Aliens have come to a remote town in Nunavut, just south of the Arctic Circle. They take the form of local wildlife and even people. They’re out for blood, slowly absorbing new members and growing their number. It’s on four teenage girls to fight back and rescue their town.
“Slash/Back” is full of loving references to horror classics, most notably John Carpenter films like “The Thing” and “Halloween”. At one point, a character even recounts the plot of “The Thing” as a scary story when they’re out in the wilderness. Another later compares it to Inuit folklore. This provides us a way to triangulate the aliens in “Slash/Back” between contemporary media and traditional mythology. Its these clever ways of framing and perspective that make the movie more than the sum of its parts.
Each of those parts on its own can be underwhelming. Its ambition outpaces its budget. Its screenplay shoehorns personal conflict into the middle of horror situations in unnatural ways that undermine the tension. Many of its actors are unused to film acting and it can show. The logic of how the aliens function is never as clear as I’d like.
That makes “Slash/Back” similar to a thousand B-grade, low-budget sci-fi flicks. Why would I recommend it over most of them? Isn’t that playing favorites. Am I going easy on the film because it’s made by an indigenous cast and crew? Not really. As much as we like to pretend it doesn’t, context does matter on the screen as well as off.
If I’ve seen a thousand films like this, it’s because I like films like this. There’ve been so many that it’s hard to find new places to set them and unique perspectives to see them. Pangnirtung, Nunavut is the kind of location that isn’t often used, in large part because filming in remote areas can get expensive if the movie isn’t community-supported.
The scenery is gorgeous, and the community represented here matters. There are different cultural approaches than what typically gets put on screen – by characters and storytellers alike. There’s different folklore represented, and it’s particularly difficult to find indigenous folklore on film that’s written and told by indigenous people instead of slapped together by a white filmmaker looking to add flavor through misrepresentation.
An early bike chase between the girls takes us through a large portion of the town of Pangnirtung. A lot clicks in our heads as we watch – that life here is very different from what most audiences are used to. Buildings are built with different factors in mind, much of the town is oriented around fishing, and ATVs, boats, and even bicycles are far more useful here than any passenger car could ever be. This is great storytelling because none of this is ever stated outright. We simply learn it as the context for the story and the four leads we’re meeting.
This includes Tasiana Shirley’s popular Maika and Nalajoss Ellsworth’s assertive Uki. The pair are often at odds, particularly over Uki’s pride at her heritage and Maika’s shame of it. Uki finds answers in it, while Maika’s rejection of it is framed as a quiet rebellion against her parents.
“Slash/Back” features voices and performances rarely featured in mainstream film. That holds its own important value in terms of representation and recognition. Just as importantly, the fact that these voices are so rarely entrusted with and enabled to tell their own stories at this scale means that the story itself is inherently different than what we’re used to seeing. If I’ve seen a thousand sci-fi B-movies and these are voices that have historically been denied access to producing and distributing them, then I still haven’t seen one that’s like this, have I?
There is also magic in the first attempt. Director and co-writer Nyla Innuksuk is an important Inuit filmmaker who’s worked extensively on multi-media and VR accompaniments for musicians like Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red. However, it’s the first acting credit for much of the cast, including three of the four leads. As I said, it shows, but there’s also an earnestness present that can get lost once actors polish off the rough spots.
Many B-movies feature a cast that has enough experience to avoid mistakes and awkwardness, but not enough earnestness to make you believe in what they’re doing and why. That earnestness is only achieved through a lack of experience, or so much skill and experience that you can theatrically embody it. That leaves most B-movie casts in a middle ground where they’ve lost their sincerity but have yet to accomplish conviction.
When you have a cast that’s less trained in terms of acting, but has lived in and experienced the world in which the story’s told, you will get mistakes and awkwardness, but it is much easier to believe in what they do and why. That’s why B-movies that successfully mix professional and first-time actors end up being so charming – they find a balance between trained enough to smooth scenes out, and earnest enough to come across as honest and sincere. “Slash/Back” definitely leans toward the latter, but if you’re going to err for one over the other, this is the direction I personally prefer.
On top of this, alien invasion films were once incredibly popular in the U.S. as a metaphor for communist invasion. “Slash/Back” re-frames the traditional invasion metaphor as one of an invasion that did happen – the theft of indigenous land by European peoples.
If I’m going to watch a film I’ve seen a thousand versions of, I’d like to see the one that adds elements that are rare in the genre. Why they’re rare is a shame, and I hope the success of “Slash/Back” argues for Inuit and First Nations voices to be – not just included because that suggests bringing them into what we make, but also enabled, empowered, and funded to make more of what they want to make. That way, it’s not our decision to include and represent, but theirs to create and share.
In a field of thousands of sci-fi B movies that are often similar, what we like isn’t so much about an assessment of one’s qualities over another. It’s about which ones ask us to see further. That doesn’t mean “Slash/Back” is any better or worse. It’s pretty average for the field. It does mean that it’s asking more of me and granting more to me as a viewer. That sets it apart and makes it more memorable than the 950 of a thousand titles that’ve mashed together into the kind of formless, assimilated mass the girls from Pang find themselves fighting.
“Slash/Back” is on Hulu, DirecTV, Shudder, and AMC+. It’s also rentable.
We’re covering two weeks since I was out sick part of last week and this, so let’s dive in quick. Please keep an eye out for content warnings this week.
New series come from the Australia, Spain, and the U.S. New movies come from Poland and the U.S.
CW: child abduction
The Clearing (Hulu) co-showrunner Elise McCredie half directed by Gracie Otto
Guy Pearce and Miranda Otto star in an Australian thriller about stopping a cult that’s gathering children. It’s loosely based on The Family, a real Australian cult that operated for 20 years and saw its leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne obtain children by taking those of her members and engaging in hidden adoptions. I’ll stop there since the real story is cruel and terrifying.
Elize McCredie showruns with Matt Cameron. She showran “Stateless” and “Sunshine”. Gracie Otto directs four of the eight episodes.
“The Clearing” is on Hulu. Two episodes have premiered, with a new one every Wednesday for a total of 8.
High Desert (Apple TV+) showrunners Nancy Fichman, Jennifer Hoppe
Patricia Arquette stars as former addict Peggy, who tries to put her life back together by becoming a private investigator in Yucca Valley.
Nancy Fichman and Jennifer Hoppe showrun. They wrote on “Nurse Jackie” and “Grace and Frankie”.
“High Desert” is on Apple TV+. The first four episodes are out, with a new one every Wednesday for a total of 8.
Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen star as childhood friends split apart by a rift, who are trying to reconnect as adults.
Francesca Delbanco showruns with husband Nicholas Stoller. Three episodes are out, with a new one every Wednesday for a total of 10.
“Platonic” is on Apple TV+. Three episodes are out, with a new one every Wednesday for a total of 8.
XO, Kitty (Netflix) showrunner Jenny Han
The romantic comedy series spins off the film trilogy “To All the Boys”. Anna Cathcart’s Kitty takes over the franchise from older sister Lara Jean (Lana Condor). Kitty moves to Korea to progress her relationship with her long-distance boyfriend Dae.
Jenny Han wrote the novels the franchise is based on and showruns the series. She previously showran “The Summer I Turned Pretty”, based on her separate novel series.
“XO, Kitty” is on Netflix. All 10 episodes are out immediately.
Primo (Amazon) mostly directed by women
A San Antonio teen navigates the college search, friends, and a chaotic home life where he helps his mother and five uncles.
Three women directs two episodes apiece: Rebecca Asher (director on “Dead to Me”, “Grace and Frankie”), Cortney Carrillo (editor on “Killing It” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), and Melissa Fumero (lead actress on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”).
“Primo” is on Amazon through an app/sub-channel called “Freevee”. It’s free to watch but there are commercials. All episodes are out immediately.
La Chica Invisible (Hulu) showrunner Marina Efron
A father and daughter with a tense relationship investigate the murder of a teenage girl in picturesque Andalusia.
The Spanish series is showrun by Marina Efron, who also wrote on “It Was Always Me”.
“La Chica Invisible” is on Hulu. All episodes are out.
CW: sexual assault
She Said (Amazon) directed by Maria Schrader
Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan star as journalists Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, who investigated and reported the decades of sexual abuse perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein. The film is one of the major oversights of the most recent Oscars, though it received two BAFTA nominations.
