NETFLIX: Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Like Christmas, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is something you have to wait for a little longer. The Netflix film starts streaming December 9.
I’d understand if it’s a gift you might not want, especially if you labored through Disney’s boneheaded, live-action remake of their 1940 film earlier this year, starring Tom Hanks as the twinkly woodcarver Geppetto. But don’t give up on Carlo Collodi’s famously wacko tale, first written by the Italian in a not-so-friendly-for-children serial in 1883.
The film has had many versions. Skip the gruesomely “comic” one from 2002, starring Roberto (Life Is Beautiful) Benigni mugging his way through the title role, age 50. The story was also adapted by fellow Italian and Gomorrah director Matteo Garrone in 2019. It starred Benigni again, this time more appropriately as Geppetto. In its deep strangeness (a Blue Fairy in both child and adult versions, a giant snail), it most faithfully captured author Collodi’s weirdness.
Co-directing with Mark Gustafson for Netflix, Guillermo del Toro respects the material but makes it his own. Things get off on a wrong foot, though: Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) celebrates the love of his young son, Carlo, via a wan song from composer Alexandre Desplat (it’s the first of several that bog the movie down). You may worry that del Toro has lost his prankish, grisly touch, but hang in there. In short order, Carlo is killed by a World War I bomb. Decades and one World War later, a drunk, frail, old Geppetto hacks down a pine tree to make a puppet as lightning tears through the night sky. He’s like an Alpine Dr. Frankenstein.
Late in the movie, when the stop-motion animated Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) is dancing on stage alongside a singing, life-sized turd marionette in front of an unamused Benito Mussolini, you’ll know this isn’t Disney’s version. The emphasis on politics will remind you it is del Toro’s. Fascism and war were key elements in two of his earliest, best films, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Instead of the traditional Blue Fairy, here we get a six-winged, blue seraph and her sister, Death. (Tilda Swinton voices both, naturally.) Instead of Pleasure Island, Pinocchio — depicted in a beautifully fugly, knot-holed design that looks nothing like a real boy — gets sent to military training camp. Why? Because, as a wooden immortal, he’s seen by a Blackshirt leader (del Toro stalwart Ron Perlman) as an unkillable fighting machine.
Oh, if you were wondering, there is a cricket, but he’s named Sebastian, not Jiminy. Voiced by Ewan McGregor, he’s Pinocchio’s conscience because he literally lives inside the puppet’s head. Narrating the story, Sebastian takes us to a happy ending, but one with unexpected, wise, melancholy variations on the story. He even narrates his own death. (Because it’s del Toro, this Pinocchio may not be right for smaller children.) In addition to a meditation on the bond between fathers and sons, this Pinocchio puzzles the existential question of what it means to be alive. The focus gives the old story an unusual, rich, autumnal slant.
Speaking of autumn, if you missed Netflix’s eight-episode, Halloween-friendly anthology series Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, they’re uneven but worth the look — each hour-long tale is directed by a different director.
NETFLIX: Inside Man
Hannibal Lecter, or Thomas Harris, his creator, has a lot to answer for. By now, the notion of a murderous criminal mastermind who holds the key to great mysteries and can puppeteer the lives of mortals outside his cell has become ho-hum.
Netflix’s four-episode Inside Man doesn’t do that trope any favors. Though it was created by Steven Moffat, who revitalized Sherlock Holmes for a new generation and put an interesting spin on Dracula, the new series is laughably bad. Even Stanley Tucci, as the resident evil genius, can’t save it. Tucci plays wife killer Jefferson Grieff (really) on death row in the United States, but his prison is a way station for people who consult him to solve unsolvable mysteries (shades of Sherlock!). He’s aided by fellow murderous inmate Dillon (Atkins Estimond, who can’t make the character’s “amusing” banter work).
Meanwhile, over in the United Kingdom, through a series of misunderstandings, a village vicar named Harry (an erstwhile Doctor Who, when Moffat was a producer for that series) winds up holding his son’s math tutor Janice (Dolly Wells) prisoner in his home’s basement. Janice mistakenly believes Harry, or his son, is a pedophile. Though a couple of honest conversations could clear this all up, instead, Harry makes worse and worse decisions.
