Executive Producers: Craig Mazin, Carolyn Strauss, Jane Featherstone
Producer: Sanne Wohlenberg
Directed by: Johann Renck
Starring: Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, Paul Ritter, Jessie Buckley, Emily Watson, Con O’Neill, Adrian Rawlins, Sam Troughton, Robert Emms, David Dencik, Ralph Ineson, Barry Keoghan etc.
Composer: Hildure Guonadottir
Cinematography: Jakob Ihre
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
The horror. The human error. The inhumane error. The terror. Meltdown during a safety test. Flaws in the system as ghosts envelop the machine. Science in a brave new world invents progress with which we venture into, only to find we are murdering ourselves.
The terrifying events which took place are chartered with grey, brutalist accuracy. Regular Soviet families live in proximity to a ticking time bomb; believing they are protected by the State. The State trusts the science. The science trusts men to follow nuclear procedures to the letter. But what of pride? What of targets? What price the desire to obsess and force a flawed system?
On that fateful day on 26th April 1986, the nuclear time-bomb exploded. Initially, it was believed it could be contained. The Soviet machine could handle the fallout. Heat. Water. Steam. Graphite. Fire. All conspire to create one of the biggest disasters ever perpetrated against nature.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster is well documented but for years the alleged truth was covered up. Death toll rose but official statistics stayed low. Naked miners, radiation sickness, blood, pus and falling hair. Style and look was natural and under-stated. Verisimilitude only heightening the horror.
Johann Renck directs with steely commitment from an incredible Craig Mazin screenplay. Jared Harris, Stellen Stensgaard, Jessie Buckley and Emily Watson lead a stirling cast of formidable character actors. The attention to detail in the HBO production is second-to-none. Thankfully the vicarious fear is palpable and I am able to view such events in the comfort of my own home.
We did this to ourselves but it could have been worse. When will humanity learn that we will bring about our own judgement on Earth. The Scientists led by Valery Legazov and composite character, Ulana Khomyuk, fought at length to contain and prevent this ever happening again. Who really believes it won’t? There are approximately four hundred and fifty nuclear power plants in the world. The threat hangs over humanity like a cancer.
I was at school in April 1986. Just sixteen years old. I saw events on the news. Historical dramas such as Chernobyl make real the fear that was there at the time. The site is still poisoned. The exclusion zone remains two-thousand and six-hundred square metres; uninhabitable for twenty thousand year, according to an online source. This event teaches us to never take anything for granted. We have built our own gallows.
1986. Former Soviet Union. Ukraine. Pripyat. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Disaster. Recovery. Suppression. Lies. Liquidation. Death. Suicide. Exclusion.
Writers: Brett Johnson, Jerry Stahl, Michael Tolkin
Starring: Patrica Arquette, Benicio del Toro, Paul Dano, Bonnie Hunt, Eric Lange, David Morse etc.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
“Based on a true story” is a sentence we often find before many television dramas and feature films. It goes without saying that some are truer to their source events than others. The recent Oscar winner Green Book (2018), is a case in point, with the family of Dr Shirley quite rightly up in arms about the incorrect representations of family history on screen. Having said that, and despite the rather simplistic political rendition of race relations in said film, if I enjoy something I’m not bothered too much about historical accuracy. What one is after is a flavour and authenticity of truth. I accept that the truth should not get in the way of good drama and lets be honest Hollywood has never been frightened of downright fabrication to tell its tall tales. Obviously, one refutes ridiculous or incredible lies but ultimately, if you don’t like the bending of reality then stop watching films and television.
Based on the “true story” of a prison escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility, New York, during 2015, this superior genre serial is gritty and authentic and feels so real in the direction and performances it hurts. Whether it’s the truth is another story, yet what the writers and director Ben Stiller have delivered are eight episodes of cinematic television of the highest order. It begins and moves at a very slow pace establishing the aftermath of the main events, before flashing back and setting the scenes month-by-month of the personalities and their respective actions.
