Based on: Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham
Produced by: J. Miles Dale, Guillermo del Toro, Bradley Cooper
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, etc.
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Guillermo Del Toro could probably have had his pick of film stories to choose from after the monumental box office and critical success of the majestic alternative love story, The Shape of Water (2017). But rather than build on the message of love and hope in that creature feature he has chosen to adapt the noir novel, Nightmare Alleyby William Lindsay Gresham. In the process Del Toro has also remade the classic 1947 film of the same name, starring Tyrone Power.
Essentially a $60 million dollar B-movie, the film is one of the most opulently dark and beautifully designed films I have witnessed in some time. Light, shadow, wood, gold, blood, fire, sweat, skin, snow, and night all collide and collude in a stunningly presented palette from Del Toro and lead production designer, Tamara Deverell. This film is a moving painting with inspiration from geniuses such as Picasso, Dali, Matisse and Edward Hopper. While the look of the Nightmare Alley (2021) and cast are a constant wonder, I had a nagging thought while watching the film which made me question who the audience was for this film. Also, there were many story elements which did not gel for me.
Nightmare Alley (2021) opens with fire and death. Drifter Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) then finds himself drawn to the carnival arena. It is full of shadowy characters, oddballs and tricksters, portrayed with dirty glamour by the likes of Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, David Strathairn, plus the more innocent, Rooney Mara. Stanton fits right in and is soon making a name for himself as a mentalist, fooling audiences with carefully rehearsed cues and memory tricks. The first half of the film is its narrative strength. Only after Stanton’s story leaves the carnival his journey twists into something more sinister, but less satisfying.
I enjoyed Del Toro’s stunning visual magic employed in Nightmare Alley (2021). However, while Bradley Cooper has terrific star quality I did not care for his anti-heroic Stanton Carlisle. Cate Blanchett is also alluring as the latter second act enchanter, but ultimately the film lacks real depth. Themes relating to masculinity in crisis, war, psychoanalysis, crime, grief, the afterlife and what it means to be a freak or outsider are there, but only skimmed. I mean the plot has some decent twists, but I did not entirely commit to the downward trajectory of Carlisle’s tale. Overall, as a morality tale Nightmare Alley (2021) is not as frighteningly tragic as it could have been. Carlisle gets what he deserves, and I felt little pity or horror for his end. Unlike another classic noir from some years back, Angel Heart (1987).
Produced by: Iain Canning, Anne Carey, Emile Sherman
Written by: Chris Morris, Jesse Armstrong
Cast: Marchánt Davis, Anna Kendrick, Danielle Brooks, Kayvan Novak, Denis O’Hare, Jim Gaffigan etc.
Chris Morris is a bona fide genius. A natural prankster, a fearless satirist, writer, actor, producer, director and enfant terrible of radio, television and more recently cinema. He has been suspended by Greater London Radio and by the BBC and described by the Daily Mail as “the most loathed man on TV.” Which to me is a highly positive thing. Moreover, Morris is genuinely one of my cultural heroes and certainly one of the funniest artists to have graced the planet.
Morris’ latest cinema release is called The Day Shall Come (2019), and given I am such a fan of his work it did not make any sense why I have only just seen the film. Perhaps I had seen some negative reviews or maybe it was released at the same time as the London Film Festival in 2019? Thus, it meant I could not find time to watch it. Anyway, the story is somewhat of a mixed bag and definitely not as focussed or blisteringly funny as Morris’ prior directorial masterwork, Four Lions (2010). Centring on the idiotic efforts of the F.B.I’s terrorist taskforce to bring down targets that threaten United States security, operative Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick) and her boss, Andy Mudd (Denis O’Hare) pull focus on Marchánt Davis as Moses Al Shabaz, an impoverished preacher, running the hapless ‘Star of Six’ commune. Moses, who is possibly bi-polar, is a likeable fool with delusions of grandeur, however, the FBI decide he is a threat and try to fit him up in many farcical scenes of entrapment.
There are funny moments and some delightfully bizarre dialogue exchanges. Furthermore, Davis excels in his role as the eccentric Moses and the under-used Danielle Brooks brings much needed humanity to her role as his wife. However, the film is full of mostly unlikeable and unlikely characters, meaning Morris’ satirical bullets rarely hit their target. Kendrick is miscast and while there are a few laugh-out-loud moments throughout, I just felt like the script was continually trying to squeeze square blocks into round holes. I even watched it twice to see if maybe I had missed something first time round. Goes to show even for a creative magician such as Chris Morris, certain tricks don’t always come off.
Mark: 7.5 out of 11
SIX OF THE BEST #29 – CHRIS MORRIS THINGS YOU MUST WATCH!
NEWSREADER: The main stories so far: Jimmy Savile drops dead at the Stoke Mandeville Boxing Day bash—but the patients are far from mourning.
