Tag Archives: Unique

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

[3.5 stars]

The number of emotions and ideas that this film sparks are too many and too complicated to try and explain here in less than a tome. Suffice to say that this grounded fable/tragi-comedy by Joe Talbot, Jimmie Fails, and Rob Richert (a first feature for all of them) is inventive, powerful, and effective.

Jimmie Fails also leads in the film alongside Jonathan Majors (Captive State, When We Rise). The friendship of these two men and their journey through the city is both funny and surprising. The duo are supported by host of smaller characters including Danny Glover (Sorry to Bother You), Micheal Epps, and Rob Morgan (Mudbound). Only two small roles by Tichina Arnold (The Neighborhood) and Maximilienne Ewalt (Sense8) add any female influence to this story. Given the tight focus on Fails’s journey and the lack of women in his life, it is almost excusable. However, it is noticeable.

But that criticism aside, this was an unexpected film. If Spike Lee had been born 30 years later and on the West coast, this is the kind of story he’d have been telling. It is politically charged, but without losing track of the personal. It is funny, but without dropping the serious message and intent. It is raw and honest, but not without recognizing the inherent sadness and absurdity in the situation. This is a film worthy of the term and an interesting new set of voices for the industry.

Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein

[2.5 stars]

For the title alone, I had to check out this silly satire, and clear vanity project, by David Harbour (Hellboy, Stranger Things) on Netflix.

The short film is full of nods and winks to the History Channel, Dark Shadows, and Documentary Now among other shows. It also takes many hilarious slams at the acting craft generally. Against this background Harbour explores his family’s fictional past in search of… well, that would be the problem overall. We never really understand why he’s doing this, what “questions” he has to answer. And, in the end, we don’t know what he’s discovered or embraced. Perhaps the open ended aspect was part of the satire, but it left me as a viewer wondering why I’d spent the half hour.

Given director Daniel Gray Longino’s background with Portlandia, and both he and writer John Levenstein’s involvement with The Kroll Show, the sensibility of this 30 minute distraction shouldn’t be a surprise. Mainly, it’s just disappointing, or was for me. But at 30 minutes, it isn’t a huge chunk of your life to lose for some funny moments. Just don’t expect it to hold together or pay off in a great way and you’ll be fine.

Breaking the Rule of Binge

I don’t, as a rule, binge watch programs. I like the episodic nature of stories. I like time to reflect and think on what has happened in a story and what may happen in the next installment. It’s an art to do it well and it’s satisfying as an experience for me. I know…I’m in the minority at this point.

Recently, however, I’ve been breaking my rule of no more than two episodes of a show per day due to some truly engaging writing. The first slip was for Jessica Jones‘s final series, and then shortly after for Stranger Things. The first because I had time, more than the structure, and the latter because of the cliff-hanger endings. But then came Russian Doll and Dark. Both seriously binge-worthy shows, though each for different reasons.

Russian Doll

I devoured this show in two sittings…and would have done it in one if I could have seen straight enough that first night. While the first episode wasn’t exactly giving me hope, there was something intriguing about it that brought me back. By the end of the second episode, I just couldn’t stop.

Groundhog Day, though not the first of its kind, is the de facto term for all repeating day stories. It is even a trope that has come back into vogue again with fun jaunts in many genre, like Happy Death Day. Russian Doll is yet another riff on this idea…and explained about as much any of them do, employing multiple references, including Felini. But who cares…that isn’t what the story is about. Natasha Lyonne (Orange is the New Black) knocks it out of the park with her gravelly-voiced, prickly NYC software designer.

Unsurprisingly, Russian Doll is already renewed (especially given its 11 Emmy nominations which were recently announced). My hope is that they don’t rush it, because even if they manage to expand on the story, like Happy Death Day 2U, I’d really like for them to do something as new and wonderful as their first round of this addictive and inventive tale.

Dark

Dark is wonderfully intriguing with interesting ideas and characters, and some great mysteries and events. But that isn’t why I ended up having to binge. It is simply one of the most brain hemorrhagingly complex stories I’ve every encountered…holding it all in your head requires watching it all close together. If you go more than a day without watching an episode, you’re going to need one of the many write-ups on the web (organized by family grouping or chronology).

