While we all love a good proper feature film containing one continuous narrative, the anthology or portmanteau film has thrown up some fine cinematic entertainment over the years. Generally, an anthology film can be described as a collection of works with a linked theme, genre, style and author etc.
Thus, in my occasional Six of the Best series I have decided to pick some favourite ones. To make it more interesting I have chosen them from different genres. Otherwise, I would have just chosen all horror films. So, here are six of the film anthology films worth watching.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018) – WESTERN
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a mischievous alchemy of stories. Here, the Coen Brothers reach into their cinematic bag of tricks to deliver an entertaining and memorable collection of characters, songs, bloody death, jokes, pathos, landscapes, snappy dialogue, dark humour and action. Coen’s films often improve with each viewing as their work is so full of stylish depth and this is no different. Quite often, you’re laughing so much you miss the philosophical happenstance which is occurring in many of these fine stories.
DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) – HORROR
It seems sacrilege not to include the likes of George Romero’s Creepshow (1982) or one of Amicus’ unhinged collections such as Dr Terror’s House of Horror (1965). But, having watched this classic recently I can certainly say it has some brilliant and scary stories which stand the test of time. Full to the brim with the cream of British acting, writing and directing talent, the standout tale is Michael Redgrave’s troubled ventriloquist, although the whole film is a nightmarish treat for horror fans.
FANTASIA (1940) – ANIMATION
With the current trend for Disney to remake their back catalogue as “live” action films in mind, I very much doubt they will doing this with Fantasia. Conceived as a short to re-invigorate the slowing career of Mickey Mouse, the film is unlike any other Disney have made. It consists of experimental, non-narrative and hallucinogenic vignettes mainly set to wondrous classical music. A masterpiece of hand-drawn animation, style, colour and design, it’s certainly not just for kids. I recall many images giving me nightmares when saw it as a child and it remains a powerful cinematic work to this day.
NIGHT ON EARTH (1991) – COMEDY
I was going to choose Woody Allen’s erotic sketch film, Everything You Wanted to Ask About Sex but were Afraid to Ask (1972), for the comedy section. However, I decided to select a more deadpan and character oriented film. What better then, than a Jim Jarmusch curiosity. I love the concept of the film as Jarmusch sets several themes and parameters in place. There are five slice-of-life vignettes set on the same night in the cities of Helsinki, New York, Rome, Paris and Los Angeles, all starring some of Jarmusch’s favourite actors. Relationships and quirky interactions between cab driver and passenger are explored in the filmmakers’ inimitable style.
PULP FICTION (1994) – CRIME
Quentin Tarantino’s second feature film remains a fresh masterpiece of colliding gangsters, uber-cool hitmen, fixers, boxers, sexual deviants, femme fatales, drug addicts and general criminal types. With an over-lapping timeline that kind of does a figure of eight, we get stories ranging from a couple robbing a diner; a boxer double-crossing a crime boss; and an employee almost killing his boss’s wife. Tarantino breathes life into the crime genre and the stock pulp characters with one of the greatest screenplays ever written; full of incredible dialogue, startling twists and a brilliant ensemble cast.
WILD TALES (2014) – DRAMA
Damián Szifron conjures up a delectable and devilish set of stories mostly based around the themes of obsession and revenge. It opens with a breath-taking little prologue featuring a horrific incident on a plane and culminates in arguably the wildest tale when the Bride goes on the rampage at her wedding. Everyone’s favourite Argentinian actor Ricardo Darin pops up in the middle as an explosives expert who enacts revenge on City Parking fascists. I love the whole thing as the film delivers a full deck of twists that master of the macabre Roald Dahl would be proud of.
LONDON FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW – THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018)
Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Produced by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, Megan Ellison, Sue Naegle, Robert Graf
Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Starring: Tyne Daly, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Heck, Zoe Kazan, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Tom Waits and many more.
