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THE HANDMAID’S TALE (2018) – SEASON 2 – TV REVIEW

THE HANDMAID’S TALE (S2) – TV REVIEW

Based On: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Writer(s): Bruce Miller, Dorothy Fortenberry, Yahlin Chang, Kira Snyder, Eric Tuchmann

Director(s): Mike Barker, Kari Skogland, Jeremy Podeswa, Daina Reid etc.

Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strahovski, Alexis Bledel, Madeline Brewer, Ann Dowd, Max Minghella, Samira Wiley

Release: Hulu (USA), Channel 4 (UK)

** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS **

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Misery, fascism and oppression have never been so stylish as in the Margaret Atwood televisual adaptation of her famous novel The Handmaid’s Tale. If you haven’t seen it then the story finds a major part of the U.S.A in the grip of a new, militarized and hierarchical regime following a brutal civil war. This new totalitarian state is called Gilead and is led by power-mad men who utilise religion, torture and weaponry to invoke their barbaric laws. Hang on, that sounds quite familiar!!  Could the show be quite close to real life? From a certain perspective there is indeed more reality here than allegory.

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At the centre of the drama are the Handmaids.  Due to falling fertility rates only certain women can give birth. Those that still can and considered to be dangerous to the Gilead hierarchy are imprisoned to the leaders’ houses and raped in a ritualistic monthly ordeal. The narrative focusses on the plight of June Osborne – now known as Offred / “Of Fred” – as she deals with having everything stripped away from her. She has no name, no identity, no freedom and above all else has been ripped away from her husband and child; only to be treated no better than a battery hen.

Elisabeth Moss gives an incredible performance as June / Offred. A versatile performer she imbues the complex pathos, strength and fragility required to convey the emotion of events within the story. The second season begins with a now pregnant June escaping from her captors. However, as the series progresses we know that she is not going to get away that easily. Because, this is a harsh drama. It doesn’t just smash home the viciousness of a society which oppresses women, it also illustrates the dangers of allowing fundamentalists to take total control. Executions by hanging and drowning are commonplace; and if you perpetually rebel an individual can be sent to The Colonies for a fate worse than death.

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While the themes and events are sometimes difficult to stomach The Handmaid’s Tale is compelling viewing. Be warned though when one is close to a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel, that light is extinguished as darkness pervades. With a brilliant cast that includes Yvonne Strahovski, Joseph Fiennes and the always-excellent Ann Dowd, this is not just powerful storytelling, it’s incredibly interesting to look at too. The maroons, greens, greys, blacks and whites in the colour scheme create a poetic sense of beauty and doom. The direction, editing, lighting and soundtrack serve the narrative expertly as Margaret Atwood’s dystopic future is illustrated skilfully.  Ultimately, in Elizabeth Moss’ portrayal of June Osborne we have a heroic and resilient character; one who, amidst all the suffering, is determined to survive and save those she loves. Praise be!

                     Mark: 9 out of 11

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MISSION IMPOSSIBLE BINGO incorporating: FALLOUT (2018) MOVIE REVIEW

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE BINGO incorporating: FALLOUT (2018) MOVIE REVIEW

I have found  it’s difficult to find an original angle when reviewing certain films i.e. franchise movies or sequels. Indeed, unless they are absolutely brilliant I tend not to review them. Therefore, I had no major intention of writing about the new Tom Cruise produced Mission Impossible release, as these films, despite their technical movie-making brilliance, follow a very strict and safe formula. I mean what can I really add critically other than say I enjoyed it or I didn’t. However, it really is such a fantastic blockbuster movie I accepted an impossible mission, of sorts, to create something interesting while reviewing it.

So, here we go: Mission Impossible BINGO! It’s both recognition of the formula but also praise for the latest instalment which had me on the edge of my seat, heart in my mouth and biting my nails throughout. In the context of story it’s very generic but in terms of action, thrills and stunts it gets a Mark of 9 out of 11!

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McQUARRIE directs Fallout which is essentially a direct sequel to Rogue Nation. We know his track record as a writer but he’s now proving himself a fantastic director too. I enjoyed Rogue Nation but Fallout raises the stakes with a witty, double-crossing, high octane and explosive movie, which actually improves the clichés of the formula in wonderful fashion.

