Sunday, February 06, 2022

Seen in January 

The mysterious vault from the Apple TV+ series, Foundation. Image via The Movie Db.

Clearly, the long nights and cold days of January meant I finished seasons I was watching months before and made time for more films, which explains how this month's listing is longer than December's. I hope you find something to amuse you après ski or a walk in the snow.

Sly and the Family Stone wow the Harlem crowd in Summer of Soul. Image via The Movie Db.

Summer of Soul
In 1969, a summer festival took place over 6 weeks in Harlem, New York. It happened at the same time as a more famed festival in Woodstock, New York. Guess which one got all the attention. For decades footage of the Harlem music festival languished until brought to life recently. Concert scenes are intercut with contemporary interviews of some who attended and some who performed, providing greater context for what we were seeing. And what we see is great. Artists such as Stevie Wonder, Sly and Family Stone, Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone, played through heat, sun and rain while a large appreciative crowd swayed, danced and sang along. While the festival may have been a response to the previous summer's violent protests, it also seemed a harbinger of the increasing confidence and cultural influence of Black Americans.

Big Mouth S05
From "love bugs" to "hate worms" to a puppet-filled Christmas parody, this sometimes crass, sometimes sweet animated comedy from Nick Kroll (and others) continues to be worthy, if somewhat more "ribald" companion piece to Netflix's other adolescent sex comedy series, Sex Education.

The Suicide Squad
This second version of the previous "Suicide Squad" is greatly improved by writer/director James Gunn. If you don't already know, the premise is that a lower tier of DC Comic villains are released from prison to form a team to do dirty work for the government. This dirty work offers some no-win situation against all odds that is only complicated by an explosive device implanted in the villains' necks in case they go "off book" or step out of line (thus the title, The Suicide Squad). Despite the improved writing and film making that embraces the absurdity of the premise and characters (that range from trained assassins to a talking shark-man hybrid), this film still didn't offer that much of anything new. John Cena as "Peacemaker", a killer who would "murder every last man, woman and child for peace" is a surprise standout, which is probably what led to his spinoff series on HBO.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Louis Wain. Image via The Movie Db.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain
Amazon Prime
Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Louis Wain, an "eccentric" British painter and illustrator who, in the late 19th century Britain, found great success creating images of cats in any number of social settings. Think of dogs playing poker, but with cats at a Christmas Ball. I put "eccentric" in quotations because of course, Wain was in fact suffering from mental health issues. The film creates a cliché of a lonely but talented man, stressed with being the primary wage earner for his many female siblings, finds love in an unconventional relationship with his sisters' governess. While married, their life is a slice of heaven but once Wain's wife dies from cancer, his fragile mental health falters. Despite his success as an in demand artist, Wain failed to manage his work or copyrights, was distracted by his fascination with electricity and the complication of one of his sisters own struggles with mental health. Cumberbatch's respectful and nuanced performance overcomes the trope of a tormented artist who loses his moorings when the love of his life dies and the film also reflects a moment in history when the mentally ill were beginning to be treated with greater humanity.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Following the passing of Hollywood icon, Sidney Poitier, we sought out some of his best known performances. Filmed in 1967, this film tells of two white, affluent California liberals whose daughter surprises them with her whirlwind romance and engagement to a successful physician who just happens to be Black. Another twist is that Poitier's character finds it difficult to tell his parents that he's engaged to a young white woman. As the two families meet, the nature of everyone's concerns are laid bare. The primary fear is that this mixed race couple will have a very difficult life, as will their children and as is pointed out at one point, was at the time, still illegal in 16 or 17 states. The laws have changed but the difficulties remain.

Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones. Image via The Movie Db.

The Defiant Ones
From 1957 and the same director as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, this is another racially charged story. Sidney Poitier plays Cullen and Tony Curtis plays Joker, who are two escaped convicts chained together. Running through a swamp at night or the woods by day, the two argue and fight but realize they have to work together if they are going to outrun the law. Meanwhile, on the other side, two lawmen argue about the best way to track the escapees, in effect becoming a mirror image of Curtis and Poitier. Despite their differences, including Joker’s racist ideas about Cullen, the two cons bond over what they have in common and ultimately, Joker sees Cullen as a man, imperfect but not unlike himself. It’s been suggested that the more we see people from other cultures and races as individuals the less likely we are to hold stereotypical ideas about them, which is something this film shows. The shared humanity between the convicts on the run and the lawman pursuing them is the central and lasting theme of this film.

Marvel's big cosmic movie based on the comic book re-imagining of the gods of old. The basis for the film is that really all those gods or heroes of myths like Athena, Mercury or Icarus were really this group of Eternals sent to Earth to protect it from a species of monsters known as “deviants”. The real reason they were sent to Earth was to protect the planet long enough to bring about an event that would destroy the Earth and all those who call it home. Despite bringing in Oscar winning director Chloé Zhao, known for her beautiful handheld camera work and intimate portrayals of her subjects, this film is a bit of a slow moving clunker. I’m not sure why, but the movie just lacks the liveliness of other Marvel films. It might be the strange and preposterously cosmic scale of the plot that meant the film spent more time explaining itself than being itself.

This image kind of says all you need to know about The Witcher. Image via The Movie Db.

The Witcher S01
Another fantasy series based on a video game made in the same mould as Game of Thrones. I'm not sure I can do the story justice. Basically the protagonist, Geralt of Rivia, played by Superman’s Henry Cavill, is some sort of mutant trained from childhood to fight evil beasties. In this world, witches and warlocks are advisors to kingdoms at war until they tire of their noble bosses not taking their advice and begin their own war. Or something? Even after watching the whole season I wasn’t really that clear on who was who, or where was what. But if you can keep track of those details, then this lush, extravagantly produced fantasy show might be for you.

Jared Harris as mathematician/prophet, Hari Seldon in Foundation. Image via The Movie Db.

Foundation S01
Apple TV+
Like the sci-fi novel Dune, the Foundation series from Isaac Asimov seemed unmake-able. The innocuously named mathematician and soothsayer Hari Seldon has used advanced maths to predict the downfall of an empire hundreds (or thousands?) of years old run by a dynasty, not of a family line but of clones of the original emperor. This prediction makes Seldon a threat to the Empire and a prophet to his followers. The Foundation of the title is intended to be a vast storehouse of knowledge so that humanity can rebuild itself after its inevitable collapse. Yet, there is more to the story than meets the eye. Despite a plot that covers galaxies and hundreds of years with plenty of timeline hopping characters and plots, the series maintains clarity and suspense that would surprise the casual reader. Knowing the show runner approached Apple with an 8-season arch only adds to the idea this thing will go deeper than I ever imagined.

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