The Snowman

snowman1If ever a Film School wants to show its students what a broken film looks and feels like, then The Snowman is the one to show them. Here’s a film with a good, popular book as source material, a great cast, a good team behind the camera, and yet none of it works. None of it. The screenplay dismantles the source novel, the cast is great but the casting awful, as if the actors were given the parts they didn’t audition for, and the direction and editing so inept… well, on that score, I’d only suggest that it looks like the film suffered from a set of reshoots that just further damaged a damaged film. I know nothing of the production history of the film, but it certainly looks like previews of the initial cut were so bad the studio panicked, did considerable reshoots, only to result in further bad previews and another set of reshoots, because this film feels like its three different films jumbled up together. Almost as if each set of reshoots were helmed by a different director. Funny thing is, I have a nagging suspicion that there were no reshoots at all, and instead this is the film they just made. I don’t think I’ve watched such a confused mess of a film in such a long time.

I’ve seen bad films before, and I’ve certainly seen worse films than The Snowman, but seldom have I watched a film so broken, disjointed. It was almost fascinating.

Strangely, this kind of serial killer, police procedural mystery thriller set in European locations has been done many times before, and much better, on television. Indeed, the Cardinal series (set in Canada, and of which the first seen most closely resembles The Snowman) which I have reviewed here, is far, far superior.

Oddly enough, for once I am actually familiar with the source material the film is based on. The Snowman is adapted from a book of the same title written by Jo Nesbo, and I managed to read about half of the novel before I gave up on it. I think perhaps that these complex serial killer mysteries and their twists and turns are just too, well, convoluted for my taste. I imagine part of the fun for readers of this stuff are the twists and misdirection that the writers use to keep seasoned readers guessing, because it was all too much for a newcomer to the genre like me (substitute ‘convoluted’ to ‘preposterous’). Anyway, I therefore came to the film with a curiosity regards how the book ended and who the killer was. Unfortunately, I’m still not sure, because not a lot of the book seemed to be in the film, and what there was seemed to be twisted up in a mess, so I’m wondering if the film shared the same solution as the book did.

The film was perhaps hampered by the fact that the book was the seventh in a series of novels concerning the character of Norwegian detective Harry Hole, with all the baggage that entails with references to personal history and prior books/cases. The book could get away with some of this through paragraphs of text, but how do you manage this in a medium such as film? I suppose you could argue that any story, any film, is actually continuing a story with lots of past baggage simply because whenever we are introduced to a character he/she has a lifetime of past history in the films fictional universe, its just a question of how much that influences the films actual plot. But here The Snowman film fumbles completely. Actually, I think this is where the films casting really messes up, because the Harry Hole of the novel that I pictured in my head in no way mirrors Michael Fassbender. Harry was a middle-aged, overweight drunk suffering from the trauma of too many bad cases, which the film version seems to think equals handsome Fassbender smoking too much.

snowman2In actual fact, as odd as he unfortunately looks, Val Kilmer, who features here as a character revealed in flashbacks to a prior case, would have been a better fit, and a more interesting-looking Harry Hole. Unfortunately due to his real-life illness I doubt Kilmer would have managed carrying a film in a leading role (he is necessarily dubbed by another actor, but its handled terribly), and more pointedly he hardly looks today the typical leading man he used to, which perhaps serves my point. Fassbender looks every bit your typical leading man for a Hollywood thriller, however it might ill-serve the actual film. Unfortunately, when the lead of a film doesn’t look or feel right, then your film is in trouble. I quite liked Fassbender in Ridley Scott’s The Counsellor, in which he played a driven, flawed character, so he can certainly do this sort of role, which likely suggests that he is handicapped by the script and direction, having little to really work with other than being told to light another cigarette.

