“Years and Years,” a kinetic yet character-rich drama from the mind of Russell T. Davies, rockets through its six episodes spanning a decade and a half into Britain’s future from the present day. We follow the Manchester Lyons family, two sons and two daughters, together with their grandmother, plus a constellation of brilliant bit players surrounding them, as the United Kingdom decays in a surreal but oh-so-recognizable extension of the Brexit era. From the first minute, there is no let up; the tightly directed script sprints so fast that viewer attention cannot divert. Each of the core family characters plays a key role, and the acting is superb, especially from Russell Tovey (as Daniel Lyons), Ruth Madeley (sister Rosie), Rory Kinnear (brother Stephen), and Emma Thompson (rampaging across the screen as populist politician Vivienne Rook). The plot plunges England and indeed the world into turmoil, refugees flood borders, technological inventions spring up, the family loves and bickers … what a maelstrom. The cinematography is brilliant and the dialogue crackles. All up, an immersive character study of an absorbing family amidst chaos. Highly recommended.
The first season of “After Life” was, I expressed in a review, Ricky Gervais at his best. It somehow married sentimentality to wisdom and side-splitting laughter. What then of Season 2? Well, from the outset the viewer is in no doubt about the storyline, for the first episode quickly establishes that Tony, the sad sack in Season 1 who can’t get over his wife’s death, is still mired in grief. Gervais’s script bestows upon Tony a smidgen of insight and hope from the earlier season, but the routine remains the same: Tony mooches around, berates his acquaintances and wallows in grief. The splendid cast of characters revolving around Tony remains the same, and the acting is terrific, and the rural English town setting is picturesque, and Gervais’s writing and pacing are masterful … but too much sameness is too much sameness. In the first season, I roared with laughter, this time I chuckled appreciatively. In the first season, I often misted with tear, now I chafed at the ickiness. Overall, Season 2 is a pleasant outing over a week of viewing, but is far too unadventurous to be anything but a shadow of Season 1.
As I found last year, a field of excellent books was in general surpassed by an exemplary array of streaming seasons and films. A half year of lockdown viewing (some of it diving back into late 2019) yields seven TV seasons and three movies, of which only one is a documentary, four are thriller/mystery, three are sci-fi/fantasy, and two are contemporary dramas. I rated Succession Season 2 as a flawless 10/10, six films as 9/10, and four as 8/10. In no particular order (where one or two creators “created” the end product, I’ve listed them as authors, but often movie/seasons involve too many creators to cite):
Undone by Raphael Bob-Waksberg & Kate Purdy—who would have thought an animated sci-fi head trip movie would be one of 2019’s stronger offerings?
Unbelievable—a fine team of writers, excellent direction, and stellar acting make this excellent series, a mix of nitty-gritty whodunnit and victim drama, a must-see.
Succession Season 2—every one of the ten episodes of this Shakespearian corporate drama had me transfixed … flawless execution.
Bosch Season 6—as dependable as ever but exhibiting no drop in quality, with justice-driven Harry Bosch only one of the compelling characters.
Juice by Tyson Culver & Robert Bryce—a scintillating and captivating documentary about a seemingly dreary topic, electricity … an exemplar of story and film-making.
Killing Eve Season 3—even as the dramas of Eve and Villanelle shift towards the slightly cartoonish, the visual and narrative content, and the acting, remain vibrant.
Giri/Haji—Yakuza in London … an intoxicating pleasure of plot, acting, cinematography, and even music.
Parasite by Bong Joon-ho—a weird upstairs/downstairs drama in Seoul, compelling viewing from the first frame to the coda, that justly won this year’s Oscar
Proxima by Alice Winocour—the science fiction storyline following a female astronaut training to go to Mars is in reality a prop for one of the most moving parent-child dramas I’ve ever seen.
Good Omens—Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett’s beloved fantasy extravaganza about an angel and a demon in the last days is crowned by stunning acting performances.
