Month: June 2016

Mid-Year Round-Up: Film (Part Three)

The Nice Guys, Dir. Shane Black.

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Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling and Augourie Rice

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang writer-director Shane Black’s latest is arguably the most irreverent and hilarious film so far this year. In 1977 L.A (gorgeously realised by Tim Burton collaborator Phillippe Rousselot), the movie centres upon alcoholic P.I. Holland March (Ryan Gosling, terrific comic timing) and enforcer Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe). The two are drawn together to uncover the reason for porn-star Misty Mountains death and to find a missing young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley). In lesser hands, a plot like this could feel dated and misogynistic, coming across as a mere pastiche. Yet, Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi keep the film feeling fresh and engaging through an intriguing but nonsensical plot, flashes of pure style and a surprisingly strong female character in March’s daughter Holly (Augourie Rice). It also features genuinely smart humour regarding 70’s culture (Hippie protests and old sitcom The Waltons get the biggest laughs). Although it suffers from a lack of depth or subversion, Black pokes fun at various tropes of the noir genre in a very loving and entertaining way.

Triple 9, Dir. John Hillcoat.

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Triple 9’s mixed reception is very puzzling to me. Many of the reviews mention Michael Mann’s masterpiece Heat (with which Triple 9 shares some similarity in plot and action set-pieces), and claimed Triple 9 was not up to the same standard. Although I agree with this statement, I do not believe it is fair to write off Hillcoat’s film as a derivative rehash when it possesses so many great qualities not related to Heat. Can a gritty crime drama centring around thieves and the cops pursuing them ever be made without suffering due to comparisons to Mann’s archetypal genre movie?

download (1).jpgThe plot features a gang of thieves led by Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing against type), who are being blackmailed by the leader of the Russian-Jewish mafia, Irina (Kate Winslet), into committing a dangerous heist. The other members of Michael’s crew, brothers Gabe and Russell (Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus), Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr.) are either corrupt cops or former cops which gives them an upper hand into committing their thefts successfully. When the group decides collectively that the heist must be committed in broad daylight, they realise they need a distraction. Marcus suggests a triple nine – aka – the murder of a fellow policeman which will cause every cop in the city to rush to the victim’s aid. Marcus volunteers to murder his new partner, war veteran Chris (Casey Affleck), whose disillusioned uncle Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson, excellent) happens to be lead investigator on the thieves’ crimes.

Kate Winslet as Irina

The film benefits from heart racing action sequences, particularly its opening set-piece or its mid-point raid of a drug dealers’ apartment by Marcus and Chris – the latter of which slowly builds as they ascend each apartment level and then explodes in a frenzy of bullets. The choreography by Nicolas Karakatsanis (who between this and The Drop is the go to DP for presenting grimy suburbs) is eye-popping, with the gritty visuals (similar to The Wire) being broken by splashes of bright yellows and dark reds (see opening sequence). Its script by Matt Cook, although lacking a central thesis, does raise some interesting ideas such as the evolution of crime in the Internet age. It also manages to be frequently surprising while never losing its smooth plot development, as well as its strain of jet-black humour. The performances impress across the board with Kate Winslet’s ice-queen and Clifton Collins Jr’s suave but menacing performance as the dirtiest cop of the group most deserving of praise.

The Witch, Dir. Robert Eggers

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Perhaps the most assured debut feature in recent memory, The Witch is a horror movie which understands that the most engaging films of the genre are essentially dramas at heart. Set in New England in 1630, the film centres upon William (Ralph Ineson, The Office). He and his family, consisting of his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie, Red Road) and their five children, are banished from a Puritan Christian plantation due to the sin of pride.  To sustain themselves, the family build a farm on the outskirts of a large, mysterious forest. However, strange occurrences begin to plague them and they start to believe they are being preyed upon by a satanic force.

large_large_jfGsfzq5JrMAKbAOV2TmhsOs3tf.jpgThe film manages to create a level of sustained threat which begins at the opening credits and doesn’t cease until its final moments. Eggers displays a prowess behind the camera beyond his years. Shots linger just slightly longer then they should, creating an air of paranoia – as if at any moment, something is going to lunge at the characters. Scenes veer from comic relief to horror in a matter of seconds with deftness, leaving the viewer wonderfully confused and disorientated. Yet, as mentioned in my opening lines, The Witch works equally well as a drama. It builds an air of genuine suspense when one is interested in the characters that are being picked off by a strange supernatural force. Watching the family tear themselves apart, not just on account of their fear but over other trivial matters (a tea-cup becomes a recurring motif) is just as engaging as the horrors within the woods.

In Conclusion: Best films of the Year so far

Captain America: Civil War, Goodnight Mommy, Green Room, Hail Caesar,  High-Rise, The Invitation, The Measure of a Man, The Nice Guys, Triple 9 and The Witch.

