Producer(s): Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, James Gray, Anthony Katagas, Rodrigo Teixeira, Arnon Milchan
Written by: James Gray, Ethan Gross
Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Jamie Kennedy and more.
UK Release: 20th September 2019
5 REASONS AD ASTRA (2019) COULD BE GOOD
I haven’t done one of these for a while so thought I’d reignite my movie preview section. The main reason is the trailer for science-fiction epic, Ad Astra (2019) looked absolutely brilliant, so I’m very excited to see it at the cinema when released. Here are five reasons it could be good.
1) THE STORY
I love the science fiction genre and space especially is a great place to create mystery and drama. The narrative to Ad Astra (2019) finds Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) travelling to the depths of the galaxy to find his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones). While it appears to be an original script, the story owes much to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.Thus, if we get anywhere near as incredible as Apocalypse Now (1979), but set in space, this could be really great.
2) THE DIRECTOR
Director James Gray has steadily built up a very impressive film C.V. of character and crime dramas. His last film, The Lost City of Z (2016). a jungle epic was a box office loser, but a really compelling drama about exploration and obsession in the Victorian era. Ad Astra (2019) is his biggest budgeted film so far, but given his filmmaking skills and experience, it could be his best yet.
3) THE STAR
Flying high from starring in Tarantino’s twisted movie fairytale, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019), Brad Pitt is proving his star quality still burns brightly. Pitt is always a commanding lead actor and he has played: Nazi Hunters, bare-knuckled fighters, disaffected thirty-something alter-egos, baseball coaches, infamous cowboys, romantic heroes, stoners, vampires, cops, psychopathic drifters, hit-men and many more characters. Here he plays an astronaut and I think it is only his second sci-fi film after the superb Twelve Monkeys (1995). Thus, Brad Pitt’s appearance is another reason to get excited.
4) SPECIAL EFFECTS
While I’m a screenwriter myself and more drawn to story rather than effects driven films, The Moving Picture Company are leading special effects experts. They have worked with Method Studios, Mr X, Weta, Brainstorm Digital etc. on this film and so the work on this space opera looks like it could be incredible. Indeed, The Moving Picture Company alone have provided effects for: Blade Runner 2049 (2018), The Jungle Book (2017), Sully (2017), The Martian (2016), The Guardians of the Galaxy (2015) and many more!
5) THE TRAILER
Because I am so experienced and probably jaded where trailers are concerned, it takes a lot to get my attention when at the cinema. But, the trailer for Ad Astra (2019) absolutely rocked. It did not give ALL the story away and made me want to watch the film. Don’t take my word for it – here it is:
Writers: Jed Mercurio, Rachel Anthony, Richard Zajdlic
Directors: Jed Mercurio, John Strickland, Richard Laxton, Jon East, Iain B. Macdonald, Douglas Mackinnon,
Cast: Max Beesley. Patrick Baladi, Neve McIntosh, Keith Allen, Susan Lynch, Tamzin Malleson, Preeya Kalidas, Simon Lowe, Hattie Morahan, Vicky Hall, Nicholas Palliser etc.
No. of Episodes – 17 (over two seasons and one-off special)
Original Network: BBC (can now be viewed on BBC IPlayer)
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Creator and writer Mercurio is a bulletproof show-runner; a genre writer with a proven hit rate whose work almost always brings commercial, critical and audience success. Having achieved early TV writing acclaim with dark medical comedy, Cardiac Arrest (1994-1996), Mercurio’s next drama Bodies (2004 – 2005) was another critical hit. Latterly, Bodyguard (2018) andLine of Duty (2012 – present) have also proved highly successful.
Undeniably,Line of Duty is a massive hit for the BBC. It has received awards and nominations from: the Royal TV Society, the Writers’ Guild and BAFTA. Moreover, it was also voted in the top BBC shows of all time. While I tend to avoid medical and police procedural dramas as a mild rule, due to the overly-saturation of such programmes on television, Mercurio’s work always draws me in. Thus, I decided to re-watch Bodies (2004 – 2005) on the BBC IPlayer and I’m both glad I did and didn’t to be honest.
I’m glad I watched it because it contains some of the most tense drama you can ever experience. I wish I hadn’t because it contains some of the most visceral medical operations and birthing situations you could ever witness. In fact, all Peckinpah, Carpenter and Tarantino films combined contain less blood than Bodies. Indeed, the ultra-realism of the gynaecological operations on show should contain a health warning of their own. No surprise the make-up and prosthetic effects team on the programme won many awards.
