Even if you’re not a fan of football, you cannot fail to have to heard of the Argentinian player that is Diego Maradona. If you don’t know him then he rose from the shantytowns of Buenos Aires to become one of the greatest footballers of all time. A wunderkind prodigy as a teenager, he became the most expensive footballer ever when he moved to Napoli from Barcelona. In Naples he would transform a club, normally in the shadows of giants from Milan and Rome, into a title winning team. Moreover, he famously led Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986, with one of the most scintillating individual footballing performances ever witnessed. I missed Asif Kapadia’s absorbing documentary when released at the cinema, however, with Maradona sadly passing away last week, I took the opportunity to watch it on Channel 4’s streaming platform.
Kapadia has shown himself as a master filmmaker in constructing narratives from archival footage. This engrossing style and expertly edited form is brilliantly demonstrated in Senna (2010) and Amy (2015), both winning several major awards. Once again Kapadia uses the same process. He combines interviews via voiceover with Maradona, his ex-wife Claudia, his trainer and many other people, with hundreds of hours of found film footage shot by Argentine cameramen in the 1980s. Moreover, further archival footage was discovered in the home of Maradona’s ex-wife in a trunk untouched for 30 years.
Kapadia and his editors weave such sources to create an absorbing portrait of an extremely complex personality. Indeed, many interviews comment on the football star having two distinct sides. One called Diego, a sweet-natured lad who became a phenomenon on the pitch and the other Maradona, a notorious, larger than life mega-star pursued by the media, football fans, women, gangsters and money people. Whether this schism contributed to Maradona’s battles with drug addiction and other controversies, it is difficult to say. What is clear though is, despite his flaws, love for partying, fiery temperament and questionable associations, the press in Italy and the rest of the world, were permanently in Maradona’s face, creating a pressure cooker atmosphere for him and his family.
Overall, I was totally transfixed by the documentary, Diego Maradona (2019). Having grown up as a teenager watching Maradona on the television, notably the infamous ‘Hand of God’ game against England at the 1986 World Cup, I was struck by huge waves of nostalgia. Even though Maradona’s Argentina defeated England, one could never fail to be in awe at his magical skills as a player. I love football and enjoyed many scenes showing the brutal and beautiful nature of the game. Lastly, Kapadia’s main narrative thrust involves Maradona’s rise and fall from grace during Napoli’s spectacular rise to the top of the Italian league. Yet, having scored the penalty that knocked Italy out of the 1990 World Cup, his once beloved Naples would turn on Maradona, leaving him friendless and without protection from the Italian law. Ultimately, the film stands as not only a complex tribute to a footballing genius, but also a cautionary tale of the trials and tribulations of worldwide fame and notoriety.
Executive producers: Alex Garland, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Eli Bush, Scott Rudin, Garrett Basch
Cast: Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman, Jin Ha, Zach Grenier, Alison Pill, Stephen McKinlay Henderson, Cailee Spaeny, Karl Glusman, Jefferson Hall, Liz Carr, Janet Mock, Aimee Mullins, Linnea Berthelsen etc.
Cinematography: Rob Hardy
Composers: Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow, The Insects
Distribution / Screening Platform: FX / Hulu / BBC
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
“I read more about science than anything else, and it started with two things. One was getting my head around this principle of determinism, which basically says that everything that happens in the world is based on cause and effect. . . One is that it takes away free will, but the other is that if you are at a computer powerful enough, you could use determinism to predict the future and understand the past.”Alex Garland – Creator of Devs
Alex Garland has an impressive literary, cinema and now televisual curriculum vitae. He gained acclaim as the writer of the novel, The Beach, before moving onto screenwriting duties with fine films such as: 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007), Never Let Me Go (2010), and Dredd (2012). He made his directorial debut with Ex Machina (2014), which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. His second film,Annihilation (2018), garnered further acclaim, so much so, FX bypassed a pilot and went straight to series for his latest science fiction narrative, Devs (2020).
While I am a massive fan of Garland’s work, I wasn’t too enamoured of Annihilation (2018). I found it brilliantly made with some fantastic concepts and incredible moments, yet overall it was too slowly paced. With the eight superlative episodes of Devs (2020), Garland has kept the meditative pace of Annihilation (2018), but also delivered a story which really connected with me this time. With Devs (2020) he has successfully merged a compelling technological espionage plot to an intelligent exploration of philosophical thought and behaviour. Moreover, Garland presents a complex group of themes and characters relating to Silicon Valley tech firms and how their work could control individuals, companies, governments, society as a whole, and actual time itself.
Set now in San Francisco, the narrative opens with two employees of the Amaya Corporation, Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno) and Sergei Pavlov (Karl Glusman), attending work. Sergei has a big presentation to pitch to Amaya CEO, Forest (Nick Offerman) and chief designer, Katie (Alison Pill). It goes well and Sergei is invited to work on the mysterious DEVS project. At DEVS he finds wondrous halo-style lighting in the woods and an incredibly expensive set of buildings, capsules, platforms, workstations and screens. Dominating the landscape also is a gigantic model of a young girl (Forest’s daughter, Amaya) who looms over the company and the San Franciscan horizon. These spectacular props, sets and locations are complimented by impressive cinematography from Rob Hardy throughout the eight episodes.
