Tag Archives: Drama

Golden Exits

[2.5 stars]

Have you ever watched a film and thought: this would make a great play? Golden Exits definitely struck me as better suited to the stage than screen. It is full of long, introspective monologues that attempt to be-ever-so-insightful-and-clever about the world, but really just come across as pompous on screen. Director Alex Ross Perry guided his actors well, but his script for them was just ponderous and over-written for film.

Honestly, I knew little of the story going in. I checked this movie out for the cast, which had Emily Browning (God Help the Girl), Mary- Louise Parker (RED), and Chloë Sevigny (Lizzie) in major roles. In addition, Analeigh Tipton (Warm Bodies) and Lily Rabe (Pawn Sacrifice) add to the female pack. Each of these women had challenging paths to explore, even if the script rarely let them go very far with it. Mixed into their various struggles were Adam Horovitz (While We’re Young) and Jason Schwartzman (Big Eyes) who succeed and fail variously as partners and friends to those around them.

But there just isn’t anyone who is very sympathetic in this story. Some manage to do the right thing…eventually. But, primarily, they all muse about either doing the wrong thing or anything, as long as it’s different from what they’re doing now. The story is, essentially, how they manage to leave what they’ve got behind them, or at least start to. Basically, it is a very unsatisfying film with actors struggling to make mountains of text feel natural…or at least interesting enough that we don’t care that it is completely unnatural. Despite the cast and the game attempt, save yourself some time and find something else to take you on a journey of self-discovery.

Years and Years

[4.5 stars]

Years and Years embraces the aphorism: The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. And quite the journey it is, from the smallest to the largest step along the road of choices that marks out this slippery narrative.

Russell T. Davies (A Very English Scandal, Bob & Rose) offers up a far spanning look at current politics, all lensed through the very human and personal eyes of a single family. We follow them across a decade as they deal with the fallout and shifting landscape of a world in transition. It is often difficult to watch, especially the time period closest to our own, but it is also hypnotic and gripping. As it moves forward a hundred steps, and then a thousand steps, the world is completely unrecognizable and yet utterly familiar and undeniable. It often isn’t easy seeing how people act and react, but we’ve millennia of proof that we are seeing typical responses.

Though the story is bleak at times, it also celebrates the resilience of people. Survival is key: financial, emotional, physical, and even intellectual. Because that is how it works, the world goes nuts and people do what they must to survive. It is rare that a single event is “the end of it all.” But, of course, as things move on, that is always the risk.

The cast are very much up to the task of bringing this story to life; a bevy of recognizable faces, young and old. Some of the more stand-out performances are Anne Reid (Last Tango in Halifax ), Russell Tovey  (queers. ), Emma Thompson (Men in Black: International), T’Nia Miller (Marcella ), Jessica Hynes (Bridget Jones’s Baby), and Rory Kinnear (Spectre). But, honestly, it is really quite the cast all around, even Lydia West in her first major role shines nicely.

Years and Years is a visceral response by a writer to the world; when good writers get mad they get writing. When they are also artists, they give us timeless classics like The Crucible. Years and Years is likewise a reaction to today’s political insanity and, if not quite as timeless as Miller’s play, it is certainly powerful and impactful. This is a must-see piece of television that will transport you to the very last moments of the series. It won’t satisfy everyone as the ending does leave some things open, but life is rarely fully satisfying…it simply keeps on keeping on. And as long as we can do that, we survive.

The Mustang

[3 stars]

There are few surprises in this movie, but it is done with such emotional care and intensity that it works. And I say that despite the fact that it is essentially one long, rather abused metaphor. But director and co-writer Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre tackles that head-on and without apology, making it all palatable. She even plays with it in some clever ways.

But, directing aside, it is Matthias Schoenaerts’s (Red Sparrow) performance that sells the story. He is stretched so tightly through most of the movie that you expect him to literally burst. He maps a compelling journey that is far from a simple happy ending, but yet still manages to provide some closure for the audience. Bruce Dern (Nostalgia), Connie Britton (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women) and Jason Mitchell (Mudbound) along with Gideon Adlon provide the walls for Schoenaerts to bounce off of and reveal himself.

