With the flood of content pouring out of the modern streaming machine, it’s the least I can do to help winnow the bullshit for you. If you follow this blog, odds are you’re as annoyed as I am by the common goreporn, mindlessness, sexless sex and bad animation that gets Rotten Tomatoes so excited. Crowdsourcing and AI may in fact not be the most effective way to value our entertainers, particularly those who attempt art.
If you haven’t noticed, I don’t do plot summaries. You can find those all over the net easy enough. I do reviews. And if it seems like I’m easy to please, just know that I usually only bother if a piece rates at least a 7 out of 10. So without further ado, here are a few more short takes and recommendations from our viewing this year:
Taboo – 8
More a master class on cool than on literal history, Tom Hardy’s 19th century opus brings you in slowly but doesn’t let you down. Detailed costume and set design, solid action choreography, intermittently brilliant acting and an attitude of general hellbent rebellion, easily overcome the shortcomings of this entirely enjoyable show. It’s dark, kind of gothic, and even if it’s taking some liberties with history, it’s probably a lot closer to the truth than most Victorian-era fiction has ever been. If you’re like us, and think judges look ridiculous in their curly white wigs (historic or modern alike), you’ll probably enjoy Taboo a ton more than Downton Abbey. With all of the pompous hypocrisy inherent in the colonial era in vivid, if dark, high definition, Season 1 looks down its nose at Kings and bankers alike. Here’s hoping team Hardy follows through with an equally impressive Season 2, because I could watch Tom play this character for years. My main gripe? Follow through. A little incestuous obsession is hardly pushing the audience’s ethical boundaries in 2021. We’re used to gore, death and apocalypse in Act 1. You picked that title Tom, let’s go ahead and see where it takes us.
Scenes From a Marriage – 9
Exceptional acting and writing elevate this drama above nearly everything else in its genre. As of this post it’s still ongoing – we’re 4 episodes deep – and the cliffhangers are real! Despite a bit of unevenness in the characters, where nearly everything seems to be Mira’s fault so far, I can’t help but hope their toxic marriage comes through it all even stronger. I’m not sure why, it must be the performances by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, but even at their worst – and they go pretty low – I have nothing but compassion for both of them. Enough said, I’ll only come back and update this if the rest of the season tapers off and warrants a real change in the rating. So far it is a top notch, broken-romance, broken-character drama, the kind HBO should really get behind, if you don’t mind being a little traumatized yourself by the end of each episode. In real life, anyway, characters are often very much out of balance. No doubt that’s just part of the ugly beauty of it all.
Annette – 8
In the new rock opera from Leos Carax, not only does Marion Cotillard sing her own parts, putting world-renowned sopranos to shame, she does it live. Of course, all of the singing is live (except maybe the creepy puppet baby), imbibing the production with real stage energy, and the music forms the backbone for one of the most interesting musicals in a while. Maybe it all falls a little short of Tommy, with lyrics that get a bit too repetitive and a twisted storyline that kind of fizzles in the end, but if you’re looking for the surreal trip that only a proper rock opera can promise, Annette delivers just fine. The subtext here is about the pressures of fame, lost love and innocence, and it’s plenty sumptuous, if not quite poignant. As usual Driver is almost too good, clearly most at home on a real stage, but Simon Helberg is great in a supporting role, and honestly I’d watch Cotillard do just about anything. Bizarre, catchy, sexy and witty, Annette is one of the winners for 2021, no doubt. Did I mention the creepy puppet baby? She sings like an angel.
See – 7
While never measuring up to the best of post-apocalyptic action, Apple’s See had a unique premise, cool aesthetic, and solid enough characters to hold my attention, at least through half of Season 2, which is as far as it’s gone at this time. Jason Momoa has more stage presence than acting chops, but for this B-level script with A-level production, he leads just fine – most of the time. Anyone who has ever spent any time around the blind will quickly recognize that the whole premise is pretty silly. If a worldwide blindness epidemic would do anything definitively, it would end the tribal wars of our societies. The blind can be amazingly resilient, and functional in the real world, but they don’t serve in the military, generally speaking, for very practical reasons. Set aside some hefty disbelief, however, and you’ll find See is imaginative, beautiful and surprisingly thoughtful, even a little heartfelt. It doesn’t fail to entertain. Queen Kane gets our attention right away, and Sylvia Hoeks is now officially on my actress-to-watch list. As a notable part of the world-building, the names for characters and places are different than any you’ve heard elsewhere, if a little hard to pronounce even after so many episodes. Baba Voss. Jerlamarel. Maghra. Tamacti Jun. By mid Season 2 it’s starting to wear thin however, over an undeveloped plot with characters starting to look more like caricatures, and I’m afraid the addition of another professional wrestler to the cast hasn’t exactly lifted the acting bar, so there’s a chance we won’t even make it to Season 3. But there’s no regret, See was definitely fun. I only wish the Sighted would figure it all out, because really they should be just about unstoppable.
