Reviews Roundup 2021 pt 1

Some quick thoughts and one-offs on the riffraff and b-sides. Enjoy!

*Light Spoiler/Offensive Content Warning*

Shadow in the Cloud – 7.5

If you’re into synth bass, steampunk, CGM or b-horror shamelessly ripping off The Twilight Zone, Roseanne Liang’s Shadow In the Cloud is an undeniable good time. It doesn’t so much lack for realism as chuck it out the bomb bay doors like an overgrown bat-winged hallucination, in an alternate-reality WWII full of chauvinistic, mud-mouthed pilots and fresh-faced Flight Officers, unstoppable and keen-eyed sure shots . . . 3/4 of the flick focusing on Moretz dauntlessly interacting with the “Marx brothers talking about who gets to screw me first,” is enough to fuel a generation of pubescent fantasy, no doubt, but if you’re easily offended by sexist dialogue (or unrealistic sound design for that matter), you may want to look elsewhere this round. Despite it’s one-note supporting cast, serviceable acting and insane choreography (or just as well because of its insane choreography), Shadow will have your attention with surprisingly good effects, a bombastic feminine-power anthem, and an oddly effective, if outright ridiculous Madonna, with as much action as Die Hard, set to a retro synth-based soundtrack to rival season one of Stranger Things. “Guys, there’s a . . . there’s a . . . big rat. Williams, are there huge rats in New Zealand?” Yes, Williams, there are huge rats in New Zealand, they fly, and they . . . want . . . your . . . baby.

Aniara – 7

“That’s us. A little bubble in the glass of godhead.” The Indie Sci-Fi pick this month goes to Aniara, Magnolia Pictures’ 2018 exploration of humanity lost at sea. Explaining the slow motion of an air bubble in glass, how the glass is actually a very slow moving liquid and the bubble will travel through it over millennia, Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja’s script brings a fresh point of view of the incredibly massive nature of space itself. The colony ship Aniara is like that bubble, you see, lost in space without fuel or any hope of turning around – of ever encountering another celestial object of any kind – and it will be drifting for millions of years. No matter how fast they travel, in the immeasurable vastness of space they will forever remain at a crawl. Don’t let me be the one to tell you that glass is not a liquid, and this is an old legend, not science. Without quite traversing the edge into hard sci-fi, Aniara maintains a realism that builds a foundation for the otherwise human story. And that’s where it shines. This is about people actually living in space. Aniara is basically a cruiseliner turned space vessel, and it’s enjoyable to watch this realistic take on interplanetary travel-gone-wrong. Nobody here is cryogenically frozen, carrying aliens to term or fighting an evil AI. No, they’re just trying to live, adrift in the vastness with no hope for rescue – trying to keep hope and their human dreams alive in the endless night of space. Swedish with English subtitles.

Devs – 7.5

Alex Garland’s newest addition to the pantheon of heady sci-fi is his first series to date. You’ll fall fast for the gorgeous production, imaginative set designs and plot devices, but be forewarned it may only be rewarding on the long view for those eager to contemplate how the multiverse correlates to quantum mechanics, while listening to Yeats (recited by the very cool Stephen Henderson). Dang, I just about sold myself on a second viewing there, that sounds sweet. And it almost hits that potential. *Spoilers* Unfortunately it gets bogged down by its own plot, frequently, ending up with more pseudoscience than theory anyway. With its main characters all suffering serious emotional lapses, the performances have a hard time being anything more than perfunctory – straight up frustrating by the end, as numerous characters contradict their motivations in order to make ends meet in the forced plotlines. Proving the Many Worlds Theory on that bridge would be as easy as walking away from the bridge, damn it Lyndon! Though in either case it’s just as likely proving a flaw in the machine . . . sure not something to die for, kid. I liked the homeless guy a lot more before he was revealed as a spy, and I’m not the only one who won’t bother to do the footwork to find out that “Who was Mark Antony?” means the old guy’s the assassin . . . one episode early . . . though that one was kind of clever, still. Seeing a Strange Attractor on screen was a little bit exhausting for me, no doubt, but as much as I wanted to love it, the characters by the end are following tram lines, not because of physics, but because of lazy writing. Knowing the future will change it, every time, just saying – that would’ve made for more interesting choices. Check out Genex of Halcyon (2019) for a different take on a similar plot device. And no, being “alive” on the other side of a screen is not the same as being alive, outside the machine. If you follow my work already, you know I’m a quantum skeptic, in any case no adherent of simulation theory. So if you’re a Garland fan, definitely take a look, just keep those expectations in check. Absolutely watch Ex Machina, Annihilation, or heck even The Beach or 28 Days first. This one goes a little over its own head. Good, beautiful and imaginative, but lacking the polish or performances to make it great. Extra points go out for ambition.

City Of Lies – 7.5

Sometimes I don’t even check trailers before renting, so I went into City Of Lies without a clue it was a true take on the drive-by assassination of the Notorious B.I.G. So needless to say, what I thought was going to be just another cop story, turned out to be full of Juicy beats and 90’s flow, and for me that’s always a win. At 42 I’ve had more than my fill of police shows, and often turn away from them simply out of disgust at the continued hero worship of the fictional boys in blue – in a world of Black Lives Matter protests and Defund activists, in dire need of criminal justice reform . . . So in any case, this real life tale of Los Angeles detective Russell Poole taking on the corrupt inner workings of his own department, in the name of justice for one of the most talented rap icons in history, while it might be too slow paced and realistically unresolved in the end for some, for me it was a bumping, righteous and enjoyable low ride through 90s LA’s corrupt political underbelly. If you’re unsure if this is the real deal, just take note that Biggie’s mom plays herself in the film. No better endorsement could be made.

