AMC's new period drama, Turn, hopes to show that spies were cool, even in the 18th Century. While that's probably true, the show needs to quickly pick up the pace if it wants to keep its modern audience engaged.
Based in part on Alexander Rose's best-seller, Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring, the show stars Jamie Bell, a Long Island farmer named Abe Woodhull, who is caught between his father (Kevin McNally) who is loyal to the crown, and his childhood friends Ben Tallmedge and Caleb Brewster (Seth Numrich and Daniel Henshall, respectively), Continental Army regulars who are trying to recruit Abe as an informant in British occupied New York during the summer of 1778.
What's more, Abe is married to Mary (Meegan Warner) and has a young son, but his heart truly belongs to local tavern-keeper Anna Strong (Heather Lind), who broke off their engagement over his family's loyalist beliefs.
The pilot does a decent job of setting everything up, with McNally's Quaker judge explaining his son's romantic backstory as he partners with the local British commanding officer, Major Hewitt (Burn Gorman) to keep Abe out of the gallows after he stops a British officer from killing Anna's husband. The fact that the husband is arrested and shipped off anyway provides the impetus for Abe and Anna to renew a closer relationship, as well as for her to assist with the espionage efforts.
The show is beautifully shot and does a terrific job of bringing home the horrors of a war fought up close, as blood flows freely and dead bodies litter every field. The producers have done as good a job as you possibly can in recreating the look and feel of the Revolutionary War era. They also, thankfully, don't spend too much time explaining where we are in terms of historical context, figuring that if viewers don't already know what was happening in 1778 they can go on their website and look it up (something that AMC actively promoted during commercials).
Bell, barely recognizable from his Billy Elliott days, is fine as Abe, even if he did come across as a little too anxious to make sure that we understand the character's internal conflict. The first episode bounced him around so much as we learned where we were in Abe's story that it was hard to get a true read on him. In particular, with the British officers being played as either foppish (Gorman) or brutal (Samuel Roukin's menacing Captain Simcoe) it's hard to understand why Abe's father is on their side. Since this is a series instead of a movie, it would be helpful to explore why they were loyalists in the first place. Lind as Anna, though, is a keeper. Displaying all of the inherent tension of a woman who is forced to be nice to the resident British Army — especially the lecherous Simcoe — when she's a staunch supporter of independence, Lind helped establish the conflict with her body language better than anything in the script.
The stage is set for plenty of drama, as besides being in love with a woman who isn't his wife, Abe's father more or less disowns him and his buddies Tallmedge and Brewster knowingly betray his trust for the greater good. There's also a subplot involving a band of Scottish mercenaries led by Angus MacFadyen's Robert Rogers that, while only briefly added to the mix in the first episode, hints at the cat-and-mouse game to come.
It's obviously limited by the actual history behind the story — let's face it, we all know what the war's outcome will be — but that doesn't mean that the story can't come quicker. The show is done well enough that it will appease the target audience, like fans of the HBO's miniseries John Adams, but for everyone else there probably needs to be more hooks that propel the story and keep viewers interested in what comes next. Otherwise, the audience might just turn away.
Robert Zemeckis is a blockbuster director at heart. Action has never been an issue for the man behind Back to the Future. When he puts aside the high concept adventures for emotional human stories — think Forrest Gump or Cast Away — he still goes big. His latest Flight continues the trend revolving the story of one man's fight with alcoholism around a terrifying plane crash. Zemeckis expertly crafts his roaring centerpiece and while he finds an agile performer in Denzel Washington the hour-and-a-half of Flight after the shocking moment can't sustain the power. The "big" works. The intimate drowns.
Washington stars as Whip Whitaker a reckless airline pilot who balances his days flying jumbo jets with picking up women snorting lines of cocaine and drinking himself to sleep. Although drunk for the flight that will change his life forever that's not the reason the plane goes down — in fact it may be the reason he thinks up his savvy landing solution in the first place. Writer John Gatins follows Whitaker into the aftermath madness: an investigation of what really happened during the flight Whitaker's battle to cap his addictions and budding relationships that if nurtured could save his life.
Zemeckis tops his own plane crash in Cast Away with the heart-pounding tailspin sequence (if you've ever been scared of flying before Flight will push into phobia territory). In the few scenes after the literal destruction Washington is able to convey an equal amount of power in the moments of mental destruction. Whitaker is obviously crushed by the events the bottle silently calling for him in every down moment. Flight strives for that level of introspection throughout eventually pairing Washington with equally distraught junkie Nicole (Kelly Reilly). Their relationship is barely fleshed out with the script time and time again resorting to obvious over-the-top depictions of substance abuse (a la Nic Cage's Leaving Las Vegas) and the bickering that follows. Washington's Whitaker hits is lowest point early sitting there until the climax of the film.