Series one hooked me with it complexity and ended on a cliff-hanger where series two picks up.  This second chunk comes to a sort of conclusion, but opens up for the third series scheduled for next June (to coincide with the dates of the story). But my suggestion is that you watch the first two series back-to-back at a one or two a night clip…frankly, I don’t think the human brain can take more than that. If you can, power to you. Then, before watching the new stories, rewatch the series again so it’s fresh in your mind. Honestly, this thing needs visual aids, but it is delightfully and intricately structured…a true thing of beauty even if the story and characters aren’t.

Kumaré

[3 stars]

This rather unique documentary starts with a quote: Faith starts as an experiment and ends as an experience. The sentiment, by the 19th century author and priest William Ralph Inge, serves as framework and a way to set expectations around the documentary experiment created by Vikram Gandhi. And the expectations are necessary as the initial setup feels like it could only lead to hurtful disaster. And while lovers of Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Dictator, Brüno) and prank shows may have found that an acceptable outcome, it definitely isn’t what I look for in entertainment, let alone a documentary.

Ghandi’s experiment was put together with a cold disregard for the impact on the subjects of his deception and was entirely focused on the questions he wanted to answer. In other words, it could only have been conceived by a PhD academic. But it is clear early on that the experimentor is, himself, being shaped by his own framework in some way. What we witness over the course of the film is both the fragility and gullibility of people in dual track with a real sense of spirituality.

Ghandi isn’t a brilliant filmmaker. He isn’t even a brilliant academic. However, his willingness to commit to his path to the very end is fascinating. And the results of his efforts are, if not surprising, thought provoking. For an evening of pondering humanity with a wry sense of humor and a bit of self-reflection, it’s worth your time.

Years and Years

[4.5 stars]

Years and Years embraces the aphorism: The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. And quite the journey it is, from the smallest to the largest step along the road of choices that marks out this slippery narrative.

Russell T. Davies (A Very English Scandal, Bob & Rose) offers up a far spanning look at current politics, all lensed through the very human and personal eyes of a single family. We follow them across a decade as they deal with the fallout and shifting landscape of a world in transition. It is often difficult to watch, especially the time period closest to our own, but it is also hypnotic and gripping. As it moves forward a hundred steps, and then a thousand steps, the world is completely unrecognizable and yet utterly familiar and undeniable. It often isn’t easy seeing how people act and react, but we’ve millennia of proof that we are seeing typical responses.

Though the story is bleak at times, it also celebrates the resilience of people. Survival is key: financial, emotional, physical, and even intellectual. Because that is how it works, the world goes nuts and people do what they must to survive. It is rare that a single event is “the end of it all.” But, of course, as things move on, that is always the risk.

The cast are very much up to the task of bringing this story to life; a bevy of recognizable faces, young and old. Some of the more stand-out performances are Anne Reid (Last Tango in Halifax ), Russell Tovey  (queers. ), Emma Thompson (Men in Black: International), T’Nia Miller (Marcella ), Jessica Hynes (Bridget Jones’s Baby), and Rory Kinnear (Spectre). But, honestly, it is really quite the cast all around, even Lydia West in her first major role shines nicely.

Years and Years is a visceral response by a writer to the world; when good writers get mad they get writing. When they are also artists, they give us timeless classics like The Crucible. Years and Years is likewise a reaction to today’s political insanity and, if not quite as timeless as Miller’s play, it is certainly powerful and impactful. This is a must-see piece of television that will transport you to the very last moments of the series. It won’t satisfy everyone as the ending does leave some things open, but life is rarely fully satisfying…it simply keeps on keeping on. And as long as we can do that, we survive.

Some Streaming Odds and Ends

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.

 

Brightburn

[3 stars]

Is there anything scarier than a 12-year old going through puberty? How about one with untried superpowers? The result is really more a horror flick than science fiction. Think We Need to Talk About Kevin, if Keven were Kal-El, more than Carrie with a guy.

