Tag Archives: Political Drama

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

[4.5 stars]

City of Angels is a richly appointed and complex tale of murder, espionage, love, and religious devotion (as well as religious hypocrisy), with a good helping of prejudice and capitalism thrown in.  It is also topical and historically well done, resulting in a beautiful and brutal series.

Natalie Dormer (Patient Zero) is a revelation in 3 of the 4 characters (she really can’t pull of the white Mexican well). It is obvious why she took the role. Likewise Nathan Lane (Carrie Pilby), who gets to play to all his strengths from wry humor to deep pathos. Bouncing between them is Daniel Zovatto (Lady Bird), who serves as the main spine for the series. From the opening scene, he is the man in the balance trapped between outcomes. But until the moments, he is stuck in the gray. We watch him struggle to be part of some world, any world, where he fits and can live with the choices. And it is a compelling tension.

A number of driving roles keep it all moving as well. Rory Kinnear (Years and Years), in particular, has a many layered story to navigate. Through him we see duality in detail: humanity and the inhumane. It is done without any nod and wink, nor any apology. And Michael Gladis (Extant) provides a suitably vile and craven political climber in a world that he wants to crush before it crushes him. Even Zovatto’s screen brother, Johnathan Nieves (See You Yesterday), brings in a set of layers born of hopelessness and anger. It’s a little one-note, but it doesn’t lack credibility even when his ultimate choices are a little forced. There are some nice treats along the way too, like Patty Lupone (Last Christmas) in concert and Brian Dennehy’s (The Seagull) final effort before his passing in April (though he may have other footage still to come in a couple projects).

This time in LA, the lead-up to WWII, has been often visited, but rarely with the kind of scope this series pulls off. Usually you get hyper-focused stories, like Zoot Suit, or Chinatown, or any number of mystery/suspense/noir stories that pull apart the high and low of society, or the gay and straight. City of Angels navigates all of these aspects, and then some. And it does so in a way that makes sense and shows the connecting threads. For that alone, it is worth seeing.

However, while I loved seeing a different take on the era, I have to admit that I was also somewhat upset that it removed primary responsibility for the horrors from the humans. Dormer’s character, as the sweet-tongued devil in many guises, becomes the main impetus for all the action. She really does much more than talk to make it all happen, which is where the trouble lies.

In addition, there is a challenge with the plot decisions that bothered me. While the presentation of how LGBTQ people were treated and viewed in the era is relatively, sadly accurate, the series also has no LGBTQ character who isn’t, for lack of a better word, evil. Not just tragic, but actively doing wrong. That feels a shame in a story as big as this and one that has so many levels of detail. And particularly wrong during Pride Month. It isn’t that the characters aren’t human, they just all feel irredeemable.

But, ultimately, this show is so on target for the current situation across the country, the awakening and mobilization of frustration and anger, that it’s uncanny and upsetting. All in an intentional way. City of Angels marks a brick in the path that leads to its own historical volatile times, but it is also a reflection of the powder keg that is today. It insists we look not only at the past but at how we want to navigate the future. And it also forces us to admit the perils of not paying attention to those lessons. Despite its slightly rushed wrap-up and some of the dangling threads, this is a definite must-see for our times and, should these times move on, a must-see for the historic scope and lessons of the past; and yes it’s entertaining as well.

Penny Dreadful: City of Angels

Space Force

[2 stars]

OK, I’m throwing in the towel on this one.

Up front, I am not and never was an Office fan. The humor just never worked for me…not that I hadn’t lived the cube-life at points, and not that I hadn’t seen a good deal of the truth in the satire. However, mean humor just doesn’t entertain me, it angers me. So, sort of counter-productive. Because of that, it was with trepidation that I entered into the world of Space Force. And it was pure stubbornness that I delayed and delayed this write up trying to watch more of the show even though it left me empty of joy.

What made The Office work was its core truth and that its audience knew, and had internalized, that truth. This satire has none of that advantage. It needed to find something more human for us to latch onto. Frankly, it reminds me of a lot of the issues Avenue 5 has.

The fact is, at least in this household, that despite a cast packed with talent, the show feels surprisingly lifeless. It has moments, but because it isn’t in a familiar setting, and because its inception itself feels like a national joke (something they lean into), it’s hard to relate to or support the characters. We may understand the military, but most of us don’t live it, unlike office life. In other words, we can’t quite grasp all of the intent and, frankly, based on some of the people I know, I know they got a lot of it completely wrong.

