Tag Archives: grrrls

Brave New World

[4 stars]

In a year with Watchmen, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, and Lovecraft Country, or even the competing War of the Worlds series (classic and reconceived), it’s easy to understand how this adaptation has been utterly missed. The fact that it’s buried on Peacock (literally, as it’s already been cancelled) probably hasn’t helped either.

The reality is that this story was always a dark mirror for society and, given how dark reality currently is, it was going to struggle this season. I give the creators and Peacock credit for cleaving to the book so closely in feel and intent, even when it veers off widely from the original. But its timing was probably way off for most people. Even though the story is ultimately a triumph for individualism and freedom, it’s a view of the world that isn’t fun to live through.

The cast, however, keep it all engaging. Alden Ehrenreich (Solo: A Star Wars Story) plays a solid John the Savage to Jessica Brown Findlay (Victor Frankenstein) and Harry Lloyd’s (The Hollow Crown) privileged, if fraught, existence. And Demi Moore provides some nice flourishes as John’s mother.

Along with the main cast, Hannah John-Kamen (Ant-Man and the Wasp) and Nina Sosanya (Staged) add some nice strong rolls. And Joseph Morgan (Immortals) has a quiet but intense hand in the plot evolution. But, while there are many male roles, this series is really dominated by the female performances.

Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World was published in 1932, pre-dating Orwell’s better remembered 1984. Both tackle many of the same issues even if orthogonally from each other. Which only tells you how little changes in politics and society. It’s an interesting mirror for the story’s resurrection that we are in the worst financial downturn since the Great Depression and drowning in both information and electronic oversight. But I will say that that the story was nicely tweaked to better match the trajectory of society and technology without abandoning the book and its intention.

It may be a dark road to ramble, but this incarnation of Brave New World is fascinating and well-done. And even though it is set up for a never-to-appear second season, it manages to stand on its own as is. Timing could have been better, but they delivered a solid mini-series, and certainly the best adaptation of the book to date.

Roadkill

[3 stars]

There is a structure and a rhythm to a David Hare (Collateral) story. They are dark labyrinths of human failure and misunderstanding leading to outrageous, if inevitable and believable, outcomes.  And not all of the events in his tales are explained or even have direct motive…some things just happen…though they are often attributed to someone’s motivation. In other words, his stories tend to be dark, fun, and more reflective of real life than some may find comfortable.

His latest, Roadkill, is another political thriller that has only two possible outcomes for its four-part series. Either remains possible till close to the end. And by keeping it to only four episodes, it doesn’t feel overly oppressive or drawn out. His director, Michael Keillor (Strike: Cuckoo’s Calling), drives the tension and tale with a confident hand.

Through it all, and at the center, Hugh Laurie (Avenue 5) proves again what a magnetic and smarmy bastard he can be as a character. Laurie’s character is assuredly a stand-in for some current world leaders, though with considerably more intelligence and ability. It makes him even more plausible and scarier than the truth. He’s supported by a solid cast. Iain De Caestecker (Overlord), as his right-hand, Helen McCrory (Loving Vincent) as the PM, with Sidse Babett Knudsen (Inferno) and Saskia Reeves (The Child in Time) on his homefronts are some of the standouts. But these are far from the only good performances. Hare attracts good people and his scripts provide deep characters to play with.

For a short dive into murky waters, Roadkill provides a fascinating escape and set of insights. It isn’t so long as to get suffocating, but it is long enough to allow the story to breathe. If you’re able to handle a dark political bit of suspense and mystery with a thick human element, give it a shot.

Roadkill Poster

Sputnik

[3.5 stars]

Titles are important. They can illuminate, entertain, or confuse. It’s important that, in this case, you go in knowing that Sputnik doesn’t refer to the infamous satellite, but to its translation: travelling companion.  It’s especially important as the story is set in 1983, suggesting an historical context, and because it starts in space, further confusing things. So dump all that baggage and go with the movie as it is, which is really quite good.

The movie is the solid expansion of an award winning short (The Passenger) by the triumvirate of director Egor Abramenko, and writers Oleg Malovichko, and Andrey Zolotarev. The three have all worked together for years.

The cast is quite small and is dominated by just a few performances. It’s primarily driven by Oksana Akinshina, who packs multiple layers underneath an adamantine exterior. Her performance bounces off the solid deliveries and reflections of Fedor Bondarchuk and Pyotr Fyodorov to create a movie that rises above its genre.

