Tag Archives: drama

Gary Oldman shines in DARKEST HOUR (2017) – Cinema Review

DARKEST HOUR (2017) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by: Joe Wright

Produced by: Tim Bevan, Lisa Bruce, Eric Fellner, Anthony McCarten, Douglas

Written by: Anthony McCarten

Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn

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What makes human beings want to go to war?  What is it that determines thoughts and actions which will lead to the death of another human being? Is it: a genetic trait; a tribal desire; a psychological defect; financial gain; jealousy; boredom; passion; political chicanery; religion; greed; anger; revenge; or quite simply madness. Taking a life is something I have never understood. I mean, unless you are forced to defend yourself against a foe hell-bent on your destruction why would you wish to harm anyone else?

So, Adolf Hitler has a lot to answer for because, even accepting the political and social reasons for the rise of the Nazi party and his desire to repair national pride after the first World War, what the hell gives a nation the right to invade and conquer other countries. If you choose to go down that road you are signing the death certificate of a generation men and women and children. It’s not just Germany either. The British Empire, Roman Empire, Vikings, Mongols, United States of America, France and many more have waged war against humanity down the years. Will it ever stop? Sadly, I doubt it.

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In times of war what is needed is obviously bravery, steel, fight, intelligence and more than a little luck. You need hearty human beings to stand and be counted and to die on the battlefields and in the air and in the sea. You also need leaders; figureheads who can rally the troops and galvanise that last ounce of fight in order to repel the enemy. During World War II, with the country on its knees and backs to the walls we had many leaders, but Winston Churchill, above all else, became synonymous with victory.

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As portrayed in Joe Wright’s beautifully shot microcosmic epic, Darkest Hour, Churchill is presented as a flawed-pink-pyjama’d-cigar-chuffing-blustering-iconoclastic-functioning-alcholic prone to fits of rage, melancholy and depression. He also happens to be devilishly intelligent, full of energy, with a wicked tongue and talent for brilliant oration. Much of the plaudits must go to Gary Oldman, and his make-up team, for creating such a wonderfully human portrait. Indeed, Oldman owns the screen with his damned-near perfect impression.

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Anthony McCarten’s fine script centres on a finite number of days during World War II when Churchill became Prime Minister. Aside from one emotionally effective yet historically grating symbolic scene on the London underground, is it well written with fantastic one-liners and Churchill’s greatest verbal ‘hits’. Joe Wright is a talented director (the mis-guided Pan (2015) aside) and he evocatively conveys the shadow of looming defeat. Wright traps Churchill and ensemble in cars, lifts and in underground chambers. Shafts of light also pin the characters to the corners of the screen; pushing them toward the darkness. But through the spirit of Churchill’s never-say-die attitude we fought back against the Nazis and eventually stole victory from the jaws of defeat. War is hell. War is madness. But sometimes it is unfortunately a necessity to prevent the bullies from winning.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11

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MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #12 – STANLEY KUBRICK – incorporating a visit to THE KUBRICK EXHIBITION, COPENHAGEN

MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #12 – STANLEY KUBRICK – incorporating a visit to THE KUBRICK EXHIBITION, COPENHAGEN

Stanley Kubrick and I do not have many things in common. But one of them is we both, when he was still with us, hate flying. From some limited research I learnt that Kubrick was in fact a qualified pilot but following an incident in the air it scared him to the extent he refused to fly again. The famous story of recreating the major parts of war-torn Vietnam in London because of this during the making of Full Metal Jacket (1987) has subsequently gone into cinematic folklore.

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I hate flying for a number of reasons. Firstly, I am a science ignoramus and therefore cannot get my head around how that big hunk of metal can actually take off. Moreover, the fear of being trapped somewhere that in a crash situation means I am NOT getting out alive is too much to bear. I mean, on a boat or train or driving in your car you’ve got a fighting chance, but on a plane you’re up cloud creek without a paddle. More prosaically, I do NOT enjoy travelling on planes. Aside from being able to get a beer at seven in the morning, flying is just pointless to me. I don’t really even like holidays. You only have to come back and the relaxation you earned is ruined by the stress of having to fly back home.

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I realise these are first world problems but for me to get on a plane is a big deal. Yet, my wife loves travelling and visiting new places so as an appeasement exercise I agreed to go to Copenhagen. What sweetened the deal though is we both love the films of Stanley Kubrick and, given it has yet to come to London, decided to go visit said exhibition before it ended in January 2018. I am glad I did. It was brilliant.

