Strange Vistas

Writing about movies, anime, books, and media

Poster for The Perfection

The Perfection did something few movies have managed to do lately: it escaped its own trailer's gravity well.

Not entirely, mind you. There is enough on the trailer that I wouldn't recommend watching it anywhere close to the movie. But for once, we get a preview that is not the best 90 seconds and all the major plot points. Not in any way that you'd know before seeing the movie.

A young cellist who stopped playing because of a family illness meets the younger, just as gorgeous, much more successful performer who replaced her in her mentor's attention. The one that made it. Hell hath no fury.

I don't want to say too much. Imagine if Damien Chazelle had chosen to make Whiplash as a tarted-up, trashy B-movie, and that gets you in the ballpark.

It has character in spades, something that neither director Richard Shepard's Matador nor Dom Hemingway had. (Dom kinda tried, in its own “Nick Hornby as seen through too much Guy Ritchie” sort of way, but describing it like that makes it sound better than it was.)

The Perfection makes up for it. It's a got prurient fixation on escalating situations, complicating build-up after build-up, faking out a release before ramping things up again, a fractal Venus flytrap of a garish plot. I hadn't seen anything aim for that blend of well-manicured and crass in recent memory.

It can verge on tawdry, sure, but if you're going to do exploitation, you might as well do it in style.

#allisonwilliams #loganbrowning #richardshepard #stevenweber #horror

Main characters from extraction

You don't need to waste your time with Extraction. Children of Men did the fake long takes better, and for all of Extraction's bruises and stabs, Charlize Theron had it tougher in Atomic Blonde.

Yes, I'm talking up a movie that I originally wasn't too impressed with. Extraction is the kind of aggressive mediocrity that can cause you to lower your standards. Its phony suicidal sentimentality as the single driving reason for its unshaven hero to keep pushing forward does not help.

Can we stop with the whole dead-kid-as-a-motivator thing? Universal as it might be, the flipside is that it tells us nothing about your character other than “they're sad someone died”. Worse, it's lazy.

There are few better ways to kill good will than laziness.

#action #samhargrave #chrishemsworth #davidharbour

Poster for Color out of Space

It is a rare adaptation that captures the original's feeling so well that it convinces me I need to re-read the original story as soon as I can. It hasn't happened once before with H.P. Lovecraft adaptations – not until Richard Stanley's wonderfully disturbing Color Out of Space.

And you know what? I wasn't giving it enough credit. I expect it to be mostly a movie where Nicolas Cage gets to do some Nicolas Caging, this time against slimy horrors instead of hell bikers. I smirked when it took the movie less than two minutes to name-drop Arkham, thinking it was only that long because they had to show some credits before our unseen narrator started soliloquizing. His words had a familiar feel, a half-remembered sensation of old, dusty smells filtering through library stacks. They were the same words that open Lovecraft's short story and one of the many direct parallels the movie has with its source material.

It shouldn't have surprised me. It's an adaptation, after all. But, to be frank, I was expecting this to be one of those “inspired by” jobs. It is instead a faithful adaptation, updating only some minor details. If you have never read the original story, a meteorite lands in Nahum Gardner's farm, and the color that expands out of it begins consuming everything. In the original, a surveyor hears the tale from a crazy old man who was around when it happened, decades earlier, at the end of the 19th century. The movie instead involves the surveyor in the story instead of having him receive it second-hand, modernizes the names (Nahum becomes Nathan), and there's a daughter delightfully named Lavinia.

While the visuals are an iridescent magenta-tinted cousin to The Thing, with a scene that directly references the first time we glimpsed that particular horror, its story beats are straight from Lovecraft's tale, as is its style. It takes its time. It spreads its spores into your mind. It lets them germinate, expand, until it has wholly infected your attention.

Much more subtle how it gets the more unpleasant aspects of Lovecraft himself right, without rubbing them in your face. The Gardners are conservative and old fashioned. They call the caretaker a “hippie reprobate” (immediately telling you why Tommy Chong is in the cast), yet Nathan refers to him as “their squire” (a line only Cage would be able to deliver with a straight face). Both parents make remarks about how their daughter Lavinia dresses, never saying she looks like a whore but having it painted on their faces. They disapprove of Ward, our hydrologist narrator who their daughter has a crush on, and you get the impression that they are just as uncomfortable with the idea of teenage sex as they are with Ward being black.

