Tag Archives: Political Drama

Frankie Drake Mysteries

[3 stars]

I was originally going to just let this show slide by uncommented upon. It was the Canadian answer to Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries, but without the writing and acting. In other words, diverting enough to watch, but nothing to recommend or run from. Well, I almost ran from it…the hour-long comedy/drama was a lot of time for little return. But then something interesting happened. About halfway through the inaugural season they went on a typical hiatus, and when they returned the writing had massively improved. The mysteries got better, the characters started to add depth, and the acting got beyond surfacey silliness.

In the title role, Lauren Lee Smith (Ascension) began this series rather ham-handedly. She had no sense of what it was to be a flapper and the costumers and writing did her no favors. She came across as weak copy of Fisher. As Frankie’s partner, Chantel Riley (Race) had real potential, but no storylines to really explore any of it. But around episode 6 they found their footing and refocused the show. Riley gets a family and some real plot opportunities. Smith becomes more of a person and less of a cartoon cipher with an excuse to play 1920s dress-up.

Not all characters got to grow as much. Rebecca Liddiard (Houdini & Doyle, Alias Grace) remained primarily comic relief. However, her abilities were expanded upon. I’m looking forward to seeing how they flesh her out in the next season.  On the other hand, Sharron Matthews as the coroner starts off strong in the series and only gets better as it goes along. The show also manages some fun guest stars through their freshman series.

You may have noticed I’ve only called out women. One thing I can say about Frankie Drake is that it really is only about the women. There are male colleagues, victims, and criminals, but it is driven by the four women.

I don’t know if Frankie can sustain its return from the edge of extreme mediocrity, but I’d like to believe they discovered their issues and are now on track. OK, it does stumble a little in the last couple episodes, but one is a wrap up to discard a character that needed to be flushed, and the finale is a little over-edited, but provides some solid history to grow from (again from the Fisher playbook, but done well). Give it a shot when it arrives on air or streaming. Stick it out for the first five or six episodes to watch it turn the corner. It isn’t bad for the first five, but knowing it improves makes it worth the wait. Whether it can survive to renewal remains to be seen.


[3.5 stars]

Writer David Hare (DenialThe Worricker Trilogy) has delivered another complex and tight suspense/thriller. It is a beautiful study of chaos born from a simple, small event. The 4-part tale is one, primarily, of three women in very different places in life, but all intersecting through a seemingly random crime in London.

Carey Mulligan (Mudbound) makes a nice switch to the staid DI Glaspie from her previous strong, but often gender-bounded parts. Glaspie is a tough woman, straight talker, and flawed in ways the keep you interested as she tackles her first big case.

Special ops Jeany Spark (Wallander) brings some interesting flavor to the story. Her struggles, both internal and within the military are often horrific, but she rises above that in her own way. Admittedly, her choices are less than mainstream, but you understand her better than you’d like to admit.

Nicola Walker (River), on the other hand, gives us yet another of her strong but shattered women, a trademark character she manages to make feel fresh and real no matter the story she brings it to. It is hard to recall she started in comedy way back when before she found her meal ticket in film and TV.

Then, of course, are a panoply of others from John Simm (Doctor Who), to Billie Piper (Penny Dreadful), to Hayley Squires (Miniaturist), Nathaniel Martello-White (Moonwalkers), Ahd Kamel (Wadjda), July Namir, and Ben Miles (The Crown). There isn’t a weak casting choice in the lot and S.J. Clarkson directed them and the overall sequence well. Despite the potential for soapy histrionics, Clarkson kept it all very real, contained, and pressurized.

The four installments pull you along as it drops clues that slowly build to a complete picture. It isn’t quite as complex or solidly interlinked as Worricker, but it is full of great moments, dialogue, and performances. Definitely worth a bit of binge when you want a slightly more challenging distraction.

Hard Sun

[3 stars]

Assumption: The only thing that holds society generally, and people specifically, in check is the expectation of a future.

Experiment: Take away that future…what happens?

It isn’t a new idea, nor is it even the best tackle of that idea (Children of Men, probably tops that list). However, when the creator and writer of Luther, Neil Cross, wanted to tackle this idea and deliver something a bit more speculative in genre, it was something I wanted to check out. The dark, violent sensibilities of Luther are put into a new frame where the world itself could be ending. The concept and effects are an interesting study, and sad admission, about human nature.

The two detectives who lead the 6-part serial, Jim Sturgess (Geostorm) and Agyness Deyn (Clash of the Titans), are an uncomfortable  pair with complex lives. Splitting the focus between two leads challenges the show at times, but watching them work through their relationship and through the chaos of the world is instantly intriguing. The give and take doesn’t always feel quite real, but Deyn is a kick-ass fighter while Sturgess is an onion of strange psychology that never really comes completely into focus.

