American Murder: The Family Next Door (Netflix)

American Murder: The Family Next Door, was released on September 30.  Certainly Netflix could have waited to release it one day later, so it could appear alongside other movies and television programs typically scheduled for October.  Maybe they made the decision out of respect for the families involved.  Maybe the algorithm that Netflix utilizes to determine when to release its content decided on the last day of September for reasons only it knows deep down in its code.  We will probably never know why Netflix releases its content on particular days, but American Murder definitely could have been released during the month Halloween, alongside other horror films.  Because while American Murder is many things, in the end it is a horror story.

Commentary I’ve read on American Murder discusses how it serves as a rumination on the superficial nature of social media.  Shanann Watts frequently posted photos and videos of her family on Facebook.  She would upload happy scenes from birthday parties and family gatherings which, when taken at face value, would lead you to believe that nothing bad ever happened in the Watts family’s everyday life.  You would think that the Watts family experienced no arguments, no temper tantrums, no money problems, no disagreements of any kind.  Of course, we all know that social media platforms like Facebook only serve as personal advertisements for our lives, proof that we are enjoying life to its fullest, and that all is well.  Knowing the outcome of Shanann Watts and her children, American Murder provides damning evidence of how manipulative social media is, in how we use it to deliver a completely subjective view of our own lives to people we know, and to ourselves.

American Murder also provides an intimate portrait on the breakdown of a modern marriage.  Through text messages Shanann exchanged her closest friends and her husband, we come to the same realization that she over two months: that her husband was no longer in love with her, and was probably having an affair.  They were together for eight years and married for nearly six, and Shanann could tell something was wrong when he neglected to call her when she was on vacation with the kids, how he neglected to kiss her when they eventually were together on vacation, how he would avoid being intimate when the opportunity presented itself.

The omnipresent nature of digital surveillance is also a subtext of American Murder.  When a friend of Shanaan’s calls the police for a welfare check when Shanaan does not show up for a scheduled doctor’s appointment, police body cameras capture Chris coming home and every interaction he has with police.  A neighbor’s home security system blankly records the moment when Chris Watts loaded his deceased wife and his two sleeping children into his truck early in the morning.  Chris explains to the police investigating his family’s disappearance that he typically loads his tools into his truck early in the morning by backing his truck up to the garage.  When Chris leaves his neighbor’s house, the neighbor immediately states that he never saw Chris load his tools that way.

American Murder is also a rare documentary that relies only on recorded footage to tell its story.  Other documentaries have utilized this approach to great affect.  Apollo 11 (2019), for example, managed to tell us about an event that we are all extremely familiar with as it unfolded in real time, sans interviews or commentary.  The result was breathtaking.  By avoiding the standard documentary tropes, American Murder is also extremely involving.  There are no interviews with the participants, no reenactments of key events, or various talking heads commenting on what happened.  All we are shown is footage of the participants before and after the murders, and the end result is devastating.

While the death of Shanaan and her children were tragic, American Murder also depicts them as a horror story.  Shanaan and Chris were together for eight years, and up to the moment Chris strangled her to death, she never realized she was living with a sociopath.  In the footage we see with Chris, his emotions never are out of balance.  When Shanaan tells Chris she is pregnant, he reacts with the fake emotions of someone who just received a $25 gift card.  He routinely diminished the strife between his family and his wife.  Like other sociopaths, he passed as a normal person for years, hiding his lack of empathy behind a friendly smile.  Then, after having an affair for a month while his wife was out of town, he decided he didn’t want his family around anymore and planned when and how to kill his family, and where to hide their bodies.

Shanaan had no indication that her husband was a family annihilator.  To quote Richard Linklater:

no one really knows anyone. That’s the thing about relationships – people are always saying, “I want to know you, I want to know who you are.” But it is so hard for anyone to even know themselves. Who I am is always changing, so how can anyone else share in that?

Richard Linklater, Before Sunrise & Before Sunset: Two Screenplays

Up until she breathed her last breath, Shanaan probably had no idea that the man she married, had two children with and was pregnant with a third would kill her or her children.  If there is anything more horrifying than that, I don’t know what is.

Enola Holmes (Netflix)

I admit that I am not an avid follower of Sherlock Holmes.  While I have seen From Hell and both of the Robert Downey Jr. movies, I’ve only watched a few episodes of PBS’s Sherlock.  I have not watched any episodes of Elementary.  Even with my limited exposure to the character, I understand him well enough to be able to follow along with the plot of Enola Holmes.

