Tag Archives: Existential

FLEABAG – SEASONS 1 & 2 – BBC TV REVIEW

FLEABAG – SEASONS 1 & 2 – BBC TV REVIEW

Created and Written by: Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Directed by: Harry Bradbeer

Producers: Lydia Hampson, Sarah Hammond

Starring: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sian Clifford, Olivia Colman, Brett Gelman, Hugh Skinner, Bill Paterson, Jamie Demetriou, Jenny Rainsford, Hugh Dennis etc.

Composer: Isobel Waller-Bridge

Cinematography: Tony Miller, Laurie Rose

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

This melancholic, painful and chaotic home for middle-class grotesques and excruciatingly awkward comedy situations involving, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s barely-surviving-human being-the-titular-‘Fleabag’, shouldn’t really work as entertainment. Yet, it does because of: brilliant writing, dark, honest humour, existential depth, almost-cinematic production values; genuine star quality from Waller-Bridge; and a cast on top of their game.

First-world-very-white yet universal human problems are legion in two seasons of twelve breathless episodes. We join our nameless anti-hero scraping through life in the midst of doubling grief, following the recent deaths of her mother and close friend/business partner. No doubt the chattering twenty-something classes are full with “I’m just like Fleabag!” recognition. Nonetheless, there’s something to enjoy for those who love to experience raw, human frailty on screen too.

‘Fleabag’ fights flailing moods, business and family issues in contemporary status-symbol London. Using sex to block out her pain in the first season, ‘Arsehole Guy’ and ‘Bus Rodent’ are two such crutch-like paramours who, along with on-off-ex-boyfriend, Harry, are given the physical and emotional run-around. In the less bawdy second season she falls for an uber-cool Catholic Priest (Andrew Scott). Thus, the lashings of sex from the first season gives way to more interesting abstinence and romantic torture for ‘Fleabag’.

With her best mate dead from a tragic accident ‘Fleabag’s’ sword and shield against life is gone and attempts at bridge-building with her family are fraught with strained agony. Her sister Claire (Sian Clifford), is tighter than a snare drum, existing solely on neurosis and a never-ending workaholic mission drive. The scenes between ‘Fleabag’ and her sister range from touching to hilarious to fractious dread. Meanwhile, their beta-male Father (Bill Paterson), is also grieving and a full-on emotional trainwreck. He finds himself a rabbit-in-the-headlights of Olivia Colman’s ‘Godmother’; a genius at passive aggressivity and unlikely arch-villain, quietly stealing the father away from his daughters.

Many hilarious and painful scenes play out around dinner tables, art exhibitions, parties, funerals, seminars, retreats and weddings. ‘Fleabag’ vainly attempts normality but understandbly fails. In addition to her family she also conflicts with other characters, notably Claire’s horrendous-alcoholic-overgrown-man-child-husband, Martin. I was genuinely shouting bile at the TV screen every time I saw him. Thankfully, Fleabag also features fine supporting roles from more likeable characters portrayed by the ultra-talented Fiona Shaw, Kristin Scott-Thomas and aforementioned Andrew Scott.

From Hancock to Steptoe and Son to Fawlty Towers to Blackadder to The Office to Spaced and to the most recent Gervais show After Life, British comedy has been replete with idiosyncratic and anti-heroic characters we root for. Indeed, it takes special writing and performances to get such shades of grey to work on stage and screen. Overall, Waller-Bridge takes familiar themes and situations and spins comedy and dramatic gold from them. Formally, she smashes the fourth wall with Brechtian direct address, welcoming us into her tumultuous reality, speaking to us and asking us to laugh and cry and love and hate and do what humans do: somehow just get through the day.

Season 1 – Mark: 9 out of 11

Season 2 – Mark: 9.5 out of 11

TRUE DETECTIVE (2019) – SEASON 3 – HBO TV REVIEW

TRUE DETECTIVE (2019) – SEASON 3 – HBO TV REVIEW

Created by: Nic Pizzolatto

Writers: Nic Pizzolatto, David Milch, Graham Gordy

Directors: Jeremy Saulnier, Daniel Sackheim, Nic Pizzolatto

Starring: Mahershala Ali, Carmen Egogo, Stephen Dorff, Scoot McNairy, Ray Fisher etc.

