Tag Archives: love

NETFLIX TV SERIES REVIEW – THE STRANGER (2020)

NETFLIX TV SERIES REVIEW – THE STRANGER (2020)

Created by Harlan Coben – based on The Stranger by Harlan Coben

Writers: Harlan Coben, Danny Brocklehurst, Charlotte Coben, Karla Crome, Mick Ford etc.

Directors: Daniel O’Hara, Hannah Quinn

Cast: Richard Armitage, Siobhan Finneran, Jennifer Saunders, Shaun Dooley, Paul Kaye, Dervla Kirwan, Kadiff Kirwan, Jacob Dudman, Ella-Rae Smith, Brandon Fellows, Anthony Head, Stephen Rea, Hannah John-Kamen etc.

No. of Episodes 8

Network release: Netflix

***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***


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Imagine sitting in a bar or restaurant or at the gym or in a coffee shop minding your own business. A stranger approaches you and tells you something that your spouse or partner or relative was hiding from you. This is a secret which rips apart your life and turns everything upside down in the process. This is the basic premise of Harlan Coben’s adaptation of his own novel, The Stranger. Over eight gripping episodes the drama hooks you in from this point forth. Secrets, lies, violence, corruption, blackmail, betrayal and murder drive the narrative in a compelling and serpentine plot.

In what is the TV equivalent of a right page-turner, the main protagonist, Adam Price (Richard Armitage), is the first person to be approached by the titular Stranger. He is given information regarding his wife (Dervla Kirwan) and this threatens to tear his whole family apart. This is just the tip of the iceberg though in regards to the plotting. Other individuals are being targeted too by the Stranger. At the same time a teenager has been comatosed following a woodland rave. It’s not long before Siobhan Finneran’s DS Johanna Griffin investigates this crime, the bizarre beheading of a llama, plus murder, extortion and abduction.

At first, I thought it may be a metaphysical figure revealing guilty secrets to the cast of characters in a Stephen King supernatural-style narrative. However, Harlan Coben’s contemporary crime thriller is firmly set in reality, as it privileges familial and police procedural drama compellingly. Over the eight episodes I was glued to what happens next, as we get so many cat-and-mouse chases and character surprises throughout. Richard Armitage is excellent as the lead protagonist, desperately trying to keep his family together. The teenage character subplots are not so successful as the some of their acting is pretty dire. However, the likes of Siobhan Finneran, Jennifer Saunders, Paul Kaye and Stephen Rea add real quality to what is a conventional, but always watchable genre production.

Mark: 8 out of 11



PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (2019) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by: Celine Sciamma

Produced by: Veronique Cayla, Benedicte Couvreur

Written by: Celine Sciamma

Cast: Noemie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino

Cinematography: Claire Mathon

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**



I haven’t seen any of Celine Sciamma’s previous films, but based on the romantic drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), she is a filmmaker of formidable power and vision. I believe this is her fourth feature film directorial release and it is as sumptuous, moving, exquisitely shot and constructed a love story as you are going to witness. Moreover, it is proof that the art of screenwriting, compared to many by-the-numbers Hollywood film productions, is NOT dead.

The story is very simple. At the end of the 18th century, a young painter, Marianne, (Noemie Merlant) is commissioned to create a portrait of a young woman, Heloise (Adele Haenel). Heloise is, as is the tradition of the time, required by her mother (Valeria Golino), to marry a Milanese nobleman. He needs to see the portrait in advance in order to agree to the wedding. The only catch is, the insular Heloise, does not want to be painted for all manner of understandable reasons. What this establishes is two very intriguing characters, both with different emotions and desires.



Following the beautifully rendered story foundation, what follows is a magnetic series of scenes which subtly push these two empathetic characters together. Marianne is the artist who, at first keeps her distance, spying and analysing Heloise. Heloise is cool, sensitive and a prisoner on the Brittany island, trapped by the waves of the sea and her mother’s insistence on a society wedding. Over the space of a few days the walking companions become drawn to each other both artistically and emotionally. But, it’s no sordid desire for lust, rather a respectful and honest joining in romance. We, as the audience, literally see love grow before us thanks to some incredible acting from the leads.

