Wednesday 20 April 2022

What I'm Watching: April 2022

A recap of my month in movies, media and streaming, featuring Netflix's Anatomy of a Scandal, Marvel's Moon Knight, Guillermo del Toro's Nightmare Alley and my introduction into the world of The Sopranos

Anatomy of a Scandal (Netflix)

This star-studded six-part Netflix series from David E Kelley (Big Little Lies, The Undoing) is set in the hallowed halls of Westminster, and sees a high-profile Tory MP James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend) beset by scandal when it is revealed he has been having an affair with one of his aides, a staff researcher called Olivia (Naomi Scott).

The show explores the the fallout of Whitehouse's infidelity, on both his career and his marriage to wife Sophie (Sienna Miller). 

There's a lot to like about this one – from its 'torn from the headlines' plot that bears more than a passing resemblance to the scandal that surrounded Health secretary Matt Hancock last year, to its talented and attractive cast all decked out in sharp suits, big coats and sharp stilettos. There's an undeniable style, swagger and sexiness to the show, which makes it easy on the eyes and pulpy enough to not require a whole lotta brain function either. 

Naomi Scott's character is poorly serviced; a key figure in the first half, then dropped like a sack potatoes in the second, where the focus shifts to Michelle Dockery's barrister character. And Sienna Miller spends most of the show sitting in the courtroom gallery scowling, before actually having something to do in the final episode. 

Moon Knight (Disney+)

The first Marvel series to hit Disney+ that isn't a continuation on a character we've met before, Moon Knight sees a raft of talented filmmakers – director Mohamed Diab, indie filmmakers Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, showrunner Jeremy Slater – weave ancient Egyptian myth and legend into the Marvel universe. 

Oscar Isaac plays two roles here; jittery and mild-mannered Englishman Steven Grant, and battle-hardened American special ops soldier Marc Spector. The latter suffers from dissociative identity disorder, and retreats into his Steven Grant identity to hide the truth – that Marc is the avatar for Khonshu, the ancient Egyptian mood god. At Khonshu's command, Marc locks horns with religious zealot Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke), who is harnessing the power of the god Ammit, the render judgement on future crimes. 

If that sounds quite plot-heavy and wackadoo, then yeah – you're right. Moon Knight isn't as straightforward as some of Marvel's recent streaming series, and breaks new ground just by virtue of not being about an existing character or setting. So far, I've seen two of the six episodes – and I'm not sure what to make of it yet. A third of the way through, and it's hard to really grasp what the actual plot is – how it all fits together, what the stakes or motivations are, what the trajectory of Steven and Marc is.

I don't think the episodic nature is doing this series any favours. On both of the episodes I've seen so far, it feels like we're just starting to get somewhere, to build some momentum, before the credits roll. There's not much to latch onto, week to week, hence why I haven't 'caught up' on episodes three and four yet. There's no rush to see what's next, so I'd rather wait until all the episodes are there. Much like Falcon and the Winter Soldier or Loki, maybe Moon Knight would've worked better as a movie...

Lastly, I like Isaac as an actor, don't get me wrong – but his English accent here is ridiculous. So ridiculous that it must be intentional, right? He can't be serious. I don't know whether to laugh or roll my eyes.

The Sopranos seasons one and two (Binge)

Look at any list of the 'best TV shows of all time', and there's a good chance David Chase's mobster saga The Sopranos will rank somewhere near the top. Safe to say, it's been on my to-do list for a while – so I bit the bullet and got stuck into the HBO drama earlier in the month.

Season one really hits the ground running, introducing viewers to Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), his family and his entourage of associates. There's a pretty big ensemble cast, most of whom are middle-aged Italian-American gangsters, so it takes some time to put faces to names and remember how they all fit together. 

But the first thirteen episodes builds this rich world of characters around Tony, a world full of rivalries, grudges and competing ideologies. Opposite Tony you've got his Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), who steps in fill a power vacuum after the gang's previous boss passes away. But the main appeal of The Sopranos is not the mobster stuff, it's the marital stuff. It's all about the family dynamic, between Tony, his wife Carmela and his children Meadow and AJ. It's a compelling domestic drama, with the occasional whack, hit or shakedown on the side.

Season two maybe lacks the same narrative thrust as season one, but the overarching quality and character drama remains the same – particularly around Tony's relationship with his therapist, Jennifer Melfi. Some of the characters who are introduced are soon sidelined or dispatched, so it feels like the show spinning its wheels. 

Obviously I'm sticking with it through to the end – and I have a sneaky suspicion that everything will circle back around eventually. 

Nightmare Alley (Disney+)

Something of an also-ran in this year's Best Picture race, Guillermo del Toro's Nightmare Alley is a sumptuous and atmospheric noir drama that I admired more than I actually enjoyed. 

The film follows Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle, a drifter who gets a job at a carnival. It's here that he meets Madame Zeena (Toni Collette) and Molly (Rooney Mara), and learns the tricks of the trade, including their clairvoyant and psychic act. 

From here, Stan and Molly use their act to scam wealthy elites, until the tangle with Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist who can see right through them. 

Whether it's intimate Oscar fare like The Shape of Water or rock'em sock'em robots like Pacific Rim, Del Toro is one of the best filmmakers working today. Nightmare Alley is not his best effort, not by a mile, but it is dripping with little details that pay homage to film noir of old. This is a film that just radiates a love and affection for the genre; with broad character performances that lean into the genre trappings. 

It's overlong and the first act doesn't gel with the rest of the film, but there's a lot to like about this film. Such a shame that it was a flop commercially and somewhat got lost in the Oscar shuffle.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Blu-ray)

Over the Easter long weekend, I read Blood, Sweat and Chrome, Kyle Buchanan's oral history of Mad Max: Fury Road

The book is assembled from more than 130 interviews that run the gamut of people involved in the film, from its director George Miller and lead actors, to industry insiders, critics and famous admirers like Edgar Wright.

About halfway through the book (it's a really engaging read), I had to put it down and revisit the film itself, just to refresh my memory. Suffice to say, not much as changed - Fury Road is still every ounce the modern masterpiece that it was when it first hit theatres in May 2015. 

The storytelling is sharp and succinct, the stuntwork is unparalleled and the sheer energy that permeates from the screen is enough to toast a marshmallow. There really is nothing else quite like it, before or since. Highly recommended - both the book and the film, if you haven't already seen one of the best films of the 21 century.

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