I Watched: The Umbrella Academy Season 2

Unfamiliar with The Umbrella Academy? No worries, I can assist you with that. In October of 1989, forty-three women across the globe became pregnant and delivered babies in the course of one day. The billionaire industrialist, Sir Reginald Hargreeves, manages to adopt seven of these infants and creates The Umbrella Academy in order to train his adopted children to save the world. But teen years being what they are, the kids have a falling out and each goes their separate way and don’t reconnect until they’re in their thirties when they learn of Hargreeves’ passing. They reluctantly work together to solve a mystery surrounding their father’s death, which puts them on a collision course with a global apocalypse. All caught up? Good. Here’s the trailer for Season 2:

The end of Season 1 saw Vanya (Ellen Page) absolutely losing her ever-loving mind and inadvertently bringing about the apocalypse but Five (Aidan Gallagher) manages create a time portal for his family to escape before life as we know it is obliterated. But it was done in rush and the math on the portal wasn’t accurate enough to keep everyone together, so the Hargreeves siblings land in the same location in Dallas, Texas but scattered in time across the early 1960s.

Klaus (Robert Sheehan) and Ben (Justin H. Min) arrive at 1960 where Klaus accidentally becomes the leader of a cult; Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) arrives in 1961 where she lands a job in a beauty salon in the colored part of town and marries a civil rights activist; Luther (Tom Hopper) lands in 1962 and becomes an underground boxer for Jack Ruby; Diego (David Castañeda) lands in September 1963 and winds up in a psychiatric hospital; Vanya lands in October 1963 with no memory and becomes the nanny of a young boy who is on the spectrum; and lastly, Five (Aidan Gallagher) lands on November 25, 1963 in the middle of the Soviet Union invasion of America, and when I say middle I mean US and USSR soldiers are battling all around him. Before Five can get his bearings, his brothers and sisters arrive on the scene to aid the US troops but are unable to stop the nuclear missiles overhead from detonating on American shores.

Before the nukes land, however, Hazel (Cameron Britton) appears beside Five and delivers his version of the classic Arnie line, “If you want to live, come with me.” and he transports Five 10 days in the past and arms him with as much information as he can before he’s gunned down by the assassin trio known as The Swedes (Kris Holden-Ried, Jason Bryden, and Tom Sinclair). The Hargreeves siblings, believing they’re stranded in the past, decide to settle into their new lives which makes Five’s job all the more difficult when he has to pull them out of the comfort of their individual worlds to save the world and repair time. Oh, and their father is alive at the time and very much active in some shady goings-on.

I have to admit I wasn’t looking forward to this season because 1) although I liked the first season well enough, the plot’s big mystery felt belabored and stretched thin and I was beginning to lose interest during the midpoint; and 2) Netflix original content ongoing series usually suffers from sophomore slump. That is absolutely not the case here. Season 2 surpasses its predecessor by a country mile.

And while the season is better, it’s almost a little too familiar with the Hargreeves siblings starting out separated from one another, facing yet another global apocalypse, and being dragged into investigating yet another mystery surrounding their father, Sir Reginald Hargreeves. The saving grace is each character is placed in different settings and is allowed to grow outside of the confines of their dysfunctional family relationships. Not so much for Five, Luther, Klaus, or Vanya (who gets a personality reset thanks to a helpful bout of amnesia) but Diego, Allison and Ben are each given their moments in the spotlight, and through Diego, we’re introduced to the most intriguing character of the season, his girlfriend, Lila (Ritu Arya).

Okay, I’m not being totally fair to Klaus or Vanya because they both have moments where they deal with the hardships relating to differing sexual preferences especially when placing the well-being of others before themselves, just as Allison comes face to face with the reality of the lengths some people will go to express their dislike of the color of a person’s skin.

If I had my druthers, I would have liked to see more development in the season’s antagonists. While it’s sometimes fun to watch Kate Walsh chew up the scenery, her one-note characterization detours into tedium after a while. And The Swedes are nothing more than cardboard cutouts of Season 1’s Hazel and Cha-Cha, with every ounce of personality drained from them. I’m also not the biggest fan of the dance numbers and I realize I’m in the minority here, but if you’ve got the time for a dance number, then you’ve got the time to beef up your bad guys. Just saying. And more of Ritu Arya. She’s amazing.

