Tag Archives: Foreign

God’s Own Country

[3 stars]

Josh O’Connor (The Durells In Corfu) and, in his first major role, Alec Secareanu make an unlikely and wonderful pair in the harsh northern England countryside. The growth and challenge of their relationship is almost all internal, but completely obvious. O’Connor, in particular, takes us from not really liking him, to understanding him, to cheering for him all while his navigates a personal path that is barely mentioned.

In his first feature, acting as both writer and director, Francis Lee has created a painfully wonderful tale of first love. In fact, though mostly missed by audiences, it covers a lot of the same ground as Call Me By Your Name, but better highlighting a lot of the emotions I felt were missing in the Oscar contender.

Driving the story from the background are two well-known faces: Gemma Jones and Ian Hart as O’Connor’s parents. The interplay here is also subtle and almost entirely unspoken. Some of this is the culture of the north, but some is Lee’s respect for his audience; not forcing explanations and confrontations and trusting the viewer to understand. Both deliver solid performances.

Do be warned of one aspect. This film is not for the feint of heart when it comes to what it is to really be a farmer with livestock. There are a few moments that remind you why some people become vegans. It is all done with a purpose and, frankly, all fair and true to life, but not everyone will want to see it. The moments are short and you can avert your eyes and continue on if it bothers you, but the warning is necessary.

As a whole, this is a slow, intense film, but very well done, especially if you handicap it for the number of new roles its creators were taking on. It is touching and sad all at once, but ultimately uplifting as each character finds their place in the world, even if it isn’t quite how they expect to.

God

Early Man

[3 stars]

There is something about stop-action animation that remains magical to me. I don’t know if it is the effort behind it or simply the way inanimate objects come to life when it is done right, but it captured me as a kid and continues to grab me as an adult. Until Laika Studios (Kubo and the Two Strings) came online about 10 years ago, the torch and almost sole standard bearer for stop-action was Aardman Studios and, in particular, Nick Park.

Park created the wonderful Wallace & Grommit, Shaun the Sheep, and a slew of advertisements and short films. Then, in 2005, tragedy struck when a fire wiped out nearly all the decades of models and sets Aardman had brought to life. What has followed that devastation has never quite hit their high mark, at least in long-form adult fare.

Early Man is no exception. If you love footy and have kids, this film is a riot. It is full of humor (adult and child) and has a sweet and empowering tale for all children. And, of course, it has a great animal sidekick, voiced by Park himself, that steals the film. The rest of the story, for adults at least, is fine, but not brilliant despite a well-known and talented voice cast. Most importantly, the animation is wonderful.

Where does it lose adults, or at least me? The movie starts off with cavemen and dinosaurs alive at the same time in order to tie in the great meteor strike to the plot (wholly unnecessary, but they couldn’t resist the dinosaur thing). Then it goes on to not think through its production design; the clothing is all whole, wild animal furs when all they hunt are rabbits for example. And, finally, it has several key script contradictions. Will kids notice any of this? Probably a tiny bit, but most won’t. However, it was effort to keep having to forget the errors as I was watching–and I love Park’s work. I will say the script does have a lot of fun British humor. Perhaps part of the challenge was seeing the movie after seeing the new Shaun the Sheep trailer, which looks so very funny and sly…and this film just didn’t seem to have the same level of intelligence and cleverness.

I’m not saying don’t go to this film. I am saying go with the right expectations. This is a fabulous film for young kids with enough humor for adults that it works. It just isn’t the classic I had hoped for, and always hope for, with Aardman Studios. Their technique is still great and their sense of whimsy still very much alive, but they need to get better writers on board to keep the adults fully engaged. Though, admittedly, Mark Burton, who brought us the wonderful and clever Curse of the Were-Rabbit and last year’s Shaun the Sheep Movie, was one of the primary writers on this feature. So it isn’t so easy to point to where this particular film went off-track. But go and support the art form and enjoy the escapism of it all. It may not be a classic, but it is still solid animation from a studio that is a master of the art.

Early Man

The Snowman

[2.5 stars]

Tomas Alfredson (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Let the Right One In) would have seemed a perfect director for a mystery suspense out of Norway. But the result is something less than I hoped for.  In fact, it comes across more as a bit of TV drama than it does a feature film due to its pacing and plot cheats. Frankly, the result is odd given the collection of actors Alfredson landed for the film.

