Blue Detective: “Trapped” avalanches Iceland to the forefront of Nordic Noir

ólafur darri ólafsson trapped icelandic tv show
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The mining is in high-gear in the Nordic Noir landscape. Where Fortitude broke the ice and tunneled into its festering recesses, creator Baltasar Kormákur’s Trapped thrives on creating its own living hell within the crevasse of an isolated Northern Icelandic port village. It’s in this frigid microcosm that a brilliantly acted, tense and bleak murder-mystery unfoldsfinally giving the quiet island-country a voice amongst one of the most alluring bleak film movements on the planet.

To be fair, the sublime, rolling glacial terrain of Iceland has long graced our screens. But, as location spots, its beauty lent itself more as a geographical ghostwriter to foreign and fictional lands. Consider the visually arresting opening sequence of Prometheus, or John Snow being informed of his limited mental acumen by his beloved, robin-haired Wildling. These scenes took place in Iceland, but the eventsas we know them cinematicallyreally unfolded in Planet LV-223, and “North of the Wall.” Heck, even the aforementioned Fortitude was filmed mainly in Iceland, even though the show is supposed to take place in Norway.

Fortitude season one stanley tucci

Fortitude‘s phenomenal first season included one of the best finales ever seen in a detective show. Its second season was serviceable.

Point being, Trapped is one of the first pieces of crime cinema to reach global audiences with a certified Icelandic export stamp on it. But more on that laterlet’s get to the plot.

Trapped begins with fire and iceits opening scene depicting a flashback of a young girl burned alive, followed shortly thereafter by a headless, limbless corpse being pulled out of the freezing ocean by stunned fishermen.

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson trapped tv series iceland corpse

Lend me a hand…

As soon as local police start investigating the cadaver, a massive storm hits and the tiny port town is snowed in. This prevents the swinging-dick, bigwig police from Reykjavík to offer their assistance. It also becomes clear that the foul play is linked to a massive ferry that’s just docked. The ship’s shady captain, a corrupt mayor, a fishy hotelier and a slimy underling politico are just a few in the Clue-like assemblage of suspects that three small town cops must sift through to put the pieces together.

The most complex performance comes from the American-born veteran actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (recognizable from from his role as the grimy, prophetic meth dealer who delivered one of the baddest pieces of dialogue in one of True Detective Se1’s best scenes). His detective Andri plays the lead as a man with the look and softness of an oversized teddy bear, but also the fierce, hunting instincts of a polar bear.

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson true detective trapped

“You got a demon, little man. And I don’t like your face. It makes me wanna do things to it.”

Other compelling performances come from Andri’s estranged wife Agnes (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir), visiting from out-of-town with a new boytoy in tow. As the storm shutters everyone in, Andri’s condition becomes even more pitiable as he endures his wife sharing a bedroom with boytoy down the hall from the couch he crashes on.

As the father of the incinerated girl, Pálmi Gestsson also turns in a complex performance as a man whose very existence is a rumination on grief and vengeance. In a show that doesn’t leave loose ends, his story comes full circle through a wicked stroke of poetic justice that ends in Gestsson delivering one of Trapped’s most profound and poignant scenes.

One last performance worth mentioning is that of Baltasar Breki Samper as Hjörturthe mysterious, scar-faced boyfriend of the dead girl. As he broodingly mopes and dopes around the little village in an oversized hoodie, Hjörtur becomes both in character traits and appearance the tortured embodiment of an Icelandic Jesse Pinkman.

jesse-pinkman-baltasar-breki-samper

      “Life’s a bitch…”                                 “Yeah, bitch.”

Now back to the interplay between Trapped and its country of origin. Despite that Trapped is Iceland’s highest-budgeted series on record, it doesn’t go to lengths to boast about, or showcase, a sense of geographical or national identity. The bulk of the series is filmed in the small, Northern port city of Siglufjörðura place removed from the tourism bustle that has hit the nation by storm in recent years. And while a small amount of the show’s activity takes place in Reykjavík, Trapped isn’t concerned with providing a cinematographic tour of its capitol. A brief cityscape shot is providedseemingly for no other purpose than narrative clarity.

blue lagoon iceland trapped series

Iceland’s stunning Blue Lagoon—a tourist draw Trapped could give two shits about.

This non-geo-centric approach is a departure from great crime shows like Breaking Bad, of which Vince Gilligan described its Albuqerque location as a “central character.” It’s also fitting, in multiple ways. It would seem counterintuitive to provide lingering, aerials of Iceland’s magnificently sublime glaciers and sprawling wilderness expanse in a show centered around a concept of claustrophobia. As a straightforward, bleak and rugged crime drama, Trapped is also under no obligation to kowtow to atmospheric localism to deliver the visceral gut punch it provides. And frankly, it doesn’t need it. This minimalist approach simply doesn’t hold the aesthetic appeal of similar dark, detective shows like Fortitude or The Killing.

That’s not to say that the cinematography is inept or ineffective in capturing a distinct feeling of placequite the opposite. It just so happens thatoutside of the show’s Icelandic dialogue and localeit could most likely have the same effect were it filmed in Alaska, the Antarctic, etc. Trapped is undoubtedly an Icelandic show. It’s just not unabashedly one.Ólafur Darri Ólafsson the shiningAs for narrative drawbacks, Trapped’s only one is that with such a large cast of characters and such a sprawling murder mystery, it can be difficult to remember who some of the side characters are when they’re mentioned in conjunction with investigations. The show could be difficult to follow if one didn’t simply binge itnot that each character doesn’t have a meaningful role to play, or that plotlines are overly complex. Someone involved in the production may have caught on to this, as each episode is prefaced by an appreciatvely throrough recap of events (necessary even when bingeing).

All said, Trapped is Nordic Noir at its bestthanks in large part to Ólafsfon’s standout performance, a well-crafted and resolved narrative, and an introspective ability to work within the emotional expanse of its geographically limited confines.

GRADE: A / A-
IMDb: 8.2

-Sam Adams

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Dane Killers: The Department Q Saga on Netflix Instant

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patrick wilson jack strong

Despite appearances, this movie does the opposite of suck.

In crossing language-barriers, film titles also often end up crossing eyes. It’s a movie politics endemic that has very little to do with good screenwriters and very much to do with cheap industry suits nickel-and-diming accomplished translators. After all, who would have thought that something called Elite Squad: The Enemy Within would be one of the best prison thrillers of all time? Or that a film called Jack Strongmarketed to look like a Sunday night CBS Jason Bourne spinoff starring Patrick Wilsonwould end up being a heady espionage thriller meriting mention in the same breath as The Debt or Citizen X?

