Tag Archives: Foreign

How I Became a Superhero (Comment je suis devenu super-héros)

[3.5 stars]

Every time you think this genre has been tapped out, someone comes up with a fresh or entertaining entry. This French police procedural/superhero tale creates a rich world full of humor and complex characters, but with some solid bite and depth to make it interesting. All the more impressive it’s coming from a first time director, Douglas Attal.

In the focus of the story, Pio Marmaï draws us in with an unexpected charm and a character who slowly peels back layers with every scene. He is initially easy to pigeon hole and dismiss, as even his partner, Vimala Pons, is tempted to do. But she, like us, realize there is something more there worth digging into. And, with the help of Leïla Bekhti and Benoît Poelvoorde (The Brand New Testament), society is protected from Swann Arlaud (Romantics Anonymous). But the story is not quite as straight forward as that. Nor would you want it to be.

Definitely queue this up if you at all like the genre. It’s clever, funny, and with a nice French edge to it all that keeps it from becoming too much anything else.

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Lupin (parts 1 & 2)

[4 stars]

In an entertainment landscape where we’ve been trained to want and expect chases, explosion, and gunfights, it’s so nice to have a high-concept mystery show again that is about tension and cleverness. I know there are others out there, but this feels new and different, even if it’s based on 100 year old books.

I will admit, the main core of the fight that Omar Sy (Inferno) wages against the truly repellant Hervé Pierre got a little tiresome at points during the sequence. But I also admit that by the end of the second part, it all paid-off wonderfully.

Where the first part focuses on the crime and revenge, the second focuses more on the people around Lupin and the bonds that hold them. Getting to see some of the backstory and expansion of characters like Antoine Gouy and Clotilde Hesme (The Returned) was great fun. And the continued development of Soufiane Guerrab’s (Moloch) put-upon detective becomes a wonderful evolution in the tale.

Much like the original books, the story feels very “managed,” for lack of a better word. It is relatively easy to get ahead of it all well before the end. The clues are there in both the script and structure. But, honestly, it didn’t matter. Lupin is about the pay-off and the fun; it has both. And a third part on the way that I am hoping will help it break free of the current main story and move on to a new mystery. Honestly, this one has played out and continuing it would devolve into bad telenovella territory, regardless of how interesting the characters are. In the meantime, if you haven’t discovered or tried Lupin yet, queue it up.

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Promised Neverland

[3.5 stars]

There are so many secrets in this series that it limits what I can comment on. So, instead, it’s really a matter of whether it’s worth your time or not. It is.

Generally, Promised Neverland is a fascinating, if somewhat genre-standard, tale of children in an orphanage who discover nefarious plans. There are lots of narrow escapes and “big moments.” But it is also infused with that kids anime silliness in the characters that I find challenging to watch. At least when it is a constant stream of it. And it means most of the voice work is serviceable, but not brilliant. I did stick with the dub version on this one after trying both sub and dub. Honestly, the original voice work was no better, so I gave my eyes a break to concentrate on the gorgeous art and tale in front of me.

The story will carry you along. The second season already out and I can’t imagine that you could watch the first and walk away. The second season builds on the revelations of the first, and introduces some intriguing new levels to the story overall. I loved that the world kept expanding, but it also got a little unwieldy and just a bit illogical. Choices didn’t always flow naturally (on either side) and some of the character changes felt a bit forced. Had they split the action into two seasons to build up the background info, it may have felt less manipulated.

However, it does, for all intents, completely wrap up by the end of season two thanks to some very rapid fast-forwarding. In this case (unlike Trese), that approach worked as it was all lined up and it was really just watching the dominos fall rather than filling in gaps. It could have been pushed into a third season, but that isn’t the story they wanted to tell, so I felt comfortable with the choice.

The resulting story is definitely worth your time and will likely manage to surprise you. It has even inspired a live-action version that is in the works. So, clearly, it also has a following and I count myself among them now.

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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.

Vanguard

[3 stars]

I came for the Jackie Chan (The Foreigner) and stayed for the fights and action. Really, there isn’t much else in this latest Stanley Tong adventure. The story is standard and the dialogue (in a multitude of languages) is neither clever nor surprising. And, just as often, delivered with the emotional truth of a large pine tree as anything else. There isn’t even much of the trademark Chan humor.