Enola Holmes (played by Millie Bobby Brown) expands the Sherlock universe by adding a heretofore unknown younger sister.  When Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and his brother Mycroft (Sam Claflin) leave home, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter), their mother raises Enola on her own in their country estate.  Eudoria teaches Enloa everything but how to be a proper lady in society, including archery, tennis, jujitsu, chemistry and so on.  Enola is an avid reader, and reads all of the books in the estate’s library.

One morning, Enola wakes up to find her mother has left home.  In her wake, Eudoria leaves Enola a gift package, and Enola quickly discerns clues she can use to find her mother.  Since Mycroft is the elder brother, Enola is his ward, and must abide by his wishes.  He sizes her up as a wild animal and wants to send her to a harsh finishing school for young girls.  Sherlock does not agree with his brother’s plan, but goes along with it anyway.

Since Enola is only fourteen, she trades clothes with a young boy so that she can travel to London without being harassed.  On the train, she befriends and ultimately saves Lord Tewkesbury.  She likes him, but once they reach London she leaves him behind.  (Her mother warned her not to be taken with boys, since they are essentially a handsome distraction.)

Once in London, Enola first sets out to find her mother, but when she realizes how much danger Lord Tewkesbury is in, changes course and helps him out instead.  In the end, Lord Tewkesbury is saved, Enola is briefly reunited with her mother, and becomes Sherlock’s ward instead.  All’s well that ends well, in other words.

Enola Holmes is definitely a young adult take on the Sherlock Holmes mythology.  Enola shares Sherlock’s keen attention to detail and perfect recall of past events.  Unlike Sherlock, she is a person of action, fighting Tewkesbury’s assassin, confronting Tewksbury’s family over why he ran away from home.  Sherlock is portrayed as pleasant and charming, but essentially a passive  puzzle-solver.  

Generally, the men around Enola do not come off well.  The story has a decidedly feminist bent that was a bit heavy-handed at times.  Enola initially writes off Tewkesbury as a dreamy doofus.  Sherlock, while a well regarded member of society, is completely oblivious to the societal issues of his time.  Mycroft is portrayed as a harsh control freak, insisting that Enola’s will be broken so that she can ultimately be married off.  I don’t understand why he is so surprised that Enola has a mind of her own.  As a man of means and education, surely he’d be familiar with the works of Jane Austin or the Bronte sisters.

Unlike other Holmes incarnations, Enola is more than willing to get her hands dirty, figuratively and literally.  The movie shows her with dirt on her face and her clothes many times to emphasize that Enola is a different kind of Holmes.  To emphasize her tomboyishness, she disguises herself as a boy.

Interestingly enough, Enola Holmes shares a few thematic elements with the preceding Robert Downey Jr. movies.  She can hold her own in a fistfight, and wears different clothes to throw others off her trail and while detecting.  Both are outsiders who, while comfortable in their own skin and profess to not caring about fitting into society, still attempt to do so.

Unlike the Downey Jr. films, which seemed to revel in grit, grime and general ugliness, Enola Holmes is practically a love letter to the English countryside and London.  The scenes outside the Holmes and Tewkesbury estates are breathtaking.  Even London is shown to be an exciting theme park of a city, filled with colorful and mostly non-threatening characters.

I’m not sure if the movie was influenced by the “Millennials versus Boomers” arguments being made in the media over the past several years, but the villain behind the plot to kill young Lord Tewkesbury, as well as his father, turns out to be the Dowager of the Tewkesbury family.  Viewed today, it’s another indictment of those dastardly Boomers, always thwarting reform at every turn.

Henry Cavill is very good as Sherlock, in what is just a supporting role.  If there ever is a sequel, I’d hope he gets more to do than he did in this movie.  With his work here and in Mission:Impossible – Fallout and The Witcher, I’m surprised his take on Superman was so ineffectual.

Helena Bonham Carter has been doing excellent work in supporting roles for a long time now.  Her evolution from saucy vamp (or crazy vamp) to characters of substance is a welcome one.