Based on Mercurio’s book of the same name, the narrative is inspired by his experiences working in the National Health Service. An ensemble cast impresses, but the lead protagonist is specialist registrar, Rob Lake (Max Beesley). He is a skilled Doctor who joins the Obstetrics and Gynaecology ward at fictional South Central Infirmary. Rob isn’t particularly likeable and Beesley is directed to portray him as a serious and surly Northern bloke. While still learning his trade he is an excellent surgeon though, with a keen sense of what is right.
The first series of six episodes is incredibly tightly wound and suspenseful because Lake finds himself in a number of medical and moral dilemmas. This is due to his clashes with his boss, Dr Roger Hurley (Patrick Baladi), who is prone to making severe errors during medical procedures. Consequently, during these pulsating scenes of medical trauma my heart was not so much in my mouth but on the floor. Having scooped and swallowed it back up, the fast pace of first season soon delivers further nerve shredding life and death situations.
Season Two is not quite as brilliant as Season One. While containing more incredibly vivid moments of birthing madness, it is over-stretched by an extended ten episode run. Plot-wise it carries on in a similar vein with Lake, Hurley and the toxic masculinity of Dr Tony Whitman (Keith Allen), all clashing within the hospital wings and operation rooms. Their conflicts endanger patients lives as they continually venture into dangerous games of one-upmanship. Added to the deadly apothecary are the politics on the ward, gender, sexual and class. Moreover, there’s the over-arching bureaucracy and target-led NHS managers poking their statistics in. These budget-scrabbling pen-pushers arguably kill more patients than the warring Doctors, mainly due to their incessant bean-counting, biscuit-eating and public relation drives.
Overall, while I have made this sound like a heavy drama or horror genre programme, it is in fact also darkly funny. Mercurio has a knack of taking the most grim circumstances and injecting doses of sardonic humour throughout. There is also gallons of blood and a lot of sex too; probably too much in the first season. But, I get that the theme of the human body was being explored very thoroughly, in more ways than one. Am I the only person who is not a fan of overt sex scenes in films or on television, even if they are in context?
Be warned, if you are scared of hospitals, or operations or about to have a child — DO NOT EVER WATCH THIS SHOW! It is brilliantly scripted and acted, but it will give you nightmares. I mean the Doctors, Nurses and medical staff of the NHS do an incredible job saving lives, so this show should not be a reflection of actual health care in the United Kingdom. If it is though, the phrase: “Trust me, I’m a Doctor” is never as scary as it is in Bodies.
Writer(s): William Bridges, Kate Trefey, Paul Dichter, Curtis Gwinn
Cast: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Sadie Sink, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Maya Hawke, Cara Buono, Joe Keery, Cary Elwes and many, many more.
Number of episodes: 8
Original Network: Netflix
**CONTAIN MASSIVE SPOILERS**
When Season 1 was released, Netflix’s phenomenally popular sci-fi-rites-of-passage-comedy-adventure-drama proved an excellent nostalgia-fest. Indeed, it evoked the 1980’s perfectly in design, sound and look, wearing Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, John Carpenter and George Lucas influences, not so much on its sleeve, but as a whole darned fashion show.
Written and directed by the Duffer Brothers, it centred on the search for a missing child in (where else) Indiana, an ultra-dimensional netherworld and a telekinetic kid called Eleven, who’s on the run from a nefarious US Government facility. Archetypal characters such as embittered drunken cop (David Harbour), distraught nutty mother (Winona Ryder), Gooniesque geeky teens all try and track down their missing friend during eight episodes containing weird and monstrous moments throughout.
I thought Season 1, while full of great design, style, suspense and mystery, was over-rated. It was still a fine work of entertainment but I found the story seriously padded out and stretched. While Season 2 is more generic it was a marked improvement as we got more pace and action. Season 3, though, is even better in terms of story-lines, pace and humour. Some may lament the move away from the mystery and darkness of Season 1, but Season 3’s humour, action and romantic sub-plots are turned right up to Eleven (pun intended).
Furthermore, amidst all the teenage romance crap, there is some fantastic gore and visceral monster goo on show. The Mind Flayer nemesis is an absolutely fearsome creature creation and way more convincing than the cartoon Russians. So, overall, I think this was my favourite season as it didn’t take itself too seriously. It just went for pure adrenaline and mind-bending chases and fights throughout. I didn’t even mind the John Hughes-style soppy romances.
Lastly, Season 3 isn’t perfect as it often verged on parody. This is notable in Episode 8, where we get a viral-bait version of The Never Ending Story (1984) theme song. Quite frankly, it was tonally inappropriate given the kids were being hunted down by Russian soldiers and an inter-dimensional monster at the time. Aside from this crime against genre occurring Season 3 is great because it featured a cavalcade of film references and homages. Well, let’s be honest, they basically stole a load of ideas from other movies.
