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The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

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It’s got to be said, the new Marvel TV shows are an impressive lot so far. Beginning with the surprisingly emotionally resonant mystery box of Wandavision, next cab off the rank is The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. And while this new one resembles a more traditional televisual experience, it’s nonetheless pretty bloody enjoyable.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier features, naturally enough, The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) in the post Thanos snap confusion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (but on the telly!). The Falcon aka Sam Wilson is having a decent enough time of it. He’s working various government contracts and kicking arse for Uncle Sam. The Winter Soldier aka Bucky Barnes, however, is having a darker time. Still suffering from the memories of the terrible deeds he did while brainwashed by Hydra, Captain America’s bestie is trying to right his various wrongs. But, crikey it’s a long list…

So, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s rather clunky title isn’t an accident. It’s a deliberate tip of the hat to The Falcon and the Snowman (1985), a political thriller about agents beginning to have doubt in their government. Doubt is a key term for this show, because in the first episode we see Sam beginning to doubt America’s commitment to him and the other heroes, and Bucky is beginning to doubt he can ever make amends.

If this seems like pretty heavy gear for a show ostensibly about a bloke who has robot wings and another chap with a super strong metal arm, you’re not wrong. However, the whole caper is executed with a light touch, deftly shifting from spectacular action to social commentary and back again.

It’s a little early at this stage to say if The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will maintain a cracking yarn over its six episodes, but the opening hour is promising, and looks like it will dig into concepts that are a little more nuanced and abstract than its big screen stablemates.

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Blithe Spirit

Comedy, Home, Review, Streaming, This Week Leave a Comment

Playwright Noel Coward charmed audiences in the 1940s with his elegant wit and word play. But he is not old enough to be truly classic and too recent to feel contemporary. Anyone approaching Coward’s work today has a choice to make, try to ‘update’ him, or go for loving period recreation. TV director Edward Hall (best known for shows such as Downton Abbey) goes very much for the latter. And this turns out to be the film’s main appeal in a way, which is to damn it with faint praise.

The film certainly does look lovely, the clothes and hairstyles are spot on and the Sussex mansion where the main action takes place is a masterpiece of 1930s design. The problem though, is that the material hasn’t aged quite as well as the décor.

The main idea – of a slightly madcap story in which a desperate writer is tormented by the ghost of his ex-wife, has to be done in a certain way, or the contrivances begin to show. Hall has one more ace up his sleeve, though – an excellent cast who relish the script.

As with any such comedy, the plot is both full of intricate mishaps and generally, in the service of tormenting the protagonists. The lead is tormented from the start. Charles Condomine (Dan Stevens) is struggling to finish his overdue screenplay for a bossy movie mogul. Having another elegant cocktail isn’t going to get that script written but Charles and his young wife Ruth (Isla Fisher) want to enjoy their new marriage and they have a giddy round of social obligations to fit in also.

When, for a laugh, the couple host a séance led by a slightly shonky psychic called Madame Arcati (Judi Dench), they inadvertently unleash the capricious ghost Elvira (Leslie Mann), who is Charles’ recently-deceased first wife.

This is touted as Dame Judi Dench’s funniest role in years. Actually, you could equally argue that – great thespian though she is – her part is underwritten. Her Madame Arcati is an odd creation, at times a moth-eaten figure of fun and at others a potion-brewing witch out of Macbeth. A further problem is that her character is being gently mocked. It is not that we don’t care whether she is a real medium or not (really, she is there to facilitate the plot), it is that the satirical target has shrunk over the years. No one knows what a theosophist is anymore and, if they did, they probably wouldn’t care.

The more pressing issue perhaps is the play’s sexual politics. The idea of a decent but put-upon chap outwitted and then tormented by ‘his’ women might have seemed vaguely daring then. Today, the whole premise is dated.

Weighing against that is the energy and comedic timing of the players, with Isla Fisher in particular showing her natural ability as a comic actor. She is a lot of fun to watch and she steals a lot of the scenes she is in.

