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.
Produced by: Megan Ellison, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Adele Romanski, Sara Murphy, Barry Jenkins
Based on: If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
Starring: Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Colman Domingo, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Pedro Pascal etc.
Cinematography: James Laxton
Music: Nicholas Britell
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Barry Jenkins is clearly a talented filmmaker who is striving to transcend the boundaries between art and craft where cinema is concerned. His second feature film Moonlight (2016), was a critical smash and a sleeper box office hit, subsequently going on the win the Best Film nod at the Academy Awards. Whether it was worthy of such as award is another matter, but it was certainly a tremendous work of cinema. The rites of passage story was delivered by Jenkins with imaginative choices in casting, structure, look, music and all-round filmic endeavour.
His latest film, If Beale Street Could Talk, is equally stylish and artfully rendered, but not as emotionally impactful as Moonlight. Indeed, while this is in fact his third feature, Beale Street seems to suffer from classic “2nd album syndrome”, inasmuch as Moonlight set the bar so high, it was going to be a difficult act to follow. Moonlight felt like years of heart and passion thrusted upon the screen, as Beale Street struggles to maintain that said peak. That isn’t to say that the film is not without its virtues as Jenkins once again proves himself a brilliant director.
Set in 1970s, Harlem, New York and based on James Baldwin’s novel, the main protagonists are young working class couple Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephen James). Very much in love we open with Tish’s poignant voiceover and a wonderfully lush score supporting the urban and industrial, yet beautifully shot, imagery. Immediately, we realise Jenkins, while basing his story in realism, is presenting his film poetically. Further, Tish’s voiceover lilts and glues the elliptical, non-linear narrative together.
As with Moonlight, Jenkins uses direct address, the characters looking straight back at us drawing us into their emotional core. One may argue the device is over-used and at times distances us from the pace of the story. As Tish recounts events of her and Fonny’s relationship from childhood friends to their currently plight, you really feel a palpable sense of love, but sometimes it moves so painfully slow. Furthermore, the non-linear structure and stylistic devices also undermined the drama of the piece. Indeed, the best scene of the film in my opinion is near the beginning when Tish and Fonny’s family clash over her pregnancy. In this scene the insults spark and spit off the screen; but alas this conflict is sadly under-developed and not revisited later in the film.
Overall, there is a great story here involving: love, romance, social unrest, police brutality, unlawful arrest and injustice, racism, family strife, hope and loyalty; however, Jenkins artistic desires build the narrative in a way that diverts emotion into the cinema style, more so than the characters. Having said that, he is a filmmaker of some brilliance and he gets fantastic performances from the fine ensemble cast, notably the magnetic Regina King. Ultimately, while the story is told slightly pretentiously for my liking, If Beale Street Could Talk, is a finely tuned work of poetic realism.
DOCTOR WHO – S11 – EP. 6 REVIEW – DEMONS OF THE PUNJAB (2018)
Directed by: Jamie Childs
Written by: Vinay Patel
Cast: Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Leena Dhingra, Amita Suman, Shane Zaza, Hamza Jeetooa etc.
Produced by: Alex Mercer
Executive producer(s): Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens, Sam Hoyle
Composer: Segun Akinola
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
This season of Doctor Who is now settling into a strong mix of diversity, narrative simplicity and emotional resonance. I’ve read some negative comments bemoaning the quality of the writing and weakness of the stories in general, however, as Sunday night teatime entertainment goes the show is a success in my view. Indeed, the latest episode, Demons of the Punjab was another involving and fascinating watch.
This week it was Yaz’ character which took centre stage as her curiosity about her grandmother, Umbreen, found the Doctor breaking time-travel protocol. If you’ve seen the Doctor Who episode Father’s Day and film classic Back to the Future (1985) we all know how dangerous it can be for anyone to cross their own timeline. Indeed, while the Doctor has actually crossed her own timeline before many times she should really know better!
Thus, Team TARDIS travelled back to 1947 as the Partition of India took place. Here Yaz gets to meet her own family members as her grandmother is about to marry. Of course the path of true love and time travel rarely goes smoothly and the course of history is threatened by Yaz’ presence and her and the Doctor must attempt to not interfere with events. Of course, it would not be a Doctor Who episode without some kind of alien threat and this is provided by the Vajarians; a mystical race who appear where chaos is ensuing across the universe. Their presence adds an air of mystery to the episode, but ultimately they are an emotional subplot to the main conflict relating to how the Partition of India affects Yaz’ family.