So, rather than do a traditional review I will mark Stranger Things (2019) – Season 3, and then pick a TOP TEN movie homages or steals that featured prominently as a fun meta-bingo review. Obviously, I’ve probably missed loads out, so, if you care, let me know which ones.
Mark: 9 out of 11
TOP TEN META-REFERENCES IN STRANGER THINGS (2019)
RUSSIAN BADDIE — THE TERMINATOR (1984)
BILLY AND TOWNSFOLK ‘DOUBLES’ — INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956 / 1978)
THE MIND FLAYER – THE BLOB (1958) / ALIEN (1979) / THE THING (1982) / TREMORS (1990)
STEVE AND ROBIN’S “WILL THEY, WON’T THEY ROMANCE?” — ANY JOHN HUGHES FILM!
THE BLACK WATER VOID – UNDER THE SKIN (2013)
USA VERSUS RUSSIA — RED DAWN (1984), RAMBO 2 (1985) & ANY COLD WAR FILM!
BILLY’S DREAMS — DREAMSCAPE (1984) / NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
ELEVEN’S TELEKINETIC POWERS — CARRIE (1976), THE FURY (1978) & SCANNERS (1981) ETC. . .
KIDS ON A MISSION TO SAVE THE TOWN/WORLD (AGAIN) — THE GOONIES (1985)
FANTASY OLDER WOMEN DYNAMIC — RISKY BUSINESS (1983) / WEIRD SCIENCE (1985)
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – FILM REVIEW
Directed and Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Produced by: David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh, Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Margaret Qualley, Austin Butler, Al Pacino, Mike Moh, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Damien Lewis, Kurt Russell and many, many more.
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
From watching the trailers for Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), I remember thinking: this looks so cool and I’m glad they haven’t given away much of the story here. Because, I hate those darned trailers which give away the story!
So, you watch Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film and then you realise, after the excessive running time, THERE ISN’T REALLY ANY STORY as such! Okay, DiCaprio’s character suffers an existential career crisis but that’s kind of it. Instead, you get mostly a nigh-on three-hour historical and cultural nostalgia trip down memory lane filtered through the artistic and fetishistic vision of one of cinemas great filmmaking iconoclasts.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), is essentially an arthouse character study where you get to hang out with two-and-a-half lead protagonists, plus a whole army of fictional and ‘real’ life supporting characters from the 1969 Hollywood era. Our two main “heroes” are neurotic, alcoholic B-movie actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and tough, handsome and laconic, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The two characters contrast and complement each other perfectly. Moreover, the star quality, chemistry and fine performances of the lead actors bind the movie together amazingly.
Brad Pitt is especially brilliant. His character is not, until the violent ending, given much to do story wise; however, he does it with such charm. He imbues a character who has accepted his place in the world with such easy-going humour and control, it is an absolute joy to watch. It’s an iceberg performance which seems shallow on the surface, but has hidden and unsaid depth. I really wanted to know more about his character, especially what appeared to be a very colourful backstory.
DiCaprio, on the other hand, has the showier performance. Edgy, hungover and insecure due to his characters’ fading Hollywood career, DiCaprio gives another fantastic movie performance. He commits to the Dalton character and features in some wonderful sketches which pay homage and parody B-movies, TV variety shows and old TV Westerns. What I loved was his ability to demonstrate different levels of acting skills. DiCaprio can fuck up Dalton’s acting on set one moment, but then deliver acting on a Shakespearean level the next.
Margot Robbie, who we know is a brilliant actor in her own right, alas, is not afforded the same level of care in regard to the characterisation of Sharon Tate. More of an ornamental character in the film, she looks great going to the cinema, packing a suitcase, driving and generally just being effervescent. Yet, it’s truly is one of the film’s major flaws that it doesn’t make more of Robbie’s acting talent. Even the fantastic ending, which Tarantino, takes incredible liberties with in regard to actual events, finds Tate’s character development unfortunately left bereft of emotion.
Similarly, the Hollywood cameos echoing throughout the films are pure style over substance. For example Steve McQueen, Roman Polanski and Bruce Lee feature but these are mostly inconsequential encounters. The Bruce Lee representation and scene is actually really funny as Cliff Booth and the martial arts star face off in a hilarious flashback. Typically, Tarantino has caused controversy with his Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) rendition. Personally, I respect that people may be offended, however, it’s more comedic and iconoclastic rather than overt racism. After all, this is a fairy-tale vision of Hollywood and not a documentary. Plus, Tarantino knows he’s going to piss people off so it’s obvious he’s playing with people here.
