If you’ve ever been frustrated by how fairy tales and myths have been depicted on screen, this may be the film for you. This movie takes a non-sanitized approach to, if not exactly purely adapting, the collected fairy tales of the late 16th Century poet Giambattista Basile’s. Given that it is from director Matteo Garrone (Gomorah), the dark aspects of the story shouldn’t be a surprise, nor should the sure hand behind the camera guiding you through its interconnected tales.
While there are some recognizable faces in this movie, no one really stands out. The star here is the story and the production. Think adult bedtime stories of a darker nature and you’ll get the idea. Being a collection, it doesn’t really come together into a single story, but characters keep crossing paths from the opening story to the final. Basically, if you like auteur cinema, the original Grimm tales, or simply twisted plots, you’ll likely enjoy this colorful romp of moralistic and humanistic failings. If you prefer a cohesive plot with a single purpose, this isn’t your movie.
The Hot Zone This is an old story given new, and surprisingly terrifying, life given we know the outcome and that Preston’s book is well over 20 years old. It is a little uneven in acting, though the issue is more casting than performance. While Julianna Margulies (The Upside) is solid as army research doctor, James D’Arcy (Survivor) just didn’t work for me on multiple levels from his accent to his whiny nature. But that aside, the story is surprisingly gripping and the warning not a little unsettling.
The real question with this one was: How do you film the impossible book? Well, up till the end, apparently really well. This six-part look at the absurdity of war and humanity generally is funny (till it’s not) and gripping through till its final moments (when it isn’t). On screen, the reason for its success is unequivocally Christopher Abbott (First Man) in the main role of Yossarian/Yo-Yo. Without him, it all falls apart. Around him are a cadre of characters that are, basically, absurdist creations that remain all too connected to truth. On its own, this version of Heller’s classic has a point to make. But if you’ve read the book, you might find the finale more than a little frustrating, especially after having been teased along so expertly for the rest of the journey.
MARVEL ACROSS THE GENERATIONS Marvel is everywhere and, it seems, represented on almost every major channel or streaming option. Hulu and Netflix have some of the most interesting offerings. And, between them, they reach out to a range of ages.
Jessica Jones (series 3) Jessica Jones is, by far, the most adult of the range. Since its inception, Jones has been one of the most interesting characters. As a flawed, powerful anti-hero, she was instantly engaging, even when those around her weren’t. This finale to the series is worthy of her journey, even if it was somewhat cut short.
Cloak and Dagger (series 1 & 2) This teen-oriented, but delightfully dark story of two teens tied together by happenstance is lots of fun and often shocking for the places it’s willing to go. It is much more fantasy than science fiction, leaning heavily on New Orleans hoo doo. But the show maintains its consistency and drags you along into its weird and wonderful world. It isn’t perfect, often dipping heavily into clichè, but Olivia Holt (Same Kind of Different as Me), Aubrey Joseph, and Emma Lahana (Haven) get to have a heck of journey over the first two seasons…and a lot of fun, sweat, and tears getting there.
Runaways (series 2) Of all the Marvel shows, I was actually most interested in this one, till I got to see it. Mostly it had my attention because of the various writers of the comics over the years. But the result is something aimed to the tween audience (or younger) and rarely with any credibility. There is enough of a mystery to keep me semi-interested, but I grind my teeth way too often while trying. The writing is weak, the plotting forced, the characters willfully ignorant or just plain stupid, and the purposes just downright confusing at times. Ultimately I fell away halfway through the second season, though I may pick it up again to see how they resolve it all.
After a bit of a bingery weekend, I decided to collect up a few Netflix streaming offerings into this single write-up.
