The Things You Find on Netflix: The Serpent (dir by Tom Shankland and Hans Herbots)


Some shows require a bit of patience on the part of the viewer and that’s certainly the case with The Serpent, an uneven but ultimately rewarding 8-episode British miniseries that can currently be viewed on Netflix.

The Serpent tells the true story of Charles Sobhraj (played by Tahar Rahim), a career criminal who spent the 70s smuggling diamonds and killing hippies. Living in Bangkok, Sobhraj and his two associates — his French-Canadian lover, Marie-Andree LeClerc (Jenna Coleman) and his henchman, Ajay (Amesh Edireweera) — preyed on travelers who had come to Asia in search of adventure and sometimes enlightenment. Using the name Alain, Sobhraj would befriend his victims and then drug them. When they were violently ill, he would nurse them back to health. He would also steal their money, use their passports, and he ultimately killed a huge number of them. Sobhraj was a serial killer but, unlike other serial killers, he didn’t kill for pleasure as much as he just killed because it was a part of his business. Sobhraj was also frequently described as being charming and witty, a sort of real-life Bond villain. When he was captured, he would inevitably find a way to escape. When he had finished serving his sentences, he would go to the media and give self-promoting interviews. Indeed, his need for notoriety would ultimately be his downfall.

It’s an interesting tale but it’s also not an easy one to break down into a collection of easy story beats. Sobhraj committed so many crimes and victimized so many different people in so many different countries that it’s hard to know where to ever start with him. The Serpent focuses on the time Sobhraj spent in Bangkok and the efforts of a Dutch diplomat named Herman (Billy Howle) and his wife, Angela (Ellie Bamber), to prove Sobhraj’s guilt and to bring some justice to his countless victims. Working with Herman and Angela are a cynical Belgian named Paul Seimons (Tim McInnerny) and, ultimately, Sorbhaj’s French neighbors, Nadine (Mathilde Warnier) and Remi (Grégoire Isvarine). Throughout the film, we get to know not only Sobhraj’s gang and the people investigating him but also Sobhraj’s victims, the majority of whom were just happy to see a seemingly helpful and friendly face in an unknown land.

As I said, The Serpent requires some patience. The show makes heavy use of flashbacks, continually going back and forth from Sobhraj first meeting his associates and his victims and Herman and Angela investigating his crimes months later. Especially during the first two episodes, it’s difficult to keep track of what’s happening in the past and what’s happening in the show’s present. As the series progresses it becomes easier to follow the plot and the show’s flashback structure actually starts to pay off. You find yourself watching the same scene a second or a third (or even a fourth time) but this time, you have new information and what once seemed odd or obscure suddenly makes terrifying sense. The show’s third episode — which deals with a French tourist (Fabien Frankel, giving a harrowing performance) who finds himself practically a prisoner of Sobhraj and his associates — is especially powerful and suspenseful. It’s the type of thing that will make you wonder about every time a stranger has ever offered to help you out. At its best, The Serpent is a hell of a paranoia generator.

The show divides it’s attention between Sobhraj and Herman. That Herman becomes obsessed with capturing Sobhraj and understanding his crimes is not surprising. That often happens to amateur sleuths. (Michelle McNamara’s self-destructive obsession with the Golden State Killer comes to mind.) Unfortunately, as played by Billy Howle, Herman comes across as being slightly unhinged before he even starts investigating the murders and, as such, we’re kind of left wondering whether it’s his obsession that’s destroying his career or just his own self-righteous personality. As for Tahar Rahim, it took me a few episodes to really appreciate his performance. At first, Rahim’s performance seemed almost too restrained for a character who was charismatic enough to fool an untold number of victims into trusting him. But, as the series progressed, I came to see that Rahim was essentially playing Sobhraj as being an empty but attractive vessel, someone upon whom his eventual victims could project their desires. For those who wanted a lover, Sobhraj projected charm and sensuality. For those who wanted a friend, Sobhraj projected compassion. But, ultimately, it was all projection because there was nothing going on underneath the surface. Sobhraj knew how to manipulate humans but he didn’t know to actually be one.

