Produced by: Amy Pascal, Denise Di Novi, Robin Swicord
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Chris Cooper etc.
Cinematography: Yorick Le Saux
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
It’s Boxing Day and you’re nursing a slight Christmas Day hangover, plus your brain is still trying to piece together the crazy jigsaw that was HBO’s Watchmen (2019). You now want a story that’s a bit more comforting; something that will make you warm and snug and feel safe. Step forward Greta Gerwig, Louisa May Alcott and an incredible cast of fine actors in the latest adaptation of the classic novel, Little Women (2019). It’s a perfect Christmas film full of romance, love, spirit, passion and just a little bit of pathos and heartache.
Set in Massachusetts at the time of the American Civil War, this splendid old chestnut of a story covers the lives of four teenage sisters — Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlan) and Amy March (Florence Pugh). They live with their Marmee (Laura Dern) and the story criss-crosses various years and narrative events as they search, find, lose and find again happiness, sadness and love. While the sisters prove to be very different personalities and clash often throughout the film, ultimately, it’s a film about solidarity, strength, sisterhood and family bonds.
It’s interesting Gerwig would choose something so safe for her next film project following the acclaim she correctly received for writing and directing Ladybird (2017). However, it’s not surprising either. While the title states these women are little, they are in fact anything but. Ronan as Jo and Pugh as Amy are especially energetic and larger than life. Both strive for artistic excellence and attempt to gain control over their personal and working lives in a traditionally patriarchal society. Jo’s desire to be a successful writer drives the story along impressively as Gerwig determines a meta-structure through her character. Indeed, Jo’s scenes with Tracy Letts’ publisher and editor are particularly amusing amdist some of the losses the March family suffer.
Amidst the familiarity of the text, Gerwig does attempt originality in her cutting between past and present events. While cross-cutting becomes slightly distracting from the emotions of the narrative, you can see how Gerwig wanted to stamp her own identity. The device also allows some wonderful juxtaposition of shots, emotions and camera movement. My one criticism would be that because the characters looked of a similar age in past and present, you did not always know what year you were in. Ultimately though, I really enjoyed this high-class film production. Greta Gerwig is an incredibly talented filmmaker and obtains exceptional performances from all the cast, especially Ronan and future stars, Florence Pugh and Timothee Chalamet. The film was so warm and safe, my Christmas Day hangover, like my heart, all but melted.
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.
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.
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.
Produced by: Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper, Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Written by Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Based on : DC Comics’ Joker created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane & Jerry Robinson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert DeNiro, Bill Camp, Zazie Beetz, Francis Conroy, Glen Fleshler, Brian Tyree Henry, Marc Maron etc.
Music: Hildur Guðnadóttir
Cinematography: Lawrence Sher
**** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ****
“Is it just me – or is it getting crazier out there?”
There’s no let up for poor coulrophobes. You wait so long for an evil clown and two come along in quick succession! First Pennywise hits the big screen twice. Now, Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix deliver an incendiary cinematic masterpiece, based on DC’s uber-villain, Joker.
With Marvel’s cinematic universe heroically saving the world and making Disney a lot of money in the process, everything was looking a bit bright in the comic book film world. Not anymore, because Joker (2019) brings darkness, chaos, delusions and insanity to the screen. This film doesn’t reflect a safe world full of heroes, but instead illustrates one without them or a shred of hope.
The year is 1981. The place is Gotham. The symbol of this urban disintegration will be downtrodden clown, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). Crime and garbage ravage the city and social services budgets are being cut. Arthur struggles with his mental health, his clown work and his unwell mother (Francis Conroy). He attempts to find solace in stand-up comedy, but his psychological problems stretch to uncontrollable laughing fits, making people laugh AT him, as opposed to WITH him. He seeks potential romance with a neighbour, Sophie (Zasie Beetz), but his world begins to collapse when he loses his job and his medication is cut off. Attacked by kids on the street and bankers on the tube, Arthur is forced to fight back. But, violence begets violence, as a new, more dominant persona comes to the fore.