I kept this in mind when I saw that a film called Department Q: The Keeper of Lost Causesburied deep in some subgenre of foreign crime flicks on Netflixhad a 7.2 on IMDb. Shit, I thought, I’ll fox with that…

After all, the last Danish crime trilogy I watched was Nicolas Winding Refn’s dazzlingly grim, career-launching Pusher Trilogya modern masterpiece in my book. (By the end of this post, you’ll see why I feel compelled to bestow Department Q with the illustrious designation of “second-best Danish crime trilogy ever.”)

big sleep movie poster with bogart and bacall

You’re broke, eh? I been shaking two nickels together for a month, trying to get them to mate.”

Actually, I should mention that “saga” is more apt than “trilogy,” as Department Q films continue to be made at a pace that’s setting up writer Jussi Adler-Olsen to look like a modern-day Danish Raymond Chandler.

Before I launch into a mostly spoiler-free dissection of all three films currently comprising the Q series, I’ll make the blanket statement that it’s essentially a very goodalbeit slightly slower and more formulaicmashup of True Detective SE1, The Dragon Tattoo Trilogy and The Killing. If that interests you, please do read on.

Department Q: The Keeper of Lost Causes
Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Carl Morck in Department Q
Speaking of The KillingDepartment Q lead Nikolaj Lie Kaas had a season-long role on Forbrydelsen, which, if the Danish hire good translators, might mean “The Killing”—a show that inspired the notorious four-season AMC show… The Killing. Which was a really weird series. Which I liked. Which was disjointed. Which went from lauded HBO series status to prolonged dud. And then for those of us who hung on for season three, arguably a damn good show again. (Featuring one of my favorite detective characters of all time, the great pre-RoboCop Joel Kinnaman as Holder.)
holder joel kinnaman robocop

But back to the first installation in the Q saga. We’re introduced to detective Carl Morck, a brooding, spiteful alcoholic who seems to be severely deficient in the department of fucks given. Like any troubled movie cop, Morck’s predicament is that he once had a good life, and now doesn’t. Thus the brooding. Oh yeah, and he fucked up a raid and got some of his guys killed. This gives more reason for brooding.

Instead of processing his guilt/grief, Morck comes back to work too early. Because that’s what brooding movie cops do. So his boss assigns him to a cold case detail operating out of a dank basement. There, he meets his sidekick Assad, the yin to his yangan upbeat, devout Muslim cop who blares bass-heavy rap and tells jokes. Morck doesn’t like jokes.

Their entry case appears at first glance to be an open-and-shut suicide involving a young woman who jumped off a ferry. But as Morck digs deeper, it’s clear that something more sinister than suicide may be at play here. The narrative unravels by interspersing flashback sequences of the woman’s life with developments in the present investigation.

A bleak road of torture, revenge and redemption awaits. While this film may be as formulaic as most adapted detective novels, it goes to some pretty twisted places, and its got a helluva lot more edge than your run-of-the-mill private-dick flick. With great performances to boot, this is some damned good, new-fashioned  murder mystery cinema.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.2

Department Q: The Absent One
Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Carl Morck in Department Q: The Absent One
In the second installment of Department Q, our men Assad and Danish McNulty are back at it, scowering cold case files in their grungy basement outpost. Of course by the time we revisit them, they’ve outworn their hero status and are once again the conspiculously eyed black sheep of the force. They also have a new wide-eyed, perky assistant who proves to be more adept than the ever-skeptical Morck could imagine. And to give our crestfallen protaginist an injection of much-needed humanity, Morck adopts a station house cat whose owner was murdered.

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Remember when John Turturro adopted the cat in The Night Of? Yeah, that’s like a thing in bleak crime cinema. Character development or something…


The case at hand here is a double-murder that took place decades ago at a posh boarding school called Griffendorf. As in all Q films, we’re treated to a healthy dose of murder flashbacks. These ones involve a band of torture-obsessed jocks, who in their blue-eyed, blonde-haired uniformity resemble some Danish offshoot of the Hitler youth. The Griffendorf torture squad leader, Ditlev Pram, comes off as a rapey Draco Malfoy, with his manic, obsessed lover playing the part of Hermioneif Hermione were more like Karla Hamulka. (Sidennote: Despite being easily accessible on Netflix, you really don’t need to watch Karla.)

Laura Prepon playing real-life Canadian murder assistant Karla Hamulka is kind of like if Jennifer Love Hewitt were cast as Aileen Wuornos in Monster.

Laura Prepon playing real-life Canadian murder assistant Karla Hamulka in Karla, AKA what Monster would have been like if Jennifer Love Hewitt had played Aileen Wuornos.

Modern-day Ditlev is a crime boss type, and his menacing portrayal by Pilou Asbæk gives us arguably the most fleshed-out villain in the entire Q series.

Again, we’re treated to a host of strong performances and a multilayered murder-mystery shot mainly in the effectively chilling gloom and doom of a Danish countryside manor. My only complaint here is that Absent One‘s conclusion is arguably a bit less epic than that of the other two Q films.

GRADE: B+ / B
IMDb: 7.1

Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith
Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Carl Morck in Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith

Where the second installment provided us with the basic element of a tautif not slighlty predictable, cookie-cuttermurder mystery, the third plunges more into True Detective terrain. Morck and Assad trade religious theology tinged with bleak existentialism while outposted in their squad car.

This transpires whilst a demonic serial killer builds his own Carcosa and kills with unstoppable fury, as if divined by the hand of the dark lord. As in True Detective SE1, Conspiracy of Faith rides the current of a heavy theological battle between the forces of light and dark. While none of this nears the heights of that seminal piece of television, “Q3” is a smarter, more sinister crime story with higher stakes than its predecessors. As such, it also begins to visit the guarded dimensions of Morck’s tortured soul.
rust kohl pessimist true detective
The finale doesn’t exactly shed the die-cast of formulaic predictability that taints the Q series and makes it a slighlty inferior product to, say, the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Still, the meditative aspects of this film added to the enticing perpetual gloom that shrouds the series make it highly watchable fare for fans of bleak crime-mystery cinema. 

