Release Date: September 25th 2019 – December 11th 2019
UK Release: Comedy Central
Another year passes and another year of South Park! It has now incredibly reached its twenty-third season and the energy, humour, satire and desire to surprise and shock is still very much there in the latest ten episodes. However, I think that in Trey Parker’s desire to reinvent and reinvigorate the format, he seems to have taken a few missteps along the way. Because, while containing some sublime moments of comedy and wonderfully grotesque episodes, the latest season does not consistently reach the heights of previous ones. One could argue this is the weakest season in a long time.
Don’t get me wrong, I am just a humble worker drone and totally respect Trey Parker’s satirical genius. Yet, having worked on South Park for over thirty years Parker has arguably moved the furniture around too much in Season 23. I can understand why he has re-jigged the format, but for me, concentrating mostly on Randy Marsh’s Tegridy Farm enterprise in the first six episodes, many characters we love like Butters, Kyle, Kenny, Mr Garrison, Wendy, and even Cartman are sidelined to mere supporting roles. Of course, they do feature, but not as much as I would have preferred. I guess Parker just wanted a change and in recent seasons this has garnered many fantastic episodes. In Season 23 though, the over reliance and prolonged attempts at stoner and weed humour just did not make me laugh. Plus, Towelie as a comedy character has never worked and I wish he had over-dosed permanently, never to return.
There are some fine comedic moments throughout, and the themes are as strong as ever. Parker takes many satirical swipes at all manner of sociological, political, gender, health, economical and media targets. Through some excellent writing he successfully lampoons: media censorship, China, the anti-vaccine movement, plant-based food, transgenderism in sport, the PC or ‘woke/snowflake’ generation, drug abuse, streaming services, Christmas greed, addiction, drunk drivers, immigration detention centres, and, very briefly, the Trump administration. Ultimately, the season features several very good episodes, but arguably only Band in China and Turd Burglars hit the heights of classic South Park episodes of past seasons. Nonetheless, Trey Parker on autopilot is still one of the greatest writers and comedic voices around. If only he had a little less ‘Tegridy’, this season could have been another classic.
Produced by: Debra Hayward, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Tom Hooper
Written by: Lee Hall and Tom Hooper – Based on the stage musical Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot.
Cast: Jennifer Hudson, Francesca Hayward, Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, Jason DeRulo, Laurie Davidson, Ray Winstone, Taylor Swift, etc.
Music by: Andrew Lloyd Webber
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS*
I think it’s easy to be overtly negative and nasty in reviews, and that is fine in general, as long as you can justify it. What I have found though is there seems to have been an unhealthy pile-on this Christmas by critics in regard to the film Cats (2019). One could even interpret some reactions to the film as hysterical and unfair bullying. I, in no way have any reason to defend wealthy people such as Andrew Lloyd Webber or the director Tom Hooper. But, this review asks the question: is Cats (2019) a really bad film? The answer in short is: no! It’s just not a particularly good one.
My wife loves musicals and was a fan of the original show. Personally, I don’t like cats, nor musicals generally (there are exceptions); and did not know the original stage production either. So, my expectations were pretty low for the film. What I did know is the original musical stage production was one of the longest running musicals in the West End. Plus, it made grossed over £32 billion in various productions across the world. Clearly a film production would make commercial sense and with acclaimed director, Tom Hooper, at the helm — what could go wrong?
Firstly, it’s an obvious thing to say that stage and screen productions generally work very differently. The original Cats was based on the poems of T.S. Eliot and was adapted organically in the 1970s by the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Richard Stilgoe and Trevor Nunn. It was released in 1981 and became a phenomenal success. The narrative on stage and screen concerns a tribe of cats, inhabiting the streets, shops, theatres and homes of London, called the ‘Jellicle Cats’. Each year there is a competition as to who will be given a new life and reach the Heaviside Layer. Imaginatively named characters such as: Rum Tum Tugger (Jason DeRulo), Bustopher Jones (James Corden), Mr Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), Bombalurina (Taylor Swift) and many more litter the screen. Several of these characters compete via song and dance routines, but obstacles are introduced by the nasty nemesis, Macavity (Idris Elba).
