New and Continuing Foreign Series

Baptiste
At the core of The Missing was the calming and obsessive Detective Baptiste, played by Tchéky Karyo. He was never the focus, but was the uniting factor of the series, and in many ways one of the more interesting characters. Well, now he has his own series. With the story solely on him, it is a bit lower energy but just as dark. Tom Hollander (A Private War) adds an interesting counterpoint, and a very complex character to the mix. And Alec Secareanu (God’s Own Country) provides a suitably evil opponent for both. There are some strong women in this series, and some damaged ones [Jessica Raine (An Adventure in Space and Time), Anastasia Hille (Tulip Fever), Barbara Sarafian, Talisa Garcia] but it is driven by the male characters.

There is a nice mix of mystery and suspense, though Karyo’s Baptiste seems to get to move with near impunity through the legal system of more than one country. But the show also continues the threads of his home life and past, which expands on what we know in interesting ways. Whether this show can be sustained over more than this limited story, I’m not sure. Karyo isn’t young and the character himself is winding down in his abilities as part of the plot. And the end of this clever and twisty six-parter was a bit rushed and, in some ways, forced. To their credit, it is satisfying and allows it to feel complete without closing the door to further stories.

Shakespeare and Hathaway (series 2)
The first series of this silly series was amusing…even more so if you know the plays of the Bard…but the mysteries were never brilliant. This second round is still fun, but the writing is much more hit and miss. In fact, the first half is painful at times, but they finally find their footing about episode 5. The main issue is more around police procedural and willfully stupid choices by characters. But this isn’t necessarily a show you want to over-analyze anyway. If you liked the first series, the second will happily distract you. If they can get more consistent writing, it has a chance for a long and amusing life.

Trapped (series 2)
The second series of Trapped takes on immigration and hate crimes on top of the delicate politics of country and family that the first series tackled. It picks up some time later from the first go-round, with some significant changes and some continuing tropes and battles. The mystery gets off to an immediate start and spins out from there intriguingly playing in the overlap between the far right and environmentalism. While the first series traps its characters literally, this series a more psychological reading of that title. Many first series characters recur and their storylines and tensions continue. The story itself unfolds very slowly, constantly going in new directions until the full tale is revealed and resolved.

Endeavour (series 6)
The latest 4 installments of Endeavour are coming back around to establishing the quirks and mannerisms of Shaun Evans’ (The Scandalous Lady W) titular detective. The last couple sequences laid some groundwork, but it was all inferred rather than direct. One of the things that made the first two series so great was watching Morse being born. This sequence really sets the stage for the relationship with Sean Rigby’s DS Strange and James Bradshaw’s  Dr. DeBryn, as well as tackling some challenges with Roger Allam’s (The Hippopotamus) DI Thursday and Anton Lesser’s CSI Bright.

There are still a few years to go before the series hits the wall it cannot pass (overlap with the original series and the elevation of Morse to DCI in the 80s). With the next series, they launch into the 70s… but they could continue there for years at a paltry four episodes a go, which either means great news for lovers of the show or danger of spinning wheels and driving it into a hopeless rut. Given how carefully Russell Lewis has tended to Colin Dexter’s characters and has conspired to give us this early slice of Morse, I’m hopeful he can sustain the effort.

Shetland (series 5)
Shetland continues its travels with its characters and its dark mysteries across harsh landscapes. And, if its been a while since your last visit it may take a bit to get your footing with the characters and their relationships. Douglas Henshall’s (Collision) dark but seethingly emotional detective remains at the center of the mismatched family on the tiny and battered island. Mark Bonnar (Line of Duty), Steven Robertson (Luther),  and Alison O’Donnell remain core to the story with him and to each other. In many ways, this is one of their best crafted seasons; it has a complex mystery with many switchbacks and character growth in parallel over the six episodes. Not that previous series weren’t equally complex, but this one felt the most evenly put together. Interestingly, series 5 is also journeying along similar ground as Baptiste and Trapped, taking on human trafficking as a core issue.

The Hate U Give

[3.5 stars]

Imagine a Spike Lee film that is less stylized and aimed more at teenagers (though still very resonate for adults) and you have a sense of this powerful offering by director George Tillman, Jr. It is uncomfortably honest and it builds tension very much like Lee’s recent BlacKkKlansman. It also evokes and challenges all sides of the issues it raises, though it certainly has a point of view, and one it wastes no time establishing in its first scene. Getting that moment right was one of Tillman’s great triumphs in the film.