INGENIOUS double-crossing is at the heart of the original Mission: Impossible television series and the film franchise. This is done through identification theft, impersonation, lies, deceit, scene-shifting, fake walls, and the famous face and voice changing technology.

STUNNING locations feature throughout the franchise. Changing the scenery is a means of tricking us into thinking we haven’t somehow seen this car-chase, foot chase or air chase before. Yet, what Mission: Impossible does brilliantly is take us into existing locations like the CIA Langley Headquarters, The Vatican City and even the Kremlin.

STUNTS and extravagant set-pieces dominate the whole of this franchise. From the original 1996 film’s wire-from-the-ceiling-hanging set-piece downloading a CIA encrypted agent list to the current Fall Out nuke-ticking-time-bomb denouement, Tom Cruise’ has committed some of the most breath-taking and technically brilliant action stunts ever.

ICONIC soundtrack composed by Lalo Schifrin has been often imitated but never a bettered. Those simple but effective notes fire up and immediately you know the action is about to start.

OPPOSING government agents are rife in the original show and film series, as inspired by the devious nature of the East v West “Cold War” from the 1950s onwards. In M: I you’ve got good agents, rogue agents, double agents, triple agents and ghost agents pretending to be good, bad and all of the above.

NEFARIOUS villains, like the Bond films, are necessary to precipitate some evil doings and kick off the plot.  My personal favourite was Philip Seymour Hoffman in M:I 3 – as he really was evil. Solomon Lane as played by Sean Harris is cool too and is given some great speeches. His plan to blow up the world isn’t the most original but he has a blast trying it.

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IMPOSSIBLE missions are at the heart of the film franchise. I mean the characters are mainly paper thin and the narratives are mainly empty so the gadgets and all manner of ticking time bombs, impenetrable garrisons, bad guys shooting and blowing stuff up; plus the covert interrogations and switcheroos provide the substance to the cinema experience.

MACGUFFIN-LED plots are not the strength of the franchise and on occasions the narratives a threadbare with Ethan chasing something called a “rabbit foot” or stolen nuke heads being the target. But who cares as long as we get to see things blow up.

PLAYFUL humour and one-liners dominate the scripts as a means to punctuate the action. The first three arguably had less gags but with Simon Pegg joining the cast in M:I 4 the joke quota increased and it settled into the a more humour-led vein. Personally, I prefer the serious espionage stuff, but the gags punch up the entertainment value nonetheless.

OUTSTANDING casting always brings a raft of class to these movies. Indeed, despite the style-over-substance nature of the narratives casting heavyweight actors such as:  Jon Voight, Vanessa Redgrave, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Alec Baldwin, Sean Harris, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, Billy Crudup, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Ferguson and many more raise the quality of the productions no doubt.

SUBTERFUGE and double-crosses are a major part of the plots. Often we never quite know whose side certain characters are on at any one time. In Rogue Nation and Fallout the troubled spy Ilsa Faust is simultaneously batting for three teams in order to keep herself alive. Such devilish plotting keeps the stories bouncing along, which is why they are never dull.

SPECIAL effects are a major part of M:I, however, what is incredible to that Tom Cruise will strive to make the stunts as real as possible by actually doing them himself. The opening of Rogue Nation and the end of Fallout are absolutely stupendous feats of daring which I would never contemplate. Similarly, bungee jumps, rock-climbing, free-jumping and many other effects-free actions give a very realistic feeling to proceedings.

INCREDIBLY talented directors who have worked on the franchise include: Brian DePalma, Brad Bird, John Woo, Christopher McQuarrie and JJ Abrams bringing their own inimitable styles to the various films and while Woo’s is pretty weak the franchise abides as each film has its own identity, look and feel.

BIG budgets are required to drive the Mission: Impossible film behemoth and while they continue to make the studio billions of revenue long will they continue. The first film cost a whopping $80 million dollars while the Fallout cost a mere $178 million. Although, given Fallout absolutely rocks it’s already made that back and much more besides.

LEAPING, running, driving, diving, swimming, crashing, disguising, fighting, flying, biking, parachuting, moving – you name it the IMF do it at incredible speeds and heights!

