Tag Archives: Mystery

The Ipcress File

[3 stars]

Sometimes it is nice to dig out a classic you’ve missed. I recently did that with Iprcress. It is very much out of date at this point, but with some amusing moments and a rather young Michael Caine (Sherlock Gnomes). Ipcress released the year before Caine’s breakout in Alfie (1966), which really launched him on the international stage.

The plot of this flick isn’t very surprising, though it is all carried off with a quiet English humor and a staid set of reactions. It feels like a weak version of The Manchurian Candidate, which released a few years earlier. However the wry humor is an unexpected aspect to it all. It isn’t Kingsman funny, but it is somewhere between that and Bond.

One of the things that caught me off guard was how much the opening is reflected in the series opening sequence of Dexter. Even the music is similar. As it turns out, I’m not even close to the first to realize that. Really, it is jarring how close it is.

As a film, it is diverting and is executed well, though more of an interesting curio than brilliant movie. Still, entertaining.  It is also packed with a slew of talent that is no longer with us. Caine is one of the few survivors in that cast, along with director Sidney J. Furie. That Caine is still putting out quality work is what makes him one of the most working and recognizable actors of our time, and Furie continues to dabble across all genre over his equally wide ranging career.

Mrs. Wilson

[3 stars]

This is one of those true stories that is stranger than fiction. In the beginning of this three part drama, Ruth Wilson (The Little Stranger) loses her husband of many years, Iain Glen (Cleverman). Quickly, she discovers that he wasn’t the man she thought in work, in life, or in love. Watching her struggle with the revelations is quite a shift from her usual more overtly tough characters.

The story is mostly about her wresting the truth from those who did know and then struggling with the knowing. Primarily, that is from Fiona Shaw (Colette) and Anupam Kher (The Big Sick), who still make her work for her answers, such as they are. Keeley Hawes (The Bodyguard) and Patrick Kennedy (London Has Fallen) add some other interesting aspects to the life being revealed.

Richard Laxton helms the triptych nicely, slowly peeling layers from the mystery and the characters. It is a fascinating story, if not an entirely satisfying conclusion. But the ending isn’t the fault of the actors or story, but rather of life, if the final credits are to be believed. Ultimately, it is a reminder to consider what makes your life right and good more than it is about collusion and deception. If it were placed in a more current time, I’m not sure we’d have gotten the same story, but it somehow feels right in its period.

For the performances and the slow ride of the story, it is worthy of the time spent. At this point I’m even curious to try and dive into the real history to learn more.

Blake Mysteries: Ghost Story

[3 stars]

Ballarat is back, but not with the Blake you’ve beloved (sorry…that was a stretch for the final “B”). Jumping ahead a few years from what had felt like a series farewell, we find a changing of the guard. There This two episode movie relaunch allows a lot of familiar faces to finally get to dominate the story rather than play second fiddle. Most obvious among these are Nadine Gardner as the abandoned/widowed(?) wife of the missing Doctor Blake, and Belinda McClory as the delightfully curmudgeonly medical examiner Alice Harvey.

Honestly, as much as I’d enjoyed the series, I’d not been writing it up as it was fun, but not noteworthy. This shift, whatever the cause, is worth calling out as it was handled smoothly and well. The result keeps the sensibility of the previous five series, but heads off in a solid new direction with new leads, while taking advantage of a new cultural era to help smooth it all over.

The future of this series is probably assured now, regardless of real-life events, though what direction it will go was left purposefully open-ended. Who knows, we may end up with an Australian update of Hart to Hart set in the 60s when all is done. Having now given these characters their due, I can’t see dialing them back in any satisfying way.

Escape Room

[3 stars]

Silly, satisfying popcorn fun, as you’d expect.

Much like Cube and Saw before it, this collection of crazily conceived challenges for the characters offers a lot of dark entertainment, and some nice attempts at making it all believable. As a first feature script for Schut and Melnik, there is a real attempt to create just-believable-enough scenarios and people to drive the well-worn genre and provide some unexpected moments, if not exactly surprises. Adam Robitel’s direction, as only his second feature, likewise shows some nice talent with pacing and finding emotional threads to keep it all going.

The result isn’t perfect, but it is entertaining. Nik Dodani (Atypical), in particular, gets ripped off as a character, never really becoming someone we care about. But Deborah Ann Woll (Daredevil) and
Taylor Russell (Before I Fall) actually get to build quite a bit of backstory and sense of life. Logan Miller (Love, Simon) and Tyler Labine (Voltron: Legendary Defender), aren’t quite as lucky and Jay Ellis (The Game) is really just a parody. These uneven efforts work in this genre, but does make the film a bit less than it might of become.