Physical – 8
Rose Byrne is a force with demons to reckon with in another Apple original to top the list. Well acted, bravely scripted, with choreographed drama just wild enough to keep you guessing, Physical is worth your time. The 80s vibe is authentic, the casting varied with humor and depth. Mental illness runs wild in society, and Physical is one of the few shows ever to tackle eating disorders, narcissism, negative self-image, child abuse and more in direct, bracing terms. Rose’s inner dialogue is one of the most honest in film history, while never losing its sense of humor – in that sense more real than many more serious dramas. If this show didn’t get a 2nd season it’d be as bad a crime as Gypsy, but thankfully it is in production now. Like Gypsy, this is a journey of empowerment, exploration and risk. Even better, it’s an unprecedented, major studio effort at giving space for a deeper and more urgent understanding of these modern illnesses, suffered quietly by so many, in what is ultimately (hopefully) a story of overcoming.
Mr Corman – 8
Only 3 episodes deep on this Joseph G Levitt wonderpiece, I’m not even sure quite what it’s about yet but eagerly anticipate more. With fresh style, a script about fragile people, and the passion only a young filmmaker is likely to bring to the table, the only thing that could bring this bird down is a lack of a long-play plan. Time will tell, but the first 3 episodes warrant high marks. I’ll only update if that rating drops.
The Colony – 7
Roland Emmerich is known for big budget, small brain blockbusters, most famous among them Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 1998’s unforgettable Matthew Broderick introspection piece, Godzilla. In that company, 2021’s The Colony stands apart. Moody, dim, lonely and scientifically literate, this is, if not top level, at least good, solid sci-fi for a modern audience. The sets remind of Waterworld, but only in a good way, and the movie gets points for atmosphere, with huge special effects pieces that don’t go out of their way to impress, instead just kind of looming out of the ever-present fog like anything else in the film. Nora Arnezeder gives a star turn, androgynous, intelligent and strong – a grim stoicism that is not at all unwelcome. She’ll be one to watch again. Maybe it never quite escapes its own fog, and maybe the climax is a lot of nonsense, but if The Colony signals a better direction for Emmerich’s $100M+ budgets going forward, I’m all for it.
Stowaway – 7.5
If promos of Anna Kendrick in an astronaut suit left you skeptical, you are not alone. But Stowaway hits it home, walking a tight balance between hard science, imagination and genuinely engaging moral dilemmas. Despite a couple oddly unexplained plot points (how exactly did he end up in that vent???), Stowaway is head and shoulders above comparable movies (Gravity, I’m looking at you). Kendrick, it turns out, has more skill than I was aware of. Shamier Anderson and Daniel Dae Kim come up strong in supporting roles – look out for them both in the future. Stowaway skips the easy ways out, foregoing aliens, space-crazies and most genre tropes, in favor of a very human drama about a believable crisis in the void.
Settlers – 8
Wyatt Rockefeller’s 2021 sci-fi effort draws a line in the sand, and asks you whether you would cross it. Held together by a moral relativism and Martian realism that may surprise you more than once, Settlers never takes the easy way out. Quality performances from the whole cast, and an understated soundtrack, give the contemplative pace of the film just enough weight and humanity. After watching Settlers, I’m compelled to reexamine the troubles inherent in Eden-like creation mythos. Anything more would be a spoiler.
The Killing of Two Lovers – 7
Clayne Crawford gives a strong anchor performance in the new indie drama from Robert Machoian and Odd Man Out Cinema. Somewhere between Memento, Breaking Bad and Boyhood, The Killing of Two Lovers will actually keep you guessing right up to the end, with it’s surprisingly affective, emotional and unpredictable characters. A believable indie in a rundown suburban world that’s all too familiar, this is yet a refreshing change of pace.
Four Good Days – 8.5
Possibly Mila Kunis’ most impressive serious work, Four Good Days is a difficult and uncompromising examination of the uncertainty involved in overcoming addiction. Glenn Close and Stephen Root are luminous here, despite the heavy, dark emotions inherent throughout. As much as I’ll laud Kunis, it’s Close that carries the movie. If you have been through rehab, or are dealing with an addict, it may be fair to put up a trigger warning. This movie hits close to home, realistic and hard. You may however find some small solace in knowing that you are not alone, that this is exactly what so many unfortunate souls are dealing with, right now.
Ammonite – 8
Severely beautiful, darkly lovely, gently explosive, Ammonite is a lesbian love affair for those who like their movies how they like their rocks: hard, broken and wet. Winslet and Ronan are great actresses even on their down days, and Ammonite serves up a quiet, meditative canvas for them to explore an entire script of body language.
