Produced by: James D. Stern, Dawn
Ostroff, Jeremy Steckler, Anthony Mastromauro, Bill Holderman, Toby Halbrooks,
James M. Johnston, Robert Redford
Based on: The Old Man and the Gun (article) by David Grann
Starring: Robert Redford, Casey
Affleck, Danny Glover, Tika Sumpter, Tom Waits, Sissy Spacek
Music by: Daniel Hart
Cinematography: Joe Anderson
Forrest Tucker was a career criminal destined to die in jail. His life in between was one of many bank robberies, incarcerations and successful and unsuccessful prison breakouts. The morality of his actions must be condemned as the man was a recidivist addicted to the thrill of crime, making money and also the chase. While I’m not a fan of banks, who themselves are bigger criminals than the robbers, I rarely find myself rooting for such characters, unless there are mitigating circumstances for their actions.
Indeed, Tucker’s illegal acts would have left the authorities drained chasing him across America, and prevent them from protecting other people. Moreover, by holding a gun in people’s faces and demanding money Tucker would have most likely scared a good number too. Tucker would go on to rob banks well into his late seventies but he never fired his gun; and was often described as a gentleman by his victims. Yet, despite his wrong-doings, the film of his life in the hands of acting legend Robert Redford and director David Lowery is well worth a watch.
It’s a pretty simple story based on a New Yorker article by David Grann and Lowery adapts with warmth and empathy towards Tucker’s aging bank robber. The casting of Redford is also a masterstroke. As he has throughout his career he exudes a mercurial class and poise. There’s some wonderful usage of stock photos of Redford from earlier in his career, supplanted to the character of Tucker. This nostalgic trip down memory lane both serves the story and reminds us what a great movie star Redford has always been. It’s a shame that Redford has decided to retire from acting, as reported in August 2018, but this is a fine film to bow out on.
Lowery, whose last film was the amazing A Ghost Story (2017), changes tack with a more conventional character study here; however, he invests lots of imaginative touches in the presentation. He also gets a memorable performance from Sissy Spacek who sparkles as Redford’s romantic interest. It’s beautifully and hazily shot by Joe Anderson on Super 16mm and contains a misty-eyed halcyonic feel to it. I felt like I was watching a film from the 1970s even though it was set in or around the 1990s. So, despite my inherent dislike of the man and the crimes he committed, I very much enjoyed this excellent drama about a fascinating, if misguided, character.
Based on: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Executive producer(s): Damien Timmer,
Tom Mullens, Gwyneth Hughes, James Strong
Directed by: James Strong
Starring: Olivia Cooke, Claudia Jessie, Tom Bateman, Johnny Flynn, Charlie Rowe, Simon Russell Beale, Anthony Head, Martin Clunes, Frances de la Tour, Michael Palin
Composer(s): Isobel Waller-Bridge
Distributor: ITV, Amazon Studios
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
It’s an interesting anomaly in my later years that having previously boycotted period dramas which illustrate the lives of the wealthy and privileged, I now find myself being less partisan and actually watching more. This change doesn’t derive from a mellowing of my socialist working class roots but more an intelligent inquisitiveness as ignorant dismissal of the genre, be they on television or film, means one is possibly missing out on some fine drama or comedy. Indeed, many historical periods’ works of literature or theatre are in fact satirising or damning the upper classes.
Dickens for example dealt with the lower, middle and upper classes, shining a critical light at the many degradations of the era. Likewise, William Makepeace Thackeray also critiqued the folly of war, greed and narcissistic pursuits of the privileged. Stanley Kubrick demonstrated this brilliantly in his classic adaptation of Barry Lyndon (1975); while in ITV’s most recent adaptation Vanity Fair (2018), Thackeray’s adroit study of ambition and upward mobility shows the strengths, weaknesses and foibles of the women and men at the time of the Napoleonic wars.
Vanity Fair is widely considered a classic and considered the founder of the Victorian domestic drama. Originally serialised between 1847 and 1848 it was at the time a massive hit and one could argue the equivalent of what we would call a soap opera today. There have been, since the novel’s release, a plethora of screen, radio and television adaptations. Did we need another one? Probably not; but over seven compelling episodes Gwyneth Hughes’ screenplay does great justice to bring to life an army of: well-to-dos, country lords and ladies, soldiers, clergy, businessmen, plus the sparkling scheming of anti-heroine Rebecca or Becky Sharp.
