Saturday, 28 January 2017


Released in 2012 by Sky Atlantic, Hit & Miss is a six-part series starring Chloe Sevigny as Mia, a transgender hit woman who discovers she has a son from a previous relationship. With her former lover dead from cancer, Mia discovers she has been designated as the guardian of her four children. The show chronicles Mia's attempts to balance her career with her new responsibilities.

This show is like an indie movie extended over six episodes. It is a testament to the writing and direction that it never feels dragged out or too concise.

What is most interesting is the show's tone.

The assassination sequences are spare and vaguely surreal -- they are reminiscent of sequences from Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog, Seijun Suzuki's Branded to Kill or Irving Lerner's Murder by Contract. On the other hand, the scenes with Mia and the family feel like something out of a British kitchen sink drama.

Somehow it all fits together elegantly. What could have been a hodgepodge of different genres and tones instead feels like a complete whole. The show operates almost like a fairytale in terms of its logic, and yet it feels weirdly grounded

Mia's gender never feels like a gimmick or a eccentric add-on. Neither is it foregrounded in an obvious or exploitative way. What's refreshing is how matter-of-fact the portrayal is. There are scenes of  nudity, but they are treated in a rather straightforward fashion. There is no dancing around with Mia's body, but there is no emphasis or sensationalism to the way it is portrayed. It is one of the best examples of the show's focus on extremely functional story-telling.

This is true of the series' more disturbing elements. Running alongside Mia's storyline, the relationship between her (unofficial) step-daughter Riley (Karla Crome) and local farmer/shit head John (perennial heavy Vincent Regan) is played out in an unflinching manner that manages to avoid descending into feeling exploitative.

Acting by the entire cast is great. Chloe Sevigny underplays her role, dodging the potential of turning Mia into some kind of super heroic other, and turns Mia into a vulnerable, empathetic head of the family.

Overall, Hit & Miss is a really unique and engrossing watch. It's a singular experience -- I've never seen anything quite like it, and it is highly unlikely there will be anything else like it on TV again. And considering just how good TV is nowadays, that is saying something.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

THE LEVEL Episode Five & Six review

Now THAT is how you end a season!

The story gets tied up, but ends in a place that feels like a natural extension of the tone and theme of the show-world. This is a dark, ambiguous place where people act selfishly and get away with it, or act on principle and get punished. 

It's been a couple of days since the show ended here in NZ (and months since it aired in the UK), so I'm not going to dwell on plot analysis. 

Here's a rambling run-through of general thoughts:
  1. I still cannot believe my prediction about Darryl (Lorne MacFayden) was correct. I liked the way his story played out -- he's just another damaged soul that Frank dragged into his orbit.
  2. I loved the not-happy ending between Nancy (Karla Crome) and Gunner (Noel Clarke). It was a bit of redemptive moment for her, and it also stopped the show from going full-on into a romantic clinch the show had not earned. And Gunner walking away was great -- he's the only character who remains on The Level.
  3. The final scene between Nancy and Hayley (Laura Haddock) is a great misdirect. Like the scene with Gunner, at first you are led to believe the scene is going a specific way: fed a line of BS by her mother, Hayley has become her gormless lapdog --  and then pulls the rug out. She wants to help Nancy bring her mother down, essentially as an undercover agent inside her own family. It redeems Hayley, who has been led astray throughout the series, while also setting out a new path for the story which is rife with possibilities, not all of them good. If this is the end of the series, it is wonderfully ambiguous. If not, it's a great cliffhanger for Season 2.

Final point: After watching this show, I am buying a seat on the Crome train (or is it the Crome-mobile?). She is the heart of this show, and a great spin on the noir fall guy. Nancy is strong but not a badass, smart but capable of big fuck-ups -- in summary, a complex human protagonist in a genre that is not known for depth.  

I've taken a look at her filmography and I'm going to take a look at reviewing some of her other work (Hit & Miss, Misfits). Watch this space.

