Tag Archives: Foreign

Murder: Mundane and Supernatural

I’ve been picking up a number of series of late, which has cut down on my movie time. Not all are worth mentioning, but a few of the mysteries bubbled to the top. These three are about as different from one another as you can get in the genre, but all sport sharp intelligence and humanity.

Chestnut Man
Ah, those twisted and dark Danes. This is a great ride of a mystery, led by Danica Curcic (Equinox), Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, and David Dencik (Soap). It is a a collection of interesting character studies as well as a complex and layered story that unfolds in its own time. There are some familiar tropes driving the story, but it manages to make something new of all them thanks to the directing. For lovers of Scandinavian mysteries, this is a must.

Post Mortem: Nobody Dies in Skarnes
And even more twisted and dark folks from Norway. Post Mortem is delightfully of its culture with a dark sensibility, and yet also touching. It isn’t really a murder mystery so much as a black comedy, despite how it is setup. Sure, there are mysteries to be solved, but that is framework for the rest of the story to hang on. Kathrine Thorborg Johansen (The Quake) and Elias Holmen Sørensen make for an amusing pair of siblings, each struggling with their own failings and issues, unaware of the challenges each is facing. Their stories, and those of the residents of Skarnes around them, intersect and come together in unexpected and entertaining ways. It isn’t the show I expected when I tuned in, but I had fun and would watch the next series if it comes about.

Only Murders in the Building
All of which sets up the silly dark satire of Steve Martin (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) and Martin Short (Innerspace), with a queue-up from Selena Gomez (The Fundamentals of Caring). The three are the oddest collection of sleuths in a long while, crossing style barriers as well as generational ones in wonderful ways. The story is a little odd and forced at times, but with folks like Nathan Lane (Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) there to help it all along, it is a fun bunch of half-hour episodes to entertain you with a queue up for the next season as well. It is best simply enjoyed rather than too much examined (it just doesn’t stand up to that). But, oh, the characters and the twists are plenty fun.

The Chestnut Man Poster Post Mortem: No One Dies in Skarnes Poster
Only Murders in the Building Poster

Squid Game

[3 stars]

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are at least aware of Squid Game. It has had even bigger viewership numbers than Bridgerton and has made the news and even a song on SNL. Everything everyone has said is true. It is hyperviolent. It is dark as hell. It is a bizarre lens and commentary on capitalism, life, and society. So no need to go there. I want to talk about what people aren’t mentioning.

To start off, I had spotted the show very early in its release, but the description/warning that pretty much just said that it was “hyperviolent” had me put it off. And then the hype grew and so I gave it a shot. The first episode was numbing and depressing. There were no obvious characters worth investing in, based on their actions. I knew who we were supposed to root for, but frankly couldn’t find a way in to do so. So I paused my return to the Korean spectacle.

And then the hype grew more. I just couldn’t grasp what was causing all the hoopla. So, I went back…and that’s where it all got interesting.

The storytelling in Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game is odd and non-linear. It starts us at a dark nadir for Lee Jung-jae as our main character. But then, with the second episode, we start getting backstory for him and the other players. None of it forgives their actions, but it provides context. And there are lots of stories to tell in this cast, though Park Hae-soo, Jung Hoyeon, and Oh Yeong-su have some of the more interesting. No one in this story is blameless and they all, essentially, accept the reality that they are where they are thanks to their own actions. But the context allows for some amount of empathy and, ultimately, some devastating moments. Unlike, say, Battle Royale, it definitely pays off with a purpose.

Add to all this the amazing production design and you have a show you can’t seem to look away from…unless of course you can’t handle hyper-violence, in which case what the heck are you doing watching this anyway? Ultimately, the story is allegorical and not a little absurd. It jumps the shark near the climax with the arrival of the VIPs for me, and the ending was neither overly surprising nor satisfying. It simply happened to allow for a second season. And, to be fair, I want to see what they do with it, even if I don’t forgive the character manipulation that brings us there.

This isn’t an easy show. It won’t raise your opinion of humanity. But, in a weird way, it leaves you feeling hopeful and with some faith in the individual. It will also put some questions in the back of your head that will rattle uncomfortably as you contemplate them in private. Should you watch it? Again, see hyperviolence. It is brutal at times. If you can’t deal with that, the answer is a flat: no. If you can tolerate the intensity and blood, yeah, it’s something you should see.

Squid Game Poster

The Watch

[3.5 stars]

Sir Terry Pratchett’s humor was a gift to the world. Silly, yes. Dark, most definitely. Wry? Always. Hogfather is still one of my annual favorites. Adaptations of his books didn’t always go great, but I was always happy to give them a shot. The Watch is inspired by his world, if not directly extrapolated from it.