A cast of recognizable Norwegian actors includes Pål Sverre Hagen (the uber-baddie drug kingpin from In Order of Disappearance, playing his demonic role just a bit less hyperbolically here) and Jakob Oftebro (When Animals Dream, In Order of Disappearance, Lilyhammer).

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.0

In the end, two main things strike me about why the DQ series is so enjoyable. First, it fills a cinematic flat circle: It has much of the entertainment value of True Detective, but without making viewers feel like they need to write a thesis about the damn thing. Conversely, it’s heady enough to not leave that film of time-wasted disgust on my conscience that happens when I sit through two hours of SVU

The other quality about these films that works to their favor is, I must admit, the same thing I’ve been bitching about for most of this post: a formula. While that formula may not include meaningful character development, it does deliver the same admirable constants: Two entertaining movie detectives, great ensemble casts, memorable depictions of evil, and the same sublime cinematic lens that made The Killing‘s bleak scenery and atmosphere one of its most memorable characters. So yeah, I recommend that you fox with it.

-Sam Adams

Unsung Gory: 26 lesser-known crime, thriller and horror movies on netflix instant worth watching

26 netflix crime thriller and horror movies
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If you dig dark cinema and/or frequent this blog, odds are you’ve already seen such Netflix-sponsored classics as I Saw the Devil, Tell No One, Headhunters, Blue Ruin and Stake Land. If not, refer back to this list, which contains arguably 18 of the best films and series that run in that vein of bleak, thrilling morbidity.

What’s compiled below is a list of slightly inferior (in some cases—not all) modern flicks that took a lot more digging to find than the aforementioned titles. In other words, they’re mostly lower-budget, less hyped in critical and social media forums, or simply just overlooked. And if you feel this list is slightly short on horror, just refer back to this post.

If you’re new to the blog and the list seems a little thematically erratic, I’ll just reiterate that the focus of this site is to recommend movies not from one particular genre, but rather a series (horror, crime, thriller) which are all connected by an undercurrent of grim suspense. (See: my first post where I equate bleak cinema with ASMR.) This 26-part novella is also my attempt to repent for blogging infrequently of late, and thus offering you a laundry list of some of the better stuff I’ve watched over the past half year.

And the nominees are…

Almost Mercy
danielle golden bloody sexy in almost mercy

The main reason I held off from writing a longform post on this is because it’s a little smarmy for my tastes. Essentially, depressed, bullied loner boy meets insanely hot badass outsider chick (Danielle Guldin). Friendship ensues, and so does mass killing. Think White Rabbit (farther down the list), but with more of a Heathers / Ginger Snaps / Horns vibe. My other comparison would be an amalgam of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Gus Van Sant’s Columbine-inspired Elephant and Jennifer’s Body, with a tone and sardonic wit more in line with that Diablo Cody flick than the serious nature of Kevin and Elephant. Almost Mercy is definitely a lot of fun as 90s throwback black comedyjust be prepared for more tongue-in-cheek gore than actual horror or substance.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.2

Big Bad Wolves
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It makes absolute sense why, in 2013, Quentin Tarantino called Big Bad Wolvesan Israeli murder-torture revenge thriller“the best film of the year.” I don’t say that because Wolves is a profound and overlooked piece of filmmaking. I say it because people with big egos generally tend to like what they see in the mirror, and Wolves is essentially a reflection of everything QT’s worked to stylistically cultivate over the past few decades. If you are a die-hard Tarantino fan, you might very well agree with him. If, like me, you think he’s gone into hammy, self-parody ever since his last great film (Jackie Brown), you might be of a couple minds.

Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown

Before the Gosling meme, there was this bad muthafucka…

 That’s not to say that I don’t think Wolves is a very clever and entertaining thriller with some wonderful style and plot twists. It’s just that QT’s character-as-caricature formulawherein corny jokes play substitute for human emotionseems just a little incongruent with a film predicated on child rape, child murder and agonizing revenge torture.

I guess I should briefly sum up the main premise here, which entails the father of said beheaded child and a vigilante cop using all means necessary to force a confession out of a potential perp in a secluded farmhouse basement. Directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado even give a wink to Pulp Fiction as the man is interrogated, using one of QT’s favorite tools for going “medieval on his ass.” I know fans of this blog might have a gripe with me calling this film insensitive, but it just seems that at the very least, the gravity of such vulgar material becomes rather implausible and divorced from reality in such slapstick kid gloves. In all, it feels like this film was created for the exact cine-sadist audience Michael Haneke was confronting and condemning in Funny Games.

OK, OK, I’ve cleared my conscience. If you can somehow cast aside the flippantly portrayed depravity this film addresses (not a small task), it then becomes a perfectly paced suspense-revenge flick, full of black humor, strong camerawork, memorable performances and some fantastic twists. It also gets points for the best use of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” this side of We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Quite simply, Big Bad Wolves is a love it or loathe it movie, and I find myself caught somewhere between the two poles. But I can’t deny that it’s an impressive piece of filmmaking.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.8 

The Canal
the canal irish movie
When I put together a list of some of best lesser-known modern horror flicks on Netflix (see link in intro), The Canal was my glaring omission. Perhaps I held off on watching it due to the corny cover art on Netflix that makes it look like a generic, direct-to-DVD snoozefest. Or maybe it was the 5.9 score on IMDb (Reminder to self: IMDb scores are good signifiers for a film’s caliber in some genres, but they are to be distrusted like a back-alley three-card monte dealer when it comes to horror).

In fact, this film is so good that I’m doubling back on my claim that The Babadook was the best horror film of 2014 (granted, it was a pretty shitty year for horror). So what’s the deal with The Canal? Premise: An Irish film archivist moves his wife and son into a creepy old house located on a… canal, of all things. With a heavy tip o’ the cap to The Shining, our man starts losing his mind a wee bit, especially when he finds some films at work that reveal his house to be the scene of a century-old murder wherein a man killed his wife and kids.

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“I think my dad’s gone craaazy!”



