Netflix seems awash with competent thriller series like “Anatomy of a Scandal,” a six-parter based on a bestselling novel. This one concerns a handsome, uber-high-flying British politician (cast well in Rupert Friend and competently acted out) who is accused of rape, the plot swirling around the pollie and his pretty wife (Sienna Miller does a reasonable job), and the phenomenally savage prosecuting lawyer (a standout role from Michelle Dockery). No spoilers here, but the slow build-up over the first few episodes devolves into a savage plot twist that, frankly, elicits disbelief. The courtroom scenes are sharply directed but much else is a drifting mélange. Anatomy of a Scandal is not shockingly poor, just an average watchable show that I mildly enjoyed but then dismissed when the final credits rolled.
As was the case last year, the last six months of viewing (movies and streaming shows) blessed me with more stellar experiences than my half year of reading. That doesn’t mean viewing eclipsed reading overall, for I’m seeing a tailing off of the “golden age of streaming shows/movies,” with Netflix in particular reverting to mostly average or below-average fodder. But the best shows and movies across the many streamers and the cinemas were exceptional. Five dramas, four thrillers, and one comedy, and three of them rated at the perfect score of 10/10. Sink in, dear viewer, sink in.
The links below take you to my review.
The standout screening this year has been Mike Mills’s C’mon C’mon (10/10), which I’ve seen twice with a third time to come. Two outstanding acting performances and an engrossing, human, existential tale. A masterpiece.
Released with far greater fanfare but also highly individualistic was Belfast (10/10), a stunning tale of The Troubles written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. An ode to a city, a coming-of-age drama, and much more.
Another perfect show: Station Eleven (10/10) based on the wonderfully plotted and peopled novel by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s a patient ten-parter that should be lovingly embraced not binged.
And what a hoot to view the ten episodes of The Lincoln Lawyer (9/10), perfect courtroom thriller fodder.
Ditto for the quirky-as-shit comedy-drama series of Only Murders in the Building (9/10). Wonderfully acted and smart as hell.
CODA (8/10) is the kind of sentimental Mighty-Ducks-style movie that should not work. But it does and that’s due to both the acting and the resonant script.
“A splendid tale exuberantly told,” an “amnesiac in jeopardy” thriller set in magnificently filmed Australian outback locations, The Tourist (8/10)is six episodes of joy.
Another Australian drama series but a multi-family drama of great depth and wonderful acting, the second season of Bump (8/10) is as splendid as the first.
Last but definitely not least, if you haven’t discovered the stellar, rollicking, literary spy thriller Jackson Lamb series of Mick Herron, you can instead binge on the six atmospheric episodes of the first season of Slow Horses (8/10).
Following in the tracks of Matthew McConaughey, who starred in the 2011 filmic version of Michael Connelly’s brilliant courtroom thriller The Lincoln Lawyer, is a titanic ask. Manuel Garcio-Rulfo plays the lead role in the new series “The Lincoln Lawyer” in a very different manner, but I find him as compelling as McConaughey, and perhaps more suited to portraying Mickey Haller, an L.A. defense lawyer who maintains an office in a car (sometimes a stunning blue Lincoln, oftentimes more office-like cars). In the first of Haller’s adventures, Haller, trying to claw back his career, finds himself defending a rich software developer accused of murdering his wife and her lover. That plot primer vastly understates the serpentine, many-armed plot that Haller finds himself engaged in, with the help of his PI Cisco (played wonderfully by Angus Sampson, who always excels) and his two ex-wives. Each of the ten fulsome episodes is a delight to become immersed in, the courtroom scenes compel, and the devilishly clever (if a trifle outrageous) plot grips the viewer. The Lincoln Lawyer is a perfect example of the courtroom drama, may there be further seasons galore!
