Compassionate Sex (Sexo por compasión)

[4 stars]

A beautiful fable and mediation on love, life, and relationships…with a nod to religion and spirituality. Oh, yes, and it’s funny.

First-time feature director and writer Laura Mañá delivered this multiple award winning film, with unexpected wit and, as you might expect, compassion. It should fly off the rails more than once, and yet she keeps it all within the grasp  of sympathy and understanding. But the main reason for the success is the powerful and vulnerable performance of Elisabeth Margoni at the center of the film and village. Her subtle shifts of expression and emotion will melt your heart and convince you of her genuine intents.

When you’re looking for something a little different, a bit funny, and yet with a message that will surprise you in its delivery, queue this one up. There is a lot of talent to appreciate, and a warm and gooey center to help make your night feel full of possibilities.

Quirky Detectives

[3 stars]

Writing a good plot is only half the entertainment problem for on-screen mystery. The other problem is creating characters we are intrigued by and interested in watching. Sometimes it’s because we are gripped by their struggles or character (Prime Suspect, Vera), but more often we are pulled in by their foibles (Poirot, Morse/Endeavour, Monk). Three relatively new series fall very much in the latter category.

Professor T.

Koen De Bouw (Salamander) is a Belgian riff on Monk, for lack of a better description. But he’s less slapstick and more entertainingly tragic as he navigates the academic and criminal justice worlds. The mysteries are a mixed bag, but mostly just a vehicle for his journey toward healing from an initially unspecified tragedy.  Along with the hysterical Goele Derick as his department administrator, ex-student turned police detective, Ella Leyers, and ex-lover turned police DCI Tanja Oostvogels, along with a bunch of other recurring characters, he unravels suspicious deaths while trying to straighten out his life.

The result is both funny and poignant without getting too broad. It does, however, get more than a little strange in the presentation, as T’s inner life become fantasies that continually intrude on his waking life. It is a visual language and mystery all its own that we get to enjoy and examine as the show unspools. The result is somewhere between a cozy and a hard-core British mystery; never too violent to be uncomfortable nor too sanitized to be boring. And there are plenty of laugh out loud moments to keep it all going.

Bordertown

Like The Bridge, this show tackles cross-border/cross-cultural issues. In this case Finland and Russia. But rather than one long challenge, there are several shorter, multi-part mysteries that scaffold the story of the characters involved with some longer arcs to pull it together. It makes it all more digestible, and we never have to soak too long in any one tale of darkness and misery (hey, it’s Finland).

But because the main character, Ville Virtanen, is so amusingly off-beat, the darkness is counter-balanced and often kept at bay. But Virtanen is only half of the success of the show. Anu Sinisalo, as the ex-FSB turned Finnish cop has her own funny and scary peculiarities. And she sells them well. The two together become the epicenter of the swirling politics and mysteries that invade the smallish Finnish town on the border. The rest of the cast is solid as well, but without these two, it frankly wouldn’t work.

Deadwind

Another Finnish import, and with less of a quirky set of leads as more just broken humans. And, to be honest, somewhat broken writing; police procedure is not their forte. Pihla Viitala (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) unapologetically plays a grieving woman who’s skills as a parent are seriously suspect. What she does have going for her is drive and intuition. One of the nice things that sets this show apart is how the mysteries play out to the last moments of each season. However, getting there is often a lesson in frustration as we watch her step-daughter make one bad choice after another, and her partner ignore the facts and refuse to trust her for far too long. Basically, this is an imperfect but intriguing series. With better writing, they’d be really great, but they really don’t have that yet. Perhaps in the next series.

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

[3 stars]

It’s rare when a TV show makes the leap to big screen, even in limited fashion. Certainly Miss Fisher was a solid candidate, with great characters, delightful dialogue, incredible costumes, and fun mysteries. However, this leap wasn’t quite able to stick the landing.

The original series was huge fun and ended way too soon. What made it work was the combination of sass and characters. While Deb Cox (from the original show crew) retained the sass in the script, going global really robbed the story of the wide range of characters and interplay we were invested in. And, sadly, even for the characters that had returned, the magic just wasn’t there anymore. The tension of will they/won’t they between Essie Davis (Assassin’s Creed) and Nathan Page, which had been ramped up over 3 years plus the wait for this tale, didn’t feel satisfying, or even all that interesting. And new characters like Rupert Penry-Jones (Charlotte Gray) never built up any flesh on their bones.

The main issue is that director Tony Tilse pushed for more of an action movie pacing, moving from moment to moment with small quips from characters to stitch it together. It made for almost no character building…and with only two main characters that we knew, that meant almost no characters at all that were fleshed out for us to connect with. Basically, Tilse wasn’t able to navigate the leap to feature film from small screen directing for their first go-round.

