Tag Archives: Television review

HBO TV REVIEW – BIG LITTLE LIES (2019) – SEASON 2

HBO TV REVIEW – BIG LITTLE LIES (2019) – SEASON 2

Created by: David E. Kelley and Liane Moriaty

Producers: Barbara Hall, David Auge

Executive Producers: David E. Kelley, Jean-Marc Vallee, Reese Wetherspoon, Bruna Papandrea, Nicole Kidman, Liane Moriarty etc.

Based on: Big Little Lies by Lianne Moriarty

Teleplays written by: David E. Kelley

Directed by Andrea Arnold

Main Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Zoe Kravitz, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Scott, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, Kathryn Newton etc.

Cinematography: Yves Belanger, Jim Frohna

Original Network: HBO

**CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SEASON ONE**

I hate Social Media and Twitter especially, sometimes. I also hate myself for getting dragged into the bullshit it sometimes brings. I’m referring specifically to the distorted prejudice the mind can take on when reading a few negative posts about a programme, film or personality. Such reports can obviously be accurate. However, they can mislead and stain your expectations of a show or film or actor or artist. In this case the second season production of HBO’s, Big Little Lies, came under fire from a few people on my Twitter feed. They said it was an awful and an ultimately disappointing series. Were they right? I mean, how bad could it be?

Then there was the Indiewire article which highlighted an issue during production. They asserted in a well written piece of click-bait that director Andrea Arnold was unceremoniously disregarded in the editing process and first season director, Jean-Marc Vallee, brought in to oversee re-shoots and final cut. If you believe the Indiewire article, this was the act of a heinous media corporation cutting down a beloved artist and robbing her of her vision. Arnold’s auteur status remains untainted for me. She is a fine director who carried out her contract and did not have final cut anyway. This belonged to HBO and they had say on who they hired during the production.

Thus, in a short period of time, a couple of tweets and one article had seriously affected my expectations of the second season of Big Little Lies. I was expecting a mess of a show. One which did not make sense and was robbed of all artistic and dramatic impetus by the HBO hierarchy. However, I can safely say I was wrong and, while not as good as the brilliant first season, it was still a really intriguing eight episodes worth of entertainment.

After the exceptional first season which found a stellar cast including: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Adam Scott, Zoe Kravitz, Alexander Skarsgård and Shailene Woodley on top acting form, the second season follows on with the aftermath of prior events. The first season expertly inter-weaved stories concerning an unknown “murder” victim; school bullying; warring parents; extra-marital affairs; and abusive relationships, expertly played out over seven compelling episodes. With the “murder” victim revealed in the final episode, we now get an exploration of suspicion, guilt, conspiracy and a test of loyalty and friendship.

Without wishing to give too much away the newest and strongest addition to the series is Meryl Streep. She plays the mother ***SPOILER ALERT*** of the dead guy from the first season, Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård). His death occurred when he was pushed “accidentally” down some stairs at a party. But, the friend’s, including his wife, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), collude to say he fell instead. With the police still suspicious the main investigator is actually Streep as the dogged Mary Louise. She is passive-aggressive and subtle in her enquiries as to how her son died. It’s a delight watching her deviously pull apart each of the lead suspects. It is also an absolute masterclass in acting as Streep’s crafty characterisation makes this series a must-watch. Her scenes with Nicole Kidman’s crumbling personality are especially compelling.

Allied to the investigation into Perry’s death, the show gives some interesting narrative strands to Laura Dern’s energetic power-mum, Renata. Her world is about to disintegrate around her in the face of her husband’s financial wrong-doings. Equally powerful is Bonnie’s (Zoe Kravitz) attempt to heal the rift between herself and her mother. Bonnie suffers the most guilt as ***SPOILER ALERT*** she was the one who pushed Perry down the stairs. As she battles with the emotional repercussions of her actions, she experiences a painful re-emergence of historical parental abuse. Perhaps, not as intriguing are Madeline (Reese Wetherspoon) and Jane’s (Shailene Woodley) narrative strands. Nonetheless, they do support the series’ themes of family, trust and love that add depth and subtext.

To finish, I learnt once again that social media and Twitter surfing can have a negative impact on one’s critical expectation of a programme or film. You have to basically make your own mind up and not be swayed by the pitchforks and torch-bearers baying for blood online. Big Little Lies (2019), Season 2, therefore, while not reaching the dramatic heights of the first season is an excellent follow-up. It explores the privileged lives of the rich Monterey set instilling a sense of humanity and frailty to their lives. The more improvisational direction of Andrea Arnold works well with the fragmented impressionism of the editing style to bring this out. Mainly though, it’s the impressive cast and script which glued me to the screen while experiencing this very watchable drama.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11

ALL 4 REVIEW – THE VIRTUES (2019)

ALL 4 REVIEW – THE VIRTUES (2019)

Directed by: Shane Meadows

Produced by: Mark Herbert and Nickie Sault

Written by: Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne

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.

