Tag Archives: Mystery

Dark

[4 stars]

What would happen if Stranger Things collided with the last couple of seasons of Lost? Well, you’d get something like Dark.

This show takes some work follow, especially with the added challenge of subtitles (if you watch in its original German; and why wouldn’t you?). The story is incredibly complicated and slowly revealed over its 10 parts. Part of the fun of the story is trying to get ahead of it and only occasionally succeeding. But Dark is also aware and unapologetic about the challenge of the story, even providing guidance to help viewers. Some of that comes as some classroom teaching via the teens in the series, other assistance comes as voice over, and still more as allusion or as split-screen explanations.

But all the effort is worth it. I say this even admitting it is based on some of the worst kind of science fiction. What saves it is very clever plotting and structure and solid acting across the board.

One of the things that makes limited series so much better, typically, than the more standard American 20+ episode approach is that a limited series (or season) can be fully and carefully crafted; even over multiple arcs with less time pressure and more craft. And, while this is an example of that advantage, the series inevitably allows itself an escape hatch into series two. As long as there is a series two, I’m OK with that. However, too many shows do that with the hope of garnering enough outcry and interest to get renewed, when what really works isn’t so much open ended plot points as really good writing.

At the time of this writing, Netflix has yet to commit to the follow-up, but interest in the show points to a renewal. Give it a shot even without the commit, if you haven’t already.

Dark

Wind River

[3.5 stars]

Earlier this year, Wind River was seen as a hands-down awards winner.  Taylor Sheridan, writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, also gets behind the camera for this film. He delivers another intense script of a murder on an Indian reservation.

Jeremy Renner (Arrival) dials back his action-boy push to return back to his Hurt Locker roots. He is focused, quiet, and emotionally primed, but kept in check as he pursues his goals. Elizabeth Olsen (Avengers: Age of Ultron) also gives a great performance of a young FBI officer, not incompetent, but certainly unseasoned. Gil Birmingham (The Lone Ranger) is the other impactful surprise in the story. As a bereaved father, and mirror for Renner, he swings between strength and devastation in heart-breaking ways.

Wind River did capture a number of earlier festivals. But it has hit some bumps in the road having released so early in the year and with a number of other great films just starting to screen. It also is bucking the trend of naturalism I’ve been seeing on the screen. Wind River is very well crafted, but it feels that way too, especially by the final act. That doesn’t make it bad, by any means. It has incredible impact, though it does feel like Sheridan lost a little bit of his careful control during the climax of the film. But its competitors are large ideas and impact in smaller packages; more real life than screen life. What makes Wind River swim comfortably with these other films is the quality of its writing, acting, cinematography, and the reality that it is based on the truth. That last bit will leave you feeling hollow and ashamed by the final credits, and it should.

Wind River

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

[4 stars]

Awards season is off to a heck of a start, if Lady Bird and this film are any indication. Both are solid depictions of life with incredible casts and great film-making. In this case, writer/director Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges) delicately balances a challenging story without devolving into melodrama or nihilism. He creates a real world, painted mostly in grays, that doesn’t drown in its own bile; there is humor in the dark and there is truth in the extreme. In fact, it is a story that probably has come out at the right time to find its audience.

The movie is also a brilliant platform for Frances McDormand (Hail, Caesar!). She delivers an amazing performance in a long career of strong, put-upon women. Despite many of her characters coming from the same bucket, McDormand continues to find unique ways to bring these people to life. And, as is often the case, she dominates the film.

But McDormand is not alone in delivering. There is a solid ensemble around her navigating a complicated set of creations. Woody Harrelson (The Glass Castle) tops that group. In recent years his characters have been getting more nuanced, and Chief Willoughby may top them all. If it weren’t for McDormand’s incredible presence, he might have easily taken over the film himself. Sam Rockwell (Laggies) also delivers one of his career finest. It isn’t perfect, but he manages a journey for the character that is unexpected and, for the most part, earned.

