Something Nordic this way Comes: The Oath (on Netflix)

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As Iceland continues to break ground in the terrain of bleak crime cinemamuch like South Korea, Australia and American Country Noir have over the past decadea clear figurehead has emerged. His name is Baltasar Kormákur. He has a penchant for winding bloody yarns of despair, revenge and redemption into the frigid tapestries of his homeland. He also looks a helluva lot like the Scandinavian older brother of Colin Farrell.

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Kormákur and Farrell: Separated at brood.

What’s interesting about Kormákur is that, before creating his two best pieces of cinemaboth filmed in Iceland with Icelandic casts and in the native tonguehe was already doing big-budget Hollywood flicks, directing Denzel, Marky Mark and Jake G in completely decent and also completely unremarkable blockbusters like 2 Guns, Contraband and Everest.

Fortunately for lovers of Nordic Noir and grim crime cinema, he went back to his native roots and filmed both The Oath and Trapped in Iceland between 2015 and 2016. Trapped, as I detailed in a previous post, is one of the better Nordic Noir series out there. And The Oath, as I’ll soon detail, is one of the better foreign crime thrillersat least this side of South KoreaI’ve seen since Headhunters and Tell No One.

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Aksel Hennie in Headhunters, one of the best foreign thrillers of the century—filmed across the pond in Norway.

But before diving further into Kormákur’s circuitously serendipitous career moves, let’s get toThe Oath.

It starts in typical Icelandic fashion, with some bearded dudes in knitted sweaters wrangling horses outside a quaint farmhouse. We soon find that one of these men is Finnur (Kormákur as the lead in his own film), a heart surgeon tending to the last affairs of his father’s estate after the old man has kicked the bucket. A funeral follows, where we’re introduced to Finnur’s family and, most noticeably, his goth-y teenage daughter Anna (Hera Hilmar) who’s clearly in some sort of drug-induced, angsty downward spiral.

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“Ugh, dad—Iceland, like, totally blows. Speaking of blow…”

A scene later, we meet Anna’s tatted-up badboy drug dealer boyfriend, Óttar, who looks 20 years older than her and is constantly accompanied by his pitbull. He also drives a fancy car and hosts rapey drug parties in his posh penthouse. (Boyfriend material, clearly.) From here, shit goes south, as Finnur sees that ol’ Óttar is driving Anna toward an early grave.

In true viking vigilante form, Finnur decides to take matters into his own hands. This leads to a confrontation that pit father and boyfriend as foes. It also leads to shotgun shells filled with nails, kidnapping and torture, and our hero heart surgeon having a less familiar brand of blood on his hands. From the admixture of Finnur’s initial innocence and subsequent hellbent revenge, a character somewhere between Walter White in the first few episodes of Breaking Bad and Liam Neeson in Taken emerges.

Gísli Örn Garðarsson and Baltasar Kormákur in The Oath

“I eat pieces of hákarl like you for breakfast!”

The film’s title and moral conundrum stem from this transformation in Finnur. While the titular wordplay conjuring the Hippocratic Oath is no stroke of genius, Kormákur’s transformative performance is brilliant, and the taut narrative he winds (he also co-wrote the film) is a thing of grimalbeit somewhat predictablebeauty.

This is not to say that I’m heralding Kormákur as a great or even innovative director. While slightly more visually compelling than the understated Trapped, the cinematography here rarely does much to incorporate Iceland’s sublime landscapesa feature that could easily give his crime cinema an added undercurrent of bone-chilling grimness. 

But where the camerawork here is fine yet unremarkablemuch like the fruits of Kormákur’s Hollywood careerthe director is simply much more effective when given full reign over his projects. Where his creation Trapped was a meticulously plotted, slow-burn thriller more adherent to the Nordic Noir stamp, The Oath is a fast-paced thriller that thrives on its unrelenting tension. Both are covered in Kormákur’s printsincluding a running ensemble of Iceland’s finest acting talentand both prove that this guy is a force to be reckoned with when he brings the fight to his own turf.

Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson

Speaking of Icelandic ultraviolence, I was in Reykjavík earlier this year and snapped a photo of Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, AKA “The Mountain” from Game of Thrones. He grunted at me.

Netflix acquired The Oath in the wake of Trapped‘s success. Here’s hoping the service takes the same cue on Kormákur’s earlier Icelandic crime flicks, namely The Deep and Jar City.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 6.7

-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.”

