Cast: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight, Lily Frazer, Turlough Convery, Rosie Sansom, Marcus Hutton
Music by: Adam Janota Bzowski
Cinematography: Ben Fordesman
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. . .” – Matthew 7:15
Also, beware of false praise from film reviewers! Because over the years I’ve often seen hyperbolic notices about films that after seeing them I wonder if I’ve been watching the same thing. Of course, any kind of review is subjective, and we cannot all like the same thing, but sometimes so-called critics rave about a cinema release for reasons I just don’t get. It could be that they genuinely like the film or are attempting to promote it on a personal or corporate level for some incestuous allegiance to the filmmaker or studio. They could even have been paid for the positive words. The latter is unlikely, but possible. Anyhow, everyone’s entitled to their opinion.
So, when I saw the glowing notices for Rose Glass’ psychological character study, Saint Maud (2019), I was initially sceptical. Thankfully after watching it at the Curzon cinema at the weekend, I concur with many of the raving critics. The film is a thoroughly absorbing and compelling exploration of religious mania, alienation, and mental breakdown. Moreover, Rose Glass, on her directorial feature debut deserves much praise for crafting a stunningly disturbing journey of one individual’s search for the Lord Almighty and rapturous redemption. Only to reveal, in Maud, a troubled outsider and lost soul, completely at odds with the people around her and society as a whole.
Morfydd Clark is absolutely spellbinding as the lead character. In fact, she inhabits both elements of protagonist and antagonist in this jagged narrative. Sadly, Maud becomes her own worst enemy as the film progresses. Her job as a nurse has connotations of angels and heroines, but eventually travels an alternative path. The film opens with flashes of a tragedy which has occurred at the hospital where Maud works. These events will haunt Maud like a psychological millstone; dragging her toward darkness while she seeks enlightenment. Rapidly quickening forward we then find Maud in private medical employment caring for former famed choreographer portrayed by Jennifer Ehle.
Ehle, as Amanda, gives an impressive rendition of a dying bitter woman; full of spite, bravado and fear as she nears the end of her life. Not that that stops Amanda from smoking, drinking and partying, much to the pious Maud’s displeasure. The two divergent personalities clash constantly as Maud takes it upon herself to be Amanda’s saviour. This ultimately becomes an obsessive crusade by Maud, no doubt in an attempt to find peace and redemption following the tragedy in her prior job. Such is the power of Maud and Amanda’s complex relationship of warring opposites, Saint Maud (2019) suffers minor dramatic inertia when Maud goes off the rails toward the end of the second act. Nonetheless, Glass is cleverly building Maud’s turmoil before bringing Ehle’s character back in the shocking and memorable final scenes.
Saint Maud (2019), overall, is an exceptionally well-crafted low budget work of British cinema. It is more than just a calling card for the extremely talented director, Rose Glass. Her grasp of the material is superb and the cinematography and shot composition support her dark vision brilliantly. The film may disappoint those who prefer conventional supernatural films, as it is more arthouse than classic horror. Moreover, it has much in common with searing character studies by Paul Schrader, such as Taxi Driver (1976), and the more recent, First Reformed (2017). Indeed, Maud’s voiceover permeates like a prayer to an empty sky bleeding into the powerful imagery to compelling effect. The true horror of Saint Maud (2019) is not in jump scares or one-dimensional monsters, but rather the slow descent into hell by a character who strives to be a saviour. Tragically though, Maud is a self-appointed Angel, whose mental fragility disintegrates under the weight of holy desire and biblical fervour.
NETFLIX FILM REVIEW: THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020)
Directed by: Antonio Campos
Produced by: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker, Randall Poster, Max Born
Screenplay by: Antonio Campos, Paulo Campos
Based on: The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock
Cast: Tom Holland, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Sebastian Stan, Haley Bennett, Eliza Scanlen, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, Harry Melling, etc.
Narrated by: Donald Ray Pollock
Music by: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Cinematography: Lol Crawley
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
Netflix’s latest major film release is a literary adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s psychological thriller, The Devil All the Time (2020). One has to believe it is a pretty faithful adaptation because the novelist himself narrates the tale to us via voiceover. Set in the years after World War II, the grim events unfold in the states of Ohio and West Virginia, respectively. While the action is not located in the deep South, the story has many of the tropes synonymous with the Southern Gothic genre, notably: religious fanaticism, explicit sexuality, flawed characters, sickening violence, poverty and human alienation.
The film, directed by Antonio Campos — who helmed the under-rated character study, Christine (2016) — starts extremely purposefully. Returning soldier, Miller Jones (Bill Skarsgard), meets a waitress on his bus journey home and eventually marries her. Both Skarsgard and Hayley Bennett, portraying his wife, inhabit empathetic characters working hard to bring up their son and saving for their own place. Jones, however, is haunted by a traumatic incident in the Pacific, and strives for solace in God and family. Indeed, the corrupt force of religious mania spreads like a cancer throughout The Devil All the Time (2020), becoming a constant threat and reason for many of the characters downfall.