Mid-Year Round-Up: Film (Part Two)

Goodnight Mommy, Dir. Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala

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Not exactly this year’s The Babadook or It Follows, instead Goodnight Mommy has more in common with an unsettling, tough-to-watch thriller in the vein of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Its terror does not come from set-pieces or jump scares but the tricks it plays with audience expectation. It centres upon two twins, Elias and Lukas (played by real-life twins Elias and Lukas Schwarz), forced to spend a summer with their mother (Susanne Wuest). Due to surgery, their mother’s face is completely masked by bandages, causing her to resemble an almost monstrous figure. Due to radical shifts in her behaviour, the twins come to believe the person taking care of them is not actually their mommy.

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Goodnight Mommy’s first half sets up a tone akin to a dark Grimm-style fairy-tale, whereby two boys will be forced to fight the entity possessing their mother. However, as the film continues, subtly revealing backstory, it evolves into an extremely distressing thriller which completely shifts audience sympathy. It drops the fairy-tale atmosphere, becoming increasing gritty and less stylised in terms of its violence. Although many people online and some people I’ve talked to guessed its late in the game twist, writer-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala kept me off the scent, throwing just enough macguffins at the viewer to distract. Also, I’d be remised if I signed off a review of Goodnight Mommy, without mentioning its strange and spine-chilling imagery. A cockroach crawling into a person’s mouth, the blood-shot eyes of the mother following surgery, the masks the twins fashion to intimidate their mother: these are what stay under one’s skin for weeks after seeing the film.

Green Room, Dir. Jeremy Saulnier

med_green_room_ver8.jpgWilliam Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 18: “So long as men can read and eyes can see, so long lives this and this gives life to thee”. His thesis was that great artistry provides a form of immortality. Art has the power to outlive humans but that part of a person can exist forever in said art. The news broke this week of the tragic passing of twenty-seven-year-old Anton Yelchin.  Yelchin was a terrific character actor who, despite his young age, managed to shine against older thespians in films such as Fright Night, Terminator: Salvation, Only Lovers Left Alive and perhaps most famously J.J Abrams’ Star Trek franchise. It is always a shock to lose someone so talented so young but the fact that Yelchin starred in Green Room, a great piece of art and arguably the best film of 2016 so far, can be a small consolation to fans of the actor.

Yelchin stars as Pat, the lead singer of a punk rock band titled The Ain’t Rights, consisting of Sam (Alia Shawkat, Arrested Development), Reece (Joe Cole, Peaky Blinders) and Tiger (Callum Turner, Glue). Cash strapped, forced to siphon petrol out of strangers’ cars in order to continue their tour, they land a gig in a backwoods club run by white supremacists. Following their show, they stumble across the dead body of a young woman in their green room. The club owner, Darcy (played with chilling, quiet menace by X-Men’s Patrick Stewart), needs no witnesses and the group, as well as a mysterious stranger, Amber (Imogen Poots, 28 Weeks Later), are forced to defend themselves against shotgun and machete wielding neo-Nazis and their vicious rottweilers.

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The Ain’t Rights

Green Room is a mean and lean genre picture, which harks back to 70’s survival thrillers such as Assault on Precinct 13, Straw Dogs and Southern Comfort. However, while many modern movies pay homage to these archetypal contributions to the thriller genre, what separates Green Room from the pack is how furiously energetic it is. The movie is as fast, manic and exhilarating as the punk stylings of bands such as The Dead Kennedys, The Misfits and The Damned (all mentioned within the film). It is tremendously violent yet in my opinion is firmly anti-violent. The carnage is unglamorous, serving to highlight how people can be driven or manipulated to commit truly horrendous actions on account of a belief in a warped ideology. Despite an over-abundance of inhumane acts, the film never loses its humanity on account of the relationships between the band members, as well as a terrific supporting performance by Macon Blair. Blair plays Gabe, an underling of Darcy who possesses a world-weariness, as if he doesn’t really believe in what he is doing and is saddened by the position he has found himself in.

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Imogen Poots and Anton Yelchin

I wrote a month ago, that Green Room was an instant classic, my opinion has not wavered since then. On account of Yelchin’s death, The Lighthouse Cinema in Dublin’s Smithfield district is re-releasing the film this week. Please check it out in order to not only witness a great film, but to pay tribute to a terrific young actor taken from us too soon.

The Invitation, Dir. Karyn Kusama

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The Invitation: A new-entry in the “dinner from hell” sub-genre of thrillers

The_Invitation_2015.jpgOnce in a while, a thriller arrives which, despite not changing the formula of the genre in an inventive way or saying anything incredibly profound about the world, is so well-crafted that one doesn’t care. Take The Invitation for example: the film revolves round Will (Logan-Marshall Green, Prometheus), a man still suffering emotionally from the death of his son and a subsequent divorce from his wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard) two years ago. Out of the blue, he is invited to a dinner-party hosted by Eden and her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman – Orphan Black, Game of Thrones). Will invites his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi, Hand of God), but upon arriving at the party events take a weird turn. Although many of Will’s old friends are there, Eden and David invite Sadie (Lindsay Burdge, Lace Crater) and Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch, Zodiac), people they met at a grief-support group or “cult”, who appear to have a sinister agenda. However, Will seems to be only person troubled by their behaviour and it is possible he may be suffering from a form of PTSD, having returned to the house where his son died.