Music by: Carter Burwell
Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel
**SPOILER FREE REVIEW**
Soon to be appearing on the streaming behemoth Netflix, the Coen Brothers latest film is a difficult one to recommend to those not familiar with their quirky vision of humanity and existence. Set within the Western genre the film presents six stories seemingly unconnected but those which resonate resoundingly on the theme of death. The stories are called: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Near Algodones; Meal Ticket; All Gold Canyon; The Gal Who Got Rattled; and The Mortal Remains respectively.
The closest film this anthology resembles from recent times is the riotous black comedy Wild Tales (2014). Moreover, if you ever saw the Coens’ eccentric mid-life crisis comedy A Serious Man (2009), you may recall the prologue which depicted a short stand-alone piece about a ghostly dybbuk visiting a woman at night. Indeed, that story was seemingly unconnected to the film which followed, however, the Coens’ are such skilled storytellers you sense there is a link be it symbolically or thematically.
Overall, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a genuine mixed bag, in a good way. Their mischievous alchemy combines genres – within the Western setting – such as: musical, comedy, horror, crime, thriller and even romance. Moreover, the filmmakers have reached into their decades of film experience and cinematic bag of tricks to deliver an entertaining and memorable collection of: characters, songs, bloody deaths, jokes, landscapes, snappy dialogue, dark humour and spitfire action.
The cast are uniformly brilliant and as well as some familiar faces there are some newer actors added to the Coens’ stable of performers. Bill Heck, especially, in the story The Gal Who Got Rattled, impressed in his role as a likable cowboy. Overall, and in a similar vein to Hail Caesar (2016), this feels like Coens-lite, without the existential depth of say No Country for Old Men (2007) or humanity of Fargo (1996). However, the Coen’s films often improve with each viewing as their work is so full of stylish depth. Quite often, you’re laughing so much you miss the philosophical happenstance which is occurring between the lines.
SCREENWASH – SUMMER 2017 – TV DRAMA REVIEW ROUND-UP
I’ve been watching some excellent dramas over the last few months so here’s a few bitesize reviews with the usual marks out of eleven!
BROADCHURCH (2017) – SEASON 3 – ITV
Chris Chibnall’s compelling investigative-crime-coastal-set drama continues as Police Officers Hardy (David Tennant) and Miller (Olivia Coleman) get to grips with a horrific sexual attack. The chemistry between the two leads is, as usual, the glue that holds the show together as does the suspenseful narrative. It’s a very well-crafted human drama too with many well-rounded characters driving the story. The excellent supporting cast including: Jodie Whittaker, Andrew Buchan, Lenny Henry, Julie Hesmondhalgh etc. make this another very watchable drama. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
FARGO (2017) – SEASON 3 – MGM / FX
Noah Hawley continues to emulate the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre with pitch perfect expertise. This story of stoic cops, dumb criminals, ultra-violence and random acts of fate amidst the snowy landscapes of Minnesota is highly recommended. Ewan McGregor brilliantly plays TWO warring brothers whose feud escalates out of control while corporate crime also gets a poke as McGregor’s Emmet Stussy car-lot business gets swooped on by shysters. Slyly satirising the police procedural drama with off-centre plot twists and dark humour, David Thewlis’s scumbag businessman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead crafty femme fatale steal the show in ten brilliant-could’ve-watched-it-all-day-violent-but-hilarious episodes. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
GENIUS (2017) – SEASON 1 – NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
This beautifully shot and well-written educational drama is based on Walter Isaacson’s book Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007). It examines Einstein’s early life as a struggling clerk and events which saw him become one of the most famous scientists. Johnny Flynn portrays young Einstein with a fine energy while Geoffrey Rush excels as the mad-haired genius we have come to recognise. I’m definitely not a science buff, however there was much to be engrossed by in Einstein’s story, not least his dysfunctional family and marital issues. Both informative and enlightening in regard to science and history it’s fascinating throughout. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
