Tag Archives: remake

Utopia (2020)

[3.5 stars]

When Gillian Flynn (Widows) announced she was going to tackle the remake of this UK, well if not classic, certainly watershed, I was dubious. Even more so when she asserted she was going to focus more on the dark emotions and avoid the pervasive violence of it all. To be clear, what she has done, and done well, is not toned down the violence so much as gotten creative with its portrayal; there is less in-your-face splatter and more moments of unseen or cleverly filmed action. In other words, this is still exceedingly dark and violent, which it needs to be. But there is also some nice, if not complete, character work.

This remake starts off very much along the same thread as its inspiration. So much so that I was frankly getting a little impatient, even with the different approach. And then it took a hard left turn at the end of the second episode and I was hooked.

Certainly the cast is a good one. Sasha Lane (Hellboy) builds on her varied career as a borderline sociopath in search of her father. And Christopher Denham (Fast Color) expands as an actual sociopath on her heels. But around them are a slew of recognizable faces and performances. From John Cusack (Singularity) and Rainn Wilson (The Boy) at one end of the experience spectrum to Desmin Borges, Dan Byrd (Cougar Town), Ashleigh LaThrop, and Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton at the other. And plenty of other faces show up as well, like Jessica Rothe (Happy Death Day 2U) and Camryn Manheim (Cop Car).

But Flynn is a dispassionate writer, willing to go very dark places without compunction, but not very good at building sympathy. I found it difficult to connect with any of the characters beyond sympathizing with their shock. Only Denham and the two youngest characters, Farrah Mackenzie and Walton, really had me in sync with them. I didn’t have a similar challenge with the UK version. I think this is something to do with the scripts and assumptions made by Flynn about how deeply or demonstrative the characters needed to be to bring us on board. It probably wasn’t helped by American-style casting, which tends toward less real looking people in favor of pretty.

All that said, the show has some interesting reconceptions and some odd accelerations as compared to the UK plot. The ending is rather rushed and, frustratingly, rather wide open (not to mention a bit absurd in many ways). But I was left curious…which is what they wanted to do. I’d go back to see if they can actually build on the first series. But, it’s also worth noting that for a lot of the viewing public, this is either a show dead-on for the times or far too close to the bone for many people to watch. Also some of the messaging is a bit off for what we need now…so there’s that.

Here’s the thing: If you’ve never seen the original UK version of this story, I still highly recommend it. Like Misfits and other dark and unexpected tales of their times, they were blazing new trails in storytelling for television. They were doing it in style and with a clear sense of violating norms (that have admittedly become more the norm due to their success). Give this version a shot as well, but be prepared for some very un-American plot choices and a story that may ultimately infuriate rather than entertain, despite a few amazing performances (or perhaps because of them). I’m definitely curious to see if they can fully win me over in a second series by building on what they did in the first, and taking into account the world now as it has changed (our real world, that is).

Utopia Poster Utopia Poster

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.

After the Wedding

[3 stars]

This is a slippery film in many ways. It doesn’t hold a lot of surprises, or didn’t for me, but the performances and the motivations are nicely shifting sea of emotion and interaction that keep it flowing along.

Director and writer Bart Freundlich navigated the material well, holding back his actors from breaking until the right moments. He was particularly lucky to land Michelle Williams (Fosse/Verdon) and Julianne Moore (Bel Canto) in the main roles. [To be fair, it didn’t hurt that Freundlich and Moore are married in making that happen]. And Billy Crudup (Where’d You Go Bernadette?) added a wonderful pivot point between the two.

The story itself, while a dark sort of romantic fantasy, manages to keep just to the right side of credible. Given the players and the stakes, that wasn’t an easy task. Freundlich’s adaptation of Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen’s 2006 version manages to flip the situation nicely for some new facets to emerge.

This is, for all the tears and provocative situations, a somewhat light story of family: what makes it, what you’d do for it, and how to keep it. It’s the performances and framing of the tale that makes it worth your time.