Just as I was connecting with Jones’ life and becoming absorbed by Bill Skarsgard’s commanding performance, tragedy strikes and the narrative takes one of several jarring switches between characters. As such the film does not really have a strong plot, meandering from one character to another witnessing all manner of horrific events fate throws at them. Because, let’s be honest, The Devil All the Time (2020), is no way close to being a feelgood film. In fact, it revels in representing the evil acts of so-called human beings. Thus, throughout I felt a constant sense of dread and anxiety. Barely had Skarsgard misery ended and we are then introduced to the tragedies of characters portrayed by Harry Melling and Mia Wasikowska. Simultaneously, Jason Clarke and Riley Keough join the fray as two violent and sex-driven thrill-seekers. Yet, they are weakly written characters who again drive the mood of the film into pitch blackness.
The film gathers some strength and momentum n the middle act when Tom Holland’s son of Miller Jones comes of age. By focussing on his story we get more drama and emotion, especially where his relationship with his step-sister (Eliza Scanlan) is concerned. Holland gives an excellent performance as the young man attempting to make his way in this filthy and ungodly world. Similarly, Robert Pattinson’s oily Preacher oozes repugnant charm in another sterling piece of acting work. Alas, Sebastian Stan’s Sheriff and Douglas Hodge’s rural gangster are given short shrift in another crime subplot which goes nowhere.
Overall, Antonio Campos delivers an extremely solid thriller from an acting and thematic standpoint. Unfortunately, the fragmented screenplay should arguably have been given a more committed plotline. Of course, it has most likely shadowed the structure of the source novel so therein lies the rub. Having said that, despite the structural shortcomings, there are many shocking and violent set-pieces to satisfy horror fans. Ultimately though, The Devil All the Time (2020) lacks redemption, catharsis and even some decent suspense. By the end we are given few characters to care about and delivered the pessimistic vision that life is a belt of misery. Even a suggestion of sugar helps the poison go down and this film offers very little in the way of sweetness or light.
Produced by: Lindsay Law, Julie Dash, Arthur Jafa, Steven Jones
Written by: Julie Dash
Cast: Cora Lee Day, Barbara O, Alva Rogers, Trula Hoosier, Umar Abdurrahamn, Adisa Anderson, Kaycee Moore etc.
Music by: John Barnes
Cinematography: Arthur Jafa
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
“I didn’t want to tell a historical drama about African-American women in the same way that I had seen other dramas. I decided to work with a different type of narrative structure…[and] that the typical male-oriented western-narrative structure was not appropriate for this particular film. So I let the story unravel and reveal itself in a way in which an African Gullah would tell the story, because that’s part of our tradition. The story unfolds throughout this day-and-a-half in various vignettes. It unfolds and comes back. It’s a different way of telling a story. It’s totally different, new.” — Julie Dash
If you didn’t know the British Film Institute (or BFI) is the UK’s lead organisation for film, television and the moving image. It is a cultural charity that: presents world cinema for audiences in cinemas, at festivals and online; cares for the BFI National Archive, the most significant film and television archive in the world; is a registered charity that actively seeks out and supports the next generation of filmmakers; organises and runs the annual London Film Festival; and works with the government and industry to make the UK the most creatively exciting place to make film internationally. As my wife and I are members we get sent films on Blu-Ray/DVD as part of the membership. These can be re-released classics or remastered arthouse masterpieces such as Daughters of the Dust (1991).
Daughters of the Dust (1991) was a labour of love for writer and director Julie Dash. Originally inspired, way back in 1975, by her father’s experiences, she strived to create a short, poetic and cinematic account of a Gullah family’s migration from idyllic island life to New York at the turn of the century. Eventually, and after many year’s of development and struggle, PBS’ American Playhouse would grant the low budget for a feature film. The film is set in 1902. It tells the story of three generationsof Gullah women in the Peazant family and their varying viewpoints, thoughts and philosophies in regard to the move from Helena Island.
Daughters of the Dust (1991) was made for a reported $800,000, but it looks worth far more in terms of cinematography, costumes and settings. Arthur Jafa’s camera placement and use of the natural light, on the beach and swamp land especially, conjures up some magical imagery. The iconic images of the women on the beaches in their bright white dresses are stunningly memorable. While watching I felt like I was viewing a gallery of moving paintings, such was the exceptional nature of the composition. Again, despite a low budget and use of actors from independent cinema, Julie Dash, gets some incredibly natural and compelling performances from her cast. It’s all the more amazing as most of the cast had to learn the Gullah language employed from scratch.
