Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018) s01e08 – The Burial

Maggie Kiley directs this one and Kiley’s so far the best director on “Sabrina,” so I went in with high hopes. It doesn’t disappoint, which is something given how much the episode does. It starts with a mine collapse in Greendale, last episode’s cliffhangers—mean girls Abigail Cowen and Adeline Rudolph (but expressly not Tati Gabrielle can’t forget) smash effigies of Ross Lynch and Justin Dobies with rocks (payback for hunting and killing a witch’s deer familiar), while they’re in the mine, hence the collapse. Lynch gets out but Dobies doesn’t.

Again with the first act bait and switch—the episode sets up one expectation, then turns it into just a plot point—Lachlan Watson is the only one who can fit in the collapsed mine to search, which leads to her just finding a crushed helmet. A crushed helmet Lynch and Dobies’s dad, Christopher Rosamond, is more than happy to bury the next day so he can collect on the insurance. Writers Christianne Hedtke and Lindsay Calhoon Bring do not shy away from Lynch confronting Rosamond and the repercussions, which only stay “calm” because Miranda Otto’s not going to allow any fighting during a funeral. It’s a great sequence, easily the most impressive acting from Lynch in the series to date.

So Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) gets the great idea to resurrect Dobies—even though they technically don’t know for sure Dobies is even dead—which violates the witch’s prime directive; they can’t meddle in mortal affairs. There’s also the problem resurrection spells don’t work right on humans, Shipka can’t even convince cousin Chance Perdomo to help her, and the whole thing would have to be a secret from Lynch as well. But Shipka’s got to do it because—the whole town agrees—with Dobies around, Rosamond will beat Lynch to death because he’s an extremely abusive drunk. There’s a beat everyone just sits with, “oh, yeah, the dad will totally beat him to death, for real, no joke, hashtag real talk; it’s sad, huh.”

Subplots include High Priest with the pregnant wife at home Richard Coyle sniffing around an interested Otto and Lachlan having more visits from her ghost ancestor, Anastasia Bandey.

There’s some of the virtual Vaseline rub and it’s bad but the episode holds. It’s got a terrifying cliffhanger too.

Erik the Viking (1989, Terry Jones)

Erik the Viking is a great example of when the director doesn’t know how to direct the script. What makes it peculiar is… director Jones wrote the script.

The film, an absurd comedy about a group of Vikings trying to end Ragnarok so they people will stop killing each other, starts with the the very not comedic scene (though the film gets to laughs really quickly, which is rather impressive) of lead Tim Robbins, having completed his looting and pillaging, moving on to the raping part of the Viking code. His intended victim is Samantha Bond. Only Bond’s not into being raped, which throws Robbins for a loop—he’s never done this raping part before and doesn’t have the predilection for it. Instead he and Bond have what becomes a life defining conversation (for Robbins anyway) right before his comrades show up to rape her and he kills them.

And, accidentally, her as well, which throws him into a right funk. He can’t stop seeing Bond’s face, whether in a crowd, in the distance, or laid over another woman his comrades are torturing. Empathy’s a very un-Viking value, something Robbins’s grandfather (Mickey Rooney in a wonderfully unhinged cameo) tries to explain.

Rooney, rightly, doesn’t reassure Robbins, so Robbins heads up into the mountains to talk to recluse Eartha Kitt (in a good but sadly not great cameo, partially just due to the terrible composite shots showing the landscape outside her cave) and she tells him how he’s going to have to quest to the mystic land, Hy-Brasil, retrieve a magic horn, blow the horn to get to Asgard, then again to wake the gods, then again to get home.

To accomplish this task, Robbins has to put the band together. There are tough guy Vikings Richard Ridings and Tim McInnerny, McInnerny’s dad, Charles McKeown (who doesn’t think McInnerny’s tough enough), Christian missionary Freddie Jones (who’s the butt of endless great jokes, even when he’s saving the day), John Gordon Sinclair as the wimp (he’s great), and Gary Cady as the heartthrob blacksmith. Now, turns out Cady doesn’t want Ragnarok to end because he’s a blacksmith and capitalism; you stop the looting, pillaging, raping, and murdering and he’s out of business. So he gets his sidekick, Anthony Sher, to go and narc to local warlord John Cleese (of course) about Robbins’s mission. So Viking is basically Robbins and company on their quest, while avoiding Cleese trying to kill them all.