Amandla Stenberg (The Darkest Minds) drives this story from start to end. She is narrator and focus of the action as well as the gateway through which we enter both worlds she navigates. She is a talent we will be seeing a lot of over the coming years. The rest of the cast form up around her and every one of them has more levels than you expect as we travel through her story.

Among her family Regina Hall (Girls Trip), Russell Hornsby (Fences), and Common (Hunter Killer) stand out for the adults. Algee Smith (Earth to Echo), as her childhood friend, too. And then there is Anthony Mackie (Io), an actor we’re used to seeing with a bit more positive emotion and influence. His delivery is solid, though it is one of the least dimensional in the story. And, to be fair, it needs to be.

From Stenberg’s school-life, one of the more difficult roles was Stenberg’s friend, nicely created by Sabrina Carpenter. Carpenter has to stand in for every well-intentioned person of non-color and do so unselfconsciously. It is hard to watch and far too recognizable. And, as her boyfriend, K.J. Apa ( A Dog’s Purpose) was solid, but not particularly groundbreaking.

A good part of the success of this movie is its script. Audrey Wells (A Dog’s Purpose) adapted the book smoothly; there wasn’t a hint of it being a reflection of something else. It was entirely its own being, standing on its own feet and feeling whole and full of real people, situations, and emotions. Navigating that mine field with a teenage audience in mind wasn’t easy. Unlike Dope, it reaches out for a broader audience and more explicit message, but earns its moment of preaching in a very different way.

I have to admit I avoided this film for a long while, despite its excellent and deserved reviews. With all the hate and damage in the world, I wasn’t sure I could sit through a story about it as part of my evening relaxation. As it turns out, while it is certainly a tense story and unflinching at moments, its teenage perspective and the balance of the tale kept it digestible and still very powerful. Tillman’s ability to keep the tension going as he slips between the worlds that Stenberg navigates keeps you engaged and interested even as you may want to turn away or shout. He also employs subtle production values separating the haves and have-nots by time of day. Though some of that is story driven, it is also clearly intended to enhance light and dark.

Make time for this. It will leave a mark, but not one that will bleed too deeply. And it is a clear-eyed perspective that can start conversations or, at least, get people thinking. It is well acted, written,  and presented and will keep you guessing till the end.

Instant Family

[3 stars]

Instant Family is probably exactly what you expect. Humor, forced emotion, and light entertainment in an attempt to tackle a serious subject and encourage more family’s to foster and adopt. It is entertaining, but while Mark Wahlberg (Mile 22) and Rose Byrne (Juliet, Naked) are the stars, it is really Isabela Moner (Sicario: Day of the Soldado) that carries the film and comes across as anything close to real and honest.

The tone and result shouldn’t be too surprising with Sean Anders at the helm and also penning the script with long-time collaborator John Morris (Daddy’s Home 2). Subtle is not this duo’s forte. In this case is sort of works, though a bit more reality may have served the greater intention better. It didn’t have to be Short Term 12, but I would have liked it a little less broad at moments where it often busted the seams of the film.

Smaller supporting roles by Octavia Spencer (Shape of Water), Tig Notaro (Tig), and Margo Martindale (The Hollars) definitely keep it all humming. Martindale comes on a force of nature while Notaro and Spencer actually make a great comedy pairing, though you’d never really expect it.

For a sort of sweet, with a bit of bite, evening you can curl up with this. It doesn’t break any ground and it is utterly unrealistic far too often, but as a light entertainment and a slight propaganda film, it isn’t a total loss.

Studio 54

[3 stars]

Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood) tackles the late 70s hedonistic phenomena that spent a little over 30 months as the navel of party that shook the world. After Watergate and Viet Nam and before GRID/AIDS there was Studio 54. A place to see and be seen, and a legendary space to be outrageous without consequences. You were no one in the zeitgeist if you didn’t make it past the velvet rope at least once.