There is also a series of smaller, but essential roles. Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out), Abbie Cornish (Robocop), Zeljko Ivanek (Madam Secretary), and Peter Dinklage (Rememory) each bring colors to the story. Every one of them gets at least a moment to shine and something new for their reels without detracting from the main story. And then there is Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird, Manchester by the Sea) who is having a really great couple of years in terms of projects and who keeps growing as an actor.

Three Billboards is a challenging story, no matter how you slice it. It forces you to considerable unanswerable questions and unthinkable acts. But whether you appreciate the bones of the story or not, it is worth seeing it for the performances alone. It is, in fact, only the end and a little (a very little) of Rockwell’s performance that has me knocking a bit off my rating. Because of these aspects, the film isn’t quite perfect but, damn, it is visually stunning, emotionally powerful, and at a level of intelligence that is usually avoided.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Strike

[3 stars]

The Robert Galbraith (better known as JK Rowling) Cormoran Strike detective series has enjoyed a good deal of notice in the UK, though less so in the US. It is an engaging series with likeable characters who have interesting quirks; just what you’d love in a BBC/HBO mystery.  And this adaptation is definitely worth some time investment thanks to some clever writing and even cleverer hand waving to avoid issues.

Led by Tom Burke (Musketeers) in the lead role with Holliday Grainger (The Borgias) as his second, the stories are complicated and entertaining all at once thanks to their interactions. There is also a nice path to grow both of their stories separately and together.

The series is launched with two tales, The three-part Cuckoo’s Calling, and the two-part The Silkworm. A third story, Career of Evil, has yet to be scheduled or released anywhere, but I am looking forward to see where the characters go. The initial mystery is nicely twisty and fun to follow as is the relationship of Strike and Robin. The second installment is an interesting concept but, frankly, very hard to follow. Compressing the complicated mystery with so many characters into two episodes did it no favors. However, it is really about the solidifying of the detective agency dynamic, and that takes the fore.

Police procedurals are always tempting to write, but a bear to get correct. Anything that is off in terms of evidence gathering, interviewing, court room process, or even jailhouse interaction can blow the credibility out of the water. Making the lead a PI rather than a cop (though he is an ex-cop, and ex-military) was a smart move by Rowling and provides a lot more leeway in action and story. Strike is entertaining and reasonably credible with characters you’ll want to learn more about and root for.

Strike Poster

Rellik

[3 stars]

We’ve all seen stories told in reverse before, but you’ve never seen anything quite like Rellik. It sustains the trope for 5 of the six episodes in its story (5 of the 6 hours) and keeps working its way backwards in varying increments to reveal the surprises. I still got well ahead of it, but that didn’t really matter because the reverse telling keeps you off balance. Your sense of narrative is totally mucked because you keep trying to think forward but are going backward. Honestly, it was a lot of work and probably drawn out too long. Still, it had quite the list of revelations to play with, though it certainly lost track of some folks as they became unimportant in the past (a flaw in the design since they become important again in the future).

The writers, who also created The Missing, played fast and loose with medical and police matters. But as a mystery and and a police suspense, it kept my attention despite any missteps.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the performances as, again, we watch them devolve rather than evolve. In particular, Richard Dormer (Fortitude) felt wrong going in this direction while Jodi Balfour (Primeval: New World) managed to stay in focus for me. Rosalind Eleazar also manages a rather interesting and creepy character for the run.

It isn’t a perfect mystery/suspense, but it is somewhat unique if you can deal with the effort. Sometimes “new” is enough. Certainly the gaps weren’t with the performers or director. Any weak choices for me came from the script, especially the forced denoument of discovering the killer’s identity with such hand-wavy tech that I actually threw insults at the screen and then got on with it. It certainly isn’t the first show to go with an easy answer because they watch too much CSI, and it won’t be the last. It wasn’t enough to spoil the trip which, in the end, is all that mattered.

Rellik

Pinky Beauty Parlour

[3 stars]

This one will surprise you. It has a rocky start and is oddly constructed, but it unfolds and builds on itself. In fact, it sells itself through to the last line by keeping you guessing what happened right up till near the end. As director and writer, Akshay Singh tackled a rather complex piece for his first time behind the camera. And, to top it off, he plays a crucial role in front of it as well.

