Ever since I started reviewing films, TV, life and other cultural stuff I have mainly done it for my own enjoyment. I also blog because I want to express my opinion on things I watch and maybe get a better understanding of what does or doesn’t work from a subjective and creative perspective.
Little did I know that years later I would have cultivated some fine online pen or keyboard pals, who love movies such as me. I’m not one for awards per se but in the spirit of community I would like to nominate eleven WordPress blogs which I also recommend people read if they get some time.
So, thanks Debbi for the Sunshine award thingy – here are some other blogs which I think are brilliant too:
Writer(s): Matthew Weiner, Michael Goldbach, Mary Sweeney, Semi Challas, Andre Jacquemetton, Maria Jacquemetton, Donald Joh, Kris Turner Towner etc.
Composers: Anton Sanko, David Carbonara, Giona Ostinelli, Sonya Belousova, Marcelo Zarvos etc.
Cinematography: Christopher Manley
Original Network: Amazon Studios
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Matthew Weiner and his production team were behind one of the most brilliant television series of recent years in Mad Men. The quality of writing, directing, acting, art direction and attention to period detail on that show was incredibly rich. Overall, Mad Men wasn’t about big surprises and massive plot twists, but rather strong characterisation, evocation of an era and dense analysis of existential moments within romantic, family and industrial relationships.
Weiner’s next project The Romanoffs, finds him in a similar character driven mode. It’s a contemporary anthology series about people who are descendants of the Russian Royal family. The eight stories loosely connect but mainly stand alone, dealing with the lives, loves, turmoil and deaths of privileged people. As such mostly first world and high class problems abide. Altogether, the productions are expertly presented with Amazon clearly throwing a lot of money at them.
As they are self-contained narratives I have decided to order them in personal preference, rather than Amazon’s air order. Thus, here are said mini-reviews with usual marks out of eleven.
THE ONE THAT HOLDS EVERYTHING (EPISODE 8)
Main cast: Hugh Skinner, Hera Hilmar, Ben Miles, JJ Feild
This is the final story in the series and they saved the best until last. It is an incredibly dark exploration of family conflict that traverses the life of Hugh Skinner’s tragic Simon Romanov. Flash-backs entwine with flash-backs as his story unfolds from various perspectives. The script is incredible and certainly one of the best stories I have seen all year.
Mark: 10 out of 11
HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE (EPISODE 3)
Main cast: Christina Hendricks, Isabelle Huppert, Jack Huston, Paul Reiser
This is an absolutely brilliant satire about the filmmaking process. It finds Hendricks’ movie star on the crazy set of Isabelle Huppert’s eccentric director. The narrative channels horror, surrealist, comedy, drama and romance genres with a complex screenplay. Huppert and Hendricks are superb; as is the jaw-dropping ending!
Mark: 9 out of 11
BRIGHT AND HIGH CIRCLE (EPISODE 5)
Main cast: Diane Lane, Ron Livingston, David Patton
Thematically very strong, the story finds Diane Lane and Ron Livingston as wealthy parents whose children may or may not have been abused by their piano teacher. It’s a subtle exploration of middle class paranoia and universal fear glued together by a superlative performance from Lane.
Mark: 8 out of 11
END OF THE LINE (EPISODE 7)
Main Cast: Kathryn Hahn, Jay R. Ferguson, Annet Mahendru
Like the very watchable Netflix film Private LIves (2018), this story finds Kathryn Hahn portraying another parent desperate for a child. Hahn and her husband, Ferguson, travel to Vladivostock to adopt a Russian child and face all manner of cultural, geographical, health and language barriers. It’s an absorbing piece which really drags you in but ultimately the drama felt protracted by the end.
Mark: 7.5 out of 11
PANORAMA (EPISODE 6)
Main cast: Radha Mitchell, Juan Pable Castaneda, Griffin Dunne
More travelogue and history lesson with a mild romantic drama added, this story promises much but peters out by the end. Castaneda’s journalist investigates medical malpractice but it’s left to Radha Mitchell and the wonderful setting of Mexico City to provide the emotional depth.
Mark: 7 out of 11
THE VIOLET HOUR (EPISODE 1)
Main cast: Aaron Eckhart, Marthe Keller, Louise Bourgoin, Ines Melab
What starts off as a fascinating culture clash dramedy between an elderly racist and her Muslim carer, strangely left-turns into an tacked-on romance story. The cast are excellent and there’s some fine dialogue but it felt unbelievable toward the end for me.
Mark: 6.5 out of 11
THE ROYAL WE (EPISODE 2)
Main cast: Kerry Bishe, Corey Stoll, Janet Montgomery
Mid-life crises and male “seven-year itches” drive the narrative as a bunch of selfish and adulterous actions made me hate Stoll’s character. The Jury Service scenes are interesting but aside from Kerry Bishe’s decent character, I found this a painful way to spend eighty-or-so minutes.