As I did not know the original adaptation, I have to say that given the lack of a proper narrative, I am surprised the show took off in the first place. This is clearly a testament to the love felt for the many powerful songs in the show, notably the brilliant ‘Memory’. The film itself is essentially a series of musical set-pieces with a very thin narrative and thematic thread throughout. The rules of the world and mythology are not very well established by Lee Hall and Tom Hooper’s screenplay. In fact, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of an opening introduction to the world. So, for me, the film fails to establish believable unbelievability and ease you into the fantasy elements properly. Basically, if you know the original production it is likely you will really enjoy the film. However, I felt it was creatively hamstrung from the start.
Overall, much of Tom Hooper’s rendition of Cats (2019) feels rushed in terms of the CGI, the editing, pacing and general flow of the action and events. The first forty minutes sees a flurry of songs from various characters and this left me dizzy. However, there are some excellent set-pieces, rousing compositions, flashy choreography and impactful singing performances in here. Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson and Idris Elba I felt were excellent. The rest of the cast, performers and production team also commit wholeheartedly to the project too. They cannot be faulted for certain creative decisions made at studio level. Indeed, whose idea was it to even release the film at Christmas when the Star Wars franchise is likely to defeat all cinema competition.
Maybe the film could have worked better as a lower budgeted, intimate and more stripped-down production. Moreover, while they attempted to include narrative exposition via the character of Francesca Hayward’s innocent stray, Victoria, the film still felt bereft of story. But, as it’s based on a set of poems, this is case with the original show too. Lastly, while Cats (2019) valiantly attempts to deliver a fun, humorous, emotional, energetic and fresh take on thestage show, it does fall short in many places. However, given the catastrophic reviews online and in the media in general, I have to say that it is genuinely enjoyable in places and not as bad as it’s being made out to be. It is still shocking though that such experienced producers and filmmakers would release what appears to be a dog rough work-in-progress product. It just goes to show that however talented you may be, no one is purr-fect!
Once again the festive season is upon us. Thus, the over-privileged first world will buy stuff they don’t need, drink and eat more than humanly possible, and perhaps even celebrate the birth of the son of God. As you may gather, being a miserable cynic, I’m not a massive fan of Christmas, but it is a lovely time to try and be nice to people, take time off from the day job and watch even more films and television.
Watching films and not being at work is definitely my favourite thing about Christmas, so I thought it fun to have a look at what I consider six of the best Christmas films. How do you define a Christmas film? I would say the film should not only be set at Christmas, but also invoke a sense of the Christmas spirit, evil or otherwise. It should also contain Christmas themes or even some kind of moral within the narrative. Therefore, Die Hard (1988) is NOT a Christmas film. Here, in my humble opinion, are six that most definitely are! Happy holidays!
A CHRISTMAS CAROL / SCROOGE (1951)
“Well, then, I’ll just swallow this and be tortured by a legion of hobgoblins, all of my own creation! It’s all HUMBUG, I tell you, HUMBUG!”
BAD SANTA (2003)
“I beat the shit out of some kids today. But it was for a purpose. It made me feel good about myself. It was like I did something constructive with my life or something, I dunno, like I accomplished something.”
“We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup.”
“First of all, keep him out of the light, he hates bright light, especially sunlight, it’ll kill him. Second, don’t give him any water, not even to drink. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs, never feed him after midnight.”
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
“You see, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?”
“Saint Nicholas is not coming this year. Instead, a much darker, ancient spirit. His name is Krampus. He and his helpers did not come to give, but to take. He is the shadow of Saint Nicholas.”
After the biggest budgeted fan film of all time was released last year with The Force Awakens (2015), I approached Rogue One (2016) with a sense of scepticism. After all, JJ Abrams directed Star Wars movie was essentially a block-to-block remake of A New Hope (1977) but this time substituting Luke Skywalker for a young woman, Rey, (Daisy Ridley) and Darth Vader for a younger more angst-ridden version in Adam Driver. Abrams spectacular epic delighted fans on emotional and aesthetic levels despite the sandcastle plotting, gaping story holes and illogical incompetence of the First Order. For example, why build a ‘Death Planet’ with the SAME weaknesses as the Empire’s Death Star? It did not make sense to me.
Nonetheless, JJ Abrams safety guaranteed reboot broke not only the internet but also box office records worldwide. It’s a safe and impressive spectacle with bland leads and a nostalgic mix of familiar and new characters. The action was breathless and pristine but the weaknesses in the story ruined the enjoyment of The Force Awakens for me. While it made sense to focus the narrative on the children of the original trilogy, and it was great to see Harrison Ford reprising Han Solo, I wasn’t as impressed by Abrams blockbuster as many were. Of course, compared to George Lucas’-rise-and-fall-of-Annakin-Skywalker-prequel-trilogy it was pure cinema gold.
