David’s Watch Diary: April 2021

Thoughts on The Falcon & the Winter Soldier, Godzilla vs. Kong, For All Mankind, The Father, and more.

The Falcon & the Winter Soldier (Disney+)

Before the series debuted last month, star Anthony Mackie and creator Malcolm Spellman talked on the interview circuit about how they hoped F&WS would “spark real conversations” about the black experience. Most people, myself included, were skeptical — this is Disney, after all. They’d gesture towards it, probably, but in the usual sanitized, watered-down way, ultimately preferring not to offend white viewers looking for reasons to ignorantly whine about their franchises getting too “woke.”

But to my impressed surprise, Spellman and his majority-black writing staff actually went for it. We met Isaiah Bradley (a terrific Carl Lumbly), the subject of secret government super-serum experiments, who told Sam Wilson unequivocally that “they will never let a Black man be Captain America, and even if they did, no self-respecting Black man would ever want to be.” We saw an argument between Wilson and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes get interrupted by police, eager to blame Wilson for whatever they perceived was wrong. The guy couldn’t even get a bank loan! (You didn’t leave him anything, Tony?) F&WS was predominately Sam’s journey toward accepting the shield — not only believing himself worthy, but that he could bear it with pride and be accepted by the public as the true heir to Steve Rogers. On that score, the producers were true to their word, putting these issues front-and-center in front of an audience that may have avoided them in their entertainment up until now.

That may have been the most important piece of the show, but it was fortunately not the only element that worked. We also got more into the psychology of Bucky in just a couple of episodes than in every previous movie appearance combined. We got John Walker (Wyatt Russell, terrific), anointed early on by the government as the new Cap but whose values belie a swaggering, toxic imperialism, climaxing in a shocking burst of violence with the entire world watching. We got Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl, having a blast) in a total character makeover from his Civil War days, bantering with Sam and Bucky about Marvin Gaye while trying to avoid justice served by the Dora Milaje. We even got Julia Louis-Dreyfus, for Pete’s sake, cameoing as a shady character whose purpose here is just to set up dominoes to knock down later.

It was generally a pretty great time; the action (directed by Kari Skogland) was cool, and each episode was better than the one before… until the finale, which — like WandaVision before it — reduced everything to TV-budget monologuing and meaningless kick-punching, rushing to a conclusion without giving many of these characters proper arcs. Chief amongst its failures were the Flag Smashers, with their leader Karli’s (Erin Kellyman, playing an inverted version of her Solo character) goals and ideology painfully incoherent. Marvel has a bad habit of setting up villains who make sympathetic (or at least interesting) points but then descend into arbitrary violence just to justify the hero fighting them later, and Karli was no exception. I found this video illuminating, which plausibly theorizes that when production on the series was shut down during COVID-19, a similar pandemic plotline was completely removed from the show that would have given the Flag Smashers clearer goals and better explained the political situation Sam and Bucky were getting involved with. The fallout from Endgame leaves a lot to be explained and explored, and it seems the show found itself kneecapped in doing so.

So ultimately, while I like a lot of what F&WS was trying to do thematically and I think they mostly achieved it, the actual plot — whether by design, or as a salvage job — left a lot to be desired. Everything with the title characters was great. By the end, I totally bought Sam as the new Cap, and I’m excited for what’s coming next. But it also left me shrugging, wondering what it could have been with a tighter focus, a more jaundiced eye toward the military-industrial complex, and no Power Broker. (Ugh.)

Godzilla vs. Kong (HBO Max)

As quintessential a “good bad movie” as we’ve seen in some time, Godzilla vs. Kong gives you plenty of what you want (big monsters punching each other!), and at a blessed sub-two-hour run time, less of what you don’t (cardboard humans spouting nonsense!). Director Adam Wingard knows to keep the plot lean and the action mean, and certainly delivers on both counts. Want to see the two titans slug it out for three rounds, including a 31-minute barnburner that makes up the entirety of the third act? You’ve got it. Want to see the big lizard effortlessly raze entire cities to the ground? Of course. Want to see Kong pop his own shoulder back into place by ramming himself into a skyscraper? Absolutely.