Joker (2019) is a bravura and risk-taking character study charting the downward spiral of both a city on the edge; and an individual losing touch with the real world. Rather than being cared for by the system, Arthur is thrown to the gutter, only to rise up with fire, violence, colour, costume and maniacal chuckling. From the mean streets of Gotham comes not calm, but social unrest and protests; not a hero but a painted villain, dancing and plotting bloody murder.
I have read that there have been complaints that the film trivialises mental health. Well, having experienced a close family member suffer mental breakdown and have a friend commit suicide due to extreme anxiety, I actually think Joker (2019) presents madness in a very truthful way. Mental health is scary, unpredictable, difficult to treat and prone to startling bursts of uncontrollable energy. It’s hard to comprehend what happens in people’s brains to make them act a certain way and this film captures that. The reason the film is scary is because mental health is scary. If it is not treated, then people can harm themselves and others. Therein lies the truth and tragedy of mental illness.
Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely incredible as Arthur Fleck/Joker. Hysterical laughter echoes and haunts the screen. Every cigarette he smokes drags nicotine anxiety into his ravaged lungs. As violent outbursts jolt and as his skinny body dances, I felt a gamut of emotions including: fear, humour, shock and sadness. Fleck’s transformation into Joker is a slow-burn trajectory and masterful acting performance. He tries to avoid violence and confrontation, but it’s drawn to him like a moth to a flame. He tries to make people laugh, but sadly only ends up hurting them. Joker is an outsider desperate to step inside and be part of society, but, even down to his unknown parentage, he is rejected at every turn.
As well as Phoenix, Todd Phillips deserves much kudos for creating an incredibly dark, but impressive cinematic experience. He is ably assisted by the startling cinematography of Lawrence Sher, who captures that gritty, paranoiac and urban look perfectly. Much praise also to Hildur Guðnadóttir, who, for me, has orchestrated the musical score of the year. Lastly, the genius of marrying cinematic classics like Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983), with a DC comic-book super-villain is an absolute masterstroke. Indeed,Joker (2019), is one of the most memorable and compelling films of 2019. Why so serious? Watch it and discover for yourself.
Based on: Infernal Affairs (2002) by Alan Mak and Felix Chong
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone, Anthony Anderson, Alec Baldwin etc.
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**
“In my day you had two choices – be a criminal or a cop! When you’ve got a gun pointed at you – what’s the difference?”Frank Costello
Oscar-winning gangster film, The Departed (2006), is a vicious, double-crossing, paranoiac remake of the equally brilliant thriller, Infernal Affairs (2002). With a cast that reeks of testosterone and star quality, the incendiary William Monahan script is ferociously directed by filmmaking genius, Martin Scorsese. The legendary director and his production team, plus the terrific ensemble cast including Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen and Leonardo DiCaprio, lift this story above the run-of-the-mill cops and robbers genre movie.
The Departed (2006) moves at a heady pace from the start, establishing Sullivan (Damon) and Costigan (DiCaprio) as”Staties” in the Massachusetts force. They both have deep secrets; both go deep undercover unknowingly trying to catch the other. Sullivan is a criminal masquerading as a brilliant cop in order to further gangland boss, Costello’s (Nicholson) power games. The edgy, streetwise Costigan, on the other hand, joins Costello’s gang in order to bring him down from the inside.
The film is shot and edited, as expected, with immaculate precision; crammed with unrelenting and bone-crushing thrills and violence. Thematically, it’s powerful too. Throughout, honesty and truth are obliterated by lies and death. Costigan and Sullivan are no more than pawns at the hands of a corrupt system that lets people down from a great height. This is literally the case where Martin Sheen’s Captain Queenan is concerned. His death is probably the most brutal demise of all. At times, I must admit, my head was spinning because of the twisting plot as Sullivan, in a Kafkaesque turn, ends up chasing himself as part of a serious crime investigation.
