Tag Archives: Mystery

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

Cardinal: Blackfly Season (series 2)

[3 stars]

The first series for Cardinal was highly personal, very twisted and very bloody. This second series picks up the story where it left off with Billy Campbell (Modus) and Karine Vanasse (Revenge) putting their lives back together and expanding their partnership to catch killers. And, yes, this one is as gruesome as the first, though with considerably fewer unknowns.

Campbell’s story this round revolves around the return of his wife and the challenges of mental illness. Vanasse’s story is less clear this time and, frankly, rather side-lined. Overall, this felt like a transition series where the writers were trying to get the characters to a new place, but chose not to jump there. Instead, we are taking the long journey. While that works with a darker, slower-paced show like Wallander, it made this series drag a bit with a lack of energy, despite all the events.

On the wrong side of the law are two rather chilling, and very different, sociopaths embodied by Bruce Ramsay (Behind the Candleabra) and Dan Petronijevic (19-2). Unfortunately on this side of the story, though we also have Alex Paxton-Beesley (Copper) and Jonathan Keltz (Reign), there is nothing much sympathetic about any of them. The result is that we don’t invest overmuch in the outcomes. In the first series, we had characters to care about on all sides, so this was a definitely step backwards.

The series remains hard to get a hold of, but I expect it will eventually get wider distribution as it is about to go into its third series on CBC. If you like the darker suspense mysteries, this is one to add to your queue.

Cardinal Poster

Crooked House

[3 stars]

Unlike the recent Ordeal by Innocence, this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s twisted mystery is more arch, following the traditions of the previous decades. It is certainly enjoyable, but I find the newer approach to the stories to be more believable. Crooked House is still chock full of talent.

As the elderly aunt, Glenn Close (The Girl With All the Gifts) steals the movie along with the precocious Honor Kneafsey (Miss You Already) as the youngest child. The two bristle in their environment rather than feeding into it, helping them stand out. They also get some of the best lines, which doesn’t hurt.

But the story is really driven by Stephanie Martini (Prime Suspect: 1973), whose noirish debutante feels a lot like a Ruth Wilson copy, and Max Irons (Terminal), who is a marginally effective detective in well over his head. And that is part of the issue. Irons becomes the excuse for the story to occur rather than the man who picks apart the threads for the truth. He isn’t completely ineffective, but his purpose is more romantic than responsible.

Gillian Anderson (X-Files),Christina Hendricks (The Neon Demon),  and Terence Stamp (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) add some nice fun to the story in smaller roles. The rest of the cast is just as recognizable and fill in the tale.

Director and co-writer Gilles Paquet-Brenner is clearly a lover of the classic Christie mysteries, be it the TV versions or the recent remake of Murder on the Orient Express. It is all very much in the tenor of the books, though it is an approach that is starting to feel a little thread-bare and forced as culture marches on. The sensibility shouldn’t be too surprising given that one of the co-writers was Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey). However, this is still fun if you like Christie’s look at the upper-class and murder through a marginally satiric lens, and this is no exception.

Crooked House

Maps to the Stars

[2.5 stars]

I was rather rooting for this movie from about 15 minutes in. You can feel the craft and control as threads quickly begin to come together. No surprise given it is a dark fantasy by David Cronenberg (Crash). Unfortunately, the meaning and purpose all sort of drifted away by the end into the stardust it references. Perhaps I was just too dense to get the references, but even a bit of research afterwards didn’t illuminate anything obvious for me.

That said, there are some very good performances in this peek behind the surface of families and Hollywood. There really isn’t a truly sympathetic character in the cast, but there are those that are less despicable and more pathetic. However, there is no one who you can really feel good supporting or wanting to succeed, which makes the story a bit of a slog at times.

