Ozark (Series 1 to 3) 2017-20 ****

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Arguably the best Netflix series, if something of a sleeper, is Ozark, a tense drama/thriller about a Chicago family who abruptly up sticks and move to the backwaters of America. They’re on a mission to money launder; Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) realises too late that his business partner has some strong underworld connections, and is lucky to escape the resultant bloodbath with his life. Byrde has also just discovered video evidence of infidelity by his wife Wendy (Laura Linney), and their family unit is in danger of fragmenting. But Marty successfully begs for a chance at survival, moving to the Ozarks and aiming to launder money from a Mexican drug cartel.

With bin-bags crammed with banknotes, this covert operation is no easy task; buying a house, a share in local businesses, strip clubs and funeral parlours is not enough, and by series two, the Byrde family are getting involved in the casino trade and local politics. Their two children are initially oblivious, but as interactions with the locals grow more extreme, the Byrde family struggle to maintain a normal demeanour as the bodies pile up around them.

Ozark is an absorbing crime-thriller with a great angle; the Byrde family are normal people, faced with an extraordinary situation; how to get millions into the local economic system without giving themselves away. The same situation could easily be exploited for comedic purposes, as with Bateman’s Arrested Development, but Ozark is deadly serious, even if there are blackly comic twists along the way.

The huge plus here is the acting; Bateman and Linney are both terrific performers, and their portrait of a husband and wife way beyond the end of their tether is utterly compelling. Julia Garner is equally hypnotic as the opportunistic Ruth Langmore, who takes full advantage of the Byrde’s situation, and Janet McTeer plays brilliantly against type as the ice-cold and deadly lawyer Helen who represents the interests of the drug cartel.

Batemen has indicated that Ozark’s story is soon to be brought to a close, and that’s probably for the best. While there have alwasy been lapses into clichés (bogus religious services on riverboats with heroin delivered inside bibles), the Lord and Lady Macbeth angle gets repetitious by series three as the endless line of new characters introduced only to be rapidly killed off stretches credulity. And the mental health angle in series three, introduced via Wendy’s brother, isn’t a great look for the show; he’s yet another firecracker waiting to unleash violence when off his meds, a rote character in a creative series that doesn’t need to fall back on such negative stereotypes.

Such faults aside, Ozark is one of the best examples of a streaming show, and anyone who hasn’t caught it yet is in for a treat. Created by Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams, it’s an adult, intense show that aims for a societal fault line where crime and community intersect on Main Street. A great final season will make Ozark a show for the ages, if they can get the formula back on track.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80117552?source=35

At home with Seth Meyers and Steven Colbert circa March 2020…

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“Give us your politics, Elvis!’ demanded a voice at an Elvis Costello concert circa 1989. ‘Why, have you none of your own?’ caustically replied the beloved entertainer. This blog isn’t about politics, it’s about entertainment; no political party, in this writer’s view, has a monopoly on common sense.

In the early months of 2016, I was living in Manhattan’s First Avenue, buying scallops in the local supermarket and frying them up while watching the nightly news as the Trump vs Clinton combatants crystallised. It seemed obvious that Trump would win, despite panel after panel of expects denying the notion, or perhaps because of it; speaking without notes, for hours at a time, he projected underdog, fighter spirit that belied his reputation as a reality tv host/real estate entrepreneur and somehow suggested that he, rather than his opponent, was a man of the people.

As president, Trump’s every move is subject to analysis, and there’s a legion of chat-show hosts and commentators to pick apart his every move. Some, like Jimmy Fallon, mix commentary with party host duties, amusing singing and improv games with gags thrown in, But the big two are Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert, the former a graduate of SNL, the latter of The Daily Show, and both reaching an audience of millions with their fragmented YouTube shows alone. Meyers sits at a desk, as he did on Weekend Update, while Colbert has an old-school stand-up technique, complete with a house band led by the jovial Jon Baptiste. Meyers leans into the comedy of repetition that made SNL’s Stefan such a hit; the same intros, plus topical gags, regular furniture of lists, writer contributions and the admirable Closer Look, where he dissects a political topic of the day, sometimes, but not always Trump. Meanwhile Colbert dances and pirouettes around his stage with a veterans timing, whipping up his audience with lengthy, skilfully delivered monologues; both men enjoy high calibre guests, usually with something pressing to promote.

