This third season of the Marvel tale set in New York runs for thirteen episode and after Episode 1, which I rated as 6/10, barely enough to keep me going, “Daredevil” ambles onwards at a pace that frustrated me. Charlie Cox tries hard as the blind masked avenger left for dead at the end of Season 2, but there’s no compelling magic here, and Vincent D’Onofrio’s portrayal of arch villain Fisk lacks the necessary menace. The fight scenes thump and smack with tremendous vitalism but I wasn’t watching a Kung Fu movie. At the end of Episode 4, I was nearly ready to give up. But perhaps the slow build has a point, for Episodes 5 and 6, as Fisk sets in place a plan to usurp Daredevil for his own dastardly ends, suddenly roar into life. Wilson Bethel emerges as a genuinely malevolent, wicked mock Daredevil, and Deborah Ann Woll’s performance as Karen Page notches up the drama. I’m now halfway and hooked for the last seven episodes… hope they deliver!
Laurel and Hardy epitomise nostalgia, nostalgia for an era of gentle slapstick comedy that would not even surface in modern times. “Stan and Ollie” is an affectionate take on the famous comedy duo’s last stand, a tour of United Kingdom well after their box office stardom. This is a film where the acting receives mention more than any other attribute: Steve Coogan is triumphant in his immersive role as Stan Laurel, and John C. Reilly is pretty damned good as Oliver Hardy, and the supporting cast is nuanced and pitch perfect. The settings in various parts of the British Isles are lovely and the soundtrack is suitably ancient. And yet… and yet nothing much happens. I guess what I’m saying is that with a different script or in the hands of a different director, this mild tribute to creative friendship and partnership could have been immersive; instead it drags. I wish I could have enjoyed it more.
One of the oddest documentaries I’ve ever had the privilege to watch, and I say privilege because this is drama of a fierce, fierce kind. “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” pivots around reels and reels of tennis instructional footage taken at Roland Garros during the French Open in the 70s and 80s, shot with noisy slow-mo cameras. Faraut cleverly sidles up to his focus, namely McEnroe, clearly an obsession of Gil de Kermadec, the French head of the filming project, and you wonder if Faraut is going to look more generally at tennis talent. But the final two thirds of the movie is all McEnroe, juxtaposing his artistry (one can swoon at the slo-mo of his drop shots and drop volleys) and his on-court antics. Was he spoiled brat or was it all a means of revving up performance? Faraut indulges in some pop psychology but then the final twenty minutes comes down to one match in June 1984, when McEnroe, during a nearly flawless year, takes the first two sets in his Roland Garros final against Ivan Lendl, only to begin to flounder. An electric guitar soundtrack roars as the slo-mo cameras from different angles capture the pent-up agonies on McEnroe’s face, in his posture. This is not acting, this is real, this is film showing the inner person under utmost stress. Extraordinary, I left the cinema shaking my head in awe at Faraut’s filmic genius.
A Rwandan genocide survivor adopted by a international justice prosecutor… a complex case launched… mysterious players… governments involved… the terrain of Hugo Blick’s “Black Earth Rising” is devilishly tricky and right at the heart of modern morality. If Episode 1 is representative, it’s also a humdinger of a thriller, for there are more plot twists here than in most entire series. Michaela Coel is stunning as survivor Kate Ashby, her judge mother is brilliantly played by Harriet Walter, no bit player misses a beat, and there’s even an ongoing oddly effective role played by John Goodman. Spiffy cinematography and crunchy dialogue round out a season opener that begs for a dose of the binges.
Put me in front of a biopic and watch me squirm with frustration. Real life is fascinating but rarely makes for a finely judged story. So I came to “On the Basis of Sex” with apprehension (especially as I’d missed seeing the much-lauded documentary “RGB” about Ruth Bader Ginsburg). I shouldn’t have fussed: Mimi Leder is an excellent director, with an intelligent, finely balanced grasp of story and drama, and the script from Daniel Stiepleman barely puts a foot wrong. Perhaps the reason that this biopic works is that it isn’t really a biopic. Instead it sets the scene with some early-life flashbacks and then settles into a tense, inspiring look at Ginsburg’s very first success at changing U.S. legislation on the basis of sex discrimination. And what a drama it is, with the outcome swinging on a few minutes’ testimony by feisty, whip-smart Ginsburg. Felicity Jones produces a career-best performance as Ginsburg, and Armie Hammer ends up delivering the goods as Martin Ginsburg even if he looks too wholesome. The chauvinistic villains are played by capable character actors. I was swept up by the rousing tale, one little told, and didn’t come down until the abrupt but smart ending. Recommended.