Overall, Demons of the Punjab successfully combined political, historical, romance and drama in amidst the usual science fiction concepts. It was especially strong from an emotional perspective. By the end as a family is torn apart by the situation I felt a real sadness in my heart. The division of India by the British Empire was an event which divided people based on their religion and ethnic background and created a huge schism between families, colleagues and friends. Doctor Who merely skims the surface of the impact it would have and the lives affected by the subsequent conflict. Yet, what the episode teaches us is that while we may not be able to change history we must learn from it. We must learn that division and conflict can only lead to heartache and pain.
Screenplay by: Ian McEwan (Based on: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan)
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff, Samuel West, Adrian Scarborough
Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
I watch a lot of films. I also write screenplays. Indeed, over the last twenty-five years I have studied and read many “how to” write screenplay courses, books, and articles. One of the major rules of screenwriting, as opposed to radio and television writing is to SHOW and not tell. Deliver your story via the images, performance and shot composition rather than obvious dialogue which spells everything out. As a writer of incredible talent Ian McEwan has, along with director Dominic Cooke and their editor, created an intriguing story of lost love and romance. It flashes forward and back between the past and present beautifully and certainly shows rather than tells the story in a less than obvious fashion. In fact, for me it was ultimately TOO subtle in delivery and the emotional ramifications of certain events are lost in the subtext.
The story begins in the 1960s as newlyweds, Florence and Edward, nervously entwine on their wedding day. As portrayed by the imperious Saoirse Ronan and compelling Billy Howle we are immediately empathetic of their situation and time. Because traditionally, unlike the more sexualised mores of today, religion and social convention would dictate that the couple were more likely to be virgins. Therefore the nervous glances and small-talk slowly build a sexual tension creating an incredibly awkward and embarrassing mid-point moment between the characters. McEwan’s script also flashes back to the past establishing how the characters met. Edward is a lower-middle class boy from a rural background while Florence’s family are more upper-middle class capitalists. As presented in other McEwan works class tensions also propel the drama as Florence’s family look down on Edward somewhat.
There is a lot of depth within the characterisations notably from Ann-Marie McDuff as Edward’s unfortunate mother. Although, at times I wasn’t sure how her mental condition was linked to the themes of the piece, the performance of the actor alone was fascinating throughout. Ultimately, it’s a film about love, loss and terrible secrets; notably how past events can haunt the present. However, in choosing to bury the big reveal within a blink-and-you-miss-it flashback, the poetic editing, in my opinion, took away from the dramatic power and potential catharsis in denouement. On occasions telling us as well as showing us can empower an audience to feel even more for the characters.
Dominic Cooke marshals the film with an assured hand as befits an experienced theatre director. Ronan and Howle give brilliant performances. In fact, I don’t think there is a better and more consistent young actor than Saoirse Ronan. In films such as: Atonement (2007), Hanna (2011), Brooklyn (2015), Lady Bird (2017) and now On Chesil Beach (2017), she has proved herself capable of capturing depth and emotional power with her performances. Ronan and her romantic counterpart, Howle, make the film worthy of your attention even if I was left mildly bewildered, valiantly trying to work out why their characters’ relationship was doomed to fail.
Starring: Paddy Considine, Jodie Whittaker, Paul Popplewell, Anthony Welsh
UK Release Date: 30-03-18
**SPOILER FREE REVIEW**
“There wasn’t a dry face in the house,” opined a member of the audience following the screening of Paddy Considine’s low-budget, big-hearted boxing narrative. We laughed at the minor malapropism because for ninety-two minutes our emotions and heart-strings had been poked, pulled and ultimately yanked apart in what was one of the empathetic and compassionate human stories I have seen in some time. I mean, I’m no hard man but it still takes a lot for me to be moved to tears, yet, Paddy Considine’s film had me welling up throughout.
The story begins with World Champion Matty Burton (Considine) and the build-up to his fight with brash, unbeaten and mouthy prospect Andre Bryte (Anthony Welsh). Burton is an experienced fighter branded a fraud by the belittling Bryte but he takes it all in his stride preparing to allow his fists do the work. Supporting Burton is his wife, Emma (amazing Jodie Whittaker), and the two have a young child together. The opening montage establishes Burton’s life showing he has everything to fight for including: family, friends, pride, career and community.