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As the photos show every one of Kubrick’s completed and non-completed projects were given a wonderfully curated and considered display. There were: props; scripts; clapperboards, letters from fans; video and audio-clips; letters of protests from angry cinemagoers; costumes; set miniatures; and hundreds of production documents identifying the famed meticulousness of Kubrick’s productions. It was an Aladdin’s Cave of Kubrick’s filmic life and well worth getting lost in for several hours. One hopes it comes to London soon so I can go again!

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So much has been written about Stanley Kubrick’s techniques, philosophies and film modus operandi, that rather than offer technical or thematic analysis I’d like to consider the personal impact Kubrick has had on my life. All I can say is that from an emotional level here is a filmmaker who has been with me as far back as I can remember. I recall watching The Killing (1956) on BBC2 in England when I was eleven and marvelling at the incredibly metronomic and overlapping structure. Then, at Christmas later that year, I recall watching Spartacus (1960) on TV with the family and enjoying the blood and guts and heroism of the lead character. I revelled in the Roman baddies being thwarted by a mere slave. When I found out a few years later they were directed by the same person I did not believe it; it blew my mind.

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With this knowledge and experience in mind, I consciously or otherwise looked out for other works by Stanley Kubrick. My memory is hazy but in my late teens I found Paths of Glory (1957) showing, no doubt on BBC2 (we still only had four channels then in England), and I recorded it on VHS and watched it over and over. Knowing nothing of the filmmaking process I was impacted by the incredible tracking shots putting us in the heart of the action. Timothy Carey, who stole the show as a vicious criminal in The Killing, again really stood out in this classic WWI anti-war film. But like in Spartacus, Kirk Douglas was fierce in his performance and his noble character protests against the injustice of the ruling powers within the poisonous French hierarchy.

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One film of Kubrick’s I never quite got into was Lolita (1962). I tried to read the novel many years ago but my young brain found it impenetrable.  Similarly, the film is a very dark comedy with a risqué theme of illicit romance and sexual awakening. The film was very controversial on release and Kubrick’s one film I have not watched many times but my feeling is that Kubrick was attracted to the weaknesses of masculinity in this work. Now, perhaps it is a sexist and lascivious film but I would need to re-watch it now to be able to fully commit to a clear critical view. One wonders if it would be made now given its context and complexity of gender and paedophilic representations. The PC, Neo-Millenials and feminist agendas would certainly have something to say about it and they would probably have a point. My feeling is though we should be allowed to make up our own mind on controversial works rather than carrying flaming torches on the internet threatening to burn anything that may be deemed controversial.

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Another film which is sexual, but this time more symbolically when compared to Lolita, is the anti-nuclear masterpiece Dr Strangelove: or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Having watched it more recently and gained knowledge from the wonderful Kubrick exhibition, this scary and hilarious satire is filled with stupid, impotent and warring men bickering and squabbling over the future of a possible nuclear attack. It’s incredible to think that at the time of the Cold War a filmmaker could turn the fear of an atomic bomb attack into a comedy. But that is the genius of Stanley Kubrick because as an iconoclast he did just that. Like Paths of Glory, which was banned by the French government, the film garnered the ire of the military as Kubrick showed he wasn’t afraid to criticize those in power once again.

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2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is another film which, like Lolita, was one I did not see until years later. It was rarely on the television and only watching subsequent cinematic re-releases have I basked in the glory of this science-fiction classic. Kubrick’s work has sometimes been accused of formalism and technique over emotion and arguably 2001: A Space Odyssey is his most accomplished technical achievement. Yet the emotion is derived from the intellectual and philosophical journey of early man to that of enigmatic ‘Star Child’. One wonders at the combination of music and images to create a startling dialectic of wonderment, awe and enigma. What it all means is open to many interpretations and that too was the genius of Kubrick; there was rarely an easy answer to the themes raised in his films.

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While I admire 2001: A Space Odyssey more from afar, his next film  A Clockwork Orange (1971), is one which I have close cultural connections to. Of course, it was released when I was a baby but on entering my late teens the controversy caused on its release had still managed to reach the chattering testosterone of the boys’ school I attended. Here was a violent, sexual, sexist, profane, dystopic, misanthropic film with blood and nudity that had been banned (later I would find it had been withdrawn by Kubrick himself) AND WE MUST NOT SEE! Obviously that meant we HAD to see it. Alas, I didn’t see it until one evening, as a surprised 22 year old, at the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross when it shown illegally as a ‘secret’ film. Subsequently, this action by the above-underground repertory cinema caused legal action by Warner Bros., eventually forcing the cinema to close.

