By Anne Brodie
Barry Jenkins’ long-anticipated 10-part series The Underground Railroad based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead is now on Amazon Prime. It’s the story of Cora (South African actor Thuso Mbedu), a young Black slave attempting to get the hell out of Dodge (Georgia) and head north where she hears there is freedom. Her life has been like the other slaves’, oppression, violence, rape and lifelong entrapment and as we see early, vulnerable to torture and murder if she steps out of line, or appears to. We meet her as a baby abandoned by her mother and as she breaks the fourth wall asking Jenkin’s signature question “Who are you?” The N-word is heard constantly, and we see the plantation masters dance a merry jig as a slave is burned just feet away from them, in full view of his community. A boy is beaten to death for breaking a wine glass and his mother is whipped. Runaway slaves are hunted, captured and placed in iron traps. Cora has trouble believing that the Underground Railway, an escape route from the south leading north and into Canada, exists but she sets out to find it. Stunning sequences of an actual underground steam train (fictional) signal escape to the north and a new life. Once up north, Cora lands a job as a slave re-enactor in a museum, earns money and has a home, but trouble is never far, not just for Cora but for all escapees. Black women are being sterilised, education for them is meagre, and constant vigilance is the way of life As in any Jenkins work, mysticism and magic realism are powerfully present. Brutal violence. Jenkins says he’s had backlash for the series’ extreme gore but he wants more such images to “re-contextualise” the narrative of slavery. An important series, but gird yourselves.
The unsettling fact-based drama Profile on TVOD follows an undercover London journalist investigating ISIS recruitment strategies designed to lure non-Muslim white women to the Middle East. The film opens with footage of a British teenager being stoned to death in a desert town as she tried to escape; she was forced to marry her recruiter and pick up arms as a fighter for the militant extremist group. Valene Kane plays Amy who begins an online and telephone relationship with a charismatic young member of ISIS called Bilel (Shazad Latif) stationed in Turkey. She poses as a beauty influencer, Bilel love-bombs her and she listens, and looks down the rabbit hole. Thing is, Amy needs the money the story would. When she appears to be going too far, her boss tells her to drop it. But the further she goes, the bigger the story, the more money she’ll be paid. How far will she go? The film is simply computer screen grabs and phone calls but her vulnerability and saving steel are clear as day. Recruitment, rebellion, desperation and death are the top dramatic notes, but the seduction of Amy is the other story, her journey inside her own story, a dangerous and potentially deadly reality that has played out for hundreds of western women. This is one hell of an alarming story, based on multiple true stories. It will take your breath away.
Jean Smart is anything but the daffy loveable Charlene from Designing Woman in the HBO Max Original ten eppy series Hacks. Oh no, she is legendary Las Vegas comic Deborah Vance and she’s been around the block thousands of times. She’s larger than life, cultivates a huge onstage persona and look, takes no prisoners, and has a mouth that would have shamed Bluebeard. Her manager informs her she’s being replaced Friday and Saturday nights in favour of a beatbox band to bring in the younger set. Meanwhile in LA comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) is desperate for work. She’s blacklisted following an ill-conceived Tweet, and her career is over. She doesn’t want to work with Vance, a dinosaur but that’s all there is, so she heads to Vegas to meet her. It doesn’t go well but Vance realises she needs what Ava has. What follows is a story of two big personalities trying to make things work – it’s risqué, sassy, outrageous and an adventure for both. It’s a tense two-hander with plenty of barbs, and it’s fun peering behind the scenes at Vegas celebrities as their clashing cultures and personalities look for common ground. And regarding her tweet faux pas, Vance assures Ava that in comedy there is no line to cross.