A few days ago I saw Water, which tackled a different set of cultural issues in India’s past. Pinky assaults modern issues in a present day India through drama and humor. Though to call this a comedy is to confuse Shakespeare’s clowns in any of his tragedies for the main point of the story. For all its silliness, the points to be made are rather strong.

Pinky is is definitely a low-budget effort, but it is done with heart and a lot more talent than is immediately evident. Give it time if you enjoy films from the region; it definitely has a Bollywood vibe. However, the structure of the story is different than you might expect and the result is more than just a resolution to the romance and plot. Do be warned that the subtitles are horrible translations much of the time. Unless you speak Urdu, you will need to do some quick rewrites in your head throughout for grammar and word choice. It isn’t unwatchable on that count at all, but it was frustrating on occasion.

Pinky Beauty Parlour Poster

Happy Accidents

[3.5 stars]

One of the joys of this film is that it plays directly into the need for love to matter. Yes, I’ve already admitted I’m a hopeless romantic, so that is going to play well for me. Also, it has a great deal of sadly accurate fun with NYC dating and living.

Marissa Tomei (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Vincent D’Onofrio (Emerald City) make the unlikeliest of pairs, but they make it work. You believe in the ineffable attraction and the unbridled passion that drives the two of them together, even if you don’t understand it. Both players have complicated histories and manage that rough hulled vulnerability that they are known for.

There are some great supporting roles as well. Holland Taylor (D.E.B.S.) does something just a bit different for her typical characters. And Nadia Dajani gets to do a bit more than here typical TV supporting roles. But, as Tomei’s mother, it was Tovah Feldshuh who really got to make an impact, with very little screen time; she is a wonderful study in restraint.

Writer/director Brad Anderson (The Call) is no stranger to the odd. His previous Next Stop Wonderland and The Machinist each have elements you can see him developing further with this offering. While Anderson spends most of his time on TV projects, his screen projects always seem to hit a decent mark. He loves his characters, which saves them, or at least redeems them in some way, for us regardless of their circumstances.

Happy Accidents is one of those curl-up-on-the-couch films with someone to enjoy the ride and message. It isn’t a simple and easy romance, but it has its impact and some good performances from actors earlier in their careers. It also gives you a chance to see a new and different facet of Anderson’s work.

Happy Accidents

The Loch, Dark and Fearless

This is a collection of three new series from the UK. All three are rather intense, but all boast strong female leads and nicely complex mysteries.

The Loch [3 stars]
A serial murder mystery set in the fictional community of Lochnafoy, on the shores of Loch Ness. Full of interesting characters and plenty of suspects, it is the weakest writing of these three, but still very engaging. At issue is that there are just too many unlikable characters who do some really foolish things. On the other hand, the mystery is nicely complex and is peeled back well over several episodes. How you feel about the final resolution may vary. I was a left feeling it was a bit unlikely, but not entirely unsatisfied. Siobhan Finneran (Happy Valley) and Laura Fraser (The Missing) are the driving female presences, balancing each other well. And there is a whole town of recognizable and new faces to enjoy as the bodies pile up and the detectives focus in on their perpetrator.

In the Dark [3 stars]
The shortest of the three series in this post (it is only two, two episode stories) it is also one of the slowest to reveal its character secrets, though less-so on the suspects. Its lead, MyAnna Buring (Lesbian Vampire Killers), just off the series wrap of Ripper Street, is transformed into an entirely different woman. If aspects of her face weren’t so distinct, I don’t think I’d have even realized who it was. The mysteries themselves are solid BBC style guessing games of possibilities. The first episode is a stronger story than the second, but both build on Buring’s character and set her up as a driven and strong detective, if not a bit reckless. She is supported by a range of recognizable men in her life, some in decidedly different roles than usual. How they go forward I’m not entirely sure, but I’d go back to see more if they make them.