Creator Simon Allen has the wide ranging background to bring it all to life as the primary writer. The result is significantly darker than other adaptations, both in plot and character. And it goes down like a shot of tequila, harsh at first but slowly warming as it settles. It is very, very English in terms of its style, but not unapproachable. Admittedly, though, some of Richard Dormer’s (Rellik, Game of Thrones) lines can bend your ear between the mumbling and the accent. But his rubber face rivals that of Jim Carrey at times, which helps meaning and entertainment even when specific words get lost.

The rest of the Watch’s squad is a motely mix to be sure. From Marama Corlett, Adam Hugill (1917), and Jo Eaton-Kent to their adjunct Lara Rossi, they are, to a one, broken and looking for redemption. The show follows the band of misfits as they coalesce and try to win the day against impossible odds in a city where crime has been legalized. Yeah, chew on that a while.

Arrayed against the Watch are a slew of fun characters. Samuel Adewunmi, Bianca Simone Mannie, Jane de Wet, and Paul Kaye (Anna and the Apocalypse) are among them, but there are so many more. The world is rich with outlandish technologies, magic, and commentary.

The story is layered and complicated and open to a next series. Actually, it sort of demands it, though it does so through a coda rather than leaving you hanging on the main story. However, as of now, BBC hasn’t yet decided whether to renew the show. I really hope they do. I want to know what more they can do with this group and world.

The Watch Poster

 

Ted Lasso (series 2)

[3.5 stars]

Topping the first season of this show was going to be unlikely at best. No matter how good the writing might stay, the element of total surprise was gone. And, in fact, after the success of the first round, the show tried a bit too hard to compete with itself.

This second series is funny, and there are some utterly brilliant moments. But it is also scattered, jumping between individual tales in a way that is less smooth and which doesn’t build on itself as the first round did. Of course, they also went into this season knowing they already had a third on order where they could expand on everything they’ve set up. So, perhaps, they took advantage of that to explore different styles and characters so they can pay it all off next round?

However you parse it out, the “weaponized optimism” of Ted Lasso continues to entertain. And despite any faults, it’s a welcoming world with enough reality to keep it from rotting your teeth. And a few truly hysterical moments that will drop you off your couch.

Ted Lasso Poster

How to Build a Girl

[3 stars]

Growing up is difficult, but finding your place in the world, generally, sucks. However, from the outside, those evolutions can be both enlightening, heartwarming, and hysterical. So, if you enjoy coming-of-age flicks like Sing Street, Blinded By the Light, and about a 100 other Brit music-based stories, this one’s for you. It has the added bonus of riffing a bit on Almost Famous as well.

Beanie Feldstein (Booksmart) dances on the edge of adulthood in this story of finding herself and escaping the financial struggles of her area and family. The film is loaded with recognizable and new faces, most of which are just fun to spot. But a couple standout as worth flagging. Laurie Kynaston as her brother and mirror, and Paddy Considine (The Third Day) as her supportive-but-often-pointless father are among them. And then there’s Alfie Allen (Jojo Rabbit) in an unexpectedly calm and contemplative role. The rest you’ll have to find for yourself.

Coky Giedroyc directed Caitlin Moran’s adaptation of her own book with a real sense of love and life. This isn’t a terribly deep story, but it has enough to sink your teeth into while also making you laugh. The side-eye commentary is plenty of fun as well. Check this out when you need a lighter laugh and a reminder of what it was to make that transition from thinking you are the world to being part of it.

How to Build a Girl Poster

Missions (series 2)

[3 stars]

After the first round of this French sci-fi, my teeth were gnashing. Not because it wasn’t intriguing or even good, but because it was so incomplete and left on such a cliffhanger that it was frustrating. However, it also laid out several mysteries that even 3 years later were still fresh in my head and still demanded to be solved.

Fortunately, this second series of the high-concept show answers most of the open questions. It certainly does so while exposing some more, but it is definitely more complete. There are also no truly standout performances. Everyone is fine and no one is uncredible, unlike the first series. But the newest face in the saga, Barbara Probst, comes close to delivering something a cut above the others.

The third, and final, season of 5 episodes has wrapped filming and may (I stress may) show up before the end of the year. So this particular tale shouldn’t be left hanging like so many other stories of its ilk. It is definitely worth your time if you want something with a bit more meta to it and with some serious philosophical questions.

Missions Poster

Night is Short, Walk on Girl (Yoru wa mijikashi aruke yo otome)

[3 stars]

A slightly surreal walk through an evening of learning about love, life, and alcohol. I say “slightly” surreal because unlike other animes that delve into the unreal, this watches it mostly from the outside rather than the inner experience for the characters. It’s sort of like watching your friends get drunk, but with peeks inside their heads and listening to their internal narration.

This is an earlier film by director Masaaki Yuasa (Japan Sinks 2020). Mind you, it isn’t all that old, only 4 years, but it is an earlier example of his efforts and a very different sort of perspective on the world than his most recent. The animation is also a lot simpler, even cruder at times. Simple line drawings and blocky representations rather than the rich worlds he’s been producing of late. And the story is hopelessly, though in a twisted way, romantic.

