Category Archives: Movie Review

Working Man

[3 stars]

Robert Jury’s first feature is a quiet bit of unique Americana. It starts commonly enough: a factory shuts down, putting a good part of a community out of work. At this point you expect something in the vein of Made in Dagenham, but that isn’t this tale. In fact, it isn’t really where the story starts, but that’s all part of the charm and emotional hook of this tale.

Familiar character actor Peter Gerety (Sneaky Pete) takes the reins of this story in an inexorable way. Billy Brown (How to Get Away With Murder) and Talia Shire (Grace and Frankie) back Gerety up and drive the film forward. And drive forward it does to a slow burn and sweet, joyous finale.

Working Man isn’t big and flashy, but its focus on characters and life challenges pulls you in quickly and hangs onto you till the end. For a first feature, it’s incredibly impressive. But even absent that qualifier, it’s an engaging, often funny, always interesting collection of people and issues.

Roadkill

[3 stars]

There is a structure and a rhythm to a David Hare (Collateral) story. They are dark labyrinths of human failure and misunderstanding leading to outrageous, if inevitable and believable, outcomes.  And not all of the events in his tales are explained or even have direct motive…some things just happen…though they are often attributed to someone’s motivation. In other words, his stories tend to be dark, fun, and more reflective of real life than some may find comfortable.

His latest, Roadkill, is another political thriller that has only two possible outcomes for its four-part series. Either remains possible till close to the end. And by keeping it to only four episodes, it doesn’t feel overly oppressive or drawn out. His director, Michael Keillor (Strike: Cuckoo’s Calling), drives the tension and tale with a confident hand.

Through it all, and at the center, Hugh Laurie (Avenue 5) proves again what a magnetic and smarmy bastard he can be as a character. Laurie’s character is assuredly a stand-in for some current world leaders, though with considerably more intelligence and ability. It makes him even more plausible and scarier than the truth. He’s supported by a solid cast. Iain De Caestecker (Overlord), as his right-hand, Helen McCrory (Loving Vincent) as the PM, with Sidse Babett Knudsen (Inferno) and Saskia Reeves (The Child in Time) on his homefronts are some of the standouts. But these are far from the only good performances. Hare attracts good people and his scripts provide deep characters to play with.

For a short dive into murky waters, Roadkill provides a fascinating escape and set of insights. It isn’t so long as to get suffocating, but it is long enough to allow the story to breathe. If you’re able to handle a dark political bit of suspense and mystery with a thick human element, give it a shot.

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Sputnik

[3.5 stars]

Titles are important. They can illuminate, entertain, or confuse. It’s important that, in this case, you go in knowing that Sputnik doesn’t refer to the infamous satellite, but to its translation: travelling companion.  It’s especially important as the story is set in 1983, suggesting an historical context, and because it starts in space, further confusing things. So dump all that baggage and go with the movie as it is, which is really quite good.

The movie is the solid expansion of an award winning short (The Passenger) by the triumvirate of director Egor Abramenko, and writers Oleg Malovichko, and Andrey Zolotarev. The three have all worked together for years.

The cast is quite small and is dominated by just a few performances. It’s primarily driven by Oksana Akinshina, who packs multiple layers underneath an adamantine exterior. Her performance bounces off the solid deliveries and reflections of Fedor Bondarchuk and Pyotr Fyodorov to create a movie that rises above its genre.

At its core, this is really just another space creature feature. But it is adorned with more than the typical human elements and clever consideration of the science. It isn’t perfect, but this one is definitely a step above similar tales. If you like suspense/horror/scifi offerings at all, make the time for this one. It will surprise you and is even worthy of rewatch.

Keep an eye on what comes next from the creative team. They work well together and clearly put the effort into their films to make them something special.

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Dating Amber

[3.5 stars]

The stories we tell don’t change over time, but how we tell them does. And to that point, David Freyne (The Cured) has delivered not so much new ground in this coming-of-age tale, as a new approach. And that makes all the difference.

Fionn O’Shea (Normal People) and Lola Petticrew (A Bump Along the Way) take us through their last year of secondary school which includes personal revelations, experiments, and, eventually, acceptances. Unexpectedly, while told primarily through the scared and challenged O’Shea, Petticrew tends to dominate the screen when she is there. Part of that is the characters, but she also fairly glows with charisma and energy in a way that O’Shea just can’t touch despite his acting chops.

While the two teens dominate the film, there are several smaller performances with depth and impact. Sharon Horgan (Military Wives) has a subtle job as O’Shea’s mother navigating her stressed marriage to Barry Ward (The Fall) and her struggling children. Simone Kirby (Jimmy’s Hall) has a similar challenge as Petticrew’s mother. And, as a bit of running comic relief, Ian O’Reilly (Moone Boy) has some wonderful moments and solid timing.