THE LEVEL Episode Three

THE LEVEL Episode Four

Thursday, 19 January 2017

THE LEVEL Episode Four review

Man, Episode Three was revelation city:
  1. Nancy is Frank's daughter
  2. Gunner might not be the bad guy Nancy/we thought he was
  3. Kevin is up to no good
Episode Four marks more major dramatic shifts. The filmmakers engage in a little more slight-of-hand with Kevin, by having him get Nancy out of trouble for breaking into Gunner's apartment. For a few minutes, the filmmakers keep us suspended in a state of confusion over his motivations.

Now there is another mystery to solve -- a missing truck containing Frank's 'goldmine', whatever that is. Fearing more leaks, Nancy decides to go undercover as a crooked cop to keep tabs on Frank's sleazy competitor Duncan Elliot (Geoff Bell).

And then the filmmakers drop the sucker punch, revealing that Kevin is bent and working for Elliot. This show is now spinning so many plates, it's rather impressive.

In a nice tie-in, there is time for Nancy to have a reckoning with her dad over her true parentage. It's an interesting contradiction for Crome to play -- for someone so smart, Nancy is completely given over to backing Frank over the man that raised her. By the end of the episode, she's come to the realisation that Frank's blithe disregard for her when she was growing up is not worth defending -- the writers find a way to tie this shift in with Nancy's need to impress Elliot by starting a fire at Frank's business. A neat touch.

Man, this show just keeps getting better and better. The acting, the writing, and even the direction, are really strong (the use of foreground and background action in Episode Three's foot chase is -- with some adjustments -- worthy of a movie). This show is really on the level.

THE LEVEL Episode Three

THE LEVEL Episode Three review

This review contains spoilers.

Holy shit, what a great twist. The police have analysed the DNA from the bullet that hit Nancy, and found that half of it matched the dead man. Nancy is Frank's daughter! What makes it worse/better is watching that info hit her like a ton of bricks right in the middle of the police briefing. Brilliant.

Episode Three really cements why I love British and European TV dramas -- instead of dragging the story out for 18 or 22 episodes, we get six tight succinct episodes.

Speaking of which, before we get too far into the story, I feel pretty secure in who I think the killer is: I think it's nice guy Darryl (Lorne MacFayden). Frank's man Friday has popped up in previous episodes, and he seems pretty insulated to the family's shenanigans (pretty literal in Hayley's case). What makes me suspicious is that in the first episode, he was the subject of several extended cutaway shots in which he wasn't really a part of whatever scene was taking place. He had no dialogue, but the emphasis on the (then) nameless) character made me think the filmmakers were trying to pull a reveal ala the cook in The Hunt for the Red October.

  Frank's will has opened another potential can of worms, as Cherie finds herself at loggerheads with her son Tate (Cian Binchy) over the future of the trucking business. Usually characters with disabilities are either red herrings or the focus of saccharine subplots -- it looks like there might be something more interesting going on with Tate -- it will be interesting to see just how far Cherie is willing to go to cover up her husband's secrets.

Overall, a terrific episode that ends in a wonderfully nasty double-blind as Nancy realises someone close to her is not on The Level.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

THE LEVEL Episode Two review

The screws keep turning on DS Nancy Devlin (Karla Crome) in this episode. This episode is more expository, adding more background to the key players as she (and the viewer) figure out how they all fit into the big picture.

When a pharmacy security tape showing her buying medical supplies on the night of Frank Le Saux's murder goes missing, Nancy realises there is a mole inside the police. Her fears are compounded when a copy of the footage arrives on her desk.

Struggling to cope with her father's death (and Nancy's involvement in it), her childhood friend Hayley (Laura Haddock) is finding herself dragged deeper into the fallout from his mysterious (but increasingly dubious) business dealings. Especially when it becomes obvious that her mother Cherie (Amanda Burton) knows more than she is letting on...

And as if Nancy hasn't got enough to deal with, she is becoming more suspicious of her new partner Gunner (Noel Clarke), and his links to a past case involving her ne'er-do-well father. Could he be the mole?