Thematically the film is very powerful too. Conflict derives from dialectics such as the clashing of elder versus younger people, ancient beliefs versus Christian religion, African heritage versus Neo-American capitalism and nature versus technology. Julie Dash structures these themes and the character’s desires in a non-linear fashion over a period of a long weekend. There are poetic flashbacks and flashforwards too as the imagery is supported by a voiceover from a yet to be born child of parents, Eli and Eula. Ultimately, this film is a very immersive experience. There are no subtitles, so the language can be tricky to understand, but for me that enhanced the desire to feel the narrative. Indeed, the lyrical beauty of Daughters of the Dust (1991), combined with the humming percussion-driven music, stunning landscapes and inventive cinematic language mean you are swept out to sea by the powerful emotions of Julie Dash’s spectacular vision.
Main Cast: Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines, Susie Essman, J. B. Smoove, Ted Danson, Richard Lewis, Vince Vaughan, Kaitlin Olson etc.
Guests: Mila Kunis, Clive Owen, Laverne Cox, Chris Martin, Sean Penn, Jonah Hill, Jon Hamm, Philip Rosenthaland many more.
Distribution Platform: HBO (USA) – SKY (UK)
**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**
“AH! INTERESTING. . . “
During a lengthy hiatus from 2011 to 2017, fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm were left bereft of their dose of Larry David’s inimitable and eccentric behaviour. The multi-millionaire writer of Seinfeld had carved out a wonderfully politically incorrect comedy series, full of misunderstanding, farce and hilariously embarrassing situations. Thankfully, he returned with season 9, and it was absolutely brilliant. Larry managed to get himself a death sentence, having written a musical called Fatwa, along with all manner of other comedic shenanigans. Season 10 has now followed and, once again, anti-heroic Larry delivers ten more fantastically offensive and funny episodes. More often than not we find his behaviour abhorrent as he goes about upsetting friends, family members, celebrities, and strangers on a daily basis. However, sometimes we are with Larry and his actions have merit and reason. Furthermore, due to the wonderful writing, improvising, cast and situations the humour is always more than pretty, pretty good!
NARRATIVE ARC (OF THE COVENANT)
Usually, Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes can stand alone due to the richness of the narrative strands Larry David and his writers create. But most seasons will have a very solid narrative arc running through it to provide looping rejoinders, a structural spine and a fitting conclusion. In season 10, there were echoes of storylines from prior seasons. Larry wanted to get back with Cheryl and they even committed divorced adultery, cuckolding Ted Danson in the process. However, the main arc revolved around the return of coffee store owner, Mocha Joe (Saverio Guerra). Larry pisses Mocha Joe off because he complains about “cold” coffee, wobbly tables and weak scones. Following Larry’s customary banishing he swears revenge on Mocha Joe. This takes the form of the wonderfully named ‘spite store’ he sets up next door. Thus, Latte Larry’s is born, and ten episodes of fast-paced, tit-for-tat, vengeful and hilarious scenes ensue.
“THE GOLDEN RULE” – STYLE AND THEMES
Curb Your Enthusiasm is not just funny because of the situations, dialogue, observations, guest stars and acting performances. It is also very sophisticated and stupid, combining a variety of comedy styles to fuel the humour. Earlier seasons could be argued to be more based in reality per se. The interactions between the characters felt more natural, in keeping with the pilot episode which was shot as a mockumentary about Larry returning to stand-up. Later seasons, especially seasons 9 and 10, upped the gag rate and one could even say felt slicker. Don’t get me wrong, the jokes have always come thick and fast in Curb Your Enthusiasm, but in the last two seasons there is not only a reliance on the usual comedy of embarrassment, observations and satire, but farce, slapstick and gross-out humour too have been added to the palette. Lastly, the show has always skated close to the edge in regard to non-PC humour and causing offence. Evidently, Larry David has now fully thrown himself over that edge and is happy to offend everyone in a two-fingered salute to so-called snowflakes or liberals out there.
In regard to thematics, Larry David clearly has his finger on the pulse relating to contemporary society, politics and human behaviour. Much of the humour and funny scenarios derive from what is acceptable behaviour and certain “rules” within everyday living. In season 10, Larry finds himself questioning, among other things: the behaviour of a pregnant woman; the merits of artificial fruit; what is and what isn’t’ sufficient praise; usage of disable parking badges; whether he should be in a restaurant’s ‘ugly section’; whether sex with Cheryl’s sister is post-relationship cheating; and the overall benefits of running a spite store. These elements, the running feuds with Ted Danson, Mocha Joe and Larry’s assistant, Alice, and themes relating to the Harvey Weinstein scandal and #MeToo movement; Larry and Leon’s continued chats about the nature of being black/white; Donald Trump’s presidency; fat shaming; suicide; Susie’s alleged plot to murder Jeff; nationalist ridicule; egotistic actor types; and transgender issues, all connectedly make this season a very rich product, full of ideas and challenging storylines.
“PRETTY GOOD. . . ” – EPISODE RATINGS
Episode 1 – Happy New Year – (8.5 out of 10)
Larry goes to war with Mocha Joe and reignites his romance with Cheryl. His relationship with his assistant also descends into accusations of sexual harassment.
