Starring: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sian Clifford, Olivia Colman, Brett Gelman, Hugh Skinner, Bill Paterson, Jamie Demetriou, Jenny Rainsford, Hugh Dennis etc.
Composer: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Cinematography: Tony Miller, Laurie Rose
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
This melancholic, painful and chaotic home for middle-class grotesques and excruciatingly awkward comedy situations involving, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s barely-surviving-human being-the-titular-‘Fleabag’, shouldn’t really work as entertainment. Yet, it does because of: brilliant writing, dark, honest humour, existential depth, almost-cinematic production values; genuine star quality from Waller-Bridge; and a cast on top of their game.
First-world-very-white yet universal human problems are legion in two seasons of twelve breathless episodes. We join our nameless anti-hero scraping through life in the midst of doubling grief, following the recent deaths of her mother and close friend/business partner. No doubt the chattering twenty-something classes are full with “I’m just like Fleabag!” recognition. Nonetheless, there’s something to enjoy for those who love to experience raw, human frailty on screen too.
‘Fleabag’ fights flailing moods, business and family issues in contemporary status-symbol London. Using sex to block out her pain in the first season, ‘Arsehole Guy’ and ‘Bus Rodent’ are two such crutch-like paramours who, along with on-off-ex-boyfriend, Harry, are given the physical and emotional run-around. In the less bawdy second season she falls for an uber-cool Catholic Priest (Andrew Scott). Thus, the lashings of sex from the first season gives way to more interesting abstinence and romantic torture for ‘Fleabag’.
With her best mate dead from a tragic accident ‘Fleabag’s’ sword and shield against life is gone and attempts at bridge-building with her family are fraught with strained agony. Her sister Claire (Sian Clifford), is tighter than a snare drum, existing solely on neurosis and a never-ending workaholic mission drive. The scenes between ‘Fleabag’ and her sister range from touching to hilarious to fractious dread. Meanwhile, their beta-male Father (Bill Paterson), is also grieving and a full-on emotional trainwreck. He finds himself a rabbit-in-the-headlights of Olivia Colman’s ‘Godmother’; a genius at passive aggressivity and unlikely arch-villain, quietly stealing the father away from his daughters.
Many hilarious and painful scenes play out around dinner tables, art exhibitions, parties, funerals, seminars, retreats and weddings. ‘Fleabag’ vainly attempts normality but understandbly fails. In addition to her family she also conflicts with other characters, notably Claire’s horrendous-alcoholic-overgrown-man-child-husband, Martin. I was genuinely shouting bile at the TV screen every time I saw him. Thankfully, Fleabag also features fine supporting roles from more likeable characters portrayed by the ultra-talented Fiona Shaw, Kristin Scott-Thomas and aforementioned Andrew Scott.
From Hancock to Steptoe and Son to Fawlty Towers to Blackadder to The Office to Spaced and to the most recent Gervais show After Life, British comedy has been replete with idiosyncratic and anti-heroic characters we root for. Indeed, it takes special writing and performances to get such shades of grey to work on stage and screen. Overall, Waller-Bridge takes familiar themes and situations and spins comedy and dramatic gold from them. Formally, she smashes the fourth wall with Brechtian direct address, welcoming us into her tumultuous reality, speaking to us and asking us to laugh and cry and love and hate and do what humans do: somehow just get through the day.
Between the years of 2008 and 2011, I did some screenwriting work for the Mountview Film Academy; a filmic extension of the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. Based in London, they would produce a number of student acting projects including many low budget short films. Writers would be shuttled in and given a remit to create short films using specified actors, locations and length of film. Some work better than others and here are three I wrote in 2010.
What an interesting year. Personally, I had my fortieth birthday, changed jobs and my son turned ten years old. I am still at that current job and my son is now eighteen! Yikes: time is a relentless bastard!
In the world of culture, society, news and media there were some fascinating stories in 2010. Snow and ice dominated headlines in the beginning and end of the year. Tony Blair gave evidence to the Iraq enquiry while Dennis Hopper and Alexander McQueen sadly passed away. Ash from Iceland burst the air and disrupted flights all over Europe, as the Deepwater Horizon platform exploded off the Gulf of Mexico.