The World To Come – 7.5
Almost as good, Mona Fastvold’s “The World To Come” is every bit the rebellion against foolish patriarchy and forced heterosexuality, similarly slow-burn. Less believable than Ammonite, it’s still nicely shot, staged and scored. Waterston and Kirby have chemistry, and watching them find themselves – by finding each other – was a rare, romantic treat for us both.
Uncle Frank – 8
In a less romanticized way, Uncle Frank is about the same thing. Here we have an all too real portrayal of the pain that gay men (and women) so often endure at the hands of the very people who bring them into the world. Culture may be making strides in the acceptance of alternate lifestyles, but that in no way guarantees a smooth ride for any particular family. Unflinching, straight-talking, Uncle Frank deserves a position of respect in the growing pantheon of LGBT cinema.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters – 8
I was going to do a pan of Godzilla vs Kong, its brainless “plot,” terrible choreography and inconsistent effects, but I’d rather just tell you to watch KotM instead. GvK went over fine with the Marvel crowd, but there was hardly a redeeming element anywhere in it. If you can’t die without seeing Kong scratch his ass and change size repeatedly with no regard for physics, that’s your movie. A few decent actresses doing their best are hardly enough reason to suffer through it. Watch King of the Monsters (2019) to get your kaiju fix like a pro. The biggest, baddest monster movie, probably of all time, KotM not only has technically awesome effects, it actually does amazing things with them. It’s Godzilla, sure, so there’s a handful of ridiculous plot points no doubt. But setting aside the nonsense of insta-travel around the Earth, this is about as close to a serious kaiju flick as has ever been made. Solid performances and intelligent filming abound. Zhang Ziyi, I will follow you anywhere. Millie Bobbie Brown does her thing without becoming a caricature, and Vera Farmiga brings actual emotion to the battle for mankind’s future. Mothra is amazing. The themes of man-made disaster prevalent throughout Godzilla’s history have never been more palpably presented. Nothing beats Rodan in the skies above that volcano, taking jets in its talons with all the ferocity of an ancient calamity awakened. Except maybe Ghidorah itself. The sense of scale here is unrivaled by any other film in the giant-monster genre. I only hope you’re watching on a TV large enough to hold them.
No One Gets Out Alive – 7.5
2021’s horror offerings are like the Mississippi river – shallow and wide. Scares, like beauty, lose their meaning quickly when reduced to a formula, so the commodification of Hollywood tends to strip them bare. From Halloween to Stranger Things, success breeds self-imitation, kills originality, and nothing great tends to stay that way for long. In this environment I thought I’d throw a thumbs up out there for No One Gets Out Alive, Netflix’s latest offering in creative horror. This isn’t Squid Game, thankfully, it’s gory but it’s not just gore porn. With plenty of jump scares and smashed faces, it won’t fail to get your blood pumping, but thanks to a surprisingly solid cast of nobodies (who may not be nobodies for long – Cristina Rodlo I’m looking at you) and a sweet, weird original creature design, No One Gets Out Alive comes out ahead of the pack. It’s no Suspiria (2018), but good, scary fun all the same.
Living In the Future’s Past – 9
We are a part of a superorganism, and we never really see the big picture. A state of plenty can have unintended consequences. It is a paradox of our times.
Among the best environmental documentaries, Susan Kucera’s “Living in the Future’s Past” (2018) is more than literate, it’s brilliant and timely. Jeff Bridges narrates like the wise grandfather we all wish we had, and the parade of experts on display don’t just know their stats, they understand them. This should be required viewing in every school and household, honestly. Unafraid to use the languages of addiction and real ecology, it’s streaming free on Roku as I write this.
China’s Ballooning Cities – 8
For a student of modern anthropology, Jorg Daniel Hissen’s 2015 documentary is a must-watch. Don’t be surprised if you experience a bit of vertigo as you explore China’s megacities, from Shanghai to Ningbo and beyond. You could fit Denver into a single block in these unbelievable but real, sprawling, skyscraping landscapes, and for the average westerner who hasn’t been exposed in this kind of depth, watching this artful and insightful documentary is going to change your perspective on everything from your own national identity to the real impact we’re all having on the natural world. Walking a difficult line between critique and awe, China’s Ballooning Cities is the definitive tour of today’s urbanized China, and the dystopia waiting for us all, right around the bend.
Animaniacs – 9
(I just found out there’s a 2nd new season of Animaniacs debuting tomorrow! This review covers everything prior to that, unless I update and change this notice.)
Lockdown without Animaniacs would’ve been like a waffle cone without ice cream, so I have to advise you to go ahead and renew your Hulu subscription, if you have the means. You may even consider going without your medication . . .
Never would’ve thought I’d say that, a couple years back when all they had going was Modern Family and AFV – I mean I’ve seen all the Simpsons – but do what you will, even corporate TV studios hit it right once in a while. And here’s to being thankful when they do.