The whys and hows aren’t remotely important, you see, and it seems obvious to me that much of that from Eric Pearson & Max Borenstein’s script was excised because… well, it’s not important. There’s something about the Hollow Earth, and radioactive power sources, and clearly nefarious industrial entrepreneurs who pull our human heroes’ strings via scientific gobbledegook and technology that is barely explained, but the film wisely doesn’t dwell on any of this. It doesn’t give Rebecca Hall (doing her absolute best with lines like “Kong bows to no one”), Alexander Skarsgård (as the world’s handsomest scientist), and Millie Bobby Brown (reprising her role from Godzilla: King of All Monsters) more to do than point and shout things, because it doesn’t need to. Kyle Chandler’s and Lance Reddick’s gruff authority figures get two and one scenes, respectively; also Bryan Tyree Henry is here, for some reason, as a conspiratorial podcaster who’s way too comfortable broadcasting his every plan to the world, and see I’m already saying get back to the big monsters, already, and I’ve already seen the movie.

So how about it? Here’s one thing I didn’t know coming in: Kong is the film’s real protagonist, and not any of the people I named earlier. Portrayed via motion capture by Andy Serkis protege Terry Notary, the noble ape displays genuine pathos and gets a genuine arc. Between his desire to help the humans (specifically a deaf girl played Kaylee Hottle, who has taught him how to communicate) and his baser urge to defend himself from Godzilla (“there can’t be two alpha titans,” Hall earnestly informs us), Kong gets the best character beats in the movie, and you’re rooting for him every massive step of the way. As spectacle, Godzilla vs. Kong is wildly, mindlessly entertaining. As “cinema,” it’s… well, you know what? It is cinema. “So massive, so stupid,” but cinema. So there.

For All Mankind, Season 2 (Apple TV+)

In 2019, creator Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica), Ben Nedivi, and Matt Wolpert kicked off For All Mankind with a simple question: what if the Soviets beat the United States to the moon? As alternate history, the series is ingenious, chasing the butterfly effect over a decade of a Space Race that never was. Instead of losing the public’s attention after the first successful Apollo missions, the Cold War crosses the Rubicon toward the stars, with NASA taking dangerous risks to get back on top. Not only does the USSR put the first man on the moon, but the first woman, prompting the creation of a new corps of female astronauts; the discovery of ice under the lunar surface leads to a permanent presence for both powers, which leads to a military presence, and, well… you can imagine how that goes. In many ways, the world is actually better. The ERA is finally passed. The Presidential timeline shifts; John Lennon survives his assassination attempt, but Pope John Paul II does not, and so on, and so on.

But those are all easter eggs, providing color in the margins. The heart of For All Mankind — what makes it a truly exceptional show — are its characters. Grounding us in this unsettling, but strangely hopeful, mirror narrative are a sprawling ensemble of astronauts, engineers, and NASA administrators. Some names we know, like Deke Slayton, Gene Kranz, and Sally Ride, but their stories are brand-new, and their fates surprising. The rest are fictional but no less authentic: Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinneman), the sour-faced pilot with a reckless streak; the jocular Gordo Stevens (Michael Dornan) and his wife Tracy (Sarah Jones), herself a hotshot pilot in her own right; the indomitable Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger), who becomes the first American woman on the moon; Margo Madison (Wrenn Schmidt), NASA’s first female administrator; Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour), who has to hide her sexuality as she climbs the ladder; and so many more.

In its first season, For All Mankind delivered thrilling space sequences and heartbreaking groundbound emotion in equal measure; the second only amplified that, leaping forward a decade into the future with nearly all of our characters in crisis and the world once again on the brink of war. Yet the show that comes quickest to mind in comparison is AMC’s much-loved, little-seen Halt and Catch Fire, another piece of historical fiction that soared when it rebalanced its storytelling away from the brooding, difficult men, and towards the more interesting female characters. I was fully invested in Danielle Poole (Krys Marshall), who is assigned to lead the symbolic Soyuz-Apollo mission despite everyone expecting it to get called off. I was moved by the Baldwins’ Vietnamese daughter Kelly (Cynthy Wu) setting out to find her birth father while following in her adoptive father’s footsteps, a conflict that ruptures to the surface in the final minutes of “Rules of Engagement” — a masterfully-written and performed scene that forced the family to actually talk about their feelings without the show taking the easiest or most melodramatic way out.