CORRESPONDENT: The majority, if not all of them, are extremely relieved that he’s now dead, although I suspect that some of them will be sorry that he didn’t suffer a great deal more.
— The Chris Morris Music Show, 16 December 1994
While The Day Shall Come (2019) does not reach the dizzy heights of Chris Morris’ best output, it is still a highly thought-provoking critique of American law enforcement practices. Arguably though it misses more marks than it hits. Here are six of the best things that Chris Morris has been involved in and I urge you to try and find them on a streaming platform or on DVD or online somewhere. If you love obsidian black and controversial comedy then Chris Morris is your man!
CHRIS MORRIS RADIO SHOWS!
Morris’ creative career really formed on radio. He worked at Radio Bristol, Greater London Radio and made the The Chris Morris Radio Show on BBC Radio 1. He gained notoriety and was suspended from the BBC for announcing Conservative politician Michael Heseltine was dead. In fact, fake obituaries were one of his early favourite pranks. Later, Morris joined forces with another comedy legend, Armando Iannucci, to help create the seminal spoof news show called, On the Hour. The rest they say is history.
THE DAY TODAY (1994)
The Day Today was a TV comedy show that parodied current affairs programmes. Broadcast in 1994 on BBC2, it was created by Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris and an adaptation of the radio programme On the Hour. The genius and surreal satire The Day Today found Morris winning the 1994 British Comedy Award for Best Newcomer. The rest of the cast includingSteve Coogan, Rebecca Front, Doon Mackichan, Patrick Marber and David Schneider were incredibly good too. I wonder what happened to them?!
BRASS EYE (1997)
Chris Morris took the ferocious journalistic character he created on The Day Today (1994) into Brass Eye (1997), with one of the most scurrilous and controversial works of television ever. Once again, Morris was lampooning current affairs shows and the often hysterical way the media sensationalise issues such as drugs, sex and crime. Morris fooled many celebrities and politicians during the filming of Brass Eye (1997), getting them to commit to absurd, but fake media campaigns. A 2001 special was planned but cancelled due to fear of further controversy and litigation against Channel 4.
Ever pushing the boundaries of radio and television genre form and style, Morris’ cult sketch show Jam (2000), is a truly dark and twisted experience. Unsettling and bleak it presented unconnected and surreal sketches, unfolding over an ambient soundtrack. Buried late at night on the Channel 4 schedule it was incredibly striking in style and content with a superb cast including: Amelia Bullimore, Julia Davis, Mark Heap and Kevin Eldon.
NATHAN BARLEY (2005)
This absurdist comedy found Morris working with another comedy genius in Charlie Brooker. Here they took inspiration from Brooker’s TVGoHome – a 2001 E4 TV show parodying television – as the focus of a fly-on-the-wall documentary called Cunt. With energetic fool and influencer Nathan Barley as the lead idiot, the sitcom delivered six delicious episodes which skewered hipster characters and pretentious Shoreditch-based culture. The cast included: Julian Barratt, Ben Whishaw, Richard Ayoade, Nicholas Burns, Claire Keelan etc. and Nathan Barley is a highly recommended comedy that seems as vital now as it did in 2005.
FOUR LIONS (2010)
Oh my word! How the hell this film did NOT get banned is something that still shocks me. It is one of the the funniest and controversial films ever about the darkest subjects, namely terrorism and radicalised Jihadis. How Morris and his co-writers, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, managed to successfully satirise, demonise and humanise Muslim fundamentalists is beyond belief. The wicked script and unbelievably good performances by Riz Ahmed, Nigel Lindsay and Kayvan Novak help make Four Lions (2010) one of the finest socio-political comedies of all time. It’s hilarious and actually moving at the end as I pitied, recoiled and felt for these poor misguided fools. Deservedly, Chris Morris won the award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer at the BAFTAS in 2011.
NETFLIX FILM REVIEW – I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (2020)
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman
Produced by: Anthony Bregman, Charlie Kaufman, Robert Salerno, Stephanie Azpiazu
Screenplay by: Charlie Kaufman (Based on: I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid)
Cast: Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette, David Thewlis
Music by: Jay Wadley
Cinematography: Łukasz Żal
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
I read some background information online about Charlie Kaufman’s latest film adaptation for Netflix, I’m Thinking of Ending Things(2020), and there is a leaning to describe it as a psychological horror. Of course, in order to market their films, studios write copy to entice an audience for their film. However, this adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel is far more than a psychological horror. It has elements from a whole plethora of genres including: surrealism, comedy, romance, thriller, arthouse, road movie, and even dance, animation and musical genres. Safe to say that once again Charlie Kaufman has delivered yet another ingenious cinematic smorgasbord that defies easy categorization. But is it any good?
