Friday, 5 August 2016

Billions (2016) Season 1 Review

This week, I put on my best power tie, bought low, sold high and invested an entire Sunday into watching the first season of Billions (2016) starring Damien Lewis (Homeland) and Paul Giamatti (American Splendor).

Robert "Bobby" Axelrod (Damien Lewis) is Wall Street's greatest hedge fund manager. Worth, well, billions, Bobby runs Axe Capital at such a high profit rate, you'd think there was some shady deals going on in the background to facilitate it.

You'd be right.

Enter U.S. Attorney Charles "Chuck" Rhoades (Paul Giamatti). Rhoades has made it his mission while in office to go after white collar criminals and prosecute them to the fullest letter of the law. He'll only take on cases he knows he can win, though. After an apparent slip up at Axe Capital, Rhoades finally begins to put together his case against Axelrod. Complicating matters, Rhoades' wife Wendy (Maggie Siff) works at Axe Capital as their head shrinker, creating an obvious conflict of interest. The show quickly becomes a massive game of chess with moves and counter-moves flying fast and furious back and forth.

I'll admit, this is one of the few times I've taken a blind chance with a show I knew nothing about based solely on the lead talent appearing. And, boy, am I glad I did.

Damien Lewis, usually cast as a straight-laced, military type, gets to stretch his legs here as the Wall Street icon Bobby Axelrod. Standing on desks shouting stirring speeches, punching out guys for driving his kids around drunk and buying $80 million beach houses against everyone's advice, Lewis plays Axelrod as a loose cannon who wants for nothing and answers to nobody. It's mesmerizing to watch.

Paul Giamatti, on the other hand, actually keeps himself fairly reserved for most of it. Don't get me wrong, one of the best "F" word users in show business still manages to get himself riled up on occasion, but we get to see a more subtle side to Giamatti and it's great. His cat and mouse game with Lewis is compelling, even if the two actors only share a few minutes of screen time together throughout the first season.

The nicest surprise for me after watching Billions was Maggie Siff. Caught in the middle between these two power hungry titans, Siff plays both ends of it brilliantly. It's a layered, fascinating portrayal of a character that should be hard to relate to, but somehow isn't. I'm looking forward to seeing more of Siff in season 2.

My one complaint with the show has to do with my own knowledge and experience more than anything else. I'm not a stock trader nor do I have many insights into the world of high finance. There are vast tracks of dialogue and a few plot points that sailed right over my head with all the jargon being thrown around. Occasionally, we'll have a third party character on hand representing the audience, asking what that thing is and a bit of exposition to follow, but these moments are few and far between. The over-arching plot is certainly manageable and easy to follow; Rhoades' relentless pursuit of Axelrod. But I found myself getting lost with some of the specifics. Okay, okay, with a lot of the specifics.

Still, don't let that deter you from watching this show. I went in blind, as I mentioned earlier. Had I known it was dealing with Wall Street and the U.S. legal system, I wouldn't have given this a look. I'm glad I gave it a shot as I'm eagerly awaiting season 2.

The look of the show is very well done. The opening is probably the shortest in TV history, yet it works. The snappy dialogue and subtle humour comes across like a Soderberg movie. The settings are spot on, from the shiny glass and metal edifice that is Axe Capital to the cramped and stuffy offices of the U.S. Attorney's office. The whole feel of the series will draw you in and keep you watching.

4 out of 5 stars

Friday, 29 July 2016

Stranger Things (2016) Review

This week, I shut out all the lights, dragged out my blankie and favourite pillow and plopped myself on the couch to check out Stranger Things (2016), the latest (and possibly greatest) TV series from Netflix. 

Stranger Things tells the scary tale of young Will Byers' disappearance in the small town of Hawkins, Illinois, and one mother's insistence that he's still alive. To complicate matters, a young girl with the dubious name "Eleven" shows up out of the blue, barely able to speak but possessing some remarkable abilities. Throw in a trio of adventurous boys (who adopt Eleven) a shadowy government operation, a healthy dose of teen angst and set it all dancing to the tune of the supernatural, and you'll start to get an idea of what Stranger Things is all about. 

I should warn you, before you read any further, there will be spoilers. 

The performances on the show are, for the most part, superb. Millie Bobby Brown especially, who plays the enigmatic Eleven, is such a treat to watch you'll be inpatient for scenes she's not in to finish up quicker. 

The story moves along at a decent pace, giving bits and pieces of the mystery throughout and moving the main plot along while attempting to build some character development. 

In fact, some of the side plots used to fill time and flesh out the characters are my only real complaint with the show.  It's established pretty early that Will's absentee father is a douchebag. I don't think we need more scenes dedicated to this later on. Will's sister Nancy and all her teenage trials and tribulations seems to drag on forever before finally bringing her into the main story. Her interactions with the supernatural side of things are important to the story, the rest of it plays out like a series on the CW. A bad one. Her boyfriend Steve's redemption towards the end of the series doesn't work at all. They spent too much time wanting us to dislike him and gave little motivation for why he'd suddenly turn out to be a great guy after all. 

Still, the overall look, tone and feel works so well you'll assume you're watching a long movie and not a tv series. I've heard and read some people drawing comparisons to Spielberg. Other than the obvious parallels between Eleven and E.T., I don't get the feel of a Spielberg picture at all. For me, it's like John Carpenter worked closely with Stephen King and came up with a series centred on...wait for it...stranger things happening to characters we've come to know and love. Even the ending screams of King and Carpenter, with a little Twin Peaks thrown in for good measure. 

At only 8 episodes, this could be the best weekend binge watching series ever produced. I cannot recommend it highly enough. 

4.5 out of 5 stars