ETHAN HUNT as presented by Tom Cruise is a righteous dude fighting the good fight against the evil wrongdoers in the world. His commitment to the cause is unwavering and in defending the innocent against the corrupt goverments, villains and agents of evil. We all root for him as an aspirational action man of the people.

 

 

 

 

 

SCREENWASH TV DRAMA ROUND-UP (JULY 2018) INC. REVIEWS OF: PATRICK MELROSE, LIAR, THE ALIENIST ETC.

SCREENWASH TV DRAMA ROUND-UP – JULY 2018

In my continued desire to avoid perpetual and dysfunctional alcoholism, while saving money and contemplating the meaning of existence, I often fill up my hours watching quality television dramas. Here are some reviews of shows I have caught up with over the last few months, with the usual Screenwash marks out of eleven.

THE ALIENIST (2018) – NETFLIX

Based on Caleb Carr’s best-selling novel of the same name, The Alienist, while feeling very familiar has enough style and acting quality to make it worth recommending. Set in the grimy streets of New York circa mid-1890s the period setting and production design exquisitely juxtaposes the filth and squalor of the underclasses with the opulence of the wealthy. Dakota Fanning, Luke Evans and Daniel Bruhl are uniformly excellent as an unlikely trio of “criminologists” who, on invite from the Chief of Police, investigate the ritualistic murders of young, poor kids in the ghettos. Adapted by, among others by the very talented Cary Joji Fukunaga, Eric Roth and Hossein Amini, this is overall a compelling, gruesome and hypnotic genre drama which entertains throughout its ten episode running time.

(Mark: 8.5 out of 11)

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HIT AND MISS (2012) – SKY ATLANTIC

I missed this gritty drama the first time round from Sky when released in 2012 and it certainly pushes boundaries of gender politics within a genre setting. Created by the prolific British writer Paul Abbott it stars Chloe Sevigny as a hit-woman with a secret. Sevigny’s complex character Mia is in fact, a pre-op trans-gender person, living a lone-wolf existence working for Peter Wight’s fixer character. Her anonymous contract-killing life is interrupted when she is thrown into a surrogate mother situation and that’s when the real drama begins. This is not a programme for the faint-hearted with lashings of physical and sexual violence but the excellent cast, notably the outstanding Sevigny, drive this edgy mix of family and thriller genres with compelling power.

(Mark: 8 out of 11)

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LIAR (2017) – ITV

This ITV drama is founded on the tantalisingly tricky premise of a “she said, he said” date rape case. It is to the testament of the writers, director and actors that the first three episodes provided absorbing suspense as to who is or who isn’t telling the truth. It begins with a primary school teacher, Laura, portrayed with nervy zeal by Joanne Froggatt, accepting a date with handsome surgeon, Andrew Earlham. They seem like a perfect couple but the following day Laura accuses him of rape. The drama comes very much from whether he is guilty and whether she has made it up. Star of Hollywood movies and US TV shows, Ioan Gruffudd, returns to British TV to play Earlham with a charming charisma which makes you question whether he could do such a thing. Halfway through the series though, the show becomes something altogether more sinister. Without wishing to give anything away I can recommend Liar for handling such a delicate subject well, while at the same time creating a powerful and suspenseful narrative throughout.

(Mark: 8 out of 11)

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PATRICK MELROSE (2018) – SKY ATLANTIC

Oh, Benedict, Benedict!  I love you so!  Yet again I witnessed another masterclass in acting from Mr Cumberbatch as he shows all variants of emotional range in this high quality character study. The series is adapted from Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical books of the same name. Moreover, the structure is interesting in that each of the five episodes focus on different periods of Melrose’ privileged, yet tortuous, existence. We open with a drug-addled Patrick high on smack and then follow a frantic dash to New York to pick up his fathers’ ashes. Initially, Patrick is selfish, biting, wasted and full of fear and self-loathing. In fact he is not likeable at all. However, the first episode then delivers the gut-wrenching truth about the characters’ past and a truly harrowing event at the hands of his tyrannical father. The dramatic glue of the whole series is provided by Patrick’s memories of his fathers’ terrible behaviour – portrayed with rotten humanity by Hugo Weaving. Later episodes find Patrick battling addictions, his mothers’ negative do-gooding, starting a family and just trying to do what most of us do: hold it together emotionally in the face of the slings and arrows life throws at us. Full of complex emotional moments, brilliant acting and stinging one-liners, this is television of the highest order.

