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. 

True Detective: season 2 review

Whilst it’s incredibly easy to jump on the critical bandwagon and denounce the second season of True Detective as a confusing and unengaging flop, I feel that’s slightly unfair. It’s also unfair to constantly compare it to the first season. A season which, let’s face it, had little expectation, other than the fact it had a couple of A-listers in the lead roles. Yet delivered and then some.

For the sake of fairness, the first season had a couple of obvious but vital things going for it too. It was a simpler story, albeit leaping around time periods. It also had a secret weapon: Matthew McConaughey, a man at the top of his game. But, first and foremost, we identified with the two lead characters and the interaction they had together.

Fast forward to season two and the cast has changed and grown, the story has become more complex and layered, and the location has shifted from the simmering deep south to the urban sprawl of LA.

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So, it’s literally almost an entirely different show.

That said, some things remain. Such as the slow burn tone (expertly continued with a woozy, languorous and devilishly seductive soundtrack) and the tortured characters (instead of two leads we now have four – more bang for your buck). Although what this does mean is that we as an audience need to reinvest ourselves in an entirely new set of troubled souls.

So in step Colin Farrell (a washed up old copper desperate to connect with his kid), Rachel McAdams (a prickly detective unable to meaningfully connect with anyone at work or at home) and Taylor Kitsch (a young traffic cop grappling with – and hiding from – his sexuality), who are thrown together to initially solve a murder which spirals out into a much bigger web of corruption and deceit, partially involving Vince Vaughn’s aspirational gangster.

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With the series finale (after eight episodes) I was left feeling rather relieved it was all over as it had sort of collapsed under the own weight of its expectation. And, despite the cast all giving a decent account of themselves (particularly Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell), there was nothing they could do to elevate the confused and convoluted script.

Will there be a season 3?

Smart money would say no, although HBO are open to it. The first season was critically acclaimed and the second the polar opposite; maybe the result of just trying to be too ambitious for its own good and different for the sake of it? If that’s the case then the show’s creator Nic Pizzolatto should be applauded for his bravery. After finding a winning formula in season one he then oddly, largely, abandoned it. Or perhaps tried to evolve it, it’s hard to say.

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On the plus side there were definitely things to love about the second season. For example we had proper, cinematic, edge-of-your-seat scenes throughout, in particular a street gun battle in broad daylight that felt akin to the one in Michael Mann’s Heat.

Then there were quieter, more introspective moments that were incredibly tender and showed a deftness of touch. In particular a series of intensely vulnerable moments between Farrell and McAdams’ characters as they opened up to one another, which were understated and deeply moving.

In some ways I’d be interested to see what they do with a third season, should they choose to make one. Different location again? Different characters? Would any return or cross paths?

These days, TV audiences are a little spoilt for choice with the quality out there, despite the fact that the ‘golden age of TV’ is reportedly over. And anything that plays by its own rules is bound to divide people. But there is definitely a place for this sort of show, so maybe let’s not give it a kicking just yet eh?

[Related articles]
Guardian article: In praise of… True Detective

Gone Girl: A love letter to marriage

Phase 2 of Ben Affleck’s career just keeps impressing. It probably started with Gone Baby Gone in 2006, which he wrote and directed. Then The Town in 2010, in which he starred and directed. He followed this with Argo in 2012, again, he starred and directed. In the same year he managed to fit in critically acclaimed film, Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder.

He’s been cast as the new Batman (so we’ll be seeing him again in 2016), but before that he’s added another thoughtful, measured and mature performance (and film) to his filmography with Gone Girl, directed by one of modern cinema’s bad boy geniuses David Fincher.

GONE GIRL, from left: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 2014. ph: Merrick Morton/TM & copyright ©20th

Gone Girl the novel – by Gillian Flynn – came out in 2012. By the end of its first year it had sold over two million copies. Flynn also wrote the screenplay for this film and her themes (and characters) are tremendously relatable to anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship that’s gone somewhat awry.

The film tells the story of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) who, upon returning home one day, finds his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) has vanished in suspicious circumstances. What ensues is a police investigation and media frenzy where everyone – in the absence of Amy’s body – accuses Nick of being a sociopath and condemns him for her murder. Their initial evidence? His awkward behaviour when dealing with the media and various failings that come to light concerning his marriage vows.

As probably one of the most famous guys named Ben in modern times, Affleck is no stranger to being put under the beady eye of media scrutiny. Here he treads a masterful line, giving Nick just enough of our sympathies to believe he didn’t commit murder, but with enough occasional flashes to keep us guessing.