Fearless [4 stars]
In some ways, this is the darkest of the three tales because it is such a reflection of our times and so close to the bigger realities. It spins around the political tides of public fear, war, and espionage even while the main plot is highly personal. It is definitely the strongest of the three on offer thanks to its writing and cast. Helen McCrory (A Little Chaos) is the primary driver in this unsettling, but likely to be more common theme, of terrorism and bad government actors (particularly the US) given today’s politics. She is joined by Wunmi Mosaku (In the Flesh) and Robin Weigert (Pawn Sacrifice). Each is a true-believer in their areas and has varying degrees of integrity based on those beliefs. What lines they will cross is part of the tale to tell. There is also a host of men it was good to see, starting with Michael Gambon (The Casual Vacancy), Jamie Bamber (Marcella), and, finally, Alec Newman who had been doing mostly voice overs for the last while. The story holds its tension from the first to the last and resolves in a believable and complete way. I am hopeful that we’ll see another mystery down the road for McCrory’s character. She is set up as an icon of public justice, which not only has a huge well to draw from, but is a much needed sensibility in today’s world.

The Loch Poster In the Dark Poster Fearless Poster

Rememory

[3 stars] Rememory is an interesting, true classic science fiction tale. By that I mean it tackles the human condition with the technology and tale as metaphor. It isn’t brilliant; there are a number of glossed aspects to the plot in order to keep the story small and the budget low. However, the main thrust of the story is intriguing and the layered mystery is enough to keep it driving forward. Even when you get ahead of it, the point isn’t the mystery but the effect of the resolution, so it continues to work through to the end.

As an early film by director and co-writer (along with playwright Mike VukadinovichMark Palansky, it shows interesting promise for the future. While remaining genre, the focus was on the characters and their struggles.

Peter Dinklage (The Boss) drives the story well. He navigates a complex personal story while acting as amateur detective. The latter aspect is a bit forced, particularly in his ability to succeed, but the motivation and raw emotional energy he uses to drive it cover the gaps nicely. 

Dinklage has a broad cast of characters to contend with. Evelyne Brochu (Orphan Black) and Julia Ormond (Witches of East End) probably have the most nuanced roles. Henry Ian Cusick (The 100) and Martin Donovan (Ant-Man) are a bit more cardboard in their depictions, likely for plot reasons, though I think they could have done better. But the odd specter hanging over this film is Anton Yelchin (Star Trek Beyond). This, near as I can tell, will be his last film to be released. It again reminds us what a senseless loss his death was. Yelchin’s ability to expose a raw personal landscape, even in the smallest of roles, is impressive.

Rememory isn’t going to land on your top 10 list. It is a good, solid indie film that is a bit shy of big-screen worthy (which would explain why it is premiering on Google Play in advance of a small theatrical release). But the ideas, story, and the acting make it worth the time investment. Certainly the chance to see the start of some careers alone makes it interesting.

Rememory

Top of the Lake: China Girl

[3 stars] The first round of Top of the Lake felt like a forced update of Twin Peaks; a bit less surreality but plenty of odd characters, strange speeches, and meandering plot. It was interesting, but not great. At least not to my mind. But the complexity of Elisabeth Moss’s (High-Rise) character was intriguing and I was curious to see where they might take her.

This second series returns Moss’s character to Sydney and approaches the story with a lot more realism. It takes a lot of the bits of the first series, in idea, and transposes them into more believable situations. It is still stretched in credibility, but a lot less obtuse in its plot and intention. For instance, the impenetrable Holly Hunter philosophy is mutated onto the differently twisted David Dencik (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Analogs to other characters can be found in Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones), Alice Englert (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell), and Ewen Leslie. In particular, the broken creepiness of Nicole Kidman (Lion), who embraced her ugly role with abandon, is great fun. But the point isn’t to compare the two series too closely, only to highlight that the creators learned some lessons and built on them.

The series still loses its way about half way through, forgetting Moss is a police detective and focusing on the more soap opera aspects of the story. You get the feeling through the second half that if she’d just been doing her job finding the murderer, fewer bad things would happen. It still manages to keep up a good head of steam through to the end, and provides the opportunity for more stories to come. My hope is that they get someone on the team that understands police procedurals, which would really up the value and believability of the stories.

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