With all that said, I couldn’t make it past the second episode, even with John Malkovich (Velvet Buzzsaw) chewing up the scenery in a most satisfactory way. I tried. You may find it more to your liking than I did…humor is highly individual, afterall.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

[3.5 stars]

Yes, here I am trying to take my mind off of the goings on in the world and with the current state of politics by watching a docu on climate change. More the fool me. In truth, it wasn’t so much a choice as what showed up, but that’s another story for another day.

As it turns out, this follow-on to Al Gore’s 2006 An Inconvenient Truth, while full of depressing realities, is also bolstered by some sense of hope. And, yes, that includes taking the current administration into account. In fact, the movie more or less revolves around the 2015 Paris COP21 meeting that delivered the biggest step toward controlling and reversing climate change to date…despite 45’s pulling the US out of it as one of the first acts of his presidency.

This documentary continues Gore’s journey from his first movie as an advocate, showing us the mechanisms behind the rousing, and terrifying, speeches. It takes us through how he has been amplifying that message and the path forward. And it shows us a man of near-limitless optimism that we can solve the problem together if we can overcome the hypocrisy and corrupt influences that have death-grips on the fossil fuel economy. Honestly, he’ll make you believe, but not without many grindings of your teeth.

This movie is already two years old. And, let’s face it, much has happened. Not only have policies changed, but the EPA and other watchdog agencies and laws have been actively dismantled. But this is also an election year, and with a solid win, none of it has to be permanent, though sure as hell a lot of damage has been done. I want to remain with Gore and be optimistic. What’s the alternative? We can, as they say, “vote the bums out.” We can insist on logic and science to be drivers of policy and law. As the docu shows, this isn’t really a partisan divide…we just have to stop allowing certain industries from behaving like robber barons and hold accountable any who support them.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power Poster

Homecoming (series 2)

[3.5 stars]

The first season of Homecoming was a twisted tale of mind-bending fragments that coalesced into something more pedestrian and down-to-earth. That wasn’t a bad thing…it was honest and logical. The perspective was from inside the mystery and it added great suspense and confusion. But now we know the truth.

What we get with the second series is a look at some of the peripheral aspects and the extension of the fallout as we follow the thread left by Stephan James’s (21 Bridges) character. And there are some interesting paths and aspects to explore.

But the best reason to see this second round is Janelle Monáe (Welcome to Marwen) and Hong Chau (Watchmen). They are natural and unforced as a couple. They also each have their own stories and arcs to travel. Chau’s starts in the first season, but this provides another angle on the wonderful final moments she is part of. And Monáe fits seamlessly into the twisted world we traversed as if she’s always been there.

Like the first round, there is a mystery to unravel, though with fewer surprises. And it is full of suspense with bursts of activity. I was with the story completely (despite some willful stupid moments) until the final 10 minutes or so.

The ending didn’t ruin the ride for me; I can understand the decisions that were made. However, it left me very conflicted. To my mind it was out of proportion in scope and depth for the plot. Basically, it violated my sense of balance and left me without sympathy for the characters we probably should have had some sympathy for. Was it a fair choice by the writers? Maybe, but it wasn’t the satisfying punch I think they were hoping for. More importantly, it makes me question whether the third round, assuming it happens, is something I want to see.

Homecoming Poster

 

See You Yesterday

[4 stars]

If you just avoid thinking about the hand-wavy science and focus instead on the logic, story, and message this is one powerhouse of a flick. First-time feature director Stefon Bristol co-wrote this topical and clever tale with another first-timer, Fredrica Bailey.  The two shared the Independent Spirit Award for their efforts for good reason.

Not only is the tale entertaining and a nice variation on well-known theme, it’s also topical and honest about the world in unexpected ways. And, to top it all off, it is aimed at a younger audience while satisfying adults. While different in tenor and intent, this film would live comfortably with Attack the Block or Chronicle.

The film is driven by Eden Duncan-Smith (Annie). She brings a flawed, real person struggling with the realities of her life and the fact that she’s smarter than almost everyone around her. Her friends figure heavily, given life, if not quite as much depth, by new-comer Dante Crichlow and up-and-comer Johnathan Nieves (City of Angels). But as her older brother, Astro  (Luce) adds a number of  important and challenging levels.