Mark: 9 out of 11

BBC3 COMEDY REVIEW – THIS COUNTRY (2017 – 2019)

BBC3 COMEDY REVIEW – THIS COUNTRY (2017 – 2019)

Created by: Daisy May Cooper & Charlie Cooper

Written by: Daisy May Cooper & Charlie Cooper

Directed by: Tom George

Producer: Simon Mayhew-Archer

Cast: Daisy May Cooper, Charlie Cooper, Paul Cooper, Paul Chahidi

Original Network: BBC Three

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

“I am Jack’s bitter, failed arsehole!”

In Chuck Palahniuk’s contemporary literary classic Fight Club – and the movie version – the narrator often refers to a third person called, ‘Jack’, to describe inner rage. It’s a nifty narrative device and kind of a foot-in-the-door to explain my feelings when watching BBC3 mockumentary series This Country. Because having watched the two series and extended one-off special I have to say I didn’t get the joke and I’m thinking it must be me and not the show.

Perhaps it’s my ongoing sobriety? I mean, while the acting is sublime, I could not work out why this comedy series has received so much critical praise. Moreover, I could not work out how it has won several Royal Television Society and BAFTA awards. I will perhaps have to accept I am wrong and know nothing about comedy and the television industry. I am just a bitter, failed arsehole.

This Country is a rural sitcom in the mockumentary style. Thus, first and foremost, while it’s nearly impossible to achieve originality in TV and film, the show is derivative of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s classic comedy, The Office. While Gervais was influenced by the Christopher Guest-led ensemble genius of, This is Spinal Tap (1984), one cannot escape the fact This Country is a weaker clone of The Office.

Episodes revolve around an accurate rendition of rural life; somewhere not too far from Swindon, Wiltshire. Comedy and drama derives from issues relating to: boredom, crime, unemployment, failed romances, general village idiot-types and very dysfunctional families. The main protagonists are Kerry and Lee ‘Kurtan’ Mucklowe; cousins in the show but portrayed incisively by siblings, Daisy and Charlie Cooper. In fact, the actors are way more likeable than the characters they portray. Kerry and Kurtan are so moronic and obnoxious at times it was difficult to empathise with them.

It is a testament to the precise conveyance of village life that the programme felt believable as an actual documentary. Unfortunately, for me, the pace was quite slow and, while I guess that was the point, there are only so many dry pauses-for-comedic-effect you can experience without getting bored. Similarly, with the “realistic” pace, punchlines often felt very spaced out, with a reliance on the accents to get the laughs.

There are a number of strong episodes including, Kurtan’s attempts to win a scarecrow contest and also when he worked on a building site. Yet, certain episodes never really went anywhere as character development also suffered inertia in the narrative. Having said that, there is some excellent writing. Daisy’s doomed relationship with her bastard of a father, Martin, does lend a depth and pathos to the narrative. But this is more dramatic than funny overall. Then again, I accept that this is just the opinion of a bitter, sober and over-analytical arsehole and some may find this the funniest show on television.

Mark: 7 out of 11

THE GOOD PLACE (S1 – S3) TV / NETFLIX REVIEW

THE GOOD PLACE (S1 – S3) TV / NETFLIX REVIEW

Created by: Michael Schur

Executive Producers: Michael Schur, David Miner, Morgan Sackett, Drew Goddard

Producers: David Hyman, Joe Mande, Megan Amram

Starring: Kristen Bell, Wiliam Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, D’Arcy Carden, Manny Jacinto and Ted Danson

US Network: NBC / UK Platform: Netflix

**SPOILER FREE REVIEW**

Hell is other people.” Jean Paul Sartre

So I started watching The Good Place with expectations of it being another slickly written and performed, shiny, sparkly and goofy American sitcom. I figured I would check it out, give it a season, enjoy and then allow it to slide into viewing obscurity. However, little did I realise it was going to be one of the funniest, intelligent, imaginative, philosophical, slick, shiny, goofy and densely plotted television shows I had seen in years.

Created by uber-comedy-producer Michael Schur, The Good Place, has an immediately fascinating high-concept premise. Set in the ‘after-life’, it deals with the lives and deaths of four disparate characters, namely: Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto). They have all died and gone to a version of heaven, but there’s been a mistake. Eleanor is the snag. Due to a cosmic confusion she should not be there. Her behaviour ratings on Earth are so low she should have gone to ‘The Bad Place’ instead.

