Tag Archives: Political Drama

Two hits and a miss on Netflix

Three new Netflix series dropped in the last couple weeks. For a change, I had a chance to sample them near to their release. It was a mixed bag, but quite the range in material.

AJ and the Queen

Sweet and entertaining, without the extreme intensity of Pose and with just enough Drag Race to keep it all moving.  Which isn’t to say it doesn’t get a bit broad but it’s approach is generally very down-to-earth to keep it feeling real. That does make the pacing a little slower than some may like, but I’m finding it cozy. And while RuPaul is his wonderful self and driving the show, newcomer Izzy G. is making quite the impression as AJ with some serious chips. And, as you find out at the top, it is AJ’s story, not his. Hoping they can continue the effort and build on the characters.

Messiah

This is certainly not the first show to posit the Second Coming…in fact, squint a little and the opening episode echos Dune, among dozens of other stories, shows, and movies. But Messiah is intense and fascinating, with multiple threads all being woven into an intriguing tapestry.

With Mehdi Dehbi  (The Other Son) in the title role and Michelle Monaghan (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) watching from the CIA side, the clashes are inevitible, but the message and the commentary are well educated and non-denominationally specific (so far) and intended to challenge. And with James McTeigue (V for Vendetta, Sense8) at the directing helm of more than half the episodes, I’m feeling confident about the show’s ability to navigate the divisive material in an intelligent and entertaining way.

Medical Police

Yeah, couldn’t even get through the first episode. Not my humor, though it could be yours (Reno 911 anyone)? The pacing is off and the wry humor just falls flat more than hitting the mark. I’m out…you can decide on your own.

The Other Son (Le fils de l’autre)

(3.5 stars)

Changeling tales offer up interesting opportunies to investigate identity and family. Few, however, found quite the flashpoint as swapped births between an Israeli and Palestinian family.  Lorraine Lévy’s tale of two young men discovering their past is quiet and simple, with a modicum of political and religious fervor from the outside. It is focused more on how the young Jules Sitruk (Son of Rambow) and Mehdi Dehbi (A Most Wanted Man, Messiah) reassess who they are because of the revelations rather than how the world views them.

How their families deal with the revelations is part of the success and failures of the story as a whole. It tends to remain, wonderfully, understated. There are emotional moments and stressors, but this isn’t a melodrama. However, some of the choices and conversations feel manipulated to allow for other things to occur, which got a little frustrating even while the interplay was good. Fortunately, Lévy directed it all with a calm, sure hand rooted in reality rather than histrionics.

I have to admit I spent a good deal of the film waiting for it all to blow up into some kind of tragedy. And while an argument could be made that the tension that provides adds to the story, I found it more a distraction. So, I’m letting you know it isn’t a tragedy, though neither is it devoid of bigger issues and problems.

The Other Son is a thoughtful mental experiment that forces some interesting questions upon its characters, and through them the audience. Despite its quiet demeanor it is suprisingly gripping, and ultimately worth the journey.

The Other Son

The Two Popes

[3.5 stars]

So, why is a nice Jewish boy like me watching a movie about the papacy? Well, honestly, I only turn it on because of the buzz around the script and Jonathan Pryce’s (The Man Who Killed Don Quixote) performance. OK, and a bit of curiosity.

I have to admit, Anthony McCarten’s (Bohemian Rhapsody) script is an unexpected delight, which Fernando Meirelles (Constant Gardner) brought to life with both gravitas and a sense of humor. The result is a 2-person play with Anthony Hopkins (Lear) that unwinds as a personal and philosophical debate on the purpose of the Church in life. Except, it isn’t as dry as all that.

However, as much I enjoyed the give and take, and the story, I did have to wonder at the purpose of the piece overall. It comes off as both an apologia and advertisement for both Popes. I can’t say I was entirely comfortable with that effect on either side. Perhaps I am observing it a little more clinically, given my perspective, but art is always lensed through the observer so what can I say?

Well, I can say that I laughed out loud…a lot. And I learned about both men as well as got a sense of appreciation for their positions. It is certainly an entertaining and interesting couple hours, and likely not at all what you expect before turning it on.

You’ll be hearing a lot of about this film during this awards season, so take the gamble and start it up; you can always bail out if it doesn’t grab you. But I have to warn you, it had me at the first scene and I suspect it will have you too.

