Tag Archives: LGBT

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.

Away

[3.5 stars]

Movies of all types have been trying to capture the challenge of space travel for years… and, for some reason, even moreso in the last few years. From Passengers, to First Man, to Ad Astra, or even Aniara, they all run into the same challenge: being in space may be pretty, but it’s boring. This is what Dark Star tackled decades ago, though with a great deal more tongue-in-cheek. This isn’t to say that these movies were bad or boring, but that they manufactured tension to embrace and carry that basic reality. And only Aniara comes at all close to the truth, though aspects of the others include it.

With that as prologue, consider Away. There is a lot about its science that is, let’s just say creative, but they try to capture that trapped sensibility and the challenge of the time of flight. The result is mixed and just a tad soapy. Even with some really good performances carrying it along, and some nicely mirrored plots Earth-side and on board the ship, it all feels forced and improbable in the results. Which doesn’t make it bad, just not particularly accurate much of the time. For instance, even an international coalition is going to be sure that the crew all get along and are solidly stable, because they want it to succeed.

In between tense, potential disasters that are manufactured each week, the story revolves around several relationships. Primarily  it is around Hilary Swank (I Am Mother) and her husband, played nicely by Josh Charles (Freeheld). In a world of entertainment where married couple stories are about marriages at odds, this is a supportive relationship that is strained by their very concerns for each other. Their daughter provides a young-love perspective as well, which Talitha Eliana Bateman (Geostorm) and Adam Irigoyen (The Last Ship) navigate to varying degrees of credibility.

The rest of the crew have both inter-personal challenges and revelations of their past. Vivian Wu, Ray Panthaki (Colette), Ato Essandoh (Tales from the Loop), and Mark Ivanir each get their moments and without whom the rest would have been boring.

But ultimately the real question is: Is it worth taking the journey with Away? And, generally, I’m going to say, yes. Even with the “adjusted” science and forced events, it’s a tense, but entertaining 10 episodes delivered by a talented cast and some unexpected maturity in the relationships. And it is a rare, solid example of near-term science fiction. It also definitely feels like something new and different, and it can stand on its own or go forward. Frankly, I kinda hope they will leave it as a stand-alone event series and not try carry the story any further. It made its point and can only get repetitive or become pale reflections of other shows and movies that have come before. If they chose to leap forward a number of years, there are possibilities, but I’m not sure what it planned.

I’m A Porn Star

[3 stars]

Through interviews, and copious amounts of often graphic footage, writer/director Charlie David introduces us to a range of adult film/web performers, gay and straight, and delves into their lives and drives. Thanks to the subject matter, this docu also makes a wonderful adjunct to Circus of Books.

The result is, admittedly, a bit raw in many respects. However, you can see promise in David’s early attempt to share a story through non-fiction; especially his sense of humor and whimsy. On the weaker side, the footage is often repetitive and reused; but the stories themselves are probably not what you expect, which makes the movie a bit stronger. And, unlike Rocco, these are not self-congratulatory or even celebratory stories, generally. Not that any of these performers are embarrassed by their choices, but neither have they tried to build cults around their bodies. Instead, they are focused on making a living and enjoying life. And, seven years after its release, some of the men have also achieved their goals and exited the industry.

As interesting as some of the conversations are, it’s David’s abbreviated history that introduces the film that really sets up the stories and makes it more relevant. In addition, his ability to keep the subject entertaining without turning it into porn on its own (graphic yes, but not porn) that normalizes it for critical viewing. Though, to be fair, David would likely argue that wouldn’t have been a big deal if it had crossed the line in any case.

If you ever wondered about the people on the other side of the lens, both performers and crew, this is a brief visit with some insight. It isn’t a great movie, but it does show off David’s budding abilities.

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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.

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Caramel (Sukkar banat)

[4 stars]

Writer/director Nadine Labaki loves people, and all their facets; and she puts those truths into her movies. Her pile of nominations and wins speaks to how much that resonates with audiences and critics. Every one of her movies, starting with this first feature of hers (and continuing with Where Do We Go Now? and Capernaum…even Rio, I Love You), builds upon this idea. Each movie expanded her ability and her recognition as a director, writer, and actor. Basically, her films are a joy to watch because they feel true and celebrate people, even when the circumstances are less than wonderful.