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Michiel Huisman, John Carroll Lynch, Lindsay Burdge

The Invitation is an example of a film whereby a cast of game thespians, who give it their all (no one delivers a dark and disturbing monologue quite like John Carroll Lynch), are accompanied by a wonderfully twisty script and tight direction. Director Karyn Kusama (Aeon Flux, Jennifer’s Body) allows the performers room to breathe, e.g. long conversations of dialogue, while also adding a cinematic quality (close-ups, scenes which highlight the labyrinthine structure of the home) preventing the film from resembling a stage play. Also, the way Will’s past experiences in the house visually bleed into his present is a great way of making a very prickly and dour character feel likable and sympathetic. The major joy of The Invitation’s script, by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (whose filmography up until now has not been good), is how long it withholds its central mystery from the viewer. It keeps one constantly guessing right up until the film’s exciting climax.

The Measure of a Man, Dir. Stephane Brize

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Vincent Lindon in The Measure of a Man

Stephane Brize’s The Measure of a Man stars Vincent Lindon (Best Actor at Cannes 2015) as Thierry, a man eighteen months without work. Having completed an employment support program in crane operating, he is told that he is unemployable due to lacking building site experience. On his monthly €500 unemployment benefit he struggles to provide for his family, particularly his son with special needs. The family are forced to sell off much of their possessions while Thierry scrambles for work.

download (1).jpgThe film’s documentary-like feel, contributes tremendously to its portrayal of economic recession victims struggling to reintegrate into the workplace. Its long-static scenes, consisting of repetitive and awkward conversations between Thierry and bank lenders or potential employers (often set among dreary, boring settings), capture authentically a feeling of monotony, boredom and restlessness. However, the film is not a dirge to get through, as a result of Vincent Lindon’s soulful performance. The actor, during the scenes in which Thierry is on the job hunt, personifies world weariness. He speaks little within the film but when he does, his words are not what is important. It’s his body language which is often explaining to the audience his inner conflict. Yet, Brize adds these brief scenes of Thierry with his family, which provide a momentary respite from the film’s suffocating (in a good way) atmosphere. Lindon’s posture completely changes during these scenes. His shoulders become more relaxed and his craggy eyes brighten. These moments tell us all we need to know about the love Thierry shares for his family and the lengths he is willing to go to in order to provide for them.

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Lindon receiving his best actor award at Cannes 2015

As the film moves into its second half, it broadens its scope through interesting means from a tale of one man affected by the recession to all of society. Thierry finds work as a security guard in a supermarket, a place which becomes a microcosm for society. Everyone, rich or poor, old or young, needs to shop and Thierry’s job places him as an observer to this. Not only does he witness his managers’ interrogation of shoplifters (one young and foreign, another old and French), he also has to watch his fellow employees being punished for taking customer tokens and points. As well as this, the reason the supermarket is cracking down on these crimes is because the managers are under pressure to gain greater profits. Brize subtly and skilfully links all these elements together not only to create a sense of Thierry’s growing embarrassment and dissatisfaction with the job but a portrait of a damaged society.

 

 

Mid-Year Round-Up: Film (Part One)

Captain America: Civil War, Dir. Anthony and Joe Russo.

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The strengths of Captain America: Civil War are only amplified when compared to two other huge superhero/blockbuster movies: Avengers: Age of Ultron and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The former, although fun, felt like director Joss Whedon’s work had been corrupted, with Whedon being forced to add in scenes to set up future films at the expense of character development (which is apparently true if Whedon’s comments post leaving the Marvelverse are anything to go by). The latter had similar problems in terms of shoe-horning in future significant characters. However, it was notably un-fun as Batman and Superman fought in a conflict which never really made sense. Perhaps, because its creators needed thirteen films to flesh out their characters dramatically and establish comprehensible motivations. Luckily for Steve Rogers and co, Captain America: Civil War is the thirteen entry into the MCU franchise and as a result wastes no-time with plot exposition (due to it already being set-up in twelve other movies). The film, like Batman and Superman, deals with a rift between two crime-fighters: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans). Iron Man, following his mistake in releasing the villainous A.I Ultron upon the world, wants The Avengers to team up with the U.S Government. However, Captain America, following the events of The Winter Soldier, is wary, believing governments can be corrupted and could potentially warp The Avengers. Both begin to recruit superheroes to join their cause, most notably Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spiderman (Tom Holland), while the mysterious Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) seeks to wreak havoc.