Fascinating as the adaptation is, what surprised me the most was that it made me realize something I never had in the thirty-plus years since I first encountered Lovecraft: how much body horror there is in his stories. Granted, a lot of it is the flat-out racist “parents fucked the wrong kind of people,” which is likely why I hadn't spotted it – I'd mentally filed it as a metaphor for his fear of anyone who wasn't the right shade of pink. There is, however, the recurrent theme of bodies turning against themselves, whether because of their horrible parentage, a character's choices, or an outside influence. Edward Derby's terrible fate in The Thing in the Doorstep. Doctor Muñoz in Cool Air. Wilbur Whateley's misshapen form, his unnatural odor, and rapidly dissolving corpse. Even Peaslee's possession in The Shadow out of Time, where both his body spends years out of his control and Peaslee ends up trapped in a monstrous, ancient shape.

Color Out of Space brings these elements to the front and, in representing story elements in a way that would be right at home in a 1980s Cronenberg movie, made me finally spot this pattern. I don't think I've ever been as perturbed by the representation of someone suffering a disease since the image of Zelda in the initial Pet Sematary adaptation, emaciated, twisted body crawling out of her attic bed and towards her sister.

It's not perfect. There is a subplot that never gets developed, and hangs there like a vestigial finger stuck to the movie's wrist – you could extirpate it and end up with a much shapelier creature. But that's as much as I can complain about, and the more I think about the movie, the less relevant it becomes.

Now Richard Stanley wants to follow this up with The Dunwich Horror. The last thing my mind needs is his take on the story of the Whateleys' sexual habits and horrid descendants. Nicolas Cage as Old Whateley, though...

Sir, may I have some more?

#horror #nicolascage #richardstanley #hplovecraft #joelyrichardson #madeleinearthur #elliotknight #tommychong

Dark Fate poster

Terminator – Dark Fate did the Star Wars series one better because it had the courage to move on from people named Connor.

That might come across as a little rich, seeing as how the movie finally brought back 64-year-old Linda Hamilton as Sarah, after she hadn’t appeared on a single one of these in the almost three decades since Terminator 2. It does it for context, though, and pulls off a great bit of character repurposing.

Yes, she enters the movie as the Action Bitch, who calmly gets out of a truck and starts blasting quips and rockets at a killing machine. That bit alone on the trailer almost turned me off the whole thing. But she’s also an aimless old woman who has seemingly done nothing in thirty years but sit around, drink, and wait for the next signal telling her where she needs to go blasting. She succeeded in Terminator 2, averting the future where Skynet killed most of the planet and only her son John could save us.

Her success also made her irrelevant.

Killing machines still seemingly rain out of the future, though, because we suck as a species, and if we don’t manage to blow ourselves up, then by Oppenheimer we will build something that does it for us.

So it’s some other girl, this time around, called Dani Ramos. Dani also has a bodyguard from the future, Grace (cyborg Cameron Howe, because God bless Mackenzie Davis, but even Arnie has more range). Grace is better and meaner than Sarah ever was – partly because she has gone through an actual war, instead of just training, but mostly because she’s not all human (“augmented”).

Gotta hand it to them. Sarah Connor, pushed aside from history by her actions, resentful it’s not about her anymore, full of assumptions that make her something of a know-it-all asshole, is not a play I’d have expected them to take.

No major spoilers there – this is like the first twenty minutes of the movie. After, most of it is Dark Fate doing a masterful job of untying the knows that the series has tied itself into, while doubling down on the “unstoppable horror” tropes that the original Terminator movie handled so well. Not only is the new Series 9 killing machine nigh impossible to kill, as you’d expect from a terminator, but it skin can walk away so that it can come at you from two sides. When its skeleton gets up, it does it like something possessed; its cranium has the shape of a half-brained zombie’s.

Dark Fate respects its pedigree, though, full of references to the old movies’ good bits. The skinless arm, the old-timey red vision with big white lettering, the eye, a dog just chilling. They fit. You don’t get a single wink or nudge. You could miss them, if you ain’t looking, but the jokes land.

