SHUDDER HORROR FILM REVIEWS – VIRAL

SHUDDER HORROR FILM REVIEWS – VIRAL

The horror genre is a fantastic medium with which to explore social, cultural and political events. Thus, with the COVID-19 pandemic still threatening the world’s health, wealth and societal structures, it will not surprise anyone when we get a raft of future films, songs, shorts and television programmes influenced by pandemics, viruses and lockdowns. Yet, there have already been, since the dawn of time, many horror, drama and science fiction films and series which have dealt with the end of the world due to some unknown or man-made virus.

For example, George A. Romero’s seminal low-budget masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead (1968), influenced an eruption of cannibalistic zombie movies after release. Indeed, the wave of undead genre films show no sign of stopping either. It makes sense therefore to focus my latest Shudder reviews on virus-based films and this category is obviously called Viral! Here I review four movies I watched on Shudder which all encompass some form of infection, disease or virus which impacts the living and the dead. As usual, all marks are out of eleven with the highest-rated film first.



ONE CUT OF THE DEAD (2017) – DIRECTED BY SHIN’ICHIRO UEDA

This film has both an amazing story on and off the screen. The budget of the One Cut of the Dead (2017) has been reported to be as low as $25,000. The film went on to be a massive hit in Japan, making over $25,000,000 at the box office there and abroad. Personally speaking, I am not a fan of indulgent one-take movies, but the sheer energy and invention of the initial thirty-seven minute take, followed by the hilarious scenes later, make this zombie-film-within-a-film-within-a-film a terrific watch. The lengthy set-up makes the furious splattering of punchlines in the film’s second half an absolute scream. To think it started out as part of an acting/filmmaking course makes the creative achievement all the more incredible. If you like zombie comedies and films about filmmaking too, this genuinely breathes new life into both sub-genres.

Mark: 9 out of 11


MAYHEM (2017) – DIRECTED BY JOE LYNCH

This office-based killer-thriller-horror-comedy resonated with me, as I myself have been trapped working in the corporate world. Steven Yuen is the jaded business attorney, Derek Cho, working for a law firm that regular screws over the less wealthy. When Derek is framed and fired, he plots revenge. However, his plans go sideways quickly when a nasty virus causes his office to be quarantined. The virus itself doesn’t kill, but it is capable of making people act out their wildest impulses – which tend to involve extreme sexual, verbal and violent behaviour. Mayhem (2017) uses a geographical structure similar to The Raid (2011) and Dredd (2012), where Derek must fight his way up from the ground floor to the corporate suits at the top. Steven Yuen is fantastic in the lead and he is ably supported by movie-star-in-waiting, Samara Weaving. The action, fighting and gore are well executed, and the script contains some great twists in this fast-paced horror gem.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11



THE CRAZIES (1973) – DIRECTED BY GEORGE A. ROMERO

Arguably, one of George Romero’s lesser known films is called The Crazies (1973). The narrative finds residents of a small American town accidentally infected by a darned biological weapon. The subsequent lockdown, quarantine and heavy-handed military invasion causes a small band of townspeople to fight back and attempt escape. As the soldier’s net closes in on them their lives are threatened by both the military and the virus. Overall, watching The Crazies is a dramatic, but chaotic experience. The ideas are strong, but Romero’s story is hamstrung by the low budget, choppy editing and some bad acting. Having said that, The Crazies echoes a lot of the issues our world has been experiencing lately. Although the deaths are more gruesome in Romero’s film and his characters don’t stockpile as much toilet roll as we have.

Mark: 7 out of 11


BLOOD QUANTUM (2019) – DIRECTED BY JEFF BARNABY

As well as providing a portal with which to watch older horror films, Shudder is also producing and buying up its own exclusive productions for streaming. One such release is Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum (2019). Set in 1981, on the Red Crow Indian Reservation in Quebec, Canada, it’s an entertaining addition to the zombie genre, that perhaps would have been better served as a longer series. The story set-up is simple, as local sheriff, Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), is mystified when dead animals start to reanimate. Skip forward six months and a full-on viral assault has caused the dead to come back to life. The neat twist is that the indigenous American population is immune to the disease, but white people aren’t. Traylor and his community fight the dead (and living), attempting to keep safe from those that threaten their existence. Thematically, Blood Quantum (2019) is very powerful. The subtext of racial tension within the zombie genre is dramatically explored. Moreover, there are some explosively gory deaths and decent action. My main issue was with a script that laboured in places, as the film’s pace was slowed by overlong dialogues scenes.

Mark: 7 out of 11



SHUDDER HORROR FILM REVIEWS – EXTREME!

SHUDDER HORROR FILM REVIEWS – EXTREME!

I’m continuing the Shudder film review residency here on my site with this post. However, as I watched so many horror films on the channel recently, I have decided to break them down into categories. This one is called Extreme!

Essentially the films reviewed here are — because of their content, style or both — prime examples of nasty, violent, sickening and in some cases extremely depraved horror movies. So, be warned do not watch these films, unless you have a strong emotional constitution and actually enjoy witnessing graphic scenes of gore, sex and bloody mayhem.

For your information, the films are reviewed in order of my rating, which as usual is out of eleven.