The first character we meet is Patricia Arquette’s brassy machine room supervisor, Tilly Mitchell. She’s bold and ballsy and dominates her relationship with husband, Lyle. Lyle himself, is portrayed effectively by Eric Lange as a tragic and loyal simpleton. Both of them are bad hair, big teeth and strangled accents, trapped by their class, work and lack of finance. While Lyle simply accepts his lot, Tilly is drawn to the prisoners she is meant to be supervising and ventures into illegal and inappropriate behaviour with the inmates. Arquette absolutely nails the humanity of a character who, in her fifties stuck in a dead-end job, desperately seeks attention and excitement. This makes her a hard target in such a masculine and testosteronic environment. However, she is more than happy to encourage and collude with said prisoners.
Prison dramas have always presented a fascinating way of analysing human nature and behaviour. The individuals are trapped in enclosed spaces and given many inmates’ proclivity to violence, they soon become a powder keg of fizzing egos and surging tension. Casting superb actors such as Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano in the leads was a masterstroke. Both are expert at playing complex human beings and one of the challenges for a writer can be to get empathy for characters that are imprisoned for violent crimes. Yet, the actors, writers and director all manage to balance the tension between representing antagonistic characters in a sympathetic light. Indeed, even though we know Del Toro’s Richard Matt and Dano’s David Sweat are dangerous criminals, the story really drags us into their painstakingly patient escape work. Each episode builds obstacles they must overcome, almost until the suspense becomes unbearable. Lastly, while Dano’s tunnel-vision determination moves them toward the light, Del Toro’s manipulative hard man controls both Tilly and David Morse’s prison guard, Gene Palmer.
Overall, this is a superior prison genre serial; virtually cinematic in its casting, direction, locations, setting and performance. It takes a familiar narrative of a prison escape but transcends the genre with Arquette’s, Del Toro’s and Dano’s incredibly human and believable performances. These are not likable characters and they are not even anti-heroes to root for. Undoubtedly, though the Showtime production delivers as compelling a character drama as you’re likely to see all year. Director Ben Stiller deserves credit too for delivering a consistently balanced body of work here. Known more for his comedic film output there’s a maturity to Escape at Dannemara which offers authenticity in character and setting. If Stiller and his writers have bent the truth in any way then it does not offend my sensibilities; in fact I openly welcome it when the outcome is as absorbing as this.
Written by: Elena Ferrante, Francesco Piccolo, Laura Paolucci, Saverio Costanzo
Starring: Elisa Del Genio, Ludovica Nasti, Gaia Girace, Margherita Mazzucco, Anna Rita Vitolo, Luca Gallone, Imma Villa, Antonio Milo, Alessio Gallo etc.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
The quality of Italian produced TV dramas in recent years has been spectacularly high. I devoured three bloody seasons of the macho-gangster brutality of Gomorrah (2014 – 2017) with both shock and enthusiasm. I subsequently imbibed avidly the magisterial and philosophical depth of Paulo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope (2016). Thus, expectations were equally raised by HBO’s production of My Brilliant Friend; my confidence eventually rewarded with a moving, fiery, sensual, violent and intelligent drama about friendship and family rivalries.
Based on the first of four Neapolitan novels written by Elena Ferrante, the drama charts the lives of various families who inhabit a 1950s Naples neighbourhood. It’s a traditionally working class environment, set amongst run down blocks with cars travelling along dusty roads which lead to the city, country or sea. While encompassing a large ensembel cast, the story focusses on two specific characters: “Lenu” Greco and “Lilu” Cerullo. Forging a powerful friendship in their primary school years, the narrative unfolds over a ten-year period until they are sixteen. Their lives become entwined in family dramas, fights, romances and death, as both characters rival and connect with each other and those in the neighbourhood.
Class differences underpin the various plots and sub-plots with Lilu displaying incredible academic acumen but held back as her family are too poor to send her to school. Galvanised by competition Lenu pushes herself to get ahead of her friend and despite such division the two are drawn together when facing seemingly insurmountable emotional odds. As such, their friendship and loyalty toward each other drives the story powerfully. Lilu, while contrary and irritating at times, is passionate and principled, while Lenu is more passive and demure. Yet, together they form a resilient whole.
