The Good & The Bad: The Night Of

How often does it happen?  A show that starts well slowly falls away; the remainining episodes become a slog and the only reason for finishing is a sense of completion. 

Sometimes it takes a long time – over a number of seasons – before you stop forgiving its dodgy acting or silly plot twists.  Dexter, for example, was never perfect but it’s clever conceit and interesting main character kept you going right up until season 5, at which point the writers ran out of stories and the main character drifted far from the initial version.  By the final shot of the final series, it had become a tired parody of itself. 

The Night Of, another glossy HBO offering, doesn’t last long enough to suffer the same fate as Dexter, but there’s no doubt that it fails to deliver on the original promise.  As such, fresh from watching the final episodes, here’s my #hottake.

The Good

  • John Turturro – In a role originally meant for James Gandolfini (who would have been brilliant too), Turturro is perfect as John Stone.  As the lawyer who takes a chance on Riz Ahmed’s Naz Khan without realising the size of the task, Turturro’s Stone is street-wise, difficult, smart, complicated.  From Fading Gigolo to Barton Fink to (even) Transformers, Tuturro’s always been comforable playing characters outside the margins, so it’s no surprise he’s so good here.  The character ticks – the allergies, the problems with his feet, the penchant for street food – all seem believable in Turturro’s flaky skin, as opposed to affectations.  In a series where it’s difficult to warm to most characters, he’s the glue that holds the show together.

 

  • The First Episode – The first episode is terrific.  Really smartly written, well acted and, more importantly given what happens later, believeable.   It charts Naz’s journey from stolen taxi to ultimate arrest at a confident, but leisurely, pace.  All Naz’s decisions make sense within the context of the story and it sets up the remaining seven episodes expertly.  The focus on procedures Naz and the police officers are forced to follow after he’s initally picked up also  add a weight and realism to the situation – his terror counterbalanced with the officers’ casual indifference.

 

  • The Final Episode – It’s frustrating that it’s first and last episodes are so much better than those in-between.  Episode 7 nearly lost me entirely, so it was going to take quite a feat for the show to finish on a high.  As it happens, it nearly did.  Turturro gets a great closing speech to the jury – which he sells perfectly – and the strands of the story are tied-off pretty well.  Turturro has gone full circle (and acquired a cat), Naz gets off, the real murderer is identified and taken in and Chandra gets the sack. It’s a 90-minute episode which feels, finally, satisfying. 

 

  • The Suspects – I’ll be honest; by episode 7 I thought the creepy funeral director had committed the murder.  From him, to the nasty step-father, to the guy with a record of breaking and entering, the story worked hard towards the end to obscure the identity of the true killer.  The final reveal did not seem like a cheat though. 

 

  • Bill Camp – Bill Camp did a good job with the crumpled NYPD Detective, Dennis Box.  Despite the cliches, he brought some complexity and believablity to the character.

 

The Bad

  • The Prison – I’ll grant you that it’s probably hard to write about prison without it seeming cliched, but it’s not impossible.  Starred Up and Hunger, amongst other recent films, have managed it.  Sadly, The Night Off ticked of every cliche available:  drugs, gay sex, corrupt policeman, a prison kingpin (an under-worked Michael Kenneth Williams), murder.  Perhaps hamstrung by the number of cliches, the dialogue was at it’s weakest behind bars  too – it all seemed very by-the-numbers.

 

  • Naz’s character development – I was so confused by the transformation of Naz throughout the episodes.  In episode 1 he was portrayed as a good, clean-living kid and, although it was revealed later that he had a short temper and wasn’t adverse to petty crime, his character shift in prison seemed jarring.  I get that he was in a dangerous facility and did what he thought he needed to to survive, but he very quickly went from a scared guy in a frightening environment to a swaggering consiglieri to Williams’ kingpin.  For an innocent man, it didn’t take him much encouragment to beat people up, take hard drugs, help murder inmates or (hilariously) get ‘Sin’ and ‘Bad’ tattooed on his knuckles.  By the end, I didn’t care if he’d committed the murder or not.  He was an arsehole. 

 

  • The Kiss – Oh, the kiss!  This was the point I basically chucked it.  There was a brief mention in the previous episode that Chandra had split up with her boyfriend which, apparently, was enough to lay the groundwork for this.  Except it really wasn’t. A lawyer – in her first big case – suddenly falling for her client (a potential murderer) and having an illicit snog behind the court room didn’t make any sense.  At all. Why would she risk her job?  If she was so confident in his innocence, couldn’t she have waited? In their previous meetings, where there’d been zero sexual tension, when did she decide she’s fallen for him?  Obviously, it served to give Turturro his grandstanding moment, but they could have found another, less ridiculous way to do it.