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Credit should also go to Fincher, who jumps between Nick’s present day predicament and flashbacks of Nick and Amy’s past; from happier times when they first met to progressively tougher times as they both lose their jobs and begin to hate each other.

Without giving too much away (but let’s say spoiler alert anyway) the film changes tack about halfway through to tell Amy’s side of the story. Now Rosamund Pike has been around for a few years, putting in good performances here and there for the most part, but never really cracked the major A-list. That should now change pretty sharply.

Her performance here is captivating – all fire and ice as she shows first one side of Amy, then the other. Without giving too much away Nick has the lion’s share of the story, yet Amy’s scenes are pivotal and are the ones that jolt you out of any comfortable place you may have felt the story was taking you as a viewer.

LIBRARY IMAGE OF GONE GIRL

You’d expect nothing less from Fincher right? He gave us the ‘head in a box’ scene in Seven years ago, and it’s fair to say it looked like he felt right at home with the script’s dark themes.

Referring to the film as a love letter to marriage is really more of a question. The writer (of the book and screenplay) said she based the story on some of her own experiences. Much has been written about these characters putting you off marriage and relationships, but I’d say it’s blackly humorous, cynical perhaps, but also remarkably well observed in some ways.

There’s quite a few comic moments, which to me suggest you shouldn’t get too hung up on the darker elements, but perhaps take it with a pinch of salt as a cautionary tale. Or the opposite, as some sort of cynical love letter.

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Ultimately, the story and characters are highly engaging (in an unsettling way) throughout. Pike and Affleck’s performances are first class and Fincher shows no signs of giving up his dark cinematic throne any time soon.

Here’s to Amazing Fucking Amy. I’d marry her in a second.

I’d probably regret it… but it’d be a thrilling ride.

Nightcrawler: the ultimate entrepreneur?

Dr. Robert Hare, one of the foremost researchers on sociopathy, believes that a sociopath is four times more likely to be at the top of the corporate ladder than in the janitor’s closet, due to the close match between the personality traits of sociopaths and the unusual demands of high-powered jobs.
M.E. Thomas, Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight

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Jake Gyllenhaal has had an interesting career so far. He’s made good choices and played interesting parts. But then, you could argue he started out in Donnie Darko, so he hit the ground running.

With Nightcrawler he’s gone up another level. Some critics have compared his performance to De Niro’s Travis Bickle. In terms of his character’s detachment from society it probably is on that level, but in other ways it’s far more compelling (and brought right up to date for modern-day society).

Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom who, when we first meet him, is a bit of a thief and a hustler. He is clearly a driven and articulate individual, but he has no purpose. Then one night he sees a car wreck on the highway and, as the police help the victim, he watches with fascination as a couple of guys race up in a van and film the whole thing. He’s instantly hooked and has found his calling.

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Like all good predators they lure you into a false sense of security and allow you to get close, but by the time you realise what their game is it’s too late. This is when Lou is at his scariest. For the most part he seems normal, albeit a bit odd, until he needs something from you. He’ll then persuade, reason and negotiate until, when all else fails, he threatens. And he means it.

At one point he says ‘I like to think that when people meet me they’re having the worst day of their lives.’ This applies not only to victims of crime that he films, but almost anyone he meets. If you’ve just met Lou, your day is about to get a hell of a lot worse. This is none more evident than the manner in which he treats his assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed), who gets a seriously rough ride throughout, to put it mildly.

Writer and director Dan Gilroy (making his directorial debut) has, in Lou Bloom, created a chillingly realistic portrayal of a man that will do whatever it takes to achieve his goals. He spends much of his time talking about his company and business strategy, spouting corporate jargon as if he vehemently believes it.

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However, the situations in which he finds himself – in an effort to capture the perfect shot – are ludicrous and highly disturbing to anyone who has even a questionable moral compass and ounce of humanity. For Lou, he is a predator in the purest sense. Duran Duran’s Hungry Like The Wolf would be the perfect theme song to this film.

Indeed, Gyllenhaal’s attention to character detail is masterful – from his cautious, fight-or-flight body language as he approaches a crime scene to the way his eyes seem to get bigger and light up in the darkness of the LA night if he senses a story is at hand.

Nightcrawler is the sort of film you go into with little expectation. At times it’s horrific and thrilling, but most of all it’s captivating. Much like the car wrecks and violent crime that Lou films, we can’t take our eyes off him as a character.

You can see where the film is largely going, but the inexorable, creeping sense of dread that it instils in you on the journey is something from which you cannot escape. And nor do you want to, in a twisted sort of way.

