Screenplay by: Katie Silberman – Story by Carey Van Dyke, Shane Van Dyke and Katie Silberman
Produced by: Olivia Wilde, Katie Silberman, Miri Yoon, Roy Lee
MainCast: Florence Pugh, Harry Styles, Olivia Wilde, Gemma Chan, KiKi Layne, Nick Kroll, Chris Pine etc.
Cinematography Matthew Libatique
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Part arthouse character study, part science fiction social satire and eventually a rushed concertinaed thriller, the Olivia Wilde directed, Don’t Worry Darling (2022) is a visual feast, anchored by Florence Pugh’s devastatingly brilliant performance. However, the ambition of the themes remains hamstrung by pacing and structure which fails to serve the story to its full potential.
Set within a utopian 1950’s sun blanched town called Victory, Wilde and her writers throw us straight into the hedonistic lives of a set of youthful and dynamic couples, drinking, partying and sexing. They work and play hard. Well, the husbands work as the dutiful women stay at home cleaning and churning out kids. So far-so-Stepford Wives! At the heart of Don’t Worry Darling (2022) is Pugh as the loyal but inquisitive, Alice. Her husband, Jack (Harry Styles) is ambitious, seeking the approval of big boss, the hubristic Frank (Chris Pine). When Alice begins to experience Kafkaesque dreams of feeling trapped by her daily life, she slowly realises all is not quite perfect in paradise.
No one does anguish and anxiety on screen like Florence Pugh. As Alice falls deeper down the rabbit hole of despair, Pugh produces true cinematic power once again. Olivia Wilde also brings a compelling image system to fully visualise Alice’s hellish descent. In comparison, the male characters are far less developed and the exchanges between Pugh and Styles, especially in the final act, are really lacking in dramatic punch. Styles himself I felt was miscast, but he does have an engaging screen presence. It’s just I didn’t feel enough threat from him.
Structurally, Don’t Worry Darling (2022) is also flawed. The major reveal comes way too late to assuage the pacing issues. While the narrative contains some striking visual set-pieces there are too many parties, barbecues and social events getting in the way of the potential thrills that could have occurred if Alice had discovered her plight much earlier. Overall, there is too much set-up and not enough punch. The longer you wait to reveal the twist, the bigger the revelation needs to be. The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone have done this style of story with more emotional impact and better economy. Pugh and Wilde though prove once again they are major talents and thematically speaking it’s good that men get another kick in. Men are fast becoming the go-to villains of this century and long may it continue.
Written by: Wim Wenders, Peter Handke, Richard Reitinger
Produced by: Wim Wenders, Anatole Dauman
Cast: Bruno Ganz, Solveig Dommartin, Otto Sander, Curt Bois, Peter Falk, Nick Cave, etc.
Cinematography: Henri Alekan
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
I hadn’t seen Wim Wenders cinematic masterpiece,Wings of Desire (1987), for many years. Probably thirty-three years. I’m glad I waited so long because I think I am mature enough now to appreciate the poetry of the filmmaking style and the soulful gravity of the characters and themes on display.
I am of the belief that cinema is a collaborative craft in general. Yet, on fleeting occasions a film will be released that transcends the craft of the medium and become art. Wings of Desire (1987) is such a film. Moreover, while I am not a religious person watching Wings of Desire (1987) is as close to experiencing a spiritual filmic happening as I could have. It truly is a thing of transcendent beauty concerned as it is with the afterlife, the soul, humanity, angels, life, love, death and rebirth.
Angels walk amongst the living in a Berlin separated by the wall. Voices reveal their inner most thoughts as said Angels listen, watch, witness and gather human experience, thoughts and emotions. The Angels led by Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) inhabit Berlin aiming to assemble, preserve and testify reality. In a stunningly beautiful opening sequence the gliding camerawork, chiming harps, poetic voiceovers and sublime photography introduces both a majestic world and compelling characterisations. The monochrome film sets a moody glow illuminating and beautifying the urban locales. If you didn’t know, the black & white sequences were shot through a filter made from a stocking that belonged to cinematographer Henri Alekan’s grandmother.