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Even without seeing A Clockwork Orange, before it’s bootleg London screening, I had immersed myself in the music on vinyl, bought posters, watched a theatrical presentation starring Phil Daniels; and of course read Burgess’s incredible novel a number of times. Myself and my brother loved the language and iconography and the danger of the piece. This is why censorship of all kinds can backfire because when you’re told you’re not allowed to see something it makes you want to watch it even more. Nonetheless, A Clockwork Orange would eventually be released openly and it still stands the test of time as a virulent and scathing attack on Governmental control of the proletariat. Of course, Alex the anti-hero is a psychopathic nightmare and a reflection of the brutal society established within the film and book. Again, Kubrick and Burgess’ original book can offer little in the way of solutions but rather a coruscating critique of humanity via an ultra-stylish and formidable cinematic and literary language.

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Kubrick’s next film following the Clockwork Orange controversy was Barry Lyndon (1975). Kubrick had put his typically meticulous planning into a film about Napoleon Bonaparte only for this to fall down for commercial reasons and the budget was then put towards another period drama. I have to admit I did not see Barry Lyndon in full until it was shown on Film Four a few years ago. I subsequently saw it again last year – restored to a 35mm print – at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square and was thoroughly absorbed by the tragic tale of the eponymous leading character. Kubrick’s insistent to shoot in low or candlelight gave the film a heavenly and picturesque glow; fascinating also was the structure of the film as Barry Lyndon’s life plays out via fate and a series of random misadventures. It reminded me somewhat of Forrest Gump (1994) where war and misfortune happen to and around him, while both films end similarly with familial tragedy. Many of Kubrick’s other films have rightly gained classic status with Barry Lyndon perhaps seen as a lesser film. But for me, the imagery and cinematography alone make it a masterpiece for me.

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Like A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining was a film released around the time of the 1980s “video-nasty” era and I watched a lot of those films on VHS. This was the time where my love of horror was formed and despite the enigmatic ending being lost on a dopey 12 year-old, I loved this story of a psychotic Jack Nicholson going mad and attacking his family. It was only years later on further re-watches that I fully appreciated the macabre psychological subtlety of the unfolding detachment from reality, which occurs to Jack Torrance. Of course, everyone recalls the “Here’s Johnny!” moment and is scared to death by his twisted actions, but everything before that is brilliant, as it masterfully builds and creates dread amidst iconic images including: the twin girls, red-patterned carpet, the maze and the creepy barman in the Overlook Hotel. Stephen King, apparently doesn’t rate Kubrick’s The Shining but I think he is wrong. I know he changed King’s excellent novel to fit his own vision but Kubrick’s The Shining stands the test of time today.

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Kubrick’s final two films, Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) thankfully came out when I was old enough to see them at the cinema. Both are what I consider classic Kubrick mirrored structures. That is they are split into two long acts rather than the traditional three-act structure present in most classical Hollywood films. In Full Metal Jacket we establish the rigours of training Marines involving, from the film’s point-of-view, the dehumanizing stripping of humanity in order to turn men into killing machines. The second-half places such men into the Vietnam War and finds them lost in a black mirror of death and despair, attempting to make sense of the carnage around them. Such themes as the follies of war and damaging arrogance of those in rule are prevalent throughout his work including this film, Barry Lyndon, Dr Strangelove and Paths of Glory.

Having failed to get projects such as The Aryan Papers and Artificial Intelligence to the screen his next feature, Eyes Wide Shut, alas, was Kubrick’s final film. It benefits from close to career best performances from then married Nicole Kidman and Hollywood star Tom Cruise. I recall seeing it at a cinema in Fulham Road and my first reaction was it seemed unreal and ungrounded. The explicit sex scenes seemed stagey and were exploitational; plus Nicole Kidman’s acting aside the whole thing did not work for me on any level. Of course though the film, like many of Kubrick’s works, need to be viewed more than once for the nuance and subtle psychologies at work to seep through into one’s psyche. On further views of Eyes Wide Shut, the dark comedy and tragedy at work contextualises the sexual depravity on show revealing a dreamlike structure and strong moral compass which leads you to the conclusion hedonism and freedom of physical expression are empty vessels and vacuous pursuits compared to the relative safety of love, family and marriage.

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Walking round the Stanley Kubrick exhibition was a fantastic experience. Not only to revel in the artistic bricolage of the genius filmmakers’ oeuvre and history, but also to tread through my own memories of growing older watching Kubrick’s works. This and Copenhagen as a whole made it worth my while getting on a plane and suffering the stress of flight to venture to Denmark; where something totally not rotten was going on.

