Created by: Pat Bishop, Matt Ingebretson, Jake Weisman
Directed by: Pat Bishop
Starring: Matt Ingebretson, Jake Weisman, Anne Dudek, Adam Lustick, Aparna Nancherla, Baron Vaughan, Lance Reddick
Have you ever had a job where during your employment you literally just wanted to die? It could be for a number of reasons: you hate your job; you hate your boss; you hate your work colleagues; you hate yourself; you’re bored with the tasks; the endless meetings; a hangover from hell; your pen broke and leaked all over you; the girl from Accounts doesn’t fancy you; you hate the customers; or you feel so existentially empty and having realised the pointlessness of living in a cruel, heartless and soulless vacuum of a world you see no alternative but to commit suicide. Or is that just me?
Of course, many of the above are the irrational emotions of a spoilt Westerner and can be firmly filed under first world problems. Because in a thriving and greed-driven capitalist society which is destroying the environment and Earth, making the rich richer and the monetizing and exploiting the poor for the continual gathering of wealth, what alternative is there? We can protest and sometime things change but most of us have the fight kicked out of our guts or never had it to begin with. So we have no choice but to punch the clock, get our money, go out and get drunk or high and play Xbox, have miserable children, watch a movie, watch Netflix, buy crap we don’t need, over eat and drink; and then go back to work on Monday, deluding ourselves we are living valuable lives.
Comedy Central’s under-the-radar black comedy satire Corporate encapsulates much of what I’m talking about above. My attitude is nowhere near as bleak anymore as the opinions stated above and come from emotions of when I was much younger and cynical. However, there remains a truth to these feelings and Corporate– in ten very funny episodes – captures that negative truth very well. It also captures the existential dread of working in an office for a diabolical corporation, hell-bent on fucking the world while chasing the: Dollar, Pound, Yen, Rupee, Renminbi etc.
Indeed, Hampton DeVille are a massive global company and completely ruthless in their business as the show reflects practices by such conglomerates as: Amazon, Apple and Google etc. Their CEO is the megalomaniacal Christian Deville (Lance Reddick) but the show focusses on the trainee executives Matt (Matt Ingebretson) and Jake (Jake Weisman) as they face the horror of: long pointless meetings; ridiculous away days; dress down days; pedantic HR policies; general boredom and ennui; and dealing with patronising middle managers and petty colleagues. With episode titles such as: Powerpoint of Death, The Void and The Pain of Being Alive, the show is pitch black in its outlook and themes; while the visual style is drained of colour with browns, blacks and greys dominating.
Overall, I really enjoyed the absurd look at office life in Corporate. It takes risks because even the lead protagonists aren’t likable and the delivery is very deadpan. I especially enjoyed the skewering corporate business, as Hampton Deville is shown to be involved in: gun-running; starting civil wars; monetizing religion and art; over-the top technological releases; stupid jargon and sloganeering; plus it nails the horrific tedium of being trapped in a job you hate. But as I always say: there’s one thing worse that having a job you hate – having to look for a job you know you’re going to hate!!
Produced by: Jack Binder, Greg Clark, Victoria Hill, Gary Hamilton, Deepak Sikka, Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Frank Murray
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Philip Ettinger
Paul Schrader is one of the greatest writers that has ever committed a career to cinema. He has been involved in the writing of exceptional films including: Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Blue Collar (1978), American Gigolo (1980), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Light Sleeper (1992), Affliction (1997) etc. Of late he’d had some misfires, however, First Reformed, is a devastating return to form for Schrader.
Tapping into the structure and themes of arguably his greatest work, Taxi Driver (1976), we find Ethan Hawke portraying New York chaplain, Reverend Ernst Toller. He is a complex, haunted and sad man, yet instilled with a strong sense of duty and commitment to his dwindling congregation. He keeps a journal to record his thoughts and these are delivered via a devastating voice-over. Hawke’s voice staggers across the images delivering a combination of existential pleas for understanding and an intelligent questioning of the world around him. Toller’s depression or malaise is not helped by his alcoholism and illness spreading through his body. Thus, Schrader and Hawke create a very empathetic character, out of sync and in grief but very likable to his peers and flock.
