Cleverman (Series 1 & 2)

[3 stars]

If it weren’t for the politics and events of the last 8 months or so, Cleverman would just be a middling science fiction series discussing the endemic social schisms that exist today. Despite some good, as well as internationally recognizable talent such as Iain Glenn (Game of Thrones) and Frances O’Conner (The Missing), it is often ham-handed and rushed.

The first series was intriguing on a purely cultural level for me. Out of Australia, this show uses the aboriginal myths and template to posit a recently discovered race of long-lived, powerful hominids that have co-existed with humans. All manner of racism and fear ensue (and a lot of really, really bad wigs). But by crossing the idea with aspects of The Dreaming, other metaphysical concepts, and some truly screwed up families, you got enough to keep you watching the journey of the main character played by Hunter Page-Lochard (The Sapphires). It built to an inevitable crescendo of violence that ensured you’d watch the next series.

Series 2 improved a little in its subtleties and information. We get to understand more…and cringe more. The family drama continues to compound and the relatively unknown Rob Collins tries to bring credibility to a ridiculously overwrought story-line. With only six episodes again this series, the writers were forced to rush their ending and left us hanging in rather frustrating, if again intriguing, ways. I (think) I know how they write themselves out of the final moments, but I’ve no clue where they are going to take it from there that won’t make the series more Planet of the Apes than, say, Gattaca.

Generally, Cleverman isn’t a great series, but it is probably different enough, and short enough in episodes, to keep you hooked. Given the improvements from the first series to the second, I’m hoping that a final or continuing series will continue to build on lessons learned.

Cleverman

Yi Yi (a one and a two)

[3 stars]

This three hour tale from Taipei feels more like a soap opera than a movie as you sink into its humor and pathos. It even leads off with a wedding and eventually ends with a funeral. But as it moves along, it becomes more a mediation on life and family as we watch the reflections in the generations. This final, and well recognized, film by Edward Yang is huge in scope but very narrow in its messages when it finally comes down to it.

Packed with a range of new (at the time) and established faces from Taiwan and Japan, the world of the Jiang family and their friends is slowly exposed and examined. Yang also used window and mirror reflection throughout the film to remind us of this point (and to save camera set-ups, admittedly).

I want to say I understand the English translation of the title, but I’m still turning that one to try and put it in context. I suspect it is a miss-reference due to translation. It reads as a musical cue (which works, but not particularly great) rather than as, perhaps, a countdown for a picture, which is more on point in many ways. I’m just going to have to keep mulling that for now and talk to a few friends from the island to see what more I can glean.

Sadly, the transfer of the film is really pretty crude. Even for a 1999 release the encoding is very poor. However, despite that distraction, I found myself drawn into the story and engaged with the characters and their lives; eventually, even looking at my own. You have to set aside a good chunk of an evening to watch Yi Yi, but I do recommend it if you can accept its deliberate pace and quiet sensibility.

Yi Yi

Man in an Orange Shirt

[3 stars]

Man in an Orange Shirt manages to be something different than your standard coming out story. First, it spans two time periods (1940s/50s and the present), following a family line. Second, it looks beyond just the personal turmoil of the men involved.

Director Michael Samuels had some advantage tackling this kind of story having previously delivered Any Human Heart, which also spanned decades and characters. But the surprise for me here was was Patrick Gale’s script. He managed the subtleties and range of characters so well even though this was his first major script. While it feels like a standard tale at first, it takes some rather interesting turns by the end to pull everything together. It is at once romantic and bluntly honest and cruel, though it ultimately is a tale of coming to terms rather than a tragedy.

The cast has a lot to do with the success of the 2-part drama. Joanna Vanderham (What Maisie Knew), James McArdle (The Worricker Trilogy), and Oliver Jackson-Cohen (Emerald City), from the WWII era are a wonderful collection of contradictory desires and beliefs. In the present, Vanessa Redgrave (Foxcatcher), Julian Morris (Pretty Little Liars), and David Gyasi (Containment) capture current times without losing the thread to the past. 

There are also a few nice, smaller roles with Frances de la Tour (The Lady in the Van), Julian Sands (Extraordinary Tales), and Adrian Schiller (The Danish Girl). 

