Tag Archives: Foreign

Mortal

[3 stars]

Unexplained super-powers is becoming an overdone trope, which is why when you find one that tries to do something new, it’s a particular delight. André Øvredal (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) returns to his Nordic, Trollhunter roots to bring us a slow but intense tale of a young man, Nat Wolff (Admission), who suddenly acquires powers he can’t control or explain.

Iben Akerlie (Little Drummer Girl) plays opposite Wolff and balances him out well. In fact, she and Per Frisch are about the only clear-headed folks in the movie while Priyanka Bose (Lion) serves to remind the world of why Americans just shouldn’t be trusted. A sad cliché, but she navigates it relatively well within the bounds of the script.

As you can imagine, tragedy and stupid government decisions begin to occur. But this isn’t quite the story you expect, nor does it unfold exactly as others of its ilk. Sadly, it also doesn’t quite get to a conclusion so much as a beginning. Whether the tale will continue I imagine is still in flux, but the path is certainly there. In the meantime, if you can handle being left hanging (think a Brightburn kind of ending in style, though not in content), give it a shot. Definitely something a bit more interesting than the typical version of these tales.

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Minari

[3 stars]

There is something very sweet and true about Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s latest tale. It has also been massively lauded out on the circuit. I can’t say, however, that I was as enthralled, though I wasn’t unimpressed.

Minari is a tale of an immigrant family. And there is a lot going on in Steven Yeun (Sorry to Bother You) and Yeri Han’s transplanted unit. While both of these actors deliver on their tightly wound and fraying relationship, it is Alan Kim, as their son, and Yuh-jung Youn (Sense8) who you’ll remember best. And I say that even with Will Patton’s (The November Man) truly off-beat, affable, bible-thumping intensity filling in the background. But unlike, say, The Farewell, it never quite acquires a full shape.

The experience of the Ye family is provided at an historical distance. We’re dropped into Arkansas of the early 1980s. Mind you, other than the clothes, cars, and some background news you probably can’t tell what era it is, and perhaps that is part of the point. But I wish it had been a bit more contemporary. It isn’t that bad things happen from a community point of view; this story is focused on the internal struggles of the family rather than society. In fact, the neighbors are relatively accepting and open to their new residents. And the Ye’s are not breaking any ground by arriving either. Because of all that I question the choice of era as it only serves to distance us from the events and provides no useful frame to the story.

That said, it is a beautiful and subtle film about the relationships. A father attempting to achieve his dreams at all costs. A mother trying to support her family and protect those around her. A grandmother overflowing with sass and love. And two children trying to figure out where they fit in the family and trying to buffer their parents. All relatable and all delivered with amusing and, sometimes, painful honesty.

There is a lot to be said for Minari and it should be seen. Compared to the rest of the field out there, I do think it is being more than a little over-hyped. Go into it with a moderated expectation for an insightful look at a family struggling to survive the challenges that come at them, and those that they bring with them.

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Staged (series 2)

[3 stars]

Staged is back and picks up from where the first series left off. David Tennant (Deadwater Fell) and Michael Sheen (Admission) return but are bit more…well, more this round. Further into the pandemic, and with their project being ripped from them, they’ve gone a bit intense.

The story is again loaded with guest spots. I won’t spoil them here, but some are a riot, though none quite as unexpected and funny as Dame Judy Dench’s appearance last round. These are all a bit more confrontational. Tennant and Sheen have no shame in allowing themselves to be the butt of jokes and pointed observation. It is part of their charm.

Staged continues to focus on the oddity of home isolation, but also explores the friendship of the two men more deeply. It is all very tangential to the machinations and arguments, but it is clear that neither character could do well without the other in their lives. And it provides a soft cushion for all of us to observe our own growing intensity as the pandemic passes the one year mark. For a dark laugh, including some serious belly laughs, check out the second installment of this short form series. With luck, we won’t need a third as we’ll all be back out in the world before Simon Evans can write it.

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Deadwater Fell

[3 stars]

David Tennant (Staged) plays a great sociopath. He can go from affable to cold in a split second. But the interesting aspect of this 4-parter is that you don’t know if he is involved with the crime or not till near the end. That’s a credit not just to Tennant but also to writer Daisy Coulam (Grantchester) and the somewhat less storied director Lynsey Miller.

The series itself has a familiar tenor…small Scottish village experiences a tragedy and all the secrets come spilling out as the seams that bind the residents together fall apart. It’s a tried and true formula that has been echoed across the globe for entertainment, but particularly around the UK.