Often the cinema critics will heap praise on a film and I will wonder what they have been watching. However, in regard to both Parasite (2019) and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), the plaudits are so well deserved. Both are brilliantly written and shot works of cinema, that in the past may have been consigned to just the arthouse circuit. Further, given the film is about painting, it is unsurprisingly Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) is framed, lit and composed with an eye for the artistic. Yet, it isn’t just the look and colour of the film that impresses. Sciamma and her cinematographer, Claire Mathon, also create a series of haunting shots which will be indelibly scorched on my mind.

In terms of the themes, the film is very powerful too. As well the notion of art as a means of representing love, the narrative explores concepts of female equality and solidarity. There is an interesting subplot involving a member of the household staff, which adds to the thematic texture. Furthermore, the performances by all the actresses are superb too as Sciamma directs with such confidence. I also liked that the critique of patriarchal society was implicit rather than didactic. Also subtly realised are the tasteful love scenes, which never feel exploitational. My only minor criticism is that the opening hour could, arguably, have been trimmed slightly. However, what do you leave out of a film as beautifully composed, delicately written and emotionally compelling as Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)? I, a mere mortal, am not qualified to say in the face of such mesmerizing cinema.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11



TV & FILM DOCUMENTARY REVIEWS INCLUDING: FOR SAMA (2019), WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOUR (2018) & THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS (2018) ETC.

TV & FILM DOCUMENTARY REVIEWS

Obviously, I watch a hell of a lot of fiction films and television shows. Every now and then I try and catch up with some documentaries about actual events, people and serious matters. Personally, I love nothing more than to immerse myself in fictional worlds, but sometimes it’s important to explore the “truth”.

Having said that, some documentaries contain highly constructed narratives with as much, if not more drama than fictional works. Indeed, very often truth is much stranger than fiction. Thus, here are six documentaries I have watched recently. As some of these reviews deal with serious issues, I have dispensed with the usual marking system, so as not to trivialise them.

******CONTAINS FACTUAL SPOILERS******


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BRITAIN’S CHILD DRUG RUNNERS – CHANNEL 4/ALL 4

Dispatches is a long-running documentary series which examines hard-hitting issues in society and the world as a whole. This particular episode sought to shed light on the gangs which lure teenagers into their drug running crimes. Children, some as young as eleven, are used to run “County Lines” delivering and selling drugs. The programme was fascinating and showed how the children’s, parents, police enforcement and society in general is being tragically affected by this problem.


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CATCHING A KILLER (2019) – CHANNEL 4/ALL 4

Murder documentaries are like rats in the city, infesting our TV screens and streaming platforms. Some of the true-life ones can be lurid and trashy, however, this one from Channel 4 was moving and of high quality. The series focuses on ongoing investigations and follows police as they investigate the crime and gather evidence. This particular episode profiled a retired gentleman who relatives believed had died of natural causes. It soon became clear that the victim had been cruelly conned and manipulated by a charming, but devious killer.


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FOR SAMA (2019) – CHANNEL 4/ALL 4

This incredibly moving and harrowing documentary took you into the heart of the Syrian conflict. Filmmaker and journalist, Waad Al-Kateab began filming in 2011 and continued for many years as her home in East Aleppo became a bomb site full of loss, destruction and death. Despite this she met her husband, a Doctor, and gave birth to her daughter, Sama. Choosing to stay amidst the explosions and blood was not only an incredible commitment to the story, but also a testament to the bravery of those lives impacted by war. I don’t know much about the Syrian war, and obviously this is just one side of what is a very complex matter. Yet, despite all the pain and suffering on show, one must admire the resilience of those involved and I am not surprised the film has gone onto to win many awards.


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MARRIED TO A PAEDOPHILE (2018) – CHANNEL 4/ALL 4

This salacious sounding documentary is not as exploitation based as it would appear. Focusing on three families who lives have been torn apart because the man of the family had downloaded child pornography, it explores the aftermath of this serious crime. Interestingly, the documentary featured the real voices of the people involved, but with actors playing their roles. It’s an intriguing subject as the wives and children of these men are left to deal with not just shame and guilt, but vindictive neighbours and broken relationships.


