Produced by: Jon Kilik, Spike Lee, Beatriz Levin, Lloyd Levin
Written by: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, Chadwick Boseman etc.
Music by: Terence Blanchard, Marvin Gaye
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
Shelton Jackson “Spike” Lee has been a prolific actor, director, producer and polemicist for some time now. An ultra-talented and outspoken cinematic artist, he has directed thirty fiction and documentary films since his debut feature film She’s Gotta Have It (1986). Plus, all manner of promos, commercials, music videos, short films and television series. An energetic firebrand of a director he has made films in many genres and is a risk-taker in subject, theme and style. Whether you agree with what he has to say he is a filmmaker who is always creating situations and characters who must be heard.
His latest film, Da 5 Bloods (2020), is a timely Netflix film release which encapsulates crime, heist, political, war, drama, Blaxploitation, comedy, documentary, love and experimental film genres. Lee has never been afraid of taking risks and sometimes his films have not worked because of it. However, with BlacKKKlansman (2018) he succeeded in making one of the best films of 2018 and should have won Best Film Oscar in my view. Da 5 Bloods (2020) grabs the power baton of Lee’s prior film and runs with it, delivering an entertaining, funny, thought-provoking, stylish and brilliant genre-blending story full of sustainable socio-political arguments in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The narrative begins by establishing four aging Vietnam veterans, portrayed by the magnetic ensemble of Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr. They meet in Ho Chi Minh City in order to venture into the jungle and locate the remains of their squad leader. During some very stylised, richly colour-saturated and impactful flashbacks, it is revealed their friend, “Stormin Norman” (the charismatic, Chadwick Boseman), was killed in combat. Furthermore, and this is the money reason they are back in ‘Nam – there is army gold in those hills. Thus, the comrades set out to locate their friend’s body, and the gold, in order to find reparation and hopefully some form of redemption.
The film begins warmly as we enjoy the company of these great actors portraying reunited friends on an old boys outing. However, the film, as it introduces further subplots involving Jean Reno’s suspicious businessmen, Desroche and Delroy Lindo’s Paul crumbling mental state, moves into far darker territory the further the men get into the jungle. Lindo himself gives arguably the best performance of his career as a soldier grieving for his lost friend and desperate to get compensation for the unjust loss of so many lives in Vietnam. His character’s downward mental trajectory is one of the most powerful elements of Da 5 Bloods (2020). No doubt Lindo will be nominated come awards time and so he should be.
The cinematic excellence on show too from Spike Lee and his production crew is to be applauded too. Lee’s box of magic tricks includes: jump cuts, aspect ratio switches, colour saturation, Shakespearean soliloquies, documentary footage, flashbacks, conveyor-belt camera tracks, stills photography, slow-motion, direct address and many other devices. The exceptional cinematography is drenched in an opulent score from Terence Blanchard and the incredible voice of Marvin Gaye. I guess my main reservations about the film would be the elongated running time, with some scenes indulgently over-running. Moreover, there were also a couple of convenient plot coincidences which could have been ironed out. Nonetheless, with Da 5 Bloods (2020), Spike Lee has delivered another bravura mix of genre and socio-political filmmaking which, like classics such as The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) and Apocalypse Now (1979), stare into the dark heart of humanity and find greed, war and death there. Unlike those two films though, Da 5 Bloods (2020), also contains hope, light in the tunnel, and the idea that togetherness brings strength in the face of adversity.
I haven’t done one of these articles for a while, but in light of the Conservative Party victory in the General Election the other day, I thought it interesting to lean toward a more political filmmaker for my latest post. Thus, I once again pick five highly recommended films by one of my favourite cinema creatives. Today, I look at the work of Ken Loach.
Loach is now, at time of writing, eighty-three year’s old, and has just released a new film called Sorry We Missed You (2019). At the cinema alone he has singularly directed twenty-five films, plus been involved with many television productions too. His ‘Wednesday Play’ Cathy Come Home (1966), was voted in the top ten best British television programmes of all time at the turn of the millennium. It was so powerful in its depiction of a struggling homeless character, the issues were raised in Parliament at the time. His work continues to address socio-political issues even now and has often provoked controversy.
Loach works generally in the dramatic or social realist genre. However, his raw, almost documentary style, which centres on working or characters from the under-classes, does have much comedy going through it too. Structurally his films build empathy with his characters in a generally linear fashion; slices of life which more often than not result in tragedy. While the landscapes he displays are quite depressing, his characters aren’t victims though. They are always strong and passionate and striving for the best outcome. However, poor life choices, poverty, bureaucracy, gangsters, criminality, addiction, military, and unfair government laws and procedures provide fierce obstacles.