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There is a wave of snootiness directed at comic-book films now because there are far too many being made. That said, Civil War deserves critical acclaim for taking an extremely convoluted and increasingly complicated mythology and making it easily palatable and incredibly warm and human, despite reports of bean-counting at Marvel. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, as well as writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, never neglect character and add a strain of fun humour which does not detract from the drama and jaw-dropping action like it could easily. In fact, it makes one more invested in the superheroes fighting because you like them. The film’s references to upcoming releases feels a little more dialled back here and even when they do rear their head one does not mind because they serve the drama well e.g. Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther. Also, Civil War, in terms of superhero genre conventions, was surprisingly ambitious. While watching the film one would be forgiven for thinking Zemo was a pointless and obligatory villain. However, by the film’s poignant climax, one comes to realise he is less a villain but more a sympathetic victim who serves to represent the central conflict at the heart of the film. Although the superhero genre is becoming over-saturated and cynical (D.C’s attempt to ape the M.C.U.’s business model is quite shameless), the people who form the creative team producing The Avengers franchise are intelligent and appear to have perfected the formula for a great blockbuster picture.

Hail, Caesar!, Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen

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Clooney and Brolin in Hail, Caesar!

Admittedly, despite critical acclaim (an 85 % on Rotten Tomatoes), Hail, Caesar! garnered mixed reviews from audiences. Many film-fans I know were left cold by the film, something which appears to be backed-up by the fact it received a C- on CinemaScore, a grade compiled from audience reactions. Normally, I would steer clear of these sort of figures but I feel it is best to warn that one’s enjoyment of Hail, Caesar! depends on what one brings to it. It is easy to see how someone not accustomed to the Coen Brothers unique, offbeat and quirky sense of humour (The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading) could be left cold. Someone unfamiliar with the types of movies lovingly recreated by the duo within the film could simply lose interest. However, for those that are fans of the auteurs and have a penchant for 40’s and 50’s Hollywood, they can marvel at the hilarity and the beauty the brothers create in their latest.

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Scarlett Johansson in Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar! is not exactly driven by plot. Instead, it is a collection of vignettes centring upon Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) a fixer working in 1950’s Hollywood for film studio Capitol Pictures. Mannix is responsible for finding Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the studio’s latest Biblical epic who has been kidnapped by Communists. While this is the more prevalent plot-thread, Mannix must also re-brand Hobie Doyle (new Han Solo Alden Ehrenrich), a singing cowboy inexplicably cast in an artsy drama, and find a father for the son of pregnant actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson). Hail Caesar! deftly juggles these stories with gusto. In fact, the plot is almost of secondary importance as the film succeeds like all great comedies by delivering hilarious scene after hilarious scene (see below for an example).

Hail Caesar! consistently puts it’s plot on the back burner for the sole purpose of delivering homages to bygone genres of Hollywood. This is perhaps best evident by Johansson’s Esther Williams-like synchronised swimming routine or Channing Tatum’s camp Gene Kelly-esque dancing scene, both gorgeously realised by cinematographer Roger Deakins (Sicario, No Country for Old Men). While the Coens, who have always been outsiders in Hollywood, portray the inner-workings of a Hollywood studio as an anarchic circus, throughout Hail, Caesar! there is an unmistakable love from the duo for cinema itself. Their latest is as much a love-letter to old Hollywood, as it is another great comedy by the brothers.

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Channing Tatum in Hail, Caesar!

High-Rise, Dir. Ben Wheatley

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Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise

download.jpgWhat happens if you stood the train from Snowpiercer upright and added a large dose of jet-black humour? The answer is: you would get High-Rise, the latest adaptation of J.G Ballard (Crash), directed by upcoming British director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, A Field in England, Down Terrace). Set in a futuristic vision of 70’s Thatcher’s England, the film revolves round Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston, brilliant), a doctor who moves into the luxurious high-rise. Devised by Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the building is designed so one ever has to leave their home. Following Laing’s arrival, the apartment block begins to become a microcosm for society. Class wars break out, with the higher class residing in the fancier top floors while the lower class remain in the bottom floors. Laing sits awkwardly between, not bourgeois enough for the decadent upper-floor dwellers (Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, James Purefoy) but too well-spoken and mannered for the less wealthy (Elizabeth Moss, Luke Evans).

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Ben Wheatley, working with a bigger budget than ever before, cements his status as someone to watch in the future. Despite the depravity that occurs in High-Rise (there is a lot), Wheatley’s recreation of the 70’s is utterly intoxicating. Even as the film drops its plot in its second-half, becoming more a collection of highly-orchestrated scenes and montages, one does not care because the striking imagery (Laing with blue paint on his face, a murder seen through a kaleidoscope) is compelling enough. Amy Jump’s script, despite one line which I found sexist, manages to distract from the simplicity of the class-war conflict by adding a layer of dark comedy which is consistently laugh-out loud funny. The soundtrack is stellar too, whether it be the film’s ironic use of Abba’s S.O.S. (played by an in-house orchestra during an 18th century costume party) or Black Swan’s Clint Mansell’s original score. Although High-Rise exists in a fantasy world where no one would phone the police or leave the building, it does succeed in terms of making the viewer ponder just how thin the veneer of society is.

