Tag Archives: Political Drama

Our Kind of Traitor

[3.5 stars]

Most John le Carré adaptations, like A Most Wanted Man or even The Night Manager, are slow, intense burns, usually from the perspective of the criminal or an abandoned spy. Out Kind of Traitor, however, is from the perspective of a basically normal couple, Ewan McGregor (T2: Trainspotting) and Naomi Watts (Rampage), who get caught up in a hot mess…due to a criminal and an abandoned spy. OK, some things don’t change.

Stellan Skarsgård (Cinderella) puts together a delightfully over-the-top Russian mobster that becomes the pivot for the tale. He manages to swing between affable and homicidal without blinking, but remains sympathetic throughout. Even Damian Lewis (Billions), as a disgraced and desperate MI-6 agent, manages to create an understandable, if often despicable human being.

However Hossein Amin’s (The Snowman) script and Susanna White’s (Bleak House) direction manage to keep it as a suspense drama while inching it along with more an action-film pace. The story is unrelenting in its tension, which starts with something marital and quickly expands to something more deadly.

Is it perfect? No. There are some foolish errors in the script (can we talk cell phones, procedures, and monologuing?) but it still works rather well and will keep you guessing as to whether this will end as a triumph or a tragedy. If you enjoy tight spy tales, this is one you should have in your list.

Our Kind of Traitor

Sense8 (Finale)

[4.5 stars]

I originally wasn’t  going to bother writing up this late add-on to Sense8. In fact, I had avoided it fearing a huge let-down. The show was cancelled and this was a nod by Netflix to not totally tick off the fans. Who knew what it would manage to do in a single episode wrap-up?

BUT, I needn’t have worried. This was a fabulous and breathless finale that ran 2.5 hours without a moment’s hesitation or break, and ends with a complete wrap up and sense of release (literally). While I still preferred the first series’ approach to the multi-cultural and multi-language issues, this finale managed to find a balance in language and culture that the second series missed in moving to all English.

If you waited like me, I do recommend rewatching the final episode (You Want a War) in the regular series to retrench you on where things were. The finale picks up directly and carries on from there. Yes, it is a bit rushed and, yes, the final image could be debated, but overall it was an amazing effort. The result compacts a huge vision into a small space in order to explain and complete the story that was intended to stretch over seasons. Honestly, it is the best we could have hoped for given the circumstances, even as we mourn what might have been for the series had it continued.

Sense8 is one of the most audacious and amazing bits of television, let alone science fiction, to ever grace the screen. The Wachowski’s, Straczynski, and Netflix (not to mention Tykwer) all need to be thanked for their bravery and talent in creating it. Someday it will be recognized for the seminal event it is, but for now, for those of us who discovered and can enjoy it, we should celebrate it and its message of hope and love.

Death Wish (2018)

[3 stars]

A movie about violence in times of ineffective government is probably not the best timed release. Death Wish has always been a bit problematic as a story. Stories like Die Hard or Taken or other similar machismo-based tales of fathers and/or husbands fighting back, tended to be with a rescue in mind or they were forced into action due to time constraints or other issues. Death Wish is about the conscious choice to become a vigilante for the sole purpose of revenge…and not even against the perpetrators, but against all criminals that cross his path.

There is a 7-year-old part of me that applauds that sensibility, but there is also the adult that knows where that leads. In the current climate of hate being encouraged from the very top of our government, it is actually pretty terrifying. I’m not overstating it to say this is how the brown shirts got their start in the 1920s and 30s. So I have to wonder if we needed this remake at all.

Joe Carnahan’s (The Grey) script tries to balance this conversation, but ultimately ends up celebrating the choices. That happens in part due to the very nature of film, but also because of Eli Roth’s direction. While the first third or more is set up and family and relationships, the final third of the film progresses steadily off the rails both in plot situation/choices and violence. It shifts from a man getting involved to a man reveling in the carnage while the cops, essentially, give him a pass. And the final moment belies any positive message the story could have raised.

Bruce Willis (Rock the Kasbah) does a credible job as a distraught father and victim and a middling one as a surgeon. Script and direction on the hospital sequences were rather, let’s say under-researched. But it works fine enough for the intention. Vincent D’Onofrio (Emerald City) is an interesting foil for Willis as his brother. But while Elisabeth Shue (Battle of the Sexes) made a good showing as his wife, the less heeled Camila Morrone as their daughter was less engaging for me. To be fair, Morrone was there to serve a purpose rather than a character and the script didn’t really help show her off.

