Tag Archives: violent

A One Lane Mystery Road

I’ve grouped these two mystery series because they have some similarities. The common thread, despite the difference in country, is indigenous peoples. In fact, the main detective in both series represents this oft time side-lined culture. Interestingly, they have similar sensibilities, though very different tenors.

One Lane Bridge

This is the inaugural series of what is somewhere between a rough-edged mystery, similar to many Northern England shows like Shetland or Hinterland, but with a bit of aboriginal mythos thrown in. It has a few recognizable faces, if you watch New Zealand shows. The basic story is a simple family murder. Dominic Ona-Ariki (Filthy Rich) gets it as his first case in the remote town to which he’s moved.

Among the faces you might know are Joel Tobeck (The Blake Mysteries: Ghost Story), Alison Bruce (Top of the Lake), and Michelle Langstone (800 Words). They also have some of the more complicated story lines, though they aren’t the main focus of the story.

We don’t really get to know much of why Ariki’s there in series 1, nor much about his background. He does, however, solve the season’s mystery so nothing of importance is left hanging. But a lot is held back and many things are clearly queued up for a second series. Despite the grit and anger of it all, I’d be back to see what they can make of it. The characters are rich and full of stories.

Mystery Road

And speaking of grit and anger, this second season of the movie adaptation of this series is just full of it. Aaron Pedersen (The Code) returns as the swaggering, grumpy loner who’s trying to single-handedly clean up the Australian outback and northern coast. Tasma Walton (Cleverman) returns as his frustrated ex-wife and Sofia Helin (The Bridge) joins as one of the principle variables, which was certainly a draw for me.

This is a heavy feeling storyline of angry people and nefarious doings. But there are interesting characters and fascinating insights into culture that you won’t get anywhere else. I can’t take too much of it at once… the writing often makes choices for the convenience of the action, rather than what people would normally do, but it’s entertaining and even spiked with adrenaline at times.

One Lane Bridge Mystery Road Poster

Utopia (2020)

[3.5 stars]

When Gillian Flynn (Widows) announced she was going to tackle the remake of this UK, well if not classic, certainly watershed, I was dubious. Even more so when she asserted she was going to focus more on the dark emotions and avoid the pervasive violence of it all. To be clear, what she has done, and done well, is not toned down the violence so much as gotten creative with its portrayal; there is less in-your-face splatter and more moments of unseen or cleverly filmed action. In other words, this is still exceedingly dark and violent, which it needs to be. But there is also some nice, if not complete, character work.

This remake starts off very much along the same thread as its inspiration. So much so that I was frankly getting a little impatient, even with the different approach. And then it took a hard left turn at the end of the second episode and I was hooked.

Certainly the cast is a good one. Sasha Lane (Hellboy) builds on her varied career as a borderline sociopath in search of her father. And Christopher Denham (Fast Color) expands as an actual sociopath on her heels. But around them are a slew of recognizable faces and performances. From John Cusack (Singularity) and Rainn Wilson (The Boy) at one end of the experience spectrum to Desmin Borges, Dan Byrd (Cougar Town), Ashleigh LaThrop, and Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton at the other. And plenty of other faces show up as well, like Jessica Rothe (Happy Death Day 2U) and Camryn Manheim (Cop Car).

But Flynn is a dispassionate writer, willing to go very dark places without compunction, but not very good at building sympathy. I found it difficult to connect with any of the characters beyond sympathizing with their shock. Only Denham and the two youngest characters, Farrah Mackenzie and Walton, really had me in sync with them. I didn’t have a similar challenge with the UK version. I think this is something to do with the scripts and assumptions made by Flynn about how deeply or demonstrative the characters needed to be to bring us on board. It probably wasn’t helped by American-style casting, which tends toward less real looking people in favor of pretty.

All that said, the show has some interesting reconceptions and some odd accelerations as compared to the UK plot. The ending is rather rushed and, frustratingly, rather wide open (not to mention a bit absurd in many ways). But I was left curious…which is what they wanted to do. I’d go back to see if they can actually build on the first series. But, it’s also worth noting that for a lot of the viewing public, this is either a show dead-on for the times or far too close to the bone for many people to watch. Also some of the messaging is a bit off for what we need now…so there’s that.

Here’s the thing: If you’ve never seen the original UK version of this story, I still highly recommend it. Like Misfits and other dark and unexpected tales of their times, they were blazing new trails in storytelling for television. They were doing it in style and with a clear sense of violating norms (that have admittedly become more the norm due to their success). Give this version a shot as well, but be prepared for some very un-American plot choices and a story that may ultimately infuriate rather than entertain, despite a few amazing performances (or perhaps because of them). I’m definitely curious to see if they can fully win me over in a second series by building on what they did in the first, and taking into account the world now as it has changed (our real world, that is).

Utopia Poster Utopia Poster

RoboGeisha

[2.5 stars]

Every bit as silly and bloody as you expect from the title…and, yes, it is bat-shit crazy. It is, in fact, so bizarre that it was even more fun to watch with the badly dubbed English 5.1 track (rather than the original Japanese stereo with subtitles).