Sergei’s tenure at DEVS does not last long though as he goes missing. Lily, who was in a loving relationship with Sergei, is distraught and, with the help of ex-CIA head of security, Kenton (Zach Grenier), attempts to locate him. When Sergei turns up dead from an apparent suicide, Lily is convinced there is a conspiracy occurring in the Amaya company so begins a dangerous investigation. Even more intriguing, however, is the work that is occurring at DEVS itself. Led by Forest’s desire to “resurrect” his deceased daughter, this complex computer programme can somehow view events from the past, recreated via particle-driven software and projected on huge screens. Using this application the developers and programmers are attempting to determine the future from what has occurred in the past. If they can determine the future they may be able to control it. Mind blown yet? Safe to say, Lily’s investigation into Sergei’s death and the DEVS system become inextricably linked as the drama unfolds. As such, the drama works well as a conspiracy thriller as well as thoughtful sci-fi as Garland punctuates the brooding pace with some crushing stunts and brutal murder set-pieces.
I’ll be honest, the technological side of Devs (2020) was outside my knowledge repertoire as I do not comprehend coding or programming jargon. Nonetheless, I did understand what was occurring in the narrative as it was presented in a clear and digestible fashion. Unlike say the most recent seasons of HBO’s Westworld, which tied itself in knots with looping and over-lapping timelines, Alex Garland’s deft script, excellent direction and fantastic cast make Devs‘ (2020) complex science and tech theories comprehensible throughout. While Garland is dealing with theories relating to free will and deterministic cause and effect, the elegant structure, both linear and with flashbacks, builds a gripping narrative which maintains emotional impact for the characters and the choices they must make. Indeed, Lily Chan is a very empathetic leading protagonist and Sonoya Mizuno gives a compellingly magnetic acting portrayal. It was also fascinating to see Nick Offerman outside of his Parks and Recreation ‘Ron Swanson’ persona playing a highly driven and grieving father. Thus, to conclude, if you enjoy clever, meditative and Kubrickian style television in the science-fiction genre, then you should definitely use your free will and be determined to watch Devs (2020).
Main Cast: Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines, Susie Essman, J. B. Smoove, Ted Danson, Richard Lewis, Vince Vaughan, Kaitlin Olson etc.
Guests: Mila Kunis, Clive Owen, Laverne Cox, Chris Martin, Sean Penn, Jonah Hill, Jon Hamm, Philip Rosenthaland many more.
Distribution Platform: HBO (USA) – SKY (UK)
**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**
“AH! INTERESTING. . . “
During a lengthy hiatus from 2011 to 2017, fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm were left bereft of their dose of Larry David’s inimitable and eccentric behaviour. The multi-millionaire writer of Seinfeld had carved out a wonderfully politically incorrect comedy series, full of misunderstanding, farce and hilariously embarrassing situations. Thankfully, he returned with season 9, and it was absolutely brilliant. Larry managed to get himself a death sentence, having written a musical called Fatwa, along with all manner of other comedic shenanigans. Season 10 has now followed and, once again, anti-heroic Larry delivers ten more fantastically offensive and funny episodes. More often than not we find his behaviour abhorrent as he goes about upsetting friends, family members, celebrities, and strangers on a daily basis. However, sometimes we are with Larry and his actions have merit and reason. Furthermore, due to the wonderful writing, improvising, cast and situations the humour is always more than pretty, pretty good!
NARRATIVE ARC (OF THE COVENANT)
Usually, Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes can stand alone due to the richness of the narrative strands Larry David and his writers create. But most seasons will have a very solid narrative arc running through it to provide looping rejoinders, a structural spine and a fitting conclusion. In season 10, there were echoes of storylines from prior seasons. Larry wanted to get back with Cheryl and they even committed divorced adultery, cuckolding Ted Danson in the process. However, the main arc revolved around the return of coffee store owner, Mocha Joe (Saverio Guerra). Larry pisses Mocha Joe off because he complains about “cold” coffee, wobbly tables and weak scones. Following Larry’s customary banishing he swears revenge on Mocha Joe. This takes the form of the wonderfully named ‘spite store’ he sets up next door. Thus, Latte Larry’s is born, and ten episodes of fast-paced, tit-for-tat, vengeful and hilarious scenes ensue.
“THE GOLDEN RULE” – STYLE AND THEMES
Curb Your Enthusiasm is not just funny because of the situations, dialogue, observations, guest stars and acting performances. It is also very sophisticated and stupid, combining a variety of comedy styles to fuel the humour. Earlier seasons could be argued to be more based in reality per se. The interactions between the characters felt more natural, in keeping with the pilot episode which was shot as a mockumentary about Larry returning to stand-up. Later seasons, especially seasons 9 and 10, upped the gag rate and one could even say felt slicker. Don’t get me wrong, the jokes have always come thick and fast in Curb Your Enthusiasm, but in the last two seasons there is not only a reliance on the usual comedy of embarrassment, observations and satire, but farce, slapstick and gross-out humour too have been added to the palette. Lastly, the show has always skated close to the edge in regard to non-PC humour and causing offence. Evidently, Larry David has now fully thrown himself over that edge and is happy to offend everyone in a two-fingered salute to so-called snowflakes or liberals out there.