I can’t say I loved the tale, but it dragged me along and made me laugh, even between the cringes. I’m sure there is something to be gleaned about the segments of society he’s poking fun of even as he embraces them, but I’m equally sure a lot of that went way over my head. Still, I can make educated guesses, even if the nuances were lost on me. It helps that the main character, Naoko, is tirelessly optimistic and attempting to bring good into the world around her.

For a trippy sort of escape without a lot of weight to it, I was glad I went back to pick up this earlier film of Yuasa’s. It indicates a breadth of interests and possibilities for his talents that will keep me seeking him out for a while to come.

Night Is Short, Walk On Girl Poster

Baptiste (series 2)

[3 stars]

The first round of this spin-off mystery was satisfying but left our title character in a dark place. Tchéky Karyo returns in a second round to wrap-up his story in this evil and bitter little confection to more properly send off his weary detective. Which isn’t to say that the way isn’t open for more stories at the end, but it rounds out his arc very nicely and wouldn’t be harmed by being left alone from here on out.

But, that said, he has at least one more missing person to find. And Fiona Shaw (Ammonite) joins Karyo to drive the story as an immensely flawed and broken human. Her missteps are often frustrating, but they are at least consistent. The story itself is both timely and profoundly disturbing. Told primarily in French, English, and Hungarian, we navigate the rising tide of the far right in Hungary as the backdrop to this case.

Joining the main duo, the Hungarian actors Dorka Gryllus, Gabriella Hámori, Miklós Béres and the well-known English character actor Ace Bhatti provide background and side plots.

Baptiste lives in a world of trafficking, hate, drugs, and loss. If it weren’t that challenging, anyone could do what he does. But at what cost? And that is the crux of this second series. What has he sacrificed and what can he recover of his life with Anastasia Hille (Pembrokeshire Murders) after the last case and because of this current? This is the focus of the latest six episodes and, with some minorly frustrating choices, it navigates it all quite well.

Baptiste Poster

benjamin

[3 stars]

Colin Morgan (The Happy Prince, Humans) frontlines this understated romantic comedy. He is the embodiment of the overanalyzing filmmaker, but in a sweet rather than egotistical way. In fact most of the movie is about him building an ego of any sort so that he can be open to life with Phénix Brossard (Little Joe).

Brossard, himself, is mostly a cypher for the film, but an attractive and talented one. You understand Morgan’s fascination with him, but also glimpse Brossard’s own struggles, though those are secondary. And, as Morgan’s external reflection and friend, Joel Fry (Yesterday) delivers a harshly honest view of being lost as both a person and an artist.

Writer/director Simon Amstell managed to keep this film both funny and sharp. It doesn’t shrink away from the flinching pain of moments, but also doesn’t go anywhere too dark, allowing this to be light trip and darkly funny romantic romp.

Benjamin Poster

Intergalactic (series 1)

[3 stars]

You might have missed this bit of British scifi that dropped recently. It would have been easy to as it only appears to be on Peacock at the moment. And having seen it I can say that I so wanted to like this more than I did. There are some great ideas in Intergalactic, but it is also more than a little forced and generic and just a bit cliché. Though, honestly, it got better as it went along. You really just have to grit your teeth through the first episode and go along for the ride.

What helps is that the actors really give it their all, committing to the world and the relationships, which helps carry it through. There is no sense of a nod-and-a-wink about the genre. Savannah Steyn (The Tunnel) is our connection into the story, and while everyone has a plot to follow, hers is the core. Among the motely crew, Eleanor Tomlinson (War of the Worlds, The Nevers) is the real standout. However, the brutal and brutalized Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Years and Years, Sex Education) certainly throws down and has an unexpected arc. New comers Diany Samba-Bandza and Imogen Daines add in quite a bit as well, especially as they bounce Thomas Turgoose (Terminal). Wild cards in the crew are Natasha O’Keeffe (Misfits) and Oliver Coopersmith who are both tacked onto the gang in uncomfortable ways.

Running things from the home planet are Parminder Nagra (Five Feet Apart) and Craig Parkinson (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch). Both recognizable and capable, but not really with much to do here beyond gnawing furniture. I will say that Nagra gets to play a rather deeply cold security head, however.

The production, sadly, is so intensely claustrophobic and Doctor Who-quarry level design at times that it gets a bit wearying. Which isn’t to say there aren’t some nice effects as well. But everywhere other than the ruling class is filthy to the point of absurdity in a high tech universe. And the elements driving the plot are just a little too buried and take a while to come into focus. All that said, should they get another round I’d like to see where they could take it now that they’ve laid the foundation and the bigger tensions bare. However, that doesn’t appear likely anymore. A shame they didn’t have better writers to help launch this potentially rich universe.

Intergalactic Poster