Tag Archives: Foreign

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (Psiconautas, los niños olvidados)

[3 stars]

A surreal romp about finding hope in hopelessness. At least that’s what I took away from it this viewing. Pedro Rivero and
Alberto Vázquez (with additional help from Stephanie Sheh [Your Name.] and Joe Deasy) give us a landscape that borders on Bakshi’s Wizards: post-apocalyptic, mutated, venal, self-absorbed, and still focused on the value of the past rather than providing life for the future.

The main characters are children; children who are trying to survive and find purpose in a broken world. Somehow that part of the story feels very contemporary in terms of the feelings and challenges if not the specific events and issues. The overall plot echos the global trend toward migration, economic disparity, and the ecological disaster that is picking up steam with every year. But this is less warning than it is the (merest) suggestion that there is a solution if we can just hold on to what makes life worthwhile and control the darkest parts of our own selves. It makes for a pretty packed 76 minutes.

For the animation alone, this film is worth it. It isn’t grand, highly CGI’d animation, rather it is a reflection of its graphic novel roots. It is simple, but effective. The result is fascinating, inventive, and gripping at times. It refuses to blink from horror, but also often twists it to something of beauty or potential beauty. If you like the craft and enjoy challenging animation, this is worth your time.

Thelma

[3 stars]

Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs) brought his award-winning ability directing and co-writing (with constant collaborator Eskil Vogt) this intense and suspenseful tale. It isn’t an easily defined story, but Eili Harboe (The Wave) owns the title role with wonderful subtlety and angst.

The result, as close as I can come, is a coming-of-age horror(ish) tale. You know from the opening scene that something isn’t quite right but it is a paced story that builds the situation from Thelma’s point of view. Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen support Harboe as Thelma’s parents in echos of many other similar stories, but without becoming histrionic.

In fact, that is one of the biggest differences in this riff on a plot you’ll recognize quickly, it is told simply and naturalistically rather than with big moments and effects. It is, above all, a story about Thelma and her becoming an independent adult. It is also doesn’t explain everything or provide simple answers to some of the actions, though it certainly raises questions. The story is as much metaphor as truth.

This isn’t a fast film, but it is gripping and interesting,  performed and constructed with real ability. It was nominated for and won many awards deservedly, but it is more on the art-house end of the spectrum than, say, A Quiet Place, that subverts the genre in a different way. When you want something familiar, but that feels new, check this out.

Thelma

The Divine Order (Die göttliche Ordnung)

[3 stars]

Picture it: 1971 Switzerland. Rolling farmland. Mountains. And women still without the right to vote. Yes, seriously. This film chronicles the weeks leading up to the 1971 referendum that reversed that absurdity (though it would be another 10 years before it was added to the constitution).

What is weirder is watching the story and seeing the world that so many in power today pine for.  It is a village locked in the 40s and 50s in look and 1800s in mentality. For all that, it is full of humor and entertainment. It isn’t a belly laugh kind of film, well not often, but it balances the darker side of the reality with the lighter side. There is a particularly wonderful scene with Sofia Helin (The Bridge) on that front.

Unlike other “rights” movies, like the wonderful Pride, there is never a huge moment of triumph, despite the wins. Writer/director Petra Volpe instead gives us a series of small victories and a sense that the efforts have to always be going on to maintain and protect those rights. Sound familiar?

Definitely a timely and interesting film to see against the backdrop of today. It is well acted and emotionally satisfying, capturing the culture and the history in unexpected ways. Oh, and it was well recognized on the festival circuit as well.  Make time for this movie for both inspiration and entertainment.

The Divine Order

Some more mysteries

A few short write-ups on some new mystery series coming our way.

Bancroft is one of the darker origin tales to come out of the BBC. A four-part tale following the exposure of a 27 year old cold case, and the damage it can still imbue. Staring Sarah Parish (Atlantis) and Faye Marsay (Game of Thrones), both women climbing in the British police force and playing an increasingly dangerous game of politics. It is a very British series and will not be to the taste of everyone, but it is also a good setup for the next sequence. If you need a touchstone, think Line of Duty meets Prime Suspect.

The Miniaturist is faithful to the book, which is both its strength and weakness. A conundrum to be sure. The story is a compelling historical drama and romance in 17th Century Holland, well-led by Anya Joy-Taylor (Split). But the central conceit of the story and title are incidental to the plot itself. You could rip out the entire aspect of the miniaturist herself and nothing in the story would have to change. The book is the same way. It reads like it was originally a different story, but that the author got caught up with other aspects, but never removed the original concept. Either way, it is worth the time to see and/or read.

