Tag Archives: Mystery

Mute

[3 stars]

Mute is not a feel-good romp nor even what could be termed a fun distraction. Its roots are in films like Blade Runner, but without the history to support it. However, it has its own sort of magnetic pull thanks to director and co-writer Duncan Jones’s (Warcraft) efforts in this noirish confection.

The film unfolds at Jones’s typical laconic, but compelling, pace. The story and genre aspects aren’t entirely right, but it is consistent in its approach which allows it to work. And Jones’s nod to his previous release, Moon, is both subtle and amusing… it took me a few minutes to even realize what I’d just seen. Nods like that, which also fit into the world that has been built, you have to respect.

Most dystopian stories are about overthrowing the status quo so that sanity and justice can reign. Not this tale. This dark story is small and intimate against the background of the greater darkness of a totally screwed-up world that looks all-to-familiar. Mute also takes time weaving its its multi-threaded story into whole cloth. And then it heads down a corridor that almost ends on one of the darkest moments I’ve witnessed (we’re talking Oldboy dark). Fortunately it goes beyond that to get to someplace more palatable, but still not what one would really call happy.

The main dance is between a near silent Alexander Skarsgård (The Legend of Tarzan) and a hyper-juiced Paul Rudd (The Fundamentals of Caring). Their paths intersect over and over, eventually pulling them into the same story. Around these two are a bevy of odd characters. Justin Theroux (The Girl on the Train) as Rudd’s sidekick is creepy if not entirely believable. And Robert Sheehan (Geostorm) gets to totally tear it up with his outlandish character, but still manages to give him a bit of heart. Just a bit. I was also surprised to spot Dominic Monaghan (The Day) and Noel Clarke (Star Trek Into Darkness) in a couple of smaller and nastier roles.

This movie had a long road to screen. That it landed on the little screen rather than the large is probably for the best. While it has visual scope, it definitely would have had a narrow audience appeal. However, the restrictions of theatrical release may have also forced Jones to tighten up his final cut a bit as well; sort of a dual sword. The story-telling and conceits of the result, particularly the unique blending of cultures he works with, make this an interesting couple hours. Just don’t go in depressed or angry as this will only feed that spiral.

I enjoy Jones’s willingness to try new things and difficult story lines, and to tell them at his own pace. His opus definitely isn’t for everyone, but there is a talent there that is still developing and one worth watching. He got great a great performance out of Skarsgård and took Rudd some places I’ve not seen him do…and even managed to guide him to just enough humanity to pay off the plot. If you like Jones’s previous work, you should give this your time. If you haven’t yet discovered Jones, you can try this, but you might want to start with Moon and decide if his style jibes with yours first.

Mute

Some more mysteries

A few short write-ups on some new mystery series coming our way.

Bancroft is one of the darker origin tales to come out of the BBC. A four-part tale following the exposure of a 27 year old cold case, and the damage it can still imbue. Staring Sarah Parish (Atlantis) and Faye Marsay (Game of Thrones), both women climbing in the British police force and playing an increasingly dangerous game of politics. It is a very British series and will not be to the taste of everyone, but it is also a good setup for the next sequence. If you need a touchstone, think Line of Duty meets Prime Suspect.

The Miniaturist is faithful to the book, which is both its strength and weakness. A conundrum to be sure. The story is a compelling historical drama and romance in 17th Century Holland, well-led by Anya Joy-Taylor (Split). But the central conceit of the story and title are incidental to the plot itself. You could rip out the entire aspect of the miniaturist herself and nothing in the story would have to change. The book is the same way. It reads like it was originally a different story, but that the author got caught up with other aspects, but never removed the original concept. Either way, it is worth the time to see and/or read.