Some have accused Loach of, over the years, being a ‘Champagne Socialist’, comfortably attacking the ruling classes from a position of privilege. He’s also been accused of vicariously holidaying in the land of the under-privileged, for what gain I’m unsure of. Personally, I am always compelled by Loach’s cinema, the issues raised and the characters he presents. He is a true humanist director and storyteller, who has made some consistently brilliant films. Whether you agree with his politics or views, he is at least attempting to reflect the injustices in the world and the underdogs within in it. Here are five films which capture this perfectly.
Based on Barry Hines’ novel, Kesis one of the finest British films ever. It concerns the everyday existence of Billy Casper (David Bradley) and his attempts to survive the harsh realities of Northern life in Barnsley. Billy struggles at school, but finds salvation when he adopts and trains a young kestrel. Kes represents a microcosm of working-class life where the kids are either damned or sent down the pit to work. Simultaneously warm, harsh, bitter, funny and tragic, Kes is a memorable early work from Ken Loach and deserves revisiting over and over again.
MY NAME IS JOE (1998)
Anchored by an incredible leading performance from Peter Mullen, My Name is Joe, centres on Joe Kavanagh and his attempts to stay sober. Joe has been a destructive alcoholic for some years and uses AA to control his drinking. The narrative drive comes from Joe’s attempt to assist recovering drug addict, Liam (David McKay), plus Joe’s blossoming romance with a local health worker, Sarah (Louise Goodall). It’s a raw rendition of Scottish working-class life with romance and tragedy lying side-by-side in a moving portrait of addiction, love and life’s everyday struggles.
THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (2006)
Incredibly controversial when released, Loach’s war drama is set in 1920’s, Cork, Ireland. It centres on the conflict between the Irish Republican Army and the British army, as civil war broke out prior to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The lead protagonists are two brothers portrayed by Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney. As the war and violence heightens the two brothers, their families and their compatriots are devastated by harsh British rule. Loach was described as “anti-English and traitorous” by the English press and Conservative politicians, when the film was released. However, irrespective of your politics, it is a stunningly human work of cinema; both shocking and heart-wrenching in equal measures.
LOOKING FOR ERIC (2009)
Films about football (soccer in the U.S.A) and footballers can be very tricky to get right as the game itself arguably works better as a live spectacle, rather than at the cinema. However, Loach scored a big win with this really moving story about a lowly postman, Eric Bishop (Steve Evets), who is struggling with family, love and work pressures. Depressed and almost suicidal, Eric finds unlikely help in the magical appearance of Manchester United football legend, Eric Cantona. Sprinkling the kitchen sink realism with fantasy is a departure for Loach, and Paul Laverty’s wonderful script brilliantly espouses the need for teamwork, fraternity and community within its touching narrative.
I, DANIEL BLAKE (2016)
Having worked for the Benefits Agency a few decades ago, I have some understanding of social security and government assistance schemes. Via the titular character of Daniel Blake (the brilliant Davey Johns), Loach savagely criticises Conservative austerity measures. The systematic turning of the screw has seen many British people have their benefits stopped because of somewhat Kafkaesque measures. Of course, the system should work to stop people abusing it, but many deserving people suffered too. This is demonstrated here in this heartfelt drama of one man, who having suffered a heart attack, battles for his pride and future.
ALL 4 TV REVIEWS – A VERY BRITISH COUP (1988) & SECRET STATE (2012)
With a General Election coming up I thought I’d look at a couple of political TV dramas, both of which can be seen on Channel Four’s streaming service All 4. Interestingly enough, they are also both based on Chris Mullin’s book, A Very British Coup (1982).
I don’t propose to be an expert on these things, but I hate politics. It’s a necessary evil as someone has to run society, I guess. What with another General Election on December 12th, 2019, it’s not difficult to feel saturated with all things political and with the cluster-fuck of BREXIT!
In the U.K. we have several political parties, but the two main ones are Labour and the Conservatives. They fight and bitch with each other and switch places every four years or so and end up undoing the work the previous party had done. I realise it is a bloody tough thing to run a country, but just wonder whether this the best system we have?
I mean why can’t we join together and work as a collective rather than in constant conflict. Can we not put aside our differences to work toward a common goal? The current system pits us AGAINST each other – left versus right and up versus down and black versus white and green versus blue! Divide and rule seems to be the favoured system to maintain the status quo! Could this change or am I just dreaming!?