No. of episodes: 8

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

Time is an unforgiving concept. It marches on and absolutely never stops until we are dust. While young we believe we have more time, but deep down we can see our own death. That fear will either drive us forward positively or send us insane. Old age is perhaps the bitterest turn in time we must suffer. If we live long enough to collect a litany of fine memories, the mind disintegrates them, cruelly disallowing us from recalling such happy moments. There is also regret. If you have a conscience you are likely to suffer regret. Regret of what you have done wrong, not done right and been simply incapable of doing. Lastly, it is said time and tide wait for no man or woman. But it is waiting; waiting for us to die.

Existential police procedural drama, True Detective, is back for a third season and very good it is too. Starring Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff as the, as usual, mismatched cops; it concerns the hunt for two missing children in the Ozarks, Arkansas. Further, the supporting cast include the impressive Carmen Egogo and always compelling Scoot McNairy. Set over eight compelling episodes we criss-cross three separate timelines that centre on the said case. Events unfold circa 1980 (when the crime occurred); circa 1990 (when the investigation is re-opened); and the present with the characters aged and withering from time’s unrelenting march. The complex structure really enhances the genre plot as the intriguing timelines over-lap and bleed into one another, thickening the mystery and heightening suspense.

While the criminal case is central to the conventions of the genre, writer Nic Pizzolatto is as much interested in the character development and themes pertaining to: love, time, regret, guilt, aging, memory and death. The character of lead detective, Wayne Hays (Ali) is fascinating. A former U.S. soldier who served in Vietnam, he is a complex soul striving for meaning and trying to do the righteous thing. Consistently, however, he finds his race and social standing a barrier to solving the crime. Through his trio of timelines we feel his sense of loss, love, isolation, anger, happiness and confusion. The confusion especially worsens when his older self is hit by Alzheimer’s. Indeed, it is incredibly heartfelt while he attempts to piece together events from memories past including: the crimes, his actions, violent events, and the romantic moments he had with his wife (Egogo.)

Once again, Mahershala Ali proves he is pound-for-pound one of the best actors around. He gives an incredibly nuanced and intelligent performance as Hays. To inhabit the same character in three different guises takes a particular skillset and the subtle differences in performance are a joy to behold. He is assisted by uniformly excellent direction and production design. Indeed, some of the editing is sublime as the images switch between the young Hays and older Hays brilliantly; dissolves, reflections and over-lapping montage effects used imaginatively throughout. Lastly, it’s was also great to see Stephen Dorff too in a prominent role as Hays’ no-nonsense partner, Roland West. Dorff provides ebullient support during the investigation and their friendship is a mainstay of the show.

After the scintillating first season which had Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson burning the plasma off the TV screen with their intense performances, the unfocussed second season contained star acting power but a confused narrative. However, Season 3 is a fine return to form and if you love your cop shows: dark, existential, meditative, violent and intelligent, then this is definitely worth your time.

LEAN ON PETE (2017) – CINEMA REVIEW

LEAN ON PETE (2017) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by: Andrew Haigh

Produced by: Tristan Goligher

Screenplay by: Andrew Haigh

Based on: Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin

Starring: Charlie Plummer, Chloë Sevigny, Travis Fimmel, Steve Buscemi

Music by: James Edward Barker

Cinematography: Magnus Joenck

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More times than not I go to the cinema to escape the nagging existential doubt I have in respect of life. I watch movies, even the movies based in some believable reality to escape MY reality, my work, my everyday life. Sometimes, though you find a film which will not allow you to escape. It is so relentlessly realistic in its representation of the human spirit that it does not allow you to get away. You are stuck; imprisoned by the misery and hopelessness one can feel with life. Lean on Pete (2017) is such a film.

Adapted and directed by Andrew Haigh, Lean on Pete is a tunnel-focussed character drama based in the dustbowl plains of Portland, Oregon. The lead protagonist is Charlie Thompson who is portrayed with an incredible maturity by Charlie Plummer. The director Haigh and Plummer deserve much praise for creating such an empathetic and troubled character. I mean he’s a good kid who works hard. He jogs everyday in order to keep his fitness up so he can return to playing football at school. Yet, his life suffers from ennui, poverty and family discord. Put simply: Charlie was born with no luck. His mother left when he was a baby and he’s brought up by a father (Travis Kimmel), who loves him, but is somewhat of a nomad; moving from a different job to a different location to a different women every few years.

