Every once in a while a pure, sweet escape is just the thing. And there is something about romantic NYC fantasies, especially when loaded with good comedy, that makes them infectious. And I mean that in a good way. Like the earlier romcom surprise of Palm Springs, Natalie Krinsky (Gossip Girl) doubled down on all the old tropes and found something new in them.
Geraldine Viswanathan (Miracle Workers) is a ball of energy and wit that never stops. She holds together this movie and manages to keep it grounded even when she’s delivering mile-a-minute monologues. Opposite her, Dacre Montgomery (Stranger Things, Power Rangers) redeems himself nicely from all of his previous pretty-boy, obnoxious characters with a soulful guy who just needs to relax and get on with his life.
You can tell how good the flick is by the fact that the supporting performance by Bernadette Peters (Mozart in the Jungle) ends up more a distraction than adding to the whole. She’s a fine choice, especially given the backstory, but she’s too recognizable amid the rest of the cast who hold their own just fine.
Yes, I avoided talking about this till it was complete. Why? Because it was so clearly going to be a complex arc that wouldn’t likely be fully realized till the end. I’m glad I waited…and enjoyed the ride.
Like many complex tales, there are two experiences: the initial watch and the rewatch/looking-back review. The one thing that is utterly clear is that this massively risky experiment wouldn’t have worked without the incredible acting chops of Elizabeth Olsen (Ingrid Goes West). Her ability to morph through the various styles required, and her depth of emotional landscape sold an otherwise near-experimental theatre presentation. And in support around her through it all were Kathryn Hahn (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and Paul Bettany (Uncle Frank) who balance and feed the confusion. It’s no Watchmen, but it is a heck of an out-there show.
And, yes, there are others, but most are surprises so I won’t enumerate. But Josh Stamberg (Pacific Rim: Uprising) is notable for a truly flawed performance. He was clearly directed by Matt Shakman to chew the furniture and he did so with relish, to the detriment of the series. Mind you, so does Hahn before it’s all over, which is a shame, but she has a wider ranging presentation. However, at least Teyonah Parris (If Beale Street Could Talk) manages to pull off a rather unexpected arc without crossing those lines.
The shape of this series is everything. It begins with a 30 minute format and expands, as the story structure allows, till we get to an hour-long finale. But the first three episodes are slightly self-indulgent setups. Entertaining as heck, but stretched out a bit too long. There is a purpose and a reason for it all (thankfully) but it goes on too long. Shankman should have reined it in a little more. Similarly, the penultimate episode gets old quickly as, by that time, it’s simply revealing information we mostly know but the characters have yet to admit/understand. It could have been done better.
But the finale, which manages in true Marvel/MCU fashion to pull all the threads together, is a nice pay-off. And I say that even though it also, in true MCU fashion, has lots of open threads hinted at in the two codas.
Overall, this is a heck of an achievement. Flawed, and slightly misdirected at times, but not something most of us expected. And it resolves some of the original complaints about Wanda’s Age of Ultron introduction and story. Of course, if you don’t know about Wanda and Vision, you’ll frankly miss 80% of the story. So if you somehow missed the movies, go back to Age of Ultron and watch from there (or at least watch the Legends series to learn enough about the background).
My biggest concern with the story is how well it will stand the test of time and rewatching. Once you know the secrets and rewatch it once, is there enough there? As a stand-alone series, I suspect not. It is built as a vehicle to launch several new paths in the MCU (at least two movies link up with the ending). It isn’t a stand-alone gem of a story, it is an episode in the charcters’ existence, a bridge to what comes next. Very comic book. But is that what we ultimately want to tune in for? Dark Tower had originally planned a movie and TV pathway, because of the scope of the story, all tying together as a whole. Then they panicked and gave us a single, awful movie. So, perhaps, WandaVision is a new type of show and I’m being a little unfair to its purpose. Time will tell when we see if Disney can pay it all off in the year or so to come. Certainly, I give them credit for the ballsy and expensive attempt. Let’s see what they can do with it…
Unexplained super-powers is becoming an overdone trope, which is why when you find one that tries to do something new, it’s a particular delight. André Øvredal (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) returns to his Nordic, Trollhunter roots to bring us a slow but intense tale of a young man, Nat Wolff (Admission), who suddenly acquires powers he can’t control or explain.