Jackson A. Dunn’s Brandon Breyer isn’t so much an anti-hero as anti hero. He plays it nicely deadpan, but with enough confusion about  his new “feelings” to make it recognizable. Elizabeth Banks (The Happytime Murders) and David Denman (Puzzle) struggle as his parents to deal with his oncoming adulthood, as every parent does. Their concerns are essentially the same, but the price of failure and miscommunication are just higher. Watching them navigate the situation is as much fun as watching their son begin to come into his own. It makes Brightburn at once a tense trainwreck of a horror film and a darkly funny metaphor for adolescence. And the costuming for Brandon’s alter ego is a wonderful and subtle gift.

Brightburn isn’t exactly drawing in a wide audience. In some ways, it is timely in the superhero glutted days of movies as counterpoint. But we, as a population, flock to superheros when things are bad and we need hope. Is it surprising that during today’s struggles most people want their heroes to be heroes rather than … well, not? Go to this for the evil glee and mayhem that it offers. It isn’t brilliant in script or direction, but it is solid and delivers what it intends without the stupidity on the part of characters that most horror films provide and rely on. Frankly, I had fun with it, even as I found it disturbing as heck.

Serenity

[3 stars]

It is impossible to really talk about this film without ruining the experience. So suffice to say it isn’t what you think it is, but neither does it really manage to achieve its goals. Writer/director Steven Knight (The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Locke) definitely likes to explore odd niches and create tension. And though he is trying to be too clever in this movie, he smartly focused on character, rather than the deeper mystery, to sell the story.

You know something is off very early on in the story; a sense of David Lynch definitely in play. But the story is played straight and with a persistent reality that is tinged with a sense of distortion for the viewer. Without that distortion, that hint of something other, I would have turned off the movie in the first 10 minutes, to be honest. But there was something there, mostly in the form of Jeremy Strong (Molly’s Game), that kept me curious enough to go forward.

Matthew McConaughey (The Dark Tower), Anne Hathaway (Ocean’s 8), and Jason Clarke (First Man) make an interesting triangle, though none of them is particularly sympathetic or believable. In part, that is the story and the style. Even Diane Lane (Paris Can Wait) and Djimon Hounsou (Captain Marvel), for all their sincerity, never really rise above or stand out. How Knight got McConaughey and Hathaway on board, let alone convinced McConaughey into all the gratuitous sex and nudity, I’m not sure, but it is certainly a credit to his powers of persuasion.

Generally, this is more of a curio of a movie than a great bit of noir or suspense, or whatever it is. Much like Locke, it is a concept wrapped in a script and delivered nicely by the cast. It isn’t great, but neither is it bad. You just have to be in the mood for an odd ride, and willing to approach it with an open mind.

Meet the Patels

[4 stars]

Surprising, sweet, and delightful, not to mention full of humor and genuine affection. I can’t say I knew what to expect going into this journey of Ravi and Geeta Patel and their family, but it engaged me almost immediately. This short, sort-of-documentary follows Ravi, better known as a character actor, as he attempts to find a wife. It is an open-eyed and open-minded look at arranged marriage and dating in the modern world.

Using rough family footage and interspersed simple animation, the two put together an overview-with-commentary of his year long journey.  Though she tries to remain behind the camera his sister is part of this journey as well, by extension and comments, making this very much a family affair.

Unless you are part of the culture, this isn’t likely an area you know much about, other than at a distance or through the last season of The Big Bang Theory. Dropping into the middle of it all in a positive way is a story worth hearing. And, fortunately, it is done with a great deal of heart and humor that invites us not only into Ravi’s life and his family’s, but also into the clan Patel.

Maniac

[4 stars]

Yeah, I’m a bit late on this one. I started to watch it early and, frankly, while it had caught me, I wasn’t driven to get back to it too quickly. I am, however, glad I went back.

With Emma Stone (The Favourite) and Jonah Hill (True Story) driving the tale, and Justin Theroux (On the Basis of Sex), Sally Field (Hello, My Name is Doris), and Sonoya Mizuno (Crazy Rich Asians) supporting it, there is some serious talent brought to bear. That talent saves the series, selling the odd and weird with commitment and nuance. Because despite all the clever aspects to the story and presentation, it really is a tortured and overly drawn-out metaphor, however entertaining.

Ultimately Maniac is an intriguing look at love, life, and schizophrenia, helping to make it one of the oddest love stories ever devised. Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation) and Patrick Somerville delivered a series that is, at turns, intriguing and amusing…and ultimately affecting.