So, if you’re a fan of these kinds of inventive evil mayhem that may or may not ever really make sense, make an appointment for the Escape Room. If you are hoping for something a bit richer and more complete, like It or some of the other more recent reinventions of horror/suspense, this is going to come up a bit short…primarily for the ending, but also because of the uneven character development.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

[5 stars]

For anyone who thought Netflix was just an aggregator or simple studio, think again. They just created a whole new set of goal posts for the competition and for mass entertainment.

OK, I’ll admit, my rating is high here, in part, because of the technology and novelty of the piece, but Avatar got that kind of reaction as well, and let’s face it, that script and story were appallingly bad.  But Bandersnatch has a good script, is very clever and fun…and I can’t wait to watch it again. My first time through, even with multiple loop-backs, I hit a 90min version, which is likely close to the happy path, even though that wasn’t my intention.

Fionn Whitehead (queers.) drives the movie with a bit more excess energy than is probably needed, but it is certainly consistent. As his father, BBC serial standard Craig Parkinson (Line of Duty) gets to ride a roller-coaster of a part, much depending on your selections moment to moment. Similarly, Alice Lowe (Sherlock) gets to have some fun as Whitehead’s therapist. But those two stabilizing beams in the story aside, a real special mention has to go to Will Poulter (The Little Stranger), who completely transformed himself for his role; he wears the accent and British intellectual toff rather well.

Of course this twisted piece of mental suspense came from the mind of the Charlie Brooker, creator and writer of the Black Mirror series. Brooker always puts technology at the center of his stories, though what makes them work is how the characters respond to that tech. Making tech part of the experience now is just a natural evolution of his approach. Director David Slade (HannibalAmerican Gods) took Brooker’s vision, and its many branches, to create a series of paths and endings that all feel right for the story at hand and Black Mirror generally. I found three endings on my first watch, looping back each time to try something else. Each was satisfying, though there is clearly an intended ending that is very much in Brooker’s vein.

You can’t even think about Bandersnatch without thinking about how it was made and delivered. And, of course, the technology is bloody amazing. Sure it watches sort of like a high-end video game. But it plays like a movie and the transitions are visually seamless. Angel Devoid tried to do this years ago, but hardware quirks and other weaknesses left it working only marginally well. Bandersnatch is the payout on the promise of branching movies, and manages to do it at scale. That achievement is pretty astounding when you think of the number of concurrent watchers, each making their own choices, and no one seeing a break in the action. There are some drawbacks to how it all works. For instance, you have to watch it on a supported device and you are forced to break the wall between you and screen by being involved. However, neither overwhelms the piece and the latter works into your watching experience interesting ways given the plot.

But, tech aside, it is an engaging and interesting story. The mystery is thick and the stakes are high from near the very beginning. There are some obvious aspects to it all, especially if you’re a Black Mirror fan, but not so many or much that it ruins the fun. The story is  highly rewatchable as well. I know there are huge chunks of info I’ve yet to unearth and I absolutely intend to go back and find them all. Once you see the movie, you’ll understand the delicious irony in that as well. I wouldn’t want a steady diet of this kind of entertainment, but an occasional, well-done piece would always be welcome.

Make time for Bandersnatch…it is history in the making, no matter how the eventual reception of it goes.

 

Searching

[3.5 stars]

When I’m wrong, I’m wrong. I honestly expected a really poor movie tied together with clever tricks. Instead, I got a rather good suspense/mystery that really captured a lot of how life has changed over the last 10 years or so for families. It is far from perfect and definitely gets some things very wrong, but it clips along nicely and has compelling characters.

John Cho (Gemini) gives us a father we can relate to and sympathize with, even as you want to occasionally slap him. But his hyperfocus and obstinance are necessary elements to drive the tale. Debra Messing (Like Sunday, Like Rain) surprised me as a very down-to-earth detective. She is very much in control, but not unemotional. It is a very different role for her, but one which she delivers on nicely.