Filmed beautifully, and kept taut as a story, it is easy to make it through this movie even when you are sure of its direction. It is a glimpse into the criminal justice system and the Mustang program as well as a personal journey that reflects, at least in facets, aspects in most of us.

The Upside

[3.5 stars]

When do American remakes ever really stand up to the originals? They creatives involved typically just go for the cheap laughs or the silly sap and forget the humanity that often marks the small foreign successes they are copying. Adding to my doubt going in was that this is an adaptation of a retelling and my confidence on the potential result was low. The original, Intouchables, was a heart-warming, but often gritty tale of two men finding their way. It was full of surprises and interesting tensions that captured audiences and helping it gross nearly 500M worldwide. I suppose with only 10M of that coming from the US, studios saw an opportunity.

Jon Hartmere’s rewrite, The Upside, keeps the base story laid out in the original, but finds a different tale and path. The story remains  surprising, but in different ways. As a first feature script, it was a surprisingly effective achievement. Even with the momentary lapses of Kevin Hart (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) drifting back into his shtick, the movie holds up nicely. In fact, much better than I expected.

But it is Neil Burger’s (Divergent, Limitless) direction that keeps it all on track. Everyone is in a restrained tension within themselves and with each other. It helps that he balanced Hart with two extraordinary performers in Bryan Cranston (Isle of Dogs) and Nicole Kidman (Destroyer). Both of their performances are compelling and spot-on. Kidman even manages to look frumpy with some very minor changes of appearance. Against them, Hart feels appropriately abrasive and out of tune. But Hart also gets his moments. I can’t say I truly invested in his reality, but Cranston and Kidman kept me anchored and pleased with the story.

If you haven’t seen the original, you should. But the two movies really are different, despite the main plots tracking closely. Two very different story tellers are at work and the results will transport you in different ways.

The Quake (Skjelvet)

[3 stars]

You’d think that writers John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg would have scratched their collective disaster-itch with The Wave. But, like their first, much lies hidden in plain sight beneath the feet of humanity, and they wanted to bring it into the light.

However, this isn’t just a repeat of the first film’s formula, even though it picks up the story and the family from after their survival. There is the mystery and the suspense of the titular event, but the film isn’t about tilting at windmills, it’s about getting out alive, and family. Think of it as a San Andreas in the north, but with an actual script and story that that is way more than the special f/x (which are certainly impressive for an indie).

Director John Andreas Andersen takes over the helm of this tale, acquitting himself nicely. He keeps the reactions and interplay very natural, while not losing track of the stakes. Certainly there is some lack of communication between characters I’d like to have seen done differently, but some of that was cultural more than weakness. And it was all within the scope of the characters we’d met before.

Ultimately, The Quake is a tale about family and redemption. Survivor’s guilt and PTSD play into it as well. We care about Kristoffer Joner (Mission: Impossible: Fallout) and his continuing journey, while still wanting to slap him on occasion. And the facts of the story, much like The Wave, make it clear that the fictional risk is very close to the truth. This sequel is also less preachy than the first film, which hammers both the science and the resistance to facts a little too hard.

I can’t imagine watching the two films back-to-back. However, watching them in close proximity would be interesting to see just how well it all comes together over the several year span of the tale. I’d like to see what the writers come up with next…but I am hoping it is a new tale with a new focus. They’ve shown themselves capable, but I’d like to see it applied to something less specifically pointed.

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

[3 stars]

To quote the movie: What evs.

The first Lego movie had the element of surprise and uniqueness going for it. The last 20 minutes of the film, especially, helped set it apart. But that aspect now revealed, left writers Lord and Miller (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) with a challenge that the humor and approach just couldn’t manage to overcome when revisiting the world. The first movie was funny, but relied on those final moments to make it something special.

This literal continuation of the tale, starting from the final moments of the first, just isn’t nearly as clever or interesting. It is too forced and not nearly as funny because it is obvious. Director Mike Mitchell (Trolls) just couldn’t find something new, though it has its moments.

One of those moments is the end credits, which are both visually impressive and, at least for the first minute or so, a wonderfully self-conscious plea to watch them. But the rest of the movie was fine for kids, obvious for adults, and more or less a retread of the first. You’ll have to decide if there’s enough there for you to see that again…for me, I’d have been fine if I’d never gotten around to this somewhat empty sequel.