 

  • Chandra smuggling drugs into prison – I’d obviously checked-out by this point, but this was possibly more ridiculous. 

Rating: 3/5.  A couple of great performances and some early promise can’t obscure an ultimately disappointing tale. 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: The Girl on the Train

Screenshot_20161010-140254.jpg

But…she’s a woman?

The Girl on the Train is this year’s Gone Girl – the wildly successful book turned into a pulpy thriller with a Hollywood cast.

Except, unlike Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train is pretty rubbish.  Gone Girl was absolutely ridiculous, but it was well directed, well-acted and had enough exciting twists and turns to make you forget how utterly stupid it was.

Sadly for the newer film, it can only rely on its cast to disguise the wobbly plot.

On the positive side, Emily Blunt does her best as Rachel, an alcoholic who’s split with her husband and who thinks she sees something untoward in her old neighbourhood.

Blunt not only manages to handle the tricky skill of acting drunk, but she also (just about) manages to sell the various ill-advised decisions her character makes.

Hayley Bennett, as the missing Megan, and Justin Theroux as Rachel’s ex-husband also do their best with the script, while Alison Janney is criminally underused as the Police Detective investigating Megan’s disappearance.

Other positives?  The last 15 minutes are enjoyable enough as the threads finally come together and the ending is reasonably satisfying.

That’s about it though.  As I say, it’s not very good.

For starters – and most egregiously – it’s unbelievably slow for a pulpy thriller. I’ve not read the book, so this might be a flaw of the novel, but the film is choc-full of flashbacks which cripple the forward momentum of the story.  Some of these flashbacks do drive the plot forward (very slowly), but the sheer amount of them means every time you begin to engage with Rachel’s investigation of the mystery, you’re suddenly dragged out of it by another flashback.

The lack of propulsion, in turn, makes you less forgiving of the pulpiness of the plot and the interminable dialogue.

Like Gone Girl, the plot is pretty dumb.  Rachel keeps seeing a couple (Megan and her husband, Scott) outside their house as she passes on the train.  As it happens, they are both always outside at the exact moment the train passes (on the balcony kissing, or huddled beside a fire). Handily, they are also only two doors down from the house Rachel used to share with her husband (who now has another wife, Anna).

One day, Rachel spots Megan outside – again! – with someone who isn’t her husband.  Obsessed and suffering from alcoholism, she decides to leave the train and confront her.  Hours later Megan is missing and Rachel can’t remember what happened.

Even if you can ignore the fact Megan is outside more often than Bear Grylls, the film was littered with lazy plotting.  From Rachel routinely roaming the area where her ex-husband lives with impunity; to the shrink she manages to get an appointment with despite both being under suspicion by the Police; to the casual lack of interest the detectives seem to be drumming up for the entire case.

Gone Girl had similarly silly twists, but it was a faster, more immersive experience.  It was only after you’d left the cinema that you’d realise you’d been watching 120 minutes of stupidity.  With The Girl on the Train, I didn’t enjoy it enough to forgive it.

The plot plays with important issues such as motherhood, abortion and abuse, but it uses them in such a superficial way that it barely matters; the script is only interested in using them to advance the plot (I kept thinking of how much better films like Tyrannosaur discussed those themes as part of the story).

In an attempt to show it’s commitment to serious issues, the dialogue is portentous and faux-weighty, but it’s also unbelievable.

For example, there’s one section of dialogue which appears to be spoken in voiceover.  It’s university-grade pretentious but, hey, it’s a voiceover.  And then you realise someone’s actually speaking those words to another person.

No one in real life would speak the way the characters do in this.

That it’s fake wouldn’t be such a problem if the plot had been better though.  As it is, it’s as weak a thriller as I’ve seen this year.

Rating: 2/5

The Good & The Bad: Stranger Things

I’ve decided that, for any TV reviews (and maybe old films) I’ll do it a bit differently to Film Reviews.

For one, there’ll be spoilers.  Otherwise I’ll tie myself in knots trying to describe a show without spoiling it.  I’m also going to try a different format for these: if it works or doesn’t let me know!

So, using series 1 of Stranger Things as a starting point, here we go:


THE GOOD

That title sequence:   The creepy, synth-y score, the Stranger Things logo in the Stephen King-style font, the fact it looks like it’s been recorded on a worn VHS; it all set the tone perfectly.

