TV Review: The Little Drummer Girl (2018) mini series starring Florence Pugh

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One of my TV viewing highlights in May I mentioned in my monthly recap was The Little Drummer Girl. I happened to watch quite a bit of TV that month (seven different series to be exact) and this spy thriller was definitely a standout. The fact that it’s based on John le Carré‘s novel appealed to me, but one of the main reasons to see this was definitely Florence Pugh. It was also partly in anticipation for Black Widow, in which Pugh was the absolute scene stealer.

Here’s the premise:

As a Palestinian assassin is targeting prominent Israelis, a young English actress is recruited by Mossad to infiltrate the assassin’s terrorist cell, requiring all of her acting talents but also putting her at considerable risk.

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The novel has been adapted as a feature film previously with the same name in 1984, starring Diane Keaton and directed by George Roy Hill. Per Wiki, the title suggests a word play on the Christmas carol The Little Drummer Boy. I haven’t seen that version, but I often think a miniseries is a great format for complex novel as it’s able to delve deeper into the story and characters more than a 2-hour film would. Another reason to see this is for the director, Park Chan-Wook, who apparently is a big fan of Le Carré’s work. Though he’s mostly known as a feature director, it’s interesting that he hasn’t done a feature since this miniseries as he’s been busy producing the Snowpiercer series for TNT.

It’s quite rare to see a Le Carré’s novel with a female protagonist, in fact, I think this is the only one. Well, nice to see such a formidable actress to play the leading lady. Pugh plays Charlie Ross, a young British theatre actress with a bohemian spirit with a pretty radical political view, born more out of naïveté than anything else. In her spare time, she and her fellow leftist-leaning friends attend recruitment meetings by anti-Zionist terrorist cell. It’s implied that it’s the same group responsible for the bomb attack on a high-ranking Israeli official in Germany seen in its opening scene. Charlie is soon caught the attention of Mossad aka Israeli intelligence service, who’s planning a meticulous clandestine operation to infiltrate the terrorist cell group led by Palestinian bomb maker named Khalil (Charif Ghattas).

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You could say that Le Carrés spy thriller is the anti-Bond movies as the spy in question doesn’t effortlessly go about their business, participating in high-octane, hyperbolic action while leading a glamorous, globe-trotting existence. Le Carré brings more realism to the espionage genre, and in this particular story, I love the the meticulous planning of a dangerous mission that’d really put the spy’s life at risk where things can easily go wrong at any moment. In a Bond movie, we know he’d never be killed (despite the movie titles having the word ‘die’ in it), but there’s a higher degree of unpredictability in Le Carré ‘s work. The fact that at times we don’t know which side Charlie is on at any given moment adds to the level of anxiety.

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Episode one is basically Charlie recruitment process and it’s an intriguing set up. A mysterious stranger (Alexander Skarsgård) turns up at her London play, then she spots him at the same beach in Greece where she is vacationing with her theater group. Turns out his name is Gadi and he manages to convince the group he’s also a fellow actor. There’s quite a scorching chemistry between Pugh and Skarsgård whose tall and slender built offers a captivating contrast to the petite actress. The scene at the Acropolis is absolutely stunning, a perfect location to get someone under a spell! Before she knows what’s happening, Gadi brings her to the mission leader, Martin (Marty) Kurtz, played by bespectacled Michael Shannon sporting an Israeli accent. The no-nonsense Mossad officer introduces himself as ‘the writer, producer, and director of this little show’ and welcomes her to the ‘theater of the real.’ At the core of spycraft is making people believe who you want people to believe, so I suppose actors make for a good spy given their ability to inhabit a persona and ‘lie’ undetected. 