Later, Labour would lose the election to a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition; while Rauol Moat went on a kill crazy rampage in the North-East of England. Chilean miners got trapped underground, while Julian Assange and Wikileaks also hit the headlines. Finally, most importantly of all, Matt Cardle won The X Factor.
DYING AND KILLING (2010)
This short comedy drama centres on a stand-up comedian who wreaks revenge on a heckler who verbally destroys her set.
I would have to say this is close to being my favourite student short film of the lot. It has a great premise and is very funny. The student actors involved are brilliant and it is directed with style by Jonathan Wolff. As a semi-pro comedian myself I know what it’s like to fail on stage and the film captures that emotion well.
A GOOD CAUSE (2010)
This short romantic comedy-drama centres on a romance between a businessmen and a charity worker that takes a twisted turn.
While the actors do their best with this idea I don’t think the story is particularly sharp. Indeed, the premise feels unfocussed and the direction cannot mask the faults in the script. Having said that the actors are pleasant and the twist is funny, if a little bizarre. Overall, a bit more rehearsal and a re-write may have tightened the film a tad.
This short sci-fi drama centres on a ‘Reaper’ (a person who transfers souls to the ‘other side’), having to make a life and death choice.
I basically wrote this in an afternoon as an emergency script was required by Mountview, after another one fell down at the last minute. Clearly riffing on The Matrix, the film looks and feels too generic and the script is pretty weak. However, there is a decent idea in here which could be worth building on. The actors do well with the formulaic material but not one of my better scripts.
Experienced French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, makes what I call proper films. I mean, have you watched the cinema of yesteryear, notably the 1970s, with stories about characters that are deeply flawed and even possibly unlikeable. Well, Audiard still makes those kind of films. He takes risks representing human beings on the edge of society and perhaps struggling with life; people who often make left-field decisions to improve or escape their existential plight.
For my latest piece in the My Cinematic Romance series, I will look at some key Audiard films well worth watching. I will also incorporate a mini-review of his most recent release, tragi-comedy Western, The Sisters Brothers. If you haven’t seen much of Audiard’s work and are drawn to intense human character studies with absorbing narratives, then I highly recommend it.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
THE SISTERS BROTHERS (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW
Starring a quartet of fantastic scene-stealing actors in: Riz Ahmed, Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly, this Western bends the genres between drama, comedy and tragedy. Based on Patrick DeWitt’s critically acclaimed novel, the film is set in the 1850s during the Californian Gold Rush. It centres on the titular brethren, easier-going, Eli (Reilly), and drunken Charlie (Phoenix); hired bounty hunters who kill mainly for an enigmatic individual called the Commodore.
The film unfolds in what I would call a curious romp fashion; and it is certainly guaranteed to attain future cult status. Moreover, it also echoes the tone and eccentricity of recent Westerns like: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) and Slow West (2015). While Reilly and Phoenix’ characters form a humorous double-act in terms of verbal exchanges, their actions betray the fact they are cynical, hard-bitten and murderous. A product of their amoral milieu they remain the antithesis of the stylish and charming outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Their latest quarry and target for the Commodore is Ahmed’s idealistic chemist, Herbert Warm. Assisting them is Gyllenhaal’s likeable tracker, John Morris. The brothers’ haphazard pursuit of Warm is a fun and bloody journey replete with: chaotic shootouts, barnstorming brawls, hilarious bickering and right-turn narrative twists. Overall, it’s probably too idiosyncratic to impact the box office, yet, Audiard directs with his usual love for morally ambiguous characters. Lastly, the natural lighting and colour scheme is beautifully shot throughout; while Alexandre Desplat’s score resonates impeccably. Thus, these elements plus Phoenix and Reilly’s tremenodous on-screen sparring make this a very enjoyable picaresque Western tale.