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“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.

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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

Best of the Bleak: Eighteen Top Lesser-Known Crime, Thriller and Horror Netflix Instant Titles from 2014

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Consider this post a witches’ brew. The contents started as a liquid composed of every crime, thriller and horror feature on Netflix Instant. Then I cranked up the heat and gave it a year-long simmer, meticulously skimming away the fat and nasty bits. After that, I spent the next three months tasting and testing till I finally had a small saucepan of the darkest, most delectable demi-glace. I then took that shit and poured it over the finest unicorn liver and paired it with a nice barrel of chianti. And now… Dinner is served, cabrones!

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Bon appétit!

Wait. Did you catch all that?

Essentially what I’m saying is that I spent a year combing through Reddit subthreads, countless hours watching every imaginable film and series on Netflix Instant, and three months writing about my favorite lesser-known titles (along with the help of my partner-in-crime, Adam Fox). I’ve now condensed all this research into a list of 18 of the best horror, crime and thriller features that you may have not seen on Netflix Instant.

Are a few things missing? Sure. No list is definitive, and that’s what next year is for. But consider this a damn good menu, with every item coming highly recommended by the chef himself.

Here’s the list, graded and alphabetically ordered, with titles linking back to our initial long-form posts:

MOVIES
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Blue Ruin
blue ruinBittersweet revenge. That’s what Dwight (Macon Blair), a dumpster-diving hobo, is after when he hears the man who killed his parents is getting out of prison. Blue Ruin delivers as one of the most beautifully shot, darkly comical and poignant films of 2013. If you liked Shotgun Stories or are simply a fan of revenge and vigilante justice flicks, look no further. B+/A-

Fish Tank
fish tankA charming Irishman enters the life of a teenage breakdancer who lives with her drunk mom and foul-mouthed sister in the slums of East London. Michael Fassbender (pre-Magneto fame) provides one of his best ever performances as a boozy savior who seems too good to be true. This film creates a riveting wave of suspense, despite being the only title on this list devoid of much action or overt violence. A-

God Bless America
God Bless AmericaIdiocracy and the 1970 hippie-slaughter-fest Joe meet Network in Bobact Goldthwait’s blacker-than-black satire on American media culture and narcissism. Bill Murray’s brother, Joel, is phenomenal as an everyman who finally hits his breaking point and goes on a monstrous killing spree… inspired by human compassion. B+/A-

Gomorrah
gomorrahFucking hell, this is a bleak one. Director Matteo Garrone takes a page from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s book and intertwines four slum tales, using the gang-ridden streets of Naples as his canvas. Ranked by A.O. Scott as the sixth-best film of 2008, I’d highly recommend this to fans of Amores Perros and City of GodB+

Headhunters
Nikolaj Coster-WaldauThis fast-paced Norwegian thriller tells the story of an art thief who gets in over his head by stealing from a special ops manhunter. Said manhunter is Game of Thrones‘  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who brings all his kingslaying charm to what is perhaps the most throughly entertaining movie I watched all year. A-

In Bruges
in brugesLike I said, “mostly lesser-known” titles. If you haven’t seen Martin McDonagh’s brilliantly wry flick about a pair of hitmen (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) holidaying in the “fucking fairytale” town of Bruges, consider this a must-watch. For those who have seen it, I cannot urge you strongly enough to seek out The Guard, starring Brendan Gleeson as a Bad Lieutenant-esque Irish cop. (I’m quite eagerly anticipating director John Michael McDonagh’s follow-up, Calvary, which hits Netflix DVD queues on Jan. 6). A-

El Infierno
Joaquín CosioThe best lesser-known movie on Netflix Instant. Period. A Mexican man is deported back home from the States, only to find his nation in ruinous drug violence. So what does he do? Break bad and become a narco hitman, of course. Rarely is sociopolitical commentary as entertaining to watch as in director Luis Estrada’s masterpiece. My top recommendation on this list—which would explain why I wrote a fucking novella on it (see link). A

I Saw the Devil
i saw the devilI didn’t write about Oldboy because if you’re reading this, chances are you’ve seen it thirteen times. I Saw the Devil continues in the tradition of Park Chan-Wook’s gut-wrenchingly violent Vengeance Trilogy and is, with perhaps the exception of Oldboy, the best film made in the landscape of prolific gore-horror that is South Korean cinema. Alongside El Infierno and Tell No One, this rounds out my top three recommendations within this list. A-/A