This familiar narrative I just described is pretty much where The Canal stops adhering to any genre conventions. I’ve stated on this blog that haunting movies generally don’t do the trick for me (just leave the fucking house, already!). But this one is more refreshing and palpable, if only because the majority of the film doesn’t take place in the house, and we don’t have to wade through an hour of creaking doors and power outages to get to the real meat. Moreover, The Canal operates on a heady, multilayered plain of psychological dementia that enters into a possessed mind in one of the most convincingand therefore terrifyingways I’ve encountered. Trippy, manic and skillfully crafted, the lack of recognition for director Ivan Kavanagh’s indie masterpiece is criminal. Queue it up without further delay.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 5.9

Blue Capriceblue caprice isaiah washington
Based on a wave of seemingly motiveless sniper killings that went down near Washington D.C. in 2002, Blue Caprice is carried by an air of unnerving tension as well as a sense of unavoidable dread. It brings to mind several sources, most notably Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968), loosely inspired by Andrew Clark’s 1965 freeway killings. In both films, random “targets” are sniped by a psychopathic killer who seems to have little more incentive for the murders than his own psychopathy.

Blue Caprice also employs a father-and-son-like power dynamic, as an embittered man brings a homeless youth into his care, only to brainwash him into being a cold-blooded killer. In this sense, the film evokes both Beasts of No Nation and the character of Chris, the trigger-happy corner boy from The Wire. The senselessness of the entire drama is conveyed as the killing spree unfolds almost nonchalantlymore as a brief footnote to the inexplicable psychopathy of these killings than as a crescendo or climax. The strongest feature of this film is without a doubt the maniacally icy and dynamic performance of Isaiah Washington. In all, Blue Caprice’s characters are fleshed out, but their criminal psyche and murderous underpinnings beg more exploration. Perhaps that makes sense, however, given the utter senselessness of their actions.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.0

Cartel Land
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One of my favorite films on Netflix streaming is El Infierno, a Sam Peckinpah-tinged tragicomedy dealing with the societal horrors of Mexican narco culture. In my post on that film, I also recommended Narco Cultura, a good documentary on the subject in its own right. Surpassing that, however, is Cartel Landa doc that brings a retrospective “how the fuck did they get that footage” type feel to a war playing out between druglords and an army of ordinary citizens fighting back against tyranny. Makes sense why this was just up for Best Documentary Oscar.

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 7.4

A Company Man
Ji-seob So in a company man

Netflix’s most impressive foreign subgenre catalogue is arguably that of South Korean revenge thrillers. Oldboy and I Saw the Devil are the best of these, but they’re just part of a film movement that churns out great products at a breakneck clip, and A Company Man is a damn fine addition to the canon. Drawing a parallel between the corporate servitude of the Asian “salaryman” and the rigorously structured life of a hitman, Company Man excels as a bleak and action-packed, murder-revenge tale. There are a few other South Korean flicks on this list I’d check out before it (namely, A Hard Day), but if you’ve enjoyed the genre’s more popular offerings, you should be pleasantly surprised by this low-budget and high-grade counterpoint to Assault on Wall Street.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.7

Darkness on the Edge of Town
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This one’s a bit like that moody, bleak and cinematographically impressive country noir stuff that’s been coming out in droves of recent (Joe, Blue Ruin, Shotgun Stories, The Living, Winter’s Bone), but with more of a distinctly Irish feel. And not just in gorgeous shots of the 40 shades of green that canvass the hills of North Kerry. There’s a contemplative, almost mystical and dreamlike quality to the film, especially at its outset. The story revolves around Cleo, a fiery-tempered juvenile delinquent (Emma Eliza Regan) looking to avenge her sister’s death by going door to seedy door to find sis’ killer. Cleo is handy with a hunting rifle, and her house calls to shifty tinker drug dealers makes her character seem rather like a brogue-bearing mashup of Jennifer Lawrence’s character from Winter’s Bone and Katniss Everdeen. The film, also about friendship and duplicitousness, is nothing groundbreaking, but at the very least it’s a nice, little anti-Thelma and Louise b-movie with slick camerawork and an impressive performance from Regan.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.1

Dark Was the Night
kevin durand in dark was the night

In all honesty, this is probably the worst film on this list (OK, maybe with the exception of The Shrine). It starts with a hammy scene of mysterious terror that you’ve seen open any number of horror movies. But wait! From there, the next hour or so of Dark Was the Night ventures into a suspenseful and ominous creature feature that elicits a genuine fear of the unknown through a rather original premise and a lot more showing than telling.

Kevin Durandeasily recognizable from being typecast as the brawny asshole in just about every recent Hollywood action flickdelivers a complex performance that shows he’s more than just a b-movie Arnold. Sure, the main themes are trite and have been done ad nauseum, but the vast majority of the film delivers on good, old school suspense-horror (consider it a worthwhile M. Night Shyamalan flick, if there is such a thing). As for the payoffwell, that’s probably why you haven’t heard much about this movie. But sandwiched between two short and shitty bookends is a very compelling b-horror flick. I won’t say more other than that with a budget of about a million more and a few kinks worked out, this could have been a classic. And it’s always fun to see the great Nick Damici pop up in a horror flick, no matter how small the role.

Grade: B-
IMDb: 5.6

A Hard Day
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Combine the suspense and breakneck pace of Headhunters with the corrupt cop cat-and-mouse game of Infernal Affairs. Package it inside the South Korean murder-revenge template. Throw in a dash of Walter White-level maniacal crisis and a Michael Myers-esque killer and, well, you essentially have the recipe for A Hard Day. I’m actually surprised this movie doesn’t get mentioned more when the topic of South Korean “han” films arises and the ingenious, usual suspects are named (I Saw the Devil, Oldboy, The Chaser, The Man from Nowhere, etc.). If not up to those high standards, Hard Day is at least in the same ballpark. One of my highest-recommended flicks on this list.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 6.7

Jack Strong
jack strong patrick wilson Marcin Dorocinski
Wait, I’m fucking serious: Despite being marketed with a poster that looks like some lowbrow Tom Clancy political conspiracy schlock and having a title that only furthers this notion, Jack Strong is actually a very intelligent and compelling spy thriller. And that’s because it’s the exact opposite of everything its Netflix thumbnail connotes. For starters, Patrick Wilson (whose face takes up most of the Jack Strong promo poster) actually has very little screen time in the film. Jack Strong is also largely in Polish and Russian, with English subtitles. While it may look like a low-budget rip-off of The Sum of All Fears, it’s really more in the tradition of heady espionage flicks like The Debt, Citizen X and Munich (I’m not gonna mention Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy because I still have no idea what the fuck transpired in that movie). Thrilling, suspenseful and very well acted, one need simply ignore its awful marketing, and a very good film lies beneath.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.2

