Based on: Maniac by Espen PA Lervaag, Håakon Bast Mossige, Kjetil Indregard, Ole Marius Araldsen
Developed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga & Patrick Somerville for Netflix
Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Starring: Emma Stone, Jonah Hill, Justin Theroux, Sonoya Mizuno, Gabriel Byrne, Sally Field
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
What’s your view on striving for originality in storytelling and entertainment? It could be argued that there is no such thing and creators are simply moving creative chess pieces around the same board; or playing the same musical notes but in a different order. One perspective is that you prefer a writer or director to be bold and aim for originality; with the potential risk they alienate the audience. Some creators actually don’t care about the audience but many others do, preferring to connect emotionally within the casing of genre conventions. Personally, I prefer to be moved emotionally firstly and if the filmmaker or writer has presented their story in an impressive style then this serves to enhance the enjoyment of the narrative.
Cary Joji Fukunaga is a genre filmmaker who has established himself capable of developing impressive genre works such as: Jane Eyre (2011), True Detective (2014), and the brilliant film Beasts of No Nation (2015). Recently, he has also been involved in bringing It (2017) and The Alienist (2018) to the screen; although he did not serve as final director on such products. His latest directorial offering is an adaptation of a Norwegian comedy drama called Maniac. Over ten hit-and-miss episodes we follow the misadventures of a depressive and unstable Owen (Jonah Hill), and grieving pill-addict Annie (Emma Stone), as they enter a medical trial run by the secretive Neberdine Pharmaceutical organisation.
The trial itself involves taking a series of pills and the participants’ cerebral responses being recorded on a sentient artificially intelligent computer called GRTA. Here, Owen and Annie’s lives and minds become internally entwined as the story enables us to visualise their mental anxieties and re-enact their fears during the trial. Owen’s angst is caused by a family issue involving his brother, while Annie still blames herself for a family tragedy. The bizarre surrealist events are very effectively established, however, over the dizzying spectrum of several genre-crossing episodes we essentially get told the same two stories within the: crime, romance, gangster, fantasy and spy genres.
The performances are interesting. Fukunaga has created a world that exists somewhere in between the real and surreal and the future, past and current times. Because of this there’s a sense he has freed the actors from naturalism and at times created a stylistic distanciation. Conversely, Emma Stone was brilliant as always and she is skilled enough to make the strangeness resonate emotionally. However, I felt Jonah Hill, while giving a fine and committed performance, was miscast. Interestingly, Justin Theroux features in a curious turn as a Doctor on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Theroux is a fascinating actor who I think is sabotaging his career and could be the next George Clooney but continues to choose weirdo roles which serve his career no benefit. But hey what do I know!? Maybe he’s having a lot of fun.
Ultimately, the postmodern stylings cloaked a pretty conventional love story and once again, with a Netflix show, I felt that ten episodes were stretching the narrative a tad. Fukunaga’s combination of different genres and eccentric characters plus a smattering a bloody violence and techno-humour is always interesting. Moreover, much fun is to be had from the references to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Lord of the Rings and many more films. Nowhere near as brilliant as True Detective or Beasts of No Nation, Cary Fukunaga still impresses as a director even if Maniac is arguably style over content. Nonetheless, Fukunaga should still be commended for striving for a semblance of originality and ambition, rather than just go for an big payday on a franchise studio genre film.
I started writing film reviews a few years ago and the main reason was because I wanted to try and understand why I liked or disliked a film. I also wanted to improve my creative writing by understanding the thought process of others. Living filmmakers whose work I have consistently enjoyed, save for the odd one here or there, are: Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, The Coen Brothers, Lynn Ramsay, Jonathan Glazer, Woody Allen (even some of the later ones), Park Chan Wook, David Fincher, Edgar Wright, Jacques Audiard, Darren Aronofsky, Kathryn Bigelow; and many others no doubt!
Such directors capture the quintessence of what cinema is for me. Not simply just in style and form but also powerful themes, imaginative concepts and sheer bloody entertainment. Filmmakers, of late, you can add to that list are: Denis Villeneuve, S. Craig ZAHLER and Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos. I have now seen three of his films, namely: Dogtooth (2009), The Lobster (2015) and his next release The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), and they all defy conventional film conventions to deliver absurd, surreal, funny, dark, thought-provoking and imaginative visions of human nature. Also, let’s not forget the writer too; so kudos to his writing partner Efthymis Filippou, who combines with Lanthimos to create such memorable cinematic offerings.