In regard to thematics, Larry David clearly has his finger on the pulse relating to contemporary society, politics and human behaviour. Much of the humour and funny scenarios derive from what is acceptable behaviour and certain “rules” within everyday living. In season 10, Larry finds himself questioning, among other things: the behaviour of a pregnant woman; the merits of artificial fruit; what is and what isn’t’ sufficient praise; usage of disable parking badges; whether he should be in a restaurant’s ‘ugly section’; whether sex with Cheryl’s sister is post-relationship cheating; and the overall benefits of running a spite store. These elements, the running feuds with Ted Danson, Mocha Joe and Larry’s assistant, Alice, and themes relating to the Harvey Weinstein scandal and #MeToo movement; Larry and Leon’s continued chats about the nature of being black/white; Donald Trump’s presidency; fat shaming; suicide; Susie’s alleged plot to murder Jeff; nationalist ridicule; egotistic actor types; and transgender issues, all connectedly make this season a very rich product, full of ideas and challenging storylines.
“PRETTY GOOD. . . ” – EPISODE RATINGS
Episode 1 – Happy New Year – (8.5 out of 10)
Larry goes to war with Mocha Joe and reignites his romance with Cheryl. His relationship with his assistant also descends into accusations of sexual harassment.
Highlight: Larry wearing his Donald Trump, “Make America Great Again!”and ensuring no one wants to be seen with him.
Episode 2 – Side Sitting – (8.5 out of 10)
Larry’s relationship with his assistant, Alice, is possibly going to court unless he settles and makes amends. His attempts to get back with Cheryl are rebuked, so he dates his lawyer’s assistant.
Highlight: Larry gives Susie a portrait of herself as a birthday present. She loves it – but Jeff doesn’t.
Episode 3 – Artificial Fruit – (9 out of 10)
Larry’s donation to a charity fails to bring forward redemption when he refuses to hug Laverne Cox at an event, because she has a cold. Meanwhile, Richard and Larry argue over who is paying a lunch bill, leading to a very embarrassing escapade at a Spanish funeral.
Highlights: Larry is unsure if the Heimlich manoeuvre is appropriate when his assistant is choking. Plus, Larry’s doodle debate with Christine Lahti blows up into a serious disagreement.
Episode 4 – You’re not going to get me to say anything bad About! – (9 out of 10)
Larry, Donna (his new girlfriend), Cheryl, Jeff, Susie and Leon go to Cabo San Lucas for a friend’s wedding. Larry becomes fixated with Donna’s yo-yo dieting, but he and Leon do find some incredible coffee beans for Latte Larry’s.
Highlight: Larry’s determination to locate a toothbrush descends into a farcical conclusion. Later, at the wedding, Ted discovers Larry and Cheryl’s infidelity in a hilarious fashion.
Episode 5 – Insufficient Praise! – (9 out of 10)
Preparations for Latte Larry’s gather pace as Larry asks for a specific urinal type. Larry also gets a new housekeeper and is given a sex doll by Freddy Funkhouser. Meanwhile, Larry clashes with actor Clive Owen and Richard Lewis’ new girlfriend; a professional “crier”.
Highlights: Larry’s frantic battle with the sex doll resulting in his housekeeper and Cheryl catching him. Also, Clive Owen’s brilliantly pretentious send-up of narcissistic acting types.
Episode 6 – The Surprise Party! – (8.5 out of 10)
Larry meets a German inventor who has an anti-Semitic Alsatian called Adolf, and he gains joy from the use of a disabled parking badge. He also clashes with Susie over the surprise party she intends to throw for Jeff.
Highlight: Despite not having an appointment, Larry uses his cardiologist’s reception area to wait, because it’s a “waiting room”.
Episode 7 – The Ugly Section! – (9.5 out of 10)
Larry consistently keeps getting placed in the “ugly section” at the back of a restaurant. Simultaneously, he attempts to woo the widow of his friend who recently committed suicide.
Highlights: Larry asking Jane Krakowski’s character where she got the handles for her husband’s coffin. Later, Larry ruins a possible sexual liaison with her by arguing about the New York Jets. Lastly, Larry insults Susie as she should be in the restaurant “ugly section”.
Episode 8 – Elizabeth, Margaret and Larry! – (10 out of 10)
Actor, Jon Hamm, shadows Larry as he prepares to play a character like him in a film. Larry and Leon start a new business venture which initially proves profitable. Cheryl is angered when Larry spontaneously begins a relationship with her sister, Becky.
Highlights: Jon Hamm slowly turning into Larry throughout the episode, culminating in them both being ejected from a dinner party. Also, Kaitlin Olson returning as Becky and the surprising sex with Larry.
Episode 9 – Beep Panic! – (9 out of 10)
Larry strikes up a friendship with a waitress that dripped sweat into his soup. He also becomes obsessed with the liqorice at his car showroom. Meanwhile, Mocha Joe plots his own revenge using DVD film screeners.
