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.
Let’s talk about POV. Like the recent Bliss, Florian Zeller’s freshman outing relies heavily on character point of view and editing to provide the necessary information for navigating the story. By watching very carefully, you can tease apart most of the truth. Most of it. Unlike Bliss, Zeller’s adaptation of his play, with help from Christopher Hampton (Adore), the truth can still elude you; but that’s ok. Unlike previous stories, like Still Alice, the film tries to recreate what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s from the inside rather than primarily from outside. How they go about that is something you just need to experience, but to say you’ve got unreliable narrator is an understatement. But the threads are (mostly) there for the watcher to stay relatively grounded. Honestly, I’m still discussing it with people trying to pull it all apart.
Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes) delivers a wonderfully mercurial performance as his character is buffeted by his confusion and frustration. But while he is the primary POV, his daughter provides a second, which is another way Zeller helps you along. Olivia Colman (The Favourite) delivers a heart-wrenching performance as she navigates her father’s illness, giving us glimpses into the emotional and physical realities and a small touch of what must have been their past.
This is also a movie where the production designer Peter Francis (Rocketman) and editor Yorgos Lamprinos have had huge impact on the story-telling and need to be called out. Pay attention to the details in the sets and how the sequences are put together. Truly amazing work all around.
My only issue with the film comes near the end where it felt a little forced and rushed. It isn’t necessarily an untrue depiction, but my gut is that the events could have remained while the dialogue could have been a little more finessed. That minor criticism aside, The Father has already garnered a lot of nominations and wins, with more sure to come. This is one movie who’s odd ride is worth every moment you spend with it, and it’s a wonderful class in perspective and humility.
Nomadland asks two fairly simple questions: What is home? What is family? The answers, as we all know, aren’t that simple. Director and writer Chloé Zhao tackles the concepts in a quiet, but compelling exhibition that is primarily populated by real Nomads. The result has garnered a mountain of praise and awards notice.
Holding the various talking head segments together is Frances McDormand (Isle of Dogs), whose journey into the nomad life is told with barely an initial explanation. With David Strathairn (Fast Color) as a catalyst, we watch McDormand struggle inwardly until near the end when details are expressed. Though, to be fair, most of those are already understood by the audience, just not by her character.
For all its lauds, and its craft at pulling you along, Nomadland isn’t as good a film as I was expecting. I think McDormand has had better and more challenging roles. Strathairn is a somewhat unfinished and empty character. The stories and ideas we hear are interesting, but they feel like a documentary invaded the story-telling. Somehow it does come together, but it is best to watch this with no expectations, despite the hype that has been building around it over the last year. You’ll find it satisfying, but for a two hour narrative I think Zhao could have been more focused in her script.
There’s 2/3’s of an entertaining movie here. Sadly, that last act is missing. Honestly, what you get is really just the first installment of a series…but there doesn’t seem to be another one in the works. And, besides, it’s a cheat to end mid-tale rather than to have a coda that can expand the story for later. In other words, every movie needs to stand on its own, even if it feeds into a bigger arc. Director Goro Miyazaki (From Up on Poppy Hill) knows this, so I don’t quite understand the choices, unless they were driven by cost or other factors.
Added to the challenge is that Studio Ghibli is clearly trying out new tech with this film. The result is very cold, losing all the warmth and subtle artistry the group is famous for. The look of the characters is very plastic-y and the lips don’t sync well at all. Some of that may have been the voice talent, but it was more noticeable than I’ve seen before in a Ghibli release.
And the voice direction was only middling. So much so that only a couple of the smaller characters really stood out. Neither of them were the women at the heart of the tale. Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and Dan Stevens (Colossal, Legion) were either given more leash or put in more effort, but it was their deliveries that were the most memorable.
Goro’s father, Hayao Miyazaki (The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness), apparently helped with the planning of this story. You can see his influence in some of the interesting flows and the general joy and humor of the film, but I can’t believe even he was happy with the ending.
Ultimately, assuming the story is continued, this will be an intriguing first installment. But if it ends up just standing on its own, it is somewhat pointless. Frankly, I’d hold off till there is the promise of more, or you’re either prepared to be left hanging, or know the original books enough to know what’s going on.
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.
There’s a lot going on in this quiet tale about an archeological dig taking place on the cusp of WWII. That aspect is both its charm and challenge. But even though the result is a bit of a muddle narratively, the characters and story of The Dig remain compelling.
Led by Ralph Fiennes (The White Crow) and Carrie Mulligan (Promising Young Woman), we explore passion, marriage, class, education, gender roles, and life achievements. And that’s just those two. Throw in Johnny Flynn (Emma.), Lily James (Yesterday), and Ben Chapman (1917) and you add in gender norms, sexuality, and the value of joy.
Moira Buffini’s (Byzantium) adaption of John Preston’s novel is sprawling in scope. And director Simon Stone took it on without insisting on a tighter focus. The challenge is that the true story of the Sutton Hoo excavation is itself a wonderful tale on its own. Not necessarily an issue, but because that makes the dig both core story and metaphor to everything else going on, it all begins to become very scattered. If the excavation and the politics over it hadn’t been so towering in the tale, it could have become a quiet mirror to the rest of the subplots comfortably. Instead, the various stories fight for focus. In the end, it sort of unravels as a complete movie even while managing to be satisfying for any individual story.
The acting and production are all quite wonderful. From the bloviating to the quiet despair, the cast manages to deliver. While there is a sort of Merchant Ivory sensibility to it all, it maintains a better energy and sense of tension (well, to my mind anyway). The Dig is interesting history, and also a good set of character studies that make it all worth the effort.
