Tag Archives: Dark

Luther (series 5)

[3.5 stars]

This is either an ignominious end, or a brave new platform from which, to relaunch what has been one of the most shocking and strong suspense/mystery series to come out of the BBC. Brutal, dark, and fun as always, this fifth series of Luther really got back on its feet, at least for the first three-quarters and a bit of it.

Luther has evolved over time. From the dark and twisted first season, into the hyper-violent second tale, the maudlin third and then the odd, bridging fourth, which was interesting but not particularly satisfying. This new, four-part installment gives us a story we are more familiar with, while adding some new faces.

Idris Elba (The Mountain Between Us) and Ruth Wilson (Mrs. Wilson) continue to drive most of the action, along with Patrick Malahide (Mortal Engines). But Wumi Mosaku (The End of the F***ing World), coming in as a wet-behind-the-ears detective under Luther’s wing, really gets to show her range as well. Mosaku has been typically cast as the jaded copper of late, but this fresh persona has lost none of her sharp intelligence or strength, providing an immediate and interesting focus in the story. And, of course, Dermot Crowley (Hard Sun), is still there to helm the ship in his odd and MI-6 sort of way.

The wonderful counterpoint of Hermoine Norris (Outcasts) and Enzo Cilenti (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell), both with each other and Luther’s cadre, is great fun to watch. The two are a dark dance of fun with many currents running below the surface.

As I implied, up till the final half hour, this is a great series. It isn’t at all clear where the story is going to go or how it will all go down, though you’ll have strong suspicions. The question, at the very end , is whether writer/creator Neil Cross wimped out or if it was simply easy set of choices to bring it all to a close. As of a few days ago, there are rumors it will continue into a series six, but in a very new direction. However, nothing has been confirmed.

If you like Luther, this is a must-see continuation of his and his department’s tale. If you haven’t discovered the series yet, start at the top and see if you can handle the oppressive weight of Luther’s world. This is not a light series, but it is wonderfully acted and, often, intriguingly written.

Blindspotting

[3.5 stars]

Blindspotting joins a growing group of scathing social satire and commentary, from the outrageous Get Out, Sorry to Bother You, and Assassination Nation, to the truth-based BlacKkKlansman, The Favourite, and Vice. This is on the more realistic side of that collective, which only makes it more powerful when it comes down to its final moments.

The movie is written by and stars Daveed Diggs (Wonder) and Rafael Casal. They’ve crafted a script that is both naturalistic and lyrical, bordering on Shakespearian at times. Diggs and Casal are also a great acting team that dominates the film with their energy and emotions. Janina Gavankar (Sleepy Hollow) and Jasmine Cephas Jones (Mistress America) have impact and each provide important sounding boards for the men and their journeys, but remain in the background.

Blindspotting isn’t the most fun ride, though it does have humor, but it is a well crafted ride with some truly unforgettable moments and a very strong message. Definitely worth your time when you’re up for their approach, which pulls no punches but which also very much loves its characters.

Vice

[4 stars]

Hilarious. Nauseating. Angering. Unreal. Adam McKay’s (The Big Short) depiction and investigation into the life of Dick Cheney is full of energy and, from the outset, honest about where he stands on the subject.

Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace) delivers an astounding performance as Cheney. To say he disappears into the role is an understatement. It is creepy, it is so believable. By his side, Amy Adams (Nocturnal Animals) does an equally chilling turn as his wife, Lynne. Even while humanizing them, they are unabashedly power hungry, walking evil. Not that I or McKay have an opinion on the matter.

There are some rather good bit performances as well. Sam Rockwell’s (Woman Walks Ahead) George W. Bush grew on me as he played it out. LisaGay Hamilton (Take Shelter) as Condoleezza Rice was quietly magnetic and Shea Whigham (First Man) was decidedly vile. I do have to say that I didn’t find Steve Carrell’s (Welcome to Marwen) Rumsfeld very solid, which was disappointing. It eventually got there, but there was something off in his presence and I couldn’t ever quite see the real man.

One performance being utterly missed, because it is so invisible in many ways, is Jesse Plemons (Game Night). His role is somewhat thankless, but he is the engine that keeps it all humming along. It is a solid definition of supporting actor and worth mentioning.

There is no question this movie has an agenda, as I’ve mentioned. It is as accurate as possible (and it becomes clear why that is only “as possible”), but the overall tone is clear. And do stick through the first two sections of credits, and look carefully, to get McKay’s final points.