“Proxima,” written and directed by Alice Winocour, is a straightforwardly plotted film so stunningly well executed and blessed with acting performances, that the cinematic stage effortlessly expands into a window on life and love. Eva Green deserves an Oscar for her sublime performance as Sarah, a French astronaut selected to join an international space mission, partnering with American Mike (played oh so right by Matt Dillon) and Russian Aleksey (an understated performance by Anton Ocheivsky that is like much of the film, thoroughly convincing, almost documentary style). The mission is heading to Mars and Sarah is subjected to rigorous training which is, again, fully realistic. But Sarah has a young daughter (the role amazingly powerfully nailed by Zélie Akerman Loreau) who is perceptive, emotive, and deeply centered. From the movie’s opening frames, we’re clear that the story is not about space, it addresses love and duty and ambition and all the gaps between. Moving from Cologne to Russia’s Star City, ahum with the mundanity and excitement of preparation for space, the film circles back, again and again, to mother-daughter moments and embraces and glances that break your heart. Well, “Proxima” breached my heart’s walls repeatedly, completely unexpectedly, which is code for “I wept, fellow viewers.” Even now, three days later, I can close my eyes and see the bond wrestling with the upcoming gulf – how can they stand it? This film deserves the status of quiet classic.
Is it really only the third season of “Killing Eve“? We’ve seen so much glossy, extravagant carnage and imaginative plotting in this classic story of female spy chasing female psychopath, both of them precariously attracted to each other, across a glittering global stage! Season 2 was a savage delight but seemed to totter occasionally, the writers unclear on how to knit together the duo’s path through a world of conspiracy and double-crossing. Would Season 3 lose the plot brilliance that distinguished the first two season? Well, there is no need to worry: Season 3 is just as much an unremitting rollercoaster as the first two. Inevitably the “grand scheme” plot is inching towards parody but the game between Eve Palastri (Sandra Oh keeps triumphing in this role, never missing a beat) and Villanelle (Jodie Comer wonderfully deepening the characterization) is sure-footed. Yet it’s the supporting characters that hold the tale intact. A new handler of assassins, Dasha, played with brio by Harriet Walter, freshens up the regulars, including the superbly prim but deceiving spymeister Carolyn (Fiona Shaw always commands attention) and my favorite, the burly humorist Konstantin (Kim Bodnia never wastes a scene). The locales are extravagantly filmed and colored, the dialogue snaps like a mousetrap, and direction of the Villanelle action scenes remains a highlight. What a delight.
Surely six seasons of a police procedural must degenerate into stodge? Not so in the case of “Bosch.” Season 4 and Season 5 both scored 9/10 from me, and I noticed that when the marvellous sax-led theme tune came on near the start of the first episode of Season 6, tears sprang to my eyes. Even more than the terrific, longstanding Bosch book series, by Michael Connelly, the screen version has hit the sweet spot with what must be twenty pitch-perfect characters revolving around the luminous performance of Titus Welliver as Harry Bosch, homicide detective in the City of Angels. Season 6 begins with what appears to be a simpler crime than usual: a doctor steals radioactive cesium when his wife is threatened, and Bosch combines with the FBI to peer into the heart of right-wing terrorists. But the plot twists and twists again in an organic, satisfying manner. And around the action swirl the lives of all the core characters. Pacing is perfect, the cinematography is precise yet lush, and the script is wonderfully tight. Every episode entertains and nearly every episode moves. In a world seemingly rent asunder by a virus and unleashed hatred, “Bosch” Season 6’s classic, people-driven story of right versus wrong stands as a blessing.
Mix up rom-com and modern tragedy as related with the intelligence and wit of Noah Baumbach and you get “Marriage Story,” which is an absorbing take on divorce’s many complications. Adam Driver (he’s everywhere at the moment) does a star turn as an earnest, smart but perhaps overly earnest theatrical producer. The movie opens with the cracking up of his marriage to a similarly earnest and modern and easy-going actress, played with immersive fervor by Scarlet Johansson. Crack, that’s the sound apparent when the actress moves from New York to Los Angeles and, almost unwittingly, hires a shit-hot divorce lawyer (Laura Dern is pitch perfect), setting in place a deteriorating spiral of negotiations and discussions and arguments (one of which is the turbulent heart of the entire film). Baumbach has penned a super tight script and he retains a firm directorial grip. “Marriage Story” is occasionally funny, always smart, increasingly troubling, and, in the end (as it must be) gently redemptive. This is not a classic but comes recommended as a great example of 2020s theatrical-drama style film.
