The Living on Netflix Instant: A country-noir thriller for fans of Blue Ruin and Joe

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If it wasn’t abundantly clear in my posts on Blue Ruin and Joe, one of my favorite emerging subgenres is that of the bleak-as-fuck country noir thriller/drama. For prime examples of this movement, one can look to the literary works of Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone, Tomato Red, The Outlaw Album) or the cinematic ones of Jeff Nichols (Mud, Shotgun Stories) and other recent standouts like Jim Mickle’s Cold in July.

A recurring pattern of revenge and vigilante justice can be found in all these titles. There’s also a lot of drinking, heartbreak, mayhem and embittered rednecks killin’ on other nearby rednecks for fuckin’ with their kinfolk. Does the genre rely a bit heavily on our pleasure in viewing an exploited archetype? Perhaps. (If you want to go down that road, here’s a great article on the genesis of country noir.)

If you’ve made it through all the movies I’ve mentioned, however, and aren’t too offended by a little yokel-on-yokel bloodlettin’, let me recommend another one that recently hit Netflix…

The Living
the living movie Kenny Wormald shotgun
Before I get your hopes up, let me state off the bat that The Living is simply not as strong a country noir showing as Blue Ruin or Joe. It’s a film that operates in the very particular, bleak vein of those films and executes well in at least a few of the areas they did.

I was hooked immediately by the film’s opening credits. Sublime photography of desolate Pennsylavania farmlandcoupled with a forlorn Michael Hurley ballad that sounds like something Townes Van Zandt and Hank Williams would have played together in purgatoryevoke an ominous air of doom. While not exactly as audiovisually brilliant as the use of Little Willie John’s “No Regrets” in Blue Ruin, it still set the stage for some very eerie, fucked up hilljackery to commence.

And then we meet Teddy, an alcoholic who wakes up bloodied on the rug one morning and finds both his wedding ring and his wife missing. Teddy soon finds out that in a drunken furor, he beat his Molly into a bloody pulp. Contrition brings wifey back home, despite the warnings of her tough, chain-smoking mammy (Joelle Carter, looking less like her character Ava from Justified and more like Dale Dickey from Winter’s Bone and the Breaking Bad “ATM episode”).

Joelle Carter as Ava and Dale Dickey in Winter's Bone look like Joelle Carter in The Living

Even Ava Crowder has her bad days…

Then there’s Molly’s brother Gordon, a weak simpleton who wants revenge on Teddy but doesn’t have the cojones to get his hands dirty. That is until a shady friend says he knows a guy who takes care of people. “You sure he’s good,” Teddy asks. “I’m sure he’s cheap,” homey replies. And fortunately for us, mystery hitman ends up being the the strongest element of the entire film.

You probably don’t know Chris Mulkey’s name, but you’ll know his face (and I’ll omit it here so as not to play spoiler). His depiction of a weathered, barstool-philosophizing ex-con assassin echoes a rube-ish hybrid of Anton Chigurh and Rust Cohle (in his beer can origami days).

Rust Cohle lone star beer can origami

“I quit my detectivin’ job but I been sellin’ these cute little fuckers on Etsy for $12 a pop. It’s all about shapin’ a flat circle, amigo…”

As a fount of deadpan psycopathic wisdom, Mulkey delivers some of the film’s most memorable scenes, including a parable about a dying mountain lion cub that’s equal parts Cormac McCarthy and Bret Easton Ellis. This bit solidifies the film’s otherwise generically vague title, and also accomplishes that rare feat of bringing palpable humanity to a monster.

The Living also excels in its casting, predicated on a who’s-who of B-actors from both terrific horror and hillbilly cinema. For starters, you’ve got two leads from two of the more memorable horror movies of the past decade (Jocelin Donahue from House of the Devil and and Fran Kranz from Cabin in the Woods). Then there’s vets of bleak, country shows like Carter and Mulkey (both of whom did stints on Justified).

