Tag Archives: 3stars

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.

Roadkill Poster

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.

Sputnik Poster

Raised by Wolves

[3 stars]

Real science fiction is hard to come by. And, frustratingly, for all the solid bits and excellent start to this series, the writing ultimately makes some cheap choices and unforgivable mistakes in logic that takes this challenging bit of story and diminishes it.

So let me slap this around for a  couple moments before I move on to the faint praises. For instance, would a high tech world, which shows a propensity for complete body scans, rely only on ID cards and visual confirmations rather than DNA for their approvals? Or, how does a kid raised away from Earth acquire an accent. Any accent? Silly stuff like that could have been easily avoided, but they’re typical mistakes made by lesser writing in the genre. And then there’s the overall arc, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Now on to what’s good. The opening two episodes of this story are jaw-dropping. While riffing on several known plots like Battlestar Galactica, Brave New World, and any apocalyptic tale of Earth, it manages to build out some unique aspects. And it is quickly obvious there is a much larger story that may not take the path you think. All great things. In fact, it sets up some truly unique approaches to some standard problems… and then sacrifices them all for all the obvious paths. I picked out every major plot point early on and, while there were some misdirects, ultimately had them prove out. I don’t say this as a brag…but as a lambast. I shouldn’t have been right. At least not on all of it.

If creator Aaron Guzikowski (Papillon) was going to create a tale of restarting civilization, why riff on and recreate or make manifest everything in Western society again? Especially when he’s so brilliantly wiped the slate clean? How much of the paths taken were at the urging of Ridley Scott (Alien: Covenant), who directed the opening episodes and produced the series along with his son, Luke Scott (Morgan), I can’t say. But the issues I have are echos of many of Ridley’s stories of the past decade.

OK, that said, there is some strong acting to prop it all up. Amanda Collin as Mother and Abubakar Salim (Strike) as Father take on difficult challenges well. Even Winta McGrath, playing young Campion, brings some nice credibility (if also his improbable accent). So too do Felix Jamieson’s (Summer of Rockets) Paul and the complicated Jordan Loughran’s (Emerald City) Tempest.

However, Paul’s “parents” don’t fare as well. Niamh Algar is written with very confusing choices and slippery, plot-necessitated motives. And Travis Fimmel (Warcraft) is just completely miscast. He’s so over-the-top as to be distracting and not particularly credible for his path. Someone more like Jason Isaacs would have been better. What was needed was a strong, but damaged, intellect with the capacity for unexpected violence. A crazy man, however he gets there, just gets boring.

But what burns me the most about this opening season is the lack of answers and the number of cliff-hangers after 10 episodes. Frankly, it’s unforgivable to pay off nothing. It’s a desperate plea to get a series two, which I’m sure it will get, but I’d think twice about committing to the next round given the finale of this first. Basically, the series takes an interesting idea, chickens out in almost every respect, and refocuses on a more palatable, standard direction…and then doesn’t even have the balls to admit it with at least some resolutions.

Yes, I’m a bit conflicted. The production design and values are top notch. Some of the ideas are wonderful. Even some of the moments and writing are solid. But, in my opinion, the overall impact was so much less than it could have been with braver choices. Your mileage may vary.

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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.

Gather Poster

A One Lane Mystery Road

I’ve grouped these two mystery series because they have some similarities. The common thread, despite the difference in country, is indigenous peoples. In fact, the main detective in both series represents this oft time side-lined culture. Interestingly, they have similar sensibilities, though very different tenors.

One Lane Bridge

This is the inaugural series of what is somewhere between a rough-edged mystery, similar to many Northern England shows like Shetland or Hinterland, but with a bit of aboriginal mythos thrown in. It has a few recognizable faces, if you watch New Zealand shows. The basic story is a simple family murder. Dominic Ona-Ariki (Filthy Rich) gets it as his first case in the remote town to which he’s moved.

Among the faces you might know are Joel Tobeck (The Blake Mysteries: Ghost Story), Alison Bruce (Top of the Lake), and Michelle Langstone (800 Words). They also have some of the more complicated story lines, though they aren’t the main focus of the story.

We don’t really get to know much of why Ariki’s there in series 1, nor much about his background. He does, however, solve the season’s mystery so nothing of importance is left hanging. But a lot is held back and many things are clearly queued up for a second series. Despite the grit and anger of it all, I’d be back to see what they can make of it. The characters are rich and full of stories.

Mystery Road

And speaking of grit and anger, this second season of the movie adaptation of this series is just full of it. Aaron Pedersen (The Code) returns as the swaggering, grumpy loner who’s trying to single-handedly clean up the Australian outback and northern coast. Tasma Walton (Cleverman) returns as his frustrated ex-wife and Sofia Helin (The Bridge) joins as one of the principle variables, which was certainly a draw for me.

This is a heavy feeling storyline of angry people and nefarious doings. But there are interesting characters and fascinating insights into culture that you won’t get anywhere else. I can’t take too much of it at once… the writing often makes choices for the convenience of the action, rather than what people would normally do, but it’s entertaining and even spiked with adrenaline at times.

One Lane Bridge Mystery Road Poster

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.

Transplant Poster NEXT Poster Pandora Poster

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.

Ugetsu Poster

Over the Moon

[3 stars]

I don’t know a parent who hasn’t sweated the two really big conversations with their kids: sex and death. Over the moon takes on the latter in a very accessible and relatively honest way without losing the magic of the tale. The story, by the late Audrey Wells (The Hate U Give), doesn’t shy away from many of the issues and feelings while also not making it overly depressing; she was targeting tweens and younger. The result of this latest Netflix drop is definitely a movie for kids, but with a delightfully odd mix of story and craft that kept me interested.

On the craft side, it is an odd mix of high-end CGI and flat animation. And, generally, the flat animation is used for the fantasy side of the world rather than the Fei Fei, our intrepid and driven heroine’s world. It makes for an odd experience, but it somehow works.

The story, however, is probably the more interesting of the choices. It brings in science as a way to focus the action, but then leaps into fantasy without apology. It also tackles some real life challenges.

The voice talent is adequate, but nothing that really stands out, despite some recognizable names. And the music is good, but never quite finds a song that will stick in your head…it’s close, but just misses. I will, however, give them props for some of the lyrics and script being at least a bit honest about how complicated families and life can be.

Over the Moon is fun once for adults, if you like anime and particularly if you like seeing other myths than we’re used to catching in English. Kids will likely enjoy this more, and perhaps even more than once, though I’m not a great predictor when it comes to that. But it is certainly a solid achievement and a funny and poignant tale.

Over the Moon Poster

Tiramisu (Luen oi hang sing)

[3 stars]

For a good part of this story, I was willingly transported on an elegiac fantasy about love and art. Two people meet, by accident, make a connection and then, well, weirdness and the unexpected occur. It is very much a Chinese myth and story, right through to the end. But, this is a modern framing for myths you may know, and some that are made up. It isn’t full-on magic and weirdness, but stays focused on the characters and their relationships, with just enough oddness to keep it all unique.

Dante Lam directs with an open heart and love for the characters and with an artist’s mind. The result turns Kin Chung Chan’s script into something quite beautiful and, often, funny. Nicholas Tse and Kar Yan Lam work well together keeping the story light, but intense. Their side-kicks, Candy Lo and Eason Chan, help kick it along as well, though Chan is more than a little over the top.

For something a little different, with a solidly recognizable thread, this was fun. Though I will admit that it sort of falls apart at the end. I would have laid out the last few moments differently, both for consistency and to carry through the themes, but it still works emotionally. For a light-ish romantic tale with some classic overtones, check it out sometime.