Tag Archives: 4stars

Brave New World

[4 stars]

In a year with Watchmen, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, and Lovecraft Country, or even the competing War of the Worlds series (classic and reconceived), it’s easy to understand how this adaptation has been utterly missed. The fact that it’s buried on Peacock (literally, as it’s already been cancelled) probably hasn’t helped either.

The reality is that this story was always a dark mirror for society and, given how dark reality currently is, it was going to struggle this season. I give the creators and Peacock credit for cleaving to the book so closely in feel and intent, even when it veers off widely from the original. But its timing was probably way off for most people. Even though the story is ultimately a triumph for individualism and freedom, it’s a view of the world that isn’t fun to live through.

The cast, however, keep it all engaging. Alden Ehrenreich (Solo: A Star Wars Story) plays a solid John the Savage to Jessica Brown Findlay (Victor Frankenstein) and Harry Lloyd’s (The Hollow Crown) privileged, if fraught, existence. And Demi Moore provides some nice flourishes as John’s mother.

Along with the main cast, Hannah John-Kamen (Ant-Man and the Wasp) and Nina Sosanya (Staged) add some nice strong rolls. And Joseph Morgan (Immortals) has a quiet but intense hand in the plot evolution. But, while there are many male roles, this series is really dominated by the female performances.

Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World was published in 1932, pre-dating Orwell’s better remembered 1984. Both tackle many of the same issues even if orthogonally from each other. Which only tells you how little changes in politics and society. It’s an interesting mirror for the story’s resurrection that we are in the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression and drowning in both information and electronic oversight. But I will say that that the story was nicely tweaked to better match the trajectory of society and technology without abandoning the book and its intention.

It may be a dark road to ramble, but this incarnation of Brave New World is fascinating and well-done. And even though it is set up for a never-to-appear second season, it manages to stand on its own as is. Timing could have been better, but they delivered a solid mini-series, and certainly the best adaptation of the book to date.

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

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.]

Dating Amber Poster

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.

Uncle Frank Poster

What the Constitution Means to Me

[3.5 stars]

Heidi Schreck isn’t widely know in film and TV, but her semi-autobiographical play, What the Constitution Means to Me, is topical, educational, and funny amid the points. And there is likely an awful lot of information your social studies/government studies, or whatever passes for those classes these days, left out.

While we sit around waiting for the results of the 2020 election, and shortly after we’ve had yet another “originalist” sat on SCOTUS, this play couldn’t be more timely or appropriate. It isn’t perfect…the structure is a bit odd, the moments don’t always flow perfectly from one thought to another, and capturing the play for film wasn’t done particularly well, though it certainly works. But the overall points and the raw emotion that Schreck can dredge up are worth any moments of weakness. And, given where we are as a country right now, this is a must see 100 minutes for everyone (though, be aware it does contain some adult subject matter and language).

So, while we wait to see what direction we may end up pointing, take a break and gain some additional perspective for what’s to come and what could come.

What the Constitution Means to Me Poster

Ted Lasso

[4 stars]

I can’t believe I’m endorsing this show (it was inspired by an ad campaign, for cryin’ out loud), but I am. I never thought it would be something I could watch; Jason Sudeikis (Colossal), just isn’t my usual cup of tea.

But that’s thing about Ted Lasso, while Sudeikis and Brendan Hunt are earnest and interesting and really sell their characters, it isn’t their show. The story is really about all the people around them, and those actors play it genuinely and beautifully. Hannah Waddingham (Sex Education), Juno Temple (Wonder Wheel), Brett Goldstein (Uncle), Jeremy Swift (Stonewall), and Nick Mohammed (The Martian) bring a host of different stories and reactions to keep you hooked. In fact, the humor is often fall-off-the-couch funny, and the honest moments are, well sometimes the same, but just as often incredibly affecting.

Frankly, I’m not a sports guy. Prior to this, the only series that ever managed to overcome my aversion to sports stories was Sports Night. But Lasso managed some of the same magic…making the story about everything other than the sport involved and getting me to care.

Lasso is already renewed for two more seasons, it’s worth your time and it’s the perfect antidote for the dark and stressful times around us. I just hope they can keep up the story and the writing.

Ted Lasso Poster

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.

On the Rocks Poster

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.

Made in Dagenham Poster

American Utopia

[4 stars]

Back in 1984 David Byrne and David Lynch gave us unequivocally the best concert film ever released with Stop Making Sense. It is the bar by which I judge every concert film and, unsurprisingly, even more appropriate in this case. So, here we are 36 years later and Byrne has teamed with Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) to capture his Broadway concert and bring it to the masses.

First off, the music and musicianship are great. But that’s no surprise. Byrne has a wealth of music to draw on and has always gathered capable artists around him. The shape of the concert, however, isn’t quite what he managed with Stop Making Sense.

There is a shape. But unlike Stop Making Sense, which builds on the music and performance, American Utopia focuses on message. And, oddly, that message comes most into focus most powerfully when he performs Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” rather than his own songs. But while there is a thread of connective tissue thematically to the song choices and presentation, it never quite has the build and completeness of the earlier movie. Lee got lost in angles and points of view the audience didn’t have rather than just making the story on stage work. It isn’t poorly done, but it feels more like a filmed performance than it does a story.

If you have any love of The Talking Heads or Byrne’s music, this is a must-see concert. But if you’re hoping for a career topper after such a long gap, you may be a bit disappointed. Go for the concert and leave  your expectations set appropriately. You won’t be sorry you spent the time. Byrne can still control a stage and his message is a timely one for our world.

David Byrne's American Utopia Poster

McQueen

[3.5 stars]

In his relatively short life, Alexander McQueen was a force in fashion that could not be ignored. Love him or hate him, he was a master of design and presentation, not to mention a conscious provocateur.

This docu traces his rise and impact through interviews and tons of archival footage. It is a highly personal view of events, with very little in the way of objective exploration. McQueen would probably agree with that approach, but it makes the film, for all its beauty and inventiveness in presentation, less informative and more a reflection on the man.

And McQueen is a fascinating and tragic character; a driven artist and a damaged man. More than anything, you are left with the impression that perhaps the inevitable tragedy was avoidable if anyone had challenged McQueen’s ability to control the room and provided intervention.

Ultimately, there isn’t much to glean about the man in the fashion world, other than his c.v. and footage of his shows, as there is about the man behind the curtain. If you are a fan or curious it is certainly worth it for that. The new footage is a visual feast, nicely balancing a lot of the lower-fi archival footage. But, frustratingly, it does lose its sense of time. Being more commentary than academic, it provides few year markers to help you place the action (unless, of course, you know his career so well you can place the year by the collection).

For a peek behind the curtain of both the industry and to see the unguarded moments of the man, this is a wonderful excursion. If you want to know more about McQueen’s explicit impacts and efforts, I’m afraid you’re on your own.

McQueen Poster