Shakespeare & Hathaway is of a very different cloth than the previous two. It is mostly a light comedy detective series in Stratford-upon-Avon. But while it has a great deal of fun with Shakespeare’s plays (which isn’t necessary to understand, but lots of fun if you listen carefully) it ranges into some rather dark mysteries and motives. To give you a sense of their whimsy amid the blood, Amber Aga (Abstentia) plays DI Christine Marlowe. To borrow a phrase from the Bard’s time, it is neither fish nor flesh nor fowl but something a bit wonderfully weird and entertaining. The stories are led by veterans Mark Benton and Jo Joyner along with capable and relative newcomer Patrick Walshe McBride. When you are looking  for something that is somewhere between Father Brown and Midsomer Murders or The Coroner this will really fit the bill with some laughs and even some surprises. 

 

Frankie Drake Mysteries

[3 stars]

I was originally going to just let this show slide by uncommented upon. It was the Canadian answer to Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, but without the writing and acting. In other words, diverting enough to watch, but nothing to recommend or run from. Well, I almost ran from it…the hour-long comedy/drama was a lot of time for little return. But then something interesting happened. About halfway through the inaugural season they went on a typical hiatus, and when they returned the writing had massively improved. The mysteries got better, the characters started to add depth, and the acting got beyond surfacey silliness.

In the title role, Lauren Lee Smith (Ascension) began this series rather ham-handedly. She had no sense of what it was to be a flapper and the costumers and writing did her no favors. She came across as weak copy of Fisher. As Frankie’s partner, Chantel Riley (Race) had real potential, but no storylines to really explore any of it. But around episode 6 they found their footing and refocused the show. Riley gets a family and some real plot opportunities. Smith becomes more of a person and less of a cartoon cipher with an excuse to play 1920s dress-up.

Not all characters got to grow as much. Rebecca Liddiard (Houdini & Doyle, Alias Grace) remained primarily comic relief. However, her abilities were expanded upon. I’m looking forward to seeing how they flesh her out in the next season.  On the other hand, Sharron Matthews as the coroner starts off strong in the series and only gets better as it goes along. The show also manages some fun guest stars through their freshman series.

You may have noticed I’ve only called out women. One thing I can say about Frankie Drake is that it really is only about the women. There are male colleagues, victims, and criminals, but it is driven by the four women.

I don’t know if Frankie can sustain its return from the edge of extreme mediocrity, but I’d like to believe they discovered their issues and are now on track. OK, it does stumble a little in the last couple episodes, but one is a wrap up to discard a character that needed to be flushed, and the finale is a little over-edited, but provides some solid history to grow from (again from the Fisher playbook, but done well). Give it a shot when it arrives on air or streaming. Stick it out for the first five or six episodes to watch it turn the corner. It isn’t bad for the first five, but knowing it improves makes it worth the wait. Whether it can survive to renewal remains to be seen.

Collateral

[3.5 stars]

Writer David Hare (DenialThe Worricker Trilogy) has delivered another complex and tight suspense/thriller. It is a beautiful study of chaos born from a simple, small event. The 4-part tale is one, primarily, of three women in very different places in life, but all intersecting through a seemingly random crime in London.

Carey Mulligan (Mudbound) makes a nice switch to the staid DI Glaspie from her previous strong, but often gender-bounded parts. Glaspie is a tough woman, straight talker, and flawed in ways the keep you interested as she tackles her first big case.

Special ops Jeany Spark (Wallander) brings some interesting flavor to the story. Her struggles, both internal and within the military are often horrific, but she rises above that in her own way. Admittedly, her choices are less than mainstream, but you understand her better than you’d like to admit.

Nicola Walker (River), on the other hand, gives us yet another of her strong but shattered women, a trademark character she manages to make feel fresh and real no matter the story she brings it to. It is hard to recall she started in comedy way back when before she found her meal ticket in film and TV.

Then, of course, are a panoply of others from John Simm (Doctor Who), to Billie Piper (Penny Dreadful), to Hayley Squires (Miniaturist), Nathaniel Martello-White (Moonwalkers), Ahd Kamel (Wadjda), July Namir, and Ben Miles (The Crown). There isn’t a weak casting choice in the lot and S.J. Clarkson directed them and the overall sequence well. Despite the potential for soapy histrionics, Clarkson kept it all very real, contained, and pressurized.