I’ve not written up some of the new and returning shows over the last few months, so dropping them together in a bunch here. More will be coming in the next few weeks, but this was getting long enough already…
Call Me Kat
This odd offering by Mayim Bialik (Big Bang Theory) is a unique and not entirely comfortable show. It may eventually find it’s feet, but it’s best to think of it as a sketch show or comedy half-hour rather than a story so far. And the abuse of the great Swoosie Kurtz is near criminal. By way of context, this show is based on the UK’s Miranda, adopting the quasi-stand-up nature of the original but trying to push it more toward ensemble…. BTW, if you haven’t caught Miranda, it’s a fascinating to compare the two and it boasts Tom Ellis (Lucifer) in the wish-he-were-my-boyfriend role.
If you loved The Office, this is probably a show for you. I didn’t and it isn’t for me. It’s just too broad and full of, well, stupid people who aren’t supposed to be stupid or, worse, couldn’t be that stupid and be where they are in life. Given the talent involved in this show, it’s a real shame.
Call Your Mother
This is a show on the bubble. Kyra Sedgwick (Ten Days in the Valley) manages to walk the line between very broad humor and honest emotion. Whether the writing can keep up with that challenge and create storylines we care about long term…the jury’s still way out on that one, but I’ll give it some more time.
Oh, god, just no. Awful, unbelievable, absurd, insulting, frustrating, and painful.
The Expanse (series 5)
Twenty years ago, the end of the first season of Farscape was termed “the multipart cliffhanger from hell” by its creator. And it was…and it took a good part of the next season to resolve and cover what happened. The current season of The Expanse reminds me a lot of that structure. After bringing things to a huge climactic pause at the end of the previous season, the various characters are scattered across the solar system pursuing various storylines that will, by necessity, be intertwined and eventually bring them back together. As the show preps for its final season, this is level-setting and putting all the pieces in place for the final confrontations to come. A good season with revelations and some resolutions, especially for Dominique Tipper’s (Mindgamers) Naomi and Wes Chatham’s (Escape Plan 2) Amos, but mostly it serves as set-up for the end.
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (series 2)
After its heart-rending and brilliant opening season, I was worried the magic wouldn’t last. It has. And the show, at least so far, continues to build on its characters and conceit. If you’ve yet to try this one out, you absolutely must…and start at the beginning. Yes, it gets heavy, but it builds to one of the most beautiful finales you’ll ever see. And it never loses its sense of humor or love of its characters.
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.
Some movies just sucker punch you because you’ve no idea what to expect. In terms of quality, this one’s right up there with Soul, Trial of the Chicago 7, and Palm Springs…among the best this season.
Even more impressive is that this is writer and director Emerald Fennell’s (Killing Eve) first feature; she’s better known for her acting chops. But Promising Young Woman makes an impressive application of all she’s learned over the years in front of the camera.
And then there is the woman at the center of the on-screen story, Carrie Mulligan (Collateral). She flattens you with her powerful performance and shoulders the film on screen with her charisma, intelligence, and sense of humor. From the moment she appears you can’t take your eyes off of her. And once you understand her, you can’t help but cheer her on and not turn away.
The movie does have its weak moments, but they’re few. One aspect is around some of the soundtrack, which goes just a bit overboard at times, not trusting the actors and situation to make the point. The other is around some transitional moments that are less than smooth. But in the face of the rest of the film, I forgive them all.
Promising Young Woman grabs you by the soft bits and drags you through to the end. And it manages to remain triumphant despite the subject and the situations. It is sure to generate controversy and contemplation for the actions and probably even leave a few in the dust as to the title. But that’s all part of the point. Make time for this one, both for the central performance and the story itself. Despite the weird festival season, it’s been making itself heard, and I expect that to continue through the majors over the next few months.
A unique anti-heist movie with a solid cast and steady pace. Anne Hathaway (The Witches) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (The Old Guard) give us a couple in their final throes, which the pandemic has only, paradoxically, both accelerated and restrained via the lockdown.
Steven Knight’s (A Christmas Carol) script submerges us in the couple’s frustration and despondency, while slowly exposing their secrets and emotional turmoil. He also slowly builds out a pathway that would, in most stories of this type, have been the focus. Unlike a typical film in the genre, like Ocean’s 8, Locked Down builds a deep foundation for the choices and manages a pathway to allow it to happen relatively without consequence. It is still fraught with tension and risk, but we’re presented with the options as the characters are, and we can fully follow their choices.
Director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) embraces the claustrophobia and lethargy of the pandemic, and also the desperate need for contact. We see people, but most only through video screens or through windows. But he still populated that background and interactions with a pile of great talent. People like Ben Kingsley (Elegy), Ben Stiller (Tower Heist), and Mark Gatiss (Dracula) stand out particularly. Sadly, the story is short on women. Though Mindy Kaling (Late Night) appears, she’s barely used, and few others have more impact.
This is definitely a slow burn story, and it must be to retain any credibility and still work. It isn’t about two bad people planning something nefarious, it’s about two desperate people taking advantage of a situation. It’s all still very morally ambiguous, but Knight’s script does it’s best to make it palatable, and Liman guides his actors in a way that makes it feel possible.
But let’s be clear. This is a story of it’s time and only works because we’re still going through it. While the journey is honest, our empathy will not last much past the end of the current pandemic. And for those that come after, it probably won’t stand the test of time. However, for now and for a fun escape (and a bit of a leap of faith) it’s definitely worth your time.