Maria Schrader directs. She also helmed “Unorthodox” and “I’m Your Man”.
“She Said” is on Amazon.
Fanfic (Netflix) directed by Marta Karwowska
Two high schoolers connect with each other even as they struggle to understand who they are.
Marta Karwowska directs and co-writes the Polish film.
“Fanfic” is on Netflix.
American Cherry (Showtime) directed by Marcella Cytrynowicz
This psychological thriller follows a young man who becomes increasingly violent as he films a documentary about his life.
Writer-director Marcella Cytrynowicz comes from a music video direction background. She’s directed and edited MVs for Snoop Dogg and Valentina.
“Clue” is my go-to comfort movie. The 1985 murder mystery starred Tim Curry as a one man Greek chorus of a butler, Madeline Kahn as the flustered Mrs. White, and Christopher Lloyd as lecherous Professor Plum. They were part of an energetic ensemble invited to a mansion by Mr. Boddy, who’s only seen briefly before being murdered. Whodunnit? That’s what they need to figure out.
What results is a perfect balance between theatrical dialogue and cinematic slapstick. Its humor is rangy, often folding extended wordplay and physical comedy together in ways that are unexpected. Very few jokes can be guessed ahead of time. Its lithe ability to shift so deftly between different styles of comedy is what makes it so rewatchable. You don’t see just one style of comedy done well, you see some of the best comedic actors of their generation deliver on a screenplay and direction that features every little thing they can do.
“Clue” stands as the best movie adaptation of a board game, in large part because it happened well before the scramble to adapt any and every board game with a recognizable brand name. It also stayed surprisingly true to the game, releasing into theaters with a variety of endings. People who’d seen it at different theaters would each insist a different person was guilty, mirroring the disagreements that can happen when playing the actual game. For home release and any version you’ll see now, these endings are presented one after the other in a way that maintains the film’s eccentric momentum.
I like Ryan Reynolds, but I have some concern over his proposed “Clue” remake. First and foremost, the two announced cast – Reynolds and Jason Bateman – don’t fit what I’d want to see in a remake. Each plays variations on a single character in everything they’ve been in. They’re very good at doing that, but they both lack the breadth and ability for variation that “Clue” demands.
The various writers they’ve gone through boast experience ranging from “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” to “Deadpool”, but the most recent rewrite is by the man who brought us “Mortal Kombat” and “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions”. He also wrote “22 Jump Street” and “The Lost City”, which is reassuring and makes the chances of Channing Tatum jump exponentially. Actually, I’d be better with him than Reynolds or Bateman.
The saving grace so far is James Bobin’s attachment as director. The “Flight of the Concords” creator helmed the 2011 “The Muppets” and “Muppets Most Wanted”, and I heard surprisingly good things about his live-action “Dora and the Lost City of Gold”. He’s an ideal director for something that seeks to balance camp, theatricality, slapstick, and some good, old-fashioned fourth wall breakage.
Who’s in my ideal cast? I’m so glad I’m pretending you asked. I’ve looked at a lot of clickbait, a lot of comment sections, and I’ll let you know who the popular choice seems to be before offering my suggestion. I’m not just going to focus on big names – that’s not realistic or affordable, and every character being a showboat would just make a mess. Let’s focus on a cast that complements each others’ strengths and weaknesses.
WADSWORTH originally: Tim Curry the popular choice: Matt Berry my choice: Daniel Radcliffe
The role you’ve got to get right is the butler who buttles (“I buttle, sir”). He keeps the plot moving forward. Tim Curry fused his preternatural ability to anchor you into a narrative with comedic chops that let him bounce from scene to scene like a chaotic pinball. The role needs to cut a line straight down the middle of the narrative hijinks and the showiness of other roles. It’s one of the more underrated comedy performances out there.
The temptation – as I’m sure it is for Reynolds – is to cast, you know, Ryan Reynolds. That could work…ish. I’m not sold on the idea. You need to cast someone who can capture the camera on the heels of someone else’s joke, and then return it just as easily. Reynolds can do the first part with ease; I’m not entirely sure he can hand the attention back reliably enough.
The popular choice I kept coming across is Matt Berry. That’d work, as the man’s been doing Curry-adjacent comedy from “The IT Crowd” to “What We Do in the Shadows”. For all his skill at parodying bravado, Berry is an expert at sharing the screen and readily turning the joke over to his fellow actors.
Yet as I researched this, there was one suggestion that felt so out of the box – and yet disturbingly accurate – that I couldn’t dismiss it. I hate to open with a suggestion that’s already out there, but Pajiba’s recommendation of Daniel Radcliffe is so inventive I just can’t shake it.
In his post Harry Potter career, Radcliffe has focused on bringing dynamic complexity to comedic roles that could’ve just been one-note jokes. Look at “Swiss Army Man” next to “Miracle Workers” for his ability to shift quickly between grounding a moment and flinging it into chaos.
Believe me, I wanted to feel all clever and make my own out-of-left-field suggestion, but this one’s so good I can’t get it out of my brain – and he’d give the film box office draw.
MRS. WHITE originally: Madeline Kahn the popular choice: Aubrey Plaza my choice: Claudia O’Doherty
The showiest role in “Clue” is that of Mrs. White, played by one of the great comedic actors of the last century in Madeline Kahn. I’m not sure you can find an equal. The popular choice in article after article is Aubrey Plaza. While she can go off on a fiery tangent, her foundational humor tends to be much drier.
Kahn could plant a line so acidic that you didn’t realize it until half a scene later when it had melted through your hull. Contrast this to Plaza, who jerks the audience by the collar into the joke. Plaza’s is an incredibly muscular comedy that works by interrupting and redirecting the pace. It’s unique to her and maybe that’s more valuable to Mrs. White than fitting a particular mold. Again though, it’s that breadth of comedy that I want. Plaza can nail a specific character range as well or better than Reynolds or Bateman, but like them, I’m not sure she has the adaptability I’m looking for.
You can’t go wrong choosing Plaza, but I do feel there’s a more apt choice – someone who can deliver a line that sits in wait before taking your brain by storm. Claudia O’Doherty is the best I know at shifting from a supporting ensemble voice one moment to stealing the scene out from under half a dozen people the next.
The Australian actor stars in “Killing It” and had a supporting role in last year’s “Our Flag Means Death” (as Stede Bonnet’s jilted wife Mary). She can adopt the sweet innocent “Who me?” vibes of Mrs. White while flashing daggers of contempt and murderous vengeance.
MISS SCARLET originally: Lesley Ann Warren the popular choice: Aubrey Plaza (again!) my choice: Josie Totah
Miss Scarlet embodies a smoldering, charming, come-hither attitude, but guards it with a thick layer of the unattainable. You need someone who can disarm others from a pedestal she’s placed herself upon, yet occasionally lets the facade down and has to scramble back up to it before anyone else notices. That comedy has its spotlight moments, but a lot of it has to happen in the background – it has to be something the audience notices her doing before anyone else does.
Again Plaza’s is the name most often mentioned; people really want to see her in a “Clue” remake. Who am I to argue?
I’m torn in a few directions otherwise. After “Do Vengeance”, I have to admit Maya Hawke would be an exceptional choice. Utilizing your blocking and knowing how the camera sees you is such an overlooked aspect of film comedy. Hawke has rare ability there. If you cast her, I’d have no good argument against it.
If you want to cast a straight up prototypical Miss Scarlet who was born for the role, you dye British impressionist Morgana Robinson’s hair red and call it a day. She captures the camera in a way Miss Scarlet must, and in British panel shows like “Taskmaster” has naturally projected the exact smolder a Miss Scarlet should have.
A lesser known choice would be Josie Totah. I’ve only seen her in the underrated and overlooked gem that was the “Saved by the Bell” reboot, but she was the show’s standout. Her comic timing and command of physical comedy was undeniable and she possesses Warren’s capacity to play out a counter-scene in the background.
It’s a big shift from the type of series acting Totah’s done before to the kind of film acting this would ask, but I think she’s got the ability and presence.