If you were too young to even know about Studio 54, other than as one of its resurrected flops or as a concert and play venue, you are missing a bit of history that set the stage for all the clubs that followed it. Nothing has matched its success or its atmosphere since. It arrived at a unique time in society and provided the closest thing to the Jazz Age since the 1920s (or Bread and Circuses since the Romans)… but it did it as a unique and sole purveyor of that experience.

There was a lot to love and hate about Studio 54, and Tyrnauer doesn’t shrink from that, just as he hasn’t from subjects in the past. He allows the story to tell itself, though the story he is trying to tell here isn’t very crisp due to its scope. But it is primarily about the rise and fall of the club as well as the impact on its creators Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell. The story is told through archival footage and many reminiscences of employees, patrons, and Schrager himself.

The timing of this story is particularly good now as the wealth gap continues to grow around the world. And there is something oddly resonate about the downfall of Rubell and Schrager with today’s politics. The sense of abuse of power is rife, though no one denies they were guilty of plenty. But it is also the way the public themselves raised them up and then tore them down that feels very present in the hyper-social-media environment of today.

The story of Studio 54 is hypnotic, much like the venue itself. It feels very far away now and yet it is still in the bones of today’s world. The story rides a crest of historical waves that no one saw coming but was a necessary catharsis for the country and world. It raises interesting, if unspoken, questions about notoriety and power. And it has a sound track that will jangle your nostalgia or, if you’re younger, seem quaint.  And it has a cast of characters, like Roy Cohn, who are back in the news again these days on a regular basis (even though he’s been dead for over 30 years), thanks to their connections to current power.

Basically, this an historical feast and tale, which may not be fully balanced or complete, but is an interesting window to gaze through.

Lizzie

[2.5 stars]

The story of Lizzie Borden has been told (and retold) many times. It has fascinated audiences for over 100 years. That’s staying power. Finding something new to say about it isn’t easy. To be honest, I’m not sure Craig William Macneill’s sophomore outing with  first-timer Bryce Kass’s script manages to, but they give it a good try.

This newest story is told in a chronologically looping narrative to slowly uncover the proposed facts of the infamous killing. It concentrates first on the motives and emotions and then, finally, on the deed itself. It is a very slow burn and with only a modicum of tension. Where it tries to separate itself from previous tales is in the counterpoint of the cast.

Chloë Sevigny (Beatriz at Dinner) presents her Lizzie as an interestingly modern woman amid her more classically period fellow cast. It sets her apart in a subtle way. It isn’t quite enough to carry the movie, but it is a noticeable choice and difference.

Jamey Sheridan (Battle of the Sexes) and Finoa Shaw (Mrs. Wilson), as her parents and the fated victims, are fairly standard portrayals. They are solid, but nothing much new. And Denis O’Hare, as the n’ere-do-well Uncle is an interesting inclusion, but only again as backdrop. It is Kristen Stewart (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), as the young Irish maid and Sevigny’s counterpart, who is the largest variable in this retelling. Her performance is good, but not groundbreaking. And, ultimately, doesn’t fully develop.

If you were looking for something new in this story, you will find tidbits. But it is far from historically complete or insightful. It includes some facts but omits others. It avoids recorded aspects and invents some never really in evidence as it posits a potential scenario. For those hopelessly fascinated by the story, it is probably more interesting. But the movie never manages to rise above its retelling enough to become a platform for something more. And that is a shame. There is some good work in this film, but it isn’t a must-see on any level, except perhaps as a chance to see Macneill and Kass’s early steps in cinema.

Hunter Killer

[2.5 stars]

An uneven adventure film that has its moments, but pisses them away at almost every turn with painful cliches though it manages to escape others. And, saddest of all, the last major appearance of Michael Nyqvist (John Wick). It isn’t as bad as Raul Julia’s Street Fighter, but this clunky action film gets sunk by Donovan Marsh’s uneven directing that no amount of talent can overcome. I will admit that there are moments where it works, particularly when the military in the field are working together. But that is, often as not, followed up by moments of absurd scenes with the likes of Gary Oldman (Tau), whose great talent is sorely abused into an histrionic military leader who would have never risen to his position.

That aspect of the characters makes this actioner into a weird, blue-collar polemic. Simply put: Those in power are fools; those on the ground are the sober thinkers. The truth is that most military leaders in first-world countries are very calm, considered people who hate to risk lives without purpose or to play politics… well, ever. The fantasy world of Hunter Killer resurrects false views of the military, at least our military, from decades ago.

