Tag Archives: grrrls

22 Hot Zone Heroes, or More Streaming Fun

The Hot Zone
This is an old story given new, and surprisingly terrifying, life given we know the outcome and that Preston’s book is well over 20 years old. It is a little uneven in acting, though the issue is more casting than performance. While Julianna Margulies (The Upside) is solid as army research doctor, James D’Arcy (Survivor)  just didn’t work for me on multiple levels from his accent to his whiny nature. But that aside, the story is surprisingly gripping and the warning not a little unsettling.

Catch-22
The real question with this one was: How do you film the impossible book? Well, up till the end, apparently really well. This six-part look at the absurdity of war and humanity generally is funny (till it’s not) and gripping through till its final moments (when it isn’t). On screen, the reason for its success is unequivocally Christopher Abbott (First Man) in the main role of Yossarian/Yo-Yo. Without him, it all falls apart. Around him are a cadre of characters that are, basically, absurdist creations that remain all too connected to truth. On its own, this version of Heller’s classic has a point to make. But if you’ve read the book, you might find the finale more than a little frustrating, especially after having been teased along so expertly for the rest of the journey.

MARVEL ACROSS THE GENERATIONS
Marvel is everywhere and, it seems, represented on almost every major channel or streaming option. Hulu and Netflix have some of the most interesting offerings. And, between them, they reach out to a range of ages.

Jessica Jones (series 3)
Jessica Jones is, by far, the most adult of the range. Since its inception, Jones has been one of the most interesting characters. As a flawed, powerful anti-hero, she was instantly engaging, even when those around her weren’t. This finale to the series is worthy of her journey, even if it was somewhat cut short.

Cloak and Dagger (series 1 & 2)
This teen-oriented, but delightfully dark story of two teens tied together by happenstance is lots of fun and often shocking for the places it’s willing to go. It is much more fantasy than science fiction, leaning heavily on New Orleans hoo doo. But the show maintains its consistency and drags you along into its weird and wonderful world. It isn’t perfect, often dipping heavily into clichè, but Olivia Holt (Same Kind of Different as Me), Aubrey Joseph, and Emma Lahana (Haven) get to have a heck of journey over the first two seasons…and a lot of fun, sweat, and tears getting there.

Runaways (series 2)
Of all the Marvel shows, I was actually most interested in this one, till I got to see it. Mostly it had my attention because of the various writers of the comics over the years. But the result is something aimed to the tween audience (or younger) and rarely with any credibility. There is enough of a mystery to keep me semi-interested, but I grind my teeth way too often while trying. The writing is weak, the plotting forced, the characters willfully ignorant or just plain stupid, and the purposes just downright confusing at times. Ultimately I fell away halfway through the second season, though I may pick it up again to see how they resolve it all.

Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð)

[4 stars]

Whether you think of this as a tale of activism, environmentalism, or eco-terrorism, Woman at War will provide something to chew on. And, though you wouldn’t expect such a film to be a source of comedy while making its point, it manages to walk that line wonderfully as well.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir (Trapped) plays this as honest and driven, but never strident. As herself and her own twin, she explores many layers and pulls us along her journey. She is joined by a small cast to fill out the tale in and around Reykjavik. Juan Camillo Roman Estrada is the odd character out in a thankless but important role that is both comic relief and additional social commentary.

Director Benedikt Erlingsson put together a darkly amusing script with Trapped’s Ólafur Egilsson (and a few of its cast). It never loses track of its point, but manages to deal with it all without getting overly earnest. Even as it purposefully reflects other movies at points (Force Majeure comes to mind), it keeps the story just light enough to make itself heard.

Make time for this one…especially if you’ve been watching or reading any of the sagas coming out of Iceland of late.

Maria by Callas

[3 stars]

For some, Maria Callas was the literal embodiment of opera on Earth. Her truest fans are more religious than artistic. Others find her technique lacking or her personality off-putting such that they are dismissive of her achievements. Whatever you think of her talent, this documentary shows her life was as much an opera as her singing was.

