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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What I thought about: Defending Jacob

Unusually dark when you consider Apple’s typically family friendly orientation, this slow-burn thriller is a different take on a murder mystery story. I’m just not convinced it’s a worthwhile one.

That moment when you have to have ‘the talk’ with your teenage son. No, not that one…

What’s it about?
Ben Rifkin, a teenager, is found murdered in the woods on his way to school. Leonard Patz, a registered sex offender living near the woods, is the obvious suspect. But as assistant district attorney Andy Barber struggles to get any hard evidence on him, another suspect crops up: his son, Jacob, who was in the same class as the victim and who also walks through the woods on the way to school. Before he knows it, police are swarming the family home and searching for the murder weapon. Convinced of his son’s innocence, and well and truly off the case, Andy fights to uncover the truth.

What follows is an oddly-paced unravelling of the story. Did Jacob do it? If so, why? How? We don’t find the answers to all of these questions.

What do I like about it?
It’s dark, and it’s not very violent. The slow pace is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it’s frustrating not watching something with the constant twists and turns we saw in something like The Stranger. On the other hand, smaller actions have more impact.

There’s a scene where Jacob’s mother Laurie goes shopping for groceries at the crack of dawn to avoid being spotted and harassed. She rounds the corner and bumps into the victim’s mother, Joan, who slowly approaches, zombie-like. “Joan…’ Laurie says, only to be cut off by Joan nastily spitting in her face before walking away. Both mothers were there to shop away from the gaze of strangers, either as the mother of a horrifically murdered son, or as the mother of the alleged murderer. If it was all action, I suppose we wouldn’t have thought anything of that scene.

What do I not like about it?
I can’t tell if the acting is terrible or really, really good. Jacob is a weird but plain kid. The way he looks at you is weird, he’s pretty quiet, and his mind is usually somewhere else. It gives off a creepy, sinister vibe. But at the same time, you can’t help but believe him when he says he’s innocent. So, maybe Jaeden Martell did exactly what the directors wanted him to do. Or maybe he’s a bad actor. I honestly can’t tell.

I also don’t like how many twists occur in the final two episodes. I think the pacing in murder mysteries is a tricky thing, and on this occasion they got it wrong, spending far too long setting the scene in the run up to the trial, and not enough on the last few pivotal moments.

Worth a watch?
Watch the trailer first and ask yourself if you have the patience to get through 6 hours of slow-burn before it all kicks off.

By the way…

  • Yes, that is Chris Evans of Captain America fame playing the father, Andy Barber.
  • Jacob’s actor starred in Knives Out as that little shit who’s always on his phone and WHO IS ALSO CALLED JACOB. I did not recognise him in this.

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What I thought about: Dare Me

Upon reflection, I’ve re-written this review. Dare Me is a confusing mess of teenage angst and suffering, but its redeeming features help make it bingeable, and I wonder if I’m just missing something about the plot.

Coach Collette and Lieutenant Addy being rather confrontational – I wonder what changed?

What’s it about?
Beth is captain of her school’s cheerleading squad, assisted by best friend and ‘lieutenant’, Addy, who loosely narrates the story. The squad’s new coach, Collette, dethrones Beth immediately (‘there are no captains in my squad’) and begins treating Beth’s half-sister, Tacy, with more than a little favouritism.

Addy wants a scholarship, and cheer squad is her path to it. She cosies up to Collette in the hopes of being guided to success, but it comes at the cost of alienating Beth. And then stuff gets really… weird. Collette seems to revel in the rift she is creating between Beth and Addy. She’s also using Addy to help her cheat on her husband.

What do I like about it?
The cast are very good. Beth, emotionally damaged by her adulterous father leaving her mother for a woman who literally lives across the street, harshly bullies Tacy (who sort of deserves it) and battles more than a few personal demons throughout the series. These emotions are captured brilliantly by actress Marlo Kelly.

Collette, played by Willa Fitzgerald, is a perfectly balanced mix of sweet and sour – she’s cute on secretive dates with her high-school flame, but puts on a ‘tough love’ attitude with the squad. She’s also, as we eventually discover, quite sinister.

The colourists have also done an excellent job, utilising the High Dynamic Range (HDR) format well and making the gritty scenes look, well, gritty.

What do I not like about it?
In one scene, Addy goes inside Collette’s house for the first time and she… strokes the bedsheets (‘1000 ply cotton’, Collette says) and lays down in the bed? Is it supposed to symbolise the ‘success’ that she too can achieve, if she follows in Collette’s footsteps?

There’s a lot about the plot which just seems quite weird and off-putting. You wonder why the characters are doing what they’re doing. But maybe that’s what the show is going for? We’re seeing into the destructive world of a teenage cheerleading squad, maybe that’s just how they are?

Worth a watch?
I was underwhelmed by the confusing nature of the plot and the disappointing ending, but I’ve reconsidered my earlier review in which I described it as ‘ten hours of my life I’m not getting back’.