An area where the film falters, as is often the case, is in the character of the young, virgin-eyed protagonist (Kenny Wormald’s Gordon). He plays the criminally green, simpleton card just a little too heavy, and seeing as the majority of his scenes are with Mulkey, the awkward effort is even more pronounced. (In lieu of the otherwise-strong and genre-specific casting, I’m assuming this film simply didn’t have the budget for Tye Sheridan.)
Tye Sheridan better call saul

In all, The Living certainly does not have that raw, improvisational edge that made Joe so fantastic, nor the attention to atmospheric detail that lifted both that film and Blue Ruin to new heights of country noir-dom. But Mulkey’s deranged performance is worth the brisk 89-minute run time alone. And for anyone as smitten as myself with this wave of menacingly bleak hill-folk flicks (again—Winter’s Bone, Shotgun Stories, Joe, Cold in July, Blue Ruin, etc.), it’s a welcome addition to the canon.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.3

-Sam Adams

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Fifty Shades of Bleak: The Fall Returns to Netflix Instant

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[NOTE: No big spoilers for Season Two, but refer back to this post if you missed Season One.]

Unfortunately, the above image is not an official promo for the BBC’s steamy Belfast-BTK series The Fall. It’s actually more of an, um, abstract dream collage representation of what Season Two might evoke to viewers. (Gillian Anderson’s character keeps a dream diary, and Jamie Dornan’s does nudie collage scrapbooking, so I don’t think I’m reaching that far.)

In that Season One recommendation, I mentioned that the show was phenomenal, but that it left us with what I most eloquently described as “an asshole of a cliffhanger.”

the fall season one

“Just gonna drive away in me car with me homely wife and make yeh fuckers wait a few years…”

Without revealing too much, the six new episodes added to Netflix Instant do a nice job of picking up the pieces, albeit at a pace that might inspire some to launch their own killing spree on BBC producers—provided this were a weekly series and not delivered all in one fell swoop. (Recent medical reports show that Netflix is effectively curing ADD through its wonderful full-season-all-at-once template.)

To be fair, the slow build-up doesn’t really come in the form of extraneous plot lines (here’s looking at you, Boardwalk Empire‘s countless hours of Margaret Schroeder fretting over minutiae).

Margaret Schroeder annoying

“The cheeldrin need their day care and I don’t particularly like these flowers and perhaps I’ll go throw a fuss at the dress shop or get tah screwin’ the Irish lad who works for me husband or some such…”

Season Two begins a few weeks down the road from where Season One left off. Paul Spector, AKA “The Belfast Strangler,” (a dreamy, asphyxiation-fetished Jamie Dornan) is still at large. The search quickly hones in on him, and a season-long game of cat and mouse between Spector and investigator Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), unfolds.

If you wanted resolution, there’s definitely more here than in Season One. But the show seems to struggle with the main  narrative predicament that The Killing did in its first few seasons (rest assured, this is a much more carefully constructed and fully realized series than what was going down in the Pacific Northwest.)

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A question The Killing took about 12 episodes too many to answer…

That predicament, as I’m sure it has been posed in countless BBC screenwriters’ meetings, is, “When the killer’s caught, what the fuck do we do with this show?”

I’ll leave any speculations on that question in the hands of the viewer. I will say that it’s to the show’s credit how it manages to stay engagingly suspenseful even as Season Two’s narrative meanders along. I should underline that this season of The Fall is much more of a criminal suspense show, and much less of a bloody thriller.

That last note brings up an issue that one could say is either a narrative fault of Season Two or a moral fault of its viewers (present company included). Essentially, it’s simply not as compelling to watch as Season One, and much of that has to do with a lack of, well, murder.

A large degree of this show’s allure comes from the fact that Paul Spector often blurs the antogonist/protagonist line. Don’t get me wrong—he’s a really, really bad guy. But c’mon, his shirtless-prone character often seems less like the BTK Killer and more like the equivalent of Ted Bundy in a Calvin Klein ad.

Jamie Dornan Calvin Klein The Fall

Jamie Dornan: Just your prototypical, run-of-the-mill serial killer

The point? As fans of crime shows, we are implicit in wanting to see how much bad guys can get away with. We like it when the body count rises; the deadlier the game, the higher the level of intrigue. And our baddie really does not get away with much at all for the majority of Season Two.