The performances from the cast are brilliant, while the production overall is a thing of beauty. Max Richter’s score is sumptuous and haunting, with the era, setting and locations all wonderfully evoked. But it’s not nostalgia for happier times, rather an honest examination of humanity and rites of passage struggle through puberty and into adulthood. While the sun shines brightly in Naples, these are ultimately hard times. The many stories unfold in sand-hit tenement blocks where men, women and children struggle to make ends meet. Moreover, the show prefaces sisterhood as a means to overcome the misogyny and sexual exploitation of the era.
Toxic masculinity dominates throughout, with men represented as either: sexual predators, gangsters, wife-beaters and Catholic Priests. There are some positive male role models and there is a whiff of solidarity in the air as Communist doctrine is presented; however, there is no escape for the working classes other than to die or struggle onwards. Lastly, the only way out for Lenu and Lilu is sticking and fighting together; educating themselves academically and emotionally to grow and gain the experience necessary to cope with the slings and arrows of Neapolitan life.
I love television and watched a lot of it last year on
most terrestrial and streaming services; especially the BBC, ITV, SKY and
NETFLIX channels. I must admit I am way
behind on many AMAZON and ALL 4/CHANNEL 4 programmes so will be rectifying that
this year. Indeed, there are probably some glaring omissions because of this.
For comparison I include last year’s favourite TV shows. This year I have not included South Park (Season 22) as it was not as good as prior years, despite clearly being one of the funniest shows around. Also, Doctor Who does not make my list as there were too many average episodes. Lastly, a special mention to The Walking Dead (Season 9), which at the mid-season break had somehow pulled itself out of the torpid decline that occurred around Season 6. It may make my 2019 list once the latest season has finished screening this year.
FAVOURITE 12 TV SHOWS OF 2017
BIG LITTLE LIES (2017) – HBO CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM – SEASON 9 (2017) – HBO FARGO (2017)– SEASON 3 – FOX / CHANNEL 4 GAME OF THRONES (2017) – SEASON 7 – HBO THE HANDMAID’S TALE (2017) – HULU/CHANNEL 4 IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA (2017) – SEASON 12 – NETFLIX LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN – 20TH YEAR ANNIVERSARY (2017) – BBC LEGION (2017) – FOX MINDHUNTER (2017) – NETFLIX SOUTH PARK – SEASON 21 – SOUTH PARK STUDIOS STRANGER THINGS 2 (2017) – NETFLIX THE YOUNG POPE (2016) – HBO
Producer(s): Jessica Levin, Maggie
Gyllenhaal, Mark Henry Johnson
Writers: George Pelecanos, David Simon, Richard Price, Lisa Lutz, Anya Epstein and more.
Directors: Michelle McClaren, James Franco, Ernest Dickerson, Alex Hall, Roxann Hall, Uta Briesewitz and more.
Starring: James Franco, MaggieGyllenhaal, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Chris Bauer, Gary Carr, Chris Coy, Dominique Fishback, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Margarita Levieva, Emily Meade, Natalie Paul, Michael Rispoli, Luke Kirby, Jamie Neumann
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Pornography is a strange stain and paradoxical phenomenon within humanity and society. Most of us are born from the natural act of sexual intercourse and as such lust and passion and love are catalysts for this. For some though conventional relationships do not satisfy desires and of course there are those without a romantic or sexual partner who will need an outlet for their desires. Because deep down whatever you say we are animals and the basest instinct is to pro-create. But what happens if we are denied that opportunity? A person may seek satisfaction elsewhere and one such avenue is pornography.
Pornography sounds dirty. It’s a dirty word. Yet, since way before the internet, photography, video and film were invented humans have always found a means either through literature, theatre, poetry or art to represent sex. As technology has progressed the rise of pornography has reached epidemic proportions. It is massive business and billionaires have been made by the sex industry. In my opinion pornography is like war. It happens every day and while most of us are not involved in it, one feels powerless to stop it. Ultimately, you can argue it’s empowering to the men and women and contributes to our capitalist economy. However, one cannot escape the fact that it, like war, pornography would have left many, many people exploited and damaged.