First time feature director and co-writer Aneesh Chaganty made quite a splash with this low-budget thriller. There was lots of buzz about it as it over-performed in release, but I still felt like it would do fine on a small screen and skipped it in theater. To a degree, the result does feel familiar. 11 Cameras comes to mind, or even the more recent Disconnect. And it is timed unexpectedly well given the rise of social media as a primary source for news. However Chaganty also manages to create a driving mystery, with just enough technical wizardry to make it feel real but possible. And he gives us characters and high stakes without resorting to soap-opera like relationships.

Searching is a surprising film, if only because you just don’t expect it to be so engaging. The 100 minute ride is tight from beginning to end. I’m definitely curious to see what Chaganty delivers next. Meantime, for a good distraction, pop this one in or, more appropriately, stream it and enjoy.

Widows

[4 stars]

Think of this as the flip-side of Ocean’s 8; a very dark and disturbing flip-side, closer to Den of Thieves in sensibility.

Widows is a female-driven heist film dominated by Viola Davis (Fences) and Elizabeth Debicki (The Cloverfield Paradox). These women have the most compelling tales and the strongest screen impact despite it being primarily an ensemble movie. Joined by the equally capable, if less story impactful, Michelle Rodriguez (Battle: Los Angeles, Fast & Furious) and Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale), this group of women find themselves and their mettle trying to survive a lousy situation as they dig themselves out of the holes their respective partners dropped them in.

And speaking of their partners, the top line there is an unusual role for Liam Neeson (Peppermint) and a fairly standard one for Jon Bernthal (Baby Driver). Neeson’s time on screen is necessarily brief, but his and Davis’s intense relationship drive the entire tale. Garret Dillahunt (The Scribbler), Jacki Weaver (The Disaster Artist), and Carrie Coon (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town) also each get their moments to shine as the story unfolds.

Driving the movie from outside the women’s collective are a group of men, each with their own issues and particular brand of evil. Colin Farrell (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) has the most layered of these characters. He never quite comes into focus, but he is clearly conflicted and buffeted along by the past and the current situation. You never really know whether to feel sorry for him or to revile him. The same can’t be said for Brian Tyree Henry (Irreplaceable You), Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther), or Robert Duvall (The Judge). These other men are dark, twisted, and out for themselves regardless of the pain and damage they cause. And they do. This is a violent film and hard to watch at moments.

Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) took an interesting risk directing this story. First, he dove into the story quickly, getting to the meat of the tale at the top. Typically, this would have been a good and obvious move. However, then he plowed on before we got to know anyone. He remained very natural rather than heightening or manipulating the audience with standard structures, letting us see realities, but not allowing us to bring emotion to it. We don’t know these people and we can’t yet sympathize with them at the beginning. We can abhor the situations, but there is no connection. The challenge is that it makes the first third of the film very flat in some ways. However, as the movie continues, it slowly builds the story and gets there; but it takes its time.

The story itself has some serious cred behind it. It was originally written by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect) and then adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and McQueen himself. None of these artists thinks in a straight line nor bends toward the light and airy in plot. Widows will coddle and assault you, but it will bring you along and make you invest. I will admit that while the ending left me wondering if I’d really understood the McQueen’s main point in the film, but I didn’t feel cheated, only a sense of pondering. It also contained a particularly wonderful moment with mirrors (which seem to be getting more popular again in films).

Widows is not your typical heist film, not just for its female leads, but also in its approach to story. If you want something different for your holiday week’s fare, this is one that should be on your list.

Black Earth Rising

[4 stars]

Like his previous Honourable Woman, Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising has a unique tone and flavor determined by its story’s origins. The approach sets his work apart keeps them feeling new, despite recognizable venues, structure, and format. The 8-part road is twisty and complex, but laid out logically and credibly to bring you along, though you are unlikely to get ahead of it. His ability to find strong and capable talent doesn’t hurt the result either.

This story, also like Honourable Woman, is driven by a powerful female character…given terrible life by Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum, Black Mirror). Coel dominates the tale from her first moments on screen until her last in a complicated and dark role. It is riveting and heart-breaking to watch this woman come to terms with her past and her present. She is fiercely intelligent, physically powerful, and with a magnetism that takes over the screen when she appears. She doesn’t steal focus, but she cannot help but remake each scene around herself.

She is joined by John Goodman (Atomic Blonde) who brings us a troubled and layered lawyer seeking justice and happiness, though often watching both slip through his fingers. Harriet Walter (Donmar Project), as her mother, is a study in conflicting emotions; a tight and warring collection of memories and intentions expertly controlled and utterly riveting.