A VERY BRITISH COUP (1988) – CHANNEL FOUR
Directed by: Mick Jackson
Adapted by Alan Plater – based on the novel by Chris Mullin
Cast: Ray McAnally, Keith Allen, Alan MacNaughton etc.
Mullins novel imagines a staunch working class and socialist MP, Harry Perkins, rising to the position of Prime Minister and immediately trying to change the political landscape of the ruling upper classes. His biggest desire is to nationalise industry and proceed with nuclear disarmament. This creates, a perceived a security threat, and Perkins finds himself targeted by the Secret Service, including MI5, MI6 and the C.I.A. Moreover, the scandal-lusting media also attempts to bring him down.
Shot on nostalgia-brimmed 16mm film, this is a high quality political drama. Ray McAnally is absolutely brilliant as the strong-willed man of principal attempting to make the system more honest and open. There are echoes of the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn in his socialist policies, so one can see how Perkins would be a threat. With the financial, media, and government factions all fighting each other, it’s a fascinating exploration of political machinations. Sadly, I don’t think much has changed in Westminster or the world either.
Mark: 9 out of 11
SECRET STATE (2012) – CHANNEL 4
Directed by: Ed Fraiman
Adapted by: Robert Jones – based on the novel by Chris Mullin
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Charles Dance, Ruth Negga, Douglas Hodge etc.
If I hadn’t looked it up online, I would never have known this was another adaptation of Chris Mullin’s book. This modern update leaves behind the classic left-wing and right-wing politics of the original adaptation and moves into the more murky world of corporate, industrial and military political intrigue. Gabriel Byrne is uniformly excellent as Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins, suddenly thrust into the PM’s place following a tragic series of events. With a devastating chemical disaster ongoing, potential war with Iran, the Secret Service and political rivals plotting against him, Dawkins is threatened from all sides.
What unfolds is a meaty conspiracy drama which, while lacking the political depth of the original TV programme, more than makes up with quality cast and suspense. While lacking a truly compelling ending, the drama benefits from some excellent performances, notably Douglas Hodge as the washed up, alcoholic ex-spy. It was interesting too that the writers deemed it unnecessary to define what political party Dawkins was from, such was the more ambiguous nature of the political landscape in the pre-Corbyn and post-Blair era.
Cast: Ihsan Onal, Gül Arici, Elif Cakman, Murat Saglam
**********SPOILER FREE REVIEW**********
The London Film Festival is here once again and I have booked in to watch a number of big studio and independent films. Not as many as my wife, who is determined to break herself on the cinematic wheel.
It really is kid in a candy store time at the London Film Festival with all manner of films on show. The first I chose was a low budget Turkish film. It’s a psychological and socio-political horror film called The Antenna (2019).
As we follow the lowly security guard, Mehmet (Ihsan Onal), and various families on the council estate, all manner of weird things start to occur when a new Satellite dish is installed. The slow pace, sharp camera angles, creepy imagery and haunting sound all combine to create an under-the-skin paranoia and fear.
Clearly the Turkish filmmaker, Orcun Behram, is a very talented director who has been learning from the best, notably David Cronenberg and David Lynch. His surreal, dystopian vision of an oppressed tower block in an unnamed state becomes an allegorical critique of Government and media control.
I was really gripped by the film, but once you get the powerful and horrific message the filmmaker is making,The Antenna (2019) feels too long. The sinister pace worked at the beginning but as the film progressed it felt draining. Indeed, while the incredible visuals and soundscape serve the message impressively, it arguably needed to be trimmed for pace to make the horror on show even more powerful.
Produced by: Jason Blum, Spike Lee, Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele, Shaun Redick, Jordan Peele
Written by: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
Based on: Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth
Starring: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace
Music by: Terence Blanchard
Cinematography: Chayse Irvin
Let’s just say right off the bat that films like Black Klansman (2018) are the reason I still go to the cinema. Even from the trailer I’m like wow: a black police officer goes undercover and infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan!! That is a story I need to know about! How the hell did he do that? What follows then is the how, who, why and what-the-fuck-happened story of Ron Stallworth and how he managed to get between the “sheets”, as it were, of one of the nastiest clubs every to deface the fabric of society.
Racism or prejudice of any fashion is deplorable. There is no place for any oppression within a civilised society. Rising up out of the poisonous embers of defeated Confederate army members, in or around the 1860s, the Ku Klux Klan has sought to manifest hatred and bile since then. Murder, violence, vandalism, hangings and burning crosses became its’ nefarious stock and trade as it sought to make toxic the societal waters. In more recent decades, from the 1950s on, the Klan found a politicised voice seeking power through government. It is here that the story of the Black Klansman (2018) joins. It is 1979 and the civil rights movement continues seeking justice and equality for all. The Ku Klux Klan does not agree. They want purification. They are hatred.
