The first triumphant season of “Legion” amazed me and left me hankering for more. I’ve come to Season 2 later than I’d have liked and as always, the first question is: what does the first episode presage?
Well, the first quarter hour bewilders, plain bewilders (so here’s the advice plain and simple: watch Season 1 beforehand), but in the magical way the series’ gun writers (presumably overseen by brilliant Noah Hawley) have of forcing suspension of judgement. David Haller, the psychologically wrecked man who turned out to possess superpowers of amazing scope, emerges after a year of absence in yet another of those government labs/strongholds. What has he been doing? How will he help, willingly or unwillingly, to track down the Shadow King, the superpower horror at the heart of Season 1 and at the heart of Haller’s abilities and psychosis?
Dan Stevens is once more superb as Haller, Rachel Keller is even more coy yet steely than in the first season, and the number of wonderful supporting actors, scene by captivating scene, is too great to permit mention of any except Bill Irwin and David Selby. The cinematography and set design are visually intoxicating; I can’t forget a riveting scene of dancing in a disco!
At the end of Episode 1, I’m back in the Legion Earth-world, slightly less puzzled than at the start, and I cannot wait until I see Episode 2 tonight.
A romantic comedy sprawled across eye candy tourist sites in the Northern Territory promises at the very least to refresh the eye, and Wayne Blair, the director of “Top End Wedding” delivers with some airy, delightful road trip scenes. A feature co-written by Joshua Tyler and Miranda Tapsell, who also stars as the prospective bride trying to track down her walkabout mother, this straightforward film mucks the viewer around a bit, confusing drama with comedy and vice versa, but in the end delivers a breezy feelgood tale. Gwilym Lee brings fresh-faced brio to his role as the quippy fiancé and the other supporting roles work fine. If the plot lags and can feel prosaic, I did enjoy the way the indigenous family and cultural aspects were treated with respect. And yes, I laughed in a couple of spot, and that’s ample for modern rom-com. Simple but not quite simplistic, “Top End Wedding” is perky froth.
What a sparkling half year of viewing, with 6 movies/shows rating 8/10, all of them fine, but even more impressive, 5 TV/streaming series and 1 film rating 9/10 (or higher!). Don’t hesitate to binge on any of them!
“Berlin Station Season 3,” set in Estonia, with a setup fresh out of our present day, is furiously paced and captivating. Espionage has never been so sharp.
“Russian Doll” is a tour de force for Natasha Lyonne but she’s not the main attraction, which is the stunning Groundhog-Day-in-the-modern-era plotline.
Julien Faraut’s “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” is as quirky as all-get-up but as a study of the genius and rage of McEnroe is riveting.
No series does dread and relentless detecting as well as “Cardinal” and Season 3 is the best yet.
Sometime genius Ricky Gervais hits the mother lode with the sentimental, yet sharp comedy “After Life.”
A perfect score of 10/10 for Craig Mazin’s pitch-perfect game changer of a disaster doco, “Chernobyl.”
“The Reports on Sarah and Saleem” is a first for me, a Palestinian drama from Muayad Alayan that I eagerly anticipated. Set in the streets of Jerusalem, often framed against the sky like a character in its own right, the charged tale is of a casual affair between Palestinian delivery man Saleem (portrayed in rough fashion by Adeeb Safadi) and Israeli café owner Sarah (a confident role, if not always convincing, from Sivane Kretchner). The trouble is, he’s one and she’s the other, and he has a pregnant wife and she is married, with child, to an Israeli colonel. Discovery sends their worlds into a spiral. Alayan milks the initial cat and mouse story of discovery for tension, and that works well, but to me, the public and private unwinding came across as clumsy and less than fraught. The intricacies of all the cross-cultural and nationalistic subtleties were fascinating. So … an intriguing and occasionally tense window into modern Israel.
Doesn’t the world shine more brightly with imaginative tales like “The Umbrella Academy” out there? I rated the first episode highly and went into the next four episodes expecting the earth. And the freshness of the concept, the sparkling acting (if in the first episode I was drawn to Tom Hopper, Ellen Page and Aidan Gallagher, over these four hours I grew to admire Robert Sheehan as dissolute Klaus, David Castaneda as blade-throwing Diego, and Cameron Britton as jaded enforcer Hazel), the lush props, and the brilliant orchestration of action, all of these were admirable. Yet I couldn’t help but shake my head as the plot veered from crazy-neat to plodding and back again. By Episode 5, I queried my commitment, but that episode corrects course and offers intriguing developments in the offing. So … I’ve been tested over the season’s opening half but remain optimistic that the concept’s fresh premise and filmic chops will bear fruit over the second half.