Caramel follows the lives of several women in Beirut. Each has a compelling story to share, but in many cases never even speaks to it. Their stories are on display, but we are granted the point of view and freedom to understand them. The movie is also very lo-fi, but Labaki makes you forget that by sucking you into the world of these women.

Adding to the interesting aspects of this film are that it was finished just days before war descended on Beirut. We get to see the city before it was ravaged (again). And, on a personal note, I watched it a day after Beirut was back in the news when a factory blew up, levelling a good part of the city again and killing 150+ people.

What comes through her films is how much she loves her country, in all its contradictions and flaws. But what makes the stories work is how much she loves and celebrates life. She doesn’t pick happy subjects, but the stories always feel hopeful. Her sense of the human condition is one of possibility, a sensibility that goes a long way in today’s world.

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Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

[3 stars]

I really, really wanted to like this more than I did, but I’m not sorry I spent the time with it. Billed as the “Historic farewell performance of the King of Glitterock” it was anything but. However, it was the retirement of Bowie’s Ziggy character from the touring stage. The concert isn’t filmed particularly well, though the sound isn’t bad. And it isn’t even the complete show. However, it is as curious for what songs are included as which aren’t, given this was in 1973 a few months after the release of Aladdin Sane. For example, we do get Watch That Man, but not The Jean Genie. Go figure.

What is interesting is seeing Bowie prepare and perform when he was still somewhat raw. His control of the audience was still developing. And his cult of personality had just begun to grow, though he certainly had some chops for this tour.

Generally, this isn’t going to be of interest to anyone who isn’t a huge fan and who many not have been old enough to see him live way back when. This isn’t on the scale of Glass Spider or even with the simplistic polish of his Sound and Vision tour, but there is a raw rock’n’roller joy and energy and it’s filmed very much in the style of the era (and with suitably grainy stock thanks to the low light).

There are plenty of docus about Bowie that include archival footage and put it in context, if you want to see more performances and his evolutions. Five Years is one of the best, if you’re looking particularly to learn about his genesis. So this one is up to you. Concert films are rarely brilliant (Stop Making Sense aside) but they are rare moments in time to be enjoyed if you enjoy the artist.

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Snowpiercer (the series)

[3 stars]

This is a series, thanks to all its delays, who’s timing should have been perfect. It’s all about inequality, authoritarianism, prejudice, and governance based on lies. But the show didn’t quite have the courage it needed to really attack all that. It kept getting blunted by a slightly soapy mentality. Which isn’t to say that relationships aren’t a necessary underpinning of good drama, but the balance wasn’t quite right.

But let’s wind this back just a little before diving in. The source movie of this series was dark, funny, fascinating, and complete. There wasn’t a reason to have to go back. More, it isn’t a world you want to spend a lot of time in. Not only is it restricted in scope, the fantastical aspects are outlandish…fine for a single movie, harder to support in an ongoing tale. And, as this is a prequel (only 7 years into the ride), we already know what happens or the extent of what can happen in many ways.

Fortunately, Daveed Diggs (Velvet Buzzsaw) and Jennifer Connelly (Alita: Battle Angel) are solid actors, and they are supported by many other good performances. Connelly, in particular, is a study in control and nuance. She navigates the complex position she bears at the helm with amazing grace and poignancy. Diggs has layers, but, frankly, they’re nothing we haven’t seen before by him or similar characters. It’s thanks to these two that the show has any real legs at all. However, that doesn’t overcome the base challenge.

I struggled to watch through to the end to see if they could find a rhythm and momentum. It didn’t even get intriguing until the fourth episode, when they smartly decided not to draw out the initial mystery, only to reveal another. But the pacing and motivations and decisions were often all a muddle, though it picks up pace as it goes along, with the final three episodes being an almost continuous run. In addition, their bible is sloppy on some things; for instance, distance is fungible based on their needs. Either the train is 5 mi long or it isn’t. That  is a lot of distance to cover and can add to plot tension, but they seem to be able to do it in a couple minutes of walking when the plot demands.

