TV & Streaming

Bad Education (review)

Bad Education (review)

This is based on the true story of a Long Island school superintendent (Hugh Jackman) and his assistant (Allison Janney), who embezzled millions from their system. This narrative slowly unravels their exposure, while offering an interesting character study for Jackman. Ultimately, the writing and direction don’t explore new ways of telling this “white collar criminal” story, which has been told before. Still, it’s interesting to see how a crime this astounding can happen and that’s where this film (and Jackman’s performance) is most compelling. Otherwise, it’s not especially riveting, but a fascinating exploration of this criminal endeavor and the people around it. (On HBO or Amazon Prime)

 

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

Movie website

Circus of Books (review)

Circus of Books (review)

This is a documentary about a legendary gay XXX bookstore in Los Angeles, that was also one of the country’s biggest distributors of gay porn. What makes this story so unique is that it was run since 1976 by an unassuming couple with 3 kids (they kept it a secret for many years). Their double life is shown thru interviews with the family (one of whom actually directed the film), as well as home videos and lots period footage. They deal with store issues, including actually producing erotic videos, the effect of AIDS on their staff and a legal challenge. Meanwhile, they’re raising their 3 kids in a close-knit Jewish home. While nothing about the production of this doc is especially original, the subject and this unusual couple offer a fascinating glimpse at a little-known part of gay history. (Netflix)

 

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

 

Movie website

Tales from the Loop (review)

Tales from the Loop (review)

Some science fiction relies on cool action in high tech worlds, while some focuses on the effects technology has on people. This series touches on both, as it takes a measured, dramatic approach to storytelling that’s ultimately rewarding, but requires patience to get there. The series features much of the same ensemble, but each episode focuses on the experiences of one or more residents in a town where a wondrous machine makes anything possible. Nathaniel Halpern (who wrote some of the mind-bending FX series Legion) created this show, but it has a more deliberate, less visually-dazzling style that’s populated by the clunky retro-mechanical structures inspired by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag. While some may find it pretentious and slow, I consider the style cinematically self-aware. Much of the technology is never explained and the Loop doesn’t always affect the outcomes. Still, the personal stories are compelling in their complexity and surprise. NOTE: Directors include Jodi Foster and Andrew Stanton.

(7 one-hour episodes on Amazon Prime Video)

 

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

Movie website

Extraction (review)

Extraction (review)

Fast on the heels of Liam Hemsworth’s latest, Dangerous Game on Quibi (my review), comes this even more violent, action-packed flick from his big brother Chris. He plays a mercenary who’s hired to rescue a crime lord’s kidnapped son in Bangladesh. They fight their way across a city with a constant barrage of human obstacles. This is the first directorial effort by Sam Hargrave, who was stunt coordinator on Avengers:Endgame and Captain America: Civil War (writer/director of those, Joe Russo, wrote this). His skills are the standout: insane car chases, intense fights, absurd body count and incredible camerawork. Other than the almost-continuous well-staged violence, there’s not much about the plot or performances that matters. Fans of the genre will get plenty of bruises and blows.

 

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

Movie website

Code 8 (review)

Code 8 (review)

Other than the sci-fi angle, this film’s plot is totally trite: Innocent, well-meaning man gets embroiled in a drug deal to help save his ailing mother. What makes it unique is that some of the people in this future-ish world have special “powers” that, instead of making them heroes, relegates them to being persecuted (haven’t they seen the X-Men movies?). Robbie Amell plays the central character with average leading man skills. His dilemma and the subsequent action is certainly not original or exceptional. If you’re able to get past this, you’ll be in for a very average crime drama with a very small quotient of special effects.

 

2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

 

Movie website

I’m Not OK with This (review)

I’m Not OK with This (review)

Sophia Lillis (best known for the It movies) plays an awkward teenager with burgeoning telekinetic powers. Not only does she have to deal with this shocking and confusing discovery, she has the usual misfit issues at school, including a crush on her best friend. For character humor, there’s the mildly amusing neighborhood boy (Wyatt Oleff, also from the Its), who dresses in cool vintage and takes a liking to her. In many ways, this is a typical teen drama. Even with the supernatural twist, the writing isn’t especially clever or original. The performances are sufficiently enjoyable and the story takes its time to develop. Still, the special effects are pretty cool and the final splash sets the show up for a promising season 2 (not yet announced). Interesting side note, the actors are playing characters their approximate age (as opposed to being in their mid-20s, like the ones on Outer Banks and so many other TV shows).

A Netflix series of seven 19-25 minute episodes.

 

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

Movie website

Quibi (review)

Quibi (review)

In you haven’t heard, Quibi (short for quick bites) is a new platform that only plays on cell phones and features episodes of 10 minutes or less (obviously, designed for the young cell-addicted crowd). It’s founded by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, who’ve called on all sorts of stars and directors to fill the roster (Jennifer Lopez, Chrissy Teigen, Kevin Hart, Idris Elba and Spielberg has an upcoming horror series). In attempt to build an audience, a subscription is free for a 90-day trial which includes 5-15-second ads before every viewing.

 

One cool note: every Quibi show can be watched in either horizontal or vertical orientation. I had fun switching on the fly, to see how they framed the same scene in different aspect ratios.

 

Probably the biggest draw is MOST DANGEROUS GAME, an action thriller starring Liam Hemsworth. He plays a desperate man who volunteers to be hunted by people who pay big bucks to catch and kill him. He dashes all over Detroit, enduring multiple encounters with his vicious adversaries (basically one run-in per episode). Even on the tiny screen, it looks like a big budget movie. Sadly, I can’t review the entire show, because it’s still being released in weekly parcels. Still, it’s got as much solid action as many theatrical releases.

