Just finished watching the first spooky season of Evil. It stars Mike Colter (of Marvel’s Luke Cage fame) as a priest-in-training tasked by the Catholic Church with examining possible cases of demonic possession. He is ably assisted by a sceptical psychologist played by the feisty Katja Herbers. Think in terms of Mulder and Scully from the legendary X-Files and you won’t go far wrong. Certainly, there’s plenty of chemistry between the leads in the style of Duchovny and Anderson. Things get decidedly hot under the (priestly) collar, that’s for sure, especially when a dastardly demon (played quite deliciously by Michael Emerson) decides that our two investigators either need to be morally corrupted or removed from the game-board entirely. It’s just the fate of all humanity at stake, after all. I’m happy to say the series is far from formulaic, however: some episodes really are quite disturbing. It scores a nearly divine 8.5 out of 10 from me. And if it sounds like your sort of thing, you might also want to check out my new title, The Book of Demons, which provides you with a history of demonology and considers why the number of exorcisms being conducted today is on the increase: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Book-Demons-J-Dalton/dp/1913562247/ref=sr_1_1?crid=AIITVR4LEM4R&dchild=1&keywords=book+of+demons+dalton+kristell+ink&qid=1628844655&sprefix=book+of+demons+dalton%2Caps%2C165&sr=8-1.
Review by Nadine Dalton-West, T @andiekarenina, nadinedaltonwest.com
It’s been a high-stakes few months over at Marvel Towers. Big cinema releases have been hammered by the pandemic. Long-form TV shows have, somewhat counter-intuitively, become disposable eyeball-filler for a world that has spent far too long on the couch. It’s hard to make a seismic television event when your beautiful fantasy epic is binged and forgotten somewhere between Queen’s Gambit and Prodigal Son, consigned to “watched it at some point during lockdown” oblivion. It’s hard to get people’s attention when their attention spans are broken.
When you serve up the dry biscuit of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier as an hors-oeuvre, it’s even harder.
So both TV show Loki and movie Black Widow had rather a lot on their to-do lists: re-enthuse a jaded fanbase, convince people there’s life beyond the Infinity Stones, re-assert the very purpose of the MCU. And – as we will see – it’s worth remembering that the actual purpose of these stories is just that: to tell us stories. Stories which make us care, stories which give us some of that wonder we got when we were children, and our comics came out weekly, and we craved that “but what will happen to these people?” moment like a good narcotic. For me, Black Widow succeeded on these fundamental terms; Loki failed. This is why. Spoilers abound herein – don’t read on unless you’ve seen both Loki and Black Widow!
Now Loki has some good qualities. Aesthetically, it’s a triumph: the TVA’s Soviet-spliced-with-Mad-Men styling is gorgeous; the cartoon clock called Miss Minutes is deliciously sinister; the brutalist concrete set looks like an endless nightmare where you’re trapped in The Barbican and can’t find the lifts. Tom Hiddleston does his best with the material, and his best is decent, although I’d like to put in a personal request to the producers to let the guy wash his hair: I’m not sure the god of mischief would be any the less compelling if the poor lad was allowed a bottle of Head & Shoulders once in a while. Owen Wilson is fine. There is, it’s true, an alligator.
…And I’m out. Seriously, that’s it. This entire series screams “wasted opportunity” from start to finish. Firstly, the timey-wimey stuff is so crass and poorly handled that you realise there is zero jeopardy. No one dies: everyone comes back. Every fight therefore ends with someone being vapourised but then lo, here they come again, because timey-wimey and multiverses, yeah? Ditto the time doors: wanna crank up the suspense by stranding our protagonists on a doomed planet where – as they tell us about seventeen times – NO ONE GETS OFF THE DOOMED PLANET? We literally sit there waiting, as do the protagonists, for someone to open the time doors just behind them, just in time. Infinite multiverses and timelines? Ok, so tell me why I should care. This specifically ISN’T our Loki (it’s a 2012 Loki who jumps out of the MCU main timeline), and neither are any of the other Lokis, literally none of whom is any good whatsoever. There is a whole episode which looks about to revel in the playfulness of having a hundred different possible Lokis and then pours it all down the drain for a running gag about a reptile and Richard E. Grant in a costume only fractionally more silly than everyone else’s. The Timekeepers are so obviously not real to anyone who has seen any tv show or film ever in their lives that the so-called reveal is thunderingly dull (and is one of several moments where the writers of Snowpiercer might fancy calling their lawyers.)