 

Mid-Year Round-Up: TV (Part Three)

The Night Manager, BBC

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27473.jpgThe Night Manager may best be remembered, along with High-Rise, as what possibly sealed Tom Hiddleston as the next Bond. It’s easy to see why. As protagonist Jonathan Pine, the actor was extremely likable and compelling but also suave, slick and sexy. However, it would be a shame if Hiddleston’s potential casting dwarves people’s perceptions of the show because there is so much else to like. The story begins with Pine, a former soldier, who now runs a hotel in Egypt. His lover is murdered at the hands of international arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie). Three years later, when Pine and Roper’s paths cross again, Pine is recruited by intelligence officer Angela Burr (Olivia Colman) to go undercover and infiltrate Roper’s organisation. The people close to Roper, his henchman and business partner, Corky (Tom Hollander), and his unhappy and seductive girlfriend, Jed (Elizabeth Debicki, who shines even in her two-dimensional gangster’s moll role), complicate matters further. The show, during its six episode run, was perfect popcorn entertainment. It was consistently tense, but also filled with funny one-liners, genuinely interesting characters, terrific set-pieces and the typical spy intrigue. Although, Hiddleston is gathering much of the plaudits (and rightly so), every cast member is worthy of praise. Laurie (against type) and Hollander are absolutely brilliant in their villainous roles manging to be both campy and surprisingly vicious when need be. Also, Colman cements her status as one of the best British actresses of our day with her ruthless but kind agent character, injecting a quirk only she could into many of her lines. Perhaps, the biggest surprise of The Night Manager is that each episode was directed by former Dogme 95 member Susanne Bier (Open Hearts). Slipping effortlessly into the action-spy genre, Bier made the show so cinematic that I began to feel like it rivalled in visuals the recent Bond outing Spectre. Perhaps, if Hiddleston nabs the 007 role, he could bring her with him.

Stand-Out Episode: This is difficult as the show was consistently strong (it feels like a six-hour movie). That said, I’m going to choose Episode 3, which ratcheted up the tension as Pine became introduced to Roper’s world and Episode 6, the show’s immensely satisfying finale.

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Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Debicki

The Path, Hulu

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Hulu’s The Path is the streaming service’s first show to potentially rival its competitor Netflix in terms of original content. Centring around a fictional (but amazingly realised) religion called Meyerism, the series focuses on Eddie (Aaron Paul), a late convert, who is beginning to have a crisis of faith as a result of a vision he saw on a pilgrimage. However, if he leaves, he will be banished from ever seeing his wife (born Meyerist) Sarah (Michelle Monaghan) and their two children again. Meanwhile, Cal (Hugh Dancy) is being groomed to become the leader of the movement. However, his ambition and savvy, as well as his ex-alcoholism, causes him to butt heads with other elders. Also, in the midst of this, the FBI have begun to investigate the religion for various legal violations, with Abe (Rockmond Dunbar), a detective, going undercover to infiltrate the movement. What’s terrific about The Path is how it treats its central “cult” (I use air quotes because whether the religion is a cult or not is a source of debate within the show). Through the character of Cal, The Path doesn’t shy away from the destructive elements of such a lifestyle (its run by people who care more about power than their members’ well-being, cults recruit and prey upon people at their weakest). Yet, at the same time, it does portray many positive elements of the culture: the Meyerists, for the most part, are genuinely happy, the compound on which they live looks idyllic. In terms of production values the show is gorgeous, particularly its opening which sees the cult’s members providing refuge to the victims of a tornado or it’s hallucinatory and occasional dream sequences. Its performances are all Emmy-worthy, particularly Paul and Monaghan’s. The former has struggled to find roles worthy of his talent since Breaking Bad, but here he is brilliantly convincing as a man torn between his conscience and his family. It may be a slow-burn but the show mutates and grows as it continues into something mysterious, creepy, shocking and engrossing.

Stand Out Episodes: Episode 4, “The Future”, which was the first to truly humanize its characters, and Episode 7, “Refugees”, which is when the slow but engaging burn of the first few episodes truly pays off.

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Michelle Monaghan, Aaron Paul, Hugh Dancy

Peaky Blinders, BBC

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From Top to Bottom: Paddy Considine, Joe Cole, Cillian Murphy, Paul Anderson, Gaite Jensen

This British period drama’s third season saw Birmingham gangsters The Shelbys, led by Tommy (Cillian Murphy), become embroiled in political intrigue. This was in the form of insane Russian aristocrats, embodied by femme fatale Tatiana (Gaite Jensen), and English subversive group The Economic League a.k.a Section D a.k.a The Odd Fellows, personified by paedophile priest Father John Hughes (the great Paddy Considine, Dead Man’s Shoes). In many ways this season was the show’s best as a result of upping its stakes substantially (turf wars with Billy Kimber and C.I Chester Campbell feel like life-times ago). Peaky Blinders has never looked more cinematic and stylish. This is evident by episode two’s closing moments which resembled a moving tableau and the show’s constant music-video aesthetic. The performances were all as electrifying as the show’s contemporary soundtrack.  Many have commented that despite his slender frame, Cillian Murphy’s commanding presence as the lead protagonist is akin to the late and great James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. The supporting players also shine, particularly Tommy’s gruff and hyper-masculine brother, fan-favourite Arthur (Paul Anderson). The character, previously renowned for the amount of whiskey he chugged and cocaine he snorted, began to show his softer side this series as a result of his marriage to his Quaker wife, Linda (Kate Phillips). Also, Helen McCrory is wonderful as Tommy’s aunt Polly, whose blossoming romance to painter Ruben (Alexander Siddig) was a nice departure from the show’s endless carnage and Grand Guignol theatrics. By the end of the season, Tommy and his gang made a deadly enemy but he promises they know people bigger. We don’t know to whom he is referring but with a fourth and fifth season in the pipeline, I for one cannot not wait to find out.

