Streaming Review: ‘The Rings of Power’

The first half of the first season of Amazon’s expansion of the Tolkien universe, The Rings of Power, have streamed and as yet not a single ring in sight. This, and the heavy reliance on Galadriel (pictured) is probably a good thing.

My review is at Slant:

The pressures of trying to retain fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the Peter Jackson film trilogy while attracting new ones, though, do not visibly inform the start of the series. For the most part, The Rings of Power moves ahead with the confident, measured, contemplative speed of a hobbit taking a mid-afternoon stroll. Holding true to the idealized chivalry of Tolkien’s Nordic saga-infused tales, showrunners Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne steer clear of George R.R. Martin-style bloodbaths and soap-operatic celebrations of carnality…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Gray Man’

Netflix’s next big bet to produce $200 million blockbusters to stream on the small screen is the Russo brothers’ The Gray Man, an assassin-versus-assassin thriller with Chris Evans and Ryan Gosling that shows a sharp drop-off in quality and imagination from the Russos’ MCU movies.

The Gray Man streams on Netflix tomorrow. My review is at Slant:

If all you knew about the C.I.A. was what you saw in Anthony and Joe Russo’s The Gray Man, you would think it was solely devoted to assassination. The entire plot of the film revolves around the psychopathic Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) trying to take out his former colleague, Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling), a.k.a Sierra Six, after the latter uncovers unsavory secrets about the agency, which wants to eliminate every trace of Sierra, a poorly considered program that turns convicted murderers into government-sanctioned killers. If this sounds like the plot of every Jason Bourne film, that’s because it basically is…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Forgiven’

The latest arch provocation from John Michael McDonagh (The Guard, Calvary), an adaptation of Lawrence Osborne’s novel The Forgiven, opens in limited release tomorrow. My review is at PopMatters:

David (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo (Jessica Chastain), are a nightmarish pair who can barely see past their own privilege to stop complaining. “Very picturesque, I suppose, in a banal sort of way,” David notes while looking at a vast desert vista from atop a horse. He then lists the gay Westerners who famously came to Morocco since Edwardian times (Gide, Ginsberg, Burroughs), “primarily to bugger little Arab boys.” The flippancy of the remark, coming just the morning after his drunk driving killed an Arab boy, is hard to stomach but is placed there not just for discomfort. Swaddled in and bored by comfort, the Europeans seem to appreciate nothing. Until one of them has something to lose…

Here’s the trailer:

TV Room: ‘Slow Horses’

The new Apple TV series Slow Horses is an adaptation of the first entry in Mick Herron’s superbly semicomic spy novels. It stars Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas and premieres this Friday.

My review is at Slant:

The six-episode series at times recalls The Americans, with which it shares an executive producer, Graham Yost, and an appreciation for the workaday realities of spies’ tradecraft, as well as a tendency to resort to sudden bloodletting. Slow Horses similarly breathes life into a somewhat moribund genre due to its grumpy antihero, Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), and the nontraditional gaggle of spies whom he has to rely on to save the day…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Dune’

Denis Villeneuve’s gorgeous adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction epic Dune has been pushed back from theatrical release almost as frequently as the last Bond. Chances are, it will have a little more staying power, even if Timothée Chalamet’s take on Paul Atreides is not the most memorable acting you will see this year.

Dune opens this week. My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

Herbert’s Paul is one of science fiction’s original Chosen One characters. Like later iterations from Luke to Neo who the character inspired, Paul is a quasi-Christ figure who combines unmatched warrior skill with a certain mystifying Zen insight that sets him apart from and ultimately above the humans who surround him…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Last Duel’

Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Erik Jager’s nonfiction book The Last Duel is, well, far more than another medieval jousting movie.

The Last Duel opens this Friday. My review is at Slant:

…a film that’s not only set during the Hundred Years’ War and turns on an abstruse question of jurisprudence, but also features multiple Rashomon-esque takes on an inciting event and a blond Ben Affleck chewing scenery with Klaus Kinski-like gusto, might sound doomed to failure. But against all odds, it turns out to be a smartly acted and insightfully written look at how the intersection of power, greed, superstition, and vanity can warp and obscure even the most brutally obvious crime…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Power of the Dog’

The newest film from Jane Campion is a somewhat tortured and brooding but still surprising drama set on the high plains where Benedict Cumberbatch makes a surprisingly believable rancher.