The quest takes them to the aforementioned magical land, which is a violence-free paradise with Greco-Roman style architecture, ruled by Jones. Imogen Stubbs plays Jones’s daughter, who becomes infatuated with Robbins. The attraction is mutual but only when Robbins forgets his secret mission—to bring Bond back from the dead. The questing will also take the band to Asgard, where they find the gods don’t live up to expectations but are a lot realer than anyone could anticipate. Because Jones, as writer, has a bunch of great ideas and a lot of good sequences, he just can’t figure out how to realize them on screen.

Making it stranger is the fantastic production and costume designs from John Beard and Pam Tait, respectively. Good photography from Ian Wilson, good music from Neil Innes; not good editing from George Akers, but you really get the impression it’s because Jones, as director, didn’t get enough coverage for him. Viking has great sets, great costumes, great make-up, so it never makes sense when it doesn’t look right. Sometimes it’s those bad composite shots—but the miniature special effects are excellent—and then the third act has some really bad optical effects.

I’m zealous about special effects not dating, they just sometimes don’t work and Erik the Viking’s special optical effects for the finale… they just don’t work. And the film relies way too heavily on them. Nicely, the film’s able to—more or less—skate by to the finish, which has this really oddly profound moment for the characters and you wish Jones (the director) could’ve visualized it better onscreen. It works but not enough to lift things up. The whole third act seems rushed and cramped in ways it shouldn’t, both in terms of story and setting.

Good lead performance from Robbins, with great support from some of his comrades; Stubbs is good, Bond’s excellent, Cleese is fun (it’s a fluffed out cameo)… Sher’s really good as the turncoat.

Erik has almost all the right pieces for success; Jones not being able to crack his own script is the dealbreaker.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Terry Jones; director of photography, Ian Wilson; edited by George Akers; music by Neil Innes; production designer, John Beard; costume designer, Pam Tait; produced by John Goldstone; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Tim Robbins (Erik), Imogen Stubbs (Princess Aud), Richard Ridings (Thorfinn Skullsplitter), Tim McInnerny (Sven the Berserk), Charles McKeown (Sven’s Dad), Gary Cady (Keitel Blacksmith), Antony Sher (Loki), John Gordon Sinclair (Ivar the Boneless), Freddie Jones (Harald the Missionary), Danny Schiller (Snorri the Miserable), Samantha Bond (Helga), Mickey Rooney (Erik’s Grandfather), Eartha Kitt (Freya), Terry Jones (King Arnulf), and John Cleese (Halfdan the Black).


Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018) s01e07 – Feast of Feasts

Netflix did drop “Sabrina” all at once so who knows if this Thanksgiving episode was meant to “air” on Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving theme doesn’t last long—enough to introduce the hilarious idea of Miranda Otto sitting and watching football all day for the violence–but once the witch alternative, the Feast of Feasts, comes in… it’s all about the Feast.

Apparently witches don’t do communal Thanksgiving every year and only some people get to attend. The Spellman family—Otto, Lucy Davis, Kiernan Shipka—just haven’t been invited since Shipka’s been old enough to remember. Because she’d remember the event where a woman is chosen as Queen of the Feast and then eaten at said Feast.

While the episode sets it up for Shipka to be Queen—she demands to be the Spellman Family contestant, even though Otto’s already doing it—that setup is just… garnish. Oanh Ly’s script for the episode is strong, dialogue, pacing, plotting. So it comes as a big surprise when Sabrina (Shipka) doesn’t “win,” losing to witch academy nemesis Tati Gabrielle. But to keep Shipka essential to the episode—“Sabrina” has yet to give any of the supporting cast a showcase, it’s very much Shipka’s show—Shipka becomes Gabrielle’s handmaid, which means pampering her until she gets eaten by the coven. A great honor, especially after Gabrielle moves into Shipka’s; they don’t have a slumber party, in fact Gabrielle doesn’t even invite Shipka to the orgy.

One assumes the teen orgy wouldn’t have made it past Standards and Practices at a network, even the CW.

Shipka’s disgusted at the whole “eating another witch” thing and tries to get Gabrielle to see reason, which doesn’t work, but the subplot does prepare the audience for Shipka then discovering things are not what they seem and maybe it isn’t Satan who wants Gabrielle gone but someone else. The discussions of blind faith are fairly sharp so one’s got to wonder if the show’s aware the commentary it’s making on Christianity or if it’s actually as unaware as it appears to be; along with the lack of cellular technology, the world of “Sabrina” also seems absent the Religious Right.

Bitchin’.

Pal Jaz Sinclair has a subplot involving grandma L. Scott Caldwell, who tells her about the family curse—the women go blind, but they get the Shining in return. It’s called the Cunning. It’s whatever psychic power the show needs someone to have to nudge the plot along. It’s not an eye-roll so much as a squint and a nod. Sinclair and Caldwell are good enough to get through it.

