Tag Archives: 3stars

Frankie Drake Mysteries

[3 stars]

I was originally going to just let this show slide by uncommented upon. It was the Canadian answer to Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, but without the writing and acting. In other words, diverting enough to watch, but nothing to recommend or run from. Well, I almost ran from it…the hour-long comedy/drama was a lot of time for little return. But then something interesting happened. About halfway through the inaugural season they went on a typical hiatus, and when they returned the writing had massively improved. The mysteries got better, the characters started to add depth, and the acting got beyond surfacey silliness.

In the title role, Lauren Lee Smith (Ascension) began this series rather ham-handedly. She had no sense of what it was to be a flapper and the costumers and writing did her no favors. She came across as weak copy of Fisher. As Frankie’s partner, Chantel Riley (Race) had real potential, but no storylines to really explore any of it. But around episode 6 they found their footing and refocused the show. Riley gets a family and some real plot opportunities. Smith becomes more of a person and less of a cartoon cipher with an excuse to play 1920s dress-up.

Not all characters got to grow as much. Rebecca Liddiard (Houdini & Doyle, Alias Grace) remained primarily comic relief. However, her abilities were expanded upon. I’m looking forward to seeing how they flesh her out in the next season.  On the other hand, Sharron Matthews as the coroner starts off strong in the series and only gets better as it goes along. The show also manages some fun guest stars through their freshman series.

You may have noticed I’ve only called out women. One thing I can say about Frankie Drake is that it really is only about the women. There are male colleagues, victims, and criminals, but it is driven by the four women.

I don’t know if Frankie can sustain its return from the edge of extreme mediocrity, but I’d like to believe they discovered their issues and are now on track. OK, it does stumble a little in the last couple episodes, but one is a wrap up to discard a character that needed to be flushed, and the finale is a little over-edited, but provides some solid history to grow from (again from the Fisher playbook, but done well). Give it a shot when it arrives on air or streaming. Stick it out for the first five or six episodes to watch it turn the corner. It isn’t bad for the first five, but knowing it improves makes it worth the wait. Whether it can survive to renewal remains to be seen.

Tomb Raider (2018)

[3.5 stars]

YAR (yet another remake). Which isn’t to say it is bad, it isn’t. In fact they took their charge seriously and tried to make a relatively good movie that hewed to the original material, sort of. To separate it from the previous films, Alicia Vikander (Tulip Fever) gives us a younger, more vulnerable Lara Croft. She is a woman who has to come into her own during the story rather than the fully established inheritor of her father’s wealth and lifestyle from the start. And Vikander is impressively up to the task both physically and with emotional chops. They make sure you understand and believe that from the top.

As her father, Dominic West (The Square) also does a credible job, though with a slightly more exaggerated sensibility. Similarly for Walton Goggins (Maze Runner: The Death Cure), who has to walk the line of mustache twirler, father, and slightly bonkers villain. Neither is completely realistic, but by the point in the story they show up, Lara’s deep into the fantastical world she will inhabit the rest of her life.

Three supporting roles were worth noting as well: Daniel Wu (Warcraft, Into the Badlands), Kristin Scott Thomas (The Darkest Hour), and Derek Jacobi (Last Tango in Halifax, Murder on the Orient Express). Ok the last simply because it was Jacobi…he doesn’t really get to do much, but I always enjoy his work.

Director Roar Uthaug  (The Wave), and his rather untried script writers Robertson-Dowert and Siddons, took their time to build a story and world for Croft to inhabit and to give her artifact-hunting motivations beyond some internal sense of guilt or nobelesse oblige.  Uthaug  mostly kept it all realistic in effort and response. Lara gets hurt. A lot. In fact she grunts more than Steffi Graff during a finals match. However, in the quest for reality, the script also leaves out some of the more interesting aspects of Croft’s world. I appreciated how they grounded the plot, but I like a bit more fantasy with my pony-tailed heroine.

There is a ton of action to keep this all going. There is even some humor and just enough emotion to tie it together. Personally, I prefer the more established Lara over this rite-of-passage version that will lead to her. It really depends on whether you want to see a super hero kind of film or something more grounded. This film skirts the edge of both. You’ll have fun, but since it isn’t likely to spawn a franchise, it feels a bit less satisfying as a stand-alone. Also, I’d recommend not seeing the larger format screens. There is a good deal of shakey-cam (used for purpose) that I always find annoying and difficult to watch on that size screen.