The arrival of the pandemic has sent both men home; sporting previously unimaginable informal outfits, Colbert initially appeared in his own garden, then his barbecue, and now retreats into a spare room where he tussles with his dog on the floor. Meyers, who candidly admitted that he’s now in awe of how well YouTubers record their microphone sound, seemed bedevilled with technical difficulties as he recorded from his own hallway, but seems to have found a regular gig in his library, where his copy of The Thorn Birds seems to be an object of some family pride.

The show, for both men, must go on; with Trump giving nightly state-of-the-nation addresses, there’s a wealth of material to consider, even if the grim times make comedy an uphill struggle. But does their commentary make any difference, or does it only preach to the converted? Both have a weakness for falling back on flubs; here’s Trump mispronouncing a name for the umpteenth time! Look, he’s slurred some words! Look, here’s Trump dropping an umbrella for the hundredth time! Trump exists in the now, his movements and speech are constantly filmed, and such mistakes are just trimmings. Given that Meyers and Colbert’s shows are carefully edited, it seems to miss the point of critique to focus on such crowd-pleasing but meaningless groaners rather than the crucial policy decisions that the nation currently hangs on. Some of these clips need retired.

With the 2020 election set to be held in unprecedented circumstances, Meyers and Colbert will need to sharpen up their game if their goal is going to make a difference in the political world rather than just entertainment. In Britain, the daily virus briefings are populated by unknowns, sombre-minded, discussed and dissected by no-one. There is no mechanism to analyse to discuss the foibles of leaders, and America leads the way in this kind of cultural commentatary. The eyes of the world are on this great nation in peril; this is the time for great men to step up to the plate. Twitter may be obsessed with Andrew Cuomo’s nipples, but we don’t have to be; in 2020, there are lives at stake, and the trivial is yesterday’s news, fish and chip paper as well call in in the UK.

 

 

 

The Mandalorian 2019 *****

mandoEven if they’re still open, UK cinemas will be screening the first episode of The Mandalorian to empty auditoriums; events have overtaken the four-month wait to see the new Star Wars tv show from the Disney+ channel. A world forced to seek entertainment indoors is likely to lap up Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni’s riff on familiar characters and settings, not least because it feels like the first Star Wars sequel not slavishly following in the dull Skywalker mythology of force ghosts and soppy soap-opera revelations, but kicks-ass in the world of bounty-hunters; if there was a cinema in the Mos Eisley spaceport, it would be showing The Mandalorian to a gaggle of rough customers.

In general, this blog hasn’t considered individual episodes for review, but we’ll make an exception here; the first blast of The Mandalorian gets everything right. Tonally, we’re borrowing from the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960’s as a bounty hunter (Pedro Pascal) completes a violent mission and returns to his sponsors, firstly Greef Karga (Rocky’s Carl Weathers) and then The Client, played by the inimitable Werner Herzog. Herzog claims he’d never seen a Star Wars film, and it would be nice to imagine that he’ll think the whole saga is as terse, imaginative and gripping as it is here. Manga Lone Wolf and Cub seems to have been the inspiration, but Favreau’s show is very much in a groove of its own.

The Mandalorian heads off, after a bit of self-repair, on a mission, running foul of a farmer (voiced by Nick Nolte) and a droid with self-destructive tendencies (Taika Waititi); both of these interactions are genuinely funny, and built nicely to an action climax that reveals, in a moment of quasi-Biblical grace, that the child he seeks is baby Yoda, at the tender age of just 50. And so, with just one episode under our belt, we’ve got an empathetic hero, a mission laced with intrigue, and a whole lot of momentum moving forward; it really doesn’t look so hard to make a satisfying Star Wars story on the basis of The Mandalorian.

This is the Star Wars that fans have been waiting for since 1978; making good on all the promises the franchise has previously ignored. The US has already gorged itself on the Baby Yoda meme, but The Mandalorian is the kind of fresh, must-see tv that will successfully launch a new channel worldwide, and finally bring balance to the force after four decades.

