Hannelore Cayre’s pithy, packed crime thriller was a most unusual, delightful lockdown read. A tale of a Paris-based translator of Arabic drug dealer wire taps who crosses to the other side, it was mordant yet exciting. Because much of the pleasure of the novel lies in the hero’s inner thoughts (including much about the business of dealing drugs), I feared that the new movie version of “The Godmother” would flop, but my worries were misplaced. Cayre is credited as scriptwriter along with director Jean-Paul Salomé, and the script, while working harder on visual comedy and drama, and less on back story, retains the sharp, dark character of the book. Isabell Huppert is supremely confident and empathetic as “Mama Weed” (the French title), and the tautly choreographed actions scenes, one after the other, are filmed with great flair. The Godmother turns out to be an exuberant, French-infused caper film and is a hoot to watch.
What a refreshing “of the moment” series from veteran political journalist Annabel Crabb! The four episodes of “Ms Represented” examine the history of female parliamentarians and senators in Australia, from the early days when a single woman might swim amongst the sharks, through the awakening decades when handfuls of women got elected, through the glory days of our first female Prime Minister, up to the present day. Crabb has a natural affinity with her many interviewees, so that the tale is told through the eyes of a panoply of female politicians from all political parties, buttressed by her sure narrative and wonderful historical footage. The series takes no prisoners, slamming the pervasive sexism over the past century, a sexism that still reigns supreme in the corridors of Canberra. The various interviewees are all a delight, and the fact that Crabb is able to get some of them to ham up in telling the story is a credit to the rapport she achieved. Steady direction and surefooted scripting ensures smooth, immersive viewing. In the end, I was left with a joyful sense of hard-won progress tempered by the realisation that Australian politics remains blokey and primitive. Ms Represented is a perky, intelligent blast of immediate history.
“Thin Ice” offers so much: a setup (an Arctic Council meets in Greenland to sign a climate-emergency treaty) snatched from our headlines; eye-candy scenery amidst the grandeur of Greenland’s vast spaces and its town with colored houses; the promise of intrigue involving different countries, different languages; and ice-and-snow action scenes wonderfully staged? So why does the Swedish eight-part series periodically falter, risking viewer withdrawal. Whilst much of the direction is tight and slick, the frequent hotel scenes can occasionally seem clunky. As well, although the acting is serviceable (notables including Bianca Kronlöf and Angunnguaq Larsen), two key actors remain unconvincing throughout. And although plot switchbacks are de rigeur for such thrillers, the plot complexity of Thin Ice is torrid enough to raise eyebrows. Overall, entertaining and scenic but not outstanding.
Am I the only soul who hasn’t seen Bryan Cranston blitz the world in Breaking Bad? I came to “Your Honor” hesitatingly: what if he isn’t the compelling actor everyone claims he is? I need not have fussed. Peter Moffat’s storyline, about a New Orleans judge facing impossible choices when his son is involved in the hit-and-run of a mob boss’s child, is riveting, a vehicle tailor made for an intense character actor, and Cranston nails each and every scene. Over ten leisurely episodes, the sinuous tale twists in a manner almost always unpredictable but just so right. The cinematography is atmospheric, the music thrums with portent, and New Orleans figures as a character in its own right. Amazingly for such a lead-actor-centered drama, the large supporting cast is uniformly excellent, with special mention due to Hunter Doohan’s sensitive-waif portrayal of the judge’s son and Michael Stuhleberg malevolence as the crime lord. In Australia, at least, the streamed version of Your Honor was drip fed week by week. I watched each episode the hour it hit my iPad, so thrilling was the experience.
A superb five-part Russell T. Davies creation, “It’s a Sin” unfolds the lives of three young gay men who hit London at the start of the 1980s, just before the Aids epidemic laid waste to that entire community. Colin is the quiet Welsh boy, played with devastating subtlety by Callum Scott Howells. Roscoe flees his Nigerian religious father; Omari Douglas nails his exuberant defiance. And the heart of the series is Olly Alexander playing the supremely hedonistic Ritchie from the Isle of Wight. Oh, and I must not forget Ritchie’s university friend Jill, played with heart-catching earnestness by Lydia West, who glues together the entire narrative. Not a moment is wasted as the three friends, living in the same house, careen through the eighties in a vivid blur of wild, funny, real events and scenes. It’s a Sin illumes both the era’s homophobia and Britain’s willfully neglectful Aids response, and heartbreak looms large, but mostly it is a celebration of life and love and belonging. Destined to remain a classic.