There is a lot of potential buried in Snowpiercer. More, I will admit, than I thought they’d be able to find. But I’m not sure it hit its moment nor will be able to catch it on the back-end of their return. And, honestly, I was rather frustrated with their huge cliffhanger of an obvious ending. But, perhaps, the happenings of the last six months will more completely inform the storyline going into series 2 coming next year.

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29th & Gay

[2.5 stars]

This is seriously lo-fi; horrible sound, cheap film, found spaces. But it is also surprisingly sweet and amusing. But that’s what vanity projects can be like…well, to be fair, less vanity and more an actor creating work for himself. James Vasquez (Ready? OK!) wrote and starred in this highly personal and, I suspect, highly autobiographical tale of finally growing up and finding your way in the world. He was lucky enough to have Carrie Preston (who also had a part in Vasquez’s follow-up effort Ready? OK!) take the reins and direct this first feature of his.

In fact Vasquez managed to get several folks to return for that second film after lending talents to this one, including Michael Emerson (Evil), Kali Rocha (TiMER), and others. But the focus of this story is on Vasquez and his semi-obsession with Mike Doyle (Gayby), who is probably the most stable and subtle of the characters in the story.

However, this first effort of his is really raw, though inventively told. It feels like a super-sized thesis film…but it works. Just go with flow and enjoy the truths and humor. I can’t tell you why it works, other than the commitment of the actors and the recognizable human flaws, but it does. And it was interesting to see where he started…even if he seems to have stalled out since then.

A series of series…

What is the collective noun for a bunch of series? A fiction? A stream? A numbing? A time-suck? A profit? There must be one. In any event, there has been a number of series I’ve plowed through, but haven’t felt they needed a separate write-up, so I’ve collected them here. It is a broad range of subjects and providers in no particular order.

Warrior Nun – An imperfect, but engaging fantasy series that got me to check it out through its title alone. But, as it turns out, they hit the jackpot with some of their casting (though not all). Alba Baptista drives the series, coming across, in a positive way, as a young Ellen Page and very credible American. She’s joined by a few solid, and relatively unknown, supporting actors like Kristina Tonteri-Young, Toya Turner, and Olivia Delcán. The plotting is often weak or ill-researched, but the effects and some of the battles are pretty well executed. And the dialogue is often amusing. I’m actually looking forward to seeing what comes next…even if I curse them for a massive and cheap cliff-hanger ending to the season.

[Addendum: They’ve been renewed, so it’s safe to invest!]

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Perry Mason – overlaps heavily (and unfavorably) with City of Angels. It covers the same period of time and with similar nods, but it simply doesn’t manage to capture the era in the same scope. Oh, and yeah, it is only Perry Mason in title… this show just didn’t know what it wanted or needed to be. Couldn’t stick with it despite the cast and my love of murder mysteries.

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Crossing Swords – South Park meets Lego. Almost enough said, but I was surprised to see the silly antics and crazy storylines actually form a seasonal arc. For all the insanity, there is a purpose…well, OK, at least a shape. I couldn’t really binge this show, but it was a fun distraction to fill in 22 minutes when needed. And the voice talent is pretty surprising.

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Love, Victor – There are a number of solid moments and concepts in this series that make it a sweet and clever spin-off of Love, Simon. But, honestly, it doesn’t earn its stripes, but I’ll get to that. If you haven’t heard of this story, it explores the struggles of Michael Cinimo in the title role coming to terms with himself, similar to Simon in the source material, but with more challenges. Rachel Hilson (This is Us), George Sear (Alex Rider), and the somewhat over-the-top Anthony Turpel (The Bold and the Beautiful) fill out Cimino’s inner circle and focus.