The screenplay by William Monahan is a ballsy joy, full of despicable protagonists and biting dialogue. While many of the characters are difficult to like, the plot. thrusting soundtrack, incredible performances and narrative suspense really get the heart racing. Nicholson and Wahlberg take special glee in spouting their offensive dialogue. DiCaprio too is brilliant as the paranoid cop, dragged into the mix through some screwy sense of righteousness. Lastly, Matt Damon’s portrayal of Sullivan is particularly astute, as he plays against that all-American good guy he is often cast as.
Amidst the cat-and-mouse shenanigans, merciless tragedy pervades throughout. Virtually everyone is a rat or cheating on someone as the film deconstructs the notion of loyalty. Consequently, most scenes blur the lines between good and bad, as characters attempt to out-wit and out-kill one other. By the end there is no good or bad in the traditional sense, just a bunch of wasted lives in an ultimately nihilistic pursuit of money and power. The characters exist in a rodent-infested Boston setting, distorting the distinction between truth and lies. Is there a difference? The Departed (2006), doesn’t discriminate; and there lies the truth.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019) – FILM REVIEW
Directed and Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Produced by: David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh, Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Margaret Qualley, Austin Butler, Al Pacino, Mike Moh, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Damien Lewis, Kurt Russell and many, many more.
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
From watching the trailers for Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), I remember thinking: this looks so cool and I’m glad they haven’t given away much of the story here. Because, I hate those darned trailers which give away the story!
So, you watch Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film and then you realise, after the excessive running time, THERE ISN’T REALLY ANY STORY as such! Okay, DiCaprio’s character suffers an existential career crisis but that’s kind of it. Instead, you get mostly a nigh-on three-hour historical and cultural nostalgia trip down memory lane filtered through the artistic and fetishistic vision of one of cinemas great filmmaking iconoclasts.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (2019), is essentially an arthouse character study where you get to hang out with two-and-a-half lead protagonists, plus a whole army of fictional and ‘real’ life supporting characters from the 1969 Hollywood era. Our two main “heroes” are neurotic, alcoholic B-movie actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and tough, handsome and laconic, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The two characters contrast and complement each other perfectly. Moreover, the star quality, chemistry and fine performances of the lead actors bind the movie together amazingly.
Brad Pitt is especially brilliant. His character is not, until the violent ending, given much to do story wise; however, he does it with such charm. He imbues a character who has accepted his place in the world with such easy-going humour and control, it is an absolute joy to watch. It’s an iceberg performance which seems shallow on the surface, but has hidden and unsaid depth. I really wanted to know more about his character, especially what appeared to be a very colourful backstory.
DiCaprio, on the other hand, has the showier performance. Edgy, hungover and insecure due to his characters’ fading Hollywood career, DiCaprio gives another fantastic movie performance. He commits to the Dalton character and features in some wonderful sketches which pay homage and parody B-movies, TV variety shows and old TV Westerns. What I loved was his ability to demonstrate different levels of acting skills. DiCaprio can fuck up Dalton’s acting on set one moment, but then deliver acting on a Shakespearean level the next.
Margot Robbie, who we know is a brilliant actor in her own right, alas, is not afforded the same level of care in regard to the characterisation of Sharon Tate. More of an ornamental character in the film, she looks great going to the cinema, packing a suitcase, driving and generally just being effervescent. Yet, it’s truly is one of the film’s major flaws that it doesn’t make more of Robbie’s acting talent. Even the fantastic ending, which Tarantino, takes incredible liberties with in regard to actual events, finds Tate’s character development unfortunately left bereft of emotion.
Similarly, the Hollywood cameos echoing throughout the films are pure style over substance. For example Steve McQueen, Roman Polanski and Bruce Lee feature but these are mostly inconsequential encounters. The Bruce Lee representation and scene is actually really funny as Cliff Booth and the martial arts star face off in a hilarious flashback. Typically, Tarantino has caused controversy with his Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) rendition. Personally, I respect that people may be offended, however, it’s more comedic and iconoclastic rather than overt racism. After all, this is a fairy-tale vision of Hollywood and not a documentary. Plus, Tarantino knows he’s going to piss people off so it’s obvious he’s playing with people here.