From left to right: Kate Phillips, Aimee-Ffion Edwards, Natasha O’Keefe, Helen McCrory

Stand Out Episodes: Episode 2, which introduced the Russian plot and Episode 4, just for Tommy’s assassination attempt and the gruelling aftermath (a career highlight for Cillian Murphy)

Best Soundtrack: I’d be remised if I didn’t comment in more depth on the show’s music. My favourite songs and their uses were:

  • Radiohead’s Amnesiac cut You and Whose Army? as a Russian secret agent’s dead body was being burned in Episode 1.
  • Bad Habits by The Last Shadow Puppets in Episode 4 as Father John Hughes played with his young flock in his playground.
  • David Bowie’s requiem Lazarus as Tommy was nursed back to health in Episode 5’s opening.
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Fan Favourites: Tom Hardy and Paul Anderson

The People vs. O.J Simpson: American Crime Story, FX

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When The People vs. O.J Simpson was announced, I must admit, I was not looking forward to its premiere. Executive producer Ryan Murphy, with his bombastic aesthetic and penchant for over-the-top campiness, had been trying my patience throughout seasons three and four of American Horror Story. He seemed like an off-kilter choice to present the story of O.J Simpson’s trial and, with the casting of David Schwimmmer as Robert Kardashian and Selma Blair as Kris Jenner, I expecting something very “wiggy” that could only be a guilty pleasure at best. What a delight when it turned out to be an illuminating portrayal of the media circus of the trial, as well as an insightful depiction of how race and fame played a role in Simpson’s acquittal. Murphy, who directed a number of episodes, deserves credit for heavily reigning in many of his quirks while still adding some of his own flavour e.g. his song cues, which were consistently on point (Marcia Clark getting her hair styled to Seal’s Kiss from a Rose just felt right). However, the true praise should go to the team of writers led by series creator’s Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, Big Eyes, The People vs Larry Flynt). Well-versed in the area of adapting unusual true stories to film, the duo never lost sight of their central thesis: that fame and race played a bigger role on the court case than hard evidence. The performances, aside from a hit and miss Cuba Gooding as O.J (he’s far more of a supporting character than one would expect), are excellent. Sarah Paulson and Courtney B. Vance give an acting masterclass as duelling lawyers Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran. Paulson makes Clark, a person subject to a lot of parody (see Tina Fey in Unbreakable Kimmy Schimdt), so utterly sympathetic as a woman who fought against domestic abuse but was torn down in the media over trivial matters. Vance, on the other hand, is pure charisma as the intelligent and cocky Cochran, a man who realised telling a memorable story to the jury was more important than boring facts like D.N.A. I thought Travolta and Schwimmer, despite mixed reviews, acquitted themselves quite well. Travolta’s kabuki-esque Robert Shapiro impression, may not look anything like the man, but was so entertaining regardless, and Schwimmer, particularly in the last episode, managed to convey so much in very little screen-time. There were some missteps: Robert Kardashian lecturing the future Kim and Khloe on the nature of fame was far too on the nose. However, up until its last haunting image, The People… was a surprisingly terrific entry into the true crime genre.

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Sarah Paulson and Courtney B. Vance

Stand Out Episodes: Easily Episode 5 “The Race Card” which highlighted Cochran’s ruthlessness in defending O.J and Episode 6, “Marcia Marcia Marcia”, in which Marcia was victimised by the media.

 

In Conclusion: Best TV of the Year so far

Bates Motel, The Girlfriend Experience, Horace and Pete, House of Cards, The Last Panthers, Man Seeking Woman, The Night Manager, Peaky Blinders, The Path and The People vs O.J Simpson

 

 

Mid-Year Round-Up: TV (Part Two)

House of Cards, Netflix

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Netflix’s behemoth of a show in its fourth season recaptured a fire that had been sorely missing since its first. Its thirteen episodes can be read as essentially two long movies, the first revolving around the growing marital strife between President Francis “Frank” Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his First Lady Claire (Robin Wright) and the second centring upon their campaigns, Frank to become returning president and Claire to become vice-president. Meanwhile, Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus), former journalist who Frank had arrested for treason in season two returns, aided by his former boss Tom Hammerschmidt, (Boris McGiver, absolutely brilliant), to expose Underwood’s murderous MacBeth-like rise to power. This season was a vast improvement on its predecessors as Frank was finally put through the wringer. House of Cards is always at its best and most tense when the house is about to fall. Too often before Frank has been reduced to a fanciful figure who can talk his way out of anything. A surprising nemesis in Claire, the reintroduction of Lucas and Tom, as well as the arrival of rival politician Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), whose family are essentially “the anti-Underwoods”, actually served to threaten Frank and to add a sense of urgency. As well as this, the season took more stylistic risks than ever before. Frank’s visions of his dead victims Peter Russo and Zoe Barnes (returning special guests Corey Stoll and Kate Mara) while under anaesthesia was genuinely unsettling. Season four was showrunner Beau Williamson’s last (being replaced by senior writers Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson). While this leaves me slightly unsure about a fifth season, I am still very curious to see how Frank and Claire’s promise of a “reign of terror” in the final episode manifests itself.

