Tag Archives: life

MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #18 – KEN LOACH

MY CINEMATIC ROMANCE #18 – KEN LOACH


I haven’t done one of these articles for a while, but in light of the Conservative Party victory in the General Election the other day, I thought it interesting to lean toward a more political filmmaker for my latest post. Thus, I once again pick five highly recommended films by one of my favourite cinema creatives. Today, I look at the work of Ken Loach.

Loach is now, at time of writing, eighty-three year’s old, and has just released a new film called Sorry We Missed You (2019). At the cinema alone he has singularly directed twenty-five films, plus been involved with many television productions too. His ‘Wednesday Play’ Cathy Come Home (1966), was voted in the top ten best British television programmes of all time at the turn of the millennium. It was so powerful in its depiction of a struggling homeless character, the issues were raised in Parliament at the time. His work continues to address socio-political issues even now and has often provoked controversy.

Loach works generally in the dramatic or social realist genre. However, his raw, almost documentary style, which centres on working or characters from the under-classes, does have much comedy going through it too. Structurally his films build empathy with his characters in a generally linear fashion; slices of life which more often than not result in tragedy. While the landscapes he displays are quite depressing, his characters aren’t victims though. They are always strong and passionate and striving for the best outcome. However, poor life choices, poverty, bureaucracy, gangsters, criminality, addiction, military, and unfair government laws and procedures provide fierce obstacles.

Some have accused Loach of, over the years, being a ‘Champagne Socialist’, comfortably attacking the ruling classes from a position of privilege. He’s also been accused of vicariously holidaying in the land of the under-privileged, for what gain I’m unsure of. Personally, I am always compelled by Loach’s cinema, the issues raised and the characters he presents. He is a true humanist director and storyteller, who has made some consistently brilliant films. Whether you agree with his politics or views, he is at least attempting to reflect the injustices in the world and the underdogs within in it. Here are five films which capture this perfectly.

**CONTAINS SPOILERS**



KES (1969)

Based on Barry Hines’ novel, Kes is one of the finest British films ever. It concerns the everyday existence of Billy Casper (David Bradley) and his attempts to survive the harsh realities of Northern life in Barnsley. Billy struggles at school, but finds salvation when he adopts and trains a young kestrel. Kes represents a microcosm of working-class life where the kids are either damned or sent down the pit to work. Simultaneously warm, harsh, bitter, funny and tragic, Kes is a memorable early work from Ken Loach and deserves revisiting over and over again.



MY NAME IS JOE (1998)

Anchored by an incredible leading performance from Peter Mullen, My Name is Joe, centres on Joe Kavanagh and his attempts to stay sober. Joe has been a destructive alcoholic for some years and uses AA to control his drinking. The narrative drive comes from Joe’s attempt to assist recovering drug addict, Liam (David McKay), plus Joe’s blossoming romance with a local health worker, Sarah (Louise Goodall). It’s a raw rendition of Scottish working-class life with romance and tragedy lying side-by-side in a moving portrait of addiction, love and life’s everyday struggles.



THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (2006)

Incredibly controversial when released, Loach’s war drama is set in 1920’s, Cork, Ireland. It centres on the conflict between the Irish Republican Army and the British army, as civil war broke out prior to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The lead protagonists are two brothers portrayed by Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney. As the war and violence heightens the two brothers, their families and their compatriots are devastated by harsh British rule. Loach was described as “anti-English and traitorous” by the English press and Conservative politicians, when the film was released. However, irrespective of your politics, it is a stunningly human work of cinema; both shocking and heart-wrenching in equal measures.



LOOKING FOR ERIC (2009)

Films about football (soccer in the U.S.A) and footballers can be very tricky to get right as the game itself arguably works better as a live spectacle, rather than at the cinema. However, Loach scored a big win with this really moving story about a lowly postman, Eric Bishop (Steve Evets), who is struggling with family, love and work pressures. Depressed and almost suicidal, Eric finds unlikely help in the magical appearance of Manchester United football legend, Eric Cantona. Sprinkling the kitchen sink realism with fantasy is a departure for Loach, and Paul Laverty’s wonderful script brilliantly espouses the need for teamwork, fraternity and community within its touching narrative.



I, DANIEL BLAKE (2016)

Having worked for the Benefits Agency a few decades ago, I have some understanding of social security and government assistance schemes. Via the titular character of Daniel Blake (the brilliant Davey Johns), Loach savagely criticises Conservative austerity measures. The systematic turning of the screw has seen many British people have their benefits stopped because of somewhat Kafkaesque measures. Of course, the system should work to stop people abusing it, but many deserving people suffered too. This is demonstrated here in this heartfelt drama of one man, who having suffered a heart attack, battles for his pride and future.



THE FAREWELL (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

THE FAREWELL (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

Written and directed by: Lulu Wang

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.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11


ALL 4 REVIEW – THE VIRTUES (2019)

ALL 4 REVIEW – THE VIRTUES (2019)

Directed by: Shane Meadows

Produced by: Mark Herbert and Nickie Sault

Written by: Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne

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.

Mark: 9 out of 11

ALL 4 TV REVIEW: END OF THE F***KING WORLD (2017)

ALL 4 TV REVIEW: END OF THE F***KING WORLD (2017)

Directed by: Jonathan Entwhistle, Lucy Tcherniak

Producer: Kate Ogborn

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.

Mark: 8 out of 11


FLEABAG – SEASONS 1 & 2 – BBC TV REVIEW

FLEABAG – SEASONS 1 & 2 – BBC TV REVIEW

Created and Written by: Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Directed by: Harry Bradbeer

Producers: Lydia Hampson, Sarah Hammond

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

Composer: Isobel Waller-Bridge

Cinematography: Tony Miller, Laurie Rose

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

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

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

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

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

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

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

Season 1 – Mark: 9 out of 11

Season 2 – Mark: 9.5 out of 11

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

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

Created by: Nic Pizzolatto

Writers: Nic Pizzolatto, David Milch, Graham Gordy

Directors: Jeremy Saulnier, Daniel Sackheim, Nic Pizzolatto

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

No. of episodes: 8

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

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

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

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

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

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

THE GOOD PLACE (S1 – S3) TV / NETFLIX REVIEW

THE GOOD PLACE (S1 – S3) TV / NETFLIX REVIEW

Created by: Michael Schur

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.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11