The story itself begins in a reasonably conventional fashion. Colin Farrell’s successful surgeon, Steven Murphy, is happily married to his wife, Anna, portrayed with glacial precision by Nicole Kidman. They have two healthy and intelligent children, a boy and a girl, and their lives are a picture of upper middle class contentment. Steven and Anna’s family equilibrium is skewed when a teenage boy, Martin, brilliantly portrayed by Barry Keoghan, inveigles his way into their lives through a combination of innocent charm and surreptitious pathos. Martin is a dark angel representative of the cloud of sickness and guilt and remorse and his actions force Steven and Anna to have to face up to a parents’ worst nightmares.
Lanthimos and Filippou, in Godardian fashion, constantly calls attention to cinema form; especially with a strangely effective form of anti-acting where, Farrell notably, dryly delivers dialogue as unconnected non-sequiturs. The words also constantly surprise us as the characters speak at each other with phrases that create humour and emotional disassociation. Nonetheless, such artifice only adds to the off-centre and sinister nature of the piece. The film is also beautifully shot with a wonderful symmetry to the composition of many shots. I also liked the choice of wide-angle lenses and the flowing Steadicam shots. Many were pitched at just over head-height, and provided an eerie floating sensation throughout the drama.
Colin Farrell (as he did in The Lobster (2015), Nicole Kidman and the rest of the cast buy completely into Lanthimos and Filippou’s striking vision which takes its’ influence from l Greek tragedy. But while Farrell excels in another praiseworthy under-stated deadpan performance, Barry Keoghan steals the show. The young actor follows up his impactful supporting appearance in Dunkirk (2017), with a compelling character study and eerily mature portrayal. Overall, this is a gripping, absurd thriller-turned-horror film which constantly wrong-footed me with its plot turns. It is a truly chilling, yet darkly comical and surreal genre film that manages to be somehow extremely accessible too.
CAST: JENNIFER LAWRENCE, JAVIER BARDEM, ED HARRIS, MICHELLE PFEIFFER
**GENERALLY SPOILER FREE**
Darren Aronofsky’s psychological horror stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as a couple in not so much a narrative but a descent into what-the-fuck? They portray conduits of hellish pursuit dictated by a filmmaker on the edge of a nervous breakdown, vengefully striking out at his ego, superego and the world around him. I mean, you know when someone tells you their dreams in nightmarish details and it’s more interesting to them than you: well, this is two hours of that.
While this is technically a bravura tour-de-force in design, composition, cinematic experimentation and delivery I was utterly bored by, what is essentially, an indulgent, pretentious and nihilistic void of a film. Darren Aronofsky’s prior work such as Requiem for a Dream (2000), Pi (1998), The Wrestler (2008) and Black Swan (2010) combined cinematic style and protagonist emotion superbly. Mother, in its critiques of Hollywood, fame and some kind of biblical allegory stuff wildly missed the mark for me. I wasn’t even shocked by the horrific denouement as it all happened in a surreal vacuum where I could not care less about any person or anything.
Christopher Nolan used cinematic form to powerful effect in Dunkirk (2017) and moved me immensely but Mother just bludgeoned me into dull submission. I wonder if Aronofsky’s experience on Noah (2014) had somehow warped his mind and the film is a creative and therapeutic cry for help, while at the same time damning the executives who possibly killed his film baby. He certainly throws a lot of toys from his pram in this violent, bloody, fiery, misogynistic and misanthropic misfire!
Lawrence was incredible as the battered lead while Bardem just felt confused and off-the-pace-at-times to me. While it is the work of a filmmaker I would certainly call an artist and generally I love the surrealist films of Luis Bunuel and David Lynch, the nightmarish logic narrative did not work for me as the cyclical parlour trick in closing the story is mere sleight-of-hand to fool the audience into thinking the film is deeper than it is.
Ultimately, Darren Aronofsky, based on his prior films, is a risk-taking, boundary-pushing genius and some will adore this brave and courageous misadventure. However, for me it was an awful, pretentious heap of a film which exists as an entertainment void both nihilistic and dull. I mean I’m just a lowly office drone but I paid my money and earned my opinion. Because this film abuses the privilege and patience of the audience delivering a technically brilliant but overall clichéd, first-world-problems-poet-with-writer’s-block-world-murdering-art-fan-hating two hours I will never get back.
I was pretty ill with flu for half-of-March and then lost both my voice and get-up-and-go too, thus, only went to the cinema once during the month.
However, while recovering in my sick hole I caught up with quite a few films via streaming and on Blu-Ray/DVD. So, here’s a round-up review of movies I watched during the month of March.