The film opens gently with the lilting voice of Jessie Buckley’s voiceover. We hear her character deliver a set of poetic existential queries, and her mantra throughout the film: “I’m thinking of ending things. . .” over a set of seemingly unconnected images. She waits for her boyfriend of a couple of months, Jake (Jesse Plemons), as they plan to meet his parents, portrayed by David Thewlis and Toni Collette, for the first time at their farm. So far, so straightforward; kind of. However, as Jake and the young woman’s (whose name changes during the film) drive through picturesque and snowy landscapes, Kaufman intercuts to an elderly Janitor going about his cleaning duties at a high school. How these juxtaposed situations eventually marry together is open to many interpretations. While certainly obtuse and narratively impenetrable to many, I really connected with Kaufman’s surreal trip. Because I’m Thinking of Ending Things(2020) is certainly as much about the journey than the ultimate destination.
As he has demonstrated since his debut feature film screenplay, Being John Malkovich (1999), Kaufman has an urgent desire for original invention, sight gags, existential examination, exploration of mental health, relationship breakdowns, non-linear structure and intellectual discourse. The respective journeys of characters like Jake and the young woman are taken by road and in the mind. Whose mind the film is in and out of is also open to question. The car journey is treacherous both due to the weather and the anxious tension between the couple. This is brought about by the young woman desiring to end things. Is it her life or her relationship she wants to end? Or is it both? Things between the two aren’t made easier by the surreal visit to Jake’s parents’ farm. Thewlis and Collette inject much humour and pathos into their characters. Their performances, a succession of visual punchlines and the brilliant dialogue combine to really bring the film to life during the middle act.
After the couple leave the parents’ farm and head back home, events get even stranger as connections with the aforementioned Janitor intensify. An extremely anxious pitstop at an ice-cream parlour, an animated pig and a ballet dance sequence threatened to destabilize the narrative. But once I had suddenly interpreted my truth and understanding of Iain Reid’s and Kaufman’s vision, it all kind of almost made sense. Indeed, compared to Kaufman’s surreal meta-fictional masterpiece, Synecdoche, New York (2008), I’m Thinking of Ending Things(2020) is arguably more accessible, funnier and less bleak.
Having said that, given Kaufman’s predilection for characters on the edge of nervous, depressive and existential breakdowns, some may find this film’s journey tough to complete. But I loved the invention and constant ideas on show throughout. Kaufman’s takes risks structurally, visually and thematically and I congratulate him for challenging the audience. Lastly, I’m Thinking of Ending Things(2020) has a wondrously cinematic look, sound and dreamlike feel to it. Plus, in Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons, Kaufman has cast two exceptional acting talents, who are certainly worth going on the road with. However, bizarre and twisted that road may be.
Cast: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight, Lily Frazer, Turlough Convery, Rosie Sansom, Marcus Hutton
Music by: Adam Janota Bzowski
Cinematography: Ben Fordesman
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. . .” – Matthew 7:15
Also, beware of false praise from film reviewers! Because over the years I’ve often seen hyperbolic notices about films that after seeing them I wonder if I’ve been watching the same thing. Of course, any kind of review is subjective, and we cannot all like the same thing, but sometimes so-called critics rave about a cinema release for reasons I just don’t get. It could be that they genuinely like the film or are attempting to promote it on a personal or corporate level for some incestuous allegiance to the filmmaker or studio. They could even have been paid for the positive words. The latter is unlikely, but possible. Anyhow, everyone’s entitled to their opinion.
So, when I saw the glowing notices for Rose Glass’ psychological character study, Saint Maud (2019), I was initially sceptical. Thankfully after watching it at the Curzon cinema at the weekend, I concur with many of the raving critics. The film is a thoroughly absorbing and compelling exploration of religious mania, alienation, and mental breakdown. Moreover, Rose Glass, on her directorial feature debut deserves much praise for crafting a stunningly disturbing journey of one individual’s search for the Lord Almighty and rapturous redemption. Only to reveal, in Maud, a troubled outsider and lost soul, completely at odds with the people around her and society as a whole.
Morfydd Clark is absolutely spellbinding as the lead character. In fact, she inhabits both elements of protagonist and antagonist in this jagged narrative. Sadly, Maud becomes her own worst enemy as the film progresses. Her job as a nurse has connotations of angels and heroines, but eventually travels an alternative path. The film opens with flashes of a tragedy which has occurred at the hospital where Maud works. These events will haunt Maud like a psychological millstone; dragging her toward darkness while she seeks enlightenment. Rapidly quickening forward we then find Maud in private medical employment caring for former famed choreographer portrayed by Jennifer Ehle.
Ehle, as Amanda, gives an impressive rendition of a dying bitter woman; full of spite, bravado and fear as she nears the end of her life. Not that that stops Amanda from smoking, drinking and partying, much to the pious Maud’s displeasure. The two divergent personalities clash constantly as Maud takes it upon herself to be Amanda’s saviour. This ultimately becomes an obsessive crusade by Maud, no doubt in an attempt to find peace and redemption following the tragedy in her prior job. Such is the power of Maud and Amanda’s complex relationship of warring opposites, Saint Maud (2019) suffers minor dramatic inertia when Maud goes off the rails toward the end of the second act. Nonetheless, Glass is cleverly building Maud’s turmoil before bringing Ehle’s character back in the shocking and memorable final scenes.
