Produced by: Kristian Brodie, Lauren Dark, Ivana MacKinnon
Written by: Michael Pearce
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Geraldine James
Cinematography: Benjamin Kracun
With Marvel’s juggernaut Infinity War (2018) smashing through the Cineplexes this week it takes a brave distributor to release a low budget British thriller at the same time. Nonetheless, Beast (2017) is here secreting paranoia, sexual tension and animal magnetism amidst the super-hero saturation. Beast is the debut directorial feature of Michael Pearce and he certainly demonstrates a lot of talent in the writing and filmmaking stakes. He also gives us arguably one, if not two, film acting breakthrough roles in the casting of the incredible Jessie Buckley and equally alluring Johnny Flynn.
Beast is a slow-burner of a film. It moves at its own pace and quite often this works to heighten the suspense and on other occasions it perhaps slows the story too much. The central character is Buckley’s Moll Huntington, a coach tour guide living on the island of Jersey. Her middle-class life seems safe and comfortable but beneath the surface her controlling Mother (Geraldine James) and religious background make her feel trapped and isolated. Beneath Moll’s quiet surface is an anger and sexual energy waiting to break out. When she meets Johnny Flynn’s handsome “bit of rough” Pascal Renouf, Moll’s rebellious nature is released as she fights against her mother and her middle-class upbringing.
Simultaneously, Jersey is under threat from a serial killer who is brutally murdering teenage girls. Thus, the film presents two main plots: a coming-of-age romantic drama, plus a police thriller full of suspense. Writer-director Michael Pearce weaves these strands, on the main, very successfully as the police become more and more certain Pascal is the murderer. Moll’s love and loyalty to Pascal then becomes twisted and her turmoil drives the story into very dark places. I would say, however, the police investigation side was not as successful as Moll’s character study. In fact, there were a couple of plot-holes which let the story down, as did a tad long running time. Yet, these are minor gripes in a beautifully shot and rendered cinema release that makes the most of the Jersey shore, dirt and forestation.
Overall, Beast deserves a lot of praise for the intense acting of Buckley and Flynn. Their relationship crackles with sexuality on the screen and Buckley excels in many scenes when the rage inside her just explodes. Flynn, who was unrecognizable from his role as young Albert Einstein in the show Genius (2017), has an off-centre charm which captures the outsider perfectly. Geraldine James, as Moll’s mother is also on formidable form too. Yet, Jesse Buckley’s owns this film as the complex protagonist; while filmmaker Pearce must be commended for creating a slow-burning and intelligent psychological thriller which stays with you once the credits have rolled.
TO BOLDLY REVIEW #1 – STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES (SEASON 1)
Having re-watched the whole of the new Doctor Who seasons a few years back I decided, this year, to boldly go and watch every season of the long-running Star Trek show from the original series onwards. There’s no time limit to this project as the original, Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine, Enterprise and Discovery seasons are all available on Netflix. So, save for the occurrence of World War 3, the Zombie Apocalypse or Netflix going bust, I expect this viewing pastime to last the next few years.
The show has given birth to all manner of prequels, sequels, sidequels, and cinema releases. Indeed, it continues to be a multi-billion dollar franchise today with festivals, exhibitions and conventions dedicated to this cultural phenomenon. This demonstrates the genius, long-standing quality and sustainability of Gene Roddenberry’s Wagon Train to The Stars.Episodes are deftly written with high concept sci-fi ideas, imaginative alien races and a zeitgeist approach to the themes of the day. Many of the episodes really shone and while the special effects are obviously dated the imagination and themes still maintain their power today.
Watching the first season of Star Trek space adventures of Kirk, Spock, Uhuru, Bones, Sulu, Scotty etc. brought back interstellar memories from my youth. As entertainment now the show definitely stands the test of time (and space!). This, in no small part, is down to the solid premise, rules of the world, wonderful writing and committed performances by an awesome cast notably the Enterprise’s yin and yang; played perfectly by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. The storylines and characterisation are always intriguing and on reflection the show was pioneering in regard to representations of gender, race and sexuality.
Containing thirty episodes the first season is metronomic in its delivery and structure. Each show would begin with the Starship Enterprise continuing its core mission of travelling around the many galaxies and planets seeking out new life forms as well transporting supplies, equipment and people from planet to planet. Invariably encountering a new star system, colony, planet, race of aliens or an evil scientist would bring rise to a conflict with which Kirk and the crew must overcome. Many episodes are inspired from a genre perspective; while others are driven by powerful themes which reflect the socio-political, gender, race and psychological fears of the late 1960s. Many of these themes are still relevant today which is why the original series remains highly watchable and is not just kitsch sci-fi to be mocked.