Nikki Amuka-Bird (Luther), a wonderful and prolific actor, adds an element of menace, but without a great deal of character. Perhaps that is fair in what is clearly intended to be a 5 series story. However, it doesn’t do her any favors in believability in this first installment. Derek Riddell (Happy Valley), another well-known face from many British series, is likewise incomplete in his character, but with the talent to make the thin meat on his bones work and leave it open to build on if it continues.

Also not helping the credibility of the show are some really, really dumb choices around mental health treatment and police procedure. More than once I found myself gritting my teeth through short-cuts and outright ridiculous choices. All very surprising given Cross’s ability and background.

Overall, there is enough here to keep you intrigued and wondering what will come next. It combines apocalyptic fiction with the standard British police procedural in an interesting, if sometimes clumsy, way.  What is most interesting is the final moments that are visually stunning, but probably lost and confusing to a general audience. Hopefully, though, it is enough to get the rest of the series made, because it definitely leaves you hanging and with a whole lot of potential going forward. Seek it out on Hulu in the States.


Victoria & Abdul

[3 stars]

From the very beginning you know the tone of this tale is not going to be the dry historical you probably expected. Victoria & Abdul is, for a large part of the movie, a light film filled with comedy and joy, though it certainly takes on important issues while it both celebrates and lambastes the pomp of royalty and the untenable position of a monarch. Judi Dench (Tulip Fever) tackles the leader of the British empire 20 years after her previous turn in the position in Mrs. Brown. In fact, this movie picks up that persona well into her years, long past Albert, and years after Victoria was again on her own. The two would make a great double feature as you can see the foundation of what leads to Victoria’s choices and household.

In the other title role, Ali Fazal (3 Idiots) brings an interesting energy to his character that feels almost false or forced, but somehow real. He is the perfect optimist opposite Adeel Akhtar’s (The Big Sick) whingeing and political ire in opposition to the court around him. Of note in that group are Eddie Izzard (Absolutely Anything), Olivia Williams (Man Up), and Paul Higgins (Utopia), among a host of others.

What starts as silly, progresses roughly as you’d expect as jealousies and prejudice begin to assert themselves. But Victoria was a tough old cookie, even till the end;  nothing was ever going to be simple.

Having already tackled Queen Elizabeth II, it shouldn’t be surprising to see director Stephen Frears (Florence Foster Jenkins) take on Victoria. He is well at home in the upper crustiest of crusts, and happy to show all the cracks as well. He coaxed a wonderfully balanced set of performances out of the entire cast and filmed it with care and love for his central characters.

And though the tale is oversimplified, Lee Hall’s (War Horse) script provides enough meat to keep it all feeling complete. The dialogue is also often delightfully unexpected.

This isn’t a brilliant film, but it is entertaining and worth the investment of an evening to learn about a newly discovered bit of history. Seeing Dench take on the mantle of the monarchy again to complete the story she started back in 1997 is also a gift.

Victoria & Abdul

Tulip Fever

[2.5 stars]

Tulip Fever, much like the mercurial bloom’s marketplace namesake, is beautifully filmed, but ultimately not particularly satisfying on any level. The story here is purportedly one of romance, but it is as much about feminism, class, politics, greed, and a reflection of modern times. Unfortunately, all of that is easy to see, but not really felt in the final cut.

The story revolves around two couples and one man. Alicia Vikander (Jason Bourne) and Dane DeHaan (A Cure for Wellness) are the focus of the story, providing the main thread to pull us through. But the story is being told by Holliday Grainger (Strike), who’s relationship with Jack O’Connell (Money Monster) is affected as well. Both couples do what they can, though neither are particularly magnetic nor gripping in their passions emotionally, despite some nice on-screen physical examples. Frankly, when all is said and done, it is the path that Christoph Waltz (Downsizing) walks that is the most interesting. It is his most sympathetic and compelling role in a while. He is subtle and tormented in fascinating ways, and he manages to support the film from the background rather than trying to dominate it with a crazy portrayal.

There are also several notable supporting roles and characters. Tom Hollander (The Night Manager) and Judi Dench (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) are the most amusing and believable, but Matthew Morrison (Glee) and Zach Galifianakis (Lego Batman Movie) add their own value too. Galifianakis is hurt more by the script than his performance in this (but I’ll get to that). Finally, in a bit part that sort of goes nowhere is Cara Delevingne (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets). The only reason to call her out is that she was paired with DeHaan in her next film; the performance here is fine, and I give her credit for making of it what she could.