Eschewing any socio-political criticism of pornography, HBO’s big budget television show The Deuce presents a massive American slice-of-gritty-mean-street-porn-life in 1970s New York. It is created by David Simon and George Pelacanos, who as writer-producers possess a great track record for creating acclaimed shows such as: The Wire, The Pacific, Treme, Generation Kill etc. Here they have created another ensemble period drama which show-cases a cavalcade of colourful characters including: pimps, prostitutes, police, bar flies, gangsters, dealers, gigolos, film producers, actors and politicians. The show essentially reflects the lives of those at ‘the Deuce’; an intersection of 42nd Street between Seventh Avenue and Eighth Avenue. It accepts that, for good or for worse, the sex industry is part of our existence andpeople basically are just trying to survive or escape anyway they can.
The first season starts in 1971. Main characters include: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fiercely independent prostitute ‘Candy’; James Franco as twin brothers feckless Frankie and bar manager Vincent; Gbenga Akinnagbe as Larry Brown, an intense pimp; Chris Bauer as Bobby Dwyer, a construction foreman who is dragged into the sex industry; Gary Carr as C.C., a stylish but ruthless pimp; Dominique Fishback as Darlene, a sweet-natured sex worker striving for educational betterment; Lawrence GilliardJr. as Chris Alston, an incorruptible NYPD patrolman; Margarita Levieva as Abby Parker, a college student who rejects her wealthy upbringing by striking up a relationship with Vincent; and Emily Meade as Lori Madison, an impressionable young woman who C.C. entangles in his pimp web. Plus, there are a whole slew of characters that appear within each season; so many in fact in does get a bit crowded in the complex drama.
There is a lot of sex in both seasons; straight and gay. It’s presented not simply as titillation but also humorously and realistically as part of the life the characters lead. Sex sells but it also has a dark, violent side and the programme often shows this. The sex worker’s customers and pimps regularly commit acts of violence as the danger of working the streets is palpable. The exploitation by the mob bosses too who front the money for the sex parlours and peep shows is sad to witness and much empathy is gained for those trapped by poverty and drug addiction. Aside from a few good cops many of the NYPD are happy to take bribes to line their pockets.
Season 2, which moves forward to 1977 is a lot more political. The rise of feminism, activism and protest is reflected in the character Abby who works with others to provide a safe space for the women on the street. Moreover, City Hall is trying to clear up ‘The Deuce’ in an attempt to welcome rich corporate businesses to the area. Candy meanwhile has worked to get off the street and is now pornographic film director with artistic designs. Frankie is still gambling and ducking and diving while his brother Vincent begins having doubts about his involvement with the mob and sex industry. The second season, for me, was more focussed narratively;especially where Candy’s porn adaptation of ‘Red Riding Hood’ called Red Hot is concerned. Mirroring the reality of masculinity exploiting humanity, the predatory wolf chasing women and ravaging them is a thematic strongpoint of the season. But Candy is striving to turn the tables and female empowerment is a key driving force for her work.
The Deuce is ultimately a glorious production which is not for the faint-hearted. It holds up a dark mirror to a flawed society; and does it with humour, wit, compassion, lashings of sex and smatterings of sudden, brutal violence. I for one believe the world should do without pornography but The Deuce demonstrates that human beings are drawn to it like moths round a flame. It’s money, drugs, vice and sex that seems to excite many people and because of this exploiters will make money out of them.
Finally, as this is a HBO production the acting, direction, cinematography, editing, soundtrack, costume and period design are flawless. The writing is exceptional as the dialogue stings from the exceptional ensemble cast like written bullets. Season One was slightly slow building the characters but Season Two really found its’ feet dramatically and emotionally. On occasions I felt like some episodes lacked pace due to the sheer number of characters presented; but Season Two had real dramatic momentum. The final season is due for release next year and I highly recommend it if you are a drawn to the corrupted elements of humanity on screen; and characters just trying to make it with odds stacked against them. On ‘the Deuce’, like in life, sadly not everyone makes it out alive or in one piece.
Writers: Marti Noxon, Gillian Flynn, Alex Metcalf, Vince Calandra etc.