While Bruce Lee’s persona is playfully satirized or racist depending on your point-of-view, Tarantino’s representation of the Manson family is more damning. It’s clear he absolutely hates hippies, especially acid-looped killer hippies. Dalton and Booth represent the old-school, honest Hollywood working class, so are the antithesis of the drop-out youths. The culture clashes between this era and the new flower-power cults is something Tarantino explores. Charles Manson, who barely features, is a ghost-like figure though. Instead, it is the character of Tex (Austin Butler) and the females of the commune who are most prominent.
Margaret Qualley as Pussycat is especially hypnotic in her role. Exuding both sexuality and acid-drenched nihilism, Pussycat is a siren hitcher, luring drivers to symbolically crash against the cliffs. For me, Tarantino should have made way more of the old and new California culture clash themes, as they resonated powerfully when on screen. Plus, the scenes on the commune were actually quite creepy, so more should have been made of this threat from a dramatic perspective. Lastly, the irreverent and violent final act carnage exploits the clashing of these two different cultures, but more could have done throughout to enhance this dynamic.
Overall, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) is a near three-hour arthouse classic. If you like films about film and TV making, driving, feet, ensemble casts, films within films, cinema-going, Los Angeles, more feet; and hanging with the marvellous DiCaprio and Pitt in a 1969 setting, then you will love this beautifully rendered and lovingly crafted film about Hollywood. Otherwise, you will probably find it a boring, indulgent and style-over-substance folly. Either way you have to admire Tarantino’s exquisitely controlled writing and direction. He certainly does!!
Safe to say though Tarantino will not care either way, because most of his filmic output has made a lot of money at the box office. This has now allowed him the luxury, like that of true cinema artists such as Kubrick, Altman and Antonioni, to make whatever films a studio is prepared to give him the money for. He’s basically making films for himself and doesn’t care if the audience likes it or not.
I personally found myself magnetically drawn to Tarantino’s vision and from a purely filmmaking and artistic perspective I was totally immersed throughout. Having said that, if the incessant driving and shots of dirty feet were cut and Dalton and Booth had been given a proper plot, rather than the thin stranded narrative within the impressive gallery of cameos and set-pieces, I would definitely expect to be writing about one of the best films ever made.
Season 5: 3 Episodes (excludes Bandersnatch (2019)
Original Network: Netflix
Having positively reviewed Season 4 of Charlie Brooker’s wonderful anthology show here and the recent “choose-your-own-adventure” stand alone film, Bandersnatch (2019), here – I can further confirm I am a massive Black Mirror fan. Indeed, if Charlie Brooker wrote and produced a story about himself having his toenails clipped in the future, I would definitely enjoy it that too.
Lastly, it’s safe to say I certainly loved the latest three episodes of the programme and not just because Brooker wrote them. It’s because the ideas relating to the darker side of technology are so fascinating and of course the productions are of very high quality. Here are mini reviews of each episode with usual marks out of eleven.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
STRIKING VIPERS (2019)
Director: Owen Harris
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Nicole Beharie, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Pom Klementieff and Ludi Lin.
Danny (Mackie) and Theo (Beharie) portray a loving couple who having been together for some time suffer a marriage dip and a somewhat curious eleven-year itch. This drama is especially propelled when Danny’s best mate, Karl (Abdul-Mateen II) reconnects with Danny and the two play the Virtual-Reality video-game, Striking Vipers, online. Soon the two enter into a curious online relationship, one which threatens their relationships and sanity.
While the danger of videogames and VR have been explored before in Black Mirror, this is freshly presented both dramatically and humorously via an unexpected and bizarre love triangle. I was very empathetic for the main characters as they felt trapped by family life and struggle to keep the romance going. Plus, that need to escape propels some hilarious scenes that pay homage and parody combat videogames in general. Funny, touching and surprising, Striking Vipers is an excellent season opener.
Mark: 9 out of 11
Director: James Hawes
Cast: Andrew Scott, Damson Idris, Amanda Drew, Monica Dolan, Topher Grace etc.
Actor-of-the-moment, Andrew Scott, gives another blistering performance as a rideshare/”Uber” driver, Chris Gillhaney, who kidnaps a young Smithereen employee, Jaden (Damson Idris). Smithereen are a social media company not dissimilar to Facebook or Twitter, and Gillhaney holds a serious grudge against them. It’s so serious in fact, he will kill Jaden if he doesn’t get to speak directly to Smithereen CEO, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace).