Kidnapped (Secuestrados)
secuestrados-Manuela-Vellés

Fuck, this one is bleak and grotesque. I mean, while not exactly A Serbian Film, it makes the Liv Tyler flick Strangers look like Home Alone. And it’s not even a horror film. Just a home invasion movie that takes us into the inner recesses of a horrific real-life situation, and then begs the question, “How much fucking worse could it get.” The thing is, it’s all very convincing, believable and well-acted. And I think calling Kidnapped “torture porn” would be a disservice to its vivid realism. I just don’t know why the hell anyone would be compelled to make this film. But it’s certainly better than Eli Roth’s Knock Knock, and if you liked Funny Games and are a cinematic sadist, you’ll most likely eat this shit up.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.5

Last Shift
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Channeling the cult-classic Session 9, Last Shift brings us into the world of Jessica (Juliana Harkavy), a cop working her first shift. Of course she just happens to look like the half-sister of Jessica Alba and Hope Solo. Of course the shift is run alone. At night. In a precinct house that’s haunted by the spirit of a mass murder clan! Last Shift is one of those low-budget, sleeper Netflix horror titles that more than does the trick in terms of delivering continuous suspense and some good visual and psychological thrills. In fact, I’d go so far as to place it in the top ten horror movies of 2015. As a horror buff who is typically bored by paranormal films, this one easily kept my attention throughout. An impressive flick from up-and-coming horror director Anthony DiBlasi.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 5.7

The Living
Jocelin Donahue in The Living
If we can consider Blue Ruin, Joe, Winter’s Bone, Cold in July and Shotgun Stories as cousins related by the blood of country noir, than consider The Living their slightly jaundiced offspring. Director Jack Bryan takes the age-old formula of drinking, heartbreak, mayhem and embittered rednecks killin’ on other nearby rednecks for fuckin’ with their kinfolk. He then hands it over to a talented cast of horror and outlaw movie vets (including a few faces from Justified and House of the Devil’s Jocelin Donahue) and basically lets them shoot it out. While there’s a lot of good bleak-as-fuck hilljackery commencing here, veteran character actor Chris Mulkey absolutely steals the show as a two-bit philosopher hitman who’s just a few screws short of being a white trash Anton Chigurh. If you want bleak and backwoodsy, look no further.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.3

Man from Reno
Ayako-Fujitani-scary-sexy-in-man-from-reno

Man from Reno is, without a doubt, the best film ever made about the treacherous Japanese-British-San Francisco rare turtle smuggling syndicate. That absurd premise is what our heroine, popular detective novelist Aki, finds herself in as she struggles with a personal crisis and the task of cranking out her last opus. Then there’s the dark and handsome gentleman lover Akira (Kazuki Kitamura from Kill Bill and Killerswe need more of this guy), who’s got something to do with the whole shebang. Piecing it all together is a local detective working a murder casethe great character actor Pepe Serna (Scarface), stealing the show as a humble, aging version of Walt Longmire. 

pepe serna chainsaw scarface

Pepe Serna on the wrong side of a chainsaw in Scarface

So yeah, there’s a lot going on here, almost distractingly so (and sometimes the puzzle pieces collide a bit too quickly). But it’s all worth the slow grind. In the end, Man from Reno is a bizarre, multinational cinematic anomaly; equal parts Hitchcock and The Killing. And speaking of the latter, Man from Reno’s bleak Pacific Northwest cinematography brings a mood and visual flair that are as much a character in the film as any player. If you liked the Al Pacino and Christopher Nolan flick Insomnia, definitely check this out.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.9

Mea Culpa
mea culpa movie Vincent Lindon
Mea Culpaor as I like to call it, A Walk Among les Tombstonesis the type of gritty cop thriller that could easily rake in box office bucks with a Liam Neeson remake. The film opens with an older man in short shorts on the beach with his beautiful, much younger wife. The message here, I believe, is that it’s just another day in France.

Such sunny overtones quickly fade. A drunk-driving accident leads to a career and marriage flushed down the drain. It also leads to buddy-cop partners who were once thick as thieves now distanced by worlds of misery. But when a child is witness to a gangland murder, our fallen anti-hero must pick up the pieces in order to save his familyand perhaps even regain his sanity.

There are heavy undertones of Taken, including seedy Eastern European thugs and impromptu death-match boxing in dark warehouses with knives and towel-wrapped hands. I will say Mea Culpa suffers a bit from the old not-killing-the-bad-guy-when-you-have-the-chance syndrome, but it does the trick for a tense and action-packed thriller. Consider it the poor man’s Tell No One.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.1

Mystery Road
mystery road jason mask
Apart from what’s going on in South Korea and the slew of “country noir” films I can’t stop talking about, Australia has one of the stronger bleak, murderous film movements at the moment. Mystery Roada slow-burn detective thriller about an Outback sheriff trying to both solve a murder and navigate systemic and race-fueled corruptionfollows in the rich tradition of The Rover, The Horseman, The Proposition and Animal Kingdom, to name a few. Its existentially bleak, ponderous view of the Outback as expressed through vivid cinematography and minimalist dialogue is part of what makes this film compelling, and creates for a bit of an odd hybrid between Spaghetti Westerns, Samuel Beckett plays and the gonzo Ozploitation movement of the 1970s. It needs to be said that Mystery Road certainly puts the “slow” in “slow-burn,” but if you can dig a crime movie that’s predicated as much upon mood as it is upon plot, this one is certainly worth checking out. Bonus points: It also has a great side role from Hugo Weaving, as well a finale that makes up for the turtle’s pace of the whole affair.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.4

No Tears for the Dead
no tears for the dead bloody

As I said in my original post on the South Korean revenge-murder thriller No Tears for the Dead, “ It might not have the depravity or sophistication of some han classics, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more exhilarating foreign popcorn flick made in the past few years.” Seriously, this one gives the first three installments of the Die Hard series a run for their money. There’s nothing all that heady here (it’s more explosion-enhanced, shoot-’em-up blockbuster fodder than the grim glory of South Korean classics like I Saw the Devil and Oldboy). Still, director Jeong-beom Lee’s folllow-up to The Man from Nowhere impresses as a non-stop visual spectacle, and is buoyed by an all-star cast from South Korean revenge cinema. If you’re a fan of the Vengeance Trilogy but are simply in the mood for sheer entertainment on a more brainless level, No Tears is a whole helluva lot of fun.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.7

