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Happy

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There’s a point later on in Happy where Nick Sax, Christopher Meloni’s substance-addled, self-loathing cop-turned hitman, is using a mob boss’s family as body armour. Literally – he’s got the guy’s wife strapped to his front, he’s got the kid in a papoose kind of arrangement, they’re both alive, and the squad of mafia goombas he’s up against are fearful of firing, lest they accidentally kill one of their boss’s beloveds.

Sax has no such compunctions about firing at them. He slaughters the lot. He slaughters a lot of people over the course of Happy’s eight episode first season, dispatching all and sundry in outrageous, over the top, blood-soaked ways, all the time ruminating on his own apparent inability to be killed in turn. Sax isn’t immortal, per se; it’s just that his life is a complete toilet and he figures the universe can’t be bothered sending him to hell when he’s suffering just fine here. There’s nothing supernatural about him.

Unless you count the tiny, blue winged unicorn he’s been seeing lately, telling him he has to save a little girl from a very, very bad man.

The unicorn’s name is Happy, and he sounds an awful lot like Patton Oswalt. He’s the imaginary friend of a Hailey (Bryce Lorenzo), who’s been kidnapped by a grotesque pervert dressed in a macabre Santa suit (Joseph D. Reitman). Happy went out to find the one guy who can save her – and that’s our man Sax. Sax might be delusional. He might be hallucinating. Or he might have one last shot at redemption – if he can kill his way to Hailey. And we’re off.

Based on the comic series by Grant Morrison (The Invisibles) and Darrick Robertson (Transmetropolitan), Happy draws on a lot of influences, but reconfigures its sources into something wholly new and original. Imagine if Sin City had the good sense not to take itself too seriously. Imagine if Jimmy Stewart shot a bunch of guys in Harvey. Imagine if Law & Order SVU‘s Elliot Stabler went riiiiggghht off the rails and descended into drugs, alcohol, and murder for hire.

The whole thing is gloriously, gleefully, perverse, brutal and ugly – a trademark tone for executive producer and principal director Brian Taylor, whose works include the pretty decent Crank movies and the pretty terrible Gamer and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Everything is gritty and grimy, bathed in multicoloured neon, a nightmare New York populated by criminals, scavengers, hookers, psychopaths – and the odd innocent in need of salvation.

At the centre of it all is Meloni, who just nails it as the all-too-self-aware, all-too-self-destructive, anti-heroic Sax. It’s a bravura turn, with Meloni managing to tun every throwaway tough guy line into one for the ages. It’s an absolutely fearless performance, too; Sax might be an unstoppable killing machine once he gets up a head of steam, but he never looks cool doing it. He’s the universe’s chew toy, the butt of every joke, a loser’s loser, and he knows it.

He’s counterbalanced by Oswalt’s voice work as Happy, who is something right out of a Dsiney cartoon (well, maybe DreamWorks) and is determined to get this hulking hitman to do the right thing. The central joke is, of course, the contrast between this refugee from a Saturday morning kid’s show and the horrible urban milieu he’s forced to navigate, and the series plays with that in a number of fun and clever ways. It also toys with the nature of Happy’s “reality” a lot. The little unicorn is a self-described imaginary friend, but how imaginary is imaginary? As the season progresses the show teases out a background mythology that is more complex than first taste might suggest.

So urban fantasy fans will enjoy getting that box ticked, but they may have trouble shouldering their way through the tsunami of black, bad taste humour that is Happy’s stock in trade. The show is gleefully venal, delighting in presenting almost every single one of its characters at their worst. Happy’s supporting cast is a menagerie of sadistic killers, corrupt cops, vain mafia widows, coke-snorting card sharks, and worse – and why not? When your nominal hero is a suicidal alcoholic who kills for money, the sky – or rather the gutter- is the limit when it comes to the opposition. But don’t worry if you don’t like these people – most of them die. Horribly.

But the point is that Happy is not for everyone, and it doesn’t want to be. Having said that, those of us in its sights are in for a wild ride. It’s a perfect example of its type – deranged, hyper-violent, grotesque, too clever by half, but with a hidden heart that won’t stop beating no matter what the world throws at it. You’ll love it. Unless you don’t.