Outside of the family unit, Dean Norris (The Book of Henry) and Kimberly Elise (Dope) make an interesting detective duo. They manage to come off relatively competently but overwhelmed. It is the subtlest part of the script. Their characters break down towards the end, but through most of the story, we see them as a glimpse of sanity and potential rather than as ineffective or buffoons.

You may have noticed I don’t even mention the criminals. They’re there, but none came off as real. They’re all extreme portrayals intended to go without sympathy. We’re not supposed to care that they are offed in violent or tortured ways, so why flesh them out? Well, that is part of what is wrong with the pic…by not fleshing them out, they become purely “other” and it is OK to kill them, even enjoyable. The issue isn’t that these kinds of people don’t exist or even if they did or didn’t deserve their fates, the issue is that it makes it OK to view people as “other” and absolve yourself of the effect you have on them or the judgement you make of them. That is a major part of what is wrong with society and getting worse right now: we don’t recognize each other as fundamentally the same regardless of age, skin color, sexual preference, economic status, sexual identity, political affiliation, fill in the descriptor here.

So, did we need a remake of this Charles Bronson 1974 classic? The 70s were a different time, in many ways. The violence was as much about racial and economic tension as it was the existential horror of war. Today, hmmm… well, maybe it isn’t all that different, but the message should have been updated as well. Something more like The Equalizer in flavor, where the system honestly tried, but failed or where justice and humanity co-existed would have worked better for me. Stoking the anger and hate and divisiveness between people is the wrong message to enhance right now. That doesn’t mean you can’t have revenge movies or even movies about personal justice, but they should be better balanced. I guess what it comes down to is whether or not this movie depicted a world I’d like to live in and the answer for me in this case was: no. You’ll have to decide for yourself if that is the kind of story you need to see or not.

Death Wish (2018)

The Commuter

[3 stars]

Did we really need to see Liam Neeson (Silence) kick a bunch of butt again? Is there really anything new to see here? Well, honestly, no, not much. No matter how well he sings his nice-guy-with-a-secret-past, it is a tired tune.

Of course, Neeson has to have an interesting villain to push against. Vera Farmiga (The Judge) provides a nicely cool opponent, but the script didn’t do her many favors. It is an incredulous set of circumstances and actions, however nicely tied up and pushed along with action and tension.

One fun surprise in casting was the brief appearance of Letitia Wright (Black Panther). Shazad Latif (Star Trek: Discovery) also has a small role. There are other supporting roles of note, particularly, Clara Lago, Jonathan Banks (Mudbound), Patrick Wilson (Young Adult), and Sam Neill (Thor: Ragnarok) but generally there are no standouts, just plot movers.

What is worth seeing in this movie is the opening 10 minutes or so of the the film. Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s (Non-Stop) first few minutes of the credits and action set up a tremendous amount about Neeson’s relationships, allowing Collet-Serra to focus the film on the plot, mystery, and action rather than backstory. Though for a rather different purpose (and not nearly as evocative) it is reminiscent of the brilliant opening of Up.

For a pure escapist, brain dead kind of evening, The Commuter is fine fare…and Neeson gets as much as he gives in this one. It isn’t groundbreaking, but it is well crafted and paced. There are some nice moments, and at least one forced “but wouldn’t it be nice if the world was this way” moments that you can see coming a mile off. But this movie shouldn’t be high on your list. Get to it if an when you have an urge.

The Commuter

A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica)

[4 stars]

Like his award-winning Gloria, this award-winning film by Sebastián Lelio focuses tightly on an individual woman’s experience of family and death. He re-teamed with Gonzalo Maza to write the script as well. Daniela Vega, who brought her very real experiences to the set and story as a consultant and who ended up playing the lead role, is powerful in her portrayal.

The story is a simple one and one almost everyone has experienced: The death of a family member and the resulting fallout and personalities that are released. Admittedly, Vega’s character and situation add some wrinkles to everything, and certainly serves to expose a seething sort of bile in a good number of Santiago’s residents, but the situation itself is common. While the story is quiet, it is held so taut in Lelio’s hands as to make emotions sing even while Vega navigates it all with a calm reticence.