So, would I recommend The Umbrella Academy Season 2? Yup. Much like the Hargreeves siblings, the series as a whole still has a lot of growing up to do but this season shows the promise of the better, faster, stronger show it can be if it abandons its rehashed story beats and explores bold, new, weightier territories (and by weightier I don’t mean another global damned apocalypse). If you’re looking for superhuman action, humor, jukebox moments and head-scratching time-travel antics, then you’re in the right place. Still not convinced? Why not check out Season 2’s opening scene (it doesn’t spoil anything, trust me):

Ciao til next now.

I Watched: Japan Sinks 2020

Based on the 1973 disaster novel, Nihon Chinbotsu by Sakyo Komatsu, Japan Sinks 2020 is a 10-episode anime series available on Netflix in which a series of major earthquakes hit Japan. We follow the Mutou family (who were separated when the first quake hit) as they reconnect amidst the chaos and try to escape the city before additional quakes and the possible eruption of Mount Fuji threaten to sink Japan.

And that’s all I’m going to give you because I truly do not want to spoil a moment of this for you.

So, would I recommend this series? Without a doubt but it comes with the caveat to keep in mind this is based on a disaster novel, so if you’re out for a lighthearted coming of age Ghibli romp full of magic and wonder, this might not be the anime you’re looking for. The Mutou family and the people they pick up along the way are plunged into extreme life and death situations and from early on you realize that No. One. Is. Safe. which I appreciate, though you might feel differently about it. Different bikes for different likes.

I’ve heard people complain about Naoya Wada’s character designs, Science Saru’s animation style and the fact that the characters in the series live under a constant cloud of hopelessness as the pendulum swings both ways as they experience lucky breaks and violently devastating events in near equal measure, but I was far too interested in the story to nitpick any of these details. When it comes to the show’s atmosphere, I suppose it all boils down to your personal outlook. Is the glass half full or half empty? Do you only see the unapologetically brutal chaos brought on by a natural disaster and how it brings out the worst in some people or can you admire the strength to keep moving forward, the determination to survive in the face of unending adversity which is a cornerstone of the human spirit? Again, each person to their tastes.

For my money, this is a wonderful, intense and compassionate anime series that starts off strong and remains consistent throughout. I started out only planning to watch one episode to get a feel for whether it was in my wheelhouse or not and ended up binging the entire thing in one sitting because each segment closed with a cliffhanger that immediately drew me to the following episode. This deserves more attention and respect than it’s getting. I hope that changes soon.

Ciao til next now.

I Watched: The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night, written by Andrew Patterson (under the pseudonym of James Montague) and Craig W. Sanger, directed by Andrew Patterson and starring Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz, isn’t a movie, not exactly. It’s a tv show inside a movie that runs parallel to real-life events starring the local townsfolk as actors playing themselves, though I doubt they realize it. Got it? Good. Moving on.

The television show being broadcast is Paradox Theater (an homage to The Twilight Zone with a dead-on vocal impression of Rod Serling) and the episode airing is titled, you guessed it, The Vast of Night which takes place in the small town of Cayuga, New Mexico sometime during the 1950s on the night of a high school basketball game. It’s a big event with nearly the whole town in attendance except for those who have to work and among these unlucky few are two teenagers, disc jockey Everett, the Mr. Fixit cock of the walk in his high school circle who carries himself with just enough swagger to be a likeable jerk; and his switchboard operator friend, Fay, a curious science nerd with a deep interest in technology who also wants to become a radio broadcaster.

At work, Fay listens to Everett’s radio show, which gets interrupted by a strange audio signal which is also coming through over the phone lines as she begins fielding calls from the town locals about something strange happening in the sky. Fay calls Everett at the station, lets him listen to the mysterious noise which he, in turn, broadcasts on the air and asks his listeners for information about the signal.

You’re going to hate me for this but I’m not interested in dishing out spoilers so that’s all I’m going to tell you about this film (you can basically get what I’ve mentioned from the trailer). I will say that if you’re looking for some CGI effects-laden alien invasion action extravaganza, this ain’t the film for you. The story is laid out like a breadcrumb trail that leads you to one answer after another in order to solve the big mystery of what’s going down in Cayuga and it’s in no rush to deliver those answers to you.