Arctic

[3 stars]

It’s a fair question to ask: Do I really need to see another man vs nature survival film? In this case, yes, and I say that as not a particularly large fan of the genre. But director Joe Penna (and co-writer with Ryan Morrison) delivered this well-researched first feature with the typical dangers but also some nice subtleties. In some ways it’s reminiscent of All is Lost, but on ice.

Mads Mikkelsen (At Eternity’s Gate) spends most of this movie simply looking at things and allowing emotions and thoughts to pass across his face. Whole stories, and a number of smaller mysteries, are revealed by simply watching him. Performances like this one are when you can see real talent, both in front of and behind the camera. Stringing together a story from silence and action alone simply isn’t easy.

Mikkelsen isn’t entirely alone through the film. Maria Thelma Smáradóttir keeps the choices and results nicely unsure. There isn’t much of a performance from her, but there isn’t intended to be; we get her story through Mikkelsen.

In addition to the performances and the direction, there is the incredible landscape. Watching this film, you are sure to feel just a bit colder than your room temperature, and more than a little awed by the vistas. As intimate as the story is, you are never under any illusion about the size and intensity of Mikkelsen’s nemesis. The result overall is a gripping tale of perseverance and ability, with plenty of room for individual interpretation.

Destroyer

[3 stars]

Nicole Kidman (Aquaman) delivers a devastatingly broken-but-not-down detective, evoking more Charlize Theron than the characters we’ve come to expect from her. She is ugly, both mentally and physically; an anti-hero extraordinaire. Intense and gripping, but with the smallest bit of sympathy to keep us on her side.

Kidman navigates the world, past and present, with the help of a great supporting cast. Toby Kebbell (The Female Brain), Sebastian Stan (I, Tonya, Avengers), and Bradley Whitford (The Darkest Minds) chief among them. And then there was the otherwise unrecognizable Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black). If it weren’t for the credits, I wouldn’t even have spotted her, and it wasn’t for lack of screen time.

Better known for her television work, director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) is no stranger to female driven tales. In this case, however, she tries just a little too hard to maintain the atmosphere. The music is heavy-handed and the pacing just a tad strained at moments. But she does manage to create a dark, dark tale… a daylight noir in the harsh LA sun that drives forward relentlessly as flashbacks fill in the history. Oft-time writing collaborators Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (R.I.P.D.) gave Kusuma a well constructed script to work with, but it is Kidman’s and Kusuma’s molding and delivery of that tale that makes it work.

Make time for this one when you’re in a mood for a bit of violence and mystery. The performances make it worth it alone, but the story is, itself, a good ride.

Capernaum

[3.5 stars]

There is a lot of hyperbole (and awards) thrown around about Nadine Labaki’s (Where Do We Go Now?) latest film. And they are deserved. As with her other work, she is brilliant at exposing humanity in the most impossible circumstances. She doesn’t give into dramatic cliche in order to rivet you to the screen, she employs simple truths and and hard choices along with quiet moments of desperation and joy to do it. She invites you into areas of the world few, if any, of her viewers would have experienced and makes you understand.

This film, more than her others, is relentless in its message and, for lack of a better term, existential horror. There are few moments of respite or joy. But it was the right choice for the story she wanted to tell. To have falsely buoyed the characters would have been to cheat the tale.

The entire story depends upon the slender thread of first-time actor Zain Al Rafeea. He is an unbelievably charismatic and powerful presence, despite his age and stature. In an intersecting story, Yordanos Shiferaw, also new to screen, delivers her own gripping tale.

You may be wondering, as I was, what the title meant. It isn’t a word, it is a place…and it adds an entire level of commentary to the story. But, frankly, better to discover that afterwards as it is a bit self-conscious.

This isn’t a fun film, to be honest. You’ll find yourself angry, sad, and, at times, likely yelling at the screen. The subtitles also sometimes flash so quickly (less than a second) as to be unreadable…but I didn’t find any of the gaps to be unfillable by logic and flow. Still, it was a shame to have such a simple technical blemish on the experience. Ultimately, the movie will not leave you feeling hopeless, but the trip is a little exhausting…much to Labaki’s credit, you’ll thank her for that.