REVENGE (2017) – DIRECTED BY CORALIE FARGEAT

Featuring a B-movie rape and revenge plot, this exploitation story is raised way above its subject matter due to ultra-stylish direction, gorgeous cinematography and a compelling lead performance by Matilda Lutz. She portrays Jen, an aspiring actress, who is on a weekend getaway with handsome boyfriend (cheating husband), Richard (Kevin Janssens). He seems very well off as their break takes place at a stunning isolated villa location. However, things go awry when two of his hunting buddies turn up, and one, Stan (Vincent Colombe) attacks Jen while Richard is out. From then on events twist from incredibly bad to worse for Jen, and she finds herself being hunted down in the blazing heat of the desert. The film looks absolutely incredible with amazing photography and colour design. Overall, what it lacks in story and characterisation though, it more than makes up for in stunning action, searing violence and a powerful critique of toxic masculinity.

Mark: 8 out of 11


TERRIFIER (2016) – DIRECTED BY DAMIEN LEONE

I saw this horror film appear in a post on the YouTube channel What Culture Horror. So, the story of a demented clown who never speaks and slashes people to death on Halloween definitely piqued my interest. It’s both extremely violent and low-budget, having been made for around $100,000. However, it is in fact impressively shot and edited for such a small amount of money. The gory effects are amazingly effective too, summoning up memories of 1980’s prosthetic film effects. There is no real subtext or thematic strength, but I was pretty tense and sickened throughout. Moreover, the clown called Art is a memorably monstrous creation. He kills without reason and purely for his own entertainment. Nihilistic in tone, the director sure knows his horror and delights in presenting many sick ways of murdering his characters. Thus, if you like disembowelling, strangulation, burning, beheading and other gruesome movie deaths then, Terrifier (2016), is worth watching from behind the safety of the sofa.

Mark: 7.5 out of 11



CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980) / THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981) – DIRECTED BY LUCIO FULCI

Filmmaker, Lucio Fulci, is often found lurking in the shadow of Italian horror filmmakers such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento, however, he truly knows how to frighten and sicken the life out of an audience. So much so he has been given the nickname, ‘Godfather of Gore’. As well as directing many films, notably, Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) and The New York Ripper (1982), he is infamous for his “Gates of Hell” trilogy which included: City of the Living Dead (1980), The House By the Cemetery (1981) and The Beyond (1981). I re-watched the first two recently and while not as terrifying as when I saw them in the past, they still have the power to shock. While lacking coherent plots, containing pretty bad acting and some chronically dreadful dubbing in places, paradoxically Fulci’s films can arguably be considered surreal horror classics. They may not make any narrative sense, but his ability to create stunningly violent set-pieces is legendary. Memorable scenes include: the spewing of intestines, crawling maggots, hanging priests, drilled brains, chopped heads and monsters rising from basements and graves. Such imagery and dreaded moments — all set to a creepy synth soundtrack — make Fulci’s movies unsettling viewing experiences.

Mark: 7 out of 11


ISLAND OF DEATH (1976) – DIRECTED BY NICO MASTORAKIS

Not only is this one of the sickest films I have seen, it is also one of the most appalling I have sat through. Having said that, that is in fact what Greek director Mastorakis, based on what I’ve read, set out to do. The story, if you can call it that, focusses on a couple called Christopher (Robert Behling) and Celia (Jane Lyle) who go on a sex-driven-kill-crazy-honeymoon-rampage on the Greek island of Mykonos. If you can get past the couple having sex in a phone booth while telephoning his mother, and stomach Christopher raping a goat before killing it, then do watch the rest of this conveyor belt of pornographic sex and violence. By the end, I was stunned to silence at how sick the film was.

Mark: 1 out of 11


TETSUO – THE IRON MAN (1989) – DIRECTED BY SHINYA TSUKAMOTO

Lauded as a low-budget Japanese extreme body horror cult classic, Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), is either the work of a genius or a complete madman. Filmmaker, Shinya Tsukamoto, deserves so much praise for literally making most of the film in his own house and paying for it out of his own pocket. Yet, the thumping industrial soundtrack, jump-cutting-stop-motion style and story of metal invading the body, soul and mind of various characters was too f*cked-up, even for me. I know it gets mentioned as a work of genius, but it was frankly unwatchable. Thankfully, it’s only sixty-seven minutes of hell to get through.

Unmarked!

SHUDDER HORROR REVIEW: KING COHEN (2018)

SHUDDER HORROR REVIEW: KING COHEN (2018)

Directed by Steve Mitchell

Featuring: Larry Cohen, J.J. Abrams, Rick Baker, Eric Bogosian, Richard J. Brewer, Jon Burlingame, Barbara Carrera, Joe Dante, James Dixon, F.X. Feeney, Robert Forster, Megan Gallagher, Mick Garris, Paul Glickman, Frederick King Keller, David Kern, Yaphet Kotto, Paul Kurta, John Landis, Laurene Landon, Traci Lords, Michael Moriarty, Daniel Pearl, Eric Roberts, Martin Scorsese, Nathaniel Thompson, Ryan Turek, Janelle Webb, Fred Williamson etc.



In England, where I grew up in the 1970’s, we used to used have only THREE television channels to choose from. Latterly in the 1980’s that increased to four. Now, we have what seems like millions of streaming and cable channels to choose from. They’re coming out of our ears and minds and from the skies and the darkened underground. Of course, we have the major channels such as Sky, Apple, BBC, ITV, Netflix, Disney + and Amazon, to but name a few, however, there are now specific streaming outlets geared toward whole genres.

