Category Archives: Streamed only

Black Earth Rising

[4 stars]

Like his previous Honourable Woman, Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising has a unique tone and flavor determined by its story’s origins. The approach sets his work apart keeps them feeling new, despite recognizable venues, structure, and format. The 8-part road is twisty and complex, but laid out logically and credibly to bring you along, though you are unlikely to get ahead of it. His ability to find strong and capable talent doesn’t hurt the result either.

This story, also like Honourable Woman, is driven by a powerful female character…given terrible life by Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum, Black Mirror). Coel dominates the tale from her first moments on screen until her last in a complicated and dark role. It is riveting and heart-breaking to watch this woman come to terms with her past and her present. She is fiercely intelligent, physically powerful, and with a magnetism that takes over the screen when she appears. She doesn’t steal focus, but she cannot help but remake each scene around herself.

She is joined by John Goodman (Atomic Blonde) who brings us a troubled and layered lawyer seeking justice and happiness, though often watching both slip through his fingers. Harriet Walter (Donmar Project), as her mother, is a study in conflicting emotions; a tight and warring collection of memories and intentions expertly controlled and utterly riveting.

Additional roles fill out the world, with some notable performances by Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU), Noma DumezweniLucian Msamati (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), Abena Ayivor, and Emmanuel Imani. But the entire cast is strong.

While these performances alone are a great reason to watch the series, it is the writing and the story that make it worth tuning into this dark but fascinating story about international justice and questions of truth and history. That quality shouldn’t be surprising given it is from Blick as the creator and writer/director for the 8 episode sequence. He also employs some interesting visual approaches to both expose the past and pull themes through the series.

Blick is unafraid of complex questions, politically and personally. He does have a penchant for high conspiracy but, in this case, it feels very logical if disturbing. The point of Black Earth Rising is to raise awareness and to force viewers to recognize some very hard truths about the world and how their own desires help drive it. But it is also a highly personal story and one that is deeply emotional and healing. Whether or not the story gets the accolades it deserves, Coel’s performance will certainly be identified as one of the best of the year.

Tig

[3.5 stars]

Tig Notaro (In a World…) is a comic with a unique delivery and an even more unique story. I know I’m late to discovering this one, but I was impressed enough with the docu to recommend it to those who also may have missed it up till now.

Notaro was a rising star when events conspired, in an avalanche, to try and derail her. What followed those events was a study in perseverance and, yes I’ll say it, moxy. She took tragedy and coped with it by turning into something of value. Not immediately and not easily, but she did it. That is one portion of this docu.

The other aspect of this documentary is a smaller portion, but adds an interesting layer. You get to watch the evolution of a routine and the honing of a joke. I was reminded strongly of the ongoing edit sequence of the comedian’s efforts in All That Jazz till it was perfect. It is a lesson and a wonder to watch the choices and the subtlety of the effort (not to mention the bravery of a stand-up trying out work to see what’s ready or bombing).

I will admit that while I very much enjoyed this Tig installment, her more recent 2018 special Tig Notaro: Happy to Be Here is less solid. I don’t fault her for that, and it makes a fascinating companion piece to see what three years and life changes offered her comedy. I imagine that will continue to evolve because, if nothing else, this docu and her specials prove she is a comedienne through and through, and one to be reckoned with who will continue to surprise as life offers her material.  And, regardless of your interest in comedy, Notaro’s story is ultimately an empowering and positive one.

The Bodyguard

[3.5 stars]

A six part series that can keep you off balance to near the end is a rarity. The Bodyguard delivers on this point. Richard Madden (Oasis) is the largest part of that success. He brings painful and unexpected layers to the character willing himself between ice block and utterly vulnerable.

In addition to Madden, UK mystery/suspense stalwarts Keeley Hawes (High-Rise), Gina McKee (Line of Duty), and Pippa Haywood (Scott & Bailey) each bring different kinds of strong women to the tale. There are some other familiar faces, such as Stuart Bowman (Versailles), but despite a male lead, this is a heavily female-driven tale. One real standout is Anjli Mohindra (Bancroft) who has really grown up since the Sarah Jane Adventures.