The Little Things – 6

As an actor’s showcase, you could do worse than John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things. Here we get Rami Malek, Jared Leto and Denzel Washington in a trifecta of cops & killers. Unfortunately the script just doesn’t keep up with the cool noir vibes. I won’t try to ruin it for fans of these three solid actors – you could definitely do worse for an evening’s entertainment, and the ending might even surprise you. Suffice it to say though, don’t worry at all about the little things here, as cool as Denzel’s line makes them sound. The clues that matter in this one are all big enough to trip over.

O.G. – 7.5

Jeffrey Wright is impressive again in this character-driven exploration of modern prison life. Clearly it’s a bit more drama than real – prison actually being one of the most boring places on Earth, by design – still Madeleine Sackler and Stephen Belber’s tale of power, politics and redemption within the maximum security walls of Pendleton never loses its footing. This is due in large part to the grounded and wise portrayal by Wright, fully deserving of the Best Actor 2018 Tribeca award he won for the role. I’m not a fan of prison dramas, or anything trivializing the oppressed in our out of control justice system, but O.G. still got me with strong characterizations and acting that is just top level.

Painting With John – 7.5

John Lurie is a prolific, lifelong artist with a distinctly Nola vibe. An award winning jazz musician, soundtrack artist, actor and producer, Lurie’s the Kevin-Bacon-behind-the-scenes; you’ve likely never heard of him, but everyone in Hollywood has his number in their phone. Tom Waits, Willem Defoe, Jim Jarmusch and Matt Dillon all call him friend, and watching Painting With John on HBO, one can kind of understand why. The guy is magnetic. Sadly, vocals are just a tiny part of his musical portfolio, because Lurie has a rare voice. If you like Leonard Cohen, or late Bob Dylan, you’ll get it – vocally anyway. Musically, we’re looking at complex and experimental jazz, which is mostly fun, but sometimes kind of annoying. Still, I could turn on his show for multiple seasons just to hear him talk – it hardly matters what he says, the cadence, rationality and depth of his mannerism is a story in itself. Which is good, because the majority of Painting is just his rambling nonsense, with as much flaw as virtue baked in. You may not like John by the end of the season, but you won’t be able to deny his character. As a painter, he’s been described as the anti-Bob-Ross, which is probably right on point. Ross is kind, quiet and always focused on technique, a rare saint of color TV. Lurie is rambling, self-centered, and a terrible painter, yet experienced and unique, the kind of guy you’d love to meet at a party and share a medicinal joint with – whose painting you might buy just because of who he is. You won’t learn how to paint from him, but you may get a deeper understanding of why you want to. Or at least an easy-on-the-senses meditative journey unlike most anything else on TV right now.

Mulan 2020 – 4.5

Disney, Disney, Disney . . . What’re we going to do with you Disney? You used to have so much heart. We had so many good times. Without you, the world sure would be shy a few badass princesses. But somewhere along the way you got lost, or I’m afraid I might have left you behind. But there’s no denying you sold out, and it’s hard not to argue that 9 out of 10 of your movies lately have been pretty bad. We get it, you’re spread a little thin, what with the flashy streaming service and buying up licenses full time. Dumping as much money as could buy small nations outright into dumpsterfire after dumpsterfire, because fuck the poor and writers in general. And enough people are going to mindlessly eat it up, that you’ll never learn. But we really start to take personal offense when you come back and retread stories we love – and rip out their soul, stuffing it full of cash, gloss and committee-based processed development. One or two high points notwithstanding your record-breaking run of ruining respected titles, licenses and entire companies . . . you stand as a penultimate example of why money can’t force great art. Poor Mortimer’s legacy is fucked, sad to say. Mulan? Not one of the strong points, sadly. I went into it with high hopes. You did ask $30 to rent, staking a whole new business model on this legendary license, and the potential for live action, drama, feminine power and real martial arts choreography on the project should’ve been awesome. I was even in the minority that was excited to hear there would be no Mushu, that a more realistic angle was being taken. I should’ve known the “realism” would stop there. Weirdly polished but often awkward effects, gobs of makeup and rushed/predictable scripting sent this poor wishful epic off the rails quick. Hot take: overprocessing a film so it will blend with the CGI only makes the whole thing seem fake and weird. Of the remakes, I’m going out on a limb saying B&tB was the last good one, and you might do better cutting the cord unless you’re going to up the quality control. Sorry, I have to be honest, you’ve broken my heart for what could have been, and if I’m smart at all, it might be for the last damn time. I’ll give you Star Wars . . . it was always overrated. But Pixar? You’re going to turn Pixar into a capitalist shell, without breaking stride? Damn you, Disney. Damn you, I’m through. Don’t you dare lay a finger on my Bambi, or I won’t hesitate to file a restraining order.

The Glorias – 6.5

As a biopic, The Glorias did its duty to inform me on Gloria Steinem, of whom I was mostly unaware prior to watching. A feminist leader, writer and activist, Steinem is one kind of figure society needs more of. With talented actresses like Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore playing her part across a lifetime of story, it should have been a timely and dramatic win. Unfortunately the movie never quite hits. From the clearly-supposed-to-be-but-not-actually-lovable-failure-or-is-it-asshole-traveling-salesman-father-figure, to Gloria herself being played by actresses of obviously varied nationalities and acting styles – the whole thing just never gels into anything coherent. *Spoilers* By the end, with Steinem playing herself, it seems more self-aggrandizing than empowering. Add into the mix some questionable directorial decisions (if there was any way to make the beautiful Moore look bad, it was the clumsy introduction of her in place of the exceptional Vikander – without aging anyone else in the room), or the ligamental b&w bus scene that never quite makes itself necessary. The Glorias gets bonus points though, the movie it wanted to be is absolutely the kind the world needs.

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