Ultimately, Enola Holmes is very charming and engaging, but not consequential.  The reform bill that is eventually passed is never discussed in detail.  The reason why Enola’s mother left home is never really explained.  I suspected that Eudoria and her band of ladies were plotting to blow up Parliament if the reform bill was not passed, in a nod to Guy Fawkes, but that’s just a guess.  Enola Holmes is one of the better Netflix movies released over the last several years, but Masterpiece Theatre it is not.  Lightly recommended.

Safety Not Guaranteed (Netflix)

To me, acting falls into two categories: transformational and charismatic.  Transformational performances are those where the actor becomes another person, undergoing significant physical changes to convince us that they have become someone else.  Examples of this would be Charlize Theron in Monster, Gary Oldman in Churchill and Renee Zellweger in Judy.  The physical transformations typically include weight gain or loss, application of makeup, and an uncanny impersonation of vocal and other mannerisms.  These performances are usually tagged as “Oscar bait”, universally applauded and admired as feats of skill.

Charismatic performances are those where the actor essentially plays themselves, or a minor variation of themselves.  There may be some physical transformation involved, but we believe that the person we see on screen is the person we believe we would meet in real life.  Actors that fall into this category include Morgan Freeman, Tom Cruise, Melissa McCarthy and Kevin Hart.

In devising these two categories, I’m not making the claim that one is better than the other.  In some ways, being oneself in front of a camera and crew over a period of weeks or months may be more challenging than applying makeup, speaking in an accent and learning to walk with a limp.  From a viewing standpoint, I enjoy seeing Tom Hanks play Tom Hanks in each movie he is in, just as much as I admire watching Glenn Close or Meryl Streep play a completely different person in each movie they star in.

Which brings us to Aubrey Plaza.  She stars in Safety Not Guaranteed, a movie from 2012.  Directed by Colin Trevorrow three years before he directed Jurassic World, I hadn’t heard of the movie until I read an article on Inverse recommending it.  The movie had a very brief theatrical run and was acquired by Netflix, where it sits buried underneath a pile of content of varying quality.  My wife and I watched it the other day, and I was charmed by its quirky sincerity.  My wife was less taken with it.  With the exception of her husband, she’s not as appreciative of quirky things as I am.

Aubrey Plaza definitely falls into the “playing themselves” acting category.  I hadn’t seen her in many roles prior to this movie, mostly episodes of Parks and Recreation and Legion and the movie Ingrid Goes West in 2017.  Her reputation precedes her as a young, beautiful lady with a sarcastic wit.  (If you don’t believe me, go on YouTube and watch the videos of her appearances on late night talk shows.)  There are a few other actresses that play in this sandbox, like Ellen Page (Juno), Zooey Dashinel (The Good Girl) and Thora Birch (Ghost World). While Hollywood has given plenty of opportunities for handsome yet quirky male actors to thrive (Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, etc.), quirky actresses typically wind up playing the perky, understanding and eventual redeeming element for the male lead.  Now that Aubrey Plaza has carved out her niche as a pretty sourpuss, I hope that she continues to find material that is well suited to her.

In Safety Not Guaranteed, Aubrey Plaza plays Darius, an intern working at a magazine in Seattle, suffering fools greatly on a daily basis.  She wields her sarcasm like a shield against the world.  Her supervisor Jeff (Jake Johnson) is convinced she is a lesbian simply because she doesn’t fawn over him and smile approvingly at his bro-humor.

Darius lives a quiet life with her dad at home.  Even he notices that she never goes out on dates.  One day, during the magazine’s daily writers roundtable, Jeff proposes to investigate a bizarre personal ad.  The ad states:

Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.

Darius immediately volunteers to go on the investigation.  She heads up to the Washington coast to Ocean Viewwith Jeff and another intern named Arnau (Karan Soni, Deadpool) to find out who placed the ad and write a story about that person.

As the story progresses, Darius reveals her true motive for volunteering for the trip.  Years ago, her mother left home and never returned.  Darius provides two explanations for what happened.  Since her mother left, Darius’ life has been a listless void and a huge disappointment.  Going back in time sounds like a good option.  Maybe she can stop her mother from leaving.

The person behind the ad is Kenneth (Mark Duplass).  He works at a local grocery store and lives alone in a house left to him by his parents.  He’s a survival nut, convinced that he’s being followed by government agents.  Darius is dubious at his claim for being able to travel back in time, but his utter conviction and complete lack of self-awareness win her over.  Unlike guys like Jeff, who is completely full of himself, Kenneth is only focused on the mission and training Darius to survive it.  He teaches her how to shoot a gun and various self-defense moves, because time travel is inherently dangerous.

