All posts by basilmarinerchase

The Most Real Star Wars Has Ever Felt — “Andor”

The slowest, most personal story in Star Wars may also be its most expansive and meaningful. “Andor” tells the story of Cassian Andor, one of the heroes of Star Wars prequel movie “Rogue One”. This is a prequel to that prequel, which sounds like a lot of homework for the viewer – but no previous Star Wars knowledge is actually needed to understand and enjoy it. It’s a refreshing change in the franchise that we’ve got something which could easily stand as its own science-fiction entry.

Diego Luna stars as Andor, down on his luck and fusing scheme to scheme as best he can to survive. One night, he goes to a club in a company town hoping to track someone down. Two security officers harass him for no reason other than having the privilege of doing so without repercussion. It goes badly for them. Andor may only have days to find a way off-planet.

This, we’re given to understand, is his origin story on joining the fledgling Rebellion against the Empire. Yet it’s not his only origin story. Flashbacks show a very different life, as part of an indigenous people on a planet the Empire’s gutted for minerals and metals. The two origins increasingly echo each other, the twin backstories reflecting tragedies as large as genocide, and as personal as being trapped in a cycle of endless false starts.

It’s enough to make you angry, and this is where “Andor” might be one of the truest Star Wars entries in a long time. The original Star Wars trilogy drew from westerns, samurai films, and fantasy, sure, but it also drew from the other popular genres of its time: conceptual sci-fi, protest films, spy cinema, and exploitation movies.

These threads have largely been dropped from other Star Wars properties. “The Last Jedi” might be a standout commentary on the need for protest and rebellion, but it does so in a very modern way. I love it for that, but much of that original Star Wars aesthetic was replaced. The prequel trilogy and other shows have left those genres behind, too, so it’s hardly alone. The major genre throughlines we recognize – the samurai, western, and fantasy elements – they all survive.

Those less recognized elements have given way. Dystopia and exploitation in Star Wars has become a passing set design rather than a core motivation, and you can’t really get existentially angry at a passing set design. “Rogue One” stands out as special because it touches on some of those lost threads, but it only has so long to do it. “Andor” gets twelve 40-ish minute episodes, so it dwells on these lost ethics, considers why they exist and why they give this franchise life.

“Andor” is an evolution of those 70s genre threads the original trilogy utilized, where the climax is held off as we learn about a world and its people, its dystopia, how it became this way, how that way reflects our own path. Some might call it too slow. They’re absolutely right: “Andor” is extremely slow and those viewers may rightly be disinterested. If you took a look at “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” and you found that too slow, it’s a car with enough jet engines strapped to it to make some bad decisions on a salt flat when you compare it to “Andor”.

“Andor” is the slowest series I’ve seen all year. Is that a bad thing? What’s too slow for one person can be a meticulous build-up for another if the show’s done work to make it meaningful and put its details in the right places. “Andor” knows exactly what to do with slow. Slowness is a paintbrush in writer Tony Gilroy’s and director Toby Haynes’ hands. Would I want all Star Wars series to be like this? Not a chance. Do I want a franchise with this many entries to be able to do this at some point? I’d say its a requirement – if you’re not going this far off-piste by now, you’ll just be stuck in endless repetition.

Outside of “Andor”, the franchise has become too obsessed with tying all loose ends together. A backwater desert planet like Tatooine is now the central hub of destiny for half its named characters. It’s like if the MCU suddenly realized everyone had connections to Dayton, Ohio and we had to spend the next four films tying everyone together there in ways that are more and more contrived. That Star Wars has vaguely made it work across the underrated “The Book of Boba Fett” and a solid “Obi-Wan Kenobi” is a testament to the skills of its writers, artists, and actors…but you can see in how immediately classic “The Mandalorian” has become just how much they could accomplish if let loose on some new parts of this universe.

Disney hasn’t made a bad Star Wars live-action series, and what I’ve seen of the various animated series has also been good. At the same time, they are absolutely running up against the point of diminishing returns when it comes to all these series having to reference and tie in to both current and previous work in the franchise. The suspension of disbelief about everyone tripping over each other in the same corner of this supposedly vast universe has become extremely elastic. It feels on the verge of snapping hard. If Star Wars is a road trip across the universe, Tatooine is the driveway you never leave.

That’s why I’m thankful for “Andor”, which treats the Star Wars universe as far-reaching enough that a relatively unfamiliar character and a new location can exist in our minds without ever needing to name-drop or tie-in. This is sci-fi, it’s supposed to extend into places unknown. What’s alien out there can make us reflect on what’s alien in us, what we would or wouldn’t accept for ourselves, how we accept others or fail to. It can’t be unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and tense if it’s holding our hand and throwing our favorite guests at us with the speed of a late-night show.

Show me a universe that sweeps from tale to tale and I’ll keep asking if we can spend longer at the new stops. Sometimes there’s value in not being able to, since our imaginations can yearn for all these aspects we’ve only glimpsed. Yet to be a storytelling universe of consequence, you’ve got to focus in on one person in a new place from time to time.

Game designer Warren Spector once described his dream game as a “One City Block RPG”. It would simulate one city block perfectly, immersively, and let you interact with anyone and everything in it. It would be so detailed, with so many daily routines, that it could exist as a world unto itself, as perfect a simulation of reality as can be achieved.

Needless to say, we play games to enjoy art and escape, and there would need to be something else involved in order to grab very many players. The ethic of this idea has rung true in many modern designs, however. “Gone Home” simulates one house with engrossing attention to detail. The upcoming “Shadows of Doubt” looks to do this with a city so long as the detail you want is voxel noir. Immersive sims have long sought to achieve a selectively deep take on this level of detail in service of knocking people out and stealing their fancy candlesticks.

Before I go too far afield and you wonder if I accidentally dropped part of another review in, the point is that this same ethic can serve a series. You can show me every place in a universe, but if I don’t get to visit one city block in it for an extended period of time to understand how a place and its people fit into that universe, then what do all those places really mean? How do a people see their place in it, how do they dream about it, what dreams about it have broken or run their course, how do they fight for and struggle against their roles in it? That’s what gives a universe meaning. You can stay there too long without coming up with a cogent take on it (hi, Tatooine), but “Andor” gives us someplace new that defines itself by this level of detail. Sometimes that’s sad or haunting, sometimes that’s angering or frustrating, but every one of those emotions is an investment in the story being told that helps us identify with its characters and the risks they take.

“Andor” takes this approach with a bit more than a city block, but the majority of its story does focus in a company town that exists to serve a salvage yard. By doing this, by focusing in so precisely, in such minute, studied detail, we understand how one incident – Andor’s run-in with the police – can spark a cascade of repercussions, each bounding against the city’s limit and swelling back to intersect with another repercussion, creating some new, stronger wave that smashes into those limits and comes surging back. By knowing characters’ daily routines, we can see how the small interruptions to those routines speak to monumental sea changes in the direction of that city. It’s a stunning way to look at the Star Wars universe, on a deeply personal level that hasn’t been explored before, with a respect for its reality as a universe unto itself, all mounting toward a sense of shattering that as a viewer I both feared and needed.

Pair this with Andor’s twin origin stories – one speaking to surviving an “incidental” environmental genocide, the other speaking to a sense of survival that only treads water – and you have a story that’s presented with cold, painstaking procedural detail, and the towering ache of surviving the horrors with which that meticulous build-up eventually lashes out.

What is justifiably slow to some viewers will be absorbing and emotionally captivating to others. I found “Andor” to be charged and resonant, a masterwork of escalating tension, its glimpses of beauty and loss like a gut punch because every morsel of our attention and emotional investment is recognized and accounted for. “Andor” is the most real the Star Wars universe has ever felt. To some, that’s a disappointment, and that’s fair. To others, it opens up a universe of possibilities.

You can watch “Andor” on Disney+.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to the Patreon! It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

New Shows + Movies by Women — September 23, 2022

We’re catching up on the last two weeks. The focus for this feature is still on what you can access digitally. Obviously, there are films in theaters like Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King”, which came in #1 at the U.S. box office this past weekend, as well as Olivia Wilde’s “Don’t Worry Darling”, starting its platformed release in a limited number of theaters this week. These are two of the larger, most-talked about films by women this year.

You can judge whether it’s safe for you to go to the theater where you live. Check out your state’s and county’s COVID information to see where you stand. For the time being, I’m going to maintain the focus on what can be accessed from home.