While Bruce Lee’s persona is playfully satirized or racist depending on your point-of-view, Tarantino’s representation of the Manson family is more damning. It’s clear he absolutely hates hippies, especially acid-looped killer hippies. Dalton and Booth represent the old-school, honest Hollywood working class, so are the antithesis of the drop-out youths. The culture clashes between this era and the new flower-power cults is something Tarantino explores. Charles Manson, who barely features, is a ghost-like figure though. Instead, it is the character of Tex (Austin Butler) and the females of the commune who are most prominent.
Margaret Qualley as Pussycat is especially hypnotic in her role. Exuding both sexuality and acid-drenched nihilism, Pussycat is a siren hitcher, luring drivers to symbolically crash against the cliffs. For me, Tarantino should have made way more of the old and new California culture clash themes, as they resonated powerfully when on screen. Plus, the scenes on the commune were actually quite creepy, so more should have been made of this threat from a dramatic perspective. Lastly, the irreverent and violent final act carnage exploits the clashing of these two different cultures, but more could have done throughout to enhance this dynamic.
Overall, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) is a near three-hour arthouse classic. If you like films about film and TV making, driving, feet, ensemble casts, films within films, cinema-going, Los Angeles, more feet; and hanging with the marvellous DiCaprio and Pitt in a 1969 setting, then you will love this beautifully rendered and lovingly crafted film about Hollywood. Otherwise, you will probably find it a boring, indulgent and style-over-substance folly. Either way you have to admire Tarantino’s exquisitely controlled writing and direction. He certainly does!!
Safe to say though Tarantino will not care either way, because most of his filmic output has made a lot of money at the box office. This has now allowed him the luxury, like that of true cinema artists such as Kubrick, Altman and Antonioni, to make whatever films a studio is prepared to give him the money for. He’s basically making films for himself and doesn’t care if the audience likes it or not.
I personally found myself magnetically drawn to Tarantino’s vision and from a purely filmmaking and artistic perspective I was totally immersed throughout. Having said that, if the incessant driving and shots of dirty feet were cut and Dalton and Booth had been given a proper plot, rather than the thin stranded narrative within the impressive gallery of cameos and set-pieces, I would definitely expect to be writing about one of the best films ever made.
Series Producers: Mark Herbert, Derrin Schlesinger, Rebekah Wray-Rogers
Cast: Thomas Turgoose, Vicky McClure, Joseph Gilgun, Stephen Graham, Andrew Shim, Stephen Graham, Andrew Ellis, Rosamund Hanson, Danielle James, Kriss Dosanjh, Chanel Cresswell, Johnny Harris, Michael Socha, George Newton, Jo Hartley, Katherine Dow Blyton, Stacey Sampson etc.
Cinematography: Danny Cohen
Music by: Ludovico Einaudi
Shane Meadows’ Midlands-based drama classic continued two-and-a-half years after the tragic events of its predecessor, This is England ’86 (2010). While obviously harking back to the late 1980’s and infused with nostalgia, it is arguably even darker and keenly focused than the previous series. Dealing mainly with the aftermath of Lol (Vicky McClure) and Woody’s (Joe Gilgun) relationship breakdown, it also explores Shaun’s (Thomas Turgoose) misadventures attending drama school.
While there is a lot of humorous situations in these three episodes, Meadows and co-writer Jack Thorne essentially structure around Lol’s heart of darkness descent into depression. They present a devastating character study as she struggles with single parenthood following her self-destructive affair with Milky (Andrew Shim) and subsequent split from Woody. Lol is crushed with guilt over this and her father’s death; an act she committed in self-defence and Combo (Stephen Graham) took the blame for.
Vicky McClure as Lol gives a devastating performance. She wears her grief as a second skin, with the weight of her world pushing her deeper and deeper into the mire. Moreover, as Lol confronts her difficult life choices head on, she is literally haunted by the ghost of her father. Meadows and McClure deserve such praise for presenting depression and the disintegration of a characters’ mind so convincingly and sensitively. Lol is a lost soul and her story felt so real to me when watching.