Shakespeare & Hathaway is of a very different cloth than the previous two. It is mostly a light comedy detective series in Stratford-upon-Avon. But while it has a great deal of fun with Shakespeare’s plays (which isn’t necessary to understand, but lots of fun if you listen carefully) it ranges into some rather dark mysteries and motives. To give you a sense of their whimsy amid the blood, Amber Aga (Abstentia) plays DI Christine Marlowe. To borrow a phrase from the Bard’s time, it is neither fish nor flesh nor fowl but something a bit wonderfully weird and entertaining. The stories are led by veterans Mark Benton and Jo Joyner along with capable and relative newcomer Patrick Walshe McBride. When you are looking  for something that is somewhere between Father Brown and Midsomer Murders or The Coroner this will really fit the bill with some laughs and even some surprises. 

 

Goodbye Christopher Robin

[3 stars]

They say you should never look in the kitchen of your favorite restaurant…and in some ways that applies to your favorite stories as well. There is practically no child that hasn’t grown up knowing Winnie the Pooh. There is a magic to that silly old bear. But, having grown up, you do need to ask yourself if you want to know what the truth, real story, and inspiration were behind the wondrous Hundred Acre Wood. As several of the biographies of the last decade or so highlight, the life of the Milnes wasn’t storybook by any stretch.

But writers Frank Cottrell Boyce (Revengers Tragedy) and first-timer Simon Vaughan did a good job of distilling Robin’s story even while telling it primarily from his father’s point of view. That approach allowed them to navigate all aspects of the family, though the intent of the focus is on Robin’s experience. The tale is very layered and complex, often in subtle ways. It tackles class, war, parenthood, child rearing, love, show business in various forms, art, and the creative process, not just the specific genesis of Pooh and his friends. Probably not the story you imagine.

Will Tilston, in his first major role as Christopher Robin, was a brilliant bit of casting. While his acting may not be quite as polished as the rest of the cast, director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) elicited a great performance that struck just the right tone for his challenged childhood. Alex Lawther (The End of the F**ing World) then takes that setup as the older Robin and pays it off rather well.

But while the story is about Christopher, it is primarily told from the adult point of view. Domhnall Gleeson (mother!) delivers a powerful and sympathetic performance as A.A. Milne. Like many men (for instance Tolkien) returning from WWI, he struggled in near silence to recover. How that affected his writing is a critical part of the history. As his mother, Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) walks a very odd path of love and motherhood that is particular to that era and at that strata. There is love there, but of a particular kind. It is Kelly Macdonald (T2: Trainspotting) that Robin recognizes as the main source of intimacy in his life, and Macdonald provides a good target for it. It isn’t a new type of performance for her, but rather a comfortable and recognizable character delivered with expertise.

A side-effect of the scope of the story is that the movie is a little challenging to follow emotionally. The focus is split between the generations. That isn’t ultimately a bad thing, but it dilutes the result through much of the film, even as it pays it all off by the end. Also, it wasn’t helped by the aging make-up toward the end of the movie which really fails and broke the reality of the moments for me.

I started this write-up with a warning, which I’ll reiterate. If you want to keep the pure magic of the stories you know, you don’t want to see this film. The film has its own magic and, certainly, respects the phenomena that is the stories that are quickly approaching their first century in print. But it also exposes the reality of a difficult childhood and fumbled parenting. On a pure movie level, the acting and directing are solid, however, so I certainly recommend it if you aren’t worried about seeing how the meal was made.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

Collateral

[3.5 stars]

Writer David Hare (DenialThe Worricker Trilogy) has delivered another complex and tight suspense/thriller. It is a beautiful study of chaos born from a simple, small event. The 4-part tale is one, primarily, of three women in very different places in life, but all intersecting through a seemingly random crime in London.

Carey Mulligan (Mudbound) makes a nice switch to the staid DI Glaspie from her previous strong, but often gender-bounded parts. Glaspie is a tough woman, straight talker, and flawed in ways the keep you interested as she tackles her first big case.

Special ops Jeany Spark (Wallander) brings some interesting flavor to the story. Her struggles, both internal and within the military are often horrific, but she rises above that in her own way. Admittedly, her choices are less than mainstream, but you understand her better than you’d like to admit.

Nicola Walker (River), on the other hand, gives us yet another of her strong but shattered women, a trademark character she manages to make feel fresh and real no matter the story she brings it to. It is hard to recall she started in comedy way back when before she found her meal ticket in film and TV.

