Tag Archives: Political Drama

Legacy: Black Ops

[3 stars]

It isn’t so much the story that makes this powerful as much as Idris Elba’s (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw) performance. The story itself is fairly straight-forward and obvious, but his journey through the story is not. And the ending will leave you with more questions than answers (in a good way).

Director, writer (and even editor) Thomas Ikimi crafts this primarily psychological suspense with a sharp eye. He backs Elba’s efforts with careful visual construction. He only distrusts his audience once or twice in the 90ish minutes, and never in a way that is insulting. The ultimate point and message of the story is slowly eeked out before hammering it home. One interesting bit of trivia about this movie is that it introduced Lara Pulver (The City & The City) to screen in a supporting role.

Even 10 years after its release, this movie is still topical and insightful, but this isn’t a laid-back or relaxed story for a fun evening; be prepared for the dark.

Carnival Row

[3 stars]

If Ripper Street and Copper had a magical baby, this is pretty much what you’d get. For me, however, the poor child took on the worse qualities of both parents. A shame as it had the potential to tackle the current issues of immigration and xenophobia sweeping a good part of the globe.

In the end, Carnival Row is a marginally thought-through bit of genre, full of strife and demons (personal as well as real). It is a by-the-numbers fantasy with few surprises and cliche characters; the pacing commensurate with its genre, which is to say: slow.

The show isn’t helped by its female lead in Cara Delevingne (Tulip Fever), who has the look of a Fae, but the emotional credibility of cardboard. Despite Orlando Bloom’s (S.M.A.R.T. Chase) backing her, and with some interesting tension between them, she just never became real for me. Even the host of solid supporting actors are generally forced into tiny boxes of behavior, by script and directing, that does little to show off their talents.

Ultimately, I’m still not sure if I enjoyed this first season or not. It is clear that the it was built around the first episode and final moments in the last…with a whole bunch of stretched out filler in-between. It is, in fact, more of a prologue or setup for a story to come. You may find it more engaging than I did, but despite the grand production values, I found myself frustrated far too often to settle into the tale and become a fan.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

[3.5 stars]

The number of emotions and ideas that this film sparks are too many and too complicated to try and explain here in less than a tome. Suffice to say that this grounded fable/tragi-comedy by Joe Talbot, Jimmie Fails, and Rob Richert (a first feature for all of them) is inventive, powerful, and effective.

Jimmie Fails also leads in the film alongside Jonathan Majors (Captive State, When We Rise). The friendship of these two men and their journey through the city is both funny and surprising. The duo are supported by host of smaller characters including Danny Glover (Sorry to Bother You), Micheal Epps, and Rob Morgan (Mudbound). Only two small roles by Tichina Arnold (The Neighborhood) and Maximilienne Ewalt (Sense8) add any female influence to this story. Given the tight focus on Fails’s journey and the lack of women in his life, it is almost excusable. However, it is noticeable.

But that criticism aside, this was an unexpected film. If Spike Lee had been born 30 years later and on the West coast, this is the kind of story he’d have been telling. It is politically charged, but without losing track of the personal. It is funny, but without dropping the serious message and intent. It is raw and honest, but not without recognizing the inherent sadness and absurdity in the situation. This is a film worthy of the term and an interesting new set of voices for the industry.

Time for Two and Two For Time

Without planning, there were two time travel/paradox stories that hit my plate this week. One was quite good. The other was interesting, but more as a logic experiment than as a quality entertainment.

Let’s face it, a good time travel story is hard to find. So often it is simply a trope to tell another story. But stories that really think it all through…or as much as possible as paradoxes inevitably create challenges…are rare and fun to find. Predestination, Timecrimes, or even Terminator: Genisys were the last movie attempts to do this well that I’ve seen. And no one has managed to top Looper yet on screen (or Blink on the small screen). Still, at least both of these new offerings make time travel integral to the plot.

I’ll Follow You Down [3 stars]

This movie has its issues, but it definitely has some solid thinking in it that allows me to recommend it.