The Following season two: Bacon and Purefoy back with a slice and a stab

203-003-the-following-trust-me-photos-lightbox-tbdSo… it seems The Following is back. A bit of a surprise hit when it aired last year so no big shock that it’s got another season. If you missed it first time round, the show largely focuses on two characters: wounded (physically and emotionally), brooding former FBI guy Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) and the charismatic and learned lecturer-turned-serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy).

The cat and mouse game these two play is what makes this work. Ok, the script is decent and intriguing, suspenseful even. But for me, the secret lies in the casting and the characters. We often know where the story is going but it’s a fun ride getting there.

Whether it’s big or small screen, Americans adore a bad guy played by a Brit. And in Purefoy’s Carroll they’ve got just that; as his cult ‘following’ of wannabe killers grows, you feel yourself drawn into his orbit – you believe people would follow Carroll and want to please him.

To his credit, Purefoy doesn’t overplay it, but gives Carroll real believability as a cult leader. The way he actually kills people is like some sort of visceral and cathartic release, almost sexual at times. 202-007-the-following-for-joe-photos-lightbox-tbdYou can imagine Family Guy’s Stewie describing him as ‘deliciously evil’.

And then there’s Kevin Bacon’s Ryan Hardy. Wounded by Carroll in a previous encounter, he now has a bum ticker and, as a former FBI man, he plays fast and loose with the law to catch Carroll. Oh, and he drinks, making him your all-round, typical flawed antihero.

Funnily enough, I see both Carroll and Hardy as protagonists, they’re both so interesting you want them both to come out of it with a measure of success. Or, to put it in other terms, you want them to go round and round each other forever, much like Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight or De Niro and Pacino in Heat. Two sides of the same coin.

Anyway, that’s the setup. And, without ruining season one for those that haven’t seen it, Hardy and Carroll scrap it out to the bitter end in a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion. I say satisfying because, whilst it brought the series to a nice close, it left it open for a follow up.

With season two events pick up a year on, Carroll has gone into hiding and Hardy is getting on with his life. He’s stopped drinking, he’s hosting dinner parties. In short, he’s becoming well adjusted… to a degree.sam-photos-lightbox-tbd

Then bam, stabbings and murders galore. Carroll’s followers celebrating the anniversary of his ‘death’ at the end of season one (it’s no spoiler to say this, of course the main bad guy survives for a second season!), go on a killing spree on the subway shouting ‘Carroll lives. Ryan Hardy can’t stop him!’ Then, slowly but surely, little factions of his followers begin to emerge.

One of Carroll’s original followers, Emma, returns sporting a new punk rock haircut. We’ve also got a new love interest for Ryan Hardy in the form of art dealer Lily Gray (Danish beauty, Connie Nielsen), a character who will no doubt have a hidden agenda or two (the internet is already awash with theories, time will tell).

But most interestingly we’re introduced to a pair of twins: handsome, well dressed lads (both played by Sam Underwood) that put you in mind of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Underwood is an interesting actor (another evil Brit!), already carving out a career playing characters with a dark side (see his work in Dexter and Homeland). The twins pay homage to Carroll in a series of elaborate and poetic murders that set things up nicely in terms of intrigue and a wild card element for the season.

And all that in the first two episodes. It’s nice to have the show back.

Utopia: Conspiracy thriller packs a punch

utopiaAs I’d heard good things about Channel 4’s new mini-series, I settled down to watch with trepidation and was rather impressed. The plot focuses around an online forum group for fans of a cult graphic novel The Utopia Experiments: a novel that allegedly predicts future events.

They are brought together after one of them discovers a sequel to the novel. Something thought to not exist. Unfortunately this brings them to the attention of two evil chaps hell-bent on retrieving the sequel’s manuscript and killing the group and anyone associated with it, often in a chilling fashion.

utopia2Where is Jessica Hyde?

This mini-series is pitched as a slow-burn thriller and I’d say that’s an apt description. It gradually weaves various story strands together and we get introduced to characters slowly and confidently, learning a little about them in each scene.

As well as the forum group, there’s also a sub-plot involving a government health minister, which looks likely to connect with the main story further down the line and has intrigue written all over it.

Why a spoon? Because it’s dull, it’ll hurt more

In terms of critical reception, much will be made of the violence. Considering this is TV, it’s incredibly well-shot and cinematic, with a compelling cast including Kill List alumni Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley. If you’ve seen that film you’ll have an idea of the tone.

Without giving too much away I’ll just say there’s a few stand-out, Tarantino-esque scenes that really do pack a punch. That said, it’s not violence all the way – indeed, the characters are built up well and the plot is intriguing and compelling.

wilson wilsonMaster of suspense

One of the things the show does well is not reveal its hand too quickly. Vitally important – for something pitching itself as a slow-burn thriller – to keep in mind. Obvious you may say, but it’s been ignored before.