And before you wave this off to go and rewatch Independence Day for the thousandth time, let me assure you that if you’re a science fiction cinephile, this film is worth your time. The small town feels like a genuine small town, the townies come across as authentic, the atmosphere makes you feel like you’ve slipped on a patch of time and landed back in the 50s, and the acting is top-notch all around. Plus, there’s an innocence present that’s sadly missing from the movies released in the past few years, which is kind of refreshing, actually.

So, would I recommend The Vast of Night? You betcha! And, if the producers got it in their minds to do an X-Files-style tv series featuring Everett and Fay exploring all the mysterious, extraterrestrial and supernatural goings-on that occur in Cayuga during the 50s, I’d be first in line to watch it!

Til next now, “Bacon, bacon, nine-forty.” Watch the film, you’ll understand.

I Watched: Isolation Stories

As we continue to wade through conflicting reports of plans to reopen or reopenings gone horribly wrong thus forcing an immediate shutdown, production studios have been finding ways to provide programming for our viewing pleasure. One such attempt is Isolation Stories, four 15-minute dramas created under lockdown that reflect the trials and tribulations families are going through after weeks of isolation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic crisis. The series is the brainchild of Jeff Pope (writer of Stan & Ollie), whose entire family contracted the coronavirus and luckily were able to come out on the other side in good health without the need for hospitalization.

First up, we have “Mel” written by Gaby Chiappe, directed by Paul Whittington and starring Sheridan Smith in which we find the titular Mel heavily pregnant and absolutely alone in her apartment. To say she’s fed up with life would be an understatement. The father of the baby is a married man who decided to stay with his wife and family, leaving her having to go through the birth of her first child without any support. She even feels estranged from her own family who are all holed up at her Mum and Dad’s house.

Boredom, fear and maybe even a touch of cabin fever causes her to go down the list of people on her phone, desperate to make a connection, even reaching out to a person she hasn’t spoken to in years. Later that evening, Mel is awakened by a call from a stranger. It turns one of the old numbers she dialed belongs to someone new. The female voice on the other end of the line is kind and soothing as Mel gives voice to all her fears and woes. The voice reassures Mel that she’ll be a great Mum but the call is interrupted when a male voice begins shouting and the call is abruptly cut off.

I have a problem with this. Obviously, the woman on the other end of the phone is in an abusive relationship and Mel does attempt to call back but the phone number has been withheld. The story simply moves on from there with Mel having a new appreciation for her situation. What happened to the selfless woman who, despite her own situation, reached out to offer comfort to someone in need? Yes, her number was withheld, but Mel still had the number of the old friend on her phone and could have, should have, called to check on her.

In “Ron & Russell” written by Jeff Pope, directed by Louise Hooper and starring Tom Glenister and Robert Glenister, we find ex-convict Russell who is none too pleased to be isolated with his father, Ron, who believes his son has brought shame on the family. Ron is ill but it’s too early to tell if it’s related to Covid-19 and added to that is the fact that he might have a touch of dementia as he’s convinced he’s not in his own home. Russell doesn’t carry that care-giver gene but as the only healthy person in the house, he’s forced to become his father’s keeper. Things do not go smoothly, especially one time during a feeding when Ron mistakes Russell for his older brother and confesses what a disappoint his son is and calling him a compulsive liar. Russell decides to use his proclivity for lying to do some good for once in order to keep his father’s spirits up. The outcome is heartwarming.

In “Mike & Rochelle” written by William Ivory, directed by Paul Andrew Williams and starring Angela Griffin and Darren Boyd, we meet Mike, an utterly self-absorbed, paranoid hypochondriac who’s living his worst fear of being surrounded by an undetectable, untreatable, silent killer virus. Rochelle gives in to his insistence of an emergency online session, prepared to try and talk him down from the precipice, despite the day being the anniversary of a personal day of hardship for her. Of all the stories, this is the most character driven and a perfect example of role reversal done properly. My personal favorite of the lot.

