Tag Archives: Drama

Beach Rats

[4 stars]

I was a long time getting around to this first film by Eliza Hittman . In fact, I found her second, first: Never Rarely Sometimes Always. But it was the empathy and craft of that story that sent me back to her debut with Beach Rats. I’m late to the game to say she is someone to really watch, but it is still worth saying.

Hittman didn’t give us a likeable hero in her first film. Harris Dickinson (The Darkest Minds) is flawed in both endearing and truly ugly ways. But he is also trapped by circumstance and his own struggles. And Dickinson committed to all of that without reservation on screen. So much so that you aren’t sure if the movie is a coming of age story or a tragedy. And, frankly, you still won’t be by the end.

Hittman puts you so deeply into the point of view of Dickinson’s character that you completely inhabit his world. At points you even forget you’re not just watching through hidden cameras at his life. But despite being steeped in a sort of macho hell, Dickinson’s Frankie has two strong female influences in his circles: his mother, played by Kate Hodge and his girlfriend, Madeline Weinstein (Mare of Easttown). Both are quiet but strong influences, though whether they can break through to him is all part of the story.

And the tension of the story is drawn so taut that the ending is almost a release on its own. It’s clear this isn’t going to be a happy tale from the beginning, but it also isn’t without sparks of hope.

For a first film Eliza Hittman packed it with subtlety and power. It has been living on my list since its release in 2017, but I hadn’t had the nerve to spin it up. If you’ve been avoiding either of her films for fear of the subject, well, suck it up and make the time. These aren’t easy characters to love, but they are so very human and real as to encourage our commitment.

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Love, Victor (series 2)

[3 stars]

Yes, everyone is still a little too nice and everything is still a little too easy in this series, but I wish there had been a show like this when I was growing up. Because, despite all the young adult, sit-commy tropes, it tackles a wide range of issues head-on that almost no one else has tried. It also manages to finally pull itself free of the confines of the original book to be able to start its own course.

This second season of Victor also broadens its focus. Where the first season was very focused on the stress and fear and wonderfulness of Victor’s struggle to come out, this season tackles the aftermath. And it isn’t all pretty, though it is all well-meaning. And, sure, that’s where things are a bit too easy. But, like the first season, this is a show of hope not trauma. The young LGBTQ+ community needs to know it can go right. And, even when it doesn’t, that there is a community out there for them.

But the show goes beyond that demo to take in growing up as a whole. With several storylines around Victor, as well as some adult struggles, the world expands to something a little more real. I recognize that it’s all manipulative as hell, but it manages to do it in a good and cathartic way that allows you to forgive it.

A renewal still hasn’t been announced, but if they can maintain the quality and trajectory, I’d love to see where they take it next.

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Moloch

[3.5 stars]

Part of the fun of this series is that you’re never quite sure what it is nor how it will play out. Police procedural, investigative journalism, psychological drama, or supernatural horror?

The story spins around two main characters. Psychologist Olivier Gourmet and newbie journalist, Marine Vacth. Both have complex and dark backstories and a challenging present. And both deliver layered performances. Not always sympathetic but ultimately believable, though that isn’t always clear at the time.

Three minor characters also come into play. Alice Verset, Marc Zinga, and Soufiane Guerrab (Lupin). We learn less about each of these individuals than I’d have liked, but it’s all sufficient to purpose. Only Zinga’s character grated; the script forces him onto a path that is more than a little questionable.

But overall this is a dark, fun ride. And the series is self-contained, leaving it feeling fully resolved. Which isn’t to say it’s all tied up with a nice little bow, simply that all the important elements have natural conclusions and the open questions are fun to contemplate.

The Ice Road

[3 stars]

A couple things you should know as preamble. One, I hate cold. I’ve lived in some of the coldest parts of the US and finally gave it up for the Pacific Northwest and its more temperate weather… in theory anyway. Which leads us to number two, the day I watched this film it was a record setting 107 degrees. Which made the ice I typically hate a sort of mental balm to the several day inferno we were experiencing. I figured context is only fair.

With that in mind, suffice to say that Liam Neeson (Honest Thief) is at it again. This time he’s a big-rig trucker with an injured, veteran brother trying to save miners from disaster and, potentially, nefarious goings on. But, amusingly, despite Neeson and Laurence Fishburne (Where’d You Go Bernadette?) being the clear names on this marquee, it’s Amber Midthunder (Legion) who walks away with the best lines and more memorable role.