The mostly untried Tom Volf is generous with footage and recordings of Callas’s singing. Full arias are presented, sampling her voice through the years. Each punctuates events covered in the supporting interviews and her own letters. The letters are provided voice by Joyce DiDonato, who often manages to sound so much like the author it is like listening to her speak. The most intriguing of the interviews, with David Frost from 1970, serves as backbone to much of film. The use of the interviews, however, presents a challenge for viewers. The movie is primarily told chronologically, but the inter-cut later information makes some of the events and their impacts in her life confusing.

However, by the end of this documentary you will be able to infer much about the woman behind the music. This is very much Maria telling you who Callas was and Callas providing a window as to who Maria was. How you parse that information and react to the personality, and her talent, is going to be up to  you.

Best of Enemies

[3 stars]

When tackling difficult material, like racism and the Klan, you have to find a way into the material that doesn’t drive your audience away. BlacKkKlansman took its own approach, as did Green Book. And Blazing Saddles took yet another as part of its comical tale. But, when truth is stranger than fiction, you sometimes just have to go with it head-on.

Taraji P. Henson (What Men Want) transforms into activist Ann Atwater with both humor and heart…and the help of some prosthetics. Along with Sam Rockwell (Fosse/Verdon), as Klan leader C.P. Ellis, the two drive this story in often unexpected ways. But, as good as he is in this, I am getting a little tired of seeing Sam Rockwell (Fosse/Verdon) reprise his “bad guys with a heart” (or at least some form of integrity) that started with Three Billboards. He nails it every time, but because it is becoming his signature, the impact is diminished. Ultimately, his actions aren’t a surprise, and it becomes less triumphant with each repetition.

But the reason this film doesn’t succeed at the level it should goes back to my first comments: how do you tackle material like this in a way that doesn’t drive away your audience.  To get us into the story first-time writer/director Robin Bissell opts for an almost dark comedy presentation as we meet the characters and watch their despicable acts. He does this to provide some distance from the horror, though it comes perilously close to making it feel acceptable. Given the overall sense of the film, I can understand the approach, though it was discomforting. Perhaps that was Bissell’s intention?

But as a first film I’m willing to handicap Bissell’s result. Despite the initial odd feeling of the movie, he brings it back around to a satisfying, even hopeful ending. An ending hopeful even more so because it is true. In this case it is also an important reminder that, despite today’s politics, we can still listen to one another and change for the better.

If this is what Bissell does with little experience, it will be interesting to see what he can do with some tempered tools in his belt. In the meantime, set aside an evening for this story, if nothing else to learn about a story you probably didn’t know and would never think could happen.

Some Stranger, Mother, Mystery, Things

After a bit of a bingery weekend, I decided to collect up a few Netflix streaming offerings into this single write-up.

Stranger Things (series 3)  (4 stars)
ST has always lived in the gray area between satire and homage, and this series is no different. This latest go-round is more horror than the previous seasons, which lean more into fantasy and science fiction. It is also a bit more in-your-face with the product placement. But the show is done with a great nod and wink to handle all of those aspects and continues to be worthy of our expectations. Unlike earlier series, though, this one took three or four episodes to really get rolling, though it remains interesting throughout. The series is also purposefully structured to pull you along; every episode ends in crisis, thus the binging. The story has a lot of setup that ultimately gets paid off in the rush to the finale. However, up till the halfway point I was getting concerned. But the Duffer Brothers proved again they can riff on nostalgia and not only create something new out of it, but provide great entertainment while doing so. And, of course, despite feeling almost like it was wrapped up, they’ve left a door open to continue into the already announced fourth series.

Murder Mystery (3 stars)
I realize I’m behind the trend on this one, but I have to admit that this silly Gosford Park meets Murder By Death mystery had me chuckling quite a bit. It also had me cringing an equal amount, but that’s no surprise with Adam Sandler (Men, Women, Children) in one of the main leads. Jennifer Aniston (Cake) played heavily into Sandler’s silliness opposite him, but the two never really find a rhythm together…you feel like they could, but every roll comes to a grinding halt and there is no romantic connection between them which leaves the movie sort of empty as a comdey. Even the additions of Luke Evans (Anna) and Gemma Arterton (Their Finest), not to mention Terence Stamp (Crooked House), seriously over-the-top Adeel Akhtar (Victoria & Abdul) and under-played Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Trapped) couldn’t provide a consistent enough background to make it really good. However, it’s a solidly fun distraction, though not much more, for all the efforts in front of and behind the scenes.