I’m not sure if this is an empowering film or simply a warning. Frankly, I had difficultly making it through as it isn’t what one could call hopeful. However, it is a strong reminder of why we have to stay involved in the process and think for ourselves. Democracy, like marriage, is work. Stop putting in the effort, stop asking questions, and stop holding people accountable and you only have yourself to blame for the results.

But, as a film, it is entertaining. Just go in with a deep breath and stay calm or you’ll find yourself tied in knots by the end.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

[5 stars]

For anyone who thought Netflix was just an aggregator or simple studio, think again. They just created a whole new set of goal posts for the competition and for mass entertainment.

OK, I’ll admit, my rating is high here, in part, because of the technology and novelty of the piece, but Avatar got that kind of reaction as well, and let’s face it, that script and story were appallingly bad.  But Bandersnatch has a good script, is very clever and fun…and I can’t wait to watch it again. My first time through, even with multiple loop-backs, I hit a 90min version, which is likely close to the happy path, even though that wasn’t my intention.

Fionn Whitehead (queers.) drives the movie with a bit more excess energy than is probably needed, but it is certainly consistent. As his father, BBC serial standard Craig Parkinson (Line of Duty) gets to ride a roller-coaster of a part, much depending on your selections moment to moment. Similarly, Alice Lowe (Sherlock) gets to have some fun as Whitehead’s therapist. But those two stabilizing beams in the story aside, a real special mention has to go to Will Poulter (The Little Stranger), who completely transformed himself for his role; he wears the accent and British intellectual toff rather well.

Of course this twisted piece of mental suspense came from the mind of the Charlie Brooker, creator and writer of the Black Mirror series. Brooker always puts technology at the center of his stories, though what makes them work is how the characters respond to that tech. Making tech part of the experience now is just a natural evolution of his approach. Director David Slade (HannibalAmerican Gods) took Brooker’s vision, and its many branches, to create a series of paths and endings that all feel right for the story at hand and Black Mirror generally. I found three endings on my first watch, looping back each time to try something else. Each was satisfying, though there is clearly an intended ending that is very much in Brooker’s vein.

You can’t even think about Bandersnatch without thinking about how it was made and delivered. And, of course, the technology is bloody amazing. Sure it watches sort of like a high-end video game. But it plays like a movie and the transitions are visually seamless. Angel Devoid tried to do this years ago, but hardware quirks and other weaknesses left it working only marginally well. Bandersnatch is the payout on the promise of branching movies, and manages to do it at scale. That achievement is pretty astounding when you think of the number of concurrent watchers, each making their own choices, and no one seeing a break in the action. There are some drawbacks to how it all works. For instance, you have to watch it on a supported device and you are forced to break the wall between you and screen by being involved. However, neither overwhelms the piece and the latter works into your watching experience interesting ways given the plot.

But, tech aside, it is an engaging and interesting story. The mystery is thick and the stakes are high from near the very beginning. There are some obvious aspects to it all, especially if you’re a Black Mirror fan, but not so many or much that it ruins the fun. The story is  highly rewatchable as well. I know there are huge chunks of info I’ve yet to unearth and I absolutely intend to go back and find them all. Once you see the movie, you’ll understand the delicious irony in that as well. I wouldn’t want a steady diet of this kind of entertainment, but an occasional, well-done piece would always be welcome.

Make time for Bandersnatch…it is history in the making, no matter how the eventual reception of it goes.

 

Cold Skin

[3 stars]

Cold Skin is a quietly intense, sort of Gothic-horror/science fiction story of isolation, surviving, and survivors, not to mention making a swing at defining the meaning of humanity. If that sounds a bit overly layered and burdened, it is, but it somehow all fits.

Ray Stevenson (The Transporter Refueled), David Oakes (The White Queen), and Aura Garrido (Ministry of Time) form an unlikely triumvirate fighting to survive on an Antarctic island with some unusual inhabitants. It is, in its bones, a simple horror tale of the kind you’ve seen before. However, Xavier Gens’ (Hitman) direction takes the script to a different level by helping the actors add flesh and emotion to those bones.

While you enjoy the mayhem and tension of nightly attacks, you also get to explore what drives these characters and what makes them human or not. The answers aren’t always comfortable. There is also a great “making of” featurette on the disc. I didn’t expect to watch it, but it hooked me quickly and actually discussed the movie and its making rather than just marketing what you’d just seen.

Little Drummer Girl

[3 stars]

John Le Carre stories are always complex and often dark. From The Night Manager to A Most Wanted Man to, well pick one, they are deliberate tales of behind-the-scenes espionage that reveal knowledge only as needed. Little Drummer Girl is no exception. But this time it is as much Mission Impossible as it is The Third Man. The focus of this series is what goes into becoming and surviving in deep cover. Well, that’s the main thread, there are plenty of political and other aspects of intrigue as well.

