Tag Archives: tv review

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND (2018) – HBO / SKY TV REVIEW

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND (2018) REVIEW

Based on: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Directed by: Saverio Costanzo

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**

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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.

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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.

Mark: 9 out of 11

BANDERSNATCH (2019) – BLACK MIRROR / NETFLIX REVIEW

BANDERSNATCH (2019) – BLACK MIRROR REVIEW

Directed by: David Slade

Produced by: Russell McLean

Written by: Charlie Brooker

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Will Poulter, Asim Chaudhry, Craig Parkinson, Alice Lowe etc.

**SPOILER FREE**

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Choices, choices, choices! We all have so many choices to make every day. Some simple; some much tougher. We didn’t have any choice over whether we were born, but now we are here there’s a myriad of daily selections we get to make. Do we get out of bed? Do we eat? Do we wash? Do we find the strength to get in our car or on the train and face the horrors of employment? Do we engage with violent abandon by calling the driver who cut us up at a roundabout, “a wanker!” Do we wear our clean underwear today or re-use yesterdays? Do we have a salad or burger for lunch? Do we start smoking again? Do we regret having children? Do we tell our partner we love them? Do we have the last beer in the fridge? Do we try and change our life? Do we just give up? Do we watch the new drama box-set or a Netflix special by Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker. So many tough choices!

Thus, you’ve had a shitty day with so many choices made and you sit down in front of the television in the hope you can switch off your brain. But that darned Brooker won’t let you. The televisual provocateur and his production team are cruelly requesting, for your entertainment, that you make MORE choices. If you’re young enough to remember those: “Go to page 47 to see if your spell vanquished the demon – or go back to page 666 to find out if you are the conqueror of the Universe”, type books, then Bandersnatch is THAT in television form. You may also be used to multiple choice computer games the likes of which I played myself as a kid on the Spectrum 128k computer. This is also the inspiration for Brooker’s twisted vision. But is it any good? I would choose YES! Bandersnatch is dark, hallucinatory and involving “fun”.

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The story/stories are set rather aptly in 1984. Our main protagonist is a grieving and troubled teenager, Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead). Stefan is obsessed by a “choose your adventure” book called Bandersnatch.  Inspired to turn it into a computer game, he soon descends down a veritable black hole mentally, physically and emotionally. The fact that we are vicariously responsible for the characters’ journey create a real sense of dread, doubt and suspense. It’s very clever and immersive and no doubt the writing of it must have been a tortuous process.

While it may not be for some I was engrossed by the show as it felt at times I was living in a Philip K. Dick story. Dick’s novels are often hallucinatory and dream-like with simple yet devastating prose. They deal with reality, alternative reality and beyond reality. You’re often in a place with unreliable narrators or confused protagonists who are existing in some real world, imagined or manufactured nightmare. Paranoia, anxiety and depression infect Dick’s world and Brooker captures that vibe brilliantly in Bandersnatch. However, it’s not also without humour too, albeit incredibly dark sarcastic humour.

Brooker and his filmmaking team achieve a style over substance triumph with Bandersnatch. I have only gone through Stefan’s narrative once but it gripped me from start to finish as an experience. The drained, urban and suburban 1980s colour and council-estate-grey look suited the psychotic breakdown of the main character. Nonetheless, at times, the dizzying twist of choices did take away from the emotional journey of the character. At one point I was so in the meta-hole the whole trip made me feel quite queasy. Having said that, I will be going back into this meta-adventure again; after all, the choices like in life seem endless.

Mark: 9 out of 11

VANITY FAIR (2018) – ITV DRAMA REVIEW

VANITY FAIR (2018) – ITV DRAMA REVIEW

Created and written by: Gwyneth Hughes

Based on: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Executive producer(s): Damien Timmer, Tom Mullens, Gwyneth Hughes, James Strong

Directed by: James Strong

Starring: Olivia Cooke, Claudia Jessie, Tom Bateman, Johnny Flynn, Charlie Rowe, Simon Russell Beale, Anthony Head, Martin Clunes, Frances de la Tour, Michael Palin

Composer(s): Isobel Waller-Bridge

Distributor: ITV, Amazon Studios

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

It’s an interesting anomaly in my later years that having previously boycotted period dramas which illustrate the lives of the wealthy and privileged, I now find myself being less partisan and actually watching more. This change doesn’t derive from a mellowing of my socialist working class roots but more an intelligent inquisitiveness as ignorant dismissal of the genre, be they on television or film, means one is possibly missing out on some fine drama or comedy. Indeed, many historical periods’ works of literature or theatre are in fact satirising or damning the upper classes.

Dickens for example dealt with the lower, middle and upper classes, shining a critical light at the many degradations of the era. Likewise, William Makepeace Thackeray also critiqued the folly of war, greed and narcissistic pursuits of the privileged. Stanley Kubrick demonstrated this brilliantly in his classic adaptation of Barry Lyndon (1975); while in ITV’s most recent adaptation Vanity Fair (2018), Thackeray’s adroit study of ambition and upward mobility shows the strengths, weaknesses and foibles of the women and men at the time of the Napoleonic wars.