The four installments pull you along as it drops clues that slowly build to a complete picture. It isn’t quite as complex or solidly interlinked as Worricker, but it is full of great moments, dialogue, and performances. Definitely worth a bit of binge when you want a slightly more challenging distraction.

Requiem

[3 stars]

Requiem is an odd, 6-part mystery that is both modern mystery and Gothic horror. From the outset, it is clear that there is some kind of supernatural aspect to the events, but the story unfolds for a long time with that being very much in question and at the periphery. Part of the fun of the story is trying to identify truth and interpretation from fiction and assumption.

Lydia Wilson (Star Trek Beyond) leads the story as a delightfully and frustratingly flawed young woman. For all her strength and focus though, her character drifts into “willful stupid” territory about two thirds into the sequence thanks to writing choices. The Code collaborators, Mrksa and Ayshford,  relied a bit too much on some tropes to push the plot along rather than find more natural ways to have confrontations in their latest delivery.

Wilson’s sidekick, Joel Fry (Game of Thrones), has one of the more challenging paths in this story. Honestly, it never really entirely comes together, but it leaves him hanging in a realistic way. It is clear to us what the motivations are even though the characters rarely broach the subject.

Three other women have nicely complex roles in the series. Two are well recognized faces from many shows and movies; Joanna Scanlan (Electric Dreams) and Claire Rushbrook (Murder: Joint Enterprise) are terrific characters with difficult plots to navigate. The third,  Clare Calbraith, is less known, but is as integral as Wilson in driving the plot forward.

Additional support by James Frecheville (Adore), Brendan Coyle (Me Before You), Sian Reese-Williams (Hinterland) and Darren Evans (Galavant) are all worth mentioning, though far from the entire cast.

Overall, the mystery unfolds nicely and inexorably, but don’t expect all questions to be answered. Most will, and certainly enough will, but the show left itself a way forward and didn’t try to cover all bases. That was fair given that not all answers were or could be known in this part of the story. If you like moody horror and mystery, this is a good mix of the two, and definitely a binge-worthy series that will hook you quickly.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

[3 stars]

Agatha Christie’s novels have been done to death (all puns intended) over the years. That doesn’t make them any less entertaining, but it does create a mine field for the actors who must tread well worn paths but somehow make them feel new. And no where is that path more worn than with Miss Marple and Poirot.

Bluntly, Kenneth Branagh (The Magic Flute) is no David Suchet, but he creates a new Poirot that has his moments, if not complete command of our love yet. Branagh also directs the piece expertly, keeping it moving along and offering credible interruptions of events to draw out the denouement. Michael Green’s (Blade Runner 2049) script helps him along on that point with clever dialogue and well-considered constructions. The cinematography is also gorgeous capturing both the landscapes and rich era. 

The film is fairly littered with known faces, far too many to list. But a few are of note. Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean), in particular, sells his linchpin role perfectly. The remaining cast succeed and fail to differing degrees. Sadly, Judi Dench (Victoria & Abdul), is one of the weakest, though I couldn’t tell if that was due to Branagh’s lack of focus on her or simply her delivery. (This movie also completes a triptych of films with Dench for me over the last week.) On the other hand, Michelle Pfeiffer (mother!) and Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) shown like beacons amid the gray and white of the landscape.

Whether you know this story or not, it is a great version of it. In fact, it may well be the best adaptation done yet for large or small screen; certainly it holds its own. Again, it isn’t the Poirot that I grew to love over decades, but my first Poirot was Ustinov and I got over it. You could do worse than your first as Branagh…just hunt down Suchet’s distillation at some point as well. No one has yet captured Christie’s little Belgian quite so well.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Annihilation

[3 stars]

Much like my comments about Altered Carbon, Annihilation is an actual piece of science fiction intended to inspire thought rather than just show off effects. Not a huge surprise given this is the follow-up feature for Alex Garland after his surprise hit Ex Machina. So strap in for a taught, but paced story that explores the definition of life, the waging of war, and the question of intention while still managing to have a highly intimate tale as its core. I’m not saying it is without flaws…there are definitely some gaps in logic and some forced choices, but it is generally rather well done. 