Wim Wenders directs Wings of Desire (1987) with an assured confidence throughout. Every stylistic and formal choice is driven by the characters’ hearts and an imaginative vision of both reality and the afterlife. It is incredible that Wenders and his production team did not have a traditional script when filming began. Thus, the poetic feel of the film derives from a series of experimental concepts and improvisatory creative choices. Having said that, there is a strong narrative spine amidst the seemingly loose narrative and episodic bones. The anchor amidst these hypnotic vignettes is Damiel’s journey of falling in love, ceasing to be immortal and becoming human.
As Damiel experiences the pain of existing outside human life, Bruno Ganz’s performance is heartbreakingly moving. Damiel also finds love too for Solveig Dammartin’s circus artist. His romantic longing and empathy for her and humanity overall is unforgettable. I mean this celestial and immortal being desires the opportunity to feel, taste and love. There is also humour amidst the pathos too, with a supporting story that follows the actor, Peter Falk, working on a film in Berlin. His brilliant scenes provide a quirky counterpoint to Damiel’s celestial crisis and fledgling romance. Indeed, Peter Falk called his role in Wings of Desire (1987) “the craziest thing I was ever offered”. When Wenders told him his part had not been developed yet, Falk responded, “I’ve worked that way with John Cassavetes. I prefer working without a script.”
Wings of Desire (1987) is deservedly acclaimed as one of the best films ever made. I couldn’t agree more, such is its cinematic power and beauty. It combines both visual, aural and literary styles almost to perfection. Thematically it is just as impressive. While it is a universal story about life, death, love and sacrifice, the fact it is set in Berlin adds an incredible gravitas. The politics and separation caused by the Cold War course through the veins of the film like ice. Nevertheless, Wim Wenders and his creative team wholly reject the gloom of oppression, choosing hope, life and love over said deathly wall.*
Mark: 10 out of 11
(*Note: Interestingly, filming the actual Berlin Wall was prohibited, so a replica of the wall twice had to be built close to the original. The first fake wall warped in the rain because the contractor cheated the producers and built it from wood.)
Based on: The Legend of Amleth by Saxo Grammaticus
Produced by: Mark Huffam, Lars Knudsen, Robert Eggers, Alexander Skarsgård, Arnon Milchan
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, Willem Dafoe, etc.
Cinematography Jarin Blaschke
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Robert Eggers is a formidable cinematic talent. His dark visions of folklore and historical fable are steeped in impressive research and a striking attention to detail within his work. Artistically and thematically speaking, Eggers is a major talent, however, one could argue his narratives deny clarity preferring hazy ambiguity. His debut film The Witch (2015) is an arthouse classic, but I just did not connect with the characters, despite the filthy realistic strangeness. His follow-up, TheLighthouse (2019), is a claustrophobic, black-hearted and dirty descent into a watery hell. Both are bravura low-budget films which created two distinct periods. In both films you can almost feel the plague and scurvy in your mouth, presented as they are with such earthy authenticity.
Thus, unsurprisingly, Robert Eggers latest film is NOT a romantic comedy. The Northman (2022) is another obsessively researched and realised historical drama. But because of the reported $70 million budget, his vision of Vikings and blood and revenge and muscle and familial treason and murder screams epic, more epic and even more EPIC! Eggers script and story is inspired by the historical myth, The Legend of Amleth, a narrative which in turn is said to have influenced none other than the quite well known play, Hamlet. Here Eggers has a solid structure for the thunderous battles and mystical manifestations on show. Our hero, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), finds his father, the King (Ethan Hawke) murdered by his uncle (Claes Bang), while he is a boy. Fleeing his village he grows into a scary, ripped and roaring Viking warrior who has never even seen a carbohydrate. A hunger for bread and a desire for revenge on his uncle propels the story powerfully. Intense Amleth must locate his kidnapped mother (Nicole Kidman) and smash the man who did his family wrong.