How do these stories connect? Barely, but it’s via a British character named Beth (Lydia West), a journalist who travels to the States to interview Jefferson, then convinces him to help her locate her missing, barely-friend Janice. Jefferson does so with some behind-the-bars manipulations so implausible, the show veers on farce. (He may be the resident, suave monster, but the show’s real villain is Janice, a manipulative nightmare who has you rooting for her murder.)
As a matter of fact, minus the kiddy-porn element, the miscommunication that leads to Harry imprisoning Janice is itself a pure farce setup. Too bad the show is meant to be a nail-biting mystery. Moffat has come up with two interesting story ideas but jammed them together clumsily. Inside Man is compulsively unwatchable.
PRIME VIDEO: The Devil’s Hour
The Lecter-like, imprisoned spider spinning his web in Prime Video’s The Devil’s Hour is Gideon, played by Peter Capaldi (coincidence: he’s also a former Doctor Who). In jail for a series of abductions and murders, he’s interrogated by British child services worker Lucy (Jessica Raine), who’s plagued by hallucinations in which she seems to glimpse future crimes or alternate realities. Her domestic life, meanwhile, is complicated by a sexy, unreliable ex husband (Phil Dunster) and the son he can’t stand, a spooky, emotionless kid named Isaac (Benjamin Chivers). The boy may have some connection to his mother’s strange visions.
At six episodes, Hour is clever enough as you watch, a compelling WTF that toys with our perceptions as much as it does Lucy’s. There’s a time-slip element that puts the show in the genre niche of Apple TV+’s recent Shining Girls. Both series are puzzle-box narratives, in the tradition of that American broadcast trailblazer/heartbreaker Lost. Or, you could also compare the shows to the film The Sixth Sense, a single-solution mystery whose secret moviegoers kept because they admired its elegance and brevity. Longer shows like Shining Girls and Devil’s Hour can try your patience by the end of their extended running times; you may think the attention you’ve devoted isn’t compensated by the ending.
That reminds me of another puzzle-box show out there. Netflix’s 1899 is the latest from the makers of the German hit Dark. During Thanksgiving week, some of my family members watched all eight of its episodes while I solved crossword puzzles on my phone. They liked the show. By then, I’d had my share of mystery-for-mystery’s-sake television, with narratives that depend on a high-tech twist, similar to the one you’ll find in the second movie I’m about to mention …
NETFLIX: The Wonder
I’d watch Florence Pugh in just about anything. That’s almost a requirement to make your way through Netflix’s earnest claustrophobic The Wonder. Based on a novel by Emma Donoghue (whose Room showed she’s familiar with claustrophobia) it’s the tale of a nurse named Lib in 1862, brought to Ireland to observe the miraculous condition of a Catholic girl named Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy). Anna claims she hasn’t eaten in weeks and is sustained on manna. Nonsense, Lib tells the local male council (played by stalwarts including Toby Jones and Ciarán Hinds). And her skepticism is matched by a roguish journalist (Tom Burke). The disappointing solution to the mystery takes a long time to come, and you’ll spend most of that time confined with Libby in Anna’s family’s grim, dank home.
The Chilean director Sebastián Lelio has made some terrific movies, including the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman, plus Gloria and its American remake. The Wonder is honorable, but it’s marred by a particular error. Three times in the film, Lelio reminds us — showing the workings of a film set or having an actor address the camera directly – – that the story is a manufactured one. The story in question is not strong or interesting enough to justify such an alienation technique.
HBO MAX/PRIME: Harry Styles on screen
If stern restraint is key to Pugh’s performance in Wonder, she gets to go in the opposite direction — gasping, shrieking, freaking out and letting pop star swoon-sation Harry Styles bury his face between her legs — in the enjoyably dumb but overly long Don’t Worry Darling on HBO Max. Pugh plays Alice, a housewife in what appears to be an archly stylized 1950s suburb in the California desert, where husbands drive to work in unison every morning, and wives raise babies, broil steaks and shake martinis. But something is very wrong here, according to the odd things Alice starts to see.
All style and little substance, Darling has nothing you haven’t already seen (hint: Stepford Wives, Matrix). From set design to the supporting, overemphatic performances, the movie (directed by Olivia Wilde, who plays one of the nosy neighbors) is as overdetermined as its plot twist.
