Who is this Rian Johnson? I’d heard of his “Looper” from 2012 but I’m no Star Wars fan, so his 2017 “The Last Jedi” passed me by. Based on “Knives Out,” his extravagantly Cluedo-meets-Poirot genre outing, I should have kept an eye out, for this is a treat for the senses and the mind alike. The setup is pure Agatha Christie – an aging writer (Christopher Plummer is, as always, spot on) who dies on his birthday, surrounded by a family of rogues, and along comes the cerebral, gimlet-eyed detective to help the police solve what is essentially a locked-room mystery. The locale, a gothic treat of an old mansion, is almost a character in its own right. Plenty of splendid performances here from the likes of Toni Collette, though to be fair, the script is so razor-sharp, the actors can ham things up without concern. And Daniel Craig as the cigar-toting private eye with the languid Southern accent to end them all? Believe it or not, he also rises to the occasion. Lush, kinetic, and brain-tickling, “Knives Out” grabs you from frame one and never lets go.
Six months ago, I rated the very first episode of Season 2 of “Legion” at 8/10. I had adored Season 1 and much of what I adored – the mind-bending plot, the sharp scenes, the wonderful acting – seemed in place for a triumphant reprise. The six-month gap indicates what happened – the next three episodes revealed themselves as mystifying to the point of pointless absurdity. I’m a fan of complex plots but the emerging narrative for Season 2 reeks of plot opportunism and “good ideas.” I tried to persevere but the magic was gone. So I’m calling it quits on this series. Given that Season 3 is now on the shelves, this is severely disappointing, but I have to call it as I find it. If you’re an abiding fan, by all means lap up the many new episodes over two seasons, but if you’re just beginning Season 2 … well … don’t.
Streaming masterpieces dominated a bountiful year. Dark-hued series can be seen aplenty in the list below but I also swooned over a doco, a comedy and some fine dramas. The first two received 10/10 ratings, the rest were 9/10. You won’t be disappointed by any of them.
If you need more delectable fare, check out these reviews of honorable mentions: high-finance drama “The Hummingbird Project“; Season 3 of the atmospheric police procedural “Cardinal“; another, especially imaginative police drama, “Criminal“; brilliant documentary “Diego Maradona“; quirky Icelandic climate change drama “Woman at War“; and “2040,” a rare upbeat climate change documentary.
Transfixed … that’s a state I rarely enter into even with the best of movies but every one of the ten episodes of the second season of “Succession” pinned me to the screen. A Shakespearian mortality tale riffing on the Murdoch clan, this season covers the battle for survival of the media empire of Logan Roy. Venal and almost amoral, Roy’s clan of himself, his four children and all their partners could have been an unsavoury shitstorm but the quality of the screenplay subsumes any simple judgements. Brian Cox is transcendent in the role of Logan Roy, and his progeny are perfectly cast and interpreted: Jeremy Strong as the damaged, complex Kendall; Kieran Culkin as sneery, quicksilver Roman; Sarah Snook as ruthless, ambitious Shiv, and Alan Ruck as avuncular, shallow Connor. A special mention goes to the blistering performance of Matthew Macfadyen as unctuous, smiling Tom. Created by Jesse Armstrong and brilliantly sculpted by a bevy of directors, with a sublime score from Nicholas Britell, the episodes capture the high end of modern capitalism in all its glory and decadence. Yet although foulness pervades every scene, somehow we come to see the humanity behind each damaged individual, with only Logan Roy looming as an explosive, inscrutable Genghis Khan figure. Many times during the viewing, I was seized by an almost nostalgic surge of recognition for how modern corporate culture plays out. Mandatory viewing.
An outpouring of punk emotion in eleven musical bites, “Twelve Nudes” exhausts but sticks in the mind. I’d never come across Ezra Furman before but here she expunges all her heart and mind into bite-sized morsels that scream across the sky. Despair at the state of Trumpian America is the dominant harshness, ameliorated beautifully by a singalong sense of melody. Her hoarse shriek is inexplicably exhilarating. Highlights include the blistering two minutes of “Thermometer,” incandescent opener “Calm Down aka I Should Not Be Alone,” the naïve political brilliance of “In America,” and her liberation anthem, “What Can You Do But Rock ‘n’ Roll.” But really, let this short album wash over you again and again, you’ll not be disappointed.
An irresistible binge beckons in the shape of the four Criminal seasons of three episodes each, namely “Criminal: United Kingdom,” “Criminal: Spain,” “Criminal: France,” and “Criminal: Germany.” Each of the twelve episodes is set in the same two rooms, a crime interview room and the onlookers’ room behind a one-way mirror, and each features one or two interviewers quizzing a suspect while the rest of a combined interview team of five or six hovers next door. The only differences between the four locales are a cosmetic one involving different out-of-a-corridor-scenes meant to beckon London, Paris, etc.; and different teams speaking different languages. Each 45-minute episode is an intriguing standalone puzzle and interrogation contest. Each provides a satisfying twist. Each suite of three episodes features intriguing character tussles and engagements within the teams. With such a “built for live theatre” setting, the end result is a dozen fascinating, well-written narratives of suspense and modern relevance. The overall roster of a couple of dozen hero-interrogators is pleasingly diverse and stocked with tremendously effective actors. All in all, the four series make for a 2019 viewing highlight. Spain stands out as the most intense, France is the most startling, Germany sets the most sombre mood, and United Kingdom contains the slickest tension, but watch them all! Admire and enjoy.
Having come to this noir black-as-pitch series late, I found the first episode of Season 2 of “Mr Inbetween” to be slow. Little did I know. From the second episode, the season slides into a tense, aching momentum that had me delighted, shocked and baffled simultaneously. Nash Edgerton’s direction is sublime but the star of the show is indubitably Scott Ryan, both in his completely believable portrayal of hit man Ray Shoesmith and in his brilliant, underplayed script. The “in-between” world of Ray is the contrast between him as father, brother, and friend, and his profession, a profession chosen because of his warped personality, a personality both mysterious to himself but also, as shown in scene after scene, very keenly weighed. The eleven episodes ebb and flow between domesticity and flaring, unemotional (but hey, so, so, emotional in impact) violence. I’ve spent much of my life pondering evil and violence – this series brought my up close to it. The writing and directorial team managed to achieve the impossible, leaving me at the edge of tears for a human being I hope to never have anything to do with. Watch it and be amazed at the power of cinema. One closing scene, a bare minute klaxoned by Nick Cave’s “Tupelo” is the most unforgettable of the year.
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.