The movie isn’t a total loss. It has some fun moments and Fisher in multiple (unnecessary and unexplained) costumes. The dialogue, when it works, is at the standard you’d expect and the vistas are filmed quite nicely. My disappointment/frustration was in the anticipation. I loved the original series, and still rewatch it. After such a long wait, this wasn’t the result I’d hoped for. Originally there were three or four movies planned, and certainly this first sets up another. Hopefully they have learned from this initial foray and can improve going forward…assuming they go forward.

A few misses…

Like many, I’m finding myself casting about for things to watch. And now, more than ever, I’m seeking out things at the fringes looking for something new and unique. In some cases I’ve been lucky: Palm Springs, Precarious, See You Yesterday, The Vast of Night.

But to find those, I had to watch many others, and not all measured up. Here are a few of my recent misses. I want to be clear, I respect all of their creators and efforts, but they each failed for me for different reasons.

Making Time
This is another in the many tales of time looping relationship tales. It was the first film I tried the night I found the much superior Time Freak. I made it about 25 minutes into this very low-budget indie before bailing. It was clearly tongue-in-cheek, but it also failed to find solid footing that I could believe in. After 20 minutes, I still didn’t care a whit about the main character or his predicament. The main government characters were being played to be absurd rather than at all threatening or supportive. The romance at the crux of it all just wasn’t believable. There is some talent in the film making, but I wasn’t about to make any more time for it myself. 

Space Captain: Captain of Space!
This is a great joke of a film…for about 15 – 20 minutes. Honestly, it is. But a whole feature of low-budget, Flash Gordon satire? No, sorry, it just doesn’t sustain. At least not for me. Definitely give it a go if you enjoy the silly. They knew what they had, they did a fabulous job of picking up the sense and sensibility of the era, and found a look and feel that was just perfect. But, like many an SNL skit, it just had nowhere to go, but insists on continuing regardless. I bailed out, but I wasn’t sorry I tuned in for at least a chunk of it.

The Barrier
There are some good ideas in The Barrier. Not great ones as they’re all pretty tired now, but some good ones. And Netflix, who premiered it, is smartly doling out this post-pandemic, grim dystopia weekly. I think binging it would cause mental harm with today’s situation. But the real challenge for me is that it’s really a telenovela at heart. It starts more subtle, but by the end of the first episode it is so arch and obvious I just couldn’t return. This is really a matter of taste and need rather than a comment on quality. So if you like that kind of serial, give it a shot. I just had to run away.

 

Unknown Origins (Orígenes Secretos)

[4 stars]

One of the best geekfests since Deadpool, and considerably more down to earth. I could explain more, but it would give away the fun.

Director and co-writer David Galán Galindo walks a very difficult line to deliver an odd buddy-cop movie that somehow rides the border of absurd without ever quite losing control. And while a lot of that is due to the script, it is in large part thanks to his cast.

Brays Efe, begins as a clear riff on Jack Black, but evolves into his own, becoming someone quite a bit more as we learn about him and as the plot demands. And Verónica Echegui (Fortitude) starts off equally absurd, but quickly proves her abilities and status. Even Ernesto Alterio’s slightly gleeful and dedicated coroner pushes edges but never loses credibility. The story is helped by the solid center of Antonio Resines as the outgoing guard and the incoming Javier Rey, who are both more traditional detectives, thought at very different ends of their careers. Rey’s earnest nature provides ample foil for the rest of the cast while he finds his way.

Somehow the grabbag of strange characters comes together into something believable enough to entertain and be taken almost seriously. It is definitely more than the sum of its parts and aimed squarely at a particular kind of audience. While it may work generally, the more you know of the superhero or comic world, the more you will enjoy the tale. Anyone with a leaning in these areas should make time for this; you won’t be disappointed. Oh, and don’t miss the bonus scene at the end of the credits for a final treat…

Enola Holmes

[4.5 stars]

Was there ever any doubt that Millie Bobby Brown (Godzilla: King of Monsters) had the chops to carry a movie? And what a wonderful vehicle she has found. Not only does she own the screen with her charisma and chops, but her character drives the tale, pushing her brothers Mycroft and Sherlock to the periphery, making it a decidedly female-driven story.

Sam Claflin (Charlie’s Angels) is a perfectly uptight Mycroft, while Henry Cavill (Witcher) is the thoroughly self-absorbed, but surprisingly available Sherlock. Throw in Helena Bonham Carter (Ocean’s 8) as their rather unique mum, and you’ve a family to be reckoned with…and likely a good salary for a mental health professional. But all their performances are tightly controlled under Fleabag  director Harry Bradbeer’s entirely capable hands.