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THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS (2018) – CHANNEL 4/ALL 4

This is genuinely one of those stories you would not believe, unless perhaps it was in a science fiction cloning drama or something. The documentary film examines the past and present lives of triplets who were given up for adoption in the early 1960’s. The issue was none of them, or their adoptive parents, were told of the others existence. Thus, years later when they meet each other aged 19, through sheer coincidence, they have one hell of a surprise. The first half of this documentary is very engaging and positive as the trio, Bobby, Eddy and David reunite and become celebrities, appearing on chat shows and magazine front pages in 1980’s America. The second half of this incredible film then darkens somewhat as the truth as to what actually happened is revealed. It is truly astonishing to watch!


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WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOUR (2018) – NETFLIX

Having watched and reviewed the recent film release, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) here, I decided to head over to Netflix and check out the earlier documentary about American TV legend, Fred Rogers. Like the feature drama, this highlights the strength, wisdom and kindness of a great man, determined to instil worth and warmth into children’s lives. It’s a finely constructed documentary with an intermingling of footage from Rogers’ television shows, historical interviews with the man himself, plus friends, family and people he worked with paying tribute to a fine human being. The film asks, “Won’t You Be My Neighbour?” My answer is a definite YES!


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BBC TV REVIEW – DRACULA (2020)

BBC TV REVIEW – DRACULA (2020)

Created and Written by: Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat

Based on: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Producer: Sue Vertue

Directors: Jonny Campbell, Paul McGuigan, Damon Thomas

Cast: Claes Bang, Dolly Wells, John Heffernan, Morfydd Clark, Joanna Scanlan, Lujza Richter, Jonathan Aris, Sacha Dhawan, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Clive Russell, Mark Gatiss, Catherine Schell etc.

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**



Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat are uber-television scriptwriters of vast experience and expertise. Solo and together they have been involved with fine TV programmes including: Sherlock, Doctor Who, Coupling, The League of Gentlemen, Press Gang, Jekyll and many other films, comedies and dramas. Their latest BBC project found them combining forces again and breathing new life into Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel. Screened over three dark nights on BBC1 from January 1st, 2020 onwards, this horror adaptation mixed Stoker’s traditional vampiric tropes with fresh and bloody ingredients infused by Moffat and Gatiss’ typically iconoclastic approach to genre.

The structure of the first episode, Rules of the Beast, finds a gravely ill Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan), recounting his misadventures having travelled to Count Dracula’s (Claes Bang) castle in Transylvania. A haunted shell of a man, his stories of doomed employment, entrapment and the “children of the night” are delivered to Sister Agatha (Dolly Wells). Somewhat incisive, intelligent and irreverent for a nun, Sister Agatha becomes both our hero and main foe to Dracula’s nefarious uber-villain. Having said that, the fantastically witty script and Claes Bang’s charismatic representation of Dracula almost succeed in making him the hero. Indeed, other than being a life-sucking, murderous, blood-addicted, shape-shifting, immortal and homicidal maniac he’s actually quite charming and likeable.


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The first episode, apart from certain structural alterations and differences in characterisation, stays kind of faithful to the spirit of Stoker’s gothic vision. The second episode especially is one of the best examples of horror television I have seen in a long time. Cleverly called Blood Vessel, the action merges suspense and terror with an Agatha Christie style of plot. Here the crew and passengers of the ship Demeter find they are at the mercy of a vicious killer. It doesn’t take a genius to work out who is picking them off one-by-one. The episode also contains an ingenious reference to the BBC anthology series Inside No. 9. Thus, overall, this was my favourite episode of the series.

By the third episode though, Gatiss and Moffatt couldn’t stop themselves taking a bold leap away from the original text. The Dark Compass contains some fantastic twists and ideas, but arguably the writers strive too much for reinvention and originality. So much so, it lost some of the narrative impetus of the first two in the mini-series. Nonetheless, I would love to see more of Claes Bang’s Dracula in the future. His performance and chemistry with Dolly Well’s Sister Agatha were a bloody joy. Likewise, the script was brilliant; full of fangtastic one-liners, poetic turns of phrase and fascinating plot developments. Lastly, I was grateful they did not spare us the horror too. There were many memorably gory deaths throughout, as Dracula and his wolves wreaked devilish havoc across land, time and the television screen.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11


HBO TV REVIEW: WATCHMEN (2019) – META-GONZO TV OF THE HIGHEST ORDER!