What begins with the makings of a standard sporting genre movie is transformed following Burton’s fight with Bryte. After which Considine and Whittaker take centre stage in a deeply moving portrait of a family coming apart due to tragic circumstances. Their performances as two characters battling to stay in love, together and just fighting to keep going is remarkable. There are so many startling scenes and moments which punch and wind you; in particular, the long-take that holds on Considine while on the phone to his wife moved me beyond words.
Following the screening Paddy Considine took questions from the editor of Total Film and the audience. It proved to be one of the best Q and A’s I’d experienced. Considine is a passionate writer, director and actor with a clear vision of the projects he loves to work on. His love of boxing as a craft was clear as he both acknowledged that while creating champions, fame and wealth, it’s also a brutal sport which can damage lives. Ultimately, Journeyman is honest and raw and reflects such battles in and out of the ring. This is not a traditional boxing film but rather a sensitive and compelling love story; and while it may be a small independent British feature it’s more epic than most big-budgeted movie releases of recent years.
MY BLOODY VALENTINE: ALTERNATIVE VISIONS OF LOVE IN THE HORROR GENRE
“Love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.”
― Jacques Lacan
I continue to write articles for the excellent So The Theory Goes website and here once again is a slightly more academic approach to film analysis. You can read it here or below.
An eternal question in our society still remains: what is love? Is it the joining together of two people forever committed to a relationship built on respect and trust? Or is it the emotion you feel for a family member or person you have bonded with over time? Is it nature’s way of tricking us into the act of pro-creation? Perhaps it’s an abstract and emotional concept created by a higher power to ensure we act positively? For some it could be a dark force which enlivens obsession and stalking and violence or maybe it’s a marketing delusion forced upon us by greedy advertisers, florists and chocolate vendors? Maybe it’s simply all of the above!?
Studies by Helen Fisher of Rutgers University propose that we fall in love in three stages involving a different set of chemicals. They are: lust, attraction and attachment. Indeed, the events occurring in our mind when we fall in love are akin to mental illness. Chemicals such as: testosterone, oestrogen, dopamine, serotonin all conflict and combine to change our emotions when we’re attracted to someone. Further studies show that when choosing a partner we are at the mercy of our subconscious and inner sexual desires as proffered in psychoanalytical studies.
Love and sexual desire are a big part of everybody’s lives whether it’s the positive or negative and indeed the continuance of the species is very much reliant on it. Moreover, love or the lack of love has provided the springboard for millions of stories, films, plays, songs, poems, slogans, TV show and adverts! Conversely the horror film genre, while not synonymous with romantic love, often explores the darker side of relationships and sexuality. Indeed, as a cultural phenomenon the horror genre is wholly malleable in its narrative omni-presentation; criss-crossing literary, theatrical, dance and televisual culture offerings.
Horror intends to elicit a physiological reaction through stress and shock while presenting: monsters, ghosts, aliens, the fantastic, the supernatural, murderers, bloody gore, kidnappings, mutilation, witches, zombies, psychopaths, natural and unnatural phenomenon, demons and many more aspects which draw on our inner, societal and global fears. But what of love and how is it represented in the horror genre? For this article I would like explore notions of love and sexuality within horror cinema. I will draw on genre, gender, feminist and psychoanalytic theories and how they can be applied within the chosen films. So, if you want an alternative to the usual Valentines-clichéd-cosy-rose-petal-drenched-chocolate-card-Love-Actually-type-movies, then these films are ones you should consider.
AUDITION (1999) – DIRECTOR: TAKASHI MIIKE
It would be unfair to label Miike’s gory shocker a simplistic example of ‘torture porn’. It is in fact an incredibly scary and inventive revenge satire. In her highly influential essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey commits the powerful theory that cinema is coded via the “Male Gaze”. According to Mulvey, “. . . pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.”
Yet, while beginning with this dynamic, Audition turns it around with the female anti-heroine Asami reversing the gaze on her male contemporaries. What starts as one man’s attempt to find a wife, via his own creepy version of the casting couch, is turned into a violent proto-feminist-carve-up-par-excellence as Asami cuts and slices her male victims with vicious aplomb.