 
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Lost in Space

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The old Irwin Allen inter-generational staple of after-school TV gets the prestige treatment as Lost in Space comes to Netflix, boasting a bigger budget, flashier effects, a notable cast, and a curiously old-fashioned approach to sci-fi adventure.

The broad strokes of the plot map onto the original reasonably closely: the Robinson family are part of an interstellar colonial effort, but when things go awry they – and a larger number of supporting cast than we’re used to – find themselves sucked through a wormhole and flung across the galaxy, crashing on an alien planet where they must contend with hostile conditions, aggressive critters, and threats both exotic (the series iconic Robot is re-imagined as an alien combat drone that imprints on young Will Robinson) and insidious (Doctor Smith, now played with deliciously evil glee by Parker Posey, is a murderous saboteur).

By largely restricting the action to one alien world, this new Lost in Space hearkens back to the original’s literary antecedent, Johann David Wyss’s 1812 novel, The Swiss Family Robinson. By keeping the focus more or less on 11 year old Will (Maxwell Jenkins), it recalls the early young reader work of SF patriarch Robert Heinlein – the sort of freewheeling adventures typified by Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. That’s a good thing; SFTV has been trending darker of late (The Expanse, Star Trek: Discovery, Altered Carbon), and it’s a nice change of pace to have a genre series you might actually be able to watch with your kids.

Indeed, the series falters a little when it recentres the frame on the familial issues of John (Toby Stephens) and Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker), or the more disturbing machinations of the sociopathic Smith; tonally, they don’t jibe with the more innocent adventures of the Robinson kids, who also include medical prodigy Judy (Taylor Russell) and eternal middle kid Penny (Mina Sundwall). Ignacio Serricchio’s Don West tends to fare better, largely because he’s been re-positioned as a bumbling rogue in the Han Solo/Mal Reynolds/Star-Lord mould.

The biggest problem with the new Lost in Space is the tension between these two drives (that and the usual Netflix issue of being a couple episodes too long). Going forward, a commitment to one or the other will be needed and, flying in the face of conventional wisdom, a lighter, less dour approach to the material will probably serve it best. At this stage of the game, Lost in Space is promising; with closer attention to tone it could be a future classic a couple of seasons down the track.

 
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The Titan

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In the mid-21st century, Earth’s biosphere is on its absolute last legs and mankind’s hopes hinge on the successful colonisation of other planets. Saturn’s moon of Titan is selected, and scientist Professor Martin Collingwood (Tom Wilkinson) heads up a program to radically alter human volunteers to survive the incredibly harsh conditions there. One of his subjects is former pilot Rick Janssen (Sam Worthington). As the program continues and the changes wrought on Janssen become more and more radical, his wife Abigail (Taylor Schilling) begins to wonder if her husband still qualifies as human.

The outline of a potentially brilliant and provocative story of transhumanism is clearly discernible through the smudged window that is The Titan, a film that continually creeps right up to the edge of being interesting, but consistently refuses to take the final step beyond the mundane and predictable. It’s not a terrible movie as such, but rather a maddeningly routine one, committed to making the safest narrative choices even as it gradually transforms leading man Worthington into a hairless alien being – really, if you’re committed to reshaping your star into a little green (well, grey, actually) man, you might as well go hog wild.

The key problem is that the script, by Max Hurwitz, refuses to keep us in Janssen’s shoes, shifting our point of view to that of Abigail just as things are getting interesting. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but the more intriguing story here is that of a person dealing with their irreversibly changing nature. The Titan eschews that in favour of following Abigail as she investigates Collingwood’s fairly predictable malfeasance, relegating Janssen to the status of of a plot element rather than a character for large swathes of the film. His interior life gradually fades from our sight as the film progresses, until he’s as much a cipher to us as he is to the other characters – especially once his various surgeries and gene therapies cost him his voice. It’s interesting to contrast The Titan with David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly, which managed to keep our empathy and identification with both leads, even as it delved further and further into body horror.