HBO TV REVIEW: WATCHMEN (2019)

Adapted by: Damon Lindelhof

Based on: Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Writers: Damon Lindelhof, Nick Cuse, Lila Byock, Christal Henry, Carly Wray, Cord Jefferson, Stacy Kuffour-Osei, Claire Kiechel, Jeff Jensen

Directors: Nicole Kassell, Stephen Williams, Andrij Parekh, Steph Green, David Semel, Frederick E. O. Toye

Cast: Regina King, Jeremy Irons, Don Johnson, Jean Smart, Tim Blake Nelson, Louis Gossett Jr., Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Hong Chau, Andrew Howard, Tom Mison, Frances Fisher, Jacob Ming-Trent, Sara Vickers, Dylan Schombing, and James Wolk.

**SPOILER FREE**



Maybe I am imagining it, but I think we are now entering a different kind of TV narrative storytelling. Perhaps it has always been there? However, I am sure I can now see through the ‘Matrix’ of the internet’s all-powerful influence. My point is that we are moving away from traditional television storytelling which is solely interested in telling an emotionally whole and linear narrative. Is television that has a predictable soul and a beginning, middle and end — in THAT order — disappearing? Or am I just choosing to ignore the saturation of standard dramas involving cops, criminals and medics to watch more complex TV stuff?

Recent television shows such as Legion (2017), Westworld (2016), Dark (2017) and now Watchmen (2019) take stylish, cinematic and transgressive structural and thematic approaches to narrative. One could accuse them of being postmodern fakery or postmodern genius; or both. There does appear to be a movement toward over-complicated-clickbait-viral-trailer-led-ADHD-TV which fragments and shatters its’ story lines. The creators want us to experience their productions not in the traditional beginning, middle and end standard, but rather through shifting timelines, unreliable narrators and a blurred sense of what is right and wrong.


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Damon Lindelhof, who is a brilliant writer and very experienced TV creative, does tend toward the pretentious and over-complex in his work. Having said that his recent production The Leftovers (2014 – 2017) contained some absolutely sensational thematic explorations of the apocalypse, damaged humanity and religious fervour. For his latest project HBO has given him a truckload of money to emulate and remix Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s seminal 1980’s comic book Watchmen. The original itself was a subversive tome of genius which subverted the mythology of comic book and superhero storytelling.

The main action is set in 2019 Tulsa, but also spans decades of alternative U.S. history and locations on Earth and not on Earth. If you don’t know the original source material or have not seen Zach Snyder’s valiant adaptation Watchmen (2009), you will be very confused initially and throughout. Because Lindelhof’s approach to this alt-world version of masked cops, criminals and vigilantes is via a chopping meta-storytelling structure. The various plots events and character histories are delivered via flashbacks, flash-forwards, narcotic visions, hallucinogenic dreams, splintered timelines and even a TV show within this television show. It’s a very stylish smorgasbord, splashed with crazy characters, witty hard-boiled dialogue, wild science fiction twists, lashings of violence, pockets of substance, cinematic visuals, high class production values and a cast to die for.

Yes, but Paul, what’s it actually about? How about love, hate, racism, superheroes, corruption, giant squids, cloning, rogue scientists, good versus evil, vigilantism, revenge, megalomania, transcendent beings, war, violence, rogue politicians, superheroes, masked identities, nuclear threat; and that the United States continues to be sown with the seeds of intolerance, blood and death. Watch the Watchmen (2019), take your time and piece the crazy jigsaw together for yourself. If not, and you prefer to play it safe, there’s always Law and Order for those who want something less mind-blowing.

Mark: 9 out of 11


MARRIAGE STORY (2019) – NETFLIX FILM REVIEW

MARRIAGE STORY (2019) – NETFLIX FILM REVIEW

Written and Directed by: Noah Baumbach

Produced by: David Heyman, Noah Baumbach

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Azhy Robertson, Merrit Weaver etc.

Cinematography: Robbie Ryan

Distributed by: Netflix

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**



I think one of the trickiest things that can hinder a writer, is that doubt whether it is worth telling one’s story. This is especially true of privileged or first world narratives involving wealthy characters or those deemed not having to struggle daily. For me the way to beat such doubt is to write the hell out of your story. Moreover, you’ve got to make the story relevant to all audiences by concentrating on universal themes and creating empathetic characters. Noah Baumbach achieves this by writing and directing the hell out of Marriage Story (2019); a moving drama that focuses on something we can all relate to — a relationship break-up.