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2017 – MY FAVOURITE TWELVE TV SHOWS OF THE YEAR

2017 – MY FAVOURITE TWELVE TV SHOWS OF THE YEAR

Our TV watching experiences are very different now with the various platforms available, so the idea of viewing shows live and week-to-week is a thing of the past. Moreover, the quality bar and production values of television programmes are getting even higher; especially where HBO, Amazon, Showtime and Netflix are concerned.

I have my perennial favourites so my list this year may look very similar to last year (see below), yet I’ve not yet seen the latest seasons of Better Call Saul or Black Mirror yet. Neither did I see the much lauded shows: Twin Peaks: The Return, The Deuce or anything on Amazon but overall it was a great for new TV shows and some classic long-running programmes.

FAVOURITE TWELVE TV SHOWS OF 2016 (in alphabetical order)

BETTER CALL SAUL (2016) – SEASON 2
BILLIONS (2016) – SEASON 1
DAREDEVIL (2016) – SEASON 2
FARGO (2015) – SEASON 2
GAME OF THRONES (2016) – SEASON 6
GOMORRAH (2016) – SEASON 2
IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA (2016) – SEASON 11
MAKING A MURDERER (2015) – SEASON 1
PENNY DREADFUL (2016) – SEASON 3
SOUTH PARK (2016) – SEASON 20
STEWART LEE’S COMEDY VEHICLE (2016) – SEASON 4
WESTWORLD (2016) – SEASON 1

 

FAVOURITE TWELVE TV SHOWS OF 2017 (in alpha order)

BIG LITTLE LIES (2017) – HBO

“. . .  inter-weaving stories concerning an unknown murder victim; school bullying; warring parents; extra-marital affairs; and the abusive relationships, is expertly played out over seven compelling episodes.”

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CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM – SEASON 9 (2017) – HBO

“. . . Curb Your Enthusiasm comes back as if has never been away as it revels further in the adventures of Larry David’s pedantry, un-PC behaviour, poor decisions, risky statements and strict adherence to the social etiquette and unwritten rules of life!”

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FARGO – SEASON 3 – FOX / CHANNEL 4

“. . . Slyly satirising the police procedural drama with off-centre plot twists and dark humour, David Thewlis’s scumbag businessman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead crafty femme fatale steal the show in Season 3 of Noah Hawley’s pitch perfect Coen Brothers’ pastiche.”

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GAME OF THRONES
(2017) – SEASON 7 – HBO

“. . . containing great direction, acting, design and character twists throughout and while it felt rushed at times these seven episodes were still amazing from my perspective! And the dragons and zombies and battles and death! Winter is definitely here!”

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HANDMAID’S TALE (2017) – HULU

“. . . containing suggestions of hope, light, rebellion and solidarity in a grim, patriarchal world which crushes life and colour; this impressively directed, acted and shot series had me transfixed throughout. Elizabeth Moss is a revelation. . .”

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IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA (2017) – SEASON 12

“. . . In the current superb 12th season one episode is presented from a supporting characters dream; while the most impressively detailed formal presentation has Dennis becoming a god-like TV director. This intelligence keeps the show fresh and funny.”

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LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN – 20TH ANNIVERSARY (2017) – BBC

“. . . Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson are geniuses! In 1999 they brought an array of beautifully ugly comedic grotesques to the TV screen. After 3 seasons, stage tours and a movie the League of Gentlemen ceased. But they were back at Christmas with three episodes of brilliant black comedic sketches and set-pieces.”

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LEGION (2017) – FOX

“. . . as imaginative and original take on the mutant/X-Men genre you are going to find. It also very cleverly melds themes relating to: mutation, telekinesis, disassociation and schizophrenia expertly; while Aubrey Plaza and Dan Stevens are incredible in the show.”

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MINDHUNTER (2017) – NETFLIX

“. . . both dark and stylish, this David Fincher production, created by writer Joe Penhall, took elements from Zodiac (2007), Silence of the Lambs (1991) and standard FBI procedural dramas to brilliantly highlight the embryonic stages of the serial-killing profiling team.”

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SOUTH PARK – SEASON 21 – SOUTH PARK STUDIOS

“. . . The bar was raised SO high by Season 19 that Season 20 was bound to suffer, especially in the complex serialization approach. Yet, Parker and Stone are back in Season 21 with satire of the highest order! Some classic episodes such as: Sons of Witches, Put it Down and Hummels and Heroin and more, made this must-watch classic comedy.”