To everyone’s surprise, the “Chernobyl HBO mini-series” hit the streaming world with a bang. Who would have thought a five-hour reprise of the world’s worst nuclear accident, way back in 1986, would enthrall non-specialist viewers? But it has caught on for one reason: it is an exemplary example of movie making. The subject matter is “on song” to me (I’m writing a history of nuclear reactors) but even I was swept up by a combination of a riveting, theme-soaked script, careful period scene-setting, impeccable casting and acting, and even a weird atonal soundtrack. Over five hours, it is impossible to both “get the whole damned thing essentially accurate” and “follow the original chronology completely faithfully,” and fortunately creator/writer Craig Mazin has opted for the former approach, which works in a deeply holistic way. (If you’ve a completist bent, do yourself the added favor of listening to Mazin chatting with Peter Sagal on the accompanying “The Chernobyl Podcast” episode after each episode viewing.) Johan Renck’s direction is meticulous and infused with purpose. The script zings! Jared Harris nails the lead character Legasov but Stellen Skarsgard almost steals the show as Soviet strongman Shcherbina. “Chernobyl” is a must-see (it’s my only 10/10 rating since Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road“) about a subject that remains pertinent.
This second season of “Killing Eve” has been a bit of a seesaw. The first episode almost stops me in my tracks); fortunately the next three episodes plunge deliciously onwards. What then of the season’s second split, the final four episodes, which could be the show’s finale (though I gather Season 3 is promised)? In Episode 5 the plot twitches laterally, with Villanelle co-opted as an ally, a relationship fraught with murky double-cross possibilities. By Episode 6, she and Eve are enmeshed in a terrifying joint operation that delights Villanelle, who seems to be reeling Eve into her world, and simultaneously thrills and terrifies Eve, who no longer knows quite what she is. Sandra Oh remains flawless in her portrayal of Eve but it’s Jodie Comer who shines in what is perhaps the performance of the year, at once whip smart and always on the edge of capricious violence. The dialogue throughout these episodes never misses a beat, the support actors are terrific (special mention to Henry Lloyd-Hughes as super creepy nerdy tycoon Aaron Peel), and the direction and cinematography are tight without showiness. By the start of the final episode, we know all will upend, and it does, in a wonderful aslant way that leads naturally into yet another sequel. Pleasingly, the climax heralds yet another twist in the duality of the Eve-Villanelle quasi love affair. Summing up, Season 2 rivals Season 1, both triumphing as compelling, kinetic modern cinema.
For his follow-up to the 2015 doco hit “That Sugar Film,” Damon Gameau tackles the most open, most challenging topic of all: climate change. “2040” is his unabashedly positive global search for technologies and solutions which he claims are readily available right now. Using a quirky lens of zooming forward to 2040, when his daughter will be 25, he travels the world to find positive messages, expound their virtues, and then cinematically imagine them into life in 2040. The big picture ideas he exhumes include electricity microgrids, driverless electric vehicles, soil regeneration, Raworth’s “doughnut economics,” seaweed permaculture, carbon sequestration, education/empowerment of women (to reduce population growth), and the use of energy dashboards. The movie is artfully constructed and none of the tech stuff drags. Gameau himself is an engaging tour guide and his cast of do-gooders and smart folks is terrific. Viewers can argue about the achievability of any or all of these ideas, but the overall vibe of the film – that plenty of positive possibilities can be harnessed – is infectious. We all know the Doctor Doom scenarios. What we need is motivation, and Gameau’s film is a cool blast of human hope.
Such a blast! The second half of “Black Earth Rising” accelerates and coheres and thunders to its climax. I loved the opening episode, enjoyed the next three (but felt the story drifted), and was most delighted to witness the pace pick up thereafter. The plot darkens and twists and the locale shifts from UK and France to include Rwanda itself. Abena Ayivor now shines as the Rwandan president and Lucian Msmati is wonderful as her offsider. The turbulent interplay between Kate Ashby and Michael Ennis is a special treat. And the shocks and epiphanies Kate experiences dovetail perfectly with the sinuous plot. A special series that explores issues of good and evil, even while it entertains.
Superhero movies are not for everyone, but if you love them or are an occasional partaker, let me, from the outset, reassure you. “Avengers: Endgame” is not bad. It’s a satisfactory treat. Someone told me recently that there have been 22 films in the Marvel franchise, a factoid I haven’t bothered checking, and I estimate I’ve seen about half of them, so I’m not a rabid fan (and Endgame is tastiest for such fans) and I was adequately scooped up and carried through three hours. Recent Marvel movies such as “Thor: Ragnarok” were appalling, inlaid with idiotic script slabs or dialogue, but the Russos oversee a solid, sometimes ingenious, plotline, and the characters are expertly drawn by a super-stellar cast. In saying that, only Robert Downey Jr. triumphs in his role of Iron Man (one of my favorite superheroes in my comic books days of half a decade ago); Jeremy Brenner also shines as Hawkeye; the rest intelligently at least rarely put a foot wrong. The grand narrative pictures our world halved in population by super-super-villain Thanos and the mighty Avengers needing to take huge risks to redress this situation. The action scenes are mega and kinetic and impressive. All up, a fine paean to the Marvel world, except for two notable flaws. Firstly, Alan Silvestri’s swelling orchestral music reminded me why I left the middle of last century behind. And Chris Evans redefines wooden with his Captain America performance. Take the kids, okay? Don’t expect revelation, but.