(Mark: 9.5 out of 11)

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SAVE ME (2017) – SKY ATLANTIC

Written by and starring the magnetic British actor Lenny James, this urban crime thriller boasts an exceptional cast and addictive narrative. James takes a performance risk casting himself and a low-life chancer called Nelly, who is suddenly the suspect in the kidnapping of a daughter he hardly knows. Nelly is an ex-con-alcoholic-love-rat who gets by on his charisma and street smarts but still manages to aggravate those around him. When his teenage daughter goes missing he becomes an unlikely amateur detective, attempting some form of redemption having just signed her over to his ex-wife years before. The familiar kidnapping storyline kind of runs out of steam over six episodes, however, James and his brilliant cast including: Stephen Graham, Suranne Jones, Susan Lynch, Kerry Godliman and Jason Flemyng all excel. I also loved the gritty council estate setting and the authentic nature of the characters really drove the story forward.

(Mark: 8 out of 11)

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BILLIONS (2016 – ) – SEASON 3 – SHOWTIME REVIEW – “Television Theatre of the highest order!”

BILLIONS (2016 –   ) – SEASON 3 – SHOWTIME TV REVIEW

Created by: Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Andrew Ross Sorkin

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, Maggie Siff, Malin Åkerman, Toby Leonard Moore, David Costabile, Condola Rashād, Asia Kate Dillon, Jeffrey DeMunn

Distributor: Showtime Network

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

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After experiencing the dizzying, serpentine narrative cul-de-sacs and mazes of Westworld Season 2, I was grateful to drink in the relative comfort of some genre drama that actually made sense. I mean I don’t mind working hard to gain pleasure from the TV viewing but non-linearity for the sake of it, or because the writers are so self-aware, they believe it is demanded of them irks me somewhat. The writers of Billions on the other hand rely on: good old proper plotting; sharp and witty dialogue; well-rounded archetypal characters; fantastic scenery-chewing performances; and an uber-ensemble cast of television and cinema actors to die for.

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Once again, Season 3 posits a similar question to the last two: how do you make the rich and privileged empathetic? Well, firstly you have the aforementioned brilliant cast of vintage screen actors, notably: Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, Maggie Siff, David Constabile, Jeffery DeMunn, Malin Akerman, plus exceptional newcomers such as Asia Kate Dillon; and finally parachute in veteran warhorses like John Malkovich and Clancy Brown. Secondly, you make these greedy and power-hungry legal and financial based individuals brilliant at everything. Thus, pleasure is derived from the characters trying to out-brilliant and out-do themselves. In Season 3, the writers manage to find some more exceptional ways which the characters can fuck each other over.

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The first two seasons saw Giamatti’s Attorney General, Chuck Rhodes try and take down financial demon of Wall Street, Bobby Axelrod. Watching these two rich-privileged-masters-of-universe-types ripping each other apart from a legal, family and financial perspective is absolutely riveting drama. I’m not always down with the fast-paced nature of the economic markets but essentially you don’t have to be because the writing always puts the human drama first before the jargon.   Season 3 followed in a similar vein to the previous two and contained a very interesting structure. The writing continued to be whip-cracking funny and twisted and the plots were a joy; full of arch Machiavellian machinations galore. The twists around episodes six and seven were absolutely brilliant and I was gripped. The final few episodes then manoeuvred the characters like chess pieces, carefully laying the foundations for what promises to be a monumental, melodramatic and mesmerising Season 4.

                                                                 (Mark: 9.5 out of 11)

A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL – BBC TV REVIEW

A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL – BBC TV REVIEW

Directed by: Stephen Frears

Written by: Russell T Davies – Based on A Very English Scandal by John Preston

Starring: Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, Monica Dolan, Alex Jennings, Blake Harrison, Eve Myles, Patricia Hodge etc.