After the Wedding

The Addams Family (2019)

[3 stars]

The first 10 minutes of this remake do a wonderful job setting up the tone, humor, and new origin story of the creepy, kooky, ooky family we’ve known for so long. And while there remains, peppered throughout, a number of wonderful moments, the inventiveness pretty much ends there.

This latest iteration of the Addams Family tells the same story we’ve seen for decades: people fear them, then hate them, then apologize to them. And, if you’re going to remake it, at least bring it into today (it was somewhat stuck in the 50s in style if not in fact) and give me a new challenge. I will admit that they do tackle some topical aspects of today and manage to make it a mostly woman-powered plot. The men are generally treated as jokes…effective and useful, but not particularly bright.

While there is a lot of top-shelf voice talent, Charlize Theron (Bombshell) as Morticia and Chloë Grace Mortez (Greta) as Wednesday are the real standouts, delivering lines with dry aplomb. The rest of the cast is servicable, though nothing particularly brilliant, though Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade) takes a good run at her role to make it more than a cookie-cutter middle schooler.

Generally, this is a diverting, but not fabulous, animation. There are clever bits and, perhaps, if it hadn’t arrived on my doorstep with decades of baggage, it may even have seemed inventive. But in trying to reboot it all, I can’t help but compare it to the past and judge its lack of originality. Heck, at the end they literally recreate the opening of the TV show, so how do you not consider that as part of your viewing? But, if you don’t have that nostaligia, or aren’t as attached to the original comics and other iterations, it may impress more. IOW, YMMV.

The Addams Family

Dolittle

[2.75 stars]

Director/writer Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) wouldn’t seem a likely choice for this classic children’s fare. You’d be right. While he brought an interesting darkness to the tale, he and the various co-writers couldn’t quite pull it all together into a movie.

What you get, instead, is a collection of moments. Many of them are really quite fun and/or funny. Enough so, in fact, that many kids may not mind the breezy plot that blows all those bits mostly in one direction. What’s a shame was the waste of talent in the main roles that give it what life it has.

Obviously Robert Downey Jr. (Avengers) toplines the flick. He’s amusing, but it is an odd and empty performance. He’s all show and little heart despite the big machinations going on. The comic timing is fine, but there is no foundation supporting it all. Michael Sheen (Good Omens) and Anotonio Banderas (Life Itself) each have pivotal roles to play, though only Banderas has any dimensionality to him. Sheen is just bluster and exageration. He’s not scary enough for adults and probably a bit too mean for young children.

There are many throw-aways as well, like Jessie Buckley (Judy) and Jim Broadbent (Le Week-End) not to mention a slew of voice talent too long to list, but it includes a fun scene with Frances de la Tour (The Lady in the Van) worth calling out. You may have noticed how many of these names are either up for awards or have received them in the past. Like I said, a lot of wasted talent.

I feel the worst for the two child actors, Harry Collett (Casualty) and Carmel Laniado (A Christmas Carol) who should have had this as a strong springboard for their careers, and instead are stuck with some nice reel footage and being associated with a financial bomb.

All that said, I did laugh a lot and enjoyed myself, but that was because I had set the bar very low going in. I recognized how weak the story was going to be and just went with it. Kids will find plenty to enjoy. Parents will probably split on the experience from beign slightly diverting to really disappointing. While it’s definitely filmed for the big screen, you can probably wait on this one if you’d rather not spend the time or dollars at the theater.

Dolittle

A Christmas Carol (2019)

[3.5 stars]

Seriously, did we need another Christmas Carol? Well, actually, as it turns out: yes. Steven Knight’s (Serenity) take on Scrooge’s tale is creepy and revelatory, as opposed to rushed and predictable. Guy Pearce (Mary Queen of Scots) embraces the dark and navigates our humbug-spewing character through memories and experiences that finally make it clear why and when he lost his way.