Highlight: Larry wearing his Donald Trump, “Make America Great Again!”and ensuring no one wants to be seen with him.
Episode 2 – Side Sitting – (8.5 out of 10)
Larry’s relationship with his assistant, Alice, is possibly going to court unless he settles and makes amends. His attempts to get back with Cheryl are rebuked, so he dates his lawyer’s assistant.
Highlight: Larry gives Susie a portrait of herself as a birthday present. She loves it – but Jeff doesn’t.
Episode 3 – Artificial Fruit – (9 out of 10)
Larry’s donation to a charity fails to bring forward redemption when he refuses to hug Laverne Cox at an event, because she has a cold. Meanwhile, Richard and Larry argue over who is paying a lunch bill, leading to a very embarrassing escapade at a Spanish funeral.
Highlights: Larry is unsure if the Heimlich manoeuvre is appropriate when his assistant is choking. Plus, Larry’s doodle debate with Christine Lahti blows up into a serious disagreement.
Episode 4 – You’re not going to get me to say anything bad About! – (9 out of 10)
Larry, Donna (his new girlfriend), Cheryl, Jeff, Susie and Leon go to Cabo San Lucas for a friend’s wedding. Larry becomes fixated with Donna’s yo-yo dieting, but he and Leon do find some incredible coffee beans for Latte Larry’s.
Highlight: Larry’s determination to locate a toothbrush descends into a farcical conclusion. Later, at the wedding, Ted discovers Larry and Cheryl’s infidelity in a hilarious fashion.
Episode 5 – Insufficient Praise! – (9 out of 10)
Preparations for Latte Larry’s gather pace as Larry asks for a specific urinal type. Larry also gets a new housekeeper and is given a sex doll by Freddy Funkhouser. Meanwhile, Larry clashes with actor Clive Owen and Richard Lewis’ new girlfriend; a professional “crier”.
Highlights: Larry’s frantic battle with the sex doll resulting in his housekeeper and Cheryl catching him. Also, Clive Owen’s brilliantly pretentious send-up of narcissistic acting types.
Episode 6 – The Surprise Party! – (8.5 out of 10)
Larry meets a German inventor who has an anti-Semitic Alsatian called Adolf, and he gains joy from the use of a disabled parking badge. He also clashes with Susie over the surprise party she intends to throw for Jeff.
Highlight: Despite not having an appointment, Larry uses his cardiologist’s reception area to wait, because it’s a “waiting room”.
Episode 7 – The Ugly Section! – (9.5 out of 10)
Larry consistently keeps getting placed in the “ugly section” at the back of a restaurant. Simultaneously, he attempts to woo the widow of his friend who recently committed suicide.
Highlights: Larry asking Jane Krakowski’s character where she got the handles for her husband’s coffin. Later, Larry ruins a possible sexual liaison with her by arguing about the New York Jets. Lastly, Larry insults Susie as she should be in the restaurant “ugly section”.
Episode 8 – Elizabeth, Margaret and Larry! – (10 out of 10)
Actor, Jon Hamm, shadows Larry as he prepares to play a character like him in a film. Larry and Leon start a new business venture which initially proves profitable. Cheryl is angered when Larry spontaneously begins a relationship with her sister, Becky.
Highlights: Jon Hamm slowly turning into Larry throughout the episode, culminating in them both being ejected from a dinner party. Also, Kaitlin Olson returning as Becky and the surprising sex with Larry.
Episode 9 – Beep Panic! – (9 out of 10)
Larry strikes up a friendship with a waitress that dripped sweat into his soup. He also becomes obsessed with the liqorice at his car showroom. Meanwhile, Mocha Joe plots his own revenge using DVD film screeners.
Highlights: Leon and Larry succumb to the severe laxative effect of the liqorice in a silly bit of toilet humour.
Episode 10 – The Spite Store! – (10 out of 10)
Latte Larry’s is well and truly open, and it inspires other celebrities to open similar spite stores. Larry is irked by siren abusers and gives a job to Joey Funkhouser, but his big penis causes the store no end of issues.
Highlights: Sean Penn’s opening a spite-driven pet store. All Larry’s innovations at the coffee store ultimately lead to a very explosive downfall.
“NO GOOD?” – CONCLUSION
In preparing for this review I rewatched season 9 and watched season 10 twice. So, it’s obvious to say that I love, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Overall, I found the latest season to be a wonderful mix of old-fashioned slapstick and farce, combined with Larry David’s original and skewed vision of humanity. What was also impressive was the structural coherence of juggling so many comedy plots and situations. Plus, Larry behaves appallingly, and this is very appealing in an ever-increasingly politically correct world. Many times, throughout the season Larry is shown to be a provocative arsehole, but on occasions he very much has a valid point. Larry’s issues are very much first world problems, but because of the skilled writing and consistently high joke rate I related greatly to this season. Plus, Larry doesn’t win. His spiteful plotting and perpetual disagreements with those around him mostly fail. Indeed, ultimately, the joke is always on him.