Saint Maud (2019), overall, is an exceptionally well-crafted low budget work of British cinema. It is more than just a calling card for the extremely talented director, Rose Glass. Her grasp of the material is superb and the cinematography and shot composition support her dark vision brilliantly. The film may disappoint those who prefer conventional supernatural films, as it is more arthouse than classic horror. Moreover, it has much in common with searing character studies by Paul Schrader, such as Taxi Driver (1976), and the more recent, First Reformed (2017). Indeed, Maud’s voiceover permeates like a prayer to an empty sky bleeding into the powerful imagery to compelling effect. The true horror of Saint Maud (2019) is not in jump scares or one-dimensional monsters, but rather the slow descent into hell by a character who strives to be a saviour. Tragically though, Maud is a self-appointed Angel, whose mental fragility disintegrates under the weight of holy desire and biblical fervour.
Written by: Jantje Friese, Ronny Schalk, Marc O. Seng, Martin Behnke, Daphne Ferraro
Directed by: Baran bo Odar
Cast: Louis Hofmann, Karoline Eichhorn, Lisa Vicari, Maja Schöne, Stephan Kampwirth, Jördis Triebel, Andreas Pietschmann, Paul Lux, Moritz Jahn, Christian Hutcherson, Oliver Masucci, Peter Benedict, Gina Stiebitz, Deborah Kaufmann, Daan Lennard Liebrenz, Julika Jenkins, Carlotta von Falkenhayn, Tamar Pelzig, Dietrich Hollinderbäumer, Mark Waschke, Leopold Hornung, Christian Pätzold, Will Beinbrink, Hermann Beyer, Christian Steyer, Lisa Kreuzer, Anne Ratte-Polle, Walter Kreye, Lydia Maria Makrides, Tom Philipp, Nele Trebs, Tatja Seibt, Lea van Acken, Shani Atias, Max Schimmelpfennig, Ella Lee, Peter Schneider and many more.
Composer(s): Apparat, Ben Frost
Executive producer(s): Justyna Müsch, Jantje Friese, Quirin Berg, Max Wiedemann, Baran bo Odar,
Cinematography: Nikolaus Summerer
Original Network: Netflix
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
“Time is an illusion.” ― Albert Einstein
And so the end is nigh, and we reach the final season of uber-drama, DARK. If you have Netflix and you like to have your mind scrambled and heart moved, then I urge you to watch it. It is easily one of the best television dramas I have seen in a long time. It’s edgy, nightmarish, confusing, twisted and to be honest, virtually unreviewable. I say that because I don’t want to give away any spoilers but, trust me, if you like emotionally, structurally and artistically complex plots involving multiple characters, locations and timelines then this German thriller is for you. It had me confused in a good way and totally immersed in the plot and characters. You will be lost, searching for the light, yet you will be astounded too by the audacity of the writing, direction and looping insanity of the show.
Time, space and dimensional rifts are central to the drama. The cycles of life and death are also integral within the fabric of DARK. The action occurs in the German town of Winden as the narrative entwines the past, present and futures of four families: Kahnwald, Nielsen, Doppler, and Tiedemann. One could argue that the state of Saṃsāra is invoked as a key theme. Saṃsāra is a fundamental concept in all Indian religions. It is linked to the karma theory, and refers to the belief that all living beings cyclically go through births and rebirths. The term is related to phrases such as the cycle of successive existence, including the karmic cycle or the wheel of life. What occurs within the twenty-six episodes of DARK is a cyclical lunar convergence of 33 years, taking place initially in 1987 and 2020. Well, that’s just in season one. From season two onwards things temporally twist beyond into other years on the cycle.
During season two and much of season three I was often lost with the various characters criss-crossing each other on different timelines and at various ages of their lives. I finally found some semblance of understanding in DARK, after much frustration and almost giving up, by distilling the events to the human strands of childhood, adulthood and old age. Like a moving vision of Titian’s painting, The Three Ages of Man, all the major characters, notably Jonas Kahnwald, Claudia Tiedemann and Ulrich Nielsen, feature in these three stages of existence. Interestingly, the programme events show they have different agendas and perspectives, with older versions either teaching their younger selves or acting as their own nemesis. Proving that existentially speaking life is ultimately a constant battle with oneself.
Temporal paradox is central also to DARK. More specifically, it features the Bootstrap Paradox. This refers is a theoretical paradox of time travel that occurs when an object or piece of information sent back in time becomes trapped within an infinite cause-effect loop in which the item no longer has a discernible point of origin. Indeed, closed causal loops, such as the Predestination Paradox or Bootstrap Paradox, find time running in a repeating circle. When such circles over-lap in DARK, conflict is derived in the story because certain characters are trying to keep the loops going and others are trying to destroy them.
