“Juice: How Electricity Explains the World,” directed by Tyson Culver and co-written by him and Robert Bryce, is a scintillating and captivating tale about a seemingly dreary topic: electricity. Narrated by author Bryce, who travels to Colorado, Iceland, India, New York, Lebanon, and Puerto Rico, with assured enthusiasm, the film’s thesis is simple: electricity is the key to prosperity, present and future. Each of the locations hammers home an aspect of this thesis, and they’re a stunning sequence of case studies, from impoverished peoples, to a hurricane-induced blackout, to bitcoin merchants, to ganja growers. All the various talking heads are wonderfully captured. The script is a zinger and Culver’s direction is modern-day magic, ratcheting up the pace, pleasing the eye and ear, and providing a rock-firm narrative grip. “Juice” derives from Bryce’s just-released book, “A Question of Power,” but it is significantly leaner and all the better for it. Some of the film’s policy-tilted views, such as espousing nuclear energy, can be argued with, but more so with the book; “Juice” offers its prescriptive advice as a minor subplot. And the film’s core thrust is indubitably true. The future of the globally warming world lies in electrifying almost everything and moving to carbon-free electricity sources, and “Juice” offers an invaluable message to us all. But don’t go see this movie for its gospel, go catch it, wherever you can and as soon as you can, as an exemplar of story and film-making.
Set in the boondocks of the Star Wars universe, at a time that becomes established over the course of its eight episodes, “The Mandelorian” is a flagship Disney+ project that is immensely entertaining. The hero is The Mandelorian (actually one of a clan of such), a bounty hunter clad in dark shiny armour and bedecked with weapons. This is Shane meets Star Wars, and the early episodes, mostly standalone stories involving specific bounty targets, are the most satisfying. Pedro Pascal plays the lead role with a satisfying deep metallic voice. Only gradually does the overall arc of the plot, involving a baby creature, reveal itself, and how “The Mandelorian” meshes into the Star Wars story then emerges. The action scenes and the gritty flight scenes on varied planets are beautifully orchestrated. I savored the “slow plot” development of the Mandelorian’s character. All is not perfect. The old-style orchestral soundtrack, while consistent with the Star Wars music I recall (I’m a much lapsed ex-fan) is irritatingly shallow. And the more complicated plot over the second half of the series loses some momentum. But if you love the Western cowboy ethos on screen, “The Mandelorian” will delight.
The first noticeable aspect of the eight-part animated series “Undone” is its animation technique, somehow slightly “off” but capable of more emotion than Pixar’s perfection. It turns out this is “rotoscoping,” in which the actors perform their scenes and animators draw over them. All I can say is that it is stunning and grips ones attention. “Undone” is a science fiction tale of a disillusioned, possibly schizophrenic young woman who survives a terrible car crash and subsequently embarks on a quest to solve the mystery of her father’s death many years ago. And get this: her father now visits her in visions. The plot involves drama but also many small-scale subplots that combine into a most intriguing tale. Each short episode, around twenty minutes, works well, and the overall arc is gripping. Rosa Salazar stuns in the lead role and Bob Odenkirk does a star turn as the father. Who would have thought an animated sci-fi head trip movie would be one of 2019’s stronger offerings?
The Michael Moore documentaries were always as disheveled as he is but at least in the early days they aimed at targets easy to hit, requiring little work. Over time they’ve grown even more cheap and nasty. This one isn’t even narrated by Moore but by director/writer Jeff Gibbs, and he is a surly non-raconteur. “Planet of the Humans” shows no coherent plotline but flails at modern environmentalism, which Gibbs believes has been corrupted. The movie concludes portentously at nihilism backed by population control. The renewable energy sector can roll with the punches here, chiefly because Gibbs offers up tawdry images and false facts seemingly taken from the playbook of the fossil fuel industry (although biomass may well be a legitimate target, from my state of knowledge). But the chief problem with “Planet of the Humans” is not the content, risible though much of it may be, the chief problem is an unintelligent lack of narrative coherence or drive. Most scenes are trivially boring and the constant lurches between “on the spot subversive reporting” and lurid, pointless imagery is exhausting. If this isn’t the worst movie I watch in 2020, I don’t know what will be.
For some reason the British excel at conspiracy thrillers and “The Capture,” a six-part series written and directed by Ben Chasan, is as devious and troubling as any. When a British soldier (played convincingly by Callum Turner), recently released from prison after a sensational trial, finds himself framed for a kidnapping that plays out on CCTV footage, an ambitious, smart policewoman (a terrific performance from Holliday Grainger) sets out to track him down, only to discover all is not as it seems. I found the second episode flat but from then on, the plot roars with twists of flamboyant outrageousness. Like the darkest thrillers of the 1970s and 1980s, the murky reality is revealed, time and time again, to mask further complexity and horror. For a plot-driven movie, the directing and cinematography are razor sharp, and all the supporting actors never put a foot wrong. “The Capture” might not, in the end, have you worried about the world (the plot is way over the top) but it captures a paranoid mood we all sense today. You will definitely ache to binge this one.