Sharing screentime with the intimate tale is the surprisingly comical attempt by the pilot's airline union buddy (Bruce Greenwood) and the company lawyer (Don Cheadle) to get Whitaker into shape. Prepping him for inquisitions looking into evidence from the wreckage and calling upon Whitaker's dealer Harling (John Goodman) to jump start their "hero" when the time is right the two men do everything they can to keep any blame being placed upon Whitaker by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The thread doesn't feel relevant to Whitaker's plight and in turn feels like unnecessary baggage that pads the runtime.
Everything in Fight shoots for the skies — and on purpose. The music is constantly swelling the photography glossy and unnatural and rarely do we breach Washington's wild exterior for a sense of what Whitaker's really grappling with. For Zemeckis Flight is still a spectacle film with Washington's ability to emote as the magical special effect. Instead of using it sparingly he once again goes big. Too big.
At the moment there are few greater clichés in the media than the freaking out single woman on the cusp of 30. Of course clichés are clichés for a reason worth exploring even through the lens of just one or two women as in Lola Versus. Unfortunately while the intention behind Lola Versus isn't that we should all be happily married by the age of 30 it still fits into the same rubric of all those "Why You're Not Married" books.
Lola (Greta Gerwig) has a gorgeous fiancé Luke (Joel Kinnaman) and they live in a giant loft together the kind of dreamy NYC real estate that seems to exist primarily in the movies. Just as they're planning their gluten-free wedding cake with a non-GMO rice milk-based frosting Luke dumps her. It's cruelly sudden — although Luke isn't a cruel man. Lola finds little comfort in the acerbic wit of her best friend the eternally single Alice (Zoe Lister-Jones) who is probably delighted to see her perfectly blonde best friend taken down a peg and into the murky world of New York coupling. Lola and Luke share a best friend Henry (Hamish Linklater) a messy-haired rumpled sweetheart who is kind and safe and the inevitable shelter for Lola's fallout. Her parents well-meaning and well-to-do hippie types feed her kombucha and try to figure out their iPads and give her irrelevant advice.
Lola Versus is slippery. Its tone careens between broad TV comedy and earnest dramedy almost as if Alice is in charge of the dirty zingers and Lola's job is to make supposedly introspective statements. Alice's vulgar non-sequiturs are tossed off without much relish and Lola's dialogue comes off too often as expository and plaintive. We don't need Lola to tell Henry "I'm vulnerable I'm not myself I'm easily persuaded" or "I'm slutty but I'm a good person!" (Which is by the way an asinine statement to make. One might even say she's not even that "slutty " she's just making dumb decisions that hurt those around her just as much as she's hurting herself.)
We know that she's a mess — that's the point of the story! It's not so much that a particularly acerbic woman wouldn't say to her best friend "Find your spirit animal and ride it until its d**k falls off " but that she wouldn't say it in the context of this movie. It's from some other movie over there one where everyone is as snarky and bitter as Alice. You can't have your black-hearted comedy and your introspective yoga classes. Is it really a stride forward for feminism that the clueless single woman has taken the place of the stoner man-child in media today? When Lola tells Luke "I'm taken by myself. I've gotta just do me for a while " it's true. But it doesn't sound true and it doesn't feel true.
In one scene Lola stumbles on the sidewalk and falls to the ground. No one asks her if she's okay or needs help; she simply gets up on her own and goes on her way. It's a moment that has happened to so many people. It's humiliating and so very public but of course you just gotta pick yourself up and get where you're going. In this movie it's a head-smackingly obvious metaphor. In one of the biggest missteps of the movie Jay Pharoah plays a bartender that makes the occasional joke while Lola is waiting tables at her mom's restaurant. His big line at the end is "And I'm your friend who's black!" It would have been better to leave his entire character on the cutting room floor than attempt such a half-hearted wink at the audience.
Lister-Jones and director Daryl Wein co-wrote the screenplay for Lola Versus as they did with 2009's Breaking Upwards. Both films deal with the ins and outs of their own romantic relationship in one way or another. Breaking Upwards a micro-budget indie about a rough patch in their relationship was much more successful in tone and direction. Lola Versus has its seeds in Lister-Jones' experience as a single woman in New York and is a little bit farther removed from their experiences. Lola Versus feels like a wasted opportunity. Relatively speaking there are so few movies getting made with a female writer or co-writer that it almost feels like a betrayal to see such a tone-deaf portrayal of women onscreen. What makes it even more disappointing is how smart and likable everyone involved is and knowing that they could have made a better movie.