Talking of prequels Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is just that – Star Wars: Episode 3.5 as it were. The action takes place after Revenge of the Sith (2005) but just before A New Hope. We open with Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic pursuing Mads Mikkelsen’s ‘farmer’, Galen Erso, on the planet Lah’mu. Krennic is an Imperial executive working on the Death Star and he requires Erso’s expertise to complete the work so kidnaps him, leaving behind his young daughter Jyn Erso, alone and abandoned.
As per many other stories in the Star Wars galaxy themes relating to war, family, loss, orphans and hope propels the characters in Rogue One. None more so than Felicity Jones’ grown up Jyn Erso, who inhabits her character with a credible depth and pain throughout. She has clearly had to fend for herself and has become world-weary for one so young, yet she is also tough and very handy in a fight. Against her will she is thrust into the rebellion fight and embarks on a last-ditch mission to locate the plans of the Death Star. Here the story harks back marvellously to the derring-do of WW2 movies such as The Guns of Navarone (1961), Where Eagles Dare (1968) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). That was when I knew this was my kind of movie.
Accompanying Jyn are a ragtag bunch of characters who could arguably been given more backstory but are cast very well. My personal favourite was Donny Yen as Chirrut Imwe as the blind, elegant and formidable ‘monk’ and Diego Luna’s battle-drained rebellion officer who refuses to go down without a fight. With the plot thrusting along at some pace we still have time for reflection by the characters, especially from Luna and Jones. Meanwhile, on the dark side, Ben Mendelsohn gives an intriguing performance as a middle manager unable to grasp the power he so craves. Darth Vader’s scenes too were fantastically handled in my view and while initially jarring the CGI appearance of Grand Moff Tarkin/Peter Cushing was a curious treat.
Whereas JJ Abrams skilfully emulated the emotions of the original Star Wars films, Gareth Edwards (and apparently re-shoot director Tony Gilroy) really imbue a sense of menace and doom to the Rogue One mission. The stakes are incredibly high, and while we know the outcome, most of the characters are given enough purpose to make you care for them. From the stark landscape of the opening scenes to the stunningly bleak midpoint set-piece on the base facility of planet Eadu, pathos, shadow and death inhabit the film’s core. Indeed, it reflects the darker side of the franchise like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) so succinctly.
Of course, the story is all building to an incredible final act where Jyn and her crew seek those darned plans which are inconveniently kept in an impossible-to-breach fortress protected by battalions of Imperial Stormtroopers, droids and weaponry. As our heroes battle for their lives and the future of the rebellion, we cut breathlessly between the space dogfights we have come to love and the explosive conflict on the planet surface. Do they complete their mission? Well, you know the end; however, amidst the fast-paced action and special effects there is time for a sense of loss and a series of spectacular and heroic deaths.
Where, in my opinion, A Force Awakens was Disney playing it safe, this film takes a few more chances within the corporate conservatism of the movie market. While it has a darkness in its’ heart Rogue One still meets the classic Hollywood “standardization and differentiation” model which has served big business since the dawn of time. Overall this isn’t just a great Star Wars film but a brilliant movie too. It’s very much in the vein of Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014), as it transcends the franchise while delivering a pulsating, heroic and emotional experience. While the canonized Skywalker arcs continue to concentrate on expanding the Jedi family tree, the stand-alone anthology series, of which Rogue One is the first, offer an opportunity to perhaps go darker and experiment with form, character and themes.
A quick smash through the stuff I’ve been watching on TV, Netflix, Sky and at the cinema for the month of August. I shall be keeping it brief as going on holiday to Maine tomorrow. Also, there are not as many reviews as usual as having been filming my own short film this month; all the details can be found here: http://startrekshortfilm.com/. Moreover, I am in the midst of slogging through the Danish original version of The Killing (2007), which is excellent but also very long and time-consuming. As usual, in tribute to Spinal Tap, marks are out of eleven.