There are many stories about being closeted and accepting who you are. This isn’t limited to the LBGTQ experience, but that is the primary focus of stories of this sort. Man in an Orange Shirt opens itself to a broad range of emotional issues to bring you something more and different in the genre without losing its emotional impact.

Man in an Orange Shirt: The Complete Series [DVD]

It Comes at Night

[2 stars]

You have to give this movie credit for being what it wants to be: an intensely personal look at the dissolution of society after an unidentified catastrophe. Basically it asks, “What price, survival?” We’ve seen a lot of these in recent times (a subject I won’t go into here) but this is one of the weaker executions. Both Girl With All the Gifts and Into the Forest manage something more compelling and with better commentary.

The issue, however, isn’t with the acting. Joel Edgerton (Loving), Carmen Ejogo (Alien: Covenant), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Enders Game) give life to the main family. Christopher Abbot (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and Riley Keough (The Discovery), provide another perspective and a bit of suspense and tension. Sadly, however, no answers. In all cases the families feel real, given the situation.

The weakness in this tale is the story itself. Trey Edward Shults follows up his critical hit Krisha with this latest foray into familial horror. Told primarily from the point of view of a teenage boy, we get a lot of suggestion, but little real resolution. And the ending is both obvious and pointless, and a tad out of left field. Initially the story has many elements of reality and dreams as Travis gets more and more sleep-deprived, whether due to sickness or stress we wait and see. The construct is an interesting aspect to the family’s predicament. However, it never pays off and we’re left wondering about far too much as the path that got us to the end just sort of peters out.

As a bit of tension and nihilist pondering, It Comes at Night succeeds. The film making itself is quite good. As a movie, however, at least for me, it felt unfulfilled and pointless.

It Comes at Night

The Hippopotamus

[4 stars]

A delightfully weird, wonderful, and often unpredictable comedy cum drawing room mystery. Based on a Stephen Fry (Love & Friendship) novel, you can be sure it is irreverent and witty with a keen social eye and few boundaries. It attacks art, society, family, and religion with equal and unapologetic measure, but with an oddly optimistic sensibility to the human condition. Oh, and it’s funny. Very funny.

Roger Allam (The Lady in the Van), in a send-up of Fry’s own persona, leads the story as the critical observer and assigned debunker of certain “events.” He carries the broad comedy and erudite demeanor beautifully.

Along with Allam are a host of players. Of note are Emily Berrington (Humans), Fiona Shaw (Emerald City), Tim McInnerny (Eddie the Eagle),  and Tommy Knight (Sarah Jane Adventures). They are far from alone, but they were the stand-outs for me. 

The dialogue is delightful, the satire sharp, and the humanity, ultimately, bruised, vulnerable, and triumphant in its way. It is definitely dark comedy, but with a beating heart. You’ll know early on if it is a movie for you, so you don’t have much to lose by giving it 10 minutes to convince you. I had a great time with it and look forward to watching it again as I’m sure I missed some great exchanges because I was still laughing at others.

As a side note, there is a serious sort of critical overtone to the tale, despite all the amusement. It is indicated in the title (from a TS Eliot poem), a reference made clear in the opening, but still required some look-up to fully appreciate. With or without that additional layer, the movie is far from vague and the result very entertaining.

The Hippopotamus

Mindgamers

[2 stars]

I have to admit, thanks to the inclusion of Sam Neill (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) in this cast, not to mention the design of Enoch, I couldn’t get Event Horizon out of my head. There are aspects that make the two somewhat brethren, though they are movies with very very different intentions. Mindgamers is much more sf/horror while Event Horizon was really just horror with sf trappings.

Admittedly, though Neill is at the core of this story, the movie is driven by Tom Payne (Luck) and his group of hapless geeks. That group is completed with some competent and committed actors: Dominique Tipper (Girl with All the Gifts), Antonia Campbell-Hughes (Split), Oliver Stark (Into the Badlands), Turlough Convery (Poldark). It isn’t really entirely their fault that the script is oblique and over-written.

Working against or with them (depending on the scene and your interpretation) is Melia Kreiling (Last Tycoon). She brings a cool creepiness to her character, though very little depth. 