Eggers is a brilliant film director. In Alexander Skarsgård he also has a battering ram of a physical specimen leading the charge from deathly pillage to bloody battle to fiery hand-to-combat with impressive purpose and power. Amidst the vengeance-fuelled fight sequences and Amleth’s confrontations with the seers and magicians of the land, his journey also encompasses love and marriage to Olga of the Birch Forest, a Slavic sorceress (Anya Taylor-Joy). While Skarsgård’s character is more muscle than charisma, Taylor-Joy breathes ethereal and sensual life into the middle act. Their collaboration battling against enforced slavery gives us something to root for above the familiar revenge plot. Having said that, Amleth is not the easiest of characters to warm to. Despite Eggers genius and Skarsgård’s brutalism I wondered if I really cared about his quest.
I would argue that this story was done far more successfully from an emotional perspective by Ridley Scott’s awesome Roman epic, Gladiator (2000). Russell Crowe was just phenomenal as Maximus and his performance was one of magnetic emotion and charismatic depth. That film had amazing action married to integral character development. However, there is a violent momentum to The Northman (2022), with Amleth’s quest charging like a juggernaut toward the jugular of his foes. Eggers’ image and colour system of Viking costumes, iconography, weaponry, plus human, godly and ungodly beings provide the depth when the characterisation feels thin. And wow, does he know how to stage a battle. Bones crunch, teeth crack, blood bursts and weapons sever, scorch and devastate. As the fire burns in Amleth’s heart and across the landscape, The Northman (2022) rages from the cinema screen with dominant visual ascendancy.
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).
Cast: Agathe Rousselle, Vincent Lindon, Garance Marillier, Laïs Salameh, etc.
Cinematography: Ruben Impens
*** THE WHOLE FILM IS A SPOILER ***
The difficult second album syndrome applies with Julie Decournau’s incredibly horrific, illogical and over-rated, Titane (2021). How the film won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Festival is beyond me. Maybe the jury were on the same acid as the ultra-talented writer-director when she created the script. Or, maybe the jury were belatedly rewarding her for the amazing contemporary horror film, Raw (2016).
Raw (2016) works on so many distinct levels with themes covered including: veganism, peer pressure, initiation, fitting in, animal cruelty, sexuality. lesbianism, same-sex attraction, animalism, sisterhood, hedonism, nature versus nurture, cannibalism, family, etc. It crosses genres effortlessly and has one of the greatest and disgusting scenes I have had the pleasure to see for some time. Raw (2016) is a shocking, intelligent and astounding modern-day masterpiece. Titane (2021) unfortunately is not.
Before I say why I did not enjoy Titane (2021), I must say that I constantly seek out challenging cinema that pushes boundaries. I love horror and want to be shocked, but also emotionally involved with the characters at the same time. Moreover, I am well prepared to commit to dream logic and surreal narratives, however, the filmmaker must also try not to over-indulge their artistic excesses, and respect the audience too. Of course, this is just my opinion, but I don’t feel Julie Decournau had a clear story path and rather went hell bent into delivering a variety of different ideas, none of which created a fulfilling emotional journey for the main protagonist, Alexia (Agatha Rouselle).
Rouselle, as the malevolent and tragic conduit of Ducournau’s twisted vision, does give a spectacularly brave performance. But her character is given so many complex set-ups at the beginning, I quickly gave up caring what happened to her. As a child she is badly injured in a car crash. This gives her a titanium plate in the skull. Alexia grows up and is an exotic dancer who either dreams of, or actually fucks cars. Oh, she is also a serial killer who violently kills for no apparent reason. Several gruesome set-pieces result in the goriest deaths ever seen in a Palm D’or winner. Indeed, by the time Alexia goes on the run and smashes her face into a sink to alter her features I was numbed by it all.
Titane (2021) at the midpoint then delivers one of the most dumb and insulting plot shifts I have seen in recent years. Yes-yes it’s an arthouse film and an expression of Julie Decournau’s vision of humanity, but I DID NOT CARE!! Not only did we get Alexia’s horrific behaviour, we are then introduced to another plot turn when she hides out with a bereaved and emotionally scarred firefighter, Vincent (Vincent Lindon). By this time I was actually laughing at certain scenes, finding it all tiresome and frankly embarrassing. I got the symbolism of human beings as machines and exploitation of females and that family represents death and blah-blah-blah! Yet, and I’m likely to be in the minority, Titane (2021) is one of the most narratively, emotionally and visually exhausting films I have seen in some time. Watch at your peril!