BETTER CALL SAUL (2016) – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX
Are there any better character drama shows around than this one? The writing and acting in Season 2 was just brilliant. I also enjoyed the direction as the characters and situations are allowed to breathe and evolve as opposed to whizz-bang-smash-cut-resolution. Cast including: Bob Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn, Jonathan Banks and the exceptional Michael McKean make it a joy to watch. (Mark: 9.5 out of 11)
BAD MOMS (2016) – CINEMA
By-the-numbers-chick-flick which is actually funnier than I thought it would be thanks to fine comedic turns from Kathryn Hahn and Christina Applegate. Bush-baby lookalike Mila Kunis is decent enough too as the mother-of-two who decides she just cannot stand anymore of her turbulent family life! (Mark: 7 out of 11)
COMPUTER CHESS (2013) – DVD
This film directed by Andrew Bujalski was shot on analogue video cameras in black and white and has mainly non-professional actors playing IT freaks and geeks who enter a computer chess programming competition. It’s frankly a barmy-indie-geeky-mumble-core-curio that is kind of unwatchable but must be praised for sheer originality and experimental style. (Mark: 7 out of 11)
CRIMSON PEAK (2015) – SKY CINEMA
Guillermo Del Toro’s beautifully shot gothic horror/romance stars Mia Wasikowska who is swept off her feet by handsome Tom Hiddleston. It’s your basic haunted house story with a Murder She Wrote murder mystery thrown in; the star of the show is the cinematography and costume/set design. Jessica Chastain provides eerie glamour as Hiddleston’s enigmatic sister but the whole thing could’ve been mined for many more scares. (Mark: 7 out of 11)
HOMELAND (2011) – SEASON 1 – NETFLIX
This is an absolutely sensational contemporary drama starring the incredibly good Damian Lewis and Claire Danes as soldier and CIA agent dealing with the aftermath of his return from imprisonment by al-Qaeda. Throughout the story fear and suspense are so powerful as the plot twists and the dramatic noose tightens the story constantly wrong foots you. Brilliantly written and acted this is politically astute and one very intelligent thriller. Highly recommended. (Mark: 10 out of 11)
THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (1979) – DVD
Classic gangster film starring the imperious Bob Hoskins as Harold Shand: an upwardly mobile cockney gangster who in seeking to legitimise his “corporation” finds himself having a VERY bad day. Amidst all the colourful language, violence and explosions we have an adroit examination of the politics of the day and a portent to fast-approaching “greed is good” mentality of the 1980s. Often copied but rarely bettered; it has some great British actors and spot-on working class dialogue throughout. (Mark: 10 out of 11)
OUTCAST (2016) – FOX
Intriguing horror fable from the creators of The Walking Dead combined family drama with a demonic possession storyline. Starring Patrick Fugit, Brett Spiner and Philip Glenister, it started really well with some great scares and interesting characters. However, my interest waned as the plodding pace and lack of narrative clarity made me NOT care. It’s well made and acted but I doubt I will go back to the second season. (Mark: 5.5 out of 11)
PATHS OF GLORY (1957) – BFI CINEMA
Quite rightly Paths of Gloryhas been proclaimed a masterpiece and one of the greatest anti-war films of all time. It’s filled with the now-iconic tracking shots of bloody battle, plus many tremendous performances. Overall, I have watched this classic many times and having seen it on the big screen recently I can testify that it has lost NONE of its grandstanding power. . (Mark: 11 out of 11) For my full review see here:
RED SHIFT (1978) – DVD
Play for Today adaptation of Alan Garner’s pretentious novel which analyses various human relationship dynamics, cosmology and love in Roman, medieval and English Civil times. Artsy and impenetrable, it may be the work of genius yet I found it, on the whole, unwatchable to be honest. Sometimes I think people think things are clever because the writer has not defined meaning precisely thus leaving the themes open to interpretation. I just found it tedious. (Mark: 5 out of 11)
UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT (2015) – SEASON 1 – NETFLIX
Kidnapped by a charismatic cult leader and tricked into living in an underground bunker for fifteen years, naïve but tough Kimmy Schmidt is released into a very different world. Ellie Kempner is brilliant as the indefatigable Kimmy who moves to New York to start a new life and meets a whole host of rich and poor narcissists and eccentrics. The jokes come thick and fast throughout but the premise wore thin as the episodes went on but overall a very funny comedy. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
UPSTREAM COLOR (2013) – DVD
Shane Carruth’s mind-bending and pretentious film is both ambitious and brave and incredible for the budget it was shot on! Artsy and impenetrable, it may be the work of genius yet I found it, on the whole, unwatchable to be honest. Sometimes I think people think things are clever because the writer has not defined meaning precisely thus leaving the themes open to interpretation. I just found it tedious. A wonderful premise and intriguing themes give way to a lack of care for the characters. Sorry. (Mark: 6 out of 11)
