Netflix Series Review: Mindhunter Season One

Now that the second season of Mindhunter is finally out, I thought it appropriate to finally get my review of the first season up. Slight spoilers for season one ahead.

Mindhunter follows the development of the FBI’s theories and practices around identifying criminal psychology and profiling. In the first season agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench team up with psychologist Wendy Carr to study imprisoned serial killers and apply the knowledge they gain to ongoing and future cases.

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It has taken me a long time to digest my thoughts and feelings on this show. I honestly can’t remember when I started watching it (I want to say March? Maybe February?), or when I actually finished the first season. What I did know immediately was that I really liked the show. I’m a David Fincher fan and there is so much of his style in the first season. As an executive producer, and director of several episodes (including the pilot and the finale), it makes sense that his artistry would be a big influence.

I think his touch is most noticeable in the way tension is built throughout the series. There is a deliberately slow pace to the episodes, and scenes are often drawn out uncomfortably long. Sometimes this was a little heavy handed, and took away from its intended effect by drawing attention to how long it was taking to setup a particular story element. Most of the time though it had just the right impact, making a character or scene feel creepier just by letting things sit in the moment.

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Of course, it helps when a director has a great cast to work with, and everyone on the first season of Mindhunter is outstanding. I have been a fan of Holt McCallany ever since his CSI: Miami days, which I watched religiously for a time. He has always been a strong supporting presence and it was great to see him get a chance to shine in a larger role. He is the perfect no nonsense, straight man to Jonathan Groff’s eagerly enthusiastic Agent Ford.

Groff, of course, is a standout for his portrayal of the younger agent. He is perfectly disaffected by the things they are hearing and learning in the interviews, and it isn’t until the end of the season, as he starts to have a panic attack at the realization that he has more in common with these killers than his coworkers, that he starts to worry about this emotional disengagement.

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Now forgive me but it took me incredibly too long to figure out that Anna Torv was not Cate Blanchett. Torv looks very much like the other actress and they both are incredibly talented so you can see why the confusion would occur. Torv as Wendy Carr is the clinical cog in this serial killer study machine. She, as an FBI outsider brings the scholarly aspect to the study. She may be just as emotionally removed from things as Agent Ford but that is because she comes from a scientific background. She also doesn’t interact with the interview subjects so I’m interested to see if that changes in season two, and if so how her attitude adjusts as a result.

A show about serial killers obviously needs some of them around, and the casting directors did an amazing job filling these roles. The most memorable of them being Cameron Britton as Ed Kemper (the co-ed killer). His Emmy nomination was well deserved. He is creepy the entire time.

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As for the structure of the show, it is essentially a procedural format. The agents go to a town, give their lecture, and help the locals investigate a crime while interviewing the closest serial killer. The monotony is broken up by personal dramas and the effort to get funding and support for the project at the FBI.

Mindhunter season one is a moody investigation of criminal behavior, how it was viewed four decades ago, and the actors involved in shifting that viewpoint towards what we know today. The world was changing in the late 1970s and suddenly there were new trends appearing in crime and people didn’t know how to react. The show does a great job of immersing its viewers in the world of 1977 and reveals what a scary place and time it was to be. Great performances, excellent writing, and near perfect direction give the episodes an ominous feeling throughout, building tension all season until the audience feels like they too are having a panic attack alongside Agent Ford at the end.

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Netflix Movie Review: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

An interesting take on the Ted Bundy story, this was well acted and effective in its tone and messaging. Rather than focus on the crimes, this film is all about the trial and events surrounding Bundy’s captures. There is more emphasis put on the impact of these events on his girlfriend. This shift in focus allows for heartier performances from the two leads, Zac Efron and Lily Collins.

Both Efron and Collins give good, solid performances. Collins can sometimes lean toward the melodramatic but she is convincing as the emotionally abused, naive Liz Kendall. It is Efron, however, that steals every scene he is in. Obviously he is the focus of the film but he deserves the credit. He is egotistical but charming, and he is incredibly delusional. Efron fully immersed himself in this role, and the result is a captivating performance that carries the film.