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A spy thriller is most effective when the stakes are genuinely high, especially involving someone who isn’t even a trained spy! The Mossad puts Charlie’s life at risk, and they made it seemingly impossible for her to say no. But of course, that element of danger can be appealing, even sexy, for certain personalities, and Kurtz somehow knows Charlie has a predilection for risky business. Gadi has a challenging task of not just training Charlie, but to permeate her mind that he is not Gadi but Michel (Amir Khoury), Khalil’s brother, and that she is his lover. Writers Michael Lesslie and Claire Wilson crafted an intriguing narrative device using Gadi’s recorded dialogue as if he were speaking as Michel. It can get a bit confusing at times, it’s as if as a viewer you’re also given a puzzle to solve. I appreciate that the filmmaker respects the viewers’ intelligence enough not to spoon feed everything.

This isn’t the type of spy thrillers that just rely on frenetic action and fight scenes to drive the story forward. In fact, there are times the pacing is pretty slow with not much happening, but I always find it suspenseful. There’s an immersive quality in the way Chan-wook directs this series and lots to appreciate visually. Despite being set in the 70s, the director didn’t automatically go with a more desaturated look associated with a ‘retro’ film set in that era. Instead he incorporates a rich colorful palette throughout. Charlie’s dresses have such bold, vivid colors: canary yellow, cobalt blue, lime green, etc. and even the Mercedes sedan is in striking red. I read this article about the color symbolism, Chan-wook said it was exciting to be able to portray that period with bold colors given he grew up in South Korea in a time he described as “quite dark and very repressed.”

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The star of the show is Pugh, whose charismatic presence is always mesmerizing to watch. She’s a naturally confident actor but her vulnerability is just as alluring as her self-assured performance. There’s a scene where her facade is exposed earlier in the show that’s pretty emotionally-charged, and she only gets better from there. Charlie is a layered, complex character and she definitely sells the role wonderfully. She’s surrounded by a terrific cast who brought their A-game to this. I’m equally impressed with Shannon who’s the mastermind of the whole mission and despite his ruthless approach, you can’t help but sympathize with him. As for Skarsgård, I don’t usually find him as irresistible like many women, but I quite like his brooding performance here and I think that’s a testament to how his character is written. I was quite captivated by Ghattas as Khalil who’s definitely not your typical one-dimensional baddie. Simona Brown (who’s excellent in Behind Her Eyes), Michael Moshonov, Clare Holman all have some memorable moments that make up Kurtz’s spy team.

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As far as spy series go, The Little Drummer Girl ranks as one of the best I’ve ever seen and Pugh is definitely one of my absolute favorite actors working today. I actually think this is a much better adaptation than The Night Manager (2016), another one from Le Carré’s oeuvre I saw last year. It’s an atmospheric concoction that mixes mystery, suspense and drama remarkably well. Given the continuing escalating conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, it also makes this series all the more timely. I can’t recommend this enough and it made me crave even more spy mini series!

4.5/5 stars


Have you seen The Little Drummer Girl mini series? I’d love to hear what you think!

FlixChatter Review: Black Widow (2021)

When Natasha Romanoff was first introduced in the MCU 11 years ago in Iron Man 2, I didn’t immediately warm up to the character. Even Scarlett Johansson herself admitted Romanoff was portrayed more as a sex object, albeit a bad ass one. Thankfully, she continues to evolve for the better in the subsequent movies, as she becomes quite a formidable member of the Avengers.

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Natasha has always been feisty, as shown in flashback as a tomboy preteen girl with blue hair (Ever Anderson, apparently she’s Milla Jovovich’s daughter!), growing up with her 6-year-old sister Yelena. It seems like a happy existence with their loving mom Melina (Rachel Weisz) and dad Alexei (David Harbour) in an idyllic Ohio suburbs. But one fateful day, they suddenly have to leave everything behind and make a run for it, barely eluding authorities in the process. Soon young Natasha learn just who her parents truly are, a la The Americans who are Russian spies posing as a regular American family. We even meet Alexei’s boss, General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) who leads the top secret Soviet training program known as the Red Room.

