Produced by: Avi Arad, Matt Tolmach, Amy Pascal, Marvel Entertainment
Written by: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel
Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Reid Scott
Music by: Ludwig Goransson
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
As with the failed franchise blockbuster The Mummy (2017) I have once again been to the cinema and watched, not a great film or work of art, but rather a decent bit of popcorn entertainment that has seemingly been critically mauled, not necessarily unfairly, but out of context from the kind of film it is. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of Venom (2018) which doesn’t work and the film has a couple of serious plot holes, however, if you watch it as the darkly, comedic action film it is intended to be then it has a lot to offer.
I mean, superhero films, over the years, have got – Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Marvel’s generally witty one-liner littered scripts aside – very serious at times. Most recently, Black Panther (2018) was rooted in familial revenge and of course, Marvel’s Infinity War (2018), ended with an apocalyptic disaster for the Avengers and Earth. While there are serious themes in Venom, the director Ruben Fleischer has gone for more crazed humour rather than serious analysis of the psyche. As such for all its faults Venom actually felt more like an actual comic book or cartoon on screen. So, I get that people may not like the movie for being a bit lacking I think they need to lighten up. Thus, in my second instalment of my occasional series In Defence of:, I’d like to say why I actually found it very watchable genre entertainment.
Standing alone, at the time of the action, from the Marvel ‘Universe’ and the recent Spiderman: Homecoming (2017) movie, Venom features the stupendously committed performance of Tom Hardy as crime reporter Eddie Brock. Eddie’s latest case is to delve deeper into uncovering the interplanetary research of Elon Musk-type uber-scientist and corporate mogul, Carlton Drake. Of course, he goes too deep trying to uncover the deadly experimentation and finds himself infected with a space being that Drake has brought back. Drake, compared to the delirious character rendered by Hardy, is a bit flat and another long line of corporate bad guys which Marvel employs and he deserved some better dialogue to justify his megalomaniacal plans. But Riz Ahmed is a great actor and does his best with an under-written role.
What works more though is the connection between Brock and his extra-terrestrial host. Perhaps, given this is a Jekyll and Hyde story it should have been a lot more intense. The psychological horror of being absorbed by another being is something David Cronenberg, would have knocked out of the park. Yet here it’s turned into something of a comedy double act; albeit with Venom biting the heads off bad guys in between the insane banter. Tom Hardy’s rat-a-tat spats with his ‘other-half’ are very funny and reminded of another recent film called Upgrade (2018), which combined even more bloody violence within a hosted protagonist narrative.
With the cool persona of Michelle Williams, an actor of high artistry, clearly enjoying playing for laughs within the straight romantic lead, there is at least some level-headedness to counter Hardy’s facials ticks and roars. Moreover, despite glaring holes in the narrative including: the very generic alien invasion plot; clichéd corporate mercenaries providing body fodder and a severe lack of legal consequences to Brock’s ‘Venomous’ attacks, the smart comedy, pacey action, the monster-effects of Venom itself and fighting scenes, keep entertainment stakes high.
Ultimately, while much more could have been done to explore the dark side of their symbiotic relationship it was unlikely with this director. Indeed, as Fleischer showed with Zombieland (2009) and direction of suburban zombie show Santa Clarita Diet (2017), he favours mixing dark matter with black humour. Lastly, with Tom Hardy as a more than willing ally Fleischer and his army of writers have delivered an admittedly flawed comic-book narrative that remains full of parasitic punch and energy.
CONTRASTING DREAMS ON PAGE AND SCREEN: REVIEWING THE WORK OF PHILIP K. DICK
“Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups… So I ask, in my writing, what is real? I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.”
― Philip K. Dick
For a writer who wrote extensively about artificial intelligence and technology, Philip K. Dick himself was in fact a certifiable writing machine, publishing over 44 novels, a further 120-odd short stories, plus a whole vision of manuscripts, essays and other literary paraphernalia. His death at the relatively young age of 53 took an incredible genius away from us; however, you’re never too far away from his work either on TV, computer or at the cinema.
The latest cinema release inspired by Dick’s vision was the beautifully directed space epic Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Here Denis Villeneuve picked up the baton from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982); an adaptation of K. Dick’s seminal novel Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep (1968). But of course his stories have also given us film adaptations including: Minority Report (2002), Total Recall (1990 & 2012), The Adjustment Bureau (2011), Next (2007), Paycheck (2003), A Scanner Darkly (2006) etc. Moreover, Amazon has recently adapted his classic 1962 alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle (2015) to positive acclaim.
With Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror jumping ship to Netflix, Channel Four UK (Sony / Amazon in the U.S.A) and various other production companies) must have felt there was a “futuristic anthology show” hole in their schedule. Thus, they obtained the rights to Philip K. Dick’s back catalogue and produced a show called Electric Dreams – shown in two halves in 2017 and 2018. The production values were very high and some extremely talented actors, producers, writers and directors were brought in to bring ten Dickian short stories to the TV screen. Such creative luminaries included: Janelle Monae, Dee Rees, Ronald Moore, Juno Temple, Bryan Cranston, David Farr, Matthew Graham, Timothy Spall, Jack Thorne, Steve Buscemi, Anna Paquin, Terrence Howard, Travis Beacham, Richard Madden, Vera Farmiga and many more.
