Tag Archives: Writer

Black Earth Rising

[4 stars]

Like his previous Honourable Woman, Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising has a unique tone and flavor determined by its story’s origins. The approach sets his work apart keeps them feeling new, despite recognizable venues, structure, and format. The 8-part road is twisty and complex, but laid out logically and credibly to bring you along, though you are unlikely to get ahead of it. His ability to find strong and capable talent doesn’t hurt the result either.

This story, also like Honourable Woman, is driven by a powerful female character…given terrible life by Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum, Black Mirror). Coel dominates the tale from her first moments on screen until her last in a complicated and dark role. It is riveting and heart-breaking to watch this woman come to terms with her past and her present. She is fiercely intelligent, physically powerful, and with a magnetism that takes over the screen when she appears. She doesn’t steal focus, but she cannot help but remake each scene around herself.

She is joined by John Goodman (Atomic Blonde) who brings us a troubled and layered lawyer seeking justice and happiness, though often watching both slip through his fingers. Harriet Walter (Donmar Project), as her mother, is a study in conflicting emotions; a tight and warring collection of memories and intentions expertly controlled and utterly riveting.

Additional roles fill out the world, with some notable performances by Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU), Noma DumezweniLucian Msamati (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), Abena Ayivor, and Emmanuel Imani. But the entire cast is strong.

While these performances alone are a great reason to watch the series, it is the writing and the story that make it worth tuning into this dark but fascinating story about international justice and questions of truth and history. That quality shouldn’t be surprising given it is from Blick as the creator and writer/director for the 8 episode sequence. He also employs some interesting visual approaches to both expose the past and pull themes through the series.

Blick is unafraid of complex questions, politically and personally. He does have a penchant for high conspiracy but, in this case, it feels very logical if disturbing. The point of Black Earth Rising is to raise awareness and to force viewers to recognize some very hard truths about the world and how their own desires help drive it. But it is also a highly personal story and one that is deeply emotional and healing. Whether or not the story gets the accolades it deserves, Coel’s performance will certainly be identified as one of the best of the year.

Imitation Girl

[3.5 stars]

Alien arrives on Earth and takes the guise of an adult movie star. Salacious, right? Possibly even puerile? You’d be wrong. It isn’t even more on the trippy side like Liquid Sky. Imitation Girl is a decidedly personal tale of a woman coming to terms with her life and her choices. It is anything but forcefully sexy, though it is certainly intimate.

Lauren Ashley Carter (Premium Rush) pulls off both main roles with an understated assurance that leaves you forgetting it is the same person. She is the movie, not to mention that she learned Farsi along the way. I look forward to seeing her in more roles at some point to see what more she can do. The rest of the cast are all fine, but they fall away as it all comes together. And, frankly, that is a good thing as they aren’t the focus.

The ending is sort of a non-ending, or it is hugely metaphorical. Though, to be fair, the entire story is metaphorical. But the end is also rather expected and, because of that, a tad of a let down after such an interesting ride. But this is a film that shows real talent on the part of the director/writer, Natasha Kermani. To navigate the world she created and to sell these characters without resorting to cheap and expected moments took a good eye and discipline. She is definitely a creator to watch for down the road.

Imitation Girl

Life Itself

[3 stars]

If you were expecting a light, or even just endearing date movie, move along. Dan Fogelman (This is Us) has delivered an interestingly structured film that is well-executed, but it is none of those things. Life Itself is more of a “triumphant tragedy” with some amazing performances. But it is a long path through some dark times to get to that triumph. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have humor and lighter moments throughout, but part of the point of the film is the ups and downs of life.

Oscar Isaac (Annihilation) and Olivia Wilde (Love the Coopers) really dominate the story. Not only do they work well together, but their individual stories are also complexly layered. Antonio Banderas (The Expendables 3) also has a challenging role that he sells well. The rest of the cast are very good but don’t really have the time to have equal impact. Olivia Cooke (Thoroughbreds), for instance, has a powerful presence, but without the time to expand on or add to her character.

