“Staged,” a six-part season of brief episodes about actors in lockdown, could only have been conceived in lockdown (by Phil Glynn and Simon Evans, who also writes and directs) and only with superb improvisers like Martin Sheen and David Tennant. That Tennant and Sheen are themselves friends helps, for the pair riff off each other about mock competitiveness and insecurities. The storyline is gossamer thin: a budding producer/director tries to get the two stars to rehearse an old Italian play during lockdown, and various other stars (Samuel Jackson, Judy Dench) butt in. Cleverly, the scenes play out as Zoom sessions interposed by footage of pandemic emptiness. The interplay between Tennant and Sheen is magical, often profane, and razor sharp. All in all, Staged is a Coronavirus boon, one to be spaced out and savored.
I missed highly regarded “Capernaum” when it came out a couple of years ago and only now have made amends. It’s harrowing and brilliant and a movie one must see, even if, as is the case with me, its forensic examination of Lebanese poverty and discrimination is not new knowledge. Twelve-year-old Zain runs away from his chaotic, brutal family and lands up with a babysitting job for an Ethiopian illegal immigrant, and when she is arrested, Zain faces the impossible mountain of caring for toddler Yonas. No plot giveaways here but anyone seeing this is already aware of the film’s core conceit, that Zain sues his parents from prison, sues them for bringing him into the world. The world in which Zain and the others exists is harsh, poor, and predatory, and writer/director Nadine Lebaki brilliantly choreographs a spare, horrific plot. Zain Al Rafeea (as Zain) and Boluwatife Treasure Bankole (as Yonas) are astonishingly realistic and powerful, but there is not a dud performance throughout. The cinematography brings cesspit Beirut to life. The climax does descend a note with a couple of maudlin touches, but overall Capernaum is a triumph.
The opening scene of “The Old Guard,” a superhero tale with a twist, is kinetic and suffused with dark, mysterious atmosphere. Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director, unveils a brutal, flowing battle scene in which our heroes, a band of four headed by charismatic Andy (played with gravitas by Charlize Theron), are cut down in a trap and then reveal that they can be reborn from death, immortal souls who have roamed the earth as a tiny band for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Soon thereafter, a fifth, startled team member comes onto the scene, and then the plot ratchets up into a story of a Bond-style villain seeking to “harvest” their DNA. The central conceit of The Old Guard—historically meddling immortals—is a sweet concept and I only wish this movie did it justice. How one might convey the world weariness of immortals amongst mortal humanity … well, that’s the filmic dilemma, for superhero movies are always finely balanced between display and essence. I only wish better lead characters could have been cast for this knife edge task. Charlize Theron sometimes does a fine job of displaying the ennui at the heart of the immortals, only to occasionally seem ham-fisted, and the other four fail to convey immortality in any serious sense. Don’t get me wrong: The Old Guard rockets along, with brilliantly choreographed action scenes of frightening violence, and the unwinding of the plot is sure-handed, so you won’t waste an evening if superhero gymnastics turn you on as much as they do me. But the overall effect is of ham-fisted awkwardness, and when the climax foreshadowed a sequel, I could not help thinking, “no, not for me.”
“The Assistant” should amount to more than it does. Writer/director Kitty Green has devised a smart, oblique peek into the #MeToo world of New York film and television. Julia Garner is stunningly successful in depicting (with few words but great visual aplomb) a single day of a junior assistant (five weeks into the job!) slaving away in the office of a horrific mogul we never see, just hear indistinctly behind a closed door. A strong feature of the film is the beautifully filmed, close-up corporate office world with its banality and hidden dramas (trust me, it rings true). The seemingly never-ending sequences of office-domestic duties carried out by the assistant, all the while increasingly realizing what abuses and ravages are being perpetrated by the Weinstein-modelled person behind the door (we never see him, another deliberate filmic choice), are clearly intended to reek of a Kafka novel, but something in the pacing or atmosphere or framing sucks all the horror out of the buildup. Only a brief foray into the office of a human resources manager (played with panache by Matthew Macfadyen) offers any narrative drive; frankly, boredom sets in readily. Overall, “The Assistant” amounts to an intriguing drama that misfires.
“Cardinal” began life based on the spellbinding police procedurals written by Canadian novelist Giles Blunt (the first one and among the best was Forty Words for Sorrow), but quickly established a separate life on the screen. The first two seasons were hypnotic and the third, one of my 2019 highlights, was almost unbearably dark and suspenseful. Season 4 is billed as the finale and I wish it were not so. Set in chilling Canadian snow country, the cinematography and scenic direction are as controlled and beautiful as in the first three seasons. After a harrowing opening murder scene, the plot swirls for the first three episodes, then settles into a duel between evil and the two detective heroes of “Cardinal,” John Cardinal (played as ever more worn-down but indefatigable, by wonderful Billy Campbell) and his junior partner Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse shines in this role). The embers of the attraction between the two of them glow. As ever, the supporting cast is stellar, and Shawn Doyle exudes tormented evil as the key opponent. The final two episodes, set in the white, white, frigid snow, pound with tension, and the denouement is apt and sweet. A triumph.