One of these is Shudderhttps://www.shudder.com/ – and they specialise in screening B-movies, video nasties, slasher, serial killer, monster, essential and non-essential horror films from past and present. Fellow blogger, Bobby Carroll, has recently been reviewing some of Shudder’s catalogue and I too will be doing the same. Check out his site here – it’s very good! So, over the last few weeks I have binged on so many horror films. Some are very good ones, some pretty bad ones and some just absolutely downright ugly releases. I guess one could consider me strange to immerse myself in so many horror films back-to-back; however, I love to be moved by fear and sickened with fright. Having said that the true terror on this Earth is happening out there in the real world. What occurs on the cinema or TV screen within the horror genre is actually an escape for me; albeit a gruesome, deathly and bloody one.



The first film I’d like to review is King Cohen (2018). It is a very lively jaunt through the career of independent filmmaker Larry Cohen. If you didn’t know Larry Cohen, he is one of the most prolific screenwriters ever. Born in 1941 in Washington Heights, New York, he began a stand-up career at the age of seventeen, before moving onto writing teleplays and TV scripts for CBS and NBC. Working within the TV and Hollywood system was creatively stifling for Cohen, so he decided to write, produce and direct his own films as a true independent. Examples of his directorial work include: Bone (1972), Black Caesar (1973), It’s Alive (1974), God Told Me To (1976), The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), Q-The Winged Serpent (1982), The Stuff (1985), plus he wrote the screenplays for Best Seller (1987), Maniac Cop (1988), Phone Booth (2002) and Cellular (2004).        

As a tribute to Larry Cohen, who passed away last year, this is a tremendously lively and positive documentary about a true maverick filmmaker. Larry Cohen indeed features heavily in the interviews. He comes across as energetic, intelligent, funny and ballsy. Testimonies from Fred Williamson, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Rick Baker, Eric Roberts and many, many more people who worked with Cohen bear witness to his prolific output and unorthodox ways of shooting films. Because he wanted control over his writing, many of his directorial releases were very low budget and he would often film in a guerrilla style on the streets of New York or even in his own house. He became famous for “stealing” scenes which included, unbeknown to them, the general public and NO film or work permits. I admired both his hubris and determination to tell his cinematic stories, and despite the lack of money his scripts were full of ingenuity, humour and much intelligence. Thus, if you love films about filmmaking and exploitation movies in general, then you should definitely check out King Cohen (2019) and Larry Cohen’s back catalogue of horrors too.

Mark: 8 out of 11


BBC TV REVIEW – NORMAL PEOPLE (2020)

BBC TV REVIEW – NORMAL PEOPLE (2020)

Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson, Hettie Macdonald

Written by: Sally Rooney, Alice Birch, Mark O’Rowe

Based on: Normal People by Sally Rooney

Executive producer(s): Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe, Emma Norton, Anna Ferguson, Sally Rooney, Lenny Abrahamson

Producer: Catherine Magee

Cast: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Paul Mescal, Sarah Greene, Aislin McGuckin, India Mullen, Fionn O’Shea, Eanna Hardwicke, Leah McNamara, Frank Blake, Niamh Lynch, Kwaku Fortune, Desmond Eastwood, etc.

Cinematography: Suzie Lavelle, Kate McCullough

Original Network: BBC Studios, Hulu

***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***



“The course of true love never did run smooth. . .” –
William Shakespeare

Love is a multi-faceted concept open to a myriad of philosophical, medical, emotional and intellectual interpretations. Conversely, an eternal question in our society still remains: what is love? Is it the joining together of two people forever committed to a relationship built on respect and trust?  Or is it the emotion you feel for a family member or person you have bonded with over time?  Is it nature’s way of tricking us into the act of pro-creation?  Perhaps it’s an abstract and emotional concept created by a higher power to ensure we act positively? For some it could be a dark force which enlivens obsession and stalking and violence or maybe it’s a marketing delusion forced upon us by greedy advertisers, florists and chocolate vendors?  Is it all of the above?

Studies by Helen Fisher of Rutgers University propose that we fall in love in three stages involving a different set of chemicals. They are: lust, attraction and attachment. Indeed, the events occurring in our mind when we fall in love are akin to mental illness. Chemicals such as: testosterone, oestrogen, dopamine, serotonin all conflict and combine to change our emotions when we’re attracted to someone. Further studies show that when choosing a partner we are at the mercy of our subconscious and inner sexual desires as proffered in psychoanalytical studies.

Love, lust and sexual desire are a big part of everybody’s lives whether they are positive or negative; indeed, the continuance of the species is very much reliant on them. Moreover, love or the lack of love has provided the springboard for millions of stories, films, plays, songs, poems, slogans, TV shows, comedies and adverts! The latest excellent love story I watched was the BBC/Hulu production called Normal People (2020). Over twelve episodes we were introduced and lured into the sweet and dark hearts of two Irish teenagers called Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones). They meet, fall in lust, have loads of sex, fall in love, generally fall out with each, fight further, go to University, go abroad, grow up, fall down and then fall back in love with each with other, and so on.



Based on Sally Rooney’s extremely successful novel of the same name, the story events begin at a Sligo Secondary school. Connell is quietly spoken and from a single parent upbringing. But he is very popular with his peers, close to the top of his class and exhibits much sporting prowess. Marianne’s family is wealthier than Connell’s. In fact, the latter’s mum, Lorraine (Sarah Greene) cleans house for Marianne’s mother. The Sheridan household is not a happy one though due to a tragedy which occurred to the father. This causes Marianne to be very angry, self-loathing and outspoken. Because of this she is somewhat of an outsider at home and school. For some unknown reason Marianne’s brother and mother are very cold toward her. Yet, despite the turmoil and class difference, Connell and Marianne share a mutual attraction, which soon becomes a sexual relationship.