Michael Fassbender (Alien: Covenant), while admittedly too young and handsome for the part, can do the brooding, damaged adult just fine. However, age here was really against him. Hole is supposed to be well established, revered even, despite his penchant for drink and cowboy mentality toward work. The character just never came together and never really had any stakes in his life or in the story.

Rebecca Ferguson (The Greatest Showman) had a greatly complex character and is Hole’s protege, or should be. Their relationship never fully gels either in respect nor in cooperation.

In three supporting roles, Charlotte Gainsbourg (Nymphomaniac), Jonas Karlsson (Strings), and J.K. Simmons (The Accountant) each bring some potential to screen. None of that potential is ever fully realized, again thanks to the script and lack of filling out the plot. But they do their best with what they’ve got and it certainly helps flesh out the world.

In addition, there are two small roles worth mentioning. David Dencik (Top of the Lake: China Girl, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) creates a wonderfully creepy doctor who, again, sort of just exists in the story, but doesn’t really connect in it. And, in an almost total throw-away role, Val Kilmer (Song to Song), gives us a great character and history for the suspense tale. One last actor in this film is inanimate: the landscape of Norway. The location shots are stark and cruel and gorgeous, capturing a good sense of the book and the mentality of the characters. It is the one aspect of the movie that works very well, but not enough to overcome the other weaknesses.

Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole series is deep, dark, and complex. This film, which drops us in the middle of that sequence, veers from book so radically as to destroy any chance of a faithful depiction, let alone a continuing series. It isn’t a bad evening in front of the TV, but it isn’t a great movie. Such a shame to squander a well of material that is that deep and interesting on what amounts to a forgettable throw-away.

The Snowman

Lady Macbeth

[3 stars]

With a title like Lady Macbeth, you do have some sense of what’s to come in this twice-removed adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic tale of power and betrayal. However it lands as a middle ground between being a direct adaptation of Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and Shakespeare’s tale, though it lists Leskov as the main inspiration.

The story is recognizable enough: bored estate wife finds life again through an affair with one of the peasants. Florence Pugh (Marcella) creates a lady of the house who is both innocent and driven. Her motivations, fueled primarily by a lack of attention and respect, build naturally, if a bit quickly. Her counterpart, Cosmo Jarvis (Humans) gets dragged into her machinations willingly, but struggles with aspects, much like the Scottish king. Pugh’s evolution from meek chattel to ruling lady is horrifying, all the more so because you sort of root for her. But, much like her titular namesake, it is an unending hunger for power which, ultimately, cannot lead to a happy ending. Likewise, Jarvis’s awakening to his situation is intriguing to watch.

There are some significant differences from the book in Birch’s script; primarily the last act of the movie. They don’t really matter if you don’t know them…and to keep it at a reasonable length, the changes were necessary. They also provide a nice arc for Naomi Ackie, as the chambermaid. Ackie’s story actually risks taking over the movie, but the structure, particularly the first and last frames, keep it all on track nicely.

William Oldroyd directs the story with a sense of affection and dread for the characters. He makes them human but doesn’t shy away from the twisted nature of their decisions. As a first feature, for both he and Birch, and with a mostly untried cast, it is quite a launch of talent. It isn’t a fast film, but it is credibly well-made and subtle.

Lady Macbeth

Witnesses (Les témoins)

[3.5 stars]

I jumped into series 2 of this show by accident, but haven’t found that to be a detriment. The sequence feels like it stands on its own as a dark, character-driven police mystery with a greatly imaginative perpetrator. It is also full of female characters, most notably Marie Dompnier and Audrey Fleurot (Spiral). The influence of shows like The Tunnel are even more amusing given that the primary lead, Dompnier, has appeared in that show as well.

The writing is generally very realistic; information is ignored, but usually justifiably so. The officers, even when they seem to be bull-headed or lazy, are actually all pretty good at their jobs; some are just more jaded than others, like Jan Hammenecker (Broken Circle Breakdown). The last couple of episodes stretch credibility for some of the decisions, but they do a heroic job trying to give them cover. And by that time, much like in The Bridge and The Tunnel, you don’t care, you just want to understand and see it all resolve.

