Produced by: Daniele Melia, Peter Saraf, Marc Turtletaub, Andrew Miano, Chris Weitz, Jane Zheng, Lulu Wang, Anita Gou
Main Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Jiang Yongbo, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara etc.
Cinematography: Anna Franquesca Solano
Music: Alex Weston
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
High concept film pitches usually take a tremendously marketable idea that can hook you in seconds, but also cost tens of millions of dollars to make. Sometimes though you’ll get a lower budget, more art-house character film, which will have an equally alluring premise for a fraction of the price. Lulu Wang’s second directorial release, The Farewell (2019), is one such film.
Based on a true story or “actual lie” as the prologue text reveals, the narrative revolves around a Chinese family and their decision not to reveal to their paternal Grandmother, or Nai-Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), that she has terminal cancer. This leads to a bittersweet series of scenes, full of comedy and pathos, as the whole family must keep the secret while arranging a fake family wedding in China.
While it is an ensemble cast generally, the audience conduit is Awkwafina’s Billi Wang. As her character, along with her mother and father, have lived in America for several years she believes that the Grandmother she loves has a right to know about her illness. As the scenes unfold, she clashes with various family members creating a palpable suspense as to whether Billi will reveal the truth. Moreover, we get many scenes where the family debate the various cultural and philosophical reasons why Nai-Nai should or should not be told. These I found very thoughtful and engaged both my heart and mind in equal measure.
Overall, it’s a low-key character study but nonetheless gripping, funny and sad throughout. I was especially drawn in because I wondered what I would have done in that situation. Personally, I think it is best to tell the person they are ill, but as the film wore on, I could see the other side of the argument too. In other hands this could have been turned into a poorly conceived farcical comedy, but as this is based on the writer and director’s Lulu Wang’s real-life experiences, we ultimately get a very touching film about life, death, family, love, culture and truth.
Personally, I would have liked Billi’s character to have been a bit more fleshed out at the start. Mainly because I was unsure of her personality and she just seemed a bit depressed. I mean was she a writer or a pianist and what was her job? Having said that, Awkwafina provides subtle brilliance in her role as Billi, yet, Zhao Shuzhen steals the show as the effervescent Nai-Nai, whose character shows an unabated lust for life throughout this fine film.
Cast: Stephen Graham, Niamh Algar, Helen Behan, Frank Laverty, Mark O’Halloran etc.
Composer: PJ Harvey
Original Network: Channel 4
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
The Virtues (2019) is the latest drama from British filmmaker Shane Meadows and was released on Channel 4/All 4 recently. Over the four episodes we experience the traumas of Joseph (Stephen Graham), as he attempts to overcome events in the present and those which haunt him from the past.
The story begins in Sheffield and introduces forty-something, Joseph as he’s about to say goodbye to his nine-year old son and former partner who are emigrating to Australia. While he’s putting a brave face on this emotional upheaval, internally the separation slowly tears him apart. It also precipitates memories of events which occurred to Joseph when he was young and living in Ireland.
It was at the age of nine when his parents died. While his sister is adopted, Joseph is placed into a care home. It is here that he suffers an unspeakably horrendous trauma. On returning to Ireland as an adult, painful memories he had blocked out until now suddenly resurface. As an adult Joseph tries to come to terms with what occurred, make peace with his sister and at the same time battle his ongoing alcoholism. It is altogether gruelling and compelling drama.
Shane Meadows and Stephen Graham had worked together on the This Is England film and TV series. While that was very much an ensemble piece, this is a more individual focused, personal and painful character study. Stephen Graham is absolutely amazing as the character of Joseph. He has been broken by life, let down by the system and traumatized as a child. Graham lives this pain in virtually every scene he inhabits. His eyes darting nervously, he mumbles, looking down and around, trying to hide; only coming alive when he has alcohol in him. His problem with alcohol is he cannot stop, and this invariably leads to Joseph hurting himself physically and emotionally.
Alcohol as self-medication is just one of the issues addressed in this startling and raw drama. Meadows and co-writer, Jack Thorne also address families, adoption, child abuse, religion and the care system. While the series doesn’t venture into outright socio-political criticism, it explores the damage that can occur to individuals in care. Through Joseph’s sister, Anna (Helen Behan) though, we also get a more positive view of adoption. Her character is strong and determined and a fine mother. But she did not suffer the events Joseph did, so their journeys travelled different paths.