As aforementioned, the path of love is not smooth as the first obstacle to the relationship comes from Connell’s paralysing fear of what his school friends think. He is a complex soul and does not have the bravery to share his true feelings to the world. Marianne becomes a secret, and this angers her, causing a major rift between the two young lovers. I won’t give any further plot details away, but it is safe to say that this is not your average romantic comedy or drama. The story beats of the romance genre are present, yet delivered in a sombre, delicate and under-the-surface style. This is not surprising given the first six episodes are subtly directed by Lenny Abrahamson, a filmmaker who has a number of wonderful character-driven films to his credit.

With confident direction, acting and a serene soundtrack, Normal People (2020) is a consistently absorbing and emotional rollercoaster. What I would say it though it often feels as if you’re watching events unfold in extreme slow motion. This isn’t a criticism though, because in the stillness of the performances, the dwelling of the camera on the character’s faces and length of shots, we’re allowed the time to breathe in the joy and pain of this complicated romance. The two lead actors Phil Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones are both incredibly well cast. They have exquisite chemistry together in both their passionate sex scenes and when they just simply exist and talk and look and love and hurt together. One may gripe that the drama could have been achieved with a tad more pace and just a few less episodes. However, if you are looking for a truthful representation of young love, with all its angst, kinks, self-loathing, insecurities and exasperating undulations, then Normal People (2020) is definitely a worthwhile experience.

Mark: 9 out of 11


ALL 4 TV REVIEW – FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER (2011 – 2020)

ALL 4 TV REVIEW – FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER (2011 – 2020)

Created and written by: Robert Popper

Directors: Steve Bendelack, Martin Dennis

Cast: Tamsin Greig, Paul Ritter, Simon Bird, Tom Rosenthal, Mark Heap, Tracy Ann Oberman, etc.

Number of Seasons: 6 (37 episodes)

Original Network: Channel 4

*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***



I decided to take a break from watching the usual murder, drama, time-travel, fantasy and crime-based TV shows I gravitate toward, by bingeing all six seasons of the Channel 4 (also available on Netflix) family situation comedy, Friday Night Dinner. Created and written by Robert Popper, this hilarious, energetic and feelgood show is set within the Goodman family household in North London. While recent British comedies such as The Mighty Boosh, Spaced and Psychoville tended toward the meta-fictional and surreal genre of humour, Friday Night Dinner is very much a traditional family-based programme. The laughs come thick and fast from the characters and events that unfold during a traditional Jewish Friday night meal.

Friday Night Dinner establishes a very structured formula and sticks to it pretty much through all the six seasons. Each episode usually opens with the “bambinos” or “the boys”, Adam (Simon Bird) and his younger brother, Jonny (Tom Rosenthal), arriving at their parent’s home. There they are greeted by half-dressed father, Martin (Paul Ritter) — who often has his shirt off because he is “boiling” — and their doting mother, Jackie (Tamsin Greig). Several story strands then quickly unravel as dinner, more often than not, descends into chaos and farce. Dinner table conversation usually revolves around Mum and Dad asking if their sons have any “females” or romantic entanglements. Moreover, the parents often embarrass their kids by over-sharing details of their own sex life, or “nippy-nippy”, as they call it.



The humorous dialogue, family squabbles and constant banter is augmented by Jonny and Adam’s consistently hilarious prank pulling, plus the appearance of the Goodman’s very strange neighbour, Jim (Mark Heap) and his dog, Wilson. Where comedy series like Taxi had Latka and Seinfeld had Kramer, Jim is a similar oddball whose weird behaviour makes the rest of the family almost seem normal. I mean, the father Martin, while very eccentric in his ways, is positively sane when compared to Jim. Actually, I very much enjoyed Jim’s ridiculous attempts to “understand” the Jewish culture. His hapless ignorance often sees Jonny and Adam Goodman giving him false information about their traditions, leading to all manner of ridicule and misunderstanding. This is one of the many running gags the writer, Robert Popper, entwines throughout the six series. Such repeated jokes and funny catchphrases are the comedic fabric of a very well written and constructed show.

If you’re looking for a comedy that reinvents the wheel, then award-winning Friday Night Dinner is probably not for you. However, if you like traditional farcical comedy with fast-paced gags, physical slapstick and relatable everyday situations, then you should definitely check it out. The cast are absolutely brilliant, and all imbue their characters with likeability, empathy and just a touch of insanity. Tamsin Greig shines as the put-upon mother having to deal with her bickering sons, and hard-of-hearing husband, Martin, who is never far from causing a home disaster. I loved Paul Ritter as the in-his-own-world-hoarder, Martin, while Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal add to the fun with their sharp comedy timing and physical hilarity. Above all else, the series works fantastically well as a comedy of errors about a warm-hearted, loving, if hopelessly dysfunctional family unit.


SIX OF THE BEST FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER EPISODES (ONE PER SERIES)

The Date – Series 1 – Episode 6 – Jackie invites a girl around for date with Adam. The only problem is Adam knows nothing about it, and he is mortified with embarrassment. At the same time, Jonny revels in Adam’s horror.

