La Mante

Carole Bouquet

Here’s the reason you might want to watch the French crime series La Mante, now streaming on Netflix: Carole Bouquet. Who, you may rightly ask? I had only vague memories of her as a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only in 1981. But she’s worked steadily in France over the years, and in La Mante (French for The Mantis, as in praying mantis), she plays an imprisoned serial killer who agrees to help her estranged son, a cop, catch a murderer who is copying her methods. Bouquet is riveting.

The Mantis was active 25 years prior in the series’ narrative, killing men who were guilty of despicable behavior. Her father and son have had nothing to do with her since she was captured and incarcerated. As he works with her to solve the copycat murders, her son uncovers secrets about his family’s past. Bouquet is, by turns, calm, devious, clever, calculating, ice-cold, and heartbreaking. In 1990, she won the French equivalent of the Oscar, a César Award, for best actress for her role in Too Beautiful for You, which I’ll now want to watch.

There are scenes that are not for the faint of heart (Stephen King lauded the series on Twitter, saying it “is surveying previously unexplored realms of gruesomeness”), so if you’re like me, have a pillow handy to hide behind from time to time. (Just like in the header photo for this blog! If you’ve wondered about that photo, the explanation is in my first blog post.)

Advertisements

Requiem

Requiem

I’m still on a British and European kick with my Netflix viewing, and one of my recent favorites is a British series called Requiem. It combines elements of both a ghost story and a thriller, and while it can be a bit over-the-top and implausible here and there, I found it quite compelling overall.

It stars Lydia Wilson as Matilda Grey, a professional cellist whose life is upended when her mother commits suicide right in front of her. Photos and newspaper clippings Matilda finds among her mother’s possessions spark questions about Matilda’s past and her true identity. The series is set in Wales — lovely and atmospheric — and has a haunting score that features an organ, of all things. Should sound cheesy, but it really works.

The series is not overly gory, and if you enjoy supernatural chills, it’s got plenty. It even incorporates some actual history in the form of references to an Englishman named John Dee, who was a mathematician, alchemist, astrologer, dabbler in the occult, and an adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. My only real problem with the series was Lydia Wilson’s hair — she’s wearing either a bad blonde wig or a bad blonde haircut with bangs that are just too short. I hope for her sake that it was a wig.

Meredith: Waste of a question. Ask again.

Requiem

Wild Wild Country

 

Wild-Wild-Country-1261058
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers in India. Photo: Netflix.

One of my guilty pleasures is the true crime documentary, and some excellent examples of the genre recently have been Making a Murderer, The Keepers, and Wormwood (all streaming on Netflix). Wild Wild Country is not true crime per se; it’s more a historical documentary series, but there are certainly some crimes mixed in with the history. It is absolutely fascinating. Although the fairly shocking events that form the series’ focus happened in my lifetime, in the early 1980s, I don’t remember hearing a thing about them. I’ll chalk that up to being a self-absorbed teenager who wasn’t paying attention to anything outside her own life yet. If you, too, were alive but oblivious — or if you’re too young to have heard the story of the Rolls Royce guru and his followers — do yourself a favor: stay away from Google and set aside some viewing time.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was an Indian guru who had started an ashram in Poona, India, in the 1970s. After running afoul of Indian authorities, he moved his operation to rural Oregon. There, with the help of his fearless right-hand woman, a force of nature named Ma Anand Sheela, his movement attracted more followers, built a city, and managed to get involved in power struggles over land use and autonomy that escalated to the point where the feds got interested.

I’ll leave the recap there, because I don’t want to give any spoilers. The series has its drawbacks: if you want context about Rajneesh and his movement, you’ll need to consult the Internet, but do so after watching. The series tries very hard not to play favorites or cast anyone as the villain — a choice that’s commendable for its objectivity, but perhaps a bit irresponsible. I’ll let you decide.

And Caleb Blood, if you’re reading this: I think the music is really good. It’s by someone named Brocker Way. Check it out.

Ma Anand Sheela: I have been accused of a laundry list of heinous crimes — of course, all of them attempted. Normally, I succeed in what I do. That is a joke.

— Wild Wild Country

The Germans Are Coming, the Germans Are Coming! (And the French)

DARK

I don’t know what’s in the water over in Germany these days, but they’re cranking out some great television. I’ve recently enjoyed both Dark and Babylon Berlin on Netflix, and I’m looking forward to Deutschland 83 on Netflix discsAnother recent favorite, also on Netflix, is The Chalet, a French mystery/thriller.