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STRANGER THINGS 2 (2017) – NETFLIX

“. . .Netflix’s first season sci-fi-80s-Spielberg-King-Carpenter-nostalgia-fest was arguably padded out and over-hyped; but Season 2, after a slow start, really hit the ground running as the small town kids battle inter-dimensional monsters with fantastic style and scares.”

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THE YOUNG POPE (2016) – HBO

“. . .  The Young Pope contains some wry and delicate humour too. I mean ten episodes of a Vatican-based comedy it isn’t, but Paulo Sorrentino’s skewed look shows the priests and nuns, not as higher beings but rather flawed humans like the rest of us.”

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TO CODA:

Of course, there’s probably loads of shows I’ve missed, yet I must make a special mention for the old BBC classic , Doctor Who, which while not on the above list, makes it in spirit. While the show is now older than time there were a few great episodes in Peter Capaldi’s final season as the eccentric and genius Time Lord! So, I bid you bon voyage and here’s to productive viewing in 2018.

 

 

SCREENWASH – BBC DRAMA REVIEWS

SCREENWASH – BBC DRAMA REVIEWS

Over the past few months I’ve focussed my extra-curricular viewing on BBC produced dramas via the BBC channels and catch-up on Netflix. The British Broadcasting Corporation, being the public-service-tax-payer-funded-beast that it is has a commitment to produce quality programming for national viewing and also overseas sales too. I then got to thinking; why not check out where some of my £12.12 per month money goes. So, here are some bitesize reviews of recent BBC dramas with marks out of the usual eleven.

**CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS**

THE CHILD IN TIME (2017)

Based on Ian McEwan’s prize-winning novel this was an interesting drama which worked in many respects but did not quite connect in others. Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly McDonald are parents whose child goes missing while out shopping. The drama and grief of this was very well evoked but the supporting story of a publisher’s regression and mental collapse did not quite thematically meld for me. No doubt McEwan’s original source is a master work and I enjoyed many of the emotional moments provided by the excellent acting. (Mark: 8 out of 11)

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DOCTOR FOSTER – SEASON 1 (2015) + SEASON 2 (2017)

Suranne Jones is absolutely stunning in this domestic drama written by Mike Bartlett. She acts her heart and soul out as the eponymous GP, who in the face of her husband’s suspected infidelity, attempts to find both the truth and maintain her family unit and sanity. It’s a brilliantly written TV series which creates great drama from the “whodunnit” aspect of the potential spousal treachery. Plus, in addition to the Hitchcockian elements Dr Foster herself is very unpredictable in her actions; making for some nail-biting scenes. Bertie Carvel also excels as the charismatic husband and the second season, while not reaching the emotional heights of the first, and feeling more contrived, had some decent dramatic twists too.

(Season 1 – Mark: 9.5 out of 11)
(Season 2 – Mark: 8 out of 11)

LONDON SPY (2015)

The always-impactful actor Ben Whishaw is superbly supported by thespian giants Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling in this obtuse spy thriller. Playing a troubled warehouse worker called Danny, Whishaw falls for the enigmatic genius, Alex (Edward Holcroft); and is thrown into a murky and murderous world of spymasters and upper-class family feuds. Beautifully acted and designed the story moved too slowly for me. Over five episodes the slow-bleed plot of character despair, double-crosses and cover-ups did not sustain the suspense and tension throughout.  (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)

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THE SECRET OF CRICKLEY HALL (2012)

Suranne Jones (again!) leads the acting line in an earlier post-Coronation Street role. She portrays a mother who, along with her family, seeks the solace of the countryside after their young child has gone missing. However, the house they reside in is haunted by ghosts from the past and as the family attempt to overcome their grief, evil spirits threaten their present. The contemporary narrative works well with the wartime scenes in a decent haunted house scenario that was adapted from the book by horror legend James Herbert; also featuring an early role for Maisie Williams. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)

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SMALL ISLAND (2009)

Notable for its excellent ensemble cast and featuring before-they-were-famous roles for: Ruth Wilson, David Oyelowo, Naomi Harris, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ashley Walters, this excellent drama focussed on the war and post-war lives of several disparate characters whose lives become intertwined by fate. Based on Andrea Levy’s novel it is especially rich in regard to the diasporic characterizations and experiences of Jamaican immigrants in war-torn England. The writing is solid and there’s some fine acting and emotional moments to keep one enthralled and I enjoyed how the stories dovetailed dramatically at the end. (Mark: 8 out of 11)

TOP OF THE LAKE (2013)

