Tag Archives: Unique

Lovecraft Country

[4 stars]

The origin of this series is the book of the same name by Matt Ruff. The book is a perfect match for our times all on its own, and predated the explosion of outcries that have swept the nation in a prescient coup when it was published back at the top of 2017. The book even predates Get Out. Like the HBO adaptation, it’s also episodic by design and full of adventure amid the message. And Jordan Peele (Us) is the perfect match for overseeing series that Misha Green has created. Much like Watchmen and Penny Dreadful: City of Angles, this is an entertaining commentary that is impossible to look away from and devastating to run through.

From the beginning the show separates its action from the book, but manages to retain the sense and direction of it entirely. It’s quite a feat of adaptation. There are reasonable arguments to be made that they tried to do too much, overloaded the metaphors with too many examples and storylines. But I enjoyed the additional layers; the arc of this series builds a house of cards through its 10 episodes that we get to asail in the finale. How it all plays out is completely open till the end which helps add to the suspense. And, of course, there is setup for what could be an even wilder ride for a season 2 (read more about that here after you’ve seen the current series). However, one of the impacts of the changes from the book is also a much less likeable cast of characters. None of them are wholly positive, and all of them are often prickly to the point of being nasty.

The story itself is a quietly complex and intense tale that slips in and out of the world we know and a world that only haunts nightmares. More impressively, it makes horror, well, feel more real. It isn’t about making you jump, it’s about making you metaphysically ill and uncomfortable while making the characters truly afraid. Despite the wild situations, they all feel very grounded in truth, be it real humans and their repugnant ways or ghosts and elder gods and their swinging tentacles and many eyes. Look, in particular, at the third episode, “Holy Ghost,” and consider these aspects.

Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) and Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Birds of Prey) are the primary focus pulling us along. Their relationship, and tension in that relationship, evolves over the stretch of the story and serves as the backboard against which so much else bounces.

Smollett-Bell is also just one of many powerful women in the story. She is joined by Aunjanue Ellis (If Beale Street Could Talk), Wunmi Mosaku (The End of the F***ing World), and Abbey Lee (The Dark Tower) who serve as example and preachers to the plight of women and the taking of power. Even Courtney B. Vance (Project Power) and Michael Kenneth Williams (Motherless Brooklyn) take backseats to their storms.

There are too many amazing episodes to call out, though “I Am” certainly ranks up there requiring a special call out…if nothing else for its audacity given the mainstream audience target. In a good year of content creation, Lovecraft would have stood out as something special. In the year of the pandemic where new material is fairly restricted, it towers over most of the rest. Much like Watchmen’s sweep of awards last season, watch for Lovecraft to dominate nominations, if not also taking home many awards.

Lovecraft Country Poster

Unknown Origins (Orígenes Secretos)

[4 stars]

One of the best geekfests since Deadpool, and considerably more down to earth. I could explain more, but it would give away the fun.

Director and co-writer David Galán Galindo walks a very difficult line to deliver an odd buddy-cop movie that somehow rides the border of absurd without ever quite losing control. And while a lot of that is due to the script, it is in large part thanks to his cast.

Brays Efe, begins as a clear riff on Jack Black, but evolves into his own, becoming someone quite a bit more as we learn about him and as the plot demands. And Verónica Echegui (Fortitude) starts off equally absurd, but quickly proves her abilities and status. Even Ernesto Alterio’s slightly gleeful and dedicated coroner pushes edges but never loses credibility. The story is helped by the solid center of Antonio Resines as the outgoing guard and the incoming Javier Rey, who are both more traditional detectives, thought at very different ends of their careers. Rey’s earnest nature provides ample foil for the rest of the cast while he finds his way.

Somehow the grabbag of strange characters comes together into something believable enough to entertain and be taken almost seriously. It is definitely more than the sum of its parts and aimed squarely at a particular kind of audience. While it may work generally, the more you know of the superhero or comic world, the more you will enjoy the tale. Anyone with a leaning in these areas should make time for this; you won’t be disappointed. Oh, and don’t miss the bonus scene at the end of the credits for a final treat…

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

Dark (series 3 – finale)

[5 stars]

I’ve been talking up Dark for a while now. And having rewatched it from front to back again, I plan on continuing.

The series starts as a fairly standard mystery and then rapidly evolves. By episode 1.3 you have some sense of the complexity. By the end of the first series your brain is likely bleeding. In the second series it only gets more complex and convoluted and yet…. either it was all planned brilliantly or retcon’d seamlessly because on every major point it holds together. There are some minor bits and pieces that are left hanging or glossed (and yes, I look at you episode 2.4). And I admit there is one choice in the series 2 finale that makes me grind my teeth as it wasn’t necessary for plot, but simply contrived to get a visual and then they got stuck with it. Then, at the end of series 2, you’ve taken a hard left turn.

But the big events, the important confluences, all work as one.

And here we are at the completion of the tale, series 3; it makes the first two runs look simple…in fact, the penultimate episode left me exhausted. More importantly, the finale brings it all together in a fair way, given the story that’s been laid out before us–the clues are all there. Even the title finally gets an explanation.