But you know what? All that would be fun but irrelevant without it doing its core job. You didn’t get Dark Fate for the funnies, or the discourses on finding purpose, did you? You wanted an action movie.

Dark Fate is a damned good one. One of those where you can tell where everybody is during the fights, and where they may end up when the next punch lands. Because, unlike what seems to be the majority of movie directors out there, Tim Miller knows that action works better when you anxiously anticipate what people you like might be thrown against.

Spatial awareness – what a concept!

One of the great things about writing anonymously is that I get to do anything I want. If this will turn into an action movie shitpost blog, extolling the virtues of movies that are two parts explosions and one part references, so be it. It’s not like there is any movie festival going on right now.

Eventually, we are going to get back to more serious stuff. Some documentaries about the state of the world, or the abuses of the Church, or something political. For now, humor me on this. Watch this fucking movie, because it’s both a better sequel and action movie than most other pro-forma shit out there.

And, for everybody involved in the series, please stop here. The last three movies ranged from mediocre to terrible, with quality steadily decreasing. This one raises your success ratio to 50%. It was a nice bow to wrap around it. Quit while you are ahead.

#terminator #darkfate #timmiller #mackenziedavis #lindahamilton ##arnoldschwarzenegger #nataliareyes #gabrielluna #action

Ewan McGregor in Doctor Sleep

Near the climax of Mike Flanagan's mash-up Doctor Sleep, Rose the Hat, the story's main baddie, walks the hallways of the Overlook Hotel looking for her prey. The hotel is still alive, famished. As she steps into the elevator hallway, it unleashes the vision it used to terrify Danny and Wendy Torrance with – torrents of blood, flooding the hallway, threatening to drown her.

She slows down her stride, stares at it, amused. It's a curiosity, not even worth turning her body towards it. She smiles, more intrigued than scared, and continues walking.

It couldn't be a better representation of how the horror genre has moved on in the 40 years since The Shinning came out in 1980. Scenes that used to be impressive, outrageous, are now commonplace. The Shining itself has become a staple, the baseline.

Still, Stephen King wrote a sequel, so someone would end up adapting it. Might as well be Mike Flanagan, who recently did a fair job of adapting King's Gerald's Game.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: I wish I could like this movie more than I do. I do. I almost managed to convince myself after watching it that it was above mediocre.

I don't even want to blame the crew. This movie is a collection of thankless jobs.

For starters, it's made forty years after The Shining came out, so you can't assume viewers have seen it. You need flashbacks to that contextualize what is going on for people who just wandered into the multiplex. You'll need to repeat scenes from the classic if you want to be on the safe side. But that means you'll need to re-enact so you can use the same actors to connect last movie's events to our current story.

And then, there were significant differences between the King's source material and its adaptation by Stanley Kubrick. King's sequel follows up on his book's ending, not the movie's, which King hated. Flanagan, though, can't disregard Kubrick's masterpiece since – let's be honest – it's what may bring most people to his movie instead of sending them to the paperback.

So what you get is a mash-up of both, the equivalent of a $50 million fanfic-slash-cosplay production, where Flanagan recreates scenes from the original, or tries to get actors who are a good twenty years younger than The Shining to pass for Shelley Duval and Scatman Crothers and so many others (no attempt at mimicking the inimitable Joe Turkel, fortunately), and melds the endings for both the movie and book into a single body. For fans of the original, or even anyone who has seen some of the oft-repeated clips, it sinks deep into the uncanny valley.

Then there's the power escalation and misery inflation.

That's not their fault. It is King's. Stephen King's writing has gone downhill with the years, and, since things that used to impress us no longer do, he has resorted to bumping up the world's wretchedness and the power factor of the characters.

You can't just have good old Danny, whom Dick Hallorann described as shinning like nobody else he had ever met. We get Abra, a girl who is an order of magnitude more powerful than anyone Dan Torrance himself had ever encountered. A haunted building is not enough of a threat. But that's not enough. We need The True Knot, a troupe of traveling psychic vampires, each with their unique abilities and whose leader, Rose, might be stronger than Danny and Abra put together.