“ZeroZeroZero” is a lavish, bleak mini saga of a massive smuggled cocaine deal, weaving between three equally nihilistic tales. In Monterrey, Mexico, a soldier (played with mesmerizing intensity by Harold Torres) involves his squad in a cartel assembling the drugs and shipping them to Italy. In Calabria, an aging, evil overlord (another stellar performance, by Adriano Chiaramida) spars with his aspiring grandson as they await the shipment. And the dealmakers in between are a Florida family (memorable acting by Andrea Riseborough, Gabriel Byrne, and Dane DeHaan). A study in evildoing, “ZeroZeroZero” is not for everyone; death stalks every scene and no lily-white hero leaps out. Instead, the eight equally gripping episodes cook ferociously, tension bubbling, amidst sumptuous cinematography and an industrial-brooding soundtrack. As someone endlessly baffled by and obsessed with humankind’s potential for darkness, I was held in thrall. Only at the end, when the three stories are played out and intersect, was I let down somewhat; the overall narrative arc seems to lack change and resolution. Be that as it may, “ZeroZeroZero” is compelling, black-hearted viewing.
Gifted comedian and provocateur Craig Reucassel came out swinging in the sustainability/environmental space with his entertaining, spot-on series War on Waste. Now his four-part “Fight for Planet A: Our Climate Challenge” takes on a bigger challenge, the most fraught of them all. Employing his trademark mix of interviews, consumer challenges, politician bail-ups, and voice-over narration, Reucassel quickly drives into the heart of Australia’s shameful inaction on global warming. He sets an eclectic panel of ordinary Aussies the challenge of reducing carbon emissions from the various sectors that count. He chases politicians in Canberra and even on the beach. He employs the “black balloon” device to illustrate the relative dimensions of emissions. By its nature, Fight for Planet A is a polemic for the times, and it doesn’t pretend to be more than an intelligent tilt at the issues, but after an initial episode that seemed timid, the show picks up pace and culminates in a powerful plea for political sanity, community action, and a way forward that lines up with the science. Especially moving is a trip and interview with Charlie Veron, possibly the world’s foremost experts on coral reefs, who now despairs of reef survivals as the sea warms. Perhaps for Australians only, but recommended as a reminder of sanity and a call for action.
Is “The Trip to Greece” the last of the four “Trip” movies featuring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing fictionalized versions of themselves on whirlwind gourmet travelogues? It seems to be and perhaps the time has come, for the premise was always threadbare at best, and all the best jokes have been said. This time the pair pretend to retrace the voyage of Odysseus, an excuse for voluptuous scenery shots, brief clips of busy gourmet chefs, repartee between mouthfuls, repartee while driving, and the odd, slightly emotive scenes of the two in between. Michael Winterbottom is a superb director and he imbues this film, like the others, with an indie slant even while the cinematography and scene shifting are impeccable. But hey, we “Trip” lovers are not glued to the screen for any of that, what we want is spirited bickering, inspired wordplay, and voice imitations nonpareil. As usual, I watched with a perpetual half smile, nodding occasionally at cleverness, interspersed with laughing out loud. When Brydon and Coogan strike a motherlode, they are very, very funny. Overall, “The Trip to Greece” is definitely for fans and is engaging, subdued entertainment for first-timers.
Car chase movies are abominations but during lockdown, spurred by ancient memories of “Drive” and recent memories of “Ford v Ferrari,” I was drawn into the promised energy of “Lost Bullet.” Debut filmmaker Guillaume Pierret has fashioned a simple but powerful story around the character of super-mechanic, super-driver Lino, furloughed from jail to help a special team of road cops chasing drug-carrying “go fast” cars. As the trailer foreshadows, treachery unwinds Lino’s life and he must find a car with exonerating evidence, the lost bullet of the title, before the bad guys kill him. All well and good, and precisely the reason I picked up this film. Pierret has fashioned a tight (if occasionally silly) script full of car races, battles, loves and losses, and the chase scenes themselves are brilliantly choreographed, building up tension towards a finale car chase scene. The dampening trouble with “Lost Bullet” is the actor playing Lino, stuntman Alban Renoir, who looks suitably “low-level crim” but can sustain few emotions, not even fear or triumph. Rooting for him as the hero simply never took hold of me, and while I can recommend this movie as a frenetic time-filler, it ends as empty of life as it began.
A documentary maker with a heart, Sasha Snow is also a consummate craftsman, and “The Troublemaker” is a tour de force. Clocking in at just under an hour, a viewing is an existentially intense epic that seems to last … well, an existence. Framed around the talking head of charismatic Roger Hallam, cofounder of Extinction Rebellion, and expanding into a deft coverage of XR’s 2019 campaigns, while drawing in another XR interview and footage of the damage already being wrought by global warming, The Troublemaker is the most intellectually and emotionally call to climate emergency action I have witnessed. Hallam’s piercing analysis of our current crisis and his own account of metamorphosis from organic farmer to nonviolent-direct-action rebel leader is riveting, sentence-by-sentence riveting. On two occasions, his words, so forensically and scientifically accurate, but oh so passionate, set me to tears. The film’s cinematography is sumptuous, the soundtrack (by Adem Ilhan) is gorgeous, and Snow’s direction is intelligent. All up, this is a must-see in 2020, perfectly capturing our moment between one age, of humanity’s ignorance of its own existential peril, and a new age of ameliorative and restorative action.