In addition to tackling large topics, it is also an almost all female driven tale. With Natalie Portman (Song to Song) at the helm as a credible ex-military/current-biologist, the motley collection of women head off into the unknown. Jennifer Jason Leigh (Morgan) is the next most impactful character, again both strong and intelligent, if a bit odd and lost at times. Rounding out the group are Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) and Tuva Novotny (ID: A) in two distinctly differing portrayals of what a troubled adulthood can look like. The last member, and surprisingly least credible, was Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin). To be fair, Rodriguez was given a tough task and, frankly, was left hanging more by the script than her own petard.

There are some men in the mix in integral roles as well, but they are side-characters. Despite the lack of lines and screen time, Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange) do well.

As this is adapted from a trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer,  don’t expect complete closure nor complete answers. In fact, I don’t think Garland would have been happy if there were pat answers to it all. And while this is a major studio release, it has much more of a sense of an indie to it. Despite a budget almost 50 times that of his previous film, Garland clearly told the story his way. Sadly, that is also going to cost him and the flick at the box office, but hopefully it will eventually find its audience and its place. It is a gorgeously filmed piece and with enough meat to make multiple viewings both desirable and enjoyable; assuming, of course, you’re there for the story and not just looking for empty entertainment and action.

As a final sort of spoilerish (but not much) comment, the ending goes off into 2001 land by way of a particular puzzle in the first Tomb Raider game. Given the set up and explanations, the choices are all fair, but I have to admit the imagery rang in my brain a bit more than I’d have liked it to at the climax. Regardless, I still think it was worth my time and that Garland has an interesting career ahead of him.

Annihilation

Loving Vincent

[3 stars]

Have you ever wanted to fall into a painting and see what the world was like in there? Loving Vincent, whose title serves both as the core sense of the film and comes from the artist’s own epigram, does just that. Using van Gogh’s style, an army of artists hand painted each frame making it feel like you’re in his world. The result is somewhere between stop-action and traditional animation, evoking Aleksandr Petrov or even early Takahata and Miyazaki.

But the story itself isn’t what you likely anticipate given that description. Unexpectedly, this Oscar contender kicks off a year after van Gogh’s death; an event most of us grew up thinking we understood. It was suicide, wasn’t it? Turns out there is a story there to be told. Douglas Booth (Limehouse Golem) is the man trying to ferret out the truth, at first reluctantly, and eventually with solid obsession and a large collection of characters to interview.

Among the notable supporting cast: Chris O’Dowd (The Cloverfield Paradox), Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), Helen McCrory (Their Finest),  Aidan Turner (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Being Human), John Sessions (The Loch), and Jerome Flynn (Ripper Street, Game of Thrones). Due to the techniques of the film, the actors are more than just voices in this story. All of the actors are recognizable, their images painted over to fit into the atmosphere.

This amazing cast, listed and unlisted, are also part of the issues with the film. Though each looks a lot like the real-world counterparts in Vincent’s world, the rotoscoping is a little distracting. The style of the film, which uses overlays and masks to create the style at times, can also be a bit hard to focus on as it flows across the screen. It brings to life van Gogh, making his static indication of vibrancy real, but what worked in static can feel over amplified in constant motion. Still, the overall effect and story are fascinating and clearly a true labor of love.

Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman directed and co-wrote this odd historical along with Jacek Dehnel. For all involved this was an early contribution to feature film and a heck of a leap of art to try. While it deserves its place among the Oscar notables this year, it isn’t likely to win more than the honor of nomination. However, I am very curious to see what this trio (or individuals) attack next. It took a very creative brain to recognize there was a movie here, and to conceive of way to tell it that would capture audiences in a new way. Make time for Vincent…it is truly unexpected.

Loving Vincent

mother!