Also like Gloria, A Fantastic Woman taps into emotions anyone can understand and mines a deep intensity in its characters with few words and simple gestures. It is a beautiful film and emotionally battering at times. While it doesn’t quite reach the same triumphant moment in its finale as Gloria, it makes its point nonetheless. Just be prepared to look up the opera reference unless you know your music really well or your subtitles are better than mine were (which didn’t translate the obviously important lyrics). If it weren’t for that choice at the very end, which shifts from an emotional core to something a bit more intellectual, this would have been a five star movie. That shift, however important and poignant, took some of the intensity and deflected it for me. It did not in any way ruin the film.

See this one when you get the chance. And keep Lelio on your list of directors to follow. He has an uncanny ability to strip away the surface of a character and present the core in wonderful ways.

The Bridge (Bron/Broen) – Series 4

[5 stars]

The fourth, and last, series of this Swedish/Danish phenomenon goes out in style over eight episodes and with a feeling of completeness. The previous series had left Sofia Helin’s (The Divine Order) Saga in a precarious place; this series picks up a few months later. With her series three partner, Thure Lindhardt (The Borgias), the two assail a wonderfully complex mystery while also tackling their own demons. Helin’s performance continues to evolve and impress while Lindhardt really comes into his own this series.

The Bridge has always done its homework, even if it has pushed the limits of credibility at times. This most recent round is no exception. Through to the end they are getting things right, even when you think they’re getting them wrong. Series 4 will not disappoint anyone who has come to love and appreciate a storyline that has launched several copies and riffs (The Tunnel, The Bridge (US), etc), and helped open the door wide for more mysteries from its corner of the world.

I really give credit to the writers and producers who were willing to leave it on a high note rather than stretch it out until it lost its quality. That takes guts…but it also frees them up to give us new and different shows. Kudos and luck to them!

The Bridge

Missions

[3.5 stars]

Missions is a high concept, high production quality science fiction drama in a 30 minute format. It’s not going to win any genre awards for its writing (or most of its acting) but, as a suspense mystery, Missions is nicely constructed. It should be mentioned that is also in French and Russian with subtitles.

The frustrating aspects of the writing are mostly around the premise of who is on the crew and how some of the science works. There are many cliché and expedient choices over the 10 episodes…none of which would be made in real life, but which make for a more tense set of interactions. The show does run close to reality in terms of how space is currently on the edge of being exploited, however. And it plays just outside the margins of known facts to get us to a somewhat unexpected place with interesting possibilities. It is also an interesting contrast to Robinson Crusoe on Mars, which it echos in odd ways, even treading in some of its missteps in trying to build out its plot.

However, if you’re hoping for this first series to provide resolution or a sense of complete understanding, you’ll have to wait till the next season (at least). The first season sort of completes an arc, but then leaves you hanging with a pile of questions. I’d have liked a bit more buttoning up of ideas to feel incredibly enthused about the show. The characters aren’t quite compelling enough for me to have invested on that level, so it was up to the story to pull me in. I would certainly tune in to see where it goes from here, so that says something. Whether it will pay off or if the pulp-ish plot and dialogue will scuttle it on return, I don’t know. But it is a surprisingly well-produced piece and is clearly trying to hit it out of the park on ideas if not always in script.

The City & The City

[3 stars]

Much like the title and conceit of the story, I had two simultaneous reactions to this story. First, I was awed watching the impossible being brought to screen. At the same time I was led down a path of disappointment in support of the purpose and the plot.

I’ll come back to that, but be assured there is a great ride for a long part of the series. A good part of that success goes to David Morrissey (Extant, Doctor Who). He is subtle but intense in his role, which is highly flavored with an East European flare. Mandeep Dhillon (Whitechapel), as his sidekick, is energizing and entertaining and far from superfluous. Maria Schrader (Fortitude), as another associate, brings a very different type of intensity to help it all along. And Lara Pulver (Electric Dreams) is a great Macguffin for the tale, slowly peeling back layers and history for Morrissey. And that’s just a sampling of the characters. You may have  noticed that despite the male lead, this story is dominated by strong women. In smaller, pivotal roles, Christian Camargo (Europa Report) and Danny Webb (A Little Chaos) are a bit less believable, but still serve their purposes.