This isn’t an easy film to watch, especially right now, but it is probably exactly what you should be watching. It is clever, entertaining, and even funny at times, but it also exposes aspects of reality that is rarely tackled with such honesty and sympathy. It also has a near-perfect ending for its purpose. You can think of it as a science-fantasy tackling of Waves or Do the Right Thing, but that would lead you a bit astray as well. Maybe it’s closer to being Run, Lola, Run in Flatbush if you still need a touchstone.  But, really, it is its own story, and you should see it. And I know I’m looking foward to seeing what Bristol and Bailey come up with next.

See You Yesterday

V for Vendetta (redux x)

[4.5 stars]

Still relevant…and increasingly prescient.

I’ve seen this film a dozen times or more. It never fails to amaze and recharge me. It provided me hope and entertainment when it first came out and, in the midst of the horrors of what has happened over the last few years, it provides me some glimmer of hope now.

But, I admit, this rewatch was particularly spooky; pandemics, economic crisis, social unrest, and authoritarian governments out of control all map eerily to today (even the death counts). With the nationwide marches rising up,  it is even more on point. However, this is a movie about taking back power and making government again afraid of its people, not the other way around. It’s a message we all need to hear and believe right now.

Hugo Weaving (Mortal Engines) delivers that message with an amazingly subtle performance, and without ever once showing his face. Natalie Portman (Vox Lux), as the unexpected heroine, was divisive in the role, but some of that was the foreshortened story in the Wachowski’s (Sense8) adaptation. The film is also loaded with UK talent: Stephen Rea (Greta), John Hurt (Jackie), Stephen Fry (The Hippopotamus), Rupert Graves (War of the Worlds), Roger Allam (Endeavour), Sinéad Cusack (Marcella), and Tim Pigott-Smith (Victoria & Abdul).

I recognize it isn’t a perfect movie (particularly regarding its lack of diversity). However, if you need an escape and a boost, it’s hard to beat this movie and its message as the delivery method. The end still practically brings me to my feet shouting in joy and with tears in my eyes as it did the first time. And, just let me say, I’d love to see one of our internet billionaires make the ending of this flick come true…that could be an amazing use of some of their windfall, and a way to unite a splintered populace.

V for Vendetta

Ad Vitam

[4 stars]

What if you could live, essentially, forever? How would that change you and the world? And what about those who couldn’t or those that have to wait for treatment? There have been plenty of stories based on this idea…few have thought through the implications in interesting ways. Altered Carbon certainly did, but that’s far future. Ad Vitam is a look at a similar impact in the near term.

Thomas Cailley created a result that is a great mystery wrapped in a very human story. And, yes, it is all very French, as the saying goes. But it is solid story-telling with plenty of surprises and resolutions. Led by Yvan Attal as a detective approaching the end of his career and a young woman connected to a past crime, Garance Marillier, who is the thread that unravels the story.

It is a typical mystery/suspense set up in a very new setting. If you like dark tales of the world and a look at the psyche of our species, this one is for you. While you can just let the story wash over you, it’s hard to ignore the bigger picture and commentary as the truth is uncovered. It is also a self-contained 6 episodes, making it a very satisfying viewing.

Ad Vitam

Nightwatching / Rembrandt’s J’accuse

[3 stars]

Peter Greenaway (Eisenstein in Guanajuato) is one of the most singular and visionary directors in film. You may not like the results all the time, but he manipulates film like a canvas. This is because he is, at heart, a painter. His movies always reflect that, and often examine the role of art in society as well.

Greenaway became obsessed with The Night Watch, a painting crammed with symbology and unique in its presentation for the mid-1600s. Nightwatching  tackles the creative process behind the choices and the society it was part of…which leads to the exposure of a power struggle and a murder.

It all sounds very exciting and intriguing. And with Martin Freeman (Black Panther) in the role of Rembrandt, you are probably hoping for a wonderful jaunt down historical lane, filled with sex, intrigue, and mystery. Well, there is sex, and it is a living Rembrandt portrait in design, but it isn’t the most engaging film. The story is rather hard to follow, and the presentational style Greenaway adopts for many of his movies, that almost theatrical setting, distances you from getting too close. The fourth wall is often broken as well, making it as much lecture/explanation as it is story. The movie ends up feeling more like dramatic recreation rather than exposure of Rembrandt’s personality, creative process, and life.

But even Greenaway seemed to know that, and thus the companion documentary he released the following year: Rembrandt’s J’Accuse!