If Mark Duplass played Kenneth any differently, the movie would not work at all.  Instead of cynically playing Kenneth as someone to be mocked and jeered at, Duplass portrays Kenneth as utterly serious yet genial.  He has a hound dog charm to him, even though he rarely smiles.  You could make an argument that his behavior is borderline Asperger’s, or maybe even paranoid schizophrenia.  Ultimately, his guileless nature breaks down Darius’s defenses.  They are both outsiders in the worlds they inhibit, using defense mechanisms they’ve developed since they were teenagers to get through a world that would destroy them if they let it.

But what are those defense mechanisms based on?  Just like Darius gives two explanations for her mother’s absence, we hear two explanations for a key event driving Kenneth to go back in time.  Which one do we believe?  And who do we believe?  Kenneth tells Darius that the desire to go back in time is based in regret.  Both have made mistakes in the past that haunted them well into adulthood, so going back in time to undo those mistakes sounds reasonable.

I can see why Colin Treverrow was chosen to direct Jurassic World.  He has a natural talent for telling a story on screen.  All of the actors give excellent performances here.  One complaint I have is that while the movie gives the characters of Darius and Jeff complete character arcs, Arnau’s is more or less an afterthought.  Sure, he gets to have some fun on a Friday night, but we don’t hear anything from him afterwards.  Another couple minutes of dialog between him and Darius would have been nice.

As I mentioned early on, this is a quirky movie.  If you can make it through the self defense and weapons training sessions without chuckling in cynicism, I believe you’ll enjoy this movie.  (There is a scene later in the movie where a character serenades another with a zyther that certainly will test your willpower.)  The ending was a satisfying one, showing conviction on behalf of the filmmakers to go where the story leads, instead of doing a fake-out and claiming that a character was just crazy after all.

To paraphrase a character in the movie, I hope both of them get where they want to go, and it all works how they want.  See you at the Aubrey Plaza film festival!

Unsolved Mysteries – Season 15 (Netflix)

No, that’s not a typo.  There are currently fifteen seasons of Unsolved Mysteries. I’ll admit that I was never a regular watcher of the series when it ran on broadcast TV.  (It has aired on NBC, CBS, Lifetime and Spike.)  To me, the series had a stodgy feel to it, as if it was something your parents or grand-parents would watch on a Friday or Saturday night, while you were out getting into trouble.  I remember watching it a few times late at night over the past twenty years, when battling insomnia.

When I heard Netflix was bringing back Unsolved Mysteries, I was curious as to why.  People who are interested in this sort of content can simply turn on the Investigation/Discovery channel or watch Dateline reruns on basic cable.  However, criminal documentaries is one of the few genres that Netflix has essentially elevated above its cheesy origins.  Netflix has had great success with Making a Murderer, The Keepers and The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann, so reviving the grand-daddy of all criminal documentary shows makes sense in a way.  Like other shows you can stream ad infinitum on Netflix, you can queue up Unsolved Mysteries and let it play in the background while you do other things.

The production quality of Unsolved Mysteries is definitely top-notch.  It has the same crisp photography that is the trademark of the aforementioned Netflix true crime series.  It also makes ample usage of dynamic timelines, helping you to place the events you are hearing about in correct chronological order.  The reenactments of the mysteries are also done well, avoiding the campy aspects that make shows on ID trashy fun.

Unfortunately, Unsolved Mysteries also suffers from the same problems that make the other Netflix true crime documentaries difficult to sit through in their entirety.  The overuse of drone flyover shots and “dark and ominous” music give the show a dreamlike quality.  For the episodes that are only moderately interesting, they serve as a dose of Unisom for the sleep deprived.

Here is where I believe Netflix’s revival of Unsolved Mysteries makes a mistake.  By not having a host, the episodes lack an element that helps break up the pacing.  While having a host seems superfluous at times, a host can quickly summarize what has happened before and help focus our attention on the next act.  Since Netflix does not have commercials, they have no acts to speak of  and on the surface a host doesn’t seem to be necessary.  But having a known celebrity like Robert Stack or Peter Graves step in occasionally helps tremendously to break up the monotony of the proceedings.  Well known reality-based shows in the past always had hosts.  Think of Leonard Nimoy with “In Search Of… “, or Jack Palance with “Ripley’s Believe it or Not”.  A good actor commands our attention and knows how to liven up mediocre material.