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Astute MCU fans would remember that Natasha’s past has been teased several times in various films, Loki even specifically mentions Dreykov’s daughter in the first Avenger. Given she’s trained by a covert organization also means there are other Black Widows just like her. In the long opening credits, we are shown the rigorous training that turn girls like Natasha into powerful sleeper agents and assassins. One of those trained by the Red Room program is her own sister Yelena (Florence Pugh). While Natasha is on the run from Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) for breaking the Sokovia accord and goes into hiding in Norway, Yelena is having her own moment of revelation in Morocco about the Black Widow program. Their reunion is one of the most action-packed moments that’s fun to watch.

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Though Black Widow is one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, the movie plays out more like an espionage thriller more than a fantastical superhero movie. Not quite as bad ass as Bourne but more akin to Captain America: The Winter Soldier (still my favorite standalone MCU movie thus far). Even the tone, pacing and the way the large title cards reveal a new filming location reminds me of that movie. Perhaps it’s a nod to Natasha’s close association and friendship to Steve Rogers. After all, it’s because she chose to save him in Civil War that Ross is after her, and this movie takes place directly after that third Captain America film. Now, the film’s storyline doesn’t exactly move the MCU’s overall story forward the way other standalone movies did, it’s more of an extension of its vast universe, which I think makes it a unique film.

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This movie marks the eighth time Scarlett Johansson’s played the Black Widow character and reportedly her last. Well, if that were true, she’d have ended on a high note. We have seen her fight alongside superheroes, displaying her mastery in the arts of espionage as well as exceptional weaponry and athletic abilities. It’s great to finally see not just her emotional side but also her valor and sense of nobility… which in a way is a harbinger to the moment she sacrifice her life for the good of mankind in Avengers: Endgame. Knowing her future fate doesn’t lessen the emotional value of Natasha’s story however, in fact it deepens it as we’re now given a glimpse into what makes her who she is.

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Aussie filmmaker Cate Shortland was apparently hand picked by Scarlett herself (who’s listed as one of the executive producers) as she’s a fan of her sophomore indie film Lore, a historical WWII drama. Shortland might be new to the action genre but she proves herself adept in filming the dynamic action scenes. There are plenty of hand-to-hand combat and gritty fighting styles that feels more raw and chaotic than when she was fighting with the Avengers. She is fighting amongst mere mortals after all. Even Yelena makes a point of it after an intense fight/motorbike chase, ‘gods of thunder probably won’t need an aspirin after a fight,’ ha!

Some of the action are pretty brutal though, especially when they fight against a mysterious enemy in full armored suit called Taskmaster who can seem to mimic the fighting styles of various Avengers. The identity of the Taskmaster who reports to Dreykov is kept under wraps until the end, and I’m glad I wasn’t spoiled before watching it so I’m not going to mention it here either. My favorite fight scenes are between the two sisters in Budapest and the one where Natasha had to fight a whole bunch of fellow Black Widows!

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What I didn’t expect is the amount of levity and humor which I find refreshing. I love that Scarlet isn’t above poking fun of her own character she’s played for over a decade. The way Yelena teases her relentlessly about her power pose (the full squat with one leg extended and throwing her head back) is hilarious! She calls her sister ‘a total poser’ and even tried to mimic the pose at one point. I love how she’s unfazed that Natasha is an Avenger and constantly makes sarcastic quips at her expense. Speaking of Yelena, I absolutely adore Florence Pugh!! I’ve seen her in four movies + one terrific miniseries and she’s such an effortless scene stealer! She’s charismatic, spunky with a strong screen presence, you just can’t take your eyes off her! Nice to see that she has a great rapport with Scarlett and I think she’d be a terrific actress to hand off the baton to.

