Binge-r #126: The Umbrella Academy + Columbus
THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY S1
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
“Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, but what he couldn’t foresee is how unhappy a family of superheroes would be. Regret, enmity, and disdain for a domineering but now dead father are the initial superpowers on offer in The Umbrella Academy, a determinedly eccentric Netflix comic book adaptation about a group of mysteriously gifted children raised as a crime fighting squadron who’ve drifted into the apathy, anger, and isolation of adulthood. Bathed in nocturnal blue light and blessed with whimsical production design, the series leans into its domestic struggle and barely deigns to notice the bizarre and inexplicable punctuation. It’s X-Men filtered through The Royal Tenenbaums.
Born on the same day in 1989 to women around the world who weren’t previously pregnant, The Umbrella Academy was the work of billionaire entrepreneur Sir Reginal Hargreeves (Colm Feore, in flashback), who collected seven of the otherworldly children and raised them more as a scientific experiment than a family; the only home movies are surveillance footage. His death brings most of the seven back together: the dutiful Luther (Tom Hopper) has been living on the Moon, waiting to save the Earth; Diego (David Castaneda) has gone full vigilante; Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) used her powers of persuasion to become a movie star; dilettante Klaus (Robert Sheehan) communicates with the dead and gets high; the seemingly ordinary Vanya (Ellen Page) feels excluded; and Five (Aidan Gallagher) has been lost in time travel, which is why he looks like a 13-year-old and talks like a Billy Wilder bit player.
Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba’s comic book, which debuted in 2007, put these characters in a parallel world where the fantastical was the norm and their blithe retorts floated into the ether. Steve Blackman’s series doesn’t have – for budgetary and plausibility reasons – anything like a berserk Eiffel Tower that needs taming, instead filling in the episodes with auxiliary relationships, whether it’s Luther’s long held feelings for Allison or Diego’s crime scene banter with his police detective ex, Patch (Ashley Madekwe). Despite an apocalyptic deadline, the early episodes after the first one drift along. The action scenes, which make use of a pair of mysterious and salaried assassins (Mary J Blige and Cameron Britton) are furiously quirky, throwing in Queen or They Might Be Giants as a soundtrack but failing to disguise that they’re visually inert and seemingly without real consequence.
Netflix has previously trod the superhero path with a suite of New York City Marvel characters, which produced many mundane arcs and just one compelling season (the first of Jessica Jones), so in terms of changing the frequency The Umbrella Academy is a welcome gambit. But sometimes its offhandedness registers as perfunctory instead of illuminative – “you’re a real sick bastard” Luther tells Diego, who replies “thank you”. The idea that these orphans were specimens, and their family – right down to a very unique “Mum” – was a construct is the most interesting tangent, but the series doesn’t hang together naturally and you’ll have to be patient – or primed for the show – to stay with this family affair.
NEWLY ADDED MOVIES
Columbus (SBS on Demand, 2017, 104 minutes): Personal change has both an emotional strength and an historic wellspring in this allusive American independent feature, which is cloaked in a stillness that allows for roiling depths. The debut feature of video essayist Kogonada, Columbus takes its name from the Indiana city that is home to a treasure trove of mid-century modernist architecture. Fixed by deep, classical framing that suggests the past never truly recedes, the camera captures the connection between Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a local student marking time as a librarian while watching out for her mother, and Jin (Jon Cho), a young Korean-American translator returned to the States after his estranged father, an architecture academic, was hospitalised while visiting the city. The depth of field in the compositions suggests the emotional reaches of these becalmed lives, but the film never imposes the pair’s back and forth on your attention, instead letting it unfold with an equanimity that is tidal in its rise and fall. There’s one scene, involving Cho and Parker Posey, who plays the link between Jin and his father, where the technique is overtly precious, but otherwise this is immaculate filmmaking that draws the intimate out of the vast and never lets the powerfully understated lead performances be overshadowed.
New on Netflix: A distinctly American horror film that uses cultural sympathy to mask racist appropriation, Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017, 104 minutes) has an eerie menace and perfectly paced revelations; Paddington (2014, 95 minutes) is quite probably the best salve for these turbulent times hiding in a charming family film, with a young Peruvian bear new to London finding acceptance in the face of xenophobia and Nicole Kidman’s arch villain.
New on Stan: The Killing (1956, 85 minutes) was Stanley Kubrick’s breakthrough, a lean, cynical film noir about an expert heist – masterminded by Sterling Hayden’s criminal – that can’t account for human flaws; Beginning with a home invasion that plays out like a rhythmic seduction, Robin Campillo’s Eastern Boys (2013, 124 minutes) is a compelling portrait of the relationship between a gay Parisian and a young Ukrainian street prostitute.
>> Want BINGE-R sent to your inbox? Click here for the weekly e-mail.