A recovering alcoholic who is a threat to his family is no longer enough of a problem. King's book, on full-on misery inflation, gives us no less than two characters whose background includes his now requisite child abuse (much more stark on the original than what the movie suggests). Danny has grown into a violent alcoholic, because... it's in his blood, I guess. Not enough? How about a toddler dying from neglect (or violence)?

The True Knot are not just psychic vampires – they feed on children who have the shine, the same psychic ability Dan and Abra share. But you can't merely abduct and murder children for their power, can you? You need to torture them, make them die a long, painful death, because... um... fear purifies the “steam” they release, making them tastier? Whatever. We need children screaming.

King spent too much time trying to shock readers and not enough creating a real sense of dread, and that leaks into the movie.

Gerald's Game, I wrote back then, had some masterful scenes filled with anguished discomfort despite its duct-taped tacked-on ending. Nothing quite like that here. The most memorable moments come when the members of The True Knot die, their death rattle a gurgling groan like Gmork drowning on his own blood.

Most of the fun here comes for us movie and horror nerds. We get to enjoy Flanagan's attempts at blending both ancestors into a single alternate timeline, trying to walk both paths simultaneously with results that, if you know the original material, can be endearing. We can get some amusement by recognizing faces from Flanagan's troupe (Katie Parker, Bruce Greenwood, James Flanagan, Carel Struycken), most of them hanging out in the background. There is a brief moment where Kyleigh Curran, who plays Abra, has fun aping a young Ewan McGregor. Rebecca Ferguson's Rose The Hat is a delightful predator, a boho panther sashaying her way into devouring you.

Slim pickings, though.

Flanagan has gotten good at being good enough in the near-decade since he made Absentia. After Gerald's Game, his Haunting of Hill House made me believe he was on the verge of breaking out of the prison of decent and move on to great. He'll need to pick better material first.

#mikeflanagan #stephenking #horror #miseryinflation #ewanmcgregor #rebeccaferguson #kyleighcurran

The Innocents promotional image

There are pieces that you should write up-front, the moment you have consumed whatever content you meant to talk about.

This piece is one of them.

It has been months since I saw The Innocents, and I’m afraid I’ve lost the scent. It was tenuous, to begin with, and by now, it’s little but a shadow of a thread.

The Innocents is an archetypical slow boil story – part nordic thriller, part BBC series leaning towards young-adult fiction. It gives you glimpses early on of what its central conceit is but doesn’t straight up tell you its set up or background. It expects you to put in the time to find out. You have got to sit with it.

I’m not sure why I had the impression that this was some low-key modern super-hero thing. Probably the promotional image of two teenagers running away from something, what looks like a winter sky behind them, the boy dragging the girl along.

Which, funny enough, is how it starts. But it is only a minor spoiler to say it’s a women’s world – men are merely along for the ride.

The couple is Harry and June. They are in love. John, June’s overprotective, stern, borderline violent father, wants to move the family to some remote island on their birthday. Harry and June run away. It doesn’t take us very long to find out what John’s motivations were, what June doesn’t know she’s capable of, and why Harry is in well over his head. It will take longer to find out what is going on with the other small group of people, somewhere, on a farm, whom the story goes back to every so often.

Switching settings could create the impression of a sprawling tale. Instead, the series keeps its focus narrow, firmly on these people, and keeps tightening its circle as it progresses. Playing in a more constrained setting causes mistakes to more obviously emerge (which is why so many stories are in such a rush to drag you to the next ride in the amusement park before you have time to think). To its credit, The Innocents keeps its plot constrained to a few players, having the discipline to spend its eight episodes exploring their relationships and using a handful of characters to flesh out its mythology.

Does the mythology hold up? I can’t remember. I think I had objections, quibbles, but left no notes about it. I’m also the type of guy who complained for an entire season of Into the Badlands because nobody wiped their swords between cutting down an army of mooks and putting the weapon back into the scabbard. The fact I don’t remember is a recommendation.