While Tennant is the the better known face in the cast, he’s part of a great ensemble. Cush Jumbo (Vera) is his primary foil, even though it is Anna Madeley (The Children) who plays his wife. And Matthew McNulty (Doctor Who), as Jumbo’s partner, has his own path to forge. Around the periphery is Maureen Beattie (The Decoy Bride) as Tennant’s mum. The interplay of this group is what drives the four episodes to their soul grinding end.

As dark as the story is, it is compelling. The plot isn’t over-stretched and the performances all combine into a wonderful Greek chorus. It isn’t the best mystery, but it is a solid distraction and very much of its sub-genre.

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One Night in Bangkok

[3 stars]

Despite the title and description, One Night in Bangkok is not an action flick. Wych Kaosayananda’s latest is, instead, an uneven revenge film with often questionable morals. The rough nature of the final product is in the pacing, the acting, and, to a degree, in the plotting. But this story still manages to keep interest and tug emotions thanks to the more verbally intimate scenes between Mark Dacascos (John Wick 3: Parabellum) and his driver. The louder, more confrontational moments between Dacascos and others are often just painful.

I’m used to seeing Dacascos centered and focused, even intimidating when needed. But this story gives him the opportunity to bring his Crow sensitivity to a new, mature level. At times, almost spiritual. We see his pain, his memories, his conflicts. And as the story slowly unwinds, we better understand them all. Though, to be honest, the script never really affords us a full picture of who the man is.

Ultimately, this isn’t a great film, but it has its moments and its value. There aren’t any really great fights or chases, but there is tension and resolution. If the acting had only been better across the rest of the cast, it could have been something more. But it manages to survive and not entirely embarrass itself. Sometimes that’s the best you can ask when making a film in a non-native language for the majority of the cast, some of whom have minimal experience.

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A Couple Forensic Mysteries

I recently saw a couple of procedurals, each with their own twist on the form. Both are really quite good.

Traces
The main, and impressive, aspect of this 6-parter is the naturalistic dialogue of the specialists and the police. Other characters are more in keeping with a dramatic mystery, but when the experts talk, it feels real rather than forced or contrived. Led by the young but rising Molly Windsor as a very damaged survivor, we follow three crimes that influence one another. With Laura Fraser (The Loch), Jennifer Spence (Bletchley Circle: San Francisco), Martin Compston (The Aftermath),  and Vincent Regan (Lockout) in some of the primary roles to keep it moving, the story manages a range of characters and complications. It also provides a nice forensics course and openings for a following season without feeling like they haven’t wrapped up what they needed to in the first. With the great Val McDermid providing the initial idea and guidance to show creator and writer Amelia Bullmore, the quality is built-in.

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Pembrokeshire Murders
I don’t usually like true-crime based mysteries. They far too often come off as crude re-enactments or thin recountings of fact. This three-parter, however, just comes across as any BBC well-told mystery. The structure is a bit rushed as its main audience already knows the outcomes, but it is all done in very dramatic (as in original fiction style) ways so that even those of us who don’t know about these murders stay riveted on the discoveries and results. Luke Evans (Blitz) is the center of the story, though he’s surrounded by a solid cast.

 

It’s a Sin

[4 stars]

Russell T. Davies (Years and Years) is Britain’s Ryan Murphy (The Prom). Though, to be fair, Davies was there first and Murphy is really our answer to him. Both men have embraced their pasts and are willing to discuss life in all its aspects with the world. They both do it with love and wonder, never forgetting the challenges. And they both have wicked senses of humor.

It’s a Sin chronicles the lives of several young people starting in 1981. But while the story can’t avoid having AIDS as part of the story, it tackles t in a different way than most. It remains powerfully honest and empowering and, weirdly, positive despite many of the events. It is about characters embracing who they are and enjoying life and each other. It’s also the first show I can remember to use the original name for AIDS (GRID, for those who forgot BTW).

Primarily the story is through the eyes of Olly Alexander (God Help the Girl) and Lydia West (Dracula). Both have wonderful moments, growth, and, as it turns out, serious chops for singing together. The core ensemble is wonderfully supported by newcomers Omari Douglas and Callum Scott Howells, both of whom deliver performances far beyond what you’d expect for actors so early in their careers.

In addition to the main cast, there are a slew of guest actors across the five episodes. Perhaps the most fun is Neil Patrick Harris (Beastly), who helps set up a couple of the storylines. However, Keeley Hawes (Summer of Rockets) and Shaun Dooley (Doctor Who) also have some great moments, Hawes in particular.

Peter Hoar directed all five episodes, helping all of the actors navigate complex changes and precarious moments. The final episode especially is a triumph of his efforts. He also managed to put together a brilliant soundtrack, capturing each period beautifully and evocatively. My only gripe is a minor one…I wish the final credits had ended with “La!” to really drive home the sense of family and life. But that’s an exceedingly minor comment.

