Mindhunter: season one review

This show, about how the FBI came to profile and understand serial killers, has been on David Fincher’s radar for quite some time in various guises and, such is the way these days, has languished a bit in development hell until Netflix picked it up. Which is actually the perfect place for it. 

Now for anyone thinking that, with Fincher attached, this would be the TV version of Seven, will be mistaken. It’s not that glamorous. There’s no car chases or big dramatic moments, particularly. There’s also no gory murder scenes. In actual fact its focus is elsewhere and it’s a slow burn, methodical and almost introspective character study of what makes psychopaths tick. And, as a result, it’s fascinating. Think of all the one on one scenes in Silence of the Lambs where Clarice is trying to understand Lecter and he’s toying with her and you’re halfway there. 

Mindhunter starts with young FBI guy, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), a hostage negotiator who moves from field work to teach guys coming through the academy about the techniques he’s learned. The FBI’s director then partners him with a guy from the behavioural science division, Bill Tench (Holt McCallany); who’s out on the road teaching beat cops round the country about the psychology of criminals and why local law enforcement needs to think differently. And they slowly bond, in a mismatched odd couple kind of way.

Now for you and me, it may seem obvious that, for some criminals, you have to get inside their head in order to understand – and therefore catch – them, but back then it was a new concept. Particularly for serial killers, who could go for years undetected. Seemingly normal guys (and it is mostly guys) living life like anyone else, yet under the surface they’ve constructed another type of persona, one that satisfies their desire to kill without remorse.

It’s this dichotomy that fascinates Ford, who actively tries to interview some of the most notorious killers in America at the time in an effort to understand and profile them. He almost admires and reveres them.

Tench, reluctantly, goes along with Ford’s schemes, but it’s clear he has contempt for these killers and what they’ve done and thinks there’s a lot less to learn from them than Ford. Yet something in him is drawn to them as well, although he’s more wary than Ford about what real insight can be gained.

And these interviews (taken from real life exchanges with real convicts) are what form some of this show’s best scenes. Moreover, real killers are used as characters in the show for authenticity: guys like Ed Kemper, Jerry Brudos and Richard Speck. And whilst they’re all different personalities and have killed for a variety of reasons, there are things the FBI learns from each of them in their efforts to form a methodology from which to assess and profile would-be future killers. 

This is something the show touches on in one scene, where Holden uses what he’s learnt to prevent a crime. He’s then reprimanded, because, as his director says, you cannot punish someone for something they haven’t yet done. 

But he’s onto something. We know he is. Each time Ford gets resistance from those he reports to he knows he should trust his instinct and keep going. Yet he, too, becomes more detached the more he comes to understand – and possibly even empathise with – these guys. Is Ford a borderline sociopath? Is it a job requirement in order to get close to these men and gain their confidence? It’s evident that this show deals in a lot of grey areas, and you’ll find yourself thinking about its themes for days after.

And Groff plays him so compellingly, with a kind of wholesome, precocious innocence, yet he’s also incredibly driven, single-minded, considered, focused and strategic. And he’s in close to every scene throughout the season. Who knew a guy best known for musicals and Frozen could be such a good fit for this type of character? 

My perhaps only niggle is that this first season doesn’t feel like it has an obvious overall arc. I mean, it does build to a climax of sorts, but it’s not a show that’s overly dramatic, so it sort of feels counter-intuitive to have a grandstanding finale. That said, it’s nice to see a narrative thread running through overall, if you can have one.

Next season is rumoured to feature Charles Manson, so I’d get up to speed now if you’ve not yet seen season one. It comes highly recommended as a bit of a surprise hit. 

Informer!

She flips when she hears your secrets.
Demoted to the FBI, you now spend your day peddling lies.
Calculating, she looks at you as she plots your demise.
Sizing you up for termination.
She’s wise to your cries for special consideration.

But it didn’t start here.
This is the end of the tale.
It began with a trap so allow me to regale.
Looking back, the mission started on a park bench.
Most begin this way, it wasn’t that far-fetched.
At the time you were CIA.
Rival spies often clocked you a mile away.
Let’s just say… subtlety was not your specialty.
So you decided to up your game.
One last mission to show your superiors what they’d been missing.
Cos you had big plans and wanted to show them your vision.
But let’s face it, you weren’t spy material.
Rivals had you for breakfast. Espionage cereal.
So you cooked up a coup, all whispy and ethereal.
Least that’s what you thought, ’til it became hyper-real.