When Amanda Seyfried’s local mum-to-be Mary comes to see him about her troubled husband, Michael, Toller agrees to speak with him about his concerns for the world and the damage humans are inflicting on the environment. When the drama arrives you just feel every agonising moment through Hawke’s beautifully realised character. Just watching Ethan Hawke in a room is enough for me as he is such a nuanced and clever actor. Schrader frames Toller in doorways, rooms, shadows, mirrors and pulpits, pushing him into spaces and trapping him. The sparse nature of the sets also acts as a symbol of Toller’s emptiness and feeling of despair at the world. Yet, at no time does he question his faith per se. The film certainly has an air of that but the big indictment is the horror we have perpetuated upon God’s Earth; challenging whether we deserve this beautiful planet.
Ultimately, this is quintessential Paul Schrader. Taking a broken individual in the midst of a life crisis and attempting to find salvation or redemption. Whereas Taxi Driver (1976) was, in part, about Travis Bickle cleaning up the streets of New York, Ernst Toller finds a desire to clean up the corporate and capitalist industrial processes which are destroying the Earth. While First Reformed’sending is not as explosive or cathartic as Taxi Driver it paradoxically creates hope for a fascinating character nonetheless. While he may not be able to save the Earth, Reverend Toller, may somehow be able to save himself.
Having written extensively about my love of Star Trek (The Original Series) in this article HERE – I have over the last few months completed the viewing of the second season.
My mission was to boldly watch every Star Trek episode ever made and report back with the findings. The second season, as a whole, compares favourably to the first in terms of writing and performance and concepts. One could say that season 2 drops slightly in quality toward the end. This could be explained by the uber-producer Gene L. Coon leaving as the day-to-day showrunner, plus Gene Roddenberry was less hands-on too. Nonetheless, while the ratings continued to dip, the consistency of dramatic, comedic and science fiction or fantasy on show was in my view of an excellent quality. One notes that certain repetitions of format had obviously come to the fore in the format. I mean we still get Spock, Kirk, Bones and the rest of the crew fighting a slew of alien life forms or mad computers, yet such genre familiarity is also part of the major appeal.
With the budget (still sizable for its day) of each episode being lowered and NBC moving the second season to a later time slot on an unfavourable day the ratings suffered somewhat. So much so the show came perilously close to being cancelled. However, a core of Star Trek and science fiction fans protested physically and in writing to the studio and eventually they relented and gave the crew of the Starship Enterprise a third, and alas, final frontier season.
With regards to Season 2, there were some excellent episodes and I noted a move toward more comedic tones. Here are SIX episodes which captured my imagination in terms of narrative, drama and humour.
AMOK TIME – Episode 1
This classic episode is the only one of the Original Series to feature scenes on the planet Vulcan. It also is the first time the Vulcan hand salute is shown. It further marks the first appearance of the phrase which accompanies the Vulcan hand salute, “Live long and prosper.” The story finds Spock with a form of Vulcan heat and it demands he finds a mate to marry. Cue some wonderful acting from Leonard Nimoy and classic hand-to-hand combat between Spock and Kirk. The exploration of Vulcan culture adds a depth to Spock’s characterisation and this adds texture to an already fascinating character.
MIRROR MIRROR – Episode 4
The episode involves a transporter malfunction that swaps Captain Kirk and his companions with their evil counterparts in a parallel universe. It’s a wonderfully nifty sci-fi concept and has the cast stretching their acting chops playing nefarious versions of themselves with gleeful abandon. Moreover, the Trek theme of duality of psyche and split personalities is explored in a very entertaining fashion. When I first saw this it reminded me of the Red Dwarf episode ‘Parallel Universe’; but of course sci-fi is full of doubles, parallel and mirrored narratives within the genre.
THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE – Episode 6
This very cinematic episode is an absolute storming drama with echoes of Moby Dick and Jaws (1975) in space, as the crew of the Enterprise are caught within the path of a gigantic monstrous machine dubbed ‘the Planet Killer’! All throughout the stakes are incredibly high because if they do not stop it whole galaxies could be destroyed. The episode is intense and nail-biting with Shatner absolutely nailing his performance, while guest actor William Windom brings an impressive mania to his role as Commodore Decker.
METAMORPHOSIS– Episode 9
This is a wonderful episode for a number of reasons. Firstly, the photography by Jerry Finnerman was absolutely beautifully lit with warm hues, ambience and glow. The lighting compliments the gentle nature of the story which finds the Starfleet trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy pulled down to a planet by a mysterious alien force called “The Companion.” There they find a missing Starfleet scientist Zefram Cochrane (Glenn Corbett) and discover he has not aged at all; but the price is he cannot escape “The Companion”. The drama plays out gently and is assured in its thematic exploration of loneliness, romance and the curative powers of love.