The kids:  The five main kid characters (including Will) were great.  You completely believed in their friendship and they all brought something different to the dynamic.  Millie Brown was excellent as wide-eyed Eleven too.

Winona Ryder and David Harbour:  Both of their characters – the grieving mother and the police chief with issues – were pretty stock roles, but they not only avoided becoming irritating cliches, you were still rooting for them at the end.

It was (a bit) scary:  It wasn’t an out-and-out horror by any means, but it was pretty effective at ramping up the tension.  And there were a few jump-scares too;  mainly the scene where Nancy and Jonathan hunt the monster in the woods.

Steve:  Steve (Joe Keery) was a bit of a prat, but I actually liked his arc.  I was expecting him to go from ‘uncaring jock boyfriend’ to ‘full-on baddie’ by the end of the series.  He skirted close to it, but pulled himself back, ultimately helping Nancy and Jonathan to fend off the monster.

The Nostalgia Factor:  I know some people have had an issue with this – and I have a wider complaint about certain films feeling like Nostalgia-thons – but I liked it here.  Maybe (probably) because it’s referencing a bunch of things I like: 80’s horror films and the collected works of Stephen King.


THE BAD

The Monster:  It actually looked fine in the shadows – and was pretty effective there – but up close in the final episode it betrayed the relatively low budget of the series.

Dr. Brenner:  Again, a caveat to this being that Matthew Modine did a good job with what he had.  But his character was pretty one note (he’s just bad).  His relationship to the Upside-Down was a bit unclear too.  He didn’t know about the monsters initially?  And how did it work with Eleven hearing Cold War secrets?

Nancy and Jonathan:  Their flourishing romance was believable-ish.  I understood it on his part, but I wasn’t entirely sold on her feelings. They were obviously brought together by a tense situation, but he did photograph her, semi-naked, from the trees.  She’s obviously more willing to accept creepy behaviour than I am.

The decision to use the same cast/story for season 2:  Everyone I’ve spoken to disagrees, but I wish they’d just wrapped up this story in one series.   Up until the last episode – which left things annoyingly unresolved – it felt completely comfortable as a standalone series, True Detective-style.

The last episode left threads open for Will, Eleven, Dr. Brenner and the teenage love triangle, but it could have resolved all of these.  I was willing to accept Eleven dying to save her friends (or surviving, if they’d preferred a happier ending) and left Will’s link to the Upside Down as a dark coda.  They could have dealt with some of Dr. Brenner’s backstory in earlier episodes and, meh, who cares about the love triangle?

We could have had a new set of characters, in a new place, riffing on yet more 80’s horror nostalgia under the Stranger Things banner.  Instead, we’ll go back to the Upside Down to save someone.  Again.


SUMMARY:

Overall, it was excellent. A really enjoyable nostalgia-fest that didn’t overstay its welcome.  I just wished they’d called it quits there.

 

 

Review: Hunt for theWilderpeople

 

There’s been a buzz about Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople for a while.  I heard the Empire podcast waxing lyrical about it a few months back, but it’s been receiving acclaim since its appearance at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

I’m pleased to report then, that’s it’s worthy of all the praise.

The film – a buddy adventure starring Sam Neill as irascible curmudgeon, Hec, and Julian Dennison as young tearaway, Ricky – is warm, funny and really entertaining.

The story revolves around Ricky, an orphan who’s been sent to live with new foster parents, Hec and Bella (a brilliant Rima Te Wiata), in the spectacular New Zealand bush.  After a series of events which I’ll not spoil here, Ricky and Hec find themselves both lost in the bush and at the centre of a national manhunt.

Like all good buddy movies, the central relationship is frosty at first; Hec irritated by the teenager and Ricky suspicious of the grumpy older man.  While the path to the pair’s eventual mutual affection follows well-trodden beats, the jaunty script and the performances from Neill and Dennison mean you don’t care.

The highest praise I can give Neill is that he so fully inhabits Herc and his foibles that you forgot it’s him.  Dennison, meanwhile, manages to straddle the line between irritating teenager and loveable scamp perfectly.  It’s not just in his line delivery either; like plenty of good comic actors before him he rings laughs and emotion solely out of facial expressions.

Wiatiti’s next film sees a massive step-up in scale as takes on the third in Marvel’s Thor franchise.  On paper, the decision to give a huge tent-pole movie to a director used to relatively low budget, very New Zealand films, seems an unusual one, but Waititi looks increasingly assured behind the camera.  While his previous film, vampire comedy What We Do In the Shadows, was a break-out hit, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a more confident outing. The opening 30 minutes are handled perfectly and he manages to balance comedy and pathos expertly throughout.