Escalating to the point of civil war.
And to top it off, fucking up wasn’t even a chore.
There you were, flouting international law like a zen master.
A God among men, yet a total chancer.
A show pony, a reindeer, Prancer and Dancer.
And then it came crashing down.
You missed your ultimate goal.
Ending up most wanted of Interpol.
So you turned double agent and became a mole.
A snitch, a grass, call it what you will.
You folded on friends and colleagues alike, it took real skill.

Frantic, you made deals left and right to save your hide.
Your antics? A classic panic to avoid doing time inside.
Then in she walked, right into your life.
A femme fatale that had your senses screaming.
Your defences down, what could she be scheming?
In an instant, you fell in love.
Betraying your country you were hand in glove.
With her by your side you were a man that was tough.
Somehow though, you knew it wouldn’t last.
And sure enough she betrayed you.
Leaving you trapped like an animal in a caged zoo.

Then down came the pain.
What career was this?
You were left in tatters as you got dismissed.
An old spy, most wanted with no alibi.
Part of you wanted to lay down and die, but you had spirit.
Stating your case it was a miracle when others chose to hear it.
Then, like a phoenix, you blazed back.
Solving old cases watching bad men fall and take the rap.
Even so, there’s a long way to go.
You’re still raw and torn up.
But that’s the price you pay to play, Mr Informer.

American Hustle: another stone cold zinger from David O. Russell?

Big hair, big actors, big performances and small dresses. That’s what you get from this latest offering by writer-director David O. Russell – the man behind award winning films, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter.american-hustle

Set in the ’70s and loosely following the FBI Abscam operation, we start with our main character, conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), sporting a hairy paunch and possibly the best combover since Bill Murray in Kingpin.

He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and the pair fall for each other, becoming a successful con artist couple until getting busted by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI man trying to make a name for himself.PDC - Best Films - American Hustle DiMaso convinces the pair to set up various politicians, including Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), which then leads his operation onto bigger fish, namely mobsters.

There’s the setup. There’s a lot more but suffice to say that films featuring con artists often have numerous double crosses, shady backhanders and ambiguous motives galore. It’s essentially the director playing the three cups game with the audience. Just when you think you know which cup hides the plot twist, boom, deception!

That said, the con part of this film isn’t hugely tough to follow, the plot ticks along nicely. The whole Abscam thing almost more of a backdrop to allow O. Russell to showcase a host of interesting characters. In short, this is a character study.

Indeed, it’s a character driven movie with Irving front and centre as the driving force. Plaudits already seem to be going to Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence – the former Irving’s mistress the latter his unhinged wife, Rosalyn – yet it’s Bale who anchors the whole thingAmy-Adams -American-Hustle--02 with a commanding yet vulnerable performance; as a man who recognises his place in the criminal world and feels control gradually slipping from his grasp.

Amy Adams’ Sydney is partly responsible for Irving’s loss of control. Blaming him for getting her busted in the first place, she puts herself in the centre of a love triangle between Irving and Bradley Cooper’s DiMaso. Is she conning them both? Does she have genuine feelings for DiMaso? Huge credit to Adams for leading us down this sexy garden path with a fiercely seductive performance yet… she’s similar to Irving. The deeper she goes the more she feels things are spinning out of control.

Enter DiMaso. Cooper’s portrayal of an ambitious – and possibly quite naive – FBI man is yet another feather in O. Russell’s cap – and Cooper’s too. He charges about the place, manipulating Irving and Sydney, intimidating his boss (brilliantly played by Louis C.K.) yet he’s the same… never quite in control, mentally or emotionally.

And if we’re on the subject of emotional control, Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn gives a masterclass in how to be an unmanageable wife. Jennifer-Lawrence -American-Hustle--04Furiously demanding Irving’s attention and love, setting fire to the science oven (microwaves were just coming out), getting him in trouble with the mob. Perhaps this is all summed up in one beautiful scene where she sings ‘Live and let die’ whilst furiously cleaning.

So… coming back to my title, is this a zinger? Well, mostly. It’s a great film, lots of fun. It doesn’t have the emotional wallop of The Fighter or the intricate nuances of Silver Linings Playbook, but there’s no doubt it will pick up a stack of awards. And it shows that, with O.Russell we’ve got a director who’s found his ’70s flair and shared the secret with his mad, bad cast. Groovy baby.