GREAT ENSEMBLE FILM CASTS #6 – AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013)
Directed by: John Wells
Screenplay by: Tracy Letts
Based on: August: Osage County by Tracy Letts
Produced by: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Jean Doumanian, Steve Traxler
Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Misty Upham, etc.
Cinematography: Adriano Goldman
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Unsurprisingly, the play, August: Osage County, from the typewriter of Tracey Letts – the formidable playwright behind Killer Joe and Bug – about a family suffering loss of a “loved” one was not going to be a feelgood and uplifting affair. Instead, over the period of a month we are introduced to a whole host of characters with a variety of anger, addiction and attitude issues. Brought together by apparent grief, when patriarch, Beverley Weston (Sam Shepard) drowns, the extended Weston family fight and vent spleen at each over current and past dramas, with many a secret soon to be revealed.
Winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008, Letts play was subsequently adapted into the dark, feel-bad and tragi-comedy film in 2013. Directed by John Wells, August: Osage County (2013), brought together an unbelievable ensemble cast of actors who did spectacular work with Letts acerbic and razor-sharp dialogue. Given that many of the personalities in the narrative are dominant matriarchal characters, the casting of Meryl Streep and Margo Martindale in the roles of Violet Weston and Mattie Fae respectively, is certain to create sparks on the screen. So, it proves.
Streep has delivered so many memorable characterisations over the years, but as Violet Weston I’m not sure she’s been so bilious and cancerous, both literally and symbolically. Her daughters, portrayed by Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson, all have their own issues to deal with, but with such a vicious mother it’s a surprise they aren’t in a psychiatric ward. As harsh truths and bitter revelations unfold over the dinner and kitchen table conversations, Letts shows the complex nature of family existence; how it traps us with people we have nothing in common with. Women are seemingly in charge of the Weston family as the men, represented by Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sam Shephard and Chris Cooper, appear more passive and bullied.
Altogether, August: Osage County (2013), is a difficult to watch as there’s not a lot of love shown in the Weston household. Nonetheless, as an acting and writing tour-de-force there are few films that can best it. I guess we all have family problems and many ups and downs to deal with in life. What we can learn from this play and film is that this is definitely NOT the way to behave to people you’re meant to love and care for.
Cast: Donald Pleasence, Norman Rossington, David Ladd, Sharon Gurney, Hugh Armstrong, Christopher Lee etc.
Cinematography: Alex Thomson
***CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS***
In my last review I wrote with nostalgia about trips to the video shop. Yes, an actual shop where you could hire films existed! Imagine that. Now, I further lament the splintered streaming marketplace where you have to pay a subscription to watch a film when I used to be able to see it on telly for free. Plus, there are TOO MANY platforms. Those £5.99 and £4.99 and £7.99 per month fees soon stack up. I used to love turning on Channel Four or BBC2 or latterly Film Four and there would be a cult horror film, classic film noir, World cinema, art film or early directorial release from a now famous director on there late at night – FOR FREE! Thankfully, aside from all the streaming stems I have to manage, a channel on digital TV called Talking Pictures does show some genuinely great movies that time and humanity may have forgotten. One such is Deathline (1972).
Deathline (1972) – (AKA Raw Meat in the U.S.) is a genuine cult classic horror film which is gruesome, darkly witty and incredibly moving in equal measures. In this era of constant remakes I am surprised no filmmaker has decided to transfer this grimy and quintessentially British movie into the modern day. In many ways I am glad they haven’t as it, despite some glaring flaws in characterisation of two main protagonists, borders on being a bona fide under-rated classic. The premise involves a series of missing persons who are disappearing around the area of Russell Square underground station. The sarcastic Inspector Calhoun (inimitable Donald Pleasence) is tasked with cracking the case. He does so with gallows humour and gallons of cups of tea.
Pleasence is not the only person who gives a memorable acting performance in Deathline (1972). Because the screenplay and direction spends a lot of the grisly running time creating a thematic and visual mythology around the antagonist. Indeed, while the killer, described in the credits as the ‘Man’ (Hugh Armstrong), commits several brutal slayings and abductions, the ghastly backstory given and Armstrong’s emotionally charged portrayal really make you empathise with his situation. The combination of pustular make-up effects, the rat-infested underground lair he inhabits, plus the tragic circumstances surrounding the ‘Man’s’ plight ensure he one of cinema’s most empathetic monsters since Karloff in Frankenstein (1931).
