Tag Archives: Mystery

Identicals

I don’t mind weird, but I need a little bit of conclusion with my weird to make it pay off. This really didn’t have that.

Simon Pummell’s first fiction feature has the makings of something intriguing and the trappings of a solid, hard science fiction tale, but lacks answers as it spins out the story. It certainly was visually interesting, though his accompanying script was either cleverly minimal or purposely obtuse. The overall result was…head-scratching.

The film is driven by three main actors, of which Nora-Jane Noone (Brooklyn) is the only one who turns in any kind of performance. It isn’t a brilliant performance, but it has levels and change to it. The two main men, Nick Blood (Bletchley Circle, Agents of SHIELD) and Lachlan Nieboer (Charlie Countryman) are wooden at best and never particularly sympathetic. On the other hand, Tony Way (Edge of Tomorrow) turns in a bit performance that lights up the screen briefly.

Ultimately, this story is either hard sf or purely an allegory about inner struggles. It could be both in better hands, but neither manages to come together. Honestly, save yourself the time unless you really like experimental film that leaves you hanging. Mind you, I don’t think this was intended as experimental. I think Pumell over-cut or under-shot to make his point and got left with a movie without meaning.

Identicals

A Cure for Wellness

A Cure for Wellness has many layers and is definitely not for everyone. It isn’t a great movie, but it is worth seeing.

It is, at its core, a suspense/horror film very much in the vein of Frankenstein and Dracula, even a dash of Phantom of the Opera. But it isn’t a B-grade flick nor is it histrionic or intended to get you with cheap scares.

Balancing the classic influences, there are also nods to Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch and Kubrik’s Eyes Wide Shut. For the former, it is the thin veneer of reality and matter-of-fact absurdity of what is going on, as well as some of the sense of the imagery. From the latter, it is the use of a simple, repeating musical theme and, particularly near the end, a sequence that echos Eyes and a load of Argento and other films from the 70s including Rosemary’s Baby, The Wicker Man, and others.

Visually, the film is full of gorgeous cinematography by Bazelli. The composition and clarity of the shots will make you want to pause every few moments to really examine the detail and relationship of the various objects. It is painterly in its execution, but always in support of the story.

The story itself is somewhat obvious, but what is reality is somewhat not. There are clues, but it is ultimately contradictory, and the ending is nebulous at best. And yet, somehow this gorgeous, Gothic, mental trip to the Swiss Alps is mesmerizing, even with a 2.5 hour run. The whole is, somehow, more than its parts.

There are several nice, small performances, but are only three main roles that form the framework of the movie. Dean DeHaan (Valerian) as the lead isn’t any more likable than he is in other roles, but he has a bit more energy. Generally, I’m finding DeHaan to always have a cool distance; an odd disconnect between his voice and his physical movement that removes you from caring about him. It can be very effective when you aren’t intended to like him, but it makes it hard to even care about what happens to him.

On the other hand, Jason Isaacs (The OA) is wonderfully creepy. He rides the line between care and conspiring beautifully. And Mia Goth (Everest) is practically ephemeral, going through her inevitable changes in a controlled and believable progression. You can see why DeHaan is drawn to her, why anyone would be. And yet she also manages to have a layer of both innocence and poisonousness lurking beneath her surface, like a toxic flower.

As I suggested, the end feels like it could be read in many ways. It is a strong choice, but not a clear one. And I say this despite one of the characters providing an explicit meaning to the title and their philosophy…I just don’t think it covered all that was going on nor the last image. Honestly, I’m still not sure what I think the entire intent was, and that’s somewhat OK because I’ve plenty to chew on.

Director Gore Verbinski and writer Justin Haythe reteamed for this production after their somewhat confused and misfire of The Lone Ranger. Bazelli returned behind the camera again as well. Seeing their efforts in an unfettered venue, absent any expectations, gives me a much better sense of their creative scope. While the end-result is a little baffling, it is a ride I willingly took and continue to think about. Make time for this when you’re in a mood for something darkly beautiful but very different.

A Cure for Wellness

Mindfulness and Murder (Sop-mai-ngeap)

Imagine a modern Brother Cadfael in Bangkok and you have an idea of what you’re in for. It isn’t quite as good, but it probably isn’t what you’re expecting either. While the monastery in both series appears to have much going on under the surface, there is an earnestness to Cadfael that this modern Buddhist temple has had to shed in order to survive and serve its purpose. It is also less about the intellectual pursuits of our main Father, Ananda played by Vithaya Pansringarm (Mechanic: Resurrection) then it is his background as a ex-detective.

Sadly, this appears to have been the only story adapted in the series. It could have been interesting to see what came next.