REVIEWS OF THE BOYS (2019), THE EXPANSE (2016) & PREACHER (2016)
So, we are now a few weeks into the lockdown scenario caused by the COVID-19 virus and I have been off work for around that amount of time too. Tragically people are dying, and we owe it to be responsible by continuing to follow the rules laid down that will prevent the spread of the infection. It’s tough for everyone including families, employees and businesses. The capitalist system has taken a massive hit, and some will not survive in terms of life and work. I am not a religious person, but I pray to everyone’s God, whoever that may be, society comes through this. We are digging tunnels, looking for light and an escape. It cannot come soon enough.
In terms of escape it has never been easier to find both the time and formats with which to fill the gap. Thankfully the internet is still up and running, thus I have been filling my time in — aside from some minor administrative work-from-home stuff — writing my film reviews, editing and posting short videos, exercising and watching quite a lot of television and film content. Anything to stop me from becoming a beer monster or functioning alcoholic – AGAIN! The latest focussed viewing has been of Amazon Prime, and the many boxsets they have. So, here are mini reviews of three shows I have seen recently. All with the usual marks out of eleven.
***MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
THE BOYS (2019) – SEASON 1 – PRIME VIDEO
Based on the comic book series created by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, this violent superhero comedy is the complete antithesis of the Marvel Universe. Taking savage satirical swipes at huge corporations and United States foreign policy, it features a group of vigilantes, led by Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) called ‘The Boys.’ For a variety of reasons, including good old-fashioned revenge, they have targeted the most powerful business in the world, Vought International. Vought control and monetize ‘The Seven’, a group of all-powerful superheroes who happen to mostly be narcissistic, unstable and psychotic arseholes.
The initial episodes started slowly for me and I found it difficult to warm to any of the characters. This could simply be superhero fatigue or certain weaknesses in the writing throughout. However, the spikes of tremendous action, vicious humour and spectacular violence kept me on board. Elisabeth Shue and Antony Starr impress as the nefarious villains, while Erin Moriarty shone as the one decent superhero, Starlight. The least said about the shockingly bad English accent Karl Urban delivers the better. I mean his acting is impressive, but mate – come on!!
Mark: 8.5 out of 11
THE EXPANSE (2015) – SEASON 1 – SYFY/AMAZON PRIME
Usually when I see something is on the Syfy channel I baulk slightly. I mean the shows are pretty decent as a rule, but some right old fantasy schlock can get dumped there. So, with a saturated streaming market offering a plethora of U.S. cable shows, sometimes the Syfy channel shows get short shrift. It’s a shame because The Expanse is a really good science-fiction programme which began airing on Syfy, but is now on Amazon Prime. The sci-fi show hangs tonally betweenAlien (1979), Blade Runner (1982) and the Philip K. Dick-style “Mars v Terra” stories I have read. Indeed, while it doesn’t contain actual aliens or Dick’s surreal explorations of the psyche, it is, in fact, a fantastically plotted and styled industrial, political and humanistic set of narratives.
Based on James S. A. Corey’s (a pseudonym I believe for two writers), The Expanse(Season 1), is set hundreds of years into the Earth’s future and space has been colonized. But it’s not a utopia. Mars, Earth and an outer-planetary system of space stations called ‘The Belt’ are all conflicted on the brink of civil or galactic war. The multiple narratives follow the likes of the always-excellent, Thomas Jane, as a grizzled cop investigating a missing person and a space freighter gang led by Stephen Strait. The latter’s crew go from episode to episode finding life-threatening situations throughout. It’s a space-rock solid production full of twists, action and conspiracies; retaining a cynical, noir and unglamorous edge which makes me want to watch further seasons.
Mark: 8.5 out of 11
PREACHER (2016) – SEASON 1 – AMC/AMAZON PRIME
Developed by Hollywood players Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, along with Breaking Bad writer, Sam Catlin, this darkly comedic post-modern vision of heaven and hell is based on a comic book by Garth Ennis (that man again) and Steve Dillon. Starring the very reliable Dominic Cooper as hard drinking and former career criminal-turned Preacher, Jesse Custer, we find him losing faith in a small Texan town and a dwindling set of hopeless parishioners. That is until one day he is struck by some twisted divine interpretation. Then, literally, all hell breaks loose as Custer battles his inner demons and the local slaughterhouse baron portrayed with callous joy by Jackie Earle Haley.
Like The Boys, I initially found Preacher a little bit slow in terms of setting up the story and characters. But I think that was deliberate as there are so many crazy concepts relating to religion and the afterlife in here, a balance had to be given to combining the fantastic and more realistic elements. I’m not sure they’re wholly successful, however, Cooper is great, and he is ably supported by the effervescent Ruth Negga as his tough-talking ex-girlfriend, Tulip. Moreover, English actor Joseph Gilgun steals the show as the Irish sidekick with a dark secret. While the narrative moves steadily, with arguably too many secondary characters, the bloody gore levels during the fight scenes are absolutely spectacular. If, like me, you enjoy irreverent bible-black comedy which offends most religions and contains lashings of ultra-violence, then Preacher is definitely one to pray to the lords of television for.