I don’t mean to damn with feint praise, but I did want a bit more than I got even as I was surprised by how well it was all done. I will admit, it may have been more my expectations than what was delivered, but this is a well-established character, so I can’t be the only one with assumptions. Should a miracle occur and they continue the franchise, this is a solid world and character start, if not an Iron Man-style blowout.

Tomb Raider


[3.5 stars]

Writer David Hare (DenialThe Worricker Trilogy) has delivered another complex and tight suspense/thriller. It is a beautiful study of chaos born from a simple, small event. The 4-part tale is one, primarily, of three women in very different places in life, but all intersecting through a seemingly random crime in London.

Carey Mulligan (Mudbound) makes a nice switch to the staid DI Glaspie from her previous strong, but often gender-bounded parts. Glaspie is a tough woman, straight talker, and flawed in ways the keep you interested as she tackles her first big case.

Special ops Jeany Spark (Wallander) brings some interesting flavor to the story. Her struggles, both internal and within the military are often horrific, but she rises above that in her own way. Admittedly, her choices are less than mainstream, but you understand her better than you’d like to admit.

Nicola Walker (River), on the other hand, gives us yet another of her strong but shattered women, a trademark character she manages to make feel fresh and real no matter the story she brings it to. It is hard to recall she started in comedy way back when before she found her meal ticket in film and TV.

Then, of course, are a panoply of others from John Simm (Doctor Who), to Billie Piper (Penny Dreadful), to Hayley Squires (Miniaturist), Nathaniel Martello-White (Moonwalkers), Ahd Kamel (Wadjda), July Namir, and Ben Miles (The Crown). There isn’t a weak casting choice in the lot and S.J. Clarkson directed them and the overall sequence well. Despite the potential for soapy histrionics, Clarkson kept it all very real, contained, and pressurized.

The four installments pull you along as it drops clues that slowly build to a complete picture. It isn’t quite as complex or solidly interlinked as Worricker, but it is full of great moments, dialogue, and performances. Definitely worth a bit of binge when you want a slightly more challenging distraction.


[3 stars]

Requiem is an odd, 6-part mystery that is both modern mystery and Gothic horror. From the outset, it is clear that there is some kind of supernatural aspect to the events, but the story unfolds for a long time with that being very much in question and at the periphery. Part of the fun of the story is trying to identify truth and interpretation from fiction and assumption.

Lydia Wilson (Star Trek Beyond) leads the story as a delightfully and frustratingly flawed young woman. For all her strength and focus though, her character drifts into “willful stupid” territory about two thirds into the sequence thanks to writing choices. The Code collaborators, Mrksa and Ayshford,  relied a bit too much on some tropes to push the plot along rather than find more natural ways to have confrontations in their latest delivery.

Wilson’s sidekick, Joel Fry (Game of Thrones), has one of the more challenging paths in this story. Honestly, it never really entirely comes together, but it leaves him hanging in a realistic way. It is clear to us what the motivations are even though the characters rarely broach the subject.

Three other women have nicely complex roles in the series. Two are well recognized faces from many shows and movies; Joanna Scanlan (Electric Dreams) and Claire Rushbrook (Murder: Joint Enterprise) are terrific characters with difficult plots to navigate. The third,  Clare Calbraith, is less known, but is as integral as Wilson in driving the plot forward.

Additional support by James Frecheville (Adore), Brendan Coyle (Me Before You), Sian Reese-Williams (Hinterland) and Darren Evans (Galavant) are all worth mentioning, though far from the entire cast.

Overall, the mystery unfolds nicely and inexorably, but don’t expect all questions to be answered. Most will, and certainly enough will, but the show left itself a way forward and didn’t try to cover all bases. That was fair given that not all answers were or could be known in this part of the story. If you like moody horror and mystery, this is a good mix of the two, and definitely a binge-worthy series that will hook you quickly.

Hard Sun

[3 stars]

Assumption: The only thing that holds society generally, and people specifically, in check is the expectation of a future.

Experiment: Take away that future…what happens?