Harriet

[3 stars]

Cynthia Erivo’s (Widows) award-worthy performance is several steps above the overall execution of this important story. I don’t say that to dissuade you from the movie itself, just to be honest about the effect. Both Kasi Lemmons’s (Eve’s Bayou) direction and her co-written script (with Gregory Allen Howard) are fairly standard, which is to say the film is a simple and straight-forward narrative with few surprises. In addition, the incidental music is heavy-handed and over-used, making it feel more melodramtic than viscerally horrific. There is power in the situation and impactful moments throughout…Lemmons should have trusted that and just let us feel rather than try to force it.

The rest of the cast supporting Erivo is solid, with few standouts by design. Clarke Peters, as Harriet’s father, has one of the more interesting challenges, and Vondie Curtis-Hall and Leslie Odom Jr. each get a few moments of note. But Joe Alwyn (The Favourite) never quite felt right or real. His scenes always came across as forced; he was never allowed to have “normal” moments in this ugly period of history to balance his shrill confrontations.

While the movie is an engaging depiction of Harriet’s life and defining moments, it missed a couple of opportunities as a film. One aspect missing was its reflection on today. It is done purely as an historical with no reflection on the echos and carry-over to present times. Perhaps that’s an unfair expectation, but it feels like an important gap, especially today. I also think it missed an opportunity at the very end… they should have just flashed a $20 without comment and let it stand. (Certainly one of the more embarrassing and overtly racists acts of our current administration.)

Harriet, as a teaching tool about this titan of a woman certainly succeeds and should be seen, whatever its general flaws. It is time well spent and it will likely endure for a long time as a staple of many educational journeys in the years to come.

Just Mercy

[3.5 stars]

Destin Daniel Cretton (The Glass Castle) has a way of telling stories that find the emotional core in the chaos while still making a point. Admittedly, drawing that out for injustice on death row isn’t as hard as his previous work co-written with Andrew Lanham. But Bryan Stevenson’s efforts with the Equal Justice Initiative are an important story to tell because the work isn’t done. And, in these politicially divisive times, it is actually sliding back in some areas.

Jamie Foxx (Robin Hood) is the primary focus of Michael B. Jordan’s (Creed II, Gen: Lock) newly minted lawerly efforts. While Jordan and Brie Larson (Captain Marvel) are effective in their roles, they are really the bread upon which the tastier bits of the story are laid. Foxx lays out Walter McMillian’s  life for us in subtle shifts of emotion and unexpected responses. Tim Blake Nelson (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) likewise twists himself into Ralph Myers’s skin and brings his struggle to life through small moments and pauses.

The movie itself is engaging, but not overly revelatory because the story and the narrative format are very familiar. However, the depth and scope of the problems are still shocking. Updates through the first part of the credits slam that home. Just Mercy isn’t an easy movie to watch, and it isn’t, to be honest, the best film you’ll see this year, but the performances are solid, the journey gripping, and the story is important to see.

Watchmen

[4.5 stars]

I know others have gotten out there before me, but I really hate writing up a show before a season is complete. There are just too many chances for a series to go off the rails after a great start. And with Watchmen, I was holding my breath as it started strong and just kept improving as it went…at least until the very end where it, perhaps, lost just a tad bit of steam wrapping it all up and prepping for what’s to come.

This series grows naturally out of its birthing material, without leaving behind the graphic novel or the movie. It does it without forgetting or forgiving what came before, which is a real gift. Those who love the original find all kinds of touchstones while those that are new to it sense the depth of the world and its underpinnings.

Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) is a powerhouse and full of complications. Her story and journey hold together the entire series. But she isn’t alone in the tale.

Some of the most interesting characters arrive later in the sequence. Jean Smart (Legion) and Hong Chau  (Downsizing), for instance. And Jovan Adepo  (Overlord) as the younger version of Louis Gossett Jr. navigates a world of levels.

Jeremy Irons (Red Sparrow) gets to play alongside the main plot for more than half the sequence before having direct impact. And with Sara Vickers (Endeavour) and Tom Mison (Parade’s End) supporting him, the trio have a wonderful plot of their own that is loaded with humor and horror.