Highlights: Leon and Larry succumb to the severe laxative effect of the liqorice in a silly bit of toilet humour.
Episode 10 – The Spite Store! – (10 out of 10)
Latte Larry’s is well and truly open, and it inspires other celebrities to open similar spite stores. Larry is irked by siren abusers and gives a job to Joey Funkhouser, but his big penis causes the store no end of issues.
Highlights: Sean Penn’s opening a spite-driven pet store. All Larry’s innovations at the coffee store ultimately lead to a very explosive downfall.
“NO GOOD?” – CONCLUSION
In preparing for this review I rewatched season 9 and watched season 10 twice. So, it’s obvious to say that I love, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Overall, I found the latest season to be a wonderful mix of old-fashioned slapstick and farce, combined with Larry David’s original and skewed vision of humanity. What was also impressive was the structural coherence of juggling so many comedy plots and situations. Plus, Larry behaves appallingly, and this is very appealing in an ever-increasingly politically correct world. Many times, throughout the season Larry is shown to be a provocative arsehole, but on occasions he very much has a valid point. Larry’s issues are very much first world problems, but because of the skilled writing and consistently high joke rate I related greatly to this season. Plus, Larry doesn’t win. His spiteful plotting and perpetual disagreements with those around him mostly fail. Indeed, ultimately, the joke is always on him.
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.
THE CINEMA FIX PRESENTS – TWELVE FAVOURITE TV SHOWS OF 2019!
Bit late with this one, but following on from my twelve favourite films of 2019, here are the twelve favourite television shows I watched. I must admit I am still way behind on many AMAZON shows and don’t have APPLE TV+ or DISNEY +, so there’s probably loads of good TV stuff I have missed. For comparison I include last year’s favourites here:
FAVOURITE TWELVE TV SHOWS OF 2018
Atlanta (2018) – Season 2 – Fox
Billions (2018) – Season 4 – Showtime / Sky Atlantic
Black Mirror (2017) – Season 4 – Netflix
Bodyguard (2018) – BBC
The Deuce (2018) – Season 2 – HBO – Sky Atlantic
The Handmaid’s Tale (2018) – Season 2 – Hulu / Channel 4
Inside No. 9 (2018) – Season 4 – BBC
Killing Eve (2018) – Season 1 – BBC
Patrick Melrose (2018) – Showtime / Sky Atlantic
Vanity Fair (2018) – ITV
A Very English Scandal (2018) – BBC
FAVOURITE TWELVE TV SHOWS OF 2019
Now, this was TOUGH! Television productions just got better and better! I cannot believe I had to leave the following off the list. Yet, here are the honourable mentions: Afterlife (Season 1), Billions (Season 4), Black Mirror (Season 5), Euphoria (2019), Ghosts (2019), The Handmaid’s Tale (Season 3), Line of Duty (Season 5), The Loudest Voice (2019), My Brilliant Friend (2018), Ozark (Season 2), Stranger Things (Season 3); and the baffling genius of Watchmen (2019). But I decided to limit myself to twelve favourite shows and here they are:
CHERNOBYL (2019) – HBO / SKY ATLANTIC
“… an incredible TV drama. This tragic event teaches us to never take anything for granted. We have built our own gallows.”
DARK (2019) – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX
“… confused in a good way and totally immersed in the Tenebrae. You will be lost — searching for the light — yet you will be astounded too .”
ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA (2018) – SHOWTIME / SKY ATLANTIC
“… These are not likeable characters, but the Showtime production delivers as compelling a character drama as you’re likely to see all year.”
FLEABAG (2019) – SEASON 2 – BBC
“… Waller-Bridge takes familiar themes and situations and spins comedic and dramatic gold from them. Deserves all the praise and awards going.”
FOSSE / VERDON (2019) – FX / BBC
“… If you’re interested in the life and work of Fosse and Verdon then you will absolutely love this warts and all biopic. Rockwell and Williams are incredible.”
GAME OF THRONES (2019) – SEASON 8 – HBO / SKY ATLANTIC
“… despite the incredibly disappointing final episode, it was all about the journey rather the final destination. Winter has come and winter has gone and it’s one I will never forget!”
IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA (2019) – SEASON 13 – FX / NETFLIX
“… The season takes joy in referencing the #MeToo and Time’s Up and Inception. The latter becoming a hilarious meta-textual delight. By the thirteenth episode,I had thoroughly enjoyed the scatter-gun chaos!”
MINDHUNTER (2019) – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX
“… with gripping narratives, great direction, memorable performances and the production team’s accurate eye for period detail in mind, I just did not want the latest season ofto end.”
SUCCESSION (2019) – SEASON 2 – HBO / SKY ATLANTIC
“… Ultimately, this is Shakespearean television of the highest quality. Succession (2019), is what we would get if Billy Wilder did TV.”
UNBELIEVABLE (2019) – NETFLIX
“… thoughtful, suspenseful and, at times, heartfelt drama. It highlights the shocking nature of sexual crimes against women and the very different ways police departments handle such situations.”
