Saturday 17 September 2022

What I'm Watching: September 2022

A quick recap of my month in movies, media and streaming, featuring The Bear on Disney+ and two fantasy prequels: HBO's House of the Dragon and Prime Video's The Rings of Power.

House of the Dragon season one (Binge)

Game of Thrones is back baby! Three years after the controversial and somewhat calamitous eighth season, this prequel is off to a promising start. 

Set about 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon finds House Targaryen – that viewers will be well-acquainted with through Emilia Clarke's Daenerys – at the peak of their powers. King Viserys I (Paddy Considine) sits on the Iron Throne, but faces a succession conundrum. Should the crown fall to his young daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) or his plotting brother Daemon (Matt Smith)? 

There's intrigue and conspiracy aplenty right from the get-go in House of the Dragon, which differs from Game of Thrones in that there's substantial skips in time, sometimes several years, after each episode. We're checking in with these characters at important junctures in their lives, rather than a more intricate and plodding plot that follows them every step of the way.

I think there's still some kinks to be ironed out, but on the whole House of the Dragon scratches that Westerosi itch quite nicely. Series MVPs to date are Alcock and Smith, but Considine is doing great work too as the somewhat meek king. It'll be interesting to see how the show changes now that some of the cast have aged up into new actors, like Emma D'Arcy as the older Rhaenyra and Olivia Cooke as the older Alicent Hightower, Rhaenyra's bestie slash enemy.

Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power season one (Prime Video)

Meanwhile, in Middle-Earth: Jeff Bezos is spending money like there's no tomorrow. 

That's the main takeaway from the first three episodes of Rings of Power. Simply put, television has never looked so expensive or so impressive. Seriously, the scope of this things is something you have to see to believe. 

It captures the aura and mood of being back in the Middle-Earth, even if it doesn't look exactly like Peter Jackson's cherished trilogy. It's also insanely nerdy, with high fantasy themes, concepts and terminology flying around like they're going out of fashion. 

There's also a huge cast – elves, dwarves, harfoots, men, orcs and others. It's not unlike those early days of Game of Thrones, with multiple storylines all travelling in tandem in opposite corners of the realm. Keeping track can be a challenge, especially if you're not already familiar with Tolkien's world, but so far it's so good.

The Bear season one (Disney+)

If you're looking for something you can devour over a long weekend, look no further than The Bear, all eight episodes of which dropped on Disney+ at the end of August. I had along heard good things going in, and only good things to share afterwards too – suffice to say, it's one of my favourite shows of the year.

The show is about a talented cook called Carmy, who gives up his life working a posh New York restaurant and returns home to Chicago, to take over a popular but dilapidated sandwich shop after its owner – his brother – commits suicide. Carmy, who is battling demons of his own, must corral the ramshackle staff, which includes the loose cannon interim manager, Richie. 

Thematically and narratively, The Bear is in similar territory to something else I reviewed earlier this, the British indie film Boiling Point starring Stephen Graham. Debts are racking up, there's chaos and unprofessionalism rife in the kitchen, the protagonist seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown at any moment. All good stuff that makes for excellent, high-stakes character drama – is Marcus going to find the perfect recipe for his new line of doughnuts? How can we make our next rent payment without Richie selling crack in the alleyway out back? Who keeps sabotaging the staff and causing us to trip up when the clock is ticking?

If you can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen – because hoo boy, there's a lot of heat coming off this one. The Bear is like a livewire that sparks and crackles with energy, and each episode races by in a flash. Creator Christopher Storer, who also writes and directs some of the show, brings a lot of visual panache and frenetic editing, so the audience feels like they're caught in the chaos of the kitchen.

Barry season one (Binge)

Bill Hader is the writer, director, producer and star of Barry, a darkly comedic drama about a hitman who is eager to get out of the game and pursue a newfound passion for theatre. 

If that sounds like an odd concept, it doesn't feel odd in practice. Barry's first season, which I've only found time for now after it first made waves in 2018, pitches that initial premise to perfection. There's no fat here either, which to me is part of the appeal and brilliance – somewhere like Netflix, Hader would have been made to stretch out the runtime to an hour, like some kind of Ozark-adjacent crime drama.

As it stands, the 24 to 29-minute runtime on these episodes works like a charm. There's a small ensemble cast of fun characters; on one side of Barry's life we have Henry Winkler's theatre class teacher Gene Cousineau and Sarah Goldberg's love interest and scene partner Sally Reed. On the other, Stephen Root plays Monroe Fuches, Barry's handler, and circling them like a hawk is Paula Newsome as agent Janice Moss. How they cross paths or barely bypass one another, keeping Barry's two lives seperate, forms the crux of the tension and narrative.

I've heard that this show only goes from strength to strength, and given that season one ends on a massive twist, I'm really eager to see where it goes next. 

Hustle (Netflix)

I've never been a big fan of Adam Sandler's brand of comedy, but his recent dramatic output – namely Uncut Gems – has been really good. Hustle sees Sandler play Stanley Sugarman, a scout for NBA team, the Philadelphia 76ers. Stan spends months at a time on the road, jetting across the world looking for young talent that the Sixers can draft into their roster, but it's his dream to get his feet under a desk back in Philly and see his family more.

Happenstance sees Stan cross paths with gifted baller Bo Cruz (played by NBA player Juancho Hernangómez) while on a job in Mallorca. A bit rough around the edges, but with oodles of raw talent, Stan takes it upon himself to smooth off Bo's imperfections and get him locked into a lucrative NBA contract, which in turn would allow Stan to step back from the scouting for good.

The real appeal of Hustle, is its use of the NBA's powerful licensing and branding, as well as the parade of current and former players, coaches, pundits and staff who round out the cast (many of whom are playing themselves).

And if you're not an avid basketball fan like myself, there's still a lot to like. Sandler is in top form as this down-on-his-luck guy just trying to spend more time with his family. Queen Latifah plays Sandler's wife, while Ben Foster makes for a great villain as fictitious Sixers owner Vince Merrick, who will stop at nothing to put Stan back in his box.

The story itself is pretty unsurprising, but that's also part of the charm – after all, who doesn't love a straightforward sports movie that sticks to the script and leaves you feeling satisfied?

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