THE HANDMAID’S TALE (2017) – SEASON 1 – HULU / C4
Based on Margaret Attwood’s novel, it is set in a dystopian (is there any other kind) near future where the United States has now become split following a societal breakdown and coup. Having moved to more religious-based dictatorial rule, women on the main are now barren and unable to have children; there are however a select few who can still get pregnant. Rather than herald these individuals they are herded up and given to the ruling elite as brood slaves. Elisabeth Moss is mesmerizing as the lead “Handmaid” Offred/June who must survive oppression following her husband and daughter’s apparent death. This hard-hitting drama is definitely one of the best I have seen during 2017. It moves slowly and is very bleak but, like Children of Men (2006), it contains suggestions of hope, light, rebellion and solidarity in a grim, patriarchal world which crushes life and colour. Impressively directed, acted and shot it had me transfixed and disturbed and I very much look forward to a 2nd season. (Mark: 9.5 out of 11)
HOMELAND (2014) – SEASON 4 – SHOWTIME / C4
Claire Danes deserves so much praise for her role as Carrie Mathison. She owns the screen with her single-handed determination to fight against both bi-polar and “enemies” of the USA. Set in Kabul this season eschews the more romantic intensity of the previous seasons for some thrilling spy twists. Rupert Friend excels too as the burnt out CIA Operative as the story moves more toward 24esque territory. It’s sad that the political landscape gives rise to shows such as this but it remains compelling if slightly generic viewing compared to the other seasons. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
IRON FIST (2017) – SEASON 1 – MARVEL / NETFLIX
Danny Rand (Finn Jones) – previously believed dead – comes back to claim his family business and takes on both corporate and mystical villains in this contemporary superhero drama. Jones is okay and David Wenham is excellent as one of the bad guys but I really struggled with this. I enjoyed Daredevil and Jessica Jones and thought Luke Cage, while a bit slow, had some excellent moments. Iron Fist, however, had a thin repetitive narrative and the fight scenes, characters and dialogue lacked the fizz of Marvel’s best TV work. (Mark: 6 out of 11)
THE NIGHT OF… (2016) – HBO/SKY
A shy young student Naz portrayed by Riz Ahmed makes several poor life decisions and finds himself in jail for the murder of a young woman. Ambulance-chasing-psoriasis-suffering lawyer John Stone (John Turturro) takes his case as all the evidence points to his guilt. Created by Richard Price and Steve Zaillian and starring Riz Ahmed, John Turturro, Michael Kenneth Williams and Bill Camp this exquisite noir-crime drama carries the confidence and style of the very best cinematic offerings. Moreover, the rich characterisation and performances raise it well above the usual police/lawyer procedural dramas on television. Award winning drama of the highest quality with a superlative cast. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
Most of us like to be scared and thrilled and made tense, especially if it is in the darkened recesses of the cinema. Because as the adrenaline and stress levels rise we know, at the back of our minds, we’re safe. Nothing can actually harm us because it’s happening on a screen. Yet witnessing characters in danger of harm or death can be an exhilarating and cathartic experience for many. Indeed, as the above quote from Freud suggests watching films of the horror or thriller genres is subconsciously akin to a near-death experience. Facing the reaper from a position of relative safety is part of the thrill of going to the movies.
The thriller genre is one of my favourite types of film and in this piece I would like to draw on elements of psychology, genre and culture theories to examine classic, postmodern and neo-thriller tropes. I also want to investigate some recent cinema offerings which defy certain genre conventions and have what could be described as a subtle less-is-more approach to building suspense and thrilling the audience. For this I will examine three scenes from the work of David Fincher, Denis Villeneuve and Joel and Ethan Coen where, while adhering to thriller genre conventions, they also softly kill us in an arguably more unconventional fashion.