Indeed, the effervescent, nuanced and outstanding performance of Olivia Cooke as Becky drives the narrative forward with absolute purpose. Cooke owns every scene as Becky attempts, from lowly beginnings, to rise through the ranks of society. It is both her strength of character and confidence which is her biggest asset and greatest enemy, because, always pushing for more, she doesn’t quit when she’s ahead. In stark reflection to Becky, Claudia Jessie as Amelia, is characterised as a romantic and desirous not of wealth or position, but rather love and romance. She is a pure spirit and her personality contrasts perfectly with Becky’s. While we admire Becky’s ambitious drive we remain suspicious of her motives, yet Amelia we warm to due to her big and gracious heart.
The men in the piece are a mixture of romantics, noble soldiers, treacherous or haphazard patriarchs, foppish fools, gamblers or all of the above. Tom Bateman gives a solid performance as Rawdon Crawley, Becky’s gambling military husband, as does Charlie Rowe as the more conflicted romantic, George Osborne. Furthermore, the adaptation contains sterling support from the cream of English character acting royalty including: Martin Clunes, Frances De La Tour, Claire Skinner, Anthony Head and Simon Russell Beale to name a few. However, the standout performance for me was Johnny Flynn as William Dobbin. This is such an empathetic and selfless character that, while holding a torch for Amelia, was prepared to sacrifice his love to make everyone happy. Potentially seen as a weakness, this for me was a real strength in a story which was full of selfish narcissists out for what they could get.
Aside from slightly dodgy green-screen CGI for the later scenes in India this was beautifully shot and lit, with the vistas of the English and French countryside wonderfully rendered. The interiors were eloquently designed as the stately and city homes of the characters, likewise the colourful costumes, were expertly brought to life. James Strong is a prolific television director and he gets brilliant performances and marshals the pace and machinations of the narrative precisely. With Olivia Cooke and Johnny Flynn delivering star turns in their roles I was consistently surprised by this adaptation of Thackeray’s masterpiece. Ultimately, I’ve learned that whether something is a period drama or not one must give it a chance as it could have qualities which continue to stand the test of time.
Producer(s): Jessica Levin, Maggie
Gyllenhaal, Mark Henry Johnson
Writers: George Pelecanos, David Simon, Richard Price, Lisa Lutz, Anya Epstein and more.
Directors: Michelle McClaren, James Franco, Ernest Dickerson, Alex Hall, Roxann Hall, Uta Briesewitz and more.
Starring: James Franco, MaggieGyllenhaal, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Chris Bauer, Gary Carr, Chris Coy, Dominique Fishback, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Margarita Levieva, Emily Meade, Natalie Paul, Michael Rispoli, Luke Kirby, Jamie Neumann
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Pornography is a strange stain and paradoxical phenomenon within humanity and society. Most of us are born from the natural act of sexual intercourse and as such lust and passion and love are catalysts for this. For some though conventional relationships do not satisfy desires and of course there are those without a romantic or sexual partner who will need an outlet for their desires. Because deep down whatever you say we are animals and the basest instinct is to pro-create. But what happens if we are denied that opportunity? A person may seek satisfaction elsewhere and one such avenue is pornography.
Pornography sounds dirty. It’s a dirty word. Yet, since way before the internet, photography, video and film were invented humans have always found a means either through literature, theatre, poetry or art to represent sex. As technology has progressed the rise of pornography has reached epidemic proportions. It is massive business and billionaires have been made by the sex industry. In my opinion pornography is like war. It happens every day and while most of us are not involved in it, one feels powerless to stop it. Ultimately, you can argue it’s empowering to the men and women and contributes to our capitalist economy. However, one cannot escape the fact that it, like war, pornography would have left many, many people exploited and damaged.
Eschewing any socio-political criticism of pornography, HBO’s big budget television show The Deuce presents a massive American slice-of-gritty-mean-street-porn-life in 1970s New York. It is created by David Simon and George Pelacanos, who as writer-producers possess a great track record for creating acclaimed shows such as: The Wire, The Pacific, Treme, Generation Kill etc. Here they have created another ensemble period drama which show-cases a cavalcade of colourful characters including: pimps, prostitutes, police, bar flies, gangsters, dealers, gigolos, film producers, actors and politicians. The show essentially reflects the lives of those at ‘the Deuce’; an intersection of 42nd Street between Seventh Avenue and Eighth Avenue. It accepts that, for good or for worse, the sex industry is part of our existence andpeople basically are just trying to survive or escape anyway they can.
