

Nine Strangers on an Island

[3 stars]

While Nine Perfect Strangers and Fantasy Island aren’t exactly direct competitors or even exactly in the same wheelhouse, there is a shared sensibility and sense of location that has me putting them together.

The reboot of Fantasy Island cleaves a lot more to the original series than the recent movie did. It manages to walk the line of light entertainment with an edge (well, a slight edge), and a slurry of emotional baggage from our hosts as well as the guests. In fact, the show is more a flip of the original, with the guests’ stories reflecting on the hosts’. Which also means that none of the stories are particularly deeply examined, there just isn’t time since the new Roarke and her assistant Ruby are eating up a good portion of the story time with their own issues. But even without the depth, the ideas of the stories are enough for you to enjoy without having to get too wrung out. But they are more snacks than meals. That probably isn’t enough to keep me coming back to it, even with the nicely nuanced efforts by Roselyn Sanchez and Kiara Barnes. But as a distraction with some interesting moments it may, on occasion, suffice.

Nine Perfect Strangers, on the other hand, is a darker and deeply diving examination of personal traumas, relationships, and revenge. It, too, manages to stay somewhat at the surface, or at least enough to keep from ruining your evening. But the performances are a lot more intense. Starting with Nicole Kidman (The Prom) and her crew, Manny Jacinto (Brand New Cherry Flavor) and Tiffany Boone (The Midnight Sky) who run the place and run at each other. And then there is the all-star cast of guests. The reteaming of Melissa McCarthy (Thunder Force) and Bobby Cannavale (Jolt) was one of my more favorite nods. But there is plenty to chew on with the others as well, from Michael Shannon (Knives Out) and Asher Keddie to the solo struggles of Regina Hall (Little) and Luke Evans (Pembrokeshire Murders). Even the simpering of Samara Weaving’s (Ready or Not) becomes something interesting over time. By the time the wheels come off (in an episode aptly named “Wheels on the Bus”) you’re committed to finding out how it can all resolve and you forgive some of the more outlandish choices. Be warned, the finale is improbable and can be interpreted in a couple different ways. It’s somewhat Fantasy Island in that respect, but in a more complete way.

Nine Perfect Strangers also has the advantage of being a short commitment rather than an ongoing series. Sometimes a short vacation is more desirable than an ongoing appointment. And certainly Fantasy Island is more an empty calorie snack than the other offering. Wherever you decide to vacation, neither will tax you too much, and both resolve enough to not feel frustrating.

Nine Perfect Strangers Poster Fantasy Island Poster

SurrealEstate

[3 stars]

If you’d passed me a description of this show (which is essentially Ghostbusters meets any of a dozen house-flippers shows) I’d have laughed it off as a joke. As it turns out, George Olson’s creation for SyFy actually has some solid legs. It isn’t perfect, but there are interesting characters, some longer arcs, and snappy writing.

Like most good shows, a lot of the success comes down to the chemistry of the actors. From the outset, the cast feels like they belong together. And even when Sarah Levy (Schitt’s Creek) joins them in the first episode, providing us a way into their world, she fits in with the energy and style perfectly.

The stories are often rushed, but rarely entirely straight-forward. Tim Rozon (Wynonna Earp), at the agency’s helm, manages a massive transformation from his Schitt’s Creek days. But, more importantly, he makes sullen and broken work. He carries a real sense of history with him about his life and his agency.  And that agency is filled out with a bevy of odd misfits. From Savannah Basley (Wynonna Earp) on the front desk to Maurice Dean Wint (Hedvig and the Angry Inch, Cube) and Adam Korson (Female Brain) working the tech and research. Each carrying their own baggage. With Tennille Read (and yes, she also did Schitt’s) providing an ongoing relationship and anchor for Rozon, the gang tackle (house)monsters-of-the-week that all add up to a larger truth.

You may have noticed some crossover in background in the cast (also true on the writing and directing). I’d love to find out who brought who in from where at some point, but it definitely illustrates the size of the Canadian acting community.

You may have passed on this show initially based on its odd description. If you have, go back to it. It has humor and horror, and, most importantly, characters worth investing in. Hopefully they can secure and pull off a second series, but that decision hasn’t been made yet.

SurrealEstate Poster

Lady of the Manor

[2 stars]

The ideas in this movie are fine and even intriguing. And with Melanie Lynskey (Hello I Must Be Going) and Judy Greer (Uncle Frank) driving the center of it, I had hope. Hope that was dashed by 30 min in when the movie had yet to get going.

Written and directed by the brothers Long (Justin [Masters of the Universe: Revelation] and Christian), the flick kept creeping up to the edge of being something but refusing to tip over it. It didn’t help that we were bouncing between the grounded moments of Long and the brotastic and unrelenting bravado of Ryan Phillippe (Big Sky) as they catalyzed the tale. The movie never quite finds its groove on screen nor style in script.

Ultimately I jumped to the end to see if there were any surprises or aspects that might make me go back and watch the whole thing. There wasn’t. Even the outtakes (absent the final one) that run during the credits weren’t funny or intriguing. Basically, this is a complete miss for me. I wanted it to work, and it even has a sort of topical dénouement, but that isn’t worth the 90 minutes you’d have to spend to watch it.

Lady of the Manor Poster

Motherland: Fort Salem (series 2)

[ 3 stars]

I can’t say the first series of this show did more than intrigue me. The ideas were interesting, if illogically constructed at times, and the writing spotty, at best. But they had gathered a good bunch of talent and there was an inkling of complexity that brought me back for series 2.

Fortunately they upped their game in this second round and reworked some of their logic (without apology) to create a topical and suspenseful story. The writing still isn’t perfect, but the character development expanded considerably and several mysteries are explained. However, to be honest, the writing still has some real problems, including a “surprise ending” that is anything but. However, there is also plenty to chomp on and commit to.

When the usual offerings on the use of magic are something more soapy like Discovery of Witches, this more action-and-suspense oriented storyline is welcome. Like Warrior Nun it also puts women at the center of power and story. Of course, like that it’s also referencing a clear threat of patriarchy, but that’s unavoidable. And, fortunately, it is all subtext rather than direct.

If you haven’t tried the show out yet, give a crack. The improvements in the second series give me hope for the upcoming third, which promises to be full of even more action and intrigue.