But what draws us toward the darkness of the thriller and, psychologically speaking, why do we enjoy them so much? According to research conducted by Dr Deirdre Johnston in 1995, viewing motivations for watching the horror or thriller genres include: sensation seeking and overcoming fear, whether you’re identifying with the killer or the victim. Moreover, Peter G. Stromberg argues in his piece The Mysteries of Suspense that uncertainty and surprise are powerful tools in the thriller genre. As humans we are uncertain of our mortality and thrillers tap into that innate fear. Also that as social mammals we have the power to experience and feel the fear as characters on a cinema screen do. Lastly, Sheila Kohler opines that a fascination with violence draws us to the thriller genre. While most of us are scared of hurt and pain, by placing violence within the structure and order of a story we both enjoy the sensation of danger while controlling said violence.
These are just a few of the psychological reasons why we are drawn to the thriller genre. Formally and stylistically the thriller also offers a myriad of entertaining devices including: McGuffins (or red-herring), twists, cliff-hangers, flashbacks, flash-forwards, voice-overs etc. Moreover, it also features characteristics like: unreliable narrators, innocents-as-victims, mistaken identity, monstrous villains, revenge, kidnappings, and ticking-time bomb countdowns to name a few. According to James Patterson one of the thrillers enduring characteristic is openness to expansion into subgenres such as: spy, historical, police, medical, religious, tech, and military settings. Essentially, the structural flexibility of the threat of death is far-reaching and the ability to create suspense is very progressive within the thriller genre hence why it has proved popular to audiences and filmmakers alike.
One of the greatest proponents of the thriller was of course Alfred Hitchcock. Often cited as the “Master of Suspense”, Hitchcock is quoted as saying, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” He certainly made us suffer beautifully in all manner of classic films such as: The 39 Steps (1935), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960) and countless others. Aside from Hitchcock’s dazzling skill with form and style his narratives always contained powerful villains or external forces of authority which symbolised death. Thus, while coming close to death throughout Hitchcock’s protagonists more often than not survive while the villain or force perished. Thus, a Hitchcock thriller offers catharsis, which is a Greek term Aristotle used to describe the purging of negative emotions.
Without a shadow of a doubt Hitchcock had an incredible influence of filmmakers throughout film history. Indeed, the term Hitchockian thriller has entered the vocabulary of cinema. His films have influenced great filmmakers like: Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorcese, and arguably most of all thriller expert Brian DePalma. He, in my opinion is a postmodern filmmaker as he uses devices like homage and pastiche within his filmic style, echoing many of Hitchcock’s films in: Obsession (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980) and Body Double (1984). Within DePalma’s ouevre there are also impressive set-pieces lifted from other films such as the Battleship Potemkin (1925)/Odessa Steps homage in The Untouchables (1987). Likewise in the spy thriller Mission Impossible (1996), DePalma’s iconic Langley heist set-piece was done with no dialogue in a major nod to classic French crime thriller Rififi (1955).
What DePalma has in common with Hitchcock too is the use of humour in his films to provide catharsis or pay off suspenseful moments. I liken this to releasing a valve and letting the audience off the hook somewhat. This is seen none more so than in the wildly over-the-top film Body Double (1984), which is a pastiche of both Rear Window and Vertigo (1958). In a particularly suspenseful scene our protagonist is about to be skewered by a pneumatic drill and just on moment of impact the plug from the wall is pulled, thus releasing the threat of death and finding some sick humour in an especially tense moment. Of late, however, I have noticed a movement away from such humour or release-the-valve safety. Where both Hitchcock and DePalma employed the convention of catharsis and overcoming death, recent cinema releases have taken a slightly different approach.
While Hitchcock and DePalma often favoured the highly stylized approach to building suspense it’s interesting to compare their work to some recent films which I feel take a more subtle, yet just as effective, approach. The Coen Brothers adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2007) is such a film. The story is a dark crime narrative involving a tense pursuit across country involving heinous hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The filmmakers establish Chigurh as a force of nature and create suspense through uncertainty, as he kills both law enforcement officers and the people who hired him.