And now for the big lede bury—Michael Hogan guest stars as Ross Lynch’s grandfather. They’re all going hunting this Thanksgiving, first time for Lynch, which is important family bonding because they used to hunt witches not deer. Lynch being in a family of witch hunters is a great reveal, especially for episode seven; anyway, on the hunt, they kill a witch’s familiar—in the form of a deer—and get on Sabrina’s witch acquaintances’ bad side.

It’s an excellent episode. Not just because Hogan. It’s got the right mix of Shipka’s justness, witch creepiness, and supporting cast material.

Even if it not being a Thanksgiving special seems like a missed opportunity given how funny it’d be to watch Otto and Hogan watch a football game together.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018) s01e06 – An Exorcism in Greendale

The opening showdown with Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) confronting Ms. Wardwell (Michelle Gomez) about Wardwell being a witch, spying on Sabrina, saving Sabrina from the sleep demon. Wardwell gives her a questionable tale about how she’s fulfilling a promise to Sabrina’s dead dad to protect her, which Shipka doesn’t quite buy and I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be buying it either. But am I not buying it because I’ve read the comic and know more of what’s up or because of the show’s handling of Gomez, who’s definitely “protecting” Shipka but also actively working to harm those around her.

Turns out it doesn’t matter because Gomez joins Shipka’s witch gang by the end of the episode and it works out, albeit with Gomez as an unrevealed black hat in the operation. Because it turns out Shipka’s going to need all the witch help she can get this episode, as she tries to organize an exorcism to save friend Lachlan Watson’s possessed uncle, Jason Beaudoin.

What’s interesting is how right after Gomez goes from lying to Shipka about her backstory, Shipka goes and hangs out with her friends—Watson, Ross Lynch, Jaz Sinclair—and finds out whatever demon is possessing Beaudoin has been terrorizing them in their dreams. At this precarious moment in their friendships, Shipka proceeds to gaslight her mortal pals about the demon invading their dreams. It’s maybe the first time on the show Shipka’s ever appeared unsympathetic. It’s frankly disquieting to see her do it. Sure, she runs home and tells her family she’s got to save the humans and all but… still.

Especially since Shipka’s then got to back things up with Lynch especially, as he thinks he once saw the same demon in the mines, not yet realizing they really are just tunnels to Hell and who knows who he would’ve seen as a kid. Lynch and Shipka then go down into the mines to try to figure out what happened to Beaudoin, which at one point gives Lynch the great line, “this isn’t The Goonies.” Even if it doesn’t seem like the right line for a sixteen year-old in 2018 to spout.

Meanwhile Sinclair has a weird freakout she’s not religious enough.

Lots of Exorcist references throughout the episode, including a great shot of the suitcase and some not so welcome projectile vomit. The way the exorcism plays out with Shipka, Gomez, and aunts Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto is fabulous.

Even with the iMovie Vaseline smudges appearing at the end, it’s definitely the best directing I’ve ever seen from Rachel Talalay. Though I didn’t know she directed it when I was watching, so maybe I wasn’t looking out for issues as much. It’s a good episode. Though I wish Watson’s arc, which involves Beaudoin being… gay maybe… possibly queer… ish, was better. Whatever Joshua Conkel and MJ Kaufman are trying to do there doesn’t work. Especially with Beaudoin’s demon calling Beaudoin a sodomite, especially with Sinlcair’s religiosity becoming a plot point.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019, Michael Dougherty)

I wonder if, much like that one immortal monkey divining Borges’s dreams and half-dreams at dawn on August 14, 1934, one could assemble a list of all the action beats in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which are mostly from Aliens and Jurassic Park 1 and 2, and arrange them to figure out the story to this film. Once the film hits the second act, I think it’d be more—I’m forgetting the stuff with Vera Farmiga, which is more out of a Mission: Impossible or James Bond. I’m sure Borges’s immortal monkey could do it, but I guess there is something more to director Dougherty and Zach Shields’s script than just stringing together the action scenes, fitting in the right amount of product placement for the studio (turns out it’s a lot and then a lot times twelve), and making sure there enough possible toys. See, you don’t just get Godzilla merchandise from this one, there’s also the other monsters, plus the stupid giant-sized stealth bomber-thing the good guys fly around in because Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a desperately joyless adaptation of a crappy eighties Godzilla cartoon.

Complete with annoying teen Millie Bobby Brown running around. Brown’s not just a mechanical engineer and accomplice to premeditated omnicide, she also knows how to run a ballpark sound board, which is maybe her most impressive trait.