I have immersed myself in the novels, cinema and TV work inspired by Philip K. Dick recently. I was fascinated by the themes and narratives represented and comparisons between the literary and screen works. How did they compare to Dick’s original vision and how do they differ?
NIGHTMARE THEMES IN ELECTRIC DREAMS
Of late I have read his novels Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), Ubik (1969) and the collection of short stories – collated in conjunction with the Channel 4 series – Electric Dreams. Moreover, I have seen most of his works adapted for cinema. His narratives are often hallucinatory and dream-like with simple yet devastating prose. They deal in reality, alternative reality and beyond reality. You’re often in a place where you are unsure as to what is occurring is in the real world or some imagined or manufactured nightmare. Technology, disease and war are more than often a threat. The biggest threat though is humanity and its seeming endless proclivity for inventing weapons, machines and viruses with which to kill. Paranoia and doubt infect Dick’s work making you feel as trapped as his characters. Further, mutated strands of humanity are a staple trope where telepaths and empaths inhabit his oeuvre; along with classic science fiction aliens and monsters from outer space too.
The narratives, while possessing an otherworldly and futuristic feel, paradoxically feel realistic because his characters are everyday people. They are rarely action heroes or soldiers or scientists but rather administrators or office staff, factory or transport workers. They are family people trying to make their way through life and the horrors the world throws at them. Given Dick was writing during the 1950s onwards it’s not surprising that the threat of nuclear war hung heavy within his words. Furthermore, the rapid technological breakthroughs which, while offering hope for humanity, brought with it a movement to the loss of free will and a possible future governed by machines. Big corporations, banks, governments and computers all erode and destroy the very fabric of being in Dick’s world rendering human identity and existence obsolete. His universe is brimming with people under threat, humans desiring to escape and a questioning of what it means to be human.
CONTEXTUALISING THE NIGHTMARES
**CONTAINS FILM AND LITERARY SPOILERS**
Adapting Dick’s work can be complex because what works on the page as a concept can be difficult to transfer to a visual medium. Conversely, his work is often altered beyond recognition with fragments of the initial idea remaining while others stay true to the original. The original and subsequent sequel of Bladerunner (1982) are very faithful to the structure and futuristic vision of Dick’s original novel; retaining the ‘hunting of replicants’ plot and the existential question of whether an android can be considered human. In Electric Dreams the adaptation of the short story Human Is. . . . poses a similar question. In this story a wife faces the choice as to whether her husband, whose body has been invaded by an alien, is in fact more human because he is an improvement and displaying idealised human traits such as kindness and love. The flipside of this occurs in the film adaptation of Imposter (2002), and the short story adaptation The Father Thing, where nefarious aliens hell-bent on invasion take over the humans in order to divide and conquer. Human Is… both the short story and television adaptation are particularly convincing as many people have all been trapped in dying relationships where we wish we could change our partner. Dick’s story takes this idea and makes it real and emotionally very powerful.
Certain filmmakers, when adapting Dick’s work, will mould their style to his vision. For example, in the Steven Spielberg directed thriller Minority Report (2002), Dick’s pre-crime conspiracy model was presented as an action pursuit film with Tom Cruise going on the run for a crime he may or may not have committed. Spielberg retains the initial idea and concepts relating to pre-cognitive telepathy and empathic mutation but renders it a more fast-paced and spectacular cinematic experience. Similarly, telepathy and mutants feature heavily in Matthew Graham’s pretty faithful adaptation of The Hoodmaker. Like Minority Report telepaths are exploited by the government and law to do their bidding, only for the system to be corrupted and used for death by those in power.
Dick’s story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale, has been adapted on two occasions as Total Recall (1990 and 2012). Paul Verhoeven’s earlier version about warring government agents and colonies on Mars is an absolute blast. Dick’s concepts relating to alternative realities and implanted memories are fused with an explosive Arnold Schwarzenegger action film. Yet, what is retained amidst the shoot-outs and spectacular set-pieces is the main protagonists’ life dissatisfaction and desire to escape their everyday existence for something more exciting. This is a common theme in Dick’s work and can also be found in the Electric Dreams’ stories Impossible Planet and The Commuter. In the latter a Station clerk finds a hitherto lost “town” which offers a means of escape from his seemingly humdrum life but it comes at a cost. While Total Recall raises the pace and stakes within an interplanetary setting, The Commuter is more ordinary and emotional in its cerebral representation.