Frantically attempting to cover up this hellish mistake, the immoral, selfish and petualnt Eleanor enlists the indecisive but very moral Chidi to teach her how to be good. Thus, begins one of the major themes of the show: what does it mean to be a good person? As a moral philosophy professor when alive, Chidi, reluctantly agrees to train Eleanor. However, she is so inherently selfish it proves a tough task, and much humour comes from Chidi and Eleanor’s life perspectives clashing. Overseeing the “guests'” everyday lives are the architect/angel (arch-angel geddit!), Michael, played with the usual comic brilliance by Ted Danson; and super enthusiastic, Janet (D’Arcy Carden), a personified, sentient, artificially-intelligent computer.

The Good Place starts strong with a brilliant premise and then cascades into a series of incredible events, flashbacks and character reveals, culminating in some hilarious and ingenious narrative twists. Michael Schur is a past master of ensemble comedy, having worked on the The Office (U.S.) and Parks and Recreation; and here his army of writers, actors, designers and effects team serve his fantastic vision superbly. Moreover, the cast zing out the screwball-comedy paced dialogue and gags with laser-sharp comedy timing, with Kristen Bell the pick of the lot. The flashback scenes which show Eleanor back on Earth illustrating why she should go to hell are particularly hilarious. Of course, she’s not precisely evil but very human; she’s just not very good at being human.

Thus, if you want a television show which is shiny on the outside but actually quite dark on the inside then this is for you. The Good Place makes you both laugh and think. It deals with death, religion, heaven, hell, human behaviour and also gives insight into basic philosophy. I mean, it’s educational too; you learn about Camus, Sartre, Kant, Mill and many more! Overall, all three seasons zip along full of zinging one-liners that had me breathless from start to finish and it has heart too. You get to love these characters, despite their faults, and the show certainly leaves you in a very good place.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11

WESTWORLD: POST-MAPPING THE NETWORK

WESTWORLD: POST-MAPPING THE NETWORK by PAUL LAIGHT

**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**

THE INTRODUCTION

If you want safe and conventional and sensible then listen to ‘70s pop group the Nolan Sisters. If it’s complex, serpentine narratives and emotions then it’s the Nolan Brothers you want. In this piece I take a stab at simplifying the complex narrative machine that is Westworld – written, devised and directed (in part) by Jonathan Nolan and co-creator Lisa Joy. Of course, kudos goes to the originator Michael Crichton whose 1973 sci-fi classic this brilliant TV series is based on. For your information I have also reviewed the show here:


THE MAP

Why bother having a stab at mapping Westworld? Well, I think this is a show in which enjoyment can be derived from working out the puzzle, interpreting the maze or just simply seeing if the jigsaw pieces fit?  I only have a degree in Film and a Masters in Screenwriting, rather than a PHD in meta-physics, but I decided it would at least be fun to try and make sense of it.

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Firstly, I come from the understanding that this is meta-fiction. It is as much about people telling us stories about characters controlling the narrative of robots; androids who don’t know they are part of a bigger narrative. Moreover, you have to accept that at some point ALL or MOST of these are unreliable narrators and the stories were being re-written as we watched. I now understand this about the characters:

  • Everyone is a liar.
  • Neither dreams nor reality are to be trusted.
  • Anything can change from one episode to another.

Indeed, the creators of the show have taken great liberties using: programmed dreams, back stories, overlapping narratives, flashbacks, flash-forwards, time-slips, repetitive loops, parallel action from past and present, plus many, many more cinematic, televisual and literary tricks. Also to consider while watching are three main notions:

  • Who are hosts and who are human?
  • Who are the good characters and who are the bad?
  • Should we care about characters that are androids? 
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The last question was the one I struggled with most of all but from the hosts I picked Dolores and Teddy as they were the ones with, ironically, the most human emotions of love, romance and a desire to make a better life. But of course even this couple ultimately are murderous tools in the hands of their human creators. Likewise, Bernard is very sympathetic. He, arguably, has the biggest narrative turn of all when we discover he is in fact a simulacrum host and a pivotal pawn in Ford’s grand scheme.

For me there were a multitude of narrative strands in Westworld and for the final part of this piece I will list them for better understanding of the network. There is no specific order here as these storylines all overlapped but here goes. Safe to say there are MASSIVE SPOILERS!

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THE NARRATIVES

Dr Robert Ford’s Grand Plan!

Dr Robert Ford – as portrayed by the majestic Anthony Hopkins – had a huge scheme from the start. I came to accept he was the God of Westworld and his plan was to defeat the corporate spies represented by Theresa Cullen (Sidse Knudsen), Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), and in the last episode reveal, older William/Man in Black (Ed Harris).  Feeling long-standing guilt because of the death of his partner Arnold, Ford’s mind has slowly warped and therefore he has programmed all the hosts to turn on the humans by the final thrilling cathartic finale. I accepted that Ford was a genius and that he had been planning this denouement for some time, thus, his programming and planning made everything happen in the end. This also conveniently covers any plot-holes in my mind.