DEAD RINGERS (1988) – DIRECTOR: DAVID CRONENBERG
Freud’s work on the unconscious, dreams, repression and psychosexual stages is, of course, incredibly influential on both psychology, psychoanalysis and film theory. His concept of the unconscious feeding our everyday and the idea that repressed emotions drive our motivations is none more prevalent than in Cronenberg’s exquisite Dead Ringers.
In this psycho-incestuous-ménage-a-trois-love story, twin gynaecologists portrayed by Jeremy Irons, literally split and repress their identities in order to “romance” the same women. The film is a masterwork and encapsulates many of Freud’s theories relating to the Id, ego and superego; while the doppelganger theme also looms heavily over a dark, psychosexual and twisted narrative.
HAROLD & MAUDE (1971) – DIRCTOR: HAL ASHBY
While not technically a horror film as such Harold and Maude is a wonderful off-centre, gothic love story. The eponymous anti-hero cannot connect with his family and the world at large and through constant fake suicides he tortures his mother to the point of breakdown. It is only when Harold (Bud Cort) meets an eccentric older lady Maude (Ruth Gordon) does he begin to find some maturation. The film could be argued to embody many of the Freudian aspects of the Oedipal Complex.
Trevor Pedersen opines, “The Oedipus complex, in narcissistic terms, represents that an individual can lose the ability to take a parental-substitute into his ego ideal without ambivalence.” Indeed, through his unconventional relationship with Maude, who represents both love and death, Harold locates a maternal replacement, friend and platonic lover who brings him out of his depressed state.
IT FOLLOWS (2014) – DIRECTOR: DAVID ROBERT MITCHELL
Mitchell’s low budget psychological horror gem contains many of the hallmarks of the ‘slasher’ subgenre which can be enshrined with the general trope, according to scholar Robin Wood, that teenagers, invariably female, are hunted down for their promiscuity. What makes It Follows such an intriguing anti-date movie is that we never see the actual evil force propelling the murders.
Maika Monroe’s heroine, Jay, finds herself in a chain of deathly sexuality which she can only break through further intercourse. Jay therefore becomes an epitome of what Carol Clover calls ‘The Final Girl’ in her marvellously titled book, Men, Women and Chainsaws. Ultimately, It Follows subverts the ‘slasher’ tropes with a symbolic metaphysical force rather than a physical monster, as the “killer” ultimately represents sexual hysteria, guilt and the malevolent force of youthful sexual abandon.
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) – TOMAS ALFREDSON
Ever since Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula was published we have welcomed, with fear and excitement, the vampire into our culture. Stoker’s Count Dracula was viewed as an inhuman force of destruction; as well as a metaphoric representation of sexual fervour. The vampire character is never more mesmeric and complex than in Let the Right One In. This is a sophisticated rites-of-passage-romance where a teenage boy, marginalised by his peers and family life, falls in love with a young female vampire.
However, the girl is clearly older than her looks, as the narrative bears the hallmarks of a Freudian sexual awakening for our protagonist Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant). In Eli (Lina Leandersson) Oskar finds a combination of: maternal protector, platonic companion and potential sexual partner within a complex psycho-sexual drama with hints of latent paedophilia. Of course, despite these sensitive themes under the surface, the film ultimately triumphs as a beautifully rendered story of innocence, love and friendship.
PSYCHO (1961) – DIRECTOR: ALFRED HITCHCOCK
Arguably one of the greatest horror films of all time is Psycho. From a Freudian and psychoanalytical perspective, it is an absolute goldmine. The story begins with an robbery by Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) but twists into something altogether nightmarish when she hides out at the Bates Motel. The manager Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) takes a shine to Marion, only for his “mother” to murder her. Norman’s character is the archetypal representation of the Oedipal Complex. Having killed both his mother and her boyfriend some years before the guilt he feels causes him to “become” Norma Crane in order to disassociate him from his crimes and absorb her identity.
Marion causes Norman’s sexual feelings to arise thus Norma/Norman suddenly appears to repress these desires by murder. Charles E. Bakeland opines that if an individual is unable to reconcile a love-hostility-identification relationship with parents there will be strong desires which will weigh negatively on their relationships. This thematic dynamic makes Psycho’s narrative a psychoanalytical minefield as Norma/Norman battle over her/his mind, causing havoc for those characters they come into contact with.
