The first season of “Mindhunter” captured my imagination, dark though its story material is. Serial killers, the tracking down of them, that’s what the series relates, through the eyes of two FBI psych researchers (plus an engaging second string of FBI-ers). The second season’s opening episode hit hard but then the next four episodes seemed to “lose direction.” What then of the final four episodes running down the main underlying story of a brazen, clever serial killer of black children in Atlanta? Thankfully the series’ brooding investigative edge returns, all the acting remains superior (with the two main actors, Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany, outstanding), and the dark cinematography is spellbinding. The climax, vindicating though it is, partially slaps down the new FBI profiling unit and the closing scenes are bleak indeed. Season 3 beckons.
The opening episode of “The Boys,” a wacko superhero series in which the “sups” are out-of-control, corporately manipulated villains, was a mixed bag for me but I was compelled to watch on. I’m delighted I did, for the remainder of the season’s first half is a sprightly confection, full of so many gasp-out-loud plot twists that I … gasped out loud. Ragtag heroes Billy Butcher and Hughie are joined by Frenchie (played with contrary delight by Tomer Capon) and Mother’s Milk (a sturdy performance from Laz Alonso). The villains continue to impress with their depravity. Splendidly scripted and directed, with bouncy dialogue that works, the series rushes at a fast clip towards a finale I cannot begin to imagine (our heroes are, after all, ranged against superheroes). Roll on, second half.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up in astonished wonder in the closing moments of the first episode of the sophomore season of “Succession.” That’s something that rarely happens to this jaded viewer but the sheer brutal savagery, the corporate savagery, displayed in the swift closing scene … well, that takes the breath away. I guess what helped propel a regular scene into this territory was also the recognition that this is the truth, a truth I gained from three decades in the corporate sector. At the start of this season, Logan Roy, head of the Murdoch-class empire, is under corporate siege, and Brian Cox revs up this role to its loathsome peak. His children – shell-shocked Kendall (perfectly played by Jeremy Strong), rapier-shit-smart Shiv (oh, just watch Sarah Snook!), and super-sneery Roman (Kieran Culkin in fine form) – revolve in endless games of intrigue under Logan’s ambit. This first episode’s set scenes – a trip back from a health spa, a palatial country house – glitter. Not a moment is wasted, nothing good will eventuate, but somehow the scriptwriters wring some humanity out of each character’s vileness. Superb.
Ignore the movie trailer of “The Farewell,” for this is not a light comedy of the “Chinese immigrants return home” variety. Instead, Lulu Wang’s downbeat story is a moody look at the role of home and the love of family. Struggling American Chinese Billi (played wonderfully truly by Awkwafina), barely holding on in New York but very much a New Yorker, returns home as part of deceptive last rites for her Nai Nai (grandmother). The suburban city feel of the cinematography, all bleak apartments and footpaths and restaurants, in some unnamed city (it felt like Shenzhen to me but could equally well be outer Beijing), is superb. Culminating in a very Chinese wedding, the movie probes imminent loss with a seriousness that belies the drippings of mild comedy. If it drags a bit in spots, that’s because the plot contains no artificial drama. The final scenes of separation and dislocation round out a minor-key but worthy film
Scott Ryan is a grinning, glowering Aussie presence in “Mr Inbetween,” a low-key riff on the by-now ancient story of the professional criminal living his life in ordinary society. Ryan plays Ray Shoesmith, a thug for hire, a hitman at worst. In this first episode, an amusing first scene in a boxing school segues to domesticity – girlfriend, daughter, and so on – before drama with two low lifers hits us sharp and gritty. Nash Edgerton’s direction is sure-footed but my first encounter with this highly regarded series left me nonplussed. I’m intrigued enough to continue but I must say that the script, co-written by Ryan, skirts at the edge of nonchalance. Here’s hoping the next few episodes rev up…
You can read the 2018 IPCC report or you can watch Leonardo DiCaprio’s dry, portentous narration of “Ice on Fire,” superbly scripted and unfolded by Leila Conners. Or you should do both. The formal report encapsulates the most formidable, global scientific enterprise the world has ever known, iterated over thirty years. The documentary puts flesh onto the horrifying downsides and the obstacles ahead, while offering encouragement through stories of technologies and ventures that can, right now, reduce carbon emissions or mitigate consequences of climate change. Cycling round dozens of persuasive scientists and commentators, focusing (per the title) on ice melt and water rise, and including brilliant cinematography, “Ice on Fire” treads a fine line between frightening and reassuring, and it does it so well. Go see this.