Woody, on the other hand, is living with a new girlfriend, Jennifer, at his parents. Things are going well for him on the surface but you feel he’s lost without Lol. Indeed, Lol and Woody are one of television’s iconic couples. It’s strange not seeing them together. Joe Gilgun’s performance as Woody is excellent too. It’s clear he’s putting on a brave face and using humour to direct his pain. However, heartache is never too far away from his crooked smile.
Meanwhile, Shaun’s excursion into six-form acting provides some light relief but also personal trauma. It’s very funny when the gang, high on speed, almost ruin his opening night with constant laughter. To be honest the play is pretty awful so I don’t blame them. Furthermore, Shaun’s hormones are bouncing round like a squash ball, as he finds himself attracted to one of girls in the class. The scene where he’s caught with his trousers down by girlfriend Smell is both funny and sad. Quirky actress Rosamund Hanson, in her role as Smell/Michelle, impresses with a mix of punk and hysterical rage here.
Yet, the main theme of the narrative is one of overcoming loss through community and togetherness. While Woody eventually confronts the gang and more specifically Milky over perceived treachery, Lol sinks deeper into a downward spiral. Here Shane Meadows is able to present isolation and loneliness very powerfully. Indeed, the series captures raw and human emotions in a very convincing way. Through these characters we experience trauma and tragedy but through love and unity we also find hope.
Cast: Daisy May Cooper, Charlie Cooper, Paul Cooper, Paul Chahidi
Original Network: BBC Three
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
“I am Jack’s bitter, failed arsehole!”
In Chuck Palahniuk’s contemporary literary classic Fight Club – and the movie version – the narrator often refers to a third person called, ‘Jack’, to describe inner rage. It’s a nifty narrative device and kind of a foot-in-the-door to explain my feelings when watching BBC3 mockumentary series This Country. Because having watched the two series and extended one-off special I have to say I didn’t get the joke and I’m thinking it must be me and not the show.
Perhaps it’s my ongoing sobriety? I mean, while the acting is sublime, I could not work out why this comedy series has received so much critical praise. Moreover, I could not work out how it has won several Royal Television Society and BAFTA awards. I will perhaps have to accept I am wrong and know nothing about comedy and the television industry. I am just a bitter, failed arsehole.
This Country is a rural sitcom in the mockumentary style. Thus, first and foremost, while it’s nearly impossible to achieve originality in TV and film, the show is derivative of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s classic comedy, The Office. While Gervais was influenced by the Christopher Guest-led ensemble genius of, This is Spinal Tap (1984), one cannot escape the fact This Countryis a weaker clone of The Office.
Episodes revolve around an accurate rendition of rural life; somewhere not too far from Swindon, Wiltshire. Comedy and drama derives from issues relating to: boredom, crime, unemployment, failed romances, general village idiot-types and very dysfunctional families. The main protagonists are Kerry and Lee ‘Kurtan’ Mucklowe; cousins in the show but portrayed incisively by siblings, Daisy and Charlie Cooper. In fact, the actors are way more likeable than the characters they portray. Kerry and Kurtan are so moronic and obnoxious at times it was difficult to empathise with them.
It is a testament to the precise conveyance of village life that the programme felt believable as an actual documentary. Unfortunately, for me, the pace was quite slow and, while I guess that was the point, there are only so many dry pauses-for-comedic-effect you can experience without getting bored. Similarly, with the “realistic” pace, punchlines often felt very spaced out, with a reliance on the accents to get the laughs.
There are a number of strong episodes including, Kurtan’s attempts to win a scarecrow contest and also when he worked on a building site. Yet, certain episodes never really went anywhere as character development also suffered inertia in the narrative. Having said that, there is some excellent writing. Daisy’s doomed relationship with her bastard of a father, Martin, does lend a depth and pathos to the narrative. But this is more dramatic than funny overall. Then again, I accept that this is just the opinion of a bitter, sober and over-analytical arsehole and some may find this the funniest show on television.