She’s daughter of mad scientist Vera Farmiga (hashtag feminism), who has betrayed Monarch—the good guys with the giant flying fortress who tell the governments of the world to eat it while they study giant monsters, called Titans because someone wanted a trademark and this Godzilla movie tries as much as it can to forget Japan exists so you know they’re not calling them kaiju—and teamed up with eco-terrorist Charles Dance to release all the giant monsters who will once again rule the Earth.

But Brown’s also daughter of Kyle Chandler, who left Farmiga and Brown because their other kid died in the first Godzilla—unseen and stepped on, confirming it did kill a bunch of civilians but whatever. Chandler lives a simple life with a nineties movies alpha male cottage on a lake where he studies wolves nearby. He doesn’t seem to have a problem with Farmiga raising Brown in isolation at the giant monster facilities around the world.

As bad as you think Dougherty and Shields can get with the script, they somehow manage to go even lower. And not just when they’re reusing quotable lines from Alien and The Abyss. It’s all the time. They’ve got nothing good going on here. Nothing.

Obviously things don’t go well with Farmiga’s plan to give the world over to the monsters because it turns out they used frog DNA in the… sadly, no. Nothing quite so good. They really do just hinge it all on Farmiga’s ability to deliver a mad scientist speech and she fails at it utterly. She’s terrible, Brown’s terrible, Chandler’s pretty bad (his part is written as a Die Hard part for Bruce Willis, which would be amusing if Chandler were acting it that way, but he’s not), Ken Watanabe is downright hacky, Sally Hawkins somehow manages not to know how embarrassed she should look during her thankless scenes but someone doesn’t, which just makes it more embarrassing. Not to mention the stunt cameos.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, more than anything else, reminds of the first American attempt at a Godzilla, not because of plotting, but because of the film’s inability to tell an honest scene as well as the stunt casting. Zhang Ziyi gets… one hell of a thankless part, but she’s better than Hawkins for sure. Zhang’s as good as it gets in Monsters. Same goes for—shockingly because the part is so atrociously written—Bradley Whitford. He’s got the scientist slash medical doctor slash airplane pilot slash submarine pilot maybe part. It’s a really poorly written part, but Whitford manages not to be too bad. It’s the function of his part to make the film worse—kind of like how, in addition to being terrible, Thomas Middleditch literally has this recurring thing about making O’Shea Jackson Jr. seem either stupid or dickish. Jackson’s playing one of the soldiers, Middleditch is some useless company man (Monsters basically thinks Paul Reiser is the good guy in Aliens), Jackson’s Black, Middleditch’s White, Jackson’s likable, Middleditch’s a dipshit… it’s bad. And weird. Because Middleditch is apparently going to go on to become Chandler’s offscreen bro. They act like they’ve had a big bonding thing throughout, even though they never have any real scenes together because the script’s terrible and no one has any real scenes.

Unless you count the Joe Morton going and looking for someone scene. Joe Morton and David Straithairn somehow get through this one unscathed. And CCH Pounder. It’s very nice to see her in something… especially since she’s in the first scene so you could just turn it off after she’s done.

Also bad is Aisha Hinds. Not sure how much of it’s her fault but whatever her agent convinced her was going to happen because of this part… the agent was incorrect.

Terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible music from Bear McCreary. There’s not even a lot of it. It’s sparse. But ungodly awful when it comes in. The movie ought to give some kind of warning so you can steel yourself.

Umm, what else. The editing’s not good, but Dougherty’s direction is awful so it’s not like there’s much the editors—all three of them—could do. Lawrence Sher’s photography is similarly not noteworthy. Monsters’s “mise-en-scène” is broke—Dougherty doesn’t know how to direct a single scene in the movie, giant monster or not—so what’s Sher going to do to fix it. What’s anyone going to do.

There are a handful of other things—okay, maybe a dozen but then like five things (plus the dozen)—I’d really like to enumerate but I can’t. If I list these silly, silly things, it might encourage someone to watch Godzilla: King of the Monsters because it would seem like you couldn’t not have some kind of fun with the goofy things on the list. I don’t even want to tease them.

So instead I’ll just mention Doughterty’s “Brodie Bruce” type obsession with kaiju banging—Mothra and Godzilla are (apparently unrequited) soulmates but there’s a good chance Monsters is implying Ghidorah bangs Rodan. It comes up in a lousy attempt at a joke but then at the end the plot perturbs in just the right way for it to seem like a thing, even if it’s just the movie being cheap or expedient or whatever.

Once upon a time, Charles Dance wore a t-shirt with “Cheaper than Alan Rickman” on it, referring to his casting in a film. King of the Monsters—the entire production, the entire cast, the entire crew, everyone, everything, every frame—is wearing a “Cheaper than Alan Rickman” t-shirt.