To its credit, the show isn’t quite all rainbows and butterflies…Cinimo’s family is a bit screwed up and the world isn’t a perfect place. It’s simplified, to be sure, but it keeps it from being ridiculous. It also provides it some grist to grind on for the series length with multiple layers on the subject of relationships and love. And the easier resolutions provide hope to their target audience.

However, I do have one, not so little, issue with the story. Our hero Victor, while really capturing the confusing nature of growing up, is depicted as falling for Hilson’s character by getting to know her while really only lusting for Sear’s Benji without much sense of who he is. Realistic? To a degree, but it cheapens the inner struggle and diminishes the message that both attractions are real and equal. And it also costs them any credibility in the season one, inevitable, finale. Which was truly a shame as it could have really had a solid season with a little more effort on the writer’s part.

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Killing Eve (1-3) – I never wrote up this series as, frankly, it was getting more than enough press. My thoughts were completely unnecessary. However, having recently completed the third series, I was struck by how the plot has evolved each year. I was impressed with the evolutions of Fiona Shaw (Mrs. Wilson) and the addition  of Harriet Walter (Black Earth Rising) in particular. Not that the rest aren’t great and fun, Ken Bodnia (The Bridge) has some particularly wonderful moments, but I’m doing this as a drive by. The third outing is definitely a shift in presentation and tone, but I still find the story pulls me in and the disintegration and remaking of Sandra Oh’s (Last Night) Eve and Jodie Comer’s (Doctor Foster) Villanelle fascinating. I’m very curious to see what comes next and if they can sustain it; but I’m also hopeful that they’ll wrap it up soon and let it enjoy a completion. It can only be milked for so long without completely devolving or getting boring.

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Upstart Crow – Such great, silly, and very clever fun. In fact, the series only improved as it went along. From one of the minds that helped birth Black Adder, comes this great social satire through the lens of Shakespeare’s life. With a solid cast and tight writing (and wonderful nods to the canon itself) this is one of the better half-hour concept comedies I’ve seen…if nothing else for the impressive scripts.

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Cardinal (series 4) – This could well be the end of the series, though they’ve left a nice trapdoor to keep it going. Previous series were good and interesting, but not brilliant. With this fourth outing, the writing has suddenly gelled even as they wrap up some long arcs that began with the first episode. This is, by far, the best written and delivered tale so far. I’m hoping they get to continue with the stories and these characters, but I wouldn’t feel left hanging if this was the end.

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Before We Die – Another Scandinavian police procedural, yes, but definitely with its own unique set of characters and the dark malaise that hangs over all that genre. It starts with a strong statement and quickly knots up the characters into an intriguing tangle that unspools through the series.

 

My Spy

[3.5 stars]

I kicked off this Dave Bautista (Hotel Artemis) comedy/actioner half-flinching and sure it was going to be painfully unwatchable. It surprised me. The production quality is solid (it was going to be a wide release before the pandemic upended everything), but the trailers hadn’t given me any confidence in the movie.

As it turns out, their marketing folks should have had more faith in their product. It’s really pretty entertaining, especially thanks to the scarily competent Chloe Coleman (Upload). No 11-year-old should be that smooth an actor. But she and Bautista make an amusing pairing. As her mother, Parisa Fitz-Henley (Midnight, Texas, Luke Cage) is also solid, funny, and believable in a not very believable plot.

And that’s where the shame really is in this movie. A bit more effort  on the script to make it credible rather than silly and it would have been so much more. Kristen Schaal (A Walk in the Woods) and Ken Jeong (Wonder Park), in particular, were well reined in by director Peter Segal. They were actually almost human. However, though they were funny at times, I refuse to discuss how painfully outlandish Noah Dalton Danby and Devere Rogers were.

My real frustration was the specifics of the plot: how operations worked, what decisions were made, etc. Those were just absurd at times. I don’t even think kids were being fooled by the flawed logic. Given the script is from Erich and Jon Hoeber (The Meg), you have some sense of what you’re in for.

But squint through that stuff, and you get a funny, at time heart-warming, bit of comedy action that is a fine 90 minutes of fun. Brilliant? No, but certainly not a complete time waste for what it is. And Coleman’s performance alone is worth the time.

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