PROFESSOR PLUM originally: Christopher Lloyd the popular choice: Keegan-Michael Key my choice: Bryan Cranston
As much goodwill as I have for Keegan-Michael Key, outside of sketches I’ve only ever seen him play variations on one role. That role is very reliable and he wouldn’t be a bad choice for the more straight-laced Mr. Green, but I’m not sure you choose him to be a punchy, lascivious old man for an hour-and-a-half. I just don’t see it.
The one who could capture an energy equal to Christopher Lloyd’s is Bryan Cranston. Let’s not forget his fierce and terrifying work on “Breaking Bad” was preceded by the goofy physical comedy of put-upon father Hal in “Malcolm in the Middle”. With Jane Kaczmarek, the pair formed what still stands to this day as the most entertaining sitcom marriage since “I Love Lucy”. Cranston has long been the natural successor to Lloyd’s eccentric yet easily distracted geniuses, he’s just done the other stuff, too. (So did Lloyd; let’s not forget the time he fistfought Captain Kirk as complex Klingon Commander Kruge).
Cranston’s breadth across the “Malcolm in the Middle” to “Breaking Bad” spectrum, his skill for the eccentric, and the fact he’s getting older means he’s the perfect choice for Professor Plum – a scoundrel who uses his title to hide his slavering salaciousness.
MRS. PEACOCK originally: Eileen Brennan the popular choice: Catherine O’Hara my choice: Niecy Nash
Eileen Brennan’s original Mrs. Peacock had a habit of saying something just off-kilter enough to give you pause, but not so much to stop you in your tracks as the joke kept going. As I mentioned earlier, fan-casting tends to want everyone to be a showboat who steals the camera, but if everyone’s doing that, no one’s keeping the film afloat.
Niecy Nash has made her name in supporting work, delivering the kind of jokes that trip you up without making you fall behind. She has an exceptional talent for ensemble work. I could also see Ali Wong here and I harbor a deep curiosity after “Halo” of just how much scenery Natascha McElhone could chew. But Nash is the best choice as an actor who gets opportune jabs in without ever wavering in her support of the performers around her.
COLONEL MUSTARD originally: Martin Mull the popular choice: Nick Offerman my choice: Diane Morgan
Colonel Mustard is the dopey and cowardly military man who’s always a step behind and volunteers others to walk into danger first. Nick Offerman could do that; I’ve got no problem with that choice. But I feel there’s one person born to take on that role and improve upon it. That is Philomena Cunk herself, Diane Morgan.
You’ve likely seen some of her work as the dreadfully miscast and inept documentary host in her British “Cunk” satires and Netflix’s recent “Cunk on Earth”. She actually has a huge range of appearances on British TV, perhaps most notably her touching portrayal of an absurd boss who’s revealed to be desperately lonely in “After Life”. The role is one of the most remarkable pieces of character development in the last several years.
Mull originally played the role as someone who had boundless confidence while being consistently out of his depth. This is Morgan’s wheelhouse, but she’s managed to find human depths in it that make it more reflective, uncomfortable, and all the funnier.
MR. GREEN originally: Michael McKean the popular choice: Ryan Reynolds my choice: Martin Freeman
This tends to be where most stick Ryan Reynolds because you’ve got to put him somewhere. Mr. Green is the character most able to fade into the background, a nondescript everyman who’s so easy to overlook that it serves his role as a C.I.A. spy perfectly. Nondescript and easy to overlook…doesn’t sound like Ryan Reynolds. At all.
You want a put-upon everyman, you get Martin Freeman. From Sherlock’s endearing Watson to Bilbo from “The Hobbit” fame, he’s achieved a level of frumpy discontent that perfectly conveys he’d rather be at home reading a good book. He’s played more adventurous roles in the MCU and the “Fargo” series, but even here he maintains an undercurrent of, “This adventure is making me miss time I could be spending under a blanket.”
He plays characters who are less exciting than their adventures, but are lovable because they lack airs, which mirrors McKean’s take on the comedic straight man.
YVETTE originally: Colleen Camp the popular choice: Aubrey Plaza my choice: Henry Cavill
The maid in a low cut uniform who’s ogled by the entire cast is often forgotten when thinking of the core ensemble of “Clue”, and that’s a shame. Camp does good work beyond just the initial sight gag. It’s one of the few movies where the repeating ogle joke is done well, chiefly because it’s an indictment of the men staring at her instead of dealing with a life-or-death situation.
And while the internet does want to see Aubrey Plaza in every single role (actually wait, can we just do that version) and she can smolder on demand, I do feel like this is the place to really feature someone who’s captured the zeitgeist of cultural desire. Now Chris Hemsworth has done this sort of role before and he’s good at it, but he has a tendency to steal scenes. Henry Cavill has a quieter, more complementary presence, he has underrated comic delivery, and he’s more suited to ensemble work. Let’s just not dehydrate him for days on end this time; I’m sure Cavill looks just fine without risking his life.
MR. BODDY originally: Lee Ving the popular choice: Ryan Reynolds my choice: Taika Waititi
In the original, Mr. Boddy only appears briefly to chew out and threaten his dinner guests before being mysteriously murdered. This is the place where you can stunt cast – Bradley Cooper, Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, you name it.
It’s also where many stick Ryan Reynolds because – hey, that’s a stunt cast, he’s good at leveling off a quickfire round of insults, and it lets you cast the guy who’s getting the movie made without sacrificing a larger part.
I’d personally love to see Taika Waititi bounce in, insult and extort everyone, and then get candlesticked. We probably each have our own preference. Ali Wong could also knock a part like this out beautifully.
There are various other roles that come and go, but there’s no reason to assume they’d be a must in a remake. The leading suggestion for the Singing Telegram is – you’ll never guess! – Aubrey Plaza. I feel kind of bad not finding a role for her because I love her work, but in casting this I find myself really wanting to stay away from actors who specialize in one personality type. That includes Reynolds and Bateman as well. All three of them are great at what they do and suited to any number of other projects, but I want to see a “Clue” that asks its actors to be light-footed. The original’s unpredictable timings and delivery, the way its cast hands jokes off to each other so smoothly…that’s what I want to see and that’s a different sort of comedy.
There’s no real need to stick to the character types so extraordinarily realized in the original. There are so many “Clue” variants you could easily find new characters to fit other actors. Sticking to the original roles just gives us a framework to suggest a cast.
I find most dream casting write-ups tend to feature an expensive, ideal cast where everyone can show off and…that’s just not the way movies are budgeted and made. If everyone’s one-lining like Ryan Reynolds, then you might have an amusing movie but not one that feels like “Clue”.
You need complementary pieces, which is why I suggest a mix of name, character, and satirical actors. That often makes for more functional casts, especially when it comes to ensemble comedies.
That gives us a final cast:
Wadsworth – Daniel Radcliffe Mrs. White – Claudia O’Doherty Miss Scarlet – Josie Totah Professor Plum – Bryan Cranston Mrs. Peacock – Niecy Nash Colonel Mustard – Diane Morgan Mr. Green – Martin Freeman Yvette – Henry Cavill Mr. Boddy – Taika Waititi
The original “Clue” is on Amazon, Roku, Philo, Sling, and can be rented on a number of other platforms.
An advanced alien empire comes to Earth. All they find is a primitive species polluting the planet to death. Ugh! Might as well just invade the thing and be done with it. They send their best investigator, Liza Luna, to determine if there’s anything on Earth worth saving before it’s obliterated. She’s disgusted by our cities and how badly we treat our planet. Humanity is surely doomed…until Liza walks into a cat cafe.
Overloaded by a level of cuteness her empire couldn’t possibly fathom, she knows the invasion needs to be called off. As we all know, aliens’ one weakness is cute animals. If Liza barely survived her first encounter, she knows even her best soldiers’ hearts will explode if they encounter a cat. Then she meets dogs, and rabbits, and pandas, and other cute creatures. The aliens never stood a chance. It’s up to Liza to run interference, save the Earth (but mainly cats), and ensure that her people are introduced to our pets at a cautious pace.
This is incredibly campy. There’s no other real way it could work. The acting and design of the aliens is patterned after cheesy B-movies. The cat cafe employees readily accept that Liza’s an alien without much fuss. When she finds a sick and abandoned cat, reads the cat’s memories to track his abusive owners down, and calls an orbital artillery strike on them, no one bats an eyelash at this perfectly reasonable response.