It’s an astonishingly silly movie and it’s mortifying the filmmakers weren’t able to at least make a fun, astonishingly silly movie.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Dougherty; screenplay by Dougherty and Zach Shields, based on a story by Max Borenstein, Dougherty, and Shields; director of photography, Lawrence Sher; edited by Roger Barton, Bob Ducsay, and Richard Pearson; music by Bear McCreary; production designer, Scott Chambliss; costume designer, Louise Mingenbach; produced by Alex Garcia, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Brian Rogers, and Thomas Tull; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Millie Bobby Brown (Madison Russell), Vera Farmiga (Dr. Emma Russell), Kyle Chandler (Dr. Mark Russell), Ken Watanabe (Dr. Ishiro Serizawa), Charles Dance (Alan Jonah), Ziyi Zhang (Dr. Ilene Chen), Thomas Middleditch (Sam Coleman), Bradley Whitford (Dr. Rick Stanton), Sally Hawkins (Dr. Vivienne Graham), Aisha Hinds (Colonel Diane Foster), O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Chief Warrant Officer Barnes), Anthony Ramos (Staff Sergeant Martinez), Elizabeth Faith Ludlow (First Lieutenant Griffin), David Strathairn (Admiral William Stenz), CCH Pounder (Senator Williams), and Joe Morton (Dr. Houston Brooks).


Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018) s01e05 – Dreams in a Witch House

This episode starts immediately after the previous one—Kiernan Shipka has just opened a demonic Rubik’s cube, designed by her dead father when he was in the same witch academy she now attends, and released a sleep demon (a make-up encased and excellent Megan Leitch). The episode is just the demon getting into everyone in the house’s heads. So Shipka, aunts Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto, cousin Chance Perdomo. Meanwhile Michelle Gomez finds out about it because she’s been remote spying on Shipka, turns out she knows Leitch, they don’t get along—Leitch is going to kill everyone to take revenge on the father, Gomez doesn’t want Shipka harmed—so Gomez ends up traveling through everyone’s dreams.

It starts fairly amusing then starts getting really good and not stopping that upward quality climb. It’s the first episode of “Sabrina” to really deliver a special hour or whatever of television. It’s terrifying. Leitch is great. Even when the nightmares are predicable—Shipka’s worried about human boyfriend Ross Lynch rejecting her (like he did before she magicked his memory away in the first episode)—they’re well-executed and full of emotional weight. Like when Perdomo finds himself in a loop of performing his own autopsy from both perspectives simultaneously, it all turns into great acting material. Everyone in the cast—save Leitch because make-up—is able to find extremes for their characters and, well, frolic in them.

Like witch aunts (and sisters) Davis and Otto; turns out have very different feelings about one another, which gives them an endless fount of acting possibilities. It’s all excellent character development as well. The episode has a decompressed narrative but does a bunch of expository work with that extra time. I’m not sure if Matthew Barry writes the best “Sabrina” script or Maggie Kiley directs the show the best, but this episode’s a definite standout. It leverages the actors far better than any of the previous episodes, giving them a lot more range, while still acknowledging their caricature aspects.

Wonderful scene for Bronson Pinchot too.

And the cliffhanger with Shipka confronting Gomez? Awesome. It’d be really frustrating to have to wait another week for what comes next.

Congo (1995, Frank Marshall)

At the end of Congo, after the heroes have found the lost expedition, the lost city, and the laser-pure diamonds but also run afoul of said lost city’s super-ape protectors and happened to find this place during a volcanic eruption, some of the super-apes jump into the lava flow. It’s a somewhat lengthy sequence, which with a better film might suggest the director was inviting contemplation but Congo’s direction is so bewilderingly bad it’s obviously not; it’s hard not to see the apes, the whole point of Congo, the pay-off to almost ninety minutes of globe-trotting nonsense… it’s hard not them seeing want to vaporize themselves to escape. The film’s an embarrassment for them.

The movie starts with a diamond-seeking expedition to the Congo going wrong. Bruce Campbell and Taylor Nichols, who aren’t in the movie enough, call home to their company, which is a communications company not a diamond company, and where their remote project supervisor is Laura Linney and the big boss is Joe Don Baker, who’s also Campbell’s dad. Oh, and Campbell used to be engaged to Linney. But he wanted to impress his dad too much so Linney dumped him. There’s a good movie in Congo, if someone else had written the script. John Patrick Shanley’s script is really bad. And since Linney’s the lead, though sometimes ostensibly and sometimes de facto, she loses the most potential from the script. She’s got to go to Africa to save Campbell after an unknown something attacks the camp. Thankfully it’s the movies so she’s able to find an expedition already going to Congo, even though it was thrown together immediately following Linney’s dramatic prologue.