The current season of Unsolved Mysteries consists of only six episodes.  The first three are the most interesting and most mysterious.  “Mystery on the Rooftop” involves a man how seemingly committed suicide by jumping off a roof at an impossible angle.  “13 Minutes” focuses on a woman who disappeared sometime after her last customer at her salon, possibly killed by an opportunistic serial killer.  “House of Terror” gives Unsolved Mysteries an international element, going over a case where a French Count killed his entire family without leaving any evidence and vanished.

The last three episodes are only somewhat interesting, and in the case of Episode Five, “Berkshires UFO”, is ridiculous.  Sure, I want to believe as much as Fox Mulder, but anytime I watch people relate stories of alien abduction, I can’t help but think, “crazy people!”  “No Ride Home” and “Missing Witness” are more depressing than mysterious, with the latter one where we actually find out who committed the murders.

If Unsolved Mysteries is to last longer than a season or two on Netflix, the show’s producers need to stop thinking that the show needs to be presented in an incredibly somber, serious and somnambulistic tone, and instead embrace the traditions of the true crime shows that have gone before it.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (Netflix)

I haven’t watched a movie with Will Ferrell in a leading role since Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, which came out in 2013.  I can’t state exactly why my wife and I passed on seeing Daddy’s Home or its sequel.  Or Get Hard.  To me, it looked like Ferrell’s lovable doofus characters were being made the butt of violent jokes.  I know this sounds ridiculous, but while his comedy trades in an innocent, child-like stupidity, most of the time there is an intelligence about it.  For example, what Ferrell does as Ron Burgundy or Ricky Bobby or Frank in Old School works both as comedy and as meta-comedy at the same time.  The jokes are obvious and sly at the same time.  You can see the wheels going around in his mind while he performs.  When Ferrell’s schtick (for lack of a better word) works, it’s because we can tell he put thought into what he is doing.  When it doesn’t work, it comes off as sloppy or slapdash.  Being stupid is not enough to get a laugh, or a movies-worth of laughs.  Its the why behind the stupid.

When “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” appeared on the Netflix home page, I thought, “This looks interesting, but probably won’t be funny at all, like Homes & Watson and The House.” Then I read that Eurovision was based on an actual singing competition.  Hmm, maybe some thought went into this after all.  My wife and I watched it yesterday. We both found it to be very funny.  I think it is probably Ferrell’s funniest performance since The Other Guys back in 2010.

Ferrell and Rachel McAdams star as Lars and Sigrit, two Icelandic wanna-be pop stars who have been attached to each other since they were children.  Lars, after seeing Abba on Eurovision, wants nothing more than to win the competition.  He and Sigrit form a band called Fire Saga that write and sing slick pop tunes along the lines of Roxette or A-Ha.  This movie being a Will Ferrell picture, the songs are well-meaning but incredibly, hilariously bad.  The harder Fire Saga they try to sound important, the sillier they sound.

Pierce Brosnan plays Lars’ father Erick, and also has some good moments here.  He is dead-set against Lars taking part in the competition, out of the fear that he will only embarrass himself and Iceland in the process.  He is correct, but eventually comes around.  (This is a comedy, not an Ingmar Bergman film.)

As fate would have it, Iceland actually has someone that has a chance at winning Eurovision: Katiana.  Demi Lovato plays Katiana essentially as herself in a long blond wig.  She can blow anyone off the stage, so if she gets into the contest, she likely can win.  However, if Iceland wins, they would be required to host Eurovision next year.  Can Iceland handle the costs?  They just emerged from bankruptcy ten years ago.  That plot point is completely unnecessary, and frankly should have been left out.

As fate (or Icelandic elves) would have it, Fire Saga are sent to the Eurovision contest.  There they meet the other singers, including Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, Legion) as Alexander Lemtov, the Russian firebrand of a singer.  Stevens has a lot of fun with the role, and has several of the movie’s funniest lines.  (His home has “impressive” statuary, to say the least.)

Like other leading ladies who have starred opposite Ferrell, McAdams is mostly along for the ride here.  I don’t recall seeing her in a pure comedic role before, but she does show some talent in that area in this movie.  She is an immensely likeable actor, and here she uses that to her advantage, making Sigrit a good-natured and goofy counterpart to Ferrell’s obliviousness.  She believes that elves are real, and after seeing this movie, you may feel the same way.