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Movement defines Charlie. He’s either running down roads or walking or driving or leading the horses out. He gets a job working with irascible horse race trainer portrayed by the excellent Steve Buscemi and befriends a rundown racehorse called ‘Lean on Pete’. Charlie becomes, against the advice of everyone, attached to the horse and this affection will drive his actions in the tragic latter half of the film. This is no Disney-kid-befriends-animal-rites-of-passage-fairy-tale but rather a depressing and harsh neo-Western where the American dream is a distant memory.

Overall, it’s a strange thing to say that, while brilliantly filmed by cinematographer Magnus Joenck and directed by Andrew Haigh, Lean on Pete, is a tough film to recommend due to the relentless existential misery on screen. However, there is hope there in Charlie’s character as he won’t give in and just keeps moving trying to find some light at the end of that tunnel we call life.

(Mark: 8 out of 11)

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by: Lynne Ramsay

Produced by: Rosa Attab, Pascal Caucheteux, James Wilson, Lynne Ramsay Writer: Lynne Ramsay (Based on: You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames)

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman, Judith Roberts

Music by: Jonny Greenwood

Editor: Joe Bini

**CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS**

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Lynne Ramsay’s latest film will not be for everyone; be warned it has some very disturbing sequences relating to abuse and violence. The pitch is simple and accessible: a hired gun hunts down a kidnapped girl.  But the delivery is twisted, violent, fragmented, mesmerising and thoroughly hellish. The story beats along the same drum as the action thriller Taken (2009), but unlike Liam Neeson, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe has a slightly different set of skills to work with. They are both ex-military but Joe’s past actions haunt him to the point of near-suicide and his preferred weapon is a trusty hammer from the local home improvement store.

It was fascinating seeing Lynne Ramsay taking on a narrative so full of such familiar genre tropes. This story covers aspects such as: kidnapped children; nefarious US government corruption; paedophile rings run by the rich; post-traumatic stress disorder; and the lone wolf ‘soldier’ seeking redemption. Indeed, the film crossed over into territory covered by the likes of: Man on Fire (2004), Hardcore (1979), and the aforementioned Taken trilogy. However, through Ramsay’s skewed and compelling direction I Was Never Really Here is an altogether different beast; spiritually evoking the seminal Schrader scribed story of Taxi Driver (1976). Similarly,  I Was Never Really There is an existential anti-thriller which asphyxiates the audience with: close-ups; canted frames; blurred and obscured shots; oblique angles; claustrophobic urban locations; jolting violence; blinding light; eerie shadows; and jumpy cutting which shreds the nerves throughout.

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The fragmented narrative delivery adds further to the viewer’s creeping tension and developing sense of dread. The character of Joe is essentially in a psychological nightmare, haunted by several events from his past; during his childhood and while in the military and FBI service. Ramsay and her editor Joe Bini cut and chop us into the past before slamming us back to the present abruptly. The effect is to place us in Joe’s disturbed mind-set, creating a psychologically unhinged trip into the heart of darkness. It takes a special filmmaker to manufacture such feelings via the editing dialectic; and I hadn’t felt such nervousness in the cinema since experiencing Dunkirk (2017).

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Ramsay is ably supported in her vision by an incredibly eerie soundtrack from the genius that is Jonny Greenwood. His score scratches under one’s skin like a junkie curse while somehow managing to cling to melody too. Of course, the film would not be so compelling if it was not for Joaquin Phoenix’ battered, bearded bear of a performance. He invokes the naked pain and desperation of the character in his huge frame and determined shark eyes. When faced with an enemy he is a brutal killer but altogether gentler and, dare I say it, fun, while looking after his beloved mother. Overall, this is a nihilistic, gory, scary, unsettling and stunning work of cinema; and while it treads a familiar narrative road it’s presented with such dark energy and meticulous care one cannot fail to be moved.

(Mark: 9 out of 11)  

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW – THE WAGES OF FEAR (1953)

CLASSIC FILM REVIEW – THE WAGES OF FEAR (1953)

Winter is coming (Again)

A few weeks ago it was very cold and snowy in London and the UK in general. For the end of February and beginning of March the second coming of winter was most unexpected. My eighteen year old Ford Mondeo had been frozen to death with the battery at some kind of half-life and smoke pouring out of the bonnet; no doubt from the fusion of water and oil and air-conditioning liquid. I managed to park it up safely with no harm done and walked the half-an-hour to work. On route I saw a Supermarket delivery driver lugging shopping to someone’s doorstep in the bitter wind on the treacherous icy pavement. I suddenly thought: why do we do this? Why do we carry on? What is the point in it all?