“Medical Police” should be anathema right now, a bioterrorism/pandemic spoof making light of our lockdown and the plight of Covid-19 sufferers, but the ten-part series is so silly in plot that considerations of rectitude do not apply. And it is tremendously funny. To summarise the show’s premise, two hospital pediatricians are thrust into a battle to trace and cure a terrorist-delivered global virus. Very much descended from Flying High, it’s the nonsensical disjunctive segues in each scene that bring out the chuckles and, surprisingly often, the belly laughs. The two main actors, Errin Hayes and Rob Huegel, are the key comedians, and they are pitch perfect, backed by a stellar crew of supporting actors who flesh out the loopy goodies and baddies. Direction is crisp and intelligent, the action scenes are wonderfully choreographed, and nothing is labored. If you’re after gags and jokes, “Medical Police” might be just your next binge.
“Modern Love” sounds too twee to work: based on a New York Times’ column of the same name, bittersweet Big Apple-based parables illustrate that concept. But the eight episodes form a mosaic of gentle narratives crafted exquisitely. Although written and directed by a flotilla, a sense of unity pervades, no doubt instilled by the affectionate cinematography of Yaron Orbach, which casts the metropolis as its own character. The stories, too, ring genuinely true: a doorman cares for a young pregnant woman; two older folks meet while jogging; a gay couple and a nomadic mum carrying their baby; a near-broken marriage and what keeps it together; and so on. Predictably, the ensemble cast is strong but many of the actors transcend their short roles, notably Dev Patel and Anne Hathaway. Yes, “Modern Love” is sentimental, but it is unashamedly so, and the result is a gentle series that leaves a firm mark.
Captivated by Episodes 2 to 4 of “The Boys,” after an opening episode that titillated rather than thrilled, I approached the second half of Season 1 (the second season is on the way) with caution. What I experienced was nothing cathartic but rather a chaotic ride through a careening plot that smacked of impromptu decisions but nonetheless worked really well. Each episode advances the complex tale while developing a few of the characters’ stories. The acting remains consistent throughout and action scenes are spectacular. At the start of the series, the core character was reluctant anti-superhero battler Hughie (acted so well by Jack Quaid), in the middle the story of head vigilante Billy Butcher (Keith Urban in fine, roughshod form) took over, and what surprised me is that the arch villain of the overall tale, the king superhero Homelander (played with icy subtlety by Antony Starr) comes into his own towards the end, revealing subtleties in his character that ensure the climax is spectacular and surprising. Overall, the eight-episode Series is neither slick nor wholly realized, but is a striking, leftfield, adventure-filled ride. Recommended.
Bill Gates the tech pioneer was a fascinating character but now that he’s a billionaire philanthropist, are we interested? “Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates” makes the best case that yes, Gates continues to not only do stellar thinking work but can make a difference with his philanthropic billions. Documentary maker Guggenheim tells the tale over three episodes, interweaving his own open-ended chats with Gates (including a country ramble), Gates’s childhood, the history of Gates with wife Melinda, and three philanthropic goals – sewage control in third world countries; the eradication of polio; and the development of futuristic small nuclear reactors. I knew quite a bit about Gates and the childhood-Microsoft strand struck me as fully true. What impressed me is how true Gates remains to his geeky self. He still immerses himself in subjects with panoramic, fully in-depth reading, a tactic I like myself. The few moments of revealed emotion are genuinely touching. Overall, Guggenheim tackles a tough subject with digging empathy and intelligent staging, and I believe this documentary will stand the test of time as an insight into one superb geek’s impact over his lifetime.
Ruining the screen conversion of the original book version of “Good Omens,” which tumbles through the eons into a modern tale of Armageddon, would have been easy. A magical creation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, the book was a wild concoction of fancy and word play and mythology and theology. Screwing up the plot, taking just one misstep with the pacing, or casting clunkers as the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale … so much could have gone wrong, and, based on the screen history of much-loved books, the portents were uneasy. But I can report that the sumptuous six-part series, with script in the hands of Gaiman and an able direction by Douglas Mackinnon, is not only faithful, but entertains and delights throughout. Michael Sheen, always at least competent, acts a blinder as Aziraphale, and David Tennant is even more brilliant in the role of Crowley. A stellar, on-song supporting cast, rousing music from David Arnold, and ravishing scenes from cinematographer Gavin Finney, all lift the dominant two roles into a minor triumph of film-making. I’d forgotten how imaginative the original book was, imbued especially with Pratchett’s oblique sense of humour, and the galloping plot development makes for a watching treat. Go no further, viewers.