I could tell the film was in trouble right from the very start, with a nonsensical prologue that I would imagine was intended to instil interest and mystery but falls so flat it could have been cut from the film and no-one would have noticed. Moreover, it was a sequence not in the book (at least as far as I had read it, and certainly the book did not start with it) which suggests it was manufactured by the screenwriter. Perhaps they thought the film otherwise had a pacing issue or lacked a tease to catch audience interest. A young boy living in an isolated snow-swept lakeside house with his mother is interrogated by a middle-aged man who hits the boys mother and then sleeps with her, before storming off when the boy sees them together in bed. The mother puts the boy in her car and races after the man, who is in a police car. We then cut to the woman’s car coming out of a tunnel with the police car she is chasing nowhere to be seen, so she spins the car off the road onto a frozen lake. The boy gets out of the car before the ice cracks but the woman seems supernaturally calm as she remains inside and waits to plunged into the frozen water as the car sinks in-front of the naturally upset boy.  This boy will no doubt grow up to be either our killer or Harry Hole. Maybe the latter would have been more interesting, particularly as regards how the film ends.

snowman3Films like The Snowman do fascinate me. Broken things can sometimes be fixed, and sometimes they can’t, and in the case of film, well, many have tried to fix broken films with recuts (and many have bizarrely tried to break films with recuts that were previously fine –Apocalypse Now Redux, I’m looking at you) but there are all sorts of things not working in The Snowman and I doubt it could ever work. All sorts of sub-plots and supporting characters just don’t fit; and you could argue some are immaterial and could be dropped entirely while others are fundamental and their failure terribly undermines the film. Its such a mess. I could, possibly should, expound upon them here and write one of my longest blog-posts ever, but whats the point? I doubt many people would be interested enough in a lacklustre effort such as The Snowman to read this or even care. But it could be an important lesson for prospective film-makers in Film School.

Cardinal Season Three: By the Time You Read This

There’s something oddly comforting about the arrival of another season of Cardinal, almost like the return of an old friend: regular readers will possibly recall my reviews of seasons one and two of the show, and I’m pleased to report this third season is surprisingly good- much better, infact, than season two. Indeed, on reflection this third season might actually cast dubious events of that sophomore season in a fairer light, chiefly that of the suicide of Cardinal’s unstable wife, Catherine Well, I say ‘suicide’ but the inference of that season’s finale is the crux of this season. When Cardinal himself begins to believe the death was suspicious I rather felt familiar old demons of guilt were pushing him in the wrong direction, and into another seasonal pit of self-loathing, but it transpires he has every reason to have his doubts.

Continuing the series tradition of differing seasons (season one set in Winter, the second in Summer), By the Time You Read This is set in the fall, and its predictably gorgeous.  The semi-rural locale of Cardinal (Alonquin Bay, a fictional version of North Bay, Ontario) is one of its biggest selling-points, almost lending it a Twin Peaks-kind of vibe at times, and its wide-open golden forests and bitterly-cold windswept lakes are a lovely diversion visually. The cast, led by Billy Campbell as the title character, all hushed commentary and craggy, life-worn features, is as fine as ever, and I definitely think Karine Vanasse as his investigative partner Lise Delorme has really come into her own here. Both leads underline the series tendency for underplaying everything and not relying on too many shock tactics- there is a fragility about everything, and a calmness that is refreshing, especially after season two’s straining of credibility;  a definite return to form.

This third season benefits by improved writing, with four arcs that ultimately tie together in a very satisfying manner. I’m tempted to suggest it manages this over a six-episode season far better than Game of Thrones managed, but that feels like a cheap shot. Oh okay, I went there. But anyway, it throws these storylines in the air: the first is a series of grisly murders perpetrated by an odd group of End of the World nutters, another is a series of violent robberies at ATM machines, another the department chief being involved in a bloody suicide, and the fourth being Cardinals initially, we assume, misguided theory about his late wife’s death.  It seems unlikely at the outset, but the arcs really do tie in together rather well and form a satisfying whole at the conclusion- yes, they manage a perfect landing compared to GOTs dodgy near-crash in the dirt. The personal angle, and our empathy for Cardinals plight and self-doubt regards Catherine’s death is what really raises this season. I do think this has been a marked improvement this year on what I felt a fairly exploitative previous season.