In addition to the good story, it also has a good cast. Rufus Sewell (Dangerous Beauty, The Man in the High Castle) and Gillian Anderson (Crooked House) catch attention as the parents to Haley Joel Osment (Tusk). Osment is the real lead in this tale, with some nice support by Victor Garber (Sicario) and Susanna Fournier (Being Human (US)). Osment has some great moments, but his performance is uneven and, at times, forced or false. There are plot moments that just clunk like a tin can rolling down stairs. But they are just moments in the midst of some solid acting and well considered issues.

Absent that roller-coaster of belief, I’ll Follow You Down would have been great instead of just good. Director/writer Richie Mehta (Delhli Crime) has certainly peaked my curiosity to see what may come next in his opus. And if you like movies with a bit of intellect behind them, this one pays off nicely.

Excursion [2.5 stars]

Martin Grof’s first feature as writer and director is loaded with ideas. Unfortunately these ideas are often discussed at length by the characters rather than showing us or just trusting the audience. It is primarily a political diatribe blended with a bit of black humor and clever historical revisionism.

To make this kind of script and story work, though, you need a very talented cast. This cast isn’t really up to the task. Other than Johnny Mindlin and Jeryl Burgess, they are often stiff and completely without credibility. And even these two bright spots for naturalism are a little forced at times.

As a curio, this is interesting. Not brilliant, but interesting. However, save it for a time when you’ve nothing else and about 80 minutes to spare. You may find the approach more engaging than I did.

Blinded By the Light

[4 stars]

While this is a triumphant coming-of-age story, it is not just the light musical the trailers would have you believe. It is also a movie of the times that holds a mirror to mid-80s England to force us to re-evaluate our current situation. In other words, it is a pretty typical BBC movie in many ways, unafraid of the truth on the way to entertaining you.

Director and co-writer Gurinder Chadha (It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, Bend it Like Beckham) is known for her quirky and funny, but honest, depictions of life.  She is equally adept at pulling heart-strings, making a point, or making us laugh. This film is no exception to that track record. Chadha finds the universal in the seemingly different and specific, which is why her films speak to such a broad audience.

Like Rocketman, she is also unafraid to use fantasy to capture reality. Sequences are heightened to bring Javed’s inner life into the real world at critical points in the story. Viveik Kalra’s performance hits the screen at these moments with heart and raw energy. Music transforms his life in a way any one of us could recognize, even if the breadth of the impact is far greater. Along with other young, and relatively unknown actors, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Nikita Mehta we’re taken on a journey of self-discovery, independence, and acceptance; and, of course, the meaning and value of family embodied by his parents, Kulvinder Ghir and Meera Ganatra.

There are also more recognizable faces, each with roles that shape the story through smaller moments. Hayley Atwell (Christopher Robin), Rob Brydon (The Trip), and David Hayman (Finding Your Feet) provide perspective and hope in an era that was rapidly losing both. Mid-80s England was seeing the rise of the NF and the political conservatism of Thatcher, all amidst a struggling economy that was impacting everyone, but particularly immigrant and low-income workers. Sound familiar?

Intended or not for the timing, Chadha has delivered a wonderful film of life and love that also happens to echo current travails. That it is also based on a true story makes it just that much more a delightful meal to feed exhausted nerves. And you’ll probably never hear Bruce the same way again. It isn’t purely entertainment, but it is also apologetically entertaining and unequivocally worth your time.

Summer of Rockets

[3 stars]

The first three-quarters of this limited series are both intriguing and engaging. We are introduced to a complex group of people in an intriguing historical period and provided just enough plot to keep us wondering where the heck things are going to go. And then it takes a turn. It is a fair turn in retrospect, but the resolution and motivations are, at best, forced.

Despite the sort of non-ending provided, the rest of the ride is actually interesting and the cast is chock full of solid performers. Among them is Keeley Hawes (Mrs. Wilson) who appears to be in just about every BBC show these days. But the tale revolves more around Toby Stephens’ (Vexed, Lost in Space) Petrukhin, a Russian-Jewish inventor trying to make a place for himself and his family in 1950s British society. A far from easy task.