So yeah, I respect The Fall for being a really good crime show that succeeds without pandering to its audiences’ base bloodlust. But the fact remains that we still came to watch a serial killer show. Season Two leaves that desire wanting.

The series seems very aware of this predicament. It even builds it into a dialogue exchange as Gibson watches a video of Spector in the midst of nefarious acts:

Spector, to the camera: “Why the fuck are you watching this? You sick shit. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Gibson: “Who [are] you talking to? Yourself? Me? People who like to read and watch programs about people like you?”

In a stylistic touch, Gibson appears to be breaking the fourth wall as she asks this question. OK, The Fall—you got us. We are guilty of, uh, being fascinated by your serial killer show.
Breaking Bad you got me Bryan Cranston heisenberg

But here I am pointing out a lot of faults in what I think is actually one of the most intelligent and compelling series currently filming. So let’s get to some of the pros.

Gillian Anderson, for one, is bar-none one of the best actors working in television. The icy portrayal she gave in Season One becomes more fleshed out here as the show delves into her sexuality, morality and—god forbid—sentimentality. “You can see the world in that way if you want,” she says to a colleague who calls Spector an evil monster. “You know it makes no sense to me. Men like Spector are all too human, too understandable. He’s not a monster. He’s just a man.”

For a character who maintains poise in her profession by playing the one-note, sinister, head-motherfucker-in-charge, Anderson infuses an uncanny dramatic range into the arena of emotional subtlety.

gillian anderson the fall

Give this woman a friggin’ Emmy, already!

As for Dornan, he does a fine job, but the underpinnings of his psyche don’t exactly reach Lecterian heights. He’s either angry or manipulatively heartfelt or vacant—and that’s about his emotional range. It would be nice to see a bit more.

And while we’re on the subject of Dornan, let’s address the handcuffed, spread-eagled elephant in the room. What I’m talking about, of course, is that in less than a month from Season Two debuting, Fifty Shades of Grey will hit theaters.

Let me put the twisted sickness of that in perspective. In The Fall, Dornan plays a man who uses his handsome wiles to gain the trust of women and then bind them with rope and perform erotic choking acts on them. In Fifty Shades… well, I know nothing about Fifty Shades, but I’d imagine he does the same exact thing. Only difference? Christian Grey is a sex symbol that will have women lining up around the block on Valentine’s Day. Paul Spector, on the other hand, is a murderous rapist.

I wonder if Dornan got the part when some Hollywood exec was watching The Fall and thought, “Hey, this guy’s hot and really does the BDSM thing well. Let’s just cast him in a role where he does the same thing without killing his sex partners.” It would kind of be like if Anthony Hopkins had followed up his role of Dr. Lecter by taking Robin Williams’ place in Patch Adams.

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“Would you like a bedtime story, Clareeeece?”

As far as what else keeps The Fall moving, its creator Alan Cubitt altruistically gives several of Season One’s role players much bigger parts. Spector’s 16-year-old worshipper Katie (rather creepily sexed up by the 22-year-old Aisling Franciosi) becomes a key player in Spector’s criminal movements. Her performance and those of other more-seasoned actors are all well played. The only issue is that Anderson and Dornan dominate this show so heavily, it’s difficult for anything that’s not centered on their characters to carry as much intrigue.

All said, despite a slower pace and my nervousness that The Fall could easily go the wayward route of The Killing if it doesn’t figure itself out, it remains perhaps the best current crime series this side of True Detective. Queue it up without further delay.

SEASON TWO GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 8.2

-Sam Adams

Black Mirror on Netflix Instant: Twilight Zone for the ADD Generation, Part II

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BY ADAM FOX

1987’s The Running Man was one of my favorite movies growing up. While I likely appreciated the bravado of one Arnold Schwarzenegger and the video game-like levels of its plot as a kid, it wasn’t until later that I finally grasped what the hell was really going on. The Running Man was quintessential ’80s action at its cheesiest, to be sure, but it did ask a pretty good question: How far are we willing to go for entertainment?

Schwarzenegger running man

“I’m not into politics, I’m into suh-vival:” A slogan the Governator used to great effect in both Running Man and his California GOP campaigns.