Vanity Fair is widely considered a classic and considered the founder of the Victorian domestic drama. Originally serialised between 1847 and 1848 it was at the time a massive hit and one could argue the equivalent of what we would call a soap opera today. There have been, since the novel’s release, a plethora of screen, radio and television adaptations. Did we need another one? Probably not; but over seven compelling episodes Gwyneth Hughes’ screenplay does great justice to bring to life an army of: well-to-dos, country lords and ladies, soldiers, clergy, businessmen, plus the sparkling scheming of anti-heroine Rebecca or Becky Sharp.

Indeed, the effervescent, nuanced and outstanding performance of Olivia Cooke as Becky drives the narrative forward with absolute purpose. Cooke owns every scene as Becky attempts, from lowly beginnings, to rise through the ranks of society. It is both her strength of character and confidence which is her biggest asset and greatest enemy, because, always pushing for more, she doesn’t quit when she’s ahead. In stark reflection to Becky, Claudia Jessie as Amelia, is characterised as a romantic and desirous not of wealth or position, but rather love and romance. She is a pure spirit and her personality contrasts perfectly with Becky’s. While we admire Becky’s ambitious drive we remain suspicious of her motives, yet Amelia we warm to due to her big and gracious heart.

The men in the piece are a mixture of romantics, noble soldiers, treacherous or haphazard patriarchs, foppish fools, gamblers or all of the above. Tom Bateman gives a solid performance as Rawdon Crawley, Becky’s gambling military husband, as does Charlie Rowe as the more conflicted romantic, George Osborne. Furthermore, the adaptation contains sterling support from the cream of English character acting royalty including: Martin Clunes, Frances De La Tour, Claire Skinner, Anthony Head and Simon Russell Beale to name a few. However, the standout performance for me was Johnny Flynn as William Dobbin. This is such an empathetic and selfless character that, while holding a torch for Amelia, was prepared to sacrifice his love to make everyone happy. Potentially seen as a weakness, this for me was a real strength in a story which was full of selfish narcissists out for what they could get.

Aside from slightly dodgy green-screen CGI for the later scenes in India this was beautifully shot and lit, with the vistas of the English and French countryside wonderfully rendered. The interiors were eloquently designed as the stately and city homes of the characters, likewise the colourful costumes, were expertly brought to life.  James Strong is a prolific television director and he gets brilliant performances and marshals the pace and machinations of the narrative precisely. With Olivia Cooke and Johnny Flynn delivering star turns in their roles I was consistently surprised by this adaptation of Thackeray’s masterpiece. Ultimately, I’ve learned that whether something is a period drama or not one must give it a chance as it could have qualities which continue to stand the test of time.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11

THE DEUCE (2017 – 2018) – SEASONS 1 & 2 – HBO REVIEW

THE DEUCE (2017 – 2018) – SEASONS 1 & 2 – HBO REVIEW

Created by: George Pelecanos & David Simon

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 and people 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. 

Season 1 – Mark: 8 out of 11

Season 2 – Mark: 9 out of 11

DOCTOR WHO –S11 – EP. 9 REVIEW – IT TAKES YOU AWAY (2018)

DOCTOR WHO REVIEW – IT TAKES YOU AWAY (2018)

Directed by: Jamie Childs

Written by: Ed Hime

Cast: Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Ellie Wallwork, Kevin Eldon, Christian Rubeck, Lisa Stokke 

Produced by: Nikki Wilson

Executive producer(s): Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens, Sam Hoyle

Music composer: Segun Akinola

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

This episode, depending on your point of view, was either a strange, but moving science fantasy surrealist hybrid classic; or a collection of half-baked concepts that fell apart with an incredibly bizarre and silly ending.

Yet, It Takes You Away starts off very promisingly. For a start the title evokes suspense, mystery and an underlying sense of loss. The suspense builds when the Doctor and companions arrive in Scandinavia and are immediately faced with a mystery in the Norwegian wood. The beautiful landscape of blue fjords, green brush and scattered timber hide a dark secret within a boarded up cabin. The impressive cinematography also evokes an eerie atmosphere. Moreover, there’s a frightening monster hiding somewhere within nature. Or is there?

In the cabin, the Doctor finds a lone teenage girl, Hanne, blind and seemingly abandoned by her father. Of course, they all agree to help protect Hanne against the monster and find her father too. Up to this point the drama and mystery were intriguing and finely poised. Subsequent events descend to a strange place called the ‘Anti-Zone’. This is where it all begins to fall apart narratively speaking.

Emotionally the episode had some very powerful moments drawing on the breakdown of family relationships; Graham’s grief for the loss of his wife and whether it is better to live in or out of reality. However, within these fascinating themes were some stupid bloodsucking moths and the brilliant character actor Kevin Eldon was under-used as an underground demon-type creature. The less said about the ending the better, which I can only think was going for Twitter-like-clickbait trending rather than a coherent and believable pay-off.

The denouement, together with another massive exposition dump from the Doctor scrambling to convince us it all made sense, found the episode completely laughable.  It was a shame as it had some fine ideas and Bradley Walsh gave a moving performance as Graham. Ultimately though, this season of DoctorWho is flailing having started so promisingly and It Takes You Away plummeted to a new low.          