Mia Wasikowska (Alice Through the Looking Glass) is the best of the cast. She is intriguing and the most believable. The rest are all interesting to watch, but not entirely credible. Robert Pattinson (Water For Elephants) comes close, but then gets let down by the script. Julianne Moore (Maggie’s Plan) gives a brave and raw performance that is likely close to reality, but not a reality that many of us will have experienced and certainly not one that you’d support emotionally. Olivia Williams (Victoria & Abdul) and John Cusack (Chi-Raq), as bumbling parents, make a microcosm within the film that is interesting, but not much explored. Cusack does gets to explore a rather different character than his usual, which is intriguing to watch. And, finally, Evan Bird (The Killing) creates an l’enfant terrible, but without a lot of depth, only a wooden and hollow sort of desperation.

Admittedly, there are layers to this story…layers I also much admit I couldn’t uncover though it tickled my brain at the edge of understanding. Either I was trying to build patterns from chaos or I just missed the point. And, frankly, there were so many lost story opportunities to explore in the tale that it felt as surfacey as the culture it was exploring. It is also interesting to consider that this was released four years ago, before #metoo. I’m not entirely sure how reactions might differ before that boundary in culture. Within the first 5 minutes of the movie, several references are already out-of-date, not to mention nods and appearances by recognizable figures who have since died.

David Cronenberg loves crawling in the muck of people’s lives and emotions. But he is capable of good storytelling while doing so. He took Bruce Wagner’s complex script and slowly revealed its levels. But while there is a solid conclusion to the story, there isn’t a final meaning to it all. This can work when the point of the multiplicity of storylines and lack of direct connection is the intent, but not when you’ve gone to great lengths to imply a mythological or otherwise greater tale being told. It feels like a Sophomoric attempt to force meaning to come from the brain of the viewer rather than the mind of the filmmaker. Not a satisfying way to wrap your travelings through some very dark woods.

Maps to the Stars

The Little Stranger

[3.5 stars]

You never go into an adaptation of a Sarah Waters story expecting something straightforward. Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet, The Handmaiden, are all complex and layered tales of deep psychological intensity. Lenny Abrahamson (Room) understood this when he tackled directing this Gothic horror that lives comfortably alongside Remember MeTurn of the Screw, The Haunting of Hill House (its latest upcoming remake), and other deliberately paced, unsettling fare.

Abrahamson had each actor wound so tight they were always on the verge of flying to bits. Domhnall Gleeson’s (Goodbye Christopher Robin) pauses and looks each spoke volumes to his motivations and actions. Ruth Wilson (How to Talk to Girls at Parties), alternating between cornered mouse and mother bear, was also utterly transformed into something we’ve not really seen before with a new accent and even a new walk. Will Poulter (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) was a sympathetic and twisted wreck of a man, barely holding onto his sanity after the war and severe injury. And Charlotte Rampling (Red Sparrow), while the least transformed physically, was a walking wound of a bereaved mother and fallen aristocracy.

Writer Lucinda Coxon (Danish Girl) gave each of the characters beautifully trimmed sentences that were loaded with subtext, thanks to sure directing and deft acting. Unlike most Waters’ stories, this is presented primarily from a male point of view and its sense of the supernatural is quiet but very palpable. Waters often plays along this line, but in this tale it is up to the audience to decide what is really going on, at least as it is told by Coxon and Abrahamson.

This is a horror story, but it is aimed at lovers of period drama and psychological terror. It isn’t about cheap scares or buckets of gore. Because of that, it is likely to never find a wide audience despite its excellent craft and delivery. If that is the kind of story you enjoy, make time for it. If you are hoping for highly paced action and scares, move along to something else. This is a movie to absorb, contemplate, and even discuss after the credits roll.

The Little Stranger

The Happytime Murders

[3.5 stars]

This isn’t the first R-rated puppet story put out to the public. There was the brilliant Smile Time episode of Angel, Avenue Q on Broadway, and, of course Ted. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses, as does this silly and fun Brian Henson confection.