Despite these lofty names in her family, the story really focuses more on her adventures with the young Louis Partridge; Enola’s master-in-distress. The story manages to both lean into and avoid the young love tropes without making it insulting to either of them. And with Burn Gorman (Pacific Rim: Uprising) constantly at their heels to push along the danger, there are adventures to be had.

The cast is also chock full of other great talents to help buoy the film. Adeel Akhtar (Murder Mystery), Susan Wokoma (Crazyhead), Fiona Shaw (Killing Eve), and Frances de la Tour (The Lady in the Van) help fill out the film with known and unknown characters from the Holmesian universe.

But it isn’t just all fun and games (afoot). Enola Holmes is a timely flick, in more than one way…and the fun is watching all that play out. The adaptation from Nancy Springer’s series by Jack Thorne (Radioactive) is wonderfully on point for current needs. And the result is also an example of what Netflix can find when it really tries, though it’s a shame this never saw the big screen. I think this film could have found an audience. Certainly the cinematography was with the larger format in mind, though it plays perfectly well on a home setup.

Make time for this one, whether you’ve a young woman at home with you or not. It’s fun, wry, sly, and full of adventure; perfect for a light escape that won’t insult your intelligence. And to see Brown beginning to come into her own just adds to the icing on this slightly savory confection.

The Third Day

[? stars]

Jude Law (The Rhythm Section) is the centerpiece of this latest riff on Wickerman. Only a few months back we had the stylish Midsommar that tread similar ground, so I did have to wonder if a 6 part series was really necessary right now.

Honestly, it’s all a bit boring because you know going in quite a bit of what has to happen. I can guess at the ending as well, but can’t be entirely sure of the route and resolution. However, I can’t say I want to watch the whole thing to find out. It just isn’t that gripping…in fact, it’s more frustrating.

The characters are obviously lying all the time. And even with the wonderful acting chops of Emily Watson (Some Girl(s)) and Paddy Considine (Blitz) along with Katherine Waterston (The Current War), you can’t build in suspense where there is none. Because of the genre, you also have no investment in the characters since you know they’re façades.

In short, I gave up. Because of that, I won’t rate it, that wouldn’t be fair. Should better reviews come out, or trusted sources direct me, I’ll return and update this post. But for now, it’s a show that missed its time and need. A shame give the talent and production level, but there it is.

C. B Strike: Lethal White

[3 stars]

It’s been a circuitous route through previous series for the Strike detective agency, but by this fourth installment it’s finally on a solid course; the great soap opera mostly resolved. It’s still a bit unfocused as they continue to cram the scope of the books into the series, but it is feeling more thought through than, especially, the third sequence.

Tom Burke (The Souvenir) and Holliday Grainger (Tulip Fever) continue to develop both their individual characters and their relationship; professional and otherwise. The mystery is actually nicely intricate and fun, though resolved a bit too quickly and unfairly (in some ways). But the four episodes cover a lot of ground and many false starts, which keep it all fun. Because of the structure of the show, and the attitude, it isn’t always easy to know when information is accurate or not, but it does stay internally true to itself. I think, perhaps, my expectations at times were being set by other mysteries that would deal with situations differently.

I’m glad to see this show continuing. I hope they can keep up the quality and, more importantly, move the characters further along their paths without slipping back into the silly crap from before.

Cursed in Arcadia Ego

[4 stars (Tales of Arcadia) or 2.25 stars (Cursed)]

Two very different Netflix shows currently tackle the Arthurian myth. And, surprisingly, the children’s show does it better and more interestingly. Arthur is rich in myth and history with enough room in it to allow for many types of retellings. And these two shows couldn’t have done it more differently nor with such different levels of success.

Tales of Aradia was created by Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone), based on his co-written books. It’s an interconnected collection of series that began with Trollhunters. Then came 3Below, followed by the most recent: Wizards. But the threads that lead to Wizards begin in the first episode of Trollhunters. And, yes, these are really aimed at older kids and young teens, without question, particularly the first couple series. However, I jumped into Wizards without watching the others and it hooked me. It was inventive with the myth, stretching it like crazy, but not breaking it in a way that felt wrong. And while it was clear I didn’t know the backstories of a lot of characters, I was never entirely lost; a credit to the writing of the show.

When I went back to the beginning of the inter-connected series, I was surprised to find references to events I’d just witnessed, and which would have gone unanswered for viewers for three years. In other words, I don’t think it matters which end of the time stream you start, it all comes together in fun ways.