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Boris McGiver as Tom Hammerschimdt

Stand Out Episode: Episode 4, “Chapter 43“, will be remembered as the season highlight, where many plot-lines collided unexpectedly in a truly thrilling hour of television.

The Last Panthers, Sky Atlantic

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Not the heist drama hinted by its title, The Last Panthers was akin to The Wire if David Simon had broadened his show’s scope from Baltimore to the continent of Europe. Following a heist in Marseille, desperate career criminal Milan (Goran Bogdan) struggles to sell the stolen diamonds on account of his trigger-happy crew member’s stray bullets killing a child. Needing money for his sick brother’s operation, he trades the diamonds with Zlatko (Igor Bencina), a gangster looking to go legit by investing the diamonds in London property. Meanwhile, Naomi (Samantha Morton) a British loss adjuster with mysterious ties to Milan is hired by her boss (Tom Hurt) to retrieve the diamonds. On top of this, local Marseille cop and “white knight” Khalil (Tahir Rahim), attempts to use the robbery as a means of tackling organised crime in his city. The amount of plot the show got through in just six episodes, all written by Jack Thorne (Glue) and directed by Johan Renck (David Bowie’s Blackstar video, which is also The Last Panthers’ theme tune), was incredibly impressive considering that it managed to feel breathlessly fast-paced, yet never rushed. Thorne’s script never put a foot wrong, succeeding as both a critique of how E.U.  laws enable rich countries to profit from crime and death in poorer states: “When they kill each other, it’s not really our problem.”, and as a satisfying crime drama in its own right featuring twists, betrayal and a variety of memorable moments. The cinematography is also worthy of praise, featuring a notably grey palette as means of adding grit but also highlighting a world in which morals are not black or white, but somewhere in the middle.

Stand Out Episode: Episode 5, Angel of Death, a flashback episode set amongst the Bosnian War explaining to the viewer the tragic circumstances for Milan and Naomi’s connection.

Man Seeking Woman, FX

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Simon Rich’s wonderfully weird comedy series could be read as the best show in regards to dating in recent years. It centres on Josh (Jay Baruchel, This is the End), a twenty something, who along with his sister Liz (Britt Lower) and best friend Mike (Eric Andre) struggles to understand the complicated world of adult romance. Each episode takes a common aspect of dating and then blows it up to Mighty Boosh levels of absurdity as a means of highlighting a common truth. Season two, in breaking from its previous story of the week format due to Josh’s ongoing crush then romance with Rosa (Rosa Salazar), felt far more consistent than its first. The level of imagination at work within the show as the writers come up with new fantastical metaphors for dating complications is staggering. As well as this, most episodes only run to about nineteen minutes in length (including credits) so it’s an insanely easy binge.

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Stand Out Episodes: Episode 4 “Tinsel”, which addresses the notion of “slut-shaming” through Liz’s brief affair to the married Santa Claus. Also, episode 6’s West Wing parody “Honey” (see above) in which Josh attempts to get Rosa to break up with her boyfriend Jesus Christ is the most strangely relatable the show has been to date.

Mid-Year Round-Up: TV (Part One)

As we have reached the mid-point of 2016, I decided to take some time to discuss the best the year has offered in terms of TV and cinema so far. It’s an opportunity to give time to the shows and movies I haven’t yet and more time to the ones I have and loved.

Bates Motel, A&E

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Although this contemporary prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has always been an entertaining series, its fourth season is when it became truly great. The ten episodes saw the mentally unhinged Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) finally checking into a psychiatric hospital. Meanwhile, his lovable but damaged mother Norma (Vera Farmiga), began a romance with the kind but morally flexible town sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell). This season felt stronger than previous seasons on account of the show finally taking a leap towards fulfilling its pre-existing mythology. Bates Motel finally stopped padding time with the needless subplots of before (an example being Norman’s brother’s marijuana fuelled turf-wars) and instead began bringing Norman closer to the man we saw when Marion Crane checked into his motel in Psycho. Everything about this season felt more focused than before. Freddie Highmore, who previously struggled to match Anthony Perkins’ iconic performance, has never been better – managing to be both sinister and sympathetic, often within the same scene. Vera Farmiga as Norma continued her hot-streak as the larger-than-life figure in Norman’s life. She and Carbonell shared palpable chemistry and their blossoming romance provided rare glimpses of happiness within a notably tragic season. While the show has always had humour, this time the laughs jarred less with the darkness. For instance, Norman’s time within hospital provides a variety of blackly comic moments: Nurse: “There’s a morning yoga class outside if you’d care to join. It’d be good for you.” Norman: “I’d rather stick hot pins in my eyes, but thank you”. Also, while many series’ episodes’ drag to almost an hour in length, Bates Motel’s are only forty minutes long allowing for a much tighter show. The events of the final two episodes (the best in Bates Motel’s history) hint that in its fifth season, Bates Motel could be a straight-remake of Psycho. On the strength of its fourth, this could be quite an interesting prospect.