I bring up Paul Michael Glaser’s magnum opus because its story is not dissimilar to the second episode of Black Mirror, “Fifteen Million Merits.” “Fifteen” introduces us to a futuristic environment in which presumably working class citizens—never changing from their dull-gray jogging attire—spend their days accumulating a collection of points, or “merits,” on stationary bicycles. To help prevent this process from getting too tedious, a selection of video games are offered as an overlay to the exercise, including scenic backdrops or risqué sex scenes.

Fifteen million merits

Hell… on wheels.

The merits are permanently saved to inhabitants’ profiles and can be used to purchase things like food, entertainment, or entry fees to any of the enormously popular game shows that play throughout the day. One of them even involves unleashing high-pressure hoses on the morbidly obese.

Unlike Running Man, these spinners/SoulCyclers aren’t hardened criminals, whether real or imagined. They’re certainly prisoners in their screen-covered cells, but most lack the self-awareness to grasp their predicament—except for Bingham “Bing” Madsen (the excellent Daniel Kaluuya, who American audiences might recognize from Kick Ass 2).

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Daniel Kaluuya, kicking ass and drinking beer

Bing is disillusioned with this dystopia of rampant materialism and unfulfilling labor and refuses to buy into it, becoming the Winston Smith of his era. He begrudgingly starts the grind anew each day until he meets the beautiful Abi (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay). His crush develops into an impassioned affair when he stumbles upon Abi quietly and masterfully singing to herself in the bathroom.

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“Nice jumpsuit. GAP?”

Bing encourages Abi to compete on the American Idol-style talent show “Hot Shots,” believing she possesses the talent to harness her singing and earn a one-way ticket out. The Hot Shots entry fee is a steep 15 million merits, and since Abi is new to the bikes, she has a minimal number saved. Bing, in a selfless act, volunteers his own merits to gift Abi an entry ticket, draining his entire account in the process.

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Jessica Brown Findlay channels her Orwellian Kelly Clarkson

What ensues creates for easily one of the more tragic and unsettling editions of Black Mirror. Initially appearing to be a somewhat typical revenge story a la Mad Max, “Fifteen” transforms into a bold, hard-to-stomach statement on everyone having a price. The acting is particularly outstanding in this episode on the part of the two leads (Kaluuya and Findlay) who portray a seamlessly organic love story sans Nicholas Sparks sap. The emotional poignancy of the middle part of the episode proves that good writing isn’t just confined to lengthy Oscar-bait—although the first 10 minutes of Pixar’s Up should’ve put that notion to bed a long time ago.

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UP: The happiest fucking movie ever referenced on this blog.

This episode is one of the least “dark” of Black Mirror’s library, but its message is certainly still consistent with the rest of its titles. Viewers expecting a shock-value follow up to the swine-sexing antics of “The National Anthem” will be a little disappointed, but the bulk of “Fifteen” is so goddamned interesting that it manages to provide one hell of a scintillating ride.

“Fifteen” is also the longest episode of the first season, clocking in at just over an hour and giving it the feel of an actual film with its deeper set-up and lengthier scenes. Black Mirror is also a decidedly British show, so while the American Idol-type format of “Fifteen” might feel like a dated reference to an American audience, X Factor is very much a thing overseas much like Idol was in its heyday. Everyone who watches should be able to agree, however, that the ramifications of elevating the modern game show can go far beyond just Richard Dawson slipping your girlfriend the tongue.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 8.1

In Bruges on Netflix Instant: Holidaying Hitmen and Irish Wit, Low Assembly Required

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BY ADAM FOX

Three thoughts cross my mind when watching 2008’s cult crime-comedy In Bruges:

  • I remember when Colin Farrell was supposed to be the new action mega-star of our time;
  • I really need to visit Belgium, and;
  • I’m embarrassed how writer/director Martin McDonagh’s depiction of American tourists is regrettably and painfully spot-on.
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“I coulda been a contender…”

Which begs the question: Why is this film perpetually in the monolithic wasteland known as a department store’s $5 “bargain bin?” That space is relegated to future installments of the Air Bud franchise, with the vacant-eyed golden performing in increasingly obscure sports. Perhaps the price tag is an accessible way to ensure that the film finds a home in every cinephile’s library. Either way, In Bruges is an excellent, tidy representation of the assassin genre, and is refreshingly cerebral in comparison with its like-minded counterparts.