The most tension-inducing scene is Chigurh favouring a coin toss to decide if someone lives or dies. He uses this method both in a scene with a store clerk and at the end with Kelly McDonald’s character Carla Jean. While, the innocents-as-victim is an often used convention in thrillers, the nature of fate or luck within the scene creates unbearable suspense as Chigurh’s crimes become not motivated by a sense of professionalism, but rather scarily, the flick of a coin. There’s some relief when luck seems to shine on the store clerk but no such fortune for the unfortunate Carla Jean. Even then there is ambiguity as we, like her husband, do not see her die; however it is implicit within the editing and performance that sadly she does.
Arguably, the finest thriller director around at the moment is David Fincher and his film Zodiac (2007) was a detailed analysis of the characters involved in the hunt for the eponymous serial killer. It’s a film full of brutal murders and obsessive characters, notably Jake Gyllenhaal’s cartoonist turned investigator, Robert Graysmith. His character becomes obsessive about discovering who the Zodiac killer is and even loses his family and job in the process. Toward the end of the film, Graysmith interviews Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer), a film projectionist, and the suspense is created literally out of nothing. The total absence of a known nemesis creates an unlikely amount of tension, especially allied with the way Fincher shoots in shadows and frames his characters. Graysmith is not seemingly in any danger but his paranoia, claustrophobia and growing sense of unease petrifies him until he is forced to flee. In fact, the thriller genre convention of revealing the murderer is, like in the real-life case of the Zodiac, rejected; thus catharsis is denied to the audience throughout this nail-biting paranoiac thriller classic.
Similarly, in the recent crime thriller Sicario (2015), aside from a the conventional exploding bomb opening, the director Denis Villeneuve uses more subtle techniques to get under the skin of the audience. Often thrillers will have a brutal showdown between our hero and the villain resulting in the nemeses’ death, but at the end of Sicario it is a far more quiet and unnerving scene. Here Emily Blunt’s moralistic Kate Macer realises she has been used to collude the black-ops Cartel murders by CIA-sanctioned assassin Alejandro Gillick (Benecio Del Toro). While Gillick has a gun to Macer’s head the threat is palpable but what makes the filmmaking so striking is it has the confidence to eschew the standard car chase or big fight finale for something so tense and disquieting. The tragedy of humanity here is the realisation for Macer that she will not make a difference in the CIA and the law cannot protect her. Gillick represents as he puts it, “the land of wolves”; thus once again, similar to No Country For Old Men, we as the audience, are given no escape or purging from death as Gillick walks away to continue his morally ambiguous endeavours.
What all these scenes and films provide are a denial of releasing the valve and consequently allaying our fear of death. Moreover, in contravention of the classical thriller model the villains and monsters in these scenes actually get away so while the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian DePalma allow catharsis by generally defeating the bad guy, neo-Hollywood filmmakers like those mentioned above, kill us softly with a creeping nihilism and feeling of dread which remains even after you’ve exited the cinema.
In the third episode of this occasional strand I have decided to have a look at some good old cinema nut-jobs. This was precipitated by a recent watch of David Lynch’s classic Blue Velvet (1986) which features an incredible performance from Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth. He is, of course included here, along with five other movie loons.
FRANK BOOTH – BLUE VELVET (1986) – DENNIS HOPPER
“Why are there people like Frank?” asks Kyle Maclachlan’s Jeffery Beaumont midway through David Lynch’s dark journey into the underbelly of small town America. Why indeed? We do not know why Frank is the way he is: he just is! The drugs, shouting, swearing, sado-masochistic and psycho-sexual violence stem from the dark recesses of Lynch’s imagination; while Hopper’s tour-de-force performance is chilling, scary and at times, inappropriately laugh-out-loud funny.
ANTON CHIGURH – NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007) – JAVIER BARDEM
You’d have to be a person of the highest confidence or crazy insane to sport the haircut Chigurh/Bardem does in this wonderful Coen Brothers’ adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy’s neo-Western novel. Chigurh is not just a stone-cold killer but also one with a strange amoral compass and set of rules. Also, his reliance on chance and the flip of a coin as to whether someone lives or dies is even more scarier than the deadly bolt-gun he uses to dispatch his victims.