So it definitely seems there is plenty of life in this show yet, and indeed a fourth season is coming, hopefully next year. I appreciate that this is likely one of those shows lost in all the noise of bigger, more popular series on Netflix, Sky Atlantic etc but it’s certainly well worth tracking down. Stuck on BBC’s Saturday night foreign drama slot on BBC4 its unfortunately a victim of Autie Beeb’s scheduling and it’s a wonder I manage not to miss it whenever a new series suddenly drops.

Cardinal Series Two: Blackfly Season

card2.jpgCardinal returns for another six-episodes of murder and intrigue. Readers may recall my post last year about the first season of the show, which was very impressive but distracted me with a ‘where have I see that face before..?’ mystery that was only solved at the end when I realised series lead Billy Campbell was the Rocketeer from Disney’s 1990 movie.  The soft-spoken, craggy, life-worn John Cardinal and his internalized emotional turmoil is a long way from the fresh-faced innocent hero of the Disney adventure, and Campbell is again brilliant as the core of this drama.

Based on a series of books by author Giles Blunt (season one based on Forty Words for Snow), Cardinal is a detective drama in a similar mould to so many others on tv. What perhaps helps set this aside from others is its setting, in the fairly wild landscapes of Canada and the urban sprawl of Alonquin Bay, a fictional version of North Bay, Ontario.

While the first season was set in winter, its icy locale a perfect setting for the chilling murders it depicted, this second season is set in the summer, which immediately both distinguishes this season from the other but also lessens the show’s mood and impact that helped set it apart. That said, I did find it helped the show feel fresh and surprising. The wide vistas of snow are replaced with landscapes of green, and characters plagued  (as the season title and book it is based upon, Blackfly Season, would infer) by summer flies and procedural investigation of forensic studies of maggots in decaying flesh of victims. Yes, this is gruesome stuff in places. So the show feels a little different due to the change of season, but much of the rest remains the same, and there’s not much wrong with that when it all worked so well first time around.

If I had any fault with it, maybe it would be the odd behaviour of some characters who were just annoyingly stupid and irritatingly weak in places, but that is possibly fault of the original literary source rather than the show-runners, and hey, maybe its all just to serve the drama when we shout at the television screen at crass dumbness and smugly watch its inevitable results.

Fairly concise at just six episodes, this is a show that feels similar to BBC dramas over here that run a similar length – it doesn’t outstay its welcome and rewards inevitable binge-viewing. I’ve read that a third season has already been shot and a fourth has been greenlit, so there’s more to look forward to, which is good news indeed. John Cardinal is a fascinating character well-realised by Campbell and considering the closing events of this season, I am very curious about where the show takes him next year.

Hard Sun – Series One (2018)

hard1.jpegPre-apocalypse crime drama Hard Sun is so much of its time its quite fascinating. To manage budget etc the series is a co-production between the BBC and Hulu in the United States, and while it is being aired weekly as tradition, when the first episode aired the full series was put up on iplayer so that viewers could binge-watch it if they wished- not the first nod by the BBC towards how people seem to be accessing content theses days.

So while I’ve just watched the full six episodes I’m also fully aware that some may be waiting for the weekly episodes to air, so will keep this review spoiler-free. Suffice to say after a rocky start the series found its footing with episode three and to my surprise actually delivered a really good ending, leaving me hopeful that we’ll see series two. Writer/producer Neil Cross has stated he hopes the show will run for five series (a number that will seem obvious/fitting for those that watch the show) so with a little luck, who knows?

(On the one hand I enjoy these ‘long’ sagas but on the other, I’m a little contemptuous that I’m expected to wait several years to witness any ‘full’ story to its conclusion- JMS and his Babylon 5 have such a lot to answer for, sometimes).