Let the Right One In
let the right one inThis Swedish kiddie vampire tale makes Twilight look like Sesame Street. If for some reason you haven’t seen this, please do—it’s arguably one of the best horror movies ever made. A

The Man from Nowhere
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At what what point do I just give up and dedicate my entire blog to South Korean revenge movies? That’s a question this grim story of a mysterious Asian Jason Bourne putting his life on the line to save a young girl brings to mind. While not quite as devastatingly sinister as The Vengeance Trilogy, director Lee Jeong-beom’s 2010 flick is every bit as good—and much more action-packed. B+/A-

Stake Land
stake landAside from Let the Right One In, it could be argued that this devilish, little vampire road movie is the best bloodsucker flick since Dusk Till Dawn. It’s basically a much smarter, more artfully crafted and fully realized version of The Walking Dead. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of vamps, do me a fucking favor and skip that hipster trash that hipster critics are raving about, Only Lovers Left Alive. I consider Jim Jarmusch a god among directors, but that was his most pretentious bit of bullshit ever. On a more upbeat note, keep an eye out for the Iranian flick A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which I nominate for best horror-film title of 2014. As for Stake Land… A-

Tell No One
tell-no-oneMichael Caine named this 2006 French mystery thriller as one of the top ten movies ever made. While I don’t fully agree, I also wouldn’t call that hyperbole. This story—about a doctor who uncovers a secret about his dead wife—somehow manages the task of being both one of the most beautiful love stories and most action-packed thrillers in recent memory. One of my top three picks on this list. A

The Taking of Deborah Logan
the taking of deborah loganThe found-footage genre finds new life in this jump-out-your-seat scary flick about a lady with Alzheimer’s who becomes possessed by demonic forces. While my smug, Masshole co-writer Adam Fox may disagree, I’d easily call this one of the best horror movies of 2014. B+/A-

You’re Next
You're nextAn Australian survivalist chick winds up at the dinner party from hell as a cast and crew of mumblecore jag-offs redeem themselves by creating one of the best slasher films in years. If there was any justice in this world, Dwight Twilley would win an Oscar for “Looking for the Magic”—which director Adam Wingard uses immaculately here.  B+/A-

SERIES
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Black Mirror
jessica brown findlay sings in black mirrorDid I just give a shout-out to Adam Fox? He’s the guy who’s been writing up Black Mirror for this here site. Charlie Brooker’s series of seven (so far) unrelated stories is a menacingly bleak futuristic take on technology, dystopia and human fallibility. So far we’ve posted on Fifteen Million Merits (B+), a glimpse of what happens when The Running Man meets American Idol in hell; and The National Anthem (A-), which deals with a British prime minister deciding whether he should follow through on a terrorist threat to fuck a pig.

Happy Valley
blogIf you haven’t watched Happy Valley yet, perhaps it’s for some of the same reasons that it took me so long to get around to it: The marquee image on Netflix displays an unknown, middle-aged actress in a British cop uniform. Meanwhile, there are several other British series plastered on the same page containing well-known actors in their prime, like Idris Elba, Cillian Murphy and Benedict Cumbertwat. So why should you choose Happy Valley, a show about a small-town detective who gets involved in a high-stakes kidnapping case? Let the record state that I am not comparing it to Breaking Bad… but it is the best show I’ve seen since the best show ever made ended. That’s why. A

The Fall: Season One
The FallThe Fall is perhaps one of the most intelligent cop shows on TV this side of True Detective, and now that Rust and Marty are out of the picture, Gillian Anderson’s lead as icy investigator Stella Gibson is perhaps the best character in the genre. The only downfall of this first season—which trails a sadistic Belfast serial killer—is that it left us with an asshole of a cliffhanger. Quit dicking around, BBC—deliver the goods! A-

Peaky Blinders: Season One
peaky blinders“When you walk through the garden…”. That was the line that Tom Waits opened episodes of The Wire with. “Take a little walk to the other side of the tracks” is the line Nick Cave opens Peaky Blinders with, and his “Red Right Hand” is the best intro song to any show since David Simon’s deservedly heralded series. There’s also a lot of other awesome shit happening here, like Cillian Murphy—as the leader of a Birmingham street gang—slashing people’s faces with razor-embedded scally caps. Blinders isn’t the most highbrow fare, but its first season is one of the most entertaining pieces of television I’ve seen in years. The second season falls a little short, but that’s another story for another time. A-

-Sam Adams

NOTE: A big year-end thanks to everyone who’s patronized this site, commented on it and given their support over the past three months. It means the fucking world. Also, a huge thanks to my man Adam Fox for helping me keep the ship afloat. We’ve got much more in store for 2015!