Which brings us to another major theme of the drama, the death of the self and death of the world. With the spectre of Chernobyl hanging over the town of Winden, the nuclear power station becomes a central harbinger of catastrophe throughout the various cycles. In the early years it is a beacon of prosperity, energy and employment. In later years it is the precipitous location for the apocalypse. Lastly, philosophically the textual richness in DARK is endless. While temporally speaking the looping timelines can be confusing, the final season, while leaving many questions unanswered provides a satisfying closure to this extremely human story. Amidst the science fact and fiction and philosophical explorations of life and death this is ultimately a television series about family and community. Because as soon as the cracks begin to show in the family unit we are destined to fall through the fissures of destiny. Only together can we conquer fate; but only if time allows.
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh, Martin Donovan, Clement Poesy, etc.
Music by: Ludwig Göransson
Cinematography: Hoyte van Hoytema
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
I am writing this review from the future while travelling backwards to the past to try and alter events which have yet to occur in the present. Confused yet? Jokes aside, Christopher Nolan’s latest temporally challenging and narratively inverted blockbuster, TENET (2020), is actually not as complicated as some would lead you to believe. However, that’s because I’ve been training my brain with such mind-boggling adventures in time, space and dimensions while watching the third season of the ingenious German sci-fi drama, DARK (2020), this week. Safe to say however, TENET is still rather complex and probably unnecessarily so. Yet, Christopher Nolan is a filmmaker who loves exploring challenging scientific concepts and marrying them to hugely involving plots and stylish spectacular action. All credit to him too for pushing himself and the audience!
TENET opens with a fast-paced set-piece located at a Ukrainian opera house. A SWAT team, that includes our unnamed hero, (John David Washington), is there to save a spy and obtain an unidentified object, which will of course become an integral part of the plot later or earlier on in the story. From then on, ‘The Protagonist’, as he later becomes known, becomes embroiled in stopping the megalomaniacal plans of Russian oligarch, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). In order to do so he attempts to infiltrate and stop Sator via his bullied wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Here the Protagonist builds a bond to Kat and this provides the emotional glue of the film. Although, I’ll be honest, I was too busy thinking about the machinations of Nolan’s head-twirling approach to temporal structure, than actually feel much for the characters.
What the film lacks in emotional depth it more than makes up with spectacular action. There are at least six incredible set-pieces that involve hand-to-hand combat, fast-paced vehicle pursuit, bungee-jumping and all-out combat between various government and mercenary factions. Nolan and his production team twist the action with a visually mirrored trick which, well I won’t say anymore. Moreover, the grandiose style and cinematography are eye-popping. Sharp suits, sharper knives and futuristic masks are adorned by the characters giving the spy thriller a hyperreal edge. Similarly, the stunts and editing are superbly orchestrated and executed. Having said that, the sound design and dialogue could have been better. Far be it from me to criticize, but in striving for verisimilitude in the sound, the constant wearing of masks meant important dialogue lacked clarity. Likewise, in the final amazing set-piece I was lost amidst the bodies and explosions as to who was who and why and what and how. Clearly a second and third watch of TENET (2020) is in order.
While the action was pretty much flawless throughout, the screenplay, unlike say Nolan’s prior high-concept masterpiece, INCEPTION (2010), did lack character depth for me. While I realise this was Nolan’s intention, hardly any time is given setting up the characters. So much so they become cyphers within the plot. Nonetheless, the charisma of the cast, notably John David Washington and the impressive Robert Pattinson, dominates the screen and the two bounce off each other magnetically. Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh also bring much to their roles, however their subplot involving domestic abuse felt out of place in such a post-modern spectacle. Moreover, Branagh’s oligarch was, in certain scenes, verging on parodic cliche. I wondered if the villain of the piece could have been a little less B-movie heavy at times and possibly more cultured. This is a minor gripe though. After all, he is the bad guy!
Ultimately, TENET (2020) is a big, brash and confident Bond-type film with bells on. Sure, the rules of the world could have been excavated and presented somewhat clearer. But, Nolan favours a breakneck pace and be damned if you cannot keep up. Indeed, I am certain he has covered all the plot-holes (or paradoxes) I thought I saw and numerous questions I had by the end. While it is not without flaws, on first watch, I once again have to congratulate Christopher Nolan for striving for original thinking and fascinating concepts within a genre film. One may even argue that there are too many ideas here and simplification could have created a more emotionally satisfying film. However, there are many moments of cinematic genius in TENET (2020), notably in the Sisyphean payoffs within the inverted plot structure. Finally, one won’t see a more shiny and beautiful looking film all year. The future is bright: the future is Christopher Nolan.