Mark: 8.5 out of 11
OTHER RECOMMENDED AUDIARD FILMS
READ MY LIPS (2001)
This Audiard thriller centres on Emmanuelle Devos’ office worker, Carla, and has echoes of Hitchcock and Coppola’s paranoiac classic The Conversation (1974). Hiding her deafness from colleagues, Carla enters into a robbery plot with Vincent Cassel’s ex-con and a fascinating serpentine double-crossing narrative ensues.
A PROPHET (2009)
This is one of the best prison films I have ever seen. It is a perfect example of the emotional power of linear filmmaking. As we follow Tahar Rahim’s lowly prisoner rise through the prison ranks using: violence, luck, cunning and smarts, we feel every emotion and tension he does during an incredibly compelling journey.
RUST AND BONE (2012)
Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts fizz with passion, star quality and brute sexuality in this “opposites-attract” romance drama. Cotillard is a Marine Park employee who falls for Schoenaerts low level criminal but obviously the path of love is a jagged one. Full of beautiful imagery and brutal violence, it’s a memorable character drama full of bitterness, redemption and pain.
Dheepan starts as a humane story of survival and the immigrant experience, before crossing over into explosive thriller territory by the end. Further, Audiard casts his leads with unknown actors and wrings every ounce of feeling from the sympathetic characters. As the Sri Lankan Tamil, Dheepan, and his “wife”, struggle with life on a Paris council estate, what may seem small in scale is in fact emotionally very epic.
Eight years ago I wrote some articles for a nifty little website called Obsessed with Film. The site was independent and would have some geeky and interesting articles on film and television. Years later the site became the click-bait-pop-ups-from-hell-advertising-led-but-still-not-too bad: www.whatculture.com
Anyway, one of the articles was about some “forgotten” films or, as I shall refer to them, under-rated film classics. Basically, I listed films which I felt were deserving of further praise or viewings. The first list and subsequent list included: Bad Santa (2003), Dog Soldiers (2002), Chopper (2000), Midnight Run (1988), Tremors (1990), Locke (2014),Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and many more.
My rules are simple. An under-rated classic can be a film I love plus not be one of the following:
Must not have won an Oscar.
Must not have won a BAFTA.
Must not appear in the AFI Top 100 list.
Must not appear in the IMDB Top 250 list.
Must not appear in the BFI 100 Great British films.
Must not appear in the all-time highest grossing movies of list.
So, with these criteria in mind I present a further sequel to my previous article with another set of under-rated film classics. If you have any suggestions that fit the criteria please do let me know and I will include them on my next list.
BEFORE I WAKE (2016)
Before I Wake tells the moving story of an orphaned boy fostered by Thomas Jane and Kate Bosworth’s grieving parents. This was a dream-like and touching tale with a powerful element of horror which benefits from great performances by Bosworth and Jacob Tremblay. I imagine I’m the only person who actually rates this film but I think, despite some plot issues, it remains a beautiful hidden movie gem.
After the mostly horrendous Sylvester Stallone starring Judge Dredd adaptation, Karl Urban subsequently stepped into the boots of the ruthless cop hell-bent on bringing justice to Mega City One. It’s a lower budgeted, but tremendous action thriller with Dredd battling nefarious druglords in a fortified tower block complex; led by a grand turn from Lena Headey. Violent and darkly humorous, Dredd was not a box-office success, but it was short, sharp and loud with Urban, keeping his visor firmly to his face, giving a steely performance as the grizzled, veteran law-keeper.
GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2017)
This British independent period drama is not something I would usually go for. It’s a period drama and biopic about Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne and while these films are often by-the-numbers, this rendition of his life post World War I is a touching and emotionally heart-warming narrative. Thematically it is very strong with evocation of the post-traumatic stress Milne suffered after returning from war, plus the negative effect fame had on his family when his books became bestsellers. Domnhall Gleeson, Kelly Macdonald and Margot Robbie shine in their respective roles, but Will Tilston as young Christopher Robin/Billy Moon is a revelation as Milne’s young son.
