As we head to the last week of October, inconsistent offerings is what we have from our favorite streaming services. While we would have welcomed a downpour, instead we get random ‘drops’ – a 50 percent batting average.
The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix) – Based on the Walter Tevis 1983 novel, this 7-episode Limited Series chronicles the life of a female chess prodigy. Often a difficult sport to transition to film, I can only think of 1993’s Searching for Bobby Fischer as one of the more successful forays into creating a ‘chess’ film. This one succeeds mainly on the magnetic presence of its lead star, Anya Taylor-Joy; and the thankfully fast pacing of the second half of the series. The first episodes are devoted to 9-year old Beth ( first played by Isla Johnston), an orphan who leads a solitary life after the sudden death of her mother, and it’s the custodian at the orphanage who introduces her to the board game, unlocking a new world for her mathematical mind to conquer.
It’s when as a young woman, beset by a history of chemical abuse and addiction, coupled with her sheer chess genius; that the series truly hits its pace. This is buoyed by how Taylor-Joy is mesmerizing staring into the camera. Her many brushes with men in this male-dominated chess world are just some of the sequences we pick up on. More telling is how the series examines brilliance and how it’s so easily misunderstood. And in a chess world where genius will be recognized, Beth slams up against the whammy of her being a woman, and not often taken seriously. As a flawed champion, Taylor-Joy gifts us with a winning portrayal.
Rebecca (Netflix) – Shooting up the charts of our Most Watched on Netflix is this turgid, uninspired retelling of Daphne du Maurier’s classic 1938 ghost story, Rebecca. If you recall, an Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation came out in 1940, Mr. H’s first American-produced film (a David Selznick production); and earning 11 Oscar nominations, it took home two, Best Picture, and Best in Cinematography. Starring Sir Laurence Olivier & Joan Fontaine, one might wonder why even attempt a remake? But the potential was there to update the story, and gift us with an even more chilling, sinister retelling, as even Hitchcock admitted he felt restrained by the censors at the time.
With Armie Hammer & Lily James taking on the roles of the new Mr. & Mrs. deWinter; it’s left to Kristin Scott-Thomas as the sinister and sarcastic Mrs. Danvers to provide much of the inspired acting. Hammer & James just don’t produce any sparks, or display much chemistry. Hammer especially, seems out of his depth, perhaps too awed by the fact he’s filling the shoes of Sir Laurence. Director Wheatley misses on the opportunity to play up the naïveté of James’ female protagonist role, and instill more psychodrama in the proceedings. It’s pretty to look act (other than Hammer’s vile yellowish suit), but the tension and suspense never reaches a level we would have hoped for.
The Alienist: Angel of Darkness – Season 2 (Netflix) – After a rather clumsy first season that took Caleb Carr’s 1994 novel through a far too lengthy exposition, and setting up our main characters; we have Season Two, based on Carr’s 1997 Angel of Darkness. We’re now brought to 1897 New York City, and a new case that has to do with the kidnapping of the babies of destitute women. Reunited are Alienist Dr. Laszlo Kreisler (Daniel Brühl), feminist & private investigator Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), and journalist John Moore (Luke Evans). Howard has the plum role in this Season 2, as a lot of the action centers around her and her political activities.
With author Caleb Carr as consulting producer, you have to give due credit to the set designs and costume of this 8-episode Limited Series. NYC 1897 is vividly brought to life: from the first electric chair, thought of as more humane than hanging, to touching on such topics as police brutality and corruption in the media. The impending Spanish-American War weighs heavy on the proceedings of this storyline, and you’ll love how such historical figures as a Hearst and Vanderbilt pop up. To my eye, this Season Two is an improvement, but having read and loved the novels, I still contend that while all looks as it should be, there’s still a lingering feeling that scenes are stretched, and more efficient editing would have helped.
Over the Moon (Netflix) – Give me an Animated feature that’s got a number of anthem-rousing songs, a young heroine who’s strong-willed, intelligent and has a yen for Science, give her a cuddly sidekick, and put her on an adventure to handle such life-besetting issues as grief – and I’d say you just described a Disney film. But this animated charmer is a co-production between China’s Pearl Studio and Sony Pictures. They’ve harnessed Director Glen Keane, who counts Little Mermaid and The Beauty & the Beast as his credits; and they’ve set the story with a modern-day Chinese family. But yes, it’s Netflix giving the Mouse House a dose of its own medicine.
Filipina-Chinese Cathy Ang, who’s based in the USA, takes on the lead role of Fei Fei, and it’s the sudden death of her mother, coupled with the stories she would hear about Love and a moon goddess that propel this likable plot about accepting & handling loss. Four years after their loss, when her father makes noises about remarrying, Fei Fei takes it upon herself to head to the moon and seek audience with the moon goddess. It’s this sequence in Lunaria that I thought wasn’t as well thought out; and the scenes on Earth resonate much stronger, and thankfully, possess a true charm of their own. Nice first attempt of taking on Mickey.