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A bloody thriller in fin-de-siècle New York

A bloody thriller in fin-de-siècle New York

...and other films and TV to look out for, including a comedy-drama from the creator of “Six Feet Under”

...and other films and TV to look out for, including a comedy-drama from the creator of “Six Feet Under”

Nicholas Barber | February/March 2018


Stranger than fiction
There’s a bit of “True Detective”, a bit of “CSI” and more than a little Arthur Conan Doyle about The Alienist. In this bloody period thriller, Daniel Brühl (“Goodbye Lenin”, above), plays Laszlo Kreizler, an alienist (an antiquated term for a psychiatrist) who must match wits with a murderer of child prostitutes in fin-de-siècle New York. The conceit is that just as the serial-killer tropes of a century of crime drama are emerging in America for the first time, so too are the techniques of forensics and psychological profiling Kreizler employs. Brühl makes an arrestingly strange lead, plump and twitching with moral fervour, with Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning as a newspaper artist and a typist-investigator in an NYPD filled with bent cops. It’s expensive, gothically over-ripe and highly watchable, and though some may recognise a story about a savant investigator whose sidekick John is nicer than he is, it is none the worse for that either.
On TNT from Jan 22nd

Spirit of the age
The premise of Here and Now, a lacerating new comedy-drama from Alan Ball (“American Beauty”, “Six Feet Under”) is so right-on that it flirts with parody. In the liberal enclave of Portland, Oregon, a melancholic philosophy professor, Gregory Boatwright (Tim Robbins), and his wife Audrey (Holly Hunter), a formidably manic and successful New Age businesswoman, preside over a rainbow family of adopted children, partners and hangers-on who run the gamut of privileged American experience: black, white, Asian, Latino, gay, straight, promiscuous, celibate. Vietnamese Duc is a “motivation architect”, dispensing recycled Buddhism. Liberian Ashley (“We’re all from places America totally f***ed”) is a ruthless fashionista. Colombian Ramon (Daniel Zovatto) bewilders his new boyfriend with unsettling visions, but are they schizophrenia or signals from on high? It’s intensely contemporary, politically barbed and a vast amount of fun.
On HBO from Feb 11th

Higher power
Based on two biographies, this six-part miniseries dramatises the story of the doomed siege of a ranch in Waco, Texas, in 1993, which belonged to the Branch Davidians, a cult group. After a siege that lasted 51 days, the building was in flames and 76 people were dead. It is, foreseeably, a tough watch, but a fascinating one, bringing nuance and sympathy to its portrait of people on both sides of the conflict. The action turns on Taylor Kitsch’s performance of riveting sincerity as David Koresh, the Branch Davidian leader, who preached an apocalyptic reading of the biblical book of Revelations, fathered children by his followers and claimed to be the Lamb of God. There are superb showings, too, from Andrea Riseborough as one of his devotees, John Leguizamo as a federal agent who grows close to the Davidians and Michael Shannon as an FBI negotiator trying to put the brakes on the whole hurtling catastrophe. Once the bullets start flying, you won’t be able to look away.
On Paramount Network from Jan 24th

Foreign bodies
“Less than eight hours out of the tank and you’re already up to your eyes in organic damage and real death.” It’s a hard afterlife for a planet-hopping mercenary in this expensive-looking Netflix adaptation of Richard Morgan’s sci-fi novel, Altered Carbon. Takeshi Kovacs wakes up from a 250-year prison sentence wearing someone else’s body and is immediately sold to a centuries-old oligarch who asks him to solve a murder: “Whose?” “Mine.” “Altered Carbon” inhabits a wondrously high-concept future in which human personalities, encoded in tiny chips, can be passed between bodies, or “sleeves”, at will, where ageing is a matter of choice and violence merely wear and tear. It brims with mad ideas – sentient AI hoteliers playing VR poker, and packet-sniffing hackers stealing people’s memories. Some may quail at the nihilistic premise, persistent bloodletting and noirish misogyny, others will stay for a cyberpunk vision that offers an expansive take on the Blade Runner playbook: gloomy high-rises, flying cars, glowing umbrellas bobbing in neon rain. Highly recommended.
On Netflix from Feb 2nd


Military mirage
In Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot, war is not just hell, it is an experience so bizarre and bewildering that it might as well be happening on a hostile alien planet. To convey its hallucinatory strangeness, the film flits between tones and genres, slotting in musical and animated interludes, but it has two main strands. In one of them, a middle-aged couple in Tel Aviv is traumatised by terrible news from a military envoy. In the other, four young conscripts struggle through their days and nights at a checkpoint on a remote desert road. The Israeli culture minister, Miri Regev, condemned “Foxtrot” as misleading and unpatriotic, but that didn’t stop Maoz’s wildly inventive yet carefully controlled drama being chosen as the country’s entry for best foreign-language film at the Oscars.
In America from Mar 2nd

Free to feel the way she feels
When a middle-aged businessman collapses and dies near his home in Santiago, his relatives accuse his younger girlfriend, Marina (Daniela Vega, below), of killing him. Ideally, they would like her to go to jail; at the very least they want her away from the funeral and out of his flat. Why such hostility? The heroine of A Fantastic Woman is transgender. Directed by Sebastián Lelio and produced by Pablo Larrain, this spiky Chilean mystery will delight fans of Hitchcock and Almodóvar, but it breaks new ground by having a trans heroine who is played by a trans actress – and seeing the world through her eyes. There is no discussion of her gender reassignment and no prurience about her relationship with the businessman. Her lover’s family may find her hard to accept, but the film presents the indomitable Marina as she is.
In America from Feb 2nd and in Britain from Mar 2nd

Good, rising excellent
For half an hour or so, The Mercy seems to be a familiar story of a plucky English amateur triumphing against the odds – the kind of picturesque, inspirational nostalgia-fest that keeps the British film industry afloat. Its hero, Donald Crowhurst (Colin Firth), is a struggling inventor and weekend sailor who in 1968 decided to enter a round-the-world solo yacht race. Despite the concerns of his wife (Rachel Weisz) and children, he believes that his thirst for adventure and his Churchillian gung-ho spirit will be enough to win the day – never mind that the trimaran he designed has sprung a leak. So far, so conventional. But “The Mercy” sails a long way from these familiar waters. Without revealing where Crowhurst’s voyage takes him, it is fair to say that he isn’t quite the hero you’re expecting, and James Marsh’s gripping docudrama isn’t the film you’re expecting, either.
In Britain from Feb 9th

The long and winding road
Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren play a husband and wife on one last, glorious road trip together after 50 years of marriage in The Leisure Seeker (their mobile home). The husband is a retired literature professor crumbling into dementia: he delivers lively lectures on Joyce and Hemingway one minute, the next he struggles to recall his own name. His wife looks after him tirelessly. But as they trundle from Massachusetts to Florida in their vintage Winnebago, even she has to accept that their largely happy marriage has had its compromises and frustrations. Adapted from a novel by Michael Zadoorian, “The Leisure Seeker” could easily have cruised into sentimentality, but Paolo Virzi’s tender road movie keeps the viewer’s eyes on the road ahead with hairpin twists, jokes and shockingly honest observations.
In America from Jan 19th and in Britain from April 13th