This is for a few reasons. I have friends with autoimmune issues – the world where we tolerate COVID and accept it as part of life is still one that can easily kill them. The lesser risk I would take is a life-threatening one to them. Even if they remain bubbled and I don’t see them, I just can’t get on board with treating where we’re at as normal when that normal assumes a world where they can’t go outside again. To leave them behind is to treat them as lesser, to treat their humanity as fungible. If my normal is their daily terror, then why would that be my normal?

I also have family living in states that have scrapped COVID tracking and monitoring entirely. I may be comparatively safe going to the theater where I live, but they aren’t where they live. I don’t just write for the people where I live, and I don’t want to normalize going to the theater in states where COVID remains a larger risk. Beyond this, I have readers in other countries. I have no idea where some of them are at in terms of COVID, nor where their laws land.

Is this being too careful? I don’t think so, but if so, so what? I’ve done my fair share of nonsense that risked my health, safety, and even my life once or twice. If I’m too careful in a pandemic, good. We’ve seen what not being careful enough is like.

Please understand that I’ll cover films like “The Woman King” and “Don’t Worry Darling” just like I cover films by men – once they arrive on streaming and can be accessed from home.

It’s not the way I want to cover things; I miss going to the theater and certainly I take a hit by not covering some of the larger films that are currently in theaters. Only you can judge how safe and responsible it is to go to the theater where you live. I’m looking for a time when I can return to covering films in theaters and I hope that’s coming up soon. Until then, the focus on this site and in this feature will remain what can be watched from home. I hope you understand.

New series by women come from Australia, Brazil, Thailand, and the U.S. New films by women come from France, Spain, and the U.S.

NEW SERIES

Vampire Academy (Peacock)
showrunners Marguerite MacIntyre, Julie Plec

After the death of her parents, Lissa returns to a private academy for vampires. Her best friend can sense all her thoughts, and the two try to keep their friendship intact amid the unpredictable political machinations of both vampires and boarding school.

Showrunners Marguerite MacIntyre and Julie Plec have worked together on various vampire shows, including “The Vampire Diaries”, “The Originals”, and “Legacies”, so this is their wheelhouse.

You can watch “Vampire Academy” on Peacock. The four-episode premiere happened on Sep. 15, with another coming yesterday, so five of the 10 episodes are out already. A new episode arrives every Thursday.

Thai Cave Rescue (Netflix)
co-showrunner Dana Ledoux Miller

This Thai series tells the story of 12 boys and their soccer coach who are stranded within flooded caves in 2018. It’s based on the real rescue attempts.

Dana Ledoux Miller showruns with Michael Russell Gunn. She’s written on “Narcos” and “Kevin Can F**k Himself”.

You can watch “Thai Cave Rescue” on Netflix. All 6 episodes are out.

Heartbreak High (Netflix)
showrunner Hannah Carroll Chapman
mostly directed by women

Rebooting a classic 90s Australian show, “Heartbreak High” follows the lives of students navigating the social pressures of high school. It’s gotten particular praise for its portrayal of autism, with an autistic role for once played by an autistic actress in Chloe Hayden.

Showrunner and writer Hannah Carroll Chapman has written on some major Australian shows of the past few years, including “Home and Away” and “The Heights”. Directors include Gracie Otto and Jessie Oldfield.

You can watch “Heartbreak High” on Netflix. All 8 episodes are out immediately.

Only for Love (Netflix)
directed by women

Two lovers start a band. At their first success, one is offered a solo career. She pursues it, but as they try to maintain the relationship, the band’s new singer complicates matters.

The Brazilian series is directed by Ana Luiza Azevedo, Gisele Barroco, and Joana Mariani.

You can watch “Only for Love” on Netflix. All 6 episodes are out.

NEW MOVIES

Gagarine (MUBI)
co-directed by Fanny Liatard

In this French film, young Youri dreams of being an astronaut, but already that dream is threatened as he fights to save his housing project from demolition.

Fanny Liatard directs with Jeremey Trouilh. It is her first feature film.

You can watch “Gagarine” on MUBI.

Do Revenge (Netflix)
directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson

A mash-up of “Strangers on a Train” and “Clueless”, “Do Revenge” finds two social outcasts at a private high school agreeing to commit each other’s revenge. As a dark comedy, it skillfully deals with issues of revenge porn, privilege, and performative allyship. I praised it as a big surprise in my review. If I’m honest, the trailer conveys the aesthetic but doesn’t necessarily do the story or its comedy justice.

Director and co-writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson ought to be a major name before too long. She co-wrote “Thor: Love and Thunder” with Taika Waititi, produced on “Hawkeye”, created and showran “Sweet/Vicious”, and wrote and directed “Someone Great”.

You can watch “Do Revenge” on Netflix.

Lou (Netflix)
directed by Anna Foerster

A girl is kidnapped as a storm rages. Her mother can only turn to the mysterious loner next door for help. Jurnee Smollett stars, with Allison Janney as the badass loner.

Anna Foerster has directed on “Westworld”, “Jessica Jones”, and “Outlander”. Her journey’s an interesting one. She started out as a director of photography for visual effects units in films like “Independence Day”, “Alien: Resurrection”, and “Pitch Black”. This led to jobs as a second unit director and aerial director of photography until she got her first directing break on “Criminal Minds” a decade ago.

You can watch “Lou” on Netflix.

Mighty Flash (MUBI)
directed by Ainhoa Rodriguez

“Mighty Flash”, or “Destello Bravio”, is a surreal Spanish drama that tells the story of a village stuck in time going back generations. Only older people remain, repeating traditions as the town dies.

This is the first film from Ainhoa Rodriguez after directing on Spanish TV series.

You can watch “Mighty Flash” on MUBI.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

Clueless with a Vengeance — “Do Revenge”

What “Clueless” once did with Jane Austen, “Do Revenge” does with Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith. The original “Strangers on a Train” tells the noir tale of two passing strangers agreeing to commit vengeance for the other. It’s the perfect crime because no one could ever suspect they know each other – the only time they’ve met is this one moment, without witness. Naturally, “Do Revenge” transposes this into a teen comedy.

Camila Mendes plays Drea, a student at a private high school who – despite being a scholarship kid – has managed to become the most popular girl in school. That is, until a private video she films for her boyfriend is leaked.

Maya Hawke plays Eleanor, a quiet wallflower transferring to Drea’s high school. The pair meet at a summer tennis camp. Eleanor was once outed as gay, her confidant not only betraying her trust, but also inventing a story that posed her as a predator.

Drea wants vengeance on her ex-boyfriend Max. Eleanor wants vengeance on Carissa. Neither can approach their target – they’d be seen coming a mile away. They agree to swap targets and do each other’s revenge.

You’ll lean one way or the other hearing that description. If you think that’s your jam, then yes it is. “Do Revenge” is exactly what you’re expecting, and much better than you’d anticipate.

If you’re wary of it, that’s why I made the “Clueless” comparison. It’s not just about the premise, in that both transpose classic stories into teen comedies. It’s about how well each pulls it off. “Clueless” nails the etiquette-as-set piece ethic of Austen, while “Do Revenge” understands the tension of Hitchcock and Highsmith isn’t told through the vengeance, but rather in the evolving power dynamic between the two strangers.

On a surface level, comedies can be measured pretty simply. Did you laugh, and do you feel good thinking back about what you laughed at? “Do Revenge” nails its jokes, in-joking social awareness, lampooning what bigots imagine ‘woke’ culture to be, and satirizing the performative allyship that mires forward progress.

What about the other part? Do you feel good thinking back on what you laughed at? Does its memory spark joy and whatnot? Go with me on a tangent. “Do Revenge” isn’t technically a remake, and there aren’t many good remakes of Hitchcock films to start with – but if it was and there were, it’d be the best. Wow, what a strong if-if-then statement. Brush it to the side, it’s nonsense. What’s past it is what’s interesting. Remakes need a reason to be remade; otherwise, what’s the point? “Do Revenge” has some of the best reasons to take this premise and reimagine what it’s capable of showing us.

“Do Revenge” isn’t just window dressing Hitchcock/Highsmith as a teen comedy. Celeste Ballard and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson (who also directs) completely rethink and rewrite what the “Strangers on a Train” premise can discuss about violence and hierarchy. What can it tackle in this moment in time, when people just trying to survive are already exhausted by con artists, cults, performative allyship, and the performance required in response to endure all these just to make it to the point where we forget who the hell we’re trying to survive as in the first place.