The film centres on a couple of creatives, Nicole and Charlie Barber, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. Charlie is a New York theatre director; Nicole is a Los Angeles actress. They have both been committed to forging successful careers. The film opens brilliantly as they attend relationship mediation, attempting to divorce amicably without the use of lawyers. Baumbach’s superb script starts strongly with each character delivering bittersweet monologues that describe what attracts them most to each other. Sadly, for them and their young son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), mediation fails and it’s not long before they are drawn into the Kafkaesque, manipulative and financially draining American legal system.



This is a gem of a film which finds a seemingly suited couple learning that their differences have slowly been driving a wedge between them. Charlie is a controlled and respected director who has worked his way up from nothing. Nicole is a more privileged, but equally talented actress; however, her free-spirited nature is locked in his shadows. Geographically too they are very different. While he is originally from Indiana, he has made New York his home. Moreover, while his avant garde plays have gained him critical acclaim, she yearns for the sunlight of Los Angeles and the offer of TV work. Thus, through sheer brilliance of the writing we, in a short period of time, understand and empathise with both characters’ situations.

As the narrative develops Baumbach’s script is brought to life with two incredible central performances by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. They imbue Nicole and Charlie with a humanity and warmth, that even when we do not agree with their actions, we are still with them. As the story was inspired by his own divorce, Baumbach cares very much about these people. Indeed, he gives each actor the chance to shine during a number of fine monologues, bitter exchanges and heartfelt scenes of acceptance and potential reconciliation. Further, the supporting cast members are also really great too. Ray Liotta as a bitter shark of a lawyer and Laura Dern, as his legal adversary, have some wonderfully biting lines of dialogue. Meanwhile, Alan Alda, as Charlie’s other legal representative, is arguably too nice and avuncular for this cutthroat business. Together these collective legal minds, while shining a plausibly negative light on divorce proceedings, added strong energy to the comedy and drama of the film.

Ultimately, I have always respected Noah Baumbach’s films because he is a very solid independent writer and director. However, with Marriage Story (2019), he has matured beyond belief to create a compelling and funny relationship drama. It is full of standout scenes, with Adam Driver ever impressing and Scarlett Johansson delivering the best performance of her career. Lastly, as someone who has experienced a very difficult break-up involving a child, I felt every moment of grief, heartache, humour, love and relief on the screen. Yet, it’s worth reliving those moments because you know you survived; and so will Charlie, Nicole and their son, Henry.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11



FILMS THAT GOT AWAY #6 – THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1964)

FILMS THAT GOT AWAY #6 – THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1964)

Written and Directed by: Jacques Demy

Produced by: Mag Bodard

Music by: Michel Legrand

Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Anne Vernon, Nino Castelnuovo, Marc Michel, Ellen Farmer, Mirielle Perrey etc.

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**



I knew there were good reasons to get married. The obvious one is the positive nature of a caring relationship and not becoming a lonely, bitter old man. The other is that given my wife loves films too, she will introduce me to the occasional classic film I may have missed. Thus, we went to the BFI and watched the classic musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). While she is a massive fan of the musical genre, I can take or leave it generally. Every now and then though I will really love a musical film. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) is now one of them.

Starting in 1957 and structured over three acts that end in 1963, we follow the lives and loves of two main protagonists, Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy (Nino Castelnuovo). The ups and downs of their romance drives the narrative. The two struggle to keep their love alive amidst the obstacles of military conflict, social convention and family pressure. While the story is relatively simple, Jacques Demy’s wonderful script and direction warms you to the two young lovers. So much so, by the emotionally gut-wrenching ending, even a grizzled cynic like myself felt like crying.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) is not your classic all-singing-all-dancing musical. It is more an opera of everyday life and love. The actors sing the dialogue all the way through and once I got used to this, the device really worked well for the story. Of course, Michel Legrand’s incredible score literally drenches the colourful sets and mise-en-scene with wonder. Moreover, Demy’s cinematographer, Jean Rabier, works miracles; his camera gliding around the actors in small spaces such as shops, garages, apartments and French cafes. Lastly, Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo are such an attractive, but beautifully tragic screen couple. Clearly their touching story, amazing music and Jacques Demy’s cinematic brilliance had a massive influence of Damian Chazelle’s splendid La La Land (2016).

Mark: 9.5 out of 11