Stranger Things (series 3) (4 stars)
ST has always lived in the gray area between satire and homage, and this series is no different. This latest go-round is more horror than the previous seasons, which lean more into fantasy and science fiction. It is also a bit more in-your-face with the product placement. But the show is done with a great nod and wink to handle all of those aspects and continues to be worthy of our expectations. Unlike earlier series, though, this one took three or four episodes to really get rolling, though it remains interesting throughout. The series is also purposefully structured to pull you along; every episode ends in crisis, thus the binging. The story has a lot of setup that ultimately gets paid off in the rush to the finale. However, up till the halfway point I was getting concerned. But the Duffer Brothers proved again they can riff on nostalgia and not only create something new out of it, but provide great entertainment while doing so. And, of course, despite feeling almost like it was wrapped up, they’ve left a door open to continue into the already announced fourth series.
Murder Mystery(3 stars) I realize I’m behind the trend on this one, but I have to admit that this silly Gosford Park meets Murder By Death mystery had me chuckling quite a bit. It also had me cringing an equal amount, but that’s no surprise with Adam Sandler (Men, Women, Children) in one of the main leads. Jennifer Aniston (Cake) played heavily into Sandler’s silliness opposite him, but the two never really find a rhythm together…you feel like they could, but every roll comes to a grinding halt and there is no romantic connection between them which leaves the movie sort of empty as a comdey. Even the additions of Luke Evans (Anna) and Gemma Arterton (Their Finest), not to mention Terence Stamp (Crooked House), seriously over-the-top Adeel Akhtar (Victoria & Abdul) and under-played Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Trapped) couldn’t provide a consistent enough background to make it really good. However, it’s a solidly fun distraction, though not much more, for all the efforts in front of and behind the scenes.
I Am Mother(3 stars) While there are some interesting points made in this story, , it feels like it would have made a better short story than a movie. On the upside, it isn’t overly insulting to its audience, providing open clues from the very top without ever explaining all of it directly. Clara Rugaard is solid in her lead role, even against Hilary Swank’s (What They Had) somewhat odd and explosive survivor. For a first feature effort, Grant Sputore does a credible job with pacing and emotion, but the material would have been better suited to a single hour format in an anthology series like Electric Dreams or Black Mirror rather than its expanded 90 or so minutes. It isn’t a waste of time, by any stretch, but it is somewhat well-worn territory, even with its own twists taken into account.
After Avengers: Endgame, we needed tale to help wrap up the fallout of the decades-long saga. In the past Ant-Man’s filled that role as a lighter coda to more intense events. But for the official end of Phase 3, we have the sequel to the relaunch of Spider-Man.
From the moment it opens with its first musical salvo, you begin to understand just how much the MCU is worth…and then the tone is quickly set as heavily tongue-in-cheek. Tom Holland (Spider-Man: Homecoming) returns as the affable, geeky, and not a little gawky teen. This story is, or should be, about him growing up, not to mention getting his feet back under him after losing his second (third?) father-figure and returning from the “blip.” (We won’t touch on the convenience that all the characters we knew around him from the previous story all blipped as well.)
What we get, instead, is a summer romp with a slightly dark edge. It has great moments, but doesn’t really pull together as a great movie, but I’ll get to that. Zendaya (Smallfoot), Marisa Tomei (Happy Accidents), and Jon Favreau (Solo: A Star Wars Story) are all back in the primary pivotal roles in Peter Parker’s life, not to mention as his private army of Deus Ex Machina.
Helping it along, Jacob Batalon and Angourie Rice (The Beguiled) return as comic relief along with Toni Revolori (Dope). The filmmakers still don’t know quite what to do with Revolori other than to use him as a convenient punching bag or plot point, as needed, but he gives it his all.
The biggest new addition to the story is Jake Gyllenhaal (Velvet Buzzsaw). Gyllenhaal is a solid fit for half the film…and then his performance goes a little wrong. And this is where the movie truly begins to falter, for all its clever plotting and ideas.
But to put this all in perspective, you have to remember that this isn’t really a Marvel outing; it’s a Sony/Marvel arrangement. And Sony, as feared when the contracts were struck, has started to take more control of the stories (at least that is my sense of it all). With the previous success of Homecoming and Venom, they feel they’ve got a handle on how to rebuild the franchise. They don’t.