The overall effect is a French version of the Nordic wave of mysteries taking over the book shelves and streams ever since The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo hit the scene. The moody and complex plot is fun and disturbing, and the acting compelling. I am definitely going back to pick up series 1 and look forward to series 3, should it come about.

Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time (Christmas 2017)

[4.5 stars]

Well, it was a long slog getting to this finale, starting back with the opening frames of World Enough and Time last season and then getting teased at the end of The Doctor Falls at the end of series 10.  But it definitely paid off. This farewell to Moffat as writer and show-runner, not to mention Capaldi as the Doctor, is poignant, well crafted, and full of nice moments. And, yes, probably a few mistakes in history and dropping of some threads regarding The Mastress. Having Rachel Talalay direct the entire through-line certainly helped keep it all steady in look and feel.

The impact of this sequence aside, it was also just a really good Who episode and not overly Christmas-y. In the best way it integrated the holiday for those who wanted it without making it the focus of the story in a way that pushed away others. The bridging plot of Mark Gatiss’s (queers.) character made that both possible and wonderful. And the “return” of Hartnell’s original Who, through the capable hands of  Game of Thrones alum David Bradley, was surprisingly effective. I also want to call out some great editing and camerawork that helped on that point, especially the cuts from past to present and back again.

Overall, this was a wonderfully strong ending for a Doctor who should have had a longer run. And, as I’ve railed over the last few years, a better set of scripts. I am looking forward to seeing where the show goes now with Chris Chibnall at the helm. Chibnall has a wide-ranging background and a series of critical and popular hits under his belt and a clear love of the Who universe. He is likely to bring a darker view, and a more science fiction approach back to the show. But he is also getting to blaze new ground and was left with one heck of a cliff hanger…one that mirrors the arrival of Matt Smith who was also brought new direction to the series.

All in all, a great ending to a mixed run by Moffat and a satisfying close to the Capaldi years, despite wondering what might of been.

Doctor Who

Dark

[4 stars]

What would happen if Stranger Things collided with the last couple of seasons of Lost? Well, you’d get something like Dark.

This show takes some work to follow, especially with the added challenge of subtitles (if you watch in its original German; and why wouldn’t you?). The story is incredibly complicated and slowly revealed over its 10 parts. Part of the fun of the story is trying to get ahead of it and only occasionally succeeding. But Dark is also aware and unapologetic about the challenge of the story, even providing guidance to help viewers. Some of that comes as some classroom teaching via the teens in the series, other assistance comes as voice over, and still more as allusion or as split-screen explanations.

But all the effort is worth it. I say this even admitting it is based on some of the worst kind of science fiction. What saves it is very clever plotting and structure and solid acting across the board.

One of the things that makes limited series so much better, typically, than the more standard American 20+ episode approach is that a limited series (or season) can be fully and carefully crafted; even over multiple arcs with less time pressure and more craft. And, while this is an example of that advantage, the series inevitably allows itself an escape hatch into series two. As long as there is a series two, I’m OK with that. However, too many shows do that with the hope of garnering enough outcry and interest to get renewed, when what really works isn’t so much open ended plot points as really good writing.

At the time of this writing, Netflix has yet to commit to the follow-up, but interest in the show points to a renewal. Give it a shot even without the commit, if you haven’t already.

Dark

Strike

[3 stars]

The Robert Galbraith (better known as JK Rowling) Cormoran Strike detective series has enjoyed a good deal of notice in the UK, though less so in the US. It is an engaging series with likeable characters who have interesting quirks; just what you’d love in a BBC/HBO mystery.  And this adaptation is definitely worth some time investment thanks to some clever writing and even cleverer hand waving to avoid issues.

Led by Tom Burke (Musketeers) in the lead role with Holliday Grainger (The Borgias) as his second, the stories are complicated and entertaining all at once thanks to their interactions. There is also a nice path to grow both of their stories separately and together.