The One who Remains? Fundamental storytelling rule 101: why on earth should we care? We haven’t met him. We haven’t even had him foreshadowed. He’s a Crapus-ex-Machina. And he’s also an example of how appallingly this series treats its Black characters: they are evil or disposable, with paper-thin development, there to simply throw the focus back onto a tedious white couple who have less chemistry than a rock and a slightly different rock.
Now when we examine Black Widow, we can actually see a few key similarities. Both works are “dead end” narratives: they don’t advance the MCU’s storytelling. (Falcon and Winter Soldier and Wandavision, on the other hand, are entry-points into key new developments for Captain America and Doctor Strange respectively – they are connecting narratives for what comes next.) Loki and Black Widow are not: they are backtracks which tell discrete stories in little cul-de-sacs within the main narrative. Black Widow fills in a set of Natasha Romanov backstory beats, but still leads to the same graveside, just as Loki takes a possibility from one moment where Loki grabs the Tesseract and follows that sidebar, a sidebar which stands alone. In this sense, both works have a bit of “but what are they FOR?” syndrome about them.
Where Black Widow works is this: its humble purpose is in telling us a human story (and maybe Loki got it right all along in that being burdened with “glorious” purpose is a curse, not a blessing.) We care about this family. From the opening scene which is as exciting and suspenseful as any Marvel pre-credits sequence I’ve seen, we are positioned alongside two children who want simple things – their “parents”, their favourite song, to watch lightning bugs – and who are dragged apart by a harrowing series of events. When that family is thrown back together more than 20 years later, they have to figure out what they really mean to each other. This then develops one of the entire MCU’s key and recurring themes: found family. From the Avengers to the Guardians, this is how comics actually hook their nerds – we are all oddballs who eventually find people who are our tribe, and those people are not normally our biological family. This concept has universal resonance, underpins so much of MCU storytelling, evokes real emotion, is tender and poignant and is whatever Loki and Sylvie’s strange onanistic relationship is not.
Furthermore, when Black Widow throws you a big bad, Taskmaster, the character is seeded, developed, absolutely terrifying as a fighting machine, and a genuine threat to our protagonists. All of this, from the start, alongside THIS big reveal being foreshadowed and earned, and indeed genuinely necessary for Natasha’s redemption arc. And there’s more: the chase scene through Budapest is as huge and crash-bang as any action sequence Marvel has served us, the Moonraker nods are clever and really well-followed through in the climax, and the banter is funny. Red Guardian’s big speech pomposity is repeatedly punctured by those around him; Yelena points out that real superheroes probably don’t take ibuprofen; Johannsen’s “stick your butt out” landings are thoroughly mocked.
Fundamentally, though, Black Widow makes you genuinely worry about a collapsed pig called Alexei. Loki just puts antlers on an alligator and points at it, over and over, shouting “look at the alligator”, with ever diminishing returns.
The superhero comedy Thunder Force has just arrived on Netflix! It’s a spoof with plenty of laugh out loud moments. My favourite riff was the star-crossed romance between the bad-guy Crab (Jason Bateman is a half-creant (not a half-Korean!) with the arms of a crab) and the Melissa McCarthy character – they go on a date to a fancy restaurant and the waiter recommends the seafood platter before realising his terrible mistake.
Basically, Miscreants are superpowered baddies who are making everyone’s lives a misery. Cosmic rays gave powers to all those with a pathological gene, you see. A ‘normal’ kid (later played by Octavia Spencer) loses her parents because of Miscreants, and swears to become a geneticist one day, so she can create ‘normal’ superheroes to punish the Miscreants. Her best friend at school is a body-positive girl (later played by Melissa) who can more than handle the male bullies.
Cut to the chase: our friends become superheroes and then have to take on the Miscreants! That’s all the plot the film needs, and has really. But that doesn’t mean that it’s lacking in anyway. The gender politics of the film are well handled without ever being too shouty. The flaws of our lead characters ring true. And Melissa turns in one of her best performances to date, tbh. The whole thing is refreshing and life-affirming. WATCH IT. It scores a heartfelt 8 out of 10 from me.
Well, I watched the first three episodes of The Terror on the BBC. That seems like giving it a fair crack, really. It certainly breaks the ice. LOL. It tells the historical tale of the ill-fated British ships named The Erebus and The Terror which sought to discover the North-west Passage back in the 1840s. This puts us in mind of one of the key sub-plots of the novel Frankenstein, of course. We are expecting some sort of monstrous horror from the off, therefore.