It’s a shame therefore that more wasn’t done to develop the leading couple in the film, students Alex Campbell (David Ladd) and Patricia Wilson (Sharon Gurney). While she is at least sympathetic, he is completely unlikeable and mostly unheroic. So much so I was rooting more for the plague-pocked ‘Man’ at the end rather than him. But hey I’m watching this for the gore and deaths aren’t I? Well, there’s plenty of that in between Inspector Calhoun’s chirpy working-class snipes and demands for cups of tea. Plus, director Gary Sherman gives us a tremendous, long take which establishes the cavernous setting for the murder and horror, utilising the dank London underground tunnel system to maximum impact. While Christopher Lee is given poster billing, he’s only in one scene as a privileged MI5 agent. Finally, did you know Marlon Brando was originally cast as the ‘Man’. Well, I’m kind of glad that was an offer he did refuse. Because Armstrong’s tragic human monster lives on long in the mind, even after the film’s haunting final echoes have faded.
Created and written by: Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith
Directors (Season 6): Matt Lipsey, Guillem Morales
Original Network: BBC (available on BBC Iplayer)
No. of Episodes: 6
I have written exhaustively about how brilliant this television programme is, so much so I don’t think I can add any further other than I believe it deserves regaling as TV national treasure. Just when you think Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton could be running out of creative steam they prove you wrong with another superb series of Inside No. 9. If you are interested, here are prior articles I have written about it.
However, to recap, if you have never seen Inside No. 9 I urge you to do so. It is an exceptional anthology series with six stand-alone episodes per series. Individual episodes feature a whole host of different characters and amazing actors each time led by the multi-talented Pemberton and Shearsmith. As per the prior seasons, the latest one is absolutely unforgettable. It again privileges tightly woven thirty-minute short narratives, which more often than not, feature a twist in the tale. Moreover, the events usually unfold in one location with rarely more than a handful of characters. This makes the narratives feel more focussed, intense and intimate. In series 6, there is even more growth within the anthology genre and much risk-taking where style and form are concerned.
So, here are my mini-reviews of each episode from Season 6 with marks out of nine (obviously).
*** BEWARE: POTENTIAL SPOILERS ***
EPISODE 1: WUTHERING HEIST
Main cast: Paterson Joseph, Gemma Whelan, Kevin Bishop, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Rosa Robson, Dino Kelly etc.
Not only are Pemberton and Shearsmith accomplished actors, writers and directors, they are also acutely aware how fans revel in their incredible work, devilishly mocking their own mythology and playing with audience expectations. They do this to dizzying impact in the puntastic opening episode, Wuthering Heist. Marrying elements from farce, crime, Commedia dell’arte and the plot of Reservoir Dogs (1992), the players wear masks, prat about and bleed over each other while attempting to pull off a diamond heist. Set in one location, a disused warehouse, Gemma Whelan is superb as the fourth-wall breaking narrator attempting to hold all the story innards together. Pretty soon though one realises that the flurry of puns, sight gags, plot contrivances and comical misunderstandings are intended as wondrous and silly fun. The lack of emotional depth is the joke here and the writers know this. Because Shearsmith and Pemberton’s script has a gag every four seconds, be it a sight jape or involve some sparky verbal dexterity. Lastly, not only do they know they are jumping the shark, but they revel in doing so during this hilarious meta-work.