This is a story that may have worked better on the small screen or as a book. It is clever and its message is strong, it just doesn’t get there in the way you expect. And, frankly, the ending loses a bit of steam. I still think the film is worth seeing at some point, but go in expecting drama more than comedy or light romance. I felt positive leaving the theater, but it was a more sobering feeling than a warm, fuzzy one.

Life Itself

Hearts Beat Loud

[3.5 stars]

There have been many films about wannabe or aspiring musicians over recent years. They cover quite a bit of ground as well. From Juliet Naked to Begin Again to Sing Street to Song to Song or even the more tangential like Rudderless, they tend, mostly to focus on adults looking for their lost moments or kids getting together to make their way.

Don’t get me wrong, Nick Offerman (Nostalgia) certainly fills that adult bill in Hearts Beat Loud; but as much as he drives the movie, it isn’t about him. The point of the story really revolves about his daughter, Kiersey Clemons (Flatliners) and their relationship. Music is essential and plays a role, but this is primarily a film about family not fame.

Around the pair are some great supporting characters. Relative newcomer, Sasha Lane (American Honey) and Clemons make a great pairing. Their interactions are quietly intense, and, admittedly, a bit too chaste for 18 year olds, but still very effective.

For Offerman, Toni Collette (Hereditary) and Ted Danson build out his story and world with humor and complications. On the other hand, Bythe Danner (I’ll See You in My Dreams) is, sadly, all but lost in this story. She is a bit of background that you can see has meaning, but there is little done with it and it is one of the few real misfires in the flick for me.

Director and co-writer Brett Haley (The Hero) reteamed with Marc Basch to pen this story that lives in a comfortable groove in our expectations but manages to stay unexpected in its execution, like a good song. Even Keegan DeWitt’s (The Hero) music is not your typical choice of “new band creates massively brilliant music.” They are clearly songs filled with promise and with an indie approach to pop music, but none feel entirely finished. They feel, in fact, like a beginning songwriter with talent learning their craft.

The pacing of this movie is deliberate. Not slow, per se, but certainly not a runaway train. Haley lets the story layer and build so the ending has impact. When you want a sweet evening and have the need for a good story that takes you through a range of emotions, Hearts Beat Loud is a great choice.

Hearts Beat Loud

Ida

[4 stars]

Ida navigates a crisp landscape of grays with quiet tension. In fact the black and white filmed film goes to great pains to keep it all gray except for notable spots of deep black that are intended to draw our eye. It is a beautiful and painful film that focuses on personal choice and identity, despite being surrounded with many tales of morality.

The young Ida, given life by Agata Trzebuchowska in her first role, is as near silent and immobile as one of the idols she maintains in her convent. But it is a stillness that radiates information and emotion. She is brought into the greater world by her aunt, inhabited by a near equally quiet and complex Agata Kulesza. They know nothing of one another, for reasons that become plain, but are drawn together by the bonds of family as the only remaining survivors of WWII. The women make an odd combination, talking more in their silences than they do with their words.  It is a beautiful thing to watch.

Director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski has an amazing eye and sure hand. His co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Disobedience) and he kept paring down the script to its essentials in words and moments. The entire film comes in at 1:22, but it is like eating a super-rich cake. A small amount is filling and satisfying…and in no way feels like a small thing when you’re done.

Ida was massively nominated and won many awards. All deserved. Appreciate this film for the story, the characters, and the gorgeous cinematography by Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal (Loving Vincent). It is very much time well spent.

Ida

Quatermass and the Pit

[3.5 stars]

I would have sworn to you that I’d seen this before. But when I got the opportunity to “re-watch” it recently, I discovered I was very wrong. What I had seen was 5 Million Years to Earth. That flick is a condensed, movie-version of this 6-part serial by the same writer, Nigel Kneale. Confusing matters is that 5 Million Years to Earth is also a title that has been used for the series at times through the years.