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Get Out

Wow. Just, wow.

Probably the best horror film I’ve seen in ages. It has only one open question (resolved about 2/3 through) and one surprise; it derives its horror from how real it all feels. It is honest and rarely keeps you waiting when you’ve gotten ahead of it. That allows you to feel the tension of Daniel Kaluuya’s (Sicario) character to the fullest. He never comes off as dumb. He unpuzzles the plot as fast as the audience and acts. Part of what makes it so scary is the feeling that he really can’t avoid the inevitable. It is a powerful and compelling performance.

Helping that along are some equally solid performances by Bradley Whitford (Saving Mr. Banks) and Allison Williams (Girls). The rest of the family is a bit less believable with Catherine Keener (Begin Again) being marginal, but intriguing, and Caleb Landry Jones (Stonewall) just feeling out of control. I think that was writer and first-time director Jordan Peele’s intent, but I wish he had reined it in more to keep it just a bit less obvious.

However, as the horror of the situation unfolds, we are swept along. It is uncomfortable and frustrating, embarrassing and angering. And, yes, pretty terrifying, but not in a monster-going-to-eat-your-face way, but more in a this-feels-almost-like-it-could-happen way. It makes Peele a great choice for the upcoming series adaptation of Lovecraft Country, which also has to walk that line. (Also a book I highly recommend.)

But Get Out goes beyond just the typical horror movie/teen angst level. There is a sociological aspect to this movie. It will be taught in years to come in universities and high schools by those brave enough to do so. The resonance of the tale, both as personal nightmare and social commentary is loud and disturbingly clear.

If this had released even 8 years ago (maybe less), it would have felt like propaganda or blaxploitation. In today’s times of stress and fear it comes across more as object lesson and metaphor. What is white privilege? What is it to abandon your own culture or have it co-opted? We get a complete spectrum of the latter with LilRel Howery (Carmichael Show) at one extreme end, Kaluuya as a middle ground, and Lakeith Stanfield (War Machine) at the far extreme end, with two painful touch-points by Marcus Henderson (Pete’s Dragon) and Betty Gabriel (Good Girls Revolt) as the family help. It isn’t, of course, that straight forward, but from an academic standpoint it is ripe for debate and examination. Add to it the realities of the plot itself, once revealed, and it is even more powerful.

This film had a huge reception in theaters, earning $250M worldwide. And while $$s aren’t always the best way to judge a film, in this case it is a great measure of the chord it struck. This isn’t an easy film to watch, but it is well done, well conceived. Like Hell or High Water, it is a movie of its time, though with frankly much more meat to the bone. If you somehow missed Get Out, make time for it. It is a great ride that also happens to comes with a message. If nothing else, it is guaranteed to start a conversation.

Get Out

Cardinal

Apparently, the new Norwegian substitute is Northern Canada. In this case, north of Toronto. Like Bellevue, Cardinal is a serial murder procedural in the thinly populated, icy north of Canada. Billy Campbell (Helix) and Karine Vanasse (Revenge) deliver nicely conflicted detectives in the introductory series (based on Forty Words for Sorrow) to what could be a good run of stories to come.

It is a dark tale, and a tad graphic, but all in service to understanding the characters. A good part of that darkness, and its effectiveness, is down to Brendan Fletcher (The Revenant), who has a ridiculously long cv for his career. Along with Allie MacDonald (Stories We Tell), the two are a twisted pair who we can’t help but want to watch, even if we don’t root for them.

Originally aired on CBC, it appears to be difficult to find, so the best I can say is watch for it when it airs elsewhere (and it will).

Cardinal Poster

A Dragon Arrives! (Ejdeha Vared Mishavad!)

To be honest, I haven’t an f’ing clue what this movie is about. But it was fun trying to unpuzzle it, and it is a hypnotic bit of storytelling, except when it wants to slap you in the face.

This is one of the joys and issues with film festivals: you gamble. Based on the description on the site I was expecting a Persian mashup of a film that could have been made by Stephen Chow.

Police Inspector Hafizi wakes up on a desert island and must piece together the puzzle of his abduction while working a murder case in this delightfully unconventional and entertaining Iranian mashup of gumshoe noir and phantasmagorical ghost story.

OK, noir, sort of, unconventional for sure, but entertaining was a poor choice of words and they have the setup considerably wrong. Despite that mismatch, it is captivating, though uneven in its flow. It is also more, I think, a political allegory than it is a ghost story, but I’m making a huge guess. Writer/director Mani Haghighi (Men at Work) has a strong viewpoint as a film maker. He certainly is willing to tackle challenging narrative. Where I think this falters a little is in translation. There are some cultural assumptions that left me in the dust. Either that or there really were bigger gaps in his film making than I realize.