The docu attacks the same story, but in non-fiction style and utilizing some of Nightwatching’s footage. The result isn’t brilliant…while well organized it is overly produced and pompous. Greenaway, as narrator, rather than educating is more than a little condescending. The research and explanations are fascinating, however, which is what keeps you going through it. If you’ve never studied art history, it is likely to be a bit fast and overloaded. If you are at least a little familiar with the period of art and the kinds of symbology artists employed, it is likely a little more digestible.

Frankly, I’d skip Nightwatching and just watch J’Accuse, if you have any interest in these subjects or just want to learn a bit about one of the world’s most famous artists. It is a great reminder of just how conscious the visual arts are. Everything is there for a reason, even if we don’t realize it most of the time. And the tale behind The Night Watch is complicated and interesting. The presentation of artist as vigilante with brushes isn’t new in the world, but rarely are the indictments so meaningful and so packed.

Nightwatching Rembrandt's J'Accuse...!

A Face in the Crowd

[4 stars]

Back in 1957 Budd Schulberg wrote a script that was disturbingly prescient; though it would seem to presage Regan more than 45 in the arc of it all. Still, his understanding of the power of media was spot on. I can only imagine that he’d be disappointed to learn that B-rolls and hot mic’s no longer seem to matter, and their truth can’t shake the machine.

With Elia Kazan at the helm, and a solid cast, the story is a swift couple hours about the rise and fall of Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes. Griffith is more than a little larger than life and broad in his performance (and perhaps a little loud) but it works. And he does manage to slip levels into there. Patricia Neal is a conundrum in the tale, being both the instigator of it all and his rock, but then somehow diminishing into a more typical female stereotype of the era. It works, in its way, but is also the weakest aspect of the story.

In a surprisingly quiet and atypical role there is Walter Matthau and also a very young Lee Remick, among others. And watch out for Mike Wallace and Walter Winchell playing themselves.

A Face in the Crowd is a compelling movie even more than 60 years later. Sure it is a little stagey, but the points are amazingly on target, and the journey clips along so quickly that it pulls you to the inevitable end without lagging.

A Face in the Crowd

The Great Upload on Avenue 5

Here are a few more streamers. Two worth your time and one that is entirely up to your sense of humor. Then again, I suppose they all depend on your sense of humor, but let’s just say I found the first two to have more of an easy entry and wider appeal, but that may just be me…

The Great (Hulu)
If The Favourite had spawned a series, in style and concept, this would have been the result. I know it is actually based on different IP (a play) but you can’t help but see the parallels, especially with Nicholas Hoult (The Current War) in one of the leads.

But this is really Elle Fanning’s (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) moment, her chance to take the reins and reign as an adult. Watching her navigate her world, and the absurd situations, is a riot and, at times, terrifying. Helping her along in her conspiracy to bring sanity to Russia are Sacha Dhawan (Doctor Who) and Pheobe Fox (Eye in the Sky). And Belinda Bromilow (Doctor, Doctor) and Sebastian De Souza (Medici) add a wonderful counterpoint and humor to it all. Even Charity Wakefield (Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio) and Adam Godley (Umbrella Academy) add a sort of caustic and clever nastiness. Honestly, there are too many good performances to call them all out. If you’re up for some (sort of) period comedy, this one is worth the effort.

The Great

Upload (Prime)
A little bit science fiction, a little bit rock-n-roll… ok, more a little bit Sleeper with a huge dash of Her, though both with backflipping twists on the approach. Robbie Amell (ARQ) and Andy Allo (Pitch Perfect 3) drive this show wonderfully. Allo, in particular, skips through emotional changes like a quick-change artist. Creator Greg Daniels brought his Parks and Rec comedy chops, but with a bit more restraint, to sell this entertaining satire that also comes with a nice mystery embedded. The first series is a solid start, but while it gets to a pause-point, it definitely ends on some serious cliffhangers. Fortunately, it is already renewed, so you won’t be left hanging forever.

Upload

Avenue 5 (HBO)
Yeah, I’m sorry, I just don’t get the appeal of this one. And it’s not because Hugh Laurie (The Night Manager) isn’t great fun. Nor is it that Lenora Crichlow (Collision) doesn’t manage to balance out the craziness. It’s that the writing and, particularly, Josh Gad (Little Monsters) just don’t know how to set limits that keep it all fun.

What could have been the black humor counterpart to Aniara, turns into a broad comedy mess without much to say for itself.

Avenue 5