One of the things that really makes this work is that Melissa McCarthy (Life of the Party) isn’t actually the lead. Back in a supporting role capacity she adds character and her antics don’t dominate the story. The lead is Muppets veteran Bill Barretta, whose tough talking private dick hits just the right note of felt-noir to carry this all off.

There are a few supporting roles that really help as well. Maya Rudolph (Life of the Party), in particular, knew what she was in and went for it completely. Her love-lorn Bubbles is a hoot. And Elizabeth Banks (Power Rangers) had some fun with her part as well.

The world is amusing, but it never quite leaves its Muppets roots. When Angel did this, they didn’t act like puppets, they acted like, well, characters. The muppets in this tale, by plot design, are very much puppets of fluff. And the movie truly missed it opportunity to discuss prejudice in a unique and effective way, especially with McCarthy’s storyline. I will grant Henson one important directing kudos, unlike Ted, he knew when to back off a joke (most of the time).

I had fun with this, even with the “what it could have been” thoughts. It is a great end of summer escape. It is definitely unique for this year’s releases, and it is done relatively well with sense of both mystery and whimsy (even if a lot of the mystery is obvious). The first few stars are because it is a fun watch. That extra half star in my rating is for its guts to do the movie in the first place.

The Happytime Murders

Anon

[3.5 stars]

Writer/director Andrew Niccol (Good Kill) loves to look at technology and see how it will affect society and the human condition. He has looked at near-term and long-term impacts across his opus. This addition is more along the lines of his earlier Gattaca in sensibility and pacing, though not as well written. Anon ends up more thought experiment than complete world, though it is still quite worth watching.

Clive Owen (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) does a great job internalizing the tech and making it part of his portrayal. Amanda Seyfreid (While We’re Young, Mama Mia! Here We Go Again) plays the femme fatale well, but it isn’t a huge leap from her creepy turn as Chloe. The two have an interesting dance, but one of the intriguing ideas of the movie is that no one really connects, despite the complete transparency of their lives.

Even without deep emotional entanglements, the movie keeps you engaged, and the world and inside view of it are thought through nicely. The plot, however, has some holes in logic and action that did give me pause. And the full impact upon the human ability to remember and interrogate information wasn’t fully explored. It does brush up against questions of memory, evoking other recent movies like Nostalgia or Marjorie Prime.

Anon was another of the films that Netflix swept in and took shortly before its intended release window. Like Extinction, I think it worked out for the best. This film was never going to be a major hit, despite its pedigree. Netflix gives it a chance to find its audience, and probably a few more folks as well. This is a great piece of science fiction, if not a brilliant movie. It is like a good Black Mirror episode that’s been given time to breathe and grow; I mean that in a good way.

If you like intelligent science fiction or noir mysteries (or both), this is definitely worth your time to check out. Niccol is a solid director and he will leave you with something to think about as well as entertain you.

The Tunnel: Vengeance (series 3)

[4.5 stars]

Much like the recent finale of The Bridge, the creators of its spin-off, The Tunnel: Vengeance, knew this was the last visit we would have in this world. It gave them the freedom to remove all the typical boundaries and safeguards. While the two shows paralleled each other up through the end in many ways, they diverged greatly as well, each becoming distinct despite sharing the same roots.

The Bridge had only a few characters that lasted from start to finish as the consequences of its plots mounted up. The Tunnel chose to follow the same characters through all three, complex stories changing the trajectories of the interactions. But, in both cases, it is the female lead that became the fascinating center of it all, even when the story was being told from another’s point of view. In The Tunnel, that was Clémence Poésy (The Tunnel) whose Elise, though a riff on The Bridge’s Saga, was very much her own character and with her own history. While a great deal of the Tunnel is driven by her partner, Stephen Dillane (The Darkest Hour, Game of Thrones), she is the one we fall for and care about. In part that is because she is the injured and blameless one. Dillane, like his inciting counterpart in Bridge, is quite a bit more flawed. While each influences the other over the course of the series, their base natures remain the same.