The new season of Animaniacs is not a reboot, retool, or rebrand. It’s a bona-fide new season of Animaniacs, done very much in the spirit of the classic, without an ugly modernization of the art style or terrible new voiceovers, and that is just about enough to have me landing on my knees in prayer, to be honest. From Duck Tales to Looney Toons, similar remakes have fallen worse than flat just about every time, coming out with soulless, zombie versions of beloved classics. So when Animaniacs knocked it, if not out of the park entirely then at least to 3rd base, I watched every episode more than twice.
Zany, irreverent, sarcastic and witty, the Warner Brothers and their Warner Sister come at you with timing, funny, fresh, and most importantly full of life, animated in a style that maintains the quality, frame rate and colors of the original, even if it is clearly done on a computer.
The second string of characters is completely erased and replaced by a series of shorts that are in a strangely random, entirely different style – exactly what they managed to avoid with the main segments. They are so bad, even, as to warrant a half point dock from a perfect score on this review of the whole series. Who the hell managed to OK that? It looks and feels nothing like the original. Where are my Goodfeathers?! What I wouldn’t give to see Katie Kaboom given the modern treatment, and put her dad on his ass where he belongs . . .
Luckily most of the new season focuses on the never ending exploits of those wacky Warners, and they’re great. Their songs have rhythm, their jokes have bite – if you don’t love the Animaniacs at least a little bit, I’m not sure we can be friends. Mature enough for a grown audience (most of the time), and cheerful enough for the kiddos, this is the gold standard for afternoon animation. Disney, are you taking notes? No, you’re a chicken disguised as a studio these days . . . Adult Swim? I know you like to go on after midnight, but still, animation matters! At least it does to me.
It gets better. That new season stands at the head of a freaking magnum opus of crackling imagination the likes of which has rarely been known. 99 episodes fill the original series absolutely to bursting with the antics of Pinky and the Brain, the Goodfeathers and Mindy’s dog. Pinky and the Brain themselves had two separate series to their name, including an entire crossover series with Elmyra. Because Elmyra, that little Duff, if you didn’t know was created by the same studio. And so was all of Tiny Toons Adventures. So yes, Hulu has those right now too. 98 episodes over 3 seasons chronicle the mishaps, crushes, and yes, educations of the wackiest little toons ever to attend a cartoon university. They may be mostly pint-sized redraws of the Looney icons, but this sassy pink bunny and her cadre of misfit friends are as entertaining as anything Mel Blanc or Merrie Melodies ever put together. Hampden and Plucky, Dizzy Devil duckie, Montana Max has money, and Go Go is insane . . . there’s more heart to this crew than Dexter, House, and ER combined (nothing against them though).
Among the rare complaints, you’re going to want to mute that intro sometimes if you’re binging the series. I recommend muting the whole damn thing occasionally, like during breakfast so you can maintain some “normal” human relations. Eat some cereal. Drink some coffee. You don’t need to turn it “off.” Just turn it down for a few now and then or you’re going to start looking and sounding a little toonish yourself. Beware the all too real risk of getting the various theme songs stuck in your head to a point that you can’t fall asleep. It’s rare torture to lay awake at night with no choice but to keep humming about Acme Looniversity until you scream . . . or your partner screams.
In fact, if you can make it through the whole series, no matter how long that takes, and your relationship is intact, it probably means you’re meant to be together. Always. But you won’t be the same. Between us, there’s a remarkably wide range of circumstances that warrant beginning a story with “As far back as I can remember . . .”
Pinky and the Brain in their own show is almost entirely up to form compared to their supporting gigs, which are worthy of animation legend time and time again. Unique, ridiculous and totally loveable, even their crossover series with Elmyra is worth the watch. Or by the time you’re that deep, you’ll be senseless to know the difference.
Tiny Toons has a few movies too, did I mention that? They called them “Specials” back then, those cute little TV execs in the 90s.
So I’m not sure really if this review will tell you more about the Animaniacs, or about me, in the end. I guess my secret is out. I can’t wait for another season (Tiny Toons is rebooting now too, I see! Can’t help but be apprehensive though). Can they maintain the near-perfect nonsense/integrity balance that made all this so damn good? I would kill to hear Dot perform some Yeats (though I’m not holding my breath for it, as Warner-ish as that would be of me). Parts of it are dated, there are a few jokes that are straight up rude from a modern perspective, but surprisingly not very much. I can see how some viewers would consider it a bit immature, to enjoy over 200 episodes of afterschool animation at this level, but from my angle it’s an entirely different beast than that. OK, the Simpsons has over 700 episodes, I know, we’re not going for that crown. But in the world of animation, if these interlocking series of the planet of the Warner Brothers (and their Warner Sister) isn’t one of the royal achievements, I’ll eat whatever Wacko is having for lunch.
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