Robert Machoian’s The Killing of Two Lovers is an effective, barebones, small budget heartbreaker set in a small foothills town in Idaho. Quiet naturalism is the métier of this powerful story of a married couple nearly broken when they separate and she takes up with another man. The visual backdrop is the huge sky and mountains in the distance, flat land where you can see for miles. Tiny house masks the chaos inside. There’s no music per se, instead, occasional tonal beats replicating nature and heartbeats. It opens with Nikki, (Sepideh Moafi) asleep in bed with boyfriend Derek (Chris Coy) as her estranged husband David (Clayne Crawford) stands over them pointing a gun. Their four children sleep in the next rooms. His journey is painful but we stick by him, rooting for him. An awkward encounter with the boyfriend in a convenience shop, the children’s clear expressions of hatred for Derek, Nikki trying to smooth the waters but refusing to take David back. The film’s hyper-realism and plainness are strikingly evocative, a compelling way to play out such a fraught emotional drama. Its deceptively simple look and sound heighten the densely charged hour and 25 minutes, unseen cows moo and church bells toll in this natural world as we stand like a neighbour watching them over the fence, helpless and in pain for them. A must-see. Crawford is utterly mesmerising. in this superlative work of art. TVOD.
Jason Statham’s wickedly entertaining Wrath of Man from Guy Ritchie is one huge guilty pleasure. Statham is H (same name as the enigmatic unseen character that runs through Line of Duty) a new hire at a security truck company. He’s teased mercilessly because he’s mysterious, these high testosterone macho colleagues try to break him down. That same day he’s on a money run when armed thieves assault the truck – he instantly transforms he’s armed, dangerous, taking no prisoners and barely lifts an eyebrow as he wipes them out. He sees someone he knows in the CCTV footage but keeps quiet; he’s demoted (because of PTSD) and then promoted when the boss (Andy Garcia) sees his talent. A second truck he’s in is attacked in Chinatown but when the thugs see his face they run. Yep, he has a Scorched Earth policy for good reason. Five months earlier he and his environmental activist son were attacked and his son was killed. The boss gives him a list of names he might investigate and its game on. Visually arresting, tightly woven and lifted by Statham’s incredible choreography and energy, screaming at the screen is definitely a possibility. Also stars Holt McCallany, Jeffrey Donovan, Josh Hartnett, Laz Alonzo, Raúl Castillo, Deobia Oparei with Eddie Marsan and a very naughty Scott Eastwood. Now on TVOD.
Angelina Jolie’s action crime thriller Those Who Wish Me Dead brings her the opportunity to go against type as Hannah a down-to-earth forest ranger, the only female in a Montana unit. She’s haunted because she couldn’t save three boys in a fire and it keeps her up nights. In town, a man dropping his boy off at school suddenly turns tail and drives in the opposite direction, telling his son Connor that he’s a forensic account and knows things that can get him killed. He calls a Montana sheriff for help and gives his son a sealed letter explaining who he is and what he does, to give to someone the boy can trust – but he’s not to read it. Indeed, two assassins show up and kill him while Connor escapes into a heavy forest where Hannah finds him. The assassins want him for anything he may know about his father’s activities. Hannah and Connor have a tough day and night, battling human enemies and that natural enemy sparked by lighting. Forest fires are raging around them, including one set by the killers. They go after the sheriff and his heavily pregnant wife but she’s had special training and pulls off brilliant tactical moves. Interesting that several characters, firefighters and civvies have survival training so that’s something to think about. The film’s reminiscent of those ’80s and ’90s natural disaster movies; it’s kind of nostalgic and moves well if predictably. It also pays respects to the brave souls who parachute into forest fires with one goal – to save lives. Co-stars Finn Little, as Hannah’s son, John Bernthal, Tyler Perry, Nicholas Hoult, Aiden Gillen, Medina Senghore, and Jake Weber. HBO Max. and TVOD.
Apple TV+ eight-part docuseries 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything reminds us that American has been a divided country for a long, long time. Pop music played a major part in bringing liberal values to Richard Nixon’s inhumane, far-right government, and helped bring him and the Vietnam War to an end. That’s the thesis of this new series that puts 1971 under the scope and one of the reasons it’s important. And then there’s the incredible archival footage that has rarely been seen, secret footage of Nixon and Kissinger in a damning private conversation, spending time with FBI mark John Lennon, Yoko Ono and George Harrison at home dissing McCartney, new-to-me scenes of the deadly fracas at the free Altamont Stones concert, Sly Stone embedded and choosing isolation in his attic, making music without the Family. Aretha Franklin, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, The Who, Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, Phil Spector, Jim Morrison, names, names, names populate this eye-opener. Chrissie Hynde makes an interesting observation, that being the Beatles was a huge trauma for them and that was the reason for the band’s demise. One scene set at a Nixon presidential dinner as the Staple Singers, the whitest of white groups, took to the stage and made an anti-war statement before launching into one of their pappy audience pleaser songs. and wait till you find out about the FBI’s instruction from J. Edgar Hoover to “increase paranoia in the left”. And all this is just the first two episodes, all tied to pop culture and music’s role in the shift to the left. The series was inspired by the book “Never a Dull Moment: 1971 TheYear That Rock Exploded” by David Hepworth.