Shane Meadows directs with his usual naturalistic brilliance. Scenes with all the actors feel honest and believable. Meadows is not afraid to shoot simply and allow the performances provide the emotion. Having said that there are some highly stylistic choices. The flashback editing and montage is a case in point. Moreover, when Joseph goes on a bender, we get the camera-harness point-of-view shot I remember first seeing in Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). This allows us to step into Joseph’s drunken psyche as the soundtrack pounds and a voice-over sermon pipes out on screen. Lastly, the flashbacks to Joseph’s younger years are shot on, what seems like, DV-Cam or an old-style video-camera. This creates an additionally sinister feeling to the events.
Overall, this is another powerful drama from Shane Meadows. He gets amazing performances from all the actors, notably Stephen Graham, star-in-the-making Dinah Algar; and an Irish actor I hadn’t seen in a while, Mark O’Halloran. My feeling is Meadows could arguably of told the story in a two hour film. This is because the four episodes slightly stretched out the story in places. Be warned though, The Virtues is not for the faint-hearted. It is very painful to watch. Such is the emotional power of the story, by the end, your heart will feel like you’ve gone ten rounds with a heavyweight boxer. But as a drama about fighting back against the punches life throws at you it will certainly remain with you for some considerable time.
Written by: Charlie Covell (based on comic novella by Charles Forsman)
Cast: Alex Lawther, Jessica Barden, Gemma Whelan, Wunmi Mosaku, Steve Oram, Christine Bottomley, Navin Chowdhry etc.
Original Network: Channel 4
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
This Channel Four comedy-drama can be found on both ALL 4 and Netflix. It is certainly recommended for those who like their comedy darker than an Arctic winter’s day. It concerns a teenager called James (Alex Lawther) who believes he’s a psychopath, who decides to go from killing animals to people. Enter Jessica Barden’s equally maladjusted Alyssa, and we get eight episodes of acidic, violent, rites-of-passage and anti-romantic mischief.
The first episode is arguably the strongest as it starts with a breakneck pace establishing James character history and how he meets Alyssa. They are both very nihilistic and unlikable but that’s the point. The series is an anathema to the conventional feel-good Hollywood sitcoms and comedy films. This is violent and nasty with lost kids ignored or endangered by the adults around them. Indeed, aside from Gemma Whelan’s likeable police officer there aren’t many characters to empathise with here.
It is a testament to the fine acting by rising stars Lawther and Barden that the show held my interest over the eight short episodes. As the two anti-heroes go on the run across country I was reminded of the Tarantino scripted films True Romance (1993) and Natural Born Killers (1994), but filmed in Surrey. Of course, End of the F***king World (2017) doesn’t benefit from Tarantino’s wicked dialogue, however, it compels with a journey into some very twisted places.
Nominated for a BAFTA for Best Drama Series, I didn’t enjoy as much as some reviewers and critics did. I think this is mainly due to the fact it doesn’t really have much to say other than life is shit. Also, the characters don’t particularly learn anything, change or have a particularly intriguing philosophy. Moreover, their story begins and ends in abject nihilism with little hope for a brighter future. Don’t get me wrong, I love dark comedies and dramas, but this was relentlessly depressing and probably would have been better as a punchier ninety-minute film rather than a series. Overall, though the smart script and malignant characters had a dark magnetism. That and the excellent performances make it worth a watching if you’re feeling in a “I-hate-the-world” kind of mood.
Starring: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sian Clifford, Olivia Colman, Brett Gelman, Hugh Skinner, Bill Paterson, Jamie Demetriou, Jenny Rainsford, Hugh Dennis etc.
Composer: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Cinematography: Tony Miller, Laurie Rose
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
This melancholic, painful and chaotic home for middle-class grotesques and excruciatingly awkward comedy situations involving, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s barely-surviving-human being-the-titular-‘Fleabag’, shouldn’t really work as entertainment. Yet, it does because of: brilliant writing, dark, honest humour, existential depth, almost-cinematic production values; genuine star quality from Waller-Bridge; and a cast on top of their game.
First-world-very-white yet universal human problems are legion in two seasons of twelve breathless episodes. We join our nameless anti-hero scraping through life in the midst of doubling grief, following the recent deaths of her mother and close friend/business partner. No doubt the chattering twenty-something classes are full with “I’m just like Fleabag!” recognition. Nonetheless, there’s something to enjoy for those who love to experience raw, human frailty on screen too.
