INVINCIBLE s01

It’s tough to really discuss what sets this apart from any other coming-of-age superpowered story without utterly spoiling the thing that sets it apart.

So more generally I can say that it has fun takes on a lot of well-worn tropes and has a couple of refreshing things to say on the way these sorts of stories play out.

The voice cast is incredible and the action is visceral, even if the animation outside of the grand set pieces can tend to sway on the cheaper side. Still, it didn’t detract.

You’ll know if you’re on board by the time the credits on the first episode finish rolling.

Absolutely not for kids.

Recommended.

SPOILERS AHEAD

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LOVECRAFT COUNTRY s01 (2020)

A total masterstroke of modern genre television.

Less the Cthulhu mythos elements of Lovecraft’s stories, but rather taking small, weird tales of scifi, cosmic horror, occult organisations, time/space travel and wrapping them all in post-Korean wartime black United States.

So of course, all the supernatural darkness and horror that comes with the magical side of things is frequently less terrifying, threatening and horrible than the everyday racism the protagonists face in their ordinary lives.

It’s brilliantly done. Each episode takes this lens and focuses it through the tone and genre of classic pulp novels — one time a haunted house, one time an artefact heist adventure, one time a body-swapping life-in-their-shoes story, one time a time-travelling historical lesson, one time a mythological fable crossed with a wartime romance.

The cast and their performances are fantastic, the VFX are cinematic quality (not to mention impressively visceral and disgusting) while the choices to use anachronistic modern elements of black culture only serve to further elevate and enhance the experience.

There’s just so, so much packed into only ten episodes that it puts many other shows to shame with both its ambition and execution.

Highly, highly recommended.

THE THIRD DAY (2020)

A decent entry into the “creepy isolated cult” sub-genre, told with plenty of breathing room over six episodes.

Not as fantastical as I was hoping it would turn out, but nonetheless a fairly effective thriller told in two parts: three days (episodes) each of someone arriving on the island of Osea and things getting progressively worse for them, they things tend to do when you ignore all signs telling you to leave immediately.

Of course, the causeway connecting the island to the mainland floods over with the tide so the windows of escape are always narrow, but it’s often hard to sympathise with someone who sees creepy, bloody paintings on the exteriors of buildings and gets extremely chilly vibes from the locals and doesn’t just nope right the hell out of there immediately. There were too many points, especially in the second half where I was yelling “Fuck this place! LEAVE DAMMIT!!” at the television and yet the characters always managed to miss their chances to escape again and again.

Unfortunately, it does a bit more telling rather than showing us why this place holds such mythic portent. We hear it a lot but it’s never really explained or justified why it’s special or how it’s special.

In the end it comes down to the two leads of each of the sections (titled “Summer” and “Winter” ), and their emotional through-lines are what keeps it from falling off the rails thanks to Jude Law, Naomie Harris and the excellent supporting cast. Much is shot in a disorienting, uncomfortably close style that makes the character journeys harrowing and anxious to follow.

Supposedly there was an interim “Autumn” section which was broadcast as a 12-hour single-take live event between the two parts during the Osea festival that we only saw the lead up to and the fallout from in the show itself. It does feel as though something is missing, though if I hadn’t looked it up you’d never know it was missing.

For me it didn’t quite tip over into being really excellent, since something like Midsommar or the original Wicker Man handled similar material in a much more unsettling way.

Still, it’s a pretty decent little thriller, I was just expecting some elevation or reinvention of the genre when all it was offering was a good execution on worn ideas with nothing dramatic to reveal at the end.

WANDAVISION (2021)

A solid start to the MCU’s new Disney+ arm.

A little slow to start for the first two or so episodes, but quickly gets comfortable playing with its concept and pushes what’s expected of a superhero show out into some interesting directions.

I’ll save the big plot twists and geekery for a spoiler section after the click-through, but safe to say there’s some solid easter eggs and fan service woven into it all.

If you’re not familiar with much of the Marvel universe there’s still a decent amount to enjoy in the satirisation of various television sitcoms over the years, and at its heart it’s fundamentally about Wanda and her sadness. If anything it could have stood to lean a little harder on the sitcom tropes, since there was a lot of good material in the supporting cast that felt a little shoved aside when the main arc needed to wrap up.

Great supporting cast, Paul Bettany imbues The Vision with a wonderful humanity, and extra accolades must go out to Elizabeth Olsen for such a multi-faceted performance anchoring it all together.

Hard to say what got shuffled out in terms of the larger MCU tie-ins since the release schedule was scrambled last year, but it’s a worthy addition to the canon and bodes well for the D+ series going forward.

Criticisms and larger discussions are pretty spoilery so consider yourself warned:

SPOILERS AHEAD

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THE OUTSIDER (2020)

Stephen King really has a way with small towns and supernatural murder.

Based on the book of the same name (which I haven’t read), it tracks the investigation into what at first seems like a very clear cut murder that quickly starts to escalate and destroy the community.

Tone and cinematography are appropriately unnerving, casting is excellent. Pacing is slow, but it works in its favour, taking its time to chew on each twist and let things unfold.

It’s all very Stephen King, and definitely one of his stronger ones, though the horror aspects fade out a little in the second half. Still, the characters are compelling and the mystery is well constructed.

Slow burn, recommended.

TED LASSO — s01 (2020)

For a show that’s framed around an American football coach moving to the UK to coach soccer it’s really about everything except that.

There’s an infectious earnestness and shameless good-natured bent it all that you can’t help but get invested in. And damn if the relentless optimism doesn’t just get in there and warm you up.

One of the McElroy brothers (Travis?) said something to the effect of “don’t punch down, don’t punch up, just don’t punch” and nothing embodies that idea so perfectly as Ted Lasso. It’s mature, kind, compassionate and manages to do it with fantastic emotional intelligence while also being anti-cynical and effortlessly hilarious.

I was often suprised, and always pleasantly, to find where it had chosen to place its narrative conflicts and how it chose to resolve them. As such it very quickly works to undermine your expectations of cheap drama for drama’s sake. This show has no interest in playing that way and it’s honestly all the more a ray of sunshine because of it, but what’s more is because it’s not burning up time trying to force conflict in everywhere it becomes entirely about mediation and accountability, and it gives the characters more time to just be.

After the absolute bastard that was 2020 it’s refreshing to watch something that actually just makes you feel good and Ted Lasso knocks it out of the park. Everyone needs a Ted in their corner.

The good news is this has already been renewed for three seasons. I understand why this topped so many peoples’ lists from last year. Do yourself a favour and get on it.

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.

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!

THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR (2020)

The ‘Haunting of…’ series really has a lock on what a ghost story traditionally is — more a melancholic tone of trapped souls and tragedy than sudden loud noises and cheap jump scares.

This is the kind of horror that seeps into your dreams, but the more time spent in the manor the less frightening these ghosts are and the sadder the memories of their stories become.

The same tricks abound as the first season — figures lurking unnoticed in the background, a pervasive sense of dread, overlapping narratives. Production design is excellent, the cast is fantastic, the ghosts are unsettling and sad.

Not as scary as the first season, and much slower, but the anthology setup is definitely a winner. I’m always keen to see what Mike Flanagan comes up with next.

Enjoyed it, nice to have a little closure on the bad dreams too.