If a more boring and tawdry movie than “Hustlers” has come out in the last half decade, I’m unaware of it. After a passably dramatic opening scene in which super-lithe Ramona (played with a body-built physical presence by Jennifer Lopez that never offers any nuance or empathy) wows customers at a strip club and entrances rookie stripper Destiny (a clueless performance from Constance Wu), the movie devolves into a tension-free half-doco about sex workers scamming Wall Street morons. No central villain emerges as antagonist, so if you think the trailer presages a thriller, you are dead wrong. As for emancipating American sex workers by portraying them as swearing, materialistic “winners,” I can’t see any vestige of realism or sympathy in the heavy directorial hand. To sum: barely a plot; veneer-thin acting; semi-exploitative subject matter while pretending to honor; clunky transitions; excruciating dialogue . . . nada.
“Barry” smacked of Dexter-lite from the outset but it has carved out a following because in this case, Barry, the hitman with a life, is idiosyncratically portrayed by Bill Hader with such verve that you overlook the fundamental plot clichés. And other core characters, such as Noho Hank (a glowing performance by Anthony Carrigan), glow just as brightly. In Episode 1 of the series’ second season, the chaos of Barry’s fledgling acting career spirals out of control when he is forced to direct a show, just as gangster machinations spur Noho to reel Barry into further wet work. The script unravels tightly. I did not watch Season 1 but there was plenty enough in this Season 2 opener to seduce me onwards.
“Money Heist Season 3” represents a bet on plotting imagination, for who could possibly match the sheer exuberance of the underlying plot of the first two seasons, the takeover of the Spanish mint? Episode 1, then, is a test: can it make the cut or will it straightaway fizzle? Well, the news is good. We kick off the action with snippets of the triumphant band at their various celebratory hideaways in nooks and crannies of the world, then bang: Rio (still played superbly by Miguel Herran), after a lapse of judgment, falls into the hands of the thuggish cops, and Tokio (another wow from Ursula Corbero) tracks down the Professor, played with incandescent cool by Alvaro Morte, for help. Soon enough, the band of thieves is reunited, with some new, interesting-looking thieves, and assembled for another grand coup attempt back in Spain. The first episode is all setup but it’s done with great verve, narrative flair (dodging back in time as needs be) and humor. There’s no reason to suppose the next seven episodes won’t be any less spectacular and intelligent than the earlier seasons.
2019, for me, is a year of extravagant entertainment, the kind of intelligent, exciting shit that takes you away from life but also deepens. So it’s been Bosch and other dark mystery/thriller series, and it’s been the sci-fi of Legion and The Umbrella Academy and so on. Do I need more of such exuberant escapism? Well, I’ve begun “The Boys,” a supremely odd superhero comic-based series that pits corrupt superiors against a ragtag bunch of citizen vigilantes. It begins with young Hughie (played wonderfully by Jack Quaid) gutted by a death caused by Vought Corporation (the one with all the vaunted superheroes) and falling in with mysterious, rough-as-guts Billy Butcher (what a surprisingly fine turn by Karl Urban!). In the meantime Annie, a wannabe Vought superhero, is anointed as Starlight and begins to understand what she’s really gotten into. Over the course of a slightly surreal, uncertainly paced first episode, we glimpse how Hughie, Billy, and Annie might range against the baddies led by super-superhero Homelander, portrayed by frosty precision by Antony Starr. The first episode is at once compelling and irritating, but by the closing, brutal scene, it’s clear the viewer is in for a ride. Will that journey satisfy? Let’s watch on, viewers…