The movie has some great set pieces, including Fire Saga’s performance in the semi-finals.  It involves a long scarf and a hamster wheel prop.  You definitely have to see it to believe it.  There is also a sing-along to Cher’s Believe in the middle of the movie that gives all of the contestants a chance to shine.  Ferrell may be the center of the movie, but he has no problems letting others take the spotlight.  (In case you find yourself surprised by the talent of the other acts in the competition, they actually were winners or final contestants in Eurovision from prior years.)

The production values of this movie are top notch.  Ferrell was first introduced to Eurovision by his wife, who is from Sweden, decades ago.  He’s followed it ever since, even attending the finals one year.  While watching this movie, I could tell that even though Ferrell is satirizing the proceedings, his satire comes from a place of love.  He definitely appreciates the campy, overproduced atmosphere of the event.  Only someone who truly loves Eurovision could make a movie that celebrates it and makes fun of it at the same time.  Highly recommended.

The Old Guard (Netflix)

Years from now, critics will look upon the year 2020 as the Year of the Streaming Blockbusters.  With the release of numerous studio pictures into movie theaters put on hold due to the pandemic, moviegoers have turned to streaming services to get their fill of new movies.  While Netflix has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the pandemic, Apple TV and Hulu have also gotten into the game.  While having an alternative is always preferable to nothing, the alternative has been a decidedly different bag.

Streaming blockbusters are not new.  Netflix, Amazon and others have been releasing original or acquired movies on their streaming platforms for years.  Before this year, many of us watched them without giving the activity a second thought, probably because the weekend’s new box office releases didn’t justify getting off our couches, into our cars and into a theater.  With movie theaters still closed and the major studios pushing back the release dates of their big releases indefinitely, streaming blockbusters are getting all of the attention.  Be careful what you wish for, streaming services.

The Old Guard (or TOG) is symptomatic of previous blockbusters Netflix has released.  Like a $3 protein bar, it comes in shiny packaging, healthy ingredients and impressive production values.  And like the aforementioned protein bar, it is easily consumed, digested and quickly forgotten.  Which is a shame when we’re talking about a movie starring Charlize Theron. Theron is too good of an actress for this material, but I’ll get to her momentarily.

If you’ve been a casual viewer of action movies over the last twenty years, elements of The Old Guard will be immediately familiar to you.  Charlize Theron heads up a small group of warriors who cannot die.  Theron’s character Andy can’t remember how old she is.  The Booker, the most recent member of the team, joined after dying in the Napoleonic war in 1812.  They either fight on the side of good or evil, “depending on the century” as one character dryly states.

When one of TOG is killed, their bodies slowly heal themselves, wounds sealing up, bullets ejecting from their skin, in a way that reminded me of The X-Men’s Wolverine.  He was another character who could not be killed, a cynical professional who grew tired of trying to figure out who was good and who was evil.  Of course, Wolverine’s mutation that caused his body to heal itself was predated by vampires.  Vampires were the original beings who lived for milenia, could kill at the speed of sound and (usually) could not be killed.  In a similar way, TOG dispatches their enemies with violent efficiency.  When one (or all) of TOG are killed, their bodies quickly reform, their bones healing and snapping back into place to sounds not unlike a bowl of rice krispies.

Other films with similar themes similar to TOG came to mind while watching.  Highlander.  Wanted.  There were probably others that I could have conjured up, but I told my brain to stop analyzing and just watch the movie.

The plot involves TOG being asked to go on One More Mission to save a group of school children who’ve been kidnapped in Sudan.  Andy (Theron) has just about enough of humanity, thank you, and would rather sit this one out.  Booker, another member of TOG and less cynical than Andy, convinces the team to go on a rescue mission.  The mission itself is a ploy to get TOG out of hiding.  A man who runs a pharmaceutical company in England, who certainly is The World’s Most Annoying Englishman, wants to use TOG as source material for a new line of drugs that will alleviate suffering while also earning him immense profits.  Meanwhile, Nial, a soldier in Afghanistan, seemingly dies but comes back to life.  Andy seeks her out and asks (well, not really) to join TOG.  Nial and Andy fight but later makeup.  Nial wants to leave and be with her family a bit longer, but changes course when she realizes Andy has been betrayed.  An assault on the Big Pharma Building takes up the third act, whereupon TOG essentially kills most everyone as if they’re playing a video game in God mode.  The movie sets up a sequel, which, objectively speaking, should be interesting, now that all of the exposition and world building is out of the way.