THE VIRTUES (2019) – CHANNEL 4
“… a more individual focused, personal and painful character study. Stephen Graham is absolutely amazing as the character of Joseph.”
WHEN THEY SEE US (2019) – NETFLIX
“… Beautifully written, acted and directed, this is an incredible work of television. It combines both a fascinating style and a brutal vision of the struggle of these characters experience.”
Writers – Jesse Armstrong, Jon Brown, Jonathan Glatzer, Anna Jordan, Mary Laws, Georgia Pritchett, Tony Roche, Susan Soon He Stanton, Will Tracy
Directors: Kevin Bray, Becky Martin, Mark Mylod, Andrij Parekh, Robert Pulcini, Matt Shakman, Shari Springer Berman
Executive Producers: Ilene S. Landress, Kevin Messick, Frank Rich, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Jesse Armstrong
Producers: Regina Heyman, Dara Schnapper
Cast: Hiam Abbass, Nicholas Braun, Brian Cox, Keiran Culkin, Peter Friedman, Natalie Gold, Holly Hunter, Danny Huston, Cherry Jones, Matthew MacFadyen, Alan Ruck, Parker Sawyers, Sarah Snook, Fisher Stevens, Jeremy Strong, Rob Yang etc.
Composer: Nicholas Britell
Original Network: HBO
**CONTAINS SEASON ONE SPOILERS**
“So, someone’s getting shit-canned. Let’s get the party started.” — Roman Roy
If you haven’t watched HBO’s Succession (2018-2019), then I urge you to do so. It is genuinely one of the best television shows of the year. You can read my review of the first season here, but it’s safe to say Season 2, now all the characters are established and plots thickened, is even nastier, funnier, scathing, backstabbing and emotionally charged.
Succession may not appeal to everyone. If you prefer your television to be safe and heart-warming, then this is the antithesis of cosy Sunday night viewing. It’s a sickening watch at times; embarrassing and cringeworthy too. These rich capitalists and media players have more money than some countries, but they are driven to crave more. They want more money and more power! This power corrupts absolutely and for them greed is not enough. They are bored gods who having destroyed lesser humans turn on each other for sport.
The second season follows directly after the events of Season One. Waystar Royco’s uber-owner, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), has withstood a power challenge from his son, Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong). He is under pressure now from external sources seeking to excavate a hostile takeover, plus he has to choose a successor to satisfy shareholders.
These situations, and Logan Roy’s attempts to buy one of his biggest media news rivals to bolster assets, initially drive the season forward. But, due to some brilliant writing, the series weaves many other story-lines into a web of twisted strands, all of which create humour, shock, grief, sadness and exhilaration. From Kendall’s attempts to recover from addiction to Siobhan’s (Sarah Snook) pursuit of power and Roman’s (Kieran Culkin) pseudo-Oedipal sexual dalliances, there’s all manner of turbulence for the Roy family. None more so than when — echoing the recent #MeToo scandals — historical sexual abuse in their Cruise Division comes to darken the company door.
HBO has spared no expense in this production, as we find ourselves in a variety of global venues including: New York, London, Dundee, Greece, Turkey and New Hampshire. Moreover, episodes structured around family get-togethers, business meetings, retreats, conferences, awards ceremonies and corporate away days are staged in beautiful and opulent locations. As the characters move from the boardroom to country houses to museums to super-yachts to beaches to trendy bars and off-Broadway theatres, you find yourself a tourist without having to leave the armchair.
Often you will get TV shows where a few characters will stand out as protagonists, but in Succession (2019), the writing, directing and acting is so good everyone stands out. It’s hard to pick whose acting is most impressive. But my favourites have to be Matthew McFadyen as Tom, the grovelling husband of Siobhan, and Jeremy Strong as Kendall. His ghostly performance, full of guilt and existential emptiness, is paralyzingly memorable. As well as the main cast, the production added a raft of incredible character actors such as Holly Hunter, Danny Huston, Fisher Stevens, Jeannie Berlin, Cherry Jones to name a few.
Ultimately, this is Shakespearean television of the highest quality. Succession (2019), is what we would get if Billy Wilder did TV. I haven’t even mentioned the incredible score by Nicholas Britell. The music soars and binds scenes of black comedy and blacker tragedy together with a searing complicity. As I said, the show may not contain the most likeable of characters, but, somehow, the writers, actors and production staff make you want to watch these monsters. Despite their wealth and venal ways, you’re compelled to rubberneck this coruscating humanity motorway pile-up presented as TV entertainment. The incredible dialogue alone makes it one of the best seasons of television I have seen in some time.
Having finished watching all six seasons of the absolutely amazing series The Americans (2013 – 2018) at the end of the summer, I thought it prudent to try and catch up with some of the other television shows I’d missed or had on my planner.
It is becoming clearer and clearer that television, especially many of the shows from Showtime, HBO and Netflix, are reaching and surpassing cinematic quality. The budgets, writing, production values and casts are incredible. It’s been like this for a while, and long may it continue I say.
So, here are a collection of the excellent TV shows I have completed watching in the last month or so, with the usual marks out of 11.