The Slum Kids Aren’t Alright: Fish Tank and Gomorrah on Netflix Instant

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On one hand, Americans are usually complete prudes when it comes to addressing vulgar adolescent behavior in film (Larry Clark movies not withstanding). On the other, Europeans seem to have no issue depicting teenagers in all manner of lude acts. When Blue Is the Warmest Color wasn’t busy being a great film, it was essentially a lesbian scissor-porno. And Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac saga, Alfonso Cuarón’sY tu mamá también and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers had enough teenage fucking to rival a sleepover party at R. Kelly’s house.

Foreign filmmakers also don’t shy away from adolescent violence. For every We Need to Talk About Kevin, one can easily counter with a handful of fantastic subtitled flicks. Amores Perros, La Haine and City of God immediately come to mind.

Most of these films take place in gritty, urban slums. So if Finding Forrester doesn’t really cut it for you as a coming-of-age classic, allow me to recommend two unfiltered and unforgettable Netflix Instant titles that make Spring Breakers look like High School Musical.

Fish Tank
Fish Tank kids smoking
Like the brilliant 1995 French indie hit La Haine, Fish Tank depicts European slum life set to the beat of bass-heavy American hip-hop. I must admit it’s a bit comical to see a bunch of anglo Brits with their Britty tea-and-crumpets accents vicariously living life to the tune of Nas, Gang Starr and Yung Joc (not to mention some great non-hip-hop in the form of Gregory Isaacs and Bobby Womack).

Of course there’s nothing new about this—white Brits (like most whites) have a long tradition of appropriating black music and culture. Perhaps I just think Amy Winehouse came from a more sincere place than, say, a corner kid in Marc Ecko who looks like Eminem but talks like Harry Potter.

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This about sums up how seriously I can take white British gangstas

To be fair, our 15-year-old protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis in a breakthrough performance) in no way comes across as a poser. In terms of being street-tough, she makes Drake look like Oliver Twist. (The film opens with a great scene where, in true British fashion, Mia breaks another girl’s nose with a football-hooligan-inspired headbutt.)

Fish Tank head butt

“Oi!”

Mia is a b-girl who plays classic hip-hop on her cassette player and break dances in vacant tower apartments as a way to escape her shitty existence. She’s a loner and a bit of a tough cookie—or as her foul-mouthed, chain-smoking younger sister, Tyler, would describe her, a “cuntface.” As for Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), she’s terrific as the anti-Abigal Breslin—consider her “Little Miss Moonshine.”

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Mia: Drinkin’ beer and smokin’ dope and fightin’ round the world!

If 10-year-olds dropping “C bombs” and drinking and smoking seem unnerving, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Mia and her sister live in a beatdown East London flat with their hot mess of a mom (Kierston Wareing). Mommy’s chief concerns seem to be nursing her hangovers, drinking, men and throwing white-trash reggae parties. The kids can pretty much fuck off.

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Bad, bad mommy…

One morning while gyrating in the kitchen to a Ja Rule video, Mia is walked in on by a handsome, shirtless Irishman. Mommy’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), is charming as all get out. “You dance like a black. that’s a compliment,” he says in his jovial brogue.

Fassbender Fish Tank

“Top ‘o the mornin’.”

Connor takes the family on fishing trips. He introduces them to soul music (see an amazing use of Bobby Womack’s “California Dreamin'”). He’s essentially the first decent thing to walk into their life in a longtime. Or so it would seem.

But wait. Let’s talk about Fassbender for a minute. Fish Tank was made before he was Magneto; before he got an Oscar nod for 12 Years a Slave. It’s fun watching a great actor at work in the days before he hit the big-time, and Fassbender’s work here is right on par with what I’d consider his two best performances: a hunger-striking IRA man in Hunger and a sex-addict in Shame. Speaking of Shame (which I highly recommend), if you found that bleak, just wait till you get toward the end of Fish Tank

sleazy fassbender fish tank

Does it get any sleazier?

