Tag Archives: Political Drama

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.

Hotel Mumbai

[3.5 stars]

Have you ever watched an action film and wanted to shout at the characters for monologuing or otherwise doing stupid stuff rather than just taking the shot? That isn’t an issue in this depiction of the 2008 Taj Hotel siege. It is an utterly chilling recounting of the events executed (literally) with a cold and realistic eye. The terrorists truly don’t see their victims as human and callously dispatch them with calm and self-righteous demeanors.

The result is an incredible inside-view of events, at least in feeling. As a first feature film as director and co-writer, Anthony Maras truly pulled no punches. Against the backdrop of violence, he provides a few people for us to invest in and follow. Among them Armie Hammer (Never Look Away), Jason Isaacs (The Death of Stalin), Dev Patel (Lion), Tilda Cobham-Hervey (The Kettering Incident),  Nazanin Boniadi (Counterpart), and Anupam Kher (Mrs. Wilson) each have stories for us to follow. Some of their narratives feel a little forced and overly contrived, but the truth is also that surviving such an event is usually due to a collection of odd circumstances.

Maras, in an attempt to provide some sense of completion and hope at the end of the film, stretches out the final moments a little too much. The ending could have been trimmed considerably and still provided the needed sense of relief and whatever solace was going to be possible. In fact, the end sequence had the only real moments that dragged during the story.

I want to stress again that this is not an entertainment. It is a fascinating look at a horrific event, but don’t go into it lightly or expecting a actioner with the good guys spouting quips and homemade grenades. It is a true horror show, all the more so because it really happened and because we are not shielded from the nature of the evil. In fact, you barely can comprehend them enough to even react to them…they are a cold force of nature beyond the understanding of sane, empathetic individuals. Like I said, not for a night’s entertainment on the couch, but still a story worth understanding when the world is what it is today.

Years and Years

[4.5 stars]

Years and Years embraces the aphorism: The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. And quite the journey it is, from the smallest to the largest step along the road of choices that marks out this slippery narrative.

Russell T. Davies (A Very English Scandal, Bob & Rose) offers up a far spanning look at current politics, all lensed through the very human and personal eyes of a single family. We follow them across a decade as they deal with the fallout and shifting landscape of a world in transition. It is often difficult to watch, especially the time period closest to our own, but it is also hypnotic and gripping. As it moves forward a hundred steps, and then a thousand steps, the world is completely unrecognizable and yet utterly familiar and undeniable. It often isn’t easy seeing how people act and react, but we’ve millennia of proof that we are seeing typical responses.

Though the story is bleak at times, it also celebrates the resilience of people. Survival is key: financial, emotional, physical, and even intellectual. Because that is how it works, the world goes nuts and people do what they must to survive. It is rare that a single event is “the end of it all.” But, of course, as things move on, that is always the risk.

The cast are very much up to the task of bringing this story to life; a bevy of recognizable faces, young and old. Some of the more stand-out performances are Anne Reid (Last Tango in Halifax ), Russell Tovey  (queers. ), Emma Thompson (Men in Black: International), T’Nia Miller (Marcella ), Jessica Hynes (Bridget Jones’s Baby), and Rory Kinnear (Spectre). But, honestly, it is really quite the cast all around, even Lydia West in her first major role shines nicely.

Years and Years is a visceral response by a writer to the world; when good writers get mad they get writing. When they are also artists, they give us timeless classics like The Crucible. Years and Years is likewise a reaction to today’s political insanity and, if not quite as timeless as Miller’s play, it is certainly powerful and impactful. This is a must-see piece of television that will transport you to the very last moments of the series. It won’t satisfy everyone as the ending does leave some things open, but life is rarely fully satisfying…it simply keeps on keeping on. And as long as we can do that, we survive.

