What better way to farewell 2020 than a spoofy news recap? “Death to 2020” is a seventy-minute, month-by-month recap of actual footage, including talking-heads commentary from experts … except that the voice-overs and interview snippets are played by actors, hamming up like crazy. The star turn is from Hugh Grant, playing a crusty British historian who gets reality confused with Game of Thrones; every one of his appearances raises a chuckle. Samuel L. Jackson also commands attention as an aggressive newsman. Samson Kayo works well as a virus expert. Other mock contributors, even when acted well, are less successful, either unfunny or too relentless or plain silly, but all of them rustle up at least one or two amusing segments. The pace is relentless, and a recap of the year can remind us of forgotten events, but overall, Death to 2020 is an hour of entertainment that winds up as an opportunity missed.
My love-hate relationship with superhero movies, as unfurled in the third decade of the 21st Century, continues. “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” is apparently the second offering of a specific spin-off from Batman/Joker, the conceit being that Joker’s girlfriend, the sassy, garish, “with attitude” Harley Quinn parts from the villain and finds her way in the world, be it as goodie or baddie. In this movie, Harley finds herself arrayed with (and often against) three other amped-up female protagonists, one a cop, the others ultra-athlete goodie/baddies, in a race to save a feisty teenager (played with amazing panache and irony by Ella Jay Basco) being pursued by the film’s arch-villain, hammed up by Ewan McGregor. The storyline isn’t bad for a superhero movie but the film’s two key hooks are gorgeously choreographed action scenes and the take-no-prisoners, expletive-mouthed performance of brilliant Margot Robbie in the title role. Much of the movie sings a fevered song that is just how a superhero movie should unfold. But is it just me to tire so quickly of biffy, smashing fight scenes that, in spite of the balletic precision, quickly descend into tedium? Am I overstating my persistent flashes of impatience that bordered on tedium? Luckily, Harley Quinn’s exuberant set pieces cured most ills as the film plummeted towards a reasonably plotted ending. Overall, Birds of Prey is an odd mix of filmic brilliance and superhero blandishments, and is a fine entertainment that fails to move beyond entertainment.
That Robert Connolly chose to tackle a bog standard genre mystery novel indicates how emblematic he considers Jane Harper’s bestselling debut to be. “The Dry” faithfully tracks Harper’s intricate plot and also aspires to mirror that novel’s star feature, its evocation of a drought-desiccated Australian outback town. On both counts Connolly’s sure hands are evident. The serpentine plot is unfolded with precision, a feat made more difficult by copious flashbacks. And the cinematography evokes the look and sound of a Mallee town beset by nearly a year without rain. Eric Bana is well cast, and acts strongly, playing Aaron Falk, a Melbourne policeman who returns to his birth town for the funeral of his best friend from school days, who has seemingly killed his wife and daughter, before killing himself. Aaron had fled after a teenage female friend was found killed; now the past and present collide as he seeks to exonerate his mate. I recall the novel had a swift, twisting plot, and the movie’s faithful rendering of that ratchets up the tension until a final, unexpected ending. So … The Dry is a bog standard genre mystery movie that matches and perhaps slightly betters its novelistic birth. Recommended as a fine two hours of moviegoing.
“Monsters of Man,” a low-budget, self-financed movie about robots amok, should show signs of shabbiness and cliche, but it does not, not at all. Mark Toia has penned a speedball, intelligent script and his direction, informed no doubt by a career in screen commercials, is stellar. The robots are seamlessly believable. The plotline sounds familiar in the telling – a new line of combat robots is released for testing into a supposedly deserted Asian jungle, only to find half a dozen young doctors, villagers, and an ex-Navy Seal. A bloodthirsty hunt and battle ensues. Yet the screenplay displays very little banality and the action sequences are positively thrilling. The large cast of hapless quarry, warriors, and evildoers is uniformly serviceable, no more or less than what is needed, but the true stars are the robots, including one that seeks to evolve and question existentially. Monsters of Man comes highly recommended as a smart, visually impressive thriller that reminded me of the classic days of the Alastair Maclean novels turned to film.
Netflix knows how to market the heck out of movies. Its trailers work. “Enola Holmes,” being the conceit of Sherlock Holmes’s perky young sister at loose in a scary world, is portrayed as a fresh addition to the Holmes canon, another example of deductive thinking in operation in nineteenth century England. But I should have checked before watching. The underlying novel is YA and from the opening frame, it is clear that this is a dumbed-down kids’ flick. Millie Boobie Brown does a serviceable job in the title role but her character is an excessively disarming lightweight whose few attempts at Holmesian deduction are nonsensically silly. Enola’s brothers Mycroft and Sherlock are portrayed as enemy and reluctant ally, but are played by actors with no flair or depth. The storyline is puerile and without sensible progression or surprise. I can say that the English cinematography is suitably lush. All in all, Enola Holmes is a waste of time.
An exquisite, understated gem that speaks to the ongoing oppression of women, “Puzzle” tells of a loyal, hardworking wife of a car mechanic in a whitebread burb of America, who accidentally discovers she is a whiz at crossword puzzles. Seeking to pursue this revelatory interest, she finds herself partnering a sophisticated New York puzzle competitor, and vying in competitions, even as her newfound individuality rams up against the small-mindedness of her town and family. Kelly Macdonald is flawless in the key role, the late Irrfan Khan plays the New Yorker with wonderful individuality and assuredness, and the supporting actors are all strong. The narrative evolves softly, with few huge climaxes, but the net effect is powerful, and I saw the film as both a cry for our heroine’s freedom but also as an existential examination of meaning. One scene, in which the small-town intruder asks the intellectual why he puzzles, was especially profound. Overall, Puzzle fizzes with deep, lustrous energy.