 

I watched 1 or 2 episodes of several other shows:

 

DISMANTLED

Tituss Burgess (best known for his outrageous queen on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) makes a paltry host of this silly game show. Two chef contestants are blindfolded and covered in PPE, then blasted with a dish of food. They try to figure out the ingredients and recreate the recipe in 30 minutes, all with 2 judges commenting (Daniel Levy was on the first show). I’m not a big reality cooking show fan and the only reason I watched was for Burgess, who was disappointing.

 

 

LET’S ROLL

Tony Greenhands is billed as the world’s #1 Joint Artist. He meets with one celeb each show and makes an astounding creation full of weed. The 1st week was a deep dish pizza and 2nd was the Titanic. Yes, these are ENORMOUS joints and also pretty cool works of art. Each show is just the right length.

 

 

AQUA DONKEYS

Two deadpan slacker dudes work in pool maintenance, while having interactions with other employees and maybe some customers…I don’t know…I didn’t watch past the first one. From Funny or Die.

Sword of Trust (review)

Sword of Trust (review)

A woman travels to Alabama to get what’s left of her grandparent’s estate. Her only inheritance is a sword that may have ended the Civil War in the South’s favor (as a group of conspiracy theorists believe). She and her wife visit a pawnshop (run by Marc Maron) and the low-key misadventure begins. The cast is full of familiar faces and they do an OK job with what feels like lots of improvised dialogue. If it isn’t, then co-writer/director Lynn Shelton didn’t make the interactions sufficiently interesting to provide a fulfilling experience. There are elements of quirk in its low-budget approach that hold promise and make it mildly appealing.

 

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

 

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Outer Banks (review)

Outer Banks (review)

This guilty pleasure is aimed at a young audience, but the OBX theme (and the shirtless guys) pulled me in. Chase Stokes stars as 16 year old, who believes that his long-lost father is alive and holding the secret to buried treasure. He sets out on the hunt with his 3 best friends, a trite collection featuring the brainy one, the tough girl they have a crush on and the volatile hothead with father issues. Meanwhile, there are social conflicts with the entitled rich kids who live on the other side of the peninsula Like many high school TV shows, the cast isn’t remotely adolescent (Stokes is 27). Even so, it’s a typical teen drama with some decent plotting, if you can overlook the countless credibility issues (the 3 final issues are the most tense). I can’t say if it’s better than shows like this one on the CW (I’ve never watched them), but it is less weird the Riverdale and sufficiently entertaining.

Those who are familiar with the North Carolina locale will be surprised to find that this is shot in South Carolina with ficticious location names.  (10 one-hour episodes on Netflix)

 

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

 

Movie website

Love Wedding Repeat (review)

Love Wedding Repeat (review)

The story takes place in Rome, where Sam Claflin is about to declare his affection for a women he briefly met (Olivia Munn). An interruption disrupts their potential relationship until several years later, when his sister is getting married and Munn comes to the wedding. At this point the nuptial hijinks are supposed to start and they do…on the surface. However, none of the dialogue is especially witty and the potentially hilarious setups fall flat. Claflin is doing his handsome best to channel Hugh Grant (particularly Four Weddings and a Funeral), but he doesn’t possess the comic charm to pull it off. Munn is mildly appealing, while the supporting characters that are supposed to add quirky charm…don’t. Much of this goes back to a script that’s overwrought in its plotting and simply lacking genuinely amusing situations. Plus, there’s an embarrassingly trite soundtrack. Even with the time-shifting twist that pops up late in the film, the whole thing feels forced and not funny.

 

2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

 

Netflix website

Blow the Man Down (review)

Blow the Man Down (review)

A small Maine fishing village is the locale for this extremely mild crime drama. It revolves around several women: A trio of seniors who seem to be influential busy bodies, the woman who runs the local whorehouse (Margo Martindale) and 2 sisters whose mother has just died. When one of the siblings gets into trouble, she relies on her sis to help. Meanwhile, the elders gather and gossip, while disparaging the “madame” and her girls. The film starts out feeling like there might be a Coen Brothers influence, but the sharp cleverness of their films never manifests itself. While the characters and their performances are mildly engaging, the writer/director team of Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy didn’t create an interesting script and couldn’t make the movie even mildly tense or compelling. The addition of fishermen singing sea shanties is a rather pretentious device that doesn’t add anything but extra minutes. The film’s potential never rises above passable.

 

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

 

Amazon prime video

 

Ozark (review)

Ozark (review)

Jason Bateman stars (and regularly directs) as a financial advisor who’s also laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel. When things go horribly wrong, he and his family (including Laura Linney as his wife) move from Chicago to Missouri, where they have to figure out new ways to continue paying their debt. The first season has them coping with the drastic lifestyle change brought on by the relocation, but they pretty quickly get embroiled in local criminal activity. The subsequent seasons take their involvement to new levels of deceit, corruption and illegality. What makes this show so compelling is the intelligent writing, assured direction and strong performances. Julia Garner as the foul-mouthed, truth-speaking Ruth has become the series breakout (she recently played a totally different role in The Assistant (my review). Each season gets progressively darker, as their entanglement becomes even more perilous. The new 3rd season is especially mean-spirited. It seems like everyone has malevolent ulterior motives. Even when the pacing sometimes slows to allow for personal interactions, the overarching sense of dread permeates the show, while the acting and top-quality production help the show succeed so effectively. (3 seasons of 10 episodes on Netflix)

 

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

 

Local note: The actor who plays Roy Petty (the evil gay FBI agent) is Theatre VCU graduate Jason Butler Harner. I interviewed him last year, when he was in town to speak at commencement for School of the Arts. Here’s a link to my interview.

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