JACK TORRANCE – THE SHINING (1980) – JACK NICHOLSON
The slow demise of the isolated writer driven to kill by the demons of the past are brilliantly captured in Stanley Kubrick’s stylish and memorable Stephen King adaptation. Nicholson cornered the market on explosive larger-than-life masculine roles but here he was far more unhinged. His performance as Jack Torrance is both scary and funny, as writer’s block, the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel plus his own depression weld to send him over the edge and into lunacy and murder.
ASAMI YAMAZAKI – AUDITION – (1999) – EIHI SHIINA
To describe Asami as a nutter is a bit harsh on nutters really. Because, cutting your victims limbs, digits and tongues off, before placing them in a hessian sack is pretty extreme. A calm psychopath, Asami literally chills to the bone; however, her victims are carefully chosen men who she enacts tortuous revenge on for historical sexual abuse. This is a scary horror film that is both stomach-churning and thematically strong, delivering a damning indictment on the casting couch culture.
MAX CADY – CAPE FEAR (1991) – ROBERT DE NIRO
Robert Mitchum’s performance in the original Cape Fear (1962) deserves a mention, as does his powerhouse and menacing turn as Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter (1955); who almost made the list too. Nonetheless, DeNiro’s Cady is a marvellous cinematic creation rooted in pure bible-belt-Southern-preacher-avenging-devil-hatred. All muscles, tattoos and a sense of violent vengeance he pursues Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) and his family with an insane zeal; terrorizing them with unforgettable physical, sexual and murderous threat.
ANNIE WILKES – MISERY (1990) – KATHY BATES
Here is another Stephen King loon for your consideration. Kathy Bates deservedly won an Oscar for her barnstorming performance as Annie Wilkes. She is a charismatic lunatic who takes the ‘I’m your number one fan’ maxim to the extreme; with a mania stemming from a skewed understanding of the world which is not helped by her seeming isolation. When James Caan’s author kills off her favourite literary character hell hath no fury like a mad-woman scorned! Carlsberg don’t do torture: but if they did!
To continue the My Cinematic Romance series of filmmakers, genres, actors who I absolutely love, I give you my praise to composer Carter Burwell. His soundtracks are usually SO good I can watch a film that I don’t even like if it has Burwell’s music. He has a knack of not only capturing the emotion of the characters and story but also being intelligent; using the genre and style of the film to infuse the soundtrack.
Burwell has provided the score to many films including: Conspiracy Theory (1997), Hamlet (2000), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), The Blind Side (2009), Rob Roy (1995), The Chamber (1996), Being John Malkovich (1999) Gods and Monsters (1998), This Boy’s Life (1993), Wayne’s World 2 (1993), Airheads (1994), Before Night Falls (2000), A Knight’s Tale (2001), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), The Alamo (2004), Legend (2015), The Kids Are Alright (2010), Mr Holmes (2015), Hail Caesar (2016), No Country For Old Men (2007) etc.
I don’t know much about music, other than playing the guitar to a very average level; however, I know what I like. And I love Carter Burwell. Moreover, having worked consistently in all kinds of genres from big Hollywood productions to auteurs’ and arty films, Burwell is held in the highest regard within the industry. Esteemed filmmakers like: Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufmann, Todd Haynes, David O. Russell and the Coen Brothers have all employed his fine musical abilities. Thus, here are seven breathtaking compositions which really stand out. Indeed, his work with the Coen Brothers is legendary so I have limited those choices to just two films; just to make the piece more of a challenge.
CAROL (2015) – TODD HAYNES
Burwell finally won a well-deserved Oscar for this beautifully constructed score. It captures perfectly the emotion and period and the light and dark of this “forbidden” fifties romance story.
FARGO (1996) – THE COENS
As the music rises to crescendo the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. The mood and atmosphere are literally chilling. When I see this I think of snow, cold, blood and murder.