Written by: Sally Rooney, Alice Birch, Mark O’Rowe
Based on: Normal People by Sally Rooney
Executive producer(s): Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe, Emma Norton, Anna Ferguson, Sally Rooney, Lenny Abrahamson
Producer: Catherine Magee
Cast: Daisy Edgar-Jones, Paul Mescal, Sarah Greene, Aislin McGuckin, India Mullen, Fionn O’Shea, Eanna Hardwicke, Leah McNamara, Frank Blake, Niamh Lynch, Kwaku Fortune, Desmond Eastwood, etc.
Cinematography: Suzie Lavelle, Kate McCullough
Original Network: BBC Studios, Hulu
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
“The course of true love never did run smooth. . .” – William Shakespeare
Love is a multi-faceted concept open to a myriad of philosophical, medical, emotional and intellectual interpretations. Conversely, an eternal question in our society still remains: what is love? Is it the joining together of two people forever committed to a relationship built on respect and trust? Or is it the emotion you feel for a family member or person you have bonded with over time? Is it nature’s way of tricking us into the act of pro-creation? Perhaps it’s an abstract and emotional concept created by a higher power to ensure we act positively? For some it could be a dark force which enlivens obsession and stalking and violence or maybe it’s a marketing delusion forced upon us by greedy advertisers, florists and chocolate vendors? Is it all of the above?
Studies by Helen Fisher of Rutgers University propose that we fall in love in three stages involving a different set of chemicals. They are: lust, attraction and attachment. Indeed, the events occurring in our mind when we fall in love are akin to mental illness. Chemicals such as: testosterone, oestrogen, dopamine, serotonin all conflict and combine to change our emotions when we’re attracted to someone. Further studies show that when choosing a partner we are at the mercy of our subconscious and inner sexual desires as proffered in psychoanalytical studies.
Love, lust and sexual desire are a big part of everybody’s lives whether they are positive or negative; indeed, the continuance of the species is very much reliant on them. Moreover, love or the lack of love has provided the springboard for millions of stories, films, plays, songs, poems, slogans, TV shows, comedies and adverts! The latest excellent love story I watched was the BBC/Hulu production calledNormal People (2020). Over twelve episodes we were introduced and lured into the sweet and dark hearts of two Irish teenagers called Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones). They meet, fall in lust, have loads of sex, fall in love, generally fall out with each, fight further, go to University, go abroad, grow up, fall down and then fall back in love with each with other, and so on.
Based on Sally Rooney’s extremely successful novel of the same name, the story events begin at a Sligo Secondary school. Connell is quietly spoken and from a single parent upbringing. But he is very popular with his peers, close to the top of his class and exhibits much sporting prowess. Marianne’s family is wealthier than Connell’s. In fact, the latter’s mum, Lorraine (Sarah Greene) cleans house for Marianne’s mother. The Sheridan household is not a happy one though due to a tragedy which occurred to the father. This causes Marianne to be very angry, self-loathing and outspoken. Because of this she is somewhat of an outsider at home and school. For some unknown reason Marianne’s brother and mother are very cold toward her. Yet, despite the turmoil and class difference, Connell and Marianne share a mutual attraction, which soon becomes a sexual relationship.
As aforementioned, the path of love is not smooth as the first obstacle to the relationship comes from Connell’s paralysing fear of what his school friends think. He is a complex soul and does not have the bravery to share his true feelings to the world. Marianne becomes a secret, and this angers her, causing a major rift between the two young lovers. I won’t give any further plot details away, but it is safe to say that this is not your average romantic comedy or drama. The story beats of the romance genre are present, yet delivered in a sombre, delicate and under-the-surface style. This is not surprising given the first six episodes are subtly directed by Lenny Abrahamson, a filmmaker who has a number of wonderful character-driven films to his credit.
With confident direction, acting and a serene soundtrack, Normal People (2020) is a consistently absorbing and emotional rollercoaster. What I would say it though it often feels as if you’re watching events unfold in extreme slow motion. This isn’t a criticism though, because in the stillness of the performances, the dwelling of the camera on the character’s faces and length of shots, we’re allowed the time to breathe in the joy and pain of this complicated romance. The two lead actors Phil Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones are both incredibly well cast. They have exquisite chemistry together in both their passionate sex scenes and when they just simply exist and talk and look and love and hurt together. One may gripe that the drama could have been achieved with a tad more pace and just a few less episodes. However, if you are looking for a truthful representation of young love, with all its angst, kinks, self-loathing, insecurities and exasperating undulations, then Normal People (2020) is definitely a worthwhile experience.
SIX OF THE BEST #26 – ENNIO MORRICONE – (R.I.P – 1928-2020)
“If you scroll through all the movies I’ve worked on, you can understand how I was a specialist in westerns, love stories, political movies, action thrillers, horror movies, and so on. So, in other words, I’m no specialist, because I’ve done everything. I’m a specialist in music.”Ennio Morricone
As if 2020 couldn’t get any more dramatic, one of the greatest musical composers and dramatists ever known has passed away. Ennio Morricone, rather incredibly, wrote the scores for over four hundred films and television works. He also managed to write well over one hundred classical pieces. To say Ennio Morricone was a prolific genius is somewhat of an understatement.