Jonathan Hensleigh directed and wrote a serviceable action/thriller, but only just barely. The script is often cringeworthy, but some of the rig gigs are impressive; think early Fast and Furious but with really big vehicles.

Even when the bones of the movie got weak, it certainly helped keep me in a cool state of mind. But the story is utterly transparent and the fight scenes are often just not as exciting as you’d like them to be. However, it was a diverting couple hours and not unwatchable. And it definitely treads somewhat new ground for the genre.

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Lucifer (The end, sort of…)

[3.5 stars]

This has been a delayed post because there just wasn’t any rush to get it out there. It isn’t like it was the end of the series or anything. In fact, it’s become a bit of a joy and a joke that Lucifer keeps getting a series finale reprieve. First on broadcast, and now multiple times on Netflix. This latest series (#5, part 2), was originally intended to bring a final close to our anti-hero’s story…before, again, it was granted a final 10 episodes coming later this year. And you can see the shape of the season shift a little as they realize they’ve more to say and are going to be allowed to say it. At least if you know what you’re looking for.

All that said, Lucifer continues to find its real venue on Netflix. Had it started there, rather than languishing on broadcast for a few seasons, it may have found a larger audience as they could have explored more and been truer to the original characters and situations. This second half of the season barrels to a clear ending that still manages to surprise in both delightful and shocking ways. While some characters are seeing their stories finally explored, like Kevin Alejandro, others are being slightly rewritten to meet the new goals, particularly Aimee Garcia, but nothing that doesn’t seem to work.

Overall, the wrap-up to the season is a great ride and with an interesting (if inevitable) springboard for the (maybe) series finale coming soon.

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In the Heights

[3 stars]

A story about finding and realizing your dreams, big and small, yours and others, deserves to be told in music. It is no wonder this caught the imagination of Broadway back in 2008. It isn’t just a quintessential NYC story, it is a very human story whether you’re a recent immigrant or not.

There were moments that I wondered if Lin-Manuel Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) wasn’t being too indulgent with the scope of the story; it is a long tale. But he uses all aspects of the pieces he lays out, and each fits together to provide a fuller picture at the end. Basically, trust the story-teller, he knew what he was doing.

Anthony Ramos (Honest Thief) carries the energy of the story well, if a bit light-heartedly. He is guileless and, often, clueless about how to approach what he really wants. Then again, part of the tale is him figuring that out, as it is with so many of the characters. Melissa Barrera (Vida) makes a wonderful object of his affection, and her personal interactions are great…though her drive to her own dream is somewhat washed out and weak for me. On the other hand, Leslie Grace has a thorny path that she treads well and shares beautifully for the screen as she struggles with her own doubts. She and Corey Hawkins (6 Underground) play well together as a couple, while she and Jimmy Smits have some very real engagements about life and family.

There are tons of additional characters filling out the Heights. Each gets a moment or two on their own. And all come together more than once to express joy or frustration together as a community. Of them Olga Merediz and Daphne Rubin-Vega are worth calling out for their presence and impact. But as a whole, the cast is solid and capable. All the voices are great and the choreography is inventive and fun (and occasionally a bit distracting, truth be told). Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) had a blast adapting the stage version and managed, for the most part, to make it feel like it was always intended for film with his direction.

Miranda also, despite the fantasy aspects of the story, allowed his characters moments of reality to keep it all grounded, providing windows into the real world. Which he then, of course, peanut butter’s over with great tunes and dance to take out the sting. The overall impact is as close to Fiddler on the Roof that I’ve seen in a long time. Few other musicals try to tell the story of a whole people (or peoples) and manage it with a full range of emotions. Heights isn’t at the level of Fiddler; the scope is more narrow, more personal. It tells parts of several people’s stories in a way that creates a pastiche of the experience and realities. However, it never fully acknowledges or tackles the whole ugly mess…it is more Hollywood musical (think La La Land) than off-Broadway life lesson. Still, it’s an entertaining love story and peek inside the lives of people who are so often unseen.