My general viewing in July was an eclectic mix of splendid art cinema and excellent genre television shows. So, here’s what I watched with marks out of eleven and MASSIVE SPOILERS:
ANT-MAN (2015) – SKY CINEMA
Saw this in the cinema last year and it was one of the most entertaining films of 2015! It’s simplistic narrative-wise but what it does have is a fizzing script full of zingers and comedic moments as well as some great action set-pieces built around the well-orchestrated final act heist. It is just terrific seeing charismatic Paul Rudd in big-budget film plus fun supporting cast including: Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Pena and scenery-chewing baddie Corey Stoll all add class to proceedings. This is great fun and proves that not ALL superhero films have to be HUGE as sometimes small is beautiful. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
DAREDEVIL (2016) – Season 2 – NETFLIX
I absolutely loved this noir superhero show. Season 1 was brilliant and, despite the faceless one-dimensional Ninja villains, this was as good, if not even better! We follow on from Daredevil’s capture of the “Kingpin” Wilson Fisk as he finds new friends and foes in Frank Castle, “The Chaste”, Elektra and “The Hand”. This has it all including: amazing fight scenes, bloody violence, rip-roaring action and hellish derring-do. I think John Bernthal’s “Punisher” takes the plaudits with a fine origins story and great Lee-Marvin-Charles-Bronson-tough-guy-bone-crunching-performance. Once again Charlie Cox as Matt Murdoch is brilliant combining subtlety and physical prowess during his turn as blind lawyer AND the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. (Mark: 9.5 out of 11)
JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORELL (2015) – DVD
This seven-part fantasy-period drama had everything: wonderful effects, dark villains, magical narratives and sterling performances from Bertie Carvel, Alice Englert, Eddie Marsan and Marc Warren. However, at times I was perplexed and a bit bored because unfortunately, despite the stunning imagery, design and imagination on show the narrative stumbled from beginning to end failing to create empathy for the main characters and entertain me with cogent plot strands. Susanna Clarke’s original novel is apparently a literary classic thus perhaps it may have benefited from a connecting voiceover. Yet, it remains a prestige BBC product which many will love; it just did not connect with me on an emotional level. (Mark: 6.5 out of 11)
MEN AND CHICKEN (2015) – CINEMA
This is one of the most hilarious, unsettling and philosophical comedies you will see in a long time. Similar in tone as last year’s terrific arthouse hit The Lobster (2015), Anders Thomas Jensen has written a cross-pollenated comedy-slapstick-art-horror film that centres on two adopted brothers and their search for their biological father. Mads Mikkelsen and David Dencik portray the siblings who find quite disturbing answers on the Island of Ork where all manner of genetic experimentation has been carried out by their father. This is a weird yet compelling story which lurches from hilarious physical violence to examinations of religion and science that I can only describe as being like the Three Stooges meet The Island of Dr Moreau. One of the most original, odd and strangely moving films you will see all year.(Mark: 9 out of 11)
THE NEON DEMON (2016) – CINEMA
Being an admirer of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy, Bleeder and Bronson films I am well aware his films do divide opinion. Drive (2011) with Ryan Gosling was a brilliant noir romance yet his last film Only God Forgives (2013) (with Gosling again) was nihilistic, brutal and virtually unwatchable. However, I think his latest The Neon Demon works really well as a surreal horror film that savagely satirizes the fashion industry. The film moves at a glacial pace with an anti-narrative style and strange acting more down to the director’s strategy than poor performance. Nevertheless, it is a magnetic watch with a succession of beautifully designed shots which are way more imaginative than the usual multiplex popcorn fodder. The sumptuous photography, score and grand gore throughout make it a welcome return to form for the always intriguing formal cinematic anarchist Winding Refn. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (2013 – ) – Season 1 – NETFLIX
Waspy-blonde-rich-spoilt-bitch-Private-Benjamin-type gets banged up the slammer for a historical crime and we’re meant to feel empathy for her? That’s what the premise of this excellent drama asks the audience to do AND actually succeeds in doing through compelling writing and a marvellous ensemble cast. Taylor Schilling portrays the brattish Piper Chapman brilliantly and there’s fine “inside” support from Kate Mulgrew, Uzo Udoba, Taryn Manning and Danielle Brooks to name a few. The structure follows newbie Chapman as she fails to cope with prison life; plus variant flashbacks filling in details of her and inmates’ prior life events. It’s a gripping and funny show with lots of character twists and turns; and somehow it remains fresh despite the potential cliché pitfalls within the subgenre. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