CITY ON FIRE (1987) – DVD
Ringo Lam’s hard-boiled crime thriller was a massive influence on Tarantino’s low-budget classic Reservoir Dogs (1992). It’s shot in a raw Lumet/Friedkin style with the streets of Hong Kong filled with blood, bullets and breakneck speed car chases. Great thriller which made a star of a young Chow-Yun Fat.
FURY (2014) – BLU-RAY
This film rocked! It was rip-roaring action with the blood, the guts and the gory! Brad Pitt plays the Tank Commander with his loyal crew including Shia Labeouf, John Bernthal and new recruit Logan Lerman. It’s close to the end but there are pockets of German resistance while their Tank grinds its way toward Berlin. The theme of “war is hell” isn’t exactly new but it is tremendously illustrated during the brutal battles. I enjoyed the claustrophobic nature of the tank, earth-shaking manouevres and testosteronic highs plus there is some subtle characterisation and a moving mid-point scene where we see the softer side of Pitt’s war beast. Overall it’s an exciting melee of explosions and death and pays fine tribute to the noble savagery of the men who laid down their lives to win the war.
GET HARD (2015) – CINEMA
Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart’s silly comedy uses broad stereotypes to land its very puerile humour. It’s politically incorrect and sends up all manner of: black, white, Hispanic, gay, female, religious, upper, lower and middle classes and cultures. The double team of Ferrell and Hart works well as they play a soon-to-be imprisoned banker and his prison “trainer” readying him for a stretch in jail. The humour is unsophisticated but it made me laugh throughout in a series of silly scenes and set-pieces, plus there’s mild satirical content amidst the smut. Highlight is Will Ferrell as an urban gangster; should’ve been much more of that!
HERCULES (2014) – NETFLIX
This not-as-bad-as-you-think swords and sandals epic has some pretty awesome fight scenes but it’s mainly for die-hard fans of the Duwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Plus, there’s a very decent set of character actors earning some dough including: John Hurt, Peter Mullan, Rufus Sewell and Ian “Lovejoy” McShane. There’s some stuff about the “making of legends” in the script as the story eschews fantastical monsters in favour of muscular 300esque fight scenes. More blood would’ve made it even better though.
JERSEY BOYS – (2014) – BLU-RAY
This biopic of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons is another decent poke at what has come to be known as the “jukebox” musical subgenre. Based on the effervescent stage play it’s a decent, yet undemanding–felt-like-a-TV-movie-Sunday-matinee-nostalgia-watch. Of course, the songs are grand but the direction was a tad functional and the groups’ difficulties with the mob, financial issues and family losses are touched upon yet not dramatically satisfying. I liked the direct address narration but it’s only during the end credits where the film cuts loose with an imagination and pizazz that much of the film lacks.
LA CABINA (1972) – YOUTUBE
This is one of the best short films I have ever seen. It is Spanish and is very simple in concept and delivery but very powerful in symbolism and potential meaning. Basically, a Spanish man becomes trapped in a red Telephone Box and cannot escape. After a slapstick beginning which results in a huge crowd witnessing his plight, the film takes a grim twist in tone and becomes very dark by the chilling denouement. What does is all mean? Well, like great art it is open to interpretation as it contains surreal, existential and political themes. In my opinion it means all and everything and the horror will remain with anyone who sees it.
LUCY (2014) – BLU-RAY
Director Luc Besson is quoted as saying: “…I intended the first part of Lucy to be like Léon, the second part to be like Inception and the third part to be like 2001: A Space Odyssey.” I would say he succeeded with the first part but completely failed with the 2nd and 3rd parts. It’s a shame the kick-ass action was wrapped in a load of sci-fi babble because I really enjoyed many of the bone-crunching fight scenes. Scarlett Johansson was awesome as usual despite the story making NO SENSE at all logically and it didn’t even work as conceptual sci- fi for me.
PERFUME: STORY OF A MURDERER (2006) – DVD
I read the wonderful novel and saw this at the cinema years ago so this was the first time I had seen it since. Ben Whishaw plays a strange man, abandoned as a baby in the stinking slums of Paris, who grows up to be one of the great perfume-makers but is also a murderer. In pursuit of the perfect scent Jean-Baptiste Grenouille can only find what he wants during the killing of beautiful young girls. It’s an odd story but has a wonderful poetry and rhythm to it as we at first empathise but then exhale at the horror of Grenouille’s actions. John Hurts narrates a peculiar but haunting story which also features fine turns from Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman.