‘Fleabag’ fights flailing moods, business and family issues in contemporary status-symbol London. Using sex to block out her pain in the first season, ‘Arsehole Guy’ and ‘Bus Rodent’ are two such crutch-like paramours who, along with on-off-ex-boyfriend, Harry, are given the physical and emotional run-around. In the less bawdy second season she falls for an uber-cool Catholic Priest (Andrew Scott). Thus, the lashings of sex from the first season gives way to more interesting abstinence and romantic torture for ‘Fleabag’.
With her best mate dead from a tragic accident ‘Fleabag’s’ sword and shield against life is gone and attempts at bridge-building with her family are fraught with strained agony. Her sister Claire (Sian Clifford), is tighter than a snare drum, existing solely on neurosis and a never-ending workaholic mission drive. The scenes between ‘Fleabag’ and her sister range from touching to hilarious to fractious dread. Meanwhile, their beta-male Father (Bill Paterson), is also grieving and a full-on emotional trainwreck. He finds himself a rabbit-in-the-headlights of Olivia Colman’s ‘Godmother’; a genius at passive aggressivity and unlikely arch-villain, quietly stealing the father away from his daughters.
Many hilarious and painful scenes play out around dinner tables, art exhibitions, parties, funerals, seminars, retreats and weddings. ‘Fleabag’ vainly attempts normality but understandbly fails. In addition to her family she also conflicts with other characters, notably Claire’s horrendous-alcoholic-overgrown-man-child-husband, Martin. I was genuinely shouting bile at the TV screen every time I saw him. Thankfully, Fleabag also features fine supporting roles from more likeable characters portrayed by the ultra-talented Fiona Shaw, Kristin Scott-Thomas and aforementioned Andrew Scott.
From Hancock to Steptoe and Son to Fawlty Towers to Blackadder to The Office to Spaced and to the most recent Gervais show After Life, British comedy has been replete with idiosyncratic and anti-heroic characters we root for. Indeed, it takes special writing and performances to get such shades of grey to work on stage and screen. Overall, Waller-Bridge takes familiar themes and situations and spins comedy and dramatic gold from them. Formally, she smashes the fourth wall with Brechtian direct address, welcoming us into her tumultuous reality, speaking to us and asking us to laugh and cry and love and hate and do what humans do: somehow just get through the day.
Writers: Nic Pizzolatto, David Milch, Graham Gordy
Directors: Jeremy Saulnier, Daniel Sackheim, Nic Pizzolatto
Starring: Mahershala Ali, Carmen Egogo, Stephen Dorff, Scoot McNairy, Ray Fisher etc.
No. of episodes: 8
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Time is an unforgiving concept. It marches on and absolutely never stops until we are dust. While young we believe we have more time, but deep down we can see our own death. That fear will either drive us forward positively or send us insane. Old age is perhaps the bitterest turn in time we must suffer. If we live long enough to collect a litany of fine memories, the mind disintegrates them, cruelly disallowing us from recalling such happy moments. There is also regret. If you have a conscience you are likely to suffer regret. Regret of what you have done wrong, not done right and been simply incapable of doing. Lastly, it is said time and tide wait for no man or woman. But it is waiting; waiting for us to die.
Existential police procedural drama, True Detective, is back for a third season and very good it is too. Starring Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff as the, as usual, mismatched cops; it concerns the hunt for two missing children in the Ozarks, Arkansas. Further, the supporting cast include the impressive Carmen Egogo and always compelling Scoot McNairy. Set over eight compelling episodes we criss-cross three separate timelines that centre on the said case. Events unfold circa 1980 (when the crime occurred); circa 1990 (when the investigation is re-opened); and the present with the characters aged and withering from time’s unrelenting march. The complex structure really enhances the genre plot as the intriguing timelines over-lap and bleed into one another, thickening the mystery and heightening suspense.
While the criminal case is central to the conventions of the genre, writer Nic Pizzolatto is as much interested in the character development and themes pertaining to: love, time, regret, guilt, aging, memory and death. The character of lead detective, Wayne Hays (Ali) is fascinating. A former U.S. soldier who served in Vietnam, he is a complex soul striving for meaning and trying to do the righteous thing. Consistently, however, he finds his race and social standing a barrier to solving the crime. Through his trio of timelines we feel his sense of loss, love, isolation, anger, happiness and confusion. The confusion especially worsens when his older self is hit by Alzheimer’s. Indeed, it is incredibly heartfelt while he attempts to piece together events from memories past including: the crimes, his actions, violent events, and the romantic moments he had with his wife (Egogo.)