By the way…

  • The show is based on a book that has a 3/5 rating on Amazon. That should serve as warning…
  • The show was cancelled by USA Network for poor ratings, despite receiving critical acclaim. The book’s author says the first season only got though half of it, so watch this space?

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What I thought about: Control Z

Is Mexican Netflix as good as Spanish Netflix? If this mystery drama is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Featuring an excellent lead actress and supporting cast, I devoured this show in less than 48 hours.

Look at them, phones out, ready to record today’s mishap. Over-use of mobiles is what got them into this mess…

What’s it about?
Sophia is a bit odd. She lost her father many years ago in a fire, and recently returned from a mental institution after an incident of self-harm. But she’s also a thinker, able to spot patterns in behaviour and notice the little details. When a hacker hijacks the school assembly to drop a truly explosive secret about one of her classmates, they all turn to her for help tracking the hacker down. Sophia needs to hurry up, though, as the hacker continues to either reveal more secrets or blackmail students into doing their bidding, including taunting Sophia.

The show was described by a much better writer than me as “Gossip Girl meets Mr. Robot, with just a touch of Sherlock Holmes”, and I couldn’t put it better myself.

What do I like about it?
It has a similar salacious energy that we’ve seen before in Elite. These kids have some pretty messed up secrets, and as they start coming out, there are some truly catastrophic consequences. But the show also takes the time to illustrate how the students – many of them rather stuck-up, self-absorbed, or outright bullies, are quite emotionally fragile underneath, and the incident changes them for the better. I also enjoyed seeing Sophia become more accepted by her classmates who used to whisper about her mental health issues.

What do I not like about it?
With the advent of streaming services, episodes no longer have to fit neatly into an ad-friendly running time. This show runs anywhere from 35 to 41 minutes. It’s strange, then, that it felt like some connecting scenes were missing at times, as if they had been cut. Characters would get close to boiling point in one scene, and then are completely calm in the next. I remember a scene where Raúl is looking for Sophia, literally going up to random students and asking them if they’d seen her. The very next scene shows Sophia walking together with Raúl and Javier. I suppose we are to assume he managed to track her down eventually? That these elements were missing does raise some concerns about the solidity of the show’s plot.

Worth a watch?
Yes, as long as you’re not expecting too much. I enjoyed this show and can’t wait for the confirmed second season, but I can’t give readers the same encouragement as I did for The Stranger, as it’s just not on the same level. The childishness of the school’s students and the aforementioned plot difficulties might annoy the more seasoned mystery fan.

By the way…

  • This is fifth foreign-language show I’ve seen this year, and in fact the third Spanish-language one. The beauty of Netflix’s Originals is their ability to push it out to their entire global subscriber base without international licensing woes. The consumer ultimately benefits – if you’re not watching foreign-language titles on Netflix, you’re seriously missing out.
  • NME gave it 2/5. I think that’s a bit harsh, but then again, I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy.

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Quickfire Round: Dangerous Lies

What was the point? Was that really as bad as it looked? Two questions I asked immediately upon seeing the end credits flash up on screen. Netflix do great TV shows, but it seems they have a long way to go for movies.

If I told you 2/3 people in this scene get shot in the last 5 minutes of the film, would you believe me?

Dangerous Lies is a mystery-thriller with one of the most unsatisfying endings I have ever seen. It begins with a cliché – a caregiver (Katie) unexpectedly inherits the estate of her employer (Leonard) after his sudden death. Her boyfriend (Adam), having been turned down for one to many graduate jobs, is a bit too keen to move in and start spending some of the late Leonard’s cash.

What follows is, until the final moments, a head-scratching, eery, mystery. Anonymous phone-calls. A dodgy realtor. A suspicious police detective. And an increasingly anxious Adam. But then it all just goes… bad? Threads are pulled together by way of extreme assumption and implication which is so far-fetched as to be wholly unsatisfying for any mystery fan. Some red herrings are left completely unresolved, surely a crime against mystery story-telling. This trail of disappointment culminates in a rushed ending where, and I don’t normally do spoilers in this blog but it seems apt here, three key characters are shot and killed in the space of a few minutes. Yeah – it just fell completely flat.

One thing I will give the movie credit for, although I’m not sure it deserves it as it’s probably unintentional, is the world-building. Each setting is distinct and over-the-top, which I feel helps add to the mystery and the viewer’s sense of unease. For example, the man running Katie’s care agency is portly and stereotypically old-fashioned – we see that in everything from his attire to his dusty old office. Yet, the movie is clearly set in the present as Katie has a modern smartphone. A pat on the back for the stage department, too, as the opening scene outside a diner features an appropriately excessive array of neon lights which dazzle brightly on a Dolby Vision-capable television.

Netflix films might have a fancy budget to help with production but they don’t appear to have the right scripts just yet. Give this one a miss – the trailer oversold it.

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