THE GENERAL’S DAUGHTER (1999)
While this army-police procedural drama is not a classic the music is haunting and beautiful adding a fragile counterpoint to the violent nature of the content.
IN BRUGES (2006)
Burwell does death exceedingly well. This score is less orchestral with a pared down piano and cello to the fore, prior to launching into an alt-rock guitar sound. The notes skip and rip about giving us a dark insight and backing to the off-centre characters and setting.
MILLERS CROSSING (1990)
This lyrical Irish-tinged score is another beautiful score. While the Coens’ superb gangster drama had its fair share of blood, the music pushes against the grain somewhat providing light and uplift amidst the plotting, double-crosses and chaos.
THE FINEST HOURS (2016)
This Disney disaster movie set in the 1950s is a very watchable human drama sensitively directed by Craig Gillespie. It flopped at the box office, yet as soon as I heard the score I knew it was Burwell. This is epic music of the highest order for a film which deserved a bigger audience.
I haven’t seen any of these films although I know the Twilight saga is a cultural phenomenon. Yet, I found this piece called Bella’s Lullaby on YouTube and it is just exquisite; it even makes me want to watch the films!
I love watching TV shows and films. Mainly to fill a void in my soul, or put it another way, stop me drinking myself to death. Oh, also because I just enjoy escaping reality by watching stuff on a screen.
I have split my September Screenwash reviews into television and movies, because I watched so much damned stuff last month. Here are the TV shows I watched with marks out of eleven.
**THERE MAY BE SPOILERS AHEAD**
ASH V. THE EVIL DEAD (2015) – SEASON 1 – STARZ/VIRGIN
This 30-years-later-sequel to the original Sam Raimi Evil Dead trilogy featuring Bruce Campbell is a gory, cheesy and bloody delight. It brings back one of the most iconic-blue-shirted-wise-cracking-big-chinned-chain-sawing-action-horror-dudes ever in Ash Williams.
Having accidentally conjured up the Deadites from the Necronomicon – Book of the Dead, Ash heads cross country battling demons and ghouls with his trusty chainsaw and boomstick. He finds new friends and enemies along the way and Campbell is on wonderful form as the sexist, ageing demon-killer.
Plot wise the story is flimsy and generic, yet the bloody and bone-crunching gore is brilliant and Bruce Campbell is hilarious as usual. Ignore the evil and abominable reimagining from 2013 and get on board this silly and superb horror nostalgia trip with Ash Williams and co. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
BLACK MIRROR – WHITE CHRISTMAS (2014) – NETFLIX
Charlie Brooker is pretty much a genius in my eyes and as well as being a bastard-funny TV critic, he is also a formidable storyteller. The Black Mirror stories echo the short-sharp-shocking plots of Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone and Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected; yet with a very contemporary and technological twist. Season 3 Black Mirror is imminent on Netflix yet this Chrimbo special provided some darkly imaginative tales for the season.
Brooker presents a triptych of stories including: a Dating Coach (John Hamm) guiding – via contact-lens-style-Go-Pro – a naïve lad on a sexual conquest; a spoilt and demanding rich bitch (Oona Chaplin) who buys the ability to digitally clone herself so she can be her own personal ‘slave’; and a story of a doomed relationship between Rafe Spall and Janet Montgomery where an app allows a human to physically BLOCK them in reality. Safe to say all the narratives criss-cross to fiendish effect as cyber-technology is presented as initially a positive thing but ultimately something horrific which undermines humanity and hinders emotions and physical contact. Brooker is of the view that the future isn’t orange but very black indeed. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
FARGO (2015) – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX
Was Season 2 Fargo any good? It sure was – darn tooting! For me this was almost perfect television viewing. It had a great story, memorable characters, and brilliant dialogue and is filtered, like the first season, through the twisted eccentricities, imagery, sounds, music and narrative style of the Coen brothers. Having said that, the writer and showrunner Noah Hawley has taken the Coen’s football and sprinted away with it and almost transcended the primary source material.