Once again, Mahershala Ali proves he is pound-for-pound one of the best actors around. He gives an incredibly nuanced and intelligent performance as Hays. To inhabit the same character in three different guises takes a particular skillset and the subtle differences in performance are a joy to behold. He is assisted by uniformly excellent direction and production design. Indeed, some of the editing is sublime as the images switch between the young Hays and older Hays brilliantly; dissolves, reflections and over-lapping montage effects used imaginatively throughout. Lastly, it’s was also great to see Stephen Dorff too in a prominent role as Hays’ no-nonsense partner, Roland West. Dorff provides ebullient support during the investigation and their friendship is a mainstay of the show.
After the scintillating first season which had Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson burning the plasma off the TV screen with their intense performances, the unfocussed second season contained star acting power but a confused narrative. However, Season 3 is a fine return to form and if you love your cop shows: dark, existential, meditative, violent and intelligent, then this is definitely worth your time.
Executive Producers: Michael Schur, David Miner, Morgan Sackett, Drew Goddard
Producers: David Hyman, Joe Mande, Megan Amram
Starring: Kristen Bell, Wiliam Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, D’Arcy Carden, Manny Jacinto and Ted Danson
US Network: NBC / UK Platform: Netflix
**SPOILER FREE REVIEW**
“Hell is other people.” Jean Paul Sartre
So I started watching The Good Place with expectations of it being another slickly written and performed, shiny, sparkly and goofy American sitcom. I figured I would check it out, give it a season, enjoy and then allow it to slide into viewing obscurity. However, little did I realise it was going to be one of the funniest, intelligent, imaginative, philosophical, slick, shiny, goofy and densely plotted television shows I had seen in years.
Created by uber-comedy-producer Michael Schur, The Good Place, has an immediately fascinating high-concept premise. Set in the ‘after-life’, it deals with the lives and deaths of four disparate characters, namely: Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto). They have all died and gone to a version of heaven, but there’s been a mistake. Eleanor is the snag. Due to a cosmic confusion she should not be there. Her behaviour ratings on Earth are so low she should have gone to ‘The Bad Place’ instead.
Frantically attempting to cover up this hellish mistake, the immoral, selfish and petualnt Eleanor enlists the indecisive but very moral Chidi to teach her how to be good. Thus, begins one of the major themes of the show: what does it mean to be a good person? As a moral philosophy professor when alive, Chidi, reluctantly agrees to train Eleanor. However, she is so inherently selfish it proves a tough task, and much humour comes from Chidi and Eleanor’s life perspectives clashing. Overseeing the “guests'” everyday lives are the architect/angel (arch-angel geddit!), Michael, played with the usual comic brilliance by Ted Danson; and super enthusiastic, Janet (D’Arcy Carden), a personified, sentient, artificially-intelligent computer.
The Good Place starts strong with a brilliant premise and then cascades into a series of incredible events, flashbacks and character reveals, culminating in some hilarious and ingenious narrative twists. Michael Schur is a past master of ensemble comedy, having worked on the The Office (U.S.) and Parks and Recreation; and here his army of writers, actors, designers and effects team serve his fantastic vision superbly. Moreover, the cast zing out the screwball-comedy paced dialogue and gags with laser-sharp comedy timing, with Kristen Bell the pick of the lot. The flashback scenes which show Eleanor back on Earth illustrating why she should go to hell are particularly hilarious. Of course, she’s not precisely evil but very human; she’s just not very good at being human.
Thus, if you want a television show which is shiny on the outside but actually quite dark on the inside then this is for you. The Good Place makes you both laugh and think. It deals with death, religion, heaven, hell, human behaviour and also gives insight into basic philosophy. I mean, it’s educational too; you learn about Camus, Sartre, Kant, Mill and many more! Overall, all three seasons zip along full of zinging one-liners that had me breathless from start to finish and it has heart too. You get to love these characters, despite their faults, and the show certainly leaves you in a very good place.