Ultimately, this is one of the best attempts to both philosophically attack and support a deterministic universe. There are characters on both sides fighting to defend and break it. And not a one of them is telling the truth. We know that early on, but never actually find solid ground till the end, when their intentions are truly revealed. Sure the science is, at best, fantastical at times, but not all of it. Some is well-established theory, and the mix of the two allows you to swallow the conceits in full; even when they get it horribly wrong.

One of the aspects that makes this series work is their, mostly, amazing casting. Only This is Us has come close to the need and quality of finding actors to portray characters at different ages. And, honestly, Dark has done it better. Some of the actors you will swear are the same person, just aged. It helps tremendously with keeping track of the story and the credibility of the plot. They also weren’t afraid to try new ways to work with the audience visually. Each series experiments with new visual cues and approaches to help you navigate the insanity. Series 3 even uses more than one approach over the eight episodes.

Dark lives comfortably with some of the great time-travel tales of the last few decades, including Timecrimes, Primer, Edge of Tomorrow, Predestination, Doctor Who (Blink), Looper, Safety Not GuaranteedWatchmen, The Magicians (ep 5.6: Oops..I did it Again), Babylon 5, and even (despite its flaws) Terminator: Genisys. If you haven’t tackled it yet, make the time…and watch it from start to finish in a straight go (no more than two episodes a night). There are so many subtle and wonderful moments and echos that will get missed if you stretch it out too long.

Some COVID Fun – No, Really

There has been a wave of lock-down art recently. Well, what do you expect with a bunch of artists stuck at home with no outlet? Even the some finales (like All Rise) embraced the situation and wrote it into their tales.

Most of it has come in the form of at-home/garage concerts up till now. But, recently, a number of short video stories have begun to surface.

While there are many, these two really stood out. One for its sheer amusement and the other for its scope. Both are BBC, but I would expect them to be more generally available at some point.

Staged

What happens when David Tennant (Doctor Who, Good Omens) and Michael Sheen (Slaughterhouse Rulez) try to mount a play during the lock-down? Well, with the help of relatively unknown Simon Evans as writer/director/actor and their families, hilarity ensues. This series, comprised of 6 short episodes is self-aware, self-deprecating, and utterly irreverent. Find it…and remember to pay attention to and watch through the credits. The fun just keeps on giving while touching on the realities of the world as it is being reshaped.

Staged Poster

Unprecedented 

There are too many people involved here to list. In several half-hour episodes, each comprised of 3 10-minute plays, you see a huge scope of pandemic life. Some of it is is funny, some uncomfortable, and some just poignant, but all are worth seeing and none are so long as to get boring.

Unprecedented: Real Time Theatre from a State of Isolation Poster

Dark PSA

Just a friendly reminder that the third (and final) series of Dark drops on 27 June. Start rewatching now if you want to be ready and don’t want your head to explode while trying to watch it all.

If you haven’t discovered it yet, Dark is one of, if not the most, complicated plot I’ve ever seen on a TV serial. Possibly the most complicated I’ve seen in any visual media. So far it has managed to stay consistent through two series, but following it is a Herculean task of names, time-frames, and story threads. And yet it is worth every bit of struggle and pain because it all pays off.

The 18 previous episodes that lead to the final round can only be ingested at a moderate pace (one or two episodes a night at most). If you don’t have the time, find your favorite online resource for tracking all the characters… trust me, without one, the other, or both, you will be utterly lost.

Frankly, I can’t wait to see if they can pay this all off.

See You Yesterday

[4 stars]

If you just avoid thinking about the hand-wavy science and focus instead on the logic, story, and message this is one powerhouse of a flick. First-time feature director Stefon Bristol co-wrote this topical and clever tale with another first-timer, Fredrica Bailey.  The two shared the Independent Spirit Award for their efforts for good reason.

Not only is the tale entertaining and a nice variation on well-known theme, it’s also topical and honest about the world in unexpected ways. And, to top it all off, it is aimed at a younger audience while satisfying adults. While different in tenor and intent, this film would live comfortably with Attack the Block or Chronicle.

The film is driven by Eden Duncan-Smith (Annie). She brings a flawed, real person struggling with the realities of her life and the fact that she’s smarter than almost everyone around her. Her friends figure heavily, given life, if not quite as much depth, by new-comer Dante Crichlow and up-and-comer Johnathan Nieves (City of Angels). But as her older brother, Astro  (Luce) adds a number of  important and challenging levels.

This isn’t an easy film to watch, especially right now, but it is probably exactly what you should be watching. It is clever, entertaining, and even funny at times, but it also exposes aspects of reality that is rarely tackled with such honesty and sympathy. It also has a near-perfect ending for its purpose. You can think of it as a science-fantasy tackling of Waves or Do the Right Thing, but that would lead you a bit astray as well. Maybe it’s closer to being Run, Lola, Run in Flatbush if you still need a touchstone.  But, really, it is its own story, and you should see it. And I know I’m looking foward to seeing what Bristol and Bailey come up with next.

See You Yesterday

Nightwatching / Rembrandt’s J’accuse

[3 stars]

Peter Greenaway (Eisenstein in Guanajuato) is one of the most singular and visionary directors in film. You may not like the results all the time, but he manipulates film like a canvas. This is because he is, at heart, a painter. His movies always reflect that, and often examine the role of art in society as well.