Then, of course, are a panoply of others from John Simm (Doctor Who), to Billie Piper (Penny Dreadful), to Hayley Squires (Miniaturist), Nathaniel Martello-White (Moonwalkers), Ahd Kamel (Wadjda), July Namir, and Ben Miles (The Crown). There isn’t a weak casting choice in the lot and S.J. Clarkson directed them and the overall sequence well. Despite the potential for soapy histrionics, Clarkson kept it all very real, contained, and pressurized.

The four installments pull you along as it drops clues that slowly build to a complete picture. It isn’t quite as complex or solidly interlinked as Worricker, but it is full of great moments, dialogue, and performances. Definitely worth a bit of binge when you want a slightly more challenging distraction.

The Square

[2 stars]

Some movies are inscrutable, but at least this one is long and subtitled to boot. And I do mean long for this kind of movie; it clocks in at 150 minutes.

At best, The Square is a series of vignettes about man’s inhumanity and the definition and business of art, held together loosely by a single event. But that’s being somewhat generous. I think Ruben Östlund had aspirations of updating The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; assailing the limits of our willingness to intervene and help one another, and the taboos that sit at those boundaries. Frankly, he failed, giving us some nuggets of thought, but never grabbing us or pulling it all into a single, clarifying instant. The movie simply peters out, unresolved and unsatisfying. I guess Östlund would ask, did that make it art? His previous Force Majeure much more successfully ranged across humanity while focusing very specifically on individuals.

It isn’t that there aren’t some interesting questions in the film. And the peek behind the scenes of museum purchasing and marketing is interesting and disturbing, to be sure. But that isn’t enough to to make a movie. And if he wanted to turn the movie into a virtual square itself (which I do think he intended), Östlund should have begun and ended the film in 4:3 aspect rather than 16:9 to make the point.

The story is dominated by Claes Bang (The Bridge) whose awakening to the world around him is full of unrealized potential. He is clearly a well-to-do man in a position of power, and full of self-importance. Watching that surface erode, first with humor and, eventually with some humility, is intriguing. But we never connect with him in a way that makes us care. It is halfway through the tale before we even know he has kids; which is part of the point, I’m sure, but it just doesn’t work.

At the periphery of the story are Elisabeth Moss (Top of the Lake: China Girl) and Dominic West (Money Monster) who each bring a little of the outside world to Bang. They aren’t brilliant performances, but they’re probably the only faces you’ll recognize in the film.

One interesting, recurring bit part is played by Terry Notary. What makes it interesting is that he has stepped to our side of the motion capture suit to appear as human rather than as creature, as he has in Kong, Planet of the Apes, The Hobbit, etc. His casting is surely meant as another intended commentary on art, but you’d have to know who he is to even trip over the point.

Ultimately, this is a heck of a lot of time to spend in a world that is neither compelling nor fully realized. I can only think that the awards it won was due to people being duped into it being art, much like some of the odder installations in the movie itself (which isn’t to say those examples couldn’t be art, but even the story chips away at the core of that idea).

Personally, my though is that you could take the time you’d spend on this movie and see two other films that are much better…and you should.

The Square

Requiem

[3 stars]

Requiem is an odd, 6-part mystery that is both modern mystery and Gothic horror. From the outset, it is clear that there is some kind of supernatural aspect to the events, but the story unfolds for a long time with that being very much in question and at the periphery. Part of the fun of the story is trying to identify truth and interpretation from fiction and assumption.

Lydia Wilson (Star Trek Beyond) leads the story as a delightfully and frustratingly flawed young woman. For all her strength and focus though, her character drifts into “willful stupid” territory about two thirds into the sequence thanks to writing choices. The Code collaborators, Mrksa and Ayshford,  relied a bit too much on some tropes to push the plot along rather than find more natural ways to have confrontations in their latest delivery.

Wilson’s sidekick, Joel Fry (Game of Thrones), has one of the more challenging paths in this story. Honestly, it never really entirely comes together, but it leaves him hanging in a realistic way. It is clear to us what the motivations are even though the characters rarely broach the subject.

Three other women have nicely complex roles in the series. Two are well recognized faces from many shows and movies; Joanna Scanlan (Electric Dreams) and Claire Rushbrook (Murder: Joint Enterprise) are terrific characters with difficult plots to navigate. The third,  Clare Calbraith, is less known, but is as integral as Wilson in driving the plot forward.