Structured around a very tense standoff in an English field between Gillhaney and the Police, the events also go ‘viral’ via social media and online news platforms. Scott’s characterisation of Gillhaney is dramatically impressive. He emits a sadness, guilt and anxiety which forces his character to commit an unlikely crime. While we do not condone his actions Scott keeps you onside with his sterling portrayal of a man on the edge. Ultimately, the narrative turn at the end impacted me because it felt so believable and human. Once again Brooker taps into the heart of the technological matter and how reliance on it can cause tragedy and senseless loss of life.
Mark: 9.5 out of 11
RACHEL, JACK AND ASHLEY TOO (2019)
Director: Anne Sewitsky
Cast: Miley Cyrus, Angourie Rice, Madison Davenport, Susan Pourfar etc.
Pop star Miley Cyrus stars as pop star Ashley-O in this dramatic and comedic techno satire, which finds her character being pushed to the creative limit by her unscrupulous manager. At the same time Ashley-O uber-fan, Rachel (Angourie Rice), worships every word Ashley O’s manufactured persona spits out; much to the chagrin of her metal-head sister, Jack (Madison Davenport.) The two sisters’ conflict is exacerbated when Rachel is given an Ashley-O smart speaker and Rachel becomes obsessed with the techno doll. As the story progresses the two Ashley-O narratives connect in a somewhat contrived but captivating way.
Starting as a teenage-rites-of-passage-profile-of-a-pop-star-mash-up, this narrative crosses the genres and becomes a heist-led comedy by the end. With so many criss-crossing leaps in style the characters get a little bit lost in the mix of ideas. However, use of technology to exploit both the pop singer and the all-consuming fan finds Charlie Brooker’s satirical darts hitting more targets than it misses. Arguably, this is the weakest of the three episodes as the onerous pop manager is a bit of a cliche. Plus, more planning could have gone into the final act when it all felt rushed. It is nonetheless very entertaining episode, very much on point in its vision of pop culture, the music industry and society’s ever reliance on technology for emotional interaction.
Way back in September 2015 I wrote an article listing some great ensemble film casts. Please feel free to read it here at this link.
If you can’t be bothered to read it the list of films are as follows:
12 ANGRY MEN (1957) AVENGERS ASSEMBLE (2012) GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014) INCEPTION (2010) LA CONFIDENTIAL (1997) THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) MAGNOLIA (1999) MEANTIME (1984) THE OUTSIDERS (1983) PULP FICTION (1994) SHORT CUTS (1993) TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY (2011)
Never one to worry about originality, I have decided to follow up this article with another list of great ensemble film casts.
The challenge second time round though is to EXCLUDE the films of directors or franchises ALREADY LISTED.
For those who may have lazy-read this I WILL REPEAT!!!
NO DIRECTOR’S OR FRANCHISE WORK FROM LIST ONE WILL BE ON LIST TWO!!!
It would be so easy to include all of Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino’s or the Marvel films. So I am not going to do that. Anyway, here are another TEN films with great ensemble casts (in alphabetical order).
Cast: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier, John Magaro, Pilou Asbæk, Bokeem Woodbine etc.
Cinematography: Laurie Rose and Fabian Wagner
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Inglourious Basterds anyone? More like inglorious mutants!
I love a good B-movie horror film and I love a good B-movie war film! So, I’m still confused as to why I missed this one at the cinema first time round. It was released in November 2018 in the UK, so perhaps I was still in London Film Festival mode? Perhaps it fell through the cracks after a busy October cinema-going? Perhaps the marketing wasn’t strong enough over here? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps?
Anyway, I caught up with it on Sky Cinema via the television box and I immediately regretted not seeing it on the big screen. The film is set in June 1944 during the Allied invasionof Normandy. The operation was called Overlord and part of the WWII D-Day push to defeat the dastardly Nazis. It opens superbly, in mid-flight, as a fighter bomber carries American soldiers about to parachute into enemy territory. Safe to say aeroplane food, crying children and lack of leg room are the least of their worries.
The explosive, noisy and destructive opening sequence sets an incredible pace. Also, the body count starts to stack up too as we land in occupied France. Not so much a dirty dozen as a filthy four remain after the landing carnage. The ragtag quartet consisting of nervous rookie, Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo), tough-guy Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell), mouthy Private Tibbet (John Magaro), and war photographer Private Chase (Iain De Caestecker), are joined by French civilian fighter, Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier) in battling the Nazi hordes. Their mission is to take out a Nazi radio tower, but we get a whole lot more than the usual WWII battle sequences. Something horrific is lurking in the church where the radio tower is.