Additional roles fill out the world, with some notable performances by Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU), Noma DumezweniLucian Msamati (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), Abena Ayivor, and Emmanuel Imani. But the entire cast is strong.

While these performances alone are a great reason to watch the series, it is the writing and the story that make it worth tuning into this dark but fascinating story about international justice and questions of truth and history. That quality shouldn’t be surprising given it is from Blick as the creator and writer/director for the 8 episode sequence. He also employs some interesting visual approaches to both expose the past and pull themes through the series.

Blick is unafraid of complex questions, politically and personally. He does have a penchant for high conspiracy but, in this case, it feels very logical if disturbing. The point of Black Earth Rising is to raise awareness and to force viewers to recognize some very hard truths about the world and how their own desires help drive it. But it is also a highly personal story and one that is deeply emotional and healing. Whether or not the story gets the accolades it deserves, Coel’s performance will certainly be identified as one of the best of the year.

Bad Times at the El Royale

[4 stars]

Are you looking for something different? Then checking into the El Royale may be your best destination. Director and writer Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has a very particular style to his film making. His stories have a similar color pallet and the plots are recognizable but not formulaic. They buck tradition but cleave to a sense of moral reality that is believable. They feel almost refreshing in their approach despite playing heavily into genre, whether that is horror, science fiction, or, in this case, noir. And his stories are chock full of subtle references for those steeped in the movies and television. (One nod to Silence of the Lambs was inspired.) This story is subtly political in its message as well.

Goddard is also good at assembling talented casts capable of bringing his vision to life in earnest without losing track of the style he is aiming for. Jeff Bridges (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and Cynthia Erivo (The Tunnel) are particularly solid at driving a good part of the action. But Jon Hamm (Nostalgia), Dakota Johnson (A Bigger Splash), Cailee Spaeny (Pacific Rim: Uprising), and Lewis Pullman (Battle of the Sexes) complete the ensemble of odd characters who, despite coming to the El Royale for different reasons, find their paths crossing in unexpected ways. Nick Offerman (Hearts Beat Loud) has a nice cameo as well. As a final treat, Goddard got Chris Hemsworth (Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers) to reteam with him for a funny and terrifying role that continues to help establish his range (he can’t be Thor forever).

Like Cabin in the Woods, I suspect this film will take time to find its audience, which is a shame. It is crafted beautifully. Despite its almost 2.5 hour length it moves along crisply and keeps opening up surprises through till the finale. It is solidly acted and funny as well as dark and dangerous as its centering genre. It is very much a classic noir, but with Goddard at the helm very little can ever be assumed, and that is part of the joy of the story. And, as only his second stint in the director’s chair, it shows immense promise for what may come in the future as well. If you’re tired of sequels and formulaic drivel, support movies like this one that try to do something a bit different.

A Simple Favor

[4 stars]

Dark, funny, sexy, twisted, this mystery-cum-satire is a great ride, expertly executed by cast and crew alike. It has barely a misstep as it navigates its path to the end, and it sustains its off-plumb approach till the final credits.

The movie is led by a perfectly cast duo, Anna Kendrick (TrollsPitch Perfect) and Blake Lively (Cafe Society). What introduces itself as a simple tale of rich suburban hell slides into something quite different very early on when these women meet and become friends. Stuck in the crossfire of all the complexity is Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians), with a gullible savvy. The trio are the main engine of the story and keep it humming along.

But there is a host of great smaller characters as well. Linda Cardellini (Bloodline), Andrew Ranells (Why Him?), Rupert Friend (The Death of Stalin), Jean Smart (The Accountant), and Melissa O’Neill (Dark Matter) are just a few of the cameos. Each adds something to the tale, to one degree or another, thanks to a very tight script byJessica Sharzer. Sharzer is no stranger to the dark side of things having worked on American Horror Story and Nerve and it served her well here. You know you’ve come across something special when you can get ahead of it and it still doesn’t matter…because you really don’t get entirely ahead of it anyway.

As director, Paul Feig (Ghostbusters, and the MCU) took her script and ran with it, hitting just the right tone with his actors: allowing them to be utterly aware of the absurdities of their lives and still commit to them. The level of snark and sarcasm on screen is probably well above FDA standards, and incredibly funny. Smart, broad comedy is about the hardest to pull off because it is so self-conscious and also invites criticism due to its audience because no one can claim they don’t know what’s going on. But A Simple Favor needn’t worry, it can take it, dish it back, and come out on top. Make time for this one, it will surprise you.

A Simple Favor