The series is launched with two tales, The three-part Cuckoo’s Calling, and the two-part The Silkworm. A third story, Career of Evil, has yet to be scheduled or released anywhere, but I am looking forward to see where the characters go. The initial mystery is nicely twisty and fun to follow as is the relationship of Strike and Robin. The second installment is an interesting concept but, frankly, very hard to follow. Compressing the complicated mystery with so many characters into two episodes did it no favors. However, it is really about the solidifying of the detective agency dynamic, and that takes the fore.

Police procedurals are always tempting to write, but a bear to get correct. Anything that is off in terms of evidence gathering, interviewing, court room process, or even jailhouse interaction can blow the credibility out of the water. Making the lead a PI rather than a cop (though he is an ex-cop, and ex-military) was a smart move by Rowling and provides a lot more leeway in action and story. Strike is entertaining and reasonably credible with characters you’ll want to learn more about and root for.

Strike Poster

The End of the F***ing World

[3.5 stars]

Evil, evil fun (with a point) in the vein of Skins meets Misfits meets Perks of Being a Wallflower. It even brought to mind God Bless America and not a small dash of Bonnie & Clyde, though this takes place in England. I hate trying to describe things by comparing it to other offerings, but sometimes it is the best way to get across a sense of what a non-traditional or surprising bit of media is like. And, boy, is this surprising.

Jessica Barden (Penny Dreadful) and Alex Lawther (A Brilliant Young Mind) create compelling teens struggling through the hell of adolescence by creating strong facades. We get to hear their inner voices as well as watch their actions, which adds to both the pain and the humor. Let’s face it, there isn’t a person who survived into adulthood who hasn’t lived through at least a moment of that kind of duality. Their journey, while alternately absurdist and hyper-realistic, will resonate with most people if they can get past the violence of it all. 

Wunmi Mosaku (Fearless) and Gemma Whelan (queers.) are the officers in pursuit of these hapless teens. Mosaku is starting to get type-cast a bit in her cop roles, but Whelan got to try out some new moves and layers. This isn’t a police procedural or typical UK suspense. The relationship between these two characters is reflective of the kids they’re after, directly in their relationship to one another and indirectly as a representation of the “world that is against them.”

Better known as an actress in shows such as Marcella and Cucumber, writer Charlie Covell tackled the adaptation of Forsman’s graphic novel brutally and without flinching. It took some serious guts to even consider the tale and serious skill to sell it with the nod and wink she did; and she even manages a stark and effective conclusion.

The series itself is designed like the serial graphic novel that was its root. It is broken into 8 2-part shots, each shot about 10 min. It isn’t a long commitment, but it is a wild ride right up to the final unforgettable moments. If you’ve got the stomach for it, this is definitely worth your time.

Your Name. (Kimi no na wa.)

[5 stars]

If you follow anime, it was hard to miss hearing about Your Name. It had taken Japan by storm and then was released worldwide, finally landing on US shores last summer. In the States, despite the advance word of mouth, it only grossed around 5M. However, worldwide it had amassed an additional 350M. Outside of domestic juggernauts that we export, this is the second highest grossing animation to date (topped, I think, only by China’s Monster Hunt from the previous year).

So, why discuss money out of the gate? Because it is an indicator of impact. This story transcended its original audience and spoke to the world. Even the US box office is impressive when you consider this is a sub-titled animation.

And it deserves all of its accolades. Your Name is a surprising tale of love that will keep you guessing and hoping as the plot unwinds. It starts off feeling like it is aimed young, but it rapidly becomes clear that it is richer than the typical romantic comedy it hints at being as it veers into other territory. It is also beautifully drawn and directed and, though retaining some anime tropes in character reaction, well acted. It’s artistic approach lives comfortably with and echos films like When Marnie was There or The Wind Rises (or any other Miyazaki film). Writer and director Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters Per Second) has created a classic film accessible to anyone over 12 years of age.

If I sound a little effusive, well…I am. This plays straight into my nature and love of films like Sliding Doors. But Shinkai’s novel and script is more complex and its plot not nearly as neatly constructed. Your Name has multiple, unrelated aspects playing out that interact with one another. Cause and effect aren’t quite as clear as they would be in a Western film where we prefer perfect construction.

Just set aside some time and see this gorgeously rendered animation with a tale that will grab you by the heart and shake you hard.

Your Name.