Already a trailblazer as the first black detective in Colorado Springs, Ron Stallworth proves he is an intelligent and reliable undercover officer. Then having seen an advert in the local newspaper for the KKK’s desire to recruit new members, he, rather incredibly, calls to make an appointment. From then on his unbelievable scheme gathers pace and a team is assigned to infiltrate the Klan. These include Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish cop, portrayed with his usual laidback brilliance by Adam Driver; and it is Zimmerman who provides the physical version of Ron Stallworth to the Klan members. Indeed, Driver and John David Washington, as the real Stallworth, form a great double-act during the operation. While Zimmerman takes his life in his hands spying on the fascistic group, Stallworth himself builds relationships on the phone with the head of the Klan Charter, David Duke. Duke is the political arm and portrayed with efficient zeal by Topher Grace.
Black Klansman (2018) is a complex film which expertly mixes many genres and tones. The humour of Stallworth’s phone calls to the KKK members are hilariously delivered by the charismatic Washington; while the horrific language of the Klan and danger Zimmerman finds himself in levies this humour, creating a flux of emotions. Moreover, Spike Lee, a tremendously confident director, infuses musical, thriller, Blaxploitation and documentary genre styles within the film, making it a joy to experience. One could argue the romantic subplot doesn’t quite flourish amidst the main plots but Laura Harrier gives a fine performance nonetheless within a great ensemble cast. Plus, I must not forget the killer soundtrack which bleeds soul and verve into every shot.
Spike Lee has never been afraid of experimenting with cinematic style and with this film his alchemy perfectly combines form and content. Overall, this is one of the best films I have seen in 2018, both entertaining and thought-provoking; as the final reels of news footage demonstrate that fascism is still among us and as dangerous as ever. Yet, this film is never preachy for the sake of it and uses humour most often as a weapon to undermine the senseless ideologies of the KKK. Indeed, in ridicule there is hope they may eventually be side-lined to the shadows of history.
Executive producer(s): Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Robert B. Weide, Larry Charles, Erin O’Malley, Alec Berg etc.
Production company(s): HBO Entertainment, Warner Bros.
Starring: Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines, Susie Essman, J. B. Smoove etc.
There’s absolutely no reason why a situation comedy about an aging, wealthy, neurotic and narcissistic Hollywood writer should be one of the most consistently funny comedy shows of the last twenty years. There’s no real substance or depth in Curb Your Enthusiasm; in fact not much really happens of great value as it occurs in a “Larry David / Hollywood” bubble. Moreover, in anti-hero Larry David you more often than not find his behaviour abhorrent as he goes about upsetting friends, family members, celebrities, and strangers on a daily basis. However, due to the writing, cast and situations the humour is always pretty, pretty good!
After a six-year hiatus Larry David is back and nothing really has changed. The formula remains the same inasmuch as he gets himself in ridiculous situations upsetting everyone around him, resulting in the most farcical of comedic pay-offs. However, while many of the narrative reveals can be seen a long way off it doesn’t make them any less enjoyable. Special highlights during Season 9 are JB Smoove’s scene-stealing turns as Larry’s “house-guest” Leon Black; who over the course of the last few seasons has inveigled his way into Larry’s life. The two have become an unlikely double act as uncool Jewish bald guy buddies up with his cooler, streetwise and “player” pal. With Leon and Larry you get a relationship which both reflects and satirizes racial stereotypes to funny effect.
While most of the Season 9 episodes work as stand-alone stories the integral over-riding arc involves Larry David writing a new Broadway show. Inspired by events which occurred to novelist Salman Rushdie, Larry has written a musical called, incredibly, Fatwa! At first everyone loves the idea and rushes to invest. However, when Larry mocks the Ayatollah on the Jimmy Kimmel show he himself is, you’ve guessed it, hit with a Fatwa!! The running gags throughout created by this comedic narrative are very broad, un-PC, stereotypically offensive; but also bloody hilarious. I wondered why there wasn’t more controversy; however, Larry David himself is the butt of many of these jokes as he fails to lift the Fatwa.