The jokes in “Do Revenge” riff on co-opted narratives, on defining social value through cultism, and on how characters can spin identity in a way that misrepresents the reason it’s important. These are all questions the U.S. can’t even process in a responsible way right now. This is the same week a bunch of MLM tupperware party racists can’t process that a fictional mermaid from fictional Atlantica in the fictional “The Little Mermaid” who’s going to sing a bunch of calypso- and reggae-infused songs could be Black. It’s not that the Disney animated version co-opted that music and identity, it’s that returning it is a violation of something, who knows, buy the mug, subscribe and click that bell. Suddenly they’re the victims of…I don’t really know what and neither do they because they made up that victimhood – but 40% of the country signs up for the newsletter.

There is a need to laugh at this, and to do so viciously in a way that’s a kindness to ourselves, to laugh as a type of primal scream (which also features). Do I feel good thinking back on what I laughed at in “Do Revenge”? You’re damn straight. Thank writers like these that someone’s reminding us how ridiculous it is. There’s a clarity that comes with being able to make fun of all this, not just at the level of pointing it out, but at the level of recognizing what it does to us.

In this way, the high school setting is a perfect choice – cliques offer a constant ability to force people into roles others define. The ability to erase identity even as it’s co-opted, of who has the ability to play victim better, informs Drea and Eleanor’s ability to even take vengeance on their targets. Max milks endless sympathy out of the school for the leak of Drea’s private video, even as the school shuns her for sending it. That’s one of the most realistic elements I’ve seen in movies.

The comedy doesn’t just work, it excels, it aims and sinks teeth. What about everyone delivering it?

Mendes and Hawke are both good, but Hawke’s leveling a performance that you usually don’t see in a teen comedy. She’s reminiscent of both her parents – Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke. Obviously that goes for appearance, but I mean in terms of nuance. She’s doing so many of the little things it took Ethan Hawke most of his career to figure out, and she has Thurman’s preternatural awareness for how the camera interprets eyeline, posture, and blocking. Maya Hawke’s is one of the best comedy performances of the year.

The filmmaking goes the extra mile as well. Design, staging, and cinematography all fuse to create some unique visual motifs – particularly a use of symmetry used in a discomfiting way. Visual themes repeat and invert – then poke fun at themselves just enough to remind you of ways other films in the genre are being echoed or subverted.

The writing stands out. I already covered landing both the jokes and the intent, but a comedy can be many things. Laughing is the main goal, but in between those laughs does it add a situational cleverness that keeps me smiling and engaged? Does it have that darkly ironic tone that keeps me needing to know what happens next? Is there contrast – is it just big, isolated jokes, or is there a pattering of rapid-fire jokes mixed in? Does it mix the hanging punchline with the big set-up, the visual gag with running banter? If the natural rhythm of the screenplay runs through different ways of being funny, then it’s not just the jokes that are funny – it’s also the surprise at what kind of joke is being told in each moment. It staggers my anticipation, and when I can’t predict the timing in the back of my head as a viewer, that means the comedy has full mastery over its timing.

I honestly didn’t expect a whole lot from “Do Revenge” starting out, but it’s a viciously smart comedy that holds your interest and evokes catharsis. It’s full of wacky hijinks, visually engaging filmmaking, a surprisingly intense story, a weirdly intact 90s ethic and musical score, an absolutely slayed performance by Maya Hawke. Everything I look for in a film like this, “Do Revenge” surpasses in as varied yet cohesive a way as I could want.

You can watch “Do Revenge” on Netflix.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to the Patreon! It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

The Shot When I Knew “Arcane” Was Special

When I write about “Arcane”, I cry. When I search for images of it to run in an article, I start shedding tears. When I go through videos to see which one shows off its animation without too many spoilers, I’m overwhelmed. It wasn’t always this way. I went into the show, based off the video game “League of Legends”, with no detailed knowledge. The trailer looked interesting, the animation a potentially complex blend of oil painting, art nouveau and art deco, splash art, graffiti, scratch art, pop art, you name it. It was a shot in the dark, though. I had no expectations. Its opening scene is abruptly powerful and I was visually impressed by its opening heist, but content-wise, it’s any old cutscene. Then the street fight happened, and one shot told me I could be watching something remarkable.

You see the shot above. Vi has just returned with her gang from a botched amateur heist. Another gang tries to take the sack of stolen items that’s their only reward. The two sides fight, Vi’s younger sister Powder backed up against a wall and gripping the bag for dear life. Amidst a gritty, dusty, sloppy fight, we get a wide shot in slow motion, the blue-haired Powder at its center.

There is terror here, the fear of a child in danger, worried for her sister and friends yet incapable of helping in any way. The best she can do is cower and not get in the way. There is also a reverence to the shot. Its symmetry, stillness, and the separation of characters evokes the tableau of a stained glass window, as do the rays of light.

The sepia suggestions, that reverence, it begins to suggest nostalgia for this moment in a show we just started watching. And yet these are the good times, a moment of golden, preserved memory before far worse arrives. The music evokes a longing and yearning, as if you shouldn’t want this moment to pass.

The reason I react to “Arcane” the way I do, even a year later, is because the show is about losing what’s important – people who’ve died, illusions of fairness in the world, even memories and realities that are questioned. This moment is real. As violent and terrifying as it is, it serves as an anchor point in the middle of trauma.

It also describes Powder’s inability to help, and how Vi is torn between becoming a leader and taking care of her sister. One distracts from the other, and Powder is keenly aware of this. It describes Vi’s gang as the best at their amateurish level of theft and fighting, before a world they can’t possibly contend with crashes down on them. It’s their last moment in a reality when this is the worst they have to face, when they can go toe-to-toe against what threatens them. This will be gone soon.

The moment is deeply worrying for Powder, and it describes Vi’s inability to both fight and protect her. Yet it’s also a halcyon state, one memory that’s incorruptible amid so many that are. Powder’s later memories are represented through scratches on the film, a reality she aggressively tries to remove and overwrite for herself no matter how much it haunts her. As the show gets much, much darker and the audience grapples with just how much is erased and taken from certain characters, this shot and this scene also become more meaningful to us. It’s the last moment where ideals remain intact, where these characters preserve a more innocent understanding of their place in the world, and likewise the audience preserves more innocent ideas of what these characters will have to endure, as well as our preconceptions about Western animation’s ability to discuss trauma.

When I named “Arcane” the best show of last year, I said it was one of the best series ever made. I told you that if you take its trio of three-episode acts as films, it’s the best trilogy since “Lord of the Rings”. You’d think those kinds of strong feelings for a show would fade. Sometimes that happens; it’s only natural for your top choices to shuffle over time. Hell, I understand if you think I was just being hyperbolic or overexcited. Yet I just keep thinking of “Arcane” and what it does. The more I look back at it, the more I revisit scenes, the better I think it is. There are so many visuals in it that can be pulled apart to reveal what it’s saying for its characters and world. There are so many echoes throughout, visual themes that dominate each character’s story, movements and shots that repeat as characters betray or become who they are. The entire story is told early on, but only in ways you can understand if you’ve already watched it all. Foreshadowing isn’t everything, it’s just one tool out of many for a storyteller, but I’ve never seen anything master that tool the way “Arcane” does.

Rarely does analyzing a shot or scene evoke so much emotion, yet the entire show is sequences that can be unfolded just like this. “Arcane” gives us this shot of poor Powder backed against the wall, scared for herself and her loved ones, desperate yet unable to help. It’s one of the first sequences in the first episode. It tells us this is a cherished memory. If this is what’s cherished, how much changes for her? If this violence is nostalgia, how will her norms be shaped? If Vi can’t protect her as a child, how is there any hope of doing so as the world closes in around them, seeking and persecuting them? Rewatching “Arcane” is to realize the storytellers have already made the answers to these questions obvious, we just don’t always want to see those answers until it’s far too late. If we won’t see them, how can these characters see them, as children? And if we shield ourselves from those hard truths in a story, in a safe place with storytellers we learn to trust, then how do we practice that in our own world, with less safety and trust?

“Arcane” is built to resonate, over and over within its own structure until it keeps on going when you’ve finished it, when you’ve put it away and moved on to other things. It keeps on going when you haven’t watched it for a year. It’s still as fresh in mind as when I first saw it, still contains surprises and thoughts worth dwelling on. This is the shot that convinced me “Arcane” was special, but it’s hardly alone, and even then I had no clue how remarkable or important it was, as a shot or as a show. There’s something about both that speak beyond the confines of a series to an era where our norms and realities are moved on a daily basis. “Arcane” wrestles with the erosive effects of traumatization when most shows – fantasy or reality-based – won’t even acknowledge there’s a need to be processing these thoughts right now.