New and Continuing Foreign Series

Baptiste
At the core of The Missing was the calming and obsessive Detective Baptiste, played by Tchéky Karyo. He was never the focus, but was the uniting factor of the series, and in many ways one of the more interesting characters. Well, now he has his own series. With the story solely on him, it is a bit lower energy but just as dark. Tom Hollander (A Private War) adds an interesting counterpoint, and a very complex character to the mix. And Alec Secareanu (God’s Own Country) provides a suitably evil opponent for both. There are some strong women in this series, and some damaged ones [Jessica Raine (An Adventure in Space and Time), Anastasia Hille (Tulip Fever), Barbara Sarafian, Talisa Garcia] but it is driven by the male characters.

There is a nice mix of mystery and suspense, though Karyo’s Baptiste seems to get to move with near impunity through the legal system of more than one country. But the show also continues the threads of his home life and past, which expands on what we know in interesting ways. Whether this show can be sustained over more than this limited story, I’m not sure. Karyo isn’t young and the character himself is winding down in his abilities as part of the plot. And the end of this clever and twisty six-parter was a bit rushed and, in some ways, forced. To their credit, it is satisfying and allows it to feel complete without closing the door to further stories.

Shakespeare and Hathaway (series 2)
The first series of this silly series was amusing…even more so if you know the plays of the Bard…but the mysteries were never brilliant. This second round is still fun, but the writing is much more hit and miss. In fact, the first half is painful at times, but they finally find their footing about episode 5. The main issue is more around police procedural and willfully stupid choices by characters. But this isn’t necessarily a show you want to over-analyze anyway. If you liked the first series, the second will happily distract you. If they can get more consistent writing, it has a chance for a long and amusing life.

Trapped (series 2)
The second series of Trapped takes on immigration and hate crimes on top of the delicate politics of country and family that the first series tackled. It picks up some time later from the first go-round, with some significant changes and some continuing tropes and battles. The mystery gets off to an immediate start and spins out from there intriguingly playing in the overlap between the far right and environmentalism. While the first series traps its characters literally, this series a more psychological reading of that title. Many first series characters recur and their storylines and tensions continue. The story itself unfolds very slowly, constantly going in new directions until the full tale is revealed and resolved.

Endeavour (series 6)
The latest 4 installments of Endeavour are coming back around to establishing the quirks and mannerisms of Shaun Evans’ (The Scandalous Lady W) titular detective. The last couple sequences laid some groundwork, but it was all inferred rather than direct. One of the things that made the first two series so great was watching Morse being born. This sequence really sets the stage for the relationship with Sean Rigby’s DS Strange and James Bradshaw’s  Dr. DeBryn, as well as tackling some challenges with Roger Allam’s (The Hippopotamus) DI Thursday and Anton Lesser’s CSI Bright.

There are still a few years to go before the series hits the wall it cannot pass (overlap with the original series and the elevation of Morse to DCI in the 80s). With the next series, they launch into the 70s… but they could continue there for years at a paltry four episodes a go, which either means great news for lovers of the show or danger of spinning wheels and driving it into a hopeless rut. Given how carefully Russell Lewis has tended to Colin Dexter’s characters and has conspired to give us this early slice of Morse, I’m hopeful he can sustain the effort.

Shetland (series 5)
Shetland continues its travels with its characters and its dark mysteries across harsh landscapes. And, if its been a while since your last visit it may take a bit to get your footing with the characters and their relationships. Douglas Henshall’s (Collision) dark but seethingly emotional detective remains at the center of the mismatched family on the tiny and battered island. Mark Bonnar (Line of Duty), Steven Robertson (Luther),  and Alison O’Donnell remain core to the story with him and to each other. In many ways, this is one of their best crafted seasons; it has a complex mystery with many switchbacks and character growth in parallel over the six episodes. Not that previous series weren’t equally complex, but this one felt the most evenly put together. Interestingly, series 5 is also journeying along similar ground as Baptiste and Trapped, taking on human trafficking as a core issue.