SPECTRE (2015) – SKY CINEMA
Overall, I was disappointed with this Bond outing from last year. I mean there was a lot to like, notably: Daniel Craig’s performance; the stunning cinematography; the brilliant opening ‘Day-of-the-Dead’ and fight-on-train set-pieces; plus the criminally underused Christophe Waltz. However, the story, from a usually reliable John Logan and his screenwriting cohorts was non-existent; relying mainly on callbacks from the previous Craig outings and Bond films of yesteryear. The action was decent but the anorexic plot and weak romance left much to be desired. For a proper moan see my review from last year below. (Mark: 6.5 out of 11)
STAR TREK: BEYOND (2016) – CINEMA
I was bored by this. Even as a summer blockbuster the film fell short; and finally Star Trek has been turned into a soulless-plotless-video-game with set-pieces “stolen” from other better popcorn films such as Jurassic World (2015) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). The cast are decent but the formidable abilities of Idris Elba were masked under deep make-up for most of the film. Even if it was to be a latter second act reveal Elba’s presence was given away in the trailer so why not build his character up from the beginning. Plus, the “rogue” agent storyline was done much better in Into Darkness, which I enjoyed as a spectacle. Let’s hope the forthcoming Netflix series has more character and depth than Beyond. (Mark: 6 out of 11)
STAR TREK: NEMESIS (2002) – SKY CINEMA
The final of the Next Generation movies which ended the franchise prior to JJ Abrams’ hit-and-miss reboot, is a pretty decent science-fiction actioner with enough brains to keep you interested. A very young Tom Hardy plays the Reman rebel out to destroy Starfleet and Jean Luc Picard specifically. The themes of cloning, doppelgangers and telepathy serve the action very well and the set-pieces are decent enough. However, as Picard and Data get much of screen time the rest of the crew seem to side-lined throughout. This is not as good as the other Next Gen films but it is still more involving and cerebral than the soporific Star Trek: Beyond. (Mark: 7 out of 11)
STRANGER THINGS (2016) – NETFLIX
Oh, Netflix – I love you! Not only do you present affordable boxsets, docs, TV and film product, but you also produce some damn fine original programming. Netflix’s latest sci-fi drama is an excellent nostalgia-fest which evokes the 1980s perfectly in design, sound and look. Indeed, it wears it’s Spielberg, Stephen King, John Carpenter and George Lucas influences not so much on its sleeve but as a whole outfit. Written and directed by the Duffer Brothers, it centres 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 secretive and 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 their missing friend in a drama which has some wonderful stand-out and monstrous moments throughout. Arguably, the eight episodes were padded out in places and it could have been culled for pace but overall it was an excellent watch with a terrific score and soundtrack to boot. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
TALE OF TALES (2015) – CINEMA
Having directed the brutal and gritty kitchen-sink gangster film Gomorrah (2008), filmmaker Matteo Garrone, completely changed style with this ultra-imaginative set of grim fairytales based on the ye olde short stories of Giannbatista Basile. Like a medieval Pulp Fiction the film weaves tall tales called: The Queen, The Flea and the Two Old Women in a superb fashion as flashes of horror, fantasy, amorality and comedy clash with bizarre beasts and bloody death. The cast including: Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, and Shirley Henderson all get on board amidst the insane plot occurrences and overall I found it a fine anathema to the bland kids offering Hollywood churns out. While the original stories were taken from an anthology called Lo cunto de li cunti (Entertainment for Little Ones), this is definitely for adults and not the little monsters at home. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
WAKOLDA (2013) – DVD
I was gripped by this slow-moving drama set in 1960s Argentina. It follows a hotel-running family and their encounter with a mysterious Doctor. Writer/director Lucia Pacenzo carves out a compelling story which finds the Doctor inveigling himself into the family’s world and carrying out seemingly innocent medical procedures which ultimately have a horrific impact. The film is a real eye-opener into the terrors of the time with many South American countries harbouring fleeing Nazi criminals and Àlex Brendemühl’s performance as the charismatic Doctor expertly glues this fascinating story together. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
Z-NATION (2014) – NETFLIX