The first season starts in 1971. Main characters include: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fiercely independent prostitute ‘Candy’; James Franco as twin brothers feckless Frankie and bar manager Vincent; Gbenga Akinnagbe as Larry Brown, an intense pimp; Chris Bauer as Bobby Dwyer, a construction foreman who is dragged into the sex industry; Gary Carr as C.C., a stylish but ruthless pimp; Dominique Fishback as Darlene, a sweet-natured sex worker striving for educational betterment; Lawrence GilliardJr. as Chris Alston, an incorruptible NYPD patrolman; Margarita Levieva as Abby Parker, a college student who rejects her wealthy upbringing by striking up a relationship with Vincent; and Emily Meade as Lori Madison, an impressionable young woman who C.C. entangles in his pimp web. Plus, there are a whole slew of characters that appear within each season; so many in fact in does get a bit crowded in the complex drama.
There is a lot of sex in both seasons; straight and gay. It’s presented not simply as titillation but also humorously and realistically as part of the life the characters lead. Sex sells but it also has a dark, violent side and the programme often shows this. The sex worker’s customers and pimps regularly commit acts of violence as the danger of working the streets is palpable. The exploitation by the mob bosses too who front the money for the sex parlours and peep shows is sad to witness and much empathy is gained for those trapped by poverty and drug addiction. Aside from a few good cops many of the NYPD are happy to take bribes to line their pockets.
Season 2, which moves forward to 1977 is a lot more political. The rise of feminism, activism and protest is reflected in the character Abby who works with others to provide a safe space for the women on the street. Moreover, City Hall is trying to clear up ‘The Deuce’ in an attempt to welcome rich corporate businesses to the area. Candy meanwhile has worked to get off the street and is now pornographic film director with artistic designs. Frankie is still gambling and ducking and diving while his brother Vincent begins having doubts about his involvement with the mob and sex industry. The second season, for me, was more focussed narratively;especially where Candy’s porn adaptation of ‘Red Riding Hood’ called Red Hot is concerned. Mirroring the reality of masculinity exploiting humanity, the predatory wolf chasing women and ravaging them is a thematic strongpoint of the season. But Candy is striving to turn the tables and female empowerment is a key driving force for her work.
The Deuce is ultimately a glorious production which is not for the faint-hearted. It holds up a dark mirror to a flawed society; and does it with humour, wit, compassion, lashings of sex and smatterings of sudden, brutal violence. I for one believe the world should do without pornography but The Deuce demonstrates that human beings are drawn to it like moths round a flame. It’s money, drugs, vice and sex that seems to excite many people and because of this exploiters will make money out of them.
Finally, as this is a HBO production the acting, direction, cinematography, editing, soundtrack, costume and period design are flawless. The writing is exceptional as the dialogue stings from the exceptional ensemble cast like written bullets. Season One was slightly slow building the characters but Season Two really found its’ feet dramatically and emotionally. On occasions I felt like some episodes lacked pace due to the sheer number of characters presented; but Season Two had real dramatic momentum. The final season is due for release next year and I highly recommend it if you are a drawn to the corrupted elements of humanity on screen; and characters just trying to make it with odds stacked against them. On ‘the Deuce’, like in life, sadly not everyone makes it out alive or in one piece.
DOCTOR WHO – REVIEW – THE BATTLE OF RANSKOOR AV KOLOS (2018)
Directed by: Jamie Childs
Written by: Chris Chibnall
Cast: Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Phyllis Logan, Mark Addy, Percelle Ascott, Samuel Oatley, Jan Le
Produced by: Alex Mercer
Executive producer(s): Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens, Sam Hoyle
Music composer: Segun Akinola
Notwithstanding the New Year’s Day special coming on the first day of 2019, season 11 of Doctor Who came to an end with an episode which was certainly a big improvement on the last two episodes. As a whole this season has been very hit-and-miss and despite the lofty title, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, promised much but just about delivered more hit than miss. Arguably, it was a pretty simple narrative of return and retribution as the Doctor and companions came face-to-face with an old adversary.
Firstly, I must say it was a gorgeously shot with the craggy locations of the planet contrasting impressively with the futuristic spacecraft and alien technology. On the whole the series has, despite some very dodgy CGI in a couple of episodes been lovely to look at. Likewise the guest stars in many of the episodes have been very good and in The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos seasoned character actors Mark Addy and Phyllis Logan bring resonance to the drama.
Answering a legion of distress signals brings the Doctor and the Tardis crew to Ranskoor Av Kolos circa year 5425. There they find aplanet ravaged by conflict and an amnesiac soldier Paltraki (Addy) who has lost his mind and crew. Soon the Doctor comes face to face with an ancient race called ‘The Ux’; an all-powerful duo able to build worlds with their minds.Basically they are like a telepathic Minecraft player but dealing with complex chemical and physical reality rather than computers.