Political, social and technological corruption is present in many of Dick’s other works too. In Richard Linklater’s adaptation of A Scanner Darkly (2006), an undercover cop battles to conceal his identity while struggling with drug addiction. While in Electric Dreams, Dee Rees’ rendition of Dick’s short story The Hanging Man, takes an allegorical story about social unrest and fascistic hangings, turning it into a thought-provoking, paranoiac nightmare scenario. Rees calls her story Kill All Others, where we find Mel Rodriguez’s factory worker driven by fake news and political manipulation during an election. This eerily reflects much of the social and media saturation seen during Donald Trump’s U.S. election win. Likewise the adaptation of Foster, Your Dead became the very impactful Safe and Sound; and examined the deadly possibilities of technology firms manipulating youth within the context of the war on terror.
Arguably not as successful, however, was the Tony Grisoni adaptation called Crazy Diamond. This episode completely altered Dick’s story Sales Pitch, which told of a relentless Sales-Bot who won’t take no for an answer. In fact I had no idea what Crazy Diamond was trying to say and perhaps the writer should have stuck to Dick’s intriguing techo-nightmare premise. Indeed, threat of technology and the inevitable doom progress represents is also presented in the excellent episode called Autofac. Dick wrote this story in 1955 and set it after an apocalyptic world war has devastated Earth’s civilizations. All that remains is a network of hardened robot “Autofacs” supplying goods to the human survivors. However, these drones and bots are in fact hindering survival and the idea is incredibly prescient. Indeed with the rise of Amazon and Google and Apple industries our society is becoming more dependent on such technology to the extent we could be classed as helpless without it.
Lastly, what Electric Dreams demonstrates, along with the many film adaptations of his work, is that Dick’s concepts are just as relevant, if not more so than at the time of writing. Moreover, what this thematic and genre contextualisation of Dick’s work illustrates is that universal themes such as: the desire to escape; what it means to be human; media manipulation; fear of technology and war; oppressive government regimes; and all round insidious paranoia about a very dark future are inescapable and will always be part of society and the human condition.
Producer(s): Barney Reisz, Charlie Brooker, Annabel Jones
Distributors: Endemol UK – Netflix
Season 4: 6 Episodes
Writer(s): Charlie Brooker plus William Bridges (USS Callister)
Directors: Toby Haynes, Jodie Foster, John Hillcoat, Tim Van Patten, David Slade, Colm McCarthy
Cast: Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milioti, Jimmi Simpson, Michaela Coel, Billy Magnussen, Rosemarie DeWitt, Brenna Harding, Andrea Riseborough, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Andrew Gower, Georgina Campbell, Joe Cole, Maxine Peake, Douglas Hodge, Letitia Wright etc.
Technology: the final frontier; allowing humans to boldly go where no human has gone before. Indeed, one of the most incredible elements of our world is the technological breakthroughs we have made over the past century or so. We have: electricity, nuclear power, robots, driverless vehicles, television screens, computers, mobile phones, satellites, GPS tracking, drones, 3D printing, smart home air-conditioning, Hadron Colliders, huge space-ships which travel beyond the stars, WI-FI, the world-wide-web connecting everyone with anyone, holograms, the social media phenomenon, virtual reality head-sets, software algorithms, x-rays, gamma knifes, DNA, cloning, MRI scans, Hyperloop tube trains, Sat-Nav, Google, immersive video-games; plus many more medical, military and industrial inventions which make our lives so easy today.
But with such wonderful and fantastic discoveries there is always a dark side. While we may create a medical breakthrough which cures on the one hand we’ll ultimately invent some new weapon or means with which to kill ourselves. So while technology is mainstay of our existence it also can feed our obsessions and thus become an extension of our poor choices, violence and insanity. The scariest thing is we think technology is absolutely necessary and we cannot live without it. I mean, all we really need to survive is water, air, food, shelter and perhaps, as The Beatles sang, love. For all its’ positives, technology is an addiction and can be used to do wrong and cause harm.
Charlie Brooker’s sublime anthology series Black Mirror is now in its 4th Season (2nd on Netflix). It taps into the fear factor technology brings and presents nightmare scenarios that more often than not possess a prescient twist. Who can forget the very first episode of BM which had Rory Kinnear’s Prime Minister having to fuck a pig as a means to pay a hostage ransom? The subsequent tabloid news that our then former Prime Minister David Cameron had, allegedly, stuck his member in a pig’s mouth suddenly made BM incredibly prophetic. This season is another televisual triumph with an incredible array of acting, directing and production talent with each episode offering the feel and scope of a cinema release. I’ll be honest being a massive Charlie Brooker fan I would probably enjoy a video of him dancing in a tutu whilst juggling tomatoes; however, I can confirm these six episodes were beyond brilliant too.
Within the fabric of each episode Brooker holds a mirror up to the future and invariably it will come back black. However, the touching love story of San Junipero (from Season 3) offered some light in the BM universe and similarly Hang the DJ (officially 3rd in the Season 4 list) contained a wonderful love story at its’ heart with Georgina Campbell and Joe Cole giving humorous and touching performances. It also contains a Truman Show (1998) style ending and a twist that I thought was absolutely fantastic. Indeed, what appears to reflect the dystopic controlling techno-world of romance apps becomes something entirely real and beautiful by the end.