The cast, as always, is quite solid, but it is dominated by Florence Pugh (Lear) as the semi-naive recruit. Her path through the six episodes is convoluted and layered. I never quite buy her being confused or undetermined about her beliefs, but her emotional conflicts about people and survival are very real. Helping her along is Alexander Skarsgård (Disconnect) in a role that is nicely different from many of his others. His Gadi is quiet and intense, but not bombastic. Similarly, Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) gets to explore interesting new territory as a ground-down spy and bureaucrat who is both exhausted and determined. While his contemplative nature remains, it is wonderfully crusted with life.

As with all the Le Carre tales, following all the motivations and politics is an effort, but it is part of what sets the stories apart. The attention to and adherence to details keeps the stakes high and visceral.

Like many of director Chan-wook Park’s (The Handmaiden) efforts, the pacing of this series is a bit slow, but never dull. And the new view into the world of spies and the era it is exploring will keep your attention to the very end.

Assassination Nation

[3.5 stars]

This is a hard film to watch, but probably not for the reasons you think. Yes, it is full of violence and it will anger and disturb you, that is true. But the hard part of this film is that it feels all too real and possible.

Writer/director Sam Levinson pulls off a neat magic trick by taking vulgar mayhem and making it into an honest-to-god statement about society and people. It takes a while to get there but when it does, it is a solid gut-punch. But even the journey is unexpectedly intriguing thanks to the cast.

Led solidly by Odessa Young, a small group of friends navigates high school and life as it all crumbles around them…literally. Abra, Suki Waterhouse (Future World), and Hari Nef (Transparent) back up Young nicely, and each has their own plotline to spin out. These four, young women each embody different aspects of the challenges of growing up in a world saturated with social media.

The adults around them are at turns clueless and, at turns, active in the unavoidable disaster that begins as the credits roll. Joel McHale (The Happytime Murders) is the only one with any real plot to work with though Anika Noni Rose (Ralph Breaks the Internet) does get her moment. Jeff Pope (Hap and Leonard) and Colman Domingo (The Kick) don’t really have any story of consequence, but each creates a recognizable character to push it all along.

Like I said, this isn’t an easy film to watch, but it is worth your time if you have a high enough tolerance for violence. You get a reminder and warning at the top of the movie as well, to give you one last chance to bail. But as a piece of social commentary, this is an effective and solid film. If Levinson can continue to develop that aspect of his voice and continue to match his stories to the need, he’s going to be a director and writer to watch.

Hotel Artemis

[3 stars]

This had so much more potential than it achieved. The idea, an odd mash-up of The Purge and John Wick: Chapter 2, is loaded with talent, just not with a script or director.

The emotional core of the story, such as it is, rests with Jodie Foster (The Beaver). Her characterization and efforts are filled with promise, but don’t fully pay off even if they drive the tale. The fault here is the script, not Foster, who brings a lot of subtlety and physicalization to her Nurse.

Foster is assisted by an oddly devoted Dave Bautista (Escape Plan 2: Hades). There isn’t anything new on screen here from him, but he serves his purpose. Likewise for Jenny Slate (Venom), who swings into the story late, but with nice complications.

Staying in the hotel are an unsurprisingly motley crew. Sterling K. Brown (Predator) leads that list, continuing his breaking out onto the big screen by leveraging what he does best. Brown’s intensity combined with his ability to remain vulnerable always makes him interesting to watch and relate to. He helps anchor Foster’s storyline with his own. Brown is joined by a lithe, bitingly cold, but not particularly surprising, Sofia Boutella (Star Trek Beyond), and an absurd Charlie Day (Pacific Rim: Uprising). Each has aspects to add to the overall plot, but neither feels entirely grounded or real (by choice or presentation).

And then there were the smaller, but linchpin roles by Jeff Goldblum (Le Week-End), Zachary Quinto (Hitman: Agent 47), and Brian Tyree Henry (Widows). Each one is a domino to fall in the interlaced tales that drive the Artemis. None is particularly believable, though Henry doesn’t really misstep so much as not have as much to work from in the script as the other two. They all try to wring what they can from their characters and situations despite the shortcomings.

Like I said, loaded with talent. So what went wrong? Director and writer Drew Pearce (Iron Man 3) never quite gets the pacing right, nor was he able to balance the emotions in a way that sells the situation and the characters. From the outset, the movie is off on the wrong foot with stupid choices made by supposedly practiced criminals. Setting it against a city-wide uprising was an interesting choice, but that reality was a story convenience that never did more than force the plot rather than enrich the tale or issues. When you start with something as obvious as naming the hotel for the goddess of the hunt (and, to a degree, chastity), you sort of know where you’re headed and where you’re not.