[As a side note if these titles sound familiar, don’t confuse it with their contemporary, 20 Million Years to Earth, which is a whole different thing and a classic in its own right.]

Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, the show is a victim of its era, but it is also decidedly ahead of it in some ways. In fact, it is rather on point for today’s rise in xenophobia. It’s even brave enough to reuse film from the Blitz as part of its action and message barely ten years after the events. Also, the female assistant,  Christine Finn, who’s voice you might recognize from the original Thunderbirdsis about the most competent of the adults in the room.

Now, it also depicts government types as bullheaded and uneducated… OK perhaps that’s on point for our times as well more than we’d like to admit. However, generally, it was just an easy way out to write the plot, which is more complex and deeper than you’d expect for a 1958 genre classic. And, of course, there are the buckets of tea made by characters when things get dicey.

Adding to the fun and the history of it all is that Quatermass is also a direct pre-cursor to Doctor Who, which would launch 5 years later. Whether in the air or as an influencer, it is an unavoidable comparison. Seeing the bones of what inspired Who was really quite eye opening. The first Doctor even has a lot of the same mannerisms and demeanor as André Morell’s Quatermass, particularly in this sequence of the on-again, off-again show. By the way, his colleague in the plot, Cec Linder, and he both worked in TV and film until they died…these were two solid actors who gave it their all, even in this off-beat BBC offering. 

But the Who link isn’t the reason to make time for the series. Quatermass tackles questions that are still debated today and, unabashedly, suggests some answers. Given the recent discovery of a liquid lake on Mars, perhaps not entirely nutty answers. Yes, it is low-fi in its presentation, but it dose a lot with what it has, often by only inferring what you see. Yes, the plot is pushed along by less than delicate means at times. But it is just as often surprising and is undeniably captivating if you enjoy the genre at all. Make sure you see this rather than being sure you have. It wouldn’t be a waste to rewatch it, but it would certainly be a shame to never have.

Quatermass and the Pit

Ordeal by Innocence

[3.5 stars]

The latest evolution of Agatha Christie continues. Unlike the better known story Murder on the Orient Express, however, this particular stand-alone mystery is less familiar, though it was turned into a Marple mystery and a separate movie. I’ve seen both of these versions, but frankly don’t remember them that well. This incarnation, however, is a gripping three-part drama that keeps you guessing till the very end.

Sarah Phelps, who also wrote the recent and wonderful Witness for the Prosecution, adapted and constructed this mystery to provide a number of believable suspects. Director Sandra Goldbacher (Me Without You) controls the mystery and motives to keep you rethinking your options. The field of possible murderers doesn’t even start to diminish until the last 30 minutes of the three episode series, as the truth fully comes out.

Casting certainly was in their favor as well. With Bill Nighy (The Limehouse Golem) leading the family along with Anna Chancellor (Shetland), there is a great dynamic that sets the tension. The family of adopted children each bring their own sensibility and motivations. Anthony Boyle has the most complex role of the sibs, but he is well supported by Christian Cooke (Witches of East End), Crystal Clarke (Assassin’s Creed), Ella Purnell (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children), and Eleanor Tomlinson (Death Comes to Pemberly). A couple of outsiders bring in the final ingredients: Luke Treadaway (Fortitude) and Matthew Goode (Self/less).

To be honest, it isn’t an entirely fair mystery; some information is held back till the final episode. Some of the blind spots are obvious (we see the murder multiple times from different time frames and angles) but some are about hidden relationships. However, even though the “who” is strung out, the clues and other aspects of the construction are beautiful. It all adds up to a much more believable story than we usually get to see, and one that is delightfully dark and satisfying through to the final frame.

Disobedience

[3.5 stars]

Sebastián Lelio has had a hell of a run on screen. His last few films have all been quiet, emotionally powerful stories of women finding their feet in the world. With Gloria, he looked at an older woman reassessing her life. With A Fantastic Woman, he took on a transgender woman accepting herself and the loss of her love. With co-writer Lenkiewicz (Ida), in Disobedience, he tackles the intersection of deep, fundamentalist beliefs, desire and, as with all his films, escaping the weight of the past.