THE MIST (2007)
Frank Darabont had tremendous success with a number of Stephen King adaptations, notably the now revered The Shawshank Redemption (1994). But, his rendition of King’s The Mist is an equally powerful movie. Starring: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Toby Jones, Laurie Holden and Darabont regular, Jeffrey DeMunn, the film centres on the aftermath of a violent thunderstorm in Bridgport, Maine. As townsfolk get trapped in a supermarket, any attempt at escape is prevented by a monstrous presence in the mist. With the supermarket representing a microcosm of humanity, the film poses the idea that religious fanatics are as much a threat as the aliens outside; with Marcia Gay Harden on ferocious form as the lead zealot. Thrilling and dark, The Mist is relentlessly frightening with a jaw-dropping ending.
THE OTHER GUYS (2010)
Adam McKay’s silly genre movie is an entertaining comedic cop film parody, thrilling action spoof and, on occasions, full of smart social commentary. It begins with an incredible chase sequence involving hero cops played by Samuel L. Jackson and Duwayne Johnson; only they are NOT the main protagonists because they are soon dispatched very early in the story. Enter the mismatched duo of Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as the eponymous anti-heroes who pursue Steve Coogan’s crooked CEO. Further, McKay has digs at money-men who manipulate the stock market to save their dishonest hides. With a twisting narrative, brilliant running gags and Wahlberg and Farrell’s stupendous double act, this is a highly memorable comedy full of stupidity, hilarity and style.
Phantasm is a synthesis of genres from rites-of-passage, suspense, horror and science fiction. Ultimately, it’s the epitome of a cult classic and a triumph of concepts over finance. It’s full of mood and atmosphere and has a creepy synth-based soundtrack that cranks up the fear factor. Director Don Coscarelli created an imaginative fantasy concerned with death and mourning that has stood the test of time. It may lack the polish of big budget productions but the scares and surrealism reminded me of the works of Italian horror-master Lucio Fulci and Spanish filmmaking genius Luis Bunuel. It’s a film I would wholly recommend for devotees of horror and for those who like their movies raw, inventive and nightmarish.
PUSHER II (2004)
Pusher II is even more relentlessly grim than the original featuring all manner of dumb, lower-class hoods trying to scrape gold from Copenhagen streets paved mainly with heroin and blood. It’s an unglamorous and honest realisation of criminal-life as low-level drug pushers fuck one another over on a regular basis. Mikkelsen’s Tonny is a tragic character, who is left rudderless by a manipulative father and just cannot cut a break due to both his own lack of intelligence or positive role models. Never has there been so much sympathy for a movie thug like Tonny as Mikkelsen extracts every bit of humanity he can from the poor beast.
RUNNING SCARED (2006)
This Paul Walker starring crime thriller is a proper B-movie and arguably isn’t even that good. Indeed, it does seem to fall into that sub-Tarantino narrative bracket. However, every time I have watched it I have been glued to the twisty plot and violent gun-play. Walker is the low level mobster in New Jersey, who, after a drug deal goes wrong, must locate an incriminating and missing hand-gun, or face a violent death. I think it’s the frantic pace and action that’s full of surprises and punchlines which kept me enthralled; and despite the generic nature of the story I really rate it as a proper guilty pleasure.
Cruelly buried by the Weinstein studio on initial release, this under-rated graphic novel adaptation is absolutely brilliant. Set in an apocalyptic future, the train becomes an analogy for class struggle between the haves and have-nots. The action is relentless as it depicts the working class struggle. Their revolution occurs with Chris Evans’ character leading the hungry poor to the top of the train where the rich and privileged live a life of luxury. Bong Joon-ho directs Evans, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer and Tilda Swinton expertly, as the film marries social commentary and blistering action with aplomb.
Written, surprisingly enough, by Wentworth Miller, the lead actor from Prison Break, this is a subtle and bleak contemporary Southern Gothic tale. Directed by genius filmmaker Park Chan-wook, it stars Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and the under-rated Matthew Goode as a dysfunctional family unit who all have secrets to hide. While the film moves slowly it creepily spreads a steady flow of dread as we never quite know which character holds the biggest threat. Inspired by Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), this psychological thriller is full of death, grief and mystery and if you prefer slow-burn suspense this is definitely a film for you.