The finale episode is this show’s only real stumble. The breathless rush to the ending confrontation is well orchestrated but is done primarily to (hopefully) keep you from noticing the bad plotting and choices. It works emotionally, but it is utterly wrong technically. Squint a little and you’re fine. It frustrated me mainly because up to these moments it had been so well done. The show as a whole is still very much worth the viewing time, but it is a slightly flawed resolution.

The Titan

[3 stars]

Back in 1976 Frederik Pohl wrote the classic Man Plus.  Though unacknowledged (perhaps even unaware), The Titan leans heavily on this earlier tale. But while the film is engaging for the majority of the story, it ultimately loses its thread. So, if you like the idea, read Man Plus for a better sense of follow-through and completeness. But that is the fault of the script, not the cast who try to elevate the results admirably.

Sam Worthington (Hacksaw Ridge) is certainly the focus of a lot of the movie, but this is really more Taylor Schilling’s (Orange is the New Black) story. Add in Noah Jupe (A Quiet Place) and you have a nice atomic family from which to fission. The family also get some solid time to set up their relationships before the inevitable.

A couple of other performances worth calling out are Nathalie Emmanuel (Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials) and Diego Boneta (Before I Fall) as additional volunteers for the experiments. Neither gets to fully realize their stories, but each tries to fill out their characters with more than your usual depth for this kind of film.

Running the program are Tom Wilkinson (Denial) and Agyness Deyn (Hard Sun).Both try to overcome their weak scripts, but only so much could be done. Wilkinson especially gets short-shrift thanks to the clumsy final third of the story. Up till then he was a driven man, trying to do well by humanity against horrible odds and near-despicable means. But he ends up being devolved into a pointless villain.

For a first feature, Lennart Ruff does a good job focusing the story on his initial intent: what do these changes mean to Worthington and his family. There are some clever visuals and nice moments to establish the story and the relationships, even if the production design feels off for the world he created and the science is, at best, wishful and often absurd. However, despite the nice emotional arc that Ruff builds, the last third of the film devolves into truly bad sf and action/horror. Also, the ending is forced, confusing, and unsatisfying thanks to losing track of their original point for the plot.

However, more important to recognize is that the film feels more like a book than a movie, especially in its pacing. I can enjoy that when it is done well, but this just felt like a clumsy but true adaptation, though again no acknowledgement of a prior work was made. This flick really did need to be more of a movie.

I will admit that I thought I knew where they would go, which may have been a bit derivative as well, but would have been more satisfying and more on point for the purpose of the Titan project. But I was wrong, for better or worse.

If you like near-term science fiction (even though this defies the likely possibilities) give this a shot. The effort is there even if the control isn’t. How you react to the finale will depend a lot on your own likes and dislikes. It certainly isn’t off from a lot out there, but it had real potential to exceed the common drivel and squandered it.

Bleach (2018)

[3 stars]

Live action adaptations of anime and/or manga via anime often fail miserably. (Consider the recent Attack on Titan attempt.) Usually it is due to assumptions the audience will know the story or an insulting approach as to what they’ll accept. I have to admit Bleach surprised me. I wasn’t very familiar with the story, but there was enough in the movie to help me understand and to invest in the characters.

This isn’t a great movie, as movies go, but it was entertaining if you like the genre; I do. Director Shinsuke Sato gave me characters with motivations. He also provided fun fight scenes, a bit of humor, and probably a bit too much high school romance forced in (it simply goes no where in this short-ish film). It didn’t hurt that there was some very competent actors driving the piece like Hana Sugisaki and Sôta Fukushi, both from Blade of the Immortal. Even the side characters have some cred, such as Miyavi (Kong: Skull Island).

It succeeded enough that I’m now curious to explore the anime series and its various movies to see what else goes on…there are several sequences to Bleach and this covered just one of them. And while I’m sure it was in a highly compressed way, the movie didn’t feel overly cheated.