From March 23 in the UK, see http://www.disney.co.uk/

Castle Rock (Series 1 and 2) ****

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JJ Abrams is behind this revamp of the Stephen King multi-verse, but don’t let that put you off; for once, we’re talking about stories with a beginning, a middle, and, controversially for Abrams, an end. King himself has an executive producer credit here, and is presumably right behind the imaginative re-deployment of familiar characters and settings featured here.

As the title suggests, Castle Rock itself is one of the Maine attractions; when King’s purple-patch from the mid seventies to the mid nineties is analysed, it’s remarkable how thoroughly he explored this American backwater. King had a gift for horror, for sure, but he also had a gift for padding, or at least creating enough of a floor-show to distract while the monsters are kept off-stage. In novels like Salem’s Lot or Needful Things, it’s the scope of events, the variety of characters, and the compelling soap-opera interactions that keep one reading until the gruesome finales. King’s work was ideal fodder for tv mini-series (Salem’s Lot, The Stand) but US tv restrictions muffled the violent shocks that King’s prose admirably conveyed.

Castle Rock, the series, plays the hits, for sure, but the notes are not quite in the same order, and that elevates the series beyond pastiche or imitation. We return with Tim Robbins to the Shawshank jail, but his character has a different motivation. Sissy Spacek returns too, but her character is very different from her iconic Carrie. And Bill Skarsgard returns, but shorn of the make-up of Pennywise, as a young boy kept in a cage by the prison-warder of Shawshank, and who provides the key to series one and two. The first series of Castle Rock is something of a slow burn, but things jump up a notch with series two, which focuses on an uprising in the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, and also brings back Misery’s Annie Wilkes, superbly played by Lizzy Caplan.

Castle Rock draws on King’s writing, but not slavishly, and that’s a good thing; watching it reminds you what was great about King’s writing, but translates it successfully and without compromise to television. There’s no way such dark themes and apocalyptic visions would have been made for television in another era; for fans and casual views alike, Castle Rock nails the Stephen King style better than It, Pet Sematary or various other King revivals.

The Collection 1976 ****

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Harold Pinter’s 1962 play is one of his best, a subtle yet dramatic slice of adultery in the upper-middle classes, observed with the playwright’s usual ear of language and fascination for discomfort. This 1976 filming was part of ITV’s big push to rival the BBC, and was created under the grand-sounding label Laurence Olivier Presents for Granada television. The Beeb’s Play for Today was something of an institution at the time, but The Collection was a heavy-hitter, bringing together top talent for a run-through of one of Pinter’s tightest efforts, with Michael Apted directing.

Harry (Olivier) and Bill (Malcolm McDowell) live together in an ambiguous relationship; Bill is something of a ladies man, and may or may not have had a hotel-room tryst with Stella (Helen Mirren), much to the chagrin of her husband James (Alan Bates). But when James confronts Bill, the accusation doesn’t land easily, and Bill seems defiant. Is there an attraction between the two men, or is Bill just deliberately confusing the issue? And did anything actually happen at all? (this is Pinter, after all, so don’t expect a big reveal).

The Collection is firmly made for TV; despite the big names, the canvas is small. But as a record of some great acting, Apted’s adaptation really works, with Olivier enjoying a small but weighty role, and McDowell really laying it on thick as the preening, aggressive Bill, taunting James and forcing him into a confrontation without the information he needs to be confident.

The Collection has been released as part of a boxed-set on DVD, but isn’t one that’s been repeated on tv, and remains something of a collector’s item. But at 63 minutes in length, it gives a flavour of Pinter in a darkly playful mode, without the slick gimmick of Betrayal, but with the same relentless probing of the characters and their motives. And yes, there are silences; Pinter says more with a suppressed line than most writers can do with a twenty page monologue.

Charlie’s Angels 2019 NA (no award)

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How hard can it be to make a Charlie’s Angels movie? This 2019 version ain’t your momma’s Charlie’s Angels, in fact, is really isn’t anyone’s Charlie’s Angels at all; Elizabeth Banks’ continuation of the benighted franchise has been the very definition of a dud, an expensive, heavily promoted comedy/thriller that no-one outside of Variety’s critic seems to want.