Mark: 8 out of 9
EPISODE 2: SIMON SAYS
Cast: Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Lindsay Duncan, Nick Mohammed
Among many of the recurring pleasures of watching Inside No. 9 is wondering what the number nine will refer to. It’s been a myriad of things including: a karaoke booth, a hotel room, a train sleeper car, a dressing room, a referee’s changing room, and even a shoe. In Simon Says it’s the name of a television epic called The Ninth Circle. This show is very similar to Game of Thrones in genre and scale, and likewise has a battalion of fans across the country who feel the final series undid the majesty of the prior seasons. The episode opens with immediate mystery as Steve Pemberton’s writer, Spencer, enters his flat with blood staining his clothes and conscience. Suddenly, Simon (Reece Shearsmith), is at the door saying he has evidence Spencer has committed a serious crime. Simon, a Ninth Circle uber-fan then blackmails Spencer into, among others things, rewriting the whole of the last season of The Ninth Circle into something more fan-friendly. Managing to be both funny and suspenseful in equal measures, Pemberton and Shearsmith’s characters play cat-and-mouse expertly, throwing in several big plot twists at the end of this compelling tale.
Mark: 8 out of 9
EPISODE 3: LIP SERVICE
Cast: Sian Clifford, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith
I watch some television series and films and am often struck at how much time is wasted in setting up the protagonists and story. Similarly, in unnecessarily long TV series you get either eight or ten episodes full of padding in the middle which destabilizes the momentum of the story. Nothing of the sort occurs in Inside No. 9. Stories are set-up with stylish economy and the situations immediately grab you by the throat and rarely let go. In Lip Service, Steve Pemberton’s downtrodden Felix is holed up in a hotel room waiting to liaise with a woman. But it’s not what you think. Sian Clifford’s Iris arrives and it turns out she is there to offer her services as a lip-reader. Felix suspects the woman he loves is having an affair and he requires Iris to read her and a possible lover’s lips at an adjacent hotel suite. I’ve now seen this episode three times and it truly is breathtaking. There’s empathy for Felix’s lost soul, some fine linguistic comedy, a potential romance, Clifford’s performance knocking it out of the park, Reece Shearsmith having great fun as an officious German hotel manager and THAT ending. The denouement, while totally believable, comes out of nowhere and leaves you genuinely speechless.
Mark: 8.5 out 9
EPISODE 4: HURRY UP AND WAIT
Cast: Adrian Dunbar, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Donna Preston, Bhavna Limbachia, and Pauline McGlynn
Quite possibly my favourite episode of the series, Hurry Up and Wait manages to achieve that difficult juxtaposition of being meta-textual and containing some real emotional power. Because it is one thing to be self-referential and satirise the creative process, in this case the making of a television police drama starring famous actor Adrian Dunbar, but it’s quite another to build in a murder mystery and empathetic characters who you root for. While Reece Shearsmith is always excellent playing angry characters, here he portrays James, a mild-mannered actor, who has got a break playing a scene with the precious talent, Dunbar. The TV drama they are in concerns a missing child and the “green room” happens to be a static caravan owned by a working-class family who may have important information about said grisly crime. Steve Pemberton and Pauline McGlynn play the parents of immature, Beverley – the brilliant Donna Preston – adding much comic relief, but all possibly hiding a dark secret. As James learns his lines he also plays detective seemingly discovering the truth until the truly chilling ending is revealed.
Mark: 9 out of 9
EPISODE 5: HOW DO YOU PLEAD?
Cast: Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Derek Jacobi
Arguably the darkest tale, both in terms of the noir lighting and foreboding themes, it is difficult to discuss this tale of soul-searching guilt and justice without giving away too much of the story. Thus, I’ll talk about the actors and characters more. Derek Jacobi gives a deeply moving performance of a dying barrister who prides himself of, after an upturn in his early legal career, never losing a case in court until retirement. As he lies dying in bed, lungs heavy around his heart, he feels guilt about one case where he defended the indefensible. As he confesses his regret to Shearsmith’s cheery carer, it is soon revealed both men have sins they buried in the past which will soon come back to bite them. Watching these two fine actors spark off one another is as compelling as television drama can get, but there’s also comedy there too as Shearsmith delivers some spirited one-liners in between Jacobi’s grand screen gravitas. But where’s Pemberton I hear you ask? He’s sitting there waiting patiently in the shadows of this evocatively lit and thrilling tale.
Mark: 8 out of 9
EPISODE 6: LAST NIGHT OF THE PROMS!
Cast: Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Julian Glover, Debra Gillett, Bamshad Abedi-Amin, Sarah Parish etc.