Morricone won six BAFTAs, eleven Nastro d’Argento, three Grammy Awards, three Golden Globes, six BAFTAs, ten David di Donatello, two European Film Awards, the Golden Lion Honorary Award and the Polar Music Prize. In 2007, he received the Academy Honorary Award for his outstanding commitment to cinema. Moreover, he was also nominated for a further six Oscars. Lastly, Morricone had to wait until 2016 to receive his only competitive Academy Award for the haunting score to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2016). For Morricone to receive only one Oscar for musical composition is astounding and proves once again there is no justice in the world.
A meagre blog piece from a London-based hack will never be enough of a tribute to a composer who worked in every cinematic genre and with an incredible array of famous and infamous filmmakers. Notables include: Sergio Leone, Oliver Stone, Warren Beatty, John Carpenter, Quentin Tarantino, Sergio Corbucci, Dario Argento, Duccio Tessari, Sergio Sollima, Henri Verneuil, Bernardo Bertolucci, Mauro Bolognini, Giuliano Montaldo, Roland Joffé, Don Siegel, Mike Nichols, Brian De Palma, Barry Levinson and many more companies including advertisers, singers, recording artists and fashion designers. Morricone even found time to compose the 1978 World Cup theme song.
Thus, as a tribute to one of the greatest cinematic artists I have selected six of Morricone’s best film orchestrations. Although given his brilliance and spectacular output, one could certainly pick many more; even sixty of the best!! Riposa in pace, Ennio, il maestro!
NETFLIX REVIEW – TIGER KING: MURDER, MAYHEM AND MADNESS (2020)
Directed by: Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin
Executive Producers: Chris Smith, Fisher Stevens, Eric Goode, Rebecca Chaiklin
Cinematography: Damien Drake
Edited by: Doug Abel, Nicholas Biagetti, Dylan Hansen-Fliedner, Daniel Koehler, Geoffrey Richmond
Original Network: Netflix
“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Mark Twain
Personally, I love nothing more than to immerse myself in fictional worlds created by writers, showrunners and filmmakers, but sometimes it’s important to face the “truth” in storytelling. Thus, documentary filmmaking has always been a popular genre too. Having said that are documentaries actually reflecting the truth? Because the documentary genre over the years has become ultra-sophisticated and many “true” stories are not just simply filmed documents or events or interviews. Now, documentaries are often carefully constructed and mediated narratives with as much, if not more, drama and turns in their tales than fictional works. Conversely, some stories and characters are so incredible they are indeed stranger than fiction.
Netflix churns out a lot of quality and not-so high-quality content. There is an arguably scattergun approach with subscribers paying their money and taking their chances. They have of course had some big hits. The documentary Making a Murderer (2015), prestige Royalty drama, The Crown (2016 – ) and 1980’s sci-fi show Stranger Things (2016 – ) are three such shows that have become cultural phenomenon. The latest one is the docuseries Tiger King (2020); a true crime documentary centred around eccentric, to say the least, zookeeper, Joe Exotic (not his real name). Filmed in a “fly-on-the-wall” form it covers a six-year period from 2014 to 2020. The setting is a number of zoos and animal “sanctuaries” in Oklahoma, Florida and South Carolina respectively. These zoos contain some of the most dangerous animals in the world, namely humans. They also contain tigers, lions, leopards, panthers, chimpanzees, lemurs, snakes and all manner of other exotic animals. So, with larger than life people and animals on show, what could possibly go wrong?
This series presents the very worst examples of human madness, cruelty and behaviour. Firstly, I must say that there are some decent people in the show. Some of the zookeepers do display care for the animals and make it their living to protect them, however, the documentary illustrates powerfully the institutional cruelty of those individuals who breed and keep animals in cages for money. Even Carole Baskin, Joe’s bitter rival, who runs the Big Cat Rescue zoo in Tampa, Florida, and an advocate for saving these animals, did seem to make a lot of money out of it. I guess we’re all to blame in society though as we have all visited zoos and safari parks in our day. But this is not an advocate documentary for an organisation like PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals), although they certainly were able to use the footage as evidence for their cause. This, ultimately, is a tabloid expose of a world containing some of the most narcissistic and insane people you could encounter. It’s car-crash-freak-show-television and I feel ashamed to say I was gripped by this zoological soap opera from start to finish.