As I said, you gamble at film festivals. This one got my attention and I’m certainly not sorry I went to see it; I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to be exposed to it otherwise. And it certainly has put me on a path to research a number of historical incidents and Iranian culture to see if I’m right in my ultimate parsing of the tale (particularly the ending).  It’s good to bend your brain, particularly these days when we get such an homogenized view of the world through bigger media as they try  package items for everyone rather than have strong points of view or too specific affinities for a region.

A Dragon Arrives! Poster

Prime Suspect (1973)

Dame Helen Mirren (Collateral Beauty) cemented Jane Tennison as one of the bedrocks of British mystery, and one of the strongest and most complicated women to make it to screen. You cannot think of Jane Tennison without thinking of Helen Mirren in that role. The show had a much vaunted 7 series run (1991-2006) that still enjoys reairs today.

But how did Tennison become the ballsy, broken, insightful DS we bade farewell to 11 years ago? Since 2006 several other unforgettable detectives have been given the prequel treatment. Endeavour and Young Montalbano come immediately to mind as especially successful forays into that territory.  These shows provide(d) both a continuation of series when the original show either had no where to go or when the original actor was no longer available, and an opportunity to understand the characters in a new way. We love their quirks (good and bad), but rarely know how they came about. For instance, Morse’s love of Opera, Montalbano’s love of seafood, and, of course, their love lives and tendency to drink.

Tennison was definitely ripe for this treatment. However, while the casting physically wasn’t bad, with Stefani Martini (Emerald City) in the lead role, the writing by series creator, Lynda La Plante, and Glen Laker just wasn’t as complex and solid as their competition. Had this series come out five years ago, I think I would have been much more impressed. But what the other two examples manage, and which this missed, was the steady building up of the character we know. Every episode of Endeavour, for instance, adds one of his traits or clearly leads to it.

Compounding my frustration with the series, I just couldn’t see Tennison in Martini. Even by the end of the 6 episode arc, there is only the barest hint of the Tennison we followed for over a decade. Whether that issue should be laid at the feet of Martini (lack of research?) or director Caffrey, I can’t be sure, but the fault doesn’t matter so much as the effect. What I got was a good mystery, but not so much a peek into the driving formation of Tennison herself. Or, not as much as I’d have hoped over 6 episodes.

I am willing to give them another bite at the apple on this one. The story of this particular series was interesting. The cast solid, especially with Alun Armstrong (The Hollow Crown), Jessica Gunning (Pride), and slew of other recognizable faces. It isn’t bad and there is definitely potential and room for growth. I would hope they would look around and realize that these kinds of shows require something just a bit different than the typical Brit mystery. They have a legacy to support and an audience to re-engage.

I have to say that with all these prequel and existing series running, I now have a dream to have a cross-over that starts with Endeavour, goes to Prime Suspect, then into George Gently, and finally ends, years later, as a cold case for Vera. For fun, you could involve Montalbano somewhere in the Gently cycle as I think they’d overlap by the next Gently series. As long as each kept their own sensibility, it could be a fabulous romp. If you really want to go crazy you could bring in a few of the longer running, cozy mystery series as well, but I think that would shatter the illusion of a single world.

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The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos)

Sometimes you just miss a great movie when it comes out and have to play catch-up. In 2009, Juan José Campanella (Underdogs) broke out of his TV mold for a brief moment to deliver this quietly intense mystery/suspense romance that swept up awards worldwide. It is a highly complex story, playing with layers of fiction and reality across two time periods in a group of people’s lives. But it all comes together seamlessly and beautifully allowing each aspect of the story room to breath.

The tale is driven primarily by four players: Ricardo Darín (XXY), Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago (Underdogs), and Guillermo Francella. One of the truely brilliant aspects of the film is watching the characters between the two time frames. They mature as well as visibly change in wonderfully subtle ways. The make-up is pretty amazing, but it is the actors and director that sell the shift. 

If you missed this, like I had, make time for it. It is really a solid film and story. If you are familiar with Argentine or Italian police procedurals, it will help (there are some significant differences with the US), but it isn’t required. This is primarily about the characters who are swept up in a decades-spanning case that haunts each of their lives in different ways.

The Secret in Their Eyes

Sherlock (series 4)

Sherlock has had the benefit, and occasional curse, to be run by the same team from the get-go. Moffat (Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio) and Gatiss (Worried About the Boy) brought their intellects and adoration of Doyle’s collection together to create a classic. Yes, I’m ignoring the mistake that was The Abominable Bride. As lynch-pin as Bride is to the tale, it is the weakest and most annoying of the series episodes as it was simply done to write them out of a very tight place they’d left themselves in at the end of series 3 and was too cute and transparent for me.