Of course, a genre formula was followed closely with the Enterprise and crew always overcoming their various foes by the end of the show. The Enterprise would also more often than not sustain damage which would threaten the lives of the crew and “ticking time-bomb” plot device would up the narrative ante too. Kirk would usually show his bravery and physical prowess often finding his uniform ripped during physical combat. Simultaneously, the ever reliable and logical Spock would provide the mental strength to overcome any negative situation. While the status quo is always maintained by the end of an episode the crew would always learn something about themselves and Aliens such as the Romulans, Archons, Klingons etc. They would also make important scientific discoveries relating to: Artificial Intelligence, time and space travel and alien technologies. To keep the quality the show employed various writers of high renown to boost the narratives including: Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Jerry Sohl and Richard Matheson to name a few. Consequently the first season is full of exciting episodes with many fascinating storylines of excellent quality.
From a genre perspective Star Trek used science fiction, drama, horror, and at times where Kirk was concerned, romantic tropes throughout. Rogue Frankenstein-type scientists featured in episodes such as: Dagger of the Mind and What Little Girls Are Made Of. In The Enemy Within, Kirk splits into two different personalities echoing Jekyll and Hyde; while in The Conscience of the King we witness a Shakespearean influenced drama dealing with the pursuit of an intergalactic war criminal. Balance of Terror is brilliantly shaped around the beats of a submarine war flick and Arena reflects the structure of Roman Gladiatorial films. Court Martial too, does what it says on the tin, with court room dramas used as the model for the episode.
Thematically, as aforementioned, Star Trek was not shy of examining the scientific, political, consumer and sociological events of the time. For example: Mudd’s Women contains a damning critique of quick fix drug therapy and plastic surgery; Operation: Annihilate presents an alien invasion which could be interpreted symbolically as highlighting the threat of religious or political hysteria. Indeed, the dangers of the lust for war or invasion are featured also in Errand of Mercy; nuclear threat is critiqued in Taste of Armageddon; while the deadly potential of technological advancement features in The Return of the Archons. Of course, environmental threats are also prominent as seen in The Devil in the Dark; with plants threatening peril in the episode This Side of Paradise, where the warnings of recreational drug use are implicit within the subtext. Comedy is also used to support the drama as the Bones and Spock often lock metaphorical horns overs the latter’s lack of emotion.
Thus, Star Trek – Season one, original series – contains a wealthy of intriguing themes, ideas, narratives, worlds and characters within the thirty episodes. I personally enjoyed them all but to close this opening piece on my Star Trek voyage I would like to nominate my favourite six episodes of season one.
MIRI (1966) – EPISODE 8
A brilliant episode finds the Enterprise crew discovering an exact duplicate of Earth, where the only survivors of a plague are some of the planet’s children
THE MENAGERIE (1966) – EPISODES 11 & 12
A two-parter which expertly splices events from the original pilot called The Cage and finds Mr Spock going rogue, defying both logic and Starfleet orders.
TOMORROW IS YESTERDAY (1967) – EPISODE 19
A superb temporal paradox narrative finds the USS Enterprise travelling back to 1968 Earth and correcting damage they caused to Earth’s timeline.
SPACE SEED (1967) – EPISODE 22
Kirk and Spock et al meet an incredibly charismatic foe who threatens to take over the Enterprise; with Ricardo Montalban stealing the show as the deadly Khan.
ALTERNATIVE FACTOR (1967) – EPISODE 27
I loved the Sisyphean plot as the crew find “reality-jumper” Lazarus, a man trapped between parallel universes threatening the whole of existence itself.
CITY ON THE EDGE OF FOREVER – EPISODE 28
An incredible episode full of brilliant time-travelling concepts and a heartfelt love story, with Kirk finding he has an almost impossible choice to make.
I’M DYING UP HERE (2017) – S1 – SHOWTIME TV REVIEW
Created by: David Flebotte
Based on: I’m Dying Up Here by William Knoedelseder
Starring: Melissa Leo, Ari Graynor, Clark Duke, Michael Angarano, Andrew Santino, Stephen Guarino, Erik Griffin, RJ Cyler, Al Madrigal, Jake Lacy
Network: Showtime US / Sky Atlantic UK
As well viewing loads of films I also block out the horrors of the world by watching lots of television too. With cable, digital, internet and terrestrial channels to choose from you will find some gems to stop you thinking about the end of the world; UNLESS, of course, it’s a show about the end of the world. Anyway, as the war-mongering governments plot and false flag and generate fear and murder innocents all around the world, comedy, as they say, can sometimes provide the best medicine.
Showtime’s1970s based comedy-drama is set in Los Angeles. It features an ensemble cast of wannabe comedians at various stages of their careers, which congregate at Goldie’s Comedy Club. Melissa Leo plays the tough-edged business woman running the show who can make a comic’s career by getting them on the Johnny Carson show. Because of economics and the desperate comedians’ desire for fame the acts will work as open spots until they get a break. Leo anchors the show with a ballsy performance, yet beneath her hard exterior there is much pain and vulnerability in her character. She fights and scratches and bites to stay ahead of her rivals as she’s consistently undermined by the sexist and patriarchy dominated show business ‘system.’