When I saw this shot, I knew the show was special within its own space as a series. When I look back on it, I know it’s special outside of those confines. That’s why I cry when I start to write about this show, because in a world of constant trauma, where people’s norms are shoved aside by cults and con artists, I’m reminded that art serves as an anchor for our norms. I cry because being moved by something gentle can make me immovable against what isn’t.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

New Shows + Movies by Women — September 9, 2022

There’s a lot this week, but before we dive in, I want to highlight that Celine Sciamma’s “Petite Maman” has arrived on Hulu. If you asked me the best filmmaker working today, the “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Girlhood” director is the first name that comes to mind. I try to feature films when they hit VOD and then hit their first subscription platform. A subtle fantasy about a girl helping her parents after the death of her grandmother, “Petite Maman” has already been on MUBI most of the year. I know that is a niche platform to many. It’s worth mentioning now that it’s on Hulu, which a lot more folks have.

Series this week come from South Africa, South Korea, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S. Films comes from Nigeria, the Philippines, Sweden, and the U.S.

NEW SERIES

Little Women (Netflix)
directed by Kim Hee Won

Loosely based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott, three sisters who grew up in poverty find themselves involved in the disappearance of a fortune and embattled with the wealthiest family in South Korea.

Director Kim Hee Won has helmed a growing list of South Korea’s most lauded series, including “Vincenzo”, “The Crowned Clown”, and “Money Flower”.

You can watch “Little Women” on Netflix. Two episodes are out now. A new one arrives every Saturday and Sunday (two a week), for a total of 12.

Wedding Season (Hulu)
half-directed by Laura Scrivano

Not to be confused with last month’s Netflix film of the same title, Hulu series “Wedding Season” starts as a breezy wedding-themed romcom, only for the bride to find her husband’s entire family poisoned. The suspects include a cross-section of her romantic life, as well as herself. “Alita: Battle Angel” and “Undone” star Rosa Salazar is the lead.

“The Lazarus Project” director Laura Scrivano directs four of the series episodes.

You can watch “Wedding Season” on Hulu.

You’re Nothing Special (Netflix)
showrunner Estibaliz Burgaleta

In this Spanish comedy, a girl discovers witch-like powers after moving from the city to her mother’s small town. She may have inherited them from her grandmother.

Estibaliz Burgaleta is a prolific writer on Spanish comedy series.

You can watch “You’re Nothing Special” on Netflix. All 6 episodes are out.

Devil in Ohio (Netflix)
showrunner Daria Polatin

Emily Deschanel plays a psychiatrist who brings a cult escapee into her own family, triggering calamitous events.

Daria Polatin showruns and writes on the series based on her own novel.

You can watch “Devil in Ohio” on Netflix.

Fakes (Netflix)
directed by women

Two teens design a system to print fake IDs, but things spin out of control as they turn what was a small operation into an empire.

Jasmin Mozaffari and Joyce Wong direct four episodes apiece, while Emmy-nominated Mars Horodyski directs two.

You can watch “Fakes” on Netflix. All 10 episodes are out.

Recipes for Love and Murder (Acorn TV)
showrunner Karen Jeynes

In this South African crime comedy, an advice columnist uses her cooking skills to investigate murders when one of her correspondents is killed.

Karen Jeynes showruns and writes the series adapted from Sally Andrew’s novels, as well as directing four episodes.

You can watch “Recipes for Love and Murder” on Acorn TV. Two episodes are out, with another two arriving every Monday for a total of 10.

Tell Me Lies (Hulu)
showrunner Meaghan Oppenheimer

“Tell Me Lies” tracks the evolution of a toxic relationship that starts in college, impacting not just the two lovers but the lives of everyone around them.

Meaghan Oppenheimer showruns. She’s also written on “Fear the Walking Dead”.

You can watch “Tell Me Lies” on Hulu. The first three episodes are out, with another landing every Wednesday for a total of 10.

NEW MOVIES

Love at First Stream (Netflix)
directed by Cathy Garcia-Molina

A streamer and three friends navigate online connections in order to cope with their offline realities.

Director Cathy Garcia-Molina might be the Philippines’ biggest director, having directed the two highest grossing Philippine films ever made.

You can watch “Love at First Stream” on Netflix.

End of the Road (Netflix)
directed by Millicent Shelton

Queen Latifah and Ludacris star in a cross-country action movie where she has to keep her family alive as they’re stalked by a highway killer.

“Black-ish” and “Locke & Key” director Millicent Shelton directs.

You can watch “End of the Road” on Netflix.

Collision Course (Netflix)
directed by Bolanle Austen-Peters

A musician and police officer race against time as they evade corrupt law enforcement in this Nigerian action movie.

This is Bolanle Austen-Peters second film, and won Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor at the African Movie Academy Awards.

You can watch “Collision Course” on Netflix.

Diorama (Netflix)
directed by Tuva Novotny

In this Swedish film, a couple’s romance, marriage, and slow fragmentation are considered from a scientific perspective…of a sort. Can’t find an English trailer I can post here for it, but Netflix has options on the film itself.

Writer-director Tuva Novotny is an actress who made the jump to director on “Lilyhammer”.

You can watch “Diorama” on Netflix.

Unplugging (Hulu)
directed by Debra Neil-Fisher

A couple detox from all things digital in a remote town, but things quickly devolve into chaos.

This is the first film Debra Neil-Fisher directs, but you’ve almost surely seen her work before. A sought-after comedy editor, she edited the first two “Austin Powers” movies, all three “The Hangover” films, the 2020 “Sonic the Hedgehog”, and “Coming 2 America”.

You can watch “Unplugging” on Hulu or see where to rent it.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

Fancy Brain Doctors Hate This One Simple Memory Test — “Jurassic World: Dominion”

There are so many ways to remake later franchise movies with the same beats as the original. Take the recent “Prey”, which acknowledges the “Predator” movies that have come before it with clever references and inversions of your expectations. It does these things without breaking immersion and with its own clear priorities. It includes franchise references in a way that serves the story it wants to tell. “Jurassic World” also does this pretty well. Just not this “Jurassic World”. The 2015 movie was a smart rehash of the original “Jurassic Park”, serving up references for fans while creating its own original tension and action…while unfortunately suffering from a cynical, antiquated opinion about women’s roles.

Now we come to “Jurassic World: Dominion”, a rehash of “Jurassic World” rehashing “Jurassic Park”. We should know by the sixth movie in the franchise that the more you clone, the more you’ve got to fill in the missing DNA gaps with frogs, wacky lizards, and probably some stuff from Australia we’d rather not know about. The storytelling gaps are cavernous and awkwardly spliced.

Say what you want about the last film, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”, but it stuck a designer dinosaur into the role normally played by a ghost stalking a Victorian haunted mansion – complete with a child hiding a chilling secret. It was an effective riff that took the franchise into territory it had never tried. This also makes it the only one out of five sequels even interested in new genre territory.

There’s no such commitment to anything new here. There are so many chances “Jurassic World: Dominion” had to be great, too. It’s like watching beautiful scenery pass by out the window from a train as it hurtles off a cliff.

Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire, the former operator of Jurassic World, is now an ecoterrorist busting illegal dinosaur breeding facilities. I’d love to watch a whole film about that, so at the end of the opening scene, her group breaks apart and she gives that life up.

But it’s OK, cause Chris Pratt’s Owen is in one of those old cigarette commercials where men on horses live off the plain on nothing but gumption and grit. Instead of rounding up horses or cattle, he’s rounding up Parasaurolophus and…you know what, I’m just going to describe his scenes as if they’re dialogue from his “Parks & Rec” character Andy Dwyer:

ANDY: So then I lasso the dinosaur from my horse.

RON: A Parasaurolophus weighs 8,000 pounds. That horse is 800 soaking wet. It’s going to pull you to the ground, son.

ANDY: Then I’ll just body surf along the ground and use my lightning reflexes to wrap the rope around a tree stump.

RON: That dinosaur will pull you and the tree stump behind it without even noticing.

ANDY: Not if he turns around and becomes my friend first.

Yeah, that’s a scene. Claire and Owen are taking care of Maisie, the cloned girl from “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”. They live deep in the woods with their velociraptor Blue and her new baby, Beta. Maisie resents not being allowed to go anywhere – not even into town. Ooh, is this going to be a Spielbergian movie about a fractured family brought closer together by their shared love for the baby velociraptor they raise?

Wait, why isn’t Maisie allowed to go anywhere? Because every mercenary in the world is after the cloned girl. Ah, so we’re going to get an awesome siege sequence where mercenaries with dinosaurs fight a Parasaurolophus-roping everyman, his ecoterrorist wife, their adopted clone daughter, and mom-and-baby velociraptor? I will watch that every day for the rest of my li– nope, Maisie just rides her bike directly onto the one-lane bridge a sketchy vehicle is clearly and visibly parked on. The mercenaries are just there to chauffeur Maisie and Beta to the next scene.