While Hang the DJ offers hope, the remainder of the episodes are bittersweet, brutal and unforgiving in their rendering. Actually, I suppose the Star Trek pastiche USS Callister has a kind of optimistic ending and is bloody funny in its affectionate satire of Trek archetypes and monsters. However, Jesse Plemons downtrodden Silicon Valley programmer holds a dark secret during his immersive Virtual Reality gaming experiences. Full of Star Trek references and themes, the clever script merges ideas relating to gaming and DNA technology with fantastic sci-fi meta-textual moments.
Arkangel also has an element of brain implanted software which enables a neurotic mother (Rosemarie DeWitt) to track and view her daughter’s every move on a computer screen. Despite the revolutionary software used this story is based wholly in familial reality as the relationship between mother and daughter becomes strained as she enters her rebellious teenage years. The danger of “helicopter” or overbearing parenting becomes too apparent in satisfying soap operatic story.
Brooker relates many of his scripts in genre territory so the more outlandish or fantastic ideas are grounded with an identifiable cultural identity. The horrific murder plot of Crocodile unfolds in true Hitchockian fashion as an insurance adjuster tracks down the details relating to a vehicle accident but tragically stumbles on something altogether more deadly. The ending of this story is particularly far-fetched, as Andrea Riseborough’s architect gets deeper and deeper in the mire, however, Brooker must be praised for taking risks with his twists.
Rather simpler is the pursuit thriller Metalhead, presented in crisp black and white, as a woman (the brilliant Maxine Peake) attempts to survive in a dangerous land full of robotic guard-dogs. It’s mainly a tense one-hander and the future never looked so drained of hope and colour. The final episode Black Museum was even more grisly as Douglas Hodge shows Letitia Wright’s tourist around his grim parade of exhibits. Brooker’s writing is as strong as ever and the horrors of the entwining anthology stories are shocking and powerful. It’s a dark, dark episode which contains the fantastic idea of uploading one’s digital soul into a loved one’s to share their consciousness. This plays out with both horror and humour in a compelling end to the season.
Being a total Charlie Brooker and Black Mirror fan; a big lover anthology stories; plus a fanatic of horror and tales with a twist it’s obvious to say I loved this seasons offerings. They are clever, dark, funny, sickening, silly, romantic, scary, twisted stories full of satire and warnings about the dangers of technological progress. Ultimately, though it is not science or computers or mechanics which are the danger; but rather humans use and abuse of said technology. Because, for all our ingenuity and invention we more often than not use machines negatively and Black Mirror reflects that (im)perfectly.
HEARING STORIES: SOME THOUGHTS AND REVIEWS ON AUDIO-BOOKS
Six months ago I was reading a physical book of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and I was just not feeling it. Not the actual book as it is a classic novel of our time but the actual activity of reading itself. I just did not want to read anymore. Of course, I can do it but my mind just didn’t have the desire or energy. What did this mean?
Had I been dumbed down and rendered attention deficient by virtue of the constant viewing of films, TV and the barrage of internet viewing. Perhaps my brain had been become punch-drunk and distorted my mind, like an over-the-hill boxer who’d just had one too many fights. It was confusing. I’ve always loved reading and did not want to stop.
So, I thought why not try out the Audio-book route? What’s the worst that could happen? I could LISTEN to someone reading the book to me and experience the literature from an aural perspective. I have to be honest – I’m glad I did! Because I have been listening to a number of audio-book productions and they have been very rewarding from all manner of dramatic, artistic, comical and emotional directions. Moreover, I listen to these books while walking and at the gym so my “reading” has become a very pleasing mobile pursuit.
Anyhow, here are some reviews of the books I have been listening to over the past months. If you also listen to audiobooks please feel free to suggest any good “reads” or narrations.
BACK STORY – DAVID MITCHELL (narrated by David Mitchell)
Comedian, actor, panel-show humourist and writer David Mitchell takes us on a literal walk of London landmarks and streets, while also wandering down his own personal memory lanes and avenues. Pedantic, neurotic, angry and insightful in equal measures this is an entertaining and intelligent journey full of hilarious rants and stories relating to Mitchell’s life; one which is blighted, not by personal tragedy, but rather a very painful bad back. His narration too is very funny and listening to him speak is like having your very own personal version of the brilliant comedy show Peep Show in your head. I especially, from a creative point-of-view, enjoyed his analysis of comedy past, present and the actualities of writing sketches, jokes and performing too.