The rest of the cast consists of an assortment of character actors, actual stand-up comedians and up-and-coming actors including: Ari Graynor, Jake Lucy, Andrew Santino, Al Madrigal, Clark Duke, Michael Angarano and RJ Cyler. Ari Graynor, as the Texan comedian fighting her way up in a male-dominated world; and, young, black comedian RJ Cyler especially stood out. I have seen Cyler in a number of shows and films now and I think he is a bona fide star in the making. The double act sparring of Clark Duke and Michael Angarano are also hilarious too as the lively, aspiring acts from out of town, so broke they have to rent a closet to live in.
The era, costumes and smoky settings of comedy clubs are fantastically evoked as is the characterisation of the comedians’ struggle. I mean these are intrinsically narcissistic individuals striving for fortune and fame yet many of them are self-hating, low-esteemed and bitter people just searching for a moment of adoration through the audiences’ laughter. Many of the characters are also deeply flawed and actually unlikeable, notably Andrew Santino’s Bill Hobbs. Moreover, while creating a sense of community with each other the comedians are also fiercely competitive and much humour is driven by their cutting barbs and scathing comments toward each other. Childish tit-for-tat battles rage too when things heat over between the acts; either because they have bombed or because they have been stitched up by another act. Lastly, the socio-politics of the era provide excellent subtext and much of the drama derives from: sexual politics; alcohol and drug addiction; comedy club rivalry; joke-theft; heckler-battles; career and actual suicide; race relations; the Vietnam War; and every day existential crises.
Overall, I’m Dying Up Here may not be for everyone but it was brilliant viewing for me. I love stand-up comedy and I love television drama. I also thought the writing, direction, acting, performances, soundtrack and production design were excellent. The show’s strength is in the ability to balance drama and adult-based humour over ten fascinating episodes. It reminded me, most of all, of an extended series of the film Boogie Nights (1997) and the work of Robert Altman. Finally, I myself have written and performed stand-up comedy and, while there’s been little financial or cultural success, I have absolutely loved my time on stage. As a creative pursuit it can be both exhilarating when it goes well and completely devastating when you ‘die’ and NO ONE laughs. But hey, death on stage is far more palatable than the apocalypse! Indeed, it’s NOT THE END OF THE WORLD!
SCREENWASH HORROR REVIEWS: UNSANE (2018) & A QUIET PLACE (2018)
Many of us like to be scared and thrilled and made tense, especially if it is in the darkened recesses of the cinema. Because as the adrenaline and stress levels rise we know, at the back of our minds, we’re safe. Nothing can actually harm us because it’s happening on a screen. Yet witnessing characters in danger of harm or death can be an exhilarating and cathartic experience for many. Indeed, watching films of the horror or thriller genres is subconsciously akin to a near-death experience; as facing the reaper from a position of relative safety is part of the excitement of going to the movies.
I do love a good horror or thriller – I really do! So was really pleased when two decent ones came out at the cinema last week. Thus, here are two reviews for the price of one of Unsane (2018) and A Quiet Place (2018); both with the usual mark out of eleven.
A QUIET PLACE (2018)
Directed By: John Krasinski
Produced by: Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller
Screenplay by: Bryan Woods/Scott Beck & John Krasinski
Starring: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski
Without hardly any fanfare or major marketing campaign this superior monster film has crept up and, in a similar fashion to Get Out (2017), really got audiences flexing their “word-of-mouth” muscles. In fact, while it doesn’t have the socio-political dimension of Jordan Peele’s Oscar winner, I actually think it’s an even better horror film. Throughout A Quiet Place my heart was literally living in my mouth as my fingers and knuckles clenched and whitened during the whole tense escapade.
The story is quickly and economically established via a brilliant opening scene full of dread and silence. Emily Blunt and John Krasinski’s “every-couple” and their three children are surviving in a post-invasion period where monstrous creatures have wreaked havoc on Earth. Using sound to hunt humans must remain absolutely silent or: NO MORE HUMANS!! This simple but ingenious premise drives the story and action as the lean and powerful script delivers some incredible moments of horror and suspense. The real-life husband and wife acting team bring a believable humanity to the characters and Blunt especially is phenomenal in her reaction and character work.
Mark: 9.5 out of 11
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Produced by: Joseph Malloch
Written by: Jonathan Bernstein/James Greer
Starring: Claire Foy, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah, Juno Temple
Unlike A Quiet Place this Steven Soderbergh directed thriller focusses on a different kind of monster; that which lives silently in the recesses of the mind. Claire Foy portrays, the unlikely named Sawyer Valentini, a financial analyst who after visiting a psychotherapist finds herself plunged into a horrific ordeal on a psychiatric ward which threatens her sanity.
This is a gripping story which, despite a few plot-holes, raises the tension and drama by making us unsure as to whether Foy’s character is a reliable or unreliable narrator. Soderbergh, who apparently shot much of the film on an IPhone 7, is an expert filmmaker as we feel trapped and claustrophobic during the lead protagonist’s hellish nightmare.
Like his previous film, the brilliant Side Effects (2013), the film also has important points to make about the Healthcare system in the United States, and overall I was drawn in by Foy’s excellent performance. I also liked the fact that she was kind of unlikeable too as the uncertainly whether to believe her paranoiac delusions propelled this fascinating low-budget-B-movie narrative.
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.
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.
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.