Mr Morris – Series 2 – Episode 2 – Jackie’s mother has a new gentleman friend and he has come to dinner. Mr Morris though, turns out to be very aggressive and ruins the night for everyone.

The Fox – Series 3 – Episode 3 – Martin has a dead fox in the freezer, which he intends to stuff. He asks the boys to help him extricate it to the shed without Jackie noticing. Safe to say things don’t go according to plan.

The Funeral – Series 4 – Episode 5 – Martin’s Uncle Saul has unfortunately passed away meaning they must spend the day at a funeral, and even worse, spend time with Martin’s mother AKA “Horrible Grandma.”

The Tin of MeatSeries 5 – Episode 2 – Aunty Val has been staying with the family as she is getting a divorce. Martin despairs as Val keeps throwing away all of his stuff. Finally, Martin and Val clash big time over a twenty-year old tin of meat.

The Caravan – Series 6 – Episode 1 – Martin purchases a crappy old caravan and, to Jackie’s dismay, parks it outside the house. Meanwhile, Jim has a new addition to his household, but becomes obsessed with the caravan toilet.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11



NETFLIX TV REVIEW – DIRTY JOHN (2018)

NETFLIX TV REVIEW – DIRTY JOHN (2018)

Created by: Alexandra Cunningham

Based on articles and podcast: Dirty John by Christopher Goffard

Directed by: Jeffrey Reiner

Writers: Alexandra Cunningham, Christopher Goffard, Sinead Daly, Lex Edness, Kevin J. Hynes, Evan Wright, Diana Son, etc.

Producer(s): Melinda Whitaker, Christopher Goffard, Nan Bernstein Freed, Jonathan Talbert, etc.

Cast: Connie Britton, Eric Bana, Juno Temple, Julia Garner, Jean Smart, Shea Whigham, Alan Ruck, Kevin Zegers, etc.

Composer: Mark Mothersbaugh

Original networks: Bravo (USA) and Netflix (UK)



Such is the veracious appetite journalists, writers, filmmakers, TV producers, podcasters and the audience have for true crime stories, it’s no surprise that the life of con-man, John Meehan, and his victims, was turned into a thrilling eight-part drama shown on Bravo and Netflix respectively. After decades of cons, fakery, impersonations, drug addiction, robberies, lawsuits, insurance scams, harassment, spying, stalking and consistent lying, Meehan’s criminal activities came to an end as recently as 2016. Meehan had been trained in the “art” of the con by his father from a young age. Alas, his nature could not, unlike his sister, overcome such spurious nurture and Meehan was destined for a life of crime. They say truth is stranger than fiction and that is very much the case here with some of his venomous antics quite unbelievable. However, Meehan must have had so much charm and confidence to trick the many women he deceived, his character sadly stands as a heinous example of toxic masculinity.

Eric Bana portrays John Meehan in Dirty John (2018). Bana is an excellent actor and arguably, based on his breakthrough performance in the film, Chopper (2000), one who I thought would achieve possibly more critical acclaim. His career is full of sterling work though and his handsome looks and rugged charisma are perfectly utilised as John Meehan. Indeed, when we first encounter him he is meeting Debra Newell (Connie Britton) for a date. After a sticky start the romance develops very quickly. Debra is a wealthy interior designer with her own business, and her character is exceptionally kind, but somewhat gullible. Even when her kids, Veronica (Juno Temple) and Terra (Julia Garner), warn her that something is rotten about John, her desire for John overcome any doubts she may harbour. As Debra, Connie Britton gives a brilliant representation of a woman who is desperate for love and companionship. Having said that, Juno Temple steals every scene as the mouthy daughter, Ronnie, someone who is certainly way more suspicious of John than her good-natured mother.



Structured around John and Debra’s developing romance are flashbacks to John’s prior relationships and crimes. While he is shown to be a really bad man, context is given during scenes from his youth. His father, portrayed by the excellent character actor, Shea Whigham, has young John eating a Taco with glass placed in it, so he can scam the restaurant. Such twisted examples of dire parenting give reason to John’s later behaviour, however, they should not excuse his actions in adulthood. They also explain John’s dependency on narcotics. This addiction to opiates, as well as a sociopathic desire to lie and cheat, drive the character and narrative powerfully. In the scenes where Debra, having incredibly given John another chance, helps him go cold turkey, Bana’s acting levels are most impressive.

As the drama proceeds and Debra and her daughters begin to discover the crimes of John’s past they themselves become targets of his malevolence. John is a beast Debra has alas invited into her life and one feels so much empathy for her and his other victims. Moreover, even when cornered and accused John Meehan is at his most dangerous. He often savagely attacked his accusers and their family members with severe vengeance. But, the scariest part for me was that he was “qualified” to be a Certified Registered Nurse Anaesthetist; a profession he exploited to rob and feed his drug addiction. Ultimately, I can recommend Dirty John (2018), to those who enjoy absorbing crime dramas. Some shows, with such “real life” narratives, can be exploitational in tone. However, this is a high quality production with excellent acting, writing and directing throughout. It really was edge-of-your-seat viewing, with Eric Bana’s multi-dimensional acting delivering a true monster for the millennium.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11



UNDER-RATED CLASSICS #8 – THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)

UNDER-RATED CLASSICS #8 – THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)

Directed, written and produced by: William Peter Blatty

Based on The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty

Starring: Stacy Keach, Scott Wilson, Jason Miller, Ed Flanders, Robert Loggia, Moses Gunn, Joe Spinell, Neville Brand etc.

