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.
The first episode of the return of “Killing Eve” was, I felt, flat (see my review). And the second episode simmers for a while, and then … (at last!) Eve’s got another assassin to pursue, injured Villanelle finds sanctuary with a man whose fate we dread, and the lurid express accelerates and, over the first half of the season, never looks back. Sandra Oh is magnificent as combusting Eve and Jodie Comer out-Villanelles her earlier performances, magnetic as petulant, psychotic, and unpredictable as we want her to be. Dread and delight mix as we plunge onwards.
After Life” is, I have decided after storming though to the end, laughing and crying at the same time, Ricky Gervais at his best. Both his writing and acting struck me as flawless. At the end of the first half of the series, I wondered if the enjoyable start could sustain what seemed like a hokey plot, but from Episode 4, the series takes off. All the tropes – grieving Tony’s hapless colleagues, the gormless citizens queuing up to hit the headlines, the mushy friends trying to help – clarify, sharpen, and deepen. If I chuckled during the first three episodes, towards the end I found myself roaring with laughter. And what of the overt sentimentality and the inevitable ending? Gervais handles them masterfully – the pathos and triumph resolve as moving rather than gooey. All the supporting actors are impressive, but kudos especially to Tom Basden as Tony’s brother-in-law (and boss) and Tony Way as slouchy colleague Lenny. Feel-good series rarely work for me but this is a wonderful exception.
“Attenborough’s World of Eggs” first aired over a year ago but it hasn’t hit Australian shores till now, and being a birder, it was a must-see. And that sentiment was not an error, for it’s a stunning one-hour show, full of amazing clips of birds, their eggs, and all the stages from conception to life, plotted in a tight, clever way. Attenborough is at his Attenborough best and if the syrupy music still annoys, it rarely gets in the way. Sublime.
“Black Earth Rising” is a rare thriller, one set in the world of courts of justice after genocide, in this case the horrific Rwandan one in 1994. Episode 1 was a humdinger and I raced through the first half of the series, thoroughly enjoying the weaving plot, the spot-on acting performances (Michaela Coel rises even further in my estimation in the lead role of Kate Ashby), and the slick direction from Hugo Blick. A stunning plot twist at the start of Episode 2 upends the entire story, then lawyer Michael Ennis (with John Goodman warming to the role) using Kate to help with a case. I sensed a slightly confused hiatus about mid-point but that won’t stop me rushing on to the final four episodes. Recommended.
Having accorded the first episode of this new season of “Cardinal” an exemplary rating, does the remainder of the first half of the season measure up? I’m happy to report that it does. In fact these three episodes form a seamless whole of growing dread. The initial murders mystify even more but John Cardinal and Lise Delorme take a few steps forward, and then the killers introduce themselves to us, and they’re as frightening as all the villains of the series have been. And in the meantime Cardinal pursues his hidden project concerning his dead wife. It’s a heady, unremittingly bleak brew that pushes the viewer to continue, if only to relieve the tension.
As with the second series, the third series of “Cardinal” kicks off with a simmer rather than boil, but my deep immersion in the first two seasons allows me to luxuriate in the ominous set-up sequencing. Based on the wonderful Giles Blunt thriller series set in the small northern Canadian town of Algonquin Bay, “Cardinal” terrifies yet offers redemption through the dogged, sometimes inspired, pursuit of killers by detectives John Cardinal (masterfully portrayed by Billy Campbell) and Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse’s understated acting grows in stature with each episode). Season 3 begins grimly, with the terrible suicide scene from the closer of Season 2, with a laundromat suicide threat, with seemingly unrelated ATM muggings. A young woman on a tryst witnesses a horrendous murder. Great music, wonderful filming, and a ratcheting plot all build up to what promises to be another stellar season.
“Killing Eve” was one of my 2018 highlights, a luscious mix of psycho thriller, spy thriller, and relationship comedy. It was whip smart and in its two lead actors, Jodie Comer (playing the gruesome yet child-like super assassin Villanelle) and Sandra Oh (as Eve Palastri the blundering but brilliant secret service analyst) were incandescent. I’ve come to Season 2 with trepidation, even though the Season 1 finale prefigured more, because the central premise of the series – a good spy after the psychopath but strangely attracted towards her – has already been thoroughly explored. Well, Season 2’s opener doesn’t muck about, beginning 30 seconds after Eve stabbed Villanelle at the end of the previous offering. We see Eve lurching back to London, trying to pick up her life, we see Villanelle staggering, all bloody, through Paris to survive. Yet the episode falters with the need to take a breath after the breakneck pace it follows. Very little happens and we know the characters so well, no surprises there ensue either. It’s more of the same but almost downbeat and at the end, I found myself wondering if “Killing Eve” should instead have been a one-season blitz. Yet I’m more than intrigued enough to continue onward. Watch if you’re a fan, make sure the first season is under your belt first.
The superhero film genre is in deep schtuck. What was once a wondrous sci-fi-category is now mired in overkill stupidity. Look, I know box offices continue to like anything from the Marvel or DC stables, but I can barely watch those, and each time I do, I regret it (see my take on Venom for example and who can forget how infantile “Thor: Ragnarok” was). But all is not lost. “Legion” was fabulous, in all the ways a superhero movie is meant to be, and now “The Umbrella Academy,” based on a Dark Horse Comics (never heard of them, which is apposite) series, shows tons of promise in the first episode. The premise is that an eccentric billionaire has trained up seven superheroes with different talents and now Daddy is dead. Something will happen! Tom Hopper is exactly the right kind of stolid as Luther, the eldest Umbrella Academy member, young Aidan Gallagher shines as Number Five, and Ellen Page captures reticent Vanya beautifully. The scenes are lush, the music fab, and the overall vibe is dark and expectant. Episode 1 is mostly setup but that task is carried out with proper intelligence, and I look forward to continuing onward.
Where can Ricky Gervais go after all the places he’s been? “After Life” is an intriguing choice – a bittersweet marriage of Gervais piss-take scorn and sentimentality, the tale of an ordinary English journo bereft and nihilistic after his wife’s cancer death – but the opening episode works beautifully. We walk with slumpy, morose, “kill me soon” Tony, through a day in his little pretty English village, as he interacts with colleagues, especially his brother-in-law Matt (wonderfully portrayed by Tom Basden), his Alzheimer’s-ridden father, even his postman. Some of the trademark Gervais scabrous humor almost set me hooting, but even the less wild scenes possessed great, intelligent, quiet funniness. All in all, the first episode works really well, but I guess the question is – what will become of what seems a really hokey plot?