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Stand Out Episodes: The dark final two “Forever” and “Norman”, which bring Freddie Highmore’s Norman closer than ever to the man we see in Hitchcock’s seminal horror film.

The Girlfriend Experience, Starz

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Riley Keough as Christine

Not inspired but “suggested” by Steven Soderbergh’s Sasha Grey starring 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience, this psychological thriller series revolves around Christine (Riley Keough, Mad Max: Fury Road), a college student interning at a law-firm, who becomes an escort. She struggles to keep these aspects of her life disparate, particularly as she begins an affair with her possibly corrupt married boss David (Paul Sparks, Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards). The Girlfriend Experience is essentially what would happen if an artistically conscious filmmaker ran a studio and allowed the most promising, upcoming filmmakers complete freedom to do what they wanted. Executive Producer Steven Soderbergh handed creative control of his property to frequent collaborator Lodge Kerrigan (Keane) and newcomer Amy Seimetz (Sun Don’t Shine), who both wrote and directed all thirteen episodes. The thriller features gorgeously icy interior settings and sound design mirroring the coldness of Christine’s new profession. Visionary indie filmmaker Shane Carruth (Primer, Upstream Colour) is also involved in the production, creating the series’ menacing electronic score. Aside from the creative team involved, what also makes the series feel independent is its breaks in terms of character from mainstream television. Christine is perhaps the opaquest and at times, unlikable lead in recent memory. This is not the “tart with a heart” stereotype. Instead, she is incredibly hard to read and viewers of the show will debate with themselves throughout whether or not she is a good person. Christine also appears to wonder this, asking her sister (played by series creator Seimetz brilliantly) whether her lack of empathy and emotion, which makes her perfect for the escort world, is psychopathic. We wisely never learn the answer. The show does not damn Christine but leaves the viewer to form our own conclusion. It is a credit to Keough and her brave performance that even with all this ambiguity she still manages to keeps us interested in her character.

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Stand Out Episodes: The show also places atmosphere above cause and effect narrative. For instance, episode nine “Blindsided” is one of the most distressing episodes of television I’ve seen in a long time, despite its creators not explaining the exact motives for its central event. Also, the finale “Seperation” is multi-layered to the extent that while at first it appears to wrap-up none of the season’s story-lines, on further recollection, under the surface, it highlights to the viewer everything they need to understand about Christine’s journey very intelligently.

Horace and Pete, Self Produced

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Buscemi and C.K as the titular duo

Leave it to Louis C.K to reinvent television through utilising theatrical conventions (one or two locations per episode, act breaks, long dialogue heavy scenes) and broadcasting solely on the Internet. Inspired by the work of Mike Leigh, the dramedy is set in a run-down bar in Brooklyn entitled “Horace and Pete’s”. The pub has been run by the same family for 100 years always with a Horace and Pete in charge. Currently sad-sack, divorcee Horace (writer and director Louis C.K.) and his brother, the kind but mentally unstable Pete (Steve Buscemi) are in charge. The two are forced to deal with their bitter, homophobic and racist Uncle Pete (Alan Alda), their sister, Sylvia (Edie Falco), who wants to sell the bar and the barflies who drink in their establishment (Jessica Lange, Steven Wright, Kurt Metzger, Tom Noonan just to name a few). C.K has always been ambitious, as evident by his previous show Louie, a comedy which often drifted into surrealism and straight-up drama. He pushes himself even further here creating something which is far more tragic than comic. It’s a show which blends an over-arching story featuring universal themes regarding family ties and how destructive patterns struggle to be broken with short vignettes which tackle a wide variety of current issues (Trump, American healthcare, abortion, transgenderism, Internet dating). It’s an audacious mix but C.K manages to keep it afloat through his wonderful dialogue (he writes terrific three-dimensional female characters as evident by Laurie Metcalf, Nina Arianda and Hannah Dunne’s guest roles) and his well-chosen cast, particularly Alda as the vitriolic Uncle Pete. Shot completely without studio interference, Horace and Pete bears all the hallmarks of great artist free to work on his own terms. Episodes can be purchased on C.K’s website.

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Alan Alda as Uncle Pete

Stand Out Episodes: I’m going to select “Episode 3”, comprising solely of a conversation between Horace and his ex-wife played by Laurie Metcalf, “Episode 6” the slow car crash of an episode in which Pete becomes romantically involved with a woman (Hannah Dunne) he met on Tinder and “Episode 10”, the show’s devastating denouement.