I Am Mother (3 stars)
While there are some interesting points made in this story, , it feels like it would have made a better short story than a movie. On the upside, it isn’t overly insulting to its audience, providing open clues from the very top without ever explaining all of it directly. Clara Rugaard is solid in her lead role, even against Hilary Swank’s (What They Had) somewhat odd and explosive survivor. For a first feature effort, Grant Sputore does a credible job with pacing and emotion, but the material would have been better suited to a single hour format in an anthology series like Electric Dreams or Black Mirror rather than its expanded 90 or so minutes. It isn’t a waste of time, by any stretch, but it is somewhat well-worn territory, even with its own twists taken into account.

Step

[3 stars]

Step is an interesting look at the lives of three young women trying to escape poverty. It isn’t, however, a great documentary about how Step made that possible for them, despite the title. Unlike Brooklyn Castle, the story promised in the title of this film never really takes shape. Step isn’t so much the goal and glue that shapes the women as it is simply the crossroads that brings them and the filmmaker, Amanda Lipitz, together to tell their story.

That doesn’t make it uninteresting as a long form piece of journalism, but it is better going in knowing the real focus. In addition, Lipitz had no idea how to film the Step performances so you could see them well either, which was frustrating. Step is best viewed from a little distance so you can see whole team. But this film does a lot of close-ups, odd angles, and unnecessary quick cuts that keep you from ever appreciating what the team put together.

For the stories of the women and to see what a school that takes its charge seriously, to teach and improve the lives of its students, this is worth the viewing time. As a film, it is middling at best. Go in expecting an extended 60 Minutes piece and you’ll be better attuned to the journey you are provided.

All Is True

[3.5 stars]

It is fair to say that if anyone currently had the right to take on Shakespeare, the man, in his later years, it is Kenneth Branagh (Murder on the Orient Express). From his early launch into the public eye with Henry V and his unedited Hamlet, not to mention all his other adaptations on stage and film, he owns the Bard. Even Julie Taymor (Tempest), who has assailed his works as well, isn’t as immersed on all sides of the process like Branagh, who has adapted, directed, and played the roles. That isn’t to say there aren’t others (the Donmar Warehouse comes to mind) as well, but in scope and depth, again Branagh has earned the right and has the deep, personal affinity to do it.

And Branagh brings all that experience, love, and ability to bear on this fictionalized look at Shakespeare’s last years. But, that said, he isn’t the best actor of the movie, despite tackling the title role. That actually goes to Judy Dench (Victoria & Abdul) as Shakespeare’s wife and his screen daughters Lydia Wilson (Requiem) and Kathryn Wilder who all have very complicated and fraught relationships with the men around them.

Ben Elton’s script is a brilliant bit of detective and fictional effort to explain everything from Shakespeare’s will to his final years sans quill.  It is clever and entertaining, but also unwilling to let anything go. A point in fact, Ian McKellan (X-Men: Days of Future Past) has possibly one of the most beautiful and most unnecessary scenes in the movie. It would have been a shame to cut it, but cut it Branagh should have. It did nothing to advance the main, or even secondary, plots and was just a possible explanation of one of the most enigmatic collections of Shakespeare’s writing. Interesting? Sure. But not part of the movie that made it to screen.

How great figures exit this world has long fascinated people. The truth is that most just fade out of public scrutiny until they simply disappear. This film provides a sympathetic framework to understand one of the most celebrated and long-lasting writers in human history. It is sumptuously filmed and honestly delivered. It isn’t perfect, but it is a delight…especially so if you know his works and the various hypotheses that have followed him through the centuries. It is most definitely worth your time and worth it on the big screen if you can see it there. I barely caught it myself during its brief expansion. But, even on the small screen, make time for it if you have any interest in the Bard at all… or just to see some truly remarkably subtle performances.

Fighting With My Family

[3 stars]

Who would have thought a sweet film about family and personal dreams would come out of a true story about a family of wrestlers…and that it has little to do with wrestling?

