What I thought about: Cruel Summer (t/w: grooming)

I don’t think I’ve ever been more shocked, stunned, and disappointed in a season finale cliffhanger than the one in this show. And now you get to watch me review it without spoiling it for you.

How did Kate Wallis end up here? The truth may shock you.

What’s it about?
In 1993, Jeanette Turner is living her best, if slightly nerdy and unpopular, teenage life. By 1995, she’s one of the most hated people in America. What went wrong? We actually find out quite early on: In late 1993 the popular, pretty, and wealthy Kate Wallis goes missing – kidnapped, in fact, by the principal at her school, Martin Harris. When she’s eventually rescued towards the end of 1994, she accuses Jeanette of having seen her chained up in Martin’s basement, locking eyes with her before walking away without alerting anyone.

Each episode in the series looks at a significant event in the characters’ lives which, due to the circumstances, plays out differently in each of 1993, 1994, and 1995. In 1993, Jeanette is on a mission to up her coolness by competing with her friends to complete a list of challenges (mostly petty crimes and pranks). But in 1994, she’s a totally different person, filling the void that the now-kidnapped Kate left behind. Literally – she has Kate’s friends and even her boyfriend. And things are going well. In 1995, however, Kate’s allegations against Jeanette have reverberated around the nation, ruined her relationships with friends and family, leaving her fighting to tell the truth in court.

What do I like about it?
Props have to go to the actors, Chiara Aurelia (Jeanette) and Olivia Holt (Kate) – it must have been challenging to convey three different personalities and they do it so well. You might think Jeanette’s change from nerd to popular girl is a sharp contrast, but if you look closer, you will see that she was developing her confidence in lying early on in 1993, still displays an element of self-doubt in 1994, and only drops her lip quiver in 1995.

I also think the show handles the topic of grooming pretty well, although I’m no medical expert in this area. Kate wasn’t especially vulnerable – she had friends, she was well liked, she even had a boyfriend! And, as the show carefully conveys, the kidnapping wasn’t anywhere near as violent as you might think. All of that culminates in a very disturbing penultimate episode dedicated to the time Kate spent trapped in Martin’s house. I actively squirmed throughout that one.

What do I not like about it?
The timeline can actually be really hard to follow – it often felt like we were really only guided by Jeanette’s completely different hairstyles in each year, and the harshly-done desaturated and darkened filter placed on the 1995 scenes. Even with these, it can be difficult to know where you are – the 1994 scenes include a mix of pre and post-rescue of Kate, and the narrative style shows the same event (and therefore the same setting) happening across three different years.

I am also really fucking disappointed in the ending, but I haven’t worked out if that’s because it’s so good or because I hate the writers for it.

Worth a watch?
It’s a bit of a slog at 10 hours, but if the premise interests you then I think you will find this quite a deep and captivating show. Give it more than the first episode, too, as it starts off slow.

By the way…

  • There are side plots in this show but none of them are particularly relevant, which added to my confusion when watching.
  • Olivia Holt was cast as a replacement for Mika Abdalla. I don’t know why, but Olivia was a great choice so there’s no complaints from me.

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Quickfire round: Yes, God, Yes

I really didn’t get this film. A sexually curious girl attending a strict catholic school navigates a challenging few days at its Kirkos retreat, and discovers that basically everyone is a hypocrite.

A common reaction to the contents of an internet chat room

That’s it. Like, that’s the movie. It’s basically any other coming-of-age film except slower and daintier. The acting was fine, but I just don’t see how it garnered the critical praise it did. Maybe I’m not American (or Christian) enough to understand what makes this such a great watch.

So, a bit more plot. Our main character is Alice, and she’s kinda lonely. She has a best friend, but relationships with others at her school are tense because she’s been accused of sneaking off with someone else’s boyfriend to toss the salad. She doesn’t know what that means, and neither did I before I googled it (suggestion: do not google it).

It’s the summer of 2000, which means beige CRT monitors, AOL, and public chatrooms. Alice asks the chatroom for their wisdom and in return they bombard her with ‘A/S/L?’ and various other sexual advances. Confused and alone, she decides to sign up to the school’s Kirkos retreat, a 3-day residential ran by Father Murphy. Honestly, the retreat is total bullshit. Alice is asked to fill in a questionnaire about her ‘feelings’, which get scrutinised towards the end of the retreat if they are a little too sexually freeing.

