In theaters: There's a bit of a reversal to the DCEU/MCU dynamic in Wakanda Forever that I found interesting. Comic nerds have gotten used to Marvel thoroughly smoking DC by introducing their characters first, even if the DC version was chronologically earlier. And so Dr. Fate in Black Adam seems a copy of Dr. Strange, when it's the opposite, etc. Namor the Sub-Mariner is actually the ORIGINAL fish-man from Atlantis, but because DC pulled the trigger on Aquaman first, Marvel chose to completely redesign him. Instead of Atlantis, we get a sunken Aztec city, and the movie just about gets away with it until Namor says "Imperius Rex", which is even more nonsensical in this context. Still, putting Wakanda and the Aztecs at odds/possible allies against vibranium-seeking nations strengthens the franchise's anti-colonial theme, and effects more world-building than usual. We might also appreciate the lack of multiversal shenanigans in this one. But with Chadwick Boseman's untimely passing, it's really about finding a new champion, and I'm not particularly impressed with the final choice, nor does the movie really nail the promised internal conflict. WF has a better ending than the first Black Panther, but what was eye-popping then is rote now (Wakanda having shown up in several installments by this point). Faux-Atlantis is cool, but not as cool as DC's Atlantis, unfortunately. Every MCU movie is of course a cog in a larger machine - which is perhaps where my implied impatience with the material comes from - so we get the probably unnecessary introduction of Ironheart, but the movie still deserves bonus points for not just being about people of color, but mostly WOMEN of color. (Whatever happened to the rhino wranglers though? I missed them.) Not surprisingly, this is a more sober MCU experience than most, but the way they deal with Black Panther's off-screen death is too terse and hand-wavey for me to really be moved. Pretty conflicted about this one.
At home: I'm generally glad that Enola Holmes has gone to franchise, as the second acquits itself well as bouncy, light entertainment, but boy, do I wish they'd thought about the naming scheme a bit more. Enola Holmes 2? How boring. It should really be Enola Holmes and the Case of the Match Makers, or something like that. That said, having set things up in the first movie, "2" gives Enola her first case as a proper detective and starts introducing other characters from Holmesian lore in a way that promises at least one more sequel. The insertion of Enola IN that lore is reaping benefits as she subtly transforms the legend to make room for her (the same way actual historical events are used). I do find the clues a little silly sometimes - Sherlock may be Superman, but the clues seem to have been left by the Riddler - and figuring them out has all the abruptness of Batman '66 jumping to conclusions, but Millie Bobby Brown is a lot of fun, as is Henry Cavill. Good plot twists and comedy bits, natural chemistry in the romance... the action sequences need a little work (or less prevalence, since they're not really the point). I liked this one better than the original.
The third and final chapter of Dead to Me (i.e. Season 3) might lean even more into my old description of it as "Breaking Bad for Wine Moms" as things get even more out of control for Jen and Judy (Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, both great in this) as they try to keep their secret murder a secret as evidence and suspicion mount up. It's interesting that Survivor is mentioned at one point, because that's exactly the template for the suspense - someone will start saying something that sounds ominous, take a pause, then comically deflate the balloon to relieve the tension. It's a bit artificial and sometimes felt forced. But there's no denying that the show is heading for massive heartbreak and I was in tears by the end (by which I mean at least the last two episodes). There's a tendency to make TV shows go on too long that's residual from the network days and the needs of syndication. Streaming is a different game, and I'm very happy to have this complete 30-episode story on the books, at once that it wasn't cancelled before its time, and that it didn't find ways to extend itself beyond what was required. It's a show about grief, and so we've learned how to say goodbye.
Chronicling a year in the life of a Syrian refugee awaiting an asylum decision on a small Scottish island, Limbo draws its humor from a reverse fish out of water story where Omar seems very normal, but the Brits are odd and quirky to the point of alienation. I say reversed because it's not about the "foreigner" making funny mistakes, but rather being forced to interact with funny-strange characters. In French we have the word "dépaysé" to denote the feeling of being out of place, and it literally means "un-countried", a pun with meanings that are all true in the film. Constrained emotions in a constrained aspect ratio, a bleak landscape, unfriendly faces (but not necessarily unfriendly people), all work towards this atmosphere. It's funny in an understated way, but it's of course also profoundly sad. Sad, but hopeful too. And it feels authentic to the refugee experience, with different stories/realities addressed through the other people stuck in Limbo, neither dead nor alive, but idling while some bureaucracy out there shuffles papers perhaps forever. A must see!
Katherine Langford is an absolute charm in Spontaneous (in fact, all three of the main "kids" are), a dark horror romcom in which a class of high school seniors start mysteriously exploding like blood-filled balloons. It's in this context that Langford's Mara starts a romance with a boy, both of them embracing a certain Carpe Diem philosophy. It's a clever way to investigate teenage fatalism - and today's teenagers have every right to wonder if there's a world waiting for them when they "adult" - and how it can lead to misbehavior, or denial, or perhaps even hope. It could be a heavy subject, and it gets there when it needs to, but the medicine goes down easy thanks to its humor, clever storytelling devices, and characters who are, like their best audience, cinema nerds. The poster puts you in mind of a silly Hallmark romantic comedy - there's even a Christmas sequence - but of course the premise makes it completely other, and a nice surprise. On a personal note, this thing references the typewriter monkeys that will ultimately write Shakespeare - my avatar - so how could I not love it?