Editors: David Berman, Maxime Lahaie, Émile Vallée, Jai M. Vee
Starring: Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, Chris Messina, Eliza Scanlen, Matt Craven, Henry Czerny, Taylor John Smith, Sophia Lillis, Elizabeth Perkins
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
As is often the case when a writer has a big hit producers and studios look at their back catalogue to see if there are any apples in the shade ripe for plucking. Thus, following the cinematic success of her book adaptation Gone Girl (2014), Gillian Flynn’s debut novel from 2006 is given a stylish, small-screen HBO treatment. The story concerns crime reporter Camille Preaker – Amy Adams on stunning form – who returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to investigate the murders of two girls. There she confronts a personal ordeal from the past, clashes with her mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson) and attempts to bond with her precocious, teenage sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen).
Firstly, I must say Amy Adams is one of my favourite actors. Her performances in films such as: The Fighter (2010), American Hustle (2013), Arrival (2016), Nocturnal Animals (2016) to name but a few, have demonstrated what a striking screen presence she has. Furthermore, she is able to illuminate a character’s emotion through sheer being; it’s almost effortless. But while she excels in serious roles, displaying both inner strength and vulnerability, she also has a sense of mischief and humour. Indeed, who better to evoke the pathos required to portray a character like Camille Preaker? Adams nails the alcoholic, self-harming, ex-psychiatric hospital patient role, refusing to suffer fools and using mordant wit to hide her pain.
Camille’s assignment takes her back to a place she never wanted to go back to; drinking even more to further block out her inner turmoil. But, she has a vested family interest to find the killer of two missing girls, as her sister, Amma, knows the victims. Her inquisitive nature finds her locking horns with local cop played by Matt Craven; and forming a dysfunctional liaison with out-of-town investigator, Chris Messina. Being a small Southern town everyone has secrets to hide and out-of-towner Camille is not actually welcomed with open arms; not so much the Prodigal’s daughter but the outsider’s insider come to poke her nose where it doesn’t belong. Conflict further derives from external and internal grief that drives a feeling of gothic dread throughout. This is a story about abuse and neglect and the need to dominate through an overpowering sickness and poison. Dysfunctional humans harm others and themselves in order to get through the day.
Having watched a number of films and programmes dealing with the death or taking of children, this harrowing subject is becoming a real go-to for filmmakers and writers. Over eight episodes such crimes are melded with themes relating to: family secrets, mental illness, grooming, mutilation, addiction, suicide and sexual assault. As with Gillian Flynn’s aforementioned Gone Girl, the setting is not a happy place. Human beings do not come off that well either and are presented as very damaged personalities; or controlled and bullied by even more fucked up parents. However, as a brooding psychological thriller Sharp Objects is utterly absorbing and well worth a watch.
I would argue that it moves too slow for eight episodes and is on occasions slightly repetitive, but Jean-Marc Vallee once again proves he is one of the best directors around gaining brilliant performances from Adams, Patricia Clarkson and Eliza Scanlen especially. The editing also is very poetic, shifting beautifully from past to present and in between, charting a series of chilling, violent events. So, while it does have filler moments in the middle it is worth sticking with. Indeed, the end contains a great twist, which in my opinion, was delivered with way to much subtlety. Ultimately, if you like your dramas dark, elegant AND brutal then stick with it; because Sharp Objects cuts deep, way after the end credits have rolled.
In my continued desire to avoid perpetual and dysfunctional alcoholism, while saving money and contemplating the meaning of existence, I often fill up my hours watching quality television dramas. Here are some reviews of shows I have caught up with over the last few months, with the usual Screenwash marks out of eleven.
THE ALIENIST (2018) – NETFLIX
Based on Caleb Carr’s best-selling novel of the same name, The Alienist, while feeling very familiar has enough style and acting quality to make it worth recommending. Set in the grimy streets of New York circa mid-1890s the period setting and production design exquisitely juxtaposes the filth and squalor of the underclasses with the opulence of the wealthy. Dakota Fanning, Luke Evans and Daniel Bruhl are uniformly excellent as an unlikely trio of “criminologists” who, on invite from the Chief of Police, investigate the ritualistic murders of young, poor kids in the ghettos. Adapted by, among others by the very talented Cary Joji Fukunaga, Eric Roth and Hossein Amini, this is overall a compelling, gruesome and hypnotic genre drama which entertains throughout its ten episode running time.
(Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
HIT AND MISS (2012) – SKY ATLANTIC
I missed this gritty drama the first time round from Sky when released in 2012 and it certainly pushes boundaries of gender politics within a genre setting. Created by the prolific British writer Paul Abbott it stars Chloe Sevigny as a hit-woman with a secret. Sevigny’s complex character Mia is in fact, a pre-op trans-gender person, living a lone-wolf existence working for Peter Wight’s fixer character. Her anonymous contract-killing life is interrupted when she is thrown into a surrogate mother situation and that’s when the real drama begins. This is not a programme for the faint-hearted with lashings of physical and sexual violence but the excellent cast, notably the outstanding Sevigny, drive this edgy mix of family and thriller genres with compelling power.
(Mark: 8 out of 11)
LIAR (2017) – ITV
This ITV drama is founded on the tantalisingly tricky premise of a “she said, he said” date rape case. It is to the testament of the writers, director and actors that the first three episodes provided absorbing suspense as to who is or who isn’t telling the truth. It begins with a primary school teacher, Laura, portrayed with nervy zeal by Joanne Froggatt, accepting a date with handsome surgeon, Andrew Earlham. They seem like a perfect couple but the following day Laura accuses him of rape. The drama comes very much from whether he is guilty and whether she has made it up. Star of Hollywood movies and US TV shows, Ioan Gruffudd, returns to British TV to play Earlham with a charming charisma which makes you question whether he could do such a thing. Halfway through the series though, the show becomes something altogether more sinister. Without wishing to give anything away I can recommend Liar for handling such a delicate subject well, while at the same time creating a powerful and suspenseful narrative throughout.
(Mark: 8 out of 11)
PATRICK MELROSE (2018) – SKY ATLANTIC
Oh, Benedict, Benedict! I love you so! Yet again I witnessed another masterclass in acting from Mr Cumberbatch as he shows all variants of emotional range in this high quality character study. The series is adapted from Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical books of the same name. Moreover, the structure is interesting in that each of the five episodes focus on different periods of Melrose’ privileged, yet tortuous, existence. We open with a drug-addled Patrick high on smack and then follow a frantic dash to New York to pick up his fathers’ ashes. Initially, Patrick is selfish, biting, wasted and full of fear and self-loathing. In fact he is not likeable at all. However, the first episode then delivers the gut-wrenching truth about the characters’ past and a truly harrowing event at the hands of his tyrannical father. The dramatic glue of the whole series is provided by Patrick’s memories of his fathers’ terrible behaviour – portrayed with rotten humanity by Hugo Weaving. Later episodes find Patrick battling addictions, his mothers’ negative do-gooding, starting a family and just trying to do what most of us do: hold it together emotionally in the face of the slings and arrows life throws at us. Full of complex emotional moments, brilliant acting and stinging one-liners, this is television of the highest order.
(Mark: 9.5 out of 11)
SAVE ME (2017) – SKY ATLANTIC
Written by and starring the magnetic British actor Lenny James, this urban crime thriller boasts an exceptional cast and addictive narrative. James takes a performance risk casting himself and a low-life chancer called Nelly, who is suddenly the suspect in the kidnapping of a daughter he hardly knows. Nelly is an ex-con-alcoholic-love-rat who gets by on his charisma and street smarts but still manages to aggravate those around him. When his teenage daughter goes missing he becomes an unlikely amateur detective, attempting some form of redemption having just signed her over to his ex-wife years before. The familiar kidnapping storyline kind of runs out of steam over six episodes, however, James and his brilliant cast including: Stephen Graham, Suranne Jones, Susan Lynch, Kerry Godliman and Jason Flemyng all excel. I also loved the gritty council estate setting and the authentic nature of the characters really drove the story forward.