Some Streaming Odds and Ends

Good Omens (4 stars)
Honestly, for David Tennant (Mary Queen of Scots) and Michael Sheen (Far From the Madding Crowd) alone this farcical romp about the world, life, and religion is worth it. It is delightfully Pratchett and Gaiman, just as their book was. For those unfamiliar, think an updated Monty Python’s Holy Grail in style, but with more of a coherent through line. That Gaiman wrote the series didn’t hurt in preserving its translation to small screen. And Douglas Mackinnon directed the material flawlessly.

With Jack Whitehall (Nutcracker and the Four Realms), Miranda Richardson (iBoy ), Adira Arjona (Emerald City ), and Michael McKean in inventive pivotal roles, the amusement and pointedness just keeps coming. The show is also chock full of special guest stars and smaller roles as well, which only adds to the fun. If you like British humor and don’t mind having religious institutions poked at, make time for this wonderful comedy.

The Tick (series 2) (3 stars)
I had my doubts when Amazon took up the Tick in its third broadcast incarnation (previously there was the animated series and a short-lived network series). Each captured aspects of the original graphic novels, but neither had found a solid enough formula to keep it going. The first series on Amazon was no exception. It was misbalanced and not quite credible, but it was amusing enough and with some nice character work to make you come back for more. The second series really found its footing and came together nicely. The balance of humor and absurd is much better and the story is more complex and compelling. I’d have loved to see what came next.

Unfortunately, the improvements weren’t enough for Amazon, who decided this would be the last season (at least for now). And this is part of my frustration with streaming services. Yes, they’re taking risks on new content, but they tend to throw it out there and then let it sink or swim on its own and forget about it when it isn’t an instant success. Even Cheers took years to build its audience. The point of these services was to try something new… perpetual content means you should be able to come to it when you’re ready. Sometimes that isn’t when the company drops the entire season at once. We’re just back to where we started with the inability to trust something will actually be supported and be back another season.  So much for serving the niche audiences, as we were promised. Services should, at the least, insist all series come to an end so no one is left hanging if they get cancelled. That doesn’t mean the stories can’t continue, but the main narrative shouldn’t be left as a cliff-hanger. At least The Tick embraced that credo so we weren’t totally left to wonder.

Lucifer (series 4) (3.5 stars)
The last broadcast season of Lucifer was a mess. So much so that it lost enough viewers to find itself begging for a venue. Fortunately, Netflix saw the potential and revived the wonderfully acerbic and amusing mystery/romance/comedy… whatever it is. This season, having lost the fetters of the broadcast censors, is able to finally be much more of what it really could be (it still PG-ish, bordering on a soft R). And they took time with the writing this series to make it a much more satisfying journey. The characters this season all act much more believably than the last go-round. If you at all liked the first season of Lucifer and gritted your teeth through the subsequent two seasons as it diminished, come back to it again. Netflix really breathed life back into the afterlife on this one. Well, at least for one more season to come, which is to be its finale. I will add that the final moment of the fourth season has one of my favorite unspoken jokes of the year. It is a silent joke during a moment that isn’t intended as funny…but someone slipped in the chuckle. And, given the show, it is much in keeping with the show’s sensibility.

Love, Death, and Robots (3 stars)
This anthology series is everything great and everything awful about anime. It is a testosterone fueled set of adventures with buxom broads and hairy men (and the occasional funny episode). It was an idea rich with possibilities, but David Fincher (Gone Girl) and Tim Miller (Deadpool) as the primary producers got lost in their 13-year-old selves and missed the chance to tell a much wider range of stories. It isn’t that any individual episode isn’t interesting, they are all good in their own way. And the range of styles and ideas is pretty unique with all types of animation on display. But it is so male-dominated and full of violence and, mostly, naked women that after a few you’re almost embarrassed to watch it…its like someone found your porn stash but it’s up on your TV screen.

The issue isn’t the talent or the tech or the acting, it is simply that the anthology is horribly unbalanced and ends up missing an audience it could have had. Watch it, but in small doses to keep from burning out on it. I found 2 or 3, at about 5-15 min. each, sufficient for an evening. Beyond that, they got numbingly similar. On the up side, a second season is on order and it has Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who drove much of the animation for and directed the last two Kung Fu Panda movies, at the helm. Perhaps her sensibility will help bring some variety to the series. Certainly I applaud the idea behind the show; I’d like to see it succeed.