On the Job
on the job movie on netflix with Joel Torre

Probably among my top five within this list, On the Job is a Philippine prison-gangster flick that toes the line between drama and thriller. That doesn’t mean it’s by any means slowit’s just a more artful (and well-acted) affair than some of the other stuff on here. If you want some context, combine the coming-of-age and coming-to-power story of Un Prophete (man, that was one of the best films on Netflix), the interwoven, seedy fabric of Amores Perros, and the bleak Philippine crimescape of Metro Manila. And seeing as On the Job details the dynamic of two generations of assassins and their worldly troubles, perhaps a non-comedic take on In Bruges. All the rest you need to know about this film is that it’s about hitmen who have a deal with a political mob to be secretely released every now and then in order to pull of high-profile murders. Oh, and that it’s a damn good piece of modern crime cinema.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.0

The Seasoning House
the-seasoning-house-rosie-day

This is one of those weird and really good gems that just got buried in the ether of Netflix; the kind that never popped up in any “because you liked” lists and took me half an hour of mindlessly browsing to happen upon. Perhaps that’s because it’s a pretty damn difficult film to market. Premise: A deaf-mute girl in The Balkans is abducted into a military sex-slave house after watching her family brutally murdered by soldiers. She uses her wiles to avoid death at the hands of her captors, while simultaneously coming to the aid of her heroin-fed sex-slave counterparts. Doesn’t exactly scream date-night, does it? And it also isn’t really horror, so you can’t just slap a ghoulish image on the front and get traffic that way (see: The Canal).

OK, now consider that extremely fucked-up premise being executed to near-perfection; no torture porn, no exploitative thrills at the expense of of a very serious and evil situation. Simply an engaging thriller with undertones of bloody revenge on par with what you’d expect out of a South Korean “han” film. For those who can stomach it, Seasoning Houseactually a British filmis suspense and terror at its finest. Rest assured, you will never want to visit The Balkans.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.1

Scenic Route
scenic route josh duhamel

Wait, Josh Douchehamel made a good movie? I thought he was only supposed to star in Katherine Heigl flicks in which Katherine Heigl realizes her life sucks and then she meets Josh and realizes her life doesn’t suck, and then they go through a period that sucks, and then things don’t suck again. But no, Scenic Route is actually a pretty damn-entertaining flick, thanks in part to an ambitious and humorous script from Kyle Killen. Premise: a cleaned-up, dumbed-down ex-musician shackled by a white-picket-fence existence meets with an old stoner buddy, who’s the same lout he was when they used to hang. Road trip commences. Car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Bros are stretched to the limits of their friendship and sanity.  It’s kind of like that movie Gerry with Matt Damon, except that I didn’t feel like I swallowed a handful of Ambien ten minutes into watching it (fuckin’ a, Gus Van Sant, fuckin’ a…). I’m not saying Scenic Route is anything existentially groundbreaking, but it’s just really surprisingly good for a movie starring Josh Duhamel, and you could do a lot worse in terms of survival flicks.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 6.5

The Shrine
cindy-sampson-in-the-shrine

As I’ve said before, good horror flicks are few and far between. And I can’t highly recommend this one until you’ve gone through the 30 or so other modern horror films I’ve suggested on this blog. But worth your time if you’re a horror fan? Yeah, it at least holds that standard.

The premise is even a bit more creative and new than a lot of the stuff popping up these days: An American journalist, her photographer boyfriend and her intern travel to a remote Polish village to investigate a series of odd tourist disappearances. Combining elements of Devil’s Pass (watch that on Netflix over this if you haven’t seen it), Hostel and any number of possession films, Shrine at least creates an interesting and multilayered narrative. There’s even some cinematographically intriguing segments shot in the eerie mist of Polish hill country. Why many of these are clearly shot in front of a green screen is a mystery, and adds an unnecessary element of b-movie laziness. And as a former journalist, I’d rather not even get into the financial implausability of a small-time journo living in a high-end condo and flippantly buying three last-minute transcontinental flight tickets on her own dime simply because she has a story hunch. But there’s some decent special effects here and enough ambitious thrills and chills to at least merit a gander. I’ll just reiterate that this one’s low on the list and I’m mainly just throwing it in here for hard-up horror fans.

GRADE: B- / C+
IMDb: 5.6

Suburra
subarra movie Greta Scarano Alessandro Borghi

Damn, this is a great movieprobably the best on this list. I love how the opening scene cuts from a boring Italian legislative session to a neon-lit mansion bumping M83’s club-classic “Midnight City” (arguably the most MDMA-conducive song ever created). From there, the tone for Suburra is set, and it’s one of a cross-section of corrupt humanity overlapping into one another’s seedy, carnal and ultimately deadly worlds. The idea of intersecting narratives tied together by some intrinsically morose fate certainly brings to mind the early work of Alejandro G. Iñárritu (see: Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), now probably the most lauded director on the planet.

And as the scandalous lives of a corrupt politician, a gung-ho mobster, a nightclub promoter, a beautiful prostitute and the old guard of gangsterism clash in and around modern-day Rome, the movie also delves into some of the bleak Christian themes Iñárritu explored, especially in Amores Perros. Suburra is divided into daily chapters, with each one being prefaced by text signaling a countdown to “the apocalypse.” The true nature of this apocalypse is more existential and character-related than it is literal, but it would be hard to argue that the movie is, on some levels, not a story about the descent and end of mankind.

Pierfrancesco Favino and Greta Scarano sexy in Suburra

“It’s the end of the world… might as well double up!”

Fans of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher series will most likely love this as well, as it delves into the same neon-lit, trance-music soundtracked netherworld that brought a surreal mix of doom and glory to those movies. It’s worth noting that this is somewhat of a companion piece to the great Italian slum-gangster flick Gomorrah, made a few years prior, as Suburra’s director went on to turn that movie into a TV series. From a cinematographic standpoint, however, Suburra is an improvement on its predecessor. Oh, and a final note: There’s a climactic scene here that rivals the horsehead scene in Godfather. Just sayin!

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 7.5

Uncle John
Uncle John Ronnie Gene Blevins John Ashton
I know nothing about the fresh-faced, first-time filmmaker Steven Piet, but if I had to guess one thing about him I’d say he’s has seen a little film called Blue Ruin. My second guess on Mr. Piet would be that he’s seen a film called The Living. I’d also venture that he’s probably seen David Gordon Green’s Joe and Jim Mickle’s Cold in July. Whether Piet saw any or all of these films before creating Uncle John? I’d also guess in the affirmative, but that in no way means that Piet’s feature debut isn’t a damn good foray into country noir-ish territory in its own right. It’s also arguably the most “Midwestern Nice” movie since Fargo.