So with all this talent, why did it fail? Despite being co-written by the great Tom Stoppard (Anna Karenina), the script is the real problem for this story. It depends entirely on two incredibly stupid choices by characters. It isn’t that the choices aren’t set up, but they are both avoidable and, in one case, purely ridiculous that no one stops it from happening. No amount of commitment or clever aspect of plot nor unexpected endings can overcome those points for me because they undercut the credibility of the story as a whole. Using the conceits of farce amid the romance just deflated the whole for me. And, while these items are also used in classic tragedy, they need to be credible to work. In this case they were blindingly avoidable.

There is some interesting history and reflection to absorb with this film. And Chadwick directed it reasonably well. But only make time for this if you must see the actors or have some deep interest in Holland in the 1620s, though historically you are likely to feel short-shrifted.

Tulip Fever

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

[4 stars]

At its heart, this is a movie about love. That is also a biopic about the creator of Wonder Woman and his bold choices in a repressed era becomes window dressing. Though, I have to admit, I will never look at Wonder Woman the same way again.

Luke Evans (The Girl on the Train), Bella Heathcote (The Neon Demon), and Rebecca Hall (The Dinner) pull off a beautiful triangle. They manage to bring to life the complex emotions, fears, and desires that drove and challenged the relationship they formed without making it puerile or cliche. In our current times, it is also a great lesson in moral fibre and learning to be who you are despite societal pressures or assumptions.

There are some very nice smaller roles that are worth noting as well, JJ Feild (Captain America: The First Avenger) in particular. On the sidelines are Oliver Platt (The Ticket), and Connie Britton (Beatriz at Dinner) that provide some intriguing bridging characters too, though we never really get to know them.

Writer and director Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.) does something wonderful with this tale. She approaches it without judgement of her characters, but rather flips that to her audience and those around the unusual family. As her second feature, it is beautifully modulated and subtle. I will say that while the romance and personal aspect of the story is very effective and believable, Robinson’s other goal (layering on Marston’s psych theory as a structure for the movie) is less effective. It doesn’t distract or diminish the film, but it doesn’t really add much to it either. You can see the ideas, you can’t avoid them given the transitions, but I didn’t find them to build on or explain much either. Frankly, it is a minor criticism in this story as it is still character appropriate and adds some interesting structure, even if it is less than impactful.

Whether you know the history of of these people, or have an interest in Wonder Woman comics, this is a story that will grab you early and keep you intrigued. Marston was no ordinary man, nor were the brilliant women he had in his life. What is fascinating is just how little things have changed since their story began in the late 1920s.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Red Sparrow

[3.5 stars]

Red Sparrow is a surprisingly taut, female-lead spy drama that is Atomic Blonde by way of A Most Wanted Man.  Definitely Jennifer Lawrence’s (mother!) best turn in a long while, to my mind. Her character is fiercely intelligent, capable, and emotionally strong while being able to remain human. She finds a nugget of herself to hold onto until the bitter end.

As the men both caught in, and weaving Lawrence’s web, Joel Edgerton (Bright) and Matthias Schoenaerts (Far From the Madding Crowd) are both solid. The joy of this film is that everyone thinks they know what the others are doing, including the audience. But even when you are sure of what is to come, there is enough of a thread of doubt to keep the tension high and your curiosity peaked.

In two smaller roles, Joely Richardson (Emerald City) and Jeremy Irons (Assassin’s Creed) do some nice work. More so Richardson, to be honest, who’s existence is the MacGuffin for Lawrence’s entire set of actions. She doesn’t overplay it, nor does she disappear.

The weakest performance, frankly, was a surprise. Charlotte Rampling (Assassin’s Creed) just did’t fit in this production. Her accent was so wrong that even though her energy and demeanor were great it threw me straight out of the movie.

Director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games) embraced the dark of writer Haythe’s (A Cure for Wellness) script and didn’t try to apologize for it. It isn’t overly brutal, but it implies a great deal of human darkness and pain. In fact, he makes it feel like there is much more on screen than there actually is, which is another nod back to the old days of movies; he allowed our imaginations to work for him.

This may not have been a film on your list for any number of reasons, but if you enjoy solid spy dramas, this will fit the bill nicely.

Red Sparrow

Blade of the Immortal (Mugen no jûnin)

[3 stars]

Violence? Check. Dark comedy? Check? Crazy choreography? Check? Bizarre story? Check.

Blade is a manga adaptation (not to mention anime), and the dark humor and violent sensibility of that form are very present; right in director Takashi Miike’s (The Happiness of the Katakuris) wheelhouse. Blade adds another notch in his fluid and prolific opus.