Netflix has a star-studded series on the life and times of the late, great designer and gadabout Halston with Ewan McGregor in the starring role. Halston, born Roy Halston Frowick, dressed all the important celebs of his day – Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger, Cornelia Guest, Warhol’s women, supermodels, society elites, presidents’ wives. He’s the man behind Jacqueline Kennedy’s iconic pillbox hat. Halston was the darling of New York’s elite circles for two decades. The simplicity and austere, bias-cut beauty of his clothes flattered the body and his manner won the hearts of the ladies who lunch; he was at the top of the world until a series of bad business moves and a hostile takeover cost him his House. This is a Ryan Murphy spectacle so there will be plenty of drama, sex and outre glam. Co-stars Krysta Rodriguez, Rebecca Dayan, Bill Pullman, Gian Franco Rodriguez, Vergha Farmiga and Rory Culkin.
Line of Duty, the sharp, brilliant British police procedural police set in the anti-corruption unit AC-12 – ties with Vera as my favourite series ever to be gifted us by the UK – begins its sixth series in North America on BritBox. Jed Mercurio’s complex, challenging and provocative series is reliably excellent six years in, each series following on a different female antagonist, a high-ranking member of a police detachment in a MIdlands, England city. Brass Adrian Dunbar, Martin Compston and Vicky McClure are not exempt as good guys, as they investigate their own, antagonists played in the past by Keeley Hawes, Melanie Thandiwe Newton Parker and Anna Maxwell Martin. This series finds new Detective Chief Inspector Joanna Davidson played by Kelly Macdonald in their ranks, leading the investigation into a case that strains the very foundations of the office and its work. Her first case is the murder of a prominent. A Black female journalist (Shalom Brune-Franklin) is murdered during her investigation into the murder of a highly placed official, thought at first to be a stalking case, but revealed to be silencing. A young man with Down’s Syndrome is arrested and admits to the killing but Davidson’s not buying it. He is the gateway to a wide world of dangerous criminals intent on disruption and the many ripples they cause. Inside the detachment, relations are strained and loyalties unclear as staff members particularly Davidson fall under suspicion for corruption! Total catnip for the thinking mystery lover, all about illusion, reality and the search for truth. Mercurio never lets us down.
Easily the most star-studded doc on offer this week takes us to a remote farm in Wales in the late sixties. Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm looks at the legendary – and first – residential studio in the world, located six minutes by car from Monmouth, Wales, tells the story of its global success. Brothers Kingsley and Charles Ward decided on hearing American rock music way back that they didn’t want to farm like their parents and grandparents, they wanted to be rock stars. Well, that didn’t happen but there have been hundreds of rock stars who have written, recorded and lived on their farm, aka Rockfield Studios over the past 53 years. They wisely installed state-of-the-art equipment in derelict barns and backhouses, discovered the area’s unique sonic signature and made history. Freddie Mercury wrote Bohemian Rhapsody at the Farm, Ozzy Osbourne discovered his voice there, Rush recorded Xanadu, Robert Plant began his solo career in those studios, Iggy Pop, The Stone Roses (who lived in the upper front bedroom for two years), Simple Minds, Coldplay, Oasis, New Romantics, jazz artists, the works, speak with great affection for the place and its bucolic beauty, to Robert Plant, it is “this arboreal green and pleasant land”. Hannah Berryman’s doc is a music buff’s delight, dipping into the pop music movements of six decades, set in a one-of-a-kind universe dotted with forests, lowing kine and plenty of cussing (I’m looking at you, Liam Gallagher). Really fun!! Coming on TVOD.