The Power of the Dog is playing on the festival circuit right now in what looks like a pretty certain play for the Oscars before being released on Netflix in December. My review is at Slant:

Nobody is where they should be in The Power of the Dog, and everybody seems to be searching for something, somebody, or somewhere else. Set in 1925 Montana, Jane Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 book tracks the obsessions, miseries, and passions of a group of people who inhabit a cavernous house in the middle of a vast ranchland and make each other miserable until blood is finally shed. The film looks at times like a stiff-jawed period piece, but it ripples underneath with a prickly modern sensibility…

The trailer is here:

Writer’s Desk: Watch TV and Learn

Say you have written a book. You have been lucky enough to have your book published by a major house. Maybe you have even gotten some good press. But nevertheless, the income stream is negligible. What do you do to keep writing and not have to hold down a separate job?

Maybe write a book that has a better chance of being optioned for a streaming or television adaptation. In “The Rise of Must-Read TV,” Alexander Manshel, Laura B. McGrath, and J. D. Porter note how streaming services like Netflix (which has had great success with book-sourced series like The Queen’s Gambit [pictured above]) have been on a “buying spree” of book properties.

The writers studied what makes a book more appealing to the interests of TV producers looking to populate a big, broad-appeal series. They identified a few common characteristics:

Although not every novel under contract for potential adaptation shares all of these features, they do seem to possess a consistent set of what we call “option aesthetics”: episodic plots, ensemble casts, and intricate world-building. These are the characteristics of contemporary fiction that invite a move from the printed page to the viewing queue.

These are just dramatic choices you can make. If (and only if) they work well for the story you have in mind, then run with it. Remember: Jennifer Egan modeled A Visit from the Goon Squad on The Sopranos.

Screening Room: ‘The Dry’

My review of the perfectly okay new Eric Bana mystery The Dry is at Slant:

It would be difficult to find a worse candidate for solving the murder-suicide that lies at the heart of Robert Connolly’s The Dry than its hero, federal police officer Aaron Falk (Eric Bana). Not only is he prejudiced about the case because he was once close friends with Luke (Martin Dingle Wall), the initial suspect, but almost everyone in the small town where the killings took place despises Aaron for his connection to a 20-year-old scandal. In reality, this would create a near-impossible barrier for any investigator to overcome. But this is the kind of mystery where a standup cop willing to doggedly bang his head against enough walls can always knock the truth loose, even if he might be a murderer himself…

The trailer is here:

TV Room: ‘The Underground Railroad’

In Barry Jenkins’ 10-part adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad, the famed abolitionist rescue network is made into an actual railroad that spirits enslaved people out of the South.

The Underground Railroad will be streaming on Amazon Prime starting May 14. My review is at PopMatters:

Jenkins is generally more experiential than plot-driven, and so the show ripples with the kind of silently evocative and luxuriantly filmed moments that gave Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Speak much of their power. But still, even though the series also has its share of sinking-gut horror and hairbreadth escapes, Jenkins ultimately delivers a subtler and yet grander impact by telling the story as a unified whole rather than a string of attention-grabbing peaks and valleys to jolt viewers out of pandemic streaming torpor…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Cherry’

Adapted from Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel, Anthony and Joe Russo’s Cherry stars Tom Holland as a slacker who goes to war and turns to addiction and then bank robbery once back on the home front.

Cherry is playing now on Apple+. My review is at Slant:

“I’m 23 years old,” Cherry says in the narration stringing together the film’s earlier, more hyperactive stretches, “and I still don’t understand what it is that people do.” The center, if he ever had one, is just not holding…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Passing’

One of the more surprisingly subtle movies at Sundance Film Festival this year was Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of Passing, the lauded Harlem Renaissance novel by Nella Larsen.

Passing is currently seeking distribution and should open in theaters or stream later this year. My review is at Slant:

Irene (Tessa Thompson) is a black Harlem homemaker who gets more than she bargained for when she tries to pass for white. Walking into a grand hotel that wouldn’t serve her if any of the staff identified her as black, she sits down for a civilized tea only to catch the eye of Clare (Ruth Negga), a childhood friend who’s been passing for many years, married to a white husband who doesn’t realize she’s black. They share confidences but keep their guard up, like rival spies in enemy territory feeling the other out. When the two run into Clare’s husband, John (Alexander Skarsgård), he makes his opinions clear with a racial epithet, leading to a charged moment in which it seems that Irene might let Clare’s secret slip, just to spite him…