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?
Having enjoyed the part biopic of liberal iconic judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “On the Basis of Sex” (I rated it as 7/10), I was ruing the fact that I’d missed the short Australian season of the more life-encompassing documentary “RBG.” Luckily it has popped up on free-to-air here, so I’ve taken a look. And this is a most fascinating documentary, especially for a non-American who is only vaguely aware of the huge role Supreme Court judges play in political, let alone judicial life in the United States. Ginsburg’s pivotal role in initiating a revolution against discriminatory legislation is interesting enough, but then her more recent role as sensible dissenter on the Supreme Court, during a conservative phase of the country, is most absorbing. The documentary itself is competently unfurled, with plenty of modern-day, frail-but-unbowed Ginsburg on show, and some good interview material. But I sensed something missing. The key moments of drama in Ginsburg’s past are explored but not deeply and something about the “plotting” of the film renders it unexciting. In an era when documentary makers can turn fact into riveting entertainment, “RGB” is interesting to watch but fails to catch hold. One to see but not a highlight.
Anthony Maras has a firm grip on the momentum of “Hotel Mumbai” and from the opening scenes, it’s clear we’re in for terrorist mayhem in Mumbai, courtesy of Pakistanis directed by a shadowy figure. And quickly it’s plain the movie is to be brutally factual detailing the wanton destruction of life that actually happened. I spent the first half of the film almost soured of what I felt was terrorist porn. The key actors are solid, with Dev Patel particularly strong as a Taj Hotel waiter, but the narratives of the key characters are circumscribed. Fortunately, the last half hour introduces a new character, the majestic colonial hotel itself, depicted in wonderful panned scenes, and Maras manages to render a form of tragedy and triumph from the final scenes. Overall, the killing, though no doubt accurate, deadens the drama but the final crowd flight scenes restores an intriguing grandeur. Not recommended for squeamish viewers but a cut-glass depiction of modern terrorism that works well.
This third season of the Marvel tale set in New York runs for thirteen episode and after Episode 1, which I rated as 6/10, barely enough to keep me going, “Daredevil” ambles onwards at a pace that frustrated me. Charlie Cox tries hard as the blind masked avenger left for dead at the end of Season 2, but there’s no compelling magic here, and Vincent D’Onofrio’s portrayal of arch villain Fisk lacks the necessary menace. The fight scenes thump and smack with tremendous vitalism but I wasn’t watching a Kung Fu movie. At the end of Episode 4, I was nearly ready to give up. But perhaps the slow build has a point, for Episodes 5 and 6, as Fisk sets in place a plan to usurp Daredevil for his own dastardly ends, suddenly roar into life. Wilson Bethel emerges as a genuinely malevolent, wicked mock Daredevil, and Deborah Ann Woll’s performance as Karen Page notches up the drama. I’m now halfway and hooked for the last seven episodes… hope they deliver!
Laurel and Hardy epitomise nostalgia, nostalgia for an era of gentle slapstick comedy that would not even surface in modern times. “Stan and Ollie” is an affectionate take on the famous comedy duo’s last stand, a tour of United Kingdom well after their box office stardom. This is a film where the acting receives mention more than any other attribute: Steve Coogan is triumphant in his immersive role as Stan Laurel, and John C. Reilly is pretty damned good as Oliver Hardy, and the supporting cast is nuanced and pitch perfect. The settings in various parts of the British Isles are lovely and the soundtrack is suitably ancient. And yet… and yet nothing much happens. I guess what I’m saying is that with a different script or in the hands of a different director, this mild tribute to creative friendship and partnership could have been immersive; instead it drags. I wish I could have enjoyed it more.
One of the oddest documentaries I’ve ever had the privilege to watch, and I say privilege because this is drama of a fierce, fierce kind. “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” pivots around reels and reels of tennis instructional footage taken at Roland Garros during the French Open in the 70s and 80s, shot with noisy slow-mo cameras. Faraut cleverly sidles up to his focus, namely McEnroe, clearly an obsession of Gil de Kermadec, the French head of the filming project, and you wonder if Faraut is going to look more generally at tennis talent. But the final two thirds of the movie is all McEnroe, juxtaposing his artistry (one can swoon at the slo-mo of his drop shots and drop volleys) and his on-court antics. Was he spoiled brat or was it all a means of revving up performance? Faraut indulges in some pop psychology but then the final twenty minutes comes down to one match in June 1984, when McEnroe, during a nearly flawless year, takes the first two sets in his Roland Garros final against Ivan Lendl, only to begin to flounder. An electric guitar soundtrack roars as the slo-mo cameras from different angles capture the pent-up agonies on McEnroe’s face, in his posture. This is not acting, this is real, this is film showing the inner person under utmost stress. Extraordinary, I left the cinema shaking my head in awe at Faraut’s filmic genius.
A Rwandan genocide survivor adopted by a international justice prosecutor… a complex case launched… mysterious players… governments involved… the terrain of Hugo Blick’s “Black Earth Rising” is devilishly tricky and right at the heart of modern morality. If Episode 1 is representative, it’s also a humdinger of a thriller, for there are more plot twists here than in most entire series. Michaela Coel is stunning as survivor Kate Ashby, her judge mother is brilliantly played by Harriet Walter, no bit player misses a beat, and there’s even an ongoing oddly effective role played by John Goodman. Spiffy cinematography and crunchy dialogue round out a season opener that begs for a dose of the binges.
Put me in front of a biopic and watch me squirm with frustration. Real life is fascinating but rarely makes for a finely judged story. So I came to “On the Basis of Sex” with apprehension (especially as I’d missed seeing the much-lauded documentary “RGB” about Ruth Bader Ginsburg). I shouldn’t have fussed: Mimi Leder is an excellent director, with an intelligent, finely balanced grasp of story and drama, and the script from Daniel Stiepleman barely puts a foot wrong. Perhaps the reason that this biopic works is that it isn’t really a biopic. Instead it sets the scene with some early-life flashbacks and then settles into a tense, inspiring look at Ginsburg’s very first success at changing U.S. legislation on the basis of sex discrimination. And what a drama it is, with the outcome swinging on a few minutes’ testimony by feisty, whip-smart Ginsburg. Felicity Jones produces a career-best performance as Ginsburg, and Armie Hammer ends up delivering the goods as Martin Ginsburg even if he looks too wholesome. The chauvinistic villains are played by capable character actors. I was swept up by the rousing tale, one little told, and didn’t come down until the abrupt but smart ending. Recommended.
“Russian Doll” is, based on the first episode, a hoot of a remake of “Groundhog Day.” Its frontline star, Natasha Lyonne (who apparently co-created the series), is not an actor I know, much to my detriment, for she’s an instantly charismatic mid-thirties New York City hardcase intellectual cynic. The plot conceit is, of course, that soon after the episode kicks off at her birthday party, she gets cleaned up by a yellow cab while seeking her cat… and wham, she’s back at the party, again and again and again. Nothing is all that clear in the first episode but it’s clear that we’re in for a zingy, clever-clever plot of recurring but morphing life episodes, like the unpacking of a Russian doll. The sets are super evocative, every character so far is subtly brilliant, and the music rules. I can’t recommend it too highly and can only hope the plot chicanery can sustain my interest over the remaining episodes.