In the movie, singer-turned-actor Styles is a credible retro lothario, and he pulls off a nice little dance solo. More is required of him in Prime Video’s My Policeman. The movie is a time capsule of the ways repressed gay love has often been depicted in books and film. (The source material is a novel that’s 10 years old, but feels like it could have been written longer ago.)
In one of two time frames, Styles plays a Brighton bobby named Tom in 1957 (the ‘50s are a good period for the star). Eager for promotion in the police ranks, he does what men of his time are meant to do: He woos and weds charming young school teacher Marian (Emma Corrin, galvanizing as young Princess Diana in The Crown, with not enough to do here).
Problem is, Tom is getting culture and a whole lot more from suave, gay art historian Patrick (David Dawson). Instead of compartmentalizing that part of his life, Tom unwisely introduces his lover to his wife as a purportedly platonic best friend.
Things do not turn out so well, as we learn in the second timeline. Here, the three main, older characters are played by Linus Roache, Gina McKee and Rupert Everett, all of them in deep, melancholy, staring-out-of-windows mode. The performances are all good, though Styles doesn’t quite have the chops to pull off a couple of Tom’s more demanding emotional scenes. Despite some ample skin in the sex scenes, the movie, directed by British stage eminence Michael Grandage, feels very retro.
PRIME VIDEO: Mammals
Very contemporary and very self-indulgent, the six-episode, half-hour comedy-drama Mammals stars James Corden as Jamie, a star chef in London married to gorgeous, sophisticated pixie dream woman Amandine (Melia Kreiling). His world falls apart when a) Amandine miscarries their baby and b) Jamie finds out she’s been serially unfaithful to him.
The self-inflicted, obsessive porn imagined by a deceived spouse could be a powerful plot engine. But Mammals can’t make you care for Jamie’s plight. At first glance it may look like the delightful, surprisingly deep Prime Video three-season series Catastrophe, with Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney as a London couple navigating marriage. But substitute that show’s charmingly flawed characters with a bunch of self-congratulatory, entitled creeps, and you get Mammals.
The series is written by playwright Jez Butterworth, whose Jerusalem and The Ferryman are among the strongest stage plays of the 2000s. He also gave us the terrific James Brown biopic Get On Up, starring Chadwick Boseman, and co-wrote the underappreciated Tom Cruise sci-fi flick Edge of Tomorrow. I don’t know what happened here. Except, maybe, success.
APPLE TV: Spirited
If you’re in the mood for holiday watching, I don’t exactly have to curate your choices. There’s a ton of stuff out there. My tolerance for the sweet, loud, Christmasy stuff is pretty low. That’s why I haven’t gotten all the way through Spirited. It’s big, obnoxious and has (shudder) a lot of musical numbers delivered with outrageously enthusiastic choreography.
In this latest postmodern riff on A Christmas Carol, Will Ferrell plays the Ghost of Christmas Present, an employee of a haunting enterprise overseen by Jacob Marley (stage star Patrick Page), devoted to the reformation of the world’s biggest slimebags. This year’s subject is that personification of peppy snark, Ryan Reynolds, playing a spin doctor named Clint Briggs. The cast also includes Octavia Spencer, as Clint’s assistant. In an early resolution, I swear I’ll make my way with Reynolds and crew along this shiny path of redemption before New Year’s Eve. Really.
HBO MAX: Master of Light
One last footnote: The documentary Master of Light screened at this year’s Atlanta Film Festival. It’s worth checking out. Here’s what I wrote at the time:
Atlanta-based painter George Anthony Morton has an extraordinary gift for portraiture, something he studied — inspired by Old Masters, especially Rembrandt — when in prison for a decade on drug charges. That his own mother may have been responsible for putting him behind bars, and not for noble reasons, is one of the driving psychological currents in Rosa Boeston’s compelling documentary.
That’s especially true when Morton travels back to his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, to paint his mom and try to understand their relationship. “Having a baby at 15, all I wanted was love — somebody to love me,” she says, which may not be quite the explanation (or excuse) her son needs. Morton is an impressive figure as both a man getting his life back together and as an artist. The film is an effective glimpse into the ways mandatory minimum sentencing for drug possession can wreak havoc on entire generations. There’s hard-won power when Morton instructs his young nephew to write, “I am not what has happened to me; I am what I choose to become.”
Steve Murray is an award-winning journalist and playwright who has covered the arts as a reporter and critic for many years. Catch up to Steve’s previous Streaming column here.