Knowing that the legendary Liza’s struggling with taming a cat, the aliens back on her ship theorize how hideous and deadly the creature must be. She won’t show them its appearance, and the descriptions she sends back don’t help. It can fit into any space like a fluid, but it also leaps and has fur? The mock-ups they create of what a cat must look like become more and more ridiculous. Recordings of its ‘meow’ send chills up alien researchers’ backs, but they become addicted to hearing more of it. Humans aren’t much help either. Ask any two and it’s unclear if cats are the pets, or humans serve the cat as their masters.
Sure, “Too Cute Crisis” overly relies on the joke that Liza sees a cute animal and flips out, but it’s a pretty good joke. Encounters with other animals vary. A personal favorite is when she first meets llamas, and a zookeeper describes their eyes as portals to another universe – one in which Liza immediately becomes lost. I had to go look up llamas’ eyes afterward and…yeah, that’s a hauntingly accurate description. I want to go see llamas now.
I watched “Too Cute Crisis” on a lark because the idea is ridiculous enough it deserves checking out. A lot of things I approach that way don’t pan out. A lark repeated episode after episode can become tiring quickly, but not so here. Yes, the animation’s pretty basic and it’s clearly made on a budget…but the visual humor and campiness are getting me to stick around, the voice actors are clearly having fun, and I spend most of each episode laughing. The show’s balance of appreciating different animals while poking light fun at how we interact with them, topped with a bit of B-movie alien cheese, is an enjoyable combination.
I don’t know that it’s a binge series. I’m watching it weekly as it airs and it’s a perfect appetizer: low investment, high reward. The central joke has time to refresh that way. The opening and closing songs are also good bops with a great sense of humor, and the closing credits feature real pictures of cute pets – whether from animation studio employees or sent in from fans, I don’t know. Six episodes in (that’s half the season order) and it’s very safe for family viewing so far.
I told myself at first I’m probably not going to watch it. It’s too childish and ridiculous and I’m a high-minded gentleman who only watches post-apocalypse allegories about the horrors of capitalism or whatever, but…even then I knew I was lying. It’s too cute. I know I’ll watch anyway.
“Black Knight” has been described as “Mad Max” meets “Death Stranding”. That’s a broad but incomplete way of defining it. After a comet hits the Earth and our atmosphere becomes polluted, the ultra-wealthy of South Korea are secured in an opulent underground bunker. Those in ‘needed’ jobs live in a somewhat safe general district. Each layer out offers worse conditions, until you hit the slums of refugees living in the ramshackle buildings of a poisoned Earth.
The most skilled and resilient become delivery drivers, running armored trucks through gauntlets of desert pirates. What are the pirates after? The oxygen and food the drivers deliver. “Black Knight” features car chases and shootouts in a desert wasteland as its leading hero delivers packages, so the “Mad Max” and “Death Stranding” comparisons make sense. They’re good hooks to draw you in, but they misrepresent what “Black Knight” is after as a series.
The more apt comparison would be “Snowpiercer” meets “Snow Crash”. But with less snow. “Black Knight” is about separating classes along artificially created resource boundaries. Just like our world. The villain pretends resources can’t be better shared with refugees, exacerbating violence toward them so as to tighten his grip on power. Just like our world. Refugee children are systemically abducted and re-purposed according to the needs of the wealthy. (Here’s how Russia does it. Here’s how China does it. Here’s how the U.S. does it.) The reliance on deliveries by a corporation-state replacing the way people connect with their own communities is the most similar aspect to our world. It just levels up the porch pirates for more exciting action scenes.
If “Black Knight” is post-apocalypse, then why is it so recognizable? There’s a moment where someone suggests to the villain that the lower classes can live in safer conditions if everyone – including the wealthy – were willing to wear a filtration mask in their daily lives. The suggestion’s never even considered. Yeah. Science-fiction. Sure.
What I love about “Black Knight” is that it starts slow. It shows you the personal aspects of its world, plants its ideas and patiently lets them weave together. The action’s good, though it frontloads the first two episodes with underwhelming sequences that are just OK. Things open up much more from the third episode onward, with some jaw dropping fight choreography and cinematography.
Even though I may have come for the action, I stayed for the world building. The world building in “Black Knight” is exceptional. This is a soft sci-fi build, focused on caste systems of stratified social classes, the relationship between nation and equally powerful corporation, and corporate neo-feudalism’s need for autocracy, police states, and refugee abuse. The plot essentially boils down to working class elements within this social system figuring out how to resist and topple further stratification.
“Black Knight” might not wow you at first. It was made for $18 million, which is very little compared to an American series of similar scope. They pick and choose where to spend the CGI budget, saving it for when the action really ramps up. That means we learn about the world less through sweeping aerial shots of post-apocalyptic vistas and more through beautifully detailed sets and costuming. One slum thoroughfare realized perfectly lends our imagination the details of a thousand more just like it. Many live in apartments with the exact same layout and materials. It’s an easy way to save on production budget, but it’s also an effective way of communicating that what people have is mass produced. Yet each apartment feels distinct to the people who live there. The reality is that it’s the same set over and over again, but the reality that’s conveyed is that each person does what they can to make their shut-in, gray apartment their own. Each does what they can to keep their identity in a world that’s trying to quash it.
The most effective way of building a world is to show us how people live in it. “Black Knight” is superb on this front. You can have all the budget imaginable and lack the finer details that make a place believable. Or you can have a dilapidated street, a scientist’s repair lab, a truck interior, and repeat the same apartment set in a way that paints an entire world. The world building of “Black Knight” outpaces the vast majority of series that cost 10 times as much. I’ve recently written about “Citadel”, Amazon’s $300 million spy disaster. It’s not even a competition which series paints a world I believe and care about. “Black Knight” feels like it spans vast territory, and convinces me to care about its thousands of refugees because the show evidences their existence, their impact, their lived-in history. It paints the little things with care and detail to spark our imagination in filling out the rest.
A bit of shaky CGI early on, or taking its time to backload the best action for later? I’m fine with that because what “Black Knight” gives me instead is good foundation for its story.
I also love the music. It’s not groundbreaking, it’s mostly familiar low-key synthwave, but it’s perfect for this kind of show. It’s complementary without intruding. Its looping nature lulls you even as it builds atmosphere and tension. A few industrial and trip-hop moments are used as drops to cue action, and these are beautifully done.
There are take it-or-leave it aspects. A bit of brief comedy here and there might seem out of place. Korean genre series fold these aspects in at moments that seem isolated and counter-intuitive to American viewers, but won’t to Korean audiences. There are only a few of these, but they’re noticeable. They still feel bumpy to me, but they don’t interrupt or take away from the whole.
Most of the performances are either iconic or subdued. By ‘iconic’, I mean they build out strong archetypes rather than exploring nuance. Delivery driver and resistance leader 5-8 is a cool-headed, suave hero who never takes a step wrong. Many supporting characters play things close to the vest, which fits the world but doesn’t let us learn much about them.
There’s not a lot of material written between these two extremes. The result is that there aren’t many acting moments that are designed to stand out. The acting’s good, and the writing allows a lot of opportunity for wry moments where a character undermines our expectations. I loved these, such as when 5-8 shakes his head and curses his protege’s actions, but can’t suppress his smile of approval. Smaller moments like this replace the more dramatic scenes we might be used to in both post-apocalypse series and many featured-actor K-dramas that cross over to the U.S. It almost feels like the nature of the world in “Black Knight” doesn’t allow for them. I’m good with this approach, but some will want characters with whom they can more easily connect and identify.
If you’re interested in the patient world-building of a cyberpunk post-apocalypse with a lot to say, and you enjoy seeing this accomplished through small details and design choices, “Black Knight” is extremely satisfying. If you’re looking for impressive action, you’ll definitely find it, but it takes some time and some initially over-edited action to get there. In terms of a series that delivers opportunities for its actors to shine, everyone here’s doing a good job but for most of the ensemble that job is to not stand out too much.
The first two things are more than good enough to justify the third for me. Many viewers will feel the same and find “Black Knight” to be a seriously impressive outing. If your priorities are different, you may bounce off the series before “Black Knight” starts paying off for you. I highly recommend it for its world building, blend of salient themes, its design, and eventually its action, with the caveat that viewers who are looking for complex dramatic performances may not be satisfied with a series that doesn’t make room for them.