Are you aware of the work of Dennis Potter? He was one of the finest writers in British television from the 1960’s way into the early 1990’s. His scripts were always highly erotic, political and incredibly controversial. They skewered very British and human themes and burnt great sacred cows of the church, government, family, sex and marriage on the TV barbecue, leaving charcoal remains in their stead. Potter was a genius and with Last Night of the Proms, Pemberton and Shearsmith match him for bravado in deconstructing human nature and what it means to be British. Set in a well-to-do, middle-class household, a family of three generations sit down to watch the Last of the Proms on the BBC. It’s a big traditional classical music event and cultural celebration of what it means to be British. It makes me sick! Britain isn’t great. The British are racist, imperialistic and hardy murderers, who have a history and present (fucking Brexit!) they should be ashamed of. The thought-provoking screenplay here is heavy on compelling themes, memorable imagery and striking symbolism. This is a jarring and messy episode and what it lacks in precise plotting it more than makes up for in juxtaposing horror, satire, drama, surrealism, Jesus, social commentary and comedy to rather mesmerising effect. Potter’s ghost would have watched with glee and disgust and hate and love and pity and sadness; which is much how I felt witnessing Last Night of the Proms.
“Essentially, I’m untrained, so I just go with my imagination and try to put myself as solidly as I can into the shoes of whatever person I’m going to be playing.” — Christian Bale
It’s easy to forget that Christian Charles Philip Bale was only thirteen years old when he was chosen out of thousands of young actors for a starring role in Steven Spielberg’s war drama, Empire of the Sun (1987). From there on in he has become one of the most formidable actors of a generation. Unlike many young actors he has not fallen by the wayside, but rather delivered a series of tour-de-force and award-winning performances in both independent and big budget Hollywood blockbusters.
So, for my occasional look at the major talents of cinema I have turned to one of the greatest actors of the last twenty-something years, and chosen five of his best roles to illustrate that. An intense and natural talent he has been in many outstanding films and some not so good. However, whatever role Christian Bale chooses he is usually never less than powerfully magnetic. I must say, I have not selected any of his portrayals of Bruce Wayne and that very fine Batman performance, notably from a physical perspective. Even though in, Batman Begins (2005), he created a stirring existential vision of a wealthy child growing out of grief into the dark saviour of Gotham City. I just think he has given five better acting transformations on screen. Here they are.
***CONTAINS FILM SPOILERS***
AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000)
Having tread water in a career-sense attempting to traverse the difficult bridge from child actor to the leading man we have come to know, Christian Bale got a break in Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s notorious novel, American Psycho. And boy – did he make the most of it! I watched the film again recently and I have to say, other than perhaps Leonardo DiCaprio (who was originally cast in the role), no other actor could have delivered such an unhinged, evil and funny (yes he’s hilarious) portrayal of the Wall Street banker-turned-serial killer, Patrick Bateman. It’s a dangerous and sick character who Bale somehow manages to make you despise, yet simultaneously humanise.
THE MACHINIST (2004)
Possibly the greatest Christian Bale performance that hardly anyone has seen. Oh you have seen it? Wow, what an intense performance Bale gives as lonely blue collar worker, Trevor Reznik. Reznik is a haunted man who cannot sleep. He is also anorexic as Bale reduced his weight to 62kg for the role, demonstrating, not for the last time, a dangerous method of obsessive physical transformation. It works too as the skeletal Reznik struggles to overcome a slow descent into madness, with Bale, once again, showing incredible commitment to his craft in this under-rated and haunting noir nightmare of a film.
THE FIGHTER (2010)
While Mark Wahlberg was excellent as the lead actor in David O. Russell’s profile of tough Massachusetts fighter, Micky Ward, Bale absolutely steals the thunder with an incredible acting performance as Ward’s half-brother, Dicky Eklund. As a study of the nefarious curse of addiction, Bale makes the charismatic, but unreliable, Ekland both a loathsome and somehow empathetic character. Because while his crack cocaine addiction drives him to make bad choices for both him and his brother, there is at his heart a loving person battling to win over his illness and make his brother a champion. A story about family and human beings overcoming the odds, Bale punches out another memorably flawed individual in The Fighter (2010), deservedly winning an Oscar in the process.