While the performances are good, the pacing doesn’t always work. Whereas The Deliberate Stranger did a thorough if not necessarily exciting job of laying out a detailed timeline of Bundy’s attacks, this film jumps around to try and hit certain “highlights,” so to speak. It plays more with style rather than paying detailed attention to accuracy. As such, it is an interesting experience in entertainment but not as any sort of historical commentary. The editing choices were also a bit odd at times. Again, I think this was a style choice that ended up making some things a bit hard to follow, if not pretty or interesting to look at.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the film are the reactions from people during Bundy’s trial, and his “celebrity” status. The film doesn’t shy away from casting Efron as Bundy in a good light but it also makes a point to contrast his charming personality with the violence of his behavior. Thus when his fans show up at the trial, they are not presented in a flattering manner.

Despite some pacing and editing issues, as a performance piece, and commentary on murder obsession culture, I thought the film was effective and insightful.

Netflix Movie Review: The Highwaymen

Finally sat down to watch this a few months ago and really enjoyed it. I can’t believe Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson never worked together before. Their chemistry was great, and one of the best things about the film.

This, of course, tells the story of the two lawmen that eventually tracked down and killed Bonnie and Clyde. It follows both of them as they come out of retirement, and piece together when and how to catch the infamous duo.

The movie looked fantastic, which is almost a negative thing because I didn’t get a chance to see this in theaters. I know it had a limited release but I never saw any showings for it, and thus was stuck watching it on my TV at home. So, while it looked good, I bet it would have looked even better on a bigger screen. This is one of my frustrations with Netflix films.

The story was told in an intriguing fashion, with the messaging and deeper themes well established without beating you over the head. This film definitely has an opinion on the celebrity status of the two criminals, and I think there were a couple of effective moments that drive that point home. One choice made was that the reveal of Bonnie and Clyde only happens at the end of the film. By not showing them earlier, the message about destructive criminal celebrity is made more effective. The film aims to not glorify them the way history has. These two were killers, and many people try to make them out to be Robin Hood type characters when they weren’t. This film, rather than glorify their violent history turns the lens quite literally on their victims, and the viciousness of their crimes.

The film is rather long. It meanders frequently, and although I mentioned it looks great, we do get maybe one too many wide shots of open country. Sometimes the slow pacing allows for a a bit of character development and a good performance piece but it definitely could have chopped off fifteen to twenty minutes.

Overall, this was a solid film. It’s low on action, strong on story and performances. Under lesser performers the film would have felt dragged down due to the deliberate pacing. It is thanks to Harrelson and Costner, who are heavy weights more than capable of carrying this film, that it works as well as it does.

Netflix Movie Review: The Autopsy of Jane Doe

I really wanted this to be great. I’d been anticipating it for years before it finally came to Netflix, and I’m a fan of Emile Hirsch, so I was excited to see him in something again.

The film starts with the discovery of a body in a house where there was obviously some sort of attack. As the police investigate the crime scene, they send the body of the unknown girl (now a Jane Doe) to the coroner for a full autopsy. Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch play a father-son duo who own this small family mortuary, and now are tasked with performing the operation just as a big storm is about to hit the town.

The setup is great. The vibe is creepy, we get locked into our main location quickly, and the chemistry between Cox and Hirsch feels genuine. The first third of the movie was actually pretty good. You get thrown into the story without too much exposition, which adds to the creep factor because you aren’t really sure what is going on. Then, about halfway into the film spooky things start happening and the film decides it needs to explain why. The rest of the film is an info dump of theory that doesn’t feel earned as there hasn’t been any evidence laid out to support it before the characters start jumping to conclusions about what it all means.

Unfortunately, what is a great setup for a film does not always result in a great execution. There were some effective visuals and some creepy scenes but sadly, the film falls flat in the second half. By the end you don’t remember what worked at the start of the film because you’re just left with a feeling that everything ties together a little too conveniently without really making any sense at all.