While the film essentially deals in genre archetypes the narrative pace, action and suspense really get the heart racing. Moreover, the cast commit to the action and bloodshed with impressive abandon. What I liked was, with relatively unknown actors cast, it meant there was suspense in who would or wouldn’t survive. So, in a film full of surprises this added another layer of tension you wouldn’t get in a star-driven film. Nonetheless, the real asset of the film is the monstrous soldiers born out of the sinister minds of the Nazi Doctors. These are some real nasty pieces of work! Indeed, director Julius Avery revels in representing the bloody carnage these experimental creatures bring. You can’t beat a good old Nazi monster baddie! Well, you can! In all sorts of fleshy, fiery and visceral ways!
I recognised Wyatt Russell from other films and TV shows, and he was great. Russell exuded all the tough qualities his father Kurt has shown down the years, but he gave Corporal Ford a steely edge all of his own. Jovan Adepo and John Magaro impressed as chalk and cheese soldiers, initially clashing but subsequent gaining respect for each other. Adepo’s Private Boyce grows from frightened rabbit to resilient hero over the course of the film. Meanwhile, Game of Thrones scenery-chewer, Pilou Asbæk, begins with quite a subtle portrayal of SS Captain Wafner. Yet, by the end he is on gloriously over-the-top form as the most mutated of all the Nazis.
Ultimately, this is a mid-budget B-movie genre gem. It has lashings of action, blood and gore. It also combined war and horror genres really impressively. I would have liked even more gore and a bit more backstory regarding the Nazi experiments, but that would have probably ruined the surprises. Also, it’s definitely not one of the most original films you will see as there are major echoes of many soldiers-on-a-mission war films, the video-game Wolfenstein and also From Dusk Til Dawn (1995) too. But, with Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier and Jovan Adepo impressing in the cast and Avery directing the hell out of the explosive action and bloody fighting, I had a great time watchingOverlord (2018). It’s just a damn shame I missed it on the big screen when first released.
Executive Producers: David E. Kelley, Jean-Marc Vallee, Reese Wetherspoon, Bruna Papandrea, Nicole Kidman, Liane Moriarty etc.
Based on: Big Little Lies by Lianne Moriarty
Teleplays written by: David E. Kelley
Directed by Andrea Arnold
Main Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Zoe Kravitz, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Scott, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, Kathryn Newton etc.
Cinematography: Yves Belanger, Jim Frohna
Original Network: HBO
**CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASON ONE**
I hate Social Media and Twitter especially, sometimes. I also hate myself for getting dragged into the bullshit it sometimes brings. I’m referring specifically to the distorted prejudice the mind can take on when reading a few negative posts about a programme, film or personality. Such reports can obviously be accurate. However, they can mislead and stain your expectations of a show or film or actor or artist. In this case the second season production of HBO’s, Big Little Lies, came under fire from a few people on my Twitter feed. They said it was an awful and an ultimately disappointing series. Were they right? I mean, how bad could it be?
Then there was the Indiewirearticle which highlighted an issue during production. They asserted in a well written piece of click-bait that director Andrea Arnold was unceremoniously disregarded in the editing process and first season director, Jean-Marc Vallee, brought in to oversee re-shoots and final cut. If you believe the Indiewire article, this was the act of a heinous media corporation cutting down a beloved artist and robbing her of her vision. Arnold’s auteur status remains untainted for me. She is a fine director who carried out her contract and did not have final cut anyway. This belonged to HBO and they had say on who they hired during the production.
Thus, in a short period of time, a couple of tweets and one article had seriously affected my expectations of the second season of Big Little Lies. I was expecting a mess of a show. One which did not make sense and was robbed of all artistic and dramatic impetus by the HBO hierarchy. However, I can safely say I was wrong and, while not as good as the brilliant first season, it was still a really intriguing eight episodes worth of entertainment.
After the exceptional first season which found a stellar cast including: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Adam Scott, Zoe Kravitz, Alexander Skarsgård and Shailene Woodley on top acting form, the second season follows on with the aftermath of prior events. The first season expertly inter-weaved stories concerning an unknown “murder” victim; school bullying; warring parents; extra-marital affairs; and abusive relationships, expertly played out over seven compelling episodes. With the “murder” victim revealed in the final episode, we now get an exploration of suspicion, guilt, conspiracy and a test of loyalty and friendship.
Without wishing to give too much away the newest and strongest addition to the series is Meryl Streep. She plays the mother ***SPOILER ALERT*** of the dead guy from the first season, Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård). His death occurred when he was pushed “accidentally” down some stairs at a party. But, the friend’s, including his wife, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), collude to say he fell instead. With the police still suspicious the main investigator is actually Streep as the dogged Mary Louise. She is passive-aggressive and subtle in her enquiries as to how her son died. It’s a delight watching her deviously pull apart each of the lead suspects. It is also an absolute masterclass in acting as Streep’s crafty characterisation makes this series a must-watch. Her scenes with Nicole Kidman’s crumbling personality are especially compelling.