But, if you’re wondering why I haven’t rated it higher, it’s because it didn’t embrace some of the darker aspects of the stories we hear. Even though the script claims that not all dreams are fulfilled and not all endings are happy, Miranda couldn’t really stop himself from trying to make it that way. And I understand he wanted a celebration of life, but it made it feel too easy for me, which made the story less credible and less revisitable. Of course, others will have different reactions, or even prefer that approach, and that’s fine. Either way, you should take the trip north on the 1 train at least once at some point. And stay till the end of the credits for an extra, and amusing, scene.

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Infinite

[3 stars]

When Antoine Fuqua (Equalizer 2) is directing you are likely expecting a gritty, well-paced action drama. It’s what he does and does well. But when a voice over starts off the movie explaining what’s going on rather than putting it into the story … and that explanation is utterly ridiculous to boot, you know you’ve likely set your expectations incorrectly. Fortunately, it does then go into one of several car chases and fight sequences to take the bitter pill of exposition out of your mouth. However it forever removes you from the chance to go on the journey with the main character, Mark Wahlberg (Instant Family), because now we know the truth.

To be clear, I have no problem with the base preference of the story (that there are people who can remember all their previous lives and skills). It’s a nice sort of reverse Highlander. However, it’s the explanation of the conflict and the goals involved that I found hard to digest. By the time we get a very delayed, and particularly illuminating bit of exposition, via Chiwetel Ejiofor (Locked Down) about half-way through the flick it’s too late to care. It is just all so arch.

What it does have going for it is a cast willing to commit to the story and some fun action scenes. Wahlberg and Sophie Cookson (Red Joan) work well together. And Dylan O’Brien (Flashback) gets to kick off the story in a role I’m sure he would have had trouble turning down…it’s as close to Bond as he’s likely ever to get.  Liz Carr (The OA) has the only role with a grounded sense of humor, while Jason Mantzoukas (Invincible) pushes it all a bit too much.

The fact is that this is a huge cast and a huge canvas, but with few standouts other than the main three players. It was intended for the big screen with visuals substituting for, and distracting from, the weak story. The logic holes, particularly around Ejiofor’s character’s ultimate plan, are gigantic. Add to this the Matrix-like aspects of the story (not to mention Endgame) that get shimmed in and, well, you’re left with an amusing actioner without a lot of believable substance. Maybe that’s enough for an evening’s distraction. It got me through…barely.

This was another of the big budget pandemic victims, pulled from theaters to be only streaming. I can imagine it played bigger and more distractingly on the huge screen. But on a smaller screen it requires a bit more story and character to hold the audience and my attention. Ultimately, I had some fun. I certainly enjoyed the action, and hummed through the plot. It wasn’t an easy story to tackle, though a group with more chops in genre might have found a more elegant path to present it.

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Solos

[3 stars]

You have to appreciate when a pandemic can inspire a series of, essentially, single-actor stories as this did for David Weil. Tackling the concept of isolation and humanity from various perspectives (while avoiding the obvious) and getting such top-notch talent to deliver it is really a coup. And watching some of the actors get to  deliver multiple characters in meaningful ways is an extra treat. As an added bonus, to my mind, what he created is some solid, original genre fiction.

Each 30 minute story is rich with personal struggles and interesting worlds. Or world, is probably much more accurate. Like Tales From the Loop, they are loosely connected, building up a bigger picture stretching over time.

To be honest, they aren’t all perfect. A 30 minute near-monologue is hard (unless you’re Tilda Swinton). They aren’t easy to write believably either, though the stories provide some clever ways around the normal pitfalls. If you haven’t spun it up yet, I definitely recommend this series. What follows is some short, more specific thoughts on the various episodes. But even when I’m rather critical, I enjoyed them all in different ways.

Leah
Anne Hathaway (Locked Down) is amusing, and the set up nice, but the story falls flat emotionally. It’s just a little too forced, and ultimately a little too obvious. That doesn’t make it uninteresting, but it lacked a certain subtlety and sympathy so we could care about the ending.

Tom
Anthony Mackie (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) is everywhere these days, and with good reason. He has great emotional range, but is still superhero material. While the overall story and performances here are solid, I do feel like the cadence of it is just a little off. It repeats its rhythm once too often as Mackie recounts his situation, helped by a dollop of overly sweet and manipulative music that’s too present to ignore. But the differentiation between his two selves is wonderful. And the choice to not fully explain everything is perfect.