CATCH 22 – JOSEPH HELLER (narrated by Trevor White)
The novel which began my whole diversification into the audiobook territories is a startling anti-war character drama full of tragedy and black comedy, highlighting the folly of humanity during conflict. I was both laughing out loud and crying inside as Heller’s seminal work crashes us into the heart of madness during World War II. Featuring any number of crazed pilots either being killed or trying not to be killed while flying over Italy, this novel expertly takes you up and down and up and down. Heller does this with a meticulously acute writing style and via characters such as the wonderfully named: Yossarian, Milo Minderbinder, Doc Daneeka, Snowden, Nately, Nurse Cramer, Captain Aardvark, Colonel Cathcart and many more lunatics. This is a sprawling insane war-set epic which satirizes and laments the folly and destructive behaviour of mankind, and is all the more relevant today because we still can’t fucking learn to stop killing each other over ridiculous things like money, land, God and love.
DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP – PHILIP K. DICK (narrated by Scott Brick)
Dick’s classic science-fiction novel is better known now as Blade Runner and the film versions are incredibly stylish and powerful genre works. Yet, Scott Brick’s narration of Dick’s source novel is absolutely perfect in its rendition, creating a haunting pathos beyond that featured in the film. The story covers one day in the life of Rick Deckard – an “Andy” or android bounty hunter who must track down a series of superior robots of the Nexus Six variety. The original Blade Runner (1982) film did well to distil and simplify the narrative but it only touched the sides where the complex themes are concerned. The novel is far more involved with subtext relating to: simulations; animal husbandry; Artificial Intelligence; Virtual-reality religious fervour; and the existential pain or humans and robots, being explored within the rotting dystopic, Earth setting.
GAME OF THRONES – GEORGE R.R. MARTIN (narrated by Roy Dotrice)
George R. R. Martin’s North-versus-South-Westerosian fantasy epic has provided hours of entertainment via HBO’s massive hit TV adaptation. The original source novel is a literary monster of a book with an over 33 hours running time, so kudos to the talented, yet ageing actor, Roy Dotrice for staying alive during the recording and finding the energy to narrate it. If you don’t know the Game of Thrones TV show, it has become an iconic narrative of Starks versus Lannister’s versus Targaryen’s versus zombies versus dragons and all manner of: lords, ladies, monsters, whores, hordes, henchmen, sorcerers, warriors, Kings, Queens and peasant scum; all fighting and spitting hate at each other for a baying public’s bloodthirsty satisfaction.
The book, of which Game of Thrones is based, is an intricately plotted, brilliantly characterised and action-packed joy. Not for the faint-hearted it is explicit from a violence and erotic perspective and Martin’s writing is believable unbelievability of the highest order. While it may be fantastic in regard to many of the concepts it is grounded in a raw and human reality as the flawed characters conflict with each other in all manner of familial jousting, hearty battling and political chicanery. The book has all the greatest qualities of the television show and much more besides and well worth the many hours it took me to “read”.
HOW NOT TO BE A BOY – ROBERT WEBB (narrated by Robert Webb)
The other half of the Mitchell and Webb double-act, Robert, narrates his own story with an adept sarcasm, intelligence and over-riding sense of grief throughout. As a big fan of Peepshow, his brilliance as an actor is playing unlikeable-selfish-man-boys with devilish charisma. He’s obviously very funny too and his anecdotes and memories of growing up in a Lincolnshire town and overcoming family heartache before joining the so-called Cambridge academic elite are very honest and personable. I would have liked a bit more detail about his creative process but reading between the lines I felt that it all came very naturally and unpretentiously to Webb. Overall, this is a terrific listen, full of funny and tragic moments; plus given I’m the same age as Webb, his references to televisual, pop, film and comedy culture were immediately recognisable to me, only adding to the book’s enjoyment.
I, PARTRIDGE: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT ALAN – ALAN PARTRIDGE (read by Alan Partridge)
Steve Coogan’s genius comedy creation Alan Partridge has been part of my life since the 1990s when I first saw him on the brilliant satire show The Day Today. There he presented the sports and would subsequently go on to a kind of greatness as a chat show host on Knowing Me, Knowing You and starring in one of the best sitcoms of all time, I’m Alan Partridge. It is a testament to the acting ability, quality of writing and sheer stamina of Coogan that he continues to mine comedy gold from the hills of Partridge, as it were. Coogan narrates (in the glorious character of Partridge) a fictional autobiography from actual cradle to career grave. It also hilariously covers how he bounced back from the precipice of a chocolate-driven-frenzied-nervous-breakdown-suicide-attempt in Dundee. I have never laughed so much as six hours of comedic gold entered my brain and left me in stitches throughout. This is one of the funniest things I have had the pleasure to listen too; full of bitter rants, vengeful asides, over-elaborate similes and a litany of what I can only call Partridgeisms! Is that a word: well it is now!
Over the past few months I’ve focussed my extra-curricular viewing on BBC produced dramas via the BBC channels and catch-up on Netflix. The British Broadcasting Corporation, being the public-service-tax-payer-funded-beast that it is has a commitment to produce quality programming for national viewing and also overseas sales too. I then got to thinking; why not check out where some of my £12.12 per month money goes. So, here are some bitesize reviews of recent BBC dramas with marks out of the usual eleven.
**CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS**
THE CHILD IN TIME (2017)
Based on Ian McEwan’s prize-winning novel this was an interesting drama which worked in many respects but did not quite connect in others. Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly McDonald are parents whose child goes missing while out shopping. The drama and grief of this was very well evoked but the supporting story of a publisher’s regression and mental collapse did not quite thematically meld for me. No doubt McEwan’s original source is a master work and I enjoyed many of the emotional moments provided by the excellent acting. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
DOCTOR FOSTER – SEASON 1 (2015) + SEASON 2 (2017)
Suranne Jones is absolutely stunning in this domestic drama written by Mike Bartlett. She acts her heart and soul out as the eponymous GP, who in the face of her husband’s suspected infidelity, attempts to find both the truth and maintain her family unit and sanity. It’s a brilliantly written TV series which creates great drama from the “whodunnit” aspect of the potential spousal treachery. Plus, in addition to the Hitchcockian elements Dr Foster herself is very unpredictable in her actions; making for some nail-biting scenes. Bertie Carvel also excels as the charismatic husband and the second season, while not reaching the emotional heights of the first, and feeling more contrived, had some decent dramatic twists too.
(Season 1 – Mark: 9.5 out of 11)
(Season 2 – Mark: 8 out of 11)
LONDON SPY (2015)
The always-impactful actor Ben Whishaw is superbly supported by thespian giants Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling in this obtuse spy thriller. Playing a troubled warehouse worker called Danny, Whishaw falls for the enigmatic genius, Alex (Edward Holcroft); and is thrown into a murky and murderous world of spymasters and upper-class family feuds. Beautifully acted and designed the story moved too slowly for me. Over five episodes the slow-bleed plot of character despair, double-crosses and cover-ups did not sustain the suspense and tension throughout. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
THE SECRET OF CRICKLEY HALL (2012)
Suranne Jones (again!) leads the acting line in an earlier post-Coronation Street role. She portrays a mother who, along with her family, seeks the solace of the countryside after their young child has gone missing. However, the house they reside in is haunted by ghosts from the past and as the family attempt to overcome their grief, evil spirits threaten their present. The contemporary narrative works well with the wartime scenes in a decent haunted house scenario that was adapted from the book by horror legend James Herbert; also featuring an early role for Maisie Williams. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
SMALL ISLAND (2009)
Notable for its excellent ensemble cast and featuring before-they-were-famous roles for: Ruth Wilson, David Oyelowo, Naomi Harris, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ashley Walters, this excellent drama focussed on the war and post-war lives of several disparate characters whose lives become intertwined by fate. Based on Andrea Levy’s novel it is especially rich in regard to the diasporic characterizations and experiences of Jamaican immigrants in war-torn England. The writing is solid and there’s some fine acting and emotional moments to keep one enthralled and I enjoyed how the stories dovetailed dramatically at the end. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
TOP OF THE LAKE (2013)
Hey, what if Jane Campion wrote and directed a cop drama? Well, the answer is Top of the Lake! This is a slow-burn, who-why-how-dunnit with a superb cast, beautiful New Zealand vistas and eccentric, dark characters. Some may find it too slow and artsy, while certain decisions by the characters and plot turns were intriguingly weird. However, Elizabeth Moss excels as the burnt-out cop (is there any other kind?) searching for a missing pregnant teenager, while Peter Mullan is suitably vicious as the rural patriarch; and Holly Hunter is fantastic too as the leader of a women’s commune. Overall, Campion’s barbed world-view satirizes humanity and cop show clichés in a compelling crime drama. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
TOP OF THE LAKE 2: CHINA GIRL (2017)
Screened earlier this year on the BBC, the follow-up finds Elizabeth Moss, now back in Sydney, tracking down the killer of an Asian prostitute while battling illegal adoption rings and all manner of sexist-pig-men. Like the original it pulls you in with its richly drawn characters and brilliant cast all committing to the lurid and quirky plotlines. Moss is always reliable and does the brooding, melancholic and troubled cop perfectly, while Nicole Kidman is brilliant as the middle-class academic out of her depth with the emotions of her adopted daughter. The sinister beta-male-nemesis Puss portrayed by David Dencik was a great rendition of spurious masculinity while it was great to see Gwendoline Christie out of her Game of Thrones armour, as a naïve rookie cop assisting Moss’ detective. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
TRUST ME (2017)
Jodie “New Doctor Who” Whittaker leads the cast as a downtrodden nurse and single-mum struggling with an NHS cover-up over poor service delivery. Faced with the sack she decides to engage in a cover-up herself by taking on the identity of a Doctor; and then the real drama kicks in. Whittaker is very empathetic and natural, while the suspense was very thrilling at times as her character gets deeper and deeper into the mire. Overall, it was a very tense and fun medical drama which made some very good social points in regards to a Doctors’ life and the NHS in general. Ultimately, it made me appreciate what the NHS does for us but also want to avoid getting ill in the future too!
(Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
WAR AND PEACE (2016)
Well, the BBC certainly pushed the budget boat out on this one with a who’s who of new and experienced acting talent including: Jim Broadbent, Paul Dano, Lily James, Tuppence Middleton, Aneurin Barnard, Adrian Edmondson, Jessie Buckley, Tom Burke, Rebecca Front, Greta Scacchi, Brian Cox, Stephen Rea, Gillian Anderson and many more. Adapting Tolstoy’s gigantic and classic doorstop novel must have been some feat and it is indeed and sumptuous and incredible production. As a drama it drew me in with its’ stories of over-privileged Russian lives set during the Napoleonic wars as they live, love, cheat, duel, war and die. Yet, while I did not feel too much empathy for the characters, the acting, design and directing is a joy to behold and I garnered a certain hypnotic pleasure bathing in the high quality of the whole shebang. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
“There’s no question that a great script is absolutely essential, maybe the essential thing for a movie to succeed.” – Sydney Pollack
Directors are often held up by critics and audience alike as the God’s of film; controlling and pointing and designing and envisioning and corralling their mass creative power to thrust upon the cinema screen. Of course, with many directors or auteurs, the lofty praise is deserved but hey, did they create that vision or story or character arc in a vacuum? No, they had blueprint on a page first. They had a screenplay written by themselves or a determined writer or writing team sitting in a windowless office smoking a thousand cigarettes while slaving to get words on a page in some semblance of a coherent filmic fashion. It seems obvious to say but a great screenplay is the (skeleton) key for any great film; it’s the bones with which to hang the meat and muscle and later the clothes of any movie. Without powerful bones a film will not stand strong. It will fall.
Screenwriter (and director) Martin McDonagh has, in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri constructed one of, if not the most, formidable screenplays of the year. As a playwright he won many awards for his works and his film, In Bruges (2008), was a deceptively simple story of two hitmen on the run which, with rich thematic power, became a darkly hilarious existential comedy-drama. His follow-up Seven Psychopaths (2012) was a heady mix of criminals versus writers in a meta-fictional Hollywood-based narrative; which while brilliantly written and performed arguably lacked the punch of In Bruges. Now, with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, McDonagh has delivered his best film to date; a highly emotional human drama which contains some of incredible characterization, dialogue and zinging one-liners which bounce off the page and crackle on the screen.
Eschewing a more traditional structure the script’s inciting event – the murder of a young girl called Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) – has already occurred and therefore we are thrust immediately into the grief of main protagonist Mildred Hayes, portrayed with an iron veneer by the remarkable Frances McDormand. Her study of a grieving Mother, who is no longer prepared to sit by and wait for her daughter’s killers to be found, is awe-inspiring. Firing a rocket into the patriarchal-dominated police department ran by Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) she sets in motion a series of unforgettably tragic, violent and blackly comedic scenes. In using the three billboards to question Willoughby’s investigation she utilises physical media as a larger form of the ‘Scarlet Letter’; an old fashioned “name and shame” device. Because Mildred, is refreshingly traditional and old-fashioned and in rural, small-town America the Internet just won’t hack it for her. She is about direct, in-your-face and ballsy action.
As a study of grief this is similar in feel to the majestic Manchester-by-the-Sea (2016) and no doubt, like Kenneth Lonergan, McDonagh will be picking up many awards for his nuanced screenplay. He imbues each of the characters with a flawed, yet rounded humanity. He takes risks by making his main protagonist, despite her loss, kind of unlikeable. Yet we are always with Mildred because she is righteous and swimming against the tide of authority and masculine dominance. Plus, she surprises us with her actions and language and violence. Below the tough exterior though there is also a vulnerability which makes us love her too and empathise fully with her loss.
McDonagh and his filmmaking team have also put together a phenomenal ensemble cast including: Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, and Abbie Cornish etc. Sam Rockwell is especially memorable as the immature, inept and thuggish mother’s boy, Jason Dixon. His scenes with both Frances McDormand and his on-screen Mother, played with deadpan gusto by Sandy Martin, crack with complex emotion and humour. Collectively they portray imperfect characters whose lives have not just been dealt a bum hand but their situation is exacerbated by poor decisions based on emotion and frustration with life and the world. Ultimately, this is an excellent cinematic experience funny, shocking and moving; only possible because of the expert script from a great writer.
(Mark: 10 out of 11 – and the script goes up to 11!)
Here I’m just saying that this is for fun and not a cry for help, as my life is pretty good I have a job, a roof-over-my-head, good family and I have my health. Compared to those in war-torn countries and those hit by horrific tsunamis and hurricanes I CANNOT COMPLAIN!! Still, there’s no harm in having a little bit of a moan now and then. So, here are ten things that really get on my nerves most days whilst living and breathing on Earth.
#1 – ONLINE HATERS OR TROLLS!