The season is crammed with celebrity appearances and particular standouts are: Salman Rushdie, Elizabeth Banks, F. Murray Abraham; and Hamilton creator Lin Manuel-Miranda. The latter hilariously clashes with Larry during the production of the Fatwa: The Musical. There are also some great gags relating to everyday observations including: Uber ratings; pickle jars; tipping; disturbances in kitchens; Asperger’s; plus many more. The episode, Running with the Bulls, with Bryan Cranston portraying Larry’s harangued therapist, was probably my favourite. It was also great to see The Mighty Boosh comedy nut-case Rich Fulcher make an appearance as an evasive Restaurant Manager. Overall, the season was pretty scatter-gun in it’s target humour but it certainly hit the mark throughout. I’m just amazed, in these liberal-PC-social-media-offence-driven times there wasn’t more controversy. Having said that Larry David probably wouldn’t care as in his own words, “I have reservations about everything I do.”
ORIGINAL NETWORK: HBO – CURRENT NETWORK: SKY ATLANTIC
CREATED BY: David Milch
STARRING: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Powers Boothe, Dayton Callie, Kim Dickens, Brad Dourif, John Hawkes, and Robin Weigert etc.
SEASONS: 3 – EPISODES: 36
ORIGINAL RELEASE: March 21, 2004 – August 27, 2006
The blood and sweat and liquor seep into muddy earth as wood creaks, leather cracks and barrels roll within the midst of morning in Deadwood town. Horses cry readying themselves for the work ahead as the hangover of alcohol, greed and necessity fill men, women and children’s hearts not knowing how the day will end. They could be destitute, broke or worse; six feet under from a gunshot or plague or had their throat cut during a game of poker. Or they could be richer than a King or Queen having struck lucky in the goldmines of Montana. These are desperate times brimming with whores, bandits, con-artists, killers and unbelievably twisted optimism. There’s hope that striking gold will change lives forever and bring about fortune and prosperity. More often than not though it simply brings about death.
David Milch’s formidably researched Western TV classic was a show I’d never ever seen so I took great pleasure drinking in its’ flavours and palette at the end of 2017. I recall when released the tabloid newspapers were forever reporting the controversy of the colourful industrial language. While the language is indeed profane and sometimes enough to make a football referee blush it is the stand-out element of the scripts. Because Deadwood is one of the most brilliantly written shows I’ve seen; and while the dialogue is clearly anachronistic it feels paradoxically authentic. Throughout the thirty-six episodes the monologues sing from the screen as a litany of character actors drawl and deliver words of filth, comedy and great tragedy. At times the dialogue is so dense it reaches sonorous Shakespearean heights.
The narratives of each season feature characters based on real people from history (Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, Al Swearengen, Seth Bullock et al); all presented via a daily slice of mining camp life through an incredible ensemble cast. There are no heroes to hang our desires on but rather a rag-tag clan of flawed human beings presented as: killers, cowards, thugs, addicts, prostitutes, card sharks, immigrants, gold-diggers, crooked politicians and morally dubious law representatives. The amazing cast, led with frightening acting acumen by: Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, Molly Parker, John Hawkes, Robin Weigert, Brian Cox and Powers Boothe spit words as weapons, while the glint of gold drives humanity, creating a hard-bitten early representation of the American dream.
Here the early realms of civilization and society are shown to be full of issues relating to: race, capitalism, prostitution, misogyny, violence, politics, and immigration. Thankfully, things have changed now and we live in a near-perfect society with no problems today. NOT! Deadwood may represent a series of distant Wild West memories but its’ grizzled and bloody vision of humanity is just as valid today. The streets of society now may have pavement and tarmac and skyscrapers but they are still besmirched with blood and greed and alas that will never change.
Over the past few months I’ve focussed my extra-curricular viewing on BBC produced dramas via the BBC channels and catch-up on Netflix. The British Broadcasting Corporation, being the public-service-tax-payer-funded-beast that it is has a commitment to produce quality programming for national viewing and also overseas sales too. I then got to thinking; why not check out where some of my £12.12 per month money goes. So, here are some bitesize reviews of recent BBC dramas with marks out of the usual eleven.
**CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS**
THE CHILD IN TIME (2017)
Based on Ian McEwan’s prize-winning novel this was an interesting drama which worked in many respects but did not quite connect in others. Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly McDonald are parents whose child goes missing while out shopping. The drama and grief of this was very well evoked but the supporting story of a publisher’s regression and mental collapse did not quite thematically meld for me. No doubt McEwan’s original source is a master work and I enjoyed many of the emotional moments provided by the excellent acting. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
DOCTOR FOSTER – SEASON 1 (2015) + SEASON 2 (2017)
Suranne Jones is absolutely stunning in this domestic drama written by Mike Bartlett. She acts her heart and soul out as the eponymous GP, who in the face of her husband’s suspected infidelity, attempts to find both the truth and maintain her family unit and sanity. It’s a brilliantly written TV series which creates great drama from the “whodunnit” aspect of the potential spousal treachery. Plus, in addition to the Hitchcockian elements Dr Foster herself is very unpredictable in her actions; making for some nail-biting scenes. Bertie Carvel also excels as the charismatic husband and the second season, while not reaching the emotional heights of the first, and feeling more contrived, had some decent dramatic twists too.