Director Andrew Goth and writer Joanne Reay  are frequent collaborators. You can sense the simpatico from script and vision to screen. The trip, for there is no better way to describe the result, is fluid and done without apology and with little explanation. It is clear that reality is something that isn’t defined crisply from very near the beginning. I actually applaud the guts of that approach, but the result wasn’t particularly great. A Cure for Wellness, for all its faults, tackled the psychological part of that much more effectively.

Basically, no, I can’t recommend this flick. Despite its amusing launch in theaters (a la William Castle) offering a mind-linked experience, the story just isn’t there for all the visual and choreography cleverness. Their locations also became a distraction for me as they were more interesting than the movie and and some were recognizable from other films (in particular, Spectral). So, my recommendation is either watch this highly altered or simply pass it by. Someone will do the theme better justice at some point.

MindGamers

Gifted

[4 stars]

It is rare when a small movie can tackle larger ideas without losing focus on the intimate story it wants to tell. Under the guidance of Marc Webb (Amazing Spider-Man) and writer Tom Flynn, Gifted manages to be succeed on that point, telling the story of family and childhood, but also tackling larger issues like parenthood, normality, feminism, and mental health.

Personal tales like this rarely succeed without solid performances, and this is where Webb also soared. Mckenna Grace (Designated Survivor) is a firecracker, with a lot of potential ahead of her. She captures the intelligence of her young character without losing the “kid” in her. And, of course, she has a winning smile and charisma.

Surprisingly, even with Grace’s magnetism, she does not dominate the film the way kid-centered stories often do. Chris Evans (Captain America: Civil War) and Lindsay Duncan (Sherlock) not only hold their own, but deliver powerful and believable performances as they struggle with one another and themselves. Even Jenny Slate (Zootopia) delivers a character that is more complex than you’d expect given where she starts. And the balance between them all, including Grace, is handled beautifully.

If there is a weakness in the film, it is in Evan’s stated reasons for his actions near the end. We don’t really see the shift in his character, or I didn’t anyway. This feels more like editing choices than the actor to me, but it smudges an otherwise wonderful performance.

Gifted is probably everything you expect it to be in a child custody film. But I promise you, there is more to it than what you’re expecting. It is not only done well, it is done with intensity over sturm und drang. It is worth your time and probably worth seeing more than once, simply for the joy of it and the reminders of what life can and should be.

Gifted

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

[3 stars]

This is a tough one. Any time you tackle a classic you risk annoying people or messing it up. Ghost in the Shell has close to biblical import in the manga and anime worlds, so it was even more fraught with peril.

But let’s tackle the story problem first. How do you make an exciting story about an emotionless cyborg looking for its humanity? It ain’t easy. We have lots of eye candy, enough to rival Blade Runner or even the more recent Valerian. The world is rich, incredibly designed to the smallest detail, and evocative of the roots of the material.

Scarlett Johansson (The Jungle Book) is solid as the female mercenary lead. Believable in action and cold in execution. But it is not much different from her turns in Lucy, Under the Skin, Her, or even as Black Widow, in many ways. It is a solid go-to for her and she shades each differently, but it is all getting a bit the same. Sometimes, that can be enough, but this is a complex tale of identity and horror…and the script leaves both her and us hanging on resolving and dealing with those aspects.

To get around her character’s lack of emtion, we do have some of her team to reflect on. Pilou Asbæk (Great Wall, or even better as Euron Greyjoy in Game of Thrones) in particular and Juliet Binoche (Clouds of Sils Maria) as well. Both have connections to Major that provide emotion by proxy.

But then there is the white washing problem. Why are all the cyborgs Western? And, while that could be a choice in order to distance the new entity from its past, it is something that could have been covered by commenting on it. We know she has a Japanese mother and was at least half-Japanese herself from this film. I’m not trying to be overly PC, but it can be as jarring as watching a cast of Englishmen playing Frenchmen without even bothering to try and change the accent (let alone language). Culture and race (even if only from a morphological point of view) are even more core and affect credibility.