Alice soon discovers this for herself as she sees the camp mentors engaging in sexual activity (outside of marriage: oh the horror!) and even Father Murphy himself viewing an adult video on the office computer.

This is all fair enough, but it’s also very pedestrian. I don’t even think the turning point in the film, where Alice runs away from the retreat and tries to get served at a roadside bar, was any good at all. All of a sudden, with the words of a complete stranger, she learns to have a different outlook on life? Okay.

But, like I said, I probably just didn’t get it. Perhaps there are metaphors in here that make more sense if you’re a Catholic Christian who went through the same sort of things. As it stands, I am none of those things and so this mostly felt like a waste of time.

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What I thought about: The Queen’s Gambit

Simply beautiful. This mesmerising tale of a female chess champion, set in the 50s and 60s, is a sheer wonder of storytelling, acting, and cinematography. And I say this as someone who has never much cared for chess.

I have never looked this lovingly at a chess board

What’s it about?
Beth Harmon, mere days into her time at a Christian orphanage following the suicide of her depressed mother, is sent to the basement to clean the board erasers, having finished her Maths test before anyone else. Sitting in a corner of the room is Mr Shaibel, the custodian (janitor), quietly playing a game of chess against himself. Curious, she one day approaches him and asks to play. ‘Girls do not play chess’, he says. ‘I already know some of the rules’, she retorts, and recites them perfectly – not from a book, but from her memory, pieced together from having observed Shaibel play day after day. He offers her a seat at the table.

The Queen’s Gambit follows Beth (has there even been a strong female lead stronger than Beth Harmon?) as she climbs her way up the ranks to becoming a world chess champion, while battling with substance abuse that began with her time in the orphanage. Can she avoid the destructive tendencies of her biological mother, and manage not to succumb to the temptations of alcohol and pills? It’ll take you seven roughly hour-long episodes to find out, but it’s absolutely worth it.

What do I like about it?
Too much to fit into this review, because every area of the show deserves an honourable mention. The set design (this is the 50s and 60s, remember) was brilliant. The musical score (particularly when playing via surround sound) is perfect and genuinely added a new dimension to the show. Major props also go to whoever was responsible for changing Beth’s look as she grew from 15 (pretending to be 13, so she would be more appealing to adoptive parents) all the way to her mid-20s. They actually did the transition between child actress Isla Johnston and Anya Taylor-Joy so smoothly that I had to squint to notice the difference in Taylor-Joy’s first scene.

Perhaps what I liked most about the show was how it never resorted to cheap tricks to keep me engaged. Beth gets a little bullied at school, and she suffers a bit of a shock in Las Vegas, but all of it felt appropriate. By not distracting me with sudden disaster, I floated through the story and appreciated every single scene, all the way up to the gripping finale.

What do I not like about it?
I don’t know if I just didn’t get it, but I’m really not sure what the whole thing was with Beth’s love interest, D.L. Townes. I said earlier how the show doesn’t get in your face about what’s happening on screen, but I’d have appreciated a little more explanation here.

Worth a watch?
Yes and, if you love chess, you might just explode.

By the way…

  • Netflix made it very clear this is a one-off Limited Series and I agree – don’t make a sequel. But please make more of whatever kind of show this is.
  • Yes the kid from Love Actually is in it and no I did not appreciate the moustache.

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What I thought about: Ratched

Offering a look into the life of Mildred Ratched before she began her tyrannical reign as Head Nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the excellent production values and superb acting went a long way to mask this show’s otherwise quite disappointing plot.

Who knew Mildred Ratched had some compassion in her? Well, enough to protest against boiling someone alive I suppose

What’s it about?
Have you read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Or seen the 1975 film adaptation? No, me neither. But you don’t really have to, as this is advertised as a prequel / origin story. The season starts with Ratched talking herself into a role at a Californian mental hospital, headed up by Dr. Hannover, a Filipino pioneer of mental health treatment. Ratched is up to no good, and we soon discover why.

But we also discover so much more, as the show recalls of some of the most horrific ‘treatments’ given out at mental hospitals in the late 1940s including hydrotherapy (forcibly bathing someone in scaldingly hot water and then immediately dunking them into an ice bath) and, of course, the lobotomy. We also get a look at the period’s views on homosexuality and the death penalty (oh how wild it is to see that we have advanced mental health care so much since then, and yet some states in the US are still so incredibly regressive in the use of state-sanctioned killing).