Fox’s The Walking Dead has quite rightly taken a lot of plaudits for its incredibly well-written, humanist take on the zombie-horror drama. It offers rich character development, political analogy and of course some fine gore. Z-Nation on the other hand offers something far more fun and humour and downright silliness with zombie dogs, babies, rednecks and bears on the menu. Basically, a ragtag group attempt to transport a zombie-experiment-survivor to a medical facility while assisted by DJ Qualls isolated NSA computer geek. The group fight off an endless supply of zombies, cannibals and religious cults in a tremendous show that counts as a fantastically gory and comedic guilty pleasure. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
June was both a very special month of viewing and also sad because one of my favourite shows shuffled off into TV heaven after three scintillating seasons. I also watched some excellent genre films; the month being very much about quality of viewing rather than quantity. As usual, marks out of eleven and of course:
SCREENWASH FILM AND TV REVIEWS – JUNE 2016
**MASSIVE SPOILERS HERE**
THE AFFAIR (2014) – SEASON TWO – NOW TV
The first season of this “first world” sex-charged adult drama was compelling stuff with fine performances from Ruth Wilson, Dominic West and Maura Tierney respectively. The suspense was palpable, the writing sharp; and the characters – while not wholly likeable – had a humane quality that drew you in. The second season though just got on my nerves a bit and I just didn’t give a toss in the end despite some memorable scenes. Plus, the teenage daughter made me want to drown her in a ditch, such was her irritability factor. So, in the end I just gave up around episode eight. (Mark: 5 out of 11)
ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT – SEASON 3 – (2005)
The final season in the first run before it was cancelled and subsequently rebirthed by Netflix was another tremendously hilarious comedy of errors; featuring a rogues gallery of vapid narcissistic characters all trying and failing to out-do each other. Aside from the wonderful performances from Jason Bateman, David Cross, Michael Cera, Jessica Walter, Will Arnett and so on, the law have George Bluth Snr under house arrest while Michael tries to keep the business going. He also falls in love with an English retard (played by Charlize Theron) while ultimately ending up in Iraq trying to resolve some shady shenanigans. The season is most memorable for a Godzilla parody with Tobias dressed in a massive mole costume smashing down “Tiny Town” in front of bemused Japanese investors. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAKSHOW (2015) – NETFLIX
I love this bleak, violent, bloody, over-the-top horror anthology from writers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. They truly are horror connoisseurs as they introduce us to a litany of gruesome characters, situations and narratives all set in a circus freakshow in 1950s USA. This is no apple-pie-white-picket-fence-Americana because we get: killer clowns, Siamese Twins, two-faced ghouls, midgets, Amazonian women, hermaphrodites, Nazi murderers and many, many more freaks and monsters on display. Once again, like the previous seasons, the ensemble cast are quality, notably Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson and the majestic Jessica Lange. Arguably the most horrendous character though is the spoilt-rich-boy-millionaire-killer, Dandy, played with evil abandon by potential star Finn Wittrock. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
THE CONJURING 2 (2016) – CINEMA
Great magicians astound you even when you know how a trick works. Therefore I heartily recommend this follow-up to, believe-it-or-not, The Conjuring (2013). Director James Wan is a master magician and uses every deception, distraction and reveal in the book to deliver a devilish and nail-biting horror story based once again on the work of paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren. The springboard for the terror is the infamous Enfield haunting in which a gnarled dead pensioner terrorized a North London family. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson bring quiet quality to the ghoulish hysterics and James Wan once again proves he is arguably the best horror director around. The film is worthy of the admission for the invention of another great monster in the guise of a ghastly pale-faced nun. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
GAME OF THRONES – SEASON 6 (2016) – NOW TV
If I had a sword to my throat I would have to say that this – in terms of pulsating storytelling, dramatic twists and bloodcurdling action – is one of the best seasons of television I have EVER SEEN! Book geeks are probably spitting crisps over their keyboards but now the writers are free of the shackles of the gigantic novels, these ten episodes were just a pacey, brutal, vicious, conniving, fiery, animalistic, blinding, cutting, resurrecting delight. I can’t speak of all the plot strands as there were too many but the wheels were really turning and new alliances forming notably: Daenerys and her flight toward Westeros; Arya becoming no one and then learning new deadly abilities; a violent “Dog” from the past returning to go on a kill-crazy rampage; formerly dead Jon Snow coming back to life and marching on Winterfell in order to defeat evil Ramsay Bolton; Sansa Stark also joined the Ramsay revenge queue, with Lord Baelish in the wings too; and the piece de resistance was Cersei Lannister battle of wills with the High Sparrow who was slowly clawing all she held dear away from her. Overall, it was a ballsy drama which gave us twists and violence galore and my viewing schedule will have a massive hole to fill over the next year! (Mark: 11 out of 11)