Once again the festive season is upon us. Thus, the over-privileged first world will buy stuff they don’t need, drink and eat more than humanly possible, and perhaps even celebrate the birth of the son of God. As you may gather, being a miserable cynic, I’m not a massive fan of Christmas, but it is a lovely time to try and be nice to people, take time off from the day job and watch even more films and television.
Watching films and not being at work is definitely my favourite thing about Christmas, so I thought it fun to have a look at what I consider six of the best Christmas films. How do you define a Christmas film? I would say the film should not only be set at Christmas, but also invoke a sense of the Christmas spirit, evil or otherwise. It should also contain Christmas themes or even some kind of moral within the narrative. Therefore, Die Hard (1988) is NOT a Christmas film. Here, in my humble opinion, are six that most definitely are! Happy holidays!
A CHRISTMAS CAROL / SCROOGE (1951)
“Well, then, I’ll just swallow this and be tortured by a legion of hobgoblins, all of my own creation! It’s all HUMBUG, I tell you, HUMBUG!”
BAD SANTA (2003)
“I beat the shit out of some kids today. But it was for a purpose. It made me feel good about myself. It was like I did something constructive with my life or something, I dunno, like I accomplished something.”
“We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup.”
“First of all, keep him out of the light, he hates bright light, especially sunlight, it’ll kill him. Second, don’t give him any water, not even to drink. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs, never feed him after midnight.”
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
“You see, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?”
“Saint Nicholas is not coming this year. Instead, a much darker, ancient spirit. His name is Krampus. He and his helpers did not come to give, but to take. He is the shadow of Saint Nicholas.”
ALL 4 TV REVIEW – DERRY GIRLS (2018 – 2019) – SEASONS 1 & 2
Created and written by: Lisa McGee
Directed by: Michael Lennox
Cast: Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Louisa Harland, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, Dylan Llewellyn, Nicola Coughlan, Tara Lynne O’Neill, Siobhan McSweeney, Tommy Tiernan, Ian McElhinney, Kathy Keira Clarke etc.
Original Network: CHANNEL 4 – (Available on ALL 4 and Netflix)
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
There have been many dramas over the years on the stage and screen about the “Troubles” in Ireland. For decades, civil war had divided the Catholic and Protestant people of Ireland, precipitated by the English occupation of Northern Ireland. Many lives were lost in the fighting and the tragedies. It unsurprisingly drew attention from writers, artists and dramatists. Recently though Lisa McGee created and wrote a comedy called Derry Girls, which was also set during this era; and very funny it is too.
Set in Derry (also known as Londonderry) in the 1990’s, Derry Girls introduces us to four teenage girls, their families and friends during these difficult times. The main characters are: the vocal and passionate Erin (Saoirse-Monica-Jackson); the voice of reason Clare (Nicola Coughlan), often crude, anti-authoritarian, Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell); and detached eccentric Orla (Louise Harland). Joining them is James (Dylan Llewellyn), an English kid who has to join the girls’ school for fear of what the Irish boys may do.
As well as the British army’s occupation of Derry and the divide between Protestants and Catholics providing a backdrop to the girls’ everyday lives, they also manage to find themselves in loads of other trouble too. Episodes centred around: family squabbles, romance, sex, music, drugs, school projects, religious artefacts and holidays create a relatable familiarity to many episodes. The events and energy evoking the girls’ school days reminded me especially of another Channel Four hit comedy, The Inbetweeners.
While the performances by our lead protagonists are very good, scenes are often stolen by the older supporting cast. Siobhan McSweeney as the deadpan and jaded Sister Michael is really funny. As is one of my favourite stand-up comedians, Tommy Tiernan. His downtrodden Dad tries to keep the peace, but often finds himself at the butt of abuse from Ian McElhinney’s contemptuous remarks. Nonetheless, the humour is always good-natured and not nasty, especially toward faith or authority figures.
Overall, Derry Girls is a fast-paced and very funny situation comedy. It’s well written, acted and directed comedy, with loads of fun and eccentric characters to enjoy. While not overtly political in its representation of the “Troubles”, it uses that situation intelligently as part of the narrative and wider social context. Above all else, however, it shows through many fine comedic episodes, that despite the ongoing divide within the country, humans will strive to overcome adversity through friendship, family, community and humour.
Cast: Stephen Graham, Niamh Algar, Helen Behan, Frank Laverty, Mark O’Halloran etc.
Composer: PJ Harvey
Original Network: Channel 4
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
The Virtues (2019) is the latest drama from British filmmaker Shane Meadows and was released on Channel 4/All 4 recently. Over the four episodes we experience the traumas of Joseph (Stephen Graham), as he attempts to overcome events in the present and those which haunt him from the past.