TRANSCENDENCE (2014) – BLU-RAY
This film about Artificial Intelligence promised so much and had a terrific cast including: Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Johnny Depp and the always grand Rachel Hall. For an hour it really seemed like a great bit of science fiction as scientist Will Caster dies but is brought back to life by means of computerisation of his mind and soul. With his brainbox uploaded to the web like a crazy sentient FrankensteinMonster.com he begins what appears to be a nefarious plan to take over the world. However, the narrative quickly falls apart and I felt like I was trying to put together a jigsaw with many pieces missing and bits that just don’t fit. It looks and sounds amazing but I was so bemused by the end I just did not care!
TRIANGLE (2009) – BLU-RAY
This is an absolute cracker of a Sisyphean-time-loop-paradox-movie. Melissa George portrays a single mother hoping to escape it all with a yacht trip with her wealthier friends. However, things don’t quite go according to plan following a massive storm knocks the group way off course. I’m not going to give anything away but this film gripped me throughout with a complex criss-cross narrative which confounds and delights in equal turns. While its clever-clever plot tightens the film also creeps you out with a series of violent events and startling images. Melissa George carries this film like Atlas did the world, and I really hope writer/director Christopher Smith gets more work as he and his star deserve much bigger films based on this existentially loopy horror film.
WALKING DEAD – SEASON 5 (EPISODES 9 – 16)
The Walking Dead Season 5 finale was less crash, bang, gore than the previous seasons’ end but there were some wonderful episodes filled with great suspense and tension. The group led by Rick Grimes eventually come to a place called Alexandria which kind of has a hippie commune feel to it. There paranoia sets in as the post-trauma of previous losses haunts Rick, Carol, Abraham and Sasha. We lose a couple of stalwart characters on the way but the series introduces new people at Alexandria and that’s where suspicions and doubt begins. It’s a softer, moral and more emotional denouement although there is some fantastic zombie executions too! I particularly enjoyed the doubt the writers created as to whether Rick and Carol were going totally over to the dark side. Great drama!
WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014) – BLU RAY
This covers much of the same ground as The Equalizer (2014) starring Denzel Washington, with a lone wolf operative fighting his demons overcoming big city villains in a most violent way. Once again Liam Neeson flexes his recent-tough-guy-status muscles wiping out bad guys with a gruff voice, mean stare, tough attitude, big fists and guns; but mainly guns. Working outside the law he hunts down the perpetrators of a series of shocking murders before their next victim comes to a similarly grisly end. Denzel’s film just shades it for brutal violence and style and has a better baddie but Walk Among The Tombstones is a decent stab at an evening’s bit of DVD entertainment.
WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT (2012) – SKY MOVIES
This low-budget horror film set in Britain is actually well-made and surprisingly quite scary, as a Yorkshire family are terrorised by a nasty spectre from t’other side. Based on the “Maynard Haunting” from the 1970s it’s well acted and directed by Pat Holden. I enjoyed the sly build up of terror as the nefarious poltergeist targets the youngest member of the family, Sally. It’s got some decent scares and a nifty little twist at the end.
Seasons greetings! Double busy leading up to Christmas with lots of cultural stuff going on so I’ve consolidated all my viewings, derring-dos and reviews of last week into one manageable post. Enjoy!
**Contains mild spoilers**
BILL BURR – I’M SORRY YOU FEEL THAT WAY (2014) – (NETFLIX)
The Massachusett’s born fortysomething everyman comedian is an absolute straight-talking joy. He sails close to controversy on many occasions giving political correctness no mind at all. But it’s not shock for shock’s sake but rather well thought out and cutting rants covering domestic violence, plastic surgery, guns and the cult of celebrity. I particularly love his cracking-take-no-prisoners-delivery and he is very adept at imaginary on-stage conversations which are relentlessly hilarious, hitting his targets full in the face.
DR WHO – THE MIND ROBBERS (1968)/SEEDS OF DEATH (1968)
From the 6th season of the classic science-fiction serial, with Patrick Troughton as the eponymous time-traveller, these two episodic stories find PT on great form with Zoe and Jamie as his companions. The villains of each piece are The Master (not that one) of the Land of Fiction and The Ice Warriors in Seeds of Death. The latter foes are particularly nasty pieces of work although they do find themselves undone if you turn the heating up a bit. Troughton is a fantastic Doctor playing the fool while hiding a devious mind as he allows the enemy to think they have the upper hand before prevailing victorious.