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Harbour provides a bunch of comedic moments and practically spoofing the fact that he’s also a super soldier and perhaps secretly wish he’d be an Avenger. He’s not ashamed that he’s kind of a fan-boy of his own daughter and constantly asking Natasha if her friend Steve aka Capt. ever asks about him. I love seeing Weisz as part of the MCU, that’s such inspired casting and both she and Harbour have some memorable moments here. One supporting character I wasn’t too familiar with is Mason (O-T Fagbenle) whose flirtatious banter with Natasha suggests he’s more than just a friendly ally who assist her with her ‘necessities’ while in hiding.

As for Winstone, I’m used to seeing him as a tough, working class bloke. Well, he swapped his Cockney accent with a dodgy Russian one and he doesn’t get much to do here. The relatively brief scene between him and Natasha isn’t really that memorable, so he’s akin to the villain in Thor 2. Can’t remember who it was? Most likely you won’t remember Winstone either, but thankfully the two female leads have plenty of memorable moments to make up for it.

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I have to mention the rousing score by Lorne Balfe that I enjoyed quite a bit. I became familiar with Balfe through this indie rom-com Not Another Happy Ending starring Karen Gillan. I like how they use contemporary songs sparingly that fits nicely with the scenes. I particularly enjoy Malia J’s melancholic cover of Nirvana’s Smell Like Teen Spirit that’s played during the opening credits.

Overall there are lots to love here, the screenplay by Eric Pearson manages to balance the action, humor and emotional moments pretty well. It’s interesting how the major themes of behemoth franchises with the most bombastic action sequences (Star Wars, MCU, Fast & Furious) is ‘all about family’ and not necessarily those you’re born with. Black Widow is a fun mix of spy thriller and superhero genre that’s essentially about family ties. The movie looks great on the big screen so I’m glad it’s released when we can actually go back to cinemas again. I had so much fun watching this that I don’t mind watching it again.

Oh, be sure to stay for the end credits as Marvel shrewdly promote what to expect in the next MCU series on Disney+ coming later this year.

4.5/5 stars


Have you seen BLACK WIDOW? I’d love to hear what you think!

FlixChatter Review – MIDSOMMAR (2019)

Written & Directed by: Ari Aster

When I heard Ari Aster had a new horror movie coming out, I was excited, especially since he described it as a companion piece to last year’s Hereditary. While I didn’t want to go in comparing it too much to last year’s hit, I still had high expectations.

Following a heartbreaking family tragedy, Dani (Florence Pugh) tags along with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), and his friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to an idyllic commune in a remote part of Sweden to experience their mysterious summer solstice festival. The longer they stay, however, it becomes more evident that there is a more sinister meaning behind the celebration.

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This movie is nearly TWO AND A HALF HOURS LONG and my goodness, it does not need to be. A slower pace can work in creating an unsettling, suspenseful tone (it was super effective in Hereditary), but it this movie goes beyond that, and it’s not like the plot is complex or dense enough to warrant that long of a run time. The movie has serious Wicker Man vibes-the 1973 one, not the baffling 2006 remake (although weirdly enough, this movie also has a man in a bear suit). That’s partially good-both films have these hauntingly beautiful soundtracks and a unique aesthetic for a horror movie-but Midsommar doesn’t do anything particularly new or creative with the “unsuspecting outsiders are lured to a strange, rustic community for nefarious purposes” plot, despite having a ridiculous amount of time to do so.

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Fortunately, this film gives us a lot to look at over its long run time; it is absolutely gorgeous. Midsommar is full of creative editing and camera work and beautiful set and costume design. Even the gory parts are fascinating. The cast is solid too; lead Florence Pugh is easily the standout, although Will Poulter gives an enjoyable performance as well, despite his character being a one-note frat bro-type.

While I was mostly underwhelmed with this movie, I would still watch it again, just to see if I missed any interesting details or clues in the lush visuals. If you were curious about Ari Aster’s style after hearing about Hereditary’s success but aren’t a huge horror fan, Midsommar might be worth checking out- as long as you have a decent amount of time to kill.

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Have you seen Dead Don’t Die? Well, what did you think?