This is a pretty great week for interesting choices. There are first-rate horror, period, action, musical, anime, political thriller, and documentary offerings. Let’s get into the new shows and movies by women quickly, but first I’ll mention one other short documentary that crossed my radar.
“The Claudia Kishi Club” is a short, 17-minute documentary supporting Netflix’s new show “The Baby-Sitters Club”. It’s directed by Sue Ding and talks about young Asian-American readers being able to see themselves as a protagonist when reading the YA novel series on which the show’s based. You can watch it on Netflix here.
On to this week’s features:
Relic (digital rental)
directed by Natalie Erika James
A grandmother may have dementia, may be seeing horrors, or could be facing both. She goes missing. Her daughter and granddaughter turn up to look for her, and everything starts descending bit by bit. The film’s been compared to recent horror surprises like “Hereditary” and “The Babadook” in its slow-burn approach to psychological horror.
Director Natalie Erika James chose to make the film look as natural as possible, opting for animatronics and keeping to a single location. Perhaps the most striking visual element from the trailer is the primary use of light sources that are within the scene. The result can border on murky in moments, but it feels much closer to our reality than more cinematic lighting approaches usually do.
This is James’s first feature. The Japanese-Australian director grew up in Japan, China, and Australia, and she’s discussed the influence that Asian horror has had on her filmmaking – that horror often comes from restraint and suggestion.
First Cow (Amazon)
directed by Kelly Reichardt
This hit theaters in March, right when the pandemic was closing everything down. If you know Kelly Reichardt’s name, it’s from character dramas that feel quietly real. They can be both affirming and heartbreaking. Her best known film is “Wendy and Lucy”, about a woman who’s living in poverty and loses her dog.
“First Cow” is about a cook and a Chinese immigrant in the 1800s. They start a business with a cow whose milk they don’t own.
Some directors can present entire worlds with all their loudness and complexity. Reichardt is a director who finds in quietness the world inside a character – worlds we may never know because we overlook the types of people her stories are about. Witnessing their daily lives communicates what should be an obvious humanity that we otherwise pass by and ignore in real life.
She’s often shown a fascination with harsh living and the dreams and determination of people who live on the edges of their society. She doesn’t glorify poverty, though. She just remembers the people who are often numbers and causes are still people who have stories to tell.
You can watch “First Cow” with an Amazon subscription.
The Old Guard (Netflix)
directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood
“The Old Guard” is based on a graphic novel series about soldiers who have lived for centuries.
Charlize Theron has relentlessly carved out territory for women in action films. It’s easy to think this is more recent, with “Mad Max: Fury Road” and the “Atomic Blonde” franchise. Yet she’s been doing this since “The Italian Job” and “Aeon Flux” in the early 2000s. KiKi Layne has impressed in recent films like “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Native Son”.
Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood is perhaps best known for romance movies like “Love & Basketball” and the (very underrated) “Beyond the Lights”. A great director is a great director, though, and can usually cross genres easily.
You can watch “The Old Guard” with a Netflix subscription.
Little Voice (Apple TV series)
showrunner Jessie Nelson
“Little Voice” follows a musician trying to find her way in the world. One thing I like about the trailer is the presentation of a man who’s emotionally supportive of a woman pursuing her creative and career goals. This is something that is still all too rarely presented in movies and shows. Of course, it’s a romantic comedy and musical, so he already has a girlfriend.
We might be in an age of really exceptional romantic comedy series. Just this year we’ve already had the exceptional “Never Have I Ever” (created by Mindy Kaling and showrun by Lang Fisher) and the exceedingly charming “Love, Victor” (co-showrun by Elizabeth Berger). Huh, a genre that’s finally opening itself to the other 50% of the talent pool by seeing women run the largest new shows is doing really well, who would’ve thought?
“Little Voice” showrunner Jessie Nelson directed “Love the Coopers” and “I Am Sam”. The latter was controversial for whether Sean Penn should have played a man with an intellectual disability. The film did cast two lesser roles with actors who had intellectual disabilities.
“Little Voice” looks admirable for its diversity. It does have a lead character with autism (I don’t want to compare the two, as autism is a developmental disability, a category which includes intellectual disabilities but does not necessarily indicate one). Thankfully, some lessons may have been learned since 2001 and this role has been cast with an autistic actor, Kevin Valdez.
You can watch “Little Voice” with an Apple TV subscription.