(Season 1 – Mark: 9.5 out of 11)
(Season 2 – Mark: 8 out of 11)
LONDON SPY (2015)
The always-impactful actor Ben Whishaw is superbly supported by thespian giants Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling in this obtuse spy thriller. Playing a troubled warehouse worker called Danny, Whishaw falls for the enigmatic genius, Alex (Edward Holcroft); and is thrown into a murky and murderous world of spymasters and upper-class family feuds. Beautifully acted and designed the story moved too slowly for me. Over five episodes the slow-bleed plot of character despair, double-crosses and cover-ups did not sustain the suspense and tension throughout. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
THE SECRET OF CRICKLEY HALL (2012)
Suranne Jones (again!) leads the acting line in an earlier post-Coronation Street role. She portrays a mother who, along with her family, seeks the solace of the countryside after their young child has gone missing. However, the house they reside in is haunted by ghosts from the past and as the family attempt to overcome their grief, evil spirits threaten their present. The contemporary narrative works well with the wartime scenes in a decent haunted house scenario that was adapted from the book by horror legend James Herbert; also featuring an early role for Maisie Williams. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
SMALL ISLAND (2009)
Notable for its excellent ensemble cast and featuring before-they-were-famous roles for: Ruth Wilson, David Oyelowo, Naomi Harris, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ashley Walters, this excellent drama focussed on the war and post-war lives of several disparate characters whose lives become intertwined by fate. Based on Andrea Levy’s novel it is especially rich in regard to the diasporic characterizations and experiences of Jamaican immigrants in war-torn England. The writing is solid and there’s some fine acting and emotional moments to keep one enthralled and I enjoyed how the stories dovetailed dramatically at the end. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
TOP OF THE LAKE (2013)
Hey, what if Jane Campion wrote and directed a cop drama? Well, the answer is Top of the Lake! This is a slow-burn, who-why-how-dunnit with a superb cast, beautiful New Zealand vistas and eccentric, dark characters. Some may find it too slow and artsy, while certain decisions by the characters and plot turns were intriguingly weird. However, Elizabeth Moss excels as the burnt-out cop (is there any other kind?) searching for a missing pregnant teenager, while Peter Mullan is suitably vicious as the rural patriarch; and Holly Hunter is fantastic too as the leader of a women’s commune. Overall, Campion’s barbed world-view satirizes humanity and cop show clichés in a compelling crime drama. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
TOP OF THE LAKE 2: CHINA GIRL (2017)
Screened earlier this year on the BBC, the follow-up finds Elizabeth Moss, now back in Sydney, tracking down the killer of an Asian prostitute while battling illegal adoption rings and all manner of sexist-pig-men. Like the original it pulls you in with its richly drawn characters and brilliant cast all committing to the lurid and quirky plotlines. Moss is always reliable and does the brooding, melancholic and troubled cop perfectly, while Nicole Kidman is brilliant as the middle-class academic out of her depth with the emotions of her adopted daughter. The sinister beta-male-nemesis Puss portrayed by David Dencik was a great rendition of spurious masculinity while it was great to see Gwendoline Christie out of her Game of Thrones armour, as a naïve rookie cop assisting Moss’ detective. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
TRUST ME (2017)
Jodie “New Doctor Who” Whittaker leads the cast as a downtrodden nurse and single-mum struggling with an NHS cover-up over poor service delivery. Faced with the sack she decides to engage in a cover-up herself by taking on the identity of a Doctor; and then the real drama kicks in. Whittaker is very empathetic and natural, while the suspense was very thrilling at times as her character gets deeper and deeper into the mire. Overall, it was a very tense and fun medical drama which made some very good social points in regards to a Doctors’ life and the NHS in general. Ultimately, it made me appreciate what the NHS does for us but also want to avoid getting ill in the future too!
(Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
WAR AND PEACE (2016)
Well, the BBC certainly pushed the budget boat out on this one with a who’s who of new and experienced acting talent including: Jim Broadbent, Paul Dano, Lily James, Tuppence Middleton, Aneurin Barnard, Adrian Edmondson, Jessie Buckley, Tom Burke, Rebecca Front, Greta Scacchi, Brian Cox, Stephen Rea, Gillian Anderson and many more. Adapting Tolstoy’s gigantic and classic doorstop novel must have been some feat and it is indeed and sumptuous and incredible production. As a drama it drew me in with its’ stories of over-privileged Russian lives set during the Napoleonic wars as they live, love, cheat, duel, war and die. Yet, while I did not feel too much empathy for the characters, the acting, design and directing is a joy to behold and I garnered a certain hypnotic pleasure bathing in the high quality of the whole shebang. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
One of the legends of cinema passed away a couple of days ago in George A. Romero. Here was a filmmaker who will always remain an inspiration to me as a movie fan and independent filmmaker.
He is most famous for single-handedly inventing the modern day zombie film, however, that, in my opinion is to simplify his legacy. What he achieved on low budgets with films such as: Night of Living Dead (1968), The Crazies (1973), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Martin (1978), Day of the Dead (1985) and more, was nothing short of incredible.
His films indelibly etched images, sounds, music, sequences and of course bloody gore into my mind; some of which I will never forget to this day. Most importantly, though his horror films were of the fantastic variety, they were filled with incredible insight into the socio-political machinations of the day.
Because, George A. Romero knew that the horror on the screen could never match the horrors of war, oppression and death that humanity bestowed upon itself down the years and in the now. For being an independent, intelligent and political filmmaker is how Romero should be remembered.
I thought I would make an effort to watch more documentaries over the last few months. Personally, I love nothing more than to immerse myself in fictional worlds created by writers, show-runners and filmmakers etc. but sometimes it’s important to face the “truth”.
Having said that are documentaries actually reflecting reality or the truth? Because the documentary genre over the years has become ultra-sophisticated and many “true” stories are not just simply filmed documents or events or interviews. Now, documentaries are often carefully constructed narratives with as much if not more drama and turns in their tales than fictional works.
I wasn’t the only one who was gripped by Netflix’s Making a Murderer (2015) or HBO’s exceptional The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. Moreover, I’ve always been an avid viewer of the work of dogged filmmaker Nick Broomfield, the disarming talent of Louie Theroux, and at his best the polemical Michael Moore. However, you always have to be aware that what one is watching has been manipulated and finessed to tell a story or a certain agenda; thus truth is not always absolute and should always be questioned.
Nonetheless, the documentary film or programme remains an important tool to confront existential, sociological, historical and political events and issues. It also tends to be a lower budgeted medium – compared to fictional works – with which to illuminate and entertain an audience. So, here are some documentaries I have been watching of late.
Crime documentaries are big business and along with historical Nazi dramas fill up the TV screens and online. Netflix has some well-presented and often controversial documentaries, one such is AMANDA KNOX (2016), which interviewed many of those involved in the despicable murder case of Meredith Kercher a few years back. This intriguing documentary lifts the lid on a case where the media and Italian legal system are on trial as much as Knox herself.
With the Nazis in mind, the BBC documentary AUSCHWITZ: THE NAZIS AND THE FINAL SOLUTION (2005) is a horrific examination of wartime atrocities which probes the means with which the Nazis tried to wipe out all the Jews. This is a challenging yet incredible mix of interviews, dramatic re-enactment and detailed research on the evil death camp Auschwitz. While not an easy watch it is a brilliantly devised series which illustrates the blackest stain of one of humanity’s darkest periods in history.
From World War II to a very contemporary conflict Netflix presents THE WHITE HELMETS (2016), which over a hard-hitting forty minutes profiles the heroism of the eponymous rescue workers striving to save civilians from conflicted Aleppo and Syria on the whole. The short film won an Oscar but having done some research online the other side of the argument suggests this is a propaganda piece and does not represent the real work of this group. All I can say is someone somewhere is blowing the hell out of Syria and it is a bloody tragedy because people are dying! Indeed, whichever side the White Helmets are on the filmmakers show the insane destruction of war and suffering occurring for reasons that are beyond my understanding.
For something far more heart-warming I recommend the majestic film THE EAGLE HUNTRESS (2016). It documents the story of Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl from Mongolia, as she attempts to become the first female eagle hunter in her country. Beautiful vistas and soaring eagles amidst the snow are to the fore in a very sweet tale of a young lady facing up against years of cultural chauvinism and prejudice, for something she loves doing.
More harrowing though is the well-constructed Killer Whale documentary BLACKFISH (2013) which highlights the cruelty to these beautiful creatures in captivity and the alleged corporate greed of SeaWorld following the deaths of trainers at the park. It also illustrates, in my opinion, the idiotic folly of human beings who think it is wise to get in the water with gigantic aquatic hunters. We are imprisoning animals for our own apparent entertainment and killing ourselves because of it. Idiots!