The show is loaded with voice talent, and won several Emmys as well. Most notably in the cast is Anton Yelchin (Thoroughbreds), who began as the lead, and stayed with it through his untimely death near the beginning of season 3. And then the series made some great choices to both continue, and to not dismiss his loss when they changed the character voice to Emile Hirsch (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood).

When you’re looking for some distraction, some fairly solid animation, and a clever tale, this set of shows will work for you. And, more importantly, they don’t insult your sense of the underlying material they plundered to create their world.

Now, on to Cursed

Where to start with where this series went wrong… How about the desire to rewrite the Arthurian tale rather than just do a true prequel? How about mucking up Roman/Britannia history so badly as to be embarrassing? How about having people make stupid choices and dialogue that was utterly painful at times? How about an unrelenting dirge of a tale with barely a respite? Well, it’s a start.

I will admit I soldiered on through to the end of this story, though I almost completely bailed about half-way through the second episode. It was close and I did turn it off at that point. But I came back to see if they could rescue it. They sort of did. Sort of. But I was still let cursing (appropriately) at my screen in the final 15 minutes of the series.

Aspects of the reimagining are clever…but they’re also contradictory in their set-up, implying it is way before Arthur’s time, when in fact is is contemporaneous with it. That just threw it all into disarray at the outset. And then there is the religious war aspect, which was half-true, though massively shifted time-wise to feed their hungry beast of a plot.

The cast does what it can with the painful scripts and choices, but they are left hanging on the screen, more often than not, looking less than comfortable with the results. Katherine Langford (Knives Out) and Devon Terrell (Ophelia) bumble around the countryside having to deliver mouthfuls of bad dialogue, and strained protestations of affection. And Gustaf Skarsgård (Vikings) has created an outrageous Merlin, that tries to resurrect Nicol Williamson’s unforgettable turn in Excalibur. And then there’s the sadly miscast Sebastian Armesto (Tulip Fever) as Uther Pendragon, whose been shrunk to a fool and wisp of a man. And that doesn’t even touch the psychotic nun, Emily Coates, who does OK, but who we never get enough about to understand what drives her. At least the young Billy Jenkins (Humans) gives us a full character, even without all the backstory.

Honestly, if we’re looking for strong, female-led tales of the time, and Arthur in particular, can’t we just finally adapt Mists of Avalon or Parke Godwin’s Firelord series? The characters are way more interesting, and the story much more credible and fascinating (and closer to true history and embraced myth).

The point is that if you’re going to do a re-imagining, do it with a purpose, not just changing things for shock value or convenience to muck with people’s expectations. Ultimately, that’s all Cursed does as it slogs through its torturous existence, and without even the courage to finish the story.

Time Freak

[4 stars]

Romance, comedy, and time travel, especially when wrapped in honesty and told with some intelligence, is a triumverate always guaranteed to grab my attention. Unlike the recent Palm Springs, the character intent here is deliberate, but they both deliver the story in a similar way that let’s you connect with it immediately and get on board for the ride.

The story, despite its scope, is really driven by just three characters. Asa Butterfield (Slaughterhouse Rulez) and Sophie Turner (X-Men: Dark Phoenix) are the romantic crux of the story. And while that may sound like an odd combo, it’s supposed to be. And yet the two have a believable chemistry between them. More surprisingly, it comes mostly from Turner’s performance, which is the best I’ve seen her do. I actually believed her completely, something all of her previous performances have lacked for me. Butterfield is playing into his strengths in this film, but does so with heartfelt earnestness that wins you over.

While the main couple certainly carries the story forward and keeps it focused, Skyler Gisondo (Santa Clarita Diet) adds the final element that makes it all work: comic relief and, often, common sense. This is especially amusing as he’s a complete screw-up. This isn’t the basis for comedy I usually enjoy, but it works here due to its restraint and evolution. Even Will Peltz’s (In Time) side character, as extreme as he takes it, manages to find ground often enough to add to the depth of the tale rather than distract from it.

Writer/director Andrew Bowler expanded his Oscar nominated short into this truly delightful and funny exploration of life, love, and relationships. The cleverly written script spends the first third in familiar territory. And, honestly, even if it hadn’t expanded on that, I would have enjoyed the movie thanks to his control of the performances and pace. But it is Bowler’s willingness to try to explore the characters and plot more deeply that makes this particular run at the sub-genre something worth seeing.

When you need something enjoyable and not entirely devoid of logic and intelligence, queue this one up. You won’t be sorry.

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

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