At its core, this is really just another space creature feature. But it is adorned with more than the typical human elements and clever consideration of the science. It isn’t perfect, but this one is definitely a step above similar tales. If you like suspense/horror/scifi offerings at all, make the time for this one. It will surprise you and is even worthy of rewatch.

Keep an eye on what comes next from the creative team. They work well together and clearly put the effort into their films to make them something special.

Sputnik Poster

Raised by Wolves

[3 stars]

Real science fiction is hard to come by. And, frustratingly, for all the solid bits and excellent start to this series, the writing ultimately makes some cheap choices and unforgivable mistakes in logic that takes this challenging bit of story and diminishes it.

So let me slap this around for a  couple moments before I move on to the faint praises. For instance, would a high tech world, which shows a propensity for complete body scans, rely only on ID cards and visual confirmations rather than DNA for their approvals? Or, how does a kid raised away from Earth acquire an accent. Any accent? Silly stuff like that could have been easily avoided, but they’re typical mistakes made by lesser writing in the genre. And then there’s the overall arc, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Now on to what’s good. The opening two episodes of this story are jaw-dropping. While riffing on several known plots like Battlestar Galactica, Brave New World, and any apocalyptic tale of Earth, it manages to build out some unique aspects. And it is quickly obvious there is a much larger story that may not take the path you think. All great things. In fact, it sets up some truly unique approaches to some standard problems… and then sacrifices them all for all the obvious paths. I picked out every major plot point early on and, while there were some misdirects, ultimately had them prove out. I don’t say this as a brag…but as a lambast. I shouldn’t have been right. At least not on all of it.

If creator Aaron Guzikowski (Papillon) was going to create a tale of restarting civilization, why riff on and recreate or make manifest everything in Western society again? Especially when he’s so brilliantly wiped the slate clean? How much of the paths taken were at the urging of Ridley Scott (Alien: Covenant), who directed the opening episodes and produced the series along with his son, Luke Scott (Morgan), I can’t say. But the issues I have are echos of many of Ridley’s stories of the past decade.

OK, that said, there is some strong acting to prop it all up. Amanda Collin as Mother and Abubakar Salim (Strike) as Father take on difficult challenges well. Even Winta McGrath, playing young Campion, brings some nice credibility (if also his improbable accent). So too do Felix Jamieson’s (Summer of Rockets) Paul and the complicated Jordan Loughran’s (Emerald City) Tempest.

However, Paul’s “parents” don’t fare as well. Niamh Algar is written with very confusing choices and slippery, plot-necessitated motives. And Travis Fimmel (Warcraft) is just completely miscast. He’s so over-the-top as to be distracting and not particularly credible for his path. Someone more like Jason Isaacs would have been better. What was needed was a strong, but damaged, intellect with the capacity for unexpected violence. A crazy man, however he gets there, just gets boring.

But what burns me the most about this opening season is the lack of answers and the number of cliff-hangers after 10 episodes. Frankly, it’s unforgivable to pay off nothing. It’s a desperate plea to get a series two, which I’m sure it will get, but I’d think twice about committing to the next round given the finale of this first. Basically, the series takes an interesting idea, chickens out in almost every respect, and refocuses on a more palatable, standard direction…and then doesn’t even have the balls to admit it with at least some resolutions.

Yes, I’m a bit conflicted. The production design and values are top notch. Some of the ideas are wonderful. Even some of the moments and writing are solid. But, in my opinion, the overall impact was so much less than it could have been with braver choices. Your mileage may vary.

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Dating Amber

[3.5 stars]

The stories we tell don’t change over time, but how we tell them does. And to that point, David Freyne (The Cured) has delivered not so much new ground in this coming-of-age tale, as a new approach. And that makes all the difference.

Fionn O’Shea (Normal People) and Lola Petticrew (A Bump Along the Way) take us through their last year of secondary school which includes personal revelations, experiments, and, eventually, acceptances. Unexpectedly, while told primarily through the scared and challenged O’Shea, Petticrew tends to dominate the screen when she is there. Part of that is the characters, but she also fairly glows with charisma and energy in a way that O’Shea just can’t touch despite his acting chops.