This is a wonderfully constructed world, unafraid to go where it must. The story is both familiar and topical without having to be completely obvious. Well, not always anyway. And it manages to treat time and flow in a way that will surprise and even insist you go back and rewatch to catch everything; taking on some of the same challenges as Legion, but in a more grounded way.

I am not a huge fan of Damon Lindelof as a writer. But in this case, he took his time to craft something wonderful. It is full of ideas, adult humor, bleak forcasts, and complex characters. I can’t wait to see where he goes with it next. But even if there isn’t more to come (and Lindelof is admitting he has nothing in the pipe to do so), this works as a cycle on its own, with a few open questions to tickle your brain as you consider implications.

Bombshell

[4 stars]

When Rupert Murchoch comes off as the good guy in a story, you really have to wonder about the base you’re starting from. There is a lot of surprising and disturbing information in this film, much of which was already known, but it is given life and context by director Jay Roach (Trumbo) and Big Short writer Charles Randolph with a frenetic energy and tight-lipped humor.

The most surprising aspect of this (as a movie), to me was that though the events are driven by Gretchen Carlson’s story, in the guise of Nicole Kidman (The Upside), and the core thread is pulled through by Margot Robbie’s (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood) fictional Kayla Popisil, it is Charlize Theron’s (Destroyer) Megyn Kelly who owns this movie. That isn’t just because she frames the story narratively, it is because she uttlerly disappears into the character in a terrifying way and owns the energy of it all.

That isn’t to say that Robbie isn’t, yet again, brilliant nor that Kidman isn’t believable and effective (though less so for me). It is simply to say that Theron has turned in another career setting performance that proves again her abilities. To be fair, part of the reason for this focus is likely because Carlson is still under a gag order and wasn’t even allowed to talk with the filmakers, so they had to be rather circumspect in their portrayal.

Sprinkled liberally throughout the movie are other good performances, such as Brigette Lundy-Paine’s (Atypical) assitant, Allison Janney’s (I, Tonya) NYC laywer, Kate McKinnon’s (Yesterday) liberal-out-of-water reporter, and, of course, John Lithgow’s (The Tomorrow Man) repugnant but self-righteous Roger Ailes. But these are all supporting roles to Theron’s drive.

And now a confession: I had no interest in seeing this movie. I didn’t want to support Fox in any way or provide it attention. OK, I was wrong. Though the subject matter is challenging, the message is important and the delivery entertaining. Whether you like the women involved, this story is universal (particularly for women, but also for more men than will ever admit it). I still don’t respect the on-air personalities of these people, but Bombshell makes them more into people and lifts the veil of entertainment from their public personas.

Bombshell should be seen by everyone…but by women and young girls in particular.

The Irishman

[4.5 stars]

Some films are good by themselves and some acquire additional greatness in the context of an entire opus. Martin Scrosese’s Irishman is definitely in the latter group; a masterpiece of epic storytelling that stands alone, but is also a reflection of his entire past. It presents a huge canvas and expansive story that is, at its heart (and to its success), a very simple tale. But as a piece of his entire canon, Irishman resonates both with humor and across time. It takes the harsh and frenetic world of Goodfellas and blends it with with tense normality of Raging Bull to come up with charged banality that occasionally explodes with moments, but is simply a tale of life.

Scorsese’s shaping and moulding of Steven Zaillian’s (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) script is a wonder to watch. The script disappears and the story, though it crosses decades, reamains easy and interesting to follow through its 3.5 hours. There are many clever milemarkers across the years, from fashion to historic events to movie titles. And, through it all, the growth and shift of the characters.

Robert De Niro (Joker) is at the center of it all. It is his story we experience; the world through his eyes. Joe Pesci (Love Ranch) and Al Pacino (Danny Collins) create the additional focal points of the tension in the story as the three men each exert influence. There are dozens of other great smaller roles, some nearly silent such as Anna Paquin’s (Furlough) powerful turn as De Niro’s daughter.

This is definitely in contention for Scorsese’s best so far. His control of the scope, the handling of the performances, and the execution of the final edit are all lessons in brilliance. He manages to infer much more than is ever there, avoiding a lot (though not all) of the extreme violence in his previous movies about organized crime. And that is probably its greatest aspect of success. All of those issues and ideas are there, but they aren’t the focus despite the purile allure it might have exerted on lesser directors.