[2 stars]

Straight up, I am a Darren Aronofsky (Noah) fan and have been since Pi. His narratives are almost always complex and unexpected. Certainly mother! is anything but straightforward. Oddly, though, it isn’t anything new or unexpected either. And it certainly didn’t land with most audiences.

From the outset of the film, you know there is something off. First there is the apparent rollback in time from a disaster. Then there is the odd tension between Jennifer Lawrence (Passengers) and Javier Bardem (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) which just isn’t quite natural. By the time Ed Harris (Geostorm) and Michelle Pfeiffer show up, it is clear this isn’t reality, or isn’t being viewed from clear eyes. Domhnall Gleeson (The Revenant) makes a solid appearance as well to help seal the deal.

If you insist on still seeing the story as reality at any level after that point, it is no wonder that you would hate the film. Honestly, I was willing to go along for the ride, but in a year that included similar themes, like the more recent Phantom Thread, I was looking for something new, not just visually surprising.

Aronofsky has created a very personal vision and tale of his favorite themes: art, love, and religion/spirituality. But ultimately it is about a half hour too long to sustain the story and audience interest. After the first 90 minutes, you want answers, not more outrageous and infuriating situations. I appreciate he wanted to slow burn to the climax, but he asked too much from his audience; he never really fully earns our trust, providing no answers, only mystery and weirdness upon strangeness and offkey oddity. He has always been great skirting the edge of reality, as in Black Swan, to lead to a point. Here, however, the end result here is more the feeling of a surrealist play that is weird for weirdness’ sake alone rather than a cohesive movie. By the way, achieving that play-like presentation and pulling us along inexorably while staying true to the media is no small feat in itself.

I truly admire the craft and acting in the film, even if I disliked the result; it doesn’t feel satisfying in the end. After his last film, I was worried Aronofsky would try to stay more mainstream…I suspect he feared the same and veered way off the track to try and prove he wouldn’t both to audiences and, more importantly, to himself. The result is mother! Now that he’s made his point, I hope he will find his path again. He is a gifted film maker, but this isn’t his best onscreen musing.

Mother!

The Limehouse Golem

[4 stars]

Limehouse is a tense and complicated period mystery; a wonderful, precise, dark gem of a movie.

Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) leads this twisting tale with character-appropriate confidence and acting ability. By her side, Bill Nighy (Their Finest) pulls at the threads of his open case and imagines the possibilities in an effort to solve the murders and save the girl in 1880 London. Sprinkled within the fictional are real-life characters who were in the Limehouse at this time in history, which adds some sense of reality to the tapestry of the film world.

Central to the story in tale and geography is a music hall dominated by Douglas Booth (Jupiter Ascending). His character, even from the wings (as it were), is an overshadowing presence that has him driving the film in his own right, even getting the opening and closing frames. Additionally, Sam Reid (2:22), and María Valverde (Exodus: Gods and Kings) play integral, if slightly less layered roles.

Two smaller characters are given quiet life by Daniel Mays (Against the Law) and Eddie Marsan (Atomic Blonde). These two actors are always great at making the most of small moments and minimal dialogue, and this movie is no exception.

One of the best parts of this film is the script, which has a strong female lead and an unconventional narrative. Jane Goldman (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) was on task to adapt this script from Peter Ackroyd’s book; the title of which is variously The Limehouse Golem, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (a reference to Booth’s character), and The Trial of Elizabeth Cree (a reference to Cooke’s character). That it has existed with so many different titles gives you a sense of how much she had her work cut out for her. With Goldman’s history of delivering some of the most delightfully odd films of the last 20 years, she was a perfect choice to tackle this project. And director Juan Carlos Medina showed himself well with this Sophomore feature as it bounced between different themes, plots, and timelines.

Make time for this mystery. It will keep your brain going and engage you from the moment it begins. And while the surface story is wonderful, it is only one of the layers of this film, and only one of the ways to approach your understanding of the movie which is dense in meaning and language, making it eminently rewatchable.

The Limehouse Golem