It isn’t a new idea, nor is it even the best tackle of that idea (Children of Men, probably tops that list). However, when the creator and writer of Luther, Neil Cross, wanted to tackle this idea and deliver something a bit more speculative in genre, it was something I wanted to check out. The dark, violent sensibilities of Luther are put into a new frame where the world itself could be ending. The concept and effects are an interesting study, and sad admission, about human nature.

The two detectives who lead the 6-part serial, Jim Sturgess (Geostorm) and Agyness Deyn (Clash of the Titans), are an uncomfortable  pair with complex lives. Splitting the focus between two leads challenges the show at times, but watching them work through their relationship and through the chaos of the world is instantly intriguing. The give and take doesn’t always feel quite real, but Deyn is a kick-ass fighter while Sturgess is an onion of strange psychology that never really comes completely into focus.

Nikki Amuka-Bird (Luther), a wonderful and prolific actor, adds an element of menace, but without a great deal of character. Perhaps that is fair in what is clearly intended to be a 5 series story. However, it doesn’t do her any favors in believability in this first installment. Derek Riddell (Happy Valley), another well-known face from many British series, is likewise incomplete in his character, but with the talent to make the thin meat on his bones work and leave it open to build on if it continues.

Also not helping the credibility of the show are some really, really dumb choices around mental health treatment and police procedure. More than once I found myself gritting my teeth through short-cuts and outright ridiculous choices. All very surprising given Cross’s ability and background.

Overall, there is enough here to keep you intrigued and wondering what will come next. It combines apocalyptic fiction with the standard British police procedural in an interesting, if sometimes clumsy, way.  What is most interesting is the final moments that are visually stunning, but probably lost and confusing to a general audience. Hopefully, though, it is enough to get the rest of the series made, because it definitely leaves you hanging and with a whole lot of potential going forward. Seek it out on Hulu in the States.


Wonder Wheel

[3.5 stars]

Wonder Wheel starts off like many Woody Allen (Cafe Society) films: A hapless narrator explaining the romance/farce/tragedy that is about to unfold. In this case, it is a bit of all of that, but it also quickly shifts into a new mode for Allen. With the immense help of Jim Belushi (Twin Peaks) and Kate Winslet (Collateral Beauty), we are suddenly transported into a Eugene O’Neill play with moments of Tennessee Williams, complete with claustrophobic set, heavy use of alcohol, violence, and disastrous romantic longings. Not to detract from Winslet’s more subtle performance, but Belushi is the real powerhouse behind these scenes; he is an unexpected gut punch in what you expect to be a light, period romance.

Those truly phenomenal scenes are broken up with more typical Allen moments, but without the forced, halting aspects that tend to distract in his movies. All of the scenes flow nicely, though the tenor of the dialog becomes lighter and a tad stilted. Justin Timberlake (Trolls) tends to herald these moments. To a degree, I understand the choice and it is explained at the very top of the film, but the scenes cut into a more powerful story and I think it could have been smoothed through a bit better.

Running between the two worlds along with Winslet is Juno Temple (Black Mass). She brings most of the Tennessee Williams sensibility: fragile, naive, tough, intelligent, lost, and desperate to be loved. She is a breath of Southern Gothic dropped into the Northeast Tragedy.

In many ways, while not necessarily the best Woody Allen film, it is one of his most impressive. The use of language and setting is powerful. The story is relateable and yet utterly designed. The tragedy inevitable and yet totally avoidable. If not for the recent events in the industry, Wonder Wheel would have garnered a lot more attention and nominations. That it didn’t is a complicated conversation every person will have to answer for themselves. But, from a purely artistic point of view, I can recommend the film for the performances, writing, and direction and it may suggest an entirely new direction for Allen’s oeuvre.

Wonder Wheel

A Wrinkle in Time

[3 stars]

Some books stick with you from childhood. When I discovered tesseracts at age 9 or 10, the world opened up for me and I was sold on science fiction for the rest of my life. And it is still one of the first books I give to young kids when they move up a level in their reading. What makes the book so special is that it doesn’t talk down to children. Children are, in fact, the heroes in a very real way. While there are more books like that now, there definitely weren’t when it came out in 1962. And it still has the power to enthrall today, despite any competition because it is so accessible and understandable to children on an emotional level. As the trailers were released for this movie, everyone in the audience was murmuring how they wanted to see it and how much they loved the book, to a time.