As for the film’s drawbacks, there’s this slightly annoying, blunt metaphor in the form a sick horse that Mia finds in a desolate parking lot. I won’t even get into the heavy-handed symbolism—just consider it that magical fucking plastic bag that was flying around in American Beauty. Yeah, yeah, you’re artsy—we get it.

When it comes to strange scenarios involving horses in gritty, urban landscapes, personally I prefer whatever the fuck this music video has going on:

Fish Tank isn’t a perfect movie (the coming-of-age stuff gets a little sappy), but its view into slum life in East London is incredible in the most unsettling of ways. It’s also driven by two unforgettable performances (Jarvis, Fassbender), not to mention some strong side roles. And it’s a testament to the fact that a killer suspense flick can be made without much of anything in the way of action or bloodshed. Simply put, it’s just a brilliantly disturbing little film.

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 7.3

Gomorrah
gommorah

It’s not the bloodshed. The thing that makes Gomorrah (2008)—a nonfiction-based tale about the disastrous societal effects of feuding Neapolitan gangs—most difficult to watch is the undercurrent of doom that pervades the entire film. If there is a moment in Gomorrah where it looks like things are trending toward uplifting, I must have missed it.

The film opens with a page straight out of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher Trilogy. A group of gold-adorned, Speedo-clad gangsters bask in the neon glow of tanning beds as atmospheric Euro-pop thumps in the background. Then a bloodbath ensues.

Gomorrah

“GTL, baby.”

Winding Refn’s work isn’t the only thing that comes to mind throughout the course of this deathfest. To say that director Matteo Garrone borrows heavily from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s pre-Birdman works (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) would be an understatement. Like much of Iñárritu’s résumé, Gomorrah is harrowingly bleak, and consists of a series of interwoven narratives following a cast of characters all playing out different roles in the same hellscape.

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It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…

Perhaps the most poignant of these stories is the one of Marco and Sweet Pea, a pair of teenage gangster-wannabes. Deluded by what I referred to in a previous post as the “Scarface Effect,” Marco struts around in Hawaiian shirts yelling, “I’m number one.  Tony Montana! … Shit Colombians. They’re everywhere!” Of course, all of this is taking place in the slums of Naples, where the closest Marco and Sweetpea come to Colombia is through the diluted cocaine they pilfer off a group of petty drug dealers.

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Tony Montana                                     Bony Montana 

As Marco and Sweetpea score a big bag of blow and stumble on a cache of machine guns and grenade launchers, their delusions of grandeur only become wilder. They have the tools of their fictional heroes, but they’re still just kids acting out a fantasy—and a very dangerous one at that. The most memorable scene in Gomorrah shows the pair blasting AKs and heavy artillery on the banks of a river, clad in tight, Euro underwear.

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Walter White would be proud.

Other story lines in the film follow a masterful tailor who attempts to profit from covertly working for Chinese competitors; a grocery boy who gets caught in a blood war and must choose allegiances; a young man who works for a morally reprehensible businessman who disposes of toxic waste in deadly fashion; and a skittish, gangland accountant who distributes payoff cash to the slum-living families of incarcerated gangsters.

gomorrah

Don Ciro, the sketchy payoff guy

The prevailing theme is that each character in Gomorrah has a shot at monetary gain, but said monetary gain is always at the expense of bloodletting. For those who choose to profit, death is right around the corner. For those who don’t, hopeless poverty is the reward.

With all this bleak, unrewarding depression in mind, one might ask why in the hell I’m recommending this film. Fair enough.

Like Iñárritu’s Biutiful, Gomorrah isn’t exactly “fun” to watch. (Although, unlike Biutiful, viewing it does not induce one to seek out a Prozac prescription.) In the same vein as Amores Perros and City of God, Gomorrah portrays a brutally graphic and honest depiction of a drug-driven, gangland culture and its inherent casualties. Like those aforementioned gems, Gomorrah is the kind of cautionary tale that is realistic enough—and so unsettlingly bleak—that it reminds viewers why, just maybe, aspiring to be the next Scarface is a pretty stupid fucking idea.

Would this have been the same movie without the inspiration of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Nicolas Winding Refn? Probably not. But if you like the stark depravity those two directors seem bent on, Gomorrah is a welcome addition to the canon.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.0

-Sam Adams

NOTE: Of the laundry list of titles referenced in this post, City of God, Amores Perros, Y tu mamá también, Blue Is the Warmest Color and Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II are all on Netflix Instant.

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

BBC crime shows
Standard

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