Brilliant veteran mystery author Ann Cleeves has been well served on the screen, with both her Vera and Shetland series spawning multiple sparkling viewing seasons (my accolades for the most recent Shetland seasons can be found here and here). And her most recent fictional creation, DI Matthew Venn in Devon, is splendid on the page (again, I praise the first two books in the series here and here). “The Long Call” faithfully reproduces the first Venn book over four episodes and some of the typical, admirable aspects of an Ann Cleeves mystery are on display here, namely the sumptuous visual imagery and the baffling mystery. But disappointment soon sets in. The main characters, with the exception of nuanced Jonathan, Venn’s husband (portrayed well by Declan Bennett) are strangely cast and woodenly acted. The intricate plot is forever leaking out the sides and rushing through revelations, so that tension is non-existent and the classic crime fiction “reveals” come across as lame. The ending is a limp mess. Read the book version of The Long Call and skip the cinematic series.
A filmmaker with a strong vision, Robert Eggers creates movies that saturate the senses. “The Northman” is an epic tale of Viking revenge. Reveling in purported realism, no stone is left unturned in portraying the sixth century warrior communities in the Orkneys, Russia, and Iceland as animalistically savage, complete with grotesque deaths, men howling as dogs, heads lopped, women and children butchered, crows cawing, human sacrifices, and battles featuring insane men in furs or naked. If that description strikes you as mocking, it is not meant to. Eggers’s absolute attention to visual and sonic detail (wonderful dramatic music, roaring, spirits booming) compels attention, and I watched the two hours plus in a blur of squirming immersion. The plotline is all myth and angst, revolving around Amleth (it sounds like Hamlet although the storylines only slightly match) spending a young life of barbarity after seeing his father killed by his uncle and then plotting much-fated, horrid revenge. Alexander Skarsgård is superb as the beast-man-hero, Nicole Kidman serviceable as his mother, and Any Taylor-Joy luminescent at the resolving goddess-like love. All in all, I lurched out of the cinema expecting to rate The Northman highly but alas, a moment’s introspection curdled my judgment. For all its qualities and its keening desire to transcend the cartoonish tale, the film founders on patchy plotting, over-lurid scenes that teeter on the edge of parody (one scene had me expecting The Village People to emerge in song), and a gooey ending that swept away the thematic darkness. Intriguing and a must-see in many respects, in the end the result is as clumsy as a bullock.
Over two ninety-minute episodes, the documentary “Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story,” portrays exactly what its sub-title portends, the triumph of an odd but talented showman to reach the heights of British society (aka a knighthood) over nearly five decades, followed by sickening revelations, hundreds of them, of sexual abuse at his hands. That the rout of the Jimmy Savile legend did not take place until after his death is a blot on British society. Director Rowan Deacon is not showy but patiently choreographs archival footage with the testimony of Savile’s work-based acquaintances and dogged reporters. An intriguing subplot, as it were, seems to be that the monster revealed himself in public footage time and again, while cleverly deflecting real revelation. One can only watch so many true crime documentaries depicting humanity’s capacity for evil but Jimmy Savile, grindingly dispiriting as it is, is probably essential viewing.
Over ten faultless episodes, “Station Eleven” plunges the trembling viewer into a dystopian story both ravaging and inspiring. I wish I had read the much-praised novel (by Emily St. John Mandel) first but now, I’m not sure I can, so fine is the onscreen tale. A complex narrative with many moving parts, Station Eleven drops us into a world in which nine tenths of the world’s population is killed by a pandemic flu (yes, this scenario was posited half a decade before the Coronavirus) and gradually reveals the storylines of a dozen characters at the time of the ravaging and twenty years later. The storylines gradually (oh so patiently) interweave amidst the travails of a post-apocalyptic travelling Shakespearian troupe. Not a single actor is miscast or anything less than perfect on set, but particular mentions go to Matilda Lawler, breathtaking as the younger version of key character Kirsten; Mackenzie Davis as the grown-up version; Himesh Patel as one of two saintly brothers; David Wilmot as an egotistical actor-survivor; and Daniel Zovatto, beyond sinister and complex as “The Prophet.” Throughout the challenging click-click-click of the story strands making themselves known, runs the mysterious comic book Station Eleven and its ethereal astronaut savior. Dystopian books and films often over-portray; in Station Eleven, the horror of the times emerges obliquely and with devastating impact. Yet throughout the tragedies, grand and quotidian, runs a slender thread of hope, built around the notions of story and art and redemption. Outstanding filmic experience of 2022 so far … Station Eleven must be watched.