Additional support by James Frecheville (Adore), Brendan Coyle (Me Before You), Sian Reese-Williams (Hinterland) and Darren Evans (Galavant) are all worth mentioning, though far from the entire cast.

Overall, the mystery unfolds nicely and inexorably, but don’t expect all questions to be answered. Most will, and certainly enough will, but the show left itself a way forward and didn’t try to cover all bases. That was fair given that not all answers were or could be known in this part of the story. If you like moody horror and mystery, this is a good mix of the two, and definitely a binge-worthy series that will hook you quickly.

Hard Sun

[3 stars]

Assumption: The only thing that holds society generally, and people specifically, in check is the expectation of a future.

Experiment: Take away that future…what happens?

It isn’t a new idea, nor is it even the best tackle of that idea (Children of Men, probably tops that list). However, when the creator and writer of Luther, Neil Cross, wanted to tackle this idea and deliver something a bit more speculative in genre, it was something I wanted to check out. The dark, violent sensibilities of Luther are put into a new frame where the world itself could be ending. The concept and effects are an interesting study, and sad admission, about human nature.

The two detectives who lead the 6-part serial, Jim Sturgess (Geostorm) and Agyness Deyn (Clash of the Titans), are an uncomfortable  pair with complex lives. Splitting the focus between two leads challenges the show at times, but watching them work through their relationship and through the chaos of the world is instantly intriguing. The give and take doesn’t always feel quite real, but Deyn is a kick-ass fighter while Sturgess is an onion of strange psychology that never really comes completely into focus.

Nikki Amuka-Bird (Luther), a wonderful and prolific actor, adds an element of menace, but without a great deal of character. Perhaps that is fair in what is clearly intended to be a 5 series story. However, it doesn’t do her any favors in believability in this first installment. Derek Riddell (Happy Valley), another well-known face from many British series, is likewise incomplete in his character, but with the talent to make the thin meat on his bones work and leave it open to build on if it continues.

Also not helping the credibility of the show are some really, really dumb choices around mental health treatment and police procedure. More than once I found myself gritting my teeth through short-cuts and outright ridiculous choices. All very surprising given Cross’s ability and background.

Overall, there is enough here to keep you intrigued and wondering what will come next. It combines apocalyptic fiction with the standard British police procedural in an interesting, if sometimes clumsy, way.  What is most interesting is the final moments that are visually stunning, but probably lost and confusing to a general audience. Hopefully, though, it is enough to get the rest of the series made, because it definitely leaves you hanging and with a whole lot of potential going forward. Seek it out on Hulu in the States.

 

Victoria & Abdul

[3 stars]

From the very beginning you know the tone of this tale is not going to be the dry historical you probably expected. Victoria & Abdul is, for a large part of the movie, a light film filled with comedy and joy, though it certainly takes on important issues while it both celebrates and lambastes the pomp of royalty and the untenable position of a monarch. Judi Dench (Tulip Fever) tackles the leader of the British empire 20 years after her previous turn in the position in Mrs. Brown. In fact, this movie picks up that persona well into her years, long past Albert, and years after Victoria was again on her own. The two would make a great double feature as you can see the foundation of what leads to Victoria’s choices and household.

In the other title role, Ali Fazal (3 Idiots) brings an interesting energy to his character that feels almost false or forced, but somehow real. He is the perfect optimist opposite Adeel Akhtar’s (The Big Sick) whingeing and political ire in opposition to the court around him. Of note in that group are Eddie Izzard (Absolutely Anything), Olivia Williams (Man Up), and Paul Higgins (Utopia), among a host of others.

What starts as silly, progresses roughly as you’d expect as jealousies and prejudice begin to assert themselves. But Victoria was a tough old cookie, even till the end;  nothing was ever going to be simple.

Having already tackled Queen Elizabeth II, it shouldn’t be surprising to see director Stephen Frears (Florence Foster Jenkins) take on Victoria. He is well at home in the upper crustiest of crusts, and happy to show all the cracks as well. He coaxed a wonderfully balanced set of performances out of the entire cast and filmed it with care and love for his central characters.

And though the tale is oversimplified, Lee Hall’s (War Horse) script provides enough meat to keep it all feeling complete. The dialogue is also often delightfully unexpected.

This isn’t a brilliant film, but it is entertaining and worth the investment of an evening to learn about a newly discovered bit of history. Seeing Dench take on the mantle of the monarchy again to complete the story she started back in 1997 is also a gift.

Victoria & Abdul