At least this leads us into the genre “Jurassic World: Dominion” wants to briefly try: the spy film. Welcome the half hour of the movie where dinosaurs are an afterthought. Now eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs in your dinosaur movie, right? Don’t worry, you’ll see them as they’re being trafficked at a black market in Malta that totally isn’t presented in a wildly racist way.

Wait, why are they at a black market in Malta? Cause that’s where Owen’s CIA contact (yes, really) says Maisie and Beta are being taken.

Claire decides to search for Maisie by showing her daughter’s picture to exactly one random person, a woman she bumps into in the bathroom. Wildly convenient then that this is the one person who’s actually seen Maisie. I mean, they could have had a CIA character be like, “Make sure you bump into this woman”, but nope, it’s just happenstance that the one person Claire bothers to ask is the one person worth asking.

Luckily, DeWanda Wise’s Kayla also has a plane, which is perfect for when things go wrong and dinosaurs are set loose to stomp all over Malta. At least we finally get exactly what we want to see in a dinosaur movie: Chris Pratt knife-fighting a mercenary.

Sigh.

ANDY: So he comes at me with a knife, but not before a baby dinosaur eats his arm.

LESLIE: The whole thing?

ANDY: Dinosaurs are big, so a baby one can probably eat an arm.

DONNA: Can’t he just fight with his other arm?

ANDY: Not if there’s two baby dinosaurs.

At least the dinosaurs get to have a motorbike chase. Well, the dinosaurs don’t have motorbikes, but that might’ve been better. Long story short, half the cast is on Kayla’s plane to Maisie’s destination: the totally innocuously named Biosyn’s remote dinosaur park, where I’m sure nothing bad will happen.

Let’s leave them aside. What should be the highlight of “JW: Dom” is the original “Jurassic Park” trio of Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, and Sam Neill. Unfortunately, they’re woefully written, with no idea for how older generations, or humans of any sort, think and speak. Goldblum can sell it, but Dern and Neill feel like they’re acting out a soap opera on its last legs and desperate to gin up some press by getting the original pair back together. Will they or won’t they? It turns out they found the one narrow, hidden path along which I don’t care. It’s actually pretty cool that Dern’s Ellie Sattler moved on with her life as a professor, lecturer, field botanist, agricultural investigator, and parent. She’s leading a team investigating prehistoric locusts that are eating every crop except one corporation’s: Biosyn. The only man she can go to? Neill’s Alan Grant, who despite leading his own paleontology team is wallowing in loneliness as he pines for Ellie. Seems like a him problem, but “JW: Dom” says why not make it an all of our problem?

Ellie accepts an invitation from Biosyn’s in-house philosopher, Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm. She wants to get inside and prove that Biosyn has created these prehistoric locusts. Alan’s along as a witness, so now we’re all going to the same place. Locusts are located, planes plummet, and now everyone’s running around while dinosaurs look wide-eyed at their fresh chew toys.

APRIL: What are you going to do, Andy, the Dilophosaurus is about to spit poison all over your girlfriend!

ANDY: I make it submit with an awesome choke hold!

BEN: But there are three other Dilophosaurs watching its back. Did they just disappear? The whole point of this exercise is to plan ahead–

ANDY: That’s why I’ve trained as a ninja all my life, knowing one day I’d have to sneak up on a dinosaur to save the woman I love.

BEN: [sighs] Just roll initiative.

About the only one who saves the constant zipping back and forth is Bryce Dallas Howard. She’s not doing anything award-worthy, but she is the one putting forth the effort when it comes to physically throwing herself into scenes in a way that a “Jurassic [map feature]” film asks.

For every scene, it’s just a checklist. Are the characters in a jeep? Cool, let’s make sure we get the shots that remind the audience of the time a jeep drove off a road, the time a jeep fell off a cliff, the time someone hid in an upside down jeep, the time someone jumped out of the jeep with a flare. That’s just one scene about one thing. Name a reference and there’s a checklist of references that will be done for it in the most joylessly unironic way possible.

Do you remember the time a Tyrannosaurus was challenged by another apex predator and had to fight while the cast ran away, like in JPs 1 and 3, but was then saved by the interjection of a third badassosaur like in JW1? You want to see that done worse, in a more perfunctory way, complete with an unintentional slapstick ending?

Do you love seeing that one shot of someone leaping out of the way as a dinosaur’s jaws snap shut behind them? Remember that famous shot from JP1? Can we do it twice with every character, with lazier and lazier editing that makes it feel like the dinosaur’s nervous about hitting its cue, and slower and slower by the time we’re doing it to the 70 year-olds? Then this is your novocaine, because by the 10th time I just couldn’t feel it anymore.

I had this feeling in the back of my mind that I’ve seen this movie done so much better very recently. It was a “smash two casts together in a monster movie” that actually embraces its absurdity in an endearing way. Last year’s “Godzilla vs. Kong” took a similar approach to hurling two casts together, complete with a girl who needs protecting, unearthing a corporate conspiracy, and giant beasts obsessed with one-upping each others’ Spielberg references. It was silly as hell, but satisfying because it combined smart visual gags and jokes with a streamlined, uncomplicated plot. I called it the “Animaniacs of monster movies” because its references were smart, funny, and moved so quickly you didn’t have to worry about them overstaying their welcome. “JW: Dom” is more like LeBron’s “Space Jam: A New Legacy”, obsessed with making sure you notice each and every reference, and just in case you didn’t, here’s a lingering close-up of it.

As a film of recognizing things, “Jurassic World: Dominion” sure exists. I’m not against this kind of movie, but you have to make it satisfying. The references have to be in service of something more meaningful – and that’s not a high bar. Fun is something more meaningful, but you can’t have it when the priority is just to recognize things. For something like the “Jurassic [domain name]” movies, opening up the toybox of memories can bring more unintended sadness at what’s been shorn from them and the opportunities that have been missed. Nostalgia is a pristine thing. To fold that into your recipe, you’d better know how to evoke childlike glee from it. If you don’t, you just end up with the checklist of references that is “JW: Dom”.

I recently wrote that I’d watch dinosaurs read a phone book, and this is the baseline level of acceptability for that. It entertains only because it reminds you of other things you were entertained by, and just hitting the baseline for this franchise feels like such a wasted opportunity.

The toybox metaphor makes me think to earlier this year and “The Book of Boba Fett”. Robert Rodriguez upended the whole toybox so everything spilled out, with constant recognizable elements from the Star Wars franchise. It could have been annoying, but he did it with such unbridled joy and enthusiasm that he got to play with these toys. You don’t need to fit paragraphs of thematic message into one insultingly reductive and by then meaningless line, you don’t need to have a checklist of sub-references you need to make for every reference, and you don’t need a spy movie interlude to justify Chris Pratt’s paycheck. You just need to communicate joy that we all get to be here for two hours-plus. You can sense when it’s there, and you can sense when it’s lacking.

The point of “JW: Dom” is to recognize things, as if a test to see whether 90s kids are suffering from dementia yet. No, we’re in our 30s, get off our landlord’s lawn. The story is in service to checking off these moments of recognition, rather than being the priority that enables these moments to shine. A movie can’t be a movie when it’s just trying to be a memory test. All that does is show us how much the people behind it didn’t even bother to understand in the first place.

You can watch “Jurassic World: Dominion” on Peacock, or see where to rent it.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

Exquisite — “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”

An elven warrior refuses every call to give up her quest hunting a dark power. A nomadic hobbit keeps safe a man who fell from the sky. An elven diplomat tries to broker peace with dwarves in pursuit of an architectural dream. A human woman and her elven lover are split apart by creatures seeking an ancient tool of power. “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” follows a far more thoughtful approach to its storytelling than I anticipated. Character comes first in beautiful ways. Flowing dialogue creates dissonance between the achingly detailed halls of fantasy that describe a culture and the complex, messy, often painful realities that define it.