I’m not saying this is entirely a waste of time. Some of the performances, Foster for instance, are interesting to watch. There are some good fight scenes. The cinematography and production design are engaging. It just isn’t what it could be and it isn’t particularly good. Depending on your mood and what you’re looking for, it may work better for you than it did for me.

Mandy

[1.5 stars]

Often when I use the tag and term “unique” I mean it as a compliment. This is not one of those times. This is a misguided, lost, often laughable attempt at horror surrealism, with a nod to gaming, anime, and heavy metal cultures. In fact, it does come across as an uncomfortable mashup of Hellraiser, Heavy Metal, and Reefer Madness. It is not a pretty result.

While Nicolas Cage (Snowden) is a love him or hate him kind of actor, he certainly put his all into an impossible role. So did the rest of the cast. Andrea Riseborough (Disconnect) and Linus Roache (Non-Stop) are of the better heeled talents in this outing that try to do what they can with their scripts.

Director and co-writer Panos Cosmato had a vision. He probably got it on shrooms, or some similar hallucinogen. And that’s fine and has worked for plenty of artists in various media. However, if the result isn’t something that a greater audience can follow or connect to, they have failed. Admittedly, this film has a following, it is what got me to watch it and stick with it to the end…I had to see why it had such strong supporters. I still don’t know. It is, quite frankly, juvenile, predictable, absurd, and full of issues in plot and logic. Even the surreal has rules and awareness; this did not.

Honestly, if you are looking for a head-trip horror, see Suspiria (either version) or Hereditary. Or, if you’re looking for a movie about cults or charismatics, try MarthaMarcyMayMarlene. Otherwise, skip this ham-handed effort.

Widows

[4 stars]

Think of this as the flip-side of Ocean’s 8; a very dark and disturbing flip-side, closer to Den of Thieves in sensibility.

Widows is a female-driven heist film dominated by Viola Davis (Fences) and Elizabeth Debicki (The Cloverfield Paradox). These women have the most compelling tales and the strongest screen impact despite it being primarily an ensemble movie. Joined by the equally capable, if less story impactful, Michelle Rodriguez (Battle: Los Angeles, Fast & Furious) and Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale), this group of women find themselves and their mettle trying to survive a lousy situation as they dig themselves out of the holes their respective partners dropped them in.

And speaking of their partners, the top line there is an unusual role for Liam Neeson (Peppermint) and a fairly standard one for Jon Bernthal (Baby Driver). Neeson’s time on screen is necessarily brief, but his and Davis’s intense relationship drive the entire tale. Garret Dillahunt (The Scribbler), Jacki Weaver (The Disaster Artist), and Carrie Coon (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town) also each get their moments to shine as the story unfolds.

Driving the movie from outside the women’s collective are a group of men, each with their own issues and particular brand of evil. Colin Farrell (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) has the most layered of these characters. He never quite comes into focus, but he is clearly conflicted and buffeted along by the past and the current situation. You never really know whether to feel sorry for him or to revile him. The same can’t be said for Brian Tyree Henry (Irreplaceable You), Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther), or Robert Duvall (The Judge). These other men are dark, twisted, and out for themselves regardless of the pain and damage they cause. And they do. This is a violent film and hard to watch at moments.

Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) took an interesting risk directing this story. First, he dove into the story quickly, getting to the meat of the tale at the top. Typically, this would have been a good and obvious move. However, then he plowed on before we got to know anyone. He remained very natural rather than heightening or manipulating the audience with standard structures, letting us see realities, but not allowing us to bring emotion to it. We don’t know these people and we can’t yet sympathize with them at the beginning. We can abhor the situations, but there is no connection. The challenge is that it makes the first third of the film very flat in some ways. However, as the movie continues, it slowly builds the story and gets there; but it takes its time.

The story itself has some serious cred behind it. It was originally written by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect) and then adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and McQueen himself. None of these artists thinks in a straight line nor bends toward the light and airy in plot. Widows will coddle and assault you, but it will bring you along and make you invest. I will admit that while the ending left me wondering if I’d really understood the McQueen’s main point in the film, but I didn’t feel cheated, only a sense of pondering. It also contained a particularly wonderful moment with mirrors (which seem to be getting more popular again in films).

Widows is not your typical heist film, not just for its female leads, but also in its approach to story. If you want something different for your holiday week’s fare, this is one that should be on your list.