Truthfully, I can’t defend this movie on any level. It isn’t quite “so bad it’s good” like the old Ed Wood films. But it isn’t so full of itself that isn’t also punching itself in the face consciously. Writer/director Noboru Iguchi is clearly a prolific, gonzo creator. He has no boundaries and an evil sense of humor.

So, I admit: I laughed a lot. I hope it was in places Iguchi intended. But I can’t say I’d seek out any more of his work. One was enough. You may find him more to your liking.

RoboGeisha Poster

Ju-on: Origins

[4 stars]

Japanese horror is a unique and dark corner in the genre. It’s sense of what is evil is very different from Western stories of ghosts and monsters. Evil is a thing that can be attached to places, people, animals, elements…just about anything. It is without conscience and not always with a particular purpose, though it often is brought forth from or echos real-life events.

Ju-on, the movie, was terrifying. Even its American remake was solidly creepy and disturbing. This series makes them both seem tame. It is darker than dark, twisted, and asks the question: where does evil begin (if the title wasn’t enough of a clue).

The series is told with interleaving/overlapping time-periods to lay out the story, ultimately with it all coming together in the final episodes. But it never quite fully defines what is happening and why; not unusual in Japanese horror. It does provide events and suggestions, but there would seem to be a bigger tale to tell, and, perhaps, an as yet unrevealed purpose behind the hauntings. And, yes, though it resolves a good deal of the threads, it left open the story in a way that allows it to continue if it gets renewed. Actually, it kind of demands more episodes to resolve it all. Much of the credit to the creepy goes to the writers. Hiroshi Takahashi worked on some of the Ju-on sequels and Takashige Ichise on Ringu and its sequels. But director Shô Miyake found a great visual language to depict their story, even if the edits and clarity weren’t always the best.

Do not go into this series lightly. I am not a squeamish sort. I enjoy Japanese horror in all its bloody and gooey splendor. But this embraces that and adds a layer of truly uncomfortable imagery and events that left my skin crawling. And yet, I’d be back if they continue it, just to see how they pull it together.

Ju-On: Origins Poster

The Rhythm Section

[3 stars]

As a follow-up to his quirky I Think We’re Alone Now, director Reed Morano brought us this contemplative actioner. That may seem a contradiction in terms…and it sort of is…but he stuck to his intent throughout, and I give him props for that. But it does make for a slow kind of assassin film. Think The Tourist rather than Taken or even Atomic Blonde.

Since Gloria proved it was possible, the number of tough female killers has been multiplying; particularly lately. They aren’t all home runs, but it is great to see so many more female driven actioners these days. Blake Lively (A Simple Favor) tackles the role with intensity and humility. It is, in some ways, reminiscent of Cameron Diaz’s turn in Being John Malkovich, when she allowed herself to be, well, completely unattractive in order to serve the part and movie. But, unlike Diaz, Lively drives this movie.

Jude Law (Vox Lux) and Sterling K. Brown (Waves) provide the higher profile support to Lively. Law is actually surprisingly credible in his role. Brown is as well, but it is less of a stretch role for him.

The real challenge for this movie was it’s script by first-timer Mark Burnell, who adapted his own novel for this outing. The story itself isn’t quite credible, though it is also clear it is intended as an origin story for a potential franchise; not one that will probably ever get made given movie’s results. And, more importantly, Burnell couldn’t let go of the internal dialogue moments from his book. The script lingers over Lively’s past long after it was necessary anymore to establish motive and struggles. Basically, he shouldn’t have adapted his own book…and Morano should have been more brutal during the edit. Had the movie been about 20 minutes shorter, its pacing might have pulled it together better.

It isn’t that I don’t want depth in my action leads, but this movie kept repeating the same moments and footage. Those efforts added nothing that a brief moment on a good actor’s face wouldn’t have been able to convey. And Morano had good actors in the leads.

So the short answer to this movie is that it is good, but slow, entertainment. The path and results of the adventure are somewhat easy to get ahead of, thanks again to the pacing, but the resolution is satisfying. If you’re looking for another female led story with a woman who is, ultimately, in control, you could do worse. I just wish it had been a bit tighter to energize it more.

The Rhythm Section Poster

The Old Guard

[3.5 stars]

Oh, hell yeah. I know it’s a riff on Highlander, but it’s great to see a story that at least tries to think about implications and does it with a solid cast and director. Gina Prince-Bythewood (Secret Life of Bees, Love and Basketball) took Greg Rucka’s (Stumptown, Whiteout) adaptation of his own graphic novel and gave us a solid (potential) franchise launch. It also is a strong example of what a good “comic book” movie can be.

With Charlize Theron (Bombshell) in the star-power lead, we are introduced to a motley group of warriors and their stories. Matthias Schoenaerts(The Mustang), Marwan Kenzari (Aladdin), and Luca Marinelli (Trust) are the rest of her long-standing cadre. But the main focus is on KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk), the newcomer. Even with the solid ensemble work, it’s through Layne that we learn, as she does, about the Old Guard, their place in the world, and their perspective. Throw Chiwetel Ejiofor (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) into the mix and you’ve a powerhouse cast. Frankly, the only sour note in the movie is Harry Melling (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) who tries to give us a big bad to hate yet understand, but ends up picking furniture out of his teeth.