The story begins in Sheffield and introduces forty-something, Joseph as he’s about to say goodbye to his nine-year old son and former partner who are emigrating to Australia. While he’s putting a brave face on this emotional upheaval, internally the separation slowly tears him apart. It also precipitates memories of events which occurred to Joseph when he was young and living in Ireland.
It was at the age of nine when his parents died. While his sister is adopted, Joseph is placed into a care home. It is here that he suffers an unspeakably horrendous trauma. On returning to Ireland as an adult, painful memories he had blocked out until now suddenly resurface. As an adult Joseph tries to come to terms with what occurred, make peace with his sister and at the same time battle his ongoing alcoholism. It is altogether gruelling and compelling drama.
Shane Meadows and Stephen Graham had worked together on the This Is England film and TV series. While that was very much an ensemble piece, this is a more individual focused, personal and painful character study. Stephen Graham is absolutely amazing as the character of Joseph. He has been broken by life, let down by the system and traumatized as a child. Graham lives this pain in virtually every scene he inhabits. His eyes darting nervously, he mumbles, looking down and around, trying to hide; only coming alive when he has alcohol in him. His problem with alcohol is he cannot stop, and this invariably leads to Joseph hurting himself physically and emotionally.
Alcohol as self-medication is just one of the issues addressed in this startling and raw drama. Meadows and co-writer, Jack Thorne also address families, adoption, child abuse, religion and the care system. While the series doesn’t venture into outright socio-political criticism, it explores the damage that can occur to individuals in care. Through Joseph’s sister, Anna (Helen Behan) though, we also get a more positive view of adoption. Her character is strong and determined and a fine mother. But she did not suffer the events Joseph did, so their journeys travelled different paths.
Shane Meadows directs with his usual naturalistic brilliance. Scenes with all the actors feel honest and believable. Meadows is not afraid to shoot simply and allow the performances provide the emotion. Having said that there are some highly stylistic choices. The flashback editing and montage is a case in point. Moreover, when Joseph goes on a bender, we get the camera-harness point-of-view shot I remember first seeing in Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). This allows us to step into Joseph’s drunken psyche as the soundtrack pounds and a voice-over sermon pipes out on screen. Lastly, the flashbacks to Joseph’s younger years are shot on, what seems like, DV-Cam or an old-style video-camera. This creates an additionally sinister feeling to the events.
Overall, this is another powerful drama from Shane Meadows. He gets amazing performances from all the actors, notably Stephen Graham, star-in-the-making Dinah Algar; and an Irish actor I hadn’t seen in a while, Mark O’Halloran. My feeling is Meadows could arguably of told the story in a two hour film. This is because the four episodes slightly stretched out the story in places. Be warned though, The Virtues is not for the faint-hearted. It is very painful to watch. Such is the emotional power of the story, by the end, your heart will feel like you’ve gone ten rounds with a heavyweight boxer. But as a drama about fighting back against the punches life throws at you it will certainly remain with you for some considerable time.
Produced by: Marco Morabito, Brad Fischer, Luca Guadagnino, Silvia Venturini, Francesco Melzi d’Eril, William Sherak, Gabriele Moratti
Screenplay by: David Kajganich – Based on Suspiria (1977) by Dario Argento and Dari Nicolodi
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Chloe Grace Moretz, Malgosia Bela, Lutz Ebersdorf, Jessica Harper etc.
Music by: Thom Yorke
Cinematography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
There are so many films released that it is virtually impossible to see them all. Plus, even if you didn’t have to work to earn a damned wage or physically need sleep you still wouldn’t be able to watch everything at the cinema. More specifically though, we may choose NOT to go to see a film on the big screen for certain reasons. Collectively, I consider these movies to be “one’s that got away!”
Thus, in a new section called, unsurprisingly, FILMS THAT GOT AWAY, I will be reviewing films which I missed first time round at the cinema and have subsequently caught up with on Sky, Amazon, Netflix, Blu-Ray or even good old-fashioned terrestrial television. I will consider the film critically as entertainment and why I missed it first time round. As usual the film will be marked out of eleven.
When the UK release of Suspiria (2018) was announced there were many reasons I was immediately put off from wanting to see it. Firstly, despite having watched it three times, I genuinely could not stand the original Dario Argento film. I know people consider it a horror classic; however, I think story wise, it’s a bad film. It’s neither scary from an emotional point-of-view or actually makes any sense logically. I know it’s meant to be based on surreal and nightmarish imagery, montage and performance, but the story or characters did not connect with me. The colour design, gore and soundtrack are outstanding but, overall, I felt I was trapped watching the manic outpourings of an Italian psychopath.