TEETH (2007) – DIRECTOR: MITCHELL LICHTENSTEIN
In his excellent book Genre, Stephen Neale argues horror monsters are predominantly defined as male with women as their primary victims. He continues with the idea that, “… it could be maintained that is it women’s sexuality which constitutes the real problem that horror cinema exists to explore.” One such film which reverses these notions in the excellent body horror film Teeth. Mixing body, horror, comedy with coming-of-age movies the main protagonist is a Christian virgin called Dawn (Jess Weixler). During a sexual assault by a college boy she fends him off via “Vagina dentata”; barbed teeth in her reproductive organ.
Played for shock and humour the story presents valid confirmation and subversion of Laura Mulvey’s proposal that women’s absence of a penis threatens male castration and therefore must be disavowed. Offering impressive gender satire within the sexual revenge narrative, Jess’ character refuses to be assimilated by the patriarchal order and comes of age within both her body, personality and sexuality.
In my view many of the films mentioned above demonstrate the horror genre is rich with possibilities in regard to representations of love, romance, relationships and sexuality. Through theories relating to psychoanalysis, feminism and genre theory we can begin to dip beneath the surface of the darkness of love and humanity. Both masculine and feminine sexuality and identity are constantly in crisis and under threat of death and disease, demonstrating that the path to true love is never straight but more often than not, wholly twisted.
(Contains mild spoilers – nothing you may not already know.)
I write reviews for a number of reasons. Firstly, I love cinema and TV and music and culture in general and enjoy writing and thinking about the things I have seen and why I liked or disliked them. Secondly, as a writer myself I enjoy considering aspects from a screenwriting perspective and analyses what did or didn’t work for me. Thirdly, I guess from a narcissistic or egotistical perspective there’s a part of you that wants the attention or simply just confirmation that one’s opinions are being read or listened too. Ultimately, it’s a pastime and a bit of fun.
Every now and then a film comes along which is hard to place and it makes you think and you actually have to apply yourself. You can fall into certain traps of structure or at worst formula when writing reviews. But with David Lowery’s majestic A Ghost Story (2017) he has delivered such an original work of cinema art it is difficult to follow one’s established reviewing rules.
For starters it is difficult to even give you a brief synopsis of the film because it is so simple in its concept that the title itself sums up what the narrative is. It literally is a Ghost’s story! However, after establishing the accessible drama of the loss of a loved one, the characters move into a whole new level of complexity in regard to the supernatural, temporal, philosophical and metaphysical.
The main cast are Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara and they brilliantly under-play a loving couple who share a property in a nameless place. Their characters are also seemingly nameless (referred to as ‘C’ and ‘M’ in the credits) and their normal lives are then torn apart when he dies in a car accident. In a beautifully haunting scene at the morgue ‘C’ “awakes” as a GHOST IN A SHEET! Yes, his Ghost is shrouded in a sheet with two eye-holes cut out. My feeling about this initially was how would the director make it work without possible derision? But, due to his sheer confidence in the idea and choice of shots, music and pace we are quickly enveloped by ‘C’s pale figure and his drama.
From then on we see everything from the Ghost’s perspective and it truly is heart-breaking. I mean it takes guts for the filmmaker to cover his leading actor for the rest of the film but it genuinely pays off. My feeling about the sheet idea was that in death we lose our identity via our body, yet our soul lives on in the space where we existed. Our Ghost here is a genuine lost soul unable to move on and he literally haunts his home in a desire to stay with the one he loves. I also enjoyed the spirituality of the piece without once there being a reference to religion. It’s not about dogmatic belief systems but the purity of life and love.
David Lowery has created one of the most original stories of the year and his handling of composition; editing and temporal structure is a masterclass in pure cinema. This film is hypnotic, tragic and one of the best of the year. It echoes the work of Bergman, Kubrik and Tarkovsky. I for one do like my conventional genre films with well-formed characters and clear plot-lines, but this film transcends cinema conventions and delivers one of the most poignant and melancholic experiences of the year. Plus, the score by Daniel Hart really augments the minimalist approach and often dialogue-free sequences. Overall, this is a meditative joy which is both unconventional yet in its unpolluted filmic poetry had me transfixed throughout.