It’s difficult to acknowledge right now when a streaming service does something right. Services like Netflix are attempting to downgrade salaried writing positions into gig work while leaving the door wide open for A.I. generators to supplant writers (as they’re already attempting with animators).
It’s the most important battle in the industry being fought, and it’s also not the only one. Services like Max (formerly HBO Max) pulled their production offices in Central and Eastern Europe last year. They also torpedoed licensing deals and pulled freshly debuted series. This left many filmmakers high and dry, unable to collect residuals or license their work to another service. It disproportionately hit series developed and run by women.
Netflix is among those leading the ill-advised charge against writers. That’s going to hurt a lot of workers, particularly women and people of color who have historically seen fewer opportunities when an industry narrows.
At the same time, Netflix has doubled down on production offices around the world at a time when other platforms are pulling back. This has enabled women filmmakers and people of color to tell stories that can otherwise struggle to find an outlet – particularly in conservative or autocratic countries.
One act doesn’t make up for the other. They’re not mutually exclusive. It’s not an either-or choice, and humans keeping full-time positions is crucial to humans being able to do that both in the U.S. and abroad.
Some European countries have passed protections already. If the U.S. fails to do so we may be the odd country out when it comes to still seeing art driven by humans. Bravo to the platforms that still see hearing voices from around the world as valuable. It shouldn’t be that hard to apply the same standard to all writers, animators, and other filmmakers.
Strikes in the entertainment industry can be complicated. Sometimes it’s appropriate to boycott, sometimes it’s appropriate to support films and series by the people on the picket lines. I’ve not yet seen a call by the unions to boycott streaming services. If I do, the nature of this site will follow suit.
The Mary Sue has a good rundown on what you can do to support the writers strike in the meantime. At the very least, most streaming services have a page for comments or requests. Tell them to pay writers fairly. Tell them that you want to see stories by humans and not A.I. That takes less than 30 seconds. We can all do that.
This week, new series by women come from Finland, Japan, and the U.S. New films by women come from France, Mexico, and the U.S.
Dance Brothers (Netflix) showrunner Mahsa Malka
Two brothers who are dancers open up a club. Their artistic goals soon clash with their business plans, driving a wedge between them.
This is Netflix’s first major Finnish production. Creator and showrunner Mahsa Malka started out as a production assistant and post-production coordinator.
“Dance Brothers” is on Netflix. All 10 episodes are out immediately.
City on Fire (Apple TV+) co-showrunner Stephanie Savage half-directed by women
A 2003 shooting in New York City’s Central Park connects to a series of fires. Investigations unearth even more connections – including the underground music scene and a fragile real estate empire. John Cameron Mitchell co-stars.
Stephanie Savage showruns with Josh Schwartz. She’s written and produced on “Looking for Alaska”, “Runaways”, and (the excellent) “Nancy Drew”.
“Wadjda” director Haifaa al-Mansour helms two episodes. Liz Garbus is one of the most important documentary filmmakers of our time. More recently, she’s branched out into fiction filmmaking with episodes on “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Yellowjackets”. Garbus helms another two.
“City on Fire” is on Apple TV+. Three episodes are out tomorrow, Friday May 12. A new episode follows every Friday for a total of 8.
Why Didn’t I Tell You a Million Times? (Netflix) showrunner Naoko Adachi
(No trailer for this, but there should be one on Netflix.)
Once childhood friends, Yui and Naoki meet again as adults. They fall in love, but Naoki is killed. He wanders the world as a spirit who doesn’t know he’s died until he finds a detective who can see him.
“Why Didn’t I Tell You a Million Times?” is on Netflix. All 10 episodes should be available tomorrow, Friday May 12.
The Five Devils (MUBI) directed by Lea Mysius
Vicky is an 8-year-old with a powerful sense of smell. She’s happy but acting out in strange ways. When her Aunt Julia is released from prison, the ensuing chaos unearths her family’s messy past.
Director and co-writer Lea Mysius also helmed “Ava” and co-wrote (with Celine Sciamma and others) “Paris, 13th District”.
“The Five Devils” is on MUBI.
Saint Omer (Hulu) directed by Alice Diop
Rama is a novelist seeking inspiration for a modern-day adaptation of the myth of Medea. She finds a court case that would seem to fill that role, but discovers far more than she anticipated.
The French film is directed by Alice Diop. “Saint Omer” was nominated for Best Screenplay at the Cesars (French Academy Awards). It was also France’s submission for best international film at the Oscars.
“Saint Omer” is on Hulu.
CW: pregnancy complications
Huesera: The Bone Woman (Shudder) directed by Michelle Garza Cervera
Valeria has desperately wanted to become a mother. Yet her pregnancy doesn’t feel like it’s progressing normally. The Mexican horror movie is an allegorical slow burn.
Michelle Garza Cervera is an up-and-coming horror director with a number of short films.
“Huesera: The Bone Woman” is on Shudder.
The Mother (Netflix) directed by Niki Caro
Jennifer Lopez plays an assassin who comes out of hiding to protect her daughter.
Niki Caro directs. She also helmed “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, “Whale Rider”, “North Country”, and the live-action “Mulan”.
“The Mother” is on Netflix starting tomorrow, Friday May 12.
The show about every spy losing their memory returns. If you don’t remember what happened last time on “Citadel”, god you’re lucky. Richard Madden’s amnesiac Kyle had his spy memories as supersuave Mason destroyed, but Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ amnesiac Nadia was able to get hers back. Now they’re working together to stop the evil Manticore from procuring eight year old nuclear codes.
The first thing they do is retcon the nuclear codes into an A.I. that can track uranium globally. That no one’s been able to rewrite. In 8 years. While ChatGPT is over here going, “You need those paid writers? I’m free. You gonna need those paid programmers? I’m free.” Timely. Evil Manticore Lady doesn’t breathe a word about “nuclear codes” after repeating it every other scene in the first two episodes.
Robert Rodriguez literally recorded all the dialogue in the $7,000 movie “El Mariachi” in post-production. The makers of the $300 million “Citadel” just decided no one would notice if “nuclear codes” suddenly changed to “uranium detecting A.I.” I highlighted the staggering number of gaffes that could’ve easily been edited out in my review of the first two eps, why am I still surprised?
But forget that! We’re gonna have a flashback of how Kyle/Mason and Nadia first met! It’s basically an excuse for an action scene, but who understands how those work in spy movies? We better have a meeting about it first.
We don’t need any of this set-up. You could cut directly to the action sequence and we’d be fine. That’s how every Bond movie starts and we don’t lament that we missed the conference meeting. It doesn’t matter if Mason is retrieving an evil megavirus, the Ark of the Covenant, or second-hand Taylor Swift tickets. We get it, each is a source of unspeakable power and it has to be researched.
I still remember the joy of “Mission: Impossible 3” never telling you what the McGuffin they’re chasing is. Few spy films have so cleanly acknowledged it doesn’t matter. But “Citadel” is doing a 10-minute flashback. If 5 minutes of it isn’t a meeting describing a McGuffin that’ll never matter again, then why’d we pay for this secret base set? Stanley lost the receipt, it’s not like we can return it.
To be fair, there’s nowhere else for the dialogue to shine. Those meetings are important because they give the characters opportunities to quip with the energy of your CEO sharing a joke they saw on Reddit and expecting you to courtesy laugh before he tells you there’s no bonus this year, but the executives’ Aegean cruise was beautiful (true story).
This ensures that “Citadel” has officially joined “Halo” in that rare genre of shows about meetings that I like to call Could’ve Been an Email. Half-hour spy cartoons have already mastered the art of knowing the audience has seen this bit countless times before, and their audience is primarily children who have only had five minutes of cogent thought, mostly about Legos or Minecraft or whatever’s popular with kids right now. Tik Tok? The return of child labor? Have pogs cycled back around yet? The point is we don’t need an entire meeting to outline an action sequence that’s only going to be important for 5 minutes of flashback. If a 10 year-old treats it as a waste of limited free time before their McDonald’s night shift, why don’t we?