The episode ends in a cat-and-mouse chase between Nancy and the killer through a closed factory, which climaxes with Nancy and her partner standing over another dead body.

Another terrific episode that adds more details to the characters' backstories while keeping the major revelations in the shadows, The Level is starting to feel like a really good crime novel. There are a few set piece moments, but the emphasis is largely on character. 

Crome remains a strong centre, but the rest of the cast are starting to come into their own. Downtown Abbey's Robert James-Collier is winsome as Nancy's friend-zoned NCD colleague Kevin O'Dowd. He adds a wry sense of humour that helps keep the show from straying to glum self-seriousness. 

Referring back to the previous review's focus on the show's basis in film noir, it's worth mentioning the Brighton locations -- they really add to the atmosphere of the show. The focus on the clash of old, rotting buildings with the cold modernity of the police station and the Le Saux house sums up The Level's focus on the sins of the past invading the present, which is where The Level's status as a neo-noir becomes more obvious.

It helps that Brighton has a history of being used as a backdrop for earlier British noirs (Brighton Rock, Mona Lisa), which add a (probably unintentional) intertextuality to the show.

Previous reviews

THE LEVEL Episode One

Sunday, 15 January 2017

THE LEVEL Episode One review

One of the joys of TV these days is getting to watch genres which have died out on the big screen. Though it trades in some of the post-Fincher stylings we've come to expect from TV thrillers, ITV's new series The Level is a dyed-in-the-wool film noir.

With its increasingly harried protagonist and its existential premise, The Level harkens back to the likes of DOA and The Big Clock, in which characters struggle against broader machinations they can barely comprehend.

Our heroine is Detective Sergeant Nancy Devlin (Karla Crome, Under the Dome, Misfits), a policewoman living a double life -- she is shielding a family friend with dubious business connections (such as drug trafficking). When he is murdered, she is put on the team investigating his death. The police found blood on a bullet that does not match the victim. Since no gunshot wounds have been reported at local hospitals, Nancy and her colleagues are tasked with locating this missing witness.

What they don't realise is that the witness they are looking for is Nancy. She is literally hunting for herself.

Using mail order drugs to (barely) keep on top of her wounded thigh, Nancy has to solve the case before her colleagues figure out hat's going on. That does not even take into account the fact that the killer is still out there, on their own mission to hunt down the witness before she squeals ...

A neat, tidy little intro to our key ensemble, this first episode is a solid start. There are some hoary patches of exposition, but other than that, the story-telling is solid. Within five minutes we have got a solid lock on Nancy's character and dual lives. We start with a scene at the National Police Unit, where she receives a medal for saving a fellow officer's life. Shortly after that, she is in a darkened wood talking to a businessman whose criminal dealings she has kept off police radar. No time wasted: He is shot, she is wounded and events quickly start spiralling out of control.

Having a premise as unique as The Level's gives it a leg up over a traditional mystery. With our heroine compromised, it adds another layer of tension -- the viewer is empathising with Nancy's attempts to cover her tracks, while also wondering how long it will take her colleagues to find out what's going. Nancy's bullet wound is a nice ticking clock that becomes more of an issue as the investigation progresses. As her evasions and off-book investigation begins to collide with the official one, the show goes from being merely diverting to actually interesting.

Karla Crome is really good in the lead. They don't try to make her a masculinised tough guy, and, without a lot of exposition, Crome manages humanise Nancy and make her relatable. Her sweaty, shifty performance is a delight -- the bent-but-noble cop is a template that has been utilised by many male actors (Denzel Washington, Michael Douglas etc), and it is refreshing to give such a potentially meaty role to a woman. Nancy is the most noirish component of the piece, a fall guy who thinks she has a handle on what is going on, but is quickly finding herself trapped in a series of circumstances she cannot control.