The scene that ought to tell you whether this is your kind of show or not is early on. Galadriel and Elrond – elves who are here hundreds of years younger than the events in “The Lord of the Rings” – debate between knowledge and theory. Galadriel is a warrior obsessed with the idea the dark lord Sauron survives and awaits his enemies’ complacency. She wants to hunt him, even if she has no support in doing so. She’s met by Elrond’s reasonable arguments. He theorizes on what the consequences are if she’s right, and if she’s wrong. They are friends and empathize with each other – even recognize how one sees what the other cannot. Galadriel’s translating what she knows and can evidence against her obsession and PTSD – albeit conveyed in a removed, elven way. Elrond is trying to tell her she’s fought enough, that even if her fears are true, others can pick up that fight and continue it. Galadriel’s concern is about duty as an ethic, Elrond’s is about responsibility as a practical concern. They talk in a hall of monuments, each hero carved from wood as they looked in death. The two friends feel empathy for each other, they understand each other, they care about each other’s thoughts, and they trust each other – yet they’re each talking past the other in a core way. This is translated in flowing, flowery speech full of metaphor by actors hitting every note. It’s the kind of character-intensive work that “The Rings of Power” is absolutely landing an hour an episode.

Some fantasy meets you halfway, acknowledging that it’ll be a little cheesy and at the end of the day, we’re all just along for a fun ride. Other fantasy swings for the fences and looks to convince you of every world-building element and detail. Many of these fall short because if they falter even once, an intricately woven cinematic tapestry starts to unwind. We’re only two episodes in to “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”, so there’s still time for that to happen – but thus far it looks like they’ve nailed every element.

We follow Galadriel’s quest in defiance of her elven lord. We also follow a mischievous Harfoot hobbit named Nori, Elrond himself as he engages in elven politics, and a tense situation between humans and elves at the far reaches of civilization. We don’t yet know how these various threads will come together, but each story is captivating.

Is it true to J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision? Does it land every detail in the right place? Dunno. I don’t mean to be irreverent in saying that, it’s just…we have Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy already, one we love in large part for the places where it folds the story into something more elegantly film-ready. It makes some big changes, and we mostly understand why. I’m not a “Silmarillion” lore fiend, so I can’t tell you how loyal “The Rings of Power” is to its source material, but Tolkien’s original vision for “The Silmarillion” was for it to disagree with itself, to be a mythology brought forth by many writers of his own fictional creation, each writing in a different style and arriving at different conclusions. It was edited together into something more consistent by his son Christopher and assisting authors after J.R.R.’s death, from an even wider array of drafts and notes that go through many changing versions. In some ways, the published “Silmarillion” itself isn’t necessarily consistent with Tolkien’s vision of having various versions that could each be interpreted as part of the truth. If Tolkien’s goal was for it to be taken as a mythology viewed from multiple angles on what could be understood as truth or not, then there is no correct interpretation. It’s purposefully a framework. As long as you’re in the ballpark, you’re watching the right game.

That leaves me having to do what I was going to do anyway, and judge the thing on its own. Is it good? Through two episodes, it’s phenomenal, bolstered by some gorgeous writing, stunning cinematography, and a pretty restrained implementation of visual effects given that the series is saturated in them. The best part is the acting – not just the performances, but the way they’re presented and given proper space within the story. “The Rings of Power” is smart enough to back down on everything else when it comes to letting the actors and writing carry it.

Some of the dialogue in this is gorgeously and poetically written. There’s a turn of phrase that treads the line of becoming too generic-fantasy in one or two places, but it overwhelmingly hits the mark and there are far more moments where the use of metaphor is striking and moving.

We’ve come to understand “The Lord of the Rings” on film largely through Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy. There is a sense of being overwrought in places, of being as dramatic as possible and trusting that the director and actors can lean into that hard enough to sell those embellishments. It’s always risky because the only thing past that is camp. Yet if you’re able to keep that sense of elevated theatrical drama on track, the whole thing can blossom as an entire world you get to watch take shape.

To do this correctly means creating an actors’ playground first and foremost. For all the towering scenery and sumptuous visual effects, every scene focuses in on the characters and what they’re doing in a specific place. It doesn’t matter that the story just swept hundreds of miles across the world, it matters that this character is here now, and that the actor believes in what they’re doing so hard that we’re given no choice but to do the same.

Morfydd Clark’s Galadriel and Markella Kavenagh’s Nori deserve particular praise, albeit in nearly opposite ways. Clark’s Galadriel elf warrior is a driven powerhouse, translating concepts of PTSD in a very elven way that can feel familiar and alien by turn. She feels constantly unstill, as if being caged in her body or in this place is an untenable necessity. It’s an intriguing but consistent turn with what we’ve seen of Galadriel in other projects. It’s also incredibly refreshing after so many elves with light, nondescript English theater accents to have one with that Welsh pronunciation and accent shining through. That’s what Tolkien based the Elven language and culture on, so when we talk about things in terms of accuracy, this is at least one element “The Rings of Power” gets right that other adaptations have failed.

Kavenagh’s Nori is a wide-eyed hobbit youth who tests boundaries and wants to see the wider world. She’s impish in that she misbehaves and wanders afield, but when she gets others to join her, she’s responsible in that she’s the one who watches out for them. The “youth who wants to see the world” archetype can often feel too familiar, but the blend of early hobbit culture with Nori’s own ability to manage chaos makes her feel more capable from the start than a typical child thrown into a hero’s journey.

Robert Aramayo’s young Elrond took a second to grow on me, but it’s a joy to see how measured and diplomatic he is. “The Rings of Power” seems to understand that yes, sure, an action set piece now and then is nice, but what’s really exciting is the diplomatic jousting of an elf and dwarf through competitive feats of traditional rock-breaking. That’s plot moved by an element of world-building, and it’s what sells the fantasy in fantasy. People stabbing each other with swords? We did that for a couple thousand years in the real world. Diplomacy through a rock-splitting duel? Now you’ve got my attention.

There’s always a risk when handling so many different groups of characters, each of them encountering yet new groups of characters who add on even more story threads. Comfy, warm fantasy blanket though it may be, “The Wheel of Time” gets wobbly every time it tries to balance two plotlines at the same time. “The Witcher” takes two plotlines as a challenge to make them feel like 12, a willfully obstinate strength of the show I love, but definitely an acquired taste. “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” has at least four core narratives, and a variety of intersecting ones, with none of them going the same direction. Yet none of them feel rushed, and none of them feel as if they distract from or confuse the others. It’s easy and enthralling to understand and follow. Despite the vast amount of lore spilled open and referred to throughout the show, none of it feels like homework. Everything is crystal clear, paced well, and they’re finding the emotional core of each lead character very readily.

We’re two episodes in; can it continue this way? I hope so. Showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay clearly understand that what’s interesting about “The Lord of the Rings” is its world and how it works. The action is icing on the cake. It comes after the fantasy iconography, which comes after the plot, all of which sits atop these characters and their motivations. It’s brilliant and beautiful.

The one thing that gives me some pause is that these first two episodes had an absolute knockout director helming them. Juan Antonio Bayona is responsible for “A Monster Calls”, “The Impossible”, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” (the second best “Jurassic [area]” movie), a couple episodes of the excellent “Penny Dreadful”, and my pick for best horror film of the last two decades, the Spanish-language “El Orfanato”. He has a hugely empathetic eye for character amidst genre spectacle.

The upcoming directors are Wayne Yip and Charlotte Brandstrom. Yip’s directed on “The Wheel of Time”, Brandstrom on “The Witcher”. They’re quality directors, but Bayona is one of the best (and most overlooked) out there. Can the showrunners and these other directors keep the focus on the actors and writers the way Bayona’s helped establish? I really hope so, because if that’s the case you’ve got one of the best shows of the year and the best live-action fantasy going right now.

You can watch “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” on Amazon.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

Why I (Almost) Never Skip the Opening Credits

Life is short and there are more good shows out there than we’ll ever have the time to see. So why do I almost never skip the credit sequence? Some shows take care of it themselves, either by not having one or having one so short that it’s over before you can even hit “Skip Intro”. It’s the long ones I’m talking about, though, the ones with a whole musical composition and listing the names involved.

OK, I will skip some credit sequences. It’s never a long road from there to here for me on “Star Trek: Enterprise” because I always take the shortcut. No, that song hasn’t gotten better, ironically or otherwise. I’ll also skip the openings on reality competitions, and this is what gets me thinking that my taste for credits has more to do with storytelling. The credit sequences I like most – the ones that stay with me and that I’ll seek out on YouTube to watch an extra few times – are the ones that establish an atmosphere and feeling that the scenes around them can play with.

Take the opening credits for “Evil”, centered on a small team investigating supernatural and mythological occurrences for the often unreliable Catholic Church. The show is a rarity as an actually scary horror series, boosted by one of the best ensembles on television. More than this, it’s got a palpable vein of humor running through it. It’s quick to incorporate current activism, criticize toxic trends, and has a talent for building tension off meta and meme humor. The opening credits have evolved from season to season so that the visuals reflect internal crises the characters are facing.