While the two teens dominate the film, there are several smaller performances with depth and impact. Sharon Horgan (Military Wives) has a subtle job as O’Shea’s mother navigating her stressed marriage to Barry Ward (The Fall) and her struggling children. Simone Kirby (Jimmy’s Hall) has a similar challenge as Petticrew’s mother. And, as a bit of running comic relief, Ian O’Reilly (Moone Boy) has some wonderful moments and solid timing.

While set in 1995, this story still applies today because teens have always struggled with accepting themselves and being accepted for who they are. Petticrew and O’Shea tackle their stories with heart and honesty while avoiding most of the ugly that it sometimes causes. But the movie is intended to be on the lighter side, with plenty of warm and funny moments and with an inexorable drive toward joy, however bumpy the road.

You’re probably thinking you don’t need another coming-of-age story, but make time for it. You won’t be disappointed in the film and watching Freyne develop his cinema voice is an extra benefit.

[If you’re looking for some insights after seeing the film, check out these short interviews with Freyne, and this with O’Shea.]

Dating Amber Poster

Uncle Frank

[3.5 stars]

Alan Ball (True Blood, Six Feet Under) tackles the-truth-in-the-quirky  like Aaron Sorkin tackles the-poetic-in-the-mundane. His string of shows and movies all focus on characters, and the beauty and tragedy of life. This outing, literally and figuratively, he tackles the late 1960s life in NYC and rural South Carolina. Two venues that couldn’t be more different then, or today.

But, as always with Ball, part of what makes his stories work is the incredible talent he gets to inhabit those characters. While the story is about Frank, the title clues you into the point of view, which is led by Sophia Lillis (I Am Not Okay With This) as Frank’s niece. Lillis, again, proves she is not only up to the task of a lead, but is capable of wonderful and subtle emotional range. Her family, including Frank played by Paul Bettany (Avengers: Endgame), all orbit around her axis.

Which isn’t to say they are minor or side characters, it is simply that she is the spine around which the whole tale depends. It is her story into which they feed. And it’s a story many will relate to, directly or indirectly. The family is filled out by the likes of Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes), Margot Martindale (The Hollars), Stephen Root (On the Basis of Sex), and Judy Greer (Halloween).

Completing the cast, in what is one of the most complicated and challenging roles, is Peter Macdissi (Towelhead). Bettany and Macdissi have an easy give and take amid the sturm and drang of their lives. But with little explanation, their history feels obvious and real. And their love for one another is equally palpable.

While this is a story of secrets, they aren’t secrets for the audience, generally. The big things are all obvious. It’s how Lillis’s Beth becomes awakened by them, how she grows and changes because of them, and how she learns to see and appreciate things for what they are rather than how she elevated them. In other words, it’s a tale of growing into adulthood and learning to accept yourself and those around you for who they are. It may be a bitter-sweet journey, but this isn’t a tragedy; it’s a heart-warming tale of struggle and triumph. And one I do highly recommend.

Uncle Frank Poster

A One Lane Mystery Road

I’ve grouped these two mystery series because they have some similarities. The common thread, despite the difference in country, is indigenous peoples. In fact, the main detective in both series represents this oft time side-lined culture. Interestingly, they have similar sensibilities, though very different tenors.

One Lane Bridge

This is the inaugural series of what is somewhere between a rough-edged mystery, similar to many Northern England shows like Shetland or Hinterland, but with a bit of aboriginal mythos thrown in. It has a few recognizable faces, if you watch New Zealand shows. The basic story is a simple family murder. Dominic Ona-Ariki (Filthy Rich) gets it as his first case in the remote town to which he’s moved.

Among the faces you might know are Joel Tobeck (The Blake Mysteries: Ghost Story), Alison Bruce (Top of the Lake), and Michelle Langstone (800 Words). They also have some of the more complicated story lines, though they aren’t the main focus of the story.

We don’t really get to know much of why Ariki’s there in series 1, nor much about his background. He does, however, solve the season’s mystery so nothing of importance is left hanging. But a lot is held back and many things are clearly queued up for a second series. Despite the grit and anger of it all, I’d be back to see what they can make of it. The characters are rich and full of stories.

Mystery Road

And speaking of grit and anger, this second season of the movie adaptation of this series is just full of it. Aaron Pedersen (The Code) returns as the swaggering, grumpy loner who’s trying to single-handedly clean up the Australian outback and northern coast. Tasma Walton (Cleverman) returns as his frustrated ex-wife and Sofia Helin (The Bridge) joins as one of the principle variables, which was certainly a draw for me.

