DA FIVE BLOODS (2020)

First and foremost, it’s hard to to address the posthumous presence of Chadwick Boseman as the long-departed leader of the titular Bloods — a young man taken well before his time.

The choice to have him remain the only youthful member of the cast makes his ghost loom large, since the remaining cast are all portrayed by their older selves in all the flashbacks to the Vietnam/American War.

Which is not to say he overshadows things at all. The other four Bloods all put in great performances. I’ll always appreciate the absurdly charismatic Clarke Peters (THE WIRE/TREMÉ) being put front and centre, and Delroy Lindo drops a showstopper of a performance.

Turns out, returning to Vietnam decades after the war to retreive buried gold has the consequence of dragging up old traumas. Whodathunk?

Scattered throughout are horrifying archival clips and stills, as well as Spike Lee’s own personally curated lessons in Black History around the men who went to war to prove they were true citizens of the United States only to find themselves used up and discarded.

It’s long one, almost two whole films of runtime split fairly neatly either side of the recovery of the gold at the unmarked grave of their former troop leader (Boseman). The pacing can feel bogged down in places even when it feels like a condensed version of an even more sprawling, structurally novelistic tale. This would make for a fantastic book — to the point where I had to keep checking if it was actually based on something (it’s not, other than true accounts of the war Lee researched while making it).

None of that is to be taken as complaint, mind. It’s a frequently uncomfortable look at the consequence of a war decades on, and of the lasting bonds that linger long after everyone has gone home, learned to live with their nightmares and become old.

Recommended.

SOUL (2020)

All the emotional storytelling you’ve come to expect from Pixar wrapped up in stunningly brilliant abstracted visuals and perfect sound design.

In a lot of ways it presents as Ratatouille for music, but it has much more to offer while still keeping a light enough touch that you never feel clubbed over the head by its themes.

The otherwordly soundtrack and score is fantastic (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross doing a Pixar film?!) and the visual design (especially around the astral elements) is absolutely gorgeous.

Of course, you already assume that, going into one of these, and I’m happy to report the quality is strong and rich as ever.

Of the two or three major cinematic releases that dropped to streaming for Xmas this year, this is absolutely the one you should watch.

WONDER WOMAN 1984 (2020)

Eh.

Feels like an 80s movie through and through, from direction to VFX composition, it’s as much the aesthetic of the Donner-era Superman as anything else.

Thing is, there’s some super-sketchy political messaging in there regarding the Middle East, and the final hopeful climax of the film that sees all the people of the world renouncing their wishes to heal the chaos… well, it’s kinda far-fetched for 2020, even in a pulpy superhero film.

The pacing is slow and it treads on its own feet trying to tell you its themes rather than embodying them and there’s really no iconic moments that match the No Man’s Land sequence in the first.

As a blockbuster it’s fine. Serviceable, a bit naïvely optimistic and uncritical of the world it uses as its backdrop and regularly too-convenient in its plot devices. All tell, no show. Even the chemistry between Gadot and Pine is stunted compared to the last round. Pascal looks like he’s having fun, at least.

Dodgy CGI all over the place, but it’s a pandemic film so it’s hard to judge too harshly even though we have television shows with better output this year. Unfortunately it does the same videogame boss battle climax the last one did.

Overall, never really rises above “okay”. Hard to even find a lot to highlight — I watched this just hours ago and it’s already smudged together. Can’t even work up enough passion to rage post about it.

Probably skip it.

TENET (2020)

What a mess.

Ok, positive first: The soundtrack slaps. The performances are all excellent. The execution of the practical effects and the stunts are great.

But…

The sound mixing is, BY FAR, the worst I’ve heard in a blockbuster, possibly ever. Action scenes are thunderously loud even with the volume turned way down, and the dialogue is so quiet we needed subtitles so we weren’t yo-yoing the volume constantly with the remote.

The editing and pacing are an absolute mess. A basic two-shot can cut back and forth to the point where it’s distracting from the dialogue. Which is often a mercy because there’s zero wit or subtext to anything anyone says. The dialogue is mostly flat and purely functional. It’s not fun or engaging.

The first 45min could easily be cut and the same information much more effectively and interestingly disseminated in the rest of the film. Even still the plot moves at a breakneck pace: out of the gate four characters dump five bursts of exposition on you from six locations, none of which especially clarify anything, and things don’t improve from there.

We jump from location to location so fast and characters make decisions that change direction within a sentence of one another with no clear purpose. Nothing breathes, nothing coheres, it feels like someone trying to talk so fast that you won’t notice the huge gaps in the logic of what they’re saying and all the while you’re being told “Keep up! This is very smart!”.

The so-called mechanics of time inversion are wildly inconsistent and unclear. It’s a cool hook of an idea drunkenly explained on the back of a coaster. It’s like someone saw the Hong Kong reverse-time battle in Doctor Strange and thought “Let’s do that but louder, less fun and deliberately much more confusing for some reason”.

There are some good gimmicks here but there’s never any tension to anything. The stakes vary wildly from scene to scene, sometimes even within a single sequence, and at a certain point it’s hard to care because all the cool flashy stuff doesn’t really serve the clever narrative trick Nolan thinks he’s playing. There are MUCH better ways to use all its better elements and not have it feel like a jumbled, convoluted mess.

Hard to tell exactly where in the production line this went off the rails, but at two hours long and absolutely failing to convey anything meaningful besides a few cool shots you can spend your time better elsewhere.