The leading lunatic is aforementioned Joe Exotic. He is a gay, mullet-haired, gun-toting, self-promoting, country-and-western “singing”, rage-addicted polygamist. Even the greatest Hollywood screenwriter could not invent such a character. Over seven startling episodes the series charts his rise and fall from successful zookeeper to failed politician to eventually, well, I won’t give away the ending. The other characters of the series are just as dodgy. While she does seem to be doing some good, Carole Baskin, was presented as some weird ‘Mother Earth’ type who may or may not have killed her husband. Joe Exotic’s hatred of her drives the narrative and his words and actions toward her are pure malevolence. Other big cat owners such as, Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, and Joe’s former business partner, Jeff Lowe, feature prominently throughout. Doc Antle seemed the sanest of the lot and had provided animals for big Hollywood productions, however, even his lifestyle, according to the documentary, seemed to involve grooming younger women and examples of animal cruelty.
Overall, this short review merely skims the surface of what goes on in this explosive TV show. There are big cat attacks, lawsuits, deaths, murder plots, suspected suicides, drug abuse, arson, constant threats, political campaigns, federal investigations and court indictments. It is both an intense viewing spectacle and also a tragic one. The animals kept in cages are so beautiful and majestic, it is sad that their lives are one of incarceration. The crazy thing is that they were bred in captivity for profit by the likes of Joe Exotic and then sadly discarded when of no use. Tiger King (2020) presents a truth that people do not deserve this Earth and I’m ashamed to be part of the human race. On the other hand, this string of crazy characters and events make absolutely sensational television. The biggest tragedy is the animals will continue to be prisoners, while attention-seeking people profit from such cruelty.
Developed by Richard Price – based on Stephen King’s novel
Writers: Dennis Lehane, Jessie Nickson-Lopez, Richard Price
Directors: Jason Bateman, Andrew Bernstein, Igor Martinovic, Karyn Kusama, Daina Reid, J.D. Dillard, Charlotte Brandstrom
Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Bill Camp, Cynthia Erivo, Jason Bateman, Jeremy Bobb, Julianne Nicholson, Mare Winningham, Paddy Considine, Marc Menchaca, Max Beesley, Derek Cecil, Yul Vazquez etc.
Original Network: HBO
No. of Episodes: 10
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
When I first saw this advertised, I thought finally, someone has adapted Albert Camus’ classic existential novel, The Outsider. When I saw it was from HBO, I was even more stoked. However, I then realised it was actually a story developed from a recent novel by uber-writer, Stephen King. Nonetheless, my enthusiasm was not curbed or curtailed. Because lord does King certainly know his way around a crime and horror tale. Moreover, with character actors such as Ben Mendelsohn, Bill Camp, Paddy Considine, Mare Winningham and Jason Bateman in the cast, plus star-in-the-making Cynthia Erivo also in the mix, I knew this had to be good. Thus, it proved.
It goes without saying that being a HBO production this is a high quality rendition of Stephen King’s novel. The director of the first two episodes, Jason Bateman, brings the dark finish, tone and experience garnered from his superlative work on Netflix’s brilliant series, Ozark. Bateman is also cast as the main murder suspect, Terry Maitland, and he so metronomically good in the role. In a gripping opening episode Maitland is arrested for the murder of a local boy, Frank Peterson. The investigation is lead by Cherokee City detective, Ralph Anderson; an emotionally hollowed cop superbly portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn. Maitland protests his innocence, and when his ebullient attorney — the ever-impressive Bill Camp — shows he has a cast iron alibi, the narrative takes a decidedly strange turn.
Firstly, as I have alluded to, this must be one of the best casts assembled in a television show since, well, the last HBO series produced. Further, grandmaster screenwriter, Richard Price — who also co-adapted the superb The Night Of (2016) for HBO — has spring boarded King’s original brilliantly. Price and his co-writers fully flesh out a series of fascinating characters and a community ripped apart by a black monster lurking in the shadows. Indeed, grief and heartache stain the eye of this drama as death hangs heavy over the humans of this closeknit town.
The Outsider (2020) is so confident, we are not even introduced to another of the major assets of the series in Cynthia Erivo’s investigator, Holly Gibney, until the third episode. While the ‘Outsider’ of the title could be referring to the killer, Gibney’s character is very much an idiosyncratic loner too. Whether she is on the spectrum, it is not revealed. However, irrespective of her lack of social skills, she has an incredible memory, powerful determination and prodigious logic. Erivo, as Gibney, gives a masterclass of a performance radiating empathy, heart and fierce intelligence throughout.
Finally, some may feel the HBO series moves too slowly in the middle episodes, following the thrilling opening ones. However, I was engrossed in the methodical unravelling of the exposition to the audience. As Gibney discovers the true horror of the mystery then so do we. Stephen King has always been a genius at creating eerie suspense and this story is no different. I was pleased that this vision avoided the more hysterical supernatural elements which have blighted lesser King adaptations. Yet, while it is subtle in delivery, the show isn’t without a number of explosive moments, especially during a bullet-fest of a shootout in the final episode. Overall though it’s the creeping dread I felt while watching The Outsider (2020), that I’ll remember most. It’s the stuff of nightmares you see; and at times I was seeing more than double.