Greenaway became obsessed with The Night Watch, a painting crammed with symbology and unique in its presentation for the mid-1600s. Nightwatching  tackles the creative process behind the choices and the society it was part of…which leads to the exposure of a power struggle and a murder.

It all sounds very exciting and intriguing. And with Martin Freeman (Black Panther) in the role of Rembrandt, you are probably hoping for a wonderful jaunt down historical lane, filled with sex, intrigue, and mystery. Well, there is sex, and it is a living Rembrandt portrait in design, but it isn’t the most engaging film. The story is rather hard to follow, and the presentational style Greenaway adopts for many of his movies, that almost theatrical setting, distances you from getting too close. The fourth wall is often broken as well, making it as much lecture/explanation as it is story. The movie ends up feeling more like dramatic recreation rather than exposure of Rembrandt’s personality, creative process, and life.

But even Greenaway seemed to know that, and thus the companion documentary he released the following year: Rembrandt’s J’Accuse!

The docu attacks the same story, but in non-fiction style and utilizing some of Nightwatching’s footage. The result isn’t brilliant…while well organized it is overly produced and pompous. Greenaway, as narrator, rather than educating is more than a little condescending. The research and explanations are fascinating, however, which is what keeps you going through it. If you’ve never studied art history, it is likely to be a bit fast and overloaded. If you are at least a little familiar with the period of art and the kinds of symbology artists employed, it is likely a little more digestible.

Frankly, I’d skip Nightwatching and just watch J’Accuse, if you have any interest in these subjects or just want to learn a bit about one of the world’s most famous artists. It is a great reminder of just how conscious the visual arts are. Everything is there for a reason, even if we don’t realize it most of the time. And the tale behind The Night Watch is complicated and interesting. The presentation of artist as vigilante with brushes isn’t new in the world, but rarely are the indictments so meaningful and so packed.

Nightwatching Rembrandt's J'Accuse...!

Bodied

[3 stars]

If 8 Mile and Straight Outta Compton attempted to have a screwball comedy offspring, this might be the result. Bodied lives in the odd cross-hatched zone between its dedicated audience and explaining itself to the rest of the world. And somehow it works. It is loaded with moments both funny and painful, and builds to an inevitable climax that is as gripping as it is tragic. What it lacks, in the end, is, well, an end. It gets to its point and then sort of just stops (if admittedly on a musical joke).

Director Joseph Kahn (Detention) is well known for his music videos. This story, which he conceived of as well, plays into his strengths on that point. But Alex Larsen’s script based on that idea doesn’t always live happily with Kahn’s choices. The opening, for instance, is choppy and distancing. And while several of the characters come across as genuine, others are absurdly broad. It is all presented through a particular lens, but it makes for an uneven picture.

Calum Worthy (Rapture-Palooza) owns this story with a solid assist by Jackie Long. The two play off each other well. Adding to the on-screen posse are a motley and talented crew: Jonathan Park, Walter Perez (Queen Sugar), and Shoniqua Shandai (I Am the Night).  Anthony Michael Hall (Foxcatcher) is probably the oddest surprise in the movie, casting-wise. It isn’t a great, or even warm, performance, but he pulls it off. There are a ton of known rapper faces throughout as well.

But, be warned, like the roots of the tale, it is purposefully offensive. It is intended to raise ire and blood-pressure. But it manages to build it all into the story and provide a context. It even manages to force you to examine your own reactions and thoughts. It’s still a bit of a clunky film, but it definitely is more than the sum of its parts.

Bodied

I Am Not Okay With This

[3.5 stars]

This odd, 7-episode season inhabits a fun place in the streaming pantheon somewhere between Heros and The End of the F***ing World. Frankly, if it had done more than just barely set things up for the next series I would have rated it quite a bit higher, but little is resolved by the end and far too little really happens to make it feel complete.

That said, the journey is really quite a bit of unexpected fun. Sophia Lillis (Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase) continues to expand her range and work on her delivery. She is magnetic and quirkily charismatic as she negotiates her High School and evolving powers. Joined by fellow It alum, Wyatt Oleff, we see well into the lives of their families, often without having to see it explicitly. The work by creator/director Jonathan Entwistle (The End of the F***ing World) to expose by inference and off-screen action is one of the more powerful aspects to the show: the implied, the hidden.

Sofia Bryant (Birdboy: The Forgotten Children) adds both bridge and irritant to the relationship of the main characters, and access to the other cliques at the school. The three, together, form an odd set of bonds and uneasy relationships that typify late teen years…especially those who are more self-aware.

Entwistle has a solid vision and ability to navigate  heightened truth and make it feel utterly imperative and real. In other words, he can tap his inner teen really, really well. This slightly less offensive (by typical standards) series show he’s also getting more savvy in his content pics without compromising his desire to live at the edge. I’m curious to see where he takes this, as his follow-up series to The End of the F***ing World really didn’t sustain its impact and unique qualities. But this has more potential and more of an open-ended tale, so I’ve hope.

I Am Not Okay with This