Allied to the investigation into Perry’s death, the show gives some interesting narrative strands to Laura Dern’s energetic power-mum, Renata. Her world is about to disintegrate around her in the face of her husband’s financial wrong-doings. Equally powerful is Bonnie’s (Zoe Kravitz) attempt to heal the rift between herself and her mother. Bonnie suffers the most guilt as ***SPOILER ALERT*** she was the one who pushed Perry down the stairs. As she battles with the emotional repercussions of her actions, she experiences a painful re-emergence of historical parental abuse. Perhaps, not as intriguing are Madeline (Reese Wetherspoon) and Jane’s (Shailene Woodley) narrative strands. Nonetheless, they do support the series’ themes of family, trust and love that add depth and subtext.
To finish, I learnt once again that social media and Twitter surfing can have a negative impact on one’s critical expectation of a programme or film. You have to basically make your own mind up and not be swayed by the pitchforks and torch-bearers baying for blood online. Big Little Lies (2019), Season 2, therefore, while not reaching the dramatic heights of the first season is an excellent follow-up. It explores the privileged lives of the rich Monterey set instilling a sense of humanity and frailty to their lives. The more improvisational direction of Andrea Arnold works well with the fragmented impressionism of the editing style to bring this out. Mainly though, it’s the impressive cast and script which glued me to the screen while experiencing this very watchable drama.
Cast: Stephen Graham, Niamh Algar, Helen Behan, Frank Laverty, Mark O’Halloran etc.
Composer: PJ Harvey
Original Network: Channel 4
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
The Virtues (2019) is the latest drama from British filmmaker Shane Meadows and was released on Channel 4/All 4 recently. Over the four episodes we experience the traumas of Joseph (Stephen Graham), as he attempts to overcome events in the present and those which haunt him from the past.
The story begins in Sheffield and introduces forty-something, Joseph as he’s about to say goodbye to his nine-year old son and former partner who are emigrating to Australia. While he’s putting a brave face on this emotional upheaval, internally the separation slowly tears him apart. It also precipitates memories of events which occurred to Joseph when he was young and living in Ireland.
It was at the age of nine when his parents died. While his sister is adopted, Joseph is placed into a care home. It is here that he suffers an unspeakably horrendous trauma. On returning to Ireland as an adult, painful memories he had blocked out until now suddenly resurface. As an adult Joseph tries to come to terms with what occurred, make peace with his sister and at the same time battle his ongoing alcoholism. It is altogether gruelling and compelling drama.
Shane Meadows and Stephen Graham had worked together on the This Is England film and TV series. While that was very much an ensemble piece, this is a more individual focused, personal and painful character study. Stephen Graham is absolutely amazing as the character of Joseph. He has been broken by life, let down by the system and traumatized as a child. Graham lives this pain in virtually every scene he inhabits. His eyes darting nervously, he mumbles, looking down and around, trying to hide; only coming alive when he has alcohol in him. His problem with alcohol is he cannot stop, and this invariably leads to Joseph hurting himself physically and emotionally.
Alcohol as self-medication is just one of the issues addressed in this startling and raw drama. Meadows and co-writer, Jack Thorne also address families, adoption, child abuse, religion and the care system. While the series doesn’t venture into outright socio-political criticism, it explores the damage that can occur to individuals in care. Through Joseph’s sister, Anna (Helen Behan) though, we also get a more positive view of adoption. Her character is strong and determined and a fine mother. But she did not suffer the events Joseph did, so their journeys travelled different paths.
Shane Meadows directs with his usual naturalistic brilliance. Scenes with all the actors feel honest and believable. Meadows is not afraid to shoot simply and allow the performances provide the emotion. Having said that there are some highly stylistic choices. The flashback editing and montage is a case in point. Moreover, when Joseph goes on a bender, we get the camera-harness point-of-view shot I remember first seeing in Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). This allows us to step into Joseph’s drunken psyche as the soundtrack pounds and a voice-over sermon pipes out on screen. Lastly, the flashbacks to Joseph’s younger years are shot on, what seems like, DV-Cam or an old-style video-camera. This creates an additionally sinister feeling to the events.