Why, you might ask, do we need yet another tale of coming out in the 80s? Well, because the challenge of the act is still relevant today and because the horror of the AIDS pandemic has yet to be fully understood by those who weren’t there for it and by those who still wish to deny it or, worse, be glad for it. With the COVID pandemic still in full swing, it’s also probably much more relatable to a greater audience than ever before. Also, sadly, the world is still far too often a hateful place. The reminder that it should be driven more by love isn’t a story that goes out of style or out of date.

But, while all of that is undeniably brought out by the story of these people, that isn’t what this series focuses on. It’s a Sin is ultimately triumphant, ultimately positive, because of the way the survivors respond.

Equinox

[3 stars]

Dark. Moody. Danish.

There have been many shows from this area of Europe of late. Most are straight-up mysteries. Some are supernaturalish hybrids, like this offering. Led with intensity by Danica Curcic (The Bridge (Bron/Broen)), this is a tale of inevitability as well as mystery. It is less about surprise and more about trying to identify what is real and what is just a symptom of something else.

There are some familiar faces around Curcic. Lars Brygmann (Dicte) and Alexandre Willaume (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) are among those. Neither really gets to cut loose, but both do manage to creep you out. And there is also a nicely nuanced performance by Hanne Hedelund as Curcic’s mother.

The six-episode arc will keep you intrigued. The craft of the show as it bounces between past and present, fantasy and reality is a bit awkward and confused at times, but it generally works and is sometimes purposefully vague. The story is, however, complete in the one go, though they may decide to come back to it. They certainly didn’t answer all questions to my satisfaction. And it’s no Dark, or Les Revenants. While the story is somewhat layered and complex, it won’t make your brain bleed.

Ultimately, this is nice distraction from the standard. It delivers fairly on its promise and it’s reasonably well executed. I realize this isn’t screaming praise…I think I wanted a bit more from it given the setup and potential. But that was more a problem with expectation than delivery.

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Two Weeks To Live

[3 stars]

If you like the nihilist humor of The End of the F***ing World, the wry and sad romance of Dead Pixels, and enjoy watching Maisie Williams (iBoy), this one’s for you. Especially as Al Campbell, the man who directed Dead Pixels, directed all these episodes as well.

Two Weeks, as a title, is a little misleading. The reference is an oblique nod to events. But, ultimately, it’s metaphorical and the driving sensibility to choices that need to be made. Primarily, the show is really a vehicle for Williams, though she has some nice support from Sian Clifford (Fleabag) and Mawaan Rizwan who provide solid backboards for her humor.

When you’re looking for short and amusing, with some entertaining surprises, this will do. It’s a bit violent and the ending certainly sets up another round, but the six half-hour episodes tell a complete story. For a bit of dark funny, it certainly worked for me.

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Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks

[3.5 stars]

When we left off series 12, there was a major cliff hanger and change was very much in the air. And, I will admit, that my opinion of this current season has improved a little after rewatching it in prep for this holiday special, which also serves as the technical end to the 12th series.

I’m going to have to be brief here as almost any discussion is going to be full of spoilers…and I’ve some really intriguing ideas of where this all may be going. It isn’t the best of the specials, but it is definitely a bridge to what’s to come.

And, like so many of the specials, the show landed a special cast to help spice it up. Harriet Walter (herself) Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Soulmates) were fun additions. And the return of  Chris Noth reprising his series 11 character was initially concerning, but it ends up working in some fun and cheap ways. And, of course, John Barrowman finally making good on his earlier promise was a hoot. Honestly, he’s the best recurring character in the Who-verse. And, other than the Master, may be the most recurring.

But the real question is was it any good? The answer is mixed. This is neither a stand-alone nor a completely integrated episode. After taking another look at the rest of the season that leads to it, there is a certain amount of completion and resetting for the Doctor. Not all aspects of the story are dealt with in depth, or even believably in some ways, but she has to come to terms with all the new information and her own sense of self. And, frankly, there was a lot to take in. Time became meaningless and her isolation/imprisonment became a gift for her. But it is all solved pretty easily and the main plot, the Daleks, is ultimately a Macguffin (and a bit of a mirror) without a lot of teeth, despite some nice battle effects.

Who, as a series, is still going through its transition with Chibnall pulling hard on the reins taking her to a new path. And Chibnall is still learning how to be a show-runner at this level. I can see a destination that would blow people’s minds, but I honestly don’t know what he has in mind. The show is definitely playing a long game. I do continue to be on board to see what it may be. Most importantly, Jodie Whittaker continues to be entertaining and able to add depth to a character that has been around for over 50 years. I can’t wait to see what the next series brings.

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