JOURNEY TO BABEL – Episode 10
This multi-layered episode finds us meeting Spock’s parents for the first time as the Enterprise ferries an array of Ambassadors within the United Federations to the Babel conference. Throw into the mix Spock’s dispute with his father and a murderer on board attempting to derail an important mining contract between the planets, and you get a mature work of political science fiction writing. The screenplay from Star Trek stalwart DC Fontana is full of great dialogue and a suspenseful murder mystery. Having already appeared in Season 1, as a Romulan Starship Captain, Mark Lenard as Spock’s father Ambassador Sarek is the stand-out guest star.
THE TROUBLE WITH TRIBBLES – Episode 15
Aside from a wonderfully alliterative and fun title, The Trouble with Tribbles is often cited as one of the most entertaining and humorous Star Trek episodes ever. The episode was nominated for Best Dramatic Presentation at the 1968 Hugo Awards, with the award instead going to The City on the Edge of Forever. Tribbles are of course, hamster-like-rodents which mate like rabbits and through sheer mass cause havoc on the Enterprise. Shatner is on top comedic form as Captain Kirk, dealing with the furry pests and a raft of Klingons sharing an uneasy truce; that is until a right-royal bar-fight breaks out in this laugh-out-loud fifteenth entry of the season.
SIX OF THE BEST #12 – UNRELIABLE NARRATORS IN CINEMA
**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**
I find the nature of storytelling and narrative construction a fascinating craft. As someone who reads and watches a lot of stories via: books, cinema, theatre, comedy, radio and television, I am always drawn to devices which differ from the conventional norm. When I was younger I used to pour scorn on stories told straight and in chronological order. I like difficult or unconventional works as it appealed to my younger rebellious side. Of late though, I have come to realise that unconventional or non-linear storytelling can be used as a stylistic device for the sake of it and adds nothing to the story. Screenwriting navel-gazing devices such as fragmented timelines can detract from the emotional impact of the characters’ journey. Thus, to get a complex layered and non-linear storyline right is difficult. Many writers and filmmakers experiment with variant structures to escape standard narrative conventions. Indeed, with hard work and positive creative decisions it is possible to capture magic in a script and transport it to the screen.
Conversely, the device of the unreliable narrator is another means which a screenwriter can differentiate a narrative from conventional classic storytelling. Usually, in say a Hollywood blockbuster our hero or heroes will be those we root for from beginning to end. To switch our main protagonist or narrative focus from positive to negative or good to bad is brave writing. To even begin with an anti-heroic or even unlikable lead protagonist is obviously a risk and can alienate the audience. Furthermore, to make the lead character or characters unreliable is very difficult. However, the tricky craft of leading us one way with a protagonist before revealing them to be untrustworthy or twisted is a device which can provide much narrative satisfaction.
In 1981, William Riggan, created a study of various unreliable types, including: The Picaro, The Madman, The Clown, The Naif and The Liar. The Picaro will typically be a bragger, similar to the Liar but not as heinous. The Madman or Mad Woman, however, will be more sinister but The Clown and The Naif will either be playing for laughs or in the latter’s case, telling their story from a naïve position. Moreover, an unreliable narrator will potentially be hiding their own crimes or actions out of guilt. Or they will have amnesia, selective or deliberate to mislead the audience. They may just take great joy in telling lies or simply be unhinged to believe their fractured personality is presenting their version of the truth. It could be they are also attention seekers; OR actually a combination of all of the above.
Examples of unreliable narrators are legion throughout theatrical and literary presentations. Indeed, Agatha Christie and Jim Thompson often utilised them in their crime stories; as did novelists such as: Emily Bronte, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bret Easton Ellis, Gillian Flynn, Vladimir Nabokov and many more. In this piece I would like to consider six of the best films featuring unreliable narrators. It was tough to get just six as I could have easily doubled it but here we are!
***CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS***
Joe Wright’s majestic directorial adaptation of Ian McEwan’s tragic war story is a poignant study of petty revenge and romantic conflict. While the story focusses on the doomed love affair between James McEvoy and Keira Knightley’s class-crossed lovers, the narrator is novelist Briony Tallis (Vanessa Redgrave). Due to a spiteful action by her thirteen year-old self the events of the drama are revealed at the end to be manipulated out of sheer guilt. While she attempts to give the romance story a more positive ending the horrors of war are to the fore and Briony’s remorse will never be humbled.
THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (1920)
This silent movie classic is seen as the epitome of German Expressionist cinema. Set within the confines of a mental health asylum it was directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. The story concerns a man named Francis (Friedrich Feher) as he tells of a strange tale involving the mysterious somnambulist Cesare and nefarious Dr Caligari. Both stylistically and structurally formidable the film features: twisted and painterly sets, shadowy key lighting and ghostly make-up. Also, the story-within-the-story is both terrifying and all a lie in the mind of a madman. The ending would now be seen as potential cliché but on release it was astounding and clearly influenced another story with a troubled and unreliable narrator in Shutter Island (2010).
FIGHT CLUB (1999)
Chuck Palahniuk’s seminal novel and David Fincher’s incendiary cinematic adaptation is way too complex a piece to sum up in this little list. However, it still stands the test of time in terms of style and structure as Fincher directs the hell out of Edward Norton’s everyman and his charismatic alter-ego, Tyler Durden. A brutal, violent and coruscating vision of masculinity in crisis within a crumbling, corporate and schizophrenic society, Norton’s unreliable narrator spits and spirals and finally splits literally in half. Funny, dark, and a genuine film classic, no one’s meant to talk about Fight Club but it certainly deserves all the praise heaped upon it.
Christopher Nolan’s early noir classic Memento (2000) is famously told in reverse chronological fashion, thus subverting the very nature of linear storytelling. His anti-hero, Leonard Shelby, has no means of making new memories thus via tattoos and Polaroid photos he constructs a present day movie of his own life in visual form. As the story unfolds we flash back and forth to a film within a film about a character called Sammy Jankis. Yet, incredibly and sadly, it turns out that Sammy is an imagined character used to suppress a terrible event in Leonard’s life and the film within a film is in fact the imagined vision of an unreliable narrator.
Akiro Kurosawa’s superbly directed crime classic has not just one but numerous unreliable narrators. Structured around the investigation into a rape and murder in Japan the story splinters around the investigation of said crimes. Various versions of the same story are told from different perspectives as the subjectivity of truth is tested to the full. Are the characters’ stories from the perspective of: the bandit, the wife, the samurai and woodcutter lies or “true” reflections of the events in their respective minds? We all tell stories and is it possible we have got it wrong by mistake or manipulating the truth to our own benefit. Rashomon posits such questions and more in a beautifully rendered cinema classic.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)
Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay remains one of the best I have ever read and the film is not too bad either. Shot on a low budget but cast perfectly the whole story is set around Chazz Palminteri’s cop grilling Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint about a major crime at the docks. What follows is a fractured structure which twists and turns on the basis of the narratives Kint is providing. We flash into event within event which is initially perceived to be truth but ultimately is a fiction. The final reveal where we find Kint has, in fact, been hiding a devilish truth all along astounds the cop and audience beyond belief. The story was so complex that Gabriel Byrne and other cast members actually thought they were Keyser Soze; only finding out they weren’t when they’d seen the incredible twist ending.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
As well watching loads of films and television programmes I also write scripts and produce low-budget short films. This year and last was quite productive. My horror short Flatmates (2018) was shot and completed and having got a couple of festival screenings it still awaits an online release. In the meantime I shot a 90 second micro-budget science-fiction thriller called Don’t Trust Me (2018) which can be seen on my YouTube channel HERE.
Furthermore, my short film C’est Fini (2018) was produced by the Northern Film School and our Star Trek Fan film The Holy Core (2018) found a backer and is currently in pre-production. Finally, myself and actress Melanie Gayle decided to work together again to produce a script for another 90 second short film competition Depict! This competition screens micro-shorts at the Encounters Film Festival and so we shot MISDIRECTION (2018), with that in mind.
MISDIRECTION (2018) was shot in June in a day with a small crew; not that they are short but there was only four of us! The crew were great and so was my leading actress Melanie Gayle. My wife also provided wonderful voice work as the SAT-NAV. The 90 second version was edited and then submitted to Depict. Yet, I also had a slightly longer version cut and I think, despite the low-budget, it works well as a little twist-in-the-tale story that’s both funny and sinister too. There are obvious homages to the works of Philip K. Dick, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Black Mirror and Tales of the Unexpected. Here it is – hope you enjoy:
A short, low-budget science-fiction comedy film with a twist.
Valentine Ford is meeting her boyfriend, Dave, for dinner. However, her SAT-NAV has other ideas.
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**
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.
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.
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.