Most of the dialog is perfunctory, with rare exceptions.  At one point, one member of TOG expresses his love for another member, a love which started when they killed each other during The Crusades.  There are a few other heartfelt moments in the movie, but the one I just described is the pinnacle.  Which is a shame, really.  You would think that people who have lived thousands of years would have interesting things to say, but apparently that’s not the case.

Charlize Theron is such a good actress, she can make you feel sorry for Megyn Kelly.  When not giving Oscar-caliber performances, she’s been keeping herself busy in action vehicles.  Mad Max:Fury Road, Atomic Blond, The Fate of the Furious, Snow White and The Huntsman are recent films she’s starred in that preceded TOG.  While those movies provided Theron with the ability to have some fun amidst the action, this movie curiously has her character deliver most of her lines in a bland, monotone voice with minimal emotion.  Her glamorous appearance has been hidden behind black clothes and a severe black haircut.  She looks more like someone looking for the local goth bar circa 1992 than someone who’s lived thousands of years and cannot die.  (I could say that they could be one in the same, but that would be bitchy, even for me.)

Why Theron chose this material is a mystery.  Granted, she can show she can still kick butt (cinematically speaking) in her mid-forties.  But there just isn’t much to her character.  A very early scene shows her deciphering where a piece of baklava was made.  Later, there are scenes of her and her BFF Quynh slicing and dicing enemies while dressed in medieval costumes.  Later, Andy and Quynh share a laugh over the possibility of being burned alive by the church.  That brief moment of gallows humor quickly fades when they both realize that Quynh is being sentenced to a fate worse than death, the depiction of which is probably the most horrifying moment in the picture.  The point I’m making is that the movie could have been a lot more fun, had it allowed itself to be.  Having fun does not require delving into camp territory, which this movie seems to be trying very hard to avoid.  Tonally, the movie essentially switches between somber dialog moments and frantic action pieces.  More levity would have balanced out the proceedings tremendously, and made the experience much more enjoyable.

I’ve read criticisms that since Netflix is a data-driven company, the plots of their originals seem written by a computer.  That would be a fair criticism for TOG, where there is little room for flair or originality in the proceedings.  I had a similar feeling watching Extraction, which starred Chris Helmsworth.  The movie spared no expense, shooting on location, extravagant action sequences.  Helmsworth is a charming, funny actor, but had no opportunity to show those skills in Extraction.  I felt the same way about TOG.  Where is Charlize Theron, and why have you replaced her with a cheerless robot?

If you have a Netflix subscription, I recommend seeing TOG.  You’ve already paid for it.  You might as well get your money’s worth.

The Stranger (Netflix)

I finished The Stranger the other day. It was good. Not excellent, but solidly good.

Season 1 focuses on several mysterious events and how everyone in the town is somehow connected to said mysterious events. First, we have a young boy named Dante who is found naked and near death in the woods after a silent rave. Second, an alpaca is found in the center of town without a head. Next, Adam (Richard Armitage) is approached by a stranger while at his son’s soccer practice. The stranger tells Adam that Corrine, his wife (Dervla Kirwan) faked her pregnancy. Adam confronts his wife about this. She says there is more to the story than he knows and leaves. She proceeds to disappear. Last but not least, Adam is working as a lawyer for Martin (Stephen Rea). Martin is being forcefully evicted from his run-down tenement so that Adam’s father can begin construction on a new development of luxury apartments. Turns out that Martin’s wife skipped town decades ago, with no word of her whereabouts since she left. Could her disappearance turn out to be something mysterious, and somehow connected to other happenings in town? You have to ask?

The acting is solid by all of the participants. The direction was also snappy. Aside from the first and last episodes, the middle episodes are about forty-five minutes each. Most Netflix serials seem to pad each episode to an hour, which leads to dead air most of the time. I was surprised at how the show makes a point of showing how multicultural and multiracial the folks in the suburban English town really are. Whenever I watch an “English” show or movie, it seems like the overwhelming majority of the characters are white.