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“HE’S ONLY GOT ONE SHOT…”

Rookie hitman Ray (Farrell) and his partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are sent off to the quaint medieval town of Bruges, Belgium by their crime boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) after Ray mistakenly kills a child in an operation gone awry. They’re confined to a tiny, inconspicuous inn and told to wait for further instruction from Voldemort himself before departing. Ken is the glass-half-full vet who attempts to enjoy all of the cobblestone-covered offerings in this “fucking fairy tale” of a city, while Ray, rather ironically, despises Bruges and all that it represents. In what is essentially Disney’s Fantasyland spread over a more generous acreage, it’s humorous to witness Ray’s gigantic axe to grind with the innocently charming Bruges.

BRUGES

“I feckin’ love Bruges!”                      “I feckin’ hate it!”

Ray, at the behest of optimist Ken, begrudgingly tries to make the most of his time stuck in this desolate hell-hole and ends up meeting beautiful Belgian Chloë (Clémence Poésy) on a movie set not dissimilar to Eyes Wide Shut, but with little people amongst the Venetian masks. On an ensuing date, Ray is hilariously up front about his career choice and is somewhat nonplussed when Chloë reveals hers—a production assistant who also deals drugs (an important position undoubtedly high up on the Hollywood pecking order). Ray’s gloomy disposition changes drastically when in Chloë’s company. But he still fucking hates Bruges.

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Clémence Poésy: More beautiful than Bruges

(SPOILER ALERT, following paragraph only:)
After some time passes, Ken receives the call from Harry/He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to take Ray out on a boat and Fredo Corleone him. Harry is a complicated and neurotic character who also happens to be a man of principle, and decides that Ray must face justice for shooting a child, accident or not. Ken just can’t pull the trigger on his partner and, after attempting to get Ray out of Dodge completely, incurs the wrath of Harry who decides to head into town and deal with the situation himself. What results is an epically gorgeous beer-battered shoot-‘em-up through the windy, narrow streets of Bruges.

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“Kill the Irishman!”

The dialogue in In Bruges is particularly smart, snappy and positively Irish, driven by the strength of Farrell, Gleeson and Fiennes’ performances. There’s a moral gravity associated with the choices the characters make throughout the film, interspersed with sweeping commentary on ethics. But each of the three lead actors look like they’re having a fucking blast filming the scenes, which in turn makes it extremely enjoyable to watch, and much easier to swallow the larger story arc the film offers. In Bruges isn’t the reel companion piece to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or anything, but there is a little more at stake than just the lives of expendable characters the audience doesn’t actually care about (as crime movies can often stray).

Bruges, Belgium is obviously a major player and the unsung hero of the film, occupying significant real estate in the story without turning it into some type of travel documentary. I’m not exactly sure how an unassuming little village like Bruges came to be the consensus centerpiece of a crimedy, but it works beautifully. Eschewing more common European locales like London, Paris and Venice affords it an immense amount of unexplored flavor. The scenes themselves aren’t too unfamiliar for fans of the genre, but they’re somehow different and more memorable with a background of belfries and bridges that closely resemble Arthurian legend.

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“Feckin’ gorgeous, eh?”

In Bruges is viciously rewatchable, enormously entertaining, and Colin Farrell’s crowning achievement over a long-spanning career in films wholly inferior to this. There’s something very vintage about the character- and dialogue-driven In Bruges, easily dismissed by the short attention-spanned Michael Bay adherents but coveted by the jaded critic-codgers like myself. It tells a story thoroughly yet succinctly, hitting all the right strides in making its comedic moments actually funny and its action moments tense.

There’s a great chance you watched this back in 2008 as it was released along with a healthy amount of fanfare for a movie of its size, but it stands the test of time incredibly well and was even better than I remember it being. In Bruges is proof that if you want to keep your finger on the pulse of adrenaline-seeking theatergoers, you don’t necessarily need to beat them over the head with CGI.

IMDb: 8.0
GRADE: A –