Slow-forward to Mason escaping an Iranian facility with a deadly Ebola-like plague in hand. Once they get to the action sequence, the ideas are mostly great. He improvises, adapts, and uses the tools he finds on hand. He’s chased by paratroopers, he pops out cheesy magic ski boots that remind me of that parasurfing scene from “Die Another Day”, there’s snowmobile vs. ski vs. jet fighter action, the bad guys can’t hit the broadside of a barn, Mason never misses a shot, it’s 90% amazeballs. If only we got to see it. In between every awesome action moment, we cut back to headquarters where a man we’ve never met before helpfully says things like, “Two guys from the last scene down, two guys for the next scene approaching”. Yes. That is the thing I just saw and am about to see. I could tell that by, you know, watching the action scene.
Mason shoots two guys, cut to Suddenly Important Dude at base staring at a screen. Two red dots disappear. “Two skis down”. Two more red dots appear. “Two ATVs approaching”. Cut to action scene. You’ll never guess. Two ATVs approach.
These cutaways happen in many series to afford the action larger transitions than would be comfortable if we just saw the sequence straight through. When you cut away for every single minor action for minutes straight, it just shows you have no idea how to cut the action itself together. Mason can’t get two shots off without going to Cutaway Dude telling his red dots, “You got two shots off, in the next scene it’s a dark and stormy night”.
It’s a Could’ve Been an Email inside another Could’ve Been an Email. It Could’ve Been an Email all the way down.
Mason is injured, Nadia shows up, badass choreography is intercut with, “Mason! Last scene just happened, next scene incoming”. Safe in the knowledge that the action sequence has been thoroughly sabotaged, we cut to Mason sitting around in bandages like he’s waiting for his cue. Mason and Nadia briefly officially meet after the mission, and insult each others’ mothers. The very next scene they’re sleeping together. Er, Mason and Nadia are. Not the moms. At this rate, that’ll be next episode.
I’d say there’s no way that anyone could possibly think this passes for romantic dialogue, but then again it’s like 90% of the Russos’ screenplay for “The Gray Man”. I’m beginning to think Your Mom jokes are what the Russos throw in as dialogue when they become panicked. It’s a survival mechanism, like a skunk spraying sulfur juice or a possum keeling over or a herd of buffalo forming a defensive circle around your mom.
“Hey, Russo Bro! Russbro. I’ve got these two characters who need to have sexy banter that convinces the audience that they spark immediately.”
“Have they insulted each others moms yet?”
“We can do better than that.”
“Agh, a spider!”
“One’s an orphan who never had a mom, hilarious!”
OK, I have to admit I’m actually kinda jealous of the Russos’ fame. My frustration first arises from my childhood. It was a gusty Autumn day when my third grade class first stood around before school and made Your Mom jokes to pass the time. Apparently we wrote a high quality screenplay every week just standing in line, but we didn’t think to write anything down. Sometimes the geese in the baseball field would attack a passing cyclist. Halcyon days. My point is, we had it in us to waste $300 million, too.
After all these scenes that could’ve been emails, the next scene is an email. What a twist! Well, it’s text messaging. Close enough. Thrillingly staccato violin music backs modern-day Nadia typing out brief texts in exciting codephrases like “How’s the weather?” and “How’s the package?” We could get a swift back-and-forth like in any spy thriller, but “Citadel” is grounded and realistic whenever it gets embarrassed about having Inspector Gadget ski boots in a previous scene. That means we get to see the messaging play out in real time, as Nadia waits at length for responses. We even take the time to see her look around the room with pained expressions as she racks her mind about what to write, which is something that would make sense if she weren’t writing clearly prescribed codephrases. Oh god, the emails are even worse. You know what, it could’ve been a sick day.
Luckily, half the episode is Stanley Tucci being tortured. Wait, that came out wrong. I mean, he’s the only one riding the line between this show’s cheesiness and faux gravitas. The one liners still don’t work because they’re variations on the same joke: characters telling each other to fuck themselves over and over again. OK, they’re not actually jokes with a punchline or a set-up or anything that makes a joke, but “Citadel” keeps acting like they are and after a certain amount of time you don’t want to be the odd one out even though you’re watching this alone because you wouldn’t dare inflict this show on loved ones. Here’s where they really need Cutaway Guy describing over comms, “That was one joke, another joke incoming”. Still, Tucci works because he read the script and recognized this is a job for Nic Cage, but I guess he wasn’t available. And Tucci can Cage it up enough to get the job done.
Lol and behold, the end of the episode features a twist. After Mason the spy lost his memory and became Kyle, he met another woman who’d lost her memory, married her, and had a daughter who thus far hasn’t lost her memory thank god for small favors. Weird that Mason-Kyle and his now-wife Abby lost their memories right around the same time, when all the other Citadel spies also lost their memories. I bet that doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a coincidence in this series about nothing being a coincidence when it could be badly written instead.
But the Manticore villain tagged to torture Tucci next was in love with Mason’s now-wife when she was a spy and maybe this villain was Citadel, too but also lost his memory. Makes no sense? Just looks like I mashed words together? Introduces massive plot holes? Basically assume that if someone on this show didn’t lose their memory, they did, and that also covers the writers and directors. If you want to have an action scene’s description described to you or see a real-time portrayal of texting “I’m bored, how bout u?”, you got yourself a show.
Literally nothing happens in this episode until the final 30 seconds. And just in case you don’t know what that means, remember you can always sign up to get this as an email.
You can watch “Citadel” on Amazon Prime, which is great because I don’t feel bad like I would if this happened to another streaming service.
The Writers Guild strike hits on a number of issues, even as streaming service numbers boom and those services are coming off years of record subscriptions and profits. One of the many issues on the table is the use of A.I. content generation. Writers want to ensure that they won’t be replaced by A.I. That may seem silly, but already we’ve seen Netflix test the waters by replacing animators with A.I.-generated art in “Dog & The Boy”. We’ve seen A.I. generated children’s books. We’ve seen magazines that have stopped accepting submissions from new writers because of the flood of A.I.-written content.
The legitimate fears here are multifold. Streaming services are already trying to push salaried writer positions into gig work. In other words, not being paid by the project, but simply by the day or the hour. Writers don’t fear immediate replacement, but by using A.I. to bash out scripts and writers to simply edit and polish, the industry would have an advantage in forcing screenwriting into a gig economy. This is less than a year, by the way, after Netflix was found to be systematically withholding residuals from 216 of its writers.
For viewers, A.I. generated writing would mean less creative scripts, more homogenized plot and dialogue, and iteration of what we’ve seen before. A.I. content generation doesn’t create, it combines and rehashes. Writing is about pushing boundaries and being the first to confront salient social themes. An A.I. spamming story concepts according to executive-directed prompts would do none of that.
I write about it here because we all know the first writers to face the chopping block – women, people of color, LGBTQ+ writers, the disabled. A.I. overwhelmingly coded by white, male teams to iterate on the work of the selections of white, male executives will severely narrow the stories we see and limit access and opportunity for anyone different to get their story across.
Take it from someone whose culture has been enormously erased through assimilation. The automated scraping of styles and influences in order to create a homogenized output is a cultural threat. To automate art or writing, to tell a program to create something in the style of a particular painter or cultural art form, negates the barrier to entry of talent, practice, training, and of the culturally unique experiences that inform artistic decisions. What’s unique to a lot of marginalized cultures and how that informs the artists within each is going to get drowned out by mountains of automated emulation. The norm for each style is going to be replaced by what people outside that culture use A.I. content generators to emulate. The decisions an A.I. content generator makes are going to be based not on experience, but on scraping, aggregating, and averaging out a set of commonalities that lack context and experience.
Art is one of the few things that manages to survive genocides, and in surviving helps cultures to endure. Do you trust an A.I. to amalgamate and average out a timely and salient story about abortion rights? Or do you trust a woman to do it?
For my part, I don’t trust an A.I. to scrape, aggregate, and emulate a story about what it’s like being Hispanic in a country playing footsie with fascism. The A.I. hasn’t experienced that. The A.I. has no earned context, no comprehension, no empathy. It’s just scraping, looking for commonalities, and outputting.