Season 2’s plots – and there’s some serpentine shit going down – are set in Fargo and surrounding counties, mid 1979. We focus on country gangsters the Gerhardts and the attempted takeover by some Kansas City “business” people who think they can run the hicks out of town. In amongst the bloody hits, kidnapping and badassery we have Patrick Wilson and Ted Danson as the good cops who, having seen the horrors of war overseas, just want an easy life. Thrown into the mix by the dark lords of fate are self-improver Kirsten Dunst (amazing) and simple butcher Jess Plemons who get out of their depth very quickly.
Overall, the drama, humour and suspense are incredible as is the cast, notably: eloquent hitman Bokeem Woodbine and brutal rural gangsters Jean Smart and Jeffrey Donovan. Philosophically and thematically the writing is very strong too with an existential bent which makes the whole show gold-plated genre TV of the highest quality. (Mark: 10 out of 11)
THE KILLING (2007) – SEASON 1 – NETFLIX
I recall when this first hit the TV screens the Guardianistas shitting bricks over how good this Danish cop-procedural-politico drama was. The moody atmosphere, murky lighting and winter jumpers were all the rage with the lentil-eaters; as were the performances of Sofie Grabol, Soren Malling and the formidable Lars Mikkelsen. In the cold light of day and almost ten years later there is still much to like about this Scandi-genre-cop-thriller. Over twenty gruelling episodes we find ourselves amidst the investigation of the vicious murder of a young woman called Nanna Larsen. Simultaneously a mayoral election is taking place in Copenhagen and the two events become fatefully entwined.
Ultimately, it is pretty generic stuff with the device of “red herring” suspects and characters revealing information later than they could of being over-used. Also, it could’ve have been wrapped up WAY before the twenty episode run, yet, it was gripping throughout with some terrific suspense. I especially liked Grabol’s intuitive cop who could see past the surface and into the psychology of a situation or person. Her obsessional cop was flawed but brilliant at her job even though her family life was threatening to implode. Also, exceptional is Lars Mikkelsen as mayor candidate Troels Hartmann, a man trying to do the right thing, yet with ghosts of the past haunting him. The best scenes were with the Larsen family whose lives were about-faced by the death of their daughter. Their grief brought a real depth to proceedings with many heart-breaking and emotive moments surrounding their ordeal. Perhaps over-hyped on first release, this remains a tremendous cop drama with loads of twists to keep you hooked. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (2014) – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX
What started, in Season 1, as an ensemble prison drama with the focus mainly on spoilt-brattish-over-grown-Prom-Queen, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), has developed quite brilliantly, by Season 2, into a sexy-black-comedy-drama of the highest quality. Piper is of course still there driving me mad with her bouts of narcissistic wants but this time she’s toughened up and is now bouncing off the inmates, walls and screws with a bit more spunk and verve. However, the power of this narrative is now driven by the ensemble characters – both inmates and guards – who all get a chance to shine in a collection of stories, flashbacks and vignettes which the writers weld together expertly over thirteen brilliant episodes.
Season 2 develops further the histories of, among others, love-struck Morello, cancer-sufferer Rosa, Taystee, Black Cindy, Poussey and Sister Ingalls; as well revealing more about crooked Assistant Warden Figeroa, prison Counsellor Sam Healy and ambitious head screw Joe Caputo. Also, entering the prison was a cracking antagonist Vee Parker brilliant portrayed by Lorraine Toussaint and her battle to control rackets in jail saw her on a collision course with ‘Red’ Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew). Overall, there was SO much going on in the show yet it didn’t feel cluttered. The characters were drawn so well, relying on archetypes and human definition rather than soapy stereotypes. I was just going to give it one more season but the drama, dialogue, performance, humour and pathos delivered here made me want to go in for Season 3 and beyond. (Mark: 9.5 out of 11)