The final 3 episodes of Sherlock were the typical whirlwind at the top, but as they move on there is space to breathe. You can feel it all coming to an end like a heart slowing down. That isn’t meant negatively…. one of my biggest frustrations with the show is the unrelenting break-neck pace it often sets; we never get to enjoy anything because to savor anything means to miss the next bit of information or action. These final episodes, however, are built upon the foundation of the characters that Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange) and Martin Freeman (Captain America: Civil War) created and nurtured.

Mind you, the recurring cast of Una Stubbs, Rupert Graves (Last Tango in Halifax), Amanda Abbington (Mr Selfridge), Louise Brealey (Ripper Street) and, again, Mark Gatiss complete the world and provide the necessary sounding boards. One of the interesting changes this season was the guest stars in each episode. Marcia Warren (Vicious) and Lindsay Duncan (About Time) in the first, Toby Jones (Witness for the Prosecution) in the second, and Sian Brook primarily in the third. And, of course, Andrew Scott (Victor Frankenstein) gets his farewell (again) as well. While the previous series shows each had stories and arcs, they didn’t really have nemeses on an episodic basis. This rhythm was new.

And yet, it all comes back to the beginning, in a wonderful and twisted way. This final run of three managed to echo everything that came before and take it somewhere new and unexpected. The result is a wonderful piece of entertainment and construction and a near perfect ending. There could be more, but it isn’t needed and, honestly, it would feel forced after the self-supporting, closed loop that Gatiss and Moffat delivered.

A bit of a post-script.

Finales are fascinating things. They tell you a lot about a show’s creator (assuming they are still involved at the end) and about the show itself. Series themselves can serve many purposes. Most are there to fill 30-60 min a week as a distraction and a reason to sell you things. It is what TV entertainment is all about: to keep you watching so that the advertisers can get a few moments with you. With the advent of pay TV and VOD, that has shifted a little. Now we pay for content more directly as well, and we expect, well, not much more that we did before, it appears, if you look at what is being produced. But I digress; this was to be about finales.

Series finales are amongst the hardest scripts to write. They have to, when done well, wrap up potentially years of action, story, and character growth, giving meaning to it all and leaving us feeling a sense of completion. More and more (good) writers have learned how to arc their seasons so there are, if not stopping-points, at least pause-points that provide completion and suggest a way forward; also a good hedge against cancellation.

Series finales have to do all that and have it all make sense of our investment in them; after, at times, watching for years, we want to feel there was a good reason for having done so. This becomes even harder for a show when they’ve lasted long enough to go through multiple cast, runners, writers, and directors, where the shape of the show itself may have morphed well beyond the original vision. Not many have done it well in the past. This is where VOD and paid channel content (HBO, Netflix, Amazon, Starz, etc.) have changed the landscape. They are often creating something closer to stage plays than TV fluff; 6-13 episode runs of limited scope (rather than open-ended). From a pure craft point of view, I am finding it a welcome change with fewer loose ends and orphaned stories when a show doesn’t return.

Sherlock

The Holiday episodes

Typically, this time of year shows tend to do stand-alone specials about Christmas, harping or concentrating on the holiday in a way that is highly exclusionary to anyone who doesn’t celebrate in the same way. The effect can be to push away large sections of their viewing public.

This year, however, most shows I was following found ways to make the holiday ancillary or as pivot point for their series. Below is a sampling.

Last Tango in Halifax
A nice 2-parter and shift for the characters. I can’t imagine this isn’t setting up a longer, new series, but it is as entertaining and painful as it usually is. Centered around the holidays, it takes that pause in the year to throw together the characters, decisions, and revelations.

Doctor Who
Reviewed more deeply separately, but definitely a pivotal episode with little to hang on the holiday. A nice shift that was years in the making for the show since Moffat took over and made the first few Christmas specials odd Christmas fables rather than Doctor Who.

Sense8
A definite continuation and setup. Also more deeply discussed in a separate post. A bit more focused on the holiday and its meaning, but mainly as catalyst rather than as hammer. If there is an overall message there it is that family is what you make it, not what you’re born into. A good and worthy sentiment… just wish it had been delivered with better craft on par with the first series.

Only Father Brown in The Star of Jacob and the Grantchester Christmas Special really did a traditional tale. Given their main characters that seemed rather appropriate. But Grantchester also takes the opportunity to shift its show into a new mode in addition to focusing on the aspects and analogies you’d think would be there. Father Brown is a tad more traditional, in series and in delivery, on this one. In this case, though, it was also the first episode of its 5th series, providing a respite and celebration before going on to evolve its cast from there.