Hey, what if Jane Campion wrote and directed a cop drama? Well, the answer is Top of the Lake!  This is a slow-burn, who-why-how-dunnit with a superb cast, beautiful New Zealand vistas and eccentric, dark characters. Some may find it too slow and artsy, while certain decisions by the characters and plot turns were intriguingly weird. However, Elizabeth Moss excels as the burnt-out cop (is there any other kind?) searching for a missing pregnant teenager, while Peter Mullan is suitably vicious as the rural patriarch; and Holly Hunter is fantastic too as the leader of a women’s commune. Overall, Campion’s barbed world-view satirizes humanity and cop show clichés in a compelling crime drama. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)

TOP OF THE LAKE 2: CHINA GIRL (2017)

Screened earlier this year on the BBC, the follow-up finds Elizabeth Moss, now back in Sydney, tracking down the killer of an Asian prostitute while battling illegal adoption rings and all manner of sexist-pig-men. Like the original it pulls you in with its richly drawn characters and brilliant cast all committing to the lurid and quirky plotlines. Moss is always reliable and does the brooding, melancholic and troubled cop perfectly, while Nicole Kidman is brilliant as the middle-class academic out of her depth with the emotions of her adopted daughter. The sinister beta-male-nemesis Puss portrayed by David Dencik was a great rendition of spurious masculinity while it was great to see Gwendoline Christie out of her Game of Thrones armour, as a naïve rookie cop assisting Moss’ detective. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)

TRUST ME (2017)

Jodie “New Doctor Who” Whittaker leads the cast as a downtrodden nurse and single-mum struggling with an NHS cover-up over poor service delivery. Faced with the sack she decides to engage in a cover-up herself by taking on the identity of a Doctor; and then the real drama kicks in. Whittaker is very empathetic and natural, while the suspense was very thrilling at times as her character gets deeper and deeper into the mire. Overall, it was a very tense and fun medical drama which made some very good social points in regards to a Doctors’ life and the NHS in general. Ultimately, it made me appreciate what the NHS does for us but also want to avoid getting ill in the future too!

(Mark: 8.5 out of 11)

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WAR AND PEACE (2016)

Well, the BBC certainly pushed the budget boat out on this one with a who’s who of new and experienced acting talent including: Jim Broadbent, Paul Dano, Lily James, Tuppence Middleton, Aneurin Barnard, Adrian Edmondson, Jessie Buckley, Tom Burke, Rebecca Front, Greta Scacchi, Brian Cox, Stephen Rea, Gillian Anderson and many more. Adapting Tolstoy’s gigantic and classic doorstop novel must have been some feat and it is indeed and sumptuous and incredible production. As a drama it drew me in with its’ stories of over-privileged Russian lives set during the Napoleonic wars as they live, love, cheat, duel, war and die. Yet, while I did not feel too much empathy for the characters, the acting, design and directing is a joy to behold and I garnered a certain hypnotic pleasure bathing in the high quality of the whole shebang. (Mark: 8 out of 11)

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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) – LONDON FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW 2017

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) – LFF REVIEW 2017

“There’s no question that a great script is absolutely essential, maybe the essential thing for a movie to succeed.”Sydney Pollack

Directors are often held up by critics and audience alike as the God’s of film; controlling and pointing and designing and envisioning and corralling their mass creative power to thrust upon the cinema screen. Of course, with many directors or auteurs, the lofty praise is deserved but hey, did they create that vision or story or character arc in a vacuum? No, they had blueprint on a page first. They had a screenplay written by themselves or a determined writer or writing team sitting in a windowless office smoking a thousand cigarettes while slaving to get words on a page in some semblance of a coherent filmic fashion. It seems obvious to say but a great screenplay is the (skeleton) key for any great film; it’s the bones with which to hang the meat and muscle and later the clothes of any movie.  Without powerful bones a film will not stand strong. It will fall.

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Screenwriter (and director) Martin McDonagh has, in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri constructed one of, if not the most, formidable screenplays of the year.  As a playwright he won many awards for his works and his film, In Bruges (2008), was a deceptively simple story of two hitmen on the run which, with rich thematic power, became a darkly hilarious existential comedy-drama. His follow-up Seven Psychopaths (2012) was a heady mix of criminals versus writers in a meta-fictional Hollywood-based narrative; which while brilliantly written and performed arguably lacked the punch of In Bruges. Now, with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh has delivered his best film to date; a highly emotional human drama which contains some of incredible characterization, dialogue and zinging one-liners which bounce off the page and crackle on the screen.