 

Godzilla: King of Monsters

[3 stars]

It isn’t the movie, it’s the nostalgia that creates the joy in this latest Godzilla sequel…and the huge spectacle doesn’t hurt. The very fact that the production design keeps the CGI monsters very close to the original men-in-rubber-suits look is one of the biggest indicators of just how hard they lean into that sensibility. And, frankly, that’s OK. It strikes all the right chords on that level, but with an updated look and feel.

Returning to continue their story are Kyle Chandler (First Man) and Vera Farmiga (The Front Runner) and they’re joined by Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) as their grown daughter. Wait, you don’t remember them from the first movie? There’s a reason for that, they weren’t there. However, the flick does a good job of convincing you they were. I have to give them credit on that point alone. However, it is only Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), David Strathairn (November Criminals), and Ken Watanabe (Bel Canto) returning to connect the flicks. Additionally new to the mix, and to varying degrees of low-end success, are Charles Dance, Bradley Whitford (Destroyer), and Thomas Middleditch (Replicas). Honestly, none of them are at all believable.

Writer/director Michael Dougherty has a mixed set of results in his past and this movie is no exception. From Trick ‘r Treat to Krampus to X-Men: Apocalypse he often has good ideas and partial execution. In the case of this Godzilla installment, there is some real attempt to make the science work by him and collaborator Zach Shields; at least as much as it can. It is still a lot of hand-wavy nonsense, but the veneer does help. And there is an over-arching plot that is being set to tie together the past movie with this and those to come.

In some ways, the driving eco-terrorism plot the writers concoct is true to the roots of Godzilla, but comes across in a sort of uncomfortable way. While the original movies were about what was wrong in the world and what needed to change, this is much more negative on the side of those who see the truth and want to fix it all. But that isn’t the reason we all show up anyway. We’re there for the big monster fights and crazy situations. All make an appearance. This is also mainly just a bridging movie to get us to Godzilla vs. Kong.

I never expected much of this film… and, in fact, I got more than I anticipated. Is it great? No. But it is sufficient to the purpose of entertainment and it is a BIG screen movie. So grab some popcorn and settle in for the silly and the mayhem. As long as you like the genre, you’ll like the movie. If you don’t, well, it’d be a waste of your time. It doesn’t rise above its roots in any way that will reach beyond its core audience.

Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor)

[4 stars]

Few movies can sustain 3+ hours of narrative. Fewer still can do so absent some amount of action. Avengers: Endgame had story, but also a fair amount of pure adrenaline moments to keep it all going. Never Look Away has only story and still manages to remain riveting through to the end. It does employ, like other longer films, a somewhat episodic approach to revive the story every so often. In this case, it has three distinct chapters that cover the childhood and young adult life of Tom Schilling’s (Woman in Gold) Kurt.

Schilling, along with Sebastian Koch (Bel Canto), dominate the story that starts in 1937 Germany (outside Dresden, no less) and tracks through the early 1960s. I had no idea how writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s (The Tourist) was going to keep me interested for so long and through so many frustrating situations, but the script is nicely segmented and filled with enough genuine emotion and moments to keep you going.

Supporting roles by Oliver Masucc (Dark), Saskia Rosendahl, and Paula Beer were also a help. It is easy to see why this was an Oscar contender, not to mention other awards. It packs a punch without, usually, using a hammer to do so. It is an honest story of the war, but it is mostly about the meaning and communication of art. Where springs the impetus? What is an artist trying to communicate? Should they be trying to communicate? Is it just a craft or something more? All highly philosophical stuff, but they are discussions that are happening around the romance and dangers of Schilling’s life, which remains the focus.