Overall, this is a solid pilot energised by an interesting cast of characters (Noel Clarke plays the suspicious local cop she partners with, and the always-great Gary Lewis turns up as Nancy's slovenly father) and the in-built tension of its great premise.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Belle (Amma Asante, 2013)

Inspired by historical events, Belle tells the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the daughter of an Afro-Carribean slave and an English naval officer. Taken back to England, Belle ends up in the care of her great uncle, a nobleman who also happens to be the Lord Chief Justice of England (Tom Wilkinson).

When her uncle becomes involved in a court case which could decide the legal status of the slave trade, Belle becomes involved in the fight to abolish slavery and fight for her own destiny against a world which has pre-decided her status in society.

Belle is an interesting film, for a couple of reasons. The first is that, while the film is based around real characters, the plot is not. Rather than bog the film down in the legal system of the times, the filmmakers base the movie around Belle's relationships with her family, and her developing relationship with the idealistic John Davinier (Sam Reid), the son of a local vicar who catalyses Belle's involvement in the Zong court case.   

As I've pointed out, there are flaws -- the pre-fabricated nature of the screen story does clunk at points, and the love story, despite the movie's marketing, feels a little short-changed. Our central couple come together though a montage, never a good sign, and when juxtaposed against the real tragedy of the Zong slaves, it comes off as a little lightweight.

What saves the movie is the performance of Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She manages to push over the more contrived emotional turns the character goes through, although there are many points where her performance is doing a better job than the (occasionally) didactic dialogue. Mbatha-Raw is the reason to watch this movie, and it is a great showcase for her as a lead performer.

She's been terrific in supporting roles (she saves Larry Crowne from being maudlin nonsense), and it is great to see her finally get her due. 2014's Beyond the Lights is another great showcase you should check out. I'll be reviewing that sometime this year.

Overall, Belle is a solid flick, buoyed by its leading lady's central performance.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Moana review

Demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) steals the heart of the goddess Te Whiti, intending to gift it to humanity. Without her heart, which has the power to create life, the world is beginning to die out. Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) is a young girl from the island of Motunui. The daughter of the village chief,  she yearns to go to sea, but is forbidden by her protective father. When the world's produce begins to die, threatening her people, Moana goes on a quest to find Maui and return Te Whiti's heart.

Moana is a really good movie. The characters are well drawn and while the story is fairly traditional (I've seen some people map the plot onto the Lord of the Rings), its the interplay between Moana and Maui which keeps the show moving.

As the title heroine, Cravalho is winsome. There are a few moments which ring false, and feel like a middle-aged writer trying to write neurosis into a teenage girl, but other than these few minor bumps, she's a strong character who makes for the most interesting Disney female leads since Mandy Moore's Rapunzel in Tangled.

Johnson is his usual dependable self as Maui. I read a bunch of books about Maui's various adventures, and it was fun to note the various nods to his escapades. While I cannot speak with any authority (the figure of Maui has several different iterations across Polynesia), there has clearly been an effort made to craft a version of the character that at least echoes the basic outline of the mythic figure.

As a cinematic character, Maui is a delight. For adults, he could be seen as a way in. The most meta character in the movie, Maui knows he's in a Disney movie, and is constantly throwing shade at the well-worn formula (particularly in his jibes about princesses, animal sidekicks and the dreaded musical numbers).

As far as the music goes, the songs are pretty good. I don't know if they are as ear-wormy as classic Disney flicks, but they're a solid collection of tunes. The most memorable track has to be 'We Know The Way', a rousing ode to Moana's sea-fearing ancestors.

What helped make my screening so much fun were the reactions of its intended audience, the kids. There was one kid in the row in front of me who provided a running commentary through every key beat. Notable soundbites include: "I think she's dreaming!", "That crab's scary!" and " Hahahaha! Again! Again!" (whenever Maui tries to throw Moana off the boat).

Young or old, Moana is definitely worth a watch.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Love in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder, 1957)

Despite its pedigree and name cast, Love in the Afternoon is one of the undiscovered gems of classic Hollywood.

