Tag Archives: Dark

Vox Lux

[2.5 stars]

While known for his acting, writer/director Brady Corbet comes at this movie with only one other feature under his belt. He attempts to employ some interesting story-telling techinques, with Willem DaFoe (At Eternity’s Gate) as the narrator to a faux documentary, but the story never really gels. Corbet, frankly, tackles too much, trying to create something like an updated Breaking Glass crossed with Rudderless. We do get a lot of realistic behind-the-scenes look at music, which helps set this sort of fantasy and commentary apart.

Ultimately, the only thing that saves this movie is the performances and a bit of the production value. Natalie Portman (Annihilation) as a hard-living, nasty-talking star is a magnetic trainwreck thanks to the underlying emotions with which she infuses her character. Raffey Cassidy (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) in two roles (which was an odd and un-utilized choice) holds her own nicely alongside Stacy Martin’s (Nymphomaniac) older sister/aunt.  And Jude Law (Captain Marvel) as the sort of genuine, slightly corrupt producer is interesting, but without much depth.

Ultimately, there just isn’t a story here. It is more of an imagining about what is behind big production pop tours, both in the current time and what led to it. But the layering of the narration attempts to push it into something else, something grander, and on that level it simply fails, leaving you hanging at the end with no understanding of why you invested your time to watch it. At least in my opinion.

Maniac

[4 stars]

Yeah, I’m a bit late on this one. I started to watch it early and, frankly, while it had caught me, I wasn’t driven to get back to it too quickly. I am, however, glad I went back.

With Emma Stone (The Favourite) and Jonah Hill (True Story) driving the tale, and Justin Theroux (On the Basis of Sex), Sally Field (Hello, My Name is Doris), and Sonoya Mizuno (Crazy Rich Asians) supporting it, there is some serious talent brought to bear. That talent saves the series, selling the odd and weird with commitment and nuance. Because despite all the clever aspects to the story and presentation, it really is a tortured and overly drawn-out metaphor, however entertaining.

Ultimately Maniac is an intriguing look at love, life, and schizophrenia, helping to make it one of the oddest love stories ever devised. Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation) and Patrick Somerville delivered a series that is, at turns, intriguing and amusing…and ultimately affecting.

Madeline’s Madeline

[2 stars]

About the only thing I can say good about this film is that the main leads have talent. The story never really comes together and the message, if any, is somewhat empty with nothing new to say.

Helena Howard, in her first role, really manages to own the screen and show range. And Molly Parker (Lost in Space) is a model of a mess along with Miranda July, both of whom serve as mother figures to Howard.

I will grant that Josephine Decker direction manages to pull you along an impossibly obtuse plot that seems to keep verging on meaning, but just as quickly falls apart. It is most certainly not meant to be taken as reality or at face value, but there are nuggets of “truth” in there that help build a world and the characters. Sadly, in the end, it is allowed to simply fall apart. I am all for non-traditional story-telling, but it has to get to a satisfying point to have made it worthwhile. In this case, it just didn’t get there.

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.