Along with Linus Roache (Mandy), Lucy Cohu (Ripper Street), Mark Bonnar (Shetland), Timothy Spall (Finding Your Feet), Claire Bloom, as well as a nice Sophomore turn for Lily Sacofsky (Bancroft) and freshman outing for Rose Ayling-Ellis, we get a look at many facets of British life, fears, and prejudices of the era. While not ground- breaking, putting a rising Jewish family at the center of the story provides a lens that we haven’t often seen through in these stories.

Whether the plot feels fair and complete to you I imagine will be a matter of expectation. I suggest you just roll with it. This starts as an intimate story and ends the same. But it certainly has a lot of meat in the middle to work with and keep you wondering and wanting more.

Captive State

[3 stars]

There is nothing particularly bad about this Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) alien invasion/human insurgency story, but there is also nothing particularly special either. Well, I’ll modify that, there is one thing from Wyatt’s and Beeney’s co-written script that is so right, and so real, it had me seeking a reference that didn’t exist…and it’s the opening to the flick: Light a match. Ignite a war. It sounds so familiar, even comfortable in association with a host of figures from the 60s, I was sure I recognized it. But if it is attributable, I couldn’t find it. That’s a rather impressive invention.

As to the rest of the movie, it is nicely understated with low amounts of pure exposition, allowing images and videos to explain the world and the situation. And the story doesn’t insult us by trying to explain everything. Some information is just never provided, and that’s OK. And the cast is certainly talented.

John Goodman (Black Earth Rising) and Ashton Sanders (Moonlight) topline the story from different sides of the tale. They are relatively interesting, but not overly compelling characters, which is part of the weakness in the movie. We don’t entirely care about either of them. Some nice support from Vera Farmiga (Godzilla: King of Monsters), James Ransone (Bosch), Ben Daniels (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), and Alan Ruck (Goats) helps sell the situation and add some depth but they are all bit players in the larger scheme.

Basically, there is little surprising in the plot and there isn’t quite enough suspense to sell it on suspense alone. There are certainly some nice effects (and a couple really bad ones). I didn’t feel bored nor that my time was wasted, but I wanted more than just a setup for a franchise. I wanted a sense of triumph or disaster. I wanted more than an obvious metaphor for our times. I wanted to invest emotionally rather than just with my eyes. And, sadly, I never really did, and I suspect you won’t either. For a popcorn evening, there is some craftsmanship here…just not a great movie.

22 Hot Zone Heroes, or More Streaming Fun

The Hot Zone
This is an old story given new, and surprisingly terrifying, life given we know the outcome and that Preston’s book is well over 20 years old. It is a little uneven in acting, though the issue is more casting than performance. While Julianna Margulies (The Upside) is solid as army research doctor, James D’Arcy (Survivor)  just didn’t work for me on multiple levels from his accent to his whiny nature. But that aside, the story is surprisingly gripping and the warning not a little unsettling.

Catch-22
The real question with this one was: How do you film the impossible book? Well, up till the end, apparently really well. This six-part look at the absurdity of war and humanity generally is funny (till it’s not) and gripping through till its final moments (when it isn’t). On screen, the reason for its success is unequivocally Christopher Abbott (First Man) in the main role of Yossarian/Yo-Yo. Without him, it all falls apart. Around him are a cadre of characters that are, basically, absurdist creations that remain all too connected to truth. On its own, this version of Heller’s classic has a point to make. But if you’ve read the book, you might find the finale more than a little frustrating, especially after having been teased along so expertly for the rest of the journey.

MARVEL ACROSS THE GENERATIONS
Marvel is everywhere and, it seems, represented on almost every major channel or streaming option. Hulu and Netflix have some of the most interesting offerings. And, between them, they reach out to a range of ages.

Jessica Jones (series 3)
Jessica Jones is, by far, the most adult of the range. Since its inception, Jones has been one of the most interesting characters. As a flawed, powerful anti-hero, she was instantly engaging, even when those around her weren’t. This finale to the series is worthy of her journey, even if it was somewhat cut short.