DR WHO – SEASON 7 (inc. DAY OF THE DOCTOR)
I’ve really enjoyed Matt Smith’s final season as the Doctor and some of the episodes have provided some cracking televisual entertainment. Some of the concepts and plot twists, I must admit, I found initially baffling but that was because the writing was so fast-paced and spirited. But overall Steven Moffat and his whole production team deserve credit for a fun, funky and very dark (where Amy and Rory were concerned) season which also introduced a sparkling new companion in Clara (Jenna Coleman).
Personal highlights for me included: Asylum of the Daleks, The Angels Take Manhattan, Cold War, Hide and the 50th Anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor which had THREE Doctors and a history-bending game changer. Brilliant to see John Hurt appear as The War Doctor and Tennant return also. I am very pleased too that I have watched the Time of the Doctor too and I am finally onto Peter Capaldi’s Time Lord; which is how this latest obsession began.
This obsidian painted comedy about family grief features Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Hesher: a crazed-heavy-metal-anti-heroic-outsider-mentalist. Hesher crashes into the lives and the house of the Forney family as they attempt to get over a recent death. And while he seems to be a negative reality void sucking the life out of them he kind of becomes an anti-angel providing some kind of weird and wonderful family therapy.
It’s a difficult film to get into initially as it’s quite bizarre but ultimately it’s got a great little black heart of gold showing that togetherness will overcome. Despite an A-list cast including Natalie Portman it’s very much a low budget-under-the-radar gem with a loud heavy rock soundtrack.
PAUL FOOT – SECRET CHRISTMAS COMEDY SHOW 2014
Myself and Brett Sharpe have formed the Dr Who-Paul-Foot-Spurs-Supporters Fan Club. It’s very niche but inclusive club which anyone can join if they like those particular cultural phenomena. Our inaugural Christmas outing was to a secret location in London and involved seeing the master of merry mirth — Paul Foot — putting on his own little show for his fans or connoisseurs as he calls them. It was an incredible show made all the more marvellous because it was in an intimate venue above a pub. I cracked up throughout as Foot treated us to some of his greatest comedy hits including: RADA story; EUROSTAR story and how to get REVENGE on BED & BREAKFAST LADY.
RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) – BFI SCREENING
Here’s a surprise: I love Star Wars! Not the prequels but the original films. I saw them all at the cinema and they are three of the most perfect piece of entertainment one could hope for. They captured the imagination of a wide-eyed seven, ten and thirteen year boy (that’s me!) when each of the trilogy was released. With their: spaceships, creatures, heroes, mercenaries, droids, monsters, light-filled swords, noble Knights protecting the Empire and rebels battling gigantic Death Stars – WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE! I watched the final film in the trilogy at the BFI Southbank’s majestic cinema NFT1 and Return of the Jedi looked wonderful. I laughed, gasped and cheered in all the right places as Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, Han Solo etc. fight and defeat the Dark Side in a galaxy far, far away.
SPURS Vs NEWCASTLE – CAPITAL ONE CUP QUARTER FINAL
I went to White Hart Lane to watch Spurs against Newcastle in the Capital One cup and what a terrific performance they put on. It was tight for a while against an under strength Toon – who had been in good form in the League – but a mistake from their young keeper allowed Bentaleb to score the first. Chadli made it 2-0 with a fine run and shot before Kane and Soldado finished the Northerners off! The great news is we got Sheffield United in the semi-final so MUST have a positive chance of getting to the final at Wembley. Since this game we also beat Burnley 2-1 at home so allied to our last-gasp win against Swansea the Pocchettino’s Spurs are on a grand roll for now.
ST VINCENT (2014) – FILM REVIEW
I love Bill Murray. The guy is a comedy legend and general all-round media eccentric. He’s been in some terrible films and some classic movies. The one over-riding consistency in all his movies are he is ALWAYS brilliant. In St Vincent he plays a curmudgeonly scoundrel who sleeps with hookers and drinks himself unconscious. When Melissa McCarthy’s single mother Maggie and her son Oliver move in next door Vincent becomes an unlikely babysitter to the boy. It’s an okay film which promises much dark and bittersweet humour in the vein of Bad Santa (2003).
However, while Vincent starts off as a bit of a scumbag he is redeemed far too easily for my liking and while the script is very witty it runs out of steam just past halfway and even Murray cannot save an overly saccharine and sickening ending. Also, Naomi Watts is wasted as an offensive stereotypical Eastern European prostitute while McCarthy is criminally underplayed given very little to do. A disappointment overall as all the plot strands are resolved easily and without any real comic or dramatic thunder.