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The Corporate Sabotage Subplot!

While Ford’s narrative is being written, behind the scenes, Theresa Cullen and subsequently Charlotte Hale are attempting to oust Ford and steal his network secrets. They do this initially via a modulated host but when he is discovered they plot to use one of the “retired” hosts in the basement to get the information out.  Ford has been aware of the plot from the start as shown when he tells Bernard to kill Theresa and the subsequent finale when the hosts all turn on the Delos Corporation guests.

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The Hosts in the Basement!

All old, malfunctioning or “retired” hosts were taken down to a dark basement never to be seen again. Many scenes played out amidst these naked, dusty android souls, and there was a sense they may come into play in this debut season. But, they remained an enigma most of the season until Charlotte Hale decided to utilise older Peter Abernathy to attempt to get Ford’s secrets out.

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William, Teddy and Dolores “Love Triangle.”

Teddy and Dolores, as aforementioned, are two of the initially more sympathetic hosts. They have a genuine bond on all the narrative strands. When we first meet William (Jimmi Simpson) he is with the arsehole Logan (Ben Barnes) and quiet compared to his loutish, sex-addicted counterpart. William falls in love with Dolores and finds himself as a human; simultaneously  developing a killer instinct too in the process. Confusion reigns because this storyline is a flashback and William is in fact a younger version of Ed Harris’ grizzled “Man in Black”.

“The Man in Black” narrative.

I ended up working out Man in Black/William stories were connected but some thirty-odd years apart. Even so when the reveal was delivered it was very satisfying. Ed Harris is initially introduced as a violent guest who has visited the park for many years and his arc involves his search for the “maze”. Ultimately, he is revealed to not only be older William, but the key shareholder on the Delos board. His, search for the maze was external and internal. It was also symbolic and translated as a personal odyssey by that of a warped, grieving man with a death wish. Overall, desiring the hosts to be real and a threat to his life heighten his park addiction and reveal him to be a very sick individual.

The Arnold/Bernard trajectory.

Arnold began popping up as a voice in the hosts’ head and then as the story moved along it was revealed he was in fact Ford’s business partner when the park was in its testing stage. Moreover, Arnold’s voice was their programming consciousness becoming sentient.  Arnold basically wanted to destroy the park because he had become attached to the androids and did not want them to suffer the way he had. Plus, he was still grieving over the death of his son therefore emotionally disturbed, depressed and suicidal.

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Ultimately it was Arnold’s work that Ford was completing thirty-five years on. In order to lift his guilt Ford also created Bernard in Arnold’s image so he would have his ‘friend’ close. Of course, Ford used Bernard to do his bidding such as kill Elsie and Theresa. The cruellest trick was to give Bernard the same memories as Arnold, notably the death of his young son. But as they say in the programme it’s the painful memories which make the androids more human.

Maeve’s nightmare!

Maeve’s (Thandie Newton) story reflected the Arnold/Bernard trajectory in that she lost a child in one incarnation and was haunted by this event in another. Indeed, the Man in Black gunned her child down and subsequently her programming went haywire. Ford reprogrammed her to become a prostitute but somewhere in her wiring the memories of her loss propelled her to become more violent.

Thus, having woken up in the technician’s laboratory downstairs she ventures on a devious plot to discover who and where she is. Of course, it wasn’t that simple because it turned out Maeve’s manipulation of her own intelligence and the Lab personnel; plus the recruitment of the badass hosts including Rodrigo Santoro’s bandit, was ALSO down to Ford. He had programmed her to attempt escape; well according the reanimated Bernard anyway.

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Who the hell was Wyatt?

Wyatt arrived as a seemingly key park nemesis but was in fact a “McGuffin”; a false character and memory in Teddy’s narrative. Wyatt in fact was a combination of programme and actual memory; and was revealed to be Dolores because she killed Arnold and the rest of the hosts back in the day. Poor Delores, Teddy and Bernard are ultimately tragic “Frankenstein” monsters used to carry out the vicarious desires of their makers and Wyatt was an invention to mask past events.

CONCLUSION – INTERPRETING THE MAZE!

Of course there are still many unanswered strands from the first season and I have just touched on a few of the more obvious ones. Westworld is a maze where the entrance and exits are forever shifting. The story does not go in a straight line. It is circular and a circuit which comes round and back on itself. The whole show is like an Escher drawing with each storyline and strand seeming to end but then return on the other side of an episode.

I’m not saying my mapping of the maze tidies everything up because this isn’t a show with a nice linear narrative conclusion. Westworld is about the journey and getting lost in the maze is part of the fun. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy deserve kudos for adapting Crichton’s masterwork into a pulsing organic machine which delivers scientifically, cereberally and emotionally.

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