The golden age of streaming-funded movies and series continues uninterrupted. My sampling of the deluge was significant but not complete (who can afford all the platforms?). These ten treasures stand out (one them rated, believe it or not, at 10/10, the rest rated 9/10):
I Am Greta was documentary perfection that called out to me (my current focus is clear – four on this list tackle the climate emergency), Both humanizing and humbly lauding Greta Thunberg by traveling with her over recent years, Nathan Grossman has created a compelling classic.
What grips the viewer throughout Season 5 of Shetland is the galvanic intensity of Douglas Henshall in the role of DI Jimmy Perez. The final season of a wonderful murder mystery series.
Stunning performances by Kaitlyn Dever, Merritt Wever, and Toni Collette also propel Unbelievable, a nitty-gritty police procedural about hunting a serial rapist, from ordinariness to greatness.
Aaron Sorkin employs brilliant, focused storytelling and a stellar cast in portraying the aftermath of a Chicago riot during the 1968 U.S. presidential election. The Trial of the Chicago 7 mesmerizes and is so pertinent.
Witness statement about the climate emergency, distilled from David Attenborough’s decades of nature reporting … action message … A Life on Our Planet is essential viewing today, not tomorrow.
Juice, made by Tyson Culver and narrated by author Robert Bryce, extols electricity in the here and now, but also for the future. I can argue with some of their prescriptions, but the sparkling narrative of electric power is an exemplar of storytelling.
Season 4 of Cardinal is the grimmest one yet, so it’s just as well that it is the finale. A fraught tale underpinned by unforgettable acting.
Alice Winocour’s Proxima is “realistic” sci-fi, a movie about astronauts, but more than that, Eva Green’s stunning star role shines a light on motherhood.
Utterly unexpected and beguiling was the violent yet lyrical Giri/Haji, a unique tale of the Yakuza in London.
Sasha Snow’s incendiary, stately doco on Roger Hallam, The Troublemaker, is divisive but compelling. An invitation, really, one not to be ignored, to join Extinction Rebellion. So well made!
Take a look also at these honorable mentions (one rated at 9/10, the rest at 8/10): the “nature docos” of Chasing Coral and My Octopus Teacher; Staged, a lockdown meta film; wacky comedy in Medical Police; three thrillers/mysteries: Bosch Season 6, Killing Eve Season 3, and The Gentlemen; two superb dramas: Sorry We Missed You and Years and Years; and Call My Agent Season 3.
I abhor royalty (doesn’t everyone?) but, inexplicably, have been gripped by “The Crown,” created by Peter Morgan, who must retain a strong grip on the series’ writers and directors, because its hallmark is a stunning combination of narrative smarts and filmic atmospherics. The first two seasons were especially engrossing, anchored as they were be Claire Foy’s powerful performances as Queen Elizabeth II, and by a backdrop of England’s geopolitical decline amidst a new Cold War. Those two seasons, embracing the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s, exuded the drama of a new monarch amidst vast externalities. In Season 3, the narrative lens turns inwards, to an expanding Royal family (Josh O’Connor is hypnotic as young Prince Charles) that, frankly (in my opinion), reveals the family in a truer, dysfunctional light. After the initial visual and aural shock of Claire Foy being replaced by Olivia Coleman (who is excellent), and other replacements, we settle into a foggy world of pettiness and stupidity, a world that should repel me but the series’ storytelling magic remains strong. In conclusion, if you missed the first two seasons, they should be preferred, but Season 3 of The Crown maintains a steady record of engaging viewing.
Never miss a Ken Loach film, I’ve always said, and “Sorry We Missed You” is a coruscating film which packs an emotional wallop. This time Loach takes on the franchise-style gig economy, focusing on Ricky, a northern English construction worker who enslaves himself to a package delivery firm under usurious conditions, and his embattled social worker wife, Abbie. Throw in two children, one of them a rebellious graffiti’ing teenage boy, grind out the ruthlessly programmed strictures of Ricky’s new job, factor in Ricky’s temper and Abbie’s saintliness, and Loach cooks up a horrifying plot of enfolding disasters. Kris Hitchen is superb as Ricky, Debbie Honeywood is understated but powerful, Rhys Stone brilliantly portrays the son, and Ross Brewster makes for an absolutely believable monster boss. As ever, Loach provides a forensic scene-by-scene dissection of the courier business without burdening the viewer. I was riveted even though the gloom is unrelenting. Is Sorry We Missed You a highlight of Loach’s long and distinguished career? I’m willing to bet it is.
Season 2 of “Criminal UK” is an excellent follow-up, located on the same moody set of interrogation room, spying room, and corridor outside; underpinned by an unchanged format of intense interview intended to crack a possible crook. Nothing is telegraphed, no back story intrudes, the dynamics between the four or five police/legal crew slide in beside the main action. Four standalone episodes this time: a convicted murderer’s wife grilled about a new lead; a sleazebag alpha male and a possible post-work rape; an online vigilante; and a murderer negotiating victim locations. As in the first season, the actors playing the prosecutorial team, inevitably often overshadowed by the centerpiece suspects, are wonderful. Standouts are again Katherine Kelly and Lee Ingleby (whom I have just admired in The A Word). But Criminal UK stands or falls with the grandstanding suspects, and while all four performances in Season 2 are fine, let me single out Sophie Okonedo in a nuanced, horrifying reveal, and Kunnal Nayyar’s chilling psychopath portrayal. My only regret with this season of Criminal UK is that Netflix seems to have foresaken Criminal France, Criminal Germany, and Criminal Spain.