Music by: Barry De Vorzon

Cinematography: Gerry Fisher

*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***



“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”
― Edgar Allan Poe

Sparked by uber-film critic Mark Kermode waxing lyrical about The Ninth Configuration (1980) in one of his cinema books, I was extremely pleased when I found a remastered 2016 reissue streaming on Amazon Prime. I don’t always agree with Kermode’s effusive praise of certain films, however, his opinion should always be respected. Having watched the film I can concur that it is indeed an under-rated classic. Just to clarify, for me, an under-rated classic can be a film I love, plus satisfy the following criteria:

  1. Must not have won an Oscar.
  2. Must not have won a BAFTA.
  3. Must not appear in the AFI Top 100 list.
  4. Must not appear in the IMDB Top 250 list.
  5. Must not appear in the BFI 100 Great British films.
  6. Must not appear in the all-time highest grossing movies of list.

While the writer and director, William Peter Blatty, won a Golden Globe for best screenplay, I feel that The Ninth Configuration (1980) is somewhat of a lost masterpiece. It was released at the same time as Ordinary People (1980) , The Elephant Man (1980) and Raging Bull (1980) and rarely seems to be discussed or praised at all these days. Well, aside from Mark Kermode’s gratefully received validation. Thematically, it is very strong as it deals with mental breakdown and illness amidst soldiers post-Vietnam. Moreover, it also contains memorable iconography within a curiously foreboding setting.



Based on Blatty’s 1978 novel, which in itself was a reworking of an earlier story called, Twinkle, Twinkle “Killer” Kane, The Ninth Configuration centres the action in a grand chateau located, rather weirdly in America somewhere. The dark, shadowy castle (which was actually in Germany), is surrounded by deep forestation and is used by the U.S. government as an insane asylum for military personnel. Spring-boarding themes and ideas from movies such as: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Mash (1970) and, in regards to its exploration of P.T.S.D., The Deer Hunter (1978), the narrative features a whole host of eccentric and over-the-edge characters. They include an Astronaut, Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), who went mad and sabotaged a space launch, Jason Miller as Lieutenant Frankie Reno, a soldier attempting to direct Hamlet with a cast of dogs; and the recently arrived, new psychiatrist, Colonel Vincent Kane (Stacey Keach). It is Kane’s and Cutshaw’s developing relationship which powers many of the philosophical and existential debates within the film’s incredible script.

For a film set in an asylum Blatty unsurpisingly uses dark humour, hysterical personalities and some incredibly funny lines of dialogue to propel an absurd first half. However, as Cutshaw and Kane’s connection grows deeper, the two men push each other into some very dark places. Exploring the slight gap between insanity and sanity is a tricky thing to get right in terms of tone, however, Blatty, is a brilliant writer and succeeds with a script that zig-zags the line between chaos and structure. He also benefits from an amazing ensemble cast of character actors who throw themselves heartily into the chaos on show. Scott Wilson and Stacey Keach are especially memorable in their intense and honest portrayals of soldiers pushed too far by their respective commands.

Overall, The Ninth Configuration (1980) is a forgotten masterpiece which deserves revisiting. I was blown away by the endlessly quotable dialogue and the risks Blatty took as a director. I mean, he opens with an incongruous Country and Western song-backed montage before the credits. This pop video beginning is jarring, but somehow makes sense in the end. Blatty then veers between farcical humour, crazed episodes involving the lunatics taking over the asylum, and philosophical and theological discourse within the therapy sessions. Finally, the film finishes with a violent and cathartic denouement, yet one which, given the dark existentialism that has unfolded, is amazingly full of hope, faith and optimism.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11




BFI FILM REVIEW: BAIT (2019)

BFI FILM REVIEW: BAIT (2019)

Directed, written, shot and edited by: Mark Jenkin

Produced by: Kate Byers, Linn Waite

Cast: Edward Rowe, Mary Woodvine, Simon Shepherd, Giles King etc.

Production company: Early Day Films

Distributed by: BFI (UK)


**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**



Not to be confused with the B-Movie shark movie, Bait (2015), Mark Jenkin’s tour-de-force arthouse classic, Bait (2019), is a whole together different kettle of fish. The story is set in Cornwall and centres around local fisherman, Martin Ward (Edward Rowe), and his various day-to-day struggles. Having had to sell the family cottage to middle-class city types, the Leigh family, Martin is fiercely determined to save up for a boat. In the meantime, he fishes with nets on the beach, as his brother, Steven (Giles King), uses their deceased father’s vessel for tourist cruises. Martin is resentful toward Steven and clashes with his brother and the Leigh’s throughout the film.

Bait (2019) is a low-budget and independent passion project. Mark Jenkin used a vintage hand-cranked Bolex camera, using 16mm monochrome film that he hand processed. He wrote, directed, lit, filmed and edited the film, but also used an army of local people to assist with the production. The story and themes of gentrification and city versus coastal types are explored very effectively in Bait (2019). Wherever you stand on the point of traditionalism versus upward mobility and financial appropriation, via the character of Martin and Edward Rowe’s bruising and hulking performance there are very powerful emotions of grief, loss and cultural absorption represented. The writing is initially quite simple in that the Leigh family are a negative force within the Cornish village. The son, Hugo, creates a lot of conflict by destroying Martin’s lobster traps and clashing with local hothead youth, Wenna (Chloe Endean). However, the Leigh’s are not mere stereotypes, but rather just shown as a family unit, like the Wards, who are trying to make a living.