Well, first let me warn you, let go of the book. In focusing the story so it would fit into a feature-length tale, Jennifer Lee (Frozen) and Jeff Stockwell (Bridge to Terebithia) decided on some large changes right off the top, especially around Charles Wallace. Most of those are acceptable, but dropping the other siblings and shortening the trials of the children (and a significant change to the ending) left me wondering about their choices.

Ava DuVernay (13th) directed the script she had well. The pace is measured, but matches the book. Despite its impact, the book is very surfacey in its way, and full of huge leaps of place and understanding, but it is true in its emotional core, which DuVernay completely understood. She also walked the line of young love beautifully. But the film is aimed purposefully at 8-15 year olds by design. That is a fair choice, but it makes it less interesting for the returning adult or the more world-aware tween.

Of course, a lot has been made of the three Misses: Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Mindy Kaling (Inside Out), and Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels’ The Butler). But this is primarily Storm Reid’s (12 Years a Slave) movie, and she carries it well. She also bounces off her screen brother Deric McCabe nicely. McCabe has his own burdens to carry in this film and is generally good. Because of the changes to his character, though, I did find accepting him a little harder to do. On the other hand, Levi Miller’s (Pan) Calvin is spot on. He too works well with Reid.

Chris Pine (Wonder Woman), does an amazing amount with very few lines and little screen time. Similarly, though with less range, does Gugu Mbatha-Raw (The Cloverfield Paradox). They make great parents in need of rescue. Sadly, Zach Galifianakis (Tulip Fever) was given one of the best roles in the film, but it was so dampened in the adaptation that he is just forgettable.

The visuals are mostly impressive, though often they feel like flash over substance. The story, well, as I said if you can let go of the book and find your inner 9 year old, it will increase your enjoyment. For me, there were moments that were captured and others that were missed. It was like seeing part of a great painting, but not quite all of it. I do understand the point of the writers and director in their approach…but, the excisions and reconceptualizations should have been left to those with a better understanding of the story who could have also looped in the intent. For instance, despite the opening and closing frames trying to impart one of the great reveals and lessons (and it failed on that), they ignored core chunks of the tale. Giving us the simplest, bare emotional core of the story ultimately diminished rather than expanded its potential audience in my opinion. They should have trusted that the book remained so popular because of its detail, not just because of its message.

This isn’t the first attempt to adapt Wrinkle in Time to screen, nor is it the best, but it makes a game try and is a solid story for children trying to find their place in the world, even if it leaves out and changes great swaths of the original book. So, if you have a young person in your life, sure take them. Skip the IMAX… it just isn’t filmed for it on the whole. And, if they haven’t read the book before the movie, make sure they read it after so they truly understand the magic and possibilities. The remaining four books in the series are totally missable in my opinion. The second is interesting, but the rest… well, make up your own mind. As for the movie…I wanted it to be so much more than it was, but it wasn’t a total fail. I don’t see a franchise coming out of this, but perhaps a Disney Channel series.

Someday, I’d love to see the book tackled again as a mini-series, bringing in the best of this and the best of the 2003 version, which had its good points too (though no widescreen version was ever released). For now, we have this attempt to hold us till someone does it the right way.

A Wrinkle in Time

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

[3 stars]

Agatha Christie’s novels have been done to death (all puns intended) over the years. That doesn’t make them any less entertaining, but it does create a mine field for the actors who must tread well worn paths but somehow make them feel new. And no where is that path more worn than with Miss Marple and Poirot.

Bluntly, Kenneth Branagh (The Magic Flute) is no David Suchet, but he creates a new Poirot that has his moments, if not complete command of our love yet. Branagh also directs the piece expertly, keeping it moving along and offering credible interruptions of events to draw out the denouement. Michael Green’s (Blade Runner 2049) script helps him along on that point with clever dialogue and well-considered constructions. The cinematography is also gorgeous capturing both the landscapes and rich era. 