A split narrative follows both the budding workplace romance of two typical city millennials and the boy’s titular uncle and father-figure, a farmer living a few hours (and a few worlds) away from them. John is a good, plainspoken Midwesterner who works hard and meets a group of similarly Midwestern chatty-Cathy buddies for coffee every morning at the local diner. But of course, he’s hiding a dark secret. The performances of John Ashton as Uncle John and Ronnie Gene Blevins as essentially the same character he played in the movie Joe are much more compelling than what’s going on with nephew and his office hottie. Still, Piet’s use of a split narrative to contrast the safeness and sterilization of one generation with the cruder, hands-on know-how of a bygone era isdespite being a bit heavy handedan effective tool for conveying how dull and sheepishly naive your average Millennial is.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 6.3

When Animals Dream
sonia-suhl-in-when-animals-dream

To avoid spoilers, I’m not gonna classify the subgenre of this slow-paced and thoughtful Danish horror flick. That said, when its main character, Marie (Sonia Suhl), starts growing weird patches of hair on her body, the gist becomes clear rather quick. I want to re-emphasive that “slow-paced and thoughtful” aspectit’s not in an artsy fartsy way that people will either love or hate, as was the case with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It’s more about combating demons and conspiratorily safeguarding evils within a family dynamic. It’s also about female sexuality and love, but it’s really a lot more grim than that. So the main comparison would be Let the Right One In, a standard few films can live up to (including this one). Still, Suhl’s performance is understatedly compelling and complex. And the bleak cinematography of an isolated European fishing town provides the perfect setting and mood to complement one of the more introspective horror flicks of the past few years.

GRADE: B
IMDb: 5.9

White Rabbit
Nick-Krause-in-White-Rabbit

Harlan is an angsty loner who grew up with an alcoholic dad whose lasting legacy to his son was an appreciation for guns. Then a neurotic pixie dream girl arrives at his high school, and their relationship plays out a lot like what went down in the Daniel Radcliffe movie Horns. White Rabbit is also very similar to Almost Mercy (see top of list), albeit darker and more bleakly homicidal. Basically, it’s like Columbine meets Donnie Darko, as seen through the eyes of rapper Cage (specifically his “I Never Knew You” music video). Matter of fact, actor Nick Krause looks a hell of a lot like Cage here. Shia LaBouef should cast him if he’s still working on that Cage biopic. Anyway, if you want some really good, really bleak and bloody teen angst, check this one out.

GRADE: B / B+
IMDb: 6.2

A Wolf at the Door
a-wolf-at-the-door
I’ll quote from my original post here: “If Prisoners met Little Children and were lured into a back alley by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, you might have a rough idea of what the Brazilian abduction film A Wolf at the Door is about. But even such a miasma of grim, adulterous, child-snatching malevolence would fall short of matching the depravity that exists in director Fernando Coimbra’s 2013 suspense tale.” Yeah, that pretty much sums up this slow-burn story of psycopathic lust, adultery, betrayal and murder. This is another one hidden deep in the Netflix archives that deserves much more attention.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.5

-Sam Adams

Fifty Shades of Bleak: The Fall Returns to Netflix Instant

the fall jamie dornan gillian anderson
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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.)

the killing holder

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.

patch adams hopkins silence of the lambs

“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

The best of Netflix Instant if bleak, thrilling cinema is your ASMR: Part I

BBC crime shows
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Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) has quickly become the Internet’s answer to Klonopin. Unfortunately, I don’t happen to be among those lulled into a happy place by videos of 15-year-old girls whispering about how it feels to wash their hands with a bar of texturized chamomile soap. No, my go-to for bedtime relaxation comes more in the form of films and shows that rely heavily on, say, depictions and existential conversations predicated upon bodily dismemberment.

Buffalo Bill

The title of an ASMR video I would watch

Why? I have no clue. And for the moment, this isn’t about why (although I’m sure I’ll have to tackle that at some point). The underlying crux of this blog series is to foster a space for recommending and discussing some of the best and most gruesomely soothing films/shows out there. If you consider Winter’s Bone, True Detective and The Descent to be among the past decade’s seminal moving-picture achievements—and are simply craving more, but don’t where to turn—then welcome.

If you’re as obsessed with these genres as I am, you likely know that spending half an hour on Google attempting to find something that fits within their parameters is, nine times out of ten, an exercise in futility.

To that point, I’m simply sick and tired of every “Best on Netflix you might not have seen” list trying to convince me that Drinking Buddies, Don Jon and Prince Avalanche aren’t somehow going to make me head to Hollywood and craft a Buffalo Bill-style human-skin coat out of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the Duplass Brothers and Diablo Cody.

Seriously, I will wear that shit in public to boycott the premiere of Greta Gerwig and John Kransinki’s newest project about a couple of upper-middle class white people who wear flannel and resolve emotional issues to the tune of ten Kimya Dawson songs and then learn something about themselves. (It’s still in the works, but I believe they’ve tentatively titled it We Are Here Now and Were There.)

Indie trash

Yeah, yeah, go fuck yourself.

I digress. What we’re talking about here is your dark minds benefiting from the rotten fruits of my labor. Said “labor” being perhaps an unhealthy amount of man-hours browsing reddit subpages over the past year to provide you with some of the sickest, most brilliant diamonds in the rough that you can access through Netflix Instant. Why this specific portal, you ask? Because everyone and their grandmother’s fuckin’ cousin has it, I respond.

So, without further ado, I think it’s time we talk about Kevin… er, shows and movies. Let’s talk about shows and movies. Here’s our genre for the first installment:

BBC (BADASS BASTARDS AND COPPERS):

Peaky Blinders
Fuck, I thought at first. Cillian Murphy as the leader of a Birmingham street gang that slashes peoples’ eyes via razor-embedded scally caps? It all sounded good outside of Cillian Murphy. While he was great in The 28th Hour (and sure, he was Scarecrow in the Dark Knight films), the guy is prettier than the love child of a young Rob Lowe and Kiera Knightley donning a powder blue bunny suit. So, me asks, how the fuck is Cillian gonna pull this off?