But the fight choreography is pretty wonderfully conceived. Even the wire-work and CGI moments are fun. But there is plenty of honest work in there too. And it’s visually pretty amazing as it globe-trots through various continents.

What was also interesting was how loaded with cliché and Chinese propaganda the script was. Chan, as a Hong Kong native and with a movie that was finished just as China was locking down, headlines this flick that is arguably a slap at his roots. While Chan is only acting in this film, I was surprised he stepped into it…though I’m sure it had something to do with how previous collaborations with Tong’s helped launch him out of Hong Kong and into the world with movies like Rumble in the Bronx.

This is an entertaining diversion if you like the genre, but this isn’t a good film. Settle in for the eye candy and athletics, but check your brain and emotional critic at the door.

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3 Seasons, 2 Detectives,1 Arc Each (Balthazar v Professor T.)

[3 stars and 4 stars]

Finding new detective procedurals is a joy. Not too long ago I found two and binged through their seasons: one French and one Flemish. They both feature quirky main leads who untangle the untanglable. Both have rich fantasy lives that inform their path to the truth. And both have histories that affect their overall personality for good and ill, as well as providing an overall arc for their respective series.

However, while each resolves their histories over a three season arc, one series succeeds wildly and the other…not so much. They make for an interesting comparison.

Tomer Sisley as the titular Raphaël Balthazar and Koen De Bouw (Cordon, Salamander) as Jasper Teerlink, aka Professor T., are polar opposites in personality, but equals in intellectual strength. Each sees what no one else does and often finds the information by interacting in their own private fantasy worlds. Balthazar imagines talking to his morgue guests; conversing with them to understand their story. Professor T. uses fantasy to navigate a world too painful for his senses and predilections while his sharp mind recognizes the smallest muscle twitch or misspoken word that reveals the clues.

Both characters find solace in fantasy due to traumas in their past…which keeps them from any real connection in the present. Balthazar, the death of his fiancée, Professor T., the death of his father. Their arcs pave the path to normalcy, or at least the chance at happiness. And through it they interact with a host of great characters. But both shows also took left turns in their 3rd seasons, and this is where their quality and the satisfaction as a viewer diverged for me.

Professor T. is a brilliantly conceived mystery that slowly reveals itself and who’s full explanation is held off till near the last minutes of the series. From the first episode, they knew where they were going and incrementally took us there. Though the third season takes a massive left turn, it is all within the framework and feels possible in that world, if a little unbalancing at first. And the shift was necessary in order to start the final downhill ride to the revelations. But through it all, T remains T. His façade begins to crack, but in the way someone reaching their crisis point might given what he is dealing with. Admittedly, some of the cast changes in the final season were unfortunate, but even that works itself through. You arrive at the end with a true sense of completion and satisfaction. The writers played fair and the story was fulfilled.

Balthazar seemed to have a similar construction, but frankly their third season didn’t just turn left, it went off the rails. Characters began acting wildly differently, and the overall mystery became something so banal and obvious as to be disappointing. And, worse, they had to leave it on a potentially never-to-be-resolved cliffhanger. (Since then a fourth season has been greenlit.) It reminded me of nothing less than the third season of Forever Knight when a German production company came in and destroyed the show because they felt they knew better than the creators and fans as to what it should be. (Suffice to say that show got cancelled at the end of the season, and the production company, in a slap in the face to the fans, went scorched earth on it all.) While Balthazar wasn’t unwatchable in this past season, it felt wrong from beginning to end. It became more violent. More bloody. His behavior more outrageous and more ridiculous. And the writing really slipped. Some of it made sense, but not as a whole and the show lost what made it so interesting and fun: an intelligent and broken rake trying to find solace and redemption through his work and in the world. At the end we’re left hanging and frustrated, and feeling not a little cheated.

I still recommend both series if you haven’t found them yet. They each have their charm and entertainment. Just be aware that Balthazar may not, ultimately, pay off while T. most definitely does. And if you need any more proof of that, Professor T. has been remade in German and in a brand new UK version that has just released, while no one had done so for Balthazar.

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Blythe Spirit (2021)

[3 stars]

Noël Coward is known for his witty dialogue and comedies of manners. He thumbs his nose at society while embracing it utterly as a goal. Pulling off a Coward script requires an open-eyed love of what all that means, and rapid fire repartee with a dry wit.