Produced by: Jim Burke, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, Charles B. Wessler
Written by: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
I have to be honest I am getting very tired of racism and racists, so lord knows how the people who it affects deal with it on a day to day basis. To judge and attack people because they have a different race, background or skin colour is, and has always been, the height of stupidity. We are all humans and should be judged on our actions and behaviour and NOT our physical appearance, social background, sexuality or gender. Furthermore, we must not treat someone a certain way based on general experience of how others behave too. I subscribe to individualistic judgement and the desire for peaceful attempts to resolve conflict and differences. Those that attack and bully and abuse any other human being are wrong and their minds must be changed.
If a feel-good film such as Green Book (2018) can at the very least change one person’s negative attitude then it will be a success. It makes very broad points in regard to race relations and while arguably simplistic, in the very fabric of its story remains a heartwarming call for tolerance, understanding and friendship. Directed by Peter Farrelly, Green Book is based on the true story of Dr Don Shirley, a genius musician, and his brave trip across the deep South of America in 1962 with working class Italian driver, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga. Safe to say the road tour is not without its ups and downs and the men, after initial differences, find common ground, loyalty and friendship.
BEST PICTURE CHANCES – 8/10
As aforementioned in a previous review I would say Roma (2018) will probably win best film at the Academy Awards. Green Book has a decent chance based on the sheer energy and persuasion of the story. Moreover, it attempts to marry comedy with social drama and on the whole succeeds. Peter Farrelly directs with skilled aplomb and the guy is a past-master of the road movie genre with films such as: Dumb and Dumber (1994), Kingpin (1996), There’s Something About Mary (1998) and Me Myself and Irene (2000), all comedies which adhered to road movie genre tropes. I guess that’s one thing that holds Green Book back and that is it’s very “by-the-numbers”, however, that’s also one of the joys of the story in that it hits the heights of genre expectations so well. Finally, Farrelly marshals the road trip, musical gigs and period setting really impressively and film made me feel all glowy by the end.
ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE CHANCES – 8/10
Viggo Mortensen is such an intelligent actor and has often been cast in intense roles which require much internal conflict. Here, his Tony Lip, is a larger-than-life Italian tough guy, handy with the bullshit and his fists. He eats like a horse and loves his family. Further, he’s stand-up guy who won’t be dragged into the Mafia underworld no matter how broke he is. The character verges on the Italian stereotype we have seen many times before but Mortensen imbues the lovable rogue with a humanity, humour and a do-the-right-thing spirit throughout. It’s his journey we follow as he moves from prejedicial jerk to something more socially acceptable. Lastly, Mortensen’s scenes with Ali are just brilliantly acted; the two bouncing off each other with wit and perfect timing.
ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE CHANCES – 10/10
Mahershala Ali should win this. He is absolutely outstanding. While Mortensen’s character is big and splashed across the screen in ebullient effervescence, Don Shirley quietly steals the show. His erudite, intellectual and refined exterior hides a pained and lonely soul who just does not fit in to society anywhere. While his music is loved and his genius revered he just cannot find inner peace. I mean I know nothing about playing the piano but Ali impresses here too with his conveyance of the musicianship of the character. Lastly, Ali’s performance is one of the best of the year, and while he won previously for Moonlight (2016), this performance is so good he should be on the list of leading actor role nominations.
BEST SCREENPLAY CHANCES – 8/10
The structure of the screenplay adheres to the classic Hollywood model to a tee. There are few surprises as the set-up of two opposite characters meet and go through a literal and figurative journey of discovery and change. Along with the lead performances, what raises the story though, is a fizzing script full of conflict and comedy. We get set-up-punchline, set-up-drama, set-up punchline, set-up feelgood moment throughout, making it a metronomically impressive piece of writing. The letter-writing running gag, for example, is pure comedic gold. Moreover, the script is littered with tremendous dialogue exchanges between the lead roles and ensemble characters which had me laughing and emoting throughout. Perhaps, historical and political accuracy could be queried by some and there is a reliance on familiar archetypes, but that doesn’t interfere with a zinging story.
Green Book is a film that has its chicken and eats it. It is full of life, food, music, family, friendship while making important points about racial issues. It also raises many laughs with heartwarming poignancy, highlighting the inequalities of 1960s with a broad hand. While these issues are not as intriguingly addressed as in BlacKKKlansman (2018), they elevate the generic road-movie-opposites-buddy-bromance tropes and structure. More than anything this is a story about friendship and while it treads a well worn road, mirroring films such as Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) and Midnight Run (1988), it does so with verve, humour and heart.