More dramatically, however, is the nemesis of the piece. Having dispatched the ‘Predator’-like villain – from the very first episode of this series – the Tzim-Sha into dimensional space they find him now wreaking havoc on Ranskoor Av Kolos. He exploits The Ux’s incredible power and religious naivety to create a weapon of mass destruction and terrorize the galaxy. But who will stop him we ask? The Doctor of course! Well, with revenge on his mind (for the death of his wife, Grace) Graham has a moral choice of killing Tzim-Sha/Tim Shaw or being the better man. It’s this emotional conflict which gives the episode its’ most interesting aspect. Indeed, once again Bradley Walsh gets the most to work with out of the companions.
Overall, Chris Chibnall’s writing has been criticized on social media by irritated fans, however, I don’t actually think the concepts and general writing of the show are as bad as people say. What I think has been flawed is the rewriting and development of many of the scripts. I actually think ten singular episodes are probably too many, and like some of Capaldi’s episodes, they set-up excellent dramatic situations but had rushed endings. I believe they should go for say five stories (over ten episodes) at maximum and develop the characters more so we feel for them and the stories have a chance to breathe. Lastly, I think Jodie Whittaker has been excellent carrying the show but I never liked her costume and the direction of the Doctor as a breathless, wacky primary teacher sort did not gel with me. But as Sunday entertainment goes The Battle ofRanskoor Av Kolos, and the series as a whole was enjoyable, if slightly underwhelming television.
Produced by: Nina Yang Bongiovi, Kelly Williams, Jonathan Duffy, Charles D. King, George Rush, Forest Whitaker
Written by: Boots Riley
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa
Thompson, Jermaine Fowler, Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews, Danny Glover, Steven
Yeun, Armie Hammer
**SPOILER FREE REVIEW**
Just when you think the well was drying up somewhat in regard to favourite films of the year, Sorry To Bother You (2018) comes along and jumps straight into my top twelve. Written and directed by activist and musician Boots Riley, this really is a humdinger of an absurdist comedy and must surely be a contender for best original screenplay of the year.
Centring on Oakland-based Lakeith Stanfield’s downtrodden everyman, Cassius Green, we find him unemployed and desperate to find work. So much so he takes a soulless commission paid job at RegalView selling encyclopaedias. So far so normal but very quickly events take many left field turns and Cassius is catapulted into a world of corporate greed, worker rebellion, romantic difficulties and some very weird science.
I do not want to give too much away but I had a blast with this film. Indeed, it’s best watched when you know as little as possible about the story. All throughout writer and director Riley has managed a great balance between believable situations and ridiculously surreal humour. His screenplay manages to satirise both the greed of corporate America and racial profiling, while at the same time never preaching or getting heavy. The tone of the film reminded me of so many films and TV shows I love, including: Being John Malkovich (1999), Atlanta, TheMighty Boosh and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It’s also a thematic sibling to Jordan Peele’s massive horror hit Get Out (2017); which found white people exploiting Afro-Americans to nefarious ends.
The cast jump on board the many hyper-real and absurd concepts with abandon. Lakieth Stanfield, who is brilliantly deadpan in the show Atlanta, shows what a gifted actor he is. Again, Tessa Thompson proves what a brilliant actress she is as Cassius’ energetic artist and activist girlfriend; while Jermaine Fowler, Danny Glover and Steven Yeun provide really solid support. Special mention for Armie Hammer who really amps up the comedy with his representation of avaricious corporate megalomaniacs who care more for profits than they do for human life.
Incredibly, this is Boots Riley’s debut feature film and what a fantastic job he has done. Sorry to Bother You is brimming with hilarious comedic scenes, on-point parody, textured style and credible social commentary. Cassius’ journey throughout is believable too as he is tempted by the promise of money but at severe and Faustian cost. Riley, within the hyper-reality of the world he presents, never strays far from the idea that the collective must join forces to overcome the paymasters. Ultimately, the film may be messy and chaotic at times but this project-mayhem-gonzo-style, along with the colourful design and moody cinematography combine to deliver one of the most memorable films of the year.
Based on: Maniac by Espen PA Lervaag, Håakon Bast Mossige, Kjetil Indregard, Ole Marius Araldsen
Developed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga & Patrick Somerville for Netflix
Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Starring: Emma Stone, Jonah Hill, Justin Theroux, Sonoya Mizuno, Gabriel Byrne, Sally Field
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
What’s your view on striving for originality in storytelling and entertainment? It could be argued that there is no such thing and creators are simply moving creative chess pieces around the same board; or playing the same musical notes but in a different order. One perspective is that you prefer a writer or director to be bold and aim for originality; with the potential risk they alienate the audience. Some creators actually don’t care about the audience but many others do, preferring to connect emotionally within the casing of genre conventions. Personally, I prefer to be moved emotionally firstly and if the filmmaker or writer has presented their story in an impressive style then this serves to enhance the enjoyment of the narrative.