To be up front, I am not, and never have been, a fan of professional wrestling. For whatever reason, neither the stories nor the staged athleticism ever caught my interest. And yet, Dwayne Johnson (Skyscraper) is becoming a solid favorite for pure entertainment films and, frankly, as a person. But he is just a side character here. It is Florence Pugh (Little Drummer Girl) who adds the real heart to this story. Not much reality or sense of believability, but there is heart. And heart can be enough.

The issues with the story are down to writer/director (and even actor in this jaunt) Stephen Merchant (The Girl in the Spider’s Web). While he elicits honest emotions from his cast, and keeps the story flowing nicely in his sophomore outing, he didn’t quite get me to sense Pugh’s achievements, nor Jack Lowden’s (Mary Queen of Scots) losses and resurrection.  I wasn’t there to cheer with them as I should have been.

Nick Frost (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) and Lena Headey (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Game of Thrones), however, did add some great comedy and energy…and even their own sense of romance. You can barely believe them as characters…until you see the real family in the credits and realize they likely toned it all down for the film.

This movie is a perfect example of the truth sometimes being less interesting than fiction. I suspect the script cleaves closely to the reality of the Knight family. But it needed a bit more fiction and a bit more structure to let the human side of the story really soar. Sure it would have been manipulated, but it would have been in service to the story rather than pushing against it. Regardless, it is a surprisingly effective and inspiring tale of growing up and following your dreams, whether you’re a fan of the sport or not.

Years and Years

[4.5 stars]

Years and Years embraces the aphorism: The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. And quite the journey it is, from the smallest to the largest step along the road of choices that marks out this slippery narrative.

Russell T. Davies (A Very English Scandal, Bob & Rose) offers up a far spanning look at current politics, all lensed through the very human and personal eyes of a single family. We follow them across a decade as they deal with the fallout and shifting landscape of a world in transition. It is often difficult to watch, especially the time period closest to our own, but it is also hypnotic and gripping. As it moves forward a hundred steps, and then a thousand steps, the world is completely unrecognizable and yet utterly familiar and undeniable. It often isn’t easy seeing how people act and react, but we’ve millennia of proof that we are seeing typical responses.

Though the story is bleak at times, it also celebrates the resilience of people. Survival is key: financial, emotional, physical, and even intellectual. Because that is how it works, the world goes nuts and people do what they must to survive. It is rare that a single event is “the end of it all.” But, of course, as things move on, that is always the risk.

The cast are very much up to the task of bringing this story to life; a bevy of recognizable faces, young and old. Some of the more stand-out performances are Anne Reid (Last Tango in Halifax ), Russell Tovey  (queers. ), Emma Thompson (Men in Black: International), T’Nia Miller (Marcella ), Jessica Hynes (Bridget Jones’s Baby), and Rory Kinnear (Spectre). But, honestly, it is really quite the cast all around, even Lydia West in her first major role shines nicely.

Years and Years is a visceral response by a writer to the world; when good writers get mad they get writing. When they are also artists, they give us timeless classics like The Crucible. Years and Years is likewise a reaction to today’s political insanity and, if not quite as timeless as Miller’s play, it is certainly powerful and impactful. This is a must-see piece of television that will transport you to the very last moments of the series. It won’t satisfy everyone as the ending does leave some things open, but life is rarely fully satisfying…it simply keeps on keeping on. And as long as we can do that, we survive.

Anna

[3 stars]

Imagine Lucy crossed with Mission Impossible with a bit of Red Sparrow and you’ve got a sense of what Anna is like. It is a fun romp with some great fights and good twists…all with a darkly Russian demeanor and French sensibility. In other words, a Luc Besson  film.  This isn’t a classic, but it is certainly good summer entertainment.

Sasha Luss (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) in the title role is suitably inscrutable, if not entirely accessible. And she moves well, helping us believe she could be a trained professional, even if her brawn isn’t obvious.

Around her, Helen Mirren (Nutcracker and the Four Realms), Luke Evans (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women), and Cillian Murphy (Free Fire) provide the intrigue and complications needed to propel the story nicely.

This is nothing more than fun entertainment that is loaded with dark humor, great fight choreography, and twisty plotting tropes that become their own brand of humor. Go for the popcorn and stay for the ride. It may not be the best the summer has to offer, but it is much more satisfying and fun than most of the middling sequels that have been on offer so far.