Mark: 6 out of 11
EXPECTATION (EPISODE 4)
Main cast: Amanda Peet, Emily Rudd, John Slattery
Amanda Peet’s character has a bad day – THE END! Even the appearance of the mercurial John Slattery cannot save this disappointingly empty story.
Starring: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sian Clifford, Olivia Colman, Brett Gelman, Hugh Skinner, Bill Paterson, Jamie Demetriou, Jenny Rainsford, Hugh Dennis etc.
Composer: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Cinematography: Tony Miller, Laurie Rose
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
This melancholic, painful and chaotic home for middle-class grotesques and excruciatingly awkward comedy situations involving, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s barely-surviving-human being-the-titular-‘Fleabag’, shouldn’t really work as entertainment. Yet, it does because of: brilliant writing, dark, honest humour, existential depth, almost-cinematic production values; genuine star quality from Waller-Bridge; and a cast on top of their game.
First-world-very-white yet universal human problems are legion in two seasons of twelve breathless episodes. We join our nameless anti-hero scraping through life in the midst of doubling grief, following the recent deaths of her mother and close friend/business partner. No doubt the chattering twenty-something classes are full with “I’m just like Fleabag!” recognition. Nonetheless, there’s something to enjoy for those who love to experience raw, human frailty on screen too.
‘Fleabag’ fights flailing moods, business and family issues in contemporary status-symbol London. Using sex to block out her pain in the first season, ‘Arsehole Guy’ and ‘Bus Rodent’ are two such crutch-like paramours who, along with on-off-ex-boyfriend, Harry, are given the physical and emotional run-around. In the less bawdy second season she falls for an uber-cool Catholic Priest (Andrew Scott). Thus, the lashings of sex from the first season gives way to more interesting abstinence and romantic torture for ‘Fleabag’.
With her best mate dead from a tragic accident ‘Fleabag’s’ sword and shield against life is gone and attempts at bridge-building with her family are fraught with strained agony. Her sister Claire (Sian Clifford), is tighter than a snare drum, existing solely on neurosis and a never-ending workaholic mission drive. The scenes between ‘Fleabag’ and her sister range from touching to hilarious to fractious dread. Meanwhile, their beta-male Father (Bill Paterson), is also grieving and a full-on emotional trainwreck. He finds himself a rabbit-in-the-headlights of Olivia Colman’s ‘Godmother’; a genius at passive aggressivity and unlikely arch-villain, quietly stealing the father away from his daughters.
Many hilarious and painful scenes play out around dinner tables, art exhibitions, parties, funerals, seminars, retreats and weddings. ‘Fleabag’ vainly attempts normality but understandbly fails. In addition to her family she also conflicts with other characters, notably Claire’s horrendous-alcoholic-overgrown-man-child-husband, Martin. I was genuinely shouting bile at the TV screen every time I saw him. Thankfully, Fleabag also features fine supporting roles from more likeable characters portrayed by the ultra-talented Fiona Shaw, Kristin Scott-Thomas and aforementioned Andrew Scott.
From Hancock to Steptoe and Son to Fawlty Towers to Blackadder to The Office to Spaced and to the most recent Gervais show After Life, British comedy has been replete with idiosyncratic and anti-heroic characters we root for. Indeed, it takes special writing and performances to get such shades of grey to work on stage and screen. Overall, Waller-Bridge takes familiar themes and situations and spins comedy and dramatic gold from them. Formally, she smashes the fourth wall with Brechtian direct address, welcoming us into her tumultuous reality, speaking to us and asking us to laugh and cry and love and hate and do what humans do: somehow just get through the day.
Experienced French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, makes what I call proper films. I mean, have you watched the cinema of yesteryear, notably the 1970s, with stories about characters that are deeply flawed and even possibly unlikeable. Well, Audiard still makes those kind of films. He takes risks representing human beings on the edge of society and perhaps struggling with life; people who often make left-field decisions to improve or escape their existential plight.
For my latest piece in the My Cinematic Romance series, I will look at some key Audiard films well worth watching. I will also incorporate a mini-review of his most recent release, tragi-comedy Western, The Sisters Brothers. If you haven’t seen much of Audiard’s work and are drawn to intense human character studies with absorbing narratives, then I highly recommend it.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
THE SISTERS BROTHERS (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW
Starring a quartet of fantastic scene-stealing actors in: Riz Ahmed, Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly, this Western bends the genres between drama, comedy and tragedy. Based on Patrick DeWitt’s critically acclaimed novel, the film is set in the 1850s during the Californian Gold Rush. It centres on the titular brethren, easier-going, Eli (Reilly), and drunken Charlie (Phoenix); hired bounty hunters who kill mainly for an enigmatic individual called the Commodore.