Cary Joji Fukunaga is a genre filmmaker who has established himself capable of developing impressive genre works such as: Jane Eyre (2011), True Detective (2014), and the brilliant film Beasts of No Nation (2015). Recently, he has also been involved in bringing It (2017) and The Alienist (2018) to the screen; although he did not serve as final director on such products. His latest directorial offering is an adaptation of a Norwegian comedy drama called Maniac. Over ten hit-and-miss episodes we follow the misadventures of a depressive and unstable Owen (Jonah Hill), and grieving pill-addict Annie (Emma Stone), as they enter a medical trial run by the secretive Neberdine Pharmaceutical organisation.
The trial itself involves taking a series of pills and the participants’ cerebral responses being recorded on a sentient artificially intelligent computer called GRTA. Here, Owen and Annie’s lives and minds become internally entwined as the story enables us to visualise their mental anxieties and re-enact their fears during the trial. Owen’s angst is caused by a family issue involving his brother, while Annie still blames herself for a family tragedy. The bizarre surrealist events are very effectively established, however, over the dizzying spectrum of several genre-crossing episodes we essentially get told the same two stories within the: crime, romance, gangster, fantasy and spy genres.
The performances are interesting. Fukunaga has created a world that exists somewhere in between the real and surreal and the future, past and current times. Because of this there’s a sense he has freed the actors from naturalism and at times created a stylistic distanciation. Conversely, Emma Stone was brilliant as always and she is skilled enough to make the strangeness resonate emotionally. However, I felt Jonah Hill, while giving a fine and committed performance, was miscast. Interestingly, Justin Theroux features in a curious turn as a Doctor on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Theroux is a fascinating actor who I think is sabotaging his career and could be the next George Clooney but continues to choose weirdo roles which serve his career no benefit. But hey what do I know!? Maybe he’s having a lot of fun.
Ultimately, the postmodern stylings cloaked a pretty conventional love story and once again, with a Netflix show, I felt that ten episodes were stretching the narrative a tad. Fukunaga’s combination of different genres and eccentric characters plus a smattering a bloody violence and techno-humour is always interesting. Moreover, much fun is to be had from the references to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Lord of the Rings and many more films. Nowhere near as brilliant as True Detective or Beasts of No Nation, Cary Fukunaga still impresses as a director even if Maniac is arguably style over content. Nonetheless, Fukunaga should still be commended for striving for a semblance of originality and ambition, rather than just go for an big payday on a franchise studio genre film.
Cast: Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Ellie Wallwork, Kevin Eldon, Christian Rubeck, Lisa Stokke
Produced by: Nikki Wilson
Executive producer(s): Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens, Sam Hoyle
Music composer: Segun Akinola
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
This episode, depending on your point of view, was either a strange, but moving science fantasy surrealist hybrid classic; or a collection of half-baked concepts that fell apart with an incredibly bizarre and silly ending.
Yet, It Takes You Away starts off very promisingly. For a start the title evokes suspense, mystery and an underlying sense of loss. The suspense builds when the Doctor and companions arrive in Scandinavia and are immediately faced with a mystery in the Norwegian wood. The beautiful landscape of blue fjords, green brush and scattered timber hide a dark secret within a boarded up cabin. The impressive cinematography also evokes an eerie atmosphere. Moreover, there’s a frightening monster hiding somewhere within nature. Or is there?
In the cabin, the Doctor finds a lone teenage girl, Hanne, blind and seemingly abandoned by her father. Of course, they all agree to help protect Hanne against the monster and find her father too. Up to this point the drama and mystery were intriguing and finely poised. Subsequent events descend to a strange place called the ‘Anti-Zone’. This is where it all begins to fall apart narratively speaking.
Emotionally the episode had some very powerful moments drawing on the breakdown of family relationships; Graham’s grief for the loss of his wife and whether it is better to live in or out of reality. However, within these fascinating themes were some stupid bloodsucking moths and the brilliant character actor Kevin Eldon was under-used as an underground demon-type creature. The less said about the ending the better, which I can only think was going for Twitter-like-clickbait trending rather than a coherent and believable pay-off.
The denouement, together with another massive exposition dump from the Doctor scrambling to convince us it all made sense, found the episode completely laughable. It was a shame as it had some fine ideas and Bradley Walsh gave a moving performance as Graham. Ultimately though, this season of DoctorWho is flailing having started so promisingly and It Takes You Away plummeted to a new low.