Tag Archives: Political Drama

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.

Young Wallander

[3.5 stars]

This continues a trend of reinventing and revisiting established mystery icons and tracing their genesis. Young Montalbano or Endeavour come immediately to mind, and they are both good touchstones for considering this latest entry into the “Young” phase.

There are some interesting and unique aspects to this series. First, much like Casino Royale, it is a contemporary prequel to its original. And, like Casino Royale, it somehow works. Honestly, an approach which tackled similar character issues, but made them time period appropriate, would have been fine too. But I can see the beauty of setting it now and tackling the issues in more familiar terms.

Adam Pålsson (Before We Die) takes on the title character well… he even has two Wallenders to draw from, Krister Henriksson and Kenneth Branagh, which is another unique aspect to this series. It isn’t entirely clear which he focused on, though I think it leans more heavily to the Swedish version. Certainly the initial season arc is very Wallander in its structure and resolution. You know that from very early on in the first episode.

However, the show is less about drawing the early years for the later man than it is about just setting up some good mysteries, at least so far; but that’s OK too as long as they keep up the quality. Which isn’t to say we don’t see the initial threads of his rumination and dark sensibility. It’s there, as are some of the threads of his family issues.

There are a number of good roles around Pålsson. The standouts are primarily the women in his life: Leanne Best and Ellise Chappell (Yesterday). They are very different from one another and yet both buffet Wallander through his leap to detective-hood. Of the men in the cast, the standouts are Richard Dillane and Charles Mnene. Again two very different influences, and both essential to Wallander now and the Wallander to come. How they go forward from this initial foray is going to be interesting to see, assuming it’s renewed.

I really should have gotten to this sooner, but I didn’t realize it was in English and not Swedish. I was in the midst of three other subtitled shows; I just couldn’t add another at the time. But now that I have, I can definitely recommend it to lovers of the original series and those just looking for something new to feed the beast.

Irresistible

[3 stars]

There is little subtlety to this latest outing by Jon Stewart (Rosewater). But, then again, did you expect any?

Steve Carell (Vice) and Rose Byrne (Instant Family) are the core of the movie. They are both absurd in their presentation…partly to make a point, but partly because Stewart just couldn’t resist hammering it all home. It’s a shame as pulling them back a little, to make it feel a bit more real, would have been more interesting. I wonder if he wasn’t trying to get a broader audience by making fun of the DC pundits with impunity. But, frankly, it only worked for the first few scenes of it… after that it became an SNL skit (with admittedly better writing and timing).

While there is a pile of really solid talent backing up and propping up the rest of the movie, it’s Chris Cooper (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) and Mackenzie Davis (That Awkward Moment) that carry it all home.

The best moments are, frankly, the pre-credit scenes and the end sequences, but you need the middle to get there, even if you have a sense of what’s coming; it is a comedy afterall.

I understand this doesn’t feel like a glowing review, and in ways it isn’t. But the movie is funny. And, more importantly, its points, which carry through the credits, are a call to action. It’s both a love letter and indictment of the current political system. One thing Stewart did very well was to edit it down to a swift 100 minutes so that it rarely overstays its welcome. But, even if you decide to bail on it, watch the short interview that runs during the credits. Understand that the absurd is not only possible, it’s legal. And while this doesn’t have the punch of All In: The Fight for Democracy as a call to action, it should urge you to your feet regardless.

All In: The Fight for Democracy

[5 stars]

The single, most important film this year so far. Whether you grew up during these fights or not. Whether you think you know all about it or not. Whether you want to hear the message or not:

See it. Get Angry. Vote.

Learn from it. Hear it. Vote.

Basically: VOTE

In case it isn’t obvious,  directors Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus, with the help of Jack Youngelson’s script, created a compelling presentation of Stacey Abrams gubernatorial run, while providing a historical and contextual framework for the history of voting in America. It’s a call to action that cannot be denied.

Honestly, I wept and gritted my teeth openly…and I knew most of it going in.

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

Charlotte Gray

[3 stars]

This is a fairly standard, though gorgeously filmed, WWII espionage/love story, with few surprises. What makes it worth seeing is Cate Blanchett (Where’d You Go Bernadette). The 2001 season was a good one for Blanchett. The month prior, she’d wow’d audiences with her Galadriel, which would permanently set the tone of her screen presence.  When she steps on screen, regardless of character, she dominates; confident, radiant, terrifyingly in control. But in Charlotte Gray, she starts, uncharacteristically, weak and grows into her role without ever quite becoming that pillar of power. It’s almost like watching the growth of Blanchett as she matured into a star.

The rest of the cast is quite the list as well. With Billy Crudup (After the Wedding), Michael Gambon (Sylvia), Rupert Penry-Jones (Whitechapel), and Anton Lesser (Endeavour) driving the main plot with Blanchett, and a slew of others around them, the movie is packed with talent. These are all great reasons to spend time in Vichy France. In fact, given our current world politics, it’s a good time to be reminded why that form of collaboration and conciliatory/accommodating  attitude can be so destructive.

Director Gillian Armstrong (Little Women (1994)) managed the story well. She certainly helped guide her actors through complex challenges without ever quite having them tip over into melodrama. But she couldn’t quite escape the obvious. Even if there were moments of surprise, they were almost all tipped or inevitable. Really, her triumph in this is the evolution of Blanchett’s character. For that it is worth your time.

Charlotte Gray Poster

Black-ish (the unaired episode)

[3.5 stars] (but still a must-see)

Sitcoms rarely wow. In fact, I can’t watch most of what’s on offer anymore as they are so painfully silly. And don’t get me started on laugh-tracks. But every once in a while a series, or a particular show in that series, stands out.

“Please, Baby, Please,” marking the first year of 45’s presidency, was never aired after it was recorded in 2017. The reasons are still shrouded in a bit of mystery, but it seems generally true that it was an act of cowardice on the part of ABC. But it was recently made available as Season 4, episode 99 of Black-ish.

There is no question that this is a clunky and preachy diatribe. But it isn’t an untrue or unfair one, and it has a core of powerful reality and truth…with just a smidge of hope…that makes it worth every moment.

This episode should be seen, especially with the election coming; and one where the first woman of color is on the slate. It is a vote for sanity and a political act…and not a little bit an act of curiosity. But when your government is sending federal troops into states as a political move, and working hard to make sure the upcoming vote will not have credibility, and when they are purposefully hobbling the census to better retain power…and all of this during a pandemic, it is a vote that is sorely needed.

[Addendum: An interview with writer/creator Kenya Barris about the shelving of the episode.]

black-ish 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

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