The movie isn’t entirely absurd on that level though. There are few characters that have risen to admirable leaders. Gerard Butler (Den of Thieves) is a fairly credible, if somewhat wooden-er than usual, submarine captain. And Nyqvst gives us a subtle and stoic Russian as his counterpart. But Common (Smallfoot), though calm and collected, just has no credibility as a 1-star general. It is a hollow performance, however earnest. And Linda Cardellini (Green Book), though allowed to have brains, is also guilty of a silent coup thanks to the writing. And even some of Butler’s crew come across as having been inappropriately promoted, particularly his XO played by Carter MacIntyre.

Now, all that said, if you squint…quite a bit…the story is engaging and tense, particular during the fighting and evading scenes as most good sub stories can be. The setup is intriguing and the cinematography really something spectacular at times. But it isn’t a good movie. It is barely a passable one. It could have been so much more, but the producers clearly had a point of view and no sense of the real world, only the macho world they envision as they mouth-breathe their nights away.

Obit. (x2)

[3.5 stars]

Making a story about life out of writing about death seems contradictory, but Vanessa Gould’s long-form documentary about the New York Times obituary desk manages just that. It is also a fascinating look behind a section of the paper you may not have put a lot of thought behind.

Our tour is constructed of interviews with the small crew of writers as well as an amusing look at the news morgue and its denizens.  Through these Gould gives us a picture of the mechanics and the care brought to the often dry and sometimes entertaining encapsulations of life that grace the paper daily. It is a look back at an old craft as well as evolution of the craft in modern times.

It isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is an interesting one, and crafted to carry you through. To be fair, it would be hard, without forcing it, to create a story around the subject, so it is more a behind-the-scenes and philosophical discussion. But whatever you think of obituaries or your interest in them, you will never notice them again in the same way.

As a bonus, while searching for this documentary I unexpectedly came across a clever short by the same name and did a double feature. Unlike the documentary, this is a short drama, but it makes a reflective coda to the evening.  Director Brian Tolle is much better known for his effects work on major blockbusters, but this short drama shows his eye for structure and character, handling Reddy’s script deftly and guiding George Maguire through a complex character over the 10 minutes. Tolle is a bit less sure with Sandra Fish (Sense8), but she has moments. Add this one to your list when you’ve a small gap of time to fill. It is fine with or without the double feature, but it definitely added something to see them together.

Obit

Isn’t It Romantic

[3 stars]

This is a movie for cynics, cynics who secretly harbor a romantic heart, and romantics tired of the same-old story, even though they constantly order it on the menu. It isn’t a great movie, but it is a diverting one. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson takes the same wry look at this genre as he did with horror in Final Girls.  He skewers the romance genre while also delivering exactly the kind of movie you expect. It isn’t as smooth or complete as his previous offering, but it is certainly entertaining.

Primarily the success of the approach here is down to Rebel Wilson (Pitch Perfect 3, Night at the Museum). Her energy and cranky wit stand in for our incredulity and hopes. She is this film. Of course, she has some good talent to play off of as well.

Adam Devine (The Intern), her off-time comedy other-half, comes through nicely. He even gets to be more restrained in this completely unrestrained romp. Liam Hemsworth (Independence Day: Resurgence) gets to expand on the family Hemsworth tradition of gorgeous hunks making fun of themselves. And Betty Gilpin (Glow) and Brandon Scott Jones (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) each get to have some nice transformations.

Most of the issues in this silly story are down to script. As an early film by the triumverate of writers on the project, it isn’t at all bad, just a little unpolished and uneven (and weirdly neither American nor Australian in its feel and execution). It is still very funny and, at times, even insightful as it embraces and makes fun of the genre and its audience.

For a silly distraction, and a bit of heart-felt warmth, give this one a shot when you’re ready for it. That could be to make fun of it or to cheer it along. Part of the smarts of this film is that it works for either sensibility.

Vox Lux

[2.5 stars]

While known for his acting, writer/director Brady Corbet comes at this movie with only one other feature under his belt. He attempts to employ some interesting story-telling techinques, with Willem DaFoe (At Eternity’s Gate) as the narrator to a faux documentary, but the story never really gels. Corbet, frankly, tackles too much, trying to create something like an updated Breaking Glass crossed with Rudderless. We do get a lot of realistic behind-the-scenes look at music, which helps set this sort of fantasy and commentary apart.