For me, the series was pretty much stolen by Jenna Coleman, Ellie Bamber, and Mathilde Warnier. Coleman, especially, does a good job of playing Marie-Andree. It’s easy to just say that Marie-Andree was brainwashed by Sobhraj but Coleman suggests that Marie-Andree knew exactly who and what Sobhraj was but chose to pretend otherwise because the glamorous fantasy of their life was preferable to the drab reality of her life back in Quebec. Mathilde Warnier is the story’s often unacknowledged hero, as she repeatedly puts her life in danger to find and photograph evidence of Sobhraj’s crimes. She’s at the center of the majority of The Serpent‘s most suspenseful moments. Ellie Bamber, meanwhile, brings Angela to likable life despite the fact that the script often seems to be trying to sabotage her by giving her some of the show’s worst lines. (In real life, Angela played as active a role in investigating Sobhraj as her husband. In the show, though, Angela is often just portrayed as being wearily supportive even as she worries about Herman’s growing obsession.)

That said, the heart of the show is with Sobhraj’s victims, all of whom are portrayed with more compassion and respect than one typically expects from a true crime series. All of them, from the American girl looking for one night of fun before becoming a nun to the Danish tourists who make the mistake of trusting Sobhraj and Marie-Andree, are portrayed with compassion. Your heart breaks for them and also for what their deaths represent. All of them are too trusting. All of them are, in the beginning, too naïve. All of them are looking for something more than what they had in the boring safety of their old lives. In the end, their murders represent the death of innocence.

As I said, The Serpent requires some patience but it’s ultimately more than worth watching.

The London Film Critics Circle Honors Nomadland


Even in London, they love Nomadland!

The London Film Critics Circle named their best of the year yesterday.  I imagine that this will have negligible influence on the Oscar race since some of the films honored have yet to be released in the States and some of the biggest Oscar contenders have yet to be released in the UK.  Still, I think it’s always interesting to see what films are being honored outside of the U.S.  Cinema is an international art form.

Here are the nominees and, in bold, the winners from London:

FILM OF THE YEAR
About Endlessness
Collective
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Lovers Rock
The Mauritanian
Minari
Nomadland
Promising Young Woman
Rocks
Saint Maud

FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM OF THE YEAR
About Endlessness
Another Round
Collective
Les Misérables
Minari

DOCUMENTARY OF THE YEAR
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Collective
Dick Johnson Is Dead
Time
The Truffle Hunters

BRITISH/IRISH FILM OF THE YEAR
The Father
Lovers Rock
Mangrove
Rocks
Saint Maud

DIRECTOR OF THE YEAR
David Fincher – Mank
Rose Glass – Saint Maud
Kevin Macdonald – The Mauritanian
Steve McQueen – Small Axe
Chloé Zhao – Nomadland

SCREENWRITER OF THE YEAR
Jack Fincher – Mank
Rose Glass – Saint Maud
Charlie Kaufman – I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Aaron Sorkin – The Trial of the Chicago 7
Chloé Zhao – Nomadland

ACTRESS OF THE YEAR
Morfydd Clark – Saint Maud
Viola Davis – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Vanessa Kirby – Pieces of a Woman
Frances McDormand – Nomadland
Carey Mulligan – Promising Young Woman

ACTOR OF THE YEAR
Riz Ahmed – Sound of Metal
Chadwick Boseman – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Anthony Hopkins – The Father
Delroy Lindo – Da 5 Bloods
Tahar Rahim – The Mauritanian

SUPPORTING ACTRESS OF THE YEAR
Maria Bakalova – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Ellen Burstyn – Pieces of a Woman
Essie Davis – Babyteeth
Jennifer Ehle – Saint Maud
Amanda Seyfried – Mank

SUPPORTING ACTOR OF THE YEAR
Sacha Baron Cohen – The Trial of the Chicago 7
Chadwick Boseman – Da 5 Bloods
Aldis Hodge – Clemency
Ben Mendelsohn – Babyteeth
Shaun Parkes – Mangrove