Irishman is also a showcase for technology, particularly de-aging, in a way that is jaw-dropping. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci evolve through decades, though often in counter to their current realities. But, if you didn’t know that, you’d never spot the fantasy the digital work and make-up have wrought.

The Irishman, despite all the hoopla and arguments over its theatrical release versus streaming, or Scorsese’s narrow minded thinking about modern stories, such as superheroes, and despite its lack of diverstity (in large part due to the realities of the subjects and era), is a new and instant classic. Find a day to carve out the hours needed and tuck in for a great ride.

War of the Worlds (2019)

[3.5 stars]

When HG Wells wrote War of the Worlds, he didn’t just see it as a good yarn. It was intentionally an allegory, as were many of his stories. They were warnings to the world of where we were headed if things didn’t change. In other words, it was also what science fiction (then called scientific romance) was in a position to portray like no other form of literature. And this story has clearly stood the test of time. Heck, it is even more relevant today than it has been in a long while as we watch good decisions regress into greed and plays for power around the world.

But a good message doesn’t necessarily make a good story. Fortunately, the BBC have produced a wonderful presentation and story as well. One that cleaves more closely to Wells’s original than has been done in the past.

Sure it’s a great invasion story, but it is also unabashedly a story of empire building where previous opressors are crushed in turn by someone else. It is also about the runaway industrial revolution that was decimating landsides and the health of a population. Director Craig Viveiros (And Then There Were None) and writer Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell) tackled the material with a clear intention to keep the original while updating it subtly to keep it relevant. Primarily, the updates are in the relationships and structure which give the whole story a slight steam-punk feel even though it remains purely Victorian in its presentation and trappings.

There are four main characters of note in this three-part tale. Eleanor Tomlinson (Colette) and Rafe Spall (Men in Black: International) are the core of the story. Their love and struggles provide our way through the challenges. Robert Carlyle  (Yesterday) and Rupert Graves (Sherlock) add additional complications and perspectives. These four raise the story above the message to a very personal struggle that is easy to invest in.

This latest adapataion of Wells’s classic is definitely worth your time, and the most true to the original material of the adaptations out there. But even if you’re not familiar, perhaps especially if you’re not, it is engaging and effective.

Jojo Rabbit

[4 stars]

Everyone’s goto for humor is Hitler and the Nazi regeim at the end of WWII; funny stuff, right? How Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) got this film made, I couldn’t possible explain, but it is a wickedly funny gut punch of a movie. (Appropriately [and amusingly] I found myself watching this satire on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which added to the schadenfreud of it all).

Everything you need to know about Jojo you get in the first 10 minutes (in one of the funniest, most absurd film openings I’ve seen in ages)… all the rest is journey. And what a journey it is, and not one you’re likely to get much ahead of during the setup. The resolution becomes inevitible, but with just enough room for doubts to keep it interesting. And his use of music to get his points across is, at times, genius. Unfortunately, it is also at times way off base, clashing with the onscreen sound and action.

While Scarlette Johansson (Isle of Dogs) and Sam Rockwell (Best of Enemies) provide some adult framework for the story, it is told through the eyes of children. Primarily that is through Roman Griffin Davis’s Jojo. For his first film, Davis carries the story admirably, with all the gravitas and sincerity a 10 year old can bring. Opposite him, Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) serves as the friction point of his decision-making, while another newcome, Archie Yates, provides some peer comic relief. Watching these three young actors is great fun as Waititi keeps them honest in all aspects.

There are some other fun side bits that run through the film driven by smaller adult roles. Alfie Allen (Predator), Rebel Wilson (Isn’t It Romantic), and Stephen Merchant (Fighting With My Family) have the best, but there are many. Waititi’s Hitler isn’t really among them for me. I understand why he took the role himself in order to hit just the right tone he had in his head, but it is an uneven performance.

Satire is hard. Waititi pulls it off in style, if imperfectly. The broad Monty Pythonesque humor will work for most people, while the political commentary may turn off others. However, this isn’t just Waititi playing silly buggers, it’s his reaction to the world today. He is far from the first to reflect that back to WWII, but, so far, he’s done it with the most belly laughs to get the point across.

So, yes, go see this and strap in for a wild, unexpected ride. While Preacher may have tried to get there, no one since Mel Brooks’ The Producers has managed anything close to the result here. It isn’t always easy to stomach, but it is one of the more unique films you’ll see this year.