The film is fairly littered with known faces, far too many to list. But a few are of note. Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean), in particular, sells his linchpin role perfectly. The remaining cast succeed and fail to differing degrees. Sadly, Judi Dench (Victoria & Abdul), is one of the weakest, though I couldn’t tell if that was due to Branagh’s lack of focus on her or simply her delivery. (This movie also completes a triptych of films with Dench for me over the last week.) On the other hand, Michelle Pfeiffer (mother!) and Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) shown like beacons amid the gray and white of the landscape.

Whether you know this story or not, it is a great version of it. In fact, it may well be the best adaptation done yet for large or small screen; certainly it holds its own. Again, it isn’t the Poirot that I grew to love over decades, but my first Poirot was Ustinov and I got over it. You could do worse than your first as Branagh…just hunt down Suchet’s distillation at some point as well. No one has yet captured Christie’s little Belgian quite so well.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Victoria & Abdul

[3 stars]

From the very beginning you know the tone of this tale is not going to be the dry historical you probably expected. Victoria & Abdul is, for a large part of the movie, a light film filled with comedy and joy, though it certainly takes on important issues while it both celebrates and lambastes the pomp of royalty and the untenable position of a monarch. Judi Dench (Tulip Fever) tackles the leader of the British empire 20 years after her previous turn in the position in Mrs. Brown. In fact, this movie picks up that persona well into her years, long past Albert, and years after Victoria was again on her own. The two would make a great double feature as you can see the foundation of what leads to Victoria’s choices and household.

In the other title role, Ali Fazal (3 Idiots) brings an interesting energy to his character that feels almost false or forced, but somehow real. He is the perfect optimist opposite Adeel Akhtar’s (The Big Sick) whingeing and political ire in opposition to the court around him. Of note in that group are Eddie Izzard (Absolutely Anything), Olivia Williams (Man Up), and Paul Higgins (Utopia), among a host of others.

What starts as silly, progresses roughly as you’d expect as jealousies and prejudice begin to assert themselves. But Victoria was a tough old cookie, even till the end;  nothing was ever going to be simple.

Having already tackled Queen Elizabeth II, it shouldn’t be surprising to see director Stephen Frears (Florence Foster Jenkins) take on Victoria. He is well at home in the upper crustiest of crusts, and happy to show all the cracks as well. He coaxed a wonderfully balanced set of performances out of the entire cast and filmed it with care and love for his central characters.

And though the tale is oversimplified, Lee Hall’s (War Horse) script provides enough meat to keep it all feeling complete. The dialogue is also often delightfully unexpected.

This isn’t a brilliant film, but it is entertaining and worth the investment of an evening to learn about a newly discovered bit of history. Seeing Dench take on the mantle of the monarchy again to complete the story she started back in 1997 is also a gift.

Victoria & Abdul

Game Night

[3.5 stars]

Though an ensemble film, the driving forces in this romp are Jason Bateman (The Family Fang) and Rachel McAdams (Doctor Strange). The two have great chemistry and timing, running the knife edge of comedy, action, and romance. As absurd and predictable as the movie can get, you really care for and cheer on this couple.

Around them are  are a host of, generally, small-screen actors breaking out nicely on the big screen. From Kyle Chandler (Carol), Sharon Horgan (Catastrope), Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods), Lamorne Morris (New Girl), to Kylie Bunbury (Under the Dome), there isn’t a performance that doesn’t match the need.

And then there is the outsider Jesse Plemons (Battleship) who has been popping up all over the place these days. Plemons plays a dry and creepy neighbor so over-the-top you almost believe in him. And, finally, there are two smaller amusements with Danny Huston (Wonder Woman) and Michael C. Hall (Dexter).

While this movie wouldn’t have worked without the comic and dramatic abilities of its cast, the real star is the direction and script that threaded the needle. The co-directors of the much less funny Vacation, John Francis Daley (also known for his turn in Bones) and Jonathan Goldstein, reteamed for this very entertaining farce. Add to it the clever, even when predictable, script by Mark Perez (Accepted) and the team really brought unexpected magic to what could have died up on the screen.

I admit, I wouldn’t have gone to this weren’t it for MoviePass, but it surprised me. I laughed a lot more than I expected and was even surprised at times. I admit, for me Bateman was also a draw. I find his brand of dark humor compelling most of the time, and he certainly entertained on that account. Whether you see this on big or small screen, make time for it when you want an off-color but not tasteless romp with action and humor. You won’t be disappointed.

Game Night