BRITISH/IRISH ACTRESS OF THE YEAR (for body of work)
Bukky Bakray – Rocks
Jessie Buckley – I’m Thinking of Ending Things & Misbehaviour
Morfydd Clark – Eternal Beauty & Saint Maud
Vanessa Kirby – Pieces of a Woman & The World to Come
Carey Mulligan – The Dig & Promising Young Woman

BRITISH/IRISH ACTOR OF THE YEAR (for body of work)
Riz Ahmed – Mogul Mowgli & Sound of Metal
Sacha Baron Cohen – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm & The Trial of the Chicago 7
John Boyega – Red, White and Blue
Anthony Hopkins – The Father
Cosmo Jarvis – Calm With Horses & Nocturnal

BREAKTHROUGH BRITISH/IRISH FILMMAKER
Henry Blake – County Lines
Fyzal Boulifa – Lynn + Lucy
Emerald Fennell – Promising Young Woman
Rose Glass – Saint Maud
Remi Weekes – His House

YOUNG BRITISH/IRISH PERFORMER
Kosar Ali – Rocks
Bukky Bakray – Rocks
Millie Bobby Brown – Enola Holmes
Conrad Khan – County Lines
Molly Windsor – Make Up

BRITISH/IRISH SHORT FILM
Filipiñana – Rafael Manuel, director
Hungry Joe – Paul Holbrook, director
Lizard – Akinola Davies Jr, director
The Long Goodbye – Aneil Karia, director
The Shift – Laura Carreira, director

TECHNICAL ACHIEVEMENT
Ammonite – Stéphane Fontaine, cinematography
Birds of Prey – Deborah Lamia Denaver & Adruitha Lee, makeup & hair
Lovers Rock – Mica Levi, music
Mank – Donald Graham Burt, production design
Nomadland – Joshua James Richards, cinematography
Rocks – Lucy Pardee, casting
Soul – Pete Docter, animation
Sound of Metal – Nicolas Becker, sound design
Tenet – Jennifer Lame, film editing
Wolfwalkers – Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart, animation

Here Are The 78th Annual Golden Globe Nominations!


I’m totally turned off by the self-importance of the Golden Globes and I resent every time that I have to write about them.

That said, despite the fact that no one is quite sure who actually votes for the damn things and stories of corruption in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association have been rampant for years, the Golden Globes have still emerged as one of the main Oscar precursors.  So, you kind of have to pay attention to them.  Bleh.

There really aren’t any huge shocks in the list of nominees below, with the exception of maybe Jared Leto for Best Supporting Actor and James Corden’s Prom nomination.  I mean, if you’re that determined to nominate someone for The Prom, why would you go for James Corden as opposed to Meryl Streep?  That’s just odd.

Anyway, here are the nominations:

Best Motion Picture, Drama
“The Father”
“Mank”
“Nomadland”
“Promising Young Woman”
“The Trial of the Chicago 7”

Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy
“Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
“Hamilton”
“Music”
“Palm Springs”
“The Prom”

Best Director, Motion Picture
Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman”
David Fincher, “Mank”
Regina King, “One Night In Miami”
Aaron Sorkin, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland”

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama
Viola Davis, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Andra Day, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”
Vanessa Kirby, “Pieces of a Woman”
Frances McDormand, “Nomadland”
Carey Mulligan, “Promising Young Woman”

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy
Maria Bakalova, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
Kate Hudson, “Music”
Michelle Pfeiffer, “French Exit”
Rosamund Pike, “I Care a Lot”
Anya Taylor-Joy, “Emma”

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in any Motion Picture
Glenn Close, “Hillbilly Elegy”
Olivia Colman, “The Father”
Jodie Foster, “The Mauritanian”
Amanda Seyfried, “Mank”
Helena Zengel, “News of the World”