Joe Alwyn (Harriet) provides a solid foil as Crachit, though he is well over-shadowed by his screen-wife Vinette Robinson (Sherlock). Robinson drives the true catalyst of change. But these are the characters we always have known. Part of what Knight does is broaden the tale and provide Marley with a voice in Stephen Graham (The Irishman). Marley was always just an excuse to tell Dicken’s story in previous adaptations. In this one, he truly has something at stake.

Even the other Christmas ghosts have a bit more going on in this telling. Andy Serkis (Black Panther) and Charlotte Riley (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell), especially, get their own tales.

If, like me, you have always found the saccharine retelling of redemption just a bit too much to stomach, this will give you new appreciation of the story and the message. The experience is probably a lot closer to how Dicken’s audience received the story as well.

Admittedly, you still have to believe someone can utterly change just by seeing the truth, but Knight doesn’t really let anyone completely off the hook in his resolution. It’s messy, like life, but he allows for the nearest thing to a believable change in this classic tale that I’ve seen.

Dracula (2019)

[4 stars]

I’m not here to stake Dracula, but to praise him. Well at least Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for their imaginative retelling of Stoker’s classic. The two used their Sherlock chops to capture the original’s sense and structure, but recast it and the dialogue into something more digestible for today’s audience.

Gatiss (Christopher Robin) also took the plum bit part of Renfield for himself. Who can blame him, it is always a tasty role.

But while Claes Bang (The Square) burns up the screen as a rather self-aware Dracula, it is Dolly Wells (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) who steals this show utterly. Her alacrity with language and facility with accent set her apart. She really has the best lines as well. Which isn’t to say the rest of the cast isn’t strong. They are, and many are recognizable from earlier Moffat/Gatiss collaborations. Outside of the known ensemble, there was also a nice showing by Matthew Beard (Vienna Blood) and Lydia West (Years and Years) in smaller roles sequestered to the third episode and a nice, if type-cast role, for Patrick Walshe McBride (Shakespeare & Hathaway).

The 3 90-minute episodes allow the story to expand in ways that a 2 hour movie just can’t manage. We get depth and scope as well as answers (some clever, and some inconsistent) and a solid parallel to the book that is usually a jumping off point rather than template. That said, the series definitely departs radically from the book in specifics, but somehow retains the intent and purpose, making it the most authentic version I’ve seen. Even the ending, which is not exactly satisfying (to say the least), best mirrors Stoker’s final pages as compared to other adaptations (the book ending was challenging as well).

Overall, this is an emotionally and intellecutally dense portrait of Dracula, with enough of all the bits we’ve particularly loved about this tale over the last 123 years (sex, violence, murder, seduction, romance). Moffat and Gatiss yet again prove they can take dated, original material and honor it without just slavishly following it.

 

 

Cold Pursuit

[3.5 stars]

Coal-black comedy against a snow-white landscape. If only this movie had remembered what it really was, it could have been great. Despite the trailers you may have seen, this isn’t the standard Liam Neeson (Men in Black: International) revenge romp…it is something more like Boondock Saints in the Arctic. But as much as it wants to be a black comedy, it can’t quite commit to that path, though it punctuates the movie through to the very end.

Neeson is surrounded by a cadre of criminals, a bit of family, and a couple law enforcement officials. But they’re all just foils for the story. Most have no real life to go with them other than the immediate motivations needed to drive the tale. Emmy Rossum (Beautiful Creatures) is a marginal exception to that, having one of the more complete backgrounds and story of her own. Domenick Lombardozzi (Bridge of Spies) had an implied story, but without much depth. Even Tom Bateman (Murder on the Orient Express), despite being the big bad, never really fleshes out, though a good deal is implied.

For a first script, Frank Baldwin showed considerable bravery in the direction he set for this satirical revenge romp. Unfortunately, director Hans Petter Moland just couldn’t find the rhythm and style to quite sell it to general audiences.

[This write up has languished for months while I kept promising myself I’d also screen the original, In Order of Disappearance – Kraftidioten. Sadly that hasn’t happened but it clearly has an equally capable, if very differently energized, lead in Stellan Skarsgård (Our Kind of Traitor, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote). At some point I will get to that as well, but for now, at least you get to hear about the remake.]