Composer(s): Murray Gold

Production Company: BBC

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**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

I’ve never been a fan of politicians. They are a necessary evil. Perhaps I shouldn’t blight a whole raft of people who may, in their hearts, believe they are trying to do well for their country.  But, I just cannot help feeling there is something not quite right with someone who wants to be in control or lead or rule. I’m of the view that power does corrupt the individual and even though they may begin with great altruistic tendencies they will, ultimately, be poisoned by the job. Or worse than that they have sociopathic tendencies and the prestige of being voted in will feed their greed and lust for control. How does one explain the amount of wars and conflicts there are? Humanity is greatly flawed and the leaders of the so-called free world are more flawed than most.

But, what alternative is there to the capitalist system we have?  Running a country and leading millions of various people must be tough; and difficult decisions must be made everyday. Many have tried the commune lifestyle and socialism has also led, in the Soviet Union and China for example, and, to dictatorial regimes replete with fear, repression and murder. Not that the West hasn’t had its fair share of Dictators and sociopathic leaders. General Franco in Spain is one such fascistic leader and our own Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher,  hiding within the illusion of democracy, crushed Union leaders, working class lives and whole industrial communities. As such, crooked and nefarious politicians are often a staple of film and television shows. A case in point is the BBC’s recent adaptation of John Preston’s book, A Very English Scandal.

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This strange true life tale focussed on the Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe and his relationship with a troubled young man called Norman Scott. What first starts off as an illicit but touching love story soon becomes a desperate, twisted and darkly amusing black comedy of insane proportions.  First off, Thorpe and Scott are portrayed with absolute brilliance by Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw. Both sterling film actors they bring gravitas, sparkling chemistry and humour to their respective roles; while Alex Jennings, Adrian Scarborough, Eve Myles and Patricia Hodge also excel in supporting roles. Furthermore, acclaimed director Stephen Frears ties the strands of Russell T. Davies brilliant script, expertly switching between comedy and heightened drama, without losing tonal control.

Set against the backdrop of English Parliament and the United Kingdom’s homophobic laws which outlawed gay sex, Jeremy Thorpe, is presented as an honourable man at first. He champions workers’ rights and lambasts the policy of Apartheid in the House of Commons. He has to hide his homosexuality though due to the oppressive legal system and the fact that, as a politician in the public eye, this would seriously harm his ambition to become Prime Minister. When he meets Ben Whishaw’s highly strung stable lad he immediately falls for him and they begin a secret affair. The relationship goes wrong and Thorpe moves on to become the leader of his political party, but an ever increasingly unstable Scott, just won’t go away. That’s when things begin to go awry for Thorpe. Scott won’t take a pay-off and Thorpe won’t give him the National Insurance Card, Scott hilariously demands.

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So, like Henry II demanding, “Someone rid me of this meddlesome priest”, he allegedly, as per the script, takes a more sinister route. I won’t spoil it but the events which are presented are both funny and shocking and have to be witnessed to be believed. The privileged Jeremy Thorpe, garners some empathy due to having to hide his sexuality, however, his subsequent decisions to shut Scott down, as presented in this fascinating tale, are shown to be the actions of a spoilt, desperate and sad man wielding power over someone less fortunate. They say absolute power corrupts absolutely but as shown in A Very English Scandal it also leads to incredible poor decisions by individuals from the ruling classes. Indeed, the main reason I dislike and distrust politicians in general is they can and should afford to be better behaved and more compassionate than those they lead.

(Mark: 9.5 out of 11)

 

THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE (2018) – TV SHOW REVIEW

THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE (2018) – TV SHOW REVIEW

Executive Producer: Ryan Murphy

Writer: Tom Robb Smith

Based on: Vulgar Favours: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History by Maureen Orth

Original Network: FX / FOX

Starring: Edgar Ramírez, Darren Criss, Ricky Martin, Penelope Cruz, Finn Wittrock

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I watch a lot of telly but don’t always review stuff because I don’t have time. The Assassination of Gianni Versace was one of those shows which I enjoyed when on the BBC but did not feel like reviewing. But then it kind of stuck with me; it nagged at my psyche as a chilling, violent and intense work of television drama. Hence I thought it was worth recommending it for those who are interested in excellent crime stories.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story is the second season of the FX true crime anthology series American Crime Story. It explores, over nine compelling episodes, the murder of designer Gianni Versace by spree killer Andrew Cunanan. Those coming to the show looking for an in depth story about Gianni Versace – as a man or designer – may be slightly disappointed.  Save for three or four episodes the lion’s share of the drama is about his killer, Cunanan.  What we do see of Versace and his sister Donatella, as expertly portrayed by Edgar Ramirez and Penelope Cruz, is a man who grew up from humble beginnings to become one of the finest fashion designers of all time. Personally, fashion does not interest me so I was pleased that world did not dominate the focus of the story.

