Tag Archives: ShouldSee

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.

Time Freak

[4 stars]

Romance, comedy, and time travel, especially when wrapped in honesty and told with some intelligence, is a triumverate always guaranteed to grab my attention. Unlike the recent Palm Springs, the character intent here is deliberate, but they both deliver the story in a similar way that let’s you connect with it immediately and get on board for the ride.

The story, despite its scope, is really driven by just three characters. Asa Butterfield (Slaughterhouse Rulez) and Sophie Turner (X-Men: Dark Phoenix) are the romantic crux of the story. And while that may sound like an odd combo, it’s supposed to be. And yet the two have a believable chemistry between them. More surprisingly, it comes mostly from Turner’s performance, which is the best I’ve seen her do. I actually believed her completely, something all of her previous performances have lacked for me. Butterfield is playing into his strengths in this film, but does so with heartfelt earnestness that wins you over.

While the main couple certainly carries the story forward and keeps it focused, Skyler Gisondo (Santa Clarita Diet) adds the final element that makes it all work: comic relief and, often, common sense. This is especially amusing as he’s a complete screw-up. This isn’t the basis for comedy I usually enjoy, but it works here due to its restraint and evolution. Even Will Peltz’s (In Time) side character, as extreme as he takes it, manages to find ground often enough to add to the depth of the tale rather than distract from it.

Writer/director Andrew Bowler expanded his Oscar nominated short into this truly delightful and funny exploration of life, love, and relationships. The cleverly written script spends the first third in familiar territory. And, honestly, even if it hadn’t expanded on that, I would have enjoyed the movie thanks to his control of the performances and pace. But it is Bowler’s willingness to try to explore the characters and plot more deeply that makes this particular run at the sub-genre something worth seeing.

When you need something enjoyable and not entirely devoid of logic and intelligence, queue this one up. You won’t be sorry.

Wait for Your Laugh

[4 stars]

Rose Marie was a fixture in comedy for close to 90 years in the industry. She was one of the original megastars of vaudeville and radio, and transitioned to TV and film without missing a beat. But that’s what she accomplished, not who she was. She was also a fascinating character with a life you couldn’t invent and be believed.

This documentary by Jason Wise and partner Christina Wise is funny, well-paced, and a great overview of the entertainment industry as it evolved. And for those that only grew up knowing Rose Marie as the sharp-tongued, gravelly voiced actor from Hollywood Squares, it will probably be revelatory.

But beyond the factual, this is also a wonderful tale of love, endurance, and persistence. It’s a reminder that life is constant change and effort…but doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it along the way. When you need a break from all the craziness, this is a wonderful distraction.

Sometimes Always Never

[4 stars]

Let’s face it, just about anything with Bill Nighy (Emma.) is worth watching just for him. Often it is only a taste of Nighy as a smaller side character. But in this film he and Sam Riley (Radioactive) share this story of family and survivorship. Both men play against their typical type, though Riley is a bit more consistent at it; Nighy’s accent kept slipping. However, both provide endearing and riveting performances as they verbally spar and converse.

The cast is also gifted with Jenny Agutter (Call the Midwife) and Alice Lowe (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch) who swirl around the two men with funny and poignant moments. Neither is given full rein, but both have impact and are part of why the film works so well. Even the young Louis Healy helps fill out the film nicely with minimal time.

As a first feature, Carl Hunter directs the tale with a confident hand and a delightfully playful vision. Despite the intense emotions of the story in Frank Cottrell Boyce’s (Goodbye Christopher Robin) script, Hunter keeps it all quietly real and funny. Also, the design of the film is breathtaking, from the wide vistas, to the distortion from the lenses, to the odd greenscreen and paper puppetry, it’s a unique combination of visuals that serve to amplify the story. Even the color pallet is retimed in order to make it, to put it mildly, bilious.

I didn’t know what to expect going into this story, and that was fine. I’d suggest you do the same. Go for the comedy and the sweet sense of family it creates. Stay for the performances, message, and the wonderfully odd presentation; but make time for this.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

[4 stars]

Unreliable narrators can be brilliant or frustrating. Having one is risky enough, but when you’ve four of them driving a movie, you’re really pressing your luck. But Scott B. Smith’s (Siberia) script adaptation is smart, crisp, and a delight in its story-telling.

Claes Bang (Dracula) is the main focus of the story, and from near the top we know there’s something off with him. He’s charismatic, smarmy, and quite full of himself, while being obviously desperate and damaged. Elizabeth Debicki (Widows) provides a wonderful foil and secondary locus as she dives into his orbit. The two are slowly revealed and challenged by Donald Sutherland  (Ad Astra) and Mick Jagger while the story takes shape.

And that is one of the wonderful aspects that sets this film apart: it is more than a third in before you’re even sure what the story is. For his first feature, director Giuseppe Capotondi took on some serious challenges, but he knocked it out of the park.

Burnt Orange Heresy is a deeply engrossing film that has as much to say about art and the artist as it does about human frailty and desire. To get a sense of the delivery of that message, imagine a Mamet play, without the cursing (think House of Games) or even Hitchcock with an elevated sense of philosophy.

If you enjoy intense, clever, and verbally dexterous tales, make time for this one. It isn’t a talk-fest, but practically all of the dialogue is a sparring match between the characters involved. It’s a dark joy of a movie.