Honestly, everything I know about boarding schools, I learned from movies, and they don't seem like great places. The one in If.... allows an elite class of student to disciplines the others, leading to systemic bullying, while the faculty are jolly good chaps disconnected from reality. It's a portrait of Western (esp. British) society circa 1968, and Malcolm McDowell, in his first film role harking forward to A Clockwork Orange, leads a few rebels against the forces of conformity. The film has an anarchic spirit, from its title (FOUR dots?!), to its initially mysterious but ultimately random use of color and black and white, to its editing in fantastical or absurdist realities. But while I don't dispute its portrait of the Baby Boomer generation - privileged conformists and hippie rebels alike - up to and including the its pointless "rebel yell", I feel like it's extremely dated. It's a shout in the void, anarchy for its own sake, but with no solutions at the end of it. Does that make it universal to all teenagers in all times? Maybe, but the film further loses points for its facile violent ending. It just doesn't play very well for a modern audience, especially a North American one, where the ending is too real and not as funny as the movie wants it to be. It's undoubtedly better and more relevant than the score I give it would indicate, but I don't connect with it and wish it had been at once more subtle and less cryptic in its approach.
On my list of things to watch sooner than later since Jeff Barnaby's very untimely passing, Rhymes for Young Ghouls is a dark tale that throws off horror vibes, in particular with its use of residential schools and their lasting trauma. Bathed in the golden hue of fall colors, it feels like a whole culture is dying along with nature. Devery Jacobs (Elora from Reservation Dogs), in one of her first roles, is a young woman who has had everything taken away from her by the system, represented by an especially nasty and corrupt "Indian agent" who is a law unto itself. He may seem extreme, in line with other revenge movies' corrupt sheriffs, etc., but the policies he legally upholds were quite real. And it IS a revenge movie, albeit one that takes its time setting up the situation before unleashing righteous violence on the villains. Like Barnaby's Blood Quantum, the pacing could have used finessing - it's fairly slow, but when things start moving, they do so too fast and I'm missing transition scenes to better situate me. It's still a satisfying drama that could be categorized as Native Gothic (or perhaps Canadian Gothic, since it's not the Natives who create the sense of horror). Sadly, Barnaby was one of its few practitioners, and we've been robbed of a much larger oeuvre.
Season 2 of Reservation Dogs, in a way suffers from the four friends falling out, but it does highlight how much more they suffer alone than within their support group. And I also really like the inclusion of Jackie as one of the main characters, she's very tragic. Perhaps it also allows Cheese and Willie Jack to shine away from more traditional leads Bear and Elora, but they were certainly my favorites all season. Having set up this world so efficiently in Season 1, the show can now expand upon it, in its use of the spiritual brushing against mundane reality, and giving spotlights to some of the adult characters, who are no less interesting than the kids (I say "kids", realizing that Devery Jacobs is almost 30). It is at times a heavier season, yes, definitely, but it also offers its funniest episode yet, "Decolonativization", which had me in stitches and could well end up as my favorite single episode of ANYTHING this year. The season also has a lot of closure, so much so I immediately checked if there was going to be a third. And there will be. Good. I want to keep visiting these characters.
Alex Rider's second season seems to rely less on characters being stupid and making fatal mistakes than the first one did, or at least until the finale, which hinges on Alex not giving his allies all the information/evidence he has. Not as a plot point where he's actively withholding something, he just doesn't, and as in the first season, this top shelf security service is terrible about debriefing its agents and assets. That and none of the villains could hit the broad side of a barn if that barn was a recurring character. That said, it's still a fun, exciting story, the youth angle this time provided by a video game that could be more than it seems. As a game, Feathered Serpent is meant to stand in for World of Warcraft, but I'm not sure the show (or book, I guess this was largely based on Eagle Strike) knows much about video games (there's one sequence that might make you roll your eyes in the same way a movie like Hackers would). Be that as it may, the world-endangering plot probably works better now than it did in 2003 and is pretty clever, give or take how insane it is. Coincidences aside, the show does seem resolved to treat Alex and his closest friends in a realistic manner, with the spy stuff borderline traumatic and having real effects on their lives.
Books: Langelot et les espions (Langelot and the Spies) is Lieutenant X's second "YA" novel (1966) about the teenage secret agent (and Langelot's first mission). Between the ages of 10 and 12, I scoured the library for this series and read all I could get my hands on. Even bought a handful at a book fair, and I still have them. Revisiting this one, I can see what probably drew me in. Langelot is a smart mouth and I really like his dialog. I may have been a smart mouth kid too. If only I'd had the spy skills required to get me out of the trouble it got me into. Definitely of its time based on the mores and technology available, I don't think I minded when I read them at the turn of the 1980s. Set in the rocket age, Langelot and other S.N.I.F. agents must protect a rocket scientist from foreign agents, including those from allied countries like Britain and Italy. Everyone wants a piece of the rocket pie. It's a quick and fun read, and though meant for younger readers, the (sparse) violence and thriller elements are adult enough to make the stakes feel real, the vocabulary isn't simplistic, and Lieutenant X is very efficient and evocative in his descriptions. Now, you may think a secret service called S.N.I.F. is silly, and it is, and the scientist being an inveterate jokester is another source of comedy (although his "dad humor" isn't funny at all, it's even trying), the book otherwise presents serious spycraft and situations, and Langelot really is a rookie sometimes in over his head. The story is helped immensely by Maurice Paulin's illustrations, some of them in color - he's great at human figures and "acting", and weakest on hardware (like cars), so his choices are in line with his particular skills. I'm glad I revisited the book. Even at my age, I still found a lot to like (Choupette becomes Langelot's Moneypenny, right?).