One of the producers is Ridley Scott, so it should have some chops, right? Well, the setting in the icy wastes is convincingly done. The costuming and the claustrophobic life on the ships is beautifully evocative of the era. The dialogue is interesting and engaging, and the internal politics are diverting, and they do build a sense of tension. The cast is top-notch. So what’s not to like?
Sadly, this series provides us with its own spoilers right from the beginning. It states several times over in the opening sequence that everyone ends up dying or disappearing. And the start of the second episode makes sure to hammer it home yet again. Therefore, we’re just sat waiting to see each of the characters die in a fairly anti-climactic manner. The episodes do try to create ‘spooky’ moments that cannot be rationalised, but then we understand that there’s just a big polar bear on the loose and killing everyone. Oh. So what? The polar bear might be controlled by a vengeful Inuit. So what? But the manner of the deaths seems poetic and symbolic of the individual’s own sins punishing them. Yeah. So what? AND WHERE’S THE TERROR IN ANY OF THIS?
Sheesh. What a waste of time and money. The series would have done far better to get writers who understand the plot-beats and mechanics of horror. I really wouldn’t bother with the show if I were you. But that’s just my opinion.
Back when David Tennant was the Doctor, there was a rather superior episode in which human DNA was spliced with Dalek DNA – giving us an awesome hybrid. The episode was full of fresh ideas, intrigue and potential, and entitled ‘Evolution of the Daleks’. Yesterday (New Year’s Day), the BBC gave us an episode called ‘Revolution of the Daleks’, in which the same ideas were retrodden, but without any of the original freshness, intrigue or potential. It was a veeery tired episode, in truth. There was a lack of complexity in the plot: it was simply a journey from A to B, with zero surprises along the way. The sound mixing was utterly awful, as if the sound people involved had fallen asleep on the job, or got bored and drifted away to do something more interesting. It was nearly impossible to catch anything the Daleks were saying – because there was just crashing, dramatic music drowning everything out. No wonder this was the episode in which Bradley Walsh and the character of Ryan decided to bow out – shrugging and explaining to the Doctor that they had better things to do. And the Doctor herself was at a loss throughout, too. She was having an identity crisis along the lines of ‘Hasn’t all this happened before? And wasn’t it better the first time round? Why have I become so much less than I was? I’m lost. Who am I?’
Were there any saving graces at all? Hmm. The narrative about Daleks needing the DNA ‘purity’ of a master-race, even if they’re exterminating some of their own ‘offspring’, and the Trumpian American businessman, not to mention the ‘security’ obsessed British PM, gave us a very hammy flavour of social comment… but nothing too insightful really. And there wasn’t any mention of covid, so it all felt a bit ‘out of date’, ‘past its sell-by date’, ‘lost in time’, etc, when the Doctor is meant to be timeless! At least the Doctor’s assistant Yaz should at last get some decent screen time and character development in future episodes, now she’s not being eclipsed by Bradley. Indeed, the overtones of a possible lesbian relationship between the Doctor and Yaz might at least offer some surprises.
A drunk Australian mercenary (Chris Hemsworth), grieving for the loss of his son, is paid to go out to Bangladesh to play ‘white saviour’ and recover the kidnapped son of a drug lord. That’s it. That’s the whole plot. The End. Is it a spoiler to tell you what is pretty much the logline?
Okay, there are good reasons to watch this film. A lot of Indian and Bangladeshi talent (direction, actors and stunt-people) have gone into this movie, and it’s refreshing to see a ‘different’ way of making a movie. It’s interesting that you don’t need a massively convoluted plot if you have some decent motifs, thoughtful scenes, and well choreographed sequences. There is something refreshingly innocent or honest – rather than tiredly cynical – about it. Indeed, this movie is honest enough to show us the true poverty, squalor and street-gangs of Dhaka. (Okay, it might be a touch cleaned up/sanitised for western audiences – I don’t actually know.)
It would be easy to complain that I needed sub-titles to watch this movie… cos Hemsworth completely grunts his way thru this movie. I had no trouble understanding the Indian and Bangladeshi actors, by contrast. It would be easy to say that the shooting of hundreds upon hundreds of corrupt soldiers and police got boring after an hour or so. It would be easy to point out that the silly revenge moment at the end of the movie could have happened at the start and spared us having to sit through hours of murder and mayhem. But that would be to distract from the few saving graces that the movie had.
If you’re struggling for something to watch during the lockdown, you might want to watch this movie, although it’s very dissatisfying in many ways. It scores an understanding 6 out of 10 from me.