As an audience, we like to be kept guessing. Not too much, but enough to keep us hooked. Based on the first episode I think they’ve got the balance right. Let’s hope, if it’s maintained for the duration, the results could be something quite special.

[Interesting links]
Guardian blog: Utopia review | How long before they find you? The Utopia Inquiry

The Hour series 2: First episode review

I assume, if you’re reading this, you were a fan of the original series. If not, allow me to bring you up to speed. Released in 2011 The Hour was a drama miniseries set in a BBC newsroom studios in the 1950s, starring Ben Whishaw, Dominic West and Romola Garai.

The premise began with ambitious, young producer Bel (Garai) being tasked by her boss to helm a new, cutting-edge news show. Her reporter and friend, Freddie (Whishaw), was brought on board to run the domestic news side of the show, with charismatic Hector (West) as anchor in front of camera. Series one took place against the backdrop of the Suez Crisis, with a murder mystery/spy story that built throughout to a tense, dramatic conclusion.

west garai whishawCanny casting
In terms of the three leads, Whishaw is going from strength to strength, currently seen as Q in the new Bond, Skyfall. He also has a significant role in the highly anticipated epic film, Cloud Atlas. Garai is a young, talented, up-and-coming actress, prolific on both stage and screen.

Notably she’s starred in TV miniseries The Crimson Petal and the White with Chris O’Dowd – and been in films Atonement and One Day. West is best known as McNulty from critically acclaimed TV show The Wire and film 300.

Superlative scripting
I must admit, I’d completely forgotten about series two until I spotted an advert the day before it started. Lucky for me, because I thoroughly enjoyed the first series. The three leads had some great lines, courtesy of a strong script by Abi Morgan – who also wrote the screenplay for films Shame and The Iron Lady. Indeed, this show was nominated for Best Miniseries – as well as two other awards – at the Golden Globes.

It’s also worth noting that it’s incorrectly been described – mostly by the press – as the British Mad Men. Other than the period setting, that’s it in terms of similarities. It’s a completely different beast. Just so you know what you’re getting into.

peter capaldiSeries two: Episode one – the plot
So it was with excitement that I settled down to watch the new series. It takes place a year after events at the end of series one, with Bel struggling to keep the show running. The episode starts with new Head of News, Randall Brown (the brilliant Peter Capaldi), and takes place in a Britain consumed by fear of nuclear attack by Soviet Russia. In order to compete with a rival show Randall brings Freddie back, which unsettles Bel. At the same time Hector receives a tip-off for a story that could outdo their rivals.

Didn’t they do well?
Sorry for going all Brucie bonus on you there, but it was a good first episode, hitting the beats in terms of bringing us up-to-date on the newsroom and various staff changes. This included introduction of Capaldi, who slipped effortlessly into the show, stealing most scenes with fantastically delivered lines. As an actor he seems to personify authority and quiet, bottled rage, kept at bay with a calm, almost Zen exterior. That’s probably why he was so good in political satire TV show The Thick of It, although he’s understandably more restrained here.

His character also hints at an ulterior motive for joining the newsroom, something brought up by reporter Lix Storm. So I imagine there’s a lot more to see from the mysterious Randall.

Whishaw’s character, Freddie, gets a brilliantly scripted introduction. As an audience anticipating his entrance, we’re kept waiting for half the episode. He then returns to the studio, sauntering into a news briefing like he’d never left,  sporting a bohemian beard and a sharp, new suit. This has significant impact on Bel; the range of emotions that flit across Garai’s face in this scene are worth watching. I’ve been a massive fan of hers since The Crimson Petal and the White. Her chemistry with Freddie picks up pretty quickly until near the end of the episode, when she makes a discovery.

Meanwhile West’s character, Hector, has let the success go to his head and is on fine, smug form: drinking, late for work, flirting and bedding glamorous women. This sows the seeds (no pun intended) for a story strand involving a mystery woman (played by Hannah Tointon), series 2 domonic westwho will most likely need the help of the intrepid news team. This plot feels a little similar to the start of the first series, a mystery woman in danger. I’m sure it will take on a life of its own quickly enough.

A final point, the tone of the show – including some great use of music during scenes – has continued much where it left off from the first series. This is important. Whilst it’s great to evolve and develop characters, it’s important not to lose sight of the appeal of the original. Factors that made it so compelling first time round I’ve covered: great cast, strong script and characters, suspense, intrigue, great period detail, sublime soundtrack.

Let’s raise an Old Fashioned to – what I predict will be – an intriguing series!