The Titan is not The Fly, of course, but it is playing with similar ideas about the relationship between personhood, identity, and the body, so the comparison is a fair and damning one. No, this is another entry in Netflix’s seemingly endless string of mid-budget, middling-appeal sci-fi films they seem to be spending a lot of time and effort horse-trading for – consider it alongside Annihilation (absolutely worth your time), The Cloverfield Paradox (absolutely not), and the upcoming Extinction (anyone’s guess). The Titan sits right in the middle of the pack: well shot and designed, and sure to tick a few boxes for fans of the genre, but ploddingly written and not nearly as clever or provocative as it seems to think it is. Possibly worth a Sunday afternoon couch date when you’ve exhausted the more interesting options out there, but don’t go in expecting anything transcendent.

 
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Santa Clarita Diet Season 2

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Television’s perkiest zombie returns in the second season of Santa Clarita Diet, aka: the show where Drew Barrymore is a zombie. Whereas the first season was mostly table setting, demarcating our characters – chiefly affluent suburban husband and wife realtors Joel (Timothy Olyphant) and Sheila (Barrymore) Hammond – and their situation – chiefly holy crap, Sheila’s undead! – the second course expands the menu somewhat, serving up interesting character dynamics and beginning to lay out a background mythology that looks to be more detailed and involving than the pop culture’s default zombie lore.

This season is marked improvement over the first, which was no slouch itself, benefiting from a more consistent tone and having put all that set up behind itself. We’re in full-on story mode now. The show knows its central activity (looking for a cure while concealing Sheila’s condition and inevitable murders), it’s go-to gags (contrasting extreme gore against the pastel banality of suburbia), and its tone (upbeat cheerfulness stretched skingraft-thin over howling madness – that’s a tough needle to thread). Everyone involved is pushing in the same direction; uneven performances have been smoothed out, the stakes and buy-in have been established, and the overarching narrative is underway.

Not that Santa Clarita Diet is overly concerned with the big moments and sudden reveal theatrics that plague so many shows – instead, it piles minor complication upon minor complication until we and the characters look up and realise we’re hopelessly mired, overworked, under-rested, and a hair’s breadth away from snapping. It’s the old rat-race rigmarole of having to get to work, do the shopping, pick up the kids, make a dental appointment, do the laundry, make dinner, only with the added complication of clean the blood off the kitchen, get rid of the body in the freezer, and obtain the bile of a Serb. If it ain’t one damn thing, it’s another.

At the centre of it all are Barrymore and Olyphant, who are just killing it this season. Barrymore’s chipper and cheerfully homicidal Sheila is, of course, the main focus here, and its always fun to watch her try to conceal the fact that she is clearly loving being an undead cannibal (real talk: if a cure is found, will she take it?), while Olyphant continues to deploy comic gifts that could hardly be guessed at during his previous tenure as a tough guy in Deadwood and Justified. His ability to convey almost constant near-panic while maintaining a semblance of outward composure is remarkable.

The returning – which is to say, surviving – supporting cast are all in fine form. Liz Hewson as daughter Abby and Skyler Gisondo as professional dork Eric get a little more room to move on their own, with Abby becoming a kind of rebel hero at high school after she scones a bully with a lunch tray, while Eric continues to try and fail to be helpful. Andy Richter remains a perpetual thorn in the side as Sheila and Joel’s self-centered boss, while Natalie Morales is on hand as eccentric sheriff’s deputy Anne to crank up the tension whenever it needs cranking.

We also get a few new faces, some of which remain uneaten, including Joel McHale and Maggie Lawson as a ruthless rival realtor couple, and old Deadwood hand Gerald McRaney as a retired army colonel who may hold clues to Sheila’s contagion.

Santa Clarita Diet remains a consistently funny, weirdly amiable watch. For all that it deals with murder, cannibalism, and lashings of gore, there’s something nice about seeing a family sticking by each other through thick and thin, even when their matriarch is using a human heart as a stress ball. There’s nothing else quite like it out there at the moment, which is not something we get to say often. If subsequent seasons can maintain this level of quality, we’re all in.