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Eschewing a more traditional structure the script’s inciting event – the murder of a young girl called Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) – has already occurred and therefore we are thrust immediately into the grief of main protagonist Mildred Hayes, portrayed with an iron veneer by the remarkable Frances McDormand. Her study of a grieving Mother, who is no longer prepared to sit by and wait for her daughter’s killers to be found, is awe-inspiring. Firing a rocket into the patriarchal-dominated police department ran by Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) she sets in motion a series of unforgettably tragic, violent and blackly comedic scenes.  In using the three billboards to question Willoughby’s investigation she utilises physical media as a larger form of the ‘Scarlet Letter’; an old fashioned “name and shame” device. Because Mildred, is refreshingly traditional and old-fashioned and in rural, small-town America the Internet just won’t hack it for her. She is about direct, in-your-face and ballsy action.

As a study of grief this is similar in feel to the majestic Manchester-by-the-Sea (2016) and no doubt, like Kenneth Lonergan, McDonagh will be picking up many awards for his nuanced screenplay. He imbues each of the characters with a flawed, yet rounded humanity. He takes risks by making his main protagonist, despite her loss, kind of unlikeable. Yet we are always with Mildred because she is righteous and swimming against the tide of authority and masculine dominance. Plus, she surprises us with her actions and language and violence. Below the tough exterior though there is also a vulnerability which makes us love her too and empathise fully with her loss.

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McDonagh and his filmmaking team have also put together a phenomenal ensemble cast including: Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, and Abbie Cornish etc. Sam Rockwell is especially memorable as the immature, inept and thuggish mother’s boy, Jason Dixon. His scenes with both Frances McDormand and his on-screen Mother, played with deadpan gusto by Sandy Martin, crack with complex emotion and humour. Collectively they portray imperfect characters whose lives have not just been dealt a bum hand but their situation is exacerbated by poor decisions based on emotion and frustration with life and the world. Ultimately, this is an excellent cinematic experience funny, shocking and moving; only possible because of the expert script from a great writer.

(Mark: 10 out of 11 – and the script goes up to 11!)

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017) – LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017 REVIEW

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017) – LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017 REVIEW

“Through me you go into a city of weeping; through me you go into eternal pain; through me you go amongst the lost people.”
Dante Alighieri, The Inferno

**CONTAINS MINIMAL SPOILERS**

The concept of Katabasis is a descent of some kind, such as moving downhill, or a military retreat, or in this context, a violent journey into the underworld. The term has multiple related meanings in poetry, psychology and Greek Mythology. Heroes such as: Orpheus, Odysseus and Lazarus went down into the depths of Hades to locate lost loved ones, collect information and battle their demons. Conversely, writer-director S. Craig Waller has produced something akin to Sam Peckinpah reinventing the story of Orpheus. But instead of employing beautiful music to crush the enemy, Waller’s anti-hero Bradley Thomas, uses his fists, head, body, bats, bars, guns, and hulking power to defeat his foes.

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The story opens with a stunning shot from behind of Vince Vaughn’s bald, bulking head emblazoned with a startling crucifix tattoo. As a means of establishing character and showing us the world we’re in it is emphatic, visceral and deviously economic. You know immediately not to mess with Bradley Thomas as he is a coiled spring of masculine power, yet he also has a strong moral compass. Finding himself out-of-work and in difficult financial times, Thomas takes up drug courier work to support his pregnant wife portrayed by Jennifer Carpenter. All is going smoothly until a deal with a Mexican drug cartel goes awry and, from when Thomas enters prison, all manner of sickening and brutal hell breaks loose.

The film is shot on a low budget but the style is impressive. The cinematographer, Benji Bakshi, along with the director Waller, are brave in their choices; utilising natural light, drained colours, shadows and darkness. Often Thomas’ is lit by a slit or shaft or box of light as his character finds himself trapped in corridors and cells as well as his own life choices. Much will also be made of the ultra-violence which includes some impressive bone-crunching Foley sound work. But, the hyper-real violence, while reminiscent of the cartoon horror gore of early Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series, is paradoxically not exploitative. This is because it is contextualised within the brutal crime setting and driven by Thomas’ powerful desire to save the people he loves.

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The screenplay, also written by Waller, is full of witty one-liners and deadpan repartee between hard-bitten, desperate criminals and jailers who look as though they have been transported right out of hard-pipe thrillers such as: John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and Don Siegel’s crime gem Charley Varrick (1973).  While over two hours long the plot moves pretty quickly, yet Waller takes his time deliberately building character, suspense and tension before busting out into spectacular violence. Having previously directed the stunning B-movie Western Bone Tomahawk (2015), S. Craig Waller is certainly making a name for himself as an independent film director of some note.