CITY ON A HILL (2019) – SEASON 1 – SHOWTIME / SKY ATLANTIC
This crime drama set in 1990’s Boston is essentially a combination of The Wire meets Ben Affleck’s cracking film, The Town (2010). Kevin Bacon and Aldis Hodge lead the cast in this always watchable story of cops and robbers. Bacon is especially excellent as the anti-heroic FBI agent, Jackie Rohr. Good performances, violent action and earthy Bostonian dialogue inflect this genre piece, which blurs the lines between the good, the bad and the downright ugly.
Mark: 8 out of 11
A CONFESSION (2019) – ITV
Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton and Siobhan Finneran are all uniformly excellent in this true crime drama. Set in Wiltshire, it follows Detective Superintendent Steve Fulcher (Freeman), as his investigative team search for a missing young woman. What follows is a series of compelling events which grip you throughout. Seasoned scriptwriter Jeff Pope delivers a meticulously researched screenplay that explores the emotional impact of criminal behaviour, and how police procedure effects justice for victims and their families.
Mark: 8 out of 11
DARK (2019) – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX
What can I say about Dark (2019) – Season 2? Well, for starters 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 tenebrae. You will be lost, searching for the light, yet you will be astounded too by the audacity of the writing and looping madness on show.
Mark: 10 out of 11
EUPHORIA (2019) – HBO / SKY ATLANTIC
Having recently watched Sam Levinson uneven but stylish low-budget crime drama, Assassination Nation (2018), I thought I’d give this big budget HBO U.S. drama a watch. The ensemble cast of mainly young actors are led brilliantly by the ultra-talented Zendaya. She portrays just-out-of-rehab, Rue, who battles drug addiction on a daily basis. Her new best friend Jules (Hunter Schafer) also has issues to deal relating to identity, sex and love. In fact, pretty much all the characters are fucked up somehow in this giddy, glossy, sexy, dirty and often shockingly dark profile of high school existence.
Mark: 9 out of 11
THE HANDMAID’S TALE (2019) – SEASON 3 – HULU / CHANNEL 4
Season 3 of the iconic Margaret Atwood literary adaptation, continues to play strongly with the emotions, the nerves and the heartstrings. Centred around the dictatorial and fascistic Republic of Gilead, the plight of oppressed woman such as June Osborne (Elizabeth Moss) and other ‘Handmaid’s’ is a grim mix of tense drama and suffocating horror. Having said that, misery has never looked so beautifully shot as Moss’ performance and the cinematography are both exquisitely framed. The narrative is slightly slow in delivery, yet as June finds strength in rebellion and civil disobedience, you’re never too far from startling turns of violence and empowerment within the narrative.
Mark: 9 out of 11
THE LOUDEST VOICE (2019) – SEASON 1 – SHOWTIME / SKY ATLANTIC
I don’t tend to watch the news as it’s all quite depressing. However, I was drawn to this drama about Fox News and its’ leader, Roger Ailes, because it features a great cast. They include, an unrecognizable Russell Crowe, Naomi Watts, Sienna Miller and Seth MacFarlane. The narrative covers Ailes starting Fox News for Rupert Murdoch in 1996, and subsequent global news events from then to the present. Crowe revels in his role as the monstrous Ailes, who advocates making Fox the number one news outlet on TV, by pushing his own agendas amidst sensational news storytelling. I have seen a few negative reviews for this show, but I really enjoyed it. As a profile of a big, corporate predator who preyed on those around him, it was both sickening and enthralling at the same time.
Created and Written by Sally Wainwright – based on The Diaries of Anne Lister
Director(s): Sally Wainwright, Sarah Harding, Jennifer Perrott
Producer(s): Sally Wainwright, Faith Penhale, Laura Lankester, Phil Collinson
Main Cast: Suranne Jones, Sophie Rundle, Joe Armstrong, Gemma Whelan, Gemma Jones, Tom Lewis, Timothy West, Shaun Dooley, Vincent Franklin, Rosie Cavaliero, Lydia Lawton, Amelia Bullimore etc.
No. of episodes: 8
Original Network: BBC / HBO
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
The BBC has a long history of producing classic period dramas and they have had much success with them. Likewise, HBO have an almost flawless record of producing great TV drama. Gentleman Jack caught my eye as it starred the ever impressive Suranne Jones in the lead role of Anne Lister. The titular character was a prominent industrialist and landowner in 1800s, Halifax, Yorkshire. Lister was full of energy, courage and determination as she fought the dominant patriarchal values of the day. As well as battling the men on the business plain, she also caused scandal with her preference for same-sex relationships. Much of this was documented in her extensive ‘secret’ diaries and came to light in their full explicit glory when they were de-coded some years later.
Adapted by Sally Wainwright, a very experienced writer and director, the eight episodes begins at a giddy pace. Lister has returned from abroad to her estate at Shibden Hall, after the breakdown of her most recent relationship. She wastes no time getting back into the swing of running the show and attempting to raise capital for a venture into the coal industry. Lister dotes on her Aunt and Uncle, but clashes with her more conventional sister, Marian (Gemma Whelan).