The industry trade-paper generally aims for some kind of salty accuracy in their reviews, but it’s hard to match up the movie under discussion with this description ; ‘written and directed, by Elizabeth Banks as if she’d been making cheeky renegade action films all her life. The movie is relentless, it’s pulpy and exciting, it’s unabashedly derivative…rousingly of-the-moment feministic…ace car-chase filmmaking — breathless and ultra-violent, with big mounted weapons…awesomely elaborate action sequence that unfolds in a quarry…’ Instead, Charlie’s Angels has all the breathless, awesome action of Pitch Perfect 3 or The Spy Who Dumped Me, generic, anonymous fodder with phoned-in performances, dull green-screen punch-ups and no discernable flavour. It wouldn’t seem possible to disrespect such vanilla source material, but somehow Banks manages it.

The problem starts from the packaging. As a tv show, Charlie’s Angels made stars of the girls in the central roles, and they became household names. The cinematic reboot brought Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu to the roles, an update if not necessarily an upgrade. But how would you feel about the Angels being played by someone like, pause to consult notes, Naomi Scott? She was in Aladdin, right? Or what about, he googles quickly, Ellen Balinska? What would an actress whose claim to fame is brief appearances on Casualty and Midsommar Murders bring to the party? No pop culture frisson whatsoever is the answer. Charlie’s Angels needs three stars, big, or fading, or upcoming, just recognisable names. Would you fancy The Magnificent Seven with a cast of unknowns? Ocean’s 11 with a semi-professional cast? The producers on this film had one job, and they don’t seem to have taken it that seriously. Almost anyone would be better than the girls chosen here.

Kristen Stewart is the only element here that’s on point; she’s a big star who has successfully shunned blockbuster roles since Twilight in favour of great performances in small movies, and seems to have chosen unwisely here. She’s introduced as a swaggering super-spy called Sabina, and bonds with the other girls while on a confusing assignment situated in drag Hamburg dockland, one that involves the death of contact/wrangler Bosley (Djimon Hounsou) and a memory stick landing in a river. From there, the action flips to Istanbul, another locations worn smooth by spy movies, where a racetrack meeting provides the Angels with a chance at revenge. Another Bosley (Banks) is feeding the girls instructions, but could a third Bosley (Patrick Stewart) be sabotaging their mission?

Whatever the actual DNA was of the tv show and movies so far, Banks screws around with it to mind-numbing effect. How many Charlies are there? How many Bosleys? How does it help for us to see one Bosley cheaply photoshopped into still photographs from the previous Angels films and tv shows? Meanwhile Sam Clafin plays an Elon Musk-type zillionaire who has invented a generic McGuffin energy source that provides the uninteresting stakes for muddled punch ups and chases. The result is a movie that sinks like a stone, with some nice costumes about the only thing that passes muster.

Charlie’s Angels was, in its prime, a lazy chauvinist show that invited men (and women) to gawp at weapons-grade models under the guise of a detective thriller; somewhere between Baywatch and The Rockford Files. Re-nose this property with some girl-power feminism and you have nothing at all, two over-riding philosophies in chauvinism and feminism that simply don’t gel. New wine is old bottles is one thing, but the 2019 version of Charlie’s Angels is the weakest of weak sauce.

Toast of London 2013-2015 ****

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Netflix has proved an unlikely platform for audiences discovering tv shows that they’d previously spurned; You was something of a small-screen flop before the streaming service relaunched it last Christmas. Channel 4’s Toast of London is a very different animal, but deserving of re-discovery on Netflix UK and US. The humour is very knowing, and somewhat unique; Stephen Toast (Matt Berry) is an actor who has been bumming around the London scene for years; his high opinion of himself is matched only by his low opinion of others, notably rival Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock). Toast’s agent Jane Plough (Doon Mackirchan) does get him work, but it’s usually pay-the-rent voice-over work that puts him in the orbit of clue-less, drug-addled hipster Clem Fandango (Shazad Latif). Toast’s exchanges with all these characters, and with landlord Ed Howzer-Black (Robert Bathurst), are often agonising but also amusing. From Father Ted creator Arthur Matthews, Toast of London has a wild and experimental edge, with circuitous conversations that end in unexpected ways, plus crude sexual pratfalls mixed with acidic satire of British luvvies. It’s funny, original and is slowly creeping into the mainstream in a way that would make a Toast revival a tasty prospect; a welcome fourth series has been mooted.