The credits capture a balance between the creeping suggestion of terror and the wry, smirking humor that gives it contrast. Is this going to be a funny episode, or a terrifying one? Will one turn into the other? Few shows are as good at putting you off-balance, and I watch the credits every time as the portal into that feeling. You’re looking at this curious, enigmatic, suggestive, escalating impression of something strange, which puts you right alongside the characters who do the same every episode. It’s a perfect introduction.

Of course, it’s not the only good one out there. The less said about “Severance” going into it, the better. Step in with no foreknowledge and you can have an exquisite time. Of course, the title sequence tells you a lot without your knowing it, so your impression can change as you get deeper into the series.

The blending of influences from Salvador Dali, Hieronymus Bosch, and German expressionism presented in the regimented, symmetrical, fractal manner of early computer art turns those opening credits into a moving painting, an evocative poem before the story itself.

Those are both pretty creepy openings. It’s not the only way opening titles can set a tone, but they don’t get to their unnerving places in the same way. They don’t even incorporate humor in the same way. “Evil” accelerates, increases the feeling of threat and pairs it with its macabre sense of humor. It portrays internal character struggles against the contrast of an exterior, unknowable, existential threat.

By contrast, “Severance” portrays its external plot with an internalized progression – the music is almost cautious, the images all center on its lead character and the things happening to him. Whereas the opening sequence for “Evil” is an escalating tone poem of impressions and visual humor built on our discomfort at the unexpected, the opening sequence for “Severance” is a journey of endurance filled with details and a visual humor built on schadenfreude. “Evil” invites us in to see things from the perspective of its characters. “Severance” points the finger back at us in a way that asks us to observe not just the show, but ourselves.

The best opening sequence of the year has a completely different feeling, though. For a series that witnesses characters endure such historical hardship, the joyous opening of “Pachinko” is a way of shaking off the narrow vision of one perspective, of asking us to see more in the characters than what they suffer. It’s also a way of treating survival, of diaspora itself, as a joy, that the only way for a culture to survive attempted genocide is for it to celebrate itself unabashedly.

By putting actors together who play characters in different eras, it also reminds us that actors playing these roles is in itself an acknowledgment, a celebration, an act of survival, of keeping alive those who didn’t make it, of reclaiming stories that someone else tried to erase. Few shows have been as utterly, breathtakingly beautiful as “Pachinko”. Every time, the opening titles open us up to seeing so much in each character.

Sometimes it’s not the opening that sets a tone, but the closing credits. Many shows opt for the title slam that sits there for two or three seconds to separate its cold open from whatever follows, but no opening sequence otherwise. It’s just straight prologue to action. Disney+ has favored this with its various original series in favor of more complex closing credits – which you sit through, of course, because of their post-credit stinger scenes. They often make this worth your while, such as the sumptuous concept art they show after each episode of “The Mandalorian”. It’s not just gorgeous art, it also shows you how something was changed from concept to filming.

And while the closing credits for “Moon Knight” and “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” are both powerful, my favorite from Disney this year goes to “Ms. Marvel”. It contemplates through a child’s eyes the cultural impact of a billion white heroes on film with a few scattered heroes of color. What is the impact of that on a child of color? How do they see a world that prizes a certain type of person, and how do they see themselves in that world? How do they see their access to that world and how do they want to change it? How do they envision themselves as a hero in that world when it’s tooth and nail just to get the world to envision them that way once?

My favorite closing credits this year go to “Komi Can’t Communicate”. I’m pretty indifferent to slice-of-life anime, it’s just generally not my thing. I prefer sneaky cosmic horror anime, or post-apocalypse rock people, or Witcher-as-superchill-mythologecologist, or avant garde interdimensional survival. But people just existing? Ugh.

Yet “Komi Can’t Communicate” captures a serene sense of being, in the face of social anxiety so bad its title character can barely say a word to those she wishes would be her friends. It’s a deeply empathetic show built around the moments of opening up and learning to be happy with yourself that keep people going, and it also works as a satire on anime tropes that’s equipped with a lightning-quick visual humor.

The best compliment I can give it is that once, after watching a pair of episodes, I found myself just not doing the compulsions that are part of my OCD. I felt no pressing need to check the lock several times or that the faucet and stove were off over and over again. I could be where I was at peace, without a thousand things running through my head. Whatever anxiety drives those behaviors was just…gone for a time. My best guess is that part of it’s because the show manages to find what’s peaceful amidst chaos, and more keenly because it empathizes with the experience of anxiety at a core level that makes me feel understood. I can’t recall anything else I’ve watched ever having this effect on me.

As an anime, it has a few different opening and closing sequences depending on the style of episode, but its new closing credits capture moments frozen in time from the classroom across two different parts of the year. Aside from its sense of calm and well-being, it finds a way to describe each character. Every time you watch it, you can focus on a different character being themselves, evoking what you like or find interesting about them, their relationships with each other, and their own compulsions. You can see something new by following a different character or relationship every time you watch, or you can just let your eye wander across the scene. It captures what’s fulfilling about the series as a whole, and what connects about each character individually.

There’s often so much to a title or credit sequence. If series are connected short stories, these sequences are poems and interludes that join them, that evoke a different part of ourselves. We understand short stories with an analytical, even logical eye. Title and credit sequences are an opportunity to open up another part of ourselves that’s more willing to soak in the world, to appreciate the impressions it leaves in our memory and not just its plot. The title sequence sits outside of chronology or logical explanation. It gets to follow different rules, and it keeps attentive the part in each of us that views with those different rules. That’s why I (almost) never skip the intro on fiction. I want that part of me anticipating, enrapt, searching for feeling and atmosphere as much as I am for plot and character development.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

New Shows + Movies by Women — August 26, 2022

August can be a slow-down month for new releases, but this opens up windows for films that might not see as much of an audience otherwise. Keep an eye out for arthouse and indie productions. This next month or so has always been the best time of year for low-budget films to sneak through and secure some attention.

Unlike other winter holidays, Christmas season in the media deluges toward an October start. This has displaced Halloween toward late August – the holiday territorial wars continue. Horror season has always started in September – horror movies tend to draw younger audiences, and those audiences coalesce as the school year starts. If you’re a horror fan, keep an eye out for good horror, campy horror, low-budget horror, every kind of horror you can think of. This is our time. There are some intriguing ones this week.

There are new series by women from the U.K. and the U.S., and new movies by women from Australia, Denmark, Ireland, Portugal, Switzerland, and the U.S.

NEW SERIES

Everything I Know About Love (Peacock)
showrunner Dolly Alderton
directed by China Moo-Young, Julia Ford

Dolly Alderton turns her memoir into a U.K. series that tracks the evolution of friendship in the way that other series present romances.

“Call the Midwife” director China Moo-Young and “Silent Witness” director Julia Ford helm the series.

You can watch “Everything I Know About Love” on Peacock. There are 7 episodes, all out now.

Partner Track (Netflix)
showrunner Georgia Lee

Ingrid Yun is a young lawyer trying to balance ethics with ambition as she climbs the partner track at an elite law firm.

Georgia Lee’s short films got her selected as Martin Scorsese’s apprentice on “Gangs of New York”. Since then, she’s directed feature film “Red Doors”, wrote and story edited for “The Expanse”, and produced “The 100”.

You can watch “Partner Track” on Netflix. All 10 episodes are out now.

NEW MOVIES

Watcher (Shudder)
directed by Chloe Okuno

Maika Monroe plays Julia, who moves with her husband to Bucharest. She suspects a local murderer who’s decapitating women may be the stranger from the apartment across the street.

Writer-director Chloe Okuno previously directed a segment on anthology “V/H/S/94”. This is her first feature.

You can watch “Watcher” on Shudder, or see where to rent it.

Wolf (HBO Max)
directed by Nathalie Biancheri

In this Irish film, Jacob thinks he’s a wolf who’s become trapped in a human body. He’s sent to a clinic where the treatments are outlandish and extreme. He roams the center at night with a girl who believes she’s a wildcat.

Writer-director Nathalie Biancheri previously directed “Nocturnal”.

You can watch “Wolf” on HBO Max, or see where to rent it.

Loving Adults (Netflix)
directed by Barbara Topsoe-Rothenborg

Based on the novel by Anna Ekberg, the Danish thriller follows a woman who suspects her husband is having an affair.

Barbara Topsoe-Rothenborg is a director of Danish film and TV.

You can watch “Loving Adults” on Netflix.