There are some flaws with the film.  Once Hec and Ricky’s relationship has shifted from hostility to something approaching love, the film doesn’t seem entirely sure where to go and, for a while, becomes a bit repetitious.

Unlike the main characters, the Child Protection Officer (Rachel House) was also rather one-note and played entirely for laughs*.

In fairness, she has a number of funny moments (especially a line about The Terminator) but she jarred slightly against Hec and Ricky’s more rounded characterisation.

Having re-watched What We Do In the Shadows recently, I felt it sagged slightly in the middle – the laughs were harder to come by than in the rest of the film. In Hunt for the Wilderpeople though, the jokes fall often and naturally and, even when the plot seemed stuck in a rut, its humour – and it’s heart – remained a constant.

Rating: 4/5

 

*it was my pal, JG, that rightly pointed this out.

Review: Hell or High Water

hell-or-high-waterOh, I know what it’s like.  You’re reading someone’s new blog. You don’t know the writer.  So, first off, you’re thinking that the writing might be really bad. They might be an idiot.  And then you realise you’ve no idea what their film taste is like either. If they even have any taste.   And the review you’re reading is pretty gushing.  It gives a film 5 stars out of 5.  They call it ‘one of the films of the year’.  And you think, are they right?

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Hell or High Water revolves around two Texan brothers (Ben Foster and Chris Pine) who decide to rob banks in order to they save their oil-producing ranch from being taken by those very same banks.

It’s a smart concept brought to life by a trio of superb performances.

First off, Ben Foster and Chris Pine are completely believable as the brothers; down on their luck, desperate for something to cling to, but fiercely protective of each other.  Ben Foster manages to stay on just-the-right-side of likable as the chaotic, dangerous, Tanner while Chris Pine anchors the film as Toby, the smarter, more cautious of the two. I must admit that I didn’t expect them to impress as much as they did, but they’re terrific, career-best performances.

It’s the job of the third main character in the film, Jeff Bridges’ Sheriff Marcus, to catch the robbers.  Except catching them means ushering in his impending retirement, a situation that’s he’s none-too enthusiastic about. Like the brothers, Marcus is trying to ignore the emptiness just around the corner.  And yet, his interplay with put-upon deputy (Gil Birmingham) helps to lighten the mood throughout; keeping the story from becoming too morose or introspective.

It’s a film that revels in characters generally – from those three beautifully rounded main players to the bit part and cameo roles.  Not only are they all perfectly played, but they all feel authentic, injecting additional energy and pathos to the story.

Of course, the real Big Bad of the film is the banks.  It’s the banks that have their boots on the necks of the Texan working people, and it’s all the working people can do just to save themselves from being crushed underneath.

In the trailer, the message seemed a bit too thickly-laid.  A 90 second clip was swamped with images or dialogue that made the theme of the film a touch too clear.  Thankfully, over the running time of the film the message is sufficiently diluted that it feels important, but not overwhelming.

The film’s soundtrack is another reason why Hell or High Water deserves all five of its stars.  Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score is brooding and melancholic, much like their previous scores for The Road and …Jesse James, and hints at the drama to come as the film draws to a close.

And it’s a genuinely tense last 20 minutes that we watch as the brothers’ plan comes to a climax.  There’s also an unusual – and deliberate – feeling that you don’t want either party – the brothers or the two policeman chasing them – to lose.

After a few months of stolid blockbuster dreck, Hell or High Water is a welcome entry to late-summer’s schedule.  A sharp, often funny, script with tremendous performances and a worthwhile message means this’ll go down as one of the films of the year.

 

Rating:  5*****

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So, you’re reading this review.  And you think to yourself, ‘I should really watch this film and see for myself’.  And then you’ll realise I was right after all.  And maybe you come back here someday.

 

Hello!

Welcome to Fancybadger.net!

The name is, as you’ll probably have figured, absolutely nothing to do with films.  I can’t even remember a film that includes a badger (answers on a postcard…).  Instead, it’s a name from an old site coined by a pal (hello Boardie) and I wanted to keep it going.

In good time you’ll be able to find reviews, features and general thoughts on film and televison by me. It may not all be entirely serious.  At some stage, you might even find a podcast with the aforementioned Boardie, but that might come down to logistics.

You’ll also find some links to articles I’ve written elsewhere.  Mainly, these’ll be links to football pieces I’ve written, so if you enjoy any of this you can find them too.

Right, that’ll do.  Enjoy!

Andy