Marian disapproves of her sister’s robust, androgynous style and unsaid desire for female “companionship”. Amidst the cutthroat business conflicts with her rivals and tenants, Lister then finds a new romance with neighbour Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle). Ann Walker though is younger, delicate and somewhat inexperienced; thus, the path of love is very precarious.
The character of Anne Lister as presented by Suranne Jones is a fantastic watch. She strides around from location to location energetically controlling her estate and making plans. She clashes and stands her ground with the men of the drama, proving herself to be more than their equal. Gemma Whelan, as Marian, is also brilliant. Whelan steals many a scene with an exasperated look, sarcastic smile and witty quip. It’s a testament to her acting range she can inhabit such a bright character after the darkness shown in her role of Yara in Game of Thrones.
The actor with the most difficult role is Sophie Rundle. At times her character is so confused, mentally and emotionally, that she is hard to warm to. I personally wondered, apart from her wealth and sickly nature, what Lister was attracted to. I think there was probably sexual attraction but also a desire to protect this delicate flower. Nonetheless, the opposite nature of Lister and Walker’s personalities created intriguing and touching romantic situations.
The story had been told before in a film called The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010), directed by James Kent and starring Maxine Peake. I did not see that particular drama but as this latest adaptation is a co-production between the BBC and HBO, the values of the production are of course exemplary. The costumes, camerawork, style, musical score and pace create a very engaging tele-visual experience. Sally Wainwright deserves credit for adapting the diaries and creating compelling drama, romance and some darker events along the way.
I would say that perhaps the various narrative strands could have been resolved within six episodes, rather than eight. Plus, there was, on occasion, a use of Anne Lister directly addressing the audience which became jarring at times. I mean, there did not seem to be much context to the use of this stylistic device. Nonetheless, these are minor issues which did not stop me enjoying the show. Indeed, with a brilliant cast, writing and direction throughout I would highly recommend this excellent TV programme.
Executive Producers: David E. Kelley, Jean-Marc Vallee, Reese Wetherspoon, Bruna Papandrea, Nicole Kidman, Liane Moriarty etc.
Based on: Big Little Lies by Lianne Moriarty
Teleplays written by: David E. Kelley
Directed by Andrea Arnold
Main Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Zoe Kravitz, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Scott, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, Kathryn Newton etc.
Cinematography: Yves Belanger, Jim Frohna
Original Network: HBO
**CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASON ONE**
I hate Social Media and Twitter especially, sometimes. I also hate myself for getting dragged into the bullshit it sometimes brings. I’m referring specifically to the distorted prejudice the mind can take on when reading a few negative posts about a programme, film or personality. Such reports can obviously be accurate. However, they can mislead and stain your expectations of a show or film or actor or artist. In this case the second season production of HBO’s, Big Little Lies, came under fire from a few people on my Twitter feed. They said it was an awful and an ultimately disappointing series. Were they right? I mean, how bad could it be?
Then there was the Indiewirearticle which highlighted an issue during production. They asserted in a well written piece of click-bait that director Andrea Arnold was unceremoniously disregarded in the editing process and first season director, Jean-Marc Vallee, brought in to oversee re-shoots and final cut. If you believe the Indiewire article, this was the act of a heinous media corporation cutting down a beloved artist and robbing her of her vision. Arnold’s auteur status remains untainted for me. She is a fine director who carried out her contract and did not have final cut anyway. This belonged to HBO and they had say on who they hired during the production.
Thus, in a short period of time, a couple of tweets and one article had seriously affected my expectations of the second season of Big Little Lies. I was expecting a mess of a show. One which did not make sense and was robbed of all artistic and dramatic impetus by the HBO hierarchy. However, I can safely say I was wrong and, while not as good as the brilliant first season, it was still a really intriguing eight episodes worth of entertainment.
After the exceptional first season which found a stellar cast including: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Adam Scott, Zoe Kravitz, Alexander Skarsgård and Shailene Woodley on top acting form, the second season follows on with the aftermath of prior events. The first season expertly inter-weaved stories concerning an unknown “murder” victim; school bullying; warring parents; extra-marital affairs; and abusive relationships, expertly played out over seven compelling episodes. With the “murder” victim revealed in the final episode, we now get an exploration of suspicion, guilt, conspiracy and a test of loyalty and friendship.
Without wishing to give too much away the newest and strongest addition to the series is Meryl Streep. She plays the mother ***SPOILER ALERT*** of the dead guy from the first season, Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård). His death occurred when he was pushed “accidentally” down some stairs at a party. But, the friend’s, including his wife, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), collude to say he fell instead. With the police still suspicious the main investigator is actually Streep as the dogged Mary Louise. She is passive-aggressive and subtle in her enquiries as to how her son died. It’s a delight watching her deviously pull apart each of the lead suspects. It is also an absolute masterclass in acting as Streep’s crafty characterisation makes this series a must-watch. Her scenes with Nicole Kidman’s crumbling personality are especially compelling.