Even though Jon Watts returned as director for this amusingly imperfect romp, and writing duo Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, fresh off Ant-Man and the Wasp and Jumanji, returned to write it, it felt rushed to screen and without an anchor to the 23 films around it except in the thinnest and most obvious of ways. It isn’t another Iron Man 2, but it also isn’t quite worthy of the Marvel logo. Ultimately, they didn’t quite know how to build on their world and into the Marvel universe this time even with the help of Samuel L. Jackson (Captain Marvel) and Cobie Smulders (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back). It is a little too easy, a little too surfacey, a little too devoid of consequences. Basically, it has no real heart, only a facsimile of one. As a coda, it is allowed to be more of an after-dinner treat, but there were serious themes that needed addressing. Of course, there also isn’t an explicit Phase 4 for them to plug into, which limited their opportunities for a lift from the greater net of the MCU.
The technical aspects of the film were also a little off from previous Marvel offerings. The IMAX was good, but the 3D was underwhelming and unnecessary, barely used to any impact. Even the special effects were, at times, pretty weak. Basically, after Endgame, I’d have expected more.
Do be warned, stay through the end of the credits. There are two tags to this story and both are essential. So don’t walk out before it is all done, however tempted you may be during the 14 minute roll. It gives us a hint of what’s to come, but I can’t say they were as encouraging as that first tag at the end of Iron Man for bringing us along into a new future. All it appears we have to look forward to is a loosely associated set of sequels and prequels with no overriding intelligence holding it together. That doesn’t mean there won’t be bright moments ahead, but it may be a long while before anyone tries to replicate the scope of the MCU Phases 1-3.
Yesterday delivers one of the best films of the summer so far. It embraces the kind of sweet magic that Mamma Mia delivered (if not its sequel), but with a more adult and wry edge. It is funny, romantic, honest, and not a little subversive in its way, offered up with care and love by two of the best story tellers out there behind the camera: director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting 2) and writer Richard Curtis (About Time).
Boyle (Trainspotting 2) is one of the most diverse directors out there, often slipping between genre without missing a step (Sunshine aside). And with Curtis (About Time) laying the trail, the two take us on a journey that is both nostalgic, current, and toe-tappingly hypnotic.
Himesh Patel, basically an unknown in the US though a constant on Eastenders for 11 years, carries this story solidly. Opposite him, Lily James (Mama Mia! Here We Go Again) is the sweet embodiment of missed chances. There are a slew of other players, too many to mention, but Joel Fry (Requiem) and Kate McKinnon (Leap!) are among them. And watch for several credited and uncredited appearances throughout the film, most notably one by Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting 2).
As a side note, I have to say that McKinnon surprised me. While talented, she usually goes way to far with her comedy, destroying reality for the laugh. Boyle kept her very restrained, making it one of her best and most believable performances…edgy and out there, but within the bounds of the story till near the end.
This is must see film for the summer for anyone who enjoys music, comedy, and romance… and it’s the cure for CGI and action-laden madness that crowds the screen through the hot months. That kind of film can certainly be fun, but Yesterday proves it isn’t the only reason to catch a film on the big screen. And, for all its silly fantasy and sweet romance, there is a point to Yesterday. It starts to crystallize near the end, with a hint in the credits if you miss it. Honestly, it turns the whole idea on its head and gives you one last smile as you leave the theater. But even if that slips by, the journey and the resolution are worth your time. Don’t miss this one.
Imagine Lucy crossed with Mission Impossible with a bit of Red Sparrow and you’ve got a sense of what Anna is like. It is a fun romp with some great fights and good twists…all with a darkly Russian demeanor and French sensibility. In other words, a Luc Besson film. This isn’t a classic, but it is certainly good summer entertainment.
Sasha Luss (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) in the title role is suitably inscrutable, if not entirely accessible. And she moves well, helping us believe she could be a trained professional, even if her brawn isn’t obvious.
This is nothing more than fun entertainment that is loaded with dark humor, great fight choreography, and twisty plotting tropes that become their own brand of humor. Go for the popcorn and stay for the ride. It may not be the best the summer has to offer, but it is much more satisfying and fun than most of the middling sequels that have been on offer so far.