No worries, mate. By the end of the first season, I’d rather cross paths with Bane in a dark alley than serve the menacing Thomas Shelby with an improper shoeshine. Oh, and speaking of Bane, Tom Hardy enters in the forthcoming Season 2. My knickers are already wet.

cillian murphy

The baddest pretty boy since Gosling in Drive !

About that title: Yeah, it sounded pretty goofy to me at first—as it might to many Yank viewers. Rest assured, Peaky Blinders is not about a middle-school boy with a hot neighbor and a pair of binoculars.

So how would I sum it all up? It’s essentially a hybrid of Sons of Anarchy and Boardwalk Empire, with a little splash of Gangs of New York. Thomas Shelby is Jax Teller, if Jax Teller operated out of Birmingham in the early 20th Century. He’s a young, dashing, masterfully calculating gang leader who couldn’t tell you what fear was if it bit him in the ass. But along with the calculation, there’s some stoicism, which is why I also see a bit of Nucky Thompson in him. And if this show catches on, a whole new wave of Jimmy Doherty-esque haircuts will be lurking around a hipster cocktail lounge near you.

peaky blinders

Party like it’s 1919…

As for drawbacks, it’s completely overstylized—almost to the point of camp—but that’s also what makes it kind of fun. Why not play a Nick Cave ditty as a smartly-dressed chap walks through the streets with flames billowing at his back while obsequious townfolk quiver in his wake? This is exactly what Hell on Wheels was trying to pull off (and “Red Right Hand” is one of the best intro songs since The Wire tapped Tom Waits). Perhaps Peaky Blinders ain’t as highbrow as the first two seasons of Boardwalk (let’s be realistic, that show went to shit), but it is some bloody and fiendishly good fun.

SEASON ONE GRADE: A-
IMDb: 8.5

Happy Valley
Many bemoan the downfall of the American version of The Killing after that horrible cliffhanger in the first season. Fair enough, but I stuck with the show simply because, well, it was gloriously dark. And I have yet to encounter better cinematographic use of a geographical environment this side of Breaking Bad or Twin Peaks. Oh, and Holder was just one hilarious, bad-ass honky. 

The man, the myth, the Holder

The man, the myth, the Holder

The reason I bring up The Killing is because of how strikingly similar it is in theme and general aura to Happy Valley. Detective Catherine Cawood is a slightly mentally off-kilter, divorced female cop with a dark past and a son who intermittently hates her. She also lives in a town that is perpetually gray, is constantly trying to quit smoking, likes sleeping with married men and is, despite her uncontrollable moodswings, highly efficient and always right when everyone else doubts her. Sarah Linden, anyone? (Speaking of striking similarities to other shows, there’s this turtley little weasel of an accountant who looks like Wormtail from Harry Potter and is the embodiment of Walter White back in his Mr. Chips days. Great character.)

Unlike The Killing, the six-episode-long Season One of Valley delivers. I mean, it fucking delivers. And between involuntary smack injections, basement rape (yeah, that stuff’s hard even for me to watch) and dousing children with gasoline, grimness is Happy Valley’s oh-so-sunny calling card.

"Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?"

It ain’t exactly, “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?”

While we’re on the subject of female-detective BBC shows, if you’re choosing between this and Top of the Lake, take the advice of the great Bob Dylan, babe, and don’t think twice. Apart from one great character, Top of the Lake is pretty much the bottom of the well when it comes to BBC cop series.

Final note on why you should watch Happy Valley: The fella that plays the pseudo-psycopathic Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) is the second-coming of Tom Hardy. Guy has serious acting chops, and he’s certainly the sexiest sexual deviant psychokiller since Jamie Dornan in The Fall. Speaking of which…

SEASON ONE GRADE: A
IMDb: 8.5

The Fall
Perhaps the hardest thing to get past in the first episode of The Fall is just how flawlessly fucking fair Gillian Anderson’s skin is. That skin is fairer than a cup of tea sipped quietly by Monet in a field of wheat on a fine spring day. I mean c’mon, she was Scully before Vince Gilligan was out of his screenwriting diapers. … But yeah, after that Duplass Brothers skin-coat thing, maybe I’ve been talking about skin too much. Fun fact: Did you know that Ed Gein lived 30 minutes from where I’m writing this? (Don’t worry, I don’t have an epidermal fixation or any skeletons in my closet. I’m just being tongue-in… whatever-you-call-that-space-beside-the-teeth-where-there-used-to-be-flesh.)

The Fall

“Why yes, I believe that is me in The Birth of Venus.”

Moving on, The Fall is yet another grim, tension-riddled cop-thriller with a bad-ass female lead investigating a spate of killings. (For whatever reason, feminism seems to be alive and well in the cop-vs.-serial killer genre.) While there are any number of comparisons that could be made between The Fall, The Killing and Happy Valley (the mood-setting bleakness of Belfast, say), this show does women coppers the service of a portrayal that’s the exact opposite of that “off-kilter and mentally distressed” blueprint.

Gillian Anderson is brilliant, and her icy depiction of investigator Stella Gibson leaves little room for sentiment, nonsense or anything other than heady police work. That’s good. Because the sadist she’s tracking (Jamie Dornan) is a perverted family man who gets off on choking his victims to death and then scrapbooking about them with artwork that is unsettlingly exquisite.

As the body count piles and the investigation deepens, the tension rises to a pitch that makes The Fall arguably as engrossing as True Detective. Of the three shows I’ve discussed, this one is probably the best. The only disappointment is that Season One is criminally brief (5 episodes) and ends with an asshole of a cliffhanger.

And by the way, John Oliver can shove it. Jamie Dornan is so my Christian.

SEASON ONE GRADE: A-
IMDb: 8.2


Final note:
Consider all three of the aforementioned shows as far superior to BBC-via-Netflix Instant alternatives like Luther, Sherlock and Top of the Lake. British Stringer Bell, er, Idris Elba is great in Luther, but the show lacks the depth of Happy Valley and The Fall, and the entertainment value of Peaky Blinders. And by “depth,” I’m talking about that intangible quality that distinguishes a great cable show like Breaking Bad or The Wire from, say, a regular-channel favorite like Law & Order (again, another topic I’ll save for a rainy day). As for Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch exudes a particular brand of smug that just pisses me off, and his Holmes offends my boyhood notions of a beloved literary character. The show is also completely overstylized—just not in a good way, like the way Peaky Blinders makes me eager to sew razor blades into my cap.

-Sam Adams