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama
Riz Ahmed, “Sound of Metal”
Chadwick Boseman, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Anthony Hopkins, “The Father”
Gary Oldman, “Mank”
Tahar Rahim, “The Mauritanian”

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy
Sacha Baron Cohen, “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm”
James Corden, “The Prom”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Hamilton”
Dev Patel, “The Personal History of David Copperfield”
Andy Samberg, “Palm Springs”

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in any Motion Picture
Sacha Baron Cohen, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
Daniel Kaluuya, “Judas and the Black Messiah”
Jared Leto, “The Little Things”
Billy Murray, “On the Rocks”
Leslie Odom Jr., “One Night In Miami”

Best Screenplay, Motion Picture
Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman”
Jack Fincher, “Mank”
Aaron Sorkin, “The Trial of the Chicago 7”
Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton, “The Father”
Chloé Zhao, “Nomadland”

Best Original Score, Motion Picture
Alexandre Desplat, “The Midnight Sky”
Ludwig Göransson, “Tenet”
James Newton Howard, “News of the World”
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, “Mank”
Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste, “Soul”

Best Original Song, Motion Picture
“Fight For You,” Judas and the Black Messiah”
“Hear My Voice,” The Trial of the Chicago 7”
“Io Sì (Seen),” The Life Ahead”
“Speak Now,” One Night In Miami”
“Tigress & Tweed,” The United States Vs. Billie Holiday”

Best Motion Picture, Animated
“The Croods: A New Age”
“Onward”
“Over the Moon”
“Soul”
“Wolfwalkers”

Best Motion Picture, Foreign Language
“Another Round”
“La Llorona”
“The Life Ahead”
“Minari”
“Two Of Us”

Best Television Series, Drama
“The Crown”
“Lovecraft Country”
“The Mandalorian”
“Ozark”
“Ratched”

Best Television Series, Musical or Comedy
“Emily in Paris”
“The Flight Attendant”
“The Great”
“Schitt’s Creek”
“Ted Lasso”

Best Limited Series, Anthology Series or a Motion Picture made for Television
“Normal People”
“The Queen’s Gambit”
“Small Axe”
“The Undoing”
“Unorthodox”

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series, Drama
Olivia Colman, “The Crown”
Jodie Comer, “Killing Eve”
Emma Corrin, “The Crown”
Laura Linney, “Ozark”
Sarah Paulson, “Ratched”

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series, Musical or Comedy
Lily Collins, “Emily In Paris”
Kaley Cuoco, “The Flight Attendant”
Elle Fanning, “The Great”
Jane Levy, “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”
Catherine O’Hara, “Schitt’s Creek”

Best Performance by an Actress in a Limited Series, Anthology Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television
Cate Blanchett, “Mrs. America”
Daisy Edgar Jones, “Normal People”
Shira Haas, “Unorthodox”
Nicole Kidman, “The Undoing”
Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Queen’s Gambit”

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Supporting Role
Gillian Anderson, “The Crown”
Helena Bonham Carter, “The Crown”
Julia Garner, “Ozark”
Annie Murphy, “Schitt’s Creek”
Cynthia Nixon, “Ratched”

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series, Drama
Jason Bateman, “Ozark”
Josh O’Connor, “The Crown”
Bob Odenkirk, “Better Call Saul”
Al Pacino, “Hunters”
Matthew Rhys, “Perry Mason”

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series, Musical or Comedy
Don Cheadle, “Black Monday”
Nicholas Hoult, “The Great”
Eugene Levy, “Schitt’s Creek”
Jason Sudeikis, “Ted Lasso”
Ramy Youssef, “Ramy”

Best Performance by an Actor in a Limited Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television
Bryan Cranston, “Your Honor”
Jeff Daniels, “The Comey Rule”
Hugh Grant, “The Undoing”
Ethan Hawke, “The Good Lord Bird”
Mark Ruffalo, “I Know This Much is True”

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Supporting Role
John Boyega, “Small Axe”
Brendan Gleeson, “The Comey Rule”
Daniel Levy, “Schitt’s Creek”
Jim Parsons, “Hollywood”
Donald Sutherland, “The Undoing”

Film Review: Mary Magdalene (dir by Garth Davis)


“Dress more like the Virgin and less like the Magdalene.”