Iben Akerlie (Little Drummer Girl) plays opposite Wolff and balances him out well. In fact, she and Per Frisch are about the only clear-headed folks in the movie while Priyanka Bose (Lion) serves to remind the world of why Americans just shouldn’t be trusted. A sad cliché, but she navigates it relatively well within the bounds of the script.
As you can imagine, tragedy and stupid government decisions begin to occur. But this isn’t quite the story you expect, nor does it unfold exactly as others of its ilk. Sadly, it also doesn’t quite get to a conclusion so much as a beginning. Whether the tale will continue I imagine is still in flux, but the path is certainly there. In the meantime, if you can handle being left hanging (think a Brightburn kind of ending in style, though not in content), give it a shot. Definitely something a bit more interesting than the typical version of these tales.
Staged is back and picks up from where the first series left off. David Tennant (Deadwater Fell) and Michael Sheen (Admission) return but are bit more…well, more this round. Further into the pandemic, and with their project being ripped from them, they’ve gone a bit intense.
The story is again loaded with guest spots. I won’t spoil them here, but some are a riot, though none quite as unexpected and funny as Dame Judy Dench’s appearance last round. These are all a bit more confrontational. Tennant and Sheen have no shame in allowing themselves to be the butt of jokes and pointed observation. It is part of their charm.
Staged continues to focus on the oddity of home isolation, but also explores the friendship of the two men more deeply. It is all very tangential to the machinations and arguments, but it is clear that neither character could do well without the other in their lives. And it provides a soft cushion for all of us to observe our own growing intensity as the pandemic passes the one year mark. For a dark laugh, including some serious belly laughs, check out the second installment of this short form series. With luck, we won’t need a third as we’ll all be back out in the world before Simon Evans can write it.
I’ve not written up some of the new and returning shows over the last few months, so dropping them together in a bunch here. More will be coming in the next few weeks, but this was getting long enough already…
Call Me Kat
This odd offering by Mayim Bialik (Big Bang Theory) is a unique and not entirely comfortable show. It may eventually find it’s feet, but it’s best to think of it as a sketch show or comedy half-hour rather than a story so far. And the abuse of the great Swoosie Kurtz is near criminal. By way of context, this show is based on the UK’s Miranda, adopting the quasi-stand-up nature of the original but trying to push it more toward ensemble…. BTW, if you haven’t caught Miranda, it’s a fascinating to compare the two and it boasts Tom Ellis (Lucifer) in the wish-he-were-my-boyfriend role.
If you loved The Office, this is probably a show for you. I didn’t and it isn’t for me. It’s just too broad and full of, well, stupid people who aren’t supposed to be stupid or, worse, couldn’t be that stupid and be where they are in life. Given the talent involved in this show, it’s a real shame.
Call Your Mother
This is a show on the bubble. Kyra Sedgwick (Ten Days in the Valley) manages to walk the line between very broad humor and honest emotion. Whether the writing can keep up with that challenge and create storylines we care about long term…the jury’s still way out on that one, but I’ll give it some more time.
Oh, god, just no. Awful, unbelievable, absurd, insulting, frustrating, and painful.
The Expanse (series 5)
Twenty years ago, the end of the first season of Farscape was termed “the multipart cliffhanger from hell” by its creator. And it was…and it took a good part of the next season to resolve and cover what happened. The current season of The Expanse reminds me a lot of that structure. After bringing things to a huge climactic pause at the end of the previous season, the various characters are scattered across the solar system pursuing various storylines that will, by necessity, be intertwined and eventually bring them back together. As the show preps for its final season, this is level-setting and putting all the pieces in place for the final confrontations to come. A good season with revelations and some resolutions, especially for Dominique Tipper’s (Mindgamers) Naomi and Wes Chatham’s (Escape Plan 2) Amos, but mostly it serves as set-up for the end.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (series 2)
After its heart-rending and brilliant opening season, I was worried the magic wouldn’t last. It has. And the show, at least so far, continues to build on its characters and conceit. If you’ve yet to try this one out, you absolutely must…and start at the beginning. Yes, it gets heavy, but it builds to one of the most beautiful finales you’ll ever see. And it never loses its sense of humor or love of its characters.