Dan Stevens (Solos), Leslie Mann (Welcome to Marwen), and Isla Fisher make a wonderful trio to tackle that challenge. Each embodies the 1930s pre-war sensibility nicely, as well as the broad comedy of the story. But even with the assist of the wonderful Judy Dench (Staged), the movie lacks any chemistry between the characters. And without that chemistry it becomes only a collection of performances…it just doesn’t quite work.

The end result isn’t the Twentieth Century or Thin Man it needed to be. It isn’t even Death Becomes Her (with or without all its flaws). Somewhere, shortly into it all, director Edward Hall lost the rhythm and energy. The bottom falls out of the movie and it all just drifts along to a funny, but not punchy ending. Of course much of that has to go at the feet of the new adaptation by the collective that brought us such varied comedies as St. Trinian’s and Finding Your Feet. In their attempt to update the story so it was less arch, they lost the focus and the point. The ideas were great, but they never went quite far enough.

The movie makes for a shortish distraction, with some really nice locations and costumes. And none of the individual performances are bad; there are some truly laugh-out-loud moments. However, while the parts all work, the flick fails to impress on the whole. But with the kind of talent it has on screen, it was certainly worth the attempt even if the end-result fell short. Ah, but what it might have been in better hands or a better matched cast.

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We Are Lady Parts

[4 stars]

Come for the title, stay for the utter hilarity with just enough truth to keep it grounded. In true-to-the-best of Brit humor We Are Lady Parts is part fantastical, part reality, and all heart. And to describe it at all is to blow some of the fun and surprise in this 6-episode first series.

Like other unexpected comedies such as Uncle and Moone Boy, it shouldn’t work, but it really does thanks to the incredible writing and direction of Nida Manzoor’s solid cast of mostly unknowns. Top among them is the band members Sarah Kameela Impey, Juliette Motamed, Lucie Shorthouse, Faith Omole, and our main narrator Anjana Vasan. A couple of better known faces in peripheral characters help it all along as well, especially Shobu Kapoor and Aiysha Hart (A Discovery of Witches).

Suffice to say it a fun and sympathetic look at a culture that rarely gets that treatment. And a bit of female punk rock to boot. At 22 minutes an episode, it isn’t a huge investment to find out if this is for you or not. I highly recommend giving it a try.

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We Are From There (Nahnou men hounak)

[3 stars]

This is more a window on the world than it is a full story. But there is a tone poem that the two brothers create with their commentary.  And it is one that will echo for anyone who has ever questioned their choices and place in the world. So, yeah, everyone.

The documentary follows Milad and Jamil from Syria to, ultimately, different countries in Europe. Both these young men felt they had nothing in Syria to hold them, that it would, in fact, hold them back. But they constantly reflect upon their childhood there, recalling and leaning on the memories.

The third perspective of this story is their cousin Wissam, who is also the writer and director of this film. Wissam stayed in Syria but remained closely in touch with his cousins. He provides the bridge between them and their past. And, in doing so, becomes part of the tale rather than just an impartial third eye. And, in this case, much like in Stories We Tell, it’s a necessary bit of glue.

Overall, this isn’t a very polished docu, but it has a fascinating quality and honesty. Even as it raises more questions than answers, it somehow manages to feel complete. And, despite hailing from one of the most war-torn areas of the world, it doesn’t dwell on those aspects, but on rather more universal emotions, without ignoring the roots of it all.

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Supernova

[3.5 stars]

Better known as an actor, Harry Macqueen wrote and directed this quietly intense story that should be recognizable to anyone who has ever been, or ever wanted to be, in a long-term relationship. Despite its framing, it isn’t a story about a gay couple, it’s a story about two lovers in crisis and holding on to one another as they navigate the issues. And he manages to do all this through quiet dialogue and without losing tension.

It’s worth every minute of this movie to follow Stanley Tucci (The Witches) and Colin Firth (Mary Poppins Returns) across the English countryside as they struggle to help one another accept the latest phase of their marriage. Both are wonderfully subtle actors, and the depth of their connection is undeniable.

It’s hard not to watch this and not compare it to The Leisure Seeker. Despite the radically different temperaments of the two movies, they tread the same ground in many ways; that of a deep and abiding love facing mortality. But unlike Leisure Seeker, little happens in this movie and few secrets are revealed. It really is a story about the two talking to each other and their friends. But, thanks to the clever direction and editing, it isn’t in the least boring.

This is definitely one to curl up on the couch with your nearest loved one and consider what it means to spend a lifetime together.

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