Why are people so over-the-top with their reactions online I ask myself? Maybe they are channelling their life disappointments or existential anger by way of dissociative behaviour. Criticizing things is one thing but venturing into petty online spite could be a way of distancing themselves from the pain of life or just a means to attack others in an offensive way. Moreover, sport, politics, novels, schools, pop videos and even cakes give rise to the most ridiculous hate-filled crap online. Even worse is that many people are cowards and use anonymity too. Why can’t we all just get along?
#2 – GU: GLASS POTS
This is a bit of a niche pet-hate! But I once shared a flat with a very decent person but they kept, every day, purchasing GU Pot desserts. They would eat them, clean the glass pots and place them in the cupboard. Soon we were infested with GU Pots! I thought maybe he was to recycle them at the glass bank but he left the tenancy and I was the one who had to get rid of these damned pesky pots. I’d given up smoking so couldn’t even use them as an ashtray!
#3 – PEOPLE WHO DON’T INDICATE WHEN DRIVING
Come on drivers please let me know which way you’re going?!? It’s the lever on the steering wheel; just flick it and THEN I KNOW!! Also, if you’re changing lanes don’t just lurch left or right without warning you bastards!! Please use the indicator!! I’m a bit anal when it comes to this but just have a bit of decency please? Oh, and while you’re at it stop driving so close to my back bumper! THAT’S HOW CRASHES OCCUR YOU MUPPETS!
#4 – ADULTS ON SCOOTERS
What is it with this most recent of irritating phenomena!? If it isn’t bad enough pedestrians having to battle regular traffic and hate-filled cyclists failing to stop at red lights while riding on pavements; we now have morons over the age of 18 riding kid’s scooters too. It may get you from A to Z in an environmentally safe fashion but you are dangerous and look like a dick! Just stop it please!
#5 – PEOPLE WHO SAY, “YOU KNOW WHAT I’M LIKE!
I do this all the time and it is bloody annoying. For example, I am very pedantic and annoy people with this – especially my wife. But when I do it I often utter the above words: “Well, you know what I’m like – it’s what I’m like!” No, it doesn’t work as a catchall defence mechanism so must be rejected. You wouldn’t get jury’s in court finding you innocent of murder because it’s “what I’m like!” Just don’t do it to start off with!
#6 – PROFESSIONAL CRITICS
Everyone’s a critic! Everyone has an opinion or a view and the Internet has caused a mass proliferation and gaping spew of words and views and brain-thoughts in extremis. I am just part of that continued global globule of opinionated ephemera which litters the clouds or servers or wherever the hell it is online. However, I do it for fun and to stop me thinking about death. If you earn a living as a critic then you are Satan! Would I do it for a living, well, yes I would but I’d rather create than dictate. I’d rather be the failed artist trying than the trying failed artist.
#7 – WHITE MIDDLE-CLASS KIDS WHO TRY AND RAP!!
Again, it’s a freedom of choice to dress to behave the way you choose, however, the absorption of urban culture by middle-class white kids to me is very grating. I’m not saying don’t appreciate the music, style and fashion styles but dreadlocks, urban-speak and bad rapping should not be tolerated. Most annoying is appropriating other people’s look or behaviour when much has been borne out from a certain social standing. But most of all it’s the terrible rapping. Look at this c**t from M. Night Shymalan’s The Visit (2015)!
#8 – OVER-INFLATED PRICES PAID FOR ART!
Picture the scene: a starving child in Africa passively stares at a camera while a fly irritates their big sad eyes, and they do not know when their next meal is coming from. Meanwhile, in a New York auction house a painting by Cezanne or Gauguin or Picasso is selling for over $200 million dollars! What the f**k is wrong with the world?! I’m not saying these paintings aren’t great art it’s just that there is NO WAY that amount of money should be paid for a painting when there is starvation, disease, and poverty in the world. It’s just an indictment of the sickness of humanity that we place such value on what effectively amounts to canvas and paint placed in a particular manner by some dead guy. It’s utter madness!!
#9 – PEOPLE WHO DON’T LET YOU GET OFF THE TRAIN FIRST!
Honestly, it’s bad enough being crammed like sardines in a space not fit for cattle going to market. However, when you try and get off a stacked tube and the passengers on the platform block your way then you can seriously lose your cool. There should be a bigger space and line to allow more room to get off. I mean: what’s the hurry though? We’re just too much in a hurry I guess to have some empathy and feelings for others’. Damned shame!
#10 – TALKING AT THE MOVIES!
I mean why are you talking during a movie? There’s a FILM on!! People who chat during the film SHOULD BE banned forever! In fact a law should be introduced that there’s NO talking from the trailers onwards. If you do you are forcibly removed from the screening room. I go to the cinema to escape reality; YOU or YOUR MATE’S voice-words are reality so SHUT THE HELL UP! If you want to have a conversation piss-off to a pub or a shop or a busy road and PLAY IN THE TRAFFIC. Anywhere but the cinema!