Tag Archives: Dark

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.

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.

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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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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.

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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

Lovecraft Country

[4 stars]

The origin of this series is the book of the same name by Matt Ruff. The book is a perfect match for our times all on its own, and predated the explosion of outcries that have swept the nation in a prescient coup when it was published back at the top of 2017. The book even predates Get Out. Like the HBO adaptation, it’s also episodic by design and full of adventure amid the message. And Jordan Peele (Us) is the perfect match for overseeing series that Misha Green has created. Much like Watchmen and Penny Dreadful: City of Angles, this is an entertaining commentary that is impossible to look away from and devastating to run through.

From the beginning the show separates its action from the book, but manages to retain the sense and direction of it entirely. It’s quite a feat of adaptation. There are reasonable arguments to be made that they tried to do too much, overloaded the metaphors with too many examples and storylines. But I enjoyed the additional layers; the arc of this series builds a house of cards through its 10 episodes that we get to asail in the finale. How it all plays out is completely open till the end which helps add to the suspense. And, of course, there is setup for what could be an even wilder ride for a season 2 (read more about that here after you’ve seen the current series). However, one of the impacts of the changes from the book is also a much less likeable cast of characters. None of them are wholly positive, and all of them are often prickly to the point of being nasty.

The story itself is a quietly complex and intense tale that slips in and out of the world we know and a world that only haunts nightmares. More impressively, it makes horror, well, feel more real. It isn’t about making you jump, it’s about making you metaphysically ill and uncomfortable while making the characters truly afraid. Despite the wild situations, they all feel very grounded in truth, be it real humans and their repugnant ways or ghosts and elder gods and their swinging tentacles and many eyes. Look, in particular, at the third episode, “Holy Ghost,” and consider these aspects.

Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) and Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Birds of Prey) are the primary focus pulling us along. Their relationship, and tension in that relationship, evolves over the stretch of the story and serves as the backboard against which so much else bounces.

Smollett-Bell is also just one of many powerful women in the story. She is joined by Aunjanue Ellis (If Beale Street Could Talk), Wunmi Mosaku (The End of the F***ing World), and Abbey Lee (The Dark Tower) who serve as example and preachers to the plight of women and the taking of power. Even Courtney B. Vance (Project Power) and Michael Kenneth Williams (Motherless Brooklyn) take backseats to their storms.

There are too many amazing episodes to call out, though “I Am” certainly ranks up there requiring a special call out…if nothing else for its audacity given the mainstream audience target. In a good year of content creation, Lovecraft would have stood out as something special. In the year of the pandemic where new material is fairly restricted, it towers over most of the rest. Much like Watchmen’s sweep of awards last season, watch for Lovecraft to dominate nominations, if not also taking home many awards.

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Utopia (2020)

[3.5 stars]

When Gillian Flynn (Widows) announced she was going to tackle the remake of this UK, well if not classic, certainly watershed, I was dubious. Even more so when she asserted she was going to focus more on the dark emotions and avoid the pervasive violence of it all. To be clear, what she has done, and done well, is not toned down the violence so much as gotten creative with its portrayal; there is less in-your-face splatter and more moments of unseen or cleverly filmed action. In other words, this is still exceedingly dark and violent, which it needs to be. But there is also some nice, if not complete, character work.

This remake starts off very much along the same thread as its inspiration. So much so that I was frankly getting a little impatient, even with the different approach. And then it took a hard left turn at the end of the second episode and I was hooked.

Certainly the cast is a good one. Sasha Lane (Hellboy) builds on her varied career as a borderline sociopath in search of her father. And Christopher Denham (Fast Color) expands as an actual sociopath on her heels. But around them are a slew of recognizable faces and performances. From John Cusack (Singularity) and Rainn Wilson (The Boy) at one end of the experience spectrum to Desmin Borges, Dan Byrd (Cougar Town), Ashleigh LaThrop, and Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton at the other. And plenty of other faces show up as well, like Jessica Rothe (Happy Death Day 2U) and Camryn Manheim (Cop Car).

But Flynn is a dispassionate writer, willing to go very dark places without compunction, but not very good at building sympathy. I found it difficult to connect with any of the characters beyond sympathizing with their shock. Only Denham and the two youngest characters, Farrah Mackenzie and Walton, really had me in sync with them. I didn’t have a similar challenge with the UK version. I think this is something to do with the scripts and assumptions made by Flynn about how deeply or demonstrative the characters needed to be to bring us on board. It probably wasn’t helped by American-style casting, which tends toward less real looking people in favor of pretty.

All that said, the show has some interesting reconceptions and some odd accelerations as compared to the UK plot. The ending is rather rushed and, frustratingly, rather wide open (not to mention a bit absurd in many ways). But I was left curious…which is what they wanted to do. I’d go back to see if they can actually build on the first series. But, it’s also worth noting that for a lot of the viewing public, this is either a show dead-on for the times or far too close to the bone for many people to watch. Also some of the messaging is a bit off for what we need now…so there’s that.

Here’s the thing: If you’ve never seen the original UK version of this story, I still highly recommend it. Like Misfits and other dark and unexpected tales of their times, they were blazing new trails in storytelling for television. They were doing it in style and with a clear sense of violating norms (that have admittedly become more the norm due to their success). Give this version a shot as well, but be prepared for some very un-American plot choices and a story that may ultimately infuriate rather than entertain, despite a few amazing performances (or perhaps because of them). I’m definitely curious to see if they can fully win me over in a second series by building on what they did in the first, and taking into account the world now as it has changed (our real world, that is).

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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.

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.

 

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.