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The main focus, however, was the spree killer Andrew Cunanan. Writer Tom Robb Smith, adapting from Maureen Orth’s book takes many risks, notably telling Cunanan’s story in reverse chronological order. I’m not always a fan of non-linear storytelling for the sake of it, however, beginning with Versace’s murder and then flashing backwards revealing, episode by episode, the sad demise of each of his victims made for absorbing viewing. Darren Criss as Cunanan is absolutely brilliant. His performance of the fantasist murderer is equally scary, embarrassing and darkly funny at times.

Evoking the characterisation of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman, Criss nails the confidence and desperation of a very conflicted person. His Cunanan is not just a straightforward psycho but a rather complex loner with delusions of grandeur. The reveal in the later episodes that go some way to explain Cunanan’s psychosis are especially chilling. The show is also very honest about Cunanan’s sexuality. Via Cunanan’s, and other characters’ experience, the representation of gay men in America is illustrated in a fascinating way. Finn Wittrock, Mike Farrell, and Cody Fern, who portray three of Cunanan’s victims, are very empathetic as they battle the prejudices and expectations of gay men in society. It is a tragedy their lives, and others including Versace, were so violently ended at Cunanan’s hands.

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Overall, I was extremely absorbed by The Assassination of Gianni Versace. While not as grandstanding as The People Versus O.J. Simpson (2016), this character drama both shocked and stunned in equal measure; thanks to an excellent script and Criss’ haunting acting performance. Also, kudos goes to show-runner Ryan Murphy. This uber-producer is best known for creating/co-creating/producing a number of successful television series, including the FX medical drama Nip/Tuck (2003–10), the Fox musical comedy-drama Glee (2009–15), the FX anthology series American Horror Story (2011–present); Feud (2017–present); and with this latest season of American Crime Story (2016–present) he has overseen another memorable televisual experience.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11

MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #13 – MIKE LEIGH

MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #13 – MIKE LEIGH

There is no way a mere simple page of words from my keyboard can do justice to the decades of incredible theatrical, televisual and cinematic work of the genius that is Mike Leigh. He has, since the 1960s, worked tirelessly creating: drama, comedy, pathos, empathy, love, hatred, politics, harmony, conflict, nihilism and hope through an orchestra of characters and creative endeavour.

For me Mike Leigh is a true artist. He has not only been involved in innumerable film, TV shows and plays since the 1960s but also created his own production modus operandi in the process. He is rightly well regarded for working intimately with his actors organically creating character and stories from the kernel of an emotion or idea. His works are legion and often feature representations the working or under-classes. There are no superheroes or special effects but rather raw emotion and feelings within his body of work.

The My Cinematic Romance series has always sought to praise filmmakers and actors I really love and Mike Leigh is no different. I would have to say though that to pick FIVE of my favourite works is an impossible task as there is so much choice. Nonetheless, these are five of my favourite Mike Leigh works but do check out any of his films as they have much to say about humanity and life and are also very entertaining in their own inimitable style.

**CONTAINS SPOILERS**

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ABIGAIL’S PARTY (1977) – BBC TV PLAY

Opening as a stage play in 1977, the seminal tragic-comedy Abigail’s Party sold out for months at the Hampstead Theatre when first released. A filmed TV version was released later to much acclaim that year and starred: Alison Steadman, Janine Duvitski, John Salthouse, Thelma Whiteley and Tim Stern. It’s a comedy of crumbling relationships featuring the passive aggressive clashes between the aspirational classes. The performances, notably from Steadman as the brash and formidable Beverley, are astute, over-the-top but somehow hilariously nuanced too. Moreover, the barbed dialogue and bitchy asides are perfectly delivered during a dinner party that, once seen, will have you laughing throughout. But, like much of Leigh’s work, by the end you somehow feel sad too.