Not that Mankind never falls into that trap, however, as best exemplified by Shantel VanSanten’s Karen this season, saddled with a staggeringly uncomfortable story arc that suggested the writers just didn’t know what to do with her. But everything else — the crisis on the Lunar base, Gordo and Tracy, Ed and Sally Ride escorting a supply rocket through a Soviet blockade, Danielle’s diplomatic mission, young engineer Aleida (Coral Peña) coming into her own — works brilliantly. The finale, “The Grey,” was one of the best episodes of television I’ve seen in ages because it knows exactly what can make television great: compelling characters paying off patient, season-long storylines all at the same time. A dizzying, thrilling, immaculately-plotted hour that justified almost (sorry Karen) every questionable choice made leading up to it, and ending with heart-in-mouth anticipation for the promise of another time jump, and red dirt. I can’t freaking wait.

The Father (VOD)

Florian Zeller frequently shoots scenes through doorways and various thresholds, depicting his characters hemmed in by grief, obligation, or a loosening grip on reality. The Father is billed as an Oscar bait-y “dementia drama,” but I was surprised to find that the Best Picture nominee is not your average staid chamber piece. (It doesn’t help that I kept thinking of The Wife, the 2017 Glenn Close vehicle.) Instead, Zeller adapts his own play into something transformationally cinematic, utilizing shifting set design and clever editing to intentionally disorient his audience, putting us in the shoes of a stubborn man raging against the dying of his inner light.

That man is Anthony, played by the incomparable Anthony Hopkins. It’s a kaleidoscope of a performance. Anthony is aware that his mental faculties are failing him, but his pride won’t let him admit that to his frustrated daughter Anne (Olivia Colman), or to anyone else. As a result, and as the film slowly reveals through narrative switchbacks and liquid time-skipping that you aren’t even aware of as it’s happening, Anthony has been moved into Anne’s flat and assigned a series of “carers,” all of whom he has forced to quit. The latest is Laura (Imogen Poots), who reminds Anthony of his second daughter who died some years ago, and whose patience will be sorely tested.

Yet throughout The Father, Zeller’s script and technique keeps you off-balance, never quite sure what’s real or when things are happening. A door that we recognize from Anne’s flat appears in a different location; characters will disappear and reappear with different faces. We are working just as hard as Anthony to piece it all together, but it’s his life and dignity at stake, not ours. Hopkins pulls it off as only he can, with Colman’s nuanced performance matching him scene for scene. It’s not a film I’m sure I want to revisit, but I can agree that it has earned its laurels in this unconventional awards season.

Quick Hits:

  • Our long-belated dive into Justified continues! Since my last post, we finished Seasons 2 (brilliant!) and 3 (brilliant!), and we’re now a few episodes into 4. It’s great stuff, but if you’ve seen the show, you know that.
  • We also decided to get into Top Chef after hearing great things about it for years, beginning by watching the current Portland season concurrently with last year’s All-Star season. And yes, it’s awesome — especially when it’s celebrating excellence (yay, Melissa!), not mining toxic contestants for drama as I’m told it did in the early days. I’ve learned so many new words! Well, maybe not “learned,” because I don’t actually know a ponzu from a pisto, but I’ve heard them!
  • Mythic Quest (Apple TV+) is two-for-two on special episodes. Months after its outstanding “zoom special” that accidentally served as its first season finale, “Everlight” was a LARP-stravaganza, showcasing genuine heart and cleverness — and suggesting that MQ has finally decided what kind of show it wants to be. Bonus points for the Brené Brown jokes.
  • Mike Schur has a new show! Co-created with Ed Helms and Sierra Teller Ornelas, Rutherford Falls (Peacock) feels like a non-mockumentary Parks and Rec, but shares the spotlight with the indigenous characters and culture of this fictional northeastern town. I’ll have more to say next month, but early returns are promising.

Looking ahead to… more rebellious Clone Trooper action in Dave Filoni’s new animated series, The Bad Batch (May the Fourth, Disney+)… Season 2 of the aforementioned Mythic Quest launches on May 7th (Apple TV+)… Barry Jenkins’ miniseries adaptation of The Underground Railroad looks stunning (5/14, Amazon)... Surprise! After six years, Aziz Ansari’s Master of None is coming back next month (Netflix, date TBD).

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