That’s something my grandmother always used to tell me and my sisters.  That’s because, Mary Magdalene — who is described in the Gospels as being a woman who traveled with and supported Jesus — is often mistaken for being the “sinful woman” who scandalized Simon the Leper by anointing Jesus’s feet.  As such, there’s a tradition that Mary Magdalene was either a former prostitute or, at the very least, a formerly promiscuous woman who repented and followed Jesus.  That said, there’s nothing in the canonical gospels that supports that tradition and, in all probability, the sinful woman was another Mary, Mary of Bethany.  In 1969, Pope Paul VI officially removed all reference to Mary Magdalene being the sinful woman but it’s still fairly common for Mary Magdalene to be portrayed as being a former prostitute.

Mary Magdalene, which was released briefly in theaters last year, attempts to set the record straight by imagining a different backstory for Mary Magdalene.  In fact, the whole theme of this movie seems to be, “See?  She wasn’t a prostitute!”  And that’s fine except, while watching the movie, I really had to wonder if it was somehow an improvement to instead portray her as being the most boring person in Judea.  Watching the film, one gets the feeling that the filmmakers were so proud of themselves for making Mary Magdalene a feminist that it didn’t occur to them that they might also want to make her an interesting character as well.

In this movie, Mary Magdalene (played by a dependably dull Rooney Mara) is a young Jewish woman who rebels against the wishes of her family and refuses to enter into an arranged marriage with Ephraim (Tzachi Halevy) and who instead decides to follow a preacher named Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix).  As portrayed in this movie, Jesus is charismatic but often moody, preaching a good message (though the film seems to interpret that message as mostly being vague Gnostic liberalism) while getting annoyed with almost everyone around him.  Jesus often seems to be exhausted by his followers, especially Judas (Tahar Rahim) who is way too eager for Jesus to lead an armed uprising against the forces of the Roman Empire.  Meanwhile, Jesus’s main disciple, Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), often finds himself growing jealous of Mary Magdalene and the trust that builds between her and Jesus.  While this film does not go the Jesus Christ Superstar route of portraying them as being a couple, it also leaves little doubt that Mary Magdalene, who is defying not just Rome but also the entire patriarchy, understands Jesus and his teachings in a way that the male disciples never will.

As a film, Mary Magalene takes itself and its story very seriously and it generally eshews the type of grandeur that one might expect from a biblical epic.  That low-key approach may be historically accurate but it’s not much fun to watch and, with a running time of 120 minutes, the action just kind of plods along.  Rooney Mara can give a good performance when she has the right material but here, she’s often just reduced to just wanly staring off into the distance.

As for Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus …. well, the casting actually works better than you might think.  Phoenix plays Jesus as being a passionate leader who is haunted by his destiny.  With his long hair and his scruffy beard, Phoenix is not a glamorous Jesus but he’s very much a credible one.  The film is probably at its best in the scene where Jesus witnesses the money changers in the temple.  Rather than playing Jesus as being simply enraged, Phoenix plays him as being deeply disappointed.  One gets the feeling that he’s looking at what is happening in his father’s house and he’s thinking, “These are the people I’m supposed to sacrifice my life to save?”

Mary Magdalene is one of those films that took forever to actually show up in theaters.  The Weinstein Company was originally set to release the film in early 2017 but the release was pushed back to 2018, for reasons that have never been particularly clear.  Eventually the Weinstein Company pulled out of distributing the film and, for that, I’m thankful.  The idea of any film about Jesus carrying the Harvey Weinstein name is just too terrible to think about.  The film was then picked up by IFC, who gave it a perfunctory release in 2019.

It’s a flawed film, even though it’s heart may be in the right place.  The approach that it takes is just too low-key to be consistently interesting.  Sometimes, bigger is better.