Russell T. Davies (Years and Years) is Britain’s Ryan Murphy (The Prom). Though, to be fair, Davies was there first and Murphy is really our answer to him. Both men have embraced their pasts and are willing to discuss life in all its aspects with the world. They both do it with love and wonder, never forgetting the challenges. And they both have wicked senses of humor.
It’s a Sin chronicles the lives of several young people starting in 1981. But while the story can’t avoid having AIDS as part of the story, it tackles t in a different way than most. It remains powerfully honest and empowering and, weirdly, positive despite many of the events. It is about characters embracing who they are and enjoying life and each other. It’s also the first show I can remember to use the original name for AIDS (GRID, for those who forgot BTW).
Primarily the story is through the eyes of Olly Alexander (God Help the Girl) and Lydia West (Dracula). Both have wonderful moments, growth, and, as it turns out, serious chops for singing together. The core ensemble is wonderfully supported by newcomers Omari Douglas and Callum Scott Howells, both of whom deliver performances far beyond what you’d expect for actors so early in their careers.
In addition to the main cast, there are a slew of guest actors across the five episodes. Perhaps the most fun is Neil Patrick Harris (Beastly), who helps set up a couple of the storylines. However, Keeley Hawes (Summer of Rockets) and Shaun Dooley (Doctor Who) also have some great moments, Hawes in particular.
Peter Hoar directed all five episodes, helping all of the actors navigate complex changes and precarious moments. The final episode especially is a triumph of his efforts. He also managed to put together a brilliant soundtrack, capturing each period beautifully and evocatively. My only gripe is a minor one…I wish the final credits had ended with “La!” to really drive home the sense of family and life. But that’s an exceedingly minor comment.
Why, you might ask, do we need yet another tale of coming out in the 80s? Well, because the challenge of the act is still relevant today and because the horror of the AIDS pandemic has yet to be fully understood by those who weren’t there for it and by those who still wish to deny it or, worse, be glad for it. With the COVID pandemic still in full swing, it’s also probably much more relatable to a greater audience than ever before. Also, sadly, the world is still far too often a hateful place. The reminder that it should be driven more by love isn’t a story that goes out of style or out of date.
But, while all of that is undeniably brought out by the story of these people, that isn’t what this series focuses on. It’s a Sin is ultimately triumphant, ultimately positive, because of the way the survivors respond.
Some movies just sucker punch you because you’ve no idea what to expect. In terms of quality, this one’s right up there with Soul, Trial of the Chicago 7, and Palm Springs…among the best this season.
Even more impressive is that this is writer and director Emerald Fennell’s (Killing Eve) first feature; she’s better known for her acting chops. But Promising Young Woman makes an impressive application of all she’s learned over the years in front of the camera.
And then there is the woman at the center of the on-screen story, Carrie Mulligan (Collateral). She flattens you with her powerful performance and shoulders the film on screen with her charisma, intelligence, and sense of humor. From the moment she appears you can’t take your eyes off of her. And once you understand her, you can’t help but cheer her on and not turn away.
The movie does have its weak moments, but they’re few. One aspect is around some of the soundtrack, which goes just a bit overboard at times, not trusting the actors and situation to make the point. The other is around some transitional moments that are less than smooth. But in the face of the rest of the film, I forgive them all.
Promising Young Woman grabs you by the soft bits and drags you through to the end. And it manages to remain triumphant despite the subject and the situations. It is sure to generate controversy and contemplation for the actions and probably even leave a few in the dust as to the title. But that’s all part of the point. Make time for this one, both for the central performance and the story itself. Despite the weird festival season, it’s been making itself heard, and I expect that to continue through the majors over the next few months.