https://www.netflix.com/watch/80108561?source=35

When They See Us 2019 ****

The influence of the Paradise Lost documentaries about the West Memphis Three is immense; with digital film-making making it possible for true-life court cases to be examined, dramatized and even influenced through the media, it’s no surprise that true crime is almost as important to Netflix as a genre as rom-coms. Ava DuVernay’s When they See Us is a prestigious example of the form; a dramatization of events concerning the Central Park Five, it’s a glossy and compelling drama split into four sections, each roughly the length of a feature film. The first considers the night a white female jogger was raped in Central Park, and the forced confessions elicited from youths in the area that night. The second concerns itself with the court-case, with Vera Famiga contributing an awesome turn as a prosecution lawyer. The third focuses on the men trying to adjust when they get released from jail, and the fourth on the experience of Corey Wise, played with great power as both a boy and a man by Jharrel Jerome.  This is probably DuVernay’s best work to date, rarely hitting a false note and delivering a sobering account of how hidden but inherent racial prejudice can rob innocent people of their lives.  White audiences who like to imagine that race is a problem already solved may want to focus on how easily both law and media are bent out of shape by the rush to judgement here, a feeding frenzy fuelled by newspaper ads paid for by Donald Trump. But the big question is; why tell this story, and why now? Documentaries like Paradise Lost have influenced actual outcomes of court cases; the Central Park 5 were released some time ago, but the motivation behind When They See Us seems political; it’s surely no accident the June 2019 release coincides with the start of Donald Trump’s presidential re-election bid, and efforts to mobilise both black and white votes against him start here.

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80200549?source=35

Murder Mystery 2019 ***

Netflix come up with another ingenuous save from the slush-pile; a rom-com vehicle developed via Charlize Theron and John Madden, probably at some cost, given a quick re-spray to become an Adam Sandler/ Jennifer Aniston tent-pole for the streaming giant.  Presumably the script was inspired by many hoary who-dunnits and husband-wife detective teams as in The Thin Man, and the result plays like something that was old hat in the late 1930’s, yet still works better than most modern structures. Mr and Mrs Spitz (Sandler and Aniston) are taking a vacation when they meet up with a charming viscount (Luke Evans) who invites them to enjoy his family yacht in Monaco. There the Spitz adventure continues when the patriarch (Terence Stamp) is killed before he can change his will, leaving everyone a suspect. The action shifts from the yacht to Monaco and Lake Como,; the exterior filming is lush, the cast, including Gemma Artetron, David Walliams and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson highly recognisable, and despite some groaners, there are real flashes of wit in the deconstruction of mystery conventions. Murder Mystery is one of the better films Netflix have made in terms of satisfying an audience; the worrying thing for the streamer must be that it’s the most ancient wine imaginable poured into the shiniest of new bottles.

https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80242619?source=35

Murrain 1976

The title means a plague, and the writer is Nigel Kneale; diseases, particularly amongst farm-animals are a recurring theme in his work, and this one-off entry in a compendium of plays by British dramatists is an ideal introduction to Kneale’s work. It’s a story about witchcraft that adheres to no genre conventions; the exploration is deliberately un-sensational, thoughtful and intellectually rigorous. David Simeon plays Alan Crich, a vet called on by a farmer (Bernard Lee) to investigate a blight on his animals. Crich discovers that the locals in a nearby village also suffer from an ailment, and that the superstitious villagers blame an old woman who lives alone. Scoffing at their ideas of witchcraft, Crich investigates, but what he finds challenges his own world-view.  Kneale’s work here is considerably better than his script for Hammer’s 1966 film The Witches, and John Cooper’s direction makes good use of atmospheric outdoor sets. Murrain sees Kneale releasing himself from the science-fiction angle and focusing on an examination of fear and tradition in a primitive English village. It’s well acted, deadly serious and a minor gem of bleak 1970’s horror.