Cloak and Dagger (series 1 & 2)
This teen-oriented, but delightfully dark story of two teens tied together by happenstance is lots of fun and often shocking for the places it’s willing to go. It is much more fantasy than science fiction, leaning heavily on New Orleans hoo doo. But the show maintains its consistency and drags you along into its weird and wonderful world. It isn’t perfect, often dipping heavily into clichè, but Olivia Holt (Same Kind of Different as Me), Aubrey Joseph, and Emma Lahana (Haven) get to have a heck of journey over the first two seasons…and a lot of fun, sweat, and tears getting there.

Runaways (series 2)
Of all the Marvel shows, I was actually most interested in this one, till I got to see it. Mostly it had my attention because of the various writers of the comics over the years. But the result is something aimed to the tween audience (or younger) and rarely with any credibility. There is enough of a mystery to keep me semi-interested, but I grind my teeth way too often while trying. The writing is weak, the plotting forced, the characters willfully ignorant or just plain stupid, and the purposes just downright confusing at times. Ultimately I fell away halfway through the second season, though I may pick it up again to see how they resolve it all.

Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð)

[4 stars]

Whether you think of this as a tale of activism, environmentalism, or eco-terrorism, Woman at War will provide something to chew on. And, though you wouldn’t expect such a film to be a source of comedy while making its point, it manages to walk that line wonderfully as well.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir (Trapped) plays this as honest and driven, but never strident. As herself and her own twin, she explores many layers and pulls us along her journey. She is joined by a small cast to fill out the tale in and around Reykjavik. Juan Camillo Roman Estrada is the odd character out in a thankless but important role that is both comic relief and additional social commentary.

Director Benedikt Erlingsson put together a darkly amusing script with Trapped’s Ólafur Egilsson (and a few of its cast). It never loses track of its point, but manages to deal with it all without getting overly earnest. Even as it purposefully reflects other movies at points (Force Majeure comes to mind), it keeps the story just light enough to make itself heard.

Make time for this one…especially if you’ve been watching or reading any of the sagas coming out of Iceland of late.

Best of Enemies

[3 stars]

When tackling difficult material, like racism and the Klan, you have to find a way into the material that doesn’t drive your audience away. BlacKkKlansman took its own approach, as did Green Book. And Blazing Saddles took yet another as part of its comical tale. But, when truth is stranger than fiction, you sometimes just have to go with it head-on.

Taraji P. Henson (What Men Want) transforms into activist Ann Atwater with both humor and heart…and the help of some prosthetics. Along with Sam Rockwell (Fosse/Verdon), as Klan leader C.P. Ellis, the two drive this story in often unexpected ways. But, as good as he is in this, I am getting a little tired of seeing Sam Rockwell (Fosse/Verdon) reprise his “bad guys with a heart” (or at least some form of integrity) that started with Three Billboards. He nails it every time, but because it is becoming his signature, the impact is diminished. Ultimately, his actions aren’t a surprise, and it becomes less triumphant with each repetition.

But the reason this film doesn’t succeed at the level it should goes back to my first comments: how do you tackle material like this in a way that doesn’t drive away your audience.  To get us into the story first-time writer/director Robin Bissell opts for an almost dark comedy presentation as we meet the characters and watch their despicable acts. He does this to provide some distance from the horror, though it comes perilously close to making it feel acceptable. Given the overall sense of the film, I can understand the approach, though it was discomforting. Perhaps that was Bissell’s intention?

But as a first film I’m willing to handicap Bissell’s result. Despite the initial odd feeling of the movie, he brings it back around to a satisfying, even hopeful ending. An ending hopeful even more so because it is true. In this case it is also an important reminder that, despite today’s politics, we can still listen to one another and change for the better.

If this is what Bissell does with little experience, it will be interesting to see what he can do with some tempered tools in his belt. In the meantime, set aside an evening for this story, if nothing else to learn about a story you probably didn’t know and would never think could happen.