This revisionist Western did not get nearly enough attention on release. Yet buried in here is another quietly intense acting performance from Christian Bale. His other Western, 3:10 to Yuma (2007) is the more entertaining film, but in Hostiles (2017), he gives a much more complex characterisation as Captain Joseph Blocker. The weight of guilt and pain and death hang heavy on Blocker following years of brutal conflict. Scott Cooper’s film conveys the depressing murderous times borne out of the greedy need for progress. Hatred and white man’s guilt drives his character as Bale’s soldier initially refuses to take Chief Yellow Hawk back to his homeland. Is it more because of the deaths of his own men on the battlefield or because he does not want to face up to his own crimes against the Native Americans? The film explores this question superbly with Bale at the heart of the conflict from savage beginning to bloody end.
While I agree with critics of Vice (2018), that it is cartoonish and simplistic, it is also a brilliant and scabrous work of satire. Yes, sure it’s preaching to the liberal and left-winged Hollywood choir, but it definitely presents a fascinating snapshot of Dick Cheney’s rise from alcoholic wastrel to powerful political figure. I mean let’s face it, Cheney, based on his reign in U.S. politics, is arguably one of the most dangerous men who ever existed. In Adam Mckay’s black political comedy Cheney is shown to be a manipulative puppet-master to Bush’s marionette President. McKay’s film, while certainly one-tracked, powers along picking apart one of the most shadowy political figures of recent years. But what about, Bale? Why take a role where he had to live on doughnuts for year to gain the weight required for the film? Well, because he likes to challenge himself and Bale should have won the Best acting Oscar! Rami Malek was decent as Freddie Mercury, but Christian Bale is astonishing. Fair enough, he takes a real person and delivers an emulation performance, but he also brings to Cheney to life with such intelligent style. Of course, the physical transformation takes the headlines, but in terms of emotion and mentality he really raises the bar. Cheney may be an enigmatic character but Bale brings menace, whispers and evil to the role. There is also a sly humour there too which makes Bale’s Cheney another unforgettable monster he’s brought to the screen.
Cast: Felissa Rose, Katherine Kamhi, Paul DeAngelo, Mike Kellin, Karen Fields, Desiree Gould, etc.
Music by: Edward Bilous
Cinematography: Benjamin Davis, David M. Walsh
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
Whatever you do please do not read anything about this cult classic horror film from 1983. It has one of the most shocking twists at the end and even on second watch my jaw dropped when I witnessed the final scene. You’ll be tempted to find out but just watch the whole film. It is on YouTube here!
So, if you’re NOT a fan of B-movies horror exploitation films then Sleepaway Camp (1983) will not be for you! A lot of the acting is by first-timers and the director, Robert Hiltzik, is also making his debut here. In fact, he didn’t make another film after this until many years later because he became a lawyer. But the film gained a cult following among horror fans and certainly deserves cult status. It may be badly acted in many scenes and verging on the hysterical, yet it is well filmed and edited on a meagre budget of $300,000. There’s also some fantastically imaginative murder set-pieces, with excellent make-up and prosthetics work employed.
The story centres on the vulnerable teenager, Angela (Felissa Rose), who, having lost her father in an accident when younger, now lives with her Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) and cousin, Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). Her Aunt sends Angela and Ricky to Camp Arawak for the summer and due to her quiet demeanour she soon becomes a target for bullies. Ricky attempts to protect her, however, other than a budding romance with another teenager, Paul, Angela finds it very difficult to fit in. When dead bodies begin to turn up due to a number of grisly “accidents”, the kids and counsellors soon find themselves all in danger.
Amidst all the over-the-top acting, Felissa Rose gives a brilliant wide-eyed and subtle performance as Angela. For a film that could be classed as aFriday the 13th (1980) rip-off, her character arc throughout is both fascinating and quite unsettling. Indeed the film veers between being a strange hybrid of summer camp slice-of-life, rites-of-passage and slasher genre films. Yet despite all the uneven tone there is a decent story here with much emotional impact. Amidst all the death the film finds time to address bullying, sexual abuse and adult neglect to minors. Ultimately though, Sleepaway Camp (1983), has some fantastic gore and THAT quite astounding ending!