Given this was director Rupert Sanders’s (Snow White and the Huntsman) second feature, it was at an impressive scale. But, ultimately, like Valerian, this is mostly an empty ride. Even the climax ends up missing the mark as the relationships aren’t really established to make it believable nor is the key phrase used to set it off quite how its been set up through the script (though I liked the idea). Truly a shame as it was almost a powerful finale.

Do you want to spend some time in this universe? If you want the eye candy (both CGI and the skin-tight clad Ms. Johansson), sure. It isn’t a brilliant script. It isn’t mindblowing acting. It isn’t more than a middling adaptation. Sometimes, that can all be enough for a bit of distraction. Can’t it?

Ghost in the Shell

The Dinner (2017)

[3 stars]

Welcome to an evening with family. Yes, that is every bit as good and horrible as you can imagine, especially with this crew. It does bear mentioning that the food looks amazing, however. Yes, I have a sleight obsession on this point and I admit it. But before you judge me, keep in mind that the food and the structure of the meal inform the flow of the film directly.

Created first in Dutch (2013) and then Italian (2014), both heavily recognized on the awards circuit, The Dinner has now arrived in an English version…clearly the core story (based on real events) has resonated around the world. And no wonder. It is powerful and the base familial conflicts will resonate with most people in one way or another.

It is a dark view of families, politics, and society and all the more disturbing because of how real it all feels. What makes it worth your time is the performances.

While Laura Linney (Nocturnal Animals), Richard Gere (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), and Rebecca Hall (The Town) all have their moments and arcs, it is Steve Coogan (The Look of Love) who really stands out in this film. His performance is subtle, at first, and builds speed and impact through till the end. His isn’t a pretty character, even at the beginning, but it is a compelling and curious one. To be honest, there isn’t a likable character among them , though there are (potentially) some sympathetic ones.

As he did with his script for Love & Mercy, writer/director Oren Moverman (Time Out of Mind) returns to the subject of mental illness and society, though from a very different perspective. The story takes an evening among family and slowly allows it to desolve in the present while providing glimpses of the past to add context. It is an intensely uncomfortable set of exchanges, but hard to turn away from as it unfolds.

I haven’t seen the other versions of this story yet. And, honestly, after this round, I’m not sure I want to. One time through this tale is probably more than enough, but it is worth that one meal. You can always go to a different restaurant another night.

The Dinner

Their Finest

[4 stars]

Let’s start with the important part: you wan to see this film, despite any of its weaknesses. As well as being topical, it satisfies in unexpected ways. Now on with the rest of it…

Earlier this year there was another Dunkirk-based story, though from quite a different angle than Christopher Nolan’s. Lone Scherfig’s (An Education) takes on the event after-the-fact and from the propaganda office side, using it as an inspirational tale for the world. It becomes both an insightful and entertaining look inside film-making as well as into the politics and culture of WWII London during the Blitz. 

Gemma Arterton (Girl With All the Gifts) puts on a great Welsh accent and a delightful naivtee tempered with an inner strength and bruised heart that comes together in a satisfying and intriguing character. She spars with Sam Claflin (Me Before You) in amusing ways as the two find their way to one another in the midst of the chaos of the war, their lives, and their jobs.

Rachel Stirling (Bletchley Circle) and Bill Nighy (Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) are the most notable characters supporting the two leads. Both provide some good humor and subplot. In addition, Jack Huston (Kill Your Darlings), Jake Lacey (Miss Sloane), Eddie Marsan (A Brilliant Young Mind), and Helen McCrory (Fearless) fill out the time, city, and touch points necessary to complete the tale.

As much as I enjoyed the movie, and I did, the adaptation is rather meandering. Gaby Chiappe’s first feature script is ultimately effective, but not crisp. It comes back together well, but the focus is all over the place, making it feel like it wanted to be a mini-series more than a single movie. This is no surprise as she is primarily known for TV series scripts (typically good ones), but it definitely shows promise for future films. I’d love to see what she does next. 

Trust the journey Their Finest lays out for you and take the ride. It will take its time getting there, but it does get there. I can’t tell if I like how it was constructed or if my misgivings are simply expectation highlighted by the commentary provided in the story itself (in terms of what audiences want). However, both in performance and message, this is a movie worth the time invested on several levels.

Their Finest

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…