This movie is never going to be a classic, nor is it something I need to see again, but if you enjoy the genre it is a pretty good romp. In some ways it feels like a riff on Kurosawa’s classic re-conceived as The Seven Anti-Samurai.

For a variety of reasons, I had to watch the dubbed version, which was unfortunate. The voices are off and mixed poorly (not unusual). But it is also a workable option once you settle into the story if you don’t want to get whiplash reading the rapid subtitles.

And there is a story, if a somewhat unexplained and unresolved one; it is essentially 2.5 hours of carnage and fighting. Despite the thin veneer, Miike does manage to take all his main characters and explain their actions; at least a little. Morality isn’t nearly as black and white as you think when it starts. But neither is there any really deep musing on the choices or philosophical meaning explored. But did you really expect there to be?

Blade of the Immortal

The Breadwinner

[3.5 stars]

If you follow animation at all, you are probably aware of the beautifully fantastical Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, the first co-directed by Nora Twomey and the latter she contributed to from the art department. These fantasies have a distinctive look of layered, cut paper and illuminated manuscripts which move like ancient puppets through incredible worlds rich in imagination and color. Breadwinner incorporates these signatures into aspects of its tale, but this film, directed by Twomey, is much more grounded in the real world.

In fact, the core of the story is very contemporary and disturbing, while still being appropriate for most audiences. And, though it is a chronicle of Afghanistan in 2001, it is just as upsettingly applicable today. The resulting film is is something like a combination of Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir with a dash of The Patience Stone and Wadjda. All films worth seeing if you’ve missed any of them.

There is nothing brilliant about the voice talent in the film, but neither is there anything wanting. They all do quite well, but the star is the art and the tale itself. Shifting between the real world and the interstitial story-world that Parvana is telling to her brother and herself. Both stories serve to pull you along, however that split focus also has some issues. Primarily, Parvana’s bedtime story has an odd energy and flow. The fable is told episodically, but without a feeling of closure or chapter endings, though clearly that is the intent of each break in the tale. It makes every one of the transitions from fable to real world story less than smooth. Not bad, necessarily, but not as crafted as you’d expect given the previous two films. Each change leaves a residual, unresolved energy like an incomplete chord which follows you back into the next scene, keeping you from re-engaging quickly as the story shifts.

Any concerns around that aside, it is a movie you should make time for now that it is generally available. If it flowed better, I’d say it should also kick Coco’s butt out of the Oscar seat, but that isn’t going to happen. Despite its powerful message, insights, and wide-eyed hope for a broken world, The Breadwinner just isn’t quite good enough to pull off the win. But it is good enough to demand your time and adds to a catalog of work that is visually unique and wonderful.

The Breadwinner

Altered Carbon

[4 stars]

Altered Carbon is solid science fiction. This also means it has struggled to find an audience. If you want real science fiction set in worlds that have been thought through and, sure, with plenty of violence and skin, you need to see and support it, or we’ll lose another opportunity.

This series was ably adapted for Netflix by Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island, Terminator: Genisys), based on Morgan’s award winning book. The world has some holes and gaps, but it is a believable society based on how the tech affected it. The show also has some incredibly complex plotlines going through it. In fact, probably a bit too complicated at times…the last couple of episodes have to rush to the end with a lot of rapid exposition to fill in the answers that are being revealed.

Driving the action, Joel Kinnaman (Suicide Squad) puts in one of his better performances. Alongside him is a kickass detective played by Martha Higareda (Royal Pains). A slew of great minor characters are around them, but it is their show through and through. Worth calling out, though, are Chris Conner’s delightfully weird and fun Poe and Dichen Lachman’s (Dollhouse) powerful and complex Reileen.

Adult science fiction is rare off the big screen (and not particularly prevalent on the big screen either). Typically, what is offered is something between Star Trek and Game of Thrones. In other words, something that may tackle tough issues, but usually in watered down or palatable ways without actually working through the true implications of the world that was created or the consequences of actions. Flash and action often substitute for actual logic and plot.

There are some exceptions. Humans is a current show that tries to tackle and deal with the implications of AI. Sense8, as well, took on a world altered by the possibility of gestalt entities. Farscape tackled an empire structured society with significant biotech. But, more often than not, you end up with something more like Stargate, Orphan Black, or The Walking Dead, all highly entertaining, but not good science fiction.

So, if you want the real stuff (with a bit of HBOness to it, without the HBO) jump on Altered Carbon so we can get another season. Even if we don’t, this 10 ep run is self-contained enough to not leave you hanging, but there is so much more to explore if they’re given the time to do so.

Altered Carbon