(Mark: 5 out of 11)

DOCTOR WHO – SEASON 11 – EPISODE 5 REVIEW: THE TSURANGA CONUNDRUM  (2018)

DOCTOR WHO – SEASON 11 – EPISODE 5 REVIEW: THE TSURANGA CONUNDRUM  (2018)

Directed by: Jennifer Perrott

Written by: Chris Chibnall

Produced by: Nikki Wilson

Executive producer(s): BBC Productions, Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens, Sam Hoyle

Cast:   Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Brett Goldstein, Ben Bailey-Smith, Suzanne Packer etc.

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

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Well, this was a lot of fun. I really connected with this latest adventure, which found the Doctor and her crew initially scavenging on an alien junkyard planet, before suddenly being caught in a surprise sonic explosion. They wake aboard the Tsuranga – which is an automated space hospital – like a flying version of the National Health Service. Discombobulated and injured from the mine explosion the Doctor, companions, Tsuranga’s crew and patients are soon to be faced with an even bigger danger.

Small but devastating the danger is called a P’Ting. It’s a creature that scoffs non-organic material; a cute looking eating machine that will devour the ship. It attacks the vessel and begins literally eating it out of space-ship and home.  The Doctor, aided by the ship’s medical staff Astos and Mabli; plus General Eve Cicero; her brother Durkas; synth robot Ronan; and Yoss, a pregnant man are all threatened by the darned P’Ting. I wondered if there was some sociological subtext to the P’Ting as it eats its way through the hospital in space, with Chris Chibnall critiquing the devastation of the NHS by the Tories. However, this message wasn’t to the fore and overall it was essentially a fun genre episode with lots of action and humour throughout.

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The standard genre set-up of a base/ship under siege is a Doctor Who staple. Despite the simplicity of the plot, it felt fast-paced and thrilling to me. The guest stars were excellent too, notably the comedian Brett Goldstein who stood out during his time on screen. There was some silliness with Ben Bailey-Smith’s Durkas rigging up a nebulous engineering control to pilot the crashing Tsuranga; nonetheless the entertainment levels remained very high. I especially enjoyed the humour and emotion gained from the alien bloke (who looked very human) giving birth; while Tosin Cole’s Ryan examined further his own relationship with his estranged father. Overall though, this was another light and uncomplicated episode from Chibnall, Whittaker and the team, but one that had me laughing and thrilled throughout.  

Mark: 8 out of 11

DOCTOR WHO – SEASON 11 – EP. 4 REVIEW: ARACHNIDS IN THE UK (2018)

DOCTOR WHO – SEASON 11 – EPISODE 4 REVIEW: ARACHNIDS IN THE UK (2018)

Directed by: Sallie Aprahamian

Written by: Chris Chibnall

Produced by: Alex Mercer

Executive producer(s): BBC Productions, Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens, Sam Hoyle

Cast:   Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Chris Noth, Shobna Gulati etc.

Composer: Segun Akinola

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

Doctor Who Series 11

Having got lost in space and time looking for her TARDIS, the Doctor and companions were now, via a stop in 1950s Alabama, back in the UK, present. Just at the right time it would seem too as Sheffield was in the grip of a major arachnid problem. If like me you’re not scared of spiders this episode held no major fears, however, for those with arachnophobia it played out like the stuff of nightmares.

The TARDIS lands on Ryan and Yasmin’s estate and we are soon introduced to Yas’ mother, father and, from her point of view, irritating sister. Her mother, Najia, has a job working at a just-about-to-open plush hotel. Her father spends his time complaining and collecting rubbish building up on the estate. Now, I wonder if these situations will be connected to the spider problem. Yes, I wonder?

Meanwhile, Graham and Ryan are faced with the continued grief over the loss of their loving wife and Aunt, Grace. Her ghost appears to Graham and Sharon D. Clarke performance adds a welcome emotional pull to the spider shenanigans. It also gives Graham and Ryan’s characters interesting depth as we continue to empathise with their loss.

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One would think the spiders would be the main monsters of the episode but they are not. Indeed, humans and capitalist corporations are often the biggest fiends within Doctor Who and that is no different in Arachnids in the UK. Hollywood actor Chris Noth as obnoxious American businessmen, Robertson, fires people and refuses to take any responsibility for the toxic contamination which causes the spiders to grow exponentially. Chris Chibnall has fun having digs at this Donald J. Trump clone and while Noth’s performance is a bit over-the-top, it’s in keeping with the B-movie horror tone of the episode.

Overall, this is a lighter episode than the previous week’s Rosa, but the giant spiders were quite frightening. Furthermore, the social commentary about environmental dumping of waste added another layer to the narrative also. Jodie Whittaker offered another safe performance as the Doctor although the storyline hardly stretched her talents. I thought Bradley Walsh gave a moving turn as Graham and the final scenes in the Tardis with the Doctor were memorable. Ultimately, Arachnids in the UK  was probably the weakest in the series so far, but it’s fast paced narrative and creepy crawlies filled the Doctor Who gap satisfactorily until next week.

Mark: 7.5 out of 11