The labor concerns are underappreciated and under-reported. The cultural ones are barely being discussed. A.I. content generation requires regulation, and it must not replace the artistic jobs that help us maintain and progress our norms. You want to put all our stories in the hands of a few, all the experiences we’re asked to empathize with in the hands of an executive making profit judgments through a tool that has no ability to earn experience or comprehend context? Dictators have dreamed of that level of killing the arts and replacing it with control, and despite their greatest efforts that has remained a dream because they’ve only ever done so fleetingly and at great cost. Now we stare wide-eyed at handing it to them fully prepped for a low, low fee.
To my knowledge, the Writers Guild has not asked for any boycotts as of yet. During some similar strikes and threatened strikes in the past, watching has been encouraged as a way of showing support for the work and the artists who make it. Therefore, I’ll continue as normal unless and until I know differently. It is an exceptional time to support the work of marginalized writers, directors, crew, and actors.
This week, new series by women come from the U.K. and U.S. New films by women come from France and the U.S.
Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story (Netflix) showrunner Shonda Rhimes
This spinoff of “Bridgerton” shows young Queen Charlotte growing up. India Amarteifio stars. Younger versions of some other familiar characters also show up.
Showrunner Shonda Rhimes is, of course, the showrunner behind “Scandal” and “Inventing Anna”.
“Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story” is on Netflix. All 6 episodes are out.
Tom Jones (PBS) showrunner Gwyneth Hughes directed by Georgia Parris
PBS brings a new adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel. A romance at heart, it follows the adopted son of a wealthy squire as he grows up, goes through various love affairs, and discovers his biological parentage.
Showrunner and writer Gwyneth Hughes has written on a number of British series, including “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”. Director Georgia Parris is relatively new, having started in art and casting departments before more recently directing her first feature in dance-drama “Mari”.
“Tom Jones” is on PBS. The premiere is out with a new episode every Sunday for a total of 4.
A Small Light (Hulu, Disney+) co-showrunner Joan Rater half-directed by women
“A Small Light” tells the story of Miep Gies, the Dutch woman who sheltered Anne Frank’s family from Nazi genocide during World War II. The Frank family spent more than two years under her protection.
Joan Rater showruns with husband Tony Phelan. She wrote and produced on “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Madam Secretary”. Susanna Fogel directs two episodes. She also co-wrote “Booksmart” and directed on “The Flight Attendant”. Leslie Hope directs two episodes. The onetime “24” actress has directed on series like “Lost in Space”, “Snowpiercer”, and “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds”.
“A Small Light” is on Hulu and Disney+. Two episodes arrive every Monday, with two out now and 8 in total.
Fatal Attraction (Paramount Plus) showrunner Alexandra Cunningham half-directed by women
Lizzy Caplan stars as Alex, who’s having an affair with the married Dan (Joshua Jackson). She refuses to let him end it, stalking him, his wife Beth (Amanda Peet), and their daughter. The series is based on the 1987 film, which starred Michael Douglas and Glenn Close.
Showrunner Alexandra Cunningham was a writer and producer on “Desperate Housewives”, and showran “Dirty John” and “Physical”. Directors include Cunningham, Stacy A. Littlejohn, Katherine B. McKenna, and Tandace Khorrami.
“Fatal Attraction” is on Paramount Plus. The three-episode premiere is out now. A new episode arrives every Sunday for a total of 8.
Soft & Quiet (Netflix) directed by Beth de Araujo
An elementary school teacher organizes a mixer for women, but when one shows up from her past, chaos ensues. The horror mystery plays out in real time.
This is writer-director Beth de Araujo’s first feature.
“Soft & Quiet” is on Netflix.
Both Sides of the Blade (Hulu) directed by Claire Denis
Juliette Binoche stars as Sara in this French film. She’s caught in a love triangle between her long-time partner and his best friend, her former lover. Vincent Lindon also stars.
Director and co-writer Claire Denis also helmed “Beau Travail”, “Trouble Every Day”, “White Material”, and “High Life”.
Ganta is a student suffering insomnia. He can’t sleep at night and can barely function during class. One day, he sneaks into the school’s disused observatory. It looks like the perfect place to disappear and catch some shuteye. There’s only one problem – another insomniac has beat him to it. Isaki is in the same class, but they’ve never talked. Opening up about their condition allows them to find more in common than they thought.
They start spending time together, sneaking out to wander town at night and cleaning up the observatory to make it more comfortable. The plot is pretty low stakes. Will people question it if they’re suddenly friendly in class? Will they get caught by a teacher? It makes the series feel more experiential, but no less interesting. To students struggling to cope and find a way through, these everyday worries feel as intense as saving the world.
Whether Ganta and Isaki can keep using the observatory turns into some taut storytelling that feels weightier and more fraught than most action series this year. This tension shapes the series, but doesn’t define it. Instead, “Insomniacs After School” has a wonderful sense of peace and calm, punctuated with joy and undercut with just a hint of sadness. There’s a sense of each night being important because it’s fleeting, and of two people finally seeing in each other someone who shares and understands their burdens. It’s very sweet storytelling, and perfect to watch just before bed.
An alum named Shiromaru agrees to teach them about astrophotography. There’s a sequence where we follow her in the third episodes. She packs up her camera, cat, a tupperware of batter, and a skillet before heading to a shrine in the dead of night. She sets up her camera. She makes sure her cat is leashed and safe. Pictures of the night sky take time. She cooks a pancake with care, applies butter as if it’s a personal ritual. She savors it. She reads a little. The night is calm. Crickets chirp. The sky is beautiful. It’s a transcendent bit of magic, an utterly captivating scene where nothing much happens. Yet we see a glimpse into how much this moment means for one person, how at home she is doing what she loves, how much calm she can find in a moment so few others would think to experience.
The strength of “Insomniacs After School” rests in how much it appreciates the ordinary. Its low stakes and patience find worthwhile storytelling in realistic things, while its phenomenal sense of atmosphere allows us to slow down and bask in peaceful moments – the ones that shape us because they ask us to connect and be moved without defenses. It understands the thin line between peace and longing.
That scene with Shiromaru, her cat, the stars, it’s the first time we see her as she really is, and we understand how content she is when she can be exactly that. So too with Ganta and Isaki, who are still finding themselves, whose glimpses of who they really are vanish too quickly because of the guardedness of high school. You see them learn to find these better, to glimpse who they are a bit longer each time, and to find in each other someone who provides the safety and trust to be vulnerable. It’s one of the more realistic presentations of the psychology of coming-of-age I’ve seen.
“Insomniacs After School” is superb. I wasn’t actually a fan of slice-of-life anime until recently. The series I’d seen in the genre 10 years back often seemed to incorporate a few less than savory elements that felt out of place at best and exploitative at worst. I know we pin that on cultural differences, but for a country that gobbles up shows like “Euphoria” it’s a bit like the pot calling the kettle black. Now I don’t think this element has shifted any more in anime than it has in our productions, but streaming has made it much easier to find the ones that don’t sabotage their empathy with objectification set pieces.
It was “Komi Can’t Communicate” and its exceptional portrayal of social anxiety that drew me back in. “Komi” is really more of a satire that capably veers from soothing calm to rabid chaos goblin at the drop of a hat, but it targets and satirizes prior works’ exploitation in a way that’s protective of its characters. In other words, it feels like I can trust the show with them. That makes space for something more honest, in a way that asks us to understand both the characters and ourselves. The genre of more psychological, community-oriented, protective slice-of-life series didn’t start with “Komi”, but that’s what convinced me to give the genre another try.
I’m glad I did. This season’s “Insomniacs After School” and “Skip and Loafer” are easy contenders for best of the year lists, and not solely for animated series. They’ve both wowed me and – look, we live in interesting times to say the least. I need shows like this that are about kindness and people building supportive community. I need to know that even as these things are eroded in the real world, there are artists out there saying “Not here, not in the space we can control”. Art shapes norms, and norms decide whether we are kind, whether we choose to build community. I look around so many places and am grimly reminded who we seem to be. I need the spaces and the characters and the artists who remind me what we can be, and that other people out there do see a better way as well. I mentioned above that “Insomniacs After School” understands the thin line between peace and longing. It offers a place where I can understand it, too.