“Russian Doll” is, based on the first episode, a hoot of a remake of “Groundhog Day.” Its frontline star, Natasha Lyonne (who apparently co-created the series), is not an actor I know, much to my detriment, for she’s an instantly charismatic mid-thirties New York City hardcase intellectual cynic. The plot conceit is, of course, that soon after the episode kicks off at her birthday party, she gets cleaned up by a yellow cab while seeking her cat… and wham, she’s back at the party, again and again and again. Nothing is all that clear in the first episode but it’s clear that we’re in for a zingy, clever-clever plot of recurring but morphing life episodes, like the unpacking of a Russian doll. The sets are super evocative, every character so far is subtly brilliant, and the music rules. I can’t recommend it too highly and can only hope the plot chicanery can sustain my interest over the remaining episodes.
The final half of “Berlin Station Season 3” is a careening, uber-tense rollercoaster, as the American spies battle to keep Estonia from falling into the arms of a Russian overlord. Plot twists occur almost every five minutes and one of them in particular had me leaping from my chair. If I could have, I would have binge-watched it in one four-hour sitting, but the Australian release of episodes was drawn out. I’ve said as much as I need to in previous reviews of Season 3 about the brilliant acting and precision cinematography; suffice it to say that the quality never slackens off, which is remarkable after three full seasons. Episode 9 was as exciting as any action movie I’ve watched in recent years. If Episode 10, which needed to wrap up all the intricate strands convincingly, ends up being, like Episode 1, a little bit like a jigsaw puzzle, I’m sure no Berlin Station or Olen Steinhauer fan will complain. Bring on Season 4… please!
Mahershali Ali is brilliant as an African-American jazz musician touring racist southern USA in the early 60s, and Vigo Mortensen is even more brilliant as Tony Lip, his hired Italian-American driver, in the feel-good “Green Book.” The movie quickly transcends the regrettable mantle of “based on a true story” and rattles along at just the perfect pace. The issues of racism are smoothly and sensitively tackled, all the acting is flawless, and the film’s only downside is a huge crest of sentimentality over the final quarter hour. A sweet example of a mismatched duo film that exudes intelligence.
Musicals and I don’t mix but for some reason I was attracted to seeing “Mary Poppins Returns” as a window into my childhood memories of the original. I’m pleased to report that Disney and director Marshall have not messed with the vibe of the original, indeed they have faithfully echoed it amidst a narrative shift to the modern day. The conceit is that the original Mary Poppins kids are now adults, the grown-up boy now having three precocious kids. Their mother has died, the dad is in trouble, and Colin Firth plays a malevolent banker. Zing! Down floats the “almost perfect” nanny, played to perfection by Emily Blunt. Moments of sentimentality abound but it all depends on your attachment to the original; we went with older friends who despised this treacly singalong but I channeled my inner boy and enjoyed it from start to finish. A triumph of restrained Disney magic.
“Roma” is subdued yet stark, arty but earthy, an odd film for someone like me, sitting at the askew end of the mainstream movie-going public. The writer/director/ cinematographer has shot the entire two and a quarter hours in a dreamy black and white palette with an expressive range of grays, and he has an instinct for drawing in close or backing out into chroreographed sweeps. The story of a year in the life of the maid of a Mexican middle-class family in the early 1970s is presented with little setup or concession to storytelling ease, so I was forced to concentrate hard, and I found that intoxicating. Yalitza Apiricio, the newbie actor playing the maid, is stunning, especially in her silences. Her relationship with her mistress’s children is rendered subtly and convincingly. The actual storyline – the plot if you like – is the film’s only drawback. Though there are scenes of great drama – the massacre, the surf – the overall narrative lacks punch. Call it verity if you like but parts of the showing dragged. Overall, a most intriguing expression of a vision, but one that needed, in my opinion, additional dramatic depth.