Started watching the new metaphysical fantasy series on Netflix: Warrior Nun. I want to hate it, but I can’t… cos the plotting is pretty tight (based on a Canadian combic book, init), the tempo is high, it understands its genre ‘beats’, there are moral dilemmas and problems to solve, and there’s just enough character development for us to care. Plus: it’s got some freshly original ideas in it. Oh and it’s easy on the eye! That’s a pretty good set of ingredients, all told.
Basically, there’s a Catholic order of female templar knights whose job it is to retrieve holy artefacts so that they don’t fall into the hands of demons and unleash hell. But the lead knight dies in an ambush and her power (her ‘halo’) has to be hidden, in a desperate moment, in the body of an incidental dead girl. Unexpectedly, the halo resurrects the girl and she goes out to enjoy her newfound life… with the forces of both good and evil out to claim her as their own. Neat, eh? It works philosophically and politically.
Watch the first episode and think ‘hmm, alright’. Watch the second and think ‘heh, this is getting quite good’. It scores a respectable 8 out of 10 from me.
Some critics have said that you can’t spoof Eurovision because it’s already so self-aware that it’s a satire of itself. Those critics are nitwits. Let me tell you: if you like anything about Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams or Eurovision, you’ll love this movie, and you’re guaranteed to cry like a baby at the end (unless you are hard-hearted, in which case you don’t like Eurovision anyway). The thing that works so well about the film is that the humour is affectionate rather than spiteful, and the film absolutely gets the ‘spirit’ of Eurovision.
Ferrell and McAdams play two musical Icelanders from a small fishing village who are obsessed with making it in Eurovision. They make offerings to the local elves, they play weddings to perfect their skills, and they suffer the mockery of everyone they know (including Pierce Brosnan, who wonderfully plays the role of Ferrell’s long-suffering father). The head of the Icelandic bank is dead-set on Iceland never winning Eurovision (as it will bankrupt the country and reveal he’s been syphoning off funds), so he sees to it that the worst possible Icelandic band wins the national competition: Ferrell and McAdams (who are the band ‘Fire Saga’), by hook and by crook, therefore win through the nationals and make it to the semi-finals in Edinburgh. Enter the conniving Russian act (played superbly by Dan Stevens, with his entry song ‘Lion of Love’) looking to split up our romantically innocent Icelandic couple!
What more could you want? Oh, yes. Costumes. Check. Cheese. Check. Extreme camp. Check, darlings, check! Look, it’s the most watched movie in the world right now (making Netflix very happy), and there’s a good reason for that. The lockdown really isn’t that much fun, and this movie reminds us that we might just have fun again one day.
Like the Amazon Prime show Alex Rider, Hanna tells the tale of a super-teen who has been abused and/or experimented upon by society (i.e. mean adults, the older generation, etc). The Hanna series is based upon the 2011 cult movie of the same name, so has tight plotting, just like Alex Rider (based on the Horowitz novels). Why is there a proliferation of series like this? Well, it’s the state of the world today, isn’t it? Who’d wanna be a teen in the modern era? Not me. It’s either a) become an unfeeling monster to survive or b) end up exploited and collateral damage. Bleak?
You bet. Bleak. But it makes these shows relevant, insightful and important. It exposes the brutalisation of youth (the key theme of the dystopian YA genre)… and there is still a dash of hope to be found. Our young protagonists, by hook or by crook, manage to survive while still holding on to their humanity. So it’s not all doom and gloom. Thank goodness for that. Hanna has great action sequences, touching humour, heart and… deep, deep understanding. Definitely worth a watch. 8.5 out of 10.
Once more Amazon Prime shows Netflix how it’s done. Get yourself a top notch author (e.g. Anthony Horowitz) of fantasy, thrillers or whatever, take their brilliant novel(s) and turn them into a TV series. Easy, right? You’d think. Yet Netflix still believes that getting themselves hack scriptwriters who really don’t have the craft or genre-knowledge required to write a quality fantasy or thriller novel will result in a great TV show: meaning we end up with utter junk like Bright, The Dark Crystal travesty, etc.
And I was ready to hate the Alex Rider series. Well, it’s YA, isn’t it? A cheap knock-off of James Bond. But my nephews and niece like the novels, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. And wow! It’s tightly-plotted, superbly acted (well done Otto Farrant, not to mention Vicky McLure), veeery inner city London, init, masterfully directed, properly multicultural and refreshingly cheeky (in the style of Kingsman, if you’ve seen that). Honestly, do yourself a favour and start watching it today, even if you have to pay the evil of Amazon for the privilege. This is one deal with the devil that it would be sinful not to take up.