Audrey Hepburn stars as Ariane, a sheltered young woman who is looking for some excitement in her boring, sheltered life. Her loving but controlling father Claude (Maurice Chevalier) is a detective who specialises in uncovering infidelity cases. Unbeknownst to him, Ariane spends her free time reading his files, and wishes she could have a romantic dalliance of her own.

An opportunity arises when Claude accepts a new assignment from a Monsieur X (John Irwin McGiver) who believes his wife is having an affair. The culprit turns out to be world class ladies man Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper), an individual that both Claude and Ariane are very familiar with.

Realising that Monsieur X intends to kill Flannagan, Ariane goes to his hotel and tips him off. Flannagan is intrigued by this mysterious stranger, a mystery Ariane stokes by using her father's cases to build a background of affairs to rival Flannagan's own. Intimidated, Flannagan believes he has finally met his match.

Meanwhile, Claude's suspicions are piqued and he eventually figures out what his daughter has been up to...

Love in the Afternoon would be a great romantic comedy, if it was not for one flaw: casting. Gary Cooper was a big star, famous for his understated and down-to-earth persona. And that's a problem. While his performance is perfectly fine, he lacks the continental sophistication to be believable as a cocksman (ironically, Cooper's personal life was not that far off his character's). Originally, Cary Grant was in the frame to play Frank, which would have made more sense

The other problem is his age. Cooper was pushing 60 at the time, but looks considerably older. Opposite the 20-something Hepburn (playing 18), it makes for an uneasy dynamic. Thanks to Wilder's sure touch and the strong script, this discrepancy is mitigated, but it's still there.

Other than that, Love in the Afternoon is a joy. Maurice Chevalier, a big Hollywood star in the 30s, steals every scene he is in as Claude, the Paris setting is well utilised and the script (by Wilder and frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond) sparkles with wit and a welcome dash of cynicism.  

The movie was intended as Wilder's homage to his mentor Ernst Lubitsch, and while it never quite reaches the same heights as Lubitsch's work, it remains an extremely deft, funny and (for Wilder) warm film about the idiocies and hypocrisies of romantic ettiequte.

Love in the Afternoon is not as great as the other Wilder-Hepburn joint, Sabrina, but it's damn good. Check it out, preferably with some bubbles and a box of chocolates.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

This Is The End review

To celebrate Inauguration Day, here's a review of the apocalyptic comedy This Is The End.

A group of popular Hollywood comedians gather for a party at James Franco's house. The Apocalypse happens. Michael Cera dies, and our heroes have to band together to try and survive the end of times.

Our main character is Jay Baruchal. He has come to LA to hang out with old friend Seth Rogen. Jay feels he is losing his best friend to that pretentious asshole James Franco. Seth convinces him to go to the party, which is where we meet the rest of our ensemble:

Jonah Hill plays an overly chipper, self-obsessed version of himself -- Jay is suspicious that it is just an act. Comedy MVP Craig Robinson is relatively sane by comparison, despite his predilection for drinking his own urine. The villain of the piece is Danny McBride. His descent from party animal to post-apocalyptic war lord is perfectly judged, and sums up the movie's overall vibe.

Despite the fact that it is a mainstream comedy, the movie (written and directed by Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg) doesn't stray from the darker aspects of their premise: people die, often in horrific ways; monsters stalk the chaos; and our heroes emerge as flawed people who as much a danger to themselves as each other.

The movie's been out for a while now, but I don't really want to give away spoilers.

There's a great homage to Rosemary's Baby, and plenty of celebrity cameos -- Michael Cera obliterates his squeaky clean image as a coke-n-sex freak; Channing Tatum is a sex slave; and Emma Watson has an axe.

For a debut, the direction is really good -- Rogen and Goldberg manage to balance the comic and the 'horror' elements pretty effectively. And while there is a bit of improv, the movie does not feel as bloated as most comedies post-Apatow.

This Is The End is a really good comedy, and a good start for Rogen and Goldberg as feature directors. With The Interview and Preacher on AMC, it is clear they are no flash in the pan.