GOMORRAH – SEASON 2 (2016) – NOW TV
The first season of Gomorrah was gritty-Italian-kitchen-sink-gangster-drama at its finest. It followed the shadowy, mean Neapolitan street-hoodlums and their drug trafficking, double-crosses, political corruptions and murderous shootouts. The General lording over the territory was Don Pietro Savastano but his empire was undermined by foot-soldier Ciro Di Marzio and his crooked alliance with Salvatore Conte. Savastano’s raw and inexperienced son Genny also attempted to rise up the ladder but his bullish impatience became his undoing. In Season 2 the power struggle between these three characters continues, and over the ten episodes further brutality and skulduggery follows in a show which has a heart of pitch black darkness acted out like a contemporary reflection of the Roman Empire. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
HUSH (2016) – NETFLIX
Horror filmmaker Mike “Oculus” Flanagan is a pretty decent genre director and here he sets up another interesting premise while delivering some efficient scares in the process. Kate Siegel plays a mute-deaf writer who – in desiring solitude – lives in the woods to carve out her latest novel. Alas, her peace is invaded by a masked psycho – what are the chances! – and she must overcome her restrictions to fight them off. Contrived and cheap it may be, Flanagan shows he’s a confident helmer who deserves a bigger budget to work with. (Mark: 6.5 out of 11)
IRRATIONAL MAN (2015) – NOW TV
Woody Allen is one of the greatest writer-directors of all time and his curriculum vitae boasts an incredible array of amazing films. His latest cinematic efforts have on occasions hit great heights; films such as Whatever Works (2009), Midnight in Paris (2011), Blue Jasmine (2013) and Magic in the Moonlight (2014) all benefitted from Allen’s trademark wit and intriguing characterisation. Irrational Man stars Joaquin Phoenix as a misanthropic writer who hates the world but somehow finds meaning in a random act of violence. At the same time he has a love affair with his student, pretty Emma Stone; and the two narrative strands ultimately become entwined in a pleasing black comedy. (Mark: 7 out of 11)
THE NICE GUYS (2016) – CINEMA
Writer/director Shane Black created a winning cop-buddy formula with Lethal Weapon, continued it with the very under-rated Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (2005) and having hit behemoth-budget pay dirt with Iron Man 3 (2013) he once again nails the buddy-noir-comedy-action film. The Nice Guys stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as a couple of private dicks and their haphazard pairing pings a shaggy-dog narrative along at a cracking pace. The script is filled with so many hilarious punchlines, sight gags, salty dialogue and a suggestion of occasional pathos too. It combines late 70s corruption with pornographers while presenting a sparkling nostalgia script filtering Chinatown(1974) via Starsky and Hutch. Overall one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen all year. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
PEAKY BLINDERS – SEASON 3 (2016) – BBC IPLAYER
The third season of the stylish period drama once again finds Thomas Shelby (brilliant Cillian Murphy) and his clan attempting to expand their business empire from the Birmingham backstreets across the Atlantic and further. This season has some fine villains including venal priest played by Paddy Considine and communist-fleeing Russian aristocrats. As well as the usual muscular-bleeding-tattooed-coked-up-masculinity on show, writer Steven Knight presents a set of powerful female characters too who are just as ruthless and deadly as the male counterparts. It’s a cracking drama all-told; a high-quality flagbearer for the BBC. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
PENNY DREADFUL – SEASON 3 – (2016) – NOW TV
Alas, Showtime/Sky Atlantic’s Penny Dreadful is no more; gone forever into the misty poetic ether. Season 3 had been a blindingly beautiful and bloody wondrous season as various narrative threads unfolded but then suddenly it was deceased; gone; buried; over; a fog in the mists of time. I watched in wonder while Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein’s Monster/”John Clare” availed to reconcile with his long lost family; Ethan “Talbot” Chandler in the hands of US Marshals facing certain death; Dr Jekyll and Dr Frankenstein attempting to “cure” the insane; Lily raising a feminist army of whores to wreak havoc on man; plus the ever-beautiful-yet-haunted Vanessa Ives battling a whole host of new demons internally and externally. This is one of my favourite shows of recent years and alas the ending was somewhat abrupt. However, the vampiric London setting juxtaposed superbly with the violent Western arena where cowboys battled snakes and wolves. Despite the touching, yet mildly flat denouement, as gothic horror goes this drama possessed three seasons of monstrous wonder. (Mark: 10.5 out of 11)