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MEANTIME (1983) – CINEMA

The epitome of classic working-class-kitchen-sink-council-estate tragic-comedy, Meantime, features a “Who’s-Who” of now famous actors including: Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, Phil Daniels, Alfred Molina; plus an early appearance from Leigh favourite Peter Wight. Set amidst the bleak concrete landscape of East London the episodic story focusses on the Pollock family, notably the unemployed brothers portrayed by Daniels and Roth. The former is an answer-for-everything-clever-dick while Roth’s Colin is the more subdued, shy and possibly autistic one, very much in his brother’s shadow. Furthermore, a very young-looking Oldman pops up as a bored, thuggish, glue-sniffing and racist skinhead who bullies those around him, especially Colin. Overall, Meantime evokes memories of my own childhood growing up on a rough Battersea council estate and captures the ennui and inertia of unemployment in Thatcher’s Britain. While it may sound depressing there’s also some classic dialogue and a number of hilarious exchanges between the family and characters which certainly silvers the dark, grey clouds on the horizon.

NAKED (1993) – CINEMA

We need to talk about, Johnny! Arguably, of all the characters and creations from Mike Leigh, Johnny Fletcher is the darkest manifestation and representation of his worldview. Unlike the permanently positive Poppy from Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky (2008), Johnny is a dress-in-black, biting and bilious shadow who drifts like smoke from North to South with no aim other than to attack those around him. Sardonic and severe in his outlook, Johnny’s misanthropy knows no bounds as he angrily castigates his ex-girlfriend’s lack of ambition, portrayed by Lesley Sharp, before beginning a doomed sexual liaison with her flatmate, the self-hating Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge).  It is not an easy film to watch due to the flagrant and offensive misogyny exhibited by the male characters and the seeming lack of hope throughout. Yet, it remains a compelling portrait of pre-millennial nihilism with some epic monologues delivered by the rasping and mercurial voice of David Thewlis’ in a never-to-be-bettered acting performance.

SECRETS AND LIES (1996) – CINEMA

After the nihilistic dissonance of Naked (1993) Leigh’s next film would return to familial roots and gentler, if still emotionally resonating, domestic drama. The story centres on Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s optometrist attempting to locate the birth mother who gave her up for adoption. In an extremely tender and serene performance, Baptiste as Hortense Cumberbatch finds her search turn up unexpected results. Brenda Blethyn, in the more melodramatic role of Cynthia Purley, runs the gamut of emotions; while the imperious Timothy Spall steals the floor with his noble rendition of Cynthia’s brother, Maurice. Spall’s Maurice is an ordinary, yet noble man, trying to hold the disparate family strands together. I especially loved the opening vignettes of Maurice’s photographic customers which established themes of surface appearances contrasted to hidden family secrets. This overall is what I class as a small epic containing so many brilliant character details, funny looks, and very touching moments where the emotion, quite often, is in the silence. Secret and Lies (1996) was, to date, Mike Leigh’s most accessible and emotionally satisfying film and would deservedly garner acting and directing awards and nominations from the Academy, BAFTA and Cannes.

VERA DRAKE (2004) – CINEMA

Having presented the lively Topsy Turvy (1999) world of Gilbert and Sullivan a few years before, Leigh created another period piece with Vera Drake. Set in 1950s London it centres on Imelda Staunton’s kind housewife who harbours a secret life. Amidst her family and work existence Vera assists young woman who accidentally get in the “family way”. I don’t want to say too much but this is a gut-wrenching and tragic story which highlights the issues of the day with a stunning emotional power. Imelda Staunton is one of the best actors I have ever witnessed on stage and screen and she brings to Vera’s character sympathy, pride and passionate inner strength. The supporting cast of Philip Davis, Eddie Marsan, Daniel Mays, and Sally Hawkins are superb; and a special mention to cinematographer Dick Pope, who has lit most of Leigh’s films. Pope creates, within a palette of greys, greens and browns a salient mood which enhances the performances and Leigh’s masterful direction.

 

Mike Leigh’s new film PETERLOO (2018) will be released this year in cinemas.