I remember its tightening noose as characters who had been dancing around each other stumbled towards a collision. I remember the feeling of senseless tragedy, affecting people merely because they were around. The petty behavior, the infatuation with the new you, the narcissism inherent in liking others like yourself. It all added up to it being more family tragedy than teen thriller, a good chunk of it spent watching friends and loved ones crumble.

I can no longer say if it was good, but I can say it was different. I appreciate different.

#guypearce #nadinemarshall #percelleascott #laurabirn #sorchagroundsell #tvseries

Main characters hugging

Wouldn't you know it? Rich people are people too! They have insecurities, mostly about what others might think of their family, or how they can comfortably afford Jimmy Choos and million-dollar earrings! Imagine having to get your five maids to hide the shoes around the house, to avoid upsetting your upper-middle-class husband! And you can't even wear the earrings regularly!

Not that he is broke, though. He could afford the luxury apartment with the insane view by himself. Maybe he's just rich, not crazy rich.

And so many comedy opportunities coming out of flying economy. Imagine having to inch forward, the annoyed people behind you just wanting to get to their seats while trying to have a sitcom-level conversation with someone. You may need to help them put their carry-on into the tiny overhead bins! Where they barely fit! Something you never had to do before! And you need to push it, really shove it in, so you can keep talking!

I mean, so funny.

I can see why it connected with its target demographic. It has lots of Chinese shorthand that the movie doesn't explain, like clever one-upmanship during a mahjong game. It makes those who get it feel like part of the “in” group, like the movie was written for them.

Kudos for that.

But I'm sure you get to do it without making the main character such an insecure, whiny bitch, who gets mad at her boyfriend for something his family did, when said boyfriend argued against the family's shittiness right on the spot. And, most offensively, when the character hadn't acted this childish in the entire movie.

Representation is important. You could do it on a better script, though.

#jonmchu #constancewu #henrygolding #michelleyeoh #gemmachan #awkwafina #sonoyamizuno

Into The Badlands

“Movie wonk me” insists I should not like Into The Badlands, AMC’s post-apocalyptic Chop-Suey Western.

The writing is shoddy. It introduces plot devices, then forgets about them a few episodes later. Characters’ power levels and willingness to kill fluctuate depending on what the script needs them to be. Enemies of some prominence in the world pop in only to get whacked right away, through what comes across as lack of show planning. It is the kind of writing where a character gets handcuffed, both arms behind his back, and stands there resigned... even though he only has one hand.

But then, it has got the best flying kung fu action this side of Yuen Woo-Ping ’s work in The Matrix. Between its flowing fight sequences and the buckets of blood it deploys, it feels like Yimou Zhang directing a Brian Yuzna production. Its design is dystopian wuxia by way of Karl Lagerfeld. It’s so manga; they even do the eye-visible-through-character ‘s-hair thing on episode 2.

Plus, it’s as unselfconscious as something this manicured can be. (The way everyone dresses, you figured there are three tailors for every poppy farmer.) A character can be lost, wandering through the rubble of our world, and find worn but impeccably fitting clothes that fit his preferred color scheme. It’s the sort of world where Nick Frost can use an octopus as nunchucks – with a straight face.

(Remember The World’s End, where Nick Frost being an action hero was a key joke?)

Sure, there is a plot. Our world collapsed for some initially unspecified reason. The Badlands, wherever that is, are ruled by Barons. In (once again) Mad Max-style, the Barons grudgingly collaborate because they each have things the other want. Marton Csokas’ Quinn, playing Discount Eastern European Kevin Spacey, runs the opium trade. Emily Beecham’s merciless The Widow controls the oil fields. Baron Chao’s family specializes in the slave trade (although the other barons still seem to have it as a hobby). The rest of the Barons do... something. It doesn’t matter. It’s background for why our hero, Sunny, a supernaturally efficient clipper (their word for indentured servants-slash-professional killers) under Quinn’s thumb, is having second thoughts and will (inevitably) end up wandering the Earth, Kwai Chang Cain-style. It’s all there to give us an excuse for some gorgeous combat.