Because the script’s dumb. Like, some of Congo’s big problems are just… well, the script’s dumb. Tim Curry’s absurd diamond hunter? Curry reins it in. The movie could handle him camping it up a whole lot more and Curry resists. He’s not good, because it’s a dumb part, but he’s nowhere near as bad as he could be. He gets sympathy. Linney gets sympathy. Male lead Dylan Walsh however… he doesn’t get much sympathy. Because Walsh isn’t even trying. Or, if he’s trying, he’s not trying as hard as uncredited cameo players (Delroy Lindo as an African military commander), much less main supporting player Ernie Hudson, who’s committed to running with it no matter where it takes him. It’s a great showcase for Hudson’s potential in the right role; that potential qualifier is because this role sure ain’t it.

Walsh is a primatologist who’s taught a gorilla to sign and then gotten her a souped up power glove; the glove “speaks” her signs aloud. Shayna Fox does the computer’s voice, the Stan Winston studio does the facial expressions and costume, two different women are in the suit at different times (Lola Noh and Misty Rosas). Is the gorilla, named Amy, successful? I mean, she’s a better character than Walsh, which isn’t saying much, but… the gorilla could be a lot worse. The gorilla could be a whole lot better—the whole hook of Congo, lost super-apes in a lost city of diamonds or whatever, hinges on the gorillas being impressive.

The gorillas are not impressive. The film manages to gin up sympathy for Amy, enough to overlook the technical limitations, but when the super-apes don’t pay off? It’s all over.

Though, really, the writing’s been on the wall for a while. Bad composite shots, the lost city sets being rather small-scale and wanting, the movie itself not being good; Congo’s not got much potential, but it does sort of assure it’s going to pull off the killer gorillas. It does not. Would it have been able to pull them off—same effects crew—if Marshall’s direction weren’t so tepid? Maybe? Possibly. Marshall pushes for as much gore as the PG-13 will let him get away with, but he doesn’t push for any actual suspense, much less horror, much less terror.

Eh photography from Allen Daviau, always at least competent editing from Anne V. Coates, plus a mediocre Jerry Goldsmith score. If it weren’t so blandly bad, Congo might be able to get by on solid technicals… it’s just Marshall. He’s particularly bad at directing this particular film. He’s obviously lost and completely unwilling to stop and ask for directions.

Joe Don Baker’s bad, Grant Heslov’s pointless as Walsh’s sidekick, Mary Ellen Trainor and Stuart Pankin get close-ups during the first act and some lines for absolutely no reason, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s good. You’re never happy to see Tim Curry, but he could be worse. The uncredited Delroy Lindo cameo is excellent Delroy Lindo cameoing. Linney and Walsh are both wanting, in different ways, Walsh much more. Hudson’s at least having a great time and working his butt off. Nice someone could bother in Congo.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Marshall; screenplay by John Patrick Shanley, based on the novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Allen Daviau; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, J. Michael Riva; costume designer, Marilyn Matthews; produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Sam Mercer; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Laura Linney (Dr. Karen Ross), Dylan Walsh (Dr. Peter Elliot), Ernie Hudson (Captain Monroe Kelly), Tim Curry (Herkermer Homolka), Lola Noh & Misty Rosas & Shayna Fox (Amy the Gorilla), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Kahega), Joe Pantoliano (Eddie Ventro), Grant Heslov (Richard), Delroy Lindo (Captain Wanta), Joe Don Baker (R.B. Travis), Taylor Nichols (Jeffrey Weems), John Hawkes (Bob Driscoll), and Bruce Campbell (Charles Travis).


Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018) s01e04 – Witch Academy

I’m very confused; the witch school is within walking distance from the farm where Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) lives. I thought it was a boarding school far away. Turns out it’s a boarding school—Shipka has to do three nights there—but it’s within walking distance. So she was never going to see her human friends again by just not… going to town anymore. Or something. It’s not explained and confusing but fine.

Because the welcome to witch school episode, which is mostly about how the other witches haze Shipka, works out. The characters it introduces, the twists it introduces, the whatever—they all work out. Shipka being terrified when the mean girl trio of witches (Tati Gabrielle is the leader and good, the other two are fine but background) lock her up in a well or simulate burning her or hanging her—it’s called harrowing and the established students put the new ones through it because it’s what the witches went through back in the olden days and the witch trials. Or something. The backstory on it isn’t very important, not after we find out Miranda Otto majorly harrowed sister Lucy Davis back in the day. Also not after Shipka discovers she’s fairly old to be a new student, apparently, because the school grounds are inhabited by the ghosts of all the little kids who died in their harrowings over the decades. They’re not exactly haunting the place, not exactly not.