Allied to the investigation into Perry’s death, the show gives some interesting narrative strands to Laura Dern’s energetic power-mum, Renata. Her world is about to disintegrate around her in the face of her husband’s financial wrong-doings. Equally powerful is Bonnie’s (Zoe Kravitz) attempt to heal the rift between herself and her mother. Bonnie suffers the most guilt as ***SPOILER ALERT*** she was the one who pushed Perry down the stairs. As she battles with the emotional repercussions of her actions, she experiences a painful re-emergence of historical parental abuse. Perhaps, not as intriguing are Madeline (Reese Wetherspoon) and Jane’s (Shailene Woodley) narrative strands. Nonetheless, they do support the series’ themes of family, trust and love that add depth and subtext.
To finish, I learnt once again that social media and Twitter surfing can have a negative impact on one’s critical expectation of a programme or film. You have to basically make your own mind up and not be swayed by the pitchforks and torch-bearers baying for blood online. Big Little Lies (2019), Season 2, therefore, while not reaching the dramatic heights of the first season is an excellent follow-up. It explores the privileged lives of the rich Monterey set instilling a sense of humanity and frailty to their lives. The more improvisational direction of Andrea Arnold works well with the fragmented impressionism of the editing style to bring this out. Mainly though, it’s the impressive cast and script which glued me to the screen while experiencing this very watchable drama.
Writers – Jesse Armstrong, Jon Brown, Jonathan Glatzer, Anna Jordan, Lucy Prebble, Georgia Pritchett, Tony Roche, Susan Soon He Stanton
Directors: Adam Arkin, Miguel Arteta, S.J. Clarkson, Adam McKay, Mark Mylod, Andrij Parekh
Executive Producers: Ilene S. Landress, Kevin Messick, Franch Rich, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Jesse Armstrong
Producers: Regina Heyman, Dara Schnapper
Cast: Hiam Abbass, Nicholas Braun, Brian Cox, Keiran Culkin, Peter Friedman, Natalie Gold, Matthew MacFadyen, Alan Ruck, Parker Sawyers, Sarah Snook, Jeremy Strong, Rob Yang etc.
Composer: Nicholas Britell
Original Network: HBO
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
“Money, money, Money! Must be funny! In a rich man’s world!” ABBA
Is it funny? In a rich man’s world? Or woman’s? Or anyone’s?
From my perspective I’ve never understood the desire for incredible wealth and power. Of course, it is great to be comfortable and have the money to feed, clothe and house yourself. But, that need and want to have extravagant things is beyond my comprehension. Obviously, if you’re born into money, it could be deemed unavoidable. Some may say it’s a curse. However, we all have choice as to how we behave whether we have money or not.
Personally speaking, I have everything I need to live. I have enough nice things. I have a car, television, mobile phone, computer, food, clothes, shoes, people I love and, at time of writing, my health. I have enough. For some enough is never enough. The extreme is only halfway. Ambition and power and wealth and greed drive them forward. Their desire for more has no limit.
Succession (2018), is another television show about the darker actions of the filthy, selfish and narcissistic rich. Similar, but far more poisonous than Showtime’s hit Billions, the narratives are driven by power games from the Machiavellian playbook. Set within a behemoth media conglomerate, Waystar Royco, led by octogenarian, Logan Roy (Brian Cox). the plots and subplots focus on the various family members and fucked-up personalities within this permanently dysfunctional family. The characters are not so much ‘Masters of the Universe’ but masters and mistresses of their own calamitous downfalls.
Is it funny though? In a rich man’s world? Well, based on Jesse Armstrong’s creationSuccession (2018), it is! Unsurprisingly, from a writer who has worked on such comedy masterpieces as Peep Show, The Thick of It, Four Lions (2010) and Veep, these ten episodes contain some of the most biting and sarcastic dialogue and situations you could experience. It’s black though. It’s tumour humour. These are cancerous laughs which eat you from the inside. You’re entertained watching the programme but simultaneously aware of how accurate its’ dark vision of humanity, greed, power and family life is. No one gets out of here alive, including the audience.
The show bleeds quality from cast to production values to direction and not forgetting Nicholas Britell’s incredible score. You have to have a strong stomach to watch so many irredeemable and unlikeable characters all inhabiting the same space. But the writing is an absolute marvel with all manner of slicing one-liners which cut with scalpel like precision. The main narrative strands involve the children challenging their father’s running of the company. Watching Brian Cox viciously curse and do battle with them is drama of the weightiest kind; almost Shakespearean at times.
Lastly, I must say the acting is of the highest order. Sarah Snook, as political campaigner daughter, Siobhan, is destined for big things. British actor Matthew MacFadyen gives a nuanced comedic rendition as Siobhan’s fiancé; both sycophantic to the Roy family and a bully to company underlings. Kieran Culkin is sleazy and the most unlikeable of all, while Alan Ruck’s passive aggressive older son waltzes in and out of scenes with consummate skill.
As Logan Roy Brian Cox is well, just so Brian Cox; sweary, growling and menacing. His character locks horns most of all with second son, Kendall Roy. Portrayed exceptionally by Jeremy Strong, Kendall is a sad figure, attempting recovery from drug addiction, but cursed to desire to lead his fathers’ company. This leads to him making some incredibly dubious decisions. Because enough is never enough and that is the tragedy. In Succession, it is far from funny in a rich man’s world. It is sick, twisted and ultimately very black.