Mick Herron’s Slough House/Jackson Lamb series, soon to be eight books strong, is justly praised both as a stylistic breath of fresh air in the often turgid genre of spy fiction and for its propulsive, complex, tricky plots. “Slow Horses” brings the series’ first book, of the same name, to the streaming stage and I, along with many others, wondered if the screen version could do justice to the print version. My heart need not have fluttered. The six-episode first season not only hews close to the book (something purists always yearn for) but nails the key criteria of acting, script, direction, and pacing. The most important actor, of course, is Gary Oldman. He transports himself into the skin of the repulsive, farting, ontime-super-spy Lamb, who has been banished to run Slough House (rendered wonderfully in all its seedy glory), a spy shop of rejects (although the word ”run” does not really apply because all Lamb wants from them is to do nothing). Jack Lowden as River, Saski Reeves as Standish, Christopher Chung as Roddy … all are marvellous. And Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Di Taverner … wow! The plotline of a young Muslim kidnapped and facing beheading follows the book’s labyrinthine details and James Hawes’s direction for all six episodes is flawless. This first season of Slow Horses is tense, chilling, yet witty and smart, perfect for both the Herron fan and the Herron neophyte.
Very Australian, quirky as all heck, and wonderfully authentic, “Bump” is now two seasons long. The first season was especially compelling, introducing the fascinating premise of Year 11 student Oli (flawlessly portrayed by Nathalie Morris), completely unaware she is pregnant, delivering a baby at school. Her struggles to come to grips with this bombshell, amidst the dramas of two families notable for turmoil and drama, occupy the first season’s story arc, and it’s a breathtaking journey. In Season 2, Oly and (spoiler alert if you haven’t watched Season 1) Santi, her down-to-earth one night stand or boyfriend or partner (he comes across as all of these at various points) settle into forging a life with their baby while growing up. (By the way, Santi is also brilliantly portrayed, by Carlos Sanson Jnr.) This season’s canvas expands to flesh out the subplots of Oly’s and Santi’s roiling families and their diverse friends, and by the end of the season, there is a sense of the series settling into a family saga. (As another aside, the star turn here is from cowriter Claudia Karvan, compelling as Oly’s wise but all-too-human mother.) Season 2 felt simultaneously warmly welcoming and narratively fresh, and is also heartily recommended, if not quite as startling as the opener. Bump seems destined for a third season; let us hope it resists slumping into soapie territory.
Why is justly praised thriller writer Robert Harris so badly adapted to film? “The Fear Index” is the second Harris adaptation I’ve watched this year (in a review, I rated Munich as 5/10) and I am so disappointed. As a screen adaptation of four episodes, it is a mess that retains some of the book’s excitement but dashes the viewing experience on rocks of lackluster casting and clumsy scripting. Harris’s 2011 novel was a thumping thriller exploring the leading-edge investment frontier of computerization, both fascinating and packed with adventure. The screen season began well enough, with our hero, the geeky founder of a firm using computer algorithms to amass data and analyze investment opportunities, attacked in his luxury home and then baffled by a dizzying escalation of strange threats. The first two episodes captured what I recalled of the book, the orchestrated thrills and the imparting of information about a strange human world, although even then it was clear that the appealingly drawn intellectual of the book had morphed onscreen into a histrionic dodo of wooden emotions. But midway through, the entire exercise turned into a pointless blur of half-decent actors eking out a plotline that captured a fraction of the richness of the novel. In the book, the climax is sound and fury and catharsis; onscreen, the climax is clumsy and inauthentic. If you are fascinated by the investment world, by all means view The Fear Index; the premise is wonderful. But as drama, it falls short of any recommendation threshold.