This is also just a simple story of deep, abiding love of all kinds: familial, romantic, erotic, ideological, political. The world created by von Donnersmarck is seductively drawn and subtly appointed. And its central message in the title is not so much a challenge as an invitation and reminder that life is happening. Even with its somewhat ironic penultimate scene, its point is made. Though I will say that while I had anticipated and awaited the final moments of the film, it didn’t quite reach the pinnacle my emotions wanted, even if it did logically. That small gap was more my desire for complete closure on one of the threads, which was left to the imagination rather than on-screen resolution. Missing that, however, my anticipation made me trip over the last moment and caused cracks in the nearly perfectly constructed journey for me. And yet, I’d still highly recommend the film; it will surprise you.

One slight warning…some of the subtitles seemed to just blink on for a split second before vanishing. Honestly, I was able to fill in the gaps very easily, but it was frustrating. This is the second film I’ve run into this and I’m not sure why (it doesn’t appear to be a setting I can control, like the positioning on the screen). This seems an easy thing to avoid and quality control should be picking this kind of gaff up. It certainly knocked me out of the story more than once. Had this been a lesser movie, it probably would have lost my faith completely.

Capernaum

[3.5 stars]

There is a lot of hyperbole (and awards) thrown around about Nadine Labaki’s (Where Do We Go Now?) latest film. And they are deserved. As with her other work, she is brilliant at exposing humanity in the most impossible circumstances. She doesn’t give into dramatic cliche in order to rivet you to the screen, she employs simple truths and and hard choices along with quiet moments of desperation and joy to do it. She invites you into areas of the world few, if any, of her viewers would have experienced and makes you understand.

This film, more than her others, is relentless in its message and, for lack of a better term, existential horror. There are few moments of respite or joy. But it was the right choice for the story she wanted to tell. To have falsely buoyed the characters would have been to cheat the tale.

The entire story depends upon the slender thread of first-time actor Zain Al Rafeea. He is an unbelievably charismatic and powerful presence, despite his age and stature. In an intersecting story, Yordanos Shiferaw, also new to screen, delivers her own gripping tale.

You may be wondering, as I was, what the title meant. It isn’t a word, it is a place…and it adds an entire level of commentary to the story. But, frankly, better to discover that afterwards as it is a bit self-conscious.

This isn’t a fun film, to be honest. You’ll find yourself angry, sad, and, at times, likely yelling at the screen. The subtitles also sometimes flash so quickly (less than a second) as to be unreadable…but I didn’t find any of the gaps to be unfillable by logic and flow. Still, it was a shame to have such a simple technical blemish on the experience. Ultimately, the movie will not leave you feeling hopeless, but the trip is a little exhausting…much to Labaki’s credit, you’ll thank her for that.

Cold War

[3.5 stars]

Director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski follows up his 2013 Ida with another black and white masterpiece that looks at the personal tragedy of politics and war. Evoking the likes of Bergman, Bertolucci, and Felini, in the composition if not the story construction, Cold War examines where love fits into war and repressive society. Or it looks at the struggles of love with that as the metaphor…it really depends on how cynical you are.

Unlike Ida, this story is seen primarily through the perspective of Tomasz Kot rather than Joanna Kulig (Hanna), the strong woman at the center of the script. Using Kot as the story lens feels a little odd as Kulig drives most of the action; but it is more his story than in the end. And, despite the historical context, the story could easily have happened anywhere in the world. The film stays very focused on couple as their relationship ebbs, flows, and evolves. However, the struggles of Eastern Bloc politics provides some interesting historical insight and emotional tension without becoming the typical thriller.

One of the films greatest strengths, and conversely its weaknesses, is just how beautifully it is filmed. Much like Ida, every shot is gorgeously composed. So much so it is self-conscious, rather than the very real, open, and equally beautiful work done by its Oscar competitor Roma. That choice keeps you at a distance, making you consider the action rather than be absorbed into it. It works for the intent, but it makes it a little emotionally distant; more a painting to observe than a film to escape into. It is ultimately still very effective and well executed, but this self-conscious aspect may not work for some.