The Burnt Orange Heresy Poster

Loveless (Nelyubov)

[4 stars]

When I finally had a chance to see Andrey Zvyagintsev’s (Leviathan) latest movie, albeit late, I wasn’t disappointed. I was, however, left drained. While Leviathan was harsh, it was also darkly funny. Loveless is completely upfront, from title and opening credits to the the story itself, about the emptiness and harsh, sad reality the characters share.

The script, also by Zvyagintsev and his Leviathan collaborator Oleg Negin, is generally minimalist. A joy for a subtitled movie (I could actually concentrate on the visuals). But the spare dialogue doesn’t reduce the information provided. Zvyagintsev crafts his moments with great care. They are dense with detail, subtext, and implication. But the interesting aspect of the family is that while the story revolves around the parents, Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin (Leviathan), it is the outsider, Aleksey Fateev (Proxima), who has the most interesting character. Fateev, without ever having an “emotional” scene manages to impart a world of understanding and response. But to give him his due, Matvey Novikov, as the son, has some wonderful and intense moments as well…and they’ll tear you apart.

Loveless isn’t a fun film. I’m sure that’s not a surprise. But it is honest and directed in such a way as to pull you through. There are parts of every character that you can identify with, even if, in their entirety, you just want to slap them. But, much like Leviathan, while there is a surface story to engage in, Zvyagintsev and Negin are telling you another story of their country as well. It is nested in their choice of era and in the background news that suffuses the film, as well as the metaphor of the plot itself. It isn’t heavy-handed, but it is there ready to fizz to the surface as you think about it all later.

Zvyagintsev continues to impress me. I hope, like Leviathan, Loveless continues to find an audience. It certainly found awards joy when it released, though it somehow lost to The Square in its Oscar bid that year. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get to it; it’s a powerful film, and a very well crafted one. Definitely worth your time when you’re feeling resilient.

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.

Caramel Poster

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

State of the Union

[4 stars]

When Nick Hornby (Juliet, Naked, High Fidelity) and Stephen Frears (Victoria & Abdul) decided to tackle the meaning and humor of marriage in ten 10-minute segments, you can be sure it will be both insightful and biting. Now make it, generally, a two-person show with Rosamund Pike (Radioactive) and Chris O’Dowd (Juliet, Naked) and the delivery is guaranteed to entertain.

To be fair, O’Dowd was a bit of an easy choice here. He’s playing into all his strengths, and is somewhat reprising his role in Juliet, Naked. Pike, however, has created a woman taut with guilt, doubt, and bound by her own upbringing.

Each segment is a week apart, covering a 10-week course of therapy for the couple. And each segment manages to provide mountains of information about their relationship and each other. It is a credit to all four that so many levels can be exposed with subtext, looks, and smart dialogue.

Admittedly, the longer you’ve been married, the more there is to get from the 100 or so minutes of the whole series. It hits on truths and fears that only 10+ years of living with a spouse can manifest. Absent that, it’s a simply a fun tale that is easy to digest and satisfying to laugh with and at. And probably a show worth coming back to at different points in your life.

State of the Union Poster

Radioactive

[3 stars]

What saves this oddly structured biopic from falling apart, like The Current War did, is the sheer will and power of Rosamund Pike (A Private War) and Sam Riley (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil). Their performances, particularly Pike’s, are endlessly fun to watch and feel raw and honest rather than forced. This is no small feat as Marie was driven and blunt; but Pike finds all the layers of that drive, making her focus only an aspect of her character and depicting this strong woman as a whole person. Too often historical women are shown in wildly different moments just to bring out their “womanhood” in order to appease the audience. Not so here…Pike is a complete person all along; abrasive at times, but in a way that feels like there’s someone real underneath it rather than just a mask or a different human each time we see her in different situations, for instance: family vs. work.

There are also a couple of nice, smaller performances. Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma.), Simon Russell Beale (The Death of Stalin), and Katherine Parkinson (Humans) are the ones to note. And I will add that Riley is practically unrecognizable in his role of Pierre Curie, whom he imbues with a fierce intelligence and a complicated approach to the mores of the time.

Admittedly, depicting the lives of complex people is always a challenge. Just look at the recent biopics of Freddy Mercury and Elton John. Both movies were by the same director, but each had utterly different approaches in an attempt to capture the men and their impact. Jack Thorne’s (Wonder) script of Marie Curie’s life, in its attempt to do the same, is both fascinating and baffling. Fortunately it was smoothly tackled by Marjane Satrapi (The Voices), who is adept at slipping back and forth between wildly different aspects of a tale when she directs.

The challenge with the story is that it attempts to show the long-term impact Curie’s discoveries had. Since some of the most impactful applications and issues didn’t even begin to become common till 20 years after her death, it presented a problem. The solution Thorne and Satrapi settled on was to intercut future scenes with the contemporary.

This had two effects. First, it forced commentary around the Curie’s efforts that wasn’t there at the time and blurs the their truth. And, second, it creates an odd fantasy during the end of M. Curie’s final moments that felt wrong to me. In other words we’re forced to see her life through historical eyes and lose a good deal of the contextual reality.

But despite any issues these choices caused, the performances of the two leads is truly wonderful and worth the time to see the film. Also, while some of the Curies’ life is taught to children, a lot of it is missed in school. The family is truly extraordinary, and the story they were a part of is both inspirational and horrifying.

Radioactive Poster