Dark is a mind-bending tale of a German town where children keep disappearing. Yes, the series does employ that time-honored sci-fi trope, time travel, but the filmmakers use it to create a compelling story that builds suspense as you try to figure out the twisted relationships between four families in the town.

Babylon Berlin grabs you right away with a trippy opening-credits sequence and arresting music. It’s set in the Berlin of the wild and woolly Weimar Republic, between the world wars, and follows the misadventures of police inspector Gereon Rath and his resourceful sidekick, Charlotte Ritter. Based on novels that strive for historical accuracy, the series is the most expensive non-English-language TV drama series yet, costing nearly $40 million. It’s a riveting mystery/drama with wonderful performances.

You do need to suspend disbelief to enjoy The Chalet — think too hard about the plot and you’ll notice the implausible bits. (Actually, you need to do that to some extent with all three of these shows. Good thing my disbelief is easily suspended.) In The Chalet, a group of friends reunite at a chalet in a remote town in the French Alps for a summer wedding. Before long, it becomes clear that they’re being hunted, one by one, and we learn of the town’s dark secret.

Fritz: Mass executions are a legitimate tool of the revolution. Expropriation, too, by the way.

Otto: Says who? Hitler?

Fritz: Lenin.

Babylon Berlin

I, Tonya

 

I, Tonya 30WEST FILMS smaller
30WEST FILMS

The makers of the Tonya Harding biopic/dark comedy, I, Tonya, want to have it both ways: they want us to sympathize with these characters while laughing at them. They’re mostly successful, and I did enjoy the film. The soundtrack, featuring music from the 1980s and ’90s, was a nostalgia-trip bonus. Allison Janney won several awards, including the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, for her portrayal of Tonya’s hard-as-nails mother, LaVona. She does an excellent job, but the part doesn’t require that much of her, other than being a world-class meanie. It’s mostly a one-note performance. (Frances McDormand won the Best Actress Oscar for her role as another world-class meanie in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Is there something about our national zeitgeist that has us loving women who curse like sailors and take no prisoners?)

Tonya Harding: I was loved for a minute, then I was hated. Then I was just a punch line.

I, Tonya

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

I’m writing this on Saturday, March 3, the day before the Academy Awards, so I don’t know yet if Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will win the Best Picture Oscar. Because of the way Academy voters vote on the Best Picture nominees (they use instant-runoff voting — FiveThirtyEight.com has a good explanation), the award will go to the film preferred by the broadest swath of Academy voters. I hear that a number of people think Three Billboards is socially relevant and thus deserving. I can’t say I agree.

Since its release, the film has gone from being the darling of the festival circuit, to the winner of a number of pre-Oscars awards, to the target of a backlash. I had high hopes when I went to see it, because I really admire Frances McDormand’s work, but the movie is deeply flawed.

McDormand, it must be said, does a fearless job; she is a force of nature. Her character, Mildred Hayes, has bought three billboards outside the small fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri, in an attempt to shame the police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), into solving her daughter’s brutal rape and murder seven months earlier. Sam Rockwell plays a racist cop under Willoughby’s command. Mayhem ensues.

I won’t detail much more of the plot than that, as I don’t want to reveal any spoilers for those who haven’t seen it and plan to. But I can state my general objections:

— The fundamental problem is that, as Wesley Morris put it so well in the New York Times, “Ebbing is as real a place as Narnia.” The screenwriter and director, Martin McDonagh, is an Irish playwright who has turned to filmmaking in recent years (In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths). Evidently some actual police-shaming billboards he saw some years ago while traveling through the American South were the inspiration for his film. But he either doesn’t really know the American South, or he’s not interested in creating a real depiction of it. The few African-American characters are thinly-drawn stereotypes, and the moral redemption of Rockwell’s racist cop is implausible and unearned.

— In both his plays and his films, McDonagh loves to employ pitch-black comedy, violence, and profanity. Of these three, I find the profanity is the hardest to stomach. It’s hard to believe that there are people who curse virtually non-stop — even when speaking to their young daughters. The overuse of vulgarity seems intended to shock, a juvenile impulse, and the overall effect is that of someone repeatedly giving your face a light slap.

— In her courage, single-mindedness, and utter indifference to what anyone thinks of her, McDormand’s Mildred makes a fine feminist icon. Unfortunately, by resorting to two instances of that perennial Hollywood favorite, the older man-younger woman relationship, McDonagh undermines whatever message about female rage and empowerment the film might be trying to convey. Woody Harrelson is 56; his character’s wife is played by Abbie Cornish, a fetching Australian actress of 35. The huge age gap is never explained (and neither are we told how an Australian wound up married to a police chief in the middle of nowhere, Missouri). The second relationship features Mildred’s ex-husband, the craggy-looking and abusive Charlie (an underused John Hawkes). Hawkes is 58, and Penelope, the lovely but dim young woman he’s left Mildred for, is played by Samara Weaving (also an Australian, but she uses an American accent here), who is 26, but her character is supposed to be 19. The fact that we’re supposed to accept these totally implausible pairings is irritating in the extreme, and a distraction from the story.