The Donmar Warehouse’s All-Female Shakespeare Trilogy (Julius Cesar, Henry IV, Tempest)

[3.5 stars]

The Donmar project Shakespeare trilogy is a fascinating piece of all-female repertory theatre inspired by work with female prison inmates. The prisoners selected three unrelated plays whose themes and action spoke to them (power/abuse, addiction/family, justice/responsibility) and Phyllida Lloyd (Iron Lady, Mama Mia!) created a trilogy of them by wrapping each in a shared conceit as an envelope to hold them together.  While this approach initially feels forced and not quite comfortable, it ultimately paints an additional layer of meeting over the whole and binds them together in a bigger theme. While I’ll call out specific performances, it is one hell of an ensemble generally.

Julius Cesar

The first of the three plays focused on the need for action to battle unjust rule and tyranny. Think domestic abuse. Though that is not at all injected into the show directly it has knock-on effects for the characters. For instance, Harriet Walter’s Brutus is oddly weak and emotional, very much feeling beaten down and with a need to make the world right. To Walter’s praise, she manages this while still maintaining an amazing stage presence.

Cesar, played by Clare Dunne, is charismatic and strong. Clearly a swaggering ass who knows how to play the crowd and those around him. Jade Anouka’s Mark Antony, likewise is manipulator, using words to destroy while holding back all of his ire till the final, physical battle. Anouka is one of the bright spots in this trilogy, and a reason to see them all, which will become obvious.

The direction is engaging and surprising, and even occasionally funny. But it is the ending where it takes your head and spins it round as the envelope takes over and forces new meaning upon it.

Henry IV

Henry survives or fails on the quality of the Falsataff, Hal, and Hotspur. The casting here is astoundingly good. Sophie Stanton (Una) as Falstaff is compelling and entertaining, if not entirely endearing. Clare Dunne’s Hal delivers but doesn’t quite sell the entire journey from reprobate to king (this covers parts I and II of the play). However Jade Anouka as Hotspur is riveting and wonderfully acted and directed. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Hotspur that lived up both to the name and the ability to lead a rebellion.

I do wish the addiction theme was heightened a little more throughout the piece to help pull it all together, but it was still an interesting flavor to add.

The Tempest

Of the three plays, this one is the most on point and, frankly, the best conceived. Of course, Tempest is tailor made to discuss justice and responsibility; even Joyce Carol Oats took advantage of it in Hagseed.

The play is carried by Harriet Walter as Prospero with a deep and wounded approach. Jade Anouka (I told you she was one to watch) takes on Ariel and is paired with Sophie Stanton now as Calaban. Along with Sheila Atim (Harlots) as Ferdinand and Leah Harvey (Uncle) as Miranda, the story clips along engagingly and with a sense of real sweetness and possibility while still showing the harsher edge of gender roles and life.

Lloyd’s direction of this piece captures the magic and the longing, the humor and the anger. It is one of the best distillations of the play I think I’ve seen, or perhaps it was simply the framing of the story and the even larger framing of the trilogy. Whatever the reason, it is inventive, gripping, and fascinating to watch with plenty of wry winks and fist slams. If you choose only one of the three to watch, choose this one, though some of the bigger messages will not resonate as much without the previous two.

Imitation Girl

[3.5 stars]

Alien arrives on Earth and takes the guise of an adult movie star. Salacious, right? Possibly even puerile? You’d be wrong. It isn’t even more on the trippy side like Liquid Sky. Imitation Girl is a decidedly personal tale of a woman coming to terms with her life and her choices. It is anything but forcefully sexy, though it is certainly intimate.

Lauren Ashley Carter (Premium Rush) pulls off both main roles with an understated assurance that leaves you forgetting it is the same person. She is the movie, not to mention that she learned Farsi along the way. I look forward to seeing her in more roles at some point to see what more she can do. The rest of the cast are all fine, but they fall away as it all comes together. And, frankly, that is a good thing as they aren’t the focus.