Really. The fights are arresting, a thing of beauty. I blame the success of The Bourne Identity for why we ended up with decades of lazy close-up fight photography, where it’s hard to tell what is going on other than “punches being thrown”. Into The Badlands is a return to the craft of fight choreography, where you can not only tell where everyone is but what the space around them is like – which leads to combat that uses the environment in creative ways. This helps respect one of kung fu’s essential unspoken rules – the only weapon deadlier than your heirloom sword is an improvised one – and it means whenever it’s clear that people are picking a fight in an interesting environment, you get excited.

Yes, I’m arguing that a show is worth watching for the combat. The fact that the choreographers manage to sustain our interest and keep the fights fresh during 32 episodes is impressive.

It takes it a bit to find its footing. The first season gives off whiffs of “Game of Thrones, but on a budget.” Luckily they find their voice and choose to embrace their “bloody Journey to the West by way of Roger Corman” DNA instead. At about the same time, it becomes an equal opportunity horniness provider, with thirst-traps for every gender, ethnicity, and age bracket legally allowed. It realizes that the plot might be better served by having heel characters should stick around, so they slow down the antagonist revolving door.

Somewhere along the way, despite the janky writing and boatloads of clichés, you start liking these people. Not all of them, mind you. Some whiny turds remain whiny turds throughout. But characters have arcs (movie-wonk for “grow as people”) and, by and large, behave as you would expect someone in their position to – even when it’s not the nicest thing to do, and you know they will regret it later.

It didn’t last long, with AMC canceling it after three seasons. It’s just as well that it ended – the show had put on too much mythology too fast and the writing was coming apart at the seams. The cancellation seems to have brought some focus to the narration, and Badlands managed to wrap its story well, leaving behind a world that was over-designed but entertaining to spend time in.

So “movie wonk me” can stuff it. It’s not cognitive dissonance if you have different personas. The film purist can nitpick all he wants, but the persona who likes to have fun with fun things enjoyed Into The Badlands.

#action #danielwu #emilybeecham #allyioannides #orlabrady #stephenlang #nickfrost #martoncsokas

Surprise! Well-known pedophile who admitted to having blackmail material on his powerful associates, got arrested under a mountain of evidence, then was conveniently taken off suicide watch and left alone in his cell to “commit suicide” coincidentally as the cameras failed, was festering excrement of an excuse for a human being.

I’m not sure what Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich ’s reason to exist is, other than to re-affirm that. It’s not investigative journalism. If it performed an in-depth examination of the people floating around Epstein’s ring, maybe, but Netflix isn’t in a hurry to get sued, so only the most thoroughly documented ones like Prince Andrew come up. And even then, it takes them three hours to point some fucking fingers at someone who isn’t already dead.

Cowardly fucks.

It’s well-structured, I’ll give it that. The initial narration’s repetitive structure helps drive home the point that Epstein’s behavior was consistent, something routine he executed over and over and over. But one comes away from this having learned nothing. The case is well-known by now, and the victims have been able to speak. Wikipedia has better documentation than this (including less sensationalistic figures on how likely the type of fracture he suffered was).

There’s no doubt many people were worried about what might come up as evidence if Epstein went to trial, even if he had kept his mouth shut. The material recovered in the New York building was much better organized than just “stacks of porn” (down to labeling pairings). Focus on that, and how many others were likely involved, instead of skewing things to bump the suicide conspiracy from “extremely likely” to “inevitable”.

But nope.

I didn’t need to watch this. You don’t need to watch this. It won’t change anything.

#tvseries #documentary

Tom Hollander, Olivia Colman, Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Debicki, and Hugh Laurie in The Night Manager

The Night Manager feels like what a modern James Bond story would be like if they had the guts to break away from their old formula. Funny, because the book it's based on came out twenty years ago.

Unsurprisingly, the Bond movies have focused on fancy suits, cocktail parties, and gadgets (all things that The Night Manager mostly eschews). Espionage is drawn out and can be more about the slow maneuvering to get in place than any immediate, decisive action. You only have two hours in a movie, which don't leave much time for all that tense manipulation and second-guessing.

It's the curse of the movie adaptation. Good things take time, and there is only so much you can do in a couple of hours. A series has more time to develop stories in, but successful actors didn't use to give them the time of day.

It used to be that TV was where careers went to die. A decade and a half after The Sopranos and 24, TV and streaming are not only respectable – they are places where actors and directors go for big paydays, where you get to experiment with formats that may launch franchises.