Now, back to the plot. The first three episodes of the four installment series are brilliant and engaging. The combination of writing, directing, and cinematography walk you through a challenging set of ideas in a convoluted world. But in the fourth episode, after a promising start, it all falls apart into either an odd political polemic or disappointing bit of naturalism. I haven’t read China Miéville’s book of the same name yet, so can’t speak as to whether it follows the source closely, but I can believe it does; the flavor of the ending matches Miéville’s sensibilities.

But here’s the thing about The City & The City, you’ll get to the end and, probably, be annoyed. But you will keep thinking about this show and its  points and implications. In fact, it may not even land at first, but will keep poking at your brain demanding to be acknowledged; the metaphors are incredibly powerful. However, that doesn’t make it satisfying, only poignant. I think that it would have done better as an episode in an anthology series or a one-shot film rather than a four-part series that seems to lead in one direction only to veer off into another. Forewarned, it is likely a better experience than going in blind. So take this as your heads-up and then make time for the series, it really is worth it just for the brilliant execution of the near-impossible by director Tom Shankland (The Fades) and writer Tony Grisoni .

RBG

[4 stars]

Legal icon. Trailblazer. Intellectual champion. Übermensch. Octogenarian superstar. Notorious RBG has earned her moniker and the respect of multiple generations. Quietly and steadily, this unassuming 5′ 4″, soft-spoken woman reset the course of law in this country in support of equal rights for all. It is story that will give you hope in these divisive and regressive times…and really make you wonder how we went from people of her caliber to nominations like the decidedly unqualified and poorly spoken Gorsuch,  or 45 (not that I have an opinion there).

As a documentary, this is a fairly straight-forward recounting of Ginsburg’s life and career and the steps that have led her to be such a loud voice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Some you probably know, a lot you probably don’t. There is little subtlety to the film, but there is great respect and a surprising range of voices in her corner. The film-makers go out of their way to avoid too much controversy, which is a bit of a shame. Given that the Red Scare is the reason Ginsburg is a judge, and particularly a judge focused on civil liberties, they had an opportunity to create something a bit more pointed for the present day. As it is, there are hints and nods, but it is generally very matter-of-fact with some delightful peeks at her family life and out-of-court persona.

RBG is worth seeing just to get a sense of history and change that has occurred over the last 50 years; a lot of it very good. It is important to remember there has been movement…and just as important to remember you must always defend the gains lest people take them away. With stalwarts like RBG still on the bench, at least we have her voice when things go in the wrong direction. Sometimes that voice alone is enough to move mountains…just ask Lilly Ledbetter. And that is comforting.

RBG

Tom of Finland

[3.5 stars]

Many things can define a culture or a group. It can be music, food, fashion…or in this case: art. You may not know his nome de pencil,  Tom of Finland, but you can’t have escaped the images that Touko Valio Laaksonen produced. He defined a great deal of gay culture starting in the 40s up through the 80s, evolving his art from providing a voice to the fantasies of forbidden desire to, ultimately, celebrations of life in the face of illness. Whether or not you were part of the leather culture, his images captured raw sexuality in a heightened way that was an equal response to, and a statement about, how repressed culture was pretty much everywhere.

Beyond his art, Laaksonen himself, had a fascinating life that we pick up during WWII. Yes, he struggled with a repressive culture and horrifying laws and bias, but he also struggled with simply being a veteran of war. His wish to avoid confrontation, to not have to fight anymore, is something universal to soldiers returned from the front. Seeing that play out in his life was an unexpected aspect of the history.

Director Dome Karukoski also told the story in an interesting way, without explanation flipping around the chronologies at times, but always with a purpose that would pay off. He maintains a respectable distance from his subjects, but allows us to invest in them and hope for them. There is an odd clinical feeling to many of the exchanges that is reflective of Finland and Germany, but it never leaves you feeling closed out. In some ways the lack of warmth heightens the brief moments of connection for Touko and contrasts nicely with his later life.

This movie works equally well as a story and as a documentary/biopic. Primarily in Finnish, it also has plenty of German and English dialogue and nothing is so rapid fire as to cause subtitle strain. In fact, a lot of the film is without dialogue, allowing the story to play out with looks and action alone. It is well done and, ultimately, educating. It will also provide you a new appreciation for Tom of Finland, his work and his purpose, not to mention his place in history.

Tom of Finland