A unique anti-heist movie with a solid cast and steady pace. Anne Hathaway (The Witches) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (The Old Guard) give us a couple in their final throes, which the pandemic has only, paradoxically, both accelerated and restrained via the lockdown.
Steven Knight’s (A Christmas Carol) script submerges us in the couple’s frustration and despondency, while slowly exposing their secrets and emotional turmoil. He also slowly builds out a pathway that would, in most stories of this type, have been the focus. Unlike a typical film in the genre, like Ocean’s 8, Locked Down builds a deep foundation for the choices and manages a pathway to allow it to happen relatively without consequence. It is still fraught with tension and risk, but we’re presented with the options as the characters are, and we can fully follow their choices.
Director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) embraces the claustrophobia and lethargy of the pandemic, and also the desperate need for contact. We see people, but most only through video screens or through windows. But he still populated that background and interactions with a pile of great talent. People like Ben Kingsley (Elegy), Ben Stiller (Tower Heist), and Mark Gatiss (Dracula) stand out particularly. Sadly, the story is short on women. Though Mindy Kaling (Late Night) appears, she’s barely used, and few others have more impact.
This is definitely a slow burn story, and it must be to retain any credibility and still work. It isn’t about two bad people planning something nefarious, it’s about two desperate people taking advantage of a situation. It’s all still very morally ambiguous, but Knight’s script does it’s best to make it palatable, and Liman guides his actors in a way that makes it feel possible.
But let’s be clear. This is a story of it’s time and only works because we’re still going through it. While the journey is honest, our empathy will not last much past the end of the current pandemic. And for those that come after, it probably won’t stand the test of time. However, for now and for a fun escape (and a bit of a leap of faith) it’s definitely worth your time.
If you like the nihilist humor of The End of the F***ing World, the wry and sad romance of Dead Pixels, and enjoy watching Maisie Williams (iBoy), this one’s for you. Especially as Al Campbell, the man who directed Dead Pixels, directed all these episodes as well.
Two Weeks, as a title, is a little misleading. The reference is an oblique nod to events. But, ultimately, it’s metaphorical and the driving sensibility to choices that need to be made. Primarily, the show is really a vehicle for Williams, though she has some nice support from Sian Clifford (Fleabag) and Mawaan Rizwan who provide solid backboards for her humor.
When you’re looking for short and amusing, with some entertaining surprises, this will do. It’s a bit violent and the ending certainly sets up another round, but the six half-hour episodes tell a complete story. For a bit of dark funny, it certainly worked for me.
Soulmates starts with a fabulous premise: what if you could identify your soulmate? How would that affect current couples? How would it change how you date or your expectations. It doesn’t make life as simple as it would seem on the surface.
Unfortunately, after the great premise, and admittedly some interesting situations and events, frankly the show fails to meet expectations. In trying to be the answer to Black Mirror, and to stay in the mainstream, it also avoids all the other lovely complications that, say episode one of Weird City was more than happy to tackle, or even Black Mirror’s Striking Vipers. That said, the main writers/creators William Bridges (Black Mirror: USS Callister) and Roy Kent (Ted Lasso) are both very talented. I just don’t think they had the freedom or, perhaps, the guts to really tackle the possibilities.
Fortunately, the episodes are chock full of talent to carry off the stories they did offer. Some highlights are Kingsley Ben-Adir (One Night in Miami), Malin Akerman (Rampage), Sarah Snook (Winchester), Bill Skarsgård (It: Chapter Two), Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Utopia), Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things), Tom Goodman-Hill (Residue, Humans), and Steven Mackintosh (Rocketman). You may have noticed a number of Europeans in that list… and you’d be right. It is part of the odd feel of the series as they are almost all playing Americans (or North Americans, at any rate).
I’m not saying avoid this series. It’s definitely thought provoking and often clever. It just didn’t quite meet the expectations it set for me given the writers involved and the foundation of the premise. But I’d love to see if they could grow on what they’ve started and really expand their thinking and risks in a second series. And, in the meantime, we get these six stories to whet our appetite.