The film is never a bore (the worst thing to be in Coward’s upper crust circles) and for that we must be thankful. Still, it never quite flies either. Hail to thee blithe spirit, but bird thou still isn’t.

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Zack Snyder’s Justice League

comic book, DC, Home, Review, Streaming, Television, This Week Leave a Comment

In 2017, the long-awaited Justice League film was released and was a bit of a damp squib. Originally directed by Zack Snyder, who left to deal with a family tragedy, the film was finished by none other than recently-cancelled Joss Whedon. The result was a patchy, uneven mess that practically screamed “the studio had notes!”, with the two directors’ styles not meshing at all.

Soon afterwards, talk online began to circle around an alleged “Snyder Cut” of Justice League, that would fix all the problems with the film, end famine and cure baldness. The rumours began to gain traction, and then actual money, and an additional US$70 million was ponied up to deliver this once hypothetical vision of excellence.

Coming in at a beefy four hours and two minutes, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is the most Zack Snydery version of this story imaginable. If you stan Greek God-like physiques in fetishistic slow motion, surprisingly graphic violence and heavy-handed symbolism, then you are in for a treat!

Pisstakery aside, this is a much more coherent film than the Whedon/studio cut. All the characters have solid arcs, particularly Ray Fisher aka Cyborg, and the pacing is deft here, with action scenes occurring at logical moments rather than every fifteen minutes to make sure everyone’s awake.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is still far from a great film, saddled with clunky writing and slabs of exposition, but it’s a much better one than the one released in 2017. It’s also better than both of Zack’s own Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), because he allows occasional moments of light to juxtapose with his ubiquitous, colour desaturated shade.

Due to the sheer length of the bloody thing, Zack Snyder’s Justice League would never have appeared in this form at the cinema. However, as a home entertainment option, when you can pop out for a slash or a pie, it manages to engage a surprising amount, showcasing spectacular action and undeniably effective spectacle with a more coherent (albeit bloated) story.

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Trailer: Rutherford Falls

Creator Michael Schur (The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) looks like he's re-envisioned his own Parks & Recreation for this series starring Ed Helms.
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The Falcon and The Winter Soldier final trailer

How far we have come since 2008's Iron Man... and we're not just talking about special effects. The Avengers are now a couple of days away from premiering in a limited series on Disney's own streaming platform. We wonder if Doctor Strange could have ever predicted that one.
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The Mauritanian

Home, Home Entertainment, Review, Streaming, This Week 1 Comment

Mainstream films about real-life gross miscarriages of justice – especially American ones – have a tendency to end up contriving some sort of tribute to the essential decency of the system. Not this one. It’s scathing, it’s extremely powerful in places, and it never cops out.

The titular Mauritanian here is Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), a young man who is arrested by the local police in November 2001 (2 months after 9/11). Before you know it, he’s in Guantanamo Bay. The action shifts briefly at various points to Washington D.C., Albuquerque, New Orleans, even Afghanistan… But the ‘guts’ of the story unfolds in the hellish Cuban prison. It starts off rather understated – wry, even – but be assured that it becomes deeply disturbing: the stuff that nightmares are made of. Waking ones, in the case of Slahi himself.

Jodie Foster plays Nancy Hollander, Slahi’s defense attorney, and Benedict Cumberbatch is Stuart Couch, his chief (military) prosecutor. The allegation is that Slahi was one of the organisers, and the chief recruiter, for 9/11. Allegation, that is, as opposed to charge – because he was NEVER charged with a crime. This is in spite of being imprisoned for many years, and interrogated for three of those years for eighteen hours a day.

Rahim is excellent in the role and everyone else is fine too, but what you’ll probably remember more vividly will be the depictions of the savage abuse – or “special measures”, to use the official euphemism – which he suffered at the hands of his captors. That said, the more subtle detail about Hollander’s dogged struggle to get access to unredacted records is quite interesting in itself, and so are the interactions between her and the deeply scarred, tough and inevitably wary Slahi.