This film boasts a triumvirate of powerful characters embodied by Rachel Weisz (Denial), Rachel McAdams (Game Night) and Alessandro Nivola (Selma). Each of these people must navigate a complex web of connections and expectations as well as their own inner demons to find a way forward. While the main focus is on the women, there is history to the three that is only slowly revealed. The less you know going in, the better to appreciate the work that Lelio put into the film.

Lelio is a patient director. He lays out stories and insists that they slowly reveal themselves and build, much like life. We only see so much at a time and, rarely, do we get explanations. We have to intuit the issues or wait for an inciting moment to get details, but the information is there. Disobedience is no exception. He presents a situation and hints at unspoken tensions, but doesn’t explain them immediately, driving tension into otherwise mundane and quiet situations.

When you have a couple hours and want to see some real craft, both on screen and behind it, put this on. It tackles a culture that is rarely depicted with care and appreciation, and it is packed with brilliant acting and direction.

Disobedience

Equalizer 2

[4.5 stars]

Straight up, this is the best film I’ve seen yet this summer. There are other films out there which were more pure entertainment (Deadpool, Avengers), but Equalizer is also just a damned good film.

This is both Denzel Washington’s (Roman J. Israel, Esq) and Antoine Fuqua’s (The Magnificent Seven) first ever sequel, and they chose to do it together. And damn if they didn’t make a good choice.

The first installment of The Equalizer was fun, but frankly it was a riff on the old TV series and a bit of a money grab with some cheap emotional content. This sequel is much more personal, much more unique, and one hell of a suspense-filled ride. Richard Wenk’s (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) script is clever and tight. In Fuqua’s hands it sails through its 2 hours with its hands at your throat. This isn’t a Liam Neeson Commuter kind of romp. Our man McCall is active and purposeful, and, in this movie, driven to improve the world. The story is filled with layers, complexity, and metaphors. They could have called it The Oncoming Storm if that wasn’t already taken by Doctor Who.

Melissa Leo (Furlough) reprises her role with a bit of glee and sharp wits. Her partner, Pedro Pascal (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), expands that aspect of Washington’s world and brings in a new perspective. There are some other nice performances and side stories, but it is the interplay of these three that bring it together.

In the current times, where the rule of law and accountability seems to have vanished at the highest levels, a story about someone applying justice is compelling. It comes at a high cost in the film, but it also provides payment. There are a couple dropped threads in the story overall, but it is a great ride, fully satisfying, and should leave you catching your breath by the final scene.

The Equalizer II

The Endless

[3 stars]

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s follow-up to their surprising Spring is just as unique, if not quite as endearing. Where Spring was pretty much a horror/romance, Endless is more of a subtle science fiction piece with fewer direct answers, though with plenty of clues. In addition to writing and directing this one, they also decided to star in it as a pair of brothers working through their past and present together.

While there is a nice range in the cast, Callie Hernandez (Alien: Covenant) and Lew Temple (Walking Dead) are the two that stand-out alongside our dynamic duo. There are louder and brasher performances, but these two have more levels.

As writer/directors, Benson and Moorhead sensibility of character and the world is a bit like Kevin Smith, but their execution and intent is closer to Coppola or Kubrik. They’re not quite to that level yet, but their insistence on complex geometry in their plots, their liquidity of genre, and their economy of shots implies a great path for the future. The two really care about character and story. And while they’ll occasionally slip into the sophomoric, they don’t allow it to dominate their tales, only spice it.

If you liked Spring, you’ll like Endless. If you haven’t seen Spring, give this a shot for a sense of what goes on in the heads of a couple up and coming filmmakers. I can’t say I found it quite as satisfying as Spring, and it is more than a little male-heavy, but it left me thinking and intrigued on a story level, which is always a good sign.

The Endless