The second reason I did not want to watch it is I haven’t always got on with Luca Guadagnino’s cinematic works. Don’t get me wrong, he is a brilliant filmmaker. However, I find him an indulgent artist whose tone, pace and direction seems haphazard. Of the films I have seen, I Am Love (2009) was a brilliant character study, anchored by a stunning Tilda Swinton performance. But A Bigger Splash (2011) and Call Me By Your Name (2017), were expertly constructed but indulgent and over-rated travelogues littered with narcissistic bores. Nonetheless, I really liked Suspiria (2018). It is almost, but for Guadagnino’s typical excesses, a horror masterpiece.
Set in 1977 (when the original was released), at the height of the Cold War in divided Germany, Suspiria, is a heady mix of rites of passage, cold war and horror genres. There are many narrative strands with which the screenplay, by David Kajganich, attempts to balance. Further, we also have personal, political, religious, artistic, gender and communal themes prevalent through the story. While it’s an ensemble cast the focus is Dakota Johnson’s Susie. She is a young aspiring dancer, from an Amish background, who joins the world-famous Markos dance company. In the process she is determined to impress Tilda Swinton’s commanding mentor. The parallel narrative involves psychiatrist Dr Josef Klemperer and his investigation into a missing patient (Chloe Grace Moretz); who also happens to be a dancer from the troupe.
As the story unfolds Susie proves herself an incredibly powerful dancer. At the same time, it is revealed that the elders and teachers of the dance group are hiding a sinister secret with darkness and ritual to the bloody fore. Memorable dance sequences full of beauty, energy and gore dominate, with Dakota Johnson giving an impressively physical acting portrayal. I also liked the nuanced control within her character as she grows stronger with each dance. Meanwhile, further dark events occur as Dr Klemperer’s investigations draw him closer to the troupe’s shadowy doors.
As I said, Suspiria is almost a horror masterpiece. The filmmaking, cinematography, art direction, choreography and score by Thom Yorke all collide to create an incredibly tense and terrifying experience. Moreover, while I was fully committed to the characters in the dance troupe and Susie’s movement up the ranks, the choice to juxtapose the socio-political events seemed to belong in another film. The religious context and notions of family and matriarchal dominance were incredibly powerful too and served the horror well. However, Guadagnino, in my humble view should have shaved some scenes from the running time. While I much prefer this film to the Argento original, a further edit for pace would have made this even better. Nonetheless, it had me riveted throughout through the sheer quality of filmmaking. I was incredibly impressed by the melding of dance and death. Indeed, the final orgiastic ritual with buckets of blood, decapitations and gnarled monsters was supernaturally unforgettable.
Based on the story: Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier
Cast: Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Renato Scarpa, Massimo Serato, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania, Sharon Williams etc.
Cinematography: Anthony B. Richmond
Music: Pino Donaggio
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
I watched this classic film again on the big screen at the British Film Institute in a 4K restoration recently. It has not lost any of its cinematic power. Don’t Look Now (1973), indeed, remains one of the greatest films in the horror and thriller genre of all time.
The story is a powerful study of grief and how a couple vainly attempt to overcome the tragic death of their young daughter, Christine. The opening scene is a masterclass in image system building, cinematography, performance and editing. It is an incredible example of pure cinema, establishing the dread and suspense representative throughout the film. It truly is an iconic sequence and a rarely bettered opening cinematic salvo.
A few months later, the bereaved parents, John and Laura Baxter, are in Venice for his architectural work on an ornate church. He seems to be handling Christine’s death by throwing himself into this project. Laura is more sensitive and wears her emotions close to her skin. An encounter with two mature women causes her grief to explode as one, a psychic, states she can see Christine on the “other side.” The girl is passed but happy and smiling in the spirit world. John is sceptical, but Laura is overjoyed there is a chance to make contact with Christine.
After this encounter Christine seems to appear within the Venice tunnels, her footsteps and laughs echoing in the darkness. With a murderer also on the loose in Venice, the creeping fear within the story heightens and the suspense intensifies. With Laura keen to contact Christine again, themes and symbols relating to religion, the afterlife and occult all combine to add to the terror. Moreover, religious iconography, water, the red mac, children, tunnels, mistaken identity, death, past, present and future also add to the rich tapestry of images.
Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland are so natural in their roles. They give beautiful and haunted acting performances as the bereaved couple. The memorable love scene contained within the second act was very controversial at the time. However, the editing, loving tenderness in performance and sumptuous score illuminate a brief moment of reprieve from the prior horror and terror to come.
The ending of the film contains two big reveals which will shake even the most experienced horror genre viewer. Interestingly, when released the film was double-billed with The Wicker Man (1973), so lord knows what audiences were feeling when they left the cinema. Lastly, Nicolas Roeg and Anthony B. Richmond shoot and direct the film with precise and spectacular style. Shadows threaten, water forebodes, and the masque of the red death hangs heavy over proceedings.
With young filmmakers such as Ari Aster causing a stir with contemporary horror films about grief, death and rituals, I would certainly advise you to catch Don’t Look Now (1973) on the biggest screen you can find. It was a masterpiece of cinema when released and remains so today.