The Wolf of Wall Street: Scorsese and DiCaprio take greed is good to another level

we-saw-wolf-of-wall-street-with-a-bunch-of-wall-street-dudes-and-it-was-disturbingHead to a bar. Order a shot of tequila. Chuck some tabasco in it, some pepper, maybe some lighter fluid. Open one eye wide and shoot the shot straight into your eyeball. The experience you’ll have is nothing like watching this film, but it’s the best I can do and gets you in the right mindset for the madness.

What this film is, let’s be honest, is an insane, orgasmic orgy of debauchery; a heady rush of excess and depravity. This is mainlining pure DiCaprio and Scorsese straight into your bloodstream – and within the first few seconds you’re hooked.

Charting the life of young stockbroker, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the late ’80s/early ’90s – with a smart screenplay by Terence Winter – it’s been described, aptly, as ‘Goodfellas on steroids’. Indeed, near the start of the film to set the scene Belfort frequently jonah-hill-leonardo-dicaprio-the-wolf-of-wall-street-600x400directly addresses the camera in much the way Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill did in 1990. There’s drugs, money, gambling, women, more drugs. And those pesky chaps at the FBI of course, trying to ruin everyone’s fun.

However, instead of gangsters here we get stockbrokers – the modern white collar equivalent. And, in the way that Goodfellas is perhaps dominated by moments of violence, The Wolf of Wall Street, more often than not, gives way to comedy. I mean, who has a genuine business meeting about the best way to toss a dwarf at a dartboard?

To properly portray the reprehensible Jordan Belfort you need a man like DiCaprio who oozes charisma. A man whose screen presence is unquestionable: the way his wolf pit of brokers hang on his every word is a sight to see. In one scene, taking a leaf from his mentor’s notebook (the rascally Matthew McConaughey, who else?), he has his entire sales force thumping their chests, like some sort of tribe.

???????????????????????Belfort is shocking in every sense, yet mesmerising. Almost to the point that you’re rooting for him to make it and come good before he falls foul of the feds. Scorsese treads a fine line here but, to be honest, we all know Belfort isn’t going to have a happy ending. He’s too arrogant, too sure of himself, too full of drugs to do anything but keep going.

And part of the thrill here is letting Scorsese and DiCaprio take us on that journey. Never have three hours of drugs, hookers and madness looked so much fun. (Your office on Monday morning will seem like a tomb in comparison.) Obviously the film is a cautionary tale, a nod to the excesses that ultimately led to the current financial crisis but… like in the film, before we get all technical, all you need to know is that what these guys were doing was bad. But boy, how did bad end up looking so good?

DiCaprio carries the movie along like a man possessed, but the supporting cast were also impressive. Newcomer 23-year-old Australian Margot Robbie was perfectly cast as Belfort’s wife, Naomi.THE WOLF OF WALL STREET Looking like a cross between Olivia Wilde and Cameron Diaz, she played her part like a seasoned pro. No doubt we’ll be seeing a lot more of her in the near future (she’s rumoured to be Jane to Alexander Skarsgard’s Tarzan in an upcoming film of the same name. She’s also apparently replaced Amanda Seyfried as the lead in a forthcoming sci-fi flick Z for Zachariah).

And, along with the wife let’s not forget Belfort’s trusty best friend, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). Seems he’s come a long way since the days of Superbad in 2007, with Moneyball (2011) and a smart remake of 21 Jump Street (2012) providing a perfect platform for him to leap headfirst into a Scorsese movie. And leap he did. You wonder just how wild Belfort would have been without Azoff by his side, egging him on. In an early scene where the two haven’t been friends for long, ludesDonnie says he has a gift for Belfort – this turns out to be smoking crack in the middle of the day.

And Hill plays him wonderfully. You almost feel DiCaprio had to up his comedy game to keep up with Hill, but that often made for some truly hilarious moments. Without spoiling it, there’s numerous scenes where the pair do one too many ‘ludes’ aka quaaludes (a pill – now no longer in production surprisingly – that robs you of your motor skills), which left them – how shall we say – without the ability to function in pretty much all senses of the word.

It’s not surprising that this film is up for a stack of awards. Banker bashing and morals aside, what it is – as a cinema experience – is pure hedonistic fun. This is Scorsese with his hair down and the wind in his sails. All we can do is hang on and enjoy the ride.