More human lunacy can be found in the harrowing film VIRUNGA (2014) set in the Congo where director Orlando von Einsiedel stabs at the heart of darkness and finds Soco International and civil war damaging the natural beauty of Virunga National Park. It’s another sad indictment on humanity as the people who live there and the animals, notably the Gorillas, find their habitat is surely being destroyed in the name of greed and insane mercenary bloodlust.
Taking the nature documentary in the direction of horror is Morgan Spurlock’s brutal film RATS (2016). This sickeningly impressive doc takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the globe with gruesome scenes of rat-catching, scientific experimentation, baiting and butchering of rats. Most disgustingly the eating of rodents in Vietnam is considered a delicacy. Gross!
Arguably the most powerful of the documentaries I watched was Ava DuVernay’s polemical and politically charged 13th (2016), a film which slams years of Government policies in regard to incarceration. Indeed, the evidence presented shows systematic lobbying from big business to turn the prison system into a means of enslaving the less socially advantaged. The mass rise of inmates in jail from the 1970s to now bares out this fact and the harsh stories within the documentary too are shocking. 13th is a savage indictment against the United States Government treatment, over the years, of black and Hispanic communities, and while it’s very one-sided, the points it is well researched and makes are incredibly powerful.
An altogether less incendiary and academic approach comes via Noam Chomsky’s interviews represented in REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM (2015) where the ultra-intellectual argues lucidly that a half-century of policies have been designed to favour the most wealthy at the expense of the majority. It’s thought-provoking and makes you wonder if this real life “They Live” style of social domination by the rich is truly real or just a dreamt up socio-liberal political conspiracy. To me, and I am not particularly bright when it comes to such matters, believe it is capitalist Darwinism at its worst and the wealthy and powerful are simply protecting what they have to the detriment or the less socially advantageous. Bastards!
I have to say that I admire the bravery of many documentary filmmakers, especially the ones who get right into the nitty gritty of the action. One such filmmaker Matthew Heinemann and his film CARTEL LAND (2015) has a lot of bottle going to Mexico and the US border to film events relating to the drug trade, criminality and nefarious Cartel factions and Government groups. Heinemann and his crew deserve praise for bringing these incredible events concerning an ongoing bloody civil war which seems to have no end in sight.
America is a continual goldmine for fascinating documentaries and Louis Theroux has proved time and time again he is a dab hand at gently poking a stick into some of the darker areas of humanity. Two such BBC documentaries he made are LA STORIES (2014) and THE CITY ADDICTED TO CRYSTAL METH (2009) where Theroux’s unassuming style examines the lives of people and animals affected by drugs, paedophilia, death and social decay. I like Louis Theroux as he isn’t afraid to ask important questions and his work gets into your psyche, without ever smashing you over the head with a definite agenda or tunnel-vision polemics.
The comedian Russell Brand presented a more vigorous approach when challenging the UK government’s ‘war on drugs’ policy by finding out how other countries are tackling their problems of drug abuse. RUSSELL BRAND – END THE DRUGS WAR (2014) was an passionate crusade by Brand to treat drug addiction as a disease and not a crime and he made some excellent points in carrying his case to legal and Government figures.
For some lighter viewing I also watched an informative documentary about filmmaker, actor and theatre genius called: MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING WORK OF ORSON WELLES (2014), which entertainingly ran through the career highs and lows of Orson Welles. Meanwhile, I AM YOUR FATHER (2015) was a likeable tribute to the man who WAS Darth Vader in the original Star Wars franchise – David Prowse. However, the film was ruined by the Spanish director crow-barring himself into the film and also trying to create some drama out of Prowse being gazumped by George Lucas for the shooting of Vader’s death scene. Prowse had a great career and I found the attempts at controversy were unnecessary and the film should’ve concentrated on the man in the suit himself.
Last but not least if you love filmmaking docs you must watchLOST SOUL: RICHARD STANLEY’S ISLAND OF DR MOREAU (2014). This documentary charts the journey of director Richard Stanley and his attempts to bring classic novel The Island of Dr Moreau to the silver screen. With a massive budget and filming taking place in Australia it all starts to go wrong for Stanley as tropical storms hit the set and the money men at the studio lose confidence. Add the crazy Marlon Brando, difficult Val Kilmer and hedonistic extras to the mix and you get a box office turkey burning in front of your eyes. Both funny and tragic it reveals the folly of filmmaking yet sadly also seemed to finish Stanley’s promising directorial career.