Bait (2019) won’t be for everyone though as it is very experimental in nature. While the story and themes are clear, the editing, black-and-white-scratchy photography, dubbed dialogue and sound creates a self-consciously arty experience. Indeed, while some may proclaim the style as original, it is obviously influenced by cinematic formalists including Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman and Sergei Eisenstein. The elliptical montage editing style, direct address (actors stare either at or just off camera) and overlapping dialogue will certainly appeal to film students and scholars alike. Overall, Bait (2019) treads a fine line between genius cinema and what could be classed as plain bad filmmaking. Thankfully, we have wonderful film critics, like Mark Kermode, to tell us it is one of the best and most important British films released in the last decade.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11

NETFLIX TV REVIEW – BETTER CALL SAUL (2020) – SEASON 5

NETFLIX TV REVIEW – BETTER CALL SAUL (2020) – SEASON 5

Created by: Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould

Executive producer(s): Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Mark Johnson, Melissa Bernstein, Thomas Schnauz, Gennifer Hutchison,

Producer(s): Bob Odenkirk, Nina Jack, Diane Mercer, Robin Sweet, Gordon Smith, Jonathan Glatzer,

Directors: Bronwen Hughes, Norberto Barba, Michael Morris, Gordon Smith, Jim McKay, Melissa Bernstein, Vince Gilligan, Thomas Schnauz, Peter Gould,

Writers: Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Thomas Schnauz, Gordon Smith, Alison Tatlock, Heather Marion, Ann Cherkis,

Cast: Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando, Tony Dalton, Giancarlo Esposito, etc.

Cinematography: Arthur Albert, Marshall Adams

Production company(s): High Bridge Productions, Crystal Diner Productions, Gran Via Productions, Sony Pictures Television

Original network: AMC

UK Release: Netflix

***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***



“We all make our choices. And those choices, they put us on a road. Sometimes those choices seem small, but they put you on the road. You think about getting off. But eventually, you’re back on it.”
Mike Ermantraut – Better Call Saul (S5 – Episode 9)


One thought, of many, that I will take to my dying day is in regard to the business of the war on drugs. I get that people want to strive for intoxication in order to medicine themselves against the pain and struggle of everyday life. I get that humans love to get high and have a party. I get that people unfortunately get addicted to substances, so much so they turn into junkies existing only for their next fix. It may not make it right, but I get why people do drugs.

I also understand the business of making money selling drugs. The drug dealers and Cartels across the world earn a fortune farming, creating, distributing and selling narcotics. Moreover, Governments, across our civilisation, attempt yet fail, to stop them. I get all this. What I don’t understand though is when the Cartels make SO much money, and wall it up in safehouses, farms and apartments — why don’t they stop!! They have enough! Just retire. It’s a naive question, obviously. Because the money, drugs, lifestyle and power are also an addiction. It’s an insane game. It’s a bad road. It’s another indictment against the evil of humanity and our greed-driven society. Having said that the conflict with drugs and more specifically that of the Mexican drug Cartels is also providing the masses with some fine television drama.


Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler – Better Call Saul – Photo Credit: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Following hot on the heels of the gripping Season 3 of Cartel-driven thriller, Ozark (2020), comes Season 5 of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s crime prequel to Breaking Bad — the brilliant, Better Call Saul. Once again, it proves itself an incredibly well written character drama, containing some of the finest acting around. I mean, some shows you watch, and they can be a struggle. But Better Call Saul is like digital silk, so smooth in its presentation. The overall style, colour scheme, imaginative camera angles and framing make the show a joy to experience. The story isn’t too bad either.

Having worked through his conflicts with his brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), in the previous sterling seasons, Jimmy McGill finally embraces the ‘Saul Goodman’ legal name and persona. In this season though, in attempting to create a niche making a living helping the lower level criminal element, Jimmy/Saul, eventually finds his legal skills being employed by the Salamanca drug Cartel. Here Saul makes decisions which drag him, and his partner, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), into a series of dangerous drug-related situations in and out of court. Indeed, episode 8, Bagman, is as good as crime drama gets in terms of narrative, conflict, characterisation and dialogue.

While Bob Odenkirk again sparkles as the cheeky ducker-and-diver-lawyer, Saul Goodman, it’s Rhee Seehorn as Kim Wexler who steals the show. The development of her character from corporate legal player to something more than a money-driven suit is fascinating. In addition, her shifting attitudes also reflect a possible adrenaline addiction to the danger that Saul’s questionable choices bring. Meanwhile, Jonathan Banks as experienced fixer, Mike Ermantraut; Giancarlo Esposito as drug boss, Gustavo Fring; and new cast member, Tony Dalton as Lalo Salamanca, all add to sheer acting charisma and talent on screen. Ultimately, the war on drugs will never be won because there is an insatiable demand for narcotics, and a more fervent demand to supply them. I’m just so happy I am very far removed from the ‘Badlands’ of the Mexican drug Cartels. No doubt after the latest season of Better Call Saul, Saul Goodman, will be feeling very much the same. After all, we are all eventually a prisoner of our own bad choices.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11



SKY TV REVIEW – GANGS OF LONDON (2020)

SKY TV REVIEW – GANGS OF LONDON (2020)