Mysterious Witchers Lost in Space

Each of these streamers deserves to be seen and to have their own write up. But that felt like overkill and, I suspect, many folks will have been ahead of me already. However, all are enjoyable, intelligent, and all are very different.

Witcher

Henry Cavill (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) was a perfect choice for the lead in this entertaining, if not brilliant, series. He captures the sarcasm and dry wit of the game character, not to mention he is the physical emodiment of Geralt of Rivia. He’s backed up nicely by Joey Batey and Anya Chalotra. There are other, more recognizable faces, such as MyAnna Buring (In the Dark) and Anna-Louise Plowman, but it is generally a lot of semi-familiar and unknown faces.

The series is challenging thanks to its narrative form (which is part of the secret of the first season, so I really can’t discuss it here). I think it could have been handled more clearly, but it ultimatley comes together in interesting ways and I appreciate that they didn’t treat their audience like idiots. Much like Watchmen, it lends itself to rewatching once you understand it all. I’m definitely on board for the next season, but that isn’t coming till 2021, so you’ve plenty of time to watch the series and/or play the games if you want beforehand.

Lost in Space 2

The first season reboot of this show surprised me completely. Netflix transformed the silly Saturday morning show into something richer and darker, if still with a child’s sensibility of adventure. And if you thought Dr. Smith was complex and dark in the first series, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Parker Posey (Cafe Society) has definitely found a role she’ll be remembered for.

This season is incredibly well constructed, even if some of the writing still takes too many character and plot short-cuts. Still, I admire the risks they were willing to take even if getting there has some flaws. And every major character gets their moment to grow and expand in some very nice ways. The new season pulls you along with barely a chance to breathe, making it a great binge show, but also means it is over too soon. Series 3 isn’t officially confirmed, but expect it to take another year, if for no other reason to complete all the f/x needed for the show.

Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated

This wonderfully self-aware reconception of the cartoon classic is more Buffy than kid’s show. Conceived as a complete 2-season arc, and loaded with adult nods and layers of mystery, it is both wonderful nostaligia and entertaining distraction in 20-minute bites. It’s also loaded with surprise voice talent in major roles and guest roles. Give it a shot, you’ll know in a few minutes if it is for you or not.

War of the Worlds (2019)

[3.5 stars]

When HG Wells wrote War of the Worlds, he didn’t just see it as a good yarn. It was intentionally an allegory, as were many of his stories. They were warnings to the world of where we were headed if things didn’t change. In other words, it was also what science fiction (then called scientific romance) was in a position to portray like no other form of literature. And this story has clearly stood the test of time. Heck, it is even more relevant today than it has been in a long while as we watch good decisions regress into greed and plays for power around the world.

But a good message doesn’t necessarily make a good story. Fortunately, the BBC have produced a wonderful presentation and story as well. One that cleaves more closely to Wells’s original than has been done in the past.

Sure it’s a great invasion story, but it is also unabashedly a story of empire building where previous opressors are crushed in turn by someone else. It is also about the runaway industrial revolution that was decimating landsides and the health of a population. Director Craig Viveiros (And Then There Were None) and writer Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell) tackled the material with a clear intention to keep the original while updating it subtly to keep it relevant. Primarily, the updates are in the relationships and structure which give the whole story a slight steam-punk feel even though it remains purely Victorian in its presentation and trappings.

There are four main characters of note in this three-part tale. Eleanor Tomlinson (Colette) and Rafe Spall (Men in Black: International) are the core of the story. Their love and struggles provide our way through the challenges. Robert Carlyle  (Yesterday) and Rupert Graves (Sherlock) add additional complications and perspectives. These four raise the story above the message to a very personal struggle that is easy to invest in.

This latest adapataion of Wells’s classic is definitely worth your time, and the most true to the original material of the adaptations out there. But even if you’re not familiar, perhaps especially if you’re not, it is engaging and effective.