What do I like about it?
The visuals. The music. The acting. This is just such a delightful show to watch. Mildred drives a bright turquoise car in a sea of black ones. She has dark red hair and great fashion sense. Dr. Hannover is an eccentric maverick, yet underneath his often aggressive exterior lies a delicate man who genuinely wants to cure people of their mental ills. Every character is portrayed in a way that is ever so slightly over the top. Enough to create a sort of candied view of the story that somehow comforted me through what were some truly grisly scenes of murder, death, and suffering.

What do I not like about it?
Sitting back and taking it all in after the first episode, I have to agree with what many professional critics have said about the show. The plot… is not great. Characters show up out of the blue in unconvincing ways and often with a dramatic effect on the story that just isn’t believable. There are moments that are painfully slow, particularly as the show tries to provide some context to Ratched’s life – her work and family history, and her struggle with sexuality. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have seen those in the show – it is, after all, an origin story – but somehow the writing just didn’t pan out.

Worth a watch?
It’s still a yes from me. Especially if you can watch on a Dolby Vision-supported TV, because the cinematography is truly stunning. Watch the trailer first and be forewarned that the show contains some grisly scenes of violence.

By the way…

  • Netflix ordered two seasons in one go, so Ratched will be back soon.
  • A cursory glance at the plot of the book reveals many an inspiration for the events occurring in this prequel story – just different characters at different times.

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What I thought about: Criminal (UK) (Season 2)

I couldn’t wait to get started on the second season of this gripping police interview drama. It’s a testament to the quality of acting in this show that I remained captivated for the entire runtime despite all the action taking place between a few actors in a small room.

It’s not all finger-wagging, I promise.

What’s it about?
A special unit of the police (we assume in London), practice unorthodox interview techniques in order to tease out a confession or some other crucial information from their subjects. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the CIA, there’s no waterboarding, it’s purely psychological. Things like padding a medical examiner’s report with blank paper and slamming it down on the table to make it seem important. Playing good cop bad cop. Selectively choosing who asks what question. These all add up to mount pressure on the subject and get them to give in.

This season includes Kit Harrington (accused of rape) and Kunal Nayyar (convicted but suspected of a second murder) among a pair of slightly lesser-known actors for a total of four episodes, one more than last time.

What do I like about it?
The acting is incredible, as indeed its has to be. Armed with viewer’s foresight (for we know that something is going to happen due to the nature of the show), you can really appreciate the skilful writing and acting. The team pick up on a fairly obvious moment in episode one, where the interviewee Julia (not a suspect!) launches into a mini tirade and yells out about facts that only the killer would know. But there was something much more subtle earlier on. She asks if her husband (convicted murderer, and suspect of a second murder) had been charged for the it. “Not yet”, comes Detective Constable Vanessa Warren’s reply. Julia lets out a deep sigh and puts her hands to her face. “When will it end?” she says, ostensibly referring to the misery of being married to a murderer.

Now, why would she do that? If she was innocent, I’d argue the response would be more like ‘oh’, or the question wouldn’t even be asked. What she’s doing is checking in on the investigation into the second murder, to see if she’s gotten away with it. When she learns he hasn’t been charged, it means she’s still at a degree of risk. The fact that this is acted out, but is never referred to again for the rest of the episode, demonstrates the show’s the attention to detail. Detail that’s necessary to make such a slow burning, single-room drama so gripping.

What do I not like about it?
Why are the police staff so limp outside the interview room? Inside, they are powerful and cunning, and have a way with words that makes even the most hardened criminal slowly crumble. But outside it – in the corridors of the station – they buy drinks from vending machines and throw little paper balls into tiny bins, letting out a depressive sigh when they inevitably miss. I’m not sure I get what the writers are going for here.

Also, as a lawyer myself, I can’t help but question the way the solicitors – who are sometimes also present in the room – just sit back and let the police’s line of questioning happen. They do speak up at times (they’re not totally silent!) but you just know that if this were real the solicitor would be reading out a statement and advising their client to reply with ‘no comment’.

Worth a watch?
You have to appreciate that it is literally just people talking in a room. Sit through absolutely any episode in the first or second season – they’re all good – and if you liked it, carry on. If you didn’t, it’s probably not for you.

By the way…

  • The first season launched simultaneously with editions in France, Germany, and Spain, all with their own plots and local actors…
  • …But the UK show was the only one to be renewed for a second season.

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