Created by: Gareth Evans, Matt Flannery

Directors: Gareth Evans (2 episodes), Corin Hardy (4 episodes), Xavier Gens (3 episodes)

Executive producer(s): Thomas Benski, Lucas Ochoa, Jane Featherstone, Gabriel Silver

Producer(s): Hugh Warren

Writers: Claire Wilson, Peter Berry, Joe Murtagh, Gareth Evans, Matt Flannery, Lauren Sequeira, Carl Joos,

Cast: Joe Cole, Sope Dirisu, Lucian Msamati, Michelle Fairley, Mark Lewis Jones, Narges Rashidi, Parth Thakerar, Asif Raza Mir, Valene Kane, Brian Vernel, Jing Lusi, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Orli Shuka, Richard Harrington, Jude Akuwudike, Emmett J. Scanlan, Colm Meaney etc.

Production company(s): Pulse Films, Sister Pictures, Sky Studios

**CONTAINS SPOILERS**



The British, or more specifically, London-based gangster narrative is a well-trodden pathway for writers, directors and filmmakers. In fact, when Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) was a low-budget sleeper hit, agents and film companies were never more than a few feet away from a cheeky-chappie-laddish-gangster script. Ritchie obviously has made his name in the crime genre and his most recent film, The Gentlemen (2020), was another rollicking piece of entertainment. However, Ritchie’s stylish geezer model doesn’t always show the serious side of the British crime yarn. Films such as: Villain (1971), Get Carter (1971), The Long Good Friday (1980), Mona Lisa (1986), The Krays (1990), Sexy Beast (2000), Legend (2015), and many more, represent the dark and brutal face of hard-nut masculinity and the profession of violence. Enter the new Sky drama, Gangs of London (2020), which over nine episodes pitches itself as a similarly stern contemporary gangster fable, but with lashings of explosive action set-pieces, savage fisticuffs and a few severed hands thrown in for good measure.

From the opening scene — which finds heir apparent to the Wallace Corporation, Sean (Joe Cole), burning alive and dropping a low-level hoodie off a sky-scraping construction building — the brutal tone is set. Flashbacks then reveal the reason for Sean’s ire. His father, Finn (Colm Meaney), was murdered while on the Albanian mafia’s turf and thus he demands revenge. So far, so Hamlet! Yet, this is no singular character’s journey into the psychological depths of real or invented madness. Mostly, we find a sprawling, multicultural and international ensemble piece with the world of crime represented by aforementioned Albanians, Nigerians, Kurdish freedom fighters, Chinese gangs, Pakistani drug cartels, Welsh travellers and various other criminal elements.

While there is some soul searching for Sean as Finn Wallace’s buried secrets are latterly exposed within the drama, this is very much a symbolic and sadistic manifestation of Brexit. Moreover, it critiques the rise of gangster culture from the mean capital streets into the corporate boardroom. The Wallace’s billion-pound construction business acts as a front for money laundering, drugs deals, prostitution, people smuggling, gun-running and other nefarious crimes. Business has never been so good; that is until Finn Wallace is killed. Henceforth, all hell breaks loose on the streets of London and the police, who all seem to be in the pockets of the gangs, are unable or unwilling to control it.



The gangster genre can be a challenge for writers, directors and actors as they attempt to sidestep the cliches. Moreover, these stories predominantly show violent and amoral characters attacking or cheating or back-stabbing one another. Thus, it can be difficult to create empathy for such nasty people. Nonetheless, given the continued success of such narratives, the anti-heroic ensemble represented by the likes of the Wallace, Dumani, Afridi, Dushaj and Edwards’ families, among others, give the audience plenty to get our teeth into. There are so many different characters, motives, actions and desires on show that the sheer pace and twists in the narrative can leave one breathless. That isn’t to say the pace is rapid. There is a brooding suspense and grave depth to the overall direction. At times the drama, as well as the casting of Michelle Fairley (Lady Stark), reminded me of Game of Thrones in crime form. It gives us high-quality genre storytelling interspersed with some incredibly violent fight scenes and shoot-outs. It doesn’t quite have the heroes that Games of Thrones had though. The closest we get to a rootable character is Sope Dirisu’s low-level enforcer, Elliott Finch, who has a big secret to hold onto. Dirisu gives a powerful performance both emotionally and physically as he fights his way up the Wallace chain of command.

Gangs of London (2020) was created by Gareth Evans and Matt Flannery for Cinemax and Sky Studios. Evans, of course, is the talented Welsh filmmaker who had to go all the way to Indonesia and direct Merantau (2009), The Raid (2011) and The Raid 2 (2014), in order to make a name for himself in the film industry. He is a director with a special set of skills, especially when it comes to the knuckle-breaking and heart-stabbing fight sequences. Thus, the episodes he directs stand out among the best of the series. Notably Episodes 1 and 5, which feature an incredible bare-knuckled-table-leg-glass-in-the-face bar fracas and a bloody-mercenary-raid-on-a- country-farmhouse set-piece respectively. The remainder of the series arguably pales a little where the action is concerned, however, there remains some shockingly grotesque acts of violence as the corpses mount up the further the series proceeds. Indeed, as Sean Wallace attempts to locate his father’s killer and order from the chaos, he will find little in the way of salvation, redemption and satisfaction in the life of a London gangster. If only he’d watched more crime films, he’d know that already.

Mark: 9 out of 11



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