I found the mysteries involving the adults to be more interesting than those involving the teenagers. They could have left out the plots involving Dante, the silent rave, and the decapitated alpaca and still had an interesting story to tell. For example, I would have appreciated more about DC Johanna Griffin (Siobhan Finneran) and her subordinate DC Wesley Ross (Kadiff Kirwan). I found it funny that Johanna constantly refers to Wesley as “the infant”, as if he’s helpless and useless. But it is he who helps find Dante and discovers the footage which leads to an unsolved murder.

I suspect that the book was (is) a popular read while on holiday. The story has a pulpy feel to it that would make it right at home while enjoying a drink at the beach.

Recommended.

The Last Kingdom (Season 1)

Deb and I finished season one of The Last Kingdom last night. The first four seasons are on Netflix. Wikipedia provides an excellent synopsis of the series. Briefly, the story is set in England in 866, and focuses on Uhtred, who grows up as the son of a Saxon lord. His father is killed in battle by the Danes and is taken as a slave by Earl Ragnar. Eventually, he is considered as a son by his captor. Uhtred’s adopted family is killed by rival Danes, so he heads off to Wessex to side with Saxons. From there, he provides guidance to the young King Alfred, essentially helping to teach the Saxon’s to fight for what is there, instead of surrendering to the Danes whenever a battle is on the horizons. The Danes see the Saxon’s as timid and cowardly, and gleefully rape and pillage the English countryside. Uhtred essentially teaches King Alfred and the Saxon’s how to fight the Danes in battle, both in tactics and in ruthlessness. If you’re looking for a show to replace your Game of Thrones fix, this is a good place to start. The acting is pretty good, although some of the actors portraying the Saxon baddies overdo it a bit. The show portrays the commoners as perpetually covered in mud. This makes sense because unless you were royalty and had a castle, you really didn’t have a way to bathe. I’m guessing the regular folks smelled to high heaven back then. The battle scenes are really well done, and gruesome. They reminded me of Braveheart. Like GoT, it has its share of swordplay and feisty love interests. Uhtred has a love interest wherever he goes, the lucky bastard! A suitable drinking game for this show would be that everyone drinks whenever a character says “plow” or “hump” (which is often). The show tries to keep things realistic. There are no dragons or white walkers or sorcerers. Although there are “seers”, one of which seems a complete fraud and another who seems to have some low-level witchcraft. The female characters in this show (the “good” ones) are well written with strength and intelligence. Heck, even a nun partakes in a battle at one point! Recommended for those craving for medieval mayhem and romance.

Tigertail (Netflix)

Tigertail

Deb and I watched Tigertail on Netflix last night. We both enjoyed it. The movie tells the story of how anger and resentment in youth lead to a repressed, lonely life in middle age. Spoilers below………The story switches back and forth from the present to the past, showing how decisions made years ago have lead to family patriarch Pin-Jui being divorced, living alone and practically estranged from his daughter. In his childhood, Pin-Jui lived with grandmother on a rice farm. It is then that he meets Yuan, who becomes his best friend for several years. He meets up with Yuan again as a young adult, and it is clear that the two are very much in love. Pin-Jui hates being poor, and hates that he and his mom need to work in a dismal factory to scratch out a living. The factory foreman likes Pin-Jui, and offers his daughter’s hand in marriage and to fund their relocation to the US. Pin-Jui jumps at the chance to leave, even though he and his new wife have nothing in common and are essentially kind to each other. When Pin-Jui offers to pay for his mom to relocate to the US, she refuses because she will not know anyone in her new country. Pin-Jui works hard to support his wife, but builds a simmering resentment towards his life. He left behind his true love and the life he knew so that his mother could retire, and with that not happening, he is stuck in a life that he hates. He treats his wife with contempt and anger, and she ultimately leaves him. His daughter wants to have a relationship with him, but he is aloof and uncommunicative. Fortunately, Pin-Jui reconnects with the love of his live on Facebook. The reconnect over dinner and Yuan tells him that he needs to open up to his daughter. The movie does an effective job at showing how money and opportunity do not equate to happiness, especially when you don’t have someone you love to share them with. The scenes in New York in the ’50s were amazing in their authenticity. When Pin-Jui and his wife first enter their horrible New York apartment, I really expected either a rat or some cockroaches to scurry across the floor! The movie is an effective mix of drama, humor and romance. The soundtrack is also excellent. Solidly recommended.