The ending is sort of a non-ending, or it is hugely metaphorical. Though, to be fair, the entire story is metaphorical. But the end is also rather expected and, because of that, a tad of a let down after such an interesting ride. But this is a film that shows real talent on the part of the director/writer, Natasha Kermani. To navigate the world she created and to sell these characters without resorting to cheap and expected moments took a good eye and discipline. She is definitely a creator to watch for down the road.

Imitation Girl

Singularity

[2 stars]

Just run away. How and why John Cusack (Maps to the Stars) and Carmen  Argenziano (Future World) ended up in this mess is beyond me. The logic and story of Robert Kouba’s first feature film is broken beyond explaining. Even the production design is wrong, though the effects are relatively well executed. The result is a bad Saturday morning movie, not even worth the popcorn you might want to make to carry you through it. Singularity was obviously meant as either a series or pilot, but I can’t say there was anything that would get me back to see what happens next.

Despite the two larger names, Julian Schaffner and Jeannine Wacker are the main focus of this story. They were not well served by Kouba’s script or direction. They also have no chemistry between them at all, which is necessary to pull off the motivations. But on an even larger level, Kouba shows a complete lack of understanding of what the “singularity” is and how it would fall out, turning it instead into a Terminator wannabe rather than a real examination of how it would manifest. Even 2036: Origin Unknown, for all its faults, gets it way better.

And that is enough time spent on this sadly missable attempt at high-concept science fiction/love story/apocalypse. If you venture into it, it isn’t because I didn’t warn you.

The Beyond

[3 stars]

The Beyond is Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull’s  first film. It actually has a bit more going for it than his second outing, 2036: Origin Unknown, but also some particular issues. However, on a craft level it is a fascinating little trip.

So let’s talk a bit about how the story was told first, because that is where this movie is the most intriguing. While the pseudo-documentary approach is a little tired generally, this is the best execution of the idea in the genre I’ve seen since Europa Report. The result is down to two aspects. The first is editing and effects which are both done well. Scenes are presented in short bursts to keep you pulled along, even past some of the weaker moments, while the effects are impressive (unsurprising given his f/x background). The second aspect was the delivery. The actors really hit the right tone, especially Jane Perry (A Hologram for the King) who sold it perfectly.

The main story is reasonably good, if a standard trope in many ways. But the script is full of issues, errors, and contradictions, which was a bit frustrating. There are a number of facts that change from scene to scene as well as leaps of logic. A bit of squinting gets you past it all, but not without some gritted teeth and frustration. Still, it manages to work and go some interesting places. The ending, much like 2036, will either resonate, annoy, or anger depending on your particular mood, patience, and beliefs.

I like that Dulull wants to tackle big ideas and issues. I’m not sure he’s found the best ways to translate those to screen, but the results aren’t unwatchable, just abrupt and rushed. For the execution of the film alone, The Beyond is an interesting presentation. As a first film, it is highly polished and executed; Dulull clearly has ability. But, right now, his plots feel more like written stories put on screen than stories written for the media he’s using. He needs a writing collaborator and some extra eyes to help his talent reach its best delivery, but the talent is definitely there.

Cargo Space is Cold

[2.5 stars]

I wanted so much more than I got out of this movie. There are some interesting ideas in here, but none are entirely new, even in the combination they are put together. There are riffs and nods to all manner of other films from Alien to Event Horizon, not to mention The Matrix and so many others. Which isn’t to say the plots were copied, but the production design and some sequences echo very loudly.

The film does tackle some of its ideas head-on, however, rather than leaving them as a surprise ending. For that I do give it credit. But the writing is very hit and miss. Some aspects of physics and space they nail and then follow it up with a scene or interaction that is a short-cut or blatantly stupid choice. Frustrating.

On the up side, at least this story does try to make a point and make you think. Admittedly not too hard, but at least there is an intention to use science fiction at its best rather than as just trappings for special effects and scares alone. It is just enough to get you through to the end, if you have a mind. But, to be brutally honest, you wouldn’t have lost much never having seen it either.

Cargo