Definitely not worth potentially getting Covid at a cinema for, barely worth sitting through at home.

THE NEW MUTANTS (2020)

It’s hard to tell at what point of this film’s absurdly protracted release things started coming apart — clearly there was a distinct vision at one point and all the mess of its production just muddied that so much that what we got was just sort of a flat, disjointed and indecisive jumble of ideas that don’t cohere together at all.

Nothing in its premise stands up to the slightest bit of scrutiny, and the fact that it’s trying to squeeze five superhero origins and a romance and a horror film and a teen drama all into a tight 94min does nothing any favours at all.

100% would have been better served as a limited TV series where any one of those concepts could have had a moment to breath outside of rushed expository dialogue. As it is, each of the characters gets an introduction, a scene where they Don’t Want To Talk About Their Trauma, a manifestation of said trauma and then a moment of overcoming it in the climactic battle. On paper it sounds like everyone gets an arc but really it’s just a fill-in-the-blanks, paint-by-numbers rollout with zero nuance and a staggering lack of clarity or explanation.

I’m familiar with the comic run it’s based on and even still I struggled to keep focus. Some of the visual effects and design are cool but they’re not in service of anything.

Not even bad enough for a fun drunk watch, just skip it like you would all the late-game X-Men movies that aren’t Logan.

BEHIND THE MASK: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

A slasher film parody/mockumentary that exists in a world where the famous supernatural serial killers not only exist, but that it is a position one can aspire to.

It’s a stroke of genius to see a hopeful slasher legend trying to build his own myth. All the tropes of the genre are accounted for using a combination of training, preparation and tricks right out of a basic magician’s handbook.

Loses a bit of steam when the mockumentary aspect folds into a more traditional horror film arc, but fans of the classics will find a lot to enjoy even if the final execution doesn’t quite live up to the cleverness of its premise.

If you grew up on slasher films, this one’s for you.

LEGION (s01-03)

It’s hard to pin Legion down, since it’s very proudly one of the least superhero-y comicbook-based TV series of the past decade despite being populated by very comicbooky characters and ideas.

It’s more of a psychedelic mind trip through gorgeous production design, S-tier cinematography and a plot and cast of characters that absolutely delight in and embrace all the weirdest things that the genre has to offer.

The cast is clearly having a ball, and it goes to show yet again how underutilised Dan Stevens is in the broader scheme of things.

Sure, there are action sequences and the like, but more often the central conflicts are resolved by compassion and strange conversations and a few times by psychic dance-battles. Oh, and a hippy cult smokes happiness from the udders of a gigantic pig at one point.

Yeah. It’s weird.

And that’s all to the benefit, because it’s not trying to be a regular sort of X-Men show, it’s a character study of a persona fragmented by trauma, wrapped in a dream-like 1960s aesthetic and often a very Lynchian desire to be willfully obtuse.

It’s unsettling and dark at times, gorgeous and strange and wonderful at others. The pacing overall is fairly off-kilter, but if you’re willing to forgive its self-indulgence you’ll find a tonne of reasons to fall in love with it.

It runs just long enough to tie itself up nicely without overstaying, but I wish more shows were this willing to embrace the absurdity of their own premises.

Highly recommended.

RELIC (2020)

A haunted house where the ghosts are the ravages of old age.

Brilliant production design and great performances, a spookfest drawn from slow and creeping dread rather than jumps and frights.

Also great to see yet another solid entry into the quality Australian horror canon — another argument for support of the arts that’s so frequently lacking.

Slow and contemplative, unsettling and sad.

Recommended.

THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY (s02)

Now that introductions and an initial conflict in the first season are out of the way it’s much more fun just to let the characters be themselves… while scattered across the timeline of 1960s Dallas, Texas.

Of course, there’s another apocalypse looming and a trio of time-hopping Swedish assassins to deal with, but really the show shines when it’s letting the family play off and support each other.

Feels a bit more loose and creative this time around, and the soundtrack is bangin’, the whole cast puts in great, hilarious, dysfunctional performances.

A case could be made for spreading the show out over weeks instead of dropping the Netflix binge model all at once, since something like this is fun to keep in conversation rather than to burn through and promptly forget about, but that’s a broader conversation on streaming strategies.

All up, better than the previous season even if the pacing is a little strange at times. If you liked the first one you’ll have a good time again here.

THE BOYS (s02)

Just as bloody, cruel and pointed as season one, but a bigger shift to the humanity of all the characters makes it feel much less nihilistic, and as such it’s more engaging.

I liked the first season plenty, but was curious to see if they slid towards the kinda offputting edgy-for-edgy’s-sake takes on superpowers that the comic does. Glad to say it swings hard in the other direction and improves on its source material in every way.

The whole cast are great, though special credit has to go to Antony Starr’s Homelander — an absolutely terrifying narcissist power-mad Superman analogue, a psychological trainwreck and an absolute monster. There’s good reason why everyone is scared of him.

Otherwise, all the usual crass humour, crude gore and body horror is still present and accounted for, only it’s using also its social satire to actually make points and draw parallels to current headlines.

There is also an extentable, prehensile penis and a whale explosion.

If you’re looking for something light and breezy filled with likeable characters who make good decisions and get happy endings… well… I’m sure you worked out in the first 20min season one that this wasn’t for you.

Otherwise, enjoy the ride!