While set in 1995, this story still applies today because teens have always struggled with accepting themselves and being accepted for who they are. Petticrew and O’Shea tackle their stories with heart and honesty while avoiding most of the ugly that it sometimes causes. But the movie is intended to be on the lighter side, with plenty of warm and funny moments and with an inexorable drive toward joy, however bumpy the road.

You’re probably thinking you don’t need another coming-of-age story, but make time for it. You won’t be disappointed in the film and watching Freyne develop his cinema voice is an extra benefit.

[If you’re looking for some insights after seeing the film, check out these short interviews with Freyne, and this with O’Shea.]

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Gather

[3 stars]

Food is life.

Food is culture.

Food is survival.

These are the tenants that drive the indigenous peoples in this story to reclaim the past and create a future for the Lakota and Apache and other remaining nations across the country.

Sanjay Rawal’s (Food Chain) documentary follows three people as they nurse back to strength aspects of native life for themselves and those around them. These include three very different areas, but all with the same concerns and approach: crops, salmon, and buffalo.

The documentary puts into harsh relief the histories that have nearly destroyed indigenous Americans; highlighting how food was weaponized by settlers and the government.

Rawal’s sure hand makes the story as hopeful as it is angering and disturbing. He manages to keep a neutral and honest eye, despite a clear point of view. And he provides some calls to action if you want to get involved.

But whether you want to explore current politics and issues the stories raise, it is a coverage of history you probably weren’t ever told. And it’s a story, particularly in our current times and discussions around reparations and the strains between people across the country, that needs to be heard.

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Uncle Frank

[3.5 stars]

Alan Ball (True Blood, Six Feet Under) tackles the-truth-in-the-quirky  like Aaron Sorkin tackles the-poetic-in-the-mundane. His string of shows and movies all focus on characters, and the beauty and tragedy of life. This outing, literally and figuratively, he tackles the late 1960s life in NYC and rural South Carolina. Two venues that couldn’t be more different then, or today.

But, as always with Ball, part of what makes his stories work is the incredible talent he gets to inhabit those characters. While the story is about Frank, the title clues you into the point of view, which is led by Sophia Lillis (I Am Not Okay With This) as Frank’s niece. Lillis, again, proves she is not only up to the task of a lead, but is capable of wonderful and subtle emotional range. Her family, including Frank played by Paul Bettany (Avengers: Endgame), all orbit around her axis.

Which isn’t to say they are minor or side characters, it is simply that she is the spine around which the whole tale depends. It is her story into which they feed. And it’s a story many will relate to, directly or indirectly. The family is filled out by the likes of Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes), Margot Martindale (The Hollars), Stephen Root (On the Basis of Sex), and Judy Greer (Halloween).

Completing the cast, in what is one of the most complicated and challenging roles, is Peter Macdissi (Towelhead). Bettany and Macdissi have an easy give and take amid the sturm and drang of their lives. But with little explanation, their history feels obvious and real. And their love for one another is equally palpable.

While this is a story of secrets, they aren’t secrets for the audience, generally. The big things are all obvious. It’s how Lillis’s Beth becomes awakened by them, how she grows and changes because of them, and how she learns to see and appreciate things for what they are rather than how she elevated them. In other words, it’s a tale of growing into adulthood and learning to accept yourself and those around you for who they are. It may be a bitter-sweet journey, but this isn’t a tragedy; it’s a heart-warming tale of struggle and triumph. And one I do highly recommend.

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On the Rocks

[3.5 stars]

Sofia Coppola (The Beguiled) may be the the best Bill Murray (The Dead Don’t Die) whisperer out there. She consistently pulls controlled, but emotional performances from the man without diluting his comedy. In this performance, he also comes across as an incredibly capable person, believably highly successful in the world, but with deep rifts of personal issues swimming beneath the surface. And yet, for all the emotional churn, he and the story are funny.

Playing opposite Murray, Rashida Jones (Klaus) is the true heart of the film. A daughter lost in the world she’s created for herself and doubting her own abilities, not to mention her marriage to Marlon Wayans. In what amounts to a sort of dark, farcical comedy she finds her way back to herself and the life she deserves.

Rounding out the cast, and filling in the world are some other wonderful actors. Jessica Henwick (Underwater), Jenny Slate (Hotel Artemis), and a small but fun appearance by Barbara Bain stood out for me.