Still, the balance of amazing fights and discussion, as well as a wicked sense of humor, keep you engaged and wanting more. This has amazing potential to spin out stories, if the writing is maintained. Even with the obvious branch to the ending/beginning (as this is a sort of origin story) I exited the credits wanting to see the next tale to come. Netflix definitely made a great choice grabbing this one. And much like Extraction (and unlike 6 Underground), they’ve got bones to build on, if they can keep their casts and do it with a care to keeping the quality up.

The Old Guard Poster

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

Blitz

[2.5 stars]

Despite a lot of potential, this is a middling action film masquerading as a police procedural…and not with a very good costume. The result is somewhere between a BBC mystery drama and Taken. And the problem is that neither is entirely believable, though the violence is definitely visceral and the cast fairly well put together (which is what got me here in the first place).

Jason Statham (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw) is at center stage. He’s surrounded by serious talent here. And he needs to be the way he’s written. There is almost no real emotion to his character, who’s circling the drain as a burned out detective. In his nearest circle, he has Paddy Considine (The Death of Stalin) as his partner and Zawe Ashton (Velvet Buzzsaw) as his suffering mentee.  But a step away you have Mark Rylance (Ready Player One), Luke Evans (Murder Mystery), and David Morrissey (The City & The City). And then there’s Aiden Gillen (Bohemian Rhapsody) aligned against them all.

That is a pile of possibility…all of which director Elliott Lester, on the whole, squandered. To be fair, the script wasn’t particularly great, which was a little surprising. Adapted by Nathan Parker (Equals), I expected, or at least hoped, for more. I will grant that the pacing is pretty relentless.

Up to you on this one. I watched the whole thing, but would have happily missed it to rewatch the equally flawed, but way more fun, Transporter for my Statham action fix.

Blitz

Rim of the World

[3 stars]

Kid’s films are hard. Getting the balance of humor, action, language, not to mention age appropriate plot is a delicate balance. Zack Stentz’s (X-Men: First Class) script delivers a tween-level tale and language. Just enough action and language and challenge to sate a 13-year-old’s sense of adventure. Director McG (Three Days to Kill) pushed a bit hard on the broad humor, as he often does, but for this audience, he probably did good.

The result is an amusing, if utterly improbable, kids save the world adventure, with some nice bends in the typical characters. For example the main kick-ass in the group is the miniscule Miya Cech (The Darkest Minds). She also delivers almost all the best lines and keeps her wits about her to keep the group going.

The rest of the gang is the typical rag-tag Goonies-like group. Jack Gore (Ideal Home) takes the main focus. He has the only fully realized character in the movie, and the fullest arc, but it isn’t the most sparkling (which is Cech). He’s joined by Alessio Scalzotto, in a thin role covering the LatinX community, and Benjamin Flores Jr. covering the Black community. Flores, in particular, should slap McG silly for how he had him attack his character. It’s beyond painful at times.

But all of the weaknesses aside (and they are legion) the movie somehow remains entertaining and engaging. It has good production values, a high octane plot, big stakes, and makes adults look helpless. What more does a tween want in an adventure film where they get to be heroes? What’s a shame is that it could have been so much more if they’d approached it in earnest rather than in satire.

Rim of the World Poster

Motherland: Fort Salem

[3 stars]

I wasn’t looking for this one. I tend to find alternate history shows more than a little frustrating as so few really find a good hook in or follow through with their logic. Motherland is sort of a grown up Charmed (or rebooted Charmed if you prefer), though still aimed at the younger, and particularly female, set. But it is more empowering and with significantly more grit than the CW show.

One of the things that sets this show apart is the complexity of the magic and the depth of the rules. Eliot Laurence (Welcome to Me) spent time on his creation to be sure it remained consistent rather than just inventing rules as he needed them to support his plots. This is what makes great fantasy, and it’s a rare commodity. It is building to be as complex as Buffy, though without that level of dialogue and cast chemistry (but what does?).

That doesn’t mean to say the cast is bad. Taylor Hickson (Deadly Class), Amalia Holm (The Girl in the Spider’s Web), and Ashley Nicole Williams form the primary triumvirate and center of the show. They’re not an entirely balanced ensemble, but they slowly come together over the season and each has a particular charisma. With the help of Jessica Sutton (Escape Room), Demetria McKinney (House of Payne), and Lyne Renée (The Hippopotamus), among others, the world is filled out and made complicated.

The inaugural season as a whole starts strong, but does make one huge and cheap leap to take the turn to the finale in the final episodes. It is only one major miss-step, so I’ll give it to them, but it was unworthy writing compared to what had come before. And it was completely avoidable and lazy. The finale was also rushed, pulling together a number of threads, not entirely satisfactorily, and leaving you with multiple cliff-hangers rather than a comfortable pause. In other words, it was sort of cheap. Those two aspects, more than anything, are why I dinged its rating. That said, I’m glad they’re renewed and I’m looking forward to seeing where the series may go. I just hope the quality that I can see in there is nurtured more in the next round.