Expanded roles for a number of the minor characters were welcome in this sequence as well. William Ash (The Loch) and Juliette Navis, in particular, get to expand on a complicated and often funny interaction.

The Tunnel is a rare instance of a spin-off being as good as the original and finding its own way. For its finale, it even brought in new creative talent behind the scenes, which reinvigorated the storyline without violating the feeling of it all. It is, like its origins, decidedly dark and the events and plans byzantine, to say the least. However, it is driven by humanity and by refreshingly flawed heroes. If you haven’t caught this series or its inspiration yet, do. If you’ve been following it, you won’t be disappointed by its conclusion.

The Tunnel

Spinning Man

[3 stars}

Mysteries are wonderful things and difficult to do right. This particular mystery is playing in some very high-brow territory; it is an academic’s nightmare, a philosopher’s quagmire, and an intellectual’s mind game. Simon Kaijser (Life in Squares, Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves) directs us through a mutable landscape without ever once clarifying, but never cheating us either. And worth noting is one of the most beautiful mirror shots (at  little over an hour in) I’ve ever noticed; it is totally self-conscious and totally appropriate. Matthew Aldrich’s (Coco) script is also equal to the task, keeping the dialogue decidedly collegiate but understandable and not condescending.

The cast is solid, but unexpected. Many of them are not American, despite the very midwest, Minnesota setting and present an odd assortment of characters. In the main roles, Guy Pearce (Genius), Minnie Driver (Hunky Dory), and Pierce Brosnan (The Foreigner, Mama Mia!) bring the full force of their charisma and screen power. They all also struggle with their accents at one time or another, Brosnan more than most. In the supporting roles, Alexandra Shipp (Tragedy Girls) and Odeya Rush (Lady Bird) lend a disturbing frisson to it all. And, while not a ground-breaking role for him, the appearance of Clark Gregg (Labor Day) was a fun treat.

Yes, this is a cerebral movie, and not for the feint of heart if you don’t want to think. So you have to ask yourself if you’re interested in something a bit more interactive than your typical movie before you sit down with this one. It is worth your time, despite any weaknesses. It is full of subtleties and, if you’ve ever hung out with the academic set, some very recognizable characters, interactions, and moments.

Spinning Man

Ordeal by Innocence

[3.5 stars]

The latest evolution of Agatha Christie continues. Unlike the better known story Murder on the Orient Express, however, this particular stand-alone mystery is less familiar, though it was turned into a Marple mystery and a separate movie. I’ve seen both of these versions, but frankly don’t remember them that well. This incarnation, however, is a gripping three-part drama that keeps you guessing till the very end.

Sarah Phelps, who also wrote the recent and wonderful Witness for the Prosecution, adapted and constructed this mystery to provide a number of believable suspects. Director Sandra Goldbacher (Me Without You) controls the mystery and motives to keep you rethinking your options. The field of possible murderers doesn’t even start to diminish until the last 30 minutes of the three episode series, as the truth fully comes out.

Casting certainly was in their favor as well. With Bill Nighy (The Limehouse Golem) leading the family along with Anna Chancellor (Shetland), there is a great dynamic that sets the tension. The family of adopted children each bring their own sensibility and motivations. Anthony Boyle has the most complex role of the sibs, but he is well supported by Christian Cooke (Witches of East End), Crystal Clarke (Assassin’s Creed), Ella Purnell (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children), and Eleanor Tomlinson (Death Comes to Pemberly). A couple of outsiders bring in the final ingredients: Luke Treadaway (Fortitude) and Matthew Goode (Self/less).

To be honest, it isn’t an entirely fair mystery; some information is held back till the final episode. Some of the blind spots are obvious (we see the murder multiple times from different time frames and angles) but some are about hidden relationships. However, even though the “who” is strung out, the clues and other aspects of the construction are beautiful. It all adds up to a much more believable story than we usually get to see, and one that is delightfully dark and satisfying through to the final frame.