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.
Cast: Ricky Gervais, Kerry Godliman, David Earl, Karl Pilkington, Brett Goldstein, Colin Hoult, Holli Dempsey, Ruth Bratt, Arthur Nightingale, Doc Brown, Joe Wilkinson etc.
Original Network: Channel 4
**MAY CONTAINS SPOILERS**
So, let’s address the elephant in the room with my review of ALL 4/Netflix bittersweet comedy, Derek. Is it acceptable for a person to seemingly inhabit the character of someone who could be perceived to be mentally challenged or disabled? Not forgetting, the person is a successful TV writer/actor, Ricky Gervais. After all we’re in a progressive age where it is right to be sensitive of perceptions and reactions to the representations of people of colour, religion, race, heritage and mental capacity. Is it in poor taste for Ricky Gervais to ultimately, get seemingly cheap laughs out of a gurning, simple man?
Well, on the surface and initial watch Derek, could be deemed offensive for reasons of poor taste. However, having watched series one, two and the final hour-long special for the third time, I have decided that, while it may have puerile and childish humour, Gervais has created a positive, and in some cases, heroic role model who promotes kindness to the elderly, animals, friends and basically everyone, whether they are horrible or not. The comedy and pathos derive not simply from cheap shots, but, organically from a set of outsiders and forgotten people inhabiting a care home. Lastly, Gervais is a talented actor and while he’s no Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot (1989), his character of Derek Noakes is a genuinely fine human being worth spending time with.
Moving past the controversial issues of taste the most important question remains: is Derek funny? Well, it is both funny and very moving, encompassing themes relating to life, death, grief, romance, love, redemption, depression and memory. Set in a care called Broad Hill it features a collection of disparate ensemble of characters who are existentially trapped within their day-to-day lives. These include hard-working Hannah (Kerry Godliman), gruff handyman, Dougie (Karl Pilkington), alcoholic wastrel, Kev (David Earl), and the titular, Derek. Furthermore, the care home becomes a haven for characters doing community service such as Vicky (Holli Dempsey) and of course the elderly residents who are cared for at Broad Hill.
Shot in Gervais’ often used mockumentary style, each episode unfolds in a gentle slice-of-life style as the Broad Hill employees go about their business. A common theme running through the series is the pressure the staff, notably Hannah, find themselves under looking after old people who have been dumped by their family and society at large. Moreover, the children or grandchildren of the residents are mostly represented as greedy, callous or self-absorbed. Gervais has commented that the show is a tribute to family members who worked in care homes and Derek succeeds in that context.
In representing the working classes and societal outsiders, Derek also works very well. I’ll be honest there is some easy humour to be had from the sexual perversity and drunken antics of Kev, portrayed with greasy acumen by David Earl. However, in Season 2, Kevin’s sad decline comes into focus as his alcoholism causes his health to fail and the friends he has alienated have tough choices to make. Nonetheless, the comedic interactions between Pilkington, Gervais, Earl and Kerry Godliman are priceless. These, plus Brett Goldstein as Hannah’s boyfriend, Tom, are all gifted performers and they shine throughout the episodes.
Gervais faced much critical controversy when Derek was first released. But having watched it again I actually think this was undeserved. Derek is not a figure of fun but rather a complex human being and richly empathetic character. If you find it offensive or do not enjoy Gervais’ performance then I understand that. Ultimately though, the series has some childish humour such as characters writing obscenities on crabs at the seaside, Dougie’s stupid hair, and Kev crapping himself at a staff meeting. However, it also has some fine comedic set-pieces as occurs when Derek, Dougie and Kevin put on a play about Duran Duran at a talent night. Plus, the scene where Kev and Derek try and sell their autographs of “famous” people is pure comedy gold.
Overall, Derek is a life-affirming comedy full of eccentric characters on the fringe of society. Somehow, they all band together to create this weird dysfunctional but very caring family. It’s a show about life, death, gain, loss and the human spirit. Moreover, through Derek’s homespun philosophical musings we get a lot of simple, yet effective life lessons. Yes, it’s full of toilet and school-playground humour, and at times is really mawkish and sentimental, but it is also full of heart and poignancy all performed by a fantastic ensemble cast.
While we all love a good proper feature film containing one continuous narrative, the anthology or portmanteau film has thrown up some fine cinematic entertainment over the years. Generally, an anthology film can be described as a collection of works with a linked theme, genre, style and author etc.
Thus, in my occasional Six of the Best series I have decided to pick some favourite ones. To make it more interesting I have chosen them from different genres. Otherwise, I would have just chosen all horror films. So, here are six of the film anthology films worth watching.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018) – WESTERN
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a mischievous alchemy of stories. Here, the Coen Brothers reach into their cinematic bag of tricks to deliver an entertaining and memorable collection of characters, songs, bloody death, jokes, pathos, landscapes, snappy dialogue, dark humour and action. Coen’s films often improve with each viewing as their work is so full of stylish depth and this is no different. Quite often, you’re laughing so much you miss the philosophical happenstance which is occurring in many of these fine stories.
DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) – HORROR
It seems sacrilege not to include the likes of George Romero’s Creepshow (1982) or one of Amicus’ unhinged collections such as Dr Terror’s House of Horror (1965). But, having watched this classic recently I can certainly say it has some brilliant and scary stories which stand the test of time. Full to the brim with the cream of British acting, writing and directing talent, the standout tale is Michael Redgrave’s troubled ventriloquist, although the whole film is a nightmarish treat for horror fans.
FANTASIA (1940) – ANIMATION
With the current trend for Disney to remake their back catalogue as “live” action films in mind, I very much doubt they will doing this with Fantasia. Conceived as a short to re-invigorate the slowing career of Mickey Mouse, the film is unlike any other Disney have made. It consists of experimental, non-narrative and hallucinogenic vignettes mainly set to wondrous classical music. A masterpiece of hand-drawn animation, style, colour and design, it’s certainly not just for kids. I recall many images giving me nightmares when saw it as a child and it remains a powerful cinematic work to this day.
NIGHT ON EARTH (1991) – COMEDY
I was going to choose Woody Allen’s erotic sketch film, Everything You Wanted to Ask About Sex but were Afraid to Ask (1972), for the comedy section. However, I decided to select a more deadpan and character oriented film. What better then, than a Jim Jarmusch curiosity. I love the concept of the film as Jarmusch sets several themes and parameters in place. There are five slice-of-life vignettes set on the same night in the cities of Helsinki, New York, Rome, Paris and Los Angeles, all starring some of Jarmusch’s favourite actors. Relationships and quirky interactions between cab driver and passenger are explored in the filmmakers’ inimitable style.
PULP FICTION (1994) – CRIME
Quentin Tarantino’s second feature film remains a fresh masterpiece of colliding gangsters, uber-cool hitmen, fixers, boxers, sexual deviants, femme fatales, drug addicts and general criminal types. With an over-lapping timeline that kind of does a figure of eight, we get stories ranging from a couple robbing a diner; a boxer double-crossing a crime boss; and an employee almost killing his boss’s wife. Tarantino breathes life into the crime genre and the stock pulp characters with one of the greatest screenplays ever written; full of incredible dialogue, startling twists and a brilliant ensemble cast.
WILD TALES (2014) – DRAMA
Damián Szifron conjures up a delectable and devilish set of stories mostly based around the themes of obsession and revenge. It opens with a breath-taking little prologue featuring a horrific incident on a plane and culminates in arguably the wildest tale when the Bride goes on the rampage at her wedding. Everyone’s favourite Argentinian actor Ricardo Darin pops up in the middle as an explosives expert who enacts revenge on City Parking fascists. I love the whole thing as the film delivers a full deck of twists that master of the macabre Roald Dahl would be proud of.
Cast: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jonathan Bailey, Julie Dray, Louise Ford, Damien Moloney, Amit Shah, Susan Wokoma, Adrian Scarborough etc.
Original Network: Channel 4 Television (UK)
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
While Netflix, Sky, Fox, Disney and Amazon dominate much of the digital television output across the English-speaking world, Britain has, in the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 a lot to offer in regard to TV entertainment. I watch a lot of the main drama and comedy from the BBC, but I thought perhaps I needed a little catch-up on some Channel 4 shows I may have missed.
Thus, I set up an account at ALL 4 – https://www.channel4.com/ – and had a little look about. There are hundreds of films, comedies and dramas on their channel produced in the UK, Europe and the globe in general. So, I will be writing some reviews of stuff I’ve been catching up on that I can recommend. I have to state ALL 4 is great value because it is ad-driven and there is NO monthly subscription.
Crashing (2016), is a comedy centred around property guardians. Such people rent disused properties at a discounted rate but have to “protect” the property and leave virtually immediately when the landlord demands. It’s a great set-up for a television format as it allows for a mixture of various characters to connect in comedic, dramatic, romantic and hysterical ways. The setting, a disused hospital, is also great with the abandoned building providing a strong visual theme throughout.
Written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, prior to her Fleabagand Killing Eve fame, the script pulls focus on six such property guardians. Waller-Bridge is Lulu, a twenty-something party girl drifting into London town looking for childhood friend Anthony. You can obviously see elements of her Fleabag persona in Lulu notably the way she uses alcohol, flirting and chaotic sexuality to hide her true feelings. Other characters are: said friend, Anthony; his girlfriend, neurotic Kate; middle-aged depressive Colin; French artist, Melody; awkward professional, Fred; and grieving, but charismatic estate agent, Sam. Kate, especially, is a progenitor for Fleabag’s hyper-stressed sister, Claire.
Waller-Bridge has created an interesting chorus of variant personalities who laugh and conflict and romance and sex in a very entertaining six episodes. I would say the show is more comedic than dramatic and there are some really funny moments which tend toward the slapstick, bodily functions, comedic misunderstanding or are just simply sex-driven. Who-fancies-who-or-who-is-fucking-who is a believable running theme through the show but there is some pathos there, especially with Colin, Fred and Sam’s characters. Overall, this is an under-rated comedy gem which, while it only ran for just one season, is definitely worth watching for the fast-paced writing and excellent ensemble acting.