I cannot complain; because things are actually good for me. I’m grateful because alas some people lose their lives in weather like this and have it much worse in regard to such conditions. How they cope I have no idea. I mean, we carry on don’t we? I thought about my current situation: the trivial issue of my car dying; having to walk in the snow; and the Supermarket worker delivering shopping in the freezing cold. I came to the conclusion it all pales into insignificance considering some of the major issues in the world. But we all carry on. We desire to continue living. The eternal existential question remains: why?!

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The Wages of Fear

George Arneud’s Le salaire de la peur translated as The Wages of Fear has been made three times into a film; notably by the great directors Henry-George Clouzot and William Friedkin. The desire to survive and fight and live and abide life is an incredibly powerful thing. It’s instinct in all of us; well, until life, poor decisions, bad luck, other humans’ behaviour or extraneous circumstances beat you into submission. Some people take their lives while others fight to the last breath. This, for me is the intrinsic nature of the film. Why carry on living even when it seems pointless to continue?

The Wages of Fear (1953) is a film I first saw on May 8th 1994 as a twenty-three year old; introduced by screenwriting guru Robert McKee on his brilliant movie season called Filmworks. It concerns a motley crew of European misfits trapped in an unnamed South American shanty town. They are invited to escape their plight by driving trucks of nitro-glycerine over deadly terrain to put out a massive oilfield fire. With McKee’s foreboding gravel voice introducing the film and the spellbinding premise in mind I was immediately compelled to watch.

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I had, since the age of sixteen, worked at the Department of Social Security and as a civil servant I had often felt trapped in my job with no end in sight. Of course, I was over-dramatizing my situation somewhat as the next year I just left for University. However, that feeling of being existentially walled in has meant I’m drawn to such stories in film, literature, music and art etc. The Wages of Fear is all about desperate characters who are forced to risk their life to escape their current plight. Clouzot is careful to establish the terrain, motivation and context of the setting and characters. Thus, by the time the action starts and our anti-heroes – Yves Montand (cool and handsome Mario), Peter Van Eyck (laconic Bimba), Folco Lulli (energetic Luigi) and Charles Vanel (back-stabbing Jo) – are on their treacherous suicide mission we have some semblance of connection with them.

The suspense on the road is incredible. With tight, rocky trails ahead the trucks can only travel at a certain low speed or one bump could blow the vehicles to kingdom come. You have to wonder about the human spirit here and how desperate these characters must be to risk their lives. Clouzot directs the set-pieces with a razor-like precision as each of the trucks must face: oil-filled craters, rickety bridges, boulders and precipices; all while holding their shredded nerves together. Allied to the thriller aspect there is a strong socio-economic context which illustrates the dangerous capitalist ventures of the American oil company draining the 3rd world country of a valuable resource, while scorching the earth and exploiting the indigenous population.

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On release The Wages of Fear won the Palm D’Or at Cannes and the Golden Bear at Berlin. It also holds 100% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and is regularly voted one of the best films ever made. The book / film has been adapted / remade twice as Violent Road (1958) and by the aforementioned William Friedkin. His film Sorceror (1977) is an over-looked classic as it transplants the action to a jungle in South America. Sorceror was a box office flop. It failed to find an audience during the summer of 1977 which was dominated by a certain George Lucas space adventure called Star Wars (1977). I finally watched it recently on Film Four and it’s a hard-bitten, cynical and explosive experience which despite the loathsome characters, led by Roy Scheider’s career criminal, still manages to thrill and chill in equal measures.

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FIN

The ending to The Wages of Fear is one of the most startling denouements to a film I’ve ever seen. It confirms the futility of existence and reflects deep down what we all feel about life and spend our days trying to block out. It’s that nagging feeling which never lets us off the hook, which haunts our sleep and whispers to us in the dark: what’s the point? Why carry on? What’s the point? Why bother? But of course you must carry on because life is a gift and life is good; especially when you can watch classic films like The Wages of Fear. Because while they hold a mirror up to the dark nature of existence, the sheer intensity of watching such films, paradoxically make life well worth living.