Writer and creator Joe Barton has written a seamless, thrilling, affecting drama that spans eight episodes and two countries and a seemingly huge cast of characters. “Giri/Haji” might seem like a B-grade toiler from its trailer, but it leaps, in my opinion, into classic screen thriller territory. Half, or perhaps even more, of the dialogue takes place in subtitled Japanese, which makes for a pungently immersive cultural experience as well. At heart, the story is the familiar script of good brother chasing bad brother, but around that central arc, which never feels in the slightest inevitable in terms of twists, coil skeins of richly character-driven subplots that all hook back into the mother lode. In raw terms, the plot is this: Kenzo, a driven Tokyo police detective (played with breathtaking authenticity by Takehiro Hera) is dispatched covertly to London to track down his gangster brother Yuto (just as brilliant a depiction by Yôsuke Kubozuka). Yuto was thought to be dead; now he may have killed a Yakuza in London and plunged the Tokyo underworld into carnage. In London, the cast expands to include an idiosyncratic policewoman, a drug addict, a tattooed Brit gang lord, Kenzo’s daughter … all of them leisurely drawn out with fleshed-out lives, even while the drama surges and wanes. The cinematography and music are superlative. Even each episode’s recap of past episodes, a gruff Japanese-inflected potpourri of reflections accompanied by hand-sketched stills, is a captivating element of a captivating cinematic treat. One of this year’s highlights.
John Wayne rides again, except this time it’s Detective Jay Swan astride his police 4WD scything through vast panoramas of central Australian red dust. Aaron Pederson was born for this role and in Ivan Sen’s brutal original movie of the same name, he was spell-binding. The first six-episode season of the “Mystery Road” series paired Pederson with Judy Davis and was less vigilante and more nuanced than the film, and it was a highlight of my 2018 viewing. Now we have six more episodes in Season 2 of “Mystery Road” and I can report that some blissful elements of the Jay Swan narrative remain to entrance us. Swan still swaggers with implacable Australian bush bravado, the cinematography (plenty of gorgeous coastal shots this time) remain a treat, and the essential “Shane vanquishes the bad guys” storyline recurs. Season 2 is worth watching for Swan and the scenery alone, and Swan’s new partner, Fran (skillfully played by Jada Alberts) is a welcome addition. But there is also much to decry. The plot kicks off well with a headless corpse but soon degenerates into tension-less quasi silliness, the dialogue often jars, and the assorted indigenous subplots are clumsy and drift all over the place. There are several moments in the final two episodes during which I audibly groaned, and while I’ll be back for “Mystery Road” Season 3 (it’s Detective Jay Swan, right?), let’s hope they pick up their game.
“Juice: How Electricity Explains the World,” directed by Tyson Culver and co-written by him and Robert Bryce, is a scintillating and captivating tale about a seemingly dreary topic: electricity. Narrated by author Bryce, who travels to Colorado, Iceland, India, New York, Lebanon, and Puerto Rico, with assured enthusiasm, the film’s thesis is simple: electricity is the key to prosperity, present and future. Each of the locations hammers home an aspect of this thesis, and they’re a stunning sequence of case studies, from impoverished peoples, to a hurricane-induced blackout, to bitcoin merchants, to ganja growers. All the various talking heads are wonderfully captured. The script is a zinger and Culver’s direction is modern-day magic, ratcheting up the pace, pleasing the eye and ear, and providing a rock-firm narrative grip. “Juice” derives from Bryce’s just-released book, “A Question of Power,” but it is significantly leaner and all the better for it. Some of the film’s policy-tilted views, such as espousing nuclear energy, can be argued with, but more so with the book; “Juice” offers its prescriptive advice as a minor subplot. And the film’s core thrust is indubitably true. The future of the globally warming world lies in electrifying almost everything and moving to carbon-free electricity sources, and “Juice” offers an invaluable message to us all. But don’t go see this movie for its gospel, go catch it, wherever you can and as soon as you can, as an exemplar of story and film-making.