Overall, this is another powerful drama from Shane Meadows. He gets amazing performances from all the actors, notably Stephen Graham, star-in-the-making Dinah Algar; and an Irish actor I hadn’t seen in a while, Mark O’Halloran. My feeling is Meadows could arguably of told the story in a two hour film. This is because the four episodes slightly stretched out the story in places. Be warned though, The Virtues is not for the faint-hearted. It is very painful to watch. Such is the emotional power of the story, by the end, your heart will feel like you’ve gone ten rounds with a heavyweight boxer. But as a drama about fighting back against the punches life throws at you it will certainly remain with you for some considerable time.
Produced by: Marco Morabito, Brad Fischer, Luca Guadagnino, Silvia Venturini, Francesco Melzi d’Eril, William Sherak, Gabriele Moratti
Screenplay by: David Kajganich – Based on Suspiria (1977) by Dario Argento and Dari Nicolodi
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Chloe Grace Moretz, Malgosia Bela, Lutz Ebersdorf, Jessica Harper etc.
Music by: Thom Yorke
Cinematography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
There are so many films released that it is virtually impossible to see them all. Plus, even if you didn’t have to work to earn a damned wage or physically need sleep you still wouldn’t be able to watch everything at the cinema. More specifically though, we may choose NOT to go to see a film on the big screen for certain reasons. Collectively, I consider these movies to be “one’s that got away!”
Thus, in a new section called, unsurprisingly, FILMS THAT GOT AWAY, I will be reviewing films which I missed first time round at the cinema and have subsequently caught up with on Sky, Amazon, Netflix, Blu-Ray or even good old-fashioned terrestrial television. I will consider the film critically as entertainment and why I missed it first time round. As usual the film will be marked out of eleven.
When the UK release of Suspiria (2018) was announced there were many reasons I was immediately put off from wanting to see it. Firstly, despite having watched it three times, I genuinely could not stand the original Dario Argento film. I know people consider it a horror classic; however, I think story wise, it’s a bad film. It’s neither scary from an emotional point-of-view or actually makes any sense logically. I know it’s meant to be based on surreal and nightmarish imagery, montage and performance, but the story or characters did not connect with me. The colour design, gore and soundtrack are outstanding but, overall, I felt I was trapped watching the manic outpourings of an Italian psychopath.
The second reason I did not want to watch it is I haven’t always got on with Luca Guadagnino’s cinematic works. Don’t get me wrong, he is a brilliant filmmaker. However, I find him an indulgent artist whose tone, pace and direction seems haphazard. Of the films I have seen, I Am Love (2009) was a brilliant character study, anchored by a stunning Tilda Swinton performance. But A Bigger Splash (2011) and Call Me By Your Name (2017), were expertly constructed but indulgent and over-rated travelogues littered with narcissistic bores. Nonetheless, I really liked Suspiria (2018). It is almost, but for Guadagnino’s typical excesses, a horror masterpiece.
Set in 1977 (when the original was released), at the height of the Cold War in divided Germany, Suspiria, is a heady mix of rites of passage, cold war and horror genres. There are many narrative strands with which the screenplay, by David Kajganich, attempts to balance. Further, we also have personal, political, religious, artistic, gender and communal themes prevalent through the story. While it’s an ensemble cast the focus is Dakota Johnson’s Susie. She is a young aspiring dancer, from an Amish background, who joins the world-famous Markos dance company. In the process she is determined to impress Tilda Swinton’s commanding mentor. The parallel narrative involves psychiatrist Dr Josef Klemperer and his investigation into a missing patient (Chloe Grace Moretz); who also happens to be a dancer from the troupe.
As the story unfolds Susie proves herself an incredibly powerful dancer. At the same time, it is revealed that the elders and teachers of the dance group are hiding a sinister secret with darkness and ritual to the bloody fore. Memorable dance sequences full of beauty, energy and gore dominate, with Dakota Johnson giving an impressively physical acting portrayal. I also liked the nuanced control within her character as she grows stronger with each dance. Meanwhile, further dark events occur as Dr Klemperer’s investigations draw him closer to the troupe’s shadowy doors.
As I said, Suspiria is almost a horror masterpiece. The filmmaking, cinematography, art direction, choreography and score by Thom Yorke all collide to create an incredibly tense and terrifying experience. Moreover, while I was fully committed to the characters in the dance troupe and Susie’s movement up the ranks, the choice to juxtapose the socio-political events seemed to belong in another film. The religious context and notions of family and matriarchal dominance were incredibly powerful too and served the horror well. However, Guadagnino, in my humble view should have shaved some scenes from the running time. While I much prefer this film to the Argento original, a further edit for pace would have made this even better. Nonetheless, it had me riveted throughout through the sheer quality of filmmaking. I was incredibly impressed by the melding of dance and death. Indeed, the final orgiastic ritual with buckets of blood, decapitations and gnarled monsters was supernaturally unforgettable.