Happy Death Day was one of the better surprises of last year’s horror offerings. It was full of humor and scares and tackled the Groundhog Day trope with verve. Did we need a follow-up? Probably not, but this one actually managed to build on the original and keep up the entertainment. And, while they force an explanation onto all the craziness of both the first and current film, Christopher Landon managed just enough hand-waving goodness in his writing and directing to let you accept it and move on.
From a character point of view, even more than the first film, this is Jessica Rothe’s (Please Stand By) movie. She doesn’t start the story this time, but she completely takes it over and drowns out all other characters. So much so that the others really don’t matter in the end. This is her journey and resolution. And while they’ve left the door open for a third through a mid-credits tag, my hope is that it was a final joke rather than a heralding of a third film. This vein, fun as it is, is tapped.
Basically, if you liked the first set of loops, you’ll like this set. They are substantially the same stories, but each with a different focus and driver to keep them separate and fresh. And they are both loaded with silly fun tempered with just enough reality to make it work. Definitely a popcorn evening to share with someone of like humor.
Us is at its best when it’s scaring us, and at its worst when it is trying to explain how and why it is scaring us. Basically, it’s a wonderful bit of creepy horror, but not quite as on point as social commentary as Jordan Peele’s previous Get Out. But, let’s face it, he had a very high bar to meet after that debut.
But Peele aside, this is Lupita Nyong’o’s (Black Panther) film. Period. Even with a fun performance from her Black Panther colleague, Winston Duke (Avengers: Endgame), she dominates the story in every way. Her performance makes this worth seeing regardless of any issues I experienced.
And there are issues. For instance, the plot doesn’t bear up under any kind of scrutiny. Us is much more traditional than Peele’s previous dark horror. Bad stuff happens, carnage occurs, people fight back. There are social overtones, but they are much more subtle and conceptual, requiring Peele’s explanation in a short featurette to get across all the aspects. That isn’t a great sign. The ideas are interesting, but they don’t hold together if you start to ask questions. And that’s the one thing you really don’t want anyone to do when watching your film: have them asking questions and poking holes in your ideas. When that happens, it pulls them out of the moment. A good chunk of the end of the film is explanation–and it just isn’t explanation that makes much sense.
However, for a really suspenseful blood-fest and popcorn spilling film, give Us your time if you haven’t already. It’s a perfectly solid horror pic. Don’t expect the powerful subtlety or outright gut-punches of Get Out, but there is meat on the bones and it is a well executed. Peele has nothing for the big screen currently scheduled, but he continues to show himself as a new and interesting voice in cinema, willing to tackle ideas as well as entertainment. I’m very much looking forward to his upcoming adaptation of Lovecraft Country on HBO. It is a perfect marriage of his ability, interests, and content sensibility.
It may not have the polish and flow of Crazy Rich Asians, but it has the sentiment and a wonderful sense of reality amid the hijinx. Randall Park (Ant-Man and the Wasp) and Ali Wong (Ralph Breaks the Internet) paired up on the script and on the screen with a slightly outlandish, but sweet tale of destined love.
At the helm, director Nahnatchka Khan makes the jump to the large-ish screen well. But, despite the range of years and geography, it still feels more like a TV movie than big-screen fare. That doesn’t make it bad, it’s just a reaction to the sense of it. For that reason, Netflix was a perfect release vehicle. It is entertaining and flows well, but would have probably had a very limited release in theaters, and likely a small audience. Netflix gave it a wider audience who may never have found it otherwise, and it did so out of the gate.
This is definitely worth your time, especially for an evening to cuddle up with someone you care about. Everyone will find something in there they’ll recognize in their relationships and actions.
Good Omens (4 stars)
Honestly, for David Tennant (Mary Queen of Scots) and Michael Sheen (Far From the Madding Crowd) alone this farcical romp about the world, life, and religion is worth it. It is delightfully Pratchett and Gaiman, just as their book was. For those unfamiliar, think an updated Monty Python’s Holy Grail in style, but with more of a coherent through line. That Gaiman wrote the series didn’t hurt in preserving its translation to small screen. And Douglas Mackinnon directed the material flawlessly.