In “Karen” written by Neil McKay, directed by David Blair and starring Eddie Marsan and David Threlfall, Stephen is isolated in the house with his two sons but his father-in-law, Brian, stops by outside the sliding glass doors leading to the back garden every day to mess about and make boy smile. But Stephen is still bitter and hurting after being left by his wife, the titular Karen, and is annoyed by the daily visits. He’s also ignoring Karen’s request to come see the boys, that is, until he and Brian have a private heart to heart about infidelity and forgiveness.

There’s also a fifth instalment, Isolation Stories: Behind the Scenes, that shows the process of the actors and their family members setting up equipment and shots to film themselves with the directors viewing the footage via smartphones in order to ensure the best takes possible.

So, would I recommend Isolation Stories? Most assuredly. And I wouldn’t mind seeing an additional, expanded series showcasing the various experiences that families and individuals are going through during these difficult times. I’m sure there are hundreds of unique stories just waiting to be told.

Ciao til next now.

I Watched: We Hunt Together

It’s the first day of DI Jackson Mendy’s (Babou Ceesay) new assignment in the Homicide Division when he meets his new partner DS Lola Franks (Eve Myles) at a murder scene. From the onset, it’s apparent the pair will get on like chalk and cheese. Mendy’s an affable fellow with an almost zen-like nature to remain cool under pressure and Franks, well let’s just say she’s the complete opposite. Their relationship isn’t helped by the fact that Mendy transferred from Anti-Corruption (the British version of Internal Affairs) and just like it is stateside, coppers aren’t exactly fond of working with anyone associated with the rat squad.

The murder itself appears sexual in nature when they discover the body of a naked man strapped to the bed face down in his apartment with a butcher’s knife buried deep in the base of his skull and the wall safe open and empty. Don’t be so quick to put on your Sherlock Holmes deerstalker cap because this show isn’t interested in being a simple whodunit, it’s a game of cat and mouse and we’re introduced to our killers straightaway in a flashback leading up to the murder.

Baba Lenga (Dipo Ola) is a former child soldier and refugee who works as a restroom attendant at a nightclub. In the club’s alley, Baba saves Freddy Lane (Hermione Corfield) from a sexual assault, which forges a bond between the pair. Freddy works as a telephone sex operator by day with the occasional dalliance in escorting by night. Here again we have a mismatched pair, Baba is compassionate, vulnerable and haunted by his past, while Freddy, also haunted by her past, is a charming, conniving psychopath.

To be honest, I’ve had my fill of police procedurals and I would have given this series a miss if not for Eve Myles (I’ve got a thing for potty-mouthed Welsh women, what can I say?). Created and written by Gaby Hull and directed by Jon Jones and Carl Tibbetts, We Hunt Together has some interesting elements like the chemistry between Myles and Ceesay which is fantastic, and the reasons for why they are the way they are makes for good character development. I also find Ola’s performance compelling. My problem is with Freddy.

This show has been compared to Killing Eve and Freddy to Villanelle but take my word for it, they ain’t close by a country mile. I know it’s not fair to compare shows and We Hunt Together should be judged on its own merits but I lack the ability to describe just how weak and uninteresting Freddy is as the show’s main antagonist without giving a slight comparison. Villanelle is remorseless and guilt-free in the killing of her victims, which is when she’s at her happiest. She has an eccentric, infantile sense of humor and the emotional maturity of a petulant child which makes her a delightful psychopath. Freddy, on the other hand, is a one-trick pony who uses seduction to manipulate men in the most unconvincing manner possible. I’m not sure if it’s the way the character was written or a testament to Corfield’s acting ability but Freddy comes across as a child playing at adult things. It might be amusing for some, but it’s just not my cup of tea.

So, would I recommend We Hunt Together? Honestly, I’m not sure. My best suggestion is to sample the pilot and see if it’s to your taste. Will I be back for series 2? I guess that would depend on whether there were more interesting things to watch. This is a show that I can easily see getting lost in the sauce of more interesting video content. And before you complain about the lack of story breakdowns and spoilers, realize that I’m doing you a favor and I’ve probably said too much already. Go watch it for yourself.

Ciao til next now.