So Vam (Shudder)
directed by Alice Maio Mackay

Australia has everything dangerous, including vampires. When aspiring drag queen Kurt is murdered by a vampire, he’s resurrected by a gang of rebel vampires who only feed on bigots and abusers.

Director and co-writer Alice Maio Mackay helmed “So Vam” as her feature debut at 16.

You can watch “So Vam” on Shudder, or see where to rent it.

My Little Sister (MUBI, Kanopy)
directed by Stephanie Chuat, Veronique Reymond

Lisa has given up on being a playwright. She lives in Switzerland, where her husband is enjoying a successful career. Her twin brother falls ill, calling her back to Germany.

Stephanie Chuat and Veronique Reymond have worked as a writer-director team in Germany since 2004 (though this film is Swiss). They’ve alternated between documentary and narrative film.

You can watch “My Little Sister” on MUBI or Kanopy, or see where to rent it.

The Tsugua Diaries (MUBI)
co-directed by Maureen Fazendeiro

During the COVID lockdown in Portugal, Crista, Carloto, and Joao build a greenhouse for butterflies. We see cycles of developing a routine and struggling to adapt as they find ways to fill time at the farmhouse that is their home during lockdown.

French filmmaker Maureen Fazendeiro directs with Miguel Gomes. It is her first film.

You can watch “The Tsugua Diaries” on MUBI, or see where to rent it.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

Is the Anger at “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” Accurate?

Nope. Good read, very efficient.

If you’re wondering what I’m referring to, I mean the rising anger and review brigading orchestrated by men on popular sites’ user reviews. “She-Hulk” Attorney at Law saw more than 40% of its reviews on IMDB hit 1-out-of-10 before it even premiered. The bulk of reviews overall came from men, but those who were registered on IMDB as 30-or-over were particularly negative. Right now, the show holds just a 5.5 after a perfectly good first episode.

I went over negative user reviews on Metacritic on Friday. There, it holds a 4.4. I’ll feature some of the choice quotes here again. See if you can find a theme: “feminist crap”, “constant misandrist whining”, “hatred of men”, “push social agendas”, “activist BS”, “overly feministic”, “a window into the feminists narcissistic and ungrateful, petulant brain”, “feminazism trash for the M-She-U”.

What’s the anger about? After lawyer Jennifer Walters accidentally gets an infusion of cousin Bruce Banner’s Hulk blood, she turns into a hulk. The thing is, she’s good at it. “She-Hulk” makes a point of the fact that she can manage her anger better than Bruce because – as a woman – she has to live with anger and fear every day. Whereas Bruce has struggled for a decade to mesh the dual personality of Bruce and the Hulk, getting stuck as one or the other for long periods of time, Jennifer is immediately good at fusing the two. Why? Because Bruce has struggled to control his anger, and Jennifer has learned to live with hers.

“Activism! Feminist BS!” Allons, to the fainting couch! Yes, Mr. BranFlakes5000, tell me in as angry a tone as possible about how ungrateful and petulant women are. I can’t imagine where anyone could have possibly drawn the conclusion that men have problems controlling our anger. 1-star reviews before it even premieres? You certainly don’t lash out in any way.

How could Marvel change the comic where Jennifer maintains her personality, emotional control, and breaks the fourth wall for jokes into a series where Jennifer maintains her personality, emotional control, and breaks the fourth wall for jokes? If your argument is that the MCU is ruining Marvel Comics by being accurate to Marvel Comics, and they need to stop being accurate to Marvel Comics and start being accurate to Marvel Comics, then you’re not actually reading this, you’re in a Christopher Nolan movie where you’ve found the tangible representation of a Schrodinger’s emotional state. It’s nothing but your childhood bedroom and if you go through the door, you’ll only find yourself in your childhood bedroom again. You fall forever. Turn back to page 1.

One of the more insidious criticisms of “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” has to do with the treatment of Bruce Banner’s Hulk. You see, they’ve turned him into a beta male, because the alpha-beta relationship is a thing biologist L. David Mech theorized about wolves in the 1980s before realizing oh shit, whoops, that theory didn’t pan out. Now, men’s rights con artists and incel MLMs will tell you that alphas and betas are a thing because apparently we all live in movies about Wall Street bankers set in the 1980s.

To fast forward, Bruce Banner has been turned into a smug, narcissistic beta who’s just there for comic relief. To which I ask: have you seen any of the MCU films? That’s his secret. He’s always smug. The worst scene (by far) in “Avengers: Endgame” was about Hulk not listening to Ant-Man trying to save everybody because Hulk was too busy taking selfies with adoring fans. Before that, he stood in Tony Stark’s way as he tried to double down on a prior mistake that had created Ultron and put the world at risk, until Tony appealed to Bruce’s ego and they tried again. Because Bruce is smug. Sure, he’s empathetic and complex and has anger issues, but he also has a strong dash of smug narcissist that has been present throughout Ruffalo’s portrayal of him.

But Tatiana Maslany’s Jennifer is a Mary Sue, who’s good at everything immediately? I’m sorry, let me call up “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” Tony Stark, who says that about himself to Captain America, who was the goodiest two-shoes to ever good a shoe but just needed a dose of Mary Sue juice to go full Sky Captain. Or should GBPP and America’s Ass rope Thor in, whose major character flaw was being too smug and got an entire “Henry IV” adaptation about how if he faces his smugness, he’ll be rewarded with Natalie Portman. All the Avengers are is smug, except maybe Hawkeye, and that’s because Jeremy Renner is too busy chasing his dream role as Droopy Dog.

Someone’s lecturing someone else in an MCU property? Stop, don’t, come back. The movies would amount to one season of hourlongs if you cut out the lecturing. At least it’s about something now. It’s about how women control their anger better than men? They do. How is that even a conversation?

Every tupperware party of incels wants to sell that men are more aggressive, more violent, that other men need to fear their violence to know where they stand in the hierarchy, but also that men are super totes self-controlled and don’t act out their anger at all. Like, fucking choose one. Are you so uncontrollably violent other people need to fear you so much they “know their place” or can you control yourself like an adult? Which one is it? Insert Christopher Nolan’s Schrodinger’s Funhouse here, turn back to page 1.

Hell, look at this article. As a dude, I can use my anger to point out how ridiculous we as men are being about things like “She-Hulk” (and “Ms. Marvel” before it, “Captain Marvel” before that, the list outside the MCU is never-ending – see last week’s “A League of Their Own”.) There’s an entire language for male anger. I can write in it about others who have written in it. I can be condescending and snarky and make jokes and translate the ridiculousness of male anger by drawing on male anger itself, because so much of the language in which we write both fiction and criticism is based on dealing with male anger. This article is angry because male anger is so privileged that we can just write in it as the default. Male anger is how our culture is defined and described.

That’s why a portion of men get so angry about something like “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law”. The things that don’t just argue for women, but that sit entirely outside our description of the world through male anger? They threaten our worldview as men, don’t they? They threaten an entire universe of storytelling and writing that’s fundamentally based off of male anger: The Iliad, Beowulf, The Tain, the foundations of Western literature directly deal with the fallout of male anger and ego and have been translated over time to prize that anger, simplify their stories, and excise the criticisms that once existed as part of those tales. We’ve been trained in bastardized versions of our myths that champion anger. The Odyssey was once about PTSD, but read most translations today and it’s stripped down into a simple episodic adventure.

If superheroes are our modern mythology, they’re streamlined with the modern priorities we’ve used to overwrite that mythology. Some men feel threatened when they aren’t the only ones who get those worldviews confirmed by this modern foundation. Some men feel threatened when women or people of color assume any level of access to how that modern mythology is told. Incel Tupperware Party is out here upset that a woman briefly talks about having to control her anger when she’s sexually harassed or threatened, because her life often depends on her ability to remain calm throughout the situation. At the same time, Incel Tupperware Party wants to sell you on the idea that men somehow have a right to women and women just don’t know any better. They argue for a lack of self-control on men’s part that puts women at risk, and then get upset when women say they need to keep their heads to navigate the risk.

There is no greater critical achievement than to be brigaded with one-star reviews from incel movements. A lot of series are successful on-screen, but to be so successful on-screen that you can extend that success to pissing off the right people off-screen? Few things are that brave or that successful, and they deserve support and normalization. “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” says nothing untrue. My biggest problem with narrative consistency is that when Bruce hulks out, his wavy hair turns curly, yet when Jennifer hulks out, her curly hair straightens out. That’s the immersion breaker for me. First MCU plothole ever, I’m sure. Otherwise, “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” strikes every goal it aims for, both on- and off-screen.

You can watch “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” on Disney+.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.