Quick, your spy organization’s just been compromised! You need to keep all your spies safe! Luckily, they’re the best in the world. Every agent has elite knowledge and skills that will help them blend in and disappear. Every one of them can take a thousand faces. They have the talent to disappear in any country, any time. So what’s your genius super-secret plan to protect them all? Wipe their memories. Give them all amnesia. When they’re hunted and in the sights of other top spies, what they need most is to forget all their knowledge and all those skills that can help them hide and defend themselves. Top stuff.
In a year that’s rife with spies deputizing their wives and boyfriends cause our collective fantasy for state security is how dreamy it would be if it was even more nepotistic, “Citadel” manages to come up with the most nonsense premise of the whole bunch.
Of course, who am I to judge? Wiping all your spies of their memories and knowledge seems to work perfectly in “Citadel”. If it didn’t, there wouldn’t be a show.
We start with Mason Kane and Nadia Sinh, played by Richard Madden and Priyanka Chopra Jonas. They’re on one of those central European trains with such great set design that we long for the simple days when becoming a suspect in a transcontinental murder investigation was a realistic vacation goal. Mason and Nadia aren’t here for that; they’re too busy carrying out a super-secret mission. We know this because they talk about it openly in earshot of the other passengers, including their target. Their target gets up, presumably tired of pretending he can’t hear them. Nadia follows, but then the target’s bodyguard follows so Mason follows. First to fourth, they’re maybe 20 feet apart. They may as well be hugging. This does not encourage great confidence in our spies.
Things go wrong, we get a fistfight, a gunfight, and a fistfight with guns. Our spies are good at each, hey maybe this’ll work out. We’re introduced to Citadel, who Mason and Nadia work for, and the evil Manticore. It’s a trap! Explosions ensue, that wacky amnesia failsafe triggers, and we’ve got a plot with immediate stakes in the here and now.
Fast-forward eight years later. Mason only knows himself as ordinary guy Kyle now. When he takes a DNA test in the hopes of learning something about his past, he pings on intelligence agencies’ boards. Luckily, Citadel braintrust Bernard Orlick arrives in the form of Stanley Tucci. He abducts Mason and his family, convinces Mason he used to be a spy (rather easily), and that they need to go on a mission.
What’s the mission? Citadel’s eight year-old case of state secrets has been found by Manticore. Manticore wants the case because it has nuclear codes! It has nuclear codes. It…has nuclear codes? Have we not changed those in eight years? You know, it was on the list. I just got distracted cause that light bulb needed changing, I had to call the cable company, and then we were out of condensed milk so I had to run to the store. They didn’t have it, I had to go to a second place. I’ve had a lot on my plate. I promise I’ll change the nuclear codes next weekend. It’s the next thing on my list. Oh, but we’re supposed to go to your sister’s. Well, you know, it’s not like we ever use them, it’ll be fine – wait, Manticore did what?!?
Look, if we haven’t changed our nuclear codes in eight years, that starts to sound more like an us problem. Maybe Manticore should get them. They didn’t forget about the nuclear codes. You did. For 8 years, you’ve been telling me you listen to me. You’ve been telling me you would change them. No, it’s not just about the nuclear codes, Stanley, it’s about what they represent. They represent that you didn’t care enough to get it done then. Manticore seems to care. You call them evil, I call them attentive. Maybe you’re just projecting.
So, spies protected by brainwiping them of ways to hide and defend themselves, check. Your McGuffin is a case of 8-year-old nuclear codes, which in the real world are replaced daily. Cool beans. The case ultimately contains more that has to do with the actual plot, but Manticore’s big thing is “hey, sweet, classic nuclear code memorabilia”.
Also, on the brain wiping, amnesia, and spy/non-spy mind-states – your whole premise? “Carmen Sandiego” did it. A lot of people have, but recently. And more complexly. And with better fight choreo that often included a mime.
Despite all this, “Citadel” gets the job done if you want a globe-trotting, loosely cobbled together spy wotsit. It’s pretty enough, the leads are good enough, the aerial establishing shots of a dozen cities are aerial enough. S’ok. There are worse things than watching Madden and Chopra for forty minutes an ep.
Some very good ideas raise their heads momentarily. When Nadia has her memories wiped, it’s right after she’s killed someone in self-defense. Everything sets up for the kind of thrilling scene about shock, identity, and dissonance that a Bourne-again is built around. It’s a stunning opportunity for Chopra to sink her teeth into some humanizing acting that connects to the audience. The entire sequence has been leading up to this utterly intriguing moment of how a freshly blank-slated human reacts to something so inexplicable. It’s going to be the most interesting scene in the entire series. When that moment of reckoning so many stories hope to capture arrives…we cut away. Cause who wants to see that?
There are opportunities here for something more ambitious. “Citadel” just isn’t ambitious. Worse than that, it often feels disinterested. There are a ton of script supervision details that should’ve been worked out better. When we pick up with Mason and his family all these years later, they live in a very sizable house in the woods on some ideal acreage. Later, he complains to Bernard in New York City that he’s so bad off he couldn’t afford to park there. The two details don’t agree. That’s a small mistake, certainly excusable, but it sabotages who this character is in a moment that’s trying to describe him.
There’s a scene where one of the villains’ henchmen shoots into the air in a restaurant and orders everyone to leave. One of the next shots is a close-up of his face – but it’s noticeable behind him that no one’s rushing, the customers and wait staff are pretty leisurely about strolling out.
Even in the very first shot, we see Nadia pickpocket her mark so she can return his “dropped” wallet to him later. Look closely enough, though, and she’s carrying the wallet well before she bumps into him. This series cost $300 million to make; they couldn’t CGI it out?
The fight choreography – and there’s a lot of it – is both creative and impressive. Overall, it’s one of the show’s more successful aspects. Yet even here there are moments where you can see an impact doesn’t connect or how a stuntperson absorbs a fall. That’s not their fault, it’s what stunt actors do – that’s the stunt part of it. It’s the director’s job to cleverly hide these aspects. The fault lies in choosing a camera angle because it looks good instead of choosing one that can look good while also working for the choreo.
These kind of details pop up in everything. Every movie and series has a boom mic showing, a camera in a reflection if you look closely enough, a script contradiction that didn’t get caught, a hit that doesn’t connect. They’re fine, they’re part of storytelling. You just want to keep the rate of them below a certain level. Our suspension of disbelief allows a lot. “Citadel” overfloweth. The sheer rate of unforced errors suggests that the people making this didn’t care enough to sort out details that would’ve been easy to solve. If the people making “Citadel” don’t think their show warrants the most basic level of care, then why should I throw mine in? For a spy tale that wants to come off as clever and precise, it often communicates as smarmy and shoddy.
One more issue: Mason is still able to fight after having his memory erased. Nadia isn’t. They both had the same skills and both underwent the same process. What’s the difference, “Citadel”? Hmm? We should be past the trope in amnesia plots where dudes can still be elite fighters while women forget how to tie their shoelaces, but here we are. They’ve both undergone the same plot mechanic. They either keep practiced skills or they don’t. Choose one.
Yet another one more issue: I’m shocked by the visual quality. The opening on the train does look extremely good. Colors and design elements pop, the lighting transitions play with texture and depth. It promises at least something visually commanding. And then the rest of the series is color-graded in desaturated greens and yellows, often either too cheaply or in ways that don’t fuse to what we’re actually seeing.
Just one more one-more-thing: “Citadel” is the second-most expensive series ever produced. Almost none of that budget makes it on-screen. Its production was ruinous, with live-action “Cowboy Bebop” showrunner Andre Nemec (um) and his 2014 live-action “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” co-writer Josh Appelbaum (oh no) being run out for “Avengers: Endgame” (fine, sure) and “The Gray Man” (uh-oh) directors Joe and Anthony Russo.
There are two completely different cuts of the show. This is supposed to be the better one. I do wonder if the other one is a campier, more colorful and fun version that Amazon kiboshed because this one plays more to expectations. The only thing that’s remotely saving it is that Madden, Chopra, Tucci, and the fight scenes seem to exist in that more fun version. All the dour color-grading and awkward editing in the world can’t hide that the actors clearly started out performing a different subgenre than the one we got.
There are a lot of places to wonder where the $300 million budget went. But maybe…just maybe Manticore’s using it to get us some new nuclear codes. My birthday’s coming up and I like to think they remembered.