Netflix Movie Review: Velvet Buzzsaw

It’s been so long since I actually watched this that I’m a bit fuzzy on the details. Essentially the film is a sort of horror comedy about the modern art world. It follows a cast of characters that all at some point interact with the artwork of a recently deceased man. As they begin passing off the artist’s work as another’s they start experiencing strange things. I won’t say too much about what they see and what happens to them except that there is definitely something supernatural amiss.

I enjoyed the film very much. It was creepy in the right places and built tension effectively throughout. It was also really funny. The filmmakers had much to say on modern art, and its people, and neither came out looking very good. Pretty much everyone you meet in the film is a despicable human being, and seeing them get their comeuppance was gratifying.

The cinematography and production design were both gorgeous. It’s hard to make museums look bad. This presented an interesting contrast in themes that I thought was very successfully executed. The gorgeous, clean look of a museum contrasts brilliantly with the ugly, terrible acts and personalities of our main players.

Velvet Buzzsaw was a freaky, fun ride made up of beautiful images, and a cast of highly unlikable characters who get their just desserts in creative and gruesome ways.

Netflix Movie Review: Roma

Finally saw Roma this past weekend. I’ll be honest, I only watched it because it was nominated. I had no interest in it outside of that aspect of its appeal. I have been pretty good at viewing all of the best picture nominees the last few years thanks to the AMC Best Picture Showcase. Unfortunately due to the nature of the film’s release (it’s a Netflix movie that had the limited run in independent theaters required to be considered by the Academy) AMC is not featuring it in its lineup for the BPS. So, I watched it in its intended environment: streaming on my TV with a basic home audio setup.

For the first twenty minutes of the film (better known as the opening credits) I thought there was an issue with my stereo. The audio is very quiet and it was only at the end of the film, when the preview for the next Netflix film started and that audio nearly blew out my speakers, that I realized how low the audio for this film was. I guess I could have just turned the volume off since I was reading the subtitles anyway and still had trouble hearing any of the other audio. Although then I would have missed the appearance of a song from Jesus Christ Superstar, which was my favorite moment in the film.

As to the story, the film centers on a year in the life of a live-in maid in Mexico City in the early 70s. Beyond that setup there isn’t much structure to the story. There are some seemingly pivotal events that happen in this woman’s life but there isn’t a frame of reference for how influential these events will end up being. I found the characters all fairly bland and the pace of the film excruciatingly slow. I paused the film at one point (because you can do that with a streaming service, and interrupt the flow of the experience) and actually cursed out loud when I realized I wasn’t even an hour into it.

I think the film looks fine. Some people have praised its Cinematography but I found the contrast too low, and didn’t feel like the look of the film was that unique or exciting. Maybe my thoughts would have been different if I’d seen it on an actual theater screen and could see the details.

Overall I thought the film was fine, if only as a mediocre viewing experience. I didn’t hate it but I also didn’t see anything “Best Picture” worthy in it. I think my biggest complaint is one that many people have echoed. This to me is a TV movie. It was released on a streaming service and wasn’t made widely available for theatrical release. As such, it’s viewing is going to be dependent on the quality of setup for each person that watches it. I mentioned the audio and look of the movie, both of which I had issues with that might not have been problematic in a theater setting. If the Oscars are for the best films of the year, what distinguishes films from television-based content if not the release platforms of the pieces? I think a great film should transcend the viewing platform issues but I also think that movies made for theatrical releases should be seen in a theater because there often is something extra added to the experience. As many times as I’ve seen Jaws, I always love seeing it with a live audience and surround sound. Watching it at home on blu ray is nice but it’s not the same as seeing an entire theater jump and scream at a forty-four year old movie. I still don’t think Roma would have been a great film had I seen it in a theater but I would have been less bothered by its nomination. As for its current inclusion, I think it sets a precedent for future considerations that will inevitably push the accolades for, and maybe even the art of, good filmmaking farther from the original intent of the craft.