Ultimately, the only thing that saves this movie is the performances and a bit of the production value. Natalie Portman (Annihilation) as a hard-living, nasty-talking star is a magnetic trainwreck thanks to the underlying emotions with which she infuses her character. Raffey Cassidy (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) in two roles (which was an odd and un-utilized choice) holds her own nicely alongside Stacy Martin’s (Nymphomaniac) older sister/aunt.  And Jude Law (Captain Marvel) as the sort of genuine, slightly corrupt producer is interesting, but without much depth.

Ultimately, there just isn’t a story here. It is more of an imagining about what is behind big production pop tours, both in the current time and what led to it. But the layering of the narration attempts to push it into something else, something grander, and on that level it simply fails, leaving you hanging at the end with no understanding of why you invested your time to watch it. At least in my opinion.

Captain Marvel

[4.5 stars]

Here we are at the penultimate breath bridging Infinity War and Endgame. A pause and some historical background to fill in missing pieces and characters before the final battle. And it is also our first peek at what a post Phase 3 MCU might be like with a whole new feel and rhythm, even if the journey is the same iconic trail. Collaborating directors and co-writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (It’s Kind of a Funny Story) built on the sense and structure of Guardians of the Galaxy, but made it their own giving us an action-packed and humor-filled romp.

DC may have beat the mouse house to the screen with Wonder Woman, but Marvel built a better character and story, not to mention put women in almost every major power role of consequence. Brie Larson (The Glass Castle) tops that bill, landing a solid super hero out of what comes perilously close to not working. But a little trust, earned by the directors, lets you ride any concerns to understanding and support for the choices.

Larson carries the story and film, but is joined by several other women in key roles. A staid and smart Annette Bening (The Seagull) has a wonderful dual role. Lashana Lynch (Still Star-Crossed) adds some heart and grit as her fighter-pilot buddy. Even Lynch’s on-screen daughter, Akira Akbar, is a female of consequence in the story. All of these women stand on their own and drive as well as participate in the tale.

The men in this film are pretty much all sidekicks for Larson. On Earth, that is Samuel L. Jackson (Glass), who gives a good look at the early days of Fury. There are also a few moments of Clark Gregg’s (Spinning Man) as a newbie Agent Coulson.  And, of course, there is Jude Law (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) in a mentor role guiding, but never quite controlling Larson’s actions.

Larson’s initial team also includes some fun performances by Rune Temte (Eddie the Eagle), Djimon Hounsou (Same Kind of Different as Me) and, in one of the surprise performances in the movie for me, Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians). Chan really stood out for me as trying on and delivering something new. We’re so used to seeing her quiet and controlled rather than as a kick-ass, warrior. I barely  recognized her even though I knew she was in the cast.

The movie isn’t perfect. Some of the plotting and character choices seemed convenient rather than real, though others really did work…eventually. But there were things that threw me. The beauty work on Jackson and Gregg was very disturbing at first. It got better as the movie went on, but it was a heck of a distraction initially. Ben Mendelsohn’s (Robin Hood) accent was a weird choice and felt a tad forced. And the inevitable return of Lee Pace (The Book of Henry) was interesting, but somehow felt a little off from the character we know, even though he appears on the same path. And the humor occasionally clunks or is too predictable to be as funny as they’d hoped. And the hand-to-hand fights aren’t filmed as cleanly as I’d have liked.

Like I said, it isn’t perfect, but overall it is damned fun and it holds together even when you think it won’t. It answers a lot of questions, raises more, and sets us up for the end of an historic 11-year cycle of movies. It even plays homage to Stan Lee in a couple of nice ways (starting with the opening). And for a couple of somewhat newish directors/writers, it is proof again that Marvel can find lesser known talent for those roles and give them the opportunity to run a successful blockbuster while giving us an new voice to enjoy.

Most importantly, Captain Marvel begins to build a path beyond the end of that huge arc, showing there are possibilities and stories still to go after some of our favorites have been primarily retired. And, of course, there are extra scenes, so stay till the very end.

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