Waller finds a compelling cinematic partner-in-crime in Vince Vaughn too. Vaughn, who burst on the scene with a hilarious performance in brilliant indie-hit Swingers (1996), could be argued to have not lived up to his full acting potential. While he has performed in some excellent movies his CV is also peppered with unfunny comedies, soporific romances and bland family films. Don’t get me wrong, we have to pay the mortgage but there’s always been a nagging sense Vaughn was not utilising his meaty acting ability. Having said that in Hacksaw Ridge (2016) and now Brawl in Cell Block 99, he proves himself to be a character actor of some force. Indeed, his natural comedic timing, muscular frame and searing intensity are all utilised here to mesmeric impact in a career-best performance.

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Katabasis, as aforementioned, is about descent; but the archetypal hero will usually return triumphant in victory. Brawl in Cell Block 99 offers an alternative vision of moral redemption though within Bradley Thomas’ avenging-angel-versus-the-devil narrative. As such, Brawl in Cell Block 99 joins a list of recent lower-budgeted-independent-minded movies such as: Cold in July (2014), Green Room (2015), Out of the Furnace (2013) and Hell or High Water (2016), which rip into the dark underbelly of United States’ industrial and criminal landscape leaving us in no doubt to the destructive nature of the American dream.

(Mark: 9 out of 11)

 

‘THRILL OF THE CHASE’ (SHORTS SCREENING) – LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017 – REVIEW

‘THRILL OF THE CHASE’ – LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017 – REVIEW

As I’ve written before I’m an avid short film viewer and maker. To tell an impactful story in a lesser period of time to a feature film can be a very difficult but ultimately rewarding experience. Plus, as a member of the audience and filmmaker myself I love seeing the different ways other creatives tell their stories in this medium.

‘Thrill of the Chase’ was curated by the London Film Festival and featured five shorts from Europe and I must say they were of the highest quality. I mean some of the budgets on these must have been very good because they were shot, acted and edited to an exceptionally brilliant standard.till-one-cries-2-lff17-793The first short, 1745, was a period pursuit drama. Two slaves, wearing big, colourful, tartan, traditional and unwieldy dresses of the Jacobean era, have escaped from a nearby castle and are chased by a steely Scottish Laird, hell bent on recovering his “property”. It’s incredibly well shot as the colour of the costumes countered the misty, green and vast mountainous landscapes up close and from a spectacular god’s-eye view. Overall, it’s a commendable story of two women escaping patriarchal oppression and abuse, set amidst an exquisite looking but harsh Scottish Highlands.

Next up was Oksijan. Set in the harsh contemporary now it also involved a set of characters escaping an oppressive regime. This time is was a group of Asylum seekers, adults and children, encased in the potential moving tomb of an articulated lorry transporting them from a refugee camp. Their deadly journey from Calais to the United Kingdom was made perilous by the air running out. A thrilling and suspenseful short it both raised the pulse and important issues in regard to the plight of human beings fleeing war torn countries.

After Scottish and English film productions we next had Hot and Cold from Poland. This was a very harsh film, thirty-five minutes long, and all shot in one take. Technically, it was incredible as the camera follows a young junkie mother throughout her day and her encounter with woman looking to get revenge on her husband. It’s a towering study of motherhood, grief and addiction which creates a claustrophobic nightmarish drama with the colour-bled bleakness of Polish council estates. I wasn’t sure the one-take was actually necessary as the narrative could’ve been pruned but it was very powerful nonetheless.

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The final two films came from France and Germany respectively. Both reminded me of mini-versions of excellent feature films. The French film Les Miserables (not the Victor Hugo version) concerned cops on a dangerous estate and their heavy-handed dealings with gang-members. It’s well filmed and acted, containing the bruising feel of the classic French movie La Haine (1995).

Similarly, the final short was another drama but this time of the romantic kind. Till One Cries concerned two drug-addled millennials sharing a crazy night within an urban German milieu. It reminded me somewhat, without the shot-all-in-one-take business, of the brilliant crime-romance Victoria (2015) and showed the hedonistic highs and lows of two free-wheeling characters.

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Overall, the programme was full of gripping drama and thought-provoking subject matter. I’d say the ‘Thrill of the Chase’ title was slightly misleading in my mind, as the films tended toward, not your classic genre thrillers, but rather more social realism and cinema verité rather than movie artifice. Indeed, it may have benefited throwing in a shorter, punchier thriller with an element of comedy to break up the incredibly heavy themes of the films presented. Nevertheless, this was a set of Premier League short films, in terms of production, performance and storytelling quality.