And, more importantly, where you get to take your time. TV series, even limited ones, have more room to breathe.

A creative upside of TV's resurgence (and its streaming forms) is that production teams no longer feel compelled to compress a story into two hours. For years we had the sigma that serious actors only did movies meant for theatrical release – TV was where careers went to die.

Enter The Night Manager, a 2016 adaptation from a 1993 John le Carré novel, where a hotelier volunteers for an undercover operation to get evidence on an arms dealer.

It's the sort of story that meant for a serial, with its many characters, layered motivations, and overlapping intrigues, constantly ticking machinery that may stop at just the worst place.

With its six-hour run time, you get to gorge yourself on the embarrassment of riches that are the delightful performances that build up the tangled character web.

Tom Hiddleston, taking a break from his Marvel commitments to play Jonathan Pine, the eponymous manager, bringing a mixture of self-control, insecurity, and drive that you wish other spy series could muster.

Who gets recruited by...

Olivia Colman as the Angela Burr, disappearing into her character as always, equal parts frustration and persistence as a bulldog of a British official who refuses to stop chasing after Richard Roper, even in spite of her superiors' blatant obstruction.

Which she does, doggedly, because he considers him the worst person alive, a quality that would be hard to convey if it wasn't because of...

Hugh Laurie as Roper, who might be the embodiment of evil, sporting the delightful, careless accent of an utter cunt who doesn't care who gets hurt as long as he gets away with things.

(Roper's characterization, by the way, is one of the best portrayals of a psychopath that I've seen. He doesn't twirl his mustache, he doesn't rant about life being worthless or how insignificant the little people are. It just never enters the equation. He is the pure opportunistic, transactional evil that our times have shown can so easily get ahead.)

Roper surrounds himself with a shield of accomplices, helpers, and employees, such as...

Major Lance Corkoran, known to everyone as Corky, his spymaster-slash-chief-of-staff-slash-frontman, whom Tom Hollander portrays with a balanced mixture of restraint and recklessness. Hollander can convey both his distrust and resentment at Pine's sudden appearance with little else but a side glance and how he sets his mouth, and does his thankless little part and job with gusto.

And somewhere in the middle of this is Jed, played by...

Elizabeth Debicki, the multiple episodes letting her showcase a range she hasn't put on display before on a single movie. She has shown charisma before, and Steve McQueen's thrilling Widows let her display a talent for flexible understatement, but Manager lets her play someone dedicated to putting on a happy face, and Debicki relishes it. There's a moment, later in the series, where her character Jed has to add another layer of pretense to the existing one, and for a couple of seconds it is clear to viewers how fake Jed is being. She shines then.

(Debicki has the potential to become a 10-years-in-the-making overnight sensation, with the combination of looks and the acting chops she shows here, but she's running out of time for taking parts other than “sculptural blonde.” She should do more limited series.)

All together, along with the secondary scum and rats scurrying around Roper, make for an enjoyable, tense six episodes. It's a character-driven story. Having said that, even the tradecraft is entertaining. There's a fascinating little scene of covert communication in public, and sadly it takes the series a few hours to do that again. If I had to complain about something, it would be how much the current era lets the characters default to secure messenger instead of more creative methods.

The Night Manager is still great at creating tension, and that's what everyone is here for – this “great acting” stuff is something us movie wonks get off on. It is a thriller, and you are here to be thrilled as you watch the players creep into position, dance around each other, figure out how the corrupt officials are going to get turned around, and watch our heroes attempts to outfox a smug, smart fuck who doesn't feel the need to pussyfoot around and has no qualms about disposing of anyone who becomes an issue. There is no way all of this could have worked on a movie – tension comes, literally, from stretching things out. The series has the patience required to take its time with every aspect of the story, from how long it takes it to introduce its monster, to how long it takes our hero to sneak into their confidence, to its eventual explosive resolution. The Night Manager stretches out its story as taut as it has to, and in doing so, delivers the stylish thrills a movie couldn't.

#thenightmanager #johnlecarre #oliviacolman #elizabethdebicki #hughlaurie #tomhiddleston #thriller #tvseries