Japan Sinks: 2020 (Netflix series)
series director Pyeon-Gang Ho
Stop giving 2020 ideas, please! “Japan Sinks: 2020” follows a family after devastating earthquakes hit Japan. Its release was initially scheduled to coincide with the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan (really, what was this plan?), but the pandemic has obviously indefinitely postponed the Olympics.
The big name on this used in all the advertising is Masaaki Yuasa, who directed “Devilman Crybaby”. He’s the director here, but there’s often something in anime shows called a series director. In this case, that’s Pyeon-Gang Ho. The meanings of these roles can cover a lot of different territory. Masaaki Yuasa could just be lending his name and overseeing things from what amounts to a producer role, he could be deeply involved in every decision, or it could be somewhere in the middle.
A series director generally makes the daily creative decisions about the show and would rate somewhere between (in U.S. series terms) a showrunner and an episode director (who directs all the episodes). But just like in the U.S., the level of creative control and responsibility that entails can scale up or down depending on the other people involved.
Does Pyeon-Gang Ho deserve the same credit as Masaaki Yuasa? More? Less? It’s hard to tell without diving deeper, especially because materials advertising the show will clearly highlight the far more famous Masaaki Yuasa’s involvement.
You can watch “Japan Sinks: 2020” with a Netflix subscription.
Stateless (Netflix limited series)
showrunner Elise McCredie
directed by Emma Freeman, Jocelyn Moorhouse
“Stateless” is an Australian limited series that focuses on the country’s abhorrent treatment of refugees and immigrants. Much like the U.S., Australia has a large-scale, privatized concentration camp industry. Human rights abuses and government cover-ups have been widespread, journalists barred from facilities, and charity workers have reported the regular assault and sexual abuse of camp prisoners.
“Stateless” centers on the refugees and their families here, as well as a bureaucrat neck-deep in controversy. It stars Yvonne Strahovski, Fayssal Bazzi, Clarence Ryan, and Cate Blanchett (who also produces) among others in a standout Australian ensemble cast.
Showrunner Elise McCredie started out as an actress in Australian TV, but started gaining ground as a writer and director more recently.
Three episodes each are directed by Emma Freeman and Jocelyn Moorhouse. Freeman is a regular Australian TV director who’s worked on “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” and “Tideland”, just to name a pair of shows that are familiar in the U.S. Moorhouse is a writer-director who worked extensively in the 1990s before fading for about a decade starting in the 2000s. It was the 2015 surprise “The Dressmaker”, starring Kate Winslet, that seemed to announce her return.
You can watch “Stateless” with a Netflix subscription.
Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado (Netflix)
co-directed by Cristina Costantini
Walter Mercado was a famous astrologer who was watched by tens of millions. He was gender-noncomforming, yet loved and admired in millions of Latin-American Catholic households. He vanished from the public eye at the peak of his fame. “Mucho Mucho Amor” explores what happened.
Cristina Costantini is a documentary director who’s hit the ground running in her first few years. Her most well-known documentary before this is “Science Fair”, which followed competitors in the International Science and Engineering Fair.
You can watch “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” with a Netflix subscription.
Bofuri: I Don’t Want to Get Hurt, So I’ll Max Out My Defense (Hulu, Funimation series)
co-directed by Mirai Minato
There’s a popular anime subgenre that follows characters in MMO (massively multiplayer online) games. Here, it’s a woman named Kaede Honjo who begins playing but doesn’t want her character to get hurt. She decides to put every skill point into defense. This leaves her slow and lacking skills, but virtually unassailable.
The series balances plot in reality, in the game, and then within events in the game, but is centered on in-game battles and adventures. Since there’s no trailer in English, I went with a clip, but the series has both subtitled and dubbed options available.
Mirai Minato is co-directing with Shin Onuma.
Your Excellency (Netflix)
directed by Funke Akindele
“Your Excellency” is a political satire from Nigeria that asks what happens if a disastrous and unqualified billionaire runs for president, but does unexpectedly well because of social media. Hmm, I can’t imagine.
The Nigerian film industry is often referred to as Nollywood, and it’s seen a number of movies cross over into American consciousness – generally with over-the-top scenes shared on YouTube. Netflix has actually done a pretty good job on including a number of Nollywood films. There’s a better collection there than in most other places accessible from the U.S.
Director Funke Akindele has acted in a number of Nigerian films and series, but has progressively found more opportunities for writing, producing, and directing. “Your Excellency” became the fourth highest-grossing Nigerian film of 2019.
You can watch “Your Excellency” with a Netflix subscription.
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