Another aspect in which Hard Sun reflects the current time it is made in, and negatively in my eyes, is the current post-Game of Thrones trend for shock -for-shock’s sake and sudden twists in plot and character behaviour which is intended to keep viewers on their toes but which also can undermine credibility. In just the same way as foreign crime dramas like The Bridge or Cardinal have done, events and circumstances are just pushed too far into the sensationalist realm for real credibility, if only to keep viewers attention away from the remote. For instance, during the second episode our heroine is sitting in a car with a fairly minor character, chatting, when she suddenly jumps on him for casual sex. It’s so out of leftfield, and has no impact on anything that follows, that it’s surely just a sudden twist of spice to shock/entertain/wake up the viewer.

Restraint, in my eyes, should have been the order of the day. The basic premise -in which government intelligence agencies are murdering/disappearing/ruining whoever stumbles upon the shocking truth that the world is doomed- is fantastic and Orwellian enough without graphic violence/murders and complicated protagonists with bizarre life histories. But of course, that’s all so very 1970s and this is the wild 2010s and our tv is edgy and shocking and fast-paced.

So I may seem rather disparaging- it’s perfectly fine for what it is, but yes, the Game of Thrones dynamic seems to be infecting everything these days and I think it’s a pity. A calmer, more level-headed, down-to-Earth series may have seemed less exciting for today’s audiences but it would have been more effective, for me anyway. What’s wrong with normal characters, normal relationships, why spice it all up with bad cops/murderers/rape victims etc? Isn’t the End Of The World enough?

Still. I do hope we get another series.

I know your face, Cardinal…

d12017.31: Cardinal- Season One (2017)

By the second episode of this six-part crime drama, I was hooked- but also bugged by a distant familiarity with the actor playing the titular detective. Where the hell had I seen him before? This kind of thing bothers me all the time these days. He looked familiar and yet… not. Even his name, Billy Campbell, seemed familiar. Yet I couldn’t place the name or the face. This is exactly the kind of thing that the internet is made for, but I was being stubborn, I’d figure this out eventually….

Only I didn’t. The internet finally won. In my defence, it had been 26 years.

Billy Campbell was the star of the 1991 film The Rocketeer, which was the last thing that I had ever seen him in (although that wasn’t exactly true, as apparently he’d been in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and an episode of Frasier, according to IMDB).  Anyway, nowadays he’s older, craggier, greyer… yes, an infinitely more lived-in face compared to the youthful charms of his heroic character in the Disney film. I loved The Rocketeer. I saw it at the cinema and thought it was great, but it turned out to be another one of those films that deserves a sequel but fails to muster an audience, instead getting sidelined to the kerbside of movie history.

Cardinal is a Canadian series with much in common with such crime dramas as The Killing or The Bridge and so many others. Its graphic, relentlessly serious, dealing with isolation and serial murders and complicated detectives. Not as good as the first series of True Detective (but then again, what is?), but certainly well worth watching. Being set in Canada in freezing-cold locales buried in snow it looks as cold as its grim subject. If I were to offer any criticism its that it never really attempts to get under the skin of its criminal/s, instead finding the titular detective a more interesting character to dissect- which is fine, it’s just that kind of detective show where the nominal ‘hero’ is the real subject. It just leaves much of the grisly murders and their methodology unexplained. In hindsight, that may be a good thing- some things can’t be explained, some twisted psyches too twisted to make sense from, but there is a vagueness to it that is a little frustrating. Yes, Cardinal himself is fascinating and layered and Billy Campbell very good in the role, but… the murders, man.. all the torture and graphic gore. Whats it all about? What makes the bad guy/s (I’m being deliberately vague here, incase you’ve not seen it) tick?

So anyway, a pretty impressive show and apparently immediately greenlit for two more seasons. Well, there’s something to look forward to next year. At least next time I won’t be distracted by where the hell I’ve seen that guy before.

(In my defence, he looks so much different without that rocket on his back).