— Peter Dinklage plays James, a friend of Mildred’s, and the film pokes fun at his character, continually referring to him as “the midget.” Poor Dinklage is wasted in a thankless role that seems to exist merely to provide an opportunity for McDonagh to revel in rebelling against political correctness.

— One last gripe: what is up with Mildred’s ugly coveralls that she wears for nearly the entire film? Did the costume designer have it in for Frances McDormand? They’re unflattering and unfashionable, so why she wears them is absolutely mystifying.

For a smart and more complete summation of the issues with Three Billboards, I invite you to read Wesley Morris’ cogent piece in The New York Times. As for the Academy Awards: Frances McDormand is completely entitled to the Best Actress Oscar, if she wins it. But her film, if it wins for Best Picture, will be stealing an award that should have gone to one of the other contenders.

Charlie: Like Penelope said, all this anger, man, it just begets greater anger.

James: Penelope said “begets”?

— Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Why I Think You Should Watch the Original ‘Murder on the Orient Express’

It’s been a few months since Kenneth Branagh’s version of Murder on the Orient Express (based on the novel by Agatha Christie) was released, but I hadn’t started this blog yet, so I wasn’t able to fulminate in written form about the many things that film got wrong, and advocate for seeing the original instead, except to a few lucky friends and colleagues. So now’s my chance! Grab a cup of tea and settle in.

My mother and sisters took me to see the original Murder on the Orient Express (1974) at the venerable Century Theatres in South Salt Lake — not the new cinema, but the old ones, the goofy space-age-inspired dome theaters. (I love that the photo below has It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on the marquee. I remember being taken to see that wacky little gem as a kid as well, although since it came out in 1963 — before I was born — it must have been in re-release.)

Century Theatres dome

The original Murder was directed by the masterful Sidney Lumet, and it featured what the DVD case’s tagline accurately calls “the Who’s Who in the Whodunnit”: Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, and more. In the role of Hercule Poirot is the surprising choice of Albert Finney: surprising because he was a slim chap in his 30s and had to be padded and made up to look like the older, more rotund Poirot. It’s an amazing transformation, and a mesmerizing performance. He is still the definitive Poirot in my book (closely followed by the excellent David Suchet on PBS).

Which brings us to Kenneth Branagh. I often like his work, both as an actor and a director, and he wears both hats for his 2017 version of Murder. I’m still not sure what he was thinking with this portrayal of Christie’s famous Belgian detective. He looks nothing like Poirot: he is slim where he should be portly, silver-haired where he should be dark, and sports a gigantic mustache that seems to be unprecedented in the annals of male grooming. He does nail the accent, of course, as any actor trained in the rigorous English tradition would. But he can’t help but suffer in comparison to Finney. Finney’s Poirot is self-confident without being a show-off, fastidious without being effete. Branagh’s Poirot is smart, but also pretentious, sentimental, and much too athletic. (Poirot in a foot chase with a suspect? Seriously?)

The tone of Branagh’s film is needlessly dark and self-important. The original film is delightfully light and even funny, with the exception of the opening sequence, an eerie montage laying out the kidnapping case that forms the crux of the story. I found the sequence frightening as a child, and I realized later that was in large part because of the effectively chilling music. The score for the entire film is wonderful, and the composer, Richard Rodney Bennett, was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award. (The movie was nominated for six Oscars; one was won, by Ingrid Bergman for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. I feel it would have won more if it hadn’t been up against things like The Godfather Part II and Chinatown.)

A digression: here’s one of my favorite examples of how fundamental music and editing are to filmmaking. It’s a happy version of the trailer for The Shining.

Anyway, there you have it. I admit to having a sentimental attachment to this version of Murder on the Orient Express; it was a favorite of my parents, and I have fond memories of watching it with them on our huge, clunky Betamax video machine (my dad was always an early adopter when it came to technology). Please seek it out and watch it if you like mysteries.

Foscarelli: Hey, what are you reading, Mister Beddoes?

Beddoes: I am reading “Love’s Captive,” by Mrs. Arabella Richardson.

Foscarelli: Is it about sex?

Beddoes: No, it’s about 10:30, Mister Foscarelli.

— Murder on the Orient Express