The ghost kids leads to a great subplot for Shipka, Otto, and Davis, where the show does a fantastic “girl power” move and never pauses to acknowledge it much less congratulate itself for it. “Sabrina”’s very comfortable doing well.

But Shipka not being able to get through the harrowing just doesn’t fit; it does the hazing PSA and well, but it doesn’t really work with Shipka’s character as she’s developed to this point.

Anyway. Simultaneous to Shipka being away for a long weekend—she tells her human friends she’s at the state fair or something—boyfriend Ross Lynch gets some more information about the creature in the mines after it turns out Lachlan Watson has a possessed uncle living in her house and never told friends about it even though the guy’s obviously demonically possessed. It’s a scary subplot. Very effectively done.

Overall, it’s a solid episode. Not perfect, but very solid. They succeed at introducing the school, including warlock love interest for Shipka but not really Gavin Leatherwood.

So, solid.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020, Cathy Yan)

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a Margot Robbie vehicle, which is excellent, because Robbie’s great and the filmmaking, particularly on Robbie’s scenes, is outstanding. Retitling it the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn would be the best move; the Birds of Prey are going to be a bonus, with all your favorite side characters teaming up with the potential for a sequel. Or at least a great “team” epilogue scene. But it’s all about Robbie. Robbie and, to a lesser extent, Ewan McGregor, who gets to play a fantastic villain here.

The film opens with an animated recap of Robbie’s Harley Quinn, which—in addition to being kind of cute and establishing the film’s cartoonish nature immediately—means the film doesn’t have to use any actual footage from Robbie’s previous outing, Suicide Squad, much less the cursed image of Jared Leto’s Joker. And it sets up Robbie’s narration; the narration continues after the opening, walking the audience through the plot, albeit with less exposition than in the opening titles sequence. Robbie’s contemporaneous narration usually establishes one of the supporting players’ backstories in relation to the crime story and gives Fantabulous a noir feel. Director Yan shoots it like one too, with the supporting cast all assuming the showy character actor parts of old without being character actors. Instead, Yan and Prey just waits for the character to resonate enough through presence, then expands them. The film’s got a phenomenal sense of timing, both for the character arcs and the action. The film’s a crime story about a tween pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) who picks the wrong pocket and gets into a bunch of trouble. She gets some badass defenders who try to get her out of that trouble while also inspiring her to do something better with her life.

Though not exactly. Because Birds of Prey is very much about the bullshit women have to tolerate just to survive. Robbie’s been a cannibal madman’s concubine, if you want to go with comic book Joker, or… shudder… Jared Leto’s, if you want to go with movie Joker. Cop Rosie Perez has watched the men she works with take credit for her work for her entire career. Club singer turned crime boss driver Jurnee Smollett-Bell is on survival mode, though Smollett-Bell’s got the thinnest backstory; the film’s not fair to most of its supporting cast; Birds gives them enough to shine but only just. Like Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Mafia orphan turned “cross bow killer,” who assassinates the mobsters who killed her family so long ago. Winstead turns out being great, but it takes a while. She’s kind of comic relief cameoing leading up to it. It’s unfair because Smollett-Bell’s introduction, a performance of It’s a Man’s World, is one of the film’s best sequences.

Fantabulous has a lot of sequences on that list, however. The entire first act and most of the second are these expertly executed and edited adventures for Robbie, with frequent check-ins on villain McGregor and cop Perez. No one gets to do anything on their own except Robbie, McGregor, and Perez in Birds. Smollett-Bell never runs her own scene and, despite being a lone avenger, Winstead doesn’t get to either. Ditto Basco. It’s Robbie’s movie, with some great stuff for McGregor and Perez—once it’s clear McGregor and Perez are actually going to be able to give excellent performances, Birds of Prey’s gradually solidifying ground immediately turns concrete. McGregor, Yan, and screenwriter Christina Hodson get a truly great villain going here. The strangest part of Fantabulous, between McGregor’s New Wave gangster antics and Robbie doing crime and fighting thugs in the streets of Gotham, is how much it feels like a realization of the DC Batman movies going back to the beginning. Well, not Adam West, but Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. Birds of Prey’s got an actual good sense of humor about itself. It lets itself have fun and stretch to get to certain jokes. The truly terrifying moments in the film make up for it. It’s not just McGregor’s arrogant, privileged sadism, it’s him having even more dangerous sidekick Chris Messina. Because Messina knowingly eggs McGregor on. And they come into the movie cutting people’s faces off so there’s the imagination is rightly spinning.