With Jack Whitehall (Nutcracker and the Four Realms), Miranda Richardson (iBoy ), Adira Arjona (Emerald City ), and Michael McKean in inventive pivotal roles, the amusement and pointedness just keeps coming. The show is also chock full of special guest stars and smaller roles as well, which only adds to the fun. If you like British humor and don’t mind having religious institutions poked at, make time for this wonderful comedy.
The Tick (series 2) (3 stars)
I had my doubts when Amazon took up the Tick in its third broadcast incarnation (previously there was the animated series and a short-lived network series). Each captured aspects of the original graphic novels, but neither had found a solid enough formula to keep it going. The first series on Amazon was no exception. It was misbalanced and not quite credible, but it was amusing enough and with some nice character work to make you come back for more. The second series really found its footing and came together nicely. The balance of humor and absurd is much better and the story is more complex and compelling. I’d have loved to see what came next.
Unfortunately, the improvements weren’t enough for Amazon, who decided this would be the last season (at least for now). And this is part of my frustration with streaming services. Yes, they’re taking risks on new content, but they tend to throw it out there and then let it sink or swim on its own and forget about it when it isn’t an instant success. Even Cheers took years to build its audience. The point of these services was to try something new… perpetual content means you should be able to come to it when you’re ready. Sometimes that isn’t when the company drops the entire season at once. We’re just back to where we started with the inability to trust something will actually be supported and be back another season. So much for serving the niche audiences, as we were promised. Services should, at the least, insist all series come to an end so no one is left hanging if they get cancelled. That doesn’t mean the stories can’t continue, but the main narrative shouldn’t be left as a cliff-hanger. At least The Tick embraced that credo so we weren’t totally left to wonder.
Lucifer (series 4) (3.5 stars)
The last broadcast season of Lucifer was a mess. So much so that it lost enough viewers to find itself begging for a venue. Fortunately, Netflix saw the potential and revived the wonderfully acerbic and amusing mystery/romance/comedy… whatever it is. This season, having lost the fetters of the broadcast censors, is able to finally be much more of what it really could be (it still PG-ish, bordering on a soft R). And they took time with the writing this series to make it a much more satisfying journey. The characters this season all act much more believably than the last go-round. If you at all liked the first season of Lucifer and gritted your teeth through the subsequent two seasons as it diminished, come back to it again. Netflix really breathed life back into the afterlife on this one. Well, at least for one more season to come, which is to be its finale. I will add that the final moment of the fourth season has one of my favorite unspoken jokes of the year. It is a silent joke during a moment that isn’t intended as funny…but someone slipped in the chuckle. And, given the show, it is much in keeping with the show’s sensibility.
Love, Death, and Robots (3 stars)
This anthology series is everything great and everything awful about anime. It is a testosterone fueled set of adventures with buxom broads and hairy men (and the occasional funny episode). It was an idea rich with possibilities, but David Fincher (Gone Girl) and Tim Miller (Deadpool) as the primary producers got lost in their 13-year-old selves and missed the chance to tell a much wider range of stories. It isn’t that any individual episode isn’t interesting, they are all good in their own way. And the range of styles and ideas is pretty unique with all types of animation on display. But it is so male-dominated and full of violence and, mostly, naked women that after a few you’re almost embarrassed to watch it…its like someone found your porn stash but it’s up on your TV screen.
The issue isn’t the talent or the tech or the acting, it is simply that the anthology is horribly unbalanced and ends up missing an audience it could have had. Watch it, but in small doses to keep from burning out on it. I found 2 or 3, at about 5-15 min. each, sufficient for an evening. Beyond that, they got numbingly similar. On the up side, a second season is on order and it has Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who drove much of the animation for and directed the last two Kung Fu Panda movies, at the helm. Perhaps her sensibility will help bring some variety to the series. Certainly I applaud the idea behind the show; I’d like to see it succeed.
Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…