The film unfolds in what I would call a curious romp fashion; and it is certainly guaranteed to attain future cult status. Moreover, it also echoes the tone and eccentricity of recent Westerns like: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) and Slow West (2015). While Reilly and Phoenix’ characters form a humorous double-act in terms of verbal exchanges, their actions betray the fact they are cynical, hard-bitten and murderous. A product of their amoral milieu they remain the antithesis of the stylish and charming outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Their latest quarry and target for the Commodore is Ahmed’s idealistic chemist, Herbert Warm. Assisting them is Gyllenhaal’s likeable tracker, John Morris. The brothers’ haphazard pursuit of Warm is a fun and bloody journey replete with: chaotic shootouts, barnstorming brawls, hilarious bickering and right-turn narrative twists. Overall, it’s probably too idiosyncratic to impact the box office, yet, Audiard directs with his usual love for morally ambiguous characters. Lastly, the natural lighting and colour scheme is beautifully shot throughout; while Alexandre Desplat’s score resonates impeccably. Thus, these elements plus Phoenix and Reilly’s tremenodous on-screen sparring make this a very enjoyable picaresque Western tale.
Mark: 8.5 out of 11
OTHER RECOMMENDED AUDIARD FILMS
READ MY LIPS (2001)
This Audiard thriller centres on Emmanuelle Devos’ office worker, Carla, and has echoes of Hitchcock and Coppola’s paranoiac classic The Conversation (1974). Hiding her deafness from colleagues, Carla enters into a robbery plot with Vincent Cassel’s ex-con and a fascinating serpentine double-crossing narrative ensues.
A PROPHET (2009)
This is one of the best prison films I have ever seen. It is a perfect example of the emotional power of linear filmmaking. As we follow Tahar Rahim’s lowly prisoner rise through the prison ranks using: violence, luck, cunning and smarts, we feel every emotion and tension he does during an incredibly compelling journey.
RUST AND BONE (2012)
Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts fizz with passion, star quality and brute sexuality in this “opposites-attract” romance drama. Cotillard is a Marine Park employee who falls for Schoenaerts low level criminal but obviously the path of love is a jagged one. Full of beautiful imagery and brutal violence, it’s a memorable character drama full of bitterness, redemption and pain.
Dheepan starts as a humane story of survival and the immigrant experience, before crossing over into explosive thriller territory by the end. Further, Audiard casts his leads with unknown actors and wrings every ounce of feeling from the sympathetic characters. As the Sri Lankan Tamil, Dheepan, and his “wife”, struggle with life on a Paris council estate, what may seem small in scale is in fact emotionally very epic.
Produced by: Alexandre Mallet-Guy, Alvaro Longoria
Written by: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Ricardo Darin, Barbara Lennie etc.
Cinematography: Jose Luis Alcaine
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Asghar Farhadi is one of those filmmakers whose work is always of the highest quality. For some reason I actually missed seeing his prior film The Salesman (2016), so definitely need to catch up with that. However, The Past (2013) and A Separation (2011) were both compelling human dramas. A Separation, in fact, was one of the best films I have seen in the last decade. It took everyday scenarios involving as divorce and class conflict and spun a heartfelt, intense and intelligent narrative which was emotionally very powerful. While Farhadi was born in Iran and his early works are based there, his oeuvre transcends geography; projecting visions of humanity which stay with you way after the film has ended.
Farhadi’s eighth feature as a director is arguably his most accessible and while not reaching the dramatic heights of his previous films, remains a very solid personal drama. Everybody Knows concerns a large family unit converging for a wedding celebration in Spain. The setting is a small town set amidst beautiful countryside just outside Madrid. It’s the kind of place where everybody knows each others’ business and the community, while seemingly convivial on the outside, carries class, family and business conflicts under the surface.
The film begins with Laura driving her children, notably teenage Irene, back to the town where she was born. The wedding celebrations ensue until terror strikes and Irene is stolen in the night by unknown assailants. Forbidden from contacting the police by the kidnappers, Laura, her family and former childhood boyfriend, Paco (Javier Bardem), desperately seek to find Irene before tragedy occurs. It isn’t long before history converges on the drama and past events involving stolen land and romantic affairs threaten to destabilise the whole town.
With Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem cast as your leading protagonists, and the brilliant Ricardo Darin in support, you’re always guaranteed an enthralling screen experience. Nonetheless, what is so impressive in the performances and direction is they feel like real people with proper emotions, not simply starry versions of themselves emulating reality. Moreover, Farhadi concentrates on the human aspects of the story rather than the crime, as the characters, relationships and town itself begin to unravel. Further, while the film may lack his usual socio-political subtext, Farhadi really pulls you into the drama, as secrets and revelations are unearthed throughout. Overall, this is a consistently watchable piece of cinema that keeps up Farhadi’s impressive hit-rate, while perhaps feeling more familiar and generic compared to the other films of his I have seen.