Netflix Series Review: The Haunting of Hill House

Though I have never read the Shirley Jackson novel, The Haunting of Hill House, I have enjoyed watching adaptations of it throughout the years, the most successful of which being the 1963 film The Haunting. I have always been a fan of the horror genre, appreciating how, regardless of the quality of the film, it is the one genre that will always elicit a response. Comedy is subjective, and drama doesn’t always move you but even a bad horror movie will have one or two good scares.

Over the years I have become more discerning in what I see as a successful, and satisfying horror viewing experience. Sometimes it can just be a film that truly gives you the creeps but my favorite kind of horror films are the ones that pose bigger philosophical questions, and set about answering them by building tension through a slow burn plot and well developed characters. That is exactly what The Haunting of Hill House does.

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Clearly as a television series it has an advantage at being able to set a slow pace but this can also be to its detriment if the creators aren’t smart about the pacing. Thankfully, Hill House does a very nice job of breaking its story into ten fifty-ish minute chapters. The first half of the season is essentially broken up by character with the first five episodes focusing on each of the five siblings involved in the story. Over the course of these episodes we learn that this family lived in the legendary Hill House, that there was some dark tragedy that occurred, and that lasting psychological effects have plagued each of them into adulthood.

This first batch of episodes follows a classic horror narrative with its focus on the past haunted house story and other supernatural elements. It has the most horror style conventions, with the slow camera pans to the right or left to reveal something from the shadows, and the sudden cuts that result in good jump scares. Each of these scares feels earned thanks to the constant tension that is built throughout each episode and the season as a whole. Additionally, because we get to spend one whole episode with each of the main characters, when the second half of the season starts, we feel more attached and invested in the outcome. Learning how each sibling interacted with the house when they were children, and how they have coped with what they experienced adds a deeper layer to what horrors lay ahead.

Episode 6, “Two Storms,” may be my favorite of the series. It stands as the transition between the individual storylines, and what will be the final, family intwined storyline. It is the culmination of all of these egos and personalities, all performed beautifully by the cast, that we have been getting to know coming together to finally spark something. It also provides some wonderful flashbacks that add both to the dark mood but also the idea that this family used to be a tight unit, and that the house, both then and now, is determined to drive them apart.

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After that episode turn we get into the meat of the larger story and what this house is really capable of. This is where the true appeal of the show for me began to be revealed. This entire time the story has been laying the groundwork for its deeper themes of family unity and mental illness. There is the idea of a family that works together is stronger and we see again and again that when two members of the family are working in partnership, the supernatural elements are not as successful in their scheming. On the other hand, there is also the idea that family member idiosyncrasies may be genetic. Each of the characters has been dealing with some sort of post-traumatic stress but it is the introduction of the thought that maybe some of their issues have been inherited that we see a more meaningful thread in the story.

Horror films that play with reality versus the imagined can be very tricky. There is a fine line to walk in both trying to lend credibility to the idea of supernatural events while providing just enough doubt to suggest that they are simply imagined. Many films botch this portion of the story and fall too heavily on one side, fumbling in the end to provide an ambiguous enough answer to that more philosophical question of “What was real?” Hill House handles this balancing act by not addressing the question directly. There are characters that readily admit to having some sort of mental illness, and the question is never if they imagined it all. As Dumbledore would say to them, “Of course it is happening inside your head … but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” It is how they learn to live with it in a world that rejects the idea of the fantastical that really matters.

At the end of the series I was both scared, of the horrors in this house and for these characters I had come to care about, and sad. I had been so caught up in the horror philosophy of the show that I hadn’t noticed the impact of the drama portion of the story. It had been stitched in throughout and though there had been some obvious plot points, generally the feeling it evoked had been a subtle presence, revealing itself at the end to be the true heart of the story.

I watched this series more than a month ago now but it has really stuck with me. I have had some vivid dreams thanks to the creep factor of the show but more than that I have been mulling over those other elements of the story, family and reality. Specifically, how your connection to your family can sometimes seem like a different reality than the one other people live in, and how that can be both wonderful and terrible at the same time. I love a good scary movie/show but even more I love one that keeps me thinking days and weeks later, and that is exactly what The Haunting of Hill House has done.