This is a heavy feeling storyline of angry people and nefarious doings. But there are interesting characters and fascinating insights into culture that you won’t get anywhere else. I can’t take too much of it at once… the writing often makes choices for the convenience of the action, rather than what people would normally do, but it’s entertaining and even spiked with adrenaline at times.

One Lane Bridge Mystery Road Poster

What the Constitution Means to Me

[3.5 stars]

Heidi Schreck isn’t widely know in film and TV, but her semi-autobiographical play, What the Constitution Means to Me, is topical, educational, and funny amid the points. And there is likely an awful lot of information your social studies/government studies, or whatever passes for those classes these days, left out.

While we sit around waiting for the results of the 2020 election, and shortly after we’ve had yet another “originalist” sat on SCOTUS, this play couldn’t be more timely or appropriate. It isn’t perfect…the structure is a bit odd, the moments don’t always flow perfectly from one thought to another, and capturing the play for film wasn’t done particularly well, though it certainly works. But the overall points and the raw emotion that Schreck can dredge up are worth any moments of weakness. And, given where we are as a country right now, this is a must see 100 minutes for everyone (though, be aware it does contain some adult subject matter and language).

So, while we wait to see what direction we may end up pointing, take a break and gain some additional perspective for what’s to come and what could come.

What the Constitution Means to Me Poster

Ted Lasso

[4 stars]

I can’t believe I’m endorsing this show (it was inspired by an ad campaign, for cryin’ out loud), but I am. I never thought it would be something I could watch; Jason Sudeikis (Colossal), just isn’t my usual cup of tea.

But that’s thing about Ted Lasso, while Sudeikis and Brendan Hunt are earnest and interesting and really sell their characters, it isn’t their show. The story is really about all the people around them, and those actors play it genuinely and beautifully. Hannah Waddingham (Sex Education), Juno Temple (Wonder Wheel), Brett Goldstein (Uncle), Jeremy Swift (Stonewall), and Nick Mohammed (The Martian) bring a host of different stories and reactions to keep you hooked. In fact, the humor is often fall-off-the-couch funny, and the honest moments are, well sometimes the same, but just as often incredibly affecting.

Frankly, I’m not a sports guy. Prior to this, the only series that ever managed to overcome my aversion to sports stories was Sports Night. But Lasso managed some of the same magic…making the story about everything other than the sport involved and getting me to care.

Lasso is already renewed for two more seasons, it’s worth your time and it’s the perfect antidote for the dark and stressful times around us. I just hope they can keep up the story and the writing.

Ted Lasso Poster

On the Rocks

[3.5 stars]

Sofia Coppola (The Beguiled) may be the the best Bill Murray (The Dead Don’t Die) whisperer out there. She consistently pulls controlled, but emotional performances from the man without diluting his comedy. In this performance, he also comes across as an incredibly capable person, believably highly successful in the world, but with deep rifts of personal issues swimming beneath the surface. And yet, for all the emotional churn, he and the story are funny.

Playing opposite Murray, Rashida Jones (Klaus) is the true heart of the film. A daughter lost in the world she’s created for herself and doubting her own abilities, not to mention her marriage to Marlon Wayans. In what amounts to a sort of dark, farcical comedy she finds her way back to herself and the life she deserves.

Rounding out the cast, and filling in the world are some other wonderful actors. Jessica Henwick (Underwater), Jenny Slate (Hotel Artemis), and a small but fun appearance by Barbara Bain stood out for me.

Coppola’s script is playful, honest, and entertaining. You feel for Jones and her situation, but recognize her issues as well. But Coppola also keeps you wondering till near the end as to what the truth of her situation is. It’s a wonderful balancing act that helps drive the story forward. That said, the venue for her tale is the upper reaches of society again…a world Coppola knows well, but which is out of reach for most of us. It didn’t feel wrong, but it does add a little distance to the situation.

But whatever you think this movie is, you’re probably wrong. It’s sweet, funny, and entertaining while tackling some real aspects of marriage and life. Jones and Murray turn in wonderful performances and Coppola continues to show her strengths and growth as a director and writer. At 90 minutes, it’s definitely worth your time.

On the Rocks Poster