Peg
The great Helen Mirren (The Good Liar) exposes her soul as she banters with the disembodied Dan Stevens (Earwig and the Witch). Without moving from her seat, she spins out a world of visuals in our minds and builds out a story that grips us and makes us laugh along with her. Talk about the power of the voice and subtle facial expressions.

Sasha
This is the most on-the-nose pandemic tale. It is an exhausting mix of fear and left-wing analog to Fox news-itis. Uzo Aduba (3Below: Tales of Arcadia) is energy incarnate and tragic in practice.

Jenny
Constance Wu (Hustlers) delivers perhaps the funniest performance of the anthology, giving it even more of a punch as it turns. It is also the least real-time tale, being heavily edited to compress and keep the energy up as well as to provide a particular sensibility to echo the character and the situation.

Neera
Every anthology has a story that falls short, and this one is it. It isn’t compelling and it is scientifically and emotionally lacking in logic. All this despite an excellent effort by Nicole Beharie (My Last Day Without You) to make sense of it all with her powerful delivery. But that performance can’t really save the episode as a story. 

Stuart
As a finale we get the voice of god, Morgan Freeman (Nutcracker and the Four Realms) and a reprise, of sorts, by Dan Stevens (Earwig and the Witch) to help pull it all together. It doesn’t quite make a package of it all, but it ultimately provides a scaffolding for the collection if you squint. But, beyond that, you do get to see Freeman bring the script to life with subtle voice and considered reactions. It’s a bitter-sweet wrap-up, but that’s what you’d expect from this kind of show. And the journey and performances were certainly worth it.

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Awake

[3 stars]

Like Bird Box, this is a big science fiction concept done with a small, intense focus on the characters rather than the effects. It is essentially pure suspense as Gina Rodriguez (Smallfoot) fights for the survival of her family. She delivers a tough ex-vet in recovery and desperate to prove herself, which provides a believable set of skills and emotional drive.

Mark Raso and Joseph Raso wrote and directed an intriguing (if scientifically silly) concept and let it spin out around the characters. The best part of their conceit is that the characters really do become less capable of logical thought as the story goes on. It covers and excuses a wealth of bad choices and behaviors. Though the biggest piece of the puzzle is ignored till near the end in a way that is a bit questionable, to my mind.

While the cast is actually rather large, most characters, again like Bird Box, only intersect with the story for a short time. But a few more impactful characters get time to shine. Shamier Anderson (Stowaway), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Annihilation), Finn Jones (Iron Fist), Frances Fisher (Watchmen), and Barry Pepper (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) are the memorable ones; each for different reasons.

Many people are going to want a bigger, more action-focused story here. And there is action and battles, but that isn’t the point. This is a character story. It doesn’t quite make perfect sense at all times, and the ending will leave you with as many, or more, questions than you may like. But the ride is full of tension, making it worth the time.

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The Killing of Two Lovers

[3 stars]

Learning to control emotional peaks is part of growing up, but even more so part of having kids. Every intense moment requires a pause, and a breath, and a calm response. The cost of that control is equally intense. Clayne Crawford (Spectral), along with some nice (if occasionally over-pumped) sound design, brings that tension to life as part of the main suspense in this, basically, domestic drama. The bi-play and screwed up struggles between Crawford and his on-screen wife Sepideh Moafi, is painful. It also feels uncomfortably honest and as illogical as any decisions attempted by couples in crisis trying to find a way to fix things.

No one in the family tests Crawford and Moafi more than Avery Pizzuto as the oldest child and daughter of the couple. Pizzuto is a bit histrionic, but what teenager isn’t? And yet, she’s the voice of reason in an unexpected way.

And then there’s Chris Coy (The Front Runner) as the burr in the side, the fly in the ointment, the self-assured interloper in the situation. Ultimately, he felt the least credible and most forced of the characters in the story. But his presence is necessary as fuel.

Writer/director Robert Machoian has built a family we can recognize, if not entirely sympathize with. It is a tale of good intentions running up against reality. It plays into the concept of everyone living lives of quiet desperation…bringing us constantly to the abyss and making us wonder if a character is going to jump into it.

Anyone who has ever been married and/or has had kids will recognize some, if not all, of the driving forces. Even if the plot may leave you behind at times, the root emotions and impulses feel familiar. And the story itself pulls you along through both tension and steady-cam shots that never let you blink.

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