Coppola’s script is playful, honest, and entertaining. You feel for Jones and her situation, but recognize her issues as well. But Coppola also keeps you wondering till near the end as to what the truth of her situation is. It’s a wonderful balancing act that helps drive the story forward. That said, the venue for her tale is the upper reaches of society again…a world Coppola knows well, but which is out of reach for most of us. It didn’t feel wrong, but it does add a little distance to the situation.

But whatever you think this movie is, you’re probably wrong. It’s sweet, funny, and entertaining while tackling some real aspects of marriage and life. Jones and Murray turn in wonderful performances and Coppola continues to show her strengths and growth as a director and writer. At 90 minutes, it’s definitely worth your time.

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The new (early) Fall batch

A smattering of new shows kicked off the Fall season, or bridged the late Summer into Fall. It was a mixed bag, as you’d expect. There are more to come, but these led the pack and have, in at least one case, already met their fate.

Transplant
Surprisingly, even with a glut of medical dramas, this Toronto based tale has found a new formula and a set of timely subjects. By focusing the story on a Syrian doctor trying to get recertified in Canada while supporting his family and getting over PTSD, we have a new kind of perspective. It also allows for a number of layered tales of discrimination and issues for immigrants and the poor. Of course, because it is based in Canada, the hospital workings feel a little odd. And, to be honest, the writing isn’t always great when it comes to the medical emergencies, but they manage to pull it off. And the opening of the show is definitely hell of a kick-off.

Next
This one keeps barely holding on to me, though I’m pretty sure I’ll be dropping it soon. For every aspect of AI they get right, they get others wrong or make the characters do something stupid to allow the plot to work they way they want it to happen rather than finding a more elegant, natural solution. Frustrating. The story is a riff on Person of Interest combined with Emergence. Despite some of the writing challenges, the acting is actually pretty good. However, it has been cancelled at the end of its freshman run, so we may never know what it might have become.

Pandora (series 2)
Talk about a complete retcon. The first season of Pandora was a poor-man’s Trek substitute. But as a summer filler it was watchable in a kitschy sort of way…barely. But the end of the first round was so bad I almost didn’t come back. However, I decided to see how they’d write themselves out of their bad choices. The answer: completely rewrite and reconceiving of the show. The writing is still weak and the acting marginal, though a tad improved. I may give it a bit more time given the dearth of new shows this pandemic year, but so far I can’t see a reason to stick with it.

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Made in Dagenham

[3.5 stars]

OK, yeah, this is very much in the framework of Norma Rae, and full of the same kinds of evolution and moments. But not only is this depiction of female empowerment in 1968 Dagenham true, it brought about real and permanent change to both England and most of the industrialized world (other than the US who still doesn’t have an equal pay law over 50 years later). Not that Rae’s inspiration, Crystal Lee Sutton, didn’t have impact, but it was nothing like this.

Sally Hawkins (Godzilla: King of Monsters) leads the story as an unassuming wife who finds her voice and stands up for, as she puts it, basic rights. The cast is chock full of talent, but it all centers on Hawkins and Daniel Mays’ (The Limehouse Golem) family.

As you’d expect, the rest of the cast is dominated by some great female performers: Rosamund Pike (State of the Union), Geraldine James (Anne (Anne with an E)), Andrea Riseborough (Mandy), and Miranda Richardson (Good Omens) to name a few. However, Bob Hoskins (Hollywoodland) and Richard Schiff (Shock and Awe) are worth mentioning among the male cast, though far from the only good talent.

Dagenham is exactly what you want it to be, with a bit of British grit thrown in. Much like Military Wives or its similar tale in Pride, it allows some real-life to intrude into the retelling. But the bones of the story are true. The timing of my viewing is also actually quite relevant, with the election just days away.

Because it is formulaic, for good and ill, I can’t rate the movie higher as a movie. But director Nigel Cole (Doc Martin, Calendar Girls) gave us a reminder of not only what is possible but also what is still so very wrong; with the US in particular though I’m sure that wasn’t his intention. But it is an uplifting movie, all the more for its honesty and resolution. And it’s a flick you’ll finish with a feeling of empowerment and joy.

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Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari)

[3 stars]

War sucks. Men are greedy. Money’s pointless. Women can save us (at a cost to themselves). Love is forever. Fate’s a bitch.

That about sums up this 1953 adaptation of classic fables by Kenji Mizoguchi in one of his last films. Basically this is a ghost story, in the traditional Japanese sense, which made for some appropriate October viewing.

But I can’t say I recommend the film other than to film buffs or historians. While beautifully filmed, it’s slow, marginally acted, and barely gripping. Some of this is style choice, to be sure. However, that doesn’t mean it survived the years well. This one is definitely a choice you’ll have to make for yourself.

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