Throw in Yan, cinematographer Matthew Libatique, production designer K.K. Barrett, and costumer designer Erin Benach’s “reality,” which sort of toughens up a cop comedy to the point where you can have Robbie and Winstead’s costumed antics and not have it break character. Yan and Libatique open with a great scene of urban destruction; it’s very realistically rendered. As the film introduces more and more outlandish elements, the visual tone stays constant. It’s not until the end Birds breaks out the obviously CGI landscapes, at which point Yan and company have earned the leeway. It’s a bit of a cartoon anyway, right?

The third act’s not great. Birds just doesn’t have an ending. Instead of just stopping, the film wraps everything it can together and hopes the cast can pull it off. The cast and some excellent fight choreography, which is geared for eventual laughs not ouches, succeed.

But the point of the movie isn’t the fight, the missing diamond, the girl power… it’s Robbie. And for the great showcase Fantabulous gives Robbie, it doesn’t give her enough. The part’s not there. Because to put the part there… you couldn’t have the entertaining action comedy. Or at least the jokes wouldn’t land in the same way. So it’s not a good ending but it’s a reluctant fine. It does work. It just doesn’t excel and when you’ve spent ninety minutes watching everything excel, something not excelling is a smash on the breaks.

So me being upset about Robbie not getting a better character study aside, Fantabulous is a thorough success. Yan, Robbie, and McGregor are the major standouts—though Yan’s crew all deserves major acknowledgement, especially the costume and production designs, the photography, the editing. I have no memory of Daniel Pemberton’s score, but the soundtrack’s great and, whatever Pemberton does works.

Oh. And the now infamous sandwich scene. It’s remarkable. The film often is.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Cathy Yan; screenplay by Christina Hodson, based on the DC Comics characters created by Robert Kanigher, Carmine Infantino, Paul Levitz, Joe Staton, Joey Cavalieri, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Mitch Brian, Kelley Puckett, and Damion Scott; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Jay Cassidy; music by Daniel Pemberton; production designer, K.K. Barrett; costume designer, Erin Benach; produced by Sue Kroll, Margot Robbie, and Bryan Unkeless; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn), Ewan McGregor (Roman Sionis), Rosie Perez (Renee Montoya), Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Dinah Lance), Ella Jay Basco (Cassandra Cain), Chris Messina (Victor Zsasz), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Helena Bertinelli), Ali Wong (Ellen Yee), and Steven Williams (Captain Erickson).


Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018) s01e03 – The Trial of Sabrina Spellman

No Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa script this episode, Ross Maxwell instead, which initially confirmed my idea about how the first two episodes were the extended pilot and now we’re getting into series proper.

Actually, no, because this episode serves to set the series up to be, you know, a series. The episode opens with teenage half-witch who denied the Dark Lord Kiernan Shipka running out of principal and temporarily possessed by said Dark Lord Bronson Pinchot’s office and bumping into teacher Michelle Gomez, who’s also possessed—unknown to Shipka—by a demon in the Dark Lord’s employ. Their goal? Get Shipka to sign her soul over to the Dark Lord.

Then Shipka goes off and has flashbacks about the event, which occurred at the end of last episode. Like we didn’t just stream it. “Sabrina” seems like it was intended as a weekly show. Possibly with a two hour pilot episode. Meaning Aguirre-Sacasa left it up to Maxwell to get “Sabrina” from pilot to series, meaning a resolve to what came before while still allowing for an interesting future. So a trial.

Where Dark Pope and not Ewan McGregor Richard Coyle is going to try Shipka for not signing her name in the book—she breached contract, implied by her wearing a wedding dress to her Dark Baptism—and Shipka has to convince human lawyer named Daniel Webster (John Rubinstein) to defend her in court. Witch court. Meanwhile her boyfriend, Ross Lynch, has to contend with a bullying father sending him to work in the mines, which would be unpleasant even if Lynch hadn’t wandered down into them and seen the Dark Lord once in childhood.

Then Shipka’s friend, Jaz Sinclair, has a subplot about discovering Pinchot’s soft-censoring books from the school library while Chance Perdomo has a romance arc with fetching, suspicious warlock Darren Mann. It’s a full episode, with yet another strong lead turn from Shipka. The supporting cast is all good too. Rubinstein does a lot with a guest spot, Gomez is fantastically evil… Lucy Davis is really good. The story even seems to be going in a direction Miranda Otto could work out.

I would just like the show to start now. Like, a full quarter turn at the end of next episode should be expected at this point; the show hasn’t had to settle in yet.

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