Tom Hanks’s movies by now loom larger than the actual storyline or script, his trademark reserved seriousness casting a shadow over each one. Some of them half work, others triumph. “News of the World” is in the latter category despite a plot that screams feelgood from the start. A blighted Civil War veteran, who has restored some self pride by becoming a news reader, toting rolled-up broadsheets across the scarred, postwar south and reading them, for coins, to the assembled citizenry. This central plot device in itself inject heft into the film for this viewer, for I love reading to others. The news reader stumbles upon a young girl who was ripped from her family by the Kiowas and can no longer speaks English. Abandoned by terrible fate, she is taken under the wing of our hero, who undertakes a perilous journey, through hideous wayfarers and corrupt communities, to her former German relatives. One realizes early that the ending will be sweet enough, but strangely enough, the filmmaking skill in evidence here washes away the cliches. The wild West is grittily portrayed in subdued colors, Hanks’s young co-star Helena Zengel puts in a riveting performance, and the violent set pieces are brilliantly staged. The ending delighted me. News of the World is an unexpected triumph.
Filmed over four years and perfectly constructed by hitherto unknown documentary filmmaker Benjamin Rees, “The Painter and the Thief” is concurrently a fascinating relationship drama, a deep reflection on art, and an exploration of humanity. When painter Barbara Kysilkova’s two standout paintings are robbed from an Oslo gallery, the main thief, drug addict Karl Bertil-Nordland is soon caught. The paintings remain missing. On an impulse, the painter asks the thief if she can paint him; on an impulse, he agrees. I won’t spoil the riveting plot but suffice to say the two begin a fraught journey together, the thief spiraling back towards prison but yearning for the light, the painter struggling with inner darkness and artistic poverty. The discreet capture of scenes, often months apart, casts each event as private and intense. Barbara and Karl are charismatic in their own ways, both questing. The entire arc of the story is unexpected and moments of beauty abound. Not a moment is wasted, and The Painter and the Thief deserves to be anointed in this year’s awards.
Science fiction is a film genre blessed by our streaming “golden age,” with bold concepts and adventurous futuristic evocations readily gambled upon by Netflix and others, and, from my point of view, that is entirely welcome. I came to “Stowaway,” with its premise of a three-astronaut flight to Mars jeopardized by an unwitting extra passenger, open to the splendiferous recent pleasure of wonderment and excitement that, for example, Proxima delivered. Alas, Stowaway is a pleasant, astronaut-centered spectacle but its early narrative promise soon fizzles out. The central plot conceit fails to generate tension beyond a wonderfully choreographed spacesuit scene and none of the four key characters feels at all carefully cast (although Daniel Dae Kim trumps his better known stars with seriousness and grace). Overall, there is nothing lamentable about Stowaway but it falls well short of its spectacular setting.
Vigilante movies rarely work but when they do, they can be memorable. “Promising Young Woman,” a revenge story for the #MeToo era, follows a young woman turning the tables on misogynistic males, at first in random bars but then increasingly in a targeted fashion relating to an event in our hero’s life. Carey Mulligan is extraordinary as the scheming, candy-sweet-looking avenger, channeling deception, rage, ennui, and regret. Writer-director Emerald Fennell’s script charges ahead from one brilliant scene to another. The cinematography and the music fit perfectly. Promising Young Woman makes for edgy viewing, skirting satire and horror, and the closing bravura scenes seem both inevitable and regrettable from a story point of view. Recommended.
Richard Rhodes, in Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, one of his rich histories of the atom, recounts at length the battle between Stanislaw Ulam, the Polish mathematical prodigy, and Edward Teller, our dark Cold War “Strangelove,” for supremacy and ownership of the Father of the Hydrogen Bomb title. He comes down, if I recall rightly, on Ulam’s side. It is an emblematic story, and, armed with Ulam’s memoir of the same name, should have led to “Adventures of a Mathematician” being a fascinating film for German writer/director Thor Klein. Unfortunately, constrained by being “based on a true story,” this movie seems to ride along with scene after scene sapped of dramatic tension. Phillipe Tiokinski seems well cast for the role (at least based on my limited historical impression of Ulam) but flubs the role. Even the sound seems at fault, with diction difficult to follow. A resounding lode of modern history, Adventures of a Mathematician disappoints.